Monday, November 30, 2015

Le Video's Last Stand

The word on the street is that San Francisco’s new address is “Hell in a Hand-basket” and the postman just delivered another letter there: Le Video is closing. Today. After 35 years of glorious service to the Inner Sunset neighborhood and San Francisco in general.
When its doors opened somewhere around 1980, it presented itself as an alternative to Blockbuster. Not just a place to rent movies, but a place to rent films. The whole glory of American filmmaking was available—Marx Brothers, Frank Capra films, Billy Wilder films, Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Bogart-Bacall, Tracy-Hepburn, Fred and Ginger and hundreds more. But why stop there? The foreign film section was equally large—Truffaut, Kurusawa, Bergmann, Fellini, and etc. etc. Add to the mix contemporary films (and movies), documentaries, lectures by Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and folks like that, a family section, an adult section (upstairs). Some 100,000 holdings in the collection!
In the early days, going to Le Video on a Friday night had a taste of actually going out to a movie. It was crowded, there were lines, there was a social buzz in the air. And for someone like me who likes to browse with physical objects on shelves, it was a playground of discovery. Reading back covers and finding out about films I never knew about— some in the end, not worth knowing, but many surprising gems. Including as recently as my last rental three days ago. Who ever heard of Clark Cable and Loretta Young in a film titled “Keys to the City” that takes place in… San Francisco!? Well worth a watch. But you ain’t gonna find it at Blockbuster. And probably not Netflix either.
Le Video sailed effortlessly through the shift from video to DVD, keeping both for a while for dinosaurs like me and then some Blue-Ray. They had great 10-video deals and so you had the sensation that you were getting a “free rental” until they ran out. The staff were knowledgeable and congenial, all the best qualities of the Mom and Pop stores that have virtually disappeared in the American landscape.
But in the past ten years, the crowds thinned out as Netflix ascended and a few years back, it looked like the store would have to close. They came up with one last valiant, last-ditch and inspired  solution— they rented out the bottom floor to Green Apple books. This was a great boon for my neighborhood which once had three great bookstores within two blocks and then none for years. And though Le Video on the second floor wasn't quite the same, they were still with us. They put their collection in a back room and in the stacks where thin plastic covers. When you got a DVD, it was in a plain case, no liner notes to read. Not as satisfying.
The solution turned out to be a temporary life-support system. I walked in to rent something last month and got the news that there were a few weeks left and that was that. There was talk about a giant sale of their stock, but apparently some mysterious person or store bought it all up and no one seems to know where it will be. And so a great icon of the Inner Sunset neighborhood has gone the way of Sunset Stationary and Irving 5 &10 store and all the other remnants of a rapidly bygone era.
As for me, my choices are narrowed to the library, streaming Netflix on my computer or getting them in the mail for my old TV with a DVD player (horribly inefficient, not in-store browsing, no getting out of the house, etc.). I know all of this is a first world complaint, but I’m old enough to be allowed to make it. The whole move toward the weightless, abstract, digital, ethereal (Netflix streaming) drives me crazy. But I’ll go to wherever I have to for that two hours of non-thinking relaxation (movie) or thought- stimulating and heart-opening experience (film). 
Meanwhile, thanks, Le Video, for all the years. I’ll miss you.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Why I Am a Teacher

“We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” —H.G. Wells
“ The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity…” W.B. Yeats
I went to a talk by mythologist Michael Meade and left with his book Why the World Doesn’t End: Tales of Renewal in Times of Loss. I was in need of some reassurance that hope still has muscle and breath and that there is a spiritual dimension behind the unfathomable acts of insanity that will prevail and see us through. His thoughts that “this will get worse for some time to come” were anything but an easy reassurance, but his perspective that the Soul of the World can be renewed and re-awakened in a time of darkness was enough to re-light my own faltering flame of active faith.
The unbroken string of human disaster marches on. Trump, vying to be the leader of a powerful nation, publicly mocks a disabled reporter and his followers casually excuse it. The doors of Walmart open on Black Friday and people who just ate more food than they needed on Thanksgiving rush in and fight with each other to buy junk goods at discounted prices. Police keep killing black youth and college students in Texas are legally allowed to carry concealed weapons to class. Not to even mention the desperation in the Middle East that draws young people to ISIS. It reminds me of the old Pogo cartoon quote:
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
All of us. We are all embroiled in an atmosphere of fear and well-founded at that. Climate change, easily accessible assault weapons, nuclear threat, economic instability, terrorism is real. Fear sends us down to our reptilean brain and we go into survival mode. And in that state, we are more vulnerable than usual to fanaticism, fundamentalism, one-track ideologies, apocalyptic nightmare visions and promises of rewards in the next world, unfounded hunger for stuff, notions of “them and us” and more. We close our minds, shut down our hearts, turn off the light of the authentic imagination in favor of quick-fix salvation fantasies. And the more we run to those false gods to save us, the deeper and more real the fear becomes.
What we need in such times is deeper thought, wider hearts, higher forms of imagination. Nuance and complexity and subtlety and both/and thinking cannot reside in the lower brain stem. All the rooms there are taken by fight, flight, freeze. We need to crawl out of that hole and make the effort to ascend to the summit of the neo-cortex, where there is a larger view, better light to see by and a more complex ecosystem of thought. As Meade says:
“Ideologies intensify when genuine thought is absent, when doubt is not allowed, and when true imagination has been excluded.”( p. 28 in above book)
I like that list and it’s not a bad summary of what I’m after as a teacher. To promote genuine thought, to give space for doubt and uncertainty and mistakes, to fire up the imagination through the crafts of music, dance, drama and poetry. I didn’t need catastrophe to convince me that this is what attracted me to teaching and work with children. But in hard times, my conviction in and commitment to these things is stronger than ever. The children in my school and the children in my class are encircled and protected by love and care and thus, free to access genuine thought, follow their doubts and exercise their imagination. An alum recently recalled her time at our school some 20 years back and commented, “I have never felt more cared for or ‘safer’ than during my time at the school.” ‘Safer’ doesn’t only mean free from violence and hunger and social marginalization and vicious racism/sexism/classism/homophobia, but also simply safe enough to fail in front of peers, to express a different and unpopular opinion, to try out a new thought, to sing or dance or play a solo in faith that the right note will appear. In this atmosphere, the best in us begins to grow Yeats’ missing conviction, not the absolute certainty of fundamentalists, but the faith of the artist that the intuition in search of truth and beauty will not disappoint.
That’s today’s thought about why I teach. Hoping to create a generation of people who can think, feel, express beauty and stay home to sing with the family and neighbors on all the Black Fridays to come. Is that too much to ask?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Walmart Trample

Every year I read of a brave citizen who willingly puts him or herself in harm’s way in defense of American Consumerism— and gets trampled to death in Walmart in the process.
But this year, I saw it. There was a video on Facebook showing the actual scene on Black Friday, the opening of the doors and crowd crashing through like people trying to get on helicopters during the Fall of Saigon or into the lifeboats during the sinking of the Titanic. But instead of running away from grave danger, they ran straight to the shelves to gorge themselves on purposeless plastic paraphernalia that no one needs, not ever. I didn’t see anyone die, but there was mayhem and murderous intent as people of all ages, races, genders got into fistfights, grabbed packages from children, attacked fellow shoppers with their shopping carts and more.
How to write about this? I gave myself three choices:
1)    Go deep into a Howl-like trance: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Mocolch! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming in the Walmarted aisles!…” *
Try to capture my astonishment that the bar has sunk yet lower, my shame, revulsion and disgust that these are fellow citizens of a country I’ve claimed as home, dig into the pus and gaping wounds of a sick, sick culture until we all collectively vomit out the soulless life we’ve created and start to crawl back to sanity and something approaching civilization. You get the idea.

2)    Give up writing and thinking about it all, board the first plane to Iceland or Bora-Bora or the Volta region of Ghana and return to a civilized society.

3)    Try to have some fun and see if satire has any muscle left in the national discourse. And so my first-draft attempt at no. 3. Any rappers who want to take it on and work with it, you have my blessing.
(* Minus “Walmarted aisles," this prophetic passage from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl written some 60 years ago.)
                                                THE WALMART TRAMPLE
                                                                        © 2015 Doug Goodkin
Hey you and you and you! Come in and get a free sample!
Come crashing through the doors and do the Walmart Trample!
You trample to the left! You trample to the right!
You grab, you push, you pinch, you punch, you get ready to fight!
Go get that G.I. Joe! Go get that Barbie Plus!
Don’t mind the blood and gore and the scratching and the pus!

You trample over here! You trample over there!
If a kid gets to a package first, you yank ‘em by the hair!
You block ‘em with your cart, pull down their saggy pants!
That’s how you do the Black Friday Walmart Trample dance!

So come on folks, get in your car and start off your vacation.
Do your part to pump up good ole U.S. consummation.
Leave your meditation, pop your medication,
Be a card-carrying member of the cap’talist Congregation.

Get in the store and holler! “Hail the almighty dollar!
I’m takin’ over Aisle 3 and no one better foller!
Wham! Bam! Kapow! Kaboom! That’s the way that I consume!
I’ll throw you in a garbage pail! Don’t mess with my Walmart sale!”

“I gotta get the goods anyway that I can!
I gotta show the crowd I’m a shopaholic man!”
“I gotta shout and curse and I’ll smash you with my purse!
No dude can mess with me, 'cause I got here first!”

They don’t do this is Belgium, they don’t to this in France!
It’s only in the U.S.A. they do the Trample Dance!

So goes the freaky fray each and every Black Friday
Normal folks possessed for a cheaper price to pay.
Putting fists into your face or biting your right ear.
But it’s okay, they’ll be fine, until this time next year.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Modern Miracle

No, I didn’t see the face of the Virgin Mary in my frapuccino’s whipped cream. I didn’t hear the voice of God come thundering out of my imagined Bernie-Bush debate. Buddha did not whisper in my ear that I am already perfect as I am.
Instead, I walked through Golden Gate Park and noticed some unusual activity. And so I began counting the people I passed engaged in said-activity and came up with 294 until one broke the pattern. 294. I found this extraordinary.
The activity was actually non-activity. It seemed miraculous to me that 294 people walked past me and not a single one was…
Talking or texting on a cell phone!
I kid you not! They were talking to each other or looking around at the sights on a sunny day, heads up and eyes open. There were three who used their phone to take a photo, but heck, that could have been a camera, so I didn’t count it.
After the man with his wife and kid broke the pattern (he was on his phone, they were not), I was debating whether or not to keep counting.
And then my cell phone rang. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Giving Thanks

Just read a poignant post by a Facebook friend who has suffered a string of sorrowful events this month—a fire, the death of a beloved parent and a dear friend and a too-young niece, his partner in Paris at the time of the terrorist attack and yet more strokes of bad fortune. And still he found a way to count his blessings in the midst of so much grief.
So often people’s notions of being blessed amounts to being thankful for privilege, good luck or their notion that God loves them and that’s fine as far as it goes— but it could go further. Sometimes that reads to me as “well, thank goodness I’m not as downtrodden as them and that my children are on the honor roll and our car gets good mileage.” But as my friend above modeled, the larger blessing is being able to hold grief and joy together, to fully comprehend the sheer miracle of being alive, to value the opportunity to be of service, to feel the pain of others and the pain of self and to look all of our unbearable losses in the face and still emerge hopeful and grateful and determined to get up off the ground and take the next step forward.
Gratitude and thanks is more than a social gesture or a ritual grace once a year. It is a living presence spoken in the way we move through the day and meet whatever fate and fortune throws our way. It allows for room for some whining and complaining and even cursing and swearing as long as it’s sincere and called for, but also constantly searches to look beyond the immediate inconvenience, minor catastrophe or major tragedy to hold it in a larger story. It is a faculty of soul, a practice of attention, the good sense to understand the Buddhist notion that it is a gift beyond measure to attain a human incarnation and we better not squander it. In Buddhism, sin is not worshipping a false god or coveting your neighbor’s wife. It is wasting our body, heart and mind on trivial, harmful and self-serving things instead of turning them toward their highest possibilities. The ultimate thanks is for the daily possibility to train our body for grace, eloquence and sensorial delight that savors beauty, to cultivate our mind for understanding, to open our heart to compassion and love, to appreciate the simple wonder of being alive and be wholly present for each moment that we are until we’re not. And of course, that includes appreciation for daily food, clothing, shelter, friendship, family, autumn leaves, a rising moon, a setting sun.
Thanksgiving. Giving thanks. Also a time to remember all those who gathered around tables all those other years and those memorable ones that rise up in our storied collections. Childhood meals in New Jersey with relatives and my parent’s family friends, with my first girlfriend in Brooklyn with Marge Piercy and Sol Yurick, at Antioch College hearing Scott Joplin for the first time, eating non-sweet macrobiotic pumpkin pie with my sister and husband on Downey St. in San Francisco, in our home on Castro St. with friends and colleagues and touch football afterwards, alone with my wife in Athens, Greece on the way to India, my sister on our couch going into labor one year, the next year in Calistoga with my wife’s water breaking and the imminent birth of Talia, year after year with my kids and my sister’s growing family and then my parents joining in for fifteen of them, my mother-in-law’s last trip to San Francisco, dinner with my daughter, husband and grandchild and more first in Washington D.C., then in Portland, Oregon. Now back to being with my sister and two of her three kids, her son Ian and my daughter Kerala in Portland with their new babies, my daughter Talia (it’s her birthday!) in L.A. with friends.
Take a moment today to recall your own history of Thanksgivings and marvel that such a life could have been.