Elbow Room

November 9, 2019

Mom died a year ago about right now. A week before she left us I had to visit with our lawyers about the sheaf of speeding tickets she’d accrued. She had a big house with a swimming pool both of which she managed all by her lonesome. She was ninety and going strong. Holding her own. You wouldn’t want to cross her.

This is not to say that she had a big opinion of herself. She did not. On the counter next to her purse was this note to self:

You are not God
This is not heaven
Don’t be an ass

I suppose it follows that she wasn’t given to gratuitous hugs and kisses. One had to be open – receptive to her own particular emanations of love and grace which I’ve come to realize knew/know not bounds of time or space. Much to my surprise there remains physical evidence of this.

Surprise because the evidence is photographic. Mom did not like to be photographed, but those of her in the throes of motherhood convey a sense of the beatitude behind her bluster.

Mom used to smoke and that, for some reason, reminded me of the film “Cool Hand Luke”. Luke, played by Paul Newman, is trying to find his way in the world. We all are of course, but he has had more trouble than most. About half way through, having found himself in a prison work camp following a ridiculous crime, he is visited by his mother. Arletta, played by Jo Van Fleet, is obviously dying from a serious lung disorder, but smokes nonetheless. There is a rough fondness in their interaction and both are sad for the way things worked out.

Luke: “What I’ve done with myself is my own problem.

Arletta: “Oh no it ain’t Luke. You ain’t alone. Everywhere you go I’m with you”.

Luke: “I tried to live always free and above board like you, but I can’t seem to find no elbow room…”

Arletta leaves and not much later Luke receives notice of her death. The warden, played by Strother Martin (“What we have here is a failure to communicate…”), recognizes this to be a/the seminal event in Luke’s life and puts him in solitary. Upon his release from “the box” Luke takes a more direct approach in his pilgrimage.

Well, I’ve tried to live always free and above board like Mom. Like Luke I have made mistakes. But, thanks to Mom, I have been able to find elbow room.

Thanks Mom.

The Value Of Desolation

March 22, 2019

Few months ago a painter doing some interior work at our house volunteered that the earth is flat. He knew of a group that “went way up in Alaska, went to the edge, and looked over. You can see about it on the internet.” Apollo 11 took place in a Hollywood studio. Fake news.

Don’t know what is more incredible. That humans were able to get to the moon and back with the engineering done by slide rule and pencil or that all of the technology that ensued has, among much else, enabled beliefs such as the above. If it is on the internet it must be true…

Norman Mailer’s brilliant reportage of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins’ trip to the moon and back was prescient even regarding technical advance and the associated epiphenomenal states of mind that followed (NB This was 1969):

“Computers the size of a package of cigarettes would then be able to do the work of present computers the size of a trunk.”

“Because the computer was the essence of Narcissism (the computer could not conceive of its inability to correct its own mistakes) a view of (the future) suggested a technological narcissism so great that freak newspeak was its only cure.”

“So the mind could race ahead to see computers programming go-to-school routes in the nose of every kiddie car – the paranoid mind could see crystal transmitters sewn into the rump of every juvenile delinquent – doubtless, everybody would be easier to monitor.”

Impressive, huh. But the book – Of a Fire on the Moon – is much more than that. The author presents himself as the zeitgeist. An uber zeitgeist. He even calls himself ‘Aquarius” (as in “The Age of …”) a move so brazen that failure was virtually assured. But he succeeds. He succeeds by not allowing his perspicacity to overshadow his humanity.

“(The writer was) beginning to observe as if he were invisible. A danger sign. Only the very best and worst novelists can write as if they are invisible.”

Mailer is in no way here invisible. We are with him as his fourth marriage unwinds.

We are with him at the launch. In great detail he describes the physics, chemistry, and engineering of rockets and propulsion which in no way prepares us for the event:

“Then it came… Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of the combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivable louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet … an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death… Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!…”

And that’s only a snippet.

Also, it is impossible in this short bit to give any sense for the depth and breadth of knowledge Mailer is able to bring to bear.

A short example:

“(The writer) had been devoted to painting for close to thirty years; an amateur of the mysteries of form, it took him close the thirty years to comprehend why Cezanne was the father of modern art and godfather to photographs of the far side of the moon.”

And finally, his take on point of view:

“It was a terror to write if one wished to speak of important matters and did not know if one was qualified – sometimes the depressions helped to give sanction to the verdicts taken. It was not so unreasonable. The question is whether it is better to trust a judge who travels through the desolations before passing sentence, or a jurist who has a good meal, a romp with his mistress, a fine night of sleep, and a penalty of death in the morning for the highwayman.”


March 15, 2019

The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend entry about Raccoons reads as follows: “Animal trickster about whom many stories are told in Eastern Woodlands Indian mythologies. Raccoon is never a creator or transformer as the major animal tricksters are (for instance see Coyote). He also differs as a trickster, being neither foolish nor a dupe; the tables are seldom, if ever, turned upon him, as they are on Coyote and other tricksters.”

Wanting to be on the good side of all tricksters, we take great care in our relations with them. Most notably this includes allowing them to be recyclers of table scraps and left over popcorn. You can see the process in action above. That repurposed bird feeder is on the deck outside our kitchen window making it easy for us all to keep eyes on one another.

There is little they will not eat, though given a choice they go after high fat/high calorie stuff first. Their capacity for consumption is prodigious. They stay in their dens when it is very cold, but after a thaw so many sometimes converge that all that can be seen is fur. They are mostly nocturnal, but in late spring the youngest brave daylight because they know the elders would not allow them a seat at the table.

Last summer, right at sunrise, I had my dog in the car with me on the way out to a local golf course for a walk and swim. The highway was a busy one. Just ahead on the left I noticed a raccoon about to launch a scurry across the road. Oh no! To my horror, an oncoming sedan did not brake or swerve and rolled right over the poor creature. The nature of my thoughts about the driver were medieval.

We arrived at our destination soon thereafter and my friend Nellie hopped right out of the car and headed for the creek. I’m no golfer, but am here to tell you that this course is of spectacular beauty. There is topography, timber, and much sound of water. Nellie, of course, had no mind of the accident and the image in mine had faded as we topped a small rise near a bridge just before the eighteenth tee.

With eyes further above ground than Nellie’s I saw first the small pair of newborn raccoons on the abutment of a bridge across a stream. I quickly snapped on her leash. Once she laid eyes a sense of horror returned to me for I was not certain I’d be able to hold her off. I fell to the ground, but held on and listened to her raspy breathing constricted by the choke collar.

Finally she relented and I was able to drag her in another direction leaving the raccoon kits sitting in wait of their mom. As we made back to the truck (me hoping Mom gave them a good talking to) it dawned on my that I had no way of really knowing the mind of the driver that had killed the raccoon an hour before. Perhaps he/she could not avert and was beset with remorse. In a parallel universe maybe the first coon felt but a passing draft.
Nellie slipped my grip and extinguished those flickers of elan vital.


Deer Mom

March 8, 2019

Last summer Mom called late one afternoon to tell me that a fawn had fallen into her swimming pool and was doing laps, unable to get out or touch bottom. Mom’s house is in a wood and there is no fence on the property, so ducks that visit come and go as they please, but most other uninvited guests fatigue and drown before being spotted by the lifeguard. Mom noticed the young deer in distress from her kitchen window and when she went out to see what might be done saw Deer Mom but a few paces away.

Deer Mom was the first thing I noticed as I got out of my truck. Her alarm and sense of helplessness were made apparent by the simple fact that she made no move in retreat. Immediately came to mind events of similar circumstance in the life of me. Kid getting clobbered on the tennis court. Kid in a bad business bind. Kid at a loss in a piano recital.

Much has been written about animal emotions and should the concept come as a surprise, well, something is either wrong with your wiring or your experience of life. You need a dog. Appropriate to this bit is a recent tome on the subject: Mama’s Last Hug – Animal Emotions and What they Tell Us About Ourselves by Frans de Waal. The titular ‘Mama’ was a chimp who on her death bed pulled a human friend close for a last hug. A recent review of the book ends with a similar anecdote, but with the non human half of the pair having been an octopus. (NYT Book Review 3/3/19)

“By examining emotions in (animals and humans), this book puts these in evolutionary context, revealing how their richness, power and utility stretch across species and back into deep time.”… “Emotions are our body’s way of ensuring we do what is best for us… They focus the mind and prepare the body while leaving room for experience and judgement.”

As I approached the pool, my inner big man flashed years back upon a visit to the Seminole Village in Florida were we watched a tribe member swim after an alligator and wrestle it into submission. Deer aren’t carnivores and I thus wasn’t worried about the ripping of flesh, but still wondered about their bite. After herding it into the shallow end, I cornered it and slowly reached for its neck.

Never saw any teeth, but was amazed by the silence of its panic. From time to time I’ve heard the horrific screaming of a rabbit in the claws of an owl and had to guess that evolution has not made deer so enabled – epiphenomenal as the ability might be. I slowly gathered the four legs, lifted the soaking thing to my chest, and made my way to the side of the pool. When I set it upon the deck it was so tired that its feet splayed wide several times plopping it on the sidewalk like a dropped washcloth in a bathtub. Deer Mom took a few steps closer. Finally, firm footing was found, the two rubbed noses, and disappeared in the trees.

Isn’t that rare?

March 1, 2019

In 1954 Mom took me on a train trip from home in Iowa to visit her aunt in Miami. About the trip she wrote to my father:

“Well I must say the train trip was even better than I anticipated. He was just a gem. Slept most of the first afternoon… Did a funny thing ever happen – You know how sound I sleep. Well, I woke up on the train and there was no Budge. He had crawled over me with his blanket and was sound asleep under the berth. Isn’t that rare?”

Mom always thought that everything I did was wonderful. Who was I to disagree? Jung would have used the term ‘puer aeternus’ to describe my state of mind. ‘…men who have difficulty settling down, are impatient, unrelated, idealistic, given to flights of imagination.’

I have been in food fights. I did swim in beer on the floor of my fraternity in college. I have spent a night in jail. I have told jokes at the expense of everything imaginable. Matter of fact, I usually speak without thinking. Uhm, just a few weeks ago I introduced myself to the attractive young woman in the office across the hall from me.

“I have a lot of neat stuff in my office and I get lonely over there. You should come over and visit sometime.”

Needless to say that when I recounted this recent episode to my wife and kids their eyes rolled. With Mom gone guess I’m going to have to grow up. I’m only sixty-six though. There’s still plenty of time.

Sheet ’em in…

February 22, 2019

Ya, long ago looking forward I figured that by now, sixty-six years into this pilgrimage, I’d feel wise. Perspicacious even. That’s how Dad seemed. That’s how Mom seemed. Grandparents for sure. It has slowly dawned on me though that I know a whole lot less than I thought I would this far along the path. Older then, younger now maybe. I do feel lucky. Hmmm.

Few years back in this space (2/16/13) I recounted the experience of sorting through a trove of old stuff and all of the accompanying emotions that nearly overwhelmed me. Well, I’m at it again and I’m here to tell you that whole new emotions have taken hold. We will have to see how effusive I feel over time, but I will start by reporting that I found the above referenced post printed out and lying upon my mother’s desk. It includes a photo and transcription of a Valentine Mom sent to Dad a few months before my birth.

In another place Doctor Brother and I found love letters recounting the first – chance – encounter of my paternal grandparents. I can’t imagine my grandmother using the salutation “gobs of love”. Letters in German from ancestors in Germany. Letters in English from ancestors in England. All 120+ years old.

Before I came across all that, I started going through my old bedroom which still holds everything I saved (or was saved for me) from birth through the day I got married. Baby book sure. Finger paintings from kindergarten. Lots of those simple cheap Valentines we exchanged in elementary.

First quarter kindergarten: “Budge is a friendly, cooperative child. He seems to enjoy all activities. He responds willingly and cheerfully…” But by second grade: “Budge tries hard to cooperate most of the time…” Gets worse before it gets better.

Like I said, depending upon what I allow myself, or trick myself into revealing, you will go: “OMG! Holy shit! I wonder what is in my folks’ house? Better get after it before my kids do.”

About to give up for the day, I found a collection of Thoreau’s essays girlfriend (now wife) sent to me (“I decided to send you a little prize. This book was my favorite book during my summer in Washington…” ) which includes the following:

“The sail – The play of its pulse so like our own lives. So thin and yet so full of life. So noiseless when it labors hardest, so noisy and impatient when least effective.”

So true. As when two parents discuss a problem in a child’s life there is pure effort. Nothing wasted. But flapping lips, pounding fists, slamming doors do not make for headway.

Sheet ‘em in.

Go Cubs!

February 13, 2019

After 90 full years of pedal to the metal, Gloria de Silva Gierke died on November 6, 2018 in bed just after putting on her glasses, but before selecting a book from her overloaded nightstand.

Memorial services to celebrate her life will be held at 10:30 AM on Tuesday November 20, 2018 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 121 West 12th Street, Davenport, Iowa. The family will greet friends in the Great Hall from 9:00 AM until service time. Memorials may go to The Figge Art Museum,The Quad City Symphony or Trinity Cathedral.

Gloria was born on March 23, 1928 at Cook County Hospital in Chicago where her father was a physician in training. A few years later she was joined by her brother Bud with whom she had a particularly close relationship until his death in 2010. After completing his residency Dr. and Mrs de Silva (Edward and Gretchen) moved their family to Rock Island where he joined his father’s practice. Gloria loved school and attended many, but credited St. Katharine’s for a lifelong love of learning.

As for many of their generation, WWII intervened and Gloria had a trove of interesting memories as her family followed her father’s MASH unit across the country from one army base to another. In Brownwood, Texas she was home coming queen. Upon return to Rock Island she was Queen of the Mardi Gras.

After the War, Gloria attended Northwestern University in Evanston where she was, for a time, pre med, but was graduated with a degree in literature. Thus arose a passion for the arts in all their forms. At about this time she and her brother were devastated by the divorce of their parents. Both parents remarried however and happy new relationships developed all round. The bond between Gloria and Bud greatly strengthened.

On May 1951 she married Glen Gierke less than a year after their first encounter. A few months of unmitigated bliss ensued until June of 1952 when their first child, Budge, was born. Ed arrived in August of 1954 and Peter in January of 1956. Gloria was an unbelievable mother and neighborhood captain tending tirelessly to issues related to hydration and minor loss of blood. Once Peter was in school full time Gloria returned to work as treasurer of the family business, Gierke Robinson Co. Less than a year later her father wrote to her husband of his concerns about Gloria working too hard. Ha. She never took a sick day for the next forty-five years. She would have preferred to step directly from her office and friends there into heaven, but agreed to sell the business in 2014.

Gloria found time to engage in a wide range of pursuits for the good of numerous causes, including her decade plus services on the boards of the Tri City Symphony, St Katharine’s, and Trinity Cathedral.

Through to the very end she nurtured the development of her children, grandchildren, great grand children, and all significant others. They are all very much the better for her hand in their lives. One felt fortunate to be in her orbit.

She would wax proud and powerful about her sons, her great good fortune in Sally, her wonderful grandchildren: Tiana O’Konek (Nathan), Andrew, Abigail (John Farrell), Peter (Jaiyin Hu), and great grandchildren Henry and Nettie O’Konek.

Chief among the many souls she cherished who left before her were son Ed and husband Glen.

Sui Generis. Go Cubs!


May 30, 2014

That’s Dean Potter and his best friend Whisper. Here’s what he says to people who for some reason question the way he spends time with his dog: “Dogs don’t live as long as we do. Every day that they’re trapped inside a house is like seven days trapped inside a house for us. Certain people I know will say, ‘Hey, you’re freaking taking your dog BASE jumping you lunatic!’ But my response is that Whisper wants to come with me. My philosophy is take the dog with you. It’s part of the family. Don’t trap it in the car or at the house all the time. That’s no fun.”*
*From an interview in the July 2014 issue of Climbing Magazine

Just DO

May 16, 2014

Sponge Bob

Ok, I resubscribed to the Harvard Business Review in hopes of finding something of value for my entrepreneur son. First issue to arrive was April 2014* and a quick look at the table of contents led me to page 30 and the “Idea Watch – Defend Your Research” section with: “The Challenge – Does touching men’s underwear really make women more likely to indulge in risky, reward-seeking behavior?” The title of the article gave away the findings of this important research: “Women Too Respond to Sexual Cues by Taking More Risks”.

Hmm. Interesting. Oh ya, I remembered an MTV interview with candidate Bill Clinton during which he was asked “Boxers or Briefs?” by a cute young woman and we all know how that ended. Further recollection brought to mind the series of events that led (eventually) to the birth of all three of our children and indeed tactility and boxers had been involved! I’d long wondered what could induce a young woman in the throes of youthful exuberance to risk all for reward of unknowable dimension. It all suddenly seemed so obvious.

Unfortunately though, a complication inflected these cerebrations at the very next visit to my reading room and what else but the Economist**. Recent experiments have conclusively shown that some lab animals are so scared of men (and not women!) that pain producing nerve cells shut down. “Simply put, the animals were being scared painless. A significant increase in faecal pellets suggested they were scared shitless as well.” And, relative to the above, the mere presence of an article of men’s clothing is enough to induce the phenomena.

Hmm. Go figure. That doesn’t seem conducive to you know what. I guess it must have been my good looks and scintillating personality way back when. But maybe I’m over thinking this whole thing. Recently, while reading of correspondence between artists Eva Hesse and Sol Lewitt, it occurred to me that once again I should meditate or take a run or something other than cogitate.   Hesse was agonizing about aspects of her life and work to which friend Lewitt advised: “Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rumbing, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning… Stop it and just DO!***

*No foolin’: HBR April 2014 P 30
**Economist May 3-9, 2014 Sex, writhes and videotape
***WSJ 4 23 14 “Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt
Note: Lewitt’s “just DO! was written fifteen years before Nike took as its slogan a convict’s entreaty to his own firing squad cf April 6, 2012 below


Good Lesson

April 4, 2014

Chang 1
A few weeks ago I accompanied my potter wife to the NCECA* convention in Milwaukee. I’m not an artist, but am always interested, sometimes enthralled, listening to experts describe their enterprise -whatever it might be. At the very least it can be invigorating to watch the approach of truth and beauty at the hands of a mere mortal. Occasionally, with attention and luck there will be a flight of transcendence and such was the case with Ching-Yuan Chang who you see on stage above.

Mr. Chang makes his delicate pots by first scoring (like this: /////) several smallish slabs of clay an inch or so thick and then gently throwing the slabs against the floor till they are so thin that the spaces between the lines have become linear protrusions. He then trims them and assembles the pieces into a vessel of one sort or another; a cup, a pot, a vase. It was fascinating to watch him work while slides of his fired and finished pieces flashed on the screen to the right along with photos of the landscape around Taipei.
Chang 4

There were two sessions. The first was from 1:00 to 4:00 PM on a Thursday and the second from 9:00 AM to noon the next day. I was there transfixed for the whole six hours. He made many different vessels, talked about his career path, related his take on the life of an artist, and with a serenity unavailable to me answered many questions, some repeated many times. “I like to keep things simple” was a frequent refrain.

Toward the end of the second session a petite and elderly Asian woman approached the microphone and asked: “Mr. Chang, I would like to know why you choose to make functional pots and not something sculpture or figure.” I’ve listened to enough related conversations between ceramicists to know that the response to that question will range from a polite demure to inane verbosity.

Mr. Chang said “Something happened to me many years ago that I remember to this day. I was staying with friends in Japan and they asked me to walk their young child down the block to kindergarten. I did so and watched in wonder at snack time when each child was given a drink in a small handmade ceramic cup. One was dropped and it shattered. My Japanese is not very good (my friends speak English), but I finally figured out how to ask ‘why not unbreakable?’ ”. Teacher smile and ask if I speak English.

I nod, she answer: “Well, they are each unique individual pieces made especially for us. Very delicate. The children usually develop favorites and return for the same one every day. But also almost every day one or two are dropped and become shards on the floor. Even in kindergarten there is realization that something special is gone forever never to be seen on this earth again. Like friend. Good lesson.” A hush fell over the room and I thought of those small faces looking down and then up. Ya, good lesson.
Chang 5

* (National Council for Education in Ceramic Arts – the acronym is better than the mouthful, isn’t it?)