Game 4

A week ago we hunkered down in a standing room crowd in the Public House, the bar holding up the bleachers just behind home plate at AT&T Park.  The Giants were still battling it out with the Kansas City Royals and at that moment the Royals had just scored 4 runs at the top of the third inning.  The crowd had grown somber and quiet, folks clenching glasses of beer as we watched the wall to wall screens.

It’s not like I’ve ever followed baseball.  I shouldn’t have cared less, except for there was one person who cared a whole awful lot.

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Howie Usher

Howie Usher, our friend river guide, had suffered a stroke two years earlier.  He was defined by the river – he’s probably been down the Colorado and in the Grand Canyon over a hundred times in the last thirty years.  And he was defined by the San Francisco Giants.  Despite having grown up in Southern California, he’s been a religious Giants fan for close to fifty years.  He suffered through the 56 year drought when the Giants had gone without winning the championship. He reveled in 2010 when they at last won the World Series.  And he sat at home post-stroke, his left side mostly frozen when they won again in 2012.

At that time, he told everyone that he was going to get back on the river, not just get back on, but actually row, taking trips down through those daunting rapids.  It was not a likely prospect.  That kind of work is mostly for younger men and requires both parts of your body to be working at full capacity.

But for two years he counted and arranged stacks of pennies for hours to build his fine motor skills.  He swam  to rebuild his mobility.  His friends took him out on a boat on a lake so his muscles could relearn how to row again.  Mazie returned his lucky penny to him because it seemed that he needed it most.  He took long hikes every Monday to rebuild his stamina.

At the end of this summer, a small envelope arrived postmarked from Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  It came from Howie and the envelope contained his lucky penny.  Earlier that summer he had rowed on two trips and once more had guided his boat through Lava.

A few days later, Howie emerged from the Canyon and on the long drive up from Diamond Creek to Seligman and on to Flag, he was able to hear fragments of the epic post-season game between the Giants and the Nationals.  He listened inning after inning all the way home to Clarkdale and walked in the door just in time to see Brandon Belt score the winning run in the 18 inning game, the longest in post season history.

And on this night of Game 4 in San Francisco, Howie had a chance to watch his first World Series game in AT&T Park.  He and his friend sat up high, just to the left of home plate, and cheered as the Giants crawled back from the third inning, scoring run by run by run until they upset the apple cart with an 11-4 lead.

In Game 5, Madison Bumgarner pitched a 5-0 shutout.  A few nights later the Giants were trounced in Kansas City.  And in the final moment of Game 7, Pablo Sandoval caught the foul ball at the bottom of the ninth and the Giants brought it home in a nail biter.

As Howie is always wont to remind: beware of calling the game too early.  The World Series is nine innings in each of seven games.  You can be way down and there’s always up.  There will always be a lot more baseball yet to play.

And one more equivalency for the river guide.   If it’s true that you’re always above Lava, then it’s converse must be equally true:  you’re forever below it as well.

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Disconnected

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All I had to do was one thing, the right thing, and this post may not exist. But instead something else is gone. And in it’s place we have this.

Last night my friend Johnny Meyering took his life.  Before he did so, he changed his Facebook profile picture to an image of the ocean and a warm beach.  A line of footprints traces the line of the surf.  I would like to think that he wanted to find peace.  And that he cared enough that he wanted people to know that.

Twelve of his friends liked the picture.  Two posted comments. One said, “Beautiful!”  The other asked if he was alright.

The problem is that he’s no longer there to receive it.  The line is now disconnected.  And no one will be there ever again to pick up.

Every thing in Johnny’s life up until last night could have possibly been fixed. And for some reason he couldn’t see that. And so he did the one thing that in fact could not be taken back.

This morning I looked at his Facebook page, that strange 21st century totem that is all about memory and memorial.

I wanted to Message him to tell him to please stop, to please not do it.

I wanted to Poke him to let him know, hey, someone is out there and cares.

I want to Post on his Wall and tell him to come up and stay with us for a while. I know some kids who are struggling to stay in school.  If you just go and sit with them for a little while and help them a little bit with their writing and math, you will immeasurably change the world.  And you alone can do it.

But he’s no longer there to receive any of it.

I look at his Friends.  I see faces from Seattle and from Japan and San Diego and Chicago. I know a few, but by no means all.  But the person who is friends with every one of those people?  The one person who bound all those people together into a circle of friends has made himself gone.

I look at his Likes.  The movie Gerry, and the movie Samsara, Jazz, and The New Yorker.  The Wire, Raymond Chandler, David Sedaris, Art Spiegelman, Taberna 1931, The Bill Evans Trio, Langston Hughes, Paolo Coelho, Huruki Murukami, The Urban Land Army.  And more.

This is the filagree that composes a person.  There is no one in the world who liked exactly the same things as Johnny.  And there never will be.

When the person becomes gone, the Likes and the Friends lose their life as well.  The thing that gave rise to the Likes and the Friends has gone away and in turn they have become a dry and intractable husk.

I remember decades ago a crazy Thanksgiving dinner we held in a small walkup apartment in Golden Hills in San Diego.  Anna and I weren’t married yet and a good handful of Meyerings were there and Johnny was too.  Anna’s high school English teacher came and left and got a DUI.  All the rest of us probably could have been in the same boat.  And Johnny was there, he had been studying Japanese.  He was looking youthful and handsome – he always, for as long as I knew him, looked youthful and handsome.  And his manner was funny and dry and he was as gentle and brilliant a person as I’ve ever known.

And that’s the weird part.  Even now, on this Memorial Day morning, I can feel him.  Which is to say that he had a feeling, a presence that was unique unto him.  No one else in this world ever has, nor ever will, feel like Johnny Meyering.  The feeling was so special.  And so precious.  And such a great gift to the world.

But we never recognize it in ourselves.  And we fail to understand that it will actually matter when it’s gone.

It’s so wrong.  And now nothing will ever bring him back.

That’s what I would tell him.

 

 

On being right

ImageThe strange thing about the South African revolution, I explain to my daughter this morning, was that it didn’t just occur in South Africa. Millions of people around the world, many of whom will never in their lives see Pretoria were part of the fall of apartheid. Who in the world of our generation was in some small way not part of Mandela?

Or so we like to believe.

I was part of the college class who, during our junior and senior year, saw the mushrooming of shanty towns in university plazas in 1986 and 1987.

I remember one particular moment (which my friend Patrick insists is apocryphal) in which a parade of students demanding that the university divest from South Africa, followed the tweedy university dean on his walk home. In loud unison they chanted, “You can’t run, you can’t hide! You’re responsible for genocide!”

Which in hindsight presents some interesting ironies. The dean was actually a super decent guy. A white man from the Northeast, as a young college student he had actively participated in the civil rights movement. His moral compass was dead on. He, like most people it seems, was trying to find his way through a difficult situation.

Beneath the long light of history, it turns out that we all may have been on the same side – students and university administrators, imprisoned ANC leaders and white Afrikaners . The time of apartheid was coming to an end. It was crumbling under the weight of it’s own injustice. And everyone was trying to find their way out of it given the cultural context in which they existed.

As the students erected wooden shacks, unbeknownst to them, the ANC and even Mandela himself was in secret negotiation with the Afrikaner National Party. As described in the wonderful New Yorker article, the Secret Revolution, his captors even escorted him out of prison on field trips so he could become reacquainted with South African society. Afrikaaner and ANC leaders went on covert outdoor retreats to become familiar with one another and lay a human foundation for the change that they all knew was to become.

As college students we understood the story. But we didn’t understand the whole story.

And on the other side, Fareed Zakaria, the head of the Yale Political Union (and now media pundit) consistently dismissed the protests. We have abandoned the politics of debate, he said repeatedly, for the politics of dance. He scoffed at the theatre of mock shanty towns and the riot of chants. Singing songs cannot replace informed debate, he argued.

He was right, of course. But not absolutely right.

The divestment movement, the protests, the refusal of the Oakland longshoremen to unload cargo ships arriving from South Africa, and yes, the anthology of songs and the dance – all contributed to the fall of apartheid.

If you are not included in the conversation, then you are forced to change the conversation. And if the very nature and arena for discourse excludes you, then you must change the arena. Government exercises power through courts and laws enshrined in civil and economic institutions, and racism and injustice can become encoded in those very laws and institutions. The conversation of the disenfranchised by definition must occur outside those civic channels. When you are frozen out of the conversation in the legislative chambers, then the conversation will continue outside in the language of the streets.

Listening to the news coverage of Mandela’s life, I’m struck by the volume of songs that were written about him. And its safe to say that change founded in joyful song stands a better chance than that founded in shouts of rage. In hindsight, it turns out the songs and the cascading melodies were part of the informed debate. People rallied to and around those songs. And thoose throngs placed unbearable moral pressure on those in power.

And lastly a story that is almost certainly apocryphal. After he was released from prison, Mandela had his study remodeled to the dimensions of his prison cell. He had lived there for decades and he apparently knew how to function in that environment. And ironically, outside of prison as he entered his elder years, he felt a loneliness that he perhaps had evaded in prison. Once you come to incarceration you learn that there’s only one true release.  And a few nights ago it was granted to him.

The Ache

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Benjamin Mermelstein had married Dora Mirowski. The Mirowski’s left their village of Bedzin in Poland near about 1880. There were at least a handful of Mirowskis who stayed behind. In 1939, many of them were photographed, their names inventoried and … Continue reading

Trochenbrod

trochenbrod 2In translation it means dry bread.

In the late summer of 1942, the Jewish ghetto was liquidated and the entire Jewish population of 3000 was murdered. Afterwards the village was set on fire. Less than 40 individuals survived.

Never in time will this place ever exist again.

 

 

Illumination

die mauerBefore the Wall fell, Anna and I once took a train across East Germany and Poland from Berlin to Moscow. But to get on that train, we needed first to get past a Dutch-German Intourist agent, Hendrik Grave who, it seemed, was the only one who could book us a berth, but in Berlin something went terribly wrong, the reservations were not complete, the seats unavailable. We would have to delay. But no problem. We would stay with Hendrik, he said. But instead he put us up in a friend’s flat, but that friend stole our luggage and so we were forced to remain with Hendrik day after day, waiting for something to happen.

And always the patter of Hendrik, telling us about Die Mauer, about the twisted psychology of Berliners, of the unfolding of life and of self-understanding. Driving through the streets of Berlin, Hendrik would proclaim apropos of nothing and everything, “All ist gut, All ist klaar.” And always referring to himself in third person, Hendrik, he said, would take care of everything.

Over the days his story unwound. How his father had been part of the SS and had been a Reich officer. Of how as a boy during the war, he was told that his mother had died and he was sent off to live with a relative. He grew up without mother and father. Nazi exultation. The Reich’s collapse. Loneliness. And then as an older boy, a woman appears. She holds him carefully outside his home. People tell him that this is his mother.

But how could this be his mother? She is dead. She died during the war. This is not his mother. He pushes away and runs. The strange horrid woman was a ghost. And if not a ghost, then the adults around him were monsters for telling such a lie.

How had a war neutered a generation from it’s past? Who was Hendrik’s family and what deeds and lies had they all perpetrated, he would ask.

One afternoon sitting in Hendrik’s flat, the golden midsummer’s light casts his sharp features and white mane of hair in profile. He listens to Mozart’s Requiem.  Turning the volume to full, he drains a glass of white wine, head tilted back. All ist gut, Hendrik  says, eyes shut. All ist klaar.

The Welling

mermelsteinAfternoon drive time and I’m talking to my college friend Danny as he commutes home from work in Baltimore.

At times people have confused us as brothers which has sometimes made us wonder how far apart we really were. Before family emigrations, how many days afoot separated our ancestral villages? It couldn’t have been much.  Enough of my family came from Poland and Russia and enough of his as well.  Lives and families cast vast to the winds. People move across the oceans. Children are born and people die. One hundred years later, the son of one family and the son of another ascend the stairs to the third floor suites in Silliman College to begin their freshmen year at Yale. They set down their bags, they catch sight of one another.  They sense a vague recognition.

Now, twenty five years later, I tell Danny about my ancestry experience and he provides the names of his paternal and maternal grandparents. That night I go online and enter names and birth dates. Family trees and homes and turn of the century censuses coalesce and link to family trees compiled by other people. Danny’s maternal grandfather, Benjamin Mermelstein emerges out of the fog. Years in Baltimore. Naturalization, emigration. Poland. The Ukraine.

It’s two in the morning in California on an autumn night. It hurts to stir the waters and have this debris surface. I sense these people welling up out of Poland and the Ukraine and the Belorus in the 1880′s. Something ungood was afoot and by some miracle, Danny’s kin and my kin sensed it. They registered a tidal pull and one way or another they decided that now, in this moment, it was time to go.

Documents appear that identify Danny’s ancestral home. And here I feel a pit in my stomach.

Benjamin Mermelstein came from the village of Trochenbrod.