Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Six degrees of legislation

On Monday, for the first time, I became a lobbyist. I went to Sacramento with CHIRLA and talked with legislators and their aides about budget and legislative issues that have (or could have) a tremendous impact on immigrants in California. You know what I realized over the course of losing my lobby cherry? Well, I'll tell you.

1. The state capital has an ongoing battle with Paris, France to be the city with the most trees.

2. The state capitol has a fancy diorama for every county in California.

3. Carl's Jr. has three vegetarian items on their menu: fries, onion rings, and fried zucchini. There are three salads on the menu--none is vegetarian.

4. I can still speak a little Spanish if I have to. I tried speaking Spanish for the first time in almost 10 years, and it worked! I also, by the end of the trip, could understand it a hell of a lot better than I could at the beginning. Language education as young as possible, people!

5. Lobbying is easy. Like really easy. It was like having a conversation with someone who's being paid to listen to you talk, except not in a therapisty way because you don't have to share uncomfortably personal details. How effective it is, well that's another question. I rode many elevators with professional lobbyists from Fox, Comcast, Cablevision, etc. They clearly were highly paid (more so than the legislators' aides, I'd imagine) and spent all day every day schmoozing. We were there for about four hours, volunteering.

6. I have a theory about government. I call it "six degrees of legislation" because legislation almost rhymes with Kevin Bacon, but it's really about government in general. It works like this: think of a bill/law, a budget item, a politician, or a program run by the government of the place where you live. I will choose, by way of example, AB 2010, a bill in the California Assembly that would allow the state's Department of Housing and Community Development to consider children's school terms as a factor in determining how long migrant farm worker housing will remain open each year. In six steps or fewer, I can connect that bill to a specific impact on my own life. In this case, I know as a teacher that students who have to change schools in accordance with the growing season instead of the school schedule will learn less and will have few to no social connections in their new schools, which they often enter with very little time left in the school year. Students who don't learn don't test well, in addition to the primary detriment which is NOT LEARNING. Students who don't test well don't get into UCLA, where I teach. Migrant farm workers are overwhelmingly poor people of color; fewer children of migrant farm workers means (slightly) whiter, richer classes for me to teach.

This is one example. It seems to have very little to do with me, since I'm not a migrant farm worker or the child of one, and since I don't even teach children, for the most part. But it hits me, in only four steps. I guarantee you that this will be true for me for every California law, in addition to every West Hollywood law, LA county law, and federal law. And it's true for you, too, no matter where you live. This realization shook me. I consider myself political; I know that what happens in politics, however slimy and despicable, has an impact on people. I didn't know, though, that everything that happens in politics has an impact on everyone.

Give it a try. Pick a law that has no direct impact on you or your family. Pick a politician from another part of your state. Six degrees, or your money back.

So what do we do with this knowledge? We can't all be lobbyists, right? Actually, we can all be lobbyists in our spare time. Call a legislator. Visit her office. Send him an honest-to-goodness physical letter, handwritten if possible. Tell the staffers how their bosses' positions have a real, tangible impact on your life. Make the job actually about people, not about abstract ideas, numbers, spin, and steaming piles of bullshit. It helps. It's needed. The tall men in fancy suits will keep riding the Capitol elevators to explain why the cable companies deserve assistance; the least we can do is try to counterbalance with a little reality.

Oh, and also a big white truck driver came up to me in Carl's Jr. and instead of trying to intimidate me because of my pink platform flip-flops and dangly earring, which was what I expected, he tried to intimidate me because of my pro-immigrant T-shirt. This was the same day that a Latino legislator assumed, from my looks, that I was from Mexico City. Context is amazing...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The things I learn from students

Did you know that Taiwanese indie musician Crowd Lu has performed a parody of "not-gay-just-European" Russian pop sensation Vitas' "Opera No. 2?"

Neither did I.

Now I know, and the world is a much funnier place.

Oh, also? Vitas designs his own costumes. Make of this what you will.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lighter notes

I am TAing right now for Writing about Music, which means it's time for the list of Music I Love/Music I Hate choices that my students have made. This year we allowed them to do one or the other, instead of both. Without further ado, here are their selections:

"Mr. Brightside," The Killers
Tristan und Isolte [sic], Richard Wagner as conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
"Since I Left You," The Avalanches
"Erbarme dich, mein Gott" from the St. Matthew Passion, J. S. Bach
"Bei Männern, welche Liebe fuhlen [sic]" from The Magic Flute, W. A. Mozart
"Hallelujah," Rufus Wainwright
"Killin' It," Foxy Shazam
"Bend and not Break," Dashboard Confessional

"Itch," Ani DiFranco
"I Gotta Feeling," Black Eyed Peas
"Riot: April 26th, 1992," Sublime

Again, there is sadly no overlap between the two categories. Also, as usual, the people who chose classical music generally didn't have a particular performer in mind, so I just took the first ones YouTube had to offer.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Weep you no more, sad fountains

This week's This American Life is a repeat from a year ago of a live broadcast featuring, among other celebrity guests (Joss Whedon on vocals and piano!?), sex columnist Dan Savage. He isn't talking about sex in this one, though. He's talking about a number of things, but mostly two: Catholicism, and his mother.

Savage's story is funny, as he usually is when he isn't being a privileged white asshole who thinks being gay gives him the right to talk shit about people in various other minority populations. Then, later, his story is sad. Incredibly, painfully, wracked-with-uncontrollable-sobs sad. You see, he's talking about his mother's terminal illness, and about her last moments with her family in the ICU in Tucson, Arizona. Her lungs, scarred by pulmonary fibrosis, were finally, permanently—fatally—coming apart. There was nothing to be done.

I live now in perpetual fear of that event, the moment Dan Savage powerfully, emotionally depicted on the radio last year. I hear his coming out story, how his mother didn't know what to do and consulted a priest (who immediately came out to her as well), and I remember the book my mother bought for me to read before I even knew what being gay was, a book called Am I Blue that was full of fun stories by some of my favorite authors. Stories about being gay, about coming out, about gay parents and friends and kids and other normal people.

According to, this book, the first ever young adult fiction anthology for gay and lesbian teens, was published when I was eleven or twelve years old. I officially came out to my mother just before my twentieth birthday, a minimum of eight years after she knew. That book is still sitting in my parents' house, on my father's office bookshelf. I look at it every time I visit them, and I wish I could explain exactly what it has come to mean to me, how incredible my parents are, and were, and have been. How much my mother understood me, and knew that even though she couldn't find a way to talk to me about it, Bruce Coville and Jane Yolen could.

Now, she still can't talk to me about things, but she tries. And I try. She can't really pronounce most consonants anymore, and her voice is weak and pinched and punctuated by long, wheezing breaths, but we struggle to have conversations. Every Sunday we talk, and every Sunday it's harder to know or to guess what she's saying. Every Sunday it's a relief that we haven't reached that ICU in Tucson, Arizona.

She doesn't have pulmonary fibrosis, of course. She has her own unique form of ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease. We're not waiting for scar tissue to build up on her lungs, but for the motor neurons that allow her to breathe to cease carrying the electrochemical commands that make those lungs work. When that happens, I hope that I will be there with her, that I can share that last moment. I can't, as Dan Savage did, share her last words, because she won't be able to make words by then. Even now, hopefully long before that point, only my father, my sister and I can understand what she says. Sometimes.

Savage admits that, even though he has no religious belief, he has turned to the ritual of Catholicism in the vain hope that it will provide him some solace, some comfort after her death. I don't have that impulse, which is probably good, as he admits it has hindered more than helped him to process his grief. I'm not looking for a higher power, or a reason, or a ritual practice to make this unbearably painful circumstance somehow bearable. I just want it to go away.

I want to go back to before Mom was sick, when my biggest maternal worry was that she bought me dozens of 50¢ used cookbooks I didn't need, or that she was a really lousy driver, or maybe that she seemed to have a moral opposition to exercise. I want to see her face and have it show what she's feeling, no matter how much she won't talk about it, instead of seeing her face and knowing that it doesn't move in response to her emotions anymore, and that smile might not actually be a smile, but some kind of rictus. I want to tell her how much she means to me and know that she understands what I'm saying; none of us can tell how much she comprehends now, especially since she doesn't usually respond.

But I'm a grownup now, and have heard the Rolling Stones tell me time and time again that I can't always get what I want. In the morning, after a few hours of fitful sleep under the quilts she made for me, I'll return to my everyday life and try to keep this on the back burner again. I'll teach my students, sit in class, and rehearse some 14th-century French music. Stiff upper lip and all that. It will hurt, but it would hurt even more not to.

In lieu of conclusion, I give you John Dowland's song that titles this post, as performed by Sting. His voice strains occasionally, and he gasps for breath, and his obvious effort and discomfort seem oddly appropriate to this particular plea.

Weep you no more, sad fountains;
What need you flow so fast?
Look how the snowy mountains
Heaven's sun doth gently waste.
But my sun's heavenly eyes
View not your weeping
That now lies sleeping
Softly, now softly lies sleeping.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

All I want for Christmas... a keg of Skittles.

I think that constant supply of sugar would keep me awake through various rounds of grading.