About Andrew Lewis

I am alive. And well. And thinking too.

Day One Maui in 5 Conversations

We roll in yesterday, 36 hours little sleep trying to forge our way out of Sebastopol.  We stop for repast at a shrimp truck and lemonade stand on the side of the road outside of Kahului.  And then the slow meander over the saddle and up the coast to Lahaina.

We’re all gling glong. We grab a sixpack of bikini blonde and a stack of raw fish and settle in on the porch of the Lahaina Inn.  Nap and up to Ka’apalani to throw ourselves in the ocean at sunset.

What do I love about conversations?  They’re all fundamentally false. They’re basically stories that we tell one another.  And for the very same reason in the deepest sense they are absolutely true.

Conversation #1.  Ten at night at Cheeseburgers.  Surf crashing on the sand beneath us.  Sitting at the table next to us a guy, Del who grew up in the Fillmore in the sixties.  In Maui for the first time.  He’s been there for a week with his girlfriend who he flew out from Buffalo.  Come to San Francisco, he told her, and I’ll take you somewhere warm.   He lived for a long time in North Carolina working as a general contractor building golf course homes and then his ninety year old mom begins to slip away so he went back to San Francisco, back to the Fillmore with his boy, and then he was going to stay and take care of his mom and his wife was going to join them.  She shipped her stuff. And three weeks before she was to get on the plane she died.  He and his boy never saw her again.  Flash forward a year and his boy, seven years old, he sees his dad so sad, and he’s so sad,  he goes onto on online dating site (Seniors Dating dot Com) and he makes a profile for his dad and one night he goes up to him and he shows all these pictures of women and he’s weeping and he says “How ’bout that one, dad?  Or how bout that one?”  And together they set on a few and he calls this woman in Buffalo.  She has a couple grandkids of her own. She works the night shift in a tire factory and they talk every morning on the phone.  It’s been three years now. She’s come out twice before and now Hawai’i.  And we tell her he must like her a whole awful lot and she starts to laugh this big full laugh and she flashes her finger and asks, “Where’s the ring then?” And he starts to laugh and he looks to us and he laughs even harder and I suddenly feel happy for him and I feel happy for the world because without any further information  I trust what’s coming.

Conversation #2. 6:30 am  dawn breaking over the harbor.  I trudge to the coffee shack adjacent.  Espresso girl not there yet.  But they got drip.  Bank card thing not working yet.  You staying round here? the owner asks.  I nod my head next door. You can pay later, he says.

Conversation #3.  Anna and I running south on Front St, to get to the courthouse banyan tree and the beaches, and then up and over the curb plows a dude in a wheelchair, he has a stump of a leg, he’s attired in an immaculate vintage black suit and a pressed t-shirt with South Park style characters.  I turn back.  “Yo,” I say.  “Who’s on your shirt?”  Dude does a split quick pivot – his thin face gnarled and smiling and tweaked –  “Cheech and Chong,” he says.  “Cheech and Chong.”  “Where’d you get that shirt?” I asked.  “I saw it on a dude,” he said.  “And I said, ‘that’s my shirt.’  And he gave me the shirt.”  “That’s a good way to get a shirt,” I said.  We bumped fists and went our separate ways.

And I thought, this guy was  basically a peg leg pirate.  Except that he didn’t even have a peg leg.  He was blazing through Lahaina in a suit in a wheelchair and was about as empowered a person as I’ve ever seen.

Conversation #4.  We run along the breakwater, crowds lining up to board the whale watching excursion boats and we stop at the Hawaiian Ocean Project booth and have a word about Snubaing with Eric.

He struggles to be polite, but then confesses that he’s a free diver and he doesn’t particularly like the Snuba thing. You’re stuck in that 10-20 foot range, he tells us, and even as an experienced diver the breathing is kind of tweaky at that depth. You can’t really breathe until you go deeper.  Which of course leads to conversations about where we’re from.  He’s from Mill Valley, he says.  He use to own a string of car washes. Palo Alto, Marin, Fairfax, but he lost it all in the divorce. All of it? I ask.  All of it, he says with a full smile.  962 grand worth.  I said she could take it all if I could have custody of my boy.  And that’s what I got.  Day after the divorce, I went with my baby to the San Francisco Airport and asked when the next plane was leaving for Hawai’i.  Lady told me 12 hours.  I told her I wanted one one-way ticket and she handed it to me and I never looked back.

His son?  Healthy as an ox.  He surfs.  Grown up in the Caribbean,  Virgin Islands, Maui, this island, that island.  Sixteen years old, had an amazing life and he’s an amazing kid.  Still thinks his dad is as cool as his girlfriend.  And in all that time, not once has his mom asked to see him.  I got the better end of the deal, Eric says.

Conversation #5.  Walking past the boats to the beach and Anna spies a set of baby pigs all crated up.  They’re adorable. Picture twelve little Wilburs.    Three dudes standing dockside.  Where you taking them? Anna asks.  Moloka’i, one guy answers and nods to a pint size cat boat half the size of the Minnow.  Moloka’i? Anna asks.  Could we hop on?  We have a friend living there and plane fare is a hundred a piece, but it’s only 45 minutes by boat.  Could these guys take us there?  The three guys, nice guys, shrug and laugh.  It’s up to the captain. It’s his boat, one guy says.  Pigs though get priority seating.  Nice guys.  Would be a fun trip.   We go back to the hotel, grab an extra shirt and toothbrush.  Girl at the coffee shack says it’s kind of gnarly in Moloka’i.  We might have to hitch a boat to Lana’i and then take the ferry boat back from there.  Back dockside captain has shown up.  Tough dude.  As he should be.  It’s his boat.  The vessel and all manner of life and limb are under his command.  A hundred bucks, he says.  A fair price.  But not fair enough for us, knowing that we were shanghaiing ourselves and might not even make it back.  Some things best saved for another day.

Anguish

anguishA few days ago a friend asked if the ravens in my Facebook banner ( Albrecht Schenk’s painting ‘Anguish’ which now hangs in Melbourne) were “mean”, and generously offered that those black birds might work in solidarity with the lambs. I considered a quick reply, but held back. We know enough about ravens to know they beg no simple answers. And the seemingly simple question about ‘meanness’ is actually not so simple. It smacks a bit of “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” To which Dorothy frantically answers, “Why I’m no witch at all.”  She’s just Dorothy and she wants to go back to Kansas.

And then, of course, we are left with the not so small irony that for Dorothy to complete that journey back to the world of black and white, she must in turn become a slayer of very bad witches. Which of course makes her simultaneously both a bad witch as well as one who is good.

In the Middle Ages or perhaps even long before that, the raven was perceived as a portent of death, of imminent and profane destruction. When villagers would see a dark unkindness of ravens approaching on the horizon, they knew that the armies would soon follow. Ravens are omnivores, but most of all they are carrion birds. They dine on the dead. As well, they are sentient. They have sufficient cognition to recognize men bearing arms as armies. And that armies are for one thing: the making of death. The shedding of blood. The leavening of slaughter.

The Raven does not do the killing. But his arrival serves the advance warning. And then he bears witness. And here, at least in Schenk’s image, the unkindness evokes the sadness wedded to communion.

Whenever we eat, especially when we partake of bread and wine, we are taking the flesh and blood of the Host – of the sacrificial lamb – into our own bodies. In this act, we acknowledge our own complicity in his death, and the subsuming of his power, his humility, and his promise into our selves. In the Host’s death we find our own sanctification.

The raven was born to be a sentinel. And when there’s nothing left for which to be warned, the bird must fly so that it may dine on the burnt offerings. That is his task.

When I posted that banner image just after the election I actually wondered where in that picture I figured. And today I realize it is everywhere. I am at once the bleating ewe, the falling snow, the fallen lamb, and the raven in waiting.

Perhaps ask yourself where, if anywhere, do you find yourself in the image?

dine-on-fallenGermany, February 1945

After my family left Latvija in 1944, they walked across Poland and Germany a day at most ahead of the advancing Russian troops. They were accompanied by  family friends who in turn travelled with a wounded Russian soldier. His name is now lost, but the families valued him. Though disabled he had served as a kind of farmhand. He looked after the animals and he scavenged food and he did what he could to care for everyone. One day in Germany, under the Allied bombardment, he gathered potatoes that had fallen from train cars on the side of the tracks. He lost his footing and he fell down and was crushed by an oncoming locomotive. The train would have been bearing German soldiers, or food, or even the final bodies to be executed in Bergen Belsen.

In these days, especially in the smoke and mirrors and confusion of the last few weeks, it bears remembering that there can be a world in such chaos and moral ambiguity that one can be a victim even while dining on the fallen.


img_2809The German painter Gerhard Richter, born in 1932 on the eve of the burning of the Reichstag, would grow up in Dresden during the rise of National Socialism.  Distrusting the reality of received information, he would later say that “style is violence.”

What did he mean by this?  Style is ideology. And ideology, by definition, is visionary.  It is declarative and absolute. At an extreme, it depends on discounting or even silencing the opinion or worldview of others.

When we condemn entire classes of people with blanket words – terrorist, bad hombre, enemy of the people –  without any consideration for their discrete truths or histories and life stories, we deny the complexities of reality.  We deny fundamental humanity.

This is violence.

Authoritarian ideology frames the world in absolutes: A total disaster. A complete mess.  Police and society become militarized to ward off an impending and, more often then not, exaggerated or even fabricated danger.  The urban bourgeois become enemies.  People who are different, perhaps with darker skin or a foreign bearing, are framed as “an infestation.”

Mass spectacle replaces discourse and reasoned argument.

Authoritarian ideology begins by declaring outsiders or others as terrorists, foreigners, or criminal elements.  It leads to the infliction of suffering and, if left unchecked, unspeakable acts of violence.

img_2806This happens under a veil of social confusion, but also a tragic normalcy.  Heinrich Himmler himself, the architect of the Final Solution, actually considered himself to be a good father and a Good German.  He felt quite genuinely that he was restoring his culture by ridding it of an infestation, of other strange identities, of a decadent cancerous rot.

After the war, notions even as simple as “family” or “nation” or “good” become strangely indeterminate.  A fundamental distrust of the world and even language itself may be the hallmark of those whose understanding of reality has been shaped by authoritarianism.

What can we learn from the people who in other times fell inexorably under the sway of nationalist and exclusionary ideologies? Ideology and emotional or physical violence come at a cost. Who bears it and what does it look like?

We might turn to the enveloping canvasses of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born a few months before VE Day and the close of the war. While Richter came to us during the convulsive birthing of Nazism, Kiefer’s infant eyes received it’s horrible conclusion.

To sit with Kiefer’s pieces is to be swallowed whole in the terror of the rounding up and of the rousing of the dogs of war.

Kiefer’s mucked and unruly residue is the inevitable outcome of the pattering martial tattoo.  It’s the consequence of a seething resentful voice that declares that he will do something to North Korea, to Mosul, to Syria.  The world exists as a being that has wronged him.  And for this, he will inflict violence and war. He will eradicate his enemies, however he defines them, from the face of this earth.

img_2829In the presence of Kiefer’s paintings you immerse yourself in the ashen remains that are left after the blistering attack.

Have no illusions as to what it looks like and what will follow. There is nothing pretty, nothing kind nor valorous, nothing redemptive about it.

It is straw caked in black tar.  It is burnt feces.  Fields after a dark harvest, barren of life and able to offer no feeding. It is a world set ablaze.

The fields harrowed in the winter by tanks are sown in the spring with blood. Horses we are. Gaunt frames.  Ribbed chests exposed. Grown from this ground, we dine on dirt and broken straw.

grane_by_anselm_kiefer-_woodcut_with_paint_and_collage_on_paper_mounted_on_linin_museum_of_modern_art_new_york_city

img_2837And here, at last, we return to our raven.

In this case, the carrion bird’s leaden wing falls upon a burnt and destroyed landscape. And yet it offers a bleak shred of hope.

Is the Raven mean?

No.

He offers a bleak promise of regeneration;  of the alchemy that comes when he feeds on rotting flesh and transmutes ruined matter into language and dark winged flight.

After the murdering has been had, the very sad truth is that there’s nothing more that can be done.  Nothing will bring back the dead.

The Romanian poet, Paul Celan survived the invasion of his country by the Soviets in 1940 and in 1941 the butchering of the Jews of Cernauti by the German Einsatzkommando.  In his poem Todefuge, he would later write

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.

img_2813Yes, we can and should try to stop it.  I would really like for the ravens to join with the lambs.  And in a sense they do.  They fly ahead of the advancing armies and their squawk fills the air as if to say, “Please. Listen.  Bad things are afoot.  Fight or flee, the days are numbered.”

And if there’s no listening, then the birds are left only to bear witness.

 

 

 

img_2841In Keifer’s Sulamith, the artist leads us to the entrance of the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers.  But this hall, designed by the Nazi architect Wilhelm Kreis and intended to commemorate the perpetrator, under Kiefer’s hand instead transmutes into the terminus of the iron track and the burning flames of the oven.

We find ourselves descending into hell.

“What would you do in this moment? Would you turn away from something so dark?  Or would you intercede? Would you have the strength to gaze deeper and to feel it?”

Kiefer’s expressionism and experimentation of form is neither decadent nor abstract, but rather cemented in an amorality and horror unlike any the world has ever seen. Even more disturbing, it emerged in the very cradle of modernity, in a technologically advanced Western democracy not dissimilar from our own.

img_2818A Holocaust is not necessarily savagery in a some other savage place, but quite the opposite: savagery wrought by us. Richter perhaps challenges us to detect the darkness and violence inherent in the seemingly placid sea.

To experience Kiefer and Richter, one can learn from a generation forced to ask where their parents or even they themselves were when these things happened.  How could they stand by and tacitly allow others to be hurt?   What did they fear?  What did they have to gain?  How did they not see it coming?  How did they come to believe the propaganda?

Where do you find yourself in the picture?


When presented with Gerhard Richter’s Lesende (The Reader), the German writer Luisa Beck asks who is this girl?  And what does she have to offer?

Beck’s answer?  She is a German. And she is us. And the look on her face betrays something important. That inhumanity can be born from and live commensurate with normalcy.  As with our relationship to the raven, if ungood comes to pass and if we survive it, what will be our relationship to this girl?  If we ourselves become war borne, how will we reconcile our own inhumanity with this profile and with this face, so lovely and so hardened?

img_2804

And This is Why

img_2756

Today I sit in a coffee bar in San Francisco. It’s evening in the Lower Haight.

Today I turn 52.

History’s anodyne gaze renders all things banal. To the future: this is what the face of imminent horror may look like.

Today, on this day, leak sources reveal that the administration was in communication with Russian intelligence for months before the election.

This week, a spokesman for the President stated that the powers of the President are substantial and are not to be questioned.

The President himself accuses those who leak information of being guilty of treason.

In a news conference he refuses to take questions from established media sources. He categorizes Palestinians as hateful violent people. He threatens darkly that we will crack down on criminal elements and make America great again.

He accuses anybody who speaks against him as being a purveyor of fake news.

On this day I turn 52.

—-

I was 17 when my mom turned 52. Alone and long widowed, in that moment she thought that her life was over.

A few years earlier she had told me that she would kill herself on my 18th birthday, because then her filial and parental duties would be over.

As events would have it, she wasn’t too far off her mark.

But she’d crumbled long before that. The mother I’d known since I was six or seven would sleep most of the day. She would not cook or clean house. For many days or weeks growing up, she would simply be gone. My brother and I would fend for ourselves as best we could.

It was the only life I knew. And I never thought to ask why it was or if perhaps it could have been any different.

It took years of maturation before I would have the wherewithal to even seek an explanation. What could have possibly left a once brilliant and vivacious woman, so disabled and so damaged that at such a young age she could imagine no future for herself?

It’s taken a lot of excavation over a lot of years to find the answers.

In 1989 I sat in a nursing home with the shell of that poor woman. Her skull was indented from a frontal lobotomy. She didn’t have many words then. She sat in a breezeway in a nursing home, a Time magazine in her lap, the cover showing bodies in Tainanmen Square. I found her crying and I asked what was the matter. Because this happened in my country, she said.

It took a quarter of a century for me to learn something of what she meant. She was a war child. She was born in 1930 and the only conscious life she knew until she was 20 was under the dark shadow of authoritarianism.

The man in the White House talks about carnage in America. But he does not know carnage. And I fear that the true carnage may be the one which he and his cohort threaten in word and deed to bring upon us.

Carnage is the tactical unleashing of the fear of the other, of declarations that we must be afraid and that we are under threat of terror.

Carnage is the disintegration and dismemberment of civic institutions.

Carnage is the consenting transfer of power from the body politic to a small cadre of individuals.

Carnage is to have your neighbors, and inexorably you yourself, declared an enemy.

Carnage is to declare war in order to consolidate power over a people.

Carnage is having your childhood playmates and their families loaded in trucks and then onto trains and then carried away to points eastward.

Carnage is having 143 men, women, and children – residents of your village – receive dispensation with a bullet to the head.

Carnage is eating bread baked of sawdust and straw.

Carnage is to know insufferable cold and hunger.

Carnage is to smell for months on end the toxic stench of rotting flesh and burning rubber and powder and fire.

Carnage is seeing the bloated bodies of deserters hanging in trees because they were traitors.

Carnage is to have no home to which you may return; having no country for to call your own.

Carnage then, is to experience such loss, that you for the remainder of your life can see no future and you become paralyzed by the very processes of living.

—-

The lived experience of that carnage, if not the memory itself, is passed on to the descendent. You find yourself risk averse. Or perhaps strangely paralyzed when it comes to the most basic decisions – even the most petty can result in life or death. You question the reliability and certitude of all things – relationships or even the persistence of our own democracy.

You grow up hungry, and you learn to double or triple down when food is presented. You look for brake lights, not just in the car in front, but three cars ahead. You bolt at explosions and loud noises. You awaken in the middle of the night with an undefinable dread.

And even when the administration appears to be in chaos and in threat of toppling, you know better.  You know that the deranged beast, when wounded, is in fact the most dangerous.  And that it will unleash a fury with which there is no reckoning, that we will be at war within months.

I asked folks on Facebook this morning to read and perhaps share the following interview of historian Timothy Snyder. It suggests only obliquely the surreal horrors that my mother and her generation knew. And here, now, 75 years distant from those shadows, I feel we are not safe, that the demons will yet be visited upon us.

Perhaps more than anything else, the circumstances and events described by Timothy Snyder give shape to who I am today.

And this is why, for your pleasure or perhaps only my own, I want people to read what he has to say, today, on the day that I turn 52.

Today, on this day, I don’t want the horror and grave sadness lived by the woman who brought me into this world to have been for naught and vain.

Today I can brook no quarter with this administration and the currents which they are stirring.

Not on my watch.

latvija-1930s-19a

Walking the Line

In their recent report on global wealth distribution, OXFAM International revealed that in 2016, eight individuals held the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity.

What does that look like on an a properly scaled graph?

It turns out that chart is actually impossible to find. And for good reason.

Not only does it not even fit on a sheet of paper, it doesn’t even fit on the planet Earth.

But lets try and imagine. Grab yourself a pencil and make a pencil point dot.  The width of that dot represents one person.  The height: one US dollar.

Now imagine a line that basically stretches all the way from San Francisco to Lincoln, Nebraska.  That 1500 mile line contains the number of pencil dots that would represent all of the 4.8 billion adults on the planet.

For the first 180 miles of dots – all the way to the Sierra Mountains, the line basically doesn’t exist. These dots have nothing.  For the next 600 miles, the line is a couple inches wide and eventually a couple feet thick. Most of those folks in the first half of humanity are worth less than a thousand bucks a piece.

In case you’re wondering, if you’re a newly minted millionaire, you’re way near the end, somewhere in the burbs, about eight miles outside of downtown Lincoln.  And your line of dollars?  It’s somewhat less then the height of the Worlds Trade Center.

The line continues at about that height essentially until we get to the last 3/8ths of an inch of the 1500 miles.  That last little itsy bitsy bit is the width of pencil. These folks, keep in mind are eight miles away from the new millionaire, and (keep in mind, he’s just a dot) way out of sight.  That 3/8ths of an inch consists of just 8 people.

Now. As for the very last two pencil points, how high are their lines?

This is where it gets really crazy.

Mount Everest?   5 1/2 miles high. The highest jump from space?  Twenty-six miles by Google VP, Dr. Alan Eustace.  The orbit of the space station?  248 miles above the surface of the earth.

But the wealth of the two richest men on earth?  Get this. Those pencil dots representing each of their dollars side by side would extend 22,059 miles into space.

As for the eight guys?  Their amount of pencil lead in the last 3/8ths of an inch would equal all the pencil lead representing all the wealth owned by all the dots in the line stretching from San Francisco to the border of Wyoming.

.

And now, whoever’s reading, pretty much all of you, you can basically stop. Because at this point it might make sense to narrow this audience to just the last eight guys (and they are all guys). They’re all pretty smart and, as far as I know, pretty good folks.

Bill, Amancio, Warren, Carlos, Jeff, Mark, Larry, and Michael, here are four questions:

1. Is this necessary?

2. Is it moral and just?

3. Is it effective and efficient?

4. Is it stable and safe?

And now a fifth question.  Based on your answers to the first four, does the disparity matter, and what would you each propose we do about it?

The New Colossus

hot-on-flag As broadcast on KQED.

On Saturday, Market Street overflowed with more than a hundred thousand undaunted people. That night, one thing above all became abundantly clear.

Both civil and profane, the sound encompassed both the lady’s diction and the withering honesty of the nasty woman. Yet it was far more than that. Around the country the air carried the voice of a manifold population gathered from all manner of lived experience.

This was not the voice of me above you. Nor was it the voice of “I”. Nor “Them” against “Those”. It was the voice of “Us” demarcated neither by gender, nor age, nor geography. It spoke to what America truly is. We are strong not because we are this thing or that thing. We are strong because we are Every Thing.

In 1883 the poet Emma Lazarus wrote the words now inscribed in New York Harbor, describing that New Colossus. She towers not like a brazen giant, but “a mighty woman whose flame is imprisoned lightening, and her name, the Mother of Exiles.”

We also know her as Liberty.

She shrinks neither from fear nor the immensity of her challenge.

Send these, the tempest-tost to me, she asks. And she embraces them with a mother’s arm. This act that might speak of weakness becomes our greatest strength and reveals a moral wealth that casts shame on any gilded tower.

It rests in the belief that there can exist a nation able to accommodate all manner of creed and idea. In this way, the many, so different, can become a resolute and indivisible One.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

partridge-pear-treeAs broadcast on KQED

On a recent rainy morning, I was decorating a particular tree — the one that represents that great Tree of Life — and I paused to consider how many presents my true love gave to me.

It’s a simple problem, really. One partridge, plus two turtle doves, plus three French hens: It’s basically the summation of an arithmetic series and there’s a simple formula for it.

That formula is sometimes tied to the great 19th century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. One day when he was a young boy, his school master was feeling particularly cruel and he asked the class to total all the numbers from 1 to 100. So the class set to scribbling, 1+2+3 etc.

But Gauss noticed something. He saw that you can break the one hundred numbers into fifty pairs: 1+100, 2+99 and so on. Basically you have fifty 101s. Fifty times 101 is 5050.

Bingo.

Gauss walked up to the teacher and lay down the sum.

“There it lies,” he said.

Class over.

So what’s this story really about? It’s not so much about math but about tyranny, about an insecure schoolmaster working in a subject that may have far exceeded his reach. In reaction, he bullied those around him.

But by using his powers of thought, Gauss was able to resist.

There are perhaps two ways to vanquish tyranny or the threat there of. The first may be the generosity of Christ, that very thing that we celebrate in the Christmastide; the power to give and love in the face of selfishness and greed.

And if that fails? Well, on the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 78 presents, the last of which was a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

The Lord on High, in concert with one of his lesser Angels, gave us life and within that life the power to reason. With that gift may joy prevail, and may all manner of ignorance be defeated.

Gratitude

These are the things for which I am grateful today.

I am grateful that I have a home and that I am warm.

I am grateful that I have Facebook friends who could laugh at me and cheer me on yesterday as I crawled home with an injured back.

I am grateful for a long suffering partner who brought me a cup of hot chocolate this afternoon.

I am separately grateful for the milk and for the chocolate.

I am grateful for my daughter who hung a Santa Rosa marathon medallion around my neck as I lay immobile on the floor.

I am grateful to have two pillows to tuck between my knees and one behind my head.

I am grateful to have windows that allow me to see the fog and the sunlight and tonight’s epic moon.

I am grateful to Kaiser Permanente for their excellent back care videos.

I am grateful to have hot water and to have a shower with walls so that I can stand and brace myself.

I am grateful to have high speed internet so that while I’ve lay prone, I’ve been able watch no small number of documentaries about the European theatre in World War II.

I am grateful to the persons who perhaps without any foresight of the future shot film and took pictures and wrote words so that three quarters of a century later we have evidence of all the things great and terrible that occurred.

I am grateful to have guidance for what may come.

I am grateful to the mathematicians of Bletchley Park who broke and broke again the Enigma code so that we could keep open the American maritime supply lines to Britain.

I’m grateful to Alan Turing for imagining the impossible.

I am grateful to the ruthless Germans who invaded my mother’s country.  If it were not for them, I would not be here today.

I am grateful to the ruthless Soviet troops who brought an end to the Third Reich and in the process chased my family all the way to the Elbe.  If it were not for them I would not be here today.

 

I am grateful to each and every one of the boys who fell from the sky on the dawn of June 6th, 1944 across the hedgerows of the Cotentin Penninsula.  If it were not for them, I would not be here today.

I am grateful for my thrown out back that gives me cause to be.  And the aching back that affords a moment to be grateful.

Why I Should Be President

I would like to ask for your vote as I run for President of this Fair Land.

I believe in our most core values.

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And I too have been known for making unwanted advances on beautiful women.

 

I also have been victimized by the rigged and corrupt legal system.

 

In the past I have associated with cruel and malicious despots.

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And yet I get along famously with the common man.

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I am firmly grounded in reality.

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And I am well read.

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I have a sound platform founded in consistent and thoughtful policy.

 

I am not opposed to the right kind of Muslims.

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And most importantly, I have always stood by Native Americans.

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May we all join hands together in our journey to make this Land great again.

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Winning

Anna and I are losers.

And we don’t want to be losers.

We want to be winners.

And you can’t be a winner if you don’t play the game.

So last night we took up Safeway Monopoly.

We bought 24 cans of Friskies cat food for our dying cat.

And we got 48 Safeway Monopoly tickets.  Safeway tells me that if I just buy enough Friskies and Poptarts, we’re going to be winners.  We’re going to win a million dollars.  And a big TV.  And lots of other stuff.

Last night we spent one hour tearing and sorting and pasting.  Now the Lewis family is running the table.

Because in the end we won 6 more tickets.  And so we’re going back to Safeway to buy some more stuff and get even more tickets.  And it’s just going to get better.

We’re going to be winners.  And you can be a winner, too.  You and all of our country will no longer be losers and the rest of the world will stop laughing at us.

In a few more days, I’m nailing Park Place.  And I’ll have my Dawn Dishwashing Soap.

And you just wait and watch as I build me my Trump Towers.

Super. Tuesday.

 A reminder on the cusp of a perhaps grave and auspicious day.

85 years ago, they were a silly and disregarded minority.  People chuckled at the circus antics, the self-infatuation, narcissism, and obscenely transparent self-glorification.

The beset people who first joined on to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) believed in a united country, promotion of nativist values, and the expulsion of minority populations who posed a perceived threat.

But for years, the vast majority of the country paid little attention.  Initially these small crowds of cheering admirers were nobodies.  Routinely arrested for civic disturbances, laughed at for their absurd fanaticism, they would amount to nothing.  And then Goebbels discovered that spectacles and calls to violence brought them attention.  And the attention brought them more crowds.  And the crowds brought them power.

And then one day, that silly minority became a grudging, then an accepting, and then an excited plurality.  More respectable ones joined because it would help them get what they wanted. And it would help them retain power.  They couldn’t stop it. And so they joined it.

And then no one was laughing any more.

 

Terrace Cafe at Night

IMG_8659In my imagined heaven (unlike the fundamentalist heaven muddled in moral condemnation) van Gogh, along with Rothko and Francis Bacon, while away the mornings appreciating and talking about color.

But for now you’re not yet in heaven.

Instead it’s a warm September evening in 1888.  You still sit on a stool in the Place to Forum glancing to the south down the Rue de Palais in the town of Arles.  Your paint brush dips all over that lead and chromium palette.  The constellations of Perseus and Andromeda shimmer in the sky wedged above the narrow alley: although you capture them imperfectly, some life forms long extinct once unknowingly cast their own eyes toward your future visage that would receive them.

As for us, you remain anchored in a world of substance while I hover in the immaterial world that has not yet come to be.  The street is filled with ghosts, future and past and present, and perhaps you find our presence claustrophobic.  The film between us remains impermeable.  We will never touch.

A blue cloaked waiter ferries glasses of Lillet.  A woman cloaked in a thin coat crosses the street with her husband. None of them pay any heed to you. You’re nearly as invisible as I.  But if not for you, their even now scant mark on history would be lost forever. If they’d known, they might have interceded or perhaps offered corrections.

But the crowd thins until it is just you and I. You are tired.  You will be dead within a year.  And people will champion you and fight over you for a very very long time.  You will ignite passion and fury much like the first wandering preacher.  But if the truth be, I wouldn’t even be here with you on this night but for that odd portal you created with a bit of oil and pigment brushed on to a tightly stretched piece of fabric. Tired yet exultant, you pack up your oils in a wooden box and set to walk home.  You carry a canvas, the paint still sticky and wet.  I follow.  You can’t see me and you never will.

All the same, I would just like you to know.

On the Act of Puzzling

Here’s the great irony.

The puzzle really only exists in the moment of puzzling; once you place the piece with that satisfying click, the puzzle ceases to exist.

We generate joy more from the act of figuring outthan from the solution itself.

The mind of God must indeed be a desultory place where the unknown unknown does not at all exist.

By definition, serendipity cannot exist in a world without surprises.

I imagined this area to be a thick strap of black dotted with specks of canvas.

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Instead, why look what shone from the walls that night.

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And for better or worse, once the world becomes known, it’s very very hard to regain the bliss of ignorance and innocence.

 

Puzzling Color

Now about that yellow.

IMG_8638It turns out that it wasn’t really yellow at all.  It was anything but yellow.  Canary, mustard, gold, fire orange, caramel, honey.  All the hues were in there.  But when broken apart, all the eye really detected was yellow.  And only with close observations could you parse out the discrete shades, and only with reassembly did it make sense.

Van Gogh obsessed over color.  He was drawn to it emotionally and as a line of inquiry that he explored in his bountiful letters to his brother Theo and sister Wilhemena.  What color, really, is the night?  How do colors give rise to emotion and thought?  What effect do complementary and countervailing colors have on one another?

You can sense in Van Gogh’s writing how even his bold application of paint fell far short of what he saw. Describing the night sky above the Mediterranean, he wrote of how it was “flicked with clouds of a blue deeper than the fundamental blue and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way.  On the blue depths, the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, rose, brighter, flashing more like jewels than they do even in Paris.”

IMG_8640Despite his struggle to accurately render that perceived world, his emerging fields of yellow and blue  also reveal how Van Gogh prefigured the pure abstract expressionism that in 80 years would follow.

Van Gogh, however, still clung to object, both as representational object (this is this) and as signifier (this means that).  We still have our stars, our sowers, our reapers, our ravens, our sunflowers.  But you can sense him wanting to break free from object bound so that he could freely exist in jet black, flax, dandelion, and citron, or in the physicality of brush strokes and the thick globs of paint itself.

mark-rothko-untitledI imagine the Dutchman would have had quite animated and affirming conversations with the Latvian Mark Rothko.

I picture Vincent and Mark huddled in the chapel in Houston, their conversation tugging back and forth on the charcoal and gray and metallic black, Van Gogh calling for an interjection of violet and olive.  And can you maintain the emotional content without referencing a physical form (the flash of a bird wing, the grimace of teeth, the wind bent sheaf)?

 

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And the conversations with Piet Mondrian might have summoned frustration.

For the tempermental Van Gogh, color wedded with object could be a conduit for emotion.  Rothko decoupled color from object to achieve the same effect.  And Mondrian did so with the opposite intent, allowing color to exist in some cerebral platonic form.

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The painter of the future, Van Gogh once wrote to Theo, will be such a colourist as has yet ever been.  I wonder if he would have found further ecstasy, and perhaps even peace and rest, within Turrell: pure color at last untethered from the brush stroke and form itself.

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Puzzle Solutions

Yesterday our friend Carrie sent over some photos of her puzzles inside her puzzle room.

IMG_2205A couple of observations:

  1. She has a puzzle room.
  2. She has lots of cool puzzles.

Clearly Carrie is one of the one percenters of Puzzledom.

Those vying to become our leader agree on few things.  And in these strange and fearful times, they present even fewer options.

  1. I can vote for Donny and then I will become a winner so that one day I can have a puzzle room and lots of cool puzzles of my own.
  2. I can vote for Bernie in which case we will seize Carrie’s puzzle room and puzzles and redistribute them to all the other citizens in the land of Puzzledom. (BTW, if this happens, I call dibs on the 4D puzzle of San Francisco.)
  3. I can vote for Teddy, but then only God knows what will happen (and I mean his own particular God which doesn’t include all the other Gods floating around out there.)
  4. I can vote for Hilary which will result in Carrie keeping her puzzle room and puzzles and me keeping mine and Puzzledom will muddle along much as it always has.

There is, of course, the option presented by another friend, Mary Anne, who sent over an image of her recently completed puzzle of the door to Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews studio in Kensington.

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Mary Anne presently lives in Scotland. In her world they will one day declare independence and establish their own self-governing Puzzledom in which they will drink Scotch, do drunken imitations of Scotty from Star Trek and while away the long dark evenings puzzling wistfully at Bacon’s door.

It doesn’t sound too bad at all.

Peace through Strength

Friday night all hell broke loose.

The chaos began when Mazie lay down on the puzzle field.

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Later that night she and Anna staged an insurrection and suspended all rules.  They fumbled around with pieces.  They tried to place pieces that lay outside the border.  They worked all helter skelter on one little area and then another little area and then another without any rhyme or reason.

IMG_8566Yesterday morning I instituted martial law.  All rules reinstated plus an additional 5th:  You were allowed to place three pieces and then had to walk away.

Last night we happily listened to the Republican debate as the cafe slowly came into focus.  I learned last night that a civil society can only prevail in these fearful times through strength and waterboarding and things far worse.

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Faith

The Jehovah Witnesses just came to my door.

Which is not all that remarkable.  I was nice to them once and so they now come pretty regularly.

And since that first time, it always seems to be at the wrong moment:  I’m under deadline, preoccupied, sad, dealing with the catastrophe of the moment.  Today I happened to be sick and coughing and in no mood to have a conversation.

Some days I hastily answer the door and shoo them away.  Other times I cower in a back room, peeking out the window until I see t
hem drive off.

What gets me though is how they just keep showing up.

I page through this month’s edition of “Awake!”.    There’s a delightful three paragraph article about Liechtenstein where perhaps one day I might visit.  I see a picture of Käsknöpfle, a dish that Liechtensteinians apparently like to eat.  The photo of the cheesy onion pasta makes me feel hungry.

I take a quiz on what Jehovah Witnesses believe and get half the answers wrong.  There’s an article about staying positive.  And another on how to make real friends.  Looking at the photographs I feel safe and happy.

Once while teaching Sunday School my Uncle Eriks asked the young children to define faith.

“Faith,” answered one young boy, “is believing in something that you know not to be true.”

Do these adherents believe that one day I shall invite them in and we will discuss God over tea?  True faith, indeed.

Or do they believe that even if I never answer their call, the Lord’s will shall be wrought simply by knocking on the door, that the knock itself is the instrument of God?

Now that is a different order of Faith entirely.

Tonight I invite you all to make Käsknöpfle.

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More Puzzling

It’s hard to make sense of them big masses of color.  When you’re in a sea of yellow, there is only yellow.  And if you exist in a sea of blue, only blue.

It helps to course the boundary between the two.  And certainly the painter himself was drawn to these areas.  As you reassemble the disaggregated color, you become more aware of all the vertical and diagonal lines he dashed out cutting between light and  dark.

And once you’ve spent enough time exploring these areas, it’s easier to dive into the small blotches of color that previously warranted no attention.

Take the green for example.  Easy enough to pick out the few laurel pieces.

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And Wa-la!  A small part of the world has been made whole again.

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I should confess at this point that I’m a bit of a puzzle Nazi.  Here are the rules:

  1.  Once pieces are on the table, no looking at the box.  Ever.  Life is much more fun when it’s a mystery and you have little idea where you’re heading.
  2. Don’t touch a piece unless you know exactly where it will fit.  This leads to lots of slow pondering and a lot less fumbling.  Plus you get the satisfying click when you seize a piece and snap it neatly into place.
  3. If you’re wrong, session ends.  You walk away.  Allows you to retrieve yourself from lost afternoons and lost lives fixating on the wrong thing. (I have to admit, I don’t always abide by this).  Sometimes it’s superseded by rule #4.
  4. Well, if you insist.  If a piece doesn’t fit, you have to hold onto it and within a reasonable amount of time find it’s rightful home.  If you don’t, you’re out.  If you do, you get a pass.

And then this kicker that I just made up:

5. Only use the pieces within the frame.  Few of us start with a full deck.  So we make do with what we got.  In this case a third of the pieces are outside the puzzle frame.  But I’ll soldier on, using only what I have at my disposal.

As you can imagine, these rules may well explain why I don’t have many friends.

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Puzzles

I like the process because it affords that chance so rarely available in a gallery or museum or even in every day life.

You end up sitting with a masterwork for a very long time and you’re given that rare opportunity to puzzle over the individual brushstrokes and minuscule bits of paint and broad swatches of color disaggregated from any image at all.  You sit with those brushstrokes (or at least the shadow of their facsimile) for days and days and days.

In doing so the obvious becomes, well, obvious.  As does the genius.

First, of course, we seek the boundary.

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Many of us begin by finding the edge pieces.  They’re easy to locate. But they also transform an infinite sprawling mess into something finite and perhaps apprehensible.

We want to declare order and somehow bound the chaos.

Secondly the sandstorm of color is not really that chaotic at all.

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We detect clear patterns.

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Most magnetic and appealing of all burns that mass of of complexly layered yellow and mustard.

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As well the eye and fingers are drawn to the countervailing mass of blue and darkness.

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These two palettes beyond all else seem to dominate.

But there’s that third muddled mess of pastel reflections of the light and darkness, more muted and intertwined.

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And then perhaps you notice that the darkness is not black. It’s violet and blue and umber and pitchy turquoise if there were such a thing.  And scintillating pulsing points of light, more bright and piercing than the warm ochre and mustard and tangerine, punctuate the darkness.

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The darkness is not dark at all, I tell my wife.

But it was, she countered.  For him it was.

I differ.  I still don’t believe it was the darkness that did him in.  Instead, perhaps, it was his perceived inability to render that darkness, to make it as manifest and material and dimensional as he himself saw it.

In his case the brushstrokes themselves mattered most of all.  Perhaps he no longer believed in those brushstrokes.  Or perhaps the loneliness inherent in their execution were too much to bear.

 

On Running

A couple days ago I ran from Burlington (almost) to Huntington (almost).  I’d hoped to make it all the way to the Fielder place, but such as it was.

Along the way I reencountered some wonderful things about Vermont, not the least of which was this:  Of the perhaps five hundred oncoming cars that passed me that day, 95% of them dropped their speed by at least 20 mph.  Many didn’t just straddle the yellow line, they swung way left of center.  And everyone waved.

We call that a civil society.  I have a lot of metal around me and am driving fast. You’re just in your shorts and t-shirt and are plodding along on the side of the road.  Don’t worry.  I’m going to watch your back.  And we’re going to connect as human beings.  And even though we’ll never see each other again in our lives, the world will be richer for that moment.

Which brings me to another great thing about Vermont.  Call it Bernie Sanders.

On Saturday we swung by 131 Church Street.  We got some bumper stickers and a t-shirt. And we wrote our small check, making a small pre-election tithe to the democratic process.

Nearly every pundit qualifies with “he has no chance of winning” as if to say honesty sports a zero chance in hell.

But that’s what a lot of people still don’t get about Vermont. This place is about the unlikely and the fiercely independent prevailing over all.  Just wait.  Bernie’s going to show some legs and I have little doubt a lot of folks will be left eating dust.

Why do I support him?

1.  Someone needs to dope slap the Clinton campaign.  Hilary will never ever listen to me.  Not in a million years.  I’m just a citizen.  But there’s a very slight chance she might need to respond to Bernie.

2.  In this country leaders are not supposed to be anointed.  We elect them.  Let’s put Hilary through an election.

3.  I don’t know if he would make a good President.  But I have no doubt he will make an outstanding candidate.  He’ll broaden the debate.  He’ll say the uncommon.  He will speak. And to the best of his ability he will speak the truth.

4.  I long for a candidate who will not descend into the gutter of negative campaigning.

5.  I want someone who will stand for something and very clearly tell us what that thing is.

6.  In this state, even Fred Tuttle counts for something.  And like it or not, he wins.

In Vermont, come Town Meeting Day, a lot of things fly.  And sometimes even the unlikely prevails, no matter how humble or homely or off beat the speaker.  As long as the idea is voiced with respect.  And it honors thy neighbor. And it’s truthful.  And it makes sense.

This election season we all may be surprised at how many hunger for this.

The Ticket Office

GDticket officeThis is not a big one. But it’s kind of funny.

Four weeks ago I sent off my set of envelopes, 3×5 cards enclosed, ticket requests numbered on the outside of the envelope, multiple postal money orders (no others accepted) enclosed within to the Grateful Dead Ticket Office in Stinson Beach. I wasn’t alone. That morning in Sebastopol four other people were doing the exact same thing in the few minutes I was there. The lines at the Chicago post offices stretched out the door.

And that was just the beginning. Within a few days, 350,000 ticket requests were received in the tiny Stinson Beach post office (which in a typical day might receive a couple thousand letters). The total number of tickets available for the three 4th of July shows is probably around 180,000.

Articles about the one person (Yes. One person.) GD ticket office appeared in the Wall Street Journal and SF Gate.

In the course of two to three days, nearly $70 million dollars in cash flooded into that PO Box. Needless to say, I and my pack of friends received nada. Online presales were cancelled as they struggled to figure out how to accommodate more people. And the package tickets going on sale later in the month are creeping up in price.

That’s cool. It tickles to be part of the zeitgeist. It was nice to have one last opportunity to tuck a 3×5 card and a prayer into an envelope and hope for the best. And just the thought of a Wonka ticket was enough (I still remember when our tickets to the 1991 New Year’s shows, all beautiful in their large purple sparkly glory, arrived in the mail).

And now comes the looming fore and aftermath.

Are you going for the Sunshine Daydream Hotel Package ($2200) or Steal Your Face ($4600)? Renaissance Hotel or the Hyatt? I actually don’t mind the prices – the Stones were running a lot more – and at this stage there’s little room to complain about staying in a fancy hotel. I’m sure Mickey Hart isn’t sleeping in a van. Besides, a lot of the boomers are in the process of cashing in what remains of their 401(k)s. And lastly, it’s not like we’re actually going to see the Dead. If we do see actually get into Soldier’s Field, what we will hopefully kind of get is the memory of the Dead and a last hurrah before an ever growing number of us actually become Dead.

Which kind of makes the comments on the ticket site a little funny.  Folks are talking as if they’ll just mosey onto Ticketmaster sometime on the morning of February 27th, submit their orders and call it a day.

Let’s just say, that probably won’t happen.  Picture several hundred thousand (perhaps over a million) individuals (and lets not even count the bots) trying to simultaneously score one of 50,000 $59 seats.

I can’t see it.

And the bottom rack hotel package deals ($1600)?  Count those as already gone.  And the $6000 VIP packages that come with catered food and a private tent?  Let’s just say that there’s a lot of money being minted in the Bay Area right now.  For enough folks it’s chump change.  Just count the Teslas while you’re driving around shopping  for an affordable apartment.

The best comments are from the folks exuberantly announcing they’re not even going to mess with hotels.  They’re camping.

Yep.  And I understand it.  Whenever I get the urge to pitch a tent and rough it for a few days, I ponder for a few moments and then think, “Hey!  How ’bout downtown Chicago!”

I know, I know.  There’s the parking lot.  But if anyone has a moment, take a look at the footprint.  And then note the 8 story parking garage adjacent.  Yeah.  That’s where the bulk of the people park at Soldier’s Field.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all head to Chicago.  The Field Museum has a lot to offer.  Chicago dogs by the dozen.  The fireworks over the lake will be spectacular.  The parking lot scene will always be the parking lot.

And we’re doing it not for just a spot of music. We’re doing it because we loved them. And we loved what they came to mean for us.  And because a half million of tie dye strong, young and old, freaks every one, will be wandering the Loop marveling over how wild the Trip really has been.

Je Suis

je suis press
Three hostage takers and at least sixteen victims dead. A young woman still in hiding. Carnage mounts.

Around the world we see the placards “Je Suis Charlie”.

And also another viral message: “Je suis Ahmed” honoring Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer gunned down while standing guard at the Charlie Hegbo offices.

Consider it a first step in honoring the larger community of victims in this week’s tragedy. But do these events demand an even more encompassing empathy?

The two initial perpetrators Cherif and Said Kouachi have been described as radical islamists. And yet clerics have also come out against the two assassins, condemning their acts as contrary to Islam.

In the case of the Kouachi brothers, another fact stands out.

Abandoned by their parents at an early age, they grew up as orphans in foster care.

And as with so many orphaned children, it may not be so much that they hated, but that they never learned to love.

Foster children and those raised without parents often exhibit a complex set of behaviors. They harbor distrust and disassociation from a world that has abandoned them. With little connection to a larger community, they are sometimes drawn toward criminal activity and the margins of society. The most severely orphaned lack emotional connection and empathy. In the case of the Kouachi’s adrift on the boundaries of Parisian society, they grew into petty criminals and became the perfect target for jihadists. The abandoned are often left to replicate the wound which may never be healed. Wanting for a higher purpose, they only needed to be activated.

Victims often beget other victims.

Extremism may be a crisis of the heart. In this way perhaps Descarte derailed us. It may not be so accurate to say “Je pense, donc je suis” – I think, therefore I am. More fitting, perhaps, “I feel, therefore I am.”

It’s easy to categorize some men as monsters. But to what extent are we all complicit even in the smallest way in creating the conditions that breed horror? And when will we be ready to assume the even greater burden? Not just of “Je suis” – I am – but of “Nous Sommes”.

We are.

he drew first

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

Gallery

This gallery contains 3 photos.

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.