Tales of a Fourth Grade Brahman

In 1976 I was in Mr Rehmeyer’s fourth grade class. I guess he was around 35 then, so born sometime around 1940. It’s something to think about, that all those teachers from that time are likely 70, 80, 90 years old now if they are still with us.

Mrs. Brown had been my excellent 3rd grade teacher. She was from San Francisco, and I think that was the first time I really heard of or thought about the idea of the Bay Area, where I ended up making my home for the last gazillion years. She was sweet and warm, and that’s likely part of what I always associate brown bobbed hair with kindness. So if you have brown bobbed hair, don’t be mean to me. It will mess me up.

Mrs. Brown liked me, but she liked everyone. Mr. Rehmeyer was a little different. I could be wrong, but I think I was one of his favorites. At least, that was the impression he gave me, and you know, more credit to him if we all felt that way.

He had lived in India before coming to our school in the Hague, and would tell us little tidbits about life on the subcontintent. The whole Western romance of India as a land of mystic wisdom—all the trace signals that sent a generation of American hippies, British musicians, Harvard professors into the crowded cities and thick jungles of India—long before my brother Pete introduced me to Ram Dass’ Be Here Now, long before I stumbled on Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, long before I watched The Razor’s Edge, and learned about the Upanishads from Bill Murray, all that I got from Mr. Rehmeyer.

Mr. Rehmer looked a little like the actor Bryan Cranston, if that helps, but with fuller black hair, and a thick beard like you’d find on a GI Joe doll. He wore button down shirts and always seemed ready to pick something up, to turn it around, to fix or make something.

I remember he talked directly to me and not at or near me. And I remember being excited to learn one day that we would be putting on a show, sort of a living panorama. The theme would be India and Hinduism, and the role of the holy man was going to be played by a talkative, frizzy-haired Jewish kid prone to wearing tight, thick-striped shirts. Aka, me.

The scene was staged on a blanket or sheet in the corner of the classroom. If I remember right, the performance was planned for the evening so our families could join. I don’t remember any lines, or even the existence of lines. It seems like we were just being asked to be these characters, not to play out a particular scene.

Every year or so we would get a visit from our grandparents—my Saba and Sapta from Tel Aviv, or my Grandma and Grandpa from the US. There wasn’t any pattern to these visits. It wasn’t an “every passover” kind of thing. The wheels would turn, the stars would click, and they would appear, staying in our house for two or three weeks.

Looking back, the details of those trips are pretty hazy. I remember visiting my grandparents in Israel in ’78. I remember visiting Grandma and Grandpa in San Mateo, perhaps around ’77. But there’s only one trip from my American grandparents to our home in Holland that I can recall with any clarity. That trip in the 4th grade.

My Grandma was funny and wry. She had a little Danny Kaye in her. She would dance without provocation. She would tease. She didn’t mind attention, and she didn’t mind doling out attention either. When I was perhaps 4 or 5 or 6, we were on a late night family drive, both in the back seat. It might have been to an event at our cousin Naomi’s. I put put my head down in her lap and slept some of the best and deepest sleep in my life. I think she patted my head. Wonderful safe darkness. That was my Grandma too.

This visit was only a few years later. I was nine and I still loved her like crazy. I mean, that never went away, but there’s an extra power to the love you have for your grandparents when you’re a not-yet-teen.

And here’s what I remember most of all: I remember getting ready to go to the school, and my Grandma pulling out her lipstick. It looked sort of purple, perhaps lavender. She made a thick dot on my forehead with that lipstick, pressing the lipstick hard enough that the dot raised up from my skin, almost like a blob of lavender paint.

I’ve since learned that a mark on the forehead is called a Bindi for women and a Tilak for men. And perhaps we can give me and my grandmother a pass, all these years later, for a move about as sensitive as someone wearing a turquoise cape and calling it a Tallit. Because I have to admit, I remember that mark with affection.

I remember her standing close. Maybe even stretching up a little to press it into my skin. I remember climbing up onto the platform to put on our show, the heavy scent of incense drifting over the set. And it was the cool feeling of lavender lipstick fixed to my forehead that stuck with me all these years, that moment with Grandma that made it possible for me to remember my star turn, Mr. Rehmeyer looking on from the side, my grandparents in the audience, the incense sticks glowing like slow burning prayers. Me, beaming. Holy, sort of. Happy, fully.

My Own Private Stanley Idaho

This is a story about a pair of roadtrips. One from a year ago, one a few decades back.

The one from last year started on a Friday.

Work calls kicked off that morning at 7am. We were getting ready for a big launch, bashing ideas around, picking up the pieces, turning them into emails. I was working in my home office, strapped into a large Ikea chair with laptop and headphones in place.

At noon things shifted gears as my daughter, a high school senior then, began hearing back from colleges. All the interviews and essays, all the tests and activities of the last couple of years—they’d been sent through the admissions machine. Right around lunchtime that day, the machine started answering back.

At 3, my son got out of school, my wife got home from her job. We took a deep breath and piled into the Honda.

I remember putting on a mix with one album from each us to start things off as we settled in for the 7 hours drive up to Eureka to see my mother-in-law, Kay.

Kay has Alzheimer’s. She still has the same awesome smile and laugh she’s always had. She doesn’t quite remember who we are in the details. (I’m not the likable guy who looks a bit like me and did Scottish dancing that one time.) But she remembers who we are emotionally, and she greets each of us as someone special in her life.

The highlight of that weekend was sitting on the couch at my sister-in-law’s, singing along to songs from Carousel, The Music Man, Camelot. The music brought back lost words. In the midst of all the hard parts, that was nothing but joy.

Sunday morning we tucked ourselves back into the car for the drive home. As 101 and the northern woods rolled past, I thought about the strange expanse of this sprawling moment.

On the one side there’s this fantastic bunch of kids. Our kids, our friends’ kids. And we’re fully plugged into the classes, social adventures, disappoints, triumphs and all that planning and prepping for the road ahead.

On the other side there’s our parents’ generation, with their own triumphs and challenges, pains and wonder, light and weight.

And of course, in the middle of it all, there’s us. Our own daily mayhem—all the everything. And there was nothing really special about any of this. So many of my friends and colleagues were and are in a very similar situation, living in these three worlds.

I thought about a roadtrip from around 30 years earlier—the one that took me from home in New Jersey to new home, California, driving through Minnesota, Wyoming, Yellowstone, past Lake Tahoe.

With all that, somehow the most beautiful spot along the way was Stanley, Idaho, population 68.

Walking around Stanley, you can see and breathe in the Sawtooth Mountains, hear the trees dancing the breeze. Spin around and the mountains are replaced with a view of the plains flying out to the edge of the distance-faded Rockies. Walk across the road and stand in the spray of the mighty Salmon River as it roars past. Stanley, Idaho: glorious.

On that years-ago roadtrip, it was one town, three worlds, and a young me, standing in the middle, vibrating.

And that’s my aim today. To feel the hum of my own private Stanley, Idaho. To appreciate the forest, the plains, the roar of the spray. And all the many things that matter.

Salmon_River_near_Lower_Stanley,_Idaho_(15206355646)
Stanley, Idaho. Photo by Katja Shultz

Playing Backgammon with My Dad

There was a time when I was serious about backgammon. Not great, but serious.

At the serious-but-not-great level, backgammon is played with the reptile brain. For every situation, you learn and lock in a specific right response.

Roll, move. Roll, move. Fast. Confident. You parry when you should parry, zip when you should zip. I played a fair amount that year. I was hitting my personal peak ’gammon, as it were. And then my dad came to visit.

Growing up I had a terrible track record playing games with my dad. That sounds negative. Let me rephrase: my dad had a fantastic track record playing games with me. He played with a light engaged smile: cheerful, thoughtful, victorious.

As we set up the board that day, I felt a little guilty. He hadn’t played since he was a kid, growing up in Israel. I imagined him at age six, rolling heavy stone dice, sitting in some shady spot in the sands of the Negev. I was going head to head against my six-year-old dad and it didn’t quite seem fair.

On his first roll, he went through every possible option. He chose the right one. I was impressed. I rolled, I moved. Boom.

With his second turn, he took the same kind of excruciating approach, considering every imaginable option before making his selection.

Then me: roll, move, boom.

That was the rhythm of the game. He had none of the moves locked in, but he had crazy patience as he worked through a million scenarios. His moves were usually “the right ones,” but every once in a while, he’d make a surprising choice. I watched with horror.

So I didn’t win that game. Or the one after. We shook hands, put the board away, and turned our attention to lunch.

What the hell had happened?

Looking back, I think his triumph came down to three things: he was methodical, he was patient (did I mention he was patient?), and he was fully engaged. I was locked into my automatic moves. He was locked into the moment.

I try to remember those games when I find myself getting into too much of a roll, move, boom state of mind.

We often prize speed above all. And no doubt, the reptile brain has its place. It’s the one I use, for example, when I’m leaping from boulder to boulder, or evading lions. But now and then, in the rush of the day, it’s great to take a breath and summon forth the awesome power of being a present, patient primate.

Three Paths Less Travelled

The first time I went to Muir Woods, the forest floor was flooded with people. It was like midday at Disneyland, only with Douglas Firs and Coastal Redwoods instead of Winnie the Pooh and pals.

I was discouraged. This was not the verdant vibe I was looking for.

I had a friend with me who’d been to Muir several times before. Everything was going to be ok, he said. Let’s walk along the path, and when it forks, we’ll take the one going up. Just three forks (give or take), that’s all we need, he said. Which seemed bonkers to me, but we were already there so…

After the first fork, we found ourselves in the middle of a modest crowd. There was chatter on the trail for sure. Happy families. A group of thirty-somethings. But nothing like the mob we’d left behind. What really surprised me was the sound. Or the lack of sound. The tree cover served as baffles, already muffling much of the noise from below.

After the second fork, we ran into a few hikers. Hardier folks than me and my pal. People with equipment. What really surprised me was the sound. Or the lack of sound. The tree cover served as baffles, already muffling much of the noise from below.

One more fork, one more choice to push back a little against gravity, and as promised, we were all alone. Just us, a little chirping, some rustling branches, and the crunch of our feet on the path. We’d been walking for perhaps twenty minutes now and the crowd had just disappeared. I never forgot it. And I learned a simple lesson that day that I try to keep in mind.

There are those moments when you have a choice, when you can opt for the easy way or the arduous way, the stroll or the incline. It doesn’t have to be that dramatic. But it’s remarkable how just by choosing to sweat one, two, perhaps three times, you can find yourself in rare air, listening to the sound of your feet on an open path.

What I Learned from the Writing Class I Never Took

Junior year in college, my girlfriend Laura and I both applied to get into the Big Writing Class. There were always more applicants than seats in the BWC. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote as my sample, but I remember it was something dreamy and shaded in mystery. It took place in the woods. There was fog. And there were unicorns.

Meanwhile, Laura wrote a piece about a writer who noticed that he had a freckle on his right ear. This sent him into a tailspin. I remember one line of dialog in particular—it was something like: “How can I be a writer, if I can’t even notice details on my own head?” And I remember that line because I had said that line, one angsty afternoon, looking in the mirror, spotting that freckle, and going “What the hell?!”

So my unicorns didn’t make the cut. Laura’s piece was great, and she earned a chair. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesome meta-ness of the situation:

Laura had written a story that drew from a real observation. Meanwhile I had zipped past a detail in my own life that was literally (literally!) about noticing things, and opted instead to write, well, goofball nonsense.

To be fair, it wasn’t the fog or fantasy that made my piece bad. My mistake was writing a story without a true moment or feeling. Growing up I’d had the idea that the only writing that counted was 100% imagined, and that led me down this fanciful path. But the lesson I took away from the class I never took was that details matter, and that in art, drawing from reality is more than fair game, it is the game.

(And that’s why I hope you enjoy my novel in progress, about a unicorn named Dan who wears glasses. Boom!)

Into the Vortex…

There were ten of us perched around the edge of the raft: me, my wife, her family, our river guide. We’d all signed up for an afternoon adventure in the form of whitewater rafting down the American River—some exercise, a bit of a rush, all followed by the reward of an extended float down the lazy river.

And then perhaps five minutes in, things took a turn. The raft swung into a mid-sized vortex and our guide shouted for us to paddle hard and pull the boat around a large flat rock rising up on our right. So we paddled hard. We paddled quite hard. We paddled plenty hard.

We paddled hard. We paddled quite hard. We paddled plenty hard.
But as we curved around the bend, the river got the best of us and our raft ended up parked on this rising rock, listening to the sound of water slapping up against the side of the boat.

No problem, our guide shouted. We just needed to all move to one side of the boat and bounce, together. And we’d pop free and go sailing down and through the churn.

Bounce. Easy. Bounce, bounce. A little harder. Bounce –! and the boat flipped. And I mean completely flipped, flying out from under us, on to who knows where, leaving me, my wife, and her family scattered around the drink.

And I have to admit, even though we were going rafting down a big wet river, taking a full dunk like this was a scenario I had never really considered.

I remember my head going underwater. I remember popping up and shouting, in what I like to think was a sign of solid life priorities, “Where’s my wife?!” She was about 40 yards downstream, it turned out. The guide was already back on board and hard at work, one by one yanking us into the middle of the boat where we sat for a moment or two, shaken and a little bit freaked out, before sort of squishing our way over to our posts on the edge.

As we started moving back down the river, the change in the way we paddled was obvious. Heading toward a rock wall at the next turn, we dug in, I mean really dug in, together, fierce, fighting with the water, paddling like it mattered, because it did matter, and because we knew in our soaked bones what was at stake. The wall came close but we didn’t let the boat hit, and instead we flew on past. It was fantastic.

And here are a couple of things I took away from that glorious soak, which I still count as one of my favorite days to-date: that having something at stake, and everyone knowing what’s at stake, can make the journey not just more successful, but also a hell of a lot more fun. And that you don’t always get to decide how hard “hard work” is. You may think you’re working plenty hard. But sometimes it’s up to the river. The river tells you how hard you need to paddle. And when the river’s got your attention—when it tells you and your crewmates to dig in, and you listen—sometimes you fly.