Monday, September 14, 2009

Smile, smile, smile

Felix Lloyd Powell (23 May 1878 – 10 February 1942) wrote the music for " Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile", a WWI marching tune. It was regarded then as one of the the most optimistic songs ever written.

But the effect was lost on its creator. Powell committed suicide in 1942, shooting himself in the heart using his own rifle.


True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesteray
may have made more money
than your novel 'Catch-22'
has earned in its entire history?"
And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."
And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"
And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."
Not bad! Rest in peace.

Kurt Vonnegut, May, 2005, New Yorker

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Something Better Than The Internet Genie

"My son met her in an Internet café in Katmandu. Isn’t she beautiful?"

Indeed, she was.

Though I had met him on his lawn, just three minutes earlier, my new host had swept me and the wife up in a whirlwind and was now showing me around his home. His no. 1 pride and joy: pictures of his son, his new Nepalese wife, and their young children. His son is a freelance photographer living in Nepal. He was also extremely resourceful. He had made 7,500 bricks, by hand, and was about to begin construction on his new home.

Just as his dad, Nicholas Prokos, 75, my guerrilla host, before him. Nicholas had built his own home behind the dwelling he owned and rented out at 1698 First Street, Highland Park, Illinois, and we could see he loved to show off every immaculate, well-designed inch.

It was the last Sunday of August, 2009, and the huge and ever-expanding Port Clinton Art Fair was in full swing. The long string of exhibits ran south, right to his lawn, where he was showing his stoneware, and I struck up a conversation with him.

“They brought the fair to you,” I said.

“Why pay $700 for a booth!?!,” said the dapper older gentleman, attired in a spiffy new black golf vest. We chatted briefly, and within minutes he said, ‘come and see my house, it’s in the back, I built it myself.’

“When you say ‘built it myself….’,” I said.

“That’s right, with my own hands.”

So off we went.

The spry old gentleman was nothing if not handy – quite literally. A ceramics professor at Michigan, School of the Art Institute, Barat College, he made his living with his hands and teaching others to do likewise. At 75, (he appeared younger), he was now retired, and playing golf, when he wasn’t crafting magnificent stoneware.

Did he have a website? “No, I don’t need more work!,” he laughed. “I have to have time for my golf!”

His walls were decorated with arresting sketches and impressive art from his students over the years, some of whom he had stayed in contact with. A large fiber work hung over his dining room. He described in detail how it was made. Pictures of his family were all around.

He showed us the beautiful secluded patio, his kiln (“I built it myself.”)

Floored by his easygoing and natural-as-pie hospitality, I realized something:

I spend too much time on the Internet. Way too much. And too much time with the alphabet news teams: CNN, FOX, CNBC, HLN, and all the rest. Email is great. The web is great. But you begin to mistake it for face-to-face communication – which it’s not. You miss the inflection, the intent, the gesticulation, the enthusiasm, the….well…humanity.

Our host said he talks to his sons (another lives in N. Mexico, also a professional potter) on Skype all the time. We did the same with our daughter when she was studying in the Far East. It’s a marvel, a modern magic, and no one would ever willingly give it up. Not even my tennis friend who lives nearby, but insists on calling me and hitting me up for a chat on Skype. And our new friend’s son met his wife in an Internet café after all.

No -- the Internet genie is out of the bottle, and he’s not going back in.

But every once in a while, you have simply got to leave behind that apparition and choose, instead, to be with people. Especially people as warm, genuine and colorful as Dr. Nicholas Prokos, master builder, potter, and instant friend and host.