Thursday, October 31, 2013

In their father’s house

By Felix Carroll

Through the gate of the white picket fence, passed the unusual combination of rhubarb and California poppy, then up the porch steps and through the door are two sisters and a brother who love their father so much they wrote a book about him.

Jo Humphrey is the author. Her sister Shirley Miller and brother Peter Franz helped. The three of them are in the kitchen with their significant others. A lot of activity is going on. It’s a late summer afternoon. Cocktail hour has just begun. But to grow up on Elm Street in Stockbridge as the children of Joseph Franz means that most things of beauty — such as cocktail hour — are upheld by the practical things that surround them.

For the dazzling California poppies, it’s the levelheaded rhubarb. For the late afternoon martini, it’s the canning of pears. Shirley and Jo have been at it all afternoon. The pears, that is. They’ve been earning that cocktail. "Pealing, pealing, pealing,” is how Jo puts it, wiping the sweat from her brow as Shirley sinks a series of pear-filled mason jars into a pot of boiling water. The whole kitchen fills with steam.

The pears come from a tree out back, a tree with a huge hole straight through its trunk. Wire sheathed in a garden hose acts as a truss holding the whole thing together. No good reason can explain why that tree is still alive, and certainly no good reason can explain why this year it’s yielding a more bountiful harvest than Shirley, Jo and Peter can remember.

Somehow that tree, that strange, improbable pear tree, won’t be quelled. It remains anchored in the Berkshire earth, as headstrong as rhubarb, as lively as the legacy of their father.

Yes — most things of beauty are upheld by the practical things that surround them. For instance, for the Boston Symphony in summertime, it’s the Tanglewood Music Shed, and for the dance companies at Jacob’s Pillow, it’s the Ted Shawn Theatre — two highly practical Berkshire landmarks built by their father.

Suffice it to say, an assertive German immigrant staking his claim amidst the bluebloods of Stockbridge in the first half of the 20th century was about as odd a sight as rhubarb in a bed of California poppies. Yet Joseph Franz — who died in 1957 at the age of 76 — left his fingerprints are all over the place. An engineer by trade, he’s the reason why Main Street Stockbridge has no unsightly overhead wires. Aesthetics was a mere consequence to a system he designed to run underground for the sake of easier maintenance.
For instance, with the Tanglewood Music Shed, after estimates from an eminent architect came in way over budget, they turned to the local upstart immigrant known for reading books, taking risks and figuring things out. Joseph Franz built the shed under budget and on time for the summer opening in 1938, and its fabulous acoustics quickly became world renowned. His career is filled with countless such stories.

The pears are boiling while Joseph Franz's children are sitting around a coffee table in the house their father built wondering why so few people have ever heard of him. They wrote this book — Joseph Franz: A Renaissance Man in the Twentieth Century (iUniverse, Inc., 2006) — to set the record straight. Jo, who now lives in New York City, will be giving a book talk at 5 p.m. tonight at Jacob's Pillow.

"Mother is the one who kept pushing for someone to write Father's biography," says Jo.

"Now wait," says Peter, who lives in Cheshire. "I was the one who asked Father way back to write down his memories."

It's all good-natured. They remember their father as a stoic man who made sure they each learned how to fix a lock and how to do plumbing and carpentry and electrical work — all the practical things any sensible person should know.

Shirley goes back into the kitchen where the pears have sat in boiling water long enough. She pulls the jars out one by one. After a few moments the jar's dome lids give the popping sound of pears that have been properly preserved. The noise is like horse's hooves falling on cobblestone. Joseph Franz's children know how to preserve things. It's only practical. And they have so many things worth preserving.

After a career as a draftsman in Virginia, Shirley moved back into this house. Just like her father, she relaxes by tending to the garden. But with the rhubarb, you don't need to do much. You just let it do its thing.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

You never can Tell

By Felix Carroll
Through some sort of trippy, cosmic, causally unrelated occurrence, we had both been taken to Puerto Rico by our parents at separate times in our childhoods, and both of us vomited at the famous tourist attraction, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, in Old San Juan (way too much sun).
As if that weren't enough foreshadowing that my wife and I would eventually meet and fall in love, we both grew up with mothers who, whenever mention was made of having to take the garbage to the dump, would launch into the "William Tell Overture." You know — to the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump — that gallant, galloping, all-trumpeters-on-deck instrumental by Rossini that's often equated with the theme song to "The Lone Ranger."
Allow me to set the scene:
(It's a fine and pleasant suburban Saturday morning in the 1980s. Lawn mowers purr in the distance, peppered with the thumps and hollering of a pack of pajama-wearing siblings upstairs strangling each other. Downstairs in the kitchen, Dad stands by the doorway holding two bags of garbage. Mom enters, smiling.)
Mom: Good morning, Honey. Whatcha doin?
Dad: I'm going to the dump.
(Having courted doom, he winces.)
Mom: Oh, really? To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump ...
(She stops and looks at him with a smile that's bright and earnest. He smiles thinly. Fade to black.)
Then, maybe about two years into our marriage, my wife and I welcomed her mother for a visit. On a fine, pleasant Saturday morning (birds tweeting, yadda-yadda), I was gathering the garbage when my mother-in-law got wind of what I was up to and proceeded to gallop around the living room, "To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump ..."
I pulled my wife aside. "Holy crap, your mother does that, too?" I asked.
"Always. Why? Your mother does that?"
As children, the mom/dump/"William Tell Overture" thing marked for both my wife and me a first-time experience of something funny turning into something annoying — so annoying it becomes kinda funny again, even though it's still very, very annoying. In therapy, they call this acceptance.
Whenever my mother visits, she, too, gallops around the living room on Saturday mornings. And nowadays my wife, surrendering to the sins of the mother, gallops, too, but with a despondent-sort-of hobble.
"It's not even a 'dump,' technically," I said a couple weeks back. "It's a 'transfer station.'"
We both looked at each other. Yes, it's a "transfer station," not a dump! The dumps of our youth, too, were transfer stations — merely terminals from which trash is eventually hauled to who-knows-where, maybe a rocket ship and shot into outer space. This was an epiphany. (Did you know the definition of "epiphany"? It's this: "A snooty-sounding word for realizing something only a chucklehead wouldn't have realized long, long ago."
We wondered, "What if we simply substituted 'dump' for 'transfer station.'"
Forthwith, we tested it out.
"Okay, gotta go, Mom," I heard my wife say, speaking on the phone to her mother. "We have to go to the transfer station."
Nothing. No galloping. Just a cheerful goodbye.
I then called my mother and made small talk for a bit, then said: "Well, gotta head to the transfer station."
"Sounds fun," she said.
I tried again:
"Yep, gotta pack up the garbage and head to the transfer station."
Nothing. William Tell's horse stayed in its stall. Instead, my mother somehow found an opportunity to launch into a soliloquy about her father coming to America and working as a lineman for Ma Bell, and then about how good the pizza was at Poopsie's.
"You remember Poopsie's, right?"
"Sure do," I said. "OK, then, I gotta head to the transfer station."
"Sounds like a special day for you," she said.
"Oh, trust me, it is."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Felix Carrolls have themselves a chat

This article first appeared in the Albany Times-Union.

By Felix Carroll

While it's not as if my name is Justus Panzarella or Frennel Luedecking or something equally obscure and unreasonable, my name is rare. And because I'm perfectly at peace with the fact that I'm obsessed with myself and everything within a 2-foot radius of me, I can go ahead and tell you that I've Googled myself and discovered that the "Felix Carroll" that is me pretty much owns the "Felix Carroll" space on the Web.
However (and maybe "however" is too strong of a word) there exists a certain "Felix Carroll" who is not me at all. Yes, and the activities of this so-called "Felix Carroll" are nipping at my knees in the Google search rankings (No. 4 to my No. 1, 2, and 3!).

He's a writer, a scientist and a professor. I know this because I clicked on his name. And I now also know he has a southern accent. I know this because I thought it might be kind of funny to call him up and ask him how being "Felix Carroll" is going for him, so I called him the other day, and it seems that being "Felix Carroll" is going OK.

But mostly he was a little surprised to hear from Felix Carroll, which certainly is understandable.

I reached him on two rings at his office at Davidson College in North Carolina. The semester is over. He was in the midst of reading The Journal of Physical Chemistry. The latest issue. The one with the cover that has an image of molecular dynamics simulations of protein–carbon dioxide interactions.

We chatted for about 20 minutes. Topics included physical organic chemistry, the town of Blowing Rock, N.C., and the limitations of knowledge.

He was not ashamed to admit he knows of me. Yes, he has Googled "Felix Carroll," too. He knows I wrote a story on oversized septic fields because that story was No. 2 in the "Felix Carroll" search results; not a high point in my career, but one must render unto Google what is Google's.

We both know we both wrote books. His is a science book. Mine is a religious book. So, together, we pretty much have things covered. His book doesn't have a typo on the very first page. Mine does.

But mostly we talked about being "Felix Carroll" in a world of few — maybe only two — Felix Carrolls, though Google shows vague traces of a Felix Carroll in Michigan. (Yo, if you're out there Felix Carroll of Michigan, don't be a stranger!)

"Hey, do people do that whole 'Felix the Cat' thing with you, too?" I asked Felix Carroll of North Carolina.

"Yes," he said. "I have to confess that when one of my colleagues went away somewhere, he brought me back a big picture of Felix the Cat and gave it to me as if it were a big accomplishment. I smiled and said, 'Oh, thank you,' but I wasn't particularly flattered."

"Yeah," I said, "it's either that, or the Felix-and-Oscar shtick."

(It's curious: Non Felixs feel obliged to greet Felixs as if their name is a fencepost upon which they must lean, throw nickels from and wait for the Felix in question to do or say something amusing. Felix Carrolls are not amused.)

"But people do remember your name when you're Felix Carroll," Felix Carroll said. "That can be a good thing, provided you stay out of trouble."

Both Felix Carrolls agreed it was time to bring this pleasant conversation to a close.

"Well, OK then, have fun being Felix Carroll," I said.

"You, too," Felix said.

Both of us had a laugh at that, a laugh that just may lift Felix Carroll of North Carolina to a place of honor on Google, just above oversized septic fields.

Felix Carroll is a former Times Union staff writer. His column appears every other Sunday.