Extremists on Both Sides Give me a Headache.

With all the social distancing, many people have not seen anyone in person from outside their household in months. I am one of them. As we are social creatures, I, like others, have connected more online. I don’t want to stop doing that, but it feels like some interactions have been worse than they would have in person, and it’s seriously giving me a headache. 

When Trump was elected president, I couldn’t even believe that there were so many people in this country who would vote for such an ignorant, narcissistic buffoon.  I thought most of them had to be evil, or at the very least stupid.  They quickly identified themselves on social media by posting memes about how ‘liberals are crying because they lost’, and sometimes I was surprised to see who they were. When I tried to  explain that the reason many of us were upset was not because we were ‘sore losers’, but because we were terrified that a very dangerous narcissist was now in a powerful position to do terrible things to our country, they called me names and continued to jeer at me. It was like going back to elementary school trying to talk to them, and  I eventually realized that no amount of reasoning was going to change their minds, and that while some of them are evil, and some of them are indeed stupid, most of them are neither. Some of them are just brainwashed. They have been conditioned with this ‘us and them’ mentality over many years through a steady diet of very specific and concentrated news sources, and politics have turned into a game where  they’re metaphorically sitting in a sports bar, hurling insults at the losing team.  

From the Infowars site (screenshot)

Currently some people in this group are holding ‘anti-mask’ rallies, protesting for the right to infect themselves and everyone around them with a deadly disease, because they have been told that a global pandemic is a lie by the other ‘team’, which is being supported by the entire rest of the world.  To make it worse, they are using the slogan, “We can’t Breath”, which is deliberately mocking  the race protests that started when a man was suffocated to death by a cop.  I know that sounds evil, and the leaders of it are certainly are, in my opinion,  but a lot of the followers just don’t see the istuation as real. I have talked to some of them, and they really think democrats are making up the black people being murdered and the  Covid-19 pandemic just to piss them off and control them. So they join in to root for their home team. They seem to me to be in some kind of alternate reality,  and while I admire the people who are still trying to talk them out of it, I really think it’s a pointless waste of energy. They need deprogramming, like people who have been rescued from cults. Until that is acknowledged, nothing will change. 

From the Infowars site (screenshot)

 Recently, there was an ad put out by sensible Republicans  to try to convince MAGA-Hat people that  they should not vote for Donald Trump again.  It was a nice try,  but I can tell them for sure that  it’s not going to work, because they don’t mention in the video that they are Republicans.  They need  to tell those people they’re on the same team if they want them to listen, and  then work hard to start helping them to de-program. The video is here, if you’re interested. It looks just like something a liberal group would produce, and it is useless. https://twitter.com/murphymike/status/1268997121446801408?s=20

I had to cut contact wtih a lot of people in that mindset because my own mental health is worth too much to me to let anyone push my buttons, and nothing I say to them will matter anyway. Then I realized that I  have a different problem: extremists on the liberal side. These are usually people who I mostly agree with, but they are  so extreme in expressing their views, that they seem like they’re playing the same game as their right wing counterparts. They’re just wearing the other team’s colors. They seem to live to rant endlessly about every celebrity who uses the wrong pronoun or tweets something that might be interpreted as a slight to someone. They sit at their computers and  painstakingly correct everyone about every tiny mistake in whatever the ‘right’  way of saying something is at the moment. They seem to take great joy in finding things other people do that give them a reason to express how offended they are. They are self righteous and relentless, and they are generally armed with good grammar and at least a moderate gift for intelligent debate, which makes them harder to dismiss as crackpots. 

I usually agree with the general basics of the beliefs of these far lefters, so I just let them say what they want, and I don’t argue with them. I just try to ignore what they say when I don’t like it.  I agree that people need to be called out when they are wrong, but I just don’t agree with their methods. Therefore,  I can respect their space and keep myself from arguing with them on their own turf,  but often, when I share something on social media myself, one of these types will latch on to a word in the headline or a icture of a celebrity who is loosely related to the situation, and start railing at me and anyone else who has the misfortune to be looking at it.   Other innocent bystanders might comment  with a slight objection, or maybe they’re just not agreeing in the right way,  and they are then dragged into self righteous, inflexible debate for hours if they don’t just flee the situation. If I ask them to stop, I am ‘oppressing people with different opinions than mine”. If I just delete the post, I must be ‘uncomfortable talking about my  bias or secret bigotry’. They can’t imagine that it might be because I just don’t like endless, un-resolvable arguments over details. That I don’t want to see my slightly less liberal friends, or elderly relatives who aren’t as good at arguing get publicly humiliated.  I’m all for civilized debate, but if I know from experience that someone is about to jump on a soap box and refuse to listen to anyone else, I’m deleting the conversation. I don’t care how ‘right’ you are about what you’re saying.  We have enough bullshit to deal with in 2020 for that to ever be worth it. 

I don’t know what is in other people’s minds, but it looks from where I’m sitting that for these people, being right is far more important than other people’s mental health or even friendship.  Some of them have a particular pet argument, and others are like that about almost everything.  I knew a white man whose pet arguments were racism and sexism. He was very vocal about how against both of those injustices he was, but he spent a lot of his time telling black people and women how they should  feel about their oppression.  When anyone called him on it, he would freak out and claim to have been ‘attacked’ for his views. There is no way to win or find a compromise with someone like that. No matter what side they’re on. 

 Are they also brainwashed? I don’t know. I didn’t notice this happening any more than I noticed it with the other ones. Maybe they feel guilty about whatever privilege they have or seem to have, and they’re trying to prove they’re not bad people for it? Perhaps they have become so bored with the echo chamber they’ve created for themselves that they’re desperate for a debate and  have no more conservatives left in their lives to  argue with. Whatever it is, I’m exhausted with it.   I guess some people think arguing is fun, but I don’t. With these people, I’m usually on the same side of the issue. We’re almost always  just arguing about a tiny detail, and that is just draining. 

woman holding her head Photo by David Garrison on Pexels.com[/caption]

Both extremist teams seem to me  to lack empathy and don’t seem to remember, online anyway,  that actual humans are complicated. Every person comes to every situation with their own  complicated baggage. They bring with them everything they are born with, everything they’ve experienced and everything they have learned. All of these things factor into a person’s interpretation or reaction to the world. The difference between the two extremes is that one side isn’t pretending to care, while the other side loudly and adamantly claims they do.  Maybe it feels like a game to a lot of people to argue online because you don’t have to look into a person’s face while you’re tearing them down.   Everyone is just an avatar and black and white text on a screen, so it doesn’t feel like they are real. 

In order to live in a society, we must deal with other people, and other people are separate, unique beings. They have their own minds,and yeah, some of them are wrong in their speech and behavior. Hell, we all are wrong that way at times (even you, PC Peter). Sometimes minds can be changed,  but running at people acting like a pompous know-it-all with an ax to grind rarely changes someone’s mind.  It usually only makes people angry and defensive.  People on both sides need to chill the fuck out and choose their battles if they are actually trying to get people to listen, instead of having everyone they talk to that isn’t exactly like them quitting every conversation in defeat and frustration.  

If it’s just arguing that is fun, I recommend these people who feel that way finding each other and having a group for it or something, instead of continuing to alienate everyone else in their lives.   Don’t we have enough sadness and anxiety in the world at the moment without creating more? Just a suggestion. 

Bite me, Phyllis Schlafly

 

This week, I started watching Mrs. America, which is about the women on all sides of the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s. Later in the week,  I had a totally unrelated conversation with my mother, where she expressed regret to me about how much she missed out on doing in her life. She’d never really directly said that to me before, although I did suspect she might feel that way at times.  It occurred to me that she was a young woman at the time as the events portrayed in that show. She just wasn’t important enough to anyone with power  to have her voice heard about it, and I suddenly felt very sad about how hard that must have been for her. 

 

Mrs. America starts with Phyllis Schlafly, whose mission was to hinder progress on the Women’s Liberation movement. The first episode is from her point of view, which made me a little skeptical about watching it because I didn’t want to see her as sympathetic. The show in general deals with every side of the issue, including the way mainstream feminisim leaves out black women and gay women, but the main struggle is between the feminists and the women hell-bent on keeping them down. 

 

After watching that first episode, I still didn’t like Schlafly, but I could see how a selfish person who truly knows nothing of other people’s hardships could end up in her position. She is basically framed  as a woman who originally had other political interests, but settled on gender issues because that was the only way the men would let her into their politics. She used the desire that other women had to have rights as rungs in a ladder to get a little higher in the world, before pulling that ladder right up behind her. Just like the women she oppressed, she wanted more than just marriage and kids. She wanted to be a person, so she found a way to get what she wanted by keeping options away from other women. I think she is worse than the patriarchy. 

 

What really strikes me watching this though, is the place of privilege that a woman had to be in to get her voice heard at all in 1972.  In the show, and in real life, these types have cushy, safe lives, with financial security, and husbands with enough power in the world for them to matter. There is nobody who isn’t white in their lives except their maids, who had to be working women in order to support the lifestyle that the Schlaflys of the world were clinging to. That didn’t seem to matter to the conservative white women, because their ideals didn’t apply to anyone of color. The ridiculous thing is,  they were fighting for a right they already had so they were not really fighting FOR anything. Their real cause was to fight against the rights of anyone who wasn’t  like them.  

 

My mother was a young woman at that time, and the influence of people like Phyllis Schlafly affected the entire course of her life, sweeping her along on a path that she didn’t necessarily choose for herself. She wasn’t in a place of privilege, and there wasn’t anyone in her universe to help her change course. 

Doc Apr 25, 2020, 08_53-1
My mother, Linda in the late 60s

My mother is from a middle class family. She was pretty and  intelligent, with a love for books and a talent for writing, among other things. She had loads of natural potential. But her parents were from Oklahoma. They were children of the depression. Their parents were poor people who had flooded into Oklahoma during the land rush, hoping to make some kind of life for themselves. They came from a long line of hard working people, who were trapped in tradition, with conservative voices leading their choices in life. Nobody went to college to help broaden their experience beyond their own community. There was no role model to tell my mother that she could do anything bigger than her parents had done. She wanted to go to secretarial school and learn a skill to at least make a living, but her mother talked her out of it and persuaded her that marriage was the best path. So at 18, she married the boy from down the street and had a baby soon after.  That baby was me. 

Doc Apr 25, 2020, 08_52-1
My mother (right) pregnant with me. My aunt Gloria is with her. She was equally repressed. They both look like children who are way too young for motherhood.

By age 26, she was divorced, had three children, and was remarried to a man who could support a family so she could be a full time housewife and mother like she was told she should do. He was domineering and abusive, but instead of telling her to leave him, her mother told her that it must be her fault, and she needed to work harder to make him happy. She had found a provider, and it was her job to keep him, or the failure was on her.  My grandmother didn’t invent this idea. She learned it from the patriarchy. She was only preaching the same bullshit that the anti-feminists were also preaching. They were all brainwashed into believing it was true, and passing it on like a bad gene to their own daughters. 

 

When my mother finally got the courage to leave her husband after her mother passed away, she was left with three kids, no money and a foreclosed house, because he literally disappeared on her.  She found herself having to work 2 low-paying jobs  just to keep the bills paid, because she had no skills besides being a wife. She was 35 at that point. She almost worked herself to death for years, trying to make sure her children survived to adulthood. 

 

 I was there through all of this, watching my mother give up her life, first for the happiness of a man, and then for the survival of her children.  Being a wife and mother looked like the worst way in the world to lose your personhood. It looked like slavery to me. I didn’t feel that way because of feminists telling me. I felt that way because I saw it happen my entire life, to my mother and others.  I’m sure there were plenty of people whose experience with this is different,  but my beautiful, smart and talented mother sacrificed her entire youth to being a slave, because of ‘family values’ that were pressed upon her every time she tried to do something different with her life. She was born a bit too early to benefit from any women’s rights movement, and her family and community were driven by the ideas pushed in their faces by their churches and by conservative leaders, binding women to abusive men, or leaving them abandoned as single mothers with no skills to make a living. 

 

My mother didn’t respond by pushing that same crap on me and my sister. She made sure we knew we had choices. She never pressured me to do traditional things, but she supported my sister’s choice to do so. She never told me to get married, and supported my decision not to have children. She  is a feminist hero. She survived all the shit that the patriarchy threw at her, and then broke the freakin’ cycle. 

Doc Apr 25, 2020, 08_54-1
My mother with me in the early 70s. She was probably around 22 or 23.

I am proud of her strength, but I weep for that young woman that she was. I weep for all of the young women who didn’t really have options, and I thank the ones who kept up the fight with other people in mind besides themselves, because without them, my life would have been totally different. So, I understand trying to make Phyllis Shlafly a person with reasons for what she did, but she can bite me. 

 

Women are still trying to hold each other down in the same way Schlafly did in the 70s. Why? Is it fear that their own choices will be taken away from them if other women do something different and everyone discovers that they can? Is it jealousy that they wanted to do something different and they weren’t brave enough? Or is it just an absolute lack of empathy for or other people? I don’t know. All I know is that the Shlafllys of the world were the ones whose voices mattered, and their words and actions hurt a lot of other women, then and later, and even now.

 

A Weird Peace….

60507196_433948057390566_7293315980023824384_n
My grandmother under the crab apple tree.

 

My essay was published in the Houston Chronicle:

This is the link to the online newspaper:

https://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/A-return-to-the-Bower-Coronavirus-has-returned-15169071.php

Here is the text so I can preserve it on my blog.

Since the stay-at-home order, life has crashed into a wall. When it started happening, I was freaked out. Our trips were canceled, the theater I run was frantic about what to do about our shows, classes I teach were being forced online, people I know started losing income, and more and more people were being hospitalized. Would everyone I know become homeless, get sick or die? I was a ball of stress and fear those first few days.

I spent my entire spring break working nonstop to get my classes online. My brain was cluttered. I had this sense of panic, as if the fabric of the world would literally come unraveled if I stopped for a minute and just let things go.

However, a few days into it, I started feeling this weird peace. I went out for a few minutes to walk my dog, and I was flooded with nostalgia. I suddenly felt the reality that I wasn’t a slave to a calendar or clock, which is a feeling I haven’t had since I was 14 years old. It felt like even my heartbeat had slowed a bit. My brain was only acknowledging the present, and I wasn’t even thinking about work.

When I was growing up, my homelife was a war zone. My house was dominated by an unstable stepfather who made daily life into a minefield. His temper might have partly been because he was a workaholic. If he was home, we constantly had to be doing some kind of work. If we weren’t doing homework, we’d better be doing chores. If you weren’t working, you were lazy and a freeloader. Also, because of his job, we moved constantly. I’d just get settled into a school, and it was time to pick up and move again because he’d been transferred. My life was a blur of movement and discord most of the time.

After a stressful trip to Disney World when I was 8 years old had left unpleasant stains on my psyche, I chose to spend my summers alone with my grandparents in Oklahoma. My friends definitely didn’t understand why I chose to do that instead of going to Carlsbad Caverns or Mexico with my family, but I needed it.

My grandparents had a small, cozy house with a giant backyard. There was an old mimosa tree with flowers that looked like pink feather dusters, a crab apple tree with a swing hanging from the branches, and a row of pear trees in the back that always had fruit.

My granddad built me a gazebo with a porch swing on it. It had trellis posts and a ceiling, which were covered in honeysuckle and trumpet vines. He rigged it with electricity so I could bring my record player out there. We called it “the Bower.”

Once a week or so, my grandmother took me thrift store shopping, and I got books and random junk to make crafts. There was a secondhand book store a block away that I could go to trade in old books for new ones. I wasn’t lazy. I got things done. I climbed trees and read books. I discovered Beethoven, The Beatles, old soundtracks, Big Band music and jazz. I created art, wrote stories and played with my grandparents’ dogs. I learned to cook, did crossword puzzles and had conversations with my grandmother about philosophy and religion and life in general.

It wasn’t exciting. It was calm. The days were long, and the world turned slowly. Nobody cared what I was wearing or whether my hair was brushed. No alarm clock got me out of bed in the morning. I got up because I wanted to. I couldn’t wait to start a day that was all mine. By the time it was over, I was usually ready to return to regular life, but I never missed it while I was away from it.

When I was 15, I got a job, and I worked all summer. Since then, I’ve always had a job. Sometimes two jobs. Down time feels like a criminal act. Even when I’m on vacation, I’m working. I don’t think I am unique in this kind of life. The current situation is shining a harsh spotlight on just how precarious most people’s situation is, even if they constantly work.

I don’t want people to get sick or die. I don’t want people to lose their income. I want this to not be happening. But I feel like, in a way, the earth is taking a breath, and I am getting to take a breath with it. I’ll be glad when it’s over, but I also know that I don’t want to go back to my life exactly as it was before. This is a wake-up call.

Decker is a professor at Houston Community College, and the artistic director and co-founder of Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company.

 

Why I am a Buddhist Witch

I’ve never been a religious person. I’m not really a “joiner” by nature, for one thing. I don’t even like exercise classes. I prefer to find my own path with things. I have absolutely no bad feelings to people who do believe a mainstream religion,  as long as they don’t ever use it to hurt anyone or as a tool of discrimination. It just doesn’t work for me.  

I think if you get to the core of any religion, they’re all basically good, with the focus on just being a good person. They’re also basically alike at the root of them all. However, some of them have been mucked up along the way with negatives that were added here and there for the benefit of people who wanted to control others, and those are the parts I can’t deal with. Any religion that has the slightest hint of misogyny will be dismissed immediately in my world, and that includes most of the major ones. 

In my search, I have found two religions that I have embraced based on a lot of reading, thinking and comparing with my own intuition and the known universe. They are Wicca and Buddhism. 

I like Buddhism because there is no ‘God’  that you are supposed to worship. The whole religion is about how life equals suffering, and  the idea is to learn all the lessons you need to learn as a spiritual being. Nobody is expected to master it. We are all just expected to do our best. Nobody is going to Hell. We are all just trying again until we finish learning. This makes sense to me. We are human to learn and grow, not to be punished just for being what we naturally are. 

two buddha figurines
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

The five basic rules of Buddhism (in case you don’t know) 

  1. To avoid taking the life of beings. Most people agree that it’s not ok to kill other people, but this rule doesn’t apply to just humans. The idea is that all living beings have the right to their lives and should be respected. This makes sense.  Civilized and enlightened people are compassionate toward animals. 
  2. To avoid taking things not given. Obviously, don’t steal things, but to me, this extends also to things that are not material. Basically, don’t take anything that wasn’t meant for you. I think it applies to  forcing people to do things for you that they don’t want to do, or taking credit when someone else deserves it. Exploring this in myself, I need to be mindful that I don’t use passive aggressive behavior to manipulate anyone into anything. That’s something that might happen unconsciously, if we don’t stay aware. 
  3. To avoid sensual misconduct. A lot of people think this is only about sexual misconduct or excess, but it also extends to gluttony or any excess. As physical creatures, we each have our own issues with this. I feel like hoarding material things might fall here, too. 
  4. To refrain from false speech. It seems like this only refers to lying, but it also extends to any speech that is harmful to others, like gossiping or slander, or just saying mean things to someone. This one is the hardest, I think, because sometimes my harsh speech is reacting or retaliating, and that is an impulse that is harder to control sometimes for me. Also, gossip happens at times. I’m going to try to keep that in check. 
  5. To abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness. It seems they aren’t judging people for drinking or doing drugs because it is pleasurable, but only because it causes people to lose control and break the other 4 rules, which makes SO much more sense to me than ‘ don’t do anything fun because fun is not allowed’, which is what some of the other religions always  seem like they’re saying to me. 

These things are not rules that are there to make people unhappy or that one will be punished for breaking. They are guidelines to follow to further your path to enlightenment and happiness. That makes sense to me. 

I like Wicca because it is based in nature, and the balance between masculine and feminine is fair. One is not better than the other, and both are needed for the world to work. There is some magic involved and deities (It is important to note that they are Gods AND Goddesses), which usually makes me skeptical,  but if you take that as a metaphor for respecting and connecting with nature, it isn’t really that weird. Physics is just as weird, and nobody really understands that either, so I can take that part in stride. 

THE Basics of Wicca: 

Nature is Divine- respect everything, from plants to animals to elements. Um… care about the planet AND respect life. How could that not be right?  

Karma/Afterlife– No sin, just consequences for your actions, and a cycle of life that happens until you get it right and are ready as a spiritual being to move on to whatever is next. 

Personal responsibility – be responsible for your actions and accept the good or bad consequences that you bring to yourself. Totally logical. 

Harm None– no harm should intentionally be done to another being.  

Respect for others beliefs– Here we go! Each person must find their own spiritual path without coercion. Is there another religion that specifically states this? Because it is very important to me that this is part of my own belief system. 

The main idea of both of these paths is to be aware and responsible for your actions, and to have compassion towards other living beings.  The big dilemma for me personally is that while not enough concern for others will generate negative Karma, too much concern for others can be a hindrance and can also bring negativity.  The challenge is to balance it. I used to always put everything other people wanted before my own needs. I wasn’t always doing it because I am a good person. I was doing it because I have been conditioned with the particular events of my own life that my needs are not important, and making other people happy is the only way to hold value. I found myself resenting it, and that makes for bad thoughts and actions, and generates bad Karma, which to me is just bad energy that builds up when you are failing at being a good person for whatever reason. It is logical that bad actions and thoughts bring a bad response. 

So anyway.. I guess I’ve created my own label. I am a  Buddhist Witch. I am going to do my best to follow the rules of being an enlightened person, aligned with nature and respectful of science. I’m going to try and fail and try again. I encourage everyone to craft their own path. If you have one already, good for you! If not, find something that makes sense to you,and that holds you accountable without making you feel like a bad person if you mess up. Good luck! 

Goodbye, my friend. See you in another life..

 

A couple of weeks ago, I found out that my friend Wayne was dying.  It shouldn’t have been a shock. He had cancer several years ago, and he was in remission, but it came back, and he was losing the battle. 

The death of someone you care about is a life-changing event in anyone’s life, no matter how it happens. You not only lose someone you care about, but you also have to think about the fact that it will happen to all of us eventually.  I have had people in my life pass away before, but it has always happened either suddenly, like an accident or heart attack, or it happened far away, so I knew it was happening, but I didn’t actually see it. I always said before, “I wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye.” However, even when you do have a chance, it’s not easy to actually say it. You don’t always do what you think you will do. 

WayneRehab9

Wayne was not just any friend. We were married for a while about a decade ago. Our marriage ended for various reasons, but not because I didn’t care about him.  I’ve had plenty of relationships where I needed to purge the person from my life when the romantic part was over, but I never married any of those people, so I feel like my judgement of him as a person was right. It was only our romantic compatibility that was wrong. At any rate, he always remained important to me.

 

 I didn’t divorce him right away when we broke up because he was diagnosed with cancer, and he was on my health insurance. He didn’t tell me when the cancer came back because I had found my soul mate and was getting married again, and he didn’t want me to feel responsible for him. I feel like we could call that love. 

WAyneJenClown

So, of course when his family told me he was sick again and going into hospice, and I should come right away if I wanted to visit him,  I went. By the time I got there, he was already standing on the platform of his upcoming journey, preparing to board the train. He seemed like a hazy version of himself, but he was still trying hard to be present, and conscious of not wanting to seem helpless.

We chatted like it was just a regular day. Nobody mentioned death. We joked with each other and recalled funny stories. He mentioned that he was worried about his cats. His family couldn’t keep them, and he worried about their fate when he was no longer able to take care of them. He reminded me that they were mine for a bit when they were kittens, before we broke up. I wanted to tell him I would make sure they were ok when he was gone, but I didn’t want to talk about him being gone, and I knew I would cry if I let myself think about it,  so I just said, “I remember.” I relayed messages from friends who were thinking of him. Some of them were hoping for his recovery. His relatives were still trying to get him to eat. We were all in the land of the living, trying to hold him there with us. 

 

When I came back two days later, he seemed to have boarded the train, even though it hadn’t yet left the station. I sat with him for a while, but I wasn’t sure he knew I was there. I told him I would let him rest and that I would see him tomorrow. Why did I say that, like I thought he would be better the next day? I should have held his hand and told him it was ok, and to let go. I always imagined myself being the strong kind of person who wouldn’t let denial hold me back from the right behavior in that situation, but I turned out not to be. This isn’t something you actually know about yourself until it happens. 

 

The next day, I came back, and it was clear that he was leaving us. His consciousness was somewhere  else, and his body was a shell full of pain. I started to accept it by then, but I wondered if it was too late to tell him. In hopes he could still hear me, I told him I loved him, and that a lot of other people loved him, and I promised him I would make sure his cats were ok. He died a few hours later. I wonder if that’s all he was waiting for. I think that’s possibly why he wanted to see me. He knew I would take care of his pets.  

4336_84963209555_3238625_n (1)

I spent several days crying every time I thought of it. My already busy life was packed with helping to organize a celebration of life event for him, and I was also frantically working to find a home for his cats.  I was moving nonstop and was able to distract myself, but now and then I would see something that reminded me of him, or come across something that used to be his. I had been given a couple of things of his that were prized possessions when he was well, and I felt like I was stealing from him because I had them.   Sometimes, I would be eating, and I would feel guilty that I was doing something that he could no longer enjoy, or I would be outside, wondering if the last time he was outside, if he realized it would be his last time to feel a breeze. Every little thing I did in my daily life seemed so ridiculous and unimportant. I spent a lot of time wondering what the point even is in doing anything when it’s just going to end anyway. Everything  that is you will just be gone, so why do we do anything? 

 

That feeling still comes and goes, but it’s starting to come less frequently. There is no way to really live if you think too much about dying. Forgetting about it most of the time is the only way we can keep having a life that matters. 

 

 I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he just stopped existing, or if he went somewhere else, or if he was born into a new baby somewhere, or if he’s still lingering on the edges of here where he can see us. All  I know is that he is not here anymore, and I am. Everything that is him is no longer here, and everything that is me will also go away. And that is going to take me some time to get used to. I also know that as time goes on, the reality of it will fade for me so I can feel like things matter again. Meanwhile, forgive me if I don’t fully participate for a bit.  I’m still saying goodbye to my friend. WAyneJennifer

The Story of Mildred’s Umbrella, the Evolution of Houston Theatre, and Why I Chose Samuel Beckett.

As most of my friends are aware, I founded a theater in 2001 with a friend of mine, John Harvey. I was acting, and he wrote a play and wondered if I might be interested in helping him produce it. Like most actors, I really didn’t have a full concept of everything that had to happen to actually produce one. If I had, the story might have turned out differently. 

Long story short.. I figured it out…. I lost 20 pounds, wasn’t sleeping and almost lost my mind, but a show happened. We called the company Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, after a poem by Gertrude Stein that was in a textbook John was using for a class he was teaching, and we liked the sound of it. 

Our theatre was small scale, and there wasn’t a ton of theatre in Houston back then.  The things we did were edgy, gritty and everyone involved got their hands dirty making it happen. Also, it was cheap. People who owned bars would let us use their upstairs, or another theatre would rent to us for $500 for the run. We often had to tear down our set every night after the show and get out before 10pm so the band could set up to play in the bar, or have someone guard the door so a tipsy bar patron didn’t crash into the backstage area looking for the bathroom. But we had nothing to lose.  John was writing experimental black comedies that we would (as a group) tweak and adjust along the way to create a show. 

3771_37171274981_4332664_n
From Mac Wellman’s DRACULA, 2004 (photo by David Brown)

Nothing we did was about getting press (although, we were thrilled if that happened, we didn’t care if it didn’t). It wasn’t about selling a lot of tickets (we didn’t have enough money invested to lose anything) or getting personal glory from it. 

Often someone in the press would sort of ‘assign’ someone as the star, and we’d  laugh about it and roll our eyes, because it really always was an organic, collaborative effort, and no one person ever truly deserved that title. I’ll admit, sometimes it made me mad because I was doing a lot of the creating and would sometimes be left out of things in favor of the men I was working with, but that was just the way it was. They seemed to feel the need to do that, and we couldn’t stop them. I guess not a lot of people really understand collaborative art. We were punk rock. We didn’t need a star. 

230705_18302139981_7782_n
From Mac Wellman’s A MURDER OF CROWS , 2006. Photos by Anthony Rathbun

Over the years, the city grew, and the theatre scene grew with it. Spaces are expensive and hard to come by.  We can’t just throw something up in a warehouse or the fire marshal might shut us down. We can’t just throw up some pipe and drape curtains and do a fabulous performance in front of them without someone criticizing us for not having a set. We have to pay actors and designers decently now if we want the best people,  because theatres with more funding are able to do that. Don’t get me wrong, paying artists is a good thing. Our stipends are still too low for what the artists deserve, but I’m pretty sure percentage-wise, my company pays more of our small budget to artists than anyone else in town, so I’m trying. I STILL don’t get paid for my full time work in the theatre, but I do always make sure the others do. It’s just hard to raise the money for it all. 

3771_37171504981_3757072_n (1)
from NEEDFUL CREATURES, 2005. I”m in this one!

We were nomadic for the first 11 years. Then we had leased space  for a while, and the rent payments almost broke us. I was non-stop raising money for overhead, and it had gotten to where I could no longer really participate in the art. I was farming it out and doing a lot of projects other people wanted me to do.  I started forgetting why I ever did it in the first place. So now… 19 years later, we are back to being nomadic. Full circle. 

untitled (1 of 1) (2)
RED DEATH, 2014 , photo by VJ Arizpe

Our budget is still very small. Producing full shows on a shoestring is hard, and I have to personally pick up slack in every area we can’t afford to pay someone to do a job. I have to choose people I know can create within our very restricted budgets, and they often don’t truly understand until we’re pretty far into the process what that means.

 

 

1920620_10152023630651172_856441683_n
ROME 2015, photo by VJ Arizpe

So, recently, I was trying to figure out a project we could do without a lot of frills. I needed a show that I could really create and not kill myself with the non artistic side of things. Our mission has evolved (through urging from local funding sources) to a focus on women.  A lot of the things I find interesting and writers that do the experimental work that I love no longer fit into our mission. Fair enough. There’s a lot of other stuff that works. But then my husband suggested some shorts written by Samuel Beckett that are specifically written for female actors to perform. Not only does that fit our mission, but it’s in my wheelhouse. I was excited at the idea so I contacted two of my friends, Greg and Jeff, (Greg was with me back in the trenches and was a key person in the collaborations we used to have), and we all decided to do it together. 

Together, the three of us chose the actors and discussed our plans. Then, without competition or conflict, we each took the lead on specific plays in the series and brought it together as one show.  We did it in a small, awesome, edgy little space downtown. We built the “set” ourselves out of whatever we found lying around (and some borrowed pipe and drape). The money spent was almost all focused on the space and the performers and not on a bunch of stuff that is going to go in the dumpster afterwards due to lack of storage. We each did our thing and helped each other when one of us needed something. Everyone involved in the process had a hand in the creation of this. We didn’t care if anyone came.

NOT I, ROCKABY, FOOTFALLS (from the Beckett shorts), 2020, photo by Gentle Bear Photography 

We have been largely ignored by the press for it, in spite of the rarity of this kind of thing happening, which only makes me think they just don’t care or understand this kind of work. Whatever. We didn’t do it for them. The one that did came gave us a glowing review, as have many of our patrons and theatre peers, so that was nice, but it wasn’t why we did it. We did it because it was art that needed to happen. We did it because it was in us and had to come out. And we have gotten more polished since 2001. So this show is just fabulous, and if nobody said anything about it, I would still know it. 

ComeAndGo1
COME AND GO (from the Beckett shorts), 2020, photo by Gentle Bear Photography

Here’s that review, in case you’re interested: https://www.houstonpress.com/arts/things-to-do-a-review-of-samuel-becketts-ladies-night-at-mildreds-umbrella-11418453?fbclid=IwAR0mmyRJ6BzFQgoi_FEeOGy3gANvIwHG3Xx_ppKyGc1MpRXZHipU-46Dzqo

I have missed this. It is making me remember why I do it. I want to go back to doing this all the time.  I don’t know how it will happen, but I think it needs to happen. At least some of the time. The whole experience has renewed my reasons for being in all this in the first place, and I don’t  want to let it go. 

Facebook Rage and Kindness

 

 

In the last month,  I’ve seen something that triggers me a lot.  Someone lashes out or vents about something  on social media that is obviously distressing them, and other people will say  scold them or even diminish their vent (‘you’re so negative,’ ‘get over it’, “cheer up’). Now, we all know it’s best not to emotionally vent on social media. It’s not necessarily dignified to air dirty laundry when you’ve just been fired or you’ve been dumped or  are just having a mental health crisis. However, because this is a big way we communicate now, it happens to the best of us, and I think it is important to be mindful of how we respond.

 

 

 

A few years ago, I was having a totally crap time of it. I was getting divorced right after turning 40, and immediately panicked that I was suddenly alone, falling into a series of very wrong relationships that made me feel like I would never feel worthy of respect again. I was also suddenly paying twice the bills I’d had previously, and very stressed out working full time as a college teacher, while also running my non profit theatre, an extra full time job that I don’t get paid for, and rarely get personal validation for doing. I felt like my brain was in absolute chaos for a long time, and I felt totally isolated in my misery. 

16251958_10150713320674982_3243617820981591052_o

We all have our own responses to trauma, and I responded to that one by drinking too much wine and lashing out in my Facebook posts. Hardly anyone asked me if I was ok. Most people responded by either deleting me as a friend, telling me I was negative and needed to ‘cheer up’, or just ignoring me, which I guess was the kindest of the three. Some people would ‘like’ the post, which I guess meant they were at least trying to be supportive. One or two would reach out personally and let me talk to them about it until I calmed down and felt better and felt more positive for the moment, but afterwards I usually felt ashamed that I needed that. That wasn’t my real personality. I was temporarily in distress. Occasionally,  I felt like just giving up on life, and that was my scream for help. I ended up struggling through it, and coming out on the other side, after a lot of time and work on myself. I thank the people who tolerated me and stayed my friend through all that. I owe you one, and I will remember it if you ever find yourself in a similar position. 

This article on NPR’s website describes how a person who was lashing out in anger was turned around completely when the object of his venting responded with kindness, instead of retaliating with more angry words. 

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/02/25/697052006/anger-can-be-contagious-heres-how-to-stop-the-spread

Inspired by this exchange, I recently saw a person I don’t know that well posting angrily about how his life sucks, posting things like ‘what the hell is the fucking point?’ a few times over several days. People were doing the usual ‘cheer up’ and ‘why are you so negative?’, which was making him more angry and the conversation got really nasty a couple of times.  Scrolling through the person’s page, I saw that he’d been unemployed after losing a job, and he’d been forced to move in with relatives because he was having trouble finding employment. I didn’t feel like I knew him well enough to reach out with a message and offer help, but I tried some supportive comments on the angry posts, commiserating with him, rather than criticizing him, and he immediately opened up to me and started sharing what was wrong. We had a  conversation that ended with him seeming much calmer about it all. If I, a relative stranger, could find that information within a few minutes and react with kindness, why couldn’t someone who knows and sees this guy in person take him aside and say ‘I’ve noticed you seem to be in distress. What is going on, and how can I help you fix it?” I suppose sometimes a person is just a negative person, and reaching out won’t help, but I’d be willing to bet most of the time it’s not that. The person just needs a friend to vent to and doesn’t have anyone they feel comfortable reaching out to directly. It’s worth taking the chance to find out.  If you can’t do that, unfollow the person until the crisis is over. That’s the least you can do. 

563969_10150240231764982_1273234055_n

Recently, I’ve had 2 different people say to me in some way, ‘you’ve really come a long way with your attitude’. These are people who don’t really see me in day to day life, but seem to have defined what my personality and attitude is like based on a short time period of watching my facebook posts during a terrible time in my life and judging me accordingly. No, I haven’t changed as a person. I was always this person. I was just having a really hard time for a little while, and now my life is much better. Maybe next time you see someone lashing out, try to see if they need help instead of deciding they’re just too negative to be around.  React with kindness and you might find that you can help be a solution to someone’s real problem, instead of just judging a whole person based on Facebook. 

On being inclusive

We all know what it feels like to be left out. It happens to me all the time, especially since social media was invented. In the old days, you might find out about things you weren’t invited to, but it was usually after the fact, and though it might sting just a bit, you didn’t have it rubbed in your face by people posting photos online, sometimes in real time, of whatever you were excluded from. I guess I’m not really left out any more than I used to be, but it feels like more when I can see everyone posting about everything they are doing constantly. 

49742721_10211039047406710_4840067537137827840_o (1)
It feels good to be included

 Recently, I read this article, and I was forced to remember that  I’m not alone to feel like this. Almost everyone probably feels this way from time to time. 

HERE IS THE ARTICLE: https://faithit.com/build-u-instead-circle-amy-weatherly/?fbclid=IwAR2C_jX4Xis0CpetGoWmwCR5N-jv0LTd4xFuFYI1Q3lmzA3KiJivOMOsmbA

 It’s hard not to take it personally when everyone you know is invited to a wedding, and you weren’t. Or when you see close friends posting pictures of their group outings and you weren’t included. Or when you see some industry related event happening that you weren’t invited to. It hurts, and it makes you feel very isolated if you dwell on it. When I’ve reflected on those moments after the hurt wore off, I had to realize that I’ve probably made someone feel that way too without even knowing it, and that makes me feel even worse than being left out myself. It also teaches me to forgive the people who didn’t think of me.  

68602741_756391298129810_4176753711361556480_o
It is important to remember that sometimes you are one of the people in those photos.

My nature is to try to include everyone, and this has sometimes caused me trouble, to be honest. 

One issue I’ve had is that many people think that if you are a leader who is open to sharing the glory, treating people as equals and giving others a chance to shine, it means you are not confident or strong, and therefore not deserving of respect. If you don’t hold self promotion above collaboration, you must be a hack. 

People who are good at self promotion are able to put themselves on a pedestal and therefore require others to see them that way. I am in awe of this, and have always wanted to be that way, but never have the ability to pull it off.  Recently, a friend of mine who is very good at self promotion and maintaining respect as a leader told me that she thinks people don’t like her, and that I should be happy that so many people like me and that I’m popular. I was like.. “What?? I  thought YOU were popular! Everyone respects you!” I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the meadow, but neither of us is going to be able to be a different person than who we are. I guess all we can do is to try to do better in areas where we are not so proficient, but also to nurture our own gifts and stop being frustrated that we are not like someone else. 

Being inclusive has left me open to other trouble from time to time. For example, when I have  let an enthusiastic artist have too much of a voice in my theatre, only to find out the person is unstable and can’t work with others, stirring up trouble every time they are involved in something. On those occasions,  others in my circle have told me not to be so open, and I didn’t heed the warnings because it isn’t in my nature to be exclusive, but my lack of boundaries with people like that ends up negatively affecting others, so after a few times of that happening, I have been forced to become a bit more hesitant to include people too quickly.  This sometimes also happens in friendships, where I have let someone in too fast only to be tossed aside when I’m no longer useful. These experiences have forced me to learn to go against my nature, and to try harder to require people to prove that they deserve entry into my world. 

On the other hand, my tendency to include people has helped me to nurture many grateful artists, as well as led me to some of the most important friendships in my life. I also have a lot of connections with interesting people who enrich my life in a number of ways because I’ve given them a chance.  I think there’s a fine line I haven’t quite found, but that I really can’t have the good parts of a generous nature without occasionally encountering the bad. 

It is a goal of mine to continue to be the kind of person who tries to make room for everyone, without compromising herself in the process. Sometimes, I’m just muddled or too full of things to do and I lose my path a bit, but I am trying to do better not to ever make anyone feel left out without losing my grip on myself in the process. 

68431001_10156207158275966_795984811498930176_n

“If you wanna be one of the non-conformists, all you have to do is dress just like us and listen to the same music we do.” – Southpark

Who decides what is ‘weird’ anyway? 

JenniferJohn

Quite a few years ago, my friend John and I went to see a play in the upstairs room of a bar in Montrose. This is when Montrose was still weird and wonderful and we were just starting an experimental theater together. We were scouting out the bar for a play we were going to create.  It was a black comedy that had incest, cannibalism, bondage and murder in it. Basically it was him emptying his head of all kinds of demons, and me relating to it enough to want to direct/produce it (and I added plenty of weirdness to it, too). The play we had just seen was also very weird, and we loved it. We felt like we’d found the perfect weird place to do it. 

As we were leaving, we had to walk past a row of people in green, red or blue mohawks, facial piercings and tattoos. They were all dressed up for some concert that was happening in the space after the play. As we passed, one of them said  loudly, looking down his nose at us with total disdain,  “look at the cookie cutter people!” Obviously, he said that because we both had natural hair, no visible tattoos (I don’t think he has any. I don’t), no facial piercings, and we both were wearing pretty mainstream, gender-specific clothes.  However, we didn’t look as much like each other as all those people looked alike, so I just laughed at the guy who said it. Inside, I was a little offended, though. To be honest, I thought.. “you would be shaking in your fake combat boots if you knew how scary we are.” I didn’t say it, because there were a lot of them and only 2 of us. 

But as I always do after I’ve gotten mad at someone for hurting my feelings, I went back and thought about what it was about me would make someone react that way, and what about that other person would make them want to be mean like that towards me.  I knew that John and I were quite possibly among the strangest people I knew. We had both been odd our whole lives. We both had difficult, traumatic childhoods and had become the kind of people who made art as a necessity because it was the only thing that kept us tethered to the world.  We didn’t need costumes to prove to anyone we were bizarro freaks.  In fact, you could say we had spent our whole lives trying to disguise ourselves as ‘normal people’ in a desperate attempt to blend in.

johnjen2
John and Me acting together in a show by Dos Chicas Theater Commune (a Sadomasochistic XMas)

I wondered if the people in those goth/punk costumes felt ordinary on the inside, so they had to be as expressive as possible on the outside so they could feel unique? Or was this just another way of blending in, but just blending in with specific people?  Or were they all just really so bold that they didn’t mind showing an outward expression of their weirdness to the world, like they were flipping the bird to everyone else? I don’t know for sure what is in someone else’s heart, but I wondered why someone who seemed to want to embrace the right to be who they wanted to be would judge anyone else so harshly for the way they dressed.  I only know that if I had tried to do that goth thing, I most definitely would have gotten it wrong. It was too specific for me in its rules to ever be able to pull it off. I also would have gotten really freaked out if people had stared at me because of the way I looked. I would worry they could see the inside of my head. 

Also.. if they were trying to be ‘unique’, they totally failed, because they were the true cookie cutter people that day.  They were just like the ‘cool kids’ in high school who taunt the weirdos. We were the weirdos, like we always are.

It’s like that SOUTHPARK episode, when Stan is depressed and makes friends with the goth kids, and one of them tells him: “If you wanna be one of the non-conformists, all you have to do is dress just like us and listen to the same music we do.” 

Anyway, just a story of an epiphany I had one time.  Everyone’s just trying to find a way to be special. Maybe we’re all weird inside and nobody is weird, and we all just do different things about it.

Here’s some pictures of the art John and I made together, with other weirdos helping us, of course. We all find each other eventually.  Photos courtesy of Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company (www.mildredsumbrella.com)

nOG
‘Night of The Giant’, by John Harvey.. with me and Amy Warren.

NC
Dan Laden, Me and Josh Gray in ‘Eros: A Circus” , by John Harvey

Rome2
‘Rome’ , by John Harvey, directed by me (Christie Guidry and HR Bradford)

JenniferJohn
Us pretending to be normal