Just as an intense year of CalArts coursework in Aesthetics and Politics was coming to a close, video of Howard surfaced.* The long path from then to now lit up like neon.** In that sudden vacancy after the end of classes, this text-gather happened. It’s me, Howie, and Judith Butler (because I think he would’ve loved her thought) – voices differentiated by typeface (see the legend in lower right).

Zoom in on the text or download the PDF version here.


*Heartfelt thanks to John Mehring, who followed his curiosity into the archives and found a videocassette of “On the Safe Side” in the San Francisco Public Library. He shared the find with me (and others who knew Howie) with the help of Kevin Brown at Smart Set. My thanks to them both.

**In my first trip to L.A. back around 1984, friends drove me through a sketchy part of downtown at night (after all, what are friends for?) to show me what looked like a solid vertical bar of neon blazing on the corner of a building. As we drove by (and then drove by again), out of the corner of my eye the solid bar wiped into a word. (I think it was “MONA” – for the Museum of Neon Art.) That’s a decent analogy for most of what sticks with me: it’s not the frontal assault that makes the deepest impression but the experience that sneaks in from the side.


IMG_2313 2

This short piece was just published in The CalArts Eye, a student-run periodical that struck me as the perfect venue for this odd little story inspired by a run-in with one of Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca sculptures at MOCA in Manhattan. 


No Two Ever the Same 

It was Pablo Putnam’s 49th birthday. He sat in an attitude of true prayer, pants around his ankles, one hand on his abdomen, the other lightly on his knee. He was alone in what others called a Beacon Hill mansion. But to him it was just home, a womb passed down the generations from a genius coal tar chemist who, after buying a fresh start and a shorter last name, made it possible for every Putnam thereafter to pursue a more meaningful existence, free from the need to count money.

Pablo was nestled in a legless leather armchair grafted on top of what looked like a marble-faced cabinet, about the size of a refrigerator laid on its side. He suddenly gripped the arms, leaned back into the dark cowhide, then, with a slight shudder, sighed, stood up and looked into the seat.

There, on a porcelain plate, was his 49th birthday piece. Nicely formed. Delicately shaded. A piece that would have made his mother proud. He smiled and clapped twice. A hum rose, the conveyor belt began its Sisyphean journey, and the dish disappeared into the cabinet. Pablo pulled up his pants, carefully tucked in his Oxford shirt, and by the time his belt was buckled, his piece was ready at the other end. He wrote the date in a legible but distinctive hand on the clear, vacuum-sealed pouch. Then he took it carefully into the ornate but narrow box of the mansion’s antique lift, down three flights to what was once a wine cellar.

A gallery of wood-paneled cabinets with engraved brass plates glowed under the lights. He opened the cabinet labeled “Birthday Series” and leaned into the wave of chilly air rolling out of the freezer. He looked thoughtfully at the contents, back through his thirties, twenties, teens (how the years had flown!) … right back to his first piece, quaintly encased in plastic wrap.

Elizabeth Putnam had always wanted an artist in the family but had less than no talent of her own. Her hope was kindled, however, after reading an interview with a famous painter. Everything he said about the creative process seemed to describe what her son, just eleven months old, was doing on a daily basis.

The artistic process,” she read, “is mysterious. An artist must create the conditions for a piece to emerge—indeed must sometimes work very hard to create them—but is never fully in control of the result, which must always speak for itself.”

Leaning over the crib, she felt some preternatural connection between the artist’s and her son’s baldness. She put her hand on Pablo’s small round belly, felt the prodigious gurgling and was encouraged.

“Critical is the artist’s willingness to surrender to the process. When the process is forced, the result will emerge damaged, and the artist’s vision will remain unexpressed.”

That was the final sign; Pablo’s daily productions were so effortless! She was even a little envious of his facility, but far be it from her to let a mother’s ego stand in the way. On Pablo’s first birthday, she had asked the nanny to bring a square of plastic wrap from the kitchen. Among the staff, the nanny was the first to leave—regretfully, she said, telling the cook that as Beacon Hill brats go, Pablo was a dream. Resourceful and committed, mother and son had never looked back.

Pablo loved his mother, so when he became a man he took on the mantle of his creativity and later invented the device to make the process more elegant and, he felt, even more eloquent. True, it took some of the whimsy and handcrafted authenticity out of each presentation, but he had begun to feel that the outer wrapping distracted from the real event. Decorating the package with colors or designs seemed the crutch of a young artist unwilling to fully embrace the bold message emerging from his deepest instincts and inclinations. He considered the vacuum-seal process and its clear result a sign of creative maturity. He was also tired of grazing his fingers on the serrated edge of the plastic wrap box.

Art was always a private family affair. But one day (years after his mother quietly slumped in the corner of the elevator on her way down to ensconce “Summer Storm 1976” in the gallery) his Bentley was rear-ended. A woman negotiating an unfamiliar manual transmission had hit the gas instead of the brake. She was from New York, and when she asked what kind of business he was in, he was emboldened by her open expression to declare himself for the first time publicly: “I’m an artist.” She asked to see his work and, surprising himself, he agreed, then tore up her insurance information and declared that he would take care of the repairs.

He took her down to the gallery. The lift was a close fit, but she was charmed by the old technology. The Putnams were the first family on the Hill to install one, he explained. “Visionary,” she said, and blushed when the car, hiccupping on the descent, jostled them together.

Under the gallery lights, he shyly opened display after display, until they stood in front of the “Snowstorms” series, waves of cold rolling out of the freezer. She hugged herself, shivering with pleasure, and turned to him, dumbfounded: “Why have you never shown these?” He demurred. She shivered again. “We must take these to Manhattan. I have connections.”

So they did, mounting an ongoing series of exhibits that began with a few snickers but quickly turned to admiration on the strength of “Turning Points,” pieces inspired by dramatic days including Lennon’s assassination, fall of the Berlin Wall, Cobain’s suicide and 9/11. Critics noted the remarkable similarity of those pieces to each other, as compared to the variety in a travel series like “Mediterranean Fantasie.” (He had invented a discreet travel version of his vacuum seal, making it possible to take exotic trips that never failed to inspire what critics agreed was some of his best work.)

Soon celebrity chefs proposed collaborations to showcase their cuisines, providing (as one commentator described it) the paint for his portraits. A line of men’s kilts showed up at Fashion Week, pitched as an unencumbered approach to artistic expression. Pablo distanced himself, telling the press that the fashion designer had clearly misunderstood the deliberate, systematic nature of his process.

He refused commercial connections, having no need of money and no interest in being part of what he saw as a sellout consumer culture. Young imitators had already begun to mount copycat shows, but no one yet could match Pablo’s originality. One young video artist was adamant about wanting to capture him on film “at his canvas,” suspecting some secret poetry in motion was behind such distinctive work. But Pablo refused, uncertain if the videographer’s interest was truly aesthetic or perhaps—and this came over him like a waft of intuition—prurient.

The only person he wanted to invite into his process was her, the one who had recognized his unique gift and helped him bring it to the world. But so far she showed no interest. The one time he obliquely proposed the idea, she put up a hand and said something about the inviolate sanctity of the artist’s studio, a place that should not be compromised with outside influences—not even hers.

He didn’t mention it again. But sometimes he felt her absence, wishing she might want to kneel by him, one hand on his lower back, encouraging him to make something no one had ever seen before or would ever make again.


JOEL: I can’t remember anything without you.
CLEMENTINE: Aw, that’s… very sweet, but try.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The people with the most persistent claim on my attention are all gone. The persistence is linked to the gone-ness. I take it upon myself (from somewhere well beyond and before conscious choice) to outline their absence. I hang on to them, which can be a problem because—let’s face it—a degree of forgetting is necessary in order to get on with living.

A loved one’s premature exit fixes even the most banal image into a mental frame. Look. Hold it up to the light. Turn it over. Don’t polish it up. Just look. The way a man once leaned in over a shared dessert, then later tucked a newspaper under his arm right before disappearing around the corner. That man reminded me I could write. There are no more images to be had where that came from.

Howie's Hat
Howie’s Hat

With no new experiences to be had, presence turns to absence and gets filled with stories. At memorials, wakes and shivas. Don’t ask how we are. We are broken. We are sitting at the edge of a volcano trying not to lean in. On a couple of mornings in the early raw months, I wake and for a few seconds am in a prologue world. I wake with mundane thoughts smoothing the sheets. Calm. As if.

And then.

As a writer, I should write about such things. Stories with Meaning and Import. But I have either smoothed frosting over tears or poked at grief so tentatively that every nerve wakens while nothing is healed. I hate those stories. I don’t want those stories.

Then someone who knows loss says to me, “All we have are the stories.” We trade some between us, and the shape of an old absence sharpens again. We’re talking about Howie, murdered in 1992. He was my business partner. We founded Smart Set. We were unlike in most ways, but through the business our names rolled out of people’s mouths as one: howie’an’jana.

In the aftermath, I was a proxy widow, a location for people’s grief. He was so loved. When he was with you, he was really with you. He didn’t leave anything unsaid. No unfinished business. That’s what everyone said at the memorial. I wanted to say, Howie left the unfinished business with me. The widow indeed.

“All we have are the stories,” she said. After 23 years, my memories have been cut and recut. For years I was sure that I was partly to blame. I hadn’t cared well enough for him. Guilt about frustrations vented over the business that I couldn’t take hold of as personal frustrations. So much submerged in my deep seated Minnesota-nice. I didn’t see Howie much in the last months before he and the world he was making were cut short.

None of it made any sense. Killed by two idiot children with men’s strength in their bodies and, I imagine, snow for brains.

I didn’t know where to put that kind of cold. I fetched his Timberwolves jacket from the drycleaner, where no one expected it to be. Howie had vowed to wear it with all its history until the team won a championship. Had he lost faith in the team’s destiny? Or, I hoped, had he met someone new he really wanted to clean up for and impress?  

I tried harder to get hold of my own humanity, usually crouched defensively behind getting to work on time and never being late with a payment. When the homeless man stood on the steps of our first office asking for money—which all three of us knew would go to booze—it was Howie who walked with him down the street to the store where he bought him a loaf of bread, a pack of bologna, mustard and milk.

Howard Liebhaber
Howard Liebhaber

One Monday morning, Howie burst into the office and demanded I sit down and—before anything—read John Sayles’ “The Anarchists’ Convention.” The business survived because of my 24/7 work ethic. I survived because Howie knew that business wasn’t life. I still wonder why, in the lottery of violence, why, why take him—the one who wanted his life—instead of me, who was always ambivalent about everything except a deadline?

There’s forgetting that is oblivion and forgetting that is a form of taking in. We had some hours together, and there our stories end. In all the years since, Howie’s life as he would have lived it goes undone. But not unremarked. I was the one who fought with him and would like to fight with him still. If I love you, I might have to kill you, goes the logic of close relationships, our dependence a feature of love (though often treated as a tragic bug). So maybe it’s my stubborn insistence that we’re not done that has led to a certain taking in of how I remember Howie … an embodiment of memory that needs no specific recollection.

I still wonder what he might say … what new thing he might be fascinated by … what he might insist that I try right now. Listening to music he liked. Reading authors he admired. Technology. Jewishness. Social justice. Bicycles. Sports (occasionally). All those things that don’t come naturally but expand the possibility that I might be able to do what’s needed. Not what is “good.” What is needed.

I’ve taken him in, what parts of him I had the wherewithal in those years to grasp. He told me almost nothing about his personal life, and that was alright between us. We’d never be married, so we had a business, and that had to be alright between us. Really, I knew him so little.

Janice Porter | "coffee cups laughing" | pencil on paper | 8 x 10 | 1985
“Coffee cups laughing” was Janice Perry Porter’s gift to me and Howie on the founding of Smart Set in 1985. (I see him in the cup on the left.)

I dream of him periodically. In the beginning, he would walk in to other dreams to ask how I was. Just interrupt an unrelated scene to check in. In those dreams,  we both know he’s dead. We’re just having our usual coffee meeting but without the coffee (we were all about the coffee).

This January, he showed up in a different sort of dream. He arrives, and he’s alive. He was in prison somewhere, but now he’s back. He stays at my apartment and decorates a room with photographs—most of his life, a few of my life, and some of us together. Thank you for doing this for me, I tell him. With a sideways grin, he says: Who said I did it for YOU?

A full dream, and mostly forgotten on waking, except for the dream’s pulse of SURPRISE. The surprise of Howard. Stories can remind me of his originality but never re-create it. I can’t know what he might have done. Might have said. Might have wanted. Surprise me, I want to say to him. And instead, as the rest of the dream fades and I begin to wake up, one image sharpens: I stand in the middle of the room he has decorated, and now I am holding up his severed head, fingers in his black, curly hair.

Now I’m fully awake … up against the limits of imagination (and memory is an act of  imagination). Conjuring scenes that, no matter how dearly felt, have no body or breath but what I give them.

Other absences crowd in—other people gone too soon for my taste. A swell of what might have been (and relief for some that wasn’t). Doors hush. Screens are dark. There is no looking back that isn’t also a moving forward (though tiny whiplash reversals can feel like standing still). I take what I can remember, mangled pieces of their particularities. I miss them. I miss him. They whisper in my veins and wash my actions with an instruction to get on with my own particularity. Surprise me, I want to say to them. Surprise us, they say back.


It’s that time of year again.

“The Scapegoat” is a short story I wrote back in Boston, inspired by a part of the Yom Kippur service that’s graphic, troubling, provocative and moving, all at the same time. It’s not well known, so I was gobsmacked to see Heidi Taillefer’s “Scapegoat” at CoproGallery’s “Land of the Blind” exhibit.

Check out more of Heidi’s work at her website or other well-curated stuff  at CoproGallery.

And if you’re inspired to read, download the short story here:
The Scapegoat by Jana Branch


Yoshitomo Nara 2014
Yoshitomo Nara 2014

Feeling stupid. Where was I? There’s a moment of stupidity that’s something like a gap in the order of things. A forgetting, except that I don’t care that I’ve forgotten. That sliver is a strange freedom, not unlike the feeling of staying out after dark and ignoring calls to come in. Some game is in play.

Where was I going? 2001. Boston’s Comm Ave, home to plenty of students, the spring sidewalk is covered with crushed apple blossoms, the contents of student apartments piled at the curb. I’ve never seen this kind of waste. Here in Boston, though, at the end of the school year college students move on to jobs or another school or drop out. And wherever they’re going, the furniture is too cheap or heavy to take. So it waits in the open for the garbage truck or scavengers.

I find myself staring at the couch I passed earlier. It’s half in the street, cushions now strewn half a block away. Too much to carry, and in the end, unnecessary for wherever its owner went. An apple tree overhangs the sidewalk. I can’t remember why I came this way, but I walk through it, trying not to slip on the wet mat of trampled blossoms.

Maybe these moments of stupidity, loss of direction, loss of thought, loss of sense are a way to lose what I never needed in the first place: a loss of sense without the sense of loss. The blossoms drop, from beauty to bruised. There’s the green, hard nub of a new apple.

This stupidity is a failure of mind and a subversive success of heart. The order I try to impose on my day is a tiny whip too small to turn some internal caravan from the place it needs to go. In forgetting where I was going, direction can be reinvented. Surrealists embraced this wandering as an exercise. I struggle not to see it as a failure of my Midwestern work ethic.

What am I doing here? I browse the paint chip display at the hardware store. A thousand colors and not one of them the reason I came to the store. Fanning the colors, I wasn’t thinking about repainting the kitchen or the reason green has so many shades and how many of them look beautiful in nature but sickly on a wall… I wasn’t thinking much at all. Busy eyes while I drifted with those things that got buried under paint chips and sink strainers and string—the kind you tie on your finger to remind you of something.