Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Watch Yer Mood, Dood

So, I've been in something of a black mood, as anyone who has suffered through my last few posts will know. Not unusual for me to be in a bad mood in July because this is the month before I go to press with the course catalog at the major research university (MRU) which pays my bills. The stress level gets titanic ... it is not just the pressure of chasing down all the myriad details and confirming that everything is true and grammatical and spelled correctly. It's more the maddening blizzard of email ... the dozens of requests for information that I have securely stored on my web site. For crying out loud, some people send me email asking me the location of a building where I am holding a meeting. Duh ... look at a map. I edit about 2500 course descriptions ... when I am done they are like little materialist koans, all tight and intertwined and thick with content. I cannot bear flabby prose, and in this job I get to root it out.

So I get a little crazy.

I am a little less stressed because, for perfectly rational reasons that are too particular to worry about here, my big boss decided that the book can arrive 2 weeks later than in previous years because we are going live with a web site the day that class registration opens. That means a 10-day press-date reprieve ... I kept saying it was like having a death sentence commuted to life no parole. I was giddy. 10 extra days makes the whole thing a piece of cake. So I am taking tonight off .. .really, an evening off in July is pretty rare in this journey.

And I am a little lighter of mood. Light enough to muse that blackness of mood appears to the natively pessimistic as simply absence of the dross of happiness ... the absence of the illusion that things are on some level okay. So I am not withdrawing from the bleakness of some of these last few posts, but rather affirming that there is something to be said for finding a little joy despite knowing.

So to find a little joy, yesterday I took my lunch hour to watch the first half of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (I am working mostly at home) and watched the rest of it before I fell asleep. It is about a remarkable man, Mark Bittner whose gentle intelligence is the other motif of the film ... i.e., other than the spectacular images of the parrots. The film is about Mark the drifter who found a temporary home, more like a squat, in a ramshackle cottage on Telegraph Hill after a couple of decades of bumping around North Beach like lots of other over-the-hill after-the-fact beatnik types. (For those not from San Francisco, North Beach is only slightly north and not a beach at all. It is in the shadow of Telegraph Hill where the parrots roost and feed, and it is the fabled home of the beatniks of the 50s.) From this shack he established a relationship with a flock of Cherry-headed Conures, and later wrote a book and was the subject of a film by Judy Irving who he later married and with whom he is now living in the gardens of Telegraph Hill.

So things turned out well. Notwithstanding that there is a chilling interlude in the film where this frigid middle class married pair slowly manages to choke out that they are tossing this unique man out of the little shack where he had been living rent-free. The pair is so slimy, so assured of their privilege. What ensues is heart-wrenching. Mark has to give up the wounded parrots he has rescued and nurtured to a rescue group. He has to say good bye to his avian friends including the unique Connor (I think) who is of a different related species for the rest. He has to move in with human friends in the East Bay ... San Franciscans shudder when someone has to move to the East Bay. We watch as his shack is demolished, and then we see the suburban "architectural" monstrosity that replaced it and the for rent sign.

What would it have taken for those peacock-proud middle class homeowners ... obviously rich enough to buy the most prime real estate in San Francisco and then renovate it from top to bottom ... what would it have cost them to make a little space of Bittner, to be the patrons of this kooky San Francisco legend? Would it have in any way substantially reduced the vast excesses that are theirs? Of course they don't have to. But that is the difference between the San Francisco of memory and the increasingly suburban greed that crowds in and destroys the very reason these people came in the first place.

At least those creeps get to live the rest of their pampered lives in the shadow of that ignominious exposure of how shallow run their souls.

It makes me think of the middle class again ... another sampling of the same middle class whose passivity and satisfaction and indulgence enabled the extended livelihood of the Junkers who led Germany and Europe to disaster in 1914. Now we all want to be middle class ... by "we all" I mean the entire species except for the infinitesimally tiny minority of the super-rich ... and I am lucky enough to be one of those who are middle class. Great work if you can get it. But we are no more than ostriches if we do not examine the unresolved contradictions of the middle class ... the tendency to equate their own comfort with good, the failure to use the gifts they are given, the casual rationalizations. In the modern American context, reduce it to this: the planet is going to hell because middle class Americans figure they must drive monster SUVs or their children's lives will be forfeit.

But prices must be paid. And the dread of those prices is hard bedrock of pessimism.

See how easy it is to work back from a little glimmer of happiness to underlying despair. But it should also be easy to work the other direction. If you look at Mark Bittner's site now, he is a happy man ... married, writing, living on the same Telegraph Hill from which he was so callously evicted. He has been a vocal defender of the wildness of the flock which only he tamed and then only for the few moments that the flock granted him.

This post has been written in three sittings, and by that it is probably a little disjointed. If some respite from my present travails presents itself, I will search for some photos from Telegraph Hill. Even better, I will walk the dog there on Sunday morning and take some new pix.

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