Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mail Call #1

So I've had the honor of contributing an opinion column to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for the past couple of years. They let me wax philosophic about any topic that tickles my fancy, and it's been a great opportunity to both expand my own knowledge and understanding of a wide variety of issues, but also to receive feedback from all across the state.

I have a separate email account set up specifically to take that reader feedback, in fact, because sometimes it's important for mental sanity to have things sectioned off a little. I've been more than pleasantly surprised to find that a good 50% of the responses I get are actually positive/supportive, and come from a wide range of people from all across Wisconsin. Of the negative/opposing feedback, too, I'm very grateful that some folks take the time to offer it constructively and seem to genuinely want to have a discussion.

There's about 20-30% of the feedback, though, that occupies its own, let's say "special" place. I've been sharing some of the greatest (see: weirdest, most out there) hits on my Facebook page for awhile, and more than a few people have no urged me to turn it into a regular archive. That brings us here. I consider this somewhat cathartic for me, honestly, because sometimes I just don't know what drives people to take time out of their days to send such ridiculous and hateful (and often wildly misplaced) bile. I have to believe that, if we met in person, we could probably find at least one thing in common and get past all this (if not ultimately agree on everything) divisiveness. But I also know that some folks are just hell bent on being nasty and feeling righteous.

These are their stories. No names/identifying information included. Enjoy?

Feb. 28, 2016 - in re: my column "Partisan Politics and the Courts"

What in God's name makes you think you know so damn much? And that only liberal thinking is hones,fair and just thinking? And that any one even slightly left of you and Madison is wrong, selfish, uncaring,self-serving -etc. well you get the point? Was is your public schooling? Your college profs? your parents? your friends-assuming you had any? Jesus woman -you haven't even been around long enuf to put you bra and undies on right -where did you get the fucking idea that you can tell educated, charity giving, job creating, church going people the kind of shit you spill every week? Was it some poor fuck at the newspaper? Well we know ho well that is going don't we? That's why so many people quit buying it. Have fun now with this bilge because I would predict it won't last long for you.
You a a fucking little twit with a large opinionated ,not quite mature, narrow minded mouth. Here's an idea-try gay parade and party planning. [sic]

(note to that final suggestion: done and done!)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Best of 2015: My favorite music from this year

Another year, another collection of music. This has become a favorite tradition for me, both because I love sharing music I dig with other people and because it reminds me to keep better track of new music that comes out in a given year. Lots of folks like to bemoan the decline of modern music but the thing is, if you actually pay attention, there's so much incredible work that gets released all the time. And it's more accessible than ever. People are still coming up with creative new ideas and grooves, reshaping and honoring old themes, fusing styles, breaking ground, having fun, and making us dance/think/nod our heads.

The only reason to give up on modern music would be if you're just lazy. Don't be lazy. There's a whole world of awesome shit out there for the listening!

The following is my by-no-means-complete-or-comprehensive mix of some of my favorite music that was released in 2015. It was a great year for music. As always, please consider purchasing any tracks/albums that you find yourself enjoying. We need to support those who work hard to bring us this goodness, and we need to do it with our ears and our dolla dolla bills, y'all.



EM'S BEST OF 2015 MIX - "Big Wheel Keep On Turnin'"

  1. "Never Ending Circles," CHVRCHES, Every Open Eye
  2. "Waking Hour," Jennifer Hall, self-titled EP
  3. "XO, Skeleton," Hailey Wojcik, Book of Beasts EP
  4. "Surface Envy," Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
  5. "Ripe," Screaming Females, Rose Mountain
  6. "Pedestrian at Best," Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I just Sit
  7. "Someday Soon," Lindi Ortega, Faded Gloryville
  8. "Planet for Sale," THEESatisfaction, EarthEE
  9. "Figure 8," FKA twigs, M3LL155X
  10. "Circles Out of Salt," Snow Ghosts, A Wrecking
  11. "Far," The Soft Moon, Deeper
  12. "The Day Is My Enemy," The Prodigy, The Day Is My Enemy
  13. "Quicksand," Bjork, Vulnicura
  14. "Saint Claude," Christine and the Queens, Christine and the Queens
  15. "Flesh without Blood," Grimes, Art Angels
  16. "Lose Control," Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique, Love Is Free EP
  17. "Queens Speech 4," Lady Leshurr, Queens Speech 4 - Single
  18. "You Tell Em," Zebra Katz & Leila, Nu Renegade EP
  19. "Call It Off," Shamir, Ratchet
A little about each track...

Never Ending Circles by CHVRCHES: So far this Scottish electro-pop outfit is two-for-two when it comes to incredible intro tracks for their albums. From the first note of the song, Chvrches dispels any fears that might have existed that they couldn't continue and build on the momentum of their debut, The Bones of What You Believe. The impressive thing about Every Open Eye is that it both manages to stay true to the exuberant vision of the first record without sounding like a retread. There are new ideas aplenty here, and a lot of catch-as-hell music to boot, all with Lauren Mayberry's understated but confident lead vocals to bolster it.

Waking Hour by Jennifer Hall: I was an idiot and went home early from a show in Madison that featured a friends' band, followed by Hailey Wojcik (also featured on this mix), and then Jennifer Hall, missing Hall's set at the end (I WAS TIRED, SUE ME). Thankfully, said friend gave me a copy of this singer/songwriter's fantastic EP and I was hooked right away. Lush, beautiful, interesting, and creative - Hall has a powerful voice that she uses expertly to compliment the genre-bending, melodic music that makes each track a goldmine. I hope she releases a full-length ASAP.

XO, Skeleton by Hailey Wokcik: Like I said, I got to see Hailey live (and meet her briefly, very nice), performing as a one-woman show with a scaled down backing track, letting her voice and guitar/bass work take center stage. And pulled it off with aplomb. I love how familiar and yet new her music sounds, like the indie women of my teenage years (i.e. the mid-to-late '90s). A little rough around the edges in all the best ways.

Surface Envy by Sleater-Kinney: Speaking of the bands that inspired young Em, Sleater-Kinney has been such a rewarding band to follow through the years. Each record charters their evolution and solidifies their status as rock royalty, far as I'm concerned, with zero compromises and a never-faltering commitment to melt faces with ovaries-to-the-wall rock n' roll. There's no one else who sounds like them, either, no matter how much (usually male) reviewers like to compare every all-lady rock outfit to them.

Ripe by Screaming Females: I'm late to the party with this band, having only stumbled onto them with this most recent release, but I'm glad to be here. Shredding guitars, and lead singer Marissa Paternoster's ridiculously unique, warbly alto, give this outfit a special, bone-shaking quality that I love.

Pedestrian at Best by Courtney Barnett: The Australian singer-songwriter seems to be taking the music world by storm at this point, and I'm glad to see her coming in for so many accolades, landing this record on a number of prominent best-of lists for the year. She has a style reminiscent of Dylan, with sprinklings of early Liz Phair, a little bit of country, with the twist of wry Aussie wit. I could see her almost spoken word style of lyric delivery not being everyone's jam, but hot damn those lyrics. Dense, clever storytelling make this record soar.

Someday Soon by Lindi Ortega: Humorously enough, Lindi is part of a group of musicians that I was turned onto through the soundtrack of Canadian sci-fi show "Lost Girl." Since then, I've been waiting for her new record with some anticipation, since I think this Canuck does Nashville country better than most of the Americans now toiling in the industry there. She was apparently signed by a major label back when, charmed by her goth looks and old-school Americana style, but then dropped after they decided to go a different route (see: Lady Gaga). This is a lovely track, something of a throwback to the greats like Patsy Cline.

Planet for Sale by THEESatisfaction: How can you not love a collective of queer black women making their own, unique, kicked back beats and songs that largely focus on social and political issues without getting particularly ham-fisted, instead insinuating itself into your earholes with nods to classic soul and R&B? You can't not, that's how.

Figure 8 by FKA twigs: I'm a recent convert to the musical genius of this dancer-turned-musician. Her music videos are mesmerizing. The music is not particularly easy to categorize, either, which I adore. Soaring soprano gymnastics layered over intricate, artsy electro-hip-hop? That might be as close as I can come to describing it. Good shit. Excited to see where she goes from here.

Circles Out of Salt by Snow Ghosts: Moody as fuck, beautiful but gritty electronic/industrial with awesome lady vocals. Right up my alley. The whole record is a fascinating story-journey, with tons of atmospheric soundscapes, and did I mention moody? Feel this stuff in your gut.

Far by The Soft Moon: I am a sucker for industrial rock, specifically the stuff that came out in the late '80s and early '90s, before EBM started to more fully take over the genre. The Soft Moon has mastered the sound while offering some new ideas of his own - just good, dark, industrial-infused music for working out your angry ennui.

The Day Is My Enemy by The Prodigy: Here's another electronic outfit that I've been following since that time after our 8th grade dance when the DJ decided to play stuff he liked as we were all waiting for our parents to pick us up and take us home. I mustered up the courage to approach the kid and ask him what it was that he was playing, and he flashed me The Prodigy's "Music for the Jilted Generation." I went to the mall music store and bought my copy the next day, and the rest is history. The group's output as been mixed ever since, with some soaring highs and weirdly phoned-in lows, so I was thrilled when this first track dropped off their most recent effort and it was just. so. BOLD. And they're still fun to see live, after all these years - got to see them perform in Prague this past November.

Quicksand by Bjork: Speaking of my earliest electronic influences, Bjork continues to innovate the hell out of music in general, never ceasing to be a tiny Icelandic powerhouse of creativity. And she doesn't get nearly enough credit for it, far as I'm concerned, especially considering how many people seem to enjoy glossing over and/or ignoring entirely the fact that she does the lion's share of production on her records. This is a great track on a great album.

Saint Claude by Christine and the Queens: The last track added to my mix, I was only just turned onto this French musician by this great article about how women in music and the arts are kicking ass and taking names but still being ignored, underfunded, and underrepresented in seats of power. I went and took a listen and instantly fell in deep like (which could easily grow into love, given time) with this project--both for the lovely music and the dance-heavy music videos.

Flesh without Blood by Grimes: I love Grimes. She's a one-woman powerhouse of production, creativity, engineering, delightfully weird vocal embellishments, beautiful soundscapes, and is just generally super listenable while being a totally uncompromising badass.

Lose Control by Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique: I love Robyn. Like, really really a lot. So I'll basically listen to anything she's involved with, including this collaboration with French outfit LBM. Good thing it ends up being a delightful, electro-disco romp.

Queen's Speech 4 by Lady Leshurr: I don't usually include singles on this mix, but this one by British trap artist Lady Leshurr caught my eye as a triumph of freestyle flow, wit, and simple but killer beats. Plus the DIY vid is delightful.

You Tell Em by Zebra Katz & Leila: ZK initially caught my attention with his incredible, creepy, confident tribute to how queer men and drag queens playfully cut each other down to size with "Imma Read," and it's super fantastic to see him continuing to innovate and be artsy as fuck, giving no fucks, with his new EP and collaboration with Leila. Watch the videos, too. Funded in large part by a grant from the Austrian government and filmed in Austria, it's some unsettling, visually interesting work.

Call It Off by Shamir: I love this record. I love this track. I love this kid. And I love that he comes into a world where being a young queer person of color is something he can openly celebrate and inject into his art. The guy has a unique as hell voice, too, and with such catchy, fun production work, it makes for quite the package deal. Stoked to see where he goes from here, too.

HONORABLE MENTION OF MY OWN PROJECTS

Not included on the mix, because I'm not a complete narcissist, but I feel worth mentioning are the projects that I had the great good fortune to be involved with this year:

Meghan Rose - "In Your Bones"
I wrote and recorded all the drum tracks for this record, released earlier this year. Meghan is basically my platonic musical life partner (and one half of Damsel Trash with me). This was a serious labor of love for her, involving years of writing and preparation and pouring her heart and soul into each song and lyric. We spent a week up in the hinterlands of Ontario, Canada recording this with Grammy and Juno winning producer Darryl Neudorf (who also produced, for instance, people like Neko Case). It was, simply put, an incredible experience, and the end product is something I couldn't be more proud of. Support kick ass, unsigned musicians and buy it here.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Best of 2014 mix

Another year gone by, another chance to dig through the bins and reflect on all the great music released over the course of those 365 days.

This started as a way for me to prod myself into keeping more on top of new releases, and as a fun gift to my friends and family, and mostly that's still what it is. I don't pretend that this list is even remotely exhaustive - I know I've left off a whole bunch of great songs and artists from 2014, and there are more still that I've simply not yet heard. Feel free to leave your own suggestions for great music from the past year in the comments section. I'm always keen to be introduced to new stuff, or even old stuff I've been missing out on for far too long.

I will say this: Of the music I did find and listen to this year, there was just so much good shit. I'm currently thinking about putting together a second mix composed entirely of local Madison-area bands and/or bands that I played shows with this year, because that can and should fill its own compilation.

For now, here's my list of my favorite music from the year, which ranges in genre from dance, electronic, folk, punk, industrial, R&B, and more. Please note that some songs have explicit lyrics and/or videos and may be NSFW (aww yeah):

Em’s Best of 2014

1. “Let ‘EmSay” – Lizzo & Caroline Smith, single
2. “Feel of Love” – Tensnake, Glow
3. “Busy Earnin’” – Jungle, Jungle
4. “Hideaway” – Kiesza, Sound of a Woman
5. “Could I Be” – Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso
6. “Every Little Thing” – Rӧyksopp & Robyn
7. “Cthulu” – EMA, The Future’s Void
8. “Ain’t That Easy” – D’Angelo & The Vanguard, Black Messiah
9. “Gold” – Chet Faker, Built On Glass
10. “Strong” – London Grammar, If You Wait
11. “Before the Words” – My Brightest Diamond, This Is My Hand
12. “Bring Me Simple Men” – Timber Timbre, Hot Dreams
13. “Blue Ridge Mountain” – Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes
14. “Destination” – Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line
16. “10th Floor Ghost Girl” – Cibo Matto, Hotel Valentine
17. “Talking Transgender Dysphoria Blues” – Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
18. “Don’t Mess With Me” – Brody Dalle, Diploid Love
19. “Consuming Guilt” – Youth Code, A Place to Stand
20. “Aint Ur Baby” – Thelma and the Sleaze, Heart Like a Fist

NOTES:

"Let 'Em Say" by Lizzo & Caroline Smith
You gotta love a song that's both ridiculously catchy and released with proceeds going to benefit a good cause. You also gotta love Minneapolis-based hip hop artist Lizzo, who I was first turned on to with last year's killer single, "Batches & Cookies." Great flow, great production work, great artist.

"Feel of Love" by Tensnake
This whole album is just so good. No hyperbole, I think it's one of the most listenable (all the way through) of the year, but then I like that twinkly '80s synth pop shit with all my heart.

"Busy Earnin'" by Jungle
I recently heard this track in the background of a Green Bay Packers commercial and had to chuckle--seems to be another instance of someone only listening to the hook and not the rest of the lyrics, but hey, I'm all for wider exposure for this group, who first grabbed my attention with the video for their song, "Platoon," that features the coolest little b-girl on the planet.

"Hideaway" by Kiesza
Look, what can I say, early '90s club music was what first turned me onto house in general, and was pretty damn influential for my wee adolescent brain. It would appear the same was true of Canadian singer-songwriter Kiesza, who emulates that ridiculously fun sound without coming off as stale and totally derivative. Plus, this video is just ridiculously fun. Check out her moody cover of Haddaway's "What Is Love."

"Could I Be" by Sylvan Esso
I had no idea that one half of this electronic duo originally hails from Middleton until I went to see them live at a sold-out concert next door in Madison, and his parents were in the audience. A friend turned me onto Sylvan Esso much earlier this year, and shortly thereafter I began hearing their track "Coffee" on The Current fairly regularly. It's a great album all the way through and I'll be stoked to hear where they take the project next.

"Every Little Thing" by Rӧyksopp & Robyn
So here's the thing: I adore Robyn. And I've loved Rӧyksopp since "What Else Is There" first came across my radar. So when the two began pairing up a handful of years ago, I was in heaven. This EP is masterful from front to back, sandwiching a couple of club bangers in the middle of some seriously lush epics.

"Cthulu" by EMA
You have to dig an artist that's able to mash up '90s grunge, industrial, and modern electro while still maintaining musical soul, and that's basically what EMA does on this record. This track in particular, I think, exemplifies that hybrid sound, and also features one of my favorite, slow building crescendos of any song this year.

"Ain't That Easy" by D'Angelo & The Vanguard
A last-minute entry for the year, D'Angelo took 15 years between his last record and this one, but the album doesn't sound at all piecemeal or scattered. In fact, Black Messiah may be one of the best records of the year, if I do say so myself. It's just gorgeous. It doesn't hurt that he tapped one of my favorite drummers, Questlove, to be part of the backing band.

"Gold" by Chet Faker
It took some sweet rollerskating to draw my attention to the video for this track, which led me to checking out the entire album, which got me into Chet Faker in general. Soulful vocals, solid grooves.

"Strong" by London Grammar
I first came across lead singer Hannah Reid when she provided guest vocals on a Disclosure track, and her haunting, low soprano made me want more. London Grammar walks a fine line of melancholy moodiness and lush musicality without bumping into what I feel like is, say, the main drawback with bands like The xx, where every song sounds the same and I can't imagine any new album every sounding any different. If You Wait feels like an ever-changing narrative, something they can build on in a part two that will still sound like LG without retreading old ground.

"Before the Words" by My Brightest Diamond
Shara Worden's solo project is always filled out with a wide array of extremely talented guest artists, and this record is no different, going so far as to feature an actual marching band at times. I had the good fortune of catching her when she came through town years ago as part of a festival line-up along with backing band Clare & the Reasons, and have loved her work ever since. She's a classically trained opera singer, for goodness sake.

"Bring Me Simple Men" by Timber Timbre
Aside from loving the good wordplay of their name, I also really love the sort of dark, dusty road, Lost Highway sound this band has landed on. A friend introduced them to be just this year and I've been diving into their back catalog ever since.

"Blue Ridge Mountain" by Hurray for the Riff Raff
Modern folk music that sounds as classic as anything Guthrie wrote, with a beautiful and grounded female voice leading the way. They apparently wrote this song based on the life of the Carter family, and I think it's a fitting tribute.

"Destination" by Nickel Creek
They're back! They're back! After taking time off to work on their various solo/other projects, folk powerhouse Nickel Creek reunited for a 2014 release that picks up where they left off without skipping a beat. Superb musicianship coupled with catchy songwriting = win.

"Before Too Long (ft. Amanda Palmer" by Missy Higgins
Two musicians that I like a lot, working together on this really fantastic cover of Paul Kelly's 1986 cut, as part of Higgins' album of Australian cover songs, Oz.

"10th Floor Ghost Girl" by Cibo Matto
Another band that likes to take long periods of time off in between releases, Japanese I-don't-know-how-to-categorize-them act Cibo Matto released this sprawling tale of a haunted hotel that just solidified their reputation for unique/weird/awesome music.

"Talking Transgender Dysphoria Blues" by Against Me!
This record, man, this record. Lead singer Laura Jane Grace kind of just knocked it out of the park when she went into the studio alone to write and record this sucker, before calling in the rest of the band to help flesh out the sound. I'm not sure if this is the first punk rock album to tackle the intensely personal journey of a transgender person (LJG), but it has to be the most guts-out, heart-on-sleeve, no-holds-barred one.

"Don't Mess With Me" by Brody Dalle
I first fell a little in love with Brody Dalle when she fronted the take-no-shit punk act The Distillers, and it's super fascinating to see the transition from that to her solo work on this record--not to mention going from the big, black mohawk spikes to the bleach blonde look she's got now. Not that I'm complaining, of course. It's an interest album with a lot of her characteristic, gravelly voice and guitar grit, but with a little added vulnerability around the edges.

"Consuming Guilt" by Youth Code
I was so freakin' stoked when this EP dropped, because it marks the first time in years that I've listened to an industrial record that sounded like the shit I grew up loving on the mix tapes my older brother used to make for me back in the early and mid '90s. The fun trick is, it also sounds totally new. I don't know how they pull that off, but they do, and I adore it.

"Aint Ur Baby" by Thelma and the Sleaze
You know what the best way to be introduced to a new band is? Live, of course. I went to an underground queer/punk show a few weeks back that had these delightfully skuzzy bitches from Tennessee as the headliners, and I fell in love after the first down and dirty rock and roll song (not to mention their fucking amazing, hard hitting lady drummer).

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Racism, Cultural Sensitivity, and Roller Derby

Back in September a skater from Florida posted to her personal Tumblr to call out a different Florida league, the Rebel Belles of Palm Harbor, Florida, accusing them of racism based on their team logo and colors.

In the post, Militant Bulstrode claims that the Belle’s gray, red, and blue uniforms—not to mention their kepi hat logo with crossed rifles—was representative of the Confederate flag and army uniforms from the American Civil War. This, Bulstrode argued, was evidence of racism within the league, and “the fact that they’ve completed a season (albeit an extremely short one) without being called out on their logo/jerseys/team name needs to be rectified immediately.”

The Rebel Belles responded to the ensuing deluge of criticism by writing and sharing a lengthy defense of the logo and uniforms, as well as stating that the accusations of racism were “false and slanderous.” They have also since changed the logo, and a post dated Nov. 12 says the league is “seriously considering rebranding.”

There’s no way to know the motivations of the individuals responsible for the initial branding of the league, barring psychic and time traveling abilities. Speculation about whether or not the individual members, or indeed the entire league, are harboring racist ideas or beliefs is futile unless those people come out and claim outright racist ideology. The Rebel Belles have not, to my knowledge, done so. They have, in fact, gone out of their way to claim to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory league.

There are two possibilities in this case, as far as I see it: Either the Rebel Belles were formed by Confederate sympathizers / white supremacists, or they simply demonstrated a deep lack of understanding of historical symbology and ignorance of their own white privilege.

I tend to go with Hanlon’s razor when it comes to this kind of thing: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

I say this not to impugn the overall intelligence of anyone with the Rebel Belles, but rather to point out that we’re all prone to doing stupid things from time to time. Some of those stupid things can stem from prejudices we didn’t even know we had, too—the difference lies in how we choose to recognize, address, and attempt to correct those things in the long run. And the relationship the U.S. has with its history—specifically the Confederacy and the Civil War—is fraught with whitewashing, misunderstanding, and worse (even feminist folksinger Ani DiFranco isn’t free from the pitfalls of historical and racial ignorance).

But that’s a whole other article. Let’s take a look at the facts in this particular case:
  • The Rebel Belles named themselves after the rebel yell, the term coined for a battle cry specific to the Confederate army during the Civil War (and Florida, for those of you less familiar with U.S. history, was a member of the Confederate States of America, which seceded from the Union in 1861 and was then forcibly beaten back into the U.S. after losing the war in 1865).
  • The Rebel Belles designed a logo using the gray kepi hat that was standard issue for Confederate soldiers during that war, with two crossed, red muskets underneath (also standard issue weapons during the war). The RB’s claim the logo was meant to emulate the Florida state flag, which does indeed feature a red St. Andrew’s Cross on a white field.
  • The RB’s have gray home team uniforms, accented with red and blue. To claim that the use of the gray uniforms, and then the gray kepi, is simply homage to their “historic theme” demonstrates a rather baffling lack of sensitivity to the admittedly complex but deeply hurtful history in question. There may be no actual rebel battle flag in their logo, but the Confederacy is still all over their branding.

In the end, it seems as though the anger spurred by the team’s name/image has forced them to seriously reconsider and rebrand, which is ultimately a good thing for everyone involved. No matter how well meaning they might have been in attempting to give a nod to Florida’s past, the fact remains that said past is inescapably tied to slavery and subjugation, and the continued prejudice toward and oppression of minority populations in the U.S. that are that evil institution’s legacy.

There’s no place for that in roller derby (or anywhere, of course), a sport founded on the principle of inclusivity and bucking the status quo. It’s good to call out these things when we see them. This kind of cultural and racial insensitivity is sadly not limited to this one case, either. Painfully enough, the skater who penned the original Tumblr post calling out the RB’s is herself the member of a team called the Cannibals, whose men’s derby analog are called the Head Hunters. There are deeply problematic and culturally insensitive elements in those names, too (glass houses, etc).

Clearly, this is a much larger conversation we should be havingwithin roller derby, within sports (ahem, the Washington football team, anyone?), within our lives in general.

The point isn’t to get caught up in name calling or knee-jerk defensiveness, though, but rather to speak up when something is harmful and/or hurtful, speak from the heart, push for constructive change--and always, always be willing to listen and make your own changes when it’s you who’s guilty of stumbling.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post-election hangover

It's heartbreaking to wake up after a major election with the feeling that a large percentage of your fellow citizens have just kicked you--and themselves, really--square in the teeth. Yesterday's midterms are a prime example of wave elections based on doubling down on self-fuckery, voting out of spite and prioritizing winning over actual good governance and fairness.
To make matters worse, only about 55% of the eligible voters in this state actually voted. That's seen as quite high for a midterm--which is, frankly, depressing as hell. Local elections have a far, far greater impact on our day-to-day lives than do presidential picks. I'd argue that elections matter more the more local they are--city/county up to state.
So what happened? Half of us stayed home. Was it because of all the voter ID nonsense, people being disenfranchised, turned off entirely by the process (maybe just assuming their vote doesn't matter, especially if they live in one of the now several gerrymandered-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives districts)? I don't have the answers, obviously, but something is terribly, terribly wrong when just half of half of the voting population has the power to make these big decisions on behalf of us all.
Something has got to give.

According to Ezra Klein, anyway, we have 2016 to look forward to as a far better year for Democrats/progressives, but it doesn't make today any less depressing.

Full breakdown of vote by county here.

In the meantime, I'm going to sit here and wait for the gushing thank-you notes from all the political comedians for sending troglodytic buffoon Glenn Grothman to the U.S. Congress. I'm looking at you, the Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, the Onion, and Wonkette.

Meanwhile, the apparently rather powerful transportation / highway builders lobby in Wisconsin won big yesterday as well. They managed to sneak a cleverly worded referendum onto the ballot that passed with overwhelming numbers, despite the fact that what it actually does is enshrine corporate patronage into our state constitution.

A silver lining among all the depressing news, though, was how the referendum to support raising the minimum wage did: it won big.

Douglas 70%
Dane 74%
Eau Claire 61%
La Crosse 61%
Kenosha 63%
Milwaukee 66%
Portage 58%
Rock 64%
Wood 55%
Appleton 59%
Menasha 60%
Neenah 60%
Racine 72%
Now to see if our government pays any heed to the voice of the people on this one.

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.
The Lost Albatross