Saturday, October 20, 2007


I can't say that I enjoyed today much. I have a mountain of homework to get done this weekend, the bulk of it (besides Spanish, which takes up about 50% of my life) a couple chapters in my microbiology textbook. I dread that book because it's so slow and requires such intense focus -- I'm a fairly slow reader to being with, but this book is crazy slow; it probably takes me an hour to read 7 or 8 pages -- and after about an hour of it, I cannot stay awake to save my life. It's not that it isn't interesting; in fact, it's fascinating. It's just so dense and foreign.

After a couple hours of that, I borrowed J's truck to pick up our box of produce from the CSA. (J went with a friend this afternoon to Maker Faire, an event here in town that I'm still not entirely clear on.) When I had the cooler packed with our veggies and stowed in the back of the truck, I found I had locked the keys inside the truck. I had to walk home, which is not such a great hardship, it's only about a 25 minutes walk, but I was mad at myself and frustrated because I had so much studying to do and it was hottest part of the afternoon, and I was already resenting the time I had to devote to the vegetables, washing, prepping, etc. And because the CSA vegetables are one of my favorite things in life, I was resenting that I was resenting them and not enjoying them today. Yeesh.

I called J from home, but he didn't get the message for a couple hours. By that time, I had gotten over my little episode. He picked up the truck and the vegetables on his way home. I made dinner for us and J's friend: fried okra, yellow squash sauteed with garlic and basil and Parmesan cheese, and a salad of cut lettuce, arugula, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers with a lemon vinaigrette. Boy, it was good.

I forgot to mention the other factor in my response to the Tony Kushner event the other night (if you're curious, you can read J's blog account of it too -- his telling has a similar sort of tangled up ending; it gets to be such a rat's nest when you try to pull apart the various threads): I had discovered that afternoon that I may not be able to finish my degree by next spring. I'm having trouble figuring out the degree requirements, and I have an appointment with my adviser on Monday, but it looks like there are too many requirements for me to finish in 3 more semesters. That bummed me out. I had made peace with the fact that I was going to be like 52 when I finish my MFA (which is what all this nonsense is about). So another year on top of that...

There are days when I wish I was 65 because 1) I could collect social security, and 2) I wouldn't have so many years left to have to make sense of.

Friday, October 19, 2007

That's What They Call Baggage.

Last night, the Ransom Center sponsored a "chat" with Tony Kushner and Steven Dietz (a playwright I'm not familiar with, but he teaches here at U.T.). It was one of those things where a couple famous artists or writers or intellectuals sit in upholstered chairs on a stage with lots of potted ferns and pontificate about their work and art and culture and the audience hangs on every word, chuckles reverently at the high-brow jokes, etc. I love these things.

I lived in New York when Angels in America was on Broadway, but I didn't see it. I think my excuse was that I couldn't afford it, but I'm not sure if that excuse holds water because, if I'd really wanted to see it, I could have saved up. My negative attitude -- at the time -- about Broadway probably came into play, but I remember being aware that this play was different and important, and I was pretty involved in ACT UP at the time, so I'm not sure why I missed it, except that life then was narrow and harried and, working full-time and doing theater, I didn't have time or energy for much of anything else. I saw the Mike Nichols HBO adaptation just last year on DVD and I still can hardly find words to describe how it shook me.

(I really wanted to see Caroline, or Change, which was on Broadway when I was living in New York again in 2003 editing Life in a Box, but it was very popular, and it was impossible to get discounted tickets. By that time, Broadway tickets were over $100 -- they were probably half that in the late eighties -- so it was out of the question.)

J and I talked through dinner and our walk home about our similar reactions to the "chat." Tony Kushner is charming and extremely smart, and he shines in this format. He speaks in paragraphs (long paragraphs), and though he is erudite, he's not pompous. He's funny and humble and clear. So, I enjoyed it. But I (like J) felt on and off through the talk a kind of deep, painful sadness, a feeling of regret, a feeling that my artistic life has slipped by, that I missed the boat, that in my twenties I had a destination but I got lost. I'm combining my description of the feeling with J's. We both admitted to having had this feeling before.

About a quarter of the audience I'm guessing was students, some of whom -- judging by the self-conscious quality of some of the laughter and sighs when Mr. Kushner's comments were particularly witty or profound -- worship Tony Kushner, and it brought me back to similar events when I was in college (the first time). Meredith Monk came to Miami University when I was a freshman. She performed in a small recital hall and then talked with a group of students and faculty, answered questions, and I simultaneously fell in love with her and art and my own potential to be a great artist just like her.

That desire is mixed up with but not exactly the same thing as the desire to be famous. And both J and I were afflicted with both desires. (I didn't experience it so much as a desire to be famous but as a certainty that I was a famous person who just wasn't famous yet.) Maybe the two are the same after all, just different degrees of the same thing. I wanted not just to be known, but to be known after I died, to have made an indelible mark. And that's my antidote to that uncomfortable feeling of having failed which J and I both experienced last night: I believe -- and I've blogged about this before, I think -- that the work J and I did as Y'all had some quantifiable influence on creative activity that followed it, art, music, performance, something. I haven't done the research; I can't defend my thesis yet, but I'm pretty confident that there is support for that argument. The trouble -- as J pointed out -- is that much of the best work we did was, because it was performance, ephemeral. But -- as I pointed out -- a great deal of it was recorded. We have hours and hours of video; we (mostly J) wrote a book; we made records. There's a substantial archive -- I know, because I've been dragging it around the 48 states for the last 5 years.

Y'all, as far as how it played out in our lives, in our relationship, and in our careers, is hard to parse. We knew it was a beast when we were in the belly of it. Y'all started out as something fun to do. We were both pretty busy with other stuff when we met. I was working a lot with Tiny Mythic Theatre Company, and I had a folk-rock band. J was writing plays which were being produced at various little downtown theaters. We met, we couldn't get enough of each other, and you can only have sex so many times in a day, so eventually we got out the ukulele and started making up funny songs. That's really how it happened. And then, the short version of the story is that we played our songs for our little circle of theater people, they said nice things, we got a couple gigs, people laughed, so we went with it. It was what I'd been trying to do all along with all my work, create something that people responded to. We wanted to make good art, but we both wanted fiercely to be famous and this truly seemed like our shot.

But then, at some point early in the career of Y'all, we made a choice to pursue a middle-America audience. We knew we were working in a traditional medium, a populist medium, and -- though we were aware that being so queer and so old-fashioned at the same time made Y'all subversive, we could see that the people who responded deeply to our act were those who had some reverence for those traditions (old-time and country music, the Grand Ole Opry, etc.). We knew that Y'all was post-modern but we didn't want to let our audience know that we knew. The people who were sneering at or laughing at the traditional element of it, eventually lost interest in us, I think. The people who liked us were little old ladies and little kids, art snobs, rednecks, and housewives. Everyone, it seemed. It was intoxicating. That bit about wanting to host our own TV show, we really believed we could make that happen. That wasn't just part of the act.

When I was in art school, and when I was studying theater, and even when I was doing all that experimental work in New York, I always had a slight uneasiness about the eliteness of it, the arcaneness, the artists-making-art-that-only-other-artists-will-understandness-of-it. I loved that Y'all was art for the people. We followed Y'all out to the hinterlands, farther and farther away from our avant garde community and eventually out of New York. That's where our audience was, but we were left pretty isolated out there.

Then there's our relationship, and how it affected and was affected by all this art and fame stuff, but that's just too complicated to get into right now. I made a movie about it, which I think tells pretty accurately at least a small part of that story, but of course there's always more to say, more to ponder.

So, I don't know. I have no c0nclusions here. Both J and I at times have a pretty troubled relationship with our past, our futures, our careers, and even sometimes with each other. But I'm hugely grateful that I have him here, in the next room, and that we can talk about this stuff from time to time, even if it's unpleasant.

Monday, October 15, 2007

An Old Dog.

I just took my second biology exam. It was less harrowing than the first one. The material was not as difficult for me. The first test was all chemistry and genetics, which are abstract and complex compared to viruses and drugs (the topics covered on this test) which are complex but they're somehow more real to me. I also knew better how to study this time. I was thrown last time more by the types of questions than by the subject matter. Anyway, I think I did well.

I also had a quiz in Spanish this morning.

So last weekend was intense, with studying for the exam and re-writing an English paper. I say re-writing, but for all intents and purposes I was starting over. In the first draft of the paper, I had taken issue with a point in a scolding little essay by Nabokov, called "Good Readers and Good Writers." The essay is one of two texts that the professor has based the course on (the other is "Education by Poetry," by Robert Frost), so I knew I was walking into a minefield by disagreeing with something in it, but my argument was specific and well-argued, I thought. I got it back with no marks on it, and a note on the front that said, "While your paper is well-written, what you have written is not the kind of argument that the assignment requested... You need to go back and choose a topic that you can support with clear, undisputed proof," etc.

We have lecture twice a week, and we meet with a grad student teaching assistant in small "discussion sections" once a week. Our papers are graded by the T.A. In lecture the day after we got our papers back, the professor said "the worst thing that can happen is that you get your paper back with no marks on it, but that only happened to a few people who are still trying to argue that Nabokov is wrong. If you're still doing that, just stop it, it's childish."

I stewed for a while, remembering what it was that drove me to drop out of school 3 times previously: the attitude in academia that the person who has read the most books is the smartest. But then I started thinking, you know I've read a shitload of books, and not only that, I've had a pretty wide range of experiences, not to mention the fact that I've been an artist and writer for over 25 years. My mind might not be exactly on a par with Nabokov, but I at least have enough authority to have a dialog with some of his ideas. And, I certainly have more authority than a 23-year-old grad student. Harumph.

So I went to see the professor in his office, and I said, "I need some guidance here. I need more than just 'wrong, try again.'" (Have I said that I love this guy? I've never seen a more energetic, committed teacher. I love his class.) We had a great conversation. He understood how I feel awkward sometimes, being an older student when the style of his class is geared toward people just starting out with these ideas. He looked at my paper and the T.A.'s comments and said, "I remember this one -- this isn't what I told her to say to you." He helped me see the Nabokov essay more clearly, pointed out things that I hadn't noticed, and I left with a deeper understanding of it. I went home and re-wrote the paper.

The moral of the story is, make use of your professor's office hours.

When I was younger, school consisted of figuring out what the teacher wants, giving it to him or her, getting an A. I don't want to do it that way this time, I know that. What I want to do is figure out what the teacher wants because if I do the thing in the very specific way that the teacher asks, I will learn something valuable. And get an A.