Monday, August 31, 2009

on the last night

On the last night before Miriam left town, we filed into her apartment, stood around in her room. We rummaged through boxes of freebies: books of Malcolm X's speeches, warm scarves, miniature pins shaped like flutes and bass clarinets. We moved into the living room and sat in an easy circle, some on chairs, some on footstools, some on the floor, one of so many circles we have been in. Tom found takers for a batch of peppermint tea. Miriam hauled six different cartons of ice cream from the freezer--vanilla, cookie dough, coconut lime, Rice Dream chocolate, peanut butter cookie, fudge swirl, all sugary scraps and dregs scraping the bottom of each container--"go to town, finish them off." We armed our fists with spoons and passed them round. We kept the conversation light--about eating meals with a 'dash of vegan,' about the annoyances of wearing glasses, about books and how we learned to read. We talked as if we had never ended our earlier conversations, from mere days and mere hours ago, where we reviewed our history of bee stings, the injuries and stitches we wrought on our siblings, the bizarre wonders of naked mole rats, the regionalism of phrases like "Right on" and "Tubular." We kept the conversation light. A few of us yawned, one of us closed her eyes for many long minutes, others stared blank and clearly bored, but we talked and laughed and lapsed into silence and almost came to believe that if we kept this up then there would be no end to the night. And then I checked my phone, made mental calculations, and announced that I had to head back home across the river, had to get up early for work. And almost as if on cue, the circle broke, the dishes headed for the sink, the arms heavy with rugs and backpacks and suitcases and vacuum cleaners and overfilled boxes trudged down the stairs and deposited their wares in the open maw of the van. We stood in the cool night, a smaller circle of us this time, and gave ourselves a pause. And then hugs--one, two, three of them. We moved our bodies as if out of some knowledge, as though this had been previously rehearsed. We knew what the final scene looks like, we knew what to say. And on the second hug--the second of three--caught close, still--unassailable--a sharp gasp and burst of water fresh on two faces. And I looked down and concentrated on the ground beneath me, waiting for the clarity to dissipate, and none forthcoming, looked up, and still in the heaviness, understood change as an often painful progress: dreaming ahead, longing for what's left behind, losing nothing.*

I once used to say that the effect of being around friends and community is like feeling twenty times lighter. But it's during the times of change and transition when you get to know otherwise.

Safe passage Miriam, we love you and wish you the best.

*Language tip to Kushner.

patience, occasional absurdities of

There are times when I feel like I am getting paid every hour for 30 hours a week to sit at a desk in front of a computer and wait for the goddamn phone to ring.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

uncanny twin moment (1)

Those who follow the blog, or at least keep close track of my life, know that these last 2-3 weeks have been a bit miserable. And just last night, as I was in the middle of a very important phone conversation with my Dad, my cell up and died. And I mean dead dead. As in, the battery refuses to be charged. No matter how much I plugged and unplugged the charger, and tried all the outlets in my apartment.

Well, I got word about twin sis (via my private investigator, Mom), and it turns out her last 2-3 weeks have also been miserable. By which I mean hellish. "I feel like crap right now..." And she's in the middle of moving to a new place. And there's a grad school app to send in. "I'm going to die!!! But don't worry. All will be fine." I'm gonna hold her to the latter assurance, not the former.

What she failed to tell me (but what I also learned from my P.I.) is that her phone also died while she was up at Breadloaf in Vermont. That is, dead dead.

These occasional shared twin trajectories are just one of the reasons why we started this blog. To illustrate to all of you that, yes, twin life can imitate other twin life.

Except I'm not moving, and I have at least three grad school apps awaiting me.

Friday, August 28, 2009

and on into autumn

I must say, things are turning.

The night is approaching earlier, my discipline on the book is much better, a going-away party for my dear friend Mimi went splendidly and I got into some intense conversations about burnout, origami, and Leon Trotsky (I believe in that order).

And the monochromatic meals of the month are a hoot. We could barely squeeze everyone in this last time. (Granted, this was the first time we were inside.)

Our next one will be BIV (blue-indigo-violet) and then there may not be many other colors after that before we start repeating. We're trying to add in more interesting elements, like an art crawl, which involves...actual crawling.

In the meantime, one of the best things about these potlucks are the memories. Who can ever forget the candied bacon.

today's acronym: OPOCITR

OPOCITR (oh-PAH-ki-ter): Only Person Of Color In The Room

Okay, this isn't in use yet, Reggie and I just invented this shit. But it has such a range of possibilities.

The OPOCITR's life is a troubled lot, even if only temporarily. I was thinking about how troubling it can be because this ex of mine invited me to a birthday bash in Northeast Minneapolis, at Gasthof Zur Gemutlichkeit. Apparently they have polka dancing, and that's why it's happening there.

So originally I said yes, and then today I finally tried to research a little into what the hell this place is, and now I know: it's a hypercondensation of everything you did and didn't know about German food, German culture, and German carousing. "It's like Oktoberfest all year round!" gushed one of the reviewers, and they aren't kidding. All the dishes are pork-glazed veal-stuffed beef with a side of other beef. I think the only vegetables allowed inside the place are asparagus and potatoes (much more of the potatoes than the asparagus). They make a meter-long bratwurst and you get a certificate if you successfully finish it--which, by the way, does not seem like it could ever be an appropriate reward. There are accordionists. And dirndls. And boots of beer. And "waitresses to drool over" (this is another reviewer, not my embellishment) carrying wooden slats filled with a dozen shots of liquor. After a full half-hour of reviewing the menus and the many, many photos of gastronomic bliss and alcohol-derived revelry, I thought, okay, I think I get the picture. Although really, I don't.

My general attitude to the truly vibrant, weird, and/or ridiculous that I find here in the Twin Cities is to GET UP IN THE STUFF, if only cuz it makes for good memories, aids your creativity, and if nothing else, always makes you appreciate how interesting humanity can get. And so I am piqued by this German restaurant, where good times supposedly never die.

But I am also filled with this terrible, terrible dread: OPOCITR.

Let's be clear. There is nothing wrong with being an OPOCITR, theoretically at least. I get it, it happens. In fact these days it happens quite a bit, and often with me in the position of OPOCITR, so I'm getting used to it, tiring and uncomfortable as it may be.

There is also nothing wrong with a restaurant that seemingly has no people of color among its managers, chefs, bartenders, hosts, waitresses, musicians, entertainers, and for the most part, customers. Okay, so actually there is a lot wrong with this scenario, especially when it evolves into a White enclave thinly disguised as a celebration of one particular European heritage. Oh sure, there's exoticisation going on, as they do with all the mosques and pho shops; there's also the nagging question of what aspects of German culture are normalized and why the German owners are keen on showcasing a limited range of German culture for the purpose of entertaining folks and making big profits, which of course is the same nagging question for many of us entrepreneurial brown folk (tip: read The Fortune Cookie Chronicles about the bizarre history of Chinese food in the United States, thanks cousin Andrew for the rec). But there's one important distinction between the ventures of the German restaurant and the Thai place just a few blocks away: the former is guaranteed a ladder to the annals of acclaim, comfort, welcoming, defining what is American even if unfamiliar; the latter will be mired in suspicion, foreign, still always un-American even as it grows more familiar each day. For every problem or mistake the German restaurant commits, it is considered an errant throw that does not detract from a perfect and clean record. For ever problem or mistake at the Thai place, it is but further proof of goods already tarnished by their maker.

Also, there is something very wrong when one of the reviewers for Gasthof's says "the crowd is diverse...every age and race every night." White folks have gotten very clingy of that word, 'diversity.' It's the million dollar punch in an honest bout of discussion about how white the institution/neighborhood/community is. "I say it's diverse, so it must be diverse! And when I say every age and race, I mean every age and race--even when some ages and some races are much more abundant than others!" And I know this line of reasoning all too well because I work in Eastside Minneapolis, I've been educated on Northeast for a better part of the last year. I know the community that gave birth to the people who gave birth to Gasthof's. I know that history of early immigration to Minnesota, the huddles of Germans, Russians, Poles, Irish in a small patch along the river. I also know that these ethnic communities fortified into a White community, intent on keeping out black folks, establishing racial covenants, organizing neighborhood 'crime' patrols which continue today and aren't far removed from organized lynch mobs. And I know that they're good at it: Northeast is the whitest part of the city, it has the fewest renters and public housing, these facts are not accidental, they were the products of action. And because of this, Northeast is a nerve-wracking place to be if you're a person of color--or at least disquieting if nothing else--and even worse when you find yourself in Northeast, in a neighborhood, in a beloved German restaurant, at a table, eating and drinking and trying your damnedest to have a good time while everyone else steals a few glances and stares at YOU, the OPOCITR, the one that doesn't make sense. That. Is not. What I call diversity.

All this to say: an OPOCITR is troubled because of how annoyingly self-conscious and alone one is made to be. You can be having a kick-ass time until you become, or you realize you are, the OPOCITR, and then all of a sudden you're in your head and not fully present and your visage is now cloudy and distant. And the thing is, the White folks in the room--especially good friends you can chat up about race and racism no prob--will see that visage, and they'll know it's because you're the OPOCITR, and then they'll get uneasy and distracted and in their heads, which of course makes you, the OPOCITR, feel terrible and guilty for being the problem here, and why did you have to ruin everyone's night so early on?

Other uses:

Generational--"He shook off the WASP tradition, uncomfortable as it was, in exchange for the more uncomfortable prospect of raising three OPOCITR children."
Pride--"You better damn well listen to what I gotta say at this town hall, cuz I'm the OPOCITR and I am one fierce human being to boot!"
Suggestive--"OPOCITR ISO OPOCITR for a little less loneliness and a little more play. Will be discreet."

Potential spin-offs: OGGITR (Only Gay Guy In The Room), OTPITR (Only Transgendered Person In The Room), OPWITR (Only Probationary White*In The Room)

*Probationary White is a lovely term Steven Flusty did not invent but stole from a friend. It refers to biracial/multiracial people who are part White and are accepted into White crowds until they break their probationary requirements (i.e. calling out racist bullshit when it comes up).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

realities of the battered

It is, perhaps, too lazy to attribute most of one’s current experiences to a single event.

But that’s sometimes what it feels like to be an assault survivor. It may not be that the assault spawned things in my life that would never have happened otherwise; that definitely gives my attacker more credit than he deserves (or wants). I’m starting to think that what violence does well is that it catalyzes what you were already going to know or experience or grow towards. It sharpens and brings clarity. You adopt habits and mannerisms that to others might be motivated my fear, but you know to be deeply rooted in your health, protection, and safety. You read your environment exceptionally well and you don’t mind as much when your gut instinct is wrong. You don’t stop taking chances; you weigh them. You don’t stop your fierceness; you strategize on the means and ways of employing it.

I am thinking about this because I have had a few recent bad experiences with my family that stem almost entirely from my life as a survivor and their uncertainty as to what this translates to. I find myself silently demanding their understanding and support and yet I haven't explained anything to them about how I'm living, so what can they work from?

So I'm drawing up a list of some things that I know have come about because of my assault. They're specific to me but I know much on this list is shared by others who've experienced violence, sexual assault, and other instances of intense violation and trauma. If others would like to add based off their own experience, please feel free to do so--or, come up with lists of your own, that are specific to who you are.

--When I am in public spaces, I am always looking around me, measuring my surroundings. I do this no matter how many or how few people there are. I do this when I'm with friends or other company. And I always do this when alone.

--When I go to parties or events at night in a place unfamiliar to me, I check several times for nearby bus routes and how late they run. I think of names of people who could give a ride home. Even if it's a dressy sort of event, I will deliberately dress down so as not to attract attention. Sometimes I won't go at all if I don't know anyone that can offer a ride and if bus routes are more than a few blocks' walk to get to.

--I offer to accompany friends of mine--specifically women, people of color, and queer people--to wherever they're walking to, even if it's just a block. I feel incredibly grateful and supported when others do this for me, and very alone when others don't.

--When I am in a house, bar, club, or some other establishment, I check for all exits. I avoid putting myself in situations where people or things are preventing me from reaching those exits.

--When I walk alone somewhere, I make a point of bringing an umbrella, a heavy book, or some other object that can be used as a weapon. When I don't have an object, I look around constantly for things I can use as weapons.

--When I'm in a space where I hear many disrespectful remarks, insults and slurs, I usually leave. If I can't, I find myself focusing my attention on women, people of color, and queer people in the space, hyper-aware of little things happening to them and silently imploring the crowd to leave them alone.

--When I'm with a group of people and I hear insults and slurs directed at me (or us), I usually respond. When I'm alone and I'm targeted, I say nothing and move away.

--When people stare at me for a long time--even if it's just checking me out, or trying to figure out my race or what have you--I avoid looking at them, because I interpret their staring as a threat.

--At night, I will ride a bus for two blocks rather than walk the same distance.

--Even on very cold winter days, I avoid wearing so many clothes that I can't run fast.

--When I go to meet up with friends, I tell them exactly what time I expect to show based off of bus schedules and walking distance. If I show up even just five minutes later than that time, I get upset with myself, and I get more upset when none of my friends are worried that I showed late.

--When ANYONE physically prevents me from moving or going to where I want to, I panic. Even if it's just being playful.

--When ANYONE talks with me at a very close distance--even if it's really important and I should be listening--I panic, because I feel like I can't move and because I'm not able to look around me.

--When someone I've just met frequently violates my boundaries--interrupting, nonconsensual touch, speaking too close, insulting or being disrespectful--I work very hard to avoid them from that point on. If a friend is with me when this happens and they do nothing or pretend nothing happened, I get very angry with them.

how the night panned out

I don't mean to discourage you in doing this volunteer work...

No, no, it's not discouraging me from volunteering...more like discouraging in general.

After that exchange I boarded the long bus home and stewed. There isn't much else you can do when pinned with a truism.

I thought long and hard. I thought about how to foster a critical personality in such a way that you don't turn into a discouraging asshole intent on raining on everyone's parade. I thought about leaps of faith and why I don't make them anymore. I thought about good will and good intentions and what can you possibly draw from when those don't cut it the way they used to.

I removed my cell phone and stared at it, wanting it to ring just then, wanting to ring someone up. I removed my planner and stared at the week's events, wondering if there was a romantic date scheduled in somewhere in there: there wasn't. I rubbed my thumb and forefinger in a V from nose to forehead, trying to stem a headache. I considered how I never say the word 'peace' anymore except as part of my nickname. I remembered when that was the word most likely to drop from my mouth if someone asked me the time of day.

At home I removed my work clothes, one article at a time. I donned a light house dress, then took it off in favor of a fresh-smelling T-shirt and faded jeans; the neighbors across from my window have been arriving at some conclusions after spying me in a dress several times previously. I got the ceiling fan going to ease the mugginess. I hauled out CD's from the library--KT Tunstall, P.O.S, Suzanne Vega, Brandi Carlisle, Kaki King--and went through them, one by one, methodically. I hauled out Brussels sprouts for washing and chopping. I boiled water for pasta. I blended and sauteed, blended and sauteed some more. I hauled out a meal that genuinely satisfied--something I haven't experienced for some time. I washed dishes and watered all the plants--jade tree, spider, basil, aloe. I hauled out my guitar, strummed some quick songs, figured out a new one, and put the guitar back in its case, back in the closet. I worked two hours on a long and difficult sudoku. I rested on my bed, CD on shuffle, ceiling fan going overhead, teeth unbrushed, face unshaven. I dreamed about dancing.

Another night of getting a lot done, and yet, getting nothing done. No work on the book, no headway on art for a friend's silent auction, no writing letters to a friend headed for New Orleans. A night of being generally discouraging. And--

Something else; a detail I'm hesitant to share, that I'd rather pretend didn't happen. For somewhere during that night I left my apartment, with the fan running. I lumbered down the stairs and stepped outside. It was a pitch-perfect evening. A hint of a breeze, quiet composure. On the corner on the other side of the street two young men had set up a camera and tripod. And there was a young woman, black blouse and dark blue short skirt, hand on hip, gazing at them, glamorous. I watched her stand still for a few minutes, then breaking the pose, laughing and spinning to look at her backdrop--the magic of an intersection I have witnessed every day for the last year and a half.

I went back inside, up the stairs, and rested for a moment on one of the oversized chairs in the hallway. I took out my chain of keys and weighed the longest, skinniest one in my palm. It is my apartment key. I will soon go back in and fall asleep for the night.

But not before holding it near my face, and then quietly, methodically, grasping the bow with both hands, and slowly jabbing the blade into my midsection. It hurts. I lift up my left arm, and then quietly, methodically, graze the blade of the key along the skin of the wrist in imaginary slashes. It hurts there, too. No blood, but pain. That's good. I can feel it. That's good.

Monday, August 17, 2009

it's come to that

"I'm thinking of going back into the corporate world. It's terrible in so many ways compared to nonprofits, but there are payment..."

--my coworker and friend Reggie Prim

Saturday, August 15, 2009

three thoughts I'm falling asleep with

Someone in your family you love can, in an instant, make you feel terrified, threatened, and unsafe.

When that happens, you do not know what to do or where to run.

And when that happens, life at home can really suck shit.

what the compass says.

I don't how to dress up what I've been thinking about lately and I'm tired of consciously attempting to make art/music/poetry out of my words, so here it is:

People are hurting. The drunken man leering forward from his bus seat at the two young women who dare not move an inch more than needed, his hot breath burning onto the backs of their necks: people are hurting. An argument between a seated woman with a stroller and the older woman in glasses forced to stand, who's decided she's had enough, who singlehandedly and wrongheadedly tries for a claim at her dignity by lashing out at the person who has her seat, who discovers the seated woman works for the bus company and promptly says "none of you care, you don't care, you're not human, you're not human," and meanwhile holds up hundreds of people on this bus and the twenty buses behind her, everyone losing their temper while going nowhere on a 91-degree day on Nicollet Mall: people are hurting. My dear friend and co-worker arriving bleary-eyed in the morning, cracking jokes and asking in perfect deadpan "Is feeling like you want to kill yourself a sign of depression?" while freeing his eyes from his glasses and resting the bridge of his nose on the unsteady perch between thumb and forefinger: people are hurting.

This pain is not normal nor natural. It is not a scientifically proven characteristic of the human condition. It is something felt more than explained, as though one could feel the weight of centuries. This pain strains our capacity to be civil. It is strange and terrifying, how it operates, where it directs us. Thousands of years of human evolution, indestructible imagination and unimaginable destruction, caught hollow and clear in the briefest of moments--a comment steeped in bile, a macabre dance of bodies, an uncertain silence. People are hurting and the only way we can still claim to be alive is that we have never quite adjusted to it, acquiesced. In our hearts we know something exists stronger than pain. We know it is our responsibility to summon a tidal wave of healing and reckoning on these broken landscapes. But we are uncertain what to say and do, how to start. The inertia of pain cradles us close, still, immovable.

In my hand I hold a compass. Its needle has swayed considerably over the years as its student has grown, but wherever it has pointed, there I have gone, for better or worse. I have started to develop some distrust for it--a compass that points in more than one direction is obviously up to no good--but there are times, such as today, where it has been steadfast in its orientation and has remained that way since October of 2006, and it's then that I think it's hit on something. Three years, glaring at me the same message: people are hurting. It might be serious this time. There might be something here. And so there I have gone, unbundling the mess with relentless hands, sometimes articulate with the careful clever movements of my sociological and political scalpels, other times wrenching and pulling at the bloody tubes, suddenly furious at little things, confused, arms tired. I keep on despite the terror, the long nights with few hours' sleep, not to mention what a sorry sobering ass it can make me in conversations with friends at potluck dinners.

It's good, this is good to be reminded of these things, they say. I pause and weigh the sentiment. Is it? Does it lend any more clarity about what to do next, does it bestow more hope and strength? Does it brighten a person's day, just a titch? No, no, fucken no. And I have to wonder: am I alone in this? I know there are plenty of people out there who are depressed, traumatized, struggling (individually and collectively), trying to remind themselves that to be crazy in a crazy world is a sign of one's good health altho this isn't much consolation. Many of these people are dealing as best they can, blocking it out, or becoming an expert on it and writing a book and giving a tour, or offing themselves or others, or drowning the pain with whatever addictive substance presents itself (meds, TV, certain romantic relationships). In fact, a good number of them become writers. So no, I am not alone in this, and yet, I am. I wake up each day present in the pain, I read it on faces and in words, I feel it on my skin and in my lungs whenever it threatens visibility in the form of violence or breakdown, I wear it home and sing it softly at midnight, and in my dreams it recurs and reinvents itself, wild, exciting, and yet just new accounts and takes on the same thing, that people are hurting and this may be why, when I finally awake, I am so tired and so reluctant to move again in a world that does not reinvent itself so easily.

Am I the only one who lives like this? I keep running into contrary evidence, but I cannot shake the feeling. And so when I meet someone new who has that particular air to them, one they may anunciate in so many words--"I tend to always see the good side in things", "We're going to keep progressing in great ways," "I'm just really optimistic about the future"--I find myself tamping down on my incredulity, and hatred, and jealousy, and yes, desire to be in their place, anything to avoid feeling so alone. I don't know where their compasses are coming from, it could be ignorance, transcendence, love, resilience, or hell they may not have compasses at all--I suppose that's called 'being well-rounded'--but it sounds better than where I am. Sometimes.

Now, I know if Grace Lee Boggs were sitting here next to me as I type this post, she would already be quietly and assertively scolding me for being so self-absorbed. You can't just do it in your head. You do it in practice, in life, in the relationships you have and the communities you sustain. Individuals do nothing in isolation; acting in a web, people are open enough and flexible enough to transform the way they live their lives, while the individual can't do shit.* And I know this--I really, really hope I know this--but I have a hard time picturing it in a society and culture still sold on the individual. And when relationships and community seem extra-fuzzy to me, and they almost always do, then I resort to the compass, and so have ended up here the last three years, with perhaps more clarity than usual but no sense of agency. And maybe this is a trap I'm in, or maybe with enough wading I'll hit on something new, or maybe I'm still very young and very clueless.

But this is where I'm at.

"Doing love is having the audacity to look at past madness and seeing that madness births truth." --Mama Sandra Simmons of Detroit

*Grace Lee Boggs doesn't ramp up her profanity any more than 'hell;' that is my own embellishment.

an important distinction

If June Jordan were still alive and wasn't felled by complications in her cancer treatment that are directly symptomatic of this fucking mess we call a 'healthcare system', she would fly, bus, and drive to every town hall meeting this whole country over, saying the same words she said a decade ago, for their prescience, for their staying power, for the haunting decision this moment asks us to make:

"A democratic nation of persons, of individuals, is an impossibility, and a fratricidal goal. Each American one of us must consciously choose to become a willing and outspoken part of the people who, together, will determine our individual chances for happiness, and justice."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

geography lesson

This post comes directly from last night's dream. It proved haunting and powerful enough that I remembered it upon waking, and I figure, anything with that kind of staying power could stand a bigger audience.

"You are not going out there."

"He has to remember. I'll talk something out of him."

"And what do you think I've been doing this whole time? I'm helpless here. You don't know. You've been away."

"Ten minutes. He'll catch on."

"I give you less than five, and that's not my choosing." Sis is on the kitchen stool, hands pressed into the pockets of her jeans. "The neighbors called the cops, after it happened. Called right from this phone and I let 'em. Like to see you try different. On and on, no fucking release."

"Yeah, great story," I say, turning. "Sing it." And I push my way to the door, open the latch, out onto the step. The screen door bangs behind me, and I am pounding, pounding my way down the driveway, thinking ahead. Fifteen feet away I stop and finally look up.

He's so small here in front of me. All my life I've had a giant for a father, not this, this is hard to understand. It's not the wheelchair, it's not how he strains his frame out of it, leaning. It's not even his face; his face was always somewhat indecipherable, hiding from me and surprising me at whim, a certainty masked by eyes and creases that never changed. Now, as I study him closely for the first time in many years, I consider that it must be the newness of it all. We have been here before, the two of us. Only then he not only wanted to stand, but walk, and shuffle, and I learned to keep my distance because I knew he was in a good place, a sense of time and movement he held sacred. And now, now it all had gotten out of hand for us, and it no longer mattered where he was or whether he wanted to stand, and I'm here useless at the other end of fifteen feet.

"Hey Dad." I move my hand up as if to wave, but don't.

He hasn't moved. One eye might be on me. I can't tell.

"Hey." I wave this time. He lolls his head over in my direction, stares, and lifts his left hand, middle finger raised at me. I had heard he's been doing this. And yet I am too stunned to know what to do next.

I finally say "Hey" again, as if to emphasize a point, then: "Well it looks like this is working out for you here. Sis says you're none too talkative lately but sometimes that's the way of it. Things change and it's hard to keep track until it's time. I mean six years ago I could barely even...well, you remember how it was." I realize that I'm talking to him like I used to talk to my nieces, before they could talk. "Sorry. I was just assuming."

This isn't going well. His hand has gone down but that may be because he's tired. He looks at me like I'm a bug.

"So good news. I'm done with school. A few weeks ago actually. Near the end there I was all up in my head, you know, brain just so filled up with stuff that sometimes has flashes of brilliance and sometimes I'm thinking what the fuck who am I to think I can capture all this, and during the defense I noticed I was drawing a blank while I was speaking. Terrifying, you know. But I guess I've always had a talent for sounding like I know more than I do. Well. I'm a Doctor now. Of Geography." I wait half a second for laughter; none is forthcoming from either of us. "You know. Geography, study of everything on the earth's surface. Way to narrow down my interests right? We talked a lot about that. You got into that excited conversation and I loved watching you then. There were just so many places you could go with it."

"No." His first word nearly knocks me over. There is no change in his expression, his stature, the word seems to have escaped from him by accident.

I soldier on. "It was beautiful, you said. Drawing all this meaning out of the littlest things in life. Like when you first moved here. Do you remember when you first moved here?"

"We were stupid," he says, mouth snapping open and shut with careful deliberation. "Stupid, stupid, stupid." He looks down at my shoes, then up again. "Goddamn hellhole."

"Okay, but do you remember the neighborhood? You remember what it looked like then?"


"It looked a lot like it does now."


I'm thinking back to my research. "When you first walked outside of the house on that first day, what did you see? Was it raining, was it sunny? Did you see other people, did you see cars or bikes? Could you see the lake, the TV towers?"

"Saw a dog."

This answer surprises me. We've talked many times, many years ago, about that first day, and he's never mentioned a dog.

"Okay. A dog. What kind of--"

"Saw a dog. Dog just came round. Came round all the time."

"Was it a--"

"Came round. All the time."

I think of The Little Prince. There's a geographer in there, but he's an inadvertent bad guy. Your flower is ephemeral, he says. What's ephemeral? the Little Prince asks. And he learns that it's everything we don't care about. Like how I already don't care about this dog. I am waiting for some context but there's nothing. I finally think up a good question. "Was the dog on a leash? Was it unleashed? Was it a stray?"

He looks at me and doesn't answer. I realize that is probably too many questions at once. "Was the dog on a leash?"

"Don't matter."

Actually it does matter, I think, we could talk here about the geography of city ordinances, of social norms, we could talk about the geography of capital and ideas of property and ownership, we we could dredge up all this history and social changes and pinpoint exactly where you were in it, where you are in it, now. But I refuse to keep launching the conversation. I want him to tell me. "Was the dog on a leash?"

"Don't matter."

"Dad, you must know whether the dog was on a leash or not."

"Don't matter," and at this point he turns his head away sharply. He seems to be hearing something.

"Dad. Please."

He visibly gulps. "It don't. Matter." And now I hear it too. There are cars turning onto our street. Recognizable.

"Dad. Just listen. You know this, I know you know. Just tell me, was the dog on a leash. Tell me, was the dog on a fucking leash, that's all I want to know."

He swerves his head back at me, mouth open. "I..." And suddenly there's water in his eyes.

"Dad. Dad. I'm sorry. It's okay. Just...just stop saying...if you don't want to answer the question, then just say it. Just say, I don't want to answer the question. Okay?"

But the water is coming down now, faster and faster, and his elbows start beating against the shell of his wheelchair, and his hands slam up and down on his knees, and he wheezes, and he gulps, and there's water building up in his mouth now too.

And the cars are pulling up. And the men are getting out. And he doesn't see them at all, he is all water coming out of everything.

"Dad. Dad. We love you. We love you."

But he's shaking now, and as the hands come on him, around him, he shakes and shakes and both of his fists stick straight out with extended middle fingers, at me, at them, and then there is pounding all around me, noises at my ears and eyes and throat, there are yells and movements, and in a surprising moment I find myself down near the ground, I find my arms wrapped around my stomach, and the only words in my head keep blinking, on and off, on and off, it don't matter, it don't matter, it don't matter.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

a transaction

Tuesday night on the 16 bus home, the long way to enjoy the view of everyone out enjoying the sunset. In the back are me and a few others, including an older white man, jolly stature and complexion, white hair and a trimmed beard, talking it up--incredibly, from my POV--with a young Black woman, two Afro puffs off her head, glasses, dark skin, dressed scantily in a tied shirt baring a huge midriff and high-cut shorts.

They're both from Florida, they learn. He regales her with tales of seeing Redd Foxx perform. She has a bright laugh; they're enjoying themselves. Almost a bit too much, it seems. And then suddenly he gets heavy with nostalgia and loneliness, and says, "You know, it's been years since I've been with a woman."

My jaw invisibly drops at this. I expect the conversation to end. But she says,

"Well, I think I can take care of that for you." Jaw drops further.

"Oh, yeah?" He's not ruffled; he's intrigued and enjoying this.

"Yeah, but it'll cost you," she says, equally unruffled and enjoying this.

At this point, everyone within earshot of this conversation perks up. My eyes remain riveted on the outside scenery but my arm muscles tense. We know, those of us who are listening, that whatever we were doing previously or thinking about, and whether it's our business or not, we will be a party to this transaction and we will not be able to focus on anything else.

She discusses prices. He says he doesn't really have the money on him, and she says, "Don't you worry, just call me and we'll work it out the first time around. You got a pen?" He says he's off line. She writes down her number and says, "You can call me any time" in a voice sumptuous enough to knock me over. He asks for her name; he finds out it's Peaches. He likes the name. He asks if she's dating anyone; she isn't and hasn't for a while. "I only date older guys"--as she says this the young men nearby visibly drop their shoulders--"because people my age or younger, they're less responsible." She doesn't mind being single, although there are some things she does miss. "Like what?" "Cock." A man wearing earbuds stands up and finds a seat closer to the front of the bus. The rest of us pretend we're not listening. "I miss sucking cock. I really enjoy it." "Yeah? What else do you miss?" She tells him. He muses about how good she must be; she echoes his assumptions. He describes when he was younger and in his free love days; "I was a real hippie, I have miles of ponytails I've saved back home." She asks about drugs. "There's this one kind of marijuana called salbia (sp?), the Mexicans call it the 'lunchtime trip.'" They both laugh. They're enjoying themselves. They know what they're doing.

As I depart the bus I remove my right hand from the left crook of my elbow where it was resting and I notice the white imprint of three fingertips on my skin. I do not understand my tension. Just someone doing their job; a sex worker adding to her clientele. And it occurs to me as I walk home is how afraid I was for her, for him; how that fear transformed into dread and shame and confusion; how I held to an expectation that this is work constantly under threat of violence, and yet what I remember most, what I still remember, is the bright, easy laughter as they arrived at a deal.


The next two years of my life are quickly developing some structure whether I like it or not.

For example:

By the end of this year, my grad school applications must be completed and shipped out.

By late spring 2010, I will make a decision where to go for grad school (or to go at all) and make moving plans, employment plans, insurance plans and a great many other plans accordingly.

By summer 2010, the book will likely be published and launched at the US Social Forum in Detroit, and I will be planning and participating in events, tours, and publicity for it.

By fall 2010 I will have started a new six years of my life in grad school.

And I have just learned (via Bao Phi and friends) that by summer 2011, me and a core group of some dozen other Asian/Pacific Islander American poets, writers, spoken word performers, artists, marketers, fundraisers, and organizers will be hosting the biennial APIA Spoken Word Summit in Minneapolis/St. Paul and showing some 200 attendees what the Twin Cities are made of.

It should be pointed out (or rather, I have been attempting to point out to myself, over and over and over) that everything on this list takes LOTS of time, energy and commitment, and hella discipline. In college, I could still get away with writing a senior-year final paper the night before it was due. This does not hold true for making and publishing a book, applying for grad school, or developing a freaking national summit.

I am trying to remind myself. I am really, really trying. I am seeing to an adjustment that comes with great difficulty for me: looking just a bit further on from the here and now. Making the future present, identifying the steps to manifest what’s in store, and doing it. It should be easier because this future has birthed some staggeringly concreteness that’s much less avoidable compared to the vague. It should also be easier because I am so fucken inspired and ready right now like I haven’t been in years.

All the same, that’s some considerable stress and tension on my end.

“I am generally known where I am known as one cool, collected queen. And I am ruffled.” –Prior, on the torments of his Angel, Angels in America: Perestroika

Grand Avenue review

When the pantry and the fridge get so empty that even the resident mice start leaving fewer pellets on my floor, I get two distinct urges: to go grocery shopping, and to get some ice cream.

I was already dropping off rent at my landlord’s office on Grand this afternoon and decided on a side trip to Grand Ole Creamery on the way home. With a Mexican chocolate shake in hand, I decided to eschew the bus and hike it back.

Grand Ole Creamery is a substantial ways east of where I live, very close to Dale Street. If you think in terms of stoplights (which can happen if you’re a bus maniac), that means a line drive through Victoria, Lexington, Hamline and finally to Snelling. It’s roughly a mile between each major street, so the walk is a long one, but the weather turned slightly cooler and lovely and besides, I had to burn off ice cream.

I could not believe my eyes. Perhaps Detroit really has done on a number on me, but this was the first time I really noticed that there were entire blocks of nothing but businesses, services and retail. And of course the eerie thing about Grand is that most of this commercial activity is in houses, which you come to expect over time would have people living in them—but these houses don’t. Look carefully and you’ll see a sign in the window, on the door, or a banner high up, advertising a salon (fuck there are a lot of them), a spa, a boutique, a fashion designer, a restaurant, a chocolatier, a dentist’s office, a daycare center, a realtor, a pet food store, a place to get stogies. The vast majority of them are independent local businesses, which makes this form of gentrification somewhat difficult to demonize. I’ve complained to my friend and co-worker Taryn at length about the insidious boutiques and cafes sprouting where I live at the corner of Snelling and Selby, fearing what it portends, but she pounces back, “If local businesses had that much success on a corner in North Minneapolis, I would welcome it, and so would the communities there.” True this.

And the situation is not rosy on Grand, really. The last time I made the stroll, back in the winter, there were businesses closing up shop, holding clearance sales, seeking out a better location where the rent isn’t so high, or giving up temporarily on entrepreneurship in an unsettling recession. This time around, it seems like the number of closings and moves has only increased. It makes one wonder. What does it mean when you have to close the small business you always dreamed of having, and what’s more, what the hell are you going to do with all these prom dresses that no one wants or needs?

The climate of the Ave is this, then: chic and style and quirk and grace, interlaced with this detectable dread—the knowledge that this isn’t working. Of course, the ‘it’ that isn’t working is up to interpretation. Is it selling in Peoria? Is it bringing people together? Is it keeping the brown people out? Is it the next hotspot? Whatever the vision is (or was) for Grand Ave, it could stand to be revisited—or better, scrapped for the more imaginative realms that come with uncertainty.

In the meantime, I walk west down the Ave and see a few people entering or leaving these places, several joggers or people walking dogs, an occasional bus rider waiting at a stop. I see no one out on porches or chatting with neighbors. I see an entrepreneur’s heaven and a deflated community. Y’all do us a favor and take the stroll yourself, see what you have in front of you. It may seem fine and painless, that Ave. And maybe that’s what’s wrong.

“Some people look at you like you’ve farted when you try to tell them the truth.” –James Baldwin

Monday, August 3, 2009

on relationships

Who is this Margaret Wheatley, and when did it occur to her that our scientific leap into quantum mechanics is fundamentally changing the way we think and work in the world?

Each of us lives and works in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the Universe...Things can be taken apart, dissected literally or representationally (as we have done with business functions and academic disciplines), and then put back together without any significant loss. The assumption is that by comprehending the workings of each piece, the whole can be understood. The Newtonian model of the world is characterized by materialism and reductionism--a focus on things rather than relationships.

The quantum mechanical view of reality strikes against most of our notions of reality...It is a world where relationship is the key determiner of what is observed...Particles come into being and are observed only in relationship to something else. They do not exist as independent 'things'...These unseen connections between what were previously thought to be separate entitites are the fundamental elements of all creation.

First Grace Lee Boggs put me on to her in the interview, and then, I read about her again in this RJ book by Kay Pranis, The Little Book of Circle Processes. Weird. And fascinating.

I suppose this is just another take on what Marx was saying, that the smallest unit of political significance is not one person, but two.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

taking names

I talked recently with twin sis about the sorry, sorry state of an art project that some folks are trying to rope me into.

They're some older folks who've been meeting every month at these 'town halls' at Schneider Drug in Prospect Park, Minneapolis. Actually, they're almost all older folks; UMN students have participated here and there by way of their professors, and there's also me. The meetings are a free-for-all and they explore some really great questions about society, history, civic participation and social change. They're also a bit old-fashioned--liberal not radical, still sold on the promise of America, still very optimistic despite the erosion of communities, and way too optimistic about Obama and Al Franken--but it's good company.

The owner of the drugstore, Tom, has been contemplating a project for a few years now, and wants to move forward with it, which is why he dragged me in to a brunch meeting at Nicollet Island Inn. Five elegant courses on a Sunday, sitting with Tom, the visionary, and Doug, the artist to be commissioned. They want to bring me on as Stevie, the gruntwork.

For Tom, the vision is straightforward. Create a sculpture that commemorates "all the people who have stuck to their ideals during times of great duress." My task: collect their names.

After asking a few clarifying questions (which I also hoped would winnow the list down), I got some basic criteria:

--The project should recognize people from all over the world and throughout all of human history.
--The project lists names of individuals as well as peoples (i.e., both Ehren Watada and the No-No Boys).
--The project includes the action/stand an individual/people took at a time when those in power were misguiding and manipulating the oppressed. It doesn't matter if such an individual/people eventually rose to power and did terrible things. It also doesn't matter if they were complicit in/encouraged terrible things at other times during their lives.
--The project includes individuals/peoples who also took a stand/action among their peers when it was their peers who shamed them/criticized them/made them suffer (i.e. James Baldwin leaving the U.S. after his fellow black literary luminaries demonized him for his sexuality).
--The project emphasizes that, despite the long arc of history, the wide terrain, and the unfathomable changes through it all, "there is a common thread" among the people it commemorates.

So now that we've narrowed the list down to 500 million people or so, I've been playing a little mental game. Who ends up on the list of saints? Here's some that would turn up.

Frank Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford I figure I'd start out with someone obscure. Frank Pakenham was recognized at his height as being a staunch advocate for prisoners' rights, even in the case of Myra Hindley, a prominent serial killer behind the Moors murders in the UK. He met with Myra constantly while she was in prison and demanded her parole and release, all to no avail. It was his sticktoitiveness that alienated him in the eyes of the public and press, making him the subject of ridicule that he never recovered from. Then again, Frank Pakenham was also a staunch opponent of gay rights not long after the Hindley debacle; he was certain that gay teachers would make their students homosexual.

Conor Cash Friend of mine and fellow Team Colors collective member. He is the only person in America to be (falsely) charged with domestic terrorism since 2001 and found innocent on all counts. He refused to fold, and an incredibly amount of community work and activity developed in support of him. A rare victory in the end. However, the stress, turmoil, and agony over the duration of his trial has left him with PTSD.

Stevie Peace Okay, okay, but this is the risk you take when you ask someone to collect all the names in all the world in all of human history. I suppose my most noticeable contribution here is calling out a rash of sexual assaults at the organization I used to work at in New Orleans, Common Ground. I was one of many, and we were eventually listened to, but not without me getting banned from all Common Ground Collective meetings and otherwise alienated by a great many of my peers. Very messy and I'm not sure I want to be recognized for it anyway.

Coleman Young
Former mayor of Detroit. Before his career as a politician, he was a stalwart in the civil rights movement and refused to back down in Black Power struggles despite a wide range of consequences. After he was elected as the first Black mayor of Detroit, Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs and many others watched, dismayed, as he sought to bring back jobs through casinos. Soon, his former peers were organizing and winning victories against his messed-up agendas.

Jesus Christ This guy must make it on every commemorative list. Refused to abandon his ideals to the point of persecution and crucifixion? Damn.

Madison Nguyen I only know about her because twin sis put me onto an Ira Glass segment on her and Brandon Darby. Madison is a city councilmember in San Jose, California. Her notable action? Wanting to name the Vietnamese section of town "Saigon Business District." The duress? Her Vietnamese American constituents were infuriated that it wasn't "Little Saigon." To the point where they associated her with Communist dictators at all her public forums. No joke. They even pushed for a recall vote.

Stokely Carmichael One of my favorite people, one of many people's favorite people actually, firebrand SNCC leader and essential figure in the Civil Rights movement. Unfortunately, Stokely stuck to his guns so much that he once held a one-person sit-in that he vowed would continue until "Black people unite." As Grace Lee Boggs has said, it was one of the more disappointing and deluded positions she had seen in a young national leader that had so much promise.

Brandon Darby Common Ground Collective co-founder, now and FBI informant who was exposed after two Texans were arrested for manufacturing Molotov cocktails during the 2008 Republican National Convention. He claims he turned to the government, at expected (and later proven) risk of alienating all of his activist comrades, so that he could stay true to his aims of stopping violence--including suspected violence planned by said comrades.

Common Ground Collective Risked police raids, government intervention, retaliation, and many other consequences in order to continue their grassroots relief work in New Orleans after Katrina. Also managed to draw lots of money, media coverage, and volunteers away from local grassroots relief efforts. Mixed bag.

Community Party front groups There's one in every big city. Annoying as fuck, but the reason they keep on going (and they have insinuated this many, many times) is that they know the truth and they organize around it and are often found to be correct, so they're going to keep doing what they're doing even though they really, really get on everyone's nerves. You name the struggle--housing, healthcare, employment--and you are going to find them, and they will be the resident assholes you will have to deal with, like it or not.

Martin Luther King Advocate of the 'beloved community.' Faced substantial ridicule, alienation, and suffering from everyone--government, peers, enemies.

Mother Jones Labor agitator. Significant difference from 'organizer.' She acquired a rep as a real pain-in-the-ass to the people actually doing the organizing.

Michael Jackson Well, it's hard to say what this ideals were, but there's no better or more prescient example of someone who refused to back down during a long, long period of concentrated duress.

Carrie Prejean She knew the pressure, she felt it, she could hear the devil at her ear, urging her to say something she didn't believe so that it would play better for Perez Hilton, for the adoring audience, something to ramp up her shot at the Miss USA crown. But she didn't cave, and she listened to God, and she said that 'opposite marriage' was the true definition of marriage. And she hasn't apologized for it since. Thus she has entered into the dominion of other non-apologists (Rush, Glenn, O'Reilly) who will speak the truth as they see it and do not give a fuck about the political pressure (aka dignity, openness, compassion) that would have them say otherwise. What a model for our times (no pun intended).

The Industrial Workers of the World Most radical of the labor organizers and have not shut up since. Have suffered greatly for it too, including abandonment by the more high-profile labor organizations today.

CODEPINK Yes, that is Medea Benjamin in pink you keep seeing in all those protest pictures. My heart goes out to these folks for their persistence and presence, but's getting tiring.

Grace Lee Boggs She's so cool she even got her potrait taken by Robert Shetterly for his ongoing series called "Americans Who Speak The Truth." But if you're not much of head person, she could also qualify for a series called "Americans Who Are Exasperatingly Unhelpful."

What do I get after playing this mindgame? A startling mishmash of folks that wouldn't dare want to be on the same list together (i.e. Grace Lee Boggs and Coleman Young, Brandon Darby and Common Ground), whose only common factor is that they are human beings, irreducible and unquantifiable, subject to their own virtues and faults, at times central or irrelevant, pleasant or bitchy, complex not only in their own internal intricacies but in meandering through this rich social mess. This is what makes humanity endlessly and agonizingly fascinating. More power to humanity, I say.

But you won't come to appreciate it by perusing a list of 500 million names.

Times of great duress? We've been living it this whole time, baby. That our resilience, sacrifice, courage and vision has got us this far is a testament to our power. If you need an art project to see that, you're in a hell of a mess as a human being.