Songs for the Struggling Artist


I’m Not Busy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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How We Can Win

I’m in a café. It is quiet. Scattered around the room are people studying, working, reading, silently doing their thing. Then suddenly, out of the silence, a man’s voice booms. He is making a phone call. It is a Very Important Business Phone Call that features price points and million dollar offers. It is insufferable.

And all around the room, the rest of us are looking up from our tables, looking at one another, catching one another’s eyes and laughing. There were even some exclamations from around the room. Someone proclaimed it to be like a sketch from Saturday Night Live.

And Mr. Businessman, Mr. Old White Moneybags Businessman kept going – completely oblivious to the room around him. A room full of people laughed at him together and were absolutely united in our mutual disbelief in his inconsiderateness. He never wavered. Meanwhile – if we’d wanted to, we could have organized and overthrown his loudmouth self.

The crowd was made up of mostly women, one man of color and a teenage boy and we were all able to quietly connect to one another with ease, with just looks and laughter and not one of us was ever noticed by the buffoon on the phone. And I thought – “Oh. We’re not people to him. He thinks he can make his business deals in the middle of a crowded café because none of us matter to him. He even mentioned to whomever was on the other end of that call that something he’d just said was confidential. And he’d literally just shouted it in a crowded café. But he didn’t worry about us in any way – because to the wealthy old white man – a bunch of women, a man of color and a kid just don’t exist.”

And it occurred to me that this sense of invisibility is something we could use to our advantage in the right circumstances. We could, in fact, organize ourselves right under the power brokers’ noses and they wouldn’t notice until we were throwing them into the moat.

It reminds me of that tweet that’s been going around. (“ladies: What’s your makeup routine? i’m looking for a new foundation, preferably liquid but still matte and now that the men have stopped reading we riot at midnight”)

While I find this hilarious, I also think that, since the tweet was by a woman, probably men weren’t even reading in the first place. I mean, seriously, we could pick a date and riot at midnight and plan the whole thing in plain sight, without even having to veil it in make-up tips.

I think I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to be seen – but this experience in the café made me think about the power of being invisible. And maybe, just maybe, I’m feeling a little ready for a serious upending of things. I’m enjoying listening to The Coup’s “The Guillotine” a LITTLE more than I should perhaps. (“They own the judges and we got the proof” and “We got the guillotine/You better run.”)

But, shhh, don’t tell the guy on the phone. Then again, if we did get the guillotine, he would not see it coming.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read the previous one on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want to help me imagine the revolution?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Maybe It’s Something. Maybe It’s Nothing. Or, Much Ado About a Black Square

Last Saturday, women began to message one another about a social media blackout “tomorrow.” The message included a little black square to use as a profile picture. This was the message:

“Tomorrow, female blackout from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Its a movement to show what the world might be like without women. Your profile photo should just be a black square so that men wonder where the women are. Pass it only to women … It’s for a project against domestic abuse. It is no joke. Share it.”

I was instantly suspicious. First, because of the timing. In the middle of a profound protest movement developing among women, at the apex of women’s rage, suddenly we are being asked to go dark on social media all day? To disappear? Just stop the outpouring of rage and movement building so men will “wonder where the women are”?

Huh?

My first red flag was: No one EVER notices an absence on Facebook. How many times have you seen someone pop up with a status that says something like, “I’m back! It’s been a crazy year! What did I miss? Did you miss me?” Um…nope. Hadn’t noticed that you were gone, to be honest. Not because I don’t care about you, Mr. Example Person, but because the algorithms that Facebook uses mean that I don’t see all KINDS of people all the time, whether they are there or not. So – strategically, this plan seemed dumb and self defeating.

Next: It wasn’t connected to any particular idea – not A Day Without a Woman or A Day Without Immigrants. It was not connected to any organization nor to any movement.

And that’s not even getting into the problematic use of the word “female” here.

I began to investigate because something about it smelled super fishy. From the vague “project” to the phrasing of the message, to the fact that it was unsponsored, to the strange air of secrecy around it, something just didn’t seem right.

I copied the message and googled it. Turns out, this exact same wording has been used multiple times before in the last few years. I couldn’t find any debunking or source of it – but its strange repetition was enough to confirm for me that I would not be joining the black out, no matter who told me to.

I decided to post my decision and my research because someone had asked me what I thought about it and I figured others were also likely in a quandary. My quick post about this was shared about as widely as one of my most popular blogs. I was not expecting that. And having suddenly been put into a position of authority on this topic by virtue of a couple of google searches, I felt obliged to think about it even further. I saw a lot of comments about it on my post that others shared and those of others as well.

One thing that stuck out to me was the notion that the message was received from a trusted source. This meant, I came to realize, that they got it from a friend they trusted. And those friends got it from friends THEY trusted. It came in our messages, not on our walls. The messages are where the real friends are, where there are no advertisements, even. (Yet.)

It occurred to me that this notion of receiving something from a trusted source is something that someone who wanted to spread mis-information on social media might exploit. People spread that pizzagate nonsense because they got it from a trusted source. That is, their friend. Everyone assumes the person before them vetted the thing. I have been guilty of it as well. I don’t have time to be vetting everything I see on the internet! But I do TRY to vet everything I POST on the internet. That’s why, even though I received the invite from my most trusted source, I still investigated it. Have I done this every time? No, I haven’t. But this experience with the black square will make me a lot more vigilant.

But – if it’s something as easy as changing a profile photo and taking a little break from posting things, what’s the harm? We could all use a little social media fast, couldn’t we?

That’s the other comment I saw going through. Something along the lines of: “What the big deal? So what if it’s politically motivated? Or another Russian manipulation of Facebook? It’s just a profile pic. I won’t go silent, as suggested, now that I’ve seen people upset about that idea. But just posting a black square won’t do any harm!”

And maybe it was all totally harmless. Probably it’s just a harmless little meme in support of “domestic abuse.” Probably. Or it could just be some random meme that cycles through occasionally. Forbes says it was spam, basically. Big deal. What harm is done?

Now – I don’t know. I’m just a struggling artist. I’m not a cyber terrorism expert. But I do have an imagination and pay attention to just enough tech news to know that few of us are as savvy about the way we’re technologically vulnerable as we should be. I can imagine a scenario wherein bad actors* try out a “harmless” support meme that targets large groups of women at a time. Given that the Resistance is something like 85% female, someone figuring out how to throw women into silence or disarray could be an important goal.

I heard a lot of women say that their “trusted source” had been a prominent, active women’s advocate. That is, I suspect, the top line of the Resistance, the especially active, the organizers, the leaders. It is not a stretch to imagine that bad actors* from several angles would be interested in manipulating large groups of women on Facebook – the place where large groups of women center their social movements. It also makes sense to me that those same bad actors* would know who to target at the top of the pile to make the thing travel as quickly as it did. I mean, have you ever tried to get thousands of people to do something? Millions of people? Or even just, like, dozens? I am chilled by the fact that in the space of a day – someone could orchestrate an event for the NEXT DAY. That is extraordinary.

I don’t want to be an alarmist on this point, it probably is harmless. It’s probably just spam, as Forbes reported. But I do think we have to learn to be a little warier.

What’s amazing about the message is how it exploits two major triggers for women. It speaks to our desire to help other women and to be finally appreciated, or even just acknowledged, by men.

It reminds me of a workshop I took in self defense. We had to learn how to say “No” really loudly. We role-played so we could practice saying no in real life scenarios. The man in the role of the attacker was so skilled, though. He knew how to manipulate each person so well that even when we knew we were supposed to say “No” it was still incredibly challenging. With me, I remember he tried to get me to help with his kids who were in trouble outside. Oh, I wanted to help. But I eventually found the strength to say No and then later learned how to say No while kicking him in the balls and poking him in eyes. (He had a protective suit on, don’t worry.)

Anyway, I’m not writing this to shame anyone for posting a black square or going dark. Your intentions were sweet and good. You wanted to help. You were like me hearing that there were kids in trouble out in the car! And I’m not even saying you SHOULD have said “No!” to this and punched it in the balls or poked it in the eyes. I’m just suddenly keenly aware that to really look out for each other, sometimes we need to investigate for each other. We need to have each other’s backs by being willing to be skeptical sometimes, by being willing to change our minds. One of the things that I watched happen over the course of this black square day was a kind of digging in of heels. I saw women fiercely defend a thing they’d only heard of hours before. It was as if, in having made the choice, they took any skepticism about it as a personal affront. There were some serious rifts happening between women and communities over something as seemingly minor as a profile pic. (I mean, wouldn’t this be exactly what you wanted if you were trying to disrupt a democracy via Facebook?)

This particular post may not have been nefarious. Maybe it wasn’t an attempt to distract furious American women and cause dissension among them. Maybe that photo they sent to everyone wasn’t encoded with some sort of virus or malware. Maybe it wasn’t practice for future nefarious plans. Maybe it was just nothing. No big deal.

But. The thing is. If it WAS an attempt at cyber manipulation (and we know this is a real thing that happens on Facebook in particular,) it was targeting women specifically. And, I fear that by talking about this to you, by making you aware of this possibility, I may have made myself a future target. So I’m gonna need you all to watch my back and if you see me heading outside with some guy I’m supposed to say no to, I’m gonna need you to shout “No!” really loudly and kick him in the balls. You know, in a digital sense. Thanks in advance.

**

*Note: I’m using “bad actors” in the sense that the tech industry uses the term, that is, people with bad intentions. Of course, if you’re like me, you just picture bad actors, like, saying lines in a wooden fashion and being totally awkward in their bodies on stage – but in tech. That’s not what it is though. It’s bad guys. Evil doers. Tech villains.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read the previous one on Anchor, click here.

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

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

*

Like the blog? Want to help me keep doing it?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Why I’m Thinking about Lullabies So Much

There was news of a juvenile detention center, where horrific abuses of immigrant children had happened. It’s happening in many places – but this one was in a town twenty minutes from where I grew up. It was in the same town that my play (about a community in the midst of an immigration clamp down) might have been produced had I made it out of the finals. I asked myself: What would I do if I was there in that place? How could I respond if I lived in that small town? And I thought – well, I guess I’d go sit outside and sing lullabies to those kids locked up in there.

Why lullabies? Children who’ve been separated from their parents are traumatized and a lot of the things I’ve read suggest that protestors going and shouting only makes things scarier for them. They have no way of knowing the shouting is in support of them. A lullaby is the most basic expression of support and safety. Those kids mothers’ would want them to at least be able to be soothed or go to sleep.

A few years ago, a friend told me she wished I was nearby so I could sing some lullabies to her son. So I recorded the songs she wished I was there to sing and after meeting her son, I wrote one especially for him. As more babies were born to my friends, I have written more lullabies for those children and each of them was directly connected to that particular child and their parents. A good lullaby can speak directly to the unique bond between parents and children as they go through the rituals of going to sleep.

I thought – maybe I should learn a lullaby or two in Spanish, add it to the repertoire and have it at the ready should I ever need to go sing outside a detention center. I wondered what a separated family would want to hear or would want to sing. And then a song just floated by me and I caught it. I had not intended to write a song for lost children but I imagined what a mother would sing to a child who was lost, if she couldn’t be there herself. And so there was a song.

Simultaneously, I can’t stop thinking about Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, and how all of the kids, born at the moment of India’s Independence, share a common bond, a common thread and are connected telepathically. I thought – these separated children are like that – torn from their families in the same awful time and all the experts say that reuniting them with their families will be next to impossible. But maybe they’ll somehow find each other in ten years – and that is, children will find other likewise traumatized children and there will be a powerful uprising of spirit. Maybe there will be a Central American Saleem who connects them. I don’t know – that’s a YA novel or TV series down the road. But how could they come together, what could unite them? Probably music, I thought.

Anyway – I recorded the song that came to me, set it up to donate proceeds to the Women’s Refugee Commission. I asked my friend in Uruguay to help me translate into Spanish and figured I’d just record that (maybe with her) when we finished. I’d learn a few Spanish songs, record them, maybe sing them somewhere and that would be extend of it.

I swear I thought I was mostly done with this. But then I thought of activists around the country outside of foster centers and camps and god knows where and thought wouldn’t it be great if we had an album of lullabies they could sing or play for the children inside.

And then I thought – even better – we get the parents to record the lullabies they sing to their children and play THOSE outside centers. Because there is no sound in the world more powerful to anyone than the sound of their parents’ voices. They are our first sounds. Their lullabies are our closest link to them. Perhaps it could even help to re-unite a family or two.

I was about to tweet out a request that people record separated parents’ lullabies – even just on the voice apps on their phones and send them to me and then I’d make an album of Lullabies for Lost Children.

But then I realized how enormous such a project could become. There are thousands of missing children (or missing parents, depending on which side you’re sitting on.) And it’s not just this current crisis either. Families are separated around the world and I suddenly wanted a lullaby bank where we stored lullabies worldwide and helped bring together the singer and the sung to.

Anyway – I don’t (yet) have the resources for a lullaby bank and I’m not Alan Lomax so I’m not trained in collecting songs from people. But perhaps the next Lomax is out there and maybe someone with more resources than me and better, more mobile recording equipment than I have, wants to help me make this happen.

But meanwhile, if you know someone who has been separated from their family, maybe ask if you can record them singing a lullaby they sang their child. I’ll happily be the custodian of such a treasure until such time as the treasures grow beyond my scope.

For now…I’ll continue my project of learning Spanish lullabies but I hope one day to get to hear lullabies in indigenous languages and in Syrian Arabic and sub-Saharan African languages as well. And I will continue to hope that the music really could bring people together. Given that so many millions of people around the world listened to “Despacito”, for example, we could probably reach someone. Even one re-united family would be worth it.

You can donate directly to the Women’s Refugee Commission here.

 

 

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 Anchor, click here.

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

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

*

You can help me catch the ideas that float by

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



View from the Women’s March NYC 2018
January 25, 2018, 1:16 am
Filed under: feminism, Leadership, resistance | Tags: , , ,

The woman at the table next to us at dinner said she’d checked out the Women’s March that afternoon, after her spin class, but it wasn’t as much fun as last year, so she left. Aside from finding this whole way of thinking completely counter to the purpose of the march, I also found it baffling. Why on earth would she think a March was going to be fun?

I did not want to go to the Women’s March. I did not think it would be fun. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like shouting. I don’t like waiting in large groups of people. But I went anyway. Because I knew I’d want to have been there. I knew my future self would be glad I’d gone and I knew I’d feel better for having added my voice and my moving feet to the movement. I knew it would feel good to have done something but that did not mean I wanted to do it. And it did feel good to do something and it was maybe even a little bit fun at times. More than fun, though, I found the experience to be moving and surprising in several different ways.

First, it was surprisingly cathartic to walk by the Trump Hotel, giving it the finger, singing “Ole, ole, ole, ole, Fuck Trump, Fuck Trump.” And chanting “New York hates you (clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.)” I mean. It felt good to give directed voice to the fury I’ve been feeling for so long with so many other women. But that was a relatively brief moment of catharsis (repeated, when we passed the next Trump property.)

However, most moving to me was the way I saw the crowd around me take care of one another. For a crowd averse person like myself, this is no small matter. It struck me that a women’s march is full of people who have been socialized to look after one another and so it was an unusually conscientious way to be in a large group. When problems arose, they were quickly solved. For example, a woman behind us was looking a bit frantic and apologized for moving a little too quickly through the crowd. She’d lost her son. She described him and we all looked around. She called his name and within seconds, every woman around her had added her voice to the call. We all shouted for Ziggy together and before too long, the lost boy was found.

Over on 6th Avenue, a woman in a pink coat was hurrying alongside the edge of the route and tripped over the leg of one of the metal gate blockades. Within seconds, every woman around her had stopped to make sure she was okay. She was fine and hurried along ahead but we laughed at how immediate the response had been. It was like a flock of sign-carrying, concerned birds had suddenly surrounded her.

All over the march, children were welcomed and given pride of place. The photos of the march on the event’s Facebook page are dominated by adorable children with their home-made signs. It made me wonder what a world run by women might actually be like. Would there be more places for children to be a part of the lives of their parents? Wouldn’t the participation of parents and their children in our most important affairs make for a more compassionate and considerate world?

Boys with their mothers, girls with their fathers, whole families marching together, all made me feel hopeful about the future for the first time in a year. We had a sweet moment with two little girls and their fathers. The girls were very interested in our percussion instruments and wanted to know why we had them, what they were for, how they worked. We let them play them and they developed this hilarious move where one of them would hold the rattle in one hand and the shaker in the other and jump in the air to create a flurry of sound as she descended. Then the jumper would hand them to her friend and then the friend would jump and then she would hand them to us and we would jump and finally to the shy boy, holding on to his dad, so shy we hadn’t even noticed him, encouraging him to play too.

That part was fun. Watching two bold, curious, caring girls explore a new thing and share it with everyone nearby was absolutely fun but also inspiring. Because if we don’t blow up the world before they get there, it will be girls like those who might one day rule the world. They will be inclusive, compassionate, caring leaders – who look out, not just for themselves, but for the vulnerable, for the marginalized, the mothers, the fathers, the other children and they will express gratitude to those that shared with them. I marched so that that future stands a chance of coming to be.

And what about that woman, fresh from her spin class, who didn’t find the march fun enough to join? Did we need her there? You know, as much as I’d like to say no and never have to march alongside such a person, I think we probably need everyone right now. We’ll none of us ever agree on absolutely every issue, or every methodology, or how much fun it is or isn’t to go be heard on the street, but if we cultivate a kind, caring, compassionate future, we can make space for even the people we find distasteful. We can call for their children if they get lost. We can help them up if they fall. And if it’s fun, while we do that, that’s nice, too.

**

You can help me keep resisting

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs. You can find it on Spotify, ReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes.

*

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



To Sing Is to Survive

I thought I was going to die. I was clinging to the side of the boat, absolutely sure that this was it. We were on a ferry from Naples to Capri, in what could reasonably be called a tempest, because my friends and I had thought it would be romantic to spend Christmas on the island of Capri. And as I gripped the rail, as sea water washed over me, I sang. The storm was loud so I sang, loud, until we reached the shore.

When the sea gets rough, I sing. When times are at their toughest, I sing. I do lots of other creative things but it’s singing I turn to when it feels impossibly turbulent. And so, this past year, I found myself singing a lot. I had to. The waters have seemed so high, as if they would rise up over our boat and wash me and all my loved ones overboard.

I had not played my guitar much in recent years. There was dust on it when I pulled it out of its case. There’s no dust on it now. There hasn’t been any dust there for months. I’ve leaned on songs I loved decades ago and been comforted by songs I only learned this year.

I recorded them for the handful of people who listen to my podcast, just in case these songs might help them through these turbulent waters, too. I gave them to my patrons on Patreon, as a thank you for being a railing to which I’ve been clinging. And now, if you could use them, I offer them to you. I recorded them in my living room. They are not perfect recordings but they are the sound of an artist singing through a tempest.

This is the first batch, in honor of the Women’s March this weekend. They are songs of Resistance. Click here to hear them on Spotify.  Or if you’d like to help me recoup the cost, you can buy it directly from me via my website. You can download them from iTunes or listen on Apple Music. (And something called Deezer?!)

In any case, I’m singing. And surviving.

Resistance Songs Square copy2

**

You can help me through the turbulence

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

kaGh5_patreon_name_and_message*

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

*

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



Feeling American

Never do I feel more American than when I travel abroad. At home, my identity tends to be more specific – the city I was born in, the state I’m from, the city I live in or the borough in that city or even the neighborhood in that borough. I don’t feel American in America – partly because I have always felt so countercultural. Americans are like THIS and I am like THAT. I have tended to identify more with other cultures. I have even (unsuccessfully) tried to emigrate in order to be in places that align more closely with my interests and values. If European countries had looser immigration policies, I would have moved there long ago. But…I am American. And going abroad always helps me appreciate the good side of that, in times I’m mostly seeing the bad. I have enjoyed those moments when my Americanism becomes obvious – when my friends abroad tease me for my optimism or my accent.

During my recent trip abroad, I found myself in a new position with my European friends. American politics are in the news everywhere there. As one friend told me, the first story of every news broadcast is whatever crazy thing Trump did that day. Before any news of their own country, they get news of ours. My friend was understandably frustrated by that. Trump is happening to everyone in the world, not just to us Americans. My friends felt the need to vent about him, to imitate his speech or his mannerisms. They are laughing about the horrors they’re seeing and they want to laugh with me, their American friend.

The thing is, though, I’m not finding the current political situation funny. It is not amusing to hear imitation after imitation of the man who makes my skin crawl, to hear his faults listed and marveled at and analyzed – as if he were just a character in a play. To me, it feels as though 45 or Lil Donnie T or He Who Must Not Be Named (see why here…) is an arsonist who has set fire to my house and is blithely watching it burn. Every time someone imitates his speech or his gestures, it’s like looking at another face of the person who traumatized me. Objectively, I understand that he’s funny (or maybe more precisely – buffoonish and ridiculous) but emotionally, it’s horrifying.

I’m from here. I live here. My house, my America, however embarrassing it can sometimes be, is mine. Having this house, this America, was something that I could always rely on in the past. I had a certain amount of privilege in that house and others could not rely on it as much – but there were certain things we expected to remain. I grew up with a relatively stable government and a kind of classic American optimism that justice would prevail, even when all evidence pointed to the contrary. It wasn’t a perfect house but it was mine and now it is on fire. Every day I do something that I hope will help put out the fire but I fully expect the place to be a pile of ash before too long. I throw a thimble full of water on the fire, next to dozens of others, all of us, hoping to put it out…but knowing that it might take much more than our water to do it.

On election night last November – I fully expected us to be in the middle of the new Third Reich by now. I was emotionally preparing for concentration camps and firing squads. I am not convinced we are free of that threat. Our issues may seem funny from a distance but here inside, we are watching a man with the ability to push a button and start a global nuclear war pick fights with everyone from kids on Twitter to world leaders who have similar access to weapons and who might be very glad to see Imperial America get its comeuppance. And if you believe that our famous checks and balances would prevent a nuclear holocaust, I would point you to this terrifying episode of Radio Lab.

We are watching what we thought was an increasingly tolerant and progressive nation become entrenched in increasing white supremacy. My seemingly peaceful hometown has become a site that white supremacist groups are targeting for their parades and rallies and celebrations. (And I would like to point out that I wrote the previous sentence back in July, before the Nazis showed up.) Even NYC, which, we who live here think of as a bastion of tolerance and diversity, has seen a disturbing trend of hate crimes. SPLC reports that hate groups have risen dramatically.

From where I’m standing, America is on fire and it will be ashes before too long if we can’t stop it. “Is there any hope?” my European friends ask. Sure. Yes. I guess. Every day a new batch of amazing people throw water on the fire. The resistance is persistent and powerful and fighting like hell. If you want to watch some extraordinary fire fighters in the middle of the government, follow Representative Maxine Waters, Representative Ted Liu, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Elizabeth Warren. There is perhaps some hope that our Checks and Balances will find a way to check this fire. The on-going Russian investigation, the increasing calls for Impeachment, the way one Republican Congressman described how he could not go anywhere without women getting up in his grill…there are drops of hope and maybe all the drops will eventually put on the fire.

But meanwhile, please remember that our house is on fire and most of us are just barely keeping it together.

We need your help. Especially those of you who have lived through repressive regimes, through corrupt governments. You could be forgiven for just wanting to laugh at us, for just wanting to enjoy the schadenfreude of watching a nation that has been acting a bit too big for its britches finally get a comeuppance. America was probably due a reckoning given the way our governments have tended to go about the world like we owned the place – but remember that you have friends who were as dismayed by that, then, as you were. Perhaps more. It may be pleasurable to watch some madman set fire to the gaudy mansion on the hill – but remember that there are people inside, burning. People are dying now. Literally. We need the wisdom of the past so we do not end up repeating it. As Americans we have enjoyed an incredible amount of freedom and privilege before now and some of us were not prepared for the revocations of any of those things.

I learned, not long ago, about David Goodhart’s idea that culture is dividing into two worldviews – people from anywhere and people from somewhere. He defines Anywheres as mobile, educated, autonomous, open and fluid. Somewheres are more rooted, less well educated and value group attachments, familiarity and security. It is his explanation for Brexit in the UK. It also makes sense for our American situation. And I am very much an Anywhere. One thing that this burning-house-feeling has done for me, as an American Anywhere, is to make me feel my American-ness as acutely as I do when I’m abroad. I feel simultaneously more American than I have ever felt before and also deeply alienated from it. In the chaos, my sense of my Anywhere-ness has led me to become more of a Somewhere. When my hometown was attacked, I felt more from there. As my country struggles, I feel more from here. This year has made me feel as American as I feel when I’m away. It is a curious shift from being so firmly in the Anywhere camp to suddenly identifying with my Somewheres.

I am American, for good and ill. But I am from somewhere. And it’s here. While there is still a here to be from, I am from here.

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Will You Wish You’d Been There?
August 31, 2017, 12:19 am
Filed under: advice, resistance | Tags: , , , , ,

Listen you guys. I hate going to protests. They’re loud and shouty and there are crowds there – usually big ones – and that’s sort of the point.

But sometimes I make myself go despite my natural inertia – you know, that thing that makes it easier not to go than go. And given that there are protests nearly every day now, it can be hard to figure out whether it’s a time to hit the streets or a time take care of myself. My barometer has become: Will I Wish I’d Been There?

Here’s the thing. When it became clear what was going to happen in Charlottesville on August 12th, people were advised to stay away. From what I understand, the recommendation was that only those with appropriate training and a whole lot of willingness should show up. In general, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s advice is to steer clear of assembling hate groups. The SPLC is a bad-ass organization and has been tracking hate groups for a mighty long time. They’ve been in the trenches of this a whole lot longer than most of us, so people are usually inclined to heed their advice. And that advice rather conveniently lines up with most people’s natural inertia. It is much easier to sheetcake than to risk your life by going where the trouble is.

But. But. Many who heeded that advice in Charlottesville now regret that decision. Despite all the horrible things that happened, I know a lot of people who wish they’d been there. Not to kick-ass or knock-heads but to support, to help, to be physically present for vulnerable people.

I thought I’d be glad I was 500 miles away when this was set to go down but now having endured it at a distance, part of me wishes I’d been there, if for no other reason than to hand medics water and hug people who needed hugs. Simultaneously, I’m glad as hell that no one in my family was too close to the fray.

It is an incredibly odd sensation – to wish vehemently for everyone you know to stay as far away from harm as possible and to somehow wish yourself there.

And no one is more surprised about this response than me. I am not a rush into a fire sort of person. I hate conflict so much, y’all. I can’t even watch a heated debate without my heart-rate escalating and getting super anxious. I am an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) with a precarious health situation. I do not really belong at a protest that has the potential to become violent. Given all of that, I thought I would have wanted to be as far away from such things as possible. But – I find I wish I’d been with my friends in the middle of the most dangerous moment in my hometown that I’ve ever known about.

I’ve heard from a lot of people that feel the same way. There was that article in the New York Times from the parent who made the decision to steer clear because of their child but now regrets that choice.

“I now believe we made the wrong choice. Does my status as a parent make me special? It shouldn’t. A young man named Dre Harris was ambushed in a parking lot and took dozens of blows by club-wielding thugs. He took them so I wouldn’t have to. Next time I will stand on the street with my neighbors, even at the risk of injury or death. It’s the least I can do to repay those who stood bravely this time.”

It is always easier to choose not to show up. And those who have been going to these sorts of demonstrations know better than anyone what sorts of risks are involved. That’s why they have to advise you not to go.

And everyone has their own acceptable level of risk and their own metric for participation in fighting for good.

My metric is clear now. It is “Will I wish I’d been there?” And most times the answer is no. But when it’s yes, it’s time to go. On one side, is my personal safety – but on the other side is a fight for the greater good. Sometimes it’s better to be there.

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Side note: The news cycle has moved on (as it does) from Charlottesville to Texas. I’ve seen a lot of folks wondering how to best support the folks in Houston. I recommend this list: http://noredcross.org/

And while the national news has moved on, Charlottesville is still reeling and regrouping. This is the most comprehensive summary of ways to support folks there:  this list on Google Docs.

Will you wish you’d supported me later?

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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. To continue on to Part 4, click here.

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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