Thursday, October 27, 2016
BY STACY ALAIMO
University of Texas at Arlington
The final weeks of the 2016 U.S. presidential election have become a lewd circus. Complex, urgent issues such as climate change have been upstaged by rude outbursts—“you’re a puppet!,”“such a nasty woman.” It is difficult to imagine these scenes could have anything at all to do with climate change or other environmental crises, and yet the mode of masculinity on display, is, I would argue, a “carbon-heavy masculinity,” a gendered style that contributes to increasing CO2 emissions. This exaggerated form of masculinity is recognizable in the U.S. as a familiar type of tough-guy bravado, but during a time of concern about terrorism, immigration, and economic inequality, the style—which can be performed by people of any sex or gender—is not just individual but political, even nationalistic, with wide-ranging implications.
After 9/11, during a transitional time when the majority of U.S. citizens finally began to believe that global warming was real, modes of carbon-heavy masculinity intensified. Living in Texas, I’ve noticed trucks and SUVs getting bigger and bigger as they tower over my Prius. Many trucks now sport aggressive front grilles and threatening weapon-like cones jutting out from the wheels. I’ve laughed at the spectacle of large metal “testicles” strapped to trailer hitches and have spotted a few jacked-up trucks “rolling coal”—spewing extra and extra black exhaust from their oversized smokestacks. Just last night, driving on an already hazardous freeway, we were enveloped in dense smoke that made it impossible to see where we were going. Rolling coal enthusiasts defy the EPA, the “liberal climate change conspiracy,” and government regulations in general, as they spend thousands of dollars to produce smoky spectacles. Coal rollers delight in a sense of libertarian freedom injected with a bit of violence. While women, as well as men, may inhabit these mammoth vehicles, YouTube videos such as “Rolling Coal on Hot Babe” display misogyny, as they revel in covering a woman in a bikini with black smoke. One meme illustrated with a picture of a Prius on the top and a picture of trucks on the bottom says, “You keep your fuel mileage. We’ll keep our manhood.” Even stroller pushers can hold on to their manhood with the colossal “vRS Mega Man-Pram.” While these particular modes of carbon-heavy masculinity might seem extreme, they exist on a spectrum with more “normal” sights—freeways lined with giant SUVs and suburban “hummer” assault vehicles, gated communities, and McMansions functioning as fortresses for families that can afford them. The reaction to a more frightening world is to aggressively shore up borders—of the nation, the home, the vehicle, and the self. Domestic militarism involves not only arming oneself but armoring oneself with layers of protective gear. The climate change implications are obvious, as larger homes and larger vehicles leave bigger carbon footprints.
Many environmental movements and feminist movements, on the other hand, occupy a sense of the self as exposed to environmental and other harms. When the already infamous video clip of the presidential candidate discussing how he grabs women’s genitals was released, women on social media told their own stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment, exposing these incidents as a mode of political solidarity. And terrific cross-species memes exploded—with furry and fierce feline images: “Pussy grabs back,” “Pussy Votes,” and more. Against carbon-heavy masculinity, which asserts a tough exterior and strong borders, would be what I call “insurgent vulnerability,” in which we occupy a queer permeability as a potent political stance. Refusing to tow the line of capitalist individualism in which each citizen is expected to purchase the proper accoutrements for their own protection, some people search for a more collective and ethical sense of embodiment.
Environmental justice, environmental health, climate change, plastic pollution, and other movements stress that the human is “trans-corporeal,” inseparable from substances and materials that cross through bodies and environments. Thinking of oneself as utterly exposed to toxins and climates makes environmentalism something that is always as close as one’s own skin, something that is not optional, as no amount of armor can shield us from carcinogens or hurricanes. These exposures are terribly differential, however, as money can buy some protections—the most economically disadvantaged are almost always the most vulnerable to environmental risk and harm. Yet to occupy or perform exposure—even when exposures are unequally distributed—can be a form of political alliance. To occupy exposure as a political or ethical stance entails tracing how we are implicated in global systems of injustice, inequality, and what Rob Nixon has called “slow violence.” Even the most ordinary activities of daily life in industrialized countries—using a cell phone, driving a car, drinking bottled water—are part of global systems of extraction, production, pollution, and disposal that affect countless human lives, animal lives, and ecological systems. To occupy exposure is to directly engage in less harmful practices and to demand large-scale change.
Cartoonish versions of carbon-heavy masculinity would seem to invoke a gendered binary where women pose as the “angels in the ecosystem,” in Val Plumwood’s vivid phrase. Any one, male or female, can occupy those modes of masculinity, however, and anyone, male, female, or genderqueer can engage in modes of being that are less gender normative and less harmful to the planet. People of all sorts of genders delight in improvising alternatives to aggressive, carbon-heavy hypermasculinity. But it is also important to credit the long legacy of feminist and queer art, activism, and thought that have critiqued dominant modes of masculinity and have created so many rich, lively, dazzling alternatives.
Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasure in Posthuman Times features surprisingly playful, parodic, humorous, even psychedelic modes of occupying exposure as an ethics and politics, such as La Tigresa who—barebreasted—shouts poetry at loggers to persuade them to stop chopping down the old growth forests. In various demonstrations around the world “alphabodies” place their flesh in contact with ice, snow, or scratchy fields to spell out “No War,” “No GM” or other slogans. One Plastic Pollution activist video features a plastic bag gone rogue, rambling across the landscape accompanied by plucky tunes, provoking us to think about the material agency of discarded objects ("The Ballad of the Plastic Bag"). Another video stages a romantic beach scene where lovers feed each other a plate of seafood that happens to be filled with crunchy and colorful plastic bits ("Plastic Seduction"). Artist Marina Zurkow’s haunting animated video, “Slurb,” shows human, aquatic, and hybrid beings immersed in a post-apocalyptic watery world. The human and humanoid creatures in this video are painted the same aqua hue as the water that surrounds them, stressing the human enmeshment with the flooded, post-climate-change environment. Other visual renderings of aquatic lives include the stunning black and white video of a pteropod shell revolving as it dissolves, dramatizing the effects of ocean acidification. This short but entrancing video recalls the popular icon (think dormroom posters and headshops) of mind-altering practices—the spiral. Psychedelic traditions can be embraced as means of imagining the scale of human effects in the Anthropocene, exposing one’s consciousness across unimaginable depths, rather than enclosing it. To occupy an insurgent sense of exposure means to dwell in the dissolve where “the environment” can never be imagined as external. Rather than shoring up boundaries and borders, environmental consciousness, activism, and the practices of everyday life can begin with the recognition that humans and all other creatures are enmeshed with and exposed to the rapidly changing multi-species world.
Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times, Undomesticated Ground, and Bodily Natures; editor of Matter; and coeditor of Material Feminisms.
"Accessibly written, lucidly argued, and capacious in its ambit, there is so much in this book to savor, to be inspired by, and to provoke."
—Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman
"In addition to the descriptions and analyses of imaginative activism, strange agencies of non-human entities, and the politics of place, Alaimo develops compelling theories of self, action, and being human along the way."
—J. Jack Halberstam, University of Southern California
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
BY RICK SHEFCHIK
We knew Alzheimer’s would take Bobby Vee from us eventually, but it still seems too soon, too much, too unfair.
Wasn’t he just 15?
Didn’t he just step confidently onto that stage in Moorhead and make his first public appearance in place of Buddy Holly?
Didn’t he just reel off a string of Top 10 hits written by Carole King and other Brill Building giants?
Didn’t we just see him a few weeks, a few months, a few years ago, touring with his sons and playing all his familiar favorites?
Isn’t there some way we can freeze time and keep this kind, caring, creative young man eternally with us?
It seems the younger they are when they first burst upon the scene, the quicker they fade out of sight – drugs, booze, sex, scandal, indolence, or an inability to handle all the pressures that fame can thrust upon the famous. But that didn’t happen to Robert Velline of Fargo, North Dakota. He became Bobby Vee, but he never stopped being the nice guy that everybody liked, admired, and thought of as a friend. In some ways, he was always the kid who had to beg his older brother to let him into their basement band, who wrote songs in study hall, who gave young Bob Dylan a chance to play piano in his band, and who somehow beat all the odds and went from, yes, a complete unknown to one of the biggest-selling singers in the U.S.
Bobby Vee seems fixed in our minds as a teenager because that’s exactly what he was when he and The Shadows volunteered to fill in for Buddy Holly at the Winter Dance Party on February 3, 1959, after Holly was killed in a plane crash in Iowa. He was still just 16 when he and the band journeyed to Minneapolis in the spring of 1959 to record his composition “Suzie Baby,” the first rock and roll record recorded at Kay Bank studio and released on Soma records. Just a few months later, he was signed by Liberty Records and moved to Los Angeles, while his classmates were returning to Fargo Central for another year of English composition and algebra.
It was the dawning of the era of the teen idol – Ricky, Frankie, Fabian, and others – and Bobby Vee had the perfect voice to bridge the gap between the hiccuppy rockabilly style of Holly and the smoother pop sounds that began to dominate the radio. The best songwriters of the era – Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach, Jack Keller, Howard Greenfield, Helen Miller – could have placed their songs with anyone, but they frequently turned to young Bobby Vee, knowing he would deliver every nuance and emotion in their material.
Several generations have come and gone since the 18-year-old Vee topped the charts with such great songs as “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Run to Him” – just two years after leaving his midwestern home – but time shouldn’t blunt his remarkable accomplishments. Nor should his ten years on the Top 40 charts be looked at as the defining entry in his curriculum vitae.
Long after his hitmaking days were over, Bobby Vee continued to make huge contributions to his community and to his fraternity of musicians. He had four children with his high-school sweetheart, Karen (they’d been married for 51 years when she passed away last year), and his three sons played in his touring band for decades. He was also a tireless promoter and advisor to his friends in the music business. On his return from a tour of Europe – where he remained a big star into the 1990s and beyond – he informed friend Tony Andreason of the Trashmen that they, too, had a huge following in England, Germany, and France. “You should go over there,” he urged them. They did, to great acclaim and ever-increasing tour schedules. When Bob Lind – singer/songwriter of “Elusive Butterfly” fame – decided he wanted to return to the music business a few years ago, it was Bobby Vee – his first friend in Los Angeles – who spent hours on the phone with him, helping him strategize his comeback.
In a business where being a self-centered hedonist is almost considered part of the definition of success, Bobby Vee was the opposite: humble, loyal, helpful, and decent. No one who worked with him, knew him, or had a chance meeting with him had anything but the kindest words to say about him. To his final days – suffering from an illness that cruelly makes its sufferers forget even the best parts of themselves – Bobby Vee never forgot to treat people with courtesy and respect. He never stopped being that great 15-year-old high school kid who everybody really liked, and who could really sing.
Everybody's Heard about the Bird and From Fields to Fairways.
Monday, October 17, 2016
BY TOBY THOMPSON
My reaction to Bob Dylan’s being awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature is, oddly, less public than private. It’s public in that in 1971 I published the first serious book about Dylan’s life, and since 1969 have written of his work fairly regularly. It’s personal in that Dylan’s lyrics, poetry, and prose have appended themselves to my deepest thoughts at least since college. “College” is key, for those who object to Dylan’s having won this great prize in literature do so from the erroneous position that he is not worthy of academic consideration—as if he and the generation he represents ever have strayed far from campus. That is, campus with a beat.
During the university terms of 1965-66, I, like thousands of other American undergraduates, balanced a rabid interest in literature and art with one as keen in the new music. That music—folk, blues, jazz, rock, and the mongrel, folk-rock—occupied our leisure time. Weeknights were spent reading in the dormitory or at the university library. But weekends were for playing and hearing music, at the coffee house or local bar.
Bob Dylan had done this, from 1959-60, in the coffee houses of Minneapolis’s Dinkytown, “a little [Greenwich] Village,” he wrote in Chronicles, which was adjacent to the University of Minnesota, where he was a freshman. Though he “didn’t go to class,” he claims, he appears not to have flunked out. He played music each night and spent his days reading under the tutelage of figures like Dave Whitaker, “one of the Svengali-type Beats on the scene,” and a hipster guru. Whitaker leant Guthrie’s Bound for Glory to Dylan, and said dismissively of Bob’s coursework that “it was getting in the way of his education.”
Dylan was a cutter—not of flesh, but of classes, umbilically linked to the university but not of it, preferring side channels for the acquisition of knowledge, and aligning himself less with the student body than with a subculture of hangers-on that has a long tradition in college towns. In 1966's Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth, the university professor and novelist, perfectly describes such cutters as belonging to a subclass of “those intentionally marginal souls—underdisciplined, oversensitive, disordered in both appearance and reality—whose huge craving for the state of artisthood may drive them so far in rare instances as actually to work at making pieces of art.”
Hangin’ Round the Ink Well
My senior year at the University of Delaware coincided roughly with Dylan’s recordings of Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, outtakes from which The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 is representative. I recall listening to Bringing it All Back Home with friends in the dorm. At least half of the songs, we thought, were poor rock and roll, with comic references to world history or literature that sounded as if plucked from survey courses. Subterranean Homesick Blues was unique, however, as it addressed both high school and college students’ main concern: how to grow up. Conversely, tracks like “Outlaw Blues,” “Bob Dylan’s 113th Dream,” “On the Road Again,” and even “Maggie’s Farm” were forays into rock that sounded sophomoric and badly played.
Songs that did intrigue were those that would become Dylan classics: “She Belongs to Me,” “Love Minus Zero/ No Limit,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “It’s Alright, Ma,” and of course “Mr. Tambourine Man.” These spoke to different levels of education Dylan had been receiving—not as a cutter in Dinkytown but by “cutting classes” on the larger campus of Greenwich Village.
A conceit of Barth’s postmodern metafiction, Giles Goat-Boy (originally subtitled The New Revised Syllabus of George Giles our Grand Tutor), is a vision of the world as a university close, and his division of it into East Campus and West Campus. GGB is a Cold War novel, anticipating the political strife, religious hysteria, and digital overkill of a later era in skirmishes where all are members of an eternal student body. For Barth, West and East campuses might have been the U.S.-and-West-European bloc versus the Soviet one, or Christianity versus Buddhism, but for Dylan it was Dinkytown versus Greenwich Village.
During the 1960s, the Village had many exciting facets, not the least of which was its role as a hub of artistic endeavor and leftist, political verbiage. But it also contained the campus of New York University. NYU, with its population of students, faculty, commuters, barroom intellectuals, class cutters, and renters (it remains the Village’s largest property owner), contributed mightily to the neighborhood’s culture. Washington Square Park, where folkies gathered to sing, was flanked by NYU buildings and served as a de facto university quad. Dylan sang there, and 161 West Fourth Street, where eventually he lived, was two blocks from NYU’s law school. Despite being, in Al Kooper’s words, “the quintessential New York hipster,” it was as if Bob still were crashed above Gray’s Drugstore in Dinkytown.
His early mentors were Village folkies like Len Chandler, Fred Neil, and Dave van Ronk. He’s careful to cite, in Chronicles, the influence of learned figures like Paul Clayton, Izzy Young, and the perhaps-fabricated Ray Gooch, whose book-lined apartment Bob describes as a miniature university atheneum. Gooch’s flat had “a dark cavern with a floor to ceiling library . . . the place had an overpowering presence of literature and you couldn’t help but lose your passion for dumbness.” There Dylan read assiduously for at least part of each day, and in Chronicles his recitation of titles read or dipped into is like a course list for World Literature. Gooch and Dylan’s other tutors were educated men: Clayton had a PhD in English from the University of Virginia, and van Ronk was well read in history and politics. Dylan was a cutter by inclination, but whether he cut their informal classes is not known.
He had for the most part eschewed academic writing (even “Hard Rain” with its Surrealist-Symbolist take on “Lord Randall” might be excused as hipster wigginess), but on Home, songs like “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” were decidedly English majorish. I had written a term paper for my Modern British and American Poetry class on Dylan’s work through Another Side of Bob Dylan. But these songs were something new. Aside from their generational kick, they spoke to our fiercest literary concerns at university—ones that in ‘65-‘66 were widely shared.
Girl by the Whirlpool
We stood amused by Barth’s postmodern take on Biblical-and-hero’s-journey themes in GGB, but The White Goddess, by British poet and novelist Robert Graves—subtitled A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth—was our touchstone. Graves’s thesis was that to be a poet one must sacrifice all to the muse. She was woman tripartite: maiden, mother, and the crone who laid one out at death. To consort with her one must ultimately die–after being flayed, impaled with a mistletoe stake, and nailed to an oak. All true poems were about the goddess. This was muse worship at its grisliest.
Dylan would give a nod to Graves in Chronicles. “I read The White Goddess [in Gooch’s library], by Robert Graves, too. Invoking the poetic muse was something I didn’t know about yet. Didn’t know enough to start trouble with it, anyway.”
By 1965 he was ready. Lyrics such as “My love she speaks of silence, without ideals of violence / She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, yet she’s true like ice, like fire,” and “You will start out standing, proud to steal her everything she needs ... but you will wind up peeking through her keyhole down upon your knees,” are pure Graves. These lyrics are redolent of academic theorizing; despite his protestations, Dylan respected and respects people of learning. (A Princeton professor is his website’s historian-in-residence, and Bob holds at least two honorary PhDs) The following year he’d sing, “You’ve been with the professors, and they’ve all liked your looks, you’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books,” while acknowledging that in the streets of Juarez, “they got some hungry women there, and they’ll really make a mess out of you.” He’d started his death march away from cutter-chat toward service to the muse.
In ‘60s rock such service might be no more pretentious than hymns like “Oh, Donna” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Or in Dylan’s case, “Queen Jane Approximately” or “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” But on Highway 61—which The New Yorker’s David Remnick called recently “the best rock album ever made”—with the exception of “Desolation Row” and its string of literary/historical references, he’s rescinded academic concerns for a move toward the “mercurial” visions of Blonde on Blonde.
Here Dylan finds his mature voice. Here he moves past the literary posturing of Robert Graves to a pure vision of love and its consequences, in language that is elusive, referential, Dada-istic, absurd, irreverent, Miles-Davis-cool and steeped in mythical allusion. The results are breathtaking.
It’s instructive to watch Dylan via The Cutting Edge negotiate Blonde on Blonde’s stations of the cross. Its preliminary tracks are like penitential drafts of an undergraduate thesis, but Dylan is past any fealty to honors status. He’s moved to an unconscious praising of the muse. Though working in a midnight studio in Nashville, he might as well be, as Graves writes of the goddess, “Seeking her out at the volcano’s head / Among pack ice, or where the track had faded / Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers; / Whose broad high brow was white as any leper’s / Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips / With hair curled honey-colored to her hips ...” On Blonde on Blonde Dylan couches his praise in service to real women–pop goddesses or their rarified superiors, as in “Visions of Johanna” and the incomparable “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
Twenty Years of Schoolin’
Like Dylan, I graduated from university concerns in May of 1966 and spent the summer touring Europe. About then, Barth published the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” in which he predicted the end of literature as we knew it, particularly realistic fiction. Everyone was tired and the decade’s party had hardly begun. Barth was moving toward the fabulism of his first short-story collection, Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. Had he been listening to Bob? Switch “Fiction” to “Songs” in his subtitle and it would fit Blonde. With the late ‘60s looming something was happening and . . . That was how many of us who’d left West and East campuses felt.
In July, I received news of Dylan’s motorcycle crash while reading Graves’ The Greek Myths by the Aegean Sea. First reports were that he was dead; second, crippled for life. In fact, like the fertility kings of that very coast, he was reborn. Or in Barthian terms, he’d abandoned his Greenwich Village campus for the Arcadia of Woodstock. There, as The Cutting Edge predicts, his ascension to emeritus was assured.
No more fitting cutter of academic dross might be found to wear this year’s Nobel laurels.
Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota (UMP), Saloon, and The '60s Report. He is associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. He has also written for numerous magazines including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and Esquire.
"Toby Thompson was there first." —Greil Marcus
"Well worth the attention of anyone who has fallen under the spell of the boy from the North Country." —Los Angeles Times
Thursday, October 13, 2016
Last night, the Press celebrated the launch of Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food, a memoir-cookbook by James Beard Cookbook Hall of Famer, author of 30 cookbooks, and self-described home economist Beatrice Ojakangas. This sold-out event at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis included a conversation with Star Tribune reporter Kim Ode, who writes "Baking Central." One of the evening's finest takeaways? A question about lefse prompted Ojakangas to divulge her potato of choice, the only potato that makes a good lefse: Russet. She does a combination of both ricing and mashing.
|Ojakangas's Cheese Picnic Bread recipe, which won the Second Grand Prize |
at the Pillsbury Bake-Off in 1957, was later changed to "Chunk o' Cheese Bread"
The evening included a sampling of classic Ojakangas recipes: Almond Cardamom Scones, her Pillsbury Bake-Off award-winning Chunk o' Cheese Bread, and Finnish Blueberry Bars. The first two recipes can be found in Homemade; the third is published below. Bon appétit!
Finnish Blueberry Bars (Mustikkapiirakka)
We had a corner of a slightly swampy forty acres that had been burned over—probably in the 1918 forest fire. Many parts of northern Minnesota suffered the same fate, but the prize was that this is where wild blueberries abounded. We had blueberry bushes with so much fruit that we could actually “milk” the berries into a pail. These tiny, juicy, flavorful berries found their way into many treats at our house when in season. We made pancakes and muffins heavy with this juicy fruit of the bush. My aunt Ida was one who had her “secret” patches, too. Here is my favorite recipe for these bars, which could be cut into 1- x 2-inch bars to go with coffee, or into larger 3- or 4-inch squares for dessert.
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
2 cups wild blueberries
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
About 3 tablespoons additional sugar
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease and flour a 12- by 16-inch jelly roll pan.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, and baking powder. Using a fork, blend in the butter until the mixture resembles moist crumbs. With your hands, press the crumbs together to make a dough. Reserve about 1 cup of the dough and roll the rest out on a lightly floured board to fit the jelly roll pan. (This crumbly dough may tear when it is being lifted into the pan, but it can be easily patched by pressing the torn pieces together.) With your fingers, form a ridge around the edge of the dough so that the filling will not run over during baking.
For the filling, pour the blueberries into a small mixing bowl. Mash lightly to produce enough juice to moisten the berry mixture. Stir in the sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest, cornstarch, and salt. Spread the filling over the dough in the pan.
Roll out the reserved portion of dough on a floured board to about ¼-inch thickness. Cut in strips about an inch wide and place in a loose lattice pattern on the filling. Sprinkle the top with additional sugar.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the crust is a light golden-brown. Cool and cut into squares for dessert or into bars for the coffee table.
Makes about 12 desserts or 48 bars.
"Beatrice Ojakangas has long been my personal cookbook hero. This book proves that Beatrice Ojakangas is not only one of this country’s most important food writers, but a national treasure."—Amy Thielen, author of The New Midwestern Table
"Beatrice Ojakangas makes her compelling family stories rich for all senses: we smell the cardamom in the bread cooling on the counter, savor the cream of morel soup, and long for chiffon cake. Best of all, we experience the joy of recreating these flavors ourselves with the recipes she provides. This book is a public service to history as well as to our stomachs."—Lucie Amundsen, co-owner of Locally Laid Egg Company and author of Locally Laid
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
BY ZEKE CALIGIURI
The city of Minneapolis has been like a shadow in my life since my father opened the doors to our family's funky brown Mercury Monarch and introduced me to her. As a kid who was born and raised in her clutches, he was loyal and protective of her. I have never fully understood her moods. She could be loving and progressive and then flip and be violent and cruel. We knew she wasn't always fair, with some parts of the family gaining a greater proportion of her graces than others. She was a bosom for some, and a belt or a switch for others, feeding plenty but starving some, too.
As the great shadow in our lives, she was the place where I met all of the ghosts that lived under bridges or the tunnels of elm trees, and all of the spots hidden in the cut. During summers I retreated into those shadows; in winter they engulfed me. Real life imprinted itself on my heart in those shadows. It always felt like she favored the ghosts more than us.
When we were younger we were all waiting on our moments to step away from our shadows. She wouldn't be the only shadow in my life, and those memories weren't the only ghosts. My relationship to the city brought me to Stillwater, the hundred-year-old prison that blocked the sun from my life for so long. I swear the ghosts here think you are already one of them, they whispered these things into our ears at night. It is easy to become one if you aren't paying attention.
When the Twins won the World Series in '91 we skipped school to go to the parade. While the whole city celebrated, what we saw was the underbelly. At 14, we were more conscious of the fights, and the bombardment of local businesses. It was chaotic. It was also exhilarating.
As a call to the spirit of our activist parents, we were drawn to the Free Mumia rallies at Cedar-Riverside in the mid-nineties. I didn't understand then the politics of confinement, or how it would later be such a central part of my life as I took my place in Minnesota's massive prison population growth. We half-heartedly stumbled into a movement that would become the major themes in ours and our families' lives.
These themes started in the nightmares I had in the old Hennepin County jail and courthouse with the copper-green roof. It was old and cold and you could flush an entire county blanket down one of those toilets. On Sundays and Wednesdays it smelled like orange peels and bologna. Some couldn't eat for days when they came in; others ate everything. Men came in and tried to sleep off the DTs and bargain a way out. Some men carved their names in holding cells so they could recognize themselves every time they came back. Everybody had a version of the city. They told stories forever: about the Southside and the Northside, and every other city we shared those cells with. They talked about lives in juvenile detention and trip after trip to jails and prisons, and wore the armor of men that gave up on conventional lives long before. I slept on a bunk that generations had before me. For as many men as it housed, there were so many more ghosts that spoke to me in those dreams. For as much as I just wanted to get out, they assured me it was only the beginning.
When I went away to prison, like so many other kids of the generation that grew up during that period of the late '80s and through the '90s, many of my friends got their allegiances to our city tattooed on their bodies: Southside and 6-1-2; names of parks and neighborhoods and streets; outlines of the state of Minnesota, with the city's skyline across their backs. The themes often crossed color lines and criminal affiliations. They were wearing in permanent ink what my father was showing me when the door swung open on the Mercury, and the expanse of Powderhorn Park was shown to me. I always planned on getting my own tattoos with my lifelong allegiance to her on display. But when it got time to put her on my flesh, it just didn't mean as much as I once thought it did.
Me and my friends have these conversations about our histories and the ways we remember certain people or places. We speak of how a guy was "a shooter," or "had hands" back in the day; how someone else used to "get money." They are the versions of people we hold onto when the flesh and blood versions of these people have come to disappoint us—just as we have come to disappoint ourselves. We hold onto their ghosts instead.
I have come to understand Minneapolis as a home for coalitions of good people working on behalf of other people, but I also recognize the wealth and educational disparities that so truly exist, that are hallmarks in the lives of the people I have grown up with in prison. Those disparities are themselves ghosts that just haven't seemed to ever go away.
The city has always been that shadow for me. I love my city even though I wasn't always loved back. She gave me a place to say "This is where I come from." It was where I met the people that would shape my world. Their ghosts hover through the streets in Starter jackets and tattoos of the skyline on their necks and backs. They are now in their late 30s or 40s fighting with younger versions of themselves with different names and different costumes over the city's propriety to them.
I wrote my book because I am sure there are still ghosts of myself moving through South Minneapolis. There is a ghost of myself moving through the prison in Stillwater as well. Much in the same way the phantoms of our earlier ideas and expectations still linger about who we are and what the city is to us: a loving mother or an abusive foster home; a first love or a girl that watched you get beat up at the park; an old friend or an unresolved beef; the place where you were most free or a prison where you most were not.
Zeke Caligiuri is author of This Is Where I Am: A Memoir. Caligiuri is the recipient of several awards through the annual PEN Prison Writing Contest. His work has been published in the collection Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates; From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline; and From the Inside Out: Letters to Young Men and Other Writings. He is incarcerated at the Faribault Correctional Facility in Minnesota, where he continues to write.
"An intimate, searing, and important document that makes no excuses for its subject’s life-choices and is all the more powerful for its honesty."—Joyce Carol Oates
"Caligiuri demonstrates a willingness and ability to look back and share his experiences without judgment or ego, which makes for a fascinating and moving account of one man’s incarceration and life." —Booklist