Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fishing Story

"Fishing"       Jan Barry water color

Stopping by a favorite haunt one day, an egret spied a fisherman. The cell phone camera couldn’t do justice to the wily fisher silently stalking the unaware fisherman. So I set my hand to telling this tale in water colors.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Seeing Lou Grant

Lou Grant  (photo: Wikipedia)

I wrote on my calendar for May 15 that I was going to see Lou Grant.

And so we arrived at the Bergen Performing Arts Center to see Ed Asner in his cross country, long running presentation of his one-man show, FDR. As the largely elderly audience was still settling in, Asner abruptly took the stage in a wheelchair, and then stomped about on a pair of canes and presented a very compelling characterization of the polio-crippled President who forcefully led the country through the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, despite formidable political foes and the howling hounds of the press.

As the FDR show wrapped up to a big round of applause, I was still looking for Lou Grant—the curmudgeonly, get-that-story, and get-it-right newspaper editor Asner played on television in the 1970s and early 1980s. That TV character was perhaps the biggest influence on my then-budding career as a journalist.

In Lou Grant’s world, journalists suffered crises in their own lives, but still got out there and pinned down the facts of events, on deadline, that were important for the public to know about.  “The series frequently delved into serious societal issues, such as nuclear proliferation, mental illness, prostitution, gay rights, capital punishment, child abuse, and chemical pollution, in addition to demonstrating coverage of breaking news stories such as fires, earthquakes, and accidents of all kinds,” a Wikipedia description astutely noted.

“The Lou Grant show ran from 1977 to 1982 and became the most popular newspaper drama ever broadcast on television,” noted a review in Booklist of “Lou Grant,’ a book about the show. “Journalists at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune strove to question authority while covering issues as thoroughly as possible. … often reflecting real news of the day, from Vietnam vets and inner-city school violence to political corruption and homosexuality … For five seasons, Lou Grant and his colleagues delivered a weekly dose of dramatic realism …”

And then CBS abruptly cancelled the program. “In the later years of the series, Asner became known for speaking out on numerous social and political topics, especially in opposition to the U.S. involvement in Central America. The show was canceled in 1982, reportedly due to poor ratings, while some—including Asner—have speculated that the actor's activism may have influenced the decision to end the series,” according to

The Lou Grant show roughly coincided with my first stint as a daily newspaper reporter. After getting laid off in 1980, in the wake of writing an investigative series about Vietnam veterans’ emerging health concerns about Agent Orange and other chemicals used in the war, I had more time at home to study how Lou Grant’s savvy newsroom covered controversial issues.

Then, getting involved in grassroots activism with a local peace group countering the Reagan Administration’s nuclear missile-rattling with the Soviet Union and military moves in Central America, I appreciated Asner’s outspoken stance on these and other issues. This provided additional inspiration in my life.

Three decades later, I heard Ed Asner was coming to do a show in a neighboring town. What I felt was that Lou Grant was coming to town.

Turns out that my partner, Paula Rogovin, knew Asner through her family’s network of activism. So we were invited to meet him backstage. So was a bunch of other people Asner had meet over the years, including a family that knew him growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. Herded up into a bare dressing room in the old vaudeville theater in Englewood, NJ that was saved by a civic campaign, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Ed Asner in Englewood  (photo: Paula Rogovin)

Amid a flurry of greetings, snappy recollections, hugs, handshakes, and cell phone photos, suddenly I was being introduced to Ed Asner. Still hale at 84, leaning on a cane, he gripped my hand hard and looked directly into my eyes, recalling a mutual campaign from years ago. And I felt, yep, very glad to finally shake hands with Lou Grant.   

For more information:

Vacation in Vietnam

"Vacation in Vietnam"    (watercolor by Jan Barry)

When I came home in 1963 from a war tour in Southeast Asia, one of the putdowns I encountered from more than one clueless bar-crawler was that it “must a been nice being on vacation” in what was dimly recalled as French Indochina. Some vacation.

In my latest delving into troublesome memories via art, I crafted a watercolor of a typical moment of “vacation” for soldiers in my unit, getting drunk in town and being ferried back to our base in a cyclo ridden by a hard-muscled guy, who moonlighted on the other side with the Viet Cong, for all we knew.

Usually, this ride was a scramble along the beach road in Nha Trang just before midnight curfew. Once in awhile, soldiers were rumored to hide out for the night with drinking companions and slip back to base at dawn—just as our war machinery was revving up.

Here’s a poem I wrote years ago about this sweet-and-sour concoction of fun and war:

Yuletide, Republic of Viet-Nam

The war is on holiday.
Soldiers in drunken disarray
Lounge under palms, singing
Old songs and carousing
Into the night until dawn...
When the bombers crank up
And yawning fliers line up
And the battle lines are redrawn.