Archive for October, 2010


All you need is a strong back and a weak mind.”

— A stonemasons’ saying

As Interstate 90 heads east out of Issaquah and winds up among the flanks of the ancient Issaquah Alps, plateauing just before it plunges down into the Raging River Valley, it passes the little town of Preston and offers motorists an exit there. Off to the left, on the outskirts of the town, there is what I can only call a rockyard. It’s not a quarry, but almost for as long as I can remember I have remarked the presence there of massive boulders and huge pallets of stone. This is the Marenakos Rock Center.

Back in September I spent a wonderful day at this rock yard and on that day I lifted, by my conservative calculation, a ton and a half of stone, mostly Colorado sandstone, with my bare hands. I’m about to tell you how such a thing came about, so settle in.

The green stones are fuchsite, the lady said. The first stone wall we found.

Ever since I wrote that post about my great-grandfather’s stonemasonry I haven’t been able to get stone walls off my mind. I reread Cormac McCarthy’s play The Stonemason, a book that has occupied a treasured spot on my shelf for years. In it the old character of the title passes down such pearls as “The keystone that locks the arch is pressed in place by the thumb of God” and “Stone ain’t so heavy as the wrath of a fool”, and “Nothing is ever finally arrived at. The journeyman becomes a master when he masters the journeyman’s trade.”

I kept thinking how stonework is so opposite to my own work as a technical writer and marketing copywriter, and how liberating it would be to be engaged in work that justifies itself, without any argument or explanation. In writing on behalf of a software company I mostly write things that we hope are true or that we wish were true or we want people to believe are true or at least to understand in a certain way. Not lies, certainly, but there is very little in what I do that has a truth unto itself, external to me or the company, and my work is riddled with the shame of the asterisk. Good stonework seems to be all about the truth, because it’s all about gravity and gravity is a hard truth. All stones in a well-built wall are always falling straight down, each falling on the ones directly beneath it, forever. The desire of each stone to fall toward the center of the earth that hatched it is what makes it possible to build stone walls. Listen to this wonderful passage from McCarthy’s play:

The reason the stonemason’s trade remains esoteric above all others is that the foundation and the hearth are the soul of human society and it is that soul that the false mason threatens.


It’s not the mortar that holds the work together. What holds the stone trues the wall as well and I’ve seen him check his fourfoot wooden level with a plumb bob and then break the level over the wall and call for a new one. Not in anger, but only to safeguard the true. To safeguard it everywhere. He says that to a man who’s never laid a stone that there’s nothing you can tell him. Even the truth would be wrong.”

One day shortly after Emilia was born when Mara needed to be outside and get some of her wiggles out, I asked her if she’d accompany me on a search for a wall I thought I’d seen up near Meridian Park. If she would indulge me long enough to sniff out the stonework I wanted to look at, then we could spend some time at the playground before heading back to the house for dinner.

A garden wall in Wallingford built by Michael Knapp.

I’m not sure we found the wall I remembered seeing several years ago, which I had thought faced west, but we found a south-facing house with a beautiful stone wall retaining the yard at the sidewalk. It was a mortared wall with artistically placed stones, some of them sticking out or recessed to form ledges or nooks for a gardener’s coffee cup or a candle, some even forming comfy little benches near the stairs. Some of the stones in the wall were a light pastel green. We ascended to the porch, Mara and I, and we knocked. Over the barking of what turned out to be a friendly dog, the lady who answered the door told me that yes, she knew who had built the wall. His name was Michael Knapp, he was a great guy, he was a third-generation stonemason, and he had died last year.

A bolt of disappointment shot through me. In the back of my mind, I’d been fantasizing about approaching such a person and asking them to let me hang out and help, learn something of the trade. Not in a true apprenticeship — how could I afford to do that? —  but just informally, maybe on weekends sometimes. The woman said Mr. Knapp was a character, that he would sometimes come to work in a Cat-in-the-Hat hat. She said he had helpers, but she didn’t know if he had trained anyone. She was under the impression, and I didn’t disabuse her of it, that I was looking for someone to build a wall for me. She remembered that Mr. Knapp’s wife was very friendly but didn’t have their contact info any more. While we talked, Mara petted the barking dog, whose name was Rusty, and a quieter, older one who had lived most of her life with only three legs. The woman was very happy about the greenish-blue stones in the wall, which she said were an uncommon stone called fuchsite. The woman told me where in the neighborhood I could find other walls built by Mr. Knapp, and in the next week Mara and I visited several of them. Each was a little different from the last and all were beautiful.

In search of Michael Knapp. This one we found at the south end of Green Lake. There be gargoyles (if you click for the larger image).

I still hoped to find a real — and living — stonemason, not just someone slopping stones or bricks together but someone who appreciated the work for the same reasons I did, even if they were not particularly articulate about it. I wanted to learn from a master, some hardbitten and grouchy old guy who would speak little and purposefully, and teach me how to lay up stone. I did a little scratching around online trying to discover other stonemasons in this area and eventually connected with a drystone apprentice up north in Bellingham who told me that if I really wanted to meet people working in stone I should not miss Stonefest 2010. Stonefest is an annual week-long gathering of people mad about stone. Building with it, shaping it, writing in it. It is as though the dwarves of Moria come together to the Marenakos Rock Center from all around the U.S. and even across the oceans to share their knowledge about methods and tools, their ideas for projects, and their passion for rock. Every year there is a large construction project that all attendees can participate in, overseen by experts.

I was not able to take a whole week off, but it was possible to register for just a day, so I signed up and paid $150 for the privelege of joining the effort of some forty or fifty other people in constructing a traditional Irish clochán. A clochán, accent on the second syllable, is a beehive structure built without mortar in what is called the drystone or drystack method, with barely enough space inside for one person to turn around in and three or four tiny slits to admit some light, and a door as small as an igloo’s. Ascetic monks built them on isolated islands off the coast of Ireland in order to sit in them and contemplate the nature of God and subsist on berries, sips of rainwanter and the occasional lentil. The originals have stood for centuries because, as I said before, every stone is placed so that it is perpetually falling onto the stone directly below it, and if something is built of stone in this way, it will be there several thousand years later. Patrick McAfee and his son Brian, stonemasons from Ireland and authorities in ancient drystack methods, were to manage the project, which would be built onsite — by us — in the Marenakos yard.

My man Dan is inside the structure, in the gray t-shirt, pointing. Our leader, Patrick McAfee, is behind the trammel end in a broad-brimmed hat. If you click to enlarge, you’ll see me in here wrasslin’ a big ol’ block of sandstone. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

The design for the clochán we would build was adapted for construction in five days by a mob of people who are more inclined to do stuff than to listen closely to instructions about how to do stuff, in other words, construction workers, landscapers, and stonemasons. There were one or two like me, people who were interested in stone as nonprofessionals, or who were branching out from construction or landscaping into masonry, and there were artists acquainting themselves with the engraver’s craft and sculptors learning stone sculpture. But I thnk I was the only desk pilot, the only spanking tyro, the only person from another world who knew absolutely nothing about any of these lithic arts.

Wednesday morning when I arrived with my protective eyewear and my heavy gloves, the clochán was more than waist high. I had seen it Monday when I had dashed out to Preston after work to participate in the opening day orientation and slideshow. That evening it was not even supposed to be started, but the attendees couldn’t help themselves; they had laid the first course of large granite (I think) stones in a circle, with an interruption for a doorway made of three large blocks — two on edge and one spanning their tops, like a dolmen — and now the courses of smaller, flat sandstone blocks were starting to slope inward in accordance with markings on a trammel, a central swinging wooden gauge used to make sure the structure had the correct shape and curve to it.

Pretty instantly I felt small and alone and out of place. Many of these men and women have known each other for years, it was clear. They knew stone — seemed, all, instinctively to know what to do. They scrambled purposefully around the beehive structure like the occupants of its namesake, buzzing with congenial conversation, “off-color” jokes, and periodic consultation about the next course of stones. The feelings I had were shockingly similar to those I felt on any given day of high school.

It’s starting to take shape, and I’m starting to feel like part of the crew. Here you can see me just left of the trammel pole, kibbitzing on placement of a window. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

But I had been expecting those feelings. As the event approached I had begun to feel dread, like maybe I shouldn’t attend. I wouldn’t know anyone. I would be ignorant (again, so often in my life, a learner). I might get injured. I pushed through the feelings, reminding myself that this was something that I was really interested in and an opportunity I was paying for. It was immediately evident that the event was not going to be organized in a way that would ensure everyone’s inclusion. The nature of the type of person chiefly drawn to this event prohibited any such coddling social structure. I could see that if I was going to get anything out of the day, I would have to take a swan dive into the midst of the action. And this became my strategy: start doing something; if it’s wrong, someone will surely tell me, and then I will have learned a thing. And this is exactly what happened.

Every endeavor on earth that involves more than one person has what is usually referred to as a “shit-job”, pardon my Gaelic; a job no one really wants to do, a job for beginners. I am as familiar with this role as anyone under the sun, I think, because of the number of times in my life I have started from scratch. In the case of drystack wallbuilding, the job that constantly needs doing is adding “hearting” — small stones or fragments of stones — to the spaces between the inner and outer courses as the wall goes up. Without hearting, the walls would be hollow and the longer stones would be unsupported, and the wall would eventually shift and the structure would fall. The hearting is really and truly the heart of the wall, and while everyone acknowledges this, most people would rather lay the courses, choose and set the stones, than scrape around the perimeter of the jobsite like squirrels, collecting shards of rock in a bucket to be used for hearting.

As you submit to the realities inherent in the work, the work begins to draw you in and educate you. Click for larger view. Photo by Patrick McAfee, used by permission.

I gladly started on hearting duty. It got me busy right away, it reminded me to be humble, and in fact there was something satisfying about it. The chips and chunks that fall from the stones that the mason dresses with his hammer become the hearting that fills the wall, so that there is this elegant economy and waste is avoided. Ideally, rather than having a site littered with stone fragments at the end of the job, the area around the work is spotless. The wall has made a home in its heart for its own waste products.

A big guy named Dan, who has his own construction and landscape business in Centralia, seemed to have taken charge of one section of the wall and started asking me to hand him this or that stone to try fitting, or asking me in particular if I could find one that was about four fingers thick and somewhat triangular. I left off collecting and fitting the hearting — which itself has a better way and a sloppy way of being done if you care to learn — and began hunting stones for Dan, and pretty soon he had shifted half his energy to helping the McAfees lift the window blocks into place, which left me in charge of Dan’s section of wall. I asked a gregarious fellow named Chad how to read the trammel, and he was happy to explain it to me. Then at some point, I realized I had become part of the hive mind. I knew what to do. When the next window blocks were being laid, I was there to help shim them. I could foresee what stone was going to help the course and which stone might seem to answer a certain spot but would cause trouble later. I paid attention when Patrick or Brian came around and coached about the exterior angle of the stones, and I pulled down work I had done, or that others near me had done, and did it better. I called for hearting, or fetched a bucketful and fitted it myself. I made the comment that shouldn’t there be another step here (a stone sticking out from the wall so that we could later stand on the steps and continue working on the higher parts of the structure), and darned if I wasn’t right.

Checking my progress with the trammel. Seven hours earlier I hadn’t even known what a trammel was. Click for larger view. Photo by Patrick McAfee, used by permission.

I was covered with a fine orange sandstone dust. At lunch, I sat next to Dan and it happened that Patrick and Brian McAfee both joined us across the table, so I was able to benefit from their conversation. Patrick was naturally quiet, reflective, and worried that with so many people working on the clochán it was impossible to keep it going the way it should. He feared that at the rate we were going we wouldn’t finish by the time he had to fly back to Ireland on Sunday. If we finished, the quality would be low. He was okay with that, but you could tell that he had a deep love of doing things the right way.

Patrick was the kind of stonemason I would want to learn from. I gleaned what I could whenever he circled the structure to inspect and give tips, and I considered the day a personal success. I had worked right through an afternoon rainstorm that sent many scampering for their rain gear but which Dan and I and the others in our corner regarded as refreshing relief from the punishing sun that had beat on us at midday. We had raised the wall about three feet and installed four sets of windows. A few of us were still at it when someone came out from the store and said “It’s beer o’clock guys. Call it a day.”

The clochán nears completion. I wasn’t here for this part. This photo shows the front door and the front window (yes, that tiny three-inch slit is a window). Note that people are standing on steps protruding from the wall. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

I felt a deeply satisfying exhaustion in my bones as I went around shaking hands with and saying goodbyes to the people I’d worked with, thanking many for little tips they’d given me. I told Patrick that I would not be back the next day but that I’d enjoyed learning from him. It meant the world to me when he said in his lyrical accent, “Tanks for your efforts. You were quick on the uptake, I noticed.”

Remember in the Roop’s Mill post, when I wondered if anything I’ve ever done will outlast the collective memory? Well, there’s a beehive-shaped structure up in the Issaquah Alps that I expect will still be there a couple thousand years from now, and I had a hand in that. Two hands, in fact. My own two hands.

Photo by Allison Wilhem, cropped without permission.


She’s on a roll

On Saturday, Emilia rolled over for the first time (that we’re aware of). Mara and I saw her almost do it on Saturday morning, and then Angela called us into the living room later in the day when she was lying on her play “gym”, a mat with a couple of arches from which dangle several toys that are designed to engage the interest of infants (and cats). When Mara and I rushed into the room, sure enough, Millie was on her tummy.

Full disclosure: I moved her arms so they were under her chest instead of under her belly, but otherwise this baby has not been tampered with.

A day earlier, I had put a little teething toy into her hands and she had held onto it for a long time, gripping it with intention and examining it. Even a week ago she lacked the motor skills to really grip something for long, but she’s developing quickly. She does crunches, too, building her neck and core strength. She does them even when she’s swaddled and can’t move her arms. She does them whenever she can, like one of those wrongly imprisoned movie heroes doing one-armed push-ups in his cell against the day he can exact a fit and muscular revenge.

Listen, fish! I don't know what you are, but I'm gonna keep squeezin' yiz, see?

Happy as we are about these developments, both the roll and the grip have down sides. The roll means we can no longer turn our backs on Miss Millie-pants while she reposes on the diaper changing table, or on a bed, otherwise she’ll drop like a cartoon anvil. And being the one in the family with the shortest hair, I alone am exempt from having my locks yanked when I hold Emilia. When Angela or Mara or anyone with long hair holds her, she quickly clamps onto the dangling tresses and won’t let go, and although this is really an unconscious gripping that has been going on for a while, it can only get worse as she starts being the Decider about what she wants to reach for. I’m glad I don’t wear earrings. 

Bean, untucked (uh-oh)

I’m worried about where L. L. Bean is going. Before recycling the catalog I usually flip through it and covet the sweaters that I can’t afford and that anyway are increasingly no longer available in tall sizes. Bean is about my style — has been for many years. I can’t wear the young men’s jackets with the pseudo-military epaulets. Too reactionary. A few years ago I had a pair of Sketchers that even my college-aged nephew commented on (“Cool shoes!”), but after I wore them out I started wearing my Rockport “man shoes” full time. And as hard as I try, I can’t resist the urge to tuck my shirt in. I’m darn nar a half-century old, for crying out loud. At least, I’ve thought, I’ll always have L. L. Bean, the middle-aged slightly dorky family man’s outfitter.

The classic bean man. Was going to put in a few hours on the new airport project working remotely on the laptop from the porch, but what the hey -- moments like this are to be cherished.

The new bean man. "I don't know why I'm here by this boat. I'm not big on boats -- bourgois affectation if you ask me. Shall we adjourn to a Starbucks where we can adore myself?"

But something troubling is sneaking into their marketing. While sorting a long-neglected heap of mail today, I ran across a Bean catalog that advertised an apparently new line called “Signature”. Right away, my B.S. antennae started wiggling like mad. On the cover were a young, very young man and woman, both looking out at the camera from inside or next to some vaguely barny structure. They did not look at each other. They in fact seemed to be unaware of each other. Two black holes of youthful self-absorption, isolated from all else, except their clothes, which they rocked.

The setting is familiar — Bean catalogs are all about porches, fireplaces, the barn, the maple sugaring house, the dock down by the lake — but what was new was the attitude of the models. They were not my generation. In the past, even the models much younger than I were still “of my generation” spiritually. As Angela put it, they were “happy, middle-class, college-educated people starting families and taking vacations on the coast”. They were always smiling. The women looked like young moms, open and fun, and the men were always doing easy but real things — fetching a few logs for the fire, tying up the dinghy — often accompanied by a golden retriever and always in a good humor. Their demeanor always suggested the presence of other people, their families and friends, very close by. Sometimes they were looking down sheepishly as though chuckling at the very idea of their picture being taken, as though they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They knew they were part of a community and that it was okay for them to be a little fuddy-duddy. “Hey, are you takin’ pictures again? Well, hurry up, I gotta get these firelogs into the cabin and get back to our game of pinochle before someone looks at my cards.”

The classic bean man. Could take a little ribbing about the hair.

"I don't know...I just...Do you ever just...I don't know..."

These new models don’t smile. They aren’t doing anything, aren’t on their way to join their spouses or children, or even their friends. They just exist in this moment of handsomeness or loveliness. It scares me. Is that what L. L. Bean thinks I’m shooting for? Is that what they want to sell me, to reflect to me about my aspirations? The venerable outfitter must be hurting for business. Or maybe this was inevitable and I’m just feeling that age-based dissing that everyone eventually experiences at the hands of fashion but that just smarts a little more in today’s culture, when these consumer goods are so ever-present around us.

"Sheesh, you had to go and bring that up again. We were just frat boys then."

Ball and smile: the evidence of loved ones nearby.

The invasion of the iPod people...disconnected, serious. "Hear this..."

I’m making it sound as if the old Beanies are more real in some way, and I know better. After all, they were just models, too. Selling duds. But you can learn an awful lot about where the culture thinks it’s headed by what marketers reflect back at you in your catalogs. I’m a happy, middle-class, college educated family man who vacations at the coast, and I preferred it when L. L. Bean was trying to sell me that image of myself.

"Dorky, sure, but somebody loves me, and they're calling my name."

Mara vs. Household: a summary

Plaintiff: Mara
Defendant: Household

The plaintiff sues for wrongful confiscation of personal property.

On the evening of October 18, 2010, on a regularly scheduled post-bedtime check, a duly appointed representative of the Household discovers Plaintiff wetting Freddy One (see Exhibit A) in her mouth and “painting” her headboard with saliva. Household reminds Plaintiff that she has been instructed to abstain from smearing spittle on her headboard and commences action toward the Removal of both Freddy One and Freddy Two.

Exhibit A: Freddy One, one of two identically manufactured but unequally worn miniature blankets.

Plaintiff exhibits distress in the form of tears, wailing and garbled speech — becomes, in a word, fitful.  Household requests a repeat of the communication, whereupon Plaintiff asserts that Household does not have authority to remove the Freddies, that she needs them to sleep, and that she was not told in advance that Removal of one or both Freddies would be a consequence of further infractions.

Noted that Plaintiff has never spent a night of her life without at least one of the Freddies.

Household acknowledges the regrettability of the situation but follows through with Removal Proceedings.

Plaintiff insists that she “forgot about that other time”. Household offers the opinion that she will not forget again, because the Freddies are going away for the night. Heightened distress on the part of Plaintiff ensues. Plaintiff wonders what if she promises not to do it again, but Household reminds Plaintiff that that’s what she said the last time.

Household withdraws with the Freddies amid much crying and pleading. Duly appointed representative of the Household reports confusion about whether his actions were justified and whether a more lenient consequence might have been arrived at.

Plaintiff quiesces after one and one half minutes, then asks cheerfully when the other duly appointed representative of the Household will get home.

After eight more minutes, Household returns with intent to soothe hard feelings and engage in empathetic discussion of what has transpired. Plaintiff is already asleep.

Upon deliberation with the other duly appointed representative of the Household, it is decided to return the Freddies so that Plaintiff can be soothed by them during sleep (see Exhibit B).

Exhibit B: Sleeping Plaintiff clutching the properties in question.


Bereft of our CNO (chief nurturing officer) and most junior family member are we, Mara and I. Angela went on a much needed women’s retreat this weekend and could bear neither the thought of not being able to smell Emilia’s head for two nights and two days nor the prospect of returning to find us all dead because I couldn’t manage a baby and a five-year-old, so she took Millie-pants with her.

I was torn about whether or not to include the other fifty shots that each have one empty hole because the kids were moving around so much. Note the fog visible in even a few yards of background.

Mara and I went with her friend Gwyneth’s family to the Craven Farm Pumpkin Patch in Snohomish today. It’s become an annual tradition that Mara really looks forward to. I blogged about this last year, so I won’t go into all the details again. But I took a fajillion pictures, so I thought I’d post a good batch of them.

We arrived early and entered the patch under a blanket of white fog that lay thick and cold on the valley floor. But while we were hunting pumpkins the fog lifted and dissolved in a bright blue October sky. This happened last year, too, and it really is a kind of magical experience. Mara and Gwyn don’t notice that kind of thing consciously, of course, but it forms the background of the memories of this place that are forming and being strengthened every year. For the girls, the big attractions are the pumpkins, the makeshift playground the farm has — a teepee, an old speedboat, an old tractor, and a pirate ship structure — and the hayride, not necessarily in that order. 

It really should be called a straw-wagon.

Awaiting the next surprise on the hayride.

A vegetate Little Red Riding Hood is one of the enchantments in the cornfield.

You might pause to marvel that I got this shot, since I was inside the tractor sitting next to Mara on a bale of hay (straw, actually) and had no way to aim the camera or see what their faces were doing. It pays to have long arms.

The hayride is always fun because the tractor pulls the wagon into a tall acre of corn on a path along which little scenarios, some spooky and all festive, have been set up. The girls love this, especially the place where a pumpkin-headed witch has crashed into a post on her broom. After the ride, we turn our attention to the more serious business of selecting pumpkins in the field.

The pumpkin patch has a calming and restorative effect on adults, I think — we all end up meandering away into different corners of the field and then reconvening, over and over again — but Mara can only be interested in pumpkin hunting for so long and then it’s all about the worms. The earth beneath the gourds, when you roll them over, is silty and stinky and very rich, and large earthworms abound in it. I have to remember when we leave the patch to ask her if she has worms in her pockets and if she does, to enjoin her to release them back into some moist and shady shelter, otherwise she’ll bring them home and want to take them into her bed with her. 

Patch pals.

Each glimmer of bright orange lures you further into the field.

Worms. What it all comes down to.

The fog lifts. It's going to be a beautiful day.

A worm in the hand is worth two pumpkins in the bush.


The lucky man at four score

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my Country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

— Scouts’ Oath

Be prepared.”

— Scouts’ Motto

I do my father a disservice by drawing attention to him, this I know at the outset. So this may be a short post, depending on how long it takes to say as little as possible about the fact that we celebrated his 80th birthday last Saturday. I get the feelilng from old photographs (many of which were on display on a table at the entrance to the church multipurpose room where we had gathered only last month to celebrate his sister-in-law’s 100th) that my dad had something of a hambone in him when he was younger, but for the nearly half-century I have known him he has not been one to seek the limelight.

A good friend gets a good laugh out of Dad.

We his family and his friends are exceedingly glad that he was here to be celebrated Saturday. He comes into his 81st year beset by breathing difficulties that oblige him to be always within a few yards of a tank of oxygen, which he inhales through a nose-tube. This and the wheelchair (because it exhausts him even to walk) make him perhaps even less eager to be the center of attention than he would be anyway, though he does not say this, and in the tradition of his WASP heritage he does not complain very loudly or very often about the wheelchair or the oxygen tube, which he often holds coiled up like a cowboy’s lariat so that he can lend out slack when he walks from his chair in the living room to the breakfast nook, and not at all about the curtailment of his once-favorite activities — dancing with Mom, rebuilding pianos, walking the trails at Mount Rainier. And since he has lived well past the five years he was “given” when doctors discovered a slow form of pancreatic cancer eating at his internal organs, he actually considers himself lucky. Indeed, it is not the cancer that troubles him now — it has all but receded with the adminstration of annoying but non-invasive treatments — but the shortness of breath caused by emphyzema. The lack of breath is the only thing that he seems willing to own as a tribulation.

Dear friends drove long distances on the freeway and crossed large bodies of water to be present for Dad’s celebration, and some of these folks are people for whom travel is a discomfort or even a hardship. My Mom’s brother and his wife, Uncle Jack and Aunt Lil, flew out from what Jack calls “the right coast” for the occasion (both my parents are from Baltimore, Maryland), and my brother Ben brought his family down from Alaska. Two of Ben’s children, the twins Emily and Jack (yes, named for his great-uncle) were also celebrating their birthday that day (Dad’s was a few weeks ago, theirs was that very day), and so there were several cakes and we sang multiple renditions of Happy Birthday.

On leave in Switzerland (probably Zurich), early 1950s.

Dad and me, late '60s.

Dad brought his Boy Scout sash with him. He’s very proud of the fact that he made Eagle Scout back in the day. I have only seen this accessory a handful of times — maybe fewer than five — but it means a lot to him and it has obviously been kept rolled up or folded in a safe place throughout my entire life. As I googled the Scouts’ code of honor online (that’s a sad picture, isn’t it?) it became clear to me that my father has never stopped being an Eagle Scout. The Scouts’ Law describes my dad to a fare-thee-well.

What meant even more to him was that several people attended his party from “the old neighborhood”, the one in south Bellevue where he and Mom raised us kids. I spent most of the event flitting around from one table to another saying hello to people I hadn’t seen in years but whom I had known, or rather who have known me, since I was two days old. And because my century-old aunt Evelyn was able to attend — this had not necessarily been a certainty — brother Ben got to see her at last. He was not able to be here for her do last month.

It's all here.

Mara was once again happy to spend time with her Alaska cousins, who despite turning eight years old are near enough to her own age as to be a new kind of cousin in her mind (all but one of her “adult” cousins on my side were also present). Mara has quickly bonded with Jack and Em, especially Emily. They spent the afternoon playing together and eating cake. 

In my father’s lifetime, American society has evolved from an essentially agrarian world to a digital one, in many ways a virtual one. When he was born, cities were surrounded by and supplied by farms and most people in America still lived in the countryside. I think about this all the time, what has changed, what has been lost. In some respects, the America I long for is one that I don’t really remember but that he does. People stayed put more and were more interdependent on one another, community supplied what has been replaced by money now. Planned obsolescence was unheard of and would have been regarded as the insanity that it is, and things made were made with pride and with the intent that they should last as long as possible. If my dad has ever reflected on the remarkable transformation of the world he has lived in for 80 years he has not done so out loud, nor is he a glass-half-empty man like myself. My dad has cheerfully accommodated the plastics and high tech polymers and fabrics that have emerged and taken over the world once made of iron, tin, aluminum and wood, meanwhile simultaneously keeping his own love of more traditional materials alive in his piano rebuilding work. 

One of my favorite shots of Dad. Cannon Beach in the late '70s. He bought himself a kite.

At a lookout point south of Cannon Beach, late 1970s.

I think one word that fairly describes my dad’s outlook on the world is acceptance. That alone wins him not only my highest admiration, but also a measure of vexation. More than any other, this is the man whom I am more likely to resemble in all ways as time goes by, no matter what I do. I am filling the space where he walked, the stages his face has gone through, the shape of his body — my brother saw a recent photo of me and said I even stand like him. But other than the fact that he values, still values, the mores listed in the boy scout’s code — being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent — I know him so little. More than anything I want to know who my father is and it is mainly by what we are passionate about that we are known. His passions he has held close to the vest, and that’s just how it is. He is, after all, descended of English and German farmers.

I do know that he considers himself to be a lucky man in more ways than not, and that’s a posture in which I am happy to follow him. 

Dad sat  in a high-backed chair like an old and well-loved king, and because so many people wanted a chance to talk with him he ended up clutching the same half sandwich in his left hand for about an hour. He held up well, though, and afterwards a small subset of family and close friends retired to my folks’ house in Issaquah to finish off whatever cold-cuts didn’t get eaten at the party and to prolong the togetherness before plane flights the next day.

Some of the clan. And this doesn't include the many friends who attended.

King for a day!


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt