Monday, September 29, 2014

A house without walls

Seventeen years.

Today is the anniversary of the death of my mother, Susan Mills. She was 50 when she passed away. I was just shy of 16 at the time, beginning my sophomore year in high school. It came as a shock and not at all as a surprise when it happened, like death so often does. She had been sick for two years, in the ICU at the hospital in Chicago for the past two months straight. Surgeries, brain damage, recovery, relapse, surgery, infection, and now, finally, almost mercifully, an aneurysm.

I was daydreaming in Algebra class when the school office sent someone to get me. It was a beautiful day outside. Sunny and warm but smelling of autumn. I knew immediately what had happened, without being told. I remember glancing at a friend as I walked out of the room. I remember the look in her eyes, which must have been reflecting back the dread in my own.

That moment is crystal clear and yet there's a lot about that period that is incredibly fuzzy when I actually try to dredge it up. That is, I can only guess, how the brain tries to protect itself from psychic damage after something so disruptive occurs. It's like a scab and then scar tissue over a wound, or bricks in the door to a room you don't want to go into anymore. But the thing is, so many years later now, I want to remember. Every second. Because now I find that I can't recall the sound of her voice, and sometimes even her face goes blurry, and I only have old, time worn photos of her to bring things into some semblance of focus again.

She has been gone from my life now for longer than she was in it. So this all makes sense, is all logical, is how time and memory tend to work. Time doesn't make something like this less sad, but it does give you more context, more experiences to hold against or next to it. Time makes the Terrible Thing one of many important life experiences, not The Main One. And that helps.

So I'm not looking to re-experience or wallow in her death. What I want, more than anything, is to be able to more fully celebrate her life. I suppose it's a little morbid to take the anniversary of her passing as a good time to do that, but I'd rather use the date for that than to mourn all over again.

My fellow members of the club will understand. We are an organization founded on both dark humor and hope, after all.

What I remember of my mother is a warm heart, a stubborn nature, a love of teaching, singing, casual piano playing that was limited to about three or four regular songs ("Theme From Love Story" was a particular favorite). She liked Neil Diamond and Mannheim Steamroller and Kevin Costner and thought Lars from Metallica was cute. "Gone With the Wind" was one of her all-time favorite movies. She wore sweaters with Scottie Dogs on them and was the most adorably stereotypical elementary school teacher you can imagine, in a lot of ways. She drank too much Coca Cola. She wanted to lose weight. For Halloween one year she dressed up as Sonny to my father's Cher and they sang "I Got You Babe" at a church talent show. She held me in her lap while I cried angrily over getting my first period. She liked to bake, and made incredible desserts. I blame her for my insatiable sweet tooth. When she was little she used to help her older sister sneak booze into her dorm by hiding it inside her doll house. She didn't punish me when I pushed my older brother down the stairs one day (he had it coming). She did punish me when she caught me canoodling with the neighbor boy. She and our shih tzu, Mitzi, were best friends. She made her own greeting cards. She sewed her own outfit so she could accompany me on my Civil War reenacting weekends. She always wanted to put me in dresses but generally let me choose my own, tomboy-tastic outfits anyway.

This is all a drop in the bucket, of course. I know almost nothing about her life before I was born, about what she was like as a friend, as a human outside the context of being Mom. That is my biggest regret, really--that I never got to know her once I'd grown up and become a little less self-absorbed. I think we would have had lots of differences, but many things in common, and that she and I would have gotten along pretty well even when she didn't entirely understand the shenanigans I was getting up to. I think she would have made a delightful and stubborn old woman.

But anyway, I've learned not to spend too much time on "what ifs." Unless you're writing speculative fiction, they're generally no good.

If my memory is a building with many rooms, I think of it like the Winchester Mystery House. Some of it connects, makes sense, has a clear through-line and plot. In other places there are staircases and doors that lead nowhere, and entire hidden rooms with no way to access them, no light inside. Maybe, like Sarah Winchester, we build these rooms as a way to run from restless memories, guilt, depression, sadness, all the things we're afraid to confront because we fear they will consume us entirely.

As the years go by, I find myself more and more interested in taking a sledgehammer to the walls. Creating an open floor plan. Opening windows to air out any stagnation. Letting more light in, having it all mix together. Even when it hurts.

It's going to take considerable work, I know. But I have to try. She would have wanted that for me. We have that in common.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Taking away even the rug to sweep them under

Brenda Konkel gives tours of the first Tiny House built by OM
Madison has a strange relationship with its homeless population. A lot of folks at the city government level, homeowners in certain neighborhoods, and various others seem to think very little or not at all about those less fortunate who live on the streets, in broken down cars, and in occasional hotel rooms all around them. The attitude has been one of "out of sight, out of mind" for quite some time, even as the homeless population in the city grows. Our own mayor, Paul Soglin, once made a serious proposal to fund a program to stick homeless people on buses and ship them off to other towns.

There is no dedicated day/warming shelter, even after four years of attempts to create a new one. Current shelters are filled to overflowing, and often have incredibly limited resources, hours of operation, and sometimes overly strict rules that leave many people without a bed or any kind of hope for services that might help them get back on their feet.

Don't even get me started on the mess that is our public transportation system.

Thankfully, there are a good number of folks in the city who work hard, every day, to tackle the problem of homelessness in a very thoughtful and serious way. They're the ones who lobbied for and got the new Tiny House settlement on E. Johnson, pushed for the Occupy encampment (which was ultimately shut down by the city), and generally advocate for the people that a majority would seem to rather ignore entirely.

Brenda Konkel is one of the most prominent names among those fighting on behalf of the homeless population. A former alder and current executive director of the vital Tenant Resource Center, Konkel has been on the front lines of the fight for better treatment of and resources for the homeless for years. She's one of those money-where-your-mouth-is, walk-the-walk types that the world, quite frankly, needs more of. I've not always agreed with her on certain issues, but I admire the hell out of her dedication, compassion, and grit.

So I was particularly dismayed to read the story in today's Capital Times detailing the current effort by the city to shut down one of Konkel's good deeds. She and her partner have been keeping storage lockers on the front porch of their own home for those without roofs over their heads, so they have a safe place to keep their belongings stashed (instead of having to haul everything around on their backs all day). They've been allowing some of them to sleep on the porch as well. These are folks who have no other safe place to go, for a variety of reasons. This is last-ditch for them. But one neighbor complains, and that's all she wrote:
Brenda Konkel, a vocal Madison advocate for the homeless, and her partner, Robert Bloch, are facing potential fines of up to $300 a day if they don’t stop allowing homeless people to sleep and store belongings in lockers on the porch of their North Hancock Street house. ... “These are human beings,” [Konkel] said. “If the city and the county aren’t doing this, why prevent us from doing it?”
Good question. I know "laws are laws" and understand that the Building and Zoning Departments are technically just doing their jobs here, but how about we take a hard look at those laws and see where exceptions might be able to be made--we're talking about the health and well being of fellow humans, after all. And if the city isn't willing and/or drags its feet so hard in terms of meaningful reform to tackle the issue, then at least let folks like Brenda do what they can to stanch the bleeding.

Attacking day to day efforts like this one is akin to removing even the rug that so many homeless find themselves swept under. At least in that case, there's something covering them when they sleep at night.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Blaska, taking one for the useless team

I'd say it's almost comforting to see perpetual Madison gadfly, David Blaska, still alive and at his usual lame antics, but at this point it's just tiresome and wasteful.

What's he up to now, you ask in morbid curiosity? Why, suing the Madison school district and MTI, of course!
A conservative legal group sued Madison’s school district, school board and teachers union Wednesday over what it calls illegal labor contracts the district continues to honor. 
The lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty on behalf of David Blaska, a well-known conservative blogger living in Madison, according to Dane County Circuit Court records. 
The suit alleges the district’s contracts with Madison Teachers Inc. for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years violate Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker’s signature 2011 legislation that all but eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Blaska requests a declaration that the contracts are illegal and void, and an injunction to prohibit the contracts from being enforced, according to a copy of the lawsuit provided by WILL. 
Thing is, the district and MTI negotiated their current contract before the state Supreme Court made its final ruling upholding Act 10 as constitutional (which is a whole other can of worms). So, it's pretty straightforward to say that the current contract is perfectly legal. Once it's up for renewal, then you'd have a legitimate fight on your hands.

But that would never stop political hacks like Blaska (and everyone's favorite conservative hack defender, Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of WILL) from staging wasteful theatrics like this.

It's almost like someone's paying him to take all the flak to make the big, bold conservative statements du jour so as to keep the more valuable politicos free from such public stain. It would be a familiar tactic, anyway (cough J.B. Van Hollen cough).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review: Damsel Trash, "Soup for Sluts"

Woohoo! My new band, Damsel Trash, just released our debut album in August and this here is the first official review of said record (that I've seen, anyway). Many thanks to Project Famous and Sarah Whitt. We're glad you enjoy DT!

Damsel Trash quickly earned a reputation for their live shows, featuring eccentric outfits and food being flung from the stage (wedding cake, oatmeal crème pies), but more importantly, their reputation speaks of highly proficient musicianship and infectiously catchy songs. Mills reveals her chops as one of Madison’s best drummers, tackling complex beats while singing lyrical tirades, all at the pace demanded by the genre. Rose effortlessly alternates between guitar and bass, meeting the needs of each song. Whichever she plays, there is no loss for the other, using bass as effectively as guitar as a lead instrument. She takes turns on lead vocals with Mills, her screechy vocals a perfect complement to her distortion-filled instrumentation. 
Their live shows are full of their characteristic banter, belying the years of friendship and co-creation these women have shared. The elements that made their live shows famous translate to their recorded album, which is like having pocket-sized Damsel Trash with you everywhere you go.
Read the whole review here.

We played a fantastic show at a packed Crystal Corner Bar in Madison last night, alongside the German Art Students and Red Tape Diaries. It was a ridiculously good time, and folks seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves--which is, truth be told, the biggest reward for doing what we do.

I'm really looking forward to seeing where we can take this ridiculous little "side" project in the future, which is becoming less and less "side" each day.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A tale as old as time

I'm just gonna go ahead and pseudo-quote Kanye here: "Scott Walker doesn't care about black people," which makes this latest little battle is especially rich (i.e. gross). Walker hasn't had one word to say about the damning Race to Equity report, did nothing good for extremely segregated Milwaukee County while its executive, and has passed a series of measures that have a disproportionately negative effect on minority communities--but yeah, now that it's campaign season, it sure is expedient to pretend you give a crap about the non-white, non-rich citizens of your state. It's a tale as old as time...

To wit:
Gov. Scott Walker took the campaign against Democratic opponent Mary Burke to her front door Wednesday, accusing the one-term Madison School Board member of not doing enough to improve black students’ graduation rates in Madison. Walker argued that the Madison School Board could have put more money toward raising graduation rates and academic achievement if it had taken advantage of his controversial 2011 measure known as Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers, instead of choosing to negotiate a contract with its teachers union for the 2015-16 school year earlier this summer. 

Read more.

The truth is that the graduation rate of African American students statewide, but especially in Milwaukee and Madison, should be viewed as an inexcusable shame on us all. No one gets to pass the buck here, especially not Walker. But it's telling that the governor is beginning to lash out willy-nilly like this, now that his polling numbers aren't looking as hot and various scandals just keep nipping at his heels.

Welcome to shitty politics 101.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best Music of 2013 Mix

Lo and behold, here we are again at the close of another year. Time, then, for my annual "best of" mix--basically an excuse for me to look back at my favorite releases from the past year and make a mix CD to give out to friends. What can I say, I'm old fashioned like that.

2013 has been a pretty great year for music! In fact, after agonizing over what all to include on this mix, I think I may put together a couple of extra lists (online only, because CD-Rs get expensive!) to compile my favorite local music of the last year, as well as some stuff that didn't quite fit the flow of the main mix. We'll see how motivated I'm feeling.

Anyway, on to the mix! As always, this is by no means meant to be comprehensive. There is just too much great music being made for me to keep up with it all--but I like to think this is a pretty good look at a few genres, at least. And a fun listen. If I do say so myself. Feel free to let me know what some of your favorites from the year have been in the comments!

"Post Millennial Creep" - Em's Best of 2013 Mix

1. "The Mother We Share" - Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe
I've been loving the modern synth pop trend, and Chvrches debut album is an absolutely perfect example of just how good this genre can be. There's no denying the heavy influences from '80s new wave pioneers, but bands like Chvrches are great because they don't attempt to bury said influences. They revel in them, and bring some 21st century mood to the mix. I love everything about this track.

2. "I'm Not Your Hero" - Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
I included the first single from Tegan and Sara's near-perfect Heartthrob record on last year's mix ("Closer" was released in 2012, after all) and have zero shame about including another track from that album (fully released in 2013) on this year's compilation. I haven't stopped listening to this heartfelt and joyous masterwork of synth pop all year.

3. "We Are Explorers" - Cut Copy, Free Your Mind
Cut Copy knocks another one out of the park. Highly danceable, catchy as hell, and let's be real - pretty queer. How can you not love these guys?


4. "Painful Like" - Austra, Olympia
There must be something in the water in Toronto. Austra was a "Lost Girl" soundtrack discovery for me, along with list-mate Lindi Ortega, Adaline, and Lioness (all bands I also recommend). Throw Diamond Rings into that mix as well (discovered when I was randomly asked to be his opening DJ for a show here in Madison) and I reiterate: Toronto is where it's at. I love Austra for the strange and beguiling nature of their lyrics and lead singer Katie Stelmanis' fascinating voice.


5. "I Want You" - Lindi Ortega, Tin Star
Toronto native but now Nashville-based Lindi Ortega's new record is pretty much just one dusty road foot-stomper after another, and that's just how I like it. This track ain't particularly complicated, but boy does it pack a wallop. I mean, who among us hasn't felt that plaintive "I want you to want me" refrain deep in our bones? Sing along, let it all out.

6. "Ain't Fair" - Deap Vally, Sisteronix
One of my favorite new bands (if not winner of that title outright) of the year, Deap Vally is a powerhouse rock n' roll duo that I desperately want my band, Damsel Trash, to open for some day. Drums, guitar, vocals. Sometimes that's all you need to make your point.

7. "Health Plan" - Pissed Jeans, Honeys
I have to give my friend Matt Fanale (aka Caustic) the nod for turning me onto these cats. Dirty punk rock with a slyly progressive soul. The whole record is just a rip-roarin' good time, and this track is especially timely. THANKS, OBAMA.

8. "Werkin' Girls" - Angel Haze, Reservation
Another new favorite artist for the year, Angel Haze came charging out of the backfield with this track that seems to have caught some mainstream attention as well (it was featured in the movie "The Heat," for instance). The subject matter of many of her tracks is deeply personal, and just fuck-you in-your-face real. An emcee with serious flow and, from the sounds of it, no fear. MORE PLEASE.

9. "Batches and Cookies" - Lizzo, LIZZOBANGERS
Lizzo was a last-minute entry to my list, and I'm ashamed that I hadn't caught wind of her before. Minneapolis based emcee with serious talent and this track is both awesome and adorable.

10. "Get Lucky" - Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
I usually try to avoid including songs that were quite so ubiquitous, but dammit if this Pharrell featuring track isn't just...well, really good. It's a "song of the summer" that I can actually get behind, without wanting to throat punch the singer (that's right, Robin Thicke, I'm looking at you).

11. "We Were Rock n' Roll" - Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady
Someone explain to me how Janelle Monae isn't just, like, Prince levels of popular and world-dominating yet? This woman has more talent in her android-loving pinky that half of the current crop of pop starts combined. Expertly crafted soul-funk-R&B hybrid amazingness, super fly dance moves, dapper as fuck personal fashion, and an absolutely beautiful voice.

12. "Man" - Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Another album I've been listening to on repeat since its release, this particular track is a wonderfully bold, brash, gender bending, and strangely moving ode to masculinity. If you're not yet familiar with Neko Case's work in general, please do yourself an enormous favor and get on it now. This album is a good place to start. Then pick up Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Then, everything else.

13. "Don't Let Me Die In Florida" - Patty Griffin, American Kid
Patty Griffin has been at this music business for decades now and hasn't lost a step. If anything, I'd say she just gets better with time (if that's possible? because she was always so damn good). This record is full of fantastic Americana, storytelling, and Griffin's signature golden voice. This song in particular is a tribute to her father, who made the title plea after a visit to the Sunshine State. I can relate.

14. "Copy of A" - Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks
The first reviews I heard of the new NIN were that it was "too poppy" but fuck, have you listened to old/original NIN lately? That shit was basically industrial pop. And I LOVED it. Just like I love this track, and the album is pretty darn good in general. It's fun to watch and listen to an artist progress and try new things, especially when it works out so well.

15. "Candy Tongue" - Trentemoller, Lost
I continue to be pleasantly surprised by every new Trentemoller release. He knows how to make great use of his various guest vocalists (I'm always a sucker for good female vocals in electronica), and how to turn the electronic genre on its head in new and interesting ways.

16. "All I Know" - Washed Out, Paracosm
A fitting way to end a mix, I think - Washed Out is fast becoming the king of lovely chill out music. His last record has been my go-to relaxation soundtrack whenever I have to fly, and I suspect this album will fast join it in rotation. Beautiful.

(Listen to this playlist on Spotify)
The Lost Albatross