Sunday, January 15, 2017

Greatest Show is Gone

We all knew it was coming.  Or rather it's not coming...any more.  After more than a century, the Ringling Brothers Circus will be no more.  Definitely a sign of the times and the evolution of social change and attitude change as well.  When the elephants went a few months ago, the entire "Greatest Show on Earth" was sure to follow.  It did.
This is not something to be mourned, but rather acknowledged.  Just think we don't have the dissonance any more about how wonderful the circus coming to town is for kids and how barbaric it has been for the animals under the big top.
As entertainment evolves, the circus had too much to compete with these days.  Although some of the smaller boutique circuses seem to do well and a number of performing horse shows seem to be free of any public outcry.

If anything is sad about the loss of a big circus, it might be the magic and the sheer delight reflected in the eyes of children watching three rings of spectacular entertainers, from cars full of clowns to trapeze artists, to performing horses, bears, elephants, camels, and, on occasion, birds and penguins.
Like the minstrel show and the "freak show" of yesteryear, the circus has run it's course.  To be sure, the time has come, but the tradeoff is still fascinating to look at, if not nostalgic.
All the major circuses used to have a "side show."  Like the stereotypic "freak show," the side show would feature all the acts or people who had to be seen up close for full effect.  Much like the pay to enter tents in county fairs, the side show was off to the side with a separate entrance fee.
When I was about 5 or 6 years old, an elderly couple whose kids were grown and lived across the street form my family took my sister and me to the circus.  Maybe they did that for us, or maybe for themselves. I'd seen pictures in the newspaper of the train pull into downtown Los Angeles, but never dreamed that I would be able to go.  While I recall the elephants and the clowns, the cotton candy and the peanuts, the side show left the biggest impression on my young mind.
Much like walking through carnival booths, I saw a true melange of human experience and existence.  There was a "Giant" who drank a six pack of 7-Up at one sitting, a bearded lady, and a woman in a short yellow dress with no arms or legs.  The Giant was about 8 feet tall, thin and probably suffered from some pituitary disorder. The bearded lady had hormone issues, and the limbless woman smiled, all the while as people gawked and occasionally asked questions.  In my young mind they were celebrities and proud to be on display.  At age 6 it seemed like a great day job to me.
 I saw a sword swallower, ( he swallowed fire too) and a man who, when he removed his bathrobe, had "alligator skin on his back."  Yup alligator skin...I saw it, or something like it.  I'm sure there is an explanation, but it was a greenish brown, and covered his back and shoulders.  He smiled all the while too. Thinking back now, no wonder this left such an impression on me.  All the people in the side show were happy, or so I thought.  They were gracious, informative, and seemed to enjoy their lives with the circus.  What did I know at that age.  That's the way  remember it...and that memory is clear. Before we went home, the couple who took us to the circus, Doris and Henry, said we could each have one souvenir.  My sister picked out a baton, as I recall.  It was red white and blue and all glittery.  She had to wait until we got home to show me her twirling skills.  I went for a plastic sword, so I could know what.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Nurturing our Nature

I wonder how long it will be before we see some toothsome legislation dealing with social media?  Given many of the events of the past week, it just might be forthcoming.  The violent nature of the human being seems to be shouting out for some kind of restraint.  In a world filled with bloody video games and all manner of violent sports and entertainment, who among us can say that there isn't something innate about our species that seems to constantly defy our better nature? Now we have the phenomena of people posting their insane and insane behavior for all to see.  A digital "showing off" that seems to graphically demonstrate how low we can go.
We "tsk tsk" a good deal, we like to say that we, ourselves, don't watch all that much garbage on TV, and we prefer to think that something must be lacking at home to produce a full blown psychopath.
These issues and questions have been debated for centuries.  Thomas Hobbes was sure he knew the answer.  In his classic work Leviathan, Hobbes argued for a social contract that would put strong restraints on the actions of the citizenry because that's what they needed to be civilized.  Many would agree.  I'm sire we can all think of examples of how quickly human behavior can deteriorate.  Especially in group dynamics.  And while it seems our current social contract does seem to be seriously lacking, we fortunately have seen the harm in advocating and fighting for a government that is too oppressive or lacks the understanding and compassion that our weak species so desperately needs.

When I first began teaching we used to teach the entire concept of governing and systems of government  by examining human nature first.  Most religions will tell you that human beings are by nature weak and needy.  We're too competitive for our own good and we are capable of atrocities that hardly fit the definition of human.  Yet, for every negative thought or action, there seems, also to be an equally opposite one. Even within our own experience. I think we drastically want to believe that our nature is positive and that we're more prone to goodness than evil.
Sometimes, with all the computer hacking and scamming going on, it seems as if we are all waiting to be victims.  That may be.  The explosion of technology and its impact on our rapidly changing culture certainly has given us a good opportunity to take a good look at ourselves. A golden opportunity to start from square one.   Do you think that for every hostile troll out there, for every cyber bully, you can also find a "Go Fund Me" endeavor or an inspirational thought or document or video or photograph?  Does it all equal out?
I'm wondering if our legislators have been working on laws that might discourage people from posting their pathologies...from denigrating others to make themselves feel better.  I'm fascinated by what the consequences for violating such statutes would be.  Here's where we really could get dystopic.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Begin Again

Now that we've turned the corner into another year, it's funny how so many folks are blaming 2016 for the current state of affairs.  They're really laying into the year as the culprit for all that has befallen this country and culture.  Of course it's a consequence of the election and perhaps the overall malaise that comes with the increase of violence both home and abroad.
It must be nice to have something as nebulous as a year to serve as an enormous hook on which to hang the ills of the world.  That somehow, now that it's 2017, things might get better.  Actually, there is something to that because it stems from the need to reset.
When we realize that this life we share is all about beginning again, it makes more sense.
Traditionally, we use January to re-boot our lives.  I'm not talking about the R word (resolution) but rather the shining symbol of change and a new start that January has become.
This year, in particular, we do well to remind ourselves that it is a healthy thing to reimagine ourselves as well as our lives.  Just as the rider who falls off a horse must get back up again as soon as possible, we all benefit from stepping on the image of failure or dismay and using it as a springboard to rise again.

That just might be the theme of 2017.  In the words of an old labor song, "every generation's got to win it all again," so too do we who feel trod upon by the current political reality.  We need to reinvent ourselves just a bit and re-imagine and re-define what we are willing to fight for.
Sometimes this starting over is a true test of patience.  That's as it should be.  While there is no guarantee that our waiting will yield more favorable results, there are many examples that it does.  I recall one in particular that I try to use for a helpful metaphor.  It's a fly fishing experience.  They often yield eloquent results.
I was fishing a small stream and came upon an interesting spot.  A large rock wall on the opposite bank provided a deep soft current and I was trying to drift a dry fly just the right distance from the wall.  To do that I needed to cast up and over a low hanging tree branch.  Of course, I tangled up a cast in that branch.  Badly.  Really badly.  The proverbial bird's next.  Part of me wanted to cut the entire thing off and re-string and begin again as soon as possible.  I didn't.  I decided to slowly and deliberately unsnarl the mess.  As I labored, I thought of how wonderful it would be to just be able to begin again.  I had managed to save the fly, which proved to be just the ticket for this time/place.  What resulted was the result I wanted, a beautiful rainbow trout who took the fly just after it soared over the pesky tree limb.  Releasing him back to the shady depths and exiting that stream, leaving it just as I found it, but with a story to tell was my gift.
In truth, we are all faced with the challenge to begin again all the time.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Best for Humanity

Back in the 16 year old days of my life I went for a walk on Christmas eve.  It was an uncommonly cold winter for Southern California, and while there was no hope of snow, there was thick fog and the breath we blew turning to mist and leading the way.  In my new found freedom as a 16-year-old, I went on a little excursion around my neighborhood.  Announcing that I'd be back in a few minutes, I walked the length of my street noticing the frosty windows, the lit Christmas trees or an occasional blue and white Hanukkah arrangement. It was a transcendent moment. I realized too, that every house on my block, both sides, was lit up.  There was no agreement among neighbors to do anything, it just turned out that everyone was on board that year. As I turned to walk back up the street, I stopped and made a vow.  Squinting my eyes to make the colors melt and sear them into my memory, I vowed to remember that moment always. I can still see the golden reds and bluish purples against a blue-black moonless sky. That moment was pure joy.
Maybe it's the fog we've had here in Portland recently, or perhaps the icy malaise that's befallen our country lately, but I was poignantly reminded of that Christmas eve today.

It was a moment in time when the world seemed to be in sync...seemed to be at real peace with itself. Of course that was an illusion.  That was the year President Kennedy was killed and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing.  It was a time when I was realizing the true nature of the mythology that enveloped the version of my country that I had swallowed. Definitely a transformative time in my young life. A time of thinking deeper and experiencing the daylight of realization.
Thinking back now, that moment I wished to freeze may have been nothing more than a brief respite from the world that was emerging and beginning to brandish it's uglier self for all to see. Even though TV was still mostly black and white, it was the vehicle that transmitted and transported social change.
This year feels hauntingly similar. Many of the gains of the early 1960s are unraveling before our eyes and ears. I still can't get my head around the fact that the Voting Rights Act has been a target.  No walks to lock in the Christmas lights this year. Just a warm beverage, a silent prayer, and a commitment to find and foster what is best for humanity and the humanity in my soul.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Some For Later

I've been reading Patti Smith's autobiography entitled Just Kids.  This is not going to be a review of said book or even a critical account in any way.  Rather, it will be what resonates for me because give or take a few months, Smith and I are nearly the same age and definitely from the same generation.
Yes, Patti is an unabashed name dropper, but when you spent a good chunk of your life running around with the likes of  artist Robert Mapplethorpe and poet Gregory Corso, that's t be expected.   Sharing Andy Warhol's table or a chance meeting with Allen Ginsberg can create such opportunities. I'm fine with that.

What resonates most for me is the honesty and self assessment that Smith consistently employs in her narration.  That is, she shares her misgivings about drug use, queer identity and some of the biggest rock stars of the era, like Jim Morrison.  In some ways I hear a voice chiming:"You had to be there." There was a time, you see, when our culture had rigid rubrics for anyone out of the ordinary.  What might seem too inflexible now, was out of the question back then.  People my age can easily calculate the speed of social change by looking at various things like the amount of skin visible in photographs, the language usage in films and now even on TV programs, and the semi-legalization of marijuana in our own neighborhoods.
I like the work ethic that Patti and Robert exhibit in the narrative.  They are committed to their work while questioning the place and purpose of a life in Art constantly.  To be an artist is, for many, to be a constant self-promoter.  There is no fairness or equality involved.  Much is chance and blind luck.  We all know the stories of famous writers whose rooms were plastered with rejection notices and most tragically, those whose fame came long after their demise, either physically or mentally, or both.
Like many young people I worked with for so many years, Patti Smith is and always was, a close observer of her environment.  You can't teach that.  She is and was forever making small altars and performing minor rituals.  I like that.
There are a couple of particularly haunting scenes in the book where Patti and Robert have only enough money for one hot dog or one bowl of soup.  Lest one think that I'm going to extol the virtues of poverty, (nothing virtuous there) I will say that these experiences stay with a person long afterward and can be a powerful shaper of personality.  I'm reminded of the great writer Richard Wright, who even when he would go to literary functions to honor him would secretly slip a few dinner rolls into his jacket pockets.  It never leaves.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Silent Day

People in this town are still friendlier than most places.  They acknowledge your presence, they smile occasionally, they even speak.  Once in a while there is a dismissive look, but usually from someone who associates me with a parent or authority figure, or a walking stereotype.
Yet, the general malaise persists.  This post-election new normal is slithering down our throats like cod liver oil or that cough medicine we never could stomach.  But we continue on.  In some ways it's that quiet shock that accompanies us daily.
Other signs are present.  A bookstore displays Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, and suggests the parallels are uncanny.  I open a copy and read at random.  Could be.  Could be it is happening here.  But, I question myself, maybe it's been happening since the 1903s when that novel was written.  Fascism oozes slowly, sometimes over decades.
This year the holiday spirit seems caught in a snare.  The snow helps the visual landscape, the warm beverages build an alliance, some of the music completes the ensemble, but it's still too quiet.
I decide to turn gifts into donations where possible.

The electronic mailbox bulges:
Petitions to sign about the Electoral College, Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, and the U N Foundation for International Health and Rainforest Alliance.
Old favorites like Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and National Association for Mental Illness.  Don't forget the Alzheimer's Association, Cancer Society, and Heart Association.
Especially important this year is the Dakota Access Pipeline (winter has come to those camped permanently to save our mother) More petitions that would like modest donations:  Fracking, Resist the Muslim Registry, Rainforest Alliance, Voting Rights (Didn't we settle that one 40 years ago?) Pleas to save elephants, sea turtles, Yellowstone bison,wolves, orcas, giraffes, and the World Wildlife Fund.
I have local issues to consider as well: Homelessness, Food Bank, and After the Finish Line (retired race horses) There are my neighbors on the street who shake my compassion because even those with bigger issues can look hungry.
It's uncommonly quiet, but I have things to talk about.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Poem for a Middle School Memory

               Junior High

Seventh grade fears are
                                carved in soap,

Gymnastics with an Olympic medalist,
                                the idiot who pees on your books in the

                                   lavatory where no body laves,

Each day after shifting gears by the volleyball nets,

        dodging balls and anti Semitic jokes and jive (they used to throw pennies at us)

I come home to Ray Charles who never disappoints.

I play the album repeatedly,  a candle in the dark valley.

                       "What'd I say,"

                                               is my favorite.