Hanging with the lefties

I went to a great party over the weekend. It was a memorial service. The guest of honor, so to speak, was Harvey Robb, a saxophone player with the Pickle Family Circus and many other aggregations of musicians. He also taught at the San Francisco Community Music Center for more than 20 years, giving away for free what he had been given — everything except talent, which is, alas, not transferable.

He taught there, I assume, because it fit his principles. He was a red diaper baby from Detroit, and he still believed that a workers’ revolution was the only hope for this country. The table at the service had lots of photos of Harvey through the years, and also revolutionary tracts of various sorts. Someone from the stage said that Harvey was a member of the very exclusive organization, The Anti-Imperialist Tenor Bebop Players Club.

Hell yes

It was said that Harvey’s grandfather moved to Detroit because he’d been told that that’s where the revolution would start. A revolution did indeed come to Detroit, but it involved downsizing, outsourcing and abandonment.

In other words, the place was filled with old lefties, people who’d seen the hopes of the revolution dashed rather frequently in the past 50 years. Some of them were still dressed like old Marxists, in Army surplus jackets and besloganed T-shirts and pants so old it was hard to tell what color they were. Others were dressed in San Francisco casual, but I knew some of them, and I knew that they had worked to raise consciousness and help underdogs and, well, teach poor kids how to play the saxophone. They were all veterans of a thousand marches and sit-ins and protest concerts.

I love old lefties, I really do. The flip side of not believing in false values like materialism is that you do, just as fiercely, believe in true values like community.  The true spirituality comes with acknowledging the people you live among, helping your neighbor, cooking mass communal meals and feeding whoever stops by. And it comes from welcoming the human being in an imperfect body, honoring that humanity, believing in it when the evidence is against you.

So it was a really friendly gathering, lots of people from all aspects of Harvey’s life, musicians and neighborhood activists and old Mime Troupe people and students and relatives. The crowd overflowed the auditorium. It was hot inside, but no one seemed to mind. In my view, there wasn’t an asshole in the place. I know that must be wrong, still.

I am not an old leftie, but I believe in them, sort of the way I believe in Tinkerbell (I’m hardened ) but also the way I believe in justice. God bless them all and their incredibly funky protest songs.


Media scrums, hordes and crowds of reporters,  photographers, producers, fixers, hangers-on, all rolling and bucking like a gigantic marine animal, surrounding each alleged or actual news source, shouting questions (always the most salacious and trending topics), looking for the definitive quote, the sidelong glance, the stoic refusal to speak and march grim-faced through the throng.

And then the source disappears into safe room, and the masses disperse, convinced that they have done their journalism.

Journalists are doing a lot of navel gazing just now. They’re concerned about plagiarism; they’re concerned about biased news coverage; they’re concerned about sponsored content. And that’s a good thing; they should be concerned about those things.

But no one says a word about the worst and most visible journalistic sin, the mass pile-on of pointless questions and invasive photography. It’s bad enough when Hillary has to deal with it; it’s a lot worse when some young celebrity has to cope with 24-hour scrutiny that can and does ruin lives. Where is the talk of self-policing? Where is the talk about sanctioning the worst offenders?

Oh, the press sages say, that’s just the sleazy tabloid reporters. That’s not us. Oh no, we maintain…oh, put a sock in it. You may not stake out beach cabanas and late-night clubs, but if you can get a picture of Johnny Depp slugging someone, hell yes. Although we will put a civilized and ironic caption underneath.

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Civilized and ironic caption

People talk about the portrayal of the media in movies. There was “Spotlight,” with its courageous band of shoe-leather reporters going against the Roman Catholic hierarchy in child abuse cases. So that’s one good one. But look at the hundreds of other movies that show the other media: bloodsucking pigs chasing the scandal of the moment. People hate that shit.

And from the captains of the media industry: Not a peep.

Journalists are dying in record numbers these years,  being murdered by stateless terrorists and government functionaries alike. Surely, as our response to their sacrifice, the rest of us could be at least a little less dickish.


I’ve been thinking about urinals. I had even, several years ago, sketched out a column about them. But bathrooms are a touchy subject in the mainstream media. Mass murders, complete with tastefully grisly details: Sure. Urinals: You want to get us in trouble?

Fifty percent of my readers can, I hope, relate. For the other 50 per cent: Discover the folkways of the American male!

First rule: You must never pee next to anyone if you can avoid it. It’s sort of creepy; you worry that they’ll try to start a conversation and I don’t want to talk to a stranger when I’m peeing — and neither, apparently, does anyone else. But I bet you could develop a math formula to predict male urinal behavior.

Second rule: In modern public bathrooms, there’s  always one what I think of as a tiny urinal, although it’s actually the same size as the other ones — only set lower. It’s for kids, I think (and apparently not for disabled people — see this). Anyway, guys avoid the tiny urinal as much as they avoid peeing next to each other. It’s something about masculinity, I think — although, logically the tiny urinal would be preferable because it would better accommodate your enormous schlong.


The Harvey Robb memorial was in the afternoon; in the evening, I went to see Lila Downs. I had never seen her before, and all I knew was what YouTube told me (like this or this)— really good singer, frequently accompanied by really good musicians. But that’s all I knew.

Her full name is Ana Lila Downs Sánchez. She’s from Oaxaca, way down south there, just a chiapas away from Guatemala. She learned the indigenous language of her city, then learned other indigenous languages. She listened to the culture, the costumes, the whole deal. And part of her mission is to make sure that the music stays alive, that the language stays alive.

So she’s a singer and an ethnomusicologist. Not bad.

The show was great; the backup band was intense. A lot of people in the room spoke Spanish, and she sang some comic songs that made everyone laugh. Not me, of course; the Spanish speakers. (I’m from the old school of American men; why would I learn a language when everyone speaks English?)

El Contrabajo

There were projections above her. They were sort confusing; an oversaturated and tinted (I’m guessing) picture of a housefly. Then we had some clouds floating slowly by — that worked well with the song. Then the tone turned disputatious; history was invoked. The screen showed cartoonish conquistadors killing overmatched Aztecs. And then it showed modern day police beating up peaceful protestors. Many skulls were involved, flying in formation or dancing manically. Some of the skulls were Day of the Dead skulls, but others of them were plainly skull skulls.

The being beaten-up protestors were carrying signs. I could not read them, because Spanish, but I recognized the style. These were hand-made protest signs, done by someone with two sharpies and a piece of cardboard, putting it down on the kitchen table, trying to get the lettering right, putting more and more ink on the words for maximum impact.

In other words: Old leftie heaven.

Right now, there are revolutionary movements in almost every country. Young people often lead them, or form the majority of foot soldiers. They are often wrong about stuff, and their movements are often co-opted by more sinister operatives. Part of being a leftie is being willfully naive about politics. There’s beauty in that; beauty in believing in perfectability of people and institutions. Hope is often crushed; hope is always an obligation.

But radical idealistic movements are not always failures. I give you labor unions, women’s suffrage, the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, Medicare and the Civil Rights act of 1964. Yes, gains are being rolled back, but gains are always being rolled back. They’re still gains; there’s still a net profit — and old lefties will kill me for using that metaphor.

The lust for justice is unquenchable. Old lefties keep feeling the same old urges, time after time, decade after decade, and it’s nice to share the planet with them.



Photography by Tracy Johnston

SEO wonderfulness by Michelle Mizera




Make it stop

It was sometime right around when Donald Trump talked about how certain people were asking for moments of silence for the Dallas shooter (a lie, of course). It was after Orlando and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Dallas, but before Nice and Turkey, and I decided I was  absolutely going to check out of the media universe altogether.

Fuck it all. I have a life to live in my fortunate corner of the universe. I have work to do. I have art to appreciate. I have personal relationships to nourish.  Plus, I’m old. I doubt that I will live long enough to see the seriously malign effects of climate change. Yes, I know where the oceans are supposed to be in 2100, but I damn sure know where I’m going to be in 2100. Plus, the grandchildren of my grandchildren will solve it using twine and neutrinos.

I saved the world!  Or my genetic spawn did, and that’s almost the same thing.

And it’s too much. I can’t stand that much bad news. My friend René was talking about a chum of his, an unreconstructed Bernieite,  who would send him daily missives bashing Hillary about some failed policy or newly revealed prevarication. (Hillary turned out to be a liar after all; that was disappointing). “I finally told him to stop. I’m sure most of that is true, but I’m just too anxious.” Because Trump. Because Trump and guns and bombs and trucks.

Oh wait, I forgot about goddam Brexit. Didn’t even make the cut.

The road was not supposed to be this bumpy

I’m anxious too. The New York Times is not my friend. I avoid television news because it’s so very stupid. Plus: It’s stupid people talking about stupid things. Either horse race garbage  (“Look, a new poll says there’s a five point difference! Five points! Margin of error is five points. This must be significant!”), or one of those vague general stories in which a correspondent stands beside a pile of smoking rubble and says, “at this time, nothing is known about the killer or killers.”

Or it’s Pokemon Go, in which reality is enhanced by cute little cartoon characters. Seems like everyone wanted to escape the anger and the stupidity (did I mention that?) this week. What’s another truck attack when I found Squirtle or Charizard down by the Sand Creek Massacre monument? Pokemon Go is even a hit in Saudi Arabia, where God knows they need some relief.

Oh right: Saudi Arabia involved in 9/11. That’s cold news now, raising the question: Why didn’t anyone publish it when it was hot news? That slipped under the radar too.

The Republican candidate for president, whose name I can no longer bear to type, wants to “declare war” on ISIS, unaware that we are already at war with ISIS only we don’t declare it anymore (the last time was in 1941), because we’re just not the sort of people who get involved in war. We are a peaceful people.

Also, he has not figured out that the revolution has been decentralized. ISIS doesn’t need territory so long as it has a Twitter account. The Caliphate is an idea now, and the only way to fight an idea is with a better idea, and we seem to have forgotten what ours is. Come to America, we have…products.

As I am writing this, news comes that three policeman were shot and killed in Baton Rouge.  Can you hear the shouts of “race war” now? That will be the subtext of the Republican convention, count on it.

So guns. So miles and acres of guns, bought and retained by people who have no trouble with state-mandated driver’s licenses but demand unregulated commerce in guns, guns that kill people. No one goes to shoot deer with an AR-15. Or a Sig Sauer MCX, which is what the guy in Orlando used.

In 2014, more people committed suicide using a gun than were killed in gun homicides. Of course, those folks could have just stabbed themselves to death, or poisoned themselves using standard laboratory chemicals, or  jumped off a cliff. But a gun is so much more certain. Pick it up, gaze at it. No puzzling over road maps trying to find a cliff, no hesitant stabbing motions after the first two or three, no exhausting search for standard lab chemicals. There’s nothing between the sad person and the completion of his own self-extinction.  Bang, bang, you’re —.

But, no no no, it’s second amendment all the way, even while people are second-amendmenting themselves in the foot, or second-amendmenting  their nine-year-olds after a night of drinking and gun-related hijinks. Or a kid finding Mommy’s “just for protection” gun and second-amendmenting two dogs and a neighbor.

It is fucking madness, and it’s not changing. Politicians are panderers and cowards; it’s part of the job description.  They are silent when people say they want the right to carry handguns into schools. I mean, what? What? Is there not an ounce of common sense left in the universe? What remains for me to learn in the public arena? I know my voice makes a difference and blah blah blah, but I constantly vote for the same women to go to Congress. They’re supposedly liberal, although one of them is the biggest suck-up to the security establishment ever. Privacy rights, ha! And she’s the Democrat.

The urge to retreat is overwhelming. The urge to search for news of the Antillean mango hummingbird. The feeling that watching my cat wash may be the most important thing I do all day. Perhaps a quest for wildflowers, or a journey to Argentina.

Of course, I could be a resident of Aleppo. No worries about trans-gender washrooms there. In western China, they are uninvolved in Hillary’s email scandal. In Yemen, they don’t have much time to consider three dead in the streets of Baton Rouge, because for them “three dead” is a relatively light day of slaughter. For us, in this extremely lucky corner of the world, to refuse to try harder because Donald Trump is a dangerous narcissist seems, you know, a little self-involved.

You want dangerous narcissists? The residents of Syria have just the guy for you.

Maybe we can’t do anything. Most of the people who tried to do something have failed. It’s the problem with doing difficult work; it’s hard. Failure is always there, whispering in your ear. But are we still civilized? Do we still believe in discourse, in ideas, in small plans made larger? Are we still interested in justice? Do we still wish to reduce suffering in our own city, our own state, our own world? Do we want to offer succor and hope? Well then, let’s keep soldiering on. Let’s make a fucking effort.

And after we change the world, we’re free to play Pokemon Go to our hearts’ content.

Yeah, I know how you feel


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Bearer of good news (“You like me. You really like me.”) Michelle Mizera