My Fore (Four) Fathers.

1)Play, 2)Win, 3)Love, 4)Be. These are the four sections as I reminisce about fathers who raised me.

1) Play:

My heart leaps up when I behold 
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man; 
So be it when I shall grow old, 
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
— Wm. Wordsworth
Hey, Ma! what's with that "The child is father of the man," business?
Well, for example, dearest, as a boy didn't you like looking hard into things?
Yep, still do.
And, didn't you like the idea of an idea?
Yep, still do.
Well, honey, I think you get the picture.
Thanks, Ma.

The Child is father of the Man: I went to a summer camp for 4 summers—8 week stretches that shaped me in ways that have lasted. It was a sports centered place where the boys played something everyday, in hard fought competition with each other and with other summer camps. A couple times during the summer, the camp director, who was a High School football coach (the winningest coach in Chicago-Land BTW) during the school year, and also BTW, the coach of that monster of the MIDWAY Dick Butkus (say his name), hall-of-famer, pro-bowler every year he played, linebacker for U of I and the Chicago Bears. So, a very sports centered deal, that camp. Every summer he would play the recording of Coach (Notre Dame) Knute Rockne’s famous pep talk which contained the lines—”Boys, to play the game is great, to win the game is greater, but to love the game is the greatest thing of all.” The idea of Play, Win, Love stuck like glue and becomes the outline, the framework, for beginning to talk about my fore (four) fathers. Add to the Play, Win, Love formula BE, and you have the the outline of all four fathers. Sports didn’t have my attention much though I could hit a ball and catch one (with a terrible throwing arm, which yet persists). Also I was the shrimp-iest kid in camp 3 years running, so the playing fields were not my home ground. I most loved being in the deep nature of the North Woods of Wisconsin where I collected, dissected, preserved the creatures I found. Frogs and snakes a speciality, I couldn’t get enough of wandering off to find something I’d never seen. Ask me sometime about finding the fruiting bodies of a colony of Myxomycetes growing on a rusted sheet of steel. On steel?? What the…?? Riveting! Follow the myxomycetes link.

Fruiting bodies of myxomycetes similar to ones I saw growing on a steel plate.

It was in this that me the child, became father to the man, as Wordsworth says, and this was my deepest form of play. One day at camp, I rowed a boat across the lake to sit in still, quiet and watched a Mink slide through the water with a little perch in its mouth. It laid the fish in front of its burrow, oozed in and emerged to drag the fish into its blackness. My 9 year old joy, still, my cup of tea. So what came through the child to the man? Given we live in a photo-world, I have plenty to knock my memory loose of that child-become-the-father-to-the-man. Here’s one from the Kankakee Daily journal, July 1959.

From 1959. The caption says we’re finding “marine life”. Not quite, it was aquatic life. Marine is ocean—Kankakee is 800 miles from the nearest ocean. Duh! Oh! Kankakee!!

I was 12 and had talked my way into a High School summer school class by demonstrating my real interest in the natural world. I was so happy gathering the creatures in a demarcated patch of stream bed running through a farm left fallow since the depression; our task: to find as many species as we could. The farm had thus been free of pesticide poisons and caustic fertilizers for 30 years. I was a young squirt among the bigger kids, but I was good at finding, holding my own. Our findings were recorded and sent to the U of Illinois. Also, I loved the weirdly growing concoctions in my room; I always had a “Mung Jar” of moldering something watching things change and alchemical-ize into something else. By the time I got to Art school, I made drawings of Compost Paintings, layered vegetable matter behind glass, so to watch this process in action. But my interest in compost brought me to growing things as well. By the time I got to graduate studies when I was required to “minor” in an area different from my main course work, I chose Vegetable Production; the U Wisconsin being a land-grant college with a robust AG program. Digging in soil for hours was a fulfilling way to spend time. Planting a row of seeds and watching them become food is a continuing passion. That child I was, led the man in me to be able to spend hours in the Art studio alone with my thoughts.

More thoughts of this way of thinking: I held dear, a microscopy hobby, in which I would gather pond water, filling the jar with plant stuff and examine the mouldering to see all the one-cell creatures emerge. I spent hours at it looking into that whirling busy world. I was also able to sit for long stretches becoming a meditator with formal initiation in 1967 into The Maharishi’s brand (yep the Beatles Guru) developing a relationship with my inner self. Then in Art school, spending the hours it takes to learn to draw, the very brain structure transforms. Drawing images on a litho plates and stones and on to monoprints, there was more of this hyper-focus. Anyone who knows me, knows I am easily distractible, but when I’m engaged with something that holds my interest, that hyper-focus comes to the surface. Working the slow-slow-slow drawing process on a piece of lithographic limestone (which is composed of a gazillion diatoms), I came to the realization everything is alive, not just knowing but realizing. And so, I enjoy playing around with “stuff” I’ve collected to see how it configures in a move to read the meaning an object holds, explicating that aliveness through context, through paint and pictures. In this way, at heart, I am an Animist; think of Joseph Cornell and his mysterious boxes and you get the idea.

That boy in black was bound to do it his own way, father to a rebellious child. L to R, David, Paul, Richard and Michael Lang. Paul brought 140 people out of the mayhem of the holocaust. Some are confused by the Yiddish term, mensch:a man in full. Paul is Fig. A in the dictionary of that language, Paul’s first language. David (Yale ’66) a surgeon of some note, Michael (Harvard ’66) taught the world about the practice of Mediation. Think of those three boys never born!

That boy could sit on a bench at the playground and spin-drift into a made-up world looking at sticks and pebbles happily until the bell rang, kids streaming by back to class. Are you OK? A teacher would ask, “Oh, fine” (I just couldn’t see the point of kickball and all that running around), I was happy in my thoughts, still am. <><><><><><>

Hey, Ma, How do you know when you are around a winner?
Well, sweetheart, if you don't know, you're a looser.
Yeah, that Leon was the original, "Is you is, or is you ain't, guy."
It began with HIS father who beat the odds coming here with nothing,
who's town was wiped out of ALL the Jews. THAT guy came here at 18,
alone and tough as nails. YOU wouldn't be here otherwise.

On to # 2) Win on our four-fore father ride. My own father, Leon was a born winner on the Play-Win-Love-Be continuum. I watched him casually step up to the golf green and sink a 35 foot snaking putt to win a championship. How could he do that so calmly? Sitting down to play checkers with me and triple-jump me to a quick conclusion—a heartbreak for a young lad. In the house he was a great stony silence. Coming home from work he would turn on his Hi-Fi and settle into some classical music…Art was a kind of power…”and now Van Cliburn plays, Chopin…études”…ssssh… the evening paper a wall of silence. I brought to that Hi-Fi a Bob Dylan record I’d just bought, put on Boots of Spanish Leather thinking that romantic ballad would bring him to Dylan—”Get that shit off my Hi-Fi,” after listening for 20 seconds. Working at his auto-parts store was mandatory in the summer and sometimes on Saturdays. And when my brother and I showed up late one day, we were fired. Oh!…dread and remorse. When I brought home a bad report card, he flipped it back to me saying, “Is this emmis?” Meaning, (more or less, in Yiddish) can this be true? No offer of help or other advice, you were supposed to preform beyond expectations. When he offered me a job in his business as I was about to graduate college and I turned him down, it got pretty chilly between us (more chilly I should say). I think he was quietly relieved. I was a spin-drifter as I indicated in the “Play” section, I was an alluvial fan spreading wherever it meandered, I’d be a terrible addition to his business. When confronting the draft to fight in Vietnam, at my physical, to see if I was fit, I “won” a 4F deferment mostly by my own cunning. He was pleased and made me an offer, that if I could “win” an academic scholarship, he’d help with living expenses. I did and he did. My peripatetic journey to California after school was a great confusion for him and we co-existed in a continuing chilly detente, but he adored my son Noah, so he visited regularly, without much filial warmth toward me. But always there was his dedication to the Arts on which I could feed on for sustenance. We regularly went to Chicago to be initiated into he and my mother’s “church” of choice—we would poke around the amazingly complete Art Institute, then go across the street for a concert in his box seats at Orchestra hall, followed by a French meal at the famed Café de Paris. FLAMBE! The pleasures provided by a creative soul at work were what moved his soul, not the rote patterns of a religious service. After I had been Bar Mitzvah’d we sat in the stuffy synagogue for Rosh Hashonna and after 10 minutes he nudged me with his elbow, pointed to the door with his chin and we were O-U-T. In the car he said, “I’ve done my duty and now I’m done, you are free to do whatever you wish, but I’m done with this. Religion is the cause of the world’s problems, not the solution.” I was thrilled to be let out of all that dreariness. My hero, but personally, I really didn’t get him, nor he me. Because I’d worked in the business I never called him Dad, it was always Leon.

Leon knows and he ain’t telling’ ’til he wants to.

Four years after my moving to California, he called: “I’d like to go to the Galapagos, your Mother won’t go, will you?” Yikes! 3 weeks traveling with the “Big Silence” freaked me out…his mute judgement, such a weight…but the naturalist in me said YES! So I called my friend Judy North, “Who is the psychiatrist you rave about? I’m gonna need him when I return”, I thought. I made the appointment. Our trip though, was a wonder of connection—on the first evening in Guayaquil, I stood on the landing heading to our hotel room, Leon is just below. He’s talking to our “fixer” who has arranged our trip. “Sorry, Mr. Lang, but your trip has been cut from 3 weeks to five days—trouble with the boat.” Leon steps forward. The dreaded finger comes out, the one we feared as boys. “Jaime, you speak English well, right”…poke poke. “Oh, yes I went to UCLA.” Then you understand me when I say BULL SHIT!” poke, poke.

Paul Lang, Leon’s father, making a “point,” the apple doesn’t fall far…nor the finger…poke poke poke.

The next day we were on a smaller nicer boat with just six others and had the time of our lives. I was witness to power in ACTION. Leon is cool! And HE got to see me at work, everyday drawing and painting, photographing, scribbling away in my notebook; watch an artist in ACTION and you can see the wheels grinding out a very human kind of pleasure. Power and pleasure met. I felt I no longer needed that psychiatric appointment; I had an easy grace with Leon though it would be ten years or so to come to became real pals. At his heart he was a creative and curious soul and had invented his own brand of venture capital, sponsoring those he thought had “ambition and smarts” in their own businesses. If Leon had a talent, it was identifying those who would expand his world, business especially, but he had a way of bringing those into his circle who would be additive to his mission, business especially, but anyone who could augment his life, socially, even for example, a bank teller, an Airline functionary, a maitre d’. Every year of my growing up and beyond he and Shirlee (Mother) hosted exchange students from all over Europe and beyond to Japan, India, Iran…Leon was a man of innate curiosity which was easy for me to adopt and grateful for it. But, I did keep the psychiatric appointment and in part four we’ll open that lid—New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick writes in his great story—A Man Goes to See a Doctor—my experience of psychotherapy was not with an old-world Freudian like Gopnick’s, but a Californian, a Beatnik at his core and a lot more fun; coming up after one more paragraph of #2 (win) & onto #3 (love).

Leon’s house, designed by Milton Schwartz.

My brother, having seen and felt the effects of Leon’s and my Galapagos denouement, wanted some himself, so the three of us traveled to Santa Fe and Taos where none of us had traveled for some denoument-ing together. In the Taos pueblo, the trees had put on their gold gowns and the air was filled with the incense of sweet Piñon pine smoke streaming out of that ancient pile of stacked-up habitation. Leon found a chair in a sunny spot in the town square while my brother and I set out to find an “authentic” experience of native culture. Poking around the Kivas to see if we could tap into some righteous Indian lore, we were quickly shoo-ed away. Coming back into the square after an hour, lore-less, we saw Leon sitting in a circle giving the low-down to a group of elders—that man had gravitas—all power and no kidding. We asked “What were y’all talking about”?—hoping for some of that Indian lore. He just smiled that quirky grin you see in his picture and turned his palms up, shrugging his best Mr. Silent. We just saw, all the faces in his Pow-Wow circle were turned toward him. Power attracts.

Picture Leon sitting in this plaza in a circle of elders.

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Hey, Ma.
What's the opposite of a narcissist?
Well, my sweet that would an empath.
You mean like our cousin, Jerry?
You bet, wasn't HE something...

Now comes #3, to Love, in the Win, Play, Love, Be equation. As I said, I’d “won” a scholarship and Leon’s response was “OK, good”… ’nuff said….I’d never expect more. That night we went out to dinner to celebrate, meeting Jerry and Bernice Blitz. Jerry was Shirlee’s cousin, of her generation, and he and Leon had developed a very strong business partnership. Leon’s power at getting what he wanted was well matched with Jerry’s immense charisma. At the restaurant Jerry and Bernice met us in the bar. When Jerry heard about the scholarship, it was ting—ting—ting on a glass. “Hey, listen up everyone! Drinks are on me so we can lift a glass to this guy!” (lifting me out of my barstool), “hip hip hooray.” (Jerry was the strongest person I’d ever met). Yes, WIN is great, as was said, but LOVE trumps Win. Love is so much funner, and funnier. Did I say strong? He had stared as a halfback at Harvard, holding the NCAA record for most yards run in a single college football game, and held it well into this millennium. Our families were close, often eating together and after dinner Jerry would wrestle my brother and me on the living room carpet in a game of “Try to pin me.” Great sweaty fun, along with a subsequent rock-paper-scissors game; an arm punch for the looser. His would knock you into the wall, painful but to feel body-power was a strange gift, to really feel it. Leon would always be sitting quietly amused, never joining in. Amazingly quick for a big guy, when our group of French exchange students organized a soccer game—Europe vs. USA—ready to show us how to play “the real” football. The French tip-tip-flip-dibble-dribble-tip-ed the ball around—they’d been playing the game since before they could walk—soccer was a dance of delicate ball handling. This is OUR game they said—”we’ve been-playing-this-game-since-we-could-walk”, we’ll be sorry to beat you.” Well, they met a thundering, ball stealing monster who couldn’t be stopped. I had been playing soccer in High School, so I’d learned some of that “tip-tip-flip-dibble-dribble stuff, I would pass the ball to Jerry, and after 12 goals by Jerry, the European “Powerhouse of finesse” threw in the towel. Comment peut-on jouer au football avec un buffle? How can you play soccer with a buffalo?

We often went into Chicago for a concert or a stage play with a fancy dinner after with Jerry and Bernice. In the big city we would have to park in a garage with many stories and curving ramps to bring the cars down to the street. You weren’t allowed to drive inside the garage; they had guys to do that. We would wait while a guy got out of a little warm office would go out to fetch your car. One night, we were waiting and Jerry was leaning on a car. It was huge limo and seemed like it was the kind that would belong to a gangster type. Sure enough, it was a gangster car. There was the driver, huge and fat sitting in the office. You could see he had a gun under his jacket by the big bulge and, you could tell he liked showing it off. A scary guy. Definitely in the “outfit.” He marched over and said to Jerry in a gravel-y tough-guy way, “Ehy, don’ lean on the fuckin’ car” and then he turned around and went back into his warm room where he had been playing cards. Jerry strolled over to the limo and busted the antenna off. Wow! My brother Mike and I just about exploded with terror and laughter. Just then our car came around the ramp. Were we glad to get out of there? You bet! 

When Leon and Shirlee would go to Chicago for the night, in my middle-school years, I would occasionally stay with Jerry and Bernice. One night we were playing poker after dinner. “Bluffing is a big part of the game, you need to learn how to bluff,” Jerry says. He excuses himself to the bathroom and comes back and deals a hand. We’re playing 5 card stud, we’ve got our chips stacked and we’d anted up. Jerry deals. I’m dealt a royal flush in spades. I can hardly contain myself as Jerry says. “So what’s your bet?” “UM, ah, er… all of it.” as I push all my chips into the pot, laughing. “Not a very good bluff”, Jerry says. We are all roaring laughing as I lay my cards down. “You could learn something from Leon,” he says. HE knows how to play it close to the chest.” Right, as if HE would ever sit down to play cards. To Jerry everything like the lesson in the bluff could be turned to fun. It even extended to a moment when I was told by Leon to clean the dingleberries from my dog’s butt handing me rubber gloves. Leon was super fastidious about bathroom-y stuff. I was taking a long time in the basement laundry tub, Jerry and Bernice over, dinner, waiting. I was fussing around not making much progress when Jerry came down, “Oh, God it’s just a little shit, you can wash it off, HERE! and he bare-hands a clump, “Look, it comes right off.” This was a time when I was a pudgy late-bloomer, Leon not paying much attention to me, so Jerry took me on, coming over after work and set me up with a workout routine and some weights. It made a difference. Years later we were at a beach, two guys walk by sporting some prodigious man-boobs. “You think it would kill ’em to do a couple of pushups? That’s embarrassing.” You can imagine I think about that whenever I think of not doing my push-ups in the morning??

Leon was an avid opera fan, he and his mother had had a great bonding listening to the Saturday night opera on the radio, and so, when Madam Butterfly came to the Opera house, Leon scored 6 tickets. Great seats in the orchestra section, wonderful music, I’m sitting next to Jerry. It’s all so beautiful, the sets festooned with cherry blossoms and ordered Japanese architecture. Now it has to be said, that in this woke age we would have seen Jerry being sent to re-education camp, especially by his three whip-smart daughters, but the casting begged for some of Jerry’s irreverent raunch. Madam B. had to weigh in at 295 and at 5′ 10″ a miscasting with the 5′ 4″ tenor, Lieutenant Pinkerton, 135 soaking wet. Beautiful singing voices, but when Madam and the Lieutenant retire to the teahouse for their tryst, Jerry whispers to me, “You think he can find it?” Made me feel like I’d graduated… To something…something that made me feel grown up. “He might get lost in there…” Oh! the teenager’s imagination INFLAMED! I hardly kept it together.

We’ve all gotten the giggles, uncontrollable laughing at some stupid thing or another, why did it happen so often with Jerry? We are at a concert, sitting in Leon’s box seats, six of us hearing Andres Segovia, this tiny powerhouse alone on a stage. The playing is beautiful but you have to lean in, a guitar in a big hall, Orchestra Hall in Chicago. At intermission, the Nedlog cups are laid out, some kind of orange punch each with a single ice cube. Jerry brings his back to the box. Segovia sets to his work, its lovely but frankly, hard to hear even in these excellent seats. Sluuuurp, p-toink Jerry is a virtuoso with the ice cube, then crunch!!! Well, that got us giggling…Bernice and Mike at the front of the box, shoulders bouncing trying to hold it in. My mother and Leon and I head out to the hall, howling! We can’t hold it in. Even Leon! We have to go into the bathroom across the hall. Jerry is orchestrating, all he has to do is hold up the Nedlog cup and we are lost. Jerry says remember, “Nedlog is golden spelled backwards”. Why this is funny, only the gods know, but that little bit of knowledge has us howl-ing all over. We are hurting so bad. Finally we all settle down, Segovia gets 3 encores and its over. The woman in the next box says to Shirlee as we are leaving, “Madam, next time please leave your children at home.”

Jerry Blitz, definitely not a tourist on this planet.

We took an epic, epic car trip, the Blitz’s and Langs, 8 of us in two white Oldsmobiles across the country, to the ’62 World’s fair in Seattle with a stop in Yellowstone on the way. We are in the Rockies and held up for an hour by a road construction crew, blasting a wider road. Jerry had fixed the Old’s up with CB radios, for staying in touch, for directions, and lots of silly joking around. This is well before the fad for CB radios took hold. So we are waiting, waiting…Finally Jerry’s had enough, we’re hungry, cranky…we can hear the road crew on our channel “Ah… breaker, breaker, this is KC 90317” Jerry says into the mike, “Let those two white Olds through.” A flag man comes out and waves us through. We could’ve been blasted off the mountain. We’re all giggling our way through. Lunch was particularly tasty.

At the end of our great trip west, we are wrung out, pulling our two car caravan into a steakhouse somewhere in Montana. The conversation swings to my ID bracelet, which I thought was VERY handsome, made me look so cool. Jerry didn’t suffer pretense like some teen show-off jewelry. “Why?” He asks. “Well for example, if you want to go steady, you can give the girl your bracelet.” Jerry says, “Well, maybe she could just give you kick in the balls. Easier in the jewels department” What!!! We all start laughing, and soon we are howling. Its the tiredness of three weeks on the road?? Maybe… but it gets so bad we have to go out to the parking lot, so bad my brother barfs up his prime rib. We settle down and finish dinner, there had been a lot of folks in the restaurant who joined in…someone asks “what was so funny” and all we can do is start in again. Jerry!!! Big smiles all through the restaurant as we left.

He loved the sauna & sweating, took me to his men’s club in Chicago where we worked out, swam (showing me how his muscular body wouldn’t allow him to float, took a deep breath and sank like a stone). I got scrubbed down by a shower attendant after a sauna. Manly stuff, for a kid. In the 180° heat we’d built great dripping gouts of sweat, Jerry had a pool of it in his lap—”You know, I like you so much, I would give you the sweat off my balls”, scoops up a hand full and flings it at me. Couldn’t help but laugh. In the shower he could see I was painfully shy about my very late blooming, “You know, I didn’t get hair on my balls till I was 17.” The perfect kind thing to say to a shy kid, coming from my irreverent hero. For all his fooling around Jerry was someone who would lean into a conversation with a genuine interest in just you. Out on the golf course having a fun, funny time, Jerry hitting his approach to the green, ended up with a broken club in his hands, shattered the grip, the buffalo on the links. “Maybe loosen your grip,” Leon says. Haw haw. Gawd he was strong. But the conversation went to my complaining about school work, “Chemistry! Why do I need this?” Jerry went into to a dissertation on the philosophy of education a la John Dewy, “You are supposed to be the wide end of the funnel while you are in school, you can’t know what you’ll end up using. You have to love everything at your age, even if you hate it.” So smart. Well, he did go to Harvard. Every time I went back to Kankakee, I made sure to have a meal with Jerry, just the two of us…that way that he had of leaning into you; well, being with a true empath is like being dipped in honey. “You have to love everything, even if you hate it.” Dipped in honey…

Jerry and Bernice Blitz. Bernice was his perfect match. In my book of truly fine people, these two are tops. Empathic, both.

I visited Jerry in Gloucester where he and Bernice now lived in the August of 1989. He had cancer—bad, and this would be the last time I saw him, but it was so great seeing him. I was ready for some of his low-down on life as I was leaning toward a divorce. I asked “How did you raise 4 kids and stay so close to Bernice?” He says, “I always made sure the kids knew I loved Bernice more than I loved them.” Wait, what? This, in our kid-centered world…of course he was right, sure, you are a nurturing, care-taking soul, but it’s a true-ism I learned to follow—kids do best when the adult field in the house is strong. For me, winding into a divorce, I made sure the kids knew I was bound to something I loved— to enforce the adult field. The kids knew how important my Artwork was to me.

He said, “You know, I don’t know if I can climb this mountain any longer,” speaking of his treatments, the oncologist had implanted an automatic chemo gizmo under his skin and it was going off. “I’m going to feel like shit in about 15 minutes.” His Rabbi had him reading Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things happen to Good People, “It’s helping—a little, he said, but this is really shitty.” He and Leon had had a falling out over a deal made that would cut Jerry out of some part of the business they’d shared, and Jerry was very hurt by it. To Leon business was never personal, to Jerry it was always personal. They had been such a tight unit together, their synergy was a force of nature that swept through Kankakee and affected many lives, a dynamo of attraction. “Would you ask Leon what I did to sour things.” The next time I saw Leon, on my way back from Gloucester, I did ask, and what I got back was like picking up a live wire—”That’s none of your fuckin’ business!” “Jesus, Leon…really, you two! I mean…” “Don’t ask me again.” End of story. I had forgotten Leon was a gangster of the first order, not in a criminal sense but in the power way of—its not personal its just business. Sheesh! It wasn’t physically murderous, but it did kill something in me, reminding me in the Play, Win, Love, Be continuum, Win can be a harsh and windy place, and not much fun unless you’re the winner. Love wins in my book. At the wake, so much food! Jews know something about sorrow and delicious food…I quoted a line from a poem I know to Bernice: from When Death Comes “…when it comes, I don’t want to simply have visited this world…” Jerry was definitely not a tourist in this world.

I’m no spiritualist, leaning harder towards the rational, but a couple of things happened at his funeral worth noting. While the Rabbi was giving the eulogy to a packed-in overflowing crowd, there was a loud BANG! followed by a hush. What the…? The Rabbi continues, there were a lot of sad sniffling people in that crowd. Minutes pass and then the lights go out. Out! Not a flickering, but out. They do come back on. Asking about it at the wake, no one in charge of the synagog had a clue. “Never seen that”, the Rabbi said. There was to all of us, that a light had gone out of this world.

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On to #4—Be.

“We are but waves of light, constrained by walls of circumstance.” Sterling Bunnell, Jr. MD

"Hey, Ma! What does unconventional mean?"
"Well, sweetie, you know how Sterling would answer the phone in the middle of your therapy hour?"
"I remember, it was kind of like some mysterious punctuation."
"Unconventional in more ways than one, my dear, which reminds me of a joke:
A novice magician is on-stage for his first performance;
Nervously, he pulls a Rabbi out of his hat,
Someone in the audience shouts,
That's a little un-orthodox. "

I ended up keeping that psychiatric appointment I’d made before I went to the Galapagos even though my “issue” with my father had been largely resolved. I could accept him for how he acted in the world. It would take some time to cruise toward a working relatedness. And, besides, he loved the Arts and he and Shirlee were a good team—extending their great curiosity about the world to me and my brother. Just hosting exchange students every year would have been enough, it made our lives a rich substrate for experiencing the world. Returning from our trip, we showed our slides we’d taken. Leon’s were snapshots, too far away, un-composed, sometimes blurry. When it was my turn, first of all, Leon didn’t fall asleep, as was typical of him. “Hey, these look like they were taken by a professional.” Well, duh. I would never hear praise directly from him, it would always be one of his friends ringing me up to report on what Leon had said about me. I was fine with that. But, if I did have an issue it was trusting my self to dive deeper into my Art. At this Sterling excelled, working with many Artists and poets of note, and over the time I was in the therapy room, I got the boost I needed.

Sterling and Judith North. “He’s so great,” Judy told me.

Sterling’s office was on Shattuck, in those days (late ’70’s), the street was rife with hookers plying their trade—lots of cheap motels lined Shattuck, so it was a bit mythic running the gamut of the hookers and sometimes their pimps—like the underworld in a Joycean or Greek fable. Perfect. I walked into the office, door open, and there sat Sterling, a shambles of hair and rumple, (never much of a sharp dresser), sitting with a falcon on his arm. I mean this was getting mythic-ier by the second. A FALCON! he was holding her by the talons. I don’t know if it was the chicken he’d been feeding to the bird, or Sterling himself, but there was aroma. “This little Merlin busted one of her toes and I’m trying to hold her still til I can get her home to splint her. Found her on the road on the way here.” Those eyes! Like millefiori paperweights. I can’t stop staring. “Made on the savannas of North America, some call her a Pigeon Hawk, she can see telescopically and close in, falcons have two fovea, falcons are descended from parrots and so, really intelligent. Hawks come from the seagull line—the dump truck line of birds.” OMG, I mean Doc from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was my High School hero, the biologist, bon vivant, maximally erudite, someone who was not just a fictional character, but someone I wish I’d known (Ed Ricketts-author of Between Pacific Tides THE book on the intertidal zone), and here he (or a pretty good facsimile) was in the flesh. Sterling was a biologist as well as an MD, and had written a couple of important monographs on the California Kit Fox and a well-regarded report on the Death Valley Pupfish—fish thriving in a 120° hot tub of an environment. And here he was…I was avoiding the obvious, got on my knees, spin-drifting into the eyes of that bird. I don’t want to discuss problems in the face of this magnificent creature “So, tell me about your mother…” and we we’re off…

“My mother has a most beautiful hand and patience with materials, but she doesn’t do it much, that’s always bugged me. She’d won a scholarship to the Art Institute (Chicago), she’d even won a contest to decorate the windows at Marshall Field’s—at 17! She avoids diving in, I’m mad at her about it. I do my Art all the time, am I making up for her lack?” I had taken two books with me on my Galapagos trip: Jaguar Skies: poems by Michael McClure, and Revisioning Psychology by James Hillman—the Hillman had filled me with psychologizing; Sterling wasn’t much for psychologizing. I’d met McClure when he did a reading at my college; a very free person I thought. Sterling says, “You know, McClure and I are friends, he says he gets writer’s block at least five times a day.” Haw Haw Haw. Dusting my hands of my mother’s problems, just like that. We mostly laughed sitting in that office. I had done some Buddhist meditation where you sit looking at another person and I found myself sitting in a room where the air turned to waves of a kind of amber gelatin, that happened often with Sterling and often he had seen a movie that excited him and he would tell the whole story where it became a kind of dream I’d had myself. I asked him after about six months, “So, how do you think we’re doing?” “Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day, Haw Haw Haw.” So funny.

A sculpture in response to an argument I was having with school administrators—”Sterling says, when leaving the cave of the tiger, one pats the kitty nicely on the head and backs out slowly.” Raw clay, broken glass, footprints. “And remember, he said, when the trough gets narrow, the hogs squeal louder…”Haw Haw haw!

I was troubled at the time when someone would comment about my work—”Oh that reminds me of so-and-so…” Drove me absolutely nuts! To hear that when I’d struggled to make work that was unique. Not so much trying to BE unique, but thinking I had found something genuine of my own voice and having it compared—arrrrgh! “Another mule kicking in your stall???” Sterling says. Haw HawHaw! Why was THAT funny? But it was funny. Just the image, and then, as if by grace itself the true voice I’d been looking for, after a while began to come through. I didn’t feel like I was struggling to DO that, it seemed to come of it’s own accord. Came out of the end of the pencil&brush. But I know it was Sterling with his stories and good humor. Giddy-up! Giddy is right…I never laughed so much as I did in that office. We shared a taste in movies that pried open some ancient, medieval flavor, Jaderowski’s El Topo, Eric Romer’s retelling of the Grail legend, Percival and that classic surreal western by Robert Downey, Sr, Greaser’s Palace in which Jesus comes skydiving to Earth dressed as a chulo pimp dispensing healing, laying on hands, “If ya feel yer healed”…a man on crutches throws his sticks away saying “I can crawl again, I can crawl again…” In the film that guy crawls across the proscenium of several scenes, it became a meme in our therapy as well as when Greaser’s son, Lamey Homo, is shot dead by his Pop, resurrected by the Jesus, saying “Pop! I dreamed I slid down a rainbow and then I became a perfect smile.” Greaser shoots him again. Ya had to be there, but this kind of irreverence was a great palliative to all the fly-by-night Gurus, and self-appointed Shamans flooding the ’75 to ’85 moment in the Bay Area, as well as the grief pimps (I call ’em), peddling their sad-sally soup. Sure, things get tough, and I really miss some folks, I really miss Sterling (I’d give anything to talk to him right now), but…for example, his lesson gave rise to Judith’s and my work with plastic pollution—as we say when are called on to talk about our work, which can be a heartbreak, (IS another heartbreak in our dying burning world), Folks often say “But your work is SO beautiful, how can you…” We say, remember, it was blue jeans and Rock’n roll that took down the Berlin Wall—joie de vivre and style. That comes from Sterling—we just want to make people want to look at the work—”You can really trust people to draw their own conclusions.” according to Sterling… “I can crawl again, I can crawl again…”

I seemed to have graduated after about 18 months, from what, I have no idea; some subtle change happened. The marker was when he took me out to dinner, and we feasted on quails, and then went to a friend of his house for a screening of a silent film the guy’d made of Albatros doing their mating dances—great to see, as I had seen it in real life in Galapagos, elaborate and complex. Silently, it was more mysterious than if there had been a sound track. The guy put on some music and Sterling & I said, both at once, “Turn it off!” It was a spectacle of animal language and maybe a glimpse at the origin of language itself. Watching those birds, they were obviously “talking” to each other. Language happened with the body, the eyes, the hands, movement was language, not just the voice. Art was language. Language came from the body. “What about Noam Chomsky and the “born to talk theory?” “Chomsky!” he barks, laughing, “That Tyrannosaur of the water-cooler, never met a talking human in the field.” (Chomsky was famous for obliterating contrary opinions to his). Man that was an image that sticks, I can’t think of Noam Chomsky as anything other than a T-Rex lurking the carpeted halls of MIT. As I dived into my own thinking about Art as language, I linked my own Biology predilections with Sterling as a biologist first,—well, it sure was fun to see from that perspective. I went home and painted a picture I called “An Impartial View”, reading up on Maurice Merleau-Ponty whose theory of Eco-Phenomenology clicked with my experience of being “in the field” and coming home to make my pictures.

I could see Sterling when something was on my mind, or just call him up, he usually answered his phone, knowing maybe I was the punctuation in some psyco-therapeudic moment. He became a kind of family friend who would come to dinner with his kids who were a work-study in how NOT to do it. Raising kids, that is. One of his sons loosened all the bolts on my kids bikes so when they got on the wheels fell off. He brought his ducks he was raising one night, to a feast we made of a roasted lamb; the ducks had cathected to him so they followed him everywhere. Sterling put them in the bathtub and they ’bout filled the tub with their green shit. This of course endeared him to my wife at the time to no end. She and I did go up to the central Valley where he lived, for a duck hunting adventure, my wife Anne tromping around with the baby Eli in a carry-sack. We were hunting ducks with his Gyrfalcon, and brought down a couple which we ate later; I can think of nothing closer to communion than eating those ducks; bloody rare and tasting like the body of Christ himself. Delicious and instantly nourishing.

There is a lot of lore about Sterling on the web—like: that he had guided Allan Watts on his first LSD trip in 1959, or someone seeing Sterling eating at Chez Panisse and commenting—”Isn’t that kind of Alice Waters—she brings the homeless in to a star-winning restaurant to enjoy a fine meal.” He was super-involved with the Tassajara Zen Center and helped secure the land of that spot as well as the Mountain Zen Center in Sonoma. That he had co-authored an article in Scientific American on LSD (1964) was something I found out years after I began therapy, Judy said nothing of this when I called her to ask “Who is that therapist you rave about?” He was a kind of counter-culture icon in certain circles—I never knew about this at the time, as was his involvement with the Farallones Institute—a model for an integrated-food-shelter-energy scheme. Judy had just said, “Sterling’s great”. Well, what WAS so great?

Sterling Breathes Trout and Irises, Litho watercolor, digital print, monoprint 38″x29″ 2006-2022

Sterling had the uncanny ability to “read” your deepest interest in your own life. Most who saw him would report feeling “better” after their hour. Why was this? Sterling would follow your lead and lead you with stories, movie synopsizes, book reviews—anything from the cultural vault, or even, for example, his recipe for wild duck breast (yum THAT made me feel better). It was your own psyche leading the way as that child who “became father to the man” in part 1, who was so interested in life-sciences, and natural history, but not so interested in academic science study or medicine, I had found a perfect foil to extend my “spin-drifting” into my microscopy hobby, traveling with Sterling to gather water from the vernal pools of the Central Valley where my hay-infusions blossomed into a single-cell wonderland. Glass-like tulips of Vorticella, and the antelope herds of Paramecium, predated by Didiniums, the lions of the micro-world. I was on safari all down the tube of my microscope, culminating in a blossoming of Rotifers, which are multi-cellular beings, but the size of the protozoa that fascinated me—”natures experiment in miniaturization” as Sterling said. That “Spin-drifting” kid in me suddenly graduated; my interests were my own and would lead me to a kind of happiness of the “Self” as a participant in the world. Achievement or failure both became meaningless in what he would call, “happiness beyond its opposite.” I was happy with my work no matter what it brought my way via notoriety or capital $ucce$$. Raising children became a joy, why? Because I loved my own life beyond theirs. As Jerry Blitz had said in part #3—”I always made sure the kids knew I loved my wife Bernice most…” I’ve always made sure the kids knew I LOVED my work. LOVED. The adult field in the home becomes strong that way.

Sterling was in a crushing auto accident that shattered his elbow and shoulder. McClure and I are visiting him in hospital where we were shocked to see Sterling pinned and trussed with a hardware store of nuts and bolts; amazing that he had instructed the surgeon to re-make his irreparable arm into a curved scaffold able to hold a falcon. I brought him a pastel drawing I’d made of a little fly-catcher called “Dreaming of a more Random Order.” Certainly was the case. Out and back to life Sterling began a journey toward becoming a psychic reader, that was more of a shock to us in his circle than the arm. This was a dyed-in-the-wool rational soul, now giving “readings” on lives past and future. Lots of his friends wouldn’t have truck with this, but I knew it was an extension of his imaginative soul at work. I kind of liked it and asked him for readings, for example on the worthiness of a new business partner. He was sure right about that one—”wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole.” I needed the guy for a time and used his skill-set to advantage, but Sterling’s warning helped me keep him at that “10-foot-pole distance.” I never allowed the guy to be fully vested in my business.

I had picked up some of his mannerisms, doing the “transference” thing, I was becoming a mini-Sterling — so it was time for some distance. I no longer saw him as much socially and never went back to his office for a “session.” Since I had gone full-bore into the business world of making Art for others and being very involved on the sales end, Sterling asked if I would sell a Bruce Connor painting for him he’d owned since the 50’s. I did, had the picture cleaned and restored to a pristine condition, and got a good price for it. When it came time to divvy up the sale, I took my dealer’s cut, even though I felt I owed Sterling a lot, bowing to my father, Leon “its not personal, its just business.” That boy in section #1 is still very much with me in my daily work as an Artist, I like nothing better than than watching the bees in the Borage, the woodpeckers chatter, spin-drifting away into the morning then coming in to work on this very story, shuffle my pictures around, trying to make sense of life on Planet Earth. The lasting thing, above all, is the lesson from Jerry Blitz who taught me the enduring lesson of loving this game of life to Be, and as an Artist, after all, do I have to say it again? Art’s Triumph Endures! <><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

As a Coda to all this, (as it can wax solipsistic at times, SHEESH! who cares??), I just think it’s important to say, that all I do with my creative activities, I hope is an encouragement for anyone and everyone to get down their thoughts, to expand this human project or as Ma would say, “Open a mouth!” By which she meant, “Say what’s on your mind.” Or as Poet Robert Lowell would say…”and why not say what happened?” Ma comes at the beginning of each section of Fore (Four) Fathers, to remind us all, it starts with her.

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