Questions run too deep

I’m a person who lives in the current moment and cherishes it. After a lot of work and a lot of patience, I’m as content as I’ve ever been in my present day life – ridiculously, joyously head over heels in love, a secure home, a happy life.

But there’s always a bit of an interesting tension playing out between past, present and future.

You can’t hit middle age without the presence of memory making its way, swimming its way back to you. Sometimes it’s just a hint of something, a smell of fire evoking fall bonfires, or a song on the radio taking you back to a specific place and time.

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.

At other times, memory comes rushing back in an overwhelming flood.

Last week, a student at my alma mater, my former high school, stabbed almost two dozen people. No one seems to know or understand why.

I don’t know any of the people affected. I don’t know any of the teachers in those buildings – my teachers retired long ago. I don’t even know the area that well anymore – it’s been over 20 years since I last lived there, and it’s been almost two years since my last visit “home.”

But watching those familiar buildings on national TV was surreal. And it brought back some intense memory for me.

I’ve talked about this before in this blog, here and here. I won’t repeat the details in depth here, but my experience at that school was, to be diplomatic, less than ideal. I was physically attacked for four years, several times a week if not every day. It was a war zone for me.

Aside from one amazing fourth grade teacher who was always in my corner, I had precious few advocates who would speak for me. In my last year of school, the people who were accountable and could make changes were among the people joining in the teasing, taunting and bullying.

But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, responsible, practical.

I’ve got a great career now – a multi-faceted one. And in my work as a journalist, I always want to examine the whole story, to look for relationships and causes.

It’s been so damn frustrating to watch this story and not have any real voice to ask questions, to wonder if everyone’s voice is being heard. It’s a huge lesson on how important the work of journalism is to the people whose stories are being told, one that I’ll never forget.

The news organizations are not doing a bad job – not necessarily. They did wonderful work with the breaking news elements.

But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article this past Sundaypainting the town of Murrysville as a near-Garden of Eden, with Franklin a Shangri-La fouled seemingly for the first time by a dissenter, a bad seed emerging from the flock. They even used the term “near-perfect” in their headline.

Franklin_regional_middle_schoolThere is one brief mention of Delmont and Export as two other towns “that contribute to Franklin Regional.”

But no mention of the conflict that’s always existed between affluent Murrysville, middle-class Delmont, and working class (and sometimes quite poor) Export, where coal mines were operating a century ago. That’s fueled at least some of the conflict that’s happened here over the years. 

I know my personal story is just that – personal. It’s not enough to build a narrative around. I’m just one person, after all, and though my perspective is valid, one person’s experience does not make a trend, or a pathology.

One of my most consistent faculty tormentors is nearing ninety on the beaches of Florida. Another is long dead. There is no one to interview. And quite frankly, I don’t want to be the story. (The reflex of a journalist kicking in, I suppose – rule number one: never be part of the story.)

But news outlets have also missed a more recent case of conflict, one with perhaps a more viable source of verification. ABC’s “20/20″ visited Franklin Regional in the late 1990s (1997, I believe) and featured a story where four young female students were having a fight. The two victims were suspended, while the two instigators remained in school.

Even a decade after I’d left, the ability to resolve conflict and mediate those kinds of issues within the walls of that institution were called into question.

They showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

Last week’s event is SO not about me. I know that. But it’s impossible to wipe my own experience out of my head, and look at it through any other eyes but my own, my perceptions shaded by experience.

I’ve shared my concerns about school safety with every horrifying, sad event that has happened here in our country, ever since Columbine. I’ve had the same reaction each time.

What drove this kid to do what he did? Mental health issues? Bullying? No one seems to know.

And while I am deeply sad and horrified for everyone that he injured, and agree he needs to be held responsible for his actions and answer for what he did, I can’t help but wonder about him.

We may know very little about him, other than the fact that he’s been described as ‘quiet.’ But the obvious piece that leapt out at me was that no one stepped forward to say, “Hey, I was his friend.” He was likely navigating those halls on his own, with no advocate, no guidance. Those are rough roads to walk.

Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal.

Sometimes, trying to have a conversation about the complexities of an event like this does earn you a label. These events always bring the conflict over gun rights and criminal law to the forefront, dividing lines between liberal and conservative.

We’re living in a world that is far more politically volatile than when I was in high school. The growth and plenty we enjoyed as kids has shrunk in size and magnitude. My whole hometown region shed its primary industry.

The late Harold Lasswell once said that politics is “who gets what, when, and how.”  And when things get less plentiful, people make lists, and divide into camps. I’m sure I fall into the liberal camp on many issues, while much of western Pennsylvania is a conservative area.

But the mental health of teenagers, the importance of teaching them how to resolve conflict, to speak up for help? This transcends political beliefs and divides. It’s a complex issue and will require a complex set of responses. And one of the first ones will be parents deciding not to model those simple label “us vs them” reactions, and instead teaching children to allow the humanity of everyone around them to exist, rather than trying to make people disappear.

At night, when all the world’s asleep
The questions run so deep, for such a simple man.

I’m an oddball. I’ve always been the salmon swimming upstream. I suppose it’s more socially acceptable, more righteous for my public face and career, to steal a term from Malcolm Gladwell and say that I’m an ‘outlier.’  I always have a perspective that seems to be in radical opposition to the thing everyone else is seeing.

That might serve me better as an adult than it did as a child, but still, my eyes are elsewhere.

Last week my fellow alumnus proudly displayed solidarity with our alma mater, changing their Facebook photos to our school logo, stating their class year in a status update, echoing the chant of “WE ARE FR!”

I couldn’t do it. Not because I don’t support the school, or mourn the injured, or respect these fellow alumni and their pride. They’re all good people, with kind hearts.

It’s my curse to think – perhaps overthink – these sorts of things. But I couldn’t do it.

I was never really FR, you see. It was never really mine to call home. I could not raise the flag to celebrate a house that never welcomed me.

And it’s the remaining question nagging at me about this young man, the one who picked up two knives and wanted to harm so many others, the one whose motives are a mystery.

A line has forever been drawn by those knives, one of no return. And now his name, Alex Hribal, will be writ in history books. His name will be whispered in the prescription pickup line at Ferri’s Pharmacy, at the Cozy Inn between the clinking of draft beer glasses, at Pat Catan’s by housewives helping their sons and daughters with a school project.

Those people all know they’re loved and supported, as a town, as a school – they’ve seen it in image after image on TV and in print. They are FR. The breach in the circle is closing as we speak, soon to be healed.

But the question I can’t get out of my head: Was Alex Hribal ever FR? Is he FR now? Or has the transgressor been erased from memory? Was he ever one of us?

Then again, what can you expect from an outlier like me? It’s a legitimate question to pose from out here, outside looking in.

Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd – please tell me who I am.

(Lyrics from Supertramp’s “Logical Song” – no copyright infringement intended.) 

MUSIC MONDAY: Jonatha Brooke

I’ve been trying (without success) to see Jonatha Brooke perform live for almost twenty years.

Seriously. Twenty years, folks.

I first discovered her when her band The Story released “The Angel In The House.” It was great guitar pop, with songs like “When Two and Two are Five.”

The Story. 

 

Brooke went on her own soon after and released a long string of great albums, but my favorite for a long time was “Ten Cent Wings.” It’s one of those perfect albums from beginning to end.

Like so many of my favorites – Aimee Mann, Alison Moyet, Kirsty MacColl (to name just three) – Brooke wrote great material and had a beautiful voice, but was woefully mishandled by record companies. In Brooke’s case, she was on tour for “Ten Cent Wings” when MCA dropped her from the label.

(Of course, these fantastic artists are all intelligent, fascinating women, and not pop tartlets who can be mass packaged and merchandized…but that’s another post for another day.)

Missing Jonatha Brooke’s concerts has become sort of a comical thing for me now.

I missed her several times around the Ten Cent Wings era. She played at a Borders near me and I had to work at the competition (B&N) across the street the night she played. I missed other shows because of work. Or they were sold out. There must have been at least a half dozen show in the early 2000′s I missed.

“Crumbs” from “Ten Cent Wings.” 

 

I started to look for her shows not just where I lived, but wherever she played. She played in my hometown of Pittsburgh, but I missed that show, too (working again, couldn’t travel).

It was always the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Brooke has had quite the journey the last few years. She cared for her mother, who passed away in 2012, through the final stages of dementia. And she wrote an amazing album and play, “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” about the experience.

The play had a reading in Pittsburgh last summer. (Need I tell you that I missed it?)

It’s in New York now, in an acclaimed run that’s getting people talking about Brooke’s great music and fresh narrative voice – not to mention the emotional, heart-rending story at its core.

The song “Time” from “4 Noses.” 

 

Rumor has it “4 Noses” will appear in other theaters across the country.

If it comes to Chicago, I’m going to be as optimistic as a Cubs fan in April that I can break the curse and finally see Jonatha Brooke on stage!

The love of learning

A few years ago, I pressed ‘pause’ on my career, such as it was at the moment, and became a full-time student.

It’s been surreal, and exhausting, and joyous, and challenging. And I feel so fortunate that it’s happened.

When I was a kid, I absorbed knowledge like a thirsty sponge. I loved words and loved stringing them together in my head.

And then other things clouded that light, and got in my way. My first go-round with higher education crumbled. There were some years of Just Getting By, and a few more years of Time To Be a Grown-Up followed.

And we don’t always have – or make – time, or energy, or space in our lives to learn, to explore and to remake ourselves.

LiveAndLearn

I’m incredibly lucky that my partner has been incredibly supportive of this journey.

It wasn’t a journey that I took as a path to a specific trade; my initial goal was to obtain a BA that I’d put on ‘pause’ years before.

But I’ve rediscovered that deep love of learning I had as a kid, and it’s a source of sustenance and joy for me.

At the risk of sounding sappy, that’s a huge gift and I really value that discovery.

I’m trying to savor these last few months before graduation – my fellow students, my colleagues at the school paper, the professors who turn that light on for me and encourage and challenge me to reach as high as I can.

And I hope I can capture that enthusiasm and apply it to my next workplace, my next adventure.

Because we never stop changing, or learning. It took me a while to figure that out, but I’m glad I did.

2nd Annual Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List (2013 Edition)

Yes, despite the fact that everyone else in the ENTIRE FREE WORLD is compiling their best of list, I have to add my random-almost-invisible-blogger list to the pile, too.

I’m still light years behind in film and television (academic demands have pulled my attentions elsewhere) so this is all about the music.

Here are the albums that are, in my opinion, the five finest works of 2013.

5. Boards of Canada, “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

BoC has been around for almost 20 years – I’ve just discovered them in the last few years, as I’ve sought out new soundscapes and started to explore ambient, electronic music. I loved their earlier work, often compared to the soundtracks of 1970s filmstrips.

While much of that earlier music had a sense of warm nostalgia, “Tomorrow’s Harvest” had a darker sound to it. It was well worth the long wait since their last album, and pieces like “Reach for the Dead” were great works.

4. Bibio, “Silver Wilkinson” 

Bibio’s been working in a vein that really speaks to me: combining electronic sounds with more traditional, guitar-based structures. Like Boards of Canada, he’s also really great at creating a whole soundscape that sets a mood.

Bibio’s music also has a wonderful thread of joy and wonder running through it. After a funk detour with “Mind Bokeh,” this was a return to the hybrid that Bibio’s been creating, and it was a mainstay on my playlist this year.

3. Prefab Sprout, “Crimson/Red”

I’ve loved the masterful songwriting of Paddy McAloon for many years, and the earlier catalog of Prefab Sprout remains a constant on my spin list. But the hopes of a new Prefab album had been all but forsaken. The last truly new work (Gunman and Other Stories) just didn’t speak to me, and while I enjoyed the release of Let’s Change The World With Music a few years back, it was a “lost” album from the mid-90s.

I also didn’t expect any new releases because of McAloon’s double-whammy health conditions – a visual impairment and a case of tinnitus that’s affected him for years.

So to hear Crimson/Red at all is a joy. For it to be so damn good is a gift. There are many songs that stand with the best of McAloon’s underappreciated songwriting, but for me, “List of Impossible Things” is achingly, hauntingly beautiful, and at 56, McAloon’s voice still sounds as swoonworthy as it did years ago.

2. Janelle Monae, “Electric Lady” 

I loved Monae’s new album. Monae, to me, is one of the most exciting new artists to come along in years. I remain mystified that Monae isn’t a megastar, though I wonder if the mythology of her albums – the android symbolism, the emotional remove of singing in character – is keeping some listeners from tuning in.

Electric Lady was another ambitious work and it (almost completely) worked. Few songs this year were as fun and funky as the title track. Heads exploded when Monae and the iconic Erykah Badu  joined forces for “Q.U.E.E.N.” (That track had an amazing video – Monae and Badu onscreen together is, in a word, electric.)

While the album is a shade long – and its spoken interludes have been criticized in the press  - it’s an achievement for Monae, who is making the most intelligent – and most fun – hybrid of pop and R&B out there.

Electric Lady reaches high heights in its final third, with the emotional “Ghetto Woman” and “Victory,” repeating, almost mantralike, “To be victorious/You must find glory in the little things.”

And my number one album of 2013:

1. Alison Moyet, “The Minutes”

I’ve been a fan of Moyet for 30 years, since she hit the scene with Yazoo. And I’ve loved Moyet in all her faces and voices.

But like several of my favorite artists – including Aimee Mann, Jonatha Brooke and Kirsty MacColl – Moyet has had repeated run-ins with several record labels. Despite her magnificent voice (one that can sing any style) and great batches of songs, it seemed like the only thing several of Moyet’s labels were any good at was getting in her way.

Her 2002 album Hometime was a high-water mark, but while I also loved Moyet’s subsequent albums, it seemed like she was increasingly pigeonholed by the industry, only “allowed” to make a certain kind of record, perpetual sequels of sorts to her 80s jazz cover of the standard “That Ole Devil Called Love.”

Moyet had embraced a wide range of genres – including a stint in a West End production of “Chicago” – but the more diverse her explorations, the more she seemed to be pigeonholed. In 2012 came news that Moyet and her label were parting ways, and it seemed unlikely that any new Moyet music was soon to be forthcoming.

Just over a year later, The Minutes was released. And it is a triumph in every possible way.

This is no rehash or victory lap for a veteran act. At 52, Moyet is in this moment and sounds magnificent in contemporary arrangements that range from electronic to more mainstream rock (“When I Was Your Girl”) and even hinting at dubstep (“Changeling”). There’s so much great songwriting here, especially with tracks like “Remind Yourself,” “Horizon Flame,” and the exquisite “Filigree.”

Moyet seems to be more comfortable in her musical skin here, and it comes through in every song. This work doesn’t read like the preconceived narrative of some record label, or the faux creation of a mask of celebrity. This is the authentic voice and the story of a confident, talented, mature woman, and it is glorious to hear.

Changeling:

When I Was Your Girl:

Other notable stuff:

A few other notable music notes for the year:

Getting lucky: I know that Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was a divisive song, with a hipster backlash against it almost from the start.

Whatever. I loved it – it’s got a fun vibe and it did remind me of those 70s and 80s disco songs, songs that seemed to have warmth and love instead of a sterile coldness and an ugly violence in them, as I hear in so much contemporary dubstep and dance. (It also didn’t have the ugly subtext of its fellow radio earworm “Blurred Lines.”)

Welcome back: Another welcome return this year was Boy George, who released a new album. He’s also appeared on a few tracks as a guest vocalist.

Best new artist: 

There were few new artists I really liked this year – most of them sound like really tinny versions of 80s synthpop bands – but I really liked Junip, especially their song “Your Life Your Call.”  (Though the video IS odd….)

So what did you love? Hate? What are you hoping for musically in 2014?

Finding joy

NOTE: Thanks to everyone who’s checked out Elegy and Irony; this is my hundredth post! 

For many people (including me), today marks the end of summer. Kids are back in school. I’m starting my last year for my degree work.

Summer was supposed to be a rest and respite, a time for relaxation.

For me, it was anything but.

My summer was a big shit sandwich.

I had a health issue that required surgery, and for a brief period, the diagnosis was even worse than it thankfully, ultimately, turned out to be.

Let me be clear: in the big scheme of things, all of this was manageable. There are people who have far bigger challenges than me in this department.

But it was scary. It was a wake up call.

I’ve been working this summer on balance in my life, in my work, in how I approach everything.

When I was ill, I read several books to pass the time. Two of them – Life Happens, by Connie Schultz, and Life Itself, by Roger Ebert – had “life” in their very titles, and through all their pages. (I took those to the hospital with me.)

The story of Roger Ebert’s last few years is one of suffering, but also of great life, and great contentment and joy.

The words of a man who has been through a long, arduous journey but understood the value of embracing that journey at every step:  “I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

I’ve thought about Ebert’s wife Chaz several times since his passing. She’s coped with his passing, led the efforts to keep Ebert’s writing voice and platform for commentary alive, and explored her own voice in her own works.

But in the midst of all that, a few weeks after Roger’s passing, this happened.

This makes me smile every time I see it. And by ‘smile’ I also mean ‘bawl like a baby.’

In the midst of a season of pain, it’s beautiful to see Chaz Ebert (and the other people there) celebrating life, living in a moment of joy.

The balance of joy and pain, of celebration and suffering.

I, too, did not always know this, but am happy that my eyes are opened and that my awareness and appreciation is wide awake.

Here’s to good grades and good health for you and yours.

(P.S.: Tilda Swinton is a goddess. That is all.)

The Heart Of The Matter: Adding insult to injury for transgender murder victim

news_leadLast week, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper ran a story about a person who had been murdered. A body had been found in a pond in Olmstead Township, a small southwestern suburb of Cleveland.

What made the coverage of this story stand out was that the body found was of a transgender woman, Cemia “Ce Ce” Acoff.

I’m a member of the LGBT community. I’m also a journalist.

I’ve got a few fistfuls of bylines, and I’m also in the unique position of being back in college.

I’ve been studying the art of journalism – an art I’ve already practiced. I’m digging deeper into the finer points of reporting and writing.

And I can say, unequivocally, that the Plain Dealer has repeatedly dropped the ball on its coverage of Acoff’s death.

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