History Is Too a Circle, Part 2


History echoes in sometimes unexpected places.



About 600 years ago, in response to a devastating plague, a singularly beautiful and emotionally moving altarpiece was created in Isenheim, Germany by Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grunewald. It is about 30 feet wide and 20 feet high, not including its substantial base. The art tells one story in three different ways, or perhaps, in terms better suited to our digital era, one story in three different image arrays. Different combinations of images are revealed by physically opening doors and wings embedded in the piece.


Watching the different frames revealed is a journey through layers of the plague’s story – from suffering to darkness to resurrection – intentionally paralleling, of course, the life of Jesus.

These photographs (above and below) barely hint at the emotional power of being in the altarpiece’s physical presence. No art is meant to be experienced in a postcard, after all. Centuries before cinema, this must have been an ecstatically transformative experience for people seeing it, of course, in person.


Now, flash-forward to nearer our present day – another time, another place, another plague.

Starting in the 1990s, HIV/AIDS cut across sub-Saharan Africa like a scythe – literally killing off entire generations, leaving towns and villages comprised entirely of old women and children in its wake.


And so, the surviving women on one such village, Hamburg, South Africa, told their own story through the creation of a piece of art, the Keiskamma Altarpiece. They built it to exactly the same dimensions as the Isenheim Altarpiece, and used the same system of hinged doors and wings, telling the story step by step – suffering, darkness, resurrection.


I had the great, once-in-a-lifetime honor of meeting one of its creators, Eunice Magwane, who walked me through each symbol and layer. And I had the even greater honor of donning white protective gloves and showing the piece to visitors at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where a part of its exhibition in North America was hosted. The meaning of this particular plague resonated deeply with our city’s own experience fighting HIV/AIDS some years before.

I touched and moved the altarpiece’s doors, spoke the creators’ messages and saw the faces – even the faces now so accustomed to movies, interactive video games and the Internet – react in absolute awe and reverence and, yes, honest-to-God emotion to the hand-made, rough-hewn depictions of horrible pain and unimaginable loss.


One of the greatest highlights of my life – not just my professional life but my entire life – was sharing that piece of art with my son’s school classmates, helping them connect the history of their hometown and its battle with HIV/AIDS, which they knew well, to the real human history of a faraway place, and seeing their common struggles and challenges. I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of these supposedly jaded, urban kids when they realized the women of Hamburg had created beautiful art depicting the pain and death of their very own, now-departed, flesh-and-blood sons and daughters, telling the story of a plague through the experience of their own lives.

Much as, I assume, the creators of the Isenheim Altarpiece had done, continents away and centuries before.

Echo, baby.



11th Day of the 11th Month


It was a world in which many people’s romanticized mental image of war looked a lot like a really awesome, albeit especially noisy, parade or a light-opera production of ‘Student Prince.’ Lance-carrying horsemen. Uniforms with gold braid and buttons. Big, furry hats. Bright colors and stirring martial music.

The conflagration that became the First World War was supposed to last but several weeks, ending sometime in late autumn. Some sabre-rattling. Raising of imperial flags. A big cavalry charge through the gently-rolling fertile lands of Belgium and France was supposed to end it while crops were still in the field.

Yeah, well, not so much, as it turned out in reality.

The real war was brutal, filthy, de-humanizing, ugly. It lasted years and virtually killed off an entire generation, mostly young men. Many of those who were fortunate enough to return home alive were changed in ways that made them unsuited to the lives they’d led prior to their war experiences, much less the lives they needed to live afterward. Many were permanently injured, physically and psychologically. The world that had been at war from 1914 to 1917 was a much harsher, bleaker and poorer place than it had been before the world’s ‘great’ imperial powers launched their war to satisfy nothing but ego and greed.

It’s estimated there were 37 million casualties. Just by way of making this scale tangible, that’s more than the combined population of the top 25 US cities in 2012.

Reflecting both the need and hope of the people left alive in its wake, it was coined ‘The War to End All Wars.’ And, sadly, that turned out to be a hopelessly romantic notion too.

On November 11th at 11 o’clock am, the warring powers signed an armistice, ending hostilities. It was the hope of most participants that the treaty, combined with the creation of the League of Nations, would make it possible for global war to be eradicated. In less than 30 years, that romantic ideal would be exposed as fiction too.

In America, we commemorate November 11th as ‘Veterans Day,’ to honor those who’ve served in our armed forces. While entirely worthy, I wish we’d commemorate it instead as the day the world let itself believe in the illusion of a final war. That might actually cause us to question our continuing national philosophy that we can engage in winnable, limited and acceptable wars in the future.


My Lunch With Larry

Industry Leaders Address Oracle Software Conference

About 15 or 20 years ago, I was attending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, as many more people were wont to do in those days. CES then was today’s equivalent of Burning Man: a hot and crowded circus, way too expensive, a place to be seen and to see naked people in unlikely places. In short, CES was, in those heady days, a gargantuan beast. The event took up the newish convention center, plus two other huge hotel convention venues.

Depending on the time of day and day of the week, it could take over an hour to get from one venue to the next – and one didn’t simply walk from one to the other. Too far, too cold (CES took place in January and Vegas can be bone-chilling cold at that time of year.), and, well, nobody walks in Vegas.

As it happened, I was invited by an important vendor of ours to a small luncheon with Larry Ellison. I said yes, of course, because, you know, any way to escape the nonstop noise and bustle of the show was much appreciated. And Larry Ellison was a huge draw for a person like me who is fascinated by the bizarre quirks of others. (Ellison had just finished a huge fight with his neighbors over the rights to fly his Soviet MiG jet fighter.)

Lunch was held in a small, non-descript hotel meeting room; the room held only five tables. There was a small lectern up front. When we sat down, no Larry. Salad served, no Larry. Entrée served, no Larry. No Larry through dessert and coffee. I remarked to my host that it must have all either been a clever way to get a captive audience, or a not-so-clever joke.

After the dessert plates had been well and cleared, the doors opened and all heads turned.

In walked a phalanx of attractive, stylish and sleek women. Maybe two dozen. They fanned out against the room’s walls. Then, in came Ellison himself with another attractive, stylish and sleek woman carrying a leather hatbox. She and Larry walked to the front, where the lectern stood. She walked a half pace behind him the entire time and stood behind his left shoulder.

Ellison talked about the cloud. He never used that term, nor would anyone there have understood him had he done so. No one knew or talked about the cloud in those days. But he sketched out the cloud, alright, from principles to use to utility.

I thought it was brilliant and completely original.

But in the back of my head, that hatbox, and the attractive, stylish and sleek woman who carried it, kept a certain part of my attention. “What the hell was in it?” I wondered.

When he finished his remarks, Ellison took a couple of questions and answered them in a way that suggested great boredom. And then, he was gone.

He walked out, followed immediately by the woman with the hatbox, then by the two dozen women who’d lined the room’s walls. Then the door was closed and that, as they say, was that.

A few of us mentioned the cloud, or how we’d heard Ellison conceive it at any rate, but mostly, we all wanted to know what was in the leather hatbox and why himself felt it necessary to have it so close at all times. None of us seemed ready to invest in cloud computing after that lunch, but quite a few of us would have put down real serious money to answer the hatbox riddle.


Stop It, For the Love of God and Humanity


An open letter to the GOP

Dear Republicans,

Sorry, but I have to give you a little tough love right now. Please take your collective head out of your ass; I sincerely beg you.

Now, please read on.

I grew up in a very political family, in a particularly politically-charged era. Politics was what we talked about at the dinner table the way some other families might have talked about school, sports, movies, or the weather. When my grandmother died, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors adjourned – out of respect for her and the family.

My brother still deeply lives and breathes his style of politics. My father and I both held appointive office in our hometown. And I’ve been a professional speechwriter off and on since the late 1980s and have been involved in many political campaigns.

Politics, in short, runs deep in my blood and is bred in the bone.

Here’s something I believe to my core: there are both Republicans and Democrats that have served our country and the public’s interest well. In my lifetime, Republicans have tended to be the reasonable, rational party of Main Street business values, fiscal responsibility, honest and hard-earned patriotism, shared sacrifice, political moderation.


Even though I live in a very blue city, I know a great many Republicans; I like them, understand them, respect them. I have cocktails with them regularly. I’ve even worked for them.


All that said, I do not understand and cannot accept the currently prevailing direction of the Republican Party.

What I believe the current Republican agenda to be:

  1. Stop any and every initiative of President Obama.
  2. Use one particular (and, to my personal thinking, peculiar) interpretation of one particular religious text, the Bible, as a guide to policymaking, exclusive of all other texts and interpretations.
  3. Forestall, if not completely prevent, the dilution of white, Christian rule in America by what are certainly inevitable demographic changes. 

All three are, to recall the words of John McCain (R-AZ), fool’s errands.


Here’s why:

  1. They hurt constituents.
  2. They’re not American.
  3. They’re irrational (And, BTW, they make you look irrational for pursuing them.).

Michele Bachmann at Rasmussen

Here’s what you Republicans really need to understand:

  1. Uncritical reactive opposition to anything is juvenile. Witness Ted Cruz. To 90% of America, Ted Cruz is a mirthless joke. Is that what you want Americans to think of you? It can’t and shouldn’t be.
  2. The Bible is a book. (‘Bible’ is Greek for book, not THE book.) There are good and patriotic American Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims and Buddhists too. And The Bible is not a book upon which our republic was/is based. Our founders were rational humanists not evangelical Christians. Read some real American history, for fuck’s sake. Nor were our founders radical libertarians/individualists. (You’re confusing real American history with John Ford western movies.) America’s founders were communitarians. By the way, Ayn Rand was an asshole. And people who use her writings as the basis of anything in the real human world are also assholes; only an asshole would try to base something as important as government on her writings. Special message to Paul Ryan, et al.: Grow the fuck up, already.  
  3. Do you not realize the potentially tremendous position you’re in? Sorry, rhetorical question. You obviously don’t. Get your head out of your ass. This could be a Republican century if only you’d realize the potential you have to organize and energize the coming wave of Americans. You can virtually own entrepreneurship and economic opportunity, two critical reasons people come here in the first place, if only you’ll leave abortion rights, guns, Obamacare, marriage and employment equality, equal voting rights, and the rest of the so-called ‘values’ issues alone. They’re not what the majority of Americans believe, not even the majority of your ‘real’ Americans. They’re just the way to quick death. (Besides, see above, they also make you look like irrational, ignorant idiots.)



Your Democratic friend,



(On the Value of) Forgetting


Would you be remembering me?
I ask that question time and again
– ‘Coast of Marseilles,’ Keith Sykes

The other day, and quite completely out of the blue, my teenaged daughter Ella happened to ask me about a long-distant former girlfriend. My daughter doesn’t know this former girlfriend or what she looks like, doesn’t even know her name. She does, however, know a few things about her, like when we knew each other and where.

Ella was, I believe, asking more about conceptual relationship issues than the flesh-and-blood reality of my grad student era personal life (yuck). Because it is not my practice to deceive or hide things from my kids, I answered her questions as directly and truthfully as I knew how. Nonetheless, our exchange left me with some uneasy feelings that were hard to process and even name.

Now, I must say that I do not pine for this person. I do not wish things had turned out differently enough such that we’d ended up together in a permanent, committed relationship. I have no ambivalence about that. Still, I had to acknowledge I’d had feelings for her. I was attracted to her, and admired her drive and intellect. I’d cared for her and we’d had fun together.

Still, I was honestly unsettled after my daughter’s questions.

So, what was I feeling?

Last month, my family and I visited my undergrad alma mater, mostly to watch a football game (in which my team was thoroughly trounced, by the way). Walking around campus and sharing stories specific to that place had stirred up emotions as well. Now, this is nothing new for me and Berkeley. From my very first days there, the Cal campus has always held the feeling of ghosts for me. But this visit was different, the feelings more mixed and confused and not altogether pleasant.


It’s no coincidence this came as I prepared to visit my old grad school, to meet with current students and poke around old classrooms and re-visit an old professor to two. [And my recent visit to Philadelphia? Don’t get me started.]

There’s a Keith Sykes song performed most notably by Jimmy Buffett called ‘Coast of Marseilles’ (Full lyrics and link to listen, are below.) that’s always been one of my favorites. The singer wonders if an old love would remember him and, if so, would think well of him.

To me, it’s a profoundly disturbing thought, especially when put in the context of a real life’s experiences: real people, times, places. The truth is – and I say this with neither ironic detachment nor pride – I can clearly remember being a complete dick to some people. Cold. Aloof. Unthoughtful. Mindless. Critical. Dishonest about my feelings. Today, at this very moment, flying east to Durham, North Carolina, I cringe to even think.

Would the actual, specific people I’ve known and cared about remember me at all? And, upon remembering, would they think well or ill?

When I think back – not to mention revisit those very places, or get asked about them by certain curious teenagers – I must confess I’m nowhere near sure. And, at times, it makes me desire a much more selective memory than I actually have.


Coast of Marseilles, Keith Sykes

I sat there on the coast of Marseilles
My thoughts came by like wind through my hand
How good it’d be to hold you
How good it’d be to feel like that again
How good it’d be to feel like that again

Would you be remembering me?
I ask that question time and again
The answer came and haunted me so
I did not want to think it again
I did not want to think it again

You make it hard for me to forget
I haven’t stopped loving you yet

When I left the coast of Marseilles
I hadn’t done what I’d come to do
I spent all the money I’d saved
And did not get over you
I did not get over you

To hear Jimmy Buffet performing this song, click here.

%d bloggers like this: