After the Mayhem

I’ve started blogs the past two weeks, but stopped short. First, I had a back problem that made it difficult to sit at the computer long enough.

Then, mayhem happened.

The blog I started before the mayhem was about the Kennedy Center Awards. Caroline Kenney introduced the evening with the words of her father. Who a country honors, he had said, was a reflection of your country.

I think that is true. The honorees reflected not just the diversity of our country, but the grandeur of the diversity and its creative force. Bill T. Jones, a tall lean gay African American honored for his choreography, moved gracefully in his seat to the music of Merle Haggard, honored for his Bakersfield sound, and who wrote “I’m Proud to be an Oakie from Muskogee.” Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury, and Carol Channing, defied the media-spun definition of beautiful women as they performed the music of Jerry Herman. Everyone rocked to the music of Paul McCartney, who had looked to the rock and roll of America for inspiration. Oprah Winfrey was honored for among other accomplishments, producing the works of African American women.

The range of honorees, I think is distinctively American. It is our diversity.

Then mayhem happened.

And I got depressed.

I was in my teens when Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, the three little girls were killed in a church bombing, civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, fire hoses and attack dogs were let loose on American citizens peacefully assembling for their right to vote. I was getting ready for spring break in my freshman year of college when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and then finishing finals two months later when Robert Kennedy was shot and killed.

Over the last forty years I have seen the attempted assassinations of George Wallace, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. I lived in San Francisco when George Moscone and Harvey Milk were gunned down. I returned from the movie “9 to 5” to learn that John Lennon had been killed.

And then there are the mass killings at schools. How many have there been?

What surprised me the most about the Tuscon mayhem was how unsurprised I was. I have come to expect it.

And I don’t know what to do with that.

Yes, it was a deranged man who ended lives literally, and ended the lives as they knew it for countless others. There is no direct line between the mayhem and the vitriolic environment.

But words do lead to deeds.

The real demon, I think, even more than the gun metaphors, is the noxious notion, perpetuated with enthusiasm by the likes of Sarah Palin, that there are “real Americans,” and then there are the others who are trying to take America from them.

Brit Hume, with stunning ignorance, thought that the Native American blessing that opened the memorial service in Tucson was peculiar. He blessed the doors and reptiles Hume said.

I think we should not dismiss the discussion about vitriolic words that was begun after last week. I think we need to continue it.

Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Britt Hume have a first amendment right to speech. But I think we need to call their speech what it is: words from the tiny hearted.

The heartland of America is not located in the Midwest. It extends from coast to coast, from our northern to our southern borders. The promise of America isn’t the accumulation of wealth, but equality under the law, the mechanism that recognizes that dignity of the individual, rather than prejudice of a group, is the basis for law.

Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post that the work of choreographer Bill T. Jones showed us the “radiant beauty of the marginalized.”

In my January 20th post of last year, I quoted Raymond Carver:

“Remember, too, that little-used word that has just about dropped out of public and private usage: tenderness. It can’t hurt. And that other word: soul — call it spirit if you want, if it makes it any easier to claim the territory. Don’t forget that either. Pay attention to the spirit of your words, your deeds.”

If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is the tender spot we hold in our heart for the radiant beauty of the marginalized.

A Minute Away from Snowing

There was a benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid – ever.
Ricky in “American Beauty”

The Bay Area has seasons, but they aren’t as dramatic as other places. It basically moves between winter’s wet and summer’s dry, with a burst of pale pastel blossoms in the spring and a gradual turn of color as the leaves surrender to autumn.

It doesn’t snow here. I have on occasion visited a place where when I went to bed, the world was brown and grey, and when I woke, it sparkled white. The landscape had been transformed. I have experienced the moment when you realize that the silence you hear is the sound of falling snow.

I have never lived with snow, so I don’t know if you can become inured to the magic of it. For me, it is magical.

In the film American Beauty, Ricky shows Jane the most beautiful film he has ever made, a plastic bag blown about by the wind against a backdrop of a brick building and leaves skittering on the ground.

“It was a minute away from snowing,” he says. As he watched the bag dance, he realized, “There was this entire life behind things. . . . There was a benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid – ever.”

I watched the movie on New Years Day. I hadn’t seen it for eleven years, since it first came out. It’s wonderful revisiting a good movie after many years. Time and experience make it seem as if you are watching the film for the first time.

It takes place in a suburban neighborhood. I don’t think it’s so much a comment on the banality of suburbia as it is a story about what happens to us when we feel our life has become banal, when we no longer experience beauty, when we feel we have been banished from beauty.

Please come along with me as I make a leap.

There is much discussion among politicians and political pundits about the American dream. The new Speaker of the House chokes up when he talks about having chased it his whole life. It is too painful to look at school children, he says, because he doesn’t think they will have a shot at the American dream.

The American dream seems to have something to do with making money and keeping it for yourself. That doing that will make you feel secure.

I think that dream formed as a response to the Great Depression that was followed by a war. The generation who came of age during that time, some call it the Greatest Generation, were determined to protect their children from what they suffered, particularly from economic hardship.

I think that suburban growth reflected that dream.

But, that dream was limited, and exclusive. I can’t help but think that the horror of the Concentration Camps branded itself on our collective psyches. I think it showed us what can happen when societies are built on the notion that there is an us and a them, and the very survival of the society requires that the “them” are not quite as human as “us.”

We were the good guys who liberated the death camps, while we made American soldiers ride in cars behind German prisoners of war because those soldiers were black.

We had to look into our own dark shadowy side. Out of that came the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, the independence of the disabled movement, the recognition that homosexuality is not a perversion.

That is the American dream to me — the dream that Martin Luther King spoke of so eloquently in 1963. It is a vision of what can be, rather than what has been. To me, the Constitution provides a framework that says there is no us and them, there is only us before the law.

I’m not sure when the American dream turned into the promise of economic certainty. I saw the owner of the Dallas Cowboys interviewed on 60 Minutes. He is worth two billion dollars, but is worried about losing his fortune, any of it. He is more scared than I am, and I am about two billion dollars away from having two billion dollars.

What concerns me most about the current political climate is that it seems that fear of the other is its rally cry. The new crop of senators and members of congress seem like very young souls whose notion of the future is measured by business quarters, rather than the cycles of nature. They seem to view life as a sentence to be served rather than a story to be lived. They do not seem to see that there is an entire life behind things.

Kevin Spacey, in an interview about American Beauty, says that he thinks it’s a story about how events stir up your life so you can realize that what you have is enough.

“Look Closer” is the subtitle of the movie. If you look closer, you see past the façade. And therein lies the beauty—the life that is messy and uncertain. There is no reason to fear life—ever, even though it is uncertain. Change is the electricity that fills the air, a minute away from snowing.