Saturday, December 24, 2016

Best for Humanity

Back in the 16 year old days of my life I went for a walk on Christmas eve.  It was an uncommonly cold winter for Southern California, and while there was no hope of snow, there was thick fog and the breath we blew turning to mist and leading the way.  In my new found freedom as a 16-year-old, I went on a little excursion around my neighborhood.  Announcing that I'd be back in a few minutes, I walked the length of my street noticing the frosty windows, the lit Christmas trees or an occasional blue and white Hanukkah arrangement. It was a transcendent moment. I realized too, that every house on my block, both sides, was lit up.  There was no agreement among neighbors to do anything, it just turned out that everyone was on board that year. As I turned to walk back up the street, I stopped and made a vow.  Squinting my eyes to make the colors melt and sear them into my memory, I vowed to remember that moment always. I can still see the golden reds and bluish purples against a blue-black moonless sky. That moment was pure joy.
Maybe it's the fog we've had here in Portland recently, or perhaps the icy malaise that's befallen our country lately, but I was poignantly reminded of that Christmas eve today.

It was a moment in time when the world seemed to be in sync...seemed to be at real peace with itself. Of course that was an illusion.  That was the year President Kennedy was killed and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing.  It was a time when I was realizing the true nature of the mythology that enveloped the version of my country that I had swallowed. Definitely a transformative time in my young life. A time of thinking deeper and experiencing the daylight of realization.
Thinking back now, that moment I wished to freeze may have been nothing more than a brief respite from the world that was emerging and beginning to brandish it's uglier self for all to see. Even though TV was still mostly black and white, it was the vehicle that transmitted and transported social change.
This year feels hauntingly similar. Many of the gains of the early 1960s are unraveling before our eyes and ears. I still can't get my head around the fact that the Voting Rights Act has been a target.  No walks to lock in the Christmas lights this year. Just a warm beverage, a silent prayer, and a commitment to find and foster what is best for humanity and the humanity in my soul.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Some For Later

I've been reading Patti Smith's autobiography entitled Just Kids.  This is not going to be a review of said book or even a critical account in any way.  Rather, it will be what resonates for me because give or take a few months, Smith and I are nearly the same age and definitely from the same generation.
Yes, Patti is an unabashed name dropper, but when you spent a good chunk of your life running around with the likes of  artist Robert Mapplethorpe and poet Gregory Corso, that's t be expected.   Sharing Andy Warhol's table or a chance meeting with Allen Ginsberg can create such opportunities. I'm fine with that.

What resonates most for me is the honesty and self assessment that Smith consistently employs in her narration.  That is, she shares her misgivings about drug use, queer identity and some of the biggest rock stars of the era, like Jim Morrison.  In some ways I hear a voice chiming:"You had to be there." There was a time, you see, when our culture had rigid rubrics for anyone out of the ordinary.  What might seem too inflexible now, was out of the question back then.  People my age can easily calculate the speed of social change by looking at various things like the amount of skin visible in photographs, the language usage in films and now even on TV programs, and the semi-legalization of marijuana in our own neighborhoods.
I like the work ethic that Patti and Robert exhibit in the narrative.  They are committed to their work while questioning the place and purpose of a life in Art constantly.  To be an artist is, for many, to be a constant self-promoter.  There is no fairness or equality involved.  Much is chance and blind luck.  We all know the stories of famous writers whose rooms were plastered with rejection notices and most tragically, those whose fame came long after their demise, either physically or mentally, or both.
Like many young people I worked with for so many years, Patti Smith is and always was, a close observer of her environment.  You can't teach that.  She is and was forever making small altars and performing minor rituals.  I like that.
There are a couple of particularly haunting scenes in the book where Patti and Robert have only enough money for one hot dog or one bowl of soup.  Lest one think that I'm going to extol the virtues of poverty, (nothing virtuous there) I will say that these experiences stay with a person long afterward and can be a powerful shaper of personality.  I'm reminded of the great writer Richard Wright, who even when he would go to literary functions to honor him would secretly slip a few dinner rolls into his jacket pockets.  It never leaves.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Silent Day

People in this town are still friendlier than most places.  They acknowledge your presence, they smile occasionally, they even speak.  Once in a while there is a dismissive look, but usually from someone who associates me with a parent or authority figure, or a walking stereotype.
Yet, the general malaise persists.  This post-election new normal is slithering down our throats like cod liver oil or that cough medicine we never could stomach.  But we continue on.  In some ways it's that quiet shock that accompanies us daily.
Other signs are present.  A bookstore displays Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, and suggests the parallels are uncanny.  I open a copy and read at random.  Could be.  Could be it is happening here.  But, I question myself, maybe it's been happening since the 1903s when that novel was written.  Fascism oozes slowly, sometimes over decades.
This year the holiday spirit seems caught in a snare.  The snow helps the visual landscape, the warm beverages build an alliance, some of the music completes the ensemble, but it's still too quiet.
I decide to turn gifts into donations where possible.

The electronic mailbox bulges:
Petitions to sign about the Electoral College, Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, and the U N Foundation for International Health and Rainforest Alliance.
Old favorites like Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and National Association for Mental Illness.  Don't forget the Alzheimer's Association, Cancer Society, and Heart Association.
Especially important this year is the Dakota Access Pipeline (winter has come to those camped permanently to save our mother) More petitions that would like modest donations:  Fracking, Resist the Muslim Registry, Rainforest Alliance, Voting Rights (Didn't we settle that one 40 years ago?) Pleas to save elephants, sea turtles, Yellowstone bison,wolves, orcas, giraffes, and the World Wildlife Fund.
I have local issues to consider as well: Homelessness, Food Bank, and After the Finish Line (retired race horses) There are my neighbors on the street who shake my compassion because even those with bigger issues can look hungry.
It's uncommonly quiet, but I have things to talk about.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Poem for a Middle School Memory

               Junior High

Seventh grade fears are
                                carved in soap,

Gymnastics with an Olympic medalist,
                                the idiot who pees on your books in the

                                   lavatory where no body laves,

Each day after shifting gears by the volleyball nets,

        dodging balls and anti Semitic jokes and jive (they used to throw pennies at us)

I come home to Ray Charles who never disappoints.

I play the album repeatedly,  a candle in the dark valley.

                       "What'd I say,"

                                               is my favorite.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Before Then

I know a few young people that seem very disappointed with the speed of change.  Aside from the recent election, they feel as if nothing changes at all, or if it does it's at a snail's pace.  It often seems that way, but social change does happen, and it's very subtle, if not sneaky.
In mulling over some short story ideas, I've been thinking lately about all the things my parents never did, saw, used, or experienced.  Since I'm a classic Baby Boomer, it's safe to say that what I'm about to elaborate on considers about the last 70 years.

This thought started when recalling a memory from the 9 year old days of my life.  On my first trip to Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, my family went with my aunt and uncle.  This was Disneyland's first decade and some of the things it's known for weren't even in existence then.
I was sitting next to my Aunt Dorothy on the seat of a horse drawn streetcar that went up Main St, and it occurred to me that my Aunt was alive before automobiles were commonplace.  She was born around 1910.  Suddenly the entire scope of her lifetime up to that moment in time had included everything from horse drawn vehicles to L.A. freeways...primitive airplanes to jet travel...silent films to color TV.
With that in mind, it occurred to me that my folks, of that same generation, had never done or seen a number of things commonly done today.  Both my parents were gone by 1976 which means that they had never:
                 used a computer
                written a text or an email
                used a remote, or seen color TV in their home
                Used a push button phone or a cell phone
                bought organic food in their local grocery store
                played a cassette tape a CD, or a DVD
                Seen cable TV in their home
                Purchased anything online
                Shipped anything by FedEx

....More to come

So, these are just technological changes, what about social change?  Has social justice come in ways as revolutionary as the electronic devices we covet?  Is there a relationship between the two?  That's the next step in determining just how much change surrounds us even though it seems we aren't making progress with our own interactions.