A Very Fine Birthday Weekend

I began my birthday (which was this past Mother's Day, now 11 days ago) a bit on the tired side. I was behind on some readings for class on the Monday following, so I set down for a fine breakfast at Jam on Hawthorne, then relocated to Sound Grounds for coffee and Plutarch with my readings. Then began the adventures.

My friend D. happens to share the same birthday with me. So, after a couple of hours fortifying myself with caffeine and urban community monographs, I strolled over to Pine State Biscuits and purchased some of the finest and most extraordinary biscuits I've ever tasted, fresh from the oven, and brought them over to Laurelhurst Park for D., where D. and assorted other friends were slowly gathering.

The weather was very strange and inconstant, one moment brilliantly sunny, the next pounding with rain. We were tossing a football around, earnestly praising each others' feeble skill, as sports neophytes necessarily must, when some small children, wandering away from a larger Mother's Day picnic table uphill from us, absently joined in.

Now, I'm not one to do much of anything by half-measures. I can troop out legions of directors who will affirm my willingness to try practically anything at full tilt. Teachers and instructors who habitually shake their heads, disbelieving my audacious imprudence. Cousins and uncles who think I dine on danger, washed down with unhealthy quantities of hazard. When the rain started in, and some of the lesser souls trembled with cold, I stepped up my game.

Suffice to say that, while everyone got pretty wet, myself and the small children got spectacularly mud-splattered. Cassandra, who is 8, got in some trouble from a (dare I say) rather uptight and unforgiving parent, who was upset about tracking mud into their car. No doubt said parent eats kittens, looks like a potato and votes Republican, but who am I to judge? Mitchell, who is six, was less afflicted with offending uncleanliness, and so spared parental wrath. Poor Cassandra had to pitifully wash at a drinking fountain before allowed to reenter the ambit of familial acceptance. I commisserated as best I could, enduring the cold, disapproving glances of respectable grown-up types.

See, the thing is, if you're going to toss around a football, you mine as well mean it. You have to own your game, dominate the field, refuse to tolerate anything less than your own invincibility. Thus generations of American football movies. On my birthday, how can I model anything less for the little ones?

Fortunately, Cassandra seemed not to blame me, nor was she herself all that discouraged. Later, we played wiffleball, in which, for the first time in my entire recollection, I successfully connected bat with (wiffle)ball, not once but three or four times! You have to understand, I was the kid in grade school who was so abysmal with bat and glove (and yet so damn respected and trusted and secretly pitied) that I was consistently chosen for umpire. And yes, of course, of course I had to dive for the base a few times. I mean, my kit was already pretty well dirtied, what did I have to lose? You can't say you've played ball unless you truly mean it.

And then somehow the group fell to encouraging me to jump through hula hoops held vertically over the ground, so that, after much more tripping and mudslinging, I was even filthier. It was a glorious afternoon.

I then made my way up the hill to my father's house, where a grand convocation of the Susi clan was taking place. Every year, the forms and semblance of a corporate board meeting are invoked to go over the numbers and strategies of the Susi Ventures Corporation LLC, such as they are. Only my father and one or two of the aunts take these forms seriously; the rest of my aunts, uncles, cousins and my Grandma use the occasion to preen and politely jockey for position in the shifting mosaic of my family.

My Grandma gently chided me for being so scarce at family functions. My cousins laughed at my dirtiness. Extended-leaf dining tables groaned under the heaping, massy piles of squid, rice, pork, and other less readily identifiable, more dubiously edible dishes. Since my Grandma notoriously forged birth certificates at will, a single cake was used to celebrate my birthday as well as hers and my Aunt Marisol's, all three of us supposedly born all on the same day. As we only had so many candles, and to flatter my Grandma's vanity, I am officially 7, Grandma is 10, and poor Aunt Marisol is an advanced 14.

I use my rank as the eldest of the US-born cousins to benevolently arbitrate chess and checker games, rein in the hyperactive and encourage the reticent of my cousins. I vaguely remember being small, and surrounded by a seemingly endless crowd of loving big people, shielding and feeding and playing with me, so many kuyas. I was forcibly drawn apart from the family in my pre-teens, then re-introduced, as one returned from an enforced exile, in my late teens and early twenties through now. This conferred an additional, prodigal mystique, making me somehow more beloved and yet forever distant. Aunts and uncles regularly confide their insecurities, their confusions with our strange and overwhelming adoptive country and their apprehensions and hopes for the family. I am the consigliere of my family. Would that I could be better worthy of the rank.

But with my younger cousins, things are less complicated, and it pleases me to play a part in what must be, for them, a similarly endless crowd of loving big people shielding and feeding and playing with them. I cut them slices of the joint birthday cake, and they say, "Thank you, Kuya Paul," and I blink fiercely with happiness.

I wrapped up my birthday by biking home, showering and changing, and then biking down to the Ambassador Karaoke Lounge, where a whole crowd of fellow Portland theatre Taurii magically appeared, and we sang and drank and sang for quite some time. It was here that I learned, for the first time, that my birthday--11 May 1981--coincides with the death of Bob Marley. As if I weren't already hauling enough of a burden. Then I went home and slept.




A Letter to Portland's City Council

Dear Mayor Potter, Commissioner Adams, Commissioner Leonard and Commissioner Saltzman,

I write in response to the news that the city intends to cut funding for the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. For what it's worth, I honestly believe that this is an opportunity.

I was born and raised here in Portland. I'm the son of immigrants fleeing a third-world dictatorship. I'm as divorced from my native cultural heritage as I am detached from this cultural context. For most of my career here in Portland, my perspective as a performing artist has been that Portland as a civic establishment is not particularly well-disposed towards diversity in the arts.

There are some obvious circumstances in play, mitigating this perception: Portland's economy does not present sustainable opportunities for a broad-based arts community capable of self-sufficiency and long-term engagement with this city's civic fabric. The demographics, and the history of housing and employment discrimination, has had the added effect of minimizing and marginalizing what diversity is present in this city, particularly when it comes to diversity in the performing arts.

Of the established theatres, only Milagro Teatro/Miracle Theatre has succeeded in maintaining a commited vision supporting diversity in this artistic community; everyone else's efforts have been mere spring thaws at best, flashes of seasonal exuberance that quietly fold when the funding dries up, never lasting long enough to build real momentum or community roots. Most theatres rely on an inconsistent, fickle and demeaning funding process that inhibits growth, innovation and originality. 501c3 status; private donor patronage; seasonal ticket subscriptions--none of these conventional funding sources are in any way designed for serious, career-spanning explorations in diversity, integration, cultural discretion, gender roles, politics, violence, social justice, civic responsibility, etc., etc.--in short, none of the themes which live performance today is specifically tailored to meaningfully deal with. Authentic exploration of any of these themes is an inherently risky undertaking; neither donors nor earned income sources are reliably disposed towards shouldering that kind of risk. Even the laudable efforts of the Regional Arts and Culture Council produce shots in the dark, occasional windfalls that cannot be guaranteed for future support. We simply do not have a sustainable model for the performing arts.

The Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center has often been the exception to these observations. For over 25 years, the stated mission of the IFCC has been to foster and promote diversity in the arts, in a multiplicity of disciplines and means. The IFCC has been a home to a broad range of artists, all committed and determined to further the cause of diversity in our arts community, and each success made possible only through the real and palpable advocacy of the IFCC. It's been one of the only real long-term establishments specifically supporting diversity in the arts in this city, and as such it's been an inspiration and an encouragement for me, an assurance that this city is neither blind nor insensitive to my peculiar position in this society, nor to those of my peers.

In our current straitened economic circumstances, there is ample precedent for unraveling what little established support there is for the arts in this city. This is an accepted tactic, for a public that's accustomed to shrill, deceptively simplistic zero-sum decision making, pitting the arts against similarly vulnerable public funding dimensions--parks, or emergency services, or social services, or the disabled, or education, etc., etc. Perpetuating these precedents is a demonstrably unhealthy approach to local governance. We mortgage our future growth for short-term, stop-gap fiscal band-aids. We divide and cripple potentially powerful coalitions of constituencies into petty, balkanized groups incapable of protecting their own interests alone, much less furthering a broader community agenda.

I write to suggest that there's another way. Make the IFCC the flagship of a renewed commitment to diversity and community engagement. Use a decision to turn around the destruction of its public funding into the beginning of a broader discussion on funding each of the aforementioned priorities sustainably. The diversity of this community, specifically diversity in the arts, can provide meaning and depth to this city, in ways that promote and complement the economic and civic priorities of this city. The arts in general--and the performing arts in particular--are the means by which we can refine, communicate, discover and develop our identities as individuals within a community, specific to ourselves and to this city as a whole, independent of corporate and commodified influence. By linking this priority, integrating this priority along with the rest of the historically vulnerable publicly-funded dimensions, you can make this debate not about which constituency to betray, but how we can all work together to collectively agree on fully funding all of our priorities, how we can all live together in the same city, and not a series of isolated, defensive and antagonistic cities.

Together, the city as a whole can explore alternative funding methods: tax breaks for high-profile, "guardian angel" donors, corporate or private, willing to step in and work with the city to protect our collective priorities. Or debt relief for specific organizations that would otherwise lose their public funding. A citywide subscription drive, allowing individuals and businesses to post an "Arts Supporter" or "Public Citizen" certificate in exchange for a monthly or an annual fee, revenues then dedicated to the Arts or to the General Fund. We can explore methods of structurally altering the urban climate to accomodate our priorities: city ownership of properties, or a public debt that specifically supports the arts, or education, etc.

The announced decision to withdraw public funding from the IFCC is absolutely an opportunity for you to collectively turn around and surprise voters and commentators with a completely different approach, overturn unfortunate and unimaginative precedents, demonstrate long-term political commitment and foresight and rally an untapped, underserved and unorganized broader constituency that doesn't even know we exist yet.

Better yet, we get to take credit for something that was already identified as a priority a generation ago--our predecessors already did the heavy lifting in getting the IFCC established in the first place. All we have to do is keep it open, and we can claim a triumph.

To reiterate: the problem is not that we have unsustainable priorities: the problem is how to make our priorities sustainable. It will take work, and sacrifice, and difficult decisions, absolutely: this is the essence of public service. But let's use the opportunities we have at hand to move forward protecting and nurturing our priorities, instead of destroying them. Together, we can cultivate a political climate in which, in even the most depressed of economic circumstances, priorities like the arts and diversity need not be vulnerable to the vagaries of ill-designed funding schemes. We simply need the political will to protect what we already know is worthwhile. Demonstrate to this community that you are indeed committed to diversity, if not in the past, then now more then ever.


paul j. susi


Saddle Up.

Today in my Politics of Poverty class, we discussed the poverty/gender/race axis underlying homeownership, aka the American Dream v. 2.5. During which I repeatedly and rather heatedly harangued against the rigged shell-game that is the homeownership chimera of middle-class virtue, relying on an old-fashioned, dignified, affordable, money-is-just-money approach to renting. Since neither my forseeable income nor my peripatetic lifestyle will ever conceivably support the demands of a mortgage, let alone my vulnerability to redlining, predatory lending practices, property-value-based xenophobia, etc., etc., why should I buy into that?

Ironically enough, later today I finally decided: I'm pulling up the stakes and boxing the books again. St. Johns, I love you, but I just can't afford the grueling bike commute, and the doubled-up rent, and the late night/late morning stumble-home. Oh, how I'll miss you...

You might say that this is the sort of thing home ownership is supposed to protect you against. I would argue that one is just as vulnerable in the one instance as the other--the primary difference being the illusion of ownership.

But nothing says adventure better than an apartment search. I'm already pursuing promising leads, and am confident to have this matter all straightened out right quick and smart-like. Come this time 30 days from now, I'll be a happy bunny.

I swear, it's these early morning hours that feed me something special. I know, I know, much of it is ragged endorphins and that exhausted giddy weariness thing that accompanies the caffeine-crash, but I tell you it's something mighty healing to get to feel the sky and the sun choose to lift themselves back up, again and again, just when it seems they could never ever get up not once more.



ps--did I mention I love Steinbeck novels? Happy May Day!