Phooey on Your Gorgeous Garden!

The Well-Manicured Enemy

Who could be against a beautiful garden? How could seasonal riots of color be a source of trauma and dread? Why would fragrant scents and soft green spongy mosses be the enemy of tranquility? And what of delicious and nutritious food growing 10 feet outside the front door? Who would view that as a motivating risk for self-immolation?

Now hear me out on this. It may help to pretend that you are steeped in Jungian analysis, co-counseling techniques and Maslow’s philosophical construct. Hierarchy of neediness indeed!

I, Daniel Ben Farber, am a garden killer.  I have made an adult practice of buying homes which have lovely gardens and then incrementally watching those tributes to my predecessor’s care and attention fall into disrepair. Flowering plants wither.  Fruiting plants go barren. Grasses wilt, brown and are sullied with dandelions.  Himalayan blackberries are tasty, but painfully plentiful.

Mind you, I do try to maintain some semblance of order. Just not enough and not intelligently. Apparently, it isn’t a high enough priority for me to make the commitment to quality.

So – and this is where the dysfunction spirals to true lunacy – every well-tended garden I see reminds me of my own failings. The more exacting the effort and higher the quality, the more miserable I become.

Every time I walk out my front door, I am confronted with my own failures. The self-loathing escalates based on “facts on the ground.”

With all the paeans to the love of gardens and gardening that I expect to read from my fellow student writers, you should all know this: You’re KILLING ME with your attention to the damn plants.

PS:  As I write this on deadline, Ever’s Landscaping Service is doing their bi-annual best to resurrect the beautiful landscape that we inherited.  Hard work indeed – me at the computer and they in the rich soils outside!

Defiance through Exploration

The below is a love letter to my fellow writing students and teacher who persevered together through the pandemic. It is written to be spoken, and that is what I did in our last Zoom-based quarterly writing presentation. We classmates supported – and challenged – each other in our explorations.

We have been lucky to have each other during a difficult time. And now… the reading:

For those of us old enough to know that our past is longer than our future, happiness arrives with two scoops of lowered expectations, a heaping helping of defiance, and for the lucky, a deep dive into looking back and trying to make sense of it all.  Writing stuff down can help.  Writers have the chance to defy life’s burdens through the exploration of memory. Plus, a tad bit of research.

My mother, in her early 70s, plumbed for meaning in her senior memoir-writing class, racing to document her life before dementia took it away.  She was another one of us elders who desired, through writing, a satisfying summing up. 

My father was a social work professor and gerontologist with a specialty in death and dying.  Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, our dinner and overnight guest one drizzly winter’s evening, helped me with my middle school German lesson.  Dad didn’t live long enough to see Kubler-Ross’s sad unfolding. The good doctor was duped by a fraudulent psychic then leaned heavily into the occult. But she documented the hell out of it till the end.

So much of aging is about coping with loss. Loss of others. Of one’s own physical and mental capacities. Of one’s innocence.

But Beautiful Lies, Beautiful Truths, this little Thurston Senior Center writing class of 12 students and one teacher – or more accurately 12 teachers for each student – has been a precision-guided weapon against despondency.  How encouraging and inspiring this voyage with my fellow elders has proven to be! Comrades who have retained curiosity and hope despite all the losses, tragedies and traumas that time on this earth surely brings to us all. In that way, they are my heroes.

During these 15 peculiar pandemic months of faces in boxes, this class has taken all of us student writers and readers to India.  To Kenya and Lithuania and York, Pennsylvania. To the Kingdom of Hawaii and off the planet entirely to the home-world of the sasquatch.  It has taken us on the American back roads to a generous and pretty waitress in the Midwest, and to the terror of scaling talus slopes and icy cliffs in the Rockies.  It has taken us to childhood homes that talk, and aged Alzheimer’s-ravaged parents who can no longer do so.

We have danced at the prom, and at Jewish summer camp. We have explored the value of benevolence with good deeds to those we love and those we will never meet. We have contemplated the advice of our friend Janis Joplin while we sat at a honky-tonk sipping booze.  We have wowed the groupies while bodyguarding Paul Newman, and we have bet on the horses at Golden Gate Fields.  We have left men and we have left women and sometimes we married up for bad and sometimes we married up for good. We have relived the zaniness of teaching at Elementary School, and the delight of Cuban flan and a small tightly rolled cigar.  We flew a wild ride when starting up the federal Transportation Security Administration and we grinned with wizened memories at the passionate delight of sneaked teenage kisses on a Bronx brownstone stoop.  We know that Grandma Alice loved a sunrise.

Every week, we BLBT students have been writing on. Nervously confronting what we’ve just as soon avoided. Playfully risking attempts at humor that could very well fall flat.  Defying fear through honest exploration, such that, as the class has progressed, a growing confidence has settled into a comforting norm. We have made and received critiques; and provided with candor and tenderness, what seems to have emerged as a comforting blanket of devotion.  We’ve discovered that Wednesdays from 2 to 4pm are, more often than not, our favorite hours of the week.

Where Dancing May Lead

Right after dinner, my two older sisters and I would run downstairs to the TV/Rec room to catch our favorite show, Maverick.  Sister Laurie told me that when I was about three or four, I used to prance around a basement post located near that TV when the Maverick theme song came on.  Round and round and round I’d prance and skip delightedly to the rhythm.

Our parents, not generally open in their displays of affection, had one big exception. They liked to put on music and dance in our living room.  Dad was graceful, flowing in his motions. Mom was joyous and sometimes tearful in her poignant memories.   

As I grew, my prancing turned into dancing. And in surprisingly powerful ways, my lifelong evolving attitude toward dancing provides an accurate description of my self-image and maturity.

Other than play dancing with my parents or sisters, my first memories of dancing were at Camp Benbow. Benbow was a Jewish summer camp on the shores of “Beautiful Lake Tanwax.”  I was ten or eleven years old.

Benbow promoted two kinds of dancing, both in accordance with its mission to inculcate Jewish identity. First and foremost was Israeli-style line and circle dancing.  Sometimes these dances were gender non-specific.  Sometimes there were conscious boy-girl alignments. Usually this was to music with Hebrew lyrics.  

Certainly, I was aware of – and nervous about – this official authorization to hold girls’ hands.  And I was already strongly socialized to feel that holding a boy’s hand was a lesser, and even unpleasant, dance obligation. In that era, homosexuality was a subject of ridicule through snide remarks and cutting humor.  But the holding of hands and shoulders and even waists between boys and girls were clearly promoted as a socially appropriate means of easing into sexuality. And, given the traditional Israeli dancing style, very egalitarian between the sexes.

There was a second style of dance at camp, and that was pop culture rock and roll.  My favorite camp song was “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, and Camp Benbow had dance nights, when us campers, none over the age of 12, and the counselors, aged 15 to 20, could rock out to fast shake-your-booty dancing.  In those dances, lots of kids at once could run out onto the dance floor without having to select a partner. Many times, we would just experiment with different dance moves which we learned from one another. For the most part we neither needed to be the center of attention nor awkwardly pair up.  Camp authorities were careful to only permit “slow dancing” later in the evening, to the benefit of the counselors and relief of us nervous young campers. But associating sexuality – in a controlled environment – with Jewishness was no doubt a deliberate strategy for advancing “the tribe!”

Seventh grade – my first year of junior high – was the first year my public schools had a sanctioned dance.  They called them sock hops. I had never danced one-on-one with a girl before, never had a girlfriend or even the start of one. There were girls, of course, in our classes, and I had a feeling that one of them, Marla, liked me.

What did “liked me” mean?  I had no idea.  I think it pretty much came down to the fact that she would be friendly and actually look at me with a smile.  Yeah… that was probably something.

In any event, I decided to go to the first sock hop of the year as an initiation ritual for teenage life.  Terrified, yet determined, I walked to the cafeteria in the early evening twilight. Upon arrival, I sought out other boys with whom I could stand around and nervously chat.  There soon became gender lines on each side of what was designed to be the dance floor.  Girls to the left, boys to the right. A DJ started playing pop music and some of the brave kids paired up and got on the floor.

There were fast dances intermixed with slow dances. The fast ones… I could do that.  Very awkward about looking into eyes, but bearable.  I went over and asked Marla, to dance during a fast dance song.  But then, with a slow music selection next, it was a big decision. Would Marla and I do it? The answer was yes. 

It was first time I ever felt a girl’s breast press against mine. I had no idea what it would feel like.  Turns out, it felt pretty good.

Never again did I go to a dance in junior high.  In seventh grade, when Marla and I did our thing, I was probably about 5’2”. By eighth grade, as my height increased, so too did the stakes at those cafeteria dances.  For by that time, kids were definitely pairing up.  Those kids who did not have boyfriends or girlfriends – like me – found the intimacy of the dances too intimidating. And the longer we fell behind sexually, the harder it was to feel a part of that scene.

As my height ballooned to 6’5” by the end of high school, so did my awkwardness about my body and my timidity with girls. While I was able to connect platonically with girls, often better than boys, I was insecure about my attractiveness. 

The only dance I attended up to and including high school graduation was in London, England when I was 17. I lived for five months with my mom and dad in the Belsize Park neighborhood, while dad was on sabbatical.  England had a long tradition of teenage social programming outside of traditional school. It was called “youth work” by social workers, and I joined the Northwest Jewish Boys and Girls Club, ostensibly to play ping pong, but also to connect more broadly with teens my age.  

While going to the club for some ping pong or chess, I was introduced to others in the club, including actual girls.  Funny thing about accents.  When yours is exotic, it can have its advantages.  One evening a big-eyed dark-haired girl named Sara approached me and asked if I was going to go to the club dance next week.  I replied that it sounded fun.  That became the second time I slow-danced with a girl.

I had been in a couple of theatrical performances in high school, so when I was in community college, I got my thespian juices flowing by joining the cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum[1]. The play’s choreographer was Bill Monroe, an ebullient African American man. “Daniel, you have a beautiful body!” he exulted. No one had ever told me that before. “Daniel, release your arms… jump and soar and spin….”  My character, Erroneous, was an old man who was said to be running around the seven hills of Rome. My stage entrances became an ongoing gag, as my tall, skinny frame repeatedly made strange galloping leaps across the stage. At the cast party, Bill and others showed me dance moves. For the first time in my life, I felt pride and even confidence in my moving body.

I don’t remember any dancing at The Evergreen State College. This, even though I had my first serious girlfriend at the time.  I think we enjoyed basketball and swimming together more than the dance floor. I also think that the sex role stereotyping of a typical college dance scene may have been worse than passe at TESC in those emotionally highly-charged feminist times. It may have been considered politically incorrect.

At UC Berkeley, dancing for the first time became a semi-regular social outlet with my student friends.  My moves were energetic and distinctive and lubricated by wine, and for the first time, dancing became not a source of awkwardness, but a welcome release from the tensions of school.

For the rest of my life, dancing has always been associated with intimacy and celebration.  At my first wedding, Jewish line and circle dancing became a comfortable and inclusive means of sharing the joy of the occasion.  Later, as a single man, contra dancing and square dancing at the South Bay Grange – again with line and circle dancing – was a deliberate and socially acceptable way for single people to share the gift of touch and maybe just maybe romance.

My wife Jean LOVES to dance. She took ballet lessons as a young girl, and her face is alighted with joy whenever she is dancing.  Early in our relationship, we learned salsa dancing as part of our comprehensive cultural effort at Spanish language acquisition in Buenavista de Cuellar, Mexico. We featured salsa dancing at our wedding a year later.

Jean adores the ballet and is convinced that I do not.  Every single time she suggests going to a ballet performance I enthusiastically say – with never a trace of snark – that I hope to go with her.  “You do not!” she responds.  “No, I LOVE the ballet. Can’t wait till we go again.”  We both smile. For different reasons.


[1] The actual performance was a hilarious and controversial flop. The director insisted on commedia dell’arte authentic wardrobes, which included stylized gigantic phalluses. As my character was an old man, my phallus, while huge, pointed straight down.  Thus, under my robe, it was hardly seen.  Whereas some phalluses were pointed straight up in the air or in the shape of a corkscrew.  These wardrobe details had not been explained prior to try-outs for the community college student cast that included some middle-aged men who refused to wear the pubic beasts.  They complained to the college administrators, but the director’s threat to those officials about interference with artistic expression – along with her lawyers willingness to pounce – won out.  A public warning “for mature audiences” was placed on the ads for the play. We performed – with full orchestra mind you! – in front of audiences between 2 and 8 people.  The finale of “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tooo nighghghghghght!” was followed by rhythmic clapping from the enthusiastic matinee pair of the director’s friends.  Comedy indeed!

If

In our writing class, we students were asked to produce two small pieces under the subject “if.” Below are my contributions to that cause.

If You Knew What She Would Say

If you knew she would say yes, and yes meant a lifetime together, would you ask her?

If her yes would be uncertain, and yes meant a lifetime together, would you ask her?

If you knew she would say yes, and yes meant that you’d see a good movie together, but there were no certainties after that, would the lower stakes make the ask easier?

If you knew, even with the lower stakes, that the movie COULD lead to a lifetime together, or at minimum, a potentially awkward decision by one of you in the future that could lead to a decision of a lifetime, would that stop you from asking about that movie?  Even if the movie had great Rotten Tomato reviews with potential for stimulating after-movie conversation? Or sex? Or something in between?

If you knew that you can never know, whether risks be high or low, whether dreams will ever flow, whether hope and fear can share a home as powdered pure as a freshly fallen twelve-inch dump of wide-flaked, windswept snow, would you … would you… give it a go?

If

If I ran the zoo…

If you give a mouse a cookie…

If I was a rich man…

If I fell in love with you…

If I could turn back time…

If Rudyard Kipling hadn’t already stolen the word as a title and created a terrific poem…

Then I might have a better chance of doing something, anything, distinctive with the word “if.”

But if’s prevalence in poetry and song, reveals the two-letter word’s core nature.  

And that is this:

Whenever if is used as inquiry, it provides the asker an answer.

Wherever if is used as fantasy, it provides the wonderer a home.

The Woods

From age two to age 20, 1957 to 1975, I lived as the youngest of three children in our family’s 5-bedroom, 3-bathroom, Bell and Valdez-constructed home, built upon a typical ¼-acre lot in Lake Hills; a model post-war unincorporated sprawling suburb of Bellevue, which in turn was a classic post-war incorporated suburb of Seattle.  When Bellevue annexed Lake Hills in 1969, it increased the city’s population by roughly a third, up to 60,000, most of whom – it seemed – were Boeing engineers and their familial and economic support network. 

In this middle class juvenile idyll, all the houses on our block contained kids, and we roamed each other’s yards, grazed for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in our mom’s kitchens, played tag football between the concrete curbs of the 36ft-wide asphalt-paved street, and on warm and dry summer days, headed down the block to The Woods for mysterious adventures. 

My way to The Woods passed only four homes, down SE 8th and across 168th SE.  About two miles long and a half-mile wide, The Woods was a yet undeveloped part of Lake Hills.  Extending from SE 8th, it stretched eastward about three hundred feet of relatively flat-terrain second growth Douglas fir-salal forest before a precipitous drop off in a series of east-west ravines down to West Lake Sammamish Parkway.  Further to the south, Old Growth forest characteristics took hold, and a dramatic – and artificial – seasonal waterfall became a rare but exciting destination.  But those were beyond my childhood’s daily roam, which focused almost exclusively on the top of the nearby slope.

Perhaps I would tell mom or dad where I was going on those languid summer days or perhaps not.  We were free range fowl then. Parents just assumed that everyone had everyone else’s back.  

Often, I would seek out one of my friends, but sometimes just solo trek down the block, across 168th, turning right down its steep half block and then left at the dead end on SE 9th. Veering left again, I’d be into The Woods. 

The Woods was an escape and a place of independence. Even a dollop of potential danger.  As my feet left the asphalt and took their first steps onto the soft soil, I was instantly transformed and away.  

What did we kids do all those days in The Woods?  There was the tree fort project we partially completed, though it sadly lacked in the complexity and scale of our Swiss Family Robinson aspirations.  There were the tunnels we dug in “the clearing” – a clearing that we kids made and expanded with our diffuse energies.  There were the first kisses.  That was cool. 

I went off to college and came back occasionally to visit the folks in their Lake Hills home.  By the mid-1970s, Dad was heavy into wellness – diet, exercise, and meditation.  He took me on his morning constitutional, down to The Woods, but this time turning right at the end of SE 9th, not left as had been my way.  We walked briskly down a well-trodden path he called his Trillium Trail to a quiet grove of fir and cedar.  This was his place for meditation, and we TMed together for 20 minutes.

He and Mom strode the Trillium Trail together for years.  

My section of The Woods was leveled and replaced with huge homes in the 1980s as Heron’s Gate, following the developer’s unwritten rule that subdivisions are always named for the nature they’ve destroyed. Trillium Trail became the northwestern trailhead to Weowna Park, with the preponderance of The Woods saved by the city of Bellevue in perpetuity as a touch of wildness in the middle of urbanity.  No, Weowna is not a fortuitous Native American transliteration, but a playfully shmushed name of civic pride. 

Dad passed in 1980. Wellness could go only so far when fighting against a scarred heart and floppy mitral valve. Mom passed in 2005 of Alzheimer’s, 20 years after moving away from Lake Hills.

Big sister Laurie and I had been acceding to mom’s wishes for years.  Spreading her ashes in special places of meaning to her and to us.  On August 1, 2017, when mom would have been 98 years old, some of her remaining ashes were driven along SE 8th, down the 168th SE hill, parked along SE 9th, walked down the Trillium Trail to the familiar grove of fir and cedar, and laid upon its sacred ground. I churned them with a nearby stick into the thick humus, merging family memories with the active decay and abundant life that is The Woods.

Neighbors and Civilization

The soft-spoken, diminutive 81-year-old Harriet was visibly nervous.  She was about to sit down in front of a cluster of 2-dozen friends and neighbors in a tiny downtown bookstore who had gathered to listen to her read stories of her youth growing up in Nazi Germany.  The designated soft chair facing the cozy audience did not appear to meet the moment.  “Would you like this stiff-backed wooden chair instead,” asked her friend.  

“Yes, I think that would work better,” Harriet gently replied with a small and gracious smile. 

In her readings, Harriet intertwined personal, family experiences, with the larger forces of Nazi history. She talked about President Hindenburg’s fateful decision to appoint Adolf Hitler as chancellor, even though he only got 37% of the vote. When Hindenburg died a few months later, she demonstrated with painful detail how ruthless and effective Hitler and the Nazis were in consolidating power. A key technique in that consolidation was the capacity to instill fear in the populace for any effort to oppose the Nazis. A key technique to instill fear was the breakdown in trust between neighbors.

Harriet told of her father discovering and then confronting a neighbor who was peering into their living room window on a cold winter’s evening. The neighbor explained, with a self-satisfied justification, that she was listening only to make sure the family radio was not tuned to the BBC.  The consequence for Harriet’s family of such a revelation could be severe. Imprisonment and even death.

In any political era, there is a seductive tendency to equate the latest autocratic outrage with an unavoidable slide into Nazi atrocities.   First the Nazis did this, then they did that, and look at what our current ruler is doing? Same darn thing. And yet… and yet… this time in America feels different.  Trump’s lawbreaking feels different. Trump’s apparent direct appreciation for Goebbels and Hitler feels different. Trump’s acolytes seem so fawning, and their yearning for a great leader so reminiscent of Hitler, that all the things that make the current and ‘30s eras so different appear to fade away.  Fears take over.  Maybe we could slide into fascism? Maybe the lies and cult of leadership risk civilization itself?

Harriet’s stories triggered a lifetime reflection of my family’s interactions with neighbors. Both my family of origin as well as the various incarnations of what came to be my home and family.

I was born in “The Projects;” a low- to moderate-income public housing complex in New York’s Arverne-Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens. My parents were just starting their careers and with three little kids, Dad’s single income source and Mom’s full-time home and child-raising duties qualified us for rent support.  Our neighbor, the Dubrows’ dad, worked two jobs which provided his family with sufficient income to exclude them from The Projects. But we didn’t “rat” on him and his family about that second job.  Or which radio station they listened to! We were compassionate neighbors.

Soon after I was born, Dad got a fancy job in Seattle, Washington and off we went. For about 18 months we lived in an apartment complex on Mercer Island while our typical suburban tract home was being constructed in Lake Hills. We moved there when I was two and lived there for the rest of my childhood.

Lake Hills was a massive post-war residential and commercial development, filled with more than 13 thousand people in the eastern side of Bellevue. Our block had 16 homes – eight on each side of the street – and just about everyone’s home had kids close to my age. I came to know the names of just about everyone on the block as did my parents and sisters.  The world of neighbors on our block felt safe. Kids would play on the street, then drop in on various homes, where a kid’s mom might have warm chocolate chip cookies and milk ready to serve. 

When I was about 10, new neighbors moved in who proved to be great community organizers.  They successfully lobbied the city to shut off our street to cars for a day, and we had a block party.

But not all neighbors were as friendly as others.  In some homes I felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. One family seemed a bit more distant – the Perrys. They lived immediately next door.

Like many dads on the block, Ed Perry worked for Boeing.  I believe he was a tradesman on the assembly line. His wife, Thelma, worked as a nurse for Group Health. In fact, at one point, she was the principal nurse for Dad’s cardiologist. The Perry’s had three boys, of similar age as my two big sisters and me. 

David, the oldest, went on to a long and storied career as a rock and roll radio DJ in Los Angeles. Wayne, the middle son, became an innovative and successful corporate lawyer, owner of mobile phone companies, part-owner of the Seattle Mariners, and most famously, president of the Boy Scouts of America (Preceded by Rex Tillerson and succeeded by Robert Gates).  Steve, the youngest, and just a couple years older than me, was a giant of a man.  At 6’10”, he played on the high school basketball team. Last I heard about him after school, he had become a police officer.

Wayne was somehow the boy I interacted with the most. He would call me “Fanny Fart-Knocker.”  This would be as close as he would get to the name Danny. Wayne seemed the toughest of the three boys, but he also had a kind of swagger and sarcasm that I found both slightly frightening and oddly appealing.  My sister Laurie tells me that she and Wayne did not get along and at one point a fight resulted in her throwing a rock through the Perry’s window. Steve never had anything to do with me, even though we were closest in age.  But David would interact with my big sisters, and it is through this connection that we gained insight into our parents’ neighborly relations. 

David was a kind of Perry political rebel. I suppose it went with the affinity for rock and roll. My sisters found out from him that his mom was a member of the right-wing John Birch Society. David told my sister Ann that his folks had suspicions that we were communists and warned him and his brothers to stay away from us.  He also said that apparently either his mom or dad contacted the FBI and that it had a wire placed on our phone.

If true, the Perry parents’ political actions against my parents were reprehensible. But they had grounds. And in that era’s terms, reasonable judgment for their suspicions.  Turns out that my mom did dabble in left-wing circles during The Great Depression. As she described it, she joined a communist book club in college because “they read the most interesting books.”  And both my parents were assuredly attracted as youth to social justice movements. Afterall, they became professional social workers.

Growing up in Lake Hills in the 1950s and 60s, we were surrounded by Boeing engineers, tradesmen, and political conservatives. Our family was an obvious aberration. Jewish. Politically liberal.  Our house echoed with the sounds of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie.  Our bookshelves contained evidence of left-wing influences. Plenty of cause for suspicion! Though it was at least slightly ironic that Thelma Perry worked as a nurse for the closest thing at the time to socialized medicine – Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound.

Move the timeline forward 50 years. I’m speaking with my son Zac, a working journalist now living in Minneapolis. I tell him about his grandpa and grandma and how we kids were told that the FBI had them under wiretap surveillance. Zac asks, “Dad, why don’t we do a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to see what records they may have on Grandma and Grandpa?”

“I had never thought of that.  Yes, why not? Let’s do it,” I reply. And so, we did.

A month later we get a reply from the FBI. Yes indeed, there are FBI records on both my parents.  Ten pages total on my dad.  One hundred and twenty on my mom!  And the dates of the records stretch from the 1940s to the 1970s! If we want to see them, the FBI writes, it will take up to two years to process them.

My immediate response to the FBI was, “Yes, I want to see them.”  I also asked them if they could tell me the nature of the records.

“Were any of the records phone records?” I inquired, harkening back to the original motive for inquiry, which involved the Perrys and wiretapping. The FBI responded that they could not tell me at that time about the type of records. I thanked them for the quick reply and reiterated that I did want to see all the federal records on my parents as soon as they could provide them.  I also asked whether there were any records on me.  Their response a few weeks later came back.  I was in the clear.  There was no file on me at all.

The two years for the FBI to provide records on my folks were up this month, February 2020.  Zac contacted them for an update.  “It will be a year more to wait,” was the FBI’s response. Justice delayed is justice denied, of course, and one must wonder if priorities to process FOIA requests have somehow taken a nosedive in the Trump administration. 

So, we are left with mysteries to uncover.  Why was the FBI more interested in my mom than my dad? Could it have been because she was born in Russia? The records started before the Perrys and Farbers moved into Lake Hills.  Could the FBI have in fact contacted the Perrys and asked them to spy?  Or perhaps asked them after the Perrys initiated contact?  And just what was so interesting about my mom?  Could she have been more actively radical than I knew? Finally, if not the Perrys, who did notify the FBI to pry into my parents’ lives? Another neighbor?

Over the years, I have lived in many homes with dozens of neighbors.  The value of good neighborly relations and the downside of stressful relations have both played themselves out in real time. I have tended to tread gently, not wanting to offend a neighbor. The example of the Perrys has been a constant reminder of the risk that can come from a neighboring relationship gone bad.

Sometimes, striking the right balance in neighborly relations has been a challenge for me and my wife Jean. 

Jack, our male neighbor to the north, was in his 70s when we first met. He had been married to his second wife, Mary, for over a decade. Their home, built in the 1920s, was well-maintained, with an American flag proudly flying year-round.  Jack greeted me as we encountered each other for the first time in our alleyway. He invited me into his wine cellar where he made his own wine and gave me a bottle of welcome.  So far, so good.  He told me of his career in the military. He also started discussing the neighborhood, used the “N” word, and I quickly figured out that this was a man with whom it would not be wise to engage in political conversation.

I made the strategic error of mentioning the “N” word reference to my wife.  Immediately upon hearing that, she would have nothing to do with our neighbors to the north.  So much for that relationship!

I did have a brief and pleasant conversation with Mary soon thereafter. She told me about our neighbor to the south.  She called that property owner a “slum landlord.”  The renter, a father, about 60 years old, was a musician and guitar teacher.  His son was a mentally disturbed individual.  Later, I ran into the father in the alleyway, and we had a polite chat. He told me that his son had difficulties, but that if he took his meds, he wouldn’t be violent.  He also said that his son didn’t like taking his meds.

About a week later, I met the son in the alleyway.  I went over to introduce myself.  “Hello, I’m your new neighbor, Daniel,” I said in the friendliest voice I could muster.

“What’s your name, again?” he asked sternly.

“It’s Daniel.”

“I don’t like that name,” concluded my 20-year-old neighbor. “Never talk with me again!”

Much has been written about the changing mores of neighborly communication in America.  Do we know our neighbors? Do we trust them?  Will we have each other’s back in an emergency?

Harriet’s story of neighborly relations in a society built on terror was an extreme example of dysfunction and danger. Our capacity to form and retain and enhance civilization really does depend to a great extent on our skills and interest in being civil with each other.  Surely that must include an effective dedication to neighborliness.  But neighborliness is not enough.

In Harriet’s case, her father for months had been driving that neighbor to work.  He had a good job and money for gasoline, and she was needy. In a good society, kind neighborliness is rewarded.  In an evil one, a human’s need for self-preservation rewards wickedness. The fragility of civilization, rests on both the kindness of neighbors, and the good judgment of the masses, to elevate and empower wise and compassionate leadership.

Anyone got a cup of sugar?

April 2021 Postscript:  Still haven’t received data from our FOIA request.  Standing by.

Buying the Lying

On his afternoon constitutional, David spies a sign on the sidewalk in front of a modest blue bungalow with a neatly manicured yard. The sign reads “Talking rabbit for sale:  $10.” Captivated, David knocks on the entry door.

“Good morning!  I’m intrigued by the sign in your yard.  Do you really have a rabbit for sale?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the tall, wiry, bald-headed man replied in a surprisingly blasé tone.

“Are you serious?  Can the rabbit really talk?”

“Come on back and see for yourself.”

“OK… let’s do this.” David is led around the house through a wooden gate to the backyard where a chestnut brown English rabbit is munching on iceberg lettuce in a small gilded cage. The man leaves David alone with the rabbit.

“How do you do?” chimed the rabbit brightly. “So nice to meet you.  What is your name?”

“Uh… my name is David,” was the shocked response.

The two chatted amiably for a while. “When I was last in Paris,” the rabbit recalled, “I found the most delicious young carrots in a small market in the 15th Arrondissement. You simply must check it out next time you are abroad.

The conversation continued for a few minutes, before David and the rabbit bid adieu.

“So, how did your conversation go?” the man asked glumly.

“Incredible!  The rabbit talked about his journeys to Paris, Berlin… even Moscow.  Amazing!  I have just one question of you.  Why are you selling him?  He’s a miracle!”

“If you must know, I’m sick and tired of that grubby rabbit.  Paris?  Moscow?  He’s never been out of my backyard, except for the vet visit last June.   That rabbit is a damn liar!”

Unprepared: College Life

Entering Western Washington State College directly from high school, I quit after one quarter. My 2.02 GPA belied a deeper reality.  I had no idea where I was going, who I was, and what I wanted.  And my D in French was undeserved. I should have flunked.

In the long march to maturity, Western was where reality forced confrontation with self.  Just how far did I still need to travel to arrive at a tentative sense of competent adulthood?

Higginson Hall, my first residence away from home, my first painful dabbling in independence, proved a great site for bubbling failure.

I, lusting after Elvis-loving Geena around the billiards table, couldn’t act upon that yearning.  Unasked, she was likely clueless to my fantasies.

I, underaged and supremely innocent, confidently wagered with Big Rick, our dorm residence assistant, for a six-pack of beer. “I bet I can win 20 games in a row.” This 18-yo Jewish suburbanite handily beat that 22-yo African American from Seattle’s Central Area on our ping pong bet, only to find that he who has the gun, sets the rules.

And what does one need to settle down, focus, and accomplish anything in this glorious life of self-professed value?  All the stuff that I lacked at the time. Purpose. Discipline. A modicum of judgment earned from both experiences and some strange alchemy of interpretation of those experiences that produces proximations of wisdom.

Let’s call it preparation.

What I Learned from Papa

My writing class assignment was to write two pieces, about 16 lines each, that starts with the title “What I learned from…”

What I learned from Papa

Once Papa gently advised, and only upon my request for his advice, that:

I should only act on important decisions when I am centered. 

I should not proclaim in the throes of anger or hurt, but wait until I gain perspective. 

I should separate others’ statements about me from their feelings and world outlook. 

And thus:

I should not take “personally” perceived attacks, but rather find a perspective that is outside of me and them and respond accordingly.

That is what I learned from my papa.

That is not, however, what I in fact do.

For:

To not take things personally is hard. 

To not react in the moment is hard. 

To breathe and breathe again before speaking is not natural.

Is not natural, I suppose I must say, for me.

But:

After I have reacted

After I have said what I wish I hadn’t

After I have acted rashly

I then recall what I learned from my papa.

And I say, next time, next time, I’ll do better. 

And I’ll remember Papa.

What I Learned from Carolyn Dobbs

After 65 years, not much sticks. One has difficulty remembering names and faces.

Putting the two together? Forget it.

So, when someone said something to you once that you not only retain, but find yourself constantly using, it counts as a life lesson. It feels like something you’ve learned.

An urban planner by academic discipline, my The Evergreen State College professor, Carolyn Dobbs, said two things to me – 20 years apart mind you and seemingly unrelated – that I find myself going back to again and again as core wisdom and succor:

  1. “You know, Daniel, all people are bundles of insecurities.”  From which I remind myself that I need to treat others with kindness and tact.
  2. “The key to being a successful planner is that by the time a decision needs to be made, you know more about the subject than anyone in the room.”  From which I remind myself that I must do the work. That respect is earned.  And that while there are no certainties, if you make the effort, it increases the chance for the payoff.

Everything Matters

Characters:

Daniel:  A 65-year-old man

Dan: Daniel’s younger self at age 20

_____________________________________________________

Daniel: (whispering, smiling gently) Shhhh, Dan. Don’t wake up. This is a dream. 

Dan:  (groggily) Huh?

Daniel: (speaking more clearly) I am a voice from your future. Actually, I am your voice from your future.

Dan: (curious, but not afraid) What? Who are you?

Daniel: I’m Daniel. I’m you. Age 65.

Dan: But…

Daniel: (interrupting) Just go with this for a bit. Let’s see where this takes you. Where this takes us.

Dan: (emerging from the somnolent cloud, then open to what happens next) Um… ok.

Daniel: (firmly now and for the rest of the dialog) I am here, in your torpid mind, to provide you a simple message based on experience.  A message of advice, as it were.

Dan:  Ok… I’m ready.

Daniel: Great.  The message is this:  It matters. It all matters.

Dan: What matters?

Daniel: Everything.  Everything you do. Everything you think.  Every decision you make. Every decision you try to avoid. Everything.

Dan: What do you mean, “everything?”

Daniel: I mean everything.  In the next 45 years you will be frequented by what feels like big decisions. Which college you go to.   What classes you take.  Whether you want something called a career, and then what career path you pursue.

Dan: Those are huge decisions alright.

Daniel:  But there is more. Much more.  Who will you decide to date? Who will you decide to love? All those choices matter.

Dan: Well, what’s surprising about that? Those are the choices that trouble me now.  So of course, they matter.

Daniel: Yes, but everything else matters too. Even the day-to-day.  The seemingly insignificant.

Dan: The insignificant?

Daniel:  The seemingly insignificant. Yes. Every time you decide to work late to finish something on deadline. Every moment you procrastinate and knock yourself for doing so. Every flash in which you come up with a creative solution, or every crushing instant you’re dumbfounded and lost.  It might feel smaller than that still. Much smaller.  The hikes you take and the outings you forgo. The dessert you eat or skip.  The beer you drink or don’t. Hell, will it be an IPA or a stout? Everything matters.

Dan: (with a tad of incredulity) Everything?

Daniel: Every sentence you say.  Every smile or frown. Every jot and tittle.  Every whim or wisp. Everything blessed or cursed. Every blooming thing.  It all matters.

Dan: (now irritated and annoyed) Why are you saying this?  What are you doing to me? Why do you place this burden on my shoulders?  Who can live a balanced, healthy life of accomplishment, connections and joy if there are always these expectations for perfection?

Daniel: (calmly and with kindness) Dan, I think you may be missing my essential point if this feels like a burden. Everything matters is not about obligation. It is about fact. And it is about opportunity.

 It is a truth that every thought, every action you take throughout your life, affects the sum of what you become.  It is a truth that every moment is an expression of who you have become and who you are. And it is a truth that every moment is an opportunity to learn from your past and become more the person you want to be in the now.  In your next 45 years, through all the decisions, whether they seem large or small, I know that you will do a perfect job of creating what I am today.

My message for you now, is that overall, you and I and the infinite versions of ourselves in between, ended up doing just fine.

Dan: (calmed somewhat, but still skeptical) I suppose that is supposed to be inspiring. Or at least soothing.  But it’s also daunting and not in a slight way intimidating.

Daniel: Perhaps so.  But it is also your fate. I wager it feels about right too.  Because I rather know you pretty well.  And, happily enough, I say to you with a confidence borne from a reflective reality, everything ended up mattering to me. And in the end, everything will have mattered to you.