Millerama 101

Millerama is the complex belonging to the Miller family that sits on top of a hill in Berkeley, California.

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It has survived several generations of Millers, divorces and re-settlements, cousins, great aunts, and seemingly immortal grandmothers. Today it revolves around two central figures – Tom and Nhu, husband and wife, and their four children – Toby, Teddy, Nathalie, and Gabby. Millerama boasts pianos that play for themselves, urban legends, ancient oak trees with superb tree houses, and probably one of the best views in the Bay Area.

I was introduced to the Miller family through their youngest – Gabby Miller. We met at Reed College in 2004. I was returning from Russia for the 2nd half of my junior year. I had heard about Gabby even before I arrived in the States. She was the half-Vietnamese girl with crazy jet-black hair who had won over the heart of many a Reed student, including several of my best friends.

Like those before me, I was immediately taken with this Gabby character. She was pretty much unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was initially pretty smitten. I got that warm fuzzy feeling in my stomach sitting in her dorm room looking at all the random scraps of paper and objects on her floor – the kind of feeling where you just want to be around someone all the time. We spooned once. It was swell. Am I allowed to say that? I don’t care.

Our friendship was a sporadic one, and then at some point she joined the Rugby team – the only serious sports team at Reed. During spare moments on the field, at drink-ups, the coffee shop, and around campus, I got to know her better.

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(PHOTO ON LEFT BY STEWART STONE)

But it was really my senior year at Reed when I got to know Gabbers for real, when I shared a house with her and Layla and Leah, my favorite ladies. The house was appropriately dubbed “the Stables”; we were the lovely steed and gazelles of campus, after all. It was great, despite the fact that I was half-insane, staying up all night on dip writing my thesis and then downing Benedryl or Ambien in the middle of the night to fall asleep. I also recall we had no heat, slept in jackets in the winter, and I lived in the screen room, which had no door separating itself from the kitchen. Huff.

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(THESE 2 BY MIKE WILKES)

I do recall how at Renn Fayr – the end of the year 3-day party – she ate a live scorpion during the bug-eating contest, an act which she repeated last year when I visited Reed for my final Renn Fayr. She did it like a true warrior. All zen. The thing of legends. All I managed to pull off was eating a worm with my friend Julia, Lady and the Tramp style.

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But I think what I admire the most about Gabby is that life is never boring around her. And I’m not saying that she’s a party animal – nope, she likes her downtime just as much as anyone. Time to sit and reflect and work in her scrapbooks and write. It’s more about this ability to be a child and an adult all at once. Because of her infinite youth – she has this unique ability to connect with children, which is quite magical.

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Gabby picked me up from the airport in San Francisco and driving home, remembered that she had a present for me, sitting in the door pocket of the car. A large knife from France, hand-painted.

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Gabby adores her dog, Rocko. They have a special relationship that cannot be explained by the laws of science.

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A family trip to the beach.

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Here she is making a stop-motion movie. I have recently taken this up and become totally addicted. Movies to follow this post. In the meantime though, you can watch hers.

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The newest addition to the family, Gabby’s nephew Xavier. Half Vietnamese, half German, 100% superstar. He always has this expression on this face. I think he will be a writer or a film director. He loves pushing the buttons on cameras.

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Tom – the father of Millerama. Tom works as a lawyer saving ordinary people from corporate and bureaucratic evil. At present he is working on a project to help save a huge forest in Cambodia, the last of its kind. I cannot say enough good things about this man.

Tom is responsible for filling me in on much of the history of Millerama and on all of the projects he is involved in all over the world. He is full of stories. Take the story of piano tuner extraordinaire Ben Treuhaft, for example, who Tom has been defending for years. Ben runs a project called Send A Piana To Havana, which grew out of a trip Nhu led to Cuba when she introduced him to the head of the national music school in Cuba. Ben tuned the piano there and refused to be paid. But the director insisted that he be paid, so Ben reluctantly accepted a sum of $2 – which, as a good citizen, he duly reported to the U.S Treasury. This humble act of honesty resulted in a continuing battle where Ben is basically accused of “felony tuning”. The Treasury threatened to fine Ben $7,500 for “tuning with the enemy”. Therefore, today Ben ships donated pianos to Cuba (with a license from the Commerce Dept. giving him permission to donate them to Cuban schools and churches as long as they are not used “as instruments of torture”) while the Treasury refuses him permission to go to Cuba to make sure nobody is being tortured, and Ben goes anyway.

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One of the people that belong to Millerama, but absent this post is Leslie Balog. Leslie and her mother (who was living alone on top of a mountain, while Leslie was down in Cuba working for Radio Havana), purchased Tom’s mother’s house with him. When Leslie is not traveling back and forth from Cuba, she lives at Millerama in the small, slightly cramped space called the Kaczynski cabin, a reference to the Unabomber who once worked in the area. Leslie is also a lawyer from the Bay Area, long active in progressive politics.

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Tom tells me that when the Millers moved in there were graduate students living there. It was during this time that the Berkeley police discovered the city’s largest marijuana patch right there on the property. After the confiscation, “visiters would emerge from the ravine with plants that the Berkeley police failed to uproot.” They never uncovered the mushroom patch above the ceiling in the house.

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Gabby recently suffered an ankle injury and now goes to a Chinese massage therapist for regular acupressure treatments. They cook this combination of herbs on a pan all day and then wrap the wounded area in it after the treatment.

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It’s an interesting time for Gabbers. She is seeing more than one lady at a time. First time trying this out I think. The ladies are polar opposites as well, one rugged and buff, the other a bombshell – both total sweethearts. Gabby’s newest tattoo here: Xau Ho literally “ugly tiger” the expression in Vietnamese for “embarrassed” or “ashamed” – the ladies at the local grocery store told her it was a bad word though.

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This is Nhu – Gabby’s mom. As far as mom’s go, Nhu (pronounced “new”) is pretty phenomenal. I mean, I think my mom is pretty phenomenal, so it’s kind of hard to meet other moms that impress me. But Nhu takes the cake. She leads tours for Global Exchange in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Iran. Working with Afghan women and Bianca Jagger (Mic Jagger’s ex!), the Millers established Parwaz, the first Afghan-run microfinance organization, providing small loans to thousands of Afghans caught up in the conflict. Nhu and Tom are walking encyclopedias. You can start them on any subject and talk for hours, always with homemade food on the table, fresh figs, and intermittent sips of tea and rare imported beverages from Cuba.

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Natelie is Nhu’s oldest daughter, Gabby’s older sister. She is equally amazing in her own right, working on a micro-financing project in Vietnam.

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Gabby preparing an English tutoring lesson in the driveway.

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This American Wife

When I was younger, I used to occasionally go visit my big sister at college. I loved these trips as I’ve always relished hanging out with the big kids. On one visit I was just messing around, I made the mistake of playfully calling my older sister, “wifey”. This made her furious and she flung her keys at my head. And my sister isn’t the type. She would never lay a finger on me. Something about the idea of being cast in this passive role of the “wife” infuriated her though. The family learned to tip-toe around this issue, and the word “marriage” was an obscenity – referred to as “the M-word”.

Things have changed. Nicole is now married and the mother of two. She even changed her last name from Lafleur-Vetter to Karr. She delights in her children and approaches motherhood with such flair. She lives in a 19th-century church with huge stained glass windows that her husband, Adam, converted into a home. Meals are prepared from fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden. Diapers are made by hand from old clothes. Adam built a sauna next to their bedroom. He converted the one-room school house nextdoor into his woodshop where he makes luxury furniture for rich people in Manhattan and all over the Tri-State area.

I stayed at the “Nicole spa” for a week or so in July spending time with the growing family and trying to get my health back up to par. I came in a zombie and left a much more relaxed and healthy human being. Nicole is a crazy good mama. The task of motherhood seems very daunting to me, and the prospect of “wifehood” still as alien as organized religion, but I anticipate that this will be my world some day. They really have everything they need out there. Between the garden and the chickens and home-made beer, if there were ever an apocalypse, my sister’s family would be just fine.

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