In the distance, in all directions, I hear a chorus of chirping, and then, from my own trees, the sounds of birds fill the cool air. 

It’s cool enough to wear the “Asilomar” sweatshirt I bought at the second Plein Air Convention in Monterey, yet I celebrate “cool” instead of “cold” after a few weeks of winter. The good news is that I’m back outside on the long back porch, sitting on the squeaky brown wicker couch with Coke-red cushions, where words flow like soft ice cream pouring out of the machine at Donnelly’s, my favorite spot in the Adirondacks. As I started to sit, another indication of birds perched overhead made me clean the seat before parking myself there. But any sign of spring is a good one. 

Hello from Russia

In reality, I should be saying the view from my hotel window is a frigid and snow-covered city called Saint Petersburg, in Russia, where I will have just arrived after 24 hours of travel, leaving yesterday. I knew I’d be exhausted, and writing this and getting it to you on time would be impossible.

A Vivid Dream

Rarely do I remember dreams, but last night’s dream was of a stadium filled with tech people, a hundred thousand or so, and I was looking for a seat, but every seat was taken. Like church, I always walk to the very front row to find seats, and there always is one. In this case a lady sitting in a giant high-backed upholstered chair, as if she were queen, flagged me over and said, “This seat is open.”

100,000 People 

We chatted briefly, and somehow it led me to tell her the story of how my son Brady recently dropped with cardiac arrest at age 17. Her reaction, like most, was concern and horror, and little did I know — she was introduced and was the head of the conference, the main speaker. As she walked to the stage, after a moment of introduction, she pointed to me and asked me to come up and tell my story. 

Standing in front of 100,000 people, I read the Sunday Coffee I wrote about the experience. The otherwise noisy stadium went silent, and there was not a dry eye in the place. I finished to a silent pause, as though everyone was in shock, then a rousing cheer of applause and a standing ovation.

Awakening from this vivid dream, I said my quick morning prayer and I heard these words. “Never waste a good tragedy.”

Good Things Happening

My next thought is that lives can be saved by telling Brady’s story to as many people as will listen. Already hundreds have bought home and office defibrillators, and hundreds more have taken CPR classes or at least watched a training video online.

If one life is saved by spreading the word, it’s worth it. Every life has purpose and value, and if given another day of breath, we must make something of that breath.

In the past I’ve suggested that every tragedy in our lives has a purpose or a lesson, and that we need to embrace the bad things, knowing good things can come from them. This is what I mean by never wasting a good tragedy. What can you do to make good come from bad?

Why Me?

Learning a lesson is enough. Sometimes we ask why God would do such a thing, but maybe it’s His reminder that He is in control, and that we need to pay attention to Him. Though the pain is unbearable, once we get to a place where we can again function, how can we help others and prevent them from going through the same pain? In my case, it’s letting people know that even a child can suddenly drop from an unknown heart defect, and that particular defect may mean the heart can only be restarted by a defibrillator. Though CPR is important, CPR alone only kept my son’s brain alive until EMS could arrive.

Your Own Heart?

Though I’ve probably become obnoxious about it, every person who will listen is learning the lessons I learned. I had seen these “cough your way out of a heart attack” videos, thinking if I had a heart attack, I might be able to save myself, or at least call 911. What I did not know is that most people simply black out. You usually can’t save yourself. So my lessons not only include CPR and defibrillators, but not telling yourself your heart is healthy because you have no symptoms and because you’re in good physical shape. I’ve lost too many friends in great shape because they never once visited a cardiologist, never once had a stress test, and more importantly, never had a heart MRI or a catheter with a camera. 

What bad things have happened to you? 

What lessons were to be learned? 

In what ways could you use that tragedy to help other people?

Horrible Fire

My friends in Malibu, a couple who paint with me at my events and who are avid readers of Sunday Coffee, saw their house burn a year ago. They shared their angst and their anger, but they also shared the “I wish we had done these things” list — things like backing up photos, things like having pictures of everything that’s meaningful to you, so at least you have photos of lost memories like the kids’ artwork or Grandma’s piano.

Though my friends have shared this story with many of their friends, could they tell it on a larger scale so it convinced more people to take certain precautions? I’m thinking they are still suffering from PTSD and trying to figure out how to rebuild, but one day, when they have time, maybe they can look for a way to spread the word.

Again … don’t waste a good tragedy.

The Sad Loss of a Child

For some, your stories for friends or anyone who will listen are enough. For others, the important lessons of your tragedy may need to touch millions. It’s my hope that the quarter million who read Brady’s story will open it again and forward it to everyone they know, in order to save one more life. After sending the story, I heard from a woman who told me that her child had dropped dead suddenly and there was no defibrillator nearby. Had she heard Brady’s story, maybe someone in her home or neighborhood would have purchased one. At our lake, everyone on the lake knows who has one, so it can be grabbed within minutes to save a life.

It never occurred to me that my purpose would come to include heart health, or to Brady, who is now telling his story to the kids at school and church. Maybe one day he’ll stand in a stadium to share it. 

None of us look forward to tragedy or pain, yet if we go through it, let’s ask ourselves what we need to learn and if it’s something to be shared to help others.

Have a great Sunday. (More about Russia below.)

Eric Rhoads

PS: As we speak, I’m in Russia on some very special projects. I’m producing a documentary on what happened to art, how the modern art world hijacked realism starting in the early 1900s, and now, how the realism movement is gathering steam. Whether or not you’re a fan of the Russians, one good thing that occurred was their training system — they developed the finest art training system in the world. And when the world went modern and all the schools teaching older concepts were closed due to lack of interest, the Russians kept this kind of art alive. Therefore it’s a significant piece of my documentary. I’ll be interviewing the head of the Hermitage museum, and the directors of the Surikov and the Repin, the two great art schools in the Russian Academy started by Catherine the Great. I’ll be interviewing the Russian equivalent of the Wyeth family, the Kugachs, who played a major role in this important sustainment of art, and several others including the great Russian master Nikolai Dubovik, my friend for many years, and Nikolai Blohkin, one of the great Russian masters alive today and a former instructor at the Repin Institute. I’m also interviewing art historians at the Tretyakov museum and the State Russian Museum, and my crew and I will be shooting other footage, including me painting in Russia. I’ll be plein air painting in Saint Petersburg, in Moscow, and in the country in the north. Thankfully, they are having record warmth, so it will only be freezing, not 20 below (hopefully).

I’m also taking advantage of having a crew and have convinced Blokhin to, for the first time in history, document the Russian training in drawing and painting for a future art instruction video. Though I rarely get to direct these shoots anymore, I’ll be directing this one because when you get someone that important to do it, you show up.

I have no idea if I’ll find time to get Sunday Coffee done while I’m there, but if not, my team will send out something,

PS 2: This week I had an important meeting with a painter who is also an expert on building community, who I’ll soon be announcing as the new head of community for a new program we’re launching to help people in both the realism and the plein air movements connect and stay connected to their peers. I’ll reveal the first part at the convention in May and the realism part at FACE (Figurative Art Convention & Expo) conference in October. (By the way, as I write this, there are only 42 seats left for the Plein Air Convention, and probably fewer by the time you see this. It’s going to be the biggest and best of all time.)

PS 3: This summer, as every summer, I’m providing a painters’ retreat in the Adirondacks. This year is the 10th anniversary, and I’ve already exceeded the 100 seats available, but due to demand, I secured another couple of dozen rooms and have already sold half of those. I have to assume this demand is because everyone knows we’ll be doing some special things this year. Exciting! This year I’m having everyone over to our home, a 120-year-old “camp” that is almost exactly as it was when it was built as the first home on our lake. It’s a rare treat for us to be able to offer it, but because it’s boat-access only, we’re going to need a regatta of transportation. 

PS 4: We’re making tremendous progress on my goal of teaching 1 million people to paint with the coming production of our TV show, The Great Outdoor Painting Challenge. The casting is still open if you want to consider being on the show to compete for a prize, and we still have some executive producer opportunities if you want to be involved financially. You know where to reach me. We are planning to shoot this summer, so get in touch quickly.