Saturday, December 24, 2011

I'm In Love With the USPS And I Don't Care Who Knows It

One of several boxes of cherished letters.
My father was a carrier with the U.S. Postal Service for nearly 30 years before an early stroke forced him into retirement.  It was a good job, and by contemporary standards maybe a dream job. Under a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by one of the largest public employee unions in the country, he took home a comfortable pay check, enjoyed substantial health benefits for himself and for me, and accrued a pension, something that's become something of a mythical beast of benefits.  In exchange he reported for work before dawn in an atmosphere that was toxic (in part thanks to an extremely adversarial union/management relationship) and made his appointed rounds through rain and snow and heat and gloom of night.

When my grandfather (himself a USPS veteran) suggested I take the civil service exam and go into the family business, my father told me he's never let me "work on the floor with those animals."  I was willing to take his word on that.  When a man who is himself crass, sexist and somewhat racist tells you it's a rough crowd, well, that's good enough for me.

Ironically, one of the hats I wear in my current job is USPS contract employee, picking up and delivering island mail from the processing and distribution center in Scarborough.  I love it there.  The plant itself has a Rube Goldberg quality that I enjoy, and I've developed a jovial, affectionate relationship with most of the people who work there.  At this point, starting pay as a carrier would be a significant pay cut and the grousing of my buddies there confirms that I'm better off where I am in a workplace where the culture is more like a family than a business, but there's a part of me that wishes I'd taken my grandfather's advice way back when.

Of course these days the postal service is considered a sinking ship.  Facing an enormous budget shortfall, there's talk of cutting Saturday service and smaller branches exist under perpetual threat of closure.  I can't even count the number of times I've heard the phrase, "No wonder the postal office is going under..." recently.  This bothers me.  A lot.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I Enjoy Being a Girl

Facial hair=competent, right?

 You know how sometimes you bump into someone and apologize and back up and knock something over and apologize and lean over to pick it up and hip check someone and pretty soon you're in this sort semi-comic nightmare vortex of apology?  I think that might happen in a second.  Bear with me.

Some people will read this and think I'm an insult to feminism and its hard-won gains.  Some people will think I'm being simultaneously a boring scold and a whiny, selfish baby and, on the whole, too sensitive feministy altogether.  Some people will probably just think I'm a frivolous nincompoop who spends an awful lot of time pontificating on things that really don't deserve it. Oh, and let's not forget that I'll be using broad strokes and will undoubtedly be accused of stereotyping. As far as what I actually am, well, probably most of it's at least partially true.  Except for the stereotype thing, where I hope you'll accept that I'm not speaking for all women, about all men in all circumstances. Call me out if I really hit a nerve, but I can almost guarantee it'll be something I'm shorthanding for the purpose of the discussion.  So then: sorry for not being a credit to my gender, sorry for being so tetchy, sorry I'm a nitwit, sorry for extrapolating generalized scenarios from shallow experience pools.  Sorry for apologizing in advance. I hate when people do that.  Welcome to the nightmare vortex.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Does This Urban Outfit Make Me Look Fatuous?

Urban Outfitters is putting on a crazy push to finish their store in downtown Portland, Maine.

As I walked by tonight, it occurred to me that although having a national chain plunked down in the midst of the Old Port, our charming little enclave of locally-owned boutiques, feels a little yicky, it's actually a weird testament to the strength and success of our small businesses.  Urban Outfitters isn't interested in atmosphere, it's interested in cash, and the fact that it made sense to them to take up real estate downtown instead of somewhere in the strip mall wasteland that is South Portland is kind of like a high five to the business owners who've grown the area over the past few decades.  You know, the kind of high five you get from your mortal enemy who's super passive aggressive but who it's way easier to just make nice with than face their mean-girl vengeance if you snub them.

If I were the kind of person who paid for clothes instead of scavenging cast offs from friends and making my own from bed linens, I'd think, "Ooh. Urban Outfitters' clearance rack is totally like retail junk food and junk food is so fun.  But I'ma make a concerted effort to get my metaphorical fashion groceries at local stores too, because they're the reason there's even anything in this area besides rats and dive bars.  And I'm never, ever going to buy anything from UO with writing in a foreign language I don't speak, because of that one time when Tricia used her Japanese lessons and realized that they had a T-shirt that said, 'I'm a stupid white person' and she splurged and bought it because it was so hilarious that people who couldn't read it were wearing it because oriental-fetishism was at its peak in the late-90's and it totally scandalized our friend Yuko and Tricia's Japanese hair dresser, both of whom assumed she'd misunderstood."

That, friends, is exactly what I would think.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Do You Believe Everything You Read in Sketchy Online Publications?

We are gullible people.  This is, I realize, a sweeping and imprecise statement, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure quite who I mean by we, but I mean it and I consider it to be one of the most dangerous threats facing humanity. Wait, I mean more dangerous than nuclear armament, global warming and unrest in the Middle East?  Why yes, yes I do.  Because all of those by and large the physical threats to our future as a species are governed by people who make decisions about the stewardship of weapons and fossil fuels and rubber bullets based on their assessment of the information available to them.  In other words, nuclear bombs don't kill people, people kill people, and if people run around just a-believin' every bit of crackpot data that crosses their path, we're some kind of fucked, gang.

I've mentioned journalism and my previous life in the profession in passing a couple of times on this blog in some offhanded ways, but I've recently become fixated on some very specific and very pressing concerns regarding the fourth estate that bear examination.

On my recent trip to New York, I was hosted by someone I knew only very slightly having met her and hit it off when she was a potential ferry passenger and I was stuck in the glass box of my ticket booth. When I got off the bus and she hugged me and gave me keys to her apartment, we'd spent a total of 45 minutes, tops, talking to each other face to face and exchanged a handful of delightful emails over the months that followed.  She's a Columbia School of Journalism-trained professional and freelances for a number of papers including the Boston Globe, the Village Voice and the New York Daily News.  On the second day of my visit, we had a lengthy and passionate discussion of the current state and future of journalism, including the advent of the citizen journalist.  She feels strongly that there ought to be a distinction between professional reporting and crowd-sourced material.  While I tend to be more willing to entertain the possibility that a layman might produce copy worth considering, I share some of her concerns in that I'm not sure that consumers are diligent enough to deal with the responsibility of sorting through the wealth of information reported by non-institutional news sources (or reputable media --cough, Judith Miller, cough-- but that's another story).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Black Friday at the Church of Stop Shopping

On the eve of the day known, depending on where your head's at, as Black Friday or Buy Nothing Day, and heading into a season that tries super hard to make shopping feel like a warm, sparkly, snow-dusted hug, I'm going to take a few loose ends that have been kicking around my brain, weave them into a scarf of a blog entry and give it to you as a gift.

I've never been a huge fan of shopping, with the exception of groceries, which I love beyond reason.  I do like looking at stuff, but somehow poking around with the intention of buying things is a special ring of my personal hell. 

Which is why the very concept of Black Friday makes my head spin. For a girl who likes to take late night walks because I can pretend there's no one else in the city, being jammed  into aisles with dozens of other people is positively claustrophobic.  I dislike being stuck in line with those radically inefficient types who sigh and shuffle and hurrumph at how long it's taking but begin the inevitably long, arduous search for their wallet only when they hear their total.  I dislike cranky, snippy people. People in lines are cranky and snippy. I dislike being cranky and snippy. I become cranky and snippy. Enough.  The particulars aren't important, but you get the idea.  I'm petty and precious and sad, and I can't hack it in the fluorescent lit jungle of Retail Land.  But actively seeking this experience on a day when you're guaranteed the biggest, most aggressive, adrenalized crowds of the year?  How does anyone find that appealing?

Well, sales, stupid. Crazy sales intended to satisfy the already crazy and induce a sense of urgency and madness in those not yet over the edge.  And in a bad economy, the siren song of the discount flat screen gets turned up to eleven.

This is old news, but it's worth examining this year maybe more than others because of...yes, Occupy.  I realize I'm probably starting to sound like an Occupy zealot, but bear with me here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Good Cop, Bad Cop

The NYPD is bad news.  The NYPD has always been bad news.  Short of some cataclysmic change in city and police administrative culture, the NYPD will continue to be bad news.

I lived in New York for a few years in the late '90s, when Rudy Giuliani decided to clean up the joint and set about cracking down on drugs, prostitution, and panhandling, among other things.  As a friend and lifelong New Yorker recently told me, "It was good, and then it went to far."  By her account, a new leader in the police department instituted some radical changes and made some really positive change in the city and police culture, but Giuliani got bitten by the green-eyed monster when that guy got credit for cleaning up the city.  So he canned him, and filled the position with someone a little more militant and a little less forward thinking.

By the time I arrived in New York, the police were, under the guise of cleaning up the city, busting skulls pretty much at random, treating drunk revelers talking loudly in nightclub lines with the same violent rigor that they treated armed drug dealers in a sting.  They sodomized Abner Louima (a suspect arrested for accidentally punching an officer while attempting to break up a fight between two women at a nightclub) with the handle of a bathroom plunger.  They shot and killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed and innocent man who they thought matched a suspect's description as he reached for his wallet to present identification.  They fired twelve shots at a mentally ill Hasidic man who was armed with a hammer, and killed him as well.  The response from the department to all of these things felt like a shrug.  Shit happens, right?

And so here we are, more than ten years later, watching the NYPD refuse access to credentialed reporters from organizations like the New York Times and Reuters as officers in riot gear evict the denizens of Zuccotti Park.  Pardon me if this suggests that unnecessary force is not just likely, but probably part of the plan.

The same New York friend I mentioned above, who is not a protester or a radical, told me, "I don't trust them.  I try not to have to deal with them ever."

What I'm saying here, is that the NYPD is pretty far from the protect and serve ethos that was, once upon a time, a sentiment sacred to law enforcement officers who were justifiably proud of the work they did to keep the populace safe.  And the public is far from holding in their minds the image of Officer Friendly, the approachable beat cop who's tough but fair and looks out for your kids.

I'm appalled by the way the NYPD has handled OWS.  When we were there, there were officers stationed along the sidewalks telling passersby to keep moving, to keep the sidewalks clear as they tried to read the protesters signs on Broadway or watch the drummers at the other end of the park, and they were not nice about it.  I do a fair amount of crowd control involving hundreds of people at work on busy summer days and I understand how easy it is to get frustrated when people just won't listen, but we're talking about a dozen people at a time walking by and slowing down to look.  They were moving along, though slowly, but the officers were extremely loud and extremely aggressive shouting at what were mostly tourists to move along.  Guess what, NYPD?  There were a lot of people from elsewhere that were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, or maybe hadn't even heard about your terrible reputation.  Way to spread the word that you're a bunch of power-hungry dickheads to every corner of the world.

And they're not the only department overstepping their bounds and generating a shameful public image across the country.  Oakland, another department notorious for its aggressive and antagonistic behavior has showed their true colors, landing more than one veteran in the hospital with head injuries sustained from rubber bullets. And sure, in chaotic situations these types of injuries are not uncommon, but if there was any doubt the police were deliberate in their decision to inflict damage as opposed to controlling the crowd, this video, in which a group of protesters rushes to the aid of Scott Olsen, a young veteran who suffered a fractured skull and brain swelling after being hit in the head with a tear gas canister should put those doubts to rest.  No one is behaving aggressively, or even looking at the police.  They're attempting to address the needs of an injured man lying on the street.  The flashbang thrown here reportedly landed only a foot or two from Olsen.  You might also watch this, in which students at Berkeley are beaten at length for refusing to disperse.  Note in particular the three officers in riot gear in the lower left corner who separate a young man from the crowd and really put their backs into it, then slink off behind the bushes to disappear into a larger crowd of officers.  That student was later taken to the hospital having been beaten extensively in the head and ribs.

It's horrifying.  It's egregious. It's absolutely shameful.  But I'd like to address the collateral damage, outside the physical wounds of protesters, namely the honor and dignity of police everywhere.

My uncle, William Baker, has spent a lifetime in law enforcement, starting as an officer in a small town force where he eventually became the chief.  After a brief stint in the Department of Public Safety in Massachusetts, UMaine law, and Haiti doing police training under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, he returned to police work as the chief in Laconia, New Hampshire.  Laconia, known for its down and dirty "Bike Week" had both some serious public safety concerns and a deeply antagonistic relationship with the police.  A tremendously personable guy and a cop for all the right reasons, one of Bill's main goals in the town was repair the terrible community relations.  He instituted a mentoring program pairing officers with at-risk youth and promoted other outreach opportunities in which community members got to know the officers on the streets and were encouraged to approach them not just in emergencies, but with their concerns and suggestions as well.  To the dismay of motorcycle enthusiasts, he cleaned up some of the seedier elements of Bike Week (cole slaw wrestling, anyone) and went so far as to ban weapons in the tow during a year when several of the larger biker gangs in the country were publicly warring.

When he left Laconia, he decided to go back to his roots and took a job as a rank and file officer in Biddeford, then decided it was time to leave that type of work to younger men and became the chief in Westbrook.  Like Laconia, Westbrook was a town with a number of chronic problems, most notably drugs, and he immediately began an aggressive campaign to curb that activity in the city.  He also worked with his officers to improve the culture and morale of the department, promoting transparency and community outreach.  Though, again, unpopular with people often engaged in less than legal activities, he was successful in creating community buy in and repairing the relationship of the community at large and the department.  He now works as a consultant for the FBI.

There are two major reasons that people go into police work: 1) Because they want to give back to their community and help people and 2) Because they've got some power and control issues and enjoy working in a position that gives them both.  Unfortunately, the former, like my uncle are increasingly a minority.

We live in a hyper-aggressive culture, and a lot people go into police work hopped up on adrenaline-seeking and unresolved anger, despite attempts by police academies to screen for and train out those tendencies.  Plus, it's a job that, depending on where you work, can pretty easily cultivate a bad attitude.  Imagine doing a job where most of the time, the fact that you were called in is a bad thing.  Either someone has committed a crime and they're obviously not glad to see you, or someone has been the victim of a crime and your arrival is part and parcel of that negative experience.  Police officers deal with people assaulting, insulting, spitting, vomiting and bleeding on them on a regular basis.  That's a pretty tough gig.  It certainly doesn't excuse the outrageous behavior we've seen across the country, but it's worth keeping in mind before we start painting all police officers with the same brush.

I have to admit that I cringe every time I hear or read, "Fuck the police," or hear them referred to as "pigs."  Because I'm not sure, given the extreme situations in which those sentiments are expressed, that the people expressing them will ever be able to separate the heinous actions of those particular officers or departments from the badge in general.

And likewise, I feel deeply angry at the officers perpetrating these offenses, not just for the sheer inhumanity of it, but because they have betrayed the dignity and respect of their position.  They've corrupted what ought to be a noble institution and rendered it infinitely more difficult for their more upright brethren across the country to the kind of good work that everyone in uniform should be known for.

I'm sad for the dozens of victims of police brutality these past few days. I'm sad for every officer who reports for duty with a sense of pride in their community and concern for the public and is met with disdain and mistrust.  I'm sad that we live in a culture that has allowed this sort of behavior to escalate to such a dire, dangerous, monstrous state.

Don't fuck the police, fuck that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, All I Ever Wanted II: Total Inspiration

I've been worried since my last post that it might have been too negative, or given the mistaken impression that I'm not a huge fan of OWS after my visit, which is anything but the truth.  Looking back, though, I think it's a pretty honest assessment of the camp itself.  The main point, of course, was that there's a significant difference between the physical occupation of Zuccotti Park and the protest movement it symbolizes.

But now get ready, because this is going to be a long freakin' post, and roughly halfway in I start gushing like a weird little fangirl.

After spending some time in the park, we went to 60 Wall Street, a cavernous lobby space open to the public that protesters have been using for teach-ins and working group meetings. (This weekend they'll be having a public reading of Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" there). We went there to attend a teach-in, and sat down near a likely-looking circle.  As it happens, they were OWS, but not the group we were looking for. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, All I Ever Wanted

It's becoming more and more difficult for me to articulate my thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and the larger Occupy movement, and I'm not sure whether visiting Zuccotti Park made that more or less so.  I think it's fascinating and really important to think and talk about the very complex issues facing the movement and to do so critically and impartially despite my support.  I am wary, however, of having any criticism I might have used to discredit the movement, so I feel increasingly pressure to make sure I'm speaking very precisely.  There were some parts of my visit to OWS that were a bit disheartening, but others that were utterly transcendent.  Whatever shortcomings I might identify, I am, now more than ever, a huge supporter of this movement and extremely impressed with the work that's being done and the extraordinary level of complexity and organization within the group.

Since I tend to think of my experience there in two parts, I'm going to split this into two posts. For one thing, it'll just hang together better, and for another, I'm fully aware that I'm, well, wordy, to put it kindly. And so.

I guess as good a starting point as any is the peculiar semantic dissonance of the term "occupation" and the actual structure of the protest group.  I've had a number of discussions lately with Occupy skeptics, and it's occurred to me that despite the fact that a huge majority (read thousands upon thousands) of participants and supporters are not actually, literally occupying tents in Zuccotti Park or other designated spaces across the country, the encampments, because they are a visible, tangible, 24-hour manifestation, are the sum total of evidence for how many people judge the movement.

On the one hand, I understand.  If you aren't already predisposed to support it based on the vague ideas presented in the mainstream press, it's difficult to invest the time and energy necessary to understand the layers upon layers of nuance the movement engenders.  And it's called "Occupy" which suggests (again, to those disinclined to really examine it) that somehow the physical presence of protesters in tent cities is somehow the point.

On the other hand, that's some pretty goddamn lazy thinking.  As I mentioned in my last post, I'm group shy and took my time getting comfortable with Occupy, but I spent some time trying to get a feel for it, and found it relatively easy to get a handle on.  Granted, as my high school history teacher taught me, I went directly for the primary source readings,,, participants blogs, etc., because if you want to know what people are talking about, you'll always to better to ask directly then to accept someone else's account of what they seemed to be saying.  Particularly when "someone else" is a reporter who may or may not have done their research.

At any rate, this question of Occupy Wall Street (or anywhere else) as a physical occupation of a particular space versus a larger philosophical and/or off-site presence is important and I became more cognizant than ever that the physical occupations, while symbolically important, should not be the standard by which the movement is judged. Because if I were to judge OWS by Zuccotti Park, I would have been very disappointed.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

It's the #Occupation That's Sweeping the Nation

There was a time when timidity kept me from joining things.  As time goes on, it's become more curmudgeonly distaste than fear that keeps me flying solo. There are a number of political and social issues that move me, but I always end up disinterested in aligning myself with the official movements that support  my positions.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but at the top of the list is my overwhelming aversion to the doctrinaire thinking and the kind of accidental complacency that creeps in when people align themselves under a philosophical flag.

Which is why I really like the #Occupy movement.
Given the respectful, dignified and diverse face of the this movement, the opposition's at a bit of a loss to find a critique that gains traction, but the standby seems to be the lack of coherent message, the old, "but they're not accomplishing anything," attack, which really misses the point.

For starters, there may not be a list of demands but guess what? This is a protest movement, not a hostage negotiation.   As far as there not being a message...isn't a little bit farcical to pretend the message is indecipherable?  The bottom line here is that the American public has become a marginalized minority by its theoretical representatives in government and the undue influence of corporations on same.

At this early point, the over-arching goal of this movement is to win the hearts and minds of the American public.

Because while morally dubious political decision-making and corporate malfeasance are the direct roots of our current malaise, we, the 99%, need to take a little bit of responsibility here too.  I'm not talking "you can't complain if you don't vote," because voting is a pretty bare minimum of involvement and is, as we've seen, pretty ineffective.  It's not enough to check a box on a ballot if elected officials know there'll be no consequences if they let us down.  The corporate/political complicity that #Occupy stands against didn't happen suddenly, it happened incrementally and as a nation we were a) not paying attention or b) too lazy to respond beyond bitching to our friends. 

There were people protesting, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine but average Americans were either a) not paying attention or b) too lazy to think critically about what they were saying.  The message that corporations have a dangerous hold on politics is not a new idea.  We've watched G8 summits and IMF meetings turn into chaos and rioting and we've seen a steady stream of furious hippies and punks railing against the man and his money and the control it has in our lives.  The thing is, they were preaching to the choir, or at the very least to lapsed members of the congregation.  The people who heard the message were the people who already understood the dynamic.  The people who needed to hear it saw a bunch of very angry people with weird hair and insufficient personal hygiene with whom they had nothing in common.

So here we are, having fallen rather far into the rabbit hole of economic and social decline and finally, finally waking up and taking a stand.  To my mind the real target of the #Occupy movement (at least at this early stage) is only nominally the 1% and its stranglehold on government.  It's not so much against something as it is FOR a great awakening of the public consciousness, FOR the creation of an educated, engaged populace, FOR a sense of unity to replace the binary us vs. them, liberals vs. conservatives, white collar vs. blue collar narrative that has effectively paralyzed our capacity to act together.  We've spent a very long time misdirecting a lot of dogmatic, impotent rage at each other instead of valuing the things we share and working to achieve common goals.

To change those attitudes, particularly as deeply entrenched as they are, is no mean feat.  #Occupy has made impressive inroads already, and if it keeps on apace, it will have achieved something far more valuable than revoking corporate personhood or prosecuting some crooked CEO; it will have changed the culture that created the conditions for these shenanigans in the first place.

And so I'm putting aside my natural aversion to joining and heading down to New York next week.  I have faith it's going to be engaging and inspiring.  I'm excited to meet people and talk with them about what's going on and I'm sure there'll also be a bunch of people and things that drive me crazy. Which sounds like democracy. It sounds good.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Thing That Drives Me Bats:

When critical theory jargon slithers into the mainstream and runs amok.

With the exception of my gender, most of my demographic info falls in the privileged category.  I recognize it.  I do my level best to be mindful of it. I’m interested in discussions and debate with people who are and are not privileged in the same ways.

But I have to say it really bums me out when the notion of privilege gets bandied around as a way to invalidate someone’s input in these sorts of explorations. I haven’t run afoul of it myself, but I’ve seen a lot of it lately.

If someone’s out of line, rebuttal with a legitimate, reasoned argument is a million times more productive and enlightening than telling them that their race/gender/sexual orientation/what have you means they can’t possibly understand.  It’s belittling, it undermines constructive conversation and it promotes isolation and mistrust.

I recently saw a tweet from someone who often supports arguments that use the concept of privilege as a weapon. In the tweet, she used a race-based colloquialism that is considered offensive to some members of the minority it references and then made a sarcastic reference to the “political correctness” police.  I was disappointed by the lack of respect from someone who insists on respect from others and the realization that she’s less interested in real examination of privilege and difference than in validating her own position. 

Respect is the bottom line.  Privilege and related concepts aren’t intended to be weapons in an arsenal, trotted out to dominate an argument.  They’re tools for understanding ourselves and others and they’re meaningless if respect isn’t in the equation.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

We're Going to the Promised Land

I'm guessing most everyone's familiar with some variation on this phenomenon, but let's define a term real quick before I get down to business:

"Black Eye Season" is the nebulous off-season of businesses (or for that matter cities or states) that operate year-round but are largely seasonal.

During the long, dark, cold winter when things get a little sleepy people have a lot of time on their hands, a portion of which inevitably ends up devoted to grousing about working conditions in the long, dark, cold winter, and concocting grievances (both reasonable and un-) against co-workers, management and the cruel, cruel universe at large.

Those of you don't work in an industry like this can just picture Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Well-adjusted people don't live here anymore, Mrs. Torrance.

Good then. Let's go.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

It ain't a pretty fact, but it's a fact that where there's a society, there's hierarchy, and where there's hierarchy, there's a bottom, social science's dreaded "Other."  Maybe it's a religious group, a racial minority, people of a particular gender, or socio-economic class.  It's not rational or fair, sometimes it's not even conscious, but there it is.  And of course, Otherness isn't exclusive, so there might be several varieties of bias in effect at the same time.

In my experience in Portland, dating back to the eighties, class is the big dog of Otherness.  In an otherwise mostly homogenous city, the differences between rich and poor were marked in carefully delineated unspoken categories: the actually wealthy (I don't recall meeting any of these mythical creatures), the upper-middle class, the middle class, the working class, the poor. 

Like many (hopefully most) children, I was unaware of these categories as actionable distinctions, but I was aware that it was different to visit a friend in their single-family home in Oakdale than to visit one in an apartment in Kennedy Park:  Their parents' speech was different, they wore different clothes, the buildings smelled different, the sounds and sights of the neighborhood were different.  Both were a little foreign to me. 

My mom grew up middle class and we affected many of the habits and characteristics of that background, but the finances of our young, single-parent, female-headed family put us in a different category.  We lived on Sherman St. in a decidedly pre-gentrification Parkside.  For the treatment of a colicky baby, the upstairs neighbors suggested a hint of heroin in the bottle.  I remember my mom trying hard to distract from the giant smear of blood on the stairwell wall when we came home.  I remember my confusion when we ducked into a building that was not our own to get away from the menacing fellow who'd followed us from the bus stop.  We weren't as fancy as some people I knew, but we were fancier than others.  My mom's always been a down to earth sort who didn't make a big deal about that sort of thing.  My life has been incredibly rich in people, both casual encounters and lasting friends because she raised me to look beyond difference.

As often happens, though, those differences began to loom larger as I got older.  I count my middle school years as among the most miserable, in part on that account.  When I was there, King Middle School was a class war incubator.  I would count as low points the day a bunch of girls told me they planned to "kick my fuckin' ass" after the school dance because I was friends with one girl's boyfriend and the day a boy threw a handful of pubic hair on my science table because I wasn't getting sufficiently upset at verbal taunts.  Resentment flowed in all directions:  Kids who came from tough situations and had little support actively scorned peers with more capital, financial or social, whom they perceived as soulless snobs.  The flipside was the more privileged kids dismissing those with less as troublemakers and losers.  The one time I ever got in trouble (for swearing, maybe?), a teacher (in what I recognized even at the time as a shockingly inappropriate move) told me not to act out to fit in. "After all," she said, "someday those kids will be pumping your gas."

To a certain extent, I think that's a fairly good summary of the marginalization of people in lower socio-economic classes in Portland, although it was rare for someone in such a progressive-liberal area to say it outright:  "Those people" are criminals and deadbeats.  "Those people" are a corrupting influence on respectable culture.  "Those people" can be ignored.  Sound familiar?  It's the same horrifying script that appears in larger cities where the marginalized Other is a racial minority.

Which brings me to the real topic of this post: Portland Forecaster reporter Emily Parkhurst recently wrote a piece titled, "Students Tend to Flee Portland's Most Diverse Schools."  It's a real humdinger of a headline, and it certainly caught my attention.  Sounded like the ol' Forecaster (full disclosure: I freelanced for them roughly a decade ago and my ex-husband was a full time reporter there while we were married) finally decided to sink its teeth into a meaty story -- hot damn!

Unfortunately, the story was a pretty dry recitation of numbers -- numbers of out-of-district requests to and from various schools and the racial demographic data for those schools -- sprinkled with a couple of bland quotes from Superintendent of Schools Jim Morse.  If you, like many, many people zone out when confronted with fistfuls of stats (it's how the Press Herald gets away with getting numbers wrong so very, very often), you'll probably be satisfied to accept not just the literal accuracy of the headline  but the incendiary subtext that diversity is the reason students are leaving as well.  One could argue that no such subtext was intended, but then I would say to one, "BAW HAW HAW! Let's cut the coy bullshit, shall we?"

First of all, I'm going to take issue with the literal accuracy.  Yup, lots of students are leaving Riverton, Presumpscot and Hall (no demographic info presented on this last one).  In fact, they make up the bulk of the transfer requests.  The problem with making an argument that they're "fleeing" diverse schools is that it suggests not that a lot of students are leaving some diverse schools, but that, in general, diverse schools are seeing an exodus.  Among the four schools here with roughly 50/50 white/minority populations, Riverton and Presumpscot are losing a lot of kids.  Reiche and East End are seeing nearly as many kids transferring in as out.  I have a hard time correlating the exodus with racial demographics, when the number of kids actually "fleeing" varies pretty widely within the pool of diverse schools, and the number of requests to leave paints an incomplete picture of how desired or reviled various institutions are.

Second of all, let's look at the insinuation that parents are requesting school for the their kids specifically to get them away from minorities.   Riverton, the school throwing up the biggest numbers of requests to leave, is diverse, yes, but it's also classified as a "failing" school by the federal government (East End, also diverse, is also failing).  The housing development associated with the neighborhood has had a rough reputation for quite a long time, hitting a new low this summer when a police SWAT unit evacuated residents during a day long armed standoff.  Presumpscot and Hall, the next most fled establishments, are both currently over-enrolled, by 25 and 20 percent respectively in part because of previous requests for students to transfer in.  It strikes me that there are a number of legitimate reasons that parents might wish to move their children from these schools.

I'm also curious how race became the only cross-referenced demographic in this piece.  To get back to my seemingly unrelated intro, I'd be willing to guess that if there's a great big cultural-bias driven factor in this, it's class over race.  Riverton has a low-income housing development, Hall has Sagamore Village, and the most requested schools, Lyseth and Longfellow are, yes, overwhelmingly white, but also located in comfy, relatively stable, relatively affluent neighborhoods, the kinds likely to have helpful neighborhood "School Grandmas" and attentive PTAs and boosters.

It's taken me a while to figure out what really bugged me about this article, but here's a short list:

1) Incomplete reporting.  Again, I'm curious about the socio-economic data for these schools.  I'd like to know about class sizes, program reputations, teacher turnover, etc., at least to the extent that I'm satisfied they were examined by the writer on my behalf.  In the middle of this article there's a mention that schools consider reasons for the requests in their deliberations -- I'd like to know how those given reasons break down.  Most of all, I'd like to hear from parents, those removing their kids and those keeping their kids in the most-left schools.  It would almost certainly be more informative and engaging than  Jim Morse saying dumb shit like, "Sometimes we say yes and sometimes we say no."  If you're going to insist on this demographic angle, wouldn't it be nice to have quotes relevant to your thesis? 

2) General haphazardness. It's just a little random the way the whole thing is presented, what gets scrutiny, what doesn't.  I'm now completely preoccupied wondering about Hall's diversity numbers, for instance.  Honestly, it feels like Parkhurst filed the FOIA for out-of-district requests, had a hunch it was related to race demographics and proceeded to research the story exclusively from that angle despite the uncomfortable fit of that data and the results.

3) Sooo weirdly irresponsible.  I guess I'm thinking about this from a place where I assume that Parkhurst only had the data she included in the published story.  I suppose it's possible that she talked to a bunch of parents who confirmed they fleeing diversity or had access to all kinds of demographic data and found that the closest thing to a pattern was in the racial data.  I just can't imagine that could be the case since it would be ridiculous not to reference any of that in the published piece.  I could also assume that maybe she wrote the story from a bland, straight place and some devilish editor put a provocative headline on it, but based on my experience with the paper, that most likely wasn't the case.  If the only evidence that parents are yanking their kids from schools to keep them away from minorities is what's presented in this story, I don't buy it and it makes me pretty upset. 

Portland is in the earliest stages of negotiating race relations as the minority population grows.  There's definitely racism afoot, but there's more of the ignorant, I'd-be-mortified-if-I-realized-how-offensive-that-is, "You people have such nice hair," style racism for the time being than the n-word-using, unabashed hate-style.  At this stage it's crucial that we address racial tension where it crops up in order to build a healthy future for our community, but it's irresponsible and counterproductive to stir up conflict where it doesn't seem to be.

From a school perspective, framing this as a race issue ignores the fact that there are a couple/three schools with significantly higher numbers of requests to leave.  Let's figure out what's going on in the schools that makes parents trust or mistrust particular institutions more than others.  I feel strongly that this article makes racial tension in elementary schools an unfortunate red-herring that distracts us from more pressing school and social-justice issues.

Every society has an Other, but the goal should be to mitigate that condition rather than instigate additional mistrust.  Unfortunately, this kind of poorly supported surmise will likely make minority families feel even more uneasy and unwelcome and feed the embarrassed discomfort that many white people who have little exposure to diversity feel when these discussions arise.  Many white Mainers haven't thought much about diversity one way or the other, but a good way to poison the well is to give them the impression that they're perceived as bigots.  Likewise, I'm sure the minority community would prefer to give their neighbors the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming they're secretly wishing them ill.

I'm curious to hear what people think.  I suspect there's a certain Rorschach aspect to this wherein people will identify the social ill they're most in tune with as the problem.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Revenge of the Panda Slippers: Things I Made Edition

   I've mentioned before that I like miniature things, but I don't think I really expressed how much I like them.  I love them.  They inspire in me a warm sense of well-being that doesn't have any rational basis that I can think of.  It started to gel for me when I left architecture school.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Failure as I tried to make sense of just what in the Sam Hill happened, I realized that I loved building wee models, but once things started approaching a habitable size, I completely lost interest.

Since then, I've developed a sizable (har har) collection of tiny, cheap plastic whatnots from Happy Meals, Kindereggs and grocery store quarter machines.  Then I got all DIY on that business.

 Roughly five or six years ago, I started a series of figurines made in the likeness of the sorts of characters you might see on Congress Street on any given day: skateboarder, hippy, spaced out homeless dude.  I gave the homeless dude to my friend Crash Barry (have you read his books yet?) who "went undercover" to report on homelessness in the city and developed a real affection for some of the local characters.  The first two reside in the drawer of a little Sterilite cabinet (so little! so cute!) in my work space along with some tchotchke and some thirty or forty legs I made of polymer clay with the intention of creating the coolest coffee table ever.  Also in the picture at right is a self portrait while swimming fully clothed, which was part of the recreating-dreams-in-polymer-clay-and-casting-them-in-resin phase that never quite materialized.

I later made another, weirder self-portrait in the same material, wearing the same clothes that was part of an installation at the Sacred and Profane on Peaks Island. It's broken and still I keep it.

Around the same time I began work on a series of puppet heads of City Councilors, and started to explore dioramas.  Then there were the very tiny girls, would-be ornaments of Grunden's-clad fishermen and children bundled in snowsuits.  Also, miniscule bees with wings made of wax.

Eventually I pulled it together enough to complete a series of sculptures, dioramas set in translucent spray-painted plexiglas boxes framed in bass wood.  The contents were, as usual, polymer clay, occasionally with sand or reindeer moss or the like for atmosphere.

I can say with some certainty that the only reason these pieces actually materialized, unlike, say, the dreams-in-resin stuff, was that the aforementioned Crash Barry and his impossibly sweet wife, Shana (have you checked out her traveling children's program?) were, at the time, opening a gallery in Eastport and invited me to be part of the inaugural group show.  I was still struggling with the technical aspects of the resin-dreams, so put together a series of these slightly bizarre dioramas.  To my continuing bemusement, I sold quite a few.  The couple that remain are still beloved, but their continued existence in my life is becoming just a smidge albatrossian, particularly as I'm trying to thin the herd and appropriately prepare what remains for storage.

Naturally, when you a million projects loitering about half-finished, the best thing to do is to invest yourself in a new, much more complicated medium.  Enter animation.

So excited was I by the preliminary results that I began dreaming big.  Like, crazy big.  Like, Brothers Quay big.  At the same time, some turnips in my fridge had shriveled into strikingly head-like shapes, so I carved them out and put teddy bear eyes in them.

I still have hope for this one, but the technical aspects are still kicking my ass and the moths that invaded my apartment invaded the heads, setting me back a bit while I coaxed them out and sealed the heads.

It would be discouraging that so many projects that were incredibly exciting at their inception have fallen by the wayside, but I recognize that they usually fell prey to the same fits of hopelessness that kept me hampered in a lot of other ways, too.  That I decided to shelve them instead of chucking them in the trash in this or that squall of despair is enormously encouraging, since it means they're still in progress, even if they're about to go into the deep freeze of self-storage, temporarily.

In addition to falling in love with my life so far through the magic of artifacts, I've been really inspired to look back at my work (some things more than others) and realize that there's a pretty rich vein waiting to be mined.  I'll venture that another stumbling block in my quest to really find my passion, or at least try to translate on of them into a professional endeavor is exactly the kind of intense enthusiasm for a little of almost everything that makes me such a pack rat.

The plan at this moment is to put things in storage now that I've taken inventory and spend some time with the ideas, see what still resonates.  I think my tendency to be impatient has played a supporting role in the untimely death of some of this stuff and going forward I'd like to try a slightly more balanced approach, keeping a couple of irons in the fire at a time so I don't end up burnt out after a few weeks obsessing about one.

Now that I've solved the question of how to figure out what I'm going to be when I grow up, let's take a quick stroll down keep-or-chuck-it lane:

Bag of gorgeous red human hair, my payment for giving the redhead in question a haircut.  Obviously, I kept it.  Obviously.
New Kids On the Block Action Marbles.  Seriously, do you even have to ask?  I saw them when I was 7 and they OPENED for Tiffany.  I was so annoyed that they wouldn't come onstage until the teenagers stopped crushing each other against the fence up front.  I mean, for fuck's sake, let's get these guys in and out so I can see Tiffany, right?

I also saw them at the Civic Center a couple of years ago on the reunion tour.  What?
In a bold decision, I threw this out.  It's a miniature solar-cell controlled theremin in a cottage cheese container, my first foray into circuit building since the ol' lightbulb & switch back in science class.
The flip side of that coin is this one, possibly my favorite foray into circuit building.  Remember Bill Cosby's Picture Pages and the pen that made bloops and bleeps as he drew?  Yeah, this is a theremin pencil and it does that and I'm keeping it, which is stupid because I never use it, but it's just really cool. Since you've probably noticed the theremin theme developing, I also built a full-on theremin in a little wooden box. It's a little wonky, but it mostly works. I am chucking it.  How's that for merciless culling??

Both of these are being recycled.  I am never going to send them to Found Magazine, if I'm really honest about it.  I do like the Holy Trinity soup, the unsavory excitement about the crucifixion, and the idea that brunch is clearly winning over Bible studies in Sunday morning popularity.

 Kept it.  Also kept the block of chipboard visible to the top right, "A Children's Guide to Postcritical Theory," which was an illustrated response to a lecture series in college.

Box of letters?  Kept it.  Remember this if you ever write to me.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Writing a blog is an interesting thing, made more interesting by the paranoia that keeps me from making it quite a known thing.  I've outed myself on twitter where I'm followed by a handful of people and only half of them actually know me, and I've selected a group of people I love and feel comfortable with to share on google+, but I've refrained from making the big social-networking leap of linking it to facebook because I'm a terrible self-conscious chicken.  I've been "outed" by friends who've liked posts more than once, and even that has felt scary, until I realize that the volume of stuff posted on facebook means that only a fraction of the people who see a link actually click on it. 

I guess my hangup is that I'm more than happy (I've become a stats-watcher, egad!) to share my writing, but I want it to be because people are interested in the topics as opposed to the idea that I have a blog.  I know I'm guilty of that voyeuristic inclination to read blogs just because I vaguely know someone,  but once I've checked it out, I only keep reading if it turns out they're as interesting as I thought they might be.  In many cases, I share a ton of friends and it would be a seemingly simple thing to just actually meet the writer, but in most cases my intense fear of being judged inadequate stands in my way and I just keep creeping around the interwebs like a stalker.

As it turns out, I loooooooove reading blogs and more than that, I love the comments and even commenting myself.  What I've found, though, is that the likelihood of me commenting is almost exactly inversely proportional with the likelihood of me meeting the author.  You live in another city? Great, let's talk!  You live in another state?  So much the better!  Getting thinky with strangers is my favorite!

At this particular moment, I'm aware of six people who read this blog with any regularity, one from comments, one from following, two 'cause they told me and two because I got feedback in another forum (an example: "DON'T GET RID OF THE TURTLE!!!!!!!!!!!").  I'm more than a little curious about how someone in Indonesia ended up here one time or why there've been multiple hits from Germany, but honestly, as readership has quadrupled this month, I'm curious about everybody.

All in all, though, I'm cool with anonymity.  As it is, my people-pleasiness occasionally makes me almost second guess what I'm writing.  Some people are here for the Deep Thoughts on Big Issues posts, some are here for Pictures of Awesome Shit posts.  Some are here...well, some are just along for the ride, I guess.  But every time someone tells me they like a particular thing, I start thinking I should do more of that thing.

Ultimately, although I'm embarrassingly excited to see that anyone at all is reading (despite my fear of telling people to read), I realize that this is kind of a personal exercise in...something.  Maybe I'm just translating the journals I kept for years into electronic format with an exhibitionist twist.  Maybe I'm flexing my writing muscles.  Maybe I'm really into the idea of imaginary friends.  Probably all of the above.  The question floats across my mind a fair amount, but I'm not actually very interested in figuring out the answer.  I like writing this.  I'mma keep doing it.  The end.  Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

There Went...Something

Look at them...don't they just LOOK like the nicest people alive?
We can file this under "put your money where your mouth is."  
Remember way back in the wee hours of yesterday when I was going to be a risk taker and damn the consequences and stop worrying about being judged and cetera, and cetera?  I would love to report that it was all unicorns and rainbows and I felt silly for ever having worried, but the truth of the matter is that it was partially unicorns and rainbows and I learned some valuable lessons right after I freaked out, made a scene in my attempt not to make a scene and ran away.

There were a lot of factors leading to my spectacular meltdown, but they're boring, many of them were avoidable, and it'll be way more gratifying for all of us if we just skip to after.

When the first song didn't work out, I kept my cool and said, "You know what?  That song is going to sound soooo good when I remember how to play it and actually do it right. You know, when I play next year..."  Har har.  But then the second one went south and I couldn't even remember the the third at all, and I panicked.  Obviously this wasn't a life or death situation or even remotely dangerous, but my reptilian brain was in control.  Fight, flight or freeze time. I froze while I debated the other two options.  Fighting, I suppose, would have been trying to muscle through the performance again, but I already felt humiliated, so I flew.

As I fled from the little tent-stage by the sea the good people of Long Island, some friends, some strangers, some somewhere in the middle, started shouting for me to try again.  They offered to turn their backs so they weren't looking at me.  They told me to pretend that I was playing for my friends, or bymyself.  They suggested someone get me a drink.  (My mom told me later that one woman chided them that I wasn't old enough to drink.)  They were, in short, the nicest, most supportive people in the history of the world and it made me feel even worse that these nice people who came to hear music now felt like they had to coddle the little hothouse flower who couldn't hack it.

Once we'd established that I wasn't going back up there, or at least not then, several people with amazing instincts for putting others at ease came to make small talk about my ukulele, the name of my band (if only the band had been there!), Eddie Vedder's uke album.  One of my favorite old men of all time, Emil (pronounced EE-mil), told me the ukulele means, "jumping flea" and was imported from Portugal.  Everyone told me to take a few minutes and try again.
Here's Yvette and her friend whose name I 
really ought to know because he was really, 
really awesome to me.

So I took a little walk away from the lovely seaside venue and hung out near the road.  I chose the song that felt most comfortable, trimmed some frills, played it through a bunch of times.  I went back and had a beer, enjoyed some pretty awesome acapella Irish songs and the event's host, Yvette, singing some sweet covers with one of the guys from her band, Rizing Tide.  Yvette's got pipes and swagger and is generally wonderful.

Eventually I played.  It was a simple little ditty, imperfectly executed but it felt good.  The lovely people of Long Island were gracious and supportive all over again and Emil called for more.  I declined, but reminded them I'd be back with that first song next year.

At a certain point in this adventure, it stopped being about the performance or even about my pride.  I just needed to take back control from ol' reptile brain.  If ever there was a supportive and nurturing environment in which to take a small risk, this was it, and it kind of felt like insult to all those nice people if my adrenal system decided to keep being scared of them.

Today I continued to feel vestigial twinges of guilt and embarrassment over the whole debacle, but ultimately I had a great time, heard some great music, bonded with some people I really enjoy but usually only see in a work context but have always wanted to just hang out with (while talking with one woman who was really excited and interested in playing the ukulele, I literally said, "You should check it out! Do you want to come touch it?" Thankfully she was into it and just said, "Yeah!" Instead of, "Do you want to come touch it?  That's a really weird way to put it.").  I would do it again.  I will do it again, if they'll have me.  And since I think they won't say no, whether because they actually liked it when I played or because they're too polite, next year that first song's going to be awesome. I promised Emil.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Here Goes Nothin'

If it is possible to be both a megalomaniac and paralyzingly self-effacing at the same time, then I am.  If it isn't possible, then I guess I'm at a loss to describe what goes on in my head when I get all ambitious and start making and/or executing wild schemes. 

Between moving and the shit-show that is a tourist industry job in August, I'm already behind the eight ball in terms of getting done everything I need to.  And then I volunteered to play a solo set with my ukulele at the 3rd Annual Long Island Music Festival, a set for which I had no songs written on an instrument that I barely play, although I definitely have an affinity for it. 

I only managed to write two songs, the performance is tomorrow and to top it off, my residual Catholic guilt made it impossible for me to take the day off from work when I realized how short-staffed they'd be, so I volunteered to work for a few hours in the morning.  Less than an hour from now.  What's that?  The only thing I can control at this point is getting a good night's sleep? Oh, you... just hush now. It's aaaaalllll going to be fine.  Or not.  I've already spun myself like a top until I ceased to worry.  Those dervishes might be on to something.

Anyway, sitting here simultaneously cursing myself for signing on to do something that was at best a bit overly ambitious and at worst a total embarrassment in front of people I see daily and being totally excited to do something I love and know I'm pretty good at, I've ceased actually working on the project at hand and gone straight for the solipsistic pop-psychology.

I'm going to venture that a person's own self-confidence is probably most everyone's biggest psychic blind spot, because to take stock of it involves attempting to make an objective judgment of an extremely subjective topic about which we imagine we're objective. You follow?  You thinking about you thinking about you is a feedback loop that is just very unlikely to lead to any meaningful epiphany. That being so, I've made the very practical decision to drag you down that particular rabbit hole with me anyway.  Let's go!

For the bulk of my life, I took for granted a couple of things:  that I'm generally good at learning things and that I'm generally really socially inept.  It's not that I was unable to get along with people, but as I look back, I think of myself as the kind of harmless dork that everyone could get along with because I was so weirdly outside of the politics of social circles.  I had a handful of close friends, but I wasn't really interested in trying hard to fit in.  I felt, by and large, as if I were an alien who read a bunch of Laura Ingalls Wilder books to understand human life and then was surprised that people looked at me weird because I was going to go make homemade butter (yes, really).  If I were a character in an afterschool special about a girl gang, I would have been the one who's only in the gang because she grew up in the neighborhood and all the tough girls feel protective of her even though she's all nerdy and can't fight and is totally oblivious to real life, a real Ponyboy. 

In my twenties I found a community of like-minded weirdos and became outgoing.  I'd spent a long time feeling like it was somehow rude or egotistical to acknowledge things I was good at, and then I met people who were amazingly talented in millions of ways and simultaneously open and unassuming about it.  I'd spent decades conflating simple confidence with some sort of greedy, ugly hubris.  I'm going to go ahead and blame Catholicism again.

What was even more eye-opening at the time was the way these friends were comfortable with their own talent and quick to acknowledge it in other people as well.  I was coming from a small, cramped place where I was afraid to say what I took pride in and afraid to be judged for saying what I admired.  I am still intensely jealous of people who have that kind of easy relationship with themselves, others, accomplishment, and admiration.  Even now, I feel a certain twinge when I meet teenagers who identify as artists or musicians or activists.  Those things won't necessarily define them forever, but how awesome it must be to be so comfortable with your convictions so young, even if they change over time.

For a while, I filed myself in that category.  I booked an art show and sold several sculptures for the kind of money I considered the purview of "real artists" as opposed to dabblers like myself, I played in a band and had shows that people came to.  In 2003-ish we made the obnoxious decision to release a cassette instead of a CD.  People bought it.  I worked as a freelance writer for a couple of local newspapers with good feedback.  On the one hand I wanted badly to be recognized as an artist, a musician, a writer, all things I considered my talents despite the fact that I couldn't get my shit together enough to commit to one.  On the other I felt like a total fraud who mucked around with some stuff but couldn't get my shit together enough to commit to one.

So here I am, almost a decade later, newly awake and aware and alive to possibility kind of like I was then, but also paralyzed by a feeling of comfortable outsider-ness that rivals my early days.  I like my weirdo job, I like that I can run a forklift, I think I'm a pretty good manager of people (although at the moment there are people who would disagree), but I also feel like I'm wasting away spending so much time doing something that doesn't use even a fraction of the things I know I'm capable of.  That's true of a lot of people I know vis a vis their day job.  I feel ashamed of my own dissatisfaction.

When Yvette, who organized the Long Island music shindig, contacted me, it was to see if my band could play.  The band isn't operational as a live act at the moment, we're writing and recording, so I declined on our behalf and then did a weird thing:  I told her that I would be game to play solo. 

Let's be clear:  I've written songs. I play instruments. I sing.  But I don't really play a solo-set kind of instrument and the songs I've written were heavily orchestrated and not so much translatable to something I could do myself.  When I volunteered to play this event, I was banking on my ability to write songs for me and my ukulele in a week and a half, which meant translating my theoretical comfort level with the ukulele into actual practice.  I think we can all agree that that was an impulsive thing to do.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the part of my brain that typed that offer is the most interesting part.  The scared, shy, dismissive part of me got me a practical job that pays the bills and it isn't much interested in the possibility of risk and failure.  When I got happy, I got really excited about risk and failure, and within a few weeks, my instinct for safety told me to wait, wait, wait.  It's not bad advice, provided I don't swallow the tangential implication that I'm risk actually equals failure and that I lack the qualities necessary to do something less secure than what I do now.  Thank goodness, then, for the devious little sliver that makes me take a stab at a solo show, that wants to grab opportunities as they come.

Here's how I see my feedback loop:  I'm insanely proud and competitive, pretty sure I can do almost anything and eager to do it, but desperately afraid of being judged arrogant or out of bounds (is everyone cool if I pin it on the Catholics just one more time?).  I'm working on it, Serenity Prayer-style.

Tomorrow I'll take the day off from work (mostly), take a ferry to a beautiful island and do something I love among people I really enjoy. I wrote "only" two songs this week, but that's more songs than I've written in months.  If I'm going to consider myself at the starting gate of a new phase in my life, it's a great time to set new standards.  Instead of feeling neglected and under-appreciated, it's my responsibility to be more open about the talents I value in myself (by playing an impromptu show, for instance) and engaging with other people on that level.  By the same token, I'm going to have to let go of the wracking anxiety that's made it safer and preferable to be a genius in my own mind instead of risking defeat.

I think I've made a pretty honest assessment of myself, although I'm sure it's not a terribly flattering picture.  I hope you'll forgive me if I come across as a narcissistic bitch or a simpering baby.  Nope, actually, I do hope I'm understood, but I'm not looking for forgiveness...that's just the Catholicism talking.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

You Like Your Panda Slippers, Don'tcha, Dear?

One day at work I decided it was high time for me to clean out my backpack.  There was a fair amount of just trash, receipts and the like, but I also extracted Mardi Gras beads, a purple sparkly studded jelly bracelet, a dozen tiny plastic figurines, a ball of yarn and knitting needles, two pocket knives, and a set of markers.  As I pulled these items out, my friend Jodi became more and more engrossed.

"Your bag is amazing," she said.

"You should see my house," I said.

There are very few pleasures in moving, but for a curatorial magpie like me, dismantling the time capsule of things I'd forgotten about is a big one.

Consider the bookshelf:  Surfing magazines from a college spring break, text books on art history, dance, and economics (plus one on cosmetology from the 60s or 70s), license plates from my first car, a gorgeous etching by David Itchkawich (not the one below, but wow, right?) that I haven't gotten around to framing, and, possibly my favorite, a scrap of paper wedged between two books that says, "So the first cosmonaut comes around and tries to fix the soda machine, but imagine his surprise because he doesn't even know where he's going to be."  I vaguely remember this last being a note about a dream I wanted to remember.  Well done, Meg, well done.