So one of the things you’d notice about my father, if you ever watched him tell a story, is how right before he began, he would look down at the floor, as if there was an imaginary checklist there, and hold a long pause. Once he was collected, his head would rise and his face would light up as the first line passed his lips. The lights were turning on, and you could see it in his face. With his body he was raising the curtains.
He was a professional storyteller — a profession he found after chancing into a workshop on a whim. He started performing locally, at the library, and worked his way to the national and international circuit.
Everyone always said to me, “Oh it must be so amazing to have a father who’s a storyteller!” but it was actually sometimes hard to appreciate as a young kid. He was telling stories about us to strangers! People I’ve never met would come up to me at storytelling festivals and say, “you must be Zach!” and I would feel super embarrassed. There’s a recording on one of his first albums of a story about me and before he begins, you can hear I am running out of the crowd, “and there goes Zach!” The stories, although always sweet and loving, captured our family at some of our most ridiculous and awkward times. There are stories about throwing up in cars, about sneaking out of the house, about my grandma’s love life.
My mother was a Lamaze teacher (teaching the basics of childbirth) and both of their jobs meant they were working from home. As a kid I secretly wished they’d have normal jobs (I think this was driven by a jealousy of seeing how my latch-key friends spent their afternoon hours), but once I grew older it was something I came to love and cherish about my family. It was a household of people who made their way by hand and without clear trails — my parents were hippies who went into the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, after all — the house was full of macrame woven by my mom and cut paper artwork my parents made together. My mother made a birthing canal demonstration piece with a quaker oats tube, my sister’s rag doll, an old curly telephone cable, and a piece of rubber (my mom says it was an old girdle) for the vagina. My friends used to look at things like that, and the plastic pelvis in the trunk of my car, and crack a ton of jokes.
As a young kid I craved normalcy. As I got older, their dreams started to make more and more sense to me.
Take teaching — before and during his time as a storyteller, my father was an English teacher at the local high school ETHS. But he wasn’t a regular teacher. His classroom was decorated with sofas and couches and lamps, and I remember going with him to the video rental store to get old movie posters to put on the wall. He wanted his classroom to be a home of sorts. Early on in his tenure teaching he helped found an alternative program for graduating seniors called “Senior Seminar” where they would do experiential learning. He took them to farms where they milked cows and went on road trips together, and my sister and I grew up around that. Or, when he would drive a group of students blindfolded around the city and drop them off at secret locations — they’d have to figure out where they were, collect oral histories of Chicago and find their way back home. We grew up hearing the stories of my dad getting pulled over by the FBI because someone called in a bus full of blindfolded kids. “He’s kidnapping us!” his students shouted. In all the stories about Senior Seminar he says the same thing, “We had no idea what we were doing!” and “Can you believe that we did that? that they let us do that.” I also remember him saying, “Teaching is a series of small victories.”
My dad loved literature, and I remember pretty much every day when my sister, he, and I would leave for school he would recite the first lines of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock,
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
When he got to that third line, with its twist, his eyes would light up. Language, the power of language, the power of words. You could see it in how he would talk about e.e. cummings, who he wrote his thesis on, or Shakespeare. And that love of language came out when he told stories. Every year he would tell Beowolf to the whole high school full of students, even dressing up in a tunic and tights. Can you imagine, as a kid, seeing your dad in front of a thousand teenagers in tights? Later in life, I was in a high school in Alaska and I spoke to a class during a pep rally about an art project I was doing at their school, and I felt like I was channeling my dad. So this is what it feels like!
When I first got the call about his stroke, I was in Belgrade at the Resonate festival. I had just finished a talk there, where I had even worked in some slides of my parents (describing their love of teaching), and it was the last night. I went to go see Fennesz, to stand next to the stage / speakers and get enveloped in a wall of sound. But when I left the venue, my phone rang. I knew it couldn’t be good.
It’s been a year or two of those kind of phone calls, “Dad’s in the hospital.” He’d been ill for many years, battling lupus and a variety of complications — diabetes, hypertension, etc, but these last years have been especially rough. Since Jan 1, 2014, it’s been an epic fight. Falling down, going to rehab, getting back up. Repeat. In high school, he was a football star, and scored all the points in the city championship game. “Tiny Lieberman Proves Giant” read the headline. Now at 70, he fought hard against all these setbacks, like a football player down the field, after each hard tackle getting up and trying to gain a few more inches. The tackles got harder and harder.
The last hospital visit he had before I went to Belgrade must have been in February or March. He hadn’t drunk enough water, and was completely out of it, like a wilted flower. “I traveled across the country to get you a water bottle!” I said as we sat in his hospital room. “I was hoping it was something more serious” he said sheepishly. We had a family intervention where my mother, sister and I all gave him the rules about drinking enough water and focusing on regaining his health. He and I went on etsy and found a elegant wooden box with an engraving to hold his pills, since the pill boxes he used had a depressing quality and he didn’t want to leave them downstairs on the kitchen table where he would remember them. The box had the tree of life carved on it. We had a tough talk about storytelling. He was still traveling. He had shows that were booked.
One of the hardest things he was grappling with was having to really slow down on the traveling and storytelling. I was in the hospital this spring, and I watched him cancel a show over the phone. I could tell how much he needed to be performing. When he was storytelling he had the warm, charmed look of someone who had found his true calling in life. He had this crazy schedule of trips every month. We asked, “What are you trying to win, a second lifetime achievement award?”
I know how he feels because I see it in myself. I travel and give talks and very often I feel like I bring his spirit to what I do. I work as a media artist, and my dad has been a huge influence. We talked shop sometimes, “Did you have a good show?” “Oh let me tell you about my last trip.” We talked about audiences and when things went right and wrong. He used to love hearing where I was going. Sometimes I felt as if I was saying yes to travel so I could have exciting places to tell him about.
For one of my earliest projects, Messa di Voce, a collaboration between Golan Levin and myself (with Joan LaBarbara and Jaap Blonk), my parents came to the performance at the ICA in London. There’s a moment where one of the performers, Jaap Blonk, makes a crazy noise with his mouth, and the first thing you hear right after he makes the first sound is a giant laugh from my father and mother. They were in the audience and they showed their surprise and delight vocally. Later, when I would give talks about my work and they were in the audience, before I played that clip, I would mention to the audience that they were in the room and then my parents would laugh (nervously) in person and everyone would look at them and learn their laughs, then I would play the video and they would hear their laughs again. It was incredibly meta. I loved having them in the audience.
Once in Rome, I was touring with Golan and I had a eight minute silent performance that involved drawing. I was live on stage performing in a venue that was pretty much like the Lincoln Center of Rome. It was a huge venue, there must have been hundreds of people there, and I was so nervous about doing a silent performance — especially in Rome, since the audience was so loud and boisterous, not only that, but at this event, there were a ton of simultaneous concerts. The eight minutes, with a dead silent audience, seemed so long. But, in the middle of the performance there’s a moment where these dancing lines swimming around form the face of a baby. At that moment, my father laughed. I heard this single laugh out of a crowd of hundreds, and it made me so happy and gave me courage.
My dad gave me courage. I remember one time calling him from Switzerland. I was speaking at Davos Conference, and I was feeling so insecure, as if I had nothing to tell these fancy people, and I didn’t belong. I had to talk at a dinner about language and I wasn’t sure what to tell them about language. “The world needs stories,” he told me, “We are drowning in data, and we need people to weave stories. Tell them that.”
I told his stories when I could. There was a story about a drum circle in Rogers Park that he told and I wound up telling it to my students and repeating his advice: “The point is, find your drum and play it as loud as you can.”
One time, I told this at the end of the workshop in Spain. Years later I realized that everyone heard it differently, but they got the spirit of it. In some ways, it matters more that you *are* saying it than what you say.
When I helped start The School for Poetic Computation, an alternative program focusing on the intersection of code and poetry, I had my father in mind. I was thinking of Senior Seminar, and how he had made his own way. He came to visit that first term and spent some hours with us talking about storytelling and sharing what he does. I felt so privileged that he could see what I was doing, and how much he had influenced me.
In the last weeks, with the stroke and the rough times in the hospital, he still had his boyish smile. His voice, though, was garbled. To me, it felt like I was hanging out with a tough, drunk gangster who couldn’t be bothered to fully enunciate.
Before the last time I saw him, he was going under for surgery and he asked us all for three good lucks apiece, from my sister, my mom, and myself. My dad loved things in threes. He was the son of a gambler, and superstitions ran high. In the old days, he’d be leaving to tell stories and from the porch I’d yell out nine good lucks (it had to be some multiple of 3). Then I’d add a tenth one as a tease and he’d run back from the taxi, demanding two more. It was a game we would play.
When he woke up from the anesthesia after the surgery he was completely surprised. “Where am I? What happened?” he kept repeating. It was late, we held his hands, kissed him, comforted him, and then it was time to say goodbye. “I just want to go home,” he said, “I just want to go home.”
He is home. His stories and words are with us, for us to tell now, and he is home.