I’m staying a few days in my godfather’s cabin on a lake in far upstate New York. I took a drive, looking for something to eat but am not ready to do indoor dining and no one here has outdoor seating. I considered take-out but all the restaurants were surrounded by mask-less white men on Harleys which for me is an unsafe vibe on several counts, so I went to an organic farm market and eatery for some stuff to take home. Hippies are safe, right?
At the checkout there was a flier with bullet points putting 200k Covid deaths in a diminished context with other larger health and social issues: flu, heart disease, cancer, suicide, abortion, missing kids. The closing point on the printout, to provoke discussion, was: shouldn’t we be more focused on Monsanto, substance abuse, nutrition to boost immune system, mental health…?
I wasn’t going to say anything, but she saw me reading it, said she just did the research herself last night, and I read the words: “this new flu.”
“But…it’s not a flu.”
“It’s not? I thought it was.”
I wasn’t going to say anything but then I said everything, which I will say again here.
“No. it’s not. It’s not a flu. Some early symptoms in some people look a bit like flu. Trump calls it a cold or flu to minimize it as you have also done here. No doctor or scientist calls it that. Now they know, it is not even respiratory. It’s vascular, affects blood as it flows through every part of your body. And people who get it, even if they don’t die, may have a lifetime of other health issues: compromised breathing, heart and other organ failure, amputation, stroke, other things we don’t even know yet. Flu doesn’t do any of that. Flu mostly kills when it overwhelms a person with other health issues, it’s not especially deadly itself, and many flu deaths can be avoided if more people get a flu shot. But there is no vaccine for Covid. Covid kills and affects the healthy who have no underlying conditions, and we know it can last up to 9 months, or more, we don’t know yet, not the few days or weeks of the flu and then you forget you had it. It’s not a flu.”
She took it all in as her preteen kid came in and out of listening range. She put on her mask after I told her I was from NYC. (I tested negative a few days ago, and was of course wearing my mask I mean come on.) She seemed to be very affected by all I told her, as if she was hearing it all for the first time. She asked me about how things were in NYC, then, and now. I told her honestly but also that there is no before and after. It was bad, it got better, but it’s not over. It is spiking again in neighborhoods and places throughout the country where people don’t take it seriously because they let their politics, religion, or self-interest interfere with common sense, scientific truth, the collective good.
She didn’t find this info even when she was doing research on it. The info is there, but many people aren’t reading actual news, instead getting disinfo from foreign enemies’ memes, clickbait headlines, and angry opinions. Am I adding to the disinfo, the noise right now? I am not a doctor or scientist. I’ve read a few articles. My only Covid agenda is trying to understand and fight this, which should be everyone’s agenda unless you are rooting for Armageddon, which I know so many are. I can’t think of any other explanation for the covid denial, climate change denial, electing Satan himself. That means Jesus is coming!
I suggested she do more research and encouraged her to continue to care about her other issues and work for them in her community but that we need to amplify and keep this issue first, and elect people who take it seriously or we are doomed, if we aren’t already.
It was actually a nice talk. It’s good to get away.
We need to have more of these conversations. We can do this. One person at a time is the new social platform. It might take some time. Can someone else go talk to the Harley guys?
This morning in line at the bakery I got to listen to an out-of-town visitor talking on the phone to someone he loves. I know about the love because he said “I love you” before he hung up, though I have done that and not meant it. Even recently, after a business call that ended in rejection. I was the one who was rejected so it wasn’t one of those, “I’m sorry….I loooove you…” consolation things I’ve done in the past. Being too alone with my brain for too long has just made me weird. Sometimes I think I actually do love more lately, I mean if not, what’s the point of any of this? So I even love people who don’t want me because what does one have to do with the other? Early in the pandemic my sister said goodbye as: “well *I* still love you” which still cracks me up. Who? stopped? loving? me? What aren’t you telling me?!!
But back to the bakery line guy, who I do not love, who loudly said: “it’s just SO Brooklyn that I am waiting in a long line for a bakery!”
First, I hate “Brooklyn” as a facile adjective for something else (hipster, entitled, artisanal, avocado toast) because it erases the many different types of people who are and were Brooklyn before the branding. I accept that I’m who he meant, fire fire gentrifier, fancy as fuck in my daisy shirt and khaki shorts, because I had to actually get dressed today to walk cousin’s dog. Though am I a yuppie if I’m broke and no longer young or professional…..who am I now when I was self- and outwardly- defined by my work, my city, my people who I cannot see anymore? Who is anyone anymore?
Second, I have lived in Brooklyn 22 years I have never once waited in a bakery line. (Peter Pan is a donut shop.) I figured out how to avoid most NY lines through strategy, connections, denial of self, but mostly by just not giving enough of a fuck to think anything was worth waiting for when there’s another good option a block away. (That is people’s complaint about dating in NYC, too. The rest of you, picking are slim and you’re stuck with one another. Here, endless options!) The pandemic created lines and crowds I had to accept, to get groceries, to do laundry, to get tested, to get fresh air. No more secret downtimes when other people were working to do things, no going out after dark because streets too empty for me, no bars so no magic night hours between when people go into and then come out of the bars. Those hours were always my favorite, back when I was one of the people inside the bars, and then when I was one of the people wandering the streets and avoiding the people in bars.
Today I was so attracted to the line, happy to join the people in it. I was a joiner. I am a joiner. I was happy when La Bicyclette Bakery reopened for awhile last month after been closed for most of the shutdown, and the other day I saw the sign saying they’d be back again this week. This line seemed much less the old bougie brunch crowd and more neighbors supporting neighbors. Everyone is so grateful we have people like them making a go of it, being safe, figuring out solutions, employing people, saving us from 5 hours of bread making you all seem to love so much. Since I have the time, I will wait 20 minutes to get a $2 baguette to support this small local business a few blocks away from the Whole Foods monsters that continue to profit from pandemic while putting nothing back into the local community via taxes or outreach or donations or anything.
I know I started out talking about how loving I have become, but with more social interactions that is becoming more difficult, and it was hard to have love for a guy who comes here (undoubtedly from one of the quarantine states, without quarantining), but I always try to recognize that these jerks are my teachers. I felt like he was making fun of us for being Brooklyn, when I know we’re the only city and state in this whole country that took the virus seriously, shut down as soon as we could, as much as we could, to protect the most vulnerable among us, at great expense to ourselves and maybe the survival of the whole city, and even so still lost over 20, 000 of us, and affected countless numbers with still unknown future health issues, mostly in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx. We did this not because it was hip or easy or fun or because we liberals love to follow government orders (huh?), but because it was the right thing to do. Mutual aid groups popped up everywhere because city services were sapped or reeking of mismanagement and corruption and federal government abandoned us. North Brooklyn Angels brought food to hospital workers because cafeterias and restaurants closed. Vinny’s pizza took donations to deliver to essential workers. Crowdsourcing flourished. It is all still flourishing. People are cleaning the parks and picking up garbage while the city tries to remember how to govern, having given up the notion with the rest of the country that government is to serve the people, not for political or economic gain by any individual. I’m getting involved in local government at a very low level and it’s just amazing to me what people are doing for one another in the name of public service.
We have met and will meet in the streets to protest and to mourn and to make things better. We look out for one another. We choose to live in a place where we can keep our carbon footprint low, travel by subway or walk or bike, and mix with all kinds of people to keep our minds and hearts open, alive, growing. We wait in lines with one another even without talking, because we love one another and we just need to be present with others, sharing this experience. Maybe sometimes two dogs will stop and say hi to one another and that, plus a hot baguette, will be a highlight of an otherwise very difficult or lonely day. We give a fuck. We are so Brooklyn.
Last night I was finally rolling up some audio cables and mics that I had left on the floor too long, neglected in a depressive defiance that no one would be coming over ever, what’s the point of straightening stuff up. Plus obstacles add some adventure to my 250 square feet walkabouts.
I had pulled out the stuff to experiment so I could tell people how to improve their Zoom sound for livestreams and podcast recordings. My take, though you didn’t ask: for zoom only, for voice-only (music is another thing), probably not worth the hassle for most people. Wired earbuds mic were almost as good as my Shure or Sennheiser boom or lav, computer/phone mics ok if you sit close, airpods add some compression but really everything is fine nothing matters there is no perfection in a pandemic use what you got doing whatever you can do. It was a fun distraction getting to that answer via careful scientific method.
Then a wave of sadness at the realization that I probably won’t need this audio-recording go-kit, so carefully organized in ziplocks in a fashionable green plastic tote, selected just for me in Mexico by my lil cousins who live 6 blocks away but I can’t see anymore at weekly family dinner. Probably I should put everything back in the drawer? But I put the cables back in the tote, and stuffed the tote deep in the closet, unwilling to make that call right now.
March 5 was the last pre-pandemic live show I helped produce. I was already fearful of the news of the virus and feeling very alone in that. I had walked through the East Village without umbrella in a chilly mist, stopped at the Puerto Rican coffee roasters, walked the three flights up to the little speakeasy space, all routine daily life things, dipping maybe even into the negative end of the psychic meter, but now that scene would make me cry with longing if I saw it in a movie. I sprayed alcohol on everything especially the mics. A friend started talking to me and helped me unfurl cables which created more untangling work because they started at the wrong end. It was kind, and I was kind back, and didn’t jump on the teaching moment like I sometimes annoyingly do, just let it go, and said thanks. Already I was sensing that none of this seemed important. I did chuckle to myself that I finally get why sound people are usually such dicks when you touch anything.
All this remembering and emotions in my solo brain vacuum fueled a nightmare where the same thing happened but with even more complications. We were producing and live-streaming the last Broadway stage show of Harry Potter. Not too long ago I hung out with one of the cast and another comedy hero, at one of my favorite bars from a lifetime ago, Brooklyn Inn. I brought 3 pints of fancy ice cream to share, and it stands out as a very vivid “this is who I am and why I live in NYC” night, so that’s maybe why that got into the dream. I was also, in this dream, producing an equally important comedy karaoke show in a very small room.
Everything was going wrong and all the helpful help wasn’t helpful. Someone *coff Marianne coff* put away all of my gear that I had laid out, moved my backpack (backpack!? What about my fashionable tote?) which then cost precious seconds looking for things and coming up with all my “no it’s great, thanks for looking out” fake assurances to the helpers. (I love you MW and we’ve shared so many producing adventures and travels together, and we had that last great NYC day and night together and that’s surely why you made a dream appearance, not because you have ever fucked up my shit, quite the opposite! Truly, thanks for looking out!)
I said important comedy karaoke show which of course is ridiculous but in my dream it was true. Of course anything you’re ever doing and want to do well is important. But none of this is life or death, no one will die, is what we say to comfort ourselves (and only ourselves) but the client thinks it is, and the clock is ticking, people are asking questions you already answered in the email—why doesn’t anyone read emails—and every person and every person’s concerns are equally valid, except they’re not. The show itself is its own creature and you’re the one tasked with making sure it goes on, because it must go on! And meanwhile, you have to keep smiling to keep everyone else calm, a surface attitude that once made talent holler at me that they didn’t think I was taking concerns seriously because I was so calm and looked like I was having fun. Can’t win!
Despite the anxiety dream, I love putting on a show. I love the facsimile of doing that online though it’s not the same and that’s probably why I’m dreaming about it. Shows are bodies in rooms, community, a commitment by the audience to support and attend, everyone putting in so much effort before, during, after, that goes beyond clicking a button. And after, there is the relief. The audience leaves (hopefully wanting more) and is off to the next place because the night is young and the show was only a ruse to get out, to be out, to be one with the city. For me the relief is a nod or a hug from people I love, even love just for the show, because theater creates that instant surrogate family. And it was all a ruse to get that love from the show, the city, more than the individuals. When it’s over — and it will be over one way or another — you realize that highs and lows, mistakes and all, you pulled it off. As my mentor would say, whether after a trainwreck or a truly transformative artistic experience : “Well, we fooled ‘em again.”
I recently took a break from full-time booking, promoting, producing other people’s things, because I wanted to give myself a chance to make and produce my own work, as my nature (maybe from traumatic nurture) is always to put other people first and hide my own messy artistic vision under professionalism and perfectionism. Ok Artist Way, I’ve been trying to get through that book for 5 years and I think it’s starting to sink in. I’m not a shadow artist. I’m an artist. I’m messy. These times are messy. No one is running the show. And that’s not ok, but it’s also not my job to fix it. No hitting the streets in protest or putting on a show will fix it*, and it’s hard to feel so powerless. I can figure out ways to be useful and helpful, to help put better people in charge. And I can show up every day for myself which is also ultimately for others, to do the slow steady writing work I need to do. And I can also spend some of my time helping people who want to put on a show, to help others feel lighter, normal, sane. Who don’t know what else to do about any of this either, but maybe can raise money and awareness for good causes.
Usually when I write something like this I try to find something more universal to connect my experience to what others might be experiencing. I have no idea what anyone else is experiencing so I’ll just leave it here. I cleared an obstacle on my floor and I see that I have some more psychic obstacles to remove, through dreams, throughout this global nightmare. None of this is life or death except when it actually is.
*written before people started hitting the streets after George Floyd’s murder, which of course did change things, continues to change things. I meant then, hitting the streets to specifically protest the pandemic. “Whose streets? Covid’s streets!”
Almost 2 decades ago, Matt Walsh gathered up some misfits at UCB to create a show called Robot TV that was, in my humble opinion, the best example of staged satire I have ever seen (admittedly, of not very many examples), and luckily I got to be a part of it. I’m not sure satire was ever his intention but it was “TV by robots, for robots,” set in a not very distant future. We used improv group mind, and anonymizing costumes to create a mostly silly but sometimes transcendent future landscape which reflected who and how we are today. You know, satire. Not parody, and not just humor that uses topical stuff as a source…..but social criticism, shine a light to make things better.
Silly: Robots hate water and are amused by the humanity (weakness ) of meat humans, and orgasm when purple light shines on them (and orgasm meant many different things….I’m not sure what everyone else was doing, I just banged into a wall.)
Transcendent: Amadou Diallo had just been shot so Billy Merritt shot me, I fell against the wall and slid to the ground, and we reset and repeated it 19 times while other unrelated things happened on the other side of the stage. I remember thinking no one was paying attention to us and then hearing the audience gasp when we reset at 19 and joined the borg for whatever silly thing they were doing. The image of humans failing one another on repeat on their TV forever? Robots would enjoy that. But so do we, still? That’s still on repeat, right?
The reason I am thinking of this is because it was discovered early on that robots who run the future arbitrarily celebrated some really dumb nostalgic things from when human were in charge, but LOVED elections. They loved the slogans, the pomp, the melodrama, the chaos, the fun violent gladiatorialness of it all. Everything was hyped with the highest importance but it was clear that there were no consequences to any of these elections. I mean, why would there be? The robots were in charge. Things are predetermined. I think about this every time a big election cycle kicks in. The nothing distraction of the day by the robots in charge, sound bites pushing human buttons to divert from real human issues. All the completely inconsequential opinionating in the media and now social media. Thoughtful dialog or differing opinions are not allowed, are a threat, celebratedly met with disrespect and even violence. And that’s not just at Trump rallies, that’s among progressives. Dissent from the status quo is a weakness, regressive racist bluster a strength. So human. So fun.
We are not so far gone yet and the landscape can change. You turn off the tv and computer or ask a friend to get the hell away from me with his fearful “but Bernie can’t win” future tripping preventative voting anti-idealism, and this landscape fades. Go find your humans. For at least the past 2 Presidential elections, it has seemed to be roughly one human one vote and the only useful thing to do if you have an opinion about any of this, about anything human, is to go help the candidate you want to win with phone banking and get out the vote efforts, and maybe give money to help those things happen. I was also very lucky to get to be a part of the 2008 Presidential campaign and it was uphill all of the way but our candidate won from phone banking and GOTV. That’s about as deep as I can get with political analysis. I don’t know what difference a tweet makes or what the backstory is or what the future effect of it is, and neither does that person on the other end of the phone who you might reach and convince to simply vote for the person who more reflects their own interests and the interests of others in their country. Because the game is not entirely rigged yet, who wins does make a difference. It mattered in 2008 and it matters now. Do it now for the primary and do it again for the general election. If I spend my energy on anything else, I know I am just feeding the robots. 010101010101010101010101001101000111000111
I have been performing, hosting, producing, teaching, and booking comedy for many years (IO, UCB, founder of the Magnet Theater, independent weeklies and showcases, comedy festivals, pilots, and a recent three years as Talent Buyer at Union Hall), so have been dealing with these issues personally and professionally for ages, not just in the wake of Louis CK and #metoo.
The question Vulture asked was whether a comic’s “reputation was really a deal breaker.”
I think reputation is more important than even talent. We are not just making deals, not just looking for profit opportunities and weighing the consumer marketplace like other businesses, but we are truly building communities, amplifying voices and cultures, supporting people we believe in, and by extension endorsing their actions, onstage and off. So these issues are the heart of the integrity we should have as artists, gatekeepers, institutions. When the gates are small, it’s even more important. That’s where you can nip shit in the bud so people can learn and grow, and if they don’t want to grow, you get to close those little gates and keep out the jerks. As I got bigger opportunities, I saw personal accountability lowering, and when agents, managers, bookers, venues, audiences, other artists, keep letting things slide, no one wants to be the person to say anything, and comics fail upward and the silencing increases.
But gatekeepers especially are supposed to be keeping the gates. Sometimes I have done it quietly, like not hiring a comic with sexist, ageist, or anti-Asian material…the last bastions of acceptable humor so I still had to be quiet or else I am the “bitch.” Eh, whatever. Everyone knows I was never quiet just not public because I’m profesh. I always said, to much disbelief and mockery by others in the industry, that I would not book Louis CK, and a long list of many of your favs, because of all kinds of behavior which I had experienced decades ago or yesterday, first or second hand. If I heard a story with some shitty personal behavior à la Aziz, I’d either talk to the parties if I knew them, or take the word of the complainer, because I personally know how hard it is to complain, and I would probably just not work with them again. Of course, this isn’t Madison Square Garden $ at stake-my max has been 3000– and when I got to book Aziz it was for free shows in backs of bars when no one knew who he was and my experience with him was always positive. If I had a chance to book him again, I’d start there and would not be shy to ask if his friends have helped him figure out what he did wrong with that personal issue made public. I’d ask him more because I care about his growth as a person and artist, even though I haven’t seen him in years, than about whatever gig it would be. On the upside we had a nice national discussion about informed ongoing enthusiastic consent from all of that, didn’t we? And we all get it now, right? Hello?
If I have a choice—and I make it my life’s goal to always have a choice—I’d rather work with people who lift other people up than those who belittle, abuse, and silence others, onstage or off. It didn’t take a New York Times article to bring me to that conclusion. But it did take that for some male industry peers to finally say, oh hey you were right! Now we believe you! (About this one at least, you seem to just have personal issues about the others.)
The thing that pissed me off most about the LCK Aspen Comedy Festival story, from the very beginning, when I first heard it, is the way he and his 3 Arts manager silenced the Chicago improvisers who, like LCK, have only their ideas and life experiences as their material. If he thought nothing was wrong with what he did, why not just let them tell their story! It wasn’t like he was a GOP candidate….this behavior was not inconsistent with his stage and bar personality. But only he was allowed to tell these stories? And since these women were often so open with their sexuality in their comedy, too, the vibe they got from the comedy community wasn’t supportive.
And that was the common reaction when the NYT story came out so many years later, too: “Why did they go back to his hotel?” I know what it’s like to be a drinker wanting to keep drinking and hanging out with cool people. You’re at a festival in a small town and the bars close early so you go to the biggest hotel room. And if that’s our lifestyle—this job that sometimes comes with this lifestyle, as a performer, writer, producer, agent, manager—isn’t an unconsented penis the least we should expect? This is a #metoo for sure but I’m still not as brave as these women and sometimes I think I still want to work here.
As to “the moral outrage cancelling out giving them another chance,” another question Vulture asked, I truly believe every person is redeemable. I even sometimes fantasize about Trump having some overwhelming trauma or Dickensian haunting that awakens his humanity, even knowing he has a severe mental disorder which prevents that. I know I have sometimes behaved poorly in the past, and am so grateful I have had the opportunity to set these things right and repair relationships. It’s part of growing as a mature person. It’s actually a pretty amazing thing, and I’m sad more people don’t embark on both the lifestyle of mistakes and also the difficult learning from those mistakes. It’s not a matter of “if audiences have forgiven and forgotten,” that is so cynical and opportunistic. It’s whether the offender has truly listened, understood, been honest, accepted the consequences, and changed their behavior. Then I would wholeheartedly stand behind them, if I believed it. If not, I have no interest in listening to them, especially if their job involves the truth. There was an artist who had issued a non-apology apology for something they did that was pretty egregious to the NPR set, so when I was offered the chance to book them years later I went online to see if they had ever figured it out. They had. They had written about it. I enthusiastically booked them.
Shit happens. But you own it. Especially in comedy where you can’t walk around afraid to make a mistake. But when you make the mistake you own it. I am repeating myself because it’s really the only point here. You own and own up to your words, your work, your actions. And the sooner the better. And try to minimize the damage to others. Personally I prefer the kind of mistakes that hurt me and not others. I promise I will make it up to me one day.
In Louis CK’s case, he and his manager at 3 Arts were still denying the women’s accounts right up untilthe NYT publication, trying to continue the silence, continuing to harm the victims. The quick “I didn’t know how much POWER I had over these women I am so POWERFUL” was awful and becomes one of those “sorry to those I offended (but some women were cool with it so how could I know ugh!?)” apology which does not display any of the things, honesty, openness, humility, that show that a person, or a society, has done the work, any work, to figure it out.
As to the Vulture’s question about the Comedy Cellar “Swim at Your Own Risk” bullshit audience warning: this shows how little this venue cares about this issue that they are willing to make it into a lame punchline. What if we instead recreated the conditions we are actually talking about, have men masturbating in front of cis het men in the audience without consent, or do it at their jobs, maybe these men might start to understand. And make those men know they can’t even discuss it without being labeled a troublemaker. Sorry, you showed up, you consented, says so on your ticket. You went to a hotel room *gasp*, you consented. You chose to work in a field dominated by men. You really want to say something and risk not being hired again? Also this isn’t a big deal, get over it.
What Comedy Cellar and these other venues are saying, as the industry says, as society says, if you have an issue, just don’t come. Stay home. And all of the other comedians have no choice but to consent to be on the lineup or lose the gig, which is, of course, not actually consent if not informed, ongoing, enthusiastic….remember?
And the worst part is that we are still talking about this. Good and funny women are wasting time and still losing spaces over this and we are not getting to hear from them. I just wasted time writing this which I probably won’t send. [I did send but they didn’t quote me.] And now there’s another venue I can’t go to, though I want to support the comics I have been supporting my whole life.
My good friend Emily Flake said it all in an illustration which has LCK taking the mic away from the female comic on stage and using it to masturbate while she helplessly tries to get the attention that has been taken from her. Because that’s the hardest part. It was so hard to get here in the first place, and now how do we take the mic back and get him off the stage?
This is of course a white male privilege and power issue. I’ve become obsessed with problematic fav Latino rapper 6ix9ine (who incidentally is funnier than any of these comedians!) He did something really stupid a few years ago when he was 17 or 18, was present dancing around, not participating, when sex acts were performed by others with a minor, then he reposted on social media the video “the grown men” had uploaded. I find his story kinda believable, that the girl had asked him how old he was, which made him think she was worried about him being underage (he’s a babyface.) But whatever the truth, he showed up at court, went to jail, was on probation, (now in jail on other non-sexual charges. Free 6ix9ine!) Despite his tremendous fan base, most of the online commenters call him (maybe inaccurately) a pedophile, (inaccurately) a rapist, wishing him prison and death. He knows it was wrong and why, apologized to the mother and the girl, but that community isn’t having it. And meanwhile LCK, a grown grown grown white man with predominantly white man fans, admitted criminal sexual assault on multiple women over many years, traumatized them, silenced them, hurt their careers, continued to deny and obfuscate with the help of some of the most powerful people in comedy, and the whole white male world just wants to keep minimizing this, saying “it’s not like he raped anyone,” wants to get back to normal so we can laugh and go back to thinking that this is ok behavior. I mean the white male president of the US did worse than both of them and he’s the white male president of the US, right?
…Just a lil coda since I wrote this Nov 14 and since then the genius everyone was mourning came back repressed repressive oldmanning it about Parkland survivors and gender queer kids which inspired this wonderful rant by a person I don’t know. Is “oldmanning” ageist? Don’t answer that- I don’t think I care this time. Love ya and this crazy biz! ha ha ha ha ha.
I wondered to my therapist why I’ve been so emotionally triggered by the smell of smoke from coworkers coming back to the office after being in our fire-damaged venue. No, I don’t think I ever experienced a real fire trauma.
Well, there was the time when I was 6 and my big brother had the idea to create a Used Christmas Tree Lot, dragging the neighborhood’s discarded trees to our tiny back yard. We practiced lighting some needles and putting them out, until we failed and the dry trees went up in flames, out of control. I ran and hid at a neighbor’s house, wisely avoiding my normal hidey hole in the crawlspace under my house, where I played with matchbox cars in the thick dust and ash. My sister ran to the kitchen and came out with a single useless glass of water. Fight. Flight. Paralysis. Process. No, that wasn’t traumatic and no I don’t want to talk about why I played under the house.
Then there was the time as adults when arsonists developers were torching our rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood. We sat on a curb watching our next-door neighbor’s building go up in flames, and I said with sincerity: “I’m gonna get us the hell outta Dodge.” Medium scary, yes, we moved, but no, that doesn’t really register as a triggering event. Dad died that year so it was all just a chaotic mix of grief and laughter and insanity and creativity, constant soundtrack of Peggy Lee’s “Is that All There Is” to a fire? Then let’s keep dancing.
No, no, really, I insisted, dismissively, apologetically, these things do not trigger me…then suddenly:
OH! September 11th!
Right. September 11th. Windows open, my Cobble Hill apartment was filled with paper debris and the dust of buildings and humans. I used the FEMA vouchers to get an air filter and vacuum, which I still use. The fires burned for months. It always smelled in Chelsea where I spent all my time drinking and making comedy and when the wind shifted it smelled at home. I kept the windows closed, used my FEMA A/C unit. They said, never forget and we knew we’d never forget. We couldn’t. We tried.
I’ve been using all my powers of suppression since the election, suppression of my fear of our government again, suppression of fear of the actions this government is provoking, suppression of my deepest fear that it’s all over for America, a place I really had such high hopes for. And I have a very real fear that we’re just not going to make it. Lots of us didn’t. Lots more don’t everyday from the same forms of greed and hatred. And even if we do make it, we’ve got the disastrous effects of climate change, where we were already too late and now we are moving backwards. We are not going to make it.
It takes a lot to suppress this fear and get to the silly but somewhat meaningful business of my life. Just yesterday I was asking myself if I am too fancy for wanting a new vacuum, and I dated mine to Sept 2001, so it’s not like I don’t remember it happened, every day. I just didn’t remember the smell, or the emotions, or how I was purposefully trying to forget, every day.
Thank god for therapy, doesn’t take much to scritchy scratchy at the layers to get to the heart. And now I can say: THIS is not THAT. This smoke smell is not that smoke smell. But this fear IS that fear. This empathy is that empathy. This America is not that America, which was just starting to grow up but then went the other way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Americans cheering if it happened to NYC today, as Trump did that day. So many sick maniacs in charge and out there, but let this be our national bottom. Let this be the fire we fight and rise up from.
Sometime in my college years of 1987-1991, I got in a kitchen fight with the Baffler’s Tom Frank about Madonna. I have been fighting in kitchens at parties since way back. I was and am that girl. In high school, I talked politics in the kitchen of Articles of Faith’s big blue house in Chicago, wearing stylish vintage men’s clothes while other kids were having sex in other rooms. I had started to adopt that look in sixth grade in Hermosa Beach when someone from Black Flag said I looked cool when I showed up to rescue my friend from her big brother’s party, and I was wearing my southern private school uniform, (button down shirt and loafers) because that’s all I had. Most people thought I was more weird than cool but that kept me going. When preppy became fashionable I started wearing more black and sparkles. I danced all night to sexy but sometimes sexist house music and fancied myself more a gay male British pop star than what society called a “girl.” I went to prom in drag in a shiny tux, more to be incognito than making any sort of point. But I knew gender was a fluid and societal construct before I knew what those words meant.
But that night in college, I was defending Madonna because—and it’s hard to overstate what a new phenomenon she represented–I found it refreshing to see a woman being powerful, controlling her career and sexuality, wearing, doing, saying, what she wanted. All of my female heroes had been out of view: intellectuals, musicians, scientists, who like me mostly just grooved along in a man’s world wearing mostly men’s clothes doing man things. Or they did their own thing so therefore were regarded as insane and they were my heroes, too. Kate Chopin, Gena Rowlands, Jessica Lange…Ok I see these are all artists and why not add some imaginary characters: Nancy Drew, Betty not Veronica, Jules y Jim’s Catherine (sorry, no room for the central woman’s name in the title). Sanity is also a societal construct, ever more problematic in an insane society. That’s why so many of these real and fictional women kill themselves when they can’t fit in.
So Madonna: I thought it was great that there was this mainstream pop star doing what she wanted and that young women (I was 20 but thinking about the young’uns!) would be inspired to also be powerful, lift one another up, reject what the patriarchal society was telling them, reject their perfect Republican hairstyles, foundation, mascara, lives. In the 80s it was an act of rebellion in middle class Chicago suburbs to wear black in the sea of bright colors, to not brush your hair, to not wear makeup, to wear the wrong kind of makeup, to wear something too sexy (for me, only at Rocky Horror!), to wear something not sexy enough. I was sent to the counsellor and put on the drug watch list just because of the way I dressed which was merely different from others. (I DID need counseling and DID do drugs but that wasn’t the point and conforming wasn’t the solution.) In 1991 on a cross-country road trip with my sister, I knotted my long (from neglect) hair on top of my head like all the popular girls do now and gas station clerks acted like I was about to rob them. Thelma and Louise had just come out and no one did that then.
Well, maybe I did overstate the Madonna phenomenon. Anyway, Tom Frank’s counter point about Madonna was: “yeah yeah fine but how does this help working class women.”
He may not have said quite that, or anything close to that, but he was right. Let Madonna do what she wants, but that’s not a life of service and trying to lift others up. It might be empowering TO HER but it shouldn’t be confused with Feminism, which I understand as working for equal rights and opportunities under the law and out from under the many other means of control. Maybe her music did lift people up, but her wearing a bra instead of a shirt didn’t. That just sold records using the sexual language and currency that has always proven successful in these endeavors.
And somewhere along the line: I DO WHAT I WANT became the mantra of many of these young women’s lower case feminism. And I agree, seriously, DO WHAT YOU WANT (sure, like the men, but within reason and the law….unless the laws need to be changed and then maybe work to change that for yourself, and also others?) And also while you are DOING WHAT YOU WANT, try not to hurt others or yourself, and also accept the consequences of your actions instead of blaming others? But yeah, DO WHAT YOU WANT, but please fucking stop calling it Feminism because that’s not what it is.
In my 30s sometime I wrote and performed a piece as Hillary Clinton in which she asserted herself as a smart progressive woman and ALSO a sexual being, something she was not being allowed to do or be in those years. Or now. It was, I thought, provocative and funny in a not-funny but making a point kinda way. I was not defending her as a person as much as condemning the roles male-run society proscribes for women. If you’re going to be powerful, you can’t be a sexual being. If you’re going to be a sexual being, you can’t be powerful. I performed it at my aunt’s condo at Thanksgiving that year, at UCB, and insanely I put it into my writing packet for all to see and not hire me.
Now, I’m a woman in my 40s doing my best in my career and art to elevate the playing field, the dialogue. I take this service seriously. My idea of myself as a woman and person has never been and will not be solely defined by my sex or sexuality or what I wear or the color of my skin, but my ideas about things, and how hard I’m willing to work for what I believe. And I encourage all people to broaden their own self-definition. I’m not qualified to think about issues of gender, race, sexuality, art, because of who I am but because I’ve spent much of my life asking, listening, reading, and thinking out these issues. I’m not always right but I’d rather be wrong and be someone who is at least asking questions, challenging the status quo, asking for better. I try to keep my thoughts and actions on the lines of: “what’s best for all of us,” not “what’s best for me.”
And I’m back in wonderful art and entertainment and comedy which is an exciting platform for exchanging and mixing ideas and putting light on injustice and prejudices but then always in danger of sliding into showbiz which builds forcefields of silence as the higher the stakes, the less people call each other on their shit. As I’ve gained my teeny bit of power and status and I feel more silenced than ever before. From the girl who once submitted that not-really-funny-but making-a-point pro-anal sex Hillary Clinton sketch to SNL.
So I just wanted to shout, one day only, for lady day, because I’d rather be wrong and loud than quiet and right:
DO WHAT YOU WANT JUST STOP CALLING IT FEMINISM.
Feminism doesn’t work for the benefit of the self, but for shared benefits for everyone. Feminism tries to build others up. Feminism doesn’t shame others for voting for the candidate of their own brain’s choice, for voting based on ideas not gender. Feminism doesn’t shame others for following boys around or not following boys around. Feminism doesn’t shame others for not being sex-positive enough. Feminism doesn’t shame older women for daring to be sexual or for aging. Feminism doesn’t shame men for calling themselves Feminist. Feminism doesn’t answer objectification and denigration with the objectification and denigration of others. Feminism doesn’t meet hatred with hatred. Feminism recognizes and accepts the value of a variety of expressions and beliefs and experience. Feminism works for freedom from sexual discrimination more than freedom of personal sexual expression Feminism recognizes that perhaps personally empowering sexual expression can sometimes reinforce sexual discrimination of those with less power. Feminism isn’t gonna cosign the idea that it’s empowering to use sex to sell yourself or your ideas. That’s a DO WHAT YOU WANT but don’t call it Feminism. Feminism would rather fix the societal inequalities that allow sex industry to flourish than theorize about whether selling your sexual self ought to be considered empowering.
Feminism is empowerment through service to others, especially other women.
Ok I wore myself out. Did I wear you out? As Robert Reich always says, what do you think?