13 Mar

The Times’ Real Estate Section Makes Me Mad

In 2000, I wrote copy at a dot com startup called Fashion500.com, which was either ahead of its time, a dumb idea, or both. It folded about eight months after I got there, and for a few months I got unemployment (what my wife called a ‘Department Of Labor Fellowship’) between freelance gigs.
I was trying to write short stories, as well as monologues. Some afternoons, when I didn’t know what else to do, I picked a neighborhood I’d never spent time in, took a train there, and walked there for several hours. One of my stories, which eventually became a monologue, was about a guy who walks and walks until he knows every street in the city intimately. (I also made a show called Desk about the Fashion500.com, which you can see a few minutes of here.)
During this period, I lived in Williamsburg, near McCarren Park, pre-swimming pool, pre fancy loft developments. I took walks in Jackson Heights and Corona, Sunset Park and Flatbush; I walked in a neighborhood whose name I can’t remember, or which has been renamed, in The Bronx, and even took the Staten Island commuter train to a few far flung suburban plots out there.
I luxuriated in these walks – no talking, no purpose except to see and go. I especially liked being somewhere unfamiliar at the close of a workday, when everyone was returning to their homes. Some people, you could see them letting the workday tension slough off their backs; some people you’d watch steel themselves for what must have been another rough night ahead. Some people delayed the inevitable at a bar. I love imagining what strangers are going through.
I thought of my walks as a way to understand the city more broadly, to take comfort in anonymity, and to calm myself from the uncertain time I was going through, work-wise.
9-11 happened within this period. I walked more, further, than ever in the weeks right afterward. In addition to the grief and horror, the love I felt for the city and my friends, I remember a few specific moments on walks that stand out: the first panhandler to integrate September 11 into his ask (“the attacks left me stranded down here, man, and I need $46 to get up to Albany”); the group of men that gathered quietly to protect a Lebanese barbershop that had been receiving anonymous, threatening calls.
I remembered this time as I tried to figure out just why this New York Times Real Estate article was so infuriating to me and other people like me – especially white artists who’d been in the city more than a few years. 
Maybe it was the assumptive tone – starting with the title – the idea the city was made to be gentrified, that anyone reading would, and ought to, prefer or need high-end boutiques, fancy coffee or organic produce over a dollar store, a bodega, or a big supermarket where the food was affordable and people had union jobs. Maybe it was that you could have read this same article, though maybe a little less brazenly written, 15 years ago, just substituting different neighborhood names. Maybe it was the article’s inherent racism and classism, which didn’t deal at all with the complexity of the changing city – the fact that many have people lived in the neighborhoods detailed here, happily, for many years, without the benefits of hipsters, $5 lattes or skinny jeans. Maybe I just feel less alienated by aesthetics of a dollar store than I do by the pretense of farm-to-table, and waxed mustaches, although I do love the food.
What it comes down to most for me is that this article, like so much that is unspoken within our politics right now, assumed that our current relationship between economics and politics is unquestionable and inevitable. That, when wealthier people move in the streets get cleaned up and the place becomes more desirable, and that is okay, or at the very least, it’s just how it is.
I read the article and I thought, not only has The Times Real Estate section remained unaware of, or complicit in, the gradual dismantling of New York, it seems to do so proudly. Is that journalism?
In the past, New York was more dangerous, financially cracked, and in some ways harder to raise a kid. It was dirtier. The city still ignored its poor. There are many things about the place that are better now. There were just more neighborhoods where more kinds of people could live. I just read and thought, the rich have always had their places. Do they really need the whole thing?
Last summer I saw a talk about New York City’s sustainability plan, called PlaNYC, which is actually a pretty awesome document. It addresses things like green spaces, food deserts, and other issues that actually apply to everyone here, or ought to. But as more of the city becomes prohibitively expensive to all but the most desperate to live here, or those with the most means, my question remains: at what cost, and for whom? If our city is not for everyone then what does sustainability mean?
To come back to those walks. I saw them then as an introduction to the larger world of New York, as an affirmation of my citizenship here. Now I worry that it was actually the city I knew, or thought I knew, bidding itself farewell; that promise that you could find your people, your neighborhood, your barber, your created family away from where you grew up, and still be a train ride away from work.
I know that there will likely always be areas that are more welcoming, and surely this nostalgia of mine, like all nostalgia, is leaving out something important. But when I think of those walks now, seeing people I’d never know come out of the train, awakening to what was about to face them when they walked through their doors, I worry I was watching our city become a shadow. Just one that wears designer flannel and serves better coffee in compostable cups.  

04 Mar

Thought of the day

I don’t care about the amount of arts funding we have in this country. I care about the distribution of resources.

I don’t care about grants. I care about health care.

More on this later.

01 Jan

2013 morning oatmeal anecdote

In our house, everyone likes oatmeal. And for people who know us, “our house” means many different locations these days, as Jo goes through grad school in Illinois and I come back and forth and go elsewhere for work. So the idea of “home is what you make of it” or “home is what you make in it” is especially meaningful.
Whichever place we live in, we do good oatmeal. With sautéed apples and dates, nuts, a little maple. Slow-cooked, fast-cooked, whatever. We are hot cereal aficionados. (Afficionadi?) We have it down to an art and a science. It’s a practice, the thing we do many mornings in a row, regardless of how the day before has left us feeling. It’s totally ordinary and totally celebratory – the idea that the day’s first taste should be sweet and nutritious. It pairs well with other flavors and you’re not hungry 15 minutes later. 
I don’t know what 2012 was. It wasn’t ordinary. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t something I’d like to repeat. It had many, many things worth celebrating, and many, many people came to me through it that were inspiring. Many people gave us their homes when we needed them.
2012 was a lot of work, the right kind if not the easiest. It involved some mourning and some renewal, slivers of light and palpable fear. But we got up at least some days and tried to make the first taste a good one, something on the tongue that would whisper that the rest of the day had promise.
Back to oatmeal. We can make it after any kind of night before. It’s always pretty good. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s a little underdone or wanting. But it gets you back into your life from the dream world.
This morning, Jan 1, 2013, I was up early, so I made the oatmeal. I put a few drops of balsamic in the sautéed apples and figs; I used ghee instead of regular butter, and that gave it a bit more depth of flavor, a little more shine. I let the cereal cool just enough so my son wouldn’t burn his mouth, and I put in some sunflower butter at the end. I didn’t rush but when it was done, it was done. 
While we ate, Jo said I had upped the ante, that I’d brought my a-game, to this cereal. That I’d raised the bar and set a new standard. This thing we tasted all the time had deepened our appreciation for what it could give us. This was perhaps overly flattering, but that’s how we talk to each other when we’re at our best, which I wish was more often.
My hope this morning is that, all year long, we all up the game on our oatmeal. That the daily events  that make our lives creative, tasty and good for us, the ones that combine the pleasing bitter sting of coffee with the salt of a walnut, with the crunch of an apple, with the sooth of hot grain, get better with time, celebrate the ordinary and lead us somewhere more peaceful and more alive.

27 Dec

Against the binary

I am tired of binary arguments on the web. This blog is dedicated to something else. Otherwise you’re just wrong and I’m just right. More to follow.

11 Dec

Getting CATT-y Again

The debate in the comments below let me to revisit the work we did at the Collective Arts Think Tank a couple years ago.

It’s largely centered on the dread cultural hub of New York, but it’s relevant, I think, beyond our borders. And I think Scott Walters and I have lots of crossover – we just approach the situation differently. 
05 Dec

Chasing Our Tails

In reading this article, and the responses in the comments section, and on other sites, most of which seem to engage in the, “Jane you ignorant slut” style of debate, I started to feel a little crazy.
One of the things I want most for people in the arts to do is stop complaining about what their colleagues have, that they don’t. As if there is a direct correlation between the grant I got and the one you didn’t, the gig you got and then one I was rejected from. If they hadn’t picked you or your kind, they’d have picked me or mine. I don’t think that kind of hating helps. We all work hard. We all deserve it.
I think it’s important to recognize systemic problems (whether related to the arts or not) that need improving, and to call out specific examples of where those problems manifest. But I think, ultimately, to blame each other is not helpful, and in fact becomes its own kind of opportunism.
It would be great if rural art was more robustly supported. But then, it would also be great if artists in urban cultural centers were more robustly supported, too. (Very often “support” in an urban center means “an opportunity to work for free” – the euphemism is often something like ‘increased visibility’ – in the service of a venue whose staff is working for almost-free. If we expect that it has to be kind of work or one locale over the other, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere.
In so many online conversations, it quickly becomes a version of one side saying “just do it (like I did)!” or “in my day/neighborhood/city (circle one) we just made it happen,” or “be the change you want to see in the world, douchebag!” Meanwhile the other side says, “you have no idea what it’s like today/where I live/in my brain (circle one),” or “you didn’t even hear what I was saying!,” or “punk is/is not (circle one) dead.”
Here are some questions. I hope people will respond in the comments.
1. Whether you’re in the position of maker, interpreter, scholar, producer or critic, what are you and your peers telling each other about the state of the field that might actually not be true, but that by saying it over and over you’re reinforcing?

2. Why does theater seem so irrelevant to so many? Would we be better off if it mattered to more people?  
3. What would happen if the NEA’s annual budget was $1,000,000,000 (a little less than 10 times what it is now, but still only about $3 per American man, woman and child per year). How do we get there?
4. What are the best kinds of exchanges among artists in urban, rural, and suburban environments, and how could those happen more readily? 

04 Dec

Laura Poitras

Beautiful interview between Creative Time’s Nato Thompson and filmmaker (and target of harassment and surveillance by US intelligence agencies) Laura Poitras:


What is amazing here is how deeply and fluently the conversation moves among history, craft, aesthetic, politics and meaning.

25 Nov

Color Me Obsessed (a fan letter to a fan letter)

I rented this documentary last night. It’s about The Replacements. I was lucky enough to grow up in Minneapolis in the 80’s, while they were at their best/worst, and I am easy prey for nostalgia trips about that time. For the first five minutes my resistance was up – the film is full of terrible documentary filmmaking cliches, including massive Ken Burns’ Effect, talking head after talking head and middle-aged men feeling profound about what they are saying.

And then I was sunk. Color Me Obsessed is free of concert footage of, or interviews with, the band members. Instead it’s a fanumentary. It’s just people who followed, knew, roadied for, engineered, managed or were married to the band. It actually becomes, implicitly about the way we make certain people iconic, the way we cling to our better memories of our worst times. It becomes about what we put on our heroes. The film sticks you with yourself. Your overweight, overeager, nostalgic, longing self of now, as you remember how great you didn’t think you thought you were back when.

By unvarnishing the truth about the band, via an embarrassing honesty about they way they affected those of us within or near their orbit, the movie does a remarkable doubling: it shows us the band through the lens of its listeners; and it shows us ourselves through the lens of the band. In their absence, we only have ourselves to look at.

There’s a guy who grew up on a farm, and who had imagined conversations with Tommy Stinson every day after school; there’s a woman who cries when she mentions the song “Unsatisfied;” there’s the still-bitter fanzine editors, deriding the band for selling out and firing Bob. I am all of them, minus the actual farm.

Color Me Obsessed also nailed, quietly and in an overly sincere way (how else), the climate of desperation that spawned punk. Ronald Reagan, nuclear standoffs, economic crisis, and, in Minneapolis, an emotionally buttoned-up community with a dark alleyway of perversions that lurked unmentioned behind the gas station or SuperAmerica store.

An act of faithlessness

Jim Findlay and I were talking about The Replacements a month ago, doing a little armchair critique of artists in their 40s who self-describe as punk, and I credit him with nailing something true: “Punk was an act of faithlessness. It was nihilistic and selfish.” It said ‘we don’t matter and neither do you.’ The part of me that wants something to believe in, conveniently, or that wants to believe what I experienced was necessary for some reason other than my own relief, was shaken, until I realized that what got me through adolescence was not faith, but was actually a kind of energetic, enveloping comfort in the idea that whatever we do, it’s probably bullshit.

Punk was by young people for young people. We’re not punk now. We’re in our 40s and our heroes from that time are at least that. We might have moments of it (like my friend Esther getting arrested at a Pussy Riot protest). We still listen to it, maybe we use it as a benchmark, but we are not it. We don’t represent it. We have final reports to do, kids to raise, insurance policies to buy. And the new Cat Power’s not that vanilla, is it? Surely it goes great with our microbrew and our dinner party?

Whatever punk was it is not us now, if it ever was. And that’s good. Someone else is doing it. Someone else in some terrible town is thinking about killing herself, and instead she picks up something to make sounds on, hopefully loud ones. She finds the other loser at her school and they do something that makes everyone else mad because it’s almost impossible to listen to. And that is the point. That is what adolescence sounds like unless you are very lucky, or very privileged.

Acts of faith are acts of theft 

A few years ago, I stopped in for coffee at Porto Rico on Thompson Street in lower Manhattan; it’s a little sliver of a place that’s been there forever and I was on my way to a meeting. Inside Pleased To Meet Me was playing. Not my favorite of their records, but still pretty awesome. The guy working behind the counter looked like he couldn’t have been more than 16. And he had eyeliner on. And a chain on his jeans, which were ripped and saftey pinned. Time warp.

I ordered and he made my coffee without looking at me. When I paid I said, “were you even born when this record came out?”

“When’d it come out?”


“Nope. I wasn’t. I stole this from my dad.”

The End.