JupiterOur cat Jupiter who held dominion over our house for nearly 20 years – a third of a lifetime — passed away yesterday morning. 

Jupiter was born in the summer of 2001 in the Taft dairy barn in Huntington, Vermont.  She had the colorings of a Holstein. And though small, and short of leg, her muscles were strong and her temperament was fierce.  She spent her first days with us in a small bed in the kitchen of Jubilee farm along the Huntington River.  And a few weeks later a stranger brought her to us in Seattle as a carry on.

Jupiter had more volition and more natural ability than some people I know.  One evening in Seattle when she was still a kitten, we came home and found her locked out of the house.  She sat on the porch and glared at us through the pouring rain.  She turned, walked to the door, leapt up, looped her paw through the front door handle, hung there and stared at us while she swatted at the latch attempting to open it. 

Each day she would awaken before the sun rose, climb on my chest and tag me in the face.  Sleepily, I would crawl out of bed and follow her to the kitchen.  She insisted on leading, yet would stop every few steps, turn and tag me on the foot, as if to say, stay in line and follow in step.  

For two decades all animals and people that came into our lives would sit or stand in abeyance to her.  The dogs would refuse to mount the stairs or go through a door until she had stepped aside.  

She lived in Vermont.  And Seattle. And Hopi where unlike many other cats she managed to survive.  She came to California.  She prevailed through fires and floods and moves and evacuations.

Seven years ago, a Thai hunting dog seized her in his mouth and shook her like a rag doll. Even then she held her own, rendering the dogs snout into ribbons of scratches.  A few years later, her appetite waned and we took her to the vet.  He looked in her mouth. She has cancer he said.  He gave her one to two days to live.  We returned home and fed her milk as a form of palliative care.  So much for cancer.  The two days turned into four years.  

Our daily routines became more contorted around her needs and desires.  We would evict the other cats so that she could eat in peace.  At other times the dogs would sit and stare from a distance. She would eat a small amount, cast them a glance and then walk away so that the dogs could have the rest.  This is how she held her power.  

In her last few months she refused to give.  Friends would call and through the telephone they would hear her meow loudly.  Is that Jupy? they would exclaim.  

And in the very last month family members begged me to put her down. But even in her weakened state, she would exit the bathroom where she slept and make her way down the stairs to be with people and all the other creatures.  She spent Thanksgiving surrounded and stood over by friends and family.  Jupiter, of all animals, if she had the will to live, then dang it, she deserved to live.  

During her last two days we were in San Francisco.  The daughter of a friend spent the days at our house and fed and bathed her.  When we returned home, Jupiter could no longer stand.  I picked her up, lay on the couch and placed her on my tummy – her favorite place to be when she was a kitten.  She purred and fell asleep.

We buried her this evening with a foundation stone and some manure from that dairy barn (long since torn down) where she came into this world.  Beside her we placed some Taft maple syrup from the sugar bush just up the hill from where she was a born.

That cat kept everyone in line.  Get up, she would say.  I demand to be fed.  It doesn’t matter if you are tired or sad or disheartened.  This is not your time.  Get up, she would insist, and get with the program.

6. The Story of the Wawona

The Wawona docked in Seattle

Why was timber being shipped all the way from Seattle to San Francisco?  Why not bring down wood from the Sierra Nevada which geographically was much closer?  The answer suggests what the Age of Carbon has robbed from us.

People couldn’t bring the wood from the Sierras because at the time there was no easy way to do it.  The railroad hadn’t been built yet.  Hauling timber down from the mountains by ox or cart wasn’t feasible.  And so, as it had been for thousands of years prior, the maritime ruled supreme.  For most of human time, river ways were in fact road ways.  You could cut vast territory quickly and efficiently by plying the rivers.  In the 1800’s the only way to move wood out of the Great North Woods was to float it, eventually to the mills and lumberyards of Chicago.  And in the 1850’s it was far easier to ship timber by schooner than muscle it down from the Sierras.  Even in the early years of the Gold Rush, timber was barqued 13,000 miles around Cape Horn from New England.

Which tells us something else.  You can’t cut big timber without a mill.  A mill requires blades.  And gear trains and  steam or water driven engines.  Little of that could be easily had on the West Coast of North America in the 1840’s.  So the first west coast mill built in Bodega Bay in 1843 by Stephen Smith was a big deal.  It meant that boards could be easily had.

Within a few decades nearly 800 mills lined the coast from the Bay up through the Pacific Northwest.  Their sole purpose in the early years was to mill the giant coastal timber stands and ship the cut wood to San Francisco.  Originally it was done by square riggers, but by the 1860’s special lumber vessels were being constructed, many coming out of the Bendixsen shipyard in Humboldt Bay.  The ships had simple rigging and deck arrangements to facilitate the loading of lumber.  Much like with modern container ships, the board cargo was all deck stored.

The three masted 165 foot Wawona came out of the Bendixsen yard in 1897 and ferried timber from Gray’s Harbor down to California for nearly 16 years, after which she was deployed as a cod fishing vessel in the Bering Sea.

The Wawona herself was built of Douglas Fir, fashioned from material that had once been matter parceled from the sea. So for the breadth of her lifetime, from 1897 to 1947, sea energy harvested sea energy to be consumed by humans, or bore sea energy across the ocean, so that it could be cut and planed and hammered and fastened and battened into gingerbread Victorian homes, carapaces for up and coming merchants and gold boom urbanites.  In this way ocean was borne onto the land once again.

After the Wawona retired in 1964, she took harbor in Seattle’s Lake Union where she was slated for restoration at the Center for Wooden Boats.  For years it was possible to visit and walk aboard her masted carcass.  A couple years ago, though, restoration efforts were halted, she was towed to dry dock in 2009, and she was dismantled.

The Deck of the Wawona

If you’re reading this, you will never in this lifetime or any other have the chance to walk aboard the deck of Wawona.  

But picture this:  The new millennium, 1900,  and the Wawona bucks and canters in heavy surf, her hull tethered to a doghole chute.  The sharp knock of called lines and pulleys against spars and mast on a gray afternoon and more to go of an already  long day as sailors wire sweet redwood and fir onto the sheltered deck.  The winter air reeks of sea lichen, and bladderwort, and the must and rusted pine tar oakum that caulks the decking.  Picture the moist grunge, that sludgy wort that grows in the nether space between land and water, crumbling chinked mortar between port cobbles and brick, the living grease of taupe and ambergris mold that slickens the surfaces of skid rows and harbors.   It’s 1991 and the spring maritime has wet and chilled the night streets of Pioneer Square and inside the OK Hotel, mud honey, floors sticky with beer and air with sweat and smoke stink and Novoselic and Grohl and Cobain – he’s just a boy yet – drive out Smells Like Teen Spirit.

5. The Room of Requirement: The Second Incarnation


The Room of Requirement was built of wood, not water.  How did that come to be?

The story of the first forest

The Russian River opens out to the Pacific at Bodega Bay just northwest of here. From there it winds easterly and northerly through Monte Rio and Guerneville.  It’s fed by many small tributaries, including one, Salmon Creek, that has it’s origins near the small town of Occidental.  For thousands of years, The Chinook would run up the Russian River much as they still do today, depositing themselves in the pools and on the sandbars to spawn and to die. Bear and other predators once ate their carcasses, leaving much of the fish on the forest floor.  The fish provided nearly a quarter of the nitrogen taken up by the riparian forest.  The ocean became fish.  And the fish became trees.

The wood for the Room of Requirement could have been milled near around here in the heavy first generation forest that once layered much of West County.  The first sawmill was built in Guerneville by John Heald, William Willits, George Guerne, and John Bagley.  The first three of the men would go on to establish towns of their own.  Who knows what went south with the fourth?  Nonetheless, they worked with such intent felling the giant redwoods, that the surrounding area eventually came to be known as Stumptown.  Other mills sprung up:  six in Occidental, one in Freestone, many of them supplying timbers for the nascent narrow gauge railroads that were extending their tendrils north.  And once the railroads were in place, the wood could be shipped to the still infant metropolises to the south.  By 1901, however, that area of the Russian River watershed had been largely deforested and many of the mills shut down.  Thirty years prior, so many old growth redwood grew here that the region may have had the densest biomass on the entire earth.

Seattle deforested

The story of the second forest

Or the wood for the Room of Requirement could have come down from the timber stands near Seattle.  Seattle was a late comer in the Anglo settlement of North America. The Denny Party didn’t land in the Puget Sound until September, 1851, but in short order, some members of the pioneer group set the saw blades spinning.  At that time the entire Sound was blanketed in 2000 year old fir standing 400 feet high.  Nothing like that exists in the world today.  Here too, the stands of trees were seasoned and nourished by the vast flow of nutrients that each year swam seasonally up from the Pacific.  Near uncountable number of Steelhead, Coho, and King had over the millennia born a treasure of maritime wealth in their bodies, coursed it up rock and rapid to lay it rest in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.  Functionally the fish were a way to transport potential energy from the ocean upstream in the system and back onto land.  Eventually much of that energy stored in timber mass, through human agency, would find it’s way back to the ocean and to new distant shores where it would one day be released in a conflagration.

Initially the wood was harvested up on the ridge lines of Capitol and Beacon Hill and then slid down on skids (in order for the logs to slide smoothly, the skids were greased by the original grease monkeys, a well-equipped and perhaps racially-tainted slur) to Henry Yesler’s harbor side mill at the base of the slope. There the logs were cut, loaded onto large timber ships that ferried the wood to San Francisco where it was devoured up by the Gold Rush building boom. The muddy timber camp, most likely the first skid row, was a sloppy mess of a place lined with bars and piled with rowdy lumbermen, windfall buckers (those logging mercenaries hired out to buck the worst of fallen trees), sailors and drunks.  Subsequent generations civilized the area into Pioneer Square, but it never really shed it’s cantankerous bearing. A hundred and forty years later on a cold spring Seattle night, Kurt Cobain stood up in a sweaty bar room in the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square and sang for the first time, Smells Like Teen Spirit.  The band was originally called Skid Row. A few years and name changes later, they had become Nirvana.

Grunge music, of course, leads us inevitably to the Story of the Wawona.


Remembering Steve

Steve isn’t dead.

The most physical and perhaps most limited instantiation of him, of course, is gone.  No more will we know that unique conflation of DNA and environment that gave rise to the person we knew as Steve Jobs.

But his larger self, the ripples emanating out from him, those will continue to move people on this earth.

He rode sidecar in the lives of many people.  Or perhaps it was the other way around.  Perhaps it was his motorcycle all along.  Perhaps he gave expression to that motorcycle ride that we all dreamed for and wanted.

How have his ripples moved through me?

1979.  San Diego.  I’m an awkward fourteen year old boy.  It’s the first day of ninth grade and my math teacher Virginia Hamilton ushers me into a room that contains some new equipment which she doesn’t understand and has no idea what to do with.  She shows me a new Apple II.  It’s your’s to play with, she tells me.  Earlier that summer I had read about these two guys, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who had invented the first real personal computer.  I understood instantly.  I took the manual home that night and was on the machine the next day tirelessly.  It couldn’t just move numbers and text.  It could play sound.  It had a color screen.   You could do art on it.  It could be a musical keyboard.  It could be a kind of stereo.  I learned to program in hex. I set to writing a program that was like a wordprocessor for music.  Why, a person could play and the computer would transcribe the music for you.

1981.  Reuben H Fleet Science Center.  I sit at a table with the director of their science center.  They had live location data on several satellites orbiting the earth, he explained.  Could I write a program that could visually display where in the sky the satellites would be visible?  Why yes.  The truth was I couldn’t program worth shit.  But I set to it with David Calabrese, a kid I met hanging out in an Apple store.  That was a thing then – kids who couldn’t afford computers would hang out in Apple retailers programming and pimping the machines.

David and I would get together each day and type out code.  We were nuts about Apple computers.  We also debated who was the stronger genius – Wozniak or Jobs?  Jobs was a petulant jerk. And Wozniak was brilliant.  He after all was the real inventor of the guts and OS of the first Apple.  He invented the first magnetic hard drive over a weekend.  But Jobs was the guy who saw what it all was.  He was the one to put it together.  He drove Wozniak relentlessly.  And eventually he drove Wozniak out.  David and I worked on our satellite tracking program. We kind of got it working, but a real programmer ended up finishing the work. I had a crush on David’s sister and I just wanted to make out with her.  I guess I got kind of distracted.

1982.  Biology class.  I borrowed an Apple IIe from a kid – I think his name was Eric Altman.  His family was pretty well off and they could afford the latest toys.  I didn’t have a computer of my own and I needed to do a demo of my science project – something about computer music transcription.  I plugged in the computer with the power switch on and I fried the mother board.  I stood in front of the class and felt like I was going to throw up.  Eric was heartbroken.  I took his machine to the Apple store where I hung out.  I had no money, but the technician worked on it for a week and fixed it for free.  He was so generous, but then he wanted to hang out with me more and I didn’t know what his intention was. I felt the the foreign edge of a grown up world and it scared me.

1983.  I stand in my childhood home, decrepit, filthy, largely stripped of furniture.  I’m seventeen and I no longer have parents.  I hold an acceptance letter in my hand.  Would I have gotten into Yale without all that freakish experience with those Apple computers?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Does technology really make a difference?

1984.  At Yale my college roommate ended up with one of the first Macintoshes.  I could use it whenever I wanted to write papers, he told me.  He basically bribed me with his Mac so I would hang out with him.  Regardless, never again would I write a paper on a typewriter.  And the sheer terror I felt at having to write on the page began to dissipate just a little.  I could write, and erase, and cut and paste.  Back then the words, “cut and paste” still connoted glue and scissors.   How strange to think that in our minds the words now evoke the clicking of a mouse.  And what would the mouse have been without Steve Jobs?  And by extension, to think that our very vocabulary and the parts of our brain that support that vocabulary have been rewired by that one individual.

1987.  I camped out in the basement of our residential college for much of the spring, sitting at a bank of Macintoshes, writing my senior thesis on the Diggers, a counterculture anarchist group in San Francisco.  Why did history have to be constituted only of old stuff, I wondered?  What about recent history?  The 1960’s?  Cultural history?  I wanted to write about something that hadn’t been touched yet.  And so I looked at something so new and so insignificant, that real historians hadn’t gotten to it yet.  For hundreds of hours I stared at the screen of a Mac.  I thought about those machines of loving grace, of how that generation of tech pioneers, Steve in particular,  came out of the counterculture, how parts of their visions were fueled by acid.

1988.  Seattle.  I’m out of college by now.  My first years at trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but I was alone in the world, and if I’d ever chanced to look down, I would have been terrified.  I read biographies of Steve Jobs, looking for guidance.

I inherited the stories:

Steve in India being pulled aside by a guru who, laughing hysterically, shorn his hair off.

Steve tracking down his birth mother.  He had little to say publicly about the matter other than that he believed in nurture over nature. I wondered over the years what that encounter must have been like.  Who was she?  What did they share in common?  What did they not?  Why should I even care?  But care I did.

Steve inviting John Scully to his Woodside home.  Over thin crusted pizza, asking if John wanted to continue selling sugar water to children, or if he wanted to change the world?

Steve being exiled to some lone building on the Apple campus.

Steve being fired from his own company and following his departure, retreating to his Woodside home where he raised a pirate flag and another sporting the logo of the NeXT computer.

Steve throwing crying fits, insisting that the robotic arms assembling NeXT be painted the proper shade, and then his eyes welling up again as he watched those arms moving in unison.  Thinking machines building other thinking machines.  This was poetry.  This was art.

Steve commenting years later that technology in the end doesn’t change the world.  People live for an instant and then they die.  What does technology really change?  All those widgets and gadgets and gizmos, they make the world different.  But do they really make it better?

1989.   I sat in an auditorium in Seattle as Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT computer.  I saw OS X in it’s very first incarnation.  It had a Unix kernel and full sound and graphics and an amped up graphic interface.  Why did I still care about this stuff?  I wasn’t a computer guy anymore.  But I loved Jobs.  Watching that demo, I wondered why no one wanted to buy it?  None of us knew that 10 years later we all would.

1994.  I have an MFA by now.  I’m writing.  I scratch out a living with low-end desktop publishing.  Why that and not something else?  Because I have loads of experience on a Mac.   All on Mac’s.  Steve made the best tools I have ever touched.  I have a Sheffield digging fork.  And an Apple.  And in a way they are the very same thing.  They allow me to do most of the work I do.

1996.  Vermont.  My wife and I have just moved to the northeast.  I’m referred to a woman who’s having problems with her Mac and needs some tech support.  I end up helping her and afterwards we go for a walk and she asks about my life and she listens in a way that ranks that afternoon on the shores of Lake Champlain as one of the most important conversations of my life.  I tell her that I don’t sleep at night because there are too many things left undone.  Left undone, she said.  One day that will be the title of your autobiography.  We had a chance encounter because of a screwed up Mac and our deep friendship has lasted to this day.  What difference, really, does technology make?

1996.  Vermont. Driving through the snow with my wife.  I had heard about a new codec called MP3 and was thinking through the implications. The physical medium for content was now obsolete, I told my wife.  We no longer needed vinyl or CD’s or tapes.  All music could be shared digitally.  I wrote out a 2 page summary for a digital jukebox that would exist online, and you could purchase songs and play them on some device. I tried to find interested people.  I met with some guy from the Media Lab.  I got a job working for a start up telecom company, thinking it would help.  I was employee number 7.  The company took off and I dropped my idea, an idea which I now realize I was in no position to execute.

1998.  Steve returns to Apple.  It’s not the hardware.  It’s the software, he insists.  And the dictum becomes apparent.   There’s no reason to have buttons and physical widgets on our devices.  Practically all of it can be done by software.  The ideal computer wouldn’t even exist physically.  It would be pure software.  Pure instruction.  Pure energy.

2001.  Apple releases the iPod.

Why did Steve Jobs do it?  And why not me?  Well, because he was Steve Jobs.  And I am me.

2007.  The company I worked for got the contract to provision the iPhone on the AT&T network.   And the company screwed it up immeasurably.  Probably the single greatest failure of the iPhone release was AT&T’s botched turn up of the service.  A small number of former coworkers  got pretty rich off it, though.  But I had already left three years before and had moved to the Hopi reservation.

2005.  I stand in a parking lot in Flagstaff before a meeting with a prospective funder.  I’m trying to get money for a youth farming project.  I have my Mac Powerbook on the trunk of my car and I select 30 photos, choose a Hopi planting song, and within seconds have a slideshow.  I sit with the funder as luscious images materialized on the screen, showing kids planting ancient terrace gardens.  At the end of the slideshow he sits there in silence and then announces  that he’ll commit ten thousand dollars.

2009.  I have a recurrence of a tumor on my parotid gland and am undergoing radiation treatment in San Francisco.  Unbeknownst to me Steve Jobs is getting his liver transplant in Knoxville.  Late one night I hole up in a sushi bar in the Sunset district, seeking some morsel of food that won’t make me sick.  I chat with a woman next to me – an attorney specializing in real estate law. Her boyfriend is an oncologist in Palo Alto.  He’s been working with Steve.  It’s not good, she tells me.  But didn’t we all know that? Not just for him, but for all of us?  Isn’t life itself a terminal condition?  I drink my sake and eat my toro.  I don’t want him to go.

2011.  Sebastopol where l now live with my family.  I have struggled for the last few weeks to buy an apple orchard next door, but my efforts come to late.  It’s sold to a vintner.  Several days later bulldozers arrive and plow down the 80 year old trees.  Even as I write I can hear the sound of the dozers.  I take a break to watch a movie on my daughter’s Macbook Pro about the mining of blood minerals used in cellphones and wonder what Apple’s stance on the issue is.  I think of small boys mining colton deep underground with small hammers.  Of women being raped and mercenary groups demanding taxes on the minerals used in all our electronic devices.  Small drops of blood tainting perhaps even the devices popularized by Steve Jobs.  Does technology change the world?  Ask the boys in the mines.  I consider their lives and their terminal conditions.

I turn on the radio and learn that Steve Jobs has died.

1955 – 2011.  Apple could have said it so many ways.  What was the most simple?  They could have said, “2011”.  But that just tells you that he died.  It doesn’t tell you that he was. They could have displayed the exact month and the day of his birth and death.  But what really do those other pieces of information add?  Nothing really.

Steve Jobs.  1955 – 2011.  He lived.  And now he is dead.

I once wanted to be Steve Jobs.

And in the end we all will be.  Steve admonished that life is about the detours.  That we never know how those detours will add up.  But what if your life has been composed entirely of detours?

It took me too long of a time to realize that Steve Jobs was not the life I was born into.  I can have visions with the best of them.  But everything depends on execution.  And in the end, focus.


Intense, excruciating focus.