31 December 2013

Good bye 2013. And good riddance.

Men Fighting, 1950, photo by Elliot Erwitt

Maybe it was because we forgot to eat black-eyed peas last New Year's Day. It's a Southern tradition: Eat black-eye peas -- a kind of bean, really -- and you'll have good luck all year. 

Or maybe it was because we slacked on the other custom. In the Celtic countries of my ancestors, you're supposed to kick out the eldest male child before midnight. Then, he's to be the first one to enter the home in the new year, and he should be crossing the threshold with a full bottle of whiskey.

Good luck charms. I wonder if they would have helped during what followed.

First my aunt died. Then my father in law. Then my own father. My identity was stolen. When someone else uses your credit cards and checking accounts, it's disturbing, like being groped by a cold hand. 

A close friend confided the worst kind of secret to me. The kind of secret owning a stench that sours even the best days. Our town was flooded, and mud-stinking water seeped in our basement. My son had a medical crisis, but it turned out well in the end. 

Some other, major disappointments kicked the bottom out of the year. Mostly, as I looked over my calendars and journals, I got the sense of a long grind, of grief and stagnation that didn't lift much until the autumn.

It's all relative. I'm not, for example, scrambling for shelter in Aleppo. I got a new and hugely better day job. In each of the deaths I mentioned, the passing was a kind of mercy. Each of them had suffered with disease for long enough. 

So: good in the bad, even this year. Still. Even though I'm another circle of the sun closer to my death, even though I lost time this year, time that won't ever come back, even with that, I'm glad to see this year go.

Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out, 2013.

25 December 2013

photo by August Sander

Leroy en anglais and in English

(Here's an English version of the poem I posted a few days ago. Francophones are invited to note any mistakes. Like most things, it sounds better in French.)

The dead are not dead.
They rent hotel rooms by the week
In small towns, in winter.

The dead are not dead
They look out the window
On Main Street, covered with snow

The dead are not dead
They’ll live in the middling hotel
Room number 15

The dead are not dead.
They’re charmed by the wardrobe, the mirror
And the slightly dated bathroom

The dead are not dead
They’re surprised to catch a glimpse of themselves as they were,
when they were young

The dead are not dead
They calmly unpack their bags —
Light — just the necessities

The dead are not dead
They are finally
Without trinkets and red tape

The dead are not dead
Without newspapers piling up around them
Without the just-opened letters

The dead are not dead
They like the crispness
Of room number 15.

The dead are not dead
Soon, they’ll probably go down,
Take a walk in town

The dead are not dead
No one will recognize them
As their steps crunch in the snow

The dead are not dead
Like the rasp of catarrh
Maybe a drink in this bar

The dead are not dead
They note the difference
Between this and Dante’s Purgatory

The dead are not dead
The receptionist with the coal dark eyes
Reminds them of worn out loves

The dead are not dead
They like the soothing purity
Of a room arranged just so.

The dead are not dead
Unknown, and yet so friendly
They stretch out on the double bed

The dead are not dead
They read the single book
Chosen especially for the trip

The dead are not dead
They know every page
But finally they understand it

The dead are not dead
The snow still falls the snow falls again
They fall silent, smiling, say to themselves

The dead are not dead
They rent hotel rooms by the week
In small towns, in winter.

--Jérôme Leroy

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas -- and I hope you found what you wanted under the tree.

22 December 2013

I was at the Japanese Garden in Portland. The place is so beautifully composed that it is difficult to take a bad picture.

20 December 2013

Poem by Jerome Leroy

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils louent des chambres d'hôtel à la semaine
Dans des sous-préfectures hivernales

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils regardent par la fenêtre de la chambre
La Grand Rue sous la neige

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils vont vivre dans ce deux étoiles
Chambre numéro quinze

Les morts ne sont pas morts 
Ils s'amusent de l'armoire à glace
Et de la salle de bain un peu désuète

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils s'étonnent un instant de leur visage
Du temps qu'ils étaient jeunes

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils défont tranquillement leurs bagages
Légers juste l'indispensable

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils sont enfin tels qu'en eux-mêmes
Sans bibelots et sans paperasse

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Sans journaux qui s'entassent
Sans lettres à peine ouvertes

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils aiment la fraicheur nette
De la chambre numéro quinze

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils vont sans doute tout à l'heure
Se promener dans la sous préfecture

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils ne sont reconnus de personne
Leurs pas font craquer la neige 

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Comme le bruit d’une pleurésie
Un verre peut être dans cette brasserie

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils remarquent la différence
Avec le Purgatoire de Dante

Les morts ne sont pas morts
La réceptionniste aux yeux bistres
Leur rappelle des amours fatiguées

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils aiment la pureté reposante
De la chambre bien rangée

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Anonyme et pourtant si aimable
Ils s'allongent sur le lit double

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils lisent un livre unique
Celui choisi pour le voyage

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils en connaissent chaque page
Mais enfin ils le comprennent

Les morts ne sont pas morts
La neige tombe toujours la neige tombe encore
Ils s'étirent sourient et se disent

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils louent des chambres d'hôtel à la semaine
Dans des sous-préfectures hivernales.

                                    --Jerome Leroy

19 December 2013

Buying my father's coffin

I was confused. I thought were were going to the funeral home for some oven-side ceremony before my father's cremation. So I wore a suit, and I was filled with a certain amount of dread. But I was wrong. It was to be more of a sales session to determine the cost of the disposition of his corpse.

It was a sunny autumn day. In Colorado, you often have clear, hard sunshine when you'd prefer gloomy, low clouds.

The funeral home was a not unattractive beige stucco building. A stained glass window of a swirling tree was the centerpiece of a lobby. To the right, some memorial service or celebration of life was underway. You could tell, because some men wore suits and the little girls were dressed. It felt like a church function, but not an actual service. Overall, the home took its cues from suburban church architecture. Stained glass and couches. Thick comfy carpets and domed ceilings. 

Not Mr. Moon. But pretty close.

An attractive young woman greeted my wife, my new stepmother and me. She managed to project cheeriness with a readiness to offer sympathy. She asked our business and relayed our information. 

The place smelled of woodsmoke. Which made me think of fires, ovens and ashes.

Then, the nice young woman ushered in a tall, moon-faced fellow whom she introduced as, of course, Mr. Moon. We went to a side room farther in the depths of the building. We took our seats at a large table. A computer monitor was on my left, another stained glass tree faced me, and a subdued landscape featuring a country road hung on my right.

Mr. Moon spoke in a hollow, breathy bass voice. He apologized in advance because he'd have to excuse himself during our meetings to leave. He'd had something at lunch that was causing him distress. A whiff of diarrhea entered the experience.

Styles to match every taste.

Mr. Moon managed to blend the worst elements of a Presbyterian deacon and used car salesman in his manner.  It made me wonder how he managed to do business of any kind at all. Maybe the grief of his prospects made them ignore his combination of sepulchral solemnity and pseudo-sympathetic sleaze.

To my relief, it turned out we'd be making arrangements and payments and not participating in a cremation ceremony at all. My shrewd stepmother held him to the firefighter's discount which made him wince.He laid out the options for services and cremations like a car salesman would, working hard for the upsell. We declined them all because we'd already planned other services of our own.

He excused himself. We tried not to think about Mr. Moon, his intestinal distress and its probable results, and failed. When he came back, I signed the paper work allowing them to transport his body to a central crematorium and specifying the treatment of his ashes.

Then Mr. Moon led us to a side room where the caskets and urns were on display. Urns come in a lot of styles, with crosses, stars of David, American eagles and other gewgaws plastered on them. Mournful imagery, of the kind favored in 19th century graveyards and the album covers of Goth bands, is not available. No weeping nymphs or mothers here. The cost of them was breathtaking. The functional and embarrassingly plain urns started around $200. This is for a box you could buy at Home Depot for $10, maybe $15.

But of course you feel like a penny-pinching peasant when you think thoughts like this in these circumstances. It's . . . Dad, after all. But, he's dead. And they're ashes.

We bought a low-end urn. My stepmother is not sentimental. I'm not either, at least, not when it comes to the storage of ashes.

Yes. that's the Last Supper on a casket handle. photo via the Denver Post.
Then Mr. Moon drew our attention to the caskets. You have to have a casket, even if the body is to be cremated. A law, apparently. he showed us a nice mahogany number for $7,000. Then, and the symptoms must have hit him really goddam hard because otherwise he never would have left at this critical point in the spiel, he excused himself again.

We looked good in the pink light of the room. We considered the esthetics of coffins. They all seemed overdone to me, fat boxes inspired by some mid-70s Detroit esthetic of pomp and crap. The extortionary pricing took away any shame any of us might have had in looking cheap. 

But even knowing the sales machinery in operation, I paused. Would it mean anything? A fancy coffin? Would that make up for the times I'd politely begged off from seeing him? Would it smooth over the hatred I'd felt for him in the past? Could a coffin salve the past?

DId the Egyptians have a point? What if I sent him to an afterworld lacking some critical thing -- what would it be? Would cremation mean his soul would wander the earth, homeless? What if I was wrong about my beliefs? They didn't seem particularly well founded, or based on anything much at all.

I remembered my aunt in her coffin last January. The dead are so utterly dead. The soul, or whatever you want to name it, the personality, the animating snap of neurons, whatever it is that makes a person a person on this earth, in this frame, was gone. 

Did it matter? I wanted it to matter. But I didn't see the means or the tools in the showroom, in that funeral home, to make it different.

Mr. Moon came back.

My stepmother asked for the least expensive option.

It was on a bottom shelf, barely visible under the gleaming silver and shiny blonde wood models.

A cardboard box. Really. Just picture the box a refrigerator comes in, turn it gray and add some paper sheets and a white pillow on the inside. It cost $75. We ordered it.

I signed the paperwork and a check for $4,500.

With the odor of woodsmoke still in our nostrils, we decided not to have a bite to eat. 

Instead, we walked across the parking lot in the sunshine to our cars.

27 September 2013

26 September 2013


My father died two weeks ago today.

But I'm not writing about that. What I am writing about is how the absence of ritual can really fuck you up.

First of all, I'm surprised to be taking this particular position. I am, in the abstract anyway, ready to do away with Old Forms. Outdated Traditions. Moldy Remnants of Days of Yore. Who needs that crap, after all?

Confronted with death, or birth or any major crisis, though, you look for guidance. I'm not so sturdy that I don't yearn for some kind of support.

If your father died in Ancient Greece or Rome, or 16th-century Japan, or, hell, in 1910 in America, you had a prescribed course of action. A set of rules and behaviors surrounding how to mourn and how to bury the man. These were enforced by a priest, a minister, a family. You shared a set of expectations, the etiquette that hid and eased the process. You had experts to rely on, that were not in your pay or your thrall, but who represented, however poorly, a tradition. You could adhere to that, or not, depending on your temperament and philosophy.

Now, you have to decide. And make choices at the worst possible moment, when you're tenderized and scraped raw and dealing with anguish. You have no form to pour those feelings in to. Instead, you have to make up the program for the burial, as if you're a half-assed theatrical producer.

My father set out his wishes in his will, so we have guidance. It's a set of requests both awesome and completely foreign to me. I'll honor those wishes. I'll put his car on display for the Shriners, have the piper play, and invite the firefighters to do their number for their fallen brother.

But it's all improvisational, made up. Grab-assed. That freedom is cool, I guess. But I wish, now, for a rule. A set of regulations that would dictate how long to weep, how many weeks to wear black, to put an armband on my suit, how many tears to collect.

What songs of mourning to sing.

Then, I'd know what to do. Absent a church or a temple, you don't exactly know. Maybe I'll shave my head, or burn his possessions, or find some ashes to toss on my head as I sit and meditate on him and his absence.

Or not.

Prayer for François Villon

Prayer for François Villon

As long, as the earth keeps turning,
As long, as the sun is above,
Almighty, please give to all of us
The things that we do not have:

Grant a mind to the wise man,
The coward, grant him a horse,
The happy man, let him have money,
...And don't forget "your's truly".

As long as the earth keeps turning,
Almighty, as is your wont,
Grant to the one striving for power
Rule as much as he wants.

Grant a break to the generous
At least till the start of dusk.
Grant repentance to Cain
...And don't forget "yours truly".

I know that you have the Power
I've faith in your wisdom,
Believing,as does a dead soldier,
That right in Heaven He dwells.

As truly,every being believes:
That all that you say is true,
As we go on believing,
Not knowing what we do.

O Lord of my life, Almighty,
Blond tresses and green of eye,
As long as the earth keeps turning
Although it still wonders, "why?"

As long as it still has some time left
and fire to keep its course,
Grant something to everybody
...And don't forget "yours truly".

21 September 2013

Some nights

Even thought it's late, you don't want to sleep.

Slipping into the evening past 10, 11, midnight is delicious, a sin without vice, a familiar shirt you've forgotten about. The daily leash slips away, and you just want to stay awake and savor the darkness, the black pressing against the windows, the sudden chill, the deep night frigidity, the sudden sense of freedom, of possibility. Jumping a car and driving someplace, anywhere -- Nebraska, the Wyoming border, or down south to the deserts of New Mexico seems impossibly romantic. The silence, as palpable as silk. Whatever music's playing seems deepened, even more resonant, and a tacit partner in plans.

It's time to go. To head out, and forget whatever's at home, at the hearth, and see where you end up.

05 September 2013

19 July 2013

Conspiracy theory and inner life

I don't believe in conspiracy theories. In my experience, people are too sloppy and too prone to mistakes to make a good conspiracy work for very long. Human nature and my readings in history do not inspire that kind of confidence.


What if you wanted to turn everyone in the world into a soulless automaton. Say, you're Doctor Evil, and you want to make money by making them work for you even as they fall into debt. 

The Romans, as always, have the original model for achieving this: bread and circuses. Keep the people safe from hunger, make them sleepy and sated for starters. Then you put on a helluva show. Nothing that will make the populi think, but an Event, based on sensation, excitement.

Well, you tried that. It worked pretty well, espcially when electronic media invaded the home. In all our self regard now, we forget how horrified a lot of smart people were about television when it first came 

Your first step would be to destroy their inner life. Their capacity to reflect, dream, come up with fantasies, ruminate and think. 

12 July 2013

Fake isn't what it used to be

When I first traveled to Paris, seeing McDonald's on the Champs-Elysees bruised my tender illusions. Then I grew up, and realized that if the French wanted a Big Mac, they had a right to it, just like the kids in Boise or Dubuque.

Of course, I didn't go there. Not until, about a year into my stay in Paris, a genuine expatriate invited me to meet him at the place. No one revoked my Francophile card. In fact, the place was packed with Frenchies of all ages, something you couldn't say about the other restaurants on the Champs.

And upon reflection, McDonald's, KFC, and even Haagen Dasz are examples of globalization I can understand. They provide the benighted masses of Europe with delicacies that their own cultures -- no matter how fertile -- cannot.

In the 1980s and 1990s, coffee culture took off in the US. That was a fine thing, too. Back in the dark ages, marijuana was easier to come by than espresso. You had to earn it. Surly baristas, as I learned to call them, would glare at you darkly as they pulled at alarmingly complex machines. Perhaps they were composing lyrics, or trying to recall Pound's XXX canto, or just hung over. Cafes were filled with low rent bohemians, sketching, writing, reading, or pretending, too, anyway.

It was a lot like Paris: bad bathrooms, lousy service, indifferent hygiene, pretension swirling around thicker than the clove cigarette smoke clouding the air.

I loved it.

Those places all reminded me of Le Village Ronsard, a cafe in Paris that I tried, through regular visits and mighty acts of imagination, to convert into my version of Les Deux Magots. The regular waiter, who looked exactly like Harry Dean Stanton in a red vest and soiled white shirt, would bring out a morning cafe creme or the afternoon pression with a minimum of fuss and a smaller amount of cordiality.

Instead of resenting his impersonality, I honored it. None of that, "Hi, my name's Rainbeau, may I take your order?" nonsense. No pretense. There to do his job, and he did it. If he was moody, hell, shouldn't anyone be entitled to a bad day? I can't remember his ever being cheerful,  mais alors, he had to serve all those jerk ricans, American tourists. That'd bring anyone down.

Insanity on my part, mixed with masochism. But an afternoon at Le Village Ronsard was filled with drama. When Henri finally deigned to greet us with a merely chilly bon jour, instead of growling a glacial one, it was a joyful day. We, whether either of us liked it or not, had a relationship

Smart people took note of Parisian cafes and their messy American cousins. They took the cafe concept, streamlined it, juiced up the coffee with a  few extra hundred milligrams of caffeine to make it that much more addictive, threw in some familiar sweets, ditched the alcohol and standardized the back room operations. Thus was Starbucks delivered unto a ready nation.

And the nation saw and drank venti caramel lattes, and, lo, it was good.

In the meantime, Ralph Lauren, (born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx) had been packaging and streamlining Saville Row (among other inspirations).

Dallas, on TV earlier, showed rich Americans living in copies of wealthy British manors.

That was usual. I understood all of that. Real/fake. Authentic/copy. Sort of like what the Japanese did with cars, motorcycles, and cameras.

Then it got weird.

The British Royal family got caught wearing Ralph Lauren. They also moved into new places, houses they had built for themselves, places that weren't old castles dripping with atmosphere and soul. Manors that looked exactly like mansions some nouveau riche Texan would erect in River Oaks.

And then Starbuck's opened in Paris. Several, in fact. With happy-ish Parisians patronizing them.

They're real, but not genuine. But is that even the right question to ask -- can a Starbucks be authentic?Unless you consider that its essence is that of a smoothed-over copy. Can't fakes, or copies, be real -- as real in their replication -- as the real?

As real as Euro-Disney, which is a copy of an American version of a German version of a fairy tale?

And as languages die, and cultures fade, as eccentricities are drowned in pharmaceuticals and pieces of life are packaged for lifestyles, what can you make of it, or consider how to resist? Or is that idea of resisting and boycotting just posturing and impossible, and in the end, not helpful towards preserving -- what, exactly? The old Ronsard cafe, which was just itself (no mattered what fevered nostalgia I brought to it). An un-ironic diner which I would self-consciously appreciate, thus destroying it's very un-ironic presence?

Or just sit back, plug in, take in the AC, dip my scone, swirl my biscotti, and wonder.

Wonder how long it will be until the form, aesthetics and culture of the shopping mall finally conquers everything.

11 July 2013

The Worst Sound...

The drone of lawnmowers on Sunday afternoon.

Hommage a lettres de moscou

Inspired by Vincent's Moscow shots, I took this in the Paris Metro.

07 July 2013

Families, part one

As a kid, you suspect everyone else's family is better than yours. At least, I did.

Growing up, the other families seemed less restrictive, or better regulated. More fun. Even when you encountered families demonstrably worse than yours, you still harbored the belief that your family was defective, strange, weird, and boring while everyone else's was better than to good old mom, dad, and sis.

Want proof? Matt and I were good friends in the seventh and eighth grades We were in the same Boy Scout troop.  We bonded over Tolkien, big time. Despite sharing my obsession with Elvish, he was smart, good at math and science, sharp in English. He looked a bit like Henry Kissinger -- same glasses, same curly hair, but in his case it grew wild. 

Unlike my other friends, he kept his address secret for a long time.

Once he invited me over, I understood why. His front yard was a dried-up desert, the lawn just a vague, brown memory. Their living room was jammed with crap, and the curtains never opened. I didn't -- and don't -- care too much about tidy lawns or clean front rooms, so that I even noticed this to begin with shows you how bad it was, relative to the other, nicer places in the neighborhood.

Matt's mother was an alcoholic who'd croak out a cheery, Maryland accented hello when you walked in. She only changed out of her quilted bathrobe to visit to the Three Kings bar in a strip mall. 

Did I offer thanks that I didn't have to clear out empty whisky bottles to make a path through the house to the backyard? Or that cigarette smoke didn't sting my eyes when I sat in the kitchen back home? Or consider that it was maybe a good thing for me that my parents had regular habits, drank maybe once a year and then not in front of me? 


I envied Matt. I wondered if I could move in. He could stay up as late as he wanted. Eat what he wanted. He just had to fix it himself. He had a trampoline in his backyard, and no one bugged us about safety when we jumped on it. He didn't have a dad to bug him about mowing the lawn. 

He didn't have a dad, or a lawn.

His sister was older, and used to smack him around for fun.

Better family, all the way around.

11 June 2013

Eulogy for Michael Vigdorchek

I’m here to pay tribute to Michael Efimovich Vigdorchek, my father in law and one of the greatest men I’ve known.  He led his life with courage, with wisdom and with kindness and generosity.

Michael was born in Kursk, in the former Soviet Union. His father, Yefim, was a doctor so treasured by the wives of the local party bosses, that his medical talent probably saved his family from the Gulag. When the Second World War broke out, Michael and his mother were evacuated.  He often recalled that when the train they were riding on came under bombardment, his mother stood in the open doorway of the cattle car they were in to protect him from the shrapnel that was exploding next to their train.

He came back home to Kursk and became a brilliant student, earning perfect scores on his university entrance exams. Because of quotas aimed at excluding Jews from prestigious institutions, he wasn’t able to go to his first choice to study philosophy. Instead, he went to the Mining Institute and launched a brilliant career in geophysics.

On one geological expedition in the Siberian wilds, he stood between a bear and a young woman who was with his team. It was a brave and gallant act. And it would lead to his winning the hand of that young woman in marriage. His union with Elena, close, passionate and enduring, lasted for more than 60 years, right up to the time of his passing.

In many ways, Michael led a fine life in Leningrad. He traveled on more expeditions, published scientific books and papers, and established a stellar reputation for himself. From what I know, it sounds like a life full of laughter, culture, debates in the kitchen, visits to Georgia and Armenia, a time filled with friendship and achievement set to the music of Vysotsky and Okudjava.

A fine life, except that he had to live, with his wife and his daughter, in the shadow of a totalitarian state that casually murdered millions of its own citizens.
Back here in the US, we used to play a kind of mental game. We’d wonder how we’d act if we landed in a dictatorship, or we’d try predict how we’d behave if the Nazis invaded us.  Would we act like Solzhenitsyn? Or would we turn into collaborators into grubby informers who preferred safety to honor? Of course, you’d like to think you’d make the right choice. But you wonder.

Michael never had to wonder. He knew.

For him, with his courage and his nobility of spirit, I don’t even think it was a choice. He simply acted with integrity and bravery. He never compromised with the oppressive regime. Never joined the party. Never allowed himself the easy self-deception and hypocrisy which is the cement of an authoritarian state.

Instead, in the middle of his life and with everything to lose, he took a large risk. He put his name on a list applying to leave the Soviet Union. Just being on that list, at that time and in that place, was considered treason. It amounted to social suicide and put him in the spotlight of a vicious bureaucracy. He lost friends. He was separated from his family.

And Michael left with his wife and daughter to start a new life with nothing but a few suitcases.

When he emigrated, he – and the Soviet state, and his friends, and his family – all thought it would be forever. Permanent exile, with no return ticket. He renounced everything he owned and knew to be free. Still, he didn’t hesitate. He did not waver. He wanted to be free, and share that freedom with his wife and daughter.
This is courage of the highest order, although Michael would be embarrassed to hear me say it. And I know that I am among others who made the same choice. I salute all of you.

In his new country and in a new language, Michael had an extraordinarily successful career. He joined Marathon Oil, and through the rigors of corporate life and through booms and crashes, he rose high. His creativity, his ability to synthesize, to think made him valuable, respected and rewarded.
But his ambition wasn’t driven by a need to score some numbers or gratify his ego. He was too large a man for that. Instead, it was driven by his love for his family, for his wish to secure them a future and to establish a legacy for his grandchildren. To bring the people he loved most safety and delight.

It’s the great irony of his life that he would return to Russia, after all. And in a way that one of his favorite writers, Alexandre Dumas would have appreciated. Instead of a pariah, he arrived back to his native land as a kind of corporate Count of Monte Christo, staying in fine hotels, wined and dined by oligarchs, and even returning to his home town in a limousine.

Lesser men might have let themselves be seduced by all the temptations offered by Yeltsin’s Russia. Michael didn’t waver then, either. He took the measure of the ex-KGB guys and the hustlers, and said they were simply gangsters. He could have, if he had wished, picked up a flashy gold digging wife and a big shiny Mercedes – the way a lot of his colleagues did, or indulged himself with a big fat Rolex. Instead, he wore a Timex. He saved his money, did his job for Marathon very well, and came home with stories and a few souvenirs. He didn’t even give in to the minor temptation of hinting about what a big deal he’d become.

He retired, reluctantly. He fought his first round with cancer.

Then he blossomed into a poet, a kind of Houston Pushkin, writing hundreds of poems which speculate, provoke, philosophize – a second, unexpected flowering in his life.

Michael fought two more rounds with cancer. His wife, Elena was by his side the whole time. He only made two complaints about all the pain and the hell he with through with the disease. Once, he confided that he hated the burden his care put on Elena. The second time, that he found it challenging to be still. His was a life, after all, filled with travel and the eager search for new horizons. The rest of it, the radiation, the chemo, the scars, the pain, he would merely shrug.

If I were to list all the reasons I’m grateful to him and all the debts I owe him, we’d be here for days, if not weeks. So I’ll only mention the most important one: He is the father of the love of my life, Tanya. I’m thankful to fate that we’ve been blessed with two children. It’s my pleasure to see echoes and traces of Michael in his grandchildren, in the color of my daughter’s eyes and the shape of my son’s hands. I hope that their resemblance to him will extend and embrace his to his deeper qualities – his humanity, dignity, generosity and courage.

I’ll miss the long walks we took together, with me trying to keep up with his brisk pace over the five miles or so he’d put in every day. 

I’ll miss his ferocious intensity when he had something big to say, some urgent advice to give, and he’d lock you in with his eyes - and you knew then you had no choice but to listen to him.

I’ll miss the evenings we shared on a porch, watching the stars come out, and drinking red wine. Michael, in his basso profundo voice, would quote Griboyedev, speculate about Nostradamus,  debate foreign policy, joke, share stories.
I’ll miss his counsel. I’ll miss his laughter which could be big and robust or darkly sardonic.

I’ll miss his radiant delight in his granddaughter’s paintings and his grandson’s music.

In every important way, he was a second father to me. My own father, who loves and deeply respects Michael as well, often told me how lucky I was to have such great in-laws and such a fine father in law. I knew then, and have always known, how right he was.

Michael loved all things French, and would appreciate that in French, father in law translates to “beau pére” or “handsome father.”  It’s very true. He was my handsome father in every way that counts.

He has left us. I hate to say goodbye to him. But I want to thank him for all his gifts, for the example of courage and integrity he set for my children and me – for his life filled with generosity and nobility.

Good night, and good rest, Michael.