- Retreat (2/26/2019)
It shouldn’t surprise me how deeply day to day life can interfere with the creative process. For months I’ve been stuck on the next book, a fictional portrayal of a rather bent near term world while my days have been full with work on my Alliance for Girls and Beth Sholom projects, with travel, exercise, and most recently a couple months of back trouble that sapped much energy from everything else. I need distance to do the real work of creating. Editing, revising, backfilling–that can be done during regular life
I’m away now, on a three week retreat in Whistler, B.C. I’ve been looking forward to this since August. Write and ski, cook and sleep, read a book or three. Its working! Here’s the evidence.
I did this same thing with Jenny. This wall is a color-coded transcription, to a timeline, of notes formerly scrawled haphazardly on five poster-sized sheets of Post-It paper, embellished by the steady massage of my imagination. There is an iterative process between what I write and how that ends up in the structure of the book. It seems cuckoo, sometimes to do it this way, but I’m comforted by the words or Elizabeth Bowen, who says, “Plot is what’s left when all the extraneous bits have been chipped away. ” On this project, I’m still early in the process of creating all the extraneous bits.
- Montreal (7/29/2018)
Anne and I have been enjoying this most Canadian and international city the past couple of days. Although proudly Francophone, everyone we meet speaks English and, with typical Canadian empathy, switches to it immediately on figuring out our incapacity with French. We are staying in the Vieux Port, or old port district, which is sort of a a combination of Sausalito and Pier 39 gussied up with cobblestones, car-free zones, and remodeled 200 year old brick and stone buildings. Across the street, by the St. Lawrence is a carnival with games and booths and a ferris wheel to match the London Eye. On the next pier down is the Montreal Museum of Science. The entire zone absolutely packed with tourists. Good for Montreal, certainly, but a bit claustrophobic!
The city has a large amount of public art. Murals, projections on the side of buildings, museums. There is a “Festival zone” in the downtown area covering a couple dozen square blocks and incorporating open plazas, informal amphitheaters, stages and pedestrian blocks peppered with street food, games, and performers, with music scheduled on the stages free early evening. There is a Comedy festival happening now. We saw an extraordinary exhibition at the Musee de Beaux-Arts on the relationship of Picasso to the art of Africa and Oceania. He was surrounded by this art in his studio and a lot of his work makes sense now in a different way. Quite extraordinary.
Yesterday we got out of the tourist zone by having a Jewish day. We went to shul in the morning; our former rabbi from San Francisco, Aubrey Glaser, has returned home to Canada and assumed the rabbinate at a large Anglophone Conservative synagogue here. At the post-service lunch a conversation with a long-time member showed they are facing the same sort of issues that our synagogue is facing–stable but older membership, primary support from a handful of stalwart families, and a changing set of values among younger Jews. We followed this up with a walking tour of the Plateau district led by a young curator from the Museum of Jewish Montreal. “In the Shadow of the Mountain” traced the engagement of Jews in the arts and politics of the city. Jews have been integrated into the growth of Montreal as an international city from its earliest development (more like L.A. that N.Y.) and haven’t seemed to face the endemic discrimination so characteristic of our engagement in other places in the world. Plateau reminded us of Brooklyn, with young people, young families, arcane eateries and a lot of coffee spread among long established hardware stores, repurposed buildings and Schwartz’s, serving the best smoked meats in Montreal (as the long line out in front perhaps could attest).
WE have two more days here then off to the countryside, after the tandem, which was due here on Friday, arrives tomorrow as promised by Fed Ex. It is here in Montreal but has to clear customs before delivery. Why it’s so complicated to send your personal property back and forth across this border is another of those mysteries of modern society.
- Eva’s Twentieth Yartzeit (7/13/2018)
Tonight begins the twentieth yartzeit for Eva, marking twenty one years since her death transformed our lives. Yartzeit marks the Hebrew date of her death, the 2nd of Av. Yartzeit is Judaism’s way of remembering the dead, but it is for the living. Like so much Jewish practice, its a simple thing. Each year, we light a 24-hour candle at home. At the synagogue we stand and say a prayer. We are seen; the community remembers our loss, acknowledges our pain, and supports our life today with love and respect. On this day we remember the Eva of the past, and experience her absence in the present. Its sad, what we have missed, what we are missing –yet the overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude, for the love we have today and for the privilege of having been Eva’s parent. It is what it is.
- Watching the Tour de France (7/10/2018)
Every morning for the next three weeks I get out of bed at the crack of dawn. I make my coffee, then turn on the TV, and watch these skinny guys in ridiculous clothes ride their bicycles 2500 miles around France. I love it. Most people I know don’t understand my passion for it even a little bit. Cycling on TV? It’s like watching paint dry. Even people who respect my own riding obsession, or practice it themselves, can’t make the leap to the sport of it.
But pro cycling is glorious. It embodies science and feeling: preparation, nutrition, recovery, pain, exultation, sacrifice, satisfaction and loss. It has stars and laborers, specialists and generalists. It is the most egalitarian of sports, practiced by working class men who know how to suffer, men who would be working in a factory if they didn’t have a freakishly high VO2 max. It is the most international of sports, men from many nations participating on teams that know no national boundaries. The 176 riders of the TdF peloton ride shoulder to shoulder at 30 miles an hour, handlebars overlapping; a moment’s inattention can have disastrous results. (check out Lawson Craddock’s face.)Yet they persist.
Although a given day may feel like a Grateful Dead concert (hours of noodling punctuated by moments of transcendence), over a three week tour high drama develops. There are five separate competitions within the race. Storylines emerge and become incredibly compelling. Some storylines extend over many years (like beanball wars in baseball). These years, Chris Froome of Team Sky is the campionissmo, the big dog of the tour. But he fell and lost a minute on the opening day. Can he persist? Will Richie Porte, his former lieutenant, lead Team BMC to truly challenge him this year? (Here’s what happened to Porte last year) On Saturday, Bastille Day, French riders will give their all for a stage win. Can they succeed? Every day there is a breakaway, unknown men riding off into the future, chasing the dream of a stage victory in the Tour de France. But the peloton is unsympathetic. Today’s 4 man break was caught in the final kilometer after being away for more than 100 miles.
I am completely absorbed. Even though I’m a real shlepper, I know what these men are feeling. What is in their heart is in my heart. The world falls away, and it is you and the bike and the road, constantly bargaining for the success of the ride. So when you wake up tomorrow morning, give a thought to the old guy sitting on his couch with his coffee and his imagination, eating the dust of the riders of the Tour de France.
- Without Jenny is Published! (4/3/2018)
Please join me on one of two Sundays, April 22 or April 29, to celebrate the publication of my novel of grief and recovery, Without Jenny, by Koehler Books! We’ll sip and schmooze and I’ll spend a little time speaking about the novel and my own experience as a bereaved father. I’ll read selected excerpts and do a signing.
Without Jenny chronicles the trans-formations an upwardly striving San Francisco Jewish family experiences after the sudden, accidental death of ten-year-old Jenny, their oldest. An emotional story told with honest and haunting detail, the novel is an intimate portrait of two people of good will in a loving marriage that gets stretched to the breaking point by the unspeakable.
“This novel draws us intimately close to the mysteries of imperfect love and of human resilience.” —Catherine Brady, winner of the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction
The writing of course is deeply informed by my daughter Eva’s death in 1997. What does it even mean to “recover” from such a disaster? The novel form lets me communicate the daily experience of grief; it’s cadences, sensibilities and contradictions; how the world is turned inside out. These characters ricochet between hope and despair, love and pain, fear and resolve, yet somehow find a way forward.
“Mark Gunther offers his readers a meditation on strength, courage, and the healing power of family.” —Rabbi Naomi Levy, author of Einstein and the Rabbi
Please join me for a reading and celebration of Without Jenny’s publication! I’d love to sign your copy!
Robin’s Cafe, Sunday, April 22 at 4pm The book will be on sale for $20, with $5 going to the ODC school’s Thea Anderson Fund.
Congregation Beth Sholom, Sunday, April 29 at 4pm The book will be on sale for $20, with $5 going to Beth Sholom’s grief support efforts.
- Turning a Heart of Stone into a Heart of Flesh (3/13/2018)
This line from Ezekiel 36 was a big theme of my weekend; First I read it in Rabbi Naomi Levy’s “Einstein and the Rabbi,” then it was the Haftorah at services on Saturday morning. I recognize myself in this line; it is mimetic of the way grief transformed my life.
Rabbi Levy wrote of a congregant of hers who, while driving her car, lost her attention for a few seconds and killed a man. I lost my attention for a few seconds and a man killed my daughter. My heart turned to stone, ossified by a guilt I was certain never could be assuaged. But here it gets interesting. Rabbi Levy says the mystics identify the source of love not as the heart, but as the soul.
The heart’s job is to receive love, not give it. The pain of Eva’s loss turned my heart to stone. I could not receive love, yet I was not abandoned by those I love. It was their love that ultimately broke the stone.
As I get older, I’m ever more awed by Judaism’s vibrancy, the way so many life events are reflected in its traditions and practices. Judaism has a generous capacity to touch me over and over again whether by practice or by a seeming happenstance such as taking this particular book out of my reading stack on this particular weekend.
- Alliance for Girls Grows Up (2/9/2018)
After five years of careful building, Alliance for Girls has become an independent agency! AFG’s mission is to ensure that girl-serving organizations are more connected, more effective and better able to prepare the girls of today to be the leaders, agents of change and thriving women of tomorrow. AFG succeeds because its members are passionate about serving their girls and are united by a common methodology: listen to girls, follow their lead, and help them prepare for and achieve their goals.
I’m privileged to be the Chair of AFG’s new Board and work closely with our dynamic Executive Director, Emma Mayerson. Board members of young agencies often take on roles that in larger agencies are filled by staff. Here, while there will be some of this, from the beginning the requirements of trusteeship are front and center.
AFG already has influenced the conversation in the Bay Area and has a chance to do so nationally. I’m very much looking forward to the next chapter!
- New Publication: Grief’s Cradle (10/25/2017)
My essay “Grief’s Cradle,” first published in the Adelaide Literary Journal, has been republished in Grief Digest. “Grief’s Cradle” is my ‘theory of grief,” if you will, with thoughts from Joan Didion, Elisabeth Kubler Ross and CS Lewis interspersed with my own experience.
Hope you enjoy it!
- Bike Commuting Wisdom (10/5/2017)
I’ve been riding my bike in the City for over 25 years. When I started, urban cyclists were weirdos. The streets had just a bit of 1970’s legacy infrastructure. To be safe on the road, you acted like a car, meaning become aggressively visible or get the hell out of the way. Drivers may not have liked that very much, but they knew it would inconvenience them to kill you—paperwork, insurance, missed appointments—so they generally were cooperative, if you were.
It’s not that way anymore. The City’s impressive population growth over the past twenty years has put more of everything out there. While even a curmudgeon like me has to admit there’s a lot to like about the explosion of cycling in the City, it also means there’s a lot more interaction, both positive and negative, between cyclists and other transportation modalities. We cyclists like to complain about the stupid things we see drivers and walkers do, and believe me, I’ve seen some doozies. But in my experience the most serious hazard for cyclists on the streets is other cyclists.
You’d think that shared two-wheeled-i-ness would generate oodles of kind empathy, but no. Something important is getting lost here; understanding how your own behaviors impact others around you and making accommodations. Maybe it has to do with entitlement, or the degradation of political discourse, or the rich getting richer, or feminism, or originalism, or social media, or isolating yourself in the echo chamber of people like you. Why is it that the grooviness of being on a bike can extinguish basic civility? So here’s what I hate about our developing bike culture.
- No one says hi to you anymore. We cycle commuters used to be tight-knit clan. We’d wave to each other, maybe talk a bit at a stoplight. Now people hide behind their earbuds and sunglasses and specialized city bikes and give you the hairy eyeball if you say hello, like you are some kind of pervert ready to drain the air from their tires at the slightest provocation.
- What’s with the weird hand gestures? The fist by the thigh with one finger extended is not an adequate left turn signal. Use your whole arm, folks—stick it out there so everyone see. Draw attention to yourself! It’s the civil thing to do.
- Wobbling and weaving. Don’t do it. Ride in a straight line. That inspires confidence in your fellow riders and the operators of the two-ton death machines cohabiting the road with you. The bike goes where your eyes go. Look ahead, not at your front wheel, your phone, or your coffee cup.
- Taking up the whole bike lane. It’s unconscious at best and selfish at worst. Ride to one side of the bike lane. Let people pass you. Yes, lanes are wide so you don’t get doored, but a much better way to avoid getting doored is to see the driver in the parked car. Proactivity equals Safety.
- And don’t overlap my wheel, OK? If I have to swerve or make a quick turn, you’re on the ground and I’m feeling guilty, bad outcomes for both of us.
- Practice anticipatory traffic-oriented behavior; look down the road! DO NOT ever get into a position where you have to slam on your brakes in front of me. DO NOT pass cars on the right at an intersection! DO NOT ride between busses on Market Street! DO NOT claim the right of way from a delivery truck, even if you have it!
- And that’s some of the problem with the separated bicycle infrastructure. I’ve already lost this battle, but really. The thing to do is slow down the cars. Those traffic islands on Oak and Fell can be dangerous when riders have to funnel into them. That bike lane on JFK, between the curb and the parked cars? You’ve got no where to go when the tourist busses disgorge their occupants at the Hall of Flowers.
- On the other hand, riders, use the f-ing infrastructure! Why antagonize drivers by riding down California Street when there is a lovely and peaceful bike lane a block away on Lake? And MTA? If you want us to use the infrastructure, finish it.
- Ban the Blinkie! They are annoying, dangerous and illegal. A blinkie draws the driver’s eye, and where his eye goes so goes his car. Right into your rear wheel. Everyone knows what a fixed red light means, but is that blinking one a bike, a road hazard, a stopped school bus, a cop or a kid with those LED shoes? We don’t have a special exemption to blink–the law requires a fixed light fixed to your vehicle, so get with it, folks.
- And the blinking front lights? OMG. Blindingly horrible and distracting. Especially those thousand lumen LED’s. Morse code burned into my retinas. Yes, folks, I’m the one who’s yelling at you on the Golden Gate Bridge to Turn That Damn Blinkie Off!
I love my bikes. We have waaay too many cars in the City. I’m all in favor of tax-based car ownership disincentives. But one thing you can say for drivers is they all follow the same rules, both of law and custom. There is a long standing set of bicycling customs, too; learn them, use them, and we’ll all be better off.
- On Being Jewish (9/23/2017)
I was with a friend recently who was about to shop for 11 people for Rosh Hashanah dinner. “Are you going to Shul?” I asked. “Oh no,” he said, “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in that stuff. The Chosen People? That bothers me.”
I let the conversation drop, but the encounter has stayed with me. Judaism is less about what I believe than about who I am. The more I learn the more Jewish I feel and the less sure I am about what it is. My Jewishness is an ongoing spiritual dialog with myself, driven by five thousand years of studying, practice and devotion around chosen-ness and a great many other things. (more…)