Monday, June 13, 2016

An aging club kid speaks. A requiem for Orlando.

I added this as a chapter to my book after watching the film “Maestro” on IFC. The clubs of my youth gave me sanctuary and respite from life. They were my social hub and a place to be me and live my life in a society that wasn’t quite as open as it is now. My heart breaks for all those killed this past weekend in Orlando. They were trying to find solace, find a friend, find a date, or just fucking dance, but it all ended so horribly. In our post-Obergefell world, we thought we had it all wrapped up and we could go about our lives. 

We were wrong. Very wrong.

Field Observation: An Aging Club Kid Speaks (September 2011) excerpt from “Jesus has two Daddies”

I often get laughed at by my students for my musical choices in the classroom/studio. I won’t lie; it was a tough time growing up musically. I grew up at the end of Led Zeppelin and the beginning of Abba. My choices were limited for sure. But music was a huge part of my growing up. I loved Elton John and some of the musicals my parents had on vinyl. I remember coming home from camp in 6th grade, and my parents had bought A Night at the Opera by Queen, and it blew my little 12-year-old-head. Apparently they needed a rock and roll soundtrack for the bacchanal they had while I was away at camp.

My early years as a young gay male and the world of music that opened up to me in the clubs, bars, and discos in Toledo had a lasting effect on my musical tastes as an adult. If I wasn’t sneaking in to the gay clubs and dancing to late disco or early house, I was at the straight clubs shaking it to the grinding funk and R&B that populated the playlists at such bars like Renee’s, one of the true discos left standing after the 70s. They tried to update the place with new lights and d├ęcor, but it was what it was, an old disco tucked in a shopping mall.  It didn’t last long into the 80s. I had older gay friends who tried to turn me on to the various musical genres taking hold, an array of music that still has a place on my iPod today. Cutting-edge groups like Kraftwerk and divas such as Sylvester and Grace Jones still rock my world. But as the 80s closed up and we moved on into the 90s, club culture was still booming. Bars were a place of refuge for my friends and me, both gay and straight. They were places where we could go and get away from it all. Sure, we had the disco anthem I am what I am (by Gloria Gaynor if you didn’t know) to help us feel good about ourselves, but it was no Born this Way. 
Many of my current students go to the Necto in Ann Arbor, MI another grey lady from the disco era who has managed to survive into this new century. Of course, we knew it as the Nectarine Ballroom back then. It was a spacious and opulent place where the music was amazing and every night, gay or straight, was fabulous. Money was saved up each week for the nights out in Michigan. If we drove fast, we could close the Nectarine at 2:00 a.m. and drive back to Ohio to close out Buttons or Bretz and continue partying until 4 or 5 am.

I caught the documentary “Maestro” on IFC, and the film has been floating around in my head since I watched it. I have watched the opening credits many times, as the narration over the thumping house beats brought back many memories for me. As the credits roll, a voice begins to speak:

“I want to tell you about walking into an oasis.”

“Feeling like I just walked into my family’s living was about being safe from the social restrictions of the outside.”

“Everything the Moral Majority told you couldn’t do, it didn’t exist anymore. It was a family that had only one rule, to love thy brother, and that was okay. It was you and them against the world, and we survived together.”

I get goose bumps as I read these words because that is how I felt about going out to the bars and clubs in my early 20s. It was freedom from a world of AIDS and HIV and from the crap going on in my head as a young man who knew he was gay but didn’t know how he fit into the world. The last line says that we survived together, but in reality, we didn’t. I lost so many friends from this time that it breaks my heart to think about them and their lives, cut down so quickly. My nights of going out and clubbing are pretty much over now. It’s a totally different experience to dance with a kid in your family room to the Wii and not be in a club. The smell of pot and poppers are replaced with the smell of juice boxes and a not so fresh diaper. I can still crank out Lady Gaga with the kids and on cue they both raise their hands in the back of my car as Mother Monster commands them to “put their paws up!”  And I can still put on my headphones, grab my dog, and go out for a walk in the park jamming to the tunes that made me who I am today. The strobes are gone, but the memories remain.

Dance on my brothers and sisters. Dance on. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Life beyond the bubble.

Photo: J Scott Park, M Live
What follows is a selection from my talk at the annual LAND Conference this past February in Grand Rapids. It is the genesis of my new book, "Life beyond the Bubble" a collection of stories from my years teaching at the prison. 

The college where I teach, Jackson College, has a long and storied history with prison education. The stories from the academic campfire tell of buses full of dogs and guards showing up at 1 am to secure the buildings for the classes. The faculty were brought in shortly thereafter and secured in their classrooms at that ungodly hour of the morning.
For me, my CPAP and I are singing the songs of my people at 1:30 a.m., but these hardcore faculty apparently main-lined Red Bull and were ready to greet the buses full of prison students lining up along the college each morning.

Flash forward several decades, and we are once again back in the business of teaching the incarcerated. It was a big decision for me to do this. My husband I have two young kids and I have seen Oz on HBO. (fun fact: I dated the brother of the show’s creator in college). I also have two strikes against me, I’m gay and a teacher. Things didn’t work out so well for either of those demographics on the show if you recall. But seeing that I had been judged pretty much all my life as a gay man, I talked with my spouse, double-checked my life insurance and threw my hat into the ring to teach art history.

Due to the nature of the corrections environment, very little personal information is shared, in the classroom, or even with the Correction Officers (COs) and staff. A designation of “over-familiarity” can end up with the prisoner being transferred out of the facility. So in my prison classes, my sexuality is off the table, whereas on main campus, I am out and proud and don’t hide who I am. Each week when I enter “the Bubble” that space between freedom and incarceration, I also step back into the closet and hide who I am as a gay man. With that in mind, I had to ask myself why I wanted to teach at the prison. Why would I risk my life and well-being to teach those that might not ever step foot outside the perimeter of the prison again? They find solace in the artwork and the stories of its creation and creators. One gentleman remarked that he’ll never leave the facility as a free man, but through my classes, he traveled the world and saw things he could never imagine.

Last winter here in Michigan was one of the coldest on record with many days in single digit and below zero readings thanks to the Polar Vortex. As I walked with my CO escort to my classroom inside the prison to teach my art history class one day last winter, I remarked how quiet the prison yard was, even with the wind howling in our ears. The yard is typically filled with prisoners and guards, walking, lifting weights, playing soccer or just sitting, but today, with the temps in the single digits, it was a barren tundra. The garden that I watched grow and bloom the previous summer was mowed down flat, buried in a snowy blanket of white.

“Yeah, said the guard, we have to keep the inmates in when it’s this cold. These fucking animals don’t know when to come in out of the cold.”

I was stunned by his description of the prisoners but held my tongue. We continued across the yard and arrived at the modular classroom set up next to the soccer field. As he fumbled for the key to unlock the classroom he muttered under his breath, “I don’t know why you’re teaching these assholes. They don’t learn, they don’t listen, they’re just fucking animals, plain and simple. They need to be in cages, not classrooms.”

Photo: J Scott Park, M Live

I have learned that you only engage in pleasantries while in the prison, anything deeper than “nice day, eh?” can lead to much more than you’ll ever want to hear (from both sides of the prison wall). I thanked the CO and began to set up my classroom as I do each session. The students are excited and motivated to learn, even if it’s something they know nothing about or will probably never use while incarcerated. I have had many “lifers” as students, men who will never see the outside of the prison due to their crimes. I was initially worried about reaching this group as I wondered what was left for them.

Why learn?

Why care?

Why do anything if you know it’s hopeless.

But it’s not hopeless and the lifers are prime examples of this.

One of the men remarked that he couldn’t wait for his release as he wanted to go back to Art Prize (in Grand Rapids, MI) and finally be able to talk about the art and not feel stupid. One of the men, a gifted artist, eagerly shared with me his work and humbly asked for my opinion as to what pieces he should consider submitting for the annual University of Michigan Prisoner Art Show. His artwork was exquisite and showed maturity and mastery and I was thrilled to offer him my critique.

So why do I teach these fucking animals each week? It’s easy, they’re not animals, they’re humans and they’ve made bad choices in life, we all have. They’re doing their penance, and they’re making better choices than what landed them behind bars.

It’s not easy work, teaching never is, but its rewards are often more than you can ever imagine.

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