There's been a bit of a scandal at one of the universities, involving teachers behaving inappropriately with students. A fun experiment is to ask people what they think, whereby you learn some things they might not otherwise volunteer. If I were a better experimenter I'd keep my own thoughts to myself but it's hard. Finally I guess I'll just write them down here.
I think that there is an emerging perception of women as helpless victims with little to no agency, and I am not a fan of this perception. I think that while men tend to have more power (physically, if nothing else), it's disingenuous to pretend like women do not have access to the tools, including vocabulary, to get out of doing things that they do not want to do, when the playing field is otherwise fairly level. That is, when a man and a woman are at the same approximate social level and a man tries to behave inappropriately, I believe that a woman can usually reject the attempt with minimal repercussions. I don't say always, but usually. I've definitely done things because it was easier to do than to deal with the fallout of not doing them, and I've regretted those choices, the choice of ease in the moment over my own preference, but I perceive it as a choice. I don't think it's helpful to see women as always at the mercy of men, unable to speak up for themselves, but I recognize that not everyone agrees. I'm talking here about relations outside of the workplace/ school, where there is always a power imbalance between bosses/employees and teachers/students.
I also think that there is a view, possibly more prevalent in Europe than in the US, that people in positions of (real or perceived) power are also human beings who want and deserve to be treated as such. That they may be in positions of power in one area but fallible, imperfect, equal or even weaker, in other areas. I think there is a greater tendency here for bosses to socialize with their employees, teachers with their students, etc., outside of the workplace, in an effort to make that imbalance of power in one arena somewhat less crushing. I don't think the intention is to bring the power into the social relationship, but to humanize the powerful.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that some of my oldest and dearest friendships were born when there was a power differential (my boss, my student, etc.). So this may affect my view of things somewhat, because I see the lines between power and non-power as blurry and mutable.
THAT SAID: Comments on appearance, particularly the aspects of appearance that are not chosen, have no business in the workplace or amongst people who are not otherwise friends (and "socializing" does not make you "friends" and if you are not sure, assume you are not friends). Sex should not be transactional except for sex workers. Extra credit can be earned by doing tasks related to the field, not to sexual favors or even friendship. Friendship can happen, but it can't be traded for advancement in the field; nor can sexual attraction. Power can feel sexual, if you're tilted that way, but using power to get sex is something people do when they can't get it any other way, and that's at minimum distasteful, and offers of sex in exchange for power need to be politely rebuffed. When you are in a position of power, the people who have to defer to that power should be as attractive to you as when my friend's dog was humping my leg last night: they're cute as heck, but they're a different species. Everyone honestly knows this and sentences like "Oh, we can't even say hello anymore?" are the kinds of things a predator says and you know that, so knock it off.
THAT SAID: I reject on principle the idea that someone who complains some time after an event is somehow culpable for not complaining at the time. I had very bad things happen to me that I thought I had caused and was too embarrassed to talk about for a long time because I would have had to acknowledge that I caused them (I did not). I had men in positions of power tell me secrets that I thought I had to keep. I know better now, but they were (correctly) counting on my not knowing. I felt vaguely sorry for them, or vaguely uncertain about what to do, or vaguely special for drawing their attention. There was nothing vague about it for them.
Are there gray areas? Of course there are. But I want some people to stop advancing a premise that implies that women never want sex, never want power, never have power, never consider using what power they have, and I really, really want people to stop acting like they don't see lines where the lines very much are, or that they're not in a position to stop things that cross those lines. "We're all adults" they said, in their defense. Excellent: act like that, then.
I tried to read Don DeLillo's "White Noise" at some point in the late 80s or early 90s, I don't remember. It was published in 1985 and it wasn't then but not too long after. There were a lot of clever post-modernist books floating around my periphery then, and some I liked and some I just didn't. John and I would go rounds on them and I wanted to like what he liked or know why I didn't, so I'd try. Bret Easton Ellis. Mark Leyner. I liked more the older stuff - Vonnegut, Stoppard. Not a lot of women on the list in either direction. Anyway. I read "White Noise" and that was, as I remember now, the beginning of my quitting that kind of writing, the spectacular warp of a sentence that served no purpose other than to marvel at its own warp. There's a scene when two men are circling each other and talking about Elvis and Hitler and it is very quotable, and also very meaningful because it's a commentary on the blurring of pop culture and human history or something equally important and I just felt tired.
One July day in 1993 I was driving to a job, this was when I was working in the Bay Area and going around to elementary schools giving speeches about multicultural education which seemed very meaningful but were really just the foot in the door for the sales company I worked for. That is, I was doing a good thing, maybe a very good thing, but for a fairly weak or even bad reason. On the way to work I drove through Richmond, the town next to mine, where there was a train yard and there was an explosion, and I drove through a cloud of toxic smoke. I went and gave my presentation with tears streaming down my face, and then I went out to the parking lot of the school and threw up, and then I drove home, and they'd closed the freeway so I took surface streets because I didn't somehow grasp the situation. I drove through a cloud of poisonous gas that was engulfing the place where I live. Twenty-four thousand people were affected, there were lawsuits, but I didn't think that way; I thought: this is very unpleasant. By the time I got home I'd caught up with things on the news and I understood that it was more than just a cloud but I didn't know what I could do. I didn't have health insurance so it didn't seem like I could go to the hospital. I took a cool shower and went to bed and I guess I was okay, because I don't remember much else other than a sense of vague embarrassment for having thrown up in the parking lot.
And then later when I was talking to John I called it an "airborne toxic event", which is what it's called in the book when a train crash releases toxins into the air, and we laughed because it was in a book and then it was real and I thought about re-reading the book to learn more about the future but I didn't because it didn't feel like a wry commentary on the possible state of things or whatever, it felt too close to home. And of course now we know, if we didn't know then, that such things happen and happen again, past present and future.
Noah Baumbach directed a film version of "White Noise" and I have to tell you the internal dialogue on whether to watch it was exhausting even for me. I have complicated feelings about Noah Baumbach because I think he's clever in the same self-congratulatory way that yes yes it's wonderful but I'm tired of it. On the other hand, Greta Gerwig is with him and she seems like someone who wouldn't be with a bore. On the other hand, he seems to have left Jennifer Jason Leigh for her and I like Jennifer Jason Leigh. I can't ignore the whole "younger woman" thing either which I'm sure is a very unique and special circumstance for each person but you do see it piling up behind all the dudes who are sooner or later problematic. And I didn't love "Marriage Story". And I don't really like Adam Driver, I understand that you might but I don't; don't take it personally. But I like Greta Gerwig. And Andre Benjamin bonus (though he isn't in it very much, it turns out). Plus Danny Elfman on the soundtrack.
Friends, I fell asleep four times and had to wake up and go back and try again. I can see how well done it was etc and there were certainly parts I enjoyed very much and I even forgive them for leaving out the barn, which was one of the parts in the book I liked. My takeaway is that I do really like listening about death and dying but to a much lesser extent listening about fear of death and dying, and basically this was two hours of that fear, even more that than the "we're wasting our lives looking at things instead of living" that I got from the book. I'd recommend it for insomnia. That's about that.
The increasingly atrocious facebook still has the "memories" feature, which I enjoy. I treat it kind of like a horoscope: a few years ago on this day I was thinking about this or that, so maybe today will also be a this or that day. Sometimes it is.
Four years ago I went to Vienna to do standup, my first time out of town. I was very excited, 7 whole minutes! I invited some of my friends to come -- I was doing this relatively new (to me) thing and I wanted very much to have the support of people who already liked me there, one friend from Brno and a few locals as well. Despite not being from Vienna I was a "bringer" and a good one at that, and still am I guess. I think there were six other performers, five men and one woman. They talked about dating, girlfriends, living in their parents' basements, masturbating, fast food, shit. It was... not different from most of the folks doing the central Europe comedy loop. They passed a hat and my friends put in money like the supportive pals they are. At the end of the show the other performers (just the men, if I remember correctly) divided up the money in the hat, and I watched them split it. I stood there awkwardly for a bit, and then left, because I had a bus to catch. My Brno friend told me, as we ran for the bus: Never let that happen again, that they don't pay you.
At the time I tried to justify it to myself: I was new, maybe they thought I wasn't that good. Thinking back on that night, a lot is unclear to me because I've come really quite far since then but what I do hasn't changed much. I was trying, and I am still trying, to do the kind of comedy I think is funny, which is the kind that makes me think. I don't think jokes are bad; I just don't generally like them as much as stories. I'm pretty simple: I like comedy that doesn't make me feel bad (unless I should), that connects ideas in ways that surprise me, and that makes me laugh. I am better at articulating what I want to do and I hope I am better at doing it. But in retrospect, I don't think I was bad back then, not so bad that I shouldn't be paid when people are paid. I was, though, and still am (though in waves, rather than consistently) really uncertain of how others see me and sometimes I'm not sure when it's a situation where I'm supposed to walk away or speak up.
I am sometimes so angry about how unfair things are in performance and specifically in comedy, but also in life, and that's not new. Sometimes I think about how hard it is for me to ask for what I want, and sometimes I ask and I still don't get it, and I watch the same hands drop what I asked for in the lap of someone else and I have to bite entire holes in my tongue. Sometimes I think that's how the world works and I just want to stay home and never go out again. Sometimes I think that if that's how it is then I have to work harder, so that whoever comes after me will get to keep their tongues intact and be stronger, funnier, happier.
It was nice, though, to have that memory pop up and think: I get paid pretty well in Vienna now. And I will bet that even if I haven't changed what I'm doing much, I have improved considerably more over the last four years than the rest of the people who performed that night. I think I'm funnier. I might even be having more fun.
For the last few days I've been feeling something I'd best classify as "low-grade rage" that starts shortly after I wake up and continues through the day. I've been meditating again, thank goodness, and so part of me sits next to this rage and watches it like a dark cloud passing across the sky or more realistically like someone else's toddler, which is to say: I'm disrupted by it, but I'm also disconnected in what I think is a healthy way. "Oh, look, it's rage. Try not to hurt yourself?"
I'm angry at things that are not as good as I think they could or should be. Comedy nights where the hosts are not in control of the atmosphere and it's therefore unpleasant for performers and audiences. Just makes me mad. Yesterday I was extra annoyed Adam Gopnik for writing a crappy article about Joni Mitchell that ran in the New Yorker, a magazine that set my early standards for editing. This morning I was stomping around because there are "holistic" dentists in Brno who offer tooth bleaching and mercury filling removal and they're getting advertised by people who should know better.
And there's a part of my annoyance that is about why people attend these comedy nights, permit these articles, visit these dentists. I think I'm used to this feeling as one of jealousy: Why are you paying attention to THAT when you could be paying attention to ME?
Every time I've asked WHY I get told that I don't need the attention and I'm gradually accepting that people perceive that need differently than I do but in any case it's not personal. Some years ago a promoter who I consider a friend came to an event of mine, woke up the next morning and published an article about a competitor. This felt like a punch. And it's happened so many times since, in large and small ways, that I honestly can't count. It stops hurting as much because I can't honestly register that many blows. Sometimes I ask "why" or try to point it out and sometimes even that doesn't seem worth it.
So that jealousy is a recurring theme for me; I'm acknowledging that. And this may still be part of that, although it's quieter. It's more on the lines of "Why are you, a person/organization I respect, supporting a thing I dislike?" To be clear, it's usually fine with me that people like things I don't like; not liking is different from disliking. As long as things don't actively cause harm I rarely bother to dislike them. I guess you could argue that Gopnik isn't causing harm by being a douchey writer but he gets a platform that other delightful and talented writers then don't get, which is a kind of harm, and I'm mad at the New Yorker for failing to rein him in and thus not living up to my perceived standards of them.
This dovetails with another thing I've been working on. I tend to think that when my friends (or actually anyone) with whom I generally align disagree with me, they've been influenced by someone else and I direct my unhappiness with this disagreement at that someone else. Like: Let's say a friend and I both like the colors yellow and purple. But my friend also likes the color brown, which I don't because it reminds me of poo. If my friend has another friend who likes brown, I am angry at my friend's friend for influencing them to like the poo color; I imagine that absent that nefarious influence they would know what an ugly poo color brown is. What I'm working on is realizing that actually some of my friends like things that I don't like just because they like them; that they do things I wouldn't do just because they do; that the "culprit" is themselves -- not that they've been misled from their normal "correct" (aligned with me) path but that they're on a completely different path that only overlaps with mine sometimes. A poo-colored path.
Acknowledging this feels lonely and then of course the other part of my brain chimes in that one was always lonely and that knowing it doesn't make it more or less so. But that may be the source of my anger, actually.
Anyway, something I've been thinking about.
Mark brought the steaming coffee closer to his face, cupping both hands around the warm ceramic. Rubbing his thumb absentmindedly across the chipped edge, he stared through the steam and imagined a slightly different world on the other side.
Many worlds. He’d first read about it in high school, probably. Dismissed it at the time as sci-fi. Well, not dismissed. He loved sci-fi in high school for the escapism of it, the round-breasted pneumatic women especially, and the heroes who he could picture himself becoming. In college he learned that the future depicted in science fiction was more like a metaphor for the present than a realistic future. He still loved it.
But now it possessed him, specifically the idea of multiple worlds. The “many-worlds interpretation”. Infinite universes. In this interpretation, every interaction could result in a split into two worlds. The world where Schrodinger’s cat lives, and the one where it died.
Mark knows it’s supposed to explain quantum mechanics and not relationships, but he draws such comfort from it that he can’t let it go. What if all the decisions he’d made – good ones, bad ones – what if they weren’t really decisions at all? This Mark was on a branch where he’d made one decision, and another slightly different Mark was on a branch having made another choice. The world proceeding forth from each decision would be slightly different. And what happened after that might mean the worlds diverged so much that there was no point in wondering “What if?” anymore. Somehow he finds this so comforting, to imagine that some version of himself had taken the road more traveled, and had wound up somewhere else, and thus it wasn’t that he’d made a wrong decision, he wasn’t missing anything at all; some other version of him was on the path he’d chosen not to follow.
There was a world, then, where they’d stayed together. A world where they’d stayed together and Emma hadn’t died, a happily-ever-after world, maybe. Also a world where they’d stayed together and she died anyway, and he wondered whether that pain would be worse. Probably not worse; probably just different.
Going further back, there might even be a world where they’d never met. Aren’t meetings so coincidental? If butterfly wings could cause a tornado, surely a missed bus or some other small thing could create a world – could create entire worlds – in which they hadn’t met. There’s a Mark somewhere who never met Emma, who met someone who found him easier to love, and who knows. Maybe if he hadn’t felt like a failure so much of the time, he’d be happier. He’d be more successful for sure. He’d feel more successful anyway, and isn’t that really the measure of success?
Who would he be without her? Who would he be without anyone? Sometimes he pictured himself like a lump of clay, easily molded into shapes by everyone he met, no definition of his own. Other times, he felt like a pinball, banging up against different people, sometimes a bell dings and sometimes he just buzzes on, nothing changes. And then you lose.
There was a world where he drank tea instead of coffee. A world where everything he owned wasn’t cracked or tarnished. A world where he hadn’t met Emma and so her death meant nothing to him. Worlds with different people, not yet disappointed in him. Somewhere, even, a world with all new faces. Not this one, though.
*In response to a writing prompt ("new faces"). Meh.
Last night, sitting on the balcony and watching the birds swoop across the sky in waves, like schools of fish, and trying to decide if that's a murmuration or just flocking without looking at my phone to see what the difference was. Our voices got quieter and hushed as the dusk shifted the sky to darker shades of purple or violet, a difference I also don't know without looking it up. You told me about a discussion or debate you'd recently had with a friend over whether theater can still serve any purpose in a world like this one. This one incorporating climate change and now a war that is not quite at our doorstep. You'd argued that of course it did, of course stories, always, as long as we've been here. Of course. But you came away wondering if you were right. It was my job to hear that fear and to tell you that of course you were right: of course stories, always. As usual with rehearsals I didn't do as well as I could have, so now I try again.
Of course theater, because of course stories. This, our humanity, how we pass our knowledge to each other most effectively and longest. Cave paintings. Ancient cultures. Acting it out. Stories are how we tell each other things, with and without words. What do we tell each other? Where the food is. Adventures we had. What to look out for. We tell each other stories to inform and to warn and to entertain. Stories to pass on to the future what we've learned so far, so we don't have to learn it again. We tell each other stories to hold back the dark, or to make the dark less frightening. Shh, go to sleep. I will tell you the story of tomorrow: how the sun will be hidden from us and then rise again.
I cannot imagine a world without stories, without words. And yet, as a wise woman has pointed out, we seem to be living at or near the end of the world. Well not the world altogether, just the world as we inhabit it, humans. I think so. So the stories we are telling are not stories for the future, but stories we tell ourselves. The sun will continue to rise and set with or without our observation; starlings will fill the sky and will not care if we know what they are called. Do the stories we tell continue to have value if they do not continue beyond us?
I didn't think I'd live past fifty. At this point every year is a combination of a revelation and curiosity to see how much further I'll go, and to be honest at this point whether I'll outlast the world. I try to love what I can while realizing each time could be the last time I see or hear or smell or taste something. There is no smell in the world more sweet and primal than a baby's head, but when my son say he'll never have children and I'll never be a grandmother I only feel profound relief. On some level I've already said goodbye to almost everything but that would be really very hard.
Theater is not dead; theater will not die until we die. The issue of whether it serves a purpose now, while we are alive, is not the part that frightened your friend and that in turn frightened you. The real fear is the realization that this will not be for very long, and that the darkness is coming. We're only telling stories to ourselves now, I think. But the darkness is always where we told stories anyway. Stories in general and theater specifically: the shared experience of telling and listening is literally vital. Let's put on a play, let's do what we can, not because it makes a difference to our future, because I don't believe it does, but because it's how we connect with each other as long as we can.
When I was little, I used to listen to my parents sleeping at night. They didn't snore, but they were deep and slow breathers. I used to have terrible headaches and found it difficult to fall asleep over the painful pounding in my own ears, but if I could listen to my parents' regular inhale and exhale rhythms, match mine to that, I could usually get myself to sleep. The trick was to focus on it completely and be sure that I was inhaling with them, exhaling with them. Sometimes my tiny heart would be pounding so, to get more oxygen in faster, but if I could focus, I could sleep.
When I had my first regular boyfriend, his breathing was different from my parents, faster. After years of learning to slow myself down, it felt like hyperventilating. But I managed to retrain myself, to make myself fall asleep by breathing with him, focusing. When we finally broke up, sleeping alone felt untethered, like I would never find my own breath.
Over years, sleeping in different rooms with other people, listening to the various ways that people sleep and breathe. Trying to keep up or slow down. Trying to connect myself to the thread of their breath and let that carry me to sleep. Sometimes lying in a dark room alone and imagining the room itself breathing, not sleeping, waiting for the next morning.
I was married for years and I remember at one point when I had internalized his breathing patterns, I thought: This is the last one I'll learn. I will never again shift the rhythm of my breath to match someone else's; this is the pattern I'll follow now. Which turned out not to be true: I have slept in more rooms, tents, hotels, with more people, each with their fingerprint breath, whorls of air, and I've followed the individual patterns each time. Sometimes I can feel myself falling asleep even before they've settled into their own dream rhythms. Sometimes I don't sleep, unable to follow their jagged breath. Sometimes I wear earplugs and try counting myself to sleep instead, make my own metronome. Sometimes I remember my parents' breathing at the end of the hall, the pounding headaches, the childhood fear of being the only one awake and the comfort of sliding under someone else's pattern, warm and steady.