Miscellaneous

Michael Friedman: November 18, 1942 – September 5, 2014

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

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Michael made me feel secure in Lund when I felt most exposed.  There was something about his domineering figure, his booming voice, his grandiose self-confidence and his awe-inspiring talents as artist, writer and chef that made me feel protected, as if by the big brother I never had. Even when he told tales of disappointment in love or family or career or business–with a puzzled shrug of the shoulders and lift of the eyebrows–his presence seemed sheltering. Never mind that he rarely showed interest in what I was up to, either at home or abroad.

Perhaps I placed trust in Michael because we arrived in Lund at nearly the same time as refugee idealists groping for space to rebuild the world in accordance with our own fantasies, each of us in flight from the world of friends and family back home, but still longing for their admiration. Perhaps it was that the large tracts of land we owned (or rather owed) shared a corner in common, and that we were both concerned with property lines and subdivision potentials along with goat milk and chicken egg yields. Or that our two first children, Jonah and Josh, lived within a half hour’s walking distance and were best friends. Perhaps it was that we were both products of a strong liberal arts education that we expected to put to work in the bush, or that we self-identified as non-observant atheist Jews.

In 1972 we decided to go in together on a major investment: a green fiberglass 16 foot Frontiersman canoe.  Neither of us were fishermen or marine types, but this was a shared opportunity with limited commitment for unlimited adventure: to get out on the water, to camp on the Raggeds, to go on a four-day trip to Galley Bay through Portage Cove when the boys were three, and, when they were five to let them paddle themselves from Lund to Steamboat Bay and camp alone overnight. Here’s a picture of him working on one of his amazing superrealist paintings of the rock cliffs across the channel, as Jonah and Josh practice boat-handling.

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In 2005 we tried again, as grandfathers, to paddle the cracked and faded hull to the Raggeds, but his weight in the stern made the vessel so tippy that we turned back before reaching Finn Bay.

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Michael was a natural master of the theatrical, as evidenced, for example, in the dramatic proportions of the space he created inside his dilapidated mansion on Prior Road, and in the double wedding with babies, goats and cats he orchestrated in his pasture, here photographed by Fred Pihl.

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After its first production of Free to Be You and Me, Michael belatedly joined the Lund Theatre Troupe and directed and designed a haunting performance of Spoon River Anthology, the third of Three One Act Plays. In spite of his tendency to overshadow the rest of us, the huge infusion of his presence was gratefully welcomed as taking the company to the next level. Here is a 1975 photo of Michael holding forth on the back porch of the Community Hall on the morning after the all-night cast party during a meeting to plan taking the show on the road.

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In later years, as many of the founding members departed, Michael kept the Troupe going himself, as producer, director and script writer.

A year or two after Jan and I started working at Malaspina College in Powell River —1976 or 77—Michael was hired to instruct studio art and art history courses there. Again his talent and energy provided a big boost to what we were trying to do—beef up the liberal arts program to make it possible for local people to actually complete a community college degree without leaving the area, not to speak of expanding local job opportunities for newcomers. The first such graduate was June Huber, brilliant as both an artist and a writer, whom Michael and Jan shared the privilege of teaching. She and most of the other students adored him for his ability and his dedication.

We moved back to the states in 1979, and Michael and his family settled in Los Angeles a few years later.  We had occasional contact—eating lunch at the old Getty museum where he combined his cooking with his interest in art, and visiting the house in Culver City he rebuilt with his own hands.  We’d cross paths on summer visits to Lund.  I was amazed but not surprised when he worked his way up to head chef at Biola University, planning and providing daily meals for 4000 people, meals good enough to attract faculty as well as students to the dining hall.  I wasn’t surprised either when the corporate hierarchy forced him out of his job in order to bring in the non-descript cooking of a food service.

I have vivid recollections of his return to Lund in retirement, his living comfortably within the confines of his fifth-wheel mobile home near the foot of the old castle on the hill, his absorption in the unending hassles of subdividing and selling the lots he designed, his contentment sitting by his little koi pond like an old Zen sage, his artistic experiments in multiple media–digital, painting and sculpture–and, though maybe it was only my projection, a sense of his great loneliness. The fact that he was back strengthened my tie to the place where my present converges with my past.

Having finally overcome the financial obstacles, he set about to fulfill his ancient dream: building a comfortable and beautiful home with a million dollar view and a gourmet kitchen.  He loved working on it, living in it, showing it off to friends and neighbors and international visitors he attracted through Air BnB, whose glowing digital recommendations he treasured.

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But as soon as he moved into this bright and airy house with a sold foundation, his body started crumbling.  First the esofogeal cancer that cruelly kept him from another great joy in his life, eating, and then after a heroic and apparently victorious struggle with that, the double assault of metastatic bone cancer and a lingering infection in his leg from a cut by his woodcarving chisel. I would check in on him periodically during these ordeals, and his demeanor was always positive, proud of his weightloss, high as a kite on his medications, confident he’d beat the odds.

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During our annual visit and family reunion in late July, Michael showed me and Joe around the house, delighted with the appreciation of his work expressed by his former daycare charge and now fellow design-builder.  Our last face-to-face took place at Jan’s birthday party at Knoll House.  Climbing the stairs to the living room left him breathless, but he carried up a large pot of Cioppino he’d prepared for the potluck that Jan said was some of the best food she’d ever tasted.

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Despite the conviviality, I sensed his peril.  Back in California, I called repeatedly and got no answer.  After ten days, he picked up the phone and spoke between gasps. He said he’d been in the hospital because of the leg infection and was now home again on a double ration of oxygen.  It was scary, he said, not being able to get enough breath.  I asked if anyone was there looking after him, and he brightened and said, “Don’t worry, the home care people come twice a day, it’s alright.”  The conversation was exhausting him so I said good bye, horrified that he was alone in such an extreme state. I phoned Mara, and she too was horrified by what was going on. She assured me that she was doing her best to help and that Janet McGuinty was coming up to add what support she could.

Two days later I listened to a brief phone message from Mara informing me that Michael had passed—at night, at home, in Lund.  I was, as they say, overcome with grief—more than I expected because of the suddenness of the news and my assumption that he had died frightened and alone.  I couldn’t bear the thought alone myself and called Jan at the Mayor’s office and wept into the phone.

Then I called Mara and spoke to her and to Janet.  The ending was opposite to what I’d imagined.  Both of them were by his side, Janet holding his hand.  His last words were “this is such a comfort.”  I saw three old friends, returned to the place where they met more than 40 years ago, feeling their bond at a moment that counted most. I felt part of that bond.

Next day I called Linda Friedman in Hawaii.  Michael had told me she was with him for a brief visit in early July.  I hadn’t spoken to her in ten years.  As soon as she heard my voice, she said, “Funny you should call.  Michael communicated with me just before I  woke up this morning.  It was more vivid than a dream.  He said, ‘I loved being Michael Friedman.  But where I am now, I love so much more.’”

Belize Expedition–Conclusion

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Next morning is for departures.  As we cook coffee and oatmeal at our campsite, Ismael the volleyball coach,  guide, drummer and singer is solemnly raking the sand of the whole island compound.  He’s transformed the ceremonial space of last night’s fire and chanting to a clean white carpet. I ask him about the chants and he tells me that Garifuna compose songs for everything, fishing, cooking, loss of love, sadness—all come from the soul.

We will be taken by motor boat back to Dangriga to retrieve our stashed belongings and stand together for the last time.

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From there Joe and I will go to the interior to spend two nights at Mommaloots, an ecoresort in the jungle where we encounter more fascinating people and memorable sights.  Peter, John, Lionel, Andy and Eban will remain in Belize for several more days, enjoying new adventures.

On the flight back to Houston I have a short conversation with a young man hardly 30 sitting next to me who’s just downed two little bottles of vodka purchased from the attendant. He’s returning from a five-day trip during which he bought a lot near the beach in a resort subdivision outside of Belize City for $230,000 USD. It’s an investment for his retirement, secure, he says, because of the way the place is growing. “Maybe,” I say, “though with the way sea level is rising, you never know.” As we fly over the Yucatan coast near Cancun, I ask where he’s from. “Saskatchewan,” he replies, “but right now I’m headed back to work in northern Alberta.”  “Tar sands?” I inquire. “Yep” is the answer.

Belize Expedition–Day 7

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

April 18

We strike camp and pack the kayaks, reluctant to leave the luxury of Cocoplum, but eager to experience what comes next. The manager shows up to see us off, friendly but vigilant, and discloses that the original owner of the island was a drug dealer.

The adjoining island to the south is another luxury resort, one less ecologically friendly, built with steel and concrete.  During the crossing of a wide expanse of water, Eman, who has adopted the solo kayak, confounds his elders by paddling only with his hands.

Joe discovers that the rudder on our boat isn’t working and we pull in at the first dock on the next Caye to see about repairing it. A young Asian woman approaches and anxiously says that we cant stop here because a guest party is about to arrive. They are paying $3000 per night and want the place for themselves.  Joe says we’ll be out well before her noon deadline, and she relaxes a little.  She’s from San Diego, and seems just like a Cal Poly student.

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He finishes the repair, knotting some rope to replace the broken section of cable.

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Back on course, we cross a new expanse of water and pass some less luxurious settlements.

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We pause in the lee of another mangrove-bordered island labeled on the chart as Hangman Caye. The small wharf here is flanked by an embankment of conch shells and rocks like that at Tobacco Caye. Three of our four kayaks hover offshore while John palavers with a tall slender young man, who leaves and is replaced by a short round one who must be the boss. I hear fragments of conversation, John asking if we can camp, the man saying something about previous campers leaving a mess and leaving without saying goodbye.

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John beckons us over while I grumble about the decision-making process.  He says we can camp at this island and for ten bucks the guy will motorboat us over to South Caye where the reef snorkeling is best.  I stop grumbling.

He directs us to the northern spit of the island where we pull up the boats as the young man and a man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth follow the boss’s barked orders to rake the coral sand under a grove of palms. This is as comfortable as Thatch Caye yet as genuinely Belizean as Tobacco Caye, except still private–inhabited only by the boss, named Fidel, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and their two little girls, the vaguely related cigarette man, along with chickens and dogs.

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After Joe and John converse with him about local fishing prospects, Fidel grows jolly and laughs with a high shriek.  The 20 minute ride in his panga fishboat takes us to South Caye where yachts belonging to “the Guatemalans” are moored at a big dock.  Fidel guides us along the beach, past a research station associated with Boston University, and around fences guarding a private but modest resort.

The snorkeling here along the barrier reef, like at Tobacco, is amazing.

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Two hours later Fidel leads us back to the boat and says he’ll take us to a place we can buy beer that’s much cheaper than at this landing. We are joined by a colorful local inhabitant who asks our new guide for a ride back to his home.

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On the return trip to Hangman Caye, Fidel invites us for a fish dinner his wife will prepare.

We leave our snorkeling gear at the campsite and assemble at the picnic table in the front yard enjoying the beer and his local black rum while the kids and animals run around.

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The son-in-law is from Honduras and works in the citrus groves on the mainland.  Fidel’s brother, who lives in Dangriga and ferries the fish to market for export, owns the island.  Fidel is a fisherman and a diver for conch and lobster.  He free-dives down 110 feet, stays underwater for two minutes, and doesn’t worry about the bends. For years, he and his brother have been doing the same kind of reclamation with rocks and pilings as we marveled at on Thatch Key. People used to come ashore here and try to steal stuff, but his brother got a gun and isn’t afraid to use it, and now that problem has gone away.

Before long dinner is served by wife and daughter in law: beautifully arranged plates with home baked tortillas, beans, coleslaw, tomato slices and barracuda steaks.  The party goes on well into the night.

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Belize Expedition–Day 6

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

April 17

I wake up before sunrise and find a meditation spot under a palapa during a downpour. Soon the sun returns.

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We decide to remain here one more day and enjoy a long leisurely morning.  Around noon, John, Eman and I head south on a winding white path straddling a long narrow isthmus.  We pass a young couple led by a Belizean toward one of the cabanas, and next, a fully developed boardwalk and harbor on the west side of the island invisible to us earlier.  Then, hidden by tall palms and casuarina trees, we come upon a huge conical thatch-roofed lodge.  We walk up the steps to a verandah surrounding a 50 foot conical dome held up by rafters lashed to a wooden circle near the peak.  A mastlike pole at the center supports a circular counter roofed by its own thatched palapa.

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The floor is a mosaic tiled with multicolored pieces of varnished hardwood. On one side of the dome is a large well-stocked bar, and opposite a small gift shop, and between them a couch, armchair, coffee-table arrangement, behind which is mounted a well-stocked bookshelf.  At the table sits a large bearded man typing on a Mac laptop.

Eman and I hang back while John engages him in conversation and elicits information: he’s the current manager of this place, Thatch Key Lodge.  It’s a resort for maximum 20 guests, usually in groups, often clients of the paying guests.  He supervises a staff of 20 people to maintain it.  The island used to be part of CoCoPlum, but was severed in a hurricane and is now Thatch Caye, though it’s is not known as such to mapmakers. It’s been almost completely reclaimed from the sea with rocks from the mainland imported by boat and wooden pilings constantly replaced with wood from a now rare palm species. Lodging is $500 per person per night, but camping where we’re staying is $15.  We’re welcome to come back for drinks, and if we make a reservation now, for dinner. Thanking him for the invitation and still somewhat awed, we continue down island through a large staff housing section to the southern tip and a swimming dock under a palapa ornamented with inlaid slices of bamboo.

Back at camp, Joe and I and Lionel and Peter agree to kayak out to Man O War Caye, an elegantly  shaped island always crowned with a ring of flying birds that we’ve been gazing at from our campsite.

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We paddle through a stiff crosswind without difficulty to the wildlife sanctuary, a nesting area for boobies and frigate birds and see what a pure, unreclaimed mangrove island looks like: no raked white sand or rock or conch shell dikes, but a dense growth of saltwater swamp-forest with tall trees held up by arching roots that extend down into the coral reef.

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The birds themselves don’t seem disturbed by our visit and some of them display throats inflated like red balloons, part of their mating behavior.

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Back at camp we trade stories with Andy and Eman who have been snorkeling in the shallow mangroves on our island.  While they head off to Man O War, we wade into the shallows and explore the fish nurseries among the submerged roots until the receding tide makes it impossible to stay afloat.

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Joe and I have our portrait taken in matching FirstLite underwear.

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As the sun sets over the western mountains, all seven of us traipse down the path to the big lodge for happy hour.

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An elegant athletic woman in a deep v-necked green gown joins Joe and me and Eman on the couch where we’ve been perusing brochures and is delivered a daiquiri by a silent native server.  She and her husband are owners of this place along with ten other people.  She runs a dive-shop in White Rock near Vancouver and leads diving tours here.  Their group bought the place recently from a previous owner who developed it as a labor of love and an experiment in environmentally sustainable construction and operation.

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I’m relieved that it’s too late to make dinner reservations.  We walk back to camp in the dark and haggle amiably about space on the table to boil water for our freeze dried meals.

More photos and movies here
Slideshow here