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.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Peter Pan And Quitting My Day Job.

So, this week I found myself the great defender of Peter Pan Live! When they (they? I'm not even sure who they are, CBS?) announced last year that they were following up The Sound of Music with Peter Pan, I probably groaned or made some other kind of noise or at least rolled my eyes because Peter Pan? In my memory, it was just dumb and kind of incoherent and really not my favorite musical.

But then it happened, and it was not bad. In fact, I really kind of enjoyed it. (Marijuana helped, but I was loving it even before that.) Granted, the first 20 minutes were boring, but once they started flying I was in. And then the pirates and the dancing and all the fucked-up weirdness of the sex and gender situation, which is weird even without the additional layer of weirdness added by casting (always) an adult woman as Peter Pan, who is a little boy who seduces a pubescent girl who falls in love with him and he calls her "Mother," okay? And meanwhile they're being pursued by a homicidal gay pirate (seriously, maybe Hook's queerness was all very coded and sly back in the fifties but we're onto all that sexual innuendo now).

I think the real reason it's customary to cast a woman as Peter is that it somewhat de-sexes the show. With a boy in the role, it would be too obvious that those scenes between Peter and Wendy are all about sexual desire. And it takes the edge off Hook's obsession with Peter if Peter is a woman.

So, yeah, there was lots of indignation from the high art crowd and blah blah whatever, but what really got my dander up was the talk about Christopher Walken, the sort of glib evaluation of his performance, like "Well, yes, he was entertaining, but he's just doing Christopher Walken." What does that even mean? Sandy Dennis got that a lot, too, Diane Keaton. Jack Nicholson. Some of the greatest actors ever. And did anyone say that about Kelli O'Hara? I love Kelli O'Hara, and Kelli O'Hara does Kelli O'Hara. Ethel Merman did Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters does Bernadette Peters, Mary Martin did Mary Martin. And they are and were great, turning in transporting performance after transporting performance.

What was thrilling to me was seeing Walken, after so much film work, deliver a real musical comedy performance, live. Focused, detailed, specific, and fucking hilarious.

Anyway, so, I loved Peter Pan. Wonders never cease.

Speaking of wonders, I'm leaving my day job. A week from tomorrow is my last day. I envisioned myself writing a blog post about this, but there are so many aspects to it I haven't been able to home in on a way to synthesize my thoughts or even list them coherently.

I've had a couple of brief periods in the past of making a living as an artist with no day job, but they were dependent on specific projects with endpoints in sight. Nothing so open-ended as this. Now I will be a full-time writer. I feel tremendous exhilaration, but not without a streak of apprehension. I could not make this move if I weren't married to a man whose income is enough to make up for the loss of mine. Not that my theater work doesn't produce any income, but it doesn't produce enough to support a life in New York City. Of course, the idea is that with more time to devote to my career, my income will eventually rise. But only eventually. And with no guarantees.

The other day my co-writers on LIZZIE and I were talking about how we'd like to publish some sheet music of a few songs. People ask for it, musical theater students and girls looking for interesting new audition songs. It's an expense: someone has to be paid to turn the score into publishable arrangements and then we have to actually publish them and probably pay someone to administer the sales. A few thousand dollars all told. We were discussing how much we're willing to front, and my point of view was basically that I'm not willing to put up much at all with no guarantee of making it back.

Because 1) I'm just done with that kind of financial optimism. I've thrown too many boxes of unsold CDs into dumpsters after dragging them all over the place for years, CDs that I paid thousands of dollars to have manufactured because I thought they'd sell. Too many. I spent thousands of dollars finishing my film Life in a Box (a lot of it borrowed from friends and credit card advances) because I was sure we'd get a big distribution deal. We didn't. So, yeah, no.

And 2) now that I'm married I share my finances, so any expense that's bigger than just normal spending money and household stuff is a conversation with my husband. It's not that we have approval over each other's spending. I guess we sort of do, technically, but it's not how we experience it. We make decisions together. That's what marriage is. And not that C is stingy or unsupportive -- I'm the thrifty one in our house -- but the fact of the conversation (and not always even having the conversation but just knowing there will be one) makes it easier for me not to be impulsive, to be more rational, sensible.

C's and my income has always been very unequal, but it will get more so now for a while. We're good at working things out. We're good at loving each other. I don't have any doubt that we will adjust, but it will be a new, unfamiliar landscape for a while.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Enjoy these precious days," whisper their leaves.

There's a massive gingko tree in Isham Park, and I pass it every day on my way to and from the subway. It's gorgeous and really huge. I don't know if I'd say that I consider it a friend, but I do sort of say hello to it, or something like that. I acknowledge it. The way the stairs wind down the hill out of the park, heading straight toward it from above, puts the tree suddenly in front of you in a way that makes it impossible not to sort of bow.

The leaves turned bright yellow this week like they do in the fall. I wanted to take a picture on Monday -- I have a friend in Austin who is an amateur botanist obsessed with gingkos and from time to time I'll send him a photo of it -- but I was running late for work so I didn't, thinking I would do it later. The next morning, all the leaves had fallen. Every single one of them, and the sidewalk was paved solid yellow with them. Later that day I read that all the Gingkos all lose their leaves overnight, every tree, all on the same night.

There are thousands of gingkos in New York, in most cities, but the only other one I remember that was so large was in front of the DePauw University library in Greencastle, Indiana, where my mother worked when I was in high school. That tree -- and I don't know if this is exactly how it works but for some reason it's stuck in my head -- was close to another tree of the opposite sex, and when that happens they develop yellow-orange fruit that drop in the fall and stink like fresh vomit and diarrhea and sex. It's a noxious, unsettlingly human smell that seems to drift for miles.