Thursday, March 26, 2015

Freedom's Just Another Word for Bigotry.

I feel like if there's anything positive about this new spate of "license to discriminate" legislation cropping up in state after state in response to gay marriage decisions by federal courts, it's that it crystallizes the mission of this brand of Christianity, which is to exclude people. They cry they're being persecuted for their religion, but it must be clear to everyone by now that these laws are about revulsion toward non-gender conforming people. It must, right? It kind of separates the soft bigots from the hard bigots.

It's interesting stuff in the midst of all my reading about the 17th century Puritans, the original American Christians, as we write our musical about Hester Prynne. Not that it's a coincidence these topics are current -- that's the whole reason we like the story. The Puritans were just as preoccupied with who's in and who's out, probably more so because they believed the lists had been made at the beginning of time and could not be changed. So they were obsessed with trying to determine ways of knowing who was on which list, so that they'd know whom to let in and whom to keep out. They of course couldn't know, and, in fact, it was sinful to suggest that one could know, but that didn't stop them from speculating on all kinds of outward indications that one might be saved or damned and banishing or executing people who disagreed with the approved methodology. Underlying everything was a great deal of personal anxiety because of course no one could even know whether or not they themselves were chosen. At least now your average Southern Baptist can rest assured he's going to heaven if he accepts Jesus Christ as his blah blah blah. I appreciate the Puritans for that -- at least they had rules. All today's Christians have to do is be super sanctimonious and they go straight to heaven.

I guess we'll know more in June when the Supreme Court weighs in. We'll either end up with a federal right to gay marriage but a bunch of states where you can't buy flowers or cake. Or, if it goes the other way, then all these desperate religious freedom laws will be moot and Alabama and Indiana can go back to the 17th century. Most people in my safe little circle of urban liberals anticipate a positive ruling to come out of the cases before the Court right now, and it's hard to imagine any other result since the argument has been framed in classic conservative terms. But I'm not feeling so sanguine. With judges like Thomas and Scalia, who are less concerned with justice than with creating a world where everyone is forced to follow their rules, there's no end to perfidy.

Indiana hurts particularly because I grew up there. Of course when I was there I wanted out and I fled as soon as I could. But my family is still there, and, though I have no illusions about it being much different than it was, I have to say I was moved last year when the Court of Appeals ruled Indiana's gay marriage ban illegal and suddenly C and I were still married when we visited my folks at Christmas.

It gives me hope that my mom is there fighting the good fight. She's remarkable. I don't think I have the stamina to be a liberal in Indiana, but she's been at it for decades. She'll give you an earful about Mike Pence. He's a grade A asshole. You almost have to be to get elected in Indiana.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Time, Work, Home.

The other day a friend asked me if I miss my old job and I didn't hesitate for a fraction of a second. "No." Of course I don't. I worked with people I liked. I didn't hate my job like I have others. I didn't dread going to work. It was a good job, I felt appreciated, and it paid me well, but what it was most of all was a giant time suck and as soon as I didn't have to spend 32 hours a week plus 3 hours a day commuting to Brooklyn that time was immediately full of everything that I didn't have time to do before. I've written several songs in the last two months and, though I may not be the second coming of Jesus Christ, I think I'm doing the best work of my life. None of this is a surprise to me. I knew exactly how it would be. I waited all my life for it. I was ready.

Now that all my time is open, though, the one thing that has suffered is my blogging. Blogging was always something that required some focus but not the deep, long focus that the real writing needs. So I could do it on my lunch break at work. Or often I would blog on a weekend afternoon, but now that I know the week is available for my serious writing, I feel justified relaxing on a Saturday afternoon. The weekdays feel so wide open.

But then when I'm here at my desk and C has gone to work and I might have an idea for something I want to blog about I can't somehow make myself do it. This is real writing time!

But today has been so full of distractions, the real stuff didn't stand a chance, so ... here I am blogging. (But I did, on my walk to and from Target a couple hours ago, make some notes for a song I've been trying to get a grip on for weeks. It never really leaves my system for good, it's always churning somewhere under the surface.)

So today. Target for batteries. I did a Target run on Tuesday -- there's a Target just across the bridge in the Bronx, about a ten minute walk -- and we shop there for cleaning and laundry supplies, toothpaste, etc., because it's cheaper than the Rite Aid, but I forgot to get C batteries for C's shower radio. He's been a little squirrelly in the morning without his NPR. So I went back.

I spent the morning trying to find someone to move our elliptical machine to a friend's house in Brooklyn. Our new building has a gym, so we don't need it. (Yes, we've moving, and that should by rights be a whole blog post on its own but my rule is no looking back, so ...) It was surprisingly difficult to find someone to move the damn thing. It took the better part of 2 mornings. And we're putting together our co-op board application, which is, well, something I never imagined I'd ever be doing. Besides reams and reams of financial history, it requires dozens of reference letters from friends and business associates and current and former landlords.

If they like the way we've dotted all our i's, we will move most likely in June. Back to the Lower East Side, but this time lower and farther east. C lived for some of the 90s on Clinton St and I lived in the East Village most of the 80s and 90s but on Pitt Street near Delancey for a couple years around 1983 or 4. So, even though we won't be right in the heart of all that gentrified madness we'll be close and it feels to both of us like a homecoming.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Oscars Post-Mortem.

Lots of chatter still about the Oscars, most of it of the banal language-policing variety that makes me want to jam pencils in my ears and give up all hope for the future of social justice movements.

But this article in this morning's New York Times got me thinking.

Early in my first painting class at Parsons, our teacher, Regina Granne, said something that looms in my memory as “Art is a specialized activity practiced and appreciated by an elite group of people who have the education and refinement to understand it.” Probably she said something more like, “Your parents will never understand what you do.”

Whatever she said, it crystallized for me at that moment and forever a feeling I’ve had at least since high school and still feel, a pull between wanting to make art that everyone will love and wanting to pursue something more esoteric.

Part of that latter impulse is defensiveness brought on by the sense of grievance creative people feel toward a world they think misunderstands and underappreciates them. “I don’t care if you don’t understand me. It’s not my fault you’re a philistine.” And I think a milder, more mature and less emotional, version of that is the realization that there will always be people who get your work and people who don’t and you can’t please everyone. I like to think the reason I don’t like superhero movies has more to do with taste and cultural differences than whether they’re good or bad.

Still, it does have something to do with education and refinement. I don’t think it’s just a matter of taste that there is a group of people who love a Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA and a much larger group who think it tastes nasty and would prefer a Bud Lite. I won’t apologize for having done the work necessary to appreciate art or ideas or food or whatever that is sophisticated, complex, dense. Does that make me a snob? Can someone who loves Neil Diamond and Hello Kitty be a snob? Maybe.

Always these two impulses that seem contradictory and zero sum. I want to make work that straddles the divide, and sometimes I’ve been successful, other times not. Y’all was almost the very definition of populist art. But we were trying from the beginning to subvert what it looked like on the surface. (At first … eventually we just gave in to the fact that the simplest way to be subversive was to be sincere.). And we won over audiences -- sometimes -- in the very highbrowest and lowbrowest of venues (art museums and grocery stores, experimental theater festivals and elementary schools). Rural conservative folks knew we were just aping the Grand Ole Opry, and kids love a toe-tapper. And I guess because we were queer and undermining stereotypes and fucking with unreliable narratives there was enough for the theory-prone arty types to chew on. (Little did they know that country entertainment had been queer and undermining stereotypes and fucking with unreliable narratives at least since the Carter Family.)

And LIZZIE, the other work that’s occupied an outsize portion of my life and career, I think exists somewhere in between, too. It has lots of big accessible catchy songs but it’s emotionally complex, layered with meaning, deals with history in ways that I think are incisive but open-ended, and rewards close attention. Sorry to brag, but I’m not going to say all that stuff isn’t in there. We spent a lot of years working to make it so.

I’m not sure what I really have to say about the Oscars. I’m not too outraged that lots of small indie films get attention. Some films are not for everyone. It doesn’t make them any better or worse than the blockbusters. I didn’t get much out of Birdman. I was deeply moved by Boyhood. It didn’t just make me cry. (It did, but so did Theory of Everything which I thought was a pretty good movie but nothing special really.) It got under my skin, rearranged my brain, made me see art and life differently forever. Like Terrance Mallick’s films (the other Austin filmmaker), Boyhood left me sort of gasping, puzzled, full of love, afraid and thrilled. As I’ve discovered many times when I try to describe what it is about Mallick that I think is so great, it’s not a feeling that I can really put into words.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Blood Sport.

I always think I’m going to read a lot on long flights, but I hardly ever do. I can’t stay awake, or alert, or focused enough. But I don’t mind falling asleep on the plane. I dislike air travel so much I’m happy to sleep through it.

Packing for our trip to Dublin last Friday, I almost grabbed the book I’m reading, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (by Brenda Wineapple, who wrote the Nathaniel Hawthorne biography I enjoyed so much recently). I’m having a bit of trouble getting through it because it’s too big and heavy to carry on the subway, which is where I get a lot of reading done, even now that I’m not commuting every day. But I decided at the last minute to leave it home and take instead the new issues of Tricycle and The New York Review of Books, both of which I read cover to cover on the return flight yesterday and left in the seat-back pocket.

All of which is to preface saying that this piece about football violence stuck with me.

Every thinking fan must, in order to enjoy any NFL game, consent to participate in a formidable suspension of disbelief. We must put aside our knowledge that nearly every current NFL player can expect to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that leads to memory loss, impaired judgment, depression, and dementia.

Read the whole thing, it’s not long.

Not that I didn’t already have a list of reasons why it might be better to send your kids to piano lessons or art class instead of off to play football, but all this recent information about long-term brain injuries is pretty unequivocal.

I grew up with the point of view, at least as far as schools were concerned, that there were arts people and there were sports people and not a lot of overlap. We were arts people.

Sports always got more attention and money, and the arts had to beg for whatever if anything was left. I guess I got this attitude from my parents, who were not necessarily anti-sports (my dad always watched football on TV when it was in season) but they were very critical of the over-the-top fandom all around us in Indiana, the way the achievements of high school athletes always got more attention than those of scholars and artists and musicians, and the pervasive belief that the arts were frivolous while support for high school sports was an unassailable civic virtue.

And that attitude dovetailed perfectly with my increasing anxiety around “male space,” as I reached adolescent and began to feel that I was not male, at least not in the way that the boys around me naturally were.

I’ve written before about my belief that junior high and high school phys ed has always been an arena of officially-sanctioned sexual terror. Even if that is no longer true -- people tell me things have changed -- you’ll still have a hard time convincing me that it is not a colossal waste of time. People will make the argument that the so-called obesity epidemic justifies physical education in schools. Somehow the cultural stupidity epidemic doesn’t provoke similar feelings about music and arts education.

But as I’ve gotten older, my feelings have mellowed. I’ve grown more sympathetic towards sports fandom. My time in Texas, where college football brought everyone, including my queer friends, together in something that was so obviously joyful and fun, was a watershed. And then the world of professional sports started to become less homophobic, with gay players coming out and their straight teammates expressing support. Maybe kids playing sports, even if it wasn’t my thing, wasn’t such an awful thing.

But now this stuff with the head injuries, and finding out that football is so important to its fans that they will tolerate near-certain brain damage of the players they claim to love (including their children), puts me right back where i was, hating the whole base enterprise. This --

Studebaker is the twenty-nine-year-old backup linebacker for the Colts who, while defending a punt return, was blindsided with a gruesome hit to the chest by the Patriots’ backup running back Brandon Bolden. Studebaker’s head jerked back and he landed on his neck. On the sideline after the play Studebaker was seen coughing up blood.

-- toggled a switch in me and took me right back to believing, not that sports and the arts are just two things people might be interested in, neither any better or worse than the other, but that music and art lift us up, encourage our highest aspirations, our most noble characteristics, those which bring us together and spur us to compassion and understanding, whereas sports is just about encouraging and celebrating our worst animal tendencies: brute competition, bloodlust, and an “us vs. them” gang mentality.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve At The Edge of America.

Contemplating the end of 2014 here from the roof of a rented house at the top of a hill with a view of the blue, blue ocean and out toward the south, New York somewhere behind me and South America out somewhere past the horizon, everything seems connected in that way that arbitrarily significant dates can make things seem.

As you know, I’m working on a new musical adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. I thought I’d have hours to write lyrics and make up tunes, alone at the house all day while C and my in-laws fry like hushpuppies in the mid-day sun at the beach, but I’ve mostly been reading, and thinking, and gazing. Lots of gazing. And snoozing. What could be sweeter than dozing off in the middle of a paragraph, sitting on a plastic Adirondack chair on the roof of a rented house at the top of a hill with a view of the blue, blue ocean?

The book I’m reading is Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, which, if I’d come across it a few months ago, might have derailed (which is not to say that I wouldn’t have loved it, because it’s a book made for me to love) might have derailed my own sort of fast and loose line (but less like a line and more like a quilt or a pair of darned socks) of thought connecting the Puritans to the mid-19th century and to Reagan and then on to America’s various current wars in the Middle East along with the latest peck-peck-pecking of assorted so-called Christians against women and anyone else they think is being treated too kindly.

It’s a beautiful book, funny and at times very moving (in that American Studies way) and almost too eerily on the nose, as I said. (There’s a photo of Ms. Vowell on the dust jacket, and I kept looking at it trying to remember where I’d seen it and why I felt strangely irritated by it when suddenly yesterday afternoon I remembered that the same photo had accompanied a New York Times op-ed piece I had kind of hated a couple months ago. I had liked the writing but hated the conclusion, which at the time I felt was a bit cowardly. So, remembering my first impression of her writing made me feel even more fond of the book. I’m glad I didn’t realize it was her book before I was way into it and loving it, or I may have either had a chip on my shoulder and been unmoved or possibly not read the book at all.

Anyway, great book. I recommend it, even to those who aren’t already lovers of Puritan trivia and America’s founding ideas.

So, Puerto Rico. One big point on which I diverge with Vowell is that she, despite the harsh criticism she levels, retains a love and faith and optimism regarding America’s uniqueness and promise. I’m struggling. This year I’m really struggling. I’ve always till now felt like the ideal of American democracy could be set apart from all the monstrous things, like slavery, like the slaughter of the indigenous people, like the horrific way we treat our poor and sick, that even though we are flawed and stunted we aspire to justice and equality. Even through the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions I kept hope. Since I discovered Thoreau in 8th grade I’ve thought of my impulse to dissent as the most “American” thing about me. Americans are people who become aware of injustice and they protest. That’s what I thought, and that’s how, even in the face of Vietnam, Reagan, Nicaragua, the government’s response to AIDS, NAFTA, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, I never lost faith.

What’s caused me to lose my grip is the Senate’s torture report – and not the report but the response to it, the bleak news that most Americans are really kind of okay with torturing people. It’s hard to ignore what seems so incredibly clear: that this is who we are, a people who want people whom we feel threatened by to suffer the most intense pain we can imagine and implement.

My life is pretty near perfect, so should I be complaining? I’ve quit my day job. I’m a full-time, independent artist now. I’m only 53, so I hope I have at least a couple decades left to get some work done faster than ever before now that I have suddenly so many more hours in a day. My mother’s health is worlds better this holiday season than last. C’s parents, in lieu of presents and decorating and baking treated us all to a week here in this transportingly and unexpectedly gorgeous place. Until yesterday I would have said I didn’t much care for the ocean, but it turns out it was only the Atlantic (which is trying only to do one thing and that is to kill you) that was my enemy. Here the water beckons, warm and cerulean and softly rolling onto the shore. It wants to lick your face, not bite it off.

The whole family has been piling into the rented SUV with piles of beach chairs and sandwiches, leaving me here to my own devices until 3, when C comes back to fetch me and ice and happy hour bourbon and cokes, so I can enjoy paradise on my own terms -- which means avoiding the blazing mid-day sun and the unpleasantness of my head swelling up like the Goodyear Blimp and then slowly over the course of a week draining out through my sinuses.

Maybe it doesn’t help that I’m doing this year-end reckoning in a place not only beautiful but also so directly connected to 1) Spain’s first voyages to this part of the world and their prompt slaughter and enslavement of the native people they encountered and looting of the land’s resources, and 2) the United States’s first all-out imperial war at the turn of the 20th century. The landscape is prettier than the history.

But maybe I should take heart. The island of Vieques, where I am spending a week with my in-laws in a rented house at the top of a hill with a view of the blue, blue ocean is also the site of one of the most inspiring protests in the history of civil disobedience, where the United States Navy, who had seized most of the island, wrecked the local economy, and left the already poor farmers homeless and even poorer, was after decades of protest forced to leave. Now the land they had used for test bombing and war training is a protected wilderness.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Things End, Things Begin.

The thing I think I'm most looking forward to about not having a day job -- besides just the fact of maybe having enough damn time -- is that I won't have to always try to figure out how to make the distinction between my work and my job, between work and "work," between my work and other people's work. I'll no longer get twisted up in sentences like, "Yes, I'm working; I have the day off." Work will always mean work. When I'm working I will be working.

I guess I'm finally at the tail end of a long transition that began in 2002 when Jay and I separated and we stopped doing Y'all. That period of time -- 10 years with Jay and Y'all -- was so jam-packed with art and love and poverty, sharp turns this way and that, intense experiences of every imaginable type, highs and lows, and over and above all of it an obsessive tenacity, that it took 12 years to feel my feet under me again.

To be honest, it's kind of silly to even speak in these terms, of transitions being over, because haven't we learned by now that nothing ever stops changing? I could just as easily say that the transition ended when I went back to writing musical theater (for whom I have my friends P & H, who called LIZZIE out of the cobwebs and created a reason to re-write it, to thank), or when I moved back to New York (T, who said "Come back," and who gave me a place to land with no end point, no conditions), or when I met C (my ultimate savior), when I married him.

I said goodbye today to the folks I've been working with at the prop shop in Brooklyn for 4 years. When Austin bottomed out and I decided to come back to New York, not having any idea what the hell else made sense to do, I emailed everyone I knew here and asked for help. An old friend, CM, emailed back and said that she might have a job for me. Within a few weeks I was commuting every day to a dusty industrial neighborhood in north Brooklyn to work 9 to 5 in a shop that rents furniture to TV and movie sets.

And just like that, I was back in New York with a place to live, a way to make a living, a musical that was being produced, and then new love, marriage, a reconfigured future.

It's not like I ever forgot how grateful I was for that job when I needed it, but today when CM and I were saying goodbye and she cried a little it became suddenly apparent to me that nothing good ever happens except because I am surrounded by people who care about me. Such a simple, sort of obvious idea, but I'm very moved by it today.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

This Week.

Today I received a rejection letter from a theater I had submitted a play to that said that, although my play is not right for them, they found it "sturdy" and "well written." On one hand, ouch. But on the other, as far as I can remember this is the first rejection letter I've ever received that contained any evidence at all that someone had read the play/watched the film/listened to the songs. It may sound pathetic (though probably not to anyone who's received as many rejection letters as I have -- a.k.a. anyone in any creative field) but I was heartened, in fact moved, by the letter.

And on it goes. "No" is my second favorite answer.

I have a cold, but today was a good writing day. I revised a couple lines of problematic lyrics in one of the Scarlet Letter songs. I haven't shared them with my co-writers yet, but I think they do what they need to do. And I made a stab at another song, which may turn out to be more like just a coda or partial reprise.

I enjoy all the creative work I do, but lyric-writing I think brings me the most pleasure. It's one thing I'm pretty certain I'm good at, so, when I'm writing lyrics, I trust my inner critic to help not sabotage. With other activities, I'm less confident.

I have three more days of nine-to-five. It's exhilarating and scary. I feel like I'm about to jump off a cliff. I keep telling myself that this is by no means the first cliff I've jumped off, and I'm not alone.