I’ve always felt a connection with the story of the fisherman and the magic fish. Each time the fisherman — prompted by his wife –makes a more and more demanding wish, the fish simply says: “Just go home again, she has it already”. And as each wish is granted, the sea grows ever more stormy and turbulent, giving the story an eerie resonance in our era of climate disruption.

In “The Loneliness of Donald Trump”, Solnit’s analysis of the story and its real-life enactment by the person occupying the White House is spot-on. She’s not “nice” or even kind to him, but her understanding is informed by compassion:

I know this story in my soul: I am living it myself as a privileged techie. As is Silicon Valley as a whole — and the story tells us exactly where that will lead us.

I remember when I was a young child discussing this story with the neighborhood kids, like a convocation of tiny Talmudic scholars. We were fascinated by wishing and were trying to assess the limits of its power. As an adult, I have thought of this story often as my partner and I have striven to increase our economic standing, at the cost of giving time to artistic pursuits or developing our circle of friends.

Our justification has always been that soon we’ll be able to do the things we love, whenever the latest goal is reached. And that really seems possible: each goal promises to set us free from demanding jobs or to ensure a worry-free retirement. But the time to live is now — and the time to build community is now, urgently now, as well.

Likewise, I see Silicon Valley believing that each new innovation will set us free and that we are reshaping the world as a gift to humanity. One day this too will come crashing down on us and we will find ourselves once again in the hovel by the sea, wishing we had clean water, predictable weather, and that we knew how to grow vegetables.

One of my favorite foods from childhood (at least in retrospect) is gazpacho made in the middle of summer from tomatoes fresh from the garden. These days we mostly buy our tomatoes at the farmer’s market, but I still try to make a huge batch of gazpacho at least once every summer.

I love the zing from the lemons and garlic and the funky sweetness of the tomatoes. The emulsified olive oil provides depth of flavor and a creamy sensation, while the texture of the vegetables and bread makes it a satisfying meal. Light and refreshing, it’s the perfect food during a heat wave.

Here are the most important principles:

– Select ripe heirloom tomatoes (not the fake ones from the supermarket) and fresh veggies generally.

– Use a grassy, flavorful olive oil.

– Don’t skimp on the garlic. Cook it a little if you want to mellow the flavor.

– Buy good bread where you can taste the fermentation. Good choices are sourdough, ciabatta, even a baguette — but nothing from a plastic bag.

– Blend half of the gazpacho (with all the oil) completely smooth, while leaving the other half with some texture, then combine them.

– Plan ahead so you can let the gazpacho refrigerate overnight, which improves the flavor tremendously.

In almost every moment of my life, I’m trying to be more: more relatable, smarter, more attentive, more everything. I don’t trust people to accept me as I am. It’s exhausting, not just for me, but in some measure for the people I engage with, whether they are friends or strangers. However, it’s carried me through my life for fifty years and at some deep level I remain convinced that it’s necessary, and that without all that work no one will hear me, or love me.

It’s the same with singing, except that there I get immediate feedback that it doesn’t work. It interferes with the relaxed connection between singer and listener, and it pushes the voice out of alignment, affecting its intonation and ability toring. It’s also inefficient; I get tired much more quickly, just as I get tired when spending time with people, trying so hard to “connect” rather than allowing the connection to develop naturally and on its own terms.

When I listen to my favorite singers, they guide me towards another way. They are enough in any given moment. Their voice sounds however it sounds that day and communicates whatever they are feeling, without any extra effort, just the simple radiance of their presence, the gift of saying, “I am here with you, and there is something I’d like to share. I trust you to listen as well as you can.”

In 1929, at the age of 17, my father’s father — my Opa — immigrated to the United States as an indentured servant to pay his boat passage across the Atlantic. The farming people who purchased his indenture took good care of him, taught him English, and even gave him some money when he was done working for them. He was a lucky guy.

Eventually he ended up in Chicago where he peddled eggs on a bicycle during the Great Depression. There he met my Oma, a farm girl from rural Illinois, who was working as a maid on Lakeshore Avenue. They were both members of an old-world Calvinist church which is where they met.

My Opa had apprenticed as a baker in Stuttgart (though there had been almost no ingredients available to bake with at that time), and my Oma decided that they would open a bakery. They moved to Highland Park, Illinois where they were joined by my great-aunts Elizabeth and Dorothy, who helped take care of the children and also worked in the bakery. Over time, Baum’s Bakery became a great success.

One photo that mesmerized me as a kid was an elaborate Swiss Chalet made entirely of gingerbread (the picture above shows something different). When we were old enough, my mother helped my sister and me to create gingerbread houses every year. Of course we festooned them with candy because we knew that eventually the houses would be demolished and eaten.

On the right is an early effort from around 1976, as evidenced by the Very 70’s Chair in the background. I believe that we used a template published in Sunset Magazine of that year, but you can design your own. Create the template from sturdy cardboard and try assembling the cardboard first to make sure your design makes sense. Then use the cardboard pieces to cut your gingerbread when it’s half-baked (see recipe).

The recipe that we used back then has evolved over the years, from a sturdy construction gingerbread to something closer to speculatius, enriched with lots of ground almonds. For me, this cookie represents the holidays more than any other food.

This year, my partner Juan and I made the gingerbread together, and he asked me to write the recipe down so that it could be a little more (ahem) reproducible. I thought I’d share it with you as well. I’ll add more details when we’re done baking — so far we’ve just created the dough.

Mark’s Gingerbread – Speculatius Recipe

Happy baking!


This week I’ve been thinking about cruelty. Growing up as a nerdy, gender-nonconforming kid, I spent a lot of time playing with girls, and received some hardcore mean-girl training, often by being on the receiving end of the meanness.

I also spent time with boys and learned how to tease and joke and gaslight and deny. I was teased often enough, but it still took too long for me to realize that when I did it, it had the same effect on others: I was hurting people.

So I know that I have a mean streak. When I really don’t like someone, it’s like wanting to scratch an itch: I have to restrain myself from the all-too-human pleasure of being unkind to them. I don’t always succeed.

I also have a profound capacity to love, and the ability to catch myself in a cruel moment and transform it into a compassionate one where I try to listen to and understand the person whom I want to judge and even punish.

But all of this is my individual behavior. Something I mostly missed out on has been the whole tribe mentality, the way an entire group can become vicious, such as the team-sports politics of Democrats vs Republicans, Bernie vs Hillary, and so on. While I’m missing the team-gene, I’m just as susceptible as anyone to peer pressure and groupthink, and during the past few weeks I’ve observed how easily I can be influenced by the people around me.

When I see this hatred playing out in public, it scares and repulses me, in part because it reminds me of my own vulnerable status and insecurity. I can see how someone could manipulate me through that fear: this could happen to you, so stay in line.

This applies across the board. I’m appalled at some of the messages I see in social media that are intended to support my point of view, but which are expressed with such a profound lack of compassion that I cannot get near them. I understand the impulse: there are many forces, both intentional and unconscious, from the presidency downwards, pushing us all towards greater alienation and brutality. But we must resist. Indeed, I believe it’s as important to resist this as everything else.

This is a terrible time, and I fear it will get worse. We must be prepared to confront and oppose behavior that has no place in our society. But I hope that we also can continue to see one another as human beings capable of change and growth.

I don’t identify as a Christian, but I still pray for those who would persecute me, and who are actively persecuting other, much more vulnerable members of our community. And you know what? If those whom I see as my persecutors say they are praying for me as well, I welcome it. Perhaps that act of comtemplation will help them see me in a new light.

But praying is only part of it. I’m also prepared to fight for what I believe in. With compassion. With determination. And with an openness of spirit that gives both me and the people I’m opposing room to grow.

We are in a moment when we are looking at a terrible and ancient wound in ourselves and in our culture, involving gender and power and sexuality and race, and giving it light and air to promote its healing.

It takes courage to speak out about this, it takes courage to listen, and it takes courage to understand our responsibility in wounding ourselves and each other, wounding entire groups of people and even our sustaining earth herself, and in finding another way to live.

Many of us, mostly women, are taking stock of and giving voice to how we have been injured by gender inequity and sexual violence throughout our lives. Many of us, mostly men, are hearing these stories and reflecting on injuries we may have caused or failed to prevent. Some of us, often in-between male and female like me, are caught between both questions. And most of us are asking why we allow these deep-rooted patterns to continue damaging our relationships, our lives, and our society.

Some of us are at the same time engaging in an equally powerful conversation about race, with many of us, mostly people of color, bringing forth unspoken truths about daily oppression and actual fearing for their lives, their partners’ lives, and the lives of their children; with many of us, who generally identify as white, like me, hearing these stories and reflecting, again, on injuries we may have caused or failed to prevent; and with some of us standing between, torn or confronting or mediating or holding sacred space.

I could go on, about economic injustice, even slavery, and the apparent enslavement and destruction of the very world around us, as if we had that power. We don’t, but we do have the power to destroy ourselves, and that destruction is starting to feel imminent, to feel like something we might suffer in our own lifetimes. It is huge and looming and tremendously immobilizing.

It is also personal.

When we approach deep trauma, it can feel like we are going to die, that it is hopeless, that anything — numbness, compromise — is better than getting close to that profound pain. But the only path to healing leads us there, into the nest of the trauma itself, where an essential part of our souls still remains, nestled like an egg, waiting to be warmed and to hatch with bright feathers and a new song to sing.

We each have our own dance of approach and retreat, moving towards healing at our own pace or swept up in the energy of the moment, and loving one another as well as we can while it all unfolds. But there is a graceful miracle, a kind of sympathetic magic that can be given to us: when we listen to someone else with full attention, when we acknowledge their story, and when we act affirmatively on their behalf, it advances our own healing. Our love and outrage for others can take us, for a time, past the seemingly insurmountable wall of our individual grief and terror and self-recrimination.

When we listen. When we believe. And when, with fierce love and compassion, we take action to change an intolerable situation.

Weediest of trees, the acacia now
is hung with pods along the bough,
and drops them all from there to here
to sprout and sprout throughout the year.

Now, of my twoscore years and ten,
how many will not come again
once spent outdoors upon my knees
rooting out those tiny trees.

And yet, their sap is used for glue,
for candy, and for fireworks too,
while other cultures eat their seeds
and thrive upon what we call weeds.

Recently I’ve been much more aware of all the plastic in my life, especially the vast sheets of disposable packaging that seem to cover everything.

Likewise everything that ends up in my “recycling” bin, which has lost its promise and become a euphemism for twice-as-much-trash. This includes many boxes from Amazon, elegantly sturdy constructions made somewhere somehow by someone, that I use once and then crush under my foot.

And of course all the water running and flushing and sluicing through my life: I regularly have moments where I imagine that it’s gone or severely restricted. How will I wash the dishes?

None of these have changed my behavior in substantive ways. I suspect that my behavior will change when it must.

And I’m afraid that it will.


My friend Janna wrote this on Facebook:

Do you ever hesitate at the threshold of these big stories and songs… like, because you know that if you go in, you have to give yourself over and let them take you, and that’s a whole kind of ordeal?

They go deep and wake up the part of me that is desperately in love with being alive, and then somehow I feel worse afterwards because I am holding all of this love and don’t know what to do with it. I sometimes feel the weight of love like pain, I guess. When I am alone with it.

Another piece of my resistance to powerful songs and stories has to do with the wide-awake, deeply feeling, true-seeing part of myself that gets woken up by them, and the fact that I don’t find a lot of places with room for that part of me… or places where that part of other people is allowed to wake up in them.

So then, I find myself avoiding the art and music that moves me most because of this way that it makes me feel lonelier. But I think this is a pretty bad decision. It makes my life smaller.

Anyway, I wonder you can relate, and if so, how you contend with it. Like, if you keep exposing yourself to the art and music and stories that really move you. Or if you refrain until you have a medium for that resulting love.

And I responded:

That really resonates for me. For much of my life, when I’ve started to move towards something I’ve really wanted, I’ve been hit by a big wave of grief over not having nurtured it consistently from the start. And fear at allowing myself to want it so desperately.

The other day I had an amazing voice coaching session with Susie Rode Morris. It was so joyful and so many things fell into place — big progress! And then the rest of the day was a mess, I could hardly function, and I went to bed with a migraine.

Somehow I haven’t felt that way with the songs I’ve written this year. It’s been hard to make time for them, to let them be imperfect, to let them unfold… but the process has pretty much just been pure engagement and a kind of amazement that it’s happening again after so long.

So I think it depends on the thing, and how deep the messages are within myself that I’m not allowed to have it. For me, singing has the deepest roots of “you will never be good at this, why are you even trying” while at the same time it has the deepest inner voice of “you must do this for the good of your soul — and to share what the world needs to hear from you”. Which is why it’s taken me so painfully long to get good at it at all.

“Sing into the fatigue.”

That’s what my vocal coach Cecilia Engelhart keeps telling me.

It means, “Just ask your voice to do what it can in this moment. Go up to the edge of what’s possible but don’t push past that boundary. Chances are, things will open up as you go. But if you push, you’ll just get more tired — and tense”.

Such a good lesson for life. I often find myself really tired these days, and I keep pushing myself to produce — for my work, for my art, for whatever priority seems most urgent — when I probably should be resting instead, or at least just “singing into the fatigue”.

It doesn’t have to be literal. The next time you feel exhausted, imagine yourself singing into that depleted place within yourself, sending yourself strength and encouragement through song. Not pushing yourself & ignoring your limits, just letting your body resonate with an image of harmony, flow, and well-being.

And if your body responds with, “That’s nice, but what I’d really like is a lullaby”, you can always change your tune.