Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Dad: A Celebration

Charles Champlin, 1926–2014

This past weekend in Los Angeles, we celebrated the life of my dad, former Los Angeles Times arts editor and film critic Charles Champlin, at the Directors Guild Theater. Dad died in November, after a nearly decade-long struggle with Alzheimer's, throughout which he remained his kind, good-humored, gentlemanly self. Macular degeneration had already robbed this writer, reader, and film lover of his eyesight, a cruelty that he managed with unfathomable grace—and by writing about it, in his book, My Friend, You Are Legally Blind. Dad's legacy, in addition to his storied career and his prolific and elegant writing, includes a 66-year marriage to our miraculous mom, six children, 13 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. As 30+ family members gathered for Thanksgiving dinners, Dad liked to say to Mom, "Peg, what have we wrought?!" You wrought good, Dad. These are the remarks I wrote for his memorial service: 

Most mornings when I was little, I woke to the sound of machine-gun fire. That would be Dad, typing furiously on his IBM Selectric as he wrote his review of the film he’d seen the night before. Within the hour, he’d be showered, dressed, dictating the piece into the kitchen telephone, then following the review down to the L.A. Times in his Triumph TR-250.

If ever a child had a role model for just plain getting the job done, with style and without whining, it was Dad.

And if there was ever an example of both a writer’s art and a writer’s craft, it was Dad. He was the Fred Astaire of writers: With the hard work and blisters kept out of sight, he made it look effortless.

Having a film critic for a father has obvious benefits—like impressing your high school friends in 1977 by seeing Star Wars two weeks before its release, or getting to go with Dad to the Academy Awards as he took each of us kids, democratically, in turn.

Having a writer for a father has other benefits—less obvious, maybe, but deeper and longer-lasting.

Learning the skill of thoughtful observation, for example, so that you see not just who or what is right in front of you, but what’s around the edges and what’s underneath. Dad had a particular gift for that—whether it was understanding a filmmaker’s intentions and not just their final, perhaps studio-edited product; or whether it was listening to one of his many children or grandchildren and getting straight to the heart of what was on their mind, and not just in their fumbling words.

That skill of listening and seeing between the lines was one he learned early, in his hometown of Hammondsport, New York, population 1200. In his book, Back There Where the Past Was, Dad wrote:

“My maiden great-aunts, my grandmother Masson, and my mother…had what I remember now as semaphore eyebrows, a secret communications system for dealing with things my brother and I were not supposed to hear or know about.

“ ‘How is dear Fannie Cameron?’ one of the aunts might ask my grandmother.

“ ‘Much the same,’ my grandmother would reply, with a theatrically eloquent lift of her eyebrows. Even then I understood that, Mrs. Cameron being in excellent health, the import of the eyebrowing was that Mr. Cameron…was either drinking again or philandering again or both. I knew this from listening a lot to grown-up conversations when I was not thought to be listening. Even then I may have been aiming for a career in journalism without knowing it.”

Of course, the other great benefit of having a writer-dad was being given, on a daily basis, the gift of language. Dad loved words. He loved the infinite variety of them, and the Play-Doh quality of them. Puns may be the lowest form of humor, but they were in high demand around the Champlin dinner table. In his writing and even in his casual conversation, Dad illustrated for us not just the power of words, but the acute power of the un-obvious word, the unexpected phrase.

In his review of Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, Dad wrote: 
“[This] mock-down, knock-down, bawdy, gaudy, hyper-hip burlesque western is irreverent, outrageous, improbable, often as blithely tasteless as a stag night at the Friar’s Club and almost continuously funny…It is to Zane Grey as Little Annie Fanny is to Daddy Warbucks’ wide-eyed ward.”

Of Robert Altman’s Nashville, he wrote: “…Altman abhors a vacuous screen, and he can make almost anything interesting on it…[H]is instincts for that existential half world between security and failure are sure, accurate and special, and he is never dull.”

I would say the same for Dad.

Even when macular degeneration left him legally blind and Alzheimer’s gummed up the works, he never lost his true vision, or his gift for the unexpected insight.

One day, when I made the unfortunate choice to wear blue jeans and a denim jacket, Dad looked at me through his peripheral vision and said, “You’re looking very agrarian today, Susan.”

But the most remarkable gift of all about Dad is that through everything—in his personal life and his professional life, on television or in the grocery store, in blazing health and while enduring insidious disease—Dad was a gentleman. He was, right down at his core, a fundamentally kind and generous human being. He was a small-town boy who maintained his small-town decency and manners, even in a much bigger town that didn’t often honor those things.

As our Dad and grandfather, and as a husband to our mighty Mom, he was gentle, proud, generous, a wise and encouraging counselor, wonderfully silly, and an excellent cook—as long as your tastes ran to beer bread and frozen peas. He was also deeply loving. In his later years, when certain phrases began to be repeated with regularity, the phrase we heard most often, as his hand crept across the dinner table toward Mom’s hand, was, “Have I ever told you I love you?”

We’re especially lucky in our family to have had a writer for a father, because we have his stories. First we had them over family dinners, where all heads would be angled toward the west, where Dad sat at the head of the table and told us the stories of Hammondsport and Smellie’s Drugstore and the office he shared with David Snell at Life magazine, which Dave had named the “Hotel Plunge” after the phrase made famous by tabloid newspapers—as in “Sailor Dies in Hotel Plunge,” “Tourist Dies in Hotel Plunge.” And, of course, there was the story we loved best: the family legend of how Dad met Mom.

But we Champlin kids are luckier than most, because now we have those stories in his books, which his great- and great-great-grandchildren can read when they come to that point in their lives when they realize what they’ve lost—and also what they gained, what we all gained, on that day in 1946 when Charles Champlin arrived at the Hammondsport library to pick up his grandmother and met a beautiful young brunette named Peggy Derby.

I know I have told you Dad, but I’d like to tell you again: I love you.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Changing Horses Midstream

Yesterday I had a new kind of New York adventure. I walked over to the West 4th Street subway station, took the F train up and over to 63rd and Lexington, walked north five blocks to 68th Street, hung a left into the building, and got this:

Yes, I am a student again. After 30 years as a reporter, editor, and freelance writer, I am entering a masters program in special education, to teach kids who are deaf or hard of hearing. Classes start tomorrow.

I know—I'm a little surprised myself!

Not that this hasn't been a long time coming. Two years ago, in the midst of career disillusion, I wrote a post saying, "Shouldn’t I be doing something that matters? Shouldn’t I, like a backpacker in Yosemite, leave the campground a little cleaner than I found it?"

At the time, I thought that might mean using my writing skills on behalf of a nonprofit whose cause I believed in. I've toyed with other possibilities over the years, including law school, an Etsy shop for my Instagram photos, and my escapist go-to: the used bookstore on the coast of Maine.

The funny thing is, I didn't go looking for this particular path. I didn't have a vision or wake up from a dream. My Beloved went for a walk with his cousin, who is herself profoundly hard of hearing and has a Ph.D. in deaf education, and who runs this program at Hunter College. He came home and said, "I think you should look into this." I did. And the more I researched outward and the more I looked inward, the better it fit.

It fit my history as someone who helps others communicate. It fit my love of kids (besides The Child I have 13 nieces and nephews, seven great-nieces and -nephews, and three and 8/9ths grandchildren I was lucky enough to marry into). It fit the interest in deafness I've had since playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker in high school, when I first realized that there were people experiencing the world in a completely different way than I was.

Most of all, it would tap into the part of me that I had only put into play in my personal life, never in my professional life; the part that I described as "the person who believes that the human connection can change everything." The pieces all snapped into place with a satisfying click.

So, classes start tomorrow. As a "career changer" (agh, I'm an AARP spokesmodel), I'm taking the long program—two years, fulltime—which earns me a teaching credential as well as the special ed training. In a burst of wild optimism, I've registered for four courses, each of which meets one day a week for two and a half hours.

I'm a little nervous, less than I would have thought or than I probably should be. I'll likely be 30 years older than everyone in my "cohort" (do you think it's a requirement that I start speaking in academic jargon?). But I know that every time I've gotten off the subway and walked up the four sets of escalators to Lexington Avenue, I've felt a skipping beat of the heart—not just from the exertion.

I've been told I'm brave. I don't feel that way. Making this decision felt like lifting an anvil off my chest. So I bought my color-coded spiral-bound notebooks...

... and my two-pocket folders...

[Okay, not really these, but I wish.]

...and I'm well-supplied with Bic pens.

I also signed up for my new Hunter e-mail address, registered for an online Blackboard account, and downloaded the app onto my iPhone (hello, progress). As Monty Python would say, I'm not dead yet.

The adventure begins. Wish me luck.