What Matters to Marc English

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

It took Marc English a lifetime to realize he was an artist who happened to spend a career in graphic design and academia. When not on the road, he splits time between New England and Texas. 

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Laughing with Robin.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

When I was in kindergarten, there was a local Boston TV show I’d watch with a character named “Captain Bob,” who would present an art lesson, and ask kids to draw along with him. One day he drew a pirate, and I followed along. For some reason I brought it to school. I have no recollection of who’s idea it was to bring it to school. My mother’s? Mine? Regardless, I did, and the teacher ended up calling my mom and asking her “How dare you do a drawing and send your child to school with it, and have him say he did it?!” That’s the story mom told me, as I’d forgotten all of that. Sadly, the drawing is long gone, but I do recall seeing the drawing again sometime after she told me that story, and it was laughably terrible. Certainly not done by an adult.

Decades later, I was in my 30s, coincidentally working for a Boston TV station. One day I was told that “Captain Bob” was in the building. I scrambled and found him. Told him he was my earliest inspiration, and it seemed he’d heard that one before. But I was in earnest, and was happy to meet him as an adult, who’s career was in the arts. By then Captain Bob — Robert Cottle, then in his 70s — was best known for having invented the Prophetron Zoltar Fortune Teller machine, (which even used his voice, and you may have seen it in the Tom Hanks film Big). 

What is your biggest regret?

Marrying the wrong person.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

“But I have words / That would be howled out in the desert air, / Where hearing should not latch them.” So sayeth Ross to Macduff, in the Scottish Play. I paid no heed to Emerson, who eschewed travel, saying one takes their troubles with them, wherever they go, and sought to bury some things in the Sahara. I did bury some things in those orange sands, but Emerson was correct,  and some things cannot be buried or forgotten. 

Still, travel has worked, to some degree. If one travels correctly, they are engaged in the minute-by-minute, the day-by-day, and and discovering the new or seeing the familiar in a new light, and one anticipates the future, not looking backward. 

Self-focused actions and reflection don’t mend the tears rendered when one has been set up in hope. The recipe is to stew in one’s juices until ready to work. The stewing could be weeks, or seasons. Getting to the work or play at hand, either one’s own, or in service to others, however defined, focuses the mind away from the break, and the mending, though often spotty and roughhewn, can begin. The clouds get lifted finding light in unexpected places. 

In the 14th century the Italian historian Dominici de Gravina wrote “Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris,” essentially “misery loves company.” And again, from MacBeth: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.” I’ve never found that talking about heartbreak has served me well, at all. It’s felt indulgent, and a burden to my friends. So write it down, if you must. Write it in the sands and snow and let them blow away, write it on a beach and let it wash away. 

What makes you cry? 

What doesn’t? I can still recall looking at a painting by Gauguin, at the Guggenheim— I have zero recollection of which one— and it brought me to tears. Was it the painting or a memory it provoked? Again, I can’t recall. I can recall the times I have laughed so hard, I’ve cried, always with my best friends. Or after the long-reserved grief of the loss of a parent; of the countless times my missing daughter has come to mind, provoked by a seemingly unconnected word or image,  the weather or a sound.. 

Recently cried during a big-screen showing of Casablanca, a film I’ve seen countless times (and countless times on the big screen). Seems my eyes are watering for half the film (as are Else’s): the courage, the decency, the kindness, the fearlessness showing up throughout the film. When Rick gives a nod, and the house band starts to back up Victor Laslow, as he sings La Marseillaise, in the face of Nazi loudmouths.. 

Five minutes ago, when I was writing a letter to a former student and intern of mine, in Okinawa, and fearing the cancer she’s had for the last decade has finally claimed her, and hoping my note will end up with her family. 

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Some last a lifetime. I can recall art I labored over when I was 13 that still brings me joy. The same goes for having snowshoed solo over the Continental Divide during a white-out, it’s memory deeply etched, though barely another soul knows of that experience, having been alone at the time, and rarely sharing that story. Recalling climbing up the eastern side of a temple at Chichen Itza, in the dead of night, more than three decades ago still brings back that adrenaline to some degree. I have work I have produced, of which I am still proud, knowing I invested deeply, was paid poorly, yet it was the results that mattered most — and I found that work affected people. I take pride in stopping to help strangers fix a flat, south of Comanche,Texas, as the sun set on a cold and lonely Thanksgiving day, knowing that by stopping I would lose an hour, making my long motorcycle ride back home darker and colder. I never even received a words of thanks. Still, I’m glad I was the stranger that stopped and helped. I guess that’s some kind of pride, just doing the right thing, and moving on.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

No afterlife. No spirits floating around, no reincarnation. Nothing but memories. 

Only recently did I discover the notion that most people are forgotten within three or four generations of their death. Having done my share of genealogy, I’ve learned that to be true, but for the few who are genuinely interested in their own family history. Which means we’re remembered by what legacy we leave behind. . 

Known rulers left pyramids and cathedrals, unknown people left the moai of Easter Island, the plinths of Stonehenge, the innumerable petroglyphs carved in stone around the world over millennia. Innumerable artifacts testify to their makers, their names lost to those same millennia, even though a fingerprint may reveal itself on a pottery shard. Writers of all sorts have found ways to extend their ideas and beliefs well after life. Yet for the majority of people, the only afterlife they will have will fade when their names are no longer spoken, memory of them lost to all. 

Institutional memory is even worse. Most people know who George Washington was, but cannot name the second, third, or fourth president of the United States.  Institutions which I helped establish, labored over that they last long, or dedicated myself to serve have already forgotten me. That’s the way of the world. No one knows the name of that first person on Easter Island who said, “Hey! I’ve got a great idea . . . !”

And that’s okay.

I’m guessing my memory may linger for a generation or two, my impact relatively small. 

And that’s okay. Have to make the most of THIS life. Many years ago there was a quote in an article about me I had wrongly attributed to Frank Sinatra. The real author was Mae West: “You only life once. But if you live like I do, once is all you need.”

And that’s okay. 

What do you hate most about yourself?

My snaggle-toothed teeth.

What do you love most about yourself?

The ability to say “yes” to most situations or experiences, whether it be helping a stranger with a simple kindness, or exploring an unknown path in an unknown world. They all begin with YES. Has that worked against me? Of course, in both personal and business situations. But more often than not, it’s allowed me a wealth of experiences which have somehow added up finding myself answering a list of questions here. It all starts with YES.

What is your absolute favorite meal?  

So many memorable ones, including family, friends, favorite foods. But my favorite meal was probably one of my most Spartan. It was Eid, the first day after Ramadan, and every place in the town of Tinghir, Morroco was closed: it was HOLIDAY and they were celebrating, wearing their finest clothes, and EATING, after a month of fasting during daylight hours.

There was no one but myself and a stranger —  an Italian  guy — remaining at the bare-bones hotel at which I’d stayed, for three dollars a night. The locals had the day off, had locked us in. Was told by the manager the Italian had the key to leave the hotel, as the front door was chained and padlocked. That’s how I met Mario, who spoke no English. I speak no Italian. 

We spent the next several days together, but that was after our first meal together. 

We’d hiked up through the village, through the oasis gardens, towards the high cliffs of a deep gorge, known the world over for rock climbing. Buses full of Chinese tourists awaited us when we got there. 

We broke our fast, finally stopped to eat, along our hike. Sitting under palm trees, the small, deep channels of cold water running nearby, from my satchel I pulled out the two hard-boiled eggs I’d lifted from the hotel counter before we left. I also had my canteen, half a loaf of an all but stale baguette, and two apples. Mario had no food. He had cigarettes and smoked like a chimney.

We sat under a blue sky, on that cold January day, and told stories — neither understanding the other’s language — and each ate an egg, apple, stale bread, water. When we got to the apple, Mario started to tell me a recipe he longed for — Brasata al Barolo — roasted beef with red wine. Then, to finish the meal, Mario described an apple pie he longed for. Roast beef and apple pie. He didn’t realize he was describing a typical American meal.

My favorite meal: swapping stories with a stranger, barely understanding each other, laughing, a meager repast, and dreaming of other foods, in a strange land, and feeling at home.

Favorite food? Fried chicken, biscuits with honey, red beans and rice, iced tea, a slice of coconut cream pie.