November 09, 2017

Benjamin Hammerschlag, 1971 to 2017: a tribute to my son

Benjamin George, this sensitive, intuitive child became the inventive man who created Epicurean Wines, its CEO, winemaker and importer whose wines are sold and cherished all over the world. His continent, Australia, he chose for a third grade project at the Barrie Day School: He chose his future early for that is where his vineyard Imprimata stands today and produces remarkable wines: Robert Parker in 2005 named him wine personality of the year and honored his wines until the day Parker retired. Here’s what he said, “For a young man (early thirties), Hammerschlag has put together a remarkable portfolio of artisinal/hand-crafted Australian wines, primarily from the Barossa and McLaren Vale. He has a degree of enthusiasm, talent, and above all, wisdom, that belies his youthful age. We should all be thankful for the diverse group of wines that are now available in the United States because of the work of Ben Hammerschlag.”  Food and Wine Magazine named him best under 35 of wine makers and chefs and Jay Macinerney highlighted his work in A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine in 2006 and again in The Juice: Venous Veritas in 2012 and his article solely about Ben for House and Garden magazine and in his Wall Street Journal wine column —and they became friends. He would send Macinerney Old Bastard, yep that’s the name of this biggy, as a gift, a wine made by Reid Bosward of Kaesler winery, a brilliant winemaker who earned recognition as one of the Wine Advocate’s personalities of the year. He brought Bosward’s and Ben Glaetzer’s Amon Ra and many other Australian winemakers whose wines knew only that continent from Ben’s early grade school project until he visited Australia after working some five years in the wine department of the Bellingham Grocery store where the butcher got his growing profits, but where he was named "The Wine King of Seattle"—and then off he went to Oz to discover and impress winemakers and then to import, starting with only one shipping container of wine that he managed to get Robert Parker to taste. Perhaps his most famous wine that he developed and blended with the gift of his palate is Woop Woop that The New York Times named best taste and best value and that still sells for around 14 bucks and drinks like a 40-dollar fine Shiraz. And most recently, his own vineyards produce the marvelous Imprimata Grenache and Imprimata Proprietary Red and the Flegenheimer Bros that honors his great-great grandfather on his father’s side who, we learned long after Ben had forged his way, had married a young girl by the name of Flegenheimer and joined her family’s business: The Flegenheimers were New York Wine Merchants and that casts back to Ben’s years at the Pleasant Peasant Restaurant as he named one in this collection: Paisant Red. 

My memory casts me back to the young boy who in 4th grade at Garrett park elementary school won the creative writing contest with “Cuddles the Clever Chipmunk” the same year his sister’s story “My Hippopotamus” won for the kindergarten/second grade category. They were together writing plays long before that: I’ll never forget “There’s a fly in my soup.”  At age 13 Ben put on his shirt and tie and got himself a job cleaning toilets at Jerry’s Sub Shop but soon he was cooking at the grill. From there he went to the Pleasant Peasant Restaurant where he was in charge of the dessert bar in Washington’s tony Friendship Heights. I began referring to him as the Soviet Union, not because he was a communist—far from it but because he had a five-year plan: The man with the plan.

By age 15 he had enough money in the bank to buy a used Porsche that he and Del researched until at age 16 he could drive it home. Rumors at Bethesda Chevy Chase HS were drug dealer when in fact he was the man with the plan. His love of cars and his high-speed driving go with him in this passing.

The drive and invention that underlie this tale landed him in Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration where he’s been invited back to talk to students about his journey and theirs as potential inventors of a future unknown and to be discovered. Invention was the name of his game. And he flourished as a businessman and farmer, who one year saved his crop and one female winemaker’s crop while other male winemakers thought, What does this American city boy know about soil samples? Ignored his advice and lost their crop that year. Del’s father, a successful Iowa farmer never stopped telling that story.

But let us remember that the world of business doesn’t cherish the sensitive heart. And that the sensitivity that marked his genius marked his pain. The cutthroat armor he had to don in that world took its toll on that vulnerable heart that I hold in my heart. Look at his eyes in this photo that I brought today and you will see what I mean. I salute you today, my love, for the honor and loyalty to all who worked with or for you and the hope you carried like a banner that waves and that shall live on. Though we mourn today that your life is cut short, we shall not forget what you forged with open and vulnerable heart.

Here I pause for his sister Sarah Hammerschlag’s eulogy:

When Ben and I were children he had a butterfly net. Our neighborhood was under construction. Everywhere was mud and sheetrock and machinery but up the road was a field of milkweed and thistle and together we caught monarchs and swallowtails. We kept their beautiful bodies in cookie tins.

I followed him everywhere in those years. Everything he did I wanted to do. Everything he played I wanted to play.

He taught me the names of birds and how to kill ants with Windex.

In the afternoon when my mom was at work, we made steak sandwiches and played Monopoly. He always won because he put hotels on Park Place.

There were summers when we stayed up too late. In the quiet house long after midnight, we lay in bed together, watched his black and white TV and ate gummy bears.

He taught me to catch crabs with chicken necks. He loved clams so I loved clams. He loved chilis so I loved chilis, the hotter the better.

When we were older I watched from afar as he made his life like a master craftsman out of keen taste and exacting standards. Cultivating and choosing with a singularity of purpose that was his stamp on the world.

Even when he was mean, which often he was, his eyes were full of sadness and love and heartache.

Sometimes he didn’t call for months and then out of nowhere sent a mixtape so that I could learn to love Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, and A Tribe Called Quest.

When my daughter was just a baby, he played her the Jackson Five and Prince. Although the music was too loud, he held her tiny hands and they danced.

I came to see him just a few days ago. He showed me his beautiful kittens. We watched them climb and tumble. We took a walk behind the house, the path covered in wet yellow leaves the size of dinner plates. He asked to hold my hand when he went up and down the stairs. We drank ginger beer together and listened to Neil Young. He put his arms around me and I told him I loved him but I knew it was both too much and not nearly enough. Though we didn’t talk about it, I know we both remembered those summer days out in the fields beyond the house with his net.

In the end, my brother was a butterfly catcher. He went after beauty with his whole heart and sometimes with a hammer.

The Branch and the Butterfly by Zaara: Kittenchops.com

And I close:

AE Houseman in “To an Athlete Dying Young” opens with this stanza:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

And so we do today, borne on the shoulders of those who love you, and we set you to rest to the last song we listened to together just before you passed, your favorite Neil Young’s “Change Your Mind” from his album Sleeping with Angels, and where you shall lie, my son.



December 26, 2016

On Gifting

Gratitude and the gift exchange are perhaps best expressed by Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift: Imagination andthe Erotic Life of Property (now in its 25th anniversary edition with a new title) and where he wisely tells us:
   
“[T]he true commerce of art is a gift exchange, and where that commerce can proceed on its own terms we shall be heirs to the fruits of a gift exchange: in this case, to a creative spirit whose fertility is not exhausted in use, to the sense of plenitude which is the mark of all erotic exchange, to a storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation, and to a sense of an inhabitable world—an awareness, that is, of our solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods.” (pp. 158-9)

 On Christmas Eve while I was away, Michael Czyzniewieski, former editor of Mid-American Review and now Story366 gave me an incredible gift that I hope you will check out and where you will find so much more in stories he's discovered and brought alive by giving them a chance to be seen.

Here's a photo of his hand in front of his laptop, holding The Woman Who Never Cooked:



Mike defines what Lewis Hyde so eloquently explains.



I close this with gratitude and hope for all who invent, who try, who leap, despite the failures and losses that so often accompany the risk,


June 06, 2016

How memory holds us ... My father

between father and daughter...by cheeks Photography / Street on deviant art.com
   
White Painting, [three panel], 1951, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.org    

For My Father

To Whom It May Concern:
The white paintings came
first; my silent piece
came later.
                                —John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist and His Work,” Silence, p. 98.

In memory of my father, who died on June 6, 1999.

I wrote this in 2008, to hold, to honor, to recall:

Stock market crashed. No noise. Economy in dire straits.

Robert Rauschenberg died on May 12, 2008 at the age of eighty-two. That day I walked over to see his work at the Portrait Gallery near my apartment.

I saved the obit., got caught in the web of memory. My own straits.

My father’s white shirt, the ribbed, sleeveless undershirt beneath that as a small child I carried with me: “her schmata,” my mother called it. My father’s photo taken by my daughter when she was studying photography in high school, developing her own pictures in Bethesda Chevy Chase High School’s darkroom, hangs on the first wall to my left as I enter my bedroom in the flat where I live and write.

He is holding his pipe, one finger tamping down the tobacco, the can of Amphora nearby. The photo is black and white and my memory of him, faded to tone. He, a decade gone this June 6, eighty-four and crippled from Parkinson’s disease and a broken hip when he died. He comes to me like his home movies, overexposed, so much light that I can barely see him. Rauschenberg-white: my father’s white dress shirt. “I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive but very—well, hypersensitive,” Rauschenberg said. The schmata shirt beneath the dress shirt.

Automobile Tire Print, 1953, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.org    


My 82-year-old father called me in the middle of the night before he died and in the anguish of aging, asked: “What am I here for?”—a despairing cry that expressed the humility of existence and underscored the imperative of continuing to ask the question even as the darkness moves across us. It is the autobiographical tautological question that starts and ends where it begins.

My father took my hand, and said, “There’s an inevitability about the present.”

I understood the way I’d understood when my mother, four years after her stroke, decided not to eat when the new year came, when she took my hand and said “Yitgadal v’yitkadash”—the first two words of the mourner’s Kaddish. It was five years later when my father took my hand one hot day in June.

We’d been sitting in the house with the old round Toastmaster fan blowing at our feet, humming the way old memories did inside my head. We’d been talking about the kind of housing called “assisted living.” “Assisted living,” he said. “Funny term. Either you’re living or you’re not, right?”

I didn’t answer.

“I’m on my way down,” my father said. “I know that. This is just a stopover.”

“Stopover from what to what?”

“Don’t get philosophical on me, kid.”

My father’s eyes were brown like mine. I saw them full of light from the sun that angled through the window. I saw the green and yellow—the colors of my mother’s hazel eyes—there inside the brown. I remembered my dream after my mother died. In a haze of yellow light, my mother in a flowered housedress. I couldn’t tell the color of her hair—pure white when she died. But it must be dark—around her face in finger-placed waves, how it was when I could still fit beneath her arm, lean against her curve of breast. Then an empty chair. An elegant, suited man on the sidewalk. My mother, on the stoop of their row house. Her arm raised high in dance position. No one stands inside her hold. She leans to unheard sound. She turns round. A fox-trot circle. My father threads eight-millimeter film through the projector, on the wheel. A home movie. Overexposed. My mother. Like the whiteness of a leafing tree against night sky.

“Why are you crying?” my father said. “This won’t be the last time you see me.”

“It’s what I do. I cry, easily, often.”

“So do I,” he said. “It’s inherited.”

Hypersensitive.

My father, photo taken by my daughter