Sunday, August 25, 2013

Martyrs, Whistle-Blowers and Us

I worked in a middle school in Seattle where a very dynamic and creative teacher, Rosalie Romano, taught her 8th graders a potent lesson about values and activism, a lesson that explored the balance between moral authority and the demands of social cohesion and control. She presented the stories of leaders and activists like Mohandas Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela, and explored their relationships with the societies in which they lived. Her classes discussed the balance that all of us must seek between our personal well-being and a broader good, and how that balance is affected when our societies perpetrate or support evil.

Romano posed questions such as: How does one live in a Nazi Germany? Or endure a slave society? How does one respond to the recognition that the comforts of life are gained or maintained at the cost of illegal and inhumane wars, the incarceration or oppression of innocents, the second class citizenship imposed on entire ethnic groups, religious communities, or an entire gender? And, given that power structures are difficult or impossible for individuals to take effective action against, what compromises does one accept to survive, to maintain ones own realm of contentment, or even happiness.
And, Ms Romano proposed, the extent to which one maintained a strict and uncompromising commitment to morality was often very nearly the same degree to which one became a target for the retaliation of the vested powers. So what are the personal sacrifices that an individual may make, up to and including life itself, in support of a deeply held value or commitment to the lives of others? In a sense, Ms Romano was challenging her students to be suspicious of their comfort, reasoning that a comfortable life may well equal complicity and support of whatever evils one's country or community commits.
What a powerful, challenging class for eighth-graders, eh?
What has me thinking about all this are the cases of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, the two young Americans currently in the news for their supposed acts of treason. These individuals each released US government information that exposed activities they felt to be in violation of the highest principles and aspirations of America. But in doing so, they broke the law, disrupted the exercise of US government programs and policy and power, and potentially put government agents at risk. And they also exposed themselves to retaliation by said government, including the full force of legal action.
Manning has just been sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, seven with no possibility of parole. And Snowden is stuck in a legal limbo while the arms of US power close in. And my questions are: Where does the rest of America stand on this? Do we want to support those like Manning and Snowden, who put their well-being on the line for their principled stands? Or do we want them dealt with like traitors and criminals? How are we – individually and collectively – to respond to their acts and to our government’s reaction? And what will their treatment say about the kind of America we have, and about the kind of America we want?
I think it’s fair to say that most of us would like to live in a country and in communities where individuals take heroic stands to preserve the integrity of the group.  I also think it’s fair to say that only a small percentage of us will ever take such bold stances ourselves. For example, most of us have managed to pay little or no attention while our country uses drones to kill innocents in foreign lands and imprisons suspected terrorists for more than a decade without due process? Most of us go on, living as well as we can, consuming many times our per capita share of the world's resources, while doing little or nothing about the inhumane but friendly regimes and exploitative business practices that make it all possible?

This is as true as the fact that most people, historically, have always stood by in the presence of slavery, genocides, blatant discrimination and exploitation. Yes, I'm pointing a finger, but as the saying goes, as I do so, three other fingers are pointing right back at me, and I'm guilty as charged.
But this essay isn't meant to condemn the far too many of us who live neck deep in easy compromise, but to look at what we do to, or about, the few who renounce compromise to challenge the intimidating and seemingly unshakeable status quo.

What will we do to support the whistle-blowers, the martyrs, the conscientious objectors, the protestors, the one child who will see and SAY that the Emperor has no clothes?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Artist Types

We all know that stereotypes can be big trouble. They are too often used to relegate whole groups of people to less than full membership in human society, to oppress them, rob them of their rights and of the full enjoyment of life’s blessings. But they can also sometimes point out interesting communalities and tendencies, they can inform, and they even be funny.

Of course, mocking comparisons are more easily digested when directed at self, and so I’m taking the opportunity to make an observation or two about artists, and in particular about writers and how they compare to other artists.

It’s not really a strange notion to acknowledge that particular occupations draw disproportionately from particular ‘types’. I first noticed this in life when, over a span of a couple of years, I worked in an upscale restaurant, a garden center, as a cab driver, and finally, in social work.

The waiting and bussing staff in the restaurant was full of aspiring artists, and a high portion of them were performing artists. That was a group full of flamboyant personalities who liked to talk, drink, share ideas and emote. There was always lots of to-do about romances and break-ups and other dramatic personal encounters.

After that bunch, the lot in the garden center was pretty dull. But so sweet! They were very gentle, patient and easy-going people, who appreciated that one day was much like the one before and the one likely to follow. They smiled a lot and said nice things to each other.

The cabbies, on the other hand, were a bunch of mis-matched, rootless characters, who seemed to have as little concern about where they were going in life as they did about the destination of the next fare to climb into the back seat, except that “the longer the trip, the better” was a universal sentiment that applied to both. Cabbies too liked drinking and playing, but fun in this world was more grab-as-grab-can, and relatively humorless.

And social workers? I found that this lot, with whom I’ve spent the bulk of my working life, was full of people who think and care a lot about the challenges of being human. And we tend to be as wrapped up in our own social and psychological development as in that of our clients, though we often overlook this point.

But what of the artists? They are the ones I’ve been comparing in my mind, thinking about the different temperaments and types I see among the musicians, the painters/sculptors and the writers I’ve known. Like that bunch I worked among in Ferdinand’s off of Harvard Square a long time ago. I’ve gotten to know quite a few artists over my years, and the more I experience them, the more they break down into sub-categories.

That’s like any group you want to stereotype, isn’t it? As soon as you come up with a general definition, the particulars force you to re-define, to sub-divide, to fine tune, and to then do the same with the exceptions. Again, we already know that the type-ology never really works, except on the most general level.

But here goes with what I’ve noticed about artists:

·         Musicians are the most fun! They like to have a good time, they like to ‘play’. They keep it light and spontaneous. They aren’t nearly so self-conscious as the rest of us, and don’t generally take themselves too very seriously. Never a dull moment!

·         Now, I haven’t gotten to know very many dancers or actors, but I suspect that they are the sexiest of artists. I must have to do with all that communicating directly via the body.

·         Visual artists are the most interesting. Full of ideas, attitudes and interpretations of things. Always ready for long and deep conversations. And they make for fantastic story-tellers (visual detail always being a great plus when telling a story). I think that the craftman-like working with the hands and with materials keeps the painters and sculptors pretty grounded

·         But when it comes to my own group – the Writers – I must confess that we are by far the weirdest, and probably the most annoying of artists. Yes, it’s true. I suspect that we have the highest incidence of mental illness – neuroses anyway. (And yes, I’ve paid my share of therapy bills). Of course, we’re pretty good with stories, too. But most of us are better at writing them than telling them. It’s just that we’re sooo self-conscious, so unable to stop exploring, examining and critiquing our own psyches, and then projecting what we learn into all our writing.

I just had this opinion confirmed over a drink with a friend tonight. She’s lived with two talented writers, she told me, and she’ll never live with another. The annoyance factor was just too high.

I think it comes from the fact that we writers have to spend so much time alone, inside our own thoughts and our imaginary worlds. Not a great way to develop grace in social situations.

So, there you have it! Kirby’s breakdown of artistic types. Tell me, do you think I’m right?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

All is Vanity...(and striving after Wind)

Funny Story...

I was at work this afternoon, procrastinating, avoiding the desk work I needed to get to.

Somehow, I wind up on the computer site 'Goodreads' where people share what they've read, are reading and plan to read.

I read this review of "Last Exit to Brooklyn" by a woman name Izzy. Now I really admired the book, and Izzy acknowledges all its power, but then makes some pretty insightful, critical comments and ends up slamming the book. So, respecting Izzy's different take, I do what I often do, and decide to check out her bookshelf and see what else she's read.

So, as I go through Izzy's list of books, I become intrigued by the fact that she seems to share my reading tastes. I mean, I've read all the same books, and I see that she's given them just about the same ratings that I would.

On page two of her list, I finally come across a book I haven't read, but then I see that she hasn't either! It's on her "to read" list!

So, I'm really becoming fascinated at this point. I mean it's not like all the books are of the same type, either. She's read, and loved The Metamorphosis and Stephen King's The Stand AND The Unbearable Lightness of Being AND Claude McKay's Banana Bottom (and found both The Alchemist and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo only so-so) AND Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Series AND The Sot-Weed Factor AND The Iliad AND Tau Zero AND Dreiser's An American Tragedy (and plans to read Cormac McCarthy's The Road) AND The Assistant… and it just goes on and on like that.

So I'm really liking this Izzy. And I'm thinking I just have to send her a note, telling her how remarkably similar our reading tastes are. And I'm thinking this MUST indicate a kind of compatibility, and I'm even feeling a tiny bit guilty because of how much I like this Izzy, because Ponczka doesn't read ANY of the stuff I like to read. She hardly even reads my BLOG, but I bet Izzy would…

And so I'm already having this imagined, potential relationship with this reading soulmate I'm going to send a message to, when…

I look at the top of the web page and see that all along I've been looking through my OWN book list.

...Do I laugh, cry or kick myself?


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Travel Eyes

As much as I love Cloud, our cabin in the hills of the Finger Lakes, and difficult as it is to leave there and return to city and work, I always appreciate my first days back. I arrive in the city with different eyes, softened by the easy countryside and the slow passage of unscheduled hours. The city feels and looks different; I feel different, respond differently.

But I know that the shifting in pace and scenery is only a part of these different eyes. The main factor doesn't really have anything to do with Cloud. It is a feature of all travelled eyes, I think, if a person is sensitive to the different impressions that familiar surroundings can make.

These travel eyes are something I first identified when I was twenty and drifting around the U.S. during a year I'd dropped out of college. I wasn't a particularly outgoing or observant person, but I realized that when I came into a new place - especially a city, with its density of man-made detail - I noticed and responded to things I wouldn't have at home. I looked at buildings more closely, at the way the city was put together, the shops and parks, trying to see what it was about them that they struck my eye and spirit in some new way. I watched people, and noted how they interacted, how their pace, the shapes and rhythms of their language, the clothing they wore, all differed in some respects from Boston to New Orleans, to Detroit, to Atlanta, to San Francisco.

The most noted difference though, was how people responded to me. I'd find myself engaging with strangers almost anywhere I happened to be. It came from asking directions and being curious about what I saw. But I soon realized that it was also from people responding to me. And I came to understand that more people connected with me because of the different energy I was putting out, which had to do with being more outward-facing and more open to all the newness I kept coming upon.

That helped me to understand how, when I was surrounded by the familiar, I gradually became more inward-facing and less open. I was less curious about what was around me because I thought I already knew what that was, and was less inquisitive about the people, from thinking I already understood them.

This 'Travel Eyes' effect happens when going to a new place. But it also happens when returning home again. How does that beautiful line go? … (I just googled it)…: ""We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." From T. S. Eliot.

What I so love about a day like today is that - from being away for just a week - I come back to Toronto with a slightly un-hinged perspective on all the very regular, very set and 'known' aspects of my daily life. And it all looks fresher, and I'm apt to see something I haven't noted before. More likely to speak to a stranger on the street.

I rode my bike into work more slowly today, and I travelled by streets I don't often take. I lingered in front of my office building to watch the traffic before going in, and I stopped and chatted with a couple of colleagues I don't connect with very often. The day was somehow longer, and I felt less hemmed in by the set parts of my schedule. And, as I made connections with clients, and took up the unfinished business I'd put aside ten days ago, my eyes slowly began to settle.

The other thing I've learned, from having experienced these 'Travel Eyes' so often, is that it doesn't require travelling to get them. It's really all between the ears. The travelling just helps. I guess you could say that it shifts the default setting a bit, and only for awhile. Which I guess is as it should be. 'Settled Eyes' have their uses too.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Small Town Birthday

It happened that our visit to Cloud this weekend coincided with our little town’s 200th birthday.

And the annual summer festival was going on in the park in the town’s center. There was live music – three old-school hippies, doing decent covers of rock classics, a French fry stand and another that sold strawberry and peach shortcake, several craft booths, some amusements for the little kids: one of those huge, inflated rooms they can bounce around in, a trailer with several target games, face painting, etc. A retiree with a collection of rocks and minerals moved about with great enthusiasm, shining a blacklight over some of his samples to demonstrate their florescence. And there were boths representing the volunteer Fire department, the local utility company, and a hamburger and hot dog booth run by the town’s charitable organization. 
The best part was the Parade on Sunday afternoon. I guess I lost interest in big city parades, with their huge floats and bands and over production, when I was still a kid. But this had an entirely different feel. It was local, community event, and personal to so many of those involved. It was a village coming out to celebrate itself. A couple of hundred souls standing along one side of the park, cheering and waving at another hundred or so of their number marching and driving by, smiling and throwing candy as they passed. A major product of Prattsburg is corn, and a big part of the parade was a procession of vintage farm equipment.

I haven’t absorbed much of the history of Prattsburg yet, except that it was named for a settler by the name of Pratt. There’s lots of corn grown all around, a few small and middle sized lumber operations, and some sheep farming. A natural gas company has pipes threading through the area, and there are a few “No Fracking” signs about, but it seems that gas harvesting activity is drying up hereabouts.

We got a couple of interesting bits about nearby towns, though. Naples, which is the artsiest and most touristy of the local burgs, used to be Middletown, because it lie halfway between Bath and Cornell on the stagecoach route. And last year, Hammondsport was named “the Coolest small town in America”.

It was fun taking part in this small town celebration. As Ponczka remarked, it felt like taking a trip back in time. My one regret – I missed the Pie-eating contest Saturday morning.