Friday, August 31, 2012

Why Riding The Subway Is Important (and: MUPPETS!)

I draw on the subway pretty much every day. Fairly often people ask me about it, mostly how I keep my hand steady and my usual answer is “It’s no big deal. If you have control off the train, there’s really no difference.” I still mostly think that, but one thing that (I think) might make it a little bit easier for me is that I have always had a very, very light touch, i.e. I don’t use the pressure of the pencil on the paper to keep me steady, essentially I’m drawing in air. So, I guess it’s all my hand. The subway is such a great place to work or read, I find it really depressing to see people playing solitaire or something on their phones.

There is absolutely no question in my mind that the subway is one of the things that makes New York City great. Everyone rides the subway, we live our private lives in public and we learn tolerance. We have to. On my list of possible income generating schemes is a fun class for tourists and people who are new to the city. Lessons will include things like "How To Walk Down The Sidewalk Without Making Everyone Hate You" and "There Are No Such Thing As Dress Shorts, We Are Not At the Club", and of course, "How To Ride The Subway".

And then I realize it will never, ever work. Because people who spend their lives in their large homes, in their cars, in their offices, nearly always eating at home, nearly always in private spaces just don't understand. They don't know how to be private in public, and they don't understand when people aren't "friendly", it's not rudeness, it's because they are being private. Lots of tourists simply don't know the rules, and they're difficult to learn, as they ones of affect and nuance. The main problem is they have little awareness of the space around them, and that's the toughest thing to teach. Some lady hit me in the face with her New York Times while turning the page the other day, and to be honest, this is why tabloids were invented. Sidenote: They taught us how to properly fold the NY Times so we could read it on the train without bugging people in elementary school. It's one of the two or three most useful things I learned in school

Back to drawing. If you want to draw, draw. If you want to draw well, draw a lot. And I like disposable technical (.5mm) pencils. That's all I really have.

EDIT: I had to include this because it's very, very important!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown, Joan Halloway, and the Legacy of the Cosmo Girl

Helen Gurley Brown was not boring. She was a self created wonder who had as much a hand in creating the second wave of feminism as anybody, though nearly all the second wave feminists would be appalled to think so (as, likely would be Brown herself). In some ways, I think Brown is responsible for both the best and the worst about being a woman in these United States at the dawn of the 21st century. She is, in other words, a titan.

The best is what she accomplished for herself and her part in sexually liberating ordinary women in the United States. She grew up poor in Arkansas, moved with her family to Los Angeles as a teenager, worked in factories, and then held many secretarial jobs. Her big break came, much like Peggy Olsen's did, when she was promoted to copywriter at an ad agency. In some ways, I find it sort of risible, that in five seasons of Mad Men, Brown has never been mentioned. Her book "Sex and the Single Girl" was unleashed upon the world in 1962 and sold millions and millions of copies. I own a 1963 edition (see above) and it's a pretty remarkable piece of work. Remember, in 1962 married men and women weren't permitted to be shown sleeping in the same bed in movies or television (the first television couple shown doing so were Herman and Lily Munster!).

I think perhaps Brown is never mentioned in the Mad Men universe because the Joan Holloway of the early seasons is, in many ways, Brown's book made flesh, though Joan, unlike Brown, is both beautiful and college educated. Brown wrote that her readers should have jobs and careers, because money equals freedom, and having a career gives one something to be. Removed from its pink, exclamation point strewn trappings, these are radical and essential statements of self actualization. Brown made these ideas palatable to women who couldn't afford to take time off to find themselves, who had roommates and no college education and had never read Virginia Woolf. Brown told these women, in no uncertain terms, that wanting things is okay, that being single is probably a better time for most women than being married, and you can have sex (with multiple partners if you want!) and still be a lady. The Cosmo Girl was born. Bless her heart.

That said, Brown isn't perfect and is not only a product of her time but probably a great influence on some of the more unfortunate trends in ours. Brown was all about upward mobility, which is fabulous, but she was also all about avariciousness. In true Ad Man fashion, she was focused on surfaces and she liked those surfaces shiny. She scrimped to dress well on the way up, and advocated dressing for the job you want, something I've certainly advised, as well. But she focused on these surfaces, placing their importance above whatever was going on inside of one's head. Brown was also a dinosaur in terms of her views of the workplace. She didn't see any problem with sexual harassment, and thought women's problems with it ridiculous. In her view, any girl worth her mettle should be able to stave off unwelcome advances with aplomb and wit, much like a character Katherine Hepburn would play in the movies. Sadly, this doesn't always help. Also demonstrated by Joan as she is quietly raped on the floor of Don Draper's office by her fiance. Not everything can be solved by a saucy remark and a disdainful flip of the hair.

Brown was profoundly apolitical. She wrote of a world of her own creation and it's a remarkable place. She said you don't need to be pretty (and used herself as an example) to get men or jobs or have a great life - But you should help nature along, by surgical means if necessary. Just, no, Helen. I saw her in person in the ladies' room at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center about 20 years ago, and she looked both terrifying and twice her age because of the amount of work done. At least a small part of the blame of this society we now have, in which perfectly ordinary women are shamed into thinking they have to look like supermodels belongs to her.

Helen Gurley Brown's legacy is complicated, indeed. The most lasting part of it, I hope, is her joyful insistence that women are sexual beings, and that the best way to please a man is to enjoy oneself. That single women aren't simply women who haven't gotten married yet, or have been left behind. That their lives should be fun and exciting and, most importantly, their own.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My Etsy Store is Officially Open For Business

Just a quick note to let all of you delightful people that my Etsy store is open for business. Right now, I have two prints available and more items will be added soon. If there's anything in particular you would like to see, please let me know.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

FringeNYC 16: Immaculate Degeneration

I hate the idea that one person shows, or one woman shows in particular, are in need of any sort of special pleading, but I find that is so often the case. I like seeing people tell their stories and the stories of others, lives as led and adventures taken and embarked upon, both fictional and true, hilarious and heart-rending and all stops in between. And it will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog, that the lives of American teenage girls are of endless interest to this particular critic.

Pamela Sabaugh's Immaculate Degeneration hit me on a lot of those levels. I share with her a suburban/urban punk rock girlhood (mine in NYC, hers in Detroit), the need for escape and the wanting of better things common to most artists of all stripes.  The great thing that distinguishes Sabaugh's journey to independence in these United States as an artist, is her partial blindness, caused by a congenital disorder (juvenile macular degeneration) which presented itself in Junior High. She talks about how the onset of blindness interfered with her social life, her schoolwork, and her badass-ery. And most movingly, about how it limited her freedom, about growing up in the motor city unable to drive. 

Sabaugh's story, like all deeply personal stories worth telling, is bigger than herself. She tells about growing up in a subdivision in which pedestrians are viewed with suspicion. About a decaying city in thrall to the almighty automobile, in the epicenter of the public transportation-free rust belt. Her visual impairment made her dependent on others in a way that was both humiliating and sometimes dangerous (having a friend wander off with a guitarist at a local rock fest when the bus never shows). For her, moving to NYC meant not only artistic freedom, but having a true personal autonomy. She has a song about the MTA that actually made me cry. Her songs and voice are are lovely. I was really hoping there would be a CD in the press kit as I would have immediately loaded them onto my ipod.

Mostly, this is a joyful piece of work. Sabaugh is a delightful person to spend 90 minutes with, and in the spirit of full journalistic disclosure, I have to say that I do know Pamela, and her director/husband Fred Backus has long been a friend and a collaborator on various projects throughout the years. I'm not certain if Fred has directed before, but Immaculate Degeneration hits that really difficult balance of being both really tight (there's nothing I would cut, and I almost never say that, friends or not), yet being loose and casual enough that you feel a part of the event in a really nice way.

Pamela has had a lot of challenges, but for my money, her considerable gifts, both personal and artistic have enabled her to embrace them and allow them to inform but not define who she as as both a person and an artist. A very difficult balancing act, which it was my pleasure to watch her not only achieve, but transcend, with grace.

Immaculate Degeneration (click for tickets)
Woodward Avenue Productions
Writer: Pamela Sabaugh
Director: Fred Backus
The Huron Club, 15 Vandam St.
Remaining Performances: Tue 14 @ 4pm, Sat 18 @ 1:45,  Sun 19 @ 7pm,  Wed 22 @ 4:30

Friday, August 10, 2012

Happy birthday, Ronnie Spector!

I love the girl groups of the early to mid 1960s and Ronnie Spector was (and in some ways, is) the best. La Diva Ross was the most elegant, the most polished, but Ronnie Spector's tough New York City girl voice always got me. Happy birthday!

FringeNYC 16

You know how when you get together with your siblings or cousins you can say super disparaging things about your grandpa or aunt or mom? But how if some person not in your family said awful things about your grandpa or aunt or mom you'd be really, really mad? Yeah. That basically sums up my feelings about criticism of FringeNYC in a nutshell. Unless you were in certain rooms round about 1998 or 1999, I don't want to hear about it. However, if you were, let it fly!

The 16th edition of the New York International Fringe Festival begins tonight, something that makes me feel shockingly old. This also marks the first festival since the very first in which I am a complete civilian. I haven't been on the festival staff since 2003 (nine years!). For better or worse, I did all my mourning for the early years of the festival in slow motion while I was still involved with it so, honestly, what I mostly feel is relief.

Let me explain.

A number of years ago I attended a book event at which art and performance luminaries of the 70s and 80s spoke about the downtown art scene back then, and about the state of the current art and performance scene. I remember Bogosian speaking and a few others, and person after person went on and on about how much more creative, what a better sense of community, how exciting it all was compared the scene now. Needless to say, I was furious.

Then the sainted Michael Musto got to the podium. The very first thing he did was blast (nicely) all the previous speakers for their criticism of the current young artists. He said (and I'm paraphrasing wildly - this is from my memory of an event like seven years ago), "It seemed so great back then because we were so young! Of course everything seemed so much better, we're all old and cynical now." Bless him!

I'm old enough that those (now curmudgeonly) 70s and 80s artists were a part of what my idea of the world of art was like. Downtown lofts and punk rock and nightclubs (the kind without all that table service nonsense) and galleries in Soho. I read the Voice (back when you had to pay for the privilege) and Interview (when Andy was still alive). I smoked cigarettes in the East Village, I saw bands play at CBGB and The Ritz. I wrote short stories about paranoid, displaced Lizard People living in New York. I became an actor. I drew pictures. I dreamed of Cafe Cino. In the 90s I interned at Circle Rep, Lanford Wilson's company and I became a playwright. That led me to the Present Company and FringeNYC.

You'll likely be reading lots about the early days of FringeNYC in my memoirs one day so I'll keep it short. We were so young. We worked so hard. It was messy and dirty and punk rock. We had the best time and it was hell. It was equal parts magic and exhaustion. We were very, very young. And I want to be very clear about one thing: FringeNYC gave me my life. I can't even imagine what my life would look like now without it and the downtown theater scene of the late 90s, because my life would look 100% different.

So, I look at Fringe NYC now and it looks like an institution. I was a participant last year and there are a lot of rules. I look at the kids working there and all I can think is, "my god it looks dull" and "poor things, they'll never know the fun and horror of what we had". And then I realize that I'm just old. Nothing is new to me and these young people need to find their own way as I did. And their community seems a little invisible to me because I'm not a part of it, and I'm not welcome because I'm not in the trenches. I can keep my memories of the festival's gritty, punk rock past intact. The festival as it now stands may not be my festival, but that's okay. It's theirs. I'm sure I'll be reading some of their blog posts 20 years down the road, writing about how very young they were in 2012.

The New York International Fringe Festival begins today. I will be covering it from the depths of my cold, black heart. Check back frequently.