The Caged Bird Sings of Freedom

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill / of things unknown but longed for still / and his tune is heard on the distant hill / for the caged bird sings of freedom”

I was woken up this morning by an alert on my phone informing me that the poet Maya Angelou had passed away at the age of 86. I had no idea who she was until the mid-90’s when I heard her voice declaiming the words to the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in the Buckshot LeFonque song of the same name. I wasn’t a fan of poetry, though I loved words, having decided that prose was more my speed, but that song, those words, they held me. I felt a lump in my throat and a tightness in my chest, and for the first time a poem made me feel. That seed germinated in me and a year later, I watched Il Postino, the Italian film about a lovelorn postman on a remote island who befriended the exiled poet, Pablo Neruda. The film had Neruda’s poetry scattered throughout it, and upon leaving the theater I resolved to go to the library and check out a book of poetry.

 After  5 or 6 years I found myself miserable as an employee of a chain bookstore that shall remain nameless. Stuck at the help desk on the late evening shift, I started writing poems, mostly trifling stuff, some terrible love poetry and such. But I felt my spirit rising. Around the same time, I heard Dr Angelou’s “I Rise” and once again I felt something. It’s the rare poem that describes your life as you are living it right now, regardless of where or how you are living that life. It spoke to me, standing with armfuls of books and explaining to customers that I couldn’t help them to find that “book with the yellow cover that was on your front table about four months ago”. So I did, I rose, I quit that job, I wrote more poetry, I looked at the world around me, searching for beauty and meaning (as we all do, I suppose) and trying to put that beauty and meaning down on paper. On scraps of paper, in battered spiral bound notebooks, I put down thoughts unfinished, poems completed, ideas and observations.  Until one day, I just stopped. I have never been as prolific as I was in that period, words have never come as easily as they did then. I lived a different life, was born as a different man for a short time, and my mother was Maya Angelou, and my father was Pablo Neruda.

 It’s been awhile since I read a poem that made me feel. But I did feel something when I read the news this morning. In the same way that I realized that my parents were real people as I grew older, I learned that Maya Angelou was a real woman with a real past, and not just the emblem she had become in the popular imagination (of dignified black womanhood? Of exotic black wisdom? Take your pick, she was many things to many people). I didn’t know about her past, in the same way I don’t know everything about my parents, but it doesn’t lessen the effect she had on my relationship with words. Good bye, Maya Angelou, I hope these poorly crafted words don’t offend, but you accept them as you go to your just reward.

Peri-

The prefix “peri-” means “around or about, as in pericardial (around the heart) or perinatal (around birth) or peri… dadinal? I’m approaching an inflection point in my life, my own little singularity. Not long from now, I will have another person in my life; someone who needs me; who will love me, look up to me, hurt me. I am dreading and looking forward to this moment, in equal measure. In fact, part of the reason I revived the blog is to note down the experience, and chronicle the humbling. Tune in to share the experience, and to laugh at me from a safe distance.

Cos

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We had the pleasure of taking some friends to see Bill Cosby the other night at the Paramount Theater in Oakland.  Dr Mrs My Wife and I had seen him once before, at the SF Jazz Center, where he’d done a two hour set for a fund raiser. I had been seeing him make more appearances on television, and it seemed like he was building up towards something bigger. And now here we were in front of the Paramount, watching the fruits of all this set building.

The Paramount itself is one of the old movie palaces that are scattered around the Bay Area. It’s a relic of a bygone era, all gilt edges and Art Deco flourishes.  It’s a beautiful venue for a show, and that night it was filled to the rafters for the man, himself. Half the crowd were young folks, “Cos-playing” in Cosby sweaters (to quote my friend Andrew); the other half were older folks, who’d no doubt followed Bill Cosby since he was playing Vegas in the 60’s. It was kind of heartwarming to see so many different kinds of people gathered together (I think this is a symptom of my own advancing age, but speculation on that will have to wait for another post).

Cosby himself is not quite the man he was, though he is still funny. He reminds me of footage I have seen of Groucho Marx in his later years, doing interviews (in this case on Bill Cobsy’s talk show). He’s bemused, slightly bored, and incredibly sharp beneath it all, as he rambles seemingly aimlessly. He also reminds me of my old man, who, it turns out, has been lifting material from Cosby for as long as I have been alive. He sat heavily in his folding chair, in a hoody and sweat cargo pants, holding court like a man in his own living room, occasionally breaking out of his stories to heckle the crowd. Just another evening in our living room.

Dad’s Haircut

I cut this man's hair for the first time in my life and he's got nothing bad to say about it
I cut this man’s hair for the first time in my life and he’s got nothing bad to say about it

Like most children, my first haircuts were at the hand of my mother. I sat on a chair in front of the rococo mirror in the entryway of our apartment in New York, an old bed sheet around my neck, and asked my mother for Tom Selleck’s haircut. In the era of Magnum PI, and with my curly hair, it was my best guess at what could be done. Those were the best haircuts of my life, certainly.

Flash forward last week. Dr Mrs My Wife had decamped to Hawaii for a week, leaving me with my parents, who have been visiting ahead of … well, let’s just leave that news for a different post. Suffice to say, while it was nice to have the old folks around, I found myself looking for a project to occupy them. Fortunately, I was well overdue for a haircut, and so I asked my mother to oblige.

Nowadays, my haircuts are much simpler than in my Magnum PI days. Armed with a pair of clippers, Dr Mrs My Wife has been cutting my hair very short for the past few years.  So, I asked my mother to oblige. Predictably, my father decided he needed a haircut also. Somehow that involved “supervising” – which is to say, literally standing over my mother’s shoulder and pointing out individual hairs. The simplicity of the haircut worked in my favor, and we were done fairly quickly. Mom takes things very seriously, and does her best. She brings an artist’s fine touch, even with a pair of clippers in your adult son’s bathroom, even with your husband looking over your shoulder and commenting. She still managed to make it clean and sharp.

Then it was Dad’s turn, but he didn’t want my mother to cut his hair, so it fell to me. My father’s head is like a sculpture of my head sent from the future. Our hairlines receding to the same point, sparse on top with a tendency to go all Larry Fine on the sides, and peppered with gray; it’s a before and after picture with 30 years in between.  I approached it with some trepidation, partly because I didn’t want to make Dad look completely bad, but also because of his tendency to mock mercilessly. Starting with the biggest guard I had, I worked around the sides of his head, making sure to get the stray hairs. The dark cloth in the sink, which had been camouflaged my dark hair, was now lit up with salt and pepper tufts.

My father was strangely quiet. As I cut his hair, I got a rare opportunity to look at him up close, from angles I didn’t typically see from. He wasn’t focussed, and hence not busy making mischief. Instead, he was quiet, staring into the mirror (with fear?), clenching and unclenching his jaw (a habit I have found myself picking up).  His face was softer, more doughy than I remembered it, with more fine lines than I remembered. Hie eyes near hidden in drooping lids, with the same impish flicker I knew so well. I was overcome with a tender feeling towards this old bear who had shrewdly, clumsily, purposefully, accidentally helped raise me to the man I am today. I had a vision of shaving his face in 10 years with a grandchild or two waiting to play with jiddu Awad.

10 minutes later, the moment had passed. Dad’s hair was cut, and not too badly, he was smiling broadly, his missing bicuspid more present than when it was there. I cleaned up the salt a pepper fuzz in the sink and we all went back upstairs to the present.

12 Years a Slave

I’m late to this party, having gotten out of the habit of watching films in the theater, but I finally watched “12 Years a Slave” last night with my parents. It’s been a long while since a movie affected me like this, and left me so gob smacked. The entire time I could hear my mother sniffling next to me in the mostly empty theater, I could feel my heart pounding, alternating feelings of stomach churning tension and burning rage.

The film itself was technically amazing, the words, the silence, the direction; all of them served the story to an astonishing degree. I was immersed in the American South in the 19th century. The heat, the humidity, the closeness, the insects – I felt it all, and served to amplify the shameful, dehumanizing ordeal of slavery.  The physical aspect of it was the most obvious, but the slow erosion of Solomon Northup’s spirit is, in a sense, the worst aspect of it. The lowering of a proud, free man to a toadying, fearful husk was precipitous, and terrifying. All the bravado in the world can’t blind you to the fact that anyone can be broken. All it takes it time.

The reflection of the past in the present is depressing. The barely suppressed rage, the sadness, the shame. I have no idea why this country is alight from sea to shining sea.  I can’t fathom how anyone could deny what this was, or how terrible it was. I can’t write anymore about this.

24 Hours of Happy

I am at least 4 months behind, but after last weekend’s Oscars (and what seems like a lot of hearing it in the background), I became sort of obsessed with Pharrell’s “Happy”. It’s peppy and upbeat in a way that I typically don’t like at all, but something about it really crawled into my mind and sank its claws deep in my brain. So I went in search of it on the web and came across the 24 hour video for the song, at http://24hoursofhappy.com/.

To be honest, it was sort of a revelation. The idea, in a nutshell, is to play the song repeatedly and allow people to just show up and dance to it, and then leave at the end of the song. At the top of each hour, Pharrell sings the song and makes whatever moves he wants, followed by just random civilians dancing on the streets of Los Angeles. I assume it’s LA because where else would someone be dancing while a steadycam backed up in front of them while bystanders politely stepped out of the way, or walked around?

The people that showed up must have signed up somewhere and gotten the word to show up at midnight or 1a or 3am or 3p or whenever, and made up an amazing cross section of humanity. Good dancers, bad dancers, children, old dandies – you saw people you felt you could have seen on your block, in your school, or on your commute. The fact that they were just regular folks, as opposed to professional dancers or models, singing and dancing joyously was like a thick, red underline for the song and what it represents. There were a few celebrities in there; Magic Johnson, for instance, grooving a little awkwardly through his mansion; the kids from Odd Future. But for the most part it was regular folks.

After watching the first two or three hours (I told you I was obsessing), I started to notice things. For instance, there are some amazing dancers out there. These are people who are either trained or just gifted with  moves from on high. These people almost never mouth the words to the song. That is left to either the terrible dancers, or the folks who don’t dance at all, but just walk towards the camera with shy smiles on their faces.  Lip syncing is also the purview of people who think they’re great dancers, but are average at best or horrendous at worst. There are small children (some of whom were out waaaaaay past their bedtimes), who just shook and stomped with the primal energy that only a kid can have, and were followed by indulgent moms, clapping and saying “go ahead, baby!”.  There were the ladies, who mostly dressed to impress (though not always tastefully), and had a tendency to “sexy dance”. This involves a lot of tossing of the hair and touching ones own face, along with some gyration. There were people dancing on their own, or with their pets, or with their friends/lovers. And all of them seemed just so happy to be in it! They were all beauitful because all of them were dancing or moving with joy. 

Which is an amazing thing to see in a music video, when you think about it. Real happiness. Real joy. Real beauty that seems to spring from within. I don’t know if Pharrell (and his team of minions) meant for this to happen, but they achieved something that you don’t get to see very often and certainly not in such large amounts. It’s sort of art, it’s very happy.

The Library

I read this over at Medium and thought it’d be interesting to folks. It’s a short memoir in libraries and library books. I have only recently been back in a public library after a hiatus of some 25 years. Well it’s not really a public library, it was  a the library at UC Berkeley. As you can imagine, it’s fairly bland, full of college age people, and it’s nothing like the libraries of my youth.

I am referring – as I’m sure you know – about the 67th St Branch of the New York Public Library. It was the closest branch to my elementary school, and we were taken there on a field trip. I fell in love with the place, with all the books (for free!), with the globes and the especially with the table. It was no ordinary table, mind you. It was glass topped and filled with something like the pink slime from Ghostbusters II. You could spin the table top and it would spin the viscous, heavy fluid inside. Mesmerizing…

I miss it, the smell, the quiet in the middle of the day, the warmth. I wonder what it looks like now.

Another Gap

I spent this afternoon sitting in a chaise at my dentist’s office. My dentist – Dr Wang, he’s really a very nice young fellow – had my lower front tooth in a pair of pliers and was working it side to side. His assistant kept referring to my tooth as #25, so for now I’ll also refer to it as #25. It’s much more personal that way … but back to the action. Dr Wang was working the tooth back and forth, but, because of the way it sits in front of the two teeth that are supposed to be on either side of it, he couldn’t rotate to get it to loosen further. I had my eyes closed and was trying to think of how humorous this must look from the outside, a comical procedure, dentist yanking with all this might, foot on the edge of the seat for leverage.  It took more than 20  minutes of work on #25, after which I had gauze in my mouth and thoughts of Bill Cosby in my head (“obi-KAYbe!”).

The reason my perfectly good #25 was being removed is because I am getting orthodontic work done. Yes, at this late hour, with my balding pate and my expanding waist, I am getting braces – well, Invisalign, but it all amounts to much the same thing. Lest you think my vanity got the better of me, please rest assured, the only reason I’m going to such great lengths is because I have been told that my long term dental integrity is at risk. So, is it ok to let one (or #25) die, to safeguard the many? I hope so. I hope it’s not ultimately the cost of my vanity that’s being paid by poor #25. For tonight, I am aware of the gap in my lower jaw, where #25 used to keep the other teeth company.

my glasses! I can't see without my glasses!