“Do you know where you come from?”

“New Jersey,” I said.

“No, I mean where your people come from.”

“Yeah, New Jersey.”

But that’s not what Stuart meant.

“I mean originally,” he said.

“Then, I guess, the Rift Valley in Africa.”

“But after that. What ethnicity do you identify as.”

“Well, everyone in my family is Norwegian. But the Nordic people migrated there from elsewhere before that.”

“And how far back does your family tree go?”

“I’ve never really thought about it much,” I said. “My grandmother’s old family Bible — in Norwegian — has people listed back as far as my great-great-grandparents. Or at least some of them. Not all 16 of them.”

“And none of the 32 who gave birth to them, or the 64 who gave birth to the 32,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about this.”

Stuart thinks about a lot of things. And when he starts off, there’s usually no stopping him. We turned a corner onto his street. The air was turning into winter.

“It began because Genevieve has been watching these genealogy programs on TV. They seem to be enormously popular. They take a celebrity guest and trace their family history to answer questions that the guest has about his or her past — things that perhaps their parents never talked about. Where did Grandma get that tattoo? Why did our family leave Serbia? They sometimes find out that their great-great-great-great-great grandfather was thrown in debtors’ prison during the Glorious Revolution, or some such thing that amazes them.”

“Yes, I’ve seen those. Henry Louis Gates does one on PBS and I’ve seen a British one on YouTube. They can be fascinating.”

“But I’ve noticed a problem that is never addressed, although, maybe it can’t be. Genevieve accidentally pointed it out once. The family trees they come up with are always piecemeal, and they tend to follow the family name, which means the father’s father’s father, on and on. Sometimes they do the mother, too. But then if it continues, it’s the mother’s father and his father. They get hung up in the family name.

“It makes it seem as if a family tree has a certain neatness to it,” Stuart said. “And if they find something notable in the past, it seems as if there is a direct line, say, from Charlemagne to them. As if a family line were a simple thing.”

Stuart had worked a good deal of this out, he said, and when we got to his house, Genevieve had dinner ready.

“She sure can cook, for a violist,” he said. Genevieve did not seem amused.

Later, he brought out his paperwork. He laid it on the cleaned off table. There was a good deal of scribbling on it, and a lot of numbers.

“You have to do the math,” he said. “You start of with 1 — that’s you. You have two parents. They each have two parents, making four grandparents. The numbers pile up. You have eight great-grandparents. Keep doubling the number for each generation. By the time you get to five ‘greats’ you have 128 people dumping their DNA into your birth cauldron.”

That makes doing a full family tree rather busy with names — even if you could track the names down. You don’t really know the names, Stuart said, but the math remains certain.

“One thinks in terms of great old Pop-Pop, or Nana, and maybe you have in mind their parents or grandparents, but it is always a manageable number of people. A number you might know — they are people you can know the names of.

“I thought of how many years this might encompass,” he said. “And as an average — and average only, because, of course, there’s a lot of variation, but as an average, I think this works. You take a generation to be 25 years — it makes the math easier and we’re only doing this for illustration. But if your parents were 25 when you were born, and your grandparents were 50, that makes your great-grandparents 75 at your birth. Again, this is only for illustration. My great-grandmother was actually 82 when I was born.

“That means there is 100 years to your great-great-grandparents.”

“OK, I’m buying it so far. But,” I said, looking down at the papers he had spread out, “that leaves us with 16 people to keep track of. Sixteen in a century seems doable.”

“The problem is that the numbers keep doubling. By the time you go back 200 years, you have 256 ancestors. By 300 years, you have 4,096 ‘9-G’ grandparents. That’s great-great-great-great-great —“ he held up his fingers and started on the next hand — “great-great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a lot of DNA dumping into your cells. If you go back 500 years — and this doesn’t yet get you anywhere near Charlemagne — you now have to send greeting cards to one-million forty-eight-thousand five-hundred and seventy-six geezers.

“Let’s go back to the 1260s, when Chartres Cathedral was dedicated and Kublai Khan was emperor of China. That’s when you now count a billion people as your ancestors. With a ‘B’ — actually, 1,073,741,824 people, all of whom were necessary for the production of the zygote that became you, sitting here, eating Genevieve’s lasagne.”

Stuart was starting to get a little excited. His eyes were taking on that glow I recognized all to well.

“You only have to go back 33 generations to a point that you have more grandparents than there are currently people on earth. Here it is, 400 years after Charlemagne and you have 8,589,934,592 ancestors. Seven more generations — that takes us only to about the turn of the first millennium and you have already needed a trillion ancestors. It starts to get really ridiculous.”

He pointed to his calculations on the paper again.

“This means that it is mathematically certain that you share an ancestor within the past thousand years with everybody now living on the planet. There’s no escaping that fact. So, you may not be a direct descendant of Charlemagne, but you are related. Since there needs to be more people than are available in order to sire you — more people required than exist or have existed on earth — it necessarily means there has to be a great deal of cross-breeding, making everyone cousins of a sort. Alle Menschen werden Brüder, as Beethoven said.”

“Maybe we should say, ‘alle Menschen sind Brüder.’ Make it present tense,” I said. “But when you mentioned ‘cross-breeding,’ it brings to mind what happened when Carole wanted to track the origins of her family.”

My late wife adored her father and loved everything about the Steele family. To discover the origin of the family, her brother, Mel, took one of those Y-chromosome tests. The Y-chromosome is passed down from father to son across the generations. When the results came back in the mail, there was at least one anomaly.

“We learned that surname and DNA are only tangentially related,” I said. “The DNA descends from father to son, but maybe not the surname. The Steele family always said it was originally Irish. But it is an English name, possibly Scottish, and everyone was Protestant. In the U.S., they lived in the Appalachians and so we assumed they were Scots-Irish. Along with the complicated information about haplogroup, there was a list of other men who had taken the test who matched up with the Steele DNA. The most recent names were indeed Steele. But going back in history, the Steele name disappears and is replaced with the name Driscoll. The oldest Driscolls on the list came from County Cork, in southern Ireland.

“What we figured out is that at some point — maybe in Ireland, maybe after they emigrated to America — a Steele woman either had a baby out of wedlock to a Driscoll, or a Steele wife had an adulterous affair with a Driscoll. So, the Driscoll DNA settled, cuckoo-egg style in the Steele family line.

“It taught us not to be too cocky about the nominal lineage you work out through genealogy. Just because someone is married, doesn’t mean the husband is father to the child. There must be a lot of this kind of misdirection over the centuries.”

“And also,” said Stuart, “You should be as aware of the many other contributors to your genetic make-up, and not so focused on the genes stumbling down through your father’s line. It’s only one of two parts, or of four parts, or of eight, or, well, you get the picture.”

How long ago was history?

When I was in grade school, whatever history I was taught seemed as distant as fairy tales, a never-never of such ancientness as to be inconceivable. It was certain that there was an unbridgeable divide between the now I lived in and a history that resided only in books, and pained us with dates and names we were required to memorize. There was no continuity; past and present were as immiscible as diesel fuel and salt water.

These things change as you get older and what is taught as history is what you lived through when you were younger. When I was born, Harry Truman hadn’t yet campaigned for president. For my grandchildren, Truman is a fuzzy black-and-white halftone in their textbook. For me, however, he was my first president. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing — these were things I can remember a time that was before.

Now that I’m about to turn 70, a century doesn’t seem like such a long time, or such a meaningful slice of eternity. My grandmother was born in the 19th century and I’m now alive in the 21st. She used to muse occasionally on the fact that she was born before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

It’s really just a flash before you connect with what seemed so alien in that history textbook. Six degrees of separation.

Literally.

From me to my wife takes the first step. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was alive until my wife was 8 years old. She was 98 when she died, in my wife’s childhood bed. She could remember eating sandwiches made from the cambium layer of tree bark because there was nothing else to eat during the Civil War. She had been married to Civil War veteran Rowan Steele, who had been messenger and courier for Col. Robert E. Lee, Jr., who was the youngest son of the legendary general, Bobby Lee. And that’s only five degrees of separation. Who knew a Yankee boy from New Jersey would be this close to the biggest name in the Confederacy?

We think of a century as being the measurement of a considerable piece of time — it is long enough to tick off entire ages in the history books: The 19th Century was distinct from the 18th Century; the 14th Century was so different from the 10th Century: the revolution between the Romanesque and the Gothic. But a century is really just the space from grandparent to grandchild. Not long at all.

In Ancient Rome, that is exactly how they counted eras. The Latin word we translate as “century” is “saeculum,” but saeculum doesn’t actually mean a hundred years. It is the time from the birth of a grandparent that you outlive to the death of the child who outlives you. They calculated it to be anywhere from 112 to 117 years.

How we can skip across these centuries. Let’s take something from the history books, say, the accession of James II of England in 1685. Unutterably distant, no?

Well, I can trace a person-to-person connection to that year in only nine degrees of separation. And without Kevin Bacon entering the equation at all.

That same year, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in Thuringia, now part of Germany. One of his sons was Johann Christian Bach, also a composer. J.C. Bach was friend and mentor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who once heard the young Beethoven play the piano. He was impressed. Beethoven had a few paying students to help him afford his daily vin de pays. One of those students was Carl Czerny, who wrote an infernal and deeply hated series of piano finger-exercises that young pianists still suffer through. One of Czerny’s students became probably the greatest piano teacher of all time, Theodor Leschetizky (among his students are Jan Paderewski, Alexander Brailowsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Artur Schnabel, and Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler — all of them among the most famous pianists of the first half of the 20th century). And Mieczyslaw Horszowski — who died in 1993 at the age of 101, playing and recording well into his 90s.

Well, Horszowski had a piano student named Eugene Istomin, who made a series of legendary piano-trio recordings with Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose. And when I was a volunteer photographer for the Eastern Music Festival, in Greensboro, N.C., in the early 1970s, I was tasked with picking Rose up from the airport, cello and all. I was his chauffeur.

There it is, from Bach to me in nine easy steps. So, the 17th Century isn’t all that far away. Another nine and we could be building Chartres. History is not that long ago.

It is early spring in 1967, I’m in college and the country is heading toward the Summer of Love, and in my Shakespeare class we have just been given a pop quiz on, I think, Antony and Cleopatra.

“Well, now you know what my little quizzies are like,” said the professor.

And from the back of class a small, demure student, innocent and unknowing as a lamb bounding in the meadows said, “If that’s what your quizzies are like, Dr. Gutsell, I’d hate to see what your testies are like.”

That is what I remember most from that class. Most of what I know about Shakespeare I learned later on my own. But the small episodes of those years stand out.

Like in an astronomy class. The regular teacher had retired a year earlier and our class was assigned to a very nice and soft-spoken man — everyone liked him — who was a math professor. He didn’t know much about astronomy and was racing ahead of us in the textbook. When he came across something he didn’t really understand, he invariably turned to the smartest student in class, Bill McAllister, and asked for clarification. “Mac, tell us about Uranus.”

I’m not claiming that I didn’t learn anything at college. There were many excellent classes that opened me up. But the information from those has been stored in a different place in my head. More distinct are the bits of condiment that flavored the experience.

The biology teacher was a highly eccentric man who had been teaching forever. Richard Carleton Ward talked with his teeth clenched and out of the side of his mouth, making his every utterance seem both like a snarky aside, and at the same time and exasperated threat. His explanation of sex on campus was: “Some do, some don’t.”

One day, he brought a potted plant to class, and as the bell sounded, he held it up in front of us. “This is the sacred lotus of India,” he said through his teeth. “It sheds water as we are supposed to shed our sins.” He took up a pitcher of water and poured it over the plant, dripping onto the floor, saying to us in biblical voice, “Go forth and sin no more.”

It was 50 years ago — a half century of water under the dam — and it is the quirks of the professors, it is the adventures with fellow students, the petty “crimes” we committed that remain.

Once, Martha Jane Burton and her boyfriend and Mary Winslow and I drove to Washington, D.C. When Martha Jane hinted she wanted some time alone with Tom, Mary and I went out walking. We walked from Georgetown, where we were staying, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.

Now, I know we were idiots and the walk, at 2 in the morning was suicidal, but we were protected by the angel of fools and had not an unpleasant moment.

Mary was an athletic sort of girl, a real tomboy who prided herself on her physical fitness. She had once said, “The man who will have my virginity will be the man who can outwalk me.”

We walked a good deal in the wee hours of the morning, and on the way back to the apartment, came across an all-night movie theater that was showing the Pasolini Gospel According to St. Matthew. Mary had never seen it; I had and recommended we stop in. About an hour and a half into the story, Mary fell asleep.

I reminded her, when we got back to campus, that I was now the man destined to take her virginity. “You owe me,” I said. The next day I got an envelope with a note from her; inside was a 2-inch wood screw. “Debt paid,” said the note.

My sophomore year, I took an Aesthetics class with the most august and revered philosophy professor. After a week, he fell ill from an amoebic infection he had picked up in India and the school president, Grimsley T. Hobbs, took over the class. Let’s just say, it was a step down in the intellectual rigor of the course. Hobbs actually taught aesthetics with flash cards. We took turns reading from the textbook (I’m not making this up), and whenever we came across the name of an artist, say, Michelangelo, he’s make the reader stop and we’d pass around the seminar table a picture of Michelangelo. A paragraph or two later, it might be a picture of Leonardo.

“I’ll trade you two Leonardos for a Mickey Mantle,” said one of the students.

It was the era when Timothy Leary was dropping acid, and drugs were first becoming widely available on campus.

Hank Hackett, my roommate for part of this time, smoked constantly. He took one summer off and basically dropped out, and turned on.

When he came back in the fall, he had something of a glassy stare and perpetual grin.

“Why do you smoke so much reefer?” I asked him.

“Oh, I don’t smoke all that much, just five or six joints a day.”

Another time, Hank bought several packets of garden seeds for morning glory.

“They add something to make you nauseous, so you won’t take them for the trip,” he said. “But I thought I’d see just how bad the nausea is. It can’t be as bad as the high is good.”

But a few hours later, Hank was retching up his innards over the toilet and swearing never to do that again.

One day, Hank came to the house, sat down on the floor and didn’t move for several minutes, and then turned to me and said, “You know, I feel more like I do now than I did when I came in.”

Others took different drugs: Phil Sanders tried smoking Spanish moss one night and went into heart palpitations. He had to be taken to the hospital, where he was too embarrassed about what he’d done to tell the doctors what his problem was. He recovered anyway.

And then, there was Larry Mackie, our campus’s own Timothy Leary. Larry lived downstairs from Hank and me. His bedroom was painted in bright colors, with a geometric mandala in red and green painted on the wall above his bed as a headboard. Larry was a small guy, both short and slight, with a head of blond hair, looking something like a thinner, adolescent Bill Gates. He would wander campus in robes and talk about the religious significance of acid. He had a small but loyal following, mainly women. One night his two girlfriends drove up with Larry in the car barely conscious.

“We went out to the airport to drop acid,” one of them told me. “It was neat watching the lights of the jets as they came overhead and screamed their jet noise.”

This was something Larry did on occasion.

“But then he sat, lotus position, in the middle of the road and wouldn’t move.”

“He said he was enjoying the headlights of a truck move farther and farther apart,” the other girlfriend said. The truck squealed to a halt and the driver came out cussing and threatening. Larry wouldn’t move, so we put him in the car and decided to come back home.”

The downstairs apartment saw a parade of colorful and disreputable types. One was a freak named Jim Nyland, who drove one of those tiny British sports cars. Shortly after he moved in, we noticed a large dark car parked on the road in front of the house. This was unusual because our street was a dead-end. Yet, night after night, there it was, with two men sitting in the front seat.

One day, walking in the vacant lot behind the house, I came across a patch of very healthy, green marijuana plants and things began to fall into place. I phoned the police and reported the illicit weed. They came with a team and uprooted it. “Street value of $140,000,” they told us. We eyed their exaggeration as suspiciously as they eyed us. The car never showed up again.

I remember the last time I voluntarily took mind-altering drugs. Hank had brought to campus some mescaline-laced hashish. At a small party at our apartment on Francis King Street, with maybe 20 others, mostly drinking beer and discussing Kant or Vietnam, Hank and I lit up his tiny hash pipe, with the glowing coal of chemical in its brass bowl. It was the most trippy high I had experienced. At one moment, everything anyone said appeared in a cartoon word-balloon over their heads and when they finished talking, the word-balloon took off like a balloon let go, spinning and making the sound of a raspberry and flying out the window. It was quite an amusing sensation.

At another party, I witnessed a feat of strength I doubt I will ever see matched.

One of the hotshot humanities students and publisher of the underground campus newspaper was Richard Horne, known to his friends as Dick, and here’s why: At this party, he won a bar bet by balancing an unabridged dictionary on his erect penis. He did this as a matter of course. You could tell how far along the party was by whether Dick Horne had pulled out the Webster’s. It was a sight you didn’t soon forget.

In my class of English Romantic Poetry, I met my first wife. Annie was skinny, funny and whip smart. She could say any name or word backwards instantly. In class one day, the professor called on her to answer a question about Keats.

“Don’t look at me, I’m just a girl,” she said. The professor had that made into a needlepoint sampler and framed it.

When we got married, we moved into a second-floor apartment on that dead-end street just south of campus. It was a cheap run-down place with only one kerosene heater for warmth. The stairs to the apartment ran up the outside of the house and on frozen, cold days, I had to walk down the icy steps to the oil drum and bring up a gallon of fuel, load it into the stove and light up. It took a half-hour or so for any heat to make itself felt.

The apartment rented for $50 a month, which was a lot for us. Annie bought a book called Dinner for Two on a Dollar a Day, and made up menus from it. We lived very cheaply. It was a wonderful time for me; I was finally a real bohemian. I painted the living room fire orange with deep avocado-green trim. It was hard even to think in such decor.

Annie was from eastern North Carolina cotton and tobacco country. Her mother was not one of my fans. In fact, I think I can state with reasonable confidence that she loathed me. I was not the steady provider and solid citizen she had envisioned for her daughter and besides, I was a Yankee. But she had a saying that I have kept in my heart for lo these 50 years:

“Cheer up, the worst is yet to come.”

Part 1: The Thing

Abstract art has several jobs, but one of the most important is to take the bits of the visual world around us, separate them from their context, and allow us to see them freshly. By removing color, texture, and pattern from their received meaning allows us to pay attention to the building blocks of vision. As if we could take the music of speech and remove the words from them, so only the sensuous vestige remains.

In most of the visual world we live in, we have given meanings to what we see, like seeing the diagrammatic picture of a man or woman on the restroom door. And in “reading” the visual world this way, as a sort of language, we too easily fail to actually see what we are looking at: We simplify and name: That is “green,” rather than “that is the green of kelp,” or “the green of grass.” Two very different greens. And there are thousands of greens. If we abstract the color from its worldly signature, we can place two greens next to each other and force ourselves to notice.

The same is true for texture, reflectivity, surface (whether matte or glossy), size or scale, the opacity or translucency of pigment — a thousand different qualities of sight, and of the visual world we inhabit, but where habit has dulled our perception — and our delight.

Still, no matter how abstracted from the quotidian an image may be, there remains some remnant of its source. We tend to recognize a certain green by the chords it sounds in our memory, our sense memory. We respond to this green or that in part — and idiosyncratically — by the way it calls to mind the emotions and pleasures we attach to it in a rather Proustian way.

Thus, although we may think of abstract art as a kind of rationalized set of color and pattern, line and texture, we can never entirely divorce our response to it from the experience of our own lives.

So, we are left with complicated response to art that on the surface seems to have no meaning.

(It’s no use making the argument that such response is too subjective, too personal. Our response to any art, no matter how abstract or how realistic, is always personal. Abstraction, again, reminds us of what we don’t normally think about.)

Painters have the advantage that they can invent shapes and lines from nothing but cobalt blue and vermilion. But a photographer is left with a more direct connection to the world outside his head. The camera must be pointed at something.

So, to make the same sort of visual argument as an abstract painter, the photographer has to use the real world and re-see it in some way as to make it unrecognizable. The two most immediate ways to do that are to get so close that all context is stripped away, or to step so far back that the perspective is one that no ordinary human can recognize it.

It is why I always book a seat by a window when I fly. I can look out the window and see the colors, textures and patterns of the planet below me, and make designs with them with my camera.

I self-published a book of such abstractions using the website, blurb.com. You can find the book here, and open it up in preview mode: http://www.blurb.com/b/1376943-windowseat

The skin of the continent becomes a canvas painted in swirls and pools, like some de Kooning or Pollock, Rothko or Diebenkorn. If you look, you can see again.

Part 2: The Metaphor

We live on a planetary canvas; colors and shapes are spread across the stretched linen of the Earth’s surface, although we have to step back to see it with any clarity.

The best way to do that is to climb up into the air. Up a tree and the neighborhood looks different; up a mountain and the valleys change; up in a jet plane and whole quarters of the continent are transformed.

That is the gift of the window seat. The view out and down paints a completely different picture of the world: clouds below us; shadows stretch out for dozens of miles late in the day, or as the sun rises; seas catch the sunlight in a scatter of sparks; the sky overhead is so dark a blue as to mimic midnight at midday.

I love flying. There is nothing quite so exciting as seeing a whole state underneath you opened up like a life-size map.

From 30,000 feet, you get a sense of the world as a tiny globe and can see whole ranges of many mountains as single features, like wrinkles on a face.

Few of us will ever see the Earth from the moon, or even from orbit, but anyone with a boarding pass can have his sensibility slapped silly with the incredible beauty of the planet.

So I always book a window seat for the show. And no matter how long the flight, I’m glued, stiff-necked, to the view.

You can spot the Rio Grande and its terrace, the Mississippi and its wiggle. You can tell Chicago from Detroit, Oklahoma from Arkansas.

Several times on cross-country flights, sitting on the north side of the plane, away from the glare of the direct sun, I looked out the window and down below the jet would be a floating pool of light, moving with the plane at some 500 mph. It is called a “glory” and it is certainly well-named. It is a visual effect much like a rainbow, and no two people see it in just the same place.

It can be seen at a point 180 degrees opposite the sun, speeding across the map-landscape below, crossing interstates and rivers, past the pegged dots of new housing developments, looking like mitochondria in an electron microscope, or the great circles of irrigated crops — great green coins spaced across Texas.

But it isn’t just the landforms that excite me. Even bad weather keeps my attention. Think of all the thousands of generations of humans who were never able to see the tops of clouds, which form their own fantastic landscapes, with mountains and valleys of crenellated whiteness.

The pilot curves the jet route in wide circles around a towering thunderhead, bleach-white at top and sooty at bottom, with its cauliflower protuberances catching new light. The distance is crowded with them, sprouting like mushrooms to the horizon. Dozens of fresh, new thunderstorms rising sunward like children reaching up for their mothers.

Over California once, after a rainstorm, with a low mist of water evaporating up into the atmosphere, the millions of puddles aggregated their mirror effect into a single flash, moving at the speed of the plane and making Fourth of July lightning bolts that flashed just beneath the surface of the mist, the way you can sometimes see the blood pulsing under the skin of a newborn. It gave me a feeling of intimacy with the planet.

Or a night flight, with the ground black underneath you as you fly over the empty expanses of the Southwest, with the small embers of tiny desert communities coming periodically into view, glowing like the last bit of a dying campfire. As you approach Phoenix, those embers gather into a vast pattern of incandescence, like some great lava field, with the glowing magma breaking through the cracks of the cooling stone above it. Almost nothing is as radiant as a city at night seen from the air. You want to hold your palms out toward it, to warm your hands in its heat.


Earthbound, we have a very bland, utilitarian sense of the celestial body we ride around on. It is all streets and signage, houses and mini malls. It is the place we go to work every day, the place where we watch television in the evening.

It is true, to those who have the eyes to see it, the planetary nature of our home is there to be seen: Daybreak shows us the sun breeching the horizon and moving across the heavens; the stars are there to see at night; there are rainy days and lightning storms to remind us of the larger forces. But they have all become ordinary through habit and usage. How many of us take the time to look up and admire a mackerel sky or a fair-weather cumulus cloud floating puffy on the slightly denser air beneath it?

But take an elevator to 30,000 feet and you get the god’s-eye view, moving across the curved surface of the world, where the people aren’t even ants and where the Earth is one small aggie in a great colliding pile of cosmic marbles.

Click any image to enlarge

TOWAN

Nearly 40 years ago, I moved to Seattle and eventually got a job at the zoo. Not a glamorous job, but rather manager of the food services. That is rather a hyperbolic name for what it actually was: A set of three iron trailers spread around the zoo from which we sold popcorn, hot dogs, soda and candy bars.

It was a good vantage point to watch human behavior and even better to observe the functioning of a zoo. I’ve written about this before, and you can visit Part 1 of this zoo story at: https://richardnilsen.com/2013/12/13/memoir-life-at-the-zoo-2/

When I started, I wasn’t the only newby. There was a new director, David Hancocks, and as with every new administration, the old hands resented the changes being proposed. Later, Hancocks proved a farsighted and innovative head of this zoo, and later the Sonoran-Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. He won over the old hands in Seattle, but when he first arrived, there was suspicion and even hostility.

You have to remember that until the mid-1970s, zookeepers were low-level city employees. The bear-keeper had been a city garbage collector before transferring to the zoo. Few had a college degree, and Hancocks proposed to up the level of professionalism at the zoo.

Nevertheless, at the first meeting with the zoo staff, Hancocks impressed at least some of the keepers as a bureaucrat and they felt he had condescended to them.

“You know what he said at the meeting?” complained one of the monkey keepers. “You have to wash your hands after going to the bathroom. Geezuz, does he even know what we do all day? We shovel animal shit. I wash my hands before going to the bathroom.”

Everyone at the zoo was known not by their proper names, but by their descriptions: There was Monkey Man, Gorilla Lady, Large Pepsi No Ice — he was known by his perpetual order at the food stand. Gorilla Lady had a second career as a belly dancer in a local Greek restaurant. The old bear keeper, on the verge of retirement was universally known as “Grampa.”

There were Bandana Man with the giraffes, Macho Man with the apes, the Bike Woman who was in charge of the gates. I was single at the time and lonely in a new city and Bike Lady was attractive. I’ll get to her in a bit.

But I want to mention Tree. She worked the admission gate, was about six-foot-four tall and studying poison-arrow toads.

Periodically, the alligators had to be emptied of the pennies they had swallowed. Signs said not to throw coins into the gator pool, but people are jerks. If the beasts had not been disgorged of their pennies, the copper  and zinc would have poisoned them.

Needless to say, getting an alligator to cooperate was not an easy thing. They had to be sedated and a plastic hoop or funnel stuck between their jaws to hold them open. One of the first public-relations events to happen after I got to the zoo was a gator purging, and the press was invited, with TV cameras covering the event, and newspaper photographers gathered around. The gator was laid up on a table with the hoop in its mouth. A zookeeper stuck his arm down the gullet of the beast to scoop out the coins. His arm was not long enough to reach the stomach and he had to give up. A second keeper tried; his arm was not long enough either.

Finally Tree was called. She reached her long arm down, glommed onto a pile of coins and coagulated gator-gut goo and pulled it out. Everyone seemed content. Pictures had been gotten. Stories were writing themselves. But the moment Stick pulled herself out from the digestive tract of the reptile, the beast woke, snapped its mouth shut, cracked the plastic hoop into bits and writhed on the table. Talk about nick of time.

Then, there was Ape Man Jack. He was in charge of the lion-tailed macaques. Jack was a true misanthropist. He never had more than a grunt for another of his own species. But he would talk all day long with his monkeys. He had down all their idioms and seemed to fit into the troop very well. He was a sort of alpha-male to the monkeys, taking over from the dominant Junior, whenever he was around. Ape Man scowled around the zoo, glowering at everyone. But then he would come home to the monkey island and a broad grin would show — or at least he would bare his teeth to the macaques and reassert his dominance.

Grampa was a relief keeper, usually working the bears and sealions. Often, I would donate the day’s leftover hotdogs and the two of us would take them to the backstage of the grizzly bear enclosure and toss them down the bears’ gullets. Those maws were as big as the Lincoln Tunnel. There was no swallowing involved; the wieners just rattled down the chute to the bears’ tummies.

The main snack stand, where I worked, was right next to the large-ape house. I got to know the orangutans really well. They got to know me, too, and each day, as the hours wore down, I would visit Towan, the male, Chinta, his sister and mother of his child, and Melati, a small breeding female on loan from the National Zoo. Towan became my fast friend. I have a signed photo of him.

When the zoo had cleared out, the sun was setting, the peacocks screaming their banshee-calls, the siamangs whooping and the teens working for me in the stand were emptying the snot-thick hot water from the hot-dog boiler and mopping the steel floors, I would wander over to Towan. When he saw me approach, Towan would amble over to the front of his enclosure to greet me. Often, in a gesture of Orang generosity, he would stop chewing on his food and offer the chyme out to me on his extended lower lip.

We had a close relationship. He was like a bartender to me. I would pour out my troubles to him, complain about my loneliness, and he would sit opposite me, on the other side of the glass, with his forearm resting on the sill, staring into my face, listening intently. He would take the burlap cloth that was his main plaything and use it to wipe down the sill, like barkeep swabbing down the bar. It was a nearly daily routine.

In later years, after I was long gone, Towan took up art. He became famous, if that’s the right word, for scribbling with magic markers and paintbrushes on large sheets of cardboard. In this, he followed the lead of the former artistic star of the Phoenix Zoo, Ruby the Elephant, who had died in 1998, and whose canvases had sold for up to  $25,000.

I was saddened to hear, in 2016, that Towan had died, at the age of 48. He was the oldest Orangutan who had been born in captivity.

I had my name, too. Since Grampa was already taken, I was Dad to my employees — most of them high school kids working a summer job. Eventually I had two assistant managers, splitting the week between them.

One was Colin, who pronounced his name the way Colin Powell pronounces his. He was the son of a black geneticist from D.C. and a white mother. He said he was one of his father’s genetic experiments. Colin was gay and his ambition was to become a fashion model or an architect. Colin was very bright and what he lacked in dependability, he made up for in brains.

I was living at the time in a house with the world’s most obscene man and two lesbian doctors. Their names were Cam and Clink. Hard to beat that name combo. But Colin’s boyfriend was named Dick. Need I say more?

My other assistant was a redhead called the Vixen. The Vixen had a temper that blew at least twice a day — as dependable as Old Faithful — usually when customers continued to ask her the same stupid questions. “You have root beer?” “No, we have Pepsi, Sprite and Grape.” “OK, I’ll have a root beer.”

The Vixen and I got to be good friends, but I thought it wise, as her boss, not to mess with her romantically. I stayed away from all my employees — I had about 25 during the summer. But later, I learned that The Vixen was gay, too, so the question had always been academic.

When the machinery was running smoothly at the zoo, I didn’t have to do anything but supervise my help. That gave me a great deal of free time at the zoo and I used it to get to know all the animals and keepers.

Then there was Carma, a volunteer, and her mother. Nancy was 38 and dressed and acted 15. She dated a different boy each night. She collected admissions. To the zoo, I mean.

Carma was indeed 15, but she was the adult in the family. I liked Carma and we went out for lunch occasionally. The world’ most obscene man liked her, too, and tried to date her. (“Imagine, if she were only a year younger, she could get into the movies cheap!”) But she fended off his drooling, or most of it.

At the zoo, we provided coffee every day for the keepers. We had several regulars and I got to be good buddies with them. They would take their breaks with a hand around a hot paper cup of rancid black java and we would talk. One of these was an alternate primates keeper named Macho Man. He would tell me  story after twisted story about his relationship with Bike Woman. Ah, Bike Woman.

He beat her and verbally abused her. She had aborted their accidental baby. He took that as an insult to his masculinity and beat on her some more. She had him arrested for assault and he asked me one day, “Do you think I should jump bail and get out of the state? That woman is crazy. She’s out to get me. If I stay here, she’s bound to get my ass thrown in the slammer. When I think of jail, it gives me the creeps, and all because I had the gumption to discipline my woman.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Not much. I just slapped her around a bit.”

Later that day, I talked with Bike Woman.

“That bastard saw me leaving the parking lot the other day and he rammed his pickup truck into my Rabbit. Then he jumped from the cab and pulled me from the car and started hitting me in the face, calling me a whore and a slut. When I escaped from him and drove home, he followed me, trying to bump into my rear as I drove. When I got to the house, he chased me and caught me before I could get to the door and he dragged me behind the bushes and started beating on me again.”

She had a black eye and welts on her neck and legs. I don’t know how they eventually resolved their battles. I hope Macho Man found out what prison is like.

Bike Lady was attractive, about my age, and clearly in need of a more sympathetic male friend.

I asked Carma about Bike Woman. “What is her real name? How old is she? And is she married?”

Carma had previously ruined one of my fantasies with the bulletin that Tree — remember Tree? — who had blond hair and a smile that melted me every time she aimed it, was married.

“Bike Woman’s real name is Joan and she’s not married. I think she’s a bit flaky, though.”

“How?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“What else do you know about her?”

“She’s got two kids. One of them is under a year old.”

Not what I wanted to hear, but I still was interested.

The following day, I was walking from my little tin office to stand No. 3 when I hear the ratchet sound of a coasting bicycle behind me. The bike slows down. It was Joan.

“I saw you driving this morning,” I said. “I was disappointed. I thought you rode that bike to work every day.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s too far for that and besides, this old bike is too broken down. The brakes barely work.”

“So who needs brakes?” I said. “Just aim it at some children and you’ll slow down fast enough. Like a runaway truck into a sandpile.”

“I don’t think the kids are big enough to stop me.”

“So, just run into fat kids. There are plenty of them around. See, look there.” I pointed at a trio of grotesque monsters waddling along behind a grotesque mother. “The middle one is Grendel, but its’ the mama you have to watch out for.

“By the way,” I said, “Would you care to go out for dinner Thursday night. I was thinking of the India House. I haven’t been there in quite a while.”

“Well, let me think about it,” the bike stopped and Joan rested her feet on the ground. “I’d have to get a baby sitter … hmm … How about the next Thursday. That would be nice.” She gave me a broad smile.

I picked her up on the bus and we went to India. But the dinner didn’t go all that well. We were awkward together and the conversation went something like this:

“What I really want to do is go back to school,” she said.

“And what do you want to study?”

“Philosophy. I love philosophy.”

“That’s a pretty serious subject,” I said, “Are you an Aristotelian or a Platonist?”

“What are they?”

“You know, Aristotle, Plato.”

“Oh, but I mean, I’m into metaphysics.”

“Ah, but Plato is the great metaphysician …”

“No, I mean like the spirit world and astral-projection. My aunt was taken up in a flying saucer last year and communicated to them through ESP …”

My interest flagged.

But there was another woman I saw walking into the children’s zoo with Carma one day. A blond woman who looked at home in the pinstriped overalls that are a part of her uniform. She wore clear plastic glasses, totally unstylish, and my heart fluttered. No makeup, an assertive walk and interesting hands, such as you find on an artist or car mechanic.

Carma was my spy. When I needed to find out anything about anybody at the zoo, I needed only to ask Carma.

A few days later, Carma and I went up to Val’s Cafe for lunch, since we had been in the middle of a conversation when the lunch hour hit. Val’s was a greasy spoon two blocks north of the zoo on Phinney. It was run by the inevitable Greek and had to its credit two huge front windows with seats by them offering a sunny view of the gas station across the street.

Carma ordered a Denver omelet and I ordered a cheeseburger.

“Who was that blonde I saw you talking to the other day going into the children’s zoo?” I asked.

“That was Robin. She works in the CZ, with the springboks and at the Old Farm.”

“Well, how old is she?”

“I think she is about 28.”

“Is she … uh … marrrried?”

“No.”

“Does she listen to classical music?” You can see I had special requirements.

“Yeah. They all do down at the CZ.”

“Does she have any … children?”

“No kids, Richard. Don’t worry.”

My brain was abuzz. I had asked my worst and Robin had passed so far with flying colors.

“Oh, wait,” said Carma. “I just remembered that she said the other day that she will be 30 in a few weeks.”

“Thirty!  … That’s even better.”

I was becoming intoxicated. Robin wore dresses. I hadn’t seen that on a woman in quite some time and it was quite a turn-on. The only thing blonder than her hair was the sun. It turns out she had been a professional swing dancer and had lived on a houseboat. But this saga is a sad tale for some other time.

This is a cautionary tale about the importance of clarity in language.

Ordinary conversation is often ambiguous. We speak to our friends in sentence fragments punctuated with “uhs,” “likes” and “ya knows.” But the meaning comes through by context. A good deal of what we communicate comes via gesture, tone of voice, and the fact that our conversant shares our experience. But when instructions are given, it is important that there be no room for misinterpretation.


As Chinese war philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

And so, I have no one to blame but myself.

I am forced to recall the case of Robert E. Lee and Richard Ewell at Gettysburg in 1863. Lee, being a Southern gentleman, had always had a hard time issuing direct orders, choosing instead to make polite suggestions, which he fully expected his officers to understand as commands. When Ewell didn’t do so in front of Culp’s Hill on July 2, the Confederate army lost the advantage, and ultimately, the battle.

Would clearer orders have changed the course of battle and war? Maybe not, but it certainly meant that the battle would continue for days, and it is clear that Gettysburg marked the turning point in the war.

What does this mean for me and my beard?

I have had a beard for 50 years. It has been my constant chin companion. In that time, it has been kept long, sometimes short and often unkempt. It was a rich hue when I was young, has progressively become gray, and finally, so light a shade of gray as to be indistinguishable from white.

I began the shaggy thing in college, not so much as a fashion choice, and not to brag of my manfulness, but rather because I was too lazy to shave. In fact, I hated shaving. Let the damn thing propagate, I thought. After a few years, the beard became so much a part of me, that I never even fancied the thought of seeing what might lie beneath. My chin was obscured by the duck blind of whisker.


The hair on the bottom of my head has grown lush even as the hair on the top has become sparse. Younger men whose hairlines have begun to draw back sometimes shave it all off, preferring the billiard-ball look to the billboard admission of creeping baldness. In recent years, the sheen of scalp has become something of a fashion statement. I have never chosen this route, but have had something of a similar reaction to tonsorial care as I once had on the issue of shaving.

For years now, I have gone to the barber and asked to have my hair trimmed down to an eighth of an inch. This strategy began in Arizona when the summer threatened and an ultra buzzcut promised to be marginally cooler than anything else. I would get the scalp mowed about every six months, after that point where it was necessary to take a comb to it. I didn’t like combing my hair much more than I ever liked shaving my beard. The close crop solved that problem.

“Would you like me to trim the beard, too,” the barber would say. “No, I trim that myself.” And I did, for 50 years, periodically taking a scissors to it to curb its profusion.

Recently, however, I have asked my current barber to tackle the beard also. She is so much more refined a topiarist than I am, and she has been training my shaggy beard into something more delightfully Hemingwayesque.

Well, last week, it was time for my semi-annual. I went to my usual barber shop and waited my turn.

Unfortunately, my regular barber was not there, and I was invited to recline on the chair of an alternate. He was a very kindly old Southern fellow, with hair as snowy as my own. With my regular barber, I never had to explain what I wanted, since she knew very well. “Here for your six-month?” she would say, laughing at my hair-cutting habits.

Alas, she was not there, and my bullpen needed instruction. This is where I should have been more specific. This is where the lessons of General Lee and Sun Tzu should have instructed me.

“What do you want?” the old barber asked.

“Cut it down to about an eighth of an inch,” I said.

“And do you want me to trim your beard, too?”

“Yes,” I said, and the die was cast.
At first, I had no clue of disaster. He took the electric buzzer to my dome and started mowing the hair down. But before I noticed, and before I could say anything, he dragged the mower down my cheek and the glorious chin-garden was deflowered.

Because I am now living in the South, I couldn’t get all Yankee and scream imprecations at the poor barber. “You damn beard murderer! Why, I’ll get my cousin Tony to come down here and burn your house down and see how you like that!”

No, we don’t do things like that in North Carolina, so instead, I said, “Well, it’s a new look, I guess. I’ll see if I can come to like it. But it does mean I won’t be able to dress up as Santa this Christmas.”

But I would be able to impersonate Harvey Weinstein or Steve Bannon. This is not a situation devoutly to be wished. He held a mirror up for me to look at and Harvey and Steve both looked back at me. This was more suited to Halloween than Christmas. I cringed. I weeped inside. I looked facially naked. And the three-day-growth look that seems so sexy with buff young studs looks on me more like grandpa forgot to shave again. And believe me, I don’t wish to be mistaken for either Weinstein or Bannon.

Or, nearly as bad, the sagging skin-sack, stubble-bound and watery-eyed, of Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil. Gives me the creeps.

The best I can hope for is that others my age will remember Red Connors from the Hopalong Cassidy TV series of the early 1950s. Red was played by the venerable Edgar Buchanan, veteran of hundreds of movies and latterly of dozens of TV shows. His chin stubble defined him for me, through the Hoppy series and the Judge Roy Bean TV show after that, and, although I was too old to watch it regularly by the time it came on, through his stint as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

So, I wait patiently to age into my beard once again, learning the ancient sage lesson of the slow progress of life, and, of course, to be more careful in my language.

We know what photography is: You point a camera at something and take its picture. But what if you don’t use a camera? And what if there is nothing to make a picture of?

Certainly, many have used their cameras to make abstract or quasi abstract images. Sometimes you just have to get close enough to avoid any context, or take it from some extreme angle.
Many decades ago, when I was teaching photography — so long ago that the photo lab was filled with noxious chemicals and darkness visible — I played around with making abstract photographs. Most of my photographs were landscapes and portraits, but in the darkroom between classes, I had time on my hands and tried a number of things out.

But let’s take this a step at a time. First, some straight photographs.

Many years before I began teaching, I knew an artist in Greensboro, NC, named Aime Groulx (he signed his name with a dot over the “X” as if it were an “I”). He was primarily a sculptor, but he also made photographs. One he made was of a doorknob in his house that looked like nothing else but a newly discovered planet. He called it “Doorknob to the Door of Perception.” He was an indifferent printer, but I used his negative to make a good silver print, which I still have.

The image was both totally realistic — it was a doorknob — and yet, as Minor White used to say, it is “what it is, and what else it is.”

Over the years, I took this lesson to heart and made many an image that seemed to be something more than what it is. An orange can be a planet, too.

Or a sand dune can be a spiral.

Finding interesting and beautiful shapes divorced from their quotidian meaning can make us see them more sharply, make us understand something about the colors, shapes, textures, that being able simply to name the subject of a photo prevents us from acknowledging. When we recognize too easily what our photo is of, the image ceases being visual and becomes instead a word. “That’s a picture of a house;” “That’s a picture of a dog,” and by naming it, we find we have done our job and neglect to actually look and to see.

Making something abstract forces us to see those colors, shapes, textures — allows us to find new emotional meanings in the familiar, and new designs.

So, then, let’s take the camera out of the process. Once digital photography nudged out the silver, dried out the Dektol and replaced the Beseler 23C with Photoshop, there were other ways of making image files.

I began experimenting with a flatbed scanner, making extremely high-definition images of flowers. With the scanner cover left open, the background of these images became a very deep black or blue-black and only the parts of the flowers held flat on the glass platen were fully focused. The images were stunning and essentially shadowless.

I tried other things, too.

But there was still a lens involved in the scanner. So, let us return to earlier days, when chemicals still stained a photographer’s hands. I tried scratching the end-bits of developed rolls of film and printing them as if they were negatives.

Still, however, there was the lens of the enlarger focusing the negative down onto the silver paper.

I wanted to get into the image directly, with no mechanical mediation. I wanted to get my hands into the process the way a potter gets his hands into the clay.

So, I dipped my hand into the tray of sodium hyposulfite and pressed it wet onto a sheet of light-sensitive paper, then washed the hypo off the paper and doused it in the developer, which turned the image black except for where the hypo had left its imprint. It made for rather spooky gorilla hands.

I tried it in the reverse way, too, dipping my hand into the developer and then, after the blacked image appeared, finished the process in stop bath and hypo. That gave me a black hand on a white sheet.

Certainly, this gave me an image of the familiar that was decontextualized and made strange. I saw my hand very differently.

There is, however, only so much you can do with a hand. After the first hundred or so versions of my hand, I tried some other things. Like scattering salt on the paper and spraying the developer like Windex down onto the sheet, leaving a scattering of stars on the paper.

I also tried dusting the paper with dry developer granules and spraying it with water, making the black specks on the lighter background. The spray made the salt or the developer wash weakly over the paper, making mid-tones that I enjoyed.

You could make an image that vaguely resembled a portrait.

These experiments continued over the six years I taught, but when I left that job, I became a writer instead of a photographer. My camera was used primarily to illustrate stories I was writing.

I look back at some of the images I made so long ago and feel there might have been something in them. Whether there is or not, the process was worth the time; it gave me great pleasure.

Click on any image to enlarge