Friday, December 20, 2013

What Would Madiba Do In 2014?

The 24-hour news cycle has swallowed screaming headlines about the presidential selfie, Cuban handshake, pouting FLOTUS and crazy interpreter, only to be supplanted by lower-grade craziness: an inane debate about the ethnicity of a mythical North Pole figure, and GQ quotes from a semi-literate, backwoods philosopher unsophisticated in the ramifications of speaking candidly in the 21st-century.

Now comes a reasonable question: If we subscribe to the notion that Mandela's spirit is lingering long enough to see what we've absorbed from his remarkable commitment to reconciliation, what is he seeing?

Are we any more polite?

Are we trying any harder to understand viewpoints different from our own?

Do we hold the door open for someone - or thank them for holding it for us?

Will we speak up when someone tells a racist joke or  incorporates a racial slur into casual conversation?

What will we change about ourselves as a result of having shared life in the same century as the man who survived 27 years of solitary confinement because he believed people must do better to be better?

Will any major news organization take a closer look at the draconian anti-gay laws recently passed in Uganda to see if they can identify any right-wing members of Congress involved in shaping that legislation in any way, shape or form? What will we do to make them responsive to us?

How will we try to remedy some small piece of the craziness? 

Can we? 

Will we call to account  a knock-kneed, do-nothing Congress that boasts a "compromise" that reduces funding for poor people, decreases health-care allotments for military personal (dragged into  a super-stupid war by a do-next-to-nothing president), and increased allocations to an already overstuffed defense budget? 

Cops can now get search warrants based on what they think a subject might do. How do we feel about that?

And let's take a momentary breather from beating up on Southern rednecks.

Executives who ought to know better still pay that woman from Alaska to run around  loose, spewing word salad when she ought to be in a Wasilla remedial reading class -- or at best in her local Toastmasters chapter.(By the way, where is Mrs Family Values' family these days?)
Although the ruckus has settled down, we shouldn't forget that sordid glimpse we got into Cheney family dysfunction and make sure we aren't of that ilk.

The Republicans' great white hope is starting to feel hot water creeping up his ankles over an alleged, but nonetheless stunningly juvenile, retaliatory strike against a politician who didn't support his recent re-election campaign. 

Gov. Chris Christie is said to have shut down two lanes of the George Washington Bridge, a major thoroughfare into Manhattan from the Garden State -- and to have shut down said lanes at precisely the point at which the recalcitrant mayor's town is situated. 

Then we have the arrogance of Michael Bloomberg in full flower, this time in a dismissive response to a heart-wrenching five-part New York Times story about the resilience of "Dasani,"  a beautiful 11-year-old homeless black girl in Harlem. 

Obviously unable to hear himself as others heard him during a press conference, Bloomberg reportedly quipped -- when a  reporter implied an indifference to the plight of New York's poor,  “Your smirk shows you haven’t been outside the country and don’t know what poverty means elsewhere...."This kid (Dasani) was dealt a bad hand. I don't know quite why. That's just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not."

All righty then, Mr. Mayor. You are absolutely correct. Some of us are not as lucky as you are. Sir.

Oh, and let's not ignore another north-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line incident: Renisha McBride, the severely intoxicated, unarmed 19-year-old who was fatally shot in the face at close range by a Michigan homeowner who decided she was an intruder. She was seeking help following an accident. (The good news is her shooter has been indicted and will go to trial; none of that "stand-your-ground" nonsense in Michigan.)

So, WWMD? What would Madiba do? Here on the eve of 2014, with Mandela barely a few weeks gone, is a question: How will we pay his memory forward? What one thing will we see through 2014, or will commitment dissipate like the 24-hour news cycle?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Share the Wealth

Standing outside of me, looking on, I appreciate more and more my father's admonition to never measure wealth in terms of money, but memories instead. By that standard I've come to realize what a wealthy woman I am after all. Dipping back into that treasure trove is a scene from the last big nuclear disarmament march from the American military base in Aldermaston, England, to London.

It was 1963 and I had only been married a few months. We lived in the Midlands where my husband was on the faculty at the University of Leicester. Hundreds of protesters became thousands as we neared London. Along the way we stopped and joined a group that had surrounded a young man in saffron robes. We had seen several Buddhists along the way, so we joined in and became a part of a conversation about why peace was important but probably not attainable, due to man's relentless folly in pursuing war in the name of peace. I later learned we had been in the company of the new Dali Lama. Yes, the same one who travels the world today preaching nonviolence. Somewhere is a photograph, if my daughter hasn't lost it. It meant, she once said, more to her than money.

 Later that same year, several union organizing friends would receive hefty jail, then prison sentences for going to South Africa to demand release of Nelson Mandela who had been imprisoned the year before. A few month's later, I would duck out of a play rehearsal and nip across to a pub for a pint, only to be met with stony silence and the announcement that John Kennedy had been assassinated.

The following summer my mother announced, as was her wont, that she was coming to visit, and that she had already made arrangements for both of us to meet one of her friends in Paris. Biting the bullet, as was my wont, I agreed -- and would have more enthusiastic had she bothered to tell me that we were meeting a family friend of many years, poet Langston Hughes. He occasionally sent books inscribed to me on our shared February birthday. Seeing Paris with him was an adventure beyond measure. Our outings never began before 10 p.m. and usually ended 'round about sunup, having made the rounds on the left bank, Place Pigalle, the Marais and ending at place much loved by ex-pats, Chez Bricktop. Owned by one Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, the nickname commemorated her flaming red hair in a color found nowhere in nature. Chez Bricktop was the rage in Paris for decades.

We had ribs and potato salad at Gabby & Haynes, where anyone who was anyone in the jazz/blues world ate sooner or later. It was the oldest American restaurant in Paris, owner by a black American ex-GI who married a Frenchwomen and decided he'd had enough of second-class citizenship in the U.S. The night -- rather, the morning -- we went, bluesman Memphis Slim was sitting at the bar, waiting for a table. Uncle Langston, a perennial fixed cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, introduced us. Mother, without any sense of how out of place she looked in spectator pumps and white gloves, extended her hand and said, somewhat haughtily, "How do you do, Mr. Slim." She had no idea who he was. He looked at her through a smoky haze and said, "Hey baby; nice gloves." The look of complete befuddlement on her face was priceless.

A few years later, at my mother's insistence, I bundled up and dragged myself to London to meet yet another of her friends who was stopping there en route to Russia, where he would abandon the United States for life in Russia -- returning once he found life there not as he had envisioned. When I arrived at the flat Paul Robeson shared with his wife, they had tea and cookies waiting for me. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about music and how I liked living in England and whether I planned to stay there. He said I should, since black people would never have the respect they deserved in America.

Long acknowledged as an authentic renaissance man, he was still smarting from the treatment he received after being cited as a subversive. Life in the '50s was much worse then for those leaning left. Of course, NSA didn't have unfettered access to our conversations then either. When I returned to the U.S. in the late '60s and became a reporter I got to meet all manner of interesting people, including the soft-spoken Miriam Makeba, who was our houseguest for two nights when she came to St. Louis for two concerts with Hugh Masekela. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee belting belter out blues in our living room. Cab Callaway beat sounds out or Acrosonic upright that I never would have if I practiced day and night for a year, which, of course, I wouldn't. I remember Duke Ellington asking for seconds at one of the all-night chitlin' parties my parents had.

A favorite photograph of mine features my father and me with Martin Luther King, Jr. It hangs on my office wall, and the story of how I met Malcolm X still amuses (he was Malcolm Little then, and his nickname, Red," came from his genuinely red hair). A restaurant operated by Black Muslims was a few doors down from my father's newspaper office, and "Red" was in the neighborhood to see how the business was going.

If I hadn't been a reporter I might never had known what a nice guy Sen. Robert Dole is; that both David Brinkley and G. Gordon Liddy, while very different in character, had a wonderfully droll sense of humor; that Nina Simone really was a very strange bird; and that Lena Horne was a kind and gentle person when she wanted to be, which was more often than a lot of people knew; that Whoopi Goldberg once asked my daughter to babysit.

My heart has broken several times since that Aldermaston march. No one like to see a marriage dissolve. Langston Hughes died three years after our fun in the City of Lights; Bricktop died on my birthday in 1984. Duke Ellington and my father are long gone, and each death has etched a notch of sorrow in my heart. But if it's true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger I'm in good shape: Memories remain, but none will last as long or be as treasured as the knowledge that for all my life I shared space on planet earth with a truly extraordinary man I never met.

The closest I came was knowing men and women to went to a troubled country in 1963 on an unsuccessful mission to have him released from the equivalent of America's Alcatraz. He then spent 27 years in unspeakable incarceration. If I could spend the wealth of spirit I've accrued through knowing, and knowing of, wonderful people, I could probably underwrite a cure for cancer, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

Instead all I can do is donate when and where I can and hope that others, in memory of someone who has touched their lives in a meaningful way, will also give in Nelson Mandela's memory.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Notes From Paradise

St. John, USVI -- If you think it's been a while since you've seen anything from this neck of the woods, you're right. For the past six weeks I've been laying low in this little island tucked between St. Croix and St. Thomas , the other two islands that make up the trust territories know as the United States Virgin Islands. St. John is nestled in the tropical loveliness of a land time would forget were it not for the tourists who swarm here when cruise ships make port on St. Thomas. Many come, I suspect because it's part of the tour package; some own vacation property and visit periodically just for respite; some came for vacation and have stayed ever since. It has become the only place they want to be. I am typing this as fast as I can because Connections, the Internet cafe where people come to check mail, access Western Union, pick up packages, buy post cards, check bulletin boards for apartment rentals and get stuff notarized, is a serious meet'n'greet kind of place; it is also the only place I could find to use a computer. Oh, and they charge. sid, who owns this little communications center, is one of those who decided more than 30 years ago it was where she wants to be. She sees all, knows all, but probably only ever tells a fraction of what she knows. She has able assistance from Mary Pat, who has been here 34 years. They are good people to know. Diagonally across the street is 1st Bank, the only bank I ever heard of that charges customers for deposits. Down the street toward Rhumb Lines, a popular watering hole, is the post office where, when the line is unusually long, you might hear "Good Morning" a dozen times before you get to the counter. That's because here it's considered bad manners to not speak before embarking on a business transaction. Across the from the post office is Capp's, another hangout bar, but what's significant about Capp's is its proximity to Thomas' smoothie stand, which isn't the exact name, but there doesn't seem to be a general consensus about what its official name is. First names tend to be the rule, and people who have been around for a while might be stumped when you ask for a last name. Some street names are uncertain, and where they exist, numbers might not make much sense. There is not one stop light on the island, only a handful of stop signs, and the island speed limit is 20 mph. One you've negotiated the hairpin switchbacks that lead to wonderful beach at Maho Bay (a federally protected sea turtle nesting site), you understand why. Some roads are paved, others not (sorta like Texas), and there are points where if you're not careful you could do serious harm to a chicken, peacock, goat, burro, egret or iguana. I know this because I'm winding down six-week house-sitting duty here. The story of how it all came about is a tale for another time. But suffice it say that several years ago when I said I wanted to live out my crazy life here, several locals suggested that I spend time here in the off-season, when restaurants shutter for much needed rest from high-season activity and mosquitoes celebrate by chowing down on whoever is left. The pace returns to normal, which is r-e-a-l slow. I wanted a bigger slice of island life and I got it. I managed to totally avoid the Cowboy Bar except to wander in briefly to meet friends. I didn't come here to encounter Texans, although I did overhear a wonderful conversation a few nights ago while having dinner at Morgan's Mango, another local favorite. A table of eight were having a merry time, regaling one another with tidbits from local newscasts -- local people are not particularly preoccupied with mainland news, especially politics since the USVI, while a protectorate, shares with Puerto Rico the inability to vote in American elections. But here were some folks from the aforementioned mainland, have a good laugh about a man who had been arrested for trying to cut the lawn at the Lincoln Memorial, citing the incredible stupidity of bureaucrats. Then came the biggest laugh of all: Texas Republican Randy nitwit attempting to blame a lone park ranger for shutting down Washington's Veteran's Memorial. And of course it was a female ranger. Certain male Texans really get off on upbraiding women. Anyway, here I am, 2,000 miles from Austin and stifling a smile as the group cracks up. Someone then said "Who would we laugh at if it weren't for Texas?" Well, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas -- the list could go on. And while Minnesota can legitimately lay came to the weirdest of the End Times weirdoes (thank you, Michele Bachmann), we've got Louie Rohmer and Ted Cruz. Who could ask for anything more in the "REALLY?!?" department. But all I'm asking for at the moment is a successful Wendy Davis campaign. I'm returning to the mainland for three reason: My daughter, my friends and electing Wendy Davis for governor. After 2014 all bets are off; i'll probably be out of Texas. I am hopelessly in love with turquoise and cobalt blue water that surrounds an island that is a roughly 65 per cent national park, thanks to one of those Rockefellers. The west end of the island -- the entire island is only slightly larger than Manhattan -- is the most densely populated, and home to Cruz Bay, which is home to shops, the ferry landing, the high-end Westin Hotel and villas and a few lovely B&Bs, one of which is Garden-by-the Sea. But more about that later too. At the east end is the less populated and undeniably quirky Coral Bay. At some point before I leave I plan to spend more time investigating that side as a possible, as they say in airplane parlance, final destination. In time I suspect the best place to find me is either enjoying a smoothie at the ferry landing or at Connections. Next time: food, shelter, booze and new friends.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Good Music, Bad Backstories

As we ease up on what would have been Molly's 69th birthday I find myself continually hearing music in my head. Sometimes I hear Marcia Ball's rousing rendition of "Great Balls of Fire," played at Molly's memorial service. Sometimes it's Marcia, sometimes it's Jerry Lee Lewis. I should have known "Great Balls" wasn't about politics, which is probably why Molly asked that it be played at her memorial service: an end run around sadness. I was only mildly surprised to realize what it was really about.

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will
But what a thrill
Goodness gracious great balls of fire!


Moving on six years.

The whole time we shouted and stomped, chanted and cheered for Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte and Mary Gonzales and Judith Zaffirini in the Texas Senate -- part of a small but strong pod of female Democrats who had the courage to stand up to bullying religious zealots -- another song took up residence in my brain. 

 Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

No matter what I did for the rest of the second special session whenever I saw an orange "I Stand With Texas Women," t-shirt I heard that fabulous anthem midway the first act of  Les Miserables. I got so crazy at one point I was passing the lyrics out to anyone who would accept the paper they were printed on. This, I insisted, should be our anthem, only instead of storming staged barricades, women, men and children from all across the state stormed that bully pulp. Both the real and the theatrical revolutionaries made an impression. Demonstrations at the Capitol went viral and made international news.Texas was finally on the map for something other than executions and football.  

Even more recently, as I read about yet another school scare, another homicide/suicide, another hate crime, that extraordinary piece of work by Rodgers and Hammerstein penned for "South Pacific" surfaced. It was excruciating to recognize its 21st-century relevance: 

You've got  to be taught to hate and fear
You've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear 
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid 
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
Of people whose skin is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you are six, or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught.

I thought about Molly and how she would have had a way to turn those lines and all the others into a battle cry for political change in a state that often seems to have lost its grip on reality.

I mean, where to start -- with a governor who can't keep straight which border city is in Texas and which one is in Mexico?

A lieutenant governor who (allegedly) drunk-dialed a suburban cop in a failed attempt to intercede on behalf of a relative who (allegedly) failed to pay for $57 worth of groceries?

A candidate for state comptroller who can't pronounce the office he seeks but wants to abolish the IRS, which he can pronounce?

A smirking junior U.S. senator who bogarts media attention with the kind of lunatic enthusiasm usually associated with Donald Trump?

A state representative who sponsors one of the nation's most draconian anti-abortion bills, but then, in public hearings and on the House floor, can't answer a single question about the bill's contents?

Or last, but by no means least,  a U.S. representative who famously argued  that "kids don't need to learn about (sex), because "mankind has existed for a pretty long time without anyone ever having to give a sex-ed lesson to anybody." He clearly missed the memo about Texas having the nation's fourth highest teen pregnancy rate AND the highest repeat teen pregnancy rate.

Worse yet, this same right-wing twerp -- through his well-honed facility for mismanaging accurate information -- has thrust the United States into a diplomatic boondoggle. In a domestic news clip picked up and broadcast in strife-torn Egypt, the one and (thank God) only Rep. Louis Gohmert did something precious few of us have been able to achieve in Texas: Egyptians took one of his anti-Obama diatribes seriously. As a result a dissident faction now believes that Obama is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood.Who ever in the world could envision Gohmert influencing political action halfway around the world. Who? How?

I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying "You're six years gone, Mol, and those of us who knew your voice still miss your special gift for stirring it up."

Mary Tyler "Molly" Ivins:  August 30, 1944 – January 31, 2007

Monday, August 12, 2013

Something's Happening Here; What It Is Ain't Exactly Clear

Almost 50 years ago a prescient Buffalo Springfield recording captured a mood that's creeping across the country today. That spirit is alive in Texas, Missouri, California, Oklahoma -- well, almost anywhere reactionary forces are doing their best to stifle dissent, silence women's voices and demonize those who follow the beat of the different drummer. 

And once again, as we ease up on Molly's Aug. 30 birthdate I pine for her voice, knowing she would have a better way of dealing with oday's swirl of events.

I managed to stave off apoplexy while reading a David Brooks column a while back, excoriating Edward Snowden, who spilled the beans on wholesale government-sanctioned information gathering. As was the case with Bradley Manning, his biggest crime seems to have been embarrassing the government, not divulging state secrets -- at least as far as we know. Reading Brooks column moved me to trot out a t-shirt I received a couple of years ago as a bonus for subscribing to The Nation. It said, simply, "Secrecy Breeds Tyranny."

By now there can't be anyone unfamiliar with the tragic Sanford, Florida death of Trayvon Martin -- or other black men who have been fatally wounded by law enforcement officers since then.  But lest we forget, abuse at the hands of those ostensibly designed to serve and protect is not reserved exclusively for black men -- even though it often seems that way. 

What we have done to our own boggles the mind -- and we didn't need Bradley Manning or Anthony Snowden to tell us about some of the cases that have surfaced.

Take the case of Daniel Chong, a California university student who almost died in police custody last year. He recently won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Agency, but how will he recover psychologically from being handcuffed in a federal holding cell for nearly five days without food or water -- and spending time in intensive care as a result? 

Will Trayvon Martin's parents get anything close to that?

Chong was detained in the spring of last year in conjunction with a San Diego drug raid. After it was determined that he was not involved in illicit activity, a member of the task force that conducted the raid put him in a cell and apparently forgot about him. For days. By the time he was found he was suffering from severe dehydration, muscle deterioration, hallucinations, liver and kidney failure, and extremely high levels of sodium. One of his attorneys was quoted as saying, “What happened to Daniel Chong should never happen to any human being on the face of the planet.” 

He might never be the same, but at least he's alive to tell the tale.

Marissa Alexander is also alive, but, one might ask, so what? Until her recent Florida (again!) Marissa Alexander had no criminal record, no history of violence and no brushes with the law before she fired a warning shot into a wall in response to an advancing abusive husband.

Oh, did I omit the part about him being at her house despite the fact that she had a restraining order?

She received a  20-year sentence  for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. . He's still walking around loose. A judge dismissed her "stand your ground" claim, noting that she could have run back into the house to escape her husband. Instead she got a gun. Alexander, obviously erroneously anticipating a rational outcome,  rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose a jury trial. It deliberated 12 minutes before convicting her. After, all the judge said, she could have run.

We have a war of terror right here.  We can talk big game about protecting other countries from tyranny, but we destroy civilian lives in a tyrannical war against women, the poor and ethnic minorities. We lie about the number of innocents we kill in the name of an invisible enemy called "terror," but we ignore the terror blacks, browns, gays and poor whites experience daily.

We continue to trot out tired iconic has-beens like Rudy Giuliani, whose post 9/11 rhetoric has long since lost its potency, to persuade us that the war on you-know-what forces us to be ever vigilant. We conjure up scary color-coded "threat levels" that keep otherwise sensible citizens just where a manipulative government wants us: frightened.So we lose focus on what's happening under our local noses.

So allow me to trot out a notion I fully support: eternal vigilance is still the price of freedom, but not at the expense of constitutional guarantees; not at the expense of having conversations, emails and personal correspondence of  every Tom, Dick and Henrietta exposed to government scrutiny in the name of protecting us from terrorism; not with the passage of inflexible draconian laws that  turn around and bite civil rights on the butt; not at the expense of keeping state governments out of women's vaginas.

So now I'm back to the closing stanza of "For What It's Worth," the Buffalo Springfield song that became an antiwar anthem in the 1960s:

                  Paranoia strikes deep 
                  Into your life it will creep 
                  It starts when you're always afraid  
                 You step out of line, 
                 The man come and take you away 

They took Manning away and rigged his courts martial so only dribs and drabs of the bizarre proceedings against him could reach us. The Justice Department might or might not take a second look at George Zimmerman's pathetic gun love. A benevolent justice system might eventually show Marissa Alexander justice. Daniel Chong might be OK, and yes, the $4 million might help, but it's gonna take a while..

Lots of maybes, lots of mights. 

It remains to be seen what will happen them all, just as it remains to be seen what's really happening here, 'cause what it is ain't exactly clear.