11 November 2017

The Free State Forum


Last night I accidentally wound up at "The Free State Forum" an ACLU event held every 18 months that boasts food and music, awards, fundraising, speakers.  It's a gala as it turns out.

A friend who regularly sends me email notices about social actions like marches and sit-ins in the offices of elected officials called me a couple of days ago and invited me to join a group that was driving to Overland Park for "an ACLU thing" on Friday afternoon. I mistakenly thought it was a town hall type thing.

I don't really know why I said "yes". It may have looked like a lifeline to me on that day, a distraction from the familial conflicts and financial struggles that have consumed my energy and darkened my outlook for the last few weeks.

On the 35-minute drive, my friend told me more about the event.  I heard the words "fundraiser" and "keynote" and "dinner," noticed my friend's attire and makeup, and realized I was seriously underdressed in my ski cap, sweatshirt, jeans, and moccasins. "Oh, you always look elegant," she told me as we approached the wide, shiny entrance of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel. "Right," I said. "Being tall helps. Hope it works tonight."

Image result for underdressedTwo steps into the building, memory of a stay in a different DoubleTree hotel sprang up.  I was attending a massive, international social justice convention a decade ago.  On that occasion, I slept for the first and only time (to date) in a king-size bed. The linens felt to be milled in heaven. I said then and continue to claim it was the best sleep I've ever had in a hotel.
It is a fond memory -- beds and sleeping have long ranked high as "a few of my favorite things" -- so I was smiling as we strode into the lavish lobby of the DoubleTree by Hilton where the pre-dinner mingling was to happen.  Someone was playing "When I Fall in Love" on a gleaming baby grand piano and a well-dressed, mostly-white crowd of people wandered around inside the wide hallway, meeting and greeting each other. 
My friend and I were part of a carpool of five people from Lawrence but she was the only one of them I'd ever laid eyes on before yesterday. The five convened at the registration table and were each given a small, paper-clipped packet containing a peel-and-stick name badge (not my name but that of someone whose place I was taking at Table #22); a card entitling the bearer to a complimentary autographed copy of The Soul of The First Amendment, a book by Floyd Abrams, the keynote speaker for the evening; and a pair of cards that could be exchanged for free drinks at one of three temporary bars stations.  "Oh, good. I'll have a drink. Then I won't care how I'm dressed." Ha.  Me making a joke.  Not funny, I guess.  No one in the group even smiled. 

Image result for free drinkSomehow this put me at ease. The unfunny mismatch interloper is a role and a psychic space I know pretty well.

On my way to a conversation pit I spotted near the edge of the room, I picked up Abrams' book from a long table stacked high with them. "Lost in a book" is another space I know pretty well.  I could just hang out in a book until time to enter the dining hall. "Thanks," I said to the two, pretty young women staffing the table where I surrendered my gift card. "Have you read it?" Both of them became very fluttery then -- talking and giggling and fidgeting without ever actually answering the question. I think they thought the correct answer was "yes" but neither of them had read the book so the question discombobulated them.

I sat down as the pianist launched into a bossa nova tune that sounded like a polka as she misplaced the primary beats of accent. Wonder how she got this gig? I thought to myself.  I could do that...  

To my surprise, the others in the carpool followed me from the registration desk and took the other chairs in the pit. With everyone seated, my hostess, teacher, and performer personae took over.  Smiling, asking open-ended questions, and encouraging people to interact. I  stoke conversation like building a campfire sometimes.  Like I need the warmth of free-flowing conversation to feel at ease in social situations.  Once the flame caught, I slipped away to retrieve my free drink.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The pace of arrivals quickened and the temperature at our end of the hallway grew steadily cooler in the draught from the three pairs of gilt doorways. Some of us were hungry enough now to mention it. Dinner was to have begun at 6 but at 6:10 we were still mingling in the lush lobby listening to lounge music. I'd had my drink. I led a small contingent into the dining room. "All they can do is say 'not yet' and throw us out," I said. They did not throw us out and within minutes the other doors to the dining hall were opened and guests began to file in and sit down at their assigned tables.

I kinda like when that happens. When I end up at the front end of a trend. I like following my gut and I like having company on the way.

The agenda brochures at each place setting boasted a hefty program:  at least 6 speakers in addition to a keynote address and two award presentations. I groaned inwardly and allowed that I might have to use the other drink ticket. 

As it turned out, I did not use the other ticket. I left the event feeling nostalgic, a little sad, and surprisingly inspired. Despite varying degrees of competency as public speakers, each of the people who spoke revealed passion and a rigorous commitment to the work of the ACLU and the survival of American democracy. The audience received their remarks with warmth and solidarity. I felt myself in the company of kindred spirits. I was surprised to feel optimism surging through me for the first time since the presidential election of 2016. 

One of the speakers stressed that the ACLU is not a bi-partisan project but a non-partisan project. His comment made me aware that having lost faith in both major political parties of the U.S., my social activism has dwindled. I have been unable to latch on and join in the Resistance. After an initial enthusiastic diligence, writing and calling elected representatives, met by unanswered calls...jammed voicemail boxes....voting however the fuck they wanted on whatever I was calling about...noting the disappointing instances where money trumps everything else and democrats and republicans do group hugs...

I like the ACLU a lot right now.  Just signed to Follow them on Twitter. 

I also like hanging around

  • people who read
  • people who are interested in the law, and justice
  • people who drink
  • people who get an idea and run run run with it
Last night I hung out with the cool nerds while wearing the wrong clothes but it didn't matter at all in the end. 






19 August 2017

Ignorance at Daybreak

I found myself wide awake at 5:20 a.m. on a Saturday. What in the world, I wondered and set about making coffee. Is it the conflict with my son? The stress of transitioning to my new town of residence? Money? National and international socio-political turmoil? Something I ate?

I took my coffee to the porch to sit and sip and watch the light encroach. 

It's been three hours now and I still don't know why I woke up so early, but neither do I know why a mourning dove and then a squirrel felt confident or curious enough to come within a few feet of me this morning. And I am unable to identify most of the sounds that emanated from the trees and shrubbery and sky as I sat. I noticed all the new webs on the porch, constructed since I carefully cleared all the web-lace yesterday and realized I am also clueless about how spiders choose a site and how long it takes them to rebuild and whether their webs are improvisations or careful designs.

It is humbling to remember that although I am a part of nature, I know so little about the community.


06 August 2017

New Neighbors

A little after 1 a.m. I heard what sounded like someone hammering nails in the apartment below mine. Based on the pattern and placement of the sound, I imagined my neighbor hanging a series of framed prints at eye level all the way around the room. Tap-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap-tap....then a couple minutes of silence before repeating the sequence.

I was already in bed. It had been a long day for me since I had awakened spontaneously before 5 a.m. I had actually dozed off and the hammering woke me up.

When the pounding commenced for the eighth time I got up and walked downstairs, thinking to inquire "How much longer?" There was no response when I knocked.  I waited and knocked again. No response.

I returned to my apartment and wrote a note:
Hello -- I'm your upstairs neighbor in Apt. 307. Welcome to the building. So glad you're a musician -- me too! I hear you hammering at the moment -- it's about 1 in the morning. Would you mind please doing the hammering a little earlier in the evening? Thanks. The Lady in 307 
I walked down and slipped the note under the door. No more hammering that night.

Two days later I found a note on the living room floor, written on the back of my note.
Hi there -- Sorry about that. Unsure what you mean by "hammering" but now I know the sound carries more than I thought. I've lived here for several years so I suppose I should welcome you to the building! I've heard you on the piano and it sounds lovely! Sorry again for the late night strumming! Thanks. Best Megan (lady in 207)
I am charmed. Although I'm a little embarrassed, I don't want her to get the wrong idea so I've written a response:
Megan -- I love the strumming.  Strumming guitar is wonderful at any hour. Maybe the hammering was coming from next door? I thought you were new because I've never heard any 🎼 until this week. My name is Alex and thanks for the welcome.



08 April 2017

Dream of a Thousand Students

I am wide awake at 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday, exhausted, panting a little.  My heart is racing.  I am up because I must capture this dream.  I am still laughing.  "It was just a dream," I assured myself once I was sure that was, after I shouted "Is anybody here?" into the empty house and there was no reply.

---

The Dream

I am sleeping on the living room floor because my bed has not yet been assembled.  It is my first night in a new living space.  It is very early, not yet light outside.  I get up and walk around to take a look at my new home. I thought I rented an apartment but the place feels like a house. The floor plan resembles the house I grew up in but it's larger and falling apart. I see for the first time that none of the doors close properly and the floors are splintering.

The rooms are sparsely littered with my possessions.  Nothing is in order yet.  There are large unopened boxes with BOOKS written in large letters on the sides and open boxes with odds and ends pulled out:  lamps and towels and dishes parked on chairs and the floor.

Returning to the double windows of the living room, I see a few adolescent girls, each walking to school alone, down the middle of the semi-dark street to avoid male predators.

I feel but do not yet see or hear activity on the south side of the house.  Through the window of the south door I discover children and teachers in the yard.  Hundreds of school age kids milling and calling out and chasing each other and .... doing kid stuff while scores of teachers run around trying to get them to line up and stay lined up.  I think they're preparing for a field trip.  There are also puppies and older dogs.  Slightly familiar breeds but not quite:  pumpkin-colored dachshunds and teeny-tiny labs and some breed that walks mostly upright.

A little boy trips over an exposed tree root and falls.  I run out into the yard to find the person in charge.  They can't line up here.  If something happens I might be sued.

I can't find the lead teacher.  While I search, teachers are morphing from the staid, tidy instructors I knew as a kid into interesting people with dreadlocks and nose rings and bare feet.  They speak English in accents from all over the world.  Some of them speak languages I can't identify.  They are an exuberant and good-humored group of adults and children.  Lots of smiles.  Lots of cheerful "I'm not sure who you should talk to" and ... turning their attention back to herding the kids.

I finally get a business card from a tall, male teacher with a Midwestern accent and return to the house to telephone the school.  Back inside, I discover the kids and puppies have wandered in.  For the rest of the dream I am trying to get the kids and the teachers to leave my house.  They are everywhere:  in closets, under and behind furniture, popping out of boxes and spilling my stuff all over.  I hear footsteps and realize they are even upstairs and  I didn't know there was a second floor.

Teachers are pursuing  the kids, who also have accents and are every skin color I have ever seen. Kids and teachers alike are well-dressed and ragged, skinny and plump, talkative and shy, on crutches and wearing braces, with sticky hands and dirty knees and giggles and "reasoning" in that voice that teachers use and my house is starting to smell like a school.

I attempt to explain to a trio of teachers that I can't practice piano with all these kids in the house and it's important that I practice every day. And also I just got up; I haven't had any coffee yet.  And....  A male teacher with an Eastern European accent, as a kind of thanks-for-letting-us-use-your-space and sorry-about-the-chaos gift hands me a cloth bag containing four obviously-recycled bottles, corked and filled with wine he made from ingredients found around my house.

Some kind of joy is infecting me.  I want to capture the fun and post it to FB but I can't find my cell phone.  "I think one of the kids has my phone," I say to the wine-gifter.  "Here, use mine and dial your number," he says.  I do and we hear my phone ringing somewhere out in the yard.  We locate it and I take pictures of the kid and his friends and teachers nearby.  The picture looks like it could have been taken at a music festival.

A female teacher who looks like me with very long hair explains "This house has been vacant for a long time."  She says the school outgrew its original facility and appropriated this abandoned building.

As the queues finally begin to move, I yell some kind of farewell and in unison, a thousand voices take up my words and turn them first into a chant and then a South African freedom song.  Children's voices and teacher voices harmonize.  They are on their way.

I am making coffee when I discover some kids were left behind.  There's no phone number on the business card.  These kids are gonna be here all day, maybe through the night.  I'm not going to get any practice time today.  It's going to be frustrating trying to unpack and set up my house with them running all over.  I mostly don't care.  But I'm running out of steam......

--------

I wake up because I'm exhausted.



25 February 2017

Troll Litter

Last night I donated about 30 minutes of my life to engagement with a troll on FB.

I deal with trolls as I deal with litter. If I see it while I’m driving, travelling at 70 mph up US 78 to Memphis or 65 to 80 mph on SR 7 to Oxford, I feel a quick stab of disappointment in “people” at the back of my throat and in the pit of my stomach. I’m moving fast so I don’t stop. It costs less than a minute of lifetime and I drive on.

If I see it in my yard or on the block where I live, I grumble about it for a few days -- not all day, just every time I leave the house or stand in the 14’ windows of the music room, watching styrofoam cups and empty potato chip bags tumble in the agitated winds of an oncoming storm.


Eventually I set my jaw, put on my moccasins, and go out to collect the litter.

I live on what is considered a busy corner in this small town. The public library occupies the entire block south of me. A huge historic Presbyterian church and the dainty two-story City Hall face me on the street that forms the western leg of the corner.  Lots of foot traffic as well as vehicular.  It's mostly young people who drop the litter; but the library also attracts older people, unemployed or retired or single moms with kids or the handful of ageless men who seem to spend the entire day walking and loitering. Some of them litter, too.

Usually everyone disappears after sundown but a few months ago a middle-aged couple with a dog took up residence on the library grounds for three or four days.  They caught my attention; the only time I'd seen white people loitering around the library and the only people I'd seen sleeping -- at night -- on the grounds.  I think they were on the road and just resting in Holly Springs for a few days.  Both of them looked like people who'd been spending a lot of time in sun and wind.

I gather the trash from my side of the street on both legs of the corner.  and deposit it, usually, in one of three dumpsters that hug the front wall of my neighbor’s place.  I feel good after I do it and the street looks better. It never takes more than 20 minutes.

So last night was put-on-the-moccasins night for me on FB.  A few weeks after The Election of 2016 (yeah, it's certain to appear in caps from now on), aware of the deepening divisions between people
along political lines, divisions spreading like hairline cracks shattering relationships, eroding the discourse and fracturing the psyches of the nation's people, I wondered will we ever mend these
breaks?  How?  Won't communication, the ability to talk to each other, be essential in any strategy of healing?

I was a proponent of "reach out to them" for a few weeks.  Breathe deep and don't get emotional.  Be rational and nonjudgmental.  Tell the truth and back it up with documented facts.  Walk a mile in their shoes. Meet them where they are.

It didn't go well.  There were a few instances where after a few exchanges the troll stopped screaming.  A couple of them thanked me for the exchange.  But overall, things quickly devolved into a train ride to Crazyville; at least on the troll's side.  I'm not angry at trolls.  I don't feel like screaming at them or smacking them.  They're like litter.  Pick it up and throw it away or drive on by.

Last night's encounter was with a young woman I'll call Lindsey.  She said something about libtards in response to this photo Robert Reich posted.  I commented that to view the problem and the fix for what's messed up in the U.S. through a liberal vs conservative lens misses the mark, quickly garnered a few Likes in the two minutes it took Lindsey to respond in all-cap word-salad rage about atheist liberal scum something or other.

I responded ...  she responded ...  I'm still working the kumbaya angle with her.  I bounced one more; by now, she was way over the ledge in the long grass sputtering and spitting without punctuation.

I lost interest.  I mean, how much communication is possible with an angry person who is screaming lies and cliches?

Some slightly perverse curiosity that I can't explain to you at the moment led me to click onto Lindsey's page.  She looked nothing like I'd imagined.  She is perhaps 20 years old.  Single.  White.  Pretty brunette.  Lot of family photos. 90% God- and Church-related posts in her newsfeed -- and 99% of everything slanted toward anger or outrage or indignation or some really mean humor.

I asked myself:  what are they so mad about?   "They" as in Christians, conservatives, and Republicans.  The Christians have their faith, the conservatism permeates the entire culture and the Republicans have the White House, both Houses of Congress and most of the governorship posts across the nation. What are they mad about?  No, it's beyond "mad" and "angry". Lindsey was enraged.

I almost went back, though I had signed off our exchange with something like "I hope your rage subsides at some soon point and you join the movement to restore democracy in our homeland.  It will take all of us to get this straightened out." I almost went back to ask her "Why are you so angry?  What is it?" but I didn't.  She had been incoherent throughout our discourse and I had little hope of a transformation being sparked by my question.

So

I blocked her.  No more Lindsey.  Litter removed.