Dad’s day with Einstein

“Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it.”

When I was a kid, it seemed like my dad had to go out of town for work every other week. I remember trooping off with my mom and four younger brothers to the San Diego airport to see him off. We’d all stand with our noses to the chain link fence, facing the wind from the propellers as Dad’s plane took off. 

Other than knowing that he worked as a physicist who studied sound traveling under water and through the earth, I knew very little about the work that took him away so often. As kids we knew that Dad worked for the military in Washington D.C during the second world war, and we knew that throughout his career with the military he remained a civilian and a scientist. We also learned that he studied explosions (sometimes up close) and that he had something to do with “top secret” projects, including one, we found out later, to test an underwater nuclear explosion in the early 1950s. It’s curious to me now that, back then, I just accepted the secrecy surrounding his work and didn’t feel compelled to learn any more details about it. 

Instead, what I remember most about my dad the scientist was the time he spent with us answering our questions and describing how things worked – what the seismograph in the corner of the dining room did, how a polaroid camera worked, how molecules and atoms were like worlds within worlds, and what forces held them all together. He was our own “Mr. Wizard” at the dinner table.He loved the process of science – coming up with a theory, testing it, finding it doesn’t work, trying another, maybe another and another, and in time finding the one that’s true. And he got special joy in seeing that click of discovery in our faces when we understood whatever he was explaining at that moment.

Another thing we knew about our dad was that he’d met Albert Einstein. The proof we had was a photograph that I’ve carried in mind since I first saw it. My brother Karl, the one of us who took after Dad and became a physicist, recently tracked down and annotated a copy of the photo for me. Taken in 1931 at Caltech where Dad got his doctorate and where Einstein was an occasional visiting professor, the picture shows a large group of faculty and grad students surrounding Einstein, the unmistakable focus of attention in the center of the front row. Also unmistakable to us was our dad in the third row right behind Einstein.

Caltech Department of Physics Faculty and Graduate Students with Einstein as a guest, October 1931

In 1959, the year I started high school, Dad accepted a position as chair of the Physics department of the then-new Harvey Mudd College. He told me he could no longer work under conditions where top military brass had the final word over technical work, regardless of their scientific knowledge. He stayed with the college until he retired in 1971 and remained active as emeritus professor until he died in 1986.

Recently, another brother, Ted, gave me a transcript of a long interview with Dad. Ted and his wife Vicki are the unofficial historians for our family. Part of a larger project titled, “Harvey Mudd College Oral History Project on the Atomic Age,” the interview was conducted in 1975 by Harvey Mudd and the Claremont Graduate School.2

At the first opportunity, I read all 167 pages of the interview. Not only did I learn more about Dad’s once “top secret” past – hinted at on the first page with a notice, “This manuscript is authorized as ‘open’” – I discovered there was more to the story of Dad and Einstein than just the gathering at Caltech.

Two-thirds of the way into the manuscript, the interviewer asked, “Al, you said you had an additional anecdote to tell about Einstein and the explosion work you had done earlier.” Dad described a time he and a colleague were sent to visit Einstein in his office at Princeton. They spent the better part of the day with him, Dad said. “We met him in the morning, had lunch with him, spent two or three hours in the afternoon, then went back to Washington.”

The interviewer asked, “How was he to converse with?”

Oh, very pleasant. Very easy, no problems. He was a remarkable person. Very retiring. To meet him on the street or talk with him, you wouldn’t have thought of him as someone with the mental power of an Einstein. He was gregarious and very much concerned with social problems, religious problems. He was really a very deeply religious person…sincerely in communication with his creator.

The interviewer then asked, “Why were you sent to meet with Einstein?”

The people at the David Taylor Model Basin [site of much of Dad’s explosion research] brought to my attention the fact that the Bureau of Ships had asked Dr. Einstein to develop a theory of ship damage resulting from non-contact underwater explosions. One of the basic principles that he used to develop his theory was the assumption that steel, under the sudden impact of a shock wave, would break in brittle fracture. Just the way glass breaks.

Now I had some data that indicated this was not strictly true. So the Bureau of Ships asked Dr. Hartmann and me to go out to Princeton and interview Dr. Einstein and give him the information we had.

So we made the trip on the 2nd of August, 1943. This was a very hot day and Einstein greeted us very pleasantly in his office, but he looked awfully hot. If you are familiar with Dr. Einstein’s pictures, there is a halo of white hair around his head, and on this particular day there was no halo. The hair was sticky with sweat and curling around his ears and around the back of his neck. He looked like a very hot and uncomfortable person.

He proceeded to tell us about his theory, and he had worked it out on a blackboard which was right behind his desk. Then, after showing it to us, he asked what the information was that we had. We had brought along some photographs of a bomb in the process of detonation. These were photographs taken at very high speed with a movie camera, and the first two or three frames showed the bomb case expanding like a rubber balloon. Now this is anything but brittle fracture.

Dr. Einstein took one look at that set of photographs and turned around and rubbed off his theory. [Laughter]  He said, “Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it. Now let’s see what we can do.” And in the process of the next five minutes, he worked out a completely new theory developing it right there on the blackboard, using the deformation of steel at first, followed by brittle fracture, which does occur.

I thought that this was one of the best examples that I have ever heard of the ability of a man, who is truly great, to say, “My theory is no good, I’ve got to start over again,” when someone brings up a fact that is contrary to the theory. Somehow, sure, Einstein is always accepted as a great man because he developed this theory and that. But to think of his ability to just scratch it, wipe the slate clean, and start over again is something that you rarely have an opportunity to see.

My brother Karl added a footnote to this story. Apparently, when Dad went to Princeton that day, he took a copy of Einstein’s textbook. After showing that Einstein’s theory was wrong, Dad asked him to sign the book, as if to honor true greatness, “See, your theory is wrong. Can I have your autograph?” The textbook is on Karl’s bookshelf.

It’s not just scientists who need the ability to say, ”Oops, I’d better scratch out that idea and try again.” Can we non-scientists cultivate a similar capacity? Are we willing to shift our views given new circumstances and insights that cast doubt on our theories? The proof of error in our social, economic, and political ideas is seldom as clear-cut as a photograph demonstrating that steel can expand like a balloon. But the ability to acknowledge our errors or misconceptions and make adjustments in our social and political ideas is just as crucial as is that ability in our scientific theories.

I constantly have to fight a stubborn streak in myself that wants to be right, even when I should probably question it. And that stubbornness is not the way I like to see myself. I want to be open to hearing different, even contradictory information and being flexible enough to revise my ideas and my action. Perhaps I need to cultivate my dad’s sense of delight at the click of discovery – even if the discovery is that I’m wrong – and remember Einstein’s words: “Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it. Now, let’s see what we can do.”

“Now let’s see what we can do.”

Notes

  1. Watch Mr. Wizard was a TV program for children demonstrating the science behind ordinary things (1951–1965). 

  2. The oral history interview was recorded on three different days. This excerpt begins on page 112 of the manuscript, at the beginning of the third day, March 14, 1975. The interviewers were Enid H. Douglass, director Oral History Program, Claremont Graduate School, and John B. Rae, Professor of history, emeritus, Harvey Mudd College of Engineering.

Alice, Alzheimer’s, and special powers

“Alice Anne”

I was named after my two grandmothers, Alice Ross Crawford and Anne Bosworth Focke. My parents liked the sound of Alice Anne much better than Anne Alice, but Alice lived with us for most of my life through high school and having two Alices in the house would be confusing. Whenever my parents felt I needed a strong talking-to, they called out both names. And these were almost the only times I heard them together. So, except as warning or reprimand, I was Anne.

I developed strong attachments to literary and historical figures with each of these names, girls who led colorful, exciting lives. I was called Annie as a kid, and two Annies especially fascinated and influenced me. One was Annie Oakley, a famous sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and featured in Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which I heard as a girl at San Diego’s Starlight Opera. (Recalling this, Annie’s song, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” is now stuck in my head.) A second seminal Annie was Little Orphan Annie of the long-standing comic strip, who in the background had a protector, Daddy Warbucks, and who foiled evildoers by herself with her dog Sandy.

The most influential of my heroines, though, was probably Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She never seemed afraid and instead was simply curious. She followed the White Rabbit in a hurry and fell down a rabbit hole. She landed in a strange and magical place where she got larger and smaller, swam in a pool of tears, shook hands with a dodo bird, watched Father William balance an eel on his nose, conversed with a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a large mushroom, watched the smiling Cheshire Cat in a tree disappear, had tea with the Mad Hatter and Hare, tried to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog, and had to testify before the court of the fearsome Queen of Hearts.

I went on those adventures with her while my dad read the stories aloud. Her story and Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations provided beginning points for imaginations of my own Although Tenniel’s drawings are the source for my strongest visual memories of the story, I’m sure the characters in Walt Disney’s movie have a role in my memories as well.

Alice, Annie, and Annie taught me the special powers of imagination, believing in myself, and the thrill and adventure of catching evildoers.

My grandmother Alice died after I left for college. From my youngest brother Ross’s brief descriptions of her last years, I now assume she died with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Years later, my mother did also. Looking back on it all now, I’m saddened by how distant I was from gran’s death and in many respects from mom’s death as well. She died in 1997. My brothers Frank and Ross – especially Ross – were the true caretakers of my mom in her last years. They’ve become bright stars for me as I remember their caregiving role.

The few times I was with mom by myself toward the end of her life, I remember wondering how to enter her world of dementia. I felt I had to be carefully present-tense, consider things that were right in front of us, that we could see and touch, not things that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow. Being unable to remember yesterday or think about tomorrow made her feel bad or angry and just increased her confusion. I didn’t understand the disease well enough to know that if we’d jumped much further back in time, we might have opened up older, more enjoyable memories for her and for us both.

Perhaps influenced by my Alice-in-Wonderland past, I’ve always found it easy to jump beyond present circumstances, imagining ways of being that might be but aren’t yet. I wondered how I could see my mom’s and her mom’s dementia – perhaps my own in the future – as interesting or useful, or simply as another acceptable way of being. I thought about historical tales of the wise fool, the wisdom of the village idiot, the ancient oracles, or the mystic seer.

Today dementia is an evildoer. At a 2010 symposium of designers and developers of senior housing, a speaker referred to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as the biggest fear of aging boomers, a fear he urged his colleagues to acknowledge.1

What are we losing by not including in our lives – personally and societally – relationships with and insights from people who seem to exist in other realities? Are we losing their special powers in our super-rational world? How do we understand the edges dividing dementia and wisdom?

A year or two ago, I discovered a book by Dana Walrath, Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass.2

In Aliceheimer’s, Walrath, a medical anthropologist, graphic artist, and writer, tells the story of her mother Alice’s journey with Alzheimer’s, especially during the two years when Alice lived with Dana and her husband in their Vermont home. In the introduction, Walrath says that the biomedical story of dementia “is in desperate need of revision.”

The dominant narrative is a horror story. People with Alzheimer’s are perceived as zombies, bodies without minds, waiting for valiant researchers to find a cure. For Alice and me, the story was different. Alzheimer’s was a time of healing and magic. Of course, there is loss with dementia, but what matters is how we approach our losses and our gains. Reframing dementia as a different way of being, as a window into another reality, lets people living in that state be our teachers – useful, true humans who contribute to our collective good, instead of scary zombies.

Wow, I thought. I’ve been waiting for this. Perhaps this begins to show how to slay the evildoer.

Alice in Wonderland seems to be as important to Walrath as it was to me. She uses Lewis Carroll’s book as an emotional frame for her book. “I found the story’s voice the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, using the page fragments to make her bathrobe, Alice’s favorite garment.” Alice falls slowly down the rabbit hole of her memory loss and disappears gradually like the Cheshire Cat.

Walrath’s book is part of the Graphic Medicine series.3 She chose the graphic narrative form in the belief that it could reach someone with dementia. She writes, “Graphic storytelling captures the complexity of life and death, of sickness and health. Going back and forth between the subconscious and conscious, between the visual and the verbal, lets us tap into our collective memory, an essential element of storytelling.” It allows us to “better understand those who are hurting, to feel their stories, and redraw and renegotiate social boundaries.” She made her Alice drawings in part “to process my own grief after placing my mother in an Alzheimer’s residence…. But I was also drawing to remember the magic and laughter of that time.”

With a community of help that included pirates, good neighbors, a cast of characters from space-time travel, and my dead father hovering in the branches of the maple trees that surround our Vermont farmhouse, Aliceheimer’s let us write our own story daily – a story that, in turn, helps rewrite the dominant narrative of aging.

Most of the book alternates between graphic and written pages, each two-page spread telling of a day in Alice and Dana’s world.

“Dana, am I going crazy? You would tell me if I had lost my marbles, wouldn’t you?”

I’ve heard these questions many times. Repetition. Anyone who lives with Alzheimer’s knows from repetition. As her rudder, I always supplied Alice with the same steady answers. “No, you’re not crazy. You have Alzheimer’s disease so you can’t remember what just happened.”

“Oh. I forgot. What a lousy thing to have.”

One story, early in the book, tells of Alice losing her home. The accompanying drawings count Dana’s days with Alice. “Alice is disappearing. Soon there will be none.”

Often the “internal governor” of people with Alzheimer’s also disappears; they say exactly what’s on their mind. This disappearance lets new things appear. Alice found parts of herself that she had kept hidden, from her children anyway. She wished out loud that she had gone to medical school instead of becoming a biology teacher. Her years of pushing me in this direction and away from creative work made sense at last.”

One of the reasons Walrath moved Alice into her home was “our unfinished business of finding a good close.” They had never been close. In gentle, surprisingly direct ways, they found resolution, “at last.”  After one quiet but deeply felt exchange of apology and forgiveness, Walrath writes, “I knew that if I wanted it, Alzheimer’s would let us have this conversation every single day.”

Alice remembers all the songs from The Music Man and countless others from her youth. The present is more elusive. These days she doesn’t remember that she has Alzheimer’s. But she used to. And she always sings.

One May morning, she stood by my dining room windows, looking out over the rolling field, and she sang this bit from Babes in Arms:

It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore.
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when.

She stopped and she smiled and said, “That should be the Alzheimer’s theme song.”

Aliceheimer’s.

As a medical anthropologist, Walrath’s broad, cultural and historical understanding of sickness and health reaches beyond the medical system that so dominates the understanding of health in the U.S. today. She writes in her introduction:

Biomedicine locates sickness in a specific place in an individual body: a headache, a stomachache, a torn knee, lung cancer. Medical anthropologists instead locate sickness and health in three interconnected bodies: the political, the social, and the physical.4  The prevailing political economy impacts the distribution of sickness and health in a society and the means available to heal those who are sick. …The social body constructs the meanings and experiences surrounding certain physical states.

Some cultures locate sickness not in individuals but instead in families or communities. As any caregiver knows, we live the sickness too. And while biomedicine can cure diseases, it flounders with permanent hurts, troubles of the mind, states present from birth or that are incurable or progressive. In biomedicine, these states are stigmatized and feared. We medical anthropologists have a term for this: social death.

The role of “social bodies” – that is, communities – in the health of individuals is being discovered and described more and more often. Alzheimer’s is one kind of “social death,” and British writer George Monbiot identifies another. Loneliness and isolation constitute a “disease of epidemic scale today,” he writes in Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis.5 “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.” Monbiot is constantly on the lookout for ways to combat this disease. He begins a recent column for The Guardian, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” this way: “It could, if the results stand up, be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades. It could transform treatment regimes, save lives, and save health services a fortune. Is it a drug? A device? A surgical procedure? No, it’s a new-fangled intervention called community, as results from a trial in the Somerset town of Frome [England] show.6

Although Monbiot warned that the findings are based on what he termed “provisional data” – that is, not yet published by the academic press – he also wrote that “this shouldn’t stop us feeling a shiver of excitement about the implications.” Results of the Compassionate Frome project, begun five years ago, appears to show that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls dramatically. Sometimes the help took the form of handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs, lunch clubs, exercise groups, or writing workshops. The point was, he said, “to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialize, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.”

When [Alice] was certain that her own mother, who died in 1954, had just been sitting on the sofa in the living room and talking with her, she would say, “You see her, don’t you?” I’d say, “I can’t see her, but I’m sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can’t.” For her that was enough.

 

What Walrath offered her mother was a way to break the familiar cycle of Alzheimer’s misery. And it’s telling, I think, that Dana and Alice’s “wonderland” – the community they made together – offered gifts to them both.

Notes

1  Robert Kramer, founder and president, National Investment Center for the Senior Housing and Care Industry, speaking at the Senior Housing Design and Development Symposium at the University of Maryland, 2010.

2  Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass, Dana Walrath, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

3  Graphic Medicine book series, from the Pennsylvania State University Press. “Books in the series are curated by an editorial collective with scholarly, creative, and clinical expertise, and attest to a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed ‘medical’.”

4  From Walrath’s introduction: For more on this see Nancy Scheper-Hughes and M. Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1 (March 1987): 6-41.

5  George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, Verso Books, 2017.

6  George Monbiot, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” The Guardian, February 21, 2018.

 


It used to take five fingers

For the last 67 years it has taken all the fingers on one hand to count my brothers. From the time I was five, I could run through their names. Fred, Ted, Frank, Karl, Ross – in order, in a flash.

I’m at a loss for how to count them now.

My oldest brother Fred – Alfred Bosworth Focke, Jr. – died on Saturday, November 25, 2017. He died peacefully, at home, with his wife Kay and daughter Julie by his side. I’m grateful it was, as far as anyone could tell, gentle and pain free. Julie told me afterward, “It was as though he quietly faded and then was gone.” He was 82.

Yet even as I absorb the news, the self underneath the sadness knows I still have five brothers. Four I can see and touch and talk with, but the fifth remains, in memory making a full hand.

 


Home – a confabulation

A “confabulation” provided one beginning point in a two-decade-long inquiry into what kind of space I want as a home and what relationship I’d like it to have with other people and the larger world.

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Confabulate: to talk informally; chat. [Latin confabulari: com-together + fabula, story, conversation]; informal, confab.

In June 1997 a group of friends received an invitation to a confab, a chance to spend up to a week together in a beautiful natural location an hour and a half outside the city to consider “Home: Arrangements for living and aging.”

The invitation included this about the theme:

Invite photo crop 2

The confab was a chance not only to be part of discussions that could spin out from these ideas about home but also to simply try out our individual ideas by living them, together, in a cluster of small houses. Everyone invited was welcome to stay for all or some of the time to . . .

talk together (the “confab” part)
have time for yourself
share a few meals
sing or play or hike or . . .

Five cabins at Fort Worden State Park served as our home base. Located on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula on a high bluff overlooking Puget Sound, the park covers 434 acres with over two miles of saltwater shoreline. Originally designed as a military base in the early 1900s, it never saw active fire, and many of its historic buildings and battlements remain. In the early 1970s, it became a state park and a home for Centrum, a center for arts and education.

Fort Worden map1 cropWe occupied five of seven buildings that are collectively called, for reasons still mysterious to me, the “Suds” houses. Over the course of the week 21 people participated, including four children of participants. A few of us were able to stay the entire time, others were there for as many days as they could manage. I was given use of the houses as part of a deal I made with Centrum in exchange for services I’d provided in planning and reshaping their artist residency program in the Suds.Fort Worden, suds map crop,jpg

A focused time for conversation was scheduled each day, with many of us taking turns identifying talking points. Our discussion ranged widely: the relationship between the place where you grew up and the place you make for yourself later in life; balancing time alone and time with others; asking ourselves who we want to live with; distinctions between private and public space, or maybe better put, between private, public, and social or shared space. For some, work is an important part of “home,” as it is in artists’ live/work spaces. Would common spaces be too distracting for concentration? For some “a shared space should begin with a stove!” but others felt 50 years of experience would make sharing a kitchen really difficult. We need new language – “commune” doesn’t work; perhaps proximity rather than communal better describes the aim.

Photo of suds houses 1 (fm above) crop

We considered city/country and urban/rural preferences and getting beyond the stereotypes; the importance of wildness; relationships between home and landscapes; the desire for a long view and for close-up views and a sense of enclosure.

Ideas about “a place to age and keep on living” from the invitation wove in and out as a theme (and we were 20 years younger then!): the anxiety about how we’d sustain our lives after “retirement;” our dissatisfaction with the isolation of today’s retirement communities; our role as the advance guard of the baby boom; the desire not to segregate ourselves according to our age; the value and importance of connections with the “larger world;” the importance of a place being “kid friendly” as well as questions about how a single person would fit in a multi-generational setting. We heard both of a desire not to be a burden to others as we age and also of the joy generated by caring for an older friend.

We described individual fantasies about what this might look like: a lodge; a hotel as a place that’s inviting not just to its residents but to outsiders; spas, resorts, and other escapes; sustainable eco-resorts; Buddhist retreats; taking over a whole city block that faces outward on the street fronts and inward into more private central spaces; W.S. Merwin’s description of a region in southern France.

Photo of suds house 260

Specific examples and stories added to our ability to imagine the possibilities: the Western Front in Vancouver, BC and its rural extension, Babyland; Chevy Chase on Discovery Bay; the Linger Longer Lodge in Quilcene; the Mountaineers’ lodges; Project Row Houses in Houston; and examples from co-housing projects and Seattle’s Anhalt apartments to clusters of homes built of a shipping containers.

Over the course of the week we also shared at least one meal together each day. Notes from the week refer to: “a wonderful dinner of David’s fish soup,” “a special meal of Laura’s cabbage rolls,” “Lynn and Rita’s salmon dinner,” “pasta from Jim,” “soup and sweet potatoes from Marcie,” “Norie’s pasta and Anne’s roasted vegetables,” and pizza from a Port Townsend cafe. In addition to solitary walks, time for reading, and pick-up games on the lawn, shared experiences punctuated our time: “a walk on the beach and sitting around a bonfire,” “Hillela’s banged up knee,” “Tomo playing nearby on the beach as it got dark,” “a sunny morning at low tide and a rainy afternoon visiting Port Townsend’s Secret Gardens.”

By the end of the week it felt as though we’d only just begun. We didn’t reach a conclusion about a specific future direction and didn’t resolve the many, often contrasting thoughts and stories. The week’s experience, however, did spawn more confabs that included more people and continued for four years until mid 2001. During this time, interest in the idea spread, and my mailing list for notes from the confabs grew and stretched across the country.

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That first confab marked the beginning of a conscious exploration of the meaning of “home” – the particular configuration of physical, social, emotional, and creative space that altogether means home for me and for others. Deep in my interior somewhere, home has always been both a private and a social place, shaped as I was by the first home I knew.


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A jumble and a hideout – home

For nearly two decades now I’ve been imagining, usually in conjunction with other people, where I want to live, in what relationship to others and to a larger world, and in what kind of space. Even as part of a couple, the atomized way so many of us live, scattered in small units, wasn’t satisfying. A few years ago, I decided that one way to understand what I long for was to look back at my first experience of home.


A jumble and a hideout – home

My mom and dad must have known they’d have a large family when they bought the two-story white house at the top of a dirt road in the hills above Pacific Beach near San Diego. They’d been married about a year and moved in with two children, a ten-year-old son from Dad’s first marriage and me, just six weeks old. Four more sons arrived over the next five years.

An unfocused 2016 image of where I spent my earliest years
An unfocused 2016 image of where I spent my earliest years

When I visited as an adult, not only was it on a paved road surrounded by subdivisions, but the house seemed to have shrunk in size. For my first thirteen years, though, it was a large, expansive place. In addition to the main house, a little cottage was tucked at one end of the drive, in the shade behind a huge pepper tree and under a tall fat palm. For a while it was occupied by Richard, a mute man with a hunchback, who, though certainly gentle, was for me at five or six just a little scary in his mysteriousness. My mom’s mother, a little scary in her own way, moved into the cottage after Richard, when Mom’s health no longer allowed her to manage all the work required by such a houseful of children.

The house with its surrounding yard was always full of people. Five cousins, an uncle, and two aunts lived nearby. When my aunt Petie died, three of the cousins moved in with us for a time. What with brothers, cousins, grown-ups, and neighborhood kids, the house was a gathering place, especially when Gran’s cookies came out of the oven.

The property Mom and Dad purchased included eight acres, most of it a sagebrush-filled valley behind the house. Dirt roads were the norm in the neighborhood. In addition to a few homes, there were flower farms, cactus ranches where hybrid varieties were bred, and, in the valley behind, a chicken ranch, dairy farm, and our fairly wild section, full of caster bean plants, eucalyptus, and some sort of wild greens that Gran often boiled for supper. Both our immediate yard and the valley were perfect for exploring, building forts and secret living rooms, and creating fantasy worlds.

My older brother took cars apart in the driveway turn-around. It seemed the younger boys regularly got into little fights that I, a little older and, of course, “wiser,” felt compelled to try to break up fearing they’d really hurt themselves. My mom’s sister Helen may have died there; a photo of her standing in the front doorway is the source of the only memory I have of a visit she made when I was quite young. Death wasn’t talked about much.

For all the activity of the place and all the people living there, as the only girl I always had a room of my own, tiny but my own. At the end of the upstairs hall that led to my room, there was even a small bathroom, far enough away that almost no one else used it much. The little pink corner room, just big enough for my bed and a built-in closet and set of drawers, had two windows that let me look out toward the ocean. I may not actually have been able to see the ocean but the long perspective allowed me to dream and imagine I could see it and much more.

Living in that jumble of a place, with people of many ages coming and going, combined with having in easy reach a quiet place to get away and be alone probably set a pattern I look for still. Perhaps, like the modeling clay we used in elementary school, the kind that never really hardens but gets a little stiffer over time, we all get molded and shaped in our early lives and, even though we’re constantly reshaped by new experiences, some memory of earlier forms remains in the clay.

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The image here, appropriately fuzzy like memory, comes from online maps and only dimly reflects a few physical attributes of my actual first home. The human, social, and emotional aspects of the home have to be added to this photo through imagination.


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Breaks

In addition to being a prompt for new writing, another way I’ve imagined using this site is to create a kind of anthology – or maybe it’s an archive – of pieces I’ve written over the years.

With this in mind, here’s a piece I wrote two and a half years ago to let friends and family know about a move I was making.

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Breaks

July 31, 2013

Some things benefit from shock.
                      – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In late spring this year I became aware that a mostly unspecified impatience and feeling of antsy-ness or anxiety ran just under the surface of my day-to-day life. I could make a list of specifics, but the feelings touched on or grew from many sources – financial, social, intellectual, sense of purpose and worth in the world.

“I think I need a good crisis,” I told Ted on one of our walk & talks in May. He ran through various options for the crisis I could have – a major health crisis, dramatic accident, financial crash of some sort – and quickly crossed them all off the list as too messy, or painful, or simply unacceptable. Sitting at my dining table a few days later, Edie commented that my home feels really settled. “Right,” I said, “too settled,” thinking more broadly than just the physical place where I live. “I need to shake it up.”

Antifragile

When moving out of my apartment after nearly 25 years became a clear option, I was at first amazed at how easily it presented itself. Then I realized it was preceded by many small signs of the value of a break in the pattern of my life: a talk at Town Hall by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on his concept of anti-fragile – “Some things benefit from shock, they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors;” a determination in January by my writing group partner Sarah and me that 2013 would be a year of “clearing out;” Mary Ann’s observation that this phase of life is all about “editing;” finding thickly-crusted dust on protective pillow cases under the bed when preparing for an overnight visit by out-of-town friends; a comment from Cathryn, on hearing my complaint that it’s really hard to actually start clearing things out, “You won’t do it until you have to move;” visiting Anne and seeing how completely delighted she is with her new, much smaller home. And then there are the first lines of the piece I made for Scott’s Chamber Music exhibition at the Frye, “Get up, get up!/Let’s get going.”

Because of the age I am now, this editing is often called “downsizing,” which seems disheartening or depressing, a little too close to “downer.” I’d rather think of it as lightening up, gaining flexibility, maybe something closer to the “liberation” that author Dr. Gene Cohen attributed to this particular phase of life, a break when things open up, as in breakthrough. Actually, I’ve started referring to my pending move as “repotting.” Pull the plant out. Shake the dirt off. Trim the roots back to encourage new growth. And replant in new soil. Repotting may allow for new opportunities to engage with immediate friends and neighbors, civic affairs, the world of ideas, to be part of re-imagining a new role for older community members.

All this sounds good – positive, upbeat – and is definitely what I feel much of the time. But it’s also daunting and scary. It would be so easy not to. Or to say, golly, next year would be a whole lot easier. When I imagine not being in this apartment, I get wistful … the warm afternoon sun shining low through the summer foliage on my deck or the wonderful times I’ve had here with gatherings of friends. But too many things say now is the time. The next couple of months will be crucial.

Warm afternoon sun at 504

Then, about a week after returning from a lovely weeklong retreat in San Francisco where I cemented the decision for myself, I broke my leg.

Actually the orthopedist’s report called the break a “spiral fracture of the right fibula.” On a very pleasant Monday evening, Edie and I had headed out on the grassy terraced slopes by the Ballard Locks, picnic makings in hand. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention to just how steep the slopes were. I slipped, things went flying, and my ankle did things it simply wasn’t meant to do. We didn’t realize anything was broken because I was able to hobble out. Along with picnic supper in my living room, I learned about RICE – rest, ice, compression, and elevation – all the right things to do for a serious sprain.

Even so, after a sleepless night, I called the doctor. My upstairs neighbor Douglas had seen me hopping around on one leg, and when he learned I’d just made a doctor’s appointment, he (now saintly in my mind) said, “I bet you need a ride!” He proceeded to ferry me around from one doctor to the next, patiently sitting in waiting rooms, until he brought me home with my new pair of crutches and bright red cast. “Red goes with everything,” I’d told cast maker Michelle.

With a cast and crutches, everything takes longer. I learned new ways to do familiar things. Like how on crutches to get a cup of coffee from stove to table, water the plants, and keep a cast dry in the shower with a plastic bag and rubber bands. Carolyn gave me tips on going up and down stairs. I practiced on the eight steps from my building lobby to mail boxes before tackling stairs from the sidewalk to the front door of a friend’s home for a dinner party. Getting help from friends has been a big part of the solution. Gwen took me to get my toes repainted so they could feel happy when propped up, by doctor’s orders, in the middle of the room. Nice, but they longed to head out the door and walk somewhere, anywhere, fast!

New do for toes, for blog

little dance 1 little dance 2 little dance 3

Given current research on the brain, I’m sure all this is creating new neurons. My leg may be broken but my brain is rejuvenating. I also figure the whole thing may just be fate’s gift of lessons for how to slow down and learn to ask for help. Both are hard to do.

Although this break tested my conviction to make the big break in where I live, plans for my move are gaining momentum. With help from family and friends, I’ll clear most of my stuff out of Harbour Heights by the end of August, pack things away in storage, and then live in a temporary home and work in a temporary office for a few months. Apparently, in today’s market it will be easier to sell than to buy. This schedule lets me do one thing at a time and may allow me to have a little patience as I look for the right place to plant myself next. Unless I’m really surprised, this won’t be my last move. It isn’t the one I and others have imagined, but it could certainly make another move easier.

In and around all the necessary tasks of packing and moving, selling and buying, keeping my work-for-pay going, and maintaining some sort of connection with friends, I’ll be pondering the meaning of breaks and shifts, repotting and liberation, editing back and imagining forward. For me, both conversation and writing change the ideas I start with and make them more real. I’ll be looking for chances to do both. Richard recently told me that decades ago I referred to most of the things I did, including my artwork, as “projects.” The word has always carried positive meanings for me. Some things don’t change much I guess. All this is definitely a project.

Everything becomes a project


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