Saturday, December 13, 2014

School Daze





 
 
Tuesday this week I got to visit some public schools in Hamilton, Ohio as a part of this Chamber of Commerce Leadership Training thing I'm in, and it was inspiring in a way I didn't think it would be.  I'm in this class with business leaders and non-profits leaders and sometimes I feel a little out of my element, but still there's a feeling among all of us I think that we just want to see how things work, and what their worth is. 
 
What truly touched me, though, was visiting this small elementary school out in a residential neighborhood in the middle of nowhere.  The principal there was hyper-cordial and super-excited in a way that didn't feel phony, and as we walked in the little kids there sang Christmas songs and they gave us hot chocolate.  It sounds corny as hell I know, but somehow it wasn't.  And as I got the lowdown on what the school is about, it made me think that the principal was truly curating the school's activities and identity and mission, as opposed to just running a school.  She seemed focused on making sure the kids that go to the school, and their parents, have as many opportunities as possible to explore what learning is, and also what life is.  They have taken the back few acres behind the school and transformed them into an "outdoor classroom," replete with log-stools and open-air nature-viewing areas.  They have a backwall of windows that the kids use for bird-watching, and have connected that ornithological exercise with some scientists via the Internet so that what they are accomplishing is more data collection that just plain old in-school activity.  We visited an art class filled with first-graders who had drawn crazy-looking monsters, and those drawings had been transformed into three-dimensional ceramic monster-dolls by some local high school kids, and some fourth and fifth grader were now assisting the first graders to write stories about their monsters, all culminating in an art-show at the local arts center next year.  We went into a math classroom where they were playing a gameshow based on learning percentages, a big wall-screen filled with phosphorescent gameshow graphics framing long rows of numbers.  Lots of sound effects and giggling and the kids totally in it to win it.  There was a sweet energy in the air, and even though it was partially because they were doing a dog-and-pony routine for the Chamber of Commerce Leadership thing I totally felt like this was just a day in the life, and that all the teachers and administrators and helpers and kids were doing what they wanted to do, only heightened because of being able to show off.
 
At the end, all of us were given gifts.  Mine is above, a red ceramic bowl I just took some photos of.  It's an object that really is a sort of icon, symbolizing something deep and simple.  It's beautiful because it comes from a really good place, that little school with its backyard woods and gameshow math classes and first-grade magic-marker monsters.  And I'm thinking maybe that school is more of an art gallery or art museum than most galleries and museums that try so hard to be galleries and museums.  The function of that school feeds the style and form; the energy comes from the art being used to make something better happen, and that sense of hope makes that little red ceramic bowl kind of glow.  It's a flower, it's a toad-stool, it's a monster's brain.  It's handmade and shiny, virtually nonexistent and yet purely what it is.  A lot of artists reach for that when they make their stuff, but can't find it because they want to conjure instead of produce, want to make something fine when they should just make something feasible and there.  That's where my heart is, I guess, when I look at art now:  I'm always trying to find that silly little red bowl in paintings and sculptures and performances and drawings...  That is the center of the universe somehow, something given to a stranger without knowing where it will go, all good intentions, no secondary need for attribution or even acknowledgment.  It hardly ever happens, me finding that moment, that purity, that whatever.  I saw it last year at the Mike Kelley retrospective in New York City.  I see it sometimes in the works we show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. and the shows at Visionaries + Voices.  But it's totally best when it just comes out of nowhere, not a surprise as much as a reprieve.
 
Back in 1961, one of my favorite artists, Claes Oldenburg, wrote a manifesto called "I Am for an Art..."  Here's part of its beginning mantra:

I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human....
I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.


That's a great description of what I felt at that little school on Tuesday, that sense that art happens in the most secret and mundane places and we don't have to see it for it to exist.  We just have to recognize it when we have the honor and opportunity, and then move on. 
 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Just Wanted You to Know

 
We got off I-75 at Corbin, Kentucky, and right there is David's Steakhouse and Buffet.  Neon "choice steaks," a long brick ranch-style, a comfort.  As soon as you go in, they say howdy and it's not forced.  It feels like they really want you to be there, like church except less creepy because it's not church.  And you get your tray and they ask you what drink you want, and that smell of steakhouse-buffet, pleasant mix of dishroom bleach-water cutting through gravy vapors, fried-food phantom exhaust and spice-cake lit with 100-watt bulbs.  It's dark and homey in here, back-window glimmer and fluorescence combining into nursing-home kindness.  The buffet spans out like the control-panel in a great big spaceship except overflowing with country food, and protected by multiple sneeze-shields.  It's heartening.  It does not hurt to be here.  Everyone is like me, except they wear a lot of camouflage and say grace before they eat.  A gentleman-manager asks what drinks we'd like.  I say Diet Pepsi, and he offers up, "We have Diet Mountain Dew now too.  Just wanted you to know."
 
We pay the teenaged boy running the register.
 
We find out seats in the back area, with a big wall-installed TV showing a football game.  Kiwanis and Little League plagues all over the walls.  Paneling and beat-down carpet and chunky wooden tables with steak-sauce bottles and napkins.  A couple waitresses over on the other side of the room rolling silverware and talking about the snow. 
 
I go and get what I want:
 
  • Meatloaf covered in catsup and tasting like what I used to eat back when food was like this, totally simple and tasting like food, so stupid and simple it makes you want to cry, like you are eating a part of a couch from your childhood, like you are eating a day in your own past life, like you are finding a way to remember something that doesn't need to be remembered and yet comes through so loud and clear it makes you want to cry.
  • Baked chicken with the skin still on, soggy, just the kind of soggy necessary to make you feel alone with it.  Baked chicken sort of greasy but clean tasting, fleshy and stringy and hot, and there's a non-sauce to it, what has baked off in the pan, that tastes like Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup, that smell of being sick and eating even though you are sick,  total comfort in the face of all that's wrong, and you not knowing where you are going to be or go.
  • Fried okra from a deep-fryer, that taste of dirty grease somehow a delicacy now, here, but still reminiscent of restaurant work in the South, what's left on a buffet when you close.  Slimy sort of once you get past the breading, but still a taste of summer in there, bland and green and boring and yet again here I am enjoying it beyond enjoyment, close to those tears.  Nobody is sitting near us.  We eat like a little ceremony, like we've rehearsed eating this way.  Plate after plate, beautiful robot-hillbillies. 
  • Greens cooked to the point of not being green, splashed with vinegar:  that's what I wanted right away, this.  Mossy, gamy, gorgeous green, watery, vinegary, like mown grass transformed into a taste you always taste when you feel homesick, or at least when you feel like you need a place to hide. 
  • Cooked carrots, boiled to their banal essence, cooked into contentment.  They taste like you're eating a sentence you said in 1979, when you wanted not to talk but somebody made you.  Orange, grainy, disappearing across your tongue.
  • Banana pudding.  Like a prayer in a Baptist church.  Like amnesia with banana flavoring.  Vanilla wafers are so lovely, symbols of loneliness in a small town,
That's all I got.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream


 
 
 
 
Something about Interstellar and East Tennessee, about time crushing into time the way a Faulkner novel collapses in on itself, Faulkner in outer space, As I Lay Dying staged on the 2001:  A Space Odyssey set. 
 
It was daylight when we went into the Cineplex in Johnson City, Tennessee the day after Thanksgiving 2014.  It was pitch-black when the movie was over and we stumbled out from a spaceship's hull into a dark mall parking lot.  And all that feeling around finding yourself trapped inside a moment you don't understand, kind of blissful and kind of not.  It was just a pretentious big-budget movie anyway.  But outside and inside of all the wormhole gobbledygook in it is an emotional strangeness, a wistful sense of what you can never figure out even if you have a big slate wall and lots and lots of chalk. Time itself is the main villain, sweeping and gutting meaning, seducing people into believing they can escape themselves while also swallowing them whole. 
 
That's the whole situation here.  My East Tennessee roots are pretty messed up, especially the relatives who did not escape.  They live in backwoods trailers and sad dilapidated suburban homes, and they either work crappy jobs or figure out ways to get on disability.  Some of them have kids they don't take responsibility for; some of them are strung out on oxycodone.   Some of them take responsibility for everything and look haunted.  Some of them are morbidly obese.  I think a few of them might be making meth.  I think a few of them still go to church, still go through the motions.  Those are my relatives.  It sounds like I'm a horrible judgmental person, which I probably am, but that's the truth when you pull away all the niceties, and every time I go I try not to see them even though that's what I'm there to do. 
 
Those mountains are so beautiful and yet so encoded with secrets you just try to not see them.  You go to the Dollar General any time you have a chance just to get out of it for a while.  You get a motel room a half hour away just so you can have a place to go to when you can't take it anymore.  I know that sounds awful.  But I was there before.  I witnessed all these sad sunken people through a kid's eyes 30, 35, 40 years back.  I followed them through to what they are and what they aren't now (and what I am and what I'm not now too), and the "then" wins because it has a sort of insulated hopefulness, a sense that we will all be immune, even when you know it's all going to hell.  At least there's time to take the pain through, to help tell the story, back then.  The story is now finished however, or at least close.  It has devolved to nothing, into dark-night mountain roads without any streetlights, into a Golden-Corral Thanksgiving so dreamy and claustrophobic it was like being on a boat of refugees, into a meanness inside a tree that you can't get at but know is there, into a sallow, gaunt face inside a trailer window. 
 
One story that sticks with me from this last trip:  one of them was arrested last year when she was riding in a truck with her five-year-old son and her 65-year-old boyfriend, and the boyfriend was drunk-driving.  Turns out she was drunk and high too, and the kid was only wearing short-pants in the back of the truck.  It was like 30 degrees.  It all got into the paper.  She got arrested.  Her kid was taken away.  He's back with her now.
 
And then that movie with all those arctic mountains, frozen clouds, pristine spaceships, glowing rings around Saturn, boxy robots and blighted cornfields.  That pounding organ soundtrack, the seriousness filling your head with an artificial urgency you often crave in real life.  All of it perfectly executed.   Time is suspended.  Someone else is in control of what you see.  You witness the world without the world in it.  You go in when its daylight and come out to night.  The alchemy happens but then dissolves, and you know who you are again, but still there's a manic/magic little interregnum, moments before you make it to the car in the parking lot, when that darkness maybe isn't darkness, but made up, and maybe everything is made up, and then you're back where you are, wanting not to be there, and yet that's kind of life itself.  
 
My sister, who didn't want to be here either, took my mom Christmas shopping while Bill and I and my sister's husband snuck away to see Interstellar. Mom and my sister were waiting in the dark outside the Cineplex in my sister's car.  We had planned to go out to dinner with mom and her husband but he got sick at work and went home early.  Mom, Bill, my sister, her husband, and I went to Longhorn Steakhouse closer to where she lives.  We ate there, and then once back at her little house (the right side of a duplex) out in the middle of a mountain road, the snowy, muddy outside of it surrounded in the lawn ornaments she likes to buy and display, she gave us our Christmas gifts:  a wallet, a set of holiday candles.  And my sister's husband put together a lamp my sister got my mom during their shopping spree, a floor-lamp with glossy amber glass shades.  Bill and I found out they didn't have light bulbs, so we offered to go buy some at Dollar General.  My mom's husband, who is real big, was in his bedroom, still feeling sick.  He was in bed, watching a little TV in there; you could almost feel his exhaustion like you feel heat through a register.  We drove those dark mountain roads back to civilization and got light-bulbs at Dollar General, a boxy small over-lighted place filled with snack-cakes and coat hangers and toilet paper and magazines and chewing gum and rubber-bands and little girl dresses and furniture polish and mittens and socks and furnace filters and steak sauce and so on so forth.  People milled in and out buying stuff.  It was cold and spitting snow.  Once we got the light-bulbs we went back to my mom's place and for a second I felt like this might be the best visit we've ever had because I was able to avoid everyone but mom and her husband.  And I was able somehow to make sense of everything because I did not have to witness it.  Which might be a triumph, I guess.  Hiding from things is one way to survive them, and here we were in the dark, walking up the muddy path to my mom's front porch, delivering light-bulbs, and we went in, put the light-bulbs in the lamp.  Everybody said it looked great.  Then the phone rings, and it's one of those relatives we were avoiding with her latest little flare-up.  Mom retreats into her bedroom, and Bill, my sister, her husband and I wait, listening to her voice, looking at each other, kind of knowing suddenly how unimportant we are to her, even though it's vitally necessary to see her, be with her, especially as she gets older. 
 
I kept flashing on scenes from Interstellar, sitting there, waiting to go back to the motel in Johnson City.  Kept my focus on distant frozen ferocious planets and videos from dead relatives making astronauts cry and blighted cornfields bursting into flames and chalk boards filled with equations that never really work out.  Right then I knew that Christopher Nolan's movie is probably a masterpiece because it somehow leaked out of itself into a realm most movies can't attach themselves to anymore.  Nolan has left his Batman bull-shit behind.  His Kubrickian genius somehow melted in the face of his own heartfelt need to make something beyond Kubrick, and he found moments, completely plastic but still warmed up enough to cause a chill, an impulse for nostalgia and memory almost like Proust and almost like Hallmark and yet irrevocable, kind of real.  All of those tricks and sentiments shined to a supernatural gloss, and played on a screen in East Tennessee.  I guess it was meant to be.
 
This is a picture of the motel we stayed in in Johnson City.  The place we went back to after saying goodbye to mom and her husband:
 
 
 
 
 
 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Blanche Dubois in a Tracksuit


The first two episodes of the second season of The Comeback have been pure bliss: humiliating, hilarious, poignant, sad...  Basically the new shows are a direct extension of what made The Comeback's 2005 season so incredibly satisfying.  Almost every review I've read of both seasons, however, focuses solely on the show-business satire:  Valerie Cherish trapped in a world that does not want her, the superficial, vanity-drenched universe of reality TV and/or Hollywood in general.  But I think the setting and situation are just red herrings, glossy reasons to make a show.  Valerie Cherish is one of those characters that not only satirizes and parodies excess (in Valerie's case:  vanity, star-hunger, ambition beyond ability, etc), but also somehow has connective tissue to a reality and pathos way beyond satire.  She's full-fledged, made from parts that seem totally valid and emotionally relevant.  She's not a cartoon.  Her behavior carries with it moments of extreme illumination on what it means to be a human being in a pretty nasty world that often crushes spirits while also remaining totally blank-faced.  I know this sounds totally overblown and very Valerie-Cherish-ish, but I kind of liken her to Blanche Dubois or Willie Loman, two beautifully flawed extremely irritating but spiritually poignant symbols of humanity trying to maintain grace and sanity in a universe not built for them, or not even aware of their wants and needs.

In short, Lisa Kudrow does a drag here that pierces through the kitsch and shame, until finally at the end of the day Valerie is one of us. 

The new season's first two episodes illustrates this point a little more succinctly than a lot of the first season's episodes.  In one gorgeously penultimate moment, Valerie tries to sell herself to HBO so she can portray a horrible version of her real self on a semi-autobiographical HBO-deluxe "dramedy" about the rotten little sitcom she was co-starring in almost ten years ago (one of The Comeback's kickiest conceits is the use of meta upon meta upon meta narrative intaglios).  The show is titled Seeing Red, and Paulie G, her arch nemesis from the first season of The Comeback, and the creator of that rotten little sitcom, Room and Bored, has written it.  She stumbles upon this fact, and at first tries to maintain "dignity," as Valerie likes to call it, only to twitch and squirm until she winds up in front of a bunch of hipster-icy HBO execs asking her to "cold-read" a scene for them in which her character, Mallory Church, barks out a pissed-off monolog about how she's sick and tired of being the "old lady," the "joke," the "unfuckable one."  It's a truly Blanche-Dubois-meets-Carol-Burnett-as-Eunice moment, and yet Blanche wins out in the end.  Kudrow plays the meta-meta seriously, to the bone.  That room of execs is blown away, as are we, because we know what she is saying is so true, at least in this context and more-than-likely in many more contexts, and we're on Valerie's side not because of gender inequality of anything, but just because her tragedy is given to us without restraint or audience-pleasing satirical obsequiousness.  Valerie's anger, while it will never come out in the real world, is given a moment to geyser in that HBO conference room, and in the steam heat we feel every frustration she's ever felt.  And we somehow know her frustration is ours.

Valerie is a clown, but her clownishness is not alien to the species.  In fact it is elemental, a facet of human consciousness and behavior that we all like to pretend we don't share.  She is embarrassingly self-serving, manipulative, pathetic, status-conscious, overwhelmed by her desire to be what she can't be, and yet all of those traits don't alienate her from us.  They bring her to us somehow.

Valerie's relationship to another clown, her hairdresser Mickey Deane (played with soul and verve and a beautiful exhaustion by Robert Michael Morris), gives us another way to witness her self-involvement and also her hilarious co-dependency.  Mickey dotes on her, protects her, actually establishes a zone of tranquility for her, and in turn Valerie simultaneously thanks/ignores/berates/belittles/compliments him all in one fell swoop.  Their dance together dramatizes one of those great comedic couplings in which timing and chemistry and a total dedication to (as Valerie would say) "honoring the wonderful material" written for them.  They move through their days together completely unaware of the tragedy of their adventures, and yet also secure inside a plastic bubble of their own making.  They take care of each other's need for self-importance and applaud the smallest of one another's triumphs.  It's a joy to witness, even while you wince.



Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wicked Witch


Frances McDormand plays the title character in Olive Kitteridge, an HBO miniseries that debuted earlier this month, and she is more than remarkable, so remarkable it's hard to explain.  Directed by Lisa Cholodenko and based on a novel by Elizabeth Strout, Olive is the story of a middle-class family in Maine who make ends meets stoically but also with a passive-aggressive sense of humor and a grim sense of irony.  McDormand plays the matriarch with an uncanny lived-in charisma that is never displayed, only smoldered, delivered through her eyes, the way her mouth is shaped into staccato sentences, the way she picks up and puts down dinner plates and garden gloves and greeting cards.  A dour school-teacher with a lust for life that somehow gets translated into meanness and rudeness, Olive is someone who is never satisfied but also never figures out why.  She just continues moving forward, making what she can of what she has, either as a wicked witch, a put-upon spouse, a Madame-Bovary wannabe, or a down-to-earth champion of people most people want to ignore.  Olive surveys 25 years of Olive's life with her sweet, doting husband (played to innocent perfection by Richard Jenkins), their confused, pissed-off son, and an assortment of sad, sometimes suicidal friends and family who pass through. 

Cholodenko and screenwriter June Anderson convey all of that time and incident through a poetry steeped in banality and yet intensified by melodrama and violence.  It's a blissful mix of soap-opera and character-study, without losing the juicy texture of either.  Cholodenko has a Douglas-Sirk sense of heightened stylized scene-making, but also a melancholy Emily-Dickinson sense of cut-to-the-chase pathos.  It's a large movie really, expansive and yet completely whittled down to essences, which describes McDormand's performance too.  Both director and actor seem to share the same sense of aesthetic connection.  But it's McDormand's sensibility that somehow sends it all over into a territory of pure greatness.   She blurs together really horrible personality traits with genuineness and kindness, a mix-and-match humanity that allows Olive to glow incandescently without losing her acidic center.  She never changes, barking out rude orders, saying whatever comes to her mind, harboring deep-seated hatreds and jealousies and yet also so close to real you can see yourself in almost every move she makes.

The penultimate scene, the one McDormand grabs onto with so much quiet gusto it's breathtaking, is during the marriage of her son to a woman from an uptight California family.  The wedding is taking place at her son's house near the Maine coast.   Right after the nuptials, exhausted by all the phoniness, Olive in wonderful Olive fashion, decides to take a nap in her son and new wife's bedroom.  Through a constant slew of interruptions Olive stubbornly tries to sleep away the consternation, and at one point, the bedroom door slightly ajar, she overhears her new daughter-in-law gossiping about her, saying how strange and bitchy she is, and even mocking the dress Olive made for herself, a floral sweet homemade-looking frock that kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in the array of California-lady fashions at the ceremony.  As soon as the daughter-in-law finishes, Olive juts up and seems to be in a fever-state of despair/anger/regret.  There happens to be a notebook with a yellow highlighter on it next to the bed.  She grabs the marker and opens the closet door.  She grabs one of her daughter-in-law's beautiful silk blouses, unfolds it, takes the marker and draws a long fluorescent line on the sleeve.  She folds the blouse and replaces it.  Then she sees on top of the dresser a pair of earrings.  She steals one, placing it into her pocket.  She returns to the bed and naps.

McDormand does something in this scene you can't really convey in words.  She's a zombie, she's a hurt animal, she's a pissed-off middleaged lady tired of being treated like shit -- she's all of that at once through her gestures, her seemingly blank facial expressions filled with a million emotions, her rigid yet somehow fluid moves through that bedroom.  She is claiming her dignity, but also somehow giving up on herself. 

It's one of those moments you won't ever forget.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mask Theory



Friday I had a phone conversation with someone at the end of my work-day so truly frustrating I got so angry after it I felt as if I weren't going to be able to think for the whole weekend.  It was one of those fumy, funky feelings you get when you are confronted with a point of view so completely outside of your own it feels as if you've been kidnapped and thrown in a basement for a while. 

The different point of view has to do with all kinds of stuff, but mainly the topic of heated discussion was about the people with developmental disabilities we were both trying to support.  I'm not going to get into anything specific because it's not worth it here, but I figure I might as well blog about the Big Issue which is:  how do you separate people from their historical origins, from their tropes?  How do you pull the "type" away from the way you talk about and connect with them? 

The person on the other end kept laying claim to people, as in "my clients," or "my people," and I just don't do that.  That "my" becomes plantation-esque somehow, indicating an ownership that feels grounded in institutions and brainwaves from the past.  I think the fury I felt truly came from that alone mainly, hearing that "my" over and over and over, and then today rehashing the whole thing I thought about Diane Arbus' photographs of people with developmental disabilities taken during a Halloween party at a state institution back in the early 1960s.  One of them is above.  Somehow that "my" is trapped in that same moment above, that cryptic, masked sense of no-self, no-determination, no-ambition, just a group of identities only given identities as a group.  

How do we help get rid of those masks?  How can we separate the way we think and act from that instant classification, that instant knowing what's best, that "my-ness"? 

One way I guess is by always knowing what's up, and by not saying the "my" and also knowing why you don't say "my."  Still that's just semantics, still just a version of self censorship.  The move to make might be empathetically created (as in "I wouldn't only want to be thought of as only part of a group," etc.) but also it has to be functionally practiced.  We often think of ethics as only connected to an HR training or a high school course we took and slept through, rules that don't really matter outside of saying they do, ephemeral pontificating.  But ethics, in the way I'm trying to figure them out, are only important when acted on, as in erasing that ownership sensibility by understanding its weirdness and unkindness and moving forward from that, outside of platitudes, outside of words.  Doing something about it.

It was words, of course, that pissed me off so much on Friday.  That and the fact it was Friday and nobody wants to get into a work argument or any kind of argument on Friday afternoon.  But the words highlighted something very deep:  you can't take action until you figure out what's wrong with the way you're thinking about the actions you take. 

In this stuff, ethics are so important because they can allow you to unmask yourself.  And without a mask you, and everyone else, can see exactly who you are.
   

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Living Wages

 
 
A lot of times in trainings and meetings people use Clip-art configurations in their Power-point presentations just to gussy things up, or to prove a point without having to prove a point, almost like instant branding.  Clip-art allows anyone a catalog of pictographs and overarching almost blank logos to "explain" things without really accounting for the explanation.  Clip-art provides a shortcut that leads back to the fact something can't be codified, can't be illustrated:  everything is complicated and yet easily simplified.  In my case I go to a lot of trainings and meetings about employment for people with developmental disabilities, and somehow the Clip-art responses to that grouping of abstractions ("people," "disabilities," "employment") come off so inept as to be ironic, even absurd, not because the people in the Clip-art depictions aren't depicted in wheelchairs for diversity's sake, or whatever.  It's not the visuals.  The simplicity of the "Clip-arting" process is the main problem:  hugely complicated topics can't be easily abstracted especially while you're living through them.  There's no ap for that.
 
Helping/supporting people with disabilities to get actual jobs with living wages is about trying to do a lot of activities people on all sides of the table aren't used to.  It's about decreasing the importance of programs and increasing the importance of expectations both on the people we're trying to help get real jobs, and on the employers.  These expectations vary of course.  On the part of the people with disabilities, we are counting on them to have the skills and desires and competencies needed to work; on the part of the employers, we are counting on them to think beyond stereotypes and to make hiring decisions based on a person's skills and desires and competencies, not on charity or pity.  The equation sounds simple, but it is so complex as to become confusing, even depressing.  The contemporary history of vocational ambitions for people with developmental disabilities is pretty dismal:  consigned to sheltered workshop making sub-minimum wage.  In the 1980s a service set called "supported employment" caught on for many folks, but still those segregated work spaces held on, so that a small percentage of "job-ready" people were referred for employment in the real world, but a vast majority were still told they "belong" in a sheltered work environment, always being told they weren't ready yet. 
 
In 2012 Employment First, a national initiative, came to Ohio, signed as an executive order by Governor Kasich.  It stipulates that all the service-systems statewide here in Ohio presume people are employable.  Are "ready."
 
"Ready" is a loaded word and concept, and as I keep trying to figure out how to help make employment happen for people (in tandem with a bunch of other folks, including social workers, counselors, family member, and employers, etc.) I always try to understand that not everyone we're trying to help "break through" will make it, and some may not even want to.  But my presumption is that all of us want to be contributors to the world, using whatever talents we have to make it a better place.  My presumption is everyone deserves a chance.  Lots of chances actually.
 
Good old Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire, had Blanche Dubois whisper, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."  With all this employment stuff, we are depending on the kindness, and open-mindedness of people with developmental disabilities, their family members, services providers, supervisors, CEOs, coworkers, and so on.  "Kindness," in this case, seems to be a process of seeing beyond what's right in front of you, and what's in the historical record, maybe even in the subconscious.  People who are not consigned to Sheltered-Workshop-Land often have images in their heads of groups of people with developmental disabilities in school on the little yellow bus, in backroom classrooms, on the playground in clusters.  They have images from TV and movies and literature that dictate these folks are helpless and in need of all kinds of "special" support.  People with developmental disabilities, and their service providers, advocates and families, often have a lot of fear about connecting with the "real world," about leaving behind the intended safety and comfort of programs designed to protect them and to perpetually "prepare" them for eventual "inclusion."  "Kindness" may be the only way for people on all sides of the equation to see, without blinders, a world in which many people often considered not "ready" are actually capable of contributing and ascending even.
 
So employment is maybe one of the only ways to put social change into practice, to test the boundaries of "kindness," not charity or pity, but a kindness that is predicated on the Golden Rule that essentially states: You should treat others as you would like others to treat you. 
 
Pretty simple.  Bet there's no Clip-art for that though.  
 
In summation, here's a picture:
 
 
 
This happened last week -- a team of temporary employees with developmental disabilities became full-time employees of ThyssenKrupp Bilstein, a company in Southwest Ohio that makes auto-parts.  They had to work really hard to prove themselves, not just because it's a hard job, but because they don't have the luxury of not being labeled.  That labeling is an obstacle everyone involved has to overcome.  The employer had to figure out how to accommodate for a few things, but also expect great things; the employees had to figure out how to word hard and push forward and even maybe surprise themselves with how strong they are; the job coaches, families, supporters, and supported employment people had to figure out how to make all of this work without interrupting efficiency and the workplace.  It goes on and on.  Complications arise, but the will to incorporate those complications (not really solve them, but contend with and work with it all) becomes a version of "kindness," and eventually a little bit of triumph,  Right beside the big ThyssenKrupp Bilstein sign stands the CEO Fabian Schmahl, who gave a great speech and then handed each new employee their uniforms.    
 
Without employment, this process on all sides would have never happened.  It was not a Utopian moment, as much as a simply joyous one.  Which is probably a lot better, at least from my point of view.