Thursday, June 29, 2017

Big George

Yesterday, I learned of the death of a friend and former colleague.  George Austin was a big man.  A social science teacher and football coach, he taught and mentored thousands of young people over a long career.  Although George was not elderly, he had recently retired, but never lived to enjoy the rest he deserved.  That often happens. He'd recently had knee surgery and to the best of my knowledge some of the complications of subsequent surgeries took his life.  George was the kind of teacher who could easily put his students needs first.  He took the time to do that.  His priorities were solidly in order.

About 20 years ago, we were roommates for a week at a National Writing Project conference in Princeton, New Jersey.  I really got to know George that week.  Aside from the intensive work we participated in regarding teacher research, there was time for some relaxation free time.
One morning, George asked me to accompany him on a search for clothing.  He knew about a store for large men somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike and had rented a car for the purpose of going there and later to New York.  So here we are, two California guys trying to deal with the toll roads on the East coast and  starkly unfamiliar territory.  When we found the place, George was able to benefit from the current sales and managed to find a few things.  As I perused the inventory of this specialty shop, I was amazed at some of the sizes available.  I never knew of the existence of Triple X and beyond sizes.  Some of the garments made big George look small.
Later that week, the teachers at this conference decided to have a talent show and one evening before the show, George and I cooked up an idea.  We'd spent some free time walking on the Princeton campus and generally comparing the environment of the school and the town to the milieu of UC Berkeley.  We were struck by the fact that the lack of diversity and homeless people was striking.  We'd shared that idea with some of our east coast colleagues.  So that evening we hatched a plan.  I would go on stage with my harmonica pretending that I'd play a few tunes as my contribution to the talent show.  But suddenly I'd announce that while walking around the town I ran into a famous bluesman.  George would take the role of "Big George" an important and well known figure in Blues circles.  I told the audience that invited him to perform tonight and them introduced him to the crowd.  Out walks George, with appropriate pork pie hat and a bluesy disposition.  We then performed a revised version of Muddy Water's "I'm a Man."  I think a few folks were momentarily fooled, or at least confused.  Great fun.
Later that week, George and our new friend Marsha from Philly went over to the then Philadelphia Park  racetrack where, in the rain, I introduced them to the concept of mud breeding and we managed to hit a nice exacta before returning to the evening session of the conference.  Great day.
While those memories of George will stay strong, I'll never forget the day after Bill Clinton was elected to his first term.  Winning the Presidency after years and years of Reagan and Bush, we were all ready for the future.  That Wednesday morning, as I walked down the hallway of the main building of our school, George approached me from the other direction smiling broadly.  He motioned me over and whispered in my ear, "The money be flown' now," he said.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Homeless Business

When I drive around the Berkeley/Oakland area on one of my annual visits to the place that was home for 40 years, I can't help but notice the re-ordering of buildings, businesses, and neighborhoods.      To drive the streets and look for familiar haunts is a challenge as new configurations abound, and new incarnations of coffee houses, restaurants, and various businesses are the order of the day.
I still see the old hardware store or the stationery store that used to be there.  An Italian Deli has sprung up two doors down from where one used to be.  A small bookstore holds on for dear life and even though the drug store with the soda fountain intact has somehow managed to be preserved, it's changed ownership a handful of times in recent years.

I see the little Egg and Apple Press shop where I once dated that red-headed waitress with the smiling face and brilliant eyes.  It's been a Middle Eastern cant for a couple of decades now.  Of course the travel agency is long gone.  Do they still exist?
One bakery survives, and a little parking lot is still there.  It's presence makes all this reminiscing possible.  Parking is 7 min. for a quarter.  A nickel buys a minute a dime two more.
In place of the big Chinese restaurant, I see the Hofbrau with the Italian name that was always good for an affordable carved sandwich and a quiet place to read day or night.  The little ice cream shop i gone, the savings and loan is a boutique, and the little soup place with the lovely wooden tables is an import shop with rugs hanging on the walls and shawls in earth tones visible through the windows.  I graded a lot of papers in my early years as a teacher at that corner table.
Surely something has got to be the same, weathered the storm from four decades of gentrification and transition?  Maybe it's the little pocket park along the stretch of Ashby Ave that rises to the hills.  Perhaps the 7-11 store that sits in the same mini strip mall with the laundromat and the thrift store.
Even the bank has morphed into another one.  This time there are a few empty spaces.  Recent casualties and left blank until someone steps up to take a risk.  It'll need to be something that is immune to online shopping or a kind of food nobody is doing nearby.  Like many communities, it may just linger for awhile and be a homeless premises, in a time when buildings, like people risk abandonment from a culture in transition.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Tao of Impermanence

Been thinking about a conversation I had some years ago with a wonderful elder.  I's befriended him at a local coffee shop in Oakland and we became fast friends.  Maybe it was the Austrian accent, or the fact that he'd been a teacher.  Maybe just the fact that he was a warm, funny and vulnerable person who depended on me from time to time to accompany him on errands and getting around.  I knew he had a daughter, with issues that remained mostly estranged, but one day I asked if he had any other family.  "I have a son too," he told me.  Where is he, I asked.  "He disappeared," was his quick reply.  "What do you mean he disappeared," I countered.  "People disappear, you know."
I left it t that but figured that they's lost contact somewhere along the way.

Things disappear too.  Sometimes they turn out to be some of your favorite things.  Recently a funky little breakfast place I frequent changed its menu.  Gone were the wonderful home fries that kept me coming back.  Their toast order was diminished and the color of the building had also changed form blue to light green.  No warning, just gone and different one day.
Now this is no great shakes.  Definitely a first world problem that I'll easily get over, but it joins a long line of products, services, and places that seem to be disappearing on a much too frequent basis these days.
Things change.  We know.  But do they always have to.  The makers of the best marionberry scones are still up and running even though their bakery closed without warning.  Ice cream flavors, hair shampoos, restaurants, even coffee shops just up and vanish sometimes.
I know all about the Zen of impermanence, but why does it seem like when some things are no longer available, there is nothing we can do about it?
There are far too many more important items to deal with for me to put any more energy into the rant.  But sometimes, when the rug gets pulled out from under, I just want to have a say in the matter.
Back to the Tao of substance.  Enjoy it while it exists.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Political Animals

The current malaise that seems to be enveloping this country will react to the hearings being televised and Tweeted, consumed and considered.  We have a President that lies and who's lack of concern for protocol seems to be catching up with him.  As expected, he tries to run the country like he runs his businesses.  He cares little for ethics and makes moral calculations that are sadly lacking.  This is what happens when you try apply one model to another.  In business, you can step on people.  It's done all the time, because "business is business."  When you work with people and have the power to impact lives while seemingly advocating for the greater good, you can't quantify issues and boil them down to what is most expedient.  With people there is supposed to be a human factor.  Human beings are emotional and in the words of Aristotle we are "political animals."
That does not mean we like politics, or that we are ever engaged in politics, it means more that we are social creatures.  As such it follows that we should have empathy for one another.

If political power is decision-making power, and I think it is, then an empathetic leader should be a necessity.  We don't always have one, and we certainly do not have one now.
What we seem to have a difficult time learning is that there are some specific characteristics about the people who seek public office.  They crave power.  The power to impact the lives of others.  I submit that if we look into their backgrounds we can find the reasons and that what fuels the drive for power will emerge.  Could be genetic or the product of their environment. Probably both, but they all seem to have the need to control, be at the helm, be the one who makes the call.
On the personal and political hierarchies of politicians, some of their core values get short shrift.  They shuffle their moral and ethical principles when necessary and parse words in ever fascinating and increasing ways.
It's often been said that all politics is local.  That seems to be a good indicator of how corrupt it can be.  Think of all the city councils and local police departments that have some sort of scandal right now.  It's a constant.  Something we continue to face day after day. Almost predictable.
I will not compare the current situation concerning the Trump presidency with Watergate.  There may be some similarities, but not enough to make the contrast worthwhile.  Instead I will offer the possibility that we learned a good deal back in 1973 and I expect we will learn a good deal more this time around.  If we incorporate that knowledge into our take away, perhaps we can save the fragile form of government we purport to adore.