Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Aids

I donated to the first Farm Aid. It was 1985, and while the world celebarated an end to hunger via the Live Aid concerts held in London and Philadelphia. I watched all sixteen hours, and while I didn't pay strict attention to every one of the acts that held the stage on both sides of the Atlantic, I was swept up in the courageous and valitant efforts of the music industry to bring about the kind of change that world governments had been unable to achieve. For this, they made Bob Geldof a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. For my part, I received no honor from her majesty, though I did get a souvenir T-ShirtI also got a warm, fuzzy glow that I was able to pass off as humanitarian for weeks after the fact. 
And somewhere in the midst of all that feel-good music and warmth came Bob Dylan's comment during his set: "I hope that some of the money...maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe...one or two million, maybe...and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks..." It wasn't exactly a feel-good moment. It was Bob being Bob, like playing an electric guitar at a folk festival. It made me think of my cousins, who were toiling away on their beet farm in eastern Colorado, raising pigs, trying to find a way to make ends meet. This was my family's farm, and it was being lost to the banks. I listened to what Bob had to say and I started thinking about saving lives by saving farms. 
The good news is that someone besides me was listening: Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp were listening too, and they organized an all-star concert of their own to aid the farmers of America who were feeling their lives slip away from underneath them just like the land they had worked all those years. They called it Farm Aid, in a stroke of wild inspiration, and those guys keep getting together year after year to raise money and awareness for the American Family Farm. Somewhere in those early days, my cousins' farm went the way of the auction block, and another chunk of the great plains fell into the hands of the machine. Forty-eight million dollars have been raised over the past three decades by the organization, but it wasn't enough to keep the bankers away. Much in the same way I couldn't pick and choose which life I saved with my Live Aid T-shirt, I couldn't convert my contribution to that first Farm Aid, with my souvenir bandanna and pin, into relief from the crushing debt that turned those beets and pigs over to the bad guys. 
In the midst of this equation, food kept being grown. Some of it was shipped to countries where famine continues in spite of all the concerts and t-shirts and bandannas. Somehow, it's just not enough. And so we keep on singing. And praying for that day when we can save everyone. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Suspect

The day that the guilty verdict came down for James Holmes, the man who shot up a movie theater in Colorado, I breathed a sigh of relief. For the victims. For the community. For the families of the victims. For the families of victims of senseless violence. Three years after the fact, there was justice. Or what could be administered by our system with its due process and checks and balances. That was the moment I felt relief. 
Then came the shooting in Chattanooga. We now have another accused killer. This is how we refer to Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez. There were plenty of witnesses who watched him spray two different recruiting centers with automatic weapons fire, seven miles apart. Allegedly. That would be Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat or in the more easily digested English: the burden of proof is on he who declares, not on he who denies, And we should probably point out that Mister Abdulazeez is not around to deny his innocence or guilt. He was shot by police who arrived on the scene. Four Marines are dead. That is not an allegation. That is a reality. Still, we will keep referring to this gentleman as a suspect until the investigation is through. The hairs that can be split between criminal and terrorist acts will be split and any possible accomplices will be rounded up and that will give us all a chance for some catharsis, since surviving accomplices can be given that due process and eventually justice will be served. Cold and late, but served nonetheless.
Just in time to try and figure out how to step up theater security, at least in Lafayette, Louisiana. Three more dead, and nine injured. One of the casualties was the suspect, John Russell "Rusty" Houser. The self-inflicted gunshot that took his life was the last of the "methodical" killing that took place during a showing of "Trainwreck." Now, aside from questioning the necessity of metal detectors outside movie theaters, we can wonder what "Rusty" might have had against Amy Schumer. Allegedly. There investigation here will probably not run as deep, since the potential political and ideological questions can be swept aside. Except for that whole mental health thing. A history of mental health concerns didn't keep Mister Houser from passing a background check and legally purchasing the .40 caliber semiautomatic handgun that he fired twenty times. Allegedly. 
And lest we forget that old news of Dylan Roof, suspect in the murder of nine church members in Charleston. He will be charged with hate, not with terror. Perhaps his defense might find a way to swing that: innocent by reason of hate. 

It's been a rough summer. Allegedly. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Home Again

Looking out the window, I can see how flat everything is. It makes sense, since we had driven an hour away from the mountains, toward Kansas. We had spent the week nestled up against the Rocky Mountains, and now we had retreated to the plains. The Great Plains. This was necessary because getting a jet aircraft up in the air would not be possible if we had stayed pushed up against the foothills. Sitting next to my son, we waited for our turn to take off, and after an hour's drive to the airport, another two hours waiting to board our plane, and then yet another indeterminate amount of time sitting at the gate. Waiting. Waiting to go home.
"Do you feel like you're going home?" That's what my clever son asked me. I had spent a week, reconnecting to the place I had spent the first thirty years of my life. Hadn't I just been home? Where was I going? I was leaving Colorado again. You might think I was used to this by now.
Taking off from the Denver airport is something I have done, off and on, for more than twenty years now. The anticipation of that moment when the wheels leave the ground and suddenly the world changed beneath me. Suddenly that hour's drive disappeared. The mountains were now below us. In that rush to get to the altitude where personal electronic devices could be turned back on, we flew over the summit of Longs Peak. Somewhere down there was the top of a mountain that took me an entire day to climb.
And then it was gone. So were all the other peaks that make up the Rocky Mountains. My son pointed out the snow. In July. I looked down with him. Through the clouds. The earth was slipping away beneath us. The jagged range that I grew up using as a compass were no longer to the west. They were becoming the east. And now the geographical features that seemed so prominent became softer: hills, desert. Utah.
I had left Colorado again, and even though I had my son's enthusiasm for the place, I felt a pang. Regret, sorrow, disappointment. Lonely. Sitting in the back of the plane next to my own flesh and blood, I felt the miles between my two homes come into sharp focus. That which was and that which is.
Then the hills appeared below. The ones that rise up out of the San Francisco Bay, then the Bay itself. The pilot found a nice flat place to put the plane down, and suddenly, if two and a half hours can be considered sudden, and we were on the edge of the continent: California. Home. Again.
My son and I got up out of our seats, and when we walked up the aisle and onto the jetway. We smelled the brine. Sea level. Some of the loneliness lifted. You can go home again. Twice in one day.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Shoot The Moon

Last week we celebrated the forty-sixth anniversary of Apollo 11's landing on the moon. If you missed your community's parade or the annual Moondance Festival held in most cities across this great land of ours, it turns out that you're not alone, since those events don't exist. Not since 1969, anyway. It has been a while since Tranquility Base was foremost in our minds. Maybe it has fallen into a bin of discoveries and accomplishments that we learn in school without any particular context. July 20, 1969 is a date that sits in infamy right next to December 7, 1941. Or maybe it's like September 6, 1522, when Ferdinand Magellan's expedition completed its circumnavigation of the globe. Ferdinand himself didn't make it, which is a tragedy on par with Neil Armstrong getting lost somewhere between the earth and the moon. Proving the earth was round was the same kind of discovery as the moon landing. The earth didn't suddenly become round. It always was. The moon didn't change because we set foot on it. We landed there to make sure that it really was there, and to make emphatic that human need to prove something by putting our hands on it.
We brought back rocks and soil samples. We took pictures and movies. This is the way we could prove that the earth's moon was part of our territory. You can visit the facility and examine these samples for yourself. You can watch the footage and listen to the communications between the astronauts and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But since NASA is a government agency, there have been loads of people who would like to suggest that these events never occurred. They were faked. I would expect that there could have been a similar group of naysayers following the surviving crew of Magellan's voyage around with parchment and quills in hand, insisting to them that they were frauds. There were probably religious types who wanted the crew of the Victoria to swear on a bible that they had never been around the globe. That kind of enterprise probably took place in the sixty years between Magellan's trip and the next circumnavigation of the earth. Those records have been lost to the ages, but 1522 still marks the end of the voyage that proved that the earth was round. A fact that could be borne out by the pictures of the earth taken from the surface of the moon. Or maybe that was just photoshopped. But how could that be when Photoshop wasn't invented until 1987? Or maybe that's just what the folks at Adobe want us to believe. Conspiracy? I blame computer software. The stuff that was made possible, in part, by guys like Neil and Buzz walking on the moon. Or maybe they were the architects of a made up world fabricated by doctored and human-generated images.
Yeah. That makes sense.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Stop The Train

I want to get off. Okay, maybe I don't really want to get off for long, because I'm still really enjoying the ride. I would hate to think about what I might have missed if I didn't stay on. After all, there is still so very much left to see. The train of which I write here is not real of course, but the metaphorical juggernaut that is pop culture. The hurtling zeitgeist that only seems to pick up speed rather than slow down has begun to wear me out.
This is especially true when it comes to the Marvel Universe. I understand that I somehow fit precisely into some mad marketing genius's vision of the true fan: the guy who is not only invested in the legends and lore associated with the comics of his past, but the guy who has family and friends he is willing to encourage and indoctrinate into hopping on for the ride because it has this amazing momentum. The fun I had with my son watching "Ant-Man" is evidence of just how far down this track I have gone. And taken my next generation with me.
I will say with a straight face that I give my personal thumbs up to this latest addition to the Marvel movie lexicon. I will also say that there was a large portion of my brain that said, in the months leading up to the release of this current entry into the comic book movie sweepstakes, that the bottom of the barrel had been reached. Ant-Man? Isn't this the Marvel equivalent of the much-maligned DC character, Aquaman? A guy who can shrink down to the size of an ant, yet retains his full human strength?  As it turns out, the machine that has turned out a blockbuster or two a year over the past seven years did a fine job putting their collective tongue in their corporate cheek and made what turns out to be yet another chapter in the saga of the world that is inhabited by these super-types that supplies just enough action, special effects and humanity to make people like me sit through all those credits one more time to find out what is going to happen next. I was one of those guys, sitting next to my son, hoping there would be that clue about what the next installment might hold. It is the thing I know about soap operas: they don't resolve on Fridays. The sponsors want you back in front of your TV Monday, waiting to see how things turn out. There are four more years of Marvel movies in the pipeline, and these are the ones that have been announced. If they make money, there will almost certainly be another dozen behind that.
And I will be in my seat for those too. But sometimes I wish for the days that I could discover movies, like "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." The kind of movie that gets by on "word of mouth," when that mouth is not multiplied and amplified to the point of ridiculousness via every possible media outlet. A movie that doesn't exist simply to push the special effects budgets and Disney profits through the roof.
But here's what I know: There is room for both. I will still count the days until "The Force Awakens." I will study up on my Doctor Strange database, but I will also keep my eyes open for that next stop: the movie theater that isn't rocking with explosions and filled with fellow nerds in 3D glasses. I will be looking for stories that don't involve planetary destruction or galactic disruption.
But please save a seat on that train for me. I'm weak.

Friday, July 24, 2015

More Human Than Human

A week ago when I visited Boulder, I was struck once again by how much a geographic location it is, wedged as it is up next to the Rocky Mountains. I can complain about how it isn't like I remember it. It is as I remember, even if there aren't the same stores or streets have been moved or new ones put into their place. When I go out into the thin air that feels and smells so very different from the briny breezes of Oakland I fill my lungs with the way it used to be. The way it is. And what I feel is they way I used to be.
I found myself feeling very self-conscious about the music pouring into my head through the earbuds I had shoved into my head. As the loud rock and roll roared, I heard the voice of my once upon a time therapist who encouraged me to run without headphones, without music. I should take that time to sense the world around me: get in touch with the sounds as well as the sights and smells. Sensing is what she wanted me to do. Back in the days when I ran the streets and trails of Boulder on a regular basis, that advice was something that I took to heart. I listened to the traffic and the children playing and the wind in the trees and the voices I heard all around me. It certainly kept me safe. I could hear the bicyclist coming up behind me or the lady with the stroller's thanks for going around her. I heard the world and I learned from it. But I missed the music. Not that there isn't music to be found in all that sound, but I missed the feeling of being in my own movie, complete with a soundtrack of my favorite songs.
Listening to those favorite songs as I looked out on my favorite sights filled me with the sense of belonging, that feeling of home. Once again I was caught up in the magic that some have called Niwot's Curse: "People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty." This is what one of the native inhabitants told the white folks who came to settle and mine and farm and undo their land. I have always been entranced by this corner of the planet, probably because I was born here, but also because it is unique. There is no place like it on the globe. I say this with complete hope and expectation of being contradicted. Everyone who has ever looked out on their little corner of the earth and breathed in the air and felt the love of the land will tell me that I may be wrong. 
I'm not, but you can feel free to discuss among yourself why I'm wrong. I won't hear it, because I've got my headphones on. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Like A Boss

I'm a teacher. I got that way by going to teacher school and studying very hard. I went to trainings for the past couple of decades to hone those particular skills that make me the shaper and developer of young minds. Before that, I had imagined all manner of jobs and careers for myself. Some of them I didn't have to imagine, like installing modular furniture or managing the picking operations at a wholesale book warehouse. I don't know if I shaped or molded any minds, young or old, while I was doing those jobs. Since I found myself in supervisory positions in many of the jobs I have had, I will have to imagine that I may have had some sort of effect on those with whom I worked. It does, however, give me chills when I think about myself as being "a good boss." I blame Micheal Scott for that.
Here's what I do know: I still get a Christmas card from one of the guys who worked with me on the crew that unloaded trailers at Target. I didn't have any sort of official title, but since I was the oldest guy in that tight little group, I was the defacto leader. I didn't get any extra money, but I did get to stay late sometimes got to stay late when the other guys messed up sorting the repack boxes at the end of the night. Kind of like the way I got to hang around into the wee small hours of the morning and finish up the books as manager of an Arby's franchise. For that one, at least I got a brown vest and a name tag that was made special for me instead of just a piece of Dymotape label stuck to somebody else's name tag who quit the week before. One of the guys who worked on that same closing crew and at Target with me is still one of my best friends.
And I find out that this legacy may have stretched back even  further than that. Last week, a guy who was in Pep Band with me in high school came through town and wanted to go out to dinner with me. That wasn't the only reason for him to be in Oakland, since his son was interested in seeing The Crucible as a possible place to study the Fire Arts. But he made a point of stopping by to see me. And when he introduced me to his wife ad son, he introduced me as a major influence in his life. Thirty-five year ago, and he felt the need to share this with his family. And me. It was flattering and more than a little bit embarrassing, but ultimately it gave me a profound sense of belonging. All those memories I have of those years that I hung out in the band room, cavorting as I did with my friends and associates as Pep Band president, it seems that I was leaving an impression. One that has lasted all these years and was brought back to me last week, gift-wrapped and full of smiles. He bought me dinner. With fries. It was a dinner full of laughter and memories. It made me proud, and helped me imagine that this may have been the plan all along.