Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving - "over the river and through the traffic" ...

Holidays no longer hold the same power as they once did for me. In these days of far more funerals than christenings, awareness of who is not at the table becomes painfully sharp. There's no longer a need for a children's table. Our youngest are now old enough to sit with the grownups -- it's been several years since we've needed a highchair. The next wave of babies is not yet here. We're all aging ... .

Noticing the competitiveness of everything around me today. ESPN is bringing football from every quarter of the country into our living room while on other channels are featured re-runs of the new genre of reality shows that are the epitome of "you're out" television. We've turned everything into competitions for favor, for money, for careers, for oil and stocks and bonds and elective office, for a place in the chorus line, 24-hour slot machines, for cosmetic surgery, for a spot on the catwalk, and finally, for King of the World!

Remembering the day that I sat high up in the bleachers at Edwards Field, University of California at Berkeley -- overhearing a conversation between two men who coached Special Olympic athletes who at that moment stood far below at the starting line -- in their blocks and ready for the 100 yard dash. "Working with the retarded is difficult," says one, "... you have to teach them to look down as they run. If they catch a glimpse of runners in the next lanes -- they will simply run alongside." Maybe this is a more natural way of performing -- at least before we're taught to compete."

Remember laughing some time later as I watched the San Francisco Bay To Breakers marathon with all of its craziness and color. Here were thousands of people of every size, shape, sexual orientation, skin color, wild costume, running alongside and loving it. The real runners ran far up ahead (the Kenyans, of course) seriously competing for fame and fortune. But it was the nutty ordinary folks who walked, ran at any pace, laughed and joked until they reached Footstock in Golden Gate Park and the great party that followed.

Dorian and her equally handicapped friend, Chris, are in the livingroom watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while I do the chopping and mixing in the kitchen. They're talking about their up-and-coming Special Olympics bowling tournament where they'll be lucky to break 75 out of a possible 300 but will come home bedecked with ribbons and tee shirts emblazoned with the Special Olympics logo. And every other athlete will do the same as they've done for many years.

I'm aware of the number of email pleas for contributions to organizations I respect and admire -- created by political allies whom I trust -- and am aware of the ultimate competition for power those pleas represent. If I answer them all appropriate to my trust and sense of rightness, I'll need another job or a far higher salary. I'm helpless to respond, except in a token way and with the hope that there are enough small fish like me doing what they can to support this nation in what may prove to be the final competition before we collapse into non-relevance and another more worthy national competitor moves forward to take our place in the world arena.

Is there nothing for which we are not willing to write a rule book and offer prizes?

Dance Sport as an olympic event?

Have we lost our collective First World minds?

Photo: Special Olympics swim meet. Dorian is third line in this March of the Athletes, 2005.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Worked through something of importance this weekend ... .

Beethoven's Fidelio experienced in juxtaposition with brilliant jazz violinist, Tarika Lewis, and the renown John Handy on saxophone dueled to a neat finish this weekend. What a convergence of arts and culture this was for me! I'd never have dreamed ... .

The opera was a combination of sounds and spectacle and craziness of a kind that sent me into giggles -- alone in bed late on Saturday night. The music was wonderful -- once I allowed myself to shut out the 275 pound mezzo contralto playing a "lad" in duet with a lovely delicate and svelt young blond ingenue whose father was an African American baritone in a blond/grey wig and all singing in German!

Following the libretto provided on screens on either side of the great opera house stage proved pure folly since opera is apparently not about libretto at all but about music. And casting is not about obesity but about purity of tone, stage presence, and projection. And once I stopped trying to force it to make sense -- closed my eyes and rode the waves of Beethovian music -- it all worked. But I had to work at it. There's an inescapable intellectual component that doesn't quiet easily. A major cultural difference.

This evening there was another family memorial service. This was the younger sister of Dorothy Reid Pete who died recently at the age of 90. Florence was 88. Her only daughter, Joan Tarika Lewis is a brilliant violinist -- a jazz violinist. She's toured the nation and the far east with the famous saxophonist, John Handy, who played for us this evening. It was a memorial service like no other. Tarika is active in African drumming and dance circles so the evening was filled with both as her friends joined in the celebration of her mother, Florence's, life. They were in colorful African costumes. There was a traditional Libation ceremony that reminded us all of that which binds us together across the ages.

The discovery for me was that here in this room the experience of music was purely emotional. Visceral. No thinking here. Just feeling and letting it wash over me. I could anticipate the notes before they were played. I know this. Here were both the notes and the music!

For the greater part of the evening (it was held at Geoffrey's, a smart supper club in downtown Oakland), 15 mm films from the family's archives were shown on a large screen -- while the musicians improvised.

There were scenes from their early marriage and when Tarika and her late brother were very young. Florence's husband and Tarika's father, the never-defeated light-heavyweight champion of the world, John Henry Lewis, was shown in one of his historic bouts. He died in 1974. This was truly the end of an era for their family. This is the family of Mel Reid, my late first husband and the father of our children. I'm still a celebrant when the occasion demands. This is my tribe, too.

As an aside, I can't recall the source of the saying, but it may have been Atlas who claimed that he could lift the world high in his bare hands if he only had a place to stand.

On the drive home I realized that this is what African-Creole history and culture are for me. They're my place to stand. All else flows from that.

This I know.

Photo: Don't recall the year, probably in the late Sixties. I'm in the lower right with guitar -- back to camera. The other musician is visiting from the Caribbean. Cultures blended nicely that night. These were Unitarian-Universalist friends of the Mt. Diablo Church. These were the best years just before my return to Berkeley in the early 70s.

Thank you, Donna. A reminder of how it was ... .

A dear friend and important historian dropped by for a meeting today and in the process dropped this news clipping into my hand. She'd been rumaging around in the Berkeley Main Library and run across this article. It was archived from the now extinct Berkeley Daily Gazette and is dated March 28, 1985. The words of the writer evoke such memories. The article is a reminder of life as I was living it at the time -- and rings quite true -- even in hindsight.

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