Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Three-Tribe Theory ... Part 2

Hi all. If you have not read part 1 of this, please go back and do that. Thanks.

Seventeen years or so ago, I had a lovely moment. It was a moment that I think all of us ought to look forward to, but most probably do not. It was the first time my son Glen ever directly defied me.

He was five years old at the time, and had been, till then and mostly since, an even-tempered boy, easy to get along with, and not the least bit spoiled or demanding. So it came as a shock to me when he suddenly showed another side of himself. I'd asked him to do something; put his toys away, or get his shoes on or something, and instead of running off compliantly to do as directed, he stood his ground. He tilted his head down a little and set his jaw and said, "NO". It stopped me in my tracks. I might easily have reacted with anger, but it was so out-of-keeping with what I knew of him that I just stopped. And then I felt the sudden need to smile expansively. So I left him there, ducked into the kitchen and did just that. I was filled with a sense of pride and well-being. I was in love with him and myself too.

Then I pulled it together, faked a scowl, and went back out and made him do what I'd asked.

What had happened? Well, I had been reading books on evolution, anthropology, brain science, the emergence of human consciousness, and anything I could lay my hands on to explain humans to me. I'd reached a dead-end in my quest for WHO I was, and decided to look instead at WHAT I was. So I had all this running through me when little Glen dug in and challenged me. And I had just enough good will in me that morning, and hesitated just long enough, for the real nature of the encounter to be revealed.

My five-year-old had, in fact, profoundly complimented me in two distinct, if related, ways. First, he had challenged my authority, which I was now able to see as an acknowledgement of my authority. He was feeling a need to challenge the Alpha, and the Alpha was me. Secondly, he proved with his outburst, that I had somehow instilled in him not only a clear perception of my leadership, but enough courage (and confidence in my fairness) to risk the encounter. So in one well-placed word, my son had let me know that I was fulfilling both my leadership role, and my role in preparing him for the leadership role he would one day fill. That was a very good morning.

I don't think that I have had a single troublesome interaction with another human since, where I was not able eventually to tease out the tribal dynamics at work. I still fight with people, and win or lose or accept a stalemate, but I don't take any of it personally really. I understand that we are smart primates first and foremost. Our identities as Democrats, or Republicans, or Christians, or Vegans or Yankees Fans or whatever we use as a flag to fly ... all have been grafted onto the framework of the intelligent mammals that we are.

And in the same way that a mechanic would know that a Dodge Caravan and a Chrysler 300 have exactly the same engine and drive-train, I know that however different we look to each other, we are all basically the same under the hood. When you come at me with open-ness, or dismissal, or some seemingly inappropriate air of competition, you are really trying to figure out whether I am an ally or a threat.  And when I react, however I do, I ought to be giving you that information, so that you can get about your business in the most streamlined way you can. This stuff can freak people out, but is the perfectly normal jostling for position that all group mammals do.

All of that is subliminal most of the time, of course. And, because we have invested thousands of years of culture into denying our animal natures, we mostly miss it entirely. Instead we feel rejected and angry. We carry resentments for years. We lie awake at night re-running conversations, combing through our memories to find what went wrong - what we might have done differently. Some of that is okay, as some of that is part of the organic jostling that will always be there; but there's no reason we should make ourselves sick over the bickerings of clever apes trying to form survival units in a hostile world.

Because that is what we are doing. We are attempting to build survival units. Let's go back to Africa for a quick recap of human history.

A couple of million years ago, our little globe was up to a lot of the  same climate-change tricks that have us in a tizzy right now. The rain forests of central Africa were shrinking back drastically leaving savannas and grasslands in their wake. Some of the fruit-eating primates who lived in the forests got squeezed and began to venture out into the open spaces. There were a lot of animals out there to eat, but also fierce predators with savage teeth and claws and explosive speed. The apes spent more and more time standing upright, the better to see things coming, and gradually their skeletons adjusted for that. Also, having inferior equipment for hunting, they learned to adapt their social-group behaviors of the forest to hunting-group behaviors. They developed ways of signaling. They learned to present as a group and scare off much more formidable creatures. They were learning language and strategy and inter-dependence. Their brains grew larger, adding mass and redundancy and the demands of their new world found use for the new grey matter. Soon they were making tools and weapons and building shelters. It wasn't long - in evolutionary time at least - till they began to follow their migratory prey onto other continents.

These were, of course, our ancestors. Most of the time we've been on this planet - the overwhelming majority of our time here, we were hunter-gatherers. If you lay a standard 12 inch ruler in front of you and imagine that to be the time-line starting at the arrival of the first bi-pedal proto-humans and ending last Thursday around lunch-time ... nearly all of the ruler is inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherers. The entirety of our march to law-based societies that began with agriculture's demand for a stationary life, is contained in the last eighth-inch of your ruler. That's how much longer we lived in tight mobile units, than we have lived in large trading-based societies.

And just as the mini-van is built on the sedan's chassis, our large, logical brains were built on those older, simpler brains. And in the same way, our elaborate cultures, our political systems, our economies, and even that group of friends we meet at Starbucks one Saturday a month, are all built upon the bones of tight-knit human survival pods.

Have you ever watched a drastic home re-modeling? There are tax reasons to remodel rather than building new, so the house is torn down mostly, but a little is left to stand. So now a beautiful high-tech house rises, and looking at it you'd never know that somewhere deep inside are a couple of old walls. Our brains are like that. The old mammalian brain is still there, and worse, the old lizard brain too.

These old grandfathered-in brains are not great at conceptual thought. They are not calm weighers of subtlety, prone to careful observation and long-term testing of options. They are reactor-brains. If a new thing appears, these brains are likely to be afraid of it - just in case - and take off running, or at least send that signal to the rest of our bigger more thought-filled brains. If blocked from running as they are by our social conventions and commitments to things like work-days, they will send the signal to agress. Fight or Flight.

I saw a documentary the other day where a British comedian visited Ted Turner at his monstrous Montana ranch. They drove out to see a buffalo herd. After parking the jeep, they walked up the hill, Turner leading confidently. There were a couple hundred huge bison watching their approach. It looked terrifying and must have been for the visitor. At some point one buffalo turned and ran and they all went with him. Turner might think this a reflection of his own uber-alpha vibes, but if a couple of ten-year-old girls had driven up and done the same, the bison would also have done the same. Not sure what that is ... why risk it?

So we live in these modern societies. And we are very much different outwardly from our distant ancestors. We have technology and transportation, hospitals, armies, clothing to sustain us in the arctic if necessary. We have philosophy and psychology and religion, art and music and literature. We have come a long way baby. It is very tempting to believe that we are no longer primates, but rational, clear-thinking PEOPLE.

But we aren't. At least not reliably. We are what the enormous preponderance of our history has made us. And whatever we set out to do, our approach - when examined - reveals these old behaviors. We're stuck with ourselves. Maybe not forever. Maybe just for another half-million years of so. Until then, it would behoove us to let go of our false reckonings, and learn to operate these vehicles we ride around in.

I've been watching Americans for a while now. Pretty good eggs, by and large, but they are having some real problems. Politically we are so locked into opposing groups that compromise is virtually impossible. We are dependant for the fuel that fires our economy on foreign peoples we can't understand. Our schools are mired in wrong ideas and owned by unions more interested in steady employment than education. Most of us can't afford to be either healthy or sick. We run before the promptings of Madison Avenue like cattle before the electric prod. We either doubt God, or are nearly crazy in our devotions. Millions of American adults are on anti-depressants. Millions of American children are on Ritalin. We're eating and drinking ourselves to death. We over-load our lives with accomplishments and possessions and still wake up in the night terrified that we'll be caught up short..

The tapestry is beginning to unravel. Why? I believe that a partial answer is this: we cannot feel contented and safe unless we are connected to other actual humans through on-going tribal interactions. And I say that, for all the crowds available to us, most of us are gripped by a sense of isolation.

A tiny bit more foundation work, and I'll get to my solution.

Our bodies, using the oldest parts of our nervous system, produce feelings of pleasure and pain. More recent are brain-centers that produce feelings of safety and well-being, or conversely, feelings of fear, and anxiety. These nerve-responses, and our feelings about them are there to drive us toward things that are good for our survival and away from things that threaten it. Once it was easy. Hmmm, I like how it feels to eat and have sex, and I don't like how it feels to freeze or be clawed by a bear. So ... my days will be spent trying to get the good stuff and defending against the bad stuff. I see something edible, I eat it. Something threatens me, I kill it or run away. And when the area is depleted, I strike the camp and move on.

And because the demands of competing against the real predators had taught us to depend upon one another, our brains had gradually learned to produce good feelings when we cooperated. After all, I would need to know you had my back on the hunt, so sharing my food with you and helping you thatch your roof was pro-survival. We developed strong group-bonds driven by the good feelings these cooperations gave us, and we learned to hate those outside our group as part of the fear-mechanism that kept us safe from them. Just in case. Simple and direct. And that was us for a long, long time.

But once we switched from hunting-gathering to agriculture we had to stay put. Now we were faced with turning the daily gamble into predictability. We had to stay in one place long enough to get a crop in, and further, we had to trade what our land would grow for what we needed that it would not. We had to develop long-term discipline and some way to guarantee our safety when we hauled our load of flax down to the river to trade for fish. So we came up with a one-god theory and started to hang some moral imperatives on it. And this morphed into towns and cities and countries and armies and courts, and along came shipping and empires and machines and manufacturing and eventually us.

Suddenly there was concrete and nice square-cut lumber and big foundries and factories and mills. And we worked in the mills and the factories and made homes from the lumber and concrete, and as we standardized and mass produced all our needs, we did the same to ourselves. We began to define individually, what once we'd defined in groups. The market that once served us, was now driving us to serve it. It was more profitable to persuade each family to own furnishings and stoves and washing machines and cars, rather than share them. Village gave way to suburb, and all that natural need for cooperation was buried under structured task-work often making things we had no use for or clear understanding of. And our intentional energies were slowly  pried loose from their origins. It was gradual, but inexorable. Now a couple hundred years into the industrial revolution, we appear to be a species that prefers to live in small blood-related groups of one or two adults and two or three kids, and often we split even that tiny unit among two homes. And it is possible to live separated by just a wall from a neighbor we might never meet.

So that is where we are.

Now, the Three Tribes. My notion is that, in spite of belonging to any number of groups, as I mentioned in my last piece, there are just three that are essential. I'll start with the first, skip ahead to the third and then drop back to the second.

The first, and smallest is the Immediate Family. This is the Ward and June and Wally and Beaver unit. It's fine as far as it goes. It is thought, particularly among religious conservatives, that this is the basic building-block of society. They think that we must, above all else, preserve this first tribe in its most basic Dad-Mom-Kids form. Maybe, maybe not. But it is deeply rooted culturally for sure. This is The First Tribe.

The third and largest is Society At Large. Quantify this as you'd like, but as an American, I see this as The United States. It is apparently central enough for us to bicker about endlessly, so this is, for my purposes here, The Third Tribe.

The Second Tribe is like a hole in our society. It's mostly not there when you go looking for it. Mostly, in fact, nobody is even looking. It has been forgotten. But what is it? This is - or should be - the modern analogue of the small tribal village. It is a community of perhaps 75 to 150 people in a range of ages, not necessarily related by blood but all known to one another. This is key. You need to know everybody in the Second Tribe. You do not, however have to like them all. In fact, the Second Tribe works a lot better if you don't like some of them.

In order to be a happy and productive person, one needs to learn some basic things. One needs to learn that he or she is not the center of the universe. One needs to learn how to defer gratification, and spend some energy working on things that benefit others more immediately than one's self. One also needs to know what sort of talents he possesses, and where his weaknesses lie. Does she have great leadership potential, or negotiating skills? Is she particularly good at seeing a problem in a new light and finding solutions where no one else sees them? One needs to know one's attributes and liabilities. And only interactions with other humans will bring these out and develop them.

Additionally, people need ways to calm and comfort themselves, and to experience joy. If these things can be done without resorting to drugs or alcohol, and in communion with others, strong pro-society habits can be formed. We know that the opposite is true.

So how is the First Tribe at these function? Well we all know families who are very sensitive to their childrens' talents and weaknesses. In the best-case scenario, a child can grow up pretty well with just the influence of the parents. But there are pitfalls. Because of the blood-bond and the fact of so much familiarity from birth, a kid might be perfectly acculturated in the First Tribe and be awkward as hell outside. School and playground help a lot with this, but last only through childhood, and don't offer much cross-generational experience. We also know families that are just incredibly toxic. It's hard to leave when things start turning dark. They share a house and own things together. Dependency weakens resolve. It is possible for the most horrible abuse to go on for decades in the sealed environment of a nuclear family. And where not horrible, it's still likely to not be optimal. A kid can be spoiled rotten or destroyed spiritually and there's often not much we can do about it.

So the First Tribe can be weak for building citizens. How about the Third Tribe? Well, the Third Tribe is a mega-tribe. It, as an entity, has no idea that you are even there. Sure we vote for or against its leaders and abide by or break its laws. We pay into its coffers and fight its battles. But it is mostly opaque to us. And we are invisible to it. If I walk off into the wilderness today, the Third Tribe won't miss me at all. Pretty much the only way to get its attention is to break its laws. I sometimes think that Columbine and the Kennedy assassination were simply cries to be noticed by the Third Tribe. A drive toward fame is that as well. The proliferation of reality shows. Celebrities with no talent beyond self promotion. The Jerry Springer Show. "Cops". Jack-Ass. Youtube videos with no other purpose to the poster than to be known by strangers even if it means being known for your own stupidity. None of it works for long. None of it patches the hole. The Third Tribe does not love us. It doesn't even bother to hate us.

No it is the Second Tribe where human beings are polished up into the extraordinary creatures that they can be. I mentioned that all members of the 2nd Tribe must know each other. Why do I say this? Accountability. If you don't know me, I can run a number on you. If, in my daily life, I encounter mostly strangers, then I can get by on charm or intimidation. I can lie and cheat. And by the time the note comes due, I'm on to the next victim. But not in a 2nd Tribe. Word is passed around too easily. Exposure is quick and scrutiny follows. If I correct my behavior, it is noticed and encouraged. If I don't, my grace-period will not last long. Hustlers don't do well in the 2nd Tribe.

This is the crux of it. Only in a group small enough to be directly affected by my misbehavior, will I get the kind of blow-back I need to decide that being an A-hole is more trouble than it's worth. And only in a small group will I, if I get on the good foot, get the kind of acceptance that will make me want to be even more of a contributor. And all of this happens organically. If left to its own devices, a purpose-driven group will naturally move its members toward their most cooperative selves. And while doing this it will draw from each his talents and creativity and wear away his insecurities.

You notice that I said 'purpose-driven'. That's an important distinction. Without a common and compelling purpose, the 2nd tribe is nothing special. Unless everybody feels a strong need for what the group provides them, or is passionate about what the group provides for others, then they will just go their separate ways when they hit a rough patch. It's the staying on that does the magic. I mentioned that it's best if we don't particularly like everybody in the group. Working with people we like is easy. But finding ways to work with those we'd not select as friends, is a real workout for the mind. It not only makes us more confident of our own people skills, but erodes our tendency toward prejudice as we learn how to bridge those personality gaps.

I need to add also, that a group like this should have some sort of on-going challenge to its existence. It is, after all, the old survival urge that underpins human bonding in the first place. It doesn't have to be anything drastic, but some slight threat that the group could be dispersed or its mission thwarted, adds dynamism, and makes accomplishments sweeter and team-mates more valued.

I am running out of time for writing here, because I will be leaving soon to drive to Kulak's Woodshed in North Hollywood. Kulak's is where I meet with my own 2nd tribe. It's a little listening room and community hub, geared to singer-songwriters of all skill levels. I've been going in there for the open mic every Monday night for almost 5 years. When I first arrived, I knew nobody, and though I was an experienced performer, nobody made a fuss over me. I kept to myself at first. But I made a few friends, and on instinct, decided to keep coming back. Gradually I dealt with a lot of what had been bothering me my whole life. While rubbing up against a lot of performers - some of whom I did not like - and by wrestling my own ego down (or just as often, up), to a level at which I could feel like an equal to all, I began to genuinely enjoy people for who they were.

Our purpose is to provide a safe, friendly environment wherein people of all ages may express themselves though performance. Our challenge comes, in calm times, from raising rent, paying bills and lots of technical and volunteer issues. There have been times when outside forces have actually tried to shut us down. So far we've pulled together and survived, but the wolf is always nearby.

I'm not in charge of Kulak's Woodshed. There is a boss, and he's not me. I do host sometimes, like tonight, and I have a little authority on those nights, but I serve at the pleasure of the chief. That is so good for me. One of the great things about a functioning 2nd tribe is that a person gets to be the boss one minute and be bossed the next. That is a balance found in nature, and is terrific for the balancing out of the ego. After five years of Mondays, I hardly know myself. Or maybe I finally do know myself. Whatever the case, I am different. I'm more confident, less bitter, a better performer, and I have not felt the need to drink alcohol in 21 months. Without trying really. I'm certain these things are connected.

So, I have to run. In my next installment, I will talk about how some groups function as Second-Tribe units. I will also talk about how a 2nd Tribe can go bad. I'll tell a couple Kulak's stories. I'll look at the 2nd Tribe potential of 12-step groups, small business, sports teams, church, and maybe others, and hopefully get you thinking about how you might get tribed up.

In closing I'll give you my 2nd Tribe equation:

A 2nd Tribe must be small enough to feel your impact, either positive or negative.
And it must be large enough that, should you opt out or be tossed out, it will go on without you.

Dave Morrison ... February 27, 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Three-Tribe Theory ... Part 1

It is late February of 2012. I'm sitting in the 'dinette' of my aged Holiday Rambler where it is docked at Thelma's in Thousand Oaks, California. It is, incongruously, a summer day. We have had little winter to speak of here in Cali this year. I've just come from an appointment with my dermatologist who tells me the pit in the lee of my nose where once a skin-cancer hunkered, is healing well, and some day-work has begun to trickle in. I'd rather that a steady rain was falling through the pine tree, or that a buffeting wind was filling my ears rather than the competing songs of a mower, a blower and a whacker from various neighboring yards, but - on balance - I can't complain too much. And I have a few hours to kill.

If you've read any of my writing thus far, you may have picked up what all my friends know well. That is that I am kind of a tribal guy. I don't mean that I have wrapped my arms with jagged Maori tattoos or stretched my earlobes with rings made of sectioned bamboo. It doesn't mean that I have grown long braids or changed my name to 'Runs-With-Scissors' in some delusional pursuit of first-nation cred. I'm not spending my nights on the ridge pounding a djembe or training with a Shaman in the wilds of Topanga. No, I look just like any other well-worn So-Cal dude with a gray-threaded beard and a guitar problem. I don't go around in tribal drag ... but I live not far in spirit from my ancestors.

I don't mean those bony Scots and feisty Paddies who rode steerage to New York in the last century or two. I mean the dirty little bands of hunters and gatherers who wandered out of the savannas and spread upward and outward into Asia and Southern Europe and eventually a whole round world. Those were my peeps, and I do believe, yours too. And I take very seriously the fact that who we are has everything to do with how they lived for a thousand times a thousand years. What evolution etched into them is set too deep to have been erased in the relative eye-blink since we became 'Modern'.

If you know anybody who is firmly rooted in a religious tradition; a born-again Christian, say, or an Orthodox Jew, then you have seen them know the world through that lens. I'm like that. But rather than peering through glasses tinted by a few thousand years' worth of god-based theology and tradition, I look through my best reckoning of how intelligent primates have lived since they first left the fruited forests and began to compete on the big stage. My prophets are not Abraham and Moses and Jesus, but Darwin and Leaky and Gould and Diamond. And if, as I believe, the religious prophets hoped to forge a path out of the animal world, my scientific ones have led me right into the heart of it.

By this I don't mean that I have gone native. At least not in the sense of a Gauguin-like return to a primitive state. But I have, in the twenty-plus years since I had my evolutionary-epiphany, come to see all that we do - we well-scrubbed modern sophisticates - as rugged old tribal behaviors all gussied up for the dance.

Everything we do, and all that interests us and fires our passions; all of it is driven deep-down by primate group-behavior. Sometimes it's right there on the surface ... a jealous guy decking a rival and striding off with his woman stumbling along in tow. And other times the animal us is so draped and festooned with layer upon layer of myth and subterfuge and etiquette and law, that we almost look like the trimmed and steady exemplars of rationality that we desperately pretend to be. That is unless you're looking through my glasses, in which case the staunchest professional looks as out-of-depth as a kid playing dress-up in her mommy's closet. And when I am in a good mood, the vision is every bit as fond.

Which is not to say that none of us are competent. Most of us perform pretty well, within a given range and for limited spans of time. Some, it seems, are steady and unflappable as a glacier. They are blessed with even dispositions and stoic minds. But they are the rare ones. Unfortunately, due to the admiration they inspire, modern society is modeled after them. And that drives the rest of us crazy.

I'm thinking right now of the movie Gorillas in the Mist. In my mind's eye, I see Sigourney Weaver's earnest scientist watching the old Silverback, upslope, bathed in vegetation, wise and charismatic in repose, without ego or self-doubt. He might be a dumb animal, but we look up to him in a strange way. He's a born leader. And most of us are not.

One of my early gurus was Desmond Morris. I recently gave my son a copy of Morris' classic, The Naked Ape, and felt that I was giving him more condensed knowledge of what it means to be human than he will learn in all his college years. If you haven't read it, it's a look at the human species from the dispassionate angle of a zoologist observing, much like Sigourney in her mist, simply watching the behaviors, and without judgement or shame - telling what these critters are up to. Any scientific text is subject to revisions as more is revealed, and Naked Ape is dated a bit now, but what I learned there and with my own opened eyes since, has served me well. 

Now I'm no scholar, but I've soaked up some philosophy in my time. And some psychology too. I was raised by smart people, educated by religious professionals, and exposed to everything the seventies and eighties had to offer. I'm no scholar, but I've been around the self-realization block a time or two. And I will tell you this: any system of understanding that does not mesh comfortably with what I know of our evolutionary legacy, is of no value to me beyond the recreational.

Does that mean that anything written before The Origin of Species is useless? Not a bit. In fact, I think the Old Testament - the Hebrew Bible, is just about as tribal as it gets. All of that stuff - the fearsome vengeful God, the crazy kings, the lies and betrayal and violence. That's great stuff. That's the truth about humans. A system that starts there and attempts to build a moral code that might suppress the worst impulses of these creatures and move them toward something a bit more - umm - civilized? I am totally down with that. 

It's all the less earth-bound stuff I have problems with. All the Western mythology about us being biological sheaths into which animating spirits are temporarily injected? And all the Eastern stuff about slogging through the human experience again and again with the ultimate goal of transcending it entirely? Because we are really creatures of pure spirit, bound eventually either to unite in bliss with our creator or ride the vibration-wave back to our own godhead? As much as I would love to believe all of that, I must confess that I really don't.

Not that I am not pro-love. I loves me some LOVE. And not that I am not a big fan of all the sort-of berobed emotions: kindness, compassion, humility etc. All wonderful. The breakdown for me - and I'll write more seriously about this later - is how poorly those 'spiritual' notions perform as guides for societies. I mean, look at India, for Christ's sake. That's the place your Berkeley grads go to get 'enlightened'? I know some Indians, and you would be very hard-pressed to find a more intelligent, hard-working people. Given that fact, why - after thousands of years of culture - is that place so elaborately f-ed up? What ... a billion bright, creative people couldn't have seen to it that the streets were not lined with deformed beggars? Of course they could have. But a society rooted in an assumption that this life is not 'real' is poorly incentivized to fix its ills. It's getting better over there at exactly the rate at which its people accept that the world they see around them is the one in which effort must be invested. 

It's the same with all the 'transcendent' religions. Any religious doctrine that sets itself toward convincing the ignorant that the body they wake up in every morning is somehow NOT REAL, and that a mysterious spirit world that can be seen or sensed only through ritualistic hallucinations is the ACTUAL WORLD ... will produce a society of frightened dirt-poor illiterates kowtowing to manipulative little con-men.

Islam? How's that working out? Christianity? Ever hear about the dark ages? That all came after Socrates and Plato and Democritus and Epicurus. After. Jesus told his fans, in essence, that their lives were nothing much more than an hour in the lobby; that the real party was goin' on upstairs in the penthouse. And a thousand years of ignorance ensued. It wasn't till science and logic re-emerged in the Renaissance, tempering faith with real-world knowledge, that we got our wheels under us.

Let me stand still a minute, and assure you that I have no bone to pick with the spiritually-minded. I don't know if there is a 'soul' that outlives the body or not. Maybe there is. But IF there is, and we are - for whatever godly reason - having a transitory 'physical experience', then I think it reasonable to assume that whatever work we are here to do should be done within the rules and limits of that physical reality. I'll put it thusly: If there is a God in the traditional sense, then he has gone through an awful lot of trouble to create a spacious universe and a nice cozy planet where we can breathe the air. I think it would show a lot more respect if we were to stop concentrating on the reality he has gone to great pains to hide; and focus our attention on the one he apparently wants us to function within right now - in this current life. Does that sound logical? It does to me.

If that makes sense to you, then I hope you'll go as far as embracing the manifest particulars of this human state in which we find ourselves. I know that some still are uncomfortable with the idea that we are descended from other species, so let's just set that aside. Maybe we were created as humans. If so, there is rich evidence that full humans similar to us (our species, Homo Sapiens) have been on earth for upwards of a hundred thousand years. That's a long time. Jesus lived 2,000 years ago. Humans had been around for fifty or a hundred times that long already. So that was time enough to develop some pretty entrenched characteristics, eh?

Some of these are clearly physical. We all know we must eat and drink every few hours. We know that without sleep we stop functioning. We are born helpless, and before dying we are that again. We all recognize these truths about our biological selves. And as we build our societies, accommodations for these truths are made.

But we also have a whole range of emotional characteristics. We have insecurities, sexual desires and jealousies, status needs ... a bunch of weirdnesses that are as common to human beings as the need for food and rest.  

I am a lousy capitalist. And a lousy consumer. But I am honest enough with myself to recognize that a system predicated on the idea that needs can be met and that those need-meeting goods and services can be traded back and forth using currency to store value,  is a goddamn good plan. Everywhere in the world where this plan is implemented, the poor are becoming less poor. A market-driven capitalist society needs constant tweaking, granted, but it's the best thing we've come up with so far.

Still, I think it is obvious that our society has begun to develop stress cracks. We have high rates of depression, divorce, alcoholism, chronic illness and just general discontent. We're not happy campers, many of us. Too many. I am interested in why this is. And after a lot of years watching and thinking, I have some ideas to add to the pot.

My central idea is what I call The Three-Tribe Theory.

The three-tribe theory is all about one specific human requirement, that - in our rush toward this industrialized consumer society - we forgot about. It has to do with the human need for community of a pretty specific size and function. I think that much of the dysfunction that blooms up in our modern lives - much that now is identified as abnormal - was historically worked out within the day-to-day dynamics of human survival groups. Nowadays we call them pathologies and illnesses and, in our capitalistic way, we have whole industries to deal with them. But those industries are failing. And I think I know why.

Generally speaking, people belong to a number of different groups. Sitting here typing I can be said to belong to around ten. 1. My immediate family.  2. My extended family.  3. My friends.  4. My band.  5. My musical community.  6. My neighborhood.  7. Thousand Oaks.  8. California.  9. The United States of America.  10. Humanity. If you make a similar list, you might have slightly more or slightly fewer, and they will have different names, but you will see that you do belong to a number of groups.

I've come to believe that most of these groups that I belong to, do little or nothing to make me a better person. Most don't make me happier, inspire me, or build my character. That's just fine as long as there is at least one that does do these things. But is there? Because if there isn't, I'm in trouble long-term.

In my next piece, I will explain my Three-Tribe Theory. I'll tell you why I think that our group affiliations ought to break down to three essential groups - three tribes, if you will. And I will then build a case as to why one of them, the Second Tribe, is especially crucial to a healthy human society. I'll tell you that we have largely lost it, and give my take as to how and why that happened. And then in my third piece, I'll make suggestions as to how one might find or even establish a group that will serve the Second Tribe's functions. Read these as I write them, and feel free to comment. 

Dave Morrison ... February 24, 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

This Thing Called Love

I've been wanting to put down some of my thoughts on the nature of love. I nearly wrote something for Valentine's day, but decided not to ruin the fun. Because, you see, my relationship to this LOVE thing has been a stormy one. And it doesn't seem to be getting any more placid as the years go by.

I'm not going to beat up on Valentine's day per-se, calling it a Hallmark Holiday, or implying that it is just another ruse by retailers to get us to part with our money in exchange for meaningless trinkets. I'm not going to lambaste this little love-fest for its swirling streams of iconography that not only fail to capture the deep complexities of human bonding, but actively trivialize all of it. As if a heart-shaped box of chocolates might contain the myriad thoughts and desires of the heart whose hands bestow it.

Nope. Not me. I am not gonna beat up on Valentine's Day.

I sometimes - often - quote a man who was very influential for me, in the gathering and testing of ideas that have settled into something akin to a personal philosophy. Ed Kirstie was his name and he is the "old man" in my song, Times Like These. Once, Ed and I were talking about love. Ed got that bemused expression on his face that always told me to take notes, and said: "You'll be alright as long as you know this: when a woman looks you in the eye and says 'I love you', you have NO IDEA what she means."

That might sound a little bit absolute, and I suppose that usually I might be able to garner at least some idea of what she means; but Ed's little bit of understanding has held up well as I've crashed into and out of the lives and hearts of a handful of women since. His point was that "Love", in the romantic sense, is so much a construct of a person's own perceptions and expectations that no clear society-wide understanding of it is possible. And he wasn't just talking about women. Ed knew, aa I know now, that romantic love is, by definition, a bit of a trick played by one on one's own foolish self. As quick proof - is there any relationship in your larger life that is given better chance at success by the romanticizing of it's members or meaning? Any task best approached by first cloaking it in mythology and mystery?

I've come to believe that any sort of idealization of human interaction is a sort of gauntlet thrown before the fates. It is a way of declaring to the world that: I WILL SEE WHAT I WANT TO SEE. And demanding that all facts and fancies line themselves up to support that vision. Now that is fine if you are making paintings or poems, but if you are building a structure to safely contain two fragile souls, there is no substitute for the clear-eyed gaze.

Am I suggesting that one ought to approach companionship like an accountant; carefully and dispassionately adding figures in columns? That the business of love ought to be just that, operational and free of whimsy? No I'm not. I think that keeping one's wits about him when around the opposite sex - or same sex if that applies - would actually make loving more beautiful in the long run. And the long-run longer to boot. I have the sense that without all the added filigree, love would still be a pretty fine endeavor. Stripped to its basics, I think a relationship should be as sinewy strong as an athlete, drawing its beauty from its function. Of course there has to be some chemistry too.

As fervors go, I think that Romantic and Religious are very close cousins. Both grab us up and take us into the border-less world of the non-rational. We are transported, possessed. At least for a while. I have friends who have had the born-again experience. It is, I guess, a major moment for them. They usually had already been believers, but not passionate. And then something happens - a sort of internal lightning-strike, and they suddenly know God ... or Jesus in a deeply personal way. And also have the sense that they too are known - and accepted completely. Sounds like falling in love, doesn't it?

It's little wonder that ritual grows up around religion. Ritual is, at its best, very good at stimulating and magnifying the emotions of its participants. Long after I left the faith of my upbringing I went to hear my father sing at Christmas Eve high mass, and as the choir swelled up and up, I was as filled with the spirit of it as anyone there. Would I call it the Holy Spirit? No, but I believe that I was feeling that thing which gave rise to the myth which gave rise to the church.

In a sense, religion is, on a Macro scale, what romantic love is on a Micro scale. Both imbue a person with a sense of meaning, a sort of justification for all the struggles we live with. Both connect a person to something larger than just themselves. Both can comfort us, motivate us, and make us smile. Both have behavioral requirements, some serious dos and don'ts. And both offer a promise that one's dying thought need not be one of regret.

Some think that all the feelings we call mystical or spiritual are part of our on-board equipment, there for evolutionary reasons, and that we have invented gods to help come to grips with them. Others believe that there is an actual being who created us, who lives outside us - directing our lives.

In a very similar way, for some, Love has become an entity with a type of will ascribed to it. A friend of mine has a beautiful song. It's my favorite of hers, and touches all who hear her sing it. It's the story of her search for love, so truly told. And in its refrain this prayer: "Oh how I wish Love would find me". And this is how we think of love, many of us. We've turned it into a being, a spirit if you will. We think that Love is out there somewhere, working silently on our behalf. And that when Love has made the thousand tiny adjustments to fate and moved the thousand obstacles ever-so-slightly, we and our intended will find ourselves in the same place at the same moment. And our eyes will meet ... and we will know.

And if this is our experience of romance, either personally or culturally, it's little wonder that we would develop rituals and imagery and stories and songs to honor it ... and to keep it alive in our minds.

So what's the problem? The problem is not the descriptions we give to love when it is upon us. The problem is the expectations we attach to its arrival. If love is a fated thing, a sacred thing ... even a rare and precious thing with no spiritual trappings whatever; then it presents a monstrous opportunity for failure. If the thing itself - is itself a thing; if a certain bunch of world-tilting emotions is 'LOVE', with its promise of emotional salvation, then IT is profounder than WE. If we fail to give it a proper home, this Love might fly away again. And then we are left to our own shame. Failures of the heart. Eventually, perhaps, unlovable. Or we may stop believing in Love altogether ... a crisis of faith.

It's interesting to me that often the most devout religious people - or those most encapsulated by other traditions, seem not as interested in the thunder-struck version of love that we celebrate in western secular culture. We modern westerners get the willies at the thought of an arranged marriage. Yikes, we think, how creepy. That somebody might be selected for you, and that you would then have to be intimate with that person, and faithful to that person ... for a lifetime? That is so far outside western thought that it is nearly impossible to grasp. It seems an affront to individual freedom, if not an evil vestige of chattel laws and all things oppressive. And worse ... it deprives us of the lottery-win of Love finally pulling our names from the cosmic hat. Learn to love? Not for us.

Perhaps as we have pulled farther away from the traditions that once lent us our identity as members of a group, we have held firmly only to this last group affiliation - that of half of a perfectly selected couple. And that as belief in a good God wisely guiding our steps has gradually dissolved in this scientific, logical world ... we have given our belief over to the amorphous intentions of a force called Love.

God is Love, said the groovy preachers in an attempt to keep the pews filled. Well now, I think we've flipped it around. Now, decades removed from the chapel, we say: Love is God.

It's a very tenacious belief system, this notion that romantic love will deliver us to our best selves at last and solve with a sweep of its gossamer hand our loneliness and sloth and inhibitions and the 4am fear that we have lived for nothing. It's a lot to expect from a force we don't understand. And when, after the butterflies have left our tummies, and we are faced with the clay-footed human being with whom Love has "blessed" us, where do we aim the weapons of our disappointment?

At this point, traditional religious thought has it all over our spiritualized Romantic Love. Because God is working on a bigger canvas, with billions of souls, individual suffering need not destroy the belief or disable its ability to comfort. But when Cupid fucks up ... it's personal.

But in spite of high divorce rates, dizzying options, and the education on-line dating has given us as to the staggering numbers of the deeply weird; we keep lining up for another ride on the carousel, sure that we'll snag the ring this time. We comb the bars and gyms. We search Facebook for that one resonant mind. We cry every time that Adele song comes on. We may not be as bright as we are hopeful. But hopeful we surely are.

So what do I recommend? What sage advice do I proffer from the snug comfort of my Hobo Dojo in the wake of V-day Twenty-Twelve? Well, as one who has left his better judgement at the door more than once, I know all too well that we are not likely to grow up and start treating one another as free individuals without all the crazy jealousy and blame and rejected-ness that plume up like plaster dust when the hot-rod of desire careens head-on into the brick wall of our stubborn human-ness. That's not gonna happen. We are and shall remain, a bunch of clever apes with day jobs and high opinions of ourselves. Still it seems that something ought to come of this little ramble through the haphazard landscape of Love American Style. So, a few simple suggestions.

1. Don't expect Love to find you in your apartment. Go out. A lot.
2. Don't expect people to change very much. They won't. (though they will pretend to)
3. Don't ask your loved ones to read your thoughts. Just tell them what you want.
4. Stop staring into each other's eyes. Stand shoulder to shoulder looking forward.
5. Keep your friends. Both of you.

And remember, God may be Love, but Love is not God.

Dave Morrison February 18, 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

Fame! I'm Gonna Live Forever ...

Well, maybe not so much. I never watched the eighties dance movie that gave us that phrase. Maybe it was delivered with irony. But there is surely not a lot of irony in the hearts of the millions of kids who set out every year to get it. To get FAME! And there was not much mention of irony last night at the Grammys, though it's hard to imagine an event more soaked in it.

Two days before the glitzy music-biz spectacular, Whitney Houston was found dead at age 48. I'm old enough to remember when she was the multi-Grammy darling of the industry. More successful albums followed, of course, and a film role and Oscar for that song. But then the erratic behavior, a celebrity throw-down of a marriage, botched performances, rumors of drug use, and an all-out slide into the darkness. I'm betting there were a lot of emotions flying around Hollywood this past weekend, and that surprise was not chief among them.

As the ceremonies began, the host, L.L. Cool J. acknowledged the passing and read a prayer to a silent crowd. There was then a brief montage to a Houston hit, and on with the show. I'll be honest with you ... I hate awards shows. I do sometimes watch them, because I love music and I love movies, and sometimes people I respect are up for awards or are scheduled for a live performance. But I always feel afterward like I need a long, scalding shower. And as I watched last night ... as the parade of the chosen passed by ... I wondered at a missing name. Amy Winehouse. Now I only watched till Adele's performance at ten, and shut the thing off, so I might very well have missed a touching word about her. I hope such mention was made. Because as tragic as Whitney Houston's death is, Amy Winehouse is the real red flag waving at the edge of our culture's vision.

(As I proof-read this, I learn that tribute was paid to Ms. Winehouse)

I'm not going to research this piece. I know the basics. Winehouse is the fifth of the 27s, the big, fragile talents who rocket to fame, and go down like Icarus with wings dissolving. At age 27. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and now Amy Winehouse too. Sure, there is coincidence around the exact time of departure, but there is great commonality as well. All these were real talents, artists, people who wanted to make something beautiful - needed to - to solve the struggle within. In another age they would have been bards or troubadours, or maybe composers working in drafty lofts. They would have gained some renown perhaps, but there would have been no machinery that could hold them trembling before the hungry gaze of millions. But ever since the advent of radio, and then TV, the potential for fame is limited, literally, only by the number of humans on the planet.

I got hooked into this particular Grammy show because it was on CBS following 60 Minutes. As a lead-in, Anderson Cooper had done a story on Adele. She'd been on my radar for some time even though I avoid pop radio like one might avoid a hive of angry bees. I give it a wide berth. But I do go out to the open mics in and around L.A. - hosting the last Monday of each month at Kulak's Woodshed - and I see a lot of young talent. I'd noticed a few of these young girls singing wonderful emotional songs. When I asked if they'd written them, they would admit that they'd sung an Adele song. I knew that there was an unlikely pop-star out of England named Adele, but after hearing her songs done with just a guitar by green youngsters, I knew that her talent was genuine. She touches something deep in people.

The Cooper interview was a good piece, as these things go, and I found her to be very likeable; irreverent, self effacing, and not at all impressed with herself. But here she is, wandering into a hurricane of opportunity and expectation that no big-boned Cockney girl could ever expect to face. The interview moved from a recording studio to a huge mansion in the English country-side where she now lives. The two of them walked its open acres and wandered its empty maze of rooms. She told him that she'd come here just to get a little relief from the attention. She also told him that her stage-fright has gotten worse of late, because now there are that many more people that she fears she might disappoint. Adele is twenty-three years old, and her latest album has sold 17 million copies.

You probably think I'm about to predict her death in four years. No, I think this girl has a good chance to navigate the shark laden waters and have a long, meaningful career. She has, for starters, a look that does not lend itself to glamour. And she writes her own songs from a place of catharsis. She will probably not be cast into the role of sex-kitten, and her raw, truth-telling artistic style will do much to help her process all that is looming over her now like a thousand-foot wave. She seems to posses a great sense of humor. And of irony. Something about her reminds me of Dolly Parton in her ability to be out in front of the world's perceptions of her, laughing first at all of it.

I don't have to go too deep into why fame is so toxic for fragile souls like the 27s. It's pretty obvious. All were somewhat shy, felt like misfits growing up, and found courage in drugs or alcohol. Putting anybody like that into the withering heat of the spotlight is dangerous. Amy Winehouse, like Janis and Jim especially had the double whammy. These three were not only known for their music and performances but for their hard-core lifestyles. We remember Joplin and Morrison openly boozing on stage. And we loved them for it. Shit, Amy Winehouse's first big hit over here was Rehab, wherein she told us right up-front that she didn't want any help. What is a young person to think? They see the adoring public not only putting up with their bad behavior, but actively creating their legend around it. I know that if millions of people seemed to have embraced me as "that crazy drunken genius", I wouldn't want to go to rehab either. No No No.

There can be no control on these experiments. Maybe Kurt Cobain would have killed himself anyway. There was just one of him, so we can never know. But I have spent over 20 years in and out of AA, and have seen many hundred people locked into a struggle with booze and drugs. The program is called Alcoholics Anonymous for a reason. It is understood that breaking patterns is hard perilous work. Facing one's own demon's and humiliating legacy is tough enough when surrounded by fellow travelers. It's that much more difficult if people are watching your every move who have no understanding of why you do the things you do. I suspect that Cobain and Joplin and Morrison and Hendrix and Winehouse too would, had fame not swept them up, eventually have had their fill of the cyclone and gone to shelter.

I had some up-close contact with rock-star fame in my early twenties. Circumstances - and drugs - brought me into contact with the band members and entourages of Elton John and Alice Cooper while those two were busy carving their names on tombstones. I saw the sycophancy, the disconnect from reality that is visited upon a star by the many who swirl around him or her. The star is a magnet for money and adventure, and everybody wants in on the ride. Nobody can really be trusted, except for those who knew you when. And even those people are apt to change once the rest of the world has. I ran far and fast and have never sought Hollywood's approval since.

Fame certainly doesn't kill everybody. Elton and Alice are still with us. But I will also say this: neither has ever again reached the heights of their early work. This is the second death brought by the scythe of fame ... artistic death. Did anybody see Springsteen last night? A pale shadow of the Jersey Devil indeed. Here is a guy who rose from the streets of Asbury Park with an uncanny empathy for and understanding of the people for whom the world was a series of locked doors. He drew his artistic power from his passion to tell their stories. But he went and got rich and famous. Now, everywhere he goes people posture for him. He goes to a party, it becomes the party Bruce Springsteen was at. An artist like Bruce, or Jackson Browne needs - NEEDS - invisibility in the world. Where can the Boss interact naturally with the working-class men and women who once breathed so vividly in his songs? I guess he could talk to the groundskeepers and maids at one of his estates. Artists of this type need to observe unnoticed the lives of those whose stories they were born to tell. But we take that ability from them when we lift them onto a pedestal and allow them two options: turn to stone or tumble.

The Grammys is not really a celebration of the art of music. The Grammys is a celebration of the business and craft of musical entertainment. And as such, I have no problem with it. Those who never set out to do anything other than entertain people and make a ton of money doing it, will not be harmed by the Grammys. But now and again a real artist comes along who has wide appeal, and the machine presents and promotes them just like it would the less tender, more competitive entertainers. And now and again numbers are added to the body-count .

I suggest we re-examine our attitudes toward fame. Some amount of it is necessary to get the worthy art of a Dylan or an Adele into the culture where it enriches us all. But maybe we could have a smaller, less glitzy celebration based not on sales but on artistic merit, the communicative power of music. And we could then caution the viewers as to the fragile nature of the muse, and maybe create a safer place for the long-term flowering of the vine.

The best moment of the show for me, was when Dave Grohl accepted an award for his scrappy little band, The Foo Fighters. He said that they had recorded the song in question in a garage with microphones and a tape machine and no trickery. He then said that music isn't about the perfection, the craft, but about what is in the head and the heart. God bless him. And he should know what he is talking about. When Nirvana was climbing into the orbit that burned it's leader up, Dave Grohl was sitting behind the drums, hair flying, pounding out a joyful beat.

Dave Morrison ... February 13, 2012

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Level Playing Field

Late in the afternoon, on a blustery October day somewhere in the American Heartland, an aging school bus leaves the highway. From a vantage point slightly above and behind, one hears the flatulent report of a rust-eaten muffler as the driver downshifts - descending the off-ramp to the feeder road, a series of black smoke rings bursting from the tailpipe. Inside two dozen young heads rouse from naps and close magazines and survey the approaching scene through fly-specked windows. Across a field, tidy brick school buildings and behind them the wedges of bleacher that flank a flat field like parentheses awaiting a statement.

The bus pulls into an empty parking lot, rolling the length of an enormous and nearly new gymnasium, coming to rest near the door signed "Locker Rooms". The bus rattles for a few seconds with pre-ignition, and falls silent with a wheeze. The doors squeak open. After a long moment, a boy steps down onto the asphalt. "Damn", he says, looking up at the towering mural above his head that shows a giant in a football uniform crashing though a block wall. And blazoned across the heroic scene - in letters as tall as phone poles - four words ... Home of the Titans.

His team-mates tumble out the old GMC and cover the short distance to the open door. They are twenty-five boys on the cusp of manhood, rangy and compact, lean and stocky, black and white and other colors less distinct. They carry worn gym-bags and scuffed helmets and trash-talk playfully as one by one they are absorbed into the concrete megalith.

Inside, a wide hallway leads them past several windowed offices. Their  doors are locked and labeled with etched brass plates. Team Physician, Nutrition Coach, Strength Coach, Defense Coach, Assistant Coach, Head Coach. Past these, two wide rooms expand out to each side.  In one, an astonishing array of gleaming weight machines, dumbbells, stair climbers, and treadmills; and in the other, padded benches arranged in crescents before a large movie screen. The boys from the bus wander slowly past these marvels, speaking in hushed voices. At the end of the hall are two doors under a wide banner that reads Lockers & Showers. Lettered on one, Visitors. And on the other, State Champs.

This is the world into which one team has entered. And inside which the other has grown up.

Later that evening, the visitors line up, in second-hand uniforms, flexing muscles built of fast food, mentally running the game-plan given them by a history teacher who doubles as football coach ... and face their opponents. The Titans - sons of past Titans - superbly trained and equipped, filled with the combined experience of half a dozen seasoned professionals, and drilled to second-nature perfection. Loved and encouraged and taught from childhood that theirs is the stuff of greatness.

And we look on from a safe remove. We trust that the rules of the game will be enforced showing no favoritism. We know that the team that executes the most key moments successfully will move on to greater challenges and send the other away defeated. And we know this too: the field is perfectly level.

Thanks for indulging me an extended metaphor. This is an imaginary match-up of course, but one that happens everywhere in sports every day. And it happens elsewhere too. It doesn't take a statistician to calculate the odds here. Or in the world that produces a Mitt Romney, an Al Gore or a George W. Bush. Logic tells us that those best prepared will win the day.

I grew up in San Gabriel, California. It's a strange place to be from. The third one of the California Missions was built there a few years before our nation declared its independence, and all of Los Angeles grew from that settlement. The San Gabriel Valley and San Gabriel Mountains are named for that old adobe, but nobody in L.A. ever seems to know where it is. I went to church at the Mission, and was taught by the nuns in its school. The town named for that Mission is sandwiched between Interstate 10 and San Marino. San Marino is one of the old-money neighborhoods of Southern California, a maze of curving streets that feed out of the southern border of Pasadena and are lined with enormous old homes, many behind iron gates and walls grown with ancient vines. As exclusive neighborhoods go, I imagine that San Marino is small potatoes these days, but when I was growing up ... that was where the rich people lived.

I'm reminded as I write of the old story convention of the dark house at the end of the street that all the kids thinks is haunted. We felt the same way about San Marino. We might ride our bikes to Lacy Park there, but we never saw the people who lived in the massive homes surrounding the park to the north. My family didn't know anyone who lived there. People didn't walk the streets. It was as if they snuck in and out in the dead of night. The source of their money was unknown to us. But their effect was felt nonetheless. If only in the FACT of them. That there was a privileged class of people nearby, got into our souls. And that knowledge informed us about who we were.

Something happens at the borders of the good neighborhoods; some of the prestige laps over into the adjoining towns. You've heard the term "Beverly Hills Adjacent"? Well in San Gabriel we had a version of that. If you lived in North San Gabriel, you could claim proximity to San Marino, and you were assumed to have a higher status than if you came from South San Gabriel. South San Gabriel was largely Mexican immigrant families then (the whole town is mostly Asian now), and they were the poor kids. My family lived a few blocks north of the railroad tracks, which could be seen as the dividing line. 'North' and 'South' were such ubiquitous prefixes for the name of our town that it wasn't till I was grown up that I realized that no such distinction can be found on any map. There is no North San Gabriel or South San Gabriel. The city planners never intended for there to be a class gradation street by street. We did that to ourselves and to one another. And as always in America, it had everything to do with money.

Our house was too far south to be North, and too far north to be South. I guess, socially we lived in the DMZ. I never interacted with a single kid from San Marino, but I knew plenty from N.S.G. And they were different from the ones I knew from S.S.G. Their fathers were professionals and it was assumed that they would be too. They were given cars at sixteen. Nice ones. Not like the old beaters we bought with our earnings from the kitchen at Kentucky Fried Chicken. They dated the prettiest girls. They went on skiing trips - whatever those were. They even seemed genetically different; square jawed and tall, with light eyes and clear skin. Their moms didn't cut their hair in the kitchen like mine did. They didn't wear Sears Tough-Skin jeans with the reinforcing patch in the knees.

By high school, I didn't even want to know what race of people lived north of Huntington Drive. I watched their football team savage ours just once before I gave up on ball games. But they whipped us every time.

My parents were hard-working and intelligent people. Neither had gone to college. My dad worked in an adding machine factory when I was young. How's that for an anachronism? Later, through a series of events unclear to me, he ended up working for Junior Achievement and ascended into the life of an executive, if only in the non-profit world. But he was always the fatherless boy from a hardpan farm in Indiana, and was happiest with a hammer in his hand.

And I, now in my fifties, can still not ask for what I need. I agonize over every painting bid trying to come in as low as I can. And when I do finally ask for a check, I feel like a beggar no matter how hard I've worked. This is my psychological legacy. And I grew up north of the tracks with smart, disciplined role models. How in the world does anybody ever break the bindings of poverty?

Since I began this series of essays, I have come under light fire from some of my lefty friends. They feel, that since I have criticized the recent tactics of the Democratic party, and the truly base vilification of conservatives engaged in by the Left's attack-dog fringe, that I have lost my feel for the poor. Such is the state of the political spit-fight these days. Once the talking points are lined out, a failure to accept them all like a good little zombie, can get you thrown out of the club. Of course the same thing is going on on the Right. I'm sure that I would be catching flak from that side too if I knew more hard-line right-wingers. But I am determined to take an honest look at the state of our society, and really don't much care how I am perceived while writing about it.

Let me jump back to my opening football team metaphor. Somebody reading through that will certainly get the point. I'm sure that it's obvious enough to all that, even when the rules are applied fairly and the field is as level as a billiard table, the fix is in. Because the game actually begins years before the man in the striped shirt blows his whistle.

And I'm not naive enough to think that I'm telling anybody what they don't already know. Why I bothered with the football analogy was because I wanted an example that had the right mix of physical and psychological elements. The team from the poor school lacked high-dollar coaching and uniforms and facilities. These are all related directly to the relative poverty of their school. So one might think that, by analogy, I am writing this to advocate for more school funding. I certainly believe that poor kids ought to have better resources, but I am really writing here about the psychology of it.

Aside from the material advantages, the Titans take the field with a lifetime's worth of non-material advantage. They have seen close-up the connection between effort and reward and how that reaches across generations. They have fathers and mothers who believe themselves worthy of a reliable car and a comfortable home, and have the knowledge and connections to make those things a reality. It's assumed that the kids will go to college. It's assumed that they will live well. They are winners in their heads long before they pull on a helmet.

But let's leave the football team behind us and talk in terms of general life success.

Success and failure are like communicable viruses. If the air you breath is contaminated with the assumption of a good outcome, you will catch it. If, on the other hand, everyone you know is carrying the disease of failure, only a particularly powerful immune system will fight it off.

It's not enough, in other words, to build a brand new school in a bad area. We've done that a lot, and it isn't working. Our expenditure per student has doubled since the seventies, while test scores have flat-lined. A new computer lab is helpful, as are sharp, climate-controlled buildings. All of this is lovely. But it isn't enough.

There is now a growing number of charter schools in our country that are revolutionizing education. Are they further shrinking class-sizes (an obsession of the left), or setting up these schools in high-tech facilities? No. They are not. Are they paying their teachers more, in accordance with the idea that more money attracts better teachers? No. Are they cherry-picking the kids, only taking the smart ones? Nope. So what are they doing? Well, they are returning to a hard-work, discipline model. They are eschewing the coddling and phony self-esteem that has crept into education. They set tough standards and expect the kids to live up to them. And guess what ... the kids do live up to them. Even kids from the most deprived homes. This is not some flowery version of education cooked up under a shade tree in Berkeley in 1967. This is old-school school. With an added layer of family accountability. And it's kicking ass.

Why are we even arguing about it when programs like the Harlem Children's Zone and KIPP are taking kids from the ghetto and sending them to college at unheard-of percentages? I think it is because we have politicized education like everything else. And because - wherever party politics lives - we are more interested in our side winning than we are in pragmatic solutions. We only want the solutions that will make our side look good.

Somewhere along the line, we developed the habit of group-think. It is the most natural of human traits to identify who is "with" you and who is - potentially - against you. Desmond Morris called it in-group, out-group thinking. It is an artifact of our long evolution as hunter-gatherers, and for survival in the bush, it's the hot ticket. But in a modern society, we have to keep a tight rein on that stuff or we end up like the Sunnis and Shiites; killing each other over an interpretation of the book they both revere. Just as these Muslims - so very alike in our eyes - have located enmity where none should be, so have we Americans. We have hypnotized ourselves into thinking that a Democrat or a Republican is the enemy.

Hey ... wake up. You were just having a bad dream. None of that was real.

Every one of us wants children to succeed. The notion that the rich WANT you to be poor might have made for a dynamic George Carlin rant, but it's a poisonous thought to live with. If you are poor, you can't buy gasoline from oil companies. If you are poor, you can't pay credit-card fees to the banks or interest on home loans. The rich might want to be richer than you, but they don't want you poor.

And you over there on the Right. The liberals don't want to destroy America. They will support the military and are happy to see businesses rise and flourish if those businesses play fair with their employees and take care not to destroy the environment. We're not so far apart as we think.

Some of what is needed to break the cycle of poverty costs money. Some of it has to do with the types of societal values that money cannot buy. We need to engage both mechanisms, without regard for whether either might be more associated with a political party we habitually oppose.

What has happened is that, as the debate has raged in these last forty years, we have - on each side - grabbed certain values for ourselves, and ceded certain values to the other side. So if, for instance, hard work and discipline is touted heavily by one side, the other side - in an attempt to disassociate from those bad people - will speak of that value less often. And if caring about the underdog is held as a central theme by one side, the other side - for the same reason - will let that value fall down it's list.

So, in effect the Left and the Right have divvied up the whole batch of values that used to be known as American Values. So now, asking much of a black kid is called racist even when the asking is an attempt to call that kid to his best self. And advocating for more investment in the poorest among us is seen as one more example of the "nanny-state". The loudest, least cooperative voices on each end of the spectrum are in the grips of a thought-behavior loop that goes back to before we made tools. And we have to understand it and get control of it.

Remember how Grandma used to say, "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face."? Remember that?

The charter schools and wider reaching programs like the H.C.Z., are such a perfect first step to re-uniting the values that made us the greatest country in the history of great countries. None of them is flawless, but the founders of the best of these schools are clearly trying to help children. And pulling it off. They are obviously not racists. Or greedy bastards. Or goofy academics trying to socialize America. They will enlist "conservative" ideas and techniques as readily as "liberal" ones, in doing the very good work that they do. They are, in effect, saying "Shut up ... all of you ... I have a school to run."

I say we pay attention.

Dave Morrison, February 10, 2012

Here is a link to an enlightening interview done by Katie Couric with Davis Guggenheim, director of "Waiting For Superman", and a panel of educators.

This is a link to "Waiting For Superman" on Youtube. It's in 11 parts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Busted Flat in Thousand Oaks

Not so long ago, when alcohol was my life-blood, I had an epiphany. I realized that my world was shrinking. I'd had a DUI and some jail-time, and I had reconciled myself to staying house-bound for the drinking unless I had somebody - usually a girlfriend - to see me safely home. Or I would walk to the only bar close by when my need for company was sharp enough. The world was shrinking. I'd driven off a lot of good people with my behavior and would avoid many others, not wanting them to see me drunk. The closest ones to me were the ones who would accept the binge along with all the lovelier things. There were fewer and fewer as the world shrunk in upon itself.

And as I turned the corner on the boozing, fitfully at first, and then more confidently, the world began to grow again. Last year I took eleven out-of-town trips to play my music to people who I'd never met before. In Tennessee and Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Washington ... wherever they'd have me. I didn't do it on my own. My dear Alexia was there every step of the way, encouraging me and helping to make it possible. It strikes me that the frequent-flier miles she shared with me serve as a metaphor for much of it. I could fly a little because she had flown a lot. The world got bigger. Big. And I, as a traveler there, grew as well.

The best year ever, 2011. Now, a month into the new one, the world has begun to contract again. Not because I've gone back to the bottle - I haven't. And not because the music has failed me or friends let me down. No, all of that is in place, and I am healthy enough. And grateful even.

The world has shrunk - quickly, for the most prosaic of reasons. I'm broke. I saw it coming, and might have prevented it, but I didn't. Just like the hangover is the cost of the last night's blurred euphoria, I am paying now for last year's wild revel. I chose to spend those many weeks out in the larger world, spending what I made as I went for the next day's food or bed or car rental, while at home the rent-cycle went round as always. There just wasn't anybody nearby turning labor into those nice numbers in the checking account. Don't get me wrong. I worked when I was in town, and hard as ever. But the math would not be denied. And the money ran out. And now it's my slow season. And the economy is still groggy.

We got the recession earlier than the rest of the country, we in the home trades. I paint houses as my day job, and the pinch was felt as early as 2007. I won't go into the reasons here, but suffice it to say that tough times, like a drunk at the party, came early and stayed late. If your recession is over, you do not rely on a lively exchange of dwellings for much of your business. God bless you. I'm happy for you. Why not celebrate with a nice face-lift in those drab rooms of yours. 626-644-3245 Ask for Dave. :0)  But I digress.

I had little cushion anyway due to a string of cocktail-hour financial decisions, and the stubborn belief that a blue-collar job was where I needed to write from. And what buffer there had been was gone. I scrimped, but there was nothing extra to save.

Now, I know that nobody hires a painter in January. I know that. And I know that nobody pays a singer-songwriter much in Los Angeles. January has always been the black hole. I traditionally consider it my vacation month and live on what I squirreled away in the summer. But, last year, as outside my traditional path I did roam, that bit of preparation was missed. I chose to risk what's happened to pursue what might.

I saw the writing on the wall in the Motel 6 in Katy Texas round about December 7. I had two gigs in Texas, and a week between 'em. Alexia had left the team a couple of months earlier and I burned the last of my frequent flyer miles getting to Houston. The gig was lean and the money was too, and I was stuck in a shitty motel, in a cold rainstorm, with just enough left in the checking account to get to Austin for the next Saturday's show.  I lived that week on cheap wheat-bread and peanut butter from the H.E.B., spreading it with the handle of my toothbrush. My luxuries that week were two breakfasts at the Waffle House across the highway, a daily 42 oz. Diet Coke from the gas-station fountain, the 3 bucks for in-room wi-fi, and HBO on the TV. I played guitar a lot, promoted my Austin show, and had as good a week as I ever spent sober and alone in a motel. Which is to say that it was no party.

Austin rocked, and paid it's way. I made it home and finished the job I'd left undone, taking out the last $700 owed me, went to Seattle on Bonnie's dime to help her get some inventory to L.A. and got home in time to spend New Year's eve alone in a freezing RV in a horse-corral. And that is where I've been ever since, with short breaks here and there for this small gig or that one, watching the ratcheting motion of my cash reserve as it gained a few CD-sale bucks and lost a few more gas-purchase bucks. I didn't leave the yard at all today. I had a nice burger (CD sale) in Tujunga

And down and down it goes. And the world gets smaller and smaller. This is what the spiral into poverty looks like. Eventually, given the right combination of down-turns, some personal and some societal, the person with slim margins loses those margins altogether and tumbles from the table. The truck breaks down or the factory closes. The back goes out. The wife takes the house, or the husband drinks up the paycheck. Or the whole economy goes belly-up. And when it's most needed, the cushion is not there.

I'll be okay. Because I have friends and family to catch me if I should fall any farther. And because I am healthy and intelligent and in possession of a marketable skill or two. And because winter here is brief and not so cold that I'll freeze. There will be work soon. I've got it pretty good, even at the low economic rung that is my home-turf. Many others have it much worse. I'm pleased that as the belt got tighter and tighter, I still could give a little over the Holidays, helping to send a couple cows and a couple goats into the developing world where some families now have milk. I know that they will share it.

We are in an election year. And I have watched as the angry words fly. I heard Mitt Romney's comments yesterday. I know what he meant to say. I don't share the doggedly anti-wealthy sentiments of so many of my Lefty friends. I know damn well that most of the programs that do indeed constitute a safety net here in this wonderful country are funded almost entirely by the people who have a lot of money. I also know that conservatives give a lot to charity, and that their general belief in boot-strap effort over social programs is not because they hate the poor. I agree with them that if a person can earn his way, he'll be better off long-term than if he'd simply received a pay-out. I've lived it. I know.

Having said that, I doubt that Mr. Romney has much up-close experience with hand to mouth living. And if not, he does not really understand millions of Americans.

I also resonate with the intentions of the Left. I stand with them in awe that anyone could even WANT a billion dollars when anybody anywhere is starving. It's true that I am disappointed in them lately for the callowness of their thinking and their willingness to win ugly in the war of rhetoric. But I know that their hearts are large. Unfortunately, I have lived long enough in this world to know that most of their solutions are as prone to failure as all other decisions made with an excess of emotion and a shortage of hard-headed pragmatism.

Somebody brought up Michael Moore the other day. I remembered him saying in one of his films that capitalism was just a bad system. I remembered sitting in that darkened theater (The Academy 6 in Pasadena Ca.) and wondering if he planned to give me back the cost of admission. I marveled at his thinking, his ability to filter reality so perfectly as to set his very successful career somehow outside capitalism.

It's not a bad system. It's a basically good system, because it derives it's energy from the drives of the humans it is designed to serve. Communism, by way of contrast, is based on a fantasy version of how humans are wired. It won't ever work. It leads inevitably either to collapse or totalitarianism. A democratic political structure coupled with a capitalist economy is the best thing we've found yet. When we doubt it, we need only ask our local immigrants.

The system is good. Our current version of it is badly out of adjustment.

Among the things that were stripped from me this year as I descended the economic stairs, was an old and beloved truck. I'd had it for 27 years. It was a good friend for a long time, a champ of a camping vehicle. It was the place that I first knew I would marry Wanda - sitting happily in the shot-gun seat as she drove us home from a party, so cute in her red jacket. I left the truck on the street in Altadena when I moved out to Thousand Oaks, intending to tow it along when I got a little money up. But I lost it to the impound and couldn't bail it out.

I learned something about systems from that truck. It was an early GMC Suburban, based on a work truck chassis. They'd added seats and carpet and other niceties at the factory in '68. They'd increased it's weight, and added some power to it's engine as well. They had also softened its springs to please the suburban housewife they hoped to sell it to. But they'd not done anything for it's braking system. The truck could always go better than it could stop. A few years later the guys at GM stuck some disc brakes on their trucks and they stopped running off as many cliffs. Our capitalist system is a conveyance.  It is not sacred nor is it evil. It is a vehicle to transport as many people as possible to as comfortable a life as possible. But as we add power to its engines, and weight to its chassis, we must also keep improving its handling and brakes. That or keep sailing into the chasm.

I've had just two interruptions as I wrote this piece, here in my Hobo Dojo, on a blustery Thursday night in February. Two phone calls. One was from Bonnie telling me that Dove, her actor-daughter, was up for a great project. A career maker. The other was from a friend telling me he'd referred me for a painting job. We work. We dream. We get our hopes up. We screw up our courage and take a risk. We fall ... and sometimes fly out into a brand new sky. And with a little luck we survive to tell the tale.

Dave Morrison ... February 3, 2012