Category Archives: Memoir

Much of my writing is either memoir or deeply based there. Here is where it gathers.

London 2009 – Day 17 – Pawn’s Fortune

As I strolled into Petticoat Lane Market today I was approached by a well dressed man wearing a cobalt blue turban and a dark brown suit.  He wore a full, thick, lush beard, and had penetrating brown eyes.  He bore them into mine, and said:

You are a very lucky man
Next month will be very good for you
You will become famous in your field
You are a mastermind
You have one story in your head
Write the book.

I thanked him and walked on, a little bewildered but feeling generally compliant.

London 2009 – Day 13 – Cheese Toastie Memories

Hurtled back in time to his days as a young lad, learning at his father’s elbow, Pawn is given to reminiscences, all due to the power of a simple cheese toastie. J knows not what she has unleashed with her seemingly simple edict…

Eat a cheese toasty for me. I’m not kidding.
J, in a recent message


One finds, when traveling, that friends will often make seemingly simple, banal or odd requests. “Bring me back a…” [insert obscure object of desire here]. “You must take a picture of…” [insert obvious snapshot locale here]. “Please, oh please, you have to…” [insert impossibly touristy act here]. When J made her request, however, I was a little surprised, and immediately started a little trip down memory lane…

My father was sort of a stranger to us kids on most workdays, until well after dinner. He would be gone well before we were off to school; his presence in the breakfast kitchen mostly confined to making and decanting coffee with the seemingly ancient Melitta. The filters he would pull from a large square box, and carefully fold into quarters, then pop out, into a cone. I marvelled at the topographic implications of this act every time I saw it. He may butter our toast, or threaten to spread his marmalade on it (Yuck! To my young pallet) before applying a suitable slathering of jelly, for me, or jam for my elder sister.

But then he would be gone, and mom would step in to fill out the breakfast routine for the five of us kids, before sending us off to school. My friends, many of them at least, had the added rituals of bag lunches being prepared (before the school lunch program started, about the fifth grade for me) but we lived close enough to school that we were expected to make the trip home and back every lunch hour.

At night dad would get home in time for the evening news, and then it was supper time. My parents would eat in the dining room, where they would talk about their mutual scientific pursuits, what colleagues were up to, and various other impenetrable topics. When one of us children had done something particularly good, or excelled at school or chores, we would get to eat in the dining room, too, where we would try to act as though we understood what was being discussed (my big sister would no doubt claim otherwise), while the rest of the wolf pack ate in the kitchen. This separation of parents and children at dinner time, weekday dinner time, was a core dynamic in our household. It is a large part of what made a holiday dinner so different – it wasn’t just different dishes, or a fancier table cloth, it was our presence all at table together, which made for a holiday meal.

After dinner would come homework and projects and all those little pieces of busy-ness and work which make the life of a young and growing family tick. My father liked to make things from kits. He made our hi-fi, television, harpsichord, grandmother clock, etc. He would buy no end of tools and equipment and justify it by what he would save by hand-crafting our Christmas gifts (I still covet my younger brother’s red and black wooden steam roller). I would hang around and “help” dad with the kit projects. He was rigorous about following every step and instruction and it drove me batty, but to have the time with him made it worthwhile. Though, to be perfectly honest with you, I still, to this day, bridle at following instructions.

This came through in our other big projects, my model making and the train table. I got into making models – cars, planes, war machines, etc. – when I was quite young, and in my father’s eyes that meant that he had to help me. I couldn’t be expected to complete one of these things on my own, and I will grant that this was often borne out in fact when I tried. It was on one of these instances, when I had decided to make an aeroplane model by myself, that dad walked into the kitchen (almost all projects were assembled on the kitchen table, which necessitated that all washing up be completed first). When he saw what I was doing, and I remember this quite clearly to this day, he looked, for just a moment, crestfallen. He quickly regained composure, and asked me what I was up to, and I felt guilty, like I had betrayed him. I ended up asking him for his help, and after playing a little hard to get he eventually assumed his seat at table and got down to the hard work of fixing everything I had mucked up and then progressing, step by careful step, through the instructions. It was at times like this that he would then break the tension by uttering a single, simple term, his term of endearment for me. He would call me “Revere Ware,” or more typically “Copper Bottom.”

Dad was Cockney, and though little of his English heritage showed through (he was a dedicated assimilationist) but the Cockney have a grand tradition of rhyming slang; of constructing new terms through a process of rhyming and contrasting, recombining, etc. My nickname started with my given name, Nicholas. This sounded to dad like “Nickel Ass” which to his Cockney mind could easily be shifted to “Copper Bottom” which was what a Revere Ware pot had, so that’s how you get from Nicholas to Revere Ware.

The train table process was the same as the models. I would have been perfectly happy with a bunch of track and cars and rearranging it all every now and then; add some curves here and there, some switches, etc. Dad, however, took one look at the Kalambach train book I brought home one day, and all he saw was verisimilitude. Next thing I knew we were building a 4′ x 8′ train layout with realistic hills, streets, a pond and bridge, trestles, mines, etc. It was epic, and just never seemed to end. To be honest, it never really did. I lost interest after a few years, and then after dad passed away, when I was 13, nothing more happened with it. Much the same fate for the harpsichord.

Weekends, however, were a different story. On weekends dad would make us breakfast, and often make us lunch as well. He would eat dinner in the kitchen with us, “Eating with the animals,” as he would put it. He had only a fairly limited repertoire of dishes. He could make all sorts of holiday treats: puddings and cookies and bars and such. Or jams and marmalades, etc. But breakfast? That would be soft boiled eggs and soldiers, pancakes or waffles (alternating Sundays). Lunch? The casual sandwich, of course, and then my favourite: grilled cheese. Out would come the griddle, an open and close affair with reversible griddle plates, one side for pancakes and the other for waffles.

A proper grilled cheese, or cheese toastie, starts with some soft bread, butter (though dad used margarine, may he rest in peace) and cheese. Dad would use cheddar or Colby. My more adult tastes have drifted to combinations like Gruyère with white cheddar. You start by buttering one side of each slice of bread, these will be the sides against the griddle plates. You place the first slice butter-side up on the cutting board, and then the next slice butter-side down on top of that. Then, on top of each of these little stacks, you place the sliced cheese. I think that it is better to use more thin slices than fewer thick ones, but your mileage may vary.

Anyway, enough of recipes. Dad’s great contribution to modern sandwich making was the day that he brought his natural gifts of Cockney lateral thinking to the business of sandwich making. We had had a breakfast of waffles that Sunday morning, and for whatever reason – the washing up hadn’t been done or he just had an intuitive flash – whatever it was, the result was that he decided to make the usual cheese toasties with the waffle side of the griddles rather than the flat side. Thus was born the wafflewich and sandwich history would never be the same again.

I have loved and enjoyed the wafflewich ever since that pivotal day, and it has been important to my life. The first meal I made for my prospective wife was wafflewiches (“What wine should I bring?” she asked. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.) and I have served them to friends at parties and sporting events.

So, to dad, a toast to the humble cheese toastie. I may venture into any number of restaurants, pubs or food stands here in London, but nowhere will I find anything as good as dad made that one Sunday so long ago, when he used the wrong side of the griddle and made one giant step for cheese toastie kind.

[Editor’s note: Pay no attention to the modern poseurs who would have you believe that a wafflewich is a sandwich made with two waffles, rather than bread.  The original and only true wafflewich is made only as described herein.]

London 2009 – Day 11 – White Stiffs of Dover

Travel brings Pawn back to an apocryphal place and event in his family lore. X is dragged along for the ride. Much hiking transpires, in gale force winds. Children die, seemingly by the dozens, and the audience applauds. Ovations lead to encores, dogs are tired, and drinks are consumed. A busy day, all around.

“Obtuse enough to be cryptic or cryptic enough to be obtuse?” These are the Pawn’s true muttered musings on the above introduction. But every word is true. Off to Dover on the train at the crack of 10 am., to retrace the near drowning of Pawn’s five year old father-to-be on a family outing (back in 1928). Pulled out to sea from Dover’s stony shore by an undertow yet returned to the bosom of his family to thrive, without ever again entering a body of water larger or deeper than a bathtub.

Arrive in Dover with the fantasy of a side trip by bus to Canterbury, innocent pilgrims that we are. Takes a half hour to even find the Tourist Information stand and are directly merrily off for a wee hike to Dover Castle.

“O, you’ll be there on foot before the bus would even arrive,” we’re assured by a sadist somehow (terms of her probation?) assigned to help visitors. Battling high winds, a map like something from The Da Vinci Code, steep and treacherous steps, and my incessant whining [Pawn: and Wheezing] we scale the heights of the mountain, ready to defeat the German invasion, or at least find the restaurant.

This is a massive fortress, one of the first structures is a lighthouse built by the Romans,

and added to and improved over the millennia until it became a pivotal coastal base in World War II to spot and destroy German ships and planes. There are cannon, trebuchet (siege engines), anti-aircraft guns, narrow slit windows in towers for archers, moats: the state of military art over the centuries. Tourists were staggering like drunks from site to sight along the cliff edges, buffeted by winds that would have ruffled Winston Churchill. I envied those tottering about with canes; at least they had more stability than I enjoyed.

We made our retreat without a tour of the tunnels used in WWII to the disgust and amazement of the guard at a gate and made our way – wind mysteriously again in our faces – back to the town centre and thence to the Promanade. We pass a sculpture of two swimmers on granite blocks

on the shoreline – the point at which the Channel swimmers traditionally take the plunge for France; as the Rick Steves’ guidebook in our flat said, “Allow nine hours”. –X

Dover was dramatic and wonderful, and very very very windy. You cannot even understand this wind, and its effect, unless you were to experience it. After clamouring up to Dover Castle and its fortifications and instalments, we descended back down to the beach. I was determined to go as far as possible out on the sea wall so as to get some good shots of the cliffs:

I cannot even begin to describe how lashing the wind was. I have spent enough time sailing the Great Lakes to say that the wind was easily 20 knots, gusting to 30 or more. It was unbelievable enough to try to walk along the jetty, but to then try to take a photograph with a 400mm lens? Forget it. That any of them came out at all is truly amazing to me.

After three and a half hours of walking around in these conditions we are toast, and were quite glad to get back to the train station. Our train back to London was delayed, and with travel conditions we were late enough that we were glad that our evening show was so close to Charing Cross Station. We quite literally walked out of the station, around a corner, and into the New Players Theatre/Bar/Restaurant. Dinner was nice enough, and then into the show: Tiger Lillies – The Songs of Shockheaded Peter & Other Gory Verses. How to explain the Tiger Lillies?

They are a post-modern Burlesque Cabaret act heavily inspired by the Berlin cabarets of the years between the wars. The subject matter of this show are cautionary tales and songs sung to children to encourage them to behave properly:

And many more. Here are some videos of their performances:

What a wonderful way this was for us to relax from the rigours (or rigour-mortise) of the day. I picked up the live CD of this show. Back home again, and to update all of our photos, blogs, etc.  BTW, Due to memory card restrictions, many of the JPEGs you see are low res.  Full sized raw format images are available if you are interested.

As always, the entire photblog is available online here.


Sobering Shopping

I just was shopping at Target, late night, getting those last minute gifts for the out-of-town crowd. There was a mostly happy and deliberate group of shoppers, carefully going over shopping lists in the toy isle, looking confused in the small electronics isle.

Speaking for myself, after a few false starts I did pretty well. A few kids and a couple adults will most likely be pleased when they dig into their stockings, or look under the tree, or whatever. It was in that somewhat buoyant spirit of the successful warrior, then, that I approached the checkout lanes. I sidled past the woman with the overflowing cart and moved towards the next register, there was only one person in line and she had only a few things.

As I reached over to grab the little red plastic bar to separate my stuff from hers, I saw that this young woman, who didn’t look more than 19 years old, had only three items: two sizes of Pampers and a pregnancy test multi-pack. A shiver ran through me; I suddenly felt very frivolous and a little smaller.

I watched her go as I asked for gift receipts for the niece’s MP3 players. That young woman had paid her bill in singles and change. She asked for no gift receipts.

I assume she was hoping for some sort of Christmas miracle, I wonder which?

With all the heart I can muster.

In 1987 I was working for the local hands-on science museum, Discovery World, and part of my job was to beg companies to donate material to our cause. This was not really a task for which I was a natural choice – I am not really a salesman, and not a fund-raiser. As a matter of fact, due to internal politics I was forbidden from fund raising; I could only ask for “stuff.”

We were working on the “Health Is Wealth” exhibit, a compendium of stations, 23 in all, covering many aspects of whole-body health. We were looking for a blockbuster addition to this exhibit, and as artificial heart research was very much in the zeitgeist I was tasked with trying to get one. Being a novice and an innocent, I called up Symbion, the firm formed by Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the first practical, implantable, total artificial heart (TAH); the Jarvik 7. “Hi, This is Nic Bernstein calling from Discovery World museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I am calling because I see that you have just removed a heart from a local man, and we were wondering if we could get that unit to display in our new exhibit…”

Yes, I actually made that call, and the response I received was much more polite than you might expect. “Well, we have received that heart from the implanting hospital, Saint Luke’s, but under FDA guidelines we have to disassemble the heart, test the components and then return the whole works to their labs.”

“Oh, well I guess that makes sense… Have you got any suggestions for me as to how I may be able to get one? We would really like to exhibit one, and seeing as a local man just had one, and local interest is high, it just seems like the time is right.”

“I tell you what, we cannot give you one – all of our hearts must go to an FDA approved transplant site. But, I can tell you this: There are two sizes of hearts, small, for women, and large, for men. Turns out that the large is really too large to implant into anyone’s chest cavity, so we are only using the small ones. St. Luke’s has a large one that they ordered for training. It can never be used, since it is too big, and since it hasn’t been used, they don’t have to return it to us or the FDA, and they need to purchase a new, small unit to train with. You should ask them.”

The next call I placed was to the communications director at St. Luke’s. “Can you give us that training heart that you have? I understand that you cannot implant it, and it would just go to waste otherwise…” I asked. “Tell you what, Nic, I am going into a board meeting right now, let me see what I can do.”

It was all that she would say, and nothing was promised. I put down the phone and waited…

Two hours later the phone rang and it was the communications director form St. Luke’s. “If we were to give you the heart, just how would you exhibit it? How would people see it? I have ten minutes and then I have to get back into the meeting.” she said.

I was stuck cold. I hadn’t thought it through this far… “Well, what we would like to do is have a display where the visitor would place their finger into the plesthysmograph that you gave us, and they would see their pulse on the heart monitor you gave us, and then the artificial heart would start to beat in synchronization with their own.” I offered. I was really loading up the stables on this one…

“Okay, I think I can sell that,” she said, “I’ll call you back in half an hour.” I was both proud and scared out of my wits. I waited, and worried about what I would say to Eric, my engineer.

She called back in 40 minutes and said, “You have your heart! Make us proud.”

Shit! Now came the hard part.

I made the long trek down the hallway to the lab, and sidled up to Eric at his bench. “I have just had a very interesting conversation with St. Luke’s and I have to tell you about it,” I started. “They are going to give us a Jarvik 7 artificial heart.”

“Cool!” said Eric.

“But, I told them that we would make it do this…” I said, and went on to explain to Eric what I had told the PR woman that we would do.

Eric thought about what I said, and then he said something like “Well, I guess we need to find out about it’s control circuitry.”

The next day I called back to Symbion and asked my contact if he could put me in touch with someone in the engineering department. “I heard from Bridget that you got the practice heart!” he shared, “Good play. Talk to this guy…” and he gave me a name and number. A few minutes later I was speaking to the head engineer. I explained what we wanted to do, and asked if we could get plans for their drive systems. It wasn’t going to be that simple.

The original Jarvik 7 heart was a bulky, and balky, device which was pneumatically driven. The control cabinet was about 4 feet tall by 2 feet wide, and housed an air pump, and a pair of drive assemblies. The drive controls had a pair of dials on their face, one of which controlled pulse rate and one of which controlled the duty-cycle; the ratio between systoli and diastoli – the amount of time the heart pumped in versus out. These values were hard coded, so to say, and did not vary. In other words, if you had a Jarvik 7, you would get a dialed in pulse rate, say 72 beats per minute, and a dialed in duty cycle, and that was that. There was no variability, there didn’t need to be.

I was crestfallen. How were we going to synchronize a Jarvik 7 to the visitor’s heart if the control unit was fixed? Well, we soon discovered that was not going to be an issue as we were not getting the control unit, just the heart. I called the engineer again. “Well, I can tell you that you need this amount of pressure to cycle the heart, and that you need this amount of resistance, and back pressure, but beyond that, I don’t know what to say…” “We want it to track the visitor’s heartbeat” I said. “Well, if you get that to work, we would love to see what you’ve done, ’cause that’s way beyond anything we’ve done.” Oh goody.

Well, long story short, Eric did it. He built an analogue computer which performed quadrature upon the output of the plethysmograph and drove the parallel pneumatic drives to the heart. A week or two later our heart arrived, and we had to put it to the test. A heart pumps against a load; in the body that load is provided by the arteries and the miles of blood vessels and veins. In our test, as we had yet to construct our hydrostatic tanks, we simply immersed the heart into a bucket, “more than six inches deep,” we were told. I handed the heart to Jerry, a Bible thumping shop guy, after first connecting it to the pneumatic tubes. I placed the plethysmograph onto my finger and Jerry plunged the heart into the bucket, and we turned on Eric’s drive unit. The heart started to pulse, and Jerry yanked his hand out of the water and ran to the other side of the shop spewing oaths in his wake. I grabbed the heart to keep it from surfacing, and had the most bizarre experience of my life. I was holding my own heart under water, it seemed, as it beat in perfect synchronization with mine, and with a firm and resolute rhythm.

We had done it! We, a small and underfunded science museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had designed and built the most advanced artificial heart drive system in the world! We made minor adjustments to the system after that, and ultimately we were unable to allow the visitor to experience that eerie, out-of-body, sensation that I had of holding my own heart in my hands, but we had to protect the heart.

We did send all of our design materials off to Symbion. We never heard if they used any of them, but in the ensuing years the dream of a totally-implantable artificial heart (TAH) gave way to the more pragmatic ventricular assist device, the intra-aortic balloon pump, and similar heart pumps, assists, etc. All of these new generation of heart savers share the quality of tracking the patient’s own heart rate, systoli and diastoli. Whether or not our work was used, we laid the path.

Tonight, as I write this, my friend Tom is having a pair of ventricular assist devices installed into his chest cavity. If all goes well they soon will help his heart, his scarred and stricken heart, and pulse and pump blood though his veins. I do not claim anything in this, but I would like to think that in our own way, due to our own imperatives, we showed a generation of heart surgeons and clinical engineers that it was important to consider the patient’s own heart, their own pulse, when designing the systems by which we would keep them alive.

Mostly, however, I have to write this because I really want Tom to live and I have to do something with my fingers while he lays on that operating table and has this generation’s best and brightest install a piece of machinery into his chest to keep him alive long enough for me to tell him to his face how important he is to me.

My American Story

Ballot Box

28th. February 1953

Dear Professor Lederberg,

Dr. Clive Spicer, who recently spent some time under you, has informed me that there might be a vacancy in your department for a graduate English student.

Such a project interests me very much and I would, if it is still open, like to offer myself as a possible candidate. Would you be so ‘kind as to let me have some further details  about it?

A. Bernstein

Thus began my American Story.

In 1953 my father bridled under the strains of life in post-war England. He had trained for a career in medicine, but after years as a corpsman during the Battle of Britain he had seen too much death. He had administered last rights in muted voice too many times and for too many faiths to ever face a career of dealing with patients, so he settled for research and teaching.

The post-war years had already taken him around the formerly occupied countries of Europe to help rebuild the medical establishment and treat the distressingly high rates of fevers and infections. He was released from service in 1948 after service as Emergency Lieutenant, War Substantive Captain, Substantive Captain, and finally mustered out in 1959 as Captain, the rank he carried to his death. The rank he would much rather never had taken.

My father, to put it direct, was eager, no fast, to get out of Britain and her post-war shock of austerity and deprivation. He had suffered already too much of that. Many tales are told of the Brits steadfastness and stolidness, in the face of Hitler’s unending siege, and indeed my father had witnessed his own home being destroyed by a V2 “buzz-bomb” and the virtually complete destruction of his country’s financial system. He wanted out, and NOW. He was tired of the straight jacket that England had become for him. He wanted the dream, the dream that had motivated so many emigrants from so many countries who flocked to the United States in those years.

I am having a little difficulty at present with the Bank of England in trying to arrange for the transfer of some of my Sterling assets to the U.S. I think that they will agree but time is running rather short…

The British were loath to let their citizen’s hard assets leave their shores. Indeed my mother, in 1977, fully 14 years after his emigration, had to fight to get the last of his bank notes released.
But I digress. Dad did get out, and he came to America, and met my mother in that lab in Madison, and they wed in December of 1954 and moved back to England when my father’s visa expired in 1955. They started a family, bought a modest semi-detached home, and finally, in 1963, moved back to the United States when he got a position at Marquette University.

On June 20, 1968, one day after his 46th birthday (I have just turned 46, so this is significant to me), and just two weeks after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, my father received his naturalization papers from this United States, his United States – He was a Citizen of these United States! He celebrated the fourth of July that year with an uncharacteristic enthusiasm.

He voted that November 4th for Hubert Humphrey. A Labour Party regular all his life in England he could not have done otherwise.

My own political awakening, born in 1968 when my parents hosted Students for McCarthy, came into its fullness in 1972 with the campaign of George McGovern. I was young, only 10 years old on election night, but I was a dedicated foot-soldier for McGovern, having distributed thousands of pieces of literature for him in some of the toughest wards of the city.

I still remember that election night, sitting in the local McGovern headquarters on Oakland Ave. and watching the polls come in.

I must digress here for a moment. Many of my friends these days know that I always watch the polls come in. For many reasons this is a remnant of that first election night I witnessed. I implicitly trust the democratic system, but I equally implicitly distrust the physical manifestation of that system.

My father came to the McGovern office at 8:00 to collect me and take me home. The next day was a school day and I could not be allowed to stay up all night. I was reluctant to go, to say the least, but I did.

In the car, on the way home, I looked at my dad and asked if he had voted. “Yes,” he said. ” Who for?” I demanded. He paused. “Nixon,” he said. “How could you do that, Dad?!? You know how hard we all worked on the McGovern campaign. How could you?”

“For once in my life,” he said, “I wanted to vote for a winner.”

We never spoke of this again.

In the summer of 1974 we were camping in Indiana when Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States of America. The first ever to do so. My mother couldn’t wait to call her brother John who had been a big organizer for Nixon in his home state of Virginia. I just had to sidle on up to my dad and …

… and say nothing. I wanted to ask him how he thought about his winner now, but I knew how he felt, and he didn’t need his snot-nosed kid to rub it in.

I am listening to Bruce Springsteen sing “Born in the USA” on the Hi-Fi right now. I can always appreciate that song even if I cannot identify with it. I was not born here, but this is my country as surely as it was my father’s, or my maternal grandfather’s – a seventh generation American.

Much has been made this year of early voting, and I have endured innumerable entreaties to vote early myself. I have done this in previous elections, but I shall not, will not, this year. This Tuesday, November 4th, marks the 40th anniversary of my father’s first vote as a naturalized American citizen. On that day I will cast my own ballot, proudly, for another son of an immigrant. And I will smile at my father’s memory, for I know that he would have voted the same way – for a winner.

Memory Lane II

My friend Cindy P just sent me a link to The Beatles “Let It Be” on YouTube (see above) and it really took me back. Cindy was in the UWM Union today, setting up for an event, and overheard a student playing this song on a piano, and it took her back. “it really made me stop. breathe, think… she wrote.

I know the feeling.  It took me back to the winter of 1970, Christmas time.  I’ll be dating myself here, but I must confess that Let It Be was my very first record album purchase; the original release.  The Beatles were already broken up by the time it came out, but an 8 year old hardly cared about such things.

My uncle Leon, my father’s older brother, had sent each of us some money, probably $10.  My older brother Steve had spent some of his on a record, I will spare him the embarrassment and not say which one.  I was so jealous!  Well, not to be outdone I got all fitted out in my snow gear (we used to have real winters back then) and made the trek around the corner to Green’s bookstore, where Panther Books is now, on Downer and Hampshire.  My $10 bill creased into the palm of my hand inside my mitten.

I marched right up to the New Releases rack and waited for my glasses (a childhood curse) to unfog, and then tried to decide what to buy.  There was Johnny Mathis and Bobby Gentry, but the only band that I recognized, other than the records my older siblings had already purchased or received as gifts, was the Beatles.  Abbey Road and Let It Be were both in the rack, but Let It Be had a nicer cover, I thought, and besides it was an album it opened up, that made it automatically better.

I bought it for $5.59 and took it right home, the spare change jingling in my mitten and the four $1 bills pressed into my palm.  I asked permission to use my mother’s Westinghouse portable record player and settled in to listen to the record and read, I mean really read the liner notes.  I can still remember the first strains of “Two Of Us” coming through the tinny speaker of that phonograph.  I loved it all, though I didn’t really understand some of it (I probably still don’t).

In a way, listening to it tonight, that thin YouTube sound quality playing on my tinny notebook speakers was very much like listening to that old vinyl on the paper coned speaker in my mother’s old portable Westinghouse record player (with a penny taped to the tonearm).  Paul McCartney’s piano playing on Let It Be still sends a shiver down my spine, and “Long and Winding Road” still makes me sad.  In many ways all of my music purchases since that first one have paled.

I still have that vinyl, and when my turntable works I will get it out and play it.  All except for “Maggie Mae,” which suffered just a little too much from my tin-can-and-sewing-needle days of homemade phonograph experimentation.  But that’s what makes it genuine; it is older and worn and a little the worse for wear, like I am.

Thanks for the memory, Cindy.  A long and winding road indeed!

A Letter To The Reader

The following is a piece I originally wrote on September 11, 1990. I was sitting on the foredeck of a houseboat, going upstream on the Mississippi River with my friend X, and about 15 other close friends. That was a very important weekend to me, as I learned a lot on that trip. I have a wonderful photo that either X or F took of me that trip.

In any event, the reason I am posting such an old piece of prose is that while I was away in London and Prague recently, I kept thinking about the sentiment, contained herein, of documentary living. Everything recounted in this story happened to me during that very long Labor Day weekend in 1990.

Here it is, make of it what you may…

Whenever I see you, you’re reading. How many stories have you lived? How many words are in your soul? Do you digest all of these expressions and prose, make them part of you, or are they like bath water, washing over you and then rinsed away. These words, these souls, these lives which you consume like so many hors-devours at a nickel buffet, do they satiate you in some way? Some way that your own life does not?

A character in a book I once read escaped, ran for miles to be free. Does this happen to you? Escape? Or is it a grounding experience? When I was a child, my mother would read to me. I escaped, I left my own life and entered that of the character in the story of the moment. It was freeing – listening to the sound of my mother’s voice, closing my eyes and realizing another life. As I grow older, I sometimes find escape again in the pages of a book, imagine her voice, but it lacks – I cannot close my eyes or the story ends.

Does your story end? Is that why you read so much, like a chain smoker who won’t allow for a moment without a lit cigarette in their hand, you put down one story and take up another. Are you afraid of your own, or are you so comfortable with it – having crafted it from all that you have read from others?

As life races past me at freeway speeds, I try to capture some of my reflections in the written word. Like the mirror I face in the morning, they remind me of how much I’ve already died. Every day they have made me a prisoner, held me for a handsome reward. Since the first time I recounted my experiences on a piece of paper, I find myself writing those words in my mind as I experience – Documentary Living.

Mist in the Kickapoo Valley

A light fog lies in the valleys at night. The full moon paints it an eerie blue. I’ve traveled these roads sometime before. I know the curves, the signs, the lines which twist beside me as I drive. The road rises and falls before my eyes, like your chest as you sleep beside me.

The night sky closes around me like the coat clutched tight on a winter day. The only sound I hear is my own scream lost in the wind blown past my window, the road passed under my wheels, the tree lines lost from view, the cigarette which now is ash. A voice on the radio tells me the time, announces a song, reads the news.

I’ve put eight hundred miles of rattles on these bones in the last two days. Eight hundred miles of driving through other people’s realities, other people’s homes and villages, other people’s pathos. The midnight sky outside hides the cold of fall under a veil of summer stars. I cannot close the window although I keep the heater on. The radio plays loud.

A verse turns over, again and again in my mind, as I drive. The steady rhythm of the road provides a frame for me to fill, the night – a canvas to place there. The words seem to flow in and out of my thoughts as if from nowhere – I know not the inspiration for their presence, nor the excuse for their leave.

I once read that dreaming is just what part of our brain does to occupy time as the rest of it carefully files our day’s experience into the deeper cubby holes of our minds. People can die from lack of sleep. Is it sleep they lack, or dreams? Is it that our brains get snowed under from all of these experiences, and forget how to make us breath?


As I drive, I feel as though that part of my brain which handles these menial filing chores has decided that this is as good a time as any to get the job done, and does so. I am not dreaming though, I am wide awake and driving a car, as the odd snippets of the past several days’ experiences drift across my consciousness on their way to permanent storage.

One of them goes like this:

I saw the astronauts sleeping, tucked tight in their little sacks and Velcro-ed to the wall, their hands floating before them in space like unnecessary appendages. I felt like an interloper, a peeping Tom, invading their space-bound womb, to see them all drift as fetuses in the amniotic fluid of a deep sleep. Over their heads, through the windows, I saw the earth. A patchwork quilt of cloud and clear. I felt very very small, and floated, like their hands, like an unnecessary appendage.

And another, like this:

I am sitting in a fiberglass car, an old fashioned Hupmobile, being dragged along a track, serenaded by the rantings and ravings of a maniacal horse on a tinny loudspeaker. The buggy turns, first one way and then the other, revealing to me a view of the world I would never have expected existed. Pathetic statuettes, animated and gesticulating wildly, enact various moving tableau, recreating a sickening history of mankind’s foibles with his cars.

Children cry and their mothers sob with frustration as the derelict plants and factories, long since abandoned for some capitalist cause, stand as testament to their hardships and suffering. But me, I’m trapped in this buggy, with this ranting horse, watching as a plaster of Paris American eagle fans its wings at me, declaring the importance of the car in creating a united country, its tattered wingtips threatening to fall off at any moment.

As I ride, I ponder whose nightmare is this? What mind conceived of this, and are they getting therapy? Later, having a drink by the ferris wheel, it leaves me numb.

I did not intend to drive this far, this long. I took a wrong turn right out of the parking lot. I don’t know if it was pride or a sense of adventure which led me to continue and not turn back earlier. I crossed the state line about ten miles out, and that was over half an hour ago. As I drive now I try to convince myself that I am just skirting the border. I have no way of knowing if that is true – I have no map, there is no sun to guide me, I cannot even see the Northern star through my windshield. As the signs proclaim “Chicago – 58 miles,” I just trust.

At first I screamed at every intersection with a road I did not know. Now, however, I enjoy it. It is a lovely night for a drive: the road is new, the weather brisk, the radio adequate. The sky is pitch dark, except for a crisp, full moon. My heart is full with possibility and my head is soft with the smooth flow of a dreamy consciousness. I know I will be home in time for work tomorrow, that is not even a question, and beyond that I do not care. For now, I am drunk with the drive and the night and the memory of your smile.

That is enough.

These are all words which have been written across the blackboard of my mind, waiting patiently in a queue, ’til now, to be moved to paper.

I guess the day will come when I will write my life before it happens. Will you read it then? Will you tell me what my experiences will be like, warning me of those which lack literary merit? Or is my destiny more like that of the bath water.

Ther you have it. X, what do you think?

Remembrance Of Two Pioneers

Two people, each a giant in his field, and true pioneers, both passed away recently. Pawn was deeply influenced by both. Joseph Weizenbaum, pioneer in artificial intelligence and skeptic of technology’s role in human affairs passed away on March 5th, and Gus Giordano, pioneer in jazz dance and an extraordinarily gifted correographer passed away on March 9th.

Here is an excerpt from the New York Times obituary of Weizenbaum:

Eliza, written while Mr. Weizenbaum was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 and 1965 and named after Eliza Doolittle, who learned proper English in “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady,” was a groundbreaking experiment in the study of human interaction with machines.

The program made it possible for a person typing in plain English at a computer terminal to interact with a machine in a semblance of a normal conversation. To dispense with the need for a large real-world database of information, the software parodied the part of a Rogerian therapist, frequently reframing a client’s statements as questions.

In fact, the responsiveness of the conversation was an illusion, because Eliza was programmed simply to respond to certain key words and phrases. That would lead to wild non sequiturs and bizarre detours, but Mr. Weizenbaum later said that he was stunned to discover that his students and others became deeply engrossed in conversations with the program, occasionally revealing intimate personal details.
Joseph Weizenbaum, Famed Programmer, Is Dead at 85 – New York Times

A friend and mentor introduced me to Eliza in 1976, about a decade after its conception, and it opened my eyes to what could be done with what are now called human machine interface facilities (commonly referred to as UI). Much of my professional work with technology, whether in computer fields or in exhibit development have been influenced by those early lessons.

In 1980 I had the honor to work on several dance performances with Gus Giordano Dance Chicago, when they came to the humble Metropole Theater in Milwaukee where I did lighting and tech work at the time. Here is an excerpt from the Times’ obituary of Giordano:

Mr. Giordano was best known through the performing of his company, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, founded in 1962 and based in Evanston, and through his teaching at dance conventions throughout the United States.

The company, now directed by Nan Giordano, his daughter, is said to have been the first dance troupe to dedicate itself solely to jazz dance. The company’s programs featured pieces by Mr. Giordano and later, as he grew older, included dances by guest choreographers including Mia Michaels and Davis Robertson. The performers became known for their strong training, energy and hard-driving, precise way of moving.

“Their sleek lines and high, silent jumps had the feel of a well-oiled 1958 Chevrolet Impala, a pure expression of another era and something we remember as historically sexy,” Erika Kinetz wrote in 2005 in The New York Times, reviewing “Giordano Moves,” a tribute presented at the 14th annual Jazz Dance World Congress in Chicago.
Gus Giordano, 84, Innovator of Modern Jazz Dance, Is Dead – New York Times

Pawn remembers Gus as friendly and open, and very respectful. He had already won his Emmy award by the time I met him, but was gracious and down to earth. His company loved him, and it showed in the enthusiasm of their performances. I always looked forward to their arrival at the theater, and learned a lot about lighting design working on those shows.

London Journal – Epilogue – Echos From Dreamland

I imagine myself to be a simple enough man. I am not given to epiphany with great regularity, nor am I given to cypher. I am probably plain to a fault, and tend to expose too much of my inner world. I do not often have dreams which move me. I had one last night, and it is still resting heavy in my chest.

I will, no I must, try to record what I dreamed in order to lighten this weight. I am on an airplane right now, flying somewhere over Canada on my way home from a month in London. I went to try to find myself, and in some ways I have. I have a better sense of who I am right now than I long have. I once again feel a level of confidence which I once carried like a shield but which has been missing for too long now. But this dream.

Before I left on my trip I wrote my ex-wife a letter about an essay I had read. No, not really about the essay, but about how my own experiences have left me in a different place than that author. That essay was by a woman who had lost her father when she herself was already an adult. In her map of the universe there were places which she associated with her father, places from which she had stayed away, as though they were off limits to her. There was his Brooklyn, and there was hers. Only after he passed had she allowed herself to venture too far into his Brooklyn.

I wrote that I had a very different map than she. In my map of the universe my father occupies times and not places. I do not think of a place and say “That’s my fathers” (fill in the blank). I think of times, “When my father was alive we…” I can no more venture into those times than could H. G. Wells without his time machine. I could not understand, I couldn’t relate to what this woman wrote, but she wrote it beautifully and it did make me think to recount in writing an event of which I had never written before – my father’s death in my 13th year. This I did in painful detail, and I cried while I wrote it. I suspect she cried when she read it. Later, when I cleaned up the letter and put it on my website, I suspect that other people cried when they read it. I did not intend to make people cry, I just had to get that account out of my system, and I had.

This was all in prelude to my month-long trip to London, and it served as a sort of cathartic warm up. In London I took a day to go and try to find my father’s London, and ended up finding how much the world changes in 60 years. Instead I found myself, or part of myself, and had a new catharsis. That prelude piece had ended in my admission that in a way I had always blamed my mother and her pack-rat tendencies for his death. I don’t know how aware I have ever been of this, but it must have been there and it came out full force as I wrote that memoir. I shudder to think of my siblings reading that and what they may now think of me.

But my dream really startled me, for in my dream I found myself confronting those demons directly in way I have never imagined one could in a dream. Here then is that dream, make of it what you will.

I am 45 years old now, middle aged. My marriage of 12 years failed, though there were many good years and much happiness, there was an unhappy period which came over me and by annex my marriage, commencing a few years ago, roughly coinciding with my mother’s final illness and ultimate death. After her illness, death and the administering of her estate I never really get back to enjoying my life as it was. Too much has changed. I cannot even see what is different or what is wrong, I am just sublimely unhappy.

But now I am a teenager again, I am in my mother’s living room and the room is clean, something it had not been since my father passed away. This in part is how I place my own age, as I cannot see myself. I am in a clean living room so I must be a teenager. The doorbell rings and someone answers. My father is at the door. He has been dead for five years now, and has come to talk about that. My mother comes out from the kitchen and they have the same little kiss on the lips with which they would greet each other every time he came home. My mother wore an apron and tea was soon served. We sat and chatted; my father, a neighbor, some other people. I was there, but I cannot recall any of my four siblings being in the room.

Dad in a clean living room, circa 1975

Dad asks for a glass of water. Oh my god, I cannot explain, but his voice is just the same, that thin reedy voice with the palest of English accents, the almost singsong lilt. My heart jumps as I offer to go get him one.

The kitchen is a mess, it is not clean like when dad was alive, it is a horrid, unlivable mess as I remember it from visits to mom 10 or so years after dads death. I am caught in a Sisyphean struggle to find a clean cup, or a cup I can clean, or something to clean a cup with, or …

My mother comes into the kitchen. She is still wearing her apron but is now as she was in the era of the kitchen looking like this, she is as she was at 60, not the 47 she was when dad died. I look at her with contempt and frustration. Dad is out there, in the other room, and if only she could keep house I would be there with him instead of trapped in this kitchen trying in vein to get him a cup of water. How long have I got, will he still be there when I get back? She is old now, will he be gone? Is the dream over? The dream, the dream

Yes, the dream. It slips away as I realize that I have been dreaming. I try to fetch it back, but I will never go back into the living room with a glass of water. I have failed. All I have done is find contempt for my mother, who certainly didn’t deserve it.

That is how I awoke at 4:00 this morning. I never really did get back to sleep properly, and a couple hours later was getting up to go to the airport and fly home. We will land shortly, so I must power down and stow my computer. Much to think about I guess.

Maybe I’ll sleep on it.