Franko – “One of the good guys”

My brother Francis George Focke died at home in Rancho Cucamonga, California on April 22 in the early months of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

When he died, I was out walking in the rain in Seattle. Toward the end of my walk I passed a large camellia tree that seemed to have dropped most of its flowers all at once just before I got there—red camellias all over the ground and sidewalk under my feet. Our family’s house in Claremont, the last place that Frank and our whole immediate family—parents, brothers, and grandmother—lived together, was surrounded by camellias.

Frank died of an aggressive lung cancer that seemed to come up quickly. He’d been a smoker most of his life. I first learned of his cancer when he called to tell me of the diagnosis about a week and a half before he died. It wasn’t until four or five days later that I realized just how much pain he was in. He didn’t talk about his feelings easily (health or otherwise) and avoided focusing on himself. He had planned to have an initial chemo treatment on April 22 and even had a port put in. But on April 20, he just couldn’t bear the pain and discomfort any longer. With his wife Barb, he decided to cancel treatment and let the cancer take its course. His last few days were difficult, but Barb, who was with him, told me he died peacefully, for which I’m grateful.

It was hard not to be there. The miles and the virus kept me away. I was so glad to learn that our brother Ross was able to visit on the evening before Frank died. Seeing Ross again had been one of Frank’s last wishes.

Frank didn’t want any kind of memorial to celebrate his life or mark his passing except a plaque with his name at the cemetery. All the same, memories of him have appeared here and there. Making up for the lack of a formal obituary, I’ve cobbled together a few memories.

A bit of a cut-up and clown, “Frank-o” was my “middle-est” brother in a string of brothers, whose names will always roll easily off my tongue in chronological order – Fred, Ted, Frank, Karl, Ross. I came along between Fred and Ted for a total of six. The family moved to San Diego in 1945, and Frank was born there in Mercy Hospital in 1948. A collage of photos from about 1957 that I spotted on Frank’s wall shows Mom and Dad with all us minus Fred, who, ten years older, must have been away. Frank is at the lower right.

All of us, along with our grandmother, lived for about fifteen years in a two-story house on Mount Soledad in San Diego, surrounded on the back by hillsides of sagebrush and a valley with a chicken ranch and a dairy farm at the bottom. In front we were connected by dirt roads to nearby friends, a cactus ranch, and flower farmers. It was a great place to be young, perfect for building hide-outs, bringing baby chicks home, learning how to get lost and found again. The family moved north to Claremont in 1959, and except for Fred we all attended and graduated from Claremont High School.

An “In Memory” entry on Claremont High School’s Alumni Society website includes year-book photos of Frank (class of 1966) and comments from fellow classmates who described him as “such a great guy and so quiet and gentle,” “nice and friendly,” and “one of the good guys.” To inform their mutual friends, Ross posted a notice of Frank’s death on his Facebook page. It included a photo with this caption: “My brother Frank at boot camp in the Marines 1967. He was a helicopter mechanic in the Vietnam War close to the DMZ. He was proud, he was a Marine.” He was nineteen.

A clipping included on the Alumni site and probably published in the Claremont Courier, reported “Marine Lance Cpl. Francis G. Focke, 20, is serving with Heavy Helicopter Unit 462 in the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Vietnam. His unit operates several hundred aircraft including fighters, attack and reconnaissance craft, and helicopters. The Wing last year was awarded a Presidential Citation for combat achievements.”

Lance Corporal in the Marines is equivalent to a Private First Class in the Army. I remember Frank telling me, a few years after he returned, that he was rather proud of not rising to a higher rank during the years he served. He did his job, did it well, and kept his head down.

Before he died, Frank sent a box containing a few items from his Marine days to Heather, his favorite granddaughter, more accurately, a step-granddaughter who came into his life through his second wife, Priscilla. One of the items in the box was a large coin. Research identified it as a Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Challenge Coin.

Ross’s Facebook post attracted comments from family and mutual friends. Some of them knew him from the days, after the Marines, that he spent as a bartender at the Midway Tavern, between Claremont and Upland on Route 66. Michael wrote:

That Marine Mentality would come FLASHING to the surface from time to time. One night a fight broke out at the Midway and I was sitting at the middle table between the front wall and the pool table. One of the fighters spotted me and came RUNNING towards me. I was thinking ‘Oh man, the shit’s ON,’ when I heard this metallic clank right above my head. There was Frank standing right behind me. He had grabbed one of those metal folding chairs and snapped it into the folded position and he was IN THE STANCE, holding inches from the guy’s face.

Frank was always there for me.

Other Facebook posts with brief memories and condolences came from cousins, his first wife Lupe, and other old friends from Claremont, including Ruth, who added this picture of Frank pouring beer at the Midway.

Frank lived with alcoholism and went on the wagon at least 30 years ago. A few years after he quit, he told me the craving never stopped, but whenever the desire got hard to handle, he’d tell himself, “You can have a beer tomorrow.” And, as far as I know, that tomorrow never came..

In 1998 Frank and Priscilla moved to Casa Volante, a 55+ mobile home park in Rancho Cucamonga right off Route 66. At 50, he wasn’t old enough to live there on his own, but Priscilla qualified. Casa Volante is a quiet park with winding streets, about 200 homes (which they call coaches), a clubhouse with a small swimming pool, and many trees and plantings that soften the park’s landscape. Frank had been able to buy a coach with proceeds from our mother’s estate, which helped sustain their quiet, carefully frugal lifestyle.

Priscilla died in 2003, and it wasn’t long before Frank and Priscilla’s good friend Barb found each other. They married in October 2005 at poolside behind the clubhouse, surrounded by friends from the park and beyond.

When they were much younger, Frank and our brother Ross worked together on small construction and maintenance projects for home and garden. Frank carried his skill along with an inborn concern and care for others to Casa Volante, and he was known in the neighborhood for fixing toilets, hanging blinds, patching roofs, and running monthly pancake breakfasts and weekly bingo games. He was hired as the park’s assistant manager in 2012.

On one of my visits, I participated in a bingo game. Frank pulled out the large, rolling mechanical bingo board, set up the long tables and all the folding chairs in the main clubhouse room, and brought out the individual bingo cards and pencils. Without much fuss, he ran the show. The room was jammed, every seat taken. I was embarrassingly lucky that day, winning about 27 dollars. Some of my loot I shared with Frank and Barb, and the rest I contributed back to the bingo pot to start the next week’s game.

Frank & me in the clubhouse after bingo, 2016

In their June 2020 message to park residents, Dan and Lou, resident managers, said, “Frank was a fixture in the Park and I still keep expecting him to walk into the office to fill us in on things he observed while on one of his many daily walks.” A remembrance of him filled the other side of the newsletter: Assistant Manager – All Around Handy Man – Our Friend. “Frank was always there for residents: locked out, call Frank; leaky faucet, call Frank; need groceries, call Frank need your dog walked, call Frank. If he could do it, he would. Rest in Paradise, Frank.”

He clearly played a big role in creating community there. He leaves a huge hole in many lives. In a phone call a few weeks after he died, Barb told me that flowers were filling their home. She described one bouquet that had been carefully crafted to incorporate a dismantled piece of the big bingo board. Maybe there were even camellias.

Three brothers in 2019, Karl, Frank, Ross

The world we know is not our only option

February 1, 2020

This morning I woke with a disorienting sense of despair that’s unusual for me. The world seemed wracked with unsolvable problems and going to hell in so many ways at once that it felt impossible to imagine we’d ever be able work our way forward to a better place. I was at a loss to know what part I could play with the time and tools I have.

After stumbling around for a while, I picked up a short essay I’d written in the spring of 2016. I’d been inspired by an opinion piece published in the New York Times a few days earlier. The column’s author, Jon Grinspan, is an historian at the National Museum of American History who describes the focus of his research as, “politics and youth and comedy and food and booze in 19th and early 20th century America.” He likes any subject, he says, “that makes the past feel human and immediate.” And “immediately” is how fast his piece jerked me out of the little stupor I’d fallen into this morning. Reading his column today reminded me why it caught my attention in the first place. I was buoyed again by what he called “history’s most beautiful lesson: The world we know is not our only option.”

His op ed told the forgotten story of the days in the 1800s when young people voted in droves and were the most engaged demographic in U.S. politics. They “speechified” and rioted in wild elections from the 1830s to 1900. “Reading 16-year-olds’ diaries,” he said, “you can see the way they bundled political involvement with their latest romance, their search for work, and the acne on their foreheads. Public participation soothed private anxiety. Youth politics worked because it was so messy, blending ideology with identity, the fate of the country with ‘fun and frolic’.”

He tells the story in his book, The Virgin Voter: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. “Millions of children, youths, and young adults forced their way into the life of their democracy,” he said, “while their democracy forced its way into their personal lives.”  What in the 20th century often felt like a weak link in our political system was once the strongest. “Young people did vote,” Grinspan wrote. “They could do so again.”

In our 2018 mid-term elections, young people began to prove Grinspan right. In April 2019, the Washington Post, carried a story with this headline: “Young people actually rocked the vote in 2018, new Census Bureau data reports.” The news piece began, “Voter turnout spiked to a 100-year high in last year’s midterm congressional elections.…turnout rates jumped across nearly all groups, but the shift was particularly notable among young adults.” The number of voters aged 18-29 jumped 16 percentage points since 2014. “Last year’s election marked a clear break from the past two decades of anemic turnout among the youngest citizens.”

Knowing that things have changed in the past assures me that they they can change again. Young voters proved that in 2018. What we see today doesn’t have to be what will be tomorrow.

Grinspan’s insight mirrors Rebecca Solnit’s words about hope. “Hope for me,” she has said, “is deeply tied to the fact that we don’t know what will happen. This gives us grounds to act while being clear that terrible things are happening.… One of the great conundrums is that unless we believe there are possibilities we don’t act, but the possibilities only exist if we seize them.… We’re not talking about a future that’s already written.”

The forgotten past and a future that’s unknown both open up possibilities. We just have to be convinced as we face today’s realities that new options are possible and that it’s up to us to imagine them and act on our commitment to make them happen.

 

Notes

Jon Grinspan’s column in New York Times, “Virgins, Booze, and Politics,” ran on April 10, 2016.

Scott Clement and Ted Mellnik, “Young people actually rocked the vote in 2018, new Census Bureau data reports,” Washington Post, April 23, 2019.

The photo, “Butterfly Plant,” is by Anton Trötscher, Houston.


Aging & economics: simple arithmetic

“An aging United States reduces the economy’s growth – big time,” claimed Robert J. Samuelson in the opening line of his 2016 news story in the Washington Post. The story referred to an academic study of economic slowdown as we’ve seen it in recent years. Samuelson and the study traced this decline to our aging population. In fact, after presenting many details from the study, he concluded that, “If other economists confirm the study, we’d probably resolve the ferocious debate about what causes economic slowdown. The aging effect would dwarf other alleged causes…” It’s an interesting theory, but I argue with some of the conclusions he draws and offer another conclusion of my own.

By itself, the opening line immediately reminded me of a homegrown theory I’ve tossed around informally for some time. I tend to pull it out in conversation whenever I or someone else in my general age bracket expresses concern about whether or not our money will last as long as our lives will.

As a mathematical equation, my idea might look like this:

There may be a better way to express it mathematically, but here’s how I tell the story:

Using round numbers, I say, imagine that I started earning my own living at age 20. I was actually a little older than that, but it’s close enough, and saying I was 20 makes the equation easy to figure out. Then suppose that I decided to stop working for pay at the societally-accepted “retirement age” of 65. I didn’t, but again I’m not quibbling about details. The kicker comes when we add the final assumption, that I might live to be 90. The average life expectancy for a woman my age has been going up and is currently about 86.5 years – again, the number is close enough for the purpose of my storytelling.

The simple arithmetic of the story suggests a conclusion.

Someone living according to this equation would have an earning life of 45 years, that is, 65 minus 20. And that’s just half of a full 90-year lifetime. Hmmm . . . that seems to imply we’d have 45 years to generate 90 years of living expenses, two years’ worth for every year worked. The equation is all too simple, I know, since it doesn’t account for many things. All the same, applied to real life, the equation sets a crazy expectation.

“Oh, but wait!” you may say. “You haven’t accounted for the fact that your 45 earning years really only have to pay for your extra 25 years after retirement. That’s not quite so bad.” Ah, but I’d counter, consider that my first 20 years were hardly free. Somebodyhad to pay for them. In my case, it was my parents, and anyone who’s a parent knows they’re paying for at least two lives during the first 20 years of their child’s lives. But whether I’m a parent or not, I think my equation has to account for the cost of those years. So, I argue, the equation holds.

Obviously, a certain segment of the population with high earnings (especially if boosted by inherited wealth) can, indeed, pay for 90 years of life with just 45 years of work. For most of us, though, the economic life my equation points to is probably difficult if not impossible, and on the scale of an entire society, it’s hard to believe that the formula could possibly work at all.

My equation, though based on an individual life, has broad implications for an aging society overall. For me, it clarifies why an aging population that depends for its livelihood in our current economic system could be seen as a cause of economic slowdown. Clearly, a steep earnings decline follows retirement for many of us.

In his discussion of aging and economics, Samuelson discusses the study’s explanations for why an increasingly older population might have a dampening effect on economic productivity. For one, the decline is partly based on the proportionally smaller number of workers left to support production. But the study also reports that this accounts for only about a third of the decrease.

One theory for the rest, Samuelson proposes, is that older people may be more cautious with their spending, valuing stability and being more restrained, of being less experimental and optimistic in their views and actions. To this one I say, for myself at least, “Bah, humbug!” My desire to respond to the urgencies of today – climate crisis, justice and inequality, the precarious state of our civil society – has only increased at age 74, especially since I know my time is limited. I may act in different ways than I did in my 20s, but I’m no more cautious or restrained.

Besides, my homemade equation suggests that the “cautious spending” of older populations is not necessarily about our reduced sense of experimentation and adventure but rather about the reduced size of our bank accounts. My simple arithmetic speaks to larger questions about how our economy works, or more accurately, doesn’t work. For one thing, the only work that our current economy values is work exchanged for money.

What do you think older people are doing in their “retirements,” that is, if they’re lucky enough not to be scrabbling for money to pay the rent? Countless numbers of us are contributing in valuable ways to our communities, and more could. Look at the hair color of volunteers at food banks, in legal clinics, in libraries, and at other nonprofit and voluntary organizations. Who’s taking food to shut-ins? Who’s regularly writing their elected officials and participating in other ways in our democracy? And then there are the grandmothers and grandfathers! Yes, we love the time we spend with our grandchildren, but in many cases grandparents play an essential role in helping cover the cost of their grandkids’ first 20 years. It may be loving, but it’s still work.

Are we only able to put our effort to these things if we’ve been lucky enough to have held jobs for 45 years that pay double-time? We need to change the economic arithmetic. We need a different formula.

Note: The Washington Post article, published on August 21, 2016, can be found here.


Time away at home

Every now and then since at least 1985, I’ve given myself the gift of time away. I leave Seattle with a few books, lots of notes, a computer, and plans to rearrange my molecules for a while to focus on the difficult work of writing. These “time aways” also allow for walking, reading, thinking, staring into space, maybe visiting an old friend or meeting someone new or maybe not seeing anyone at all, surrounded by new scenery and a different context. I’ve rented cabins and hotel rooms, stayed in friends’ second homes, shared rentals with another writer friend, traded work for a little house, and a few times, even stayed in actual, official artists’ residencies. With mixed success, I’ve begun trying to recreate that experience without leaving home. I remember one time the strategy worked.

It was late summer 2015 – a perfect time-away day at home.

After spending the first hour of the day with necessary correspondence, I put some notes, my laptop, and an umbrella in a small pack and, with my pack on my back, headed out for a long walk. Despite a weather forecast of clouds and rain with a possible thunderstorm and hail, I planned to be out much of the day on a course I would determine as I went.

I walked just a few blocks before stopping for breakfast at a favorite neighborhood coffee shop.  Along with my breakfast, I read through past notes for what had become a gnarly piece I was working on. I’d been invited to write a short essay for publication in Pacific Standardas one of a series of columns on the future of work. My first draft had been returned by the editor with comments that made me know I should just start over. After studying my notes and finishing my coffee, I headed out.

Part-way through the longer next leg of my walk, the sun began to prove the forecast wrong. What a gift! After a couple of miles down steep, winding streets and views of the Cascade mountains, I stopped for coffee at a tiny place where I struggled to find a new path through the ideas in my notes. I didn’t actually pull out my computer to begin a new draft, but with my notes and a pen and paper, I found at least a preliminary place to begin and went outside again. The sun had taken over completely as I headed down the hill attracted by a set of stairs I hadn’t tried before and then turned straight east toward the Washington Park Aboretum.

A map of my walk

Just before reaching the park, I stopped at a cafe/coffee shop for lunch. I fiddled with my notes as I ate, but forced myself to sit there until I had begun a revised version. By the time I walked out, clouds had covered the sky and the rain had begun. Umbrella up, I headed into the Arboretum and followed a trail along the west edge that I hadn’t walked before, with tall straight pines at the start and large holly trees toward the end. My wet walk through the woods ended at yet another bakery/cafe just outside the park entrance. Over another cup of coffee and a treat, I made good progress in the writing, at least getting some good thoughts into a document on my computer. Sheets of rain came down while I worked.

A little later, bright sun pulled me outside again, this time to walk an almost straight line home. My earlier straight-line walk to the Arboretum had been level; this one definitely was not. My quick estimate of the elevation gain on just one of many blocks – and a short one, at that – was about 65 feet, though it felt like a 45 degree angle. After I got home, the energy the walk had given me continued, and I worked for another hour or so.

As the day ended, my writing was far from finished, but this new draft gave me the bones of a version that the editor ultimately accepted with only a few suggestions and small revisions. The piece, titled “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” considered the work of artists and other often unpaid workers. It began with a quote from economist Marilyn Waring: “I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.”

It was during one meandering leg of my long walk after a stretch of determined struggle with the essay that Waring’s words occurred to me and helped shape the piece. The day also convinced me that interesting places to walk and let my mind wander are valuable to the way I think and that I can sometimes find the discipline to create a satisfying time away at home.

Notes

“Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value” can be found here at Pacific Standard (originally posted 11/3/15) and a slightly revised version on my website here.

The quote from Marilyn Waring comes from the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics.


Who is the public?

“Come wade through history with me,” I wrote, hoping to entice students to apply for an internship with me. I’d been appointed to be Alum in Residence at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year and had decided that one way to put this opportunity to use would be to get help organizing and inventorying the many boxes of files and ephemera I’d accumulated over the years. During my residency, five remarkable students worked with me.

Of the many projects that produced the boxes filling my storage unit I chose one and carted nine of the sixteen banker boxes of Arts Wire material to my office at the school. Arts Wire, which I founded in 1989, was an early online network for the arts community nationwide – artists, arts organizations, arts funders, state arts agencies, and more. It introduced many arts folks to this “new” communications technology and provided an essential national connection for us during the tumultuous challenges we faced during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, fierce congressional debates about arts funding, and the sometimes contentious rise of “multi-culturalism” (the term of the day).

The students tackled the job with enthusiasm. And they didn’t just inventory the material. As they went through it they also talked about what they found, both among themselves and with me. We considered what the contents meant, whether archives matter, and how what they learned connected with the world we know today. Their interest prompted them to create ancillary projects. Along with two exhibitions, an Instagram feed, and reflective essays, the students decided to produce a podcast series based on interviews with intriguing people they discovered in the files. David Mendoza was on their list.

David is a long-time advocate and activist on behalf of artists and was an important early member of Arts Wire. At about the same time that Arts Wire was gaining momentum, David was leading the charge against censorship as director of the new National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. Three of my interns – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – contacted David and conducted the interview. The hour-long conversation – with David in Bali where he now lives and we in Jessica’s apartment near the university – threaded its way through many of his experiences. His creation, in the 1980s, of a button with a message particularly caught the students’ imagination.

DAVID:  I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! Iam the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “Youare the public, and youare the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.

What public funding for the arts did, what the National Endowment for the Arts did, what the New York State Arts Council and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. People who were known for their private philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.”

Everyone who wore that pin was part of the public. I’m telling you, it was amazing. I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle]. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle.

JESSICA:  I just want to chime in… Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.

DAVID:  Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it. Just make it!

JESSICA:  It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Just helping them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”

KAREN:  It’s an affirmation of our own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, it’s only my opinion. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? Even on the scale of the country!

DAVID:  And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.

JESSICA:  Yeah, we need to revive this!

DAVID:  Yes! I have one in my little treasure storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.

AFTERWORD:  At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.

NOTES

Other related essays on my website include:
–  Returning to my alma mater, after half a century
–  Archaic social media – Arts Wire uncovered
–  David Mendoza: The past half century

The interview with David Mendoza by Arts Wire interns is from a 2017 podcast series titled, “AND_NOW?” To listen to the podcast, click here, and scroll down to episode 6, “Golden Horseshoe.”


“It’s all back.”

August 13, 2019

My downstairs neighbor Kim dropped by this morning. He wanted help figuring out how to prepare himself psychologically for a visit later that day with his sister who had recently gone into hospice care. He wondered what he could do for her. What should he say, what could he take, how could he be ready? His questions brought back a powerful memory of my own, which I shared with him.

In the late ’90s a close friend of mine, Anne Gerber, was in the final decade of a long life. She was known for her unflagging support of artists and social causes. She called herself an “artnik” rather than an arts patron. She collected the work of risk-taking artists from across the country and world and was an avid supporter of local artists. She once said, “I like to watch for the art that’s discovering itself.” With her husband she worked to desegregate housing in Seattle and was a dedicated member of the ACLU. For me, she was proof that we don’t have to choose between art that matters and politics that matter or between a love of nature and a life of ideas. Remembering her, eco designer and artist Wendy Brawer wrote: “It was 1984. The phone rings, and the voice on the other end of the wire asks – what are you artists doing about the election? All it took was one nudge from Annie and we were off, running a creative campaign that brought our community into the political arena and sparked deep conversations on our rights and dreams as citizens.”

Anne Gerber on Bumbercycle, by artist Clair Colquitt, in the lobby of Seattle Art Museum, probably in the 1980s. The photo appeared on the program for her memorial service, 2005.

By the time she reached her early 90s, though, Anne’s eyesight was nearly gone and her mobility restricted. Living in a single room on the health-care wing of a continuing care retirement community, she was far from the friends she hadn’t outlived and didn’t get many visitors. The facility took care of her medical needs, but her social, cultural, and intellectual life suffered. She’d always been fiercely independent which kept her from reaching out when she wanted or needed something, and her failing eyesight kept her from reading and enjoying the art she loved. With very little social contact except for a group of five or six of us who visited whenever we could, her world got smaller. On my visits I began reading to her – sometimes choosing the latest art news and other times articles about contemporary political events or people she knew. She liked feeling connected to worlds that mattered to her. I would watch her come back to life each time we were together.

After one of my visits, it occurred to me that she might enjoy hearing something from her own life. I remembered that, somewhere, I had an interview with her from the early 1980s. The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art had wanted her oral history, and I’d agreed to do the interview. Anne and I had talked for at least an hour and a half on two different days. Afterward, I’d received a paper copy of the transcript, so I dug through my files to find it.

Before I visited again, I read through the stories she told – of her parents, her days as an art student, her marriage in Reno to Sydney Gerber, their sailboat summers in Canada’s inland passage where they became friends and supporters of renowned Kwakwaka’wakw carver Willie Seaweed, and many of her contemporary art world adventures, among which was a 1968 trip to New York with a charge from the Seattle Art Museum to find an exhibition that would be “new and fresh,” a search that led her to art critic and activist Lucy Lippard whom she signed up to be exhibition curator and who created for Seattle the first of what would be known as “Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows,” titled in our case 557,087.

The next time I saw Anne, I read aloud from the transcript for ten or fifteen minutes before I paused to look up. When I did, I noticed that she was sitting very still, listening intently, with a pensive, almost tearful look on her face. “I thought it was gone,” she said quietly. “But now it’s all back.” I read from that transcript many times on subsequent visits.

Anne Gerber memorialized in a sheet of stamps by artist CT Chew. Images of Anne appear in the center, upper left, and lower right stamps.

After sharing some of this with my neighbor Kim, I suggested that perhaps he could give his sister something that would trigger memories from her past. So much of our memory relies on recognition and has to be prompted to resurface, even when a memory defines us. Cues can be an object or a letter, a favorite song or the smell of a special meal. Or it might even be a question from a neighbor.

I bumped into Kim at the front door of our apartment building a few hours later. He was in a hurry but was carrying a big basket over his arm.


A win-win-win for artist organizers

Introduction – An often invisible layer

There is a dense layer of artistic activity all over the country that can be hard to see. At times it’s nearly invisible. With some exceptions, this creative activity lies close to the ground, found in many mostly small but dynamic nodes that are sometimes, but not reliably, linked together in informal, web-like ways. This story is about how a fairly isolated, regional chunk of this artistic layer began to make connections with other regions.

Many adjectives are used to describe the activity in this busy cultural arena: contemporary, experimental, noncommercial, artist-centered, independent, DIY, and grassroots. It’s also frequently referred to as responsive, diverse, focused on equity, and politically committed. Although it generally doesn’t get big flashy headlines, the workings of this domain are often well known by and intertwined closely with the communities where it lives. This creative layer shows up as storefront exhibition spaces, publications, residencies, digital platforms, project spaces, community centers, studios, and occasionally as high-profile institutions. It can be found in garage galleries and living rooms, tucked in buildings with unexpected neighbors, on paper in bookshelves and in piles at public events, in privately-run or governmentally-sponsored spaces, as well as in public places on an often temporary basis. Its inhabitants take many legal forms – as nonprofits, informal and unincorporated networks, collectives, associations, noncommercial for-profits, sometimes as artist support organizations, and, in ever-increasing numbers, as individual and independent organizers, often artists for whom this work is an extension of their art practice.

The key to all this activity is the central role taken by or given to artists, and, in fact, many endeavors that populate this realm are created by or run by artists. Often the organizational form itself is part of the work and includes efforts to bring together artists, art, various publics, communities, and organizations in ways that lead to all parts being integral to the whole. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the terms artist spaces, arts organizers, and artist-centered as stand-ins for the wide variety of forms this energy takes.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s when this arts layer wasn’t as thick as it is today, I helped create and run an early example of this activity in Seattle, an organization named and/or. Over its ten-year life and/or gained a national reputation that decades later, in 2015, led to my becoming a member of the founding board of Common Field, an organization that aims to connect and empower this nationwide, multi-various network, this “field.” Common Field’s largest program is an annual gathering of the network, the Common Field Convening. It welcomes artist spaces and arts organizers from anywhere in the country to attend. The most recent convening, held in Philadelphia this year, attracted over five hundred participants from 32 states.

Philadelphia Convening – Friends Center: The Quaker Hub for Peace and Justice

In Seattle and Washington State today, the world of artist-centered activity is just as dense as it is anywhere else, but until now it has had few connections with its counterparts elsewhere. It has felt like a far-off corner of the country. My direct experience in this world is decades old, and Seattle artist Matthew Offenbacher has been my main guide to what’s happening in our region now. Matt says of himself, “I seek constructive, positive positions at often difficult intersections of individuals, communities, and institutions.” His work ranges from painting, writing, and object making to exhibition making and community organizing.

Matt and I wrote the following story collaboratively in response to an invitation to tell the Common Field network how we began the process of building relationships with others across the country. The piece was posted on Common Field’s website.

Anne Focke

Did you wonder why there were so many people from Seattle and Washington State at the Convening in Philly?

In 2017, Courtney Fink, executive director of Common Field, visited Seattle for a community meet-up at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Fifty or so organizers came together in the gallery at the University of Washington’s art school to network, share ideas, and learn about Common Field. However, despite the good conversation and energy generated, the meeting didn’t result in many new members or Convening attendees. In fact, at the Convening in Los Angeles that fall there were just three of us. We three were very excited by our experience and thought: more people from Seattle must go!

Meet up at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in 2017

Our theory was that travel and time costs were the limiting factor. Like many places, visual art in Seattle relies heavily on grassroots and DIY organizations, often run by artists. This creates a landscape that is culturally rich and dynamic, but also incoherent and perpetually underfunded. High costs of living make it difficult for artist organizers to find time to write grant proposals, raise money, and work on administrative tasks. Also, there’s a pernicious civic attitude that emphasizes entrepreneurial competition over collective effort and mutual support.

To try to get more people to the 2019 Convening we hatched a plan to raise money to award ad-hoc travel scholarships. We asked for help from a group of four to five “strategizers.” These were people from organizations that might be supporting partners of the scholarship and who had fundraising and community organizing experience. Our strategizers encouraged us to think big, suggesting we raise money for three years of scholarships, with 10-20 recipients each year, and expand the range from just Seattle to encompass the entire state. After some back-of-the-envelope figuring, we decided scholarships in the amount of $1,000 each would cover travel, lodging, and expenses.

We made a lot of spreadsheets! There were lists of potential individual and institutional donors and lists of every artist-centered project and independent artist organizer we knew of and ones we didn’t but who were suggested by other people. We wrote information sheets explaining the project to donors. One effective argument came from a survey by one of our partner organizations, Artist Trust. They found that among Washington State artists, one of the highest self-identified needs is making connections outside the area. From the other direction, we learned from Common Field that artist spaces across the country don’t know what’s going on in Seattle and Washington.

Perhaps of less interest to our donors but important to our own sense of the project was trying to expand what is valued in our communities. We think a strong art community is one that values a robust network of artist-centered initiatives. This has seldom been the case. Directing donor resources to these initiatives – often marginal, temporary, peculiar, and community-specific – is an issue of artistic excellence as well as one of racial, cultural, and social class equity. We ended up thinking about how we could use Common Field, beginning with a travel scholarship program, both as a way to connect our locality to a national network and also as a focal point for local organizing that explores our common interests and collective power.

We began pitching possible donors and realized that while the project seemed to us like an obvious win-win for everyone, it was less clearly so to some donors. We hadn’t been clear enough in describing the double-win of local arts organizers meeting national peers and artist spaces elsewhere learning of the vitality of our region’s artist-centered work. We revised our pitches and kept at it. In the end, a private donor gave us funds for five scholarships, our county arts agency (4Culture) put in for another five, another private donor supported two, and four other donors supported one each. We had enough for 16!

Some of the Washington State folks who went to Philly

A three-person committee selected the recipients using our long list of organizations and organizers as the starting point. There was no application. Awardees first heard from us when we sent them a congratulations letter. In a field where crushing cycles of submission and rejection are the norm, receiving support in this way seemed to make people feel especially buoyantly “seen” and appreciated. At all points in our process, we tried to minimize time and aggravation for the awardees. There was minimal paperwork. We paid in advance. Some scholarships were awarded to individuals and some to groups, and we told the groups to use whatever process they liked to decide which individual(s) to send. There were no strings attached other than that they use the money to get themselves to Philly.

Here’s the list of awardees: Esther Ervin (Onyx), Kelly Froh (Short Run), Ben Gannon (cogean?), Bradly Gunn and Philippe Hyojung Kim (Soil), Benjamin Hunter (Community Arts Create), Elisheba Johnson (Wa Na Wari), Christopher Paul Jordan, mario lemafa, Don Linnertz (TwispWorks), Molly Mac and Kate Boyd (If You Don’t They Will), Monica Miller (Gallery One), Julie Chang Schulman (206 Zulu), Thea Quiray Tagle (The Alice), Asia Tail, Mary Welcome, Carol Rashawnna Williams (K-Love4Art)

Find Washington State artist organizers at the Convening’s opening party in Philly

Two groups that were selected decided to split the money between two people in their group. So all in all, the scholarships supported 18 Washington State folks to go. The enthusiasm convinced even more folks to go: Charlie Rathbun (4Culture, King County’s arts agency), Rick Reyes (City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture), Shannon Halberstadt (CEO Artist Trust), Sarah Faulk (curator), Margie Livingston (Soil), Mariella Luz (artist and member of Artist Trust’s board), and Emily Zimmerman (Jacob Lawrence Gallery). And of course the two of us were there, too. No wonder it seemed like Washington folks were everywhere at the Convening!

Washington artists speaking to the crowd in the closing Philly session are (clockwise from top left): Carol Rashawnna Williams, Julie Chang Schulman, Mary Welcome, mario lemafa, Margie Livingston, and Ben Hunter.

We’ve held two follow-up get-togethers since then: a small one in a home so that artist-organizers who got scholarships and donors who helped them to go could meet each other; and a second larger public one, a sort of mini-convening, where arts organizers could meet each other and discuss ideas that inspired the people who went to Philly. This meeting was sponsored by the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultureand held at their new facility above the downtown train station.

Poster session and conversations at King Street Station

A huge team of people rallied with us to make the scholarship program possible: the donors to the scholarship program (4Culture, Edie Adams, Sarah Cavanaugh, Marge Levy, the Glen S. and Alison W. Milliman Foundation, Judy Tobin, and Merrill Wright); Artist Trust’s board who made the scholarships an Artist Trust program which meant the donations were tax-deductible; our “strategizers,” and finally, the invaluable Carole Fuller, our fellow-organizer and champion of the project who, in the end, couldn’t go to Philly.

We are now beginning to figure out how to raise the next round of scholarship money for Common Field’s 2020 convening in Houston, and our database of artist spaces and arts organizers in Washington just keeps growing. It now stands at 220. We invite you to check out the full list here and meet Washington State artist spaces and arts organizers!

Coda

Shortly after we returned from Philadelphia, we received a thank you email from Christopher Paul Jordan, a Tacoma artist who received one of the travel scholarships.

This weekend was unforgettable. Thank you for galvanizing us to connect with our peers across the country. I am moving forward believing in a level of possibility for arts organizing that I never imagined; particularly inspired by the work happening in Dallas Texas and in Puerto Rico, but also reminded how many unique resources and possibilities are rooted in our region. Reminded that anything is possible. Truly appreciate your support in helping open an new chapter of vision and relation.

The note from Chris affirmed the value of strengthening the web-like nature of connections within the fertile layer of artist-centered activity. In our case, the travel between Washington State and Philadelphia resulted in a three-way exchange: getting to know our peers in other parts of the country, allowing artist-centered spaces and organizers elsewhere to get to know us, and getting to know each other and our own resources better. It’s kind of a win-win-win for all of us.

Links

•  Common Field
•  Matthew Offenbacher
•  List of artist organizers in Washington State, updated as of 10/8/19
•  Christopher Paul Jordan


 

What lasts

Apparently, you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there. — Edit DeAk

In mid-1974, before I knew many people in that city, I made a trip to New York. One of the few New Yorkers I knew beforehand thought I should I meet Edit DeAk and suggested I go to a party in her loft. My friend had been invited but couldn’t go and assured me it would be OK. So I went alone.

DeAk’s loft was on Wooster Street above the Paula Cooper Gallery, up several long flights of stairs. Although I arrived to find the loft crowded with people, I received what struck me as a surprisingly open and friendly welcome. Meeting DeAk in her loft that evening began a periodic bi-coastal friendship and introduced me to a vibrant New York art world I hadn’t known before. Among other things, I became a dedicated subscriber to Art-Rite, a journal DeAk had co-founded a year earlier as an alternative to established art magazines of the day. Though DeAk and I lost track of each other over the years, her 2017 obituary in the New York Times threw me back to those days and reignited my interest in her.

Edit DeAk was born in Budapest in 1948, fled Communist Hungary in 1968 in the trunk of a car, and went almost directly to Manhattan to leap into the art world. And leap she did. William Grimes, who wrote the NYT obituary, called her “the doyenne of a downtown New York art world that was a playground for many a nascent movement and ideology.”

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

One of the most satisfying finds in my search for stories about her was an engaging essay by David Frankel, “On Art-Rite Magazine,” published by 032c magazine in 2005. Frankel recalled that he met DeAk in 1981 when he was newly on the staff of Artforum. “Edit regularly danced by [to see then-editor Ingrid Sischy]. She would hurry through the office, laughing, vivid, bright-clothed, Hungarian, making herself briefly focal…” He added that while she was “intimidatingly glamorous,” he was “struck by her generosity and by an endearing modesty that runs through her general flamboyance.” No doubt this generosity is what I felt in that loft when I first met her.

DeAk founded Art-Rite with two fellow Columbia University students, Walter Robinson and Joshua Cohn. Its goal was to provide “coverage of the undercovered,” to focus on art at the margins: performance art, video art, conceptual art, and outsider art. The magazine was written, edited, designed, typeset, published, and distributed out of DeAk’s and Robinson’s downtown lofts between 1973 and 1978.

Frankel’s essay began with a 1974 quote from DeAk about the beginnings of Art-Rite:

We were riding on the absurdity of the situation—that we were three nobodies, had no money, had no fame, and didn’t know anybody in the art world. But it was perfect—we were totally free.

The magazine’s design, reported Frankel, was “stylish and plain at the same time.” It was printed on newsprint in the editors’ belief that the low-cost process would help deinstitutionalize and demystify the esoterica it contained. In its time, wrote Frankel, Art-Rite “must have been startling in its colloquial informality.”

Covers by Joseph Beuys, Christo, Ed Ruscha

“An important aspect of Art-Rite,” said DeAk in her interview with Frankel, “was a whole new tone and attitude. It was unheard of to have a sense of humor at the time, or not to be talking about ‘the problem’ of art – the problem of this, the problem of that.”

Discovering these stories helped me understand why I felt such a kinship with DeAk in a way I didn’t put into words at the time. It wasn’t her glamorous side, and I lived too far away to be part of the downtown New York art scene around her. As I read, I found phrases that helped explain the connection I’d felt – Frankel’s term “colloquial informality,” his description of Art-Rite as open and democratic, her own words describing the journal as “a restless but friendly, constantly evolving entity,” and especially her desire to “deinstitutionalize” the magazine.

Shortly before I met DeAk and about a year after the first issue of Art-Rite was published, I was one of a group of artists who started an artist space in Seattle. We named it and/or. Rather like Art-Rite, and/or “presented the underpresented” – artists whose work included video, installations, performance, new music, conceptual art, and art writing. We hosted artists, curators, composers, and writers from our region and beyond, DeAk among them. Knowing of and/or may have been part of the reason our mutual friend thought DeAk and I should meet.

from the opening announcement, 1974

As and/or developed, I regularly worried about the dangers and impact of becoming an “institution.” It felt sort of like a dirty word. In 1975, I wrote:

One of the greatest challenges is working with an ongoing form; the “trick” is not simply to make an organization that perpetuates itself, but to make one with life, challenges, risks, and new ideas… balanced between giving enough structure, stability/credibility to assure a continued existence, and giving enough openness, flexibility, free-ness to allow for real growth, surprise, significant work and change.

This worry once came up in a conversation with DeAk, perhaps during her visit to Seattle. We talked about our respective organizations, and her words stay with me still. Though she was barely managing to keep Art-Riteafloat, within just three years she was starting to hear people refer to Art-Riteas an institution. “Apparently you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there,” she said.

As it turned out Art-Rite didn’t survive long, if “survival” is understood in conventional terms. It folded after only five years. and/or lasted longer, but we closed its core operations after ten years.

Lately my thinking about the challenge of balancing risk and openness with continuity and stability has gotten more complicated. I know there’s a place for reliable, slow-moving, barely-changing institutions designed for the ages. There’s also a place for organizations that develop lighter-weight, flexible structures but with enough focus on management systems that they can last through many ups and downs, though maybe not forever. But there’s also a vital place for organized collections of people who stay together for a while, who direct all their energy and resources to taking a particular action or accomplishing a specific mission in response to immediate circumstances, and then just go away.

About twenty years after and/or closed, I was invited to talk about it in a discussion of birth and death. To prepare, I wrote these observations:

and/or was not built to last, profoundly not.
Its energy went to doing, not to building a lasting structure.
In the end, it divided, seeded, dissolved its center.
It was allowed to become “myth,” to have a beginning and an end.

In my imagination, closing and/or would release the energy of its community and of the artists involved, allowing the energy to take new forms and pop up elsewhere.

According to the reports I read, Art-Rite went through a similar metamorphosis. After the magazine folded in 1978, DeAk’s spirit and energy did not slow down and, at least for a while, showed up in other places. As an art critic, she contributed to Artforum, Interview, ZG, and other art publications. Trey Speegle, in a WOW Report column announcing her death, noted that she continued to be “a downtown fixture in the 80s NYC art scene that loved and revered her.” Gallerist Massimo Audiello began his own remembrance by writing, “Downtown NYC is in TEARS!!! One of our most shining minds is gone.”

Even though her health sidelined her for the last two decades of her life, her impact and her spirit continued on in people who knew her. Speegle wrapped up his column with this:

She really was one of those vital sorts who introduced, connected, inspired, and informed. She was a creative conduit. I’m still kind of not believing she’s not going to post some poetic comment on Facebook and say, “Hey, I’m not there now, I’m here.”

I think again about DeAk’s words – “Apparently, you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there” – and I want to play with them. How about this: “Apparently, survival isn’t simply about being an institution, it’s about being there.”

What endures doesn’t have to be as tangible as brick and terracotta or metal and steel. Myths and memories of individual and collective activity may seem ephemeral, but they can have a tensile strength that lasts. Even long buried and apparently forgotten, they can pop up again to be rediscovered, to again inspire something new.

References

Edit DeAk, a champion of outsider art, dies at 68,” William Grimes, The New York Times, June 22, 2017.

On Art-Rite Magazine: An analysis of Art-Rite magazine and its history,” by David Frankel, 032c magazine, Issue #9 (summer 2005), retrieved from the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine,

#RIP: Art Critic, Edit DeAk,” Trey Speegle, The WOW Report (World of Wonder), June 9, 2017.

For more on and/or see: “and/or – enough structure and enough openness” and “goodnight and/or a wake.”


Tackling the climate crisis, Penny U returns

Penny University at Town Hall invites you to join the conversation!

Tackling the Climate Crisis

Thursday, August 22, 2019, 7:30pm
The Town Hall Forum
1119 8th Ave (west entrance)
Seattle

Doors open at 6:30pm
FREE

The latest edition of Penny University asks all of us to imagine ourselves in positions of power to make radical political or economic decisions in response to the climate crisis.

Imagine that some great shock has galvanized the world at last, and made it clear that we must address climate change as an absolute emergency—every moment counts. The UN General Assembly and the Security Council have voted unanimously to convene a Climate Crisis Response Team. You’re on it. You have deep pockets and a blank slate, but very little time. How do you allocate money, attention, time, policy, and legislation? What are your top priorities? How do you trade off between mitigating damage that’s already been done, preventing new damage, and reversing the causes of damage to make it possible for the climate to improve?

Discuss, listen, and learn from one another as we envision a better world!

Edward Wolcher, Town Hall’s curator of lectures, and I created the Penny U conversation series to flip the script on a standard Town Hall event. Instead of presenting the ideas of an expert, Penny U prompts you to become a participant and explore big ideas through community conversation and popular education. This edition of these conversations has also been framed by John Boylan, Tom Corddry, Theresa Earenfight, Carolyn Law, and Warren Wilkins.

The cafe and bar will be open, cafe tables will allow talk in small groups so everyone can be heard, pens and paper will let each table capture highlights, and we’ll wrap up back together in one big conversation.

If you register (red button above), you’ll receive a “Know before you go” message containing additional information, including lists of known solutions. You can also register by going to Town Hall’s website here.

Penny U’s name is borrowed from 18th century London coffeehouses called “penny universities.” For the price of a penny, people got coffee, pamphlets, the latest news and gossip, and lively conversations on politics and science, literature and poetry, commerce and religion. The low cost led to a mingling of people from all walks of life. Anyone of any social class could frequent the coffeehouses, which became associated with equality and civil society. Penny universities became safe havens for political discussion, exchange of ideas, and civil debate. More about Penny U at Town Hall here.

Many thanks to Anita H. Lehman for the picture of ravens in active conversation. You can learn more about her here.


Memorable dents

I find notes to myself everywhere – jotted on scraps of paper, tucked in folders and books, scribbled in the pages of other documents, inside printed-out email messages – reminders of incidents or ideas, quick insights or future dreams. Proliferating for decades, they are extensions of my memory, or at least a source for recovering pieces of it. Each note captures something I’ve found intriguing, worth attention in the moment and sometimes worth pursuing further. I’ve imagined that each note leaves a dent in my memory. Recovering it deepens the dent, gives me a chance to consider its contents again.

Each small dent is different from the next. Recently it occurred to me that all these dents may be making a pattern, like the elaborate designs on old silver pitchers or the patterns in pressed tin ceilings or the random dings in a much-loved sauce pan. But until now I hadn’t consciously tried to decipher the design.

A month or so ago, my energy for writing got sluggish. It was hard to start anything, even though my list of ideas was long. I decided to get out of town to see if a change in surroundings would help. I also decided that in this short chunk of time, I would avoid trying to begin anything new and big. Instead, I gathered up some of the notes I’ve kept on scraps, those “dents” in my memory, polished them a bit, and considered how they might fit together.

A collection of these short pieces follows here.

Drawing on snow

February 2019 was Seattle’s snowiest month in 50 years – more than 20 inches fell during the month. One morning, sitting in my bright second-floor corner apartment after the month’s first big storm, I got a good view of neighborhood comings and goings and of the weather and sidewalk conditions at the intersection below. I admired the snow, layered up smoothly on the tops of bushes along the sidewalk. Though it came roaring back later that week, on this day the snow had begun to melt. The sun was out, the street was wet, and the sidewalks were slushy and icy.

As I watched, wondering how long the snow would last, an older woman with a cane, in a pink coat, walked toward my building. As she approached the corner, she turned toward one of the flat snow-topped bushes, lifted her cane, and wrote or drew something in the snow on top. She admired it briefly and walked on.

The bush faced away from my window, just out of sight. I was sorry I couldn’t see what she had written. Eventually, my curiosity got me on my feet. I put shoes on, grabbed a coat, and went out to see what the neighborhood walker had drawn.

When I saw it, I thought, of course! What would anyone of any age draw with just a few strokes? Her cane-drawn heart lasted three days until the next big storm came through.


Instant community and a lime

One evening after a busy and fragmented day, I enjoyed a light but just-right meal at a neighborhood bar and bistro owned by a friend. While I sat by the front window eating, a colorfully dressed, 25-year-old woman walked out the door past me. Standing with a cigarette, she initiated, in a way that seemed effortless, a street-side conversation with a gray-bearded man sitting on a motorcycle he’d just parked. They were soon joined by a young black man pulling behind him a loosely-full garbage bag. With laughs and small gestures, all three seemed to be having a good time and eventually headed off in separate directions. From where I was, only a few feet away but on the other side of the glass, they were like players in a silent movie. What an amazing instant community, I thought.

Apparently, the young woman felt I’d been a friendly, if mute, part of their conversation, and, before returning to the bar, came over to tell me about herself, which is how I know her age. A little later, as she left the cafe, she came back and gave me a lime.

A lime? I learned afterward that she’d bought it from the bartender. Surprised, I thanked her. It’s the only time I’ve been given a lime. Her gift, and the easy openness she carried with her, were soothing – a magical antidote to an otherwise hectic day.


What I love so often falls in between

In 2005 a space in Seattle’s new City Hall was given my name. The Anne Focke Gallery consists of the lower-level elevator lobby and a stepped-back space that becomes a corridor to the community meeting rooms. At least half-a-dozen rooms in City Hall were dedicated to specific people that day. Unlike many “naming rights” these days, naming these rooms had nothing to do with financial support, and I was one of just two who were still alive. I felt honored. I was also on the program to say a few words at the dedication ceremony. As often happens, I carefully planned my remarks, but when my turn came and I faced the crowd, my mind went blank. I spoke extemporaneously, forgetting most of what I’d prepared. This is my chance to share some of I’d written in advance.

May 14, 2005

Many thanks to the City for giving this space my name. I’m truly honored.

The space seems just right.
It’s an odd little space
between things
not exactly a room
not exactly a corridor
not exactly square.
It’s a space that falls between other spaces.
It suits me. The art and work I love so often falls in between.

An etched wall plaque suggests permanence. But this space is the passageway to community rooms. It’s also an intersection as people come and go from the elevator. This room will always be full of energy as the art on the walls, the people passing through, and the communities they care about change. Their inevitable shifts and turns will fill this space with possibility.

My hope for this space is that it can also stand for:

Paying attention to what doesn’t seem to fit.
Making room for something new.
Putting trust in artists – their imagination, their ideas, their work.
Giving young people real responsibility.
Celebrating our contemporaries, people who are alive in the world.

 So many of you in the room contribute to making our city what it is. Much of what the City remembers me for I had the opportunity to do when I was in my 20s. Perhaps every five years or so the space should be renamed for someone else who made a difference when they were young.

Finally, I hope this gallery can stand for the qualities of luck, serendipity, and openness to the unexpected. So much of what I value requires what Jane Jacobs called “drift,” a kind of work defined not by “practical utility,” but by play, curiosity, and aesthetic investigation – work that often falls in between.

2019 coda: Increasingly we live in a black and white, either/or, in or out world. Can we discover the value and beauty of grays, the possibility of and’s, the creativity and energy in between?


Knowing a little about a lot of things

I’m not a specialist.

Self-analyst that I am, I’ve known for years that I’m no specialist. Recently I ran across a crinkled, brown paper napkin where, perhaps five years ago, I’d scribbled a list of observations about this character trait. I’d probably forgotten to bring notepaper along to the coffee shop where I’d been sitting when the need came to jot the list down. After reflecting on the words for a moment, I probably just absent-mindedly tucked the napkin into whatever I’d brought along to read, and it took a while to resurface. The deciphered handwriting says that I…

Know a little about a lot of things.
Know a lot about how to live and move through the world knowing a little about a lot of things.
Know how to do a lot while knowing a little about a lot of things.
Know a lot about how to do a lot while knowing a little about a lot of things.

“Knowing a little about a lot of things” is not something that shines on a professional resume or in a job interview. But it seems a fine, even useful way to live, love, and work. And I’ve managed to get a lot done even without a specialty.

An experience as a pre-teen gave me an image I continue to value. When I was about twelve, a difficult day at school had left me feeling rejected and desperately insecure. It might have been the day I was called a “leech” by girlfriends and banished from the lunch table. When I got home, I went out behind our house and took my anger and frustration out by knocking rocks into the valley with my baseball bat.

As the high emotion gradually seeped away, I wondered how I could go on, how I could get past the bad feeling I had. I got help from my love of geometric forms – a love probably fostered by my physicist father – and imagined two choices. I could think of myself as an upside-down pyramid with everything balanced on one point, meaning that if I were knocked off that point (as I’d felt that day), the whole structure would come tumbling down. Or, I could think of myself as a complicated polyhedron with many points, meaning that if the point I balanced on was disturbed, the structure would turn only slightly to another point and I would only fall a little. I couldn’t be completely knocked down.

The mental picture of having many facets and many points of balance remains a valuable piece of my self-image. It affects my approach to emotional challenges and it gives me a boost when I feel insecure about my lack of a “specialty.” All those facets and points on the polyhedron in my mind help me remember the value of knowing many little things, rather than just one big thing. Getting work done this way means thinking and moving horizontally rather than vertically, learning and making connections broadly rather than specializing deeply, being able to move easily from one thing to the next.


Too much society?

Excerpt from an email response to David Mahler, December 5, 2009.

Yes, indeed, thanks. I am finding many ways to get walking into my life. I try to walk two to three miles a day, though it varies. I’ve had a personal tradition for the past four or five years of circumambulating Lake Union on Thanksgiving Day before the big meal. My aim is to stay as close to the water as possible. It’s a continuing treat. The weather definitely plays a role, and the terrain and landscape change a lot on the way around. Surprising phenomena and characters always show up. One year I passed the same couple twice and we realized we were each doing the same thing. We said, “See you next year!” though we haven’t.

This year I took a shortcut and ran into a wild-looking fellow on a little road that ran along a run-down complex of wooden buildings where I suspect he lived. As he chased pigeons away from the building, he muttered to me, “Too much society!” I smiled and scooted away, hoping I also wasn’t too much society. After I passed by, he shouted in my direction, “Hey!” I turned around and saw him give me a big thumbs-up, “Thanksgiving!”


Us and them

Once upon a time, we lived with convenient polarities – us and them, women and men, black and white, young and old, the in-group and the out-group. We now know better. We have so many ways to define gender, so many shades of human color, so many ways to be our many ages.

In truth, I move through the world inside many different groups, and outside many others, inside many varieties of “us” and outside many different “thems.” Sometimes us shifts and becomes them, or them transforms into us, or the boundaries become porous and I am neither or both at the same time.

In fact, my world is all mixed up and always shifting.

How is it that we’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by sharp divisions? We need our many small communities, but do they have to be at war with each other? How do we stop the warring without losing the community that we get from “us?”


Quiet in Port Townsend

In the Port Townsend home of friends during a self-made writing and thinking retreat.

Sitting alone trying to write, I’m distracted by the silence . . . though, in fact, it really isn’t “silent.”   When I hold still, I hear the inside of my head, and then the sound of the keyboard when I start writing. Whatever noise there is, I make myself.

It’s startling. I can’t stop listening. The refrigerator is off, no car is crunching down the gravel street. It’s 9:30 pm. The birds are silent.

Ah, now I hear the hum of a small plane, far off, fading quickly. The soft hum-buzz in my brain keeps going. I wonder if someone with better hearing would hear more. But there . . . the refrigerator seems to be slowly gearing up, just one small step up in volume at first. A couple of tiny creaks from the house, probably cooling down from the day. And now the fan of the heating system kicks in. (It wasn’t the refrigerator after all.) The temperature has dropped low enough to trip the thermostat. The sound of the fan rises, first slowly . . . now with more oomph.

The silence has vanished.


Notes

The polyhedron in “Knowing a little about a lot of things” is actually a dodecahedron-icosahedron compound and the beautiful image comes from Wolfram MathWorld. You can find the graphic and a description of it at: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Dodecahedron-IcosahedronCompound.html.

The photo in “In between” was taken in 2019 of a plaque created in 2005 which includes an etched photo taken in 1978.