Friday, June 26, 2009

My essay about Michael Jackson

Like many others throughout the world, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of Michael Jackson. I was standing in the kitchen of my St. Paul home, rushing through the dishes and hurrying my kids into the car to make it to my 4 year olds t-ball practice. The news came over Minnesota public radio and stopped me dead in my tracks. Confirmed, Michael Jackson, dead at 50. Could he really be dead? And was he just 50? My husband and I stared at each other. There was no time to listen or mourn or even to let the news sink in.

Emerson, the budding t-ball player, shook me out of my daze, “Mama, what’s wrong?”

I jumped back into parenthood, damage control voice and said something like, “One of my favorite, my favorite singer died.”

“Who’s that?”

“Michael Jackson” The name was alien to my son and I shooed everyone out the door and into the car.

In the hours that have passed and due to the messages that have flooded in from friends near and far, I’ve been forced down memory paths I’ve not visited in years, let alone ever. I’m sure my experiences with Michael Jackson are no different than any others, but his passing has nudged me quite painfully into connections I not yet made about myself.

I grew up with parents who worshipped the Beatles and Motown. I was twelve years old in 1982 when Thriller broke and my parents bought me the vinyl record and cassette. My mom taught me about the connection between Diana Ross and Berry Gordy and the Jackson 5. Soon I was collecting all of the Jackson 5 records, my bedroom was covered with posters, I learned to Moonwalk, I studied every video.

I was a budding dancer at the time and had been dutifully attending my once a week classes at the local dance school, one of two in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, since I was 4. The school was a typical smorgasbord, send-your-child-to-dance-class-because-you’re-supposed-to outfit that taught tap, ballet, and gymnastics…all in one class. I was getting to the age where Jr. High, friends, and other activities were threatening to compete with my weekly dedication and I remember needing to decide whether I wanted to continue. Then Michael Jackson happened to me and there was no going back.

MTV became my new obsession and with our newly purchased $500 VCR that was practically larger than our TV, I spent hours recording, rewinding, pausing, freeze framing every move that exotic, funky guy made. Yesterday, as I was standing on that t-ball field, holding my 1 year old daughter while shagging flies, I remembered that I learned the dance from Beat It, step for step exactly, and willingly, used to show anyone who would watch. My parents used to have me do it on cue, I think there is a picture of me doing it up at a cabin, outside, during summer vacation, and I think I taught it to my dance class. The day before yesterday, I would have been embarrassed to admit that - but today, not so much. Why?

I spent most of last night connecting the dots and this is what I’ve come up with…I was good at it. It was the first time that I really realized that I loved dancing and that I was good at it. I loved dancing like Michael. Man, it felt so good and I became a really good mimic. I was able to pick stuff up off of videos really fast and reverse it so I was doing the steps on the right foot. I loved showing other people, seeing them respond and teaching them too. It was the first time that I really wanted to work at something and put the work into getting better.

There was so much to learn. The dancers in the background of these videos – who were they? How did they get there? This opened up the world to me. I learned the man dressed all in white in the Beat It video’s name was Michael Peters. He choreographed Beat it as well as Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield and the Broadway musical Dreamgirls. He studied at Alvin Ailey in New York City and died in 1994 of AIDS. Then the Thriller extravaganza arrived in my household. Me, my mom, dad, and brother sat perched on the edge of our seats. I think I was on the floor, cross-legged, as close to the TV as I could get. After it was over my mom said, “I can just see the wheels in your head spinning.” During the Motown 25th Anniversary special, when Michael did that wonderful live version of Billie Jean, my grandfather was over. He commented that his pants were too short and he looked like a girl. It didn’t matter. My parents loved it too.

Soon, the little dance school I was going to seemed too little. My parents and I decided that dance was going to be IT for me and I started to study seriously. Soon, dancing took up most nights and weekends. In high school, I started travelling to Minneapolis to attend classes twice a week. From there, I attended the University of Minnesota and obtained a B.F.A in dance. That led me to choreographer Danny Buraczeski, with whom I spent 11 years touring and teaching throughout the country.

So when the news hit me yesterday and I felt all at once conflicted about my sadness, I realized that I’d turned my back on Michael Jackson long ago. In my cluttered basement, I know there is a box, duct-taped together, with my Michael Jackson memorabilia. Posters, photos, magazines, a glove = the budding collector in me couldn’t part with some of this stuff. A few years ago, my husband asked me what I thought I was going to do with it. “I don’t know,” I said, “Sell it on ebay?” Even as I say it now, it does seem so weird. Michael got so strange and those of us who were his ardent supporters winced as the international media devoured him year after year. It was hard to keep the faith and I’d moved on to other obsessions – punk rock, grunge, love, work. Oddly enough, we lost two other icons during that time who suffered the same sort of life sucking exposure that Michael lamented – Kurt Cobain and Princess Diana. Both deaths landed on me pretty hard, and I can’t help think that talent and vulnerability do not make good bed fellows.

I went to dig out some of Michael’s music this morning and I realized that everything was still on cassette tape. I’d never replaced some my favorite albums of my childhood in the digital age. Luckily I married a dancer who also has a passion for pop music and between us we came up with Michael’s hysterically named HIStory disc. We’d been watching television coverage all morning and being a house without cable, we were tuned to the major networks who were doing a piss poor job talking about the music and focusing on the bizarre. “I want to hear from musicians and music critics!” said my husband.

So we shut off the TV, put on the record and moved the furniture. I could tell my four year old was waiting for this moment. He doesn’t see much TV to begin with, but the tears, images, and pontificating, we were watching, I could tell, was confusing. He wanted to hear his parents favorite singer who’d been oddly left out of his upbringing. The Way You Make Me Feel blasted out of the speakers, followed by Rock With You and it was dance party USA in our living room. My one year old giggled and Emerson was beaming from ear to ear. The music is celebratory and happy, and through tears I realized why this GenXer is so heartbroken. My childhood is over and this was the music of my childhood. As I go kicking and screaming into the dark night of marriage, parenthood, and old age, I miss how music like this used to inspire me. I know I owe my whole life, at least my professional life, to the music of Michael Jackson and how it made me feel. And as I introduce it to my kids and I see them react, I only hope that Michael died knowing that, aside from the hell hole that became his life, he brought such joy to people like me. I am a profoundly grateful and unashamed fan.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Random and off the subject...

I know I've neglected my blog for a while. so much has been going on here, but I needed to sit down and capture this thought.

Spring, is for getting up early. Harriet has been sleeping later and better and I've somewhat caught up on my sleep in the past couple of weeks. Naturally this time of year makes me want to get up, get healthy, get to yoga or the gym, but money and the economy keep me here wondering what I can do for a half an hour before the house wakes up (if I don't wake someone up in the meantime).

This morning has been a dreamy mornign and I had to sit down and write "Spring is for getting up." It's dark and damp. The smell of a pot of coffee fills the house. Birds start their morning routine way before the first light of day begins. The news of the day gets poured into my brain. I finish just as the slightest hint of light appears in the east. Now the sky is painted with pinks and blues. One cup of coffee in my belly and a baby starts to babble away.

Spring is for getting up early.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Senator's Office

The Hart Senate office was rocking. People were running here and there, lined up outside of offices, crowded into others. We were bundled up against the cold and I kind of felt like I was suited up for a football game in a place that is used to the dark suits and power dress of our nation's elected officials. Famous names were on the name plates of the doors that we passed - Sam Brownback, Max Baccus - there was an office from Kentucky that was shut up tight with a sign that said, "NO TICKETS AVAILABLE". Here I was in the place that we hear spoken of almost every day by our talking heads of media. The names they throw out sound so powerful, so daunting, in the hallowed halls of the Hart Senate office building. Wasn't the anthrax scare in this building? Didn't Mark Dayton stupidly close his office here when no one else did, which probably cost him the imaginary election he envisioned in his head? The fact that he declined to run again, paved the way for Amy's ascent which has led me here. Here I was just walking past closed doors like it was my High School.

Then we came upon a closed office. Door closed, lights off, no name plate, and kind of in the middle of things. Upon further inspection we could see the office was boxed up rather hastily. It seemed strange in the midst of all the bustle. Joe recognized that the flag outside of the office was none other than our great state of Minnesota's flag and the light bulbs went off. Norm's office. Haha!! This was FORMER Senator Norm Coleman's office and we just couldn't resist.

Amy’s office was packed with Minnesotans who’d obviously gotten the memo about free food. They were taking up every inch, corner, and desk chair of available space. Most had decided to spend the day with their fair senator and looked like they’d been there for hours. All of the promised Potica (a Slovenian pastry they eat on the Iron Range) and Spam puffs were long gone. I knew quite a few people who toiled in the trenches for Amy over the years and it was great to see them and exchange battle scars. When they handed over the envelope with our golden tickets inside, a serious tone was taken. “The gates open at 8:00AM. You can start lining up at 4:00am. There are directions as to what train station to get off, but I can’t promise anything.” A lurker standing behind me said she was going to get there at 3:30. Whoa – these people were serious. Do we really have to arrive so early to get in line to ‘stand’? We were skeptical.

Amy was taking photos with constituents outside of her office. There was a long line and an aide handling the line and taking names. Amy seemed harried, like this had been a long day. Clearly people had been parked there since it began and they didn't expect this sort of turn out. Every hour or so she would invite people to come into the conference office where she gave a little stump speech. I listened from outside during one, and she was as good as ever. On point, charming, funny, and ticking off accomplishments. She clearly loved being a senator. Her husband John recognized us immediately and gave a warm greeting. We chatted about the party they had at their house the night before. I apologized for not being able to attend and he said to faggedabadit. It was crowded and went late and it felt like a college party. Amy caught sight of us and implored me (a few times) to go back and see her office. She recently had it redecorated and was very proud to show it off. I left the rest of our crew out in the hallway and made my way toward the back of the office to see Amy's personal office. It was beautiful and very feminine, done up in soft yellow's and blue's. I met Amy's new chief of staff Marjorie (her 3rd in 2 years?) and she said she recognized my name. After all this time? I'm still shocked to hear that the 4 months I spent with Amy still land on anyone's memory let alone get passed on by word of mouth. True, it was an eventful 4 months - 2004 Presidential election, John Kerry, hip surgery, 35 conventions - but I'm still surprised that anyone even remembers me. And being there also gave that little tug of regret. The voice inside my head whispers, "This could be me. I could work here. Look at how lucky these people are to be working in this city, at this time!" We make our choices, and I don't regret mine, but one can't help but dream.

I made my way back to the others. Joe's boss, the Mayor of St. Paul Chris Coleman and entourage had arrived and the mood was jovial and heightened. Amy recognized the Mayor with all the fanfare he deserved and a few of us plotted our next move. Food and drinks. At this point, my friend Leah Drury arrived with her mom. She and I belong to a fringe group of women who call ourselves Progressive Women for Democracy. What fun to see all of these people out of Minnesota, happy, celebratory, making the pilgrimage to our nation's Capitol for a party and a prayer. A prayer of thanks.

What I came for.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Union station

Joe outside of Union Station.

The scene in front of Union Station

People out and about January 19, 2009

Joe and Scott waiting on a train.

Sights and Scenes from the day before.

We headed into the city around 1:00 thinking that left us plenty of time to get to Amy's office, get the tickets and get the lay of the land. Here we are boarding the train in Alexandria.

Their train stop was one stop from Reagan International Airport. Anyone questions the convenience, comfort, or civility of commuting by train is just crazy. There is something so downright gentile about riding in a train that bus riding just doesn't get you. There's an informal quality about bus riding. Since you're all riding while facing the same way, why not act up, yell things out, talk loudly, and dare people to turn around andstop you. On a train or subway or, in the dreams of many St. Paulites, light rail, people face different directions, holding each other's comfort in their hands, points of focus are scattered instead of with pin point focus on the back of an anonymous bus driver's head.

We got off at the Union Station Metro stop, where street vendors were lined up, like a welcoming tunnel, hawking tchotckes of every kind. Later in the evening, after the sun went down, we would fall prey to someone selling stocking caps 2 for $15 outside of a hotel. It was cold. Everyone was doing it!

As Scott led us through the famous capitol buildings in pursuit of Amy's office, the mood in the air was jovial and anticipatory. Everyone on the street was here for the big event. It was obvious even the day before. Every one's camera was out, vendors were hawking their wares (or the ware's of someone in China), people were buzzing about, getting the lay of the land the day before for the event that would define a generation. It was fun and Joe and I quickly were swept up in the anticipation of it all.

Below is a picture of us approaching the YELLOW gate. Little did we know that in a few hours, these gates would be choked with people desperate for a closer look, a better angle, a piece of history. It's a little taste of what the scene was like before the chaos of the following morning.

See? People walking freely, actually crossing streets. So innocent were we!

I began the post by stating that we thought leaving Scott and Jen's at 1:00 would leave us plenty of time to ride the train, get to the Hart Senate office, find Amy's office and pick up the tickets before 4:00 PM. As we passed the various offices of congress; the Rayburn building, the Drysden, we began to see the error of our ways. It seemed that EVERY member of Congress was holding an 'open house' for constituents attending the inauguration and the lines were wrapped around buildings. This was the beginning of standing in line and we weren't dressed as appropriately as we should have been. We dutifully walked to the back of the line, which seemed like it was in the next county. Everyone started working their phones and blackberries trying to get a hold of someone on the inside. Do we really have to wait in this line for 3 hours? We started to recognize other people from Minnesota in line. People were pulling suitcases behind them as if just getting off the plane. They got right in line with the rest of us and the small talk began. Where you from? Oh, really? Couldn't miss this.
Pretty soon a police officer came around the corner, "Who wants to be my new best friend?" Being the non-joiners that we are, we didn't raise our hands, but some willing ladies about 20 people in front of us did. "Follow me!" he said and he cut the very very long line in half, brought us to another door around the corner, and explained that we were entering in another building. Once inside, we'd need to go through a tunnel and we'd be in the Hart Senate office. Yay! Our wait turned into a half an hour. We went through security and in we went. Thank God Scott once worked on the Hill (for the late Bruce Vento). He led us through the maze of the tunnels and before we knew it, we were standing on the 3rd floor of the Hart Senate office.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The tickets.

As most know, tickets to the inauguration were free, but you had to contact your Congressperson. It's been well documented that demand was far greater than supply. I took a chance and called my former employer, Senator Amy Klobuchar's office. (Here's my disclaimer for those who don't know. I worked for Senator Amy Klobuchar as her campaign manager when she was Hennepin County Attorney. She wasn't yet running for Senator, but was running for everything at once.) I was told to send an email stating my case, how many were in my party and who, and why we wanted to go. I think I remember hearing that there were 5000 requests for tickets and she only had 365. Our other metro area congresspersons, Betty McCollom and Keith Ellison both got 12 times more requests than they had tickets for.

When I received the confirmation email at work that fateful day, I think my co-workers on the 3rd floor could hear me screaming from the First Floor. I was elated, shocked, and it solidified that, “Man, I might actually get to go to this.” Sure, plane tickets were bought, but I always felt like something might stand in our way of actually getting there. I also assumed that having some place to stand, a section, a patch of grass, would make it seem official. Like I was really there, counted maybe, instead of just being out on the mall where it would be every man for himself. That's what I thought. And boy, in hindsight, was I wrong. Soon to be dubbed The Golden Tickets by the media, we knew we had secured something special…or did we?

I soon received an invitation to Senator Klobuchar’s office for “A Reception for Minnesotans attending the Inauguration”. It was from 10:00AM to 4:00PM on Monday, the day before the inauguration, at the Hart Senate office building Room 302. The email instructed that those of us, who received tickets through Amy’s office, should plan to pick them up during the reception.

Joe, Scott, Jen and I spent the morning lazing around. I actually slept until 10:00AM! Those of you who are parents understand the outrageousness of this statement. Joe got up at 8:00 for 2 hours of uninterrupted reading time. Scott was still struggling with some jet lag issues from PAKISTAN and had no problem sleeping in. We flew in the night before and missed the "We Are One" concert. How were we to know that the Concert of the Century would be planned exactly during our flight time? After a mid-morning breakfast at Brueggar's Bagels accompanied by lively conversation about parenting, Pakistani culture vs. Russian, and the similarities of non-profits, we showered and headed to the train for our first ride into the capitol and to Amy's office.

The two images you see posted here, are the instructions that came with our tickets. We were assigned to the BLUE ticketed area and we were able secure tickets for Scott and Jen in the SILVER area.

The Place to Stay.

This is Joe's friend Scott.

This is Scott's wife Jen.

This is their living room in their beautiful home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Joe and Scott have been friends since their early college days at the University of Minnesota. In fact, Joe has an amazing group of 5 friends who remain close even though every one of them lives in a different state, Virginia, Montana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and us in Minnesota. As a woman who's married into this posse, I find it a peculiar place to be at times. I think most of us who have married these men have felt some sort of exasperation bordering on awe at times when one of these fellows have appeared in our lives, unexpected, and they are able to pick up where they left off with none of the baggage that sometimes comes with female reunions. It's a beautiful thing - friendship like that, and this was one of those times we were so grateful for an excuse to lean on it. It was also a reason that Joe and I weren't beg, borrowing, and stealing to get into one of the Inaugural Balls. We had these awesome friends to catch up with and could have our own little party with them.

Now is the time that I tell you a couple of things you won't quite believe, but I assure you they are true. Scott works for the Department of Energy in their nuclear non-proliferation program securing nuclear weapons from crossing borders. The night before our arrival he returned from a 10 day trip to Pakistan and Armenia. Not too long ago, I think after Emerson was born, Scott stopped by our house while in Minnesota and he was busy learning Chinese because he was going to be doing some work in that country for a couple of months. During the late 1990's they lived in Russia (speaks fluent Russian) and he helped retrain former Russian nuclear scientists in other vocations so they wouldn't use their expertise on the nuclear black market. He used to work at the United Nations. He moonlights as a DJ and likes dance music too. See, I said you wouldn't believe me, and I'm sure I got a few things wrong and Scott would correct me, but I got the gist right. Scott's an important guy and it blows our minds every time we see him. But, to Joe, he's DJ Roko, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Jen is no less important, as she does work that heals souls while Scott's work heals our addiction to the toys of war. She's a licensed Social Worker and works as a group therapist and advocate for the City of Alexandria's sexual assult center. We hadn't seen these two for a couple of years, and they'd moved since Joe was there for Scott's 30th birthday. All great excuses to head to Washington for friendship, laughs, and a bit of history to boot. Admittedly, they weren't as geeked up as Joe and I were about the inaugural festivities, but they were excited about Barack and a regime change in Washington.