Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hope for the Holidays

Once upon a time, the comedy show In Living Color featured a skit lampooning Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. Jackson's campaign slogan "Keep hope alive" morphed into a sketch in which Jim Carey, the show's token white guy, played an ancient, wheelchair-bound Bob Hope. "Hope" was clad in a hospital gown and connected to an IV while the rest of the cast, dressed as doctors, nurses and orderlies, fussed over him and vowed to "Keep Hope alive".

Jackson wasn't the first politician to spin hope into a slogan, and he won't be the last. Bill Clinton's biography is "A Town Called Hope". Barack Obama titled his autobiographic tome "The Audacity of Hope". Artist Shepard Fairey used the word all by its lonesome under his bold, Warholesque portrait of Obama to create what is probably the most famous American political poster since Uncle Sam Wants YOU!

The Obama victory, and the impending departure of Bush and Cheney are a great relief to most of us (67% of the population, according to Bush's latest approval rating) but these days, it's hard not to feel like hope is on life support. The global economy is globally lousy. Unemployment goes up every week. The stock market keeps dropping, like the sea level right before a tsunami, exposing a variety of invertebrates, parasites and bottom feeders. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Healthcare is broken. The polar ice caps are dissolving while Tennessee drowns in toxic sludge. Our kids are ignorant and proud of it and the cost of educating them has never been higher. Iraq may or may not hold together if and when we finally pull out, and Afghanistan ain't looking too good. The environment remains on the global back burner, with the temperature on high. Israel and Hamas are at it again, apparently mutually incapable of learning from experience.

Even as I write this, I have to keep reminding myself that 'tis the season for hope. For Christians, Christmas is a yearly reminder of the hope Jesus gave mankind. For Jews, Chanukah represents the hope of religious freedom. And for anyone who's had a lousy year, this is your time to hope next year will be better - especially encouraging when next year starts tomorrow.

If you're suffering from H.A.D. (Holiday Affective Disorder) try remember that hope isn't just seasonal: it's eternal. A uniquely human expression of the survival instinct, woven into our DNA. And it's contagious. Hope inspires, connects and motivates. It's overthrown dictators, cured diseases, signed peace treaties and cleaned up toxic waste sites. And it starts with you and me. So here's to the hope in our hearts. May it grow, and thrive and spread to everyone around us. May we all look forward to a healthy, healing, peaceful and productive new year. And above all, may we keep hope alive.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Thing about Yoga People.

Here's the thing about Yoga people. Most of them are lovely human beings, mellow, peaceful, honest and kind. They enjoy every little bit of beauty life affords them, be it as simple as a dandelion growing from a crack in the sidewalk. They make you ashamed of your drama and navel-gazing over banal human problems you should regard as just another opportunity for personal growth. Yogis and yoginis have mastered the art of taking life, not just one day, but one moment at a time. Their existential goal is to live completely in the present, free of regret over yesterday or worry about tomorrow.

Living fully in the moment has its drawbacks. It makes it hard to be on time for anything - even yoga class. I hadn't been in Berkeley very long before I heard someone described as being "on Berkeley time", a polite euphemism for chronically late. People who use this term tend to be transplants who feel a certain nostalgia for punctuality, which they quaintly perceive as a form of courtesy.

Existing in the present is also problematic when it comes to making plans. I recently attended a birthday party for a delightful yoga instructor who was turning fifty. A week before the party, I received an email, addressed to the entire guest list, about what, if anything, to get for the profoundly non-materialistic birthday girl, and whether anyone would go in on a group gift. I immediately responded that I had already bought some earrings, but would happily reserve them for a different friend if they needed my contribution. The emailer had to send out two subsequent communications on the same subject. By the third one, she was grumbling about herding cats. The day of the party, the group still couldn't decide whether to go in on a massage or donate to protect an acre of Costa Rican wilderness. And that was only half of the people on the guest list, the rest having not gotten around to checking their email.

Even conversation with the yoga folk can be challenging. Those of us who are not on the path to enlightenment spend a lot less time in the present. We like to speak of the past - anecdotes, memories, regrets - or the future - fears, plans, hopes, aspirations. When we do discuss the present, we often turn to politics and current events. This doesn't get you anywhere with hardcore yogis: most of them will tell you they don't read or watch the news because it affects their world view in a negative way and makes it hard to see the divine in people like Dick Cheney, Robert Mugabe or Bernard Madoff.

So you default to what's going on around you and talk about your trick knee, or the weather, or that cute dog over there. You feel a little frustrated, and lets face it, bored. It's not that you're unaware, or immune to the charms of the here-and-now, the humming bird resting on a power line - how exquisite and magical he is and how his little wings must need a break from all that stroboscopic beating. But that's just the background, an occasional respite from conversation. You're enjoying the walk, or the sunshine, or the vegan nutmilk smoothie with agave syrup, but you still need to shoot the shit. Sometimes, the present isn't so interesting. It just is. And for you, is is not enough. You need conjecture. Theory. Gossip. Sarcasm. Wit. Debate. Heck, you may even occasionally have to get a little bitchy. You can't do this with yoga people. Bitchiness is an unfortunate condition. It's a bit indecent. How sad that you revealed it.

Meanwhile, the yoga person is probably thinking he or she can't talk to you about finding your real self, seeing the light in all beings, or striving for spiritual enlightenment. Which is probably true.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Diversité in the Université

Mt. Ararat, Armenia

"Please describe any aspects of your personal background, accomplishments, or achievements that will allow the department to evaluate your contributions to the University's diversity mission..."

This is THE essay question to apply for a graduate degree at a prestigious California university. Not a degree in teaching, political science, or social work, mind you. ANY graduate degree. In other words, if you're white, middle class and grew up in a homogenous suburb, you're going to have to punt.

Oh, boo hoo, get over it, you bourgeois Caucasian troll. Yes, I know, except for the fact that the applicant in question is my daughter. As I write this, she is in serious brain-racking mode, trying to put some kind of ethnically compelling spin on her lily-whiteness. Having a Jewish grandfather is pretty mainstream nowadays. Nor can she expect any props for her French grandmother: There's gotta be at least one francophobe on the admissions committee. The Mormon grandma? Better keep that quiet in the wake of prop 8's passing. Besides, my mother-in-law converted to Catholicism at a very young age.

A few days ago, my daughter thought she'd found an angle - along with a potential scholarship for young women of Armenian descent. I had to point out that having two great-great-grandfathers from Armenia is not a great-great qualification. I'd hate to see her rob some deserving, doe-eyed young woman named Siranouche Katchaturian of a chance to be honored for her roots and her hard work. And while I've always suspected there was a genetic component to my disproportionate fondness for eggplant, I honestly can't remember anyone in my mother's family pining for the slopes of Mt. Ararat.

Diversity is a beautiful thing. It's what I love about America. Certainly more than the Flag, or the National Anthem, or even apple pie and ice cream. I wept at Obama's acceptance speech. I can't imagine San Francisco without gays and lesbians, or Asians, or people of color. Bo-ring. And for sure, we all have a moral obligation to practice diversity in our lives. To speak out against injustice. To be openminded and colorblind and intellectually curious when it comes to our travels, our cultural experiences, our choice of friends, who we hire, or how we raise our children. But I have to draw the line at diversity as some sort of litmus test in the admissions process at a major university. My daughter wants to make art - serious, thoughtful art with a message. Right now, her paintings are about modern man's alienation from the disappearing natural world - I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it. It's a message that paints all humans as passengers on the same sinking ship. It's us vs. the planet, which, unless you want to get on your high horse about the evils of Western civilization and blame the Europeans for the Industrial Revolution, is about unity, not diversity.

In 1996, California passed proposition 209, which states: SEC. 31. (a) The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting. You can argue 209's fairness 'til the cows get PHDs. No doubt affirmative action has been a fine thing for many deserving students and workers, and for society as a whole. And from an historical perspective, affirmative action was probably more necessary in 1996 than it is in late 2008, as our nation's first black president is busy putting together a cabinet that is clearly ethnically diverse (if politically pretty darn homogenous). But the fact remains, 209 is the law, and the diversity essay question on my daughter's grad school application is a blatant workaround.

They want diversity? They should weigh her art work against what their current students are doing. Is anybody else working in heavy impasto? Do the performance or installation types outnumber the traditional painters? Do they have a glut of lesbian feminist neo-realists? Frieda Kahlo's work is inseparable from her Mexican ethnicity, but Rothko's is about paint and it doesn't make him a lesser artist. By demanding that a prospective student display his or her diversity credentials, the University appears to be requiring an artistic emphasis on this issue, a history of diversity-related activism, or both. In short, they are acting like the thought police. If you think I'm full of malarkey, look at the question again:

"Please describe any aspects of your personal background, accomplishments, or achievements that will allow the department to evaluate your contributions to the University's diversity mission..."

Now, substitute "American values" for "diversity mission." And let me know when your skin starts to crawl.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Alternate Reality

I come from a family of doubters. Whatever you have to say, they challenge. If you repeat something you've seen on the news, you're being brainwashed by the mass media. When you share a story someone told you, you're reminded that the teller could have been exaggerating or messing with you. Had your feelings hurt? Don't expect solace or sympathy. You're overreacting. Misinterpreting. Being melodramatic. Besides, whatever happened, it's probably your fault. You get no credit for emotional intelligence because you can't possibly have any. Even your personal anecdotes are questionable – your perspective is tainted by your subjectivity.

This phenomenon is partly due to a belief that the majority opinion is the result of group-think, and disagreement makes you look smart. But it turns out that being a contrarian, like everything else, is genetic. I know this because I am the mother of a 15 year old conspiracy theorist.

We got an indication of this when our son was ten and started questioning whether George Washington ever really existed. Just because they put some funny looking guy on the dollar bill and call him George doesn't mean he was ever flesh and blood, right?

As the boy matured, the theories got a little more sophisticated. We never really landed on the moon. How could they have done it with those huge computers and tin can technology? And why is the American flag flapping in the lunar wind when the moon has no atmosphere? Proof positive that those photos of Neal Armstrong were the product of some primitive, pre-photoshop trickery.

Now, we've graduated to the big time. The kind of conspiracy theory paranoid geeks make into "documentaries" for other paranoid geeks to watch on their computers. The "9/11 was carried out by the Pentagon " conspiracy theory. Or the "AIDS is actually a polio vaccine gone wrong" conspiracy theory.

If there's a down side, or a dark side, my son will find it. The police, politicians and basically all forms of authority are evil and corrupt, and the only valid system of governance is anarchy. Last year, an older friend entertained himself by telling the boy Ben and Jerry were members of the KKK. It took me at least fifteen minutes to convince my son that the two ice cream magnates were actually die-hard liberals.

A fifteen year old anarchist is challenging to raise. But that's OK, because, as said anarchist explained to me last week, "Mom, teenage boys like to raise themselves."

Good luck with that, kid. I hope you do a good job.