Local knowledge

The last column I wrote (and yes, I’m going to call these things columns, because everybody does, and also because “blog post” is ungainly) got a lot of readers, ten times the usual number and still climbing. I am glad it’s getting read, because that way Dunn is remembered by even more people.

And thanks to John Schwartz for the lovely mention in the New York Times. It would of course seem like log-rolling if I were to mention his very fine book “Oddly Normal,” so I will just make do with a simple wave of the hand.

It does feel weird that the death of a friend should be a good career move. It’s the sort of vampirism that’s common in my line of work (I have sunk my fangs into all variety of family joys and sorrows), but it’s particularly creepy in an obit. Nevertheless, I shall continue clawing out a career on the backs of dead people.

I realized I wouldn’t write a column that good for a while, so I decided to do something ordinary before I froze up. So this is it, ordinary as all fuck. Hey, new readers! Love ya!

You look gorgeous


You may have heard about the Millennium Tower, the tallest (at the moment) of the high-rises looming over downtown San Francisco. I hate them all, because I remember the past, and the funky down-at-the-heels charm the old neighborhood had. Now it’s just another plutocrats’ playground.  It’s happening in New York and Paris and London too, rich people turning old and valued neighborhoods into amusement parks for the jaded.

On the other hand,  don’t listen to me. I didn’t like the Transamerica Pyramid when it was built either, and now it’s an iconic symbol.

Now here’s the thing: The building, which opened in 2009, has sunk 16 inches and tilted two inches off vertical. There is no indication that it will stop there. Naturally, this concerned Mayor Ed Lee, who last week asked for a thorough examination of the foundation.

Last week! Check the foundation! What?

I am a Californian. If I lived in  coastal North Carolina, I would know a lot about houses on stilts and evacuation routes. But I live here, so I know about earthquakes. I am a homeowner, so I ask questions about foundations. I ask questions about cross-bracing.  That’s why I live in a wooden house, because wood is flexible and able to roll with the shock waves better.

The Millennium Tower is not built of wood. That’s OK, provided certain other measures are taken.

I know about liquefaction. That’s what happens to landfill during a earthquake; it turns from apparently solid dirt into oatmeal. I’ve seen geological maps, and the areas around the bay, where humans turned a lot of water into land by pouring dirt into it. And those areas are clearly marked “Danger Will Robinson.” Really, that’s what they say. I’ve seen them.

So Lee is inquiring just now about the foundation.

And what did he find out? Millennium Tower is built on piles sunk 60 to 90 feet into bay mud. No bedrock! No wonder it’s bloody sinking; it’s built on mud. I believe there’s something in the Bible that mentions the foolishness of that plan. Naturally the residents are upset, but they apparently didn’t ask the question either. In Oakland, we ask that question, right after the one about raccoon-related cat deaths.

But we really are overdue for a big earthquake; 99 per cent chance in the next 30 years, say people who know.  You’d think that people raising a very tall building in San Francisco (a city already destroyed once by an earthquake and fire) would pay attention to the issue.

But no! The folks at the Planning Commission looked at the plans and said, “Cool. You guys rock.” (They haven’t released the engineer’s report yet, but the builders went ahead and built the tower, so we assume everything was hunky-dory on their end). And why did they approve such a flawed design? We’ll never know, but let us guess. The Millennium Tower has made a lot of rich people even richer. Stopping the building until the developers agreed to go down 20o feet to bedrock would negatively impact expected cash flow. They tried to keep the sinking quiet too, but there were complaints, as in: “My possessions are all in one corner of the room and little Bobo can’t make it uphill to the front door.” I am absolutely making that up.

And finally Lee inquires about details. He doesn’t condemn the builders as sleazy quick-buck artists, because that would be rude. Meanwhile, is anyone fixing the problem? Why no. They’re blaming each other. Dueling corporate press releases! The excitement never stops!

All cities are corrupt; I understand that. All nations are corrupt. But the developers and their allies could still have made a shit-ton of money even with the added expense of reaching bedrock. But no. They’re stupid avarice junkies, and now they’ll be fighting lawsuits for the next 30 years. In fact, they be should be put in stocks in the public square and pelted with fruits and vegetables. Fruits like cantaloupe, watermelon and green papayas, the big kind.

See what happens?


The Giants’ dismal season is sputtering to an end.  I do not know at this writing whether they, against all odds, made it to the playoffs — let us hope they do not court further embarrassment by actually winning.  (If that sentence turns out to be utterly wrong, I will be the happiest lad in the universe. Nevertheless, I stand by my pessimism.)

We shall let bygones be bygones, however. We shall move on. No blame. Next up, as nicely summarized by Henry Schulman (from whom I stole many facts) in the Chronicle: Saying goodbye to old friends. The contracts of six key players are up, and it’s doubtful that any of them will return. They’re old and failing, and baseball is cruel to those who try to hang on too long.

Two of the players were responsible for most memorable moments of my Giants fandom. The first is Sergio Romo, a teeny little pitcher of great guile. I remember where I was exactly. It was in 2012. I was in Boulder, Utah (not Colorado), hiking in the badlands of Capitol Reef by day and watching the World Series by night. Deciding game, bottom of ninth, two out, Romo pitching. He had been getting people out with his slider, a wicked breaking pitch that started out over the plate and then dove down and away to right-hand hitters, causing pathetic swings from confused batters.

Up at the plate was Miguel Cabrera, at that moment the most feared hitter (44 home runs, 139 RBIs, OPS .999) in the game. Two strikes. Everyone in the park knew that Romo would throw another slider. Cabrera would try to get it, maybe even reaching out the strike zone. Who would win this epic battle?

And Romo threw a fast ball right down the center to the plate. Extremely hitable, except Cabrera was not expecting it. He stared at it. His bat didn’t move. He stood there looking like a man who’d just seen a vanishing elephant. The pitch was insanely gutsy, and Romo strutted in a fury of machismo. I had trouble breathing just for a moment. Strike three! The Giants win the series!

Romo is 34 years old. He’s had injuries. He’s been a Giant his entire career. He’s a beloved figure. Maybe they’ll keep him (says Schulman), but even then, statistics say he’s going to be forced to retire pretty soon.

Also slated for abandonment: Angel Pagan, the source of my guiltiest baseball pleasure ever. The date was April 25, 2013. I was in the ballpark that day. I usually only go to one game a year, and I enjoy myself whatever the score. The Rockies were in town, ho hum.

Again, bottom of the tenth. Giants behind by a run. Man on base. Pagan hits a screamer to the far corners of the ballpark. Runner scores easily; tie game. But what’s this? I started screaming, “he’s going to go for it! He’s going to go for it!” Pagan did not slow down. He kept churning around second, around third, hair flying, mouth clenched. The throw came in, but too late: Walk-off inside-the-park home run. How many times has that happened? (Not that often, but a guy named Tyler Naquin had one just last month).

There was an astonishing explosion of joy in the stands. We were cheering and hugging and high-fiveing each other. It’s the most fun you can have in baseball, screaming with strangers over an improbable and victorious turn of events. I talked about it for days.

Guilty part: Pagan hurt his hamstring on the miraculous play. He was never quite the same again. The joy went out of his game. We rarely saw his poker-faced pleasure at his own skills, the dugout salutes when he reached base.  He’s still playing; still hitting. He’s 35 years old. He’ll catch on somewhere, but probably not here. Damn.

Of course, it is unnatural for someone to feel personal shame because an entertainer who is making $10 million a year injures himself while seeking to be more entertaining. But being a fan requires signing on to an alternate reality, where enthusiastic young men bounce around a playing field while coping with injury, heartbreak, triumph and, of course, a bald kid with cancer who gets to throw out the first ball — all for the love of the game.

It’s the very first form of reality television, except there’s an almost unimaginable level of skill involved. I get off on it. Wait til 2017!

We shall be triumphant



Photography by Tracy Johnston

Assistance from Michelle Mizera



Dark Shadows

A friend of mine died this week. Tracy found her. She died at home, in bed, which is probably the way she wanted it. She’d been declining for a while, and the process accelerated in the usual dismal way.

I first met Pamela Miller at an AA meeting. The year was 1988. I was probably drunk at the time. Lots of people have started going to meetings while they were still  drinking; drinking tended to take the edge off some of the more grating AA aphorisms. Old-timers understood showing up drunk, because they had probably done it themselves, or something like it. Drunks lie in many different ways.

Pamela came in just as the meeting started, and she managed to find the most comfortable seat, a flowered couch with big puffy pillows. Pamela was a big woman, and she made the most of her girth. She spread comfortably. When it was her turn, she launched into a confusing and alarming story about her “near-psychotic break” that very afternoon. The story involved a confrontation with a motorist, another with a cop (female), unwise words that were exchanged, and a small physical injury that someone had incurred. She told the story with great gusto. It was not clear how much was fantasy. She was noisy and chaotic.  She ended by saying, “but at least I didn’t drink.”

I found her terrifying.

A year later, I was sober, just out of rehab and looking for a sponsor. I was doing 90 meetings in 90 days, and every weekday I went to a six o’clock meeting in Berkeley.  Pamela Miller was there. She spoke at almost every meeting. She made sense — emotional sense, practical sense. She talked over and over again about how hard it was to stay sober in a dangerous world. She said: “Don’t drink even if your ass falls off.”

That was my koan. Do what you need to do, but don’t drink.  Eat a quart of ice cream, break up with your spouse, rob a few convenience stores — but don’t drink.

Seems simple enough. A lot of AA is simple. Newly sober drunks need simple. Eventually, if they stay in the program, they get a belief system too. Unless they reject it. Fine. Don’t drink.

After six months or so, I asked Pamela to be my sponsor. I had a therapist, and she was smart and sympathetic and calming, but I needed something else. Pamela was not calming. She took your side in everything. She cursed your villains, sometimes in terms you would not have chosen. She told stories about similar outrages she had encountered. She said “poor baby” and made tea. I drank a lot of tea.

The wisdom of the program is that men should not have women sponsors and vice versa. I can definitely see why that makes sense. On the other hand, I felt I had no choice. It was Pamela or vodka.



We usually met at her house. It, too, was chaotic. She had two children, and she loved them fiercely. She worked as a librarian at a large law firm. Her past, as you might expect, was checkered. She grew up mostly in New York. She had moved around the country. I pieced together the story over the years. I know she carved redwood burls with a chainsaw — it was her first husband’s occupation. She worked construction and knew about tools. She drank at Brennan’s, an old Irish bar right near the freeway. She adapted early to the computer revolution. She loved puzzles; she was in a club where people invented them. Her mind was quick and clever, battle-tested by thousands of double-crostics and industrial-strength anagrams.

She was a woman of strong opinions, and disagreement was futile. I once ventured the idea that male circumcision was not that bad an idea. “Mutilation,” she huffed. “Child torture.” I tried to argue. It was absolutely no good. The only thing to do was change the subject — and even then…

When a friend of mine ventured that nationally televised spelling bees put undue pressure on the children involved, Pamela disagreed. She loved spelling bees; once, when the network changed the time of broadcast and screwed with her DVR, Pamela suggested that bombing their offices might be a good idea. Pamela was not gentle with my friend. Eventually, someone, guess what, changed the subject.

But she was wonderful. I did all my steps with her. The fifth step basically involves telling your sponsor all the rotten stuff you’ve done — that you remembered, anyway — and you couldn’t lie, because you’d have that guilt-shrouded sin living rent free in your brain, making you crazy and, it was thought, more likely to drink.

You have to trust your sponsor with your secrets. “It’s your secrets that kill you,” goes the AA line, and I absolutely believe that. Honesty is a habit; the more you stick to the truth, the easier it becomes. I trusted Pamela because I had no choice.

I found that the program worked. Not entirely, because I will always be an addict, but better. And it was Pamela who brought me that. It was Pamela who made sure I went to meetings; who framed the issues in a more useful way; who took my telephone calls at any time in the evening. I was just one of her sponsees, and her phone rang a lot, and she always had time. She was just a miracle. Her sponsees adored her. I adored her.

I didn’t drink. Stuff got better.

But things change. After 15 years or so, I slowly stopped going to meetings. Part of was the God thing; I was an atheist. “Are you drinking?,” Pamela would ask. “Then don’t worry about it. AA doesn’t care.” And, officially, it doesn’t. But then someone at a meeting says, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and people in the metal folding chairs nod their heads and murmur, and I don’t say, “that’s demonstrably not true. Example one: death,” because even though you’re supposed to be honest, some kinds of honesty will alienate you from the group.

Pamela also stopped going to meetings. She too was a proud atheist, and she couldn’t abide the quasi-religious cant. But she, like me, was eternally grateful to AA. She took what she needed and left the rest, which is itself a AA aphorism.

Some time around there, Pamela started using her middle name as her first name. I thought “Dunn  Miller” was a militantly ugly name, but I think that was part of the point. I’m not sure, because by that time we had drifted apart. There was a fight (I no longer remember the topic), and Dunn was as bad at ordinary human interactions as she was good at sponsoring.

She was a difficult woman. She was a kind, smart woman. She was the whole messy package of humanity rolled into one explosive bundle. I loved her. I didn’t speak to her for years.

But a thing happened: Tracy became closer to Dunn, deciding to help her  because she was grateful for how much Dunn had helped me. Dunn had lost her job. Her mobility was limited. Tracy took her shopping, took her to movies. I went along once; I had lunch with her once. We were slowly making our way to some kind of understanding, but I was, you know, busy.

It’s all sad. I’ve still got to sort out the guilt, the fear, the love. It’s just there right now, sitting on my soul.

Dunn broke her femur, spent some time in rehab, came home, much demoralized, in pain. Her hard living — and she did a lot of that before she stopped — caught up with her. Tracy was buying her groceries, calling her periodically to check in. When Dunn didn’t answer the phone for two straight days, Tracy drove over to her house. Before she left, she told me, “I think she’s going to be dead.” And she was. There were no signs of any kind of death struggle; she went quietly.

My reasons for writing this are twofold. One, I wanted to tell you about Dunn Miller, because there will be no obituaries, no tributes on television. I have this tiny forum to encourage others to mourn with me.

And the second thing I have to say is: Are there people in your life from whom you’ve become estranged? Is there some argument, some outrage, some unforgivable exchange? Forgive anyway. Go to whomever and tell them how important they were, how much you appreciated what they did.  Talk to the best version of that person. Offer grace.

Tell them. For god’s sake tell them. Get the fuck out of your brain and tell them. Because they’re going to die and you’re going to die, and that silence is going to hang in the air like a noxious mist. Maybe, if you’d be willing, do it in memory of Dunn Miller.

Oh, and:  Don’t drink even if your ass falls off.



Photography by Tracy Johnston; Dunn Miller photo by Philip Cohen

Tech help by Michelle Mizera