Posts Tagged ‘Obituary’

The Clouded Mirror of Memory

A couple of decades ago, I wrote a poem called “Memory” that was published in 2013 in my book “The New Poetics of Isolation“. It was a poem about repressed memories and memories of actions that could have had different consequences. One particular stanza was about my father:

“I summon memory / and pause upon the pathway / leading to the rear edifice / within which father’s / chemistry was taught / with plastic molecular models. / A retrograde reality / where polymers build atoms; / not vice-versa”

That was a play on the fact that the model atoms were made of plastic. (Hey! I never said I was going to be a great poet… just a poet.)

That poem ended by saying:

I could have / learned much / had my ego / not prohibited / my assumption / of apprenticeship.

This poem did not speak only of my father. But, with his recent passing, I have come to view it with greater clarity. I missed so many, many opportunities to learn from him. I don’t think it was my ego alone that got in the way. I think it was the clashing of both of our egos. Still, one does not have control over others and must, thus, be satisfied with finding and acting with the best within ourselves. That means taking responsibility and that is why I put this on myself.

Brilliance in Context

Dad was a brilliant guy and had he tried to talk to me in the context of things I was interested in – cooking, the creatine / glycogen cycle during my weightlifting workouts, etc. – I would have been damn interested. I was not taken by polyimides and heat shields, and wire coatings and that’s on him. But, I own the responsibility because I could have done something too. Like:

“hey, dad, why do I always want to eat so much after being around all those people taking bong hits in the Toys-R-Us parking lot on Saturday night? No, dad, it must be from secondhand smoke.”

Joking aside, I could have pivoted to my interests and asked him questions in my context. I didn’t and now I regret that.

Here’s why I say dad was a brilliant guy:

A CV in Plastics

My father received his BS in Chemistry in 1949 from Rosevelt University in Chicago. He went on to the University of Chicago where he earned an MS in 1952 and his PhD in 1956. He authored countless papers and, by the end of his career has amassed over 100 patents, all in Polymer Chemistry and primarily in High Temperature Polyimides. These plastics formed the foundation for electrical insulations, lubricants, ablative materials, and polyphenylenes. In the vacuum of space, many materials outgas and can be damaged by the recondensation of volatilized gases. These plastics were able to avoid failing in these environments. Perhaps the best known applications for we non-chemists would be as conformal coatings used in aerospace applications such as to protect electronic devices and wiring from the intense heat of spacecraft reentry.

My father was pretty self-absorbed with his career. We kids, could say “dad…. dad…. DAD!!…” and he would not even answer. But to get his attention we need only whisper, “hey… Doctor Bilow’…” and BOOM! we got his attention. When I think about how odd that sounds, I also think about how committed he was to caring for his family. He worked so hard so he could put us through college, help his brothers, care for his mother, and raise a family on one of those 1960s single incomes. Doctor Bilow committed himself to his career for all of us, even when it did not always seems that way when he was at Moffit Field, or chairing a Sigma Xi conference. Think about it…

When dad decided to become a chemist nearly 75 years ago, polymers were in their infancy so he began his career at Dow Chemical Company developing polypropylene. At that time, anyone who was a bit creative could come up with projects which they believed warranted development and products which they would like to see invented. He, thus, went on to spend 25 years at Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City, CA where he led laboratories in Polymer, Physical, and Analytical Chemistry and served as Senior Scientist for the Advanced Materials Lab.

The position that dad held at Hughes was largely the result of the space race. The USAF and NASA requested proposals to develop polymeric materials which could char efficiently but still retain physical integrity. These government organizations anticipated developing spacecraft which could enter the earth’s atmosphere at high reentry temperatures and this required high-char plastics to maintain structural integrity. Dad was at Hughes and his team submitted a winning proposal. That led to a lifetime of these materials (and, frankly, the possibility for a space program from which vehicles and humans could safely return!).

Family Matters

That use of my father’s brain-power is what allowed him to purchase a home in the San Fernando Valley, to support the Jewish Community, to get us through our B’nai Mitzvah and weddings, and to send his electronic-musician / photographer / mediocre scholar son to CalArts – a world class private art institution while simultaneously helping my sister through UCSD. His work was for him and, as a teenager and young adult, it seemed like that was the end of the story. But, as a 60 year old who has been nowhere as successful as he, my “old curmudgeon” perspective is very different. I’m now 5 years older than dad was when he first retired and I’m not close. He had a whole second career ahead of him though.

At 55, dad retired from Hughes and joined Furane Products Co. as director of R. & D. At Furane he got to experience what I experienced through my years at Grass Valley, corporate mergers and acquisitions. After a merger with Rohm & Haas, dad became manager of research, and, a couple of years later, Ciba-Geigy bought Furane so he ultimately retired again; this time from Ciba-Geigy. Of course, in the spirit of good old American M&A, the company was by now part of Novartis. At Furane dad dealt primarily with polyurethane foaming processes. This is a far cry from the space program but his work ultimately led to another amazing change in the world – an entirely new mattress market. From space to bed, that’s my dad!

In the Community

There is another thing I think a lot about now-a-days. That is my early involvement in ACM OOPSLA conferences, my book review editorship and columnist position at several computer magazines, and even the involvement I have with the SMPTE Journal Board of Editors and my ACM volunteerism. That came from Doctor Bilow, too.

Dad was also an active part of the research community. He was a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, a member of the American Chemical Society, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemists. In both 1970 and 1974 he was presented with the Industrial Research Magazine IR-100 Award, first for his work with wire insulations and second for a family of thermosetting, high-temperature, addition curable polyimides. Dad also had the high honor to serve as President of Sigma XI and to receive Hughes Aircraft Company’s coveted Lawrence A. Hyland Award. He was no stranger to awards!

Hidden Influences

I ask myself, often, why a PhD Polymer Chemist would support his son in getting a degree in Electronic Music Composition at an expensive Art School when he knew the power of the sciences and the difficulty of the arts. Well, he and I had vastly different tastes, but he loved the arts. He loved paintings (not what I liked) and classical music (which I adored even while going to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Grateful Dead concerts.) And he LOVED to DANCE (he danced, I watched Twyla Tharp and Bella Lewitzky, and got certified as a teacher of “Movement Expression” – so, again, we differed but he led the way). And…. man…. he could dance!

Doctor Dance

Those of you who knew my father well will know this, but most people will not. Dad was a marvelous ballroom dancer. He and my mother were extraordinary on the dance floor. Even as a hand drummer I could not count as well as my dad did when even casually waltzing (God…. I just this second realized that this may well be why I am addicted to Leonard Cohen’s “Take this Waltz”!!!)

Mom and dad were both proud of this and well into his 80s dad’s “dance card” was full up at the Burbank Senior Center. As they aged mom because the greeter at the senior center door while dad danced up a storm with all the “young” ladies. Once in a while, while visiting LA, I would join them but I was generally too self-conscious to dance with or around them. To me, it was like singing in a karaoke contest with Placido Domingo. I could not do it but it sure made me proud and it sure made me happy to see them smile. They were much more stylish than the folks I hung out with at “Dance Home” above the Radio Shack in Santa Monica.

Endnotes

I want to close with some thoughts I should have opened with:

  1. My father used to sit in Norm’s Restaurant, time and again, while I was as Cedar Sinai Medical Center having my many regularly scheduled esophagus dilations. His worrying gave him an ulcer but never did he complain. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  2. My father used to bring home dry ice and liquid nitrogen to use at our Cub Scout meeting so that we could freeze hot dogs and smash them with a hammer. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  3. My father helped me adapt our bathroom so that I could use it as a darkroom with my first Kodak enlarger sitting on the toilet, when I was 12. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  4. My father helped me convert the storage closet beneath our stairs into a darkroom so that Jeff Brown and I could process our rock concert photographs. And he pretended to believe I only inhaled second-had smoke out back. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  5. My father drove to Valencia to attend every one of my CalArts composer’s concerts, family in tow, to support me even though he could not understand why he was paying soo much money for me to write music that he had to sit in the dark to listen to on an Ampex Quad Machine through giant JBL Speakers. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  6. I never demonstrated this very well, certainly not as well as my siblings, but I want to tell you something. Dr. Bilow… I love you.

As my wife said when her father passed away “I’m an orphan now”. In it’s own funky way, that’s true. But I will say that, perhaps because of that, I realize more now than ever what a blessing it was to be the son of the son of Russian immigrant who made good, went to a university I could only dream of, helped put humans in space, supported his family so well, and set me on a solid course for my own journey.

Dr. Bilow… I love you.

Dr. Bilow… I miss you!

All the rest is commentary.

z”l

Fifty-Nine year old Cheryl Tiano, was an agent who represented film, TV and game composers at the Gorfaine-Schwartz Agency. She passed away on Monday night, apparently due to complications from heart surgery.

The Society of Composers & Lyricists told Variety:

“Cheryl had long ago taken her place amongst the top tier of composer agents in the entertainment industry. Her clients loved her, and she loved repping them. She is an enormous loss to our media music community.”

I’m sure that’s true. But I did not know her as a rep. I knew her as a joy-filled, very energetic, extremely intelligent member of the CalArts student body in the early 1980’s. I knew her as a friend and as someone who was extremely kind to me in my ancient days as an introverted guy who needed all the extroverts I could find to surround me. Cheryl was wonderful.

Over the past couple decades I have lost several friends and mentors who I dearly loved. My composition teacher and friend Lucky Mosko, his wife the great flutist Dorothy Stone, my friend Art Jarvinen, my best friend in Oregon Pablo Esteve, my tabla teacher Pandit Taranath Rao, and several more. Cheryl now becomes part of that list of those whose memory alone ties me back to an earlier life. I miss that. I am at least as sad about this as when these other dear CalArts friends passed over the years.

Cheryl was one of my “electronic music” colleagues, hanging out in B303 and B304, the Buchla studios at the CalArts of the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, when I had both electronic pieces and chamber music performed in the Composer’s Concert that I call my “graduation recital” Cheryl handled the recordings for me. I used to be a little disappointed that I had to remaster these in ProTools like 20 years later because they were way too hot. Now that seems like a stupid thing to be disappointed in. <sigh>

I remember going to Cheryl’s home for dinner several times. She was a beautiful soul and I’m deeply saddened to hear of her passing. When I think back to my years at CalArts, Cheryl is one of the people I always think of and will always remember. Her passing is a terrible loss to the industry but to me, personally, it’s another loss of someone of whom I hold cherished memories.

One of Cheryl’s clients, Sean Callery, who worked on “24” said it best, I think:

“If God ever needs an agent, he sure has one now.”

Considering what an insane world we live in and how God’s name is used to justify so many odd behaviors by so many people, I imagine She does need a rep who will never put her on hold!

While I can’t imagine them ever reading my blog, I do want to send my deepest condolences to Cheryl’s husband Frank Gerechter, her dad, Hi Tiano (who I’m sure does not remember me but who I remember), and her sister Linda Tiano back east. May her memory be a blessing for all the Tianos and all who came to know her.

z”l

Every year for our wedding anniversary my wife and I go hunting for a new piece of art for our collection. Sometimes more than once a year. Do you know where I learned to do that?

My Uncle Mel.

In the 1980’s I decided that it was time to stop being a shy, low self-esteem guy so I took an improv comedy class specifically intended to help guys like me, from a guy named Conley Falk. It was called “The Inner Theater”. You know who told me, for the next 30 years, how proud he was to see the changes I made in myself?

My Uncle Mel.

in the late 1970’s and early 80’s I had my electronic and chamber music performed at least once a year when I was in the composition program at CalArts. My parents always came to my concerts. Know who else came to every one of my performances?

My Uncle Mel.

Know who taught me to love basketball? Uncle Mel.

Know who bought me my first set of golf clubs? Uncle Mel.

Who took me to see Luciano Berio conduct the LA Philharmonic? Uncle Mel.

Taught me to love Jazz? Uncle Mel.

To love architecture? Uncle Mel.

Rothko? Mel.

In fact, a few years ago I had the honor of being invited to photograph Chris Rothko’s Family Reunion during the Mark Rothko exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. I spent my whole afternoon hanging with Mark Rothko’s family. I was so excited because just being in the presence of Rothkos was mind-blowing. There is only one person who I rushed to call at the end of that wonderful day.

My Uncle Mel.

One day, well into my adulthood, I was talking about my youth with my uncle Mel and I told him I wish I had studied more technical subjects in High School. I’d become a software engineer and that would have helped me a lot.

You know who looked at me, smiled, called me out on the carpet, and said: “So, are you done rebelling against your dad yet?” Yup……….

Uncle Mel.

I have this really silly photograph of me, in the mid-1980’s, dressed in a ridiculous 1980’s red shirt and white vest, pretending to eat ice cream directly from this big container. That was in the back yard of my Uncle Mel’s house at his 50th Birthday party…. I’m now 9 years older than he was back then.

Mel was the youngest of 4 brothers and the uncle who was closest to me. In retrospect, he was like a second father. I loved all my uncles, all of my family in fact. But, do you know who taught me to love all those people? You guessed it.

Uncle Mel.

Rarely in life does one encounter someone who is 100% genuine, has unqualified love for his entire extended family, and is unconditionally supportive; someone who supports you through bad decisions and celebrates the good ones; who is kind, warm, and loving (even while chasing his brother around the campfire on one memorable backpacking trip); who is truly a good human being. That was my Uncle Mel and I will always cherish his memory.

With me as I write this is one of Mel’s sculptures. Lot’s of the Bilow clan have similar copies. In Uncle Mel’s memory I’ll leave you with this:

2019-05-25_20-15-15_185

זכרונו לברכה

Rest in Peace Uncle Mel! I love you.

 

I read a post on Facebook the other day that I found nearly too poignant to bear. It was the final post before leaving this world, by someone who I do not know.

It is a post by a woman whose way of communicating with her family and friends, before succumbing to a cancer that lay in remission for nearly 2 decades before metastasizing with a vengeance, demonstrates strength, bravery, and a commitment to loved  ones that I deeply admire.

I will not tell you who the writer is. She passed away this week and it is not for me to say whether she would allow it. Her sister, who is a friend of mine, said it was fine to post the message here. So I’ll share it with minor redaction to preserve privacy. I hope, if I am ever in the position of the woman who posted this, that I will handle my last hours with 1/100 of the dignity with which she did.

What follows are not my words. I share them in the hope that you will find their grace inspiring.


“I don’t know where to start. Normally, these updates would start out with some light humor, as I always try to look on the bright side of a situation. At least, the view from the 14th floor of <…> is fabulous. I get to look out over the city every day, as the fog lifts, and see the breeze swaying through the eucalyptus trees.

As you know, this cancer was under control for so long (18 years), but started to mutate and get out of control in just a matter of a few months. The treatments that I’ve tried since January have all failed. I have decided to go into hospice care now. I’ve received hundreds of well wishes, light, love and energy and that is invaluable to me. I will never be able to thank you all personally, but know that from the bottom of my heart, I do love each and every one of you dearly. There is no predicting when this will happen, and as I require more pain and comfort meds, it will be harder for me to communicate with you all.

The year 2016 has been an utter shit show, and the worst in my memory. Friends’ parents dying, my husband’s father dying, pets dying, violence in the world we know (the violence that is acknowledged and the violence that no one talks about). It saddens me.

I will be sad to miss <…> and bowling (although it is the company more than the activity itself I will miss). I will miss sitting in repose in my beautiful house that <…> and I worked so hard for, or on the back deck taking in the beauty of the backyard, which we transformed into an oasis. I will miss the beautiful evolution that has been happening since <…> and I moved to Vallejo and for which we’ve been a huge part of since moving there.

I feel I have lived my life as fully as possible, with as much joy, and filled with many places visited, and much scenery enjoyed. It is fitting that I am looking out over the city that I love, the city that drew <…> and I to the West Coast.

I am an unabashed feminist, and I must admit that there have been many women in my life who have given me inspiration and courage. I won’t be able to acknowledge them all, but I wanted to give a special acknowledgement to three of them:

<…>

The idea of community has always been an integral part of who I am. Communities that have formed me, as much as I hoped I have had an influence on them:
<…>

I hope that I have been able to support them as much as they have supported me through good times and bad.

If you want to do something nice for me, please honor me by doing something nice for someone else, or a cause that is important to me. Here are two that I have thought a lot about and are causes I care about: Planned Parenthood and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

If I had any final wishes, or thoughts, it would be this. Seeing the sameness in each other. We need to be easier on ourselves and easier on this world we live in. I feel like we are all just atoms, passing through space and time and we are trading them with each other all the time. So when I leave this body behind, we already share these things, so you will never be without me.”


To you guys, who know who you are, and who are experiencing this time of grief: thanks for letting me share these words. Please know that I do so with love for you and gratitude for our continuing friendship.

“Seeing the sameness in each other. We need to be easier on ourselves and easier on this world we live in.” Damn, I wish I’d said that.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom)

From a supposed “terrorist” who spent 27 years in prison to the “father” of a country that is a role model for change and peaceful reconciliation, Nelson Mandela is a giant. Today, at 95, the great Mandela died. To honor him, I have taken 27 of his greatest quotes and used the most commonly occurring words to create this word cloud:

Image

In a rare show of brevity, I’ll let Mandela speak for himself. May he rest in peace, knowing that the world was better for his having lived.

I write this Thanksgiving after several very difficult years in the death department. I’ve been reflecting on the unfairness of the universe and the tragedy of early death. Those thoughts give me no comfort so I think it’s also necessary to reflect upon friendship and the gratitude I feel for those friendships. Specifically, I mourn the 2013 loss of my father-in-law, Harrel Crabb; the greatest percussion teacher in the known universe, John Bergamo; my amazing friend and social justice mentor, Emily Gottfried; a man who seems to have been the guy who turned me on to almost everything that has profoundly influenced me, Dick Williams; and a friend who I wish I’d spent more time with over the last quarter century or so, John McClintic. This post is dedicated to these wonderful friends and others whose love and support I have cherished, including:

  • John Bergamo
  • Thelma Crabb
  • Harrel Crabb
  • Bob Crabb
  • Nick England
  • Pablo Esteve
  • Emily Gottfried
  • Andy Hamon
  • Karen Holmes
  • Art Jarvanin
  • John McClintic
  • Bruce McPherran
  • Rusty Mills
  • Lucky Mosko
  • Pandit Taranath Rao
  • Austin Sergeev
  • Dorothy Stone
  • John Waddell
  • Dick Williams
On Loss

When a 42-year-old man has a massive heart attack and leaves behind a beautiful family, a person who does more for her society than most of her friends combined dies in a hospital room, or a guy everyone loves shoots himself (sadly, the above list includes more than one of those), it is not only possible but inevitable to feel a deep sense of loss. I feel that loss every day and it sucks. But, that sense of loss just proves we have empathy and it reminds us of fragility. When I feel loss I recognize this fragility and I’m grateful to be reminded of just how precious it is.

On Memory

The fact that life is fragile makes it all the more important to keep memory alive. You’d think that after over 30 years people would be tired of hearing my stories of drinking beer in Nick England’s office with Morton Feldman and Mel Powell. Maybe they do, but I loved Mel and Morty so, too bad, I’ll keep those memories alive even if you are tired of hearing them. As will I keep alive the memories of Emily Gottfried and the “Save Darfur” rally, Taranath Rao and the Chevas Regal Tabla lessons, Lucky Mosko and the day he told me my flute piece showed the maturity of my music, Dick Williams and his daily happy hour, Pablo Esteve and our annual purchases of Anchor Steam Christmas Beer, and the golf clubs that John McClintic sold me without the 8 iron (because he’d slammed it against a tree) but with the shaft if I wanted it. We owe it to our friends to keep their memory alive. That’s why we Jews always say “May their memory be a blessing“. Remember.

God?

Is it God’s will that at least 3 or 4 of my old friends have shot themselves? Is it God’s will that Pablo had a heart attack? Is it God’s will that Karen Holmes died in a horrific bicycle accident at Cycle Oregon while her husband looked on? I will not argue with anyone’s belief system. If yours differs from mine, frankly, I hope you are right. As for me, all I can say for myself is “bullshit”.  My God neither condones, nor brings about, nor embraces sorrow. Just my opinion.

Does the Universe Give a Shit?

So the real question to me is this: “Why do horrible people often live to ripe old ages while some of the greatest contributors die far too young and violently?”. This may not give as much comfort to people as to say things are “God’s will” and that we don’t understand “the divine plan”,  but when it comes to deaths like these, I don’t think it’s because of a divine plan, I don’t even believe it’s “karma”. I think that we live in a chaotic universe of ever-increasing entropy. Irrespective of religious beliefs, I basically think the universe doesn’t really give a shit. Horrible things happen but they are not necessarily any more explainable than to say that they are random events in a massively entropic universe. That’s it.

On Being Thankful for Friends

When you realize that life is precious and fragile, that “God” is not the cause of bad things, that the universe has no top-secret plan, and that memory is the most important thing after a life has ended, where does that leave you?

In my mind it leaves you with the ability to have any religious belief you want and any eschatological viewpoint that comforts you in thinking about death. But if you put those differing viewpoints aside, it also leaves you with some very clear common ground.

  1. Be thankful for your friends – respect then, cherish them, cultivate them.
  2. Remember that it is impossible to say “I love you” too much – Fragility and entropy combine in such a way that you never know what will happen or what irrevocable decision you might make. It sounds “campy” but I try my best to make saying “I love you” to my wife the last thing I do before walking out the door; any door . Say it to your family and say it to your friends because any nanosecond could be your last opportunity.
  3. Remember the good times and the bad times. Just remember. Don’t let the mirror of memory become clouded. You owe it to yourself and your friends to remember.
  4. Don’t take anyone for granted. You can’t set the clock back. “I was just thinking about him/her!” is not what you want to say when you find you’ve missed your chance.

I fully realize that this is not my record-setting “most upbeat” post. But it’s important to me to remind my friends, and family, and followers, that you don’t get second chances with life. So when you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, remember the great blessing you have in friendship. From my perspective, the thing I’m most thankful for is that true friendship.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I’ll have much more to say about my wife’s father, Harrel Crabb, when I’m back in the mood to write. At the moment, I’m a little bit burnt out on death. Still I want to take a moment to share the obituary that I wrote for Patt’s family to place in the Houston Chronicle because Harrel was a wonderful guy who produced a daughter and, frankly, a whole family who I adore. Rest in Peace Harrel!

Harrel-1

Harrel Crabb was born Feb 4, 1928, to Nettie Lee and Oscar Carlyle Crabb in Orange, TX. He passed away Oct. 22, 2013, in Houston, at age 85. Harrel served the US Navy at the Bikini Islands where the US Operation Crossroads thermonuclear tests were conducted. He spent his early, post-military, life as an iron worker contributing to major construction projects in several cities; most notably the Astrodome in Houston. He was a member of the American Legion. Following a construction accident, Harrel became a Realtor® where he served the greater Houston community for over 40 years. Harrel was committed first to his family who he deeply loved and, throughout his life, to helping others. He was married, and for 54 years deeply devoted, to Thelma Ruth Crabb (daughter of Charles and Irene Liddell) who predeceased him in 2004. He leaves behind a son and 3 daughters: Mitchell Crabb, Patricia Bilow, Connie Douglas, and Janice Fey; four grandchildren: Denise Caldwell, Bobby Douglas, Dustin Douglas, and Jennifer Macklom; and four great-grandchildren: Hailey, Caleb, and Jordan Caldwell, and Miriam Macklom. Visitation will be held from 5 – 8 PM on Friday Oct 25 and from 1 – 2 PM on Saturday Oct 26 and funeral services will be held at 2 PM Saturday at Davis-Greenlawn Funeral Home 3900 B.F. Terry Blvd. Rosenberg, TX. In lieu of flowers the family requests donations to VFW (Post 4010) Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post Office Box 215, Missouri City, Tx 77459

One thing that sucks about getting older AND being a “people person” is that I care so much about so many people who are also getting older. I also pride myself on my relationships with amazing people. It’s a blessing and a curse; knowing amazing people who get older, and older, and like all of us, eventually die. Today, I’m tired.  I have to admit it: I’m getting tired of writing memorials to great men and women who pass away. But, I have to do this because something in me wants to help keep memory alive. It’s sort of my “thing”, I guess.

In the Autumn of 1978 I sat on the floor of the Main Gallery at the California Institute of the Arts. I was a surprisingly unworldly 18-year-old.

I had just started college, working toward my degree in music. I had managed to take solfeggio placement tests that confirmed I did not even need to take ear training classes. I was hard at work with Theory, composition lessons, music history, and critical studies. I had yet to meet John Cage or Morty Feldman. Aaron Copland had been (or was about to be – I forget) my first “guest composer” experience. I had a good ear, I knew a lot about the “new” discipline of electronic music, and I was studying my way through the annals of Western music theory. About anything “non-western” I knew absolutely nothing.

Sitting before me, on risers, at one end of the Gallery were 4 men. Amiya Dasgupta on Sitar, 2 students on Tambura, and a short bearded white guy on Tabla. I grew up in California in the 60s and 70s but I had never heard real Indian music. I’m almost embarrassed to say this but the problem with a Alap and 22 shrutis for a guy who did not know what the hell I was listening to is that I did not even know when they stopped tuning up and started playing the “real” music. Still I was mesmerized. The Sitar was a million times more amazing in the hands of Amiya that in the intro to “Norwegian Wood”, that was certain. It was astonishing. But even more amazing was the bearded white dude. He did not get to play much at the beginning. But by the end, his fingers moved so fast I could barely see them. His name was John Bergamo.

JBergamo

It goes without saying that I was changed that day. I knew that I needed to learn about things that did not come from the west and did not have voltage controlled oscillators on them. I knew that I had to know the bearded white guy and to learn at least a little of what he knew. John Bergamo was the reason that I spent 3 years studying tabla with Pandit Taranath Rao, the reason I wrote a solo percussion piece for Amy Knoles, the reason I could get 3 absolute percussion masters (the “Antenna Repairmen”) to play my percussion trio, the reason I got to take “independent study in percussion” with one of the greatest living percussionists, and the reason I fell in love both with India and with percussion.

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John Bergamo was also the owner of the coolest percussion instrument I ever got to play. David Tudor was supposed to come to town and we were going to get to study with him. But something happened and Tudor could not come out. I was honored, however, to be able to work with a really amazing group of fellow students to create an homage to Tudor which we called something really creative like “An Environment for David Tudor”.  John loaned us some instruments, one of which was the front cowling from a 747 jet engine! I remember exactly where we hung that thing, although I have not got a clue how we did it.

In case you did not know John personally, you may not know why I call him a Renaissance Man of percussion. So, consider this: In his long career, John Bergamo worked with some of the most diverse composers and performers in the known universe, Just to name a few: Lukas Foss, Gunther Schuller, John Cage, Ringo Starr, Charles Wourinen, Lou Harrison, Ali Akbar Khan, John McLaughlin, Morton Feldman, Herb Albert, Percy Heath, Robert Shaw, Max Roach, and Frank Zappa. He played with several other friends of mine (and my beloved mentor Lucky Mosko) in the Repercussion Unit and he played on the soundtracks of 18+ Hollywood films. He did a lot of percussion overdub work for ‘The Mothers of Invention” and, after studying with him I know I’ll never listen to Zappa’s “The Black Page” without thinking of him. Finally, after all of that, in 2012 John’s dedication to percussion and to education earned him election to the prestigious Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

I suppose I need not really say this but I’m very sad that the world of percussion, the CalArts community, and my personal circle of friends has lost the great John Bergamo. I’ll miss him.

John Bergamo was born in Englewood, New Jersey, May 28, 1940 and passed away on October 19th 2013.

Earlier this week my cousin, Dick Williams, passed away. OK, Dick was not really my cousin. Dick’s wife Deborah is my father’s cousin so there is no blood relationship going down here.  I’m not very good at this “second cousin” and “once removed” stuff so I can’t even tell you how Deb and I are related. I looked it up on Wikipedia but I’m too tired to figure it out. The bottom line is that Dick Williams has no blood relationship to me yet I do, and will always, call him my “cousin”.  In fact, if you consider familial impact on a life, Dick is closer to me than many of my first cousins and I’m going to continue calling him a “cousin”. So there!

I say that Dick had an impact on my life not only because his kids – Mark, Becky, and Caitlin – have been my pals for over 40 years. I say this also because Dick taught me so many things about writing, life, politics, and living your dreams that he was a monumental influence on me.

Back in the day, Dick used to regularly send me packages of Herb Caen columns because he knew how much I loved Herb’s writing. Every morning, when I’d visit, he’d have Herb’s column waiting for me at the breakfast table!

He took me to Stanford, to have Christmas dinner with Stanford English prof. Dave Halliburton, on more than one occasion. Dave was Diane Middlebrook’s office-mate and that’s as close to Anne Sexton as I ever got. But it was also Dick who turned me into an Anne Sexton lover.

It is thanks to Dick Williams that I read Studs Turkel (in whose writing Dick was interviewed!), and was introduced to Molly Ivans. I’m not sure but I believe that he was also the first to play “Drop Kick me Jesus Over the Goalpost of Life” and “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore” for me. So I owe my knowledge of Kinky Friedman to him too. And, I have to admit this, it was Dick’s paperback copy of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” that I secretly read one Christmas and then used for a JR. HIGH book report. I got extra credit for the “Lola in the Vestibule” scene, I think 🙂

Dick was the guy who taught me how to make blue cornmeal pancakes, how to dig Hunter Thompson, how to argue politics, the value of print journalism, and why happy hour could be an amazing daily bonding experience. Whether I was in Jr. High School or College Dick always treated me as an adult and an equal.

I’m not old enough to remember Dick when he was a writer for the Sacramento Bee. I’m not old enough to remember, but am still jealous of, when Dick met Hunter S. Thompson at a DNC convention. I am old enough to know, however, that there are lots of tidbits like that which I can’t remember but which I wish I did. I’m also old enough to remember blue cornmeal pancakes on Sunday mornings, cooking Indonesian food for his family, always having a warmly welcoming ride from the Oakland airport and an equally warm invitation to sleep on the sofa-bed downstairs overlooking the bay, Christmas services at the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley (which was actually in Kensington but who’d ever name a church “the First Unitarian Church of Kensington”, lest it be abbreviated) where I’d routinely get nosebleeds from the incense (which the whole family would think funny and would call a “stigmata”!), and watching the 6:00 news – cocktail in hand – at our daily “happy hour”. I think I may have actually properly punctuated that previous sentence and I’ll bet Dick is proud of me for it, too! In a nutshell, Dick Williams was a great support to me during my formative years, an awfully influential role model, and a dear friend. I’ll miss his warm and gracious spirit, indeed!

Disk passed away early on the morning of September 9th 2013; the exact day that my own father turned 85.  Dick passed on just shy of his 82nd birthday. After an arduous 2-year battle with myelofibrosis, a chronic bone marrow disease in which continually worsening scar tissue forms in the bone marrow thus impairing the body’s ability to produce red blood cells, Dick breathed his last breath with his wife and other family members by his side.

I said this in a pretty ad hoc way on Facebook the day Dick passed on. But I want to say it again here. I’m very sorry I did not spend more time with Dick over the course of the past few years. I’m angry with myself for not making time to hop down to Berkeley to visit him in hospice.  No doubt, I’ll get over that but still: I want Mark London Williams, Rebecca Williams, Caitlin Williams, and Deb Williams to know how much I loved Dick. The fact that I sometimes don’t make time to do everything right does not mean that I don’t do everything with love. As for you guys, I loved your father and I love all of you.

Z”L

For better or for worse, every time I get a writer’s block, someone I admire dies. Perhaps this is because I admire many people. Perhaps it’s because the few I most admire have such a profound influence on my psyche. Perhaps I’m just getting old enough that mortality is a frequent theme. Of those 3 options, the only one I know is wrong is the first; I unquestionable DON’T admire very many people. I like a lot of people. I love a lot of people. I put up with a lot of people. Perhaps too honestly I’ll admit that I’m even jealous of a lot of people. But, admiration is not something I distribute broadly. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I simply have high standards for admiration. The people I most admire are the ones I consider better than I, in one way or another. Because I consider myself a reasonably smart, thoughtful, creative, compassionate, and decent guy, that limits me 🙂

In any case, the newest loss in my small collection of most admired people is the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. I’m not certain, but I believe I own all of her English translations including a few first editions and the uncorrected proof of “Poems New and Collected”. Sadly, from a collectors point of view, none are signed.

Szymborska was born in 1923 and lived through the Nazi occupation / destruction of Poland. While she’s not particularly known as a “Jewish Poet” she was Jewish and only managed to avoid deportation by the random chance that she was already working as a railroad employee and was somehow missed. On the topic of Nazi’s I will admit that I don’t like every one of her poems and that her poem “Hitler’s First Photograph” does piss me off. In that poem she describes the newborn Hitler as “this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe” and “Precious little angel, mommy’s sunshine”. But her point is nothing positive about Hitler. It is that even one of the most evil men to ever live started out “cute”. My own interpretation is that we all start out sweet and innocent but that both internal psychological profiles and external influences can turn us into monsters. So, what pisses me off is not her poem but my reaction.

I’ll also say that her early poems are on themes that I certainly dislike. Like many people of that time and place, Szymborska spent time as a member of the Polish United Worker’s Party and her early work reflects a socialist  philosophy. At the same time, even back then, her first book did not clear the censorship process because it “did not meet socialist requirements”. But, I still can’t universally like anyone who once went on record praising the likes of Lenin and Stalin and the greatness of socialism. So, needless to say, I don’t like all of her work.

The fact is, though, that when Szymborska came into maturity she shed that socialist bent and became a wonderful anti-socialist writer. She even went a bit too far, to my mind, in saying: “At the very beginning of my creative life I loved humanity. I wanted to do something good for mankind. Soon  I understood that it isn’t possible to save mankind”. I’m not convinced that she really meant that because I can’t imagine this many wonderful poems from someone who has given up on trying to save us from our idiocy. More telling, I think, is her statement: “When I was young I had a moment of believing in the Communist doctrine. I wanted to save the world through Communism. Quite soon I understood that it doesn’t work, but I never pretended that it didn’t happen to  me.” Ultimately she renounced Communism and all of her early poetry in praise of it. For that reason, I don’t hold her early socialist tendencies against her. She matured,  came to denounce what she knew was wrong, and had the guts to accept her past and not to deny or attempt to alter it.

I’m not sure why, but I remember the first of her poems that took my breath away. It was beautiful, funny, and insightful; all at once. It’s from her collection called “Salt” and is called “A Moment in Troy”:

A MOMENT IN TROY

Little girls—
skinny, resigned
to freckles that won’t go away,

not turning any heads
as they walk across the eyelids of the world,

looking just like Mom or Dad,
and sincerely horrified by it—

in the middle of dinner,
in the middle of a book,
while studying the mirror,
may suddenly be taken off to Troy.

In the grand boudoir of a wink
they all turn into beautiful Helens.

They ascend the royal staircase
in the rustling of silk and admiration.
They feel light. They all know
that beauty equals rest,
that lips mold the speech’s meaning,
and gestures sculpt themselves
in inspired nonchalance.

Their small faces
worth dismissing envoys for
extend proudly on necks
that merit countless sieges.

Those tall, dark movie stars,
their girlfriends’ older brothers,
the teacher from art class,
alas, they must all be slain.

Little girls
observe disaster
from a tower of smiles.

Little girls
wring their hands
in intoxicating mock despair.

Little girls
against a backdrop of destruction,
with flaming towns for tiaras,
in earrings of pandemic lamentation.

Pale and tearless.
Triumphant. Sated with the view.
Dreading only the inevitable
moment of return.

Little girls
returning.

Like I said, it’s a very touching poem, with some humor and enough grammatical quirks to keep you on your toes. My favorite line is: ” looking just like Mom or Dad, and sincerely horrified by it—”. I think it sums up so much of  adolescent angst. Yet, as I age and as I see more and more of my father in myself, I can even relate to it as a 51-year-old man. So, it may be a poem about freckle-faced little girls but, in some respects anyway, those girls are just an allegory for all of us and how we view ourselves in relationship to our parents and our environment; and, of course, what we strive to be.

In several ways, I’m proud of myself for noticing Szymborska before the Nobel committee recognized her. I love my little collection of her books. I find her transformation from ardent Socialist to one who acknowledges it’s impossibility inspiring. I love her humor and her insight. I’m saddened that I never met her. Still, I sadly must “check another one off” of my list of wonderful artists and I’m sad to see her go.

Rest in peace Wislawa. You will live on; one shelf down from Sylvia Plath and just to the right of Anne Sexton!