Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Watchman

May 2010

Walking in the Old Neighborhood — Livermore, California

How far they let us walk, and alone. We went everywhere, on foot or by bicycle. It’s not that a ride wasn’t available. On rainy mornings we’d be crowded, five or six of us, in the car, throwing off the steam of wet wool coats. But otherwise – to school, to the park, to scout meetings and visits with friends, to the pool, to the library – we were on our own. And it made this small town our own, block by block. How what was seeded here has grown.

Now I am an adult, on foot, on a day of brilliant sun and clear sky, It is an almost Mediterranean climate that sits hot and dry over this valley, the hills still green at the end of spring, the acres of grapevines sloped upward behind the wineries east of town

It is our old neighborhood. It is just a block or so away from the Senior Living complex where our stepmother now lives, across the railroad tracks and that’s literal train tracks, not a metaphor. My sister and I walk it together. She is still, after all this time, eight years younger than I am. On this long street of pastel colored stucco, ranch style houses, she has years of memory that I don’t have; and even in the years that overlap, different moments are frozen and kept forever.

el rancho
This was a brand new subdivision in 1959, when we moved here from Alameda. I was nine, she was just a year old. I remember the weekend drives we took over several months, to look at model homes, before this one was settled on. It was our first owned home. Till then, we had lived in a series of rented apartments, and most recently, a small shingled house. The birth of my sister, the fifth child of six, pushed us out of the zone of that place being big enough, And our dad had a job at the new Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, an employer so huge that it transformed this sleepy cowboy and vineyard town into a suburban creation. Years later, many of us growing up here would have reason for concern that radiation exposure contributed to the deaths of our fathers.

The houses are variations on three or four floor plans. One plan might be reversed left to right for variety, and there were a few different patterns of trim. Ours, an unfortunate sort of biological yellow stucco in color, had a two by four decorative box frame around and over the front walk and driveway. On this day in 2010, it is for sale again; It’s changed hands many times; been someone else’s home. In the real estate listing we learn that the kitchen has been updated; the floors redone, it’s described as having midcentury charm. Must the 50’s be remembered as midcentury charm? And if so, can I have some too? 1100 square feet – how spacious that seemed after cramped apartment living – it housed eight of us for ten or more years, but it is way smaller than the home my husband and I have made for four of us. Today, it’s the same color, the same 2×4 decorative framing is still there. Had a tree not grown out front, which now shades the entire house, it might look quite the same despite 50 years of wear.

I remember somewhat less of the human world of the neighborhood, and more about the wild open land, such a wonder after city life. Downhill at the end of the cul de sac, there was no further development, just open land that had once been ranches. Several hundred feet away was an old creek bed. If you followed it downstream, you’d come to what was called in legend “Boot Hill”, though officially named “Pioneer Park”, an old settlers’ cemetery with all the lore one might expect only kids to know and transmit. How sometimes, in the eroded side of the hill, coffins would be revealed, and there would be old bones to find. During the rainy season the creek would fill and teem with life. My cousin and I caught frogs and tadpoles. I took home a jar of creek water and watched the amoeba in a single drop of it under the lens of my new microscope. The scientist in me was awakened, and in some ways it has never gone away. We were literally within sight of home, yet lost in the natural world. Then, with the end of the rainy season, it was dry as a bone again. Everyone knew that there were rattlesnakes in the valley, and dry hot summer days brought them out. But it was never enough of a concern that we were forbidden from spending hours in the creek bed without the faintest hint of adult supervision.five

My sister is the fifth of six children, born into a complex web of existing relationships, and she has always had the unique capacity to connect with everyone; to balance and harmonize. She remembers who lived in most of the pastel variations: Bannerts, whose child died young; Helgens, with their fierce and Germanic mother in her housedress and apron, white socks and lace up shoes. The Voelkers, with a mob of little blond boys, we think four or five of them; and one older sister. And the one we called the ‘Bimbo House” where a lonely divorcee liked to come outside, raise the hood of her car, and bang on the air cleaner with a hammer till a man stopped to help. And the Lelands, with their rhyming daughters Karen and Sharon. After the Leland parents divorced, their dad, already out on the singles market, got our dad to go with him to a Parents Without Partners event, where he met our stepmother. And that thread brings us to our presence here on this given day, the stepmother living just the other side of the tracks.

There are sensory details that flood back, step by step, reawakened in the exact same context in which they were stored so many years ago. My sister stops and points. “50 years ago, that house had a red door.” Notable because a dog had charged out from behind it and bitten her. The door is not red now, but it is red in memory, so powerful, that even now we are glad to be across the street.

“And there, she points, “ is the corner where one day, dad waited for me as I walked home from Kindergarten .” A boy along the way home had been bothering her. She’d told our mom, who alerted dad, and there he was: vigilant, silent, but concerned. And my sister says, “Mostly I was afraid of dad growing up.” He was so easily irritated by the chaos of family life.

But now our view of him must include this way in which he was watchful, but silent, in ways we might never have noticed. On the corner, we stand in the present but see the young father of six across the intersection – the watchman, worried man, with the crowded home, the dangerous job. There were so many things about family life that he just didn’t know how to do. This, he knew how to do.


It’s All Memory

May 8, 2007

“Life goes by so fast that it is all memory”… Tennessee Williams

Our daughter rides the subway from her apartment in Brooklyn to the NYU baccalaureate at Madison Square Garden, carrying her mortarboard but wearing the purple gown over her party clothes, ready for a quick change later. Congratulations are offered at almost every stop along the way.DSC00551

We are subway riders too, from downtown to midtown, less conspicuous as parents of the graduate; a modest NYU Proud Parent pin on the jacket. From our seats high in the rafters, we establish contact with her by cellular phone, so we can almost make her out, waving from the front row. Her early arrival paid off in this prime location among her 2,000 classmates.
It takes nearly an hour for the students to file into Madison Square Garden, filling the entire arena floor row by purple row. Of course we are most looking forward to the discrete few seconds when our own daughter crosses the stage for her diploma, but there is something to be said for the vastness of the collective experience as we see it from high in the rafters.

The graduation speaker is Joseph LeDoux, Director of the Center for Neural Science at New York University. His work explores questions of brain, memory, and emotion; how the brain forms memories of life’s significant emotional events; like the one we are having today; how memory knits together one’s pastDSC00546, present and future into a unique personal identity. He opens with that first quote I mentioned from Tennessee Williams.

Doesn’t every graduation speaker invite the audience to remember? To bring memories forward to this day; to take memories of this day into future life? To reflect on who you were when you came here, how you have changed, and to speculate about who you will be in the future? I can’t think of one who hasn’t. And he does that, speaking of how in his own life he arrived in New York City from rural Louisiana with a mix of sadness and anticipation, loss as well as gain, risking what is known for what is not. But uniquely, his field of study is the concrete neurological structures and chemical processes that perceive, record, store and retrieve memories.

It’s not the last we hear from Joseph LeDoux today. After the speeches and the long parade of students one by one across the stage — and we do have our four seconds of delirious joy — he returns again, this time with a Stratocaster and three other musicians, ready to perform as “The Amygdaloids”, a band named after the amygdala, that small almond shaped structure in the limbic system of the brain which is central to the interwoven processes of fear and memory.

The Amygdaloids are a rock and roll band made up entirely of neural scientists. They have a long scientific history together, but only in the last year or so did they discover their common love of rock and roll, and put together this band to spread knowledge of the brain and its workings through music. It’s their first performance at Madison Square Garden.

From “All in a Nut”, one of the songs they perform this day: “Why, why, why do we feel so afraid?/ Don’t have to look very far/ Don’t get stuck in a rut/ Don’t have to look very hard/ It’s all in a nut, in your amygdaloids2brain.”

The student audience is increasingly animated as they wind up “All in a Nut” and segue into “Emotional Brain” — and then, somewhere toward the front of the crowd, someone starts the wave — who knows how many people it takes to start such a thing in motion, row by row, front to back then back to front in a huge human wave of motion, leaping from seats, hands thrown in the air, purple hats and white programs undulating. The wave moves at least three times through the student body on the arena floor before it spreads to the parents around the perimeter. Fortuitously, while patiently waiting for two thousand names other than Kaitlin’s to be called, I had fiddled with the settings on my digital camera, remembering that it had the capability of taking video clips, and as the second student wave began, I captured it on video.

So the memory of this day is forever held in motion.

Searching for our daughter in this purple crowd, I am remembering the first look of her clear blue eyes on a summer day in 1985, the whole person within her just beginning to unfold. When I was pregnant with her, the thing to be concerned about was folic acid. Folic acid was believed to be crucial to the early formation of the neural tube, so fundamental to every subsequent building block of development. So I loved her brain into being along with everything else. The precocious three year old who was grief –stricken when she grasped that history means we will all be dead someday became the four year old who braved a rope bridge.kaitlin age 4 The third grader paralyzed with anxiety in a new school became the high school journalist who did not come home until late in the evening of September 11, 2001 because she had stories to report. The high school reporter became the confident young woman who flew to New York City on her own, hailed a cab to the NYU dorm, and four years later rode the subway to Madison Square Garden to graduate Cum Laude in English and American Literature, and Journalism and Mass Communication, with departmental honors. She denies starting the WAVE, by the way, but claims to know who did.

After we came home, I posted my little NYU WAVE video on Youtube. Within a few days I had an email from Joseph LeDoux, asking permission to include my clip in a compilation from that performance: “The Amygdaloids Play Madison Square Garden, May 8, 2007”. See the video at the link below. Look for our kid in the front row and my name in the video credits!!    I will never forget this day.

September 11

When we visited New York City this spring, I wanted to see the World Trade Center site. Six years later it is a still a vast crater — a scar that must surely be visible from the moon — with few signs of reconstruction, and no memorial beyond the displays and tributes, formal and home made, on the construction fence around it. It is a silent place. There is nothing to say. Walk away sad.

I was drawn across the street toward the graveyard of St. Paul’s Chapel, looking as it has for more than two hundred years and as it did on that awful day six years ago. Only a hundred or so feet away, it was virtually untouched by the collapse of the towers.DSC00511

I thought I’d remembered hearing that people took shelter here so I searched out the story. I learned that a huge old tree on the grounds came down, protecting the chapel from debris. In the immediate aftermath, and for months thereafter, the chapel sheltered rescue workers who slept in rows of cots during brief respites from the grueling work. Volunteers made up the cots with clean sheets and stuffed animals in between shifts, and someone hung a dreamcatcher in the window, wishing them protection from being tormented by what they had done and seen.

St. Paul’s Chapel, built in 1766, is the oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan. When the new nation’s capital was briefly in New York City. George Washington was known to have attended services here. Many others of the first European families to settle the island are buried in the churchyard. Here it has stood through the centuries, far outlasting the towers with their lifespan of forty years and three thousand lives. Likely it will also endure through the waves of violence, the hundreds dead, the blind rage of retaliation unleashed by this nation.

I’m not crazy about churches at all; preferring the trees and air around them. More healing and less corruption. But I get the idea of sacred places. And an ancient church with a motley collection of cots and blankets, where exhausted workers could rest free of bad dreams, strikes me as sacred. It worked for me on this clear sunny day six years later.
Written in the spring of 2007


blasted feministI found this image on the comic pages sometime in the early ’70’s when there was a lot of mainstream indignation about the “F” Word
(I think the strip was “Winnie Winkle’).

Somehow it floated in the contents of my desk through several moves, and resurfaced a few years ago.

“Blasted Feminist” is my artworks imprint.