Thursday, May 29, 2014

Maya Angelou: Someone Who Knew Why.

I like to see the children say, 'I never thought of that before.' And I think, ‘I've got them!'"

-Maya Angelou

Here are some of her occupations: San Francisco’s first woman streetcar driver (at 16!), 17-year-old teen mom high school graduate, opera singer who toured Europe in the ‘50s, film director, civil rights activist…

…there’s so much more she did, too, like speaking six languages and performing in Broadway plays, but let’s talk about her poetry.

While she’s best known for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her biographical tale of growing up in the Jim Crow South, throughout her life she jotted down poems to distract herself from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and racism. It was first published in 1983, but no one is really sure when Ms. Angelou first wrote “Caged Bird”:

…The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing…

If you get a chance, do a little research on this woman. Seriously, this is one of the most amazing people to ever breathe oxygen. When the hell did she sleep?

Maya Angelou’s death made me remember how powerful poetry can be, how it hits a sweet spot in us not reachable by music or traditional prose. As good as a song may be, I tend to focus on the melody and lose the lyrics. I can immerse myself in a good novel, yet it doesn’t strike with the emotional cadence of poetry.

My friend Jame Richards took things a step further. In Three Rivers Rising, she recounts the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood. After a dam fails and unleashes twenty million gallons of water on working- class Johnstown, the story unfolds from the perspectives of a wealthy teenage girl staying at the resort on the hill above harm’s way, and her forbidden boyfriend whose family resides in the valley below.

The subject matter alone is intriguing, but here’s the cool part—it's written in verse:


…Father says he comes for the fishing,
but in truth he comes to keep an eye
on other businessmen.

I have never seen him hook
a worm or tie a fly.

I cannot imagine him gutting a fish
or scraping scales.

The only scales he knows
are for banking and shipping.

But his partners and rivals decided
it was time for fresh air,
peace and quiet,
away from the filth and crowds of the city.

So, even at this pastoral lakeside resort,
my father will not miss
the glimmer of a business deal
spoken over rifles or fishing reels…

It's a craft that can veer in limitless directions. Ever read a poem by Charles Bukowski? The guy was no Hallmark Card, but man, could he hit a nerve:

…there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled

a space

and even during the
best moments

we will know it…

That’s an excerpt from No Hope for That. 

Thanks for making every day seem like Monday, Chuck. Remind me to look for that refrigerator magnet at your website.

Let’s end on a high note. I would be committing felonious balonyous if I didn’t hoist Theodore Suess Geisel to the top of the turtle stack.

Horton. The Grinch. The Lorax. The main dude in Green Eggs and Ham who never states his name or species. Dr. Suess is nothing short of my idol, crafting his made-up words and simple rhymes into lessons on morality, loyalty and positivity:

Today you are you,
That is truer than true.
There is no one alive
Who is youer than you.

If you haven’t read Oh, the Places You’ll Go, give it a gaze. And hey, since it is the season, the hardback edition is a great gift for that special graduate.

Today we celebrate the life of an extraordinary human, one who wasn't afraid to take a few chances. How about if we honor Ms. Angelou’s memory by venturing into the scrawling out of a poem or two. 

No big whoop; anything you want, even if the first line contains “Nantucket.” Let’s see what you’ve got.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. Here’s to the poets.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It Wasn't Exactly The Grapes of Wrath.

“Now there’s a First World problem.”

Would you consider that term a cliché—just another empty, overused slogan in a jingo-slathered world?

Or do you look at it more as a credo—a helpful, underutilized reminder to just chill the hell out?

I try to take the second approach, but occasionally, bona fide hardships do arise:

If the mood strikes, can I change Siri’s voice to Bill Murray’s? Nope.

Sometimes Safeway runs out of Lindor milk chocolate truffles, and the only choices are caramel and white chocolate and dark chocolate. And who's the closest person I can yell at? A kid stocking yogurt four aisles over. Freaking inconvenient.

Excuse me, this burrito is supposed to have the chicken on top, not inside. I guess it's not taco time after all, so I’ll try and keep it together while you unstuff my burrito.

But yesterday, things got even more uncomfortable for the comfortable. Some new pipe fittings under the house decided to resign without notice, leaving the family without water for a day. Yes, you heard me correctly—an entire day. 

Even though 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes, it’s amazing what something like this does to a crew that's accustomed to clean hot and cold water on demand. Let’s just say of the three dwarfs who currently live at our house, two of them have been named Grumpy for the past couple of days.

And here’s a quick tip from Dopey, the oldest dwarf: Don’t try your hand at pipe repair when in close proximity to electricity. While the jolt was nowhere near Bundy-level, it still tingled like a peck on the cheek from Old Sparky. 

I attempted to salvage my wounded provider status by hauling an old jug of distilled water out of the basement. Ever since the Y2K crisis passed without incident, it has waited faithfully to provide the family with emergency hydration support. The cat sniffed at the dusty plastic, sneezed and shuffled over to the toilet. Okay, teeth brushing only, then.

Hopefully, this is something that’s reparable in one day’s time, but hey, if it isn’t, I know one person under fifteen who could learn a little something about patience and flexibility.

In today’s First World, the busy signal no longer exists.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Facebook and the Seven Deadly Sins.

How can I put this? Let’s just say I’m not the most secure mattress on the roof of the station wagon, so I’ll need your bionic grip as we breeze down today’s freeway.

Incidentally, isn’t if funny how people think they can simultaneously drive and pin an eighty-pound cushion to the top of their car with nothing but one sweaty paw?

Yeah, sounds funny until someone gets his eyebrows waxed by a windshield-speckled Beautyrest, right?

Anyway, today I want to talk about something of which we’re all guilty, that I noticed yesterday as I rode the bus home. While ninety percent of the passengers stared cloudy-eyed at their iMasters, sitting next to me was a woman with two small children. Was she holding anything manufactured by Samsung, Apple or Hewlett-Packard? Nope.

Did she tell them to “shut the hell up and sit still or your Gameboys stay in Mommy’s purse and you’ll be stuck with your iPods.”? Negatory.

Get this: she talked to them. They even joked around a little and drew some stuff.

Good Lord, what backward behavior on vehicle of mass transit. Laughter can prove so distracting when zeroing in on the perfect Snap Chat. Oh, the humanity.

Humanity. Hmm, let’s visit that word for a smidge. When we as a society choose to remove ourselves from the humans around us, to sever the communal connection, doesn’t that diminish our collective humanity?

I’ll go ahead and say yes, it does. In fact, I think that despite the repressive environment of his era, the 4th century monk Evagrius Ponticus nailed it when he penned the original seven deadly sins. These were the seven forms of self-idolatry where the subjective reigns over the objective.

In other words, social media has rendered us even more profoundly self-centered than we were in the age of rotary phones and vinyl records. Since I don’t participate in the Twittershpere or Instagram Nation, I’d like to use Facebook to illustrate my point with each of these vices:

Greed—For the realtors among us, must we incessantly post the latest listings? Some may call it networking; I would deem it Amway-inspired acquaintance alienation.

Sloth—Isn’t it just a bit lazy to wish someone happy birthday on Facebook? I understand that a card can set you back, sometimes over three dollars, and that’s B.S. (before stamp).

Pride—I’m guilty of this one, but I’m trying to improve. Not only have I posted every image ever shot of my daughter playing hoops, I even slapped one up of her sleeping with her ball. What gets me are the memes I see like this:

I did this in Photoshop. Please share if you’re proud of me.

Lust—I agree, after seeing all those selfies, your new boyfriend is super hot, and it’s always a solid backup plan to tell him in twelve point Helvetica on my newsfeed page.  

Envy—I agree, after seeing all those selfies, your new boyfriend is super hot. Oh yeah, and thanks for showing me the nachos you guys had at TGIFridays, because I’d have to go really far to get those, which makes me super duper envious. Just wait until you see my tuna casserole on Thursday. It’s got crushed potato chips on top. Bam!

Wrath—This was on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page a while back: "Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants' hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”

All of who, Sarah? The two other Einsteins who use “intolerant” as a noun?

Gluttony—I was recently de-friended by a high school classmate who complained about Obamacare after posting several photos of her beautiful new home with its exquisite views. When I mentioned the irony in my always-delicate manner, she took offense, as did her entire family who joined the fracas. In another twist of irony, I blame Obama for one less Facebook friend.

Make no mistake, I like Facebook. I like the babies and the nature imagery and the cute stuff our kids say. I like Throwback Thursday and Man Crush Monday. As a matter of fact, I wish there were something for every day of the week, like "Toilet Peep Tuesday" or "Stop Using All Those Hashtags Because It's Really Stupid Sunday." 

And I’m sure I’ve offended at least a couple of my Facebook friends who think I’m talking about them, but I’m willing to risk it.

You know me—anything to save the sinner.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before.

I'm getting a physical exam tomorrow—first one since 2010.

Yeah, big mystery why I’ve put if off for four years, right? Since turning fifty, I’ve been nothing short of pathological in formulating solid excuses for not walking the two blocks for a checkup:

a) I have to lose some weight first. The scales are out in a common area of the doctor's office, like between the paper cutter and master sharps bin. Everyone in the vicinity can hear your weight barked out by the nurse, so this time I'm giving her two choices—she either weighs me naked like I'm accustomed to, or she steps on the scales for some reciprocal humiliation in my best Don Pardo voice.

Here’s another idea for the nice folks at the clinic: how about we meet in the lunchroom around noon with a karaoke mic and the doctor can announce that I have the BMI of nacho cheese lasagna?

b) I know women’s exams are more invasive than men’s, but I’m still a quivering wimpster when it comes to the hidden finger wag. I’m always worried that I’ll do something involuntary, like giggle or tilt my head. 

c) Since I’m of an age, I’m not highly delighted about receiving input from this fella:

Does the gloved hand seems hostile to you? It mocks me.

It could be worse, though. I've heard that the older models were made of wood and powered by gerbils.

Seriously, I need to stop whining about some temporary discomfort and just be glad I've got the means and access to quality preventative health care. 

How long is that thing, anyway? Please tell me that pressure gauge or whatever it is, pulls over before entering the express lanes.

It’s time to be an adult—an older adult in fact; no more procrastinating, no more lame excuses. The asstronauts are sipping Tang, pre-flighting for their Journey to the Center of the Land of the Lost. 

Please bring them home safely.