Tuesday, October 31, 2006

More Old Wyve's, and Dad’s, Tales

I would like to talk a bit about stories, telling, untangling, writing, and, using them to free ourselves. In doing so, I hope to thank three important people in my life, my zen teacher, a woman whose book I edited, and my Dad, for the lessons they taught me about story telling.

John Tarrant, my friend, teacher and mentor, is a man who swims in story language with grace and power. No surprise that he is a lineage holder in a zen school that is devoted to koan study, the teaching stories of the old masters of the East. No surprise that he is always on the trail of any story that can transform our lives.

Now just 85, Elizabeth Russell continues to drink the experience of her life to the last drop. Her commitment to live in the service to others is, for me, an inspiring expression of joy and loveno hiding, no retreat. I was her editor for Reading Under the Covers, actually more of writing coachshe is a fabulous writer,

It turns out that my Dad can tell a good yarn. At 93 he has begun to write stories about his life as a legacy to his children and their progeny. He has a website and a blog where he posts his stories, puts up photographs (they are really wonderful, people and places, particularly interesting to the family, but which really capture a time and pace). Comments and clarification from his brothers and others give it breath too. That is what comes when you stick to the truth of what really happened, your own experience.

Stories don’t work well if we can’t get to the end, if we get tangled up, if we get bored, give up, and put the book down. On the other hand, if it’s a good story, we become really engaged. A koan, one of those ancient zen teaching tales, has an end, a denouement, that hides itself. Yet once you are engaged in solving the puzzle they present, their power seems almost miraculous. In a good mystery, if you can really see yourself as both Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, you will read through the night. In word and song Homer turns you, the listener, into a hero like Agamemnon, sailing from Troy, thrown off course over and over, driven by Fate. Along the way you might discover in your own heart that deep longing to return to the place that you come from, home.

Psychology tries to steal the word “story” to describe those endless monologues we repeat to ourselves as we drift off to sleep, the ones where we are always proven right, defeat our enemies, find the man of our dreams, and live happily ever after. Miserable and broken, we have preserved what we consider our self respect. I wish that we had another word for that kind of story, perhaps the loopy storywe chase our tails. We think that if we just get better at the telling, we will get to the end. Yet we cannot get the knack of untangling ourselves.

A grand old zen teacher, Phil Whalen, as adept with words as he was in the art of meditation, never talked of story in that way. He was fiercely adverse to any words that smacked of psychobabble. He said that you sat down on your mat and suddenly your mind became like a tangled ball of yarn, or a tar baby. Only learning to sit quietly and following your breath opened space for you to loosen the knots and unstick your fingers. Too much struggle just got you into more of a pickle.

Perhaps it is a false distinction to label some stories good and others worthless just because they have an end, keep going till you get to the end, or satisfy some deep need when you finish them. Something as simple as, “Thank God that’s over with,” might be enough. There is both pleasure and power in getting to the end and taking a breath.

I worked with Elizabeth for more than two years while she crafted Reading Under the Covers. She had asked me to read a book which she self-published just for her family about 10 years earlier, One Hellava Life. I loved it in many ways, one being that I so much admired her. We were both in course produced by Landmark Education that dealt with creating new conversations that can have a ripple effect through our whole society; that is, if we have the guts and talent to broadcast them, we can certainly alter a cultural prejudice. I felt that the power of her story telling alone would alter the conversations we all have about growing olderhearing the strength of her mature voice, not wining, not complaining, not giving up, not self-centered but eager to inhabit her whole life, her creation, her dreams, her vision.

Elizabeth had the guts to ask others to read them, to see if they turned the pages, and then to detach herself from those cherished bits of the story that were self-justifying and dead. She untangled her language when she stumbled and lost the reader. And, in putting her attention on the useless twists and turns, she also untangled herself from those parts of her own story that were stopping her. One cannot really be generous to oneself unless you can treat yourself with the same kindness and clarity that you try to extend to fellow travelers.

I invite you to buy and read her book, Reading Under the Covers. You won’t regret it.
My Dad has told other peoples' stories for many years. He is the corresponding secretary for his college class, the University of Maine ’36. But as he grew older, his reputation as an engaging reporter spread, and he was asked to assume responsibility for more classes as they inevitably lost members and writers.

He has also been interested in family history. About 10 years ago, while he was still living in Connecticut, he and my brother John trecked to Woburn Massachusetts where our American progenitors landed in 1637. There in the town archives, he uncovered rich family lore that startled me, a hand written account of an Indian raid on the family farm. The natives killed a helpless baby, but soon a large group of settlers pursed and “dispatched the heathen."

When I was about 6 or 7, one of my chores was to haul the garbage out behind the garage. In the winter, the dark woods where we found arrow heads threatened beyond the stone wall at the back of the property. I ran out and back. Once they discovered my fear, no one at the table would let me go without calling me a “Scaredy cat, don’t let the Indians kidnap you.”

When I opened the manila envelope that contained my Dad’s account of his discovery in the Woburn Town Hall and read it several times, I felt an enormous sense of freedom, as if my Dad’s recounting that long forgotten story of an infant’s murder 350 years ago reached into the present moment and freed me from my infantile fear. Dad’s writing will be a gift for all the generations that follow him.

You are welcome to visit my Dad’s website, “My Own Story.” The photograph is my Dad (right) and his brother, my Uncle Don (left), on their way to Gooserocks Beach this past September.

Telling a story can be an act of self-remembering. Writing and sharing a story untangles life. We all yearn to return home, to move freely through our own lives, delighting in the moments, the joy, the wonder. If we unlock a few doors behind which life has hidden itself, there's a real gift, perhaps even a miracle.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Come out gay Republicans!

Jasper Johns, Flag. 1954–55,  Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted
on plywood. The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Andrew, honey, Get a Grip
The conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan has gotten his panties tied in knot about the Left outing gay Republicans. Get a grip, hon, there’s plenty of blame for both Left and Right. “The List” of gay staffers on Capitol Hill got into the hands of some right wing fundies. That’s all we know.

I have found myself tracking “The List” story with a lot of intensity. As an old-line activist, I hoped that mainstream America had moved beyond gay cleansing and blackmail. I don’t feel any need to protect anyone’s closet or out anyone, but the threat of a Pink Purge and its reaction tell me that the closet remains as lethal as ever.

I have some personal history with the suffering that is the source of the closet: abuse at the hands of our own families, bullying at school, settling for second rank jobs after better than average College careers. Many gay men of my generation share some of this history with me and know that these wounds do not magically disappear in the halls of Congress.

I also know something about gay staffers on the Hill. I was a personal friend of Rick Pucar who worked for Phil Burton, Nancy Pelosi’s predecessor as the ‘Congressperson’ from the District that includes San Francisco. I still see his surviving partner, Mike Haush, who worked for both Barbara Boxer when she was in the House and John Burton, Phil’s brother. They joked that they fell in love and got married in the halls of Congress. Oh, if only that had been possible.

Through them and other political friends, I’ve known about the informal network of gay staffers for years. It used to exist in rolodexes but has now migrated into email address books which are much easier to publish widely.

The period that I’m talking about begins with the appearance of HIV in our community.

The strain of funding research and treatment for the “gay cancer” produced stresses among the Hill gays equal to or greater than the fallout from Mark Foley's sick behavior.
The membership of Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association is a matter of public record though not, as far as I know, widely published. Until only a few weeks ago, if a staffer chose to remain in the closet, he or she could. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the unwritten rule, but it was never a secret society, a kind of Opus Dei with a gay agenda.

The network of lesbian and gay staffers worked like any other networkfull of communication, cooperation, gossip, bitchiness, even a bit of back stabbing with a particular flair. Of course, most of their bosses knew about their sexual orientation. Most Dem’s, especially from the Left Coast, were out, but, for the most part, they respected the privacy of any closeted Republican colleagues. They even helped and encouraged one another.

I’ve never seen “The List.” It hasn’t been published in the Times, but it’s become a new weapon in the hands of Family Research Council (what a lovely name for bigots). What happened? My suspicion is that at some point pre-Mark Foley, support within the GBLT network became covering. If the spirit of bi-partisanship is dead among the bosses, should we expect a higher standard from their staff? As with any human network fighting for survival, sometimes the old strategy doesn’t work very well, but hell, it is the only thing on hand, so let’s crank her up and see if we can get her to work this time.

And this is in my view is the real kicker: there is a new generation, gay and straight, ready to move beyond the old post-Stonewall arguments about being gay. They are ready get to work on what really matters now. Perkins, director of the FRC, and his operatives’ behavior is reprehensible and unethicalit is black mailbut worse, it is a distraction from the Iraq War, the treason of the sitting President and his crony administration, global warming, the looting of our national resources by the super wealthy, the auctioning off of publicly owned air waves and the consequent stifling of free speech.

Before any of these efforts get full gay participation, and the contribution of our talents, there might have to be a final "Come to Jesus" reckoning--gay staffers, from either party, who turned over “The List” to the likes of Perkins, ought to have their DuPont Circle town houses turned into Betty Ford clinics for recovering Bible thumpers, and then be forced to sit through every meeting.

The best article that I have found on "The List" is, of course, in the Washington Blade, available online.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Truth, Justice, H2O, and Britta

TV advertising and the “Truth”
From my friend, Ken MacDonald, a wonderful musician and zennist in Canada (it’s not America but an economic super power, so it counts).

In Canada they are airing a Brita TV ad. On screen there is a drinking glass on the counter which the camera fixes on the whole time. We see what we assume to be a bathroom door in the background. We hear the toilet flush and at the same time we see the water in the glass ‘flushing’ down and refilling. A woman then comes out to drink her water out of the ‘flushed’ glass (and by the way she didn't wash her hands, which is certainly more of a health hazard than drinking municipal water), visually indicating, you get it, that she’s drinking out of the toilet. If we didn’t get it, the voiceover says, ‘Water from the tap and the toilet come from the same source’.

The ad's been altered twice since its first airing. The first time (as noted in the letters between various water and health agency people, and Brita) was to put a legal caveat on the ad to indicate that municipal water has been treated to make it safe for drinking. Then, recently, they added a four-second insert at the end of the ad visually demonstrating a Brita filter change, while the voiceover tells us for best results to change the filter regularly.

The copy reads:

It’s Tasteless!

Nearly 40% of the developing world’s population lacks clean drinking water and about two million die each year because of it.1 By 2025 nearly 2/3 will live in water-stressed countries.2

In the developed world we take our supply for granted, flushing it away mindlessly. But BRITA’s latest ads seem to imply that since the water we use for all our purposes “comes from the same source”, it’s as we are drinking sewer water. Do you think that’s tasteless?

But if you do buy a BRITA filer, don’t expect it to protect you from anything … it doesn’t filter bacteria.

1 World Health Organization.
2 Morris BL,
Lawrence ARL, Chilton PJC, Adams B, Calow RC, Klinck BA. Groundwater and its susceptibility to degradation: a global assessment of the problem and options for management. Nairobi: United Nations Environmental Programme, 2003

This Culture Jamming ad is the opinion of the author. Brita is a trademark of Clorox Corp.

What’s really at stake here is that we have a limited amount of potable water on the planet. Pretty soon we’ll all be buying water. What will we do with all those damn plastic bottles?

Yes, we still need to cleanup the bullshit of political advertising. But how will we do that drinking vodka instead of water (and NO, that is not a solution even if it looks like the only way out).

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Covered Bridges, New Conversations

Bridging Logic Way
Old wyves tales, covered bridges and the best 19th century structural technology

In our rush to solve whatever crisis is in our face, we can trample over people, neglect our best instincts, and craft solutions worse than the problem that consumes us. I have come to believe that human conversation requires a protected passage over the deep ravines and dangerous waters of our own thought before we find the way through.

I also sense that solutions already exist, that they don’t have to be entirely invented, but, in our panic yes that’s a strong word – we have lost them. Then a friend’s evocative description of a trip through the dazzling New Hampshire foliage of early October inspired me! Of course, our thought path needs the safety of covered bridges.

I became obsessive in my search for anything about covered bridges. In 1909, the Oxford city fathers bridged “Logic Way,” a lane that carried that name from the 1300’s. As you will see from the picture, it is reminiscent of the “Bridge of Sighs” in Venice, but the “Logical Bridge” has more of ring to it and, to my mind, might lead to a living solution, not the gallows.

I found examples of bridges dating from the 14th century, as well as more proximate ancestors of the New England design from Germany. I discovered the 1852 Philippi Covered Bridge across Tygart Valley River that is still part of the US Highway system and, according to legend, the site of a secret meeting between Lincoln and Jefferson to discuss the terms of surrender before the end of the Civil War.

The Philippi Covered Bridge (1852) spans the Tygart Valley River at Philippi, West Virginia

Now onto old wives' tales. Familiar with New England seasons, town squares, bright maples and covered bridges, I am a sucker for almost any romantic notion that can be suggested, especially when the fantasy is confirmed by a heart stopping experience.

Jeffersonville VT
Very early one morning in the late fall of 1965, before Highway 89 was finished, I was speeding back to Hanover New Hampshire from Boston. Somewhere between Concord and Lebanon, I lost the road: a sudden cold snap coupled with the moisture of a slight rain, the bridge came up before I had time to adjust my speed. The car spun 180 degrees and slid 200 feet horizontally, never touching a guard rail. It was an eternal second before I reached the other side, gently nudging the car forward into a shallow drainage ditch with what speed remained.

(Click on the caption of the Jeffersonville convered bridge, or here, to take a ride across)

From that time until this morning, I believed that the purpose of the covered bridge was to save speeding fools like me - the surface temperature of the suspended roadway cooled more quickly than the ground! And with no town plows to spread sand and chemicals, a quaint roof might have saved me if luck had not been in my corner and the traffic on the road had been more than only me!

This morning I began to explore why those tight fisted old Yankees wasted all that money on fancy roofs that might have saved me if I were driving my mother’s 1962 Ford station wagon on winter roads at a dangerous speed in the early to mid 19th century, the highpoint for covered bridge construction.

So why a covered bridge? The structural strength of a rectangular box is far stronger than any one of its surfaces suspended between two points. This allowed for study bridges for transportation and trade using heavy timbers; steel I beams were not available before the Civil War. Hell, I should have known that Yankees only cared for income producing projects.

My love of words drove me to the dictionary to see if I could discover the roots of “a time, place, or means of connection or transition” - the second meaning of bridge.I discovered a hidden link, a reference to god language! ViolĂ .

Etymology: Middle English brigge, from Old English brycg; akin to Old High German brucka bridge, Old Church Slavic bruvuno beam

There it is! When building bridges, raise high the (Church) beam! Who can pronounce bruvuno? I say sing it! (Bridge also means a musical passage linking two sections of a composition). Trust in God and love for one another are like a covered bridge.

In this first posting, I have tried to lay out a few of things that I will try to do in the future: I want to look at the way that we have framed the questions, the puzzles that face us; then, try to distinguish fantasy, nostalgia, and illogic in the conversation; and finally, see where we lost the road. That might be just the first step to finding our way. Let's see.

In a conversation more than one person talks. One person talking to him or herself is not a conversation. At best it is a monologue, but rant might also apply.

Keep me honest.