Posted tagged ‘In Memoriam’

Dennis Hopper, RIP

May 30, 2010

This one is a real loss, as many more than I have said. What I loved best about Hopper’s work is what most people did, I think: the combination of deeply realized characters and the strain of pure crazy Hopper could maintain through even the most seemingly straight persona. He could seriously act.

The only momentary oddity I can add to the general remembrance is that I actually met Hopper once, in a truly weird concatenation of worlds. In 1988 (sic! we did in fact have television back then, folks) I was working as associate producer on a NOVA documentary about the then hot topic of chaos (as in the mathematical and physical concept, and not that which pertains in, say, Afghanistan right now).

I and my boss, the BBC Horizon producer Jeremy Toye (I hope I recall his name correctly after this span of years) were in LA to interview a mathematician who had been doing some work with a bunch of cardiologists on chaos in heart rhythms (I have no recollection if the idea worked out or not). Our guy was at UCLA, but he was much too cool to live in Westwood, so we met him at his apartment in the beach block of one of the roads that dead ends into Venice Beach. (Yes, I’m still covetous.) He lived opposite one of the canonical dives of the day — it might have been the Beach Cafe, and he was one of its regulars, and he paraded us across the street to take our meeting (we were in LA, after all), in his haunt.

As we walked in, around eleven in the morning, there were just a few folks in the place. One was at the very end of the bar, back to the door. Our guy, Alan, said something like “Hey, Dennis!” and started striding over to one of the other Venice regulars of the day, none other than Dennis Hopper. Alan entrained Jeremy and me in tow behind him, telling us he wanted us to meet his bud, and we dutifully followed. Hopper looked up, saw three men coming at him, backlit against the door, and coiled up. His face, just for a moment, had the full Hopper feral threat written across it, a kind of fight or flight statement written in the cast of his eyes and the tensing of his muscles.

Then he saw it was his cafe friend Alan, and two kind of dweeby PBS guys and he relaxed, said hello, shook hands, and turned back to his meal.

At the time, I just thought how extraordinary it was that Dennis Hopper in person could project that sudden and frankly terrifying shift of feeling so precisely similar to what came through on the screen. Over time, my reaction shifted. This was the moment that I first got a visceral feel of how f***ing hard it is to be someone on whom masses of strangers paint emotional connections. Hopper was just having a late breakfast in his usual spot, and he could not, it seemed, fully relax even there. Lots of good things come to the fortunate, the talented and the famous. But we do put a bite on those thus blessed.

All that aside: I’ll miss what he could put on screen.

One More Story About Uncle Dan

September 18, 2008

My thanks to all of you who have read this post, and especially to you folks — you know who you are — who have written kind words of comfort to me at this time.

Reading all those reminded me of one of the stories told at my uncle Dan Levenson’s funeral this Tuesday.

In the Jewish tradition the prophet Elijah will return to herald the coming of the Messiah.  In legend, Elijah is already here, in disguise, ready to announce the news at any moment.  As the story goes, the prophet may be anyone, even the beggar in rags at the gates of the city.  If you know how to look, as one midrash retold at the High Holidays has it, you can even catch a glimpse of him amongst the hordes of the destitute.  He is the one who unwraps and rewraps his rags one at a time — so as to be always ready to leap into action should the Messiah come.

The moral of that story:  pay attention even to the least of one’s fellow humans, for anyone may be Elijah.

My uncle, it turns out — and I had not heard this story from him, nor anyone else till the man was gone — was an inveterate donor to panhandlers, of whom there were plenty around his State Street (Boston) office.  It was his rule not to come home with change in his pockets.  And each time he would give to someone he would say “Thank you, Elijah.”

My Uncle walked his talk.

...(Update — unnecessary preachy stuff removed)

This is, I think, why we have memory, and tell each other stories like this.

Again, my thanks to all who read this blog and have had a thought for me and my family at this time.

Image:  Washington Allston, “Elias (Elijah) in the Waste” 1818.  The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

In Memoriam: Daniel D. Levenson

September 15, 2008

I haven’t been blogging at all for the last couple of days because I got word just before the weekend that my uncle and godfather, Dan Levenson had reached a crisis in what has been a long and cruel illness.  Emergency surgery didn’t help and in the early hours of Saturday morning, he died.

Some of those who read this blog are friends and family; many of them met Dan over the years and know the truth of the following:  he was a mensch.  His picture is in the dictionary next to the phrase “a good man.”

I spoke to him a little over a week ago, and he sounded great.  We had plans to see each other for dinner on Tuesday, to celebrate my birthday.  I cannot say how cheated I feel that my fiftieth will come and go unblessed by my uncle.

Dan led what I think of as an exemplary American life.  His grandparents were immigrants — from Lithuania, I believe.  His dad, my grandfather, became a businessman, and early on got into the movie theater business.  (One of grandpa Max’s employees was the very young Louis B. Mayer, before Louis headed west.)  Grandpa Max had an up and down career — but he did well enough to send all three kids to college, my own dad and Dan to Harvard, at atime in my father’s case when there was still an unspoken Jewish quota in 02138.  Dan graduated in 1954, and was drafted, just like most men of his generation; he served as an enlisted man in the US Army in Germany in the mid 1950s.

He finished his service, came back stateside, and went to law school in California where he met my aunt Helen.  They courted, in part, by babysitting the infant yours truly, an experience that, astonishingly, neither deterred Helen from marrying Dan, nor convinced them to forgo child-rearing of their own.  They made ’em out of strong stuff back then

After law school he came back to the Boston area to help look after his parents, turning down good opportunities in California.  As he started his practice as a tax and estate lawyer, he began what became a life-long commitment to the kind of service we’ve heard some in national life praise in recent days, and others mock.

He volunteered as a civil rights litigator for the ACLU, and earned the distinction, according the legendary Judge Charles Wyzanski, of having become the lawyer who appeared before him most often to defend the use of the word “fuck” in open court.  Later in his life, he devoted great energy and care to an organization called Mazon, a Jewish charity committed to ending hunger in the US and worldwide.

That was Dan: throughout a long career — he was still going to work within days of his death, two years into a battle with an awful combination of health problems.  He worked as hard as anyone I knew; earned a good living, and made sure that the lure of more money never distracted him from doing the things he thought would make his town, his religious community, his country and his world better places.

These sound like cliches, I know, but they are not.  Dan was extraordinary if you knew him, but in a crucial way his life was an extraordinary expression of the ordinary American sense of who we are, or who we could be.  He was successful, but not a celebrity.  Hard working — but so are lots of folks.  He made damn sure that whatever it was that he did, his job title and so on — that the claims and rewards of his work did not exhaust the definition of who he was.  And that was a good man.

He was enormously generous, with time and care as much as money.  He was funny as hell.  He was a great father and the uncle you want your own kids to have.  I cannot write how much I admire Dan Levenson; I cannot say how much I miss him.

One last note:  As I wrote above, Dan and his family became passionate supporters of the charity, Mazon.  It was started in 1985 in the aftermath of a terrible famine in Ethiopia.  Its founder noted the disparity between that suffering and the wealth on display at the celebrations of traditional Jewish festivals and life cycle events.

Drawing on the tradition that at such celebrations, the joyful party could not begin their feast until the community’s poor and hungry were seated and fed, Mazon proposed that in current practice, celebrants donate three percent of the cost of their Bar Mitzvah party or wedding or what have you to care for the hungry.  The organization has grown from an initial annual grant budget of $20,000 in 1986 to last year’s total of over three million.  My uncle Dan was an early believer in the logic and the cause of Mazon, supported it, spread the word, served on its board.

This blog is a complete freebie.  I haven’t even bothered to put up the Amazon Associates link that would get me my thirteen cents should anyone follow one of my book recommendations.  I’m not asking for money now.  But if anyone were so minded to remember Dan (if you met him) or to honor the memory of a stranger’s good life, a donation to Mazon would be a good way to go.

More Tragedy: Brain and Mind, Iraq Suicides edition.

July 8, 2008

In this post, published here and over at Cosmic Variance, I looked through the story of Iraq veteran suicides to speculate on the implications of the spread from the neuroscience profession to the public of the idea that what we perceive as mind, as our selves, is actually a phenomenon of our material brains.

That’s an important notion, one taken as a commonplace by just about every neuro researcher I know that will, I still think, have a profound cultural impact, potentially as great as that of the concept of the descent of man from prior forms.

But then this story appears. Another man gone, to remind me and anyone who reads this of fact of tragedy that is the reality, the hard ground of fact and loss.

I have no deeper scientific argument that I want to pursue here, and I am not going to express any of the political thoughts that this story does evoke in me.

This is just a pause, to think about Joseph Patrick Dwyer, and those whose loss should not simply be aggregated into the accumulating totals — both the official count of war dead, and those, like Dwyer who have paid such a terrible price outside the neat categories of conflict caualties.

My deepest sympathy to the family and friends of PFC Dwyer.

Image: Francisco de Goya, “Desastre de la Guerra (Disasters of War)” 1810-11. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

John Archibald Wheeler, RIP

April 14, 2008

There is plenty to read about John Wheeler around the web today. Start with Dennis Overbye’s obituary in Times, read Daniel Holz’s moving remembrance over at Cosmic Variance, and then browse at will through what will be an increasingly overwhelming tide of tributes, all deserved.

Everything I’ve heard from people who knew him much better than I confirms the initial impression you will get from even a cursory look at the reaction to his passing. He was a man in love with learning new stuff; he was happy when he could do it himself; he was Cheshire Cat satisfied if he could catalyze the desired outcome in students.

I’m not a physicist of course, and I only met Wheeler once — so I can’t add anything meaningful to what has come to me second hand. But I do have one story, coming from that single meeting, that captures a little bit of the man.

It was back in 1995, when he was a mere 83 years old. I and a colleague had gone down to Princeton to talk to Wheeler about the film we were getting ready to shoot — a new and hopefully more complete portrait of Einstein than had made it to PBS at the time. We hoped Wheeler might work as an interviewee for the film, but he was already slowing down a little, and we instead sought as much of a sense of the Einstein he knew as possible, in the hopes that his memory would inform our movie.

So, 83 and all, he led us up Princeton’s campus and down. His secretary asked us to try to make sure he took it easy, but no amount of attempting by stealth to slow our pace worked. He just charged along. He took us what had once been called Fine Hall, home of the Princeton math department, and temporary quarters from 1933-39 for the Institute of Advanced Study. Wheeler, who became friends with Einstein after the older man arrived in Princeton in 1933, was also close to Niels Bohr, an occasional visitor.

As he was taking us through the old building (complete with Einstein’s quip “Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber Boshaft ist Er nicht — Subtle is the Lord, but not malicious — engraved over the fireplace in the lounge), he started to tell us a tale. Einstein, he said, was unbothered by his apostacy, his disinterest and disinclination for quantum mechanics. Rather, his insouciant unconcern for what seemed to almost every other physicst still breathing to be the vital center of the subject bothered Niels Bohr much more.

Eventually, Einstein would cease his once impressively persistant effort to poke logical holes in quantum theory. (See his and Leopold Infeld’s Evolution of Physics for a graceful acknowledgment of the theory’s success — aimed at a broad audience, no less.) But at the point of Wheeler’s memory, Bohr and Einstein were still at it, and Einstein could still make his friend nervous.

So, Wheeler tells us, this one day, he encounters Einstein in the hall. They walk together. Einstein has left something in Bohr’s office, maybe a pouch of pipe tobacco. As they get closer to the door, they hear Bohr muttering (when did he do anything else but mutter?): “Einstein…Einstein……Einstein, Einstein….Einstein.”

Albert grinned. He held his finger up to his mouth — be quiet Wheeler! — and waited behind the jam as Bohr paced the length of his office. When he turned –“Einstein…Einstein” — the real thing snuck in behind him, and stood next to the table, picking up the tobacco and waiting.

Bohr completed the circuit, still whispering “Einstein,” turned…and then leaped out of his skin at the sight Albert in the flesh, conjured, as it were, out of his torment.

Wheeler was then a young scientist, keeping company with legends. He laughed at the time, he said, but a little awkwardly. Not now. He could still see Bohr in shock almost six decades on, and the sight in his mind’s eye delighted him.

John Wheeler. A great physicist, perhaps a better teacher, a very generous man. My only other contact with him was in a nice letter that he wrote to my editor saying how much he liked my Einstein book — unsolicited, unexpected, an enormous balm to this writer’s heart. And he loved a good joke, told a good story.

Another one to be missed.

Update: Link added for Einstein/Infeld, minor grammar edits.

Image: Spitzer Space Telescope image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Among Wheeler’s gifts was a genius for naming stuff. We owe him the term “black hole,” a substantial example of which is located in the center of our galaxy, somewhere out of sight but not of mind in the photograph above.