Saturday, November 23, 2013

Gag Gift

The other night I stumbled across The Wrestler on TV.  I remember seeing it at a Cineplex in West Chester, Ohio back in 2009, and halfway through it I had to get up and go to the restroom because I was crying so hard.  That doesn't happen very often.  I mean I cry at sad movies, but it's the normal wipe-a-couple-of-tears-off-your-face way.  The Wrestler sent me into spasms.  It had everything to do with Mickey Rourke's performance, as well as the director Darren Aronofsky's ear and eye.  The scenes were so devastatingly specific they crushed me in a way that only real life does, almost as if I had lived through them with Randy "the Ram" Robinson. 
It's very hard to depict working class trash in literature and in movies because there are so many traps and tropes and tricks, you can kid yourself into creating a stereotype while also feeling your doing the world a favor.  Aronofsky's gift is taking a cliché -- a professional wrestled completely down on his luck searching for redemption -- and recalibrating the atmosphere and action so that it has a haunted, lived-in feel that makes you believe this shit is more than real:  it's alive.  The scenes when The Ram works at a deli-counter in a grocery-store are so vivid and dead-on you feel embarrassed and elated simultaneously, as The Ram doles out fried chicken and potato salad in plastic containers with a Vaudevillian shuffle and a showmanship that he just can't drop, even if he is working minimum wage and recovering from his latest heart-attack.  And the scenes with his daughter have that same bruised tenderness, that sense that The Ram understands his own joke and yet can't stop telling it over and over and over to an empty house.  The daughter, played with a glum effortlessness that fits each scene perfectly by Evan Rachel Wood, doesn't want to see The Ram in her front yard, but there he is, stepping out of his white-trash customized van, offering her gifts, haphazardly wrapped in old Christmas paper.  First off he gives her a "gag-gift" to warm things up:  a lime-green 80s bomber jacket.  You can see by the look on her face what she's thinking:  business as usual.  But then The Ram gives her the actual gift, the real thing:  a Navy blue pea-coat that seems just like her, sensible and working-class and a little glamorous too.  That's one of Aronofsky's great touches:  allowing The Ram enough self knowledge to understand the situation he's in, without losing the authenticity of being exactly what he is. 
There's a stubbornness on screen that is not acted out; it's lived and somehow embedded in every move the camera makes.  That desolate working-class neighborhood where The Ram's estranged daughter lives is in both my dreams and in my history, that feeling of being lost and wanting to be found but unable to tell anybody where you're hiding.  And The Ram's trailer home too:  nasty but not too nasty, a place you can see yourself living if you had to.  Nothing is too much, and yet Aronofsky and Rourke capture the extremes to the point you feel them as a part of your own world.  No judgment happens.  There's a crystal clear connection between who you think you are and what you are seeing.
It's empathy, but without any sense of uplift or heroism involved.
In my stories I try to construct characters that live in the same cosmically disjointed and kind of dirty universe The Ram populates.  It's truly hard because if you think about who might end up reading them it gets a little screwy.  The artistry comes from not shellacking over faults and perversions and creepiness, but finding a way to make "sins" universal, implicating people in these lives with an effortless sense of connection and nonchalance.  Or as Flannery O'Connor puts it (and by God I'm using this quote as an epigraph for the new book of stories):  "It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Workaholics Anonymous

The other night I was driving to the Thunder-Sky Gallery because we were going to have a meeting about how to best help people with disabilities access real employment, with actual living wages and a chance to move forward.  I had pulled together this informal group of likeminded people who actually do that, so we could talk shop and figure out how to negotiate all the systems and other forms of bull-shit that can impede the simplest and yet most arduous of tasks:  finding meaningful work. 
On the way there I got a call from a woman named Beverly, out of the blue.  She said she'd heard about Thunder-Sky, Inc. via an article online, and she was floored.  She was Raymond's job coach when he worked at M. E. Heuck, a company that makes kitchen utensils.  Raymond worked there for quite a while.  Beverly said that he had the strongest work ethic of anyone she'd ever seen.  "He was a true gentleman," she said.  "He was so focused on his work it was amazing to watch."  One time he came in off the bus looking roughed-up with a bruise on his eye.  Although he didn't talk too much, Beverly said she could tell that he had been mistreated probably by some teenaged boys.  "That kind of stuff happened a lot to him," she said.  Raymond, that day, just went right to work.  It was as if he was trying to work all the hurt out by staying in the routine. 
Everyone who really knew Raymond knew he was a workaholic.  All he really ever wanted was a good job, which often means also having a good life. 
Beverly said, "He really didn't need a job coach.  He could do the job.  But it was my pleasure to be able to visit him on the job when I did, just so I could talk with him and be in his presence." 
I got kind of choked up talking to her because it was one of those moments when things seem to coalesce, and those kinds of moments catch you so off-guard you almost want to hide from them.  We're always trying to think of the best way to continue Raymond's legacy.  The art gallery, and archiving all his drawings, is one way, but another way might be to figure out the best ways to help people like him get real jobs, and to put those best ways into practice all across the area.
So that night the group (we're calling ourselves The Believers and we're keeping it kind of on the down-low) met at his namesake gallery, and it was great.  People totally focused on the same issue talking about struggles and successes and also stumbling onto a sort of collective point of view:  the best way to help people is to get them working through connecting them with businesses and employers who need really good workers.  That sounds really simple, but in the over-complicated world of "helpful" bureaucracies that surround the lives of people with disabilities like creepy force-fields, this simplicity is often drained out so that every good idea gets stretched into a process that eventually yields nothing.  I know that sounds cynical, but that's it in a nut-shell.
How then do you decrease the bull-shit and increase the possibilities of real stuff happening?
Do it without making a big deal out of it.  Concentrate on one person at a time.  Concentrate on one or two businesses at a time.  Get to know both.  Find out what the person needs and wants.  Find out what businesses need and want.  Make the connections matter without a lot of fuss or process.  Just do it.  And then keep doing it. 
At the end of the discussion, we figured one of the best ways to make things happen is to keep doing what we're doing, and to meet regularly to compare notes and get new ideas from one another.  We also decided that each of us should invite one other likeminded person to come to the next get-together in January.  Grow slowly, keep each other focused, celebrate and learn from each connection we make.  Keep moving forward.  Don't let the need for bureaucracy and funding overrule the need for sanity and real accomplishments.  We figured that we use the system the way the system is supposed to be used by actually helping to make things happen, without enslaving ourselves to process and procedures.
I'll be inviting Beverly to the next one.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

And Who Knows What to Do with It?

This is from Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire

“Don't you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour - but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands - and who knows what to do with it?” 

You-know-who trills that phrase and almost all of the other great, hyper-poetic, drowsy, gorgeous lines in Streetcar:  Blanche Dubois.  Sweet sad decadent ridiculous beautiful Blanche, on her way from the Tarantula Arms to the nearest insane asylum by the end of her trip.

We went to News Orleans this past week.  It was the third time I'd been there, and this time the charm came through, not in a touristy, gaudy way, but in a sort of febrile, smelly, yet still delicately poetic manner.  The smells on all the streets in the French Quarter (and even beyond)  had a definite rotten taint but they also held a beautiful dank perfume, a promise that death becomes something else once you get past the stink, past what it is.  It was Blanche's thoughts I was smelling somehow, as if everything she'd ever said or imagined had gone olfactory, a New Orleans poetry of pheromones. 

Time somehow went to sleep in New Orleans this visit for me. 

Tennessee references that in the little quote above as well.  It actually did feel like time was turning into something other than measurement as we ate and drank ourselves into a sort of miniature oblivion, walking all over the city.  One afternoon, when it was pouring rain, and everything was hazy and gloomy, we went to the movies to get out of the mess.  We saw Gravity in 3D, in which a lady astronaut played by Sandra Bullock is in peril, floating above the earth, trying to find passage home.  It was so serendipitous as to be hypnotic, and a symbol of the whole trip. Watching Gravity covered in New Orleans rain, I saw Vivien Leigh's Blanche in my head, a sort of split-screen:  Sandra Bullock trapped in outer-space in computer-generated grandeur and Vivien Leigh trapped inside a cramped, sad tenement in Elysian Fields in glamorous black and white...  I don't know.  The whole visit was like that, disjointed, meaningful, but I didn't really know what to do with the meaning other than simply live with it, enjoy it in a way that goes beyond "enjoying" something. 

New Orleans truly is a work of art.  It has a way of escaping what it is by being exactly what it is.

(Thanks to Terri for making it happen.  And to Bill for taking some pictures.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

You're So Thoughtful

A couple weeks back I got invited to give a talk to a group of social-work students at Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI).  A friend of mine is in the MSW program there, and she asked her professor to invite me to speak about what I've done in my line of work as a sort of social-worker (I'm not a licensed anything, but I guess what I do both as a vocation and a practice beyond vocation could be characterized as "social-work.").  I also got my undergrad degree there in English back in 1991.  It was totally weird to walk the space-age hallways at IUPUI again.  The whole campus has the feel of a 1970s futuristic movie like Logan's Run.   I took along a Powerpoint Bill and I put together that commemorates the 10th anniversary of Visionaries + Voices (we started V+V in 2003), as well as the beginning of Thunder-Sky, Inc. in 2009.  The pictures are self-evident:  the reason I do what I do arts-wise is because of the people I met back in the late 90s and early 2000s, mainly artists like Raymond Thunder-Sky, Antonio Adams, Paul Rowland, and several others that were in photos from little gigs we did back in 2000, 2001, 2002, art-shows in public libraries and in coffee-shops and anywhere else that would have us, finally ending up with a studio in Essex Studios in Walnut Hills.  The V+V journey Bill and I took that started in 2003 and kind of ended in 2009 was totally a joy but also filled with little pockets of terror, frustration and shock.  I know that sounds melodramatic, but it's embarrassingly true.  We really dedicated our lives to it there for a while, to the point we couldn't pull who we were away from what it was, and more importantly what it was becoming.  I bet that happens to a lot with "founders" of anything.  We just kept at it so hard and so fervently that somehow it became a nightmare toward the end:  lots of creepy meetings and off-kilter emails and finally the feeling that everything we tried to do was kind of lost in the non-profit-professional shuffle. 
You can't really say that stuff to a roomful of MSW students, so of course I kept the whole thing inspirational (and truly many aspects of the V+V Experience were), but I kind of let them know that the main thing I learned from helping to start and sustain a non-profit organization for "artists with disabilities" was that you have to figure out the limits of believing in something before, during and after you start doing something about it.  If you don't understand those limits you start confusing yourself and others with your own heart-felt bullshit.  You can lose yourself in the "vision and mission" as it concretizes into something people can be paid for. 
You almost have to have a secret, strict resolve to remove yourself from "growth" and "outcomes" and "friend-raising."  I never went into the whole thing thinking it was about helping people with disabilities, to be honest.  I never considered the endeavor "social-work" or even charity.  I always saw all the people we were working with as peers and partners not in need of a lot of help outside of art supplies and opportunities to show and be seen.  I never thought the whole endeavor would morph into HR or Executive Committees or Elevator Speeches, even while I worked very hard to make those things happen.    
Anyway, during the little talk I gave, as I clicked from slide to slide, and year to year, I got a feeling that it was worth it in the end.  Because it has to be.  And Bill and I did Thunder-Sky, Inc. in 2009 to kind of recover what we felt we lost:  a simplicity of message, a graceful allegiance to one small idea.  I guess the main idea we're after is that art has a reason to exist in everybody's lives, and that the whole point for organizing around that idea is to have total equality from the get go.  Unfortunately when you organize things conventionally, order and control kind of take over (it's a people business after all), and you lose things, including your purpose.  And after awhile I didn't want to lose things anymore. 
Thunder-Sky, Inc. has always been about not losing things:  keeping Raymond's drawings safe, all the other stuff he left behind too, but also that initial idea of art helping us all transcend what we do to each other not getting coopted and redefined as a new tagline or mission statement.  I couldn't explain to the social-work students that I've always wanted Thunder-Sky, Inc. to be a DISorganization, a place without a lot of structure or meetings or committees.  A place where things don't get lost, but they don't get found either.
Four years into Thunder-Sky, Inc., it feels kind of like we're floating into and out of what it means to be established.  And I think that's the way Raymond would work it too.  Constantly out of the periphery, wryly smiling, walking through the world kind of bemused and kind of pissed, making art without much fuss, and finding a way to live without losing what it means to be alive.
Last night we hosted a poetry and fiction reading.  It was a packed house, and the two writers, Lisa Ampleman and Tessa Mellas, were great, reading Courtney Love poems and a short story about an alien from Jupiter taking advantage of Affirmative Action.  The words combined with the art on the walls, and it was a trippy little session.  It made me feel like we know what we're doing sometimes, and it doesn't have anything to do with anything, except that it's a moment in time when people get together and stop the crap long enough to appreciate each other.  I love this photo from last night.  It sums up a lot of things: