Sometimes, you gotta

I.

Two days ago, I got an e-mail from The Daily Kos alerting me to a rally that was to take place that evening. Organized by Congressional Democrats, it was to be held at 6:00 pm on the steps of the Supreme Court to highlight their opposition to the new President’s executive order on immigration. I don’t go to marches or rallies often – at least not anymore. I’ve become less convinced of their effectiveness. Marching “into Hell for a heavenly cause” as some have done is one thing; those are the ones that can spur change. Then, there are those marches done simply to make a point; they may be massive displays of disapproval (anti-war) or of unity (Million Man) that sometime provide feel-good moments in the process. It seems evident that some of the problems we meet with marches require us to move in the direction of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). People walked in Montgomery, Alabama rather than ride segregated busses; countries pulled money out of South Africa rather than support apartheid.

I decided to go to the rally for two reasons. Just two days before, I had submitted an opinion piece about local matters to this city’s newspaper of note. Now, there I was two days later reading stories about the effects of the President’s order, and one article even seemed to challenge me by throwing back at me a few of the same expressions I had used in my piece. I also thought about what the Daily Kos e-mail had said: “Activism works. Throughout the weekend, tens of thousands of protesters came together to take an unequivocal stance: We stand united in defeating targeted attacks on our family, friends and neighbors. Your activism has forced Democrats to publicly condemn Trump’s executive orders. We must remain loud and unyielding in the face of fascism.” The second reason I decided to go was knowing how much the President hates numbers that don’t flatter him; if I could help swell a crowd – well, swell.

As the appointed hour approached, I took the subway to the Capitol South station and exited with others arriving for the rally. We walked up the hill along First Street, N.E. past the Cannon House Office Building, across Independence Avenue past the Library of Congress, then across East Capitol Street toward the Court steps. For some, the crowd already amassed was a barrier to getting close to the Court’s plaza. I and a few others managed to wend our way along a narrow pathway until Capitol Hill police came through politely telling us it had to be kept cleared, at which point I pressed myself into the wall of bodies and remained there. I still was not near enough to the steps to hear or see what was happening (the reason some people tell me they prefer to stay home; they can see more at these events by watching them on television). I soon learned I had positioned myself in a prime spot. As it turned out, that narrow path had to remain clear to make way for the event’s organizers. Soon thereafter, there they came, Congress members and staff in a long procession, squeezing through carrying small, battery-powered votive candles and singing “This Land Is Your Land.” “Sing,” said Nancy Pelosi as she noticed that I and the young woman standing to my right were not singing; I did not sing.

On they came, faces I had seen countless times on news shows, names I knew by heart. I stood mute, watching, unlike the woman to my left who did not have to yell to have senators hear her say “Stop voting for Trump’s nominees.” The political stars and heavyweights were cheered when spotted: Schumer, Warren, Sanders. Despite the 33° temperature, the only chills I felt were those induced merely by the proximity of John Lewis walking by. The woman to my right called out to Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who stopped and briefly chatted. “Where are you from,” he asked. “Boston,” she replied, informing him that she had not been in DC long.

Seeing Hillary Clinton’s former running mate coming near, I facetiously said “Mr. Vice-President.” Senator Kaine stopped, laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and said “You know, I’m exactly where I feel I need to be right now.” On he and the others went to gather before the cameras that awaited them at the Court steps, the woman on my left occasionally reminding them of their obligation to thwart the President’s agenda by denying him his cabinet picks.

Once the procession ended, people near me were at a loss to hear or see anything that was going on, other than the chants and signs all around us. One poignant plea read “Let my Iraqi intern’s mother come and visit him.” Another sign began by referencing Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, but took a defiantly humorous turn: “First they came for the Muslims, but we said ‘Not today, Donnie!’” There was a chant that took note of the number of days the President had been in office: “Welcome to your 10th day, we’re not going away!” One highlighted his aversion to reality: “No hate, no fear, actual facts are welcomed here.” The former First Lady got an acknowledgement with “When they go low, we go high,” a sentiment not reflected in chants like “Paul Ryan sucks,” or “Can’t build a wall, hands too small.”

Across First Street from all of this stood the Capitol. I couldn’t help noticing, while listening to the chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Islamophobia’s got to go,” that in the western sky beyond the Capitol’s dome was the perfect picture of Islam’s symbol: a crescent moon with Venus directly above it, shining brighter than any star.

I heard the woman to my right, the one who had called out to Senator Markey, tell the woman with her that the rally was much like the Women’s March when she covered it, in that she couldn’t see or hear much of the proceedings. Curious, I asked who she worked for. “The Boston Globe,” she answered. Because I sometimes read that paper online, I asked her name. “Victoria McGrane,” she responded. “Keep reading.” I began to squirm through the crowd to head for the subway station.

II.

Once back on my side of town, I stopped in an eatery on U Street owned by a friend. Mo is both an immigrant and a Muslim. Born in Palestine in the West Bank, Mo came to this country in 1982 to attend the University of Tennessee at Martin. For his fellow foreign students who discovered life here might not go as well as they had imagined, he had a running joke: “Welcome to heaven.” Mo says “some immigrants think this is an easy country, but it is a very tough country to survive in. They tend to be hard on themselves because failure is not an answer.”

I have seen him live this ethos first hand, working himself to the point of exhaustion in the business he and his wife have operated in the neighborhood since 2001. He met his wife, Ababa, a native of Ethiopia, when they both were living in Canada, the country in which he settled for a while after finishing school here. They both now have dual Canadian and American citizenship. They are the proud parents of an eight-year-old daughter. Mo says in Palestine children are an asset, but here they are a liability. His belief is difficult to square with his actions; anytime his daughter is in the shop, it is as though she is the princess of the realm, ruling over all she surveys.

The small restaurant is never without a loyal, longtime customer somewhere about the place passing the time in small-talk or hovering over a cup of chamomile tea while utilizing the Wi-Fi. Neighbors, family, friends and food-seekers come in and stay awhile, and conversations are overheard in English, Spanish, Arabic, Amharic and French. As any good businessman should, Mo gets along with everyone.

This was not an easy thing for him to do following the attacks on this country on September 11, 2001. He was called in and questioned by federal authorities because he had failed to register his name, as was required for some residents at that time. He explained that he had been informed by his attorney that it was not necessary for him to do so.

The government agents begged to differ. When they asked where had he come from to this country, he answered honestly “Canada.” That was not acceptable. They asked where had he been born. “Palestine,” he said. He was told there was no such place as Palestine, that the United States (and, at the time, the United Nations) did not recognize such a place. “Tell me where I am from,” Mo said, “and that will be okay with me. You say I’m not Canadian. I come from somewhere, but you say that place does not exist. I’m not a Jordanian, so what do you want me to say?” He was sternly warned not to make jokes, and told that his case would be referred to court. Ultimately, it was not, but Mo thinks this was due in part to the white agent, a woman who seemed to be reasonable during his interview. Mo remembers her supervisor, the other agent questioning him, was much more aggressive and menacing. That stays with him to this day because that agent was a black American, and Mo could not conceive of such treatment coming from him.

Mo says the cost of living (and of doing business) in the Washington area is too high. He sees himself relocating or retiring to Florida in future years. Once, in an earlier conversation, he mentioned a complaint I’ve heard from him before, this idea in some circles that Americans are living too long and, therefore, straining the social safety net.  He asked “Why must all those war ships be maintained?” It is a good question, posed by a truly concerned American.

Name That Tune

Growing up immersed in American popular culture, we are aided along our way toward young adulthood by the music we like. Our tastes may vary, but for many in my generation one important genre was sweet soul music, including the type known as Philly soul. For that, we can thank — among many other things — the songwriting skills and plaintive falsetto of William Hart, lead singer of the Delfonics.

If you ever were drawn to the aching love songs of that group, you may understand why the chorus of one of their long-ago hits has been playing like a refrain in my mind:

“Tell me this is a dream.

Somebody, please

tell me this is a dream.

Somebody, please

tell me this is a dream.”

     Well, we know that’s not going to happen. The election has come and gone, going Donald Trump’s way; absent some unforeseen occurrence* between now and the inauguration (fingers crossed he spontaneously combusts), he will be our next president. If you believe “…life is but a dream,” or are one who sees no difference between the outgoing and incoming administrations, you may be able to think of our upcoming political reality as just more of the same. Apart from his supporters, the rest of us are bracing for a possible series of nightmares.

Although the Delfonics sang songs about the joys and sorrows of romantic love, some of their titles alone might have served as warnings during Trump’s presidential campaign; other titles could be useful during whatever amount of time he remains in office. For instance, one thing you might have told a Trump enthusiast before the election was “He Don’t Really Love You.” You might have tried “Over and Over” to get him or her to “Think it Over.” For your efforts, that member of the make-America-great-again crowd most likely would have told you that all you were doing was just “Trying to Make a Fool of Me.”

No matter what I think of Donald Trump, there is no denying he has earned the right to ask “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” After writing in March of last year that we might deserve him, and in August that he was right when he said people would still vote for him even if he stood in the middle of New York City’s Fifth Avenue and shot someone, by November I was writing that I didn’t believe he would prevail. I guess I was “Lying to Myself.”

Since the election, there have been news stories reporting that some of his voters already have begun to ask him if he is going to “Break Your Promise.” They’re hoping he won’t give them a reason to ever mutter the words “I’m Sorry.” He will (and we should help ensure it), but when he does disappoint them, we should work at being magnanimous enough to resist saying “I Told You So.” In the meantime, unlike the dulcet tones of the Delfonics, the discordant notes you now hear in the near distance are those of our present-day president-elect bellowing “Ready or Not Here I Come.”

*After writing this post, I happened upon an International Business Times article titled “Will Trump Be President?” In it, Mary Pascaline writes about a blind Bulgarian woman named Baba Vanga who died eleven years before Barack Obama first ran for the White House. Considered to be a psychic and called the “Nostradamus from the Balkans,” Vanga reportedly predicted not only that our 44th president would be black, but that he would be the last president. On this eighth day of Christmas, I’m not hoping for quite that much.

 

 

Talking Out of School

Serendipity, synchronicity, or signs?

I recently was given the task of having to reflect upon what has passed for my “education,” formal and otherwise. I was given the assignment by the English professor teaching the writing course in which I am now enrolled. The first day of class, she wrote on the board “I wanted to tell you…,” and asked us to spend ten minutes continuing that idea. My first few lines were these: “I wanted to tell you I’m not sure about this experiment in education I’ve endeavored to undertake. It seemed the Universe was working against me. A school transcript – requested in May – had not arrived in the admissions office by the beginning of registration. Was that a sign?

The day she gave the class our write-about-your-education assignment, I saw what seemed to me to be a sign that – maybe – this was a time for me to do what the teacher asked. In that day’s Washington Post, there was an article about a course on crime and justice being taught at the D.C. Jail. Some students are inmates; others are Howard University undergrads (including actor Nick Cannon). Reporter Perry Stein wrote that, during class the week prior to his article, “…the professor, Bahiyyah Muhammad, asked each student to think about their formal and informal education backgrounds. What values and skills did they learn as children and adults that contributed to the people they are?” I read those words and thought “Well, ain’t that somp’n?”

So, I decided to do what was required of me as a student. I spent some time looking back at some of the lessons that have gotten me to this point in my life, a senior citizen in a freshman English class where my “formal” education began: in a D.C. public school. Maybe I’ll learn I don’t know what I think I know. More than once, my instructor has said writing, sometimes, makes that happen.

Charlotte

     There is a house in Kingman Park, bought by an “uncle.” He was really my first cousin once removed, but as he was my father’s first cousin and contemporary, to me he was “uncle”. He didn’t live in the house. At first, his mother and his children were the only ones there. When his uncle became ill and needed care, he moved him in. When the apartment building in Georgetown where my grandparents lived was sold, they moved into the house. When my aunt and uncle and cousins needed a place to stay, they moved there; my family – my parents and their seven (eventually nine) offspring — did the same, leaving our apartment in Benning Heights. Other relatives stayed there off and on as well. People slept everywhere at night, several to a bed upstairs and on pullout couches in the living room and den; two of my brothers slept in chairs pushed together in the dining room.

One day years ago, I decided to try and count — from memory – how many of us lived together in that small, three-bedroom house (four, if you count the enclosed back porch upstairs) with one bathroom and an unfinished basement jammed with the stored possessions of a multitude. I counted twenty-five, a number that included fifteen children. I was one; Charlotte was another.

Charlotte was ten-going-on-eleven. Even now, I don’t think I comprehend the magnitude of her deciding to forgo paper dolls one day to play school with me instead. I didn’t know anything about school. I hadn’t gone to kindergarten, but would be entering first grade at age five in that fall of 1957. Charlotte sat me down at a pretend desk and began what would become occasional moments of showing me things I’d never thought about: the look, meaning and significance of numbers, letters, and words.

A few weeks ago, I asked her if she ever had stopped and pulled aside any of the other children as we chased one another through the house, shrieking with glee. She said I was the only one. She guessed I must have been her “favorite little cousin.”

Pamela

     I am an only child now, no longer in a house full of brothers and sisters and cousins. I have learned that being a seven-year-old who is too polite to tell an aunt “no,” means she will believe you when you say “yes” when asked, “Do you want to come and live with us?” My aunt and uncle — my mother’s sister and her husband – would come and get me sometimes, and I would spend the day or night at their apartment in Columbia Heights. They and my parents had been living together in Adams-Morgan when I was born, and I had become their favorite.

The house in Kingman Park is a place I visit now and then. My family has moved back there, after a year in our own apartment at Logan Circle. At age six, I used to ride the streetcar alone from our apartment at the Circle up 11th Street to the end of the line at Monroe Street, right behind the building in which my aunt and uncle – and now, I – live; my mother would put me on, my aunt would be there to meet me when I got off.

Now seven, I begin third grade knowing no one, not even knowing how to find my way home. After school the first day, I begin to follow a girl from my class. I’ve seen her before. I know she lives a block down the street from me. I know she knows the way home. At some point, she turns and notices me, and I am embarrassed by my need and my stupidity.

Her name is Pamela. She lives with her mother and grandmother. She is an only child, too. We become friends. I visit her sometimes. I have to. At seven, I learn girls aren’t allowed to visit boys. I already have learned from the grandmother of a girl in my class who lives on my block that some girls aren’t allowed to come outside even to play with boys; her tone made me understand I was wrong to even knock on their back door and ask.

Pamela has a birthday party. She invites only me, a girl from our class and her little brother, and a girl from across the street. I learn about dry ice, used to keep the punch cold without getting watery. It is 1959.

It is 2016. I talked to Pamela last month. She said she recently discovered a photograph from that party. She said we all have our mouths open, eating ice cream. She said her husband wants to know if I have a good weed connection.

Lavinia    

     In 1961, my aunt and uncle bought a house three blocks up the street from our apartment, three blocks but a new world. It was a changing neighborhood, but because of Lavinia, a change never completed.

There were still white households on the block when we moved there. Our neighbors on both sides were Italian-Americans. In the house to our right, the older family members didn’t even speak English. Other than the French I was taking in school, I had never heard anyone speak a foreign language except on television.

Moving there provided me an important, life-long lesson: pay no attention to anyone who insist all members of a “race” or ethnicity can be viewed the same way. What little I may have known about race relations at the time was certainly added to when the neighbor to our left – knowing my aunt was in the hospital and assuming a man and boy alone at home could use the help – knocked on our back door one evening and presented me with a dish of Manicotti she had prepared just for us.

It was the other house, the one with the Italian-speakers, that taught me even more. That is where Lavinia lived, another only child who lived there with her mother, uncle and grandparents. Called “Veenie,” she was thirteen at the time. At nine, I was old enough to know a girl that age was not likely to waste time befriending me. I learned otherwise. The first time I ventured out onto my front porch at the same time she was outside, I expected to be ignored, but Veenie proved to be too open and free-hearted to not acknowledge me. Standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, leaning against the stone wall of her yard, she turned and spoke.

Veenie and I did the things kids do when growing up as neighbors: talking over fences and across porch railings, spending time in each other’s basements listening to music, lying in our backyards on summer nights looking up at the stars, doing those things sometimes in bunches with the other kids on the block.

Over the years, almost all the white families moved. Veenie’s is the only one that never did. There was a period when the harassment that came with being one of the last few white students remaining at Roosevelt High got to be too much for her and her mother sent her to stay with relatives and finish high school in Maryland. As an adult, she made a life for herself elsewhere, but with the passing of her grandparents and mother she returned to the house and lives there today.

The neighborhood is changing once again. When I went to her Christmas party last December, Veenie’s guests included neighbors of varying ethnicities, including whites and the Chinese-American guy to whom my uncle sold our house.

Sonia

I once took a creative writing course at Federal City College. I thought that was something I wanted to do. There are very few things I remember about the class, and none of them involve writing. One was the instructor who served as a guest lecturer. He taught the same course at the same time in a classroom next door, and my teacher would invite him over to speak sometimes. And, why not? After all, he was Gil Scott-Heron. I remember him coming over, but nothing of what he said about writing or anything else. I guess I was just too awed to absorb it.

That was not the case with Sonia Sanchez, who came to the school one warm Spring evening and spoke words that saved my life. She spoke about the danger of being caught up in the madness of one’s life — no matter what that particular madness was – and the importance of easing one’s way out of that madness. She emphasized the need to “ease”, saying that trying to extricate yourself suddenly was not always best.

It was this message that led me to explore more about my writing teacher. He did not have the fame of Scott-Heron, but nonetheless he was Leslie Lacy, author of The Rise and Fall of a Proper Negro, and there was something that drew me to him in a way that went beyond what he had to say about writing. I learned what it was when he spoke about it in class one day. He said he had a school, called the Hara School of Love, where he taught nutrition, vegetarianism, exercise (including yoga), massage, meditation and (of course) writing. The school was held on Saturday afternoons in his apartment and those of some of the students. After my first visit, I lost interest in Federal City College and much else in my life at that time. I was beginning to ease my way out of my personal madness. That was 1973.

Three months ago, I went to see and hear Sonia Sanchez speak at George Washington University. I wanted to thank her. I did.

Dvorah                                                                                             

     In 1974, I moved to California, eventually settling in Berkeley and enrolling in a college high in the Oakland hills. There, I met a classmate who seemed determined that we should be friends. She is one of the most direct people I have ever met, willing to say what is on her mind, doing so with humor (most times) and in full voice. She was born in Turkestan and came to this country as an infant, her family settling in a community of other Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles. When we met, she was the divorced, single parent of a little boy, whom I later babysat. She also was an instructor of TM, Transcendental Meditation, something I had heard of only because the media did stories about it when the Beatles delved into it.

Thanks to Leslie Lacy, meditation was not a foreign concept or practice for me, but what I learned about TM made me realize there was so much more to meditation than I understood, about both its practice and its benefits. I decided to learn the technique. Dvorah agreed to instruct me. A date was set for me to go to the TM center in Oakland for my initiation. On that day, Dvorah had the flu, so a colleague of hers performed the ceremony and gave me my mantra. This is what I learned that day in the midst of my first meditation using TM: The Music of the Spheres is real; I heard it.

How do you forget someone who changes your life in such a way? You don’t.  Dvorah and I talk through e-mails these days. She came to dinner the last time she was in town, and invites me to come visit her in California. In any case, she knows she’ll hear from me every birthday.

Seer

Sometimes, we learn some things in some ways we haven’t been able to adequately explain.

In Music, Its Occult Basis and Healing Values, I learned about the healing values of trees as well, and the importance of having a relationship with one. So, I became a tree-hugger. In the woods of Dimond Park in Oakland, I chose a particular tree alongside Sausal Creek that I would hug upon each visit, then sit with my back pressed against it as I meditated. Once, while sitting there, I heard a group of kids approaching, talking among themselves. I remember wishing I could just disappear into the tree, to become a part of it. Another time, I spent the night alone in those woods; I did this to overcome fearing just the thought of doing so. I sat under “my” tree until light.

At some later point, I went to the Berkeley Psychic Institute for a student “reading”. I opted to be read by a student because the ten-dollar fee suited my budget; the institute’s instructors were beyond my means. I sat in a chair in the front of a room before five or six students, with their instructor seated in the back to observe. The student selected to read me was a young man, a Berkeley police officer who was trying to develop his psychic abilities to improve his work.

Do I remember anything he said? No. This is what I haven’t forgotten: after a short while, the instructor stopped him. An older woman, she stood and said of the then twenty-three-year-old me “I have to read this one. Some souls are too old for you to read.” She looked at me, and the first words out of her mouth were “I see you trying to get in touch with a tree.” Now, ain’t that somp’n?

Review

The second blog post I inflicted upon you poor, patient readers was four years ago today – ahead of the last presidential election — so I went back to see what was happening. This is how things seemed (to me) to be going at the time: “A fitting end to a stormy campaign has been the real storm that has just wreaked havoc and claimed lives all along the eastern seaboard. Hurricane Sandy seems to have refocused minds, reminding us that we are all in this together. If we remember this as we head to the polls, perhaps we will be able to effectively deal with the devastation – both new and old, physical and political.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! What do you call someone too old to be a naïf?

I don’t believe many of us imagined the current ill wind that is the Republican nominee, who has wreaked havoc and claimed political lives all across the country. And, as hurricanes sometime do, he has made conditions ripe for tornados to form at the periphery. The latest as of this writing, spinning furiously seven days before the election, spun out of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. FBI Director Comey, who appears to have been cowed into trying to protect his reputation at the expense of his agency’s, has succeeded in sullying both. In perhaps one of the most opaque attempts at transparency imaginable, he also has succeeded in clouding the minds of those most in need of clarity: people who have not been paying close enough attention even at this late date. This is something we can least afford.

About another matter that predates the present storms (“Long Division” August, 2013), I wrote “So, we have polls and bar graphs giving us a glimpse of what is being felt, viscerally, all around: we remain uncomfortably and unproductively divided more than we care to acknowledge. We seem to have no idea how to have a conversation in which what is being felt is effectively communicated to those who aren’t feeling it.” What has changed? The question is not rhetorical, and if you answer “Nothing,” we would disagree. No matter what we have seen of our presidential nominees in our lifetimes, we never have witnessed the likes of Hurricane Donald; he “seems to have refocused minds,” but he definitely is not “reminding us that we are all in this together.

You know I’m not one who thinks Trump can’t win, as evidenced by this from March of this year (“Grace”): “How can we know all that we know about this country and not consider the idea we might deserve Trump? Yes, we know our lofty ideals. We know also to what degree we adhere to them. This, alone, ought to cause us some concern.” Do I believe Trump will prevail? No, but in 1980 I assumed Reagan would not be elected – even after having watched his impressive performance at his party’s 1976 convention. But, as he has been reminded repeatedly by members of his own party, Trump is no Reagan.

The frequency of twists and the rapidity of turns in this campaign indicate anything is possible between now and November 8th, so the fury of today’s wind may dissipate or intensify. What seems important campaign news today may be passé tomorrow. I ended that November 2012 post by writing “Soon, we’ll see if the ship of state finds calmer waters or continues to sail through rough seas.” If you’re like I am, November 9th is the day we look forward to the most – no matter what the weather is like.

Here, there, everywhere

(An endnote follows this month’s post)    

If irony were an element, I believe it would surpass hydrogen as the most abundant in the universe. Take a moment to reflect on how it plays out sometimes in your life, and see if you aren’t inclined to offer an “Amen” (or an “Ashé”).  One need only be alive to understand how ever-present it is, and how –  unlike hydrogen – it is neither odorless nor colorless but takes on many fragrances and hues.

A teacher introduced me to the concept of irony in 7th-grade English. I didn’t get it at the time, but it was her expression as she talked about it that made me want to try. How can I describe that look? It was if the no-nonsense woman I had seen every school day had become a dreamy-eyed girl. The class was studying Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, but the only thing I could figure out about this new and strange idea was that it had something to do with two boats passing each other on a foggy night. It was years later that I understood the significance of those boats doing that, and of my teacher’s momentary transformation.

Irony springs from acts of nature and those of our own. It manifests itself as comedy, tragedy and in a myriad of ways between those extremes; it also has shown an ability to be both absurd and deadly serious simultaneously. This particular attribute comes to mind when considering stories reported only a few days ago.

According to a recent poll conducted by the widely-respected Marist Institute for Public Opinion, 52% of those polled said “professional sports leagues should require their athletes to stand for the national anthem.” This, of course, has come up because of the dust-up resulting from one athlete’s refusal – for good reason – to follow the custom. Digging deeper into the poll, one learns something in no way surprising, yet full of irony: more veterans than civilians feel that way.

Some veterans have expressed their support for the athlete in question, Colin Kaepernick. They are the ones on whom irony would not be lost. As for their fellow veterans who see things differently, a 7th-grade level of understanding of the irony they’ve produced might be the best they can achieve. No doubt, these veterans look at the sacrifice they’ve made and wonder why anyone would refuse to honor it, despite the fact that Kaepernick’s protest has nothing to do with veterans, active duty service members or anything regarding the military. These veterans are wounded by a perceived lack of respect, blinding them to the irony that arises when those who volunteer to defend our rights not only are angered when we exercise them, they support our rights being infringed upon.

A day after that poll was reported (by Brian Williams on MSNBC), another irony-rich story appeared in The Washington Post. As reported by Derek Hawkins, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), presently responsible for 140,000 state prisoners, has a banned-book list containing 15,000 titles. Want to read Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the poetry of Langston Hughes, a book about Jackie Robinson or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple? Too bad. Want to read My Awakening: A Path to Racial Understanding by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and present-day white supremacist David Duke? Sure. Why not? How about Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf? Well, that would be just fine. Shakespeare’s sonnets? No siree.

I read Hawkins’ article more than once before I noticed a word that should have jumped out at me the first time, given the subject of this post. Here, let me show you what I mean: “TDCJ also bans, perhaps most ironically, It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, a novel that describes the fictional election of a fascist president in the United States who imposes totalitarian rule on the country. Mein Kampf, on the other hand — which laid the groundwork for an actual fascist takeover in a democratic country — is fair game.”

I bet you correctly guessed the word in that passage I read right over initially was “ironically”, didn’t you? Ironic, huh?

Endnote

A few weeks ago, while on the phone with my grandson, Torian, discussing a ten-minute exercise from a writing class, I mentioned the theme from that day: “If I remain silent….” This resonated with him; just the day before, he said, he had been thinking those very words.

As some of you know, he presently is incarcerated. His thoughts on those words centered around his questioning whether he should or should not be telling people things he knows they need to know in the moment, things that might lift them up or prevent them from being broken down. He has a good sense for those who can hear him, but wonders if he might be heard by more.

As a result of our conversation, he decided to try the exercise, and asked if I would post what he wrote. Here it is:

 “If I remain silent, then I wouldn’t talk about the things that I’m passionate about. I would probably always be stressed out because instead of talking about the things that I feel, things I see, I fake and walk around like I’m numb and I’m blind. ‘If you knew better you’ll do better, and for those who know there ain’t no excuses.’

 So, I guess if I remain silent, on my judgment day my punishment will be tenfold because I cowered my way through life, biting my tongue, giving excuse after excuse for not speaking, talking – yelling, for that matter – when it was most needed.

 If I remain silent, then I’m an impostor, fraud, phony because – let me tell it – ‘I’m a hundred, never biting my tongue for no man.’ P’sst, lie. So, I guess if I remain silent I’m a liar too.

 If I remain silent, then I’m part of the problem. See, silence fixes nothing, so even if just ‘guilty by association’ I was never a part of any solution. So, by street definition, if I remain silent I’m an in-the-way-assed nigga (shaking my head), something I can never be ‘cause I’m a real man. But, if I remain silent, there’s no way I can consider myself a man. Real men do real-men things, and that includes simple things like talking. So, If I don’t get that down pat, I’m ’a be just like one of the many men/child running around screaming I’m a man but truly I’m a boy.

God gives us life and some beautiful/powerful abilities with it. One of these is vocal cords so – somewhere in our lifetime – we can use them when people need us to. So, if I remain silent, my life, my very existence was nothing but a waste.”

 

Prophet Melvin?

In the mid 1970’s at the Oakland Ensemble Theater, about a year or two before he began acting in the television show The Love Boat, Ted Lange directed a production of Melvin Van Peebles’ musical depicting the underside of inner-city life, Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death (Tunes from Blackness). To this audience member, it was mesmerizing, so much so that I had to see it a second time. I knew the 1971-’72 production on Broadway had garnered critical acclaim and Tony nominations, but I could not imagine how it could have surpassed what Lange had done.

It is the opening lines of the soliloquy ending the show that comes to mind so frequently these days. The piece was delivered directly to the audience, with bone-chilling bitterness, by the character of a bag lady. It began with the words “Put a curse on you. May all of your children end up junkies, too.”

For the past several years, reporters in newspapers and magazines and on television have made sure we know we are in the midst of an opioid-addiction epidemic. For some, no such reporting has been necessary. They know from personal experience – either their own addiction or that of someone close. If anything, the media stories show the problem is not an isolated one. We are at a point where these tales surface monthly, weekly, sometimes daily. Last week alone, there was a report on CBS Evening News about the prevalence in Ohio of the drug Carfentanil, used as an elephant tranquilizer, which is ten thousand times more potent than morphine and a hundred times more powerful than Fentanyl, the drug that killed Prince this past April in Minnesota. Fentanyl killed more than a thousand people in Ohio last year. Carfentanil has killed at least thirty people in the Akron area since early July. These two drugs often are used as an admixture (cut) for heroin.

Two days after that CBS story, MSNBC had an interview with Maine state representative Drew Gattine, chair of the legislature’s Human Services Committee, who said “…we have a very, very serious drug crisis, people are dying in our streets from heroin overdoses.” Mr. Gattine may or may not have been engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but he was deadly serious about what he recognizes as a problem.

Wherever you are, you know it is not a problem limited to Ohio and Maine. Depending on who you are, you also may know none of this is new.  One does not have to look back to the nineteenth century’s opium scourge in places as far flung as England or China. Some need look no farther than their own youthful days right here, wherein they or someone they knew had succumbed to heroin’s power. In doing so, they will recall there was none of today’s widespread compassion and concern. Instead, what they will remember is the launch of the war on drugs, a war that – as Jelani Cobb writes in the August 29th edition of The New Yorker – “has been a multitiered campaign that has enlisted legislation, private-sector initiatives, executive-branch support, and public will.” Cobb notes “it actually looks like a war, with military-style armaments, random violence, and significant numbers of people taken prisoner. It has been prosecuted throughout eight Administrations and has had the type of social and cultural impact that few things short of real warfare do. During the Civil War, more than a quarter of a million Southern men died, creating the phenomenon of a vast number of female-headed households throughout the region. Mass incarceration during the war on drugs has produced a similar phenomenon among African-American households.”

Again, depending on who you are, you know that heroin addiction in decades past never was limited to blacks. Neither was the opprobrium directed at addicts. White youths who trod what the larger society saw as troubling paths (civil rights; racial integration; anti-Viet Nam War activism; feminism; anti-capitalism; environmentalism; free love; flower power) sometimes were viewed as betrayers of either their race or class, of their families and upbringing, and therefore less worthy of the concern afforded them before. Being a junkie was just one more thing too many.

One reason people now show a concern lacking in the past is not just because of the prevalence of white, middle class addicts. Sure, the fact that addiction has caused that group’s premature death rate to increase considerably while it falls for other groups is certainly a factor in the push to help those who are suffering, but that push stems also from a mindset that sees something other than race or an affinity for the counterculture separating today’s addicts from those of yesteryear. It is the idea that junkies of the past just wanted to get high, but that today’s addicts are victims, that they are good, decent people who only sought to legally and legitimately manage pain, but were duped into opioid addiction by doctors and pharmaceutical companies, and – once the pills were no longer prescribed or available or effective – turned to heroin. This is a supposition that denies the fact that addiction often begins for anyone as an attempt to blunt pain, including the psychogenic pain common to us all. Addiction is both a preventable and treatable condition, and more of the resources needed to help those who were struggling should have been put in place long ago. Instead, incarceration often took precedence over rehabilitation, leaving us where we are today

It was Oscar Wilde who wrote “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. That’s something to consider and decide for yourself. Van Peebles’ art was a portrait of lives ignored by those who should have cared but did not, not knowing what not caring would do, where it would lead one day. Now, as the saying goes, all lives matter. Some knew that all along. For others, arriving late and reluctantly to that realization has proven to be disastrous.

 

End Note:

There’s been a lot of talk by pundits and others lately about the idea of men making monsters. This, of course, has been in reference not only to the Republican Party’s creation of its current presidential nominee, but also of his supporters. Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes, a conservative, recently said of his fellow travelers that in their constant assaults on mainstream news media, they have wrecked the very idea of objective, knowable fact. He added “We’ve created this monster.”

Well, I don’t think this summer should pass without the person responsible for Mr. Sykes’ imagery getting a shout-out. It was exactly two hundred years ago, the summer of 1816 when she turned 19 on August 30th, that Mary Shelley gave birth to the idea that was to become her novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.

Mr. Sykes said of the coming election “When this is all over…we have to go back. There’s got to be a reckoning on all this.” Victor Frankenstein fails in his attempt to kill his creation. We’d better hope Sykes and his cohorts succeed in killing theirs.

Big Daddy

(Note: It was brought to my attention that some may not have realized last month’s post – unlike all prior ones — was a work of fiction. This one is the usual fare, and – as sometimes happens – a poem follows.)

People given to contemplating and discussing the existence of a creator deity will invariably tell you such a deity should not be thought of in anthropomorphic terms, should not have words applied that would denote male or female because it would be neither. A variation of that theme holds that such a deity would be both. Either way, we live in a world where words still matter, including pronouns. They not only matter, their use can have enormous consequences. Yet, there are some who will argue that the use of a particular word for a deity does not matter at all. Really? Well then, let’s see.

What if, in the beginning, Goddess created the heavens and the earth? What if the reason we “shall not want” is because the Lady is our Shepherdess? What if it is our Mother “who art in heaven,” and it is the Queendom we should be seeking? What if Abraham’s deity, in generation after generation for thousands of years, had been referred to in feminine terms? By now, there would have been women as the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the Grand Mufti of Mecca, the Pope of Vatican City and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention (assuming these divisions would have arisen at all). Still think the use of “She” instead of “He” wouldn’t matter?

The extent to which gender differences have embedded gender discrimination into everything we are and do might be unfathomable. Yes, human males tend to be larger and stronger than females. Yes, human females sometimes can be temporarily sidelined by menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. These two factors might have been what began the entrenched gender roles that have defined us since our prehistory, but something else sustains the status quo, leaving the march toward parity in the modern world unfinished.

We here in this country are now witnessing another leg of that march, and we are unable to use biology as an excuse for its laggardly pace. The slow advance appears to be completely cultural. How else to explain the nation’s first women nominee for the presidency? What other reason do we have? What is it about our vaunted American exceptionalism that tells us why we are decades behind Sri Lanka (1960); India (’66); Israel (’69); the Philippines (’86); Pakistan (’88); Germany (2005); and Liberia (’06)? England, the very country from which we sprang, had its first woman prime minister 37 years ago and now has its second – who won by defeating another woman. As for American women, Janet Rosenberg Jagan – born in the same hometown as Hillary Clinton – became president of Guyana in 1997.

To put our conundrum in perspective, consider a bit of our history many continue to experience first hand: the racial animosity felt by some whites toward blacks. We have some understanding of how deep and pervasive those feelings are and have been. Yet despite this, the right to vote was given to black men before white women. Of course, the franchise remained  a dream rather than becoming reality for most black men, but it was written right there in the Constitution. It was another half century before the same was done for women.

So, does arriving late to only the possibility of a woman president point to something unique about our culture? No, ours shares a basic trait common to all others – past and present: male prerogative is predominant. This is true even in countries that have elected women leaders. What uniqueness we may have lies in our struggle to extricate ourselves from the consequences of a prerogative not simply male, but wealthy, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male.

A worrisome thought is the likelihood that a woman’s advance to the White House will be accompanied by a measurable downturn in opportunities being offered to women, and an increase in both subtle and overt offenses directed at women – including incidents of domestic violence. A woman President will be seen by some to be as much an interloper as the current black one, and may have to contend with the same sort of obstruction.

Beyond our history of machismo, what keeps us bound to outdated thinking? Is it merely satisfaction with the familiar or fear of an unknown and therefore uncertain future? These are possible answers, but unlikely ones, although they may serve as contributing factors. One likely possibility we should consider is religiosity. Something so fundamental to someone as her or his religious faith has a profound influence on how she or he views life and navigates the world.

Writer Lyz Lenz, in a recent essay in The Washington Post, shines a light on how the advocacy of what is known as “purity culture” had adversely affected her thinking and that of a generation of young evangelicals. She writes “Purity culture taught me I should be passed down from father to husband, more an inheritance than a human. I was taught that men are my cover and my shield, when for the most part they have been the ones causing damage through molestation, rape and abuse.” She went on to write that she was taught “my holy calling in life was to open my legs for one and only one and bear him children,” furthering the lesson “that more than my mind and my talents, my body was my greatest gift.

We know collective faith shapes societies. We have seen how faith has moved some to challenge social injustice, and how faith has moved some to deny the very existence of the injustice others claim to see. After all, why should women have the same rights assumed by men if the Torah or the New Testament or the Koran says they should not? Would any of those texts say anything of that nature if Abraham had decided to swear fealty to one of the female deities from among the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon instead of one of the males?

The one he chose has been many things to many people – “many people” meaning every Jew, Christian and Muslim in the world. God, supposedly, has said some things that give some people pause. In the book Isaiah (45:7), He is quoted as having said He creates evil. Imagine. This does not appear to be a deity to whom one would want to pledge one’s loyalty, but some of us do, believing He has some attractive and redeeming qualities despite some of the other things He says and does.

This is much like the man now running to be our President, who said people would still vote for him even if he stood in the middle of New York City’s Fifth Avenue and shot someone. He’s right. Goddess help us.

 

Loved One

I.

I want to come to you.

Tell me where you are

and I will come,

you, whom he loved like no other,

you, whom he held close.

You could ask him anything,

things no other would ask,

and he would tell you

things he wanted only you to know,

and you held his confidence.

 

II.

If you tell me where you are,

I will come to you.

You were with him

when they came and took him away.

You were the only one who stood

with the women at Golgotha,

where he told his mother

you were to be her son,

and she, your mother.

Only you were there,

watching with the women,

weeping with them

as the light left his eyes,

the life slipped from his body,

his love, lost,

leaving every part of you

wrenching,

rending.

 

III.

Let me come to you,

and hear you speak of love,

you, who heard he was no longer where he had been lain,

and raced there to see for yourself,

hurrying so quickly

you outran everyone,

getting there first,

but only looking,

unable to make yourself go in,

finally having to.

You knew then that love was not lost.

Those who have been loved as you would understand.

I want to understand.

 

IV.

When he came to you and the others at the sea,

attracting more fish than anyone could ever catch,

only you could see it was he who had provided such bounty,

telling the others it was so,

so that they, too, might know.

 

V.

Tell me where you are.

I want to come to you.

I want to see your eyes,

hear your voice

when you speak of him.

When others questioned your very presence,

he questioned them, asking

what was it to them

if he wanted you to be here

when he returns.

I want to learn about this love

that keeps you here, still.                               © 2016, g. r. adams