Category Archives: Memoir

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

Me and D – A Work In Progress

Harvest moon

Harvest moon

The maps of our childhood are the maps we most easily forget, or so it seems to me, looking back.

When I was a kid I ran through the gulleys and ravines of Lake Park as though it were my own back yard, which it very nearly was. My best friend D and I knew those woods like the backs of our hands and we spent almost every afternoon there after school. My home was five blocks from the park, D’s was two. The amount of trouble that two young boys could get into in that park, without their parents ever knowing, was manifest.

A full moon in October, a Hunter’s Moon, meant forts made from great mounds of fallen leaves, reinforced with strategically placed tree limbs. While our friends might be attending Hallow e’en parties to which we were not invited, we were busy devising new strategies for conquering the world, or defending our Emperor’s hold upon it.

My father raised rose bushes, right at the front of our yard, hard up by the sidewalk. In autumn the leaves from the mountain ash in the yard, along with those from the silver maple on the verge, piled high behind the windbreak that the rose bushes provided. Behind that natural Maginot line we would build our forts, year after year. They were durable affairs, reinforced with fallen branches and cardboard boxes from Diet-Rite Cola or Friskies Cat Food or what have you. We would lay in repose with our clakety-clack toy rifles and Cub Scout canteens, ready for whichever invaders may try to lay waste to our hamlet.

One year D pilfered a pair of walkie-talkies from his older brother, Dan. We talked to each other in our fort as though we were but part of legion. The rest of the platoon were just around the corner, ready to aid us at a moment’s notice. We were both pacifists, I’ll have you know, but we were too young to realize that that meant we weren’t supposed to wield weapons. You know how confused things can be at that age.

I was still trying to sort out my feelings about Alfreda Leiderböhm kissing me at Carrie’s Hallow e’en party when D and I were torn apart by the exigencies of school and family and life. As an adult I have seen films about the Nazi era in France in which families are torn asunder and they never fail to make me think of how my leaving Mr. C’s 8th grade classroom ultimately spelled the fatal turning point in D and my relationship. I went through high school in the next 3 years, while D slogged along, according to plan, and graduated high school about the same time I was dropping out of college.

Life was so simple back then. It may be a prosaic pronouncement, but it is also quite true that the world we face as 13 year old boys is nothing compared to what we will face the next time we have a chance to assess our self worth and place in the world, which may not come around until we’re 21 or 35. My epiphany came at 13, when my father passed away. D’s father took me under his wing and tried to fill a gaping hole in my life (something I didn’t realize for years) while, simultaneously, D’s parent’s marriage was falling apart.

When D ran away from home, a couple of years later, I didn’t really understand his complaint. He had two parents, after all, and they seemed nice enough to me. I lost a father to death and a mother to perpetual mourning, so what, exactly, was his beef?

Neglect, that was his beef. I only understand that now, with a wealth of history behind me.

Walk in the moonlight across empty roofs
Relish the moonlight’s embrace
sing the song of the sun to his face
fall down the drainpipe to the road
trip on the gutter
do as you’re told

Dance in the midnight, waltz in the dark
while others lay sleeping, serenade the park
have a mad affair, a tawdry rendezvous
long after twilight, a real lark
sing your song
mouth your words
pass silently abroad

We didn’t ever have words like those. We wrote, though, thoughtless little boy larks of prose which we would submit to our teachers as joint works of fiction. In fifth grade that was enough to win over our teacher. She could care less that we collaborated on our work, that she got only half as much work as we were supposed to turn in – it was of such high quality, and consistently so – that she graded us as though we had turned in two full, long assignments.

London 2009 – Epilogue – Rose Garden : Coda :

Flying high above the western coast of Ireland seems as good a time as any to start to write the epilogue of my most recent pilgrimage to London; Succour to the soul.

In music a coda is a little slice of notes, typically central to a main or secondary thematic element, which you are informed will return, come back, later in the piece. The double dots, the colons, at each end of the phrase, warn the musician of this fact so that when the time comes she will know where to return. In the software world this is called a loop, a subroutine, a goto. A little bookmark which allows the interpreter or compiler to keep track of the various nested functions and operations which all play into the symphony, the programme, the life upon which the guiding hand of fate has fallen at this moment.

My life of late has been replete, resplendent with coda in all form. The rose garden, for the purposes of this essay, shall be our outermost coda. In programming terms it is our “main loop.” An “Object Oriented” programmer would refer to this as the “event loop.” (and aren’t we all a little object oriented these days?). In musical terms it is our over-arcing theme. Then there is the magical East End, its currents run strong in this musical programme which has accompanied my life these past four weeks; a life lived within the confines of that tempo of weeks; discrete units of life upon which the fates have chosen to act, separating each part and portion of my life from the next, so better to orchestrate the melodies and harmonies, the building crescendo and the diminishing decrescendo, which comprise our souvenir symphony in four movements this past month.

There are those galleries, theatres, neighbourhoods and parks to which I return, again and again, in little loop-de-loop flourishes within the greater piece, little musical cul-de-sac; programmatic tight loops which allow for some minor variable to be recalculated or some sum to be tallied. These are the elements which make the life interesting not just for the subject (or is it object) but for those who choose to look over the virtual shoulder and pour over the digital entrails left in documentary form upon the ether which now constitute such a large portion of our record.

But are there not some other, more subterranean coda? Have we not my return, again and again to the East End, site of my father’s upbringing? My incessant desire to revisit his formation, his formative era to find his epoch. Isn’t there, too, the repeated loop-de-loop of my own little operas, my own cycles of being. There are so many little loops and coda here that to draw a map wouldn’t we end up with the tracings upon my soul of so many curlicues we would have the psychic equivalent of a Dryden Goodwin photo?

Whilst one is within the score of this souvenir symphony, within the source code of this peripatetic programme, one quickly loses the perspective necessary to perceive the tight little nests or sprawling cloverleaf interchanges of cause and counter force, of motivation and reaction, of intent and sentiment which all either choreograph or dance to the music of the month gone by.

I, as the sole soul to have experienced this little portion of “reality” am left now, at the altitude of 30 thousand feet, to look back down through the mists and clouds of memory to the patchwork fragments left behind in act, deed and word, and try to reassemble and reassess what really happened over the past four weeks. More important, however, than what really happened is the question, thus far unasked, what does it mean?

There is, of course, much meaning within these coda, these loops, these cul-de-sac. The tea leaves, the rose petals, the leavings behind through which we must dredge. The rose garden, then, has many constructors, initiators, events, notes. We started our little trek in London with a visit to the rose garden, X and I. We marvelled in the rich blooms gracing that May Day, and admired even those bushes still in bud and not in bloom. In our repeat, A and I on that penultimate evening in London, visited a rose garden which was at once the same and different. Yes the bushes were the same, they were the same ones which captivated my father as a child and as a young man, for that matter, but the blooms were different, nearly four weeks later. We, I, saw two little snap shots in time as the swooping of this souvenir symphony took us around once again to the same garden but displaced enough along the time line, the Z axis, as to see an entirely different visual feast. To dine, as A might have it, on a different flavour of visual food.

The dance within that rose garden, the parrying and dodging, was not that too just another repeat, another coda? There is little in our modern lives which is truly new, so many variations on the themes that are our lives. Add a new ingredient, a new foil or foible, and we have a new circumstance but is it truly a new reality?

Nearly twenty years ago I penned a reflection on reflection. I documented my tendency to document. My “Letter to the reader” set forth my observation that my incessant observation of my own life, for the purposes of later writing it down, had lead to what I dubbed “Documentary Living.” Was I not now, in reflecting on that reflection, simply adding a new coda to the coda? Creating what in software parlance is called an infinite loop? Is this the classical snake eating its own tail, and will surely lead to no good end…or no end??? Or is this merely recursion, recursive – to write over…or to overwrite???

X was the original reader of that particular letter; X with whom I visited the rose garden on day 1. I discussed it on day 24 with A, who was intrigued by the epistemology of my record, and then returned to that same (or was it different) rose garden with her on day 27. Did I close a loop or create an echo, a reflection? I then wrote about that visit to the rose garden with A, thus creating another loop or another reflection? Has an error condition arisen? Must I abend? Is a reboot necessary? Or have I simply imposed a Fibonacci series upon the equation, turning the endless loop into a spiral? A golden section?

These currents are treacherous, are they not. In 1927 a young Alec Bernstein, whilst swimming in the waters off Dover was caught in treacherous currents and nearly swept out to sea. 82 years later his son returned to that place and while staying clear of the waters was caught in the currents of air and nearly blown off the pedestrian pier. Returning to London those spirals of fate, those echoes of history, those reflections and reverberations through the timeline continued into the galleries of Whitechapel where a young Alec had played as a boy, and learnt as a young man, surrounded by one of the most turbulent eras in art history as the modern age was born just down the street and to the right. What was the future for him is treated in historical retrospect for me. He looked forward and I look back along the same skein of historical yarn, each knot along that invisible thread representing for him a future possibility and for me an historical certainty.

“The theme of the trip seems to keep returning to migrations, minglings and explorations.” wrote X on Day 20, then stateside, upon reading another entry in the continual diary. Indeed, yet another set of loops and coda, as I migrate back, again, to my birthplace, and back to the rose garden, and back to the Up Market and back to mingling with new friends and new surrounds, old stomping grounds become newly familiar avenues as I explore those streets and mews that Alec once explored. I retell stories of family lore to a new audience, but are the stories made new when heard by new ears?

Last year the trip to London began with a painful memory, a memory with which I had lived for over thirty years without ever speaking or writing about, and not just writing about it but publishing it in a forum where it could be read by anyone. It ended with a frightening dream on my final night in the Big Smoke, which left me moving through the flight home like a zombie until I wrote it all out in the air over Nova Scotia and posted it, as I always do, to that great psychotherapist in the ether, my blog. Thus revealed, naked to the world, I hoped to cleanse myself of whatever guilt I felt over the emotions which had laid buried for so long.

This year, as the final day approached, I felt a building trepidation of that particular coda; I did not want to relive the psychic torment of that dream and the draining effect of writing it all down. That cathartic coup-de-gras never did come. I slept well last night. So was I free of the demons which led last year to such a painful disruption, a jarring of the snow globe, a skip in the record of my souvenir symphony? No, for in the absence of that loop, that coda, I was left to examine all those loops and coda still remaining. It is the exception, so it would seem, which proves the rule.

Batteries wane, and so do I. I shall set this aside, then, and put the computer back under the seat in front of me. When I am home again (another loop?) I will extract this little piece of the owners manual of my life and once again put it on display for you, the reader, to ponder, in yet another letter. Another coda. Another loop. But I do regress…

London 2009 – Day 21/22 – Remainders

“Hey, no new entry?  You slacker!” “Even though people aren’t writing comments, they are reading the blog and enthusing over how beautifully you write and how witty and smart you are. I assure them they are quite mistaken.”

Yes, even from across the pond, X has kept up her bitter commentary :-). Here, then, is a catchup instalment to bring things back in line.

Yesterday was mostly a work day for me, the morning at least. My friend L came to town around 14:30, on a visit to see her brother, who lives in Kensington. We’ll be hanging around a fair bit, too. After getting waylaid on her way from Paddington to Kings Cross by an ambitious but misdirected cabbie, she was glad to go marketing with me at Borough Market. L loves sea salts, and is on a first name basis with a Frenchman down at market who brings the stuff over by the tonne. Great joyous sounds erupted when she spotted him, and quite a bit of money later we had 4 big tubs of differently doctored sea salt and a great slab of herbed butter.

That butter will go nicely with our spinach ciabatta and rye cottage tin loaves. The bread vendor was also selling this stuff:

He claimed it is Fonzerelli bread, in honour of Milwaukee’s own Home Town Hero, The Fonz. “You know Henry Winkler, He is from Milwaukee. He’s here now, up in Cambridge, signing his books. He was here, took picture with my bread!” Okay, we get it, you’re a fan. Oh look, isn’t that Potsie over there (hurry, run).

Also high on L’s list is balsamic sauce, a vinegar based concoction with loads of spices and flavours mixed in. Quite good on salads, breads, fruits, veggies, meats…pretty much anything one puts in one’s mouth. She loaded up on that, too. Won’t she have fun with her duty claim form. We also pick up several marinated lamb chops and other fixings, as well as strange French sausage blends. Now with the steel reinforced over the shoulder carry-bag compressing my 6′- 1″ frame down to something approaching 5′-6″, we headed back to the apartment to have dinner before L heads to her brother’s place.

Dinner was boffo, along with a couple of gimlets consumed during the preparation thereof, but in order to keep L from simply dropping into slumber following her flight, we opted for a nice walk about Bloomsbury. Off we went to Russell Square and thence the British Museum. Here are some snaps:

The British Museum was open(!), which we were surprised at, as it was almost 8:00 pm when we got there. We ducked in to enjoy a visit to the mostly empty exhibit galleries. Remember this, if the museum offers evening hours, take advantage of them! Here are some more snaps from us mugging (with the) exhibits

Back home, then, by way of Lord John Russell public house, where I enjoyed some Balvenie scotch and L opted for some ale and lager:

With L packed off to her brother’s for the next few days I returned to the business of business, this morning, and then ambled off to Leicester Square to find out what I would be entertained by this evening. War Horse was the winner of the silent auction for my attention, and a tenth row seat in stalls will put me in a pretty good place to watch this well received and well reviewed drama making extensive use of elaborate life-sized horse puppets. Here is a video of the action:

That sorted, I then proceeded to go in search of a still life with cheese toastie and discarded cocktail table:

Compliments of Delish Cafe:

I was on the march for the Phonica record store and their public exhibit to celebrate the first 50 years of Island Records, one of the top British record labels. It was an expansive exhibit of album art and other paraphernalia, but not very good exhibitry. There was a dearth of explanatory text, and what there was was in odd places and a bit dense. Here are some snaps. More in the gallery, of course.

After dropping a bunch of cash on Island anthologies I traipsed off toward Mayfair to take in a couple of photography exhibits; Helmut Newton at Hamiltons Gallery and Diane Arbus at Timothy Taylor Gallery. Lucky for me they are right next door to each other on Carlos Place. Right next door geographically, but miles apart in artistic sensability. Hamilton, in my experience, tends towards photography from the fashion world, and Helmut Newton presents that sensability but while almost all his pieces feature nudes, they all possess a tension and power imbalance which sap them of whatever eroticism they may otherwise have had (at least in my eyes). For the second time this trip I am left cold by what Hamiltons offer.

Next door at Timothy Taylor we find a truly original master in Diane Arbus. This is a refreshing exhibit of her work, sixty prints dating from 1957 to 1971 and including sideshow performers, regular people in New York, Nudist camps, and even a nude, pregnant, self portrait. It was well curated, and featured several additional catalogues to browse. There were many pieces in the exhibit which have not been shown in the UK before, which should make this a well attended show.

Arbus is always sensitive to her subjects, and her tenderness comes through even when unapologetic, “I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.” What a contrast to the harsh sexual power struggles staged by Newton in his works next door. Perhaps the future will bring me back to Carlos Place, more likely for Timothy Taylor than Hamiltons.

Now down to Tate Britain, unfortunately on the verge of two new exhibits, so a little light. I shant well on it, then, but instead report on what must be the 13th or 14th day of the now seemingly permanent protest, in Parliament Square, by Tamil and Sri Lankan expats and supporters. Even though the Sri Lankan government has finally declared victory over the Tamil Tiger separatists in what is most assuredly a humanitarian disaster of a scale we will not appreciate until and unless some independent group, such as Amnesty International, Oxfam or the UN/HCR are able to get in and check things out, these protesters who have snarled traffic and run up huge policing costs show no signs of backing down.

Unfortunately, in the biggest disaster of the trip so far, I was heavily jostled into a railing whilst trying to cross into the square for a closer look, and tore a ruinous gash into my favourite black linen jacket. I couldn’t tell you whether it were a Tendentious Tamil or a Stroppy Sri Lankan, but whoever wot did it, the jacket is rubbish now, it is.

My wings clipped, as it were, I took some more documentary snaps and slumped back home to get ready for tonight’s show.

Oh, and booked a single in stalls for tomorrow night’s Donmar Warehouse production of A Doll’s House in a new adaptation, staring Gillian Anderson and Christopher Eccelston.


London 2009 – Day 19 – Artless in Whitechapel

In which Pawn finds some faith, views lots of art, and uncovers a whole new set of questions, all within the realms of Whitechapel an Southwark. Humbled and newly considered, he shutters in and tries to cure his head.

Pawn’s new friend Anne has thoughtfully furnished a list of East End art gallery recommendations which promise to pull Pawn back to the East and his father’s old stomping grounds. Previous visits to London have consisted of little time in the East End, other than theatre outings to Hackney, and last year’s stumble through Stepney (and Whitechapel, Bethnel, Bethnel Green, Stepney Green, Limehouse, Mile End…) was more a journey of familial rediscovery than a romp through the most vibrant arts community in Europe. Thanks to Anne’s able guide, I intend to change that this time around.

Since most of the private galleries are shut Tuesdays, today lead to the recently reopened Whitechapel Gallery. Whitechapel was the progenitor, the original gallery of 20th century art, opened in 1901, and its 1914 exhibit on 20th century works set the bar for all contemporary art museums to follow. It has had various face lifts over the years, most recently in 1985. This last refinish saw the gallery closed for a few years while it was completely revamped. The results are breathtaking. The gallery spaces are large and airy, with plenty of natural light and a high state of finish.

The exhibits in right now are quite broad and diverse. Isa Genzken: Open Sesame examines the works of this sculptor over the past 40 years. Goshka Macuga: The Bloomberg Commssion explores the intersection of political, social and cultural spheres, specifically in re: Guernica. British Council Collection: Great Early Buys shows off some of the important early acquisitions of this important cultural force. The Whitechapel Boys traces the history and early works of the driving force behind the arts scene in Whitechapel of the beginning of the 20th century.

Let’s look a little bit at each. Isa Genzken had a prolific career, and has certainly had an impact on other arts over the years. Some of her works show a vital curiosity about space and massing which is almost more architectural than sculptura:

I found it interesting more for its historical import than as art. I must confess a certain ambivalence towards much in 20th century art, which begs the question, you may well say, why am I celebrating a contemporary arts gallery? Because it is still very important in the greater scheme, and while there is much I am ambivalent about, and much which leaves me cold, there is also much which I find engaging, vital and inspired. In the case of Genzken, I am able to enjoy some of it, some informs me, and some just doesn’t get there. Onward.

Goshka Macuga has used the Blomberg Commission to create in Gallery 2 (until April 2010) a combination art exhibit, educational forum and library, all dedicated to the famous Picasso piece, Guernica. While not showing the actual Picasso creation (which was displayed at Whitechapel back in 1939) it does proudly feature a 1955 tapestry rendition created by Jacqueline de la Baume Düurrbach (with Picasso’s coöperation) at the far end of the gallery space. This tapestry has hung in the United Nations press gallery for the past 24 years. Nearer to the door one finds a film on the violence of war. Inattentive visitors may not notice that as they sit to watch this their feet rest upon a hand woven rug which is itself a map of the staging of military material in and around the Iraqi theatre of operations.

Opposite the film is a bronze bust of Colin Powell, done by Macuga in a Cubist style. The bust captures that moment, now of profound embarrassment to Powell, where, during the 2003 run-up to the US lead invasion of Iraq, Powell addressed the United Nation to make the case for war. In this frozen moment Powell is holding up the famous “vial of nerve agent” which he assured us Saddam Hussein was manufacturing in the notoriously missing mobile chemical facilities. This is a fascinating piece in its examination of the lowest point in the much celebrated career of a dedicated public servant. Macuga does have a reverence for Powell, and it comes through in her tender treatment of him.

The centre of the gallery is a large round display table in which are displayed various artifacts of Guernica, the importance it played in the Spanish Civil War, and in the rallying of public sentiment against Fascism in the years before World War II. The history of Whitechapel Gallery, Picasso and Guernica are also explored through old correspondence related to efforts to bring the piece back to Whitechapel after its important showing in 1939.

British Council Collection: Great Early Buys invites a series of guest curators to comb through the over 8000 items in this largest of collections of 20th century British art to select those pieces which they feel reflect the best in the early acquisitions. Prominent in this exhibit, the first of five to be displayed over the next 12 months and curated by Michael Craig-Martin, are works by David Hockney, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Lucian Freud, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Gilbert & George.

This is one of those exhibits which just must be seen. This is one of the great collections cleaning out the larder and showing works which otherwise have no home. The British Council Collection have no regular home, and serves primarily as a lender to other galleries and museums across the globe. To have this collection thrown wide open via that gallery which was founded on appreciation of 20th century work is fitting indeed.

I may have to come back before the last exhibition has closed to see what one of the other guest curators come up with. Five stars!

Lastly come the Whitechapel Boys. This exhibit honours those artists who rose up out of the Jewish diaspora who settled in the East End in the late 19th century and lead the foundation of British Modernism. We are speaking here of David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertier, Jacob Kramer, Clare Winston, Stephen Winston and Alfred Wolmark, amongst others. This is not a very broad exhibit, showing maybe one or two pieces by each of these. There are also a handfull of display cases showing notes, doodles, studies and publications.

The exhibit shows us how this group, many of them either first or second generation immigrants who had fled the anti-Semitic pogroms of the era which had swept Eastern and Central Europe (and which lead to the immigration to this very neighbourhood by Pawn’s own ancestors) developed a new vernacular for the 20th century right as the institutions which would foster that art and inculcate it began to rise in their midst. Indeed this exhibit has the feel of a celebration of life of a favourite friend of Whitechapel Gallery. We see how this group came to prominence along side the gallery’s own emergence as an important force in this new art.

I would call special attention to Clare Winston’s (Clara Birnberg) 1910 Art Deco masterpiece Attack which offers a vivid and piercing rendition of the violence of war which would make a fitting companion to Guenica. Also, Jacob Kramer’s 1919 Day of Atonement represents an important introduction of the visual vocabulary of traditional Jewish artwork into the modern vernacular. To have these pieces on display together is brilliant.

As I took leave of this gallery, I found it had a profound affect on me. I have never really thought about my father’s taste in art, or his interest in it. My relationship to him revolved around our peculiar shared interests in building things, making systems work, understanding the insides of machines, electronics, computers. I never knew him to have any deep appreciation of art, though to think he did not seems absurd, in retrospect. He grew up surrounded by this new modernism, but still fully immersed in the traditional arts of his people and his home.

This new question burns still in my soul, I have a new curiosity I must find some way to satisfy. Perhaps some other family member (most likely older sister) will hold some keys to this. Hmm.

A further stroll though the neighbourhood around Whitechapel Gallery freshened my mind and lifted my spirit from the must and violence of the old wartime art. Then hopped the tube over to Mansion House station and a stroll across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. May as well overdose, don’t you think?

In keeping with my general fecklessness, I managed to just miss the Rodchenko and Popova exhibit: Defining Constructivism. In fine form, it closed two days ago. Oh well, last year is was Duchamp and Man Ray I had just missed, and this time it is their contemporaries, Rodchenko and Popova. No fuss, there is plenty to see here, and I was particularly interested in seeing Roni Horn: aka Roni Horn open through next week. At least I made it to this one!

Roni Horn uses a variety of media and styles to explore the lines between self and surroundings, that porous border region between who we are, what we are and where we are. She likes to tease the edges of what she calls androgyny in which she means not just the traditional definition of that which is neither male nor female. No, she means that which is more generally neither one thing or another. An example is Asphere, which appears at first glance to be a simple metal sphere until, on closer inspection, we see it is in fact slightly un-spherical. Horn, The exhibit guide informs us, says “Asphere is an homage to androgyny…It gives the experience of something initially familiar, but the more time spent with it, the less familiar it becomes. I think of it as a self portrait.”

As this post is already so dreadfully long, so was my art viewing experience. I did find much more to like in the Horn exhibit. Her photo series, in particular, held my attention. Cabinet 2001 a series of 36 prints of a clown in bandages, for example, or Pi, a set of 45 images displayed on the four walls of a single gallery, and draw the eye around from one to the next with a consistent horizon through all images even though these are a mixture of landscapes, portraits, bird’s nests and other images.

Lastly I must mention You are the Weather, 1994-95.

This is a series of 100 photographs of the same model gazing directly into the camera while in a series of pools all over Iceland in all sort of weather. We see changes in the expression and demeanour of the model as we meet her gaze time and time again. As Horn explains, these changes in demeanour, reflecting the weather conditions of each shoot, put us in the place of the weather – by meeting our gaze it appears that the model is reacting to us, thus You are the Weather. It is a well made and well presented piece.

Before leaving Tate Modern for a night resting up and home, I took a spin through the rest of the regular and changing exhibits. I won’t detail them all hear but I will say that I may have reached the end of my patience with Cubism. Tate Modern have a wonderful collection of Picasso and it was a pleasure to see so many of them. Along with these are Madigliori, Klee, Kandinski, etc. etc. etc. I love them all, but gallery after gallery of Cubism, good and bad, is just too much (yes, I know, those aren’t all Cubism, I’m just saying I like the bulk of the collection). Especially when they are simply crawling with students from Holland, France and Germany all sitting on the floor or slinging around their rucksacks or slouching around corners to snog – and scribbling in notebooks the whole time.

The winds continued today, unabated, and with them my allergies have been exacerbated. Tomorrow they are due to die down, which will be a relief. “I hope the wind dies down. Its very trying.” wrote Anne yesterday. I couldn’t agree more. One thing about the winds here which are quite different from the US is that, as England is essentially an island, high winds mean rapid changes in barometric pressure and humidity conditions. So, the day can go from bright, dry and sunny to pouring rain in a heartbeat. And back again. This happens on and off all day long, so you must have your brolley handy, or just accept that you will get wet.

Oh; yesterday was a work day, with only a brief visit to Hyde park for a walkabout by the Serpentine and the Long Water (see gallery here) and a visit to the Serpentine Gallery for film works by Luke Fowler and other exhibits. Not much that really moved me.

All for now,


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.