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.