Sunday, September 20, 2009

My America

I started volunteering recently for a number of reasons, mostly selfish which is funny considering that volunteering is supposed to be about devoting oneself to the service of another but, I think, in my case, perhaps, it's really in the service of myself. I am doing it in part because I tend to complain bitterly and without impunity about the state of things. If I had any money at all, I suppose I would give it away but, instead, I just have time so I am putting in my hours. I figure for each complaint and/or liberal rant I need to do a few hours changing the world albeit in a hyper-local rather small and personal way which, you quickly come to realize, is the way most us can really affect any kind of change unless you are an RFK or MLKjr or a Cindy Sheehan. The bottom line: I got sick of online activism because I think it might be the ultimate coward's way out. How many Move On petitions can you sign in a lifetime?

At any rate, it's been interesting, illuminating, and, yes, heartening thus far. This weekend was my favorite: I read to kids in a homeless shelter which makes it sound very dramatic and very bleeding heart indeed, but it was all pretty normal. No "Gangsta's Paradise" scenario more like working in a regular (read: middle to upper middle class, white) daycare. The kids were dropped off in the playroom/daycare and the volunteers,us - meaning me, were there to greet them and facilitate the day. We got introduced, it was a little awkward at first, what with them meeting us and us meeting them and what with us being adults and with them being kids. But eventually it dissipated and the usual kid/adult cha-cha-cha began. You know the one, right? When you realize that all children are basically anarchists and you, as an adult are policemen, jailer and lawyer? Basically, their thin blue line. After our introductions were made and we had gotten a little more familiar we walked them over to the library and read to them and then we took them to the park. The kids were cute, man, were they cute and well-behaved and, in spite, of all the treacherous shit they must see (or maybe not - who knows? Povery, in this case homelessness, doesn't mean bad parenting necessarily, does it? Maybe, somewhere along the line, I bought into the notion that wealth, or cul-de-sacs means more love but that's hogwash. Just look around you)...

I was surprised or I have been in doing the volunteering by

a) It's amazing how many people come out and give up their time and do something for others no matter how selfish or not the intent is (see the above i.e. "is there anything such as true altruism? Or is it all an extension of the ego and, perhaps, even more so because it is cloaked in righteousness?").


b) I have been doing this for a few weeks with a secular volunteer organization that works with non-profits in the City and, so far, many of the things I have done have been, in large part, organized by churches which has been interesting to realize. I hang out with a Godless crowd - folks smart enough to think they know better than to need religion with all its false and manipulative comforts and,quite honestly, I feel that way about it too. Truth is, I don't feel "him" and never will. I was born, basically, an atheist with a dash of agnostic throw in for humility's sake. Still, I am just not willing to summarily write organized religion off as all hideously evil. I have a few friends whose hatred for religion is so deep they cannot see or bear to see any of its good points. The abolitionists were deeply religious and henceforth, in this country, almost every civil rights movement started in the pews. I suppose it helps to have God, even if he's fictional, on your side when you are going up against the Goliaths especially if they are violent, chagrined bigots or, even worse, state sanctioned law.

At any rate, I am getting off on a tangent, per usual, but my essential point is that the good works element of the Churh is alive and well (along with all the heinous nasty shit they do too) which has, for a secularist like me, been interesting and humbling to witness especially since I tend to write off anyone who proclaims themselves a Christian to be...a loon. These past few weeks have taught me that those loons often take care of many of the neediest in this society for better or for worse (this is probably a by-product of the hostility towards government that exists... People are suspicious if not downright angry about the state caring for its citizens but less so about Jesus doing so).

I am just glad someone cares be it an unemployed ad men (who I met recently), a lifelong parishioner, or an Upper West Side denizen even if the "giving back" is more often for the giver than the recipient.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Status Anxiety

It's been a rough Summer. Spring was just a preview. I think there are a few reasons for this and one is, of course, that I am getting older. And, I find myself struggling with the image of my life or what I thought it would be, versus the reality of my life. Perhaps, this comes from being a part of a generation that was told to do whatever made me "happy"...? Post-boomers, we must be one of the first generations in history who live in pursuit of this ephemeral notion. At the same time we are pursuing whatever makes us "happy" is that it is becoming harder and harder to get by (I am talking facts and figure - middle-class bill paying type of thing). I don't think this makes me a Molotov-throwing class warrior or whiner for pointing this out.

And, to that end, I could not help but be dismayed at the tenor of political discourse this summer. It was easy to hope or think (or maybe fool oneself) into thinking when Obama got elected, that there would be a return to seriousness. The forces of right-wing derangement that were unleashed and danced on the national stage during the Bush years would have been beaten back and retreated into the shadows for at least a year or two to plot their next single-issue voter campaigns for the next elections. But, no. We've had to endure a season of red-faced screaming over health care which, to me, is obviously just an excuse to rage over the shifting racial demographics and the tenuous grasp on power whites hold in this country in the foreseeable future. Less fear of death panels and more fear of a black planet.

But, now the Fall is coming and oddly enough or not, I see it more as a time for renewal than summer. I am sensing rebirth here even as the leaves begin to crack and turn dry. Obama addresses Congress on Weds and I am hopeful that he is going to fight in the spirit of Teddy Kennedy's legacy of noblesse oblige. The only truly civil society is one that takes care of its weakest members. Personally, I am girding my loins too to be brave and hopeful and disciplined in my own life. To continue, I suppose, to pursue that always allusive, sometime happiness and to remember to recognize what a privilige it is to be able to do so.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Eternal Spring

Last weekend, New York was treated to a premature summer. Such a dramatic burst of heat (and dry heat, mind you, not humid, like it’d been imported from the California desert or something with just enough faint Santa Ana-like winds for it to feel haunting) that before you knew it the City was in full-summer sensuality mode. Walking around the streets, you couldn’t help but be struck by the endless carnival of human beauty: one gorgeous, expertly-coiffed, fat-free, cocoa-buttered person after another strolling by seemingly unencumbered by anything but the care of their own good looks. It was hard not to stare, it was hard not to feel like some kind of combination of troll and vampire, it was hard not to feel titillated and not worthy at the same time, it was hard not to feel pained somehow by the beauty as far as the squinting eye could see, it was hard not to enjoy it but feel hollow in the too early summer sun as part of you wished you still had a parka to hide all your failures and dashed expectations under.

Everyone talks about winter being the difficult season but after this weekend that gave me pause, maybe its spring. It dawned on me that to be faced with another renaissance, another renewal, another rebirth was to be confronted with the realization that your springs are not eternal (to embrace a cliché), and that difficult recognition unleashes an exquisite panic. You know the one, right? It’s the “life is passing me by”/ “What is this existence, this life thing?” anxiety. Or as Diana Ross, the ultimate Supreme, sang to herself in Mahogany “Do you know where you’re going to, do you like the things that life is showing you, where are you going to, do you know?” Skin barred, sun blazing, green buds sprouting, winter weather long gone and the natural obstacle of cold weather no longer a factor in the daily struggle, the answer seemed to be “FUCK NO”!

The weather in the City has returned to its normal 60-degree type spring fare. Summer has been temporarily staved off and jackets and boots are back on but we all know that it won’t be long till the halter tops are de-rigueur and the Greek Gods come out from under their sweaters to parade the streets with us mortals. The smallness of my life will, no doubt, be all too readily illuminated by the summer sun but by then the humidity will have kicked in and we’ll all be sweating - a reminder that perfection, like spring, is hardly eternal and as Shakespeare might have said, sweating his balls off on the streets of Manhattan under thousands of heat blowing air-conditioners “conscience doth make cowards of us all.” Conscience might not but spring in New York certainly does.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Diminished Returns

In the months since I last posted (months, I tell ya, months) the American financial system has undergone the equivalent of a heart transplant. I happen to live in the place where its undergone surgery. In other words, I live in the rotten heart -- New York City. It's been a strange few months, to say the least. On the one hand, 2009 started out with this kind-of glorious optimism: the end of 8 years of unimaginable Bush era malaise, mendacity and mediocrity and the beginning of the Obama years. His inaguration day seemed like something out of a fiction, a mixture of extreme promise and hopefulness and sheer relief: it felt like the war had ended and all that was missing was a ticker-tape parade and a sailor kissing a girl on a corner.

Well, the fiction has ended now and the reality has set in and we have to trudge, slog, or as Churchill said, "muddle through" what everyone is calling "the new hard times". I am part of a generation that is not the "muddle through" kind. Again, I know I speak to a particular class and, to an extent, race. Most of my friends were not born in extreme poverty, the kind that has to muddle through no matter what returns their parents are getting on their 401k's because their parents never had them to begin with.

I am fortunate enough to have a day job right now which I am grateful for while at the same time resenting which is an odd juxtaposition. I have an ego and ambition, I imagine for myself a fully creative life one day that is not subject to performing administrative duties for others, for pay. But, all around me I have friends who are unemployed, getting laid off, borrowing money from parents and now they are forced to wait. All the while, we tell ourselves and each other that this is only temporary, because deep down despite our cultivated disaffectation, we feverishly believe or hope that the American Dream, as it were, is just laying dormant right now, and that, we too, will be rewarded for working hard, if and when the chance to do so comes back.