Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My Grandfather -- Part 2 of 4

Things I learned at Grandee's knee.

“Understanding where words come from is important.” Wherever we lived, right beside the dining room table was a huge ornate metal stand supporting the gigantic Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. I can’t remember a meal going by when we didn’t have to stop and look up something or other.

"There is a God. God is real. But everybody talks about Him in different ways.” In Wrentham we attended Trinity Episcopal Church. In Washington we attended the Golden Lotus Temple. Every night when I went to bed, he would come in and we would do a short reading from a spiritual text. The Bible, of course, but also the Koran, the Bagivad Gita, and esoteric texts I can’t remember.

He believed that the problem with some religions was that they got hung up on their own definitions of God and, therefore, missed the infinite around them.

“The basic foundational rule of love and sex is – never hurt anyone.” Grandee’s Bagman had infinite love which was not always bounded by conventional morality. But it was kind. Sex was caring and, if not always monogamous, respected the need for monogamy in others.

BAGMAN: "Hey!! I was going to write about that tomorrow!  You're stealing my thunder!

BUTLER:  "Yes, Mark and I are both very concerned about your blog tomorrow."

“You can be passionately interested in anything you choose.” I learned this when I got a “C” in algebra and tried to explain that I wasn’t interested in it. He told me I could be interested in it if I wanted to be. I was 14 and didn’t really understand it but I gave it a shot and have loved math ever since. Sometimes when I’m bored, I chose something at random to be interested in and I’m off and running on a learning jag, thanks to him.

“Your body and mind can do far more than you think they can.” He practiced yoga. Once I came back from a biology class full of wisdom about how the brain keeps the heartbeat at a certain rhythm that can’t be consciously changed. He invited me to sit with him when he meditated and to listen to his heartbeat. I’ll never forget hearing it get slower and slower until I became frightened that he was dying. Then it sped up again, he opened his eyes, and said, “Tell that to your biology teacher.” I don’t think I ever did.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  No, he didn’t invent that maxim. But he always pointed it out to me. Because of him, I grew to be able to see beauty everywhere. And since his Bagman was often the one pointing it out, I quickly lost the Barbi / Fashion Model stereotype and could admire and be attracted to women of all colors, ages, shapes. This piece of wisdom probably helped me get in trouble too much as I got older.

“The only thing you ever photograph is light.” Hanging out with him, I learned to stop seeing things and to start seeing how light played over them. Unfortunately, I don’t often do it…but I can. And when I do I get better results.

“There is life after death but it is not what you think or like anything you could imagine, so don’t try. But it’s nothing to fear.” I don’t know how he knew this. Or how I know it. But it sunk in pretty good and I can’t not believe it anymore.

“Tree trunks are not brown and the sky is not blue.” I got this lesson when I was using crayons to color a tree in a coloring book. He took me outside to look at a tree and pointed out at least fifteen different colors in the trunk. Burnt sienna, cadmium yellow, ochre…I’m sure we probably looked these up in the dictionary over dinner as well.

“Love is stronger than war, water is stronger than stone, and turning the other cheek is a sign of great strength.” I think he read everything that Gandhi ever wrote. I wish he could have lived to see the movie.

"Sometimes the greatest thing you can give someone is to let them give you something."  He told me this when I was eight or nine and asked him what I could get my grandmother for Christmas.  I'm not sure I still understand this completely, but I'm working on it.

I’m sure there was a lot more. In fact, in almost every situation I find myself in, something bubbles up from inside me that applies.

I also wish I had had a chance to know my mother better.  I suspect she learned much of the same things when she was at his knee.


  1. This is wonderful. I wish I could have known him. He raised you with such rich wisdom. All children should have a 'parent' like this to guide them. It is also to your credit that you remember all the wise things he told you.

  2. truisms,
    "Sometimes the greatest thing you can give someone is to let them give you something."
    I always thought that true friends are the ones that call you when in need - as well as are there for you when you need.... almost impossible to find this level of friend. A secret.... Camillo gives, what he thinks I need, sometimes what is needed. but never lets me give.... this leaves me with a sense of being helpless or needy.... for 3 days he is limping... when I say what is going on it is bravely - nothing...
    on to the next....

  3. outstanding post! thanks for sharing Grandee's wisdom with the rest of us.

  4. I'm definitely getting to like your grandfather.

    And I especially like that he knew that where American words/spellings come from is Noah Webster's imagination ;)

  5. I think your Grandee is God. If I were religious, I would start a religion of Grandee-anity. I think I just received Enlightenment.

    The photos are so precious.

    This one: “There is life after death but it is not what you think or like anything you could imagine, so don’t try. But it’s nothing to fear.”

    . . . reminded me of this I read this morning:

    Fernando Pessoa, A Shrug of the Shoulders

    We generally give to our ideas about the unknown the color of our notions about what we do know: If we call death a sleep it's because it has the appearance of sleep; if we call death a new life, it's because it seems different from life. We build our beliefs and hopes out of these small misunderstandings with reality and live off husks of bread we call cakes, the way poor children play at being happy.

    But that's how all life is; at least that's how the particular way of life generally known as civilization is. Civilization consists in giving an inappropriate name to something and then dreaming what results from that. And in fact the false name and the true dream do create a new reality. The object really does become other, because we have made it so. We manufacture realities. We use the raw materials we always used but the form lent it by art effectively prevents it from remaining the same. A table made out of pinewood is a pinetree but it is also a table. We sit down at the table not at the pinetree. ...

    An excerpt from "The Book of Disquiet," written in the 1920's, first published in 1982 by Atica in Lisbon.

  6. The first paragraph in Ruth's comment has distracted me for a moment - so beautifully expressed!!

    Your Grandee was an incredibly wise man - way ahead of his time. What a precious legacy you carry from him.

    It was a tragedy to lose your mother at such an early age, but what a gift to be raised by such a free thinker.

  7. There are so many clues here to tell me how much Grandee valued learning and made certain you valued learning too. Every child should be raised with such values.... "you can be passionately interested in anything you choose" (complete with demonstrations). I was trying to decide if you kept a picture of your Grandee's sketchbook or you have (amazingly) actually kept the sketchbook.=D I love the sketch... his work is so similar to Sargeant's. Tree trunks are not brown nor skies blue. The more blended colors you add, the more harmonious the over all composition. Your Grandee used the rules for color composition as a metaphor for life. It is wonderful that you not only had the gift of Grandee's brilliance, but also the gift that your own grey matter was well enough developed to incorporate his brilliance into your own thinking, Mark. You are a well blended composition! All these gems of creative thought passed on through generations.

  8. Good morning B&B,

    Reading about your Grandfather is both inspiring and encouraging. I've said that, "investing one's life in another is a good gift"; your Grandfather exemplifies that.


  9. You're a lucky man to have known your grandfather and to remember him so well. What a legacy!

  10. What an amazing and inspiring many your grandfather was! How wonderful that you were able to know him so well and to remember him so well! That is indeed a wonderful legacy!

    Thanks for sharing your memories with us!


  11. Your Grandee was also a great philosopher, by just living his life he was able to impart that not only to you, but to all of us as well - thank-you for sharing him with us!

  12. What an amazing man.....and I love you too :)

  13. Mark I'm speechless. This is truly and exceptional post about an exceptional man. I'm very impressed.

  14. Agree with Barry. And all of the above. What else can I say except that can not wait for the next chapter.