Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Real Deal

It's all there. When a Wal*Mart worker gets trampled to death by an unruly mob at 6:00 a.m. on a day called Black Friday, even the clueless take pause. So many kinds of sadness. Horrible enough that he was only in his mid-thirties, a temp worker trying to survive in New York. Everyone has got something to say about this, from the cynics to the corporate defense lawyers. They will split hairs about who is at fault. They will gasp about how a few hundred people saw this blue collar lamb go down and kept on moving. Gives a new meaning to "shop till you drop." Over, under, around and through. No air. No life. They are no longer people. First they become their machines, fenders and bumpers, lifting the physically and/or mentally obese blithely into crosswalks, over curbs, fast lanes, much faster than the posted speed.
So who is out there, hanging around all night for the chance to by a flat screen TV or a DVD player. High Definition TV certainly warrants some sort of sacrifice, no?
Stampedes are by no means an American phenomena. I think of soccer games and religious celebrations. The individual evaporates into a collective personality. Group norms become a tsunami that blasts through glass doors, digesting human life, and destroying any trace of civility.
A religious experience? Absolutely. Ask what is being worshiped? The biggest, crystal-clear idol of them all.
Who is out there in that consumptive lava flow? Where does this desperation to define the self from possessions originate?
It is the perfect union of church and state. Wal*Mart is the non-denominational shrine of the consumer class. It's about the numbers, it's about price, it's about limited time, it's about me, it's about worship.
It's never about human life. Illusory values; stained glass; bloodstained glass.
But wait.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Spending this week by the Bay has been an eye-opener. It's always a bit strange to return to a place previously called home. Driving from here to there, noting the changes, what is still there, what is long gone. Three years down the road and some people still take their places on the street where I left them. But a new anonymity empowers. Enables me to move swiftly through layers, decades, identities, and touchstones.
Life is faster here. Nobody waits for anything. Public spaces are heavily taxed-by volume. The streets are filled with potholes; the same ones I knew; repaired, repaired again. And again. The graffiti remains unless it offends by volume.
The land is dry here. Many more browns, tans, wheatstraw yellows. The diversity remains impressive. I miss that the most. The needy take so many forms here and ambush with their emotions laid bare. The cutting edge cuts a little deeper today.
There are two places that have remained remarkably the same since I first saw the East Bay. One is a hamburger place, the other a liquor store. I see my green and white VW van in their parking lots. Even the signs, well-faded, are the same ones I saw 30 years ago.
Like all cities, Berkeley is hurting. Many small businesses, bookstores, restaurants are dead and dying. Many on the outside, moving to the outside, denying the outside, looking in. The University, sprawling and vast. magnificent and impenetrable, beckons, always. It becomes the inside of a vast hive, workers scurrying past the promise of honey.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dark Side of the Moon

Be careful out there. It's that time of year. I'm not much for astrology, but I hear the moon is in Scorpio. I've heard all the planets and stars have moved significantly since the astrological science was born, rendering it all meaningless. OK, I can live with that. All I know this is a funny time of year. Be careful out there.
This is the time for political assassinations, for false prophets to unravel. It's when the macabre and the grotesque ambush us. Be mindful out there. Consider each step, make friends with purpose, watch your back.
The economy isn't the stock market. Jobs evaporate daily. I hear the Salvation Army will have many new visitors this year; listen for that little bell, it's going to be important to tolerate the sound, your neighbors could be depending on you.
In our bittersweet bath of hope and fear, let's look alive. It's that time of year. John Kennedy, Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and Jonestown's winter Kool-Aid...all this time of year.
Lay low for a few days. Find a warm, dry spot. Read, write, look at people, really look at them, mind your head.
Watch a leaf fall, there are still a few left; feel the rain, talk to a child, retrace your steps.
Be careful out there; it's that time of year.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All I Have To Do

Dream research indicates that as we get older the quality and thematic content of our dreams changes. For all their interest in dreams, very few of my psychology students were fascinated enough by that revelation to incorporate it into their individual research projects. It seemed easy enough to do. A good way to interview people of all ages, but delving into how our dreams change as we age never got proper play. I'm going to do something about that right now.
Since my withdrawl from the daily grind, I have naturally been getting more sleep. That means more dreams. I've had the luxury, too, to think qualitatively about my dreams and if, in fact, I notice any changes. The answer is absolutely.
While they seem to come in bunches, as the three I had last night, there is one real difference I sense, and that involves the physical sensations. Where once much of the physical and erotic quality were focused on various body parts (yup, those parts) I find that now the visual focus is on texture, as in the feel of skin, the look, sensation, and scent of hair. The dance of hands and arms, vis a vis the pelvis or the tongue. I say focus, because that's what's noticeable.
It always amazes me when someone I haven't thought about in ages appears in a dream. It's as if the brain is reminding us that yes, all we really possess is our memories, but we do, we really do possess them. Like the brain is saying, "See, here is what I'm giving you tonight, a few minutes with someone who touched your life in some way; someone who maybe you don't want to forget. " Call this a fantasy or misfiring brain cells, it's still there, well-timed, and definitely satisfying.
Like most dreamwork, we do well to reflect and keep reflecting on the content of our dreams. They are always works in progress that add up to a greater whole. Dreams invite our projection, our questions, our revelations, our artistry. All that, and they are loaded with surprise.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008


And now for something completely different...

Heard the piece on NPR this morning with Jonatha Brooke, the recording artist given access to the Woody Guthrie archive. Working with bits and pieces, scraps, and fragments, she produced a new CD of mostly unknown and previously unrecorded material. It's called The Works, and it's hauntingly beautiful. You might know that Woody wrote on everything.. constantly... matchbooks and napkins, envelopes and paper towels, like the one shown here. It's gratifying to see these little splinters come out of hiding and reform themselves into powerful art. I suspect this will continue to happen long into the future.
Woody once wrote, "I'm gonna mail myself to you." He wasn't kidding.
Of course there is the danger of romanticizing Woody and all that he left behind. Many that knew him well will tell you the other side of the man. The one that was capable of hurting people, the slightly amoral, busted, disgusted, can't be trusted, little piece of hide that would come for a weekend and stayed 6 months, never met a woman he didn't like or wouldn't like to love, and could play all night for drinks and tips and give all his money to the first bindle stiff he met on the street.
Woody's impulsive side was not without its own logic. People never knew where his Huntington's Disease began and his personality left off. He needed to write his autobiography at age 29 because he's lived and traveled so hard, and he knew, on some level, that his time might be running short.
Here's the lyric to one of the new Guthrie songs that's undergone a musical birth. I've included some of Jonatha Brooke's comments about her discovery

My Battle

I found this lyric and my heart just leapt. You can see in the liner notes how labored the handwriting was. I think Woody was already in the hospital when he wrote it. But there was something so elemental, and at the same time universal, that I had to go deeper. Then in the archives one day, I was paging through one of his notebooks from years earlier, and there it was: "I never dread the day I will die, "cause my sunset is somebody's morning sky." Nora told me Woody would have loved it that someone was digging and merging and making new songs from his different writings. I was just thrilled that the jigsaw puzzle fell into place and this beautiful spiritual song really came to life.
Show me how, how to fight my battle in life
Show me how to fight
And I'll run away with you

Teach me how, how to fight my hard times in life
Teach me how to fight and
I'll run away with you

And I will never dread the day I will die
"Cause my sunset is somebody's morning sky

Show me how, how to face my troublesome fights
Show me how to face them
And I'll run away with you

Teach me how, how to win my union in life
Show me how to win
And I'll run away with you

And I will never dread the day I will die
"Cause my sunset is somebody's morning sky

Show me how, how to win for all of my people
Show me how to win
And I'll run away with you

Teach me how, how to love this battle of life
teach me how to love
And I'll run away with you

How to fight, how to win, how to love
Teach me how, show me how, teach me how
How to love
How to fight, how to win, how to love

Friday, November 14, 2008

President Davis

When Woody Guthrie was asked how he got his name he usually said, "I was born in 1912, the year Woodrow Wilson was nominated for president. My father was quite a figger is Okfuske County (Oklahoma) politics at that time, so he named me after the president, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, which is too much of a name for a country boy, so I sawed off all the fancy work and just left Woody. I could remember that."
I'm sure Woody wasn't the first and won't be the last to carry a president's name. I've heard of a few Lincoln Kennedys, many Andrew Jacksons, Andrew Johnsons, and a whole shitload of George Washingtons. But this week, in the wake of Barack Obama's election, I thought of one person who must be looking at all this from a most unique perspective. President Davis. No not Jefferson Davis, or anyone sharing that name, but a wonderful person I know named President Davis. That's right his first name is President.
I remember the day we met. He strolled into one of my English 3 Honors classes about six years ago and I was captivated by his smile. But it wasn't until I looked at my attendance sheet until I realized that his first name really was President. I had to ask.
Apologizing for immediately asking how he got that name (still, you don't often meet anyone named President) I soon learned the story.
"It's really very simple," he said. "My father wanted to make sure that I received respect all through my life, so he named me President, because presidents always get respect."
Yes they do. But just because a person has a name that connotes respect doesn't mean they will always get or deserve it. All you have to do is spend a few minutes talking to this President and any concern you might have will be allayed. A warm, empathetic, bright, dynamic person, President Davis did his father proud.
How must he be feeling these days? Wonder what he'll name his kids?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two Presidents

At 8:00 p.m. everything stopped.  One night a week, in prime time, they turned on the trusty black and white TV prepared to take in everybody's favorite show: Mod Squad.  
This was something new, something never seen before.  One of us, they thought; one of us in a starring role.  Clarence Williams III was one third of the trio young, hip cops who performed weekly morality plays about the dangers of life on the wrong side of the law.  Ex-offenders, these bold, new, narcs often protected their peers from the oppressors who would use them to fund their underworld enterprises.
This was it.  This was the first time the kids in Houston's 3rd Ward, where I was spending my summer, saw a black person on TV who wasn't a servant or a buffoon.  No butler, maid, cook, or janitor.  No Beulah, Kingfish, Willie, or Mammy.  No Yessuh, Nosuh, shuffling scamp.  
His name was Linc; short for Lincoln, Lincoln Hayes (two Presidents!) and he was cool.  In the words of Blackpoet Don L. Lee, "he was triple hip."  
The kids in Mrs. Miller's shotgun shack clustered around that little Admiral TV and saw a role model.  An authentic, 100% American, do-gooder, tough talking, straight shooting, seriously inspiring role model.  And he was cool.  He was super cool.  
     When Barack Obama, equally as cool, addressed the crowd in Grant Park on election night, I thought of those kids watching Linc.  I thought of Randolf, six years old at the time, 44 now.  Just about Obama's age.  I thought of how many people saw the new President-elect that night.  It's only been 40 years.  Half a lifetime, since those kids ran to see Linc; ran to see someone who looked like them, the one person, in all of the variety shows, used car commercials, sit-coms, and daytime dramas.  In all the ads for laundry detergent, old movies, westerns, and detective stories.  And his name was two presidents.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Take Your Place

The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with words of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war.

The vanquished know the essence of war – death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.
-Chris Hedges

On this Veterans Day, 2008, some wise words from Chris Hedges about seeing and words and death and morality and power and violence and human life and killing and deception and mythology and greed, and winners and losers and most of all about

I L L U S I O N.
I can say thank you to all living vets, I can say remember the dead. I will. I will say step back, think, think again, the great mandala approaches.

Friday, November 7, 2008

You Think You Are

If I am not who you think I am,
then you are not who you think you are
-James Baldwin

The euphoria is dying down. Reality takes a chunk in the form of a University of Texas second string lineman's Facebook page. So ignorant he summons a "huntin" party cause "there's a n#$%* er in the white house." The arrogance of ignorance I call it, yet it persists. BUT, ignorance is curable, people learn, they experience, they see, they sometimes think, and they often evolve. The audacity of hope?
As James Baldwin so beautifully cautioned, when you speak about me, you speak about yourself. Jung's shadow, the dark side, the less commendable part.
Baldwin was black; he was also gay. In this historical moment, in the euphoria over the realization of the greatest of civil rights we do well to note that the battle continues: California bans gay marriage. The irony, the fact that African-Americans supported the proposition overwhelmingly....ouch!
Who do you think I am?
Who do you think you are?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Back Pages

I love history...herstory...our story...I love it even more today. Grab the headline, while newspapers still exist, and stick it away. This one belongs with some of the others...some of the not so happy days.
Last night we went with a couple of friends to a funky bar in SE Portland, settled in with a few beers (Katie drank red wine, but wanted blue wine) and watched CNN with an appropriately diverse group of fellow Portlanders. None of the symbolism of the evening was lost, from the smoke-filled room to the rain outside. Every time a state or projected win came into the fold a cheer went up. Until the moment of victory. Then it was like New Year's Eve. It is the eve of a new era. From error to era!
All this will take a good while to sink in. Politics always has it's reality bite. What's possible? Who needs compensation? Who will best represent this complicated, convoluted, experiment we call a country?
I was fascinated by Michelle Obama's dress. Black and red. Do the math.
The impact of technology, the web, text messages, the role of young people in this campaign was unprecedented. But like many my age, what I'm thinking about the most today are some of the folks I've encountered along the way. The civil rights leaders who disappeared and then re-appeared as martyrs, Medgar Evers, Emmit Till, Rosa Parks, and Fanny Lou Hamer. I see the older woman who fell on the bus steps in Houston while the driver sat, and I ran forward when nobody else would move. I hear the voice of the man in the used appliance store in Texas reminding me what part of town I lived in. And the harsher voice of the baseball scout in Pennsylvania, whose racism was much more explicit than what I usually heard in the South. I see the the 16 year old I was, urging my mother and sister to come look at history as Martin Luther King's grainy image came on our old Packard Bell TV one hot August afternoon. Yessir! That's right! Call and response. I remember the outrage in discovering the real history of the poll tax, the grandfather clause, and the literacy test. (How many bubbles in a bar of soap?)
I know it is time to walk the walk. But for now there are some people and places to ponder. For now there are some back roads to take. For now there is history to recall.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sometimes Wind Stops

Two days before my 21st birthday I am hardly thinking about any kind of celebration. It is 6:30 am and I am driving in my '59 black VW bug through the wasteland of the East San Fernando Valley about to traverse Beverly Glen Canyon. I have an 8:00 class in the Social Science Bldg. at UCLA. I am on schedule, but driving like a zombie. My eyes are forward, the radio is on but I do not hear the Beatles recording of "A Day in the Life" that surrounds me.
It's foggy, both outside the car and inside my mind. I can't see the smoke that may be twisting up from South Central toward the Valley. I can't see going to any classes today. My fear supercedes my anger. In my mind, I keep seeing the one car careening around the UCLA campus the evening before. Holed up in a poetry seminar for the previous two hours, I learned of the death of Martin Luther King by watching this car's mad dashes stopping only for people of color. I wasn't able to put that together until I asked an African American student walking my way in the growing twilight what was going on.
Just before I cross Ventura Blvd. onto Valley Vista to make the climb to the top of the canyon, Peter, Paul, and Mary's version of "Blowin' in the Wind" comes on the radio. I am not prepared for what follows. Every fiber of my physical and mental being responds and I began to cry. Those tears enable me to survive the day.
That moment in time helped me make some formative decisions the next year and throughout the years to follow. Sometimes these moments form stone pieces of a wall that gets built over time. Carefully placed for size and balance the wall forms and takes shape. Another piece will soon join my wall. Sometimes, on rare occasions like today, I feel above this wall.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Take It Easy, But Take It

Studs Terkel died yesterday at the age of 96. Now there's a real American hero. Certainly was one of mine. Studs lived just about a century and from all indications, got the most from his time passing through. I've been tearing up my "cave" today looking for a letter I received from Studs around the time I was part of a show about the life of Woody Guthrie. My friend and fellow show member Ed Robbin had written a book about his own experiences with Woody and he went to Chicago to be on Studs' longtime radio show to promote the book. I asked Ed to give Studs my best and tell him how much my students and I appreciated his books and passion for oral history. Subsequently Studs and I exchanged letters and a few ideas. I loved that he took the time to write me a handwritten personal letter. He was that kind of guy.
My letter from Studs Terkel is somewhere in my files. Since my move to Portland, I haven't managed to get everything from former home and classroom up to present home. Missing too is my copy of Woody Sez, a wonderful book of Guthrie's old columns from People's World, a newspaper most popular in the 30s and 40s. Studs Terkel did the Introduction for that book and called Woody "a tough little piece of leather." Studs was that way too.
Studs Terkel's work will be enjoyed long after he washes from memory. Books like Hard Times, and Working, The Good War, and American Dreams: Lost and Found, give voice to the folks whose stories are the real stuff of history. Yes, Studs could talk too much, but he could get people who never spoke to do the same. Yes, he could listen actively, but it was his energy, the way his eyes came alive and his voice rose and fell, the way he'd say, "Oooh, tell me about that," that inspired, comforted, and elicited all the wonderful stories and memories his interviewees willingly gave.
He once likened the interview to panning for gold. Good thing he had lots of help to get all the nuggets. And he got them.
No mention of Studs Terkel can go without his sense of humor. I'll always hear his cackle. Especially when he confronted a Georgia librarian who actually thought his book was called "Working Studs by Terkel"
Someday, when I'm searching for something else, or maybe setting up a new office, I'll find the letter and even the book. Like Studs Terkel, I know they are always around me, somewhere.