Reflections on the Sweet-Natured Soul

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank December 15, 2008 11:15

Russell Frank

My dad turned 90 this year. He still drives (though if you’re heading for South Florida I can tell you which streets to avoid), still reads the paper and gets riled up about the state of the world (though he doesn’t yell at people on street corners), and still thinks he can tote that barge and lift that bale (he spent his birthday moving furniture so the carpets could be shampooed).

At his birthday party I presented some fun facts about 1918, the year he was born: It was a bad year for tsars and kaisers, a good year for the Red Sox and the Spanish Flu, Daylight Savings Time began and a gallon of gas cost 8 cents.

I also revealed the secrets of the guest of honor’s longevity: sugar on grapefruit and salt on everything else, canned fruit in heavy syrup, chopped liver and pickled herring, and a steady diet of bad puns and old songs. For exercise he recommends taking a walk around a glass of water.

Then I got serious. The real secret, I said, is that the man has no meanness in him. I asked the assemblage of family and friends and my mother to think about it: Had they ever seen my dad act nasty to anyone? No one had.

I summed up my pop’s approach to life by recalling something that happened in 1975:

We are living in New York. My friend Mikey has borrowed one of the two lemons in my family’s automotive stable and is calling us from a phone booth in Brooklyn Heights.

The car has died.

On the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the pouring rain.

So my dad and I get in the other lemon and drive to the rescue. It’s a jumper cables situation.

Mikey has ample reason to be unhappy because it’s hard not to feel like it’s your fault when something that does not belong to you breaks when it is in your possession.

My dad has ample reason to be unhappy because it is his car.

I have ample reason to be unhappy because as the liaison between my friend and my father, I feel obliged to get soaking wet also.

So naturally we stand on the bridge in the rain laughing our heads off.

This, my dad has taught me, is the proper response to most non-life-threatening situations.

The only people who don’t have problems, he likes to say, are in the cemetery.

One way we think about the soul is as a parallel metaphysical self, on which emotions like anger or anxiety have the same corrosive effects as acid on the physical self. We talk of how these feelings consume us or poison us or eat us up.

I’d like to think my father’s long and mostly cheerful life is evidence that our ideas about destructive emotions are more than just metaphors — that the sweet-natured soul has a better chance than the sourpuss at a many-candled cake and a birthday greeting from the White House.

And yet we baby boomers obsess far more about our cholesterol than our souls. When I had a colon cancer scare a couple of years ago I asked my surgeon if there was anything I could do diet-wise, to prevent a recurrence. (I’m not a pickled herring man like my dad, but maybe I needed to go easy on the everything bagels.)

Oh, he said, everyone will tell you to eat more whole grains and less fat, but between the two of us, when it comes to colon cancer I don’t think it matters what you eat.

Now this may have been non-holistic western medicine talking – prevention is not the surgeon’s department – but maybe a better question was whether there was anything I could do attitude-wise to prevent a recurrence.

Well, I’m a nice enough guy, though maybe not as sweet-natured as my pop. What I decided I needed above all things, was more beauty. I don’t mean that I began applying Rogaine where there wasn’t hair and Grecian Formula where there was. I mean I began paying more attention to the beauty that is all around us – to flowers and flowing water and light and shadow and the tiny sound a leaf makes when it hits the forest floor.

Last summer I returned to Tuolumne County after a long absence and backpacked through some of the most rugged terrain in Yosemite Park. It had been decades since I’d hiked with a heavy pack so I was feeling pretty good about myself until I saw the gaunt and sinewy chaps at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill who looked like they had hiked down from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before breakfast.

But then, as I sat on a rock with my pancakes, warmed by the morning sun and coffee, I remembered the obvious: what matters is not how far or how fast you go, or that I’d be in better shape if I ate less and moved more.

What matters is appreciation: appreciation that I am hale and hardy enough to be out there at all, and appreciation of the dazzling beauty of the place.
It would be lovely to still be hiking and biking when I’m my dad’s age, assuming I even make it that far. But that’s not my goal. I just want to remain alive to the beauty to be seen on a walk around a glass of water.

Russell Frank, 54, got his first journalism job at the Union Democrat, where he worked from 1985 to 1988 covering the City of Sonora and its old-timers. He then spent seven years at the Modesto Bee and two years as an editor at a small newspaper in Pennsylvania. In 1998, he began teaching at Penn State University, where he is now an associate professor of journalism. Email him at

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank December 15, 2008 11:15
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