LIGHTBULB MOMENTS – Who do you think you are?

OK! I am celebrating people!

For once, my typical creative-person angst has chosen to subside and right now I am deep in the throws of a total anti-crisis. I’m sure my life-long torrential pursuit of purpose and meaning will re-surface in its usual incarnation of self-doubt and ennui, but in this moment, I feel like I may actually have some idea about who I am after all, whatever on earth that means.

So here’s the deal:

Lately I’ve been asking myself some of those existential questions that at some point in my life I could take for granted as self-evident, only to later realize I didn’t have words to clearly articulate their answers.

They are:
1. What is my ikigai/raison d’etre?
2. What would I like to be when I grow up/ Who would I like to be in this lifetime?
3. What would I like to do with this lifetime?
4. What’s the point of my art?
5. Why music?

When I went to reeeeeaaalllllly focused in on trying to discover answers for these questions, the words “to awaken compassion” kept popping up… but the light didn’t really start to fade in until today while I was shamelessly reveling in my love of music.

Now I love music. Have I mentioned that before? I love music so earnestly, so deeply, that it’s actually kind of embarrassing. I’m like a teenager who has a crush so all they know how to talk about is object of said crush. “Music this, music that…Did music call today? I wonder if music likes me back…I bet music is gonna go find a prettier girl, etc.” I’m a one trick pony, a broken record, a hopeless obsessive.

I used to assume that the love of music was enough reason to pursue it. I used to say the one good thing about my relationship with music was that at least it left no ambiguity regarding what I would be doing with my life. (Boy did I miss the mark on that one.) Recently, let’s say intermittently over the last 3-4 years, I’ve been going through a season where that basic precept has been in question. Pouring my very best love and intentions into the music I’ve made had yielded only marginal external validation. Knowing this was not an unusual circumstance for people living alternative lifestyles of the creative persuasion, I was left wondering why the validation factor mattered to me, and if it mattered so much to me, why even bother trying to make art? Better I should just get a little office job, and quietly humble myself into I life without passion.

After a while, it became clear that passion or not, music was not going to “go quietly into that good night.” No matter how uncertain I felt creatively, music just kept showing up. For example, the whole time I was recording “Out From Yonder,” my most successful (and incidentally, my most self-representative) recording to date, making music was as essentially “uninspired” as going to the toilet. A fundamental function of my being, but certainly nothing to write home about.

Well life threw me a few curve balls last year, and these days, I’m just so thankful for all of the love in my life that this particular line of questioning and self doubt has essentially has been rendered irrelevant. Simply put, I am in love with making music, and though we can’t ever really predict who or what we fall in love with, we sometimes get glimpses into why our love feels so penetrating.

Well folks, today I caught just such a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. It flickered in the light a little, and when I turned my head to face it dead on something rang out as both focused and true. What was it about music that hit so close to home for me? I’m still figuring out what this means, but it suddenly became clear that it is music’s unique and immediate ability to awaken compassion that was my hook!

Well that’s all well and good you might say. A lot of people would agree that music has some mysterious ability to access emotion, or that it’s fundamentally a social modality. There’s certainly plenty of research being done on why that may be, indeed how music may have been an integral part of our evolution. But my question was why would music’s ability to “awaken compassion” be such a hook for me in particular?

I quickly realized that as far as I can tell, my soul/heart/mind/being/higher self’s clearest motivation has always been to awaken compassion. Sounds a bit lofty and somewhat self-important I know, but this theme is present in nearly every conversation I’ve ever had, certainly every conversation I can remember. I seem to always be trying to find pathways to awakening other people’s compassion, primarily for themselves, although I sometimes enter the rocky terrain of trying build bridges towards compassion for others. Now this fundamental motivation, my home key if you will, can go all over the map when it starts modulating. It can manifest as naïve, self-righteous, tedious even. But it is the most persistent presence in my life in fact… and when I follow this feeling down its windy little rabbit hole, it goes straight to the center of what I know how to experience as being-ness itself. It goes to that space and FILLS IT COMPLETELY.

This feeling can and does distort itself into an intense yearning or desire, but it too has a steady nature that lies beneath its more emotive manifestations. It appears to remain constant, despite my relentless efforts to assess it, judge it, subjugate it, question it, devalue it or entirely dismiss it based on my ego based orientation to it. I will admit that because this fundamental vibration could care less what I think of it, I do take a little comfort in knowing that it at least appears to point at something that is “basically good.” With my luck, I could have been born with a fundamental playing in the key of serial killer.

The interesting thing is, my egoic self seems to have a tendency to want to direct this intention/vibration inward and apply language like “awaken compassion in myself, awaken myself to compassion, awaken to my own compassion” etc., but the fundamental actively asserts itself “against” this language demanding that I (ego) try to understand that while those things may very well be involved in helping it accomplish its goal, they are by no means the “point” as it were. It goes on to assert that it is not necessary for me to “wait” to be fully awakened to compassion in order to go about the work of awakening compassion in others…it says I shouldn’t delude myself into thinking I need it any less than others do, but that in this lifetime, it is others that matter. it won’t tell me why and it says, quite frankly, it doesn’t have to.

All of this is a lot of words that boil down to the following:

1. What is my ikigai?
To love my family and to use music to awaken compassion.

2. What would I like to be when I grow up/Who would i like to be in this lifetime?
a vessel for awakening compassion

3. What would I like to do with my lifetime?
To use music to awaken compassion in others in order to help alleviate the suffering of suffering

4. What’s the point of my art?
to awaken compassion

5. Why music?
Because of its unique ability to awaken compassion

That’s it. That’s me in a nutshell. If i look back, those answers have been true for as long as I can remember, but they’ve been too close to my nose for me to see. Maybe they’ll shift into something else later, but for this moment now, I think I know who I am.

Yay!

Chris’ Enigma – ME: The Back Story, Part II

CHAPTER II: DISCOVERING THE OLD EDITION

I was born in our great nation’s bi-centennial year 1976, which means I missed most of the amazing music of the 70’s. By the time my little mind registered the music it was ingesting, Marvin, J5, EWF, Stevie’s Key of Life, even Bitches Brew were all too old to be deemed du jour and too new to be retro or classic. Furthermore, for me, the best rock music of that era might as well have been made behind a Cold War’s iron curtain. And let’s not even mention the grande dames of singer/songwriting o’ the day: Phoebe Snow, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Carol King and Joan Armawho?

I was an ignorant disgrace to the future me. I mean, I think it’s safe to say that in comparison, the music you heard on the radio in the 80’s was problematic at best. But that was what I grew up on: Casey Kasem, BET and the few records I had which included singles by Whitney Houston, The Jets, some Jackson 5 compilations, Janet Jackson’s Control, Anita Baker’s Rapture, and anything I could get my hands on by New Edition (that Ronnie was so cute).

Like all the other kids in the neighborhood, I would use the tape deck on my lavender mini boom box to pirate Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick songs off the radio, rewinding and playing that memorex to its slow demise, just to learn all the lyrics (Ladidadi…we like to party…we don’t cause trouble, we don’t bother nobody…) I did the same with Run DMC, LL Cool J’s “I Need Love,” and the story songs by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, aka Will Smith. I liked the way the words rolled off the tongue, the rhythmic syncopations that felt as memorable as melody, and the way they could make out of virtually nothing, something we all just knew in our bones we needed, (more on that in a future post).

Admittedly, my love for New Edition surpassethed all understanding. All I can say is, with hit singles like “Popcorn Love” and “Candy Girl,” I found that brand of literal bubblegum pop completely irresistible, and when my sister got tickets to their ALL FOR LOVE concert at the Atlanta FOX Theatre, I begged my mom to let me go.

“No way. You’re too young.”

There it was again. Too young.

“But mom, by the time I’m old enough they’ll be ‘Old Edition’!”

She didn’t budge. No room at all to wiggle. “I’ll take you to a concert at the University instead.”

Gimme a break.

Needless to say I was thoroughly put out. I don’t know why my mother thought for one second I’d be even remotely interested in a “concert at the University,” and I think if she’d had to do it over again she would have thought twice about it. Much to my mother’s later expressed and reiterated chagrin, that concert literally exploded my world and actuallly turned out to be the pivotal moment that turned childhood piano lessons and after school chorus from hobby-like extra-curriculars into lifelong career preparations.

It was a free performance offered by a visiting orchestra from Atlanta, maybe even a little chamber ensemble from members of the ASO. In truth, I don’t remember much about the program except except these few little artifacts:

  1. There was something on the program by big daddy Bach. His name was in the program, along with the customary birth and death dates, and it caught my attention because I was teaching myself a Bach Minuet from one of those Bastien books at the time. I was intrigued beyond reason to learn how old this music was. I mean, we could trace my family history back pretty far on my mom’s side, and if this guy died in 1750, that would make him older than my great, great, great grandaddy, and up until that point, that had been as far back as my nine year-old imagination could reach. I simply couldn’t wrap my head around how music this old could sound so alive. Blew my mind, I’m tellin’ you. Totally blew my mind.
  2. I remember there being being a harp in the orchestra that had done very little (if anything) during the Bach hullabaloo but started doing all kinds of stuff in the third selection on the program. I’d caught a glimpse of the instrument before the concert began but had no ideas about what sound it might make. Then I started hearing that magical wisp of tone that always told me in my early childhood read along books when I would “know it was time to turn the page.” Again, my little head had come even closer to exploding quite inappropriately, all over the blue-haired lady blocking my view of the stage. Could this be coming from a real instrument? Why wouldn’t the lady move?!!!?? I kept shifting in my seat to see how that sound was happening, and my mother kept pinching me in that way I imagine only Black American mothers have mastered. It was the sort of pinch that feels it’s bringing you within an inch of your life, certainly within millimeters of your pain threshold, and since every cell in your body knows not to “cross the line” by making a single peep or indication of your present agony, you do the only thing you can, which is to cease to breathe until the infinitely dignified barringer of doom sitting to your left, whose womb once once your only home and comfort, becomes sufficiently satisfied that you know better than to continue your previous course of action. And yet in that moment I honestly could not discern which was worse, the pain of this pinch, or the pain of not knowing where that sound was coming from. Finally, the blue-hair leaned to the right, revealing the harpist to the far left of the stage for the full duration of remaining minutes of the movement. I had never imagined I would ever see these miraculous sounds being made right before my eyes. I was stupefied.
  3. The second half of the program involved a lengthy work by a Ludwig van Beethoven whose name I was familiar with but whose composition I could not afford to ingest on that particular occasion. My little self was already spent. I had become nauseated with excitement and was thoroughly terrified of the ceaseless stream of tears I felt would come if I’d had to take in one more note. I don’t remember whether or not we left at intermission, or whether I just blanked out, but I have no recollection of the second half of the concert. Beethoven would have to come to me later.

Yes folks, I was officially turned out. I left that concert hall a different sort of girl altogether. Nothing could have been more magical. It had quenched a previously unknown thirst and sliced open a space inside of me that I would spend all my days, even up until this one, trying to fill. I almost lost all interest in music being made by living people, and gradually gave myself over to the mysteries of dead men.

For fifteen years I was lost to that love affair, so when I now refer to myself as “old school,” I really do mean “olde school.”

Chris’ Enigma – ME: The Back Story, Part I

This question came in a couple of weeks ago from an old college friend while Liz and I were on the road to Oberlin, OH to record my current favorite band, Backbone. (Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond Chris, but I really do appreciate the question.)

“Lilli,
As long as I’ve known you, you have been very talented and knowledgeable about music. I’m wondering about the back-story about what lit this flame in your life. Was it love at first sight when your parents let you hammer on a piano at church one day? Did you have traditional music lessons growing up, or were you more self-taught?

Speaking as someone who took years of lessons on Saxophone, Piano and voice, but still has very little musical knowledge, per se, your skills have always been a bit of an enigma to me.
-Chris”

I think I’ll have to answer this one in installments since my road has been kinda weird and “bendy” as roads go.

CHAPTER 1: AIR PIANO, OPUS 1

In truth, my musical journey has been a little bit of a mystery to me, too. I think my mom would tell you I was born to music. She has her favorite stories about music in my childhood, many of which I remember myself. For example, I remember hearing music in my head all the time, I mean ALL the time. One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore so I dragged the entire family into the living room (which had a white carpet and was only used for special occasions) for a “recital” of all of this music in my head. We didn’t have a piano at this time, but that didn’t stop me. I proceeded to play air-piano for what must have been an embarrassingly long time, because at some point everyone started clapping and telling me what a great job I’d done. “But I’m not finished yet!” I wailed as I demanded that they all sit back down until the final cadence. I was three.

As Chris guessed in his question, church also played a significant role during this time. For starters, church was where I discovered a thirst for harmony. See, my father was a preacher in an old Baptist church that had a habit of singing all these old, haunting melodies. While everyone was singing these songs by heart (or blood maybe?), I would try to figure out what the titles were and look them up in the index. Once I found the page, I instinctively knew they were all singing what was on the top line, so I started trying to sing the other lines. If the dots were close to each other I’d sing as if I were singing a scale. If the notes had space between them, I’d make a large or small “jump” to another note that also “sounded right.”

Since my father was the preacher, we were always the last to leave. That meant, if I wasn’t too disruptive, I could play the church piano after the service. I had a ritual that involved sitting on the bench, playing one note at a time and leaning in to the piano so that I could hear “how that note went.” I listened to the attack, the decay, and even the tinny, pitched vibration the string would make right before it stopped “singing.” When I felt I’d studied one note long enough, I’d move on to the next note. Same thing, every Sunday.

We got our own piano shortly after the “air recital” incident, but it was technically for my sister who was three years my senior and taking piano lessons at school. Even though I couldn’t read music, I promptly learned to play by ear everything she learned from her books, sometimes adding my own embellishments because “I liked my way better.”

That same year I learned that my mom had taken music lessons as a child. She hated them of course, even purposely broke her wrist to get out of her piano study, but that didn’t phase me a bit. I assumed she must have known something of music notation, so I started harassing her about transcribing my own compositions incidentally entitled things like “Raindrops” and “Falling Leaves.” Her etchings on the homemade manuscript paper looked like magical hieroglyphics to me, and I’d spend quite a bit of time trying to decipher them, matching what I played to what was written on the page.

By the time I was four, my mother started trying to find a teacher for me. No one would take me. I was too young. I think I was 5 years old when I auditioned for Vera Weaver, my first piano teacher. Thus began my illustrious career as a completely unremarkable music student.

If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time on pre-school years, it’s because, in spite of few blazing moments of pure joy and ecstatic fervor, the next 20 years of my musical career was kind of a downer. It involved losing teacher after teacher to one circumstance or another (usually financial), me trying to compensate for that through self-teaching with minimal success, and the humiliation of ending up at a boarding school full of kids who had grown up with a first-class musical education. More on that in the next installment….

This is all to say I honestly can’t remember a time when organized sound didn’t completely fascinate me, and I can remember pretty far back. Basically, I was a sickly, nerdy kid who wasn’t good at much and mainly annoyed everyone around me with precocious questions and general condescending manner. So music was my first best friend, plain and simple. I came into the world with a sincere affinity for all things musical. I can’t say that gift came with any particular talent per se, but it did put a deep and rich passion for music right at the center of everything I knew how to care about from my first day forth.

End of Part I

BLOG BLURB #1: The New Badu…ya dig?

I’ll use BLOG BLURBS to document random conversations on music new and old. Here’s the latest from a friend who knows that Erykah Badu is my #1 favorite R&B artist.

Melony: The New Badu… ya dig?

Me: You know, to be honest Mel, I haven’t really gotten in to it yet. I bought it back in April and listened to it right away, and my first impression was that it was the 2nd album everyone would have expected/wanted. It hasn’t really grown on me yet…but that could be because the first time I listened to it I was with a bunch of classic rockers (i.e. The Shiz) and none of them were really into…you know how that can color an experience… How ’bout you?

Melony: The first time I listened to it, it was more ambient noise in the background of having some people over. I really enjoyed it. Last night was the first time I listened to it without anything else going on and I wasn’t as in love with it. It makes sense with the first album… but it’s just not giving me the sauce I’d expect.

Me: I think as ambient noise it would be hot…just right for the vibe-y sophisticate….but less intriguing when it’s just me and her in the room.

Anybody else have this album?

WDYT?

Album Art: Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh

Sofia.Sings Songs in the key of MY Life

OMG.

Of course I should’ve counted on Sofi for the first question – and I should have known it would have been so completely perfect.  That she would choose to invoke a great work of inspired genius released merely two days after my mother’s birthday in the year of my birth…well, that’s just Sofi.

and I quote:

“I’ve recently started listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” I knew a lot of the songs before, but I didn’t realize they were all on one album, *and* with such awesome new material I’d never heard before!

So what I’m curious about is, What was the reaction when this came out? Did it make everyone’s head explode? What was so groundbreaking and revolutionary about it? And do you have anything to say about how it influenced musicians to come? We generally hear African-American artists credit him, but I hear Pink Floyd and stuff like that coming out of this, too. All the trippy synthesizers and stuff.

Sincerely,
Sof’s in Need of Love Today”

Well, Sof, by all accounts, this album did indeed blow people’s minds. We have to remember that at this point, Stevie had taken home two consecutive Grammy Awards for Album of the Year for his previous two releases Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and the one before that (also a top 5 hit) was TALKING BOOK! (I’m just saying…) In 1976 when Paul Simon took the same prize, I think he actually thanked Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album that year.

The Stevie machine had built up quite a frenzy at that point. His language had evolved into an almost unheard of combination of harmony and rhythm that was as sophisticated at is was accessible. He was feeding pop listeners the best of what American music had to offer and for a brief time in our history, the people were feasting!

That being said, instead of resting on the laurels of his obvious dominance as a thread in the weird fabric of pop-dom, Stevie took “Key of Life” far beyond anyone’s imaginings. It’s my understanding that he’d wanted to leave the music industry before this project began to work with disabled children in Africa. A noble cause indeed, but something changed his mind… It’s obvious to me that if that kind of genius was still lingering in the mind of any artist, it would be impossible to leave that work unsung for any reason. I guess what I’m saying is, it feels like Stevie’s inside parts was saying “I’m tired of holding back. You think I’ve done something great before and I’ve barely even scratched the surface. I’ve got other work to do here people. I’ll show you the truth, but just this once, and then I’m outta here.” I’m not saying he never did anything great after this project, but “Key of Life” is a gi-normous opus. I imagine that for many, trying to release an album in its aftermath was a lot like Europe trying to write a Symphony after Beethoven’s 9th.

I think the most “groundbreaking and revolutionary thing about it” was just how frigging awesome every offering on that album is. It actually delivers. When you listen to it, you can’t believe all of those amazing songs came from one person – and it’s not even a “Greatest Hits” album! I think it was easy to take his great songs for granted before this one, but on “Key of Life,” Stevie truly revealed himself as a composer, writer and producer.

As a producer, he pulled together over 130 musicians for this project, and came up with something monumentally compelling and cohesive. Accounts of these sessions make him sound like a one man Steely Dan. And Stevie’s compositional prowess must never be underestimated. (Have you ever heard his “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants?”) Now, I don’t know who his direct influences were for some of the more “progressive” elements on the project, but I know Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” didn’t come out until 1979. For me Stevie reveals that, contrary to popular belief, in order to be as consistent as he was at producing GREAT songs, you have to have access to an active intellect that can follow and keep up with the muse, wherever she might lead.

It’s certainly not just African American artists that recognize his imprint. Elton John said to Rolling Stone, “Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” Don’t let the blind ignorance of a deceptively uni-dimensional, monochromatic industry fool you. Whatever your opinion of “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie and his cannon are as universally significant to our musical landscape as Louis Armstrong. Revolutionary, brilliant, masterful, radiant. Aside from proving to an sometimes treacherous international house of mediocrity that unabashed awesomeness was both possible and commercially viable, “Songs in the Key of Life” was a great gift to the human experience, as great a gift as any person could hope to offer.

WDYT?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songs_in_the_Key_of_Life

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life

Open for Business…so to speak…

Ok, so I’m not gonna draw this out.  My beautiful mom recently had the idea that I might get some pleasure out of writing about music, and even more so if I found a way to include others.  My wonderful Mama Bear said I should do it “because of my beautiful life.”  So here it is, my very own Life and Music Corner, finally open for business.

See, for years I’ve had people calling me at all hours of the night, asking me questions about music like “what is that time signature in Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Stars’ from Hush” or “what makes that chord progression in the Fauré piano quartet so magical?!?!”  I wish I could say they ask me because they think I’m smart, but I know deep down it’s because they know in their bones that music is my obsession, and that I’ll satisfy their curiosity because they know I’ll find everything that catches their attention worth a little (or a lot) of my own.

See, I loooove music.  Former students of mine have reported they think I couldn’t live without it.  My nephew used to plead with me when I’d begin my daily practice, “please auntie…please don’t go into the vortex!!!!” (insert wavy scooby-doo arms).  But this love is something I’ve always taken for granted.  It isn’t until recently that I’ve even begun to uncover why this might be.

Here’s my theory: music is the study and practice of co-existence.  We humans have a fairly developed story when it comes to existence.  Whether you’re a big bang theorist or a creationist, first there was nothing, then there was something, and the how and why of it expands from there. Although science, philosophy and the world’s major religions all seem to point towards the truths of interdependence, when we go to talk about it, a lot of us just don’t buy it.  We want to be selfish and we want more and more to create a mythology about self-interest.  I get that, and that’s why I’m so thankful for music.

Music, in its most basic form is the study of one thing in relationship to another.  Whether it’s one note next to another (melody), on top of another (harmony) or fixed in specific time (rhythm),  music doesn’t exist outside of “relationship.”  Miles Davis said “there is no such thing as a wrong note.  Everything depends on what you do with it.”  Even a single note sustained by a single person requires a relationship – a relationship with breath, a relationship with an instrument, a vibration to a resonator, etc. Relationship!  Nothing musical can happen without it.

If you’ve ever been in the room with a great spiritual master you experience a certain harmony around them.  Everything seems to be a ok.  The same is true when great music masters, practitioners, are making music together.  There’s an intangible euphoria that is sometimes so palpable, the idealists among us feel it could “save the world!”  We see and experience the grand possibilities of co-existence and it lifts us.

We are even able to learn among neophytes who’s self-interest is still firmly on display when they attempt to play with others.  In these circumstances, and I think we’ve all been there, while we are attempting to appreciate their effort (perhaps in our better moments), we experience the value of a good relationship, the value of a “harmonious” expression of space, time, matter, etc.

That doesn’t mean we expect or demand that all music be “pretty” or easy to experience, but we learn to recognize harmonious relationship in a visceral way, and the more practice we have at perceiving this harmony, the more the body and mind lends itself to subtlety, nuance, a more challenging palate.  We learn to be curious about what we may not initially understand.  Eventually, we may even learn to be excited by it!

Music gives us a way to practice the big deal of “co-existence” without even trying.  We have not choice in the matter.  For better or for worse, it happens to us whenever it is in the room, and that makes music a big deal to me.

So this blog is intended to open a conversation about music, about life, about whatever is a big deal to the people who decide to hang out here with me.  I want to know your questions, whatever they may be… Who’s first?

Seismic Shift: Can I Get a Witness?

SOUND THE TRUMPETS!!! LILLI HAS HAD A BREAKTHROUGH!!!!

I was working at the local coffee shop this morning (I reserve half-days on Monday and Wednesday for music work, yeah!) and when Liz came to pick me up for lunch, we noticed an acquaintance from her high school was sitting at the table next to me. As soon as he saw her he lit up.

Anonymous Acquaintance: “Hey Liz! How’s it going?!?! Good to see you! How’ve you been??” You know the drill. Big smiles, inexplicable, hypnotic, involuntary nod.

LIZ: “Great! How’ve you been? No, that was my sister. Working at my parents’ law firm and coaching soccer. Oh yeah! And I’m in a rock band with my partner Lilli.” Points in my direction.

AA: “Wow. Cool. So Lilli you play drums?”

ME: Thinking “Guess this guy has selective hearing ’cause drummer doesn’t really sound anything like partner” Speaking “No, I play keys and sing.” Smile. Nod.

LIZ: Thinking “Did this guy find Jesus or something ’cause I remember him being a bit of a jocky douche in high school.” Speaking “So what are you up to these days?”

AA: “Oh. Consulting. You know…” Spots her ring. “So are you married?”

LIZ: “Yes. Lilli’s my partner. We’ve been together for about five years.”

Anonymous Acquaintance goes gray. Ends the conversation abruptly. Liz and I leave for a lunch of turkey and avocado sandwiches.

And scene.

Queer readers, have you been there? Can I get a witness?

Non-queer readers, I’ll fill you in. This moment is a cliché. At best it can be awkward and weird, at worst it can be life-threatening. It cost Liz a job a little over a year ago, but today something shifted for me. Oh yes. Today I touched something life-altering. It’s been there right under my nose all this time and I finally went cross-eyed long enough to see it.

My friends, today I experienced this moment as nothing short of HI-larious.

Believe it or not, I got the joke when I put myself in his hypothetical shoes for once. Let’s say he did find Jesus after his high school football glory days ended with a pregnant girlfriend, a shotgun wedding, and a life of enslavement to the man. After all, where does that guy go to find purpose and meaning? He goes to church.

He goes to that community institution that’s so good at revealing the basic goodness present in all situations, especially when you “give it to God.” His church is where he finds redemption for past sins, prospects for future business, and validation for his present assumptions about day to day living. He takes his questions to church and there he finds his answers, along with a well earned ounce of comfort and a constant companion.

Don’t get me wrong. I mean no disrespect towards the transcendental power of the church experience that manifests as life-changing (sometimes life-saving) for so many. After all, for the average over-worked, under paid, tired, distracted, gluttonous, fearful American (and I do include myself in this descriptive), church is the only place where one gets even a glimpse into the great mystery: the super-string, the “tiny strand of everything” that binds us in this cosmic event referred to as life. This is big stuff people, the real deal that lives beyond the illusory display, and it can make the humblest of us all feel quite invincible.

Moreover, church is the only place where many of us experience the gift of all gifts known as grace. I don’t know if I have the right words to describe what I mean in particular when I say “grace,” but I do feel in my heart of hearts that grace is an invaluable, infinitesimal moment where humility is revealed and any hope at healing begins. It is therefore as powerful a force in my universe as gravity and electro-magnetism.

So yes, go to that place and find Jesus or God or Allah or even dharma – whoever/whatever gives you access to mystery and grace. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t need or deserve it. But it does beg the question of the various anonymous acquaintances out there, is church not where many of us are learning to fear each other?

You can believe me when I tell you the anonymous acquaintance we met in the coffee shop today looked like he felt like he was going to burn in hell when he realized he had inadvertently greeted a couple of lesbians with a smile and a general sense of good will. I don’t know if it was the element of surprise that rendered him speechless, or some bad milk that sullied his coloration and otherwise shiny disposition, but the shift was both clear and pathetically familiar.

Now I’m not usually the biggest fan of Schadenfreude, but today I became genuinely tickled when I thought of the sick feeling this guy had to sit with in his belly during the business meeting that prevented him from going home and showering after this dirty little encounter with a local lesbos. I wondered with impish delight if it would have made him feel better if we had given him an opportunity to offer his approval for our lascivious union.

US: (In the manner of a condescending phone salesperson) “Yes, we’re lesbians. Is that going to work for you? No? Ok, well then…we’ll just be on our way and leave you to the self-perpetuated, white-male-privileged paradigm already in progress. Ok. Great. Have a nice day…”

Or, maybe he hasn’t yet reached even that wrung of evolution; you know, the one of the well-meaning, liberal-minded relative who thinks they’ve arrived because they can hate the sin but still love the sinner, or the next wrung of the socially-conscious, straight-privileged friend who thinks they’re evolved beings because they’ve heard the word “hetero-centric” and actually registered that the term could in fact apply to them.

To remove the tongue from my cheek for just a moment, I honestly don’t think I was actually laughing at him. I think I was more relieved to finally experience “that moment” as passé and, well, funny. Funny? Yes!

I can report from this day in the field that it was so much more fun to laugh at this little scenario than the humiliation I felt last month when the attendant at the Food Bank demanded through a nervous stutter that I list my partner as my “friend” on the eligibility application, or the sense of frustration I felt when I filled out my 2010 census and couldn’t answer the first question without having to be reminded that I am still invisible even when I am being officially counted by government order. (Incidentally, my census-worker aunt later informed me that they were granted official approval to allow gay couples to select a marital status of “married” if they felt so inclined. Since I never needed their approval, I’m telling myself that means the US Census Bureau thinks gay marriage will be universally legalized the by the time they come around to count us again.)

For once, I didn’t have to make someone else’s problem with all things homosexual my problem. Today I took another important step out of the muck of victim-hood, and had a hearty laugh to boot. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet! (I can’t know about that other guy…)

And scene.

Related Songs:
Not Your Baby Girl from The ShizOpus Deux
Tumble from The ShizOpus Deux
Pretty Ebony from Castles of Her Crystalline

Unexplained Phenomena – Race, Class and Health Care in America

Really? Are you kidding me? What is going on America? You people can’t possibly believe our health care system works as it is. I think the absence of a genuine discussion about health care reform is about something else entirely, but are we as a nation ready to talk about it?

It has something to do with why, at one point in this country, it was constitutionally sound to consider some of the people living here less than human. I would even go so far as to say it might have something to do why a Harvard professor can get arrested in his own home by an officer who is responsible for his precinct’s racial sensitivity training. And dare I say it? I think it has something to do with why people think it’s ok to carry automatic assault weapons to presidential assemblies, and why said people are not being arrested, harassed or otherwise antagonized by law enforcement agents.

I know it sounds as if I’m going to over simplify the issue and say it’s about racism. I am, after all, a Black American woman and everyone knows we love to play the race card, right?

Well, if I were to place that ace on the table, it would be hard to dispute. I could tell you the story of my father’s family who were sharecroppers in rural GA growing cotton and sugarcane on land the family had once worked as slave labor. Under the sharecropping system, they were never able to make enough to live on. Furthermore, only 3 out of 13 kids were able to attend school. My father was one of the 3 but he failed 5th grade because he had to work the land.

Long story short, my grandfather buckled under the fiscal strain and actually tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the head. The problem is he didn’t die right away. They took him to the hospital but he was sent to the back door because he was black. They left him at the back door for several hours and by the time they let him in it was too late.

But here’s the thing. Racism may have killed my grandfather, but racism lives because of a much larger illness. I believe there is a collective neurosis we as human beings have inherited that says some people have more inherent value, and by extension more rights, than others. Although I’m no expert, I believe this unexplained phenomenon occurs even in homogeneous cultures that don’t necessarily carry the weight of centuries of racially driven indecencies that this country bears. So although I won’t blame our health care crisis on racism, I sure can use that strange little institution to elucidate a larger dilemma.

There was a time in this country where a “federal ratio” declared certain people “3/5ths” the value of other people to protect financial and political interests. The ratio was originally proposed so that Southern states could be taxed “according to their numbers and their wealth “(Jefferson), but was ultimately adopted so as to procure the Southern states more congressional representation, according to their numbers, as it were.

I am sad to admit that when I was taught about the “Three-fifths compromise” in grade school, it made perfect sense to me. “Of course the slaves shouldn’t be counted as full people,” I thought. I followed the logic of both sides and found it a completely reasonable solution. I even equated myself with the population that was being declared “less than fully human” as described by some accounts, and never registered a single chill in my spine at the notion.

(On a side note, I recall covering this material in social studies and history classes at the ages of 6, 9, 11 and 13. I can’t say the “that was then, this is now” consolation was all that effective at such an impressionable time in my life.)

Now, as a thinking adult, I have to say I find it appalling for one class of people to presume they have the authority to come to some consensual agreement, for whatever reason, over another’s value, especially when the calculation is to serve an end as coarse and gauche as taxation or political gain.

I would assert that we still live the legacy of such reasoning. In regards to health care, where once it was acceptable to determine your inherent value and therefore access based on race, later it became about class. If you were affluent or gainfully employed, you could have access to care. If you were poor and/or unemployed, sorry. Now it has progressed even further, if you are affluent, gainfully employed full-time and have never been sick, hooray! You’re in the club. Otherwise, tant-pis!

From the corporate point of view, they’re protecting their bottom line like the North attempting to tax the South, and guess what? the bottom line is more important than the lives of the people who need healing. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for an insured person to pay premiums regularly (money they will never see again if nothing ever goes wrong), pay their co-pay at the doctor’s office, and then be denied coverage for the very medicine or treatment their degreed and licensed medical professional prescribes. I read a recent account where an insurance company declared anesthesia for knee surgery an “unnecessary procedure.” Well admittedly I was not there, but somehow I doubt that back in the Civil War, they made amputees, civilian or otherwise, pay for the vodka, whiskey or moonshine they poured down their throats before the doctors took their limbs.

From the social point of view, both the “haves” and “have nots” are so afraid of “not having enough” that we navigate the issues from a fear and separatist based “poverty mentality,” sub-consciously turning to our inherited neurosis to support our right to be afraid. Even if our children are no longer being raised to believe their different raced neighbor has different colored blood, they are not protected from the other, more socially acceptable ways in which we judge and assess each other’s worth.

We (and by we, I mean those of us who want to let the broken system keep getting worse) still think we have the right to declare which lives are worth healing, and from my experience we’re a pretty judgmental bunch. Have you listened to how some of these conversations go? A lot of the arguments I’ve heard against health care reform are about how they, as tax payers, shouldn’t be responsible for certain people’s care: the smoker, the alcoholic, the fat lady, etc.

I see at least a few gaps here:
1. It ignores all the people who don’t fall into one of those categories.
2. It implies that people who did not have leave it to beaver lifestyles and meal plans should be shiz-out-of-luck if they ever get sick.
3. It presupposes that a public option paid for by taxes is the only possible solution.
4. It doesn’t address the abuses already in practice by the industry.
5. It ignores the fact that we all end up paying for it one way or another…

We are afraid of each other and we don’t care enough about each other’s well being to get over it. I think the industry takes advantage of our confusion because it makes real change that much harder to accomplish. We are indirectly protecting the “industry” of health care while deflecting it’s primary purpose which is to generate, provide and assist in efforts pertaining to health and care.

Let’s face it. We are in an entangled, dynamic system. My question is how do we engage that truth in a way that actually works?

At this point, I don’t think anyone could convince me that our current health care system works. We’ve all had experiences to the contrary, and we get sad, maybe even angry, but we don’t get outraged. We don’t say “Are you kidding me?” We don’t demand the fundamental ideological changes that would turn the whole thing inside out.

Why is this? Why isn’t health care a civil rights issue? Why isn’t it tied to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Why are so many Americans so desperate not to rock this leaky bucket of a boat?

They tell me the issue is money and politics, corporate structures and power, and that the media is feeding the frenzy because they are a part of those structures. Well, haven’t we been here before? Our system has been deciding for decades what race and what class of person was worthy of care, and what degree of care they should be allowed. That entire line of reasoning has always been corrupt, and has now brought us to a place where everyone is at risk of a ridiculous decision being made by a desk clerk bureaucrat to protect a corporate entity’s bottom line.

I think WE are the ones who must create this change. WE are the ones responsible. The president WE elected is not going to accomplish it, and why should he even bother since WE THE PEOPLE seem to be on the fence about whether or not WE want health care reform?

WE THE PEOPLE have navigated impenetrable canyons and brought water to barren lands. WE THE PEOPLE upended the major financial and social institution of slavery because it was the right thing to do. We have the resources to make this happen. The steps are very simple. First we must decide that creating a system that grants ample access to health care to everyone is the right thing to do. Then we decide how to do it.

We are good, strong people. So what gives?

Songs related to this article:
Winona Laduke from The ShizWhere We Stand
Wednesday’s Child from Sleeper’s Wake