Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mil woo-hoo! kee, WI

I spent the majority of this weekend in Milwaukee, WI, a very working-class Wisconsin city on Lake Michigan. It's about an hour away from Madison, WI, where I live, and it's a place I spent no time in except to drive through on the way to Southern Wisconsin from Appleton, WI (where I grew up), until I became an adult. Now I teach there once a week in the fall, and spend time there on and off to visit with one of my brothers and one of my best friends. But usually it's a pretty in and out job. Until now.

Early memories:
Miss Katie's Diner, which is just a few blocks from Marquette, where I now teach as adjunct faculty. Then, at age 18, eating there with a friend who wanted more from me, I was mutually fascinated and horrified by the view of industrial wasteland, casinos, breweries and highways out the window.

Bayview: A few years later/ago, I went along with a few new friends to see an exhibit at the newly Calatrava-ized MAM (public modern art museum) and then they pulled me to the now-defunct Paper Boat owned by Faythe Levine who made the film and book Handmade Nation. Broad Vocabulary, the also now-defunct feminist bookstore from heaven (though they still organize online!), Cafe Lulu (still open!), Harry Schwartz bookstore (now gone), and Fasten re-fashion collective (now Sparrow) filled in the rest of that day. Wow, I thought, this is Madison's East Johnson Street funky shops gone big-city. How wonderful is this, still mixed into the funeral homes, bowling bars and Catholic Churches of south side city neighborhoods. When I went to Oakland in the intervening years between then and now, I saw a strong resemblance.
We went back there, to Bayview, on this visit, which was an appointment on Friday and then plenty of poking around both Friday and Saturday. I've been there in between the Andrew Bird's first album era (I recall hearing that for the first time on the way there) and now, but mostly just to repeat the pleasures I knew well. This time, in Bayview, we also found vintage shops galore (Tip Top Atomic Shop and Luv Unlimited, how did I never see you before?!) and some great record shops (Bay View Books and Music, Rush-Mor Records). Chartreuse and Future Green were sweet and had fun and rockin bits to buy. Glow in the Dark Bowling we did not do, but looked great, and dinner at Cafe Centraal with a fabulous patio (they are the folks who did Trocadero on Brady and Water) finished us out. Hi Fi Cafe will have to wait.

And as for "not Bayview":
We also went to Carleton Grange Pub on Thursday night (though we did not fake-gamble), and hit the brand new Andy Warhol late career exhibit at Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), with clerks wearing Andy Warhol wigs and all! I also made a visit to the new-found and a bit expensive but super helpful Allure (which helps to actually fit you for bras in a very warm and not pushy way) and got some really sexy and also really comfy stuff. Finally, I had never visited a Halloween Express store before, and every year they put up this massive pumpkin one in a big tent in the parking lot of the State Fair, so I finally went. Photos up soon on Flickr, as I've become a bit obsessed with the oddness of how we handle "death" in Halloween in this country. From there I visited three cemeteries just off Hawley Road which I have seen over the years driving in and out: Calvary, Spring Hill and Wood National Cemetery. Wow.

We didn't even touch Brady Street, and only skirted Third Ward to hit up the Milwaukee Public Market, which was too small (we'd never been there before) but wonderful and, yes, reminded me of markets in Europe.

With a room at the downtown City Center Hilton on the 16th floor overlooking that same view I questioned 14 years ago (the highway exchanges, industrial yards and breweries) we had a for sure woo-hoo weekend. Now the view tantalized me, and we snuggled overlooking all the lights and fine concrete. Thank you, Priceline, where I won a bid for $50 a night at this otherwise $250 a night 3.5 star hotel, for making this dream mini-honeymoon complete! Woo hoo!

Monday, September 21, 2009

When It Rains...

I managed to pull a weird muscle in my eye last night crying.
Behind my eye, of course. Eyeballs don't have muscles.

I remember in High School when my theater group took a trip to NYC for the first time, and Luke, one of the actors, got a burst blood vessel during the flight due to sudden changes in pressure. He said it didn't hurt, but it looked like hell. Blood floating all over his eye, but inside the cornea. Trippy.

Dylan couldn't see anything burst or pulled or off in my forehead or eye last night, but maybe that's just because I was crying. I woke this morning and the pain was gone. When we talked about it this morning I joked that maybe I cried so hard because it finally rained last night - for the first time in almost a month. Nada, nothing; cloudy days but no rain, for 21 days. It was such a relief last night, walking back with the in laws from dinner, to feel a cool breeze, some dampness on my skin, the smell of fall made that much huskier by the wet air. I guess my eyes needed some rain, too.

There's nothing like having a strong set of feelings come out with direct no trigger to bring meditation, writing or any kind of mindfulness practice to play. Thich Naht Hahn has said something to this effect (what Buddhist teacher hasn't?) - but he said it so well. That we can learn and learn all we want, but it isn't until the crap hits the fan that we actually really begin to practice. A friend of mine who runs a used bookstore in Appleton and was the first to publish my poetry, would always tell me, as a teenager, "It's good you're in pain; write from that." I never understood it then, but now, thinking so much lately about how deep feelings really help - strange to say but true - jerk us into the moment, to be here NOW, if we let them - us make direct contact with our lives. This doesn't mean I seek being in pain, but when it happens, it can actually be a gift. Even if a funny one.

We joked about this lightly yesterday, after the Harvest of Peace address at the Shambhala Center, as I was having 10 different "Madame Director" conversations at once while also putting away lots of gear - zafus and folding tables and digital projector, oh my! - and someone accidentally squished my finger between two heavy tables. I went from being overwhelmed and multitasking to being in very sharp pounding pain within two seconds. I yelped and she moved it, and I began to laugh. "I bet you're really here now," someone said, and I laughed more, "I even saw it coming, and didn't stop it!" and we all began to guffaw as if someone had just told the funniest joke in the world.

Maybe the only reason why feelings seem so overwhelming is that once we have opened that gate, let one or two in, a whole mess can come in at once. It's like meditation, when we leave so much space so that our mind can reign free and let go for a bit. The bits of mind usually hiding under the surface come in to play, too. Suddenly it seems as if we are "thinking" more when in fact we are thinking the same amount, just noticing it more. Maybe feelings are the same. Piggybacking, interdependent feelings accompanying the distinct sadness of a severe crying jag, or anger of a screaming match. The clown car of emotions - fit them all in at once. Who knows when the next opening will come.

So today I am letting whatever is left drift out. I have my suspicions of the things that "set me off," and read a chunk of Courage to Heal last night to help work gently through those. The chapter on feelings reminded me that I don't get to control them, that they come when I least expect them and often all mixed up. The best I can do is give them space.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Big Exit

I'm back into order. The office, the kitchen, are fully functional. The structure of the school year has saved me from myself. And falling back into the forms, freedom comes. The freedom to consider what structures haven't worked before, why, how to re-form them, what to reject and what to accept.

Family. Family order and inheritance is in my head a lot lately. A very good friend is going through a mid-twenties reckoning, figuring out what her raising has done, how it has shaped her, affected her. What to accept, what to reject. Right now there seems a lot to reject: parents' manners, opinions, structures. Yet she can still feel the love, compassion, underneath. Is it an undertow or an inner connection? Karma or Samsara? I know this battle well. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater - that baby, floating in your family heritage, emotional, political, psychological - is YOU.

Or, here, Me. I dreamt last night that my family was seated like a council around a large table. They were plotting and planning, in deep undertones, like a warren of gangsters accustomed to the action, to murder and torture folks. Even in my dream mind, I could see that the content came from watching so much Angel lately with Dylan, but the intention came from a long conversation just after TV with the aforementioned friend. Violence - intentional or unintentional, psychological, sexual, emotional - haunts us, from the inside out. I felt this strange allegiance to the family - I couldn't just walk out, and not because they'd kill me - and yet, I knew I opposed what they were plotting.

I woke disoriented, concerned about the content, the plot of the dream. Ugh. Why so violent? Less Angel, more Barney, I guess. Then it hit me, steel beam on the head: duh, of course, I was combining our conversation with the data from Angel. How do you stay in your family and yet make your Big Exit, become who you "really" are, and, for that matter, as the friend and I were discussing, how do you actually HEAL your family's karma, wipe some of the slate free, make sure the Samsara buck stops as much as it can at YOU?

How intertwined we are. In order to see interdependence, just look at your family, so many teachers say. You want practice? Call your mother. ("Say hi to your mother for me, Miriam!" a friend said yesterday after we hung out. "Oops," he quickly stated, sheepish grin. "That's ok. Even I forget sometimes that she's dead.") Think about your childhood. Go "home" - to where you were raised, to your adolescence, and you'll have plenty of fodder.

Fodder. Crap and Compost. Fetid rich rot. Ready to fall Apart. Perfect ground for Growth. Exit yes, but you'll have to come back, compelled to do so, with or without resistance. And there you cannot help but heal, yourself and your family. May as well make the best of these return visits.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I got Regina Spektor's latest album, Far, a few weeks ago, and have been pretty inseparable from it. It's rare that music haunts me nowadays, except with nostalgia. I seem to have developed a strange separation from music; I don't "need" it as much as I used to, and tend to prefer silence. So when I get into my car to go to Milwaukee, for instance, once a week to teach, I listen to Alan Watts or This American Life, and when it comes to time for a "music filler" at the end of the trip, I'll default to something familiar, skipping over newer albums Dylan has played for me which I liked at the time but now can't tell apart by name.

The song that haunts me the most is the high-powered song "Machine." In it, Spektor depicts a world in which everything is taken care of, one is up and downloaded at the top and end of every day, and there's a strange comfort to it; even God wishes he were in her place (lyrics below). Today, the song hit me especially strong, as I had just finished the article "Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School" by Mark Slouka, in this September's issue of Harper's Magazine. I started the article awhile ago and, like I often respond to things that are very powerful for me and dense in terms of digesting, I put it down for awhile.

Slouka does a very fair job of pointing out that education priorities are now primarily determined by commerce. Our "Crisis" in education, if one carefully looks at and listens to the media, has more to do with our global position in business than to do with broadened minds or critical learning skills. No one talks about democratic process, whether or not our kids are able to critically think (and those of us teaching those kids or raising those kids do see some of these things slipping) - especially in "sacrifice" to the "marketable" skills of, as he calls it, mathandscience.

This is not a dualistic argument. Slouka has a lot of respect for both. He points out that it's not mathandscience's fault that they have been taken up as causes to save our society, nor inherently humanities' fault that it's been relegated to the trash heap. Politics and, even worse, strangely invisible controlling factors, determine how all of these educational aspects are represented in the media and, therefore, in pundits' and "consumers'" minds.

I have grown to have increased respect for mathandscience. I have developed a very keen interest in particular in science, and read a lot more on physics and neuroscience in the last few years than I had since forced to read science texts in high school. There's obviously, if done right, a lot of humanities in science, in particular, and a lot of science and math in humanities. And yet they have been separated and pit against each other more and more since the Renaissance, and now they are flung against each other.

Slouka's concern, if I may be so bold, is painted out in Spektor's song. Scienceandmath don't have to lead to us all becoming mindless machines, but the way it is being sold (and not "they" are being sold, but the package, as a single object, is being sold) is just in that way. How can we move forward in measurable progress? No child left behind means no child on a chart we cannot keep track of. How does one measure the opening of one's heart, either through science or math or humanities? One doesn't. It's not relevant and in fact, potentially dangerous.

(Lyrics from
My eyes are bifocal
My hands are sub jointed
I live in the future
In my prewar apartment
And I count all my blessings
I have friends in high places
And I’m upgraded daily
All my wires without traces

Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into hooked into
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into
Hooked into machine

I collect my moments
Into a correspondence
With a mightier power
Who just lacks my perspective
And who lacks my organics
And who covets my defects
And I’m downloaded daily
I am part of a composite

Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into, hooked into
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into
Hooked into machine

Everything's provided
Consummate consumer
Part of worldly taking
Apart from worldly troubles
Living in your prewar apartment
Soon to be your postwar apartment
And you lived in the future
And the future
It’s here
It’s bright
It's now
Lest we demonize science, or get ANY impression that I mean, or Slouka, or, for that matter, Spektor is anti-science, it's not about that. Even Humanities, which is often the first to go in times of dictatorship due to its messiness in the face of Science or Math, can be neutered and used in a dangerous way. The problem is usually it is cut before that even happens. Another problem is that it is easier to strip science and math of other meaning. We accept that easier, fund it easier, even neutered of healthy debate, discussion, insight.

Call me a Renaissance lady. I'd love to see the two back together again. This re-invigorates my fire to teach a course on inventing and the creative process using science as well as art, for Junior High School kids next spring. And when I go back to Marquette next week, I'll be sure to emphasize that which my Miksang course already does naturally - it is WHAT you learn, but also HOW you learn, and this course will hopefully help you to "see" that (literally) so you can use it in all of your other classes, from Engineering to English. Stay aware, you non-machine, as long as you can.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

True Blue

PMS. Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. Syndrome - syn/drone. I act the same every time, or my emotions seem to be the same and I respond in habit. Which is the syndrome part? The hormones?

My response is to get sad, always has been.

The trees on our block are already starting to change. The first to go, I see just now, is the yellow Honey Locust on the corner which gets the most of the setting sun before it disappears off the trees on our street. The yellow makes the blue sky more blue. How is that?

I tell my Miksang students that - "colors contrast each other," I say, then "contrast is part of how we see. We see one thing because it is not another." Aviva, who is currently chasing a fly, sees the fly because there is not-fly around the fly. Funny, but without the not-fly, she wouldn't really be seeing fly.

I could make all kinds of profound comments here about how it's because of joy that sadness can be seen, appreciated. But that's not really what I mean to say. I mean to say something more subtle than that, and the PMS itself, which is triggering washes of sadness the last twenty-four hours, blocks my ability to be clear about it.

So this afternoon I took a nap. Hung out in the not-fly space so that when I awoke, the fly of sadness in my face wasn't quite such a nag. No story, I said to myself, there's no story here. Just a feeling. See it and let it be.

This is true blue. Not pining after an obsession, not making up stories about depression. This clear bell of feeling, tolling in my heart, which changes almost minutely every second I can sense it, this is true blueness.

Great Eastern Sun - imagery from Shambhala to represent our basic goodness. We talk about the clouds which cover it, our concepts and aggression. But what about the sky, the space that holds it? I'd like to think this kind of feeling is that kind of space - not tainted, not biased, ever-changing but very sensitive, like film, to the world, to perceptions, to experience. And mostly blue - the world is a hard, sad place - and yet, that's not a bad thing.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Yes, I know the last entry was entitled "Inspiration."
No, I didn't remember that when I woke up this morning thinking about my most recent rejection letter.

Lately, I've been uncovering, discovering and trying to be honest with/about my deep, deep core under-beliefs. My secret beliefs, the beliefs that are not shaken by evidence, by logic, even by experience (unless any of those three contribute to the belief, but not if they prove the belief wrong). The kind of beliefs that are real trouble unless they get seriously called out and worked with, because they defy the surface level games of the mind.

For instance, Rejection (Letters):
Surface level: "The publisher said the kids' stories aren't defined in age and she doesn't see a market. This is the highest up we've gone with these and at least the artist gave good feedback! Go Miriam! You have gotten rejection before, and also been accepted, these weren't your first thing you wanted to get out there anyway. Just go back to work on the Family Matters chapbook and getting that out there. It's ok. The time will come."

Under belief: "You suck."

It's the sound of the critic, the sound of deep ego bruised by someone else's opinion. It's simple and dumb, it doesn't need sophisticated logic or understanding. It doesn't care - it just plain thinks I suck regardless of the evidence, it just keeps quiet until someone rejects me, then reflects that back, millionfold.

Yes, it does help to write that, to know that others will read it and relate. And yet, it's true, a part of me, underneath, even deeper now, still believes it:
"The stories got rejected because you aren't a good writer."

And even now, typing this, I see how absurd that is, how it flies in the face of other things I believe, truly believe, not just on the surface. Yet, it still holds power, swaying power like a snake in a charmer's basket.

It's not something to fix. I'm not going to "fix" it anytime soon. Just observing it feels like a big deal. A lot of the power goes out of its sails when I write about it, when I call it out, especially if I can do it with equanimity. For now, that's true. And today? I'll politely reply to the email, which has haunted my inbox for three days now, waiting for a wide open day like today to leap out at me and taunt me, and get back to the "drawing" board. In the end, the deep end, that's what it takes.