Sunday, June 20, 2010

Eulogy for John Schoenherr

(This is what I said during the memorial service at Calvary Episcopal Church in Flemington, NJ, on May 15, 2010)

In the past few weeks, as I've I tried to process my father's death and life and work, I've often felt that I'm only just beginning to understand who he was and that I'm far from being able to talk about him meaningfully. Sometimes, though, when Dad was making a picture, he'd muck around and around until something coherent took shape, so I'll apply his method now.

And, when in doubt, quote Shakespeare:
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet...
Little Johnnie, John, Jack, Jex, Honey, Grandpa. Or, in my and my sister's case, Dada, Dadoo, Uncle Daddy, and, occasionally, Pa, Papa, and Father. Or Dear Old Dad.

Actually, I don't think we ever called him "Dear Old Dad." But he called himself that, and he'd often sign his emails "DOD." He did it jokingly, but he knew we felt that way about him. And we knew how he felt about us, although he tended to express his feelings "not in words but in deeds."

Dad was all about eliminating extraneous details, about cutting to the chase, about distilling and discovering the essence or nature of things: the way things worked and felt and what they meant. He wanted truth - absolute honesty - and he was honest in return. Sometimes brutally honest. But he was never cruel. Cynical, maybe. No: cynical, definitely.

Dad was a true believer in Sturgeon's Law which (officially) states that "Ninety percent of everything is crud." In Dad's mind, though, it was "Ninety-five percent of everything is crap." A subtle, but perhaps a more precise distinction. Dad also savored that bitter old chestnut: "Awards are like hemorrhoids. Every asshole gets one in the end." And he enjoyed quoting H. L. Mencken's remark that "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Of course, Dad, too, was unapologetically fond of certain unfortunate things: he liked awful TV sitcoms, warm butter as dip for pretzels, shoes with velcro straps, Steven Seagal movies, instant coffee, and not-safe-for-work photographs of morbidly obese naked people farting in swimming pools.

But Dad's earthy sense of humor and of himself kept him grounded and kept him going. And despite his bouts of cynicism and his strong opinions - about art and politics, especially - he wasn't a proselytizer and was never (well, rarely) condescending. He treated everyone and everything as an equal: cats, dogs, aphids, slime molds, Republicans, Democrats. Even small children. He didn't talk down to them. He was live-and-let-live and instinctively followed the Golden Rule.

Although Dad sometimes grumpily expressed the need to be left alone to do his own thing, by himself, in his untidy nest, among his toys and his tools, perhaps more than anything else he wanted to communicate, to connect: to connect with animals and plants and water and rocks and bones and clouds - and, now and then, with people.

Dad was very matter of fact about life - and about death. And I've only just realized that he approached both without fear.

He was fond of snakes and rock-climbing, caving, kayaking, flying in small airplanes, driving interesting cars, working through the night, and being a freelancer. He broke the sound barrier, once, and he got close (maybe too close, here and there) to wild boars and snapping turtles and moose and bison and tigers. But he wasn't foolhardy about things that were bigger or more dangerous than he was.

He once wrote, "I know that life for a wild animal is demanding, and that very few mistakes are forgiven. When I encounter a wild animal in its world, whether a field mouse or a skunk, an owl or a bear, I am in awe of this marvelous creature that is so alien to me. The more I learn about them, the more I respect them."

I could say the same of that marvelous creature, Dear Old Dad.


Anonymous said...

Well, your father made me laugh heartily today, thanks to your Father's Day note. I would have appreciated his candid view of life very much - but I know I'd really get a chuckle out of his earthy sense of humor.

Thank you, Ian!

Marfy said...

Ian, if your Dad had been able to read what you wrote, he would have laughed out loud and smiled a lot, like I just did.

Annette said...

Very well written and very lovely. You loved him much, it is clear.

David Stever said...

Ian. I never met you, but I visited your dad with a group of friends who hopped over from Philadelphia. I worshiped him, and the idea that I was in the studio where he worked was priceless to me. You mom directed us out to the studio, and he was not quite sure how to treat folks who would have bowed down to him, if we didn't already know how stupid that would seem. He was a warm and friendly man to us, and he actually let us purchase some of the old SF art that he had laying around, as we tried to describe how his work made us feel. Even now, my daughter, all of 14, can look at the iconic illo from the story CHESTER (the three baboons negating see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) and see the humor and the love he imbued it with.

I loved that a year or more later, when he was a guest at a convention in my home town of Boston, that I got to speak the words, 'Mr. Herbert, I would like to introduce you to John Schoenherr,' when they met for the first time.

David Stever said...

I read your tribute to your dad, and I clicked on the link for the picture you used, of you and him, and I thought of the comment I heard years ago to the effect that every artist looks like they would have drawn themselves. I looked at the picture of your dad, younger than I had ever seen him, and that came to mind, then I scrolled down and realized that if he'd painted this, that he would have stopped short of the bottom, where I could see his feet and your own. I remembered that he said that he never felt comfortable in drawing a human foot, and we could see that when we looked at any picture he'd ever done. I laughed then, and I laugh again now.