Songs for the Struggling Artist


They Locked Up the Toothpaste

While she attempted to scrape the anti-theft sticker off my shampoo, the cashier at my pharmacy told me that there’d been a big shampoo heist. She figured they were selling the expensive stuff for double the price out on the street. Got to watch out for that hot shampoo! But I get it – the expensive stuff is very expensive and worth it, unfortunately. I asked her if they’d also had a toothpaste heist because I’d noticed that they’d locked up all the toothpastes. “Oh yeah,” she said, “They hit it hard.”

I can’t stop thinking about this. Because toothpaste is expensive, sure – at least more expensive than it should be – but it’s not so expensive as to have a black-market value. Toothpaste is the kind of expensive you don’t notice at all if you have money; You just throw it in your basket and forget about it. But if you’re struggling, toothpaste is the kind of expensive where you kind of can’t believe it. You think about all the other things you could get for that $6 – like, lunch, for example. If people are stealing toothpaste, the most likely explanation is that they’re poor and they want to keep their teeth clean. It is a sign of people trying to retain some dignity in a difficult situation. A toothpaste heist strikes me as being a sign of a deteriorating economic state.

I’d be curious to know if toothpaste was a kind of economic indicator, like they talk about on the Planet Money podcast – a small thing that reveals a truth about the bigger picture. It feels like an indicator to me. Because I’ve worked with a fair number of economically disadvantaged people and there are some things folks end up scrimping on that you wouldn’t think of if it weren’t your struggle. I had a student who got teased all the time by his fellow middle school students about smelling bad. When his classroom teacher investigated, she discovered that his folks were trying to save money on laundry detergent. Laundry detergent might also be an indicator, come to think of it. But that kid’s teeth were brushed!

Having the toothpaste locked up feels almost apocalyptic, especially now, here at the other side of the first (metaphorical) pandemic earthquake. Like, we got through the last year and now we’re getting vaxxed and things are opening back up – but it’s still so bad for folks that they have to steal toothpaste. They’ve stolen so much toothpaste that the pharmacy has started treating it like expensive shampoo, but even worse than the shampoo because it’s behind glass, not just slapped with an alarm triggering sticker.

I don’t run a retail business, so clearly I don’t know but it seems like – if I ran a place and the people were stealing toothpaste, I might just accept that as the kind of loss that benefits the people of the neighborhood I have my store in and not worry too much about it. But, these folks decided to lock it up. Which strikes me as kind of dumb. I have bought toothpaste at this pharmacy before but now that it’s locked up: rather than go through the trouble of finding someone to get a key and open it for me, I’ll just grab some from one of the many other places nearby that don’t put their toothpaste behind glass. It’s just easier. AND, maybe even more importantly, I feel better about those places and their attitude toward the poor of our neighborhood. I feel the same about the stores that have racist practices like this. There are businesses that lock up their hair products for Black people and not their equally expensive products for white people. I don’t go to those businesses – because they make their racism plain, on their shelves. And this feels like a similar kind of vibe. We don’t really have a word for prejudice or discriminating against poor people – but it might be useful if we did. Maybe it’s just raging capitalist? Corporate tool? Cruel economic essentialist? I don’t know – but whatever the word is, my pharmacy has just revealed itself to be that by locking up the toothpaste. Hey capitalists! Don’t lock up the toothpaste! Honestly, I’d rather pay more for toothpaste to help get some for those who are struggling. It’s for the common good.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Do You Have Power?
August 31, 2020, 9:26 pm
Filed under: class | Tags: , , ,

The neighbors were walking through the neighborhood checking out the damage caused by Tropical Storm Isaias. I asked them if they had power and they shook their heads. None of us had power.

And of course, I’m talking about electricity. I was staying at my friend’s place and the storm had brought down trees all over the area, knocking out power lines everywhere. Rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, the power grid was out for everyone.

There’s an idea that’s been making its way around the internet during these global pandemic times, about how we’re not all in the same boat, as some have said, but we are all in the same storm. How the storm impacts us depends greatly on what kind of boat we’re in to weather it. If we’re on David Geffen’s yacht, we’re probably okay. If we’re on a rubber raft, we’re in for some trouble. The week-long power outage on Long Island was a result of a literal storm and the metaphor applies to its aftermath. There were those with generators whose lights only dimmed for a moment as they switched from one power source to another and those for whom the loss of a fridge full of goods may have meant ruin. Your access to power could allow for a cramp in your lifestyle or a full-on shut down.

Our lives are so dependent on electricity and the ways we rely on it are legion. You discover how much when you are without it. It’s not just lights out at night. It’s hot water heaters powered by electric switches. It’s refrigerators and freezers. It’s your phone and your computer and your tablet that become bricks when you run out of batteries. The all-powerful internet is meaningless when you can’t turn anything on that will get you to it. You cannot grind your coffee beans. You cannot run the air conditioning. You can’t turn a fan on. When it’s hot, you’re going to stay hot.

The fact that we call electricity “power” strikes me with great force after a week without it. I walk around in my daily life with extraordinary power at my fingertips. I turn lights on, grind coffee, charge my devices, heat stuff up in a microwave. It is non-stop power. I don’t think of myself as powerful but I do have access to power. There are those that do not have that access.

There’s something about the literalness of this metaphor – something about those with access to power and those that do not have access – that lines up perfectly. When you have power, you take it for granted. I was cavalierly freezing food, running fans and letting my phone run out of battery because I knew I could just plug it in and charge it some more. I previously did not think I had power because I didn’t have artistic access or couldn’t get my art sold or produced or whatever. But I did have access to the sort of power that powers a modern life and until I lost it for a significant period of time, I took it entirely for granted.

When you have power, it is largely invisible to you and highly visible to the people without it. I was acutely aware of the neighbors’ generators – how loud they were, sure – but also how some would power even their driveway lights with them, while others just lit up their kitchens. The house I was in was entirely dark and became invisible to those WITH power at night.

This dynamic is at play with less literal power as well. The powerless can track the levels of power they do not have while the powerful don’t see power at all, they’re just using their juicer at breakfast or investing their money or taking that meeting with that VIP, no big deal.

I feel like this is a central difficultly when trying to make social change. The invisibility of the power structure to those that benefit from it is one of the largest obstacles to making it more fair.

I wonder if we need these occasional power outages to at least just remind us that our hold on power is not something to be taken for granted. It is not a given.

It makes me think of the charitable donations of solar powered lanterns. The ones that are given so students can study, so doctors can practice even when there is no light. They’re particularly useful in disasters. A little solar lamp is not a big dose of power but it is a start. The lights are powered by the power source we all have access to. Sometimes I think this is why the powers that be are so dead set against solar and wind power – because our current leaders are power hoarders. If we powered our electricity with wind and sun, they could not so easily control the power source.

I don’t think of myself as someone with power but I can use what little bits of electrical power I have to type into this machine that I plug into the wall where I get that electricity. And then I post onto the internet which I can access because of power and receive support through that same electric internet for my work. I will then, with the support I receive for this post, buy someone, without power, a light. I want to give power, not just take it. If you want to join me, here are the lights I’m going to buy when my electric powered payment comes in.

This post was brought to you by my electric patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want to help me access some power?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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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The Difference Between A and Z and Progressive Politics

My State Assembly member has been kind of amazing at her job. Let’s call her A because this is about her but not really about her. She is amazing, though. She’s super progressive and has gotten some really sticky legislation passed. She’s kind of heroic that way. Every time I’ve sent her emails through ResistBot or something, when I wasn’t QUITE clear who was supposed to handle the thing I was concerned about, she has responded to those emails immediately and almost every time, the response has been something like, “Thank you for your message. I sponsored a bill about this and am working to pass it now.” It’s happened more than once. She’s ahead of me every time. She’s remarkable. So – that’s A.

Z showed up a few months before the primary elections. We started to get flyers from him and see posters. I couldn’t figure out whose seat he was running for because he was pitching himself as a progressive change candidate and both of our state reps are some of the most progressive reps around. Like, who is he trying to unseat? Our progressive State Senator who kicked off the Cancel Rent movement? Or our state Assembly Member who has been helping the senator to get it passed and co-sponsored the police accountability bill? But it turned out it was A that Z was running against – our amazing State Assembly Member.

From the start, something about Z’s campaign rubbed me the wrong way and it made me feel very strange. I agreed with his positions, sure, but those positions were basically the same as our current rep. What case could he possibly have for replacing a seasoned, highly capable progressive woman?

Well – we found out soon enough that his narrative was that she had taken money from Real Estate after pledging not to. That was pretty much it. And, yes, that real estate business did give me pause. It seemed out of character for her to do such a thing but you know – she’s a politician, you can never be sure. But, most importantly to me, if she had taken money from real estate, it hadn’t impacted any of her legislative choices. She remained a fierce advocate for tenants and for canceling rent.

Z was saying stuff I believe in but A was doing stuff I believe in and has been for 9 years. So – after considering them both carefully. I filled out my absentee ballot enthusiastically for A.

And I cannot stop thinking about these two, especially now that preliminary election results are trickling in and he’s ahead of her by 600 votes. Because here’s the thing – there was no reason for him to run. Everything he wants to do, A is already working on and has the colleagues in Albany and the consensus in the community to do it. She’s good at her job – and he’s never done this before. Why is he running? It feels like he’s running because he can. Because he has friends in high places who want to help get him into politics and maybe he’s got a little bit of a hero complex.

Z is very charming. But for a guy who has a “Feminism for All” platform on his website, it feels a little out of alignment with his ideals to try and unseat a highly capable older woman who fought like hell to get where she is and continues to fight like hell for her constituents. She’s on the young side of Gen X. He’s on the young side of Millennial. This whole campaign has the flavor of the young man turning up and expecting to be hailed as a king for doing the thing the woman has already been doing for almost a decade. She’s a lifelong member of this community. He moved here a year and a half ago. There are things in our freezer that have lived here longer than him.

And there is another layer. We don’t have class here in America. (Boy, do we ever not have class!) But if we did have classes (and I’m kidding, of course we do, we just pretend not to) she would be from the working class and he would be from the ruling class. Her parents ran a deli. His parents are a renowned professor at an Ivy League college and an Academy Award nominated Hollywood film Director.

So – now we’re looking at a working class Gen X woman just beginning to experience the erasure that kicks in for women in their 40s being possibly pushed out by a ruling class interloper Millennial man.

And fundamentally, their positions are almost exactly the same. They disagree about almost nothing. In their on-line debate, he pretty much wanted the same stuff she did but felt it wasn’t done fast enough. A pointed out that until last year they’d been blocked by a Republican senate and were playing catch up a bit. It’s as if Z had no awareness of what had come before. As if he had never heard of the IDC (faux democrats who blocked progressive legislation) that A had to fight so hard to change. But he’s been out, chalking the streets, blanketing the neighborhood with his expertly branded flyers – repeating all the slogans of the moment. In this debate, he proclaimed that we must defund the police and I could almost hear the hashtag. A agreed that yes, we do need to reallocate funds from the police to our schools and such. She’s been working on it.

This whole campaign feels like a big picture version of a woman sharing her idea at a meeting and then a man says exactly the same thing a few minutes later and everyone ooohs and ahhhhs. Except in this case, not only has the woman just said her idea, she’s also already done all of the work for it. And then the man swoops in and gets the applause. The more I think about it, the more enraged I get.

The gender dynamics are one thing and the class dynamics are another. Z’s campaign is sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). And theoretically, the DSA should have some awareness of class. Theoretically, the DSA, as a left leaning organization, should have some affinity with the working class – but rather than offering their support to the current working class woman Assembly Member, they threw their weight behind a ruling class man. The DSA has had some real struggles with how their gender politics are perceived throughout the Bernie Sanders campaign. They’re really not doing themselves any favors in that department here. Anyway – A had the endorsement of almost every union – that is, the support of labor. Z had the endorsement of celebrity members of the DSA. And why on earth is the DSA not aligned with labor? Isn’t that the whole point of socialism? To support the working class? Oh man. This whole thing gets me so worked up.

Because here’s the thing. A has been one of the most fierce advocates for women in our state. She got major sexual harassment legislation passed and she co-sponsored the Reproductive Health Act. I just noticed in her latest email newsletter that she’s pointed her constituents to where they can get free period products – addressing period poverty – a thing I’ve heard almost no one talk about in this country. She’s not out here bragging about it because frankly, she’s not that great at self promotion. She’s a classic Gen X woman, just getting the job done. If we lose her, we will lose one of the best feminist lawmakers I’ve seen.

This should be a highly local race – but Z’s donors include many celebrities who not only don’t live in the neighborhood, they don’t even live in the borough. A’s donors are mostly local. And yes, she did take some money from the police union but they’re a labor union too, so it’s complicated – and she gave it back. As for those hotly contested donations that Z accused A of receiving from the Real Estate Developers – they discussed them during the debate. Let me remind you before I tell you this story, that these donations have literally been the centerpiece of Z’s campaign, they are what all his volunteers have been primed to speak about and the issue that has been on all his materials. Just remember that.

Now – they’re on this Facebook live debate and Z names these two donors and proclaims them to be the most egregious real estate people in the area. Let’s call them George Smith and Carol Jones. When A is given the opportunity to respond, she lets Z know that what he doesn’t know is that here in the Greek community, lots of people have the same name. So George Smith is not George Smith the Real Estate developer but his cousin, George Smith. Z is stunned and asks her about the other one, Carol Jones. Turns out, Carol Jones owns not one piece of property and works as a paraprofessional – in other words, about as far away from a real estate developer as you could get.

The central issue of Z’s campaign against A is not real. It’s a giant mistake and it’s a mistake that reflects a lack of knowledge about a very large swath of our historically Greek community. It was a hell of a moment. Now – did Z apologize? No, no, he did not. It was as if it had never happened. And even though he learned this days before the election, all of his volunteers were still declaring that the reason to vote for him was because his opponent said she wouldn’t take real estate money and then she did. But that’s a lie. It was a mistake before. Then it became a lie. And it burns me up. Especially because it seemed to have worked, for at least 600 more people than I would have liked.

The thing is, though, this is a super local race. So local. You don’t know A and you don’t know Z (though you probably know his mom since she’s a super famous director). Whatever the results, it will likely have no major impact on anyone outside of New York State. But the pattern, folks, the pattern. This pattern keeps repeating itself and repeating itself. And now it’s repeating itself between two ideologically similar candidates.

We fall for the charming ruling class young man who swoops in to “save the day” while the working class women who’ve done all the hard work are erased and I am so done with this.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with this particular election. Two thirds of the votes were absentee and haven’t been counted yet and I know at least two of them are for A but I’m mostly just mad at the DSA for running Z here. Take that condescending ruling class meme-itude somewhere that needs a progressive candidate. We have one. She’s great. She may be unpolished (and boy, I know she’s unpolished – A, blunt lawmaker that she is, when asked what she’d do first in the legislature brought up the reclassification of rape. In the process, she probably said the words “anal rape” four times. No political advisor in the world would have advised that.) but she is amazing. I enjoy the lack of polish quite a bit, actually. It is very refreshing.

Why on earth did the DSA, if they wanted a candidate in this neighborhood so badly not just ask her if they could endorse her? If there was something they wanted to get done that she wasn’t doing, why didn’t they just lay that out to see if it’s something she could work on? I really do not understand at all why an organization that is supposedly for the working people would try to displace a lefty working class woman to install a ruling class elite man.

As A said about the DSA in a local article, “I don’t disagree with any of the issues that they’ve put forward, from criminal justice reforms, to decarceration, to making sure that we expand healthcare, to making sure that we protect our environment — I don’t know how you can run from the left of me. There is no room.”

It’s definitely not the first time a man has pressed his way into a woman’s space when there was no room for him there.

Coincidentally, there is another as yet undecided election in our area with oddly similar demographics. In the congressional race, another handsome South Asian Millennial man is running to defeat the older white woman incumbent. But, in that case, there was ample room on the left. The incumbent there has voted with Republicans on several things and is closely tied to New York Real Estate interests. I was very happy to vote for the progressive man challenging her. He would replace a woman who’s done some racist things, some anti-vax things and I would be very happy to see the back of her. In this case, the younger man is actually more progressive. So I’m not saying no young man should ever replace an older woman. Some should absolutely be replaced.

But this situation is not that other situation. In the case of A and Z, when their views are essentially the same, it mostly just feels like an intense example of sexism, as well as classism and ageism. It reminds me of that classic cartoon of a group of people at a meeting and the man at the head of the conference table says, “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” It feels like the electorate is saying, “Nice ideas, A, is there a man available who could make them?” And lo and behold, one arrived and here we are, possibly about to lose one of the most feminist lawmakers we have.

“Yeah, guys, this one prop piece of paper is gonna do the trick, along with these empty file folders. We’ll just put on these outfits and the votes will fall at our feet. It’s just a woman we’re running against. Nothing to worry about.”

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want to help me keep writing?

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If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

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Be Quiet. You’re Disturbing the Movie.

They were doing a screening of Roma in my neighborhood so I went. The theatre was dotted with audience members – so everyone sort of had a little bubble of space for themselves.

About two rows behind me sat two elderly Latino men. They were possibly the only Latinx people in the place. Once the movie began, they spoke to each other in Spanish. In a movie that is so much about atmosphere, their voices added to the experience. I was only sorry that my Spanish is not good enough to eavesdrop a little.

But some guy on the other side of their row was not happy about their conversation. He shouted at them to be quiet. His shouting was very jarring. And he did it again about ten minutes later. He was really mad about those old guys talking. The third time, he shouted “Be quiet. You’re disturbing the movie.” Which was ironic because to my mind, it was him who was disturbing the movie. (Also – it’s a movie. It doesn’t care what happens out in the audience. I think you mean the movie going experience.) I turned around to glare at him and of course he was a white guy. He was a white guy who was convinced he was being a white guy hero. However, I’m a white lady so I used my disapproving white lady glare to hopefully disabuse him of that position.

I don’t know if it worked or it didn’t work. He shut up after that. If it was my glare, I wish I’d used it sooner. And I don’t know if I ought to have said something to the shouter who was disturbing the movie by declaring the movie disturbed, I somehow didn’t feel like more white people shouting would help the situation.

But I did find it ironic that this white guy had decided to come to this movie about a working class Latina and did not want his experience disturbed by actual (I’m assuming) working class Latinos in the theatre. It felt a bit like all the folks who love tacos and nachos and celebrate Cinco de Mayo but are fine with separating Latinx children from their parents at the border.

It’s all of a piece, it feels to me. It is a control of the space, any space. This attempt to keep spaces like theatres and movie houses quiet and in control is an attempt to exclude, to state who is welcome and who is not. The attempt to dictate how we experience culture is generally classist if not explicitly racist. I’m thinking of that story I just heard on This American Life about a group of kids going to see a movie on a field trip and getting kicked out of the theatre because they had a visceral response to what they were seeing and no context for it. And the racism that they encountered on their way to their seats didn’t help either.

I’m particularly sensitive to this because of my previous work as an arts educator wherein it was my job to prepare students for whatever they were about to see in a theatre or on a screen. Performers loved our audiences because they were vocal and responsive. But if they were ever mixed in with a general audience, the general audience became a problem. It’s almost as if we ought to have been leading workshops for the adults in how to be less classist, racist or uptight before we let them watch a show with a bunch of kids. (Watching shows with bunches of kids is great. People should pay extra to do it.) The kids generally just need a little context and a heads up about stuff that’s going to be new for them. Adults usually need far reaching lessons in cultural imperialism.

In the end, back at Roma, I was more interested in what the two old guys thought of the movie than the movie itself (that’s another post, coming soon) and I definitely hoped to never have to see (or more importantly, hear) Mr. White Savior again – especially at the movies. He very definitely disturbed that movie for me.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

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I’m Not Busy

“I know you’re busy,” someone will say as we look at our calendars to pick a time to meet. Sometimes I just nod, and sometimes, I say, “I’m actually not.”

Most people are a little baffled by this response. How could I not be busy? And how could I confess it? There are a lot of reasons for my retreat from busy-ness but confessing it feels more and more radical and more important all the time.

Listening to Daniel Markovitz’s lecture on The Meritocracy moved me from what I thought was a private rebellion to thinking of it as a public act of resistance. In the lecture, he discusses the transfer of wealth and power from the aristocracy to the meritocracy wherein those good things are distributed to those who work hard for them. He points out that the elite have been working increasingly mad hours and place inherent value in being busy. The answer we’re all meant to give when someone asks us how we are is “busy.”

The theory is that the growing gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us finds justification in the hour of labor a, say, hedge fund manager, puts in. He deserves his private plane because he works so many hours.

Fetishizing busy-ness like this means equating our value with how much STUFF we do. Our virtue is in how much we run around or how many hours we put in at the office. When someone asks us how we are and we say “busy” – we are declaring our virtue (and probably also our exhaustion.) It does not matter what we are busy with. We could be busy taking health care from children and we’re still seen as virtuous for keeping busy.

So. I’m opting out. I have already declared myself a non-productive member of society, it is not such a large step to cease to be busy. Idleness is, in fact, fantastic for art making. A quiet mind has space to invent. That is what I’m here for – so making space for a non-busy life feels imperative for my purposes.

Markovitz also talks about how the gutting of a lot of industries has led to a kind of enforced idleness for the working and middle classes that serves to strip them of their virtue. If to be busy is to be good – then to be unemployed is the worst. This creates a circle of screwed up justification. The working class isn’t able to work (because of systemic changes, usually caused by those at the top) so they’re not virtuous which means their suffering is fine because they’re not busy, you see?

I just finished reading Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All and it makes the case that a lot of the difficulties we’re in culturally, economically, politically – are related to the justification mechanisms of those at the top. For example, a CEO of an oil company feels just fine about his company’s destruction of the environment because he donates to public parks. As he’s blocking the development of sustainable energies so he’ll make more money, he’s sitting, with a great deal of self-satisfaction, on the board to plant flowers in public spaces. He’s busy, you see? He’s not just making money. He’s busy! He’s a good person!

At the moment, I am, in fact, not busy – but I may continue to lean into it when I am busy again. It’s a terrible game and I will not play.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Americans Need Dario Fo

Thanks to my dad and the Friends of the Library, a parcel full of books by and about Dario Fo arrived at my door recently. It’s been years since I last looked at his work and suddenly I was up to my ankles in Fo plays and biographies.

If you’re American, you probably haven’t seen many, or any of his plays. I’ve never even seen a notice of a production here, not to mention an actual production. This work just isn’t done in the United States. The first time I read some of his plays, I could not understand why but now that I’m reading his work anew, I actually understand completely why there’s been no American embracement of his work.

First, he and Franca Rame, his wife and artistic partner, were not allowed to enter the US until the 80s. Our government would not let him in. Second, his work is funny and while the American Theatre lets an occasional comedy through the system, it is a rare occurrence. If an American Theatre institution is going to produce foreign work, it wants it to be arty and arty usually means moody. But also the odds of doing foreign work at all are very slim. Also…particularly in the 80s – artists who had some dealings with the communist party were not likely to be heartily embraced.

Third, and this is the bit I realized while reading, the American Theatre has been much too class unconscious to welcome particularly politically progressive work. For example, in Il Ratto di Diana (the Kidnapping of Diane) – there is a recurring joke about the ruling class. And the problem is, the only theatres that could have afforded to put this show on are all funded by the ruling classes, the kind of folks who really don’t find that sort of thing amusing. The way theatre gets made in this country is antithetical to the presentation of actual working class work that might be critical of the ruling class.

American Theatre is only possible because the ruling class has, historically, donated the funds or the buildings or the grants to keep the doors open. The reason there are parties for donors and velvet ropes is that the American Theatre depends on the ruling class continuing to write them big checks.

American Theatre thinks of itself as liberal but it is rarely actually progressive. Our radical progressive theatres like Bread and Puppet and San Francisco Mime Troupe have only managed to survive by the skin of their hippie teeth – instead of embraced as the brave American changemakers they are.

American Theatre puts on a lot of plays about upper middle class families. Like, a lot. This is because those are the people who write the majority of the checks and they like to see themselves on stage. Those audiences are not so interested in being implicated among the ruling classes and so, of course, no big budget theatre has interest in translating and producing Dario Fo’s work. Of course. Of course.

Translation is part of the issue, too. The English translations we have are English, as in from England, and they read very British. In order to do these plays in America, we need to commission American writers to translate in an American style. I suspect that the way American writers are seen and supported also plays a role in keeping Fo from our stages.

But I think we need Fo’s work. We need to talk about the ruling classes. We need to develop an awareness of class. We need to put on plays that challenge our system –not just sit comfortably within it. And not for nothing, anyone deciding to produce this giant of world theatre will pick up a whole lot of hungry theatre goers who have been waiting for it. That is, if I see someone – anyone producing a Fo play any time soon, I will be purchasing tickets. I will even pay full price to actually hear and see a play that challenges the ruling class.

Also – sidebar – my Italian is passable and I’ve already done a translation of one of Rame’s plays, so I’d be happy to give Fo’s a go if you need an American translation.

Photo by D Frohman

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The Velvet Rope

After the show, we went to the lobby to wait for the actor to emerge after her performance. The lobby was pretty busy. There seemed to be a little reception in progress, featuring sparkling wine and chocolate.

The party was cordoned off with a velvet rope.

We were on the other side of the velvet rope.

The party, we guessed and later had confirmed, was for donors to the theatre. We had been given to understand that the actor would be appearing here eventually. We had been told to look for her here. On our side of the rope.

As the theatre emptied out, only a handful of us stood on the peasant side of the velvet rope. Among us were the actor’s family and her friends.

You might wonder why we didn’t simply unhook the rope from the stanchion and go in. Well – this theatre had thought of this, too. It was so important to them to maintain this separation between the donor class and us plebeians that they had an intern on duty to police it. He dutifully unhooked the rope to allow donors out and did his best to look forbidding to those of us on the outside. He made it clear that this party wasn’t for us and we were not to be included.

For a good long while, this theatre’s lobby featured a small party of about 24 people drinking prosecco inside a velvet rope and seven people standing around outside it, policed by an intern and his boss.

The “party” proceeded like this for some time – that is, until I spotted and made complicitous eye contact with the actor – who, after all was the woman of the hour and finally I just unhooked the velvet rope and ran in, to give her a hug.

Seeing the actor showing me such warmth, the woman in charge of this party, who had clearly found our presence distasteful before, now invited us to eat and drink. We had all been brought inside the rope. There was no one left outside it.

I don’t know what happened to the actual velvet rope after that. It had been designed to keep the riff raff out and once the riff raff was inside, there was no purpose for it anymore. As someone now on the inside, the rope was no longer of any concern to me. I expect that to those who had been inside all along, the velvet rope barely registered their attention. Did they know it was there? Once I was inside it, it ceased to be important to me – but before I got inside, that velvet rope and the people policing it were my primary focus.

This exercise in absurdity seems to me to be the perfect allegory for the American Theatre and maybe for American Art in general.

The theatre where this happened states, in their mission statement, that they “seek to create broad public access and to bond the diverse New York community” and yet, with a simple velvet rope and a zealous gatekeeper, they created division and diminished access – right there in their very own lobby.

It’s not just them. This absurdity plays itself out through almost every arts organization in America. A few years before, just down the street from this theatre, at another arts organization I used to work for, a crowd of artists sat in the lobby while the party for us went on upstairs because the gatekeeper would not let us up. And that’s just a literal example.

The whole field seems to be arbitrarily divided up by absurd velvet ropes. Once you have been invited inside, you can enjoy the prosecco and chocolate and opportunities but when you’re outside, you just sort of stand there awkwardly trying to make eye contact with any friends you have inside. And woe to the person trying to get in to the party without any friends inside.

Trying to make art in this country is like trying to get inside the velvet ropes without any friends inside. There are multiple forces at work that are actively trying to keep you out. There are things like submission fees, onerous grant application processes and requirements for references from well-known persons (this is a way to prove you have a contact inside the party.)

There are ways to increase your chances of getting past the ropes – depending on your field. Getting an MFA might introduce you to an insider (that’s indirectly how I met my insider at this donor theatre party) or interning at the right spot might help you rise up the ranks but your best shot is being born into a social circle or with access to someone who knows someone.

And of course, just making it inside the ropes for one day, for one party won’t really help you in the long run. You need to be a regular insider, to become so used to the prosecco and the chocolate that you don’t even notice them at the party. In order to stand a chance of having your art produced, you need to be so far behind the barriers that you forget the velvet ropes entirely.

The difference between a struggling artist and one who has made it lives in those velvet ropes. The struggling artist is acutely aware of where the ropes are and who is guarding them. They are, after all, designed to keep us out. In a country that prides itself on its egalitarian values, this exclusion is particularly galling. That is made worse by how easily and quickly the barrier is lifted and also how entirely unnecessary the barrier is to begin with.

There was so much prosecco and so much food at this donor party that the staff had to take boxes of it home to prevent it being thrown away. That velvet rope made me feel that that this theatre would rather throw their chocolate away than let me have it. Then I got a nod of approval from an insider and suddenly I could have all the chocolate I could have wanted.

There was no difference in my quality on one side or the other of that rope. I was the same person on both sides of the barrier. Inside, I had approval. Outside, I was a nuisance. It is not nice to feel like a nuisance and yet, because I am outside the rope most of the time, I do feel it a LOT. I made myself go talk to a famous actor recently. While I was telling her how much I admired her work in the show she’d just done, I felt fine – like the metaphorical velvet rope between us didn’t matter at all. But as soon as I tried to hand her the play she’d inspired me to improve and keep going on, I felt the velvet rope pop up – whether on my side or on hers, it doesn’t really matter – the point is, it showed up. I felt like a nuisance and an idiot. The sense of humiliation was profound – even though there was no actual rope.

Part of what is so difficult about being a perpetual struggling artist is constantly bumping up against that rope. If you have a well-connected friend or two, you may on occasion find yourself on the other side for a moment but a well-connected friend will not protect you from all the other velvet ropes that arts organizations put up to keep out the riff raff.

At the heart of the velvet rope distinction it feels like those who are on the inside are just better people. If you’re a writer with an agent, then you must be a better writer than one without. If you know a famous person, you must be cooler than your average person. It is not so far from the American sense that money makes you better – that the rich are rich because they worked hard and deserve it. They’re just naturally inside.

What’s ironic is, I would wager you a bottle of prosecco that the donors inside the rope don’t care a bit about keeping out the riff raff. It is the gatekeepers that are concerned about it. And very concerned they are indeed. Also, ironically, riff raff-wise, everyone in that lobby with me had a degree of privilege already. The tickets at that theatre are quite expensive – so the separation is not between top-hatted monocled millionaires and fingerless gloved ragamuffins – it’s the difference between someone who can afford to donate a building and someone who can afford to enter it. The riff raff are people who can pay to see esoteric theatre for an average price of $75 a ticket.

In the case of this theatre, with its mission to bring people together, it was a literal velvet rope – but arts organizations put up metaphorical velvet ropes every day. If you run one, look at how and where you put up barriers to access. Anything you put in place to reduce your submissions, for example: that’s a velvet rope. Obviously, you can keep it there if you want to – but if you’re only including the agented, the recommended, the degreed or the submission fee’d, you’re sending a message that you are only interested in privileged artists, that you prefer your donors to your audience, that you only want insiders. Your velvet ropes say that you only want to give that prosecco to the people who have a case of prosecco at home. If, like this theatre, you aspire to create broad public access and to bond your community, you have to let your velvet ropes go.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

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You can listen to this episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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The One Who Says Thank You
March 28, 2019, 12:07 am
Filed under: class | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

At my local bagel shop the other day, the cashier said to me, “Oh, I thought I recognized you. You’re the nice one.”

This may be the saddest thing I have ever heard. Like, sure, I’m nice. But I definitely don’t want to be THE nice one. I want to be among the nice ones. ONES. Plural. Then, she went on, “Yeah, you say thank you and all that.”

WHAT?! What is happening, people?! Are you NOT SAYING THANK YOU to the people who serve you? What the hell is wrong with people?! I mean. Listen – I’m happy to be memorable because of my bright smile and my charming sense of humor. If you remember me for my magnetic personality – that is A-OKAY. I am delightful and I’m glad when people notice. But to remember me because I’m the only person who says, “Thank you?!” That is not okay. You know – all of y’all have to do better.

Does saying thank you come naturally to me? Sure. I could not grow up in the South without knowing how to say Please and Thank You. They’d take away my birth certificate if I didn’t. BUT. Even in this mad New York world, people gotta say thank you, too. Most people do, actually. You HAVE to, guys.

I have concerns about my neighbors now. Who is coming here and not being polite?

A few days later, I was back at the spot and witnessed a woman quietly saying, “Thank you so much.” Twice. So I know I’m not literally the ONLY one saying, “Thank you.” But I have concerns. And they are not disconnected to the car count I did the other day. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of out of state plates and fancy cars parked on my street. There was a Jaguar parked in front of my laundromat the other day. And there seems to be an endless supply of BMWs. So I counted them. In the block leading to my building, I counted eight BMWs and four Mercedes. Now – to qualify – some of my best friends drive BMWs. Literally. One or two BMWs on my block would not have even caught my attention.

It’s like, one giraffe in the neighborhood would be pretty cool. We’d all be like, “Wow, have you seen the giraffe?” and feed it from our second story apartments. A pair of giraffes might be kind of sweet. But twelve giraffes? That starts to be a herd and we start to have some trouble. A street full of fancy cars is a like a herd of giraffes showing up in the neighborhood. I have concerns.

Look, there have been some studies related to fancy cars and the tendency to be a jerk. You can read about it in Scientific American, of all places. And of course, I’m not talking about you, my BMW driving friends – you’re like that first giraffe and maybe even the second. The study points out that while fancy car drivers tended to be the jerkiest, only half of those in the study were really jerky. But I suppose given the established correlation between fancy cars and bad behavior, it might be possible that there are a lot more rude folks buying bagels in the neighborhood. The gentrification of my neighborhood is escalating. And it is having some weird effects. There are a lot of metaphorical giraffes and I am now the nice one who says thank you.

Please say thank you when you buy stuff. It’s not hard. You can drive a fancy car and still be nice. I do not want to be the ONLY nice one. Thank you in advance.

“Y’all want to go get a bagel?”

 

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You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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ID NYC Makes a Difference
September 15, 2016, 12:05 am
Filed under: art, class, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve lived in New York City for over a decade and a half. This year, I’ve probably gone to more museums and cultural institutions than I did in all the previous years put together. This is due to the new ID NYC, a program originally conceived to assist undocumented immigrants but that is now making a difference in the lives of all kinds of New Yorkers.

The ID NYC allows for memberships to over 3 dozen cultural institutions across the city. It means for me, that dozens of places that were formerly cost prohibitive are now completely available. I feel like I’m participating in the culture of the city I live in in a way I never have before. The doors are open.

I have experienced this kind of availability in London – where so many of the pubic institutions are truly public and charge no admission fees. This kind of openness creates an engaged literate population. Why has it taken so long for NYC to open its doors this way? I can’t imagine that any of these institutions were thrilled about offering free memberships – but a lot of them operate at the city’s pleasure and the city must be making it worth their while somehow. It’s a hugely important step toward making art be for more than just the privileged few. I hadn’t been to the Guggenheim in probably a decade. The Museum of the Moving Image, maybe 2 decades. And I care about the things they have in their buildings. I just couldn’t shell out $25 a pop to see that stuff. With the doors suddenly open, I can engage.

We talk about accessibility a lot. In so many of the grants I write, the foundations or governments or whomever’s doing the funding, want to know how we make our work accessible. The burden of accessibility seems, in the past, to have fallen primarily an individual artists or companies, while institutions, just by virtue of existing seem to been able to claim accessibility because of various education programs or community events. But those are just gestures. ID NYC has flung open the doors to so many places and I’m very excited about what that will mean for the art that’s going to come. Maybe, finally, we can have a real diversity of audience – of income, of race, of culture. Accessible and exciting.

One of the most amazing things about suddenly having access to museums is my new ability to just run in for a short time. I was early for an appointment and I was near the Met – so I just ran in for half an hour – I got a dose of the Egyptians and ran back out. It was actually a perfect way to experience the museum. When you’re paying, there’s a need to somehow make it worth your while. You don’t want to pay $20 to just dash in and look at one thing. And then in trying to get my money’s worth, I end up over-stimulating myself and I forget more than I remember.

Previously, the policy at some museums where the “Suggested Donation” meant you could pay them whatever you wanted didn’t actually make the work accessible. The shaming effect of just paying a dollar is probably hard on everyone but for people who are actually poor, it can be prohibitive as there is already considerable stigma for poverty. No one wants an appraising look from a museum clerk to add to the bad feeling. So to be able to run in for free, with no status drop required, for as long or as short as you want – it’s a total game changer. For me, it will surely make a difference in my creative work to be able to dash in and get a dose of inspiration when I have a spare half hour.

Culture should be like this. We should be able to access it whomever we are or however much money we have or don’t have. This stuff is important.

I’m inspired, too, by Italy’s decision to invest half of their terrorism prevention dollars in culture. I think it’s very smart. Because the more culturally engaged we are, the less likely we are to want to murder people.

Being able to freely see things like Ancient Egyptian papyri and beautiful paintings can save lives! But also…it just makes for a richer arts environment and that makes for better art, in the end.

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The Selfless Teacher Story
May 6, 2016, 9:42 pm
Filed under: class, education, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I watched a clip of the Ellen show in which they honored a kindergarten teacher for her dedication and generosity. On the surface, it was a touching story about a selfless dedicated classroom teacher, honored on TV and re-paid by a generous corporation. And maybe that’s all it was.

But it seemed to me that the real story was the systemic failures that we, as a country, are failing to address. The remarkable thing that this teacher does at the start of each school day is to make sure all her students have had breakfast and have clean clothes to wear – and if they don’t, she helps them get those things. That she does this on a teacher’s salary is even more remarkable. Target gave her 10K as a thank you for her service and 10k to her school. Which, I won’t deny, is very nice. But probably pales in comparison to what the school needs for its students.

Couldn’t we, as a society, pay our classroom teachers at least 10k more a year?

The salaries for teachers are vanishingly small and when they’re also supporting the impoverished students of their classrooms, it’s embarrassing for us as a first world nation.

Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10K more a year to schools that help develop the kinds of citizens we want to see in the world? Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10k more a year to fight poverty of the kind that sends millions of kids to school every day without breakfast?

I mean – it’s nice of Target to pony up 10k this one well-publicized time – and of course this teacher is remarkable and deserves to be honored – but it feels very much like a con game to me. It’s a snow job where we look at this generous woman and a generous corporation and feel good about ourselves for a bit instead of looking directly at the way we’ve structured our society. I don’t know my dystopian science fiction so well – but surely there’s a story wherein the culture sets up one person a year to help congratulate them and the whole culture rallies around them to celebrate – thereby dissipating the anger that might be brewing around the growing income disparity and poor children everywhere. Which story is that like?

Or maybe that’s just us.

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I searched for images of children in poverty and every single one of them was a child of color in a far away land. No poverty to see here in America, no sir! (ahem.)

 

Normally, at this point on the blog, I’d ask you for to contribute money to my blog by becoming a patron on Patreon. This time, though, I’d encourage you to donate any spare dollars you have to help fight poverty in America. I mean, 1 in 5 American kids are living in poverty. So – – –

There are tons of organizations that work for economic and hunger relief. Here’s an option: Fight Poverty in the USA

But, of course, poverty relief is a bandaid. Total reform would be nice. Maybe the National Center for Law and Economic Justice might be a better place to send your dollars. 

Meanwhile – we rely on Target and the Ellen show. 

 

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