22 April 2010

Keeping it Local (Cosmically Speaking, Of Course)

Photo from The Cosmic Omelet

I have often complained about life in small-town Connecticut. Perhaps it's purely white suburban boredom, bred out of privilege and inertia, but I've often lamented the place as a middle-class breeding ground for snobs and morons, to be blunt. (The strangest social phenomenon I've witnessed in my home state is the Connecticut Cowboy, which definitely requires some examination, probably at a later date.) But beyond these things, my home state practically has no claim to fame of its own, and a rather bland, if not downright forgettable, history. Connecticut is called Newyorkachusetts, for God's sake (fuck you, Dunkin' Donuts commercial). Just as a for instance, rather than "Birthplace of so-and-so" signs, houses in CT tend to have "so-and-so might have maybe stayed here for a night in 1773, but we can't be sure" plaques. Riveting!

Let's break it down a little further. Our state capital is a complete clusterfuck, to put it mildly. There are some really interesting, historic, and culturally significant attractions in Hartford, if you know where they are and how to find them. Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe lived there. The Old State House is very cool (there's a taxidermied two-headed goat - or calf - in there!). And of course there's the newly completed Connecticut Science Center, which I have yet to fully explore, but definitely is a fantastic piece of architecture and innovation. Beyond that, it's very family friendly, as opposed to my usual hang-outs in Hartford (the type that tend to serve adult beverages. ahem). The Wadsworth Atheneum houses some truly amazing pieces of art. Alexander Calder, the very odd and interesting dude who invented the mobile and the stabile, was a Connecticut native, and some of his enormous sculptures are on display there (the Stegosaurus, for example, is in the courtyard there). There are Dalí originals - and Van Goghs! There are even Frank Lloyd Wright pieces, scattered among some of the prettiest pieces of furniture and art you never knew Connecticut housed. Plus, the Wadsworth hosts cocktail nights and parties. You can rent it for events. And you can certainly spend days of your life there, if you're an art lover, that is. 

Now all of this seems very well and good, except Hartford is such a bastardized city, you have trouble getting from point A to point B without killing yourself or someone else. Back in the '50s, some wench with the last name Fox wanted all the highways (I-91 and I-84) redirected to drop all travelers into the city of Hartford pretty much at the doorstep of her department store (G. Fox & Co.). Now, not to bitch too much about G. Fox & Co. -- as they were quite the retail powerhouse in New England for a long time -- but this commercial power meant that legislators were all for completely screwing the traffic and beauty of Hartford in the name of the almighty dollar. Driving through parts of Hartford now, you can see it was once a really beautiful city. Not so much these days; especially since there are some severely economically depressed sections of the city, rife with violence and crime. And this economic depression is not new as per the recession; Hartford has been like this for years. The public schools there have been in crisis for as long as I can remember. And most folks know that there are some parts of the city you just do not go. And even some of the less dangerous areas have their issues. My friend Smith owns a (very nice!) condo about a three minute walk up from the train station. A few years ago, a young man was shot behind his building. Great.

And that's just Hartford! Connecticut has a claim to "fame" (I use that word with as much snarkiness as I can muster) as the wealthiest state in the Union. Fantastic! Pat yourselves on the back, Greenwich-dwelling zillionaires. Connecticut also has the largest discrepancy between wealthy and poor. We are in a budget crisis (like the rest of the nation), and are rapidly losing industry (like the rest of the nation). Connecticut is still home to some industrial (aerospace!) powerhouses, but let's be honest, they aren't what they used to be. Competition from overseas and the stripping of the American economy through outsourcing has left my home state in the same position it really has always been - a large bedroom community for New York and Boston. 

But being funemployed and essentially stuck in Connecticut (yay for living at home!), I've gained a new appreciation for the place. Everyone says that New Haven is where-it's-at - all the cool clubs and restaurants for the hipster/student are supposedly there. (Yalies make me want to regurgitate last night's stir fry, so I just ignore that sentiment entirely. New Haven is like New York's dingleberry, so enough of that. Though I do hold a special place in my heart for Toad's Place.) Regardless of my inexplicable hostility toward New Haven, I do kind of have a newfound love for Connecticut.

It's the small businesses and restaurants that really helped me realize how much I like my home state. I'm no gourmet, I couldn't even consider myself a foodie, but I do like to eat and drink. And the little restaurants that Connecticut is home to make the gluttonous life easy to live. Take the Bidwell, for instance. I've already lauded their wings (which are so damn good, I routinely eat too many of and I get sick, and come back for more time and again), but the tavern has some serious history. It was the Coventry town hall for years, built in 1822. The staff is friendly (CT is not exactly known for friendliness, by the way) and quick. The food is good, the music is fun, and there are more types of beer on tap than I can even list (which is impressive, I know my beer!).

Manchester is one of my favorite towns, despite having a somewhat economically checkered population (I love Mancunians, don't get me wrong). The Cosmic Omelet is there, and it's definitely my favorite breakfast spot in all the world. It's owned by a very cool young woman named Tracy who developed a dingy old café into a dining powerhouse, full of quirky charm and amazing three-egg omelets. If you've never been there, it's worth the trip - and the wait (on the weekends and most early mornings). Sure, it seems to be a bit of a greasy spoon, but you will be happily stuffed by the end of your meal. Plus, the staff is great, the coffee is endless, and the music spans everything from A-Ha to the Zombies. (Also, the Cosmic Omelet is what inspired me to write this post, hence the photo up top.) 

Manchester is also home to Corey's Catsup and Mustard, a bar with live music most nights where you can get absolutely killer burgers and meet some very lovely folks. Sukhothai is home to the best Thai food I've had this side of the Atlantic, and it's affordable and plentiful! The truth is, it's places like this which can help keep the state in business, so to speak; we don't have much industry, so we need small businesses in order to keep on keepin' on, as it were. And regardless of my own waning finances, I never, ever, regret giving these unsung holes-in-the-wall my custom. 

And what's more, Connecticut is beautiful. If you get past the weirdly assembled cities and towns, and have the ability to overlook the fact that a double-wide might be plopped right next door to a multi-million dollar estate in the Quiet Corner (gag), you'll discover that CT has managed to retain a lot of open and preserved space. I love hiking on Case Mountain and through Gay City State Park. We have mountains (okay, they're old, so they're really glorified hills, but whatever) and rivers, forests and beaches. Mystic is home to some tasty pizza, an aquarium, and an historic seaport (plus outlet shopping, if you're into that kind of thing).

I started to notice the pastoral (yes, pastoral) beauty of Connecticut recently as I for the first time rode on a motorcycle. Adam has a cruiser, and despite my mother's best warnings, I still love riding behind him on it. (Okay, so maybe one of my favorite things to do on the back of his bike is to be "Disapproving Passenger" and give the evil eyes to people in cars I catch texting while driving, but that's another matter altogether. I get out my "angry eyes" à la Mrs. Potatohead. It's quite effective, as I wear a full-face helmet, and I shame those texters into putting away their phones, at least for a short while.) But riding a motorcycle opens your view and experience of the world around you in a new way. You see, hear, and smell more. Yes, smell. Trust me, we went through Ellington, rife with (or should I say ripe with?) its cattle and dairy farms. Connecticut is pretty gorgeous, regardless of the time of year. (Except the brown-grey of the February thaw. That's just nasty.)

I never wanted to stay in Connecticut, and part of me still wants to get the hell out, but I have definitely found reasons to love the place. And after all, I am pretty goddamned privileged to have grown up here. I will still rail against the nouveau riche and upper-middle-class in the state who tend to think solely of material things and their bottom line, without a care for anyone else. (Yes, I have a tendency to be painfully classist proletariat, get over it.) And I'll complain that "there's nothing to do." I will still roll my eyes at the strip malls and cineplexes. And anyone form CT will tell you that the 91/95 merge is the worst stretch of highway possibly ever. (Honestly, it could be 2 a.m. and that damn thing will still be backed up for miles.)

But the truth is, Connecticut isn't half bad. In fact, it's half badass. But only half.

P.S. Happy Earth Day!  

21 April 2010

A Night at the Opera

Photo courtesy of itsmarx.com

This post isn't actually at all about The Marx Brothers, though they do indeed hold a special place in my heart (except that Zeppo, he wasn't very amusing). This post is about... opera.

I have a wide and varied interest in music. Yes, some forms of music still sound like nails on a chalkboard to me -- the oxymoronic Christian rock, for example ("abstinence, tea-totaling, and rock 'n' roll" just doesn't have the right ring), or most music created by teenagers (Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber, I'm looking at you. Pointedly.)

At any rate, I always wrote off opera as one of those pretty but totally-not-my-thing-as-I'm-not-old-and-moneyed kind of genres of music. It always seemed like something pretentious and well-schooled individuals listened to, and I often got the impression that even opera fans didn't actually like it, they just went and listened to it because they thought they were supposed to, which is all rather gauche, to be honest. And it was judgmental of me, but ya know, I stick with what I'm good at. I never "got" opera. 

I mean, let's break it down a little. It's in Italian (mostly), I don't know what the hell they're saying, the story lines are often convoluted, and it's sing/acting, which always seemed like a really intellectual form of breakdance-fighting (not Capoeria) to me. I mean, singers just standing there, belting it all out, often in octaves not necessarily the kindest to one's ears, never seemed my thing. This prejudice, of course, may be a direct result of overexposure to the aforementioned Marx Brothers and classic Loony Tunes as a child, and my innate dislike of musicals (a la Rogers and Hammerstein) since I was a toddler. (I believe I one told Julie Andrews to shut up in Bugs Bunny voice at roughly the age of 4. Not to disparrage the lovely Ms. Andrews, as my appreciation for her has likewise grown, but something about those Von Trapps always bugged the heck outta me. No one likes their siblings that much, okay?)

At any rate, I never paid opera much attention. Until recently. I can't remember where or when I heard it first, but it was immediately like a switch was flipped. 

Ladies and gentlemen, my gateway drug:

From my limited research, it seems that Pavarotti's version of Nessun Dorma was widely seen as his song, and that it is often a person's first opera love. Also, it's from Puccini's weird-as-hell opera Turandot, the plot of which is so convoluted and bizarre, I won't go into it. Oddly, Turandot is (apparently) not considered one of Puccini's best works, but Nessun Dorma seems to remain a widespread favorite. If you've seen The Phantom of the Opera, as I have, it's really easy to hear where Andrew Lloyd Webber pilfered bits of the song for his own purposes, though the exact moments in his play where this happens escape me. 

I never knew what I was missing. Something about this song, and there are better recordings of Pavarotti singing it, but none on YouTube, boggles my mind. I've looked up the translation of the lyrics, but they don't seem nearly as beautiful or meaningful as when he sings them as they were written. I can listen to it repeatedly for hours on end (which I can do, as I apply for jobs for hours on end.) Cheesy as it sounds, I literally get goose bumps every time I hear it. Yeah, yeah, I'm a big pile of mush. Blah.

And it really was a gateway drug. I've started downloading opera, researching the story lines of operas, the different composers, the different performers. My current obsession is a more recent opera by Patrick Cassidy, based on Dante's La Vita Nuova. You might recognize it from the films Hannibal (the freakin' creepy scene at the opera) and Kingdom of Heaven, but it stands on its own damn feet, Orlando Bloom and Sir Anthony Hopkins aside.

And I can't help it. I'm hooked. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting older, or softer, or maybe even a little nuttier than usual, but I do love it. The melancholy and joy that can be heard in opera is unlike any popular music, and certainly, if more Emo kids could listen to it, Fall Out Boy would no longer be annoying me via the airwaves.

Sure, a newfound love for opera may make me dorky, or elitist, or pretentious (seems to be a thing with me lately), but I am totally in love with it. Opera singers' voices have a purity and beauty that you cannot hear anywhere else - it's no wonder it takes a zillion years of training to make it as a professional. I don't profess to be an expert, or even a diehard fan, but I am really surprised how much my musical tastes have changed to include this form. And, even if you do find it akin to taking a bottle-brush to your eardrums, I hope you at least give it a try.

19 April 2010

The Myth Of Sisyphus

I finally decided to move forward with the tattoo I have been planning for the last six months. So many people told me getting a quote by a French existentialist/absurdist - in French, no less - tattooed on me was pretentious. Yeah, yeah, yeah. At least I can read French (I used to be fluent, but it's that whole use it or lose it deal), and Albert Camus has always been my favorite philosopher. All that said, the funniest aspects of getting this tattoo all revolve around my mother.

Let this be said, my parents bought me my first tattoo for my 20th birthday. At the time, my mother insisted that it be discreet, easily covered, and tasteful. What did I end up with? A tramp stamp. (Though I maintain this is a misnomer, as I am neither a hobo nor a postal carrier.) My rather socially conservative mother accompanied me to the tattoo parlor at the time, The Green Man, and seemed to have a blast. To be fair, my first tattoo was not a full-on tramp stamp, it's a very symmetrical, Tibetan lotus -- stylized, which I pilfered from a singing bowl used in meditation practices that we have in our living room. At any rate, my mother was all for the first one. 

I went back to the Green Man for this one. I had a great experience the first time, and wanted to reprise my inking there. That, and I have a serious affection for the Celtic mythology around the Green Man itself, so it's fun to give custom to a place that I have an additional connection to. Okay, so I tend to babble, as I am now. Let's rejoin my story...

Anyway, on Saturday, I decided now was the time to do it. I had chosen the quote months ago, after my bipolar diagnosis, and out of my love for Albert Camus. Now, my mom almost shit herself when I said I wanted to get a quote from Camus tattooed on my person. The conversation went something like this (though I don't remember exactly, as it took place six months ago):

"I've finally decided on what I'm going to get for my new tattoo," I said one evening.

"Oh yeah?" Ellen responded, eyebrows raised.

"Yeah, it's a quote form Albert Camus, you know... l'Étranger."

"WHAT?! I don't like that AT ALL," she raised her voice. "Those existentialists are SO DEPRESSING. You don't want something depressing on your body permanently. That's awful."

"I haven't even told you the quote yet," I yelped. "It's not depressing at all! And I don't think existentialists are in any way depressing. But whatever."

I believe I stormed off. (Not unheard of in my household.) 

Either way, I had made my choice, and it only took several months for me to go forth with my plan. The whole tattoo took maybe ten minutes. I can't remember my other tattoo hurting as much as this one, which was odd since the first was bigger, with thicker lines, etc. Location, location, location, right? Pat at The Green Man did a really good job, and he was funny as hell, poked fun at me the whole time, much to Adam's amusement. I will be returning to him. 

So, for those of you who aren't fluent in pretention, the tattoo says, "Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un invincible été." Which in English is, "In the middle of winter, I found in me an invincible summer." Kind of great, isn't it? Not depressing at all, if you ask me.

The kicker was when I arrived home this morning, having spent the entire weekend with Adam, I showed my mother the tattoo. What does she say? 

"The font is very pretty, but you know it is permanent."

The point, mom -- I think you missed it. 

I love my mother, but she does have an insistence on restating what I already know (at least once, if not more), especially when she thinks I've made a poor decision. 

Looking at my tattoo now, I think I might have placed it higher, except it would be harder to cover when I want it to go unseen. I do think I have opened the door for ever-more tattoos, which I will not mention to my mother. Now I just need to invest in halter tops and sun dresses. So much for covering it...

15 April 2010

What We Do When No One's Watching

Being funemployed means a lot of time to myself, or rather, a lot of time with my father and pets.

Now, my dad suffers from chronic pain - think of the worst pain you've ever felt, multiply it by five, and make it permanent, and you have an idea of what he goes through. So, he hasn't worked in almost 20 years. His non-working was kind of awesome when I was growing up, since I constantly had someone at home for me when I got home from school or needed a ride, etc. But I digress. Long story short: my father is home all the time. With me.

As I've made clear in the past, I love my dad. But since he's been fairly self-isolating for the last two decades, he's a little kooky. I realized it's contagious the today. Let me paint you a scenario:

"I love this new coffee I got," I said about three days ago. "It's Newman's Own; it's organic and fair trade, and the proceeds go to charity. I don't even mind that it's $7.90 a bag."

"Oh, yes, that is good," Greg responded. "So, how many cups can you brew out of a bag?"

"Well, that depends on how strong I make it," I shrugged, looking at the bag in my hand. "I donno."

"You should keep a tally, on the outside of the bag," Dad suggested helpfully. "Just for shits 'n' giggles. See what your money's worth, so some math."

Now, in the past, I would write this off as one of Greg's oddball comments, strange habits, and something to be generally disregarded as an amusing quirk of his personality. This morning, as I tried to wake up, I looked at my bag of coffee, and realized that I had taped a Post-It to the side of my Vanilla Caramel coffee, and had ticked off six cups thus far. 

Oh boy.

So, as I sit here (drinking cup number 7, thanks so much), I've started mulling over the odd habits I've picked up, though not necessarily from my dad, since being laid off.

I started biting my nails again. I have been a lifelong nail-biter, but managed to stop the habit about a year ago, with the occasional slip-up. Now, I apparently consider my fingernails a snack food, even though I am never conscious of biting, the evidence is on my fingers. Yuck. This also might explain how I ended up with a mild case of strep throat. Which reminds me, it's antibiotic time.

But nailbiting may be a symptom of the stress of unemployment (and living with my parents at 26? Just maybe). There are other habits I've developed that have nothing to do with anxiety and stress, or maybe they do...?

I am on the computer almost constantly, but move from room to room with it, apparently completely without reason for doing so. I'll spend an hour on my laptop in the kitchen, then a few down on the sofa, watching some horrible movie with Greg. Then I'll pop over to the desktop in the study. I ping-pong around as if where I'm using the computer has any bearing on the success of my job hunt. Or game of GemCraft. (Don't judge me.)

I've begun rearranging my belongings almost daily. Every day, I seem to develop a new Best Plan for organization. This, of course, results in me not having any clue as to where anything I own is. Ever. For instance, I have shoes on a rack in my closet. And in a plastic McDonald's take-out bag downstairs, and in a basket in the kitchen. There is no rhyme or reason as to which shoes go where. It's not like the plastic bag is reserved for muddy shoes or something. There's a pair of really nice heels in there.

Pet owners who are honest with you - and themselves - will admit to talking to their pets. I've started bouncing ideas off our dog, Niko, and cat, Elsie, as though there were my partners in a creative advertising firm or something. Elsie is sitting on my lap as I write this, in fact, purring contentedly. She must approve of this post. Though I must say, as far as creative critics go, these two are quite amicable; though not unlike actual coworkers, you stroke their egos a little, and you can get away with doing what you want. 

Despite staying at Adam's at least three days a week, and getting up with him at about 6 a.m. on those days so he can go to work, I still have no discernible routine. I could shower when I return home between 7:30 and 8, but I don't. I usually putter around a bit. Make my (tallied) cup of coffee, have a light breakfast, and move my laptop from whatever room it was in to a new location, at least for the time being. I might shower sometime later. Or I might wait until I get back from my free coffee and hike with Krissy today. I don't know. The possibilities are endless!

I search for jobs like a woman possessed, and start thinking that maybe I do have the experience and expertise to be, say, the VP of human resources at some Fortune 500 company. Sure, why not? I mean, you've gotta aim high, right?

One of my oddest habits is cleaning without cleaning. Not unlike the rearranging, I now have bags and boxes of things I am either donating to charity or consider refuse taking up a considerable portion of my bedroom. The purging has been necessary for a long time, and a lot of it was cathartic, as I added the free t-shirts from my last job to the "Donate" bags. But the fact remains that I have loads of bags in my room that are 100% Ready To Go, and I haven't actually done anything with them yet. When I get into bed, I have to do a strange sort of pirouette around these objects to hop into bed. My room is only 10' x 10', it doesn't take a lot to crowd the space.

So, if any of you reading this don't hear from me for about a month or so, please come looking for me. I'm afraid you might find me wearing Kleenex boxes on my feet, refusing to cut my hair, and studying to become fluent in Sanskrit.

07 April 2010

I Was Going To Write About Easter...

photo courtesy of the blog, insurgent49.

... but I'm not (I might later, though). Why not? Because I'm tired of slamming my not inconsiderable forehead (my head is huge, I'll just say it) against stationary objects. This is one of my many concussion-inducing frustrations of late:

McMillen: I Was Sent To Fake Prom

If you don't care to follow the link, or haven't heard about this brave, smart, and very wise young woman, I will give you a quick run-down. Constance McMillen, a student at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, wanted to attend her prom like her classmates. She just happened to want to bring her girlfriend. So, in a shining display of maturity and panache, the school cancelled the prom altogether for fear of them gays. (Sort of.)

What then occurred, amid an uproar from the ACLU (I'm a member myself. I know, you're shocked), was that the school "reinstated" the prom, allowing Constance to bring her same-sex date. Well, sort of. 

What happened is that the parents of the students who happened not to identify as LGBT, decided to throw a private prom elsewhere. Presumably, considering the way McMillen describes her evening at a country club in Fulton, MIssissippi, the school administration was fully aware that there was a second prom in the works. Seven people attended the official prom. 
Two students with learning difficulties were among the seven people at the country club event, McMillen recalls. "They had the time of their lives," McMillen says. "That's the one good thing that come out of this, [these kids] didn't have to worry about people making fun of them [at their prom]."
Constance McMillen is a bright, kind, compassionate young woman who took a stand for her own rights. Regardless of her obvious wisdom-beyond-her-years, and her ability to cope, I am having a really tough time with this. And it's not simply because McMillen essentially missed her chance to attend her prom.

What makes me sad - makes me cry, actually - is that the adults in this situation are teaching bigotry and hate. They are actively participating in the exclusion and social ostracizing of a girl simply because she is different. And they are TEACHING THIS TO THEIR CHILDREN. Or rather, I'm quite sure their children have already learned all of this by high school age, and these parents are simply reinforcing these practices. 

I feel sorry for everyone involved. I feel angry at the parents and administrators. I have an urge to take the other Itawamba students by the shoulders and shake them until I shake out the hatred (it's a very scientific process, mind you), or even transfer it to me. At least through the shaking, I would have done something worth being pissed off about.

It's that we can so easily influence and change the way young minds think and operate, especially in the age of constant communication, which worries me. Young minds are pliable and malleable in ways we easily forget when we grow up.

When I was a frosh at school, I had to take a public speaking course. Since there were around 25 of us in the class, we were assigned days. I think this was a Tuesday-Thursday class, if I'm not mistaken. On the first day, a girl I knew through a friend gave a speech railing incoherently - violently, even - against homosexuality, gay marriage, and adoption by same-sex couples. (Logical and coherent arguments, unfortunately, were not a requirement in this course.) I was flabbergasted. I had no idea she felt this way. 

"But, but... She was raised in oh-so cosmopolitan Chicago!" My brain shouted. "How can she be so small-minded?!"

I later learned that she was home-schooled by her parents, which clearly indicated to me that she had been taught to hate. But I went home that night a re-wrote my entire speech to counter-argue against her points. I had planned to write about how punk music of the '70s had changed popular rock forever, but that seemed somewhat less necessary. I needed to show how morally corrupt her arguments were.

When the class convened again, I gave my speech. I calmly and pointedly dissected her arguments in my own way. Never calling her points out as the bigotry they were, but simply eliciting the idea that her religious justifications for hate had no place in a secular society, as I insist the United States is in theory, if not practice.

Without tooting my own horn too much, I can honestly say I cleaned the floor with her crazypants arguments. I paid for that.

Walking back to my dorm that evening after hitting the convenience store across the street from campus to buy my then-very much desired Marlboro Reds, I heard the rev of an engine behind me. I was on the sidewalk, so not concerned, but the large black SUV with tinted windows seemed to be waiting for me. The vehicle crept up behind me and a window rolled down. The girl so full of hate screamed "FUCK QUEERS" at me, while an unseen friend in the back seat lobbed a full bottle of soda at me. I managed to duck. They sped away. All I could do in retaliation was throw up the one-finger salute, and trudge back to my dorm, slightly soggier than before.

I was stunned by this whole episode. She and her friends were, for all intents and purposes, still children. This hatred was taught. And moreover, I received the brunt of it, simply for proving her argument against homosexuality false. You secretly always know that there is such vitriol and hate out there, but it still can shock you. The story still surprises me, especially when I discovered that if there was one person I hated in this world on a personal level, it was her. And that makes me sad, too. Hate breeds hate, and conversations end.

Constance McMillen's story, however, leaves me with an immense amount of hope. She has not fallen prey to hating others. And she knows, in a way many will never understand, that it is the bigots who will suffer the indignities of hating and the empty lives of those who are perpetually afraid of The Other. Constance is a heroine for so many reasons, and she is one to me.