Sunday, June 5, 2016

Very Special Episode

"Gloria's Boyfriend" is an episode from the fourth season of All in the Family (2/2/74 is when it first  aired).   Just stumbled onto it a little bit ago on cable, and then rewatched the episode on You-Tube (here).  I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to help job seekers with developmental disabilities access good jobs in the community, and "Gloria's Boyfriend" is all about that very topic, albeit a little dated.  And yet the way the subject matter is handled and worked through reminds me of how much things really haven't changed too much.  Possibly the language has been overhauled (the "R" word is used both pedantically and insultingly in the episode), but the actual tropes and metaphors and fears still kind of linger when you approach the idea of someone labeled as developmentally disabled being able to be a part of the workforce, a contributor to the way we all get things done everyday.

 "Gloria's Boyfriend" tells the story of George the Box Boy at Ferguson's Grocery, and the one day he brings the groceries home as a favor to Gloria.  It's obvious he has a crush on her, and for a minute or two you get the feeling that's the creepy direction the story is going.  But the actual narrative gets focused around a subplot, in which Archie and Michael are using an adjustable bench-plane to help refit the upstairs bathroom door that isn't shutting properly.  That door becomes both a metaphor and a plot device, as does the faulty tool Archie is using:  the bench-plane's blade is not yielding any wood shavings as Archie glides it across the door. 

In the episode, George is given to us as a big, sweet guy who is a little slow, but capable of expressing himself as well as having the ability to understand when he's mistreated  and when he's welcome.   The conversation about him among the Bunker clan is a survey of the ways people with developmental disabilities have been represented and seen over the course of the 20th (and now 21st) Centuries:  menace, innocent, deviant, oversexed, simpleminded, and so on.  The pendulum from "how sweet" to "how dangerous" is quick and steady, especially when Archie talks.  In fact, Archie in the episode is a sort of stand-in for the way many people understand what "developmental disabilities" are.  He's constantly warning his daughter to watch out for George's advances ("Stop getting him all excited -- people like him have a one-track mind," he says), while when speaking directly to George he's condescendingly kind and didactic (he tells George to take a break, sit and watch as Archie and Michael try to whittle down the door so it'll fit, using the tool that does not work). 

The crisis moment comes when Archie again speaks to Gloria about the possible dangers of her friendship with George, and George overhears.  Archie feels the need to spell what he considers is George's main diagnosis and prognosis:  "You gotta be careful around a d-u-m-m-y."

It turns out George can spell, and he tells everyone that in fact he's not a dummy, and he's going to show them all he's not.  He runs out the backdoor.  This instigates a conversation among all of the family about how George from Edith's perspective is a "nice gentle boy," and Archie counters with examples of "his kind" from movies like Of Mice and Men and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while Gloria and Michael defend George as "special" and "retarded," but able to work and live in the world just like anybody else. 

Later in the day, Gloria goes back to Ferguson's to get ice cream, returns to tell everyone that George has been fired.  They all hope it wasn't because they asked him to stay a while earlier, and also because of what Archie had said.  Then a knock at the door, and George's dad comes to find out where George is, as he had heard from Mr. Ferguson about the firing, as well as the fact that George's last delivery was here at the Bunker's.  Another history and

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dog and Butterfly

I bought Big Science by Laurie Anderson (LP version, not CD or cassette) with money from one of my first paychecks from Kentucky Fried Chicken.  At sixteen, I was entranced by her music and her image after serendipitously seeing a video of "O Superman" one winter evening on some late-night cable basement TV show.  That light emanating from her mouth, that electric-bolt style of hairdo, that voice, oh that technocratic-lady voice.  The synthesizer sadness of it all is what truly got me though:  there was a hook there, a pop-song need to please, and yet Anderson never escaped her own beautiful, repetitiously mournful pretentiousness, her need not to please.  Every song on Big Science opened up new little doors inside a melancholy/psychotic dollhouse; it became the soundtrack of my high school years.  I returned to it over and over, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with myself, and then most of the time I would just give up and luxuriate in the big strange universe Anderson conjured, constantly edified by the sarcastic sincerity of her voice, her way. 

I've seen her a couple of times live, and still that same feeling comes through.  She's all-out, balls-out art-school-precious, but also there is a mean-spirited and wild blankness to her delivery that counteracts that preciousness.  It's that off-kilter meanness that blossoms into her sense of humor too.  Her music and writing brim with self-deprecation and moral wiliness; when she's not meditating on something serious, she's pulling the mask off her own seriousness:  

I turned the corner in Soho today and
Looked right at me and said:  Oh no!  Another Laurie Anderson clone!   

That's from "Talk Normal," a little ditty off her 1986 album Home of the Brave, a jaunty, funky hot mess of songs and ideas and jokes that gives off a toxic glow, while also somehow summoning the smell of suntan lotion being applied on the beach. 

Anderson is a mixed bag of greatness, a clone of herself, and a sort of touchstone I'm glad is there.  Without her, I wouldn't be the same.  The world wouldn't be.

And so last night I watched her 2015 movie Heart of a Dog, and I was completely floored.  A documentary that loops around itself, meditation into riddle into sidebar into punchline into philosophy, the movie is a sort of Laurie Anderson manifesto after the fact.  And the whole shebang hinges on her love of her dog Lolabelle, a little terrier who passes away and yet leaves such a distinct impression I'm still kind of reeling from the experience of witnessing Anderson's total love and aesthetic devotion to her.

Heart of a Dog in short is a masterpiece of seriousness of purpose, of intent, of mode and mission.  A cinematic hodgepodge of thoughts and feelings, drawings and mood music, texts and poems, the movie captures what it means to be a human being in all of this shit by investing all its intentions in the spirit and image of a dear little dog.  While that sounds a little twee I'm sure, it's really all we've got to go on, if you get right down to it.  Loving someone, something, that's beyond your scope of comprehension, and yet returns that love with an intensity and grace beyond any understanding.  That's Lolabelle in a nutshell.  That's Heart of a Dog.

Anderson's narrative voice in the movie is the same as the narrative voice in Big Science, thank God.  Cartoonishly erudite, a little too full of itself and careful, it has a cadence and tone that turns musical in one moment and caustically cautious the next.  It's like coming home. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

I'll Stick with You Baby for a Thousand Years

Last Friday, April 29, 2016, we hosted a great big extravaganza at Thunder-Sky, Inc. that allowed me to understand better why we keep doing Thunder-Sky, Inc.  Upstairs it was "Radically Visible," a fashion-show/danceathon/performance-art-glitter-fest, with Sky Cubacub, Lindsey Whittle, Antonio Adams, and Craig Matis all delivering the goods in the form of neon-colored fashion, ecstatic make-up, big gaudy collages, gloriously stylized poster-sized photos, and the kind of energy that helps you to re-invigorate what you want not only out of art, but out of life.  It was like an extended funky parade all night, all that electricity boxed in and vibrant and burning in all directions, and by the end, when everyone was dancing and carrying on, the floor felt like it was about to collapse.  That almost collapse is what "Radically Visible" was truly about, a beautiful crew of artists and models and everyday people blending into one big bombastic moment when snobbery and skepticism leave the room to go sit outside in their cars, and vision replaces judgement:  all feeling, walls and floor shaking like a kite blown around by wind.  All smiles, sweat, and silliness.  You don't need anything else sometimes.  

And then downstairs we were doing a David Bowie tribute (curated by Emily Brandehoff) that pulled together over 40 or so artists' visions of what Bowie meant, our basement wall-to-walled with interpretations of his greatness.  Crayon drawings right next to oil paintings, conceptual found objects situated with upfront portraits of the artist as he was, as he wanted to be.  Bowie's world was about being radical and visible too, of course; he was always in search of some otherworld to replace the glum, phony one we're all usually stuck with.  

We karaoked the hell out of some of his greatest songs in that basement.  And as I screamed out the lyrics to "Golden Years," I felt somehow vindicated, although I really didn't understand the point of the vindication outside of the fact that we are keeping Raymond alive in the humblest of ways, dedicating art and time to his memory, archiving almost everything he left behind:  Raymond Thunder-Sky, urban legend and Cincinnati curiosity transforming year by year into mythological god and mentor.  And mid-song, my lungs burning from me trying to imitate Bowie's angelic/demonic baritone, I realized I was staring up at the shelves holding Ray's toolboxes, all those toolboxes he carried around town as he rode buses to get to demolition sites so he could draw them.  Those metal and plastic boxes contained his drawing supplies, candy, photographs, pieces of his ongoing clown costumes... 

Everything we do here celebrates the triumph of his strangeness, the rigor of his freakishness. 

I'll stick with you baby or a thousand years
Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years...

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Alien Day

The head has lost its condition
all the world has been bitten into
Tentacles smell like nasty ice
The back of the mouth has that battery-acid tenderness

The colors are what you see back-lit in fever
Not colors but fingers
Facelessness is the true expression
Particles inching into place

What you've always wanted
is to be defenseless
Primary, pulled into and out of the world
You crave the shape of things hiding inside

Stainless steel eyelids
You crave the love of a dog
But nothing else comes through
until your bones and muscles feel

That flush of loss
a disintegration
blurred into a furious coupling
reptile and rigor, motors and flab

The tissue always wins
in this world
metal inside a million little cells
tiny teeth biting and biting, chewing into

the one reality left on a planet no one knows.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Funk Machine

"Funk Machine" was the first song Prince wrote.  He was seven years old, and he did it on his dad's piano.  I always think of him writing and producing music just like that, all on his own, driven to make it all up even when he wasn't even aware of what a superstar he was going to be.  He seemed to be able to access that part of himself for most of his life, with or without attention or approval.  

The false trope of "outsider artist" is something I'm always thinking and writing about, that super-precious concept of super-precious "outsiders" or "savants" making super-precious art in seclusion or in places that have been created for them, and art collectors and academics staking claims on their "authenticity" and "strangeness."  As in:  "Is the artist autistic or just crazy?"  I heard that little gem at the NYC Outsider Art Fair a couple years back.  

But here's an outsider artist for the ages, without all that baggage and nonsense:  look at him up there, comfortable in his lair, water-coloring his next "funk machine," the world just a tug on his purple satin sheet.  His face is saying, "You better just leave me the fuck alone right now."  

That photo comprised one of the record-sleeves of his magnum opus, 1999.  The smoky furtive light, the neon pulsing heart-shaped heart, the bouffant hair, the seductive pose.  Lord have mercy. And it's a pose for sure, and yet the pose indicates creativity in a basement, solitude yielding something both super-secret and something to be super-shared.  He wrote for the masses, made music that crossed every borderline (race, class, sexuality, gender, religion, and son), and yet he was the king of the outsiders in the best sense of the word:   toiling away in his basement-kingdom (eventually enlarged and compounded into Paisley Park), configuring and refashioning what makes him want to be alive.  Obviously it was the creation of music.
Now that he's gone, I just want to remember him in that essence, that moment.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  I also want to remember myself buying 1999 in 1982, some freaky kid in a little town, poor white trash, drawn to Prince's style and music since stumbling across Dirty Mind.  I'd waited months for 1999.  And when I got home I played that thing over and over, getting in sync with his high-dungeon, punk-drenched super-funk, knowing this was his masterpiece.  There are moments all over that record that turn into trances, that invite you into his purple bedroom to witness the techno-purple majesty of his purple genius.  One of the best is "Automatic," the almost ten-minute song that starts the second record on the album. It's a Sodom and Gomorrah UFO full of synth-pop pleasures and vibes.  It makes you both elated and a little scared, a product of some dark laboratory filled with S&M apparatus and lavender light.

"Baby," Prince coos toward the end, right before a chorus of spastic/erotic screams and cries commences, "you're the purple star in the night supreme."

He had to be looking in a mirror when he sang that.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


Raymond Thunder-Sky

David Bowie

Lindsey M Whittle

We're opening two shows this month at Thunder-Sky, Inc.:  "Radically Visible," featuring costumes, photos, collages, drawings, and other art by Antonio Adams, Sky Cubacub, Craig Matis, and Lindsey M Whittle, as well as a group show curated by Emily Brandehoff, "Bowie in the Basement," featuring about 40  or so works from a variety of artists, celebrating Bowie's life and art.  When I was pulling together news release info, I came across the above three photos, and they've stuck in my head, so that means of course a blogpost about Raymond, Bowie, and radical visibility, but also beyond that I wanted to reconstitute a little of Raymond's myth and menace and glory, conjure up his presence from back in the day, when people did not know what the hell to do with him.  And despite a lot of bull-shit he persevered, finding a way to be what he wanted to be, who he wanted to be.

Raymond had no choice really in that department.  For him, costume, performance, art, life, and being Raymond all intermingled into one sensibility that seemed forever eschewing conformity but also never flaunting the eschewment self-consciously.  I am what I am so just get fucking used to it -- that's all over his face in pictures, especially in the one up top.  He toured Cincinnati like that, all clowned- and construction-workered-up, silently going about his obsessive business of drawing from real life the destruction and construction people did to their surroundings, haters be damned.  And there were haters,  people who treated him like a freak without kindness or even just plain everyday manners.  I'm not going to go into those stories because they don't matter here.  He survived, created his own universe, found a way to make meaning out of what he wanted the world to be.  

He left behind those costumes too, which we've archived at his joint:  hard-hats, clown-suits, boots, overalls, clown-collars, hats. Shininess juxtaposed with burlap ruggedness, a show-off propensity pushed up against the need to be part of a team.  At the end of the day he merged show-business and working-class desires, furtively and yet also somehow loudly proclaiming his right to be a great big beautiful freak, while also trying to invent a job for himself.  (His construction-worker drag came from the fact that he truly wanted to be a construction-worker.  He actually started putting on the work-clothes and showing up at sites with his drawing materials because he couldn't get hired on as an actual construction-worker [he didn't have a driver's license so they couldn't].  He willed himself into that status through a sort of flaky and beautiful camouflage.)

The freakishness and the self-created celebration of the freakishness go hand in hand with Raymond. He was his own one-man band in many, hermetically sealed ways, but also willfully open-ended, walking and walking and walking in that get-up all over the city, riding buses, being a part of the world bubbled-off but completely in the maelstrom, a sort of Native-American-Shriner's-Clown-Working-Class Dandy.  

Nineteenth Century poet and philosopher Charles Baudelaire was always riffing on and refining his metaphysical takes on the "dandy."  He defined dandyism as an elevation of aesthetics to living religion, that a dandy in his finest fineries simply walking about the wretched city, shining like some self-created aristocrat, pisses off the responsible citizenry existentially because the dandy has paid so much close attention to his own existence and identity outside of the realm of their control, and their taste, their lives. 

Casting Raymond as a "dandy" kind of helps situate and contextualize what the artists in "Radically Visible" will be up to, as well as gives some backroom logic to "Bowie in the Basement."  In their work, Sky Cubacub is on a quest to reestablish the meaning of fashion and clothes as both demarcation and demonstration of the way someone should be able to live and love. Antonio Adams, one of Raymond's best friends, carries on Raymond's legacy through his own sense of kingly garments and a continuous reinvention through art of his own mythologized self.  Lindsey M Whittle takes silliness and freakishness in as forms of alchemical oxygen, breathing out little kingdoms of goof and color, and Craig Matis' collages use the circus, itself a version of over-the-top captivity and release, as metaphor for reconfiguring the struggle to be exactly who you need to be, no matter what constraints and condemnations.  

Then there's David Bowie, king of the dandies, shape-shifting his way from space-cadet to thin white duke to harlequin and beyond. Bowie has left behind a legacy of I-am-what-I-am-so-fucking-get-used-to-it; he managed to change the world by appearing not to be in it.  Somehow he was able to crack the code of all clowns and freaks:  be exactly who you are until the day you die.  

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Work History

When I was thirteen, all I wanted was a job as soon as possible.  I wanted this job to separate me from my life and family somehow, maybe even from myself.  A job seemed almost romantic to me in that way:  weekly earned income, a place to go besides school, friends at work instead of the many a-holes I had to contend with at school, cigarette breaks, free pop, a uniform, saving up for a car.  I was not popular at school.  I hid from most everyone in either the school newspaper office or the art-room.  I was always trying to figure out how to get away from peers and cheers and everything having to do with "school" and "spirit."  At work you have to show up, clock in, do your job, go home; at school you have to go to class but there's all kinds of mandatory extracurricular crap, social events and activities and odd run-ins, PRESSURES that make life a lot more complicated, and basically at least from my purview miserable.

My family was working-class and poor, so maybe this hunger for employment and solidarity came from my not knowing any other way except escape through work.  But I knew that school wasn't really my thing, so I kind of understood instinctively that work would have to be.

And it was.

I got my first job at thirteen at a greasy spoon called The Irish Point.  The old couple who ran the place, Pauleen and Irving, paid me and some other kids out of the drawer at the end of the night, so it was a dream come true.  I didn't even have to wait for a weekly check.  Pauleen and Irving had an apartment above the restaurant where they lived, and at the end of the night, I would carry up the night's cash and receipts, and Pauleen would give me the wages for me and the rest of the crew -- usually just two other people, a cook and a server.  I was a car-hop and dishwasher at the start and worked my way up to grill-cook by the time I was 15.

The Irish Point was all roughed-up linoleum and fake-wood-paneling, frayed vinyl booths and a juke-box that seemed to always either be playing "The Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart or "Life's Been Good" by Joe Walsh.  I worked my ass off there, and found friends my own age who went to the same high school, but who would not even look at me in the hallways at school.  At the Point somehow we were equals, sharing shifts, duties, rushes, jokes.  One time, Pauleen and Irving had a health inspector come through and a shitload of citations were dispensed.  A bunch of us volunteered to come in and do deep cleaning on a Saturday to help them pass the inspection.  I remember I had a really bad earache, but I still showed up and cleaned out the tarry grease filters above the fryers and grill, because I knew everyone was counting on me.  All of us swept and mopped and painted and did all we could to make sure the place was as clean as possible.  Nobody got paid.

Irving and Pauleen were pretty old.  There were still a bunch of Bennie Goodman records on the jukebox from their glory days.  They were heavy smokers, and basically I think they were just running on fumes, trying to get by, their small apartment above the Point so overcrowded with furniture from the house they used to live in it was almost like a miniature Egyptian tomb.  That Saturday, though, we all cleaned that place like it was the House of God, and by the end of the day, my ear hurting so bad I wanted to cry, I felt a part of some weird, sad family, focused on our short-lived future together.

What I do now for work is try to help people with developmental disabilities get jobs in the real world with livable wages.  Many times this is a hard thing to do, because a lot of the people I'm trying to help and work with often aren't on the same wavelength I am.  I guess the "wavelength" I'm referring is the one I just wrote about above:  that need to have a job in order to know who I am, what I'm capable of, and to be a part of something where I'm equal to everybody else.   Also, to escape through that process of constantly showing up, doing what's expected of you, and feeling as if what I'm doing is if not important at least getting me closer to what is.  And yes that crappy job at Irish Point was a stepping stone to more crappy dish-room-smelly jobs at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Rax Roast Beef and Bonanza Steakhouse and TGIFriday's and so on so forth, but at least I kept busy, in a zone, and I made friends, and I found a way to find meaning in what I was doing, even if no one else could, or even wanted to try.

This isn't an Horatio Alger gig by any means:  I didn't pull myself up by my bootstraps.  I just worked, because I had to, and besides that I felt an almost primal urge to enter the workforce in order to leave behind stuff I found meaningless and annoying.  That excitement, even in the face of mop-water buckets and overloaded bus-tubs and the smell of fryer grease in my clothes, got me through because I knew I was doing something about my situation, even though it was not a dream come true by any means. In fact, often times it was a nightmare (alone, in a dishroom with a thousand bus-tubs stacked on the shelves and floor by the dish-machine, people yelling they are out of forks and drinking glasses upfront -- just try that one on for size).  No matter what, though, working that hard without a lot of payoff is, and really has to be, a nasty-smelling, super-exhausted version of hope. Not something you look forward to doing, God knows, but something you have to tolerate in order to create the momentum to go on to do something else, hopefully better.

Of course one of the biggest issues for job-seekers with disabilities is they often get stuck in that zone of "menial work," always at the bottom of the totem-pole, often in the dishroom or bussing tables or some other entry-level pigeonhole.  Ironically, though, if you don't start somewhere, then you don't have a platform to show what you can do.  And that desire even to start out menially sometimes gets squelched, ambition lost because there's no way up or out.

Trying to get beyond the issue of businesses and employers assuming that everyone we're trying to support is only dish-room-valuable is just the beginning though.  A lot of social-work-types and caregivers and teachers and others many times want to help the people they support by asking them about dreams and wishes, etc.  "What do you want to do?"  Instead of:  "What do you need to do?"   Dreaming is great and necessary, but I guess I also want to include in the conversation: what are you willing to do to make that dream come true? That's just as important, right?

The choices you have to make sometimes wear you out.  You have to make your own moves, piecing each phase together in order to make sense as you get there, improvising, pushing, trying, failing, trying, failing..., Hopefully laughing, getting through, with co-workers, family, friends.  And you'll need a lot of help.   But it's you at the end of the day who has to do most of the work, and most of the dreaming. You can't confuse the two though:  "dreams" are fuel for getting through what you have to do to take care of yourself, to be responsible enough to better yourself and contribute.

We have a huge amount of work to do in order to support employers and businesses to get over the prejudice of perceiving people with disabilities as only capable of certain kinds of work.  That systemic pigeonholing and scapegoating will only finally go away, though, when all people with disabilities who want to are given a chance to show they can do the work, put in the hours, have the ambition and grit to push through.  That Catch-22 is the core problem:  people with disabilities not given a chance to ascend, but also not wanting to try because they're not given that chance.  That self-fulfilling prophecy on both sides has sadly often become the status-quo.

Just to be clear, many people with disabilities in this area are getting good jobs, with and without anybody's help.  I don't want to end this on any sour notes.  I could tell you success stories till the sun goes down, but I want to focus on the many other folks who are floundering, trying to connect but a lot of the times giving up.  It's vitally important to remember what it takes for anyone to get somewhere:  ambition, sometimes foolish, sometimes tempered by reality, but always that ambition is an engine that allows you to push past frustration in order to see you're going to be okay, this is worth it, don't worry.  No amount of support and outreach to businesses and to people with disabilities works without confronting the fact that you have to want to work hard to get anywhere, and you have to have the opportunity to prove it, and for that proof to matter.  That last statement might be axiomatic for everyone entering the labor market, but it's truly profound for people with disabilities looking for work.

Which brings me back to the Irish Point, that Saturday when a bunch of us gathered together, no pay, to help out the old couple who owned the place.  I can still feel that ear-ache.  But despite that I also felt obligated not just to Irving and Pauleen, and the kids I worked with there, but also to that sense of myself as a part of something, contributing to something, connected to a purpose beyond myself and even a pay-check:  it was a sort of duty, I guess, informed by my ambition to grow up.  Get on with it. Make something out of nothing.