Songs for the Struggling Artist


Is This a Dragon Zeitgeist?
July 5, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, feminism, Gen X, Imagination, podcasting, writing | Tags:

As many of my readers will be aware, back in 2018, provoked by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I wrote a piece called “I Am a Dragon Now. The Fear of Men Is My Food.” A few months after that piece went around, elements of it poured themselves into a piece that became The Dragoning, an audio drama podcast. The podcast came out in the spring of 2020 and Season Two just launched.

I’m taking you through this timeline because here, in 2022, an award winning author has published a novel called When Women Were Dragons, in which there is an event known as The Dragoning. A friend sent me a review of this novel because it sounds an awful lot like my piece. Not identical, of course, but close enough to be uncomfortable.

Has, bestselling author, Kelly Barnhill STOLEN my idea? I doubt it. I suspect dragons were in the air and we both reached for them. I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea about ideas. She unpacks this notion in Big Magic. This is her theory that ideas just sort of float through the air and they visit whomever they think will realize them. The ideas visit lots of artists at once, just to be sure they are born. My guess is that The Dragoning was in the air and it chose both me and Kelly Barnhill. I got the idea out faster but Barnhill will spread it wider.

It is slightly uncomfortable, of course, to find that something that came from my brain also appeared in another person’s brain – and a woman who is exactly my age, no less. It’s like the idea was flying around in 2018 and was like – “I need a 44 year old woman to take this and run with it” and maybe it wasn’t even just me and Kelly Barnhill. Maybe there are a dozen more 48 year old women who were visited by the dragoning fairy four years ago.

Is it possible that Barnhill consciously or unconsciously lifted this idea from me? Like maybe she read the blog, which did go pretty viral, especially among Gen X women and thought, “I can imagine a world based on this!” And off she went. It is possible. Same thing happened to me! But, do I think she STOLE this idea from me as every novice writer is always convinced will happen to them? I do not. I’ve read Barnhill’s work. She has no shortage of imagination. She’s not out here trying to steal anything. She doesn’t need to. Her brain makes up lots of neat stuff on its own. She does not need to steal. I’m incredibly confident in her ability to make up her own magic.

But I do find myself in this incredibly awkward position of finding my own work slightly less google-able because someone else, with a much larger platform than me, has written a work with my title in it. They got Naomi Alderman, who wrote one of the most exciting books of the last few years – The Power, to write a review of it in the New York Times. Naomi Alderman is ALSO 48 years old. It feels like all the girls in my class are writing magical feminist speculative fiction and they all joined a club so they’re getting together and hanging out and I’m all by myself over here, quietly declaring I was here with this first.

The other thing that sucks about this is that the only way to find out if Barnhill’s work is somehow derivative of mine is to read it and I don’t feel I should, even though I know I’d enjoy her writing. I loved her novels for young people but I don’t want to mix up the waters. I don’t have any plans to write a third season of The Dragoning but I’d like to have the option and I don’t want to unconsciously take on a different writer’s dragons. So I guess I just have to wonder about it – or wait for my friends to read Barnhill’s book.

I feel like I want Barnhill’s book to be a success because maybe a rising dragon tide could lift all dragon boats. But I’m also not looking forward to being overshadowed by an established writer, who has an agent and an editor and all the trappings that come along with success. I’m proud of my work and it would be very painful if the spotlight shining on that award winning author just cast me further into the shadows. That’s why this is complicated. I am reasonably sure we’re all just part of a zeitgeist in a world where women long for the power of dragonhood, while we watch our rights and hope disappear. But the zeitgeist doesn’t feel great. Maybe just because I’m not in the club.

I’m obsessed with this Paolo Uccello painting from 1470. I love that this woman has the dragon on a leash, like she’s walking it and the knight looks like he’s giving the dragon a COVID test.

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Context Is Everything: A Gen X Look at The Lost Daughter

There’s a little bit of a conversation happening in feminist circles around the movie The Lost Daughter, written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I felt it was my duty, as a feminist on the internet, to watch it. I didn’t really think I’d have anything to SAY about it necessarily but I like to be informed and it turns out I do have something to say. Funnily enough my thoughts are probably more Gen X related than feminist related, though. I suppose at its heart it’s Gen X feminism that’s gotten under my skin.

The movie takes place in the more or less contemporary moment (though not precisely, as it is a covid-less world) and Olivia Coleman plays a 48 year old woman. When the movie flashes back to her twenty something self, it is to about twenty years ago, though it has a vague sense of being in the 90s. The character wears foam earphones, like back in the day. The song she tells us she loves is the Gen X anthem of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” The context of the film says, “This is a Gen X woman.” But very little of this makes sense. Like, I guess a Gen X English woman could go crazy for “Livin’ on a Prayer” but it’s odd. It would mean something in real life. I don’t know what it would mean exactly but whatever it means doesn’t add up to the person in the movie.

Look, I, like the character, am also 48 so I may be overly tuned in to the specifics of this woman who is meant to be my age – but I would be awfully surprised to meet a woman my age who grew up in Leeds, became a passionate and respected academic translator of English poetry into Italian AND her favorite song was “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I’d need a whole movie to explain how that could be. Honestly.

Also – one of the central events of the movie  is just so weird and out of generational character that it would need another movie’s worth of explanation to make it make sense. In the movie we learn that Coleman’s character has two daughters in their mid to late 20s – which means she had them in her early 20s. This would be extremely unusual for a highly educated ambitious Gen X woman. Certainly there are Gen X women who had their kids young, no doubt. But it is incredibly rare in a character like this one. Most Gen X academic nerds would wait years to have their kids. And to have TWO kids so young? Again, as an ambitious academic? One, I can buy. That’s a mistake, probably. Two, seems crazy. Like, I need an explanation for it, or I’m going to spend the whole movie confused. Which I did.

Anyway – (and this is a spoiler so skip ahead to the * towards the end if you want to be surprised)

SPOILER FOLLOWS:

 

– when her kids are five and seven she leaves them, whole cloth, never to be seen again until three years later. The movie tries to make this understandable but it’s just – weird.

As my Gen X friend, with whom I discussed this, said, “There WAS child care in the 90s.”

Like – leaving their kids is just not something I’ve ever heard of anyone doing.  Tempted? Sure. Kids’ll make you crazy, I’m given to understand – But to just leave? When divorce, joint custody, childcare and blended families are all options that are on the table? She leaves her family for a rewarding sexy professional life. Seems like a nice life she’s leaving them for but the choice is super weird. Gen X moms know how to work it out. We grew up with working moms. The work/life question really isn’t this giant a conflict for Gen X moms. It still sucks. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s not so extreme that leaving for years at a time makes any sense. Our conflicts in this arena are much more subtle, more nuanced. We didn’t have to flee the people we love to have a life of the mind.

The thing that seems important to recognize is that this film is based on a book by Elena Ferrante – who writes about the specifics of Neapolitan women in earlier eras with razor sharp analysis. I haven’t read The Lost Daughter – but I’ve read her Neapolitan quadrilogy, with which it would seem to have a lot in common. I’d imagine they are set in similar time periods. I assume, from the structure of this film, that the book takes places decades ago. I know from the articles about it that it is concerned with both the mom character’s Neapolitan background and the bits of that she shares with her fellow tourists in the group. I assume that the main character, Leda, is of an entirely different generation. I can probably even guess which one. Based on the choices she makes and the desperation she feels and how limited her scope is – I’d say she’s a contemporary of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. These are women so backed into corners they feel they have no other choice but to stick their heads in the oven or permanently walk out the door.

These choices are perfectly readable in a time of extreme oppression. And I’m delighted to realize that the 90s were not a time of extreme oppression. Gen X women did actually have choices in the 90s. If we wanted to study Italian poetry, we did it. It’s not that extreme, actually. So this character just seems like she has a need for some medication and a good therapist, at the very least. This story, as told in the film, makes no sense. But – if I just sort of overlay the events on to say, the 1950s or early 1960s– with a bunch of Neapolitan roughs – it all falls into place. Context is everything.

Let’s do some math. Let’s assume this film is set in this current moment. So – this character is my age, right? Which means she probably graduated from college in 1995. Her eldest child is 25 – so she had her two years after she finished undergrad so that’s 1997. The character is a serious academic so she must have gone on to get a masters, probably a PhD. Did she get pregnant while she was in grad school? Probably. Unless she’s supposed to be in grad school at the point when we first meet her? And that old guy is her advisor? I don’t think so – because a well regarded scholar wouldn’t be citing the work of a grad student. She’s published somewhere. She had her two kids somewhere in the middle of getting a PhD and getting published. I’m not saying that’s not possible – but it is pretty unlikely in the late 90s. At the point when we meet this character, her kids are 5 and 7 which means it’s around 2002.

This Gen X mom abandoned her kids in 2002. It’s not 1957. It’s 2002. There WAS childcare in 2002. Again, not great childcare- but childcare. Also, there were cell phones. I got one in 2002 and I was very late to the party. AND – as my friend pointed out there was feminism. There was serious feminism. I’m sorry but you couldn’t be a serious scholar in this era without some encounter with feminism. It’s a whole field of scholarship and no Comparative Literature scholar could get through academia without a serious grounding in it. I’m not saying every academic in this era was a feminist but to not have any relationship to those issues at all in this era? Sorry. No way. You’re either in the game or you’re Camille Paglia and no one’s going around just translating a bunch of male poets in 2002 with no awareness of what feminist scholarship would have to say about it.

But set in the right context – in, say, an era that had problems “that had no name,” like what Betty Friedan was talking about, and when second wave feminism was really just strapping on its boots, sure – it all would make total sense. We would, in fact, root for a character to get out in that context. This character would be a singular person up against the tide of her culture and her time and we would have her back.

I mean – the thing is, both feminism and childcare had been around for decades by the time this character leaves her kids. A lot of Gen X kids were raised on both of those things. Many of our mothers were feminists. Many of them were working mothers who sent us to daycare. Our parents got divorces when things didn’t work out. And it was fine. Not a big deal. But this film somehow lives in a world where there are neither Gen X feminists nor Baby Boomer feminists or Millennial or Zoomer feminists for that matter. This is probably because it’s based on a book that takes place so long before.

Do Gen X moms fantasize about leaving their families and disappearing for awhile? I’m sure they do but fantasizing is very different than doing – and the choice to chuck it all, just generationally, doesn’t make sense. I feel like a lot of Gen X moms waited to have kids so we wouldn’t feel the need to abandon them.

 

*SPOILERS COMPLETE

Is the film well done? It is actually. The performances are excellent; Coleman is always amazing and Gyllenhaal has done extraordinary work. I loved how the eroticism of the character’s work was palpable and exciting. There’s an artful quality to it all – but it’s just weird. And not in a good way.

As Nylah Burton said, in Bitch Magazine,

“We need more messy female characters, but “messy female character” does not have to mean illegible female characters. Sometimes the two are mixed up. Confusing the audience about who a character is at their core doesn’t endear us to them or make them feminist heroes;”

Making Coleman’s character specifically Gen X makes things that would have been legible, absolutely opaque. The good news is that this movie makes me see some incredible progress that has been made over the years – that Gen X women are actually more together than I’d have thought.  

I feel like you could MAKE it make sense – with another few hours of story and context and explanation. Just the way I’d need another movie to figure out how a working class Gen X academic woman from Leeds ended up a big fan of Bon Jovi, I need another movie to make this movie make sense. It might be an interesting story but it would take a long time to explain.

I mean, this is a pretty Gen X look. I can’t argue on that point.

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Circles of Gen X Friends

Someone in the Gen X subreddit proposed a “dating” app for making Gen X friends. I expressed my enthusiasm for it, saying it appealed to me because most of my Gen X friends have moved out of NYC. Someone replied that they still had a lot of Gen X friends in NYC and I did not respond to that person with a hearty sarcastic, “Well good for you! Aren’t you a lucky one?” Though I wanted to.

I did not say, “I guess most of your friends didn’t move to NYC to chase their theatre dreams or their art dreams or their music dreams or their poetry dreams or their film dreams or their dance dreams and I guess everything worked out for your people, huh?”

Now I don’t mean to imply that stuff didn’t work out for my friends. They moved here to follow their dreams and then they followed them to other places. They run theatres in their hometowns or their adopted cities. They have poetry programs and dance companies around the world. They make movies in their native mountains. They make paintings and sculptures of their new neighborhoods. They bring their big city dream-following perspective to young people in far flung spots. It’s working out for them.

But the fact of those folks leaving does mean that any community that formed when we all moved here has been scattered and lost. I imagine that this happens to every generation at some point. Everyone moves to NYC like they’re going to be here forever and then they leave after a handful of years. I guess that’s the norm. Contrarian that I am, I moved here like I was only going to stay a year and here I still am, over two decades later. I miss the leavers and need to find (or reconnect to) more stayers.

That’s why a Gen X “dating” app for friends sounded really good to me. That’s why (prior to the pandemic) I wanted to be invited to your party. That’s why I joined multiple book clubs. That’s why I joined a knitting/crochet group, even though I am VERY BAD at crochet. I will tell you – in every single instance of attempting to make friends in this city – I was always the lone Gen X-er. Every single time. So, sure, this random person on Reddit may still know a lot of Gen X-ers who live here but they probably travel in much different circles than I do. Maybe they’re high-powered lawyers or over-committed doctors. Maybe they belong to the Yale Club or Soho House and hang out drinking martinis with fancy people. That’s nice. Sounds like fun. I used to hang out at Dojo where you could get a whole carrot-ginger dressing-covered dinner for less than $5.  It’s harder to find Gen X-ers here, in general, and even more challenging to find some who would have felt at home on the St. Mark’s Place of yore.

It’s not like I don’t have any Gen X friends here. I still have quite a few. It’s just that I used to have a community of Gen X friends, or rather, communities. Two decades ago, I had circles of friends. I had theatre friends, music friends, circus friends, education friends, college friends, Shakespeare friends, random friends, friends from my home state. There were circles that intersected and some that never would. I have lone friends now. The communities have gone off to more hospitable climates but one lone friend usually remains. Often, I am that lone friend.

Also, the friends I still have here are New Yorkers and therefore usually impossibly busy. Most of them are also parents so they don’t have acres of time for galavanting around NYC with the childfree likes of me. It’s not that no Gen X-ers are here. It’s just that they are busy and the social nets of our communities have vanished and so we stand a vanishing chance of just happening to be in the same places together at the same time.

So maybe I don’t need a Gen X friend app. I need a Gen X circle creating app. It’s not that all the dream followers have followed their dreams elsewhere – some of us are still here – it’s that the communities that formed around those dreams have dissipated and there’s no good way for those of us whose circles have vanished to build new circles.

Frankly, I think it’s a problem that this city spits out as many artists and dream chasers as it does. It may be good for the places it spits people back into, but it is terrible for the artistic life of this city.

We lost artists from multiple generations this last year and a half. The city failed to support most of them in their darkest hours and now we’ve lost them, probably forever.

Most Gen X artists already left when they were in their 30s and now most Millennials are in their 30s (the eldest ones are turning 40 this year) and what with the abysmal way this city supported its artists recently and the inevitable waves of NYC spitting out its dream followers, I think there’s bound to be an exodus in the next decade. Maybe I’ll be in it, who knows? (Unlikely, where would I go?)

Will Gen Z artists and dream-followers even bother coming here? If they do, I hope this circle dispersal doesn’t happen to them, too. I read recently that we know a city is dying when young people stop moving there to chase their dreams. I’m not loving the prognosis for NYC that way right now. Maybe let’s get that circle app going, pronto.

****

In case you’re new here, I wrote a whole series about Gen X a few years ago. It starts here and expands in many thematic directions. Or you could search the whole range of Gen X writing here.

Just a circle of Gen X childfree friends galavanting around the city like we used to. We’re going to go get a soy burger at Dojo after.

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 iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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The Intersection of Capitalism and Patriarchy Is a Killer
July 25, 2021, 9:40 pm
Filed under: art, Gen X, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , , , ,

TW: Suicide

You know how certain roads just seem to be extra dangerous? At some intersections, you see heaps of flowers and other tributes to people who were lost there. Governments attempt to put up traffic lights or stop signs but some of those intersections are just relentlessly dangerous.

The places where patriarchy meets capitalism are like that, metaphorically speaking and they seem particularly dangerous for Gen X men.

The day I watched the memorial service for my Gen X actor friend, I also saw an obituary for a Gen X visual artist. Both of these tributes paid homage to the generosity of their artistry, the dedication to their crafts and both seemed to suggest that these men just never really figured out a way to effectively make decent money.

To say I relate to this problem is an understatement. I also have never cared much for material things and also have never really solved the problem of capital. And yet I have not even been tempted to throw myself into a river as those men did. I’m not saying this is why both of those Gen X men ended up this way. We can’t know that. In at least one case, severe mental illness was also a factor but I was struck by this commonality between us all and was reminded of the year when I devised a show about money. In having conversations with my peers about money and all the baggage that came with it, I learned that a lot of the men felt an intense pressure to provide, even as they were following their dreams. There was a different quality to their ambitions to make money. Their manhood depended on making a substantial amount of it. They had a little patriarchal demon on their shoulders at all times demanding that they provide. Or maybe there were two demons – one a patriarch and the other a capitalist and they just goaded one another along, degrading a man’s self-worth until he ended up at that treacherous intersection.

The thing is, even though I have a similar relationship to money and success as these guys, I feel fairly certain that no one would mention it in my obituary or in a eulogy. As a woman, it’s not that big a deal, I think. If I’d managed it, the world might be impressed but not managing it is weirdly expected. (That may be one of the reasons it’s not working so well for me.) That men have to suffer so profoundly if they don’t somehow make capitalism work for them is the intersection with patriarchy. Patriarchy defines manhood and success and it uses capitalism to keep its men in line.

The visual artist we lost sounded like a kind man. He drew hearts in chalk all over the city. There are testaments to how his drawings gave people hope in a dark time. This is a beautiful thing to do. He ought to have been rewarded, honored for his service, given a grant to continue it. But no ones gives grants for stuff like that. A grants committee would have laughed such a project out of the room.

But he couldn’t figure out the unsolvable problem of how to capitalize on a work of service and perhaps saw no way to go on. A project like that is not a commodity. It’s not for sale. It shouldn’t be. And an artist shouldn’t have to starve while he creates things that are truly for the greater good. The thing is, I’ve known quite a few artists who died at the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism. Some leaned into capitalism and some ran from it – but the result was the same. It’s heartbreaking every time.

I don’t know whether this is a peculiarly Gen X problem or if we ought to start keeping an eye on Millennial men now just in case. Maybe it’s just part of middle age? It feels like our generational antipathy to selling out and/or working for the man, as well as our propensity for questioning authority might make this intersection especially dangerous for our generation – but I can’t know for sure.

But I do know that smashing the patriarchy would do a lot of men as much good as it would women. When I fight for the end of patriarchy, I really am fighting for men, too. For some of them, it is a life or death situation.

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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Tricksy Feminists

In college, we made a show called Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage! which I started thinking about after reading Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I was just going to write a quick little review of Fleishman Is in Trouble for Goodreads but then I started thinking of that show and what we were trying to do with it, which was going to need some explaining, and then I started thinking more about the novel, which began to make me mad and voila! – blog post.

I’ll start with this show. I made it during a guest semester I took at a state university. I’d spent three semesters at Sarah Lawrence College and while my education was aces, I was longing for a social life, so I decided to take a break from my progressive elite education and go to some parties (as well as classes, sure) in Virginia for a semester. That transition was a kind of a feminist wake up call. I’d gotten used to a place where feminism was a default position and I was absolutely shocked by the retrograde patriarchy still in place at this state college. I joined a rebel feminist group and we decided to make the show, to give the place a real consciousness raising because whooo boy, did it need one! We put “Live Girls On Stage” in the title because we were worried about preaching to the choir and we hoped we’d bring in a few frat bros by suggesting we were a burlesque show rather than a feminist collective. We thought we were pretty clever. We put paper dolls of Barbie dolls on our posters. We thought that we’d change the world with or little feminist variety show. I’m both very proud and very embarrassed by this venture now. I’m bringing it up because of this little Live Girls trick. Did it work? Of course not. Though we did sell out, which was better than most of my subsequent feminist work. But I’m thinking about it because I feel like there’s something similar at work in Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I read this book because it was advertised to me on the Guilty Feminist podcast. It was billed as an hilarious feminist novel. That’s catnip for me. Of course I was going to read an hilarious feminist novel.

You may, at this point, not be surprised to learn that I found this book to be neither hilarious nor particularly feminist. They Live Girls Onstaged me and I fell for it. I don’t blame the Guilty Feminist podcast. They need advertising dollars as much as anyone and I can imagine how this happened. Someone on the marketing team thought this book was kinda feminist and googled all the places they might be able to place some feminist ads and the job was done. But, oh, oh, did I feel like a frat boy who thought he’d come for burlesque and got a bunch of show tunes and sketches instead. I’m going to give you some spoilers now – or really a spoiler. One might call it the twist of the book. If you want to skip these next seven paragraphs to avoid this reveal, please feel free. I think knowing what’s coming might actually improve the experience of reading it but…it’s up to you.

The book begins with the story of a man who is in the process of divorcing, dating and doctoring. It is a bit how I imagine a Philip Roth or John Updike novel. (I’ve never read either as I am not at all interested.) It’s the story of a wealthy man on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who often feels he is not wealthy enough. He describes himself as a hero of a dad and his ex-wife as a useless soul-less social climber, who disappears on him. It’s all narrated by his female friend, who used to work at a men’s magazine so she’s practiced at getting into the heads of men.

Then, about three quarters of the way through, the narrator of the book runs into the ex-wife and we get a sense of the time-line we just experienced from her perspective. Surprise! She’s not the monster her husband made her out to be! The book finishes with a kind of alliance between the women and a little rant about how bad marriage and middle age can be for women and then the narrator takes a taxi back to her husband, from NYC to the suburbs of NJ.

I THINK this is being marketed as a feminist novel because it tricks us into thinking it’s a man’s story at the top and then TRICKSY! It turns out to be a woman’s. And the guy who seemed like a sort of good guy is kind of a dirtbag. SURPRISE! You’re NOT seeing Live Girls Onstage like you thought! It’s a consciousness raising instead! It’s Tricksy Feminism, trying to convert the unconvertable. If those frat boys only knew what it was really like to be a woman, they might not be such sexist pigs!

If we get men to read a story about a man, they’ll keep reading to learn about a woman’s perspective of the same stuff!  We’ll sneak some women’s issues into that Phillip Roth novel! We’ll raise their consciousness without them even knowing! Tricksy!

But the thing is – none of those issues that the woman face are dealt with in a particularly feminist way. None of them ever rallies together with other women to make a change. They deal with sexual harassment and discrimination. They deal with sexist and dehumanizing medical treatment and generally struggle with some old school Simone de Beauvoir Second Sex shit. But no one seems to know that feminism exists. It’s a weird world without any real social movements. It’s a world where someone experiences overt sexism and no one will name it. Feminism isn’t just women having lady problems. It’s a social movement in which people work together to make our world more equitable. This book had nothing to do with that as far as I could see.

For me, the book was mostly largely about rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan having a lot of privileged problems. Was it compelling? Sure! It’s very well written so you couldn’t ask for better fiction about the ennui of a particular kind of privileged life. If you want to know about the inner lives of women who choose their pilates classes based on maintaining social ties, look no further. You’ve found your book. Even the women in this book, in the middle of realizing all the betrayals of sexism and such, never get beyond themselves to even consider attempting to make a change. They don’t have a feminist awakening. They don’t decide to organize. They don’t start to examine their own privilege – not their racial privilege, their economic privilege, not their abled privilege, none of it. If there’s any feminism in the book at all (and I’m not convinced there is) it is not intersectional.

I keep thinking of the end of the book when the narrator takes a taxi back to her house in New Jersey from NYC. I think it’s supposed to be a romantic gesture? But all I can think of is how expensive that taxi ride would be and yet it’s not even a whisper of a thought for this character.

Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage was a sophomoric feminist show. I was literally a college sophomore when I made it. I’m fairly certain we didn’t change anyone’s mind and only expressed a bunch of things that were hard for us (mostly white) ladies. It was a little tricksy but mostly harmless and possibly a fun night out. I feel like Fleishman Is in Trouble is similar. A little tricksy, mostly harmless and a fun read. The trouble is in the marketing. There were live girls on stage but they really weren’t what I had in mind.

I’m about the same age as the characters in this book so I have a sense of the world they grew up in. I know there was feminism in that world, for example and it’s clear to me that characters that don’t have their feminist awakening until their 40s are characters who ignored or rejected feminism in their youth. If you’re not discovering sexism until your 40s, you’re late. You’ve very late. I mean, get to the party when you get to the party but you are very late.

But one thing I know about the party from our collective college years is that in some places, the party was already in full swing, had already evolved and was searching for ways to grow and the party at the other college was just getting into gear. It was in its sophomore stages and needing a jump start. When my friend and I would walk into our Sociology of Women class at that state college, our teacher would say, “Here come the radicals!” And let me just say, as much as I enjoyed that greeting, I was VERY FAR from being a radical then. (“Couldn’t we do it in a nice way? But I don’t want to upset anyone! I don’t want to take anything away from anyone! I just want a teeny tiny itsy bitsy bit of equality, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”) Anyway – what I’m saying is that it’s all relative. At Sarah Lawrence, I was a pretty run of the mill every day sort of feminist, at the state college, I was a radical. Maybe for the characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble, this sort of naming of women’s issues IS radical. It’s first stage feminism. It’s late to the party feminism but fine, I guess.

Yes. This is the poster. Yes I still have it.

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Would I Go Back to the 20th Century?

There’s a Reddit question I can’t stop thinking about in which someone wanted to know what life was like in the 20th Century because they were born at the top of the 21st and couldn’t imagine it. They particularly couldn’t imagine life without the internet. They asked those of us who’d been around for the previous century if we would go back to the way things were before.

Would I? Would I give up the internet and my mobile phone? Would I surrender my laptop? Sometimes I think I would. I started writing this outdoors at my local coffee shop. Just as I was finding my groove, the woman nearby got on her phone and started talking about her family life very loudly. I would give that up. I really would. People have always talked to one another in coffee shops – but there’s something about the private phone calls in public spaces that I still find jarring, even though they’ve been around for a couple of decades. Would I give up my phone? My text messages? My personal voice mail? To just have a clearer distinction between public and private space? I might. I really might.

I don’t want to get all Grumpy Old Man here and start droning on about back in my day. But back in my day we didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have the internet. We had to go to the library to look stuff up and we liked it! We loved it! Nah. I mean. We did go to the library – and we did love the library but being able to just look stuff up with a thing we keep in our pockets is amazing. I remember when I first got a computer that would allow me to dial up and use the internet. My grandmother asked me why I was so thrilled, why I found it so amazing. I remember explaining that it was like having the biggest library in the world in my apartment. I was a little overwhelmed by it, truth be told. What should I look up when I could look up anything?

I think this must have been RIGHT at the turn of the century. I’d just moved to NYC. It was an exciting moment. The future was in the air. But it also wasn’t really the future yet. I was still sending my friends and family letters then. In the mail. Receiving letters was unremarkable but it was also, in retrospect, special.

Sitting down to read a letter was a quiet moment, separate from the hum of life. It was an occasion. There are still letters I remember reading because I remember the rock I was sitting on, the chill in the air or the feel of the paper. No email has ever been as special as even the most banal letter.

When we first got email, it was a thrill. We got email my senior year of college, something I’d been wishing for since First Year. I had a hot email romance with a friend of a friend at another college that eventually taught me a swift and important lesson about chemistry and the massive power of projection over internet communication.

But even so, I was so so excited about email. I didn’t have it after graduation but two years later, I got a Hotmail account. I was on tour at the time and every so often we’d find ourselves in a place that had internet access and the only person I remember emailing was a Canadian improv guy I’d had a little romance with in Edinburgh during the festival. We were very excited to expand our communication beyond postcards and I remember finding a library with computers in some college town that could help me do that. The first few years of digital communication for me were very romantic. Mostly literally.

I find this hilarious now because email has become such an onerous burden. No one finds email romantic. I bought a book called The Tyranny of Email because it so aptly described how I felt about it by then. A few years ago, I turned off all visual and sound notifications for email because I noticed I was having a stress response every time I heard/saw it. (Actually, I turned off the sound when someone ELSE’S email dinged a notification like mine and I had a stress response.) There was a period in which I had to imagine putting on armor before opening my email, so stressed out it made me.

The same sort of journey happened with the phone, actually, now that I think about it. Back when there was nothing but a land line, I’d get excited when the phone rang. We’d race to answer it, sure it was some good news. At the sound of it, I’d think, “Finally! My big break!” Now, when my cell phone rings, I think, “Oh no. Who is that?” And yet there is rarely a mystery; their name is on my screen when I look at it. If it’s a friend or family, I feel relief – but generally, it’s just trepidation I get from my phone. Is this due to the technology? I have no idea. Maybe it’s just me becoming more anxious and cynical in my 40s. But I wonder. And yes, I would give up my smart little phone to be excited to answer a phone again.

That feels like the crux of the changes for me, the journey from cool fun romantic new technology to tool of anxiety and/or oppression. I signed up for Friendster and MySpace because they seemed fun. They were cool new ways to interact with people. I posted my music on MySpace which was a convenient way to share it without having to pay for the cost of CD duplication. Facebook was exciting and fun at first! Look at all these people I lost touch with, now back in my life! It’s like a high school reunion I didn’t have to pay for! It was all so much fun until it really wasn’t anymore. It all goes from fun to compulsion so fast. I remember a fellow theatre maker telling me she couldn’t sign up for Facebook because she didn’t have time for it. Then came a point where she had to join because everyone else was there, if only to promote her work. That’s why I’m still there – even though the days of sending each other digital flowers is long gone.

The thing I miss most about the previous century is just a fuller sense of being present with people. When we were together, we were just together. We were with the people we were with. If we wanted to be in touch with someone who wasn’t there, we had to find a telephone, or send them a letter, or just stop by their house. These days, whenever I sit with someone, I’m sitting with them and the thousand people they’re connected to by the device in their pocket.

I remember sitting on a rock on top of a hill that my friend and I had climbed and she was thinking about getting a cell phone (because it was starting to become necessary for the theatre biz) but she was worried about it. She was concerned about being on call everywhere, about being always available, that her life would be constantly interrupted. I said that was silly – she could always just turn it off if she didn’t want to hear from anyone. But she was right. She got a phone anyway at some point and at some point so did I – but she was right to have been worried about that. Just turning it off is not a solution for most people. Not in this ever connected world.

But we can’t, individually, just not have a phone or not be connected. This is how we live now. If you want to be a part of the community of humanity, this is how we’re doing it. I’m grateful for a lot of the benefits of this new world. I’m able to maintain relationships with people around the globe. I can share my work widely and without gatekeepers. I have developed all sorts of technical skills I never imagined possible. And all this has probably made important progressive social change possible. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

But – if someone came to me with a Time Machine and said I can take you back to the previous century and you can just live there if you want, I might do it. (I mean, I would like to see a lot of other times, too. Can we go traveling first? Also, I’d probably really miss my loved ones, so can I bring them? And…this fictional time machine fantasy may be getting out of hand at this point.) It would take me a long time to readjust to going to the library and writing letters and meeting people in person, but I think I was happier then. It might be worth the loss.

Our internet was out for about a week last year and it was a nightmare, of course. So much of our lives depend on it. When you’re not on it, you feel like you disappear. But that’s because everyone else is on it, and you’re left out. Back when there was no internet (or really, when the internet was only for the privileged few) it was just quieter. Everything was just quieter. You weren’t missing anything. You just did what was in front of you. The world was more local.

So, yes, I do miss it. But I know we can’t go back. We can only go forward. So I suppose I’m looking forward to the next development in technology – the one that will feel romantic and exciting before it becomes compulsive and oppressive. And then maybe, maybe, we’ll get past this sort of adolescent stage with our devices and find a way to really be present with each other again. I hope we can figure out how to be quieter, even with the whole world in our pockets.

This pocket watch is apparently from an Arctic expedition at the beginning of the 20th century.

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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South Park World, or, Learning to Like the Boy Stuff

In 1997, I was touring the country with a Shakespeare company. There were 8 men and 4 women in our troupe and because of that gender imbalance, it felt a little like living in a fraternity. For a life-long feminist like myself, it was a pretty big challenge. I mostly stayed quiet and kept my feminist killjoy thoughts to myself.

I’m thinking about this today after reading Lindy West’s essay about the South Park guys. She’s a bit younger than I am so South Park was a thing she grew up with and a show that had a particular kind of impact on her generation. I was introduced to South Park while I was on tour with the fellas in 1997. It was a video cassette of a short cartoon that somebody had gotten from somebody and we watched it on the company VCR. It was this underground, almost contraband, video.

I didn’t love it. It felt sort of mean spirited and homophobic and it was a world of boys. But I was living in a world of boys and they watched this video cassette so often, it became an oft quoted part of the culture. By the end of the year, I had a real affection for those potty mouth boys – the ones on South Park and the ones I was working with.

Then that little underground cassette got picked up by a network and become a TV show. I watched it sometimes, in part, because it reminded me of being on tour and it made me feel like an insider and also because I’d sort of come to like it. And I want to talk about my liking it because the liking isn’t uncomplicated. It wasn’t neutral. I think it says something about culture in general.

I was thinking about how a lot of things I like, I like because to like them made me part of the group. In this case, in this company, it was a bunch of fellas and a few women who knew how to hang with a bunch of fellas. They knew how to be cool with the dudes. That is not a skill I had picked up anywhere – being the feminist killjoy that I was – so it was something I had to learn on that tour. Laughing at the same jokes is a big part of it, I discovered. You learn to find things like South Park funny as a way to survive. But what I can’t stop wondering about is what it would have been like if that tour group’s gender numbers were reversed. What if there were 8 women and 4 men? Would the men have learned to laugh at the Kathy and Mo show? Would they have giggled at their dramatization of Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Got their Periods”? Would they have adapted to our jokes the way we adapted to theirs? I don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is that I was never IN the reverse position. I was never in an acting company that was mostly women. I directed a lot of shows that were like that but I’d have to ask my actors how that was. I don’t know.

I did go to a college with a 1:3 ratio in favor of women. I bemoaned it at the time but thinking about the South Park effect, actually makes me very grateful for that imbalance. It makes me curious about the experience of some of the men I know who went there with me. Are there things they like because they adapted to the environment that they wouldn’t have responded to in other circumstance? Like – did they all become big Ani DiFranco fans when their friends at others schools turned up their noses?

The thing of it is – most of culture in the 90s was men’s culture. Most things were for the fellas with a couple of rare exceptions. You could either get on board or be seen as the feminist killjoy. South Park was no exception to that. (Are there any girls on South Park? All I can think of are some moms and a pretty offensive take on Winona Ryder.) I was struck by the way Lindy West described South Park’s aesthetic; It sounded quintessentially Gen X. I hadn’t thought of South Park that way before – but the irreverence and nihilism is classic “whatever” energy. It’s also classic Gen X misogyny and in retrospect, I’m sorry I ever laughed at it. But I learned to laugh at it. Which in a weird way gives me a kind of hope in this world where people still debate if women are funny. It gives me hope because it’s clear people can adapt to the group. The group can change. We can laugh at more expansive things and things that AREN’T cruel. We can learn to laugh with an entirely new group.

I learned from West’s essay that South Park has been on for Twenty Years. TWENTY YEARS of Kenny getting killed. (I assume. I haven’t watched in maybe 18 years so I don’t know how things have changed.) When this show went on the air, we were having a pretty big cultural conversation about how we talked to each other. We were learning that there were kind and unkind ways to talk about one another’s identities. A lot of people hated this conversation and there was a lot of railing against political correctness. South Park showed up in the middle of that conversation and farted.

And now we’re in the middle of the same conversation twenty years later, though we use different words and South Park is still farting the place up.

Like, maybe it was funny in 1997 when we were all very serious about hyphenating our identities or whatever – but once you’ve farted in a serious room once, the joke is of over, guys, Now you’re just stinking up the place while the grown-ups are trying to solve things like violent insurrections at the capital. And speaking of violent insurrections supported by Republicans, it turns out the South Park guys are Republicans. Right now. Or at least as of Lindy’s publication date in 2019. Honestly, I was surprised – not because they said or did anything to suggest otherwise – it’s just that Republicans don’t tend to be funny.

But I guess the thing is – those guys haven’t really been that funny since I saw them on a VCR in 1997 surrounded by a bunch of fellas. So I guess it makes sense. I guess it makes sense.

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

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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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Gen X and the Deadly Virus

There’s an article about Gen X thriving in these pandemic times that came out back in March when the lockdown started and has been making the rounds again recently. I haven’t read it since it came out but I remember it as “We’ve been training to sit at home alone eating pop tarts our whole lives. We’re built for this!” If I remember correctly, it spoke to Gen X’s ability to stay home and keep ourselves busy. Our time to shine! At home! With pop tarts!

But I’ve been thinking about this and thinking about this silly tweet that the city of NYC put out last summer where they admonished Gen X for the numbers of cases going up, when it was clear that they did not know who Gen X was. Did they confuse Gen X with Gen Z? On the chart, Gen X lines were sharply going in the right direction. Gen X Covid cases were the lowest on the diagram. I haven’t seen a lot more evidence in this territory but anecdotally, it would seem that Gen X generally has not been hit quite as hard by Covid as other generations, both older and younger. If it’s true, I’m sure the reasons are complex. Maybe we have more of the kinds of jobs we can do from home. Maybe we’re in a weird safe age bubble. But I suspect that Gen X just, generally, does a pretty good job of staying the fuck at home. Why? Why do I think this?

I think we heard there was a deadly virus and the way to beat it was to stay home so we stayed home. You don’t have to tell Gen X how to beat a deadly virus twice. And I think the reason you don’t have to tell us twice is that we came of age during the AIDS epidemic.

When people talk about generational markers, I’ve heard lots of folks claim that the Challenger explosion was a big one for us. That seeing that space shuttle blow up while we watched in our classrooms left a generational imprint on us. And, sure, that was a terrible tragedy – but for me, the deaths of those astronauts didn’t have nearly the impact that the death of Ryan White had on me. I was twelve when the Challenger blew up and I was already terrified of a nuclear holocaust – but the Challenger seemed to me like a dangerous situation that led to a logical conclusion. Going to space seemed risky – of course you might die!

But Ryan White was a kid about my age who had AIDS and – while word on the street was he’d gotten it from a blood transfusion – there was still a lot of confusion about how a person might contract the awful disease that was shaking up the country. We sort of knew we couldn’t get it from touching someone – but we couldn’t be sure. And maybe kissing was dangerous? I mean, maybe not. Probably not. But it could be! And while Ryan White fought just to be able to attend school, I think my generation, or at least a percentage of my generation in the USA, had the bejeezus scared out of us.

It was quite some time before the facts came in on how AIDS was transmitted and I suspect, as a generation, a lot of our nihilism or cynicism is probably connected to our responses to the AIDS crisis. Some lived fast and died young. Some lived fast and survived. And a lot of us just stood off to the side and made fun of everything because that is a lot safer. We are Beavis and Butthead. We are Mystery Science Theatre. We are the footnotes in Infinite Jest. We are Daria. We are Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice and in Heathers and in Reality Bites. Actually, we’re more like Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites. It’s not her story. She just makes fun of it. I mean, reality bites for us, in part, because we were formed by the presence of a deadly virus – so we are particularly primed for this new one.

That’s why you don’t have to tell us twice to stay home. That’s why we look at crowded gatherings of younger and older people and shake our heads.

You don’t see us out there trying to dodge the restrictions. We’re not throwing parties or “socially distanced” festivals that are really just people hanging out in pretty normal ways. We’re not going out to restaurants as soon as they open. We’re at home. Where science has told us it’s the safest place to be.

It’s not like Gen X folks are generally rule followers. Believe me, we are not. Dumb rules are made to be broken and we break them when it makes sense to. It’s just that when the rules are clear and clearly there to protect everyone – those are good rules and we follow the guidelines. (With some exceptions, of course. You can read about those here.)

Yes, we know how to stay home, entertain ourselves and eat pop tarts (though most of us don’t eat pop tarts anymore, I’d wager) but more than those things, we came of age in a moment dominated by a deadly disease.

I watched a few minutes of the Geraldo show from 1990 where he brought in the Club Kids from NYC’s night life and they were explicit about their fashion being a direct response to the AIDS crisis. They say something like, “We can’t have sex, so we wear crazy clothes.”

Before now, I didn’t think much about the impact AIDS had on Gen X but I do recognize that defending against an epidemic is a familiar feeling and it would explain why Gen X has been more vigilant, on the whole, than other generations. We have practice, actually. We came of age with a deadly virus. We will all try very hard not die of one now, having made it this far.

The Mona Lisa is not Gen X but she does have a very Gen X look going on over that mask.

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Is There a Gen X Aesthetic?
December 19, 2020, 7:03 pm
Filed under: age, art, Gen X, podcasting, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

Prior to my deep dive into Gen X-ery, I honestly didn’t think about our generation much at all. It was one of the last things I considered in my identity, particularly in my artistic identity. I have a very particular aesthetic and, I’m given to understand, an identifiable one, as well. I would have called that MY aesthetic, not a Gen X aesthetic.

Then the stats for my audio drama podcast (The Dragoning, listen wherever you get your podcasts) started to roll in and it was absolutely clear who my audience is for that. In case you can’t see this graphic, it’s a chart of listeners by age, where each column is a different collection of ages. To me, it looks like a hand with its middle finger extended and that middle finger represents people who are 45-59 – that is, most of Gen X. This has not shifted as time has gone by. The graphic looked the same when we had twenty listeners and now that we have 200. If I have a demographic for this podcast, it is clearly Gen X.

Meanwhile, on the podcast version of this blog, where I directly discuss matters pertinent to Gen X, my listeners actually skew quite a bit younger. The tallest column is people who are 28-34. They’re squarely Millennials. (Though surely not square, they’re my listeners, after all!) I have no idea why this is but it is so and has remained fairly consistent over the years.

This whole mystery of the Gen X middle fingers of taste has made me wonder if my artistic work is more Gen X than I thought and made me wonder, too, if there is, perhaps, an aesthetic that I’m a part of that I’m not even aware of. I mean, speaking generally, there are style choices that can be made that are obviously Gen X. If it’s got graffiti scrawled across it or if it looks like a John Hughes film or a video by Run DMC or Bananrama, or even if it just sounds loud and angry – those are some Gen X red flags right there. But I swear, as far as I know, I have inserted nary a Gen X cue in my podcast about women who turn into dragons. There isn’t a Nirvana or Digable Planets soundtrack. No one finds anything grody to the max. There is nothing obviously Gen X about it that I can see.

And yet. The middle finger of statistics suggest that it is a work for Gen X.

This makes me wonder if some of my struggles to find a foothold in many of my artistic exploits are a generational problem. Like, if my appeal is primarily to my generation and my generation is the smallest, and dwindling all the time, am I just dealing with a numbers problem? I have, historically, had a very hard time getting people to come to my shows. Gen X Theatre isn’t really a thing. Has never really been a thing. Yet here I am, a Gen X-er making theatre that maybe mostly appeals to Gen X and Gen X won’t come out of their apartments to see it. (In the times when there is theatre and we’re not supposed to be staying in our apartments, of course.) But it’s possible that Gen X WILL listen to a podcast, if they feel like it. If it’s for us.

I don’t know. Statistics are funny and could change at any moment – but I am so intrigued by this clear preference for this thing I made, among many things I’ve made. What about it specifically appeals to Gen X? Did I make an accidentally hyper Gen X world? Do we have an aesthetic? And is my aesthetic our aesthetic, too?

There are generational markers, for sure. Millennials have pink and the whoop. We have…I don’t know. Torn up black clothes? And Mix Tapes?
And maybe a dragon dystopic/utopian world I made up.

I find myself both baffled and interested.

Is there a Gen X aesthetic?

What is it?

Do I have it?

Do you?

Stats for The Dragoning

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.

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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