American Empire

Yesterday afternoon, I disassembled our deep amber American Empire bed.  In a few weeks I will drive it to San Diego.  

My wife’s family hails from Texas, part of the original Texas Five Hundred.  When we first met thirty years ago, she spoke wistfully about her house growing up – the old wooden furniture, the strange objects and curios repurposed by her parents.  But her family had dissolved and the furniture had been cast to various storage lockers and garages of relatives and strangers.  

I dreamt that one day we would rebuild that life for her, that we would bring that furniture together in a some grand house, and appoint that space with her childhood memories and somehow make her life whole again.  

Which over time we did.  The last couple bits, including this ancient bed from East Texas — the bed, we imagined, of her great grandmother and the bed of her parents came to find it’s home in Sebastopol. We fit it with an organic latex mattress.  And now life, I thought, could once again be whole.

Except not so much.  The headboard was too tall and would not fit in any room except that master bed. But the  bed itself was small – more narrow than a full, and of such insufficient length that it betrayed how height deprived our ancestors truly were.  When our dog jumped in the bed, we were truly squished.

And now we’ve come to abandon our house, making room for a family that lost their own home to the Sonoma fires.  We are clearing our home of detritus, of those things – all those things – that don’t work.  The new family is coming with their own king sized mattress. And so one afternoon I call my wife at work.  “I think we should get rid of the bed,” I tell her.

Get rid of it, she answers.  Her family failed to survive an alcoholic father and the suicide of her mother.  I look at this American Empire, and I think, some things can’t ever, in all their undoing, be reconstituted. The only thing left, well, is to seize the future and make life new again.  

And perhaps, that is what that bed was meant to be.

Rupmaize

Recently as a last act before an upcoming move, I baked two loaves of rupmaize.

It’s basically a Latvian rye bread – but it’s much more than that, partly because it’s much less.

It’s essentially rye flour, water, a little yeast if you want, and some sort of yogurt or kefir (call it turned milk).  Mix it up, let the yeasts and bacterias start to do their thing and then throw in a warm box (i.e. oven) to arrest the action.

You end up with these loaves that are some crazy cross between that hearty bread eaten by dwarves and that ethereal cake of which elves partake.

It’s both sweet and sour.  And it sustains.  In 1944 when Latvian families were loading up their wagons preparing for evacuation, no doubt women all over the countryside were hastily wrapping still warm rupmaize in cloth and packing it in baskets.

It’s powerful stuff – one slice in the morning and you’re good until mid-day when a second slice keeps you going until afternoon repast.  It can keep you fed when you may not have access to a kitchen for days or months on end.

In the year I lived in Cleveland with my Uncle Eriks and Aunt Ingrid, I recall how many evenings after dinner, Eriks would end the day with a slice of rupmaize and some black tea.  I may entirely be making this up, but I remember this ritual where he would sit at the kitchen table and would fill a ceramic mug with deep black tea and he would lather a slice of rupmaize with butter and jam.

This was his dessert.

He was very particular in the details and I remember him once giggling as he explained them to us.

But I was only twelve and I didn’t get it then.

For my uncle, a survivor of war and tragedy, this was sacrament.  Literally, give us this day our daily bread.  As if to say, this stuff is the staff of life.  Just a little bit will carry us in a time of need.

And we all have, in every moment, a time of need.

So in this moment, on this morning, I think of my Aunt Ingrid who baked the bread. And my Uncle Eriks who so appreciated it.  And for both these things I thank them.

 

Starman

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The evening of the Falcon Heavy launch, my wife Anna and I sat at home and watched at the video stream of Starman driving oh so calm past the planet Earth before his booster launched him into the middle reaches of the Solar System.

Anna grew teary eyed.  “You know,” she laughed, “that’s what makes our country so cool.  A Dane would never do it that way.  Only an American would think to do something like that.”

I know.  The Vikings, the original nordic explorers, were in fact Danes.  David Bowie was a Brit.  Nikolai Tesla was Croatian.  And yes, Elon Musk is  from South Africa.  Which is perhaps the point.

I think what Anna was getting at was not an America that is different or opposed to the world, but one that is the world.  An America composed of all people who have a belief that there in fact might be something better or different over the horizon, that at the very least there is going to be a future, and gosh darn it, with a laugh and spring to my step, I’m going to find it.

Innovation and exploration, two fundamental aspects of this thing we call America, are fundamentally ridiculous acts:  they both are premised on a belief in something that does not yet exist.  It means doing something simply because it’s crazy, or at the very least to show that it can be done.

And what could be a more American (and ridiculous) gesture – to cast into the sky a hunk of metal equipped with four tires, and set it’s crash test dummy driver toward a horizon that is truly boundless.

It’s the ultimate car commercial – as if to say, “look at how great we are,” and then with a chuckle, “and how truly small.”

Those two competing ideas can and must coexist if we are to go out and beyond.

No doubt they were present in the minds of countless young people as they gazed at that small red car as it left the orbit of our Earth (reminding us all not to panic) and they thought secretly to themselves, “I’m going to go there.”

Discovery

This morning, an alumni retreated into the courtyard from the locked gate of Branford College.

“How do we get out of here?” she pleaded.

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The answer can be simple.

You put on your running shoes.  You wait until someone enters from the outside.  You slip out the gate.  And you set out for parts unknown.

While in school, my attention (perhaps our attention) was turned inward toward whatever adventures and drama were insulated within those many stone courtyards.  Rarely did I venture beyond the bounds of the residential colleges.  And if I did, only a few blocks distant to a late night falafel joint or a beeline to the pizza at Wooster Square.

But I was rarely driven, nor did I incite myself, to truly explore.  It was impressed upon us that beyond the moated buildings of our campus lurked threats and dangers.  It was better to stay safe.

On this morning I ran out on Chapel Street.

To my chagrin, I was reminded that I never learned the cardinal directions of this landscape.  I lived here for four years and never thought to contemplate the prevailing winds or through what tributaries and estuaries the water flowed.  I didn’t know how the neighborhoods and town functioned.

Today on this run I learned that there had once been a blizzard in 1888 that had dumped 52 inches of snow over three days.

I learned that double streetcar tracks once ran out into the countryside, far beyond any point that I could imagine.

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On several corners I saw connects hanging out, waiting for their peeps.

I saw Seventh Day Adventists dressed up and walking to worship.

I discovered a wetland laced with paths and trails.

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I saw a monument to the Spanish American War, but stripped of it’s memorial plaque.  I wondered about pyrrhic victories and what would drive someone to remove the plaque, and was reminded that every victory implies another person’s loss.

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I discovered a skate park.

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I found a boy who could ride a wheelie for a very long time while spinning his front wheel in the air like a top.

I learned that cattails are native to the wetland, and that they are under constant threat from the advancing phragmites.  If you look closely, you can see them preparing for onslaught, amassing in the distance.

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I remembered that the world is ripe for teaching if we choose to learn.

I was reminded that the victor always controls what and whom we choose to memorialize.

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And perhaps, in this case, that the victory was premised not on an absence of slavery, but on the promotion of an economic arrangement that merely privileged slavery in a different form.

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I learned that Joan Baez and the Doors had once played in the New Haven Arena.  In it’s stead, an FBI building now stands.

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I learned that there once was a man named Camp.  And he played football at Yale Bowl.  He developed the snapback from center and the system of downs, things of which I still have scant inkling.

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I learned that a network of rail lines once filagreed throughout New England and that this network capillaries once promoted all manner of human interaction and communication.  I longed to travel and engage in that way.

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I saw how community is woven from the most frail and ephemeral of connections.  And that connection may be that thing for which, in whatever way possible, we must constantly strive.

 

I realized that although Yale may have been my whaling ship, it was an ever beautiful and ever imperfect vessel indeed.

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Day 3 Maui in Two Elements

IMG_3066Wind and Water.

That’s what the masseuse Laura said as she did some Lomi Lomi thing on my back yesterday.  Double-triple Aquarians (whoever they are) have a really hard time on these islands, she said.  They just kind of float out into space.  But you need land.  You need to be grounded.  And there’s not much of that here.

Laura’s Lomi Lomi, I guess, may be immaculate proof of that.

So two days ago I threw up that post about, what?  Bill Graham. Running.  A dead body on a path.  Switching out of a hotel.  I need to be writing about troop movements in WWII, and instead I was punching the keys on all that other stuff.

It really was a string of non-sequiturs, a string of non-sequiturs that had an audience of precisely. . .zero.

So post it I did.

Then some people read it.  And one person in particular, Poppy Davis.  (Some day ask me for the Poppy story).  And Poppy shared the post with some of her friends.  And then things kind of blew up.  Because one of those friends happened to be Laura who in a former life had worked for Bill Graham Presents.  And so the post went to her FB and then to all the former Bill Graham staff and acolytes and that all apparently turned into a conversation.  And it turns out that Laura is here on Maui.  Not only is she here on Maui, but she’s, like, two blocks away from our new hotel in Wailea.

And not only is she two blocks away, but she just worked a benefit that involved Jackson Browne and Wavy Gravy among other musicians and they had all come to Hawaii and were booked at….you guessed it….the hotel from which we had checked out.

And like us, the talent couldn’t take it. They found the environment strangely strange.  One singer left to stay somewhere else.   Wavy Gravy was weirded out (and that guy comes pre-weirded.  I imagine it might take a lot to further weird him out…)  Who knows on what dark and lonely road Jackson Browne set himself trudging.

So that’s how we ended up with Laura the fantastic traveling masseuse from Na Alii Massage in our hotel getting fantastic complimentary massages.  Laura wanted to make sure that I got all the dead body ju-ju out of my system.  Which she certainly did.

And on the way, I learned where to get good fish tacos.  And about Laura’s husband who is way into history. In particular WWII history.  And in particular what went down in Eastern Europe and precisely who’s village was slaughtered by whom.  And about an elder relative who in her 80’s had nowhere to go until she heard from someone that in New Mexico you could live in University dorms as long as you attended classes.  So this ancient woman enrolled in some classes, moved into the dorms, hoarded shit to the ceiling, and all the other freshman students kind of looked after her.  It went on for years. And about how one  can be trapped (by addiction, by life, by whatever) and the discipline of self that can help one break free.

I also learned about the second-to-last-Jewish-refugee kid to be adopted from the Army barracks in upstate New York.  And a little more about why a man who should have been so reviled was in fact so loved.  “Bill Graham single-handedly created the system,” Laura said.  “He was the one who built the socket that allowed millions of people to plug into the Universe.”  The Dead on their own? They couldn’t have done it.  They were the channel, but they needed this huge system – a system of Graham’s devising – to make it happen.

In 1988 soon after Anna and I started dating we went to a New Year’s show at the Oakland Coliseum.  Anna had confessed that she didn’t really like the Dead.  She said that she would have preferred watching the The Tom-Tom Club comprised of the leftover members of the Talking Heads.  That night they were playing their own New Year’s show at the Warfield over in San Francisco.  But there we were, in the Oakland Coliseum, waiting for something to happen.  There was some warm up band that I can’t remember.  They left.  Then the lights went down.  More folks walked on stage and picked up there instruments.  It was none other than the Tom-Tom Club.  And they began to play.

That was Bill Graham.

So floaty floaty we’ve been the last few days.  If you asked me what exactly we did after the massages, I’d be hard pressed to tell you.  Give it up to the wind and water.

Except for one more thing.  Remember the pig boat to Moloka’i?  Well when we didn’t get on it, we had to call Anna’s friend on the other island and tell her we weren’t coming.

No worries, she said.  She would just get on a plane and come here.  Soon, very soon, the wind and water will carry me (and by extension you) into her story.

Stay tuned.  It’s a good one.

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Day Two Maui in 4 Stories

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Today’s rout includes stories about running, smart phones, strongmen, and choices.  And also about the screwed up way that we roll when we travel.

The facts?  Severely non-interesting.  We ran in the morning.  We bought some fruit.  We read on the beach at Ka’anapali.  We floated in the water.  We drove south and checked into a hotel in Kihei and switched rooms once and hotels once.  I walked in the dark to Wailea.

We had a few conversations with other people.  But I had at least four thoughts.

1.  Andy’s Philosophy of Running.  When you run, you’re mapping your body to the landscape. My favorite kind of running is just running around: – the kind where you don’t know where you’re going and you go down that path until it intersects with this path and then you follow a trail to just see where it goes and sometimes you double back around and find yourself in some totally unexpected place.

It’s exploration by running.  In the process you feel the air of the place.  You feel the different and ever changing texture of the volcanic and coral ground.  And spiderwebs in the face.  And the sounds and fragrances and cast of light that are unique to every place and each sliver of the day.

It’s a great way to get around.

2. Seeking.  A few weeks ago Mazie wanted to get rid of her smartphone.  I keep looking at it, she said, expecting to find something inside that’s never there.

It’s as true a statement as any.  We have wedded ourselves to a device of wanting, one that leaves us perpetually leaving the moment and physical space that we presently inhabit to go find something somewhere else.  I believe the Device has reinforced us as a nation of dissatisfied seekers.  At every moment we have the somatic experience of wanting to fill “dead space” by peering into an object for something that is not there.

At the same time, we enter the Device because we want to be anchored in certainty.  We look at the Map app to know exactly where we are.  We go to Yelp to make sure we go to a good restaurant.  In an idle moment we tap on Google News and scan the headlines so we know exactly what may be happening elsewhere in the world  at that moment.

Yet the more we outsource our native intelligence to a smart device, how more dumb do we as individuals become?

So here’s the embarrassing confession. On this trip we’ve tried (and sadly it does take trying) to disengage from the devices. In any given moment, rather than turning to the device for the answer, we’ve had to turn back to the world and back to people.   That’s where a lot of the conversations have come from.

Sadly, the feeling is strangely revelatory.  And even more strangely, this was how we would move through the world as recently as a decade ago.  It changes everything.

I used to pride myself on my sense of geography and direction.  And in the brief span of the Device Era, I’ve all but lost it.  So over the last few days when we drive and we haven’t known where we are, we’ve had to look around and think about it for a moment and let the landscape tell us.  Or we just go and hope to get to where we’re going.  Or we ask someone for directions and listen closely to the landmarks they mention because those are the keys to finding your way around.  I begin to feel like myself again.

We ask people on the sidewalk where they would get a good cup of coffee.  Random people on the street tell us where to run or to find the best poke.  We look for signs and pieces of paper.  I’m craving paper.  Paper newspaper.  Paper maps.  Paper paper.  Something that feels material and textured.

There’s still MapMyRun (I do it because the maps are kind of totems and when I run around randomly it’s nice to know how far I’ve gone.)  And there’s the Facebook (a lot of times I feel like just some guy floating out there and FB provides a feeling of connectedness).  But even these things it may be soon time to ditch.

3.  The Benevolent Strongman.  This is not a non-sequitur!  Rather it’s exactly the sort of thing one can think about while lying on a beach in Hawai’i.

The man in the White House and Bill Graham are/were strongmen.  Why, I wonder, do I detest one and have an abiding love and appreciation for the other?  Strongmen are usually damaged souls.  Bill Graham certainly was – as damaged as any soul that has ever been.

It’s one of my favorite stories that I never mind retelling.  So for those who don’t know:

Wolfgang Grajonca was born in Berlin in 1931 during the restoration of the Reich.
When his father died shortly after, his mother kept him and his five siblings alive by selling fake flowers and costume jewelry in Berlin markets.
In 1938, the year of Kristalnacht, his mother placed him and his sister Tolia in a children’s home to save them.
His mother and remaining siblings would later be gassed on the way to Auschwitz.  He would never see them again.
At the onset of the war, Wolfgang and the other orphans would be evacuated to France.
In 1941, when Paris fell to the Germans, the International Red Cross escorted 64 children on foot and by bus to Lyons.  Wolfgang’s baby sister Tolia became sick with pneumonia and was left behind in an infirmary.  Grajonca would never see her again.
The 10 year old boy then walked to Marseilles and from there he was carried to Madrid.  And Lisbon.  And Casablanca. And Dakar.  He was placed on a boat to America and survived on cookies and oranges.  When he arrived in New York Harbor on September 24th, 1941, he weighed 55 lbs.  Of the original 64 children evacuated from the orphanage, only 11 would arrive in America.
Those refugee orphans were taken to Army barracks in upstate New York.  One by one the eleven children were adopted by families who were paid 48 dollars a month to take Jewish children.  There Wolfgang waited for nine weeks.  He was the very last child to be taken.

And I’m fairly sure that somewhere in that time, deep in the core of that little boy, that is when he decided that no one.  Absolutely no one.  Would ever.  Ever.  Fuck with him again.

That’s when he became Bill Graham.

I believe he understood people in a fundamentally profound way.  He knew that, after a Dead show let’s say, when you have a whole lot of people not in their right mind, that all those people needed somewhere safe to go.  So in this case, he set it up so that no one would have to leave – they could all stay camped out in the parking lot for as long as they needed.  But (and this is important) he also understood that in order to have the parking lot, you also needed rules.  And for rules to work, you also need an enforcer.  And if you operate in a world of the vain glorious and narcissistic and among those who lust for power (which was the world of rock ‘n roll) – you needed someone who was willing to fight back and fight back hard and was not afraid to leave bodies and hurt feelings in his wake.  He didn’t care.  I believe he was fundamentally driven by a misanthropic view of humanity.  Yet (and this is where he may differ from the other guy), I believe he genuinely cared for other people – he longed deeply in a way that he could perhaps not articulate for something righteous and good. “This.  is. Your. Fucking.  Job,” I imagine him saying.  “Do. Your.  Job.”

Once at a New Year’s show, my brother-in-law Vaughan was standing on the floor and looked over to see Graham standing right there beside him.  “Yo man,” someone asked.  “What are you doing here?”

Graham shrugged.  “I wanted to be down here with the the freaks,” he said.

In a sense, Graham was a kind of Holden Caufield:  the wounded soul who struggled angrily – sad and valiant – to catch the innocent as they tumbled into that field of rye.

4.  Where You’re At.  Anna got up at 2 am the other night so she could finish up a boatload of work before the close of the weekend.  She sat there at a wooden table in an old Lahaina hotel while the drunken loudly caroused home in the street below.  “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing where you’re at,” I reminded her.  “As long as you’re where you’re at.”  Which is another way to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of a computer screen at two in the morning if that computer screen is on a wooden desk in a delightful old room in Hawai’i.

And with that said, yesterday afternoon we checked  into the Maui Coast in Kihei.

What we had imagined:  Anna’s conference was in Wailea. No rooms available.  But whatever.  We’ll be in Maui.  We’ll stay in Kihei and each morning we could ride bikes to Wailea and what delightful mornings those will be.   When we arrive they have no rooms readied, but no prob, we say they can take their time.  We are absolutely fine.  Mary the reservation lady, visibly relieved, suggests that we check out the strip malls down the street.

My heart begins to sink.

We ask about the bikes.  Turns out we have limited use.  Wailea is four miles away uphill.  And we can’t use the bikes past 6:30.   My heart sinks further.  But a room becomes available.  Second floor.  The window basically looks out at wall.

We head back to the front desk.  This time Manny the super nice supervisor greets us.  “Any chance we could have a different room?”  we ask guiltily.  Everyone is so terribly nice.  We are totally willing to wait.  Manny punches the keyboard.  “Complimentary upgrade.” he says.  Now we find ourselves on the top floor in a suite.  Big soaking tub.  Windows looking out over the mild sprawl of Kihei. Anna takes the car keys and heads off to the conference in Wailea.

I lay down on the bed.  I flip through one of those weird vacation activity guides. I stare up at the ceiling.  And that’s when I realize that this is exactly the kind of room where a person kills himself.

Feeling my lease on life growing rapidly shorter, I head downstairs and start walking toward Wailea.  I walk past the strip malls.  I cut over to the beach and walk on the sand as the sun sets.  The beach runs out and I pop up a trail and walk cliffside in front of a line of condos, vacationers outside grilling on the barbecues.  In the growing darkness I trudge through a park past a lone bagpiper playing an aching ode to the crashing waves of the Pacific.  I walk and I walk and I walk through the darkness.  Now on a grassy shoulder I cross over to a sidewalk.  The road curves up into what appears to be a posh neighborhood.  I take a narrow street that deadends and then a concrete staircase down to a beach, hardly a couple feet of sand gently pounded by the black surf as the night tide comes up.  I continue walking along the white liminal sand and then through water and then rocks and over driftwood until there is beach no longer.  Just me and the surf.  I detect a narrow sand trail that cuts up through some undergrowth and I follow that maybe 20 feet and there on those narrow trail in the darkness I see a naked body lying in the sand blocking the whole trail – and I mean a Sumo wrestler size body just lying there – and in a split second I think, ‘okay.  This is either a) some dude who’s probably sleeping and I need to carefully step over and around him and risk some kooky altercation, or b) he’s dead.’  And either way, even just in the process of finding out, I got a problem on my hands.

So I wind back down the pitch trail and back into the inky surf and along the night shore and the rocks and the driftwood trees until I find luminescent beach again and then back onto the road and into the posh neighborhood.

The phone rings.  It’s Anna.  “Where you at,” she asks.   “I’m on a grass island by the side of the road,” I tell her.  I sit down on the grass, but it smells faintly of sewage and gray water.  I stand.  “Never mind,” I tell her.  Come find me, I’ll be walking on the road to Wailea.”  I walk on up a long hill through the darkness beneath a line of towering and twisting banyon trees and eventually a car pulls up slowly beside me and I climb in and find myself sitting beside Anna.

“I don’t think we can stay in that hotel,” I tell her.

“I was thinking the exact same thing,” she says.

It’s nine at night and we drive on to Wailea and up to a Marriott Residence Inn within true walking distance of the conference and we talk with Kody the super nice desk clerk.  He can set us up.  It’ll cost us an extra few hundred bucks for the week.   Anna and I get a beer and go sit in the darkness by the blue glow of the pool to sort it all out.

We take some time to do our figuring (It seems she and I spend a lot of time figuring). We agree.  The Coast is a perfectly nice hotel.  And we can drive into Wailea each morning together.  And I can hang at the whatever whatever resort in whatever lounge chair and write.  What difference, really, does it make where we lay our head at night?

Well, there was something vaguely soul destroying about Kihei.

We don’t need posh.  But we want to be some place.  And unfortunately these days too many rooms and too many spots feel like no place.  Perhaps it was an absence of greenery or an abundance of stoplights.  Or the pizza hut on the corner.  Or roads and distances best trafficked by auto.  Or the inclination of the light.  Who knows?

But some differences do make a difference.

“If we decide to move,” I ask Anna, “Is that a good choice?”

“It’s absolutely a good choice,” she answers.