15.11.05

rebel without a crew

Is anyone out there?

I'm referring, of course, to my readership. Rule #1 of blogging is "Post daily" and there I have sinned. I like to think that some of you have been checking the site obsessively since Oct. 28, hoping for more pearls of wisdom from me, but I fear those that were may have given up in frustration. For what it's worth, I'm back, my play having opened last weekend.

For once, the question "Is anyone out there?" does not carry any overtones of frustrated romance, but I'll get to Sammy in the footnotes...

First and foremost these days, the question "Is anyone out there?" refers to a life partner or partners even harder to find than a lover. I refer to a band of comrades, a cohort, a movement.

Just before Halloween, I was poring over the Village Voice's 50th Anniversary Edition. Once I started reading it, I literally could not stop, finding that somehow the New York I'm really in love with is not the New York I've ever known: it's the Greenwich Village of Bob Dylan and the Beats, the Stonewall riots, the ACT UP movement, the days of squatters and abandoned buildings in Alphabet City. A New York that almost certainly would have been no safe place for little conventional me who has never used drugs and can hardly protect himself against physical aggression.

That New York is part of a history that I want to feel like I'm a part of, even though I grew up in a Northeastern suburb and went to an Ivy League school. The history of the counterculture offers me an alternative history that I can adopt as my own. And as I walk down the relatively clean and indisputably safe streets of Giuliani/Bloomberg Manhattan (the only New York I have ever known), I seek out the traces of that history that have mostly turned to tourist ploys.

Looking at historic retrospectives like that is comforting, I suppose, because you're able to position yourself pretty easily somewhere on the spectrum. With the benefit of an historical viewpoint, most of us have no trouble figuring out which events of the past we found to be generally good things and which generally bad. We know which historical figures "got it" and which ones were just trying to beat back the tide. When we read those sorts of things, we all become Hegelians.

How often is it that one is conscious in the present day that "history is being made"? A few recent examples stand out, primarily because the news media relentlessly inform us of the events' historical significance: 9/11 is the big one, but another recent example is the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts and, for some of us, the curse-breaking World Series victory of the Boston Red Sox. It's on days like that that one saves the newspaper because you know the headlines will be valuable someday. They will be landmarks in the history books.

But much of the history that attracted me in the Voice pieces was not "big event" history but rather the movement of culture: groups of artists and activists or even groups of party-goers gathering around certain places to explore certain ideas. A sense of Zeitgeist, the "spirit of the times." What passes for Zeitgeist these days are shamefully shallow pastimes like reality TV or obnoxiously simplistic political statements (by which I mean both neoconservativism and the carping cant of Bush-hating liberals). Where is the sense of something building up below the surface, the sense of Benjamin's (and Kushner's) "angel of history" flapping its wings, ready to make its descent. Who around us is working towards the revolution?

It's funny that the most penetrating social analysis in the Voice retrospective comes from gossip columnist Michael Musto, admittedly a longtime favorite of mine. Writing about the 80's club scene, he says:
This was before the Internet and hundreds of cable channels helped the mainstream subsume the underground, allowing the alternative to become the norm and shock value to virtually disappear. At this point, the underground existed, and as annoying as some of its habitu├ęs could be in all of their aggressive edge-of-the-brinkness, they certainly never threatened to lull you to sleep.


The mainstream has subsumed the underground in more than the mere appropriation of a countercultural aesthetic posture. It has subsumed our need to revolt as well. That's partially why the current attempt by Senate Democrats to force an investigation into the possible doctoring of intelligence during the buildup to the Iraq war leaves me cold. Is there anyone who really believed back in 2003 that the Bush team wasn't doctoring intelligence? I thought we'd moved beyond that. One amazing difference between the war we're currently fighting and the Vietnam War is that this time around it took virtually no time for the intelligent, well-read segments of the population to discover that our leaders were occluding the truth. Has there ever been any need for "consciousness-raising"? We knew that from before Day One of combat operations that there was no link between Sassam Hussein and Al Quaeda, knew that Colin Powell's speech at the UN was probably bullshit. People, some of them quite prominent, said such things at the time (especially people in the UK), the opinions were all out there for everyone to see (thanks to the Internet) and we all just sort of nodded our heads and thought, well, yes, they are probably lying, but not much we can do about it, is there?

We're still doing that. Everyone has accepted the truth of certain critiques about society, but that understanding no longer prompts large collective action. There are no movements in America. We have ideologues, we have talking heads, we have lobbying groups and political action committees. We have whole organizations of people who are paid to oppose things like the nomination of Samuel Alito or the teaching of evolutionary science, but these are interest groups trying to push an agenda. Where are the groups of people gathering together to change the structure?

I think I accepted a while ago that truly revolutionary activity these days has to happen on the local level, pretty much below the radar. To certain extent, it's revolutionary just to pay attention to the local level at all, to value the rehabilitation of neighborhoods and the strengthening of communities. I've known for a while that that's where my mission lies and I've found some people who are doing that.

One group of them is the theater community where I've been teaching and directing for the past two years or so. I have truly been inspired to learn from the people I've met there, committed activist who (through the strength of their organizing) went from soliciting money on street corners to building a huge multi-theater complex that accepts no corporate or government money, one that still embraces marginality as a virtue. In so many ways, the work that I've been doing there is my life's work and I'm completely in sync with their philosophy.

And yet, it's weird. Without getting into all the details, the theater (like all insitutions built by a band of committed individuals) has its quirks and odd interests. I couldn't care less, for example, about radical trends in psychotherapy (which many people in the wider theater community are involved in). It's not that I disagree with any of the theories or models that are espoused, just that they don't really interest me; I don't want to channel all my energies into them. This theatrical community grew up around a few people who had backgrounds in philosophy and psychology and its natural that these tendencies emerged. They've been at it for over twenty years, so these tendencies are deeply ingrained.

That's what weird about my position there, I guess: though I'm a sympathizer and a respected colleague, generationally I will never be part of the club. In certain key ways, I'm closer to the 18-year old kids that we teach in the school than I am to my 50-something mentors there. And when I recently attended an international conference they sponsored on performance studies, I felt like a man without a homeland. Here were hundreds of people from around the world engaged in theater and social change, people who belonged to theater companies. Where did I belong? The people there that I knew were mostly middle-aged Lefties that I'd been working with, but that was hardly my demographic, nor did I have any real decision-making power amongst them, influencing their priorities or anything like that. My contemporaries, the people I feel most at home with on a personal level, the college friends that I collaborate with even, don't really "get" me on the political level. I can talk all I want to them about my revolutionary activity and they get a glazed over expression. They hear the phrases but not the substance of what I'm saying and they aren't trying to do anything like it.

I left the conference wondering where, if anywhere, I would ever be able to find any young people who shared precisely this vision. People I could not only speak to and know that they hear me but people with whom I could build something. "Let those who have ears hear!" There are plenty of "hearers" out there (most of you who read my blog and post comments, for example!), so I never feel like I'm talking in a vaccuum, only that I'm working in one. That I'll never find someone else to put on the show with me, on our own mutually-felt and comtemporary terms.

Which made it all the more weird that I started emailing with this gay union organizer guy I met on Friendster and both of us found ourselves describing our career goals to one another and seeing how they seemed remarkably, almost unsettlingly similar. Here was someone who spoke about creating a non-profit whose mission was revitalizing inner-city communities. How? By the creation of a "public space," a community center for the new millenium where people could gather to create their own culural projects, to organize, to debate, to meet one another, to engage in cooperative enterprises. We met for a beer last week and found ourselves envisioning a space in Brooklyn that would be a food co-op, performance space, legal assistance center and neighborhood hangout. What was so exciting was how little I had to explain, how I could speak in shorthand only to discover that he had been having exactly the same thought. It felt weirdly dreamlike and I'm almost not sure it actually happened.

The other weird thing about meeting this guy (whom I'll call Engels), was the uncertainty on both our parts as to whether our meeting was a "date" or not. I was definitely attracted to him physically and I think he was to me as well but the torrent of talk that came out of our mouths seemed to swamp all of those comsiderations. I found my head spinning with ideas about the next five years, trying to actually set up some kind of organization, of trying to secure property in Bushwick, and then found myself asking, "I wonder if I'm going to kiss him tonight?" I didn't and it was probably all for the better since I was exhausted from long nights of rehearsing, was still overcoming a cold, and moreover was more interested in the prospect of this guy being another kind of life partner, a co-worker, a co-builder, a comrade.

We haven't met since (I've been insanely busy), though we've briefly emailed. The confirmation that another twentysomething (and a gay one to boot!) exists out there who has independently developed the same ideas for how society needs to be reformed leds some credence to my life choices. It makes me feel like I'm not totally on the wrong path. And that's what everyone wants to hear, isn't it? I don't know when my next meeting with Engels will be, don't know whether we'll jot down a momentous manifesto on a cocktail napkin or wind up in one another's bed. I do feel something stirring, though.

Is that a revolution in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

**I promised a footnote about Sammy (you may remember him as the coy boy who was keeping me in a Beckettian waiting game). Well, a lot has changed. He's become a lot more forthcoming, effusive even, calling me a lot, wanting to see me. Things have gone relatively far and I decided after eating dinner with him last night that I actually like him, as in I think he's a cool person. It's really rather sweet (he made me a mix CD!) and that's not what I'm used to. Are these things supposed to feel so genial?