Illmerica*

Less than a mile into my much needed run, I came upon a sheriff’s deputy blocking the street.  POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS TAPE was strung across two and a half lanes, redirecting cars into a subdivision that was meant merely for a u-turn as the main drag on the other side of it was apparently blocked off as well.  Was this the same police activity that jammed up my normally five minute commute from the ferry landing to home not an hour before that I assumed was just a bad car accident?  Short answer: Yes.  The deputy saw me coming, and walked over to chat with me as I had a WTF expression on my face.  He told me I could not run past the yellow house, so I would have to turn around.  Irritated and getting tangled in the dogs I turned back, only to be stopped again by a neighbor giving me the scoop.  There had been a bank robbery!!!  Right here in Mayberry!! We talked for a few more seconds, then she yielded her Prius so I could pass and get back on my run.

(For those with less patience than I have (which I do not think is humanly possible), here is what I found out later.  It was not a bank robbery, but a dude with a gun who had a grievance with Bank of America.  He entered the bank, showed the gun, said he was not there to hurt anyone, handed out bottled waters from his backpack to the staff and customers and then let them all go.  He then hung signs on the door about how banks like Bank of America caused the financial crisis, and that this was his protest.  And yes, it was reported that he had a history of mental illness and was possibly not on his meds, but, please note, STILL had a gun.  They talked him out of there by 10PM but not before three local police departments, the county sheriffs, CHP, and the FBI replete with sharpshooters had been deployed to the scene.  Just happy that everyone was fine and hopeful that this man is also offered proper mental health care while he is surely serving time for breaking I don’t know how many laws.  Move your money people, I did and community banking is where it’s at!)

Annnnyyyyyyyyyyway…  back on the path I was struggling a bit after a headcold-induced three-day layoff and the interruption by the banking protest.  Lots of thoughts were jangling around in my head mostly current events related.  The earthquake in Japan: horrifying.  Where the hell has President Obama been hiding lately?  Why didn’t the mainsteam media have one second of coverage of the 100,000+ people protest on Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin?  Oh right, they are all owned by corporate conglomerates.

And honestly, really, WHY THE HELL ARE WE BEATING UP ON TEACHERS?!?!?!!  I noticed this thought coincided with a quickening of my pace, as if my foot strikes were counter-punches to all the hits teachers are taking on the chin from the media.  60 Minutes has now jumped into the fray and broadcast a  Katie Couric report this past Sunday about a charter school in NY that pays its teachers $125K/year.  The idea is to attract the best, most effective, highly skilled teachers, and then pay them what they are worth.  Of course they are still working upwards of 80 hours per week, have no support staff and are expected to show consistent, quantifiable increases in student achievement or they get fired.  (Two of them lost their jobs at the end of that school year.) The reporting was totally lopsided, once again saying that due to those scary powerful teacher unions, bad teachers are intractable and are ruining or have ruined the US public school system.  Bullshit.  BACK OFF THE TEACHERS everyone.  And if your kid is not doing well in school, GO TALK TO THE TEACHER AND THE SCHOOL.  And keep on doing it until you get the problem resolved.  Not that hard. Stop hitting the easy target with meaningless arguments like teachers work six hours a day (yeah, six PAID hours a day), or, teachers get THREE MONTHS OFF every summer and THREE WEEKS OFF at Christmas which is all once again, bullshit. I can barely dignify this crap with a real response, hence all the EMPHASIS.

I was a public high school teacher for four years.  It was, without a doubt, the hardest job I have ever EVER had, and I loved it, but I simply could not make ends meet so I left the field.  Plain and simple.  And I was just getting really good.

What did make me smile in the middle of this run-rant (well before the aptly titled* Wolfgang Gartner song closed out my mileage) was some old Van Halen, dare I say, honoring teachers.  For all my brilliant and dedicated colleagues at ECR and the teachers who busted their asses teaching me for 17 straight years and the teachers in my family, I am hot for you.

Words Matter. Tone Matters.

Get it? (Thanks MH for sharing.)

Sometimes, writing is hard.  Sure writer’s block comes and goes, but often it is the burden of having too much to say, too many stories to tell, too many feelings to share, and that is certainly how I feel today in light of the shooting in Tucson, Arizona yesterday.  The sudden convergence of so many of the things I that I care so deeply about – public service, politics, citizenship, free speech, my country, the freedom to do your Saturday errands and meet your representative at a strip mall – have quite literally been shot in the head. I knew I needed to write, but because this event interconnects so many personal anecdotes, I fear a flood of word vomit.  But, I also know if I don’t get it out, I will stay sick.

I was in Washington DC in July (the first of two trips there in 2010) working with a grassroots policy movement I support with bills before Congress to create a United States Public Service Academy.  I have now been to DC four times in two years, and each time I feel more completely American than the time before.  Other times I feel significantly American are ironically, during and after instances of national tragedy. Yesterday, after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, members of her staff, a federal judge, a child and citizens of the community, I felt the weight of that American identity and all it means to live in a country where we can both meet our Congresswoman at the local Safeway and carry a concealed weapon because (in some states) we have the right to do so.

I have been laid-up in one way or another the past month with various injuries, aches and pains, and yesterday morning started with me trying to not slip into despair over a fairly gnarly muscle spasm in my low back that has severely limited my mobility and hurts like a mother-effer.  Knowing that I would likely not be able to run yet again, I could hear the whinging pity party music starting to play in my head.  Resigned, I opened my computer and started to mindlessly click around and within about 20 minutes the banner headlines of BREAKING NEWS started to appear that there was a shooting in Arizona. I turned the TV on and started passing through the cable news channels to see who had the best coverage of what was happening.  I distinctly chose MSNBC first since I too am not immune to our polarized political/media climate and am a progressive-liberal Maddow watcher, but their coverage was all over the place; stomaching FOX that early and in pain was not yet an option for me, and so I went to CNN, who even though they had the B-team in, were doing the best they could under the circumstances.

Once I started to process what I was hearing, I went back to Facebook to see if any of my Arizona friends and college students with whom I work on the Academy (and have in fact met with Giffords on several occasions) had any news and within minutes declarations of shock and sadness were being posted. I realized then that I was shaking and had to walk away from the computer.  My sore back prevented me from doing what would have been best, running or hiking, so I turned on a football game, and tried to numb out rooting for the Saints.

The past 24 hours unfolded on the cable news networks as to be expected, lots of the same meager info being repeated and B-roll of Giffords on the floor of the House on a loop.  Also predictable, were the status updates, posts, tweets and blogs that were taking political sides on our now ubiquitous social media outlets.  (Remember when… only SIX years ago, there was no Facebook and MySpace was for teens and bands, and no one tweeted excepts birds… sigh.  Times they are a changin’.)  I of course found myself gravitating to my side of the aisle, and could feel my frustration rising with reminders of all the most famous vitriol that was spilled less than three months ago during the mid-term elections.  I did note however, that my new personal policy of staying out of it on Facebook was doing some good for my sanity.  About eight or so months ago, I began drastically reducing my own postings of news and editorials that I found important and also pretty well stopped commenting on others’ posts of news and editorials.  (Also hated that FB started reporting to all on what I was commenting on in the main feeds.)  I could see threads of people I know and love having fights and spewing ad hominem attacks on one another out of sheer frustration, often parroting the complete misinformation propagated by the main stream media and commentators but never actually having a conversation about ANYthing. It disgusted me.  And worse it shut me up right when we needed cool heads to talk about what to me should be a non-issue: health care for all of our citizens.

I tried to focus on using my power for good not evil, and stuck with promoting the Academy via my FB account, but  mostly through direct emails to my family and friends.   I was thrilled to be able to go to DC again and walk through the House and Senate office buildings and meet with Reps and Senators and staffers.  I felt blessed to have had this experience and to be representing such a worthwhile bill and knew that this work is exactly what the media, mainstream and social, was completely missing with its superheated rhetoric. Although I left DC in July on a high note, I had an ominous sense that the sludge of violent discontent was running just underneath our feet.  (Yeah, just like in “Ghostbusters 2” only we did not have those nifty zappers to blast and contain the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of Doom we created.)

In late September, with the campaigns for the midterms at full tilt, The Daily Show announced the Rally To Restore Sanity which would be held the weekend before the elections.  My brother surprised me with plane tickets and a plan: we were going to the Capitol to get sane! The show pulled permits at the National Mall for 60 thousand people. Over TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND of us showed up and there was not one arrest.  The sheer number alone told me that a majority of Americans of vastly differing views are craving calm and rational discourse but no one is giving it to us, except comedians and musicians. I have written before about the healing power of art and music, but democracy also requires serious, rational, quantifiable debate and discussion which then leads to understanding, compromise and law.  And this is supposed to be led by the people we elect to represent our views NOT by highly paid commentators whose only skin in the game is their image, not their citizenship.

Honestly, I have pages of notes that I had written back in October, before the Rally and the elections, and intended on writing a post about it.  I was totally riled up, it was working on me too!  Something stopped me, and I think mostly it was the sense that no one would really listen because my frustrations, although loud and intense in my head, were not about taking a side. Everyone (on all sides) was in fact participating in the nuclear-option rhetoric.  I thought of Sarah Palin and her constant use of gun and attack imagery and taunting; I thought of Representative Alan Grayson calling Republicans “the Taliban”; I thought of Rush Limbaugh <insert racist/homophobic/sexist taunt here>; I thought of Joe Manchin, Governor of West Virginia, shooting the cap and trade bill in a campaign ad.  Gross.  All of it so disgusting and cynical and hurtful and ultimately consequential.  And I did not speak up, so I am now.

Civil discourse is critical.  Without it, we enable those among us who lack the self-control and who very well may be mentally ill or unstable to use extreme violence to make their point.  Murdering people with whom we disagree is catastrophic.  Murdering innocent people who happen to be in the way of the bullets is tragic, heartbreaking, and offensive to the human spirit.

Words matter.  Tone matters.  Respect matters.  American democracy is lost without it.  We must show our leaders how to do it as they have lost their way.

Days 12 and 11: My First Yawp

Saturday  night I had the honor of sharing some of my writing with an audience.  I was invited to do this by one of my closest friends who is a painter and her cousin who is a singer, songwriter and very gifted musician.  Like all things in life that once seemed an endless and totally out of reach struggle, the moment I was standing there reading my essay, it all made perfect, effortless sense.  In reporting back to a friend this morning about how it went I said, “I felt alive.”  She smiled with a deep understanding.  Yep, I’m hooked.

The event was billed as MUSIC + ART, her paintings actually directly inspired by his music and lyrics, so I decided to spend some time this past week sort of ruminating about what music and art mean in my life.  I did this on my runs, and also talked about it with a few select friends.  I could not have picked a more immense, complex, or subjective topic on which to offer an opinion and share a few anecdotes.  I thought a lot about the true artists, writers, actors, singers, dancers and musicians I know who are out there everyday creating and making a living at it only because they know they must.  I only just recently allowed myself to start creating in public, but like I said, there is an ease now, and so I know it is right.

The thing I like about blog writing is that the medium fits my extremely lazy side; although I value citations and support, man I hate spending more time looking for the quote than actually just writing about my feelings and observations.  I decided to frame the essay around the denotative meaning of art and share some of my stories about how it makes me feel.

I also remembered this great scene in “Dead Poet’s Society” when Todd Anderson finds his yawp.  I totally found mine.  Essay follows after the clip and when we have the video of me reading from the event, I’ll share that too.  Enjoy!  YAAAAWWWWWPPPP!!

When I think about something as vast both in concept and tangibility as art, sometimes it is just easier for me to start with the good ol’ dictionary. Or let’s be honest, good ol’ dictionary.com. I have been thinking about what art is, knowing that this topic is perhaps one of the most subjective and basically infinite of the human experience. Or at least the humans that I know.

“Art” has 16 entries in its primary definition on dictionary.com. From where my train of thought is headed, this one has the most direct route:

“the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”

But for a little detour, I like this too:

“skilled workmanship, execution, or agency, as distinguished from nature. ”

I like that nature got a mention, because there is no greater artist than the one we call Mother Nature. I had an Outward Bound instructor remind me that every single answer is there for us in nature, you just have to slow down and look for it. That always calms me right down. Try it sometime: concentrate on a leaf and you will solve many personal crises.

Earlier this summer I was in Washington DC with a group of high school and college kids lobbying on Capitol Hill. After a long slog through our day of meetings, we loaded up on donated Olive Garden pasta and headed out to see the monuments at night. We were very lucky to have with us the writer of the bill we were supporting, and who just so happens to be a history professor. He was our personal docent for each of the monuments we visited.

DC in July is beyond hot. It is muggy, sticky, drippy and uncomfortable, even at night. But the foul weather does not hinder the crowds who come to the capitol to see the monuments and memorials in the least. As we walked along Chris was giving us background and facts on how the Mall was designed, the politics behind each decision to build what monument where. We came upon the VietNam War Memorial, Maya Lin’s wall of names of each of the soldiers who died in the war. At night The Wall is barely illuminated, but lights from mobile phones and flashlights bounce around like electronic fireflies not to mention the quaint flicker of lighters and candles. People still look for the names of their loved ones in the darkness, often with a piece of paper and pencil to rub a relief of the name so that they may take it along with them. I lost my group for several minutes as I paused to look up the name of my friend’s father in the directory. I got the chills when I turned exactly to his page.

After a deep breath, and a literal “shake it off” I headed up to the Lincoln Memorial, which was teeming with people, echoes and flashbulbs. As I ascended the steps, after having just barely had enough time to process The Wall, I could feel the sting in my eyes. I saw my group, walked over to Chris, and choked out, “I’m just so emotional.” He looked me in the eye and said, “It’s an emotional place.” The sound kind of dropped out for me and I stood there taking in the impressive scale of the Lincoln statue, and then turned to see the words on the walls: his second inaugural speech, and the Gettysburg Address. At that point, I let the tears go.

Once more, we had to press on, this time to the Korean War Memorial. And that is when it hit me. What were we all doing here together, even if unknown to each other? What brought us all here to this night in July in terribly uncomfortable heat all at the same time, a scene which is repeated nearly every night of every year, year in and year out?

Art.

Art brought us all together. Monuments “of more than ordinary significance” built by artists to honor our loved ones, our soldiers, our civilians, our values, our ideals, our history, our pride, our pain, our humanity. What is the only thing that can heal the gaping wounds of slavery, war, genocide, and just plain bad human behavior? Art. Art is the only thing to heal us. Art did this that night in July and art does this every single day of every one of our lives.

I started to think about why art does this and I could only muster a very simplistic answer. I will leave it to the critics and professors and people way smarter and more patient than I am to expound more technically and philosophically on why, but here’s my take. Art and music and film and books and plays and any creative expression of human emotion whether a finger painting by a toddler or a joke rant by Chris Rock or a Shakespearean tragedy or even the real Mona Lisa behind all that bulletproof glass, connects us all to our shared humanity and to that mostly unexplainable tingling in our chest. What I might not be able to express in any articulate, linear, equation, some talented human being has done for me, and then I know I am A) not crazy with all these tears and spontaneous feelings of joy and B) very much alive.

I can barely get through one of Chopin’s polonaises which might happen to be on the radio, in my car, during my mundane errand run without blinking back tears, and if I happen to be at a live symphony or ballet, FORGET IT, the second those bows hit the strings I am covered in goosebumps and better have remembered to wear waterproof mascara. This also happens to me with certain Walt Whitman poems and I am pretty sure the first time I heard Duran Duran at age 12 on my lunchbox-sized Walkman with the synthesizers seemingly passing from my left ear to the right THROUGH MY SKULL, I was having what many apparently call a religious experience. The emotion that art evokes is not limited to weeping; it is also gut melting laughter and fist pumping rock and roll joy and magical inspiration and calm, reflective, confident understanding.

I would add a seventeenth entry to the definition of art:

Gracious, tireless, judgment-free host of opportunities for humans to be wiser, kinder, funnier, gentler goofier, and better at treating each other and the world around them.