Jun 30, 2008

Time machines on the loose

You could start this way, for example.... Just before the boss got stabbed, he stood on a soap box on 6th Street, running for his life, surrounded by lieutenants. "My office has not only prosecuted the violent offenders who have made this corridor infamous," he said, in that compressed sometimes whiney voice, and holding his right arm high sbove his head, which was very painful for him to do, "but we have also reached out to those who are the victims of crime." ...

Now, four years later, the corridor is quieter. The old DA's office has long been closed and succeeding businesses have come and gone. Instead of six cops up and down the street, there were two, having a smoke in a doorway, two young women, caps up, foreheads revealed, like Brodrick Crawfords on a break. "The baby shower on Tuesday," one was saying. Up the street, distinguished crackheads, in braids and bangles, with army pants and saddling up, an urban air cavalry bound for someplace or other. "We got wings, let's fly," they said.

The corridor seemed thinned out, and tuckered out. A couple of palm trees lended a glancing respectability. And the furniture still hangs on the sides of an abandonned hotel there on Mission. The arty side of downtown's noiriest enclave. The old bar where boss used to visit, in deference to some IRA types that gave to the fund is no more. The pawn shop was closed, maybe closed up, I couldn't tell.

I rounded the corner, to Market Street, turned south, southwest, whatever that is, walking along the west side of hte street, past the old strip-joint, house of dildo and cock rings. On the outside speakers, the most beautiful violin concerto you ever heard. My first thought was Chopin then Brahms. Went inside to find out what it was. The place was in that light of all adult places, neonic, pale, bad air, and that forever quality, as though all adult sex, men-on-the lam places are connected, every single one through place and time, from San Francisco to Times Square 40 years ago, one continuum, you can come up in a strip mall in North Dakota or a pleasure hut in Austin, one vast underground Dungeon-11 of tapes and magazines, paraphenalia, weapons, hurt-mes / hurt-yous, cum and comed and done and you'll be back, we're 24/7.

"What is that?" I asked. "That music outside." Bald man was reaching down behind the glass counter trying to get some feng shui going with the cock rings. A mutty little blonde man was closest. He was in the register. "What'd you say?" he said with a snarl. "The music outside, what is that?" He never looked at me. "Jazz," he said. Not in here, I said. Outside. "Outside? How the fuck should I know?" He's counting gold in the drawer. "The corporation," he said. "What corporation," I said.

"I don't what-the-fuck corporation, you wanna buy somehtin'?"

Channeling George Carlin, I thought. Well that makes sense. He's in the air still. On a Terry Gross retrospective that played the day after he died he said he was never afraid of anything once he decided that everything had come from a single atom, a single element. Therefore, everything is related, therefore everything is yourself. Therefore, why would you be afraid of yourself?

Something like that.

"No, I don't want to buy anything," I said. But that was what I was trying to remember: When the corridor had some attitude.

Jun 25, 2008

Looking out the black-eyed window, at the fountain display. Ten gushings in a row, in a bell-curved line; water rising suggestively, foolishly. Beyond, willow trees ruffling, like the burkas of women in first love. Troubled. The Canadian geese have all left. In their place: FedEx, USPS. And just now a yellow fire engine, and then an American Medical Response van… I see it all from behind the black glass. I am the courtyard voyeur, toggling back and forth between world news on my monitor, and then, through a glass darkly as it were, life in the courtyard. See these two men talking, privately, going on about a scandal in their office? I hear everything. Sometimes, a woman will come up and do her face; I am just inches away. Sometimes, I kiss her. Or a man on the phone pondering a question about his mortgage. "You can't take my house away", he's saying. “You'll still exist,” I tell him but what good is that? “We are all fish in each other’s tanks,” I'm thinking. Once, an older man approached. So intently did he look I thought he’d seen me. Then, I thought, ‘no, he’s seeing through me. I stood up and matched him, looked right back, feeling that I could see through him. Perhaps, the two seeings are linked in a helix of entwining personas. But now wait! What's this? Yellow jacketed firemen flying out the building across the courtyard pushing a rattling cart. Man on his back, IV bottle swinging, hustling him inside the back of the van, one door closes, but not the other. I can just make him out in shadows in the ambu, my wall eye, back and forth, between news of warring with Iran and the man in the van, and Iran and the van... What a carousel, no? What an internet we weave, with the ‘ulance trundling off down the road, under the yachty round gaze of Oracle HQ, servers all afire....

Jun 19, 2008

Oh you ancient continent, you;
your face is drifting again.
Oval's gone, top's flattened out,
In no time, the whole mass unclenched from life itself.
And none to remember origin's shape.
The oldest geographers, your own, won't have a clue.
Look at it! Mouth closed, eyes closing.
"Hello in there; hello all you dark places."
Looking in, across the table,
Through the seen of your reader glasses,
Those owl eyes and frightened...
I'd say, 'fearful of all the migrations.'
No? Am I not right?
But I'd also say, 'Where's your stuff, where's your gitty-up?'
So the bottom of your pants are rolled, so what?
"Get up. Can you hear me? Get up."

Jun 5, 2008

A Small Dissent

(Letter sent in reply to a plea for more money to fund an end-of-the-year 8th grade party that went over budget.)

Dear E,

First, I want to thank you for all the work you’ve done on behalf of this class over the last 8 years. You both have been exemplary. The community is so lucky to have you and you deserve many thanks.

But at this last moment, I disagree with you on something and if you’ll indulge a long rickety ramble perhaps you might come to agree with me, at least in part. Incidentally, I’m speaking for myself; Barbara has her own views of this, and her own way of handling the choices you’re offering.

I was inclined to say nothing, partly because I had nothing to do with this whole affair, the party, and so who am I to say? But when you come to ask for $6,000 to $7,000 to cover costs then you’ve drawn me out. And it’s a lesson: I should have paid more attention, should have pressed for more discussion much sooner. But we leave the house at 7 a.m. and return at 7 p.m. and I just don’t have the energy to get involved. I know others with the same schedule do get involved. You, for one, and I cannot match it. I am at my limit.

Nevertheless, my argument is this. This was a misbegotten idea from the start, one not thought through, neither the means nor the end. Nor was it the result of a carefully developed consensus but rather the heady good will of a few. Now, it’s too late to change the outcome, but it’s not too late to object. And it’s not too late to discuss it and make sense of it.

In the end, I will make a very modest donation, but nothing close to $250. And I will not attend the dinner. Think of it less as a protest than simply an unwillingness to join in something that doesn’t ring true to me, that doesn’t seem in keeping with the nature of this school or this class, or anything I believe in.

B has not made a decision whether to attend.

Incidentally, it’s become an interesting family dilemma. Is it better to go along with the crowd and not risk leaving Dash in what he might feel to be an awkward position, with one or both of his parents not at the dinner… Or, is it better to make our own decisions and let him live with that. Which might seem heartless except that I would rather leave him with the memory of parents who stand up for what they believe in, even something so small as this, and then let him make his own decision.

I come to this obstinance less from my own parents, who had a dotty record of rebellion, than experiences I had in a large Catholic family with whom I spent much time as a child. Children get their moral sensibilities where they can. One moment always comes to mind. On a Sunday in 1961 or 2, the family went to mass. I was 14 and went along although not a Catholic. After his sermon, Father Mcskullduggery, which is what we called him, demanded the whole congregation stand up and pledge they would honor and follow a Catholic prohibition on seeing certain movies. The matriarch of this family I was with, Grace Huffman (the mother of the actress Felicity Huffman, by the way), refused to stand up and sat with all of her nine children beside her in the pew. Actually, one or two stood up, because they were their mother’s children and felt the need to protest the protest.

“This choice belongs to me, not to the Church, not to any institution,” she told us afterward in the car. “You can make your own decisions but this is what I’m doing.”

I tell you this to say that however heartless it sounds frankly I don’t care about Dash’s feelings on the matter (his mother disagrees). In any case Dash has told me he thinks the party is a silly idea and claims others do too. He’s particularly angered that the party was closed to his former classmates. But that’s for him to work out and I should add that he didn’t get his feelings about the party from me. As I say I never really thought about it. Anyway, I think he’s reached the age where he can figure out what he stands for. Indeed, I’ve seen him do that already.

Let me belabor the point for just a moment. My argument against this ‘celebration’ is that it doesn’t seem to be for the graduates so much as for the parents. And what is it that the parents are celebrating? I don’t know. Whatever it is, is this the way to do it? Incidentally, My son, Dylan, graduated from David Weber’s 8th grade class in 1999. One of the parents gave a dance party with two salsa instructors. The cost was not more than $500, if that. And if I’m not mistaken, monies raised by that class went to the high school endowment to help with tuitions.

The point of the party aside, the tone of your message is as though ‘what is $250?’ ‘We had a budget overrun of $6,000 and we’ll all just pony up the difference’. As though this is discretionary money. ‘Sell a few cards, say 10 at $25 a piece or 25 at $10 a piece and you’re done’. How hard is that? But you see it is not discretionary money to us. And the idea of selling more cards at some exorbitant rate is silly. And for what?

Then I look at my children and what they need just now. Dylan has accepted a job offer in Los Angeles that begins on July 15th, an offer that will enable him to do what he’s long wanted to do but the job only pays $12 an hour. He needs some start up money to get going, to live a while until he can make it work. Should I give $250 to him or to this project. My daughter (who has served in the Peace Corps in Togo and as the country director of Doctors of the World in Kenya), has just been accepted at Brown medical school, to follow in the footsteps of Paul Farmer. Cost is $60,000 a year, less scholarships. Living cost in Providence is $15,000 a year. Should I give $250 to you or to her?

At least one member of this 8th grade class needs money to go to the high school next year. The child I’m thinking of has been with this class for years. She’s a star by any measure Would it be better for her, for the school, and for myself, to give her this money, or to give it to you?

And then what about the teachers? If they were so important, perhaps they should have come before the party. It’s a matter of priorities, no? Barbara, who is a teacher, might also argue that giving teachers money in this way, while obviously needed, changes the very special, nearly sacred relationship between a teacher and her students. Reduces the transaction to something that’s not in the true nature of what’s being exchanged. It’s a tricky matter best left to her to articulate.

Finally, and this was Barbara’s point the other night, considering all the horror in the world lately, from Darfur to Sichuan, would this money you’re spending so much time earning and collecting mean more to those people, in their time of need, or to this class, and it’s time of need? A quite different need. One wonders what would have been the wisdom of the 8th grade crowd? Left to themselves what would they have done with this money?

In sum, the question is, which would be the more meaningful memory for this class, and for a Waldorf school class? Which would give them a greater sense of empowerment, even beyond the satisfaction of having done ‘the right thing.’ Which better establishes a standard of social awareness (and no, this is not too early an age to start that awareness and it doesn't matter what the do in high school)... Which is it? A dinner party with a pretty view, and a party that is finally exclusive not inclusive, or aid to people in need. People where hopelessness is the view.

You see what I mean? As a matter of choice, what does this money mean? What’s the intention here? What is this really about?

I always thought one of the values of Waldorf was that it was an ‘alternative’ education, that it wasn’t about keeping up with the Joneses, that it wasn’t about appearances, that it wasn’t about ‘finery’, or about buildings and gyms, which is what it always seems to come to. There’s always that discrepancy between alternative and traditional. Always that fear of going too far off the path. Always the sense of a divided, tentative identity. As an aside, I was asking someone the other day, a person who could answer such a question among a certain crowd, well how is Waldorf thought of. “Nobody really knows. It’s just sort of under the radar.” And then he turned to me, “I mean there’s some sort of cult thing underneath, right?”

Fear of that perception is always one of the factors that drive this education toward the middle. Which is why many Waldorf schools are caught in a tug of war. Nobody is willing to address what this education is really about or who Steiner was and what he was about — outside the confines of Waldorf. And so when you say you’re having a party at the Art Institute my very first thought is that it’s an attempt to forge an understandable and acceptable identity on this class and on this school. It's a message in a bottle. “Ah yes, that’s the place where children interested in the arts go. Isn’t it nice.”

“It’s safe,” is the message. “Now, we’re like everyone else.”

Meanwhile, Steiner himself is saying, “We shouldn’t ask: what does a person need to know or be able to do in order to fit into the existing social order? …. The new generation should not just be made to be what the present society wants it to become.”

As Henry Barnes explained it to me one pretty afternoon many years ago, in his ever wise and sweet way, standing in his garden full of German irises, the consummate Waldorf teacher, of history by the way, the grand old man of Waldorf….. as he explained, one of the main purposes of this education is to impart the confidence that you can transcend the limits of rational knowledge by using a blend of the purest reasoning, imagination, moral intuition and will.

I don’t think this party is in line with that. I don’t think there are any meanings in this celebration that have much worth beyond the moment. If these kids weren’t seeing each other in a few months, I suppose you could make some argument. Even then… But considering all the things you could do with $6,000 or $7,000 ‘more’, which seems so strange to me in light of the other monies that have been raised, beyond what was needed for the trip... In any case, I think these kids deserve more than this, something to suggest a more highly tuned ambition, a deeper view of the world, something more creative if nothing else, and something more in line with the hope of this education — and if you’ll forgive the apparent contradiction with Steiner’s desire, something to go with the times, with the notion of real change…..

I realize nothing can be changed but there it is.

Jun 2, 2008

Under One Roof

(Japan 6/2/08) A homeless woman who sneaked into a man's one story house in Shime, Fukuoka Prefecture, and lived undetected in his closet for a year has been arrested after the man became suspicious when he noticed his food mysteriously disappearing. He installed security cameras that transmitted images to his mobile phone. When he saw someone in his house, he suspected a burglar and called police.

But when police arrived they found no sign of a forced entry. No broken windows, no broken lock. When they got inside there was no sign that the house had been ransacked. They looked high and low and eventually found Tatsuko Horikawa, 58, hiding in the top compartment of the 57-year-old man's closet. She was arrested for trespassing, police spokesman Hiroki Itakura from Kasuya Police Station said.

"We searched the house . . . checking every- where someone could possibly hide," police spokesman Itakura said. "When we slid open the shelf closet, there she was, nervously curled up on her side."

The man lived alone in the one-story house and was not using the room with the shelf closet where the women was living. The height of the shelf closet is only 50 cm. Horikawa had moved a thin mattress into the small closet space and even took showers, Itakura said, calling the woman "neat and clean."

Horikawa was taken to a jail facility where she was interrogated. At first, she said nothing but after several days she began to tell her story. She told police that she had come from the north looking for work. She said her husband had thrown her out of the house because he had lost his job and she wouldn't give him proper attention. She lived on the streets but when the cold set in she sought out houses in the area, and gained access through unlocked doors. She said that she did not mind living in such a cramped space and even had a sense of protection from the enclosure. "I have lived all my life on shelves", she told police.

She described how she could hear the owner of the house and learned his habits quickly. "He must be a very dull man," she said. "He never did anything. He came home, he fixed his dinner, and went to sleep. That's not much of a life. All the time I wondered, 'what's he thinking about?' No television, no radio. I never heard him speak a single word, although once I think he may have been weeping. I couldn't tell, you know, everything was muffled. Once I thought he had left for the day, I got confused what day it was, and I was almost discovered. He was sitting in a chair in his main room, staring into space. But I only saw his back. In fact, I have never seen him. If he came in here right now and accused me I wouldn't recognize him. No, not a sound from the man. He was like a mouse. 'Perhaps he is lonely,' I thought. 'Maybe he would like someone to talk to.' I thought of exposing myself, but I couldn't take a chance. I saw his mail every day. He got postal cards from Hiroshima. It sounded like his mother. She was still taking treatments for radiation. I wondered about that. You know they say the children of those people are a little crazy. I would say we made a good pair. I am sorry he felt I took something. I cleaned up his room. Did he tell you that things seemed a little neater than usual? I even did his laundry sometimes and took care to make sure he was would not notice. I never took any money, although I could have. Yes, so we lived like that. It was not bad. There are worse lives I can tell you for sure."