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.

Version 2

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

Version 2

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)?



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.


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.



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.


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.



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.




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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.



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


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 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.




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.

Taking Count

1910 Census

1910 Census

Last week my daughter busted on me, saying that we had no right to celebrate Thanksgivingkuh. We’re not even Jewish, she said. She’s technically correct since my mom’s family hailed from the Baltics. And as for my dad’s side, it’s a mystery.

After my dad died, my paternal line was largely lost to me. I have vague memories of information that my grandmother had once shared. A Max Lewis, the last name Barsh. Time spent in Camden. They amounted to the barest shreds of a long disintegrated family fabric.

Last week, during a bout of sleeplessness I paid a visit to Ancestry.com.  It makes sense.  What else should one do during a dark night of the soul?  Isn’t it all about uncovering who you are?

Lying there in the darkness I entered a few bits of information: my name and birth date, that of my parents. Within minutes little “hint” leaves began popping up left and right on the tree that was self assembling. My dad’s birth certificate led to the names of his parents. His parents’ birth and death records auto populated and led to 1910 and 1920 census records in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. These led to names of cousins and great grandparents and possible countries of origin.

In the dim illumination of my computer screen, I stared at images of reports handwritten by census workers in 1910 as they trudged up and down soiled tenement stairs, inventorying the names and occupations of my ancestors. I saw the names Isaac and of his brother Max and of their father and mother, Solomon and Rachel, bearers of ancient biblical names, but recently hailed from Poland and Russia. What did they know of their great grandson of the future who would use 21st century magic and technology to pull back the veil of the past to reveal some distant home?

On that day in 1910, they sat impatiently in some squalid and small flat, answering a stranger’s questions in broken English. We left that place, they may have said to themselves. It was done and over. And of this, what good would ever come of it?



For all you Gravity fans out there, here is the accompanying Cuaron short that aired at Telluride. As Sandra Bullock curls up in a Soyuz, turns down the oxygen and prepares for her own death, she sends out a distress call to Houston that never arrives.

She reaches a terrestrial stranger. This is what happens on the other end. As lovely and gripping a counterpoint as there could ever be.

Graveyard Run

IMG_3212I took a cue from my daughter’s cross country team and this morning took a Halloween Graveyard Run.

It made me appreciate even more the brilliance of the coaches.  What better way to infuse young teenagers with a gratitude and love for their  strength and beauty than to present them with a meditation on the mortality of their own bodies?

I grew up under the shadow of Harold and Maude which means I take a certain pleasure in cemeteries.

With a little help from Apple Maps I end up in the Santa Rosa Memorial Park.  I like the name.  It’s almost as good as the antiquarian graveyard, but with the sense that we go there to recreate and remember.

Today I do both.

My first circuit takes me through the new area of the park, utilitarian and efficient like everything else of the 21st century: neat rows of flat plaques are set into tightly trimmed grass and adorned with plastic flowers, revealing the restrictions again any sort of plantings. Clearly only one thing is intended to be planted here.

Which gives pleasure when I catch the click and whir of the sprinkler systems.

The dead have no shortage of wisdom.  And I like them for that.


And there’s no shortage of loss in this place.  And probably no shortage of entreaties.  Please help.  Someone. Please.  Just help.




IMG_3214On the periphery of the yard, I catch sight of a memorial bench. The fellow was only 51 when he went on.  But a good guy he was.  He promises me, a complete stranger, that in exchange for my visit, he’ll forever look after me.  It’s quite a commitment if you stop to think about it. It’s far greater than any of us can offer to one another. This guy is actually out there. Gosh knows what powers he has.

And he reminds me that it’s okay.  I’m on my run.  And runs are all about one step at a time.  I’m there.  I’m with him.  And that gives me a strange strength.

IMG_3216I set on my way, but realize that the commitment goes both ways. I turn back.

His name was Parker.

John Lowe Parker.

The Second.

It would heed all of us to remember.


I eventually find my way to the old part of the cemetery.  And there’s the gem.  The whole hilly range has been turned over to a native oak restoration area. Unmaintained, the headstones tilt and fall akilter; the trails settle under deep swaths of fallen leaves.  I run through here and absorb the life and the loss and the longing.

Grave, where is thy victory?

There is no death here. Instead, the abundance of autumn and the wealth of these glorious trees.


Letting Go


This one is from my friend Mary Fillmore who lives in Burlington Vermont.

It fits the moment I’m in right now.  Perhaps also for others.


Cutting off is not disentangling,

and even disentangling is not

letting go.

Letting go is what the dandelion does

when it gives its seeds to the wind,

lighter than any feather –

letting go is allowing ashes

to slip through your hands

into the earth

where they belong.

Cutting off is not disentangling,

and even disentangling is not

letting go.


Telluride Picks and Unpicks: Part I

Some reflections on a subset of this year’s slate.  Telluride once again flexes it’s high altitude muscle. With 27 features films as opposed to Toronto’s 400, it’s much easier for the cream to rise to the top.

le-passeThe Past (Le Passe).  Even a cursory plot summary of this movie would amount to a spoiler – the story is not just about what unfolds, but what you feel in the unfolding.  By Iranian Director Asgar Farhadi (A Separation), it begins as a story of an Iranian man who returns to Paris to finalize a divorce from his ex-wife.  As the narrative steps forward, new details are revealed such that moment to moment it becomes a different movie from the one you thought you were watching.  The protagonist who initially appears to be callous and irritable, discloses maturity and prescience as a disrupted family situation and blistering reality comes into focus. Don’t be surprised to see it as an Oscar foreign film contender.  US release date in December.

under-the-skinUnder the Skin:  Pygmalion. Bride of Frankenstein. Seventeen years in development before it received the green light.  Never have I seen Scarlett Johanssen so naked and cared so little.  Other people naked. I want my two hours back. Ducks performing Othello. Voice dub by Mel Blanc. Will play well in Venice. But not at the Palm. In Scottish. Like Macbeth. Except it needs subtitles. Do they even speak English? I don’t mind working. Alien. But not for so little. Tarkovsky. No. Scratch that. He had deep Russian monologues. Fast motorcycles. Tin Man seeks a heart.  Except in the Wiz you had Dorothy.  A family drowns. Dystopian. Never Let Me Go. No. That was engaging. This: black succubus. The Horror!  The Horror!   Like that sex addict movie. But more excruciating. And dull. I like the scene after the soccer match.

The worst cowboy movie I’ve ever seen.

Vespucci Studios lives. But now they have a budget.

the-lunchboxThe Lunchbox (Dabba):  In Mumbai a network of more than 5000 dabbawallahs deliver home cooked lunches from Indian housewives to their husband’s offices, and then later return the lunch boxes back to the appropriate home. The lunch boxes change hands many times as they travel by bike and train and porter to the warren of office buildings that lace Mumbai. Largely illiterate, the dabbawallahs rely on a complex language of colors and symbols to ensure the lunch pails arrive on time at the appointed place. A team from the Harvard Business School found the system to be highly efficient – only one in eight million lunch boxes arrive at the wrong location.

This story is about one lunchbox that get’s misdelivered. Instead of arriving at the desk of her inattentive husband, Ila’s sumptuous meal is delivered to the desk of Sajaan, a lonely widower. Food is consumed, notes are delivered, and a surreptitious love affair blossoms.

Throughout, the ebb and flow of relationship is governed by the pulsing roar of the Mumbai transportation system, the frayed edges of an evolving city drowning in it’s own growth and decay. The loneliness and alienation of it’s inhabitants are mirrored by the uncountable lunch pails carried blindly through the maze of streets and alleys. What are the chances of intersecting with the right person and finding true love? And perhaps the wrong train that will deliver us to the right station.

As visually sumptuous as Ila’s cooking, the story remains emotionally restrained as Sajaan’s guarded expressions. But as the narrative builds, we see both characters relax into themselves and find the emotions they’ve long since buried. Without the polished arc of Monsoon Wedding or neat ending of Slumdogs, this story hovers a little closer to the grit and mud on the ground, and the very real messiness of our life choices. And it affords a chance to be a voyeur on the streets of Mumbai to boot. Delightfully sad and a crowd pleaser.  Look for it’s North American release on September 20th.

gravityGravity:  Although it will be hitting the theatres in wide release on October 4, the movie gave the TFF folks a chance to put the new Werner Herzog theatre sound system and 3D projection through it’s paces.  And how was it?  The Zog, assembled in the town park ice rink, blows away the competition.

From the first moment we delight in watching an extended sequence of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floating in space as they complete repairs on the Hubble Space telescope.  When disaster hits, Bullock and Clooney (looking ever more like Buzz Lightyear) are left floating in space like a bit of cosmic debris.  Against all odds they must find their way home.

You’re only a few minutes into the movie before you suddenly wonder, how in God’s name did they film this?   For 91 minutes astronauts float about in zero g’s.  And it feels real, perhaps the best tribute to the film’s greatnessIn Gravity, director Alberto Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) veers away from his terrestrial and more character driven stories into an extraterrestrial minimalism.  He and his team labored for more than four years to develop the technology needed to recreate the clear light of space and what appears to be a zero gravity environment. And it does what movies are supposed to do – bumps the pulse and make you feel wonder.

Cuaron casts a vision of human experience that includes the exosphere of our planet.   We feel the oblique loneliness that our descendants will carry as they chart a course ever deeper into the terra incognita of space, and away from terra firma.  And you realize that yes, indeed, we at last are living in the 21st century.

Here Be Dragons:  I mention because it’s classic Telluride Backlot fare.  Shot with a flip cam for less than $3000, filmmaker Mark Cousins presents a film essay chronicling a trip to Albania to consult on the preservation of the Albanian film archive. Living under wraps for fifty years, the Balkan headlands of Albania may be the last place on earth for which we have few visuals.   Cousins now supplies them.  And his associative mind lends meaning to the starkness.

Nebraska film stillNebraska:  This one turned out to be the biggest show stopper this weekend.  Following his success with The Descendants, Alexander Payne has committed to becoming a regular at Telluride.  His delicate and human touch make him a nice fit.  When Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a letter in the mail informing him that he may have won a million dollar sweepstakes, he sets off to Nebraska to claim it. His youngest son aids and abets him and a family locked in its dysfunctional dynamic is splayed open.

Grant returns home, he connects with his old friends, and his life time of low grade trauma is replayed for him as relatives and friends are revealed for who they are.  In this, he and his son find their own redemption.

When Bona Fide productions received the screenplay from first time writer, Bob Nelson, they asked Payne to step in as executive producer, but he said he wanted to direct instead.  Payne, himself a Nebraska resident, relied on open casting to give these midwestern characters a some flesh. These are understated people eking out livings in an understated world.

Another Oscar contender.  At the tail end of his career, Bruce Dern should be up for a nomination.  A moving must see when it’s released later this year.

12 years a sliave12 Years a Slave:  The LA Times gave five reasons to see McQueen’s latest.  Without knowing theirs, mine might include Fassbender’s performance.  Brad Pitt taking a moral high ground.  Paul Giamatti doing anything in the 19th century.  And the 19th century articulated sentence structure.  Beyond that, I’m an outlier amidst the rave response to 12 Years.  What more does it add to the slave narrative, other than the slight nuance of an educated free black man being abducted and placed in chains in the deep South?  Not much in the way of character development, beyond the protagonist shifting his forthright voice and gaze to one of subservience, leaving the affair somewhat cartoonish. And don’t we already know about the depravity, the ways in which slavery dehumanized all participants, and the ongoing effects of the lash?

Which raises a difficult aspect.  The graphic violence, I assume, is intended to galvanize  audience emotion.  Except that in today’s cinema graphic violence comes easy.  For me it amounted to a cheap thrill not dissimilar to the cheap (and very different) thrill that the slave owner gained by whipping his property.  Rife with great performance, the film depicts brutality, but not much more than that.

slow-food-storySlow Food Story:  If you’re a foodie, I’d give it a must see.  A fresh addition to the heavy morass of many foodie documentaries (e.g. Food Inc.)  Filmed almost exclusively in Bra and Northern Italy, the playful flick lays out the origins of the Slow Food movement and it’s joyful, extroverted founder, Carlo Petrini, considered by some to be one of the most transformative persons on the planet. You can’t help but love this man who dreamt big as a young man, got involved in Italian leftist politics, infused his work with the social goof of the Italian street theatre, and realized that the politics of the mind would have a far lesser effect than politics of the stomach.  Before we had ideas manifestos, we broke bread.  The film transects this new world we’re creating of urban gardens, and White House gardens, and food once again sourced from the ground on which we walk.

First time director Stefano Sardo does a delightful job of creating something uniquely italian – part cartoon, part street grotesque, but vivacious and animated.  This is not so much about a movement, but about life itself.

Say Yes

You know that bucket list fantasy you might have, that one day you’ll get up on a stage in New York, let’s say, and sing with Sweet Honey in the Rock?

It kind of happened this morning. 150 songwriters and musicians sat groggy and expectant as Dr. Ysaye Barnwell just off from nearly a quarter century with the Rock, ambled up and took a seat in all her massive self.

From the moment she presents herself, you can’t help but think that this is what a fully actualized person must look and feel like: passionate, brave, mindfully scolding, patient, of brilliant intellect, and even greater heart.

You all get in a circle, she orders. We need to be in a circle for this. Two deep, bass to the left, sopranos on the far right. No matter the circle was three deep, and who knows if people were sitting in the right place.

As musicians you all only need to know how to count to four, she declares. Sometimes six. But we’re going to count to eight. It goes like this: one, one two one, one two, three, two, one, she sings. And so on. We’re going up to eight. With that she launches.

Man, you guys sound terrible, she announces when we conclude in something slightly more than a disorganized jumble. Again, she says, but this time instead of singing the number four, I want all of you to clap. And off she leads us. And then again, this time in round and then faster. Succeeding or failing at this exercise ceases to have meaning.

Which leads to the second lesson. Why are we here? Why is Mazie here at a weeklong song workshop in the Rockies? Why are any of us here?

Dr. Barnwell has us sing a quodlibet which, she explains, has two meanings. The first is a legal argument of which she knows little about. The second is a song in which different melodies (and even different lyrics) are sung in counterpoint to one another.

My soul is anchored in the Lord, sings one group.

Lord, I done done, sings another.

And through it all Dr. Barnwell begins to weave us together with her own voice.

Her three octave range seems to stretch out as she pitches notes to the highest soprano and then back down to whatever the basses can muster. Within minutes she has 150 people singing in different keys, different lyrics in round that merges into a a tidal chorus.

Lord. I done done. Lord I done done. Lord I done done what you told me to do.

If only we all could say that.

Say yes, Barnwell counsels. Don’t matter what it is. Just say yes. You may not know what they’re asking you to do, and you may not think you know how to do it. But don’t worry. You all will figure it out.

Terminal Conditions

ImageCall it the last heady days of summer.

Saturday evening. Mazie and I have crossed the Sierras and bullet across the Nevada basins and ranges, hoping to make Elko or something farther by night.  All the way, electronic signs remind us that the Amber Alert is still effect. The girl and the man had headed north to Idaho or perhaps Canada. No one knew which. Had she gone willingly, I wondered. Was she part of a plot to kill her mother? And if so, what kind of future had her or this man imagined. And if she’d been kidnapped, what had he imagined? Under what circumstances could this end in something less than bad for any of them?   At what point does the line of thinking break, and in the moment of breaking, what does it feel like?

Mazie will be attending song school in the Rockies, still many hundreds of miles ahead of us. She feels scared, I think, wondering if she will fit in or if she will be able to hold her own. But her fifteen year old self isn’t able yet to divulge her feelings to her dad. What energy she has must be directed at quelling the fear rising inside her.

At any moment she could ask to turn around, decry that she has changed her mind, that she can’t do it. But we have to go on. Regardless of what happens, it will at least be something, and something is more than nothing at all. There’s no gain in turning back. And we should take what’s been granted.

Life, after all, is a terminal condition.

24. The Story of the Ark

Ramblin Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie in Washington Square, 1954

We sometimes arrive at self-definitions that really don’t mean that much.  I say I’m a writer, and I do write, every day, but just writing doesn’t fulfill all the requirements of the definition.  I also clean our pool, work in our garden, clean our house, cook our dinners, do work for non-profits, and have lots of ideas. But I would never call myself a pool boy, gardener, house cleaner, chef, community organizer, or thinker.  It leaves me kind of stuck.

In Jack’s case, when pushed into uncomfortable territory (asking to be interviewed, setting up his iCloud service), or when he just wants to say “bug off”, he’ll say, I don’t care about that.  I care about Trucks.  And I care about Boats.  That’s what I care about.

That, of course, is not his only self-definition but it’s one he’ll tactically rely on.  It shuts down the high fallutin people because they mostly don’t care too much about trucks.  And it’ll shut down all the others, because few people can talk boats the way that Jack can talk boats.

Today Jack boards a plane for a five week string of gigs on the east coast.  He’ll be playing in the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center with Jackson Browne, the Dropkick Murphys, Ry Cooder, Rob Wasserman, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams and a crowd of other people the Grammy Museum was able to round up in honor of the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth.

What’s Jack doing there?

No matter how you cut it, the true answer can be kind of complicated.  Like the Boat, Jack absorbs near everything that he comes into contact with.  His photographic memory allows him to take in and then carry all manner of information near indefinitely:  boat lengths, dates, events, conversations, engine sizes, distances, you name it.  It also includes not just a body of music, but a manner of playing it.  And in this case, the manner of one particular person.

To talk about Woody Guthrie and Jack would be to layer myth upon myth upon myth.  I don’t want to muddy things.  But here’s one more layer of varnish.

Woody’s fate was spelled from the moment of his conception, sometime in October of 1911.  In a moment of passion his maternal and paternal DNA split and recombined, and the fetal being that we now know as Woody Guthrie, inherited a mutation of his IT15 gene that governs the Huntingtin protein.  Without his knowing, before even the moment of his birth, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was fated to die from Huntington’s chorea.

In the intervening years, though, between conception and death, something very important happened.  The vessel called Woody Guthrie, while plying the American waters, essentially fashioned and helped save a body of American folk culture.  He played with Lead Belly and chronicled the plight of Dust Bowl refugees.   He wrote protest songs and songs glamorizing the WPA and Columbia River projects.  He captured songs and materials from his travels and recorded them with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

By the time Woody had moved to Mermaid Avenue in Brooklyn in the late 1940’s, he had penned ‘This Land is Your Land’ and ‘Roll on Columbia’.  In New York he began to experience erratic mood swings.  Within a few years he would begin his descent into dementia.

It was at about this time that a young Jewish kid from Connecticut showed up and moved in with the Guthrie family.  The boy wanted to learn folk music and he decided to learn the music and playing style that Guthrie carried within him.  I wouldn’t hazard to guess yet what those years in Brooklyn were like or how they even came to be.  But I can imagine the feeling of a photographic mind coming into contact with Guthrie’s deep well of experience and intelligence.

The waters were rising and the situation required an Ark.  And that Ark came in the form of Ramblin Jack Elliott.

23. The Ballad of Jack: The Story Without End

Jack sits on stage at the Bolinas Community Center, doing a fundraiser for KWMR.  It’s cold outside, late September, the ocean fog rolling in.  John Doe is coming on stage in a few minutes.

Back in the fifties, Jack was touring in England and played Brighton.  A young kid, now a resident of Bolinas, went to hear him there.  That night Jack told a long joke that rambled interminably.  It apparently wasn’t even that funny.  It was a shaggy dog story with no particular point and it ended with some punchline about goo goo.  Or something like that.  That young kid now old can no longer remember what Jack sang, but he remembers the joke to this day.

I remember playing Brighton, Jack says as he tunes his guitar.  It’s a good beach.  I guess everyone in their life at some time or other makes it to Brighton.  I remember Brighton. But I don’t remember the joke, he says.

This is a story without an end, he goes on.  It just has a beginning and a middle.  And we’re just at the beginning he says.

But don’t let it scare you none.  We’ll get there.  Soon enough, my friend.


22. The Fable of Origami

I’m twelve.  Or thirteen. Or fourteen.  My mom is chasing whatever was so important back then: yoga, eastern mysticism, organic food, the ERA.  I, like a lot of my friends, was left to my own.  We cruised around on our bikes making fun of the sailors down on Rosecrans or the Hare Krishnas who chanted in the park. I don’t know how it started, but probably inspired by Hare Krishnas, I started my own religion.

I became the sage, Origami, and I would get together with my friends the Gladkoffs and Aaron Oakes and Johnny Ford and I’d relay to them the fundamental teachings of Prefabi.  There were five powers, I would tell them.  The Power to Teach.  The Power to Learn.  The Power to Observe.  And the Power to Understand.  And then there was the Fifth Power which was unnamable and could not be known by the minds and hearts of men.  A few times my friends would talk me into preaching to their older siblings.  Dick Ford and Mike Coon, Gerry’s brother, lounged about taking hits from a bong.  I sat before them and conveyed to them the meaning of the Fifth Power.  They got high and listened until they fell into hysterics.

Junior high starts, kids get high, kids get lost.  Even more so in high school.  Dick Ford went to San Diego State and joined a fraternity.  Alpha Chi Omega.  Riders of the Night.  Mike Coon signed up for the marines and disappeared.  I wanted to get a job and get some money so I could buy a car and run away.  At fifteen I started making the rounds at every restaurant in Hillcrest asking if I could bus tables.  Everyone gave a flat no.  That is until  I walked into the the Soup Exchange and Marissa Saunders sent me to the back.  The manager Brian looked me over, desperate but not too impressed.  Can you start now? he asked.  A dishwasher had failed to show up.  Within minutes I had an apron on and was behind the line as mountains of bowls and plates piled up.  At some point the door swung open, a muscled guy set down a heaving tray, and looked up.  Ear pierced, hair short.  It was Mike Coon.  It had been years.

ORIGAMI! he shouted and pulled me out from behind the bucket of bleach and dangling scrub hose.  Listen, you need to listen to this guy, he said.  He pulled together the prep cooks and whoever else was back in the kitchen.  This is Origami, he said.  He needs to tell you about Prefabi.  Tell them about Prefabi, he said.

That summer I learned to like Molsens.  And how to hang out with adults ten years my senior.  I watched Saturday Night Live for the first time.  And took to riding my bike ever longer distances.  That autumn another dishwasher and I rode from San Diego to San Clemente, took a look at Nixon’s old house, turned around and came back.  When I rode up to my house at three in the morning, I had ridden 140 miles.  I learned that was a good way to ruin your knees.

Mike Coon eventually left for Seattle.  My future wife, Anna, once saw him spinning down Pike Street on a bike in the rain, a toddler in the basket, laughing wildly as he raced to catch the ferry.  He had built a cabin out on Vashon and that’s where he was scraping together a living with his wife and baby.  The cabin was raw and cold.  They kept themselves warm by burning wood.

21. The Fable of the Cat Killer

For those who lived it, California in the 70’s and 80’s was time run wild. It was the years of water bed shops in OB, British Invasion rockabilly revival, Dylan being booed at the Sports Arena for going Christian on the eve of Johnny Rotten.  It was the drought ridden years when people drained their swimming pools and boarders from Venice Beach learned to skate them.  Of  PSA 182 crashing in flames in our neighborhood.

PSA 182 crashing in North Park

Most of my friends were selling weed and discovering ever better ways to rip each other off.  It seemed that if you were fourteen in those years, your parents were gone or disappeared in divorce or drinking.  And so their kids pulled their own disappearing acts into weed and meth.

The only truths told were the lies to one another.  And it was all mostly bad whether it was true or not.  You might say one day that Gerry Coon’s sister worshipped the devil. You might say that she had gathered with her friends at the pentagram laid into the stone work of the old Presidio. And that they performed satanic rituals there.  That she had stolen someone’s cat.  That she killed it that night.  But it’s not true.  None of it.  She never drank the blood.  She did not kill the cat to be real cool. Despite how the stories spread.  A song was never written.  How could it have been?  We were kids.  Not the stuff of legends.

20. The Wood Shop

Best to begin with the wood shop.  Best to see how the epic is born from the banal.

Nearly a decade done with college and with little affinity for power tools, I had little business being there.  And yet there I was, in a woodshop at Mission Bay High in San Diego on a cold night in January.  A handful of adults also filled the room, all of us wanting to learn how to use woodworking equipment.  One older woman wanted to make a clock to hang in her kitchen.  A new father wanted to make a bassinet.  Someone else a cabinet.  So once a week we gathered in the fluorescent lit room smelling of sawdust and singed wood. The teacher, a blond middle aged man who surfed, had a comforting even presence of mind, which was probably key for a guy who’s job was to show people how to work with machines that could rip their arms off.

On the first night, as we were taking our first tour of the planers and table saws, drill presses and routers, I recognized someone. Up front, drawn in under a Greek fisherman’s cap, sat Gerry Coon.  We’d grown up together in Mission Hills in San Diego. I thought somehow that he should have been dead, but perhaps that was just because of his brothers.

After class we approached one another.  He asked why I was there.

I want to build a table, I said.  And a chair.  You?

His voice was so quiet I had to strain to hear him.  I want to build a boat, he answered.