27 Nov

From Novi Sad, Serbia, A Proposal.

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Hello. It’s November 27.

I am in Novi Sad, where three years ago Kulturanova did a Serbian-language version of my play Open House, which is performed in homes.

I’m here in the aftermath of the November 8 US election, wondering what to do. I’m talking to people about former President Milosevic, current President Nikolić (possibly worse, depending on who you talk to), the future of this place, and our place in the future. I think maybe the project will be called Language Reversal, and will be about translation of time, history and words.

Language Reversal is going to be (I hope) created through a series of conversations among Serbians at a table with an American and a translator, about three things: the onset of fascism under Milosevic and Trump; the ineffectuality of language as an intimate mediating tool between cultures; a philosophical treatise on the value of being together, and making culture, despite what our histories may not share. We will stage conversations over two trips to Serbia, plus three in the US, over the next six months. From there I will put together a text that will be translated into both languages.

Background

In the US we are facing the possible onset of fascism. It may or may not come to pass. It’s a test of our wills, a fight between the nihilism and chaos that leads to the crackdown, a presentation of ourselves as limited and unexceptional, far beyond the due date of that ideology. One Wikipedia post about Milosevic: “Milošević exploited nationalism as a tool to seize power… while not holding any particular commitment to it.” Sound familiar?

A very  smart artist, Melissa Potter, who has worked in Serbia a lot says she thinks of Trump as “Milosevic without the IQ.” In the US we are on the brink of a truly plural society – meaning more than one – rural/suburban and urban, white people in the minority, elite and uneducated. The cities go blue (in two senses of the word) and the country goes red, and the system set up to control for extremism, to wrest power from its most extreme elements, does the opposite. The popular vote is the cosmopolitan vote, with its flaws intact. The electoral college goes for the idiot, but maybe out of habit, out of a lingering sense of exceptionalism. We have lost ourselves.

Serbia is being held at bay from the EU, last to be invited into the failing experiment known as unity. Both countries harbor and cleave to long-dead myths. We are coming to an unraveling we cannot stop from happening. Is progress real if only some of us are lucky or privileged enough to see it? Nothing is self-evident. We started destroying ourselves so long ago.

What Are We Doing? 

I started thinking about this project right after Trump’s election, when I had the first of two visits to Serbia planned, and didn’t have anything prepared. I am trying to make sense of this time by being somewhere unfamiliar, where I don’t speak the language and where I don’t really know what has been done.

08 Nov

A Mix

blogI’m typing on my device, with my thumbs, while riding an M14A bus through a neighborhood that feels like it is slipping away, in a city that stays so vital despite itself.

I loved taking my son with me to vote. I loved voting for the first female presidential candidate, even as I wish I agreed with more of what she says and has done.

(Love the pro-choice and the potential judicial appointments, and the somewhat better stand on immigration; dislike very much the capitulation to war, the lack of spine on real climate change and the support for charter schools)

I’m ashamed at what a shit-show our system remains, that it seems like some kind of miracle when you can get your teeth fixed, or a public school is regarded as great, or I can get across town on a bus.

On the way to the polls Harry said, “I wish Hillary Clinton were president, and Albert Einstein was still alive, and that Barak Obama was my grandfather.”

It’s great to move things forward but it makes me restless how long it takes.

I hope this evening I’m going to celebrate. Tomorrow I’m going back to worrying about the temperature and sea level when he gets old enough to think about what we’re leaving him, go back to critiquing from the outside, after joining the mainstream for a day now and then, like you do, from necessity.

I like the Democratic platform this year, but I don’t expect the party to follow through. I wish that to the two major parties people of color were more than vehicles for blame, or else blocks of voters; I wish someone in office would recognize the dehumanization and exploitation upon which this country’s onward march is predicated. I wish we didn’t all have to line up, even as its heartwarming to see so many people reject Trump, even as we struggle to grasp what his campaign has made visible.

There are a lot of ways to open our mouths and get fed. The movement doesn’t end.

10 Aug

All Of The Above

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In the week between the Republican and Democratic national conventions I had a travel day that ended up running several hours long, taking me from Raleigh, where I’d been teaching, to DC, where I was supposed to change planes, then back to Charlotte because of equipment failure, and then ultimately to Minneapolis, where I would see family. On the last leg, Charlotte to Minneapolis, I was in the very back row, on the aisle, and the middle seat was free. The woman on the window looked about retirement age, was cautiously but graciously chatty, and we gabbed for a bit about how both of us had been delayed all day. She was going to Minnesota to stay with her sister’s kids so her sister and sister’s husband could take a vacation. Their mother lived in a nursing home there, and she’d pay her a visit, too.

She talked about how much she liked the Mall of America, and Lake Minnetonka, and I knew we were leading very different lives. Across the aisle from us, a nine-year-old boy was flying alone and when a flight attendant asked him if he needed anything before take-off, he said, “No, ma’am.” My row-mate said, “You don’t hear kids say ma’am much these days.” I said I noticed it too, and wondered aloud if my seven-year-old son, who’d just flown by himself the previous week, would have said ‘ma’am,’ though I was pretty sure he’s good about ‘thanks’ and ‘please.’ Between her love of world’s largest mall and her love of manners, and her small-town home of Florence, South Carolina, which she described as “very safe,” I had the hunch that maybe we also saw the world differently, too.

We continued to chat as the plane took off, and by the time we were at about cruising altitude, the woman began to go into something about The Direction Our Country Was Headed, and caught herself: “I don’t usually like to talk politics, because it can be so heated.” I asked if we could agree to be respectful, but disagree if we needed to, and see if that worked –  was she game? She was. So we did for the rest of the flight.

*

Every year my wife, son, and I, along with my parents and some friends, go up to the same set of cabins in Tofte, Minnesota, on Lake Superior’s North Shore, about 50 miles from the Canadian border. They are bare-bones, but there is an 80-year-old Finnish sauna on the property, which is right on the lake, and each night we sit in the heat with just a candle to light us, and then go into the frigid lake, then back, for several rounds, until we are more relaxed than at any other time in our lives. The cabins are run by a hilarious Scando-hippie couple named Jan (‘Yon’) and Kathy (self-explanatory).

There is no Wifi and very little cell service in Tofte, so my computer was off the internet for the week of the DNC, but I caught up on my phone via Facebook most mornings, and then watched some of the replays of speeches. By turns this was heartening, harrowing and confusing. It was strange to read the posts of friends, many of them about how great the convention was, how each speaker warranted a new round of, “See! So much better!” How easily so many people fell into an acceptance that the stark contrast between Trump and the Republicans on one side, and Clinton and the Democrats on the other, as if choosing one side was an unquestionably important, valuable or positive thing to do in that convention moment. Meaning, of course the election is important, but somehow people really seemed to want a team to root for.  That the entire DNC was framed by an insistence on the US’ continued exceptionalism made the proclamations on my social media streams that much more disjunctive. It highlighted the way Facebook two-dimensionalizes, in more ways than one, the actual mettle of human interaction.

A couple moments of the convention moved me: both of the Obamas’ speeches took me back to how significant the 2008 election was; how great that first campaign felt; how much Obama has done as president, even as I’ve been disappointed with a lot of his leadership; how, even though we are now in such a harrowing time with regard to the safety and abuse of black bodies in America, I believe at least part of what makes it so painful is that technology has simply made visible what many of us who’ve lived in relative safety could previously choose not to see. We are entering a time when denial is less and less of an option, and for a diminishing number of us.

I also found myself either rooting for the Sanders faction that was in protest mode, and then alternately wondering if they were not maybe Trump plants, because the cameras managed to catch some really obnoxious ones. I also thought the debate around whether they should ‘get in line’ or keep on going to be troubling and revealing and ultimately the crux of something. Weren’t my favorite Democratic rabble-rousers (Paul Wellstone, Bernie Sanders) the ones who didn’t get in line?

Democracy functions more equitably as more people feel worthy of being heard. Even though Plato wasn’t a defender of it, more recent thinkers suggest it’s the ability of as many of us as possible to choose how and by whom to be ruled (or ‘led’ if that’s more comfortable), and the opportunity for many kinds of people to ask to rule, which makes us more open. Jacques Ranciere says when we place ourselves into the conversation, whether welcomed or not we are enlarging what he calls the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ I don’t think you can say ‘get in line’ and then still call yourself inclined toward this principle of democracy. It’s supposed to be messy and contentious. That is how we find together what we can believe.

I could see some of the Sanders’ protesters as spoiled, and I was skeptical of him as a potential president (even as I agreed with his positions, and am so happy versions of them have made their way to the DNC); so I was not that let down by his defeat. I still think the voices of his diehard supporters, even at the convention, remain vital, if for no other reason than to point out that anything framed within the confines of the DNC’s anointed activities is on some level bought and sold. Meaning, within a functioning democracy (and yes we can debate whether we are in either), critique of power is pretty much always a good thing because it helps the powerful respond to the actual beliefs people hold. And within such a top-down funding structure (someone I know was invited to a $25,000 per person fundraiser for Clinton on a boat off Martha’s Vineyard this week), I really mean bought and sold.

I got in a couple arguments with people about exactly who was being shouted down by these (presumed white male, though likely representative of a more diverse group) Sanders supporters. And what I tried to articulate is that it doesn’t actually matter. Even a civil rights leader, at the moment he or she is speaking at a major party convention, is framed within the context of the big-money, exclusionary politics that the official Democratic party has largely become, and I think it’s okay to point that out. One’s potency as an activist or revolutionary is a little bit siphoned off by that financed set of interests, even if the work one does on the street is truly profound. It’s the same way that great people lose at least a tiny bit of their currency when they take on a corporate sponsor, or make an ad. No matter how real and profound your message is (and yes some of that corporate sponsored work produces great benefits, and yes there are real heroes at work within the Democratic party, too), you’re still helping someone sell something, ultimately, and most likely that something was made through at least some exploitation of someone else’s time and place. As viewers we intuitively recognize when someone’s energy and mission have been purchased and that changes the dynamic at least a little.

Seeing the convention through social media streams, then picking and choosing individual moments to watch (ie, totally avoiding Bill’s speech), revealed something a little bit desperate and unpleasant. It has to do with exceptionalism, and with the default toward binary thinking so many of us get into. That is bad, over there, we say. This is better, over here! So this must be good. No, this must be great! It’s how we keep going, when the going gets tough. We have to not be that other thing, which is so bad! If we’re not all together not being the terrible thing, then we are destroying ourselves by raising questions about whether the thing we are being is good enough to celebrate, or just less than awful! Get in line!

If Donald Trump is one of our major party candidates, and the other is beholden to our largest financial institutions, how is our country exceptional? How are we not yet another imperial top-down power, even if we have a history of ideals and practices that sounds good on paper, but whose pages lay on the table of genocide, slavery and perpetual land-grab?

If you do think we remain exceptional, and that that status is important to you, why? Why is that not nationalism? Isn’t nationalism of any kind not a step on the path toward fascism, and if Trump and a banker’s bidder are leading the two major parties, is this the kind of exceptionalism we want to uplift? And if some part of you needs to believe that our country is still exceptional, what is that impulse in you?

What I liked about the shouting-down, what is so vital about Occupy and Black Lives Matter, is that they have insisted on bringing other voices into the room. They help us see what we think are the limits of our politics and grow them. For the $15 per hour minimum wage to be sensible, or part of the platform, a lot of us may have to be rubbed the wrong way for a while. Some people may have had to camp in front of city hall or bank buildings, and it may not have been clear to you why, but we wouldn’t have the DNC platform we do without them.

I grasp, at least intellectually, that some people really think Hillary Clinton is a great leader. I don’t get that, and I should cop to that bias. I get that she is competent, powerful, worthy of the job, and could be a good president. I get that it’s important that we have a woman president. I get that a lot of the critiques of her have been sexist and hateful. I believe that she will be many times better than Trump would. Personally, I don’t think she’s a great leader, based on her choices so far. I think she’s too tied up politically with big finance, capitalism, and privatization as they are currently practiced; she has referred to young black and brown men as ‘super-predators’; she sat on the board of WalMart, which is hard on poor workers; she is pro-charter schools; she voted for the Iraq war; she is too much of a hawk on Israel, and won’t mention Palestine; she got on the right side of LGBTQ rights when it was convenient not when it was just. As much as she might lean a little more to the left now, in part thanks to the so-called failures of Occupy and the Sanders’ campaign, all those wrong-sides-of-history make it hard for me to be excited. I am going to vote for her, and possibly even with a certain confusing enthusiasm, and I am excited about the move left within the DNC platform (though how much of it will come to pass as law?) But I don’t follow the flag-waving, or the I’m With Her.

The terrible, beautiful pull of the Khan’s speech at the DNC and the aftermath between them and Trump creates questions: What did their son, exactly, die for? Something exceptional? Or something mundane. For his death to have meaning – for that story to guide us through the election choices we make – does it have to be on behalf of ‘The greatest nation on earth?’ I was so moved by their presence. And I was so emptied by it, too. I wanted there to be some place for us to say, it would have been better had we not gone into Afghanistan and had you not chosen to sacrifice yourself for an ideal that is maybe no longer as valid as it once was. History has changed, Humayun. We aren’t that place, anymore. You weren’t defending that place.

Though maybe for that family that ideal is still real, and I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. It would be better if Humayun Khan were alive to talk to me about it. And since he’s not we attach meanings or lack of meanings to his death, and that is what makes me bereft: the ordinariness of our call to sacrifice.

*

On the plane, over Roanoke, my row-mate told me a friend from Venezuela, who lives near her and her husband in Florence, warned them that continuing down the path of Obama and Clinton would lead us to the kind of societal collapse her home country was experiencing now. That was the way of socialism. I said I didn’t think Venezuela was exactly socialism, more like fascism or despotism around a single industry that has collapsed. She said, “Now I don’t mind Medicare because that’s not socialism because I pay into it and the government administers a program.” I actually laughed, hopefully good-naturedly, and said, “That is exactly what socialism is when it works. You pay for something, the government runs the program, you get something back.”

By this time, though, we had already talked more easily about our actual lives outside our political views: she is a retired police officer and school teacher; she raised her daughter alone; she’s remarried to another ex-officer. For me, pretty fascinating. She seemed to have a lot of personal integrity, at least from our brief time together. So, while I could rib her about Hillary Clinton as Hugo Chavez, maybe I couldn’t write her off.

*

There’s an easy narrative flow, a flight map, from Reagan, to Bush II, to Trump. We recognized Reagan as scary but we didn’t take him seriously, then we did. We didn’t believe Bush II could get elected after eight years of Clinton, so maybe we voted Protest, or didn’t work hard, or saw Gore running a poor campaign and threw up our hands, sure that cooler heads would prevail (also – so many of us did better in the 90s, so many of us white already-middle-classish people anyway, and so many of the rest were yet invisible then) that when the Supreme Court elected Bush II in 2000 we were stunned, and perhaps we began taking threats from the right more seriously. And then he won again, but we could blame that on the Kerry campaign to some degree (doing work for them around the election in Pennsylvania was a frustrating experience of the kind of dysfunction that usually only exists in arts non-profits), the fact that it’s pretty hard to switch leadership mid-war.

Then we had Obama, and everything made sense. The campaign was amazing and forward-thinking (technology, and good people, together!), the reasoning was historic, the man was brilliant, it was just so impossible it might work. We all wanted it. We all said, we want this change.

And it did work, it happened, and it seemed for a second like a new time. In North Philly, where I was helping get people to the polls, there were Mardi Gras style parties on the street when the state was called for him, for us.

Only we were coming out of eight years of Bush, we had been moved to the right by Clinton and Gore, and there was an economy to ‘save,’ which Obama did, using the tools that built the master’s house. We got out of the recession, but if you were poor you never really did. If you were white and poor, in an increasingly polyglot, increasingly visible country of multiple racial and class identities, people who were doing better than you ever were, seemingly within moments of arriving, the forces that brought this to bear on you and yours seemed like they pointed to Obama. It must have been him. Or us. Those of us in cities, with services, up north, smugly enjoying what we accomplished and benefitting from it.

The videos of the bodies felled; and the guns. The intransigence in Congress. The increasingly ridiculous candidates put forward by the right. The rhetoric that built steam with its racist dog whistles and fear-baiting and the massive, massive isolation between rural and urban populations. Relying on the same banks that fucked us to save us. In New York, I ride a CitiBike through the neighborhoods the banks helped gut.

Even as cities become more exclusive, and in their own ways divided, we still see each other here. We know – we have to admit even grudgingly – most of us are not monsters. On some level, forced to be neighbors, we can’t hold on to irrational fear for too long. Can we?

If you expand the map a little, there’s another layer to see: the trip from Reagan to Clinton to Obama to Clinton. This is the map on the screen in front of my face while the woman from Florence, South Carolina and I talked, while the plane’s landing gear dropped, depositing us into Minneapolis-St. Paul’s tarmac, finally, about 8PM at the end of a long day.

She and I never raised our voices at each other, even as things did get sort of passionate. We actually managed to remain respectful, even though I later joked to friends that they’d need to support my GoFundMe page for tongue reattachment surgery because I’d been biting down so hard at certain key points.

We had very interesting moments of both agreement and disagreement arising from a lack of common terms, or a simple passing-down of information:  I told her about the Kansas town where the police  chief and BlackLivesMatter organizers had, after Dallas, cooked for each other so they could have a conversation. I asked her about the recent shooting of Philandro Castile in Minneapolis and she said she’d worked at Internal Affairs and it was important to get rid of bad cops.

Another telling moment: I asked her about gun control, as an ex-cop, and she said, “I’m against it, very strongly.” I said what about assault rifles, and she said “No one needs those, we can get rid of those.” I said, “Isn’t that gun control?” We often ask ourselves on the left: how can people vote against their own interests? How can a retired officer vote for the candidate who is against gun control, or a poor person vote against the estate tax? And maybe the answer is she’s not, entirely; she just toes the line depending on how she’s asked. Or her own interests are misinformed by lies, as when she claimed that “all the research” showed that places that had easy access to guns were statistically safer. When I came at her with the difference between New York City (where neighboring states also have strict or strict-ish gun laws) and Chicago (where Indiana, for instance has some of the most lax) she simply refused to acknowledge the possibility.

As the plane taxied, we bonded on our mutual dislike for helicopter parenting, and the fact that it was okay to tell other peoples’ kids to stop bullying your own. The conversation, although painful, was fun. I am a half-Jewish dyed-in-the-wool lefty (or worse) talking to a 69-year-old southern small town hardcore Republican about multi-lingual classrooms, safety, parenting, socialism, and Where Our Country Is Headed. I don’t usually have such ranging discussions with my friends.

At one point she said, “You could never have had this conversation with my husband. He’s a great man, but he has a wall he puts up, right here,” and held a stiff hand in front of her neck. This made me think that political discourse could become (again?) more about moving margins, reaching people who would not clutch their own throats over another person’s ideas.

*

Two excellently smart friends of mine have a relationship counselor that advises couples to adopt the mantra “can this be okay?” Because most of the time, most things, if you go past your ego, and your desire to control your partner, can be okay, at least for a minute. If it cannot be okay, you will know soon enough. So can Sanders’ supporters’ heartbreak and rage at the convention be okay? I bet it can. Even if it’s not on your timeline. I bet unaffiliated people like me could watch the DNC without wincing if people with all the power in the country, at the center of the debate, were not trying to decide what voices were appropriate and silence or oversimplify those that were not part of the message they wanted to communicate.

All of the above: The Democratic party is the more humane of the two; there is a slowly creeping fascistic tendency in the way even the Democrats run election campaigns and conventions now; how long can we put aside our basic needs, ideals and concerns because one or another election is so different from what came before?

All of the above: Trump is a terrible demagogue narcissist. He’s a destructive force; he is also speaking to people in ways that land, and while it’s scary to those of us for whom he doesn’t land, those people are human, some of them are smart, and all of them deserve not to be written off. Some of them are just reciting what they’ve heard, and when you scratch the surface they aren’t nearly as crazy as the commentators.

All of the above: as friends of color have pointed out, white people on the left are experiencing in this election cycle what LGBTQ people, people of color, and women have experienced forever, and that is the least-worst is often the best choice given the other options. The idealism of young people on the left even if they are mostly white people is not a bad thing because it speaks to politicians in a non-wearied way. Black Lives Matter and Sanders supporters are peas in a pod, even if one group or another behaves in ways those of us who see the wisdom of the other don’t appreciate or take seriously.

Of course I feel I need to vote for Hillary Clinton. Of course this election is historic. Of course Trump is at least a sociopath, a menace to the world, and Clinton is our best option at the moment. But can we have, even during the seeming urgency of ‘get-the-job-done’ of this election, a day where we say ‘where are we really going? What are we really working toward, and what about our myths and stories has become part of our own undoing, even as told by those of us who seem to want to make things better? What is the hope for the left within the Democratic party?

*

This last section is called I don’t want to end with a simplistic bromide about how both sides are really not that different from each other, we’re all just the same under the skin, etc. I am just glad we didn’t simply get in line and stay on our sides.

The woman’s name is Grace. We leave, shake hands, and exchange emails, in order to settle a score in January. Just before we “deplane”, she makes a passing comment that she is sure, totally convinced, and she’s heard this from a lot of people, that Obama will not leave the White House willingly (because he’s such a socialist?). I say I think that is a little nuts and propose we write each other after the inauguration to check in and see what’s happened. Later, I remember a bunch of people said that about George Bush in early 2009. That was, we felt, a legitimate fear.

 

24 Nov

Collective Delusionary*

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*Appropos of nothing – I meant to post this little piece of writing around 9-11 this year, and forgot, and then was getting rid of old things and found it and remembered. 

_____

The collective delusionary would not be surprised if five or 10 or 100 years from now, if any of our descendants are left, it is revealed that the government created ISIS and sacrificed one of its own because profiteers were feeling a little edgy about how Russia was cornering the war machine market.

The collective delusionary says “never forget,” “never again,” and “we will rebuild.”

From the comfort of its Facebook, and its television screens.

Over and over again.

Like a Hallmark card you grab on your way to a wedding. “Wishing You Eternal Happiness. Never Forget. Love, Me.”

The card says, “This day brings out the best in all of us.”

The collective delusionary wonders why all of us are not just throwing our bodies in front of the war machine.

The collective delusionary likes its coffee from third world farmers treated respectably, relatively speaking, with a little half and half.

The collective delusionary is hit where it lives by the imagery it sees. And reflective.

The collective delusionary lives in New York, and why do the towers of light display become more emotional and soft each year?

Because the light display means the terrorists have won?

Because this is a city that does nothing if it does not subsume – whole movements, monuments, populations have been cauldroned up in this shitstorm and siphoned out into the rest of America, newly minted and generic.

But these two light towers that stop me in my tracks on the way home, along Thompkins Square Park, shooting my memory up into the sky, ashes, ashes, the towers of light hold the collective delusionary in a state of suspended belief.

Launch the jets. Call on your selfless sons and daughters. We are rising; we are different; we are going to be okay.

22 Jun

In Praise of Unresolved Work

This is something I wrote for the NEFA National Theater Project blog, earlier this year. Mallory and I are working on a book now, about City Council Meeting, and I’ve been going over some of the critical and curatorial conversations that have been had about it, by us and others.

Please enjoy and disseminate as needed.

IN PRAISE OF UNRESOLVED WORK

“Recently, in Keene, a philosophy and humanities professor we worked with on the project pushed me to articulate something to his students that he could not, in response to the ones who were bored, confused and uncomfortable with the piece. I think I was finally able to articulate what City Council Meeting is: it’s a community-engaged performance that brings people into a room, who might not get together, and asks them to perform together. It’s also a kind of Cagean, partly-adversarial experiment, created by three artists who wanted to try and see if we could pull it off.

To the professor, I said: in an age when people are constantly told that activism and purchasing are one in the same, asked to simplify themselves for the sake of tests, jobs, teams, and other activities, it’s a valuable thing to have an experience that is complicated and unresolved. It’s good to feel frustrated and confused by something that has been crafted for you to consider.

I think it’s important to support this kind of unruly work.”

19 May

Dwayne Calizo

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Last summer, I got to sit with Dwayne Patrick Calizo​ in the park by Yerba Buena Center, in San Francisco for a couple of hours. I was expecting we might be there for a half hour, maybe 45 minutes. Dwayne was becoming the centerpiece of our version of City Council Meeting at Zspace the next week. Our conversation would maybe lead to some material. I was slightly impatient to get the job done when I got there. His generosity of spirit, his complete honesty and openness made the whole day slow down.

We talked about the changing face of his city, about how good his mother looked at 80, how he used to be a back-up singer for notorious and famous people, about how his friends had become his family, about a lot of other things. We were watching the city he knew become replaced by a ghost image of itself. We made a eulogy for the city he arrived in that no longer lived the way it did; I didn’t know it would become a eulogy for him, too.

So few of our NYC friends got to see Dwayne sing Dido’s Lament at the top of the risers, beautifully co-directed by Mallory​ and Erika​, designed by Jim​. The light blasted all of us at the end. I think I was nervous about the cost of the instrument. Dwayne shone on his own, and I can’t imagine how many people have been lit by him at one time or another.

Dwayne died the other day, unexpectedly. This is what we made together. Much love.

 

Dwayne Calizo – for City Council Meeting: San Francisco 

By Dwayne Calizo and Aaron Landsman

August 2014.

This text was spoken by a 15-year-old boy. Dwayne and I made it out of our conversation in the park. In the show, every time Dwayne got uncomfortable with what was being said, he rang a bell on his desk, like the kind you see in old hotels. We moved on to the next sentence. 

City Council Meeting: San Francisco’s ending was co-directed by Erika Chong Shuch and Mallory Catlett, and designed by Jim Findlay. Presented by Zspace.

***

Dwayne Calizo. Childhood in Hawaii, Okinawa, Hawaii again. Lived in San Francisco two – or is it three – times since 1982. Most recently returned here, a year ago, after a five-year absence. Has worked with Erika’s company for many years. His voice is fair, meaning, communicates fairness. You want to believe everything.

**

Dwayne’s family had a kind of Partridge Family-style band in Okinawa, and Dwayne was the lead singer, and they would go to Tokyo and play on TV. On contests. Like American Idol?

In college he was a for-hire backup singer for Don Ho and Jim Neighbors in Hawaii.

Don Ho was a drunk. A crazy drunk. Jim Neighbors was a really kind and generous man. That is how Dwayne got through college. People like Don Ho and Jim Neighbors would come to play and hire students to sing back up.

I don’t know what the outfits were, for back-up singers. But don’t you want to know what they wore onstage? Don’t you want to be able to remember this little bit of his life with him?

If you sit in the park by the MLK fountain together, memories are alive, and also dead.

**

When he first got here in 1982 he saw what was happening in the Castro. The first wave of the AIDS crisis. He thought, “I have to leave this place or I am going to die.” So he left and came back a few years later.

His HIV status has been positive for 25 years.

Stage fright gets worse as you get older. The first ten seconds of time onstage. The first minute. Impossible to even remember.

**

Homeless for three years. He liked being homeless. He liked sleeping outside. A safe place to sleep at that time was City Hall Park, and the Food Not Bombs people would distribute food from the middle of the pond, because the police wouldn’t go out there. And so they’d all go out to the middle of the pond to eat.

There was a space at that time for queers. Punks. There were groups of them everywhere. People worked restaurant jobs and then hung out and made art. What is not to love about that?

He ran a theater company and a music school that was mostly for queer people of color, and he has suitcases of archive material from all the shows they made. He wrote five musicals, some with his former partner, who’s now his best friend. He is collaborating all the time. A conversation is collaborative. You never know where you might end up.

Once he presented 200 artists in six days at Yerba Buena. That almost killed him. He’s given up on the cycle of working for two years without a break and then just crashing. He’s laid that cycle to rest.

But he has these suitcases with all these things in them. Pictures and scripts and videos. Old tapes.

**

Dwayne was away for four years and came back a year ago and the place was unrecognizable. The place makes him want to go off the grid. He’s thinking about Detroit. The open space of. The decay. And the music history that’s there.

He puts three fingers of one hand over the center of his chest, and then points them to the sky and then places them on the ground, in the same measured rhythm. This is how he describes what singing feels like.

At the same time he is talking about the possibility of not singing any more, that this is the end of performing.

**

Dwayne’s mom is 80 years old and living in Vegas. She is still sexy as hell. Do you ever think about taking care of your mother when she is older? He might do that. She might move back to Hawaii because she is getting much older, and he might go back and take care of her with his family.

**

Dwayne lives in an SRO, which is kind of like being homeless, which probably impacts the way the city feels to him now. There is black mold in the room and it’s not safe outside and the city won’t do anything about it. People say, ‘why don’t you move.’

He does not feel a lot of hope in this place. Does admitting that become a hopeful thing? Or is it just hopeless. Even the people he knows who work in the Mayor’s housing office are just waiting to go. They don’t feel a lot of hope.

Sitting in the park by the MLK memorial fountain, we are wondering, who are all these people. I’ve never seen so many people out here. They are very normal.

 It’s not that the whole city needs to be full of fucked up people to be okay. It’s that this has been a place where young queer punk people can gather and be.

What are pathways we make that don’t look possible? What does it cost to pave them over?

When I asked him if he wanted to eulogize something about the city he said the Dido’s Lament that he’s singing is his eulogy. It’s what he’d like to say.

 

11 Oct

I’m not a ‘creative’. Creative is an adjective, not a noun. I’m a noun. I’m an artist. Everyone is creative.

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For me this is about two things: first, is just my inner cranky grammarian; “creative” is an adjective. Second is that calling someone a “creative” for me undercuts the potency of being an artist. I don’t think “artist” is slippery. It’s a noun, it’s a way of thinking of things. It’s a profession if you’re really lucky, and it’s one of the few ways you can make your life that’s not primarily about consumption and selling. I’d say teaching is another. Research is another. Maybe saving souls? They all intersect with the market but they aren’t necessarily beholden to it.

Calling someone a “Creative” for me says artists who make something out of nothing are just the same as graphic designers making a flyer for a new product, for instance. Both surely take skill and craft. But they are really different pursuits. I don’t mean to say that I think artists are more worthy than other people, just that I want my work to be acknowledged for what it is: pointless, interested in beauty and communion rather than consumption, ridiculous and worthy of consideration for it’s own sake. I do believe in the subversive nature of poetry, for instance, because we will never know it’s use value.

Someone asked me if ‘artist’ is not a similarly slippery term. “What is an artist?” “What is artistic?” And I don’t think those questions are really up to me to answer. You want to call yourself an artist? Go for it. I do, I even get paid for it (most of the time). You should, too, so should everyone as far as I’m concerned. At some point other people will judge you for it or judge your work, but that’s, luckily, most of the time, not up to me. And by “you” I mean the royal you. “Us,” “One”, Etc.

Here’s the real problem though: Who’s not creative? It takes way more creativity than I have to get through a day at a shitty job assembling things over and over again, or selling fast food to people, or fixing things, for instance. What do you have to make up to deal with the dehumanizing impact of contemporary work life? It takes creativity to raise a kid well. It takes creativity to see what Nabakov called “…everything with which god so generously surrounds human loneliness.”

By calling one set of people ‘creatives’ and by delineating creativity as a job rather than something that makes us human, the implication is that anyone else is not a ‘creative,’ ie, not creative. Like an account manager is not creative. Like a lawyer is not. A doctor, someone who digs wells. Hell, we are all making shit up all the time.

It creates a sort of hierarchy, that goes hand-in-hand with the thoroughly discredited1 creative class mythos. I’d like to return creativity to its proper role as a universal human trait. Maybe it will keep people – ‘creatives’ and non-creatives alike, from acting so incredibly stupid, Probably not, but at least we are all equally able and responsible.

1Even Richard Florida, whose Kool-Aid I drank in buckets, unfortunatelya, back in the 90’s, says he was wrong about the positive impact of creative class arguments to cities.

 aTo be fair, we were all looking for some positive news about being artists back then, after the culture wars and the NEA’s defunding of fellowships. The creative class stuff seemed like a nice balm, a way to measure value, to say we’re not just looking for handouts. Which is already problematic. What the hell is wrong with a handout?

29 Sep

Perfect City: San Francisco Postcard

Come to Perfect City’s panel discussion, October 6th.

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Here is a  postcard from San Francisco.

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We wandered your city and found parts of it dying. The parts with the shine and gloss. The parts with the locally sourced food. We found ourselves eating your past. And we have to say it tasted great.

We found ourselves shopping at vintage stores, which used to be thrift stores, which sell the same clothes, just higher. We found ourselves at the taco place where meals carry the names of preppy dogs.

For years, we found ourselves recognizing the look of the people, but not the affect. We found the possibility of connection but no real words. We found ourselves treading on the cliché. We didn’t think much of it and went on our way. And now it’s coming to bite us in the ass. With artisan teeth.

We found we missed the elegant and dirty anger of 20 years ago. We found The Dead looked pretty appealing. We found ourselves at a funeral for our own myths of you.

We found ourselves unable to speak clearly. We watched city after city build and fall, rise and breathe, become derelict and then hologram.

03 Jan

Another Year, Another Pollyanish Breakfast Metaphor, But This One In The Style Of Vice Magazine.

I fucking love to make pancakes from scratch. I think they are pretty good, too, and my wife loves them also, as does my son. My son (get ready to be jealous other hipster hippie art parents who try to give their kids healthy eating habits in this fucked up consumer junk food culture) likes them PLAIN. Fucking plain pancakes. That’s how good they are.

You fucking know what else? They’re fucking gluten free, dickheads. Fucking. Gluten Free. Pancakes. That a toddler boy likes without any syrup or butter on them. BECAUSE THEY ARE THAT GOOD. Fuck you.
Okay, but here’s the fucking thing: it took a long time, hard work, experimentation and sacrifice, to get the gluten free pancakes-from-scratch recipe right. Okay, maybe not fucking sacrifice, fuck you, but all the other stuff. Maybe I just sacrificed some flour and eggs. Does that count? I don’t know.
But listen, here’s another detail to sweeten the pot: I don’t use a measuring device. I fucking eyeball these pancakes. Also? I fucking alter the recipe on a whim, depending on what I feel like, and what’s around. So fuck you and your Bob’s Red Mill. Okay? I love my pancakes, and I could make them blind, probably.
Here is what I use. I use some millet flour, some corn flour, some buckwheat flour, and if it’s around, I use chickpea flour. Some fucking walnuts. Yeah, some eggs and whatever milk or yoghurt I have around, maybe some sunflower butter, and baking powder, little salt, vanilla, cinnamon, whatever. Fuck it. I mix the dry ingredients up, then do the wet ones in a separate bowl. A little more liquid than dry overall, but I don’t know, it just fucking looks right. And then put them together, let it sit, fry them up. Fuck you. Amazing pancakes.
But look, you can’t just make these pancakes the first time, okay? Or maybe you’re special and you can. Maybe you cooked at Bouley years ago and talk about it like you were a track star. Maybe you can, but then the next time you’ll just fuck it up ‘cause you’ll get cocky. You have to commit to the fucking unknown, you have to go too far, you have to add too much of one thing and not enough of another. You have to accidentally make fucking BANNOCK one day, and then end up with some weird pudding the next, and you have to feel like you’re a fucking loser who can’t even eyeball a pancake correctly. And then you finally find it. And if you don’t know what Bannock is you can look it up.
I mean you can read a recipe. You can get a bag, read it, follow instructions, open the bag and stir and make and shit. But anyone can do that. You’re reading this. You’re an asshole. Like me. You can make pancakes from scratch. If you just fucking let yourself fail.

Welcome to 2014. This is the year we will fuck up our recipes until we make breakfasts so good that sugar-loving toddlers will eat them plain.