Monday, February 28, 2011

Two Sets of Three, part two

Part II: Found in politics


Sonny Kim is one of my students, a struggling Korean immigrant, who has more dignity than most (that's most people, not immigrants). She's tiny but has big balls. She barged into my classroom one day, demanding I give her a way to speak English. She'd had it with grammar and doing exercises. She wanted to speak: this was her last chance, she said, and I had to give it to her. So I did, and I became a better teacher for it.

She's the only one in my class who understood the analogy I used to define the word "contradiction." I told the class a contradiction is when Hillary Clinton praises pro-democracy activists who use social media on one hand, while condemning WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, on the other. Sonny got it immediately. 

Hillary Clinton, Sec. of State

Last Tuesday, Clinton announced an investment of $25 million in the "Internet Freedom Agenda," which she launched last year. As she explained it, it's a "venture capital approach" to funding tools for activists trying to get around censorship, citing China's firewall and the online blackout in Egypt. Wired Magazine reported she spoke in glowing terms of the revolution (after first coming out swinging for Mubarak); but when questioned about WikiLeaks, she denied any contradiction, saying there was no "hypocrisy in championing internet openness while opposing the radical transparency organization." Ms. Secretary, Say Whaaaat?

Samantha Power, on staff at the National Security Council and a special advisor to President Obama, (and I might mention a past adversary of Clinton's) is helping reform Mid-east policy. Power was the first to make the call that the U.S. needed to be on the side of Egyptian youth during the 18-day revolution, not Mubarak. Power's book, "A Problem From Hell," America and the Age of Genocide explores the waffling, passivity and impotence of U.S. presidents towards intervention, particularly, President Clinton's waffling, passivity and impotence during the Balkan War. She's now working for a man who might be accused of the same; but is this a problem for Power, or can she live with the contradiction?

My student Sonny can understand living with contradictions. She talks about freedom on one hand, while condemning America for her poverty on the other. Sonny finds it unacceptable that her elder daughter has taken a job as a bartender, although having the freedom for her to do so was one of the reasons Sonny came to America in the first place. For some immigrants, freedom is a vicious contradiction. 

So what do these three women have in common? They all have big balls, and they're all on first-name basis with "contradiction," an impenetrable firewall to get around. My admiration for all three.

An impenetrable firewall
(Arcade Fire)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Two Sets of Three

Part I: Found in Nature


 Ku Klux Klan


Part II: next post

Friday, February 11, 2011

Walking with Mr. Fleming

The Red Car Line through the streets of Los Angeles, circa 1925

As I read about the slow dismantling of the Pacific Electric Railroad system in Southern California, I'm on the verge of tears. The Pacific Electric was "the largest operator of interurban electric railway passenger service in the world, with over 1000 miles of track." The system operated throughout southern California, north, south, east and west, to the beaches of Santa Monica and beyond. How could Los Angeles' city fathers have let this happen? We had a mass public transportation system, run on electricity! Well, a rhetorical question to be sure, as we know the answer to its dismantling was the almighty car and the freeways that followed, which buried the streetcar after WWII.

This post isn't about the Pacific Electric RR, though, but about Charles Fleming, and his best-selling book, Secret Stairs: a walking guide to the historic staircases of Los Angeles (Santa Monica Press, 2010)

During the heyday of public transportation, over 200 staircases were built into the hills of LA, many of them to accommodate people coming and going to catch the trolleys and buses that ferried them across town. Fleming came across these hidden stairways when he started walking five years ago, as rehabilitation for his lousy health. He was on the verge of a third back operation, when he decided that the first two hadn't done him much good, so he might as well try something new. As I understand it, he's made a full recovery thanks to climbing these stairs. 

Fleming now conducts walks throughout Los Angeles based on the 42 stairway walks that he's detailed in his book—and some that aren't in there. Today he leads us, about 70 eager walkers, on a little under four-mile trek, an hour and a half long, through Silver Lake, climbing 1400 stairs! 1400! That's a lot of stairs. He dubs the walk the red face loop (not to be confused with the Red Car Loop) for its difficulty and duration. Even though Fleming said that the walk would be strenuous and long, I didn't take him seriously. Was I wrong! The man knows what he's talking about. 

Charles Fleming points the way

The Walk

Vincent and Julie begin








Tired dogs, Kiffen and six-yr-old girl—they all made it!

For more info about the stair walks and the author:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


In high school, Ricky Julliard, the only bona fide genius of our class, sat me down one day and taught me the theory of relativity, or at least what I could understand of it. What stuck with me was how he described energy—that energy couldn't be destroyed: once released, it moves on in different guises. We were talking about nuclear fusion, not death, but I've thought of Ricky often whenever I ponder where the essence of a person goes after he or she dies. For instance, my mother, where did her sweet nature go? For a non-believer, I find myself bypassing the more reverent explanations, say, God and heaven and all that rigmarole in which I find myself unsure. I'd like to think that Ricky was right, that energy moves on and informs us in different ways, and thus, a life that might have been cut short is still alive, in one form or another.

When Keith Rohman talked at his son Jack's memorial service, of how he had believed with all his heart that Jack would do something to change the world, and now that will not be, I wanted to cry out: but wait, he will, he has, he already has. I believe that; even though I didn't know Jack in recent years, from what Maya and her friends—amazing, cosmic kids up here on Mt. Washington and beyond—say, Jack's wit and humor, his intelligence and kindness, have changed their lives forever.

Keith appealed to all of Jack's friends to honor him: "Cherish your lives, cherish your friends, cherish your families," he told the young people gathered there, "Do not think there was anything you could have done." His call reached hundreds of those at the memorial who loved Jack and will continue to ring out among us here.

Sam says yes to friends.