Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Candide Camera

Last night we watched all eight episodes of the second season of The Comeback in a row.  It was worth it.  The last couple episodes, prior to the finale this past Sunday, felt to me as if Valerie had jumped the shark, into a territory close to a John Cassavetes movie spliced with a very special episode of Facts of Life.  The parking-lot meltdown between Valerie and Marky Mark went on way too long and brought up issues that didn't seem dramatically and thematically earned.  Also Mickey's illness was becoming a little too much of a standing joke, something to tap into when scenes seemed to be going South.  
But then Sunday that beautiful finale happened. 
When Valerie decided to leave the Emmy's to go to Mickey in the hospital, The Comeback transcended its own apparatus, and that necessary break from the reality-camera-crew trope allowed me to mentally revamp what the show is and means and has accomplished.  I mean I've loved Valerie and her big bag of bull-shit since the beginning, but those eight shows in a row last night really seemed to illuminate the fact that Lisa Kudrow has created in Valerie a character that transcends her medium:  Valerie is beyond cool, beyond satire, beyond dramedy, beyond HBO.  She's the female equivalent of Voltaire's Candide.     
Bam.  Chew on that.
Published in 1759, Candide is a picaresque, sardonic novel about a guy named Candide, a naïve, good-hearted young man who through the course of the plot discovers that optimism in the face of horrible tragedy doesn't really work; in fact it makes things a lot worse.  Voltaire's triumphant satirical skills are effusive and hilarious, and yet there's a sadness under-girding the whole enterprise.  We don't really want Candide to lose the part of himself that allows him to stay hopeful, and yet the whole novel's purpose is to critique and complicate "hopefulness" in an effort to get a more actual and verifiable and truthful "truth."  Candide witnesses debauchery, earthquakes, and other horrors, on his way to an education that becomes more about understanding the world (and himself) than about how wonderful the world is. 
Like Candide, Valerie is naïve and good-hearted and kind of stupid, always on the lookout for her own redemption, which for most of the series comes in the form of fame and notoriety.  Her optimism stems from her need to be successful, and she spins every humiliating encounter and failure into a "lesson" or in many cases an outright lie just so she can feel better about her situation, and the world she's living in.  She is steadfast in her belief she is going to make it, to the point that "making it" loses all meaning.  But in the second season of the show, she actually does "make it," and she wins an Emmy for portraying herself as a dragon-mother-monster (as written by Paulie G, her nemesis/catalyst).  Then that win becomes meaningless in the face of tragedy (Mickey rushed to the hospital, as well as Marky Mark leaving her for the Palisades).  She rebukes all that self-indulgent optimism, that false hope of fame/awards/ass-kissing, in order to figure out what life means.  
So all my internal bellyaching about shark-jumping melted in the face of that pivot the show made in the finale, when Valerie says goodbye to Jane and Billy and the whole Emmy Awards audience, and joins the land of the not-real-but-real.  She breaks the fourth wall at that moment, and the show loses its reality-show machinations for the last ten minutes or so.  We see Valerie somehow resplendent even in a soggy evening gown, even in a hospital room with her flamboyantly gay and morally superior hairdresser...  She becomes a real person once she is no longer a real person. She gets her husband and her groove back. 
The satire in The Comeback, like the satire in Candide, is mean-spirited enough to do damage and yet sophisticated enough to heal.  That sensibility is nowhere else in television or movies.  I miss it already.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is a true-crime fairy-tale that is all over the map tonally.  It does a strange dance across that map, moving from balletic/animal-grunting/brother-bonding/wrestling homage to chilly thriller about the frozen inarticulate seas between certain classes of men to a homoerotic plunge into lalaland to finally an examination of a love triangle that has no geometry to it, just a sort of lonesome collection of angles and points that end up cutting everyone into pieces.  Chiefly it's about Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympic-gold-winning wrestler whose brother, David, coaches him; John Du Pont, a rich crazy freak in the mold of Mr. Burns, contacts Mark to become his mentor in 1987, and eventually both David and Mark get caught up in Du Pont's fever-dream of self-delusion.   
At the start of Foxcatcher, Mark is giving a speech in front of some bored middle-schoolers, after which he receives a twenty-buck check written by the school secretary.  The whole enterprise feels totally sad .  After he cashes his check he goes home to his lonely apartment, eats Ramen noodles with hot sauce, and stares into space.  Mark is played by Channing Tatum, and it's Tatum's movie from start to finish.  The broody wordlessness that Miller turns into mood and scenes is overseen by Tatum's muscular, stony sorrowfulness that can't be exorcised outside of a wrestling match, outside of grueling training.  At times, Mark becomes so frustrated he starts hitting himself, punching his cheeks and forehead out of sheer frustration, and Tatum accomplishes these scenes without losing a sense of innocent abandon, a sort of ecstatic freedom born of self-flagellation, as if all he were meant to do on earth is beat himself to a pulp.  Tatum is definitely a movie star here:  he carries this movie through sheer commitment to a seemingly one-note part that cracks open into a world of heartache and isolation.  There's no redemption, just performance.
Speaking of which:  presenting Steve Carell as John Du Pont.  Carell's performance is helped along with a prosthetic nose and a pallid makeover that gives him a grim and yet almost glossy countenance.  He's like a monastic wicked witch, but also there's something of a lost and totally sad little boy uncurling constantly in his glassy eyes.  Carell does comic work here that can only be funny in this way because it's ensconced in tragedy.  His Du Pont slinks into the wrestling gym like a Will-Ferrell SNL character (remember that pretentious professor in the hot tub?), all glorious self-involvement and awkward arrogance, but also Carell, like the movie, lurches between caricature and total precision, and by the time the movie is through you don't necessarily understand why he does what he does, but you believe it all.  The laughter is part of the whole she-bang.  I put a picture of the actual Du Pont up top, and there you go:  he's Nosferatu getting arrested, right?  That's the gig here, a look into the sordid machinations of a super-rich mofo who seemed torn between sexual jealousy and sexual repression, aching for friendship, yearning for more, and yet unable to connect with anyone outside of his own implied social power structure.  Carell's best scene in the movie occurs when he tries to put on a big show in front of his ailing mother in her wheelchair (played with icy regal grandeur by Vanessa Redgrave):  all the wrestler he's bankrolling are ordered to sit on the floor while he stands above them awkwardly pontificating.  In the middle of his speech, his mother quietly orders her accompanying nurse to wheel her out of the room, obviously disgusted with her son's inability to do what he thinks he's doing.  He looks on with both frustration and surrender.  He owns the plantation after all, and when things don't go his way he seems to feel he has the right to kill what he considers his property.
The property he kills is Mark Ruffalo's David, Mark's older more attuned brother, who moves to Du Pont's Foxcatcher compound to coach the team (including his brother) Du Pont takes to the Olympics.  Ruffalo is  the normative hypotenuse of the triangle.  He's not the apple of Du Pont's eye; he's a tool Du Pont is trying to use to torture Mark psychologically, bringing him into the fold in order to solidify their relationship.  Ruffalo's brotherliness and kindness are so needed in this thing, and he accomplishes it all effortlessly, to the point you wonder why it all has to end the way it ends, with a totally banal shooting in front of a snowy little house.
The movie is all about a sort of glittering banality.  It takes true-crime into a dreamy world of fixation and realism.  It's probably one of the most precise evocations of the late 80s I've ever seen on screen, and not because it tries to evoke nostalgia as much as capture a mood of soft-lit devastation and fuzzy TV light and gaudy riches, all of it rolled into a hellish episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. You leave this movie not edified or fulfilled.  It's more like you're waking up from some beautiful, horrible nightmare closer to real life than nightmares should ever be.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

School Daze

Tuesday this week I got to visit some public schools in Hamilton, Ohio as a part of this Chamber of Commerce Leadership Training thing I'm in, and it was inspiring in a way I didn't think it would be.  I'm in this class with business leaders and non-profits leaders and sometimes I feel a little out of my element, but still there's a feeling among all of us I think that we just want to see how things work, and what their worth is. 
What truly touched me, though, was visiting this small elementary school out in a residential neighborhood in the middle of nowhere.  The principal there was hyper-cordial and super-excited in a way that didn't feel phony, and as we walked in the little kids there sang Christmas songs and they gave us hot chocolate.  It sounds corny as hell I know, but somehow it wasn't.  And as I got the lowdown on what the school is about, it made me think that the principal was truly curating the school's activities and identity and mission, as opposed to just running a school.  She seemed focused on making sure the kids that go to the school, and their parents, have as many opportunities as possible to explore what learning is, and also what life is.  They have taken the back few acres behind the school and transformed them into an "outdoor classroom," replete with log-stools and open-air nature-viewing areas.  They have a backwall of windows that the kids use for bird-watching, and have connected that ornithological exercise with some scientists via the Internet so that what they are accomplishing is more data collection that just plain old in-school activity.  We visited an art class filled with first-graders who had drawn crazy-looking monsters, and those drawings had been transformed into three-dimensional ceramic monster-dolls by some local high school kids, and some fourth and fifth grader were now assisting the first graders to write stories about their monsters, all culminating in an art-show at the local arts center next year.  We went into a math classroom where they were playing a gameshow based on learning percentages, a big wall-screen filled with phosphorescent gameshow graphics framing long rows of numbers.  Lots of sound effects and giggling and the kids totally in it to win it.  There was a sweet energy in the air, and even though it was partially because they were doing a dog-and-pony routine for the Chamber of Commerce Leadership thing I totally felt like this was just a day in the life, and that all the teachers and administrators and helpers and kids were doing what they wanted to do, only heightened because of being able to show off.
At the end, all of us were given gifts.  Mine is above, a red ceramic bowl I just took some photos of.  It's an object that really is a sort of icon, symbolizing something deep and simple.  It's beautiful because it comes from a really good place, that little school with its backyard woods and gameshow math classes and first-grade magic-marker monsters.  And I'm thinking maybe that school is more of an art gallery or art museum than most galleries and museums that try so hard to be galleries and museums.  The function of that school feeds the style and form; the energy comes from the art being used to make something better happen, and that sense of hope makes that little red ceramic bowl kind of glow.  It's a flower, it's a toad-stool, it's a monster's brain.  It's handmade and shiny, virtually nonexistent and yet purely what it is.  A lot of artists reach for that when they make their stuff, but can't find it because they want to conjure instead of produce, want to make something fine when they should just make something feasible and there.  That's where my heart is, I guess, when I look at art now:  I'm always trying to find that silly little red bowl in paintings and sculptures and performances and drawings...  That is the center of the universe somehow, something given to a stranger without knowing where it will go, all good intentions, no secondary need for attribution or even acknowledgment.  It hardly ever happens, me finding that moment, that purity, that whatever.  I saw it last year at the Mike Kelley retrospective in New York City.  I see it sometimes in the works we show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. and the shows at Visionaries + Voices.  But it's totally best when it just comes out of nowhere, not a surprise as much as a reprieve.
Back in 1961, one of my favorite artists, Claes Oldenburg, wrote a manifesto called "I Am for an Art..."  Here's part of its beginning mantra:

I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human....
I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.

That's a great description of what I felt at that little school on Tuesday, that sense that art happens in the most secret and mundane places and we don't have to see it for it to exist.  We just have to recognize it when we have the honor and opportunity, and then move on. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Just Wanted You to Know

We got off I-75 at Corbin, Kentucky, and right there is David's Steakhouse and Buffet.  Neon "choice steaks," a long brick ranch-style, a comfort.  As soon as you go in, they say howdy and it's not forced.  It feels like they really want you to be there, like church except less creepy because it's not church.  And you get your tray and they ask you what drink you want, and that smell of steakhouse-buffet, pleasant mix of dishroom bleach-water cutting through gravy vapors, fried-food phantom exhaust and spice-cake lit with 100-watt bulbs.  It's dark and homey in here, back-window glimmer and fluorescence combining into nursing-home kindness.  The buffet spans out like the control-panel in a great big spaceship except overflowing with country food, and protected by multiple sneeze-shields.  It's heartening.  It does not hurt to be here.  Everyone is like me, except they wear a lot of camouflage and say grace before they eat.  A gentleman-manager asks what drinks we'd like.  I say Diet Pepsi, and he offers up, "We have Diet Mountain Dew now too.  Just wanted you to know."
We pay the teenaged boy running the register.
We find out seats in the back area, with a big wall-installed TV showing a football game.  Kiwanis and Little League plagues all over the walls.  Paneling and beat-down carpet and chunky wooden tables with steak-sauce bottles and napkins.  A couple waitresses over on the other side of the room rolling silverware and talking about the snow. 
I go and get what I want:
  • Meatloaf covered in catsup and tasting like what I used to eat back when food was like this, totally simple and tasting like food, so stupid and simple it makes you want to cry, like you are eating a part of a couch from your childhood, like you are eating a day in your own past life, like you are finding a way to remember something that doesn't need to be remembered and yet comes through so loud and clear it makes you want to cry.
  • Baked chicken with the skin still on, soggy, just the kind of soggy necessary to make you feel alone with it.  Baked chicken sort of greasy but clean tasting, fleshy and stringy and hot, and there's a non-sauce to it, what has baked off in the pan, that tastes like Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup, that smell of being sick and eating even though you are sick,  total comfort in the face of all that's wrong, and you not knowing where you are going to be or go.
  • Fried okra from a deep-fryer, that taste of dirty grease somehow a delicacy now, here, but still reminiscent of restaurant work in the South, what's left on a buffet when you close.  Slimy sort of once you get past the breading, but still a taste of summer in there, bland and green and boring and yet again here I am enjoying it beyond enjoyment, close to those tears.  Nobody is sitting near us.  We eat like a little ceremony, like we've rehearsed eating this way.  Plate after plate, beautiful robot-hillbillies. 
  • Greens cooked to the point of not being green, splashed with vinegar:  that's what I wanted right away, this.  Mossy, gamy, gorgeous green, watery, vinegary, like mown grass transformed into a taste you always taste when you feel homesick, or at least when you feel like you need a place to hide. 
  • Cooked carrots, boiled to their banal essence, cooked into contentment.  They taste like you're eating a sentence you said in 1979, when you wanted not to talk but somebody made you.  Orange, grainy, disappearing across your tongue.
  • Banana pudding.  Like a prayer in a Baptist church.  Like amnesia with banana flavoring.  Vanilla wafers are so lovely, symbols of loneliness in a small town,
That's all I got.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

Something about Interstellar and East Tennessee, about time crushing into time the way a Faulkner novel collapses in on itself, Faulkner in outer space, As I Lay Dying staged on the 2001:  A Space Odyssey set. 
It was daylight when we went into the Cineplex in Johnson City, Tennessee the day after Thanksgiving 2014.  It was pitch-black when the movie was over and we stumbled out from a spaceship's hull into a dark mall parking lot.  And all that feeling around finding yourself trapped inside a moment you don't understand, kind of blissful and kind of not.  It was just a pretentious big-budget movie anyway.  But outside and inside of all the wormhole gobbledygook in it is an emotional strangeness, a wistful sense of what you can never figure out even if you have a big slate wall and lots and lots of chalk. Time itself is the main villain, sweeping and gutting meaning, seducing people into believing they can escape themselves while also swallowing them whole. 
That's the whole situation here.  My East Tennessee roots are pretty messed up, especially the relatives who did not escape.  They live in backwoods trailers and sad dilapidated suburban homes, and they either work crappy jobs or figure out ways to get on disability.  Some of them have kids they don't take responsibility for; some of them are strung out on oxycodone.   Some of them take responsibility for everything and look haunted.  Some of them are morbidly obese.  I think a few of them might be making meth.  I think a few of them still go to church, still go through the motions.  Those are my relatives.  It sounds like I'm a horrible judgmental person, which I probably am, but that's the truth when you pull away all the niceties, and every time I go I try not to see them even though that's what I'm there to do. 
Those mountains are so beautiful and yet so encoded with secrets you just try to not see them.  You go to the Dollar General any time you have a chance just to get out of it for a while.  You get a motel room a half hour away just so you can have a place to go to when you can't take it anymore.  I know that sounds awful.  But I was there before.  I witnessed all these sad sunken people through a kid's eyes 30, 35, 40 years back.  I followed them through to what they are and what they aren't now (and what I am and what I'm not now too), and the "then" wins because it has a sort of insulated hopefulness, a sense that we will all be immune, even when you know it's all going to hell.  At least there's time to take the pain through, to help tell the story, back then.  The story is now finished however, or at least close.  It has devolved to nothing, into dark-night mountain roads without any streetlights, into a Golden-Corral Thanksgiving so dreamy and claustrophobic it was like being on a boat of refugees, into a meanness inside a tree that you can't get at but know is there, into a sallow, gaunt face inside a trailer window. 
One story that sticks with me from this last trip:  one of them was arrested last year when she was riding in a truck with her five-year-old son and her 65-year-old boyfriend, and the boyfriend was drunk-driving.  Turns out she was drunk and high too, and the kid was only wearing short-pants in the back of the truck.  It was like 30 degrees.  It all got into the paper.  She got arrested.  Her kid was taken away.  He's back with her now.
And then that movie with all those arctic mountains, frozen clouds, pristine spaceships, glowing rings around Saturn, boxy robots and blighted cornfields.  That pounding organ soundtrack, the seriousness filling your head with an artificial urgency you often crave in real life.  All of it perfectly executed.   Time is suspended.  Someone else is in control of what you see.  You witness the world without the world in it.  You go in when its daylight and come out to night.  The alchemy happens but then dissolves, and you know who you are again, but still there's a manic/magic little interregnum, moments before you make it to the car in the parking lot, when that darkness maybe isn't darkness, but made up, and maybe everything is made up, and then you're back where you are, wanting not to be there, and yet that's kind of life itself.  
My sister, who didn't want to be here either, took my mom Christmas shopping while Bill and I and my sister's husband snuck away to see Interstellar. Mom and my sister were waiting in the dark outside the Cineplex in my sister's car.  We had planned to go out to dinner with mom and her husband but he got sick at work and went home early.  Mom, Bill, my sister, her husband, and I went to Longhorn Steakhouse closer to where she lives.  We ate there, and then once back at her little house (the right side of a duplex) out in the middle of a mountain road, the snowy, muddy outside of it surrounded in the lawn ornaments she likes to buy and display, she gave us our Christmas gifts:  a wallet, a set of holiday candles.  And my sister's husband put together a lamp my sister got my mom during their shopping spree, a floor-lamp with glossy amber glass shades.  Bill and I found out they didn't have light bulbs, so we offered to go buy some at Dollar General.  My mom's husband, who is real big, was in his bedroom, still feeling sick.  He was in bed, watching a little TV in there; you could almost feel his exhaustion like you feel heat through a register.  We drove those dark mountain roads back to civilization and got light-bulbs at Dollar General, a boxy small over-lighted place filled with snack-cakes and coat hangers and toilet paper and magazines and chewing gum and rubber-bands and little girl dresses and furniture polish and mittens and socks and furnace filters and steak sauce and so on so forth.  People milled in and out buying stuff.  It was cold and spitting snow.  Once we got the light-bulbs we went back to my mom's place and for a second I felt like this might be the best visit we've ever had because I was able to avoid everyone but mom and her husband.  And I was able somehow to make sense of everything because I did not have to witness it.  Which might be a triumph, I guess.  Hiding from things is one way to survive them, and here we were in the dark, walking up the muddy path to my mom's front porch, delivering light-bulbs, and we went in, put the light-bulbs in the lamp.  Everybody said it looked great.  Then the phone rings, and it's one of those relatives we were avoiding with her latest little flare-up.  Mom retreats into her bedroom, and Bill, my sister, her husband and I wait, listening to her voice, looking at each other, kind of knowing suddenly how unimportant we are to her, even though it's vitally necessary to see her, be with her, especially as she gets older. 
I kept flashing on scenes from Interstellar, sitting there, waiting to go back to the motel in Johnson City.  Kept my focus on distant frozen ferocious planets and videos from dead relatives making astronauts cry and blighted cornfields bursting into flames and chalk boards filled with equations that never really work out.  Right then I knew that Christopher Nolan's movie is probably a masterpiece because it somehow leaked out of itself into a realm most movies can't attach themselves to anymore.  Nolan has left his Batman bull-shit behind.  His Kubrickian genius somehow melted in the face of his own heartfelt need to make something beyond Kubrick, and he found moments, completely plastic but still warmed up enough to cause a chill, an impulse for nostalgia and memory almost like Proust and almost like Hallmark and yet irrevocable, kind of real.  All of those tricks and sentiments shined to a supernatural gloss, and played on a screen in East Tennessee.  I guess it was meant to be.
This is a picture of the motel we stayed in in Johnson City.  The place we went back to after saying goodbye to mom and her husband:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Blanche Dubois in a Tracksuit

The first two episodes of the second season of The Comeback have been pure bliss: humiliating, hilarious, poignant, sad...  Basically the new shows are a direct extension of what made The Comeback's 2005 season so incredibly satisfying.  Almost every review I've read of both seasons, however, focuses solely on the show-business satire:  Valerie Cherish trapped in a world that does not want her, the superficial, vanity-drenched universe of reality TV and/or Hollywood in general.  But I think the setting and situation are just red herrings, glossy reasons to make a show.  Valerie Cherish is one of those characters that not only satirizes and parodies excess (in Valerie's case:  vanity, star-hunger, ambition beyond ability, etc), but also somehow has connective tissue to a reality and pathos way beyond satire.  She's full-fledged, made from parts that seem totally valid and emotionally relevant.  She's not a cartoon.  Her behavior carries with it moments of extreme illumination on what it means to be a human being in a pretty nasty world that often crushes spirits while also remaining totally blank-faced.  I know this sounds totally overblown and very Valerie-Cherish-ish, but I kind of liken her to Blanche Dubois or Willie Loman, two beautifully flawed extremely irritating but spiritually poignant symbols of humanity trying to maintain grace and sanity in a universe not built for them, or not even aware of their wants and needs.

In short, Lisa Kudrow does a drag here that pierces through the kitsch and shame, until finally at the end of the day Valerie is one of us. 

The new season's first two episodes illustrates this point a little more succinctly than a lot of the first season's episodes.  In one gorgeously penultimate moment, Valerie tries to sell herself to HBO so she can portray a horrible version of her real self on a semi-autobiographical HBO-deluxe "dramedy" about the rotten little sitcom she was co-starring in almost ten years ago (one of The Comeback's kickiest conceits is the use of meta upon meta upon meta narrative intaglios).  The show is titled Seeing Red, and Paulie G, her arch nemesis from the first season of The Comeback, and the creator of that rotten little sitcom, Room and Bored, has written it.  She stumbles upon this fact, and at first tries to maintain "dignity," as Valerie likes to call it, only to twitch and squirm until she winds up in front of a bunch of hipster-icy HBO execs asking her to "cold-read" a scene for them in which her character, Mallory Church, barks out a pissed-off monolog about how she's sick and tired of being the "old lady," the "joke," the "unfuckable one."  It's a truly Blanche-Dubois-meets-Carol-Burnett-as-Eunice moment, and yet Blanche wins out in the end.  Kudrow plays the meta-meta seriously, to the bone.  That room of execs is blown away, as are we, because we know what she is saying is so true, at least in this context and more-than-likely in many more contexts, and we're on Valerie's side not because of gender inequality of anything, but just because her tragedy is given to us without restraint or audience-pleasing satirical obsequiousness.  Valerie's anger, while it will never come out in the real world, is given a moment to geyser in that HBO conference room, and in the steam heat we feel every frustration she's ever felt.  And we somehow know her frustration is ours.

Valerie is a clown, but her clownishness is not alien to the species.  In fact it is elemental, a facet of human consciousness and behavior that we all like to pretend we don't share.  She is embarrassingly self-serving, manipulative, pathetic, status-conscious, overwhelmed by her desire to be what she can't be, and yet all of those traits don't alienate her from us.  They bring her to us somehow.

Valerie's relationship to another clown, her hairdresser Mickey Deane (played with soul and verve and a beautiful exhaustion by Robert Michael Morris), gives us another way to witness her self-involvement and also her hilarious co-dependency.  Mickey dotes on her, protects her, actually establishes a zone of tranquility for her, and in turn Valerie simultaneously thanks/ignores/berates/belittles/compliments him all in one fell swoop.  Their dance together dramatizes one of those great comedic couplings in which timing and chemistry and a total dedication to (as Valerie would say) "honoring the wonderful material" written for them.  They move through their days together completely unaware of the tragedy of their adventures, and yet also secure inside a plastic bubble of their own making.  They take care of each other's need for self-importance and applaud the smallest of one another's triumphs.  It's a joy to witness, even while you wince.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wicked Witch

Frances McDormand plays the title character in Olive Kitteridge, an HBO miniseries that debuted earlier this month, and she is more than remarkable, so remarkable it's hard to explain.  Directed by Lisa Cholodenko and based on a novel by Elizabeth Strout, Olive is the story of a middle-class family in Maine who make ends meets stoically but also with a passive-aggressive sense of humor and a grim sense of irony.  McDormand plays the matriarch with an uncanny lived-in charisma that is never displayed, only smoldered, delivered through her eyes, the way her mouth is shaped into staccato sentences, the way she picks up and puts down dinner plates and garden gloves and greeting cards.  A dour school-teacher with a lust for life that somehow gets translated into meanness and rudeness, Olive is someone who is never satisfied but also never figures out why.  She just continues moving forward, making what she can of what she has, either as a wicked witch, a put-upon spouse, a Madame-Bovary wannabe, or a down-to-earth champion of people most people want to ignore.  Olive surveys 25 years of Olive's life with her sweet, doting husband (played to innocent perfection by Richard Jenkins), their confused, pissed-off son, and an assortment of sad, sometimes suicidal friends and family who pass through. 

Cholodenko and screenwriter June Anderson convey all of that time and incident through a poetry steeped in banality and yet intensified by melodrama and violence.  It's a blissful mix of soap-opera and character-study, without losing the juicy texture of either.  Cholodenko has a Douglas-Sirk sense of heightened stylized scene-making, but also a melancholy Emily-Dickinson sense of cut-to-the-chase pathos.  It's a large movie really, expansive and yet completely whittled down to essences, which describes McDormand's performance too.  Both director and actor seem to share the same sense of aesthetic connection.  But it's McDormand's sensibility that somehow sends it all over into a territory of pure greatness.   She blurs together really horrible personality traits with genuineness and kindness, a mix-and-match humanity that allows Olive to glow incandescently without losing her acidic center.  She never changes, barking out rude orders, saying whatever comes to her mind, harboring deep-seated hatreds and jealousies and yet also so close to real you can see yourself in almost every move she makes.

The penultimate scene, the one McDormand grabs onto with so much quiet gusto it's breathtaking, is during the marriage of her son to a woman from an uptight California family.  The wedding is taking place at her son's house near the Maine coast.   Right after the nuptials, exhausted by all the phoniness, Olive in wonderful Olive fashion, decides to take a nap in her son and new wife's bedroom.  Through a constant slew of interruptions Olive stubbornly tries to sleep away the consternation, and at one point, the bedroom door slightly ajar, she overhears her new daughter-in-law gossiping about her, saying how strange and bitchy she is, and even mocking the dress Olive made for herself, a floral sweet homemade-looking frock that kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in the array of California-lady fashions at the ceremony.  As soon as the daughter-in-law finishes, Olive juts up and seems to be in a fever-state of despair/anger/regret.  There happens to be a notebook with a yellow highlighter on it next to the bed.  She grabs the marker and opens the closet door.  She grabs one of her daughter-in-law's beautiful silk blouses, unfolds it, takes the marker and draws a long fluorescent line on the sleeve.  She folds the blouse and replaces it.  Then she sees on top of the dresser a pair of earrings.  She steals one, placing it into her pocket.  She returns to the bed and naps.

McDormand does something in this scene you can't really convey in words.  She's a zombie, she's a hurt animal, she's a pissed-off middleaged lady tired of being treated like shit -- she's all of that at once through her gestures, her seemingly blank facial expressions filled with a million emotions, her rigid yet somehow fluid moves through that bedroom.  She is claiming her dignity, but also somehow giving up on herself. 

It's one of those moments you won't ever forget.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mask Theory

Friday I had a phone conversation with someone at the end of my work-day so truly frustrating I got so angry after it I felt as if I weren't going to be able to think for the whole weekend.  It was one of those fumy, funky feelings you get when you are confronted with a point of view so completely outside of your own it feels as if you've been kidnapped and thrown in a basement for a while. 

The different point of view has to do with all kinds of stuff, but mainly the topic of heated discussion was about the people with developmental disabilities we were both trying to support.  I'm not going to get into anything specific because it's not worth it here, but I figure I might as well blog about the Big Issue which is:  how do you separate people from their historical origins, from their tropes?  How do you pull the "type" away from the way you talk about and connect with them? 

The person on the other end kept laying claim to people, as in "my clients," or "my people," and I just don't do that.  That "my" becomes plantation-esque somehow, indicating an ownership that feels grounded in institutions and brainwaves from the past.  I think the fury I felt truly came from that alone mainly, hearing that "my" over and over and over, and then today rehashing the whole thing I thought about Diane Arbus' photographs of people with developmental disabilities taken during a Halloween party at a state institution back in the early 1960s.  One of them is above.  Somehow that "my" is trapped in that same moment above, that cryptic, masked sense of no-self, no-determination, no-ambition, just a group of identities only given identities as a group.  

How do we help get rid of those masks?  How can we separate the way we think and act from that instant classification, that instant knowing what's best, that "my-ness"? 

One way I guess is by always knowing what's up, and by not saying the "my" and also knowing why you don't say "my."  Still that's just semantics, still just a version of self censorship.  The move to make might be empathetically created (as in "I wouldn't only want to be thought of as only part of a group," etc.) but also it has to be functionally practiced.  We often think of ethics as only connected to an HR training or a high school course we took and slept through, rules that don't really matter outside of saying they do, ephemeral pontificating.  But ethics, in the way I'm trying to figure them out, are only important when acted on, as in erasing that ownership sensibility by understanding its weirdness and unkindness and moving forward from that, outside of platitudes, outside of words.  Doing something about it.

It was words, of course, that pissed me off so much on Friday.  That and the fact it was Friday and nobody wants to get into a work argument or any kind of argument on Friday afternoon.  But the words highlighted something very deep:  you can't take action until you figure out what's wrong with the way you're thinking about the actions you take. 

In this stuff, ethics are so important because they can allow you to unmask yourself.  And without a mask you, and everyone else, can see exactly who you are.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Living Wages

A lot of times in trainings and meetings people use Clip-art configurations in their Power-point presentations just to gussy things up, or to prove a point without having to prove a point, almost like instant branding.  Clip-art allows anyone a catalog of pictographs and overarching almost blank logos to "explain" things without really accounting for the explanation.  Clip-art provides a shortcut that leads back to the fact something can't be codified, can't be illustrated:  everything is complicated and yet easily simplified.  In my case I go to a lot of trainings and meetings about employment for people with developmental disabilities, and somehow the Clip-art responses to that grouping of abstractions ("people," "disabilities," "employment") come off so inept as to be ironic, even absurd, not because the people in the Clip-art depictions aren't depicted in wheelchairs for diversity's sake, or whatever.  It's not the visuals.  The simplicity of the "Clip-arting" process is the main problem:  hugely complicated topics can't be easily abstracted especially while you're living through them.  There's no ap for that.
Helping/supporting people with disabilities to get actual jobs with living wages is about trying to do a lot of activities people on all sides of the table aren't used to.  It's about decreasing the importance of programs and increasing the importance of expectations both on the people we're trying to help get real jobs, and on the employers.  These expectations vary of course.  On the part of the people with disabilities, we are counting on them to have the skills and desires and competencies needed to work; on the part of the employers, we are counting on them to think beyond stereotypes and to make hiring decisions based on a person's skills and desires and competencies, not on charity or pity.  The equation sounds simple, but it is so complex as to become confusing, even depressing.  The contemporary history of vocational ambitions for people with developmental disabilities is pretty dismal:  consigned to sheltered workshop making sub-minimum wage.  In the 1980s a service set called "supported employment" caught on for many folks, but still those segregated work spaces held on, so that a small percentage of "job-ready" people were referred for employment in the real world, but a vast majority were still told they "belong" in a sheltered work environment, always being told they weren't ready yet. 
In 2012 Employment First, a national initiative, came to Ohio, signed as an executive order by Governor Kasich.  It stipulates that all the service-systems statewide here in Ohio presume people are employable.  Are "ready."
"Ready" is a loaded word and concept, and as I keep trying to figure out how to help make employment happen for people (in tandem with a bunch of other folks, including social workers, counselors, family member, and employers, etc.) I always try to understand that not everyone we're trying to help "break through" will make it, and some may not even want to.  But my presumption is that all of us want to be contributors to the world, using whatever talents we have to make it a better place.  My presumption is everyone deserves a chance.  Lots of chances actually.
Good old Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire, had Blanche Dubois whisper, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."  With all this employment stuff, we are depending on the kindness, and open-mindedness of people with developmental disabilities, their family members, services providers, supervisors, CEOs, coworkers, and so on.  "Kindness," in this case, seems to be a process of seeing beyond what's right in front of you, and what's in the historical record, maybe even in the subconscious.  People who are not consigned to Sheltered-Workshop-Land often have images in their heads of groups of people with developmental disabilities in school on the little yellow bus, in backroom classrooms, on the playground in clusters.  They have images from TV and movies and literature that dictate these folks are helpless and in need of all kinds of "special" support.  People with developmental disabilities, and their service providers, advocates and families, often have a lot of fear about connecting with the "real world," about leaving behind the intended safety and comfort of programs designed to protect them and to perpetually "prepare" them for eventual "inclusion."  "Kindness" may be the only way for people on all sides of the equation to see, without blinders, a world in which many people often considered not "ready" are actually capable of contributing and ascending even.
So employment is maybe one of the only ways to put social change into practice, to test the boundaries of "kindness," not charity or pity, but a kindness that is predicated on the Golden Rule that essentially states: You should treat others as you would like others to treat you. 
Pretty simple.  Bet there's no Clip-art for that though.  
In summation, here's a picture:
This happened last week -- a team of temporary employees with developmental disabilities became full-time employees of ThyssenKrupp Bilstein, a company in Southwest Ohio that makes auto-parts.  They had to work really hard to prove themselves, not just because it's a hard job, but because they don't have the luxury of not being labeled.  That labeling is an obstacle everyone involved has to overcome.  The employer had to figure out how to accommodate for a few things, but also expect great things; the employees had to figure out how to word hard and push forward and even maybe surprise themselves with how strong they are; the job coaches, families, supporters, and supported employment people had to figure out how to make all of this work without interrupting efficiency and the workplace.  It goes on and on.  Complications arise, but the will to incorporate those complications (not really solve them, but contend with and work with it all) becomes a version of "kindness," and eventually a little bit of triumph,  Right beside the big ThyssenKrupp Bilstein sign stands the CEO Fabian Schmahl, who gave a great speech and then handed each new employee their uniforms.    
Without employment, this process on all sides would have never happened.  It was not a Utopian moment, as much as a simply joyous one.  Which is probably a lot better, at least from my point of view.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

All of the Above

Five years.  When I think about it, it's kind of dumbfounding and inevitable at the same time.  Bill and I have been doing Thunder-Sky, Inc. for five years.  We've had a lot of help from a lot of great people, but we've kind of been the ones who push and prod this whatever-it-is (gallery/studio/fan-club/clubhouse/limbo) forward, very slowly forward, the way Raymond kind of moved:  intent, focused, but also nonchalant, maybe insouciant, not caring and yet caring, building and demolishing simultaneously because he knew how the world works. 
Above is a photo from October 30, 2009.  That was the debut gig at Thunder-Sky, Inc., when we opened a show called "Raymond Nation."  Looks like a stalwart ghost dangling in a walk-in freezer.  I love that chill Raymond imparts.  He never really let you know exactly how he was feeling or what he was thinking; he was cryptic in the best possible way.  I respect that so much looking back, how he just followed through on his own strictly self-determined purpose, how he built a life out of demolition and fury and happiness, how it all became what he wanted it to become till the very day he died. 
And that's why I keep beating this dead horse.  Because Raymond's purpose was to make something out of nothing and to do it without a lot of bull-shit or a lot of attention.  He had a purpose beyond all that and yet he wasn't above any of it.  He relished obscurity as much as relishing those tiny moments of appreciation he was allotted at the end of his life (a few shows of his work at Base Gallery, Visionaries + Voices, and other places we were able to find to exhibit his drawings).  But he also understood the joke of his existence so much so that the joke became his kingdom.  He played it all up -- clownishness, construction-worker-ness, his strangeness and alienness given superhero qualities by his own hand.  And in those drawings he left behind you feel him laughing, sneering a little, letting us know he does not give really a shit, except for the big things like prisons crumbling and being replaced by card-tricks and clownishness, a whole industry of trickery and sarcasm.
He was punk.  He was innocence.  He was experience.  He was a freak who made that freakishness a route to grandeur and hilarity and self-knowledge.
Most of all he was what he was, without apologies.  He was scary in the way clowns can be scary.  He was lovely in the way clowns can be lovely.  He was hard-working, he was mysterious, he was very simple. 
And so this is why we keep doing Thunder-Sky, Inc.:  because I truly can't find any other role-model, any other reason, to organize/coordinate artistic endeavors outside of that stream of light.  Maybe it's obsession or stupidity or stubbornness (probably all of the above), but somehow Raymond's life was too elementally metaphoric and wildly outlandish and secretively productive to forget, to be placed in a pile of other file-folders marked "outsider art" or "people with disabilities" or "folk hero" or "mysterious stranger."  He deserves his own little hall of fame, and so here it is, at least for a little while.  At least another year. 
This is a year to year thing.  It has to be.  We don't want it to become bigger than it needs to be.  So Thunder-Sky, Inc. has an under the radar quality, a homespun do-it-yourself-ness that tries to run away from being labeled or even being appreciated.  It is a little place that does not want to be anything except exactly what it is in the very moment you see it.  And for most of the year it's doors are closed anyway.  Open only on weekends, and on the Fridays we have opening receptions (6 times a years), or when someone wants to do a poetry reading, or any other special occasion that seems worth it. 
Thunder-Sky, Inc. is a non-profit ghost in the machine.  We do what we have to do to make things move, but not a lot of anything else.  Like Raymond and his drawings:  elemental, precise, completed, on to the next thing.
We're celebrating the five year anniversary next Friday, October 24, 2014, with a show called "The New Clownville Amusement," with Raymond-inspired works by Robert McFate, Curtis Davis, artists who use the Visionaries + Voices studio, artists from Able Projects, Antonio Adams, the Waldecks and friends, and many wonderful others.  This show came together like all of the other ones we do, things piling up and then somehow organized into a semblance of order through just doing it.  The five year anniversary means Raymond has been gone for ten years.  Ten years.  Good Lord.  He won't disappear.  Even if Thunder-Sky, Inc. disappears Raymond won't.  He is building and destroying things in all kinds of ways right now that we can't even fathom, which is the way it always was anyway.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prison Life

I went for a tour of a prison this week, as part of a chamber of commerce leadership training class thing I'm doing.  It's a weird industrial kind of faded sadness the place evokes.  Everything in the architecture and décor is spare and metallic and rote, but there's a feral smell wafting through the air, a smell of sleep and old socks and sore throats and rainy afternoons in trailers.  It's the smell of an Arby's uniform after work, a stink that goes undetected mostly because it's never allowed outside of its vicinity, its distinct zone.  You are trapped with that odor if you have any connection to it though.  It's yours.  And the prison pods I toured with other professional types had that stink but it was captured so you could breath it in without having to live through it, so it almost becomes a sort of souvenir, a sense memory, a joke. 
But I've lived with that smell many times in my life.  I'm from lower-income stock, have lived in Section 8 apartments, have worked a number of really crappy jobs.  I know what that smell is, and it really made me feel connected to something you don't really want to be connected to, but you have to get used to because its who you are, not so much a destiny as an element, a chemical vapor.
When we toured the pods, you could see a few prisoners waiting out our visit in their cells.  We even were told we could look into a cell or two, and what we saw was what you'd think we'd see.  A silver metallic sink and toilet, bunk beds, linoleum, cinder-block blankness.  It was not horrifying in anyway, just routine and drab and on the edge of total disappearance, that exact moment before everything gets taken away. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Piece of Cake

Gone Girl is a zeitgeist-fueled masterpiece of exurban, media-drenched, cynical, creepy, hilarious, 21st Century, true-crime-porn, all of that fermenting and fomenting inside a McMansion straight out of a Sominex commercial, with a backyard shed filled with man-cave accoutrements as if Santa Claus has had a bipolar episode.  It is maximally vicious and empty-headedly blissful at the same time.  You watch with a sense of dread and also a strange giddy anticipation.  David Fincher has directed it as a grotesque yet hyper-elegant gloss on film-noir, as well as a shiny-switchblade parody of Lifetime TV movies.  It moves effortlessly toward a bunch of conspicuously unbelievable yet completely realized revelations that shed light on nothing but what movies can be when they are ridiculously well-constructed.

Ben Affleck's Nick is in a shitty marriage to Rosamund Pike's Amy, and the movie begins with her supposed abduction.  I think the conceit the movie is based on (from a bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn who also did the screenplay) is that you don't know who is telling the truth.  But that conceit within a minute or two of the movie is completely vanquished:  the conceit in fact is deliriously deceitful.  It's obvious from the get-go Nick is victim and Amy is victimizer, and that Gone Girl is a charged-up reboot of the old-school femme-fatale plots of  potboiler books and movies like James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and/or Double Indemnity.  While Nick is not really innocent (he has an affair with his young creative-writing student for Pete's sake), he is framed in the movie as a goofy but sweet, five-o'clock-shadowed loser, playing board-games with his twin sister while downing late-morning bourbon in a bar his wife purchased for him.  In the first five minutes of Gone Girl his put-upon stature is cemented:  he arrives home to make sure his pet cat is okay only to find evidence of a break-in and the disappearance of his beautiful blonde wife, an effete, over-schooled knock-out who had to move back to Missouri with him because Nick's mom was dying.

From that initial scene of surprise to a rush to judgment to Nick having to find a defense attorney, the movie's elegant race between back-story (Nick and Amy's first kiss in a "sugar storm" outside a bakery at night, Nick and Amy getting married, Nick and Amy's first fight over money, and so on) and the churn of present-day abduction-story to-dos (Nick and Amy's uptight parents holding a press conference and vigil, suspicious police detectives pursuing the truth and so on) culminate halfway through the movie to a point-of-view switch.  We find out -- guess what? -- Amy has not been abducted or killed or anything like that.  She's just plain pissed and by pissed I mean she's created and executed a whole abduction narrative so detailed and fierce it's obvious this bitch is crazy.  She makes up diary entries to incriminate Nick, draws her own blood to splatter in the kitchen, befriends an idiotic pregnant lady next door so she can steal her pee for a fake pregnancy test.  And on and on and on.  Amy obviously is a femme-fatale Fincher and Pike have assembled as a collage of Madonna in all the videos Fincher made with her, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, and a plethora of other blonde-haired, steel-eyed super-sexy ladies who do really terrible things and look fantastic doing it.  Pike's performance is gorgeous and stony and joyous to watch.  She's a robot Medusa, and her voice-over sections as she lets us in on  all her secrets are venom and music combined.

Fincher is the superstar here though.  This is one of those movies you watch knowing how meanspirited and pissy it is and yet the style overcomes the substance, and you are in the presence of true movieness.  And by "movieness," I mean this is a movie that is not about real life in any way shape or form:  this is a work of art referencing (i.e. stealing from) other movies (including Fincher's own back catalog classics like Zodiac, Panic Room and Seven) and spectacularly using those references in pursuit of pure, stupid, cinematic ecstasy.  Fincher, like Hitchcock, understands that movies are not pieces of real life.  They are pieces of cake, and this movie is a morally rotten yet deliciously decorated wedding-cake.  You enjoy every slice not as a reflection of reality, but as an orgasmic joke on it.  Movies like this make going to the movies an experience beyond verisimilitude or an exercise in getting blown away by computer-generated images of oceans toppling over skyscrapers.  Style is Fincher's goddess here; he worships it with every shot, and you follow him wanting to be awestruck by his audacity and dedication to doing what he needs to do.  By the end of Gone Girl, you understand nothing about male-female relationships or 21st Century America or any of that.  You're just grateful Fincher made a movie that makes you feel somehow enchanted, even overcome by, what movies can be and do, no matter what they are about.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Comedy Is Not Pretty

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig do something in The Skeleton Twins, their new movie, that a lot of other comedic actors can't do:  they take what they do best and merge it with a sensibility that helps them transcend their shtick.  Call it the The Robin Williams Syndrome, I guess, but when many great comedians try to make dramatic turns they often bring along their old stand-up/sketchy baggage with them, and the dramas they are in "make room" for this, or try to erase it all together.  Think of Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go, or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, or Steve Martin in Pennies from Heaven, or Robin Williams in most anything, and you get the idea:  their "funny" personas take over the atmosphere and what results is a movie about them trying to alter who they are, without maintaining a sense of what the actual movie is trying to get at.
Hader and Wiig maintain their off-kilter freakish comedic selves in The Skeleton Twins, but they use their Saturday Night Live skills to hone in on how actual off-kilter, freakish human beings interact, damage and sometimes save one another.  It's a movie that starts with two suicide attempts, and ends with one, and yet there is a light touch to Craig Johnson's direction and writing so that the drama, even though it's pretty melodramatic, becomes integral to the comedic undertones, to Hader's and Wiig's skills at being weirdos trying to figure out how not to drown in their own weirdness.  They play a brother and sister who haven't spoken to each other in over ten years, and are reunited after Hader's character winds up in the hospital after slicing his wrists.  Through the course of the movie, they become entangled yet again in each other's lives and revert back to their old selves.  Somewhere in there are other fantastic performances by Luke Wilson, as Wiig's goofy sweet husband, Joanna Gleason as their pseudo-loving, New Age mother, and Ty Burrell as Hader's weak-kneed ex-lover (who seduced him in high school while he was his English teacher).  
The Skeleton Twins moves forward effortlessly, and its pleasures come from both moments and the momentum it takes to make those moments feel actual and earned.  But the main scene I recall, the one that truly gets at how Hader and Wiig escape themselves and become actual people, is halfway in, when Wiig, a dental hygienist, cleans her brother's teeth.  She gives him some laughing gas to get over initial fears, and the scene unfurls from that, with Wiig cleaning Hader's teeth and then both of them getting in on the gas, until finally they wind up in the records room of the dental office, sliding down to the floor and remembering who they used to be and how easy was to be that.  There's some ad libbing, some face-making, some shtick, and yet it all feels completely necessary, even organic.  You feel like you're eavesdropping instead of watching a movie, and that intimacy makes the whole film snap to suddenly.  Wiig and Hader become true brother and sister right before your eyes, and the ache of their love and torture becomes not just stylized "hurt," but something you can connect with, even compare to real life.
That's not comedy or tragedy or drama -- it's art.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"What I Love Is Near at Hand"

Bill and I started a ritual a couple weeks back.  We go for a Friday after-work walk at Spring Grove Cemetery.  It's a truly beautiful place in the middle of neighborhoods and nothingness, and as you walk through its hilly, calm, planetary atmosphere you start to feel connected to a way of understanding things that's transformative without movement or strife or even thought.  All those gravestones, all that sunlight splashing off of leaves.  And the smell as you go from bright sunlit oxygen into a small ravine shadowed with old trees, musty, cool and secret, the sunshine falling through in short silvery intervals onto gravel and dirt.  It's a smell you remember but can't name (lost rivers, empty buckets, old water-hoses), like a drug you took as a teenager that was so pleasant you can never have that same experience ever again.  Lost time or maybe a dream of lost time is what it is, nostalgia stirred and then left still.

We don't talk that much as we walk. 

The place is expansive, falling off into hills, statues, little mock-cathedrals and marble vaults.  You don't want to talk.  Just walk.  Engraved names and dates, weather-beaten angel faces turning into morphined skulls.  It's not spooky though, just pleasantly exactly what it is.  It's the recent gorgeous weather too:  too clear to get into your head, the sky so fluorescent blue and cellophane yellow you can't really appreciate it without wincing.  Just walking, past all those graves, all those people's lives.  It doesn't feel creepy because it meanders close to what poetry is supposed to make you feel when it's done right.  The whole atmosphere slows down to elements you can worship, or at least ponder without having to understand.  You're there in the moment and everything is sparkling and kind of monumental but nothing is scary or complicated or rushed.  Just walking, like that, through the end of the afternoon.   The prehistoric boniness of the trees, the thickets surrounding the cut grass, the swampy waters stirred by fountains, rock-bridges and patches of dead weeds... 

I kept thinking about Theodore Roethke.  He truly is the one poet I think about the most.  His poems have a beveled but somehow amateurish sense of architecture that makes you feel like you're experiencing Shakespeare and Henry Darger simultaneously, that mix of "high" and "low," or whatever, pouring forth, sculpted and shorn into a constant death and rebirth.  His poems have their own equinox, their own cemeteries.  These are lines from The Far Field:

The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers, --
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Earlier this week, I was at a conference organized around the idea that people with disabilities can have better lives if they get jobs with real wages.  This seems like a truly simple and true assertion, but also like anything that seems simple and true the idea is fraught with complications because, well, it's people.  You just can't make assertions like that without considering history, perceptions, experiences...  And you can't really assert anything for sure when talking about "people with disabilities" anyway.  That's a category, not actual people, when you get down to it.  Actual "people with disabilities" are individuals with all kinds of different needs, talents, interests, brilliances, predilections, shortcomings, etc.  In short it's hard to make something concrete out of something so abstract.

But maybe you have to.

The conference gathered together all kinds of folks, from people with disabilities (all kinds of disabilities, developmental, physical, and so on) to their families, from social workers to business people.  There was an energy in the air; maybe I'm making that up, but still...  It felt electric somehow, and serious, and everyone was paying attention to what's currently going on.  Supported Employment for people with disabilities is not a new idea of course, but this time we don't have the luxury of maintaining the status quo while pontificating and talking about "change."  We have to make it happen.  Medicaid rules are changing, and Medicaid funds the majority of supports for people with disabilities.  The changes are about prioritizing toward helping people have as much independence and equality as possible.  The rules changes come from all kinds of places within the federal government, not just Medicaid (Department of Justice and Department of Labor are in on it too, which makes sense, because the issue isn't really about social programs as much as civil rights and labor rights:  95% of people who don't make minimum wage on their jobs are actually people who go to sheltered workshops), so it's really hard to ignore. 

This time it's top down in ways it's never been.  And on the ground are large programs/buildings/workshops that have been doing  business for decades in ways that the Feds are now calling unfair and possibly illegal. 

What does this mean?

It means maybe we who have jobs supporting people with disabilities, especially those with developmental disabilities, have been looking at the situation through the wrong set of eyes.  We often see issues for the people we support as programmatic.  How can we alter programs to help people?  But actually we should be looking at not the programs, but the results (the "outcomes" in government-speak) of those programs.  And the results just aren't that great; in fact they have kept a lot of people in situations they could possibly break away from, if only the programs they are in were in question.  In other words, the question should be, "What is happening in this person's life?  Is he/she getting what he/she needs to be successful?"  As opposed to the question we usually ask, "What program does he/she need to be referred to?"

Ronald Reagan (I know a lot of people will probably not like me quoting the Gipper, but what the hell?) once said, "The best social program is a real job."  And even though it's hyper-complicated to make results/outcomes happen, that's basically what we are talking about here:  how do we help people make a living wage?  How do we help people secure success (without the program getting in the way)?  How do we support people to be the best people they can be?
For better or for worse, this process of being the best you can be often has its foundation in what people do for a living.  And if you take that possibility out of the picture, you often are grasping at straws.  I've met a majority of my friends through work.  A majority of my identity as a person is informed solely by my job.  I've spent 36 of my 49 years working in restaurants, libraries, group-homes, etc. Yup.  I started at 13, riding my jankety moped to the Irish Point Restaurant in Pendleton, Indiana so I could be a car-hop and grill-cook.  After that I moved on to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Rax Roast Beef, Ponderosa Steakhouse, and so on.  I developed a work ethic through the process.  I think I may have learned more real lessons at all those jobs than anything I ever learned in school and college because it's all about putting yourself in the middle of things, being "in" the moment, and understanding you are a part of the world that is needed, that you have responsibilities and you are counted on.

By blocking entrance into this sense of responsibility, through programs, through good intentions, we who are trying to help people with disabilities are just plain hindering them.  We've been doing this for, well, since we figured out we needed to be helping.  We've constructed large programs and facilities that are about "training" people, but the training has gone on for decades without any results.  We're good at wanting to help.  Not so good at actually doing it.

So now there's a shift.  And I'm hoping it's for real.  I have a feeling it is.  Because at the end of the day the reason I chose this line of work is to not be a part of a program, but a part of a movement.  That sounds lofty as all get out, reminiscent of hippie BS, but it's true.  I don't have a lot of school spirit, never have, what pushes me forward is making stuff happen:  results.  I think that's true of a lot of social-worker-types, and we just get so caught up in the programs we make, funding them, going through certifications and audits for them, that we forget sometimes what they are there for. 

Anyway, that conference earlier this week truly made me feel like we're on our way toward something, as opposed to on our way to protecting what's already been done.  There may be people with disabilities who can't have real jobs, or maybe who don't want to have them, and that's okay.  What is exciting is that from now on, I think, I hope, the assumption is people can work and have lives and pay taxes and have beers with their buddies after work.  They can be"equal" in one of the truest ways to be equal:  as necessary contributors in getting things done.

Which brings me to Raymond Thunder-Sky. 

That's one of his drawings up there.   (Many more can be seen at www.raymondthundersky.org.)   Having a real job was Raymond's obsession, and he had a few (and also worked for a long time in sheltered workshops), did well at everything he tried, but the job that he truly craved, being a part of a construction crew, eluded him because he couldn't get a driver's license (that's one of the major prerequisites to being on a crew).  So he created a job for himself:  he began drawing sites, setting up shop on the periphery of demolition and construction sites with a toolbox filled with markers and paper. He became a ghost-worker in many ways, sublimating his desire for an actual gig with what he could actually do.  I'm thinking, in the climate of today, he may have been able, somewhere along the line, to get a license with some help.  With some persistence from both himself and his supporters he may have been able to at least try to have that career.  Maybe he would be both a participant in the real world, and an artist commenting and documenting his participation in it.

Anyway you look at it, this is an ongoing saga...  I hope, I truly hope, this time there are actual results.