Sunday night last week I stayed up as late as I could to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I couldn’t really stay up as late as I wanted to, because it got cold out, and I was exhausted from traveling most of the day. But I stayed up as late as I could. The Earth passed through a cloud of loose debris. Bright streaks flashed, trailed briefly, and faded in the starry sky as the upper atmosphere was pelted with space gravel.
My brother, sister and I were on the beach on Grand Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan, just north of the 45th Parallel. Let me tell you, the American Dream actually happened to my family. My grandparents fled anti-Jewish violence in Belarus. They arrived in the US as children, my grandfather established himself first as a house painter, then as a contractor. My father went to college and became an architect, started his own company, and now we have a vacation house on Lake Michigan, on land purchased when I was around thirteen years old. I don’t think we ever complained as kids when we were brought to the unfinished house, with its floor of bare concrete, heated by a Franklin wood-burning stove.
Over the decades my parents have made it a masterpiece. Though it’s not as large as most houses in the area, with the extra accommodations of a camper trailer parked in the driveway, a few people sleeping in my mother’s art studio attached to the garage, and me sleeping in the enclosed gazebo on a wooded bluff overlooking the beach, we had the entire clan up there at the eponymous Barb and Sam’s House of Wine Drinking and Chipmunk Training: my parents, me, my brother and sister, my brother’s five kids, a wife of one of the kids and a girlfriend of another, plus my brother’s two dogs.
My existence has turned out to be relatively privileged thanks to friends and family, despite my best efforts, conscious and unconscious, to fail at life. I can’t help comparing my oddly fortunate outcome with that of my friend Michael, who recently died of pneumonia at 62 after some years suffering from aggressively progressing early-onset dementia.
In three chairs on the beach, my brother, sister, and I sat next to the dying fire in the firepit. The burning pebbles above at first appeared only grudgingly but soon acquiesced to our demands for a show. We swept our gazes across the sky like lazy satellite dishes, south to north, hooting happily when we saw a flash or a streak, cursing out the others and the heavens if one flared while we were looking elsewhere. We’d each seen over a dozen before we hit the cots.
The following night it stormed. In the gazebo, on an Aerobed® brand aerobed, in the adequate warmth of an unzipped sleeping bag (the zipper didn’t work), at midnight in gale-force winds with rain coming down, ghosts of Odawa Indians and Wendigo swirling about, I felt the presence or essence of Michael.
He had dropped out of high school and left home at sixteen due to friction with his father, which led to friction with the rest of his family. For a time he supported himself by card-counting and playing poker. He had a good head for statistics which developed into magnificent card-playing skills. I met him in Ann Arbor, where he’d moved from the East Coast to follow a woman. His friend Ken Jordan, son of Fred Jordan of Grove Press, introduced him to the crowd I now call “us.”
Most of us were in The Residential College or other schools within the University of Michigan. Michael never attended but was active in the cultural, intellectual, and card-playing life of the university. He appeared in and wrote plays, made music and literature. He participated in and initiated creatively disruptive protests. He dated the women. He played in the bands. He played tennis at “our” tennis tournament, Wimpleton. He fretted about ethics, including those around winning money from habitual Residential College gamblers. He told me that what he’d seen of developing-world poverty on a trip to the Dominican Republic led him to vow never to travel in such places again, so he was one of the few of us who spent no time in Asia, Africa, or Central and South America.
An athlete, he took fastidious care of himself to the point of obsession. At least that’s what I would call it. Of course, to me, an exercise regimen one strives not to depart from, or what to me qualifies as a barely subsistence-level intake of calories per day rigidly scheduled and adhered to, qualify as obsessive. I’m a fat lazy ape with few identifiable scruples. Michael and I were opposites, despite the similarity of at least part of our families’ ethnic origins. And our common interests in Truth, Justice, and the tortuous American Way.
We were friends and I found him to be sweet and brilliant and just a lovely man. And neurotic, so, maybe not entirely opposite. He had a blog of his remarkable writing, oblivio.com, where he explored his thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. He was fascinated and annoyed with America, as in the USA, as concept and wish and mild-to-severe disaster. And with love, beauty, and truth and their manifest expressions in life. On the Oblivio domain he very kindly and even enthusiastically hosted the Moment of Truth until This Is Hell! procured its current website.
You really had to be in the presence of Michael to get the full effect of his Michaelness, of course. His voice was calm. His consonants were tasted as much as enunciated. He did not lose his cool often, so when he did it was shocking and painful to see, because he was typically strong without effort, and then suddenly he was vulnerable and vexed. He wasn’t always reasonable, but when unreasonable he was aware of it. He made fun of himself – not in a self-deprecating way, like a self-hating comedian, but in a gentle way, as if he had the affection for himself one might for a misguided child. He stood up straight and was economical in his movements.
And then he lost his short-term memory and some of his cognitive ability. He tried to behave as if it weren’t happening, which was difficult for those around him, though he might have thought on some level that he was doing it to keep from upsetting them. Our great friends in Chicago, David and Mickle of Theater Oobleck, aided him at this time, along with an extraordinarily kind neighbor of his, and our sports journalist friend Dave Waldstein, to attain and maintain a living and health care situation in Brooklyn. He was well looked-after in his last years.
I’ve always associated him with a dark army green color of garment. Sweaters and toques and chinos. I’m not sure why. I guess he wore them a lot, but maybe I connect him somehow with Radar O’Reilly. He wasn’t much like Radar O’Reilly except in a vague way. The same way our friend Cindy always reminds me of cinnamon and the color Harvest Gold (Pantone 16-0948).
In the dark gazebo with the rain and wind and ghosts swirling and whipping around outside, I had an image of Michael in a transparent protective eggshell swept by currents amid the storm. Lightning couldn’t strike him as he rose through and above the storm clouds into the star-spangled space under the arch of the Milky Way. Space gravel couldn’t pelt him, stars couldn’t fall on him. Maybe he’ll meet the Perseids. Maybe he’ll become a Perseid. And people will say “there’s one” when he streaks across the sky or “dammit” when they’re looking the wrong way.
We will one day soon memorialize Michael in Brooklyn, where he lived what would be the too few latter decades of his life. And then maybe someone will tick off everything I got wrong here. But so much of Michael was always in my reveries, because I didn’t see him often, I can’t imagine there’ll be much to debate.