A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven

The new car comes with several bells and numerous whistles, from the automatic gate to the back-up camera.  Well, that doesn’t really describe a physically wide distribution of whistle/bell phenomena, but believe me, the soob is full of fun little bonus features.

One of my favorites is the multiscreen in the center of the dashboard.  Open the door and it flashes “hello” at you; fail to close it properly and it shows you just what’s flapping.  Back up and it shows you who you’re running into (or into whom you are running, if that sort of thing is important to you).  The center console screen is loaded with exciting tidbits like that.  Paddles by my left steering fingers scroll through a series of Tron-like panels that update me as to various facets of my car’s performance or my own driving.  But mostly, when the car is in an operational mode, it just shows a few basic facts: indoor temp, outdoor temp, airbag status, fan settings, audio volume and settings – plus the time.

The clock that tells the time in my new car is digital – just an image of a clock on an electronic panel.  But it’s not an image of a digital clock, with numbers rolling inexorably higher, a clock that drags you along with the incremental accretion of history.  The dashboard clock in the new soob has no crisp block digits  ratcheting up and up.  This digital clock doesn’t name each and every second just to kick it to the curb.

No, instead, the Newbaru’s clock is an image of a white circle on a black background, with short white slashes  for the twelve hourly divides and plain white arms to reflect the progress of the hours and minutes.  No numbers appear at all.  Perhaps – probably – I could change the way it looks.  Maybe there’s an option for a clock with numbers, or no face, or an hourglass on a sundial.  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  I’m not switching out the numberless face-clock, and neither is Kel.

She’s noticed that the new old-style clock tells time just as well as a row of insistent digits would, but it’s a lot less … insistent.  It’s not constantly telling you how close you are to being late, or how many minutes past your target you’ve already slipped.  The message of our kind of clock is more benign.  It says, “the cycle of creation continues to spin, and here is where it’s spun to now.”  If you want to tack a number to it, or a value (like “late” or “very late”), that’s up to you – but the clock has no part of that.  Its imaginary hands, cast of pure light or something even less than that, rotate in place, epicyclical and self-contained.  They go round and round, neither gaining ground nor losing it.  Each circuit simply suffices, unto itself.

When my hours are so measured, I measure them more peacefully and with less consternation over the rate at which seconds are lost or the height  to which they have stacked up.  Moments simply occur, exist, and pass, each into the next.  When time is explicitly circular it’s much easier to imagine it passing through us, rather than we through it.  When I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, that just seems like a better way for me to track the fourth dimension.

the quintessence of intelligence

Intellectual ability is humankind’s opposable thumb – if not more so.  Perhaps I’m not being clear.  That’s sort of my point.

The ability to use one’s brains directedly and effectively, both as a survival tool and as a means of personal fulfillment, for fun (as it were) as well as for profit, distinguishes successful specimens of our “sapient” species.  Sapient, such a handy word.  It means “wise.”  Well, that’s not excessively informative either.  “Wisdom” is a concept that could stand some unpacking, and today I’ma be your unpacker.

It seems to me that wisdom isn’t just one thing, so much as it is a bundle of other other qualities.  To be wise, one must be smart, clever, erudite and discerning.  These are different capabilities and each of them emphasize a different kind of mental sophistication, a distinct quality of a high-performing intellect.  My premise is, that wisdom is the sum of these.

Let’s start with “smart.”  It’s a word that enjoys wide common use, the most homonymic of the wisdom constituents, and the most generic.  It’s whatever level and kind of mental capacity meets the evaluator’s own criteria for high intelligence.  Because all these words, of course, refer only to opinions about intelligence.  They are inherently subjective terms, no matter how we strain to measure or compare them quantitatively.  Intelligence is as much in the eye of the beholder as are beauty and politics.  Nothing proves this point better than “smart.”  “Smart” means that, whatever I think is important in a good thinker, you’ve got it.  Complimentary – but not very descriptive.  Okay, you’re smart, that’s nice – but what kind of smart are you?

Some are clever (or, sometimes, “sharp”).  This is a reactive form of intelligence that enables one to respond rapidly and effectively to challenges and obstacles, such as by employing existing resources in creative ways.  A clever mind solves practical problems.  We owe our extraordinary living conditions to the insights of clever people.  They show us the way forward.

Perspicacity, on the other hand, is the quality of clear-sightedness – of actually seeing what one looks at.  The perspicacious mind comprehends problems swiftly, anticipates outcomes, penetrates duplicity.  All details, small and large, are considered by the perspicacious mind.  It is a penetrating intelligence that subsumes the present moment.

Erudition is an entirely different matter, embracing and implementing encyclopedic stores of factual knowledge.  Such lofty levels of intellectual achievement presuppose robust mental powers, but true erudition implies something more than mental power alone.  Erudition invokes an understanding of parallels and differences, the ability to use knowledge to expand upon and enrich new experiences, and to inform decisionmaking with constructive contextualization.  Erudition is discerning and synthetic – it selectively brings culture and experience to bear to enrich present experiences.  It is the form of intelligence that is most closely tied to historical perspective.

Some people are bright, or, if taken further, brilliant.  It’s hard to describe them more specifically than this.  These are synesthetic words that hint at the way this particular form of intelligence seems to work.  Brilliant people illuminate that which surrounds them, and dispel opacity.  They’re quick on the uptake, and strong tacticians.  They’re the reason the iconic representation of having a good idea is a light bulb.  But “brilliance” as an intellectual description long predates Edison’s incandescence.  We have historically described some people thus because their intellects bring clarity, like rays of sunshine into a darkened room.  A bright mind is burnished, and a brilliant one seems to radiate ideas.

Shrewdness is a very different important form of intelligence.  It is goal-driven, maximizing the advantage to be obtained from any situation.  It is an acquisitive, or at least competitive, form of intelligence.  It is a valuable capability, especially when propitiously paired with other forms of intelligence that elevate the operation of this particular facet.  Shrewdness makes the most of the circumstances at hand.  By the same token, the person who is shrewd but exhibits no other modes of intelligence, should not be expected to be anything but shrewd.

It speaks volumes about me personally that it was not until these last comments had been completed, did I realize that I’d omitted perhaps the most important of all the aspects of intelligence: emotional.  To understand things on a human level, and to react and respond in a way that helps resolve problems instead of exacerbating them – this is a subtle but profound intelligence that guides constructive cooperation.  In a world of strife and want, the emotionally intelligent can free themselves of extraneous things, and can ensure that the important things are handled with a minimum of fuss and in the best way available.  Emotionally intelligent people get into fewer conflicts, resolve them faster, and experience personal growth.  This is a form of intelligence that cannot be overvalued.

Genius is different.  Other kinds of intelligence function as modes of applying an enhanced mental capacity of one sort or another, but genius is a creative faculty which can exist distinct from conventional intelligence.  Geniuses are conduits through which some great creative drive operates.  Genius compels creation.  It’s more of a power than an intellectual attribute.  However, when it’s linked to the forms of intelligence that are more distinguished by intellectual capabilities than creative drive, that’s when history is made.

Finally, I turn to the quintessence of intelligences: wisdom.  Wisdom harmonizes the other species of intelligence into their most effective and penetrating alignment.  It hones sharpness, deepens perspicacity, channels erudition, intensifies brilliance, harnesses shrewdness, embraces emotion, and informs genius.  When we say one is wise, we mean much more than any one of those things – we mean them all at once.

There may be more to this, or maybe this is already way too much.  Heaven forbid that I pretend to know everything about anything.  It doesn’t take a wise man to realize he’s said too much, it takes one to know not to say it in the first place.

Inscriptions and Illuminations

Let me tell you something about Jerry. (By which I mean, good luck stopping me telling you something about Jerry.)  Jerry was a good man, optimistic, curious, always seeking culture and betterment, always willing to put in an honest day’s work and to believe the same of the next fellow.  However, as a man of relatively high achievement in a relatively small and isolated town, he may have sometimes developed a distorted view of his own expertise in some matters.  Furthermore, he did like to express himself and leave his mark.  Sometimes that took the form of moonlighting as a local radio announcer or bursting into song at the merest prompt, and sometimes it just meant… well….

I have, in a private and favorite drawer, a small laminated pasteboard cardjerrys card

I scrambled the numbers and masked the background color, so I hope you can’t steal anybody’s identity here


featuring my grandfather’s name, signature, date of birth, and eight numbers with two hyphens.  It’s his social security card, with heavy, voluptuous typography and a self-professed issuance date of early December 1936 (the cards first having appeared in November of that year).  So that’s pretty awesome evidence of, if nothing else, Jerry’s social security number.

But I really don’t need direct evidence of that number, in light of all the corroborating evidence I have lying around.  Now, with a recent package from mom of choice items from her folk’s home, I’ve got even more of them.  And what they are, is things with Jerry’s social security number stuck on them.

At some point, well into his mature years when you’d think he’d know better, Jerry somehow picked up the idea that one’s social security number was an appropriate and convenient way of identifying ownership of one’s personal possessions.  Who else would put *your* social security number on anything?  Nobody!  So he got him a roll of white medical tape and, for some items, he’d attach a generous piece of tape to the reverse side and write his number on it with a permanent marker.  By the time any of these knickknacks and tchochkes (“knichkes”) came to me through his estate, these self-adhesive identifiers had become so stained and soiled that the digits he’d scrawled on them were effectively unreadable and the tape itself was peeling off, leaving only a patch of stranded stickum standing witness to his efforts at preserving his dominion.  It’s a ghost of an identifier, for a ghost of an identity.

However, his other means of identification was less prey to the ravages of time, schvitz and friction.  For even back in the day, a malefactor might peel away a tape label, might even replace it with a different piece of white medical tape with a different social security number on it.  People can be unscrupulous.

So sometimes Jerry made a label that no one in the Elks Club cloakroom could obscure or change: He used an electrically-powered diamond-tipped inscribing tool, bought special for the purpose, and he’d carve his social security number directly into the plate silver or pewter or whatever elemental substrate commanded his attention.  His uneven hand gouged out the numbers that we now know can be used to empty bank accounts and steal identities, and these figures remain to this day where he left them.  I have his old wristwatch; he had the numbers there carved on the bezel professionally, presumably by a professional bevel-carver.  Jerry wouldn’t stint when it came to this.

You might wonder what Zerline thought of all this.  She was a powerful woman – canny homemaker, strong-willed mother, intense competitor on the courts, perennial social fixture.  She and Jerry presented a united front but Zucky was undoubtedly a woman with her own mind about things.  How was she with Jerry’s wholesale, undiscriminating sharing-out of his most precious personal digits?

I can’t be sure how she felt about the open-sourcing of his social security number, but available evidence indicates that she was perfectly fine with his general approach of defacing things.  By “available evidence,” I mean a scrap of illuminated manuscript, about seven hundred years old.

illumination details

It’s from the Book of Esther, hand-inscribed, lovingly highlighted with vines and gold details, a small polychromatic capital brushed-in at the top of a chapter – and at the bottom of the page,

illumination legendmy grandmother’s writing, firmly marching across the vellum in number-2 grey, explaining that it is just as I just described it to be.  It’s hanging on my mom’s wall now, more a cherished keepsake than a piece of liturgical history.  When she celebrates Purim, she does not read from that page – but when she wants to remember her mother, she can always read her handwriting there.

I think the page was a gift to Zerline, from the local library where she’d volunteered for many years.  Why did Nana write a label on this precious gift?  Zerline knew how to respect a library book – keep it clean, bring it back, and don’t write in it.  But this was not a library book, it was part of an exceptional writing from the dawn of our civilization, a story of subterfuge and comeuppance, a fable of feminine wiles and human frailties, the only bible book that never mentions God.  Older than typography, older than memory, a story that belongs to humanity; a page painstakingly prepared by a sworn servant of holiness to glorify the supernal majesty who has imbued all creation with his numinous quintessence.  This page was a labor of love, created as an act of worship and cherished as the divine word revealed on earth.

That’s how it started, anyway.  How it ended was as one of Nana’s possessions, like her silver serving set or her Scottish gong (both of which were inscribed with her husband’s social security number). Where she was from, a person stood for himself or herself, and spoke up when asked about it.  You didn’t write on things to deface them, but to include them into an expanded self in which personal identity is invested directly and visibly into material belongings.  A name becomes greater than itself, enduring even as Esther’s name endured.  It’s not quite the same as carving your social security number onto the hood of your lawnmower, but the same inspiration motivates both acts.

As for me, I’ve written 10,000 pages of blog – but have I left any actual mark on the world?

POST EDIT: My brilliant dad took the time I apparently did NOT take, to read the gorgeous word at the top of Zucky’s MS.  It’s not Esther, it’s Maccabees – maybe I got that tangled up with “megillah” in my sorry excuse for a brain?  anyway the message persists even if the writer got some of the details wrong.  Maccabeus is noncanonical, appearing in the Catholic bible but not the Jewish.  It’s still millenia old (or just about), predates printing, and speaks of ageless truths – faith, strength, and being true to yourself.  If that’s not shorthand for Jerry and Zerline right there, then I don’t know.  Obviously.

Broken Necks and Bubblewrap

Kel went all out to prepare for Easter, which is to say, she had the foresight and initiative to send away for special chocolate – the chocolate of her youth, a particularly creamy and pungent recipe produced by the traditional confectioners of her ancestral home three thousand miles away.  I was impressed by her moxie.   I was even more impressed when she asked for my help unloading the goods surreptitiously from the car.

I was expecting a box of chocolates, maybe even a big box.  I didn’t expect a genunine styrofoam mailing crate, dense and thick-walled, industrial quality and too big for me to get my arms around it.  Seriously, it was bigger than a case of beer.  I was impressed.  This crate meant business.

But when we broke the box open, we saw that the protection went much deeper than just the outside layer.  The interior cavity of the massive crate was cushioned with bubble wrap, and more of it surrounded each piece of the precious cargo it held – bubblewrapped smidgens and chcobunnies, a bubble-wrapped chocolate crucifix (or “chocofix”), and two one-half scale solid chocolate bunnies, each one fully and thoroughly bubblewrapped.  Christ’s resurrection would this year be vouchsafed by a bumper crop of exceptionally well-cushioned chocolate.

As Kel peeled away layer upon redolent layer of transparent packing pillows from the various treats she’d ordered, however, a tragedy came to light: one solid-chocolate bunny head, upon being freed from its wrapping, fell dramatically from its solid-chocolate bunny body, a clean break right across its delicious solid chocolate neck.  We’d received a busted bunny.  Tasty though it undoubtedly would be, it was damaged goods – unfit for Easter basketage, where only unblemished offerings suffice.  We were obliged to do some emergency chocolate bunny shopping.   When we did find a suitable candydate, it wasn’t as creamy or richly fragrant as our broken one, but it would do.  After all, it wasn’t broken.

Eventually everything got eaten. It’s just the principal of the thing.

THINGLY PRINCIPLE: No matter how careful everybody is, sometimes stuff gets busted and there’s nothing you can do but find yourself another rabbit.

PRINCIPIUS ADDITIONALIS: In time, most busted plans work out okay anyways.  Especially when they are chocolate-based.

A Farewell to Ephemera

Mopping the floor, yet again.  A drudge of a task, but something I feel compelled to do every so often, a time period described with intentional ambiguity.  But I’m actually mopping the floor, and that means I’m using three buckets.  That’s my special hack on mopping – use one bucket for soapy water and one for clean rinsing water; get a mop that squeezes out, and squeeze it into a third, empty bucket before dipping it in either of the other two buckets. That way you don’t try to clean your floor with the dirt you just took off it.  That’s the theory, anyway.

So, I’m mopping the floor with my three buckets : two nice new ones from the big emporium up the street, and one shabby old pale blue pail spattered with green paint.  There are  cracks around the spout but it’s the biggest of the three so it’s the one that’s full of hot soapy water.  I try to keep it out of the way as I ply my mop but eventually I get too enthusiastic and deal the old blue bucket a solid whack with the side of the mophead.  I hear the plastic crack.

In an instant I recall almost 20 years I’ve been using this bucket.  That green paint – it was from when we stained the kitchen shelves, easily 15 years ago and the bucket was already old.  We cleaned up after old Cosmo with it.  We cleaned up for parties with it – back when we had parties.  So many years of occasional but intense use.  Ending at that very moment.

All this I thought as I scanned the bucket’s outside surface for the damage, and soon enough I found it: a fine crack running mostly straight down from the rim to several inches below the level of the soapy water. It was not unexpected; I had known that this plastic was brittle and not likely to last much longer.  And now it had failed – I could see the puddle of washwater growing slowly on the lino as it trickled out the still-closed crack.  Soon the deluge would undoubtedly be upon me.  Fast action was called for.

I dumped a small amount of extremely dirty squeeze-out water out from of one of the new buckets and down the sink, and then carefully back-tipped the clean soapy water out of the old blue bucket and into the newly empty new bucket.  The busted old blue pail would serve for squeeze-outs now.  I’d be trashing what was left of it when I stowed the cleaning supplies.

I briefly recalled all those times – not all good, but all times – I’d spent with the old blue bucket.  But I didn’t care.  I just thought, I’ve got no excuse now to put off replacing it any longer.

And on the other hand:

There’s not much left from the very beginning, 28 years ago when K and I filled my dad’s garage with everything we’d be using to furnish our first apartment together.  And now, today, 28 years later, the futon frame and cinderblocks  and pyrex pots and pans, the linens and cushions and cleaning equipment and almost every bit of the paraphernalia of daily living circa 1987, all that stuff is gone now.   What’s left?  Not much.  Our cutlery caddy has withstood the test of time, and the big wooden ladle… but I write today with news that sobers my heart: Spartus has fallen.

Spartus was a foot-square wall clock, a blue frame around a white cardboard face under a sheet of clear plastic.  It ran on batteries and kept decent time for 28 goddamn years.  It was a fixture on my walls for as long as I have been out on my own in this world.  The cheap little Spartus clock from STOR and I go quite a ways back.

The thing I most cherished was the sweet, sweet constancy.  Spartus occupied the same spot opposite my bathroom sink for more than 20 years. Whether I was ahead of schedule, behind (more likely), or bang on track to get out the door on time, it was Spartus that advised me so.  My reliance on its reliability was unconscious to the point of being effectively absolute.

I really only thought explictially about Spartus a couple times a year when we changed the clocks for Franklin’s Circadian Hiccup, or on the rare occasion when the battery died, as Spartus’ unerring quartz movement sucked almost no juice from its double AAs.  It wasn’t quite silent but it was pretty damn quiet, even with its stuttering second hand incessantly hopping forward around its face, each tick identical yet unique.  Spartus quantified toothbrushing and bathtub play sessions for the boys, and taught them time-telling.  We stared at it daily and yet spared it no thought, just accepting it unthinkingly and utterly into the most intimate realm of our lives.  And in return Spartus measured out for us approximately 883,613,000 perfect little seconds, for us to use or fritter as we deemed fit. Spartus never judged us.  Then again, Spartus never hid the truth.

But a few months ago Spartus started losing time.  We switched out the batteries but that didn’t help.  Minutes, and then full hours, would slip past unmarked by its fragile black hands.  Soon it was merely a decoration, unchanging from day to day, with its second marker shivering every second but never actually moving at all.  We’d look at it out of habit, knowing despite our glance that it was no longer trustworthy but still tasting the gall of realization anew when the wrongness of the time forced us again to confront its demise.

I finally pulled Spartus down off its nail and set it aside – at which point it started working just fine.  I put it back in place.   It promptly stopped working again, or continued to not-work, or whatever, it just didn’t work anymore.  At all.  Even its little impotent click every second started growing unreliable.  There was no longer any reason to hold onto Spartus.  I took it down again and carried to to our electronic recycling bin, feeling melancholy.

I thought of things long in use – in my home, in our world.  There’s the blue plastic bucket, or at least it was there but these things change.  There’s the eternity bulb out in Livermore; there’s ancient buildings and bristlecone pines.  Spartus was tenacious compared to your general run-of-the-mill mid-80s discount plastic wall clock, but it was sort of small potatoes geologically speaking.

But you know what?  So what.  I liked Spartus and STOR is no more and my replacement from Target tocked too loudly so we had to scuttle it.  Spartus has fallen and I don’t know anymore if I have time to floss.  Some losses just hit me where I live.

One Long Catastrophe

It wasn’t a bad ride downtown.  I had gotten a decent seat and the crowd was light.  My only problem was open earholes: I didn’t have my ear buds with me that morning, so I was obliged to endure the sounds of my surroundings – the chimes and creaks and roars of the bus itself, along with the wide array of auditory output attributable to my fellow riders.  Which, typically, isn’t such an awful problem.  And sometimes, even when it looks like it might be a problem, it turns out to be something rather different.

I was seated immediately behind the rear stairwell, a favored spot because of its protected sight lines and proximity to the exit.  After several blocks a dude stepped up and started hanging out on the steps in front of me.  He was tall and slim and dark, squarejawed and handsome, with the wry smirk of a young man with absolute confidence in himself.  He wore urban clothes with real style, and headphones that led to a small device at his waist.  He stood in the stairwell like he was outside a club just after it closed, casual and comfortable, rapping smoothly to himself.  He wasn’t silent but he was quiet – I could barely heard him, and he was standing right in front of me. He was pretty much keeping to himself, and I was okay with that.  I didn’t need him to entertain me.  Then this other dude showed up, and put a whole different spin on things.

He was older, and darker, and obviously living rough.  His jeans were unfashionably pale and baggy, and stiff with grime.  His sweater was just wrong – a knit wool blue-and-maroon v-neck with piping around the collar; his knit scarf seemed to coordinate with the sweater by chance more than sartorial forethought.  He had dirt on his face, he smelled sour and stood unsteadily.  He’d boarded up front but was pushing his way to the back of the bus.  I wasn’t happy about it, and by the look in his eyes, neither was the fellow rapping in the stepwell next to me.

Both of us – the rapping dude and I – performed an instant calculation, and without so much as a glance at each other we both knew we both knew that the filthy streetdweller stumbling toward us was more likely to hone in on the guy who was also dark skinned, who was affecting a streetwise style more than a cuberat’s conformity… for these and even other reasons, the staggering bum was not interested in bothering me  However, the dude in the stepwell was a prime target, and he knew it even better than I did.

For a moment I sensed him preparing  a virtual social wall as the vagrant approached – and then he reconsidered. I was sitting right there, next to him.  Did he want me to watch him treat this man as if he wasn’t even there?  Did he want to treat another black man that way – in front of a pink, judgmental-looking stranger holding a pen to a notebook? It was all too complicated, and by then the bum was already upon him.  He’d never meant to open himself to this, but he could plainly see that he was about to be engaged in conversation by a man with serious hygiene and sobriety issues.  Whatever he’d had in mind for himself for this bus ride, this surely was not it.

The older man, true to expectations, leaned in to the younger one with conspiratorial fraternity.  Truth be told, I had trouble following their conversation even though my ears were open, the participants were standing next to me, and they both spoke English.  There was an easy slur to their speech, almost a creole that often evaded my understanding.  But I listened, and understood a little, along these lines:

“Yo, where you from?  D’I know you from somewhere?”

“Naw, I’m from [unintelligible].”

“Yeah thassit, [Unintelligible]. I hang out there alla time.”

For a few minutes I couldn’t follow any of what either of them said, until then the older man intoned, “You can’t lettem treachu like that.”

“Yeah, gotta mack a bitch.”

“Mack a bitch, thass rite.”  Together, they chuckled.  There followed another period of unintelligibility.

“Yo, wachu do for a livin’?”

The young man responded by pointing to the white box at his waist, referencing the music to which he had been rapping.  I wasn’t sure what he said about it but the older guy replied, “Shit, you better than that.”  This triggered some quick repartee that went right past me, ending with the older guy saying, “You gonna rap, why donchu earn some money doin’ it?”

More repartee – not understood.  But when it concluded, the older man got up close to the younger one, eyes yellow with hardship, an expression of naked vulnerability on his brow.  “Man, take it from me.   My life is one long catastrophe.”  For a few moments I lost the sense in what he said.  They young dude was listening, though – uncomfortable but attentive.  When I regained the conversational thread, the old man was speaking with a cracking voice: “I got a son, man, a good-looking young man.  I ain’ no fag, rite, I’m just sayin’, thas how it is.  I got a son.  And look at me.  Just look at me.”

I looked at him but he didn’t notice.  I couldn’t tell if I was seeing sweat streaking down his face, a tear, or some old scar.  He was thin and bent over with his conversation.   He shook his head gently, and the tattered scarf fluttered between them.

The bus stopped.  The old drunk man lurched suddenly past the young rapper, down the steps and out to the sidewalk.  The rapper stepped briskly up out of the stairwell and took a regular forward-facing seat.  He put his headphones on again, but he was no longer singing.

Criminals and Punishers

We’ve had plenty of news lately about violence against innocents, or at least, against people who had done nothing to merit the brutality inflicted upon them.  Casual observers seem to divide these into three categories: the timeless violence of individuals against each other for purely personal reasons of animus or greed; violence committed by marginalized zealots for the purpose of terrorism and political aggrandizement; and, as is increasingly being noted in current journalism, violence committed by authority figures on the population they are sworn to protect.   What I’m coming to believe, though, is that categories 2 and 3 are much more like each other than either is like category 1.

Permit me to unpack that inflammatory statement by starting with a counterintuitive fact that I won’t bother backing up because THE INTERNET: crime is dropping.  Violent, non-violent, inter-racial, intra-racial – since the 1970s, it’s been a down-curve across the US.  Also, no ethnic or racial group is inherently violent or genetically predisposed to cruelty.  Violence and crime are cultural phenomena.  Furthermore, assaults against the police are at a very low ebb right now – fewer officers were killed in the line of duty in 2012 than in any year since 1944, and that total dropped by another 16% in 2013.  Further, most of those that are killed fall prey to traffic accidents, not murderers.

However, we are better than ever at sharing news today, especially bad news.  That creates the false impression that the things we hear about more, are actually happening more.  In the case of citizen-on-citizen and citizen-on-cop crime, that’s demonstrably false.  We are safer today than we’ve been since before Truman took office.

But there is another kind of violence, not personal but ideological, which I believe is on the rise.  Terrorism, kidnappings, organized military-style activities carried out against civilian targets… this, I believe, though I don’t have hard evidence for it, is getting worse.  The cowardly assassination of cartoonists is only the latest example of a very depressing trend.  Thankfully, the world comes together when these things happen, and speaks in one multilingual voice to condemn them.  Anyone who endorses terrorism, kidnapping, or armed raids on civilian targets, anyone whose philosophy requires the silencing – by death – of opposing voices, has resigned from civilization.

At the same time, we are hearing increasingly about violence committed by peace officers and authority figures on the public they serve.   It sounds like news, but it’s older than time.  Only video technology has raised this ancient story to headline levels.  Rodney King, beaten senseless after a car chase, seemed an aberration 25 years ago to those of us living safely in pink skins, but his ordeal should have been our cue to ask ourselves how deep that iceberg of inhumanity went below the surface where we floated.  The answer we didn’t want to face: very very deep.  The power dynamic operating in poor neighborhoods has resulted in a form of oppression in which innocent people are viewed as merely not-yet-proven-guilty, and people guilty of small offenses are punished for egregious ones, often extrajudicially.  From my perspective there are far too many honest citizens of color with heart-wrenching tales of being profiled, encountering selective enforcement of the law, and being hauled away and even compelled to confess to things they didn’t do, for no other reason than their ethnic heritage.

This isn’t about the cops, or our soldier-torturers in Iraqi prisons, or the school administrators who suspend only one of the two kids who fought because the white boy couldn’t have been at fault… This is about a power structure at work. We don’t live in a police state – the authorities are our own representatives.  They stand for what we stand for.  And from the stories assaulting us so regularly now, it looks like we stand for race-based oppression and ethnic marginalization.  Maybe we don’t endorse those positions personally (though on-line comments to many news stories show that plenty of us think the oppression hasn’t gone far enough), but if we live in a society that treats some of its subgroups as subhuman, we cannot evade that taint simply through private belief in one’s own personal ethical propriety.

Maybe you find that to be a controversial position that offends you.  Maybe you know it’s just a lead-in.

We USA-ians live in a country that we, effectively, stole.   The wars we fought to gain this land (except the revolution itself) were trumped-up and one-sided; our historical policy toward the original inhabitants here was genocidal and consistently, viciously dishonest.  When we “bought” Louisiana and tripled our national acreage,  lots of people were already living there, some in large cities with thriving cultures.  We treated them like vermin that needed to be cleared from land we valued more than their lives.  At the same time, we maintained an economy significantly dependent on kidnapping people and forcing them into lifelong slavery unto their generations, consigning a whole race to animal status for our economic advantage.  When a man comes to our shores in shackles and spends his life as chattel, what will he teach his children about authority?  When the shackles are struck off but his home is burned and his children are lynched for failure to cede the sidewalk to a white woman, what role can have in our culture?

For those who think racial injustice is a bygone problem that is today eclipsed by racial entitlement, think again: YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. You are the ones who incite violence, both against the police and by the police.  You perpetuate the disparities that you misinterpret as inherent racial failings.   You were bred in hatred and have been steeped in it until you no longer taste its bitterness.   Your history is false and you are ignorant of the truth experienced by millions of people surrounding you who struggle to achieve what you consider to be your birthright – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Try quoting that as you’re being raped by the police in their broom closet, and see how far Jeffersonian idealism gets you.

Here’s the tie-in: the violence we all condemn, the violence of terrorists and extremists that we associate with jihad or ethnic cleansing or intolerance in some sorry corner of a world we think we own, that violence is one side of a coin.  It’s not selfish, personal violence – it’s the violence of the anguish of the powerless and hopeless.   Even massively-funded forces that commit these atrocities see themselves as struggling against a riptide of western oppression and concupiscence, and lone jihadis or small extremist cells can imagine no way to bring the battle to their perceived enemies other than by imposing the kind of violence upon us, that they believe we imposed on them.  And since they are zealots, individual distinctions are less important to them than group characterizations.  Death to the west means death to westerners, regardless of their personal qualities.  All that matters is that people who look like oppressors get a taste of their own medicine.  It’s racial profiling, or ethnic, or national…. but it’s all profiling, for the purpose of committing violence, for the purpose of subverting a political dynamic.

In this nation, our political dynamic is well-entrenched.  It has evolved significantly since the passage of the 14th amendment, though not always in a consistent direction.  However, the treatment of non-white Americans as inherently subordinate to and lesser than our European founders and their ancestors, has never really been rectified.  Generations of disenfranchisement, being distrusted, being deprived of opportunity and excluded from society, cannot be undone by a few dozen years of what we laughingly call our social safety net.  There are still strong currents of xenophobia, chauvinism, and racism  in America.   In years past it was expressed through lynch mobs, arson, rape, enforced exclusion, and abuse of the legal system.  Those expressions are now disfavored, but the sentiment still comes across through other avenues: random pull-overs, slurs, denials of common courtesies and opportunities.  Black kids get kicked out of swimming pools they paid to use.  Black cops report harassment from other cops while off-duty.  Black patients don’t get the same quality of medical care in the same hospitals.  Black candidates don’t get call-backs for job interviews even when they have identical resumes as white candidates.  Black car buyers get worse deals.  These are only examples; the list is nauseatingly long.  Our racism runs very wide and deep – so much so it can be hard to point a finger directly at it sometimes.  But that doesn’t mean it is not there.

For those who protest that black-on-black crime is much worse than the media depicts: you are wrong.   First, the media depicts crime whenever it’s lurid, and there’s plenty of bad guys of all colors being outed on the media regardless of the color of their victims.  But most crime isn’t lurid, it’s ordinary and squalid and no one wants to read about it.  White welfare cheats and child beaters and muggers are arrested every day, and no one cares about them either.  There’s not enough airtime for that much sad, dull news.

But more importantly, there is a world of difference between the act of a desperate or hopeless or twisted poor person mired in an underculture, and the act of a uniformed officer who pulls that poor person out of line at the supermarket for a stop-and-frisk because of the color of her skin.  The first is an act of stupidity or selfishness.  The second is an act of official oppression that perpetuates historic prejudice.

If a poor urban youth strapped bombs to himself and blew up a police substation where he’d been abused and humiliated, it would be a political act.  Our poor urban youth don’t do that.  That’s ISIL’s game, and Al Qaida’s.   Those people use terror and violence against innocents to break down a structure that they think oppresses them.  That’s wrong and stupid, but in a much more serious way than a carjacking or a robbery.  It’s an assault against our deepest and most important values.   But now I’m increasingly thinking, it’s just the photo-negative of what happens in gulags, torture chambers in occupied territories, and in parts of our cities where poor people need to prove their value and innocence every day to a hegemony that assumes them to be guilty, or at least defective.

Terrorists exploit the innocent for political gain.  When they are not in power we call them out by name.  When they own the system and their exploitations serve to sustain their own authority, we no longer use that word… but I wonder increasingly why not.

Maybe you disagree with everything I’ve said.  But if you are a member of the cultural majority in this country and have never had a gun drawn on you or spent a night in jail because of the way you looked, I beg you to look at the information below before you excoriate me.  I’m a very lucky guy, but my kids don’t look like me and I have no idea what the future holds for them.  Please join me in working to make sure it’s better than it would have been in the past.






Right Shit Ghetto

They were at it when I boarded the bus in the quiet of the outer avenues – two girls, dressed middle-school sexy with big hair and loud attitudes.   They stood in the rear stepwell, lounging against the steel guardrails.  They talked fast and loud, cutting each other off with ever increasing speed and volume.  I think they were talking mostly about other girls, with more detailed drill-downs about boys, teachers, skin tone, and hair.

I consider myself a patient man but it had only been a few blocks before they started to annoy me with their sheer vapidity and shrill shrieking expostulations. But at least, I told myself, they were over there in the stairwell, while I was way over here on the oppposite benches. I could almost ignore them.

There’s a lot of ridership circulation at Arguello, and with the middle school right there I was counting on the loud girls offboarding.  But instead they just stood in their stepwell and peered out, blocking half the doorway, barking questions at the sides of each others’ faces – “Where are they?”  “Where is he?”  Eventually, though, the people coming on pushed them out of the way, back up the stairs and across the aisle to exactly where I was sitting.   They leaned over my head to look out the windows above me, their midriffs crowding my face as they excitedly squealed at each other: “He’s over there!” “OMG!” “I see him! He can’t see us!”  “O shit!” “Scream out to him!” “There he is!!!” “C’mon – scream out to him!

This was all going down directly above my head, at eight o’clock on a goddamn monday morning. I had an ugly to-do list waiting for me at the end of the ride and I’d already been awake for three hours.   I didn’t care whom they’d just seen.  It was imperative that I keep them from screaming about it.

It didn’t take much.  I was in pressed charcoal slacks, shiny black oxfords, a crisp business shirt, and a blazer.  I was even wearing a black watchcap, albeit emblazoned with a grade-school’s logo.  But I’m sure I looked, as one might put it, hella serious when I finally turned to face them.  “Don’t scream out,” is all I said.  My voice was quiet but its deep timber cut through the noise on board, extinguishing their cackles instantly.  They turned their eyes on me with hesitant surprise.  I lacked the energy to do anything more than meet their gaze, and we held these positions for a still second or two before anyone spoke again.

It was the slightly louder of the two girls who broke the silence, the one with the slightly puffier natural and the slightly darker skin, the one who had initially resisted her friend’s commands to scream at some boy out the window over my head.  When she spoke now it was with her previous brio:

“He’s right – don’ t scream out the window.  That’s right shit ghetto.”

Her gaze flicked to me and I blinked in agreement.  Then we both looked away. She moved elsewhere into the bus, away from me.  I soon lost the sound of her voice in the crowd.  Eventually they both left the bus to other riders.  I just kept sitting where I always sit, screamlessly.

Downstream Thinking

Martin figured that the stupidest mistake he’d ever made must have been when he let Carlos take the shortcut alone.  Up till then the journey had been – well, if not pleasant, at least something he could endure.  He got to eat and sleep on a pretty normal schedule, and anything that went wrong seemed easily fixed or incidental.  He could deal with the rough path and deep bush.  That’s why he decided to stay on course.

But the little setbacks along the way  had hit Carlos harder, and he had already been looking for options.  One finally presented itself in a shabby mountain hamlet they stumbled into one misty morning – a goatpath stuttering up the hill behind the hovels and shacks, and over the next hill, and the ones after that until the fog obscured its further progress.  Carlos asked around and learned that the small path reportedly rejoined the main trail at the trading post, taking a more direct but more challenging upstream route.  Carlos felt compelled to try it.

Once the tough, resourceful locals described it as a tough hike, Martin knew he wanted no part of it.  He’d stick with the main trail.  It had never gotten so very bad that he couldn’t stand it.  The shortcut sounded risky. Martin would endure the longer route, because it was safer.

At least, that’s how it looked on the map, but the map didn’t show all the roadside hazards. Since the day they parted company Martin had been spider-bit, had his food stolen, had his shoes wash away in a flood; he hadn’t found one person or pit stop he could trust since Carlos’ mop of red hair had disappeared behind that first ridge.  From sleeping on anthills  to running from bands of angry monkeys, this had been the worst trip of Martin’s life.  All he could think was how much smarter Carlos had been to have taken a different route.

These thoughts filled his mind as he trudged up the riverbank toward the docks of the trading post.  He noticed there a derelict canoe, crude and rudderless, floating aimlessly downstream.  It drifted with a hollow thud into the docks near where he was standing so he tied it fast, as no one else paid any attention whatsoever.  He glanced inside and saw his friend there, naked and unconscious.  He had no possessions and his flesh had been cut, burned, and beaten.  His cheeks were hollow and his ribs stuck out.  If not for his red hair he’d have been unrecognizable.

Martin looked down on Carlos, barely breathing in his hollow-log canoe, and he thought to himself, “Well, that sure wasn’t much of a shortcut.”

Riding with Kenny Jr

I’d often forget that I lived in Studio City when I was growing up. But then I’d find a nationally recognized movie actor standing behind me at the post office, or someone with his own sitcom out renting a cassette alongside me at the local video shoppe, and I’d remember again. I’d cross paths with celebrities just often enough for the most blinding glamor to dim a bit, but not often enough for it to feel quite normal. it was always a bit of a thrill to see Hollywood’s big names wandering through my life. They were exotic. And my regular old San Fernando Valley self really just wasn’t.

There were also industry faces at my school. We had a couple of America’s most recognizable kids in my Jr High – they had authentic careers with feature films and network series, but during hiatus they’d mainstream with normals like me. We all obviously knew who they were, everybody with a teevee did. But after a few days of school with its weird smells and manifold inconveniences, we stopped caring. In this way, the exotic was normalized.

And then one time, normal suddenly got exotic. Now that was a fun evening.

I had this friend in Jr High – Kenny. He was a “junior” – named after his dad. His dad, as it turns out, had been a big pop star a decade or so ago, and he was just starting in on a second career in country music. Country music was still kind of a niche market, but this guy was about to bust that demographic wide open. But when I was in 8th grade, all that was the unrealized future, and I’d already missed Kenny Sr’s defunct pop star days. All I knew was, a lot of moms knew exactly who my friend Kenny’s dad was.

None of that had anything to do with me, or why Kenny Jr was my friend. He was funny as hell, is why we hung – creative, quick-witted, articulate and raunchy. He kept me in stitches. We were comedy buddies. That’s as deep as I dug with him. Hell, he didn’t even live with his dad. He and his mom had a little place off Moorpark. Despite his apparent pedigree, I had no reason to connect him with Hollywood’s exoticism. Kenny Jr was normal.

Then one day Kenny Jr and I were out, probably at his place because where else were two 14-year-olds going to be in 1978 in Studio City? The hour had grown late and I needed a ride out to someplace on Ventura or Riverside, one of those major avenues. Kenny Jr’s mom said she’d drive me there. That’s no big thing. Moms often gave their kids’ friends a lift. This was Los Angeles; a car-ride represented baseline threshold hospitality. I thought nothing of it, till Kenny Jr’s mom pulled up with my ride.

Some cars were mom cars – big station wagons, dinky runabouts, kid-hauling sedans. Some cars were dad cars – sportier, or shinier, or dirtier, or just plain more fun than mom-cars. And then there’s the 1964 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. When one of those pulled up, I really wasn’t sure where it came from or where it was going. I just definitely knew that I wanted a ride in it. And then Kenny Jr casually popped the door and hopped inside, and I followed him.  As if it were normal.

my ride

The hood was bigger than my dad’s Pinto, and the fenders over the fat front wheels seemed to sneer at the road. The door was like an airplane door in heft and engineering tolerances. As a limo-length vehicle, the passenger cabin was spacious and exquisitely appointed. The interior – maroon, I think – was like a gracious corner of a sophisticated club, with every amenity at one’s fingertips and all the seats inexpressibly comfortable.

I couldn’t believe my friend’s mom was able to drive it. Or did she? Where, exactly, did she take me? Could I hear the engine purr? How did it smell? Today, I cannot tell you. The experience was so rich in details, I actually forget most of them. But this I know without question: That wasn’t just a quick lift around the neighborhood from a friend’s mom. The trip wherever I was going took a matter of minutes. The ride I got that night, in a sense, continues today.