Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Having Been


Having been a seeker,
I danced with watercolors,
I traveled among leather-clad musicians,
who always fed me well.

Having been a thinker,
I slept upon waterfalls beneath
iron mountains, jumping below on occasion to
drink poetry in blue-black corners,

As  a politico,
I made choices from the heart,
stopping every few decades to pick
up the box of assumptions left hanging
in a distant wind.

As a laborer, I worked every hour
for the price of admission to the tent show
called "the system,"
I sat through each performance refusing to
show my appreciation for being allowed
to survive.

When I had been aged enough,
I came to believe in afterthought,
Early mornings are best to recover
all that has been lost.



Monday, November 20, 2017

Come On

When I tell people where I live, they always have a comment on my neighborhood.  "St. Johns," they say, "It's an up and coming area."  My response, though not shared vocally, is I wish it would already get there.  It's been "up and coming" ever since I moved to Portland over a decade ago.  So why does this label stick?  Probably because, like so many other places, the time for gentrification has arrived.  But up here, in this far NW corner of the city, where the Willamette River meets the Columbia, change is coming slowly.  Maybe that's the best way.  I'm coming to believe that it gives us time to savor the old before everything gets replaced by the new.
Here's the kind of thing I'm talking about.  I know an old guy named Charlie who used to work on the railroad.  Charlie knows the Pacific Northwest as well as anyone and used to frequent a mercantile business in St. John's to buy his overalls and hats.  Jowers was run by an elderly Chinese man who Charlie liked to visit with and swap stories.  Today the "Jowers Building" has been refurbished and is now a Beer pub.  In fact, we have about 5 of them in our little neck of the woods.  Afterall, it is Portland.

Live/work spaces are all the rage and my neighborhood is getting a fairly diverse group of them.  Whether it be the apartments over retail spaces or artist's studios or even condos, we have them all in place and soon to be in place.
My city (Portland) is growing by about 50,000 people a year.  With that comes traffic and a dearth of parking spots and an entirely different vibe.  That's why it is important right now to take note of what is and let it register before the what it has become sets in.  So take a little walk with me and let's see what it looks like today.
On the main drag, sit a quartet of small dive bars.  Only one is iconic enough to attract everybody of barflies to hipsters, Boomers to Millenials.  And, the food is good.  That place is Slims.  Live music every week and a very welcoming atmosphere help the aesthetic.  The other places have names, regulars, and reputations, but nothing compares to Slims.
Then we have boutiques.  About 4 in all.  Each with different taste and merchandise makes St.Johns the place to go should you need to buy a gift for someone you care about or need to kill some time.
My favorite is a place called Therapy.  Here you can find everything for your home, your oldest friend or yourself.
We have restaurants too.  A Vegan BBQ, a vegetarian Indian restaurant, some Tap Rooms with adequate pizza and a wonderful Italian Restaurant with the best-handcrafted pasta around.  Two movie theaters, a Mexican market-restaurant, and of course a handful of coffee places.  The other occupants of the "downtown" section include a fencing studio (that's right, swords) a couple of optometrists, two-day-care centers, one for dogs one for babies, and what is trying to be a wine bar.  Off to the side are a new bagel shop, a barber shop,* and a high-end shoe store.
*note* Not your father's barbershop.  That one died with its owner a few months ago.  Wayne was stationed by his window chair for decades.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Come Forth

In this year of all maladies, a new malaise has descended upon the U. S. of A.  From here on, let this also be known as the year that sexual harassment allegations became daily and commonplace. Every day this week provided a new assertion.  There is a major dose of "the time has come" going around, and the truth is that only those inside particularly thick bubbles doubt the accusers.

We need to remember that there are always reasons a woman (or man) will sometimes wait decades before voicing their experiences and allegations.  Just put yourself in that place and if any doubts remain, seriously check yourself.
Ironies abound.  The current occupant of the White House seems to slide off this stage even when the evidence is clear.  Many of the accused are the purveyors of supremely Christian family values.  I pause here to remind the reader that there really is no such thing as family values; family, itself is a value.  What is likely to happen within the remaining months of this year from Hell is that a good dose of voters will mark the box "I just don't care."  Some may elect to vote: "My political party comes before my sense of morality."
I am, of course, referring to the case of Alabama Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore.  While he continues to play the persecution card demonizing the journalism of the Washington Post, others in his neck of the woods are recalling that as a man in his 30s he seemed to prefer to date teen-aged girls.  When you are a local Judge, that keeps people from following up on the stench that accompanies a person.
Of course, we must remember that to expect some strong sense of morality or even social decency from an Alabama politician is not all that foreign.  I realize, of course, that I am stereotyping the residents of Alabama and heavily weighing the tropes of racism and inequality that hang heavy over the entire region.  Nevertheless, truth be told, this is territory where a local politico could keep his true intentions and actions well hidden for decades.  That appears to be the case.
Yet, the pendulum of social justice continues to swing, even in this dark, dark time.  The ghosts of those wronged and those committing the wrongs thrive in all corners of this land.  They sometimes take their time emerging but they do come forth.  often at precisely the right time.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Seemingly Simple

We hear the phrase all the time: It was a simpler time.  Things were very different back then.  Back then can refer to anything from 20 to 100 years ago these days.  But, for the most part, we do live in a different world than mere decades ago.  One easy way to compute and visualize the differences is to simply turn on the TV.  As a culture, we seem to be fond of looking at family sit-coms from the 50s and 60s as a way to gauge social change.  The black and white images of squeaky clean 50s families with perfectly coifed mothers and business-suited fathers seem ridiculous by today's family units.  Take the color out of TV and we find a land where nobody is gay, neighborhoods are lily-white, and the language...oh the language is ever so proper.  These Pleasantvilles weren't always so peaceful and perfect.  But the arch of early TV sitcoms is both predictable and benign compared to today's fare.  Sometimes, while watching TV these days, I imagine myself a 10-year-old again watching television with my 11-year-old sister and my parents.  I replace the 1957 show with one from today and wonder what my family's reaction would be to the plot line, the language, or the characters of the show.  In moments like these, it's fairly easy to see how far we've come.

I guess this is one of the luxuries of growing older.  We have the benefit of historical perspective that younger audiences do not.  In fact, it recently came to my attention that many Millenials do not recognize the photos of some of the most well-known figures of the past.  A friend of mine who teaches Freshman composition recently reported that the all but two students in one of her classes could not identify a picture of Malcolm X.  Now, I don't know what to attribute this to because, in California, where I spent the majority of my teaching career, most kids had read Malcolm's autobiography or at least seen the Spike Lee film based on it.
If we take the term "simpler time" it could be argued that today is literally a simpler time because the vast majority of folks in this culture do not read books anymore and depend on questionable sources for everything from their daily news to the weather and staying "on trend."  That they are more gullible and less well-informed seems obvious.  One has only to look at the mob behavior at Black Friday shopping events to see this in all its consumeristic glory.
I recently saw the new George Clooney directed film Sururbicon.  Despite its awful reviews, I wanted to see how the dark underbelly of this "simpler time" was translated to the screen.  After all, it had a script that the Cohen brothers originally wrote and seemed ambitious in its intention.  True, the film tries to do too much, but symbolically it cuts through the aura of cleanliness that inflates the era and depicts much of the ugliness that accompanied the racial hatred and duplicity of the time.
I'll bet some of the cocktail party chatter of the early 60s included a longing for the simpler times of the 20s.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Hang On

I

I was all set to sit down and write about what an awful year this has been when I encountered quite a pair in this coffeehouse.  They aren't really an odd couple but he is quite a bit younger than she.  I'd say about 50 years.
A grandmother and grandson...most likely.  But just his reactions to her voice changed my mood.  He has dark blonde curly hair but is obviously of mixed racial parents.  She could be most anyone's grandma, but an older middle-class white woman will suffice.  They upset my apple cart of gloom and doom.  Lots of babbling, smiles and that kind of innocent curiosity that can hold anyone's attention.  I admired how she kept talking to him all through their time together.  In the end, I got a modest good-bye wave and a last glimpse of that smile.  Mood elevating to be sure.
How easy it is to stop thinking about a President that lies more often than not and the recent wild firestorms that have decimated much of the Northwest I love when you have this little breath of fresh air nearby.
In my refrigerator is a small bottle of champagne that was left over from my birthday.  I'm hoping to down it on New Year's Eve to mark the end of a most pitiful year where the perfect storm of natural disasters aligned with a flawed election, numerous hacking scandals that created havoc for online consumers, my beloved baseball Giants in last place 39 games behind, and the untimely death of half a dozen people I know.  This year was the worst and can't end soon enough.
But, lest I wallow in grief, there are some highlights to acknowledge.  I've made it through ...so far. I managed to go fly fishing half a dozen times.  I read some insightful and entertaining books.  I taught a class for the first time in a decade, and have had contact with a handful of former students who honor me deeply by taking time to say hello when they travel through Portland.



II

I'm reminded that today is the 28th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the Bay Area in 1989.  Being in the big middle of it all, the memories are fresh and fuel the desire to keep an earthquake kit updated at all times.  So today, on this mild rainy day Portland afternoon, I'll relive a few of those tense minutes from what easily seems like only a few years back.
In this culture of plenty seeing a major grocery chain with no water or batteries is alarming and not easily forgotten.  That evening of October 17, 1989, was the closest I ever came to experiencing a natural disaster.  It began by relaxing.  At 5:00 pm I finally sat down to watch the World Series after a long school day.  I'd taught 5 classes and made the drive back home from El Cerrito to Oakland and was looking forward to watching the Giants battle the Oakland As.  At 5:04 pm  I heard a rumbling sound which I presumed came from the apartment above me in the 4-plex I shared. My neighbor at the time was a drummer in a band and sometimes practiced at home.  The sound I heard seemed familiar.  Then a jolt and a Paul Klee print hanging over my fireplace slid off the wall, it's corner catching the top of an antique kerosene lamp nearby.  The painting and the lamp crashed to the floor with a burst of glass.  That's when I first thought earthquake.  The TV went out and a sinking feeling that baseball was over for the evening overtook my thoughts.  Before I could frown the second and largest jolt shook the building.  It reminded me of the thunder claps I'd heard in Texas and Louisiana. That's when I scampered for the door frame.
The earth stopped moving within seconds and finding myself in the front door frame I opened my door to the sounds and sights and yes, smells of this 7.1 quake.  There was a funny brown dusty smoke in the air.  I'd later find out it was coming from the fallen Cyprus structure that was part of the old highway 880 overpass system.
My phone service allowed a couple of calls before going dead.  Fortunately, at that time, I had a girlfriend in a nearby town who still had power.  We reunited and walked around her neighborhood that eerie evening.  My school remained open the next day but it was one of the few that did.  I recall no less than 3 aftershocks that rattled the old glass windows of my classroom.  The underpinnings of PTSD, they produced fearful reactions for many of my students on a continuing basis.  It took a few weeks before we were all confident that another big quake wasn't far behind.
There were fires and unfortunate souls who perished in the overpass collapse.  The Bay Bridge cracked open and was down for what seemed like months.  The freeway system was subsequently reconfigured in key areas that altered traffic patterns ever since.

Sitting here on this drizzly Portland afternoon I'm quite aware of the San Juan de Fuca plate that is predicted to deliver a mammoth Pacific Northwest earthquake sometime in the next 50 years.  I hear it could be as large as 9 on the Richter scale.



Sunday, October 15, 2017

Walk a Few Miles

That this country, the USA, is deeply divided is not news.  We've been that way since the inception.  In fact, it's in our DNA and we value that diversity of viewpoints.  What is new, however, is that the divides seem deeper than ever before.
Countless stories surface of people not being able to talk to one another.  If the sight and sound of political commentators and policy wonks talking over one another, no, shouting over one another is any indication, we are in new territory.  So how can anything move forward in an environment of so much verbal toxicity?
Empathy is the only answer, in my view.  Say it again, empathy.  People need to walk a few miles in the other guy's moccasins, as native Americans would say.
There are many ways to walk those miles, too.  That was the theory when I went through my training as a VISTA Volunteer.  For two weeks, we altruistic, recent college grads lived in the homes with families that had very little.  Poor folks.  People who lived in "shotgun shacks" or on the other side of very dicey railroad tracks.  Yes, it was awkward, at times, but it was also eye-opening.  Not coming from wealth, for me there were no great surprises, but living in a household where 4 children shared one bed and slept horizontally so everybody could fit on the mattress, is not easily forgotten.  Neither are the meals made by a single parent from surplus commodities like government cheese and oversize cans of green beans and peanut butter. When we share an experience or better yet have the same experience on an emotional level, we won't soon forget.

The best definition of empathy I've ever seen says it is the ability to feel the whip on the other person's back.  Easily understood.
So along comes comedian Sarah Silverman with a new TV show based on this very premise.  In episode one she goes to New Orleans to spend time with a family of Trump voters who have never known a Jewish person.  Silverman jokes, to be sure, but she also deals with strong emotions that surface during her attempts at political discussions.  This family is unfortunately badly misinformed about everything from Barak Obama's country of birth to how they feel about gay folks raising children, but Silverman's warmth comes through and before she leaves we are hearing fewer jokes and seeing genuine hugs.  Even from the youngest member present, 10-year-old Blaze who first responded to Silverman's question, "Have you ever knows a Jew," with "What's that?"
Put simply, we need to live in a world where we share a common experience in order to bridge this awful divide.  Social engineering has resulted in s few misguided attempts.  Just the sound of that term infuriates some folks, but when we continue to live in a bubble made of the same food, the same music, the same colors, the same ideas, and the same people, we hardly challenge ourselves.  Some really bad Hollywood have exploited the "fish out of water" theme in vain attempts to build empathy. The man who wakes up a woman,  the woman who suddenly is 10 feet tall, the old switcheroo involving age, or ethnicity, or gender, or class (wealth) can only go so far and last so long before it's stale,but at least it is something.  What needs to happen now of for more opportunities to stand in someone elses shoes and begin to negotiate their life for a few days.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Mother May I

Aside from the plethora of tragedies that converged this past week on this culture, a couple of homegrown phenomena crossed paths in front of me.  While the Mayor of Portland was telling the media that he's aware that the new name for his city has become "Tent City," I finished the novel Mary Coin by Marisa Silver.
Portland has a serious homeless problem.  Parts of the city resemble the "Hoovervilles" of the 1930s. Tests and makeshift lean-tos pockmark the bridges, underpasses, and trails surrounding the many beautiful parks.  It's the underbelly of the American Dream and it won't go away.  Now, the problem has morphed with the addition of broken down RVs that are often towed to a city lot for destruction.  It's not uncommon to find a person's belongings inside these decrepit vehicles.
But then, living on the side, or by the side, or underneath or on the margins is nothing new.  In fact, one of the most iconic photographs of all time, Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" takes this lowest rung of human existence and converts it to fine art.

This photo, which brings from 40 to 400,000 dollars for an original print is now the subject of a remarkable novel by Marisa Silver.  In her work, Silver creates an alternate universe that brings together the lives of the subject and the photographer.  The cliche says it's worth a thousand words, but Silver has made an entire novel, and one worth reading at that.
She takes some of the facts and then skillfully carves out a story of the woman by the side of the road and who she is and what has brought her to this moment in time.  Combined with a couple of other characters, we see how the photographer, Vera, based on Lange, has issues and challenges in her life that are remarkably similar to Mary Coin, the fictional name for the mother in the photo.
Real life tells us that in the 1970s when the woman, Florence Thompson was re-discovered, she took exception to some of the facts and disputed Lange's telling of the tale.  But no matter, the picture is frozen in time and its impact cannot be undone.
People often ask what made Lange such a skilled photographer?  Much of her skill was enhanced by her own vulnerability.    Lange walked like the polio survivor she was.  Keenly aware of angles and distance.  The fact that she moved with a hitch in her walk that seemed to serve as a comforting attribute.  A photographer must maneuver into position to get the shot and Lange was easily able to do just that.
Probably, somewhere in Portland today, and perhaps in your town as well, is a photograph waiting to be taken because it represents all the anguish and uncertainty of our own times.  I doubt it could ever achieve the status of "Migrant Mother" because our visual literacy seems to be changing as well as our ability to empathize.