Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2014, A New Verse

I'm obsessed with the idea of the universe.

I'm obsessed with the fact that the atoms and particles that comprise our bodies and dirt and clouds and all the galaxies are traceable to the same materials that were present in the Big Bang.

And as we lean into a new year, I turn over the idea that all this unquantifiable spectacle, experience, and possibilty burst from one singular beginning.

I've been musing on the "universe," the word in particular, and I've been wondering how it came to mean what it means. As I wondered, I thought wouldn't it be nice if uni meaning "one," linked with verse meant "one song?" Wouldn't it be nice if we, as part of the universe, are all part of one collective song? One on-going vibration, one harmony, one rhythm?

I know it all sounds so precious and conspicuously poetic but wouldn't it be nice? Wouldn't it really be nice if, even at our most desperate - if, in our chronic folly, our habitual fear, our cyclical violence, and our historical shame - that we could know that these are only brief moments of dissonance in an all-encompassing song that is more beautiful and perfect than we can ever know?  And that, even though in the life of a universe a moment can span eras, this dissonace can, at some point, arc and resolve back into harmony, back into grace?

Well I finally looked up the etymology of the word "universe." It comes from the Latin unus or "one" and  versus meaning "turn." One turn.

Like one revolution.

Or maybe, one opportunity.

Or one collective fate.

One collective song.

Here's to 2014, a new verse.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Being 30, Being an Artist, and Dog Poop

In a few months I'll be 30. I'm not freaking out about it or anything; that'd be silly.

But I have to say, it does feel kind of like a deadline, like I need to accomplish certain accomplishments before the three-o rolls around. And I don't mean the familiar accomplishments that so many in my peer group have reached by 30. For instance, I have no desire to buy a house or have baby at this particular juncture. God knows I don't need to add property taxes and spit up to the mix juuuust yet. No, instead of these hallmarks, I find myself substituting the need to achieve arbitrary and rather quotidian feats - ones that are probably pretty inconsequential, but have become high priority in my mind, what with the deadline fast approaching. 

For example (and this is an embarrassing admission here, so be gentle): I've realized that I don't actually know for sure whether the Trojan War actually happened, or if its half-gods/half-men are all just part of an epic poem that Homer made up to pass the time and impart some lessons. I know! I should know that by now. I must have missed that day in high school. 

Regardless, I now feel very strongly that this is something I should know before I'm 30. If I don't know this basic piece of information by the time I'm 30, I have surely failed at life in some way. It has become a matter of critical importance. Also, how have I never read Their Eyes Were Watching God?! Thirty is coming! Houses and 401ks can wait, but if that book is going to get read it's now or never. And the word crepuscular. I should know what that word means by now and be able to confidently use it in a sentence.

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like to disparage us Millennials for our tendency to delay the traditional mile markers of adulthood. But not only has the paradigm of adulthood for my generation shifted (major recessions have a cute way of doing that), the elements that the old paradigm involves - a house, some kids, and long-term employment with a single company - was never one with which I was aligned anyway. 

Well, I do have a graduate degree, which is something that quite a few of those in my peer group have earned by 30. But because my advanced, nay, my terminal degree is in the arts, I am not as well-positioned for income-stability as peers who got degrees in, say, accounting, or dentistry, or even education. I do have a career. It's one that I love and wouldn't trade for the sweetest retirement package in all the land. As an actor in Chicago's thriving theatre community and burgeoning film scene I am never short on professional and artistic challenge, growth, and comradery. Larger society, however, does not tend to validate acting (or any of the arts, let's be real) as a legit and grown-up career choice, and neither does the economy. So being an actor anywhere - even one with an MFA - doesn't exactly lend itself to raking in the kind of dough that puts a down payment on a house. Nor does the actor lifestyle tend to lend itself to the rearing of children. So for now, for my love of and commitment to my life in the arts, I'm happy to let those supposed milestones wait.

Still. It's hard to deny the sneaking suspicion that I'm doing something wrong when I see others my same age move ever more decisively into lives with stability and plan-able futures. And I can't help but wonder if I should have studied business or IT instead - if the life that fields like those allow would help me feel more validated, more grown-up, more economically powerful, more worthy of 30. 

The year I finished grad school the economy was about as warm as Lake Michigan in January, and my first day-job, taken out of desperation, was at a daycare center...for dogs. I can say decisively that I do not miss waking up just shy of 5am for minimum wage so that well-off people who studied business and IT can have someone look after their dogs while they're at work. Still, having a job at all was more than a lot of the country had at the time.

One cold, rainy November afternoon, it was my turn to empty all the trashcans in the dog runs - trashcans filled with dozens and dozens of plastic baggies full of dog poop. Here's what you do: You get a large, black, industrial strength garbage bag and you empty the trashcans full of dog poop baggies into that large industrial bag which, when full, goes into the dumpster. After awhile though, all that dog poop starts to get heavy, and even though I'd try to carry it as far from my physical body as possible, it wouldn't be long before it would get so heavy that the only thing I could do was heave it over my back and get on with it. 

That cold afternoon, as I was schlepping the industrial size bag of dog poop, it occurred to me that I have a terminal degree - the highest degree my field has to offer. It occurred to me that I, a master of fine art, having consumed many thousands of dollars worth of education, with all of my smarts and ambition, was walking along outside, in the cold November rain, giant bag of dog poop slung over my shoulder, in a pair of cheap rain boots bought specifically for this purpose. 

In that moment, the absurdity of life overwhelmed me so greatly that I couldn't help but let my grimaced face give way to laughter. And then such humility overcame me, and I felt...grateful. I felt grateful for the ability to work, and the ability to strive and hope. I felt grateful for my life's lack of convention, and for the failures that increase my hunger for triumph, and for each leap and stumble down such a tricky and unpredictable path as I have chosen, as I cruise in high gear toward 30... Not that I was suddenly enjoying carrying dog poop or anything, that was still totally gross. But humility made the bag a little lighter and the day a little warmer.

I have come to wear this unfettered, if uncertain time in my life as a badge of courage - as proof of a right of passage that any artist with something interesting to say must endure. With 30 coming, I'm letting go of the rubric of adulthood which, really, is as arbitrary as my need to know the meaning and proper usage of the word effulgent. My path is my path, with all its art and glory and folly - house and dental plan or no. 

The only trappings I need in order to welcome 30 are gratitude and love. (...And maybe a used copy of Langston Hughes' collected works. I really should have read that by now).

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fun with Blackface!

"Just say no" to blackface. 
To those guys who went as dead Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman for Halloween

       Congratulations! You're white people! That means that you benefit from a level of social privilege that allows you to appropriate just about everything that's super cool about being black except actually being black, which you probably don't want anyway. You probably know all the lyrics to all the Kanye West and all the Jay-Z, and maybe you even casually use the n-word in conversations with your friends. You're definitely not racist. You probably have at least one black friend to prove it, and s/he never even calls you out on your use of the n-word which is further proof that it's totes okay for you to say it - to black people, to white people, to Filipino people, whomever! You don't really give a shit about Martin Luther King day except that it might score you a day off of work, and you think America has really come along way since slavery what with the black president and black scholarships and the NBA and stuff. In fact, you probably don't see color at all. Congrats on that.

       Maybe you live and work around black and other non-white people, or maybe you don't. Regardless, you don't really identify with the social ills suffered by many non-whites in America. You know, those ills caused by the persistence of the internalized and institutionalized racist ideologies that have defined this country's history since always? You don't spend to much time thinking about those. Besides, you think we should get over it already; pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. In your willful ignorance innocence, you don't recognize that so much black suffering is rooted in a long-standing, brutal history of inequity and hate over which our foremothers and fathers had no control and from which they and their offspring were never made whole.

       But it's totally cool, guys. After all, it's 2013. The Civil Rights Act was signed 49 whole years ago. That's almost 50! And Trayvon Martin's killer was acquitted almost four months ago. That's, like, almost 120 days ago. His parents are definitely finished mourning by now. We should just put the past behind us. It's time. We should really learn to just take a joke. You're not racist; you were just being clever in a political yet Halloween-y kind of way. Besides, you didn't personally own slaves, or deny black people housing and jobs, and you didn't personally kill Trayvon Martin or acquit Zimmerman either. You are not at all involved in these sad and horrifying legacies.

       Excepts, dudes....you are. Like it or not, you're involved; we all are. We are the inheritors of a long, complex, and largely shameful history in regards to race and equality. We share it, you see. So while you may think that you are simply being funny by wearing blackface (by the way, wtf is wrong with you?) and pretending to be a slain black teenager and his killer (your smiling faces make me want to vomit), you are conjuring and associating yourself with hundreds of years of shame and guilt wrought by the actions of your legit-racist forebears. It's embarrassing, really. For you, not for me.

       For me, it's hurtful. It's a reminder of the pain and humiliation that so many before me endured, and that the repercussions of hate and fear continue to affect millions of people in this country. It's a reminder that, though that hate and fear has diminished a bit and we've made significant strides toward greater equality, we have not yet reached the promised land - not black people, not brown people, not undocumented people, not women people, not gay people, not old people, and not disabled people. But also? Not white people. 

       You may think you're there, but you're not. Hell, you probably think you invented the promised land, but let me tell you dudes, we are ONE country. Collectively, we are only as strong as our weakest and most disenfranchised citizens. The lack of agency that they are denied detracts from our collective ability to be the economic and cultural powerhouse that this country could be if everyone really did have a fair and equal shake. But by making light of our country's legacy of inequality (and, ahem, murder), you, in your own tiny, stupid way, are delaying our collective progress to a better day - one that would even benefit thoughtless, undeserving, punk-ass, little you.

       There's no way we're making it to the promised land except together, dudes. So cut out the bullshit, get your life, and come on.

P.S. You too, Julianne and you idiot girls on Twitter.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

This Virtual Life: When the Real World Isn't Enough

Obnoxious? Yeah. But maybe they have a point.
I'm no luddite, but all this technology is starting to worry me. 

      Well, maybe it's not so much the technology that's worrisome, but rather the ways in which we are allowing the digital and virtual worlds to shape almost every aspect of our non-virtual lives. 

       This weekend, I was at the aquarium with my husband and step-daughter. During our visit we saw a half-hour dolphin show during which the several young children seated around us - no more than four or five years old - used their parents' phones to video and photograph the entire program. The entire program. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that these kids didn't put their devices down for any part of the show. Even hours after leaving the aquarium, the more I thought about it, the more unsettled I felt. 

       I get it; the endless capabilities of our mobile devices are often a very welcome distraction. They pass the time when we're riding buses or standing in lines. When we're in a pinch and just need our idle kids to be still for a few minutes, a game-loaded mobile device can be a saving grace. But at the dolphin show, we were being barraged with entertainment, and not just any entertainment - real, live, jumping, swimming, flipper-waving entertainment. I mean, we were in an aquarium; we were literally surrounded by thousands of exotic sea creatures, and not only that! We were in a water arena watching trained sea animals do tricks! Tricks! With lights and sound! Even as an adult, I found the show pretty darn entertaining. As a child on a field trip, I remember finding a similar show downright magical. I don't think I could have been more rapt unless one of the seals in the show were to waddle up to me and strike up a conversation about his personal friendship with Flipper.

       But it seems that seeing trained sea animals do tricks in a building filled with the most exotic creatures of the deep only garners a "meh" on the entertainment scale for today's five-year-olds. Somehow, the experience was not sufficiently amusing without the added novelty of digital documentation. It was impossible for the kids in our vicinity to just sit and have the (already thoroughly entertaining) experience. At five, they couldn't help but translate the actual experience into a virtual experience, even as the actual experience was taking place right in front of them. I fear that this behavior is becoming the norm for children because it has already become the norm for us adults.

       My anxiety about this new cultural standard is nothing new. It seems like every futuristic movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey has posed similar concerns, featuring some disaster where computers have become too smart, too powerful, and end up usurping all of humanity. On a smaller scale, I find myself wondering why virtual life has taken on the degree of importance it has particularly in the minutia of our daily lives. Acclaimed comedian Louis CK expounds beautifully and hilariously on the toxicity of hyper-connectivity and how it keeps children from developing empathy. Meanwhile, kids use PS3s to wage virtual wars while parents plant virtual gardens. We post about our babies, about our food, about cats, about sunsets and plans and haircuts. In one way, virtual platforms give us the opportunity to "experience" what we otherwise might not experience, and to share what we want - from the mundane to the remarkable - with whom we want. But in another way, these platforms can create the illusion that our actual experiences aren't valid until they are digitized, documented, and uploaded - aren't meaningful until they are "liked." I'm all for the virtual world acting as a compliment to the actual one, but, in our minds and in our behavior, virtual is no longer simply augmenting actual; it's replacing it.

       This long decline into an increasingly binary life is distressing, and I find that it is also keeping me from experiencing wonder. Remember when you wanted to know something, but in order to find out, you had to go the library and find a book or an article about it? And if you couldn't do that, we just had to wonder about it until you could go ask your teacher. You had to turn it over in your mind, you had to mull and theorize, you had to imagine. Well, no need for any of that nonsense anymore. Just whip out your smartphone, fire up your Wikipedia app and boom: detailed descriptions, histories, timelines, and images. On one hand, great! With so much access to so much information, we as a species are more capable than ever of betterment, advancement, and efficiency. But when so much of these new capabilities are expended on Candy Crush, what is that efficiency worth when it robs us of the moments that connect us to our humanity - to people and events and the real, actual, tangible world? 

       Our obsession with the virtual world is robbing us of those moments. It's hard to have coffee with a friend without having her set her phone on the table next to her chai and pausing the conversation at every text alert. It's hard, apparently, for people to not fall into open manholes because they are texting while walking. And let's not even get started on the widespread and remarkably homicidal habit of texting while driving.

       I miss the days when the real world was enough - when there was nothing to do while riding the bus but ride the bus, or maybe read a book, or steal glances at an interesting-looking stranger, and wonder, based on their shoes, what kind of person they are. I miss the days when we noticed things that weren't backlit and search-engine-optimized. I miss the days when it was possible to wonder about things. And unless we protect them, those real experiences will continue to diminish until nothing real - not even a dolphin show in a building filled with exotic sea creatures - will be enough on its own.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Dear House of Representatives, You need a spanking.

Image courtesy of wikipedia.org
Dear House of Representatives,

You need a spanking. 

     You are acting like a petulant, spoiled little brat that is throwing a tantrum because you're not getting your way. Back in the day, do you know what my mother did when I acted like that in public? She would pull me aside, look me in my pouty little face and say quietly but oh so intensely, "Do I need to embarrass you?" And those six words were always enough to make me shut up and behave myself, because I knew that if I didn't, I was going to get a spanking, it was going to hurt, and everyone was going to see.

     House, you are not only long overdue for your public spanking, but even without it, you are somehow managing to embarrass yourselves. Do you think anyone in the American public views your political hissy fit as representative of what the American People want? Do you think we view your so-called showdown as anything other than obstructionist, uncooperative, and detrimental to the already-struggling US economy? I vote that when you're through causing the government to shutdown, your pay be docked and distributed to those now on furlough, thanks to you, to make up for their lost income.

     House, it's time to take a cue from Walter White and finally be honest with yourselves. A) You lost. Even the Supreme Court said so. Pack it in, and move on. B) You don't care about the welfare of the American people; you never did. You don't even really care about the survival of your precious, yet quickly-evaporating American middle class. All you care about, all you have ever cared about, you scrum of depraved lunatics, is keeping this president from succeeding. That's all. That has been your one, true, thinly-veiled goal.

     I don't care how conservative or liberal you are, but I know that if, before Obamacare, you couldn't get health insurance because of your diabetes, your lupus, or your bipolar disorder, and now you can, you are now better off. And you can thank this president and his administration for that. And I know that if your newly graduated 22 year-old is having trouble finding a decent full-time job with benefits in this crap-tastic economy, you can thank the big scary black guy in the White House for making sure that she can stay on your insurance for four more potentially life-saving years.

     Hey House, it's time to get your collective heads out of your collective rear ends. Because while you continue to get paid to flail around, hold your breath, and wail on the floor of Capitol Hill, you're cutting into the pay and well-being of thousands of simple public servants who are just trying to pay their mortgages, pay down credit cards, and get their kids through school. If that means anything to you. Which, we've established, it doesn't. All because - and let's be real - you're uncomfortable, probably for some reasons on which I could speculate, with the man in the White House who, despite your temper tantrum, and your insistence that he's some terrorist-Muslim-communist uber-villain amalgam, is just trying to get. Things. Done.

     Do we, the American people, need to embarrass you? Because, come mid-term elections, we so will.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Babies and the Web

Photo courtesy of thelmagazine.com
I was in college before social media culture took hold.

I'm grateful for that because it meant that not only were my peers and I of an age to approach online media with some level of maturity (because doesn't being a 13-year old on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter sound like the nightmare to end all nightmares?), but it also meant that I was the one in control of my online presence. I have had the ability to curate almost all online content that pertains to me, my life, and my image, save for content on websites related to public work or functions in which I've been involved, and a few random, untagged photos taken by friends.

Now, however, there is a whole generation of people who have yet to cut their first tooth, but are already the subject of a considerable amount of online content that, in many cases, starts with their birth. This is content over which they have no control because, well, they don't know what the internet - or their foot for that matter - is. Their parents and relatives have uploaded it to the web well before the subjects of that content are capable of having any say over the dissemination of their image or activities, or any understanding of the implications of one's online presence.

Okay. The feelings that parents, especially new ones, have about the arrival of their children into the world often go beyond the confines linguistic expression. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to have some understanding of the impulse to share such meaningful events in one's life as those related to one's children. In the past, the images related to those events were shared in photo albums (the gargantuan three-ring binder kind, not the Flickr kind), in home videos (VHS, holla!), or, if you're from the 60's, carousel slide projectors. We poured over physically tangible versions these images while visiting with friends, at family reunions, or in private moments of nostalgia. Today, we upload them to the web, where they can be viewed and "liked" kind of whenever, and even though privacy settings give us the illusion that we can control who sees these images, I think Edward Snowden has recently proved that we're not so in control of that sort of thing as we'd like to believe.

Don't get me wrong; in my few years on Facebook, I've uploaded many photos, I greatly enjoy Instagram, and I've "liked" the hell out of plenty of baby pictures posted by my friends. I even rushed to post a picture of my own young niece the day she was born, overcome with emotion and joy as I was. But then I had another thought...and I decided to take the picture down. That other thought was the idea that this tiny baby, completely unaware of the world and how it works, will someday gain an understanding of both herself and the world to a far greater extent than I ever will. And as she gains that understanding, I wondered if it's fair to her to begin to create her online-presence before she even has the wherewithal to ponder it and what it means. Suddenly it seemed that, while a family photo here and candid shots there are one thing, full galleries of sometimes very intimate moments digitized, uploaded to the nebulas of cyberspace, and broadcast to literally hundreds of "friends" - some of whom I only sorta know - was another.

It's my niece's life, after all. Not mine. And not her mother's or her father's either. We, her family, are merely the custodians of her life until she's big and strong, and aware enough to make her own choices. Do we really have the right to "share" her life to such extents and on such a scale as the world wide web? I ponder this question sincerely, and not just rhetorically.

I love seeing pictures of my friends' babies. If you post an album of your baby online, I will probably click through and "like" every, single, adorable one of them. But I also greatly admire the restraint I've witnessed in some young parents I know. They upload and share images of their children as anyone would, but they do so selectively, thoughtfully, and frankly not with the greatest frequency. I appreciate their reserve not because I don't want to see pictures of their babies (because I do!), but because I recognize it as a courtesy to their children. Who will grow up to be adults. And whose preferences about their own online presence are a long way from being known.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Rhetoric That Fuels Profiling

Racial Profiling by Jordan Isip http://jordinisip.com/

"What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?" 

is the question that caused an uproar in the Chicago theatre community last week. The uproar was in regards to Hedy Weiss' Chicago Sun-Times reviewof Silk Road Rising's production of Invasion by Jonas Hassen Khemiri. In reviewing the play, Weiss acknowledged that the play "is a cry against Muslim profiling," but went on to outrage readers by essentially asking, in the face of State Department-issued worldwide terror threat alerts and Boston Marathon bombings, what other choice do we have but to profile Muslims?

      I had to read that part of the review several times before I really grasped what she was suggesting. After I recovered from the initial shock, I then wondered how the review even made it past her editor's desk. Was it editorial negligence? Did her editor agree? Was it a misguided stunt to get more traffic to the website and increase ad revenue?

      So there was that. Okay. A week prior, CNN's No Talking Points host Don Lemon concluded his show by backing Bill O'Reilly's post-Zimmerman trial critique of black people (not all black people, just the scary and/or dangerous ones), and proceeded to "just be honest, here" and tell black people what black people need to do to solve their black people problems. His suggestions included pulling up our pants (never mind how many white guys sag their pants too), finishing school, and stop having all those babies out of wedlock. He also suggested that we stop littering in our communities and told us that he'd lived in several predominantly white neighborhoods and that there was hardly ever any litter there. 

      Well. Both Uncle Ruckus' Don Lemon's lecture and Hedy Weiss' question come not a month after a not-guilty verdict was handed down for George Zimmerman who shot and killed an armed black teenager in his own neighborhood because - and let's be real here - he profiled him. Racially. He racially profiled him. Weiss' remarks were ignorant and careless; Lemon's were condescending and dismissive of larger, systemic problems. But the most upsetting thing about both pieces rhetoric is that they reinforce a way of thinking about and talking about historically marginalized and maligned groups - Muslims and blacks in this case - that is reductive and vilifying, and gives credence to the kind of profiling that got Trayvon Martin killed, and which Weiss so cavalierly supports in her controversial review. When the media consistently ascribes heightened levels of danger to observant Muslims or black men who sag their pants, the public literally cannot help but form connections between "Muslims" and terror/attack/bomb, and "black" and aggressive/dangerous/violent, and then apply these connections - which translate into prejudice - to the entirety of those populations...or at least the ones that "fit the description." That connection happens on a neurological level and helps proliferate racial profiling and injustice on both small scales (Stop-and-Frisk, anyone?) and large scales (Amadou Diallo, anyone?).

      Imagine if, after the Oklahoma City bombing, or the Unabomber, or the movie theater shooting in Aurora, or the Sikh temple shooting, or the school shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook - imagine if, after these events, we as a society began to feel nervous around and suspicious of young white men. Why not? The perpetrators of all of these horrific acts of terrorism have all been white men. So why not profile white men? Right, that's probably not going to become a thing in my lifetime (at least not on the scale that it happens to people of color), but it should seem just as ridiculous to profile Muslims as a matter of course or every black man in a hoodie walking down the street at night. But, as we all know, it happens every day. And the ramifications are immense.

      Imagine if, in the face of white-collar crime and Steubenville rape cases, major media outlets began suggesting that "The White Community" needs to clean up its act, stop cheating people out of their hard-earned money, and trading on privilege and entitlement to do whatever they want even if it's wrong/illegal. This was spoofed here to great effect by MSNBC's Chris Hayes, and in listening to it, it sounds just...wrong. You and I know that most white people in America probably aren't doing heinous things on, like, an everyday basis, so why is it okay to speak in a way that suggests most black people probably are? And why is it okay to subject the general population of Muslims to suspicion of acts of terrorism that most people in general, Muslims aside, would never dream of committing?

      It's time to change how we talk about people. And notice that I didn't say "people of color" or "minorities" or "other racial groups" or any of that. Because even though racial, ethnic, and religious groups may be linked by certain commonalities and experiences, all of these "groups" are made up of individuals who are as unique and diverse as we already understand groups of white people to be. And we need to start letting our rhetoric - and our thoughts - reflect that truth. 

*Following the vocal outrage over Weiss' Sun-Times article, the review was edited to omit the most egregious parts. But! You can find those parts right here. This link also includes a post-outcry response from Weiss in which she asserts that "like it or not, we are ALL being profiled every time we enter an airport, highrise or crowd of any kind these days..." So. Right. There's that. ((Bangs head on wall)).

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

It's Not "Just Hair" and Here's Why

Image source: www.naturalhairmag.com
I took the long way home. 
I'm about four months in on natural hair. Before this spring, I wore it straight, and even when I decided that I was ready, I took two years to transition from chemically straightened (or "relaxed") hair to natural, curly hair because I was afraid that I wouldn't like it. I was afraid I wouldn't feel pretty, or that it would be too difficult to manage, or that, as an actor, I wouldn't be cast in things in which I might have been cast with straight hair. I thought that if I took my time, I could always turn back. 
On one hand, life's too short to not have the hair you want, and if you don't have it, go out and get it. Now, I've never relished time spent at the salon; I had always felt it was more of a chore than anything else. 
And as I got older, it became important to me to understand why I preferred one kind of hair over another, why I was willing to sacrifice so much time and money at the salon when I'd rather be somewhere else. Over time, I realized that the only thing keeping my hair straight was fear. 
Then, as I transitioned, something happened. As I let my unprocessed hair emerge from beneath 20 years of relaxers, as I began to see all of these fantastic little patterns, curls and coils establish themselves and move outward and upward, I began to realize that, for me, fighting my hair was like fighting myself - that beating back my curls was like beating back my own truth, my own wise genetic code and the millennia of ancestry that it manifests. 
After that, I wasn't afraid anymore. And even though I'd structured my transition so I could turn back at any time, now I didn't really want to.
Here is a list of reasons for changing my hair that bolstered me during my transition - a growing list of revelations that emerged in conjunction with the rich forest of curls and kinks that now crown my head. The list is personal and, despite the societal pressure I imagine many black women feel to conform to one standard or another, took shape in its own patient, and revelatory time. 

1. Because my hair had been relaxed since I was a very little girl. I had no memory of what my hair was like before it was chemically straightened, and I wanted to know what it was like by itself.
2. Because I wanted to go swimming, or stand out in the rain, or sweat my butt off in yoga class without worrying so much about my hair.
3. Because, if I ever have a daughter, I want her to know from my example that she is glorious just the way she is - hair, hips, and lips included.
4. Because having a 'fro is way hip, didn't you know? (I've been blown away by how overwhelmingly positive the responses from both friends and strangers have been).
5. Because I want to dismantle the internalized but prevalent notion that Eurocentric beauty is the only kind of beauty.
6. Because black is beautiful. 
7. Because taking care of my hair in its natural state is not necessarily harder than doing so when it was straightened. The time I now spend detangling, I once spent blowdrying and flat-ironing - an even trade in regards to time and effort.
8. Because I felt like it 
9. Because I was ready.
10. Because my hair is healthier and stronger this way. 
11. Because it's so much less expensive this way. 
12. Because what's the deal with the term "relaxed" anyway? My hair doesn't need to relax. It wasn't aggressive or stressed out in the first place.  
13. Because I wanted to meet myself where I stood and embrace whatever that self had to offer. 
14. Because wearing my hair this way often inspires instant comradery among other women - often complete strangers - who wear or want to wear their hair natural, especially women who have transitioned from straightened to natural hair.  
15. Because I love the way it feels. 
16. Because it was my choice and not anybody else's.  

      That's 16 reasons so far, but every day I feel more and more affirmed in my choice. Absolutely, there are days when I feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or bored with my still-new natural coiffure, but doesn't everyone with hair at all have those days? Even so, it's hard to describe the peace and freedom I feel wearing my hair like this each day - and not just peace with my hair, peace with myself. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Beautiful Now

The Inconvenience's The Fly Honey Show 8/1-3 at The Chopin
Dav Yendler said something interesting last night in the basement of the almost 100 year old Chopin Theatre on Division and Milwaukee after the dancing that ended the sexiest and most artful burlesque this side of Lake Michigan was done.
      The DJ had stopped playing and the lights were turned on and we all milled drunkenly from the dance floor into the gilt and incandescent lounge on our way up the stairs and onto the street. I was sweaty from from all the dancing - my feather earrings, Shannon had said, were curling - and I was happy from all the drinking. I was wearing new heels and, surrounded by all the vivacious burlesques, felt sexy.
        Dav was covered in glitter - big, fat, audacious glitter all on his chest and up the side of his neck. "How wonderful to be covered in glitter on a Saturday night!" I said. We laughed. We were loose and happy. 
     Dav said, "You know those old people who were young in the Jazz Age and they say 'Oh we used to have parties, and we danced, and we drank all the liquor, and we were young(!), and everything was beautiful!'?"
     I understood him exactly. "It's now!" I exclaimed.
     "Yes! That's now for us, like, now! And when we're like them, we'll look back and remember this and how everything was so beautiful!"
       And we smiled and knew it was true and looked all around us at the beautiful now.
     I drank my last drink, and under normal lights, the world began to set in again, and I grew tired. Now, in my last year before a certain age, I stand, one foot in a glittery place, and one foot somewhere else. One foot has on a strappy high heel, ready as ever for the dance and the romp; and the other wears something stylish but sensible. The other foot is moored and stayed, and I shift from one to the other, unsure of the ground. I shift and look back, remember the time getting high on the dorm room floor and the refrigerator was so funny, remember setting out on that little boat on the vastness of the Pacific and how there were whales. I shift and look forward, remember all manner of dancing, and remember, too, the time I met my soon step-daughter, and shaking her tiny hand. I shift and look around and there is much still that I hope to remember.
     Word of an after-party circulated. The Zebra Lounge, Dav said. I sighed. Maybe I'd go, drain the cup. But then again, for me, the night had been good and was done. I had drunk and danced, and it was enough, and I walked out into the street-lit night, feeling my way toward home and sleep, sated, happy, and with no need to cling too much to the glittered, vivacious night.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"You make a living doing that?" and Other Musings on the Acting Life. Part One.

"So...what do you do?" the conversation begins.
Since I was fifteen, hardly a day has passed that I haven't contemplated theatre in one capacity or another. Since then, even on days that I'm not working on a production, preparing an audition, or reading a play, I've mused over its place in my life, its place in society, its function, its validity.  And, after years of study and work, I still find it difficult to explain to those unfamiliar with the field exactly what it is that I do. 
An acting career remains a pretty unconventional way to do life, and this truth is perpetually reinforced, whether trying to explain the project-oriented nature of your work to colleagues at your day-job, or filling in the blanks on your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles with "John Stageman worked at Actor." 
Introductory conversations usually begin like this:
            So what do you do?
            I'm an actor.
            (Raised eyebrows) ...Oh really?
At this point, the conversation has the potential to go in a dazzling variety of directions. There are the garden variety, well-meaning, but slightly condescending responses such as:
            Oh, so you want to be a big movie star!
            So you want to be on Broadway, huh? How long 'til I see your name in                   lights?!
Sigh. This is real life, folks, not Fame. And when someone tells me they're an accountant, I generally don't ever say, "Ooo, so you wanna be a big accountant for Bill Gates?!" or whatever the movie star equivalent is for accounting...I don't know. 
Then there are the responses that are straight-up insulting and warrant no further contact with the responder ever in life:
            Acting, huh? You make a living doing that?
      Or worse:
            So you're an actor, huh? Don't you mean 'waiter?'
      Thank goodness one also gets the occasional thoughtful response: 
            Oh wow. What kind of acting do you do?
     Oh wow. I have a friend who's an actor. It's a hard life, but she              can't imagine doing anything else.
It's remarkable to me how misunderstood this field is. Most of us grow up with the idea that we'll get an education, learn a trade, and get one job with one company for the next however-many years, climb the ladder a bit, and take some cool vacations. On this trajectory, the measure of success is often how much one makes and how prominent one's title. 
It's a little different in the acting life. There's no one path; some fall into it late, some pursue and practice it their whole lives through. And the rubric for success, unlike what some may think, is not whether you're on Glee or Girls. Yes, SAG scale (i.e. lots of money, potentially) and an esteemed venue (i.e. The Goodman, The Public, The Guthrie, etc.) are nice...so, so nice. 
But, really, the success rubric is intensely personal and varies actor to actor. For some, success is using Shakespeare in a program to rehabilitate convicted criminals,* for others it's the ability to lighten weary hearts and minds for an hour and a half by giving a killer performance in a great musical in a Chicago storefront. Both are totally valid and totally important. (More on that later).
When someone in, say, finance asks me what it is that I do, my goal is to express the breadth of these ideas, to impress upon the inquirer that, while what I do can indeed be "fun" as they have helpfully noted, it's also hard work, and legit work, and important work, and here's why, and that even when I'm not "working," I'm working. But, more often than not, that's the start of a much longer conversation than the inquirer intended when s/he innocently asked, "So...what do you do?"
Back to the drawing board.
* The Shakespeare Behind Bars program offers "theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to the incarcerated, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure the successful reintegration into society." Here's a great article about it: http://www.thelouisvillepaper.com/shakespeare-behind-bars/

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I can't promise I won't puke before I walk down the proverbial aisle.

Above: My parents, Lew and Mary, in the early years of their relationship  
I'm getting married in September.
In the meantime, I'm understudying a role in Belleville at Steppenwolf Theatre here in Chicago. As understudy gigs go, this is a pretty sweet one. And the play is a fascinating one - a deeply psychological look at the relationship between Zach and Abby, two American expatriates in the early years of their marriage, living in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris.
One of the currents that runs through the play is the idea that even in marriage - one of the most intimate and complex relationships into which one can enter - so much goes unknown about the other. The play implies that, even after years of marriage, what each doesn't know about the other could fill a book and, for Zach and Abby, the ramifications of these secrets and the shadows of their personalities are devastating.
This is curious play play in which to be involved just a couple of months out from the start of my own marriage which, for the record, will be the second time around for both of us. I know first hand the astonishing difficulty that "unknown variables" can cause in marriage. And even when most of the cards seem to be on the table, even when it seems the biggest problems seem brought to light, it's impossible to know how even those will evolve and come bear two, five, 30 years down the line. It's impossible to know.
      Part of my vows will read:
      I take you to be no other than yourself,
      loving what I know of you,
      trusting what I do not yet know...
Marriage is a crapshoot. There are some unknowns that will always be thus - sometimes x and y will always be x and y. That's the nature of people, and therefore the nature of relationships. And that's scary. I can't promise that I won't puke before I walk down the proverbial aisle. But isn't that one of the most beautiful things about marriage anyway? (The unknowns, not the puking). Think of it; if you already know how the story's gonna go, why go? 
One of the coolest things about life is that you can't plan it. You can try, and good luck to you, but this ride is ever-shapeshifting and ever-evolving, complete with unavoidably wretched moments and moments of unfathomable splendor. 
So it is with marriage. At best, you get a decent idea of what you're getting yourself into. Then you get into it. You try to grow and change together with as much grace as you can. You make and take the revelations in stride. You fear not what's yet unknown.

Doing Better Starts Now.

My people are from Alabama and my grand-mother worked cleaning white ladies' houses and looking after their children.
She also had her own home, and ten of her own children - Ruth, Dorothy, Pete, Evelyn, Sidney, Mary, Diane, Stephen, Conrad, and Laura. My grandparents were poor, but worked hard, tried to raise their children right. My grandfather - who died before I was born - bought some land near the water in Mobile, and my 93 year-old grandmother lives there today, in a house that her son, my uncle, Conrad built.
     While my grandparents were building and sustaining a life for their family, all around them, the country was again in revolution, and the American South was the staging ground. My mother Mary and my father Lew were in their formative years in the 1950s and 60s when separate water fountains and the Back of the Bus was not just common practice, but law. My parents grew up in a world where lynchings were not just stories of how things used to be, they were real and they were the next town over - where one could not fathom going to school next to white children, where the sting of the hose and the bite of the dog were here and now, where they were "Sir" and you, a full -grown man -  were "boy," where you hoped no one had planted a bomb in your church, and where a black boy minding his business could be cut down for an even lesser offense than seeming "threatening" and it would be no big deal. Maybe the killer would be afraid of that black boy. Maybe the killer would just hate him. Maybe both.
        I feel so far removed from these realities that, in fact, are not so long gone. Sometimes they seem like old movies, like black-and-white pictures in a library book. I'm glad to say that I've never experienced racism to those extremes. Sure I've been subject to prejudice in the many smaller ways that any person of color in America has been; I doubt I know a single black person who hasn't the felt firey resentment that comes at being followed around a shop, passed over for a job or an apartment, or pulled over for DWB. 
      I have my grandparents to thank for their hard and humble work, and my own parents and their relentless sacrifice for the comfort and success I enjoy in my own life. I have to thank as well the steely spirit of so many whom I'll never know who Freedom Rode, who sat-in, who marched, and who faced the angry, spitting throngs with peace and courage, who faced and met death for my sake and for yours. I have to thank the kings and queens who crossed an entire ocean in a hold, those who were strong enough to survive so many lifetimes of dehumanization and enslavement, who were brave enough to run away, or to risk their lives to learn to read, who faced down so much unjustified fear and hatred, or who - with pride and anger - refused to back down from a lone menace seeking to put them in their place.
        Our collective history has brought us to this moment, and the suffering endured and sacrifices rendered in the past were for the hope that this moment might be better than the ones that came before - for the sake of me not having to clean white ladies' houses for a living, for the sake of us all having a chance for a decent education, for the right to go where we want to go, dress how we want to dress, be black, and not have to answer to anyone for it. And to certainly not get shot through the heart because of it.
        This is not what this moment is supposed to be. This is not the moment that they, our mothers and father's before us, worked for. This moment is not the moment that they, our mother's and father's before us, died for. 
       Doing better starts now - in careful self-examination, in the examination of legacies of privilege, in the examination of laws that uphold those legacies, in the examination of the true nature of fear and hatred, and the repudiation, person by person, of the atmosphere that inculcates that subconscious yet pervasive fear and hatred and gives rise to travesties such as these recent ones, and that, today, should be no more - that render all that those before worked and died for pointless and in vain. Doing better starts now.