Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Attached to Nothing

Funny how on the bicentennial marking the abolition of slavery all we have in the political headlines is the mini whirlwind created by the Republican party yuking it up over a new rendition of "Barack the Magic Negro." This says it all. Not only does a sizable chunk of our populace not see the problem with a little satire to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," they apparently don't see the need to deal with the history of the slave trade. So much is intertwined here it's difficult to know just exactly where to unbraid this knot.
Let me begin with the word Negro. As Malcolm X used to say, "It attaches us to nothing. There is no Negroland." Like the racial and ethnic stereotypes needed to justify holding humans in bondage, the "magic Negro" takes its place alongside Uncle Tom, Old Mose, Aunt Jemima and every other mammy, sambo, picaninny, and coon who danced, grinned and yessuh bossed their way through the last 300 years.
But this magic Negro is a bit more complex. He represents what Toni Morrison calls "the Africanist presence" in our film and literature. I'd add our popular culture as well. We see these shadow figures waiting in the wings in novels like The Great Gatsby and TV shows like Designing Women. Jack Benny had Rochester and Shirley Temple had Bill Robinson. It's safe. As George H W Bush (the elder) would say, "SAFE, SAFE, at this juncture."
No sexuality in those ol' Aunts and Uncles, mammys and buffoons. Happy, always happy, just the way we like them; just the way we need them to be.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, one of my favorite versions of the Africanist presence was in the old Our Gang Comedies. Usually Buckwheat, Farina, or Stymie, these Black Little Rascals all showed up, seldom together, but definitely with equal status. Sure some of the story lines and caricatures were racist, but those actors could do very little about that. As Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award said, "The way I see it, I got two choices, I can work in Hollywood as a maid for $5.00 a week, or I can work in Hollywood, in the movies as a maid for $500. a week."
Hard to argue with that. It's such a difficult thing to assess whether you'd work under those circumstances or not. But then our history shows those pioneering performers also had careers within their own communities. They didn't always have to play those demeaning roles. Even more fascinating is how even under those racist circumstances, the talent of those artists was evident. As the old Maria Muldar song says, "You couldn't call it soul, you had to call it heart." Maybe heart and soul.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Seems Like Years

It's all melting now. But then the end of the year is a perfect time for a meltdown. Why not? Everything else but the snow has melted this year. Let's see, the economy for one. It looks from here that a lot of folks have taken stock this year. More and more get that life is better lived without all that attention to possessions. That the superficial only goes so far. I know it's virtually un-American, but I'm secretly glad that holiday sales are way off. I'm happy that all the dreck that passes for decorations is selling for 90% off. That means that the profit margin on those poorly crafted lights and glitterly gobs of garbage is only 5% instead of 85%.
As we brace for the popular new administration, some of the frozen attitudes of the previous century are thawing out as well. But only some. Fascinating how the tired old stereotypes find enough hot air to raise their sickly heads from time to time. Given the anonymity of the internet, the sad, old, cancerous chestnuts will no doubt be around for another generation. But just one more.
Many in my generation are still waiting for the anvil to fall. Can't help themselves, I guess. But I don't think so. Aside from the neo-sociopaths, who are always dangerous, to anyone, this country is at such an all-time low that all points on the spectrum are probably glad to be on the outside looking in. So much safer there.
So I watch the big chill turn into an urban daiquiri. It's getting warmer up in here. Almost a decade into the new millennium now and already a taste of things to come. It tastes like new sources for information, new schools and new attitudes. It 's trying to figure out what to keep and what to discard.
My generation has an important new role to play. As fresh as the snow melt, we need to take the position of wisdom and be there for those who will follow. Our vision from the days of marches and demonstrations; from depths of our cynicism to the mountaintops of insight must be eased gently into the vision of those who will lead now. We must be pillars of hope, we must function as ethical braces for a new foundation. We need only trust our judgment, speak our truths. Here comes the sun.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Winter Wonders

We've had snow here in Portland for the better part of two weeks. It's a record breaking event and the local media have made the most of it. "Arctic Blast" scream the eyewitness headlines. Apparently these local reporters and anchors think we need them to tell us it's snowing and that snow melts into slush and that we should be careful traveling about. I could see five minutes or even ten at most every hour to supplement the scrolling of traffic information, school closures and the like at the bottom of the screen.
But what is this need to make a few snow storms into a major media event?
I've noticed a few other things that stood out when the white replaced the earth tones, pavement, and concrete normally forming the backdrop of the city. Each neighborhood retains it's own version of snow covered streets. In my NE section, the side streets remain icy and crunchy alternately. People walk on small paths or trails that have appeared in front of houses or near sidewalks. I've seen lots of folks on cross country skis or snow shoes. A family went on an outing to the grocery store pulling their two kids on a sled while they skied in front and behind.
Taking buses around had been revealing. People in this town are overwhelmingly friendly. Bus drivers, some working 18-20 hours a stint, keep their cool, assist, disseminate information and get you from here to there when they can. In the dicey areas, especially downtown near skid row areas, the sidewalk paths are dotted with yellowy brown pock marks: nicotine leeches out from the butts below. And the people...the people dress for the snow with all the grace or lack thereof, as always. Aside from those trying to maneuver in tennis shoes or sweat suits, I saw a person yesterday who looked more like the San Diego Chicken in pajamas than someone out for a winter's walk. I, myself, have adopted the unibomber look, (see photo) as this allows my ears to be covered as well as keeping my favorite hat of the day dry. My photo-gray lenses have been going nuts with all the white flashing back.
Katie has adopted the burka look, (see photo) this also prevents the spread of germs. I've seen some spectacularly looking women dressed for the sub-freezing weather too. Right off the catwalk. All color-coordinated. sexy, and aloof, they glide through these days with the ease of a swan. Finally there are those poor schlumps who, try as they might, always manage to have a snot icicle hanging from their noses. Today the snow turned to freezing rain and it appears to be morphing into regular old Portland rain right now. That means the big meltdown is about to begin. In a couple of hours it'll be dark and then ice will form. Wonder what will be an appropriate look for tomorrow? Oh yeah, it's Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Burning Sensation

When will folks stop fixing what isn't broken? I heard today that a new version of the Yule Log exists. Some young executive thinks if it looks more like a cartoon of a gas log and is accompanied with soundtracks of old radio shows it'll be better. Different isn't always better.
There is something so pure about 5 hours of watching the log burn. Like many, my friends and I would savor the moment a poker held by a mysterious hand would invade the serenity of the scene and turn the log! The other mystery is why the simple vision of a fireplace with a log burning became so popular. Probably a reaction to all the consumption oriented messages that have become the holidays. I actually like the idea of listening to old radio shows--The Christmas version of the Jack Benny Program, Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos and Andy. Item: Amos and Andy was so popular in its heyday, that Macy's had to pipe it in during peak Christmas shopping hours to get people out of their homes and into the store. Pre TV America has some fascinating stories to tell.
I'm not going to get into a young people just don't get it if they mess with the Yule Log thing. But that's the truth. Anyone at any age can see that changing the vision and expectations of that perfect fireplace scene is not a good idea. Trouble is, that young executive can and probably will make the switch. Of course then we'll have competing logs burning with various styles of music or soundtrack, flame and log color, real fire v. gas jets...the American way.
From Kindling to Kindle
While I'm at it, a quick word about another misguided attempt to make things better: the Kindle. Oh I know that one day people won't remember what real books looked like. Fortunately not in my lifetime. What fascinates me is why someone would want to read books digitally? Don't they see what's lost and gained? Apparently not. Online reading gets to me rather quickly. Blog postings should be no more than 1500 words. That's what makes them useful and succinct. Books, however, should be a s long as they need to be. They are wonderfully adaptive and diverse. They can have colorful covers, seductive textures, and evidence of human hands all over them. I have a friend who insists on spending the night with her favorite books nearby. When she finishes something new that she has thoroughly enjoyed, it stays in the room with her like a lover for a few days. In my view, put the Kindle in with the artificial yule log and click both off.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Carry a Tune

I wonder if I'm particularly vulnerable to getting music stuck in my head. We all know what that's like, but I'd swear it happens to me more often than not. Sometimes I can wake up in the morning and hear the last song on play list of the previous day. Almost like 8 hours of sleep and dreams had never happened.
On days like today when I help baby sit for a few hours, I'm stuffed with all sorts of wonderful tunes. "Hello everybody, it's so nice to see you...Hello John it's so nice to see you...Hello Mary, it's so nice to see you...Hello Uncle Jerry, it's so nice to see you. I don't have an Uncle Jerry, never have had an Uncle Jerry, and don't intend to at this point, but I damn sure have him in my head.
Now this being the Holiday season, we are all very susceptible to having chestnuts roasting in our heads for the next few weeks. Things could always be worse, but here are a few ideas to try before you go for the pain relief, illegal substances or, God forbid, sing that toxic song out loud in public places.
First thing that helps is simply replace the unwanted cranial resident with something more appropriate, more soothing, more your style. Either ear phones or a good car radio/CD player will do the trick. If the intruder is still in residence, up the ante and get on the phone. Call everyone you know, if you have to. Anything that involves talking that you've been putting off, get to it. It's possible that some unexpected piece of knowledge, some unwanted request, or some lovely compliment will take over your thought processes and you're off the hook.
If either of those don't work, there is a way that's guaranteed. I'm not sure why, though I have an idea or two, but I do know it works. Here it is: simply sing or hum aloud or in your head The Girl from Ipanema. You know...Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking, and when she passes, each guy she passes go ahhh.
There is another use for this tune I should mention. In my days on the backstretch, I'd often walk through the shedrows tracking down interviews or taking photos in the barn area of the racetrack. When you walk by thoroughbred horses, best to walk softly and carry a tune. Beautiful as they are, they are quick, sometimes bite, kick or knock you down. Music does soothe the savage beast, and whistling something from Astrud and Joao Gilberto has saved my skin.
The girl from Ipanema is magical realism.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

This Mornin'

Woke up this mornin'
Looked round for my shoes
Lord, I knew I had,
Them ol' walkin' blues..

Last night I was joking with a guy at a gas station about the snow storm we were supposed to be getting today. People had been scrambling around all afternoon at local grocery stores trying to stock up on items that might be necessary in case they couldn't drive for a few days. Between the fearful and the holiday shoppers, the lines were long and the patience short. Since the gas prices are headed back up this week, I decided to fill the tank just in case the snow did come.
We joked about how Portland prepares days in advance for the chance of snow, but secretly are glad the city is on it so well... in advance. The buses are chained, the plows poised, and the deicer ready to roll.
At 8:00 a.m. I looked out my front window and through the lingering darkness saw only black pavement and little evidence of moisture. By 8:30 the flurries came, and by 9:30 walking to my local Peet's coffee shop it was blowing snow and biting wind.
It's nearly 11 a.m. now and I feel like I'm sitting in an Arctic outpost. The chimney howls, the snow swirls off rooftops like waves of frosty grain, and I'm just waiting for a break to shovel the front walkway.
Here in Portland we don't get too much snow, but when we do it consumes the moment. There is just enough awe (so many ex-Californians like me) and just enough respect for Mother Nature, (mostly native Oregonians) that everybody has a good time in the end. Add in the spice of the Holiday season, a warm beverage, and school and road closures, and we're good to go.
Merry Christmas Baby,
You sure look good to me...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Turning cold here in Portland. We'll be waiting for snow this weekend. As we wait December brings chilling news in other areas. The Governor of Illinois gets arrested for trying to sell the vacant Senate seat of Barack Obama. This will feed the pundits for well into the new year. It's a stuffed goose, all the trimmings and plum pudding for everyone. The pendulum swings and the Democrats are fair game. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum so the saying goes. No scorecard needed you can't tell them apart. Ralph Nader must be doing the math right now. Let's see, what might make a good name for a new political party? How about_______________________________. (Your best effort here)
Did you know that 4 of the last 8 governors of Illinois have spent time in jail? Abe Lincoln's pissed.
A few hundred miles away and General Motors fights for it's life. Is it good for America anymore? Who will we be without the big 3 automakers? At the same time workers are beginning to occupy their plants until they get what's due; severance, benefits, at least a fair warning that their jobs have left the building. Good thing they know their history. It helps to have options.
When we look beneath the surface of our political system it won't matter that we can't say the "S" word (Socialism) because everybody knows it's holding up the assembly line, the stock market, and the banks. It won't matter that our high school seniors can't name their legislators, presidents, or cite their Constitution. On the bottom, when the last layer is peeled off all that will remain are those twins.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Won By a Lip

I love when life imitates art. Now and then a story like the one I am about to relate comes along. I used to save a few like this to answer the cynical students of literature whose response to anything symbolic or allegoric was a high decibel Tsk!
Bad enough they couldn't appreciate the beauty, the aesthetic, they'd usually follow up the sound effects with, "You're just reading into this. Why isn't a name just a name, or an object just the object it is?"
Yeah, I know what Freud said about cigars, but Dude, that's the point, to read into it. Go deep, my brother, my sister.
So here's the deal, and it involves a racetrack story too: Last week at Beulah Park, a small D List track that's in that part of Ohio that is just about Kentucky they've uncovered a ringer. A ringer, in horse racing, for those of you who are uninitiated, is when a horse runs a race under the name of another horse. A dead ringer, see? It's highly illegal and difficult to do because aside from being identified by color, specific markings, something called *"night eyes" and a number tattooed under their upper lip, most ringer attempts are easily foiled. I know of one that happened at a small Midwestern track a few years back when the paddock judge decided to forego the identification by lip because a freak snowstorm came up and all horses were covered with white flakes and they just wanted to get in the last race of the day. Because horses run in levels of competition, if you slip in a higher quality horse against a group with less skill-BINGO...Go to the window and collect.
At Beulah Park the other day, a horse called Valid Action was entered in a race. The official results show that he won that race, but it was later revealed that a better horse by the name of Purdy Tricky actually ran and won the race.
What follows now are steep fines and suspensions for the trainer and the horse identifier who are ultimately responsible for this state of affairs. Turns out that the chief horse identifier at the track was out that day and an underling filling in made the mistake. Even if the tattoo number was misread, you'd think they would check the color and markings. * (If you want to know what "night eyes" are send me an email)
Believe it or not this kind of thing can happen with no ill intention. I'm not saying this example is an accident. I don't know. But it has happened accidently especially when horses are shipped from one trainer to another. By the way, the name of the suspended horse identifier was Malarky.