Friday, June 24, 2011

On shutting Minnesota down

If I were to put together a bare bones resume that describes the jobs I've had, this is what it would look like:

Usher at Minnesota Orchestra:
Stuffed programs
Stood on feet
Put number and letter combinations together to find patron's assigned spot on grid
Dressed like your grandma does when hosting museum tours in blue polyester suit, nude stockings and flats
Got ass grabbed by famous visiting violinist.
Emitted odor from polyester suit

Clerk at gift store/tobacco shop:
Talked rich people into spending their money on stuff that will just need dusting later
Fielded off creeps who came in for cigarettes
Fielded off creep of a boss
Appeared on camera several times without knowledge
Kept hideous jewelry polished to look less hideous
Jumped on glass counter
Counted beans

Clerk at garden store:
Lifted heavy things for rich people
Killed plants

Clerk at bookstore:
Used alphabet
Used sarcasm
Cleaned poo off many types of surfaces
Counted beans
Drank free coffee
"Helped out" in stock room, back room or any other room where there weren't any customers asking SO MANY FUCKING QUESTIONS ALL THE TIME
Developed drinking habit

Current job 1:
Counts beans
Hides at desk
Developed Xanax habit

Current job 2:
Do stuff I like
Hang out with people I like
Promote art enrichment in community
Get paid for some reason

University of Minnesota - Music Major
Blew air into metal tube to emit sound
Made it to class sometimes
Drew pictures on notebook
Hung out with cool people

I'm sure there's stuff in there that I've missed. But you get the idea.

(Here is where I interject my own belief before going on that music and all forms of art are just as vital to the community as a working water supply. So I'd make the argument that there's some importance in that work which I'm involved in. But not really on my part so much as the part of those around me.)

In any case, not everyone's resume looks like mine. Some people's job descriptions contain details like "Stopped people with disabilities from getting evicted from their apartments", "Provided resources for families who haven't had a meal in a couple days", "Patrolled camp grounds making sure humans don't get stuck at bottom of food chain", "Prevented you from getting a ticket because you forgot to renew your tabs until just now" and so on and so forth. And in the state I live in, its very possible come a week from now that these people will be out of a job for a while because a few very wealthy people don't want their very wealthy friends to have to throw a little bit more pocket change into the tax bucket.

On July 1st, you'll still be able to go buy that vampire romance novel and $5 cup of coffee. (Assuming you don't work for the state and still have somewhat of an income). And more importantly, you'll still be able to buy basics like food and tampons and fireworks shaped like little chickens that lay exploding eggs for the upcoming July 4th holiday and this is all important because we *need* people to be employed selling these things for the economy to work. (Both the buying and the employment part). But if this state shutdown happens, there will be people who go without very basic needs for survival.

Included among the services that will not receive emergency funding are; county call centers (which often field emergency calls for assistance), mental health crisis management services, homeless shelters (!!) and emergency case management (social services). These four are particularly important because they are on the list of services considered critical to the health and safety of the population. And they won't be available to those who need them because once again, the very wealthy among us can't stand the thought of parting with a tiny fraction of their million dollar paychecks.

So I don't want to knock anyone's job or make it sound like what most of us do isn't important. But for me, the phone line I answer at work doesn't even compare to the one that connects a person to a counselor when they are at the end of their rope and need someone to help talk them to a safe place. And while it could be argued that the bookstore acted as a homeless shelter some days, it didn't provide resources to help people out of a dangerous situation or a place to sleep at night. These are places that quite literally mean the difference of life or death for some people. And once the phone lines to social workers, mental health specialists, drug counselors and domestic abuse helplines go dead, many many people will suffer. Real suffering, not the "oh shit I have a headache because I didn't get my 32 ounces of overpriced sugar and caffeine today" suffering.

Not only this but should this shutdown happen on July 1, the people who specialize in handling these situations-a highly skilled and educated portion of our working population-they'll all be in line at the unemployment office. And if you've ever received unemployment, you know it doesn't really do much. So they'll suffer too.

For a government elected to serve the people to put the health and safety of their citizens at risk in this way and for these reasons is unconscionable to say the least. And for the two percent of the population who would be affected *ever so slightly* by the tax increase proposed in this budget to ask that their leadership do this is one of the most unbelievably selfish things I've witnessed. It should also be mentioned here that our governor has said he will refuse pay if this happens but the rest of them? They will shirk all duties they'e been hired to do, put a bunch of already at risk people in danger and at the end of the week, they'll take home the same paycheck they would have anyway.

What this means is that right now, many people's lives and livelihood hinge on the mercy of a few elected officials who have no incentive to agree on this budget and have already shown they don't have the interest of the majority in mind. This is terrifying. I can only hope that their better minds kick in before next Friday so we can avoid this altogether. And then when the opportunity comes around again, I hope we all agree to make sure that this time, they're the ones who no longer have a job.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tree of Life: Not the Only Time You'll Hear From Me About This

The first Terrence Malick film I ever saw was The New World. I hadn't even heard of him prior to this but there was so much buzz around this movie and I'd seen so many film reviewers', students' and nerds' heads explode in anticipation of its release that I figured I had to go even though I rarely go see films in theaters and I hate it when people tell the same semi-mythical American stories (in this case, Pocahontas) over and over and over again.

Needless to say I was completely blown away. I'd never seen a film before that made you feel as though you were not just watching but that you were a *part of* a nature that doesn't exist anymore. And to tell a whole story with barely any dialogue and only the inner thoughts of the characters and the way they interact with each other silently to move the plot along is…..well, its art. Plain and simple. Little did I know that this was subjectively the least moving of his films. Thanks to Ryan Potts and Netflix, I moved on to The Thin Red Line then Days of Heaven and before I knew it I'd become one of those people whose head explodes whenever a new film by this director is announced. Which is pretty much what happened when I heard about the Tree of Life. It was well known from the beginning that was to be his most personal film to date, one that he'd worked on for decades and was semi-autobiographical in story. (A big deal for someone who won't even let anyone take his photo). Its been delayed several times, so my anticipation level has been growing for months now.

And then a couple weeks ago, I read in a review that there are CG dinosaurs in the film and I was like………….…UM………..….K.

But, after a couple delays, I finally went on Friday to see it. And I can say now without a doubt that all the wait and anticipation was well felt and I have never seen such a beautiful film in my entire life.

The story centers around the childhood memories of Jack O'Brien, an architect who lives and works in a the sterile environment of the wealthy. This film has almost no dialogue but you don't need it to get the point. Glimpses of a shiny home that's almost unlivable in its perfection, conversations overheard with a coworker about his wife who wants to leave him. That kind of thing. And then we overhear a bit of Jack's half of a phone conversation in which he is arguing with his father over something unheard said by Jack about his brother who died at 19 (presumably a military death as his mother receives the news via telegram). We see glimpses of the moment Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien find out their son has died along with bits and pieces of the months following, including conversations in which people try desperately to comfort a mother who has lost her child. All of this is like memory-disjointed and unfinished before it is interrupted by the next vision or thought. And then shit gets real.

What follows this is a 30 or so minute piece in which Malick imagines the universe from the beginning of time. There is a small flame in space that erupts into the Big Bang then several minutes of lava forming into rock followed by waves in the ocean, primordial soup, close ups of microbes, sea life forming, foliage growing, DINOSAURS, a meteor hitting the earth then so on and so forth until we get to today. This part of the film that made me so skeptical is something I could watch over and over and over again and be equally as moved each time. It also helps that the person who put this together and illustrated it was Douglas Trumbull, famous for his spacetography in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Incidentally also the only good thing in that movie. Sorry film people).

The phone conversation from earlier ultimately leads to the heart of the film in which Jack delves into his memory growing up in Waco, TX with a borderline abusively stern father and a loving, nurturing mother. Each of their thoughts about life and questions to their god provide most of the dialogue while they interact with each other as any family does. We are taken through Jack's birth, his toddlerhood, the birth of his two younger brothers and his adolescence. The moments we see are pivotal and universal (Jack throwing a tantrum after his brother is born, his mother putting him to bed at night, his father reading to him, etc.) In time we see Jack and his family grow, develop and struggle just like we saw the entire universe do earlier. And we see this perfectly through a child's eyes as his mother takes on an almost goddess-like presence in some scenes while his father has a giant and terrifying one in others. Through all this, we see him search for his brother and peace with his death.

Based on the soundtrack, Terrence Malick is a music nerd as well. He very carefully chose his pieces for this film-Berlioz's Requiem (illustrates a pivotal end point in the film), Gorecki's Symphony #3 (second movement, written for a mother lamenting the loss of her son in war), Smetana's The Moldau (a piece about a body of water that starts as a tiny trickle then becomes a mighty river to illustrate the beginning of Jack's life), Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier (played by the stern father, also a great musician in the film), Mahler One (tips music nerd fangirl hat), Brahms' Four (tips hat again) and several other pieces by some more contemporary composers (The birth of the universe happens to a killer piece called Lacrimosa by Zbigniew Preisner) including the main score by Alexandre Desplat. .

But I think what really hits me about this film is the many ways it parallels Beethoven's Ninth symphony. You have a filmmaker and composer who are (were) well known to be crotchety, irritable, don't (didn't) like to be seen in public and take (took) long periods of time to produce their work. You have a deeply personal and autobiographical base to the story that each artist parallels with the story of the entire universe and how we each fit into it and how we all fit into it together. You have two artists who take (took) their genre and made things that no one else has (had) ever seen or heard before. I couldn't help but feel as I was leaving this film exactly the way people going to see the Ninth Symphony felt during its first few weeks in action. There is a powerful meditation that happens when you're faced with art like this. That a piece of music or a film could have the balls to take on the Question of the universe and succeed in satisfying the listener or viewer in some way at the end….well….it just doesn't happen all that often.

I've heard many music scholars, artists and composers lament our time. They say there is nothing new to contribute to any genre and we will never live in a world again where one genius stands out and makes something that rises above everything else. After only five films, I'm happy to report that I disagree with this whole heartedly. Terrence Malick is our Beethoven. He creates film and tells stories in a way never seen before. He is compares to the giants of filmmaking in the past (most notably Stanley Kubrick) but his work stands on its own as something that will move the viewer visually, mentally and in places art finds in our souls and bodies that we can't otherwise define. There was an event going on in Uptown when I went to see this film and many of the other people in the theater had been to it and were drunk and a little rowdy when the film started. By the middle, the theater was dead silent. No one got up during it and at the end credits which begin in silence, the air in there was so thick you could slice it. People sat with tears running down their faces until the credits were done. I've never experienced something like this before. While, like the Ninth Symphony, this may be Malick's pivotal work and maybe he'll top it and maybe he won't. But I can only hope that unlike Beethoven, he continues on for many, many years exploring storytelling and filmmaking in a way others are afraid to and keeping my faith in art alive at the same time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Family

I grew up in a two parent home. There really isn't much to say about this because I have friends who grew up in one parent homes or stepparent two parent homes or absent parent homes and for the most part, if there were things we struggled with as kids. those struggles weren't all that different for each of us on a very fundamental level. And what was different or more difficult for some to overcome eventually became what makes our goals, priorities and desires different as adults, thus adding to the diversity of who we are. And these people I know despite or actually mostly *because of* the shape of their families are all normally functioning people who want to be good and contribute in any way they can to the communities around them.

Well, except for the fact that they're friends with me so they must all be off in some way or another or at least have terrible judgement.

I also know people who grew up in two parent homes that have struggled their whole lives to deal with a childhood lived in a cold steel structure because their parents thought the right thing to do was stay together despite abusive situations or unhappiness or the fact that they hated each other's guts and could barely keep the steak knives in their appropriate places at the dinner table.

Because building relationships and family is hard. Really hard. First you have to find someone you're attracted to. Then one of you has to convince the other that you're worth each other's time. Then, as time goes on and you get past the "You put ketchup on your eggs?? I put ketchup on my eggs too!!" conversations and into the "Here are our individual hopes and dreams for the future. Can we work on them together? Do we want to work on them together?" conversations and THEN into the "I REALLY FUCKING HATE IT WHEN YOU DON'T PUT THE KETCHUP AWAY AFTER BREAKFAST!" conversations and on and on. And then there are those nerve wracking moments every so often where you put the foundation you've built in question and make sure you still want to do this with each other knowing how terrible it can be when the answer is no. And each year and layer of life adds another piece of the puzzle and a little more complication and work to all of this.

But yet, we still do it. Even though from a biological standpoint, we don't have to anymore. There are as many of us as there are cockroaches, our only enemies on the food chain are other humans (well, and bears probably) and we already can't support what we've built to sustain our species forever. Not to mention the fact that a few people keep making these promises that the world is going to end soon. So by all accounts, we should be giving up on all of this work. But what continues to make us want to form our little family units anyway despite this progression into…a lack of necessity?

Possibly something big like love? Or possibly something boring like stability? Or possibly when it boils down to it, the fact is that its WAY more fun to get deep into life when you have a sidekick to experience it with you. And whatever trouble you get in or goals you do or don't reach or shit that gets thrown your way, its always easier when someone is there to pick you up off the floor or make you laugh or ask you to do the same for them when they need it.

Right now, there's this unbelievably weird and inexplicable idea in our society that the only real and recognized type of sidekick is one that fits into the very specific category of being the opposite gender as you. And it doesn't matter if you've thrown your whole heart and being into someone that doesn't fit this specific requirement and it doesn't matter if you've gone through the work of building a home or adding to your family or helping each other through illness or change in career or extended family gatherings or taking the dog out for walks in -10 degree weather. It doesn't count.

The people who think this way want you to believe that there's a god somewhere that made this rule. That, for whatever reason, this god made us to be *exactly* the way we are but our love for each other doesn't count unless that one little box is checked.

So to those people, I ask-is it worth it to you? Is all the work you do to maintain your household and family, worth what you get from it? Do you feel like if tomorrow brought a layoff notice or a cancer diagnosis or a sudden desire to see the pyramids in person, do you feel like you have someone to back you up? When your kid gets a fever in the middle of the night or needs help with homework or discovers what kinds of things can be done with a book of matches, do you feel like you've got someone to help you share the responsibility of keeping them healthy and guiding them on the right path? If you don't have this, is it something you wish for?

And if any of that is true, can you please explain to me what right you feel you have to deny this to someone else? What authority do you think you have to go into someone's home, point your finger and say "Your family isn't real."?

Because I just don't get it. I don't get how we can possibly think that not only denying someone the equality of recognition when it comes to the shape of their family but *passing into law* something that will *legally* separate a person from their sidekick and their families during the times they need each other the most is in any way acceptable.

This is not a matter of having a difference of opinion or religious belief. It is plain and simple a matter of cruelty. And what I hope more than anything else is that it stops. For the sake of my friends, their families, their love for each other and the already immense amounts of work they put into keeping each other together in this weird, backward society of ours, I hope that it ends. And I hope *if* there continues to be some among us who refuse to recognize the shapes of families that look different from theirs that they keep it to themselves and maybe in some future, see the error of this ridiculous, hateful thinking.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Dear Jenny

Well, here it is, once again on the eve of your anniversary. I'm sitting in my bed with three cats wearing some tattered pajama pants covered in snowflakes and leaping reindeer with a "Free Ireland" t-shirt on top. Its laundry night. But that's really just an excuse. I'm mis-matched in a lot of ways pretty much all the time lately.

And yes, you totally read that right. Three of them. I know how much you hated cats. But don't you judge me because you and Kyle owned one so you understand how these things can just happen to a person. One of them is really fat and loves attention from everyone. I think you'd like her. Oh! And by the way, Ella's still here. Remember when we first got her and she would bang her hamster ball against the wall until the lid came off and she could run free? Her personality hasn't changed at all.

Things are looking up around here and you know why? ITS ALMOST SUMMER. And I tell you, this winter outstayed its welcome worse than the never ending string of desperately hopeful boys that used to hang out in your practice room. It was snowy and cold and snowy and freezing then snowy again. But I got through it by the power of some really great people and cheap beer. (Learned from you).

In any case, there's something I want to talk to you about. A few months ago, I turned 30. Seriously. And so much has happened…..I've moved to a neighborhood full of artists and dive bars. I go to shows and listen to music you would hate. (Mostly). I'm flat broke but I still buy clothes instead of food sometimes (remember when you used to wake me up at like, 9 AM by jumping on the bed so we could go shopping then scrape up some leftover rice in the fridge for lunch? I bought the shoes too, by the way).

And lately, I've been having these moments……remember when we used to scheme? We'd sit in the living room watching terrible movies with David Duchovny in them and talk about the crazy shit we planned on for our futures? Like your plan to own a pet giraffe and live in a grain silo so you'd have a place to keep him when the weather was bad? Or how about the island we were going to buy and build a house called The Leper's Asylum both because we were crazy and also because we wanted people we didn't invite to stay away? I want you to know that you were correct. The tarmac for the private jet needs to be on the other side of the island from the swimming pool. It *would* be too loud otherwise and also might scare the tigers.

And then remember when we used to talk about how, no matter what happened with the rest of our lives, we were going to move into the same nursing home and be crazy old ladies hobbling around together with bright pink tennis balls on the bottoms of our walkers?

The more time goes by, the more it sinks in that this isn't ever going to happen. Many things aren't ever going to happen. Even the ridiculous shit that probably wasn't ever going to happen but maybe could have isn't ever going to happen.

And I really, really hate it when I hear the phrase "life is too short!". Because life is too fucking short. Your life was too short. And I wish more than anything else that you weren't an example in this way. I wish that, instead of thinking "Shit, I need to start living because my life could be over in an instant" I could think "Shit, I need to buy that plane ticket to visit Jenny. What do giraffes eat for snacks?" And I still feel so sad and sometimes I feel guilty and sometimes I'm angry with you for going away so soon after I got you back. But Jenny, I miss you and I love you and the best I can do when these days I have is to keep scheming and moving and learning and doing things most people are afraid to do. Because even Ella figured out early on that stuck in a hamster ball is not the way to be. And you never once lived your life that way either.

And tomorrow night, I will wear this ridiculous dress and heels that I've changed into just now and a bunch of people you've never met will toast to you. And I wish you could have met them, Jen. I really do. They would love you and I have no doubt you would love them. But this is the way it is and this is the way it will always be. I wish I could say for sure that I'll see you again but I don't really believe that I will. All I can do is keep some of you here and do the best I can to honor that bit and to hell with what normal people do with their lives. These are the risks we believed in taking. And its what will set us free.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Walls Can Talk

You know those moments that pop up in your life-a conversation or a song or even a smell-that bring back a flood of memories you'd previously blocked out for a very long time? I had a whole bunch of those at once last night regarding a place I used to live with some friends and fellow coworkers (and one of the coworker's partner who wasn't on the lease but did most of the decorating and organizing and kept us from hurting ourselves with sharp or boiling hot things). Despite the stories I'm going to tell, I'm happy these memories came to me.

Looking for a place to live is difficult, especially when you're looking with a group of people. You have to find something affordable that's also in a nice enough neighborhood, structurally sound, has enough space for everyone to not be in each other's shit all the time and also a laundry tub in the basement where you can pee if someone is taking too long in the bathroom.

You also meet some very interesting people when you're looking for a rental house. For example, one of the first places we looked was a place where the landlord dwelled in the basement of a shared two story house. He insisted when my soon to be roommate S spoke with him over the phone that we meet him outside on the corner of the street and not anywhere near the house itself. Here he proceeded to tell us that it was the current tenant's birthday so she was still there getting ready to go out with her friends and we should be VERY respectful. TIPTOE through the house even and only speak if ABSOLUTELY necessary. Okay. When we quietly walked into the house and met the current tenant, she was made up like a sorority girl getting ready to enjoy a night of alcohol poisoning and possibly a roofie in her drink later. As she was wafting her Macy's perfume aisle smell past us on the way out the door, the owner of the house asked what she was up to. "Oh, I'm on my way out for my birthday." His response? "Oh, its your birthday today? I didn't know!"

Huh. Fortunately, if this hadn't happened, we would have eventually noticed the gigantic stack of Playboys on his dresser downstairs (which he insisted on showing us) along with the fact that the back entrance was shared so we would have no way of locking him out of the place if he got all stabby or (more likely) rapey. We thought *he* was too creepy, so we continued our search. Little did we know what was ahead.

Soon after this experience, S found a listing for a house in South Minneapolis, which seemed perfect for what we were looking for. When J and I met D, the landlord, he seemed normal. Mustache, real estate agent business casual dress suit and jeans, calm demeanor. Upon closer inspection, I realized he had a giant scar down the side of his face. During that awkward moment when someone knows that you're noticing a giant scar down the side of their face and you're trying to ignore it and act like nothing is there so as not to embarrass the other person, I swear I saw something flash behind D's eyes. The story of a past life of thuggery hidden behind white suburban facial hair and an Eddie Bauer button down, maybe. But we decided to give it a chance anyway. Since our other two roommates couldn't be there, J and I were left to fend for ourselves on this one. We looked around a bit, checked out the attic (which was perfect for the straight male roommate who would eventually need to hide often from several loud, very willful, certifiably insane female roommates whose periods all lined up shortly after moving in together). Then we went down into the basement.

The basement. Somewhere along the line many, many years before, a previous owner had chosen to decorate the wall that separated the laundry room from the storage room with some DIY wallpaper. They'd separated a bunch of old record covers from their original homes and decoupaged them onto one side of the wall. At least a hundred of them. They then proceeded to go through with some sharpies and turn every single cover into a pornographic version of the original album. There was genitalia, crudely drawn partners, creepy extra makeup on faces, brand new suggestive titles. There was a goat drawn on one of them. I was mesmerized. And while I was trying to take it all in, J walked over to the tiny storage closet in the very back corner and opened it. Out popped "Rita", D's friend that he "uh…totally just found in here". Rita was fully blown up and ready for action. All this basement was missing was heavy duty plastic covers over everything and maybe a wood chipper to be complete.

We'll take it!

So we signed the lease and said goodbye to our previous living arrangements (S to her weird roommate, L to her basement of a mid-remodeling project home, me to a different creepy landlord and J to his apartment that always had the smell of ammonia wafting up from the apartment below) and moved on in. I brought Ella and S and L brought Emmett, a fiercely loyal antique schnauzer with sight, hearing and incontinence issues. The following conversations began the week we moved in:

S: "Hey guys…there aren't any smoke detectors in this house."
J: "You can see a spot in the attic where there used to be one"

The following day, a conversation like this one would ensue:

S: "Hey, thanks to whoever got the smoke detectors!"
J: "It wasn't me. L, did you get them?"
L: "No….M?"
me: "Uh….nope. Not me."


This conversation happened several times over during the course of our lives there. Only, replace "smoke detectors" with "anything that we bitched loudly about while in the house." Don't like the paint color on the wall? Tell the corner what color you want and it would be changed by the end of the week. Need a new filter in the furnace? Talk about it in front of the bathroom mirror. You shall receive.

Like Rita and the wall in the basement, we casually decided to ignore the weirdness and go on with our lives. And better than that, we turned that pauper's place into a party. Since we all hated our jobs, we drank a lot. A *lot*. It got to the point where we would have to trade off going to the local liquor store and never be seen together so that they wouldn't know how much we consumed. We bought plastic 1.5 liter bottles of Liquor Store Brand Name vodka. We looked for deals everywhere ("Target tonic water is only a dollar! We can buy 20 bottles!"). During the winter, we spent hours in front of the TV (L was a nanny which meant she was sick all the time which meant she stayed home a lot and watched Lifetime for kicks. On days I didn't have to work, I would join her for a game of "guess the plot in five minutes". Abortion! Eating disorder! Murder! Pretending to be in love with the disabled woman until she signs her trust fund over to you and you can throw her off a cliff and tell everyone she committed suicide!). We ate vegan food cooked by S. We dealt with each other's psychoses. We cleaned schnauzer shit off the floor.

And then one day, the floor in the bathroom fell through. All the way through. LIke, to the basement. I'm not sure how it happened. I think someone stepped out of the shower and onto the tile making only a narrow escape. In any case, we'd suddenly found ourselves with a serving plate sized hole in the bathroom floor between the shower and toilet. Needing to use the bathroom while drunk suddenly became perilous. Needing to use the bathroom with snarky roommates who would catcall from the basement suddenly became perilous. For many weeks, we tried to explain this to our landlord. We started off by talking about it loudly in the house (toward the corners and mirrors) which was always how things got fixed in the past. When this didn't work after a time, we made the effort to call him directly. Weeks passed by. The hole remained. We walked carefully.

Eventually, we did get a brand new, shiny, very cheap, very white plastic bathroom to replace the charming but deadly salmon colored one. However, this only forced the house to come up with more creative ways to try and kill us.

There was a very unstable tree in the backyard whose branches were entwined with power lines and pointed right at the attic where J slept. Any time a storm would hit or a squirrel would jump on it or a breeze would come through or someone would think "tree", it would sway dangerously toward the house. We tried not to anger it. One day I came home from work to find J standing puzzled by the window.

J: "Did you say something to the walls about the tree?"
me: "S and I were talking about it a couple nights ago during that breeze. We were trying to decide whether or not we should wake you up and possibly keep you from dying horribly. Why?"
J: "Our landlord was just here. Swinging from the tall branch up there."

Apparently, lacking any kind of trimming equipment, D had been out there for several hours, trying to swing the loose branches off the tree. He was startled by J's presence and left before completing this task not only leaving the tree in its original treacherous condition, but leaving large, loose branches hanging over the side of the neighbor's fence where their small children played. As we stood there, one of them fell into our yard with a loud THUMP. We jumped. The schnauzer peed on the floor.

This tree would eventually have its revenge for this treatment. One day while doing laundry, L noticed foliage coming up from the drain in the basement. Being the good Panic State Nanny that she was, she freaked out. "THE TREE IS GROWING INTO OUR HOUSE!!" We convinced her that this was an anomaly and went about our business, casually using the sinks and such without a second thought of danger. Then one day, the bathtub started spewing organic matter. Chunks of dirt, leaves and other such things. Thinking they'd buried a body under the new tub when they installed it, we panicked. (I'm still not convinced they didn't). But after mentioning something while in the bathroom, our landlord happened to show up a couple days later to check it out. He found that L was indeed correct. Roots from the tree outside were growing into the plumbing system of the house. The tree, no longer able to crush us was slowly getting ready to catapult the whole house off its foundation. S asked when he planned to fix it. He asked when we planned on moving out.

We persevered through many more death traps that house had to give. Everything from carbon monoxide poisoning to exploding dishwashers to strange fumes coming from the furnace that made us dizzy. But we made the best of it. And there were many great things about that house. It was a fantastic space for parties (assuming you didn't have wine glasses that, once shattered, had pieces that fed on crumbs and dirt while multiplying and thriving so that no matter how often you swept them up, they would still find their way into your bare feet). We always ate well with S's culinary experiments (except the vegan key lime pie. DO NOT EAT). We provided a place for many a dramatic lesbian to cry on the couch and lament their relationship problems (unending). We listened to J and his dude friends be dudely upstairs. We watched shitty movies, drank at questionable times of the day (all times of the day). We lived through the reelection of George W. (Worst. Election Party. Ever). We sat on the couch and cried together for days after Hurricane Katrina hit. We helped each other through personal problems, told many tales of bookselling and nannying gone wrong and kept each other from going insane. We transitioned in this place.

And when we moved out, a group of nuns moved in to spiritually cleanse everything we'd done there and keep the tree appeased.

And somewhere, on some internet site, it is probably all available on camera to watch over and over and over again.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Immaculate Lesson

When I was in 5th grade, I was sick a lot. It didn't help that I hated school and Mrs. [redacted], my horror of a teacher from Horace Mann elementary. I MEAN [redacted] elementary. (Seriously. She once used the word "retarded" in reference to one of her students. Which of course immediately got picked up by the other little brats in the classroom and became that poor kid's nickname for who knows how long. I think he actually did have a learning disability to top it all off).

After a long half a year struggling with hating everything about life, it turns out I just needed glasses. All the headaches, sadness, grade slippage. All of it had to do with the fact that I couldn't see the "chalkboard". (That's like a computer only with a black screen and a very dusty manual keyboard that may or may not give you cancer if you breathe it in several hours in a row for many years at a time). I'm sure it was a thrill for my parents to find this out. But I was a fat kid. And one of the least awesome phrases you can hear as a fat kid is "Congratulations! You get glasses too!".

I believe this is also the year when I decided it would be a good idea to get a perm. What was supposed to make me the envy of every girl who'd seen an Aquanet commercial or their big sister on the way to a Bon Jovi concert ended up looking like a Rexella Van Impe coif 12 years after the apocalypse when there's no more bleach to keep it blond and all the hairbrushes have been eaten as a last resort right before moving on to people.

So here I was on my way to school every day, fat with glasses and apocalypse hair. I was also really good at math. Fortunately, I had at least one pair of Girbaud pants and also this great bright yellow and green baggy pair of jeans that showcased how hip hop I was too. So sometimes I felt a little cool.

Needless to say, correctional lenses didn't fix all my problems. I still felt sad a lot and would have amputated a limb with a hot butter knife some days rather than go to school. On one such day in the spring, I decided to pull some ET shit and fake a fever. What started out as a slight feeling of guilt quickly abated, as that day brought one of the most important lessons I'd learned in my life so far.

See, once upon a time there was a television station called MTV. MTV stood for "Music Television" which you would never know now if you turned it on. But back then, this station was the beacon of hope for a new generation of music fans who wanted little stories told with their favorite songs. (And also I hear, the harbinger of death for the so called "radio star".) When they had a big star ready to premiere a new video, it was all bells and whistles. All day video marathons, mini biographies and interviews with that star to help build anticipation for what was to come.

This was one such day. And the star in question was none other than Madonna.

Now, I'd heard of Madonna before. My babysitter in grade school's daughter used to stand on the picnic table in the backyard and scream "MUPPET DON'T PREACH!" over and over again at the top of her lungs. And I think I may even have somehow acquired a copy of The Immaculate Collection at this point as well. But nothing could possibly have prepared me for what I learned that day.

There were so many sides to her! She romped with lions, rolled around on the beach, rebelled, sacrilegeized, wore men's clothes, wore terrible clothes with a fuck off attitude, sang in "Spanish", had all kinds of different hair colors, had tender father/daughter moments, was glamourous and trashy at the same time, danced, laughed, made people uncomfortable all the while singing some *great* tunes and wearing the most fabulous underwear you've ever seen. She was everything a girl imagined out of life, all in one package. This was like nothing I'd ever seen before.

And suddenly…it came to me. I wanted to dance. I wanted to sing. I wanted….to be a pop star. It was right there, right in front of me. But it was so unattainable. And then something even more magical happened.

They showed photos of her in grade school.

There she was. Awkward with bad hair and a gap in her front teeth (like I used to have!), uncomfortable in photos, and a little sad. She went through it too! This person who had the whole world at her fingertips, an entire day dedicated to her on MTV (!!) and stadiums full of fans was a weird ugly kid at one point!! She was from Michigan!! AND SHE HATED THE NICKNAME MADGE!!!!

I can't describe the feeling I got at this moment. Some people see pop stardom at an early age but it takes them years to see the part where those pop stars started out just as clumsily as the rest of us. I got it all at one time. And it went straight to my head.

When the above mentioned elementary school revamped their band program, I abandoned my violin and started playing the flute. Why? Because it was popular and offered more competition. In 6th grade, I rose to the top. I played November Rain at my recital. I started Junior High right in that first chair. I was on my way.

And that was how I learned a coping mechanism to get through the shittyness of the years to come. My taste in music changed drastically over time. I abandoned Madge for other bands and anti-pop stars. But the idea still stuck with me. Knowing I was the best at *something* and believing that I could stay at the top doing something most people couldn't was a powerful ego boost when I needed it the most.

Obviously, I'm not a pop star. And I'm still weird and awkward. But I haven't abandoned everything I learned from the woman who introduced me to a whole new world of possibility. I still believe I can be something great when I grow up. So my favorite pop star, from one Madge to another, I can't thank you enough for that day in 5th grade when you changed everything for me.

Don't EVER go for second best, baby.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Several things happened to start my day yesterday:

1.The super secret mission I've been on to make my life less miserable brought several rejection emails this morning which
2. Resulted in me using the fact that I was out of toilet paper to take a lunch break at Target and spend $120 on shit I don't need. Considering the last few times I've been out of toilet paper, I've just taken one of the stockpiles of spare roles from the handicapped stall in the women's restroom at work that no one uses, I think that sort of justifies this spending. With the money I've previously saved, it probably evens out to be about $115.40 or so. Rather than $120.

In any case, one of the items that fell into my cart is a copy of Black Swan. This is unusual for me, as although I've loved every Darren Aronofsky film I've seen, they've also left me with deep shock and PTSD leaving me no choice but to never see them again. Someday, I'll talk about the time I went to the Lagoon theater in Uptown not knowing what the hell I was doing to see Requiem for a Dream because the Kronos Quartet was playing the soundtrack live along with the film. It was only about 10 years ago though, so too raw yet.

So I might as well start this out with a confession. When I read my first reviews of Black Swan, they were all glowing and wonderful but each contained a "THIS BITCH IS CRAZY" paragraph, which made me even more eager to see it. The more traumatized the reviewer, the more excited I got. So my friend A and I parked ourselves in the theater ("Everyone loves ballerinas!"-A) and I carried with me the hope that I would leave deeply traumatized like a good Aronofsky film does to a person.

But I was not. And worse than that, I came out of that theater with the overwhelming feeling that I identified with the main character in a big way.

Let me explain.

Some of you already know I went to music school. It did not treat me kindly. The single most oppressive thing I experienced in my time there was the constant need I felt to be completely perfect in every way. Achieve something great during rehearsal? Don't feel good about yourself because you still need to lose 10 pounds. Lost 10 pounds? Don't feel good about yourself, because while you were focusing on that, other people got 20 steps ahead of you with their playing. Feel like shit about that? Don't eat for a couple days. The thought that you've risen above basic human needs can serve as a big old sick self esteem boost. At least for a few hours until you pass out in a practice room.

(In fact, the person I had the most in common with at one point *was*a dancer friend of mine. He spent a great deal of time talking about food. He talked about how the only thing you should put on the bed of lettuce was raw mushrooms. Raw mushrooms were delicious. And raw carrots. And if you've been careful for the rest of the day, you could have some bread on the side too. He and I talked about food this way all the time. You know why? Because we were fucking hungry. And knowing the dancers I know now and how they eat, I just want to go back in time and hand us both a nice big juicy burger and some fries and maybe a slap across the face).

The imperfections I saw in myself became so magnified that they were the only thing I could think about when I got out of bed in the morning and every waking moment after. The twelvish hours a day I spent trying to maintain some sort of belief that I belonged there by "perfecting my craft" started to seep into my psyche. In my mind, everyone was better than I was at everything. They were better musicians, better scholars, better at coping with life. And I started to get these paranoid delusions that everyone around me knew something I didn't. They had some big secret that kept them rising up their respective ladders while I was still sitting on the bottom rung with a fifth of vodka and clumps of hair falling out of my head.

None of this was true, of course. Which made it worse. Because I *was* one of the better players there. I was in the top bunch. But this just created more pressure. Why was I there? I couldn't possibly maintain that. Not when everyone else had this secret that I wasn't aware of. Not when they were already way ahead of me in every way and gaining ground exponentially.

When the paranoia reaches its peak and you feel as though you're never going to be perfect in the little box you've found yourself in, you start to experience life-threatening claustrophobia. You scratch at the walls and when they don't give way, you become increasingly desperate to get out in any way possible. And the longer you stay there in constant panic, the less likely it is that you're going to be able to recognize the part of you that's trying to help from the part that's trying to convince you to self destruct just to get out of the fucking box as quickly as possible.

So I guess that's where Nina and I differ. Her paranoia and body destruction came from wanting to achieve perfection. She, like many artists, is willing to destroy her body for nothing other than one absolutely perfect performance. My reasons were different. I wasn't looking for perfection or glory or fame or any of that after a while. I was just looking for a way out of that fucking box.

So how do I turn this into a learning experience? Because I keep finding myself back in these little boxes, trying to claw my way out of something stifling or claustrophobic be it oh...say...a job or a friendship or relationship. But I don't want to self destruct. And I don't want to give up on these things altogether in a violent and irreversible way (most of the time).

The best I can do is to continue to try and stop myself from diving off the Nina cliff. This may mean I turn into a raging bitch sometimes. This will definitely mean that I'm not perfect. I will sometimes let you down. But you know what? No one should expect perfection out of another person. Because most of us are just trying to hold onto a little bit of sanity while we're in our boxes, waiting until the opportunity comes for us to jump out and be free.