All About Me

Making a mark on the world

A few weeks ago, my partner and I watched Paris Is Burning on Netflix.

It’s a documentary movie that was released over 20 years ago, but somehow, I hadn’t seen it until now.

It’s a story about young adults and teenagers living in several of New York City’s subculture: gay kids, some in drag, intersecting with entrenched racism and abject poverty.

The result is fascinating, to see how they see the world and how they view power and privilege (and, sadly, how little that’s changed since the movie was made).

I can’t claim this movie is my story; I am not a person of color and I’ve never experienced that level of exclusion.

(There are some interesting discussions online about the process of making the documentary, and about accusations that Jennie Livingston, a white documentarian, was exploiting the movie’s subjects.)

But it brought back a whole lot of memories for me.

I came out at age 21. This was several years after the era (1986-1990) this movie captures.

My family didn’t disown me, but coming out confirmed my status as a strange, unknown factor in their midst, much as I had always been throughout my life.

At that time, their reactions varied from unconditional if confused support to a cool politeness about the whole business.

I needed to connect with someone or something, and while I loved my family, we were speaking two different languages.

For a whole lot of reasons (some of my own doing, and some detailed here) my initial attempts at college crashed like a lead balloon.

My first stop on the Reality Is About To Kick You In The Ass Express landed me in the Rust Belt town of Erie, a few hours away from home.

I spent big chunks of the next five years there, living a life that I recognized bits and pieces of in Paris is Burning.

It was a radical change. I went from a comfortable suburban upbringing to a day-to-day existence where nothing was certain. I was never homeless, but for several years had “housing insecurity.”

I moved around from place to place, sometimes sharing a place as an official roommate, other times scoring a couch for a week here or there until someone got fed up with me.

In the course of four years, I moved at least twenty times. It was probably more, but to be honest, I lost count.

A few times, I tried to get out – heading to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh. But something would crack — the job, the apartment lease, something — and back I’d go.

Even then, Erie put the “Rust” in “Rust Belt.” It was a midsize town of about a hundred thousand people, and the bottom was falling out.

My generation’s parents were losing their jobs as the factories shut down, like dominoes falling. There was little available for us, a fast food job here, a woefully underpaid gig in a retail store there. Some went to cosmetology school to learn a trade, and fared a little better in one of the chain “chop shops.”

My parents came through in emergencies with help, with food, with money. They were weary, too, just hoping I would catch a break, that I would land on my feet.

There were two conflicting forces that ruled my life at this time. There was hardship, and one shitty, minimum wage job after another. There were many moves, brought on by fights with roommates or a loss of income. Twice I was fired from a job for being gay. Once, I was asked nicely to find another place to live (read: evicted) when the landlord learned I was gay.

But there was also a fascinating community that felt like a world I could conquer. It was not a place filled with unconditional love, or with sunshine, kittens and roses. Those that entered had to fight and claw their way into the ring. This is part of what’s shown in Paris Is Burning, and it completely rings true to me.

On the one hand, we fought hard and rough and often with each other. It was do unto others before they do unto you. It was also easier to just always be in fight mode. We were fighting to survive in our small space, fighting the larger culture that didn’t want us around.

But if an outsider came into one of our local hangout spots to mess with one of us? We pulled together and fought them off. Drunk straight guys cruising for a fight would always be outnumbered by sixty or seventy of us, and would scurry away, tail between legs.

One of the things that rang most true about Paris Is Burning for me was the thievery. Few of us wanted to hurt anyone, but as the saying goes, “A girl’s gotta eat.”

Most of us were just hungry and between paychecks, and would sneak food at our menial jobs at restaurants and convenience stores. The bolder ones might slip a few dollars into their pocket here or there.

Some were far more outrageous or desperate. I remember hearing the story of one guy who showed up to the club on a Saturday night looking dapper in a new designer suit. There was no way in hell he could afford it. How did he get it?

The story slowly came to light: apparently, he’d gone to the high-end men’s retailer in question, tried the suit on….and then, after rolling the fabric into a tight ball, shoved it into his anal cavity and walked out of the store.  (How much was that dry cleaning bill?)

Another story involved several friends seeking new outfits for a drag performance, and running, Thelma-and-Louise style, from a stodgy old dress store in the outfits themselves.

I’m not condoning stealing, or laughing at it to minimize what it was. But it seemed so natural at the time. People do desperate things when your rent is due, or you’re hungry, or your kid needs to see a doctor. It’s something I’ve always remembered.

And we were just starting out, trying to figure out both the world at large and our little underground community.  (Erie was also the place where I first fell, head over heels, in love.)

We had to know two languages, two sets of signals and signs. It got really tiresome after a while, unless you were at the ends of the gender expression spectrum, where hiding simply wasn’t an option.

I always had such respect for the drag performers. Many of the clubgoers considered drag shows an irritant, something that took time away from dancing on a weekend night. But for me, I was always interested in the theatrical aspects, the aesthetics of it all, the ability to put on a show, to reinvent oneself.

One of my dearest friends in Erie was a quiet, mild-mannered man. But when he assumed his drag alter ego, the personality change was amazing. The shyness was gone, and in its place was a bold, bawdy creature who flirted with everyone in sight.

It briefly inspired me to try drag for myself . I was the ugliest drag queen in the world, but I definitely had fun. It cemented my appreciation for it as an art form, and I loved coming up with stage and song ideas.

It really got me thinking about the ways we all wear masks.  This is not a new idea – RuPaul’s talked about how everything we all do is ‘drag,’ is all performance of an identity.

While Erie didn’t have any “houses” like Paris is Burning, we did develop our own families, so to speak, ones that filled in the spaces that our own families could not. We walked through fire together, had fun together, drank together, and fought like cats and dogs.

It’s been almost thirty years since the mid-80’s era, when Paris Is Burning took place. It was sobering to learn that almost all the key performers in the movie have since died, and many of them died at a young age — some from HIV/AIDS, some from other illnesses, some from the residual effects of a lifetime of poverty. And a few died from the violence visited upon gay and transgender people then (and now).

It reminded me of the faces of people in our own Paris, the ones who died young at the hands of those same villains — watching a young friend, only 24, waste away from the effects of HIV/AIDS, watching a dear friend succumb to the ravages of mental illness and alcoholism. I wish I had the resources to help them. I do now, but I didn’t know then, and I didn’t have the voice to speak up and ask for help on their behalf.

My life today is so radically different than it was then. Sometimes, it feels like it all happened to someone else. I’m at a point of consistency, of having achieved a certain amount of success.

The funny thing is, though: I’ve lived in Chicago for half a decade, now. I’ve met some nice people, and yet, every last one of them has slipped through my fingers. I don’t know if it’s them, or me, or some other factor, but the friends I’ve made here are here today, gone tomorrow.

I live hours away from those old friends, and yet, we remain close. We’ve survived geographical divides and the occasional falling out, and stayed in touch with each other. They remain on a very short list of people I could call for advice, for help or for bail money.

Paris Is Burning’s Dorian said you’re lucky if you’ve made a mark on the world.

I’ve made a small mark, but it’s a mark. And we have been there to bear witness for each other, to record that we have made our marks.

for Destiny Divine, royalty and a true titleholder; for Theresa Jean, a generous soul and ‘the big noise’; and for Mama Puccini, who knew where to find the boys AND the booze.

And for the late Deatrice, who loved the nightlife, and is sorely missed. 

Acknowledging fatness

I don’t remember a time in my life where I haven’t been fat.

Or whatever word you want to use: chubby, husky, stocky. I’ve used them all.

When I look now at most pictures of myself as a kid, I don’t see a fat kid staring back at me. In most shots, I look pretty damn standard for a child — especially if I compare those shots to kids of today.

But I was never that rangy, thin kid who could climb, jump and bounce everywhere. I was never the kid who ran around from sunrise to midnight, a ball of burning energy.

And at some point, the numbers got out of balance and I was, indeed, fat.

My weight is something I’ve struggled with my entire life.

This particular post isn’t about having an online therapy session, or to elicit sympathy. It’s really not even about the struggle itself, or the cultural lenses through which we view fat and fatness in this country, at this time. (Another post, another day.)

What I’m examining here — what I’m finding interesting, what I’m finally acknowledging — is how much I’ve distanced myself from it.

45899_420627588423_332431_nIn many ways, it’s similar to the ways I lived my life when I was still ‘in the closet’ as a gay man. It’s there, but it’s something that has to be carefully navigated, discussed and presented.

I came out as gay many years ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged the reality of my size, of my fat body, before.

It was such a source of teasing as a kid that disconnecting from it all was a survival tactic. (Helpful note for parents: if you think your kid might be fat, don’t name him/her with anything that rhymes with the word ‘fat.’)

That may have had a silver lining; shrinking into my own head helped my creativity and my storytelling capacities. While others were teasing or ignoring me, I was in another world, my rich inner world — writing and directing my own TV show in my head.**

But I’ve had an epiphany recently about my fatness and my creativity, and it’s this: that protective distance is getting in the way of a lot in my life, but in particular, it’s affecting my writing and my creativity.

There are so many fantastic, amazing writers I know that talk so honestly about their lives, or so bluntly about the shitty, messy parts of life just as skillfully as the joyful moments. They serve up that authenticity in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

A few of those fantastic writers – Samantha Irby and Laurie Ruettimann – are on my blogroll here.

Hell, Irby refers to her body as a “meatbag.”

But I’ve always had a protective distance in my writing. Every editor I’ve had in the last ten years told me that I write “too safe.” Or that I bury the lede.

My most recent journalism professor, a newsman with decades of experience, called me on it many times. He asked why I felt like I always had to explain everything before I got to the point — to the news, to the lede, to the focus of the story.

At some point in the last few months, it hit me: that’s also the way that I talk.

A guy I dated called it my ‘language’ – something he always had to interpret. I’m all metaphors and hints and setup, and only after I’ve set the stage — and determined that I have a trustworthy audience — does the lid come off.

This spring, when I professed surprise in one of my classes that anyone could see me as aloof, another professor offered this: “It’s clear that you’re thoughtful about what you say, that you consider it carefully before you say it.”

Well, she was right.

The pieces are coming together. I’m understanding it now.

I’m probably still doing it here. I can’t tell you how many times during the composition of this post I had to remind myself — no, force myself — to put the word fat in the first sentence, the first paragraph. Attached to me. I wanted to build up to that revelation, you see. (As if it’s a surprise to anyone who meets me!)

I’m sure it’s affected my career, my ability to start new friendships — in short, every part of my life.

And it’s all sort of hit me: I’m in the closet, with the light off.

Again.

It’s hard to write about ALL THE FEELS from an icy altitude, a huge emotional disconnect.

I’m fighting my fatness and working on getting healthier, because it’s something I want for me and for my partner. And if I can graduate from college after a hundred years of being away, then damn it, I can do this too.

But first, I have to come out, again. Into the sunlight. I have to acknowledge my fatness, own it, and understand it’s my reality right now.

And so, this post.

Step one.

 

** Though my retreat into inner life was never so severe, it’s often been a tool others have deployed to cope with trauma or abuse. It’s not uncommon for gay men, in particular, to make arch humor of sad or challenging things in their lives. Films like Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation are examples of this sort of utter disconnect from the current moment, and framing events as something happening to someone else — or something you’re watching, not experiencing. 

EDITED TO ADD: I just Googled “fat closet” and wow, there’s a lot of people who have had similar epiphanies. Worth checking out if you’re interested.

The worst urban studies student ever……

My freshly minted college degree includes a concentration in urban studies.

While I have no plans at the moment to become an urban planner, I’ve always felt that many of urban studies’ core ideas — about the ways we live and the demographic groups that define us — were deeply relevant for the 21st century and are applicable to just about every industry and every part of our country.  I found that it encompassed many of the things I’d been writing about for years, the changes in how we live and work.

In my personal life, I’d been doing a lot of things we’d discussed in class. I have never owned a car and, perhaps more shockingly, have never held a license to drive. I’ve walked or taken public transportation for most of my life, and I always lived in the core of a city, so I could have an existence that allowed for walking and mass transit.

Three years ago, my partner and I bought a home in the middle of a neighborhood close to Chicago’s Loop.

Our neighborhood (the West Loop) has growing density, a great walkability score, access to multiple channels of mass transit, two parks within a few blocks, and more restaurants and nightclubs than I can count.

Yes, it's true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

Yes, it’s true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

There’s only one thing: I’m really unhappy living here.

Some of the things that I’ve always endorsed? Are driving me crazy.

I am the worst urban studies student EVER.

The biggest negative impact for me has been noise pollution. While we live in a nice building, literally every flat space surrounding us has been under construction for three years. THREE. YEARS. That’s three years of not being able to sleep past 6 a.m., of constant drilling and hammering and bulldozers and cranes.

A new company has moved into a neighboring commercial building (formerly part of Harpo Studios), and promptly installed a motion alarm on their parking gate that I am pretty sure can be heard in Aurora. Possibly in space.

Indeed, our neighborhood is BOOMING. Google’s Chicago headquarters are moving just a few blocks north. A hotel is opening just east of us, and many of the small, nondescript factory spaces dotting the West Loop are being snapped up by developers. A company called Sterling Bay has, to a large degree, bought the West Loop and is now developing its use.

Of course, beyond the noise, which feels as if it will never end, many of the issues that are emerging show the wisdom of good urban planning and the repercussions that happen when it’s absent. It’s nearly impossible to cross Madison Street now with the boom in traffic, and lack of pedestrian crosswalks near us.

Parking has become a huge issue. The West Loop, like the South Loop and Andersonville, desperately needs a dedicated parking area. Instead, patrons who think nothing of spending $200 at a Restaurant Row eatery or at a Blackhawks game will insist on parking for free on one of our streets. (With car alarms set to stun; the West Loop is a symphony of sounding car alarms every day.)

Parking in the city is its own nightmare (Google Chicago parking meter deal)  but I’ve never understood why parking doesn’t come *before* or *as part of* planning here. There’s a huge, hulking half-built building at the west end of the West Loop that would be perfect to retrofit into a neighborhood park house, with shuttles running up and down Randolph.

Residential development has been the main part of the boom thus far, but as commercial development continues, a conflict is emerging between the two camps. I haven’t seen any movement to define patches of the West Loop as solely residential or commercial. We’ll have two rooftop bars opening soon near us – far closer to residences than they should be.

The other main irritant hits a little closer to home.

In my mind, I always thought that living in close quarters with your neighbors would lead to that kind of engaged community, where neighbors became friends, where people socialized and looked after one another.

A few homeowner’s association meetings have disabused me of that notion.

With precious few exceptions, our neighbors create more drama than Downton Abbey, and are guilty of more metaphorical backstabbing and bloodshed than Game of Thrones. It’s a toxic batch of entitlement and manipulation. (While we’re on the pop culture references, the most entitled and manipulative ones bring to mind Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

There’s still much to be said for sustainable urban living, and I haven’t changed my stance on those ideas, those policies.

I think it might just be that we’re outgrowing this place. This neighborhood is becoming a huge cluster for clubs and nightlife, and will be a fast-paced hub for twentysomethings. My twenties are a bit in the rearview mirror for me, though.

My partner and I want something quieter and calmer for our next home, and will likely move out of Chicago to find it. But I think we’ll be sticking with urban settings, or the “cosmoburb,” where access to walking paths, bike paths and mass transit still exist.

Of course, I also know that I’m ridiculously lucky. Lucky to have a home, lucky to have a choice to leave a place that isn’t a good match.

We’re in Chicago, where bad planning and years of discriminatory zoning and lending policies have created neighborhoods where basic life, liberty and safety are harrowingly hard to come by. Lots of people don’t have the choices we do to change neighborhoods, or to move at all.

Rahm Emanuel has followed in the footsteps of the Daleys, enacting or sustaining policies that stand in the way of evolution or change for disadvantaged neighborhoods. 2014 feels a lot like 1974 in some of these neighborhoods. It feels impossible to effect change here.

Hopefully, our next home will be in a place where we can take advantage of good planning and great living space — but also contribute to our community, where we can become advocates for everyone who lives there.

I’m going to brainstorm about this right now! You might not be able to hear me, though, with the noise in the background…….

 

Making the message make sense

Something very cool happened last weekend.

I finally earned a college degree — a little later than planned, but it happened. I’m incredibly proud of that accomplishment.

The days before graduation and the day itself were filled with speeches and talking – a whole lot of communication goin’ on.

I wasn’t part of the traditional group of graduates, so I was able to shift my focus and observe what was happening. (That’s also the journalist in me emerging and taking notes!)

I noticed a few interesting things about the ways that people communicated — what worked, what didn’t, and why.

AUTHENTICITY RULES: Several students spoke at the Saturday morning baccalaureate service, and while everyone was thoughtful and prepared to speak, I found the response from students fascinasting. The speakers that elicited the strongest response weren’t necessarily the smoothest speakers. But they were the ones who were willing to be vulnerable and real in front of a crowd, and they got a lot of respect from the audience.

I was stunned by one student. I’d been in a class with him and he always seemed nervous when he spoke. But that day, he stood in front of 500 other people and delivered an amazing set of remarks. It was all authentic, all him, and all heart.

SELECTING THE RIGHT MESSAGE: On the other hand….well, how do I say this diplomatically? Our commencement speaker, for all his accomplishments and good intentions, missed the mark.

I suppose I could be thankful that he didn’t launch into a flood of Commencement Clichés, but….I’m not sure WHAT it was that he said to us. I think it would be best described as a speech for a Kiwanis Club meeting, or maybe something you’d deliver at an industry conference or a job interview.

After a promising beginning with a few jokes, the speaker essentially recapped the minutiae of his career for what seemed like forever — in front of 500 graduates roasting in the sun, all waiting for That Guy To Stop Speaking. (Heck, I knew a bit about his line of business and *I* was praying for a strong wind to carry the stage away.)

That can’t in any way be called a success.

Anyone on the speaker circuit probably has a core speech they give to everyone, with alterations here and there based on the audience. But it’s important to remember that whether it’s a commencement address, an annual shareholders meeting or a town hall debate, the message has to fit the event. Too often, we try to plug a one-size-fits-all set of remarks into an event that needs to have its own story told.

SIMPLICITY IS BEAUTY:  Students often take the same approach to a speech that they do to writing a term paper: more is more. But the simplest communication can be the most effective.

The graduating class always collects money to start a scholarship fund, and this year’s seniors had been hounded via e-mail to make a contribution. Those efforts were falling short.

A class leader who had the mic at an event asked everyone who had received scholarship money to stand. It was ninety percent of the attendees.

THAT made an impact, and the senior class ended up collecting well beyond its goal.

Sometimes, the simplest message is the strongest one, and the one that can make the biggest impact.

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.) 

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.)

Defending the press

In the eyes of the public, being a journalist used to be cool. Rumpled fedoras, lots of vodka, foreign excursions and living on the edge. Not every kid wanted to be Edward R. Murrow, but to some of us, it looked like a very cool job.

These days, the reputation of journalists is reminding me of that old joke about lawyers. You know the one: “What do you call ten lawyers at the bottom of a lake? A good start.”

I get it – like bad ambulance-chasing lawyers, there are newspapers and TV networks who do an abysmal job practicing the art of journalism.

And even a journalist with the best of intention can make a bad call. Since Friday’s horrific school shootings, we’ve heard a great deal of criticism about the media covering the story.

That criticism includes some very valid comments. Several journalists showed questionable judgement interviewing young children.

A few recent events have driven home that public sentiment for me. Last week, I saw an article about a Navy SEAL from my hometown who was killed in Afghanistan. The comments on the article expressed dismay and disgust that “the media” had contacted the dead Navy SEAL’s family.

I am here today not to bury journalism, but to praise it.

I’m admittedly biased – I’m a journalist, for one, and I’ve been a news nerd since I was a kid. I was watching Watergate hearings when I was four or five.

In fourth grade, our class had a project where we wrote about ourselves. The other boys in the class wrote about their bikes or model airplanes. I wrote that I was following the news about the Jonestown massacre. (One of many reasons that my teachers thought I was odd!)

For me, knowledge has always meant reassurance. I was never good at fighting with my fists, but as they say, knowledge is power. I fight, when needed, with words.

And I’ve always found comfort in knowing all that I could. I also looked up to and respected the people who told the stories of other people.

Younger people might be mystified by the hero worship of journalists like Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, but there was a calmness in their presence that announced to the audience: This is happening. And this, too, shall pass.

What I can tell you is this: As imperfect as our press might be, it is a free press. It may be clogged with the sediment of public relations fluff and infotainment tripe, but its heart still beats.

Just today, news that NBC News reporter Richard Engel was free from being captured in Syria was made public. People are still working on your behalf, putting their lives on the line to find out what’s happening in the world.

I understand in the case of the Navy SEAL from my hometown that his family didn’t want to speak to the press, and certainly their wishes (and anyone’s wishes in that situation) should be respected.

A friend of mine has faced the media recently as a result of the Connecticut shootings, and I’m reminded that it’s an intense spotlight to be in, particularly at a time of such loss and sorrow.

But in the case of war casualties, for example, many families WANT to tell the story of their loved one, and talk about a loss in a war that, to them, feels like it’s been vastly underreported. Many families want all of us to know what their loved one lost, or what they lost, and want us to clearly understand the cost.

news_leadWhat a private person might see as hounding, though, is a habit of persistence that we developed in the face of a lot of closed doors in political chambers, legal chambers and corporate boardrooms. We dig deeper to try to keep you as informed as possible.

I know a lot of the things we dig up aren’t pleasant. They don’t fit simply into neat piles. They don’t end like a sitcom, with all the loose ends tied up in twenty-three minutes.

They defy simplification, and while some opinion-based news programs will try to make the news black or white, us versus them…very little in news, and in life, breaks down that way.

And when your own life is filled with challenges, or work, or drudgery, or sadness, or is packed wall to wall with life itself that keeps you too busy to stop and take a breath, absorbing bad news is the last thing in the world many of us want to do.

We’d collectively rather read Us Weekly, or watch Honey Boo Boo, or something equally ridiculous that lets us hang up our brain, and breathe, and laugh.

I understand that. I totally get it.

But I’m here to tell you we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of our press.

It is a right spelled out for us in the FIRST Amendment, after all. There’s been a great deal of rhetoric in recent years about our Constitution, and freedom of the press is a cornerstone of the rights we so clearly value as Americans.

And if you’ve been taking that right for granted, understand that in many places, we’re in danger of losing the voices that make a free press.

Technology and the Web has brought massive changes to the ways information is shared, and while it’s made access more immediate in some ways, it’s also devastated some media platforms – especially the ones who do long-form, deep, thorough and thoughtful journalism.

The list of cities that have lost a daily newspaper includes some substantial U.S. cities: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Albuquerque, Honolulu and Denver, to name a few.

Detroit and New Orleans have newspapers that print less frequently. The Plain Dealer, long Cleveland’s voice of the people, is potentially facing the same reduction in publication.

You may think that it’s the nature of our corporate world today, that mergers lead to those exciting buzzwords like “synergy” and “economies of scale,” and hey, if it means a couple of jobs are lost, then journalists are just like the next guy (or woman) and have to suck it up.

Except that when you lose reporters, you lose the eyes and ears that can find out that your city council spent your taxpayer money on trips to the Bahamas.

You lose the experienced researchers who can tell you not only that something IS happening, but provide the context of WHY it is happening.

And what you have in its absence is something like The Huffington Post – a collection of language without any real structure. You end up with a snippet of a story that tells readers only the basic facts, and leaves the readers to fill in the blanks by themselves.

That isn’t really news – it’s a big vat of misinformation, and it feeds on itself.

Journalists have a responsibility to the public, and we have an ethical responsibility to do our jobs in the best, kindest, most transparent way we can. I agree with that, and I know some of my fellow journalists need to do a better job.

But I’d argue that all of us need to value the work that journalists do for our readers and viewers — and our country. If you’re finding the fluff, the opinion channels, and the tabloids lacking, then dig around for more news sources.

Find a newspaper that has longer, more in-depth articles. Listen to NPR or any TV or radio source that takes more than 30 seconds to explore an issue. If you want better journalism, value the great work that’s being done.

As a journalism (and a recent returning student), I have a dog-eared copy of a book called The Elements of Journalism in my library. It’s a fantastic book that talks not so much about the work of doing journalism – the editing and the arrangement – as it does the reasons WHY we do what we do.

There are ten commandments, so to speak, about what journalists are obligated to do. We are bound to truth. Our obligation is to citizens and our readers. We are disciplined to be objective researchers, avoiding conflicts of interest with those we cover and verifying all we see and say.

The last “commandment” is important to the work that we do, too. It says, “Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.”

And the biggest one is to decide, as a culture, whether we collectively value truth, value information and value the fine art of journalism – even when the results make us angry, challenges norms, or makes us feel uncomfortable.

We are in an age where corporate interests drive newspapers, and television, and the Internet. And it’s up to the public to be clear about what you value. As with politics and politicians, involvement is crucial, and it’s quite frankly what all of us owe our democracy.

We will collectively end up, as they say, with the journalism we ask for — and the journalism we deserve.

Christmas greetings

Every year, it’s the same thing: I send out a bunch of Christmas cards. And every year, I get about four cards in return.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. Maybe eight. Hey, I get it: People are busy. I appreciate electronic greetings just as much as paper ones. It’s a lot easier to send an online card or a message that says “OMG MERRY XMAS” on Facebook.

I’ve been feeling stupid for the last few years, wondering why I still send cards. Am I being an old traditionalist? I do seem to be edging closer all the time to the HEY YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN mindset.

Is it obligation? Old habits? I used to be the earliest sender among my friends and family, mostly stemming from a habit of my retail days — either you wrote your cards on Thanksgiving night or they never got sent!

But this year, I figured out why I still send out Christmas cards.

Thanks, Mom, for reminding me.

My mother loved Christmas. And looking back at our Christmases as kids, I realize it was her spirit that filled the house at Christmas.

My dad was always a part of the festivities and liked the holidays too — he held the position of Official Cursing-At-Christmas-Lights-To-Get-Them-To-Untangle Supervisor — but Mom in particular loved giving presents and surprising people, and I’ve inherited that from her — I love the giving of presents way more than getting them (yes, really!)

momchristmasI remember all of our Christmas cards taped to our front hallway wall, and I can remember just sitting in our darkened living room, watching the Christmas lights and our decoration lights.

And since it was Pennsylvania in December, we usually had snow on the ground, too.

I still send cards because it’s a ritual, and because it reminds me of my mom, who left us a few years ago.

My partner and I are still trying to figure out our rituals, and while I love my partner very much, he tests my patience by being a total Scrooge when it comes to decorations and the fuss over Christmas.

So here I am, with red and black pens and Christmas music in the background, writing my list and checking it twice…and making out those cards. And I hope that your Christmases past, present and future are peaceful and bright.