Friday, February 24, 2012

On Being 82

My mom was pretty amazing in a lot of ways.  One of her strengths was that she was a writer.  After she died, my family and I sifted through some of her few remaining things – she had given most of her possessions away.  I found this little notebook with book reviews in it for the last couple of years.  There were LOTS of books recorded in those pages.  Usually it was just the title, author, who recommended it, if it was shared with members of her book clubs, a very brief summary and a subjective sentence or two.  I never knew that she kept such a notebook.  It pleases me to have a reading list of what she liked.  Gold.  Because as I read her favorites, I will imagine what she thought, imagine our conversations.

I have several stashes around the house of personal stuff including the occasional letter from a friend.  You know how the mail is.  As I approach the mailbox I have no expectations of receiving anything personal.  Those days are gone.  But my mom was a letter writer.  While engaged in a little late winter cleaning this week (consolidating my piles), I collected all of the letters I received from my mom in the last 15 years or so.  I took them out of their envelopes, dated them and put them into chronological order. 

They tell the story of a life well lived.  I did not stop to reread many, but I will read them all again.  Perhaps over spring break or over a long weekend, for there are hundreds of pages.  Some of it is sad, some newsy, some are about dinners with old friends or missing my family.  There are bits about music – which she dearly loved, the weather – which she describes in delicious detail, wildlife – which she appreciated like few others.   Some, not surprisingly, are about books she had read recently.  I love those letters – they are my most prized possession.  Nothing brings back my mom’s voice to me like that tight, neat, slanty handwriting and those clear, spontaneous, but still somehow well-chosen words. 

Three years ago, I received a nice long letter from my mom.  In it she apologizes for her handwriting, describes the music she is listening to (Mozart’s C Major Concerto), and details the weather in Mexico where she and her husband Jim were staying.  She describes this beautiful little scene of watching Huichol Indians sitting near Lake Chapala with their babies painting pieces of bark.  She wrote of many things in that letter and ended with this post script:

This is something I read and loved – Forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that made you smile.

I always looked forward to receiving letters from Ruck.  At the end of that letter, she added a little piece she wrote called “On Being 82”.  It is an honor to share it here.

On Being 82
Walking up from the lake one day I passed a pile of branches.  When I got to the top of the bank and looked back I realized what a significant thing that had been.  I hadn’t moved them out of the way!  Why?  I am 82.  I knew it would be hard to do – and my body was just too tired.  At 81 I probably would have moved them - and even found a few more tings to tug out of the way.

I am 82.  Three of my children will soon be over 60.  My baby is 46. 

If I had to choose just one day to last my whole life through it would be…

Maybe I would choose just one of those sunny days spent in and out of the water with my pals Jess and Pat.  Or the very special day my father gave me Lake Eerie. 

If I had to choose one moment to live in my heart it would be that tender time when shy, young Jack O’Keefe repeated his marriage vows and looked at me with love.

The keepsakes of my heart would be the first time I saw each of those seven beautiful O’Keefe babies and stroked their soft skin and held their tiny bodies close.

When I drift off to sleep at night I think sometimes about certain minutes of that day – or different times in my life – or old times of my childhood. I dreamed of having a big family.  So that I always send out the wish that my children will always be O’Keefes – banded by being their father’s children.  I hope they will always be loyal to each other.  That was so important to Jack O’Keefe and now it is to me.

I have lived 82 years now – So there probably won’t be many more years.  The most upsetting thing about being old is knowing I am not going to see how everything comes out.  I would like to know if Obama really changes the US.  I would like to know what happens about global warming.  I would like to know if efforts for peace will  develop in time. 

I would like to know what careers the youngest O’Keefes choose.  I would like to live to see all my children hang together no matter what.  A sad thing about being 82 is that I won’t be around to see everyone’s plan work out.

But no one has to feel sorry for me at 82.  I may not have the energy to move that pile of brush – but in total I have been REALLY LUCKY.  I could have been born poor.  I could have starved to death.

Or I could have been born a fly and been eaten by a frog. 

This is how I feel at 82 – I hope that you get to live until you are 82.  Or maybe 122.

Love, Mom

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Universal Soldier

It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.

Yesterday I went with my class of third graders to the SC Museum’s Confederate Relic Room.  It was one of the most enjoyable and worthwhile field studies we have ever taken together.  In some ways, it was also one of the hardest.

Joe Long, our docent, lives and breathes history.  He went so far beyond the facts, the names and dates of battles and the numbers of people killed.  He told us stories of people’s lives, connected us with journal entries, and anecdotes about the life and death situations of the famous and not-so-famous.  He filled us in on interesting artifacts such as a coffee bean grinder that was used to grind anything-but-coffee since there was no coffee available during the blockade.  He told us of jewelry fashioned by human hair since it would be around far longer than the original owner of the hair itself.  He kept us on the lookout for binoculars with a bullet still lodged in them which no doubt saved the life of the owner as a Union sharpshooter would have surely hit him in the chest had he not carried the binoculars in his vest pocket.  Joe Long made SC History come to life.

But there were moments of sadness there for me as well.  On one wall of the exhibit hung a real musket carried by a soldier in the Civil War, the War Between the States, the war of Northern Aggression.  The gun was in sort of a cradle and was tethered to the wall with a steel cable.  It was not going anywhere. 

The children I was near picked up the gun.  It was long.  Longer than some of my students are tall.  It was heavy, probably 10 or 15 pounds.  They took turns hefting it and were able to swing it away from the wall just a bit.  I held it too.  As I lifted it, there was this eerie feeling of touching and instrument that may have been used to cause the death of other soldiers in that long-ago conflict.  It may have been held by a boy who was running for his life in a battle where he witnessed the death of his friends and comrades.  It was very likely owned by a kid who would rather have been anywhere but where he was ordered to be, protecting the ideas and "honor" of men he would never see, defending an indefensible way of life where the wealth of a few depended on the enslavement of many.  It was probably carried by a young man, maybe not much more than a child, whose family did not own slaves and may have been very poor himself, for although there was a draft, the wealthy could pay someone to take their place in the war.

You can probably guess what my students did.  Almost every boy tried to point it at someone (blessedly the cables were too short) and made well rehearsed shooting noises.  Of course they did.  They were imagining shooting someone with it.  They were staging in their minds themselves as soldiers.  When I was that age I would have done the same.  How could I not?  So much of my little-kid life I spent playing with toy weapons. 

When I was nine or ten I wanted nothing more or less for my birthday than the deluxe Man From U.N.C.L.E. spy kit which included the same kind of fully automatic machine gun used by my hero, Ilya Kuryakan.  And when I did get said gun, which made some pretty realistic shooting sounds, I shot everyone I knew, my parents (who gave me the gun with all of the cool spy gear), my brothers and sisters, my best friends.  For a while I was the kid with the coolest gun among all of my peers.  But then my friend Mike got a similar, but even cooler, Man From U.N.C.L.E. weapons kit used by the other even cooler hero of the show, Napoleon Solo.  Between us, we could have killed every Russian spy, every enemy of the state, every bad guy and bank robber around.  But we just organized games around killing our friends.

Heidi and I were careful when we raised our own boys never to get them wartoys.  And when they did get these as gifts from well meaning friends and relatives for birthdays and Christmas presents, we hid them and soon got rid of them.  We didn’t want our children playing at killing.  But you know they found a way.  I remember vividly being amazed at finding them blasting away at each other with L-shaped sticks or even their fingers.  It seems that a good imagination will do when realistic plastic replicas aren’t available. 

Think of all of the conflicts all over the world.  From local gang killings to large-scale oppression of entire peoples, violence seems to be a way of life for humans.  It is easy to think that it is simply the leadership of countries who draw us into these messes.  That, for reasons of religion, or history, or land ownership, or natural resources, we follow-the-leader into situations that ensure that we sacrifice our youth in our efforts to dominate. 

Consider the notion of the universal soldier.  What if people simply refused to fight and kill?  What if as a people we shouted “NO!” to our leaders who would have us go overseas and do our best to kill the soldiers of our enemy leaders?  What if citizens all over the world said we should wage peace, we should seek ways to overcome our differences, our prejudice?  What if the universal soldier just quietly said “no”?  What if, instead of viewing patriotism as blindly following our leadership into the cycle of violence perpetuating violence, we saw patriotism as working hard for peace and social justice? 

The other question that haunts me after seeing my students pretending to blast each other with that musket is - are we hard wired to kill each other?  Is that simply the way we are made?  Or do we create situations in which children grow up being comfortable doing that?  Are wartoys, violence on TV and movies, violent videogames, at least partly responsible for this positive reaction our children have to killing?  Is our fascination with violence and the availability of real guns contributing to the willingness of people ready to kill or be killed? 

My hippie-sister Ruthie turned me on to Buffy Sainte Marie way back in the 60’s.  A song she sang (written by Donovan), “The Universal Soldier” comes back to me as I write this piece.  Imagine how the violence in this world might be diminished if they held a war and nobody came.

He's five foot-two, and he's six feet-four,
He fights with missiles and with spears.
He's all of thirty-one, and he's only seventeen,
Been a soldier for a thousand years.

He'a a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain,
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew.
And he knows he shouldn't kill,
And he knows he always will,
Kill you for me my friend and me for you.

And he's fighting for Canada,
He's fighting for France,
He's fighting for the USA,
And he's fighting for the Russians,
And he's fighting for Japan,
And he thinks we'll put an end to war this way.

And he's fighting for Democracy,
He's fighting for the Reds,
He says it's for the peace of all.
He's the one who must decide,
Who's to live and who's to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall.

But without him,
How would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone,
He's the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can't go on.

He's the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can't you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Have You Ever Noticed?

We would be appalled, crushed, angry and unforgiving if we thought our phones were tapped.  And rightly so.  No one has the right to hear our private conversations, our intimate thoughts with loved ones, our business transactions or professional talk.  We have a fundamental right to privacy.  Right?

So then why do people talk on their cell phones in public like they are in a cone of silence?   I’ve written before about overheard conversations where the speaker at my end seems oblivious to her surroundings.  But it happens all the time. 

When I was in the airport over the holidays, I couldn’t read and had lots of time to wait.  So I sat at the end of a row of chairs near my gate and wrote down snatches of conversations I heard from people walking past.  Yes, I admit I was eavesdropping.  But it was a challenge not to.  People are talking in a normal tone of voice, some even louder than that, as they stroll or rush past speaking to distant friends or relatives on their cells.  All I did was try not to ignore them.  I wasn’t prying – I just stopped for a few minutes trying to filter them out.  

I have to call my broker because that totally sucks!

That’s exactly what I’m talking about – the frikkin’  bum!

We’ll figure it out, Mom, I promise.

Oh God, she’s a mess.   But what can we do?

She’s just plain weird – TOTALLY weird...  Where does she get off?

My mother lives in a different world from the rest of us…  I know, right?

Be serious, for God’s sake!  I’m getting on an airplane.

I HATE these small planes.  Can you believe they are making us ride in these things!? 

God, I miss you already. 

When I get back there’ll be HELL to pay!...  Whatever.

WTF (the words, not the letters) does he think he’s doing?  I’ll fix his @$$.

I know it’s not a good time, but I’ve got to go, baby.  It won’t be that long.

You don’t have to meet me.  I’ll just get a cab…  Really?  You’d do that for me?  You don’t have to.

They’d better be on time.

Give the kids a kiss for me.  Tell them I love them…  Love you too, honey.

(This one – a business suit – looking at his phone and actually shaking it then speaking)  Have you lost your mind!?  It better be straightened out before I get there.

I got all of this and more in about 5 minutes.  And just think, ten or fifteen years ago as people walked through airports (or down the street, or at restaurants, or waiting in line at the post office or the DMV) they spoke to the people around them, or just thought thoughts in their heads.   Don’t get me wrong, I am all for open and honest communication. 

But WTF?  (The letters not the words.)  Would you want your phone tapped?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Walk Off The Earth

These guys are freakishly good.  The schtick with the five of them on one guitar is just a tiny taste of their musicianship.  They are all so different, so talented.  This is a cover of a Gotye song called "Somebody That I Used To Know".  The original is amazing too.  But Walk Off The Earth has this connectedness among the band members that is almost haunting.  You may have already seen it.  44-and-a-half million views so far.  About a hundred of them are mine.

What do you think?

"Somebody That I Used To Know"
(feat. Kimbra)

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it's an ache I still remember

You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
Like resignation to the end, always the end
So when we found that we could not make sense
Well you said that we would still be friends
But I'll admit that I was glad that it was over

But you didn't have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
And I don't even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
No you didn't have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don't need that though
Now you're just somebody that I used to know

Now you're just somebody that I used to know
Now you're just somebody that I used to know

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I'd done
And I don't wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn't catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know

But you didn't have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
And I don't even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
And you didn't have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don't need that though
Now you're just somebody that I used to know

(I used to know)
(Now you're just somebody that I used to know) [x2]