I had 45 minutes before meeting a friend at the Symphony. Bored in downtown San Francisco on a brilliantly sunlit late afternoon, at the Main Library right across from City Hall. Couldn’t go for coffee, because a friend and I were catching a quick dinner in between pre-concert talk and concert. Couldn’t hang out in the library (Duh!!) because I was still drinking my mint tea. Wondering how to entertain myself, I ventured outside, surveyed the scene and found:
A gaggle of police and security types surrounding a homeless lady, patiently explaining to her that she could not be hanging out on the Library steps with a rifle. “It ain’t loaded,” she was saying; “I ain’t pointing at nobody.” Some friends were vouching for her. Nevertheless, the rifle was confiscated and the lady admonished not to walk around downtown with an assault weapon.
Around the corner, two extremely agile skateboarders were having a contest, enthusiastically applauded by a small audience.
Back on the Library plaza, the now rifle-less lady sat talking things over, with only a few bags of belongings but still some supportive friends. Several of them seemed clearly in need of mental health services. (In my city’s defense, San Francisco continues to make heroic attempts to address homelessness and mental health issues but the need overwhelms the problem. Thanks a lot, Ronald Reagan.)
Also on the scene was the traditional errant seagull, surveying other settling-in homeless people, passing tourists and 6:30 traffic.
Eventually I strolled past the Library/City Hall area, a few blocks west to Symphony Hall. As my friend and I were waiting for the house lights to go down and the concert to begin, someone came down the aisle to reach his seat. His evening attire included strips of multi-colored blinking lights. The ladies on either side politely made way for him. Before the conductor came onstage he unplugged himself and all was calm.
Just another twilight in downtown San Francisco. But as darkness fell, calm prevailed — and the symphony was glorious.
Ward Schumaker is an artist who creates striking paintings, makes beautiful books and speaks truth to power. His show TRUMP PAPERS (Hoisted by his own petard) recently opened at the Jack Fischer Gallery, 1275 Minnesota Street in San Francisco. It consists of works recently done that immortalize the immortal words of our president — words we try to ignore but should never forget. And a few words about him, including the ones spoken by former CIA Director John Brennan that I’m leading off with (left) because they express the beliefs of the majority of Americans, those of us who did not vote for Mr. Trump.
The paintings speak for themselves. So I’m pasting a few of them in here:
Words matter. Policies also matter. It’s very hard for some of us who are grandparents to see the planet our grandchildren will inherit being destroyed while the denier-in-chief looks only at profit margins. And his adoring base. It’s also hard to watch what’s happening to other people’s grandchildren at our borders. Or the disappearance of decency and civility that we wish for our grandchildren’s world.
But back to the words. In TRUMP PAPERS, Ward Schumaker emblazons them into our psyches, just in case we might forget. His earlier show of paintings memorializing Mr. Trump’s sayings, Hate Is What We Need, led to an eponymous book now in its second printing (also available at Jack Fischer Gallery, Minnesota St or 311 Potrero Ave.) I gave copies to several friends, precipitating some interesting conversations. Do I want this book on my coffee table? Could we give it another title? Do we need to immortalize these stupidities? Questions worth pondering. But if it’s true that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as Santayana reminded us, Schumaker’s paintings will definitely help guard against repetition in years to come.
There was, also, a note of very good news at the opening of the TRUMP PAPERS show. A soft-spoken young girl, about 10, was quietly creating her own art work on a ledge at the back of the gallery. A note lying among her drawings informed the curious that they were for sale for $1 (four or five digits less than most of the works available at the Jack Fischer Galleries) and that all proceeds were for immigrant children. Her name was Mila. I paid double the asking price for my selection, which is shown below. Maybe her words will eventually drown out all these others. Go see the show if you can.
My all-time favorite female keynote speaker/comedian Jan McInnis recently wrote the following piece in her regular ‘Humor News’ publication The Keynote Chronicle. (You may want to get on her mailing list.) I thought it so much fun — and simultaneously profound — that I’m sharing it here, with her permission.
What $19.99 Will Buy You
I like hotels. I stay in a lot of them, and most of the time I stay in really nice ones. You know, where the bathroom is big enough for ballroom dancing, and there’s a TV embedded in the mirror? I guess if I want to feel like I’m a beautiful newscaster, I look at that instead of my reflection.
And as nice as these hotels are, they’re still worried about making a good impression. After my stay, they always send a survey so I can rate everything: did you use the internet? Yes? On a scale from 1 – 99, how was it? Did you use the gym? Yes? On a scale from 1 – 99, how was it? Did you use the toilet? You get the picture. I check “no” to all of it; otherwise there are more questions to answer. Nope, no gym, no internet, no toilet. . . I didn’t even sleep under the covers. Stop! Your hotel is nice, ok!
I’m still a fan of cheap hotels, however, because they kept me afloat in my early comedy years. Back then, it was kind of a crapshoot as to what you’d get with some of these hotels. There could be a TV in the mirror, but only because some drunk guest threw it there. Occasionally the bedding could be a little sketchy. I toured with a sleeping bag.
One of my first big gigs was at a major comedy club in Chicago. I was very excited, but I had to get my own hotel room. Plenty of really great comics live in that area, so no one was gonna put up an out-of-towner. No problem! I found an excellent hotel about an hour away in Portage, Indiana. . . and by “excellent,” I mean cheap: $19.99 a night!
The manager was a very nice older lady, and I explained that I was a comedian on tour. We had a pleasant chat, and I got my keys. The room was kind of what I expected: no TV smashed into the mirror, but I did have to wear my socks while walking on the carpet. . . and in the shower. But the week at the club went well, and at a little under $140 for my room, I could still go home with some money.
When the club booked me again a year later, I had the same hotel dilemma, so I headed over to my friends in Portage. But there was a different woman at the front desk, and the price had gone up dramatically: $29.99 per night! (Probably due to paying for new TVs and mirrors.) That $70 extra bucks was gonna break the budget, and I didn’t know what to do. This was back before cell phones and wireless internet; finding another place would be time consuming!
As I was discussing dropping the price to no avail, the manager popped out. She must have seen the panic on my face because in a moment of true kindness, she turned to the desk clerk and said, “I remember her. Give her the old price.”
Relief! I could kiss the ground (almost. . . the carpets were still the same). I had never been so happy to unroll my sleeping bag in a bargain bed. I thanked her profusely.
I’m sure she doesn’t remember now how much she helped me then, but I do. It probably wasn’t a big deal to her, but it was a huge deal to me, and she did it simply because she could. She had the opportunity to help someone, so she did. Without any fanfare, without any expectation that I’d give her a good review, without anything: she did it just because she could.
There’s always an excuse to not do something: “It’s not my job,” “It’s not our policy,” etc., and many people hide behind that because it’s the easy route. (Yes, you, Mr. Airline Gate Agent who wouldn’t put me on the earlier flight recently, because you said it would be too much of a hassle.) But, I think doing things that are in your control to help someone is how you earn a five-star rating in business and in life.
I once heard Tony Robbins say that we should look at everyone on the planet as being on the same team, and I agree. So be on the lookout for ways to help out your “team members” with the things that are within your power. You’ll make a great lasting impression on them. . . without the 99 question survey.
(Jan has shared her customized humor keynotes with thousands of associations and corporations, and is the author of 2 books: “Finding the Funny Fast” and “Convention Comedian.” She has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and on Huffington Post. I’m proud to be a fan.)
Ai Weiwei, in town to promote his new film “Human Flow” is less like a global icon than a kid on the first day of vacation. He gleefully mugs for photos, takes selfies with – and of – his audiences, bears a perpetual crinkly smile and when asked “When are you happiest?” replies, “Now.”
But the message of the internationally renowned artist is deadly serious. He wants the world to confront the fact that over 65 million human beings are displaced, most of them living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and only a tiny fraction (about 3%) being relocated. “Human Flow” depicts refugees in 23 countries – in camps, on the move, struggling across deserts, through murky waters and occasional war zones. It documents a staggering amount of human suffering which its creator wants us to face as fellow human beings. “The world is shrinking,” he says; “people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.”
Ai appeared before a sold-old crowd at the Commonwealth Club recently, in conversation with Climate One founder and host Greg Dalton, who started off by asking what his guest felt Europe should do. “It’s not just a European problem,” Ai Weiwei responded, “it’s global – Iraq, Myanmar, elsewhere. Policies in the U.S. seeking to reduce immigrants, enforce a travel ban, move away people who have been here since childhood – there is a strong trend to violate human rights and traditional beliefs. We are all refugees.”
Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the year his father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing was arrested and denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He was one year old when the family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. According to his Wikipedia page, they were later exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family returned to Beijing. At one point, during his lively conversation with Dalton at the Commonwealth Club, Ai said he used to be jealous of his father. “He got all those years, and all I got (referring to his imprisonment for “economic crimes” in 2011) was 81 days.” His 81 days were, however, no picnic. “If you argue with the government,” he said, “you never win. They become so powerful you can get suicidal.”
On the issues closer to the focus of Climate One, Ai spoke of how China “has made huge progress, and has become quite economically powerful. But the dark side are environmental problems: heavily polluted air and rivers. Besides that there is huge corruption. There are internal struggles inside the party; no trust, no real creativity because there’s no freedom of speech.” To Dalton’s remark that Ai had once tried to work within the system, Ai laughed. “I was very naïve.” Despite his history of battling the government Ai was given his passport in 2015 and now lives in Berlin.
“When they handed me my passport, the guy said, “We’ve known each other for so long . . .”
Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.
I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?
“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.
To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and TheNew York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.
Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.
Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.
Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.
The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.
Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”
Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line
You were having a stroke – i
did not grasp what was going on . . .
and ends with
i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
Imagine being able to write things like that.
But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:
It is a little known but verifiable fact that this writer is a graduate of Circus 101. Well, I completed the course, that is, some five or six decadespast my turning-cartwheels-in-the-backyard days.
This comes to mind because of all the recent stamina talk. At the time of my circus experience I was several years younger than the current candidates for president of the United States. I am still the age of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and frankly, Justice Ginsberg and I (I am not officially authorized to speak for my 1933-babe sister) resent the stamina talk. She, of course, is making her debut (speaking only, opening night) with the Washington National Opera this year; I’m afraid opera performance is not on my bucket list. But still.
Stamina-wise there is at least the circus thing. As I recall, my late-life circus experience began with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a class offered by the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (now Circus Center) titled Circus 101. It sounded interesting, and at least worth undertaking for a good story. So I called the Circus School.
“Could a reasonably flexible 60-something woman be eligible to take your Circus 101 class,” I asked the nice lady at the other end of the line? She replied, essentially, if you’ve got the money we can work you in. “You can set your own limits,” she said.
So I showed up for the first class, raising the median age by two or three decades, and quickly learned my limits: upside-down is not for 60-somethings. Oh, I could still do upside-down, headstands with my feet on the wall or the occasional cartwheel; but then I tended to get dizzy and throw up, which is not in the curriculum. I found I was very good, though, at balancing the peacock feather on my chin and at being part of the human pyramid; I always got to be the top of the pyramid because nobody wanted to step on the little old lady. I was also quite good at the Ooze – a sort of backward roll-over with a collapse at the end.
In my class was a lovely Chinese-American girl named Yvonne, who measured approximately 24-18-24 and could juggle three balls before we even started. By the second class her husband Ken had been talked into joining. Ken and Kit, another husky young man who showed up at the same time, could perform great feats of strength and skill, but because they had all those muscles getting in the way I could beat them at grabbing my ankles and doing bend-overs and such that they couldn’t even approximate – which made me feel initially quite superior.
All feelings of superiority quickly disappeared. We learned the egg roll, the diablo and the rola-bola, that last being a balancing act on a board set on a large pipe, which when circus people do it looks easy as pie. It is not. (Nor is juggling four balls.)
I did discover that I really shone at the human caterpillar. This begins with a base person on all fours (hands and feet, not knees.) The next person rests on top of the base person, feet crossed, hands on the floor, and additional caterpillar people are similarly arranged. The rear legs and all hands move in unison, theoretically, until somebody giggles.
Is any of this relevant to today’s world, nearly two decades later? Well, it provides food for thought and some great metaphors.
One can only hope that everyone on the political spectrum will have the stamina – not to mention agility – required for running the country at all levels and branches of government. And that our collective community can master the rola-bola without turning into one great Ooze.