"I think that friendship is about what you give and I was taught that from a very young age and I try to draw upon my personal resources to help other people and especially to help build real friendships because that's really, at the end of the day, at the end of your life, that's really all you have to show for your time on Earth."
This portrait has so much to do with friendship and support. Amanda is a friend of mine and a mutual friend of ours named Angie nominated her for this project. When I read what Angie wrote, I teared up, moved by the layers and intimacy of the statement. After Amanda agreed to be in one of the portraits, I went through some corny ideas, trying to find a way to make transportation advocacy, singing in a metal band, and being a supportive friend all appear in the portrait together. In the end, her friends Angie and her boyfriend Patrick play a part in the scene, but for Amanda's telekinesis, we focused on the power of singing, the power of the voice, to call out, to have an emotional effect, and to create a comforting, intimate space that can simultaneously be for everyone and just one person.
Lori: I think I'm going to start with a really annoying question, if you don't mind. And that question is: Who are you?
Amanda: I am Amanda. I am a woman who lives in Chicago. I am psychotically committed to bicycle and pedestrian advocacy and I also am a total dork for music and art and anything else creative or cool like building castles out of toilet paper spools and things like that. Puppets. Puppetry. I'm a huge fan of puppets.
Really? I didn't know that. Did you know that I have a little puppet collection?
No I didn't know that. Have you seen my puppet Bike the Drive discount coupon code video that I made a few years back?
No...it sounds amazing.
I used to work for the organization that puts on Bike the Drive every year. A lot of people don't know that Bike the Drive is actually a fundraiser for a non-profit. They used to break up the staff into teams and give each one a discount code. The team that got the most sign-ups for Bike the Drive using their discount codes got a pizza party or a prize or whatever. So, I wrote a jingle and I sang the jingle and played guitar and recorded it onto my point-and-shoot camera. Then I converted the .wav file to an .mp3, put it on my iPod and then listened to it in my headphone and made a puppet. I built a little puppet and a little stage and then I had the puppet sing along with the song. Then my friend Chris help me put it all together and then we put it on the internet and it's the most annoying earworm jingle you'll ever hear in your life.
You realize I'm going to link to this on the page for your interview. Was that part of your job or was that something you volunteered to do?
I just did that on my own time. The registration drive was part of my job but the choice to promote it by making a weird video was totally mine. I just did that one day.
Do you want to say what your job is, where you work?
I don't want to go too far in, but I work for the city and I work on bicycle and pedestrian related programs trying to get more people to use active transportation, drive less, and to make neighborhoods safer for people. We ought to live in a world where you can cross the street.
You also have another name?
I have a stage name and it's Mandy Martillo. In the last year and a half or so I've started singing in a traditional heavy metal project called Satan's Hallow.
And there's someone else sitting here, her name is Angie and Angie is the person who nominated Amanda. In full disclosure, I already knew Amanda, but I was happy to see this person I knew on the nomination list for this project. Angie, I'm wondering if you could tell me why you chose Amanda for this project?
Angie: When I saw your call for nominees for this film I felt like I had to nominate someone because it was such an amazing way to highlight a really strong woman and I know a lot of really strong women. And it just sounded super cool. I tried to think who I would most like to see highlighted in this project and Amanda immediately came to mind. The first reason she came to mind is because the title of the project was about moving and getting people moving and creating movement or momentum in your community and that's something Amanda literally does through her active transportation work.
But then there's also the sort of emotionally moving meaning and that was actually the reason why I nominated Amanda, beyond just the work she does. She just gets things done constantly, but the softer side of that is that she is the kind of friend and the kind of person who shows up emotionally and physically to support people, to support friends and family and people she cares about. She's really fierce in her attachment and her care for people. I had benefited from her amazing friendship for a lot of years.
Amanda, how does that make you feel to hear that?
Stunned and flattered to know that somebody else would think of me for this project, but I think more than anything... kind of proud that I'm capable of being a good enough friend to somebody else to merit that. I think that friendship is about what you give and I was taught that from a very young age and I try to draw upon my personal resources to help other people and especially to build real friendships because that's really, at the end of the day, at the end of your life, that's really all you have to show for your time on Earth. I'm really proud and really also humbled at the same time to be nominated.
When I saw the nomination I was really impressed because friendship takes a lot of work and a lot of time, a lot of emotional energy and can be draining and taxing, and something that some people will try to avoid. Certain challenges in friend situations can be easy to try to avoid...you don't get the call, you're so busy, etc. Friendship is not unlike the way we have to organize ourselves and rally ourselves to do work or volunteer or be in a band, so this made me think of being a friend as the main subject here...or as a "job." I don't want to reduce friendship to a job but I also want to raise it to the level of being something that requires a lot of work. It gives us a whole other through-line through someone's life, like Amanda's life.
This is a multi-part question: How does being in a band and doing music factor into all of this? How do you have the time to do all of this stuff? What is the core "you" that takes you to all of these things? What's the core part of Amanda that equals bike safety and equals rock and roll? Do you think there's a particular trait or a mix of traits?
I don't know, I guess I think the core me, it's genetic. It's chemical. It's all the stuff I was born with along with some pretty strong examples in my life. My mother was a very strong role model for me. She was a very strong person. She was the breadwinner in our family and she was internationally known in her field. She was in the field of dental hygiene. She wrote textbooks on hygiene and led multiple training and education programs at universities. She was a part of international and national dental hygiene associations. What I learned was that she had been extremely influential to a whole field of people. Hundreds and hundreds of her colleagues were influenced by her work and by her example. I think that what I learned from that is that you can always carry a message and that it's better to put the effort forth and fail than to just blow it off, not that she had any failures that I'm aware of.
I think the way that music ties in, is that I don't have a choice. I actually am one of the people in this world who was lucky enough to be born with a natural inclination to play music. Some kind of natural talent that's there, that's in me. I feel really really fortunate and anybody who's lucky enough to have that in their life needs to use it. Even just for your own personal happiness, if you were born with natural musical talent and you don't use it, you're a jerk. You are squandering something that is so precious and can connect you to people in places like nothing else can.
It's one of those things that I would kill for. I would love to be able to sing. You singing up there (for the portrait) a capella, I was just like that's perfect. Especially the low female voice that can handle the folk rhythms, I'm like, oh come on, I want to do that. I can't. Maybe if I took vocal classes and had some training I would be okay, but there's a big difference and this thought of recognizing what you've got is interesting.
I spent a lot of years not focused on it. It's something I've done ever since I was a little kid. But there was a time when I went back to college. I went back to school to finish my degree. I didn't have time to play in bands. I didn't have time to write songs. But I've always had a guitar sitting out on a stand in my apartment, ready for when I'd be studying for a test and I'd stop to pick up the guitar and play some three chord country song that I just know by heart. It's not like making a record and it's not being on stage or going out and sacrificing myself on the altar of art or whatever. It's like having a cup of coffee with a friend. It's just something you do and then you put your guitar down and you go back and you finish studying or you finish scrubbing the toilet or whatever you're doing.
When in your life do you feel the most powerful, it can be a single anecdote, or in general, when do you feel the most powerful?
When I'm telekinetic. [laughter] Definitely when I'm playing music. Probably when I'm performing. I've always really enjoyed performance even at an open mic type situation where I can just walk in with an acoustic guitar and do my own thing. I think I feel most powerful when I'm playing music in a room that's full of crowded drunk people who are all yakking away and I get up and start to sing and somehow they all shut the hell up. There've been a couple of times in my life when that has happened and I kind of hang my hat on that.
I also think that from my career in bike advocacy, I feel little ripples of power. I've been doing it for almost ten years now, since I started as an intern with the City's bike program. When I look around the city and see so many people on bicycles I get a little bit of a spark, feeling that I was a part of that, that I am still a part of changing what everyday life looks like in Chicago. When I go out to try to cross the street and people actually stop at a crosswalk for me. I feel that things are really changing around us. Some things are actually changing for the better. I get a little, it's just a little spark that comes from seeing those tiny little things every day. You try to focus on those as opposed to all the maniacs and all the crazy other things. The world of transportation and access for all people in Chicago, to be able to access resources via transportation... let me just say, to me transportation is everything. You can have the best schools, the best jobs, the best entertainment, the best cultural institutions, the best healthcare, the best sports team...you can have all those things in your city and it doesn't mean anything if people can't get there and they can't get there safely and they can't get there in a way that supports their health and in a way that they can afford.
I find that in this shitstorm, in this crazy messed up world that we live in, this is like one little piece of the world that I can try to save. One tiny, tiny little piece. I'm so focused on that and I'm really fortunate that I am one of the people who gets to have the job that lets me do that. I try to let the work that I do in that arena impact everybody around me and inspire them to do what they believe in, but also to support the people who don't have a choice but to do something every day that is just whatever they have to do to get by.
This idea of advocacy, make me think of the way that a microphone works. You've got the goods and it needs to be transported out there into things, to get attention, to reach ears. It's all about disseminating information. They're both sort of ways of mediation, transportation, sharing. It's all about bringing people together ultimately.
There's a quote that I read recently, a Pablo Picasso quote that I put up on the wall in my room and it's: "The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away."
Then you sang "Give it Away" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
When do you not feel powerful? What's a moment where you feel like you're climbing up a hill and someone is stripping you of your power?
I think that the moments in my life when I have felt the most powerless were surrounded by the death of people who I care about. The loss of friends and family. When I think about what that has done to me in my life and how basically no amount of mental preparation can ever equip you for the day that you're going to lose a parent. What that loss really does to you long-term, that makes you feel extremely powerless and meaningless and minuscule. And the thing that that really speaks to me is how there are so many people who live in this city who are my neighbors in this city who experience that kind of loss weekly, monthly, all because of violence in their communities. They lose their families, people on their street, people in their neighborhood, people who go to their school. You read the stories and the studies about grief and you can't help but think about how it's impacting whole huge swaths of neighborhoods here in Chicago.
That is something that really impacts me and also makes me feel pretty powerless to do anything. But at least I can focus on transportation. I guess it's something.
And now to discuss what we did for the portrait. What did you think of the setup? What was your favorite part? Were you nervous?
My favorite part was when I got to hug Angie.
Angie: Those were some really good hugs.
Amanda: They were real hugs and real smiles because we haven't hung out together in a long time. It's been awhile.
Angie: It's been awhile.
Amanda: Just because of life, you know.
Were you nervous?
I was nervous. I think I started to get nervous like three of four days ago. Then I was just like, this is really going to happen. What am I going to do? I was really overthinking what am I going to sing and how is it going to work? I was nervous, but I have a streak of vanity and a little bit of the diva thing going on, so it was fun to be like, "Well, this is how I'm going to be the center of attention today!"
And, sometimes I feel like an imposter, but the one place where I never feel like an imposter is on stage, actually. I feel like I came to terms with all the weird stuff, stage fright and all that, when I was a teenager. That's the one thing I can do that's like riding a bike.
And Angie, because I brought you here to be a hugging, supportive part of this portrait, can you tell me who you are? In relationship to Amanda and in general?
Angie: I am Amanda's good friend. I am a mom. I am a librarian. I am a cyclist. I hope an active contributor to the greater happiness and ...
Amanda: I would say you are...
Angie: ... enjoyment of people around me. I'm an incorrigible smiler at strangers and I am a supporter of dreams to the greatest extent possible. I love helping people and I love expressing my gratitude.
Amanda: She's really good at it, too. She sends notes.
Angie: I do. I send thank you notes. I write thank you notes. Being really open and clear and honest about the things that I am so lucky to have and experience and be a part of, is a way to remind myself of this one precious life that I have... and to be grateful and to be present and to be just giving as much as I can.