Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bits and pieces

A sketch of Stephen when he
was 14. He wore his hair in a
style popular for boys at the
time, parted down the middle.
We visited him and his parents
while they were camping.
Just a tiny shard of this story is mine to tell. This tiny bit right here, with care in the telling.

My brother-in-law Stephen died last week. He was born when Nancy was partway through college. He was 34, the youngest of 11 siblings, the first child to pass away.

It's customary and useful and comforting to regard how someone touched our lives, rather than grieve his absence. Accomplishments and successes, sure, but especially gifts and traits, gifts to be admired and respected, gifts that imbue memories.

Stephen was jolly whenever I saw him. Almost anything he said, he finished with a laugh. I noticed that about my dad too, such an easy laugh, mostly because I'm not that way; Stephen could laugh!

And he could talk! Gregarious, Stephen could roll on through conversations about anything, in shared examination of each other's daily lives, whether at family gatherings or frequently on the phone with his mom.

Stephen was a chef. He loved to cook as soon as he was able, it seemed, and went to school for it. At family gatherings he made dishes for far more nuanced palates than mine. Sometimes he cooked the entire holiday meal; sometimes family members hired him to cook. I can't tell if he always wanted to cook for family, or if sometimes his skills felt like a burden.

It seemed to me he was at his best and happiest the way I last saw him, at Thanksgiving, preparing a side dish — not the whole menu — the way he knew how, through many years of knowing how, to surprise his family with a new and different taste. He gave our pantry a workout.

Stephen worked in several restaurants, most of them nearby, though his last position was in a highly regarded bistro in Napa. Locally he was known to customers and some friends as Sweet Lew or Steveo, something I learned after he died.

Though I hadn't seen him do so in a long time, he played guitar, and helped teach our children how to play.

But Stephen died so young that it's difficult to partition that fact from his living. Something about 34 magnifies the sadness — an age in which one gains wisdom but still has energy to apply it. I remember thinking of well-known people who died in their 30s, how their deaths seemed such awful thefts. Keith Haring, Charlie Parker, Mozart.

Stephen drank. At family gatherings, his drinking didn't stand out: Most adults drink then. It is not inaccurate to say that alcohol stocks are well laid in during holidays and special occasions — a case of wine under a kitchen counter, coolers filled with beer, hard liquor exchanged as gifts or bought special because someone wanted to try out a cocktail, for example. Maybe it's the same at other families' gatherings. Though not much of a drinker anyway, I sure didn't feel like drinking this Christmas.

Stephen drank beyond the gatherings. I knew that in my head if not my heart. It didn't really occur to me how drinking had affected Stephen until last year, when one of his brothers took him, shaking and hallucinating, to an emergency room. The attending doctor told Stephen his liver could no longer process alcohol, and to stop drinking.

Which Stephen did for a while, but it didn't last. In the days before Christmas he became ill and again asked two of his brothers to take him to the emergency room. He lost consciousness there as his organs failed in succession. His brothers made their goodbyes and Stephen was removed from life support.

As his brother Joel (as fine a brother's keeper, by the way, as anyone could wish) said, "We all wish or wonder if there had been something more we could have done. There really was nothing … it was still up to Stephen to make the change."

Though as good as could be said, Joel's words still give little comfort. I wonder, as do others, what I could have done. Be more of a big brother-in-law, and less distant, not just one more relative. Be a better role model, provide a better setting. Alcoholism is a disease, I know, but is it born in a vacuum, ignited by nothing? Could we have made alternatives, been diversions?

I've got my own little shields and excuses. He was the little brother-in-law to horse around with when Nancy and I were first married. Then we went off to form our own family, while Stephen was growing up. Infamous in the family for staying on the periphery at family gatherings, I don't talk a lot. It was entirely my fault, then, when Stephen once asked me how my teaching was going, three years after I had changed into another career. Excuses, excuses.

I and others are at a loss, left to memories and shoulda couldas, wondering how we might have made a difference.

What to do now? Remember him.

Two moments bookend my remembrance of Stephen:

The first was when I first met him, a chipmunk-cheeked little boy, so small, so smiling. He got it in his head to take drink and food orders from his family, and at weekend gatherings, with his older siblings bringing their spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends over, he had many orders to make. He would scribble orders on a little pad, disappear into the kitchen and come back with the request — crackers and cheese on a little plate, a can of soda and glass with ice in it.

From the look on his face, you'd think it was the best game invented. Maybe it was then he caught the inkling to work in restaurants.

Nancy and Stephen's dad,
Barry, from the same
camping trip.

The second moment was at the memorial dinner for his dad, Barry, who died last year. The family gathered with neighbors from the Oregon snowbird park where my in-laws had settled, in the park's community hall.

Barry playing horseshoes
Stephen, the once undersized kid grown now taller than me, was in charge. All the children who gathered had contributed to the process in his or her way, sure, but it was Stephen's time. He didn't smile so easily that evening, less out of sorrow than in concentration over the dinner's unfolding.

He directed the dance of preparation in the kitchen, the timing of the many foods so they'd all show up on the serving table at once. I remember him stopping everyone in the kitchen at one point, and explaining safety and hygiene. This was his arena; he had wisdom to apply.

In between, I remember Stephen made a point of arranging a toast in his dad's honor, distributing foam cups and pouring gulps of Carlo Rossi® Burgundy, his dad's daily favorite, from a gallon jug. I'm sorry that I can't remember the toast itself: I was taken by this project Stephen had made for himself, almost a mission, to carry out this toast in a room full of people paying respects to his dad.

Now, remember Stephen laughing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Why no silent night,
O Christmas rat, O Christmas rat?
Why thrash so,
so I can hear?
I, the hunter, who wants no prey,
who prays you'd just go away?

Why die so, and salt my suffering?

Up in the rafters you arose, such a clatter!
The hard red, warm, dry wood,
better drum than house,
raised your death rattle to a roar,
a battle royale. 
Such horrible skritches,
the snap of trap having caught
a reindeer by its paws

We were no different,
wanting the same:
Shelter and comfort,
rest from labor, peace from intrusion.

You were no rat of Christmas past,
who fattened in our larder,
mocking our dominion.
You slipped instead in a door disguised,
unseen except by keen eyes, and dined out.

I had to shut that door for good
and hunt you down:
You spread disease and reproduce and make
a mess!

We are no different.

Finally I found you. It took two tries. 
You had not flung far,
but slumped in the cream curds of insulation

under the trap where I set it.
Hiding, even in death.

I gave you this much: Only so much
as a sidelong look at your folded shape

so small and light,
before I bagged you.

And set another trap, peanut butter-baited,
because I am the hunter, and must.

I have sinned.

You sinned too:
         A creature

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Window shopping

Rare is my work writ quite so large or made permanent.

When it happens, I celebrate, not only the art but how it came to be.

You'll find new window signs at Greg Archer's new shop, Archer Bicycle, in Oakland, Calif.

Go there from wherever you are, bring your bike and get it fixed at really reasonable rates by one of the top mechanics in the country (no kidding!) and check out his windows. Also, play pinball, lounge on comfy chairs in the lobby — Greg's fun to hang around and cheerfully teaches you a thing or two about keeping your bike in shape.

(Shout out to FastSigns of Downtown Oakland for production and installation of the window signs! It's a plugapalooza!)

Greg and I go back quite a while. I have called him my Medici, a patron of art and my work specifically (if you deign to compare me to Michelangelo). Bottom line, he has given me a lot of projects, enjoys and encourages creativity in solving his visual communications problems, and generally lets fly with the results.

I have written about that work and our relationship many times, starting when he owned The Rest Stop, a bicycle accessories shop in Sacramento. Next, he trained to become a mechanic and opened a repair shop in the suburbs.

His Oakland store is mostly repair, but he also refurbishes donated bikes for a charity, and sells a line of Italian-made cyclo-cross-style bikes, which he reasons are ideally suited to the varied terrain of the East Bay.

His space, housing touches of streamline moderne design, is right next door to the Oakland Tribune Building, one of Oakland's skyline landmarks (though sadly the newspaper is not published there anymore).

Greg's shop is right in the heart of bike commuter traffic. Professionals professing small carbon footprints nestle in this part of town.

Archer Bicycle's new window signs play off design touches inside, turning wheels and spokes into simple sparkling overlapping shapes, diamonds and fans and circles.

The Archer logo prefigured his shop, but it fits the decor. I meant the logo, Diana the huntress on a cruiser, to feel like an old found piece of art, maybe from a long-forgotten bicycle badge, in which its possibly disquieting origin-story became lost to time.

As the shop's lone disgruntled customer — amid a bunch of glowing Yelp®™ reviews — asked, "Plus, who uses a naked woman shooting an arrow off a bike for a logo?"

Greg does, thank goodness.
Archer's original logo went
into storage once Diana
came to life.

Greg is gradually shaping the shop, which features drop lighting and a large landing upstairs that he has turned into a gallery, art@archer, featuring bike-related works.

The gallery logo has many variations, meant to stand away from the shop logo, but still connect in theme and type.

Greg keeps the shop open late for Oakland's monthly art celebration, First Friday.

As his business grows and opportunities develop for marketing and community building, Greg Archer spins off ideas and always has a project or two for me to work on.

Thank goodness.
The window schematic, barring a few production tweaks.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Of the free

I can't believe anyone could speak up for torture.

(There, I said it. I discarded a lot of high-minded ways to start this post, full of fake erudition, when all I really wanted to say is:)

I can't believe we aren't, as one, condemning torture.

By that, I mean the world, but I'll settle for my country.

I can't believe that as the Senate Intelligence Committee last week released a report on torture conducted by the CIA since the events of 9/11, the debate has spun on the merits of torture, the report's lack of thoroughness, the political timing of its, the global repercussions of its disclosure, the who-knew-what-when.

The merits of torture. Really? Agents of our government torturing people in our name.
(Pardon me, sir, but your naïvete is showing.)
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said last week President Bush knew about the torture, it saved a lot of lives, and he'd authorize it again if he had the chance.

Though as I recall, events under his purview went like this: (1) Terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, (2) agents began torturing people in our name, (3) our country went headlong into a war with Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist (and where also didn't exist the terrorists who directed the flying of planes into the World Trade Center), and then into war in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorists claiming responsibility for the U.S. attack, was found and killed 10 years later, in Pakistan.

Maybe valid information comes from torturing people. Two wars having little to do with the events of 9/11 indicate: Probably not.

Agents also tortured innocent people in our name, extracting information that couldn't possibly have been useful. 

President Obama declared an end to torture, saying it is not what our country is about, and I agree.

Tell me: Do you believe no one right now is torturing people in the name of our country?

Maybe because it's not called torture. In this report it was often called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

One of the exquisite qualities of our government is that we are a nation of laws, not of men and women. Not only is this meant to prolong the health of our country, it's designed to protect us from the whims of despots and tyrants and loonies.

On paper. In theory.

Clever people see to the conduct of our country, based on those laws. As a rule, I favor clever people, rather than stupid people, representing me.

But key clever people have used law to say torture is not torture, that with a change of name, change of angle on a dislocated arm, change of voltage and — voila! — not torture. Enhanced interrogation techniques.

Maybe it's called something else now. Maybe by its new name, it's legal, because it's not "torture."

We are nation of laws.

Last week two memes did their trick on me, leaving me cold and peeved. You know memes, a means peculiar to social media in which an image and phrase are put together, usually cleverly, to comment on issues of the day.

[Digression: Where do memes come from? Is there a meme factory? I ask because the font, called Impact, all uppercase, white overlaid on a diffuse black shadow, is the same in virtually every one. Is there some kind of international meme style book? Some kind of global meme law? What gives?]

One meme is a variation of the World Trade Center towers exploding and burning, or of the infamously chilling image of a man falling headfirst down a tower's face, both soon to be no more.


The other is a still frame from a video moments before the beheading of American journalist James Foley by a member of the Islamic State in Iran and Syria (or Islamic State in Iran and the Levant, what have you). The text is something about how these "pricks" behead Americans, so why should we worry about torturing some terrorists?

I'm sort of glad I can't find the meme now.

I get the sentiment: Terrorists are despicable, enraging, cowardly, beyond words. The world must stop this hell ISIS/ISIL has unleashed, not to mention the Taliban in its many forms, al-Quaeda, et. al. 

But the United States is not ISIS/ISIL, does not aspire to be ISIS/ISIL. Supporting torture in our name because terrorists commit terror sort of says terrorists call the shots, set the culture.

We try to forget, though we really shouldn't, ours is a nation built by, and on, atrocity. I am here in this place and in this state, as a result of government trying to wipe this land clean of native people so intruders — my forbears — can have it and make their own life in their place. Atrocity scars the veins of lineage, bloodies the memory, for many Americans.

Looking for a global hypocrite? Look no farther. We're hard to miss.

But ours is also a nation that hews to fine words, lofty ideals. If we mean to follow those words, we can be better. We should be better. Torture is us, but it should not be.

We are a nation of laws.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Could I have been destined to one day swim from Alcatraz?

Could I simply have been wasting time and imagination yesterday, making connections where none exist?

Could be.

Hear me out.

Browsing one of my online news sources, SFGate.com (a hybrid of the the San Francisco Chronicle, more celebrity junk than news, really, but I digress), I came upon a new video feature called "This Forgotten Day in San Francisco History," with Michael Callahan.

In this week's episode, Callahan honored a moment 42 years ago Wednesday, when a British expatriate, Kenneth Crutchlow, swam from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to Aquatic Park.

It wasn't the first such crossing. Despite legends of a few prisoners escaping Alcatraz in the early 1960s, swims from Alcatraz are reported to have taken place as early as the 1920s.

Mr. Crutchlow, who became an adventurer of long-distance runs and trans-ocean rowing treks, made news of a sort that day because he swam solo from Alcatraz apparently without any training or acclimation to the 50-degree water. It took him an hour-and-a-half, to emerge into 38-degree air: Very cold, for the California coast.

Foolhardy doesn't begin to describe his feat. Hypothermic is more like it, even deadly, considering his lack of preparation.

Here's where the magic happens. Michael Callahan could have said anything else in his video — the history of Alcatraz swims, a bit about Mr. Crutchlow's adventurous spirit, the effects of cold water on the body — but he says this:

"Was there nothing better to do in San Francisco this December Sunday? How about a Niners' game? They were playing Atlanta at Candlestick, and they won!"

I know this — because I was there! On Dec. 10, 1972, the same day Mr. Crutchlow swam, I was attending my one and only NFL game. In fifth grade, I lived for the 49ers, before I realized what football could do to knees. My Aunt Patti's husband Jim had given my dad and me tickets, for seats just below the concrete rim of the bowl that is Candlestick Park (at least until it's torn down soon).

It turns out the famous howling winds of Candlestick Point, somehow undetected in the construction of the stadium, catch on the rim of the superstructure and roar without relent just inside the lip, an icy freight train going nowhere fast. There my dad and I sat, leaning into the cold, cold blasts, watching the little figures on the green rectangle far below.

Mr. Crutchlow, meanwhile, was emerging bare-chested from relatively warm water into the hard chill of the air. 

Based on our understanding of the game, Dad and I made decent guesses about which little red figure far below was quarterback John Brodie, and which may have been wide receiver Gene Washington. All else was a blur of red and white on green.

That's just one connection. Wait, there's more.

My dad, I learned after his death, was a strong open-water swimmer. My mom told him about his exploits, how effortless he made it seem.

Bim-bam-boom! Don't you see?! Thirty-eight and a half years after that 49ers win against the Atlanta Falcons, I'm out in the chilly water of San Francisco Bay, swimming from Alcatraz. Only the water isn't chilly because I'd been swimming almost daily in chillier water of Lake Natoma where I live.

No disrespect to Mr. Crutchlow, but I finished in 48 minutes. Not fast, but better than an hour-and-a-half.


Yeah, probably.

In other news, this urgent email arrived:
"Congratulations ,

You were chosen as a potential Executive for the 2014 Australian Executives
Registry of Distinguished Professionals and Executives.

Our candidates are approved based upon the profile information they provide. Upon final confirmation, you will be listed among thousands of accomplished members in the WorldWide Executives Registry of Distinguished Individuals."
It comes from someone named Elvis Dalton, so it's authentic. Elvis forgot to greet me by name, but small matter.

Though I knew my parents had been keeping secrets from me, this is a doozy! How, in all my years, did they not tell me I'm Australian?! And an executive?! A potentially distinguished executive!

To think of all the board meetings and strategy sessions I've missed! The income I should have earned! Executive-level games of golf at the club in the dead of winter, which would be in the middle of summer Down Under!

All I have to do is click here to accept my candidacy. Maybe I should pass; I've missed so much already.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nobler aspirations fall off*

Call me Scrooge. 

It's a clumsy fit, but I'll wear it.

I'm the Scrooge especially of a key moment in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," when nephew Fred visits the counting-house and tries to wish his uncle a merry Christmas.

The moment in which Scrooge reveals his villainy:
"Out upon merry Christmas!" Scrooge said. "What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?"
He was not wrong, Scrooge.

He was not as right as Fred, who answered:
"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!''
But Scrooge was not wrong.

Knowing little to nothing about Victorian Christmas, I dare say over-consumption caught Scrooge's rimed eye. Apart from his own sins and flaws — indifference, arrogance, privilege, selfishness, hardness of heart and head, which I share with Scrooge, as do we all, which is the point — Scrooge saw a holiday gone awry.

Permit me to offend you, but all these high holidays didn't happen at the beginning of winter (northern hemispherically speaking) by coincidence. Our forbears huddled in the cold, pondering the dark time of their souls, or just a freakin' dark time, and hungered for light. Not just the warm, glowing light of the fire, but the light of their better selves, as they sat in darkness and inevitably thought warm, enlightening thoughts and some sense of gratitude, for someone, some thing.

Our ancestors made various and sundry celebrations of it to ward off the cold and dark, with appreciative gestures to companions and community, for keeping each other somewhat healthy and safe. On through the years those celebrations got borrowed and stolen, mixed and culled, decreed upon and sanitized until eventually, by luck and work, Christmas won out and the others continue in its shadow.

Christmas itself through the years got filtered and fortified, stretched and morphed and molded and re-molded, clothed in red and fur and festooned with dollar signs. The small gestures of thanks became the be-all and end-all of the celebration.

The command of kings became the demands of commerce. It's putting scraps of gold and silver in somebody's pockets. The haves get and everyone else pays bills without money to keep up.

"Peace on Earth" became "Nothing succeeds like excess."

I'm all for celebration of goodwill, in whatever form or religion, or none at all — just not so much of it. Not turkey AND ham AND roast beef. Not 12 toys when one or two would do. Not a diamond necklace; certainly not a new car, despite what commerce demands.

I'm the basest hypocrite, of course. What right do I have to shut the door on Christmas as celebrated, when as a kid one year I got the telescope-that-becomes-a-microscope-and-a-periscope, two kinds of Hot Wheels®™ accelerating machines, the game of Life®™, more Creepy Crawlers™© goop, and more than I can remember — See?! More than I can remember! Or truly need or want.

And turkey AND ham AND roast beef.

But even as a kid, even in the midst of plenty, I had the weird feeling that one or two of these toys would have been more than enough. I'd examine my conscience the way a kid would, and conclude that to have deserved all these gifts, I'd not only have to have been without sin, but saved the life of several kittens and foiled a bank robbery.

So call me a hypocrite. I'll wear that too.

This time of peace has become madness. So much to do and buy! You see it in real and televised life, in the unrelenting surf of advertising. But why? According to whose dictates?

While momentum builds for my first modest proposal — to skip Christmas every other year, so we can get a chance to miss it and build calluses for its onslaught — I propose another: 

Give to charity instead (what Fred meant with his unfortunate term "people below them"). Not just a percentage to ameliorate the discomfort of receiving your own gifts. Not in addition to: In place of. Give what you can, find an urgent need, serve that need. Say with a smile, "I wish it could be more," and really mean it. If you already do that, bless you.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
(Oh, that moment always gives me chills. Which is the point.)

Then have a small celebration of thanks to whomever or whatever you're grateful, warmed by the lightness of having opened your shut-up hearts, and put a dent in true suffering.

Time to put the season right again.

Scrooge, after all, was redeemed. Which also is the point.
*“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”
— Belle, Scrooge's love lost, long before.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


My parents went to Europe and all I got was this lousy memory.

I was with them, an infant stowaway.

Aside from film slides stored somewhere (meaning, cumbersome to find and reproduce, therefore effectively lost) I'm left with visceral tags: The rising thunderous storm of pigeons (I'm told that was in St. Mark's Square in Venice) … the heavy warm waft of doughnuts frying somewhere along a gray, wet narrow street (I'm thinking London, maybe Diagon Alley™®; I get things mixed up) … the glorious first taste of Smarties®™ (think M&Ms©™), leading to a lifelong addiction.

I remember finding terror in the limitless blue sky, as I lay on my back in a wooden playpen in the backyard where we lived on the air base in England (I'm gonna say RAF Croughton, near Banbury). I remember feeling I would fall up and disappear.

I remember what must have been cocktail parties in our house, lit like a cave and just about as smoky, grownups wearing shiny paper hats, pink and yellow and sapphire, that caught the spare light, and drinking opaque yellow liqueurs.

The mythos in our family is that Mom could not be held bound by being born in North Dakota and raised in Montana. She was an unplain girl on the edge of the Plains, steeped in literature, a teacher. She married Dad, an Air Force GI, and they promptly got transferred to England, where Mom was meant to be. She was a woman of the world.

Or so I gather. I inferred a lot. My advice to you: Ask direct questions, while you can.

At some point, maybe toward the end of their hitch in England, my parents took time off (a month?) and, with Mom's youngest sister (my Aunt Margo) in tow, took off around Europe. We camped (I have a visceral memory of that, scaffolded with photos seen long ago) in a Volkswagen®™ bus, at least for part of the trek.

Your guess is as good as mine where we went and what we did, besides the doughnut smelling and Smarties®™ eating and the Hitchcockian terror of Venetian birds.

The Colosseum, King Ludwig II's castle, Neuschwanstein, great rolling fields of grass ending in hedges? I may be thinking of Disneyland, somehow.

What memories I have cling uncertainly to tangible objects. I grew up surrounded by antique furniture from England. They are tools of househusbandry still, holding the dining utensils my parents acquired. Up until my parents' deaths, we ate at the antique dining room table, its legs like twisted grapevines, smooth and polished to a glow, the end legs cleverly swinging out from the center to support the table wings.

The antiques are left to my sister and me. How my parents acquired them (a farmer named Barney, maybe?) and got them to the States is unclear to me; their context steadily fades. What to do with our inheritance is the matter for another post someday.

The tangible objects I have now are also yanked from context, but their creation has always fascinated me. They are brass rubbings my parents made, probably from jaunts through England.

I gather it was a hobby, maybe even a craze, to transfer the images from incised brass funeral plates onto paper with crayon. Remember overlaying paper onto a penny and rubbing the image of the penny onto paper with the lead of your pencil? Same thing, larger scale, greater care.

I gather also, from a bit of research, that brass rubbing is strictly limited now, at least in England, lest the brass plates (or lattens) become damaged by the rubbing.

In my research, I came across this 1961 video that cleaves to my visceral, film slide-aided memory exactly. It was produced just about the time my parents joined the craze. I picture them stealing into a church on a jaunt, just as the actress in the video does, seeking the vicar's permission (he's used to this request and wouldn't turn down a small fee) and then laying out the butcher paper over a graveplate and compelling the image to leap onto paper with a sphere of jet black shoe wax.

There are more — I can't say how many — but I have three of them. They hang on the wall of my office. My Mom must have cut them carefully around their edges and pasted them to heavier paper, which has browned warmly like a meerschaum pipe along the edges. These are the ones that were sandwiched under the glass top of the coffee table in the sitting room.

Their viscera drew me for as long as I can remember. An image that feels stolen and invasive as an X ray, capturing not just the fine carved lines, faithful attention to detail, but the nicks of time and the nail heads that were never meant to be visible.

The plates from which the rubbing were made are messages to the world that these people, whom you should know about, lay in repose below these plates; this branch of this family thus endeth in this soil below the floor of this church.

Yet I don't know these people — these people in their finery making their final supplication for justice and mercy.

This family heralded here is a mystery too. I'd guess the crest marks the joining of fiefdoms and therefore of the symbols, a ram-loving lineage that has added stars and swans, and a hand in its own small crest over one of the cherished circle devices.

Perhaps Mom took notes about each of these. If so, I haven't seen them. The images exist out of time and place on my wall, the careful lines telling me something I can't know.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The lord of all creation

The bones of our house creak at me in mockery.

You know as well as I that houses live; not in the way you and I do, of course.

Nor in the way — my belief, anyway — that its raw materials live: The wood and sand and ore and oil and various seeps and amalgams. Left alone, they exist with the earth, of the earth, and will exist long after all of us until, long after us, they become something else of the earth.

Houses, too, live long and patiently, though with the jaundiced resignation they'll come apart again, eventually. Houses know their pieces will become lesser than the sum of their whole, damaged and misused but ultimately outliving their human occupants.

Not our house, though. Our house mocks because it senses itself dying before we do.

We bought it well taken care of; it was the main reason we bought it. Our first house was a purchase of romance in the American Dream, the Starter House in which one Sets Roots and Learns How and Laughs and Cries and Makes Memories.®™© This dream brought to you by everyone who can make money off you because of it.

It was a kind of Weasley house before the muggle-minded family even existed in J.K. Rowling's mind. It was ramshackle and jury-rigged. The garage was turned into a carpeted room, and a sort of shed was tacked permanently to the former garage behind, textured in a silver-blue frosting substance and all done poorly (done the way I would have done it, frankly) and apparently without permits.

Legal forgivenesses had to be extended so that the owners could sell the house to us, American Dreamers.

With our meager and mismatched tools and skills we were going to fix it up. We watched "This Old House" on public television. The main tool required in the televised house rehabs seemed to be massive amounts of unfettered cash, so we soon lost our fixer-up passion.

Most of what we did to the house extended its function (a new sewer line so the toilets could keep flushing!) and remained invisible. Very little could be chalked up to "curb appeal."

We fixed it up as best we could when it came time to sell, and I felt like a failure as caretaker.

This home we live in now has good bones, a phrase you'll hear on the home improvement shows if you dare listen. Good bones, I reasoned, would endure me.

It is becoming a tight race now.

The house needs painting and cosmetic work around the outside. We have officially labeled it "deferred maintenance," and given it another year. Then another. Urgent matters keep cutting in line.

The kitchen floor creaks, and I imagine the day when one of our feet will flat go through it, weakened by termites. I wonder if we'll laugh when that moment happens. The previous owner had replaced the kitchen flooring and supports because of termite damage. We were told to have regular inspections, because termites seemed to favor this neighborhood or something. We'll get to it, someday.

We replaced birch trees in front, but have let the front lawn go brown — now ashen — in the drought. Our dog walks around the edges, looking for any grass to eat. The grass in the backyard disappeared long ago in deference to the giant oak tree that dominates. It is forever dropping leaves, giving me A Thing I Can Do.

This time of year I climb to the roof and clean the gutters. I obsess over this chore. It's as if the changing seasons call me to the task, and fill my dreams with images of me tripping on the guy wires supporting the aerial antenna on the roof and falling off the edge. I wake up resolving to wear sturdy non-slip shoes when I do this Thing I Can Do.

I amass my tools and commit myself to three hours on the roof, lifting the interlocking mesh screens that cover the gutters and scooping out the muck that the screens are supposed to screen out. I scooch along the roof line, buckets ahead of me, and enjoy the satisfying sweep of the plastic scooper catching a long encrusted slab of compressed leaves and lifting it to the bucket.

At some point I sit on the roof and look out on the neighborhood passing its unremarkable afternoon. In the autumn afternoon sun I think of Red Redding in The Shawshank Redemption, enjoying beer on the roof of the prison after the inmates had finished tarring it, who in turn is thinking of free men on the roofs of their own houses, the "lords of all creation."

It's a deluded security to feel the roof holding my weight, not leaking — for now — containing and sheltering all the dilapidation below me. I convince myself that keeping the gutters free and flowing thus saves the entire structure. That all below the roofline is safe because of it.

The house creaks as I climb off the roof.

My sister reminds me that Dad died 11 years ago yesterday. Birthdays I remember. Death days, I have to ask or be reminded. I don't keep track of them.

It's fitting, though, that on the anniversary of his death I was buying home improvement stuff at the hardware store: Plywood and handles.

The pest inspectors, confirming rats once again in our attic, broke the little hatch to the attic entrance while they were looking around. The hatch was made out of something barely more substantial than whipped cream anyway, so I decided to replace it with a sturdy door.

Today I will set a trap ("Just a tiny tiny bit of peanut butter," the pest inspector said. "Make the rat work for it") and set it nearest the hatch in the dark unsubstantiated attic, contorting myself over the closet shelf below the hatch, and wondering for the umpteenth time why such a door could not have been made in the hallway, where it'd have been easy to get to.

I pulled out my circular saw, last used six years ago when our son was working on his Eagle project. I tried to note how the saw lay in its plastic case, because it took a half-hour last time to get it to fit back in.

At first I was going to use a handsaw, a Thing I Know How to Use, if poorly, but then something (maybe my dad's voice) told me to get a grip and just get out the power saw. It's not that hard; try.

Dad was Can Do. He went after a task with determined solemnity and a quiver of curses. When he didn't know how to do something he didn't quit, but figured out another way. It wasn't always pretty but it got done. Blood dripped from his knuckles as he went in afterward, for a sandwich and a soda.

Yesterday I screwed screens to the holes where the pest inspector says the rats are obviously getting into the house ("Put your fingers in there," he told me.) A veteran rat avenger, I had stored a square yard of metal screen to work from, just for moments like these.

Last night my family could hear scurrying above them in the living room. It sounded frantic, they said.

Today the trap gets set. Maybe next week I'll summon the guts to check it. Later this week I may change the air filters, another Thing I Can Do.

The lord of all creation.