Friday, February 20, 2009


i gave this talk at the Harvard Memorial Church today at my fathers funeral. It was well received.

I disagree with people for a living. My father was one of the most agreeable people you ever met. And yet it was from him that I learned, if you wanted to be in the conversation, you need to listen deeply and to be able to reflect back what someone else truly believes.

I break the law as part of my work. My father was the most law-abiding man I ever met. And it was from him I learned that you need to have an unwavering moral compass, so that whoever meets you knows what you believe in.

My father built highly functional schools and elegant houses. I stop the construction of inherently dangerous and unnecessary nuclear reactors. It is from him I learned that my role is to serve in the building of a better world.

My father’s father was a large man named “Tiny”. He died when my father was a boy and I believe this helped make my father a careful and cautious man. I was fortunate to have a dedicated and supportive father for 5 decades and I am convinced this security helped make me comfortable taking chances.

When I get up in the morning and look in the mirror before days which tend to be busy and long, as my fathers were, I sometimes see the mirror image of the man, who despite being different, was one of my most important teachers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

a watch and a ring

i visited my family of origin to go to the burial of my father. While i was there, my mother was excited about me taking a number of things which belonged to my father which were useful to me. His shoes fit, i took a cashmere sweater and a couple of nice jackets.

i also took a watch of his and started to wear it. One of the differences between me and most of the folx in my college graduating class is that for the last 30 years or so, i have not worn a watch. i mostly consider it an oppressive symbol and device. for the past half dozen years or so, i have used my cell phone to cheat and figure out what time it was when i needed to know. Now i have given myself permission to do something different. i wear it in part to think of him and in part to be a bit more organized, something i am thinking a lot about as i head towards a likely jail sentence of 15 days which will be wasted time if i am not more organized than i generally am.

8 years ago my dear friend and spiritual brother Modok convinced me to get a ring. i dont wear jewelry and it was something of a big deal for me, but he sold me on the idea that i was wearing it for Willow, who we were not even sure would exist at that time. When i tried to counter that we had not agreed to have a child yet, Modok (always intellectually quick on his feet) said "if you decide not to have the kid, you can make a small wooden boat, put the ring on it and send it down the river - thus ritualistically letting go of the idea of having a child." When i remained skeptical, he bought it for me and gave it to me.

It is one of these very common "Oh manny padmay ohm" rings, which i think has Sandskit text on it. I have gotten similar ones for Sky and Hawina and Joy and Anissa. But i have kept this one for these years, thinking that i will give it to Willow when he leaves home (also Modok's clever idea). yesterday i lost the ring.

i lost it in the best possible way. Willow and i were coming back from town at Twin Oaks and i wanted to carry him to MorningStar where he was going to hang out with Tom and Jonah until his next primary. Carrying him requires locking my hands together under him and supporting his weight, it also means loosing my feeling slightly in my fingers. When i checked for my ring, which i absently do with some regularity, ti was gone. Willow and i walked back along the path to try and find it, searching caefully. But to no avail. It might turn up, lost things often do at my commune and people dont steal stuff like this.

And it seems strangely symbolic that this ring of my son should disappear from my left hand when the watch of my fathers now dons that hand.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bye dad

The way my dad used to tell the story was he was being interviewed for the job to design the Cornell Campus Book Store and the interviewer asked, "How do you plan to make the architecture of this building fit in with the architecture of the various different styles of the buildings around it?"

The answer which he had not thought of until that moment was
"Put it underground"

He says the answer got him the job, the building is underground and as the picture above shows, it almost vanishes.

But my dad was not an impulsive guy, generally. His dad (the dean of Cornell's college of Agriculture) died when my dad was a young adolescent and this made his life very difficult. And so my father was extremely risk averse. Interestingly, the security and stability that this created in his family life generated two highly risk seeking sons. My brother the rock star and myself.

And i oversimplify, for were he completely risk averse, he would have never started his own company.

i learned a lot of things from my father. Somethings, like my relationship to risk or my views on polyamory or anarchism came from opposing what he believed. We had our disagreements, but he was graceful and for the most part accepting of our differences. This is an area where i am still trying to learn from his model.

He was a highly principled man. He was offered a bribe by a contractor that would have been nearly impossible to trace at a time when he and his company really needed the money. Here he never hesitated. He showed the guy the door and never worked with him again.

He would not go out to lunch with his secretary alone. "Not because anything might happen." he explained to me, "but because someone might think something was happening." This type of caution and concern for the opinions of others, did not turn out to be genetically transmittable.

He did teach me to be good to my word, to look for elegant solutions and to identify myself with my work.

And in this last thing we lost each other a bit, work as identity. We were not especially close and i did some things i regret in years past which increased our distance.

In the mid 80s, at the height of my personal radicalization, the market for schools (which is what his firm was famous for) collapsed. Under his guidance his office started seeking other kinds of design work. My dad took pride in showing me around his office and point out all the different project they were involved in.

We made it to one set of drawings and i read the client name "Electronic Warfare Incorporated". When i asked him about it, he said they were in a competition to design their headquarters building.

I said " you should not do this job. These people are simulating the end of the world. And through their work we are in greater risk of it coming to pass."

My father was surprised by my comment and replied "if we don't do this work, someone else will."

"If they asked you to build concentration camps, would you do it because someone else would if you did not?" i challenged. My father was deeply offended and our relationship frayed.

A dozen years later, after i had moved back from eastern Europe and started living on the commune, i went to work with my father for a summer in his offices in Boston, with the hope of bridge building to him. We commuted to work together every day and we chatted and i tried several times to get inside the man who was responsible for my birth. But i failed, not completely, but mostly. He was not emotionally accessible to me, perhaps i had burned the bridges, or perhaps he did not really know how to meet me in this place.

He did love what he did and if awards and public praise are any measure, he had a gift for it. He, unlike me, was modest. He was a good liberal and supported fairness in the system. And he believed in the system.

When i bough Howard Zinn's A Peoples History of the United States, from a book store in Harvard Square, near his old offices he asked me what it was. "It is a radical history book", i replied. And he took offense. "There is no radical history, there is just history." We disagreed and one of the most difficult lessons he taught me, was that for radicals it is exactly people like my parents who we need to get our messages to. And i was exactly the wrong person to try to get this message to him.

I was supposed to be something different than i became. My class background, my education was supposed to take me other places. My grandmother thought i would be a good governor, most of my college friends thought i would end up a lawyer, for a while it looked like i might be a software engineer. But despite the peculiar career path i embraced, i always felt supported and loved by both of my parents, even if they wished i would just grow up and be the CEO of something.

There was a nice moment we shared long after my father was forced to stop working because of the Parkinson's, which took his life last night. A speaking engagement on nukes was organized for me in my folks house and a bunch of neighbors came, one of whom was a Noble prize winner in chemstry. At the end of the talk he went to my father and said "I did not really expect to learn anything and i did not expect to be engaged and i was wrong on both counts." My father beamed with pride.

"I know i am a good architect" he told me in a rare immodest moment "it is someone else's job to decide if i am a great architect." i dont know enuf about architecture to make that call. But i do know this, your were a great dad.