Sunday, January 29, 2012

Musicologist in the Family

My husband Ron has been doing a Saturday night radio show a couple of times a month at the public broadcasting station KZYX for years now. I can’t even remember how long he has been DJing this show. I’m listening to the tunes he is spinning right now while writing this. Tonight’s show is a tribute to Johnny Otis and Etta James, both of whom passed away last week. Ron makes it look so easy that people don’t realize how much effort he puts into his shows. Today’s show required two days of research as he delved into Johnny Otis’s professional life to determine which great musicians he played with in his early years, all the people he “discovered,” who his strongest influences were, and who performed with him and his band. We heard him at Kimball’s East in Oakland a long time ago and Johnny was pretty amazing (played piano brilliantly despite the fact that he was missing 3 fingers).

Ron is so humble and understated that people don’t realize how much he knows about R&B, Soul, Funk, and Jazz. He can often tell just by listening to an old Motown tune which of the studio musicians (mostly one of the “Funk Brothers”) is playing the bass, who is on keyboard, and who is playing the drums. He really should be awarded an honorary Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. That is a real subject and there are a number of colleges that bestow such a degree (including the University of Chicago). Ron could easily teach the subject. (He reads my blog, and I’m sure he’s going to be embarrassed by my glowing narrative here, and he’s going to take exception, saying he really doesn’t know all that much. But he does!) During his radio show, he tries not to say much and just let the music speak for itself, yet his choice of tunes often contains subtle connections that few people completely comprehend.

I’m grateful that we found a venue for him to share his knowledge about music as well as his voluminous music library with others who appreciate and enjoy the music he likes to listen to and that he knows so much about. Thanks to public radio, KZYX. I wish that Ron could retire from his day job and devote all his energy to his passion for music, sharing his knowledge and his tunes for more that just a couple of hours every other week. It is no coincidence that our son, Sudi, seems headed for a career in music as a prolific composer, performer, and DJ himself. Tonight, while Ron is spinning the tunes at KZYX, Sudi is performing his own compositions as a DJ at a house party in San Francisco. The acorn does not fall far from the tree, as they say.

[You can hear Ron’s show from anywhere in the world via the KZYX website, live streaming on the web. Click here to go to KZYX. Ron and I usually post on Facebook to let people know which weeks he is on. The show airs 8-10 PST Sat. nights.]

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Conversation about the Vocabulary of Racism with the Younger Generation

An interesting conversation recently took place between some of us older folks in my generation and some of the 20-somethings on Facebook. Last week my daughter posted a joke on FB that had the N-word in it. I try not to meddle in my children’s FB conversations for the most part, but I spoke up about this. I want young people to think long and hard before they use that word. I have a lot of trouble with people, any people, of any color, using that word; any form of that word, any spelling of that word, in any context. I don’t get why the younger generation thinks it’s OK to use it. My daughter took my comment in stride gracefully. Then, this week, my nephew in Chicago used the N-word in a joke on his FB page and his mom (my Black sister-in-law) did the same thing I had done. She called him out for it. He and his friends started to argue the point with her. I chose to jump in and lend her some support. The youngsters weren’t disrespectful to us, but they were eager to disagree. They said things like “we’ve changed the meaning” and “it doesn’t mean what it used to” and “you’re letting it have those racist meanings, giving it those meanings by allowing it to have those meanings” and “you’re so old-fashioned.”

My sister-in-law and I were very clear with the young people about the fact that there are centuries of racism, oppression, torture, and murder inherent in that word and they are not going to make that go away with wishful thinking about how they have “changed” the meaning. The word has the meaning it has built over centuries. My nephew said that once the older generation dies off, then the younger generation won’t be oppressed by the meaning of the word because they have transformed it, but I don’t buy that. And my sister-in-law was quick to point out that racism is still rampant in this country. She even mentioned the ongoing racist attacks Obama suffers despite the fact that he’s the president (most recently this week in relation to the clip of him singing an Al Green song that was posted on YouTube).

My sister-in-law told the youngsters that she wished they would have more respect for themselves than to use the N-word and the youngsters basically told her that she was giving the oppressor permission to continue oppressing her by allowing the word to get to her. My Black husband and I feel strongly that we would like to see the word disappear, but it keeps rearing its ugly head. You can see how much it affects me because I can’t even say it or write it. It’s my least favorite word. I think if I could choose one word in the English language to abolish, that would probably be the one. On the other hand, I have been thinking all day about which word is my favorite. Hard choice. Which word would you choose as your favorite? Which word would you abolish?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Exploitation Under the Guise of “Internship”

I recently read Ross Perlin’s book Intern Nation and it was an eye-opener. Opening with a chapter about the 7,000-plus “interns” flipping burgers and cleaning toilets at Disneyworld each year, Perlin makes his case about how we have been brainwashed into thinking that our young people must serve as unpaid interns as a transitional step into the work-world. In truth, internships have gutted the pool of entry-level positions (making them scarce), stripped young people of labor rights that people fought and died to establish, and shut millions of low-income and middle-income young people out of their chosen fields of work because their parents can’t support them while they “intern” for free.

The largest numbers of unpaid interns are working in government (D.C. is glutted with them), at nonprofit agencies, and in for-profit start-ups operating on a shoe-string budget. However, many internships are in corporations making huge profits and withholding even a pittance from these unpaid slave workers (who often do not secure a job as a result of having worked for free). Perlin shows how 99.9% of internships in the U.S. are illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which states that to qualify as an internship by law, “the employer that provides the training [to the intern] derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees [interns].” Whoa. There is a myth out there that if a person is gaining college credits for the internship, then it is legal. Not so. This is just another part of “the racket.” The college manages to coerce the student (or the student’s parents) to pay tuition for the student to work in an unpaid job. In fact, many internships are not only unpaid, but the intern must pay the employer for the privilege of serving as an intern.

Personally, I have no quarrel with unpaid internships of short duration that really do provide mentorship and on-the-job skills training for young people, whether or not the employer benefits or the internship is legal/illegal according to the FLSA. Two of my children have served in such internships and have benefitted from them enormously. Even so, I am outraged by the exploitation of our young people within this internship system, which has only recently (in the past couple of decades) spread throughout the country (and the world). Why should employers pay entry-level workers, and afford them benefits and protection under labor laws, when they can get them for free with no obligation to abide by labor laws? I think that young people need to stop buying into this system. Parents need to stop buying in. Universities need to stop buying in. Young people should be paid for their work. Period. Honor labor.

One more thing, and then I’ll sign off and let this go. My daughter has a degree in journalism; but her chances of breaking into the field are zilch because we can’t afford to support her in an unpaid internship. According to Perlin’s book, it is impossible to break into journalism without working for free first. Many journalism schools require that their students serve in an internship to get their degree, and they charge tuition for course credits for it. (My daughter was required to do this; but fortunately we secured a terrific internship for her with an “employer” who was a good friend of ours and provided her with an excellent work experience and mentorship that continues to this day.) In order to break into the field of journalism, a young journalist (in print, radio, multimedia online venues, etc.) must work for free for some time to get a foot in the door. This system is having a massive impact on the field of journalism, which is now, more than ever, increasingly dominated by people who come from upper-middle-class and upper-class backgrounds (read “able to afford to work for free for a year or two to break in” because of a trust fund or financially secure family, etc.) and also dominated by Anglo/Euro males. One of the young journalists whom Perlin interviewed said it perfectly: “It narrows the voices of who we hear, it narrows the kind of news that we hear.” That young journalist goes on to say that she sees, as a result, that public radio “tends to cover upper-middle-class issues.”

On this weekend, when I am thinking of Dr. King, and his life’s work, I am particularly struck by the ramifications of the expanding institution of unpaid (and low-paid) internships, and who is being cut out of jobs and who is being denied access to labor rights as a result. I am thinking, as I often do, about the voices that are not being heard. What would they say?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Landreth Seed Catalog

Our friends Art and Mary sent us a copy of the David Landreth Seed Company catalog for Christmas. Obviously I have excellent sources for seeds and starts, having been gardening for over 30 years. But the reason why Art and Mary sent the catalog became apparent the instant I turned back the cover. Landreth is the oldest seed house in America and it has a remarkable history. Many families that settled in America in the 1800s would have literally starved to death without this seed catalog. Landreth began the annual publication of his catalog in 1847 (although the Landreth family apparently sold seed as early as 1784).

Recognizing the fact that many immigrants arriving in America to start a new life knew nothing about agriculture, and that these same immigrants were attempting to make a life on the land, Landreth endeavored to use his seed catalog to teach people how to farm and garden. The catalog didn’t just list seeds for sale. It also explained how to plant the seeds and care for the plants as they grew, how to design and maintain gardens of all sizes, how to handle the many challenges that arise for the gardener, and more. The demand for the catalog was astonishing.

Now this is the thing that I find most amazing: by the 1860s, every home in America that had a postal address received a catalog! The Landreth catalog taught thousands of immigrants how to grow the food they needed to survive in the New World. A huge number of these immigrants had never farmed or gardened, and the Landreth catalog explained to them how to grow their food.

A highlight for me in this year’s Landreth catalog is the African American Heritage Collection page, which lists seeds originally brought to America from Africa and the Caribbean by people who were enslaved. The many plants that were introduced to America by Africans and people of Caribbean origin include cabbage, collards, gourds, okra, peanuts, hot peppers, pumpkins, watermelons, and the Cherokee Purple Tomato (one of my very favorites). Herbs brought by enslaved people include Genovese basil, plain parsley, sage, spearmint, and thyme. I have never grown peanuts and am thinking of buying some from Landreth and giving them a shot this coming summer. According to the catalog, they make good container plants. Peanuts on my deck?

Few accomplishments in life are as satisfying as growing one’s own dinner.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Painting In the SF Museum of Modern Art

I have a painting on display in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) right now. No kidding. It’s the “Where the Heck Are We?” sign! Honest truth, the sign is presently on display as part of Colter Jacobsen’s installation of art work. Here’s how.

Colter, a highly regarded artist, was honored with an invitation to be included in this year’s SECA Exhibition. Colter is the husband of Larry Rinder, who bought Phil and Nancy’s property across the road from our old property at the Ranch. Larry is the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, worked for many years as a curator at the Whitney, and was the dean of the graduate school at California College of the Arts. Both Colter and Larry are recognized and successful in the national art scene.

The SECA Exhibition is attached to an award that is given to four local San Francisco artists every two years. Four artists are selected to participate. This year is the 50th anniversary of the SECA Award. Click here to go to the web page about the award and the exhibition at the SFMOMA. Colter works in a variety of media. He is an accomplished painter. He also creates art from found objects and images. He has always loved the “Where the Heck Are We?” sign, and he asked the people who own our old property if he could put it into his installation. So my sign, that I originally painted and posted on a tree in August 1991, during our first few days at the Ranch, is now “sort of near the back of the fifth floor” (according to Colter) at the SFMOMA.

For those of you who don’t know the story about the sign, here’s the short version. On our first night at the Ranch, after we put the children to bed, Ron and I were in our bedroom listening to the unbelievably loud cacophony of chirping crickets. Ron, a city boy born and bred, turned to me in mock horror and asked, “Where the heck are we?” Sort of, what have we done, what were we thinking when we moved to the middle of nowhere? Of course, we loved our 18 years at the Ranch. Moving there was one of the best decisions we ever made. But Ron’s question was so hilarious that I had to paint it on a sign and post it. I put the sign on a tree beside the dirt road leading to our property. Many a first-time visitor to the Ranch told us, “We thought we were lost until we saw the sign, recognized your sense of humor, and knew we were on the right road.”

Over the years, the sign developed a life of its own. I could tell heaps of stories about that sign, which took on special meaning for many, many people. The question it asks is an important question! Colter felt that the sign belonged in an art museum for a few months. After the exhibition ends in April, he will put the sign back on the tree at the Ranch. In the meantime, he made a stand-in, which says “Where the Heck Are We?”; however, I told Colter that his stand-in sign should really say “Where the Heck Is the Sign?”

Now for some visual aids. My high school friend Suzanne Stratford Parkinson and her family were visiting San Francisco last week and they went to the SFMOMA. Here are some photos of the sign that they took and emailed to me.

First photo: A replica was made of the sign as a stand-in while they were assembling the exhibit. The original sign is on the left (mine) and the replica is on the right.

Second photo: Suzanne's beautiful daughter Alex with the sign.

Third photo: A photograph that Colter took of the sign in its natural habitat (on its tree) at the Ranch. The photo is part of Colter's installation and accompanies the sign and its replica. Beautiful Alex once again shares the sign!

Fourth photo: Added after my initial post, here is a close-up photo of the sign on the tree taken many years ago by my dear friend Jessica Nelson, who says eventually the sign began to mean, for her family, that they had arrived at a place of respite, fun, and abundant love. (Thank you, Jessica.)

Fifth photo: (Also added after initial post.) Mendocino Co. friend Margo Frank had her picture taken with the sign at the MOMA and did not realize that it was the same sign we had posted at the Ranch for all those years until she read my blog! (The sign is a sign of Margo's failed memory now.)