Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Night Occupation

I open today's post with a folktale.

"Long ago, in the district of Ka'u on the Big Island of Hawaii, the ruler of that place decided to build a temple. This ali'i was hard and cruel, demanding hours of backbreaking labor from his subjects. Stone by stone the heiau was fitted together, while crops withered and children cried from hunger, and men and women whispered their displeasure with the ali'i in the dark of the sleeping huts.

Remember that this was in the old days, when a ruler was considered a direct descendant of the gods. An ali'i of the purest bloodlines was so sacred that if his shadow fell on you, you would be put to death for profaning him.

But still, the commoners whispered.

Finally the people completed the heiau, a mighty terrace on the shores of Punalu'u Beach, and their ruler was pleased with their accomplishment.

"All that remains," he said to his subjects, "is for you to place the image of the godhead on the altar."

And his subjects replied, "Oh King, you should put the sacred ki'i on the altar, for only you are worthy of its divine presence."

This seemed a good idea to the ali'i, so he stood beneath the great stone image of the god and pushed with all his might to slide it up the stone ramp set before the altar. His subjects took hold of the ropes wound round the ki'i to steady it as the ali'i pushed.

Then, just as he reached the top of the ramp, the commoners cut the ropes and crushed their ruler to death underneath their god.

And thus the people were freed."

I grew up in the district of Ka'u. The old proverbs of Hawaii call my district "land of the rebels," because Ka'u has a long history of taking shit from exactly no one, as this story demonstrates. I wanted to tell it not just because a tyrant get smooshed by a stone idol, even though that's pretty metal, but also to open a discussion about the responsibilities of those with power.

If you have more money that you or your family or your family's family can ever spend in a lifetime without resorting to crazy rich-people schemes like dipping all your yachts in gold or grafting metal to your skeleton so you can be Wolverine, don't you have a responsibility to spread that wealth around to those of us without gold yachts and Wolverines? If you have been blessed, like our Ka'u ali'i, with the social position necessary to make your workers tremble as you walk by, don't you have a responsibility to not be an utter cock about it?

These are the questions raised down at Occupy Wall Street in New York City's Zuccotti Park. I spent my Friday night at the occupation, where the commoners aren't quite at the point of cutting the ropes, but we're getting there.

On the ground, it's pretty awesome. I sang Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" with a group of Spanish-speaking poets who were all worked up about something. I've forgotten too much Spanish to know exactly what it was, but I stayed and listened for about ten minutes in fascination because it was the first time I saw the human microphone in action. Sound amplifiers aren't allowed in Zuccotti Park, so the speaker yells, "Mic check!" and everyone who can year him yells back, "Mic check!" and then everything the speaker says after that, the crowd repeats, so people standing in the back can hear what's going on.

Of course, you don't need sound amplifiers at the drumming circle, where the usual shirtless ragamuffins that spring up like mushrooms around social justice movements can be found banging on trash cans with two-by-fours. But this is New York, so there were also some trumpet players in business suits jammin along. I listened to them until they had to shut down at 6PM--new agreement between the drummers and the residents in the area--and then I went to the Tree of Life, where the Hare Krishnas had set up an altar by a scraggly tree. We all had some yoga and meditation and prayed for peace and healing, with an emphasis on our fellows harmed in Occupy Oakland. I talked to the people sitting next to me for a bit, a nice artist-type from Queens who had been down there with his tent for about a week, so he still smelled okay, and another Brooklynite visiting the occupation for the first time, just like me. And since this is New York, the guy on the other side of me on the bench was this massive Teamster with a great thick gut and a handlebar mustache chanting "Ra-ma-da-sun."

While we were meditating--yes, I'm a massive hippie, I went to the protest and parked myself in the meditation circle, and if I'd brought my drumsticks I would have thrown in with the drummer-mushrooms--this guy behind me was engaged in an intense art performance. He was in an orange prison jumpsuit with a black bag over his head, and he knelt motionless with his hands behind his back surrounded by hand-painted cardboard signs protesting the treatment of prisoners both domestically and overseas in secret prisons. My favorite sign read, "I don't want coins, I want change." And man, this guy did. Not. Move. He was kneeling on concrete, actually up on his knees and not resting back on his heels, for the whole time I was in the meditation circle, a good half hour, and he was still there when I left for the general assembly. That's what it's like down there. People are putting themselves in extreme discomfort--it's going to snow later--for causes they really, REALLY believe in.

And there are a LOT of causes. The meditation circle was for general peace and healing, but there were people protesting nuclear power, environmental degradation, fracking, the wars, high housing costs, student loans, the government, the wealthy. One tent cluster was "Queering the Occupation," which is cool. But all of these grievances are ultimately about the same thing: the people with the power and the money have too much of both, and they've forgotten that the commoners are the ones who make it possible for them to have that power and money. If you're a stockbroker making millions from trading IBM and technology stocks, what gives you the right to make 400 times more than the people working the retail stores that sell the product; or the factory workers in China putting the product together; or the miners in the Congo digging out the zinc and copper that makes up the guts of all our computers and cell phones? We achieve NOTHING on our own. Everything we achieve, everything we ARE, is thanks to our fellow human beings.

We live in a world so globally inter-connected that it is objectively wrong for a tiny fraction of the population to keep benefiting so hugely from the labor of the rest of us, while we scrape and struggle to just survive. This isn't about being jealous of gold-plated yachts or wishing we didn't have to work for a living; this is about working two jobs and still having to decide between paying for birth control or eating meat this month. Yes, this happened to me, right around the time I started this blog. I went with birth control and ate a lot of beans, which is a decision that no one should have to make in one of the richest, most powerful countries in the world. At the time, I was ashamed of it, and thought there must be something wrong with me, that I was being irresponsible with my money or being lazy and not trying hard enough. But there are hundreds of people down in Zuccotti Park, and thousands more across the United States who are in the exact same situation, and we're out there in parks and squares to say that it's not our fault. The poor will no longer be ashamed of our poverty. It's time for the wealthy to be ashamed of exploiting the poor.

The protesters are doing just fine down by Wall Street. They have a first aid station with free medical care, a comfort station giving out clothes, blankets, and condoms, a library, and a play space for children. One of the librarians told me they had more donations than they could fit in the park; the organizers have had to rent off-site storage space to handle the overflow. Volunteers handed out little cups of pretzels, chips, and of course granola, and I think someone was passing out pizza, too. It's going to snow today, which will be miserable for the people camping out down there, especially since the fire department took away everyone's heating elements and generators, but as far as Hoovervilles go, it's damn pleasant.

One thing that kind of bothered me: Occupy Wall Street is a total tourist attraction. Everywhere I went, people were taking pictures and video of the protesters, the signs, the drumming, the meditation circle--man, is there anything less conducive to cultivating inner peace than having flashbulbs constantly going off all around you? I didn't bring my camera, as you can see by the lack of pictures in this lengthy post, and I'm glad I didn't, because the camera allows you to separate yourself from the consequences of the situation. When you're a spectator and not a participator, you absolve yourself of responsibility toward the occupiers and their quest for social justice. I understand the need to document the movement for both posterity and so the authorities can't get away with any beat-downs or secret arrests, but I am neither an object of anthropological interest nor a subject for your "edgy" vacation album on Flickr. If you're going to photograph the proceedings, talk to the people in front of your lens, ask our permission to use our images, or at the very least be part of the human microphone and help spread the message. Don't just be a tourist, because that cheapens both the cause and the people involved by turning us into objects you can gawk at, instead of humans you identify with. In my experience, there's no quicker way to make someone or something an "other" than to photograph or film them without talking to them, because this allows you to build an opinion about them based on a silent, static image and your own prejudices. There is no truth down that path, take it from someone whose image is scattered around in world in various "Hawaiian Vacation" photo albums.

That's all I have to say for now. It's started snowing outside. I hope the occupiers get their generators back soon; that citizens stop having to choose between health care and food; that the health of our planet can take precedence over the desires of the wealthy few; that human resources can be utilized without human exploitation; and that we can have peace.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tom Sawyer: An American Ballet

So why was I in the ghost metropolis of Kansas City, Missouri, marveling at the intact bronze-work and the lack of excrement in the flowerbeds? Why, to attend the world premiere--and inaugural performance in Kansas City's new opera house--of the Tom Sawyer ballet!

I've only ever seen one full length ballet, and I've seen it many, many times: The Nutcracker Suite. Every year at Christmas time in Hawaii, we'd go to the Aloha Theater to see the community ballet troupe perform the perennial classic, usually because we knew the little girl who was playing Clara. I always looked forward to it because I could hum all of the tunes. (I feel the same way about opera: if I can hum the tune, I'm interested, otherwise I'll probably fall asleep.) So I don't know as much about ballet as I do about, say, feminism or Batman, but I know just enough to get myself in trouble. In true Tom Sawyer fashion, I'm going to just charge on ahead and pretend like I know what I'm talking about, and we'll see what shenanigans ensue. That's the American way!

This is the the first full-length American ballet based on an American story, composed and choreographed by Americans. Ever. (Suck it, Russia!) I love the eminently-quotable Mark Twain--"Clothes make the man; naked people have little or no influence on society." He's considered the first truly American writer, so it's entirely appropriate to base the first American ballet on his classic "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." So much of the beauty and genius of Twain lies in the words themselves, so I imagine it was a challenge to adapt "Tom Sawyer" to an art form totally devoid of words. Look, Mum, no lyrics! I'd say the ballet succeeds in this goal, particularly in the second act, where Tom and Huck spend the night in a graveyard and witness a violent murder. All of the best dances come in the second act. Muff Potter's "Duet for a Man and his Flask" is my particular favorite. Why can't I look that graceful when I'm lurching around drunk in a cemetery? I'm also fond of the fight-dance between Injun Joe and Doc. It made me wish someone would make a Batman ballet, just so I could see more classy, violent men brawling and dying in a most beautiful fashion. From a technical standpoint, however, I'd have to say that the Dance of the Stone Angel is probably the highlight of that act. The music and movements are so perfectly aligned in their eeriness that even a layperson like myself can tell how truly original and inspired it is. That said, really all of the second act is just outstanding: the tombstones coming to life, the fireflies, the ghosts, the Sprite Circus, the zombies (the program says they're goblins, but when a gray stiff-limbed fellow clambers out of a grave and menaces a teenager, that's a damn zombie). This is the act that other ballet companies will choose to perform when they can't do the full-length version.

The highlights of the first act are the opening scene--Tom tricking his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence, possibly the most famous moment in all of American literature--and Tom and Becky's pas de deux in the school classroom. Appropriately, Tom and Becky's other pas de deux in the cave is the highlight of the third act. We heard a lot of the music for this ballet before we saw any of the choreography, and Big Sister said of Tom and Becky's theme, "I can just picture that part of their dance when they're across the stage and fluttering their fingers as they run toward each other." And that's exactly what happened in the ballet! Good call, Past Big Sister.

I feel nice and patriotic about joining the international ballet scene with a traditional American ballet of our very own. As for hum-worthiness, that prize goes to the Mississippi theme, or as I like to think of it, the Great American West song, appearing as the overture for the third act and reprised in the final number. If I was slightly more tech-savvy, I'd post a sound bite for everyone, but I don't know how to do that, and writing, "da-da-da-dada, da-dadada-da-da-DADA!" doesn't really capture the breadth and majesty of the music. You'll just have to wait until it comes to a city near you!

And now, the after-party! Here we all are, Big Sister, her Fiance, Mum, and Big Island Rachel in a halter dress and my great-grandmother's rhinestone jewelry. That dress I'm wearing may look nice, but a week later I've still got a bruise on my neck from the halter-bra I had to wear with it. Oh, the trials of the well-titted woman!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Kansas City--where'd everyone go?

I've been around. Lima, London, Prague, Rome, I've seen my share of cities, and just like people and particularly beloved stuffed animals, they all have their own personalities. Honolulu is a drunk chick past her prime dancing alone in front of the speakers at a bar. Spokane is a fat guy who wears his good sweat pants to the Arby's in case he runs into a potential lady friend. Lima is a scrawny ten-year-old with no shirt and an AK-47. New York is a lot of fun when she does a couple bumps in the bathroom with you at an art opening, but she'll shiv you as soon as look at you if you're not careful.

Now I want to have a conceptual Halloween party where everyone has to come as a different city. I'd come as Lima. Smear fake blood all over my ear and neck like my step-grandmother when a beggar reached in her car window and yanked her earring off. That place was harsh.

So I've been around, and I have to say that Kansas City, Missouri was one of the strangest cities I've ever visited.

There's nobody there. No people on the street, no cars on the roads. All of these great parking places and empty real estate, and nobody there to use it. But what's really strange is how clean and well-kept this empty city is. No trash on the streets or in the gutters; no vomit or dog shit in the floor beds. There's all of these lovely late 19th century and Art Deco buildings, as preserved as a Hot Pocket, that no one has graffitied or gouged with knives. All of the bronze decorations on the fountains and street lamps are still intact, not stripped down for the scrap metal. And lofts--lofts for sale and rent everywhere! But no dogs, no strollers, no people, no cars. It's like walking around a movie set before the cameras get there, or like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

I exaggerate, of course there were a few people on the street, but a LOT less than even Honokaa or Naalehu on the Big Island, and those towns have a couple hundred people living there compared to over a million who are supposed to live in Kansas City. We could walk around an entire city block and see maybe three other people.

And again, the lack of people wasn't as surprising as the quality of the infrastructure. It would be one thing if it was a dying city and the whole place was a shithole held together with duct tape and collective prayers of the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. But this was a nice place, with immaculate landscaping and a brand spanking new opera house in the center of town. Roger Daltry was playing the concert hall on Thursday night! Kansas City is not podunk or small apples. (quick aside, New York City got it's nickname "the Big Apple" from traveling acts who called the towns they stopped in "apples," and since New York was the biggest stop on the itinerary, it was the biggest apple. The more you know!)

At the after party on Friday, all any of us out-of-towners from Kailua-Kona, New York, Seattle and Miami could talk about was the emptiness of Kansas City. We all agreed that it was, without a doubt, the weirdest city any of us had ever visited.

Good barbecue, though.