Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Twoness

This is the penultimate day of the year. The time when everything is "In Review." We take stock, we reflect, we try to make meaning out of life's random offerings. Often the tragedies get most attention, but I saw a small item the other day that merits it's own 15 minutes right here. Apparently, a guy went into a fast food restaurant recently and bought an item that cost slightly over a dollar. He was in possession of two pieces of legal tender, a $50 bill and a $2 bill, that most rarest of bills, if you don't count the $500 and %1,000. I guess. Anyway, the poor kid who worked there was offered the $2 bill as payment and rejected it after talking with the manager of the place. Both were of the opinion that it was fake; that there was no such thing as a $2 bill no matter how good Thomas Jefferson looked. The man then offered the $50 but was told it was too late in the evening to accept a "big bill." He could have left muttering to himself. I think what happened after much debate was they let him have the $1.04 taco rather than take the $2 bill.
What's wrong with this picture? Where to begin. I guess it's to be expected that some pieces of common literacy have fallen by the wayside as life in the suburban bubble continues to define itself. OK, so it's one thing that two people, probably both under 30 had never heard of a $2 bill, but what does it all mean? A regular Zen Koan this one. Do we dare think that the only significance of the story is that it is reasonable to think that many folks in this country aren't familiar with currency that is not in use? What else might be missing from their general knowledge? Is this even all that important? One thing I do know is that I have carried a $2 bill in my wallet for many years now. Sort of a "saver" should I ever get in a jam. I used to get them everyone from a friend who had a small business and knew of my desire to always have one around. Guess that notion is outdated now! Imagine if I actually had to use it and nobody would validate it's existence.
Funny too how the Canadians have used the bill and the "Toonie" coin for decades. What's with the $2 bill anyway?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Perfectible

Most people have a personality that fits into one of three basic types. Our behavior, overall, suggests that we are withdrawn types, aggressive, or compliant types. For those familiar with the Enneagram, these three branch out into nine types. Within that framework are all the sub types and variations. That may or may not be true. In any event, I am a compliant type. I have difficulty saying no, I was a "good" boy as a child, and I do not welcome confrontation. On the Enneagram, I am a NINE. The Peacemaker... I can be indolent when most unproductive, or I can be a gifted negotiator when my behavior is in peak form...the healthiest. I like to think I'm fairly evolved, so my years have taught me a few things. As a compliant type, I can often see the reasonableness of both sides of an issue. If there are more than two sides, I can see that too. Because I tend to be a bit more emotional than most, when I argue fiercely for a point of view, it usually comes after I have carefully considered the other side. That's why I feel a bit dismayed when considering the raging dialogue about gun control, the right to own and bear arms, the care and treatment of those most vulnerable in our society, the continuing stigma of mental illness, and some of the proposed solutions to the recent spate of gun violence this year. When the NRA suggests that we arm teachers and place armed guards in every school...I hit the wall. When I see supposedly religious people turn into Neanderthals with you in their sights...I hit the wall. When I think about the larger connected issues, especially those about public education, I not only hit the wall, I begin to wonder if some folks even have the capacity to understand the implications of their beliefs. I don't say this lightly. Like you, I have some friends with political and religious beliefs very different from my own. I value their humanity, their right to think for themselves, and often the insight they provide into worlds I do not inhabit. Yet, when I see so little outrage about gun owners having the right to own assault weapons with 30 round magazines, I have to wonder. Are these people as dangerous as their thoughts? I have always believed that we do well to remove ourselves from dangerous people. Some of the great thinkers in psychology and the humanities feel this way too. In the past I have made the difficult decision to break off a few friendships with people who I deemed either too needy or too negative. That's one thing. But now I must ask, what happens when someone's position is not reasonable...not moral? There is nothing to see there except trying to reason with someone incapable of change. Someone entrenched. Someone who feels threatened by science, by deep critical thought, by what and who they deem pseudo-intellectual. The teacher in me says keep trying to break down ideas you know to be the truth into understandable statements. Don't quit. Find other ways to enlighten. Continue to believe that imperfect thinking is perfectible.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Snow on

In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer. -Albert Camus
We had a light dusting of snow this morning. For a minute there it looked like it might stick around for awhile. After the first 15 minutes it covered the lawns and topped the trees. Driving became difficult for a half hour or so because visibility became dotted with thick, fleecy flakes. By mid-day the clouds had cleared and all trace of white was gone. Always unexpected, any snowfall in Portland is a welcome change from the constant rain. Snow brings out the kids who yell and scream as if Santa or Justin Bieber, his damn self, was standing on the street corner. Inside, I'm quietly squealing a bit myself. One of my friends mentioned on a Facebook post that the snow, brief as it was,coincided with his reading of the names of the dead in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. He went on to say it helped him cry through his reading of the list. I can see how that might be. Snow can be emotional. I know we need more than a dusting of snow right now, but I'll take whatever comes down from above. Maybe it's a start. Maybe the sheer gentleness of big delicate, freezing flakes is what it takes to ease an aching mind. This may be all we get. Even so, it came at a most opportune time. To have this fragile reminder that each day is different and that something as simple as frosty dust can bring out inner children as well as a handful of six year olds is comforting. The latest report says we might get e snow shower tonight. It goes on to say that most of the flakes will fall between two and six a.m. Don't think I'll be up for that but I will have something to look forward to in the morning.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On An....Open Fire

I sit with my computer on my lap in a coffee shop on the Northwest side of town. This is not my neighborhood, but it is a small independent little place with a good selection of baked goods on the healthy side and great internet service. It's a crowded rainy Saturday morning. All ages come and go. Some with dogs, some with laptops, some overdressed, some underdressed. The noise gets progressively louder as more and more people begin this weekend a couple of weeks from Christmas day. As expected, the recent shootings, both here in Oregon, and in Connecticut are on people's minds. I pick up bits of conversation. People don't dwell on the topic. Some seem much more interested in gossiping about mutual friends, planned ski vacations, and the faltering, sputtering, it's up/it's down economy. I imaging property values and taxes are a common topic in this neck of the woods.
From what I can tell, the prevalent feeling is that these overarmed, masked 20 somethings commit these atrocious acts of violence in an attempt to be recognized. To go out with a bang, one well meaning pundit suggests. Then I hear the C word...crazy. Yup, crazy behavior it is, but nobody talks about mental health. Do they fathom that these militarized, violent young people are in pain, are in fact suffering. Odd as that may sound, like many, I'm coming to believe we will continue to endure these awful, gut wrenching events until we adequately deal with mental illness and the conditions that foster it. The coffee shop is really rockin' now. The line at the counter deters some who enter but haven't the time to wait it out. And in the background, weaving in and out of the highs and lows in the conversation pitch we hear the sounds of Christmas. The door opens and closes. Wisps of cold damp air roll in and out. Johnny Mathis spreads good cheer. Andy Williams welcomes the most "wonderful time of the year," and people walking by carry small packages with colorful ribbons adorning them.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Room Service

The world music community is remembering Ravi Shankar today. Like most Westerners, I first came into contact with the man and his music through Beatle George Harrison. From the wonderful s of Norwegian Wood to later recordings like Within and Without You, the Sitar became a welcome addition to the progression of Beatle music. But Shankar will be remembered for the virtuoso he was and his total mastery of the instrument.
In fact, one of the stories that came up this week involved the uninitiated audience that showed up to one of Shankar's first American concerts. After a brief three minutes of music Shankar and his troupe stopped playing. They received a standing ovation. A smiling Ravi Shankar then announced "If you like our tuning up so much, hopefully you will like our music." My own little contribution to stories about Shankar's first days in the U.S.comes from a former roommate many years ago. Stan was originally from Brooklyn and found himself looking for work in Berkeley so he could eventually go back to school. We each shared a room in a large house in South Berkeley in the early 1970s. While I went to grad school at Berkeley, Stan went down to the Marriott Hotel on the marina where he landed a job as a room service busboy. One evening, as all my housemates gathered, someone mentioned that Ravi Shankar was playing a concert at the Berkeley Community Theater. This was shortly after he began to draw a big following in the U.S. We all knew who he was. Stan then went on to say that Shankar was in fact staying at the recently opened Marriott Hotel. "Actually,"Stan said, "I saw him today." Dumbfounded, we all listened to Stan tell us that early that very afternoon he was summoned to the room(s) that Shankar and his entourage were occupying while in Berkeley. "You guys are never gonna believe what I saw when I went in those rooms." We all had visions of incense, dimly lit rooms with spicy Indian food wafting all over the Berkeley Marina. "Nope," Stan said, they were all eating hamburgers and French Fries and watching Soap Operas on TV."
     I'd be less than honest if I said that we weren't surprised.  Secretly, though, knowing that these exotic visitors were not Hindu gods but rather just like most people was comforting.  Within you and without you, indeed.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Almost Iconic

This holiday season there will no doubt be a lot of folks receiving books. The perfect gift, right? OK, maybe not so more because you never know who has gone electronic and who has not. Either way, with the recent spate of memoirs by music icons, rock stars, and...well...survivors of the 60s, the likes of Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Robert Plant will do doubt make their way under a few trees. Some of these offerings are rather large too. Many, like their subjects are filled with vivid images, clouded memories, and rich experiences. They are often large volumes too. No doubt, there will be a few more coming down the road in a few years. We still haven't heard from many of the women who broke tradition, set trends, and sang their way into our souls. What we won't be getting, ever, are the recollections of a few of the best who never made it. We have bits and pieces. We have some film and video clips. We have, forever, the recordings. But no long life well lived and well reflected. The two people from that era that stand out are Phil Ochs and Richard Farina. Oddly enough, both were once thought to be rivals of Dylan, so you know they had something important to say. They also had an original way to say it. Phil Ochs took his own life. There is an excellent film, a pile of record albums, and some writing. If Dylan's words were sometimes challenging, Phil Ochs wrote song lyrics that left nobody wondering. He was the epitomy of an anti-war poet. What part of "I ain't a marchin' anymore" is not clear? Richard Farina had it all. He'd already written and published two novels by the time his motorcycle skidded off the road taking him away from the stunning Mimi (Baez) Farina his young wife. They had two best selling albums together that graced the collections of many a twenty something in 1967. We can only speculate what their careers might have yielded had they lived longer. Farina would have loved the way young people are beginning to embrace acoustic music again. His dulcimer playing would have probably evolved into something wonderous. Phil Ochs might just have experience a huge revival during the G.W. Bush administration. Fascinating how he might respond to Obama's foreign policy and use of drones. We can only speculate because we will never know. What is clear, however, is what Phil Ochs wrote in arguably his best composition: "There but for fortune go you or I."  If you have never heard of or experienced the music of Richard Farina or Phil Ochs, do yourself a favor and check out these two near icons.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Re-deliver

I took the small package out of my mailbox and naturally thought it was the book I'd ordered and knew was on the way. Not so fast. The house number was correct but the street was one block over. It's a fairly common mistake, right? Even the post Office makes mistakes from time to time.
Next day I put a little post-it note on the envelope stating that it was delivered to the wrong address. Instead of attaching it to my mailbox, I put it next to the mailbox of my neighbor. Here's why. I live upstairs and my mailbox is outside at the base of the stairway leading to my front door. My neighbors live in the house below me and have a lovely covered front porch which includes their mail slot on their front door. It's Portland. It's winter. It rains almost daily. I figured the mail carrier would figure it out. Nope. Next day the package was back in my uncovered mailbox. Funny. For a minute or two. Disappointing that the carrier couldn't get past the number to look at the street. Yesterday I decided to take the package over myself. In doing so, I discovered that I could probably throw the parcel from my house to the intended recipient's. It was that close. Instead, I walked down the street, around the corner, and onto the front porch of the house (that shared my number) itself. Just as I thought about placing it in the mailbox, I saw a woman sitting in the window sipping a nice cup of tea. I knocked. I explained the situation. She was amused and then told me that she was just about to answer an email asking if she had received her order by now. She thanked me and I departed wondering how many times this happens and how many endings are similar to this one? I can't be too hard on the postal service. Large volumes of mail this time of year with difficult weather can be dicey. In fact, our regular mail carrier recently retired and we've had a different one every week for the last couple of months. Next week, when I'm waiting for an expected book to arrive, when I've been emailed the notification and find myself wondering...think I'll take a walk around the block.