Friday, September 26, 2014

Banging Pots and Pans – or not

I’ve been having a conversation with myself for some time now about how discouraged I feel about what’s going on in the world.  My country has fallen to pieces and is held sway by a corrupt self-serving oligarchy.   A Pew Research Center report suggests support for same-sex marriage may be leveling off.  (But that has to be measured against another Pew Research report from last March showing support for same sex marriage among Republican young people is up now to 61%.) We’re at the point of no return on climate change and may not have the power to keep ourselves from the abyss.   Our policy of capital punishment has killed hundreds of falsely accused.   Poor black Americans are losing their voting rights after fifty years of struggle.  Americans appear to get dumber by the minute on any number of scales.  The tin hat wackos are claiming that Iraq War III is proof we’re in the apocalyptic age, and who am I to say they’re wrong?

And what are you going to do about all this, I ask myself.  One voice in my head says get out in the streets, go door to door, empty your bank account into some good cause.  Another says, it’s much bigger than you are, go tend your own garden, listen to music, and use that money for fine wine instead.  Still another says, go on as before.  You’ve found your rhythm.  Keep it up.

I want to share some of these thoughts in my head.

I came across this quotation the other day:

There is also work to be done in study. Every revolutionary movement needs people who think and study and write and analyze. A revolution is not sustainable if there are only people on the street.

Just the words people like me are looking for who bang out on keyboards our anger and resentment and outrage and dismay over the slow pace of recognition of the rights of women, of racial minorities, of immigrants fleeing poverty, and other folk at the mercy of powerful people with reasons to discriminate against them.  My focus has long been mostly on the rights of LGBT people, and their abuse, particularly by people who use religious scriptures and religious tradition to justify foot-dragging in the granting of universal human rights.

The quotation comes from Bill Lindsey’s blog.  A black theologian expressed his frustration to theologian Walter Brueggeman over the fact that racism is alive and well in America and had reared its head recently in Ferguson, Missouri. The quote is part of Brueggeman’s response.  

These words speak to me because I have a little voice in my head that drives me nuts.  “You’re beating a dead horse,” it says.  The battle is already won, it says.  You’ve had your say, now move on to something else, it says.  I look at the categories I’ve created on the Hepzibah blog and see I’ve written 192 articles under the rubric of gay liberation, way more than the next category of miscellaneous commentaries.  And I have to admit that while they each deal with different particulars, there is an awful lot of repetition.  It’s clearly time to leave it to others who might have something more original to say.

Unlike many other bloggers, I make no effort to reach out to the world at large.  And that means I am largely preaching to the choir.  Some of them pass what I have to say on to others and I am always pleased to hear from strangers who agree or disagree with my conclusions.  The positive comments make me feel good, of course, and the negative ones are welcome too if they suggest a genuine interest in dialogue.  “You’re a left-wing asshole,” comments, not so much.

Bill Lindsey’s blog, Bilgrimage, is addressed to a Catholic audience.  He chronicles the slow painful progress (and sometimes the steps back, as well) in the Catholic church to bring the church closer to the message of the Gospels and away from the men in silks and satins who steeple their fingers, roll their eyes toward heaven, and assure us we do well to believe they speak for the Almighty Father in Heaven.  He too is often discouraged by fears he is beating-a-dead-horse and speaking only to the choir, but in his case, at least, it is clear he is speaking far beyond the choir, not only to Catholics, but ex-Catholics, never-been-Catholics, and any number of folk who recognize his efforts to keep the fire going under the pot.  He is a model for those who live lives of contemplation rather than street protesting, and he appears to have a very wide following.  I read him regularly because I find him, despite his support for religion, a kindred spirit.  I find his efforts enormously encouraging, even when they are not my fight.  Apathy is perhaps the bitterest form of defeat, and as with depression, I get the feeling the entire human race is served when people get up and go, even if it is only to sound off on the smallest injustice.  I have friends who wish I'd get off the gay liberation bandwagon (and I imagine Bill does as well) and on to what they consider more pressing issues.  But, as one of my heroes, Alice Walker, once said to her critics, "You tell your story and I'll tell mine."

There is so much one can do.   In my younger days, I marched in anti-Vietnam war protests in San Francisco.  Thousands of people streamed down Market Street year after year to Kezar Stadium.  It took years, but in the end those protests helped stop the war.  On another front, I spent some time in Buenos Aires and am familiar with the Mothers who marched before the presidential palace demanding an accounting of their missing children during the dictatorship abuses of the 70s.  And with other ordinary homemakers who left their kitchens to bang pots and pans in the streets.  Given our impotent Congress, I wonder constantly why we are not doing the same in the United States, banging pots and pans at the Obama Administration for failing to prosecute the Wall Street Bankers, for example.

We don’t have that fire in the belly anymore.  Not like in the 60s.  And I do feel guilty and ashamed at times that the best I can do is bang out another rant on a blog, or on an e-mail I send to a limited number of friends, or create a Facebook entry showing I support immigration reform or object to fracking or call attention to climate change and the harm being done by corporations like Monsanto.

The question is why do it?  Why keep it up?  Why not organize your neighbors into voting blocks to get better representation in Congress?  Ralph Nader is still banging on that that’s the best way to go.  I heard him speak a few weeks ago here in Berkeley.  But (beside the fact my feet hurt and I need longer and longer naps these days) I’ve lost faith in Congress and in American democracy generally.  I don’t think getting rid of Barbara Lee or Barbara Boxer will make things better, since they (who are my people in Congress) are already among the best – Barbara Lee, you may remember, was the sole voice in Congress protesting W’s invasion of Iraq.  I think the problem is much larger than a democracy now on the skids – although I am delighted many disagree with me and are still fighting to change it.  I think the answer has always been consciousness raising.

For years I taught communication skills in Japan.  A friend once quipped that if General Motors and Ford and Chrysler were going bankrupt, I should take the blame.  I was off in Japan teaching their kids to become more critical thinkers and ultimately be more persuasive debaters and negotiators.  I didn’t see it that way.  I don’t see any difference between young people, regardless of where they live.  They are the hope for change.  Get them to think, get them to read and write more effectively, and you are contributing to positive change, I always told myself.

I am now retired, and the question of how effective I was is training good communicators is moot.   Few of my students, to the best of my knowledge, have gone on to fight Monsanto, or Roman Catholic notions that women ought to be subservient to men and gay people ought to be celibate.  I don’t know, frankly, what most of them are doing.  I doubt I had much of an impact.  I don’t think that is false modesty.  I think it’s a realistic assessment

I do have one story I am proud to recall.  A Saudi student once said to me in class, “I don’t waste my time talking to people I disagree with. They have their own way of thinking and we have ours.  We should leave them alone.”  I responded, without much thought, “But what good does it do you to talk only to people who agree with you?  All that does for you is confirm what you believe.  How are you ever to hear something new, how are you going to correct your mistakes if you don’t remain open to different views?”  I ran into him twenty years later and he told me that was an important learning moment for him.  In moments when I get harshly self-critical, and beat myself up for not doing more than I do, I remember moments like that and take heart.

My point in all this is to say that I believe, if we are to be realistic about our ability to make the world a better place, we need to hope big but expect small and not be discouraged.  I think we can never know what impact we have on the world, and have to act as if we are making a difference even when everything shouts out at us that we are not. 

Horrible things happen all around us all the time.  Here in my neighborhood, a young man decided this week he wanted to steal a car and attacked a 72-year old woman and slit her throat in the process.  He’s the kind of kid one wants to lock up and throw the key away.  I have to wonder if a few more voices speaking in his ear out about kindness and non-violence might have made a difference with this kid before he became the person he is today.   And I just watched a program on German television about the several hundred German kids who have gone off to join ISIS in Syria, kids looking for power and identity.  No doubt they heard thousands of good people urging them to do good things over the years, to no avail.  But maybe just one more voice, with a message spoken at just the right time when they might have taken it in, might have turned them around.

I’m urging this on faith, and faith is not my strong suit.  But I’ve seen close elections and I know that sometimes a single vote matters.  And that helps convince me that sometimes just putting out a declarative statement about how things are going wrong and how they might be put right might make a difference as well.

God bless the beaters of (apparently, but not necessarily) dead horses, I say.  And those who preach to the choir.  And those who go on and on till you want to pull their plug and make them go away.

We, most of us, don’t make waves.  We are just drops in the ocean.  We don’t run marathons.  We move by inches.  The opposite of good isn’t always evil.  Most of the time, it’s apathy.

We live in the drops and in the inches.  And that’s where we ought to try to make a difference.

photo credit: banging pots and pans

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Water is Wide

It’s been a week of Scotland in the morning, Scotland in the evening, and Scotland the whole day through.   My e-mails and my desire to know more about what was happening kept me very busy there for a while.

One thing led to another, and I found myself studying Gaelic and getting familiar with Scottish geography like never before.  My sister now wants to fly to Scotland and dig around in the family roots and we’re both playing with the fact that we have people who carry the same names (first and last, even) as we do in Dumfries and Galloway, where my grandfather lived until he got on a ship and emigrated to America at age 20 and never looked back.

I blogged about my childhood among Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia and about listening to bagpipes an hour a day for the month I spent in the hospital.  Bagpipes.  Most people no doubt think that bagpipes are to music what sunburn is to vacation.  But like many other things that hit you the wrong way when you first encounter them, bagpipes can grow on you.  If you’ve ever marched in a funeral for a cop or a policeman, you’ll know what I mean.  Bagpipes in the distance have something surprisingly romantic about them, and under the right circumstances they can bring out some powerful emotions.

Listen to this version of that beautiful melody, The Water is Wide, for example.  First time I heard this YouTube of “Celtic woman,” doing it, I was really turned off.  “Celtic woman” as a generic makes me think of “Amazon woman” or maybe “Brunnhilde channels Wotan” or some such.  And she does some strangely coy seductive stuff with her hips and her eyes which strikes me as all out of whack with the words.  (Time passes and love grows cold, for Pete’s sake!)  I was about to turn it off when the bagpipes came in out of nowhere and changed everything.  Countered the silly wiggling hips and aggressive jollity and brought in the melancholy of the moors, or something.  Double chocolate icing on tasteless cake.   I don’t know.  Whatever it was, it turned things around totally for me. Don’t know if you’ll have the same experience. Let me know.  Will not take offense, whatever you say.  I realize bagpipes are a stretch.

This song, by the way, is one of my all time favorites.  I came of age with the haunting voice of Mary Travers when Peter, Paul and Mary sang it.  It has never left me, and remains one of those pieces of music I think of when I want an example of how music speaks directly to the emotions. They start at the second verse, so it carries the title, “There is a Ship, and she sails the sea,” but it’s the same song.

But probably more than Peter, Paul and Mary, this song belongs to Pete Seeger.  And Bob Dylan.  And Joan Baez.  And the list goes on and on.  And this begs the question, is it the melody itself, its wonderful hymn-like simplicity, that provides a perfect backdrop for vocal or instrumental invention, or is it the memory of the spirit that was alive in the 1960s, when we first learned the world was full of shit, that sex was not dirty, and nobody had to work in advertising, and if we all put flowers in our hair the world would surely get better.  Those sentiments are now gone with the wind, but who among us over the age of fifty or sixty could help but be carried away by this music from a time when we had something to hope for.  Here’s Pete Seeger doing it with a chorus of mixed voices.  

There’s a French version by Renaud, who calls it “La Ballade Nord-Irlandaise, (“Free Ulster!”) which shows you you can play it on an accordion and not ruin it.

And one of my favorite singers, Yukari Ito,  has a Japanese version of it.  Just pretend I didn’t tell you the really dumb title of the Japanese version is “A little boat for two” and listen to her really pretty voice. And yes, it does help me appreciate her to know she’s in her late 60s.

It was her version that got me started on this little romp.  That’s an American folk song, I said to myself.  It took me a minute to place it with Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, but I then realized I didn’t know where it came from, actually.  Sure feels like a Shenandoah kind of song, I thought, but I wasn’t sure.   Renaud seems to think it was Irish.  Others claim it was Scottish.  I even found somebody insisting it was Galician.

About ready to settle on “someplace Celtic” I went to Wikipedia, that source of all truth and a good chunk of beauty, and read “’The Water Is Wide’ (also called "O Waly, Waly") is a folk song of English origin, based on lyrics that partly date to the 1600s.”  It’s fitting that they add “citation needed.”  Some things are meant to remain obscure.  Have a listen to a tarted up Waly Waly sung by Peter Pears  with none other than his life partner, Benjamin Britten, giving it an eccentric harmonization at the piano. 

Bagpipes.  Celtic emotions.  On a folk song of English origin.

One more reason, methinks, it won’t hurt if the folks in the United Kingdom continue to live together and stress a shared history and a common culture.

P.S.  And let me add a P.S. here as a non-Brit who is proud as hell this week to be of Scottish/Canadian/British heritage.  Everywhere you turn people still go to war with their closest neighbors and their cousins.  The Serbs and the Croats, the Muslims and the Jews, the Sunni and the Shiites are by no means alone in this folly.  But Scotland just had a referendum where practically half the country spoke out in favor of pulling out of a union with England.  The vote divided not merely parts of the nation but brothers and sisters and husbands and wives.  Yet the vote went off without a hitch.  In a smooth, perfectly civilly conducted referendum people went to the polls and had their say. And when the results were counted, everybody went back to business.  Except for some of the inevitable thuggish intimidation here and there, nobody rioted and nobody died.  Tell me that is not an amazing fact of life these days. 

That victory of democracy should be shouted from the rooftops.

That’s something to be proud of.

picture credits: sheet music for The Water is Wide (traditional Irish (sic!)) for bagpipes

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Man's a Man for A' That

Buchanan kilt
I’ve been reading around and immersing myself in the flood of information about the Scottish referendum.  For reasons I can’t explain, I feel I ought to be taking a side.  However, the more I read and learn, the less inclined I am to do so.  That hesitation probably suggests I would vote no, if I were living in Scotland and were eligible to vote.  But then, if I were living in Scotland and eligible to vote, I have little doubt I would be a Scottish nationalist.  It comes as no surprise to me that the vote is evenly divided.

Go to the web page of the Gretna Chase Hotel.  It will tell you it’s on the Scottish-English border.  It also says it’s located six miles north of Carlisle.  I suppose they leave it to you to note that since its address is Gretna, Gretna, DG16 5JB.  (DG, I assume, stands for Dumfries-Galloway, that means it’s in Scotland.  But the Gretna Chase Hotel is south of the Sark River, and the Sark River, I’m told, marks the border in the westernmost part of the country.  There is a tale, I suspect, in this imprecision.

Go to Google maps and type in Carlisle (clearly in England) and Dumfries (clearly in Scotland), select “directions” for how to get from one to the other, and you’ll see no mention of crossing a border.  The map shows the road crosses the River Sark, but the designers of the site saw no reason to make anything out of that.   You’re simply travelling from one part of the UK to another.

My grandfather left Dumfries in his 20s back in 1903 and emigrated to America.  It’s conceivable he bicycled in his youth the fifteen miles to Annan, the original home of the de Brus family, including Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s hero-king, at some point, and possibly the next eight miles to Gretna and the border, as well.   I always thought of him as coming from Scotland.  I never thought of him as coming from near the Scottish-English border.  The things you can learn if you allow yourself the time to rummage around in an independence referendum.

I’m working with an assumption that the main arguments for Scottish independence are emotional and the main arguments for continued Union are rational.  It’s head vs. heart.  And that is the reason the decision is so painful and whatever decision is made is liable to lead to considerable resentment.

Have a listen to Sheena Wellington, singing “A Man's a Man for A' That" at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in May of 1999.  

Call up the guide to unfamiliar Scottish terms used by Robert Burns 

Give fools their silks and knaves their wine,
A Man's a Man for all that…

and you’ll see what’s at the heart of Scotland’s left-leaning politics.   Choosing a piece of poetry by Robert Burns is no surprise.  He’s routinely cited as Scotland’s pride and joy.  But why this particular piece, on the pride of being of the poor?

This brought back a memory of a trip to Scotland in the 90s when I went with friends to the Isle of Iona and was swamped with more details of the origins of Scotland than I could absorb in a lifetime, or so it seemed.  What struck us was the plainness of the remaining buildings to which they were ascribing such tremendous significance.  A local pointed out a dark small room in what looked and felt like a shed.  “Our answer to Westminster Abbey,” she said.  Give fools their silks and knaves their wine, indeed.

I’ve been listening to the arguments for continued union.  I won’t list them; they are all over the place.  The UK is something to be proud of.  A force for freedom and democracy, a partner with Europe against the bullying of Putin’s Russia and the chaos in the Middle East, a bridge between America and Europe, a united nation with a flag that represents a united fight in two world wars.  Something worth holding on to. 

And to the arguments for separation.  My heart tells me these folk to whom I owe my name – family name and given name both – in seeking a more equitable nation where the rights of the little guy are not trumped day in and day out by the bankers and politicians of London, deserve to be given an opportunity to get out from under vulture capitalism and give their local politics a go.  This link, for example.   Problem is, of course, that pulling away from a far-away tyrant sometimes lands you in the lap of a local tyrant.  Let's not forget the rivalry between Glasgow and Western Scotland and Edinburgh.

I can’t make a serious claim to Scottish identity.  I thought I’d give it a try once, years ago, when I was looking for a way to get to live and work in Europe and discovered you can apply for UK citizenship if you have a grandparent born in the UK.   That notion hit the rocks pretty quickly when I realized how much work might be involved in getting a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate and having to explain that he left Dumfries in 1906 and never went back, not even for a single visit.  And then, of course, somebody would no doubt expect me to go live in the UK.  I wanted UK rights.  But I already had three homes, one in San Francisco, one in Japan, and a third one, now greatly slipped away, in Berlin.   I wanted privileges, and did not have anything I wanted to give back in exchange.  So much for that.

But although direct citizenship and residence was out, that didn’t lessen my sense of connection with Scotland.  Like many Americans of European descent, our family lived in a kind of old country diaspora, and kept the old country coals burning by teaching children a pride of place of origin.  In my home, we didn’t say my mother was “from Germany originally”; we said she was German.  And my father was not the son of an immigrant Scot; he was Scottish.  I had to contend with being of mixed parentage (it sounds almost ridiculous now, but it was an issue when I was a child, actually).  I had three grandmothers.  My mother was an only child, and that made me the only grandchild of her mother for the first five years of my life.  But my mother had been raised by her aunt, so I effectively had two German grandmothers.  And they were German speaking and took it for granted I would take on a German identity.  My father’s mother was Canadian, not Scottish like her husband, and had six grandchildren, two by each of her three sons, and one set of cousins lost their mother early on and lived with her, a move that couldn’t help but create a little more distance between us.  So I readily identified as German and not Scottish.  Which upset my father no end.  I remember vividly an agonizing discussion when he made plain that he thought one took one’s identity from one’s father’s family, and that family was unmistakably Scottish.  I tried to argue that his mother was Canadian (English-Canadian, yet) and that my claim to Scotland was pretty diluted.  No, sir, says my father.  If your father is Scottish, you’re Scottish.  He would have made a great Orthodox Jew.

This Scottish identity was intensified by the fact that we spent our summers in Nova Scotia.  To be Canadian was to be French-Canadian or English-Canadian, but my family in Nova Scotia sailed right past that distinction and claimed not English origin but Scottish.  Don’t forget, my father told me once, we almost named you “Bruce Alan” after Robert the Bruce.  In the end, they named me Alan John, moving Alan to the front and giving me my father’s name as a middle name.  Robert the Bruce, if your Scottish history is weak, was the King of Scotland who successfully led the wars against the English around the turn of the 14th Century.  He is celebrated for his victory at the Battle of Bannockburn 700 years ago this year and is considered a Scottish hero to this day.  Alan survived, with the Scottish spelling (Allen is considered English).  Some tell me it’s the Celtic word for bold.  Some tell me it’s the Celtic word for rock.  Doesn’t matter, so long as it’s Celtic, you see.

When I was sixteen I ended up in a hospital in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and had to stay there for a month.  My family had to return to Connecticut, and because I was alone, the priests from St. Francis Xavier College would visit on a daily basis, and I quickly made friends with several of them.  The hospital was a Catholic hospital and the priests were descendants of the followers of Queen Mary.  They were Gaelic speakers, and between listening to them and the bagpipes on the radio at least an hour each day, I felt first hand the still strong connection between Scotland and Nova Scotia.  It was one of the few places around where people didn’t routinely accuse me of misspelling my last name, like my elementary school teachers did when I wrote it with –nick at the end.  They knew it was a Scottish variant of MacCormack, and didn't wonder at the explanation that our name was a sept of the Buchanan clan.  

My sense of pride in my Scottish heritage soared when I tuned in to the debates over the right of same-sex couples to marry in the Scottish Parliament and watched Scotland become the 17th nation to grant such rights.  Since Scotland leans left, it’s no surprise that gay groups routinely credit Scotland with being gay-friendlier than England is, although since England now has such rights as well (they got there first, actually) that’s a bit unfair.  Still, one picks up things other might miss.  This video of one of the groups supporting independence, for example.  Listen for the line in the song that goes, "gay or straight... who gives a damn..."  [we all support Scottish independence].  Little things mean a lot.

Alba gu brath – it’s pronounced “Álapa goo bra” – long live Scotland.  It was once something for disgruntled nationalists to go around saying.  Gaelic-speaking Scots number fewer than 60,000 native speakers, these days, about half the population of Peoria, Illinois, although another 30,000 or so speak it to some degree.  Now, with the new popularity of the idea of independence, you can hear the call a whole lot more.   But while Welsh is an official language in the UK, Gaelic is not.  There will no doubt be an increase in interest in breathing more life into Scots Gaelic if independence comes (and maybe even more if it gets voted down and there is a backlash), but outside of the Outer Hebrides (which sounds for all the world to me like Ultima Thule – the ends of the earth), it is hard to find speakers.  Nationalism being what it is, that doesn’t prevent the use of two languages on the new Scottish Parliament/Pàrlamaid na h-Alba  building.  Still, when comparisons are made with Catalonia, whose independence from Spain has language at the center of the fight, it is well to remember that Scots are speakers of English. I went to Scotland in 1960 hoping to study the Gaelic language.  I didn’t know where to begin.  There were no schools.  I tried asking around in bookstores.  The advice I got was, “Better go to Ireland.”

I said earlier that I was working under the assumption that the arguments for independence are mainly emotional.  I’ve mentioned the singing of Robert Burns’ “A Man’s A Man” at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.  I might have added what happened just before or after – the words uttered at the official opening:  (here, at minute 7:36) 
The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March, in the year Seventeen Hundred and Seven, is hereby reconvened.   
 Go ahead.  Tell me your eyes are dry.

But that’s not to say there are no rational arguments for independence.  The Scottish claim that they vote Labour over and over again, whilst England votes Tory over and over again, and it never matters what Scotland votes.  They get what England votes for.  Think American blacks voting at 90% for Democrats and getting a Republican Congress over and over.  That’s not just emotional stuff.  It’s a pretty solid argument, although one can pick apart the claim that Scotland itself speaks with only one voice.  While hitchhiking to Scotland back in 1960, I was picked up still in England by a Scot heading home.  “You’re a Yank!” he says to me, with delight, soon as I opened my mouth.  When I told him my name, he was even more delighted.  “By the way you are dressed (I was carrying an umbrella) I thought you were English and almost didn’t stop.”  I told him I was heading for Edinburgh.  “But why would you want to go to Edinburgh?” he asked.  “Too many Englishmen there.”  He then regaled me with tales of battles with England and the time a Scot had pinned an English soldier to the ground only to realize he had lost his knife.  “No problem,” he says to me, “he just lunged forward and ripped his throat out with his teeth.”  I figured it was time to get out of the car.

John Oliver has a hilarious take-down of the seriousness of the event here.     Note, that while poking fun at the Scots he also refers to the union as a “300-year arranged marriage” in which England has been “a little bit of a dick since the honeymoon.”  And, as many are quick to point out, when a couple is on the verge of divorce, the winning line, if there is going to be one, really ought to be “I love you,” if the marriage is going to have a chance of getting back together.  Not “You’re going to be poor and you’re going to be sorry.”  The rationalists are at a disadvantage here.  

In any case, the time for the neutral voices  is over.    It’s time to make a decision.

Glad I don’t have to take responsibility for what that decision will be.

Buchanan quilt source