Sunday, May 30, 2010

Born To Be

I didn't go to many movies that year. Living on $180 a month didn't leave room for much after food and rent. But when Easy Rider came to Houston, Texas in the Fall of 1969, everybody on the VISTA project went. We went in groups because, after all, it was Texas. If I told you that after the last scene of the film, the one where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper get blown away by shot gun toting rednecks in a beat-up old pick-up truck somewhere inside Louisiana, that some folks in the theater audience applauded, I'd be telling the truth.
Long hair on men had not come to the South until later. Dope smoking, motorcycle riding, war-resisting, free-loving counter culture types were thought to be a major threat to democracy, at least one version of it. The hair and the marijuana would come a few years later, but on this day, many in that Houston theater were relieved when the forces of vigilantism restored order in the land.
We weren't surprised. Back then we too had the KKK on our tails for trying to bring a little equity into the lives of poor people.
When Fonda and Hopper rode away into that bloody sunset I knew that our struggle would be lifelong. I sensed that a person could be easily eliminated (they just come up missin') if they advocated the kind of change that exposed racism and hatred, and intolerance. But as Jack Nicholson implied in the film, it's not your beliefs they hate, it's your freedom they envy.
Dennis Hopper died this week at 71. His career was always a thorn in the side of the entertainment establishment. From his portrayal of a Beat poet on Petticoat Junction in 1964 until his memorable performance in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, he left his mark.
Dennis Hopper's Louisiana was a peculiar version of Hell. But it also contained lots of Heaven in the form of Mardi Gras and Cajun country. And while the BP oil continues to smother the aquatic life and poison the beaches of the Sportsman's Paradise, we remember Dennis Hopper. Like the oil, he was necessary but for some wouldn't go away fast enough.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Know Much

First it was the Apartheid like Immigration law, now the state of Arizona is after "Ethnic Studies." Where do they think they are living? This comes on the heels of the state of Texas renaming slavery the "triangular trade" and putting a decidedly "whiter than white" spin on all the history that's fit to print in their eyes. Make no mistake: this is very dangerous stuff.
Where to begin? An objective article I recently read about the Arizona ethnic studies bill said this:

"The bill prohibits any class in the state from promoting either the overthrow of the U.S. government or resentment toward a race or class of people, and that advocates ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals, and -- here’s the big one -- that are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group."

Oh how it comes around. How fascinating this paradox. Just a little over 50 years ago the dominant
"race or class of people" refused to tread it's pupils as individuals, still subscribing to the notion that separate was equal. Didn't they advocate "ethnic solidarity" when, aside from separate schools, they authored such democratic institutions as the poll tak, the "grandfather clause" and, my personal favorite, the literacy test.
Item: a question from a literacy test actually used in the state of Mississippi, or was it Alabama, or perhaps both:
"How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?"
Don't believe me? Look it up, because if you do, you'll certainly find others just as absurd. Ah democracy.
Most university level Ethnic Studies departments are celebrating their 40th anniversaries right now. At UCLA, where I was privileged to be in the first such classes offered, the demand was high. The subject matter was particularly fascinating because we were reading and learning about the history that was never taught. Not only the true, accurate history of the "peculiar institution" of slavery, but everything from Japanese internment t the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. We learned , too, that to teach the history of one people is to teach the history of all peoples. Or should be.
I recall that when I first began teaching in the mid 70s, I taught ethnic classes for at least 10 years. By then, either we had incorporated all histories into one history or at least offered opportunities to learn the entire story. As is always the case, electives get cut, decisions get made that grind up people and opportunities. And now this.
I can't wait to see some of Arizona's new history books. But here's the rub. You don't have to teach ethnic studies. Just teach history. Teach the entire history. Use primary source documents, call social institutions what they are.
No problem. Right?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Forward March

"I want my country back."

I keep hearing that exclamation from the disgruntled tea baggers. My my what a coded message if ever there was one. What are they really saying? I want this and I don't want this?
I feel there loss, but since when did time ever march backwards?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Not really. The more we want them to stay the same. Impossible.
Thousands of years ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said it best, "You cannot step in the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing upon you."
Yes they are.
What is also flowing upon us is the transition that we are right in the big middle of right now. Everyday, those "fresh waters" are evidenced in what is here and what is no longer here. You Tube is 5 years old today. Millions of videos are uploaded every 24 hours. It can't be reversed. In only 5 years imagine how many lives changed, lessons learned, surprises discovered...?
Two weeks ago, I finally stuck a digital camera in my truck for the express purpose of taking a picture of a South East Portland establishment with a most incongruous sign. The Dixie Mattress Company has long been an enigma as it sits in a semi-upscale but still funky business district with matching Confederate flag signs announcing it's existence. I don't believe it has been a mattress store recently. But like those houses that exist from time to time n otherwise lively streets, it's been an anomaly, part vacant, part deteriorating and part mystery. Glad I got the shot because last week the place was finally sold and will be converted into a wine bar, or a bistro, or maybe another pub. In this year, 2010, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights bill, the DIxie Mattress Company flies no more.

Last week, when discussing the phrase "I want my country back," on his weekly TV show, comedian Bill Mahr quipped, "I want my country forward." I thinking of making and selling buttons with that phrase. How forward of me. Anyone interested in purchasing one?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Swept Away

A new book out about compulsive hoarding called Stuff has me thinking about that age old question: If you had only five minutes to go through your house and keep just a few things, what would you keep?
In my downsizing over the last couple of years I've been dealing with letting go more than ever. It is easier to say good-bye to anything easily replaceable. Books, records/CDs, even clothing fits that category. I've parted with file cabinets of teaching materials and even a few "treasures" that I still have second thoughts about. But in the end, it is all just stuff.
It is also a way we define ourselves. Who am I now that I don't own? _________ (fill in the blank) Like most people, I would save photographs first. But what happens to them when we no longer own them? If we don't pass them on to immediate family what becomes of these documents?
Fortunately there are people who love the mystery of a good photograph. I see the bits and pieces of lives gone by in antique stores, flea-markets, garage sales, and even adorning a gifted artist's collage work. One of my favorite Portland rainy day activities is to touch base with some of my families old photo albums and scrap books. I've become the keeper of most of it. It's either my sister or me, and being the historian in the family, I've kept most of these things including a minor array of old photographs. Most of the trucks or suitcases my parents brought with them from NY to California in the late 1940s have moved on, so I have the keepable in storage bins, acid free boxes or clear plastic tubs.
That's when I found the photo shown here. My parents and my father's cousin (I think) are spending a day in the country sometime in the 1920s. That's my mom and dad messing around in the foreground. They are so young and strikingly carefree. This little scene depicts part of the "swept me off my feet" process that my mom always told me about. But there is an innocence here too. They were not alone. She was no doubt permitted to go because his cousin accompanied them. Someone else was there too. Someone who took that picture. Perhaps another woman; probably the cousin's girlfriend.
What intrigues me most is the boxing stance my mom is taking. Was my father messing with her? What prompted this friendly gesture of self-defense? I love how her smile, frozen in time, reveals she's able to take care of herself. I'm sure they had a lovely day. Their wedding was a few years away and right in the middle of The Great Depression. Big historical events guided their first decade together until a swipe at the American Dream in the San Fernando Valley became their post war focus. But on this day, so much is unknown...except, of course, what prompted this picture in this place on that day.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Post Derby

I've been sorting out this year's Kentucky Derby for the past few days. Despite the tumult and change, I love that it's still so unpredictable, such a mystery. This year I seemed to be burdened by a bit more than finding the winner or getting a nice score at the window. This year was more about other years. Here's a first draft of what followed the Run for the Roses in my mind this year

Derby Day

It’s finally here. As always, I haven’t slept well because I’m too excited. I quit trying to get to bed early any more. Useless. Too much to replay in my mind, anyway. Will it rain? How much? Who can I eliminate? Who might I be leaving out? I turn over on my back. I picture the view of the Churchill Downs infield from the Press Box. Ever see an oval of 150,000 people? It’s a sound tunnel of cheering, anticipation, and delirious mystery about to be revealed. I hear My Old Kentucky Home, with it’s revised lyrics so the racism of Antebellum America lies buried where it belongs. No more “darkies.” It’s the “people” now who are “happy and gay.” Gay darkies, my how times change. The night before the Derby I spend revving up for the one day that I enjoy above all others.
This Derby morning something is different. I feel oddly alone. Can’t seem to find anyone who feels what I feel. Can’t find anyone who knows or cares that today is Derby day. It’s in the blood,” the hard boot horse trainers say. That may or may not be. I’m certain, however, it’s in my blood. This year my excitement is tempered with a gnawing sadness. I will watch the Derby alone. Oh, I’ll probably go out to the track, place a bet or two and come home to watch the ceremony and tradition on my favorite couch. Even if I stay and watch at the racetrack, with thousands around me, I will still watch the Derby alone. This morning, while my anticipation builds, while I stick an apple and some trail mix into a paper bag, while I double check the mud breeding for the fifth time, I keep thinking of Ted.
We were such improbable friends. When I was in college at UCLA, Ted dropped out of Southern Illinois University. When my anti-war anger solidified, I marched, and resisted. Ted questioned the war and spoke out too, but ended up in uniform and soon after in Vietnam. When I went to Texas to serve as a VISTA Volunteer, Ted went to Alaska for a change of scenery. By the time we both ended up in the Bay Area, I fulfilled my dream in a high school classroom, while Ted found comfort and satisfaction in culinary school. Only an equalizer like horse racing could have brought us together.
Our unlikely bond formed at Golden Gate Fields. The love of horses and the lure of the track create uncommon community. That’s just how it worked for Ted and me. We’d discuss past performances, turf breeding and trainer stats before politics. Eventually, we got around to talking about everything. Turns out we weren’t that far apart at all. After horses came music, art, literature, and pop culture. Our friendship grew through a yearlong series of late Friday afternoons. After a full week’s work, come Friday, we’d find one another in the “Top of the Stretch” room surrounded by cab drivers and doctors, educators, restaurant owners, restaurant workers, professional athletes, military personnel, mail carriers, recent immigrants, recent homeless, the bored, the retired, the inept, and all manner of over and underachievers. I’d come for the last couple of races and an opportunity to enter an alternate universe, if only for a couple of hours.
9:30 Pacific Standard Time.
The Derby is six hours away and I find myself repeating patterns. I get bagels and then coffee and pour over the Racing Form just like I did with Ted. Somewhere deep inside I harbor the thought this routine still might be possible some day because I never found his obituary. None of the other guys he knew from the track could be sure either. But when someone’s life begins to implode it’s easy to connect the dots yourself. Still, that last year lingers in my head and stings as much as losing a tight photo finish. Ted was dealing with health issues. First it was prostate cancer. In our little posse of thoroughbred fanatics, Ted found friendship and support. From Mike the writer, Zim the psychiatrist, and Bob, stock broker, the horse talk could easily be replaced with sound advise on anything that mattered. So why did Ted suddenly disappear?
Ted had a checklist of demons following him. Though he’d beaten the heroin addiction that crippled so many Vietnam vets, his body wore the scars. He was such a chain smoker that nicotine became part of Ted’s complexion. Though I never knew Ted’s ethnicity, his skin was an off, off white. A reddish gray face, like an old barn or a singed apple held Ted’s deep blue eyes. I always thought that a good scrubbing with soap and water would restore Ted’s complexion, but there were too many toxins, too many stressors, and too many cigarettes in succession.
I know Ted has a brother somewhere. He told me they were close too, just not living in the same town. He’d often wear a red and blue baseball cap that he and his brother loved. It had a Warner Brothers logo and always reminded me that Warner was Ted’s last name. Even last week, while walking through downtown Portland I saw a similar looking red and blue cap coming toward me. Without thinking, my eyes brightened and I approached the guy as if something pulled me forward. Man, that was weird, I quickly told myself. Imagine that, I thought that was Ted. That’s hardly the first time that has happened.
12:30 pm.
The Derby is three hours away and I’m ready for another cup of coffee. The lovely puzzle that handicapping a horse race can be has now replaced any lingering thoughts about picking up Ted at the BART station, grabbing coffee, sharing last minute insights, and scrambling for a good seat at the track. I can live without that ever happening again. It’s the way he just disappeared that won’t leave me alone. Even old Tom, who went to the track everyday kept asking me about Ted. Tom is living proof that the racetrack contains all the characters it is famous for. Tom is 91. He came up in New Orleans, knows how to look at a horse, and knows even more about human nature. Tom is the alpha male in a group of older black men who are arguably the most knowledgeable and funny human beings on the planet. Listening to Tom and Floyd and an octogenarian who goes only by “Mr. Brown” is better than television.
“Floyd’s blackberry cobbler is so good it’ll make you slap yo mama,” Tom tells me.
Tom, who gives everyone a nickname, called Ted “Marin” because even though they caught the same bus in San Francisco to the track, he knew Ted lived in San Rafael, in Marin County.
‘Teach,’ have you seen Marin this week?” Tom asks me.
“No Tom, still haven’t seen him. Nobody here has, best as I can tell.”
That conversation went on for two months. That’s when I tried to play private investigator. I took everything I knew about Ted and set out to solve this conundrum. I knew he’d had a bad year. First his work hours got cut. What was the name of that catering firm he worked for? Then his roommate almost burned down the apartment they shared. Ted lost most of his clothes and personal possessions. Probably that Warner Brothers hat too. On top of that came the hit and run driver who clipped him in the early morning fog while he walked from a bus stop in San Francisco. But Ted bounced back. He bought new clothes, his beat-up body began to heal, and he’d beaten cancer, hadn’t he?
Some years ago, I befriended an older Austrian man, Eric, in a coffeehouse. He’s quit driving because he couldn’t always remember where he parked his car. Eric was always inviting me over to see his favorite film, “The Third Man.” Even after we shared a simple dinner and watched the film in his apartment, he kept inviting me over to see it. One afternoon I managed to change the subject and asked if he had any children.
“I’ve got a daughter who lives in the city,” he said. “She’s got her own problems with alcohol, and bad relationships. She’s also got a daughter who won’t listen to anyone about anything.”
“Yeah, that must be tough,” I said. “She’s so close, but can hardly get over here to see you.”
“But you’d like my son,” Eric said. “He’s about your age.”
“Where does he live?”
“Well, he was in Alaska, and then he went to Europe or the Middle East. But he’s disappeared.”
“What do you mean, he’s disappeared?”
“I haven’t heard from him in a few years. People disappear, you know.”
Eric was so sincere that I just left it there.
In the years since that conversation, Eric’s words defined themselves. Ron, another track regular, died of cancer. In six months he went from amiable wine salesman to instant retiree. With wizened face and body, he played improbable longshots with increased regularity and pitiable anger. Glen, a fellow teacher, never made it home for the weekend. His life ended on the kind of rain-slicked freeway that takes away vision and vitality in a heartbeat. We wished him well on Friday evening and never saw him again.
10:00 pm
The eleventh Derby of this century has locked into place. Super Saver with a rail-skimming ride from the master, Calvin Borel, wears the roses. He was on most of my tickets, yet no elation, no contentment still. I need to lay Ted to rest. Turn the page. Go on to the Preakness and the Belmont.
There is talk among the big advertisers and networks to move the Derby to Saturday night. 136 years of tradition branded, sold, stuck under the lights. It’s what we do best, isn’t it? I see neon jockey silks and corporate logos all over that teeming oval.
Not just people disappear.