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

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Of dogs and men

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Friday, Dec. 6, Star Tribune newspaper reported about the sentencing in Scott County District Court of one Rudolph Poppe, 71, a resident of Shakopee, Minnesota. Poppe was sentenced to 90 days in jail, with credit for 24 days served already, plus five years probation and a $500 fine.

Poppe pleaded guilty in October to one count of animal cruelty. A neighbor was reported to have seen Poppe hit his 13-year-old golden retriever over the head with a sledgehammer – allegedly 15 times – earlier this year, in order to put the aged animal out of its misery. I read the article while my own dog slept next to the radiator at my feet.

The man is barred from owning another animal for five years. 

You think?!

At 5:40pm on Friday, I was walking on Third Avenue South from the Minneapolis Convention Center to my house, a few blocks away. The temperature was 4ºF with a windchill index in the mid-20s degrees below zero. 

At East 16th Street and Third Avenue, on the northwest corner of the Sharon Sayles Belton Bridge spanning Interstate 94, I came upon a 71-year-old man who was conscious and sitting on the curb. 

The man wore neither hat nor gloves. He was attired in a thin, gray hoodie sweat shirt with a plaid-patterned shirt-type jacket over it. His light green pants were thin for summer. His hands were white with cold. He was freezing.

I had not seen if he had fallen, and I could not raise him up. He was marginally coherent.

Reaching for my cell phone, I dialed 911. "You have reached Minneapolis 911," the recording said, "we will answer your call as soon as we can." 

I could not believe it – I have called 911 many times over the years, mostly to report open air drug trafficking, an occasional car wreck, and random sounds of gunfire – and this was the first time I was put on hold. 

After a pause, the message repeated once or twice more before a live man's voice asked "Do you have an emergency or can I put you on hold?"

Something about the call set me off and I shouted, "By all means, please put me on hold!" 

He had the presence of mind to then ask "How can I help you?"

"I am a pedestrian," I said, "and have come upon this man sitting on the curb in this cold." 

"That's an emergency," the 911 guy said.

I described what the man looked like and what he was wearing, and agreed to stay with him until help arrived. 

A firehouse was located two blocks away, on the back side of the Convention Center, and a truck with four men pulled up within two minutes. Within four minutes, an ambulance from Hennepin County Medical Center also arrived on the scene. 

As I continued walking the final three blocks to my house, I began to cry – and then to sob uncontrollably until after I was running water on my own cold hands inside my toasty warm house.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The bus to St. Paul and equality

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The advance of same-sex marriage around the globe gained major traction during the first 18 days of May, as Rhode Island became the 10th U.S. state to legislate in favor on May 2, followed by Delaware on May 7. On May 14, the National Council of Justice in Brazil voted 14-to-1 to require notaries public to register same-sex marriages. On May 18, France became the 14th country to legalize gay nuptials when its president signed earlier legislation that had been challenged in court.

In Minnesota, the state House of Representatives voted for marriage equality, 75-to-59, on May 9, followed by the state Senate, 37-to-30, on May 13.
Minnesota State Capitol • St. Paul • May 14, 2013

At 4:10pm on Tuesday, May 14, I stood on the corner of 6th Street and Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis to board an express bus to the State Capitol, 10 miles distant on the edge of downtown St. Paul. Minnesota's governor, Mark Dayton, was scheduled to sign the new legislation at a 5pm ceremony on the Capitol steps. It will take effect August 1.

I was not alone. 

A friend, Christopher, and one of his friends were waiting at the corner, attired in black-and-white "Marry Us" t-shirts generated by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus. Other men and women sported various shirts from the 2012 campaign to defeat the amendment to Minnesota's constitution that would have banned gay marriage in the state. Jerry and Travis already were on the bus when we boarded.

We moved through downtown's rush hour traffic, picking up fellow travelers until packed, cheek by jowl, with no room for more. We represented a wide range of ages, with the majority clearly being part of the Millennial Generation, people born since 1980. If most of us gay baby boomers had raised kids, they would be part of this cohort: folks who generically hold the world in the palm of one hand while they reach to touch and create their experience of it with the other.

It was an excited, but relaxed, happy ride. One fellow nearby remarked that "Most of my exes will probably be there – this could get interesting." I observed that he could probably handle it unless all of them arrived together. 

Rolling along the I-94 freeway shoulder, I found myself reflecting about how many years we had been riding and about all the people who had missed this bus. I included my former, 16-year-old self: that ridiculous kid trying to find and understand others like himself in the cocoon of Sutton's bar in 1968 Minneapolis.

There were the gay men and drag queens, whose grainy images may be found in documentary films about the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, rounded up and herded into paddy wagons following police raids on gay bars. Some of those warriors still survive, but most have passed on.

There was Thomas, a Minnesotan of my acquaintance, who was fired from his job as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill when I worked there in 1971; years later, in May 1984, I read in the New York Times that his body had been fished out of Baltimore's harbor. There were friends and acquaintances, like Ankha, who died by their own hands. John Chenoweth, a former Minnesota state senator, and Earl Craig, one of our civil rights activists, were murdered in 1991 and 1992, respectively, like many others over the years – and still this week on the streets of New York City.

There were, of course, the countless souls lost to AIDS, recognized at the first unfolding of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall, October 11, 1987, and since.

All of them returned to mind last evening as I listened to the words of Mozart's "Requiem" at St. Mark's Cathedral in Minneapolis:
Sacrifices and prayers of praise, Lord, we offer to You.
Receive them in behalf of those souls we commemorate today.
And let them, Lord, pass from death to life,
which was promised to Abraham and his descendants.

The debate on the floor of the Minnesota House, May 9, had inspired awe. The outcome of the vote there was not certain until the roll was taken and closed. Many of the 134 members gave emotional voice to the higher angels of their natures and their callings to public service.

The Senate debate last Monday also had much of that, but with half as many members as the House and the outcome certain, its speeches lasted longer and  were more painful and difficult to hear. Power and privilege do not yield without a fierce fight. 

With their backs against the wall, many opponents averred that "I am not a bigot," "I am not a homophobe," and "I am not a hater" before giving voice-and-vote evidence to the contrary. Many of us listening from our workplaces and elsewhere recognized the denial and kept a running commentary with each other in Facebook chats. We have seen and heard it all before in our schools, workplaces, houses of worship, and halls of government from people who ultimately do not believe in a shared humanity.

People with "sincerely and deeply held beliefs" insisting on their religious freedom but finding endless justification for denying it to others. Folks believing all of us should embrace the full responsibilities of citizenship and having no compunction about denying many of the rights and privileges that should accompany the responsibilities. Parents professing love and concern for "the children" but voting against the future happiness of their own children or those of their friends and relatives.

With strokes of a pen under a sun-drenched sky on Tuesday afternoon, Governor Dayton gave all of Minnesota's citizens the freedom to marry the person they love and, as importantly, of their choice.

The signing ceremony and subsequent parade and open-air concert at downtown's Ecolab Plaza spanned five hours of joyful celebration and inaugurated a new era in all of our relationships with each other.

As James Davies, my partner of 30 years, and I broke bread with friends that evening, one of them, Mark, asked, "I may be naive, but with this done, is there anything more that we still need to do to secure equal rights for gay people?" 

Certainly, if we need to bat clean-up on the state level, there are people who will let us know what needs to be done. We have the small matter of getting 38 other states and the federal government right with God. Around the world, we must defeat the state-sanctioned thugs who squelch anything gay on the streets and in the statutes of Russia, the state-sanctioned religious objections of the United Kingdom, and the evangelical missionaries sent from the U.S. to advocate the death penalty for gay people in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Closer to home, as the aspirations of immigrant, Muslim people seek expression and realization in Minnesota, we must meet and assimilate into their world views the tenants of our civic creeds, enshrined in our constitution and laws.

One of the speakers on the Capitol Mall last Tuesday was a physician, attended by his husband-to-be and their twin children. He told of making his early rounds of the newborns at the hospital that morning. As he moved among them, he realized that they would grow up knowing from the outset all the possibilities of their hearts. 

That prologue for those and all newborns is the true legacy and real revolution wrought by the bus to St. Paul. For that, all that is past can be forgiven.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shaping young dance dreams in Grand Rapids, Minnesota

Minneapolis, Minnesota

With long and productive performing careers largely behind them, ballet dancers Amy Earnest and Lance Hardin now voice their contentment to inspire and prepare new generations of dance students for the stage. Since the late summer of 2012, their base of operations has been the Reif Dance Program, housed in the Myles Reif Performing Arts Center, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

There, they teach and choreograph 18-20 ballet classes in a program that serves 200 students, aged three-to-adult, with a dance curriculum of 50 weekly offerings in fundamentals, ballet, jazz, modern, and tap. Though only in their 30s, the husband and wife duo have nearly three decades of teaching experience between them.
Lance Hardin and Amy Earnest
Ballet Co-Directors of Reif Dance, Grand Rapids, Minnesota

Their own dance studies extend even longer. Earnest began dancing at age three in Atlanta. After studying with the School of Atlanta Ballet from age 11, she moved to Seattle at 18 to pursue professional development with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. She is certified both with the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum and as a Pilates instructor. Hardin, a native of Chicago, began his dance training at age 11 at the Ruth Page Foundation School of Dance and, later, at the Academy of Houston Ballet. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Ballet from Indiana University.

Earnest and Hardin both have performed principal roles from the Balanchine repertoire, as well as works by Paul Taylor, William Forsythe, Nacho Duato, and Alonzo King, among others. 

In addition to Pacific Northwest Ballet, Earnest has performed with the Tulsa Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre, Hartford Ballet, and Chautauqua Ballet in venues as far afield as Portugal and Hong Kong. Hardin's credits include the Milwaukee Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, North Carolina Dance Theatre, and Chautauqua Ballet. The couple met while dancing in North Carolina.

Both cite as highlights of their dance company experiences the few opportunities they had to work with choreographers – King, Duato, and Dwight Rhoden – as they created a new dance from nothing, as opposed to the more usual practice of having existing works "set" on them by repetiteurs.
Reif Dance serves 200 students
aged three to adult

Prior to moving to Minnesota, Earnest and Hardin owned and ran the Avant-Garde School of Dance in Centennial, Colorado, part of the Denver-Aurora metropolitan area. Grand Rapids was not unknown to them when they responded to the Reif Center's national search for a director(s) of its ballet program; both had performed there on tour in 1998, and it looked like a good opportunity to make a difference.

Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, near its Lake Itasca headwaters, Grand Rapids is home to 10,869 residents in a county of 45,000 people and 1,000 lakes. Located 175 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, 80 miles northwest of Duluth, and 100 miles south of the Canadian border, the city's largest employer is the Blandin Paper Company.

It was Myles Reif, a former general manager, plant manager, and president of Blandin, whose foresight and leadership prompted the creation of an arts center that would partner with its community; he did not live to see the January 1981 opening. Owned by Independent School District 318, the 645-seat Reif Center is operated by the Reif Arts Council. In fiscal 2011, the Center sold nearly 25,000 tickets to patrons, 40% of whom traveled more than 25 miles to attend performances of theater, dance, music, and popular entertainments.

David Marty, the Center's president, enjoys a national reputation as a savvy and visionary leader who knows how to effectively connect artists and audiences in meaningful ways while balancing a budget of approximately $950,000.

"Co-Ballet Director, Lance Hardin"
Chicago native Lance Hardin
In addition to its state-of-the-art theater, the Reif Center has three spacious dance studios with sprung floors (1,200 sq. feet, 1,800 sq. feet, and 2,250 sq. feet), private dressing rooms, and a newly refurbished observation room for parents.

Evidence of the dedication and investment of some of those parents in their children's artistic development can be found in the distances they drive four and five times a week: 34 miles and 45 minutes one-way from Hibbing to the east, and 69 miles and 70 minutes one-way from Bemidji to the west.

"Co-Ballet Director, Amy Earnest"
Amy Earnest started dancing
at age three in Atlanta

Hardin says the number of boys enrolled in the dance program is pushing double digits and has prompted thoughts of offering a boys class beginning in the fall. The program also is looking for three instructors, in jazz, tap, and fundamentals.

Reif Dance presents three annual productions: The Nutcracker in December, the Reif Dance Company show by advanced students in March, and the spring dance theater show in June.

In November 2011, Reif Dance named James Sewell, artistic director of the James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis, as its artistic advisor. The partnership includes regular workshops and performances in Grand Rapids by Sewell and his company, and regular visits by the Reif students to Minneapolis throughout the year.

On April 13 and 14, 2013, 39 dancers from Grand Rapids joined members of the James Sewell Ballet and the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies to perform Camille Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" at The Cowles Center for Dance in Minneapolis. When the Sewell dancers take the stage at the Reif Center a week later, April 20, the Reif dancers will perform "Percussive," a new work choreographed by Hardin to music by Peter Gabriel.

For its annual spring production, the Reif Dance Program will present "The Wizard of Oz," June 7-9.

The 645-seat Reif Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota
Then, rounding out their first year in Grand Rapids, Earnest and Hardin will be joined by Sewell dancers for the ballet-focused 2013 Summer Dance Intensive, July 29-August 17. The three-week intensive also will offer classes in contemporary styles, modern, jazz, tap, choreography, and Pilates, with a free, Summer Showcase performance on Saturday, August 17. A housing and meal package at Itasca Community College is available for out-of-town participants.

Earnest and Hardin say they enjoy the sense of community they have found in Grand Rapids, a place where they can know many people and be known for the work that they do in developing dance artists. They look forward to many days of sharing their experiences and helping to shape young dreams.