Friendly Skies and Real Friends

Rosamond had business at the American Philosophical Association’s meeting in San Francisco, so we had to pollute the friendly skies. Odd phrase, that. It looks like a metaphor, but metaphors usually have nouns or verbs as their ground. Skies just aren’t the kind of thing that can be friendly. Neither can sties, pies, fries, ties. Lies, maybe, as something between friends. Flies no, but since dogs can be friendly (one wonders about cats), perhaps the friendliness of other animals is an empirical matter, not a conceptual one as is the case with friendly skies.

So what are they trying to say? Airlines can’t be friendly either. People can be friendly, so it must be the people at the ticket counter, the pilots, the flight attendants (but not necessarily the guys who load your luggage onto and off of the plane). But are these people friendly? Or, more to the point, more friendly than their counterparts at other airlines? Possibly to the first, doubtful to the second.

And another thing. Here I am on the plane and they offer me complimentary drinks (non-alcoholic). Do they come with the compliments of the airline or the flight attendant? That doesn’t seem right. Complimenting me for what? What they want me to think is that the drinks are free, unlike a beer or a bag of chips. But they aren’t. I paid for them when I bought my ticket, although what I paid for is fuzzy since sometimes I get the whole can while other times I just get a glassful (with ice).Moral (an old one, admittedly): we should not be dazzled with the blooms of the PR men and writers of ad copy. We should pay attention instead to the roots where the bean counters dwell.

Before we went to San Francisco a fellow named Gary Fitschen had contacted me, wondering if we were somehow related. We arranged to have dinner with him and his wife, and it went well. If we are related, the connection is probably pretty far back in nineteenth century Germany, but we had some other things in common and it was a pleasant evening.

Two days later we went to the De Young Museum to see a collection of seventeenth century paintings on loan from the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. The most well-known was the “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, but there were also marvelous Rembrandts and other Dutch painters and a neighboring exhibit of drawings in the same period. Boy, could those guys draw. And that was just the beginning. I can’t draw at all, so I am especially awed by the skill. The work of other artists—musicians, sculptors, writers—can also have an uncommon skill at its base, but I don’t find as much in current esthetic endeavors. It takes a knack and a lot of practice to develop a skill, and the bean counters of the entertainment industry don’t seem interested in fostering and promoting highly honed skills coupled with an exquisite esthetic sense.

From the De Young we found our way to Bernal Heights near the Mission District to see Dick Keltner, my old college roommate. I thought I hadn’t seen him in fifty-five years, but it turned out we had a brief meeting about ten years after I quit college. Still, forty-five years is a long time. People can change, some. Life can be unkind. The bonds forged all that time ago can weaken without regular annealing. But of all the people I knew in my first stab at college, Dick was the one I liked most. I can’t say how close we were as friends although we lived together for a year. Still, over the years I thought more often of him than anyone else I knew in school. He had red hair and a quick way about him, both with his mind and his body. He was an artist and conjured up irreverent cartoons. He didn’t take to authority kindly. I think it was his devil-may-care attitude, his sense that rebellion was often called for, that was most appealing. I took him climbing once with Royal. He didn’t take to it, but he did remember Royal.

Anyway, it was really good to see him again. He has aged, so I must have as well. His russet hair is now largely gray, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the cadence of his speech. I talked to him briefly on the phone before we went to see him, and I could have identified him just from the particular rhythm of his words. Similarly, I can identify many jazz musicians just from the way the put notes together in a solo.

Dick and his wife, Nancy, live in a typical San Francisco house on a hill with bay windows and a view over the city. Out back is a small garden, and a door leads to his studio. We talked and drank and had dinner and talked some more. He has continued to do art work and has had gallery shows. I liked the work that I saw. His second marriage seems to suit them well. He plays handball regularly, a sport he picked up when he worked as a fireman. We don’t really have a lot in common other than our general approach to life, but I sensed that more conversation would probably reveal deeper currents of connection. I hope that there are more conversations.

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