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George Gershwin Part 1: Laundromat

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011: George Gershwin, Stories.

“You a musician?”

I looked up. I’d been drumming on the table, in time with the churning washing machines, as I read yesterday’s paper. Across from me I saw an older man, slim and rugged in a denim shirt and faded jeans.

“Yeah, I guess. Among other things.”

“Look at these hands.” The man spoke quickly in a gruff urban accent. His eyes were large and bright, his features chiseled. I saw that his hands were huge. “An octave and a half. I play piano. Live right up the hill. What about you?”

“I write mostly, play whatever. Sing. I guess guitar’s my main thing.”

“Play by ear, huh? We’re the lucky ones. First thing I teach is to listen. That’s what Duchamp taught me. Marcel? My name’s Gershwin. George.”

I shook his hand, took him in. Big nose, big ears. Looked early-to-mid fifties.

“No way. Gershwin’s dead.”

George smiled. “Fact is, he came to me in a dream. Ten years ago. Said I should take up the name. A vocation. Before that I was CIA. Strictly underground. You wouldn’t believe it, but to this day I pass them on the street all the time, here in the city. KGB, British Intelligence, hand signals, winks, just like gradeschool.”

I felt stumped. My dryerload had stopped and I began to fold.

“How old do you think I am?”

“Fifty,” I said.

“Sixty-eight. My wife’s twenty-four. Met her at a march in LA. You should meet her some time. Sings those old labor songs.”

Gershwin heard his own dryer stop and went to empty it into a patched canvas bag. The other denizens of the laundromat, Latino women and their daughters, looked up shyly from the benches along the window. George passed me on his way to the door. “Here’s my card. Call me.” And he was gone.

I stood puzzling over a neat, elegantly embossed business card bearing the name John Christy, Piano: Concerts & Lessons.

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael


George Gershwin Part 2: Dog Food

Thursday, December 29th, 2011: George Gershwin, Stories.

The whole band was there around the kitchen table, dressed in our thriftshop suits. Bottles of decent wine waiting to be poured.

The buzzer shrieked just as the clock hit the hour. My eyebrows arched in surprise. “I’ll get it,” said Fenton.

We all turned to face the top of the stairs. Mrs. Gershwin’s head rose first above the railing. She was a giant. But then George himself was quite a man. “Swell place,” he enthused, looking enviously around at the stereo and recording equipment.

I pulled a huge stuffed catfish out of the oven. Mrs. Gershwin was a vegetarian. George didn’t drink. The Bike Messenger sat up, his hands clenched on the table in front of him. His eyes practically bugged out. “So, how did you two meet, Mrs. Gershwin.”

“Oh, George and I met on a march,” she replied, in a thick, sweet drawl. George himself threw his hands out over the table.

“It was a labor march, for civil servants. They were advancing on City Hall, and Tessie was belting out these old labor songs, old Wobbly songs, you know? I just happened to be there, waiting for a bus.”

Tessie was staring at George in rapture. “So I went up to her afterwards, and asked her to sing with me. We’re going to do a concert at the Bank of America next Wednesday, aren’t we, Tessie.” She nodded mightily. “My friend Bob is the program director for the local classical station, he sets these things up. I’d like you all to come.”

“What kind of stuff do you play?” said the Singer.

“Something for everyone,” George whispered, tucking his chin and grinning mischievously.

“Rhapsody in Blue?” I asked.

“Naturally.” George turned to Tessie and fell to smiling at her. After a while he turned back and looked straight at me.

“I had no place to live, but I had a toy piano. Tessie let me move in with her and her mother. A suffering soul. Have you ever eaten dog food?”

In the silence they could hear Fenton chewing food he’d grabbed off somebody else’s plate.

“It’s not bad, you know.” George smiled comfortably. “Got everything you need.”

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael

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George Gershwin Part 3: Rhapsody in Blue

Friday, December 30th, 2011: George Gershwin, Stories.

The auditorium in the heart of downtown San Francisco is packed at noon on Wednesday. A noisy crowd. Without any introduction, George strides across the stage wearing a tuxedo, at just the appointed time, dropping his butt on the bench before the grand piano and aggressively attacking it, his feet dancing and his butt scooting around on the bench. He beats out a ragtime, looking up at the audience and nodding with that Popeye grin. It’s loud and technically bewildering, it’s over quickly, and he jumps up and grabs the microphone.

“Some of you may know the name Marcel Duchamp,” he suggests hoarsely. “An artist of some renown. He devised this next piece to settle a bet.”

Mrs. Gershwin advances onstage, carefully pushing a cart stacked with what appear to be crystal wine glasses, brandy snifters, filled to different depths. George is theatrically rolling up his sleeves, revealing his muscular arms. He wets the tips of his fingers in a glass of water, and begins to play a tune by caressing the rims of the glasses. It’s “Chopsticks.” The crowd explodes with laughter and applause.

When he’s done Tessie looms at the microphone and George launches into her accompaniment, this time fixing his hunched concentration on the piano. She sings stridently off-key. Old labor songs.

“And now, I will do something no one has ever attempted,” says George as the hour approaches one. Tessie’s returning onstage with a little red toy piano.

“I will play Rhapsody In Blue on two pianos, the grand and the toy, at the same time.”

And he does, brilliantly.

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael

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Quitting Jobs, Part 1

Friday, March 16th, 2012: Quitting Jobs, Stories.

(Carmichael's Grocery, my first jobsite)

They say unemployment is falling. Of course, a good economy is usually bad for the environment. And any time I hear about the job market, I think of how hard I’ve tried to stay out of it.

I wasn’t like that at the beginning. I started working for wages at the age of 8, as a stock boy in my grandpa’s neighborhood grocery store. A couple years later, I started working as an after-school mail courier for the local eye doctor. I kept that job through high school. And in the summers, I mowed lawns and painted houses. That’s how I was able to buy my own musical equipment.

In college, I was trying hard to be an adult. I believed that I needed to support myself. I believed that my parents expected that, and personally, I needed to become independent of my parents. I didn’t think it was an option to continue living off their hard-earned dollars until I finished my degree and presumably used that to get a real job. A friend found me part-time work compiling data for a geography professor, microfiche records of slaves who were freed after the Civil War, at minimum wage. I still remember my head hunched for hours in the dark world of the machine, and the golden parchment scrolling by, with thousands of lines of elegant old fountain-pen script evoking people and families long dead, their Biblical names repeated over and over again.

That project ended, and in the summertime, I moved into an apartment and needed more income. My grandpa had taught me a lot of construction skills, so a friend and I started going to construction sites in the dark before dawn, hoping to get hired. We did that daily for weeks, with no success. The economy was in a deep recession. But I did experience a miracle one day. A foreman at ground level of a new skyscraper told me to ride the crew elevator to the top to find the hiring boss. And I rode the open cage 30 stories into the sky, and walked across loose plywood laid over temporary scaffolding, with no guard rails, nothing but empty air around me, 30 stories above Chicago.

My girlfriend and I were living on junk food purchased in bulk on sale at supermarkets: a dozen macaroni and cheese dinners for $2 would last us a week. I had been planning to transfer to art school, but that was clearly impossible. My science and math skills would qualify me for an engineering career, and engineers could always get jobs. So I transferred to engineering school instead, and from then on, high-paying jobs were miraculously handed to me on a plate. Part-time jobs during school, designing an amino acid analyzer with little buckets that moved around on a miniature conveyor, processing and testing samples. Full-time jobs during the summer, running a block-long, multi-million-dollar machine that took raw metal and turned it into Coke cans, experimenting with liquid nitrogen wearing insulated gloves. We moved into a nicer apartment and I opened a savings account.

But during my lunch hour at work, I was writing short stories, which I kept submitting to magazines and contests until finally I won a literary prize. At night and on the weekends, I was painting and writing songs. And in my last year of engineering school, I interviewed for a bunch of prestigious jobs at places like NASA’s Ames research center, and couldn’t imagine taking any of them. So I changed course for a while. I worked in a music shop as a craftsman, then quit that job to join a friend’s band and hang out at his art school. That experience was a turning point in my creative life, the point when I became a mature artist – if not a mature adult!

I moved to San Francisco and took an engineering job, strictly on the basis that the job was a way of paying my bills while I reserved the best of my energy for the arts. The work was incredibly boring, so I cheated by writing poems and songs at my desk. After six months, I had saved up a few thousand dollars and quit to work on music and art full-time.

I lasted another six months, then went broke, but it was worth it. I got so much work done during that break. I went back to my former boss, a sympathetic, fatherly type, and he gave me my job back, and the pattern was set.

Travis McGee, the hero of a pulp fiction series by John D. MacDonald, always told people that he “took his retirement in installments,” rather than waiting until he was too old to enjoy it. Over and over again, he worked hard for a few weeks to save up a nest egg so he could play for months until the money ran out. I would do something similar, except that instead of playing during those breaks, I would work hard on something I loved. The idea of retirement was meaningless to me, because my goal was to spend my entire life doing creative work. Maybe someday I could just do that, and stop taking jobs!

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Quitting Jobs, Part 2

Saturday, March 17th, 2012: Quitting Jobs, Stories.

(Deep in the bowels of the oldest commercial nuclear plant in the U.S.)

Four months after returning to my first engineering job, I ran into a guy on the subway who offered me a better job, so I quit the first one yet again. The new job involved earthquake safety studies at nuclear power plants, and that’s a whole ‘nother story! My first assignment was to explore the basement of the oldest commercial nuke plant in the U.S., and after discovering some kind of vapor leak and triggering alarms, I refused to go back in the plant. My boss relented and I worked for him for two more years, saving up enough money to buy equipment for a home recording studio and take a full year off. So I quit again and temporarily moved to Los Angeles to live with my new girlfriend and write a bunch of new songs. That was another big leap forward in my creative work.

Again, when I went broke, my former boss – who viewed his company as a family – received me as a prodigal son, and even allowed me to take on a new, non-engineering clerical role with less responsibility and scaled-back hours, so I had more time for band rehearsals and recording sessions, and I could arrive at work late the morning after a gig the night before. What a life! My engineering colleagues were envious and fantasized about me onstage biting the heads off chickens, like Alice Cooper. Their lives were so conventional in comparison, most of them didn’t have a clue about what I was doing.

Although a job normally saps your creative energy, this sweet deal supported one of the most productive periods in my life as an artist. Plus, I had the use of office computers and copy machines for self-publishing and postering. This time, I stayed on for six years, during which time I made hundreds of new works of art, played hundreds of gigs, recorded an album, produced multimedia shows and conferences, and published a book. However, I was burning the candle at both ends and it was not the healthiest lifestyle.

I also evolved, outgrowing the band and falling in love with the desert. Finally, I quit the job again to move to the wilderness. The company held a big going-away party for me, and they all brought appropriate desert-inspired gifts. For a serial quitter, I sure have been blessed!

After a year in the desert, I was broke again. My former job was no longer available; the company was in decline and my old career was basically obsolete. This time, I struggled for six months, working part-time as a carpenter with a musician friend. Then I miraculously landed a full-time job with a multimedia startup. I discovered that there was a whole new industry that required new skills that were not being taught anywhere. To get a job in the new industry, you only needed to show that your background somehow prepared you to do these new things.

It wasn’t easy. The first multimedia job was a false start and gave me my first lesson in getting fired. The startup was a hothouse environment, with rapid changes in management, people getting hired and fired on a monthly basis, an excess of ambition, insecurity, and backstabbing. After six months, a new boss fired me so she could install her friend in my position.

I had saved up another six months’ worth and started a new band, but I didn’t really have a footing in the new industry, so when I ran out of money, I was really in trouble. A few days of carpentry per month wouldn’t keep me alive. I managed to get on unemployment, which carried me through the rest of the year as I evolved creatively with my new band. Then I outgrew that band, ran out of money and started living off my credit card. A friend might have multimedia work for me in Los Angeles, so I moved there. That work didn’t materialize, but I joined an elite new media salon, taught myself digital animation and made some interactive art, and through other friends, got a contract to design a CD-ROM for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which significantly reduced my credit card debt. The new media salon, run by Art Center’s Peter Lunenfeld, got me back in touch with the art world: Bob Flanagan’s supermasochistic performance art; Chris Kraus’s wacky and wonderful Chance Conference at a Nevada casino, with legendary academic Jean Beaudrillard rapping in front of a live band, DJ Spooky from London, and a Paiute visionary leading a sunrise hike into the desert.

Suddenly the Web was the hot new thing, and it was happening in San Francisco, so I returned there. I had no experience, but neither did anyone else, and there were new companies opening every day, hiring people with no experience. I was still deep in debt and really discouraged, but a friend talked me into cold-calling the new companies and bullshitting my way in. To my surprise, it worked! The top internet design agencies in the world actually took me seriously. A creative director at Studio Archetype asked me if she could copy my white paper on new media to show her boss, Clement Mok, the guru of new media design. My “career” was starting to feel like an epic graphic novel…

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Quitting Jobs, Part 3

Sunday, March 18th, 2012: Quitting Jobs, Stories.

(The carefree Dotcom Boom: Partying like there's no tomorrow!)

After years of poverty, debt, and frustration, I entered the Web industry at the point when the swell begins rising and you realize it’s going to be a big wave. It was such a heady time that I temporarily lost touch with who I was. Many people in the industry believed that the Web was their generation’s revolution that would solve the world’s problems through technology. There was an internet collective called Cyborganic that courted me from the beginning. They were all young, arty and over-educated and trying to use the new technology to spread knowledge democratically. Amazingly, they got venture capital and leased a flashy building in the heart of downtown San Francisco where they threw massive parties and exhibited Web art.

After a full-day interview, including a presentation to staff that I had cobbled together the night before out of photos of my old art work, I was shortlisted for the position of director of IDEO Product Design’s new interactive division. For years, IDEO had been the most celebrated design firm in the world. But at the same time, the hippest web agency in the industry, vivid studios, offered me a job as information designer. I took the latter because although IDEO was more prestigious, vivid seemed to represent the future, and their culture seemed more idealistic and less corporate.

I excelled in this new field, learning by trial and error and helping invent a new profession that would rapidly become a foundation of the Web industry. The first project I was given leadership of was a big hit, with rave reviews in the national press. But a few months later, I was fired under mysterious circumstances which I attributed once again to the hothouse environment, excessive ambition and insecurity. Ironically, a few weeks after firing me, management begged me to come back to lead a project that I’d pitched before being fired. My pitch had won the contract and now they needed me after all!

After finishing this project, which won an international award, I quit again and started my own business. The Fortune 500 clients I had worked for at vivid now brought their design projects directly to me. I opened an office in North Beach, hired an assistant and recruited hot young designers and coders for the challenging, high-profile projects that kept flowing my way. All of downtown San Francisco hummed with energy; dotcommers met for cocktails in trendy bars then went back to the office to work all night. Twenty-somethings were paying cash for hot city property and becoming slumlords. I worked on one project with a kid who had his own NASCAR team.

On warm evenings in my neighborhood, you could hear laughter and the tinkle of drinks at rooftop industry parties overhead. I was flying all over the country, advising billionaire investors and CEOs. Again and again, powerful companies offered me prestigious positions which I turned down. I had so much work I was blowing off new contracts, and I believed that I had finally found a solution to life’s financial rollercoaster. I would grow my business, meet my soulmate, get married and have a family, sell the business for a fortune and retire early, and figure out what to do about all my frustrated dreams and passions.

But of course the wave had to break, the boom had to end. Everyone knew that, but we were all going to ride the wave as long as we could. Instead of a soulmate, I met an idealistic neo-hippie girl who cared nothing for the Web industry lifestyle and had no respect for what I was doing. And as the dotcom crash unfolded, a strange thing happened. Although the girl and I were traumatically incompatible, she shocked me out of the megalomaniacal Web industry delusion and back onto my own true idealistic life path.

What little I had saved ran out quickly, and more years of struggle followed, with even longer periods of unemployment and deeper credit card debt, living in dramatically reduced circumstances. I started a new art project, looked into organic farming and other idealistic careers, did backbreaking habitat restoration as a community volunteer, chopping acres of invasive plants out of nature preserves. I fell into depression and my health began to deteriorate. But eventually, after three years, the Web industry revived, and the few old colleagues who had survived the crash started calling me with new projects, bless their hearts.

This time, I had a more realistic long-term plan. Instead of using my profits to live the dotcom lifestyle, I would continue to live cheaply, save money, and look for a place far from the rat race, with low cost of living, which would allow me to work less on the Web and more on my dreams.

That brought me to where I am today.

And yes, I quit again!

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Justice Served

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012: Justice Served, Stories.

After years of avoiding or being dismissed from jury duty, I was finally selected yesterday as a juror on a trial in which our county sheriff’s department had filed a criminal charge of assault on a peace officer, naming a 20-year-old man I will call Brady as defendent.

Brady is a convicted felon who at the time of the incident was living in a single-wide trailer in a trailer park on the outskirts of town with his mother and two 10-year-old boys, Brady’s brother and a cousin. Brady looks a bit like Justin Timberlake with the crewcut and stubble beard. We never learned the nature of his felony, since it wasn’t pertinent to the current charge. He was on probation for the felony conviction and has an admitted drinking problem, for which he was in a program called Drug Court, entailing daily monitoring and testing by county officers.

The night before the incident, Brady’s mother had left for the state capital to accompany a friend who was having a medical procedure. She had left Brady in charge of the little boys. On the day of the incident, Brady got up early, woke the boys and made sure they had what they needed, and left for his construction job at the historic downtown hotel which is being refurbished.

The boys went to school that day and returned home in the afternoon, where Brady met them after getting off work, again making sure they had what they needed for the evening. Then he went to the gym, where he regularly tried to work out the stress of his probation and all that micromanagement of his life by the county. In early evening, the sheriff’s department got a call from someone at the school, expressing concern that the boys were unsupervised at home, and a junior officer was dispatched to the trailer to make a “welfare check.” He found the boys alone and was told Brady was taking care of them. His superior, a sargeant, arrived a few minutes later.

At the gym, Brady got a call from a neighbor who said the trailer was surrounded by cops, so Brady raced home and skidded to a stop behind the junior officer’s vehicle. He saw the two officers standing outside the door of the trailer and shouted “What the fuck are you doing here?”

The junior officer, standing at the door, on a small porch at the top of three steps, said they were conducting a welfare check on the two boys, and Brady, now at the bottom of the steps and increasingly agitated, responded “Show me your warrant!” The officer mentioned the welfare check again, and Brady started up the steps.

The officer, who was larger than Brady, shoved Brady in the chest, and they both fell backward onto a small cement landing containing a large rock. The officer, on top of Brady, turned him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. The two officers pulled him to his feet, marched him to the nearest patrol car, and pushed him into the back.

While the sheriff’s officers waited “for Brady to calm down,” the junior officer went into the trailer “to make sure the boys had something to eat,” despite the fact that the primary goal of the welfare check – to ensure that the boys had supervision – had been met. When the officers returned to the patrol car, Brady apologized for his initial hostility, and they released him from the car and the cuffs. Then Brady’s mother arrived, back from her trip, and the officers explained why they were there and departed.

That night, the junior officer opened a report describing the welfare check, but omitting the incident with Brady.

Brady had bruised a rib in his fall on the rock, and the next day he and his mother filed a complaint at the sheriff’s office.

Finally, four days later, the junior officer completed his report, claiming that Brady had “charged up the stairs at him in a threatening manner” and he feared imminent physical harm, and the department filed a criminal charge of assault.

In the trial, the only witnesses to the incident were the two officers and Brady. The boys had been inside the trailer and only came to the windows after they heard the men crashing to the ground. But the officers’ testimony was vague and conflicting. Neither could remember precise dates or times, and the sargeant admitted under defense examination that when he thought Brady was “charging” the junior officer, Brady could equally likely have been trying to get into the trailer to make sure the boys were okay. During the incident, both officers had recorders on their belts which they had failed to turn on, so there was no objective evidence of the exchange between the three men.

Both the boys and their mother were brought in as witnesses for the defense. It was clear the boys idolized Brady, and they both seemed like good boys, but it also became clear that Brady’s younger brother had been coached by his elders on what to say, so their testimony didn’t do us any good. The mother was nervous, flustered and inarticulate, her voice seemingly ravaged by cigarettes, whiskey, or worse, so she couldn’t do much good either.

Brady had been serious and subdued throughout the proceedings, but when the boys were brought in, you could tell he was concerned for them. His own testimony was articulated simply and straightforwardly, with concentration and apparent sincerity. He said he wasn’t threatening the officer, he was just trying to get into the trailer to see the boys.

The judge in the case was a pleasant, mild-mannered woman who mostly just let things roll. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys were big men with huge bellies; the defense attorney resembled 1950s TV personality Captain Kangaroo and had a distinctive rocking gait and dramatic gestures. The state prosecutor – our paid servant – repeatedly misrepresented the facts we had been shown and the testimony we had heard, in an obvious attempt to cloud our judgment. His voice and arrogant presentation reminded me of Agent Smith in The Matrix movie. The defense attorney, on the other hand, overstated his case so much that we were kept hours beyond the expected close of the trial.

After the opening testimony of the two officers, I had made up my mind that there was ample reasonable doubt about what happened at the steps of the trailer. But during the hours that remained, I agonized a bit about what the other jurors – all women, all strangers – where thinking. What if a majority believed Brady guilty? Would I have to sacrifice my convictions for a unanimous verdict?

Finally we found ourselves alone in the jury room. One of the women laid a notepad with notes on the table in front of her, looked at me and said “You’re the foreman!” The other women all chimed in “Yes!” I sighed, considered for a few minutes and agreed, always unwilling to shirk responsibility. I asked the woman across from me to share her notes. They turned out to be points of doubt that we all agreed with. I signed the Not Guilty form and we returned to the courtroom, where the judge read our verdict, Brady and his attorney rejoiced, and we jurors were quickly led out of the building into the mountain sunshine, where the cottony clouds of monsoon season were mustering around us in the sky, their bellies darkening under the weight of impending rain.

We can never know exactly what happened between Brady and the officer, but it had become clear to us jurors that the junior officer had been the aggressor in the incident, that he had exceeded his duty by entering the trailer against Brady’s wishes, as a form of intimidation, and that days later, after Brady filed a complaint, the sheriff’s department had decided to retaliate with a criminal charge, seeing Brady the convicted felon as an easy target. We, on the other hand, saw Brady as someone working hard to turn his life around and be a responsible caregiver for the boys. If the sheriff’s department had its way, Brady would have ended up in prison, and the boys would be left with a broken family and a discouraging experience of an unfair society.

And I was reminded again that the people who are paid to serve us sometimes try to harm us instead. It was only the incompetence of these officers that betrayed them in their shameful mission.

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Moments of Release

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012: Moments of Release, Stories.

Last night I watched Never Let Me Go for the second time. Again, I cried at the ending. I cried gloriously for fifteen minutes, in waves of convulsive sobbing that propelled me staggering through the house, blindly clutching doorways and furniture.

I never know how much pain of loss I’m bottling up inside until something like this opens the gates of grieving, and, unfortunately, my hands have more fingers than my life has moments of true release. I suppose it’s how I was raised, my midwestern reserve.

I’ll never forget that night, alone in bed, my first year in San Francisco. I was in my 20s, making good money at an easy job, and I was a creative powerhouse, turning out experimental art, music and writing every day, circulating in the vibrant creative underground, meeting new people every week. But in the near-suicidal aftermath of a 6-year relationship, I’d been single and unloved for three years, I was living alone, and that night I couldn’t get to sleep because I couldn’t find my heart. It was sinking out of sight, shrunken and black, into bottomless depths. My chest felt empty and although my mind was filled with images of loss, no tears would flow. All I felt was a terrifying numbness, and I wondered if I would ever be able to cry again.

That question was answered the following year, just after I’d moved into the Loft. I was sleeping with an art student from Brooklyn who was nearly a decade younger than me. One night after making love, sensitive to our age difference, she tried to pick away at my perceived maturity by probing for old memories of loss, rejection, injustice or cruelty. Very cleverly she trapped me in a downward spiral of memories I’d been avoiding, until I was broken, sobbing and moaning in her arms.

Grieving can assume an epic scale in the desert. Twenty years ago, I was living and working on a remote ecological preserve in the Mojave, staying in touch with my city girlfriend via an old pay phone in a lab trailer, when one night she announced that she’d been sleeping with the bass player in her band for the past couple of months.

The cabin I was sharing with co-workers was at the high end of a valley ringed with low cliffs, and from the cabin an old trail led out of the valley into an empty, isolated basin. Under the full moon I walked that trail away from the company of men, until I got to a circular clearing surrounded by Larrea clones, the stark, moonshadowed shrubs my only company, still and silent, ranks of them standing off into the distance where granite cliffs rose up white as bone.

There, I went down to the ground and howled and pounded the gravel, thrashing like a mad man, wearing myself out in a frenzy of raw pain. Night after night I had fallen asleep watching the moon moving slowly through the sky, imagining that she was my distant girlfriend. And now, like the girl who had attached herself to someone else, the moon seemed cold and pitiless, shining clinically on my suffering.

Do some of us feel things more deeply? Or is it just that we bottle up our feelings until they get out of hand? You’d think that those of us who work in the expressive arts would have plenty of outlets for grief and loss, but that probably works better for some – actors, maybe? – than for others.

All I know is that I owe a debt of gratitude to those artists who give me random moments of release – like the creators of Never Let Me Go.

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Failed Clones

Thursday, November 29th, 2012: Failed Clones, Stories.

I was in an ultramodern exhibition room, white walls and floor-to-ceiling glass, filled with people, mostly fashionably dressed men, excitedly waiting for our hosts to begin their presentation.

Our hosts, the representatives of this biotech firm, were about to demonstrate the results of their breakthrough program in human cloning. Though most of the audience were young technology workers, strangers to me, three people I knew were present: a web engineer colleague and two old friends from the arts. The company had cloned the engineer and one of the artists, whose specialty was performance art.

The crowd hushed as the company brought out the engineer clone. He gave a confident, flawless exhibition of engineering expertise, to unanimous applause.

Then they brought out the clone of the performance artist. Although he looked exactly like my old friend, he shuffled out shyly, fumbling with sheets of note paper, looking down at the floor and mumbling incoherently.

A company rep came over, put his arm around the clone, and gently ushered him out of the spotlight, all the while smiling and explaining that the process had not been perfected, but they were committed to transparency and would continue to share their failures as well as their successes. Again, unanimous applause, even from my friend the performance artist, who seemed untroubled by his failed clone.

What followed was a social mixer in the company’s spotless lobby, absent the clones. The young technology workers sank into long white leather sofas, my older friends in the midst of them, gravitating toward their youthful energy and enthusiasm, seeming to share their uncritical embrace of the new technology as they raved about the potential of what they had seen today. Repelled and alienated, I walked outside, into the sterile lanes of the corporate office park, where perfectly flat, perfectly trimmed lawns of genetically modified grass separated the minimalist white towers of the cloning company – white, a symbol of purity.

I wondered, what was to become of the failed clones?

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Furniture & Lighting: Father & Son

Saturday, January 18th, 2014: Furniture & Lighting, Stories.


Family Legacy

My dad grew up making his own toys; as a young adult he experimented with art and music but settled into a career as a rocket scientist. Our first family home was furnished in midcentury modernist style: a sharp break from the antiques of my grandparents. While my dad’s lifelong need to work creatively with his hands found an outlet in a series of hobbies, the works that had the greatest impact on me were his furniture designs: two elegant modernist pieces that furnished my childhood bedroom and grad-school apartment.

But my dad himself was mostly absent, and my grandpa raised me to build practical things in a strictly functional vein, using the tools and materials at hand, “cutting corners” whenever possible to save money and effort. I went to college in Chicago, where I was surrounded and inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s functionalist architectural legacy, and in my third year, when I rented my first unfurnished apartment, I began designing and making my own furniture and lighting.

Dad’s Furniture

My dad’s “golden year” between college and marriage had been spent in the bohemian milieu of Chicago’s postwar jazz scene, hanging out in clubs and occasionally jamming with the cool cats, so it’s not surprising that both of his furniture designs had to do with music.

He didn’t have any experience with, or tools for, fine cabinetry, so he drew up the plans for these pieces and hired a local cabinet-maker to build them. Unfortunately, when we were younger, we took them for granted and didn’t realize how special they were. My brother eventually inherited the bookcase, and sold it decades ago. I unloaded the hifi cabinet on a roommate when I moved into a group house after grad school. And none of us, including Dad, ever thought to photograph these priceless works, so the only photos I have show them unintentionally in the background, obscured by less important stuff.

Music Bookcase

More a work of art than a piece of functional furniture, this irregularly stepped pyramid was sheathed in golden veneer, probably maple, and made to house a vintage phonograph in the compartment at lower right, with a door which swung downward, forming a shelf for your 78 rpm records. The records themselves could be stored in the specially-sized cavity below. Ironically, this piece of furniture was finished just as 78s became obsolete and the hifi revolution began, so my dad’s next furniture design had to address that new challenge.


Hifi Cabinet

With the explosion of long-playing 33 1/3 LP records, Dad surrendered to his passion for music and transformed our living room into a listening environment, with two large pieces of furniture custom-designed to house a Heathkit high fidelity audio system and his growing collection of jazz and world music.

The massive speaker cabinet took up most of a wall by itself, but the tall, futuristic hifi cabinet served as a room divider, with its upper record compartment and cantilevered preamp shelf supported on columns of shimmering copper tubing. Whereas the earlier bookcase design was a modernist echo of ancient monumental architecture, the hifi cabinet looked like an apartment building of the future. The record storage and amplifier compartments were all enclosed behind sliding doors to protect them from dust, while the record-changer turntable sat in the open between the copper columns.

I was 5 years old when this was created, and I helped my dad assemble the audio components, which came as a kit. The resistors for the preamp looked like colorful jewelry; when the power amp was completed and turned on, vacuum tubes glowed with a mysterious blue light inside their metal cage with its elegant perforated patterns.


Max’s Furniture & Lighting

I was poorer than most students at the University of Chicago, and I had been taught to make what I needed. So when I needed to furnish an apartment, I began scavenging the alleys and dumpsters of our Southside neighborhood for promising materials. I designed functional items partly on the basis of salvage, and partly using the cheapest building materials from hardware stores and lumber yards, including raw timbers I sourced from a country sawmill back home in Indiana. Neighbors tended to hate me because I ran my grandpa’s circular saw on the back stairs.

Like van der Rohe, I wanted to foreground the structure of each piece, minimizing the materials used, bolting the unit together for easy disassembly and transport, and completely omitting decoration. The shelving units were the purest example of this; my road sign tables were more whimsical.

Small Room Divider Shelves

Talk about minimal materials! This lightweight unit made of cheap, common pine with long cantilevers on both ends became surprisingly stable when bolted together and weighted with books and knick-knacks, because the support columns were made from 1x2s glued together to form a rigid L-shaped cross section. I made it in 1972, but recently discovered a similar piece from 1981 by the celebrated Italian designer Andrea Branzi in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.


Glass-Top Table and Pipe Lamp

On a scavenging trip to the famous Maxwell Street Market, I scored about a hundred pounds of heavy thermal glass intended for oven doors, and designed this table to accommodate one of the panes, framed in cheap pine painted black. And in our back alley I found a small but heavy piece of cylindrical steel stock, which I used as a base for this lamp. The problem with basing a design on salvage is that you sometimes have lots of trouble sourcing the right materials to finish it. I needed some sort of “sleeve” of the perfect inner and outer diameter to hold the pipe in the steel cylinder base, and that took me to an industrial rubber company on the far west side; the unique mirrored light bulb came from a boutique distributor on Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile.”


Drawing Desk & Chair

I was scrambling for work in a depressed economy in the summer of 1972. One attempt was at graphic design; I answered a call for cover designs for a new magazine, and created this desk and three-legged chair to work on it. The desk was made of common pine and masonite, with a hinged drawing surface which could be raised to the proper angle.

The chair had a leather-covered foam seat cushion and a tiny back support, also foam-padded and leather-covered, that was hinged to conform to the angle of your back. Unlike today’s fancy ergonomic chairs, it was all made with the cheapest and most common materials from our neighborhood hardware store.


Large Room Divider Shelves

When I transferred to engineering school and began to get paying jobs, we moved to a nicer apartment on the North Side, but it still had a combined living room and kitchen, so I created this massive shelving unit, based on my earlier design, to hide the kitchen, which we barely used, from our bright and airy living area. The cantilevered shelves were reinforced by longitudinal “joists” so they could support the weight of a TV or aquarium, and the vertical columns had a T cross section for extra rigidity. But like the smaller shelves, the whole thing could be quickly dismantled and stacked compactly for transport.


Road Sign Tables

On a visit to Indiana I found these unused road signs and quickly turned them into personal tables which we used for dining in (mostly breakfast, since we usually went out for dinner). The eccentricity of the signs inspired me to make them asymmetrical in height.


Rolled-Foam Sofa

I made this airy sofa by rolling sheets of foam around three longitudinal cores of pine and sheathing them in fabric. Note the Nelson-style midcentury coffee table I found at a garage sale.

Terra Incognita Loft

By the time I moved into this vast raw industrial space, my aesthetic had become much more nuanced, my standards more demanding, and most of my construction efforts went into building out the space itself.

But once the space was fully built out (it had to be done twice), it seemed like I was driven to continue building something, no matter how small in scale, at least once a year, and it’s been like that ever since.

Cabinet Steps

These cubist cabinets formed steps to the sleeping loft of our guest room. I covered each step with industrial carpeting in a charcoal blend.


Stairs to DJ Deck

This little gem was designed with small bevels between the stringers and the steps, which I painted in random pastel colors to liven up our otherwise stark black and white interior.


Firewood Bed and Street Lamp

During my years in the loft I’d evolved from sleeping on a ledge above my art studio, to moving my girlfriend’s bed into the studio, to breaking up with her and taking another room as my studio in the last year, when I finally decided to build my own ultimate bed. My heart belonged to the desert at this point, and I wanted my bed to feel anchored in the earth, albeit I was two floors up above San Francisco in a building that was slowly disintegrating. I started with oak logs from our firewood stash for legs, built a rigid frame of 2×6 douglas fir with a platform of 5/8-inch clear plywood, and sheathed the sides with redwood. I joined everything together with wooden pegs and glue so there was no metal anywhere in the bed. On top of the firm plywood platform I placed heavy Japanese tatami mats, and the sleeping surface was a combination wool and cotton futon. It all weighed a ton, but could be dismantled into pieces, including the solid frame, each of which could be carried by one person. So I continued to take it with me to most of the 15 different places I’ve lived in since then, and like some other beds I’ve known, this dream bed has always been a rich source of memorable dreams, including the dreams I still have of my vanished San Francisco loft.

A few years later when I was living in Oakland, I found two roughly triangular pieces of heavy redwood burl, which I attached to the head of the bed as wing tables, again using wooden pegs, but removable.


Hybrid Desk/Table

This piece began with a laminated drawing table top which I found lying around in Oakland. Shortly afterward I discovered these turned redwood pieces which had actually hung as decorations from a Victorian stairway, and added them as detachable legs. I liked the contrast between the synthetic, minimalist table top and the ornate, organic legs. After using it for years as a desk then as a kitchen table, I ultimately transformed it into my current music workstation here in New Mexico, with speaker stands above and a sliding keyboard shelf underneath.


What I’ve Learned About Furniture & Lighting

I feel so lucky to have been born into midcentury design and organic abstraction! The abstract organic patterns of my parents’ living room curtains were an inspiration for the forms in my later art. And my parents’ living room furniture set the standard for the furniture I love today.

I’m allergic to house dust, molds and pollens, and all surfaces in my home need to be easy to clean and free of clutter. Carpet, which both collects and produces dust, has always been taboo. But even more importantly, experience has taught me that no home is permanent and all my possessions need to be portable.

Hence I love midcentury furniture with its lightweight frames and spindly legs that make it easy to move and clean around and under. I like my interiors to resemble comfortable campsites.

The camping aesthetic extends to lighting, which I’m even more passionate about, since it sets the mood of an interior.

Ceiling light fixtures and chandeliers are an abomination because they impersonate the sun and turn night into a false day. Our bodies evolved with natural overhead lighting that rose, waxed, waned and set with the sun, to be followed by the ground-level light of a campfire, so I make sure that my ambient lighting is positioned low in the room (see photo below).

Whereas lighting designers tend to make lamps into fetish objects, I prefer to downplay the design of the lamp and focus on the light itself and the way it affects the environment. Indirect lighting bounces the light off a wall, so it takes on the warmth of the wall color and more closely simulates campfire light. Task lighting at a desk or table is the only kind of downward-pointing light I use.

Because I’m no longer interested in designing lamps as objects, I mostly use cheap industrial clip lights for indirect ambient lighting. But when I opened my office in San Francisco’s North Beach during the dot com boom, I acquired a set of reproduction 19th-century pharmacy lamps which are adjustable and very versatile for producing the kind of reflected, campfire-style lighting I love to live with.

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