Andrew Lewis

At a recent meeting concerning foster youth, I met a young woman, Shamir. Waif-like, with immaculately coiffed hair, she clicked her long nails nervously on the table.

Abandoned as a toddler, she passed through dozens of foster homes before ending up homeless in Vegas where she worked as a “dancer”. She returned home with a young baby, but no one, she found, would take her. That’s when she decided she would go to college. She dreamt of opening a shelter for foster youth with children.

Right now, she said fiercely, the only thing keeping her from her goal was an Algebra class that she’d failed twice. “I got this thing with math,” she said.

By any standard, foster kids perform abysmally. Abandoned, they find it notoriously hard to trust the world. These are the throw-away kids who’ve grown accustomed to being failed by the system. More than half end up homeless or exploited.

At break, I asked Shamir if she would like some help. Later, we sat with her seven-year old boy, who demanded her attention. He needed help with homework. He was hungry. Someone at school had taken his lunch.

Shamir struggled with equations that involved inequalities. She didn’t understand why if you divide by a negative number the equation shifted. You have to flip the sign for the equation to remain true. I struggled to explain why this was so. Shamir, though, had little time for it. She just needed to make it through the next test. So I gave her simple rules, she tried some problems, and they seemed to work. She smiled with relief.

“Now that’s good,” she said. “I like it.”

But then her phone rang. “Is she okay?” she asked abruptly. “Are they still in lockdown? Did they get her out?” She left the table.

Her boy looked up. “My school was in lockdown three times last month,” he said. Shamir returned, clearly shaken.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m okay,” she said.

“Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m ready.”

“Are you ready for the inequalities?” I asked.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while working on a memoir about the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.

Sometimes the daily onslaught of the horrific is so real that to survival calls for laughter. Andrew Lewis has this Perspective.

Growing up, we didn’t have much food in our house. That actually might be an overstatement. I recall once when my brother and I asked our mother (herself a war refugee from Europe) for food and she replied simply, “Go eat butter.”

But it’s rotten, we protested. And to that she had no reply.

For a long while after, my brother and I would mimic her in times of particular duress. “Go eat butter,” one of us would say, to which we would both break out in laughter.

Years later I was talking with a childhood friend whose father had survived wartime famine in the Ukraine in the 1940’s. “Pops once told a story,” he recounted, “of how when he was 12 he and the other kids had-” and here we both started chuckling- “He had to go dig for potatoes in a minefield.” Perhaps only the children of survivors could find this funny.

I once retold this story to an older man who had survived the Holocaust in Latvia. He too laughed at the image, but then added, “It’s true, many had to do it.”

And that’s precisely the point. Of course, there’s totally nothing funny about young children risking their lives to forage for mealy potatoes. How could there be?

But if you’ve survived, sometimes the only way to survive may be in recognizing the absurdity of the conditions from which you’ve emerged. To recognize absurdity, to acknowledge what Milan Kundera called the “laughter of the devil,” presupposes a world founded in the opposite – in reason and justice, and from there we can resuscitate meaning. If we can’t acknowledge the absurd, then in some cases we may have little left to rely on.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis lives in Sebastopol and works with at-risk youth.

Among the astoundingly brave men and women who saved property and lives from the Wine Country fires is one group that is intentionally shielded from accolades. But Andrew Lewis has this tribute to their heroism.

The call came sometime around one a.m. Three crews from Konocti Camp were roused from their sleep and dispatched over the mountain toward Santa Rosa.

What they encountered defied belief and imagination. A firestorm raged down the slope, engulfing entire neighborhoods. Although these particular men and women were trained to defend wild lands, they now found themselves defending homes. That night they hauled chainsaws, equipment and hoses. They dug lines out along Mark West Road and in the Fountaingrove neighborhood working to save everything they could. They fought house by house as hurricane force winds blew over them, jumping the freeway, forcing them to abandon firebreaks to establish new ones to defend lives and property.

The crews worked 24 to 72 hours straight. When they returned to base camp, they were exhausted. But there was something else. They were dead quiet. Some would say that the fireball was unlike anything they’d ever seen. They hoped never in their lives to see it again.

Unlike the CalFire crews wearing yellow protective clothing, these fire fighters wore orange. They were inmates in the California Department of Corrections, serving sentences for possession or trafficking or theft.

A veil separates these men from the rest of the world. As inmates in the correctional system, these fire fighting professionals are not allowed to socialize with other responders. They’re not permitted to communicate with the public. They can neither give nor receive gifts. For many of those whose homes and property they saved, they will remain forever anonymous.

Tragedy can bring communities together. But the true measure of community may not be our connection to those with whom we’re already familiar. It may be in recognizing our bond with those from whom we may have previously felt separate.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while completing an intergenerational memoir.

At a recent meeting concerning foster youth, I met a young woman, Shamir. Waif-like, with immaculately coiffed hair, she clicked her long nails nervously on the table.

Abandoned as a toddler, she passed through dozens of foster homes before ending up homeless in Vegas where she worked as a “dancer”. She returned home with a young baby, but no one, she found, would take her. That’s when she decided she would go to college. She dreamt of opening a shelter for foster youth with children.

Right now, she said fiercely, the only thing keeping her from her goal was an Algebra class that she’d failed twice. “I got this thing with math,” she said.

By any standard, foster kids perform abysmally. Abandoned, they find it notoriously hard to trust the world. These are the throw-away kids who’ve grown accustomed to being failed by the system. More than half end up homeless or exploited.

At break, I asked Shamir if she would like some help. Later, we sat with her seven-year old boy, who demanded her attention. He needed help with homework. He was hungry. Someone at school had taken his lunch.

Shamir struggled with equations that involved inequalities. She didn’t understand why if you divide by a negative number the equation shifted. You have to flip the sign for the equation to remain true. I struggled to explain why this was so. Shamir, though, had little time for it. She just needed to make it through the next test. So I gave her simple rules, she tried some problems, and they seemed to work. She smiled with relief.

“Now that’s good,” she said. “I like it.”

But then her phone rang. “Is she okay?” she asked abruptly. “Are they still in lockdown? Did they get her out?” She left the table.

Her boy looked up. “My school was in lockdown three times last month,” he said. Shamir returned, clearly shaken.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m okay,” she said.

“Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m ready.”

“Are you ready for the inequalities?” I asked.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while working on a memoir about the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.

On Saturday, Market Street overflowed with more than a hundred thousand undaunted people. That night, one thing above all became abundantly clear.

Both civil and profane, the sound encompassed both the lady’s diction and the withering honesty of the nasty woman. Yet it was far more than that. Around the country the air carried the voice of a manifold population gathered from all manner of lived experience.

This was not the voice of me above you. Nor was it the voice of “I”. Nor “Them” against “Those”. It was the voice of “Us” demarcated neither by gender, nor age, nor geography. It spoke to what America truly is. We are strong not because we are this thing or that thing. We are strong because we are Every Thing.

In 1883 the poet Emma Lazarus wrote the words now inscribed in New York Harbor, describing that New Colossus. She towers not like a brazen giant, but “a mighty woman whose flame is imprisoned lightening, and her name, the Mother of Exiles.”

We also know her as Liberty.

She shrinks neither from fear nor the immensity of her challenge.

Send these, the tempest-tost to me, she asks. And she embraces them with a mother’s arm. This act that might speak of weakness becomes our greatest strength and reveals a moral wealth that casts shame on any gilded tower.

It rests in the belief that there can exist a nation able to accommodate all manner of creed and idea. In this way, the many, so different, can become a resolute and indivisible One.

With a perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while writing a narrative on the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.

On the morning of November 9, I readied my young niece and nephew for school. I made sure their hair was brushed and their faces washed. And then I went outside to split wood.

It’s a skill I picked up years ago when my wife and I lived in rural Vermont. Back then I was clumsy. The wood maul would swing wildly and I would consistently fail to hit my mark. But every so often I would. And with a delightful clink and crack, the log would split. I would set one half upright. I’d swing the maul. And I’d split the log again. I came to relish the focus of mind and the consistent twist of arm and torso and roll of hand that proceeded the crack of wood.

Decades have passed since then. But on this morning I stood out in the warm mist and I found that the body can and will remember.

As I swung I thought about my grandfather.

Born before the turn of the last century, as a young man he worked the Russian Railway at the pleasure of the Tsar. He lived through the Russian Revolution and the Great War. In middle age he lived through the battlefields of World War II. He witnessed the slaughter of a third of his village and the invasion of his homeland three times in 25 years. And in the winter of 1945, alone and penniless he struggled to keep his children safe from harm.

In the face of perceived danger and catastrophe, we do what we can. And survive we must.

On this November day, I swung the maul behind me, I rolled my palm and brought iron and ash down against oak and I held on dearly to the ping and crack of splitting wood. We each must do what we can to keep the world safe. And we must keep ourselves warm.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth. He lives in Sebastopol.

On a recent rainy morning, I was decorating a particular tree — the one that represents that great Tree of Life — and I paused to consider how many presents my true love gave to me.

It’s a simple problem, really. One partridge, plus two turtle doves, plus three French hens: It’s basically the summation of an arithmetic series and there’s a simple formula for it.

That formula is sometimes tied to the great 19th century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. One day when he was a young boy, his school master was feeling particularly cruel and he asked the class to total all the numbers from 1 to 100. So the class set to scribbling, 1+2+3 etc.

But Gauss noticed something. He saw that you can break the one hundred numbers into fifty pairs: 1+100, 2+99 and so on. Basically you have fifty 101s. Fifty times 101 is 5050.

Bingo.

Gauss walked up to the teacher and lay down the sum.

“There it lies,” he said.

Class over.

So what’s this story really about? It’s not so much about math but about tyranny, about an insecure schoolmaster working in a subject that may have far exceeded his reach. In reaction, he bullied those around him.

But by using his powers of thought, Gauss was able to resist.

There are perhaps two ways to vanquish tyranny or the threat there of. The first may be the generosity of Christ, that very thing that we celebrate in the Christmastide; the power to give and love in the face of selfishness and greed.

And if that fails? Well, on the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 78 presents, the last of which was a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

The Lord on High, in concert with one of his lesser Angels, gave us life and within that life the power to reason. With that gift may joy prevail, and may all manner of tyranny be defeated.

With a Perspective, I’m Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis is an author who lives in Sebastopol, where he works with at-risk youth.

On the morning of November 9, I readied my young niece and nephew for school. I made sure their hair was brushed and their faces washed. And then I went outside to split wood.

It’s a skill I picked up years ago when my wife and I lived in rural Vermont. Back then I was clumsy. The wood maul would swing wildly and I would consistently fail to hit my mark. But every so often I would. And with a delightful clink and crack, the log would split. I would set one half upright. I’d swing the maul. And I’d split the log again. I came to relish the focus of mind and the consistent twist of arm and torso and roll of hand that proceeded the crack of wood.

Decades have passed since then. But on this morning I stood out in the warm mist and I found that the body can and will remember.

As I swung I thought about my grandfather.

Born before the turn of the last century, as a young man he worked the Russian Railway at the pleasure of the Tsar. He lived through the Russian Revolution and the Great War. In middle age he lived through the battlefields of World War II. He witnessed the slaughter of a third of his village and the invasion of his homeland three times in 25 years. And in the winter of 1945, alone and penniless he struggled to keep his children safe from harm.

In the face of perceived danger and catastrophe, we do what we can. And survive we must.

On this November day, I swung the maul behind me, I rolled my palm and brought iron and ash down against oak and I held on dearly to the ping and crack of splitting wood. We each must do what we can to keep the world safe. And we must keep ourselves warm.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth. He lives in Sebastopol.

In this grim political season, I heard a story from my friend Susan Sekaquaptewa who’s Hopi. Her home in northern Arizona belongs more to the 16th century than the 21st. There you drive two hours over open desert to get basic groceries. Ancient dwellings made of stone and mud sit perched on far flung mesas.

And things are old. Hopi society had been thriving for 800 years before the Puritans set foot in Plymouth. They don’t need to be told who qualifies to be an American.

One recent morning Susan was driving her boy Atokhoya to school. Six years old, he wanted to know where he would go after elementary school and Susan explained that next was junior high, then high school.

“Then I go to college?” Atokhoya asked.

“Yup,” his mom answered. She and her husband had been speaking to their son for years about college. But in their world few people go on to higher education. In that forgotten corner of America the outside world and fancy careers feel as remote as the moon.

“What happens after you finish college?” Atokhoya asked.

Susan explained that we all go to work, but we get to decide whatever we want to do for work. And we should choose something that we like to do and enjoy. We can choose to be anything we want.

“I want to work in swimming pools,” he said.

Susan reminded him that once had wanted to be a teacher.

Atokhoya shook his head no. Not anymore. Instead he wanted to fly planes.

“You want to be a pilot?” Susan asked.

“Yeah!” he said.

Atokhoya thought for a moment. Then he said, “Or, I could be the President of the United States.”

Susan looked at him and smiled.
He said, “You didn’t think of that, huh, mom?”

“No,” Susan said, “I didn’t. But I’m glad you did.”

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth. He lives in Sebastopol.

Future President Atokhoya
Potential Future U.S. President Atokhoya, Age 6                                                

On the night of July 19, 1941 in my family’s ancestral village, 168 people were escorted to a barn. With the assistance of village leaders, each man, woman, and child was then shot in the head. Public documents stated simply that, “the Jews had been successfully emigrated to the East.”

The rules of the universe and the bounds of time do not allow us to go back. These people and all their unborn progeny were extinguished on a single night and there is nothing we can now do to prevent it.

One carries on.

My Lutheran grandfather ran a small butcher shop with the help of a friend, Abram Schneider, who ran the kosher trade. After the murders, my grandmother had publicly protested, but was quickly silenced. “Would you like to talk with Abram?” people taunted her. “Perhaps we can arrange for a meeting.”

Later, facing the Soviet invasion, my family fled. By then my grandmother was dead, my grandfather a widower with two orphan children. Lacking means, a neighboring farmer gave our family the wagon and the horses by which we would find escape. And if it were not for that man, and that horse and wagon, you would not be hearing this voice today.

The story in some ways is unexceptional. The history of those years was written in blood. Those 168 souls were just another drop of ink in the pen.

Except for one small personal fact. Recently, I uncovered a brief description of the events. The killing, it turns out, had occurred at the farm of the man who had afforded our escape.

Culpability may be bounded by neither space nor time. And so long as consequences prevail, then so too shall persist the guilt. Suffice it not to say, “I did not know.” It is our job to know. Nor can we claim, “But it was not me.” Facing the ungood, there may be no “I” in the court of ethics. Perhaps only the collective “we.”

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while working on a memoir about the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.

At a recent meeting concerning foster youth, I met a young woman, Shamir. Waif-like, with immaculately coiffed hair, she clicked her long nails nervously on the table.

Abandoned as a toddler, she passed through dozens of foster homes before ending up homeless in Vegas where she worked as a “dancer”. She returned home with a young baby, but no one, she found, would take her. That’s when she decided she would go to college. She dreamt of opening a shelter for foster youth with children.

Right now, she said fiercely, the only thing keeping her from her goal was an Algebra class that she’d failed twice. “I got this thing with math,” she said.

By any standard, foster kids perform abysmally. Abandoned, they find it notoriously hard to trust the world. These are the throw-away kids who’ve grown accustomed to being failed by the system. More than half end up homeless or exploited.

At break, I asked Shamir if she would like some help. Later, we sat with her seven-year old boy, who demanded her attention. He needed help with homework. He was hungry. Someone at school had taken his lunch.

Shamir struggled with equations that involved inequalities. She didn’t understand why if you divide by a negative number the equation shifted. You have to flip the sign for the equation to remain true. I struggled to explain why this was so. Shamir, though, had little time for it. She just needed to make it through the next test. So I gave her simple rules, she tried some problems, and they seemed to work. She smiled with relief.

“Now that’s good,” she said. “I like it.”

But then her phone rang. “Is she okay?” she asked abruptly. “Are they still in lockdown? Did they get her out?” She left the table.

Her boy looked up. “My school was in lockdown three times last month,” he said. Shamir returned, clearly shaken.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m okay,” she said.

“Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m ready.”

“Are you ready for the inequalities?” I asked.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while working on a memoir about the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.

Riga. Gniezno. Across the Oder. Berlin. The long walk led through the horrors of the Oranienburg concentration camp.

My mother and her twin brother were 14 in 1944. It was the coldest winter that modern Europe had ever known. And those two children were part of a tide of refugees, all fleeing the advance of the Red Army.

My uncle later described the burning cities, roads littered with corpses, the wagons and millions of refugees, nearly half of whom were children, choking the roads leading westward.

My mother and he came of age in a German DP camp. ‘Damn refugees’ they were called. With nowhere to go, they placed their hope in Truman’s Displaced Persons Act that would allow them entrance to the US. But the Act was fiercely resisted: some of the refugees were Jews or Catholic, others Communists. Conservatives feared problems of sanitation and safety brought by “undesirables”. Unions feared the loss of jobs.

“These victims of war and oppression look hopefully to the democratic countries,” Truman exhorted Congress. “We must not destroy their hope.”

In 1951 our family of new immigrants arrived in Cleveland. Eventually, my uncle would work for General Electric. I remember him exhausted, 36 hours with no sleep, because he had been helicoptered out to container ships locked in ice on Lake Erie so that he could restore the stalled engines.

Descendants of those orphans abound. One granddaughter a talented musician. One a neuroscientist. Another, a business consultant out of Chicago. They’ve made good on the great gift given.

Damascus. Tijuana. Budapest.

Do we not owe it to those who came before to extend our hand to those who follow? And in doing so, do we not fulfill our higher promise?

With a Perspective, I’m Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while writing a narrative on the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.

Riga. Gniezno. Across the Oder. Berlin. The long walk led through the horrors of the Oranienburg concentration camp.

My mother and her twin brother were 14 in 1944. It was the coldest winter that modern Europe had ever known. And those two children were part of a tide of refugees, all fleeing the advance of the Red Army.

My uncle later described the burning cities, roads littered with corpses, the wagons and millions of refugees, nearly half of whom were children, choking the roads leading westward.

My mother and he came of age in a German DP camp. Damn refugees they were called. With nowhere to go, they placed their hope in Truman’s Displaced Persons Act that would allow them entrance to the U.S. But the act was fiercely resisted: some of the refugees were Jews or Catholic, others Communists. Conservatives feared problems of sanitation and safety brought by “undesirables.” Unions feared the loss of jobs.

“These victims of war and oppression look hopefully to the democratic countries,” Truman exhorted Congress. “We must not destroy their hope.”

In 1951 our family of new immigrants arrived in Cleveland. Eventually, my uncle would work for General Electric. I remember him exhausted, 36 hours with no sleep, because he had been helicoptered out to container ships locked in ice on Lake Erie so that he could restore the stalled engines.

Descendants of those orphans abound. One granddaughter a talented musician. One a neuroscientist. Another, a business consultant out of Chicago. They’ve made good on the great gift given.

Damascus. Tijuana. Budapest.

Do we not owe it to those who came before to extend our hand to those who follow And in doing so, do we not fulfill our higher promise?

With a Perspective, I’m Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while writing a narrative on the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.

A week ago we hunkered down in a standing room crowd in the Public House at AT&T Park. The Giants were still battling it out in Game 4 of the World Series and the Royals had just scored four runs at the top of the third. The crowd had grown somber.

It's not like I've ever followed baseball. I couldn't have cared less, except for one friend who cared a whole awful lot.

Our friend, Howie Usher, a river guide on the Colorado, had suffered a stroke two years ago. He had guided boats for 30 years in the Grand Canyon. And despite having grown up in Southern California, he had religiously followed the Giants for 50 years. He suffered through the 56-year drought. He reveled in 2010 when the G-men won the World Series. And he sat at home, his left side mostly frozen, when they won again in 2012.

At that time, he told everyone that he was going to get back on the river. It was not likely. That kind of work is mostly for younger men and requires all parts of your body. But for two years Howie arranged pennies for hours to build his fine motor skills. He swam to rebuild his mobility. His muscles slowly relearned how to row again. And this summer, miraculously, our friend once more rowed boats through the Grand Canyon.

On the night of Game 4, Howie had tickets to watch his first World Series game in AT&T Park. He cheered as the Giants crawled back from the third inning, scoring run by run by run until they upset the cart with an 11-4 lead.

There were three more games and we suffered and triumphed through them all, pitch by excruciating pitch, until Bumgarner wound his arm for the final out in Game 7.

A doubter, I had learned that a game actually can matter. "Beware of calling it too early," Howie had often said. And he should know. Like the pennies that got him back on the river, it's not a single pitch, but the total of all the strikes and balls and outs that produce miracles.

With a Perspective, I'm Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. He lives in Sebastopol.