I first met Mike over thirty years ago and found him personable, upbeat and engaging in a way that was not intrusive. And since he was a neighbor, this was especially nice. One day I was walking out of the house with a tennis racket and ran into Michael. “You play tennis?” he asked me with obvious relish. Then and there I learned about his love for the game. He had been a serious player, but a severe injury put an end to any hopes of a professional career. He showed me his disfigured right hand explaining what had happened. “Even though I had to give up my ambitions in tennis, I discovered I could still play and I’m out on the court as often as I can manage it.” He had lost none of the joy of the game.
I had the pleasure of getting to know his two sons and his daughter, all lovely kids, and his wife, Diane, whom I remember fondly. Back then Michael was still teaching art at Miramonte High School in Orinda. A few years later his wife died suddenly, a tragedy. And a year after that, in the Oakland Hills fire, Mike’s home burned to the ground, almost too much to contemplate.
By then, I had moved a few miles away and had lost touch with my former neighbor. But I ran into him about a year after the fire and remember being moved by the way spoke about it. He’d learned from his suffering. He had learned a great deal.
What is it that allows a person to pass through tragedy and come out on the other side with more, not less? It wasn’t until after our interview that I learned that Michael’s mother had died from complications from his birth. Then, a year later, his father committed suicide and he was orphaned. Over the years he was raised was by four different people, all elderly, each of whom cared for him lovingly. “And so I have a special feeling for the elderly,” he explained. He last custodian was his mother’s sister. “She was like mother Teresa,” he told me.
“Do you know what a trust fall is?” he asked. It’s when you fall backward with someone standing behind. To really do it, you actually fall backward and trust that you will be caught. He told me that one day teachers were given an exercise of forming an inner circle and an outer circle. All in the inner circle were invited to fall backwards trusting that they would be caught by a person standing behind them. Only three people could do it. Michael was one of them.
I still have the pleasure of crossing paths with Michael in a little business district nearby. He’s usually wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. He will have been on the tennis court or heading there. Or perhaps he will have been practicing tap dancing, something he took up maybe ten years ago-or practicing walking on a tight wire. Michael is always good for a surprise, or a friendly challenge to anyone who might be feeling stuck. There are always one or two or three people sitting with him in animated conversation on the benches outside a coffee shop. He’s good medicine. And Grbich is an artist, too, a painter. A couple of years ago his work was included in a group show of the work of older artists at the opening of the new De Young Museum in San Francisco.
Michael Grbich has some important things to say and he’s dedicated to spreading his message to a wider audience. We met at his rebuilt home in the Oakland Hills on a bright warm day near the end of summer.
Richard Whittaker: First thing I see when I walk into your house is your tight wire set up here in the living room. You’ve really made this part of your life, and I wonder if you’d say something about that?
Michael Grbich: I’ll try to be brief. I saw a program called “Art in the 21st Century” and one of the artists featured was Janine Antoni. She was walking on the same structure you see here and she said, “This is not so much about maintaining your balance, it’s about feeling comfortable falling and being out of balance.” All kinds of bells and whistles went off when I heard that. I said, “Oh, my god! I’ve got to learn walking on a tight wire.” It’s the last thing I thought I’d ever do. So I did a lot of research and looked for instruction in the Bay Area. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally I found someone at the trapeze center in Oakland.
RW: When was this?
MG: This was about six years ago. The person I talked with told me they didn’t have group lessons, but they could give me private lessons. So I had about a half dozen. Then I made myself a crude wooden structure to walk on before I got this one. Little by little I started to get better. Then I contacted Janine. I just called her. A person walking a tight wire is referred to as a “funambulist.” I love that term.
So I learned where she got her wire and there was the whole drama of getting it over here and so on. Then I tried to find other people who were doing this. There aren’t many people walking tight wires, especially in their own homes. But one thing led to another and I finally caught up with Phillippe Petit, the man who walked across between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.
RW: Wait a minute. One thing led to another and you caught up with Phillippe Petit? That’s a big jump. Now how did that happen?
MG: I’d heard about him and when I’d go to New York, I’d call. His number was available. One of the times, he answered. I said, “Phillippe, you sound the same as you did thirty years ago!” I said, “I’d give anything to have a lesson with you.” And I told him a little about myself. He told me he didn’t give many lessons, but he gave me his private number. It took about a year filling out waivers and forms and promising not to sue him, and then I got this four-hour training session from Phillippe. It was one of the turning points in my life.
RW: That is amazing.
MG: I went into this thinking it’d be a neat physical thing to do and have since learned that’s not so important. What’s important is living in the moment and not being impetuous, and just slowing down a little bit. So it influences everything I do-my dancing, my tennis, my running, everything-because we’re all kind of walking a tight wire. We’ll all trying to maintain our balance, our diet, our lives and so on. It’s something I hope to continue to do until I pass on.
RW: Could you say something more about how it’s made you slow down?
MG: When you get on the wire, there’s a tendency to want to get to the other side. That’s symptomatic of a lot of what’s going on right now in the world. People are rushing around, chasing their own tails, and I realized you can enjoy life much more if you go through it slowly and look around, smell the roses and so on. It’s a matter of lowering my heart rate and being more patient with myself. Walking on the tight wire is a very difficult thing to do and you make a lot of mistakes early on. So the discipline of doing it carries on to everything else.
RW: So a big part of what slows you down must be that when you’re on that wire, you have to have your attention totally focused on what you’re doing.
MG: That’s correct. What you do is look at something out there. That becomes your visual mantra. You look at that and forget everything else you’re doing. You’re just looking at it, looking at it, looking at it, until you get across. You do the same thing in the opposite direction. You try to block out everything else.
RW: So if you clear your mind, the intelligence of the body takes over? Something like that?
MG: It does. There’s something called physical memory. After a while it gets a little bit like walking. When you get very good, which is a long way away, you probably reach a stage where you’re not conscious of what you’re doing.
RW: But you must be very conscious when you’re on that wire.
MG: Oh yes! Even though it’s not very high, you can hurt yourself, a twisting fall. I don’t want to say there’s a danger, but it is hazardous to walk on the wire, even at two feet high. I talked with Phillippe and said, I know when you get on the platform you can’t be in too much of a hurry, but you can’t be hesitant. He said, as long as you have one foot on the platform and one foot on the wire, you’re not doing anything. You have to put the other foot out there. Then you’re really on the wire.
That’s the metaphor of life. That’s why I tap dance across bridges. You’ve got to take the risks. You’ve got to face your fears unhesitatingly. Then you’re truly alive and evolving. I believe that. So that’s what it’s about, facing your fears and not holding back. If you’re going to err, it’s better to walk a little faster rather than a little slower. You remember when you were first learning how to ride a bicycle? You went real slow. You remember how hard that was? But when you picked up a little speed, you got your balance.
RW: That’s true. Now you mentioned tap dancing across the bridge. That’s something I wanted to hear more about. Would you describe that? It was the Golden Gate Bridge, right?
MG: The Golden Gate Bridge. I did that to celebrate my 75th birthday.
RW: And that’s what-a couple of miles across?
MG: Two miles, yes. Actually 1.9 miles. It had been done before by a woman who was twenty-five. So I’m not the first, but perhaps the oldest. Not too many people are doing that.
RW: Well, yes. It’s kind of a wild thing. What gave you the idea in the first place?
MG: First, it was a celebration of life. I have a reverence for life. One of the things I do when I cross bridges is talk to people about, again, facing fears, taking risks and saying yes to life. The bridge was just a stage just to get people’s attention.
RW: Do you remember when the idea first occurred to you?
MG: As I was nearing my 75th birthday I was wondering what can I do to celebrate this? I heard about this woman who did it, and I thought, this is what I’ll do! So I pursued getting a permit. That was a very complicated process. You wouldn’t think you’d have to have a permit to dance across the Golden Gate Bridge. But stop to think about it. You can’t have people doing demonstrations and all the people on bicycles and walking and so I accepted that. But there was a lot of bureaucracy involved, an insurance policy, a permit, all to tap dance for twenty-two minutes. [laughs] But that didn’t prevent me from doing it.
But with the Brooklyn Bridge, though, I said, forget about the permits. I’m just doing it. If I get arrested, I’ll just get a lot more publicity.
RW: The Brooklyn Bridge?
MG: I did that, too. I did that last year. I consider myself a harbinger of messages about fitness and health and spiritual well-being. An important thing about saying yes to life is that yes can be an empowering word. It can open doors and opportunities. Sure, sometimes you have to have the sense to say no. But more often than not, if you engage in life, a lot of good things can happen to you.
RW: Tell me some of the most memorable things from the experience of doing that tap dance across the Golden Gate Bridge.
MG: Wow! The finish was really great. A lot of my friends followed me. It was a foggy day, a perfect situation! Perfect setting. My friends were cheering me on. One was carrying a boom box. People on the bridge were high-fiving me. I felt like I was on a stage. I was doing pirouettes and everything. It went by so fast. When I finished, a Chronicle reporter interviewed me and, at the end, she said, “Michael, would you consider marrying me?” [laughs] I said, “Of course!”
So many things in life are short-lived. There was all this preparation and it was all over, poof, just like that. But the memory lingers on, Richard. [big smile]
RW: So tell me about the Brooklyn Bridge.
MG: Another famous bridge. I tried to get a permit there and they just outright turned me down. This is funny. One of the reasons they gave was because they thought I might jeopardize the bridge [laughs]. Jeopardize the bridge? I really tried to get a permit. I pleaded with them. I said, I have a bridge behind me already. I’m in good shape. Look at my video. But they were reluctant to take a risk with me [laughs]. So that day-oh, I’m so proud, but I’m more proud of what led up to it than the tap dancing across the bridge, because the forecast for that week was rain every day-every day, more and more. I thought, “Ohhhh, man. Maybe I can do it in the rain with an umbrella like Gene Kelly did [laughs], but it’d be nice if I didn’t have to use an umbrella. Finally I said, am I going to go, or not? Do I cancel my hotel and my flight? And then I thought, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re the guy who’s talking about taking risks! You’ve got to do it. Just go!
So I’m in the hotel room. I’m nervous. It’s the night before. I look out the window. It’s dark. I can’t tell if it’s raining or not. Then I see a full moon! Ahhh, it’s not raining! It was a beautiful day, totally out of the blue! It rained the day before and the day after! That day, God shined down on me! It was perfect! We started early in the morning because we wanted to avoid the crowd, but all the people in New York had been cooped up because of the rain and it looked like they were all on the bridge. So it took quite a while to get across. There’s a bicycle lane, a running lane, a skateboard lane and I was dodging people back and forth and going backwards. New Yorkers were high-fiving me and taking movies. You know, New York is lively. They couldn’t let that pass them by. So that took a long time, but it was a lot of fun.
RW: So you got all the way across.
MG: Yes. That’s only a little over a mile. Not to make a big thing about the physicality of it. If I did the shuffle off to Buffalo, I could go across the entire Bay Bridge. It’s not that big a deal. Well, it might be for some seventy-five year olds. It’s about the message. That’s what it’s about.
So those memories will linger in my mind for a long time, both of those bridges. I’m looking for other bridges now. But at this point, I’m looking for some sponsorship. I’d really like to hook up with Kaiser Permanente because of their thrive and wellness program.
But basically, Richard, this right here is a bridge to cross, this tight wire. That never occurred to me before. There are bridges to cross, bridges to burn, bridges to build, bridges over troubled waters, bridges to nowhere-our whole life is based on kinds of bridges isn’t it? [laughs]
RW: That’s right.
MG: I’m enjoying this part of my life, believe me! This is my third childhood and each one gets better! [laughs]
RW: Well, I can see that. I see you down in Montclair. You’re a person who loves people and loves to relate. And you’re always encouraging people and being an example, too. But I wanted to ask you about some of your earlier life. I know you taught art in Orinda, right?
MG: That’s where I did most of my teaching at Miramonte High School. I taught there twenty-five years.
RW: Could you tell us something about that? What do you remember the most?
MG: About the children?
MG: It was all about them. They could have learned art from a text-book.
RW: This was a rewarding experience, I take it.
MG: You’re not kidding it was rewarding! I gave up twelve years of working at PG & E, a high paying job with perks. I was working with IBM machines. But I asked myself, do I want to do this for the rest of my life? I had the G.I. bill from the Korean War and so I decided to take some classes. Some of my friends thought I was crazy. But I had no ambition of continuing at PG & E and a friend said, well take some art classes. So I started doing that. Eventually I had to declare a major. I told the counselor, put down “art teacher.” [laughs] I never wanted to be anything!
Then comes decision day. Here I was full-time for six years working at PG & E. All of the sudden I’m wondering, am I making the right decision here? Leaving this job? Taking a big cut in pay? I hear teachers don’t get much pay, much respect.
Looking back, to answer your question, I never, ever wished I was back in the office. I made the right decision. I probably taught over eight thousand students over the years. The syllabus that I would describe to the parents who would come in-I’d say, this class is all about your child. This is a partnership. If you put the same amount of effort I put into it, just think what we can do together. Incidentally, I wasn’t a tap dancer then. If I had been, I’d have been standing on top of my desk tap dancing when the students came into the room. [laughs] I’d have no problem doing that! [laughing more]
RW: What were some of the creative things you did with your students?
MG: Well, first of all, I was known as a pretty easy grader, so I had a lot of kids signing up for my class. [laughs] It wasn’t because of my good looks or anything. I also had a lot of girls in my class. So the guys heard about that. Hey, we’ve got to sign up for art! And the word got around that I was pretty liberal. I tried not to speak down to my students. I respected them. I asked them to call me by first name. I tried to eliminate most of the power issues that come with being the teacher. It was an honor and a privilege to be with young people-an honor and privilege-because they are the spirit of life.
So it’s all about kids. And Leo Buscaglia, the guy who taught Love 1A at USC, he said in one of his speeches that the main responsibility of each teacher was to draw the “you” of you out of each person. Now that’s a daunting task.
RW: Any particular stories that stand out?
MG: Oh, my God! Let’s start with ones where I got in trouble as a teacher! As a student, I was too chicken to cut class or do anything zany. I never got a bad behavior report, but as a teacher, I was called into the principal’s office all the time. For instance, the music in my classroom was too loud. Some of the lyrics were objectionable. The sinks sometimes were dirty at the end of the year. I got called in because I had sideburns! The principal said, “I notice you have sideburns.” I said, “Yes.” [laughs] But he never told me I couldn’t wear sideburns. Oh, I got called in for numerous things! And I never really was upset by any of those things. If they had said they didn’t think I was doing a good job of teaching, then that would have been different. We’d have to talk about that. I thought I was a good teacher.
Oh, we did little pranks on people. The teacher next door had little pads that said, “call this number.” So we staged this between my class and his. I said, “Bob, you’ve got a message. You better go to the office and check this call, right away. It’s important! I’ll take your class. No problem.” So he goes to the office. It was the only place with a phone. He gets a busy signal. Finally he gets through to the number where a voice says [very seductively] “Hi there. I’m just sitting here naked waiting for you.” He comes back, “GRBICH!!” [laughs] And all the kids are laughing.
So why do that? Because school is a hundred and eighty days. It’s kind of like a prison thing, a little bit like doing time. So doing little zany things, like clearing all the tables out of the room and all having a dance party, having a barbeque outside and having fun were things that made it a little more real. Sometimes you have to do something to lift your spirits a little bit. Now Miramonte is a wonderful school. It wasn’t like I had to worry about my safety or anything. But still, it’s a long time, six periods a day, a hundred and eighty days. Lighten up a little bit.
No, the stories go on and on. Field trips! Going to Monterey Bay and meeting all kinds of people down there, having the free reign of the town, doing drawings and paintings. The field trips were some of the highlights of my teaching career. Big Sur. Up in Mendocino. I look back and there are so many wonderful memories. And, talking about my students-many are almost sixty years old now!
RW: Do you remember the story of any one student that stands out? Maybe someone who was real shy?
MG: That’s interesting, Richard. I always worked hard to try to get through to the people who were shy or a little diffident or kind of distrustful of me. What do I have to do to connect with these kids? Maybe I didn’t always succeed, but I tried. I’d look for things. Maybe a kid had an “A’s” cap on. I’d strike up a conversation about the “A’s”-just to make an inroad, to get to know them a little. And I liked that challenge. With the other kids, you didn’t have to do that. So whenever I could take a kid-especially when they said, “I can’t draw.”
I’d say, “Why did you sign up for this class?”
They say, “Well, but I can’t draw.”
I’d say, “Okay. Would you sign up for typing if you could type? That’s why you’re here!” I’d say, you can draw a bath can’t you? You can draw the blinds, can’t you? You can draw conclusions, can’t you? Pretty soon, I’d get them laughing and it took some of the seriousness out of this thing.
I said, “If you’ll suspend your disbelief and do the things I ask you to do, by the end of the year, I guarantee you’ll see some progress. Just trust me.” And I’d add, “You know, something worth doing is worth doing badly.” [laughs] “You don’t have to be great at everything.” But I also told them it was good to work hard at doing something and to try to excel.
RW: Now Michael, I know you’ve had some hard times in your life, some suffering and some real set-backs. I happen to know, since we used to be neighbors. For one thing, I know that for years you were gathering building materials for a dream home. How many years did you do that?
MG: It must have been ten or fifteen years. Garage sales, estate sales.
RW: Ten or fifteen years. You’d find wonderful little architectural things and find a special deal on some great old lumber. And you had this lot in the hills you’d bought many years before. Then the time came and you built that dream house. You built this pretty much by yourself, with some helpers, right?
MG: I had someone for six months. I did hire someone to do the foundation. And after Bruce left, I was pretty much on my own. That’s another thing, I had a childhood ambition to build my own house, and I just kind of fell into it. When I was a little kid I was always building forts and making tree houses. That’s something I remember. So that much must be in my genes, to have shelter-maybe because we were so poor.
RW: You built the house with love and care and a lot of hard work, and it then it was one of the houses that burned in the Oakland Hills fire.
MG: That’s right. But first of all, as you said, it was one of them. I’m always quick to say that there were 3000 that burned. I was not the only one. Some people lost their lives and their loved ones. We didn’t lose any loved ones or any pets. My wife had passed away a year before that, Diane. So this didn’t compare with losing a loved one. We all know that life is more important than stuff. I hope we do! But still, when you’re put to the test-your house is just a pile of ashes, a bunch of rubble-that gets your attention.
RW: Let me back up, because I didn’t quite remember the timing. But your wife died a year earlier. She died tragically at the age of 50. Then, a year later, your house burns down.
MG: Yes. [quietly] Well why not my house? I’m not above anything. See, the thing is, Richard, we all have issues to deal with after what age, twenty or thirty? What distinguishes us, whether you’re Donald Trump or a hobo, is how we deal with it. That’s what distinguishes you. I’ve always felt that you have to have the right altitude. Not attitude. Altitude. If you’re above the clouds, how come it’s always sunny up there? If you want to wallow in self-pity and blame the fire department, the insurance company, it’s going to haunt you for the rest of your life. You have to move on and say, how grateful I am: my children are okay; I had insurance for the house.
Life is a crucible, one test after another. It tests your true grit, your beliefs and your philosophy. And God help the person who doesn’t have any beliefs! How do you get through life without any beliefs? You have to have something to hold onto. And it’s a constant struggle! Every day is a struggle. I don’t care who you are! There are things to deal with, impediments. Some are big and some are large. You have to deal with the IRS. Okay, I lost my house. Oh, I’m getting audited by the IRS? Well, that’s not so bad. It’s all relative. And it hones your steel. It has to be honed. Otherwise it can’t cut anything. So as we go through these experiences that are difficult it makes you stronger. I hate to quote Neitzsche, but that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There’s a certain amount of truth in that.
So a lot of times I get people saying “you seem really upbeat, you’re not very angry” and I say, of course not, because I’ve been through all kinds of things! It doesn’t take much to make me happy-just by being grateful.
RW: You went to India. Was that an important trip?
MG: Yes. I went for a year and a half after Diane died. I tagged along with a woman I was dating who was studying dance. That’s where I was when I learned about losing my house in the fire. That was a tough phone call. But, again, when I talked with my son, Eric, and he told me they were all okay, I said, it’s okay. We’ll come together. We’ll get through this. It was another big test. There’s no end to these tests. Death is stalking all of us. We’re so vulnerable. All the more reason to put yourself on the wire and take the next step, right? [laughs]
RW: Yes. Now you said you have some beliefs. Would you share some of those?
MG: First of all, I believe it’s an incredible miracle that you and I are here. Just think of the odds. Billions of sperm bouncing around looking for one egg. One cell. That is so miraculous! So whether you bring in a God or a Source, to me, it’s more and more profound. I believe in the miracle of life. I’m not a religious person. I like to consider myself a spiritual person. But that absolutely blows me away. You can’t explain everything away from the Big Bang. Come on! At least I can’t. So it’s about having reverance for life.
In spite of everything, life is beautiful. In Anne Frank’s diary she wrote, in spite of everything in the world people are still basically good at heart. Thast’s what I believe. And I do believe in God. In fact, I thank him every night. Thanks, God. [laughs] You’re one heck of an artist! Oh man! This is really something! And sweet. [laughs]
There is so much to be grateful for. And gratitude creates happiness. Most of the people I see every day have a lot to be happy about. It’s about wanting what you have. Look at all this. [gestures around room] Nice furniture, nice views. It’s lovely, yes, and I enjoy it. But I like to think I’m more than my furniture and my rugs and stuff, right? In the bigger scheme of things, it’s all going to end up dust, anyway.
RW: Yes. Now I wanted to ask something about being a painter. I know you get a lot of joy from your artwork.
RW: Do you want to say anything about that?
MG: It’s about the process. It’s absolutely about the process. You saw my sign outside? It says, “Enjoy the process.” The road to Rome is Rome. Any sales you make, any successes you have are very short-lived. You can only go on bragging about going across the Golden Gate bridge so many times. People get tired of hearing about that after awhile. It’s all very short-lived. It’s nice to sell, because I do have expenses. That’s my main motivation. Obviously. Look at how many paintings I have around here. [laughs]
The process is what you remember, the doing of the art. It’s the doing of the dance. It’s the doing of the singing. All the other things are ethereal and they’re gone. But the memories are going to go on.
Now you’re an artist, too, Richard, and a painter and writer. You’ve done things. When you’re in that moment, the zone a lot of people call it, and you loose your self-consciousness, what a beautiful moment that is! And there are a lot of things where you’re at one with what you’re doing. It happens a lot of the time when you paint-except when you’re struggling! But when things are going well, oh, how lucky I am to be an artist! Ahhhhh…[leans back smiling]
As I turned the tape recorder off, Michael added that he often didn’t like saying he was an artist because “multitudes live in us.” He didn’t like falling into the reductive way we label ourselves. We got up and took a tour through the house looking at his paintings and later sat down to watch a couple of videos of his tap dancing tours across the Golden Gate and the Brooklyn bridges. Before leaving, he asked if I knew of the photographer Ruth Bernhard. Of course! He handed me a piece of paper on which he’d written the following quote from Bernhard: “If you can’t see what is not visible, you can’t see anything.”