Songs for the Struggling Artist


Where I’m From

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Generation X Part 3 – Islands in the Stream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is Part 3 of a multi-part series.

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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Why Giving Up Art Is Not an Option

The actors stood up and I started crying. The house lights went down to start the show and moments later I was moved. It took a moment to shake me out of my familiar world.

But it wasn’t just the moment, of course. There was a world of history behind the moment. It was the skill and finesse of a lifetime of theatrical practice that knew how to bring that world into a moment. It took extraordinary expertise and sensitivity to make something so simple so powerful. It took mastery.

After giving me such a powerful moment right out of the gate, I thought, “There might be nothing else as good as this in the rest of this show but if this is all it has to offer, it would be enough.” But it was definitely NOT all it had to offer. I saw a play that exquisitely resurrected the past while shining light on our present. It made me weep so often I wished I’d brought a box of tissues with me. And I almost never cry in the theatre. All around me, I heard the quiet sound of other people taken over by their emotions.

When it was over, the audience did not leap to its feet. On Broadway, a standing ovation is practically a reflex. But this Broadway audience was too moved to leap to its feet. Many of us were too moved to move at all. An usher had to ask us to vacate our seats. A transformative art experience is not always met with cheers.

In fact, if you’ve really struck an audience to the soul, they will likely not be able to hoot and holler. A transformative art experience is usually so personal to an audience that they may not be keen to talk about it, they may not tell all their friends, they may just want to keep it to themselves. A transformative art experience may not draw a crowd, it may not generate a profit for its producers, it may not make a big noise. It may shine briefly in the firmament before winking into memory. But it will continue to do its transformative work for a long time after it has faded. The magic of Indecent is that it both shows us that story of continuation and is likely to be that story as well.

The marketing department for the show seems to be trying to boost sales to this show by talking about why #ArtMatters and while this is perfectly in line with what I took from the show, a hashtag feels like such a diminishment of what is actually at stake. This is not a hashtag sort of experience. It’s not an instagram moment. It’s not suited for 140 characters.

But certainly art matters. And this show helps remind us how much it can matter. And aside from all the mattering it does, it also made me want to keep working at being a better artist. Indecent helped me see how a lifetime in the theatre could refine and invigorate the form. There are so many moments in my theatre life that make me want to give up, that make me question whether I’ve dedicated my life to the wrong art. Over the years, I’ve seen so much crap, so much compromise, so much ego, so much selling out, so much shady dealing, so much sexism, so much racism, so much shouting, so much soullessness. There have been so many times that I’ve wondered why I continue to let theatre break my heart. Because theatre breaks my heart pretty much every time I put on another show and each time I do, I ask myself again, “Why do I do this? Why do I put myself through this agony? Why do I think I love theatre when it clearly doesn’t love me?” And then I saw this show and I remembered why.

If I write plays that no one but me wants to produce with any regularity, if I direct plays that I can’t convince many people to see, if I devise work that only touches a handful of people, that doesn’t make me a failure, that makes me an artist on a journey. The experience of seeing this show reminded me of a truth that I find I have to return to again and again, that worth is not equivalent to popularity.

This show moved me not because it is on Broadway, but because it is the collaboration of artists working at the height of their powers. It shows me that I could make the best work of my life over twenty years from now. That even though I have often felt that my prime has passed (I have, to my regret, internalized that only young women are valuable) my prime is much more likely to be in the future. I learned, from my seat in the balcony, that a lifetime in the theatre could distill an artist into the clearest, most concise expression of theatricality. I see that time, rather than just battering me and graying my hair, might distill this cluster of longings and ideas and furies and hopes into something transformative – not just for me but for an audience.

In a world wherein I often feel that I’ve seen all the tricks, that I’ve had all the glitter fall from my eyes to reveal the familiar old men behind all the curtains, this show gave me hope and surprise.

It reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Protest and Persist: Why Giving Up Hope Is Not an Option” which explores how change really happens. In it, Solnit unpacks how an initial movement for change may fail in its immediate goals – but that the change achieved by future generations is built directly on the work of our predecessors. It is the same in art. The God of Vengeance (which Indecent invokes) was on Broadway for a blink in time but that blink was a pebble in a pond that echoed to create something new and potent in a time when we needed it.

I don’t know if Indecent will get a long run (I hope so though I worry about those empty seats behind me on a Friday) but even if it closes tomorrow, it will have dropped a mighty art pebble into the art pond and the ripples will be rippling for years after the artists are gone.

This show gave me the long view at a time it feels like we are in an ever-alarming, ever-panicked present moment. And it showed me that though we very well might be forgotten when we are gone (or even forgotten while we are here) someone somewhere in the future, might resurrect us for their transformative art. We keep creating in the darkest hours. We make because we must, because something captivates us, even if it breaks our hearts.

Photo of Indecent by Carol Rosegg 

 

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Health Care and the Struggling Artist

American Health Care Horror Stories are all so abstract until it happens to you. Every time I heard about another failure of American health care, I was horrified anew – but because I was healthy, it was like reading about an atrocity on another continent – terrible but distant. I spent most of my 20s and 30s so healthy that I went without health insurance for the better part of both of those decades and got away with it. A couple of ankle turns and an X-ray or two and I got away with spending a whole mess of a lot less than I would have if I’d been paying for health insurance. Like, a LOT. When you’re a struggling artist, gambles like this make sense for a while. (If you’re lucky.)

But, luckily, the ACA happened before I got unlucky and it was finally possible for me to afford insurance. Through the NY Health Exchange in the last few years, I have been insured through three different insurance companies as well as the expanded Medicaid program. I am a direct beneficiary of Obamacare. And I am grateful. And, for the first time in my life, I really need the insurance as I started dealing with my first real health crisis. What’s funny about having insurance after not having it for so long is how shockingly unjust it can be. When you are without, you think – ah, well, if I had insurance, it would be better. Ah ha ha ha!! Not so fast!

I have been stunned to see how little of my healthcare has been paid for. When I learned that the one medicine that halts my migraines was denied by my health insurance company as “not medically necessary,” I was shocked. And I was shocked again to learn that if I bought it myself, it would cost me $600. For NINE doses. The drug company offers coupons for it but because my insurance is tied to Medicaid, I am not eligible. In other words, because I don’t make much money, I am not eligible to save money and my access to a truly beneficial medicine was denied. At every stage of this process, I was surprised anew at the madness. But my situation is not unique. So many Americans face obstacles of this kind (and usually much much much worse) that these stories are the norm. We become immune to each others’ health woes because they are so normal.

The ACA isn’t great. But it’s better than the nothing I had before. And with health insurance companies in the mix. I don’t know how it could ever be better. Obviously, Universal Health Care is the much better option but it is not yet an option in these baffling United States. My state keeps passing a Single Payer bill in the State Assembly but every year it gets rejected by the more conservative Senate. Fingers crossed for this year. (Call your Senator, New Yorkers!)

Being sick in America is incredibly expensive. The majority of bankruptcies are health care related. It’s ridiculous of course. But denying coverage for 23 to 24 million people is not the answer. Returning to the Wild West with denials for pre-existing conditions, like being a woman, for example, is not the way. My most recent insurance company was terrible. But it was better than having no insurance at all. If I were un-insured I could not have even seen the doctor who gave me the samples of the medicine that works. My insurance meant I only had to pay $330 for the hour with my doctor instead of $550. It’s still terrible. But not AS terrible with insurance. And luckily, I was already in the process of switching insurance companies when this craziness with my medicine went down and not only did my new insurance company approve my prescription on the first day of my coverage, my amazing pharmacist brought the medicine to me because we live in the same neighborhood. There are extraordinary heroes in this very flawed system.

As for those who would deny coverage to those who are suffering, I found myself fantasizing about giving them that Virtual Reality migraine simulation headset, of which my friend sent me a video. It appears to give a replication of the visual migraine experience (minus the pain.) In the video, you see people quickly requesting the removal of the headset. But in my fantasy, when the health care deniers ask to take it off, I refuse, because it is not strictly medically necessary. In real life, I know I would cave pretty quickly but in my fantasy, I get them to sign approvals for all migraine relief meds for everyone before I let them take that thing off.

 

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Single Gender on a Train

On the Politically Reactive podcast, the guest, Michael Skolnik, described being on the train coming home from the Women’s March in DC. He said he’d never been on a train “where there’s such a disproportionate amount of one gender.” And I said, out loud, in response, “I’m sure that’s not true.” That is, I’m sure he’s been on the train with a single gender before, it just wasn’t women and so he didn’t notice.

Why do I feel so sure he’s been on a train or in public somewhere with only men? Because most public space is male space. Because I have been the only woman on a train more times than I can even begin to count. Any woman who spends time in public has had this experience – and when it happens to us – we get very alert, very quickly. Being the only woman on a train full of men is normal – especially after a game or late at night and most of us will do a fairly quick complex assessment of the danger levels of being in a car full of men. We know we’re surrounded in just the same way Skolnik felt very attuned to being surrounded by women. The thing is – that happens very rarely. And there are a lot of good (and by good, I mean legitimate and clear, not good) reasons for that.

First, it’s historical. There have been any number of diatribes against women ever showing their faces in public. In some places, if you were “public women” you were prostitutes. That is, any woman in public is suspect.

As soon as women start gathering, the wheels of patriarchy start really grinding. It’s how we get witch trials and hysteria epidemics and such. Oppressive movements almost always rely on the idea of women staying out of the public eye, being at home, where she “belongs.” From Rousseau to Phyllis Schlafly, the retiring, natural home-maker is encouraged to remain by the hearth, to never gather with other women in public places, to never venture forth without her husband or father. Soraya Chemaly’s talk on space illuminates the sense that the world is designed by and for men, even women’s restrooms.

And there is another factor, there’s the safety factor – that women in public face harassment, or worse, when they venture forth. Danielle Muscato recently asked women what they’d do if men had a 9 o’clock curfew and the answers revealed how unsafe many women feel in public and how much the world would change if men were safely home in bed by 9. It’s an interesting thought experiment.

For myself, my life wouldn’t change too dramatically if men had a curfew. A lot of the things woman said they’d do I do already. But – I live in a city and cities have always provided a safer haven for women, especially in public. (see Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies) I notice, when I travel, that I am a lot more unusual as a woman traveling on my own. In smaller cities and towns, when I go to coffee shops, I often find myself the only woman. That almost never happens in New York. I wonder if one of the major divides between urban and rural is actually how much space women can occupy in public. I wonder if some of the hatred of Hillary Clinton was related to folks coming from places where women are more rarely seen in public. For me, I feel a very stark contrast when I travel from cities, where I am completely inconspicuous as a woman in public, to places where I am suddenly required to have a heightened sense of my femininity. There are endless public spaces that are de facto male only.

So, yes, it is powerful to see only a single gender on a train – but it is a very different experience for a man to be on a train car full of women than it would be for a woman to be on a train in a car full of men. Part of the power of things like the Women’s March is that it brings women into public space and it makes it possible for the world to be re-imagined as a place where women really can do anything, like ride on a train without any fear at all.

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



“A True Artist – the Perfect Candidate”

Last year, I received an award that was given to another person as well. We were both selected by the committee to receive the residency in question. I’m a white woman in my 40s from NYC and he’s a black man in his 20s from the mid-west. The residency was for emerging artists (see also my post on Can We Find Another Word for Emerging?) and I was surprised and delighted to receive it, even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t what most people meant when they signed up to support this award.

Throughout our time in residence, I could feel comparison happening between us – sometimes in my favor but mostly not. I thought perhaps I was imagining this sort of outside judgment. And then I saw a post on a Facebook page about my fellow award winner and someone in the organization commented on it, saying, he was “the perfect candidate” and “a true {*Name of the award} artist.”

It probably goes without saying that I did not receive a similar comment. And it probably also goes without saying that by saying someone is the perfect candidate and the true artist, they are also saying that someone else is NOT the perfect candidate or the true artist. In addition to making it plain that he had a clear preference for my colleague, the commenter (who is a leader in the award-giving organization,) wouldn’t even look at me whenever we were all in the same space.

I found myself furious – and frustrated. Like, if you didn’t think I was appropriate for the award, a) you didn’t have to give it to me and b) don’t take your opinion about my worthiness out on me.

And for a moment I was jealous of my co-award winner. But then I realized that this is an incredibly old pattern in the history of our country. Take two marginalized groups of people and pit them against each other. Especially white women and black men. I mean – the fight for suffrage got really reprehensible once white ladies, fighting for their rights, started throwing black folks under the bus. It is a giant stain on the early suffragists – many of whom got their start in abolitionism.

So…in the face of realizing that I was about to do the same, starting to somehow feel competitive with my colleague – well, I reached out to him and asked him to let me know how I could support him. Not because he needs it (he’s doing very well) but because I needed to. I needed to make sure that the prevailing winds of dividing and separating didn’t win, even in my own psyche.

The whole experience has been an excellent exhibit of how complex things become when resources are scarce. I am not at all competitive generally. But I know when I’ve been placed a competitive environment. And I found myself stuck in a strange race I didn’t sign up for. I remember thinking “I would have chosen him, too!”

But…that’s not fair, really. There were two places and we were both chosen. We were selected together. There’s enough of whatever there is there to go around. I feel like this is important to remember in this moment, when we are all fighting for the rights we thought were ours to keep. There’s a way where we could splinter easily into my rights, your rights. I could only fight for the NEA or reproductive rights because those have an impact on me. But we will make a bigger difference by fighting for it all, by fighting for Black Lives, for immigrants, for Muslims, for the poor, for the environment, for everyone under attack.

It will always be easy to make us compete, if we are under attack, if our resources are few and we feel we don’t have enough. But I hope the resistance continues to make the more unifying choice of reaching out to those we are being set up against. My commitment to myself is to reach out as soon I notice a sense of competition this way. I’m telling you now so I don’t forget.

Help me resist the pitfalls of scarcity,

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



Sticky Benevolent Sexism

It happened weeks ago, after the Women’s March. Since then there have been many more marches and many more protests but I can’t stop thinking about this experience I had right after participating in that first one.

I was at a conference. We were wrapping it up with a reflection session – talking about what had been successful and possibilities for the future. Towards the end, a man stood up to say he’d been to the Women’s March and that he’d been inspired and now wanted to recognize all the women in the room. He asked us all to stand and receive applause and appreciation from the men. We stood, as requested and received the applause. And don’t get me wrong, I love applause. But this felt so so bad.

Why? I wondered. Why was I upset by this nice man wanting to honor the ladies in the room? He was just being nice. Why did it make my skin crawl? For weeks, I’ve tried to unpack this moment. And then on International Women’s Day, I felt the same feelings upon reading multiple posts and tweets and tributes.

And still, I struggled to understand. So I talked about it with my partner. I told him about the request to stand and be recognized and he seemed to instantly know what I was reacting to. “It’s like Secretary’s Day,” he said. And I said, “Yes! Exactly! Exactly that! But what is that?”

And it comes down to power, folks. We have a secretary’s day because bosses have power and they express that benevolently (if also patronizingly) via things like Secretaries Day. A man who steps forward and asks for everyone to recognize the women in the room is asserting a similar kind of power. It is claiming an authority over women. He takes on a boss role and thanks the helpers. The fact that it is outwardly benevolent is what makes it confusing. This is called benevolent sexism and it is a bear, y’all.

Benevolent sexism is super confusing for a lot of dudes. It’s why the Orange Man in Chief thinks he’s great for women. Women are also confused by it. It’s men being nice, right? But so many studies show us how not nice it can be. It can be very dark and very dangerous.

My moment of benevolent sexism was confusing for me because I like to be appreciated and recognized. But I would like to have all of those things happen due to my accomplishments and artistry. Being applauded for just being a woman suggests being applauded for my service to the real art, the men’s art. I’m getting accolades for being a good helpmeet, not being an artist, or an achiever – because that’s what we ladies do, right? We help! We make the coffee and mop the men’s brows from doing the real work. Golly, we need a day to thank those ladies!

When that guy asked us to stand, I stood. And I cried. I thought, briefly, that I cried because I was moved, because I was touched by the gesture. I know now that I cried because I felt utterly undermined and defeated. After a day of women asserting our voices and our power, we were suddenly reduced to secretaries, to helpful wives – rather than the peers and colleagues we are. Now, I think I was crying due to how quickly that feeling of empowerment can be ripped away. BUT. But…

The good news is that now I’m wise. And I won’t fall for this trick again. Next time, I will not stand. Maybe I’ll even ask the men to stand and let them see how it feels.

Help me fight sexism with words

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

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




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