Saturday, December 16, 2006

Artifacts from a former time

Who is who and what is what? Why was then and how is now? Is time linear? Or do all the random moments bounce endlessly around the universe like racketballs in the court of heaven?

It's that time of year: the winter solstice. Time for gelt and time for santa claus. Our access to light is as tiny as it gets in this hemisphere; our only recourse is to hold on, because soon after the shortest day of the year finishes, we can feel the light earlier and later, every morning and every night.

Often, I think what my last breath might be like. Who will be there with me? I hope I do not die as James Kim did, alone in an alien environment, desperate and spent, trying to save my family but unable even to save myself. To me, his story is the tragedy of our year. How sad that a sweet, decent man died that way.

But he made a wrong turn. And as Dylan has sung, there's hopelessness awaiting each of us when we go the wrong way.

Today I found my little girl staring at the wall next to her bed. She was rereading a message she has read a hundred times before. It's the holiday season, so I guess she is feeling sentimental. She pulled out board games and tried to convince her brothers to play.

Finally, I gave in and let her send an email to the person she was missing so much, even though I know this is probably the last thing that one would want to recieve.

I've created my own holiday card!

Anyone who reads this blog, please send me an email (or a comment below) with your address (anonymous identity is fine) and I promise to send you a signed copy. Though to be quite honest, I'm not sure why anyone would do so.

I gave myself a Christmas present. It was an album that I'd given away, with special songs filled with special meanings. Tonight Julia danced to one of the songs, from the politically incorrect Supertramp.

Everything comes around again. Nothing is forgotten. No matter what else, the beat always goes on.


p.s. あなたの誕生日第四十三にあたって...I am excited to be going to Japan soon!

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Dylan's Santa is clearly a mad man. As I look at it, his vision makes sense. After all, what is a child to make of this mythical fat old elf, who sneaks into homes through the chimney, and reputably can see what you are doing at all times?

Pretty freaky. Sounds like Big Brother to me.

To his credit, I don't think Dylan ever bought the Santa Claus myth. I don't recall him ever saying anything about it; like most kids, he recognized that whatever excuse adults may use to give you a bunch of cool new stuff is good enough for him, thank you.

In addition, who would just give away all this cool stuff? Clearly, Santa is insane. Thank you, Dylan.


There are all kinds of jobs you might find in this life. And no matter how you define what used to be called your career (most people still use labels like "lawyer," "engineer," or "architect"), the Internet and related technologies are shaking those professions to their roots much like an 8 on the Richter scale devastates our humble structures made of mere steel, wood, glass and other mortal materials.

There's just nothing anyone can do about how the wave of information technology is reshaping our realities. You'd be wiser to join it, because you'll never beat it. Yesteryear won't be coming back any time soon.

I can remember when I first realized this monster wave of change was coming -- it was the late 1980s, I think -- although I'd had plenty of chances a decade earlier to put it all together in my mind.

So I was very slow to join the biggest party on earth, but when I did, I paid careful attention. What Toffler had labeled as "future shock," and what obscure visionaries like Harrison Brown had sensed was our best future opportunity to survive as a species; what McLuhan had written the marketing language for, and what the Defense Department had recognized as a DARPA-type vision was now (by the mid 90s) emerging from the obscurity of its subsidized nest to spread its wet young wings for all to see.

This raw techno-baby did not fall out of its nest, as many predicted, but instead soared way too high, way too soon, far above the known earth, violating all accepted laws of gravity.

No one violates the laws of gravity! (At least not yet.) So, starting in the years 1999-2000-2001, as fears of a massive system failure at the start of the new millennium circulated like the apocalyptic fantasies of frightened cults that they most certainly were, a wary new world tentatively embraced change, even as it punished those who got way out front of the curve a bit too much.

I'm familiar with being in this position. My entire adult life, I've been punished one way or another for being somewhere too soon, before the rest of the crowd arrived there. For me, living this way is much like reliving the fate of the fellow in Plato's Cave, who was sent up to interpret the guiding myths of his culture, trapped as they were, underground, able only to glimpse the shadows of those moving about far above their permanent grave.

Once above ground, he immediately saw through the illusions that served to convince his trapped brethren below that a world of superior giants moved about above. He saw that in fact those elongated reflections were nothing more than the shadows of equals, cast mockingly by a distant sun.

But when he returned to the cave to share this glorious news, he was killed for suggesting such a heresy!

Thus, the cliché that resonates among us to this day: "Kill the messenger!"

If there could be one role I might wish to claim for myself, it would be that of the messenger in Plato's Cave. Or, perhaps, as the messenger pigeon so loved and so deeply appreciated by my precious little Dylan.

I aspire to nothing more, nor nothing less. Kill me, if you dare.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Screams from a ghost.1


Thirty-two years ago tonight, a woman disappeared. Attractive, in her 40s, a divorced mom who worked as a bookkeeper, she was last seen alive at the Lamp Post Bar in Oakland.

This woman, who was white, lived alone in an apartment in Berkeley. She had progressive politics, an interest in astrology, and was developing what probably eventually would have been a drinking problem. Since her divorce she had done some dating, including black men. She sympathized with the black activists who were struggling to establish community institutions to help educate, feed, and house people still living in poverty amidst the richest empire the world has ever known.

In fact, she was working at a low salary for the most radical black organization around, the Black Panther Party.

Five weeks after she disappeared from the Lamp Post on Friday the 13th of December 1974, Betty Van Patter's body was found floating in San Francisco Bay. She was a long way from home when she was found; or rather what was left of her was found off of Foster City, way down the peninsula from San Francisco. An autopsy determined a massive blow to the head had killed her.

After conducting various investigations, police, private investigators and journalists all came to believe that the Panthers executed Betty after she complained about irregularities in their financial records. Like all good accountants and bookkeepers, she was as straight as an arrow when it came to financial record keeping, and she worried that the Panthers' methods would get them into trouble with authorities. (In this she was prescient -- the group eventually was shown to have systematically misused government funds and lost all of its access to public monies that had helped fuel its growth.)

Far worse, the group was revealed to have engaged in repeated criminal behavior, including murders that undermined every positive thing it had ever tried to do. In many ways, the true story of the Black Panthers is a tragedy, because leaders like Huey Newton descended into petty criminality, violence, drug addiction and many other characteristics of the oppressed population they had so idealistically tried to serve.

Revisionists, including many who have tried to tell the story through various art forms, including plays, books, exhibits, speaking tours, conferences, and the like have largely missed the essential tragedy of this group's story, which is both Shakespearean in scope and as petty as the lowest street thug shaking down "protection money" with a swagger that betrays his essential powerlessness in this private market economy.

The criminals take bigger risks, pocket bigger profits, and pay a higher price for their indiscretions.

So, as I hope any reader may divine, I had and continue to have, a great deal of empathy for the aspirations of the Black Panther Party, as did Betty Van Patter. And, in fact, I knew many of the Panther leaders, including Huey Newton, Elaine Brown, and Eldridge Cleaver in my role as a progressive journalist at Rolling Stone. I interviewed them all numbers of times, and I liked them all, too, because they were charismatic, articulate, intellectually gifted individuals.

Elaine, in addition, was extremely beautiful and flirtatious. Huey was handsome and capable of carrying on conversations about politics, literature, poetry and philosophy, even as he snorted coke and swigged Remy Martin. I visited him in his infamous high-rise apartment overlooking Lake Merritt in Oakland, as well as in other venues over the years.

Eldridge I visited in prison. He gave me a hand-written letter running some 18 pages on yellow legal paper in response to questions I had put to him. His writing, even in letterform, was eloquent. I also knew and liked his wife, the lovely and forceful Kathleen Cleaver.

In fact, the night my first child was born, I left the hospital (which is what fathers had to do in those days -- the touchie feelie stuff like natural childbirth was just in its infancy) -- and went to a prearranged meeting with Kathleen in the Haight, where she insisted we smoke congratulatory cigars.

So, yes, I had lots of personal contacts with the Panthers at the highest levels, and I produced a number of articles sympathetic to the group, which had been subjected to outrageously illegal government disruptions under what was codenamed the "Cointelpro" project of the FBI.

But, in the process of doing these stories, I and my partners also started to become gradually aware of the dark side of the Panthers. We were journalists, first and foremost, so despite our personal sympathies for the Panther’s cause, we had an obligation to our readers to tell the truth as we learned it.

Thus, by the late 70s, now at the Center for Investigative Reporting, I helped coordinate the investigative article in New Times magazine that ripped the politically correct facade away from the Black Panthers and revealed the cruel, violent thuggery that had replaced all the idealism and all the hope they once had represented.

Just before the story appeared, Huey let me know through an intermediary that if I didn't prevent it from appearing that my family would be put at risk.

By now, I knew enough about his methods to take the warning seriously, and I bundled my young family off to a series of safe houses, much as I had myself used a few years earlier when someone I knew who was closely affiliated with the SLA had issued a death threat directly to me for co-authoring Rolling Stone's notorious Patty Hearst series.

(That threat had to be weighed against a counter-threat from the head of the local FBI who literally threatened to” cut {us} off at the knees" if we didn't show him the second part of our series before it went to press.

Long story short, we didn't, he didn't, they didn't, but I believe Huey tried to. People who appeared to be affiliated with the Party showed up at my home and at our office in the days following the publication of the New Times story. (The authors -- Kate Coleman and Paul Avery -- faced even greater dangers, and took the appropriate steps to protect themselves as a result.)

Eventually, as with all such things, this controversy died down and faded from the top of anyone's agenda. All of us proceeded to meet our fate in different ways.

Yet, all of these years later, one important part of the story remains unfinished.

That is why, tonight, I am remembering Betty Van Patter, and her family members, who have suffered in the aftermath of her murder for way too long. Very soon, a local Bay Area newspaper will publish a long story about this unsolved case. When that happens, I will link to the article, and summarize its content. I will also identify the author of a recent book who may well prove to be a main suspect in this long-ignored case.

Mysteries like this one remain unsolved until one day -- suddenly -- they are solved. Betty's killer or killers remain at large and have never paid for their crime. If Shakespeare were still among us, he most certainly would tell this story by focusing on the tragedy of the heroes (read: killers) and how they went bad. But also, he would have insisted that in the end the identities of those responsible for this heinous crime be revealed, and suffer the appropriate consequences.

The children of Betty Van Patter continue to demand in their quiet way that the truth of what happened to their mother be outed. In this way, they embody the deepest of truths -- that the powerful bond between a loving parent and his or her loving children must never, ever be breached.

To do so puts the universe out of balance. An awful scream pierces the air we all breathe. I hear these ghosts who swirl among us and I shudder at their screeching. The body of a murder victim does not rest at peace until her killer is brought to justice -- if only the symbolic but critical justice of exposure and shame, a la O.J. Simpson, for example.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's tortured world branded a man and a woman who joined in sexual desire with an awful "A."

I want to see the skies part and a letter branded on a killer who still remains among us, living his respectable life, publishing his respectable book.

That letter will be a red "K."


* Note on artwork: It is based on a photograph I made of a lovely woman sunbathing in a newspaper ad. I posted that photo at my blog Sidewalk Images some time ago. Via photoshop, I redrew elements of the image and manipulated it in a way I hope represents both the essential beauty of a woman at rest and the ugly physical reality of the blackness of death. This is a humble image, but one I felt I needed to create for this article, because my written words cannot do justice to the feelings Betty's case evokes.

Just 12

Can you remember when you were that age? I'm not sure I can. But my sweet, red-haired son and I sat five rows from courtside tonight as the Warriors beat the Kings, 126-113.

He was mesmerized. One of my favorite things about being a parent is being able to blow my kid's mind. Tonight, I think that happened for Aidan.

He's a key member of his school's JV basketball team, with a fade away jumper and a driving lay-up and an attitude that his coaches call "leadership." So, it was magical that tonight he got to see up close some similar players (like Baron Davis) at a much higher level, of course, and in so much detail that we could smell the sweat, hear the curses, watch the blood that was spilled, and contemplate the individual personalities of the various participants as they were revealed under the pressure of NBA basketball played out there under the lights, with nowhere to hide.

Of course, there were the usual distractions, more for me than for Aidan. For example, he didn't seem to give the cheerleaders a second glance, but I can report they seemed to be having genuine fun as they wiggled and cheered and danced for the crowd in their skimpy outfits.

Sadly, for those interested in precise detail, they moved much too rapidly for me to capture more than an impressionistic version of their choreographed beauty. I guess you had to be there...


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

More: One Year Later

These scenes of devastation date from late 2005 and early 2006 in East Biloxi, which was one of the Mississippi coastal communitues that took the brunt of Katrina's spinning jagged wheel of destruction.

Survivors described a thirty-foot wall of water pushed by the hurricane over the entire peninsula that is East Biloxi. The wall was so powerful it lifted the huge anchored barges serving as offshore casinos and drove them landward, where they demolished everything in their path before coming to rest a half mile inward.

Another wall of water rose from the waterway behind East Biloxi -- Back Bay -- and roared over the land in the opposite direction (toward the Gulf). The two water skyscrapers crashed together over the area, smashing mansions and shacks alike into twisted piles of muddy debris.

Out of the ruins, a community is trying to rebuild itself. Government agencies and the large disaster relief organizations have mostly departed. Residents are depending instead on the thousands of volunteers who have poured into the area since September 2005 in their effort to reclaim something of the vibrant community life they have lost.

Little progress has yet been made. So much remains to be done. I'm trying to bring some attention back on this forgotten coast this Christmas season. In coming days I hope to list organizations in Mississippi and Louisiana that need your help. Please consider doing something to help this holiday season.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

One Year Later

Just about this time last year, I was polishing off my report for Salon about the crisis in Biloxi. It was based on my first visit there, at Thanksgiving. I was also anticipating my second visit, at New Year's.

The person I considered my best friend called me every day. She'd usually be sitting in her car, using the battery charger to keep our connection alive. The story of my life then could have been titled " The Days of Just Waiting." Waiting for her calls, her emails, for our next time together.

At that time I would have said she knew me better than anyone else did. She might have said something similar about me. But, in addition to our friendship, my heart was being tugged just like hers was -- by the plight of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The most compelling thing I felt I could do would be to quit my job, sublet my flat, get some freelance assignments and drive to Biloxi.

With my laptop, tape recorder and digital camera, I would produce lots of online material that later could be easily fashioned into a book.

The problems with my fantasy were twofold:

First, how would I be able to be any kind of responsible parent to my three young children. I wouldn't be making much money, presumably, so how could I send their mother large enough support payments to keep them safely cared for? How would they cope without me in their daily lives?

Secondly, I had to be my own devil's advocate and try to separate out my love for my girlfriend from my desire to help the survivors of the twin monsters of 2005 -- Katrina and Rita. Was I just following her, or did I have my own individual drive to do this work?

In the end, my fantasy remained pretty much that -- just a fantasy. But not before it bloomed into a personal crisis that I now recognize as the worst of my life, which has had more ups and downs than one of those toy submarines filled with baking soda we used to play with in the bathtub when I was a kid.

Before it peaked, I had done and said things I'll regret the rest of my life. The depth of my sadness, when glimpsed by my little boys, scared them beyond anything they'd ever experienced. Seeing me that out of control was a trauma, I now admit, that may have left lasting scars.

At the same time this was happening, I reached out for whatever resources I could find -- therapists, friends, this blog. I kept trying to reach out for my friend, too, but she refused me. I was going to have to get through this one alone.

Flipped around, this crisis -- losing my key relationship, and not being able to follow my passion to get involved in ways I knew would be helpful -- turned gradually into an opportunity. For over eight months, day after night, I've posted to this blog, attempting to capture an emotional journey that remains far from over.

It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to step between my children and me again (and to be fair, that is not what my friend tried to do -- I did that to her and to myself.) In fact, I've long since forgiven her and everybody else in this sad story. But there remains one person I doubt I will ever be able to forgive:

The one who is writing these words.

As always, I turn to poetry for my solace, such as it is:

Window wide open, African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze...
...There's smoke on the water, it's been there since June,
Tree trunks uprooted, 'neath the high crescent moon...
...She never said nothing there was nothing she wrote,
She gone with the man
In the long black coat.

-- Bob Dylan