Saturday, April 7, 2018

Black Panther Revisited

I finally saw Black Panther tonight and it had me on a critical roller-coaster between loving it and being angry at it.

It was majestic.
But, it was about a make believe Kingdom full of super people with super powers and resources and a super moral culture.

It was beautiful.
But it was so politically tame.

It extolled so many beautiful features of real Black cultures.      
While it implied rejection of so much of what the actual Black Panther Party and other Black radical groups of the 60’s rightfully advocated and organized toward.

Yet, in the end ... it reasoned its way into advocacy of the very community-building philosophy of those same radical groups

I came away from it mostly content. I don’t feel the point in raging against a positive, family adventure film that advocates non-violence and sharing. But I’ll at least wag my proverbial finger at the soft politics of the film.
It beautifully fulfills / exemplifies a complaint that was heard frequently during this week’s commemoration of the half century that has passed since the assassination of Dr. King while he organized to redress economic imbalances. The complaints were about how much King’s image has been sanitized. He’s been turned into a saint, and turned from a man who unflinchingly challenged America’s racism, hypocrisy, war-mongering and engines of economic oppression.

This film directly rejects Black militancy, the kind that arose out of unvented rage and put lives on the line to literally fight a defensive war against murderous police aggression. All of the Wakandan villains in this film are virtual Black Panthers in the mold of Huey Newton, whose poster we see in the film, adorning the apartment of Killmonger’s father.
The protagonist – the cartoon-birthed Black Panther, leader of the fictitious nation – ultimately comes around to agreeing that the villains are right, in principle. Resources and sacrifices ought to go toward aiding the oppressed elsewhere in overcoming their oppressors. But this doesn’t stop the villains from being villains. Because they have been embittered by anger, moved too far toward “by any means necessary”, have grown too comfortable with violence. They have become the proverbial 'angry, black man', Now, they can only become noble in death.

As Dr. King became more noble in death. Then, the angry Black minister, putting life and limb on the line, to force his oppressors out of their comfortable, cozy evil, was buried, and Saint Dr. Martin Luther King was born, smiling down on his native America, which he so dearly loved.
Black Panther’s villains die also, but the resurrected T’Challa endures. In real life, the Black Panthers were virtually exterminated. One by one they died in police and FBI raids. And though, to some degree, the sanitizing of Dr. King’s posthumous stature was in part because he had been less threatening than the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, some of that stature came from the fact that he was dead. No longer a threat. In the film, we become able to respect and empathize with Killmonger only as he dies.

In the end, I like the film. Great seeing all those badass sisters up on the screen. And the cultural artifacts, and the ancestor rituals. I wonder how those viewers raised in Africa took in all the accents. They rang fine in my unschooled ear, and I enjoyed the acting, especially Bozeman’s. He brought a earnestness and humility to the role that kept the superhero human. As entertainment goes, this film was dazzling on a visual design level, and the action sequences were clear enough for my old eyes to keep up with what was going on.
But ya know? I think it’s about time I pulled out Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” for a fresh viewing.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Resilience in the Fabric of Life

I’ve been on a mission to reclaim my body.
Over the last several years I’ve allowed myself a lifestyle of physical ease. I let my gym membership lapse. I all but forgot the 108 movements of Yang style Tai Chi that I’d learned and practiced over a period of years. I indulged in regular desert binges, put on some pounds, and even flirted with type 2 diabetes.
My only semi-regular physical exertion came during the warm months when I regularly used my hybrid, 18-speed bike for getting around. That was good for occasional sweats and keeping the muscles relatively loose. But every now and then I’d find myself sprinting for half a block to catch a bus. Painfully staggering is more accurate because propelling my 260 lb. mass into motion was a challenge that my poorly maintained biological systems just weren’t ready for. Invariably, having made the bus or not, I’d be a wheezing, dripping mess for at least ten minutes, before my heart would stop its hammering, and my lungs slow their straining.
Finally, two months ago, I joined a gym again, and two or three times every week I’ve been enjoying strenuous, hour-long work-outs. Yes, enjoying. More than in the past. I generally take to the treadmill or elliptical device for a good 20-30 minutes and spend the rest of the time on the weight machines. I work myself to a point of moderate exhaustion, shower, and leave the gym feeling the drain and the challenge of it through my entire body. It feels good.
To me, the wonderful part of it, and the part I’ve come to expect because I’ve been through this cycle so many times through my life, is the gradual but pretty quick return to decent fitness. After my first workout, I was basically done for the day. My entire body throbbed or ached, I had no desire or energy to do anything but lay in front of the tv. I felt so weak. The next day I was sore and stiff and couldn’t have made it halfway through another workout if I’d wanted to. But the day after that I was ready, and so it began.
Just these few weeks later, I have my body back. My workout is far more strenuous than when I started and I push myself harder. My heart, muscles and lungs undergo a lot more stress and I come even closer to a point of exhaustion. But as tired as I get, I no longer feel weakened after a workout. Instead, I feel energized. The tiredness only lasts awhile, and two or three hours later, I feel as though I could do it all over again.
It’s no surprise. It was a surprise the first time I allowed myself to come down from a period of high fitness, after high school where I’d been on the varsity football and track teams. I was shocked both at how unfit I’d allowed myself to become, and at how quickly I regained that fitness when I committed to working out again. This may be a surprise to someone who has never lost then regained fitness, but it won’t be to anyone who has. It’s all about the resilience. Not my resilience, or the resilience of any group of special people. The resilience, I’ve come to believe, is just a characteristic of the fabric or life.
I believe that because I see it everywhere. It struck me in a big way when got my first youth service job, working with serious offenders in a detention facility. My clients were 16-18 year olds who’d been convicted of robberies and assaults, even rape and murder. They were mostly what you’d call thugs, gangbangers, even sociopaths. But I soon saw, because it was impossible not to see, that underneath the hardened exteriors, they were also just kids. They laughed and played just like kids, like younger kids. And they had the same sensitivities and the sense of wonder as other, younger kids. It amazed me, but it doesn’t any longer. It’s that natural resilience again, that seems to exist in everything that has life.
Have you ever watched a swatted fly struggle to hold on to its life? Or a fish that’s been pulled from a lake? Howabout watching a lawn in springtime come back from months under the packed ice and snow of a brutal winter? A baby fighting to stand again and again, after falling over and over? Are they all the same? I guess probably not. But they are all examples of that ability to charge back at defeat, loss, setbacks, pain…to reclaim, retain or regain something.
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It’s like that old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bicycle, except that it applies to everything. A forgotten language? It will come back. Ability to play an instrument? It will come back too. Not in an instant or overnight necessarily. But surprisingly fast. It seems not to be a matter of character, or some special talent. It seems to be a feature of life itself. We are resilient. We have the ability to come back, to recover, to become again as we once were.  I think that we tend to deny this understanding because of the qualifier “as much”. Because, of course I’m not as fit as when I was captain of my high school track team. And no, I don’t remember as well as I once did. And no, Michael Jordan will never again do what he once did on a basketball court. But this way of seeing and not seeing, or accepting or denying, has to do with our obsession with perfection, with superlatives, with what we think of as ‘the best’.  But doesn’t that all miss the point?
Truth is, so long as we have life, we have life. So long as we exist, we can create. And whatever we retain in our hearts, and continue to desire and will, we can bring into being in our worlds. It’s one of those things that age is teaching me.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Pause That Kills

I recently realized that I pause before everything that I do. When I have a notion to do something – get out of bed in the morning, speak to a stranger, begin a difficult task, indulge in a guilty pleasure, give aide that’s been requested, push back against an unreasonable demand – I almost always pause a moment to consider.

This was possibly a very powerful insight, because I understood immediately that there are so many things I’d like to do that never get done because of this pause. But it’s only potentially powerful because much depends on what I will do with it.

Pausing is often a very good thing. It can and has kept me from doing irrational, impulsive things. But the truth of it is that pausing mostly keeps me from things I ought to do. It gives me time to consider risks, to count possible costs. It allows me to be ‘reasonable’, which the coaches at Landmark Education were always quick to point out generally means ‘ordinary and safe’.

Pausing keeps me from exposure, maybe from embarrassment and shame, from being overextended. But it also keeps me from putting myself on the line, from pushing myself when I really need to, from just going for it. Pausing has generated so, so much procrastination and delay, so much avoidance.

I need to do away with this always, automatic pausing. I know that there are lots of times I have not paused, sometimes to the extent of surprising myself. I’ll have to consciously try and remember more of those times, because my sense is that they usually led to something very good.

I had another insight many years ago, which ties directly into this one: that most of my life’s regrets are not about ill-advised things I did, but about the things I did not do.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Black Panther is Welcome...But

I'm a lot older than the target audience, so I have the benefit of memory and context and comparison.
I value that so much because I don't allow myself to forget the world my father lived in, and the world of his father before that.

One of the things I'm learning about long life is that it teaches you huge respect for the power of change. It's because we begin to see not that change is possible, but that it's inevitable. For example, I enjoy freedoms now that in the time of my father were very controversial and would have severely limited any social, financial or political aspirations he might have had, and in my grandfather's time would have amounted to a death warrant.

I vote. And I loudly proclaim who I'm voting for, and why, and who I want to see defeated. That's two of those freedoms, at least. Death sentences, had my forebears insisted on exercising them. No need for judge or jury. Oh, and I live with a white woman. Add castration in front of that death sentence.

I would not have dared. I don't have the required courage - which is courage I believe I could only have found when the world forced it out of me.

Context affects the way a thing appears, and how it feels, how people react. And that context changes. Constantly and inevitably. And, like Global warming, it's something that we humans absolutely affect, but what can we, as individuals do to control it. Hard to trust in change. It doesn't come when we want, and it doesn't give us what it's supposed to.

Anyway, I was saying ... about Black Panther.
I'm glad enough to see it, but I harbor old, mixed feeling, too.

I was a Marvel comics reading 12 year old when the original Black Panther appeared. I probably didn't learn of him right away, just as I was also not immediately aware of the founding of the Black Panther Party. But I became familiar with, and a fan of, the real life Panthers awhile before I read about T'Challa, the fictional king of a fictional African country. I wasn't very impressed with the latter.

You see, Huey Newton & Bobby Seale, the founders of the real Black Panthers, dressed all in Black, too, but it was urban guerilla Black: berets and leather coats. And they patrolled the Black neighborhoods of Oakland, California toting pistols and shotguns. The were protecting their neighborhoods against police violence they proclaimed, in accordance with their rights under the second amendment. And they brandished law books too, and cited case law and the criminal code to patrol officers who were still learning about and ignoring Miranda rights, which were just coming into play, following a Supreme Court ruling. Related image

The Black Panthers were real and they were bad-ass, a macho and invigorating alternative to Martin Luther King whose approach of militant but peaceful protest (letting yourself and your mama get beat up) had overtaxed the patience of many. I admired the Panthers, wore a free Bobby button and had a Huey Newton poster on my door. I fantasized about joining up.

I always believed - until just an hour ago, in fact - that the comic was named after the organization, that it was one of those lefty liberal, token gestures of solidarity. It seems so clear now that that would have been impossible. The Panthers were considered so radical by middle America that when they were literally exterminated - via street assassination, imprisonment, and the infiltration and dirty tricks of the FBI, the media and the courts barely batted an eye. Marvel comics on the other hand, was a business that catered to the imaginings and yearnings of adolescent nerds. But I always believed that the comic superhero was an unintentional trivializing and romanticizing of an important social movement. The Black Panther comic has always symbolized for me the softening of the wild 60's energy, the radical activism, the demand for change, that by 1973 had turned into disco glitter.

It turns out the Party and the Comic were formed entirely independently of one another, during that same summer of 1966 when the Miranda rulings were handed down, and that the identical naming was purely coincidental. Unless Huey or Bobby got the idea from the July '66 issue of Fantastic Four. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed two months later.

So now, because of the hype around this movie, and because I was motivated to air my dormant sense of injury about an old (but oh so contemporary) injustice, I was motivated to do a google search that corrected an erroneous belief I've carried all this time. I stand corrected, I guess. I will persist in wondering how much of our yearning for social justice, our anger at the havoc caused by greed and the lust for power, in drained off, quieted, sated or distracted by the overwhelming allure and catharsis of the Movies.

Sure ... see and celebrate this film, its mostly Black cast, and the if-only-it-were-so depiction of a proud, powerful, never conquered, and accomplished African nation. But let's not forget the real history, the context and the reality of what The Black Panthers were in America's tortured and limping walk toward Freedom.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

When I'm Sixty-Four

I'll be 4 cubed soon. Yes: 4 times 4 times 4 years of age.

It's not important, just a curious little detail. I like numbers. I play little games with the numbers on license plates while I drive, like finding two that add up to a thousand. And I look for patterns in dates and phone numbers and addresses. I've lived at addresses 111, 22, and 333, and if I'm ever house or apartment hunting in the future and come across a 44 or a 444, I'll probably want to take it, for just that reason, which is no reason at all.

There's no significance to turning 64, or that 64 is 4 cubed, except that it's mildly interesting, to me anyway. I was once 1 cubed, then, just a short while later I managed 2 cubed, and less than twenty years after that, I was 3 cubed. But that was 37 years ago, and it's not likely at all that I'll reach 5 cubed. And that's not because I'm slowing down. That's just the way numbers work.

Actually, I am slowing down, but time isn't. I think that's the cruelest joke of getting older - that time just keeps moving faster, when it should move slower. That would be kinder. It's when we're young that we can't wait for things to happen, for next week and next year to get here. And so of course it drags. Now, I mostly want to just hold on to what I have, to enjoy it. So time moves fast enough for me to start experiencing the end of something almost from the moment it arrives.

Apparently, Einstein once explained Relativity by referring to the difference between the hour you spend waiting for your lover, to the hour you spend with your lover before you part. That's a good one. Who can't understand that.

But I'm exaggerating. There's lots I still look forward to. New things as well as familiar things. And there is the positive side of the time warp: waiting isn't nearly so hard anymore. And I'll add that there's also the kindest joke about getting older, which is that, in the most essential ways - the ways of spirit - you don't really get older, anyway. Isn't it odd - and wonderful - that being in my sixties doesn't feel anything as bad, as boring, as I-might-as-well-be-dead as I thought it would?

So I have big plans for sixty-four. I intend some big changes. And you know, it's as exciting and as scary contemplating this change as when I left home for boarding school when I was fifteen and realized that my life would never be the same again. I'm exaggerating again. Not quite that excited, or that scared. But I'm reminded of something - something pointed out to me by my track coach, Ralph Lovshin, a few decades ago. He helped me understand that I underperformed during track meets because I treated excitement and fear as invasive parasites that I had to overcome. Instead, he told me, treat them as allies that arise from within, preparing me for whatever challenge I'm facing. And you know, it worked. I became a much better shot putter and discus thrower after digesting that lesson.

Change. Fear. Fleeting Time. Come on with it. I'm ready for you!

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Growing, Shifting City

I am watching Toronto grow and change. It is happening under me, around me, even through me, and has been for twenty-five years. That’s how long I’ve lived in this city. It’s longer by far than I’ve lived anywhere else.

I’ve drifted a lot through my life. It began with following my parents, as we moved from Detroit to New York when I was five, then to Berlin when I was eight, and back again to New York before I turned eleven. Then, on my own, I moved to Exeter, New Hampshire for three years when I was fifteen, then to Cambridge Massachusetts for about eight years, broken up by short stays in Atlanta, San Francisco, Norfolk Virginia, and even my home town, Detroit. Then, it was Kansas City for a year, Seaside, Oregon for another, then to Seattle for a long, twelve year stay, much longer than I’d been anywhere else.

I came to Toronto when I was going on forty, not knowing that the show would stop here for so long. A quarter century!

I’ve always known that, while I was experiencing something wonderful that fed my spirit through my many moves, I was also missing something. I had friends who spoke about growing up in a hometown and going through all the stages of their growth with a single familiar and familial backdrop. I came to think of it as a layered experience: living in and moving through spaces serially, in childhood, then adolescence, through early adulthood and so on, forming different relationships, associations, going behind different doorways, and travelling the streets with entirely different aims and purposes.

I knew that it must be something very different than my experience. For me, the shifts in time have always paralleled shifts in space, and more importantly, shifts within me. Detroit shaped my first years in ways that life in Manhattan made mutant, and the world of Berlin broke dimensions of language, food, culture that I hadn’t known existed. I remember realizing, shortly after returning to New York – to within ten blocks, yet an entire neighborhood away – that I was changed in ways those third grade friends I’d left behind could never understand, which I could never fully communicate. And by the time I left there again, I knew that I’d never be able to return, because if and when I ever did, I wouldn’t be the same person who’d left.

I came to Toronto in my late thirties and marveled at how diverse it is. Yes, I know that New York is a melting pot, but the ingredients in the stew of Toronto are fresher than I ever experienced on the Upper West Side. In Manhattan, my schoolmates’ parents or grandparents were from Greece and Puerto Rico, Italy, England and the Dominican Republic. But in Toronto, I lived and worked with people almost newly arrived, relatively – from Ghana, Iran and Jamaica, from Poland, Palestine and Fiji. It possessed a different kind of layers, and also such a variety of dynamic and healthy neighborhoods that I knew I wouldn’t grow out of it. Yet, I didn’t imagine I’d live here so long.

And this city is growing so fast, building and shifting and evolving so quickly, that I’ve finally had a sense of a place growing new layers over old ones. This is most apparent for me in Regent Park, and surrounding Cabbagetown and Corktown, and the area below Queen St., west of the Don River. When I first came to the community, it was dominated by a sixty year-old public housing project, and by the row houses and the dilapidated industrial shops and storefronts. It’s all been torn down during the last decade and a half, and replaced by blocks of concrete, steel and glass, glass, glass. Stale poverty has given way to slickness and style. The old neighborhood feel has gone the way of brick stoops and dusty furniture stores, the old playgrounds, schools and community centres. But the new pool and park are sleek and neat, and the art splashed upon the walls and highway archways is dazzling and bright.

The entire city is bulging with construction, and the streets increasingly clogged with traffic. But while to my old eyes it’s invasive and shocking, newer eyes take it all as given and register no surprise. They comprise the new layer, but are not the last. Time stretches both forward and backward from here. I continue my beginning to know the place.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Time On The Road

                It was an almost spontaneous, Thanksgiving road trip.

                First, a weekend at home, just to settle from the work week, slowly pack, make a couple of calls that we’re coming. Then, Monday afternoon, Ponczka and I are in the car. It’s an easy first leg – Hamilton to Detroit, less than four hours.

                A visit to my Aunt Irene. She’s 94 and living alone in a comfortable little apartment, and managing well. I don’t visit her often enough, but this is my second visit this year, and she’s glad to see us. It’s our first visit since her brother, my dad, passed away a couple of months ago, so we speak of him. He was a lively man who enjoyed satisfying his appetites, and was just a year her junior. And one of the things that both I and my Aunt Audrey enjoyed was that she was one of the few who could talk him down out of his easy-flowing brashness. It was something that brought out the little boy that remained of that old man, right into his last year, when he seemed finally sated with life. And speaking and laughing of it, brought out the young woman that remained in my aunt.

                On Tuesday afternoon, Ponczka and I start on the long leg of the trip, heading to Atlanta for the holiday with my brother. But first, we tool around Detroit a bit – the hometown I’ve loved but never missed. We survey the mansions along Boston and Chicago boulevards, then the mangled ruins just a few blocks beyond, and into the remade downtown, almost a different city entirely. There’s a kind of benevolent gentrification happening – the hipsters and the young entrepreneurs, the new construction alongside the refurbished remnants of last century’s glories. Gentle, yet still a broom, sweeping away the old. And Detroit, an almost entirely African-American city for a short-long while, is being reclaimed by the children of those that abandoned it.

                We’re on the road for only a few hours, through the rush hour and along interstate 75, down into Ohio. Toledo and Dayton, around Cincinnati and into Kentucky. We find a Microtel in Lexington and I go for some take-out chili from a nearby Waffle House. Why is it so wonderful, this taste of the nomadic, the very ordinary disguised in slightly shifting regional accents, the gradually warming air, different signs and license plates along the highway? It feels like easy adventure, but it’s really only a flip of the channel to some easily remembered yesterdays, with accents and jabs coming from unexpected places.

                The next day, we’re back on the road. We finish off Kentucky, and get down Tennessee. Hills and deep valleys, roadside venues selling barbecue and fireworks, Knoxville and Chattanooga. We hit unexpected congestion more than once. The license plates from more than a dozen states remind us that others are travelling too – Virginia, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania; occasionally a New York, Florida, even less Texas, Nevada, Arizona. Seeing them connects me, in memory, in yearning, in rewriting my history over the coming shrouded days. We finally hit Georgia and the last hundred or so miles are less interesting because we’re tired. Even so, Atlanta springs up like an ornament, with sparkling new buildings we don’t remember from our last visit four years ago. Cities loom like sculpted fantasies, like those teasing visions that come in movies, in dreams, like boasts and other tall tales.

to continue…