Recently and for no apparent reason a memory of the old-fashioned flash bulb floated before my mind’s eye. I saw it, that bright, blue-ish cube affixed to the top of my father’s camera as he shot our pictures when we were, what, 5? 6? Maybe 7. Some readers, those old enough, will remember these. They were these funny, tinselly cubes that flashed bright for the photos they were meant to illuminate. Then, I believe, they were discarded.
Did they have a smell to them too? I want to say yes. I can smell them now, going off… a chemical, hot smell. Is that so? That’s what I remember. Did they have a sound? I believe they did. A high-pitched “Phewt” like a little missile and then a twangy, metallic, hollow sort of “pop!”
Amy Winehouse is playing in this cafe on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California. It’s Valerie, and as I listen to it, I remember the time my son, at 13, in eighth grade, played violin for the hot, raggedy teen girl band at a cafe in Oakland. They sang this song: Valerie. They were great. They were buxom, beautiful, built. My son, as 13-year-old boys are wont to be, was practically transparent he was so thin. So willowy, so… 13-year-old boy. Half the size of these goddesses. Yet, they found him cute. They laughed, prodded, and flirted with him. He held his own as best he could.
Her voice, Amy’s that is, is plaintive, sexy. Her timing, impeccable. She is my daughter’s favorite artist, and I think of the time my daughter wanted to take me to see the Amy Winehouse movie. I had this belief that Amy Winehouse was not a good role model and had an instinctive negative reaction. My daughter noticed that. She was stung, a little. It was not the only time she was stung by me.
But, I did come around. We did go to the movie. And I was moved. Deeply. Amy Winehouse, as most of you dear readers will know, was a powerhouse with a capital P. She was a force to be reckoned with, a major talent. I didn’t understand. I didn’t know this. I missed this, somehow. I stuck my head in the sand. I believed the negative stories about her. I neglected to educate myself on her whole story. My daughter showed me. It took my daughter to show me, years after her death, why she was important. Why she was, in fact, a role model.
Houston is flooding, as I write. The rains keep coming down. The images are frightening. I just clicked through a bunch of them on New York Times dot com, and tears sprang to my eyes. Especially, for some reason, the image of the black national guardsman asleep on a Tempurpedic mattress in a furniture store that opened its doors so rescuers could rest.
This photo made me cry. I’m not certain why. It’s the juxtaposition, I think. I’m scared. The rising waters in Houston are terrifying. They’ve killed 13 people so far. The rising waters in Southeast Asia also occurring now have killed 1000+. North Korea is sending missiles over Japan. And Donald Trump is our president.
It is indeed a terrifying time. But this photo particularly got to me. It’s a black man, a rescuer, dead-beat, asleep, innocent, beautiful, perfect in this stupid bed in this stupid store. The commercialism mixed with the nobility of this man sleeping. The stupidity of our capitalist culture mixed with the elementalism of life and death, rescue, fear.
This man is spending his time, when not storing up energy again, taking care of others. Yet, in this city — Houston — in many of our cities… in this climate of resurgent racism — racism I admit that is at a level I never imagined existed — but that all of my black neighbors knew did… it appears there are actually people who believe they would not want to be rescued by this man.
The pictures were all moving, the ones in Southeast Asia I gazed at too. It was abundantly clear that when water is halfway up your thigh, or sloshing against your second story window, it doesn’t matter what color you are, what religion you are, or how many dollars you have in the bank. We’re all, ultimately, in this together, and I’m afraid serious stressors are going to make this fact all the more obvious in the coming decades.
It’s a complicated mix of feelings. Ultimately, I feel ashamed. Ashamed of us. Of the west. Of our horrifically backwards values. I’m proud of this man who does his good work in the face of, what? He does not know. I think of the stories I hear these days of people turning down care from people they somehow deem lesser than they are… a recent story of a medical doctor who was shunned as she tried to save the life of a patient. This nonsense.
This man looks vulnerable. That’s what got me. All of these people do. But he in particular, because of the color of his skin and this bizarre fraught time we live in, seems more vulnerable to me than most.
It’s funny the things that bring tears to my eyes these days. Two weeks ago, while driving to meet my friend Sheila for a walk around the Lafayette Reservoir, I saw a field beside the road in the early morning light filled with large dirt clods. Immediately, tears sprang to my eyes. Why?
I asked Sheila later. She said, Maybe you’re thinking of the assault on the earth?
Of course, there’s always tango, and with tango, I remember the beauty in the world. You see, I study Argentine Tango. And that changes everything. Because, you see, there’s the embrace. The tango embrace. Some call it connection. We strive for this connection. People in tango, all of them, know what this means. You can touch someone, but not connect. You can under-touch, you can overtouch. Undertouching is not connecting. It’s closed-hearted, it’s tentative, it’s uncommitted. Overtouching is forced, aggressive, narcissistic. Connection is different, and you know it when you feel it.
It’s meeting another’s energy and force with like energy and force. It requires attention, subtlety, respect, and awareness. And courage.
Can we bring a little of that into the world? For Houston, for the black national guardsman asleep in a mattress store? For Southeast Asia and the 1000+ people who have died there? For our sons and daughters, for our neighbors and friends? For one another.
It’s a scary time. The least we can do is connect. It’s a start anyway. A very good one.