Tuesday, May 24, 2011

L'Etoile Du Nord

“I am a liberal and liberalism is the politics of kindness. Liberals stand for tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful, love of learning, freedom of belief, art and poetry, city life, the very things that make America worth dying for.”
- Garrison Keillor

Oh, Minnesota. What has happened to you?

I’ll admit that I don’t closely follow all of the political activity of my home state, but there are certain things I take for granted. Like the fact that we were the only state Dukakis won, other than Massachusetts. But my, does that seem so long ago.

I was raised with the safe knowledge that I came from a liberal state, a place where tolerance and personal freedom and community responsibility were not only valued but exalted. I was proud that our Scandinavian ideas about social welfare made us attractive to those fleeing horrendous persecution. And I took to heart the general philosophy that you don’t know anyone’s struggles but your own, and you should probably keep quiet about those, anyway.

So what the hell, people? When did we become a state of uptight, moralistic, right-deniers? What insidious viral fear has taken over where kindness, or at least indifference, used to be?

I was actively involved in Minneapolis’s HIV/AIDS education and social action sphere during the early 1990s. While things weren’t perfect as far as gay/straight understanding went, I felt, overall, that I lived in an open, accepting community. I would have been astonished at that time if a constitutional amendment denying rights to same-sex couples had been supported by our state legislature. The fact that it is happening now, nearly twenty years later, is beyond heartbreaking.

When I dig past the heartbreak, there’s anger and shame. And the face of that anger and shame is grinning blankly from Fox News panel discussions. Seeing the words, “R – Minnesota” under Michele Bachmann’s crazy, crazy head is nearly enough to make me consider calling myself an Iowan. And now with the news of Tim Pawlenty’s bid for the presidential candidacy (T-Paw? Really? Douuuuuuche!), I feel like some sort of secret smear campaign has been invoked against the people of Minnesota. How did these two conservatives come to be our representatives on the national stage?

The answer is simple, I suppose. They were voted in. Somewhere along the line, the people who elected a poli sci professor in a green school bus to Senate and agreed to be governed by a libertarian wrestler (no link required) decided, hey, let’s try fascism. When the pendulum swings back, it swings hard. But I can’t help thinking that there’s also been some trickery involved.

My people are from small, rural towns, far from the Cities, and yet I know they don’t support the ideas that the state legislature claims they do. If the U.S. in general has polled in support of allowing gay marriage, there is simply no way for me to believe that Minnesotans are overwhelmingly against it. Some very misguided politicking is going on up there, with a lot of people suddenly jumping on the tea party boat so they won’t get called out by the narrowest-minded and loudest-voiced.

I cried when I heard of Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death, and I tear up now thinking that any part of his essence might be aware of what’s happened to Minnesota since his passing. I simply don’t understand it. I know fear can make people act against their better judgment (see: any slasher film, acceptance of George W. Bush after 9/11), but what, really, are Minnesotans afraid of? I’m sincerely trying to answer that question in a way that makes any sense, and the best I can come up with is that things are very uncertain and unstable right now, and clinging to what is known and understood can make that seem a little less scary.

But here’s the thing. Preventing gay marriage doesn’t make anything more secure, except the elected positions of fear-mongering politicians. It doesn’t stabilize the economy or improve the housing market or create new jobs. Quite the opposite, really – think of all the gay couples not hiring wedding planners and florists and harpists who cover Depeche Mode. And it doesn’t delete all the porn off the internet or stop your kids from sexting, either. Don’t equate the growing and occasionally disconcerting ease of access to sexual information with advances in human rights. I can promise you that it isn’t gay married couples sending Facebook friend requests to your 14-year-old.

Speaking of fear and fourteen-year-olds, let’s talk about what you really should be scared of. Be scared of your child separating herself from your family because she doesn’t think you can love who she is. Be scared of the ways your child will seek information if you refuse to acknowledge reality. Be scared of your child feeling so isolated and rejected for his sexuality that he feels ending his life is the only acceptable option.

Garrison Keillor wrote, “This is Democratic bedrock: we don't let people lie in the ditch and drive past and pretend not to see them dying.” Every gay citizen in Minnesota has been thrown in the ditch by this legislation. The constitutional amendment defining marriage as heterosexual monogamy goes to a vote of the people in November. My Minnesotans, don’t drive by.

Please click above to view Iraq war veteran Rep. John Kriesel's (R - Cottage Grove, MN) powerful speech to the Minnesota House on why he opposes the marriage amendment.

Postscript: I am no less angered by the neanderthals in Nashville, but the pain isn't compounded by ever daring to expect any different.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Funny Girl

I do not want to be Tina Fey’s best friend.

I say this, of course, to distinguish myself from the millions of my peers who do, because I feel sort of sorry for Ms. Fey, having to live with the constant awareness that legions of college-educated women of Generation X see her not only as an admirable figure, but also an approachable gal who they’d get along so well with if only given the chance. I’m sure she has plenty of perfectly lovely friends and isn’t casting about for sidekicks.

And of course, by so separating myself with my considerable reasonableness, I’m hoping that she’ll PICK ME! PICK ME!

Sigh. Crap.

I just finished reading Fey’s first book, Bossypants, and I can’t help that it left me feeling even more uncomfortably close to the writer/actor/producer/mom than I already did. The solid family life, the tales of geekdom, the social salvation through high school theater, the awkward college years … it all struck an off-pitch chord.

But then her story became like a fan-fiction version of my life, where instead of taking the desk job to pay off student loans after college, she slogged away at the Evanston YMCA (three blocks from where I was racking up that student loan debt) to pay for classes at Second City. I spent high school and college going to improv and sketch comedy shows, and despite a natural draw and fascination, I never took the next step. I thought it wasn’t my world. But then I come to find out through Tina Fey that female comedy writers are, by and large, good girls from good families who went to good schools. Three for three, people. Why didn’t my academic advisor ever tell me that?!

With just a little clearer knowledge, I may have made that leap. I just needed a little security. Between safety and adventure, I tend to choose safety.

Which is the exact opposite tack of Craig Ferguson, whose memoir, American On Purpose, I polished off shortly after finishing Bossypants. Unlike Fey’s autobiography, it’s a story filled with dramatic dives into self-destruction. The clean-and-sober actor/writer/talk show host/novelist that I’ve known and loved since he replaced Smarmy McFratterson on The Late Late Show has a long, messy trail behind him, littered with booze and drunks and overly forgiving women.

I knew from his surprisingly poignant Britney Spears monologue and other frequent references that he was in recovery, but it’s still a little startling to take a close look at what any addict is recovering from. As Tina Fey says, most male comedians are filled with an urge to break rules, and Ferguson follows that bumpy path – dropping out of school, touring with punk bands, hanging out with Emma Thompson (that skank).

A little part of me has long held on to the idea that my (as-yet-unhired) press agent would have an in with Ferguson’s people, and they’d have me on the show to discuss my (as-yet-unwritten) hit novel. And of course the interview would go so well that we’d decide to talk more after the show, when we’d get drinks at the Brown Derby and discuss Fitzgerald’s prescience about the dehumanization of modern America and the genius of Bill Hicks, and one thing would lead to another and yada yada yada, we’d be collaborating on an HBO pilot.

But now that I’ve read the book, I’m not so sure we’re suited to work together. Drinking or not, there’s a dark, driven, slightly dangerous side to Ferguson that I’m not sure would complement my Nervous Nelly tendencies. Perhaps it would be best if we just stuck to the interview. And maybe three or four casual dinner parties throughout the year.

And if Tina Fey wants to stop by, hey, that’s cool.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Rising

It’s a great time to be a Memphian.

And it’s a scary, uncertain time to be a Memphian.

The inevitability of these two situations happening at once is, of course, very Memphis indeed.
photo by Chip Chockley

On the plus side, our lone big-time professional sports team has not only made it to the playoffs, but ground their way through to a first-round win over the number one seed. The city that essentially forgot the Grizzlies existed a few months ago, except to note their comically long losing streak, is now behind this group of underdogs. Maybe it’s our Hoosier-like innocence about the difference between college athletes, who we’ve always supported, and the NBA, but Memphis seems to be not only excited about the team, but also protective. Professional basketball doesn’t usually lend itself to the feeling that these are “our hometown boys,” but there’s something like family loyalty in the air these days. It’s reaffirming and, I’ll admit, a little disconcerting. We’re not a group-think, high-hopes kind of town. When anything goes too well, for too long, we get a little nervous that we’ll have to pay for it later.

Speaking of … how about that Mississippi River? You know, that three-mile-wide expanse of rushing water that has decided to come on up and mosey down Beale St. himself. (Rivers are male, right? Ol’ Man River and all that?) It’s hard to even get past the sheer spectacle of the situation, but when you do, the realities are dispiriting. Damage is occurring that our already-strapped city will be hard-pressed to repair. People’s homes, schools, and lives are being disrupted. And all this on top of a month of storms that many residents are still recovering from. Navigating surface streets still requires weaving around the piles of lost limbs and chainsawed trunks that can’t be contained on the sidewalks until pick-up day. We’re just a damn mess.

But sometimes being a mess has its perks. Like when the President of the United States chooses to give the commencement speech at your high school to honor all the ways in which students have risen above it all. The same year Michael Heisley declared that the Grizzlies were in rebuilding mode, the administration of Booker T. Washington High School reformed their core systems to not only serve the students in Memphis’ poorest zip code, but to guide them toward success. Over the last three years, the school’s graduation rate has shot from 55% to over 80%. And on May 20th, President Obama is going to stop by to tell them how fantastic they are. Now that’s a true Cinderella story.

Which brings us right back to the Grizzlies. Now tied up with Oklahoma in the second round of the playoffs (I write, as if I have any idea how many rounds there actually are or have paid attention to the NBA since Michael Jordan retired. The first time), it’s getting scary again. The equal proximity of success and failure does not sit well, because Memphians know which way our luck tends to lean. The mere fact that this many Memphians are attentive and optimistic is in itself a bad sign, because all of our best stuff happens when no one is really watching (see: the success at Booker T. Washington, the Million Dollar Quartet, or Jake Gyllenhaal buying cinnamon rolls at the Farmers Market).

The trademark Memphis fatalism has seeped into me over the years, and it’s now natural for me to assume that anything that brings the city together will lead to crushing disappointment, generally within a two-week span.

With that in mind, I suggest that we all turn our backs on the Grizzlies and cheer the Mississippi on to keep on getting higher. And then meet back on Beale in a couple weeks (or months? Three fortnights?) to celebrate a victorious team and a thoroughly dry downtown.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Mama Told Me ...

In honor of Mothers Day, I feel I should dedicate this space to the fundamental guiding principle that my mother instilled in me. Sure, she taught me and my sister to be fair and kind to others. She taught us to express ourselves and honor our intelligence. But above all else, throughout our whole lives, she has drilled one core commandment into our very beings: Whatever you do, wherever you go, no matter how successful you are, never, ever, EVER pay full retail.

I began my professional life in the mean streets … er, indoor sidewalks of a suburban mall. I worked in several different clothing stores, including a mid-level menswear outlet where I learned one of the basic rules of retail: everything is made in the same place with the same stuff, they just put different labels on it. Now, this isn’t true in all cases – there are definitely variations in fabric quality among different retail tiers, for example – but it’s a good basis for determining what something is really worth. And what I’ve come up with, ultimately, is that 99% of clothes should fall into one of the following categories: “Under $5,” “Under $10,” “Under $15,” or “I might pay around $25.”

This isn’t what the tags say, of course, but I am no respecter of tags. I scoff at tags. Sometimes outright, like if I walk into Old Navy and a knit shirt says it’s $24.50. Ha! That is a solid Under $10 item, and on a good day, Under $5. Which is why you won’t ever see me looking on the main display tables or front-of-store shelves at any store. When I walk into a clothing store, I head directly to the clearance rack in the back.

Actually walking into a store is rare for me, though. Most of my shopping is done online. This can be overwhelming, considering the number of possibilities out there in the inter-ether, but I prefer to keep my focus on a small handful of my favorites. I sign up for their email newsletters, which notify me of specials and events. And then I wait. Every retailer works in a sales cycle, and it can take a couple months to get the hang of when the best prices are available. So when I see a “30% off new items” deal from Ann Taylor Loft, I don’t get excited, because I know in a month that stuff will be on sale for 30% off, and then I’ll get the “40% off all sale prices” notice two weeks later.

It’s definitely a shopping method that takes patience and does not satisfy the urge for instant gratification. Instead, my payoff comes from saving myself a big pay-out. I love adding up the original marked prices of what I buy and then subtracting my actual cost. I hold myself to at least a 50%-off standard, but can sometimes get more than 80% off retail.

What separates me from the slightly-disturbing ranks of Extreme Couponers is that I only buy what I really like and I never buy-to-save. I resist the temptation of “$25 off when you spend $100,” because that’s still a pretty weak discount. I’ve also had to get used to missing out on things because they’re out of stock before the best deals come around. It’s a sort of Zen exercise. Except for, you know, the total materialism part of it. But all in all, I have a constantly rotating closet full of clothes on a budget of less than $300 a year. And although that doesn’t overshadow my kids or job or hard-earned education, it sure does make my mama proud.