Sunday, November 27, 2011

Silent Fall


For days the leaves have been falling. They soon become ground into a wet mulch that makes it's way into the house, the car, the soles of our shoes. They lie in a soupy mix like saturated corn flakes in an enormous bowl that nobody eats or even cleans up. Until today. The first of the city mandated leaf clean-ups happened this morning. When I see my neighbors park their cars and trucks on their front lawns then I know the time has come. Since we don't pay for this needed service, and our landlords are away, we got no forewarning this time. No matter. By 9:00 this morning most of the leaves were gone...momentarily. Must have slept through the tractors with the big cages on them, the small but highly maneuverable street cleaners and the water trucks. And all the while, the leaves keep falling. By tonight it'll be hard to tell the first batch was removed. It's raining now...cornflakes for everyone.
My observations on leaves have much to do with the fact that I live on a street with gigantic, ancient Dutch Elm trees. These trees define the seasons, decorate the neighborhood in every way imaginable, provide shade in the warmer months of summer, and actually keep rain off whatever resides under them. They support an elaborate culture of squirrels and crows, make wonderful silhouettes on moonlit nights, and are responsible for flurries of leaves, pollen, and small branches that rival any dust storm. They exude their aesthetic while snow-covered, dripping wet, or barren. They can be green, yellow white or

brown. Aside from their eco-biological function of being the lungs of the neighborhood, they get people talking. A day never passes when someone walks up the street and comments on some phase of these elm tree's lives.
Still they are fragile. Once a year they require inoculations to prevent disease. For the most part, they outlive us all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

TGI (your choice)


This week, amid all the Thank Yous infusing everyone's thoughts and requests, saw a couple of mind numbing events. First, the overkill with the event known as "Black Friday." You'd think by the sound that this national day of consumerism was similar to the Black Monday that brought down the stock market some 80 plus years ago. But no. It's the orgy of conspicuous consumption that officially kicks off the holiday shopping season. It's the day after Thanksgiving. It's the worst in this culture all in a day.
Imagine the mindset that waits in a tent in the parking lot or sidewalk in front of some big box store that features a midnight start time to get a few bucks off something that was marked up 50% to begin with. Do these people have no life? Yup. But wait. There is now evidence that the prices on the same merchandise will actually be better as the big day nears on the 25th of December.
Would some folks trample over people to buy an electronic device that will be outdated before the season next year? Yup. Are they that ignorant? Yup. The great P.T. Barnum, master of illusion said himself, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Maybe it's a sport? Maybe they really enjoy tearing apart all manner of consumer goods from the backstreets and by-ways of China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. Maybe they really feel good about themselves after eschewing sleep, nutrition, empathy, and fresh breath, to partake in a mass hog feed.
Who knows? The only thing worse than imagining this annual event is enduring the commercials for it. This year they went whole hog and even incorporated the insipid "It's Friday" song. Can I say something nice about this phenomena? Yes I can. To see "Black Friday" is to see this culture at it's very worst.
Which reminds me...New Gingrich is at it again. This time he's offered up the idea that American Public School kids should replace the janitors at their schools. He's for real, honestly. It's a budget cutting brainstorm, but it also insures that we have enough menial workers for the next century. He thinks the child labor laws need revision too. Could he be that disconnected? Fraid so. It certainly gives me pause. How about you? Is he that evil...that uninformed...that insensitive?
Let's see what happens when we try to give him the benefit of the doubt. Well, for one, some Japanese schools end the day with the student body cleaning up. Sounds pleasant doesn't it? And, it has the added benefit of instilling pride in their environment. I can get my head around that. But, unfortunately, that's not what he's saying. He's also suggesting that the #Occupy participants get a job and a haircut. Does he know how many have college degrees and no prospects? Is he that out of the loop. I'd like to know, but what will it take for someone to ask him directly? Aye, there's the rub, not with screened questions and pseudo debates on the Faux network. Maybe somebody will penetrate the illusion before he asks kids to shine his shoes too. You know, given it's the 19th century, Horatio Alger, kind of self-employed, up by your boot straps kind of thing, it's not all that far-fetched.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Stealing Life





In Per Petterson's sparse yet stunning novel, Out Stealing Horses, the 67 year old protagonist has a conversation with his daughter in one of the final scenes. He's gone to live in the Norwegian woods, near the Swedish border and is at first incredulous that his grown child has even found him. To be sure, he welcomes the visit, but the reader can't help wondering if he's disappointed that he's realized it's really impossible to escape. It may not even be desirable, he's coming to realize. Still he's not disappointed, and savors his isolation as a chance to reflect on his life and life's work.
In a reflective moment the daughter says, "You were always reading Dickins at home...I remember you in your chair with a book, miles away...at first you didn't recognize me and then you replied "Dickins," with a serious look, and I thought that reading Dickins was not the same as reading other books. I thought it was a special kind of book that only we possessed." She then tells her father that she recalls him reading aloud to her on occasion. Asking if he still has a copy of David Copperfield, the daughter quotes the opening from memory:
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
The daughter concludes by urging her father to read those pages again and adds, "I always thought those opening lines were a bit scary because they indicated we would not necessarily be the leading characters of our own lives...a sort of ghost-life where I could do nothing but watch that person who had taken my place and maybe hate her deeply and envy her everything, but not be able to do anything about it because at some point I had fallen out of my life, as if from an aeroplane...and could not get back to it, and someone else was sitting fastened into my seat, although that place was mine and I had the ticket in my hand."
Aside from this profound conversation, the novel offers many more stop and think moments. But this one referenced here seems particularly applicable to life today. This notion of turning out to be the hero of one's life or of forfeiting that to someone else applies to many issues and critical junctures we all face. The writer Baharati Mukhergee once suggested that we murder past selves and create new new ones in the images of dreams. I think it's true even though murder is a strong word. Because if we aren't sure those former incarnations of our self are gone, they are sure to return. So who is the hero of your life? And what are the characteristics of a hero? In our tabloid culture we confuse heroes with celebrities for the most part. But aren't we confronted with our own heroism constantly? Not just making the right choice or the moral decision; I'm coming to believe there is a component that involves coming to terms with our faults and failings as well.
Most biographies have some sort of subtitle that includes the words "a life." A life in politics, or as in Joe Klein's biography, Woody Guthrie: A life. When that book first came out, Woody's old friend Bob Dewitt told me it should be called Woody Guthrie: What a life!
As I move through this world and my years add up, I rather hope my story will have a label similar to the one Les Blank chose for his documentary of bluesman Mance Lipscomb. A Life Well Spent.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

For a Living



We can't save everyone. But we try. A teacher, a real teacher will never stop trying until...until...we're out of the picture. Even then, some students never leave us alone. Like that kid in your neighborhood, the one you catch yourself wondering about from time to time, it's fascinating to speculate how someone turned out.
If it's any consolation, that turning out takes a lifetime for most. Others, however, make their presence felt through a newspaper, an obituary, a rumor, and even a Facebook page. Such was the case when I chanced to see a picture of Allen Woodard recently. My first reaction was he's alive, I think. Allen lived for the military. Specifically the U.S. Marines. Probably because there was no father in his life, and his mom was a teacher's aid at my old school, I came to take an interest in Allen. He liked to talk about world politics and when the U.S. got involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, he couldn't wait to get over there.
His mom was troubled by Allen's eagerness to taste combat. Like most everyone in his life, she too hoped his military career wouldn't be cut short by a roadside bomb and a military funeral at 19. That didn't happen. That's the good news. The only good news. It's one thing to wear a full dress Marine uniform at age 10 and quite another to act out the fantasies of one obsessed with war. Allen is now home and living in the Southwest. His Facebook page, which I ambled upon when his picture and name appeared in the margin with the number of friends we have in common, reveals how he turned out. I'm happy he is gainfully employed. As a bouncer for a bar, he can live his life of authority and rules, keeping his community safe from violent types. I'm sure he gets all the free beer he can handle and still perform his duties. What stands out on this page is Allen's description of what he does (or did)for a living. He's unabashedly not afraid to say that his life skill is killing people...for the good ol' USA. It really says that. I shit you not.
I always wondered if he had a conscience. Still do. I had hoped we could have done more for Allen. But deep inside I realize he was long gone before he came through my classroom door. Still, I secretly hope there is still time for his mind to grow a bit. I noticed another thing too. Many of the kids in his graduating class keep in touch through Facebook. When I get a friend request from one and click on the OK link, I notice that they usually average from 25-50 former high school classmates. Allen's high school friends number less that ten. But what a ten. Within that number are some of the most talented, thoughtful, empathetic, intelligent kids in the class. Maybe they thought like I thought? Maybe it's not too late? Maybe it never is. Maybe?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Worst Case?


The writing prompt said Worst Case Scenario. That's all, just three little words. Some went to work immediately, others leaned back, leaned forward, squirmed, dug deep into the wells of their lives to retrieve the fully repressed or fully fantasized. No me.
The thought came quickly. "What if" was the lead line. The substance was being perceived by others. Wouldn't it be horrible if people ...the people in your life to be exact, all shared a perception of you and your personality that was far...very far from what you thought. In short, what if people did not think of you in the way you thought they did?
Writer James Baldwin once said, "If I am not who you think I am, then you are not who you think you are." That's what I'm talkin' about. Not being who you think you are. Worst case scenario.
I suppose it could be a tremendous opportunity. After all, how many times do we get to adjust our personalities. How much insight do we really get from those in our lives who define our identity? Our significant others, be they husbands, wives, partners, companions know much more about our authentic selves than most. No worst case there. But the notion that people we count on, people we share important parts of our lives with may be simply tolerating us without our knowledge is an earthquake.
So I created a character that essentially looked like what Carl Jung called our "shadow" side. This dark side is much more than an Id unbound. It's, as Jung himself said, "the less commendable part of our personality. It's all our quirks, neuroses, evil impulses, un-evolved, crap that we carry around and display from time to time.
Think about what that looks like. For me, it's the name dropper, the gossip, the guy that interrupts. It's the guy that spews anger while driving because someone displayed human error. It's every time I told myself I wasn't going to react in an emotional way and violated that pledge instantly when someone or something touched a nerve.
Seems to me that this kind of worst case scenario is much more difficult to overcome than a flat tire or an unexpected car repair. It's more devastating than some kinds of loss (a job, mediocre friend, an appetite) After all, it's you not knowing yourself or how others see you.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Who was that...


When the photograph of two people holding a sign that read, "Occupy Tundra," first appeared, I wondered how many small towns were participating in the groundswell #Occupy movement. There must be some rather non-urban settings. My sister, who lives in Bozeman, Mt. made me aware of camps currently in Missoula, Helena, as well as Bozeman. Gotta love those college towns. (two out of three in Montana.)
While they are nothing like the tent cities in Oakland or on Wall Street, they do contain the same amount of disaffected, disappointed people from retirees to veterans, to unemployed college graduates, to laid off factory workers. They have kids, and wet conditions this time of year, and less than adequate food, and all manner of hangers on. The media has a field day with the sub-stories. Recently, in Portland, the coverage centered on a rat in the food tent and a syringe found on the ground. Finally, an elder covering the story for an alternative radio station pointed out that some of those high end restaurants no so far from those demonstrators also have a few unwanted diners. She added that the syringe could also have been left by a diabetic. I know, not likely, but you get the point.
What's most troubling is the splinter groups, and their composition. Unfortunately there are people who are more interested in provoking violence than in participating in a populist movement. If we learned anything in the 60s, it was that along with their physical beings, people bring their personal psychology to demonstrations and marches. Coupled with the fact that the occupy camps are magnets for the homeless, the dispossessed, the mentally ill, and the addicted, there was bound to be some difficulty maintaining consistency, safety, and sometimes morality.
On that first day when Occupy Portland was born, the Guy Fawkes masks appeared. Then the black bandanas. Anarchists? Maybe just admirers of the popular V is for Vendetta graphic novel set in a dystopian world where the overthrow of the oppressive regime is heroic. But are many of these masked marchers after heroics? Are they seduced by dystopian dreams? My guess is that under the guise of political change, they seek the excitement. They are young and eager to confront. Yet, there are young and younger in the crowd that know how violence plays into the hands of authority. It gives them license to use tear gas, clubs, handcuffs. They will protect property before human life in many instances. Certainly the media adore blood.
To my mind, masks serve only one purpose.