Sunday, August 28, 2016

Census Takers

Census Taking
              South Texas-1970

The front door is not visible,
We walk up a pathway to the side of the house,
A backdoor awaits; three crisp knocks,

A voice barely audible
We try Spanish; "Es El Censo..."
"C'mon in, just turn the handle, it should work."

She sits at her kitchen table, surrounding the wooden
chair, leaning forward, yellow-gray hair sighs,

First question: Names of all people in residence?
"It's just me, and I'm waitin' to die."
There is no room  on the form for commentary,

We stay an extra few minutes,
Maybe there is something we can do?
No, something we can actually do for her.
There isn't.
Just finish the required questions and leave the gifts of the future behind.

Back on the street; four more unanswered doors.
All with children playing in the front yards.
Some of these kids understand English and my Spanish
Between the mixed dialogue we learn there are six families here

We can't leave the state until all the Census forms are in,
The phone book reveals that Martinez and Ramirez
Appear more often North of the railroad tracks.
Es El Censo
We complete the forms
Martinez and Ramirez still in the lead,
We leave the state

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Fritz Part II (Ali by candlelight)

Fritz Ehrler was as German as the name indicates.  Yet he was a WWII vet who spoke little about that as well as the pin-up tattoo that adorned the inside of his forearm.  He had deep tanned skin, no doubt because of the hours he spent fishing in sun drenched lakes.  Making Fritz smile or laugh was simple and often elicited a story or two from his reservoir of lifetime experiences.
He found his way into my life through my Texas born neighbor who was trying to patch up a leaking version of her California dream in post war suburb.
Fritz had deep lines chiseled into his face.  He had tools and worked with wood easier that he could hold a conversation.  Yet, sometimes he'd open up on those long trips back home after baking all day and handling big lake trout.
Something deep in his past triggered the tale of a phone call he'd received in the recent past.  The story he told goes like this:  He and Mary were painting a bedroom when the phone rang.  Being up on a ladder, he said let it go, but she went to get the phone.  There were no answering machines back then.  A minute later, Mary returned and said, "You better come to the phone, it sounds important, it's your sister." Fritz climbed down and went to answer the phone.  He returned shortly and resumed painting without saying a word.
"What was that about," Mary continued.
"Dad died," Fritz said.  Nothing more.  They painted together for another hour in silence.When I pressed Fritz on the subject of his father all he would say is, "My did was an SOB."
After my mom died, Fritz would occasionally look in on my dad and me and compliment my cooking.  Once when I had a little fuzzy mustache he asked me if I was going to grow a beard someday.  I quickly showed him the new dark brown hair under my arm and he advised me to circle it with a red pen so it'd be easier to find!

One rainy night my dad and I were all set to listen to the Sonny Liston Cassius Clay heavyweight title fight on the radio.  There was no TV, so we settled in when suddenly the power went out.  We later found out a light plane had crashed into some power lines and the power was out for hours.  I tried in vain to coax my little transistor radio to find the station by candlelight.  When finally successful, the radio's battery was just about spent.  "Maybe Fritz has a spare," my dad said.  We both found our way to his door by flashlight.  Fritz had no battery, but he did have a better idea.  We heard every bit of that history making "I shook up the world" title fight in Fritz's car.  My dad and Fritz in the front seat, and me in back leaning my head between them.  Male bonding at its best.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Fritz Part I

When the weather in Portland hits three digit heat, I often think of growing up in Southern California.  Everything from Little League games in scorching weather to sitting outside till dark licking popsicles with neighborhood kids comes flooding back.  And then the people...the characters, and of course the neighbors.
Today I thought of Fritz.  Fritz Ehrler was a father figure for me because he liked to fish and he took me fishing...often.  Something I couldn't do with my own father.  My dad and I had baseball to share, but Fritz was a real outdoorsman who had the patience and kindness to teach me what he knew.  He also had access to a private lake.  As a member of something called the Fin and Feather Club, he could bring one or two guests along in his small boat.  The lake was located in Palmdale, way out in the desert North of L.A.  It took a couple of hours to get there and by the time we'd get his small boat off the trailer and into the water it was a good 3 hours till we could wet a line.  This was bait fishing, something I no longer do.  Fritz didn't miss an opportunity to succeed.  He started the process about 5:00pm the previous evening when he'd ask me along to go to a local market.  The Community Market, a small independent San Fernando Valley grocery store was the first stop.  They had a modest butcher counter and Fritz would buy a half dozen mackerel.  At home, he'd cut them up into chunks, add a little water and then load the stink mess into a large empty mayonnaise jar.
After anchoring the boat, he'd unscrew the lid on a the jar a bit and slowly, when the coast was clear, lower the jar into the water.  As it slowly sank under the boat, it let off a stream of mackerel.  Chumming at it's finest.  Our offerings of salmon eggs or worms had lots of takers lured there by the scent from the jar.  Fritz didn't worry about ethics when it came to catching fish because all trout caught on this lake found there way to frying pans.

Fritz was a chain smoker (but not while fishing) He smoked one Camel after another while driving.  He had a small Smokey the Bear ash tray mounted on the dash of his Ford station wagon which always contained a cigarette butt.  Before lighting a new cigarette, Fritz would transfer the last butt into the car's large ashtray below the dash and ready Smokey for his latest offering.  It was ritual.
Much of Fritz remained a mystery to me.  He was the second husband of my neighbor Mary who was a single parent other two daughters, one slightly older than me, one slightly younger.  I'd know her first husband and the girl's father until their divorce about three years before Fritz first appeared.  He was Bob, the Don Draper of this Mad Men world.  I see now how many of those folks in my 50s childhood were alcoholics.  This launching pad for the post War boomer generation was often much rougher than it appeared behind those suburban doors.
But Fritz reached out and took this kid with him.  Maybe I was the son he never had, or maybe he just wanted to talk to someone while he fished.  I know how lonely going out alone can be.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

If the Trucks Pass

With the political ascendency of Donald Trump comes one of the true moral challenges of our time.  In deciding whether or not to support the nominee of their party, Republican politicians as well as the base of the party are confronted with the politics of sociopathology.  When, in the course of human events, it becomes obvious that one who seeks power displayed the characteristics of mental illness, what to do?
For some, the choice would be simple.  Their moral compass makes definite the options.  They draw upon the lessons of history, the instances of crossroads previously chosen, and the powerful example of reasoning the consequences of a haphazard decision.  But even the notable moral philosopher/psychologist Kohlberg acknowledged that for most people, attaining the highest level of moral reasoning based on conscience is difficult, if not unreachable.
One also runs the risk in this discussion of being the haughty one on moral high ground while you all struggle to even reach the threshold.  Still, let's go on so that this discussion can take place.
The Nobel prize winning author, Toni Morrison, while being interviewed by the late Ed Bradley of CBS, once said, "I feel that white people will betray me.  That in the final analysis, they'll give me up.  If the trucks pass and they have to make a choice, they'll put me on that truck. That's really what I feel."
She went on to add, "By the way, there are lots of black people who'd put me on that truck also, so I'm not trying to demonize the white race.  It's just a kind of a constant vigilance and awareness that maybe these relationships can go just so far."

This is precisely how I feel about people who are either unable to see Trump for what he is, and/or people whose politics have no moral compass whatsoever.  The trucks passing is of course a reference to Nazi Germany and many Jewish people who were placed on those rolling trucks by those unable to make a moral decision in time of crisis.
I suppose we all have relationships with people that can only go just so far.  In my effort to maintain a variety of friendships from the different universes I frequent, I'm often confronted with the roadblock that says, this is where you stop.  I must add, no, this is where I need to get off.
I realize there is grave danger in walking around constantly wondering who would throw me under the bus if it came down to a choice, but that's precisely the kind of thing the current political climate creates.  I see, almost daily, the kind of politico who, on some level, must know better, but in the end is incapable of making a moral decision.  What remains to be seen is what, if any will be the consequences for all involved.
If I were in the classroom this school year, I'd go deep with the metaphor of trucks passing.  The possibilities are unlimited.  By winter break, there is even the possibility of getting answers to some of these crucial questions.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Turn Tables

I have a friend who seems to have made a major pivot in his life.  He's realized that he's lived more days than he probably has left and has altered his reality accordingly.  Unemployed, he'll probably never work again because the economy and the skill set he possesses don't quite fit in to today's circumstances.  He's bright...very bright, a college grad and has the gift of empathy.  Lots has gone wrong in his interpersonal relationships, but he's content to spend his time reading, observing, and commenting on the current political farce now playing everywhere.
I mention him because like many, he's an anomaly.  Between social and cultural realities, no sense of urgency, watching the parade go by.  Who knows, maybe he has a trust fund that supports this lifestyle.  There is often more behind what we see from the outside looking in.  But it occurred to me that this purgatory applies to us all in many ways, especially those of us who relate to the having lived more days that I expect to live in the future.
There are things that most folks no longer do; simple things, daily things.  Mail a letter, buy a newspaper, and pay for something in cash come easily to mind.  Writing a check in now passed, as is going inside a bank.  The nightly news is relegated to those over fifty these days.  And music...there's the rub.  It now seems if millions should have hung on to their turntables and boxes of vinyl records.  I'm even thinking go buying one of those Crosby record players so I can spin some of my prized blues collection again.

About 50 years ago the Kerner Commission, that blue ribbon committee that investigated race relations in 1968, warned that the U.S. was in grave danger of becoming two separate societies, one black and one white.  In many ways that has happened; yet there has been much cultural blending that they could not have foreseen.  It's always more complicated than we initially think.  There appear to be other dichotomies as well.  One of age seems apparent.  Generationally we don't do things the same way.  We don't shop, eat, recreate, and seek entertainment in a similar fashion.  Yet, this doesn't always impede people in social  situations.  Often situations arise where we dance, we talk and we grieve together.  Here's where I miss my students the most.  Learning is always a two way street.
Something that slowly sneaked up on me is my consciousness  of being the oldest one in the room.  I know I can fool people because I look and usually act a little younger than I am, but damned if I don't catch myself wondering who here is older than I am, when I walk into a pub or restaurant.
Fortunately (I think) I always find somebody if I really look hard enough.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Imagining the Positive

Today I read a short piece in an online literary magazine about robots that can now write poetry.  This type of "Artificial Intelligence" uses algorithms to churn out complex imagery and messages from the heart.  Is this an example of because we can or is it perhaps something to be welcomed.  We can't stop it but the contradictory nature of this genre seems to be something we might learn from.  At least it seems to be.

Perhaps there is a slippery slope here.  If the trend of replacing humans with robots goes uncontrolled, what can human beings expect for future generations.  This could go two ways.  There's an idea for a novel: one scenario, two possible outcomes.  I see the dark version already.  It's probably the one that would win out and that explains why so many dystopic views of the future are so negative.  They abound.  From the Hollywood tropes like "Wayward Pines," to some of the classic literary versions that continue to pour off the presses and entice young adult readers.  But it is the positive side that needs some attention lately.
Just imagine how easy and stress free life might be if humans had nothing more to do but improve and protect the environment and work on their own happiness.  Of course it's not that simple, but there is a possibility of an optimistic future in there somewhere, just this side of John Lennon's Imagine.