By Nat Krieger
There’s a funeral toast, “Here’s to a man whose like won’t come this way again.” That’s Bob Dorn. Writer, jazz man, stone mason, gardener, cook, and maker of carnival masks; he was also a warm, witty, and constant friend. About that last semi-colon, Bob and I had two caffeine-fueled discussions on the semi-colon, which he put to bed with these words:
“I think the notion that language usage should (or could) be proper is
‘… a hobgoblin of small minds’ (Emerson). Communication is the proper aim of writing.”
When I met Bob early in 2013 he had been playing the trumpet for many years, and for me jazz informed his writing in ways wonderful and a little mysterious. After asking him about the process in a couple of different ways, Bob emailed on his 74th birthday,
“Music’s even more mysterious to me than language but the comparison isn’t fair because language …. ? I was gonna say it’s more like rocks fitted together and music has structure, but that’s not good enough because there are musicians who can explain the system but they often can’t play as well as others who nevertheless can’t explain the system. There’s a so-what in there,
someplace. One thing that comes to mind is that there are alternative phrases in jazz and writing. A phrase like, “dawn came a little slowly…” might be jazzy, but “he waited for a dawn that never seemed to arrive” is more like writing.”
“More like rocks fit together.” Bob knew a lot about that. When Bob and Deborah lived in Mallorca, Bob learned the Mallorcan way of wall building from a shepherd named Matteo. The technique uses a hidden, dry mortar but the stones are very closely fitted and shaped with several specialized tools made for the job.
Bob was fascinated. He’d say how an experienced eye could look at a stone (and there are no shortage in Mallorca) and know just where it would fit in a jigsaw puzzle that hasn’t been made til now, where the pieces are rocks. Deb reports he’d lose himself in the work, spending hours at a time, sorting, shaping, building.
Language as structure, language as sound. Hunting for the right stone, or note, or word. Under, or alongside Dorn the grizzled beat reporter, lived a seeker who somehow never lost the sense of astonishment and sometimes outrage at the world into which we were dragged kicking and screaming.
The human brain, source of all these arts and crafts, became a favorite topic in our Friday afternoon get-togethers at Café Calabria, dubbed by Bob as seminars, or palavers, stopping just short of bull session. Which in turn led to suggested readings — Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, and a Nautilus Magazine piece on jazz guitarist Bob Martino. But the reading was to inform the talking.
As a former UCSD professor of Journalism, Bob knew there was nothing like free-wheeling conversation for sparking new ideas. Like the reporter he never stopped being, Bob always carried a little memo pad notebook for notes, questions, and cool words. It was also for what the French call petites idées. A repository for his curiosity. Sometimes there were three or four palaveres, usually friends of Bob. He seemed to know everybody. Bob also turned me on to the cinque, 91 octane palaver fuel.
He had two rules. We wouldn’t talk about our health problems, which was only occasionally invalidated by the second rule: banning rules.
The two worlds met when Bob would periodically experience what he called a rebooting during which he would lose speech or struggle to put words together. This could last up to an hour. On coming out of it, Bob would experience a surge in creativity, clear-headedness, a greater openness and tenderness towards the world. This enhanced mode would fade after a few days.
Bob was fascinated. What could be going on in the brain to account for this? Assuming this rebooting was electrical in nature then were neurons making connections across regions not normally linked? Were synapses boldly forming where none had formed before? If greater creativity immediately followed, could the germ of those ideas be found in the episode?
“Regetal hamburger gap. One invented word followed by two unrelated ones. Taken altogether, as they once leaked from my mouth, they suggest some fast food economics, I think..”
Regetal Hamburger Gap. Another Bob Dorn story I would have loved to read.
Among the many hats Bob sported over his 75- plus years was magazine editor. In the late 1990s at UCSD he was the editor of Oops, a magazine put out by the students of the Literature Department, drawn especially from the editing workshop he ran.
The Winter 1998 edition was dedicated to women’s issues and Bob’s Letter From the Editor gives an idea of the kind of teacher and man he was:
“It was fun, but also a privilege, to be part of a collective writing and editing project that at its heart was driven by generosity of spirit and a respect for humanity, not man.”
A couple of editions later Bob describes a donor who has given to the magazine for the second straight year as,
“… a man of untiring courage and decency whose common sense tells him to remain anonymous.”
Bob also created and edited a book: Third College twentieth anniversary, 1970-1990: diversity, justice, imagination, which told the history of the Third College (now Thurgood Marshall College) movement at the still almost new born UCSD.
The movement saw the close coordination of Black and Chicano student aims with the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition. Angela Davis, a grad student at the time, was among those who lent their support.
While Bob lived nearly half his life in San Diego he grew up and went to high school in Phoenix, a place he left behind with few regrets.
Remembering his young manhood in a hilarious High School reunion story he wrote for San Diego Magazine, entitled Were Those the Days?
“My other recollection of what determined male status back then was criminality, mainly of the violent kind. Maybe it was the cruelty of the desert, which back then was never very far from our tract homes, that made the young guys so belligerent and tough…scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, black widow spiders, red army ants, red-bottomed cow killers—stingers reaching or jaws working, some of them would sting themselves if they were angry and a human wasn’t near enough. And if the inhuman didn’t get you, there were always drunk cowboys. Pain and the desert.”
But somewhere in there Bob learned to love working with his hands. And not only in stone. He was a gardener who enjoyed remembering the taste of the strawberries and artichokes he grew as a younger man. Later he would fill bowls with moss, rocks, plants, and sometimes tiny statues, recreating in miniature the world he adored.
Bob did have a thing about rocks. He had a rock collection as a child and on long mountain hikes many years later his pack, and Deb’s, would grow heavy with geological marvels that Bob could not live without. The rocks they picked up on their first mountain hike together held a special place of honor for many years and rocks from a variety of deep time strata still decorate the balcony of the home Deb and Bob made together years later.
Deborah didn’t so much meet Bob as discover him, sitting in the back of a cab she didn’t know she was sharing, on the way to a flight she wasn’t originally scheduled to take, going to Europe.
A couple of years after Deb and Bob found each other, Bob sold his house in San Diego and they lit out for Italia, staying for a year, first in Tuscany and later in Sicily, where Bob was shown the bed, located in a well-protected hilltop village, where his grandfather first laid eyes on the world.
Living in Florence, with a view of the Il Duomo, Bob sniffed out a story for the International Herald Tribune, writing the earliest English language report on the newly restored Riace bronzes, two magnificent ancient statues dug up years before from the sea bed off Calabria, the Southern Italian region where the statues reside today. Bob did his own digging for the story and helped settle the dispute about whether the two warrior-heroes were of Roman or Greek manufacture,
“If by and large the Romans failed to achieve the delicacy and grace of Greek sculpture, they managed to cast exceedingly light bronzes, with walls as thin as one eighth inch. The Riace bronzes have walls about three times the thickness of Roman castings of comparable dimension, according to one restoration worker.”
Then it was on to the Tuscan town of Viareggio, on the Ligurian Sea. In Viareggio, Deb and Bob were taken into the heart of an Italian family whose mother taught Bob how to make pasta.
Bob went to the market everyday there, a habit he never broke, even towards the end when that meant Sprouts in North Park. He cooked dinner nearly every day, often experimenting. “Bob not only liked to eat,” Deb observed, “He liked feeding others.”
Years later Bob would write an article on bachelor cooking. Among his tips for the busy bachelor — if the recipe calls for carrots and you don’t have any, just use something with the same color.
Years later the ancient inland sea would draw them back, this time a little further west onto the island of Mallorca. It was there Bob shaped his walls, and mused, “Every man should write a book and build a house.”
Along with their friend John Ratajkowski, Deborah and Bob were rebuilding a house in the village of Sant Joan, about a half hour and world away from the tourist port of La Palma. Bob had become friends with John while writing a piece for the Reader, The Warsaw Connection, February 9, 1984(!) a true story that followed the artist smuggling a 300-year-old Italian violin into Communist Poland.
Oh, and Bob was also a poet. How could he not be? Living at the intersection of jazz and writing, both enriched by his attunement to the sensual world. Poetry, the older and elemental brother to prose. Deborah confirms that Bob wrote poetry for as long as she knew him. Not a lot, but poems would appear from time to time. Just last year The Third Conning dropped on these pages…
Turning and turning over malls and freeways
The drones outrace their wireless signals;
Houses fall apart; grocery carts are filled with gear;
Mere starvation is loosed on half the world,
While others eat designer foods and
Protest they’re entitled to deny the real.
The best lack spirit, while the worst fill our
Heads with methed-up commentary.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
The Third faux Conning of the land.
And underneath all those different hats was Bob the friend. Deborah introduced us in Calabria. Bob in turn introduced me to the Free Press. He was what anyone who tries putting thoughts into bits dreams of: an encouraging, attentive reader, with an antenna for BS etched with many years of service in the Fourth Estate.
“…that wasn’t an easy read, but I would have read it whether or not it was a friend’s work, because I had faith there’s rewards I’ll enjoy for having been admitted to a mind not my own.”
Encouragement, together with faith in an open mind, a distinctly Dornian combo.
“Write every day, without hope or despair.” Bob was not big on dispensing advice but he liked Dinesen’s so much he posted it on the fridge.
There was so much more I wanted to talk with him about. So much left undone, but I guess a person would need a load of lifetimes to follow all the interests of this Renaissance man who worked with his mind, mouth, lips, heart, and hands.
Bob won’t pass this way again, but we, the living, can carry on a lot of what he stood for and was about, like “generosity of spirit and a respect for humanity.” And for actual human beings.
What made Bob angry was finding a lack of the above in people, and over the last couple of years there has been plenty to get angry about. But Bob Dorn didn’t end his days in anger. He ended them on a Mediterranean isle, playing a smoking trumpet solo, surrounded by love. People live and leave their lives in all kinds of ways, often not of their choosing or liking. Amidst the heartbreak of loss, there is that sweet solace after all.
A photo gallery for Bob Dorn