20 Years

video-undefined-22A0241D00000578-86_636x358I’d seen an advertisement for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy during my junior year of high school and there were two things that grabbed my attention: “acting” and “New York.” I’d fallen in love with the danger and mystery of New York ages ago and longed to live there, and acting…I lived and breathed it. I decided then and there that I would go to that school. The audition was in St. Louis, MO, about a four drive away from me, and I bought a bus ticket, booked myself a hotel room where they were holding the auditions, and three months later received word that I would soon be living in New York. So, fresh out of high school and full of a distorted sense of invincibility I made my way into the arms of destiny, history, and adventure. I remember feeling that my life was about to begin, and I remember my excitement being tempered only by the heartbreak and worry on the faces of my grandmother and great-grandmother. I remember thinking that their worry may very well be justified, but live or die, I had to go.

I arrived here about 10 days early so that I could enjoy the city before school started and stayed in a hostel on 148th and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. I had about $200 to my name and I was scared to death. My roommate in the dorm-style dwelling was a stripper named Jackie who resembled Aileen Wuornos. She had curly, blondish hair and a friendly, easy way about her. She seemed as fascinated by my Midwestern naiveté as I was by her profession and transient way of living and our mutual curiosity became a bond of sorts. She decided that she would be my protector and city guide, and on my second day she brought home a subway map and circled all the stations to avoid after 11pm, and showed me how to find my school, Lincoln Center, CBGB’s, Times Square… I remember sitting on the roof of that hostel at night with this wild and tenderhearted woman who had come to represent the strangeness and beauty of New York to me and feeling that I was home. That feeling has never left me.

That was 20 years ago this month. It’s been a long, winding road since that wonderful week on St. Nicholas Avenue and I’m grateful for every moment of it. I wonder where Jackie is today. I hope she’s alright, and I hope if she ever thinks of me that she has an inkling of how much her kindness meant to me. I hope, if I’m lucky, that I’m able to be a Jackie for other wide-eyed kids full of dreams and hope. I hope I can do this beautiful city proud.

Happy Anniversary, loves.

The Heart is a Muscle

Have you read How to Lose Weight in Four Easy Steps? It was written by comedy writer, Aaron Bleyaert, and it is one of the most stunningly gorgeous things I’ve read in a while. It was like someone drizzling warm, melted caramel all over your tongue while a brook babbled nearby in the summer sun…if you’re into that kind of thing. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and read it. I’ll wait…

Did you read it? Incredible, right? The first time I read it my heart hurt so much I nearly wretched. I actually had to take a break and come back to it, and after making it all the way through I sat there stunned and hurting. I’ve been him, I’ve been the girl who obliterated him, and it was excruciating to relive it via Aaron’s words in such detail, especially as I’m trying to get ready for pilot season and I really thought it was just about weight loss. I learned so much from reading this and I’m humbled by his bravery and the bravery of people like him. He leans into the pain. He walks right up to it, memorizes its scent, and walks on, broken and unashamed.

My natural instinct in the face of heartbreak, or any emotional pain really, is to avoid it and pretend it doesn’t exist. That, to me, seems logical. If you touch a stove and it burns your hand, remove your hand — avoid the source of suffering. But, here’s the thing…the heart/soul doesn’t work that way. Any emotion we feel is like water — you push it away and it seeps in anyway, maybe not in the area you’re pushing, but it gets in, baby. You can drown in it, or harness it’s power to feed yourself and others. That’s something most of us kind of know, but seeing that principle vulnerably eked out so beautifully and devoid of judgement in Aaron’s post drove the point home in the way memorizing a passage from a self-help book won’t do. His courage inspired me. I cried for him and the beauty of it all I decided that day that I’d be a bit more like him and lean into the pain a bit more. I decided not to push away the thought of lost loves who memorized my idiosyncrasies and held me so closely their heartbeat rang in my ears, friends who proved inconsistent after walking with me through storms, people I’ve wounded horribly by being fearful and careless…or a less personal note, image after image of children fleeing Syria with more memories of terror than joy, or news headlines announcing the senseless loss of 10 college students in Oregon. I want to memorize the scent of these wounds and ask God to help me make perfume from the pain.

I’ve actually been trying to do this more actively for the past few years, but the stress of school and political turbulence has taken it’s toll. This week was a much needed reminder to get back to that place and the odd thing is, leaning into the pain hurts less than avoidance. It begins to feel sort of beautiful after awhile You feel connected…and brave. Funny that. I’ll find the balance one day soon, but until then I’ll just let my heart break and see where it takes me. Lifelong goal: live bravely and make art that breaks my heart.

The heart is a muscle…muscles get stronger the more you use them.

B”H

Hope and Risk

Yesterday, as I was on my way to an appointment, a woman with a beautiful French braid along the side of her head was staring intently at a woman who’d just gotten on the train and had sat near her. She got the second woman’s attention and told her there was something on her…feathers, or something. The second woman was having trouble seeing where it was so after a brief hesitation, the braided woman reached over and gently picked the feathers from the second woman’s face and hair. I was so struck by this random kindness and gentleness by both of them that I had to remind myself to stop staring. It seems so small, but the fact that the first woman took a chance and basically groomed another woman in such a tender, maternal way and that the second woman received it was one of the loveliest things I’ve seen in a while. There are so many beautiful things in this world that are nearly impossible with risk, right? How many memorable moments begin with a tiny leap of hope and trust? How much generosity is in that leap?

I think this is all swirling about because of a playwriting class I began last night with Rogelio Martinez at ESPA. One of the things he spoke about was how much trust and hope we need to do what we do…to pound our hearts out onto a page in hopes that it’s a beautiful, meaningful thing even if no one agrees. Lord, have mercy.  I suppose we leap because we must. Without risk…without faith, hope, and love we die. 

Artists, lovers, subway mamas…I am in awe of you today. It could be the lack of sleep has made me maudlin, but let’s pretend it hasn’t. xo

History lover

My Amazon.com delivery arrived today and in it were Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 and Old New York in Early Photographs, 1853-1901: 196 Prints from the Collection of the New York Historical Society. I cannot describe or explain the joy I felt when I pulled these two beautiful books out of the box. I’d been wanting Gotham for the longest time, and I scour the internet frequently for the NY Historical Society photos that I now own. I felt loved and pampered… book nerd style.

I don’t know why history does this to me. It makes my heart beat faster…perks up my senses…makes me come a bit more alive. I feel inserted into time, perhaps. You choose your place in time, or it chooses you. There’s so much power in that. Perhaps, I’m moved by the idea of not being forgotten. Perhaps I’m moved that I can look at photos of people who lived before me, see what they built and know that their lives are remembered for that one moment. Maybe I crave a safe, pseudo-connection that I’ve romanticized. In any case, I’m really happy those books arrived today.

Addendum: In a separate delivery later today, I received a biography of George Appo that I’d ordered. George Appo was a notorious pickpocket and con man in the Five Points area during its “heyday.” His entire life is representative of that area…biracial family, born and raised in poverty, opium addict, self-taught survival… It interests me how people born outside of privileged society learn to create their own culture. Now, when I’m going to find the time to read all of these books is another tale all to itself. I AM NOT ALLOWED TO BUY ANY MORE BOOKS!

(I think I mentioned this before, but if you’re interested in reading more about the Five Points district, or late nineteenth century New York, this is a great book. I first learned about Mr. Appo and the area that raised him there.)

The freedom in judging less

One of the things the Artist’s Way has begun to restore in me is a sense of Artistic Freedom. In Week 3, we’re asked to make a list of five people we secretly admire and then detail what we admire about them. I fully indulged the request and was surprised to find Madonna on my list. When I was growing up, Madonna wasn’t “supposed” to be admired as an artist. She didn’t play any real instruments and “borrowed” the style, inventiveness, and creativity of others, she traded in the commerce of spectacle…she wasn’t a “real artist” and “real artists”, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t realize before this exercise that I secretly admired her. Whatever her talents are or aren’t, there’s no one in the business who reinvents herself as fearlessly as she does. She does…whatever she wants, and always has. I remember a story of when she was called in to audition for “Desperately Seeking Susan.” She showed up an hour late and asked for cabfare. My censor says, “That’s disgusting behavior.” My inner kid, says, “that’s actually pretty badass.” There’s something about that kind of boldness that something in me wants more of. I love feeling free to learn from her without judgement and I’m learning that it is possible to be discerning with an open, inquisitive heart. It’s possible to be discerning without being self-righteous. Freedom.

All this freedom is catching. The week I did that exercise I created a puppet show for my dear friend’s birthday which she loved. I haven’t felt that kind of freedom to just create and put it out there in years. I’m being reintroduced to myself. Oh! There she is!

Thoughts on Street Harassment

On February 7, 2015 a stranger attacked me on a subway platform. Initially, he just came up to me and told me he thought I was beautiful, but there was something about him—the thinly veiled hostility in his eyes or the closeness of his proximity—that made me uncomfortable, and instead of responding verbally I just backed away from him. He responded with an angry, “Wow!” and to that I turned on my heels and walked about 10 feet up the platform. He followed me, verbalizing his displeasure at my response. I turned to him and said firmly and loudly, “Leave me alone.” He was undeterred, so I repeated even more loudly, “Leave me alone!” He blinked, looked at me stunned for a few seconds, then ran towards me, fists raised. I raised my arms to block his repeated blows and he then grabbed me, pushing me backwards towards the subway tracks. At some point he abruptly stopped hitting me and ran down the platform towards the exit.

One of the things that bothered me the most about this experience was how it changed me almost immediately. A woman who was nearby came over to me afterwards and asked if I was alright. I tried to speak to her and found that I couldn’t without crying, so I nodded, “yes.” She reassured me that she saw him run up the stairs and out of sight, and we briefly chatted about what happened until the train came. She was very kind to check on me and I told her so, but despite my gratitude and my desire to connect with her I could only think, ”please get away from me.” She hadn’t done or said anything to make me uncomfortable, I just wanted her to not stand so close to me and to leave me alone…the same thing I’d wanted from this man who had just hit me for rejecting him. The train came and I entered a different car than the one she was headed towards. I hoped that she would understand. I hoped that she knew that my obvious discomfort had nothing to do with her.

On the way to work, several other men commented on my looks and each comment (even the tame, complimentary ones) made my throat tighten and I felt my face harden. I had to reassure myself that they were just commenting and would not follow me—they wouldn’t hurt me. Despite this self-reassurance, every movement in my periphery garnered my immediate attention (It still does. Less so, but still.) There were so many thoughts churning in my head afterwards that I stopped for a moment and typed them into my iPhone’s notepad. Then I thought that I should post it to Facebook so that people could have a personal example of street harassment. The comments I received brought several things to mind.

This man was obviously mentally disturbed and that is the reason he assaulted you. It has nothing to do with societal misogyny or rape culture.

This is an interesting argument and I understand the desire to make it. Violence is horrifying, especially when it happens to your friend and in your city. Also horrifying is the thought that there is an underlying theme of disrespect towards women in American culture that causes some women to feel unsafe while simply walking down the street. “There must be another reason, right? I live in a good world, right?” I agree with the notion that this man was most likely mentally disturbed. However, there are also a good many women in this city who are mentally disturbed and desperately in need of medication, and I hear very few stories of men who feel unsafe because of deranged women who flirt with them and then threaten or hit them after having their advances rejected. As a matter of fact, in a national study on street harassment only 20% of men who reported being harassed say it was done by a woman versus 70% of women who reported being harassed by a man. Are we to assume that this man who attacked me was a staunch feminist who understood perfectly that women have the right to reject his advances without repercussion until he ran out of lithium?

Elliot Rodger and George Sodini were both psychologically and mentally disturbed men who publicly expressed their feelings of loneliness, rejection, misogyny, and sexual entitlement. They also went on separate killing sprees before turning their guns on themselves, Rodger murdering six people in 2014 and Sodini murdering three in 2009. In a 2009 article for Jezebel, Anna North points out that even though “we don’t know if Sodini visited misogynist websites during the long period in which he was planning his crime, we do know that he lived in a society where some people view hatred and even murder as a normal response to dating difficulties.”

We cannot chalk these acts of violence up to a mere mental disturbance. Their already disturbed thoughts were fueled by a societal belief that if a man wants a woman’s attention, he should have it, and any woman who doesn’t get on board is a bitch/whore and undeserving of respect, agency, and ultimately, safety. A quick glance at the discussion boards under Rodger’s You Tube videos where many men (and some women) have voiced their support of his world views can tell you that this misogynist mentality is prevalent and firm in the minds of many Americans. There are numerous cases throughout the country of men both with and without histories of mental illness hurting, stalking, and terrorizing women for spurning their advances. We cannot easily write this behavior off by focusing on the leaves of psychological disturbance when a root of entitlement and misogyny is the greater problem here.

Granted, not all men share these views, and not all men who share these views act them out in violent and aggressive ways, but it’s very likely that a large number of street harassers are coming from a place of sexual entitlement. We may not be able to change the minds of every man who thinks he has the right to treat women however he feels (even if he thinks he’s not being harmful), but perhaps legislation and social mores can be affected towards progress. Outlawing lynching didn’t eradicate racism, but it did make the nation a little safer for some and it certainly created an understanding of how a person with racist thoughts was able to legally treat people of color.

Street harassment…it’s a cultural thing.

This delicately put, oft-heard comment is a polite way of saying, “A white guy would never speak to a woman the way Black and Hispanic men do. White guys don’t street harass.” Well, to be honest I have never had a White man stand really close to me and say, “Damn baby, can I walk with you?” or “You got a fat ass, girl. Can I get your number?” What I have had happen, however, is older, suited White men walk up to me on the street and ask me if I’m a prostitute, or just flat out offer me money in exchange for sex. To be honest, that happened more often when I was younger and carried an air of Midwestern naïveté, but it happened often enough.

In an article examining the class/race dynamics of street harassment, Dee Locket (quoting Roxane Gay) points out that, “just because the majority of men who harass you are of a certain race or class, does not make that experience universal” and that many women have been street harassed by men of different races, classes, and backgrounds. So, it’s fair to say that sexual harassment, whether it’s on the street or in the boardroom, is an equal opportunity offender that stems from power, status, and a societal belief that men are entitled to the time, attention, and obedience of women (or whomever they desire) and is an attempt to make sure the desired party knows that he or she is definitely not the one in control of the interaction. Sexual harassment at work and harassment on the streets are, again, two leaves with the same toxic root.

So, if there are so many people decrying this treatment then why is there so much resistance and denial? Because it’s incredibly rare that a group who feels oppressed can say to the dominant group, “Hey, we don’t like the way you’re treating us. It feels horrible and we’d like equality” only to have the dominant group immediately say, “I had no idea you felt that way. Please, tell me how I can make you feel more valued and respected in the world that I dominate. I’m so glad you said something!” This is the case with sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance or any other situation where one group wields power over another. There is almost always resistance and a lack of understanding from the dominant side and defensiveness and denial from the dominants and their supporters doesn’t mean that that the side that wants change is “overreacting” or “blowing things out of proportion.” It means that the discussion, no matter how uncomfortable and complex, needs to continue in order to establish balance and mutual respect.

Women who don’t like these comments are just super-sensitive feminists who should take a chill-pill.” “Just wait until you turn 50 and the comments stop happening…you’ll miss them.

No one said this to me, most likely because in my case the guy tried to hurt me and didn’t stop at “you’re beautiful,” but I have seen these sentiments expressed online from the likes of Hoda Kotb who asserts that women secretly love catcalls and Doree Lewak in a New York Post article from last year titled “Hey, ladies — catcalls are flattering! Deal with it.”

In her article, Lewak insists that catcalls from random men make her feel sexy, desired, and powerful, but she also tries to make the distinction between a flattering compliment and a crass or obscene comment. She also admits that she realizes “most women with healthy self-confidence don’t court unwanted male attention. In fact, most women seem to hate it.”

It’s clear that for some women, catcalling confirms a part of their identity and despite my personal feelings I don’t wish to judge them. However, if we can acknowledge that most people who complain of street harassment are not referring to comments of the flattering variety and that most women hate this unwanted male attention, can we all agree that it doesn’t make sense to criticize the anti-street harassment movement for being over-reactive?

Men: Please understand that the majority of women do not enjoy being catcalled or aggressively flirted with by a random stranger. In a lot of cases it actually feels pretty awful to receive this type of attention. Try to consider the following:

  1. You may be the 20th guy to hit on her that day and she’s a bit over it.
  2. She may not be in the mood to receive unwanted advances.  If a woman is just trying to get from A to B she’s probably not open to being hit on by strangers, especially when the comments are overtly sexual.
  3. The street is not a speed dating site – context matters.
  4. Nearly one out of every five women is a survivor of sexual assault. ONE out of FIVE. That means that every fifth woman you encounter has had a sexual act forced upon her. Your persistence may be reminiscent of something painful so if she doesn’t seem interested, back off. (I am in no way implying that all women who are uncomfortable with street harassment are abuse survivors, but am simply pointing out one of the many potential harms of aggressive, sexual behavior.)
  5. If you’re a guy and you’re thinking, “Stop preaching to the choir, Shaun. I get it!” be an active ally. Make sure your male friends get it, too. (Click here for male ally resources.)

Women: If you like receiving catcalls, please understand that most of your sisters don’t and please stop trying to discredit or invalidate their experiences. Women are being followed, spat on, cursed at, groped, attacked, and even killed by men who feel entitled to them. Do you really want to risk telling one of those women to “lighten up” or to “learn how to take a compliment” after receiving treatment like this, particularly when one of those women may be a survivor of sexual assault? There’s an attitude we’re addressing. Let us address it. It will benefit you, too.

I’m so sorry this happened to you.

This was said over and over both by my friends and by the wonderful policemen and detectives I spoke to. These simple words are healing, validating, kind, and meant more to me than I can fully express right now.

Even though the street harassment numbers are alarming, I firmly believe we are moving forwards and not backwards. If you are a victim of harassment who speaks out when it’s easier to be silent, or if you are man who “gets it” either through personal experience (like the San Francisco native who was stabbed for defending his catcalled girlfriend) or through your own pursuit of kindness I am so grateful for you.

[I want to acknowledge that this blog post doesn’t address all forms of street harassment. I struggled with that, not wanting to leave anyone out, but the facts are that most perpetrators of street harassment are men, and most recipients of that harassment are women. That said, I encourage you to read more about the ubiquitous and varied forms of street harassment in our country, and to please visit StopStreetHarassment.org to get more information on what street harassment is and how we can put a stop to it. –SBF]