Thursday, April 26, 2012

West Side, West Side

I'm listening to the original cast album from West Side Story. The stage play is coming to town and we're going. And I'm juiced up about it.

I fell for the film when I first saw it, when I was nine or ten, I guess. I immediately loved the music, the dance, the story. I remember wishing that the gangs had been White and Black, instead of White and Puerto Rican. It never occured to me that they ought to have been Black and Puerto Rican. Which is a revealing detail, because part of the thrill of the movie was that we'd lived right there, on the upper west side of Manhattan. Rumour had it that part of the shoot took place at P.S. 166, the elementary school my brother and I had gone to.

But we were living in West Berlin, the west side of the German city that was isolated in the middle of East Germany, at the time we went to the movie theatre that served the US military community and saw West Side Story. In Berlin, we were practically the only people of colour where we lived and went to school. Diversity existed for us there through my Mom's show biz world and the artists from around the world who came into our lives. But we were very aware of living in a country that was carved up and occupied, and that the privilege to simply move about was determined by the kind of passport you had, and by invisible lines across the land.

But in New York, our friends and the families we interacted with were mostly black, and on the dense upper west side, where neighborhoods and ethnicities were jammed right up against one another, there were Puerto Ricans and Italians, Jews and Greeks. And I guess, to be more accurate, we were Negroes back then, or Coloured, terms that sound and taste so strange now.

At that time, one didn't go to a movie and expect to see a Black face. Or a Puerto Rican one. So it's a simple internalization of the racism of the time, that I couldn't even imagine a film that would've pitted two minorities against one another in the prinicple roles, and left out Whites altogether. For me, when I watched the film, the immigrant gang, the Sharks, and their families, represented me and mine. They were the Black folks in the film, just like the Indian characters in the westerns I saw back then were the metaphorical Black folk. (And, to carry the analogy way forward, it was Worf, the angry man from a despised culture, and struggling to know himself, who was the Black dude in Star Trek: The Next Generation, not Giordi.)

Another revealing detail about race and its treatment: a few members of the cast of West Side Story were Puerto Rican, including Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita. But it was determined that Moreno and all the others who played Puerto Ricans would have cosmetics applied to give them nearly identical complexions. This doesn't at all reflect the diversity that one sees in Puerto Ricans, but it was done, of course, so that the actors would appear more Puerto Rican to the audience.

Love the movie anyway! Watching the updated Romeo and Juliet played out to the dancing and music of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein was thrilling to me. It still is. I've seen the film a hundred times, but I've never seen it staged. So I'm playing the album to wind me up, for the whole cast rendition of "Tonight", for the artsy styling of "Cool". And for "America" and "Officer Krupke", two tunes that beautifully skewer the hypocrisies and delusions of the American Dream, bringing a whole new dimension to Shakespeare's tragedy.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Crusty Bits

You know how you do a roast, and when it's done and out of the pan, it's left behind these little crusty bits of well done meat, full of the fatty juices from off the roast? Such delicious stuff! But you can only take so much of it - a couple of nibbles, or a few. I used to think I could make a meal of it, it was sooo tasty! But beyond those first couple of bites...well, it's pretty damn thick on your taste buds.

Okay, so these crumbs of writing won't be anything like eating those crusty bits! Well...maybe a little, I hope. But you might want to limit yourself to one or two and be done wid it:

We had a soft, mild winter. I didn't shovel a single shovelful of snow, and never broke out my heavier coats. Will a time come when I will miss winter?

My dear friend RevBob wrote in a comment, about the role of listening in living a useful life. I've been thinking about that - and trying to be more attentive to my own attention giving, being reminded of how hard it is. The main difficulty is putting aside 'what I think'.

One of the things I love about sports is seeing people who are the absolute best in the world, making mistakes. Not just occassionally. All the time. Perfection is a relative rarity in sport, I think. I feel that it's common to experience perfection in the arts - in books and movies, sculptures and songs. And it's all around in nature. But in sport, you're watching unrehearsed, accelerated struggle. It's Dangerous improvisation. And you watch these athletes negotiate their errors, miscues, over-reaches and their perilous hesitancy, and all that it brings them. And, of course, you get to see and appreciate the remarkably regular miracles that people perform with their bodies, right before your eyes.

We got rid of the Ford Explorer and now have a Honda Fit. Half the size, twice the mileage. The Explorer was great. Got to 280,000km and always ran well. We let it sit as much as laziness allowed - Ponczka commutes with her moped and I with my bike - but when we needed it, it carried tent and all of Ponczka's art to her shows, pulled our collapible camper, etc. With the Fit, we expect to meet 80% of our needs. It has unbelievable cargo room compared to my expectation. I got my fully-assembled bike in the back today. Maybe we can really, finally do a road trip to the West Coast.

I've been blessed with musical experiences this season: concerts, jams, hearing new stuff on the radio. And Speaking of Radio - I'll soon be hosting an Internet Radio Show!!! Whoop Whoop! I'm calling it Jazz Gumbo, and various expressions of jazz will form the core, with crusty bits of r&b, rock, soul, folk, funk, r&b and gospel, and other stuff. It'll be on Regent Radio, coming out of Toronto's Regent Park. Regent Park Focus, choreographed by Adonis Huggins, is an amazing media arts program for youth. They produce videos, a community paper, radio shows, graffiti, music and dance productions, on and on. And they're letting me come and play on Monday nights, 6-8pm est. Not yet though...starting up about mid May.

I've suspended the Change Workshop. The clients in the bedded program weren't coming. Not giving it up. There are five of us who came forward, singly and paired, with programs we wanted to do. The others are Housing Tactics and Art. We may change times, begin inviting clients from our other programs, develop a peer education strategy, etc. We had some good meets, and will have more.

Had a great read - Jim Thompson's The Getaway. Great crime genre fiction from 1958. A surprisingly sympathetic but scars-and-all exploration of the psychology of motive and motivation. Had to go out after that and find a dvd of the '72 film by Sam Peckinpah, with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. What a great interpretation, ratcheting up the vulnerability of McQueen's Doc McCoy with a prologue that was only hinted at in the book. It completely omitted Thompson's surreal and horrific ending, substituting a really sweet and life-embracing Hollywood Ending. But you know, if only because of its perfect casting, it pulls it off.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Journaling Life

When I was 19 and on the verge of dropping out of university for the first time, I bought myself a small, black notebook and began to journal. It's an odd thing, journaling. It amounts to trying to capture life while living it, like our cat Mawa trying to catch her tail.

Early on, I thought it was possible, this capturing of my life. I didn't achieve what I thought possible though, because I was faced right away with the inherent impossibility of it: Like with catching a tail, it was the pursuit of something that would forever recede, at a pace closely related to that of the pursuit. It takes more than a moment to document a moment. And the effort to describe a brilliant conversation with a friend, a solitary walk through the city, the feeling that permeates the senses and the flesh when moved by a piece of music, a book or a film...all that took time, concentration, and a kind of withdrawal from the surrounding life that the journaling was all about.

I once aspired to produce a thorough record of my growth and learning: to record all the key events and characteristics of my relationships, my studies, my work, my health, finances, the places I lived and visited, the people I worked, studied, played, explored and loved with. I was never a daily journaler - already a problem - but there were periods when I felt I was closely chronicaling at least those things that most occupied my thoughts and feelings.

But it's an impossibility to record the fullness of even a single day. The only way to come close would be to literally suspend my very living, or to make the chronicaling of my life the purpose of it. I guess it's theoretically possible to live at half capacity, so as to use the remaining capacity for journaling, but how insane would that be?

So, instead of  a chronicle, my journals have mainly served as a way for me to reflect. I journaled fairly regularly from that beginning until about two years ago, when I was 56.  I have a shelf full of my journals. Writing them, and reading them, has taught me a lot about myself. Among other things, how very self-centered I am. It's amazing how little of the history of the last forty years made it into those pages, and how little of the world around me, while I devoted so much energy to deciphering myself, to trying to understand my own weirdness and what makes me function as I do.

It's interesting and embarrassing to see how little I have changed since I was nineteen. I still obsess and struggle over so many of the same things, though it's at least true that the level of engagement has spiraled upward a ways. Over the years, it's become boring to rehash certain things again and again, to have to relearn so many of the same lessons. The annoyance that comes from reviewing the self-generated evidence of my own stuckness has generated some acceptance, at least, and it's carried over into how I deal with others.

One of the best lessons from my journals is what they've revealed about my memory. What a lively and partial interpreter memory is! If I wanted to give my memory a nickname, I'd dub it Stanley, for Stanley Kubrick, in tribute to how zestfully he adapted novels to his own purposes when he filmed them. I've walked around with crystal clear memories of myself that turned out - on the evidence of my own journals - to be completely false. I might picture myself on Thanksgiving, going to a dinner with Joan, when my journal will tell me it was Halloween, and I was going to a party with Renee. And often, I remember things as happening in a particular sequence, or by a certain causality that turns out be pure creative license. It seems that my memory has its own sense of how my life should have happened.

Anyway, I seem to be done with journaling. For now anyway. This blogging business has taken its place. This has been a very different forum for looking at and reflecting on the world I live in. Still a bit too self-referential, I'd say, but I love that it's so much more interactive, thanks to those of you who respond, both here and in life, to what I'm thinking about. These days, I get to my journal about once a month, if that. It feels like a good shift. We'll see where it goes from here.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Second Chances and Making Good

The other day, at a party, I began a brief and disjointed conversation with a young man that never got finished. The young man – in his mid-twenties, I believe – is smart, personable and ambitious. He aims to run his own business and to become a millionaire. He shared his ideas on how to make good, how incentives to the young might be re-ordered, and some interesting theories on human development. He was very impressive. But I was troubled by something he said. “I think people deserve a second chance, but I’m not sure about a third or fourth chance.” I was grateful for the “not sure” part – that he left room for consideration. Maybe that was out of respect for the work that I do, which I think he understood involved offering “chances” beyond the third or fourth.

As we spoke, two other young people came to my mind, clients I work with, both of whom I met when they were homeless and helped to find housing. They both happen to be very angry with me at the moment, and are threatening to stop working with me. She, because I came down on her so hard about the lackadaisical way she’s been managing some important life issues, and he, because his application for outpatient psychiatric services fell through the cracks, and he feels that he’s on the verge of a breakdown – and I’m the most convenient person for him to blame.
What I wanted to ask my new acquaintance – I’ll call him the entrepreneur – is how he defines a chance, and how many chances he has had. What I suspect he meant by chance is an opportunity, having failed at life to some substantial degree – a poor career choice, a mis-step into drug abuse or criminality, a careless disregard of others, or simply a pattern of indulgence and inaction - a chance to get it right, to try again. Like most of us, he wanted to see the less fortunate have opportunities, but not unlimited opportunities.
This is the kind of sentiment I hear often from friends who work in the private sector.
They often express appreciation and respect that I work at providing support to the underclass, but they also express frustration that the recipients of my services, and of government and charitable assistance in general, do so little or nothing for it, that they don’t work, and that they seem to feel entitled to the fruits of the labors of others.
This is an understandable and unsettled batch of feelings, and it’s one that many, even most of my colleagues in the social services share. We know that while most of those we serve have legitimate needs, it is also true that many of them could do much more for themselves and for others. Third and fourth chances sometimes amount to little more than enabling dysfunction and dependency. It’s tempting, for example, after watching a young client earn an eviction from one apartment, then trash another, to simply say: Enough. Why not stop the supports at that point, allow the unrepentent to languish in homelessness, in addiction, in jail then, if they care so little for the opportunities offered.
But what if it’s the third “chance” that brings the change? Or the fourth. Suppose it’s the sixth time in rehab that finally leads to a life of sobriety? (Rehab very often fails to get the desired results on the first or second go-rounds). A big piece of my learning, as one who works with people, has been recognizing that failure is truly our greatest teacher, and it takes many courses in failure to learn how to succeed. This is so basic to all of our experience that it’s easy to overlook. Sure, we do the best we can to manage our failures. We call them practice, and we try to do away with most of them during periods we call school, and training, and youth. But still, when we grow – and growth doesn’t have to happen – it’s by constantly refining the way we play life, by attending to what we get wrong.
I’ve felt great pain over the years while helplessly watching young clients throw their lives away, to drugs or violence, or by their refusal or inability to develope insight. But I’ve also witnessed – so, so often – the miracle of a young human being coming into ownership of a life, and of a consciousness. It can take so long, can be gradual or sudden, and may come after all have given up hope, including that young person. How many chances is such a transformation worth?
But what really weights a conversation like this for me is shifting the way in which we look at chances. Because when I look at the life of my young entrepreneur and contrast it with the lives of my clients, I count the chances quite differently. He told me that he grew up in a stable and intact family. I count that as two chances for him, because the families of my two clients were neither stable nor intact. The entrepreneur made it through elementary and secondary schooling and earned a university degree. My clients’ lives were both so chaotic by the time they were in their teens, that it’s a wonder they were still even marginally attached to schools, and no wonder at all that they never completed high school. I’d say that that difference counts at least as a chance or two.
And I wonder if my entrepreneur was safe and secure from abuse and violence as a child. My clients both suffered the kind of experiences as children and youth that one of them experiences post traumatic stress disorder. The other might receive a similar diagnosis, if I could get her in front of a therapist. There’s no doubt that she’s suffered some very serious psychological wounds. Surely, these differences count as at least another couple of chances that one could either say the entrepreneur was granted, or the others were denied.
In our talk the other night, my young entrepreneur shared an insight he’d been gifted by a mentor. I can only paraphrase here, and hope that I’m communicating the essence of it. He suggested that in each of our lives there is a point at which we become aware of how the world has acted upon us. At this point, our powers of choice increase dramatically, we can begin to seek self-mastery, and to take the reins of our lives in hand. I absolutely agree that this point of self-awareness is a key juncture in a life, but I’m not at all sure that we all have a clear path to reaching this point.
The way I see it, my two clients were in deficit situations where chances are concerned, before their lives even started, long before they even approached the point where they could begin to understand who they are, and the nature of the forces that have acted upon them throughout their lives.
When I examine my own life, I count quite a few, very powerful chances that I was granted early on. When I was five years old, my father loaded our Chevrolet sedan with suitcases, a few pieces of furniture and my brother and I. He took to the highway and brought us to New York City. Detroit was never to be my home again, except for summer-long stays with relatives over the years. Looking back, I’ve come to see that move as a wonderful and life-changing “chance” that I received. That move, and others that followed over the years, granted me a freedom of motion that most people never have. I learned from those moves that I didn’t have to stay in a place because it was all I knew, or because my family was there. It was a powerful lesson that affected the course of my life.
I had literate and caring parents. (That my family dissolved when I was nine amounts to a loss of a chance by this reckoning, but it doesn’t cancel out the other. Besides which, my parents’ parting was absolutely a blessing of a chance, as they were both happier and saner – and far less angry – human beings apart than they were together. This is much more complex than simple math). I experienced living in Europe for over two years – and learning a second language – before I reached my teens. That I was uprooted from Detroit at an early age (and had the negative chance of being separated from a wonderful, extended family), counts as a positive chance for another reason, beside what I’ve already noted. Beginning in the mid-sixties, Detroit went through decades of decline that included race riots, a destroyed economy, a population that shrank by almost half (leaving parts of Detroit with the feel of a post-apocalyptic ghost town), and a drug-fueled, sky-rocketing level of crime and violence. A cousin of mine who got caught up in the latter once told me, “When those drugs hit the streets, it was like the wild west. Even the bad mutha-fuckas was scared to go out.”
I seriously question how I’d have emerged from an adolescence and young adulthood in that environment. But, as chance had it, I’d left Detroit by then. I was in New York City, and on my way to the Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the finest and most exclusive prep schools in the world. The Exeter experience was another huge, positive “chance” I might easily have missed.
It happened that an administrator at an elite New York private school led an effort to extend access to the top tier of prep schools to students in the public school system. My junior high school was somehow chosen to be part of this effort, and our guidance counselor hand-picked students to take the SSAT’s, and I was one of them. I aced the test, and this administrator decided that I was Exeter material. I wasn’t much interested. Since 7th grade, I’d had my mind set on one of two specialty NY public schools. But the administrator convinced me to visit Exeter. He personally took me there on a weekend train trip (can you imagine?) where he'd arranged an interview by the head of admissions. Another thing. I’d only half-heartedly completed the Exeter application, and hadn’t submitted the required essay along with the rest of my application. I lied and said I mailed it, and was allowed to bring an essay along on the visit. I was offered admission on the spot. And, I was so blown away by the campus, by the acres and acres of ivy-covered buildings, that I abandoned my set plan and accepted. How many chances does all of that represent?
My summation of all of this, and my lived experience, which has exposed me to people at the top, bottom and various middles of our social order, is that creating a calculus of the human experience that is adequate to explain who is deserving and who not...well, it’s a tricky proposition. To try and set a bar at how many chances a person deserves is an effort I no longer try to make. Before I could attempt to do such a thing, I’d at the very least have to determine:  If limited myself to two, or three, or ten on a hundred “chances”,which of the many chances I’ve received would I be willing to give up? And I would challenge my young entrepreneur to consider the same.
I don’t intend this to come across as anything but respectful toward my young entrepreneur. I’m so impressed by his heart and his vigorous embrace of life; I even agree with most of his ideas. I was drawn into composing this essay only by what I perceive as a misperception, but which others will think was not. And I hope that if he reads it, he will gain something from that.
A final note is simply to underscore how little we have to say about the chances we receive or are denied. It think it’s generally true of human beings that, when our lives go very well, we’re tempted to claim full credit. And when our lives are miserable, we want to take no credit at all. And in all cases, the truth lies in between. But I love a line I heard on a television show recently. A character who’d been born with many advantages and had wasted them, was confronting the brother who’d made good. He said: “We were both born on third base. Stop pretending that you hit a home run!” Beautiful! Let us never be so arrogant as to forget those who strike out the first time at bat, or those who ride the bench, or sit in the stands, and never even get to bat, or those stuck out on the sidewalk, without even the price of admission.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Day that was Given

We were late to everything, and everything was late. And even before the waiting and the catching up, C was having a meltdown kind of day. It was the kind of day when all the anticipated hurts come calling, all the feared possibilities come to pass, and all relief is distant and improbable.

As his housing worker, all I could do was be with him, and escort him through the mundane drudgery of schlepping back and forth across town in the wintery spring rain, looking at low cost housing and filling out applications, while all the while his insides were eating him through, as his mind conjured all the other multitude of things that would certainly go wrong before day’s end.

I, on the other hand, am in a spot of almost total contentment – the world rubs softly against me these days. The things I must do are things I find easy to do. Yes, even being with C today, generates a quiet satisfaction. The things that bend me, that force hard choices, deprivations, trade-offs – those things are distant during this particular passage.

Memory and empathy only do so much. They do not press the issues inward. Instead they lend a blessed air of freshness, of lightness, almost the opposite of the oppression I know that C is sitting with, as we ride the streetcar across Queen St. to our appointment.

I know that, whatever the stresses of the next six hours, I will be seated at my kitchen table within a few hours, having a glass of wine, indulging in the luxury of expanding outward into the soft space around me.

C on the other hand, doesn’t know where he will lay his head tonight. Internally, he faces that pressure of emotion telling him that whatever the world is imposing is wrong, does not fit, will squelch and stamp out the very pieces of him that he’s been trying to let breathe. And the pressures of these emotions will not be contained, will not be quelled, lined up tamely in a row. They won’t be understood, even by himself, the cauldron in which they are stirred. And externally, there is only weight, and little light. Always the sense of impending distress. Always the sense of others encroaching, with their wills, their prejudices and biases, their willingness not to see or know what he is feeling – about the parts of him that scream out.

A charged powerlessness, humility, a bizarre dynamic of acceptance are among the tonics fed to me this day. C and I ride the streetcar in silence. Somehow, when I smile at him, he smiles back.