Open Books

Does anybody really want to be private anymore?  Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and their many future and inevitable iterations would say otherwise.

The idea that each of us can express opinions on a mass scale and actually be heard – well, read and seen, which are close but not exactly the same thing – feels revolutionary.  Rather than shouting in the wind, or to your family and friends, one can literally shout at the world these days and it is entirely possible that a person or mass of people that one’s never met will see, hear, perhaps even listen… but most importantly RESPOND.   Of course, not always kindly.  File that under be careful what you wish for.

Oh days of yesteryear

Still, one could argue the situation these days is a lot more preferable than it used to be.  There was a time not so long ago that one could die in frustration with one’s inner thoughts or angry outer thoughts that the world too often turned away from.  Certainly not everything one has to say or voice is important to the world but what is certain is that it is very much important to that person.

We all, each of us, have at least one thing in common and that is the desire to be heard, and in turn, hopefully, understood.  By someone.  Or many.  Why?  Well, it varies.  Sometimes it’s on an interpersonal issue with someone we know.  In other more existential moments it is on larger topics and what we believe about ourselves.  about the world, and about humanity.  And in loftier but no less meaningful moments it is about a pressing desire to proclaim what is RIGHT AND WRONG in  ALL of the aforementioned orbits.

It really is hard being the smartest person in the room

When we can’t stop shouting about an instance, an argument or an issue, it’s more than pressing.  It’s crushingly personal.  And we can’t shut up about it no matter how much we try or don’t attempt to.  This, in particular, is where a 2017 life comes in handy.  Even if one doesn’t receive a direct response (DM) there is a feeling that somehow, somewhere, someone listened.  And might act on what was said.  By US.

Oh, and by the way and on a very much-related topic – this – more than anything else – is the dirty little secret about being a WRITER.  (Note:  Though certainly, not the only one).

Was someone spying on me? #meeveryday

On a recent and quite brilliant stand alone episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s emerging writer Hannah Horvath is summoned to the breathtakingly gorgeous and sprawling apartment of a famous writer played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys.  It seems Hannah has written a think piece for a feminist blog about this man, one of her all-time literary heroes, and his misadventures with a series of four different college age women he mentored and taught with whom he had unwanted or perhaps manipulated wanted, sexual relations.

Hannah tells him she wrote the piece as a means of support to thousands of young women who are forever scarred by a situation of abuse at the hands of someone more powerful.  But the writer makes a powerful case that although her words are brilliantly executed by someone with rare talents, they only tell a partial story of what she merely chose to see based on second and third hand accounts that she read.  For to be a true writer, he tells her, is to not only respect all sides but to dig deeper into one’s subject and understand reality, motivation, connection and situational circumstance in order to truly determine what constitutes the truth.

At which point, Hannah and the author have their own new interaction that EXACTLY mirrors one of the aforementioned circumstances, leaving it to the audience to determine who was right or wrong.  Or if, indeed, such a thing even exists at all.

Oh how I’ll miss you, Girl #hannah4ever

There are all types of writing and each has their individual demands.  But what they all have in common are two very specific things:

1. The truth

and…

2. What the writer believes the truth to be.

Of course, there are few absolutes in the world outside of math and science and lately even those have been brought into question.  Which really only leaves us with #2 and brings us full circle.

As both a writing teacher and someone who annually reads numerous works of writing from all over the country for various grants and scholarships, it becomes joyously and sometimes painfully obvious to me that when reading a writer one learns as much about that person as one does about the issue or subject being presented.  Often more.

You can’t help but begin to wonder – why of all the subjects in the world did this person choose to concoct a story about homeless LGBT youth?  What happened in their background that provoked this individual to pen a story about a 1930s honkytonk in the southwest with such fervor?  Who would choose to devote years to telling the tale of gnome who appears to a young lad in the middle of a cornfield at turn of the 20th century Midwest?

Or a tiny sprite of a girl who loves eggos

I choose these because in the last year all three have been among the most outstanding student and professional pieces I’ve read from young, unknown authors.  And in the cases of at least two of the three (Note: I do not know the author of the third) I know the writers revealed quite a bit more about themselves than they ever intended.  And to their great credit.

I’ve quoted it before but it bears repeating that no less than six famous writers are credited with having once famously stated (and I’m paraphrasing because five of them most certainly did):  Being a writer is easy.  Just open a vein.

And add to that in less witty parlance:  There is no other way to get to the truth.

Perhaps (?) (!) that was what Margaret Atwood was doing in the early eighties when she wrote the now famous A Handmaid’s Tale – a work of fiction in a dystopian world that not only went on to become a best seller which has since never been out of print but has spawned both a feature film and an upcoming Hulu television series where Ms. Atwood herself makes a cameo guest star appearance.

And…… PEGGY!

In her story, a Christian fundamentalist movement takes over the United States -which reeks of pollution and sexually transmitted diseases – and installs a totalitarian regime that subjugates women and forces a particular class of them to serve as the term vessels of unwanted pregnancies to a more powerful group of men forcing their wills on them for what they believe to be the ostensible survival of society.

Well, of course this is a work of fiction!

Fact almost seems more surreal than fiction these days

So much so that Ms. Atwood herself penned a piece several days ago for the NY Times explaining where she was and what she was thinking when she first wrote her perennial bestseller.

As well as what she could offer as to it’s meaning in what has been promised to be a new and improved United States that will once again be great again.

It’s a curious position to be in – addressing the real possibilities of a fictional story written in the past of an unimaginable dictatorial future some believe we are headed towards in the present.  But like any great writer she demurred on how prescient she was, attempting to be vaguely encouraging without providing answers.  In the age of what we’re constantly being told is instant communication, it’s up to all of us to draw those conclusions in the present.  Loudly.  For our futures.  Revealing not only where we stand but real parts of ourselves.  Before that is no longer a possibility.

Little Girls Blue

Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 2.48.07 PM

The pop blues singer/icon Janis Joplin died in 1970 at the age of 27. But in the thoughtful, evocative new PBS American Masters documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue filmmaker Amy Berg shows us how in 1962 she dared to challenge the racist and sexual stereotypes in small town America and how dearly an emotional price she paid. Sadly, it’s a price that is still paid in some form by many outspoken women of all ages in today’s world – be it Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham, or your Mom, sister or friend whenever they fight for equal pay or dare to call out intractable members of the white male heterosexual power structure in the worlds in which they travel.

Welp, that was easy

Welp, that was easy

But back to Janis, who I refer to by first name since I feel like I knew her – even though I didn’t. That’s what happens when you grow up incessantly listening to someone’s music and somehow believe that in many an odd song they were – and to this day are – somehow speaking directly to you.

Among the most upsetting remembrances from Janis’ many friends and family members was right after she left her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas – a place where as a non-traditional female she was bullied relentlessly all though high school for, among other things, supporting integration in the early 1960s and wearing loafers without socks. This was no small feat in Port Arthur, which sported a very active branch of the Ku Klux Klan, among whose members were the families of the very males she saw daily in high school. (Note: One assumes these males also expected the girls to wear heels, or at the very least some form of foot undergarment with their other shoes).

That Girl

That Girl

Still, it would only get worse when she moved to Austin, Texas – where she discovered she could really sing and became enmeshed in the blossoming local folk music scene. As was her way, Janis immediately stood out from the crowd. She could not only use big words like indignation but she could sing like the very popular Black blues singer Odetta – whose voice she could mimic perfectly according to one of her best friends at the time.

In any event, after gaining a bit of a following in Austin as both a solo singer and member of a local blues band called the Waller Creek Boys, the guys at the nearby universities somehow began to resent her wanton ways. So being that each year their local fraternities had a tradition of nominating various males they didn’t like as the town’s ugliest man and plastering the winner’s picture on the front page of their local paper, The University News, it came to be that on Sept. 5, 1962 nineteen year old Janis Joplin picked up the paper that morning and found a prominent photo of herself for all the town and beyond to read and see with this exact bold-faced banner headline printed above the fold:

JANIS WINS UGLIEST MAN!!

Ain't no way

Ain’t no way

It crushed her, her band mate and friend at the time, Powell St. John recalls, unsuccessfully attempting to hold back his tears some 50 plus years later. Saddest thing I ever saw. To that point, I’d never seen Janis cry. Janis had a tough exterior. But it really got her. Got her bad. I said, ‘Janis, they don’t mean anything to you. They’re not even in your class.’ 

Her younger sister, Laura Joplin explains it another way. 

It became increasingly hard for her to fit into a group of angry, angry men who liked to pick on her…So where does she go? What does she do?

Janis gives us San Fran late 60s realness

Janis gives us San Fran late 60s realness

What she did was go to California. Where in just five years she becomes an international superstar. And in five years more dies of a drug overdose – most likely, surmises the documentary, precipitated by loneliness and a profound lack of self-esteem and hurt she carried around with her during the less than three decades in which she lived.

Thankfully times have changed somewhat. But not fully. And certainly not nearly enough. And in the case of some men – many of who have recently become emboldened by a throwback wave of sexism and racism they disparage as political correctness– not at all.

Sounds about right

Sounds about right

Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, is being routinely attacked and mocked each day by the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump as an unbelievably mean, nasty enabler of her philandering husband Bill Clinton. Mr. Trump routinely covers his ears and mocks the sound level and tone of her voice and several months ago derided her for taking too long to go to the bathroom on a commercial break at one of the televised Democratic debates. Lest one think Mr. Trump is the only straight white guy who disdains Mrs. Clinton’s manner, both Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bob Woodward and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough several months ago separately took Mrs. Clinton to task for being too loud or too shrill.

As opposed to whom – Mr. Trump?

In a steaming retort this week to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (Note: Yes, she’s part Native American) criticisms, Mr. Trump for the umpteenth time publicly smeared her with the snide ethnic slur of Pocahontas, this time in a national news conference right after he secured enough pledged delegates to become the Republican presidential nominee. Imagine snidely referring to the only Black female senator we have EVER had – Carole Moseley Braun in the 1990s – by saying, oh who, Harriet Tubman? Or perhaps stating, Right, I assume you’re talking about Mammy? Or maybe referring to a Jewish female senator like Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein as, who, Queen Esther? How about calling some Latina American politician Eva Peron? Well, he did just call New Mexico’s Republican Governor Susana Martinez, a Hispanic woman, slow.

Amen, sister

Amen, sister

I loathe writing about Donald Trump. I want to make that very clear. He’s truly a boil on the ass of the United States. An infected, puss-filled scourge of narcissistic infection bent on destroying everything in his path that can’t be used to feed his minuscule ego. Minuscule, as in tiny? Yes.

Only people who are deeply insecure and feel extremely small way down inside feel the need to consistently pump themselves up by hurling massively nasty, racist, sexist, bullying insults at others when challenged. But there’s just something a little different when he goes after strong women who publicly challenge him on the issues of the day. Rosie O’Donnell was a fat, disgusting pig. Fox news commentator Megyn Kelly was described by a euphemism for her menstrual cycle – blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her…wherever. Republican challenger Carly Fiorina – no idol of mine – was put down by casually asking us to imagine having to look at that face everyday.

We'll join her #ImwithCHER

We’ll join her #ImwithCHER

Lena Dunham, the multi-hyphenate Emmy award-winning creator, writer, director and star of Girls has undergone similar public indignation. Read the comments on her, as I have, via any reputable online news source. Fat, cow, disgusting pig, only begin to tell the tale. But is that to be expected with online comments? How about the question The Wrap TV critic Tim Molloy asked her two years ago? I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show? And your character is often nude for no reason…” Would they ask this of the more shapely female actresses on, say, Game Of Thrones? 

Lena has her cake and eats it too #yougo

Lena has her cake and eats it too #yougo

As for Ms. Dunham, it was interesting to note on the finale of Girls this season that she chose to have her character backtrack in her career development through the season but emotionally mature in expected ways by its end. When her best friend hooked up more than casually with her ex-boyfriend, who she still probably loves, her character noted she wanted to boil a rabbit in a pot or stab them both in the heart. But instead she acted out inappropriately with those around her, controlled her rage and hurt feelings towards her besties and eventually left them a fruit basket by their door as a peace offering. She figured out a way to move on in her own inimitable way – not through power grabbing or insults but simply through self- actualization.

This is perhaps a 21st century version of what it means to be a woman/human these days and perhaps it’s progress. Now only if some of our more moronic males would follow suit. Mr. Trump can lead them in this direction. But he most certainly won’t.

Which means that in the name of all the females in our lives – not to mention everyone else – we’ll have to do it for him. By increasingly making him and his kind irrelevant.