95. Lonny Driscoll, Fine Artist

Things are calmer now. Which makes Lonny jittery. Nothing serious, just a background jitteriness. It always happens after he finishes a picture or a project. Or after a gallery show closes. It’s like when the wind stops and everything is oddly still. And the feeling won’t leave him until he starts doing something new. Until a schedule sets in and there is something urgent. People don’t realize this about him. Or maybe they don’t realize this about people in creative fields generally. If he isn’t working on something, he gets itchy. It is sort of like a shark. Sharks need to keep moving or their drown. Lonny explains it by declaring himself “…a well-known nut case.” He’s been a “nut case’ as far back as he can remember. And certainly, as far back as his big sister, Carol, can remember. “I was two years ahead of him in school and the teachers loved me. I always sat up front. I always paid attention. I behaved. I got good grades. My homework was always neat and handed in on time. Teachers would say I must have a wonderful family to have a little girl who was so good. So, my little brother came as a rude shock to them, especially for the first-grade teacher who had expected another ‘exemplary’ Driscoll child. They had no idea.” Lonny could not sit still. He could not pay attention. He was messy. Never turned in any homework. Ended up staying after school a lot. Got the attention of guidance counselors. And to make matters worse, he seemed oblivious to it all. In his own world.

At family gatherings or at reunions with old friends, when she’s had maybe a glass or two of white wine, Carol loves to remind everyone about her brother’s childhood antics. “It was one calamity after another. It made my mother crazy. And, of course, I thought it was great. He was the bad boy and I was the angel. I could do no wrong.” Lonny usually pretends this isn’t happening: He’s never liked being talked about. He dreaded having to sit there while his sister gleefully went on, trying to smile, and being mortally embarrassed the whole time. His childhood is a definite sore point for him. He could never figure out why he was so restless and distracted as a kid. But then, he can’t figure out why he does the artwork he’s done all his adult life. He usually works in what he calls a “series,” one composition after another on a similar topic. Or with a single medium. He tries not to mind when a gallerist or a museum curator comes by to see what he has been doing or to figure out a theme for an upcoming show. They ask questions he has trouble answering. “What does this work mean to you?” “How does it fit into the ongoing zeitgeist?” “What is the core essence of your work these days?” “Which work do you like best?” Stuff like that. This also happens at gallery openings, when potential buyers ask questions.  “What was your inspiration for this work?” is the most common question.  Lonny’s honest answer is usually not too satisfying. “Not sure. Lines seemed interesting. And so, I drew them.” Or even worse,” “I had this mess of paint I had left over and so I started doing stuff with it.” These sorts of answers were not what Lonny’s gallerists wanted to hear from him. After all, gallerists and curators are highly educated professionals who spend a lot of time and effort arranging successful shows and fanning buyers’ interest. He or she has to bring a patron into the artistic process to create excitement and interest in buying. The artist is supposed to help create some of this excitement and interest. It’s show business. And, when it comes to show business, Lonny just fades. It’s the same thing when Carol is having a good time telling school-boy stories about Lonny. “He once got up and walked out of a Biology class when we were in high school. Right in the middle of the class. Didn’t ask permission to leave. Just got up and left. Didn’t say a word. Lonny, what was going on in your head back then?” If Lonny hadn’t already drifted out of the room when Carol asked a question like that, he would just shrug his shoulders, grin, and say, “Who knows? Maybe the class was boring. Or I thought the class was over. Or I thought the class should have been over.” So, over time, Lonny came up with a way around the problem. He couldn’t just drift out of the room during a gallery opening. Or duck questions. He started making stuff up. “I couldn’t get a certain image out of my head. It was from when I was a child. I had this horrible experience, walking home from school. It was a very large dog. It wouldn’t stop following and growling at me.” Or: “I was thinking about some Goya prints I saw when I was in Spain with my first wife. They made me so sad. And she didn’t get it. So, I was mad. Doing these paintings brought it all back.” None of that stuff was true. But it created a legend. When his first wife heard about some of the stories he made up about her, she let him have it. He made up a couple of stories about his sister too. “She once woke me up in the morning with a sharp pin. I couldn’t stop shaking for days. So, I drew these funny shapes which reminded me of what I thought I saw when she stuck me. My sister has an evil streak.” This sort of thing was just what gallerists and curators wanted but Carol was no more thrilled by it than was Lonny’s first wife. “By the way,” Lonny says, “My first wife is perfectly nice. Her name is Gloria. The trouble with our marriage, she was a grown up and was an immature jerk. I was an idiot. After our divorce, she married a dentist and they have three wonderful kids.” He was often a jerk with women when he was young. This started right from puberty onward. He couldn’t believe it when he ended having sex after a high school dance. He decided there must be something wrong with the girl involved and wouldn’t speak to her the next day. Later on, he couldn’t believe it when a smart, talented, and good-looking art student – his first wife – said she would marry him. About three years into their marriage, Lonny got a teaching assignment at a very highly regarded women’s college. The course was “Life Drawing.” The college was in a small, isolated village, deep in the mountains. Lonny started out shlepping up there three days a week. Back then, Lonny had long, wavy hair and was much better looking than he imagined himself to be.  Several students expressed strong interest in a bit of fun with him. He had enough intelligence to stay well away from them but not from a secretary in the bursar’s office.  His three-day college teaching junkets turned into week-long and then two-week-long visits. Gloria caught on and put an end to the affair and to Lonny. Confronted with more than an entertaining fling with the college’s “nut case” visiting artist, the bursar’s secretary had a panic attack and booted Lonny out. About then, winter descended on the college’s small, mountain village. Lonny was stuck with a dreadful bunch of amateur art students and snow until spring. “Served me right. What I did was as dumb as it gets. But I got a lot of work done while I was in what amounted to Siberia.” What followed was a year or two of laying low and growing up, both as a person and as an artist. As usual, several women were involved. His sister, Carol, managed Lonny’s business, making sure he was paid for sales and related activities, introducing him to the internet, and making sure his bills were paid. After college, she had taken an MBA, joined a major accounting firm, and, later, been hired by a tech company. She worked her way up to corporate comptroller. She knew how to run things. In addition, Lonny had a very productive collaboration with a lesbian couple, a sculptor and her husband, a highly respected professor of fine art. It resulted in several lucrative joint exhibits as well as some much-needed formal education for Lonny. There was a lot Lonny missed by not going to college. History, English literature, composition, social sciences, and Art History among other things. But before Lonny’s first wife and all those women, there had been a high school student in study hall who caught his eye. Lonny found out she belonged to the school’s art club. Wanting to get to know her, Lonny joined the art club and, while he almost immediately lost interest in her, he found his life-long vocation, making drawings and paintings. A year later, Lonny left high school. He knew he would never get into college. And he did not want to anyway. The idea of more classes struck him as a very bad idea. He started out working in a supermarket. But a couple of months later, his father got him a job helping an architect with renderings. Lonny loved it. It took him about a week to get up to speed but, almost immediately, it was clear Lonny knew what he was doing with both pencil and drawing pen. About six months in, his boss told him he had a natural talent, bought him a cheap easel, a few brushes, two small canvas boards, four tubes of cheap acrylic paint, and half a dozen brushes. Lonny took them home and put them in his closet. A week later, his boss said, “Lonny, if you don’t bring me a painting you did with the stuff I gave you, I’m going to fire your ass out of here.” Maybe for the first time in his life – at the age of eighteen – Lonny paid attention and got serious. He went home and, instead of going out and fooling around with a couple of friends, he went to work. He made two paintings that night. Still lifes of a tea set he swiped from his mother’s cupboard. The next morning, his boss said, “Lonny, these are not too crappy. But you should think about getting some training. You could be good, despite yourself.” Lonny began learning his trade by taking studio courses at a local junior college. He vividly recalls signing up for a class for the first time. “It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing it: there I was, in a school, talking to some faculty person, paying money, and getting a class schedule. Definitely weird.” If he couldn’t believe he had actually enrolled in a class, he also couldn’t believe, at the end of his first class, he would be looking forward to the next class. The only problem was the other people in the class. The class met for three hours, twice a week. The instructor would set up a still life with pots and pans, a variety of crockery, and household utensils. The students’ task was to make a still-life based on all this stuff.  All this struck Lonny as pretty silly. He made what he thought was a goof of the whole thing, painting a semi-abstraction of the instructor’s pots and pans. He had no idea what he was doing and had no intention of being serious. His classmates complained, “Your painting doesn’t look like it is supposed to look. You left a lot of stuff out. Those colors aren’t the right ones.” Lonny just laughed and said, “So what? I paint the way I want.” One or two said it wasn’t right to make fun. And more than one or two got really annoyed when the instructor praised Lonny. “Really interesting work. Where’d you get the idea to paint like that? I hope you are going to continue in this class and we’ll see what other stuff you can do.”  Most of the students were older men, retirees, who tried hard to make very realistic paintings. They decided Lonny was just a smart-ass kid who was one of those guys who make “those awful modern paintings because they don’t want to do the work to make a good painting.” But there was also a woman in the class – in her mid-forties. She liked Lonny’s work, took him under her wing, and encouraged him. And she was interested in more than Lonny’s artwork. One night, after class, she took Lonny home with her and gave him lessons in life beyond anything his still innocent mind could have imagined. So, this relatively pedestrian class proved an eye-opener for Lonny in more ways than one. Six months later, a major art school had Lonny enrolled in a special program with a full scholarship. Shortly after arriving, he was linked up with an international art gallery. And for the next ten years, he was their golden boy. In the middle of this period was when he married to his first wife and, all too quickly, found himself divorced. His breakup with his first wife put a crimp in things for a while. He felt terrible that he had betrayed her. But it was temporary and the work he made afterwards set him and his reputation in a new direction, figuratively and literally. He was on a fellowship in Italy when he met his second wife, Gianna. “This, he loves to say, “is a woman with a bizarre sense of humor. She is the most intelligent and sophisticated person I have ever met. And a total knockout. What she sees in me is one of the great mysteries of my life.” He always says this as a joke but he isn’t kidding. Like most folks who create things from essentially nothing, who depend on an innate hard-to-explain something – something mysterious even to themselves – he has serious doubts about himself and, more to the point, about the worth of his talent and the worthiness of the praise his work receives. Lonny only talks about it when he’s had a couple of drinks and then, only with a few close friends who are, like him, in the arts. Some of them had been to therapists when these doubts got in the way of their performance. “Someday, people are going to catch on and the jig will be up. We’re all a bunch of hopeless frauds.” When Lonny says this sort of thing and Gianna is around, she laughs and tells him, “As long as you do the cooking, I think I’ll keep you.” She is an economist and makes money trading obscure financial instruments. But she knows what Lonny does is as much a high-wire act as is her penchant for making what others see as risky investments. “He starts out with a big white space – a canvas or sheet of paper – and a loaded brush or pen. And who the hell knows what’s going to happen next? But, somehow, something good almost always does.”  When their kids got old enough to draw, Lonny wouldn’t let them. “This is a business I wouldn’t wish on anyone. When I look back, I shouldn’t be here. It’s a complete fluke. Pick another way to make a living.” Ciara, the oldest, ended up a successful set designer. Henry, two years younger than Ciara, is an attorney but has what Lonny calls “…a scary tendency to draw stuff.” Henry talks about quitting his job in a big-time Swiss law firm and ‘doing a Gaugin.’” It is something Lonny doesn’t think is so funny. “He thinks this business is fun. He couldn’t be more wrong.” Recently, Lonny gave a long interview to a reporter from one of those glossy art periodicals. It was titled “Looking Back: Lonny Driscoll at 84.” It could have been a warning to anyone thinking of a creative career but it was really aimed at Henry. “I was lucky, Lonny was quoted as saying. “If it weren’t for Gianna and my big sister, I’d probably been dead years ago or maybe working in a grocery store, stocking shelves. Every one tells me how privileged I am to work at something I love – to be able to share what’s in my inner soul – or some such crap. They don’t get it. This is a line of work I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It is completely insecure, lonely, and – on top of that – boring. People are incredibly cheap when it comes to buying artwork. Most ask if I could do something for them for free. After all, they say, doing artwork is so much fun. And they look at you like some kind of freak or trained monkey. ‘Do something creative.’ You are supposed to be some kind of late-stage hippy or something. Like you get inspirations from meditation or maybe drugs. Coming up with new stuff all the time is no piece of cake. People think it’s all ‘inspiration.’  It ain’t. I never have inspirations. I just pick up a brush and start working. Like the man said, ‘If you sit around waiting for inspiration, you end up with nothing.’ I may have some Bourbon a couple of times a week before dinner but I never ever tried drugs. You can’t do good work loaded. At least, I can’t. And yoga or meditation is just a waste of time. Religious crap. Simple fact is I do what I do because I can’t do anything else. If I could, I would. And don’t think you can do this stuff as a sideline. Some people do. I tried it. Doesn’t work for me. And probably not for others when it comes right down to it. So, don’t even try. This is a killer business. Stay out of it.” But, in the same article, Lonny was also quoted as saying, “I just finished a new series of drawings I’m really excited about them. The funny thing is they look a lot like the stuff I used to do in high school, back when I didn’t know any better. Some collector bought the lot. I’m getting itchy sitting around now. I’m ready to do something new. I’ve just came across some old oil color tubes I’d forgotten about. Maybe I’ll do something with them. Who knows? I’m not done yet.”

93. Sylvester Florian, Master Carver

A Lamb Led To Slaughter

Sylvester is not much for conversation. Not the talking kind of conversation anyway. People who know him understand he talks better with his hands than with his mouth. It started when he was very young. He didn’t say anything until he was almost two. There was a lot of anxiety about his lack of language. His parents were teachers and they had some very specific expectations. When Syl didn’t even babble, they were very worried. They brought in child psychiatrists and speech therapists. These “experts” were also perplexed. Syl seemed alert. He didn’t seem to have a hearing problem. He followed direction and seemed to understand words. He just didn’t talk. There were dire warnings. This could be some kind of mental deficiency. Back then there was no such thing as autism or attention disorder diagnoses. His parents began thinking about special schools or even institutionalization. Syl just kept doing his thing. He smiled now and again. Enjoyed his food. Waved his arms a lot. And really got going when he played with blocks or crayons. He stacked the blocks in ever higher and in more curious arrangements. He drew lines with his crayons. From about nine months on, he began drawing straight lines. At first, they were wiggly. But by the time he was a year-and-a-half, they were straight. He drew them parallel to one another with varying space between them. He made designs with his lines. But no talking. Until one day, he did. Whole sentences. No baby talk. He never said much. But what he did say was clear and to the point. Mostly questions he needed answers to. It was as if he was very busy and didn’t have time for small talk. He began to read in pre-school. Syl was an only child and his parents thought that he would talk more if he were with other kids. From about three-and-a-half on, he was always in some kind of class. Teachers would almost always describe Syl as “bright but appears to have difficulty with social interactions.” He was an early reader. He was a good speller, good at math. Just not good at “verbal skills.” He usually sat by himself during recess and did not like sports. He did not have any friends and after a try or two, his parents stopped arranging play-dates.

Sylvester was still a loner in junior high. He wasn’t interested in social events and rarely, if ever, talked to a girl. His guidance counselor, thinking that maybe Sylvester was gay asked him about it. Nope, Syl wasn’t gay. Syl said, “If I had anything to say to a girl, I’d say something. But I don’t. Not now. And anyway, most girls think my drawings are weird. They don’t think I’m normal.” But the gay thing kept coming up, especially since he found his first real friend, a kid named John Hegler. Like Syl, John was a loner and liked to draw. They met in seventh grade, sitting next to one another in science class. On the first day of school that year, while waiting for the class to start, John saw Syl drawing on a sheet of writing paper. There were some interesting shapes, mostly in three-point perspective. So, John opened one of his own note books and showed Syl pages with margins filled with drawings of elegant, fanciful lettering and drawings of people in different poses. So, instead of paying attention to the science teacher when class started, the two of them were showing one another’s drawings and began whispering and giggling. The science teacher was less than pleased, told them to be quiet, and to see him after class. He told them that they would no longer sit together in class and, if they didn’t behave, he’d boot them out of his class. Over the next few weeks, the friendship blossomed and turned into a competition. The two boys would go home after school and do a drawing to show one another the next morning. Pretty soon, they were doing more drawing than homework and teachers sent notes home for both boys. When John’s father saw what was going on, he was furious. He taught biochemistry at a local college so this behavior was a professional affront to him. He told John he was not to spend time with Syl and to focus on his studies. But, later, when he saw the quality of work the two boys were turning out, he had to admit, something special was going on and relented. He met with Syl’s parents and told them that the drawing competition was alright with him so long as the kids did their homework and got good grades. Syl and John thought this arrangement was great and hung out together, just about to the exclusion of everyone else. Which is how the “gay thing” came up again. There were a lot of comments, some teasing, and, finally, a bit of bullying. But it all ended when John’s family moved away. John’s father got a full-professorship at a major university over a thousand miles away. And the boys lost track of one another.

The first time Sheila saw Sylvester, she was bowled over. “He was gorgeous. Big and strong and suntanned. And so quiet and polite.” After high school Syl did not know what to do with himself. He was not interested in college, not then anyway. He had no idea he could earn a living with his drawing. So, he took a job in a lumber yard. He was already a big kid but he got even bigger and much stronger handling lumber and cement bags. He liked the work. No need for a lot of talk. No pressure. And he had access to scrap wood, all he wanted. He was eighteen when he graduated and going on twenty-three when Sheila met him. She was picking up supplies for the contractor who was redoing her kitchen. She was twenty-five at the time, “very hot” according to her associates, outgoing and adventurous, a free-lance video game creator and self-promoter with a thriving business. She recalls Syl being not just very good-looking but “interesting.” She figured a guy “shlepping stuff in a lumber yard” must be some sort of jerk. But for some reason, she saw someone who was distinctly not a jerk although definitely socially inept. And since all he could do was blush and mumble when she said “Hello,” Sheila wasted no time. “What’s your name?” His name seemed familiar. She’d seen it before. She couldn’t place where. She got his phone number. Her excuse was “In case I need help in the garden or something.” And that was that. Three days later, she recalled where she’d seen his name. There was an article in the local news about an art gallery show featuring some very odd-looking painted wood sculptures. They were made from scrap lumber by some guy working at a lumber yard and taking night courses. Sheila was thinking about maybe using similar shapes in a game she was developing. They would be large, could move at high speed, change shape, and spew something bad. “Oh, my God. That’s him!” This was around ten o’clock at night. She called him. No answer. Next morning, she called again. Still no answer. So, since she had a new list of stuff to get for her kitchen, she headed back to the lumber yard and asked for Syl. She had to wait before he appeared. He was covered with a fine gray powder. He’d been helping unload cement bags from a box car. He gave a funny sort of half grin and tried to wipe the dust from his face by way of apologizing for his appearance. And with considerable effort, he managed to say, “Hi.” Sheila said she tried to call him. He said he turns his phone off at night. He checked and gave another funny grin. “Still off. Forgot.” Sheila said, “That’s OK. Can we go for a drink tonight?” Syl explained that he had class. Sheila was not going to take “no” for an answer. “So, when does your class end?” Syl told her. “Where exactly is it?” Syl told her that too. “OK, I’ll be there. We can have a drink and I’ll drive you home.” Syl said, “OK.” He helped bring the stuff she bought to her car and waved goodbye as she left. He stood there in the lumber yard parking lot trying to figure out what the hell had just gone on. This beautiful woman had come in to pick up some trim and paint, asked for him, invited him out for drinks, and he had no idea who or what she was. Just recently, he said with a grin, “What choice did I have? It’s been that way all the years we were together.” Sheila was waiting for Syl as the class ended. As Syl came out into the hallway where Sheila was waiting, she grabbed his hand and said, “Let’s go.” She was not going to let this character get away.

Fifty years later, in London, Syl sat down next to an older fellow, sitting by himself on a park bench, and said, “Remember me. I’m Syl.” It was John Hegler, Syl’s first real boyhood friend. John took a look as if he were peering through time, gave a yelp, and said, “My God, it is you. Where have you been? What have you been doing? My God! It has been a long time. Do you still draw and stuff?” Syl said, “Yes, I still draw and stuff but I’ve been reading about you in the papers, Making plaques and memorial statuary for churches and universities. You invented a new typeface? That’s amazing. Just like back in school.” John said he had been very lucky. “I sort of fell into it in a way. You remember we moved out west. My father wanted me to go into the sciences like him. I majored in biochemistry in college. Even took a master’s degree. But I really wasn’t good at it. And I was doing typeface and other drawings the whole time. Anyway, I was dating a girl whose father owned a precision metalworking company, very high-end stuff and he offered me a job. I loved it. The girl dumped me but I kept the job. And they taught me everything I needed to know about crafting metal. Later on, I got a job in a shop making memorial plaques and grave markers. One thing led to another. I’m here in London to finish up a commission I started ten years ago. And what about you?” Syl explained he was a sculptor, mostly in wood, and was in London for a gallery opening of his stuff. And he told his whole story, about how he met Sheila, how she turned his life around, gave him three wonderful children, helped to make him successful and happy beyond his wildest hopes, and managed his career as a sought-after sculptor. “She died three years ago. I miss her terribly. But when she knew she had terminal cancer, she never stopped working, arranged things so I could go on. She even ordered me to find a new wife. I’ve been trying.” Syl was crying. “God, it is good to see you, John. Come to the gallery so I can show you my stuff.”

As Syl tells it when describing how he and Sheila got together, “I suppose I was like a lamb being led to slaughter. There was no saying ‘no’ to Sheila. Not then, not ever. The night Sheila met him after class, they found a bar just off campus and had a drink. Sheila asked a million questions, but made him feel comfortable, even relaxed which was a big deal for Syl back then. She said she would drive him home. And she did. But it wasn’t his home. It was hers. Later that week, Syl went back to his small apartment and collected his stuff.

Sheila’s videogame consulting business of was beyond anything Syl could imagine. And she had this large barn of a place. Syl had been using his parent’s basement as a studio. Sheila suggested he move everything into her place. He was intrigued and terrified, even mystified, by her. She was in so many ways his opposite. But somehow, they both knew that this was for keeps. Sheila said she should meet his parents. His mother had strong doubts. “Who is she and what does she want with my child?” But Sheila won over Syl’s father as soon as they met. He liked her hustle and brains. And he knew she was going to be the best thing that ever happened to his son. And, incidentally, he wanted his basement back. He was due for retirement and wanted the space as a place for a consulting business.

Once they had a chance to spend time with her, Sheila was a hit with Syl’s parents. She knew what she was doing when it came to winning people over. And she was an expert with parents. After all, hers had taught her well, if not intentionally. Her own father was a brilliant but cold and distant engineer who spent months away from home on projects in other countries. When he was home, he tried making up for lost time by plying Sheila with gifts and money. By the time she was ten, Sheila had figured him out: none of the love and affection that she wanted, but more than enough toys and stuff. Concluding that she should take what she could get, Sheila milked him for all he was worth. Her mother was a dangerous alcoholic who regularly crashed family cars and twice set the house on fire. The net result: Sheila knew how to judge others, survive, fit in, and thrive. Then, there was her own, “Pre-Syl” history. Growing up, she had many friends but none close. She graduated high school at fifteen and was on track to finish college in three years when she abruptly quit in the middle of her second year to do video games full-time. She was barely eighteen when she got married for the first time. The marriage fell apart in six months. “Seemed like a good idea at the time but I was a jerk. And so was he,” she said when telling Syl and his parents about her life. She went on, “Because of all that, I knew in an instant Syl is a wonderful person. The talent is a bonus.” Syl’s father was surprised when Sheila mentioned Syl’s sculptures. He assumed it was a passing phase, not to be taken too seriously. Without hesitation, Sheila said, “Your son is very talented and I am going to make him famous.”

Sheila more than kept her word on that point. She and Syl had been married about a year and their first child was on the way when Sheila arranged a studio visit by a major gallery. The first show was a year later and sold out before the opening. And Syl finally gave up his lumberyard job. He had kept it because he had friends there and he liked the work. But most of all, he felt he had to bring in money. He finally was forced to give it up when a load of lumber fell off a six-wheeler not been tied down properly. He was in the hospital for three days. At which point, Sheila put her foot down, worked out a deal so he could spend part of his time drawing storyboards for her and earning his way, and the rest of his time doing his own work. The deal served them well for the rest of their lives together. In the process, Sheila made a fortune on a game Syl helped to create and she was a source of ideas for some of his most iconic artwork. There was the “Mosaic” series of wall sculptures. It cemented his reputation. And the “Nightstone” series. It put him in several museums. And the “Fireball” series. It provoked a small riot.

Things are quieter now for Syl. The kids are grown. One is a teacher, married with two kids. The others were either in grad school or starting careers. Sheila and Syl’s parents are gone. Before she died, Sheila got Syl into carving old cedar tree trunks and limbs. He likes cedar’s grain and colors. And its smell fills his studio. So, in a way, she’s still working with him. And, as he told his boyhood friend, John, she ordered him to marry again. That hasn’t happened yet but he knows he better do what he is told. “I’m still the lamb being led to slaughter.”

92. Dave Bostick, Organic Farmer and Vegetarian

“Not what I expected, but not so bad. Not so bad at all.”

“The best thing about organic farming is having good meals all the time.” Dave is a true believer. It is quite a change for him. If you ran into him 25 years ago, you’d likely find him enjoying a very large steak in a very expensive restaurant in a very large city. Back then, he was a senior vice president heading the law department of one of the country’s leading financial services companies. It was a career his whole life had prepared him for. He was the oldest child of four. Dave was always a very good student, belonged to a “very respectable” fraternity in college, and took an MBA at a well-known business school, after getting a law degree at a top law school. His father was an executive in a large pharmaceutical company. His mother trained as a nurse after graduating from a “society” college.  She worked as a nurse for about a year until she married Dave’s father. After that, and until Dave was born, she volunteered at an old age home run by a local charity. Life for her after that was being a wife and mother, occasionally taking part in various golf club and charitable activities. In short, Dave’s childhood was not just privileged but also was singularly insular. His family lived in the right neighborhood, a gated community of large homes, each set in an acre or more of land. He went to a private boy’s school focused on athletics, good manners, and eventual admission into “the best” colleges. Dave’s family belonged to two local clubs, one a golf club, the other a “gentlemen’s luncheon club, ostensibly focusing on “doing good works.” They attended the right church (First Congregational or as they described it, “First Congo.”) As a kid, Dave never gave any of this a second thought. As Dave explains, “What the hell did I know? I thought everyone lived like my family. I didn’t know anything else.” Of course, every family has its “dirty little secrets.” Dave’s family was no exception. The most obvious was his mother’s fondness for strong gin Martinis. But she indulged in a second one only while on vacation, having dinner with friends. When she did, she got talkative and said a bit more than she might have otherwise. That’s when she might go into her husband’s family’s background, the other “dirty little secret.” “Don’t know if you may have noticed but George’s mother was of what some call ‘the Hebrew persuasion.’ They were in banking. Very rich. And into the arts.” Talking about it years later, Dave smiled and said, “For her, that was a big deal. Tres risqué. I remember how once or twice she’d go on to say how she was not at all prejudiced and was very open-minded. But when I first heard her tell the story, it opened my eyes a bit. I suppose they’ve slowly opened ever since.” Dave and his second wife were sitting on a long wooden bench on a porch looking out on fields of salad greens just peeking out from black soil. Both were wearing work clothes and Dave had on his favorite droopy hat. Given the first forty years of his life, this is not where you’d expect to find him. Or maybe you would. His private school years were successful. He did well academically and got a letter in lacrosse. He got into the college his parents had selected for him and was slated to major in American History. He met his first wife at a sixth-grade dance. He was struck dumb. Angelic. Beautiful. Beyond anything he could imagine. He just stood there grinning, so she introduced herself, “Hello, I am Julia. And what is your name?” They danced once, during which all he could do was blush, mumble and worry about his sweaty hands. He didn’t meet her again until his junior year in college. He recalls feeling at that second meeting about as socially inept as he did at that first encounter. She remembered him. He didn’t recognize her. But he immediately knew, this was a very singular moment. As before, all he could do was blush and mumble. She laughed. And, then, he laughed and then blurted out how he felt on first meeting her and still felt on their reunion. After graduation, they got married and began what should have been a long and happy life together. With a stipend from his parents, Dave took an MBA and, then, went to law school. Julia took an advanced degree in biochemistry. He was hired by a large financial services firm. Two years later, he was running their legal department. Dave and Julia had two kids. They were happy. Why not? They loved each other, had every advantage, and parents that loved and supported them. Dave had just been moved to his firm’s executive floor when his wife and his second child, a son, were killed instantly by a drunk driver speeding on the wrong side of a divided highway. “You know, it was like being shot in the head. Or waking up in another world. That was thirty years ago and I am still living it like it happened yesterday. I’ll never get over it.” Three days after the accident and even before his wife and son were buried, Dave went back to work. His daughter, then 15, stayed with his wife’s family. The firm’s CEO told him he shouldn’t be in the office. Dave’s reasoning: sticking with his normal routine would help him cope. It didn’t. He’d come in to his office, sit down at his desk, turn his chair around and look out the window. The CEO was right. Dave asked for a leave of absence. They gave him all the time he needed at full pay and suggested that he get help. “You mean mental help, like counseling? I should be ok. My wife’s parents and my daughter will be with me. It will be ok.” Dave spent the next three months trying to put his world back together. His daughter went back to school. His wife’s parents went back to their normal life. And after they left, Dave went back to work on a part-time basis, working from both home and office. But nothing was the same and, thinking back, Dave says, “It was all a blur and, then, suddenly, my daughter left for college and I was all alone in this big house.” But Dave wasn’t quite alone. He would get visits from women he knew from the neighborhood or from one of his clubs or the church. At first, he didn’t know what to make of them. They were mostly his wife’s friends. He knew their names and something about them – their children’s names and schools, what their husband did – but not much else. What he didn’t quite understand about most of them was, they saw in him what might happen to their husband, if they were not longer around. They wanted to take care of him. Or at least to give him some comfort. Baked goods, a meal to reheat, a book suggestion, just a “I can’t know what you’re going through but they say that time helps” sort of comment. Dave tried to seem appreciative and on one level he was. But he was still in shock, unable to deal with his feelings. So, he had a lot of trouble when one of these visitors offered more than baked goods. He was polite but made it clear that he wasn’t up for anything much more than small talk. Six months after the accident, Dave decided enough was enough and went back to the office full-time.  “You can’t feel sorry for yourself forever,” is the way he explained it. And he got right back into his job again. Doing it helped a lot. A least during the work day. At night and on weekends, though, he was still sitting alone in his big, dark house, staring blankly at the TV. Which is how Grace, a neighbor, found him when she let herself in by the unlocked side door after ringing the doorbell without rousing him. “Dave what are you doing? Are you OK?” He started to cry. “This house seems so dead. It’s closing in on me. I’ve got to get out of here. I miss her. I miss the kids. There’s nothing here without them.” Grace said, “I’ll be right back.” She got her husband and the three of them sat late into the night talking about Dave, how he was living, and what maybe he should do. Maybe he should see about dating. Maybe he should hang out at the golf club more. Dave wasn’t sure about any of that. Dave couldn’t imagine dating. What would he talk about? He never did well in social situations. Or at least that’s how he saw himself. But one of the things that seemed to make sense was Dave should talk to a real estate agent. Why knows? Maybe a smaller house? Maybe a condo? An apartment until a better idea came along? The agent Dave saw happened to be the wife of his minister. And she had what at first seemed like a very odd idea. “You have plenty of room and I have a couple that needs a place to stay for a while. My husband married them last month. So maybe you should meet them. Why not? Could be fun.” So, the next Saturday, he was sitting at this very stylish restaurant waiting for the couple to arrive. It wasn’t Dave’s sort of place. Dave called places like this “Fern Salons.” Salads, crusty bread, and twenty-three varieties of white wine were featured. Dave was ordering a beer when two women walked in and asked if he was Dave. His eyes must have bulged because the tall one said, “Oh, she didn’t mention that we were gay. Just like her. If it bothers you, we can split.” Dave was embarrassed by his reaction. But for some reason, for the first time in a long time, he felt good. And he said something that he would never have guessed he would say, “Oh, no. Please. Sit down. This could be fun.” And it was fun. And it was a life changer for Dave.  Doris and Nancy moved in three days later and the lights came on. The kitchen came alive. The two women made vegan casseroles and exotic salads. They baked bread. They made cakes and pies. And they knew how to make very good cocktails. Dave gave them the master bedroom, explaining they were just married and needed some privacy. He moved into his son’s room in the children’s wing of the house. So, it wasn’t the house. It was its emptiness. And now that it was filled, Dave began to come alive again. His daughter was thrilled. It was fun to be home again. But some of the neighbors were not so thrilled. They couldn’t figure out what was going on. Most didn’t get that Doris and Nancy were a couple and wondered whether Dave was “doing a two-fer.” They got even more worried when Dave started dating a gal he met downtown and began having her stay at his house every now and then. There were a lot of smutty jokes and a conference with Dave’s minister who explained, “It’s not what you might think and if I’m not concerned, you shouldn’t be either.” One neighbor from way down the street wasn’t so sure. “This could be some kind of cult. Or witchcraft!” He saw his lawyer who said, “Mind your business. Maybe I should meet Dave and find out his secret.” But then, one day, there was a “For Sale” sign up in front of Dave’s house. Doris, Nancy, and Dave had been talking. He wanted a new life. His daughter had finished college, was working as a biochemist, and had met a guy. Doris and Nancy wanted a vegan farm. And maybe a little restaurant. It would involve a move across country. Without really giving it much thought, he said, “We are going to do it. I’ve got the money and you have the muscle. I’m going to have fun.” It turned out it wasn’t quite as much fun as Dave had envisioned. There were a few unforeseen events that threw things off. First, Nancy got pregnant. That delayed things until the baby was born. How Nancy got pregnant was and remains a deep dark secret. But it led to a lot of jokey comments. “Nope! Wasn’t Dave. Unless he’s sneaky.” There was a onesie that said “This is not Dave’s kid” on its front. There were even t-shirts. Doris was in on the secret and she wasn’t saying either. Second, their plan went a bit off the rails. The idea was to use the internet to find possibilities, take a trip to see the options, select one, check out living situation, and buy. But the first farm they found and wanted to buy turned out to be a scam. The supposed “owner” was selling a place that wasn’t his to sell. Dave was quick to spot the problem; he didn’t run a large company’s legal department for nothing. He got the scam artist to draw up some documents, got him and his supposed attorney on tape, and had the authorities take care of the rest. But that meant they needed to find a place while they looked for a property that was legitimate. That turned out to be pretty easy. An old house that sat a mile or so out of town. And finally, it became glaringly clear that neither Nancy, Doris, nor Dave knew a thing about farming, let alone organic farming. Which is how Dave met his second wife. And how Dave became someone very different from what he was when he started out in life. Her name is Shoshana. She was running a small organic restaurant and truck farm with her son, Herman, and Herman’s wife. She knew how to cook and to raise vegetables but knew nothing about business. She was working hard and was slowly going bankrupt. Nancy and Doris discovered her restaurant on one of their trips to town. And after a couple visits, they decided they liked Shoshana and dragged Dave along for lunch. Dave and Shoshana are not what you might think of as an “obvious match.” Initially, they were both very skittish of one another. He was interested but worried that she would think him a stiff. She worried about what she called “the ethnic thing” and put on a “Jewish act.” She only knew six words of Yiddish but suddenly started using them whenever Dave showed up for lunch. But they had much more in common than they imagined. They grew up one town over from one another. They were both products of exclusive but different private schools. They both went to the same college, she graduating ten years later. But at the same time, they came from very different worlds. His was WASP and traditionally Christian, people who saw themselves as the pinnacle of society. Hers was Jewish, people who were typically excluded from his childhood world. And yet, when they settled down together, her background slowly absorbed his. There was this time when they were having a quiet breakfast and Dave said, “Stereotypes say I should be having your corn muffin and you should be having my bagel.” Over time, Nancy and Doris moved on, starting a bookkeeping service in the next town. It turned out that they liked the idea of farming more in theory than in reality. Shoshana’s son and his wife moved when he took a job in advertising. Dave’s daughter visited with her family every summer. And Dave, using what he learned over the years in a large firm, turned the restaurant and truck farm around, first hiring a farm manager who knew his stuff, then moving the restaurant to a larger place with more traffic and hiring a chef who could take the pressure off Shoshana and tweak the menu. Then, he hired a smart promotion company, got some national publicity, and a steady stream of business that grew over the years. “It’s not where I thought I’d be when I was a kid but, all-in-all, not so bad. Not so bad at all. Shoshana thinks I need a new hat but this one will do for a good while yet.”

90. Sheldon Bender, DDS, Dental Surgeon


Everyone calls Shelly one of the most boring people on earth. It’s said with a lot of affection though. On a superficial level, he’s very likable. He always says the same thing when he meets you. It doesn’t matter whether you see him in his dental office for a root canal or in the bagel store on Sunday morning. Young or old, man or woman, he always says the same thing, “Heighdy Ho, sailor.” It comes with a big grin and maybe, if you’re unlucky, a very corny joke. “I can row a boat. Canoe?” After that, not much. Maybe some vague comments about the weather or a sports team. “Hot enough for you?” “How about those Bills?” It is not that he is uneducated or uninformed. Or brain-dead. If asked a specific question about most topics, even some of the most arcane, he will indicate more than a passing awareness, even if it is to say, “That’s a topic not up my alley. I read something about it though.”  And then he’ll describe what he read. Some say he knows about a lot of stuff but not a lot about any one thing. “It’s like he just takes stuff in and files it away without thinking about it.” But that’s not true about everything. He is a whiz at dentistry and teaches it at the local dental school. And for some reason, in his sophomore year in college, he took a shine to geology. Ask him about it and he starts off, “We called it ‘rocks’ in school. I still read up on it every chance I get.” Then, he goes on and on about the local geology until you start getting desperate to find an excuse to get away. That’s almost impossible when you see him for a difficulty dental procedure. You sit in the chair, all numbed up or half conscious, maybe with half a dozen instruments in your mouth, and, as he works, he goes on and on about sedimentary rock. Or about tectonic plates. And if you are bored out of your mind, Shelly hasn’t a clue. He is that way now and was that way as a kid. In grade school he was a very good kid. Never got into trouble. Did extra credit in class. Never was late with homework. His penmanship was a sight to behold. Every letter perfect. The only class in which he did not excel was Phys Ed. He was awkward and a slow runner. He did his best but anyone could see his heart wasn’t in it. It was the only “C” he ever got in school. Fortunately, they did not grade his love life. His closest approximation of a relationship in high school was with a girl, named Nancy. She was probably his only friend in those years. They were just pals. She made him feel comfortable and got him to laugh and he helped her with her advanced placement chemistry. They never went on a “real date” or even kissed. They only touched by accident. And if they did, Shelly got very flustered. If there was anything more to it – on her part or his – beyond a genuine fondness and friendship, nothing ever happened. And after high school graduation, they went their separate ways and lost track of one another. The internet did not exist then. And so it went, right through college and dental school. Nothing serious. Which is odd because more than a few women have classified him as “gorgeous.” And more than a few tried their luck with him both in high school and college. Other than Nancy, they invariably gave up after spending more than a bit of time with him. For example, one college classmate said, “He is the ultimate nerd. I think he is amazingly shy. Or something is wrong with his head.” Then, there was a gal in dental school who made a valiant effort. Her assessment after three dates, all at her instigation: “Totally cute and nice but he made me crazy. He is a social klutz without an original thought in his head about anything except dentistry. And sex! Forget it.” Whether Shelly was happy with all this is unclear. His parents, however, were thrilled. He was their only child and they had some interesting views. They had always warned him about women who, they claimed, invariably wanted to take him away from his family, undermine his moral strength, and lead him to indecency. They constantly told him, “Do not give in.” And they might mention they prayed for his soul, surrounded as he was by what they saw as “constant temptation.” Who knows what might have happened if Sheilah hadn’t set her eye on him? This was when he was already a practicing dentist with a large patient list. Her chiropractor office was down the hall from his office. They bumped into one another two or three times a week. She invited him for coffee, for a drink, out to dinner, and, before he knew it, he was engaged and married. Not that he minded.  Finding a nice girl and getting married was something he wanted to do. He just didn’t know how. In a lot of ways, he was a terrific husband. Makes money. Attentive and helpful. They had two daughters right away. Sheilah would always say, “Shelly’s a character. That’s for sure. Amusing in his own way. But maybe a little dull.” And then she would laugh. But dull, it turns out, was what Sheilah wanted in a husband. She was from a broken home. Her father was into booze and women. Her mother was into trouble. Shoplifting, theft, and fraud. When Shelly hired a new dental assistant, Sheilah gave her a look-over and said, “With any other husband, that chick would be trouble. With Shelly, no sweat.” And for a while, she was right. If Shelly noticed Carla, he didn’t let on. Patients noticed her though, especially the men. “Shelly, where’d you get the hottie. She is something.” Shelly blushed and said, “She is an excellent assistant. Maybe the best I ever had.” The problem was Carla liked a little adventure, knew what she was doing, and Shelly was a sitting duck. She had come to this country as a six-year-old and thrived. But not without some difficulty along the way. She got married right out of high school He was abusive. She moved out and divorced him. She hooked up with an older man who helped put her through college and dental assistant school. When that relationship ended, she decided to avoid dating and relationships for a while. Which is just about the time she started working for Shelly. It was after about six month’s working for him when she began to sense, maybe he’s beginning to get ideas. This freaked her out at first. For her, one of the best things about working for Shelly – other than he was a great dentist, an excellent teacher, and a good boss – was he never hit on her. But now, suddenly, he was over-solicitous and smiled at her for no apparent reason. She was both annoyed and intrigued. She told her sister, “I could nail this guy if I wanted.” But of course, she was wildly optimistic. Even if he were interested, nothing was going to happen. Shelly was Shelly, still dealing deep down with all the stuff his parents had pounded into his head. And, most of all, he was terrified of Sheilah. What would she say? Would she leave him? Would she scream, even throw things? Divorce him and take his money? He did not understand Sheilah. She doted on him, knew him better than he knew himself, and might have been secretly pleased if he were to have a flirtation with another woman. “It’d prove he’s human after all!” Sheilah always knew how to take a joke and she and Shelly each knew they had something special together. They were in it for the long run. So, if anything could, that made Sheilah’s accident even more horrendous. A car went through a red light at very high speed, right into her car, bursting open the gas tank. When they put out the fire, her car was a burnt-out hulk. There wasn’t much of her to bury. Shelley’s daughters say they cannot forget how Shelley looked after the funeral, sitting alone, rocking slowly back and forth, staring at a wall in a dim room. Not the most demonstrative of men, Sheilah was his whole world. The two girls did what they could for him. They coaxed him back into his dental practice. They made sure his house was clean. They did some cooking. They took him out to dinner. They worried about his mental health; he seemed so numb. But one was in dental school and the other had a job as a financial analyst. And they had personal lives of their own. So, Nancy’s turning up was a stroke of luck. When she made an appointment for root canal, she wondered whether this Sheldon Bender was that odd but cute boy she knew in high school. “He was very sweet, very good looking. He laughed at my jokes, but seemed to live in a world of his own. You know, now that I know better, I think I was a little crazy about him back then. He didn’t recognize her at first. She was already in the chair when he walked in. He introduced himself and went to pull up some x-rays on a screen. But was a bit startled by an odd dragon ring she was wearing. It seemed familiar somehow. Looking at it, he felt an odd twitch. A memory of a teenage longing? He had no idea what to do with that feeling – not then and not now. “I know that ring. But where?” But this woman, she was a stranger, one more root canal in a career filled with them. He said, “Hello, I’m Dr. Bender. They say you need root canal. Open wide and let’s take a look.” It was sort of a thunderclap. “Sheldon, is that you? My God, you haven’t changed a bit. What are you doing with yourself these days? Remember how I used to get you to laugh? Back in high school? You were such a nerd. God, I’ve missed you.” At which point, Shelly started to cry. He couldn’t stop. It was not anything that he had allowed himself ever before. He suddenly had so much to tell this woman from so long ago. They got around to the root canal, but not that day.

88. Mary Quillian, Bank Teller

“No worries.”

Mary doesn’t need to work. She hasn’t for some years now. She is not rich but has enough to take it easy if she wanted. She’s been a teller for almost twenty years. The pay isn’t great but there’s good health insurance and a very generous IRA. Mary likes that. It means she doesn’t have to worry. She’s old enough to start receiving Social Security payments. And then there’s her retirement money from being a school teacher for twenty-five years. But she lives on her teller’s salary, letting her income from her teacher’s retirement and Social Security pile up in a savings account. For some people, a teller’s job would be endless boredom. Not for Mary. She loves being a teller. She gets to meet all sorts of people. And it is quiet and peaceful. And balancing out at the end of her shift is like a little puzzle that she loves to solve. And most of all, it is worry free. Bank customers will sometimes ask, “How’s it going?” Mary always says the same thing, “It’s nice. No worries.” That’s true now. But it wasn’t always. And she is convinced that, no matter how placid things seem to be right now, everything could fall apart in an instant. Her friend, Grace once asked, “What’s to worry about?” Mary answered, “You never know.” A shallow, automatic answer? Perhaps. But not for Mary. Mary deeply believes and fears that anything might happen at any moment for no apparent reason at all. The thing is: it’s happened to her in the past. More than once. Maybe the first time was the car crash when she was four or five. Her mother was driving. Her father had been drafted. It was during the Korean War. Mary and her mother were headed for her mother’s parents to stay until Mary’s father came home. It was night time. It was dark. A car, coming towards them, drifted over the center line and Mary’s mother swerved, lost control, and hit the side of the road, tipping over.  Mary doesn’t remember much, except all the glass and blood. And her mother seemed to be asleep. They were three days in the hospital. And a month afterwards before Mary’s mother could get down the stairs without help for breakfast. They told her that she would never have another child. Another incident Mary remembers happened four years later. A man grabbed her as she walked home from school, pulled her in the back of a van and started to yank down her pants. She was so scared she started to pee. When that happened, he pushed her out of the van as fast as he pulled her in. She ran as faster than she ever imagined she could until she got home. She was safe. But she didn’t feel safe. Not really ever again. Her father had to walk her to school and back every day. And there was another car crash, this time when her family was going to stay with friends at a cabin on a lake. A car went through a red light, hit them just about where the rear tire is and spun their car around two or three times. No one was hurt. But Mary couldn’t stop crying. Every night, she would climb in bed and sob, “Why? Why? Why?”  It was as if a demon had it in for her. They sent her to a therapist. It didn’t help. He gave her the creeps. She had dreams about him pulling her pants down and, once in a while, wet her bed. The therapist was a nice, sympathetic man. After two sessions, he told Mary’s parents that time would be a better healer for her than him. And things did get better for a few years. But when Mary was fourteen, her father had a heart attack. At first, he was not expected to live. But he came home after two weeks in the hospital. He had another attack two years later and this one killed him. Mary and her father were very close and his loss hit her hard. It also cemented her view of the world. “Anything bad can happen at any time.” But Mary had to admit, good things can happen too. She graduated high school with good grades, got into a local college she loved, and was hired as a teacher right after graduation. She also met a young man who wanted to marry her. At first, she put him off. She was convinced something bad would happen if she were too happy. But there was something about him that got to her. And it made no sense. There were parts of him that were like her father. At the same time, there was something that reminded her of the man with the van and danger. They’ve been married now for forty years. He had a long and successful career as a contractor before retiring. But as happens to a lot of folks his age, he is showing signs of mental difficulty. Mary is not surprised. She knew demons would be back sooner or later. So, she won’t give up her bank job. Never, if it were up to her. There’s a security door. An armed guard. Bulletproof glass. It is safe there. No worries.