Thursday, June 17, 2010

Random word generator # 5

Today's word is "ritual"

There are times I miss the lonely old routine. Coffee in the morning- by myself. TV in the evening- by myself. Making random decisions to just take myself out to a movie or for a piece of pie or breakfast.

We become so attached to the rituals of being alone. Sometimes to the point where it's almost painful to imagine sharing those rituals with someone else. Making coffee for two, for example. Taking another person along for pie, or rearranging your timeworn cleaning schedule for a night in. It edges on the comfort zones, challenges your self-security.

I'm not sure why I've been giving so much thought to what it was like to be alone as of late. I guess because it's highly likely I'll never live alone again. Perhaps it's because I'm astounded at how comfortable I've become with someone else's presence in my rituals, my existence. Even more astonishing, I've allowed my own life not just to join with someone else's but to mesh with it. It's not just my own routine and his... It's ours.

This has its value. Maybe even more value than most things in the world. But I'll always cherish the kind of independence, ritual, and calm that my old lonely rituals once gave me.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An opportunity does not equal a right

I was having a quasi-argumentative discussion with Dale last night about the whole Ben Roethlisberger/rape thing after seeing a bit about it on ESPN. I wasn't doing very well making my point, due to a long-assed day at work and a hot car ride home. But I finally figured out what I was trying to say when I couldn't sleep last night. Here is the basic truth about any rape case where anyone claims a "gray area" of consent due to alcohol or fame:


Sure, it's not smart to leave your keys in the ignition of your car when you park it somewhere. But that does not give someone the *right* to steal your car. It's not smart to get liquored up and follow Ben Roethlisberger around like a rock groupie. But that does not give him the *right* to have non-consensual sex with you.

Sad thing about that metaphor is that the person who stole your car would have a much better chance of going to jail for taking advantage of that opportunity than Ben Roethlisberger ever will for assuming he has rightful sexual access to any female he comes across.

I guess there's just so much that bothers me about this situation. I've said before that I will reluctantly agree that women will lie about rape to get money or notoriety. It happens, some women are crazy. But the more I learn about this situation, it's an all-too-familiar combination of conditions that will always end in victim-blame in our culture. She was drunk. She was following a famous person around. She was asking for it.

But the point I'm trying to make is that while people will argue whether or not Ben Roethlisberger was a rapist for taking advantage of this series of events, we can't argue that he had a choice of whether or not to act in an honorable way. He had the opportunity to do something morally sketchy, and he decided to do so. But that doesn't mean he had the right to.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Illegal immigration: Too big to fail.

My problems with the Arizona anti-immigration law are informed by my lifelong experience within the ever-changing political landscape of the American Southwest. I grew up with Latinos, and I remember how interesting and exotic it seemed to have friends who were born in Mexico. The idea that people didn't have a right to seek a better life in the States didn't really enter my head until one day when a 7th grade Algebra teacher decided to shift gears in class and tell us about how people came to America to have "anchor babies" and live off of welfare in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

This didn't jibe with my experience of Latinos, the parents of my friends and classmates, who even in my youthful purview were obviously working physically harder than my own mother and father.

Later, in a Spanish class, I had the rare opportunity to see a film called "El Norte." Last time I looked, I couldn't find this film on Netflix, which is a shame. But the film is a graphic depiction of what it actually takes to cross the border, and the challenges these people face once they find themselves in the land they once imagined to be paradise.

So like pretty much everyone in the United States, I am aware that illegal immigration is a problem. But not for the reasons that built the Arizona bill. Our economy cannot function without illegal workers. THAT is the problem. Our economy necessitates cheap labor, and THAT is what ensures a constant stream of immigrants into the Southwest. It's what keeps stories of women being slaughtered mysteriously in the desert in the news. The problem is that we have come to need illegal immigrants and we ignore the fact that they pay the coyotes thousands of dollars they don't really have, to cross a border that traverses dangerous deserts, to face a future rife with constant discrimination and haunted by the possibility of deportation.

Crossing the border is not easy, cheap or safe. Not from Mexico, and certainly not from China or Russia or anywhere else. But people keep doing it. They wouldn't do it if there wasn't something here for them, employers willing to bend the rules, and for the less scrupulous among our Southern neighbors, a market for their drugs and guns. The illegal immigration problem would not exist if it weren't for the implicit needs of those of us on the Northern side of the line.

The job debate is also pointless. If an American wanted the job that was snapped up by an illegal immigrant, it's not just because the illegal immigrant was there to take it, but because an employer was willing to risk INS violations and tax issues to hire someone for much, much less than the American would accept. As a result, our grapes are cheap, our dishes get washed, our gardens get trimmed, our hotel rooms get cleaned, our brakes get replaced. Quietly. Cheaply.

My point is, the Arizona rule does nothing to stop any of the crime, any of the border crossing, any of the employment opportunities for illegal immigrants. It does nothing to keep illegal immigrants on their "own" side of the border (the border we painted across this little plot of stolen land we've decided is ours, I might add). It will do nothing more than undermine the economy of Arizona, renew the immigration debate (not that it ever does any good to do so), and anger those of us who don't think a nation built on multiculturalism has any business criminalizing skin color.

Perhaps it's time to remember how almost all of us come from stock that existed on the receiving end of the same hatred and frustration that caused the Arizona law come into being. Perhaps it's time for everyone to realize that such hatred has never gone away, only shifted to different cultures and skin colors hoping to realize the American dream. It's time to remember what it was like for the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, not too long ago, and realize that the immigrant will never stop being a part of the American economy, culture or reality. As long as Americans live the life everyone else wants, immigrants will want to be Americans.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

turning the corner

By way of update...

I am now employed at two places, ye olde scooter shop, and a business that does really cool things with sustainability for what they call "environmentally challenged" businesses like oil, gas and manufacturing. It's actually something I could, and would, see as a career. We shall see. Right now I spend most of my days there working on the design and layout of brochures and other customer deliverables. It's fun and pays really well, and I like working for a company whose values are aligned so closely with mine.

My fiance broke his foot in late January, and as he works entirely on his feet, was out of commission for almost a month. Between a month of no work and several overpriced doctor's appointments (he's not on my insurance yet), it's put a huge financial burden on both of us. While the doctors' bills themselves total around $1,000 the wages he lost amount to much more than that, and it's been an uphill battle getting our finances sorted. Hopefully the wedding plans are still on track. But we're not sure. The notion of spending thousands of dollars on a single day, no matter how momentous and beautiful, is a point of stress for us both. This was our experience with pre-Obama healthcare in America. Here's hoping it gets better soon.

But we've got each other, I'm finally gainfully employed and enjoying my work (won't take that for granted again any time soon) and we've got a city full of friends and beautiful spring weather. I keep telling him it's going to get better, and I know it's true. It's hard to see how sometimes but it has to be okay someday soon. It always is.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Random Word Generator #4

Today's word is "Armpit"

L.A. is an easy city to hate. Lots of people do it. I think part of it is that there is so much obviously, glaringly beautiful about L.A., and so much that is so sickeningly, overwhelmingly awful as well. All in the same huge package. Los Angeles represents everything we hate about being Americans while also demonstrating everything we hope for- prosperity, beauty, warmth, the sparkling sun glinting off endless waves.

But I miss it. No matter how many veterans come back and tell me that L.A. is the armpit of the world, a vast wasteland of superficial, horrifying excess, I will always remember L.A. as I saw it when I was very young. How the warmth of the sun seemed to hold me close and tenderly as I stood in the ocean at Leo Carillo. The way the colors of everything around me seemed intensified by heat and sunshine. The exotic, intriguing smells of every possible kind of food that wafted into the car windows as we drove through neighborhoods unlike anything back home in Albuquerque, Minnesota, Colorado.

I saw L.A. at its worst once, as columns of smoke rose from Watts during a poorly planned family vacation in 1992. We made the most of it, we ventured into the city, we sunned on beaches and tried hard to put as much space in our minds between Malibu and the places on the news... Koreatown... South Normandie... Vernon and Western.

There were plenty of moments when it wasn't hard. Same city, different worlds.

When I turned 18 I wanted nothing more than to somehow find myself living an adult kind of life in Los Angeles. I would look for jobs there, houses, fantasizing about what it would be like to leave my small town life for The California Dream. I long ago realized the competition, the need to be blond and botoxed, the expense was not in alignment with what I really needed and wanted. But still, especially on days like today, my mind goes back to the coast. To swimming pools and tucked-away corners of strip malls where so many treasures can be found. To the smell of exhaust and salty air. And I miss it, for everything good and bad it can be.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Random Word Generator #3

Today's word is "Thoroughfare"

For a year, I fell asleep every night to the ocean-like ebb and flow of 18-wheelers careening down the I-80 thoroughfare just outside the singlepane window of my Cedar Rapids dormitory.

The room was always cold (unless it was hot), and in the winter months frost would form on this great glass portal overlooking the concrete ribbons of the interstate.

I am one of a lucky handful in this world who have experienced the magic of a Grant Wood springtime, in its glorious emergence from the dismal Iowa winter. The ground turned over, soil, black as coffee grounds opened fragrantly into the waiting crystalline air. The cacophony of birds, as exhilarated by weather warm enough to sing in as we were. And green... green from the tips of every branch to the mossy cracks in the sidewalks.

Iowa is a place for writers. Writers grow in Iowa, as much as corn and soy and wheat grows in Iowa. There is much to write about there- from the lined faces of blue-collar workers nursing a pint at any lifer bar (many of which just a stones-throw from our venerable institution of learning) to the grumbling stone-gray thunderstorms that gather on the vast horizons on spring afternoons. Like those who came before us (Vonnegut. Boyle. Wood. Cone.) we found beauty in the cold, warmth in the people, a functional yet otherworldly allure in its green, fresh growing things.

I haven't been back in far too long. Right about now it's the ragged end of winter there. The tension is palpable. There may be a melting, but it's not over yet. It will still be cold, it will still be gray, for several weeks before sprouts appear. Before buds burst from the branches. Before a strange haze appears over the soy fields. I can feel it like I'm there... an ache for the warmth of springtime.

Its coming, though. And that's what keeps us going.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Random Word Generator #2

Today's word is "Gift"

When I was six years old they started me in "gifted" programs. I had to leave my classes at a time dictated by my Pillsbury Doughboy watch (an Easter gift) and go to a different class. In this class, they spoke differently to us. They didn't slow down the reading so that... each... word... was... a... full... second... apart. They listened to our questions, they *really* listened, and they would answer us like a grownup would answer another grownup's question.

Apparently, my admission to at least one of these programs was based on a screening process in which I was supposed to read a list of words on the program coordinator's desk. Instead of the list, I read her telephone messages. Instead of "Aquarium, Extreme, Complement," I read, "Mr. Hudson called in regards to your Wednesday chiropractic appointment. Please call back to confirm by the end of the business day."

And this meant I was gifted.

I guess this status has created more problems in my life than it has created solutions. As a label, "gifted" is troublesome. As a reality, it's even more so. My current and most salient struggle is that I feel a deep-seated responsibility to this label. I can't get out from under the notion that this label has destined me for something more. And I am somehow letting them all down- the woman whose phone message I read, the teacher who let me play the film strips in that rarified world of the "gifted" class, every teacher who ever told me I didn't "apply myself," my proud parents who beamed when the news came that I had good enough SATs to be automatically enrolled in all state schools (at the tender age of 11).

I wish I could tell them all that somehow, someday, I'll make them proud. That someday it will have meant something that I was reading billboards before age 2, that I took National Geographic magazine to bed when I was 7. That they were right- I had boundless potential, and here... look here at what I'm doing now!

It's not a great time to be gifted, I don't think. But it has to get better.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pick a noun, any noun

Great domain name. And a new tool for me to attempt writing something every day.

Today's word: Match

There are couples that match like earrings. Every detail the same, and they adorn in the same way, symmetrically. We are not like such couples. More like shoes in a box- a left and a right. More like two charged particles.

I was trying to console my mom today, because we are both rather unhappy at the moment. I was trying to give her advice that I should take, an odd exercise in and of itself, but strangely cathartic nonetheless. I was trying to tell her a new philosophy of mine- that in my life, happiness has come from the unlikeliest of places and most often when I least expected it. So, I argued, it is not productive to try and imagine what would make you perfectly happy. It is better, I argued, to focus on the small, happy things we see in daily life and just know that every once in a while, happiness clocks you out of nowhere, from nothing.

Such was the case with us. Not a perfect match, but the necessary one. Certainly not the expected match. But I suppose little can be done about that. Denying happiness- no matter how imperfect, no matter how unusual or incongruous, is a fool's game.

I got my wedding shoes today. One- the left- seems to be almost a half size larger than the other. Perhaps it's just me. Or perhaps it's just- no pun intended- fitting that one should be just a little different than the other. Just enough to make it interesting.

I don't know why but I think a lot about my past and what I used to imagine my match would look like. He looks like Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. He brings me daisies and likes to eat Sushi with me. He couldn't be more different than the match I've chosen Well, except for the glasses. And the cute smile.

But like a small college in Iowa, like a grease-smeared job in a scooter shop, like the kitten I thought I should have taken back to the shelter, it's all turned out for the best. Bringing me happiness despite the fact that we don't match.

I used to think that yellow didn't match with gray. But then I saw the sun come out from the clouds.

Monday, February 15, 2010

It's a living. Sort of.

So I have a bad job. Everyone I know knows this. But there is one sentiment I keep running into, and while I definitely understand where it is coming from, I can't help but bristle when it comes up.

"At least you HAVE a job."

Yes, I know, I'm blessed to be working right now and I'm not going to argue that. Yes, I'm making a living, and no, it's not in a sweatshop or on East Colfax. I get it. But working right now is no picnic, either. When fewer people are actually employed, it becomes an employer's market. And in an employer's market, the "lucky" ones who remain employed still have a few significant causes for complaint.

As anyone currently working will tell you, everyone who *has* a job right now is actually doing their own job plus the job of four or five other people who have been laid off or, in a better economy, would be hired to help out. "Doing more with less" is the key philosophy in today's workplace, and it's hard for those of us left behind.

And it's not just taking care of, say, the jobs once done by your assistant or the middle manager above you. It's doing things like taking out the trash, cleaning bathrooms, and otherwise making up for the services your boss either can't or refuses to pay for. Not like I'm above cleaning a bathroom or taking out my trash, but the time it takes to do so is time I could be spending doing the job I was ostensibly hired to do. Those of us who are "lucky enough" to be employed are overworked, underpaid, and often times, our hours have been scaled back so we're not just trying to make up for missing bodies, we're making up for missing hours as well.

While all of us are working with less time and for lower pay than we're used to, we're also enduring worse conditions and a more hostile workplace. Employers are in a position right now where they're fully aware that they have a more or less captive staff. Workplace lawsuits are expensive and difficult to execute, and if you quit, it can be years before such a suit will result in a favorable ruling. If you leave due to what you claim is a hostile work environment, it must be proven before you can receive unemployment benefits. So what are you going to do? Endure abuse or endure poverty? Your choice.

So yes. I'm thankful I can put food on the table. I'm glad I'm working and I'm glad things seem to be getting better. It could be a lot worse, and I do realize this. I just think that it's important to note that when only a few of us are left to do the work, it's not always comforting to hear that we should be feeling lucky.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

School of Hard Knocks...

I was talking at length with my Dad the other day about our assessments of Obama's first year. In a fun little role reversal that we've shared for some time, my Dad is a little more of a liberal and lot less of a cynic than I am, and he brought up Bob Woodward's scathing defense of Obama's work so far.

I came away from our conversation with a little different perspective. It's apparent that I've become used to a president who simply never learned from mistakes... whose responses to any cause and effect were essentially the same- a smirk, a defensive quip, hiring a friend to do a professional's job. Obama, for all his biting-off-more-than-he-could-chew in the crucial first year, has three years to go. And I'm confident that he has learned several things the hard way in the past 12 months.

What would I like to see? Well, I've decided that I've waited this long for a sensible health care plan, how about that goes on the back burner while we try to figure out how to re-employ the one out of ten people in this country who are atoning for the sins of a hideously unregulated market during the Bush years? I'd be OK with health becoming a year 3, maybe even 4 priority. So long as my friends are employed and my scooter shop survives.

I'd like to see energy and the environment (issues that, if you scratch the surface, are actually tied to long-term health effects) be more of a focus. Because I know that if we're smart about the environment, we'll create viable jobs.

I'm fairly confident that the health-care bill in its current incarnation is pretty awful. Howard Dean has said so, among others. I want to see it get better. I want to see it with a real, appropriate deadline for release. I want it make health more affordable by reforming the health care industry rather than simply putting taxpayer dollars into a wasteful, inflated business that long ago stopped caring about making people healthy.

So my faith in change is not gone yet. I think Obama will take several solid deliverables away from this first year- both positive and negative. And I'm really interested in hearing what his plans are moving forward.

Tonight, I'll be listening.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My best albums of the 00s

It's amazing for me to think of how much growing up I did in the aughts- I started 2000 as a painfully shy 18 year old, and ended 2009 as a tattooed and pierced 28 year old with a vintage engagement ring on one finger. Frankly, it was a long decade, and one in which I feel I truly came into my own as far as musical tastes are concerned. So here's a roundup of the soundtrack to my post-adolescence... for your consideration: the top 10 for *MY* aughts.

10. Moby, Play (1999)

OK, I know this is cheating, since this is technically a 90s release. But it didn't really come into my life until 2000, when it seemed you couldn't turn the TV on without hearing a part of this album on some commercial. "Play" was inescapable. And it was a techno album that could actually make you feel something. There was soul to it, rock and roll, too. My theory on the DJs of the 90s and 00s is that each of them secretly wanted to be a black musician: Fatboy Slim wanted to be James Brown or George Clinton, Dangermouse wanted to be Jay-Z, and Moby, well, Moby just wanted to be a little old, black Blues Man, forgotten through the years, rediscovered by some music nerd via a long-lost 45 at a garage sale.

9. Neko Case, Blacklisted (2002)

This was the first Neko Case album I ever heard, and it pretty much changed my attitude toward music, especially country music, and toward female artists in general. At the time of this release, Tori Amos had kinda gone off the deep end (Strange Little Girls will probably go down in history as one of rock's better WTF moments) and all my other favorite 90s females had either gone eerily quiet or had sold out in the weirdest ways (Liz Phair, Luscious Jackson, Sarah MacLachlan). Neko came to me at a point where I'd mostly given up on female artists in Rock, and chalked it up to the rise of Pop Tarts and the wretched dick-swingery of Rap-Rock crossovers. But in came Neko- voice like a typhoon and guitar like a David Lynch Western- and I was never the same. For me, listening to this album is like wrapping up in a vintage Mexican blanket- warm, a little frayed, a reminder of the spirit of the West.

8. Green Day, American Idiot (2004)

You know what? I don't have to be ashamed of loving Green Day anymore. Of having a huge crush on Billy Jo Armstrong. Of loving "Dookie" even though I never bought it, out of fear of my Punker-Than-Thou friends finding out. By 2004 Green Day had truly come into their own with this album, and I really believe that. This is such a great satire on what America looked like at this point, such a stinging treatise and such a well-tailored, punk-informed point of view. I am perfectly comfortable with loving this album.

7. Explosions in the Sky, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)

This is one of those cases where someone I'd really rather forget about had the audacity to introduce me to an album, to a band, I will never be able to forget. This is easily one of my favorite albums of all time, much less the 00s, and it is the soundtrack to some of the most emotionally intense experiences of my life. For me, this album is the soundtrack to love gone wrong, to pain like I've never known, but also to renewed faith and healing. EITS introduced me to a beautiful new realm of Post-Rock, and now I've found that my life is so much better for it. This is not just music... it's the ever-appropriate score to my young life.

6. Everything Absent or Distorted, The Great Collapse (2009)

The crowning achievement to one band's shining Denver career, "The Great Collapse" is pretty much my favorite local album from my favorite local band. I really think that even if I didn't have the history that I'm lucky to have with the members of this band, I'd still love this album. There is just such an aching amount of love to this album, such a beautiful and bittersweet tone to it. It sounds like it actually kind of hurt to make this kind of music, but they did it anyway. And there's no way to come away from a listen of "The Great Collapse" without feeling so grateful that they put themselves through that to make something so important.

5. Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005)

I learned of Andrew Bird by accident- I filled in for another reporter to review the Ani DiFranco show for which he opened at Red Rocks. That show review later scored me a SPJ award, and a renewed excitement in folky rock. The genius of this album, its flawless live-looping and quirky, chamber-rock stylings, are what I now associate with a lot of Denver music. It's as if Rufus Wainwright were a band geek. Just so lovely, so intricate. And of course... there will be snacks.

4. Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004)

I bought Arcade Fire because I liked the name. It was that random a choice. And, unlike most choices made with that little precognition, it turned out to be one of the more significant musical choices of my life. It took me a while to really like "Funeral," it was so unlike what I'd grown accustomed to. But I remember listening to it one time when driving, and it was so breathtakingly unusual that I was instantly a fan. When I finally got the opportunity to see the band live, it was everything I'd hoped for. The album title meant a great deal to me- I'd gone through a rash of funerals as a kid and my parents had always encouraged me to think of a funeral as a reflection of life rather than a recognition of death. And that is how "Funeral" affected me- it made me think deeply about life in general, and the kind of life I want people to reflect on once I'm gone.

3. Sigur Ros, () (2002)

I wept openly during the entire Sigur Ros show at Red Rocks in 2008. Their music holds so much gravity and so many associations for me that seeing it being made was like seeing my life flash before my eyes. There is simply nothing like Sigur Ros: instruments made from driftwood, guitars played with violin bows, made-up languages, vocals more akin to a woodwind instrument than a human voice. This is the music my heart would make if it could. And "()" remains unparalleled in its strange, stark, Icelandic beauty.

2. Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)

I was never much of a hard-rock person... Punk appealed to my ADD sensibilities more than the growly notes of death metal. But Mastodon is different from most of the unintelligible stuff I associated with late-night programming on KBPI. It is operatic in its grandiosity. And "Leviathan" was about Moby Dick, which got this English Major interested. This entire album gets better the more you listen- it is not simply shouting mixed with a mess of jackhammer drums and screaming guitars. There's an order, a plan to it. It's really quite beautiful for all its hard edges; like a well-engineered machine. And if you're an uber-music-nerd like me, and you listen closely enough, you'll hear echoes of Genesis, Yes and Rush coming through. Think of it as Prog metal.

1. The Postal Service, Give Up (2003)

Now that every pop band wants to be The Postal Service, it is hard to remember what it was like to listen to "Give Up" when it first came out. But for me it was the blend of the kinds of electronic music I loved, warmed up by human lyrics and instrumentation (kinda like what Moby did a few years earlier). There is such a simple sadness to this album. In my mind, it tells the story of one's own perceptions of love clashing against the realities of what really happens. Love was supposed to be easy, and it's not. Love was supposed to be enough, and it's not. There are distances to cross and issues that come into play, and sometimes love doesn't survive. But the upbeat sound of the songs imbue the album with this sense of hope- like it's not over yet. Like love still survives.

Honorable Mentions (i.e., albums that kicked ass but weren't so closely associated with the highlights reel of my 20s...):

The Shins, Oh Inverted World
Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker
Band of Horses, Everything All the Time
Elliot Smith, Figure Eight
Bjork, Vespertine
Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary
M.I.A., Kala
TV On The Radio, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes
Beck, Guero
The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell
Sufjan Stevens, Illinoise
Radiohead, Kid A