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Hollywood, Oakland, and the gospel truth

Blindspotting is among the top movie experiences of my life. That includes such triumphs as The Seventh Seal and The Godfather. What makes it so?

There is no better answer to that question than is contained in a recent homily by Father Steve Keplinger of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tucson. (http://gsptucson.tumblr.com/post/177945930259/fr-steves-sermon-for-sunday-sept-9-2018) Without going into detail as to how our paths crossed, I will simply say that the paths were not long, though they were a little convoluted and indirect. What’s important is that what Father Steve, my friend, Bill Roeske, and I saw in this film was a painful and ugly explanation for the stereotyping and racism that too often dictate our thoughts and actions.

I won’t explore and explain the themes, plot and characters here. I’m going to skim over those and dive right into the deep waters of what this portends for our lives. The film’s title has its origins in concept one of the main characters is studying in her psychology class and demonstrates that we are physically and psychologically incapable of simultaneously seeing two realities at once within the same image. Thus, we can perhaps see below either a vase or two faces looking at one another. We cannot see both at once.

downloadThus it is that we cannot look at another person and see both a saint and a sinner, a criminal and a minion of the law. Or to further complicate the situation, a black person/criminal and a black person/upstanding citizen. Yet, we deal with these realities every day, and what you might call cognitive dissonance keeps us from appreciating and understanding them. Everything about Blindspotting helps us experience this situation, and it’s not a pleasant experience. The pain, danger, and injustice we visit upon one another because of this inherent disability is enormous. It’s one thing to be told about it and to recognize it intellectually, it’s quite another to see and understand it in depth the way this film forces us to do.

Father Steve’s homily pleads with his audience to recognize and attempt to overcome the human tendencies of Blindspotting, and he evinces some optimism that is possible to do so. He chooses as a scriptural example the parable of Jesus’ treatment of the Canaanite woman from St. Matthew, wherein the prophet recognizes his own racist assumptions and changes his attitude. Father Steve seems to me to suggest that  the narrative shows that we are all capable of reform just as Jesus was.

However, I can’t help thinking about how a generation or so later, St. Paul finds it necessary to admonish the Roman Christians to change their ways and to start admitting perviously-excluded gentiles into their ranks. Part of that appeal was strategic, I suppose. The church could not grow and survive if they continued drawing members only from their limited circle. However, I think it was mostly a matter of Early Christian blindspotting that did not allow the folks within that insulated community to see both Roman citizens and sincere Christians in the same person or group.

A couple of thousand years later, we’re still at it. Both the racism and the struggle to reform. Like life itself, the struggle to achieve the goal is often seemingly futile. When asked what a particular poem meant, T.S. Eliot is said to have answered by reading the poem itself aloud. The meaning, he was pointing out, is in the experience, not outside of it. You’ve got to see it to understand it. And like life itself, like the wonderfully poetic rap that is at the center of the film’s epiphany, Blindspotting tells us to keep struggling and, somehow, keep laughing and rapping and writing poems the while.

AND THE WINNING BID IS. . .

MEDICINE LAKE 6700'
MEDICINE LAKE 6700′

My history with this little mountain jewel is pretty fascinating–at least to me, and this is my blog, so read on.

Medicine Lake One: Sometime in the late 40’s we lived in Mount Shasta and went camping often. One such trip was to Medicine lake. My dad hand-pumped an old navy surplus life raft and turned my sister and me loose on the water. He undoubtedly retired for a libation after that chore, but we kids didn’t know or care. We just splashed and paddled our delighted way to summer fun. As it happens on this earth, high-altitude splashing a paddling comes with a price, and we paid it in terms of a yummy sunburn.

Medicine Lake Two (Maybe 35 years later): “Hey, Susanne, says here there’s an outfit sponsoring cross-country ski trips to Medicine Lake. Ten miles in and out. I’d Like to see how it looks in the winter. You up for it?” She was. We drove to Mount Shasta (maybe 5 hours), jumped in a couple of vans, headed for the trailhead. Brilliant weather. Small group. Very promising. Here’s a list of things that arose thereafter.

  1. Mother and daughter (adults) team had rented equipment which they wore for the first time that day.
  2. Our cabin was piled high above the rooftop with snow. Picturesque, but not so appealing when you have to tunnel down into it.
  3. The outhouse was maybe 10 yards or so from the cabin, so to seek relief, one was required to tunnel out of the cabin, cross a few yards of frozen ground, then tunnel down into the facility. Process was repeated on the way out
  4. Before long, the blisters acquired by the mother-daughter new equipment team began to tell. They couldn’t join in the sightseeing excursions and were generally pretty miserable. In turn they infected the mood of the rest of the party. It was decided that everyone would be happier if the two ladies were snowmobiled out.
  5. Their exit did not proceed without incident. The vehicle ran out of gas short of the road, and one of the guides had to ski to the trailhead for more. But they finally made it.

Medicine Lake three: This time was different. 5 people, 5 dogs (an occasional 6th when Copper came to visit.) in one house. Our puppy (5 mos.) had another (7 mos.) to play with, and they chased and chewed and tug-of-warred till they wore us out. It was ideal weather in a perfect environment.

But, finally getting back to the title of this piece–there’s an annual auction on Labor Day to raise money for the resident group’s anti-fracking fund (The fracking would be to get at water in the aquifer.) I was asked to contribute some books for the auction. Glad, of course, to do so. Then came the most flabbergasting thing: The two sets of two books sold for a total of $290.

Keeerap and hooray for labor day. Thinking about how to arrange more auctions.

 

 

VARINA–FIRST LADY REFUGEE

51ZH1EHY6JL._AC_US218_I first encountered Charles Frazier via his wonderful Cold Mountain and the equally powerful film with Renee Zellweger. For some reason I sort of lost track of him until I encountered his powerful latest–Varina.  I recognized the reference of the title immediately, since her name is one of the most memorable in American history. Yet, she seldom gets more than a passing mention as Jefferson Davis’s wife. Well, Frazier’s terrific book will I hope start to change all that.

The novel starts right where it should, with a narrator coming to interview Varina in her old age. But this narrator is not just some reporter from a major newspaper. He was one of Varina’s children, a sort of adoptee she rescued when he was a small boy being beaten on a Richmond, Virginia, sidewalk. And he bears a book compiled of mementos, press clippings, and some articles by a woman whose relationship is not given. However, in the course (seven Sundays) of checking the veracity of “the blue book” against Varina’s memory and his own, We slowly see the course of the life of this remarkable lady. From her privileged Mississippi childhood, spoiled by a drunken, profligate father, to a virtual imprisonment on a poor wilderness estate, held virtual prisoner by Jefferson Davis, or more particularly his brother, who held sway over the both of them. Her forced marriage to this much older man who lives pining for his first wife to the extent that the first stop on their honeymoon is a visit to her grave. It appears her life is destined to be an emotional graveyard, but she refused to make it so.

She’s devilish smart, gets herself educated to the extent that when Davis is elected to congress, she makes herself prominent in Washington, holding salon conversations with the wittiest and wisest of all and sundry. Through it all, Davis is too busy to pay much attention to her, and their marriage begins to take on the pattern of long and frequent separations.

When it comes time to split from the union and Davis gets elected Confederate President, of course, things start to fall apart in every way. Before long, Varina is on the road with what’s left of her household fleeing toward what they hope will be safety in Cuba. They don’t make it, of course, and Davis is captured in disgrace, trying to disguise himself as a woman. Though the rest of her life is filled with failure and disappointment, there is a sort of joyful redemption that emerges from her attitude that nothing and no one is worth adopting eternal pain as a companion. In her refuge at Saratoga Springs, she virtually adopts an emotionally damaged young lady. She communes with our narrator about the past and future. And out of the ruins she establishes hope where most of us would despair.

Combine all that happens here with Frazier’s poetic language, and you have a near-perfect book, at least for readers of historical fiction. Kudos to the man.

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HAMILTON DIDN’T DESERVE THIS

514BVljl9wL._AC_US218_What I knew of this guy was the ten-dollar bill and some vague facts about his being a money guy and being aligned with the revolution faction who wanted kings more than presidents. Not a romantic enough image to make me dig for more. And, of course, a broadway musical–particularly a rap musical– is certainly not the most scholarly way into the life of an historical figure. But I sit here today having experienced an awakening of many colors.

The tension existed in Hamilton’s personal life in that he was a real hothead who could never leave an argument alone and who felt personal slights deeply even when the slights weren’t meant personally. Chernow suggests strongly that his tarnished origins and the persecution he suffered for them made him super-sensitive. When Washington was alive and near to him, he helped temper Hamilton’s excesses. Once the great Father was gone, he wrote reams and reams in response to even trivial insults.

He influenced for good or ill every major figure in the Revolution. He drew close to some, fought with some. He was buddy-buddy, for example, with Madison when they teamed up on The Federalist Papers, then drew apart when the nation split into Federalists (Adams, Hamilton etc.)  and Republicans (Jefferson). The Federalists (in the most general terms)  were opting for a strong central government, the Republicans for more decentralization. It’s a tension that still exists, of course, and it played out in multiple ways during the early years.

He was a workaholic who married a wonderful woman (A couple of the most fetching pieces in the show have to do with her and Eliza and her sister, Angelica, with whom Hamilton may, just may, have enjoyed a menage-a-trois.) and fathered eight children. He was a handsome gent who did have an affair or two. He wrote, lawyered, soldiered, and held a number of appointed offices. And he died young. 49, the victim of his own hypersensitivity and temper.

Dueling was an important part of the culture, unfortunately. Hamilton even had a son who was killed in an “affair of honor.” Yet, he put himself into just such danger only a couple of years after his son’s death. And over nothing, not just from a modern perspective, but from that of many of his contemporaries. He made a disparaging remark or two about Aaron Burr at a dinner party. Someone who overheard it, gave Burr a distorted version. Burr demanded an apology, though he didn’t quote the remark. Hamilton demanded that he give him an exact quote so that he could confirm, deny, or apologize. Burr couldn’t/wouldn’t. Friends offered Hamilton honorable ways out. He took none of them. Rowed from New York to New Jersey and got himself killed.

Thus do our commitments to codes and creeds over good sense lead us into self-destructive paths.

Hamilton was too abrasive and too inflexible to ever be president, so he never  reached the stature of some of the other revolutionary luminaries. But he deserves higher praise than he every enjoyed. Ironically, here he is strutting before the masses 350 years later. A bit late, but not too shabby. They say he had a hell of a voice.

P.S.: A word about Thomas Jefferson. In David McCulloch’s biography of John Adams, the lord of Monticello did not come off well. Essentially, he seemed to be an asshole who wrote well. In this work, he comes off even worse. He’s a coward, a liar, and a hypocrite of the highest order. Sally Hemmings is the least of his sins.

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LEONARDO THE UNSOLVABLE

51PHThzD-2L._AC_US218_You would expect to find in a biography of a luminary on the scale of Da Vinci an enormous constellation of facts and insights and delights, and Walter Isaacson certainly provides those and then some. As with the two other Isaacson biographies I’ve reviewed in Carlrbrush.com–one of Benjamin Franklin (http://bit.ly/2CFj1zh) and the other of Albert Einstein (http://bit.ly/2CfgxM8)–I find Walter the most amenable of biographers. He’s not always the easiest to read, but he rewards a bit of effort more than, say, the more facile David McCulloch, whom I admit to enjoying as well.

So after exploring the intricacies of this archetypal Renaissance man’s life, what did I come away with? Perhaps the most amazing item was that he was no good at math. Never mastered long division or multiplication. It would seem as if a brain like that would find such mundane subjects–well–no-brainers. Of course, if he’d had calculus as a tool, he might have fared better, but he didn’t get around to inventing it, and Isaac Newton was still a few centuries in the future, so he did without. How? This is the most marvelous fact of all, and one I still don’t understand. When he had to solve a vexing puzzle of, say, perspective, he did it all geometrically. Same with learning to calculate the relative areas of a square and a circle, or the volumes of a sphere and a cube. Isaacson explains these operations in some detail, but read and re-read though I might, they are as beyond me as Einstein’s insights about the speed and shape of light.

Another thing. One of his most amazing paintings was in some sense a failure. He was an obsessive worker and reworker  materials and processes. So much did he insist on returning to his favorite works over and again that he couldn’t stand the thought of having to paint the fresco of The Last Supper on wet plaster and let the result stand. He painted on dry plaster, tried to find ways to make it fast. But it began to deteriorate quite soon. Thus, despite centuries of restorations, what we have is nowhere near the original.

What else? He and Michelangelo were pretty much enemies. Leonardo thought Mr. M. painted like a sculptor, all hard edges with no subtlety of line or texture. Michelangelo, on the other hand, had no respect for his elder.

So those are a few factoids to go along with what most of us know about this guy who could paint the Mona Lisa (whose smile was based on his observations about the muscles of face and lips gleaned from hours at the dissection table) with one hand (by the way, he was a southpaw) and draw fantasies of flying machines and submarines with the other, and stop along the way to give us the Vitruvian Man. One of the reasons, of course, was that he seems to have been totally ADHD, seldom able to concentrate on a single project for long at a time. So, of course, we want to beat that sort of thing out of our kids?

Go figure.

 

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WALTER ISAACSON