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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Short History of "I Can't Breathe"

"I can't breathe," a phrase that has become a slogan, signifies more than Eric Garner's final, exasperated words. 

The phrase is powerful; it depicts Mr. Garner's final words, but also reflects an attitude in minority populations (black, brown, yellow, red, mixed-color) of being suffocated by the structures of power--laws, penal codes, erected on principles of racism and bigotry so ingrained in our culture they have become invisible. 

I couldn't help but feel that I had heard the phrase before, in slightly altered form. The phrase and its connotations beyond the literal have their roots in Richard Wright's seminal book on racial injustice and inequality, 1940's Native Son. 

In the beginning of the novel, Bigger Thomas, the novel's anti-hero, stands on the corner chatting with Gus, his friend and nemesis. They are smoking, joking, pretending at playing white, ruminating on the impossibility of achieving the same things that white people have power to achieve. Success, wealth, equality, are forbidden them, not because they lack intelligence, work ethic, or talent, but because of their skin color. At one point, Bigger asks Gus where white folks live. 

"Over across the 'line'; over there on Cottage Grove Avenue."
"Naw; they don't," Bigger said.
"What you mean?" Gus asked, puzzled. "Then where do they live?" 
Bigger doubled his fist and struck his solar plexus.
"Right down here in my stomach," he said. 
Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed.
"Yeah; I know what you mean," he whispered.
"Every time I think of 'em I feel 'em," Bigger said. 
"Yeah; and in you chest and throat, too," Gus said. 
"It's like a fire."
"And sometimes you can't hardly breathe. . ." 

That final line is telling.

No one will ever know if Mr. Garner was channeling Bigger Thomas when he spoke his final words and I can't help but find a striking allusion between his brief life and the fictional life of Bigger Thomas. In some sense, Mr. Garner seems the living embodiment, a symbol of every poor black man denied opportunity because of this nation's racist attitudes, attitudes that see black and brown, yellow and red and people of mixed race, as objects that deserve oppression. 

Mr. Garner was a big man, over six feet tall and three hundred plus pounds, and his physical presence caused in the five or six white officers fear, distrust, and opportunity to test their manhood against his (a superior force). Mr. garner's fictional counterpart was named Bigger, and both men, the fictional and the real, described their relationship with the white world as being choked. But whereas Bigger spoke metaphorically about his inability to breathe, Mr. Garner's statement occupied that space between the literal and metaphoric, allusive and real, that has made it out of the lexicon of literature into public discourse.    

"I can't Breathe" has become a powerful slogan. It is worn on T-shirts by sports figures, Reggie Bush, Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving being the latest. It is a slogan that, I am afraid, is being commodified. On redbubble.com, you can buy a plain white "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt for $22.40, or a fancier one (choose your own color) complete with thought bubble outlined in red, for $26.54. On etsy.com you can buy one for $14.99, complete with Eric Garner's name emblazoned on it. It was only a matter of time. What's next? coffee mugs, surely, baseball hats, scarves (how fittingly ironic), you name it. Someone will profit from it, but not Mr. Garner's family. They have already suffered the indignity of injustice. 

Later in the novel, Bigger appeals to the white race. “I want to tell you about all the Negroes in America. I want to tell you how they live and how they feel. I want you to change your minds about them before it is too late to prevent a worse disaster than any we have known. I speak for my own people, but I speak for America too.” His words come as if choked out of him, like Mr. Garner's final words.  







Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chaos on Remington Court

The kitchen cabinets and drawers released their contents, spilling plates and glasses onto the stone floors.

The big screen TV tipped back against the wall and the six foot slate blackboard, weighing a hundred and fifty pounds, toppled over, crashed face down, missing the hefty coffee table by a mere inch.

The ceiling fans swung, chafing the plaster.

The pool lost 12,000 gallons of water, drenching the yard and pushing the patio furniture against the house. Planters toppled, shattered.

In the garage, the motorcycles tipped over, the riding jackets lay dumped onto the floor in a pile. And the shelving buckled, spilling fishing tackle, tools, cans of lubricants, wax, cleaning solvents.

And the drums fell.

And things like floorboards, videos, cans of paint, suitcases and books fell from their cubbies.

In the bedrooms, dressers tipped over, mirrors, photos in their frames shattered against the tiles.

In the office, the ancient LC Smith typewriter crashed from its perch above the bookcase and slammed into the desk.

In the office, the bookcases released their books, the shelves traveling ten inches from the wall. The file cabinet moved a foot to the left. The printer/fax machine slammed against the wall. The guitar on its stand toppled over. Rocks, postcards, small statues, fell from their places onto the hardwood.

The wine in the wine cabinets jilted from their positions, crashed onto the floor. We lost only one bottle of wine, a Narsai David, 2004, an auction item for which my wife paid a hundred and fifty dollars. We were "saving" it for the perfect occasion; it undoubtedly passed. The chandelier above the stand alone tub broke into a thousand pieces.

Throughout the house, cracks appeared in the hallways--in the master bedroom, in the powder room, in the family room, in the garage, and in the kitchen--some thin, surface disruptions to the paint and plaster, some deeper fault lines.

So much broken glass.

One dining table chair fell over.

Potted plants few into the wall, shattered.

So much violence done in twenty odd seconds.

The walls held, The ceiling and the floors, all held. The staircase held. The windows held. The large chandelier, constructed of cast iron and glass sconces, held. The second story did not fly apart, come crashing down and crushing us. The computer in the office held, and even the tiny statue of Buddha, about the size of peanut, stayed rooted in his spot on the computer's stand, guarding its fortune cookie fortune: "Allow yourself time - you will reach success." The bed in the master bedroom held, barely traveling away from the wall, and the clothes in the closet remained just where we placed them, tucked and folded in neat rows on the shelves. The patio awning held, the palm trees and rose trees, the birds of paradise, held. The chimneys, the fences, the facade's two decorate columns, all held. No new cracks in the driveway, no new cracks in the front walkway, no new cracks and crevices appeared in the patio. The gutters and downspouts remained in their fixed positions, and except for four decorative bricks along the lower outside walls, the facade held. These are things to be thankful for.

Family is true wealth. My wife was unhurt. My newborn son slept through the violence, the shaking house, his screaming mother. One day we will tell him what he survived and the "courage" he displayed, asleep, dreaming, no doubt of his mother's milk. My stepson was unhurt. My two dogs, perhaps shocked and alarmed by the world shaking, bending, threatening to break apart, were unhurt, though as early earthquake detection warning devices they fell asleep on the job. I was unhurt. These are what I am most thankful for.

We lost power. The house alarm screamed. We lost phone service, both landline and phone. We lost water. Eighty water mains in the area ruptured. I shut off the power. I did not smell gas. James and Victoria across the street lost their statues of Christian saints. They lost their newly constructed pool. James knocked on our front door at 4:00 AM, concerned about us and especially the baby. "We are fine," I told him. "We're unhurt." He said he needed my help to upright the refrigerator and so I helped him. We managed to push up the five hundred pound beast. A wine bottle spilled out and rolled across the floor. His family was unhurt, his wife Victoria, chubby little Marcus with the lisp, and cute Abigail with her Coke-bottle glasses and their other grandchildren were all fine.

James and I checked on the neighbors. Lori, recently diagnosed with cancer, was fine, cheery as ever: "It's just stuff!" Mrs. Spielberg next door was concerned about gas. Her expensive chandelier, made of brass and glass, crashed onto her dining room table. She lost expensive mirrors, an expensive chair, expensive dishes and fine china. But she was fine. All the neighbors, bleary eyed, rattled, had lost things but their families were whole, sustaining just a few minor scrapes, minor scratches, no broken bones. Our love of family, community, concern for the welfare of our neighbors, remained intact.

As we continue to assess the damages in our homes and downtown, calculate our losses, we will surely replace planters and chandeliers, sculptures of Christian saints and expensive dishes, but what we can never replace, or eradicate, is the memory of that early morning, when the overwhelming sensation of powerlessness swept through us like a tidal wave.

Downtown, with its many broken buildings, will recover, and the wine industry, having lost its yields, will recover.

We will recover because we have good friends and decent families.

We will recover because that is who we are: Patient, Resilient, Possessed of indomitable will.

Because in the end, "It's just stuff."
   





Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Morning I Handed Arnold Schwarzenegger a Napkin

It's one of those surreal experiences.

Yountville, CA, a little town just off of Highway 29, between Napa and St. Helena. A main strip lined by numerous high end boutiques and high end restaurants. It's a stopover town with a village feel, where wine enthusiasts pause for lunch or dinner before returning to their winery tours.

It can be snobbish. People can, if they want, ignore you, pretend you're not really real.

The town lies about eight miles from my house in Napa.

Sometimes, usually mornings, I'll go there, sit in my Jeep in the parking lot at the end of __ St., overlooking the kiddie's park. I'll usually read a book, or write in my journal, while behind me stretches the Yountville Graveyard.

Yesterday morning, I drove to Bouchon Bakery. Thomas Keller owns it. He owns Bouchon Restaurant, Ad Hoc, and also the most famous restaurant in America: The French Laundry. He's a nice guy. Tall. Jessette and I met him once after dinner at Ad Hoc last year. We didn't tell him the meal left much to be desired, as did his menu. I might have scolded him for missing his book-signing appointment at Copperfield's Books a couple months back. He signed a magazine for Jessette. That was nice of him.

Yesterday--a gray sky. Not too cold for mid-february: About 56F. I parked at Hurley's, walked over to the bakery, entered to a bliss forbidden to diabetics.  Like me.

It's a small space, just an L-shaped glass case full of freshly baked sweets, and a small counter for the register. The coffee menu is located to the left of the register, high up on the wall. The menu is in chalk. It always smells nice inside, sweet. all the things behind the case, macaroons, muffins, chocolate eclairs, all the things in the cubbies behind the register, french or sourdough or ciabbatta, are temptations I cannot yield to. My blood sugar that morning was 126. My endocrinologist, Dr. Lee, wants it below a hundred. If it gets above 200, consistently, she'll put me on insulin shots.

I haven't eaten breakfast. I'm here for a machiatto.

A double costs $3.00.

I am annoyed. An older couple cannot decide what they want.

I wait.

They lean into the glass case, their excitement leaking from them in little "oohs" and "aahs." Two girls enter behind me. One's a pasty faced bleached blonde, wearing a white tank top and pajama bottoms. Her friend, an asian girl is shorter than her, appropriately dressed in jeans and a jacket. She's not as pretty.

The older couple finalize their selection.

I wait.

The door opens. A voice says, "Are you in line?"

It's a voice instantly recognizable. I've heard it say other things, like "I'll be back," or "It's not a tumor."

That voice can't be here. Not here in Yountville of all places. I turn around and to my utter shock, "The ex-Governator."

It's one of those surreal moments in your life. Your mind doesn't believe what your eyes see. You take a double take. Here's Conan, the Kindergarten Cop, the Terminator, Dr. Freeze. Here's the same guy, standing inches away from you who you've watched run through a desert, half naked in a loin cloth. You've watched him give speeches at the State of the State address. You've watched his rise and fall and rise again. He's, if anything, tenacious. A bit wrinkled now, smaller than you imagined. And here he is. Also not as tall as you thought.

Arnold looks at you and gives you one of his trademark half-smiles, like just before he's about to deliver a witty line, "Get to the choppa!" or "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!" He knows that you know who he is. You can see it in his squint. He turns to the display cases and starts ogling the desserts. It seems like one of the stars has fallen out of the sky and crashed into Bouchon. It must be incredible to know one's presence has the power to alter one's speech, shift attitudes. His presence changes the quality of the air. Celebrity has the power to do that: alter the light, suck air from a room, enliven even the dullest experience, like getting a cup of coffee. 

I wait. 

"This is surreal," I say to the man beside him. He's an older guy, mid fifties, early sixties, dressed like a yuppie in blue khakis and a baby blue Brooks Brothers sweater. The man smiles and nods but says nothing. I say, "Try the eclairs, they're delicious." Maybe he'll get one, or a dozen? 

I turn back to Arnold and I stick out my hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you." He says nothing. His hands feel smaller than I imagined them. Soft. "You're a living legend," I say. He squints at me. He says nothing. I wait for wit. I smile and move away. 

I wait. 

After ordering, exchanging looks of shock and surprise with the girl at the register, I park myself before the condiments table: sugar, lids, stirrers, napkins. A quick glance at Arnold. He's stuffing his face with something sweet, a muffin or a macaroon. He approaches me with sticky fingers. I am blocking the napkin tray. I reach behind me and hand him a napkin. He doesn't thank me. He turns and moves back to his group. 

I wait. 

My machiatto arrives and I hurry out. I have never been star struck. I don't chase down celebrities for their autographs, or ask for pictures. Somehow it feels undignified. They're human, not gods. But still, I felt lucky somehow. 

I called Jessette and told her what had just happened. She seemed surprised but unimpressed. God, I love her. 

A few people took pictures with him and he obliges them, but not with pleasure. You see it in his face. He's sour. Posing for pictures is part of the role he's playing: Celebrity. Because when he's not "acting" or ruining California, he's a celebrity. People hugged him as he made his way back from Bouchon's restroom and all I kept thinking was if the young man standing near him was his illegitimate son?

"Let's try that antique shop," Arnold said. 

Wow, I thought, the Terminator likes antiques. 

After Arnold returned to his black SUV with his group and drove away, South towards HWY 29, Yountville seemed altered. People flitted by on the pavement with their dogs on leashes, or in pairs, entered and exited Bouchon, ignorant that Arnold S. had been there moments ago buying pastries.  

I sat outside the bakery and read my book, "Reflections in a Golden Eye." I wondered about missed opportunities and luck. What other things in life do we miss? What other chances? We arrive five minutes too early or too late and we fail to meet the person of our dreams. We miss the lottery jackpot by a couple of numbers. Despite preparation our words and gestures at that job interview betray us.  

There was no preparation meets opportunity dictum at work here. Meeting Arnold in Yountville was pure chance, an event that won't be repeated. I wondered how we could transform each moment into a strange and surreal event, where the very light seems to change. 
















  


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why Write When You Could Be_______?

Recently I was asked why I write when I could be making real money? That's a harder question to answer than "what," "when," or even "how" one writes. Every answer you furnish sounds trite, disingenuous, at least to you, most of all to them. Why does anyone do anything?

Maybe I write because it's more than a choice to add words to a page, it's a compulsion, not unlike checking and rechecking locked doors. You revisit the page you've written, making sure you've gotten the words right. You delete sentences, a word, a punctuation mark. Sometimes you cut whole paragraphs. You leave the page only to return and check the same things you'd checked before, because somehow, in the hour or day or week you'd been away, the page changed. So you add a word, delete a word, add or delete a punctuation mark, reorder a sentence, hoping this time the page is done, that the room is closed, finally locked.

I write because there's a lot more writing to be done. It's not true that "there's nothing new under the sun." Everything that's been said can be said better, explored further, more deeply. No one who ever creates art ever hits bedrock.

I write because sometimes when I'm cooking chicken curry for my wife, a sentence enters my head with such force I have to do something about it. The sentence is not my sentence, the voice is not my voice. The sentence is a gift, vivid, yet a perfect mystery whose depths I must plumb. I had forgotten what rain sounded like. Why? She sits in the snow, threading grapes with a needle. Why?

I write because I notice things others don't. For instance, the way water courses through brooks and streams, multiplying its force through channels. But not just its direction, it's the way sometimes single drops leap into the air like atoms and vanish; or that particular infusion of ripe and fermented scents rising from sun-baked hillsides or grape fields, or farms of kale--garlicky, yet sweet, those grand odors of the earth. I write because if I don't put them down on paper, these things might never have existed.

I write because a character enters my mind fully clothed, ready to tell me what he or she wants. And it is my job to unclothe him or her. He might say he's an honest man, or a prevaricator, and I have to explore his voice to see if what he's telling me is true. She might call herself an unrepentant whore, but something tells me she's not, and I have to find the words to discover what happened to her.

Sometimes the words lie. Sometimes their truth is so powerful I can't look at them without thinking they're lies. Sometimes the words are easy to understand and sometimes they're not.

Sometimes I spend all day making something difficult sound simple, or make something simple sound difficult, because life is not always simple, nor always difficult.

I write because I enjoy trafficking in the mundane. I have learned that I don't have to make a five-alarm fire, or burn down a hill, or set a city aflame to add heat to my writing. Sometimes the heat comes from a single match burning in a cold, deserted place.

I write because I am a realist. For me, reality is mysterious enough without me having to invent talking spiders, apocalyptic scenarios, vampire lovers, or witch covens, though I can enjoy those kinds of stories too. Maybe it stems from my love of realist photography, where you see the fleeting moment captured, held in place, and reflected upon. So when an impressionistic boy reveals his heart to his cold, hard-hearted father--a man who loves his child but is incapable of affection--I want to be standing there in the shadows of that room jotting down the details: how they stand, where, when, why, and what are they wearing, why, why not something else, and why are these words being spoken now, and how are they being spoken, etc. etc. Because it is the writer's responsibility to take what's said and unsaid in that room, and make it mean something for all of us, that is to say, to expose the human heart but NEVER to exploit it. It is the writer's responsibility to refrain from sentimentality, to give each character, even the "villains" their due. As an artist it is the writer's responsibility to hold those fleeting moments in place.

I write because if I don't write I feel dead inside.

I write because writing gets me closer to myself, closer to what I really think and feel, and what I think and feel has validity.

I write because writing makes me a better person, better able to adjust to the vicissitudes of life.

I write because my soon-to-be-son will someday want to know me better. At least that's the hope. I want to leave a record of what I thought and felt, just for him.

I write because somewhere there's a writer in a room writing what I wish I wrote. He or she's getting the words that maybe were meant for me. And I'll be damned if I'm going to let that happen! :)

I write because I want to break my readers' hearts with my writing.

I write because writing is the only profession where you're more valuable to the world the older you get.

I write because I'm in love with wisdom, but I'm not always wise.

I write because writing makes me BE.

Maybe I write because I am afraid of death.





(Please feel free to share your own reasons.)