Friday, August 15, 2014

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born into a life of privilege and high-society connections.  Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, founded the Dictionary of National Biography.  Her mother, Julia Stephen, was a model who posed for pre-Raphaelite painters and early photographers. Her great aunt was Julia Margaret Cameron, a noted photographer.

Woolf's childhood was influenced by Victorian literary society.  Visitors to her home included Henry James, William Thackeray and her Godfather, James Russell Lowell.  Woolf had two brothers, a sister and multiple step siblings.  Her parents taught her at home while her brothers were sent away to be formally educated.  Woolf later came to resent this.

Woolf determined at an early age to become a writer.  Her most vivid memories were of summer holidays in St. Ives in Cornwall.  These experiences later informed her novel To The Lighthouse.

In 1891, Woolf's mentally disturbed half-sister Laura was institutionalized. Four years later, when Woolf was 13, her mother died of rheumatic fever. Woolf said the loss was "the greatest disaster that could happen."  The family fell into deep mourning and Woolf had the first of many mental breakdowns.  Her father's grief was intense and all-consuming forcing Woolf's half-sister Stella to care for the family.  Stella died of peritonitis in 1897.

Woolf took study courses in Greek, Latin and history at the Ladies Department of Kings College in London.  This brought her into contact with early reformers of women's higher education known as the "Steamboat Ladies."  Her studies were interrupted in 1904 when her father died of stomach cancer.  Woolf experienced a second mental breakdown during which she attempted to commit suicide by jumping out a window.  She was briefly institutionalized at Burley House, "a nursing home for women with nervous disorder."

Woolf's sisters sold the family house and bought a house in the hip Bloomsbury neighborhood of London.  Woolf came to know the writers and intellectuals who formed the Bloomsbury Group.  They included E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and Woolf's future husband Leonard Wolff.  The group deeply influenced literature, art and economics and held modern attitudes toward feminism and sexuality.

Woolf began her writing career in 1905 at the age of 23 by contributing to the Times Literary Supplement.  A year later, her favorite brother Thoby died of typhoid fever.  Virginia and Leonard Woolf married in 1912.  They would remain together until Virginia's death.

Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out was published in 1915.  The story was about an Englishwoman's emotional and sexual awakening as she traveled abroad.  The book was an indictment of the political and sexual mores of modern England.  Woolf's writing style experimented with a stream of consciousness lyricism focusing on the psychological underpinnings of the characters.  She created visual impressions comparable to the writing of James Joyce and Joseph Conrad.

In 1917, Woolf and husband Leonard purchased a printing press and founded Hogarth Press in the basement their London home.  Hogarth became a respectable printing house that published Wolff's novels as well as work by T.S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud.  After the end of World War I, the Wolff's moved to Monk's House, a cottage in the English village of Rodmell.  Here, Woolf wrote all of her remaining novels including Night And Day (1919), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Orlando (1928) and The Waves (1931).

In 1922, Woolf met Vita Sackville-West, a married writer.  The two women began a love affair (with Leonard's knowledge and permission) that lasted nearly ten years.  The relationship inspired Woolf's novel Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the gender-switching hero's life spans three centuries.

In 1929, Woolf gave a series of lectures on the difficulties that female writers encounter because men hold disproportionate economic and legal power in society.  She published A Room Of One's Own writing "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."  The essay was seen as a feminist tract and became an inspiration to female writers everywhere. Woolf later published Three Guineas, an essay arguing that if women occupied positions of power there would be less war.

Woolf's two half brothers Gerald and George died in the mid 1930's.  Woolf revealed in a memoir that George and Gerald molested her and half-sister Vanessa when they were children.  Some Woolf biographers have suggested Woolf's breakdowns were influenced by this sexual abuse.

Woolf was criticized for her anti-Semitic views.  Early in life she wrote about Jewish characters as being dirty and physically repulsive.  A passage in her diary read, "I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh."  After marrying the proudly Jewish Leonard Wolff, Virginia's outlook changed.  She acknowledged the mistakes of her early ignorance and wrote, "What a snob I was for they [Jews] have immense vitality."  Woolf and husband Leonard feared the rise of 1930's fascism.  After Britain's entry into World War II in 1939, the Woolfs appeared on Hitler's blacklist.  They made plans to commit suicide if England was invaded.

During the Blitz of 1940, German bombs destroyed the Woolf's London home and the offices of Hogarth Press.  The couple took refuge in Monk's House. Woolf completed her final novel Between The Acts in 1941.  Stressed by her work and the war, she fell into a deep depression.  She was unable to write and feared she would not recover from her mental illness.

On March 28, 1941, Woolf donned an overcoat, filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse behind her home.  She left behind a suicide note for Leonard.

"Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again.  I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times.  And I shan't recover this time.  So I'm doing what seems the best thing to do.  You have given me the greatest possible happiness.  I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.  I can't fight any longer.  What I want to say is I owe the happiness of my life to you."

Woolf's body was discovered three weeks later.  Leonard had Woolf cremated and the remains buried under one of two oak trees in their backyard that they named "Virginia and Leonard."  He placed a stone tablet on the spot engraved with the final lines from Woolf's novel The Waves.

"Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!  The Waves broke on the shore."  (6" x 7", black ink print)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Other Kevin Smith

Kevin Stofer Smith began his career in Hollywood one month after graduating high school.  He followed his older brother Albert to the now defunct Producer's Studio in 1976 where his first production job required him to shatter twenty large mirrors and sweep up the shards for a Boz Scaggs music video.  Thirty-eight years later, Kevin hopes any bad luck has been left behind him.

Kevin joined the commercial production company Paisley Productions in 1977. The Paisley gang included director David Farrow, producer Christine Kitch, executive producer Steve Brodie, Cinematographer and future Academy Award nominee Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey & Emily), Music Video Director Kevin Kerslake (director of "Nirvana Live! Tonight! Sold Out!") and Ruth McCartney (of Macca Rock and Roll Legend and present day Digital Diva).  Paisley would be Kevin's production home for the next 12 years.  He worked his way from Stage Manager to PA to Production Coordinator to First Assistant Director.  In 1980, the Director's Guild opened their doors to commercial directors.  At age 21, Kevin became the second youngest person to obtain a 1st A.D. DGA Card.  (The youngest was 7-year old Justin Henry, the child actor from Kramer vs. Kramer, who was given a DGA card as a birthday present joke by Dustin Hoffman.)

Kevin traveled to more than 30 states and worked on hundreds of television commercials for Paisley with his mentor David Farrow.  Notable shoots included Hertz Rental Car with O.J. Simpson, Billy Carter Beer, the infamous Yugo Automobile and the popular "Don't Squeeze the Charmin" spots with Mr. Whipple.  Mr. Whipple, played by veteran actor Dick Wilson, was known for being a prankster on set.  During one Charmin shoot, Kevin watched as Mr. Whipple grabbed his chest and fell to the floor.  The crew laughed, believing this was another practical joke.  Turns out Wilson was having an actual heart attack.  Fortunately he survived to make many more awful commercials.

While working on a Ford commercial in Central California, Kevin was tasked with cueing thirty wild horses to run in the surf of Pismo Beach alongside a Ford Mustang convertible.  While setting up the master shot, the trainer, hearing a helicopter test cue of "Release the Horses," mistakenly released the animals prematurely.  The horses ran 3 miles up the beach and onto Highway 101 forcing police to shut down the freeway.  A dozen animals made it to the nearby town of Grover Beach where a local 12-year old girl began corralling horses and tethering them to parking meters.  Nobody was hurt and the next day's local headline read "Filming of Ford Loses Horsepower."

During a spot for Right Guard Deodorant, nobody knew the prop man was freebasing cocaine.  Just after lunch, Kevin heard a loud explosion.  The prop man had lit his crack pipe while labeling hero deodorant cans which caused the aerosol cans to explode.  The blast destroyed the prop truck and incinerated the entire stash of Right Guard hero product.  The prop man luckily escaped unhurt.

A commercial for Ford Trucks in the desert called for several pickup trucks to be dropped from an overhead cargo plane and parachute gently to earth. One of the parachutes did not open.  The 4,000-pound truck hit the ground at 200 miles an hour.  The impact left a massive crater and sandwiched the truck into a 4-inch metal pancake.

Kevin worked with many celebrities over the years.  He shot Princess Cruise commercials with Gavin "Captain Stubing" MacLeod, Lemon Pledge with Florence Henderson, Ford with Telly Savalas and Mazda commercials with James Garner.  On one Mazda shoot in Goat Rock Beach, California, Garner insisted on doing his own stunt driving.  Garner took a tight turn too fast and slid off a cliff.  The car flipped and rolled and came to rest upside down against a grip van.  Fifteen feet in either direction was a 500-foot drop to the Pacific Ocean below.  Garner claimed he was okay but was flown by helicopter to a Sebastopol hospital where he was given full body X-Rays.  Kevin and David Farrow looked on as the doctor recounted Garner's injuries.

"You've damaged your L2 and L3 vertebrae," the doctor said.  "No, no," Garner said.  "That was from Maverick."

"Well it looks like you have a crushed C3 cervical neck injury."  "Rockford Files, Season 2," Garner said.

"And your cracked left knee?"  "That was 1969, Support Your Local Sheriff," Garner replied.

Garner told Kevin, "Son, when you fall off your horse, you have to get back on it."  Two hours later Garner and the crew were back on set to grab the ultimate helicopter sunset shot.

Kevin's favorite actor to work with was Jonathan Winters.  After wrapping a Cheetos commercial, Kevin joined Winters in the actor's motorhome where they smoked weed together.  Winters shared a bit of trivia about Cheetos. He told Kevin, "If you're ever stuck in a cave without a source of light, all you need is a pack of matches and a bag of Cheetos."  Winters proceeded to light a Cheetos puff and the trailer was illuminated with an astonishingly strong flame.

After Paisley closed their doors in 1989, Kevin continued making commercials as a First AD and Producer.  He also directed music videos and HDTV promos for Two And a Half Men, Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens. Kevin also began producing spots for Norms Restaurants, something he does every fall with Black Lab Productions.  In the 90's, Kevin bolstered a relationship with Cinematographer and Executive Producer Bob Eberlein, founder of the production company Image Streams. Along with Production Supervisor Jan Skorstad, Image Streams began producing live action sequences and test shoots for major studio productions. Some of Image Streams recent VFX and Green Screen credits include the films Gravity, Gatsby, I Am Legend and the new Tom Cruise film Edge Of Tomorrow.  Kevin and Eberlein also produced the Oscar Opening for the 2008 Academy Awards.

In his spare time, Kevin considers himself one of the world's greatest Rolling Stones fans.  He has attended somewhere north of 75 Stones concerts in his life (he lost count long ago).  In 1999, he flew to London to see the Stones play at Wembley Stadium.  His first show was a 1973 "Benefit for Nicaragua" at the Los Angeles Forum.  His most recent show was this past year in San Jose.

I worked with Kevin in the early 90's.  He was hired to produce and direct a television show about the legendary Route 66 for Sat1 German Television.  The Los Angeles shoot lasted several days culminating in a celebratory lunch in Malibu.  As the German producer Hans prepared to pay the tab, he discovered his wallet was missing.  The wallet contained $25,000 cash needed to pay the crew and the remaining production expenses.  Hans fell into a panic at which point Kevin took over.  We all hopped into a production van with Kevin at the wheel.  We retraced our steps from the day and found ourselves stuck in a Santa Monica Freeway traffic jam.

It had been raining and Hans suddenly remembered leaning out the passenger side window to snap a photo of a rainbow.  He theorized that's when the wallet must have fallen out of his back pocket.  Kevin weaved through traffic and spotted a thick brown wallet in the second lane.  He stopped the van, ran onto the freeway, dodged passing cars, retrieved the wallet and gave it to the grateful producer.  All the money was still there.  Kevin shrugged off the "needle in a haystack" miracle as just another day in the world of Film and TV.  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Friday, April 25, 2014


The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the United States in 1886.  It has come to symbolize freedom and unlimited possibility for immigrants coming to America to start a new life.  The statue was inspired by French politician Edouard de Laboulaye's proposal that a great monument be made to celebrate America's independence and the abolition of slavery.  Laboulaye suggested that France finance the statue while the United States pick the location and pay for the building of the pedestal.

The Statue was designed by French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. The robed female figure represents Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom.  She holds a torch symbolizing progress.  The seven rays on the diadem (the crown) form a halo representing the sun, the seven oceans and the seven continents.  The left hand holds a tabula ansata (a tablet evoking law) upon which is inscribed the date of the Declaration of Independence.  The statue rises over a broken chain, half hidden by the robes.  Bartholdi modeled the face of the statue after his own mother.

In 1875, Laboulaye announced plans for the statue revealing its formal name "Liberty Enlightening the World."  France reacted positively, raising funds among the wealthy, the working class and school children.  Support in the United States was less favorable.  "The Panic of 1873" caused an economic depression in America that would delay construction of the statue and the Washington Monument.  The New York Times wrote, "No true patriot can countenance any such expenditures for bronze females in the present state of our finances."

Bartholdi moved ahead with fabrication of the torch-bearing arm and the head. The arm was shipped from France to Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.  It proved popular as visitors climbed to the torch balcony to view the fair grounds.  The arm was returned to Paris where it was exhibited with the head for the 1878 World's Fair.

Original architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc died in 1879 and was replaced by famed designer Gustave Eiffel.  Eiffel contributed an iron truss tower to hold the statue. He also built a metal armature allowing the copper skin to expand on hot summer days without cracking.  Eiffel included two interior spiral staircases providing access to the observation point in the crown.  He also added an observation platform around the torch.

Laboulaye died in 1883.  He was replaced by Ferdinand de Lesseps, designer of the Suez Canal.  The statue was completed in 1884.  US President Rutherford B. Hayes chose Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor as the site for the statue.  Poet Emma Lazarus contributed the sonnet The New Colossus which included the lines, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

American fundraising efforts for the pedestal remained dismal.  Newly elected President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill to provide $50,000 for the project. Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer stepped in to save the day.  He announced a drive in his paper The World to raise $100,000.  This caught the imagination of New Yorkers, especially school children, who donated as little as five cents apiece.  The drive ultimately raised $102,000 from more than 120,000 donors.

On June 17, 1885, the French ship Isere arrived in New York Harbor carrying the disassembled statue in crates.  200,000 people lined the docks to greet the steamer.  The pedestal was completed in 1886 and reassembly of the statue began.  Due to the size of the pedestal, scaffolding could not be erected. Workers dangled from the armature by ropes as they installed the copper skin. Thankfully, no one died during construction.

The statue was formally dedicated on October 28, 1886.  Only dignitaries were allowed on the island for the ceremony though several hundred thousand people attended a morning parade.  Not everyone was happy. Suffragists were offended that only two women attended the dedication ceremony, Bartholdi's wife and de Lessep's granddaughter.  The Cleveland Gazette, an African American newspaper, opined: "Until the 'Liberty' of this country makes it possible for a colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family without being Ku-Kluxed…the idea of 'Liberty Enlightening The World'…is ridiculous in the extreme."

The statue was initially designed as a lighthouse.  Lights were placed inside the torch and a power plant was installed on the island.  Unfortunately the torch only produced a faint gleam and was nearly invisible at night.  In 1901, the statue was transferred from the US Lighthouse Board to the War Department.

In 1916, during World War I, German saboteurs ignited a massive explosion in a weapons armory on nearby Black Tom Island.  The blast caused damage to the torch-bearing arm of the statue.  The ascent to the torch was closed and has remained closed ever since.  Artist Gutzon Borglum (who later sculpted Mount Rushmore) redesigned the torch, replacing much of the original copper with stained glass.

In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge declared the statue a national monument. It was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933.  During World War II, the statue was not illuminated at night due to wartime blackouts.  On D-Day, the statue lights flashed "dot-dot-dot-dash," Morse Code for V, "for Victory."  Bedloe's Island was renamed "Liberty Island" in 1956 by an Act of Congress.

In 1982, it was discovered that the right arm was improperly attached to the main structure and was at risk of collapsing.  In addition, the head had been installed two feet off center and one of the halo rays was wearing a hole in the right arm when the statue moved in the wind.  President Reagan formed a commission led by ex-Chrysler CEO Lee Iacoccoa to raise funds for repairs. Eiffel's iron armature was replaced by corrosion-resistant stainless steel.  The torch was replaced with an exact replica while the halo ray was realigned by several degrees to prevent contact with the arm.  The restoration took four years.

Following the September 11 attacks, the statue was closed to the public.  The pedestal reopened in 2004 but the statue was not reopened until 2009.  Since then only 240 people per day are allowed to ascend the statue.  Reservations must be acquired up to a year in advance and visitors are subject to a security screening.

The statue has been prominent in numerous movies over the years.  The torch is the setting for the climax of Alfred Hitchock's 1942 film Saboteur.  In Splash, mermaid Daryl Hannah first appears at the statue's feet.  The statue is knocked over in Independence Day and the head is ripped off in Cloverfield.  It's most famous movie appearance comes at the end of Planet of the Apes when the statue is seen half-buried in the sand.

From its foundation to the top of the torch, the statue stands 305 feet high.  It weighs 204 tons.  Visitors must climb 354 stairs to reach the crown.  In high winds the statue can sway up to 3 inches while the torch can move 5 inches.  The green patina is caused by copper oxidation called verdigris.  The statue is struck by up to 600 bolts of lightning each year.  Two people have committed suicide by jumping off the statue, one in 1929 and the other in 1932.  (7" x 7", black ink print)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Cat Stevens

On September 21, 2004, a United Airlines flight traveling from London to Washington D.C. was diverted to Bangor, Maine. Six federal agents came aboard and took into custody a 57-year old British man traveling with his 21-year old daughter.  "Are you Yusuf Islam," the agents demanded.  The man confirmed he was.  "Do you spell your name Y-O-U-S-U-F?"  "It's Y-U-S-U-F," the man answered.  His daughter was allowed to continue traveling but the man was denied entry to the United States.  He was flown back to England the next day. Homeland Security officials explained the man had associations with potential terrorists.

Yusuf Islam was not always treated this way.  Thirty years earlier he was one of the biggest rock stars in the world.  He played to 40,000 seat arenas and hung out with the likes of Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.

He was born Steven Georgiou in London in 1948.  His father was a Greek Cypriot and his mom was Swedish.  They owned and lived above a restaurant called Moulin Rouge where he was put to work washing dishes at a young age.  When he was 15, his father bought him a guitar.  He escaped to the Soho rooftops, a quiet refuge he called "the Upper World."  He began writing and playing his own songs influenced by the Beatles, the Kinks and Nina Simone.

By 18, he was performing in London coffee houses and pubs.  He changed his name to "Cat" because a girlfriend said he had "cat eyes."  He was signed to a record deal and his 1966 song "I Love My Dog" reached #2 on the British charts. Cat Stevens became a teen idol touring the country with Jimi Hendrix and Engelbert Humperdinck.  Hendrix introduced him to psychedelics and Stevens spent the next few years overindulging in drugs and alcohol.

In 1968, Stevens contracted tuberculosis and nearly died.  While in the hospital, he began to question his life.  He took up meditation and yoga and became a vegetarian.  He immersed himself in spiritual and religious texts.  He covered the mirrors in his hospital room "to get away from the external and to start digging deep" into himself.

After a year of convalescence, Stevens returned to music with a new beard and a new sound.  His songs embraced a folk-rock style with introspective lyrics about everyday problems and spiritual questions.  Stevens signed with A&M Records and released Mona Bone Jakon (1970), Tea For The Tillerman (1971) and Teaser and the Firecat (1972), all Gold Records.  They included the hit songs "Trouble," "Where Do the Children Play," "Wild World," "Moonshadow" and "Peace Train."  Film Director Hal Ashby used nine Stevens' songs for the dark comedy Harold And Maude, introducing his music to a wider audience.

Though he'd become one of the biggest rock stars in the world, he still lived with his parents.  Fans made pilgrimages to the Stevens' home and were often invited in for tea by his father.

Stevens was becoming disillusioned with the music industry.  He despised the competition and greed, feeling like a pawn subject to the whims of managers and record executives.  In 1973, he moved to Rio de Janeiro and became a British tax exile.  He continued touring, donating his profits to UNESCO.

During a 1976 trip to Los Angeles, Stevens visited the Malibu home of Jerry Moss, co-founder of A&M.  He decided to take a swim in the ocean.  He was caught in a riptide and taken far from shore.  He struggled for several minutes losing all his strength.  Certain he was about to drown, he shouted, "God!  If you save me I will work for you."  A large wave appeared and carried him back to shore.  The near-death experience rekindled his yearning for a spiritual life. "What arose within me was a deep conviction that ultimately there is a higher control over one's life."

His brother David gave him a copy of the Qur'an.  Stevens took to the book immediately.  "I couldn't put it down," he said.  "No matter what I tried to say in my songs, they were all part of the shadow.  In the Qur'an I found a light."

Stevens identified with the Biblical story of Joseph, a man who was bought and sold in the marketplace.  He felt the same way about himself and his place in the music industry.  He realized he didn't want to be Cat Stevens anymore.  In 1977, he formally converted to Islam.  He took the name "Yusuf," Arabic for Joseph.

He kept his conversion out of the public eye and gave his final concert as Cat Stevens at Wembley Arena in 1979.  At the end of the concert, he told the audience, "We've only got one life and you have to do the best with it.  You have to find the right path and when you do, you know it."  Cat Stevens walked off stage as Yusuf Islam never intending to perform again.

He sold his guitars and gold records and gave the money to charity.  While the Qur'an did not prohibit music he felt he had to give up music to become a true Muslim.  He later said, "The music business was filled with things like vanity, fornication and drug use.  If I was going to make the change, I had to get away from that."

Yusuf's life changed completely.  He married Fauzia Ali in a religious ceremony and the couple had five children.  He dedicated himself to the study of the Qur'an and his new passion became education.  He used his music royalties to establish several Muslim schools in England.  The curriculum balanced spiritual teaching with a material focus on math, science and writing. He also founded the Small Kindness charity assisting orphans in Africa and famine victims in the Balkans.

In 1989, he became embroiled in the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.  Asked for his opinion by a reporter, Yusuf replied that the "legal Islamic punishment for blasphemy was death."  The next day, newspaper headlines reported: "Cat Says Kill Rushdie."  Yusuf denied supporting the fatwa but the damage was done. American radio stations refused to play Cat Stevens songs.  The band 10,000 Maniacs was forced to remove the song "Moonshadow" from their new album. Cat Stevens became a pariah.

Yusuf continued his work for charity and education.  During the Bosnian conflict, he became heavily involved in relief efforts for Muslim war victims.  A survey of British Muslims named him the most highly regarded Muslim figure, more influential than imams and scholars.

In 1994, while vacationing in Dubai with his family, his son brought a guitar into the house.  One morning after prayers, Yusuf picked up the guitar from the couch.  He hadn't played in 25 years but he still remembered the chords.  He started playing his old songs including "The Road To Find Out" which included the lyrics:

I left my happy home to see what I could find out.
I left my folk and friends with the aim to clear my mind out.
The answer lies within, so why not take a look now?
Kick out the devil's sin, pick up a good book now.

When Yusuf learned that Muslims had introduced the guitar to Europe he changed his mind about the role of music in Islam.  Slowly, he resumed his musical career.  He appeared at a 1997 benefit concert in Sarajevo and released a children's album in 2000.  After the September 11 attacks, he publicly denounced the attacks saying, "No right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action."  He appeared on a VH-1 Concert for New York and sang "Peace Train" for the first time in public in more than 20 years.

At the time he was denied entry to the United States in 2004, he'd been traveling to Nashville to meet Dolly Parton for a new music project.  Parton was one of the few celebrities to come to the defense of Yusuf.  She told the press, "The government made a mistake.  I can't imagine there's an evil bone in that man's body.  Those are the people you're supposed to cherish.  You don't walk on the hearts of angels."

In 2006, Yusuf released his first new pop album in 28 years.  He began touring again and included Cat Stevens songs on his playlist.  He will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this year.  (6" x 7", black ink print)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Torah

My paternal grandfather was a Torah scribe.  He spent his days carefully drawing the Hebrew letters that made up the Torah, the most sacred of Jewish texts. Writing on thin parchment paper made from the skin of a kosher animal, he began by marking thin pencil lines that served as a guide.  He then dipped a feather quill into an inkwell and scrawled each Hebrew letter abiding by the calligraphic guidelines of Ktav Ashurit (Ashurite Script).

Each Torah contained exactly 304,805 letters scribed on about 80 sheets of parchment.  Only black ink made from gall-nut juice and gum was acceptable. The height and width of each letter had to be perfect.  Small mistakes could be scraped away and redrawn unless a mistake was made writing the name of God in which case he'd have to start over since God's name could not be erased.  If one letter was missing or appeared smudged then the Torah was considered invalid or not kosher.

The scribing of a Torah took up to one year.  Once scribed, each sheet of parchment was sewn together to form a continuous scroll.  The Torah was then sewn onto wooden rollers called Eitzei Chayim (trees of life).  The Torah was dressed and shipped to a designated synagogue where it was blessed and dedicated in a sacred ceremony.

As you can imagine, my grandfather was a serious man.  Scribes were supposed to be devoted and pure.  He started each day with a Mikvah, a ritual bath in a sacred pool found in a temple.  The immersion in water was a purification ritual to cleanse the scribe before he channeled sacred text.  After praying that his holy work would be imbued with sanctity, he began each day of writing.

My grandfather was a survivor.  He'd escaped the Nazis by moving his wife and son (my father) from Austria to Portugal in 1933.  After the war, he gathered his savings and sent my father to America.  My father settled in Los Angeles and brought over my grandparents in 1954.  They lived in the Fairfax District, the hub of the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community.

Growing up, I spent many weekends at my grandparent's home with my brother and sister.  We were allowed to play in the backyard or run around the house. The only area off limits was my grandfather's study.  He was doing "important work" we were told and he needed his privacy.

My brother and I were curious about my grandfather's secret work.  We were always sneaking behind him, trying to scare him, to divert his attention.  He did not take kindly to these interruptions.  He would scream in a mixture of German and Yiddish and threaten to throw a paperweight or a heavy book at us.  On one occasion he threw a chair.

Presumably this nullified his purity for the day.

At the end of his workday, he finally relaxed.  He'd make himself a cup of tea and watch cartoons with my brother, sister and me.  Often he'd read comic books, laughing at his beloved Katzenjammer Kids and their juvenile hijinks.

Once I asked my grandfather what it was he did in his study.  "I work for God," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"I write God's story so we don't forget who He is."

He could tell by the look on my face that I didn't understand.

"You know the Hebrew letters, Aleph, Bet, Gimel?  They are living things.  They are the building blocks of creation.  Like oxygen and hydrogen, God formed the world through combinations of the Hebrew letters." He reached for a sheet of paper and scrawled the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  "This is Aleph," he said.  "It tells us that God is one, that He is the Master.  It is silent, it is never spoken because the true name of God is never spoken.  Aleph stands for Adam the first man, for Abraham who taught us there is only One God and for Abba the Hebrew word for Father."

"Look at Aleph," he said.  "It stands strong and upright.  It is perfectly balanced, it cannot be knocked over.  Hebrew is read right to left.  Aleph is looking at Bet, the second letter.  And Bet, it is looking at Gimmel, the third letter.  What does this tell us?  It says God is looking after us and it is our job to look after our neighbor.  We do not see God but He is always present, right next to us.  You understand?"

"Yes," I told him though I didn't.

"You learn your Hebrew," he told me. "And you will learn the secrets of God.  It's all in there.  In the letters."

As I grew older, my grandfather and I grew apart.  He only conversed with my father in German or Yiddish.  Often I'd hear my name sprinkled accusingly as if I'd done something wrong.  When I stopped watching cartoons and reading comics he no longer knew how to relate to me.  I couldn't relate to him either.  He seemed weird and antiquated, a relic from another time and place.

He died in 1986.  In his lifetime, he scribed more than two dozen Torahs.  While our family sat Shiva, the week-long mourning period after his death, a stream of rabbis stopped by the home to pay their respects.  They patted me on the head and spoke glowingly about my grandfather.  I smiled and nodded but I couldn't wait to get out of there and be back with my friends.

I never formally learned Hebrew.  But when I turned 30, I developed a fascination with the letters.  I began drawing them and studying their lines and curves and perfect harmony.  These days I carve woodcuts of the Hebrew letters.  I haven't learned the secrets of God.  But like my grandfather said, it's all in there.  In the letters.  (6" x 8", black ink print) (inspired by a 1930 book plate by Roman Radvany)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

San Francisco

My definitive San Francisco moment occurred in 1992.  I was walking south on Polk Street when I encountered two young transvestites smoking crack in front of a burned-down building. I was drinking a Kern's Nectar and after taking the final sip, I tossed the bottle into a trash can.  One of the transvestites put down his crack pipe and spoke.  "Hey man, don't you recycle?"

I moved to San Francisco two weeks after the 1989 Earthquake.  The day I moved into my apartment I noticed a spray painted message on the sidewalk reading: "I don't believe in Bob Hope."  I understood.  This was the land of Jack Kerouac, Jerry Garcia and the Zodiac Killer.   Alternative was the norm.

The first person I befriended in the city was a Berkeley Linguistics Professor who loved archery, Hungarian cuisine and Japanese Bondage.  He was typical of the San Franciscans I met.  My revolving door of roommates included an animal taxidermist, a stripper, a funeral home cosmetologist, a William Burroughs impersonator and a narcoleptic house painter.

My first San Francisco job was as a videographer for a local bar who hosted a Monday night talent show.  Participants were homeless men recruited just before show time with promises of food and drink if they sang pop songs or attempted ridiculous dances.  During the show, the bar proprietors sold semi-ripe tomatoes for fifty-cents each that audience members hurled at the performers.

Subsequent San Francisco jobs included being a urine messenger for a law firm who drug tested employees (I carried the samples to a testing lab), working as a night clerk for a Tenderloin hotel whose clientele included prostitutes and drug dealers and writing fortunes for a Chinatown Cookie Company.  (My favorite: "Help!  I am trapped in the basement dungeon.  Please call police!")

My lengthiest San Francisco job was as an assistant counselor at an Alzheimer's Day Care Center.  The aging clients reminded me of my grandparents.  Despite their memory loss and fading personalities, they seemed more normal then everyone else in the city.  On one occasion, a client turned up missing.  He'd been an Oakland Bus Driver in his heyday and whenever we served lunch he'd say, "I'll take the T-Bone, medium well."  The day he was discovered missing, I had a hunch.  I called a taxi and asked to be driven to the nearest steakhouse. Sure enough, the man was sitting at the bar drinking a Manhattan and eating a steak.

Dating was hard in San Francisco.  The first woman I dated was a bisexual waitress who'd had a spat with her live-in girlfriend.  She spent the entire meal insulting men and complaining about her lover.  She finally admitted she only went out with me to make her girlfriend jealous.

My second date was with a young German woman named Adeline whom I met at City Lights Bookstore.  She was reading "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol, one of my favorites.  She gave me her number and address and we agreed to meet the following week for dinner.  When I arrived at her residence, I saw a sign that read "Mount Zion Psychiatric Hospital."  Turns out she was a patient who'd recently attempted suicide after breaking up with her boyfriend.  Over pizza and beer she showed me the fresh slash wounds on her wrists.  I safely returned her to the psychiatric ward then swore off dating for a while.

San Franciscans had a passionate hatred of Los Angeles.  Typically when someone learned I was from LA they'd say something like, "Really?  You don't look like a Hollywood asshole."  While playing basketball in a local park, a player intentionally head-butted me knocking out two of my teeth.  As I rolled around in pain, the guy said, "Sorry about that, Hollywood."

I had long hair in those days and I wore bandanas to keep the hair out of my eyes.  One day a man with a thick mustache began following me through the streets.  I stopped in a cheese shop to try to lose him but when I came back outside he was still there.  Finally, at a crowded intersection, I walked right up to the guy and asked, "What the hell do you want?"  He smiled and pointed at the yellow bandana on my head.  Months later I learned about the San Francisco Gay Bandana Code.  Yellow bandanas meant you liked to be pissed on.  Red meant you liked hairy men.  Blue meant you liked to dress up as a cop and Brown meant…well, we won't go there.

After three years of living in San Francisco, the city started getting to me.  The lovely fog became depressing.  The heavy concentration of people was claustrophobic.  And the extreme alternative lifestyles were no longer charming.

The turning point came in 1992 when I was caught in a traffic jam on the Golden Gate Bridge.  A man had just leaped from the bridge.  Traffic was stopped in both directions and drivers were out of their cars scouring the ocean for the jumper. Half a dozen boats hopelessly trawled the water.  I asked a traffic cop if this happened often.  "Sixth one this year," he said.  That night I learned San Franciscans had a saying: "If things get tough, you've always got the bridge."

The incident sent me into a tailspin.  A month later I went through a horrible breakup.  I also lost my job at the Alzheimer's Center.  Around this time I received a letter from Adeline, the woman I'd met at the bookstore.  I stood beside the mailbox and read her words.  She was back in Frankfurt, Germany living with her parents.  She worked at a veterinary clinic helping find homes for lost dogs.  She wrote that she was doing better.  She thanked me for taking her to dinner saying it helped her healing process.  "For the first time in years I feel hope again."

I noticed the spray painted message on the sidewalk.  I hadn't read it in years. The word "Bob" had faded away.  The message now read: "I don't believe in Hope."  I moved out of San Francisco a week later.  (6" x 8", black ink print)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Simon Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal was an Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor who came to prominence after World War II as a Nazi hunter. With the aid of the Israeli, Austrian and West German governments he helped capture nearly 1,100 Nazi war criminals.

Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Lvov (in current Ukraine).  He studied architecture in high school and married Cyla Muller in 1936.  After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lvov was annexed by the Russians.  The Soviets began the "Red purge" of Jewish professionals forcing Jews to give up their property and possessions. Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested as a "capitalist" and died in prison.  His stepbrother was shot and Wiesenthal was forced to close his architectural business.

In 1941, the Nazis displaced the Russians in Lvov.  Wiesenthal and his wife were sent to the Janowska concentration camp before being reassigned to the forced labor camp at Ostbahn Works, a repair shop for the Lvov Railroad.

In 1942, the Nazis began their "Final Solution" campaign to annihilate all Jews in occupied Europe.  Wiesenthal's mother was killed at Belzec concentration camp. Wiesenthal made a deal with the Polish underground to help his wife obtain false papers and escape the camps.  In return, he provided charts of railroad junction points for use by saboteurs.

In 1943 (according to Wiesenthal), 54 Jewish intellectuals were gathered at Ostbahn to be killed in celebration of Hitler's 54th birthday.  Wiesenthal was among the group.  The men were stripped and led through a barbed wire corridor leading to the execution area.  Victims were shot dead and allowed to fall into a pit.  Wiesenthal, who had made himself valuable to the camp director by preparing architectural drawings, was spared via the director's intervention.

Wiesenthal escaped Ostbahn but was recaptured and sent back to Janowska concentration camp.  He tried committing suicide to avoid being interrogated about the Polish underground.  As the Russian forces advanced into the area, the German army collapsed.  Wiesenthal and the remaining prisoners were marched miles to Mauthausen concentration camp.  Few prisoners survived the trek. Wiesenthal was left to die in a filthy, stench-ridden barrack.  In May, 1945, Mauthausen was liberated by US troops.  Wiesenthal was down to 90 pounds and was unable to walk.  He had lost 89 family members in the camps.

After the war, Wiesenthal regained his health.  He began gathering evidence on Nazi atrocities for the US Army War Crimes Division.  In late 1945, he was reunited with his wife.  (They had thought each other dead.)  In 1947, Wiesenthal and 30 volunteers established the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria.  Their goal was to assemble evidence for future war crime trials. With the onset of the Cold War, the US lost interest in prosecuting Germans.  The Linz office was closed.  Despite lack of money and personnel, Wiesenthal continued his search for Nazis.

High on the list of wanted Nazis was Franz Stangl.  Stangl had been commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps.  He worked closely with Heinrich Himmler to develop gas chambers for all the camps.  Under Stangl's command, 100,000 Jews were killed at Sobibor and 600,000 were killed at Treblinka.  He perfected a method of gassing 3,000 Jews at once.

In the last days of the war, Stangl was picked up by American troops and held in a prisoner camp.  The Americans did not know of his role as a death camp commandant.  While being transferred to Austria to stand trial, he was allowed to walk free.  He traveled to Italy where he contacted a Catholic Bishop, Alois Hudal, who was a Nazi sympathizer.  Hudal arranged for Stangl to travel to Syria where he obtained work in a textile factory.  Stangl sent for his wife and daughter and they moved to Brazil where Stangl worked for a Volkswagen factory while his wife worked for Mercedes Benz.

Wiesenthal's efforts to capture Stangl gained momentum in 1964 when ten guards who worked at Treblinka testified against Stangl at a war crimes trial. Wiesenthal used the trial to publicize his hunt for the missing Nazi.  Stangl's brother-in-law read about the trial in an Austrian newspaper and revealed to Wiesenthal that Stangl was living somewhere in Brazil.  A few days later, an ex-Gestapo officer appeared in Wiesenthal's office.  He offered to sell information on Stangl's whereabouts.  His price was one cent for each of the Jews killed under Stangl's command.  Estimated at 700,000 people, Wiesenthal would have to pay $7,000 for the information.  Though disgusted by the deal, Wiesenthal agreed.

Wiesenthal focused on Sao Paolo.  Using the code name "Uncle Otto," he corresponded with officials in Brazil.  He located Stangl's home address and began preparing documentation for extradition.  He knew he had to be careful. The large community of ex-Nazis in Brazil could help Stangl escape at any time.

On the evening of February 28, 1967, Stangl and his daughter returned home after a quiet dinner.  A team of plainclothes Brazilian policemen captured Stangl. Wiesenthal worked hard to publicize demands for Stangl's extradition.  He even contacted Senator Robert Kennedy to use his influence on Brazilian politicians.  In June, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Stangl be deported to Germany to stand trial.  Wiesenthal's 22 year search for Stangl was over.  Stangl was sentenced to life in prison for joint responsibility in the murder of 900,000 men, women and children.  He died 6 months later of heart failure.

Wiesenthal continued working into his 90's.  He received numerous death threats and in 1982, a bomb placed by neo-Nazis exploded outside his Austrian home. Armed guards remained outside his house 24 hours a day.  Wiesenthal's wife Cyla died in 2003 at age 95.  Wiesenthal retired shortly afterward.  He once said if he were to meet Holocaust victims in the afterlife he wanted to be able to say, "I did not forget you."  He died in September, 2005 at age 96.  He was buried in Herzliya, Israel.  (6" x 8", black ink print)