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.