Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I don't know how you do it but I suppose that's why you're here, in the now. You show us what can be done. You dare us to dream of the impossible. You implore us to have vision, strategy, and clarity. You give us time, oh, so much time, to grow and to learn, to make mistakes and to fail, but your patience is matched with a great urgency that is fierce to behold. You make us powerful. You make us greater than who we are alone. You raise the bar for us. You do a lot, and I don't understand it, but you're here, in the now, demonstrating that it can be done, and that there's no reason the rest of us can't do the same.
And you have my very sincere respect, from the standpoint of one who could have gone there with you, many times. You have my appreciation, as someone who did not fully appreciate you at one time, back when the ease of my transitions into similar--but NOT the same--activity gave the lie that I could somehow claim a piece of your experience, that I could own your terms. An activist, an agitator, a social worker, a networker, a trainer, a facilitator, a nonprofit employee; I have been all these things, useful in some way, perhaps even respectable, but not more, and not inclined for more anyway. Yet I have claimed 'community organizer' as my profession throughout. I even hang onto the terminology as I match it with my roles as a 'writer and researcher.' These are lies, these are lies I have been telling myself, these are lies I continue to tell. But I do nothing to stop claiming what I can't claim.
I understand, though, that my lie is not solely based in insincerity. I am not doing this merely to water down and make useless a powerful profession, though I understand I am having that effect. I am also not doing this just to console myself for how little I really know about organizing and how much less I have actually done in organizing, though I understand that a whole helluva lot of us are doing this, patting ourselves on the back and saying "I'm doing what I can" while the world burns and communities dissolve and lives end before they should.
My lie, as far as I can measure, comes from an intense desire to be such a person. To live an incredible life as you are, radical community organizers. And I know how I can get when that desire is strong enough--it will push me to that place whether I like it or not, it will give me the necessary courage and risk and trust to accept the responsibility I have longed to own. But it seems I have been content to wait for that push. It seems I am pussy-footing around, ducking into a nonprofit here, applying to a school there, telling myself "in a year...in 5 years...in 10 years...I have all the time in the world, I'm patient, I still need to grow, I still need to learn," a mantra for inertia (the NON-moving kind). In the face of general despair and a fear of applying myself to the hard, hard life you lead, I retreat and devote my talents to avenues I already recognize will be failures. I want that certainty more than the possible failure of the unknown world being created from your efforts. I find my stupidity in that regard incredible, and yet unsurprising. When our very survival is always in question, stupidity can be an appealing option.
But I also know that not everyone desires to be a radical community organizer. All around me are people trying to find their way, how to contribute, and at this time--despite what the economic forecast says--there are a great many open positions that need to be filled. We need teachers, we need food growers, we need builders, we need mentors, we need caretakers, we need artists, we need lovers, we need community elders, and we need kids, lots of kids. So not everyone needs to be or has to be a radical community organizer. It need not be everyone's lot. And yet, despite all my putting off and delaying and waiting, I cannot shake the notion that this is my lot, this must be it. I have no way of knowing for sure as I have never tried it, never even tasted it. But I see you all in your element. I see you at work. And that desire just builds, and builds, and builds. It can't go nowhere forever. You, of all the people the whole world ever, must surely know: it can't go nowhere forever.
So my hat's off to you, radical community organizers. I don't know how you do it. And perhaps I am not supposed to know. Perhaps I will find out. Perhaps I will be there with you, in it, making it happen. Perhaps.
Aside from a book to compile, another book to review, a confoundingly competitive and self-important process known as grad school applications, a summit to plan and a work situation that will likely grow more (ahem) situated in a few months, I am intent on completing two other essential tasks:
1) Finding a spot to watch the turning of the fall colors, and
2) Picking apples.
If you have a recommendation for either I would be happy to field it and toss it around with some buddies of mine.
In the meantime, I have this to look forward to. Come on out and bring all the cats you know and some you don't. I'm counting on y'all.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
A. A hit song by the band Faith No More
B. A slang term indicating the degree of an erection's tumescence
C. A little-used idiomatic expression of exceeding difficulty (i.e. "as hard as Chinese arithmetic")
D. An actual arithmetic, practiced in China, noted for its challenging execution and substantial differences from traditional arithmetic
If you guessed A, B, or C (or even all three of these), congratulations! You are correct!
If you guessed D, boo on you. As solace I leave you with the tale of my bus trip this afternoon on the way to Bao and Juliana's baby shower. I had all my usual habits: nice clothes, handbag going on five years of use, cell phone, bus card, and a sudoku. Full disclosure: sudokus and similar puzzles have been a staple of mine for many years now and are one of the few surefire obsessions I still possess. Previous attempts to ween myself off of the stuff have failed miserably. It's evolved over time--the jumbles and scrambles of my my youth shifted to the crossword puzzles (I was doing the Friday and Saturday ones before I turned 18), then cryptograms, sudokus, and the real doozy of them all, cryptic crosswords. Aside from the latter of these, all the rest have ceased to be challenging, and I suppose the reason I continue to resolutely tackle them is to keep my brain practicing and in high gear. (Bear in mind, you are hearing this from a boy who was so bored out of his mind staying at his parents' house in 2007 that he taught himself how to solve a Rubik's cube, and then continued to solve it in less than five minutes hundreds of times just because it was something to do.)
At my transfer point on 36th and Lake, an older white man sat next to me at the bus stop. Talky kind of guy, social that way, although it was apparent right off the bat that his relative world was quite small--he had never flown a plane and had never lived anywhere other than Minnesota. After watching me working on the sudoku, he asked, "Is that some Chinese arithmetic you're doing?"
On several levels this was an amazing question for me. Namely, 1) weren't sudokus the big American craze not so long ago, and doesn't everyone recognize them by now? 2) how small a leap is it to go from observing that I'm part Chinese to asserting that the activities I engage in must also be Chinese, as though my computing is Chinese arithmetic, my futon is a Chinese bed, my hair is sculpted by a Chinese shaping clay and Chinese blow dryer, and when I doodle I absentmindedly scratch out hanzi characters? 3) is there even such a thing as Chinese arithmetic?
Thankfully, I've developed over time a calm, cool reaction to such things, on the assumption that my interrogators are relatively well-intentioned and poorly informed. So I politely dismantled whatever stereotypes may have existed by explaining to him that no, this was a sudoku, they came out of Japan and are published every day in the local papers because Americans really enjoyed them and encouraged their popularity, that they're fairly straightforward logic puzzles that have very little to do with arithmetic or the numbers themselves, and as I talked I got the reaction that always results: the man, his piqued hunger for exoticism instantly dashed, nodded a little, grew bored, and finally relinquished his attention upon deciding that I am not very fun or interesting at all. Which is just fine by me.
He did manage to pique my interest, as I had never heard the phrase 'Chinese arithmetic' before. And subsequent research shows that it's mostly a ghost term. If anything it comes from Americans' fascination with the earliest Chinese immigrants and their use of abacuses, which, truth be told, do look kind of freaky and appear to make no sense, which in some circles equals 'difficult' or at least 'different.'
But arithmetic is arithmetic is arithmetic. It's just fucken adding and subtracting and multiplying and dividing. (Unless you're talking 'higher' arithmetic and number theory, which is very difficult from what I can tell.) All the elementary stuff was developed by the Sumerians and they developed the abacus to cement it. But it got a lot of play with the Egyptians, Russians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mayans, and Native Americans before it made its way to China. In fact, abacuses were so effective and easy to use that all these exceedingly advanced civilizations waited a long time before developing a written numerical system that formed the basis of what we call 'traditional arithmetic.'
Of course, I didn't find this out until later. In hindsight, I wish I had told the man, "No, it's not Chinese arithmetic. It's just regular numbers and letters. Much more annoying."
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Electric buttons (plant name Acmella oleracea) is native to the Brazilian forests. It is known commonly as the toothache plant because it contains a natural analgesic. Think of it as your friendly local novocaine harvest.
Asa offered me some tonight, and when I asked what it tastes like, he said, "Electricity." Which it totally fucken does. Like you are sucking on a battery. It also numbs the tongue, mouth and throat substantially, which I found fairly alarming. Further research indicates that electric buttons has ended up in dishes with lots of hot chiles and peppers, to offset the heat. Which is to say, it deadens your capacity to sense spiciness. Nuts.
The miracle fruit (plant name Synsepalum dulcificum) is native to West Africa. It contains an active glycoprotein molecule with trailing carbohydrate chains. It's called miracle fruit because, when a berry of this fruit is ingested, the glycoprotein molecules bind to the tongue's taste buds, which for reasons unknown to us makes sour substances taste sweet. At least for a good half hour or so.
I didn't get to try the miracle fruit, but a whole swash of folks did, and we have photographic documentation of these folks ingesting small samples of every sour thing in the kitchen--lemons, pineapple, horseradish, mustard, vinegar, lime juice, hot sauce--and then displaying a puzzling range of facial expressions never seen before, akin to how one might react upon stepping outside in a thunderstorm and noticing that the rain drops are, in fact, syrup.
The downside to both items is that their effects stop well before the stomach cavity, so whether you're downing spoonfuls of horseradish after the miracle fruit or chugging an entire bottle of Sriracha while buzzing on electric buttons, you will still be one sorry ass in an hour, and your inner organs will hate you, and you will learn a most valuable lesson: do not fuck around with nature's freaky gifts.
Nature is fucken cool.
Monday, September 21, 2009
When you work in a nonprofit for a long time, you do your best job despite how boring it can be and how much you hate nonprofits. You don't realize how strong and how good you are growing until things all of a sudden stop being boring.
When you relive painful memories and shame and embarrassment, you are not doubting yourself. You are reminding yourself where you've come from.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Macalester College - Kagin Commons (1600 Grand Ave, St. Paul)
Saturday, October 3rd, 2009
8 pm, doors open 7:30
Suggested donation $5-$10. Be cool and give a whole bunch more.
Sponsors include a bunch of awesome Asian American student groups, the Loft Literary Center, the Poor People's Economic and Human Rights Campaign, SOY Shades of Yellow (first and only Hmong GLBT organization in the country, people), and the MN Spoken Word Association, among others.
Performances include fucken Magnetic North, fucken Tou SaiKo Lee, fucken Michelle Myers of Yellow Rage (apologies for so much profanity, but shit, that's a hell of a compendium of Asian talent in the room), Nomi of Power Struggle, local dangers El Guante and Maria Isa, and a lot more.
Context: Fong Lee, young Hmong man out of North Minneapolis, shot and killed by Minneapolis police. They approached him and his peers, he panicked and jumped off his bike, ran away from them and they ran after him. They shot him while he was running with his back turned. Police claim he had a gun, altho tests later suggested the gun was planted because the police had confiscated it from a previous arrest at a different incident. The officer who killed him was awarded a medal, Chief Tim Dolan has stood by him this whole time, and Mayor Rybak has stood by Dolan this whole time. Fong Lee's family is devastated and have failed so far to hold the police or the city accountable, through both criminal and civil proceedings. They have not given up but the financial costs are crippling.
This event will raise funds for them, and bring Fong Lee back to the local, national, and international attention he deserves, and make it clear that the everyday reality of violence of people of color at the hands of authorities is inexcusable and will not be dismissed, for Fong Lee, for Asian Americans, for everyone. We envision a different world. We commit to bringing that world into being, with the spirit of Fong Lee held close in our strivings.
Spread the fucken word. Come on out on October 3rd. And do what you have to to bring a crew of 5 or 10 or 50 with you. I'm serious. High standards, people.
Strengthen the healing work.
Strengthen the magnitude and bond of our Asian-American communities and put em on the fucken map.
Strengthen all of us in all our communities as we act in love, support, and power.
Pull me aside if you want some nice flyers to pass out.
I have not had coffee in at least half a year. But I caved to financial pressure at a coffeeshop (I am always ending up in coffeeshops and I don't even like coffeeshops all that much) where I had but two dollars on my person, not enough for my preferred hot chocolate, but enough for their smallest cup of joe. And I caved to transportation pressure as well because I failed to get a lid for it and Metro Transit does not tolerate open containers of anything, and thus downed it all in less than 10 minutes to catch the next bus to downtown.
I did not have my usual reaction: overblown energy for 3 to 4 hours followed by conking out for the rest of the day. Instead, I had nervous, jittery energy which sapped my appetite, gave me feverish symptoms, and otherwise put me in a crappy mood that was only amplified by crappy events later in the evening.
If you are a fellow caffeine prude and can sympathize with this experience and want to be my friend (well, I'll have to suss you out first), please drop a line. To all the others out there who regularly drink mountains of the stuff (and this includes the twin sis): you have my sincere admiration and horror.
Outdoor Advertising Association of America
Big ups to Asa who tracked them down.
Some info about the Recession 101 billboards:
The Outdoor Advertising Association of America is overseeing an inspirational advertising campaign providing an optimistic take on the global financial crisis. The Recession 101 messages are being presented on backdrops designed to look like lined notepad paper, mounted on digital billboards, traditional billboards, posters and street furniture.
The economic “lessons,” which include such catchphrases such as “self worth beats net worth,” and “stop obsessing about the economy, you’re scaring the children,” started going up in May and now number around 2,000 postings across the country.
Recession 101 is a light hearted and succinct reminder to everyone that the nation will get through these troubled times and come out in the end.
Members of the OAAA have donated printing, materials and billboard space, while the private anonymous donor has paid for the campaign’s design.
The campaign is being developed by Charlie Robb, from Charchin Creative, Port Saint Lucie, Florida. Robb was also involved in the Messages from God billboard campaign of 1999 which also was sponsored by an anonymous donor.
At recession101.org, there's this jewel of a statement that pinpoints the rationale for the bullshit campaign:
The recession has hurt one of America's greatest attributes--its unshakeable optimism.
Oh snap. And for a moment there I thought that the attribute they were talking about was the 300 million people who are trying to figure out this mess, 7 million of whom are trapped in the prison-industrial complex, 40 million of whom have no health insurance, and a whole shit-ton of whom can't find a job or have given up on finding a job or aren't making enough money in their jobs to live well.
Fuck you Outdoor Advertising Association of America, fuck your callousness towards how badly we are hurting, and fuck your utter disrespect for the dignity of our lives.
If you would like to, ahem, be a bit more polite and a bit less profane in your staunch criticism of this advertising campaign, please, I encourage you, drop them a line, leave them a little note. Heck, go ahead and ring up our man Charlie Robb out of Florida who dreamed this up. He could use some restoration back to this earth.
Now, for those of you who've played this game before and are tired of more strategy-less Activist tactics like these (and I count myself among them), we can do something equally strategy-less but perhaps a bit more fun. Like posting a series of online 'billboards' at the Recession 101 website and the OAAA website, or sending postcards to Charlie in dear old Port St. Lucie. I imagine our reasoning would start with this:
The recession has hurt one of America's greatest attributes--its advertising industry.
And then we can throw them chiding messages to bring the point home! They're just light-hearted reminders, you know. Like:
Recession 101: Stop obsessing about how few things people are buying right now; if it gets really bad and you lose your job, you can always sleep on your friend's couch for a while.
Recession 101: Citizen worth beats consumer worth.
Recession 101: Funny thing about recessions...they put advertisers into such a nervous panic that they air messages of assurance that no one even believes.
I'm sure y'all could come up with much snappier quips than these. Let's hear them.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
In the meantime, what takes up all day Thursday? Grad school, book, getting shit done and in order. What happens every afternoon and evening the following week? Same. What will I be doing in all the spare hours in between? Guess.
Twin sis and I both have a penchant for waiting til the last minute; we like the clarity and focus that comes with extreme pressure. I am attempting something like a discipline this time around. All of you: hold me to it. I don't know how exactly. Maybe a reminder every other day, until I get annoyed with you.
I've been listening to P.O.S.'s (of Doomtree) Audition for over a week now. Brilliance enough to beat Manchester U football team with, but I keep running this particular lyric through my head:
So here I am in the Middle West
The Heartland, muthafucka
Sippin' whole milk, muthafucka
That's a great take on Minnesota hip hop. And I don't even drink milk anymore. And whole milk is vaguely disgusting.
Lastly, I don't follow much of anything in teeveeland and really don't understand what's special about the VMA, but I couldn't resist this:
Tip to Paper Tiger, who I don't even know.
Monday, September 14, 2009
A woman is telling her son this after he's been laughing and playing around with his father's arm and hand like they're toys, and then he kissed his father's thumb. That's all it fucken is! I sit there stunned at the sharp terror of homophobia being passed down to the little ones. I want to say something, but I'm on a public bus, and there's another young woman sitting across from me wearing shades with the words "SUCK IT" etched on the lenses, and for whatever reason this has a dampening effect on me.
So I look over at the boy, now staring at her mother, and I can feel my lungs tense.
He smiles this big-eyed, big-teethed grin at her, shoves his hand in his father's hand, and over-exaggeratedly, shakes it three big shakes, grinning that sloppy grin at her, as if it's the most absurd thing he's ever done in his life.
I nearly busted out laughing.
Youth are fucken cool.
This in some way reflects my mood. Things have been thrown into sharp relief at my place of employment, and even though it may still be some time before things settle out, the awareness has given me a strong sense of focus for the rest of this year. I'm banging through everything--book stuff, grad school stuff, appointments, reading, writing--and I'm enjoying it immensely.
It reminds me of something I read out of Kristi Kenney's zine counterbalance, on despair and hope: namely that despair does not necessarily stultify and quash one's usefulness, but that, if engaged directly and acknowledged, can clarify exactly what action to take, can shepherd renewed energy into this action.
So you could say I'm rockin' the transformative despair.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I'm beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it's actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. The public narrative, the private narrative -- they colonize us. They commission us. They insist on being told. Fiction and non-fiction are only different techniques of story telling. For reasons I do not fully understand, fiction dances out of me. Non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.
Seven years to the day later, it is still just as prescient. Do us a favor and read it in full.
Tip to Clare Bayard, who didn't know she put me onto it.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Humidity has this weird spurt of vengeance at the end of summer. Here it's taunting us with barely detectable raindrops. Down further south, hurricanes. Other parts of the world, badly timed droughts and monsoons that ruin millions of acres of crops and endanger billions of lives. And Arctic ice retreating to its lowest levels in thousands of years, prompting commercial use of the Northeast Passage for the first time in ever.
May we live in interesting times, indeed.
All in all I'm doing fine. We're doing fine. Which, in the end, says very little about us at all.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
It’s Clear Channel-sanctioned, but that doesn’t help me, for several trusted sources have assured me that everything is sanctioned by Clear Channel now.
Who the fuck is paying money to be a condescending asshole? “Oh, you poor dim-witted suffering souls. You don’t get it, do you? You complain now but things will be on the up-and-up before you know it.” If this is meant to be a method of instilling hope or at least consolation…but it isn’t. It fucken isn’t. I suppose what they’re aiming for is light-hearted sophistry. Yes, light-heartedness is sure in abundance today isn’t it. Why not spread the love.
I’m going to quote from Grace Lee Boggs here, as a sneak preview to what you’ll all get in her interview part of the forthcoming book: “The very word ‘recession’ suggests recovery.” Her unspoken questions are thus, What are we recovering to? Do we want to recover to the way things used to be prior to 2008? Who’s to say we’ll ‘recover’ at all? What happens if we don’t? What will we do then?
And I do declare that it is this, more than anything else, that makes this particular advertisement condemnable: the smug certainty in a time of immense uncertainty. We’re grasping at frayed ends here. I suppose this billboard is but one of them, for those who go a-grasping. But what good are we doing ourselves in this ill-placed faith? Would we not do better to withdraw as quickly as possible from as many societal Ponzi schemes as possible and oust their stokers?
We can start with this billboard. I’d appreciate people’s guesses, I’d be even more grateful for a proven ID of the interloper.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
It's said that young people have a very strong sense about many things--what's right and what's wrong, what justice is, what hurt looks like, what loss and joy feel like.
So I have wondered quite a bit about what this culture does to young people as they grow. Does it deaden the nerves? Tighten the skin? Indoctrinate into systemic isolation? Is our culture, if allowed to rage with unmet resistance, good at nothing but kicking, kicking, kicking?
I did not get an answer today, but I got a bizarre twist, when I waited at a bus stop and this young boy bounced away from his Dad and sat next to me, and the first question out of his mouth was, "Are you a boy or a girl?" He is not the first to ask, and I am likely not the first to answer. Even so I never know what to say in these situations; I never have a smart-whip rejoinder lined up that can delight and confound, nor do I have stock radical queer responses to draw out and test on the interrogator. The best I could come up with was, "I don't know, what do you think?", fearing the worst. But he didn't say anything. He just looked at me for a half-second, and smiled a big old grin, and I grinned just as big back at him. Maybe he already had an answer in his head he didn't share. Maybe he thought my non-answer was sufficient. But I think it was something else, something in that smile that suggested conniving, conspiring, mischief, revelling in the uncertainty of gender with no desire to move towards more solid ground. And more, his silence. That was a wonderful sound, his happy, unweighted silence. He didn't know it, but that was probably the most respectful gesture he could have given, and one of the best responses out of a long, long line of interrogators that have crossed into my life. And I get excited thinking about it now, cuz it tells me this: our culture can kick young people into submission, but young people, with the simplest gestures and tools at their disposal, know how to kick the fuck back.
I got to have three free meals today--one a rockin' picnic with Claudia in the shade of a tree on the Summit Ave median, one support food at the Como neighborhood headquarters (that would be Crescent Moon Pizza, home to the dazzling Afghan pizza) for UMN Meet & Greet volunteers, and one a generous array of refreshments at tonight's Native Inroads reading at the Loft. And the kicker: every single one involved Middle Eastern/West Asian food. Yay for more portions of flatbread!
(I was going to make this a No Greater Joy Than but that honor roll is already chock-full of entries on food--which is to say, all of them are entries on food.)
I get the use of a laptop for the entirety of the Labor Weekend.
Really. Y'all don't even know (even the ones who think they know me well), can't even comprehend how incredible that is right about now. Just reading that sentence is like sweet music to my ears. "I get the use of a laptop..." Damn.
Thanks JP for the hookup. You sweet.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
I'm thinking it's the glasses reason.
I wish I could say this is just me being overly sensitive, but I have this creeping notion otherwise. History has shown otherwise, which is how a young man could get killed with a baseball bat to the head by two White autoworkers who channeled their hatred of Japanese auto companies to the Asian Americans they saw here. And he wasn't even Japanese. (More on this from Bao Phi and his great examination of the Transformers movies.)
But seriously. Is anyone else feeling me here? Been through that discomfort? What do you do?