Monthly Archives: March 2006

Sucked in by Idol

Posted on by

Okay, I admit it. I watch American Idol each week. I can probably name on less than one hand the TV series I’ve ever watched regularly as an adult: Roseanne, The Daily Show, American Idol. There, I did it with two fingers left to type with. I’m just not a big TV watcher. So why Idol?

This is my second season watching the show. The first season I remained oblivious that the show even existed. By the second season I’d heard about someone winning the first season and it gave me another reason to sneer at American popular culture. Mind you, I never tuned in to the show, not even through the third season when I started spotting articles about some of the contestants in newspapers and magazines. The whole thing just struck me as so banal, emphasizing the worst aspects of the music industry and the most boring kind of music on the airwaves today.

Last year, Jojo and I started watching during the audition trials. We became ironic fans of the show, feigning indignation at Simon Cowell, being shocked when one of our favorites got ousted, feeling heartfelt sympathy for the touching stories of the contestants. Every so often, though, a genuine comment would sneak in. There were some truly talented people on the show, and I felt I learned things about that type of music performance from watching the show.

Our friend Teresa Tudury started coming up to watch with us. Teresa and I, both singer-songwriters, would listen with a critical ear to both the performances and the critiques. Neither of us are pop stylists, and we kept commenting that most of the best musicians we knew would never stand a chance on the show. How reflective of anything real or meaningful could it be? On the other hand, you had millions of people watching a show about music in people’s lives. What’s not to love? The show was getting under my skin.

This year there are some incredible singers on the show. I have about 5 favorites, and it’s fantastic to see what they’re going to belt out each week. I only rarely vote, but apparently this week there were over 35 million votes cast. Even allowing for people voting for multiple contestants, that’s a lot of viewers for this show that basically stresses taking your art seriously, working hard at it, and doing what you love. Lately I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible that over time American Idol could have a more significant impact on American culture than we’ve imagined.

When I was 16 the youth orchestra I played in toured Germany. We spent a week in Berlin, where my friend Carolyn and I stayed with a couple and their two young girls in a small apartment. One of the most shocking things to me about the whole trip was watching the family gather around the television each night, turn on the singalong show, and just sing at the top of their lungs for the whole half-hour. They weren’t being ironic or self-conscious, they weren’t sneering at the polka band on the tube, they were just having fun singing together. That may have been the first time I understood what a different, and more central, role music plays in other cultures.

Sure, Idol is all about marketing. The commercial aspects of the show — like how they milk 12 songs into 2 hours of television — drive me crazy, and have more than once made me swear it off. Even the celebrity appearances by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Barry Manilow can be seen as no more than savvy career moves, though of course it’s all for the love of music, right? The infighting between the judges is almost assuredly a calculated publicity stunt, to keep drama in the show and also increase the show’s media hype. There is a lot of artifice in American Idol.

And yet, and yet. It is always interesting seeing what feedback the singers get from the judges (though I find Paula Abdul mostly worthless). You can see the development of talent as these young artists refine their skills, learn what song choices to make for their audience, and figure out how to be themselves while also being the best performers they can be. What if American Idol’s audience learned from this how to develop their own talent, and become better singers and artists themselves? What if it raised the bar across the board for music performance in this country, while simultaneously encouraging more young people to go into the arts and work hard at it? We could have a true musical renaissance in this country.

Anyway, that is the hope, the wild card possibility, that the American Idol phenomenon raises for me. That is why I continue to be sucked in by the show week after week. (By the way, scientific testing shows that the best snack food to eat while watching is strawberries and chocolate covered pretzels.) It makes me unreasonably happy to think of so many millions of Americans sitting in front of their televisions every week watching people sing. Maybe someday we’ll sing right along with them.

Conversation with my father

Posted on by

Yesterday I sacrificed a half-day’s work to go meet my father for lunch in San Rafael. We do this occasionally, meeting more or less halfway between our homes: he in Oakland, me on the Sonoma coast. Actually, it’s a longer drive for me than for him, but I don’t begrudge an old man his 15 minute handicap. I say I sacrificed half a day, but that’s only part of what it feels like to see my dad. After his heart attack 10 years ago, and especially after last year’s carotid artery dredging operation, I feel lucky for all the time I get to spend with him.

My dad and I have a historic closeness that is based more on character similarities than actual time spent together. He was a doctor with a busy private practice while my sisters and I were growing up, and the times I remember being with him the most all orbit around his work: some Saturday mornings he’d choose one or two of us to accompany him on his rounds of the hospitals in downtown Oakland. I have very clear memories of the nurses stations at all the old hospitals on “Pill Hill”: Merritt, Peralta, Providence. After he was done visiting patients we’d go get a hot dog somewhere, visit one of Oakland’s stately old parks and climb on the train cars, or go down to the Marina docks and look at all the boats. I remember one day in 1968 when he took me with him to a car dealership on Broadway and bought a new white Camaro convertible. My head barely made it over the countertop, and I watched the transaction carefully. He paid for the car with a check, because he didn’t want to reveal his financial particulars on any credit application. The man asked for his phone number and my dad got that annoyed look of suffering fools, and gave the man a bogus number. I didn’t blow his cover.

He was and is a very private man. He keeps his cards close to his chest, to the point of detriment in my opinion. Though we had an easy cameraderie, it was contingent on me not asking more than he could give. The first time I ever remember him saying he loved me was after my mom’s big 60th birthday bash, and I was driving because he was rip-roaring drunk. Even then, I said I loved him first just to see what he would do.

I come from a medical family. My dad’s father had been a Navy doctor, overseeing the building of Haiti’s first hospital among other things. His mother had been a nurse. He and his two brothers all went to medical school, and the one that didn’t make it through paid heavily for his failure. My mother was a physical therapist when she met my dad. Almost all my parents’ friends were doctors and their wives. When I was growing up, you just didn’t question the weight of authority that put on his opinion about all things having to do with health and, incidentally, life in general.

This presented a huge problem for me as a young adult, because of all my siblings I was the one who most wanted to go into the healing professions, but I wasn’t interested in the Western medical model and I also wanted to avoid conflict with my father. My solution was to drop out entirely and explore the lunatic fringe (my father’s opinion of my pursuits) until I found some way to satisfy my own ambitions that wasn’t in direct or obvious opposition to everything my dad stood for.

All these years I have been keeping a bit of a gloss on what I do when I speak to my parents. They don’t particularly want to know about anything they don’t already know about, don’t understand it when I do tell them, and forget the details soon after I’ve explained anyway. It’s a loss that I feel keenly, but it’s a compromise that allows me their generalized love and support, and allows them the love of their daughter without having to work too hard for it.

So I was surprised when my father, over lunch yesterday, asked me point blank if I still had my music distribution business, and if I was doing anything else for money. I took a deep breath and said yes, I do have another job, and it’s helping people look at their dreams. I love it, I said, and I’m good at it, and people pay me well for it. To my further surprise, my father replied, “Then do it.”

My father then admitted that he had only gotten halfway through the copy of Jung’s Memories, Dreams, and Reflections that I’d given him for his birthday a couple years back, before getting so disgusted he couldn’t continue. I told him I thought the biggest problem with Jung was Jungians, and he readily agreed and we had a shared chuckle.

Thus followed the kind of conversation I have always wanted to have with my father: a professional conversation. I learned more about his training as a neurologist where he had had to do several stints in psychiatry. He told me that he hated it because you had to explain why you’d given a patient a particular diagnosis, when for him it was more of an intuitive leap to see what was the matter with someone. His solution was to focus on neurology, where the focus was on organic and specific functions rather than on behaviors and emotions.

We talked about dreams and dream research, and I told him about the conference I’m speaking at in June, in a panel on dream incubation. He understood that I also don’t suffer fools, and that was reassuring to him. He appreciated why I choose to help people through pastoral counseling rather than from a clinical perspective. What’s more, and what was really revelatory for me, was he agreed that it was a smart idea on my part.

To have lived and worked for 25 years without this kind of approval from my dad has been heartbreaking at times, but has always fueled my resolve that I knew what I was doing even if he didn’t. I had come to accept that the kind of understanding I longed for was not going to happen, and continued on anyway with my passion for dreams and ritual. Then to suddenly have that conversation fall into my lap yesterday…I can’t even describe how it makes me feel, but tears are involved.

My dad is a crusty, conservative, sexist, jaded old man with a wicked sense of humor. He also has some fascinating stories to tell about his life. I told him I’d gotten him Jung’s memoir because I wanted him to write his memoir, that I think his life experience is valuable for others, not just for his daughter who occasionally pries vignettes from his heavily guarded heart. He looked at me and smiled.

I am as ambitious for my father as I am for myself and all my children. I believe our gifts are not just for ourselves, but for the world at large. We never know what story tossed carelessly into the public realm will touch someone else, and help ease the general balance of suffering in the world. But I have long since given up trying to change my father’s behavior. I doubt he will ever write anything down, and I’m pretty sure I won’t remember all he’s told me, either. Most of his life will simply vanish once he dies. But this conversation, this story, is worth holding on to.

A favorite poem, found again

Posted on by

I was introduced to this poem years ago and loved it. Last week, browsing in a used book store, I found it again and immediately bought the book of poems it was in: Praise, by Robert Haas. I used to use his line about longing and distance as my email signature. Ross and I took our family to Lagunitas Creek one weekend way back to work on habitat restoration there. Reading this poem brings the creek to mind, and as I stand outside gazing at the mouth of Tomales Bay, I imagine teleporting just a bit farther south to sit quietly on its banks, watching the woods and breathing that sweet air.

Meditation at Lagunitas
by Robert Haas

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you
and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

A Million Ways to Startle

Posted on by

I was just writing a note to a few friends and needed to look up someone’s email address. Scrolling down the list, I was brought up short by noticing one I needed to delete. It belongs, or belonged, to my friend Luis Kemnitzer who died two weeks ago. Last weekend Jojo and I drove down to SF to the St. Martin de Porres soup kitchen where his memorial was held. It was a wonderful, painful, moving, bittersweet afternoon.

So many old friends were there from the anarchist community, from my life in San Francisco and before that Santa Cruz, and it was great to see them all. The last time all of us were gathered like that was at Geoff Yippie’s memorial some years ago, and several of us remembered Tommy from Sanchez House declaring at that memorial, “The next time we meet it shouldn’t be because another of us died. I’ll start an annual picnic in Yippie’s honor, so we can meet every year!” Then of course Tommy moved to the East Coast and the picnic/reunion never happened.

Among those in attendance on Sunday were almost all the Princesses of Plutonium affinity group, which I had been part of at the Nevada Test Site action in 1988 — actually, Lyra and I were both Princesses that year. She was the youngest member of the affinity group, being only about nine months old at the time, and though I had strong misgivings about camping amidst the radioactive dust with an infant, my desire to take part in the action was stronger and so off we went. Ah, youth! I remember Luis and his wife Moher Downing quite clearly from this action. Luis always had some funny comment, I just loved getting his perspective on what was going on. Moher fascinated me, because she would always take Lyra out of my arms and carry her around the camp. I thought she was doing it as a favor to me so I could rest, which made me feel somehow guilty and unable to rest. Eventually I figured out that no, she just really loved babies and considered it really fun to hang out with adorable little Lyra.

Even though they were older than the rest of us — Luis by then was 60 — when Moher and Luis were at an action it always felt more like a party. Come to think of it, when they were at a party it always felt more like a party, too. I remember hiking one hot, dry, windy day in the dusty desert when Lyra was fretting in her backpack and I was getting desperate for things to keep her occupied (she had diarrhea the entire time in the desert, which added an extra level of upkeep to say the least). Finally I took the dust mask off my face and gave it to her to play with as we walked. I met up with Moher a few minutes later when I stopped to take off the backpack and get a drink of water. Moher pointed to Lyra in her seat, who was not just playing with the dust mask, she had it in her mouth, sucking on the outer side that traps all the radioactive dust. Moher and I just looked at each other. What can you say in a moment like that? At what point in the history of ironies and horrors at the Nevada Test Site do you begin your narrative of that particular moment? To what parenting manual do you refer when considering whether that was the correct choice of items to amuse your baby? If this is not your child, what is the proper tone to strike when pointing out what the child is doing? To Moher’s everlasting credit, I believe she sighed, shook her head, and we had a laugh at the macabre humor of it all. Then I found something else for Lyra to play with.

Sunday’s memorial was the first time I’d seen Moher since her stroke of a couple months back, and she looked tired. I must find another time to visit with her, but it won’t be this weekend. Tomorrow I drive down for yet another memorial service, this time for Virginia, a friend who died on the same day as Luis. Virginia always came to our May Day parties with my friends: her daughter Liz, Liz’s partner and my ex-housemate Breakfast, and their charming children Max and Natalie. I will always remember Virginia’s captivating smile, white hair, tanned face, gnarled artist’s hands, and incredibly bright eyes as she sat and watched the party unfold. She took such joy in life, and I will miss her.

I can hardly bear it, but now I will delete Luis’ email address from my book. A simple keystroke, that’s all it is, and one less way for me to be startled in the future. But that’s not all it is, and I mourn the loss of that man from my life. I hear the click of heels down a long hallway, feel a shift in the air, as my circle of friends thins out almost imperceptibly and we all take a step closer to the exit door.