Songs for the Struggling Artist


Where I’m From

When I worked as a teaching artist, I traveled to about 300 different schools around New York City. They were wildly divergent places and environments but on bulletin board displays in hallways, in all five boroughs, I often saw the same writing assignment appear and it never failed to move me. It was called “Where I’m from…” and students would recount the smells, the sounds and sights of their homeland. For kids who’d lived in the city their whole lives, the sound of the ice cream trucks was often the birdcall of spring. Because New York is so beautifully diverse, this assignment would often paint a whole world of elsewhere, as well. The sights of Egypt. The sounds of the Dominican Republic. The smells of Uganda. The temperature of Poland. No matter where students came from, even if they had to flee their homelands because they were not safe there anymore – the formative power of home rang out from their writing.

I’m not from here. New York City is where I live and where I feel at home but where I’m from is a small city in the hills of Virginia. It’s the kind of city that sometimes gets called cosmopolitan – not because it’s a bustling metropolis but because it has a vibrant arts culture and an intellectual fire. This place is as much a part of me as my leg is. My hometown feels like part of my body.

Where I’m from is green, green hills, green lawns, trees and trees and trees. It is people gathering under fairy lights on a red brick road. It is a place where you can see the stars in a backyard. It is a place in which sometimes you feel like you know everyone and a day later feel as though you know no one anymore. People will smile at you and say hello when you walk past.

I’m from crickets on a summer evening. I’m from parties out in the country. I’m from wood smoke in winter and cigarette smoke on the bricked pavement in summer. I’m from jazz pouring out of one restaurant/bar and frat rock pouring from another, just steps away. I’m from a wall so thick with paint it was possible to peel-off a corner of it and keep it as a sculpture souvenir. I’m from craft fairs and festivals. I’m from the bells shaking on the legs of the Morris dancers. I’m from late night wanderings over green lawns. I’m from Greek letters on steps. I’m from dodging crowds of students who flood the city like water pouring into a glass. I’m from orange V’s on asphalt. I’m from libraries. I’m from community theatres. I’m from community radio. I’m from a folk scene, a bluegrass scene, a jazz scene, an old time scene, a rock scene, a pop scene, a classical scene, a women’s music scene. I’m from used bookstores and used record stores and independent community business. I’m from fireworks in the park on the 4th of July put on for us by the fire department. I’m from honeysuckle. I’m from musicians on the Corner and musicians on the Mall. I’m from deer by the railroad tracks. I’m from crayfish in the creek. I’m from red dirt and several shades of brown dirt. I’m from hummingbirds. I’m from dogwood trees. I’m from field trips to the art museum. I’m from book sales and yard sales. I’m from hot humid summers, exuberantly flowery springs, winters that bring snowstorms and autumn leaves with a top note of apple cider.

And I’m also from a place where neighborhoods are black or white. I’m from a school system that tracked its students, that sent its white students to the top and the black toward the bottom, that encouraged young minds to think that this was just how things were, that white students were more likely to be “advanced” and black students more likely to be “general” or “basic.” I’m also from a place that tried hard to believe that Thomas Jefferson’s slave was his mistress. I’m from a place where visiting a landmark important to a black leader meant visiting the tobacco farm where he was born a slave. I’m also from a place where I could go see a kid’s magician in a thousand seat theatre and see only white people in the audience. I’m from a place where we don’t talk about that much, mostly because it’s not polite. And where I’m from, politeness is important.

And now here I sit in Queens, New York – the most linguistically diverse place in the world and one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country – but where I live now isn’t any better, really. It feels good and blended on the train or in the grocery store but the school system in diverse NYC is the most segregated in the country. While we think of ourselves as models of tolerance, diversity and unity – the hate and violence has visited us here, too.

See, the story is that I’m from a place you’ve possibly only heard of because some hateful Nazis decided to target my hometown. And when they did, they broke the hearts of not just the brave souls who stood in opposition to them and those who had to go to work and those who prayed with Cornel West and those who were away but also all of us who feel that Charlottesville is a part of us. Those of us who were born there or grew up there or went to college there or even just lived there for a few years – it feels to us, too, as if the dirtiest boots just trampled over our hearts.

Charlottesville isn’t perfect. The racism runs deep there, yes. (Read about that here.) But before you start thinking my hometown had it coming, that it asked for it, that it shouldn’t have worn that short skirt if it didn’t want to be invaded, search in your own city’s past. I’m going to guess that no city in America has completely clean hands when it comes to racial discrimination.

The deck is incredibly stacked against people of color in America. It took me too long to work out how much. For me, it took going to college and learning about white privilege and starting to understand that being nice was no excuse for accepting injustice. I thought that because I was nice, I was immune to racism. You see where I’m from, we’re nice to everyone. We’re polite. We’re courteous.

And maybe you’re thinking, “Ah! I see now! This terrible thing happened there because the people of Charlottesville let it. They just didn’t say “no” loud enough.” And you’d be wrong. The people of Charlottesville have been preparing for this for months. The folks I know there have been, for months, strategizing and debating, trying to figure out the best way to make it clear how unwelcome the “Unite the Right” were. From what I understand, Charlottesville’s Black Lives Matter was organized in June to help address this invasion. Petitions were circulated. Injunctions were filed. Violence was suggested and rejected. Dozens of peaceful demonstrations and events were organized to prepare.

The people of Charlottesville didn’t throw open the door and welcome this mess. It showed up unannounced on the doorstep in May and they did everything they could think of to prevent it, at every stage. So when I see people say things like, “I’d like to see them try that in my hometown,” I think, “No, no, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t like it at all.”

You wouldn’t like this mess of feelings that I’ve had to negotiate, not just these last four days when you started paying attention but since May when those assholes with torches first showed up. It is a combination of despair and fury and fear for my loved ones. A few months ago, on video, my mother asked a Trump supporter at a rally about his “Kekistani” flag and the look of pure hatred that he gave her made me quake. You don’t want to know the mixture of pride and terror that seeing such things inspire.

You don’t want to sit 500 miles away as you watch militant Nazis with advanced military gear taunt clergy people kneeling at the edge of a park you used to play in. You think your people are tough? That these highly organized, armed jerks with nothing to lose will somehow be stopped from waving their flags by your gang of guys with bats? I mean, I wish that were true. But I don’t think it is. These people punched clergy-folk. They taunted them and tried to do worse.

This is the future I was worried was coming as soon as I saw where the world was turning on Nov 8th. I was figuring we’d have ourselves a Nazi-like state by now. I didn’t expect ACTUAL Nazis. But otherwise – this is what I feared most. And yet I never expected it to start in my hometown. So I’m not surprised that this happened. I saw it coming. I just didn’t see it coming for my hometown first.

I hope you’re not next. The country is racist. My hometown is racist. The city I live in racist. And so is yours. Those guys came from all over the country. If you’re just realizing this a problem, you’re late. But if you’re late, we still need you. In fact, you may be the best link to the people who are going to be later than you.

Dealing with the racism in your town (or the racist people in your town) isn’t easy – especially since it’s usually systemic and those structures are hard to see and take a long time to dismantle. If you’re new to these concepts – if you don’t know what systemic racism is, then this is a great time to start learning. Seeing the ways that your town or your city or your county has perpetuated white supremacy over the years doesn’t mean you love your town any less. In fact, the more you know about where you’re from, the more meaningful your relationship with it will be. Forewarned is forearmed and knowledge is power.

I know that terrorists primarily want to strike terror in people’s hearts and the terrorists who came to my hometown stated plainly that this was their goal. I do not want to give them what they want. I’m from Charlottesville and I live in New York. I was in NYC on 9/11. I was not cowed then and I will not be cowed now.

But I am afraid. I cannot deny it. I have not slept much since the racists with torches surrounded a church service Friday night and essentially held them hostage. I had family in that church. And friends. I was in that church in spirit.

Here in Queens, I heard some folks swear they’d never cross the Mason-Dixon line again. I understand the instinct. It’s a way to say – “Oh, that’s them over there. I’ll be safe if I just stay here.” But I don’t think geography will save you. I would never have thought, in a million years, that white supremacists would march through where I’m from. And here in Queens, many years ago, Donald J. Trump’s father was arrested as he marched in a KKK rally. In Queens. New York. It’s not about location, y’all.

Here in Queens, I’m devastated about what’s happened where I’m from. And there is no shaking off this sense of violation. But if there’s anything that gives me hope in all of this, it’s watching the way the community in my hometown has come together over this series of events. From the clergy linking arms and marching in silent protest, to the swelling numbers of white people at teach-ins and Black Lives Matter meetings, to the giant crowd at Heather Heyer’s memorial service, there is a unity brewing that many never thought possible. Where I’m from, folks are trying to be better. I’m from that. I’m from where brave, nice people try to be and do better. That’s where I’m from.

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This is a great list of resources if you’d like to help the people of Charlottesville.


Normally this is the spot in my blog posts where I ask folks to support me on Patreon. But today, I’m requesting instead that you go to help the many people who need your help in my hometown. Go to this list on Google Docs.

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Generation X – Part 5 It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

On the Stuff You Should Know podcast about Baby Boomers, the hosts (both Gen X-ers) pointed out that generations are often characterized by events that shake their collective innocence (e.g. 9-11, JFK, Challenger) They then suggested generations might as well be characterized by the technology that unites them. Boomers were the first generation to grow up with TV. Gen X was the first generation to grow up with video and videogames. Computers, too. And Millennials grew up with more ubiquitous computers and the spread of the internet. Generation Z is growing up with smartphones. So…we somehow define our humanity by the technology at hand. Probably cavemen were like, “Yeah, our young ones are the Fire Generation. They’ll never what it was like for us before we got that life changing Fire stuff. Probably the Fire Generation and the House Building Generation got together and sang songs at each other right over the head of the lone representative of the farming generation, who declared that all this generational thinking is bullshit.

Time magazine called us the Video Generation in our youth. Which is a little bit comical now that there’s something called YouTube (invented by Gen X-ers.) Given the amount of video in our lives now, it is hard to imagine that people were once worried about us watching a couple tapes on VCRS or music on MTV or hanging around in arcades playing Ms. Pacman. It seems quaint now.

Were we the computer generation? While I did learn to program a little triangular turtle in grade school, the only computers I ever touched until college were the ones at school. I went to college with a typewriter and left with a Mac Classic II. I understood that computers were powerful and a little bit scary. The bad boys with keyboards could both start a nuclear war AND prevent one. And neither computers or videogames were really for girls.

There was an interesting anxiety in the air as we watched the Computer Age roll in. Before we all had our own, computers were sort of magical and mysterious, dangerous and exciting. In a movie a lot of us saw, two nerds created a fantasy woman in real life by programming their computers. What would have once been a magic spell was now Weird Science. The nerds of Real Genius used their good computer skills to save the world from evil weapons computer stuff. It was good versus evil but with computers.

I re-listened to Kate Bush’s 1989 song “Deeper Understanding” which was about computers and found myself astonished at how directly it relates to all of us now. In an interview about this song, Kate Bush said she was surprised by how many people assumed she was into computers because she wrote a song about someone into computers. But this is the funny thing about that: at the time, we used to think about computers like this. Computers were an interest, like parasailing. Some people were into them, most people weren’t.

But those that were into computers were busy imagining a wide open world. I didn’t know it at the time (because I was one of those who weren’t that into computers) but Gen X computer kids were full of possibility. They imagined a world in which we could talk to anyone anywhere in the world, in which anyone with the skill could build anything. Gen X kids who were into computers were talking to each other on their computers long before the rest of us. They made virtual spaces made out of their imagination that were endlessly flexible and modifiable. For Gen X computer kids (and some OGx-ers like Jaron Lanier) the way we use our technology now is anathema to what they intended.

While those of us who weren’t into computers were fine to have our options streamlined, to have our websites more user-friendly, to not have to learn the skills to make our own, those who did have the skills were horrified as they watched the wide open world of tech be reduced to a “click yes or no” world. They aimed at freedom and we got convenience and those of us who “weren’t into computers” don’t even know what was sacrificed for that ease.

An iPhone will only let you put apps on it that are Apple approved. And many of the websites that are changing the world aren’t customizable at all. They create paths for us to walk down in which we can only make one choice at a time. For example, Facebook makes most decisions for its users. It gives you only six options for your feelings when it would be just as easy to have you create your own reaction emoticons. Its algorithm chooses which posts you see when Facebook could easily make it possible for you to design your own. But it doesn’t. Its algorithms remain a closely guarded secret and it controls which of your friends you see and which you don’t.

As the years have gone by, we have been trained not to wonder about what it is behind the technological certain. We trade our privacy for connection and ease. We leave the decision making to big corporations or big data.

The promise of a wide-open world where anyone with know-how has become a world full of walled gardens. From meadows and mountains and plains and oceans, our technology became a series of small plots of land, gardened by a chosen few, on the estates of big corporations. And while the gardens inside have clear paths to walk down and very specialized flowers and hey, all our friends are here! – the walls don’t seem to help keep out the jerks. Now instead of wide open space where we might run into a jerk sometime, we are locked up in the garden of Twitter, for example, with torrents of jerks. As one Gen X-er who has always been into computers said, “The people who weren’t into computers won.”

That is, while we now all have tiny super computers that fit into our pockets, the computers in our pockets are often structured to limit our choices instead of expanding them.

We all have computers but we don’t know (or care) how they work or which corporation has access to our data. The Gen X-ers into computers are understandably a little upset about this and it would appear that Gen X-ers are at the forefront of helping us figure out how to integrate technology into our lives responsibly, wisely and consciously. Gen X-er Manoush Zomorodi hosts a podcast that leans into these issues with a characteristic Gen X questioning of accepted norms. Gen X takes nothing for granted. We know that infinite possibilities include some possibilities that are a real bummer.

Gen X programmers built new virtual spaces – things like Friendster, Google, MySpace and Twitter. This may not have been what they imagined back when they first got into computers but they have changed the world. I think we need Gen X technologists more than ever to help us return to the idealism of the Open Source dreams, even as we adapt to the inventions Gen X let loose on the world. Gen X may have been seen as nihilistic and cynical but that is partly just the shadow side of the deep vein of idealism that runs through most of us. If we’re cynical, it’s because we think people can and should do better.

While most generational discussions I’ve seen point to the Challenger explosion as the most influential historical event in Gen X’s youth, I have yet to meet anyone for whom that event loomed particularly large. We remember it, sure – but it doesn’t seem all that formative. What I do think may have been formative was the constant very palpable threat of nuclear war. I was reminded of how real this was for me after I watched the episode of The Americans, in which the family watches the TV movie, The Day After. I don’t remember the movie itself but I do remember the feeling I had that I would not be safe anywhere. I could not be safe under my desk or in my bed. I remember hiding under my covers for some time, knowing it would never be enough – that if someone pushed a button (and it seemed very possible that someone would), none of us would be safe.

The events of the movie Wargames felt like a very real possibility to me and I think most of Gen X had to adapt to a world that might explode at any minute. We had to acknowledge that it might be the end of the world as we knew it and we had to find a way to feel fine. Recent political events have brought this feeling back to the surface and Gen X finds itself once again in a world where some guy pushing a button could end it all for all of us.

When I started watching The Americans, it was an exercise in nostalgia for my childhood. (They used that “Nobody bothers me” ad! We sang that all the time in the 80s in Virginia!) Now watching a show about Russian spies undercover as Americans in the Cold War feels like current events.

I understand the impulse to categorize a generation by its technology or its unique historical events but I suspect that what binds a generation together more is the atmosphere that pervades – it is a collection not just of the music we hear, the movies and TV we watch, but also the politics and the objects that surround us.

Generation X was surrounded by some meaningful bullshit and we thought the world was probably ending but we felt fine. In a world of infinite possibilities, there was a small chance we might get out of our youth alive. And if you’re Gen X and you’re reading this – Congratulations! We did it! We already lived much longer than we ever imagined.

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This is Part 5 of a multi-part series. and

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here  Part 3 here

and Part 4 here.

Help a Gen X-er keep inventing

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(Still) Waiting to Be Discovered

As a child, I wanted to be an actor but I lived in a small city wherein my opportunities were mostly school plays and community theatre. This did not stop me hoping that some director or producer would stumble upon me and whisk me away to Broadway or the movies. I imagined someone like the Hollywood guy in Cold Comfort Farm seeing me somewhere and a light would shine on me the way it does on Rufus Sewell and he’d know I was gonna be a star!

The fact that I was a shy, quiet, unremarkable looking kid didn’t stop me believing such a thing were possible. I did talent shows and musicals and revues and every play that would let me in. And the people who came would tell me to mention them in my Oscar or Tony speech. Everyone seemed to hold the same dream of my future discovery. Someone, somewhere would recognize my talent and catapult me to the stars.

Lana Turner was famously discovered at a soda counter after all. It was just a matter of time. The process of being an actor was primarily a waiting game, a game of wanting to be picked, to be “discovered” by someone with actual power. It was like trying to be Sleeping Beauty – but, like, awake and trying to look beautiful in the sorts of places princes might be looking.

Ultimately, this is why the business of acting didn’t suit me – even though I loved the act of acting. This is also why I moved toward the bits of theatre that allowed me to feel a sense of agency, an expression of some kind of power. I don’t like waiting – so I discovered myself instead.

But even so – I’ve often caught myself in the same expectant state, at a metaphorical soda counter, waiting for someone to discover me and change my life. I think maybe this isn’t just because I wanted to be an actor. I think this is because I have a little bit of fairy tale princess dust still in the system. While I refuse to fall asleep like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White and I am not locked in any tower like Rapunzel, I’m still locked in a kind of expectant state. When I’m told I can’t go to the ball, I don’t always think about how to get in without an invitation, I just wait for some Fairy Godmother to swoop in and make me presentable for the privileged. I wish I’d read a version of the Cinderella story wherein Cinderella picks herself up out of the ashes, dusts herself off (only a little) and then just brings herself to the ball just as she is. I want to see a version of this story wherein Cinderella sees something she wants and then goes and gets it. No waiting. On one of my favorite podcasts, the host often uses the phrase “Include yourself” and I have found it very useful when trying to elbow my way into places I have not been invited. I also just discovered something that Shirley Chisholm said that I have found very inspirational.

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

But even while I now try and carry a metaphorical folding chair with me everywhere, I still often feel excluded. And while I thought I’d left behind my habit of waiting to be discovered, every so often I find it rearing its ugly fairy godmother head. I’ll put on a show and hope “someone” will come see it and pick it up. I’ll write a blog and think this will be the one that somehow shifts me from Struggling Artist and Thriving Artist. I write a play and think that “someone” will read it and take me to the theatre dance. And they never show up and I sink back into the ashes to cry and wish, like some older grayer Cinderella without the fairy godmother.

And for some people getting “discovered” does happen. They have mentors or advocates that shepherd them to the ball – but not every one gets a fairy godmother. Not every one who is working gets “discovered.” Being discovered is essentially a passive activity and hoping for it is a heartbreak. If you don’t get invited to the ball, sometimes you find your own way in and sometimes you just have your own party which, while a lot more work, can be a lot more fun and certainly a lot less passive.

I hesitate to write about this internal pattern because it is the very thing someone might use to explain why success eludes me (or any woman.) It’s that thing where confessing to lacking in confidence suddenly leads to blaming women for the confidence gap. I fear that acknowledging that I notice a tiny inner fairy tale princess who keeps waiting to be chosen will then be used as evidence for why I have not made my way to the ball. It sounds as if I am passively sitting on a rock and wishing for my (artistic/professional) prince. Which I categorically am not. I mostly do no wishing at all. I just do doing. I write the thing, I direct the thing, I devise the thing, I produce the thing, I publicize the thing, I invite people to the thing. I write other things. I podcast the thing. I tweet. I email. I call. It’s just that there is, below the doing, a little wishing fairy princess that was imprinted on me from a very young age. She mostly does me no real harm, aside from the disappointment of the fairy godmother never showing up.

It makes me think of a speech that Virginia Woolf gave called “Professions for Women.” She talked about the necessity of killing the Angel in the House. She spoke of the nice, accommodating angel who sacrifices herself for her loved ones. Woolf described how the “Angel” whispers in her ear while she tries to write. And each time she sat down to write, she had to kill the angel anew.

I suspect that it is not JUST the Angel whispering in my ear that I have to kill. The fairy tale princess, trying to help me be chosen, needs to be killed, too, before any real writing can happen. It’s tricky because the fairy tale princess seems to want to help me. She wants me to be seen and accepted, to be invited to the ball – but her voice is just as distracting and manipulative as the Angel.

When I sit down to write I have so much murdering to do. And while I don’t particularly find murdering appealing, I prefer it to the despair and disappointment of waiting to be chosen. It is, at least, an active engagement – an energetic purposeful task. Unlike waiting, which is total enervation.

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The Beginning of Authority in Theatre (and Beyond)
July 31, 2017, 12:48 am
Filed under: Leadership, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

At the end of the evening, the young actors were hanging on his arms, pleading for an audition for whatever he did next. He had just joined a company four months before and directed his first show in the months previous. The last time I’d seen him, a year before, he’d asked me for advice about beginning. Now he was asking if I wanted to be his assistant. I have had a company for 16 years and a Master’s Degree in Directing. But no young actors hang on my arms or tell me they will stalk me until I let them audition.

My friend is a white man with an authoritative air. As an actor, he is at his best when playing ridiculously rigid authority figures. If you’re casting a buffoonish General, he’s the best man for the job. He exudes authority. I do not. When I’m returning to acting, I like to perform with this authoritative friend because I enjoy playing characters who subvert authority – the more restrictive the authority figure, the more fun it is to subvert them. My friend is a genius at playing this charismatic authoritative type and it is tremendous fun to be his subversive second in performance.

I understand that I am not an obvious leader. I don’t think anyone would pick me out of a crowd to lead them. But while I don’t project power or authority, I do lead. I can lead. I make space for people and make things happen. I am not a novice at this – and I am happily finding that there are more and more new models for my style of leadership. Jill Soloway is probably not an obvious leader either but I’d follow her anywhere.

I’m thinking about this because I’m thinking about how these kinds of patterns replicate themselves over and over. How men who project a certain kind of authoritarianism are not just taking power but are also given it. This creates and recreates the same authoritative structures in theatre that we’ve always had and all it takes to replicate itself is one charismatic authority announcing himself and a few people to agree to that proposition and enlarge it with adulation and obsequiousness.

The young actors hanging on the arms of my friend wanted to make theatre like the show they’d just seen and they asked my friend if he made work like that. He said “not really no.” But they didn’t care. They just wanted to work with him, whatever he was doing. They could see he exuded authority and they wanted in, no matter what he was doing, their own interests aside. What is ironic is that I DO make work like the show they’d seen and I am always looking for actors are hungry for it. But they weren’t looking at me. And I didn’t need them to. I have zero interest in the fawning.

I suppose I’m writing this now to help those young actors think more broadly than the obvious. Who knows what other connections they failed to make because they were busy responding to the most authoritative voice in the room?

Extrapolate this out a bit and you can see how we ended up in the political situation we’re in – many Americans saw an authoritative charismatic white guy declaring himself to be the greatest, despite the fact that he had zero experience – and they hung on his words and his arms and swore a sort of blind fidelity to wherever he would lead them.

An authoritative person is not always the best authority. It is a kind of gut response to authoritative behavior, I think, to give over to someone who declares himself a leader. It is probably a primal response that is worth investigating with a more reasoned part of the brain. I mean, evolutionarily speaking, there was probably once a good reason to follow the person who stood up, shouted loudly and said, “Follow me!” I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, so I’m not sure what that reason was. But now, given all I’ve learned, I’m less inclined to follow anyone who claims to have the answers. From the Dunning-Kruger effect, to the No True Scotsman fallacy to Confirmation Bias and the Optimism Bias, social science shows us that our instincts, our gut responses are often way off base. Authoritarianism works, not because someone is a good authority, but because people are so willing to follow someone who declares their authority. It’s time to open up what it means to have authority. This passage from Douglas Adams says it best:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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Generation X Part 4 – I’m the Only One

If you haven’t seen it, Reality Bites was a film about a bunch of twenty-somethings trying to figure out what to do with themselves after college. (A subject that would never play with contemporary twenty-somethings – oh, wait! That’s the exact premise of Girls!) Singles was also in this genre. So was Kicking and Screaming. And also Last Days of Disco. And St Elmo’s Fire.

The funny thing about thinking about the movies of my youth is realizing the sorts of men that the culture wanted me to find attractive. Watching clips of The Breakfast Club anew helped me understand a lot about why I was attracted to jerks in my youth. (Oh, Bender! You’re just misunderstood!) Reality Bites taught me that it was better to be with a cool asshole than a nice square. Lindy West’s article “I Re-watched Reality Bites and It’s Basically a Manual for Shitheads” sums up the issues of that film quite hilariously and succinctly. Heathers features a sexy sociopath that you’re supposed to find attractive and then realize that he’s an actual murderer and that’s not really so cool, you know? In music, boys were “Nasty” and “Wild” and “Bad.” In Singles, the bar for men was so low that all the Bridget Fonda character wanted was a man who’d say “bless you” when she sneezed. The ideal Gen X man was a scruffy tortured cynic who told it like it was.

And, pretty much, this cut across genre. David Foster Wallace is the literary Gen X man. Kurt Cobain is the music version. It’s a sort of hyper-masculinity, a hyper-cool. And it was clearly toxic. Almost every icon who embodied it eventually killed himself. (Keep it together, Ethan Hawke! We’re rooting for you! Eddie Vedder – do you need anything? Any kind of support group we can send you to?) The quintessence of Gen X-ness was a sort of aggrieved masculinity. While Winona Ryder may have been a Gen X icon, she was always in a relationship with this type of cool dude.

There was never a real Gen X feminist movement. We were told our mother’s had taken care of that for us. And surely our mothers hoped they had. Some of our mothers (and fathers! There were some feminist fathers then, too!) bought us Free to Be You and Me and from that we learned that mommies were people and daddies were people and William had a doll and that it was alright for all of us to cry. Lego was for all of us and girls were told we could be anything we wanted.

But it wasn’t that easy. I’ll leave it to a male Gen X writer to speak to how boys took on these messages but I can say that there weren’t that many models for girlhood back then. The percentage of girls in film and TV has gone up in the last decade or so, due to Geena Davis’ remarkable Institute for Gender in Media but when I was a child, there was pretty much just Josie and the Pussycats for me. (And watching clips of that now, I’m a little disturbed by how much those costumes look like kitty versions of the Playboy Bunnies.) On the Smurfs, being a girl was the girl character’s only trait. While the entire village was full of male Smurfs with one defining characteristic (Brainy, Jokey, Painter, etc) the one girl was just Smurfette – the girl one. The Muppets main characters were mostly male where once again the only major female character was defined by her femaleness – and her species. And while Miss Piggy has a distinctive personality – other animals have names that define them more than their species. What if Fozzie the Bear had been Mr. Bear? Or Rolf the Dog had been Mr. Doggie? Or Kermit was Mr. Froggy?

At home we learned we could do anything but at school, and in pop culture, it became clear that mostly we were supposed to be cute, pretty and/or sexy. We were supposed to get ourselves boyfriends this way. Cool boyfriends who’d (maybe) say ‘bless you’ when we sneezed but who’d admire us and tell us we were pretty. Oh and maybe also we could go to college and learn things and maybe have a little career while we were doing that. Nothing too demanding, you understand. We weren’t gonna be challenging anyone for their jobs – don’t worry, we just want to have a little something to make us interesting enough to marry.

I was a pretty feminist kid – and I hung out with feminists. But I also wanted a boyfriend. And I felt that I’d have to sell out a little of the sisterhood, a little of my feminist sensibility to enjoy the affections of dudes. This same impulse made its way into my career. My dream was to perform in the theatre. But I clocked pretty quickly that the professional theatre was not a feminist friendly place. In one of my first acting jobs, I was berated by a costume designer because I did not own a push-up bra. “You want to be an actress? And you don’t have a push-up bra?” he said, horrified, before fitting me for the costume with the plunging neckline. I wanted to work, so I kept my feminist feelings to myself. I bought a push-up bra. I auditioned for floozies and girlfriends and vamps and worked in companies where men always outnumbered women, sometimes three to one. I knew the deck was stacked before I started but my belief in myself was so powerful, I thought it would overcome anything. Even a sexist theatrical landscape. I believed I could transform the world around me. Newsflash. I didn’t quite.

And this is a mistake that every generation seems to make. We think that by raising our girls to believe that they can do anything, that they will. But if we don’t make inroads into changing the systemic sexism, we continue to perpetuate the same patterns. Belief is a wonderful thing but without systemic changes, the same old shit gets reinforced.

The thing is, I expect older generations to be sexist and I expected my generation to be sexist. (I saw what they were seeing. I heard their jokes. I got into those arguments about boys just being better than girls.) What troubles me are the sexists that are younger than me. Because I had some idea that the generations behind me were so much more open, so much more diverse. That’s what the media tells me. Millennials have a reputation for being well ahead on cultural open-ness. And a lot of them are. But some didn’t get that memo. According to this article, the KKK was about to go out of business but are back in play due to the revitalization in the young. A third of Millennials who voted, voted for Lil’ Donnie T. This doesn’t fit into the story of who Millennials are in the common imagination. Avocado toast and Nazis wouldn’t seem to be compatible. (Also if avocado toast is a Millennial invention, I applaud you because it is awesome.)

Millennial feminists are rockin’ it so hard. I love the exuberance and the vitality of their fight. They started a dye-your-underarm-hair trend. I love that. But I watch Millennial men enjoy the same sense of entitlement that my male peers did and that the generation before them did and I can see from this angle how patriarchy gets handed down from one entitled fella to another, like property.

In my local coffeeshops, I see 22 year old men already in the seats of power while the 22 year old women chat about their internships at a magazine. I see young women defer while young men take. And it is so much worse to watch a young man do this than an old. I see young women baffled by a system that they thought was fair when they were getting good grades in school but that doesn’t seem to want them when they graduate. The system banks on young women not noticing the hurdles to their goals until they’re older and the system doesn’t value them anymore. It banks on young women being so busy trying to shape their bodies to an ideal to please some imaginary man that they won’t have time to change the world.

Gen X just got wise to this. We crossed over into the middle space and lightbulbs have started to flash. No one’s coming to fix this for us. Percentage wise, American Gen X–ers vote more than any other generation. We are politically engaged. We are calling misogyny. We are calling bullshit. But we don’t have the numbers. We’re the smallest generation.

So Millennial women, I’m especially talking to you and to you, Generation Z and whatever we’re calling the generation after you. You probably stopped reading this a long while ago, (if you’re reading at all) but if you’re still here, thank you. And I’m just going to tell you what I wish someone had told me earlier: You may think, from where you’re standing, that you will be the woman to beat the odds, that sexism won’t have its way with you. But even if you do beat the odds – one way or another, sooner or later, sexism will become apparent, if it’s not obvious already. You can be the valedictorian of your class, marry an attractive man, try and shape your appearance to please the masses, do all the work, win a bunch of battles, be fierce and capable and prepared and you’ll still be beaten by a man with none of your accomplishments or skill. You think it won’t happen to you – that you are the exception. And I hope you will be the exception. But I have yet to see a woman make it through a few decades without some patriarchal bruises, even if she doesn’t recognize them as such. If you start fighting it now, Millennials and Gen Z and beyond, maybe you won’t have to watch the generations that follow you go through the same frustrating cycle.

This makes me think of Good Girls Revolt, the TV series. (The book is fantastic, too.) Good Girls Revolt tells the story of the young women working at Newsweek in the 1960s. In the TV series, there is a character who doesn’t join the lawsuit filed by most of the female employees at first because she’s doing well. She gets opportunities other women aren’t given. She feels exceptional, because she’s the one beating the odds. She rises in the ranks. Then, in her position as the token woman, she runs face first into some high level sexism. The show perfectly illustrates why the exceptionalism we can fall victim to can be so damaging to our progress as a whole. Our power is in collectivity.

Each generation seems to look at the ones before it, blaming them for their troubles, while meanwhile, in our own midst, the same trouble is brewing. While I was busy worrying about the Baby Boomer Patriarchs and OG-xers in charge, many of the men in my generation were busy learning how to take their places. I missed it because I was too busy working on my exceptionalism. Now as I watch it grow up behind me, I see how it happened. We hope each generation will be better than the last and in some ways they are. But the patriarchy is still in the water.

I know some amazing Millennials of all genders but watching entitled white male Millennials embrace their power gives me the shivers – because the world has a slot for them that they have only to step into to fill. This happened in my generation too – but I missed it because I was too busy looking at the sexism ahead to worry about the sexism next to me. And there was plenty.

When I started my theatre company in 2001, there were dozens of others doing the same. But as I went on, the men’s companies received recognition while the women’s companies floundered. The companies started by men were reviewed and funded and mentored and fostered and encouraged, while the women worked on in obscurity until most of their companies finally folded. While it was happening, I thought it was just me, that somehow my work just wasn’t as good as all those guys getting reviews. It was exceptionalism again but the shadow side of exceptionalism. And in my generation, pointing this sort of thing out wasn’t cool. (And as we learned from our films and music, cool was the best thing to be) so I went along, hoping to swing from the shadow exceptionalism to the one in the light. I think a lot of us did this. Maybe every generation falls victim to exceptionalism. Each generation thinks it will be the one to beat the odds. Each generation blames the other generations for the problems in our own.

Perhaps nothing makes us more American than this attachment to exceptionalism. Even if we don’t necessarily believe in American Exceptionalism, (if we don’t think we are an exceptional nation, for example) we might still find ourselves believing we are exceptional individuals. I suspect that this impulse to believe we will be the exception is how we end up with such abysmal safety nets, such terrible health care and so on. We always think we will be the ones to rise above, that we won’t get sick, that we alone will beat the odds. It is the dark shadow of American optimism. Maybe Generation X is the dark shadow of the optimism of the generations that surround us.

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This is Part 4 of a multi-part series.

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

 

 

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Rejection and The Beats

For a while there, in my youth, I was obsessed with the Beat Poets. My preference was for Ferlinghetti but I finally read Kerouac before I went to college. I taped a paragraph from On the Road to my dorm room wall. (This whole Beat thing MAY have been inspired by an incredible children’s book called Suzuki Beane which features a hip child beat poet. Or maybe not.)

My Dad knew I was into the Beats so he gave me a copy of Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, one-time girlfriend of Kerouac. This book changed everything. I realized who was missing from the whole Beat conversation and who had been included and who had not. I stopped finding the Beats so sexy and found them more sexist. And so, began a lifetime of making work that focused on women’s stories. To go from being Minor Characters to Major. Thank you, Joyce Johnson.

But since there isn’t a Joyce Johnson Minor Characters residency, I had to apply to her ex-boyfriend’s house residency instead. The Kerouac House declined to accept me again.

*Wondering why I’m telling you about all these rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

 

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by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Generation X Part 3 – Islands in the Stream

When magazines used to write about Generation X, they were pretty darn concerned about how much time we spent on our own, unsupervised. The Latch Key Generation may not have really stuck to us as a name (I imagine this was partly because, what’s a LATCH key? When does anyone use the word “LATCH KEY”? It’s clearly an old fashioned word. It’s a key, guys.) but, yes, a lot of Gen X kids went home from school by ourselves because our parents were at work.

You could see this as a problem. (Oh, those poor lonely unsupervised children!) Or, you could see it as a gift. (What independence! What self-reliance!) Leave us alone for long enough, we tend to solve our problems on our own.

The kids in The Breakfast Club start their day in detention as adversaries and by the end of it, they’ve come together to challenge the authoritarianism of their school. The movie opens with a voiceover.

“Dear Mr. Vernon:
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.

By the end of the film, they are the Breakfast Club and recognize that despite their very disparate identities, they are each a bit like the others.

I wonder if Gen X is in a little bit of a life-long Breakfast Club experience. We start off thinking we couldn’t possibly be like our peers. The guy with the Mohawk couldn’t possibly have anything in common with the guy in the tie who wants to be a lawyer. Hardcore and Hip Hop, Grunge and folk punk are not even the same generation, man. But then the guy in the Mohawk becomes a lawyer. And the guy in the tie discovers his inner punk and their kids now go to the same school. And we’re all writing letters to the administration, telling them we think they’re crazy.

Gen X has never been one culture and we have always been highly aware of our plurality. We are ever Freaks and Geeks. But every generation is full of this variability.

Generation painting is always a broad brush. Once you start looking at the details, it all falls apart. Broad brush generation thinking only lets us see a single stroke of color. Boomers are like this. Millennials are like that. And most people stopped worrying about Gen X in the 90s. But like an audience of people watching a show, there isn’t any real uniformity. I told a millennial man a statistic I’d read that suggested that Baby Boomers were leading the Resistance – that they were protesting in significantly larger numbers than the rest of us. The millennial was shocked because he’d just read an article about how Baby Boomers created the mess we’re in, particularly environmentally. He couldn’t reconcile the two ideas. But both things can be true. We may think of the Baby Boomers as protesting the Vietnam War but not all of them were into that. Some stayed inside. Some fought in the war. Some went to work for their family business. Some became evangelicals. Some became Presidents. We are none of us ever only one thing.

As much as I wish it were not so, Paul Ryan is Generation X. I have to allow that some Gen X-ers were not characterized by non-conformity and individuality, or at least not in the ways that we think of it. I doubt Paul Ryan was wearing black in high school or rocking out to Tupac or Nirvana. Frankly, I wish he’d read more David Foster Wallace and less Ayn Rand. But there’s not much to be done about that now. Every Generation has its villains and its heroes. If Gen X has to claim Paul Ryan, then Millennials have to claim Milo Yiannopoulos and Boomers have to claim Lil’ Donnie T. The bozos in culture are multi-generational. And so is the resistance.

We are not the same. But we’re not that different either. A generation is a culture. There are things we share and things that vary. And the overlaps can be interesting.

I read an article about Gen X from the BBC and it referenced major touchstones in British Gen X culture that defined the generation but they were things that never made it across the ocean to American Gen X. We share some culture, we share some touchstones, but we don’t share them all. But despite the major differences in our cultural tipping points, I recognized the British Gen X as the Gen X I know. I don’t know what Gen X was like worldwide or if I’d recognize Bolivian Gen X with the ease that I recognize the British Gen X but I am very curious about that. I lived in Italy in peak Gen X years and in retrospect, I see Gen X echoes in my Italian peers. I met an Italian the same age as me recently and I see the Gen X in him.

But what IS that Gen X thing I think I see? Is it our sense of humor? A spirit of heightened realism? There are things in the stereotype of Gen X that I actually like. I like the pragmatic realist, the skeptic, the cool, the anti-authoritarianism. But am I self-selecting the traits that I like and calling bullshit on the ones I don’t?

Gen X questions everything. Did we get called slackers simply because there was a popular movie called Slackers? Do we have a cynical rep because Reality Bites was a popular movie made about us? It’s all culture. It may all be bullshit. But it’s somehow meaningful bullshit.

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This is Part 3 of a multi-part series.

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Help a Gen X Artist save the world

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 




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