Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The AATA Gets an F

I'm a huge fan of "The Ride", the Ann Arbor Transit Authority's extensive bus system. Hell, I was Commuter of the Month in January 2005. I've logged countless hours on the #13, #9,#6, #5, #3 and especially the #4. I even have a little song for the counter-looping #12A and B buses, to the tune of Outkast's "So Fresh and So Clean" -

Ain't no bus ride dope as me
I'm the 12A/12B (12A and 12 B! B!)

Yes, I'm just that dorky in my passion for The Ride, and usually I have only nice things to say about it. In fact, when I was given a customer satisfaction survey on the #9 bus a few weeks ago, I was very excited to fill in the bubbles at the top of the multiple choice scale. That was before I saw this -

There I was at the Blake Transit Center, getting ready to catch the #4, when I was suddenly accosted by Linda Yohn's giant head. Linda fucking Yohn, the lamest and yet most influential DJ on WEMU, an otherwise delightful local jazz station of good taste. Want to hear something totally played out - like "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet - followed by some really obnoxious local act - like the Chenille Sisters - while trying to digest your breakfast? Then Linda Yohn's morning jazz show is just for you.

Perhaps you think I'm mean. Perhaps you're wondering, "What does all this have to do with the AATA?". But that is my point exactly! Why is she suddenly a spokesperson for The Ride? Does she actually ride the bus? The fact that I can't stand her already just makes it more annoying.

Days later, I encountered this new beast by the corner of S. Fourth Avenue and Liberty -

Ingrid Sheldon, are you kidding me? She's best known as the Mayor of Ann Arbor 10 years ago. She must be known for something else to some important person, but we'll get to that in a moment. Because guess what? There are more white people on display at the BTC! Just as I was recovering from Sheldon and Yohn, I met this imposing visage at my beloved 12A/12B stop -

Eek! It's Newcombe Clark, the wannabe Robin Colcord of Ann Arbor! Have you ever met this guy? I have. Wish I hadn't. I won't get more personal than that. But I will say that at least his little blurb about economic vitality makes a point, instead of being some vague statement about "the community". Just makes you wonder, why is this point being made, and to whom?

I think the last panel gives us our answer -

"The Ride gets our employees to work" Whose employees? Our employees? Is that the royal "our", Mr. Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations?

Basically, these four local, moneyed, white celebrities see some value in letting the rabble have their jitneys. Their oversized posters are a plea to their less charitable but just-as-monyed peers who don't want to have to subsidize the AATA. And the poster children are rewarded for their efforts with these enormous mirrors for their equally enormous egos. It makes me nauseous for a few reasons -

1) Ann Arbor is a narcissist's asylum. In this town, "celebrities" outnumber affordable housing 20:1. I've made lots of choices about where I spend my time to avoid these sort of people, but I kinda need to use the bus, and I don't want to look at these faces

2) These bus stop walls used to hold useful information, like the bus schedule, and the system map. Now that information isn't as accessible.

3) I find it especially offensive that the Richard Sheridan panel is posted at the #04 bus stop, because the #04 is the most racially mixed bus line. It's like he's apologizing for all the people of color standing in front of the sign.

If this new signage bugs you too, click here to voice your concern. Just like the Ride, the AATA complaint page has the power to bring the community together!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

De-Catholicizing: Writer's Block

I promised a series of writings about becoming less Catholic, and it's taken months for me to produce this second installment. I guess I've been doing a good job of not feeling guilty about everything (my therapist assured me that I really can rid myself of the NCB - neurotic Catholic bullshit). But, I just experienced another exorcism that I would like to share. I've signed up for a fiction writing class through my local community college. It took a long time to get me back to this point. It's taken half my life.

The last time I took a creative writing class was in my junior year of high school. That was 16 years ago, when I was 16 years old. My teacher was a somewhat successful writer - his first published novel was nominated for a Pulitzer - but he was a very sad man. I'll call him Mr. Henderson, because he was tall and gawky like the creature from "Harry and the Hendersons". He was also skinny, and wore too-tight turtlenecks that made his nipples pop out (a student once scribbled in an old text book "Mr. Henderson looks like Skeletor with tits"). Anyway, Mr. Henderson loved my writing. He raved about it in an embarrassing fashion, but I admit that I craved the attention as much as it made me thoroughly uncomfortable. So, why did I refuse to take the next level of creative writing the following semester?

There were a couple reasons. First, I felt like a fraud because the story he loved most was based on something that happened to my sister. It wasn't my story even though I wrote it in my voice, with my own embellishment. I felt like I had cheated, especially after Mr. Henderson went nuts for it. Now that's some NCB.

The second reason is that Mr. Henderson became way too comfortable confiding in me. This was years before I developed my "Don't you fucking talk to me" face (crucial for bus-riding), and I'm afraid I was an easy mark for pathetic folk who should have been in therapy. One day, he asked me to stay after class. I can't remember exactly why. I think he was upset about an angry feminist tale I had written. But we didn't talk about that. Instead, he told me all about his divorce and ended his woeful bio with the statement, "Sometimes the price of sex is too high in a marriage". That's when I decided to keep my distance from Mr. Henderson.

I can't blame myself for wanting to avoid another semester with that yucky man, but neither can I blame him for my aversion to creative writing classes in college. I was terribly afraid of being bad at it. When I look back, I can't imagine why I would have majored in anything other than English Lit. Maybe I would have finished college if I had done what I really wanted to do. I would probably still be in customer service, but it would have been cool to finish.

Anyway, here I am now, happy with my largely ambition-less life, but I do long to be a better writer. And I want to write fiction again. I like this essay-writing thing that I disguise as a blog, but it isn't the same. I started writing a story several years ago (it was the start of a book, really, but I didn't get very far) and was reminded of that amazing sensation you get when you make creative choices. How will you map the next plot turn? How will the character reveal herself through the dialogue? I miss that.

So after 16 years of wrestling with the NCB, I'm finally about to do it! But before I could register for this class, there were a couple more hurdles. First, I nearly signed up for one called "Breaking Into Sitcom Writing", not because I'm that enamored with sitcoms, but because it seemed to suit me. But it only suited me in the sense that it helped me avoid writing fiction, which is what I actually want to do. Then, I almost registered for a class called "Writing for Beginners" because that didn't seem too intimidating. But then I remembered the tap dance class.

When I was eight, my mother brought home a flier for recreational classes at the Dearborn Civic Center. I wanted to be like Fred Astaire, so I was drawn to the tap lessons. I pointed to the listing for "Beginner's Tap Dance". My mom noticed that the class was intended for children 3-5 years old. She suggested the intermediate level for older children. But I wouldn't budge. How could I possibly be intermediate if I was never a beginner? A few months later, I would rue that decision at the holiday recital, when I danced in a candy cane colored cowgirl outfit amid a long line of toddlers. They stuck me in the middle for symmetry, because I was twice as tall as all the other kids. It was the embarrassing end to a ridiculously easy course. But instead of moving onto intermediate tap the following semester, I just gave up. Sound familiar?

Still saddled with this stupid NCB, I asked Dan what he thought. Should I start with the beginner's writing course or take the advanced one? "Advanced Fiction Writing. That is definitely the class you should take." Sigh! I look forward to the day when I can make that decision on my own, but at least I'm finally able to take the advice.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Crying Baby Email

I got the fucking crying baby email today. I used to get this stupid forward all the time when I worked with a bunch of depressed women (one of them sent it to me twice in the same month), but I hadn't seen it in years and thought I was finally free of this nonsense. This time it came from a very kind and well-meaning guy, who happens to like forwarding stuff.

What is the crying baby email? It's a condescending missive to women, chock-full of handy tips on how to not get raped. I've seen a few versions. One claims that a survey of sex offenders reveals that they like to attack women with ponytails (easy to get a firm caveman grip), so don't have long hair! Or you'll get raped! Every single one of these "safety" forwards tells the story about the crying baby on the porch, and I quote -

Someone just told me that her friend heard a crying baby on her porch the night before last, and she called the police because it was late and she thought it was weird.. The police told her 'Whatever you do, DO NOT open the door..' The lady then said that it sounded like the baby had crawled near a window, and she was worried that it would crawl to the street and get run over.The policeman said, 'We already have a unit on the way, whatever you do, DO NOT open the door.' He told her that they think a serial killer has a baby's cry recorded and uses it to coax women out of their homes thinking that someone dropped off a baby. He said they have not verified it, but have had several calls by women saying that they hear baby's cries outside their doors when they're home alone at night.

Let's examine a few key phrases here. "Someone just told me that her friend heard a crying baby..." Who is this someone and who is this someone's friend? Even better, who sent this email in the first place? Or how about "they have not verified it"? And are cops really in the practice of revealing the existence of a local serial killer during a 911 call? Who wrote this dumb script?

Here's my favorite part of the email I received today -

This e-mail should probably be taken seriously because the Crying Baby Theory was mentioned on America 's Most Wanted when they profiled the serial killer in Louisiana

Oh that serial killer! The one and only Louisiana serial killer. Everyone knows about him! Wait, hasn't "America's Most Wanted" been on the air for 21 years? Are we to take every one of those murderers' methods into account when we go about our daily business? Or just The Louisiana Serial Killer?

I take it back - my favorite part of the email that I received today is the very first sentence, if you can call it a sentence -

because of recent abductions In daylight hours, refresh yourself of these things to do in an emergency situation....

Recent abductions? Where, in Kenya? I've heard that they have had a slew of recent abductions, but I'm not there. In fact, there's an excellent chance that I live nowhere near the person who crafted this email. I know I definitely don't live near the person who sent it to me. But it sure is a chilling statement. The whole email is disturbing. It makes you afraid of everyday life.

I swear to Jeebus, the people who write this crap are in cahoots with the producers of "Law & Order SVU" to make women fearful. If you really want to encourage your women friends to be safe, then recommend a self-defense course. I took one when I was 17 and learned practical skills that I use every time I am out alone. And when I came out of that class, I felt positive and self-assured. Sure, the crying baby email contains a few practical tips, but all within the context of hysterical, anecdotal nonsense. It doesn't leave you feeling empowered. It leaves you feeling scared.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Over the Lights, Under the Moon

After several years of estrangement, I've started hanging out with my siblings again. It's weird. My mom just bought a house here in Michigan and she's really excited to share her new home. Her new-found and unprecedented happiness is pretty irresistible, so I visit her as much as I can. And sometimes that means hanging out with the sibs who live around here.

Everyone has been really nice. In fact, it's shocking to see how pleasant and positive they've all become. I credit the passing of my jerk father for that change in the weather, because family gatherings used to be a super depressoid scene. I wouldn't go so far as to call the current get-togethers "fun" because I feel like an outsider. I guess that seems natural, given that I missed a big chunk of their lives. But really, by virtue of birth order and age range, I always was on the outside. That used to make me really sad (one of the reasons I decided to go my own way, actually). Now that I've built my own life, it doesn't matter as much, but it's still alienating.

I can deal with that awkwardness for a few hours at a time, every month or so, but I struggle with the exhaustion. There's so much bottled up emotion in all of us. We tend to laugh hard, in part because we're all so amused by ourselves, but also because it's the one common and comfortable mode of expressing some very intense feelings. When you get several of us in a room together, it's overwhelming.

I have to find other outlets for my emotions. Being around my family has reminded me how much I hold in. It wears me down. I also suspect that I could funnel that feeling into something creative and perhaps even beautiful, which would make me so happy. And if I don't succeed at that, I'll gladly settle for peace of mind!

As a remedy for this bottled-up syndrome, I've been listening to a lot of Kate Bush. She's my new artistic role model. Ever since she was signed to a major label as a teenager, she's labored with a very clear notion of how exactly she would express herself.

In those first couple years, she didn't release anything or engage in any kind of promotion, but focused instead on songwriting, interpretive dance and mime. Her first single was "Wuthering Heights", which she wrote when she was 15. In it, Bush channels the spirit of Cathy and sings to Heathcliff about her all-consuming love for him, begging, "Heathcliff! It's me Cathy. I've come home, I'm so cold. Let me into your window!" The lyrical retelling of the story is sublime, but her ethereal voice takes the narrative to another level. She could sing a song called "Wuthering Heights" in complete gibberish, but if the melody were the same, you would still feel as if you had stepped into the story. Bush's performance infuses the song with a feeling and an understanding that is inevitably lost in the hands of other singers. Still, hearing other artists cover "Wuthering Heights" is a lot fun. It's just a great song.

In 1979, Bush embarked on her first and only tour. It was an intricate and highly theatrical production in which the interpretive-dancing Bush pioneered the use of a cordless mic (take that, Britney). Again, Bush had a very clear idea of how she wanted to express herself, but the tour was costly and exhausting. So in the next several years, she did a lot of one-off tv and live performances and made some truly avant garde music videos, many of which can be found on Youtube. Early music video technology really suited an artist like Bush. She more than makes up for the lack of pizazz in the medium itself with her unusual vocal style and choreography. She's beautiful, too, which helps.

I used to think that Kate Bush was loopy and pretentious. Her voice grated on me. I scoffed at the "Love and Anger" video when I first saw it on "Beavis and Butthead". And I cringed when I heard a rumor years ago that she refused to tour internationally because she feared that crossing large bodies of water would interfere with her witchcraft. But after doing some research, I don't think that rumor is true. What is true is that Bush has lived a relatively quiet and secluded life, releasing just two albums in the last 16 years. For most of her career, she's shied away from heavy promotion and has been silent between album releases. The media has filled in those quiet years with all manner of tawdry gossip (so easy to attach to a maverick like Bush). But in her interviews, she's thoroughly articulate and rational. I think she has to be a little loopy to write songs like "Wuthering Heights" and create interpretive dance accompaniments. But it's as if she funnels that loopiness into this arresting and aggressively captivating art, leaving her brain completely refreshed. And that's just how I want to be.

As an example, I've attached the video for "Army Dreamers" from her 1980 album "Never For Ever". This isn't my favorite of her songs (my currents jams are "Kite" - from which the title of this blog originates - and, surprising to myself, the highly dissonant "Sat in Your Lap"), but I think it's one of her best music videos.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why I Don't Have a Facebook Account

Let me start by saying this - I know I'm missing out. Sometimes, not having a Facebook account feels like not being invited to the cool party where all your friends are hanging out. But that's not true. Of course I've been invited, the whole world is invited! It's more like choosing to not go to the cool party where your friends are hanging out because you're certain that you will also run into some of the biggest jerks you know.

The result is that I'm uninformed about all sorts of things that are known to most of my social sphere - who did what when and all of the documenting photos, birthdays, notices of upcoming events including (especially - sigh!) parties. And I understand why nearly everyone I know uses this tool to keep each other updated. It's convenient (not to mention a great way to waste time at work). In other words, I know why I should have a Facebook account.

Since I closed my account last winter, many people have asked me why. The funniest query came from my brother-in-law's parents, who must be nearing their seventies. I thought they were joking until I looked into their utterly serious eyes. I guess some people have been affronted by my lack of involvement in the Facebook universe.

I wrote an anti-Facebook blog after I closed my account, but I was much grumpier about it then. Distance has given me a less emotional perspective and so I've given the question some honest consideration. Why don't I have a Facebook account? Here are some answers -

The Jerk Factor This is the problem with any social networking site. I hate that feeling I get when my computer tells me that some person I don't like wants to be my friend. Then I have to ask myself - do I dislike this person enough that I will straight up reject them, or do I just avoid clicking a button? The difference between Facebook and other social networking sites is that almost everyone uses this one. Its popularity increases the likelihood of this unpleasant experience occurring.

The Format Flatters No One Have you ever known a person who seemed really cool and then they started doing coke and became a total jackass? When I see someone on Facebook, it's like seeing them on coke.

The update section is the worst. What if someone recorded my silly everyday banter and published it? I would sound inane. That's the quality of the update section of a Facebook account, where you broadcast what you are thinking or doing and others may comment. Half of what I'm thinking isn't worth saying, and 95% of what I say is definitely not worth writing down. This is true for most people, and Facebook makes that truth painfully clear.

Surprisingly, I don't find Twitter as irritating, maybe because it's only updates. I'm sure there are countless individuals like myself who started tweeting, quickly realized that they had nothing substantive to share, and gave up. Facebook lures you with a dizzying array of features including updates. I think most people post updates just because they're logged in and it seems the thing to do.

Don't even get me started on the quizzes. "What style font are you?" I get embarrassed for the people who bother with that stuff.

Because I See Enough of My Coworkers Already And I honestly mean no offense to them by saying that. All of them are super cool, a blessing in this absurd world in which we spend 40 hours a week in little rooms with the same people. And because I like and respect these people, I would feel like a bum if I didn't befriend them on Facebook. But I don't need to know how they're doing in the evening or on the weekend. I'll find out soon enough.

I'm Just Not That Social The ultimate reason that I deactivated my Facebook account is that I found it overwhelming. I've spent a good chunk of my life trying to be invisible. Without getting into the nitty gritty details, I'll say that invisibility was a survival skill from childhood that unfortunately stuck with me. I'm not nearly as shy as I used to be, but I'm a long way from feeling comfortable with posting pictures of myself, pretending to have 60 or so friends, or kidding myself that I'm actually going to hang out with a long lost classmate. It feels fake.

In short, I don't have a Facebook account because it isn't an enjoyable experience for me. I know this is inconvenient for my friends and family, and I'm sorry for that. But please know that I'm still available by phone, email, the USPS, and at my front door. I may not have an exciting update to share, but I'm always game for conversation.