Thursday, January 17, 2019

WHAT A GOOD BOY AM I

I was reminded last night of a project I have had in mind for years--the story of "a very English Childhood." I wrote a few lines this morning...


My earliest memories are not actual memories at all, they are memories of images in the family album that, aside from being the vicar’s wife, was for many years my mother’s primary passion. It was a huge, oversized tome with a dark blue cover and a glossy red spine, containing seemingly hundreds of pages—many of them filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, birth certificates and such, and many of them blank, awaiting further family news. It was a special treat to sit with her from time to time, turning the pages and listening to her stories. This, along with treasured moments in the big rectory kitchen, was perhaps the closest I ever came to knowing her.
There are three images that stand out in my memory of those moments. The first is a sepia tone photograph, a little faded, of my sister Flora and myself posed on our grandfather’s knee. I am perhaps a year and a half old, and my sister three. She is wearing a pretty smock dress, and her dark hair is bunched in loose curls around her head. I am in shorts and a white shirt. We are both wearing “smile please” smiles. My grandfather is the picture of elegance. He wears a tweet suit and a wing-collar shirt, with an ascot fastened by a pearl pin. His walrus moustache is neatly trimmed, and his eyes are smiling in harmony with his lips. Being now a grandfather myself, I understand the look of grandpaternal joy that his face and his body posture as well as his embracing arms express.
This is my father’s father. He died quite soon after posing for that picture, a few months later, of a heart attack, I think, on a business trip to New Zealand. He was a distinguished electrical engineer, mentioned in a professional journey alongside Marconi and nine other prominent innovators as one of the greatest pioneers in harnessing of electrical power for industrial and domestic use. I never knew him.
I never knew my father’s mother, either. She died long before I was born, when he was only thirteen years old and, as the oldest of three brothers, he and his sister Nancy were left with a bereft father—and responsibilities far beyond their age. My grandfather remarried. The grandmother I knew for just a few years before her own death was Granny Murcott, so named after the grand house she occupied at the far end of the village in my father’s parish, where our border collie, Hank, would run to fetch us children bags of sweets…
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The second image is another photograph which does indeed feature Hank. He was a handsome and strikingly intelligent dog—witness his long trots to the other side of the village to bring us sweets!—who was a friend and guardian to my sister and myself in the course of our earliest years. I think to remember the time before I could walk, when Hank was taller and stronger and far more mobile than myself, reaching up to bury my little hands in his soft fur. That could be so. Here I am, in this picture, lying on my belly on a blanket in the garden of the vicarage in the small village of Holywell, just outside the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne where I was born, and Hank is sitting upright right beside me, standing guard.
(As an aside, I note that I have always been inordinately proud of being a “Geordie”—a person born Tyneside, as a Cockney is distinguished by being born within the sound of Bow Bells. Having left the city with my family at the age of two, my claim is perhaps tenuous, and if I have the temerity to introduce myself as a Geordie to anyone from my native England, it will not be long before they point out that I lack the distinctive northern accent, largely unintelligible to anyone but other Geordies. I excuse myself with the joke that my accent, after many years in the United States, has finally made it halfway across the Atlantic.)
The third image is a newspaper clipping from the local Newcastle newspaper, dated somewhere around 1936, the year of my birth. It features a picture of my father, then a curate at the parish of St. Cuthbert’s, where I was born, bent over a treadle fretsaw, working on his lifelong hobby, working with wood. Trained as a pattern-maker in his pre-college days, he never lost his love of making things, often as gifts in the days when money was scarce and the generosity of gift-giving was a more personal expression than it is today. Here, intent on his work, he is wearing his clerical cassock with its narrow white dog collar—a token of his status as a “high church” Anglican. The wider the collar, in those days, the lower—i.e. the more Protestant—the church.
The caption in bold letters above this image reads “Hungry, Desperate, for Want of Two Shillings and Sixpence a Week”, and the article is about my father’s dedication to the needs of the poor people in his parish—mostly coal miners and their families suffering from severe deprivation in post-Depression days. My mother used to joke that it was Harry, her husband, who looks hungry and desperate; and indeed he does seem gaunt and harrowed. He was already suffering from the stomach problems that plagued him for his entire life, and for which no diagnosis ever discovered the cause. None of the many doctors he consulted—one of them in distant Switzerland—was able to provide relief, and my sister and I grew up with a father who was in constant pain.
(Another aside: my father, who had studied psychology at Cambridge, was a big believer in psychosomatic symptoms, and I have always wondered whether his skeptical mind was in conflict with his profession of religious faith. I know he struggled with his belief in the God he dedicated his life to serve, and suspect a spiritual torment at the root of his physical distress).
But again, I get ahead of myself. Bottom line, it was concern for my father’s health that led the doctor’s insistence that he leave the coal-dusty air of Newcastle and head south for better air.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

RAIN

You can almost hear the Earth breathe a sigh of relief as she soaks in the rainfall from the last few days, and continuing today and (so my iPhone says) into tomorrow. Is it enough to end the years-long drought that has left us panting for hydration? I suspect not. But am still grateful to look down from our windows over the city of Hollywood and watch the next storm approach. A gift from the universe. Well, at least from Mother Nature!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

THE BILL FALLS DUE

I was Dean at Otis Art Institute in 1978, the year that California's Prop. 13 was approved by voters. My daughter, 6 years old, was enrolled in a Los Angeles School District elementary school, She was at the time a year or so younger than her son is today; he is enrolled at the same school as she was then. Yesterday, his teacher was among the thousands who went out on strike.

Like many who ardently opposed Prop. 13 back in 1978, I foresaw the rapid degradation of what was once perhaps the best education system in the country. Since then, as was entirely predictable, our schools have been increasingly strangled by the paucity of funds. In the 1990s, along came the charter schools--affording a way out for those who could afford the "choice" and, not incidentally, gobbling up the increasingly scarce resources of the school system. As an op-ed piece by Miriam Pawel in today's New York Times suggests, the current teachers's strike results from the damage charters have inflicted.

It's not quite "privatization", but it's related. You could even claim that it's privatization in disguise. No matter how well-intentioned, the charter schools benefit the privileged--the well-educated, the affluent, those with the social, cultural and political advantages that drive their expectations for their children's education. For the poor, the brown, the black who share their aspirations, that social and political platform is less well-established, less attainable. Already eroded in consequence of Prop. 13 and the ethos that it fostered, the resources for a public school system that is meant to serve all the citizens of Los Angeles are siphoned off to benefit a few.

It's a sad spectacle to see an education system that was once the envy of other states now ranked so low. My sympathies lie with the teachers. I believe they are striking for much more than the personal advantage of a salary increase--which they richly deserve. They are striking for a fair shake for every young person in this city and a restoration of our schools to their former prestige. We have been short-changing our next generation of Americans for too long, and the results have become painfully evident in the form of an increasingly poorly educated, poorly informed electorate. It's not a record to be proud of.

Monday, January 14, 2019

EXISTENTIAL QUESTIONS

Here's the question that has been lately on my mind: Am I done with writing?

It popped up again this morning in meditation and I mulled it over without coming to any clear conclusion. It's a deeply troubling question because it's how I have defined myself since... well, since the age of 12, when I decided that I wanted to be a writer. When people ask me, noting the indisputable evidence of my now advanced years, whether I'm retired, I have always responded--and not solely in jest--that writers never retire.

And yet... and yet... The part of me that's missing these days is the part the feels the urgent drive to write. It's something that every artist, every creative person will recognize, that feeling that if I'm not doing it, something is not right. It's not guilt so much as a sense of incompletion, an un-ease, a sense that I have not done today what I was meant to do. But in recent days it has begun to feel more like guilt--and guilt, in my view (along with near its cousin, self-pity), is one of those negative emotions that need some serious internal debate.

A contributing factor, surely, is my recent experience with an essay I agreed to write that turned out to be a great deal more demanding than I had expected--and, eventually, deeply unsatisfying. My initial mistake was to jump to a conclusion as to what was being asked of me, and to work long and hard toward that goal; a misjudgment that was compounded by my obsession--especially over the holiday season--with a deadline and my impatience to get ahead with the project before receiving all the information that I'd need.

I have had a similar experience only a couple of times over a long professional career, when what I have written in response to a commission has disappointed the expectations of the person who requested it. It's the worst of feelings, and in this instance I was left with the determination never again to accept a commission unless it was clearly defined in advance as something I myself felt driven to do, and certainly, least of all, for the promised fee--even though that was not the motivation in this case. I need to pay more attention to the hunger of my ego, which has been perhaps too easily seduced by the flattery implied such requests.

But I'm still left with the bigger question. Am I done with writing altogether? In the past, there has always been something that sets me off--an art show, a book, a movie, a political event, or merely something in my personal life that needs to be addressed. Demands it. Those who know me well are familiar with--perhaps even tired of hearing--the adage that I cite on every possible occasion: How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say? Writing has always been my way of coming to understand myself and the world around me. It's not just a matter of "self-expression", but rather a much more existential challenge to define experience, to find out who and where I am in the world at any given moment.

This essay is evidence, of course, that this impulse has not totally abandoned me. But I have been noticing that it requires a greater effort to find it--and a still greater effort to respond. I could, for example, have perfectly well spared myself the review I posted a few days ago about the book by Michelle Obama. Few people in the world--well, actually, no one other than myself!--would have noticed its absence. I was much moved yesterday at Disney Hall by the Phillip Glass symphony, "Lodger," conducted by the composer John Adams with an extraordinary performance by the African singer Angélique Kidjo--but I can live without feeling the compulsion to write about it, as I might have done in the past, in order to "know what I think."

It seems, then, that I no longer feel the pressing need to process my experience in the act of writing. Or am I simply being lazy, I ask myself? (If it were just laziness, I respond, then surely the guilt would be kicking in--but I don't feel it...) And the next existential question, as yet unanswered is this: If it's true that I'm done writing, then... what's next?

Friday, January 11, 2019

FIRST LADY

I learned a lot, reading Michelle Obama's Becoming. I learned, first--being neither of these two myself--something about being a woman and being black. Ms. Obama--I can't bring myself to call her by her first name, which would feel presumptuous; nor by her last alone, which would feel cold--is unsparingly honest and deeply personal in exploring both these fundamental aspects of her life.
I learned, too, something about growing up in modest circumstances on the South Side of Chicago, at a time, to be sure, preceding the tragic, daily gun violence we hear about today, but a time when even middle class black status meant lesser educational opportunity and greater social insecurity. (Curiously--and I thought about this often as I read--I visited the South Side during her early teenage years as I worked on a research project into the life and work of the African American artist Charles White, who was brought up in that area in the 1920s). As Ms. Obama describes it in eloquent and compelling detail, it required the loving, often exacting support of a close family and community, as well as an abundance of grit and determination on her own part, to emerge from that circumstance as she did--an enormously self-confident, accomplished, and compassionate human being.

As for being a woman and being black, she is honest--though without self-pity--about the obstacles she had to face as she navigated her way through her undergraduate days at Princeton and later Harvard Law School, and landed a job at a prestigious Chicago law firm where she first met... well, you know who. The "becoming" in this part of her story is the transition from girl to woman, from the security of a protective African American community to a world where the privileges of white and male most often went unquestioned, where she confronted herself constantly with the question: Am I good enough? She invites us to accompany her through a daunting series of "firsts"--first woman to, first black woman to...--as she works through sometimes agonizing doubts and critical self-appraisal with unfailing and disarming honesty. We feel her inner struggle even as we admire her brilliant success.

As honest with herself as she is with her reader, Ms. Obama leads us through the early stages of a relationship and marriage which are extraordinary only because of the outsize character of its two protagonists. They experience the same illusions and disappointments as the rest of us, the same moments of shared bliss and the same nasty marital disputes. Together, like so many couples in America today, they struggle with their desire for children and the refusal of nature to collaborate without medical intervention. With the eventual joy of motherhood, she confronts the dilemma of so many women who are constrained to make the choice between family and professional prospects. With the growing realization of her husband's political aspirations, she has to find within herself the willingness to make huge sacrifices--career, privacy, family life--in order to accommodate the potential that she sees in him. We find her torn between personal happiness and supporting her husband in the fulfillment of his goals.

And finally, once this man has stepped, against all odds, into the highest office to which any politician could aspire, once he moves into the Oval Office and his family into the White House, she invites us to accompany her as she learns to become something else again, adjusting her first obligation as the mother of two growing girls to those of the--first black!--First Lady of the United States. Through her eyes, we catch riveting glimpses into what it means to live in the presidential bubble, surrounded constantly by men with guns and the eyes of the curious, and required to accept both adulation and vilification with equal grace.

Becoming is an eminently readable book by a wholly admirable woman. While its background is of necessity the grand canopy of world history, it remains an intensely personal account of a remarkable journey--a journey that starts in modest origins and ends, provisionally at least, at the peak of fame and power. She leaves the reader wishing her well, and confident that she still has much to contribute to the country that, no matter the personal sacrifice, she has served so well.