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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Inspiration Things

Beside my bed sits a brass fountain pen and inkwell. Beside it a small sheathed dagger used by Sikhs to cut the ceremonial sweet dough after prayer. Books by Alice Munro, John Cheever, Andre Dubus flank a rosewood box containing the ash-remains of my beloved dog Hemingway. A teak box intricately carved with a quincunx design holds various designer wristwatches, their batteries run down. In the same case, above those two wooden boxes, stand more books, hardbound copies with their spines facing out of works by Faulkner, Lahiri, Steinbeck, and others. At the very top shelf is a small statute of Garuda, the bird god of Hindu myth, carved in Indonesia. I am not sure how it came into my possession.

In my bathroom a cream-colored built in cabinet stretches along one wall, flanked by two doors, each leading to the walk-in closet. The cabinet faces a Jacuzzi bathtub that is seldom used. In the bookcase rest more books and objects, for instance a Porsche ball point pen given to me as a gift by my son's godparents, various coins, perhaps wrinkles receipts. A book of poems by Langston Hughes sits alone on one shelf, Hughes's handsome face gazing out at me as I brush my teeth with the electric toothbrush or shave with my safety razor. There are books by Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Browning, and Dickinson in the bathroom, because I believe that poetry is a cleansing art, more akin to music and the reveries of revelation than its connection to literature. Poetry is alchemy whose practitioners crack open our hearts so we too feel the richness of nature and love, and the pulsating darkness of death and the void. What thoughts to contemplate after drying oneself off with a bath towel?

On my toilet sits another book of whatever it is I am reading at the moment. This week it is the Collected Stories and Writings of John Cheever. I like to revisit books, books I've read before, because each time I read them I, like so many of us who enjoy reading, discover them anew. We discover a detail we've missed, and it gives us both thrill and frustration: Thrill that we have rediscovered something meaningful that touches our hearts and expands our minds, and frustration that we didn't see it before.

All around my house are books, books, books, and objects, objects, objects that refer me back to places I've been, things I have touched, decisions made, courses traveled, people I have been, and activities abandoned. Nowhere is this more evident than in my writing room ( I loathe to call it an office). A wrapped chocolate cigar announcing the birth of my son, a 19th century surgical device in a corrugated box, a brass lock taken from my parents' house, a pice of anthracite with both shiny and dull surfaces, a fossilized rock in which a trilobite lies embedded, a whiskey flask with the Jolly Rogers skull and crossbones, a postcard of a gargoyle from the Notre Dame cathedral, and a piece of driftwood from a beach in Big Sur. Placed before my books, other objects sit, stand or lie, dormant yet charged with memory. The thrill of seeing them, touching them, holding them, is to ponder the person I was, so they in some real sense serve as portals to other places, other times. They also serve as representations of my subconscious, and things of inspiration.

Though once abandoned, they have landed on my shelves, in my bedroom, and bathroom, and writer's room, they still have use, though to what use I put them solely relies on my imagination, or I may never put them to use. I like to revisit them time and time again, to discover new details about them I had missed before. These objects are a lot like people. I often think that if I don't put them to some new use, they will live only in the real world as mysterious things.

After I am dead, maybe someone will collect them and attempt to infer from them the person I was. They will make decisions about me, then place those keepsakes in a box and set them out by the trash bins. But if these things happen to make their way into stories which others may read, they will be transformed into what TS Eliot called Objective Correlatives, or they may populate a story as simple objets d'art. 

I think they deserve a new life. They deserve to be repurposed, like the reclaimed oak table that sits in my family room. These objects are not unlike the characters and people we pass through, brush up against, live out of focus of the corner of our eyes, people and characters who deserve their voices heard, their eccentricities exposed, their lives entered and reconstituted by a writer's imagination.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Trump the New Arnold?

If the people who have voted for Donald Trump can stop for a moment to reflect upon his words and deeds, would they not see him for what he is? An empty suit. The amount of doggerel that flows through his mouth is enough to fill the Grand Canyon.

Hyperbole aside, I have yet to see his appeal. But there must be something I am missing. So let me try an experiment. Let me empty my head of rationality, of compassion, of logic, of sensitivity. Let me drain my soul of common sense, intellectualism, reason and decency. Let me replace these qualities with pettiness, bullying, melodrama, anti-intellectualism, bravado and bluster. Let me point to circumstances that never existed, rationalize my infidelities, my bankruptcies, my failures as a businessman. Let me deflect criticism about my hiring illegal immigrants, or creating my products in the very countries I now hold accountable for manipulating currencies or sending us their worst, their rapists and drug dealers.

Add a heap of narcissism and sexism, racism and xenophobia, and let me tout my success with manufactured statistics on my popularity amongst "the highly educated, the poorly educated, women, evangelicals, hispanics." Ah, there it is, the ingredients that comprise his appeal.

Never before in the history of this great country has a "politician" surfaced that is so unencumbered by facts as to greed his way to the most powerful office in the world. And for what? To reinforce the warped notions of self, to tout his own masculinity, to increase his own brand.

California tried once and elected a non-politician/celebrity to the governorship after the debacle that was Gray Davis. Arnold all but bankrupted this state. We suffered record deficits, unbalanced budgets, shortfalls, and our GDP shrunk by tens of millions of dollars. We lost jobs. We suffered mightily until Jerry Brown rescued us from the brink of collapse. Do we want to try that experiment on a national scale?

I long for a politician with the grace and magnanimity of a Barack Obama, the charm and charisma of a John F. Kennedy, the compassion of a Jimmy Carter, the soul of a Lincoln, and the courage of a Roosevelt.

Where are they? Liz Warren? Gavin Newsom? Kamala Harris? These people are the future of this country, but only if The Donald never steps foot in the White House except as a guest to a dinner honoring the great liars and narcissists this country has ever produced.

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, 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 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."