Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Incarnation

Perhaps it was my association with the word Avatar. Some years ago, I gave that name to the big research project my English classes were assigned. it began as an I-Search paper (the personal pronoun I means I, myself search or discover something about a topic I really care about) but after 10-12 years, I gave it a new incarnation. It was pretty much the same assignment, but the many revolutionary changes in technology, especially the internet and email required the assignment be "adjusted" just a bit. The name Avatar was chosen because of the secondary definition: The incarnation of an idea in a person. I wanted my students to talk to people...literally. Might not sound like such a big thing, but I could see the future and it didn't include much face to face contact. Something happens when two human beings with a passion for the same thing get together. That's the experience I was going for; that's the experience that involves some risk-taking. My students never let me down.
So it was that I came to view the film AVATAR recently. I knew what I was in for, and although I'm not big on straight up fantasy (I find real life much more stimulating) I had read and heard a good deal about James Cameron's ground breaking film.
I knew it would be visually stunning, and it was. The use of computer graphics and animation at such a high level can give anyone a good acid trip. I didn't even see the film in 3-D but it doesn't take much to make the visual jump; at least for someone from my generation.
I can't find the right word to describe my reaction to the film. If I say disappointed, I'd be implying I didn't enjoy or appreciate the film and it's story line. Somewhere between surprise and approval is where I line up. Here's why:
The story line is trite. I wanted something fresh. How many movies with an invading U.S. Army destroying the environment of an indigenous people can we stand. I would remind you, gentle reader, that I spent all my early allowance money watching the U.S. Calvary stick it to various Indian tribes, watching renegade soldiers stick it to innocent bystanders, usually women, children, and the elderly, watching too many advertisements for the Army of One, the methodology of Be All That You Can Be. In fact there was such glaring contradiction/irony in the theater where I saw the film between the National Guard advertisement shown before the film and the fiery explosive, bullet ripping crescendo of Avatar that most of the audience appeared numb t it all.
In fact, my little trivia test for now seems to be, In what year did Avatar take place? I noticed the year (2154) early on in the computer graphics on one of the screens in the spaceship/vehicle the bad guys occupied. I would have hoped by then that people had stopped smoking, especially in space, that the vernacular wouldn't include lines like, "I'm not the only one with a gun, bitch." But we all know what's behind that. Just in case you haven't noticed, a film, any film, says more about the year it was made than the year it portrays.
I was hoping that the dialogue might have taken the opportunity to advance more sophisticated ideas. Certainly Cameron's head is in the right place. What a lost opportunity, in my view.
On the more positive side, I noticed some literary components. Cameron seemed to borrow a page or two from Steinbeck, something that could never hurt. The character Jake Sully even has the same initials. I know, I know, a stretch, but Jake wore the same wound as Tom Joad (the marked man) near the end; that little Christ-like cut on his face was there for some reason, no?
I like that Avatar makes a statement about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I like that military personnel can make the moral/ethical leap to change sides in the middle of a war. And I really like those six-legged horses. There is hope.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mississippi Fred McDowell Red Cross Store

Download: Mississippi Fred McDowell Red Cross Store

History Lesson

OK, here's the deal. I posted that Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders might be a better choice for donating to Haitian earthquake relief because I read that the Red Cross received millions by text message in just two days. Nothing wrong with that, but the Red Cross can be a red flag. They have a history and often it ain't pretty. If you want all the numbers and stats, just Google Red Cross corruption and it appears like magic. If you are only mildly interested, I'll provide some historical context.
In the last 10-20 years or so, after huge natural disaster, the Red Cross his bee the standard go to organization for well intentioned people who wanted to help. Problem is that a huge percentage of the money never got to the intended destination. The fact that the national director was taking home 3/4 of a million dollars didn't help either. After Katrina, the Los Angeles Times wrote:
Giving so high a percentage of all donations to one agency that defines itself only as a first-responder and not a rebuilder is not the wisest choice. Americans ought to give a much larger share of their generous charity to community foundations, grass-roots nonprofit groups based in the affected communities and a large number of international “brand name” relief agencies with decades of expertise in rebuilding communities after disaster
But that's only part of the story. In the long history of natural disasters in this country and particularly the American South, the Red Cross was actually hated by many victims it was attempting to help. The legendary folk and blues performer Huddie Ledbetter, better know as Leadbelly, was one of the first to sing and record a piece known as Red Cross Store. When many of the sharecroppers and urban poor would go into these "stores" for aid in the form of food, clothing, money, or supplies, they were often treated with disdain and disrespect. So much so that the singer does not want their help and tells his wife, "I ain't goin' down to the Red Cross Store no more."
Here is the original lyric:

I told her no!
Baby you know I don't wanna go
Justine I ain't goin'
Down to no Red Cross store
She come down Justine, tell me I wanna talk with you in just a little while
Ain't you goin' down and fight for your wife and child?
She come down here and she shook my hand
She said Daddy I want you to go down there and fight for me like a man

She said the Red Cross people they treat you mighty fine
They mixing everything up with whiskey and wine
She come down here talkin' to me about the war
I told her baby I ain't done nothing to go there for

She come down here and she fell down on her knees
I said baby I have to look somewhere for your butter and cheese
She said Daddy I just come down here to tell you so
You better go running down to that Red Cross store

The song was also recorded by Mississippi Fred McDowell and even Eric Burdon of the Animals Ted Barron, of Boogiewoogieflu.blogspot writes of the McDowell version:

To call this number anything other than an indictment would be wrong. Even more so, this particular take is a variation on the original lyrics. Instead of a man taken to task by a woman, McDowell counters that idiom with a stirring version about a man looking to feed his family. Encountering the sheer rejectionof an otherwise charitable organization--- “Go ‘way, boy, you know times got hard.”--- the song veers between an urgency and a telling narrative built on the era’s social injustice that isn’t found too often in McDowell’s catalogue. Though the driving rhythm is a signature style and serves up much of the tune’s anger, a resentful McDowell tells us from the outset: “Well I ain’t!/ gwine back!/ to that!/ Red Cross!!/ store no more // ain’t gon/ na let my baby go back (to that) Red Cross/ store no more.” This is the verse that gets me, the opener, because you know something’s terribly wrong (the delivery tells us as much) and he’s not having it. When followed by the vow that he won’t let his baby go back either, I hear the conviction of a loving and righteous soul who won’t let anyone else suffer the way he already has.

It's only one perspective, I know, but an important one. By the way, Oxfam stands for Oxford Famine Project. They have a long history too, but it's one without corruption.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Little else matters now. With one sudden jolt, forget about who said what. Who cares about the late night TV wars or hyper insensitive language? Fantasy film worlds in 3-D are nice but not now. No ballgame matters, I can't think about what's for dinner, there are no feel good stories at the moment.
Earthquakes can do that. I've been through a few. The Loma Prieta quake was like any of the many I'd previously experienced. Since that day in 1989, I'm never without too many water bottles or packages of batteries from AAA to D. I have a cell phone now, a couple of portable radios, and always, some gas in the truck. Earthquakes will do that.
The collage of words and terminology begins to take shape. Tembler, epicenter, 7.1, infrastructure. Pancaked, rubble, aftershock, victims.
If things happen for a reason, what are we to think about Haiti. If I were living there in normal times, I could expect to die next year. Poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; check the tags on your clothing. It's where most of the baseballs in the big leagues are made. Really.
Give wisely. Hucksters thrive on the temporary anarchy that accompanies any tragedy. Oxfam had 200 people on the ground there in the first few hours. Can't go wrong there.
I wonder about the impact of people helping one another. Could that be a reason, if there has to be one?
Does it become difficult to recruit terrorists when so many nations drop the boundaries, when the cries we hear are our own, when words fail and there is so much work to be done? Right now, there is a rescue team from Iceland that is working to free people who have been entombed under concrete. They are alive, in some cases not injured seriously, but simple unreachable. How can we take this metaphor and make it usable in other parts of the world?When we cooperate to save lives under these circumstances, maybe we can apply that ferver to other kinds of quakes.

In the aftermath of the Haiti quake, social media continues to astonish. Text messages raised 2.1 million on one day alone. I've seen Twitter, and Facebook sites emerge, urge, inform and re-form the entire notion of how to help RIGHT NOW.
I wonder, though, as I peruse status updates on Facebook, some folks seem oblivious. No mention of a worldwide call for help. Are their lives that narcissistic? In this age of reality v. unreality, privacy v. no privacy, we can't really tell.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Other N Word

I'm sitting in my local coffee house answering some emails. About every second sentence I write is interrupted with a jolt from one of the baristas who is laughing out loud. Emphasis on the loud. He just happens to be a gay man (do I call him a baristo?) who has the loudest repetitive laugh I've ever heard. I've heard many, this one is clearly the most outrageous, the most obnoxious. Believe me when I tell you this laugh ranks up there with water-boarding.
Even Laura, one of his co-workers acknowledges, "Brian's laugh is just too big for this little coffeeshop." After a while, I go from irritated to curious. I marvel at how people respond. In Portland, people are unusually kind to one another. Oh , we have crime and assholes just like any other city, but for the most part, people are remarkably, noticeably, civil.
Aside from a few grimaces, people tolerate this assault on their sensibilities. Maybe it's a well calculated attempt to keep people from staying too long. It is a small space. Laptop users are known to outstay their welcome. I don't think so. This guy is fortunate in my book that so far nobody has asked him to be more aware of himself.
Likewise, Sen. Harry Reid astonishingly could have been more aware of himself in the now famous comment he made referring to President Obama being "light-skinned with no Negro dialect."
How fascinating that a politico (albeit from Nevada) still used the term Negro. The Republicans smell blood and are ripping the guy apart, even calling for his resignation. He committed no crime. If he is guilty of anything it's only that he's out of touch. Some would call that racially insensitive. But what the guy said, in it's entirety, is the truth. His choice of words could have been better, but only reflects how difficult it is for many people to talk about race. Fortunately some Black scholars and leaders are coming forward and "teaching" those who would learn that Reid's comments are not racist. That, in fact, skin color in the black community has always been currency. That speaking what some consider dialect free is an advantage. So the debate swirls. The pundits dissect and parse. Sen. Reid sits on the hot seat, endures sleepless nights, and considers the consequences of his poor choice of words. I like what Michael Eric Dyson, noted Black intellectual said recently. "Why do we have these discussions after a comment like this is made; why don't we have them because we need to have them. For the uninitiated, the evolution of what to call African-Americans has it's own fascinating history. We went from "people of color" on old slave posters, to "Nigra," to Negro to Colored, to Black, to African-American, to...guess what? People of color. Even very old organizations like the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund add another dimension to this discussion.
Malcolm X said it best when explaining why the word "Negro" should not be used. He explained that "Negro attaches you to nothing. It's like a tree without roots; there is no Negro land. People who do not know their history will destroy their history."
Time to build up.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Long Night Working

The best theory of dream interpretation that I ever heard sees dreams as rehearsals. What we are anticipating or rehearsing for are unexpected events or twists of fate that could conceivably leave us caught off guard.
Many people I know have the final exam dream. Ever had the dream? You know, it's the day of the final and either yo are unprepared or suddenly remember that you are enrolled in the class. There are many versions, and they can involve actually taking the exam (in the dream, of course) or not showing up. I've read that this is the most common dream for people who went to college.
As in all dreams, it's the symbolism that's important. The exam represent anything we need to be more prepared to face.
When I taught psychology, most of my students had never had that dream. I should check in with a few now to see how prevalent it is. Popular among adolescents are dreams of losing teeth, dreams of flying or car crashes, and of course one of the top ten, being either naked or partially clothed.
I'd never had the naked dream until a few years ago. It's vulnerability. Do I feel more vulnerable at this point in my life than I did a few years ago. Probably, in some ways. I think living in a new town, meeting new friends, finding a new job, adjusting to having more free time all factor into the equation.
I've heard that as a person ages, or changes sleep schedules, dreaming changes. So far that's the case for me. I sleep later now that I'm semi-retired. More time for REM sleep= more dreams.
I continue to have school dreams, only now there are some repeated motifs. I didn't retire, I'm teaching in a different school. I usually have forgotten to take attendance and I don't know where the teacher's mailboxes are. I have not gone to all my classes, in fact, I did not show up to a couple of classes and have no idea if there was a substitute. And then one that hads appeared and reappeared a few times in the past year is that there is a class, a challenging class, a class with largely unmotivated students, and I have forgotten to plan that class. It's lunch time and I need to go in there now, but I'm not sure of the room.
What am I rehearsing for here?
I remember the day after 9/11 one of my colleagues at the time dreamed that she couldn't find her classroom. She was upset about the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, but even more (emotionally) about her dream.
I remember once discussing various theories of why we dream with a psych class once and some students were dismissing Freudian theory in favor of dreams being just random firing of brain cells. A student on the edge of the discussion finally speaks up and says, "If they were just random firings, what explains recurring dreams then?"
Got to love it.
One recurring theme for me is trying to get from one place to another. It takes a few forms, but often I need to get back to a hotel, or once it was the UCLA campus, or could be just a place I'm supposed to be. I can see where I ned to go, but I can't get there. Sometimes, when I do seem to make progress, I enter a street, or a stairway, or get on a freeway, and it's not the same. I'm no closer to where I want to be.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sweet Home

Every now and then a song hits like an asteroid. If you're lucky, it'll become one of those I'll never forget where I was...moments. Last week, while watching the film Up in the Air, I heard a tune that immediately struck a chord. It was like seeing an old friend, or that heady place when you meet someone for the first time and there is an unmistakable connection. I can see the relationship between this song and the movie, but it's slim at best. Up in the Air is fairly predictable, but the acting is good and George Clooney is perfect as the well-groomed but personally vapid businessman who can hear the clock ticking on his coveted life alone. This is the type of song that connects to everyone, in some way. Maybe that's why it struck so deep. It's definitely universal and timeless. From midair to deep in the ground. Click the link and give a listen. When you get a chance, let me know what you think.
listen to Dan Auerbach - Goin' Home on @hypem