Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sälam Ethiopia

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Nearly two weeks have passed since I returned from a 10 day journey to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the Crossing Boundaries Festival & Conference with members of the Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT). The festival and conference were organized by the Ethiopian Theatre Professionals Association, Addis Ababa University College of Performing & Visual Arts, and Sundance Institute East Africa Theater Program Alumni. This is my travelogue.

8am, Monday, September 21, Frankfurt:  On layover here via Chicago, en route to Jeddah and Addis Ababa – 12 more hours. We left Minneapolis-St. Paul at 11:20am, Sunday. ADT received the invitation to Crossing Boundaries nearly two years ago. Just three weeks ago, we learned that the U.S. State Department would sponsor our journey. 

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from Mount Entoto • James Davies
Within days of that news, I learned that a friend would walk El Camino de Santiago across northern Spain (her journey is now underway). I wept while reading of her plans, as the possibility of that trek has rested in my soul since seeing Martin Sheen's film "The Way" several years ago. I follow Karen's walk from her daily Facebook posts, and just watched a documentary during the flight here about six other people's Camino.

Two days ago, Glenn, a dance administrator friend in San Francisco, posted video of a sermon by an Episcopal priest at Grace Cathedral who related the journey of his first sojourn at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.

My life with dance these past 35 years has combined politics, the spiritual, commerce, and creative expression. I view dancers and choreographers as priests and priestesses, working in their temples to touch on aspects of the sacred and the divine.

Each of the four dance companies I have managed has been progressively like the peeling of a flower, fruit, or vegetable to get at the essence of the universe's energy and truth. This journey to Ethiopia is part of the peeling, as we bring our performance offering of "Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine" and prepare to immerse in the works of other artists from other realms.

U.S. Ambassador Patricia Haslach and members of Ananya Dance Theatre,
Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, September 24, 2015 • U.S. Embassy Ethiopia
11:55pm, Monday, September 21, Addis Ababa:  We arrived at 8:40pm, five minutes ahead of Lufthansa's schedule. The visa line at Bole International Airport seemed long but was not. Members of the U.S. Embassy staff and organizers of Crossing Boundaries met us with flowers, warm greetings, and transport to the Washington Hotel. We held a whirlwind planning and organization meeting in the hotel lobby.

We will be at the American embassy tomorrow morning, meeting with women from the Yellow Movement group, an initiative by women at Addis Ababa University (AAU) to speak up for women’s and girls’ rights. It was started two and half years ago to campaign for better protection of women from gender-based violence. In the afternoon, we will be with dancers and others at AAU.

Festival organizers tell us there will be an audience of 1,200 for Friday's "Roktim" performance at the Ethiopian National Theatre. With that many people, we cannot present the first act of “Roktim” outside the theater, or in its lobby, as we did at the world premiere at The O'Shaughnessy just three days ago. We will have to “take it inside” the theater where acts two through four will be staged more traditionally.

These were the first air flights ever for one member of our traveling party, a dancer who is now a seasoned traveler. At breakfast in the Frankfurt airport this morning, an international business traveler joined our group for conversation; before leaving, he paid for everyone's breakfast, invited the company to perform in Toronto, and donated a 500 Euro note to our coffers! ​

James Davies & Gary Peterson with "Lucy"
Ethiopian National Museum, September 26, 2015 • Ayu Shashe
6:15am Wednesday, September 23, Addis Ababa:  At different times we have referred to visiting Ethiopia as “returning to the Mother Country.” Our path through the city yesterday morning took us past the Ethiopian National Museum, holding the 3.5 million year old remains of Lucy, the mother of us all. There may not be time this trip to visit the museum, but we now know where it is. We also passed the sprawling grounds of the Menelik Palace, former home of Ethiopia's emperors, and the AAU campus.

At the U.S. Embassy yesterday, we engaged in three hours of conversation and movement dialogue with 14 women, all law students from AAU. These 14 are part of a core group of 20-30 members of the Yellow Movement, AAU students who meet weekly and hold weekly public activities on campus to raise awareness of, and to change attitudes and behaviors that result in violence against women. Like artists and others who labor in the unsung shadows, they often find little external support for their efforts, and some of our conversation focused on the value and power of individual efforts to change the world.

A year ago, ADT unveiled its new website after a year of planning and development. The value and power of that effort was on display as we called up text, photos, and videos over the Internet to facilitate our discussion. Many constraints on women's roles in the world are rooted in issues related to sexuality, and candid conversation covered those, including the need to lift one's internal constraints.

Learned Dees, Cultural Affairs Officer,
U.S. Embassy, and Gary Peterson
Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa • James Davies
Talk about the search to find one's voice led to an exercise that included mass screaming at top pitch within the safety of the group. This unexpected noise prompted two embassy staffers to enter the conference room for closer observation. The following discussion illuminated the difficulties of exploring and finding the limits and full power of one's personal voice and how that is reflected in our bodies. Yet another movement exercise illustrated the ways we can influence – and be influenced by – others in our daily observations. Conversation continued for more than an hour more over lunch, hosted by the Embassy.

Without being political in relating it, one of Hillary Clinton's legacies as secretary of state was embedding into the U.S. foreign policy establishment a central awareness and conscious promotion of women's rights and issues around the world, in whatever forms might be appropriate by time and locale.

The embassy employs 1,200 people. Photos are not permitted of the exterior or interior, and all visitors’ electronics must be checked at the first of several security checkpoints in the compound.

Ananya Dance Theatre at Crossing Boundaries opening ceremonies
National Theatre, Addis Ababa, September 24, 2015 • Crossing Boundaries Ethiopia
Tuesday afternoon, we proceeded to 2-1/2 hours of meet-up with representatives of Ethiopian dance ensembles, including the Destino Dance Company, established to help underprivileged young people develop their potential through dance. After rounds of verbal introductions and movement sharing, each group learned two movement phrases of the other and put them together into a four-minute dance.

Jet lag began to hit as evening arrived, and we took crash time before meeting to discuss how we would master today the logistics of the two spaces where we will perform: the embassy's reception for the local and international community, and the keynote performance at Crossing Boundaries Festival. Dancers crowded into and were rehearsing, standing "in place," in one of our hotel rooms at 10pm last night.

This morning, we will meet with graduate students in theater at AAU, followed by visits to take the measure of the two performance sites. Later in the afternoon, Ananya Chatterjea, ADT’s artistic director, will return to the American embassy for an hour-long interactive interview on Facebook.

Addis Ababa is home to about 4.5 million of the country's 96 million people. In altitude, it is third highest capital city in the world at ~7,500 feet. The city is built in a mountainous valley. Construction activity is everywhere. Today is a Muslim holiday, but the country is predominantly orthodox Christian. In fact, for Christian religious reasons, the national calendar was changed recently and the current year is 2008. About 2% of the population attends college. I have been told that college is free.

Lobby of Ethiopian National Theatre, Addis Ababa
1:15am, Thursday, September 24, Addis Ababa: This is a photo of the lobby of the Ethiopian National Theatre where we will perform on Friday evening. It was originally known as the Haile Selassie I Theater when it opened in 1955 for the silver jubilee of the reign of The Conquering Lion of The Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Elect of God. Legend traces Selassie's lineage to Makeda, Queen of Sheba, whose affair with King Solomon produced the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty. They don't make emperors any more, nor theaters that look like this!

Earlier in the day, Wednesday, we conducted a workshop with faculty and students from the graduate theater program at AAU’s Cultural Arts Center, located on the grounds of one of Selassie's former palaces, which he donated to the university. Also on the grounds is the J. F. Kennedy Memorial Library for which Robert Kennedy laid the corner stone and Rose Kennedy attended the opening.

Haile Selassie's throne at
Ethiopian National Theatre
Selassie was an internationalist, and Ethiopia was a charter member of the United Nations. His long and storied life provides food for much reading.

Access to university education is by national exam. University education is free. In addition, the government provides ~$16,000 to each student over the course of four years. This must be repaid after graduation. Amharic is Ethiopia's main language. English is used mainly at university levels. The government is encouraging more use of English at elementary school levels.

Wednesday afternoon, we visited the Hilton Hotel for a spacing rehearsal and sound check in the ballroom where we will perform Thursday evening at a U.S. Embassy reception.

Later, we got in 45 minutes of street market shopping while Chatterjea and dancer Hui Wilcox answered questions with local residents on Facebook.

Tomorrow (this) morning starts early. The van arrives at 8:30 to take us to our rehearsal at the National Theater for Friday evening's performance. The dancers rehearsed in our hotel ballroom until 11pm tonight.​

Post-performance joy at Totot Traditional Restaurant
Addis Ababa, September 25, 2015 • Andrea Reynolds
2am, Friday, September 25, Addis Ababa: An arduous technical rehearsal at the National Theater from 9am to 2pm on Thursday. It is a magnificent and resonant space, but none of us speak Amharic, and only one of the theater’s people speaks English! Working out spacing with light and sound cues was productive but tedious. One of the crew members let James Davies into the emperor’s box, which Davies described as “a haunting space unused since Haile Selassie was removed as emperor in 1974. The theater was built in 1955 to celebrate his 25-year anniversary as emperor. His red throne remains, in perfect condition, after all these years.”

Late Thursday afternoon, ADT performed at a reception for alumni of educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Ethiopia, at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa. The reception was hosted by the U.S. Embassy as part of a month-long series of activities celebrating 75 years of U.S.-Ethiopia educational and cultural exchanges.

James Davies and Gary Peterson
Totot Traditional Restaurant, Addis Ababa
David Kennedy, the embassy’s Public Affairs Officer, introduced Ambassador Patricia Haslach, who delivered welcoming remarks.

Learned Dees, a native of Burnsville, Minnesota, and the embassy’s Cultural Affairs Officer, introduced ADT and its 15-minute performance.

The performance included a sung poem linking the Mississippi and Nile rivers, and dancers circulating throughout the ballroom inviting attendees to “Dance with us!” Many, including Ambassador Haslach, did so.

Reception attendees included Mulatu Astatke, the “godfather of Ethiopian jazz.”

Following the reception, Chatterjea and the company appeared on stage at the opening ceremonies of the Crossing Boundaries Festival & Conference, held at the Ethiopian National Theatre.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia • James Davies
12am, Saturday, September 26, Addis Ababa:  Following four hours of focused rehearsal, ADT presented the festival’s keynote performance, “Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine,” at the National on Friday evening, September 25. The audience provided a standing ovation afterward. “Roktim” had received its world premiere just a week earlier, September 19, at The O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul. 

Amin Abdulkadir, Ethiopia’s Minister of Culture & Tourism, attended the performance and hosted all festival performers and their traveling parties afterward at a dinner at the Totot Traditional Restaurant. Artists from 11 countries vied to outdo each other in an extended dance to live music on the restaurant’s stage.

Meskel Square (in one direction), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, September 27, 2015 • James Davies
11:30pm, Sunday, September 27, Addis Ababa:  A heavy cloud and smell of wood smoke hang over much of Addis tonight in the aftermath of the Meskel festival bonfires all over the city. Davies and I, with our new friend Ayu Shashe, arrived at Meskel Square around 4pm and stood for three hours waiting for the city's main bonfire to be lit as nearly 700,000 people assembled reverently. As dusk descended, and a full moon rose low in a cloudless sky, a sea of candles flickered. The annual festival hearkens to Saint Helena's efforts to find the "True Cross" on which Christ was crucified. Orthodox Christian faith traditions hold sway here, with adherents from about 50% of the population.

Earlier today, the three of us attended services at St. Matthew's Anglican Church on Queen Elizabeth Street. The sermon was the most clarifying I have ever heard about the Biblical book of Revelation. During church coffee hour, an ex-pat from South Africa, who has lived here for 12 years, told us he has never heard of major street crime occurring here, just the routine of pick pocketing in crowded, close quarters. That jives with a week's worth of observations: no firearms, even among most of the military and police units. Amazingly, we also see no road rage among a pedestrian and vehicular population that shares the streets in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Collectively, they have it worked out. I am not sure we Americans know how to learn from them about working some of these things out.

Members of Ananya Dance Theatre at
Church of Saint Elias, Addis Ababa
September 28, 2015 • Gary Peterson
Our embassy motor pool transport ended with our Friday evening performance, and with it the projected sense of American power and privilege. Riding around town in a van bearing an "American Embassy" emblem on the windshield opens doors, raises security gate arms, and makes way on closed roads. For the weekend, the Crossing Boundaries Festival provided some group transportation.

An atmosphere of security pervades much of the city. The routine entering of any hotel, including one's own, requires the x-raying of all bags and passage through metal detectors.

On Saturday, the company attended conference plenary sessions at the Goethe Institute on the AAU campus. Chatterjea participated in a roundtable discussion, “Movement, Ideas and Bodies,” with Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, Ph.D., Director of AAU’s Gebre Kristos Desta Center, and Mshaï Mwangola, Ph.D., Research and Communications Officer, The African Peacebuilding Network Hub (APN-Hub).

While my colleagues were so occupied, Shashe and his friend Hanuk accompanied Davies and me up Mount Entoto. We visited six churches (including the Church of Saint Raquel and Church of Saint Elias), the palace of Menelik II, the Ethiopian National Museum (where one exits the car for pat down before driving onto the grounds and, where we visited the 3.5 million year old remains of Lucy), and Holy Trinity Cathedral, where we prayed at the tomb of Haile Selassie. We had lunch at the Lucy Restaurant.

Members of Ananya Dance Theatre, Yellow Movement, and staff of ASWAD,
a shelter for women and children, Addis Ababa, September 28, 2015 • Blen Sahilu
Saturday evening, we attended a play by The Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Theater at the National, followed by a Food Art Performance by Konjit Siyoum at the Asni Gallery. Davies, Chatterjea, and I made a late night visit to see Mulatu Astatke at his Ethio Jazz Village. He had attended both of our performances, and we wanted to return the favor. The rest of our group ended the evening at the Fendika club of dancer Melaku Belay.

Sunday brought a mix of conference and non-conference events. Three of our party left for the airport this evening to return home. The remaining 10 of us leave Monday evening, after the dancers travel up the mountain to sight-see, and after members of the Yellow Movement take the company to visit the women and girls of ASWAD, a shelter for women and child survivors of gender based violence.

Hanuk and Ayu Shashe, National Museum
Addis Ababa, September 26, 2015 • James Davies
In our outing to Merkel Square today, Davies, Shashe, and I parked about a mile away and walked through back streets and alleys of town both in daylight and in darkness. Shashe was born here and drives people all over town every day, so there are few shortcuts and passages he does not know. It was a great way to experience the city up close at ground level.

I love it here and I feel sad to leave.

We did accomplish what we came to do: represent the United States at an international arts festival and conference with the new faces of our state and country. We succeeded extremely well and have forged indelible memories, embryonic relationships, and new opportunities for the future.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Violent death, violent life and the ties that bind

This commentary was published by the Star Tribune newspaper, November 3, 1992. It was originally broadcast on KFAI FM in Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 1, 1992.

By Gary Peterson

Whatever Earl Craig and Jayme Starkey were looking for when their paths crossed on Hennepin Av. last January, it has turned into a terrible waste of two lives. One is dead and the other has been sentenced at age 19 to 25-1/2 years in prison. I can't help but wonder how and why these things keep happening.

I wonder, too, about the Minneapolis cop who was killed. Someone shot him in the back for no reason at all. He was shot in a pizza joint on Lake St. in Minneapolis, where cops have gathered for over 25 years and where they felt safe, because it was their place. They've been out looking for the guys that did it. 

While thinking about that, I remembered the summer when Joel Larson, John Chenoweth and Cord Draszt were shot. Larson and Chenoweth died. Jay Johnson pleaded guilty to all of it. The three were shot for no reason at all, and in places where gays have gathered for years. Gays felt fairly safe in those places because they were our places.

Other people get shot all the time, usually for no reason at all. I try to look for answers by listening to the stories of people I know and meet. I meet a lot of people: gay, straight, white and black. Most could never dream of pulling a trigger. At least, I hope that's true. 

I wonder how it is that we manage to be so violent to each other. And there are so many other ways we violate the bonds of our humanity.

In relationships, many of us beat each other up – for no real reason either. Often, in relying on the assumed kindness of family, friends, and strangers, we find ourselves verbally assaulted in the privacy of our homes, where we work, and out on the streets. 

We even assault ourselves and each other in the debate and discourse of our public life. We are told we must put up with negative political campaigns because candidates fear that they might lose something important if they don't get personal and dirty.

The dignity and civility that should inform our words and actions seems to be missing more often than not.

I regularly spend time at night walking around Fair Oaks Park near my house in Minneapolis. I use the walks as my thinking time and as my alone time. Usually, I am the only person in the park. Once in a while, I encounter another person.

I encountered a young man there one night last spring. He was black and he went out of his way to approach me.

He just wanted to talk. And so we did. Actually, he did most of the talking. Turns out he was homeless and lives on the streets.

While he was telling me his story, another young man approached. This second man, too, was black. This new person clearly did not want to talk to us, and gripped the pocket of his jacket as he sailed on by.

"Did you see that?" asked my conversation partner. "He's packing a gun."

I had seen it, and I was trying to pretend to myself that I hadn't.

"I could never carry a gun around with me," my new friend said. "'Cause man, I don't need to. I've got my own weapon right here," he said, tapping his pocket. "Here, let me show you."

About that time, I was asking myself why I was still standing there, but I didn't move. "That's all right," I told him. "I don't need to see your weapon."

"But I want to show you – here."

Out of his pocket he fished a small book. It was one of those New Testament Bibles. "This is all the weapon I need," he told me. "It gets me through a lot of stuff."

He talked about that. And he talked about what it's like living on the streets.

"You have no idea what it's like out here," he said. "It gets so tough. Sometimes, it all builds up inside, and I just don't know what to do. Man, I just don't know what to do. This might sound kinda weird, man, but can I cry on your shoulder – just for a minute? Can I cry on your shoulder?"

I thought, "You've got to be kidding." But he wasn't. And he did. 

I cannot tell you how humbling that was.

When we went our separate ways, I was wondering how these things happen. 

Since that time, I have had two other conversations in the park with black men. One of them guessed that I was gay without my telling him, and he observed that if he had a house and family, it would be nice if we could come over to each other's place for supper. I allowed as how that would be nice.

The third guy made me promise to do a favor before I went on my way. "Dude," he told me, "I may never get myself together enough to change anything in my life. And I don't know who you are and what you can do either. But I can tell by looking at you that you've got it all over me. If, sometime, you ever get a chance to just say a word – please – we're out here. Tell them."

I've been thinking about those young black men. Black men in Minneapolis are feeling a lot of fear and anger as police search for the murderers of Officer Jerry Haaf. The cops are feeling angry and unsafe too. Some who have had less-than-ideal interactions with cops might be tempted to say, "It's about time, they deserve to feel fearful." But I don't think so. Cops are people, too. And they have their own stories.

My brother-in-law is a cop.

Five years ago, when he married my baby sister, my partner, James, and I attended the ceremony up in Fridley. It was kind of a hurried affair for James and me. After church we were driving to the airport to fly down to Washington for a gay rights march.

While we were at the church, it came time to do the thing with family pictures. James and I had already settled the picture and other issues with his family, and I had been in three family photos taken at weddings in his hometown church. But for my people, it was a new deal, and everyone felt awkward and silent as we lined up for the photographer, with James standing across the room from us.

I felt like I should say something, but I didn't know what to say or whom to say it to. And I didn't want to mar the occasion.

It was Steve, the cop, who broke the ice and called to James to come over to our side of the room where he belonged for the photo. It was the cop who found his voice when the rest of us did not.

We might remember the big things in life better, but it's the little things that really matter.

Like the day we sat in a high school assembly back in 1968, and it was announced that a former classmate had been killed in Vietnam. I thought about him when they were dedicating the Vietnam memorial in St. Paul.

James and I looked his name up on the Wall when we were in Washington five years ago. We had had a great time at the march and the speeches were all wonderful. And the AIDS Quilt, which was unrolled for the first time, left us wondering how this could happen and when it would end.

As the day wore on, it got cloudy and very cold, when we found his name. And as I stood crying in front of the Wall and thinking about that damn war and how much trouble it had caused, I wondered how all this could happen.

I didn't know then, and I still don't know now.

I'm carrying on about all this because, somehow, it all feels connected.

We're all in this mess of a life together. Sometimes, you wouldn't know it when we see or read about what awful things we say and do to each other. And I wonder how it happens, and what it all means.

And, sometimes, I just have to tell it all to a friend, and hope the friend will hear it, and hope that they'll somehow understand it and make sense of it. And hope that the telling might somehow make it better.

Gary Peterson is producer and host of "Fresh Fruit," a radio program serving the Twin Cities gay community, and broadcast Thursdays, 7pm, on KFAI-FM.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Where the trouble is" in race, class, and culture

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Today is a gorgeous, balmy day. One to be savored while reflecting about urban life, race, class, and culture.

Riding the Metro Transit Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to the University of Minnesota this morning, I sat behind two, retired white matrons from Edina. They had come downtown and were on an adventure to downtown St. Paul. One of them observed that she once came downtown for an interesting walk around a few blocks during the farmers' market.

Perfectly pleasant folks.

As the train approached the mammoth construction of the new Vikings stadium, one wondered, "What apartment buildings are they putting up now?"

"Did you see that Edina has more than 6,000 apartment units?"

"Yes, and there was that hearing last night about that place they want to build for wayward youth. I didn't go over, but I watched it on television. It started at 7pm and was still going on at 12:30am."

"One is for it and another is against it?"

"Pretty much."

"So, what is this thing here?"

I leaned forward and told them it is the new Vikings stadium. 

"Well look at that. This where that is. Just huge. Thank you for telling us."

Rounding a bend a few blocks further on, both women pointed to the towers of the Cedar Riverside apartment complex. I lived there years ago.

"Look, there. That's where all the trouble is. The Somalis."

"Yes. Shootings, killings, murders. And they put them all together!"

"We are really seeing a lot, and we still have a long way to go."

My stop was next. I exited, fighting tears. My heart does not want to bleed anymore. It is amazing how much insight one can gain from less than five minutes of overheard conversation. 

I suppose these people have a right to shelter themselves and their world views, but I do not understand it. 

These two reside in one of our most affluent suburbs. Traditionally, no more than a few apartment buildings were welcomed there, so it can be a bit of culture shock for many of them to find 6,000 in their midst.

The project they referenced which was the subject of last night's public hearing is not for "wayward" youth but "homeless" youth. There is much more than a semantic, dime's worth of difference between the two for anyone who has an interest in asking a few questions. The reason the project is proposed for Edina is because that's where the homeless youth are – these are their children, and there is nothing wrong with most of them.

For all its visibility and the complaints about the public cost of the Vikings stadium, one of the most expensive public projects in state history, these two individuals did now know where it was located. 

However, they definitely thought they knew "where all the trouble is."

Because they have become able to ignore the violence that happens behind closed doors and even on the streets of Edina that does not get reported. I could give voice to numerous, ugly stereotypes about Edina and the "kind" of people who live there, but life is too short. 

I can imagine how their conversation probably continued as they passed through an even more diverse set of communities stretched out along the length of the Green Line, but life is too short.

I hope they had a nice lunch in St. Paul.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Minneapolis artists, others: Vote for Rep. Phyllis Kahn in August 12 primary election

Minneapolis, Minnesota

A shibboleth of politics that also applies to life, business, and love holds that “You dance with the ones that brought you.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, center, with Rep. Karen Clark, left.
Minneapolis voters in Legislative District 60B have an interesting choice in the DFL Party primary election, August 12. Interesting, but clear. Voters – particularly artists – should mark their ballots for Phyllis Kahn.

Kahn has organized the dance, engaged the orchestra, mailed the invitations, and beat the bushes to make sure folks attend the party. Born in Brooklyn, New York, educated at Cornell, Yale, and Harvard, and now living on Nicollet Island, she has led with intellectual vigor, political savvy, and fierce engagement on the district's major issues since her first election in 1972.

In 1974, during her campaign for re-election, she could be found at the campaign office of Wes Skoglund, a candidate for the Minnesota Legislature whose opponent was the former mayor, Charlie Stenvig. On one occasion, we were stuffing envelopes together when she told me "Either smoke that cigarette or put it out!" I quickly took a final drag and snuffed it out.

Kahn and Skoglund both won that year and, in 1975, she served successfully as chief author of the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act that restricted smoking in public places.

Since then, she has shepherded laws into existence to protect the environment; promote rights and opportunities for women, the dispossessed, and the marginalized; prohibit discrimination based on age and disability; establish gender equity in athletics; and much more.

In 1983, my roommates – Larry Mathias and Jon Hove – and I hosted a canvassing event for Brian Coyle's campaign for the Minneapolis City Council from our 23rd floor apartment in the West Bank neighborhood. Kahn organized and showed up with food to feed the political foot soldiers who went door-to-door delivering campaign literature. Coyle won his first of three terms that year, becoming the council's first openly gay member.

Among other committee assignments, Kahn chairs the House Legacy Committee, providing oversight and maintaining enabling legislation for the constitutional amendment passed by Minnesota voters in 2008 to fund arts and culture, the environment and natural resources, clean water, outdoor heritage, and parks and trails.

Her support for the arts has been second to none among her legislative peers. Personally, she and her family have patronized the Walker Art Center, Weisman Museum, Mixed Blood Theater, "and many more." The many more include long-standing patronage of The Southern Theater and its artists in the Seven Corners District of the West Bank neighborhood.

In 2011, when I served as the Southern's director amid a financial meltdown resulting from years of mismanagement, some of the Southern's friends ducked for cover while others spit tacks of blame. Phyllis and Donald Kahn stood by us strongly, asking only how they could help. They responded promptly and generously, as they had before that crisis and as they have since.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn
I do not need newcomers telling me that Phyllis Kahn is out of touch or ineffective. They simply do not know what they are talking about. Her legislative seniority alone provides more power for progressive minded people – and the issues important to them – than do all of her opponent's good intentions to hit the ground running if elected.

There is much to like about her opponent, Mohamud Noor. A native of Somalia who arrived in Minneapolis 15 years ago, Noor set about earning a degree in computer science from Metropolitan State University and resides with his family, currently, in the Seward neighborhood. 

He serves as interim executive director of the Confederation of Somalia Community in Minnesota, located in the West Bank's Brian Coyle Community Center, and gained his first foothold in public office by appointment to fill a vacancy on the Minneapolis School Board only last December. 

I do not live or have a vote in District 60B, and would welcome an opportunity to vote for Mr. Noor for another office in days to come.

That said, the best candidate to represent the DFL Party in November's general election is Phyllis Kahn. The primary election happens Tuesday, August 12, at the polls. No-excuse-absentee-voting is happening now. People can register online or by mail. Find more information here.

If you live in District 60B, vote for the one who brought you: Phyllis Kahn. If you do not live there, pass the word to your friends who do.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Déjà vu in Twin Cities' Southwest LRT debate

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Discussion and drama surrounding the routing of the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line in the Twin Cities reminds me of the freeway that was proposed for Minneapolis' Hiawatha Avenue in the 1960s, the increased resistance of the south side neighborhoods to the depressed ditch in which such a freeway would have been laid out and constructed, and the emergent support for a boulevard-and-LRT alternative.

Then, as now, experts, interest groups, and politicians at the city, county, state, and federal levels had studied, run their numbers, and shaped the terms of the debate for years. It was not a strong suit of these folks back then to hear and incorporate input from the people who would be impacted most by any construction. Nor did they exhibit any propensity to imagine or consider meaningful alternatives.

At a point in 1975, when most of the skids appeared to have been greased and the possibilities for alternatives seemed lost, the southern neighborhoods sent busloads of people to downtown Minneapolis late on a winter's night to meet with Congressman Donald Fraser in a late effort to obtain any kind of intervention on behalf of city residents. The time and place for that meeting were the only ones that bureaucrats insisted could be found for a meeting with the congressman.

Eventually, the congressional appropriation for a freeway-only option on Hiawatha was stopped or ameliorated, and additional years of study and carrying on at all levels finally resulted in completion of a boulevard-and-LRT alternative when the Hiawatha LRT line opened in 2005. At 40 years, it was possibly the most-planned project in Minnesota history. For at least 25 of those years, we were warned repeatedly that the federal funds in support of any project along the Hiawatha corridor were going to go away. They possibly did, several times.

If we need to delay the Southwest LRT line by five-to-10 more years in order to get it right, the world will not end. Nor will federal funding disappear forever and all time.

The line should be routed and run where the people are, and not where we hope they might be someday. We should build the line south from downtown on Nicollet Mall/Avenue to Lake Street, then west to Uptown, and thence southwest to Eden Prairie.

Couple this construction with the forever-taking-proposals to rid the civic landscape of the K-Mart store at Nicollet and Lake that has closed off one of our major thoroughfares since the 1970s. That would allow for the future possibility of an LRT line that continued down Nicollet and across the Minnesota River to Burnsville and Lakeville.

Alternatively, route a Southwest LRT line south to Eden Prairie from somewhere on West Lake Street. Then, if the presently proposed streetcars prove to be all that hot-n-tot, they can be used to connect the Southwest line at West Lake to the downtown portions that run on the Hiawatha, Central, and (proposed) Bottineau corridors. 

We really don't need to screw up the ecosystem of the Minneapolis lakes along the presently proposed Kenilworth Corridor with either deep or shallow tunnels. Plus, the folks who live around those lakes pay some of the highest property taxes in town to Minneapolis and Hennepin County, and we need all of their money to run those units of government.

It took 40 years to change our collective group think and intellectual infrastructure about freeways and LRT. We have not devoted, and it will not take, anything near 40 years to think through the newer challenges posed by the Southwest LRT line and get them right.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Festivus Camelus XXXV

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Claudia Dromedarius • Dec. 7, 2013
Such joy! It felt so good to see her again after our first meeting five years ago.

Her name is Claudia. She is beautiful, embodying and confirming hopes and dreams that everything is possible. Her first visit, December 6, 2008, had delighted as much as it had startled: Neither she nor any of her relatives had attended the previous gatherings, held for 29 consecutive years on the first Saturday of December in a tony neighborhood of Minneapolis. While not prepared for it, members of the clan took her appearance on the scene in stride, feeling a brimming excitement and joy that she had finally joined them.

She was taller and classier than some had imagined her to be, and her pouting mouth, long eyelashes, and long neck – moving with an easy grace – lent an air of affectionate assurance and captivating charisma. A temperature in the single digits, accompanied by wind gusts to 38 mph, turned her exhalations steamy.

Still, she stood on the front lawn for two hours in the new snow that night, greeting guests with a gentle familiarity that suggested all of them were old friends. 
Camera flashes accentuated the floodlit scene as she held court with anyone seeking a record of their encounter with her celebrity. An escort stood nearby to insure safety and propriety. Her daughter had sent regrets, having her own holiday party to attend.
Gary Peterson and Claudia Dromedarius

Her family's dynastic name, Camelus Dromedarius, placed her among the 90% of its members with a single hump on their backs, and distinguished them from their Camelus Bactrianus cousins who carry two.

That she has joined the Camel Party festivities in person feels perfectly natural. After all, her family has provided the organizing iconography of the clan's convenings from the beginning. From two original tapestries, the founders's collection of items camelus grew to include photos, postcards, drawings, and statues small and large. In addition, there is the annual cake, sculpted in the form of a dromedary in repose, covered in colorful icing, and measuring up to three feet long.

Several days after Claudia's 2008 visit, I received a call from the daughter of a decades-long attendee of The Camel Party. This daughter's son had written a paper about Festivus Camelus for school. His teacher, who had never attended the party ("That's really sad!" I heard the son say in the background), had expressed skepticism and asked him to revise and re-submit the paper. The purpose of the call was to do some fact-checking about the origins of The Camel Song and whether the party had been named after the song. (Not!) The young man already had done some original research while attending that year's camel experience, and I suggested to his mother that he cite this blog in his references. That young man is now 16 years old. We can hold out hope for his former teacher, about whom Jesus might have said "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."

The robust rendition of The Camel Song, composed sometime around year nine, opens the last third of songs on the caroling list, while a life-sized camel puppet wends its way through the throng. New verses have been added over the years to mark milestones and reflect the changing zeitgeist. The 35th year introduced new lyrics that reflect The Camel Party's celebration of the change within continuity and the continuity within change:
Yes the air is chill year 35, And from Claudia's nostrils steam does rise. But indoors it's hot and folks gyrate, Til for babes and all the floor does shake. Here's to all loved ones at Cameltide, Both here and on the other side! *
Claudia Dromedarius • Dec. 7, 2013

What started in 1979 as a non-sectarian holiday gathering of relatives and friends has evolved into an experience, a production, and a "happening" (a term for those alive in the late 1960s) that has hosted thousands of souls in ways beguiling, bemusing, and sometimes outrageous.

Colored lights. Wreaths. Garlands. Poinsettias. Potluck foodstuffs. Piles of shoes. Dancing socks. Rock 'n roll. Blues. Rhythm and blues. Chicken dances. Instrumental ensembles of piano, accordion, trombone, oboe, flute, guitar, violin. Carols, naughty and sacred. Desserts for days. Wine, water, and soda. Crowds and conversations of hundreds. Welcome and inclusion. Fashions new and old. Santa, Rasta Santa, and elves – Santa and Rasta remain the same, but the elves have grown up and started replacing themselves.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and these annual trysts are guaranteed to none. For attendees constant and episodic, Festivus Camelus has noted and incorporated transitions of education, career, conception, birth, health, and death. It has forever marked its participants who have returned from all corners of the globe: Minnesota, Madison, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, New Haven, New York, Washington, Canada, France, Germany, and China.

Along with everything,

It warms the cockles, cockles, cockles of our fiery pagan hearts,
In the cold of icy December,
Wild revelries remember,
The heat of the golden sun! *

* From The Camel Song, © 2013, Davies/Schiller