Today I did some things that scare me. Important things. Potentially life-changing things. I feel really really good about these things. I’ve been feeling consistently good for a while now. I’ve gone to yoga class three weeks in a row. My skin is great. I haven’t really finished tidying the new place, but I have managed not to add any new mess to it. I spent a year and a half not making decisions, hibernating if you will, and now I know where I’m going. I have a goal, and it will probably be hard because of some of the (necessary) things I’ve done in the past, but I’m good at fighting for a goal. Knowing what to do after achieving a goal is another story, but let’s not dwell on that just yet. I’m going to ride this upswing and enjoy the hell out of it.
My watchword for 2017 is “joy.” That solidified at yoga the other night, and it feels right. It feel good. It feels powerful. Last year it was “gentle” which morphed into “calm,” which morphed into “chill” which became “fuck all y’all motherfuckers” and then back to “chill.” We’ll see where “joy” goes. I’m enjoying it now.
You know what really brings me joy? Hampster Dance. Has since I stumbled onto it back in Ye Olden Days of dialup. I used to keep it open and playing until my allotted time on the interwebs was spent. This was not the first time my family had cause to regret the thing that made me happy, nor the last. I also find unbridled joy in Sloop John B by the Beach Boys, the theme from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but mostly…mostly the Hampster Dance.
So let’s see where it goes.
The first song I learned to play on the guitar is a love song.
A friend of mine wrote it for the wedding of some of her friends, and then recorded it on one of the five albums she has filled with mostly original songs over her life so far. And then, when I was 32 years old and decided that I wanted to learn to play the guitar–for real this time, not like when I was a kid–she sat me down in her living room, handed me her battered old backup guitar, and taught me to play four chords as her kids ran around us. I dutifully wrote them own in the little notebook I had selected for this purpose–A, E, D, and G. I wrote down the order. I wrote down their fingerings–not in tab, but in a jargony shorthand of my own devising, based on nothing but the general sense of how things make sense to me, developed over 32 years of learning who I am and how that differs from who other people are. I wrote down everything she said about how to hold the guitar, how to press my fingers to the frets, how to hold the pick, how to strum. I wrote down the order of the strings, making a crude diagram where one side said “I am here” and the other said “this is my lap,” as if I am distinct from my lap.
I went home with her old guitar and I practiced diligently. At some point I started to hear an arrangement wanting to come out, and sitting on my bed in my peaceful bedroom with the blinds open to let in the light, I started to write it down on a piece of purple paper with a purple owl in the upper left corner. My notes are probably meaningless to anyone else; I don’t know, nobody else is allowed in here while I’m playing.
I’ve been making music since I was barely old enough to read. I started singing in a choir before my eight birthday. I took piano, I played the handbells and the flute all through school. I taught lessons for a hot minute (I was bad at it). I’ve sung professionally and semi-professionally, in college and in the community, on stage and on the street and in homes and in concert halls, with operas and sacred choirs and folk singers and theatre troupes, solos, duets, trios, quartets, sextets, ensembles. I even did karaoke. I hate karaoke, but that’s neither here nor there. Singing is as easy to me as breathing nowadays, but it wasn’t always–I struggled and worked and paid buckets of money to train to get where I am. I fought raging allergies, asthma (undiagnosed until my 20s), stage fright, bad technique learned from a bad director, attention problems (still undiagnosed, but I have my suspicions), crippling anxiety and depression, a world that wants everyone to belt for some godforsaken reason. I still fight those things, but they no longer stop me opening my mouth. I’m good at it.
But I don’t consider myself a musician. A singer, yes, sure, but that’s different somehow. Over the sixish months I’ve been playing guitar, I have explicitly invited mr. biscuit in to hear me play a song maybe twice. I have spent the rest of the time pretending he can’t hear me on the other side of the wall. Over Christmas my parents came to visit, and both they and my husband, the three most supportive people in my very supportive circle of loved ones, begged me to play something for them. I refused. Flat out. No. Don’t ask me to play music for you. I’m not good enough to show anyone. I will not be one of those youtubers making a video in their living room and earning pity likes. I will be amazing or I will sit in my room and cry over this battered old guitar while I try to play loud enough to drown out the voice telling me I am so bad at this, I’ll never be any good, I started too late, I have terrible technique, my hands aren’t strong enough, I don’t practice enough, I have no work ethic, I still have zero idea what to do with my strumming hand–how even do you strum pattern?–just shut up, shut up SHUT UP.
A few months ago, I played the first song I learned for the friend who wrote it and tauht it to me. I arranged it differently than she did–at first to cover the fact that I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the strum pattern, but then after a while I realized I had taken a beautiful song and added beauty to it. When I played it for her my hands shook so hard I almost lost my grip on the guitar. “This is the lowest stakes environment imaginable,” she said to me, as we sat in plastic chairs in her backyard while her kids played on the swing set. I got through it. She smiled. She said she loved my arrangement. She said I was doing well.
mr. biscuit says I am doing well, but he’s biased–of all people he has spent the most time picking up the pieces of my depressive spirals, he probably just wants to make me feel better (a wretchedly unfair assessment, both to him and to me and our trusting, loving partnership). Intellectually I know that I have progressed, but is “better than when began” really something to be proud of? It would be difficult to be worse at guitar than I was when I began. I came to it with some advantages: two decades of musical training; long fingers with all the strength and dexterity of two decades of typing; muscle memory and ear training from playing the flute (half forgotten, but only half); hunger to create music that I hear in my head and my heart. But still. I’m better than I was–so fucking what. Spare me the “compare yourself to the artist you were” sentiments–they only apply to other people. People who are hard working, persistent, diligent, who didn’t waste all their talents and opportunities when they were younger. People I like. People who are worthy of being liked.
There is a moment in any given guitar practice when my heart breaks and I start to cry, my head sagging over the body of this battered old guitar as I struggle to keep moving my hands against the tide of doubt and self-hatred that is choking me. It doesn’t always happen. It happens enough, though.
I’ve started practicing with the door open*, though, and that’s something.
*not today. Today it’s 30 degrees outside and the central heat is borked, so I’ve got the bedroom door closed to help the space heater along. It’s toasty warm and bright in here; mr. biscuit is happily ensconced in the dark, cold living room. He is at least 30% cave bear.
Will I lose my dignity?
The other day I heard someone compare RENT to politics, to wit, “If you don’t love RENT when you’re a teenager, you have no heart; if you don’t identify with Benny when you’re an adult, you have no brain.” Just like being a liberal versus being a conservative, apparently continuing to believe in art, love, friendship, and diverse representation in media after the age of 25 makes you an idiot.
People of the internet, I will not have it. If you find yourself identifying so strongly with Benny as an adult, maybe you need to take a step back and look at why your priorities changed.
RENT was huge. RENT was a phenomenon, like unto Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis in scale and cultural reach. Unlike those shows, though, it puts its money where its mouth is. Let’s look at the diversity of the cast—of the eight main characters, three are women, five are people of color, one is Jewish, four are living with HIV—and then there’s Angel, who is either trans* or a drag queen, but either way is a male-born individual who uses female pronouns. The casting breakdown requires actors of color in the roles of Angel, Collins, Joanne, Benny, and Mimi (while leaving Roger, Mark, and Maureen open for interpretation), and specifically calls for further diversity in the chorus. There are three romantic relationships, all of them are interracial, and only one of them is a “traditional” male/female coupling. RENT passes the Bechdel test (which, for instance, Hamilton does not). It passes the Racial Bechdel Test (is there a better name for this?). It passes the Sexuality Bechdel Test (there must be a better name, seriously).
From where I’m sitting as a former suburban teen, RENT helped open the eyes of suburban teens. Along with a lot of other media of our youth, I credit it with our generation’s increased/increasing acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, AIDS awareness, diversity, and representation. Of the dozens of visionary figures cited in La Vie Bohème, only seven are straight white cis men, and of those, Bob Dylan is culturally Jewish, Václav Havel is Eastern European and therefore not historically considered white, and Pee-Wee Herman is Pee-Wee Herman. RENT also said, loudly and repeatedly, that it was ok to prioritize love, friendship, and art over money. It was more than ok—it was important, and good for us, and we were good people even if we weren’t getting an MBA. Music, dance, film, theatre, writing, painting, sculpture—all these things are worth studying, worth practicing, worth time and energy and effort. This is the beginning of the argument for paying professional artists a livable wage.
Is it dated? Of course it is; it came out 20 years ago. Is it perfect? No, of course not. From either an artistic or representative perspective, RENT has problems. Maureen exists so Jonathan Larson could take pot shots at an ex-girlfriend—it pleases me to see the immense popularity of the character as a giant middle finger to men who feel the need to eviscerate women who leave them. Angel veers into moments of walking, talking symbolism. “Contact” is fucking terrible, and cutting it was the best decision they made in the terrifically bad movie. The ending is treacly nonsense. A number of changes that should have been made in previews didn’t get made because the creative team was too devastated by Larson’s tragic death to see clearly.
But RENT is not, as some would have it, a naïve fantasy of bullshit where Benny is secretly the hero fighting against the stupid artists trying to muck up the world even farther. Let’s look at Benny, actually, since you’re all so keen to ally yourselves with him. At the beginning of the musical we learn that he used to live with Roger, April, Mark, Collins, and Maureen, sharing a giant industrial loft in the rougher parts of NYC circa the late 80s. He married into money, bought the building, and magnanimously declared that his friends could remain living there for free. A year later, at 9:00 PM on Christmas Eve, he calls and demands a year’s worth of rent immediately. “Rent, my amigos is due, or I will have to evict you. Be there in a few,” he threatens them. I’m in a two-income household with no kids, good credit, and some savings, and I couldn’t come up with a year’s worth of rent in a few weeks, much less a few hours. Is this legal? Yes, because apparently verbal contracts aren’t legally applicable in real estate (you learn something new every day). Is it sleazy and dickish and horrible? Why yes. Yes it is. At this point Roger and Mark are the only people still living in the apartment, though there are plenty of others in the building. They are broke. Roger is HIV positive, is a recovering drug addict who has just come back “from half a year of withdrawal,” and is clearly suffering severe depression from when “his girlfriend, April, left a note saying ‘we’ve got AIDS’ before slitting her wrist in the bathroom.”
Can we talk about AIDS? Nowadays, if you live in a first world country and have the money and/or insurance, HIV is not a death sentence. It is possible, with the correct medicinal cocktail, to have an undetectable viral load. It is entirely feasible to contract HIV, live for decades and die of old age. In the late 80s, when RENT is set, that was most assuredly not the case. Where we live now, we’re fortunate enough that AIDS is more like contagious diabetes–dangerous, expensive, a giant pain in the ass, but survivable. In the 80s and 90s, it was more like getting attacked by a polar bear. You could manage for a while, but you were going to die, slowly and painfully and probably alone. I draw your attention to the refrain at the Life Support meeting, repeated over and over:
Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?
Roger is going to die, very soon. Under the multiple handicaps of poverty and the lingering scars of drug addiction, as well as the self-sabotage not uncommon in the sort of severe depression that keeps a person from leaving their home for a full 12 months, he has a few years left to him, maybe, and how many of those will be good years, as opposed to years racked with the disease that ravages your body after HIV leaves it defenseless? He’s in his early to mid 20s, and his imminent death looms over him every second of every day.He is probably also the one who gave April the virus, given the mechanics of the way the virus passes between heterosexual partners, so he’s drowning in guilt for that too.
Knowing this, Benny shows up on Christmas Eve and demands his friends pay him a full year’s rent immediately, lest they be evicted. That night, after they refuse his demands, he has the power shut off and locks them out of their apartment. In the middle of the winter. In New York City. After promising them they could stay for free in the building he owns. This would be a dick move for anyone, much less a guy whose friend who is literally dying.
Does Benny have his good qualities? Of course, just as Angel has his faults. Benny pays for Mimi to get the inpatient rehab she desperately needs, and he pays for Angel’s funeral when Collins can’t. He also has vision for Cyber Arts, and the cleaning up of the neighborhood. “Do you really want a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop every night?” he asks in the lead up to La Vie Boheme. Nobody wants that, of course, and I hear that a lot as justification for his actions when he clears the tent city next to the building.
Riddle me this: where do the homeless people there go when they are forcibly removed from their makeshift shelters in the dead of winter?
Homelessness is not solved by shoving homeless people into a different neighborhood anymore than you’ve cleaned your room if you hide all your stuff under the bed. It’s true, as Benny says, that “Any owner of that lot next door has a right to do with it as he pleases.” When Collins replies “Happy birthday Jesus,” you’ll note that Benny shuts down and starts yelling. He’s defensive and angry—because he knows Collins is right. He knows he’s not solving anything. He’s not finishing his vegetables, he’s just moving them around his plate and then asking for dessert. And so do you. Benny is not shy about using his money to do good on a personal scale, but he either can’t or won’t see the big picture here.
Benny has turned into the kind of person we all bitch about—the guy who comes in to a neighborhood, tears everything down, and builds condos nobody can afford, with zero regard for the people who are already living there. Benny has lost his way. He has a ton of money and influence, and rather than try to really improve the city in which he lives and the lives of others there, he is kicking out people who have no recourse, no money, and literally nowhere to go. If you love that character so much, I have great news—he’s everywhere! Check out any major US city! He’s buying homeless people one-way bus tickets to other cities, putting spikes on the ground in doorways, removing benches, locking public restrooms, and arresting people who give out food in city parks! He’s even “remodeling” Manuel’s Tavern! Benny’s tactics for cleaning up the neighborhood are short-sighted. They are harmful. They are bad.
Mark and Roger get a lot of criticism for the way they live, for their insistence on making art that is legitimate and fulfilling and true to them rather than, in Mark’s case, keeping a shitty job at a tabloid shilling such journalistic excellence as “vampire welfare queens who are compulsive bowlers.” If you’ve never had a job that made you feel sleazy, or like you were making the world an objectively worse place, or just bad, I don’t know what to say to you except “congratulations,” and maybe also “screw you, you lucky shit.” Roger, as we covered, is actively dying. Mark isn’t, but he deeply loves several people who are, and two who do. He is just as aware of his mortality as they are, and wracked with survivor’s guilt, and in light of that, his priorities make perfect sense. If you were staring at a clock ticking down your remaining time on earth, wouldn’t it change your behavior?
You don’t have to like RENT. You don’t have to like anything. But you don’t have to stop liking RENT because you are older now than you were when you first loved it. You can see Benny’s point without agreeing with his tactics. You can shake your head at Mark for disregarding his family’s concern, or roll your eyes at Maureen’s theatrics, or whatever you want, but nowhere is it written that being an adult means we have to stop prioritizing love, friendship, compassion, activism, art, caring for people other than ourselves and our immediate circle.
And finally, let me leave you with some of the closing lines of Act 1, which are still some of the most important in my life.
Screaming for solutions,
Risk, and danger
Making noise and making pleas!
To faggots, lezzies, dykes
To you, and you, and you, you, and you!
To people living with, living with,
Not dying from disease!
Let he among us without sin
Be the first to condemn!
La Vie Boheme!
Viva La Vie Boheme!
Sixth grade was a rough year for lots of people, and I’m not an exception. Nobody realized it at the time, but looking back I recognize the signs of my anxiety disorder–overwhelming dread, obsessive counting, forgetfulness, crippling inability to focus or make decisions, the total destruction of my fingertips. I still deal with this, but as an adult I understand what’s going on, and as a child I was just panicky and stressed all the time. It doesn’t help that I wasn’t just not popular–I was unpopular, in that I was the subject of active, organized, widespread teasing and bullying. That wasn’t new, but I was getting older, and I was starting to care more. That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots, because there were. I distinctly remember three: band, the couple of friends I had at school, and Robin McKinley.
Robin McKinley came into my life because my 10-year-old morality was sketchy at best: I picked up The Hero and the Crown from the shelf that my social studies teacher reserved for her homeroom students’ library books. I don’t know if I intended to give it back, but I do know that I never did, and the guy who had checked it out had to pay for it. I’m not sorry. He was a jerk. Anyway, I read that book over and over and over, until I could recite passages (I still can). I would finish it only to start again immediately, and I carried it with me everywhere like a talisman against evil. Or crushing lonliness. My memories of 6th grade can only be categorized in two ways: Being Miserable, or Reading The Hero and the Crown. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this book saved my life. Over the last two decades I have returned to it, and her other books, more times than I can count, in times of joy as well as sorrow, and each time I’ve read one of her books I’ve found all the perspective, validation, inspiration, entertainment, hope, comfort, and motherfucking great storytelling I could want.
Her partner of 23 years, Peter Dickinson, recently passed away. She was silent on social media for several months before reporting his second stroke; the next time we heard from her was today, when she posted the eulogy she delivered at his memorial service. It is heartfelt and well-crafted.
I’ve never met Robin McKinley, but she has been with me through some of the most difficult periods of my life, beginning in sixth grade and extending into my early 30s (so far). Her books shaped the woman and writer I am in too many ways to name. I owe her an unpayable debt, and I adore her. She is going through the unimaginable and I have nothing to offer her except empty words from a person she has never met.
She didn’t write her books for me, but they were a gift to me anyway. I’m going to go buy some more of Peter’s books, and I’m going to plant a tree for him, and for her, and I’m going to keep crying. And then I’m going to work on my novel, ok, because sometimes all you can do is take the gift someone gave you and try to give a gift to someone else.
I’m going on hiatus. This season of CRF will be my last faire season.
I don’t know how long this hiatus will go on. I’ve sworn to wait the entirety of 2016 before I make any decisions, and in the meantime I am trying to focus on the here and now and get healthy.
The last fiveish years have been really difficult. At some point in late 2013 I wrote “I am burned the fuck out” in a post I never finished, and that feeling never went away; it only got worse. I began seeing a therapist after finishing Scarborough this year, and I’ve been diagnosed with depression and general anxiety disorder. I need a break from travel, stage fright, homesickness, post-show depression, worrying about money, being sick, and the physical and emotional demands of performance, the venue, and juggling two or three jobs. I’ve got a full time job that is enjoyable enough and pays well enough to keep at for the foreseeable future. mr. biscuit and I are working on getting our debt paid off, and I’m working on getting healthy.
I attended my first renaissance festival in the fall of 1992 or 1993. My friend’s family took me and my sister. The next 7 or 8 years my family went to the Georgia Renaissance Festival for a weekend every year. I loved it. I would cry when it was time to leave at the end of the day. In 2004, as a college sophomore, I auditioned for and got hired to be on the cast. It was a dream come true, and this is what I said about opening day (courtesy my livejournal):
“Ren Fest was the absolute shit, I’m tired beyond all reason, my poor breasts are sunburned, and I haven’t stopped smiling in about 3 hours.”
I spent six years on the cast of the Georgia Renaissance Festival, and for the most part they were excellent years. How many things happened there? I can’t even begin to tell you. I met mr. biscuit, and any number of my closest friends. I discovered within myself a talent and affinity for this very particular type of performance. I made a lot of people smile. And I had a shit load of fun. Leaving was one of the hardest decisions I had made up to that point, but I left to pursue other opportunities. When I told the entertainment director that I would not be returning for the coming season, I already had plans to go after the Scarborough Renaissance Festival. I got in. And after years of trying, I got into the Carolina Renaissance Festival. And I did really well. I met more dear friends, and developed a funny, tight, high-energy, educational, empowering act that can be as intimate or broad as the situation warrants. And I made money, and I had the time of my life, and I learned how to sew.
Esperanza began as a Spanish pirate who was in England trying to track down King Henry VIII in revenge for the death of her mother. She evolved into a Recruitment Officer for the Spanish Army, building an army on English soil. This is how the costume looked my first year:
And this is how the costume looks now:
In between, we had this:
And somewhere along the line I wore myself out.
I don’t know where I’m going from here. My goal is to get healthy—to manage my allergies/asthma, my IBS, my increasingly difficult periods, and my anxiety and depression to a better degree than I am currently managing. I just want to have more good days than bad days. We want to get to a better financial place, to pay off our credit card and student loans so that we can take care of our aging cats and get a new car when we need to and afford to move again when our lease is up, and rebuild our retirement savings after the huge hit they’ve taken in the last few years, and maybe save to buy a place. We want to continue the progress we’ve made towards making our living space pleasant, beautiful, and well-organized(ish). I want to celebrate Halloween and Easter in a way that doesn’t mean working.
This decision was mine and mine alone. I consulted my most trusted advisors over and over again, but ultimately the only person I have to thank/blame is myself. It’s hard to walk away from something I worked to get for years. In pursuit of this dream I spent years going all over the country on my own dime to try and convince entertainment directors to hire me. I cried and struggled and swore and panicked and learned to sew, and eventually I succeeded, and then…I stopped. I know I made the right decision—when I sent the emails to my entertainment directors, I felt a huge sense of relief. But if there is one thing that art students hear over and over again, it’s “don’t give up;” it’s hard to feel like I’m not giving up.
Then again, maybe I am. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. I love this work, but the things that go with it—travel, shitty working conditions, illness, iffy income, anxiety, homesickness—are just so hard to manage. Maybe I’m just not cut out for those things. Maybe the joy of the work—and there is so much joy in it for me, so that I sometimes feel like I’m going to explode from it—is not enough to carry me through the attendant trials and tribulations. Maybe I’ll never do this again.
Then again, maybe it is, and maybe I will.
I don’t know.
And I’m ok with that.
So the other day I realized I had forgotten to liveblog Reign for something like a million years, and I was like:
TRUTH: I am like four episodes behind. That’s ~ten hours of my life because I have to watch each episode twice to catch all the Subtle Nuances and locate appropriate gifs. Do I carry on?