22 June 2009

When A Text Is More Than Just A Text

I was in the basement the other night, half watching a movie, when the Resident Diva came downstairs with a couple of friends. Since it has taken the Diva, who is a new high school graduate, a while to find a summer job, we have seen more of her around the house lately than we have all year.

She has the usual teenage aversion to being around adults whenever her friends are here, which means that she normally expects us to disappear to somewhere upstairs. But I was watching Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins - even though I've seen the movie three or four times, there is something about it that makes me want to see my favorite parts over and over.

So the three girls plopped down on the sectional and proceeded to try to display through their body language that they were ready to watch the DVD they'd brought with them. I'd just gotten comfortable, though, and it was a long walk back upstairs, so I wasn't looking to move right away. After a few minutes, the Resident Diva started to pay attention to the movie, laughing at a couple of the funny parts at the beginning.

"How much longer is this?" The girl sitting closest to me, one of the Diva's longtime friends, had brought a couple of sheets of poster board with her. She was making a poster for her boyfriend to hand in his room. Her younger sister was sitting next to her, intently watching the TV screen, as if she was trying to decipher what the Resident Diva and I could possibly see that was funny about the way Mike Epps was acting when he suddenly appeared.

After a few more minutes, the Diva was bored. A conversation started between the three girls. I let them know that I'd seen the movie before, and was just planning to watch until the fight scene between Martin Lawrence and Mo'nique was over.

The girls' conversation started to veer into the mundane aspects of summer and their anticipation of what college life would be like. The girl nearest me volunteered a random tidbit - her father, she said, had been at home the last two days. She turned to her sister to say something and they began to speak in rapid fire Farsi. "Can we watch the DVD now?" came out of the older sisters mouth so fast it was hard for me to answer, because I was still taking in the exchange between the two siblings.

It didn't hit me until later, after I'd left them to watch the horror movie they'd rented, that there was a reason the sisters' father had been at home for the last few days. He was a scientist of sorts, with two PhD's in some area of environmental engineering. An Iranian expatriate, he had a regal bearing, and was very circumspect about his work, so being at home for two days just didn't fit his usual M.O.

Even though he'd left Iran at eighteen to go to school here in America, it didn't take long when you talked to him to understand that he was more of an expatriate than an American citizen, even after twenty odd years stateside. He spoke often and lovingly of his childhood, and the businesses and positions of influence his relatives had back in Iran.

His teen aged daughters, despite regular visits to Iran, were as American as they come. Thinking about it later, I didn't believe these girls fully comprehended what the civil unrest in Iran meant for their aunts, uncles and cousins - their family.

It was at the part of the movie where L.A. talk show host R.J., whose real name was Roscoe Jenkins, drove down the dirt road to the Jenkins family homestead back in a small town in Georgia that the girls' cell phones started beeping, buzzing, and issuing otherworldy melodies. Then the familiar tap tap tap of fingernails against hard plastic sound began, as if they were creating additional background music to add to the movie soundtrack.

There were giggles. Laughs. And the occasional "oooh" that was a surefire conversation starter between the three of them as they stared at the little screens on their phones, taking in the latest update about who was dating who, who was not dating who anymore, who was cute, who was boring - the normal things American teenagers fill their free time doing.

I thought of this today while I read about the way the Iranians who were protesting their election were communicating with the world, risking their very lives to tap out messages that would go around the world in a few seconds, courageous messages that were about body counts and illegal police actions, to let their family and friends abroad know what was really going on in their country. These were more than just text messages. These were declarations of independence.

It is hard to believe that text messaging, a service that I alternately see as either an aggravating, impersonal, or incomplete way to communicate, depending on my mood, can have gone from being the latest social phenomenon to becoming a critical political tool so quickly.

We watched the movie - me with joy, the girls with an increasing sense of resignation - all the way until the fight scene between R.J. and his cousin Clyde was about to begin. By the time I had collected my empty glass and checked the doors, the Diva had deftly inserted the DVD of the scary movie they wanted to watch in the player so fast the opening credits were already running across the screen by the time I was ready to head upstairs.

I left the three of them down there, safe and secure, tapping away at their phones to their friends while they settled in to watch manufactured horror, the red light of the alarm system glowing from above as if it it were an actual sentry whose job it was to watch over them.

21 June 2009

In My Father's Arm

I posted this last year for Father's Day, but since my father asked me about it recently, I figured I would run it again this year.

Chicken killer, wood splitter, cotton picker, hog slopper, cow milker, hay baler, fish cleaner, delivery driver, egg sorter, dining hall porter, car washer, soldier, school teacher, county agent, county supervisor, speculator, marketer, business owner, project director, program manager - my father has been all these things and more.

The first house he lived in was literally a barn, a tin roofed structure scented with the aroma of the corn and the meal that used to be stored there - this, his birth home, still stands on the farm where he grew up. To stand in that barn now and look out that door, it is utterly amazing that a man whose first view was of the few cleared acres around him would see so much of the world in his life.

Both of my parents were raised in male headed households. Their fathers, born after the beginning of the twentieth century, were the kind of men who protected and nurtured their children, advocating the importance of education even though they themselves didn't have very much. Men who could also be as hard as the steel in the plows they walked behind, demonstrating through their own actions the importance of delayed gratification, and meting out stinging punishment to their progeny who forgot to toe the line.

There is no void for me and my brothers - my father, in his own way, has always been larger than life. He is always imploring us to jump higher, run faster, to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He is forever prodding us to be engaged in the economic and political aspects of our community, where ever we might live. And he is forever vigilant against those who seek to impose their will on him or his issue.

These days, my father inhabits the same suburbia the rest of America does. The kerosene lamps from that old barn have been replaced by light switches. The stifling Southern summer heat is fanned away by central air conditioning. The logs, which come pre-split, are only used for decorative fires in the winter. The only cotton that has touched his fingers in years are in the shirts he wears.

My father's arm, the one holding me in the picture above, is still there, forty one years later, when I need it. He still studies me as intently now as he did then, still able to sense instinctively when something is wrong. And all those jobs he has had, and all the stories he has told about them - now, they inhabit the stories I tell.

01 June 2009

We Need To Shop At Think Tanks R Us

I don't know if I'm still tired from the last two and a half weekends of a fully stacked social calendar, or if the lethargy that has come over me lately is due to the paucity of current events that have been recycled the last few weeks under the guise of being "breaking news", or whether I have just got the same summer fever everybody else has - whatever it is, nothing in the world of politics seems to hold my interest lately.

S. and I were talking this morning about the fight over Obama's Supreme Court nominee, a fight that is as predictable as WWF wrestling. Sotomayor's statement about wise Latina women experiences? No blood no foul. But the cackling from the chicken coops and the catcalls from the peanut gallery will continue, the way they always do, because role playing is the real responsibility of the press and political pundits.

I told S. about my buddy's call last week, when he sounded a little concerned about Sotomayor's record. "He had told me last year that he didn't like the idea of a super liberal judge on the bench. Actually, I think he said 'we don't need any radicals on the bench.'"

S. rolled her eyes.

So when he told me what he was hearing on a cable news network at lunchtime one day last week, I had to help him out a little bit. "Dude," I said, "what you are hearing isn't news. These phrases are stacked on the shelf of conservative think tanks like cordwood, ready to be thrown on the embers of outraged public discourse whenever the fire threatens to go out."

I wasn't finished.

"Think about it - you've heard the words 'activist liberal judge' and 'legislating from the bench' so many times whenever a Democratic president nominates a Supreme, you'd think the GOP owned the copyright on them. But the reality is that the most activist judges on the court are the ones who can proclaim that they are "strict constructionists" before a single fact or unusual circumstance is considered."

I wasn't until later that day, while I was mulling over something else, that I got the urge to send my buddy an email. The email was going to say "do you know how easy it is to start a think tank?", but by the time I opened up Outlook and read through a few emails of my own, I had reformulated my idea to "I’m thinking about STARTING A THINK TANK myself."

I don’t know a think about 501(c)3‘s, but I googled "starting your own think tank" and came up with a few publications that purport to walk you right through it. Realistically, I've got a few other things going on right now that need to be completed before embarking on any new projects, but I would imagine that getting approved takes a few months, so getting one off the ground is probably a two stage

Basically, from what I’m seeing so far, you can do it online. The bottom line is the money – getting enough cash in place to pay an exec director, even a part time one, who can then turn around and be the think tank’s chief fundraiser and operations person until they can hire a staffer or two is probably the hardest obstacle.

Why am I putting so much emphasis on this "Think Tanks R Us" idea? Why do I think you should be thinking about starting one or supporting one yourself?

So we can begin to float our own messaging about our ideas in a manner that allows us to be considered legitimate shapers of the nation's public ideals. So we can create more diversity in the universe of public policy offerings that our governing bodies seem to restrict themselves to whenever there is need for public debate.

If you were to take your thumbs and hold them over the balloons in the diagram above that say "Progressive Blogger" and "Republican Blogger", then you would be looking at the old way that information used to travel in this country before the internet came along. Do not underestimate your importance in this process, whether you are a political blogger, a subscriber to political blogs, or a frequent reader of them.