David K. Farkas
Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "david_k_farkas" journal:
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I struck up a conversation in a coffee shop with a young woman who owns a house-cleaning business in which all the cleaners are male. She was waiting for an applicant who hadn’t shown up on time. The conversation turned, naturally enough, to cleaning houses. I told her that I clean my house top to bottom, that I move many pieces of furniture out of a room before I vacuum, that I put a wet paper towel on my forefinger and dig deep where the carpet meets the molding to get out the dirt that collects there. All this is true. Jean acknowledges that she couldn’t pay anyone to clean more thoroughly than I do.
I certainly wasn’t thinking about employment, so I was surprised—and, after a moment, quite pleased—when the woman offered me a job. “I’ll pay you 25 dollars an hour. That’s my top rate.” Soon her applicant showed up. He was certainly younger than me, but in my professional opinion he was no $25/hr man!
Digitized Spirits of the Dead|
Many years ago I was exchanging emails with a German, Robert Kroeber, who was helping to plan my guest lecture at the Universität des Saarlandes. But I was shocked when another person emailed me to continue the planning and to tell me that Robert Kroeber had been killed riding home from work on his bicycle two days earlier. Looking at the date and time of the final email he had sent me, I realized that this email was one of the last things he did in his life. I barely knew Robert Kroeber, but I kept the email in my inbox, where, as other emails were deleted, it became the oldest item in my inbox.
A few years later another of my email contacts died and then another. I developed the habit of keeping my last email from each of these people in my inbox, and periodically I visited my small digital cemetery.
Alas, my cemetery would be much larger now, except that my entire inbox was lost years back in a botched file transfer when the University of Washington stopped hosting email on its server. I was seriously inconvenienced by the loss of my inbox and sent mail, but I was truly grieved by the loss of the faint digital traces of the deceased.
Household deities: Sally, Ruthie, Alfred, Harold
We were setting up Philips Hue lights for use with Amazon Echo, and we need to designate a “group” for each light or cluster of lights. A living-room table lamp, which my mother had long ago converted from a antique brass samovar, needed a group name. So, “Sally” flashed into my head. And why not? Sally had been very proud of that table lamp.
A moment later, the floor lamp on the other side of the living room became “Ruthie,” Jean’s mother, beloved by all who knew her. With the pattern fully established, the cluster of dining-room ceiling lights became “Alfred,” my father’s name, and the cluster of kitchen lights became “Harold,” for Jean’s father.
A troubled look passed over Jean’s face, “This is weird.” Always ready to defend my choices, I replied, “This is nice. It’s one more way of thinking about them.” Jean acquiesced. Indeed, we now call out their names all day long—“Alexa, turn on Sally.” “Alexa, turn off Harold.”
But more has happened than quick flashes of remembrance. Sally now seems to inhabit her samovar, Ruthie, that floor lamp, and Alfred and Harold pervade the house itself. They are living with us in a way they never did—our Lares, our household deities.
The Muse on the Loose in Seattle|
The Allegro Café, off an alley in the U District, is the oldest coffee house in Seattle. They can be snooty: Once I stopped by to reserve space for one afternoon in a little-used upstairs room for my graduate seminar. The fellow behind the counter asked, “What department?” I answered, “Technical Communication.” He just said “No.” We went to a Tully’s instead.
But for many years there was one reserved spot, where a masonry column creates a kind of alcove just big enough for one person. Punning on Westminster Abbey, there was a sign, “Poet’s Corner.” The poet in question was seated in the Poet's Corner almost every time that I stopped in. He was middle-aged, short, with close-cropped white hair and some kind of clerical shirt collar. After long moments of thought, he would write deliberately in pencil on yellow notebook paper.
A Seattle novelist I met long ago told me that the “Poet of the Allegro” was writing an epic poem about every neighborhood in Seattle. Watching him working away, I would wonder whether I was looking at his Fremontiad or his Queen Anneid. The Internet now gives me better information: His name is Brian Taylor, and he wrote a five-volume epic poem, Cantata on Western Avenue at the Allegro.
The Folk Singer
We attended a folk music concert in a small, out-of-the-way venue. Most of the attendees were local folksingers, some well known and some not. About half of them took their turn at the microphone. Jean and I were among the few outsiders who had somehow found out about this barely publicized event.
One woman—about 50, scruffily dressed, and frail-looking—scribbled in a notebook with feverish intensity much of the evening. She spoke to absolutely no one. I was curious about this woman (and perhaps it showed), and I was pleased when a folksinger sitting just behind me leaned forward and whispered a few words of explanation. “She’s more of a writer than a singer,” he said, and he told me her name. “Everyone knows not to interrupt her.”
There were CDs for sale on a table, and one CD, clearly a home-brew item, was a miscellaneous collection by Puget Sound maritime folksingers. Scanning down the list of songs, I saw the woman’s name. I had to buy it, if only to hear a folksong that this woman had written.
I was tired when we got home, but I put the CD into the player and went directly to her cut. It was a strange little song about the quick response of tugboats to minimize damage following the 1990 sinking of the old I-90 floating bridge across Lake Washington. Due to various engineering errors, the bridge failed in a storm while undergoing major renovation. I could envision the fierce concentration on the woman’s face back in 1990 as she wrote those lines.
JIMMY HOFFA’S READING OF HAMLET|
Many years ago an English professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, taught a course in Shakespeare at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. During the class on Hamlet in walks the notorious gangster and Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa. All the inmates stood. When the class resumed, the professor asked, "Why did it take so long for Hamlet to kill Claudius?" Mr. Hoffa responded with his own question/comment: "Why did it take so long for Claudius to kill Hamlet? He could have squashed him like a bug with his thumb." Indeed, we should keep in mind that Claudius’ decision to send Hamlet to England with that letter for the English king was an indirect and ultimately disastrous course of action. Nothing could be clearer to Jimmy Hoffa than this: If you need somebody out of the way, best to do it yourself, do it quickly, and not worry about peoples' objections.
Hoffa’s comment on Hamlet was related to me by my cousin Norma Mandel during our recent visit. She and the Bucknell professor live in the same retirement community in Lewisburg.
Ride the rails|
Bruce and I, close friends in college, have found each other again after decades. Hey Bruce, here’s something you will remember:
During the fall of our second year at the University of Rochester, Bruce and I took long late-night walks along the railroad tracks that stretched out behind campus. One night we got as far as a little maintenance shed, and the railroad employee was talkative. We got a notion of how we might ride the rails South, maybe as far as Florida, during the semester break, and we told our parents we’d be staying in Rochester to study.
In the late afternoon during a bad snowstorm we hitched the Thruway to a major rail junction outside of Geneva, about 50 miles east. The workers in the train yard were puzzled by our plan. We learned that there wasn’t much freight-hopping any more. But they were willing to help. We also learned that no trains would leave Geneva Junction until morning when crews finished clearing snow, and that we’d need to climb into one of the unmanned engine cars that push the big freights from the rear. In really cold weather the speed of the train sucks all the heat out of boxcars, and anyone in a boxcar might freeze to death. Good to know.
We spent the night in a storage room in the bunkhouse—we had our sleeping bags. In the morning we were lying low, waiting for the first Southbound train to finish hooking up its cars and pull out. We had no plans beyond that.
But the railroad detective found out we were there, and we were caught. We were in custody for a few hours until the Canandaigua County Sherriff arrived. He was no more pleasant than the railroad detective had been. When the sheriff told us we were headed to jail, he saw big smiles on our faces. Riding the rails had been our goal, but jail was equally cool. (Yes, we were stupid kids.)
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed and a look of disgust crossed his face. He was in no mood to do us any favors. Silently, he drove us down a back road and let us out at the county line. “I never want to see either of you in my county.”
Backpacking is strangely feminine|
Five guys on a backpacking trip (even oldsters) will produce some comments on the anatomy of pretty hikers we pass on the trail, along with some misogynistic humor (for a 2016 example, see below). But backpacking is a strangely feminine activity.
Nowhere does one eat more daintily than in bear country, where a speck of food dropped on your pants could cause a problem. Backpackers must carefully fold their tents and tent flies—something my big, clumsy hands do badly—so that it all will fit into those tight stuff sacks. Each night you pick little bits of dirt and dried grass out of your socks so you can walk comfortably the next day.
Three days ago, we all watched as Gary cleared out the minute clog in the valve of our camp stove with a tweezer-like tool supplied with the stove.
In my regular life, I jerk zippers with a rough motion. But, years ago, I jammed the zipper of my sleeping bag as I zipped myself in on a very cold night. Fortunately I got it unstuck, or I would have half froze from the cold air seeping in. Now I baby my sleeping bag and tent zippers.
A hold-up man shoots the clerk at a 7-11, then turns to the customer who was behind him on line. “Did you see anything?” The customer stammers, “Er . . . um . . . yes . . . ” and the hold-up man shoots him as well. Then the hold-up man turns to the next customer on the line, who gives about the same answer and meets the same fate. Then, he asks the question to the third customer, who says: “Me? I didn’t see anything. But my wife, in aisle 3, she saw the whole thing.”
The unexamined opinion is so easily shed!|
I read that Hillary Clinton, raised a Republican, began her shift to the Democratic party in high school when she was required to play the part of Lyndon Johnson in a mock election. This reminded me of my days as a graduate student teaching Freshman Composition. Prior to the “argument and persuasion” assignment, I asked the students to hand in a brief statement of their opinion on a short list of big issues—capital punishment, abortion rights, civil disobedience, should should the Communist Party be outlawed. (You probably couldn’t do this today.)
Then, I assigned each student to write their paper taking the opposite stance on one of these issues. The first time I did this, my goal was simply for the students to construct their own arguments, not just repeat the ideas they’d grown up with. But I discovered, from the class discussion and private conversations with students, that maybe half or a third had either switched over completely or at least developed a much more nuanced view of the issue.
Bouquet of Flowers|
I was at the Safeway picking up a few items, and I saw bouquets of spring flowers. I thought, “Oh, Jean will like that!” and I grabbed one.
Just ahead of me in the checkout line was a man, about 40, with nothing but a bouquet. Without looking closely, I said to him, “Looks like we had the same idea.” He turned to me—his face was grim. He spoke softly, “Maybe this will help.” Then he receded back into his own thoughts.
So grateful to be on my end—and not his end—of a bouquet of flowers.
Final Remains: Newspaper clippings|
In his retirement years, Professor John Hobart had become a laughingstock and irritant in the College of Engineering. No one remembered the important book on the Civil Rights Movement he’d written decades before.
John showed up in the basement of Loew Hall most Friday afternoons with stacks of newspapers that he’d spread on classroom tables so he could clip out news articles relevant to some obscure project he never finished. He packed up Sunday evening. Some weekend nights he slept in Loew. He had longer work periods during the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring breaks and before the start of summer-quarter classes. A shopping cart was supposed to be available for his use, but it disappeared frequently, and John would complain angrily to the staff in the Dean’s office.
I also spent long, quiet days and evenings in Loew, working in my basement office, and I’d help John when I saw him. I’d go to his car and carry his newspapers and the box with his crackers, cheese, and fruit juice.
He knew his health was failing but he wanted badly to finish his project. “I’ll stay alive in 95,” he told me. And a year later: “I won’t cross the Styx in ’96.” But he did cross the Styx in the spring of 1996.
Shortly after he died, I was teaching a class in Loew and spotted one of his cans of apricot nectar on a bookshelf. When class was over, I opened the can and toasted John—one scholar to another.
Final Remains: The Professor|
Jean and I, college seniors and engaged to be married, took a long stroll through the large old cemetery that adjoins the University of Rochester campus. We came upon a small gingerbread-style building with a tall smokestack. The door was open: It was a crematorium, and the fellow inside was glad to have company. He opened the oven door to show us the flames rising through someone’s whitened ashes. He pointed to a red ceramic urn with the unclaimed remains of the man he knew only as “The Professor.” The Professor had been hanging around for many years, and the crematorium operator apparently was tired of him.
“You two are from the University. Would you like to have The Professor?” His logic seemed strained, but I was eager. Jean vetoed the idea with a fierce gaze. Perhaps just as well: If we had taken The Professor, he’d have been ours, to have and to hold, in Chicago, Minneapolis, Lubbock, and Morgantown, and he’d be with us today in the Seattle suburbs. But though his life and mine joined and separated in an instant, a certain bond was created. Oh Professor, You are not forgotten!
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