“The Bus” by Paul Kirchner

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Appointments for body parts

IMG_1996Three of my mother’s appointments today —  hair, teeth, ears.

The hair needs to look good. It helps to frame the face. My father used to call a woman’s hair her crowning glory. It reflects someone who clearly still cares for how they are in the world. Especially when it is firmly lacquered. Then we are more assured of permanence and consistency, personality and perseverance.

Teeth are the most important part of a smile. It also reveals someone who cares for themselves. The clean, the white, and the polished enhance and underscore our expressions, the way we connect and orally reach out to others. It makes that reaching out so pleasant and agreeable. It demonstrates confidence and assurance. It sometimes stops us in our tracks.

The hearing aid cleaned and battery replaced reflect our need to specifically respond to what is going on around us, to appear “with it,” and to maintain complex sarcasm and humor using the subtle nuances of language, therefore demonstrating intelligence and cleverness and a wonderful sense of humor.

Hair, teeth, and ears cemented, cleaned, and cleared— all firmly secured today.

To hell with the Reuben sandwich parts strewn across one’s lap. The slight leaking of the adult diaper, the momentary confusion of time and place, the frequent falling asleep, the uncontrollable trembling on her left side be damned. She’s 88 years worth of feeling good and all is right with the world.

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“The kids who die” by Langston Hughes

Michael Brown was shot and killed a year ago today in Ferguson, Missouri. This Langston Hughes poem, written in 1938 and read so powerfully by Danny Glover, is dedicated to Michael Brown and to oh too many others.

This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.

Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Organizing sharecroppers
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Organizing workers
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.

Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together

Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.

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Drunken Tai Chi

Yesterday in my tai chi class our teacher was telling a story about her teacher who liked to drink wine and was quite the connoisseur. She said he loved to meticulously pore over a wine encyclopedia when he was not needed in class. In fact, she said, he told her there is a martial arts form called drunken tai chi, drunken qigong, drunken boxing, or drunken kung fu. This form, called Zui quan, is actually quite old, first recorded around 621 ce.

Zui quan is based on the knowledge that a drunk person never really gets hurt because their body is so loose. This form of martial art tries to mimic that complete looseness, fluidity, and flexibility. The form is also based on the fact that those who take martial arts very seriously would be very surprised that a drunk would be able to defend himself, so the “inebriated” movements of the form operate as a psychological ruse that works in the “drunk’s” favor. There is lots of feigning of drinking in the movements and the main method, called sloshing, is to move as if the body is hollow and the belly (dan tien) is filled with wine as opposed to chi. There is lots of falling, swaying, and seeming staggering but in actual fact it is in complete balance and control and is said to be one of the most difficult forms to master, which is totally clear in the video above, movements performed by Alex Winn.

So there are no more excuses for not practicing. Especially after imbibing. Lucky for me and for any nearby furniture, I’m a cheap date.

My son just sent me this link to a scene from a Jackie Chan movie, The Legend of the Drunken Master. Jackie Chan made drunken fighting very popular by portraying it as being really drunk.

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“Ode to the West Wind” by Tony Hoagland

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Soon enough
it’s going to be another kind of adventure entirely
for us to be dying all out of order,
waiting to see who’s next, who a-
bruptly by surprise, and who

psychically equipped to take
the nasty needles and the drips
—the Ellis Island of the waiting room,
the midnight disbelief.

Well, fortunately we learned to like adventure
when we were wild and young,
when we cultivated a healthy
sense of unreality
that will be useful soon:
(“Nurse, could you bring more
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxmescaline to room 310?”).

No, now is not the time
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfor a faltering of style,
not now when you can hear your teeth
chatter like a Geiger counter
and see the lesions burning through your very realistic skin

—Now, as the time machine accelerates
and you lean back and buckle up
with that famous nonce of savoir-faire
which makes you perfect for your part

in this whimsical yet ballsy independent film
in which we play the wind.

xxxxx

(as published in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 40/ No. 1)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates and Harper Lee

51ViHdI1ZtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I’m not sure what possessed me to read these two books back to back— Between the World and Me and Go Set a Watchman. Because I read Go Set a Watchman first, all I could do while reading Go Set a Watchman was largely focus on how race was represented.

Coates’ book is a powerful revelation about “race” and the depth of complicity we all share (especially, as he says, those who think they are “white”) in a system which victimizes black bodies and profits from that victimization. Coates argues we are all responsible for practicing the “politics of personal exoneration” yet we are all responsible for and involved in the creation and maintenance of this biased system.

Harper Lee’s book (actually first draft) is a problematic, confusing, and very dated book about “race,” concluding with the very “politics of personal exoneration” that Coates identifies and condemns, in her call to her readers to understand and have compassion for what makes a man a racist, framed in a biased reasoning to begin with. Lee’s simplistic and outdated understanding of race overtook any focus on the literary merit (of which there was very little) this first draft may have demonstrated.

The only reason I read Go Set A Watchmen is that I teach To Kill a Mockingbird to middle schoolers. Knowing it was a first draft I was not looking forward to reading it, but knew it might shed some light on the novel. I’m sure the only reason it was published in the first place was to make some fast cash. The beloved pure-spirited Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is portrayed as a bigot in this first draft, not the moral, values-driven lawyer who defends a black man from the accusation that he raped a white girl; in To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch is a lawyer who stands up to the bigotry of his town. In Go Set A Watchman, though intensely upset at her father’s racism, Jean Louise (the protagonist) works by the end of the book to try and make us understand and have compassion for Atticus and even concludes the story as a loss of innocence narrative about the evolution of a child’s perception of the heroic role of parents and about coming to terms with them as simply being human, ie having many foibles—(like racism!). While I ached with the heartbreaking truths articulated in Coates’ book, Lee’s draft, especially as it ended, was embarrassingly painful to read. In fact, I wonder at the politics of a publishing company that would publish such a racially awkward book in 2015.  Was money their only agenda?

Coates’ book blends the personal, the historical, and the political together, framed as a powerful letter to his son. Incisive, poignant, even disarming, Coates’ raw and articulate examination of race, his intelligent anger, is timely as it is powerful and visceral. He writes, “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of mother nature, and one is left to deplore the middle passage or the trail of tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.”  After reading Coates’ book I was whirling, am still whirling, and that was the energy I carried with me as I read Go Set A Watchman.

Lee’s book also attempts to blend the personal, historical, and political but asks us instead to feel tolerant of and to understand racism through some pretty disparaging and derogatory ideas about people of color. Go Set a Watchman is all about the permanence of race not its illusion. It offers a superficial vision and “privileged” understanding of a system built to institutionalize and fully entrench and even justify “racial” bias. To Kill a51fGhOk4bLL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_ Mockingbird at least pays lip service to justice and equanimity. Go Set a Watchman does not.

Coates asks the reader to face difficult truths about personal complicity in the biased systems of justice and economics we have all helped to create and support and how these systems play out quite literally on the bodies of people of color. With the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Tamir Rice (and we can now add Sandra Bland to the interminable list) many at the hands of law enforcement and their killers exonerated by our justice system, the fact that a tired and insulting understanding of race and racism as expressed in Lee’s book, situated in the philosophy of states rights and which advises us to take our time toward creating equity for all, seems so unthinkable— even if Go Set a Watchman was written by an important author of an alleged classic piece of literature. Near the end of Lee’s book while discussing progress for the rights of people of color, Jean Louise’s Uncle John says to her (finally convincing her to stay in Maycomb), “…we need more of you.” “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me anymore…” “I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.” Seems like the system we’ve perverted would be most pleased with that snail-like approach.  The system has thrived on that lack of energy and insight since Reconstruction.

Perhaps it is totally unfair to have read these books back to back. I couldn’t help but compare them. They were written some 55 years apart by two very different authors who lived in two very different eras. Coates’ words take us beyond the usual discussion of race. His words are not easy and chasten us to be smart in our understanding of a complex and essentially rigged system, a system so distorted, ingrained, and deep-rooted that we ourselves, seemingly unknowingly, are part of its machinations. His book, as Toni Morrison declares on the book jacket, should be required reading. And while Go Set a Watchman should be available for researchers and literary sleuths, Lee’s first draft should have stayed in the drawer in which it was found.

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Shabbat drama

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