Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The History Behind

I remember the magazine article like it was last week.  Newsweek.   I found it in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, something that might not exist anymore.  At least in the minds of those assigned research papers.
It was in Mr. Elcott's U.S. History class that I chose from among the list of approved topics.  The Spring of '64 featured all manner of Cold War issues, post Kennedy assassination speculation, and a new "brushfire war" taking hold in an unfamiliar corner of Southeast Asia called Vietnam.  But there was one line in that article about voting rights for black people in the South that took my breath away.
"How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?"  That was the question framed in this unforgettable sentence.  It appeared as part of a discussion on literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses used to deny black people the right to vote.  A question on a test that couldn't be answered correctly.  A tax for a Constitutional right placed on people who barely made enough money to feed themselves.  A legal clause that said you could vote if your grandfather did.  Your grandfather was a slave.  I knew I found my topic that instant.  But I found so much more.  That innocuous little Newsweek would change my life.  In a few short years, I'd be walking the streets of south Texas and seeing the political and sociological realities I'd read about in college firsthand.

Mr. Elcott's class arrived in my development on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement.  Elcott wasn't the best teacher I ever had, but he certainly wasn't the worst.  He was funny.  Jackie Mason funny.  A sharp witted, quick tongued Jewish comedian of a man, Elcott was short of creative curriculum, but long on opportunity.  It was in this class that information circulated pre texting and email.  Notes, whispers, non-verbal communication were common.  When one girl in the class wanted an explanation of the term "blow job," her intellectual curiosity was adequately served through detailed written explanation.  Prom dates, dances, football games, baseball scores, driving license tips, who got together who broke up, library all made the rounds.
One afternoon, as Elcott droned on about something going on in Indonesia, a book, a rather large book of photographs, glided from under each desk through many in the class.  Some took one look at the cover and passed it along; others spent time looking at each page before skillfully moving it on undetected.  I recall the book title: The Movement.  It was a photographic history of the Civil Rights movement to date.  Mostly I recall the lynchings.  The shots of people in the crowd who looked like they were at a Fourth of July picnic.  The dangling bodies...wondering who those people were.  Emmitt Till hadn't made it to my history text yet.  The 3 civil rights workers killed in Mississippi was last year's news.  Martin Luther King was still suspected of being a Commie, so we learned much of our history by other means.
Yesterday, when the Supreme Court struck down some provisions of the 1964 Voting Rights Bill, I thought of Mr. Elcott's class.  Congressman John Lewis, in his shock and dismay said that the court apparently believes that history cannot repeat itself.  I'm wondering, are we condemning ourselves to this repetition?
What bothers me most is that voting rights in this country were bought and paid for in blood.  They were forged in exploding bombs, burning crosses, and midnight raids.  Bodies floated in murky rivers, scars hide the truth behind peculiar institutions.  I'm of the opinion that some laws need to stand because of the history behind them.  Lest we forget...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Inside Saturday Morning

In this cafe people wander in and out.  The sun is pleased today and it's warmth is telling folks to be outside.  So they obey.  They filter in and out with steaming cups because they do not trust the sun in this town.  It's so warm inside now that a barista has left the front door open.  It soon closes with each pass of entrance /exit.
Those who remain inside are mostly tethered to their devices.  Orwell would love this.  The overweight position themselves in overstuffed chairs to see their small screens.  Here and there two people sit face to face and talk.  It is so quiet, save the whirrrr of an espresso machine, that any conversation is audible...there for the taking.

Real estate prices...what she said...who invited whom to sit where....what "I knew" what  "I think" about this one's marriage, and what "I do not"...your choice.
I enter the rest room, a small dark, flowery cubicle that smells like a woman I knew in the 1970s.  That night, when she put her hair up so she could try to let it down comes back to me with the smell of the soap.  All these years later and I have not forgotten her, her pain, her touch, the feel of that night which has chosen to revisit me because nature calls.
Like those around me I visit other places through my laptop.  This is the state of the art and has certainly become the art of the state.  I'm following other people's conversations on social media while I go to the racetrack in New York, New Jersey, and Ontario, Canada.  Isn't this what I always wanted?
Now and then something timeless enters my field of vision.  A beaded Indian belt, a banana, a beautiful figure, a biscotti, a dragonfly.
But here's the worst part, my internal dialogue has become audible.  Over my shoulder, a young woman is intrigued by the fact that I seem to be talking to myself.  My horse has just run a bad second, and I'm muttering about the fact that I didn't account for it.  Something like an "oh, so that's how it is..." attitude.  She strains to see horses running and numbers on my screen.  The color of it all is seductive.  I must make an effort to realize that I am not at the track.  I'm inside everyone's Saturday morning.  There is much less anguish and uncertainty here.  There is also a good deal less risk and therefore not much spontaneous joy.  
Right about now I crave the smell of horses.  The only way I'll come close to anything like that is to go outside myself.  Tomorrow will rain, so there is no choice here, only the sound of a few small steps.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Drop Down

I have a copy of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four on my bookshelf.  Unlike many other books considered 20th Century classics, this one I did not use in the classroom.  I did not read this one in college.  In fact it was a gift.  The book was given to me by a friend who is no longer alive but happened to be in the right place at the right time.
On New year's eve in the waning days of 1983, he was at a rather opulent party in New York city.  At exactly 12:00 a.m. on January 1st 1984, along with the balloons and confetti, hundreds of copies of Nineteen Eighty Four came tumbling down on the party goers.  It was all tres chic and probably a good laugh.
Last week, I read that sales of the Orwell classic have increased sharply in the wake of the recent NSA revelations.  Guess that's not too surprising given that most of the country is wondering whether or not it's a good thing for the government to know everything. Their phone calls, their credit information, their photos, their social media contacts and content.

What would reading Nineteen Eighty Four give to anyone giving serious critical thought to the security dilemma we now face.  Does that novel adequately address the moral issues we're faced with in 2013?

We do have large screens in our homes and a media that talks in rather peculiar ways to us.  Props to Orwell for that.  But how in the late 1940s could anyone have foreseen the rapid change in technology and the specifics of a war on terror, if that is what this is about?
Like much of Orwell's writing, I hope the offshoot of all this is that we have a national dialogue about the right to privacy.  We seem, as a nation, to be obsessed with the 2nd Amendment rather than the 4th Amendment.  That needs to change.  But it does say a good deal about who we are as a culture.
So let's have a party.  A New Year's Eve party.  And let's drop a glittering ball, and let Harlequin colored balloons drift over the celebration.  Don't forget the confetti and this time, let's drop eloquently lettered copies of the 4th Amendment as souvenirs.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Who are we now and who are we becoming?  We walk along with our heads down constantly checking electronic devices, missing everything from urban wildlife to cars narrowly passing by.  We "submit" everything from ideas, essays, applications, poetry, and payment.  But what else is being submitted in the process.  We are down for the word count.  Awesome, amazing, and your're out.  What does it mean to be amazed anyway?
We sublet our wars, our dirty business, our licensing, our clothing, our jobs, our cars, our independent contractors.  Our Constitution is in a vice.  The federal government knows who and when we called our Aunt Dorothy, but doesn't seem to be able to track mentally ill patients when they want to procure automatic weapons.  We sit around, like I'm doing now, in cafes and coffeehouses, with remarkable people surrounding us, yet we rarely speak to them.  Too many boundaries to cross.  A polite smile to plug in a cord, an unconscious involuntary look up when someone enters the room produces a smile from time to time.  But nothing more.

     We read today about a young man, 29, perhaps, if we are to believe what we read, who hides in a hotel room on the other side of the globe.  No proof of formal education, yet he's a computer whiz who is forcing us to take a look at our moral windshield when it comes to what and how much and how and why our government knows about the citizens it would protect from the forces of terror that occupy our fantasy and reality all at once.
     We knew, decades ago, that this day was coming.  We knew that there was danger of evolving into one large butting pushing organism.  But nobody could predict just exactly what form it would take.  We could have never foreseen the steps the process would take.  Or the glaring contradiction of all this interconnectedness...that we are becoming estranged from our lives, our planet, ourselves.
Sometimes, when the world around me is quiet, in the dead of early, early morning, or the silence that comes while drifting on a lake, I'll give it a go.  You know, try to imagine this scene long after I'm gone.  What seems to be prevalent now and where it might be going.  Who I am today and what that would surely become should I linger for another couple of decades longer.  Will there be bread, will there be roses, will there be time to think about the whimsy of wind?  What will become of those who sold their hope of self knowledge for a size, a "style," a chance to perpetuate that which enslaves and strips them of their individuality, their dignity, their chance at knowing themselves.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tale of Two Lives

It appears that the death of Nelson Mandela is imminent.  Word from South Africa tonight is that his family is coming in from all over to be near his bedside.  At 94, this remarkable life will not go quietly.  It will hardly go unnoticed.  If ever the arc of a lifetime could become a paradigm for a century, for the moral enlightenment of a country, for the inspiration and wisdom of reconciliation, it would have t be Mandela.  From prisoner to President is beyond remarkable.

When Mandela leave this earth, there will be plenty of time to savor his impact.  And while that could be any day now, the news in my corner of the planet is tempered by another loss of life.  A life, arguably that contrasts with Mandela's in mysterious and profound ways, nonetheless.
     It seems the body of a newborn was found in a recycling center near Portland.  The child had once been alive.  Disturbing as this is, the case continues to baffle and disturb so much that authorities today have released a flyer with the baby's hand and feet prints.  The humanization of one so dehumanized is such an affront that it might be just the step needed to solve the mystery.
And yet these two lives swirl around in my brain in a rather uncomfortable juxtaposition.  One of stunning length and contribution, the other lived painfully brief, if at all.  Another Zen koan of sorts, the particulars irritate my soul.

Yet, there are ways, like dream dialogues or monologues that help bring meaning where none seems likely.  This unnamed child and the brilliant, strong, defiant, empathetic Mandela belong to us all.  They are in everyone.  To what extent, their own lives will tell.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

See Me

     In Amanda Coplin's wonderful new novel, The Orchardist, there is a brief scene where a young woman has her picture taken for the first time.  The setting is American West and the time is the late 19th century.  For this badly abused, now reborn character the fascination with her own image is understandable.  We all are interested in what we look like to others.  It's part of how we define ourselves, and certainly has a significant impact on such important things as self-image/concept and personal identity.  As Coplin notes in the text, it's as if she thought her image was fixed for life, would never change.
Our self image over time has always seemed to fascinate people.  From films like longitudinal study "Seven and Up," to attempts to recreate childhood photos (now very popular on social media) our certain "look" and how or if it holds up over time commands attention.

With this in mind I was wondering the other day about the photos of various writers I regularly read.  You know those thumbnail portraits in newspapers and magazines, on web sites, Facebook pages and the like.   There are a handful of folks that flat out refuse to change those pictures.  That means that they are continuing to write and evolve under an image that is no longer accurate.  I've seen clothing and hairstyles so bad still gracing the pages of recent publications that they compete with the message the writer is attempting to impart.  In extreme cases, there is hair where none presently exists.  In others, you would be hard pressed to recognize one of your favorite and familiar writers even if he'she sat next to you in a coffee shop.  What's up with that?  Why do these well known figures refuse to visually enter this century?  I could venture a guess.  Well, it's so hard for me to get a decent picture that I just go with the one that works.  Sorry, next excuse please.  Aging musicians don't seem to have this problem.
     Perhaps these folks are refusing to recognize their age.  We all look into a mirror one day and wonder who that older person staring back could be.  I somethings think I'd rather look at a face thats all painted up, tucked and trimmed, dyed to the wool, or had the cracks filled in instead of a photo from the 1980s.   A well-marked face, one with wrinkles, fissures, scars, or other identifying marks has character.  These "life tattoos" are one of a kind beauty marks.
     Can anyone recommend a business that guarantees an honest, up to date photo or your money back?  It should be mandatory, in my view.  If we can't trust or believe in your picture, how do we know what you are saying/writing is accurate?