Southern Exposure

Ruminations of a Native Son


Greater Washington. DC., United States
February 06
Compulsive writer (mostly memoirs and sociopolitical rants), musicologist, hermeticst, fiscal conservative, radical centrist, agrarian socialist; Charter member, Factualist Party; born and raised in DC, healthcare professional, retired businessman, civic and political activist on two coasts, civil rights movement veteran. An empiricist's worst nightmare, I believe in everything but I don't believe everything, including many things I believe in. Turned down by US Army in 1966 for medical reasons, thrown out of Col. Hasan's Black Man's Army in 1967 for being "too militant." Scion of a family only Tennessee Williams could have dreamed up. There's more. There's always more.


MARCH 4, 2012 12:05AM

Why I Try

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Sometimes I forget why I bother. I've been an activist for so long, a troublemaker, a protester, a volunteer for head-bustings and other inconveniences, one of those who run into places when everyone with any sense is running out, and sometimes I get tired of trying. Then someone will say something like "It won't do any good anyway," or "One person can't change anything," and I remember exactly why I try.

There have been people who have inspired me, some few have heard of and others everyone has, and it doesn't matter, because it is the fire in them, as well, and the reason why they tried and in many cases continue to try, that keeps me going.

 Daniel Ellsberg at Quantico, 2011 protest on behalf of Bradley Manning

Daniel Ellsberg is but one inspiration. Bradley Manning is another. They span the larger body of my time as a wild-eyed idealist. (I had to outmaneuver the Virginia State Police's riot squad to get out of that one).

Then sometimes I just wake up, look out the window into my wooded back yard and feel joy at seeing the birds out there, the squirrels too, the groundhogs and chipmunks, the buds on the wisteria, the fact that the great white oak is still standing and is not next to me in the bed.

Then also I remember, and this is the bottom line: I do all that other shit because I want to be able to sleep peacefully in my own bed, with or without whomever I please, wake when I will, work as I will or not work, and in every case take in the wonders of nature, the earth, the planet, the universe itself, to get up and dress as I please, to forget for a moment what the late Sammy Abbott, local firebrand activist and one-time Mayor of the City of Takoma Park once said in explanation of his sarcasm and apparent bitterness, that "I wake every morning to realize that somewhere someone is getting screwed."

The path may be never-ending, but if I don't try, if people like Sam Abbott and Daniel Ellsberg didn't exist, we'd all be getting screwed all the time, and so would the birds, the trees, the very air that I breathe and do not take for granted. In order to be able to live, to love, to work, to enjoy bliss and peace and to watch a little beauty and perhaps share it with someone, I cannot be still for long.

I was radicalized in 1960, inducted into both the Civil Rights and Labor Movements simultaneously. I have done more pointless and annoying things, caused more trouble, and it doesn't warrant a gold star or an "attaboy," or anything, because I do it for myself as much as I do it for anyone.

We are all in this together.

Sam Abbot (l) and Reginald Booker address House Subcommittee 

In the late 60s, after Col. Hassan gave me the boot out of his Black Man's Army of Liberation not because I was white but because I shouted at a judge who was hearing a case against a fellow member of said Army, I would join forces with one-time Communist candidate for the House of Representatives (and later firebrand Mayor of Takoma Park, Maryland, the city where he lived) Sam Abbott, to prevent an atrocity known as the North Central Freeway from crossing the Potomac via the Three Sisters Islands and heading straight into Georgetown, slicing DC apart, destroying the neighborhoods of Brookland in DC and Woodside (collectively) in Silver Spring, Maryland, with Takoma Park's beautiful Victorian houses a mere POOF in the path between. In the midst of this I took time out to elude National Guardsmen blocking passage in and out of DC during the April, 1968, riots, to wander the affected areas and speak with fellow activists, residents and business owners. 

Then one day Sam Abbott appeared at the House chambers along with a lady I didn't  know well, a public school teacher, registered Republican and self-professed conservative. For the only time in anyone's memory I watched as Sam Abbott was upstaged by this lady, Etta Mae Smith, also of Takoma Park, who made the following statement:

"Since 1964 I have accumulated two four-drawer filing cabinets on road material, plus boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings. How I long for the days of Girl Scout troops, Red Cross volunteering, short civic commitments, church projects, and the serious study of music before I get too old. One saving grace in the fight to save my own home is I have been involved with people from all backgrounds, colors, capabilities, to save their own homes and the Nation's Capital. 

 "...I am a conservative, and I like that word, as I believe in conserving. I would like to see a committee established to take a long look at what man is doing to his environment today...I shudder when I think of the heritage we are leaving our children."

The North Central Freeway project died officially in 1977, though a reminder remains, in Silver Spring, MD, where a leg of what was to be part of it serves as the connection between what was briefly known as The Avenue of the Presidents (16th Street) and Georgia Avenue. 

In the 1980s, when the once-thriving downtown of Silver Spring had become a virtual wasteland, a ghost town peppered with little junk shops and drug markets, there was a great movement to revitalize this once wondrous local center. One group wanted to "fix" it by building a mall over the main intersection, a monstrosity the size and scope of Mall of America in Minneapolis, but without any space for parking except underground and in the air. As I was then living in one of the old neighborhoods that the North Central Freeway would have demolished, I became involved in a counter-movement to help recreate a human scale version of what had once been.

Then I discovered that there was a plan - a secret plan - to divert southbound Georgia Avenue traffic onto that creepy part of 16th Street, an insane interchange that would have taken some of the houses in my neighborhood, created enormous traffic noise and congestion, and force cars directly to the giant Mall From Outer Space.

My neighborhood was a hotbed of political activism, and with the late Gene Lynch, who would eventually become governor Parris Glendenning's administrative assistant, we stole discovered and stole the working drawings for the interchange. I hid them in the attic of my 1922 bungalow while Gene drew attention away from me and toward himself, since his house was in the path of the 13 lane abomination the drawings illustrated.

The stewards of those plans claimed, at a Park and Planning Commission meeting that no such plans existed and that there would be no such interchange built after the mall was constructed.

I had the pleasure of producing the missing plans at that meeting.

I have helped incite more than one riot in my search for a little peace.

The revitalization war went on for years. I felt we were losing, and during that time I fell in love and ran away to Southern California.

Ulitmately that adventure can to an end and I came back east. When I came back I discovered we had won - and Gene had terminal cancer.

Sam Abbott was by then dead also, as was Etta Mae Smith. So of course was Dr. Martin Luther King. So were a lot of people whose names no one knows.

Once in a while someone will tell me my optimism and continued efforts to keep the world safe for people who like Scout meetings and church socials and watching the birds outside the window in the morning, or walking beautiful, human-scale streets at night, or not having to help finance a war that would kill thousands upon thousands of people to no good end, people who would like to learn about music or just listen to it, who want to wake up in their own bed in their own home, perhaps with the person they most want to see first thing, or just see those birds outside the window, that those efforts, that urging on my part is foolish.

When Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," some people told me the best way to shut him up was to quit listening to him.

Wait. What? I am not the one whose mind is being poisoned by people like Limbaugh, and not listening to Glenn Beck wasn't what forced him from the public eye and mind. I don't need to turn off my TV. I'm not a Dittohead.

My answer to those people is articulated wonderfully by Hakim Bey in his "Transformation/Utopia":

"Perhaps this world will never conform perfectly to our needs--people will always die before they are ready, perfect relationships will end in ruins, adventures will end in catastrophe and beautiful moments be forgotten. But what breaks my heart is the way we flee from those inevitable truths into the arms of more horrible things. It may be true that every man is lost in a universe that is fundamentally indifferent to him, locked forever in a terrifying solitude--but it doesn't have to be true that some people starve while others destroy food or leave fertile farms untilled. It doesn't have to be true that men and women waste their lives away working to serve the hollow greed of a few rich men, just to survive. It doesn't have to be the case that we never dare to tell each other what we really want, to share ourselves honestly, to use our talents and capabilities to make life more bearable, let alone more beautiful. That's unnecessary tragedy, stupid tragedy, pathetic and pointless."

All I really want is to sleep in my own bed in my own house, alone or with somebody (part of a line my mother used to use to answer the question "Do you always do that?" to which she would reply "Only if I'm alone or with somebody"), to wake up and watch the birds and not have to deal with the gnawing feeling Sammy Abbott once described as the reason he was such a volatile guy: "I wake up pissed off every morning because I know somewhere, somebody is getting screwed." 


Outside my window

I travel the path toward the time and place where that won't be so. Sure, I may never get there, we may never get there, but we can try and keep the bastards from getting comfortable. 

I may never get to Ixtlan, I may never get home, but I by god know where home is, and it doesn't have bile-spewing, hate-filled, bigoted, war-loving, mall-building members of the Nova Mob in it, those people that William S. Burroughs described as "undreaming, insect eyes."

No. My home is full of love, and I will, if necessary, beat their collective ass into the ground to get there.

And perhaps Don Juan was right when he supposedly said "Only the path is real." I will keep following it, because it is the only way toward home, and home is where my heart is, home is where I am, no matter where I travel upon the face of the earth.

As The Navigator used to say, "Keep going." Well I am, I'm trying. 




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Great post, AJ. Thanks for sharing some more of your journey with us.
This is priceless and needs to be shared with this latest generation.
Thanks tea tom, for reading and for your comment.
zumalicious, thank you so much! It just hit me the other morning when I woke up, looked out my window, and realized there really is a point to all this.
Very moving. In the seventies, we used to say, "Keeping on truckin'." I think that came from Crumb's comics. In my mind, if you stop "truckin,' you consent to all the violence, oppression and exploitation that goes along with corporate fascism.
Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall, yep, it was R. Crumb who started us truckin'. Actually it was his Mr. Natural, come to think of it. And you are so right: either we keep on truckin' or we become part of the problem, and the problem is vast an many-tentacled. I'd rather not be mistaken for Cthulu. Thanks for your great comment.
Everything is possible, it's just a matter of being able to do it.
L'Heure Bleu: What I believe - what I depend upon, in fact - is a thing one hears quite often certain world weary people who keep going: "We do what we can." I believe if we each *only* do what we can, even if that lone action falls far short of setting the world on fire, collectively we can - and we have - made the world better. The operative word is "we." And when one of that "we" has hit the wall, the rest of that "we" reach out and lift up the one or the ones who feel they have nothing left to give, no energy left with which to do. And we go on.
Yes! Yes! Yes! We only find comfort by living our truths without fear and with faith. We keep trying because there's no other way. The whole spirit of this post made me think of one of my favorite modern Russian poets, Vladimir Vysotsky, and his richly allegorical poem about "fastidious horses" galloping on the brink of non-existence. Just wanted to share my favorite translation of this poem. It's by Stanley Altshuler.

Fastidious horses

On a rugged cliff, the very edge, above the endless chasm
I keep lashing at my horses with my whip clenched in a spasm
But the air is growing thinner, I am gasping, drowning, crying
I can sense with horrid wonder, I am vanishing, I'm dying

Slow your gallop, my horses! Slow your gallop I say!
Don't you listen to my stinging whip!
But the horses I was given, stubborn and so unforgiving,
Can't complete the life I'm living, can’t conclude the verse I'm singing

I will stop for a blink, I will let horses drink
For a brief second more, I will stand on the brink

I will perish, as a feather that the hurricane has swallowed,
In a chariot they'll pull me through the snow in blinding gallop
All I ask of you my horses, slow your pace but for a moment
To prolong the final seconds of approach to my last comfort.

We have made it. Right on time, God has left us with few choices
But then why are angels singing with such fiendish scolding voices,
Or it that horse bell ringing in a frenzy drenched with tears,
Or am I the one who's screaming for my horses to shift gears?

Slow your gallop, oh my horses! Slow your gallop I say!
Don't you listen to my stinging whip!
But the horses I was given, stubborn and so unforgiving,
Can't complete the life I'm living, at least let me finish singing
It's true you cannot make progress unless everyone tries. The more the better.Bravo!
Thanks for the Butterfly. Maybe I see you a a Meeting in DC again. I remember DC's Georgetown Salon. That was a wonderful time with You Know . . .
Blue Singer,
and we Met.
I Met Daniel Ellsberg. I Thanked him for his Care/Courage. We spoke about our mutual Friend:
S. Brian Wilson (former attorney)
Pause . . .
Brian held up a medal I gave back.
The USA Today did a anti-war piece.
We veterans were 'placed' on a list.
Sad . . .
It was R. Reagan's "potential risk list."
We protested Iran/Contra war/blood.
My own government 'thought' we were:
A potential risk to homeland security.
You sent me back to Flashback 1986.
I always try to gesture from my heart:
Thanks to anyone who exhibits Care.
Care comes from the same root-word:
Courage . . .
I think it's a great day to take a nice slow stroll.
I remember when we met. You're a gentleman.
Nikki Stern and her Friends sure are so lovable.
Please never show that dancehall photograph.
I lost most all of that 'Fat Tire' beer belly gut.
I almost went to Fort Meade
Inspiring piece here, and some things I didn't know about you, I admire your attention to that part of your life that defines what you believe in. Practicing what you preach, what a concept! Kudos on this.
Better to "act" than "react," and yet, at times, we MUST "react" to the "act." It's part of being human and wholly alive.
I get tired of going to rallies and protests, but I know if I didn't that I would regret it and wish I would have been there because every person counts. Great work.
Your intellect and heart meld so wonderfully into passionate rants like this. You have lived and continue living, in the broadest sense.
Yes! A really inspiring piece A.J. Filled with great antidotes for the poison ... Loved the Transformation/Utopia quote.
LEV JANASHVILI: Thank you! Not only for the encouraging comment, but for the poem. That speaks volumes about the feeling of wanting peace and knowing one can only have it by joining with others to hold off the barbarians already within the gates. It is a curse in some ways, but I wouldn't change horses for anything.

Algis Kemezys: That sounds like an Amen to me. Thank you!

Art James: What can I say? We share one particularly wondrous and wonderful memory that can be lived again, and will, I promise. I wonder at the government officials who tell us to support our troops in killing but mistrust them otherwise, much the same as they want to protect the unborn, but as soon as your feet hit the ground, you'd better learn to run and duck, because we're all fair game then. Oh, and don't worry, I'll keep that photo to myself. It is priceless, you know, gut or no gut. You, dude, are a chick magnet! I'll be more than glad to be your wing man anytime - though the company that particular night was stellar and the rest was just window dressing. Hope to see you soon. Till then, my friend, carry on!

Rita Shibr: How wonderful to hear from you, and thank you. I can't fathom living any other way, but that's just me. I guess I could have summed it up by simply quoting Wendell Berry's remark that "What I stand for is what I stand on." Thanks so much.

I Love Life: True, sometimes we are forced to react, and if we do it in a measured and mindful way, we stay in concert with the whole of the universe, which is a constant flux of action and reaction anyway, an infinite game of Tetris, human and alive. Thanks for your wonderful comment.

Razzle Dazzle: Thank you for reading and for your very lucid comment. The same thing occurred to me when I would run for president of my fire department, always prefacing my comments with "First, please understand: I do not want this job. I'm willing to do it though, and there is a difference." It worked countless times, because it was true. If I don't, who will?

Lea, your words are like a warm blanket to me. Thank you so much. Every day I understand my father a little better.

Scarlett Sumac: Thank you very, very much! Your comment made me think of words from the band Live's "They Stood up for Love":
"who put the flower in the barrel of that gun?
who lit the candle that started the fire,
burnt down the fortress, the throne?
who could house all the refugees in a single shack
or a lowly bungalow?
who lives in a different dimension, free from the
struggles we know?"

The antidote is love. I am so glad you liked the quote from Hakim Bey, too. Those two little essays grow more meaningful to me every single day. I'm sure you'll see me used parts of them again.
I just had a discussion along these lines with my 23-yr old and increasingly jaded son. He suggested that atheism leads to existentialism and the idea that nothing matters anyway. I countered that atheists could be moralists, too. And he countered "What would be the point?"

The point I made to him -- and to anyone who's from the "they're all the same, why bother" school of philosophy and unpolitics -- is that neither religion or any other form of "perfectedness" is necessary to do right in this world.

Even if there is no hereafter, and even if the world ends tomorrow, those who strive to make this world a better place have fulfilled our obligation to those who sacrificed so that we might have life and live it more abundantly. And if the world ends ten thousand years from now, those who strive to make this world a better place will have done our duty toward those as yet unborn.
huh? I swear I just got here.
You project. You the magnet!
Don't Blame me for that woman!
Your the magnet. Nikki lures men!
At this elderly age I just discovered?
my psychotic neighbor
a kosher deli, cook shows,
and was asked about bikini waxing
I didn't even know women shaved.
I will take you up about the meet up.
Let's go back to see that red dress.
She would knockout cold a geezer.
I need to see myself as one magnet?
I think Ya blogger 'Chicken Maaan.
He and Ya lure lice fleas and Nice.
I cuss in my sleep and they heehaw.
Tom Cordle: You have spoken a potent truth. It matters. It's as simple as that. Nihilism gets us nowhere, and truly, for them, *nothing* is sacred. I hope your son regains his traction. That would pain me and in fact it does.

Was it Gram Parsons who sang of "Ten thousand years from now..."? Oh, no, it was "One hundred years from now..." and what's the difference anyway? Now is the only time we have. Let's us all be in it together.

Our duty is clear. Much love to you, my brother.

Art James: Me? The magnet? Well yes, Nikki is the ultimate magnet. I smile over that interlude a lot. We need to go back and find that red dress and see just who among us lucky, lucky men is the magnet. We'll do it. We could cause a misalignment of the planets. I look forward to that!

Nikki, we're only talking about you behind your back because you haven't appeared yet. ;)
Powerful...keep on keepin on...
Thanks, Rob. I can't seem to help it. I don't look backward too often.