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?

This Life We Were Born Into

I just got off a crackly broken phone conversation with my friend, Bill Scheffer.  It seems that more often than not that’s how they are these days.  He was taking his lunch break from his work in planned giving for Planned Parenthood.  He was somewhere amidst the cacophony of midtown, walking between work and Chipotle’s searching for a salad.

I was sitting in the sun on our back porch in Sebastopol looking out toward the oaks and overgrown garden beds.

I thought to myself that Bill should move to California and do development and planned giving work for Spirit Rock, a Marin mediation center that may be mid-stream in a large capital campaign.  But I shied away from suggesting it to Bill, thinking to myself that “that’s not the life he was born into.”

And it’s not.  At least I’m not sure it is.  For Bill, family and friends are very important.  And for several generations his family has been deeply steeped in Manhattan.  He has lived there, and he’s grown up there.  His rich network of friends and his spiritual life are centered in New York.  Most of the lines tethering him to this world are anchored there.  Moreover, like many of us, his parents are near old yet and it’s more important than ever to remain close at hand.  That larger body needs him.  It doesn’t matter how nice the job is:  I might as well suggest that Bill move to Mars.

What then of the rest of us?  I once dreamt of entering the foreign service. Or something like that.  I studied Russian.  But it was never going to happen.  I wasn’t well enough equipped coming out of the starting gate.  I didn’t have the temperament or the know how.  No matter how much I wanted to escape, I had my own wrecked family tying me to California.  I had my own past tying me to my own brand of dysfunction.

My classmate Fareed Zakaria was born to be Fareed Zakaria.  I can safely say that I was not.

Which begs the question as to what life I was born into.  And to that, I unfortunately don’t have much of an answer.  An array of weird experiences and encounters that if not culminating in, have at least deposited me here on this sunny morning in California, not knowing even which way is up. Which is a strange state of being for 47.

It begs a larger question:  For all of us, that disparate and manifold and brilliant sparks of sentience that we are, what is this larger life that we all more or less were simultaneously born into?  What hope that we ever truly will divine the texture?

Birthdays

When I was thirteen or fourteen my mom told me she would kill herself on my eighteenth birthday.

Which she did.  More or less.  Except the matter is a mess more complicated than that. So much so that I’ve spent a lifetime cracking and shying away from it’s telling.

And so today I’m sad.  Today is a lovely California morning.  The one we all were born to live for.

80%

A few weeks back, Dr. Daniel Feikin and I sat on our porch and he asked what I would have done if I had learned that a McMansion was slated to go up in the orchard property next door.  Would I still have purchased our house?

It was a good question.  I still believe that the optimal situation would have been for us to have owned the now gone orchard.  And at the time that we lost it, I felt despair and longing and fear of what was to come.

But what did come?  If we saw this house for the first time today, we would see a delightful meadow next door slated to become a vineyard.  Lovely and quaint.  We would not have hesitated to buy this house.

Less than perfect would still be good enough.

But what about the hypothetical McMansion that would have sullied our privacy and views?  This house on its own is all that we need and wanted.  If something lousy was happening next door, we could have balked and held out and searched for something else.  We could have camped out in an apartment for two years.  We could have continued to live an unsettled life well into Mazie’s high school years.  Our time would have been given over to searching and exhausting real estate drives and questioning and perseverating over manifold possibilities.  And whatever we found would have been compromised in different ways.  Interest rates would start to rise.  The houses would need work. The land would be too big or too small or too wooded.  They would have been too expensive or too far from Mazie’s school or the roads too busy.  There’s always something.

Years ago I worked for a plastic surgeon in San Diego.  I was editing some promotional materials for him and taking forever to do it.  I couldn’t stand how sloppy his old stuff was and I wanted it to be perfect.  He finally sat me down over dinner at some place in La Jolla.

Andy, do you know why my facelifts come out better than  those done by my partner? he asked.  Because he aims for perfection, he said.  He goes in there and spends too much time trying to get everything right and he bruises too much of the tissue.  He makes a mess of it.  Do you understand what I’m telling you?

I shook my head.

80% is good enough, he said.  Nature will take care of the rest.

Not something you necessarily want to hear from your plastic surgeon.  But now twenty-five years, a million miles and a dozen lives later I can see Dr. Manchester was spot on.

Adaptation and survival favor imperfection.

80% of something far exceeds 100% of nothing.  Sometimes even less than good is good enough.

The House

There’s another part that I’m not telling you.

It’s about the little boy who a long time ago lost his father and his mother grew away from him into her new boyfriend or her own sleep and he grew up in a crumbling house with a shitty carpet filled with fleas and stinking of cat spray.  Dishes would pile in the sink because no one would care to wash them until no dishes were left and even then it would move no one to lift a finger so they turned to paper bowls and plates.  On those days, it would be the boy who would stand on a chair to reach the sink and he would do the dishes, scraping rotting peanut butter from the knife, skimming flies and sheets of mold from the pots filled with putrid water.  It would take a full twelve hours for an eight year old boy to clean that kitchen.

There was a brother and once he wanted dog and it came into the house.  But no one would take care of it or feed it and it got sick and was kept penned up in the kitchen until the floor became a seething sea of shit and piss and diarrhea.  A neighbor visited and put a call out to CPS.

There’s more.  I could go on and on with more.  I could fill the remainder of my life and a catastrophe of pages with more.  But this will be sufficient.

Imagine what happened, how it was, when the boy first read Gatsby and how Fitzgerald seized him with a vision.  Just get the hell away.  Get as far and fast away as you possibly can.  Build a mansion.  Populate it with people.  Fill it with parties and surround yourself with campfires.  Night after night.  Go to that place, make that place, with your own majesty and desire will it in to being.  Matter not that the story ends in tragedy.  That all can be worked out in the details.

How stupid for a boy to be driven by such a silly story.

But he was.

I imagined one day arriving at a house.  It would be a grand place and it would be protected from anything bad or sullied that would want to intercede from the world.  It would have it’s own water, and good soil and could grow food.  It would be surrounded by protected space that would never in anyone’s lifetime ever be developed.

A family could grow and could grow old here.  And that’s the way it would be.

It Takes a Thief

“Blame it, this whole thing is just as easy and awkward as it can be. And so it makes it so rotten difficult to get up a difficult plan. There ain’t no watchman to be drugged — now there oughtto be a watchman. There ain’t even a dog to give a sleeping-mixture to. And there’s Jim chained by one leg, with a ten-foot chain, to the leg of his bed: why, all you got to do is to lift up the bedstead and slip off the chain. And Uncle Silas he trusts everybody; sends the key to the punkin-headed nigger, and don’t send nobody to watch the nigger…..Why, drat it, Huck, it’s the stupidest arrangement I ever see. You got to invent all the difficulties. Well, we can’t help it; we got to do the best we can with the materials we’ve got.

Anyhow, there’s one thing — there’s more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn’t one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head.”

And so spaketh Tom Sawyer in the 35th chapter of Huck Finn.

There’s the right way to do something and the wrong way.

In our case, Mazie imagines black face paint and ninja costumes.  Kerry dreams up fake transportation permits and forged documents from the Hopi Tribe.  I consider several furtive and superfluous transfers between waiting vehicles a la Mission Impossible.

In the end though, we just take him.

In our last moment before leaving Hopi, we disinter an old dog carrier from the garage and load it in the car.  That’s the extent of our plan.

A few hours later we find ourselves at the home of the wildlife rehabilitator.  We knock.

After a long wait, the husband shows himself.  His wife is gone.  He doesn’t know where she is, or when she’s getting back.

We came to visit Poe, we explain and he says that we are free to go to the back.

Which we do.  Mazie carries with her a Middlebury sweatshirt.  The air once again is filled with the cacophonous roar of jackhammers.  I step into the cage with Poe and he looks up with wearied eyes.  I whisper for Mazie to walk quickly to the car, retrieve a shred of burrito and bring it back.  I meanwhile sit with the stricken bird.  Mazie returns and we feed Poe with some scraps of meat that he takes eagerly.

And just like that I drop the sweatshirt over Poe and swaddle him in my arms.  I race across the yard.  Behind me I hear Mazie closing the gate so it is slightly ajar.  Goodbye Poe, she says.

We dive in the car and quick as can, we peel away.

 

Considerations

Walpi Housing is all in transition.

Kerry and Kristina are moving out next month as are we.  We have a bunch of folks over for dinner and most everybody, including Hopi, are heading out in the coming weeks.

A particular era is over.

But where will this leave Poe?  It’s clear he’s not coming back here.  Without mending and stewardship in the near term, he would be finished.  Kerry and I contemplate taking him to Bernd Heinrich in Maine, but we don’t know if he still has his aviary.

And Poe deserves…he deserves what?

At the very least to live large.

He’s not a beast. And I wouldn’t denigrate him with the word animal.  He’s a being.  On par with human beings.  And every effort needs to be made to make him whole and restore him to raven-ness, whenever, and wherever that may be.

One morning I make an announcement.  We’re taking Poe, I say.

Mazie wants to know how.

We’ve already been read the riot act by the rehabilitation community.  He’s a protected species.  It’s illegal for people to own them or have them in their possession.  It’s illegal to transport them across state lines without a permit. And as I’ve been reminded, I haven’t been trained in rehabilitation.

Thank god.  If I was trained in anything, it would keep me from doing half the things I do.

Being Poe © Kerry Hardy