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I’m republishing this with a dedication this year to Susan Nance of Nevada City for her ‘”Pay It Forward for the Holidays” project. You can find it on Facebook.
“It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on” Joni Mitchell
It’s mid December again, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. At this time of year I look back on my relationship with perhaps the most central, unifying aspect of American culture. For ten years I’ve been on a journey that has led me to pretty much give up Christmas.
No, I don’t go around saying “Bah, Humbug.” I don’t boycott gifts or glare at the Salvation Army bell ringers. When people say, “Merry Christmas” to me I cheerfully echo it back, although Christianity is no longer my religion. I’ll say “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Solstice” too; whatever brings a smile to the person I’m greeting. It doesn’t matter, really, as long as I’m wishing…
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“In every culture in decline, the watchful ones among the slaves know that all that is genuine will be scorned or conned or cast away.” Joni Mitchell
Recently, this blurb has been circulating Facebook: “As a child I saw Tarzan almost naked, Cinderella arrived home after midnight, Pinocchio told lies, Aladdin was a thief, Batman drove over 200 miles an hour, Snow White lived in a house with 7 men, Popeye smoked a pipe and had tattoos, Pac Man ran around to digital music while eating pills that enhanced his performance, and Shaggy and Scooby were mystery solving hippies that always had the munchies. The fault is not mine! If you had this childhood and loved it, repost.”
I got a good chuckle out of this. In the days that followed my reading it, one line kept echoing in my head. Pinocchio told lies. Pinocchio told lies. Like most people I know, I was raised with the ninth commandment in mind. Yet I’ve grown so used to people—or more likely institutions–lying to me that I take it for granted. Maybe God should have used simpler language with that commandment.
Take for instance my sons’ schools. Two different middle schools, both with good reputations. One is more alternative; one is more traditional. Like most schools I’ve visited over thirty years of parenting, volunteering, and teaching, most of the faculty and staff care deeply about their students. Yet both schools lie to the parents. In the midst of a domestic war on education, I can’t help but wonder if more parents would rise to defend the institutions if the institutions respected parent and child by practicing the virtue of honesty. (For more on the war on education, see my earlier polemic “Mourning the War on Education” at https://lightcapfarm.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/mourning-the-war-on-education/.)
The schools lie about different things. One lies about volunteering, changing the very essence of the word to include the connotation mandatory. Volunteering for school fundraisers is mandatory. Meetings in the evening are mandatory. Some parents I know put the word in quotes when they use it. A public school can’t force parents to help, and it can’t single handedly change the definition of a time honored word that means people choose to come help, either for a given project or on an ongoing basis. If I’m choosing to do it, it can’t be mandatory. This language is somewhat simpler than the ninth commandment, but parents are already confused about the true meaning of volunteer. Recently the school even told parents what they could and could not wear when they volunteered, and that rankled some of them. Personally, I prefer to volunteer for people and institutions that do not lie to me. (That’s why I don’t volunteer at the community radio station any more.)
The other school is one of many that lies about vaccines, telling parents they are mandatory. (There’s that word again.) Vaccinations are mandatory in some states, but in Cali parents still have some rights in regards to their children, and one of those is called a personal exemption in the case of vaccines. No matter where you stand on the vaccine issue, the law is in place that gives parents this right. With the recent alarm about the rise in whooping cough cases, California health departments and most public schools are lying to parents, saying their children are required to get the vaccine and not mentioning the waiver.
Currently AB 499 sits on Jerry Brown’s desk. If he signs it, my 12 year old and thousands of others in Cali will be able to get injections of Gardasil without parental consent. The senators and congressfolk who passed the bill didn’t seem to mind that this means that children would be lying to their parents. After all, the parents might not be good parents; they probably lie, too, or else they might just be clueless. So the state steps in and manages the lying for the students and the parents. (If you want more information about Gardasil, one source is the page “Seriously Concerned about Gardasil” on Facebook. )
Many evenings at the farm Mr. Lightcap and I indulge in passionate political discussion. We can’t seem to help it. A recent focus of our Green-Libertarian frettings and musings could be summed up with one rhetorical question: When should the state step in and manage its people? We watched Warren Jeffs pick up his child bride to French kiss her. We thought, hmmmm. Is that a good time for the state to step in? Wasn’t Jeffs lying to her and the whole community by saying that pedophilia was a normal part of worshipping their god? Who if not the state should step in? Where does being unconventional intersect with being deviant, and who defines these things for a culture?
Perhaps in this era of cultural decline and economic malaise the meaning of the word volunteer is actually changing to include the meaning of the word mandatory. Personally I’ll dig my heels in on that one, because I like the old meaning of the word. And perhaps the state needs to step in and force sometimes lethal injections on children because the parents are so incredibly misguided. In that case, they need to change the law and follow due process. Perhaps AB 499 is a back door to making those changes.
Last night I went to see the San Francisco Mime Troupe for the 7th year in a row. Every year their theme and show is different, but every year it somehow involves how the government and corporations are lying to us. Last night, with their play “2012 The Musical,” they delved into the greasy world of the green-washed nonprofit, wisely warning their viewers that any institution—any institution—with “Inc.” in the back of its name should be watched with hawk-like eyes. Having been lied to and manipulated by both profit and non profit corporations alike, I can’t help but start tapping my foot to the old Smokey Robinson tune: “I second that emotion.”
When I was a kid I had a recording of someone reading The Emperor’s New Clothes. It came with a book, and I’d sit there for hours rereading and relistening. I couldn’t believe it got so bad that the king was actually walking down the street naked. Why didn’t anyone speak up before the little kid did? These days, voices like the kid’s and the Mime Troupe’s are few and far between, voices that dare call the emperor naked and ask for systemic change, voices that dare ask our elected employees to be honest with us, voices that dare ask for truth and not lies in advertising. What will it take, how bad will it get before we all dig our heels in and tell our schools, our government, and our corporations: Enough! I don’t know to what extent I’ll find the courage. But I think I can manage the tiny clear voice I remember on the phonograph: “Mama, he doesn’t have any clothes on. Mama, why isn’t anyone saying anything? “
Misusing words and circumventing laws are two things that hurt my heart. But the dishonesty the system has us swimming in makes my soul ache. “Maybe that’s what souls are for,” John Trudell writes, “to take the hurt the heart can’t take.” I hope the next time I have the courage to speak truth in a clear, tiny voice that one of you will speak up with me. If we all speak together, our voice will not be tiny, and our message will be crystal clear. I’ll hold out some hope for that for a while yet.
from the archives: a poem from the 1980s–the theme still “animates my life”, as Utah used to like to say.
Hungry for Brothers
I long for that man in my periphery: elusive on his way to shoot hoops or neck with his girl (I know from the way his clothes smell in the hamper the next day). They are gone now, my brothers, and I am insatiable. I long for strong platonic arms around me: the press of the bicep encircling my neck as I lift my feet in fraternal surrender.
In Dick’s truck, sandwiched between his sweat and Dennis’s “Who the fuck cares what you think?” language, I feel at peace. They’ve taken me golfing, and on the way home: “God damn it, girl, you need to speed up your game, man.” Then from Dick: “She’s doing fine, she hasn’t played in months.” They do not wonder why I’m quiet, mind focused on smells of brothers long gone. The talk turns to baseball: the Lions’ record, their hometown memories. I groan as a sister would, and earn “the squeeze”–shoulders plowing into me, stopping at the threshold of pain only brothers intuit. On my deck, Dennis bitches about American beer and Japanese cars. We gossip about friends who cannot share our triangle of afternoon.
One night at the Crazy Horse I watch Tuck. His broad mustache, peach shirt, thoughtful way as he drives the darts to the board. “Teach me,” I demand, and I know he will, though we are strangers. For the first three rounds he fetches my darts, too, until I start to bounce up fast for them, the little sister. We warm up quite a while, but I think it’s the game. Then he tells me: “20, 19, 18, to Bull’s Eye: you start. Remember you want a cluster, consistency. ” Until he earns Bull’s Eye to my fifteen he gently coaches me. He’s sorry to beat me badly, is bewildered by my levity: Coached by a surrogate brother in the smoky belly of my hometown.
When I am five, my elder brother returns home to ask Dad for cash. Hurrying to my room, I scour every detail for one possession to offer him. Finally I find something that barely suffices: a pocket sized, army green transistor radio. He feigns politeness. “Nice,” then turns to Dad as my face burns shame.
Out on the concrete pad at twilight, my second (still older) brother teaches me hoops. “He’s a big man on the high school team,” Dad says: “This is an honor for a ten year old girl with only one good eye.” “Low to the ground, switch hands, between your legs.” Dribbling, lay ups, free throws: I smell brother sweat build in the air. I would sacrifice any child thing to drink in that smell. “Keep practicing–30 minutes,” and he is gone to watch T.V. with Dad. Dusk turns lonely as my momentum dies, sweat traces leaving the air.
I catch that scent again, twenty years later, when Tom escorts his lover back to our crowded table at Mad Dogs and Englishmen’s Pub. “You,” he points to me, “Are next.” Studying the beads of sweat on his sculpted face, I grow anxious for the music to start. It is easy to let him lead. His huge hands guide mine through the curves of swing. The saxophone blares. Soon I am pure intuition. As the sax crescendos he arches my back, holds my head an inch from the floor in a net of brotherhood.
Most men don’t know what I’m searching for as I scrutinize their faces, lean into them to catch their scents. Finding a lover has never been a problem. Brothers take rooting out, discovering. Their women grow angry unless they’ve molted the shrew-skin our mother’s sewed onto us for our own survival. Despite their chagrin, I continue to root out my brothers, play with them, feed them, sometimes, even, understand them. I learned young that brothers disappear. After the game, the darts, the dance: I grow hungry again.