Friday, June 27, 2014

"You Don't Meet Nice Girls in Coffee Shops"

I've got this old copy of The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut - an old paperback with yellowing pages and that deliciously musty, old book smell.

Jason gave it to me back in 2006. I don't know Jason very well, or even really at all, but his name is inscribed on the inside cover of the book along with his number and email address. (Facebook wasn't a big thing yet. Neither were Kindles).

I met Jason - whose last name is a mystery - one night in coffee shop where I was sitting alone, reading a different Vonnegut novel. He asked me how I was liking it, (I was loving it), and being a Vonnegut fan himself, struck up a conversation - one of those genuinely interesting, unforced conversations that occur mostly when you've had either just enough caffeine, just enough alcohol, or just enough sleep. 

As I got up to leave, Jason said I should borrow his copy of Sirens to read. I said I didn't know how I'd get it back to him. Then he wrote his information inside the book and handed it to me with a smile.

Pretty smooth.

I didn't call him, though. I knew what calling him would mean, and I was already seeing someone with whom things had just gotten serious. I never ran into Jason again, and I don't really remember what he looks like. The book sits on my shelf now, between Tolstoy and Woolf, and, not often, but every once in awhile I wonder what if I had called that Jason.

It's not unlike that silly old romcom Sliding Doors, that one with Gwenyth Paltrow? (I know, I know). In the movie, her life goes one way if she makes the train one morning, and goes a very different way if she doesn't. We get to see both variations. Hilarity ensues.

Well, so far, my life has gone a way in which I'm pretty damn satisfied. I've got a roof, I'm not hungry, I get and give love, I'm artistically fulfilled. A little bit more money would be great. But the relative hardship and significant heartbreak I've suffered on my way to the this current moment has given me a backbone to be proud of.

Still, it's a very human thing go about "what-iffing." Many of our choices are influenced not only by our needs and ambitions, but by our various relationships, and I wonder, at times, how my life might be different had they been influenced by a different choice in that coffee shop, or by different choices made at myriad other unassuming crossroads. 

Would I be living in South America now? Would I be a rich divorcee in a Texas mansion? Would I have become a social worker? Would I have five children? Or would it not have mattered at all, and I'd be in the same place that I am today, same person, same neuroses, same happiness?

I don't get too far down that rabbit hole before I discover that it's a pointless and imaginary one. In regards to the past, "What if" is a useless thought because there is no rewind button. There is what you did and what you didn't do, and the consequences there of. For the past, there is no "What if." There is only the "What." And this, this right here and right now is the "what." This is what. 

Going forward...who knows?

So there Sirens of Titan sits on my shelf, full of expired possibility, for which I have no regrets. 


Saturday, April 5, 2014

30x30: Live the Questions

On my 16th birthday, Andy Grenier gave me a copy of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. 

It was an old edition, a paperback, published some time in the 60s. It's pretty delicate these days, and it's one of the most important things I own.

Someone had given it to Andy, I think, and had inscribed a quote from the book on the inside cover:

Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Looking back, I realize how much this idea has informed the trajectory of my life. Not that I've always done that good a job at taking the advice that it offers. I can be impatient and would prefer clear, concise answers to most problems, delivered in a timely manner. And the older I get, the more the problems multiply, the more I need solutions, and then there's this annoying backlog of both practical and metaphysical questions. It's easy to get overwhelmed.

Where did I put my keys?

Do I love him?
Do I believe in this?
What's the plan, then?
How much do I want this?
Will there be snacks?

Receiving that book, though, and feeling those words resonate activated some mechanism that set all my wheels and cogs in motion towards the series of events that have been this cumulative experience so far. On my best days I remember that there's no other way to do it - that there's no other option for any of us than to go through it and figure it out as we go along.

There is a freedom in not knowing. There is permission to fuck up and try again, and fuck up and try again, and see beautiful things, and meet such interesting people, and to fall like a trust exercise at summer camp into the kaleidoscope of all these years just flashing by, laughing and giving and loving through the hardest parts.

I look at what's now. And I wonder what's next.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Friday, April 4, 2014

30x30: Remembrances of Things Past: The Game


Roll a pair of die for each decade of life completed. If you're 30, there will be three rounds. In the first round, roll the die once and record that number. In the second round, roll the die twice, add the two numbers, and record the total. In the third round, roll the dies three times, add those numbers, and record that total.

You should now have three numbers. They should roughly correspond to an age within the three decades you have completed so far. If they do not, you can repeat one or all rounds to try for better corresponding numbers. When you get them, for each age, record a memory of how it felt to be that age. I'll go first.


Being four was like being on a tilt-a-whirl almost every second of almost everyday. Everything and everyone was bigger than me, and I liked that I fit into all the nooks and crannies of the world. So many things were still new and incomprehensible and therefore wondrous. There was so much time to do everything. I was small and noticed small things like a ladybug crawling on a blade of grass and the individual fibers of the carpeting in the living room.

The world was as treacherous as it was wondrous. I was always scraping an elbow, cutting a knee, spilling something, getting sick, and given to fits of ugly crying because life wasn't fair. 

But there were also caterpillars, and I liked caterpillars very much. Mostly I remember feeling very loved. There were lots of hugs, and I remember having a general excitement about the vast expanse and coming adventure of life.


I felt vaguely embarrassed most of the time. I probably had a crush on John Freundel. I had braces and glasses. It was not my best look.

In school, the mean girls were starting to surface. I was probably a bit of a know-it-all, and this did not endear me to them. I became more retreating than is my nature. I liked writing; I wrote a lot. I did not like to be touched.

But in the spring, there were still the honeysuckles that grew along the fence at the far end of that field at school, that field that never grew any grass, and we'd gather the blossoms in the skirts of our uniforms and we'd go sit under a tree eat the nectar.


I was living alone in a beautiful apartment in Chicago, in Andersonville. One bedroom, wood floors, back porch, all the sunlight you could ever want. Lots of time with friends. Lots of time alone.

I was in love again, reluctantly, after feeling for some time that love was a racket. I listened to him play music on his guitar. Everything seemed sparkly.

I was listening to TV on the Radio and Florence and the Machine and Raphael Saadiq and The Decemberists.

I was worried about money.

I was working, I was performing. I was living the life I imagined I'd live. I was content. But I wanted to do more. I wanted to make a mark. I was restless. I was that too.

Your turn.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

30x30: Ramah

He has said to me "You are my greatest love." To which I replied, "And your biggest challenge."

I'm no easy wife. I'm moody, I like things just so, and happy is not my default disposition. I also don't cook much. But still, he comes to me with this love.

It's a quiet love, but a tenacious and insistent love.
An imperfect and hopeful love.
A hard-fought love.
A sincere love.

Our third date was in January. It was early on enough that everything or nothing was still altogether possible.

He was driving us in his car. We were going south on Lake Shore Drive and to the left was Lake Michigan. It was night and the sky and water were both black and blended into one another like the darkest ink. To the right was Chicago, all lit up, sparkling, promising us all the things. We drove down in between them.

He let his hand rest just above my knee. I thought this was very forward as it was only on our third date but, after a moment of not being sure, I decided that I liked it there, so I let it stay. We drove down that way. I was wearing a short black dress. It was from Target, but it was nice.

Now we have this home filled with guitars and books and art and food, and there is even a little girl who lives in one of the rooms. Life is so surprising sometimes.

Sometimes the air is tense when we are dissatisfied or angry or when we are trying too hard to wring too much from life, and two sensitive artist-types make for exquisite tension, let me tell you. But when everything eases again, there is still this irrational love. 

This love that cooks the meals and wants to know did I like it.
That wakes up early and takes me to work when its cold.
That leaves me alone when I need to be left alone.
That insists on us when I won't.
That waits for me.

This determined love that rises above all subterfuge, this love that when I ask why do you love me, there is no answer, there is only that love's existence, there is only that it is such.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

30x30: Can I Get a Ride?

I'd rather do it myself, if that's alright.

Having a sense of independence has always been a big deal to me. Even as a toddler I wanted independence. I did not want to hold my father's hand when walking up the big marble staircase at the Old Post Office. I could manage the steps myself.

I still prefer it that way. If I can count on anyone to come through for me, it's me. And if I don't come through, there's no one to blame but myself.

I accept help reluctantly. I don't want to feel beholden to anyone. I don't want to feel less than capable. At the same time, I try to be generous. I like the feeling of helping someone. Life is mostly hard, and to craft a moment of ease for someone else, even if it's small, is good for both the helper and the helped. The acceptance of that help is half the beauty of such moments.

Like that time I could've taken two buses to get home. The North Avenue bus to the Damen bus would've gotten me almost to my front door. But it was February, it was freezing (like polar vortex-style freezing), we'd gotten out of rehearsal half an hour late (10:30 at night), who knows how long the North Avenue bus will take to get here, and I'm not even sure how much longer the Damen bus will be running.

And I would've waited for the buses, gotten home close to midnight with work the next morning, if a cast mate hadn't insisted on giving me a ride home, even though it was out of her way.

I have to say. It was nice sitting in a cozy car cabin instead of freezing my eyeballs on the corner of North and Halsted, waiting on the bus. My cast mate was good company, and our brief conversation was so much nicer than staring down silently under the florescent lights of the bus. It's nice, sometimes, to accept a hand with humility and grace.

Being excessively independent and capable is cold and lonely. Sometimes I'd rather be cozy. And when I say yes to someone doing something for me, I then have a stronger impulse to do something for someone else. To keep the good will going and hope it comes around again. If for no other reason than to keep the universe in balance, help make it a little warmer.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

30x30: The Brain Wars

"I'm right-brained! I'm creative and intuitive! I suck at math because of my brain! Hahaha! Right brain!"

is a decent synopsis of how I've understood myself for a long time. Turns out, it's mostly b.s. As it happens, the whole left brain/right brain theory is b.s. 

The idea of dominant brain hemispheres took hold in the 1960s when neuroscientists were studying epileptic patients who'd had their respective corpus callosums severed. They discovered that the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for certain functions like contextualization and interpretation, while the left is responsible for others, like language and logic. Subsequent extrapolations led many to conclude that those with creative strengths have a higher functioning right hemisphere, while those who excel in numbers and logic do so because Left Brain!

Now, however, research has shown than the two hemispheres of the brain work together to complete most functions. For instance, while the left side comprehends the sounds that make up words, the right side interprets the tone and rhythm that give them meaning. For full understanding and communication to occur, both sides have to work. Essentially, we don't tend have "stronger" sides. Our tendencies to excel in one field or another seems to have more to do with the quirks of our individual brains rather then a ready-made hemispheric theory.

But my personal understanding of having a stronger "right brain" has permeated so much of my self-perception. I took a certain measure of pride in being "right-brained." I liked the idea that science backed up my creative proclivities. As a bonus, it explained away my weakness in math. My struggle in math is totally not my fault! Can't help it! I was born this way!

And maybe I not-so-subconsciously used it as an excuse to not try as hard as I could in math. And maybe by not trying as hard as I could in math, I cheated myself out of the chance to acquire strength in math, which cheated me out of an opportunity to excel in subjects in which I still have deep interest like physics and economics.

What a shame for others, too, who are told early on, "Oh you're just left-brained so creative writing will be hard for you," or, "Science isn't your thing; you're more of a right-brain person." 

What a shame for a pseudoscientific half-truth to be such a thief of one's potential.

For the most part, my brain is balanced. So is yours. And even into late adulthood, the brain (and body) is able to learn and adapt and change. I hardly want to adhere to limits that actually do exist; why would go on adhering to imaginary ones?

Both hemisphere's of your brain are hardworking and fabulous. Don't believe the hype.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

30x30: An Evolution of Faith


As in all things, what and how I believe has evolved. With any luck, it will continue to do so.


A singular God that lived in heaven, which I approximated was located somewhere in the vicinity of the clouds and sky. When I pictured God, God was a "he." He was white. He wore a white robe. He had a white beard, because, obviously, he's very old.

That the earth was formed in seven days.

That a woman named Eve and a man named Adam were convinced by a snake to eat fruit that they were told was off limits, and by doing so they ruined it for all of us.

That if I was good I'd go to heaven. Heaven was like walking around on clouds all day and it was there that you were reunited with the ones you loved.

That if I was bad, I'd burn eternally in the fires of hell. That in hell, I would be consumed in despair and pain from the moment of my death until the end of all time.

That I was a sinner.

That willing the death of his son on the cross was God's proof of his love for me.


If having Jesus die on the cross wasn't a little extreme.

How - if Jews and Muslims and other groups believe in their faith as strongly as we Christians believe in ours - how we know we're right.

Why God lets bad things happen. Like droughts and cancer.

If the Bible suggests that God used to talk directly to people - like with a voice and not just signs - why did he suddenly stop?

If heaven reunites us with loved ones, what is the reunification protocol for people who have been been married more than once?

Why, at communion, the blood of Christ tasted like wine instead of, well, blood.

About the inherent conflict between God's unconditional love and the relegation of "lost" souls to an eternity of physical torture.


In the validity of theories yielded by centuries of scientific curiosity and study for the origins of the world, the universe, maybe even the multiverse.

In nuance and relativism.

In recognizing the adherence of the gospels and other religious narratives to The Hero's Journey.

In the law of the Conservation of Energy, which plays a part in my hunch that when we die, we die...but that the energy that sustained our lives simply changes form - - that we don't go up to heaven or down to hell, but simply "out" into the world again. It is what leads me to believe that any life after death is not conscious, but energetic. And that's beautiful to me.

In the idea that that which is before me is already holy.

In nature's brutal and elegant design.

In the beauty of all ways of believing that promote peace and understanding, and do not espouse hate, violence, or discrimination.

In letting go of the need to know anything for sure.

In doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.

30x30: Observed Methods for Falling in Love

These are ways, that I've either witnessed or experienced, of falling love. 

So far, I can report that falling in love is not limited to love felt toward a romantic partner. Also, falling in love can can happen on the scale of atoms in the most microscopic of increments - or it can happen on the scale of super novas, big bright, and cosmic. Sometimes it happens both of these ways at once, which I have always found very exciting and confusing. The list is not exhaustive. I am always searching for more.

By having your first real argument and realizing that the only reason you're arguing is because you actually care. A lot.

By being busy doing everything else and not thinking about love at all because you have the thing ready for work, or the show ready to open, or come through on that thing you said you'd do, or practice, or take some "you" time, or other such activities that allow you to be you doing whatever it is that you do, at which point you are incidentally your most charming and beautiful and able to be caught off guard.

By sharing music with each other.

By happening to notice the tiniest of things, and they happen to take your breath away. Like the way a breeze blows through her hair. Like a way of sighing. Like laugh lines. And crows feet. Or the lilt in his voice. And how she does the thing she does so well.

By learning from them.

By taking care of them when they need to be taken care of.

By sharing a casual meal with them in a crowded restaurant and discovering through conversation that they kind of have a thing for someone else, so if you're gonna make a move, it better be now.

By doing things for them.

By listening to them.

By working on something important together like, in the case of my sister and me, choreographing a rollerskate dance to Mariah Carey's Hero when we were kids.

By recognizing the better version of yourself that they make you want to be.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Monday, March 31, 2014

30x30: Failure and Other Points of Pride

The first F I ever got was in 3rd grade, long division. That shit just didn't make sense.

I was devastated. I still remember the feeling in my body. I felt ill. I felt dizzy. This wasn't right. I was good student. I was smart. I did not get Fs. Fs were for my classmates Keyon and Alicia. Fs were not for me.

But here it was. Big red F. Betraying me. Mocking me. It was embarassing. I couldn't let my parents know. The test had to be returned the next school day with a parent's signature. I'd gotten the test back on Friday. I had until Monday to make this right.

I wasn't the kind of kid to forge my mom's signature. (Not until high school, anyway). I figured the best course of action was to zip it up in my backpack and ask Jesus to turn it into a B. I tucked it away and didn't look at it again until Sunday night. On Sunday, just before dinner, I got my backpack from the closet, slowly unzipped it, and cautiously withdrew the test, with the full expectation that Jesus, at some point over the weekend, had improved my grade.

He hadn't. I started to cry. I had never failed anything before. I showed it to my mom, all weepy. I failed. My mom kinda laughed. She found it slightly amusing that I was so distressed over something that was ultimately insignificant, then sat down and helped me understand where all those ridiculous numbers were supposed to go. Happy ending.

But I've never liked failing. Still don't. And who does? To not get the thing you want, the thing you've been trying for, the sometimes critical thing, the thing you've given blood sweat and tears for, the thing that others might be depending on you for? Failing sucks.

But it's also a rule. It's inevitable; it's unavoidable. And a lot of the time, it's good. Psychologists say that failing tests us in a way that is essential for our development. When we fail, we learn to cope with less than ideal circumstances and we're better for it. 

They also say that those who haven't experienced failure have never had the chance to learn to cope with it, grow from it and, most importantly, have never been tested beyond what they're already capable of. Failure, it seems, is essential for growth. 

And! Failure is the thing makes success possible in the first place. There's so much information in failure. When I fail - in the rehearsal room maybe, or in an argument - I figure out what didn't work and get ideas about what I can do differently next time, and next time I'm better. When scientists fail in an experiment, they get that much closer to solving the mysteries that help us understand the world and, hopefully, help us lead better lives. Without failure, we'd still be in the Dark Ages. 

By failing, I slowly gain the potential to succeed more exquisitely. Failure, it turns out, is kinda the best.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Sunday, March 30, 2014

30x30: What I Imagine (For my friends who have recently suffered loss)

We are always coming and going. 

While we are here, if we're lucky, we come to love one another so deeply so that when it's time for one of us to go, it is as if half your own life is wrenched away. The times I've suffered loss have, so far, been few and far between. Still, I know it comes, and it must and it should.

In imagining loss, I think of the void that is felt. I imagine the grief, and I imagine the warmth and comfort that those nearby will surely give.

I imagine too, a well of gratitude. For having had the good fortune to encounter such a life, touch it, be touched by it, be impacted by it, slowly like a river carving out a gorge, or suddenly, like a meteor upon a great expanse of land.

I am imagining the quiet and the ache and the remembering and the hard-won, eventual peace.

And I am imagining how everything goes on. Unlikely as it may be. How the sun burns. How the grass shoots up again, eventually, and how the oil must be changed and the dogs must be walked and fed. I imagine how the energy just shifts and goes out again. How it cycles. How it comes back to you.

I am imagining echoes.

I am imagining how, in one another, we go on.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Friday, March 28, 2014

30x30: La Vie Boheme, Redux

Rent might've made being a so-called starving artist look like fun and shabby-chic games, but I don't imagine that there's too much that's fun about living in squalor and being chronically broke, cold, and hungry.

The friends that have populated my life for the last ten years are artists of every sort sort - actors, musicians, poets, illustrators - and lots of us are the total Boho type. Still, my best guess is that most of us do alright. Sure a bunch of us steal wifi; we have roommates and keep strange hours and shop thrift and laugh (to keep from crying) at the prospect of ever saving for retirement.

But most of us are pretty damn serious about what we do. A lot of us have got degrees in our art. Some of us have families. And all of us are working our butts off, making our art, teaching, working flex jobs for which we are often overqualified that subsidize our commitment to our mediums. 

We're everywhere.

We make your lattes, we transfer your phone calls, we nanny your kids, we attend to your customer service needs, we work thankless adjunct faculty positions at the universities and community colleges. Some of the most devastatingly talented people I've ever met are the ones quietly slinging grande soy caramel macchiatos with an extra shot, and most people would never ever know it.

When we're not working to make ends meet, we're working to make something that means something. We're curating a multimedia installation; we're choreographing a site-specific performance; we're writing the thing that, two years from now, will be sold out Off-Broadway. All the time we're hustling and grinding, hustling and grinding.

The New Bohemia is about the work. It isn't about a low-rent milieu, dilettantes, and starvation. It isn't about "the scene." The New Bohemia is about vision, and the fearless, self-sacrificing work undertaken towards its realization.

It's the work. No one's breaking into choreographed song and dance. Well, sometimes we are, but it's usually part of the show, and we've worked for countless hours to execute it perfectly.  

It's about the work. The rest of "la vie" comes, and is true, whatever its trappings. It doesn't matter whether he's wearing plaid, leather, or khaki, whether she lives in a condo, bungalow, or above a nail salon; the work's getting done, it's valid.

It's about the hustle and the grind and the hustle and the grind.

And occasionally, the glory.

And then right back to the grind.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Thursday, March 27, 2014

30x30: On Endings

"Only for Now," the closing number in the deliciously inappropriate puppet musical Avenue Q talks about how nothing lasts forever - not sadness, not your friends, and not your hair. They sing:

                               Each time you smile, 
                       it'll only last awhile.
                       Life may be scary, 
                       but it's only temporary.

Of course, most of us learned this truth at an early age, but it's any easy one to forget in the day-to-day task of living. 

It has been easy, especially through my twenties, to feel as though the circumstances surrounding any situation are fixed, lasting, and of the utmost importance. I've indulged in moments of despair that turned out to be fleeting, and moved blindly through other moments whose beauty and significance I didn't take time to recognize. 

But when I remember that every single thing is momentary - every relationship I will ever have, every breakfast I'll ever enjoy, every argument I'll have, or piece of music I'll hear - I see my problems in a clearer perspective and they seem smaller. Or I see beauty or feel joy, and just want to let it drop down into my bones. 

Living every moment completely is impossible. The experience of being alive is too rich and consuming to take in everything all the time. If we did, nothing would ever be accomplished; we'd be paralyzed by the depth and immensity of it all. So we ignore some things, we have to. But I can, if I choose, look up from my iphone, stop rushing for a minute, and look at everything that is going by so quickly - and be a part of that instead.

Everything is fleeting and everything will end. I'm trying to live in such a way that all of this ephemera will add up to a satisfying ending. I know that the actual ending is ultimately out of my control, but I hope that everything along the way will make the end feel right.

Favorite author Dave Eggers says it best:

And we will be ready, at the end of every day will be ready, will not say no to anything, will try to stay awake while everyone is sleeping, will not sleep, will make the shoes with the elves, will breathe deeply all the time, breathe in all the air full of glass and nails and blood, will breathe it and drink it, so rich, so when it comes we will not be angry, will be content, tired enough to go, gratefully, will shake hands with everyone, bye, bye, and then pack a bag, some snacks, and go to the volcano.

From A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

30x30: A Catalogue of Fears, Ages 4-30

Fear can confuse. It can blind. It can paralyze. 

It's not good for your health; it's not good for your life. I have found, however, that a certain level of awareness of my specific fears is good. When I can name my fears - when I can call them out - I gain power over them, rather than the other way around. I wasted a lot of time as a kid being afraid of things I couldn't name. I wonder, sometimes, what I would have been capable of if I'd had the courage then to call them out.

AGES 4-7: Getting lost in the grocery store.

AGES 5-6: Accidentally falling into a pit full of quicksand. (Like you do).

AGES 5-8: Falling down the steep, wooded hill behind the playground because there's probably snakes down there.

AGES 5-11: Going into the basement by myself.

AGES 8-12: Drowning.

AGES 8-18: Getting a bad grade.

AGES 8-30. My mother getting cancer from cigarettes.

AGES 11-15: Saying/doing something stupid and embarrassing myself.

AGES 12-16: Someone seeing me slip a pad/tampon into my pocket before going to the bathroom.

AGES 21-30: The prospect of not making enough money to live on.

AGES: 22-30: The prospect of not feeling ultimately successful as an actor over time.

AGES 24-27: All the fears that go along with questioning one's faith and religion.

AGES 25-30: Wrinkles.

AGES: 25-30: Getting breast cancer.

AGES: 26-30: Simultaneously running out of gas in my car and charge on my cell phone while driving in an unfamiliar place.

AGES: 26-30: Disappointing the people who care about me the most.

AGES: 27-30: The prospect of feeling unaccomplished over time.

AGES 29-30: The prospect of Bad Credit.

AGES 29-30: That Mitsi (my car 14 year old car) will die before I can afford a new one.

AGE 30: That something amazing and wonderful, but terrifyingly life-changing, will happen.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

30x30: On Being Black

I've written before about my cultural identity and legacy - 

about honoring the struggle and sacrifices of the generations that came before mine; about how I'm only here, free and happy, doing what I'm doing because of what they did; about making good on my own life so their fight won't have been in vain.

I've been thinking a lot about their fight.

The first generation of black people in America fought simply to survive.
Many subsequent generations fought for freedom. After that, the fight was for equal rights. And today? What is the fight today? How close are we to the place towards which the runaways fled, which the migrants of The Great Migration sought, towards which the marchers marched?

I spent a long time feeling estranged from my cultural identity. In my school days, ignorant peers made sure I knew that I was never black "enough," and it has only been within the last decade that I've come to understand and love all the ways in which my blackness is true and shapes who I am.

From this vantage point, I can see the new battles more clearly. They are subtler battles now.

There is the fight against a system of privilege that is biased against the non-white and the non-wealthy.

There is the fight to not be perceived as a probable fuck-up or likely threat when wearing a hoodie or listening to hip hop.

There is the fight to be perceived as not all the same - as individuals in a diverse group.

There is the fight to be included in a wider perception of beauty.

These new battles are tricky. Amid the entitled tears of Abigail Fischer and cries of bullshit reverse racism, these battles require sensitivity, conviction, precision, patience, and allies. It is a new frontier, one that's easy to shrink from, but we shouldn't. We should continue, too, towards that place were the runaways, migrants, and marchers wore a path.

And along the way, we have to pick up the mantle and advocate the causes of the "other": of the immigrants, of the disabled, of the mentally ill, of the gay, trans, and queer, of the working poor. Back in the day, King said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

I cannot ask for my place at the table, and keep another from her own. Today, my identity, my blackness, is as much about joining hands with those beside me as it is about pride I feel in the hope and fortitude of my ancestry.

It is both of things things together. It is taking hands and climbing.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Monday, March 24, 2014

30x30: Look Closer

Living in the city, I can get pretty misanthropic at times. I work a 9-5 at a desk downtown, and going downtown is not my favorite thing. Neither are desks.

I commute twice a day, during the city's two rush hours. The bus, to the train, then a ten minute walk from Clark Street to Michigan Avenue. Rush hour faces are everyone's worst faces. Rush hour selves are frequently everyone's worst selves. And offices are these liminal spaces where our inherent humanity goes in and out like a bad radio signal.

Commuting and desk working, it's easy for me to start seeing the world through poop-colored glasses, and it's extraordinarily easy, in these less than ideal circumstances, to encounter a person who might ordinarily be awesome, but mistake them for obnoxious, or selfish, or oblivious, or annoying. 

I did not like who I was becoming, feeling this way about people every day, practically all day.

On one occasion, though, I was riding the bus and happened to glance at someone with such incredibly expressive eyes that I couldn't look away. Looking at him, I felt as though I knew his entire life story in an instant. It was disconcerting. I wasn't prepared to feel so confronted, and made so aware of a stranger beyond his taking up space on the bus. But what was, at first, unsettling then mellowed into a feeling like comfort - something like feeling the ground under my feet and being able to breathe where before I had been holding my breath.

It was like being that much more alive in a time and space that requires a certain deadening.

So I started doing it on purpose - looking into the eyes of other strangers, trying to see who they really were, beyond just somebodies going somewheres.

There is an art to this. It is wildly creepy to just stare at people unabashedly in public spaces. You've got a solid 3-4 seconds before anyone who's not asleep or on their iphone starts to sense your gaze and catches you looking at them.

But in 3-4 seconds, if you're really looking, you can see a lot. It's all there. It's remarkable. Among these strangers that I once so easily dismissed, I see whole stories shining out through their eyes.

A lot of times I see anxiety. Sometimes I see fear. At the end of the day there's a lot of relief or anticipation. Sometimes resignation. 

But what I see most is hope.

And on the days when the noise and the push and the drudgery of it all make me and everyone else seem like little Sisyphusian ants, I just look at the person across from me, and wait to see their story, and know that I'm not alone.

Original Illustration by Isabella Rotman

Sunday, March 23, 2014

30x30: A Rose by Any Other Name Would...Not be a Rose


I hated my name, and since the age of four, have made several unsuccessful attempts at changing it.

Attempt 1:

Preschool. I was inspired by my first ever viewing of The Wizard of Oz. The next day, I went to school and instructed my classmates and teachers to call me by my new name: Glinda. They wouldn't. When beckoned, I tried ignoring them until they called me by my new, correct name, but they continued calling me McKenzie because they had forgotten that I had changed it in the first place. Glinda was short-lived.

Attempt 2:

Middle school. Favorite color: blue. I painted my entire room blue, and when my mother put down new carpet, I asked for it to be blue. I wore blue nail polish. I also decided that my name should now be Indigo. (Yes, I was that kid). 

I took a more nuanced approach this time. I only told people my name was Indigo if I was meeting them for the first time. This way, I figured, in a few years, everyone I knew would eventually know me as Indigo without having to ask anyone to awkwardly switch from McKenzie. But then I kept forgetting that my new name was Indigo. It was a confusing time for everyone.

All I wanted was a new name, a name that was pretty and not clunky like McKenzie. No one could spell it right, my own aunt always called me McKinley, and spell check always suggested that my name was actually "Macaroni" or "Magazine."

But over the years, amid the procession of introductions, sign-ins, sign-ups, and signatures, I began to think my name was kind of cool. There weren't too many others who shared my name, and I even began to hear the music in it - the hum of the first M, the percussive K, a sensual N, the electric buzz of the Z. I began to think that maybe these sounds, which I'd heard over and over again since infancy, had played a part in shaping me. I began to think that if my name were Ann or Barbara or Glinda or Indigo, I'd feel like a different person. I know that I would come to hear the music and beauty in those names as well, but I would be a different version of myself.

The beginning of feeling like my name was alright was the beginning of feeling like I was alright.

It's important for a person, especially a girl person, to be able to say his or her name from a pair of full lungs and with no apology. It is important to be able to announce clearly, and unequivocally, who you are and that you are. It is how many things begin.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Saturday, March 22, 2014

30x30: Ten Reasons Why Art

Art in American culture tends to be under appreciated. Artists too. 

When you're someone who has dedicated your life to art, it's hard to feel validated when society doesn't seem to place intrinsic value on your work. Reminders about the importance of what we, as artists do are important, as are reminders to the general public of the importance of the art that they consume. 

For faltering days, here's a handy list of reasons why art:

1. If it's in you to do, then you should find a way to do it, then do it.

2. Your perspective, your vision, your idea, your voice, is valid.

3. No one's going to do it for you, but someone might beat you to it, so get on it.

4. Art exalts the ordinary.

5. At its best, art resists the status quo, and compels us toward progress. In this way, art can be dangerous.

6. Even if there are no new stories, the world deserves your version.

7. Because art and artists are important parts of the economy.

8. Art gives expression to the vast and often ineffable experience of existence.

9. If it speaks to one person (including the artist), it was worth it.

10. Art let's us know that, whatever our experience in the world, we're not alone.

Original illustration, a self portrtait by Isabella Rotman

Friday, March 21, 2014

30x30: The City is a Fickle Lover

One day I'm gonna live cliffside in California, in a house - doesn't have to be big - that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. 

I'll drink lots of wine, have a big dog and a moody cat, and go around barefoot most of the time. That, or a house set deep into some woods somewhere where deer will wander onto the property with predictable regularity.

In the meantime, Chicago will do. Its beautiful summers and civic pride make up for its homicidal winters and downtown parking rates that require the ritual sacrifice of your first born.

I grew up in a suburb, though, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. But by the time I was thirteen, I thought the 'burbs were pretty lame. I hated how everything was so residential. I hated the chains and the cul-de-sacs. I hated that almost anywhere you wanted to go, you had to drive.

I wanted the city! I wanted to walk places. I wanted fast, and open late, and full sidewalks, and cultural gems, and night life, and weirdos, and tall buildings. 

A century ago, only two of every ten people lived in cities. Today, more than half of all the people in the world live in cities. That's a lot of people all mooshed together on various parts of the planet, and for the last eight years, I've been happy to be among them.

I've loved the lights and street noise and the push and the sweep of it all. The cities in which I've lived have been multicellular organisms, with wills and consciousness all their own, with us urbanites pulsing like blood through its veins.

But lately I've been noticing just how loud the noise can be sometimes. And how dirty the snow gets not too long after it's fallen. And the landmines potholes. And the corruption. And how hard it can be to get on. And the devastating circumstances under which some city dwellers are forced to live.

And seeing all that makes me miss the roads that cut through the woods back home. And the deer in the backyard. And a quiet loud enough to hear the crickets. And a dark thick enough to see the stars.

I don't know that I will ever seek out the suburbs as a place to live, but I am beginning to understand its allure - the relative ease of suburban life, especially if one's family includes children. Like Neil Young says, there comes a time.

For now though, the city and I will keep going steady. The city still sweeps me off my feet. The city is a good kisser. She has given me such a life.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Thursday, March 20, 2014

30x30: On Regrets

For some time now, a major tenet of my life has been that if I must have regrets, I'd much rather regret having done something, having tried something, than regret having done nothing.

I don't like thinking about what could have been "if I had only...". It's sad and a poor use of energy. So I'm trying to live in such a way that I need never wonder...or at least rarely wonder. 

I like to know what's on the other side, however promising or however foolish. Maybe it's something spectacular, maybe it's something that will blow up in my face. Maybe it's something spectacular that will eventually blow up in my face, but either way, at least I'll know.

Studying acting and subsequently shaping my life around the pursuit of such a career hasn't exactly been the best choice for security and financial stability, especially in this brave new world of recession, debt, and a level of economic disparity that frankly hurts my feelings. To be fair, no career towards which I've ever been inclined is guaranteed money-maker; writers, teachers, and freelance photographers rarely come out on top of the wealth heap. But I knew that if I didn't at least try to climb the mountain that is a career in art, that it would always loom in the periphery of my life of which I would spend the rest wondering and what-iffing.

So, hell, I starting climbing. No regrets. And if I ever come to a place where it all starts to fall apart, and the ground beneath me gives way, at least I'll know what the mountain was made of, and I'll never need look up and wonder.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

30x30: Sex

I grew up mainly Catholic so sex conversations were always taboo. 

My Catholic high school sex ed basically consisted of being shown graphic images of various STIs (they were called STDs in my day) and being told that we were becoming women now and should shower regularly. Other than that, sex convos were pretty much avoided and referred to as something dirty, dangerous, and sinful.

Growing up, sex was so taboo that even today I, as a liberal-minded, sex-positive urbanite, am still trepidatious to write a post about it. Still, in reflecting on the ideas and experiences that have been significant parts of my last 30 years, I'd be remiss and not a little prudish to leave out (*whispered*) sex.

It wasn't until I heard Paula Cole's song Feelin Love from the City of Angels soundtrack for the first time that I even began to recognize myself as someone to whom sexuality was applicable. I was doing a movement exercise in a theatre workshop, and I found my movements becoming sensual in a way over which I felt I had no control. I couldn't even make out the lyrics at the time, but there was something in the music that moved me in a different place. It was like suddenly being...awake. And aware. Was that what it was like when "Eve ate the fruit?" If so, who could blame her?

As I got older though, needless to say, all the STI pics from sex ed made me very cautious, and my initial ideas about sex were very Puritanical. As a kid, I once vowed that I would never have sex except in instances when I was actively trying to conceive a child. (I know; I've always been a bit of an extremist). And I thought of all of the more creative things that one might do with a partner as, at best, questionable, and at worst degrading.

Luckily, by going to college and spending lots of time with theatre people, my ideas about what's good and healthy and beautiful came to include a lot more than they did when I was in Catholic high school. Where before sex had simply been a necessary means for procreation and the gay kind was practically a capital offense, I slowly got to recognize sexuality as a way of connecting with, enjoying, comforting, and loving another person deeply, viscerally, and without the need for too many words. I got to appreciate its immense and varied potential for expression and meaning, among consenting adults who respect one another.

Aside from the anatomy and physiology of it, which we had also learned in high school, I finally got to understand sex in and of itself. Paula's lyrics started making sense.

Still, I've been a something of a serial monogamist, and growing up as I did, I've never had sex with someone new without having a conversation about it first. Salt-N-Pepa's Let's Talk About Sex must've had a strong impact on me. My tendency toward caution pretty much ruled out one-night-stands and other such Millennial and Gen X merit badges. But then again, having been born in the panic of the AIDS epidemic, mine is the first generation for whom sex has always carried with it the risk of death.

I've never once been sexually attracted to someone without first finding them appealing in my heart. That's just how I work, psychophysically. Perhaps because of that, I've been fortunate enough to have all of my experiences carry meaning, trust, and vulnerability. Where before I worried that I was missing out on the fun of less...measured experiences, I now recognize that with my temperament, I might not've had that much fun anyway.

I'm grateful now to be married to someone with whom I have a multifaceted and unparalleled connection. You couldn't convince me that I'm missing out if you had me brainwashed A Clockwork Orange-style. As for any activities that I never got around to, I'm happy to have any and all of them vicariously through the advice-seekers of Savage Love.

Original illustration by Isabella Rotman