Political Essays

Why So Serious?

All my life, I used to have adults say to me: “Why so serious?” or “You should smile more. You have a beautiful smile.” Or the worst backhanded compliment: “You’d have a lot more friends if you smiled more.”

And I can only imagine how awful that must be for women to have some man say that to you.

I was always a serious kid. I was precocious and mostly hung out with adults. I liked hearing them talk about politics or religion or philosophy. All the kids my age were probably more emotionally mature than I was, but intellectually, I wanted to play with the adults.

Thankfully, I discovered the theatre when I was about ten years old, and I was often the only kid in a production. I heard things no kid should probably here at that age, but I loved it! I was no good at sports, and was bullied severely in middle school, so the theatre was my refuge.

And yeah, I was serious. I grew up poor and was raised by a single mom who sometimes worked two jobs and went to school at night to put herself through college. It took her over a decade to earn her Bachelor’s degree, but she did it against all odds. Cause you see, my mom and I are survivors. Always have been. I was raised to not give up on my dreams. Ever since I was little, she taught me the importance of getting my degree and pursuing my dreams. She told me in no uncertain terms that despite our poverty, I was going to college! Whatever it took.

I eventually went on to earn three university degrees in a field I love. I may not be a rich artist – and probably never will be – but I’d like to be a happy one. If that means working as a Lead Concierge by day for the rest of my life, while I pursue art in the evenings and on the weekends, then so be it.

People have often mistaken my passion for anger. Some of it, I can’t help. I’m Portuguese, and us Latin-blooded men are known for our passion. I’ve often heard that I’m the most intense person people have ever met. Guilty as charged.

Sadly, ever since I was diagnosed with mental illness, people have often mistaken my serious and simmering intensity for something worse than it actually is. These days, I have to be hyper-vigilant about sleep because there’s no telling when my next manic episode could be. But I went five years without one, and it’s not something that I’ll allow to define me.

Unfortunately, we still live in a society that stigmatizes mental illness and treats people who suffer as if they were lepers or outcasts from society.

I am not. And if you have any problem being friends with someone who suffers from a disease – no better or worse than any other disease of the body – than perhaps we should part ways now. I don’t have time for that kind of negativity in my life.

I am trying to be the best version of myself and love myself for who I am – warts and all. We’re all dealing with stuff, but I need to surround myself with people who love me for who I am – no matter how challenging it can be to be my friend sometimes. That’s what true friendship is.

Do I have bad days? Sure. We all do. And sometimes even bad weeks. But I’m doing the best I can over here. If you don’t like my seriousness or intensity, or you don’t like my occasional bad days, than ultimately, you don’t like ME.

As Marilyn Monroe once famously said: “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”

And that makes two of us.

The Devil You Know: How Half the Country Could Have Voted for Trump in 2020…Even After Getting to Know Him!

ID 84237747 © Doddis| Dreamstime.com

It sincerely troubles me that nearly half the population of the United States voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Can it be true that one out of every two Americans is a Trump supporter? That means that our family, our friends, and our neighbors may very well have voted for this wretched man. As I ride on the subway or see a car pass me on the highway, I can’t help but automatically wonder if the person inside is a Trump supporter. Much to my consternation, I find myself judging people’s clothing, their speech, and their level of education. I can’t see a pickup truck with an American flag without assuming that the driver is a redneck Trump supporter. 

It’s devastating to me that our country’s flag – the enduring symbol of America – has been savagely appropriated and grotesquely twisted into a hateful symbol of the Right and the toxic brand of masculinity, jingoism, and authoritarianism that is embodied by Trumpism. This past summer, I was camping on Cape Cod and I had forgotten my camp chair. When I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy a cheap replacement, the only ones they had left were covered with an enormous American Flag and were sickeningly patriotic. But I was desperate and they were cheap. I bought the chair but all weekend long I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious about my purchase. The campground we were staying at was filled with lefty hippie-types. The entire trip, I felt the unmistakable stare of the same judgmental eyes that I had been employing for the last three and a half years. They saw my chair and naturally assumed that I must be some jingoistic Trump-supporting bigot. It saddens me that I wasn’t simply mistaken for a proud American with a modest love of my country. The American flag has become corrupted by the Right and it started long before Trump, but it became a hyper-inflated symbol of his toxic nativism with his ascendency.

I find myself drawn to the flags of other countries these days. I recently put a Great Britain decal on the back of my car. I love the UK, and in many ways, I can identify with the British more than the Americans with whom I’m sharing my country. Although, given the recent affirmative vote on Brexit, it’s quite obvious that many Britons are xenophobic themselves and seem to favor a brand of authoritarianism made popular by OUR President. Trump might have brought it back, but this take on fascism is running rampant throughout the world and we are currently seeing a wave of right wing strongmen from Brazil to Hungary. 

How did we arrive here?

I find it deeply disturbing that given the progress we’ve made in this country over the last sixty years, half the nation does not actually buy into that concept as “progress” and instead see us heading down a path of wickedness and deceit. The remarkable strides we’ve made on racism, sexism, homophobia, and other social injustices are actually seen by those on the Right as incompatible with an upstanding Christian society. As if Jesus ever mentioned homosexuality or condemned another human for their very humanity or who they were fundamentally as people. And yet, what the Left sees as inclusion and egalitarianism the Right sees as a society in decay – arbitrarily condoning twisted and aberrational behavior and granting legitimacy to “sinful” lifestyles. Many conservatives see the ascendency of people of color as a threat to their power and as a cause for alarm. An educated and compassionate Black man like Barack Obama is not an ally, but an adversary who must be vanquished at all costs. In their eyes, Obama was an “upstart crow” (to borrow the term used to admonish Shakespeare) and was what racists like to call an “Uppity Negro.” Or worse.The 44th President was an enemy because they saw him as a symbol of change, and for them, change is a zero sum game. Whereas Obama might suggest that by uplifting his race or by empowering the LGBTQ community, he is simply leveling the playing field and ensuring EQUAL rights. Many on the Right see those groups as threatening the white male hegemony and ultimately, eroding their hold on power. In their minds, there can be no shared power. 

In 2008, I naively thought that this country had turned a corner. Barack Obama was promising  “hope and change” and I sincerely thought that’s exactly what the country wanted. After eight years of warmongering and conservative politics, it seemed that the nation wanted a change. Craved it. At the time, I thouht George W. Bush was the worst president we’d ever had and likely ever would have. Little did I know. Obama seemed to appeal to the working class as much as the educated elites. Much like the Reagan Democrats, he seemed to woo traditionally conservative voters and capture votes from the Right. It’s no coincidence that Barack announced his candidacy on the capitol steps in Springfield, just as Lincoln (another young lawyer from Illinois) had done 148 years earlier. Both men ascended the national (and world) stage at a time of cultural crisis when the country was deeply divided over race and politics and it seemed that the very soul of the nation was at stake. 

Admittedly, most voters probably don’t have these grandiose ideas in their heads as they vote. As we’ve seen time and again, it seems that most voters tend to vote for the person they’d most like to share a beer with. In 2000, that was Bush. In 2008, that was Obama. It didn’t matter that W no longer drank; it was the idea of “shooting the shit” with a guy you felt you could relate to. Someone that you could talk sports with or have a sympathetic ear to vent about whatever. That certainly wasn’t the egghead, Al Gore or the policy wonk and teacher’s pet, Hillary Clinton. As qualified as both of them were, they were wooden and unrelatable, and therefore, fundamentally unlikable. Clinton was a woman, and given our patriarchal and sexist society, she stood an even lesser chance of being liked than Gore did. Who would want to sit down and drink a beer with either of them? 

But how in God’s name would anyone want to drink a beer with Donald J. Trump??? 

Again, “The Donald” doesn’t drink, but the concept is the same. Half of the American electorate saw Trump as a “straight-shooter” who, like them, wasn’t always polished and politically correct and certainly not “Presidential,” but who spoke his mind and invariably messed up sometimes. They actually appreciated his stumbles and his rude rants even when they didn’t always agree. They saw him as strong and triumphant over traditional politicians, the mainstream media, and the Hollywood/ Tech elite. When he called people degrading names and blasted the media, he was echoing their own frustrations with a system that had condemned their own feelings and concerns and had made them feel like outsiders in their own country. Trump was the ultimate outsider who promised to “drain the swamp” and use his business acumen to fix the economy and get people their jobs back. After all, he promised to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out and make Mexico pay for it! 

Just over five years ago, Trump announced his candidacy after dramatically descending a golden escalator in his characteristically theatrical fashion. He was greeted by a slew of American flags and was standing in front of a “Make America Great Again” sign. Then Trump proceeded to give a speech we’ve heard quoted a million times since then. It was shocking in its boldfaced honesty and unvarnished xenophobia. Sadly, the speech was just a taste of what would follow, and in retrospect, is totally consistent with the man we’ve come to know all too well. In the speech, Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” 

Right out of the gate, we knew exactly who Trump was and what he stood for. Or at least, what he stood against. It was the first of many dog whistles and immediately caught the attention of his soon-to-be supporters. Apparently, for a great number of Americans, they saw a man who spoke bluntly and unapologetically and said what they had already been thinking. 

For eight years, these Americans had felt marginalized and alienated by the country they love. They had been burdened by a Black president who had, purposefully or not, ushered in an era of “identity politics” and ubiquitous “political correctness.” They had been censored for eight LONG years and had been forced to bite their tongues and keep their mouths shut. Over the years, they had witnessed their jobs being shipped overseas to be worked by brown people in foreign lands. LGBTQ people had been allowed to marry, betraying their deeply-held religious beliefs and shattering their idea of traditional marriage. Affirmative Action had allowed seemingly less qualified colleagues to be promoted ahead of them all in the name of equality and filling a minority quota. In their eyes, crime had overridden their cities (some of which they had never even visited, but saw on Fox News) and that couldn’t be divorced from the fact that it was unequivocally tied to an increase in minority populations and immigrants “infesting” those very same neighborhoods. Although Roe v. Wade had legalized abortion over forty years earlier, the Pro Life movement had gained supporters and capital in recent years and there just weren’t enough conservative SCOTUS judges to overturn the landmark abortion case. They may not have had a problem with women in the workplace, but suddenly, those women had power over the men and their innocent teases and dirty jokes were now seen as sexual harassment. Some of their favorite celebrities and authors were now being “cancelled” because of their politically incorrect words or the jokes they made. Starbucks had declared war on Christmas by adorning their coffee cups with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Colleges, universities, and even public elementary and secondary schools were indoctrinating their children with liberal politics and encouraging students to question the traditional history that they were taught as children. Liberals like Barack Obama hated America and blamed slavery and sexism for all the strife in our country and attached titles like “White Privilege” to honest, hardworking, poor Americans. Conservatives felt under attack when they tried to practice their religion openly and freely – especially when it came to issues like abortion and contraception. 

The battle found its way to the SCOTUS and a conservative majority allowed rulings allowing religious organizations to deny women access to contraception and family planning services. Clearly, another Republican president could shore up the SCOTUS and deliver at least one or two more jurists. Men and women without college degrees felt like the Left had left them behind. For years, these working class blue collar workers and union members had supported Democrats and their agendas. They felt that the Dems had their backs. That has changed over the last 40 years as more and more uneducated American workers are defecting to the Republican Party whom they see as better protecting their best interests and embracing them for who they are and what they do. Democrats were now seen as “Ivory Tower” elitists who turn their nose up at the “working man” and try and shove “Identity Politics” down their throats, lecture them on how these workers’ preferential skin color gives them privilege, and how bigoted they are for hating immigrants and POC for taking their jobs. The Dems left them behind and forgot the valuable men and women who were once the backbone of this party. 

These beleaguered citizens were fed up. They didn’t want a politician telling them what to think and how to live their lives. America is built upon the idea of freedom and liberty, and Obama had infringed upon their “God-given rights” as Americans. They wanted a plainspoken man to give them permission to air their grievances. Someone like them. Not a fancy Ivy League-educated elitist, but a man who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made something of himself. They wanted a man who spoke their language and didn’t mince words even if that meant he was rude and unpresidential at times. They didn’t want the same kind of Republican the party had been running for decades. They wanted someone unpolitical who would wipe away the Washington detritus and start anew. Someone who wouldn’t just promise change and not deliver, but actually return their country to its fundamental condition: white, male, Christian, and rife with guns. That was the American way. This country was founded on those principles. They needed a savior. 

And they found one. 

“Make America Great Again” was not just a slogan, but a way of life. It encapsulated everything many Americans saw wrong with this country. Ever since the Civil Rights era of the late ’50s and early ’60s, the nation had steadily become corrupt and was decaying with each passing day. For many Americans, they were seeing their country disappear before their eyes. 

Boomers have been especially egregious in their assessment of the “good ole days.” For many of them, the nostalgia associated with the 1950s was palpable and they longed for a return to those simpler days. Of course, this “Halcyon Era” never actually existed. Or at least, not for everyone. If you were white, male, and Christian, it certainly was a beneficial time to be alive. Dwight Eisenhower had made their lives easier and raised the average American standard of living. Thanks to the GI Bill, men could afford homes for their families and the average American could buy their very own car. Their kitchens were furnished with modern appliances and their streets were safe to walk. Shows like “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Andy Griffith Show” all cemented the memory of a time and place that was idyllic and aspirational. The “Mayberry” of their youth was not merely a fiction but a place to return to. 

Of course, most respected scholars and historians (as well as the average person-in-the-know) would tell you that those years were not ideal or nostalgic for many. For women, gays, lesbians, transgender, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and other minorities, the 1950s were a deeply oppressive time where rights were curtailed and the ability to live proud and openly was just not a possibility. For instance, to be an openly gay Black woman in 1955 would have been unthinkable. A fierce and progressive queer feminist like African American writer, professor, editor, and social commentator Roxane Gay would most likely not have existed during that period in American history, or at least, she would have certainly been a marginalized and ostracized voice. Gay’s very presence is predicated on the work of thousands of Civil Rights icons who fought for her long before she was ever born. Like many of us (and she undoubtedly knows), she stands on the shoulders of giants. 

The liberal SCOTUS of the Warren Court (1953-1969) had pushed integration and upheld minority voter enfranchisement legislation, among other things. Even though Justice Earl Warren retired in 1967, his court laid the groundwork for the Roe decision in 1973 and even compelled conservative judges like Justice Harry Blackmun, a conservative appointed by Richard Nixon, to write the majority opinion on the case. In fact, seven justices voted in favor of Roe. For the Right, the ascendency of Ronald Reagan in the ’80s briefly returned America to its greatness, only to be spoiled again by Bill Clinton in the ’90s. After all, Clinton had instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”in the US military, allowing gays to serve – albeit, not openly. 

These baby steps set the precedent for later leaders – specifically Obama – to open the military up for gays, lesbians, and transgender Americanswithout the shame of having to hide their true identities. For many constituents, this was a bridge too far. They predicted the collapse of the military and that morale would flag if LGBTQ soldiers were allowed to fight alongside their straight and cis counterparts. They warned of soldiers not willing to sacrifice their lives for each other and that homophobia would prevent meaningful relationships (essential to combat scenarios) from thriving. As we found out, this was all speculative nonsense and the military has never been stronger or more unified. Apparently, soldiers don’t care what your sexuality or gender identity is when you’ve got their back on the battlefield or carrying a wounded soldier to safety. 

As we all know, Ronald Reagan shifted the American electorate dramatically and suddenly, blue collar working men and women began to slowly defect to the Republican Party and have ultimately abandoned the Democrats altogether by now. Mostly. Obama’s message of “Hope and Change” inspired these “purple voters” and they turned out for him in large numbers and Democrats recaptured red districts previously thought lost to the Left. Obama soundly defeated Romney and also did quite well against McCain. Perhaps that’s when I first thought that the country was shifting and becoming more liberal and that NOW was the time for us to make real change and progress on issues like the environment, Institutional Racism, and economic inequality. After all, Obama had the mandate of the people. 

Then Trump came along. 

I knew things were bad when I saw my mother and stepfather slowly get pulled into his web. In full disclosure, my mom and stepfather are wonderful, lovely, caring, empathetic, and loving people. They are two of the best souls to walk this earth. That said, they are also Evangelical Christians and quite conservative in their beliefs. Although my stepfather was a union letter carrier his whole life, his politics are firmly in the Right column. They care about Supreme Court Justice appointments because ultimately, they would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. I also think they wouldn’t object to gay marriage laws being reversed. They are devout Evangelicals who have Fox News on their television nearly 24 hours-a-day. They loved Bill O’Reilly and were devastated and angry at what happened to him at Fox. I think they are big fans of Sean Hannity as well. And maybe Tucker Carlson. 

You see, I can’t say with any certainty because my parents and I don’t talk politics. Or religion. Those are the dreaded “third-rail” topics that complicate our family dynamic.  In the past, these were the very things that led to screaming matches, silent routines, and the unraveling of our happy home. I learned many years ago not to talk politics or religion with my mom and stepfather. And we are so much happier now that we don’t. I love them unconditionally and I know they feel the same way about me. We may not agree on politics or religion, but I know them to be good and decent people, with strong morals and deeply-held principles and beliefs. I DO NOT ACCEPT THAT THEY ARE BIGOTS. These people don’t personally agree with abortion because they think life starts at conception. They don’t believe in gay marriage because they believe that a traditional marriage should only be between one man and one woman and that the Bible expressly forbids homosexuality in the Old Testament. They are Fundamentalists and believe in the inviolability of the Bible and its teachings. No matter how contradictory the Bible is on everything from love to poverty to marriage to slavery to EVERYTHING. 

I have pointed this out to them in the past and my parents’ answers will NEVER satisfy me. But I am satisfied now. I am satisfied that these two morally sound and loving individuals have something that they believe in, and that something sustains them and gives them strength. It makes them happy. Not because they are trying to curtail other people’s lives; they don’t think like that. They just want everyone to live by the “WORD OF GOD,” and in doing so, society will right itself and return to the path of righteousness. That is the groundwork that needs to be laid before Jesus Christ can return to the earth and take us all (or some) to Heaven. These people support Israel not because they fundamentally believe in the Jews right to exist, but rather, because dogmatically, they need the “Chosen People” to inhabit Israel at the moment of the “End of Days” in order for prophecy to be fulfilled and for Christians to fight a battle led by Christ for the souls of humans everywhere. That apocalypse will only ever be fully realized once the Jewish people are the sole occupants of “their” land and no one else contaminates the well, you might say. This is truly Biblical proportions. This is what they believe. 

So as much as I deplore some of my parents’ beliefs and stridently disagree with them on so many things, they are my parents after all. Like it or not, I’m stuck with them. I’m joking, of course. I love them. AND respect them.

Honestly, I would not be the man I am today if it had not been for the struggles of my mother, and all that she sacrificed to get me to where I am today. My mom raised me as a single mom for 18 years with no one but her impoverished parents to depend on. And they were great, but they were nearly as poor as we were, so no one could truly take care of us. My mom did that. By herself. She sent me to college where I ultimately went on to earn three university degrees. SHE did that. Not me. I learned it all from her. She only had a high school degree until I was 15. Through sheer willpower, my mom worked her way through college in her 30s and 40s and eventually earned a business degree from a small college in Bangor, Maine. SHE did that. When she married my stepfather during my freshman year of undergrad, I knew she had found her soulmate. They may not have similar personalities; quite the opposite, in fact. They may not have similar interests. Also, quite the opposite. But what they do have is their shared faith. They read the Bible together and highlight passages that mean something special to them and to their struggles. They are lifted up through their Bible study classes and the work they do with recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. They are strengthened by the food bank they volunteer at to help the poor and needy in their town. 

My mom also happens to believe in climate change and cares deeply about the environment. That’s when she says to me, “I’m not strictly a radical Republican. It’s complicated. There are things I disagree with them on.” And I usually don’t respond, trying to cleave to our previously mentioned “bargain.” I love them and I know they love humanity. They don’t hate Black people, but they don’t support Black Lives Matter. They don’t hate immigrants, but they don’t support DACA or allowing more refugees into the already overburdened country and sagging economy. They don’t hate gay or transgender people, but they don’t support their right to marry. They simply wish those people would find Christ and learn to live by his “rules” again. As they say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” They do love these people. Truly. My mom has never said one bigoted thing in her life. EVER. She raised me right. I happened to discover the theatre when I was ten and suddenly all the religious adults in my life were replaced by older and MUCH more liberal actors, playwrights, directors, techies, and other progressives I met through the theatre. I drifted away from religion, she didn’t push me away. I found my new Church.

I still maintain that I believe in God. I believe the universe is too complex and layered to have just been random. When I look at a painting, I think an artist painted that. When I look at a cathedral, I think an architect designed that. When I read a book I am passionate about, I think a writer wrote that. Why wouldn’t it be so in the universe as well? You may call that “Intelligent Design,” but I choose to call it God. I sometimes even still go to church. These days, it is a Unitarian Universalist church with a strong emphasis on social justice, but I feel comforted there. The people that attend have a strong fellowship and a shared goal of social justice and environmental regulation. They read passages from the Bible, but incorporate other religions and philosophies as well. The very first sermon I heard at my adopted UU church started with a passage from the Bible and ended with an excerpt from a Kurt Vonnegut book. I knew then and there that THIS was the church for me! 

The point is, Democrats can be religious. Conservatives can be atheists. We are all human beings on this rock, fighting to survive and to love our families and keep them safe and protect them from those elements that may seek to destroy us. From others who may try and bring us down. In my opinion, liberals are right. They are on the “right side of history,” because, as Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And it bends towards love. Justice cannot be achieved without love. We must truly “love” our “neighbor as thyself” as the God in the Bible wisely commands. If you compare the Old Testament with the New, they might as well be different books written by two different religions. One is dark and punitive; the other is hopeful and reliant on love alone. I believe we must follow Christ’s teachings. Not because I necessarily think that he was the Son of God, but because they are morally sound and graspable concepts that will make the world a better place. You may have already found that in Buddha. Or Muhammad. Or Wiccan. Or Secular Humanism. Or wherever. The point is that you found it. And if you have not, then we cannot truly sit down at a table together and talk. As one world. One nation. One state. One city. One town. One family. We need to all acknowledge each other as human beings with MANY shared similarities and work to try to understand each other better as fellow members of the same planet. And when that work is done, maybe we’ll be better “armed” to tackle our seemingly intractable differences. But it all starts with love. 

I thought I knew who Donald Trump was in 2015 when he called Mexicans rapists and murderers and promised to build a wall in his very first speech announcing his candidacy. I thought he was pretty transparent and that my fellow Americans would see right through him as I had done. Although I think Hillary Clinton was probably the most capable and qualified candidate for president we’ve ever had, I also know that she is hated and reviled by many and that ultimately she probably wasn’t the best candidate to pick in 2016. I liked other candidates better. But no matter what I felt about her chances, I was committed to seeing her beat the Republican – whomever that would be. Chris Christie. Yup. Marco Rubio? Even more. Ted Cruz? DEFINITELY. Donald Trump? Doesn’t stand a chance. 

And many of us liberals felt the same way. Boy, were we wrong. 

As I watched the election results that night – all the way back in 2016 (seems like a lifetime, doesn’t it?) – my heart slowly sunk as the bitter results came in and state after state went to Trump. On Facebook, in real time, I debated my ultra-liberal friends who were still in denial and who guaranteed a Clinton win. By the time it was all over, I was sick. How could we all have gotten it so wrong? Hillary was ahead in EVERY poll. How could nearly half of America vote for a monster like Donald Trump when to me he was so painfully a narcissist who whipped up support from fringe militant groups, white supremacists, and the electorate derisively referred to as “poor white trash.” I would never say that to anyone’s face. And I beat myself up every time the term even enters my consciousness. It is an awful epithet. NO ONE is trash! (Remember that thing about love and recognizing each other’s humanity?) But one way or another, Donald J. Trump had won the Presidency of the United States of America. And we had to live with it. 

As I mentioned earlier, in 2016, these conservatives and marginalized working class voters felt left behind and truly without a home. They were sick of Washington and all the partisan gridlock. They needed a savior. They needed an outsider with a clear agenda and a list of “bad hombres” whom they could hate and blame for all their woes. They needed a populist demagogue who could lead them to the “Promised Land” and out of their abject poverty and poor health. That manwas Donald Trump. He promised to “drain the swamp” and bring back coal. He promised them a lot of things. And he made America HATE again. Apparently, he had the mandate of at least half the country. 

By 2020, we had had nearly four years of this guy. We had seen him attack, dismiss, and excoriate over half the people he hired – THEN fired – and how easily it was to become an enemy of “The Donald”. We had seen him make fun of a disabled journalist with a crude and abhorrent impression of the man. We had seen him ban Muslims. We had seen him shockingly dismiss Senator John McCain as a war hero, arguing that, “I like people who weren’t captured.” We had seen him start to build his ‘wall.’ We had seen him withdraw from The Paris Agreement. And the World Health Organization. And nearly NATO. We had seen Trump belittle the parents of a slain Muslim soldier who had strongly denounced him during the Democratic National Convention, saying that the soldier’s father had delivered the entire speech because his mother was not “allowed” to speak. We had seen him call soldiers “suckers and losers.” We had seen half his associates arrested and thrown in jail, and even then charges were dropped and sentences commuted, as in the case of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. We had seen him roll back environmental regulations and open pristine federal land up for oil-drilling and fracking. We had seen him aggressively abandon, overturn, strike down, and change course on nearly every one of Barack Obama’s accomplishments while in office. We had seen him stack the Supreme Court with three reliable conservatives: the relatively untainted Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh (an alleged rapist), and now, Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic woman with an unshakable opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and a jurist even more conservative than her mentor: Antonin Scalia. We had seen Trump call white supremacists who had just killed a peaceful protester “good people” and repeatedly send dog whistles out to his “underground” supporters, who it now seems were right beside us all along. We saw him condemn Black Lives Matter and label them and Antifa domestic terrorists while embracing law enforcement and admitting no racism problem in this country. We saw him call for the NFL Commissioner to fire Black athletes who knelt during the national anthem and suggested that they be deported for even raising the cry against police brutality. We saw him deny that Covid-19 was dangerous or that it had arrived in the US, frequently refer to it with a racial overtones as “The China Virus,” refuse to wear a mask, catch Covid, and then refuse to wear a mask afterwards. He fiddled while Rome burned. 

And on. And on. And on. 

We had seen Donald Trump for who he TRULY was: a man devoid of all empathy, compassion, self-awareness, morality, curiosity, intellect, or sense of decency. He was the most un-Presidential President in American history. Suddenly, we were rewriting history and looking back at presidents like Nixon and George W. Bush in “kinder and gentler” ways (as George H.W. Bush implored), almost longing for their relatively uncomplicated administrations. 

And yet, despite ALL that, we still narrowly defeated Donald Trump in 2020. One in every two Americans may still support this man even after all they’ve seen over the last four years. How do you reason with people like that? We can’t seriously consider that 50% of America is filled with unrepentant racists, bigots, and haters can we? Even acknowledging that all us white folks are inherently biased and privileged, we still cannot paint half our electorate with such a broad brush. These people may not even like Trump personally. I suspect that my parents do not necessarily like Donald Trump, the man, but support some of the things he does stand for…most notably, his penchant for appointing Supreme Court Justices. I think it’s incumbent on all of us progressive liberals to give people the benefit of the doubt and suppose that this theory goes far beyond the vagaries of my own parents and it can be safely assumed to represent the various shades of the Republican Party in general. They don’t all love Trump. 

But they need him. They need him to get this legislation passed. To strike down that legislation in the Courts. To pull us out of this treaty or to impose sanctions on that country. To appoint this judge and to fire that partisan hack. You get the point. With Donald Trump, it’s a la carte selective memory. You like what you like and you forget or deny the rest. We all suffer from Confirmation Bias. If they watch Fox News and they are told that the President is under attack from the “lamestream media” and that journalists are our enemies, then they are going to believe it. And if the mainstream media, Hollywood elites, and lefty tech giants are against Trump, then they are against America. It’s pick-and-choose politics and they like that Trump is “strong and unapologetic.” 

So where do we go from here? I wish I knew. There are enough rumblings about Trump making a comeback in 2024 to make me nervous all over again. He’s certainly the Right’s most popular figure. After all, he did garner more total votes for President than any other Republican candidate in American history. Long after Donald’s gone, Trumpism will live on in this grossly appropriated and radically altered party and we will still be left questioning the guy driving by in the pickup truck and the lady yelling about facemasks and overturning displays of them at Target. This is 50% of America. And it’s not easily divided up. We can’t simply have the South secede this time. There are red swaths across every state and liberal bubbles surrounding every major city. “Fly over country” simply doesn’t exist anymore. These are our families, friends, and neighbors. 

Love. Empathy. Compassion. 
That’s where it’s gotta start. Where we go from there, I have no idea…

“Cancel Culture” and the Dangers of Losing Our Culture: A Careful Approach to History

iiif-service_pnp_highsm_15400_15455-full-pct_25-0-default

The more I learn about Teddy Roosevelt, the more I like him. Did you know that his political platform in 1912 called for universal healthcare, environmental protection, the adoption of public lands for preservation, and other similar issues important to progressives today? Furthermore, Teddy was also the first major figure in American politics to call for women’s suffrage and equal pay for women – which we still don’t have today. In fact, his 1880 college thesis was an argument in favor of women’s suffrage. TR basically drew up the blueprint for the New Deal and for the course of American progressivism for the next century. And what surprises a lot of people is that Roosevelt was a Republican. At first. In 1912, TR split from the Republicans and formed the progressive Bull Moose Party after he lost the presidential nomination of the Republican Party to his former protégé and conservative rival, incumbent president William Howard Taft. Of course, even if he had continued in the Republican party, the two parties hadn’t switched platforms yet. That didn’t happen in earnest until the 1960s. So it’s fair to assume that TR would likely be a Democrat were he alive today. It’s just amazing how ahead of his time he was, and how he was so often on the right side of history. Especially when it came to racism and slavery. In 1885, he publicly denounced former Confederate President Jefferson Davis – who was still alive at the time – and compared him to the American turncoat, Benedict Arnold. Davis angrily rejected the comparison, and initially tried to sue for libel, but eventually dropped the suit. TR called for the end to Confederate monuments, which were rapidly going up all over the South at that time, as Jim Crow laws were instituted and the KKK was responsible for hundreds of public lynchings. Teddy called out these racist Southerners, and condemned their statues – 120 years before the rest of the country finally woke up to our nation’s intrinsic racism and the shameful hypocrisy of such monuments.

At the time, Roosevelt wrote: “I certainly cannot be put in the attitude of in any way apologizing for or regretting anything I have said about Jefferson Davis. If secession was not a crime, if it was not an offense against humanity to strive to break up this great republic in the interest of the perpetuation of slavery, then it is impossible ever to commit any crime, and there is no difference between good men & bad men in history. Jefferson Davis for many years had intrigued for secession – had intrigued for the destruction of this republic in the interest of slavery; and the evidence is overwhelming to my mind that in his course he was largely influenced by the eager desire to gratify his own ambition. In public utterances of mine I grouped together Jefferson Davis and Benedict Arnold. As a matter of pure morals I think I was right. Jefferson Davis was an unhung traitor. He stands as an evil eminence in our history.”

Like many people today, I also understand and share many people’s concerns about the true legacy of Teddy Roosevelt. He was an unrepentant Imperialist, who hated Native Americans and brutally bullied Latin America. Roosevelt was a shameless nativist and nationalist, who believed in American Exceptionalism. His foreign policy was Colonialist and oppressive, and he firmly believed America had an intrinsic obligation to police the world and impose its ideals on nations everywhere. TR famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Big Stick Policy, in American history, popularized and named by Roosevelt asserted that U.S. global domination was our country’s moral imperative. Much of the world disagreed, but cowered in its fear of the newly ascendent empire. Some of Theodore Roosevelt’s views and prejudices were problematic, at best, and abominable at worst.

Having said all that, I think it’s always important to keep things in perspective and contextualize the man in HIS time. Any person, for that matter. The world has a rich legacy of influential artists, authors, poets, politicians and the like, who have passed down their work through the millennia and is still warmly received today. We are still teaching many of these – admittedly white male figures – in school. The Western Canon has long been held up as the epitome of taste and culture. However, in the last few decades, that belief has rightfully come under fire. We are now carefully analyzing and parsing every historical figure’s words and deeds, and scrutinizing their every misstep. As we should be. We need to take a critical approach to our ancestors, and evaluate if they are still relevant and acceptable to our modern sensibilities. However, I do believe that it’s a slippery slope when we start unfairly holding our ancestors to our high ideals and standards of decency. Over millennia, we have evolved as a species – both physically and intellectually. It’s fair to say that we are much more enlightened today than we were a thousand years ago, and even just over a hundred years ago – while TR was still alive. While his views on Native Americans and Latin America were backwards and racist by contemporary standards, they were quite commonplace at that time. Imperialism and Colonialism were alive and well. And Teddy fell victim to that barbaric and primitive way of thinking. Sadly, like all of us, he was also a victim of his age. How will historians look back on us? Will we be “cancelled” and outright dismissed by our posterity because we were so short-sighted and primitive in our beliefs and priorities? After our fossil fuels all but deplete our oxygen and our planet becomes nearly unlivable – only to be saved by future technologies and forward-thinking people – will our descendants look back at us as we do the Neanderthals? Can our legacies be salvaged?

In regards to Teddy Roosevelt, despite his bigoted and myopic views of his nation and its role in the world, he was also ahead of his time on so many progressive fronts. Many of these issues still trouble us today, and haven’t even been addressed one hundred years later.

Personally, I think it’s dangerous to take historical figures out of the context of their time, and hold them up to our enlightened and egalitarian standards. If we do that with everyone from the past, we’d have no one left to celebrate or learn from. ALL of our ancestors were deeply flawed. Aristotle. Shakespeare. T.S. Eliot. Ezra Pound. H.L. Mencken. Picasso. DaVinci. Lincoln. Both Roosevelts. And on and on. These names are rife with sexists, antisemites, and racist authors, politicians, and artists. By today’s standards, NO ONE would pass the sniff test. No one. But I don’t think that’s cause to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These (mostly) men were of their age, but they also created art and policy that transcends ALL ages. In his eulogy to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson wrote, “Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time.” As are all of these historical figures. Their work is transcendental, and we wouldn’t still be reading them or consuming their art today if it didn’t still speak to us.

In light of their sins of the past, we must not “cancel” or dismiss them outright, but attempt to understand them and reconcile ourselves with their often shameful and ignorant beliefs. Instead of eradicating them from our text books and tearing down their statues, we need to carefully teach these historical figures and contextualize their hateful and ignorant words and deeds. This is a teachable moment.

It all starts by expanding the canon, and integrating more women, people of color, and non-Westerners into our curriculums. We need to take a worldly and multicultural approach to the way we teach our young people. They need to learn the contributions of people from all different cultures, creeds, religions, skin colors, sexual orientation, gender identities, and more. Our education system needs to embrace the artist and politicians of the world who have helped shaped our society. The next step is to continue to ALSO teach the great Western masters – whose work has been passed down as sacrosanct and unassailable until now – but do so in a way that is thoughtful and instructive. There is a reason why we still read Shakespeare, even though he was a white Christian male. We shouldn’t cancel him because he may have been antisemitic and sexist. We must firmly place these individuals in their time and place, and educate our students about the attitudes and mores of the day – however repugnant. We must not cower and hide from the sins of our forebearers and all the past atrocities that may have inflicted on the world. We must examine their unique zeitgeists, and teach our students that they were, unfortunately, products of a less enlightened and deeply bigoted era. As Confederate monuments are being torn down across the country, it is even more imperative that we learn to be critical in our understanding of the bigoted and racist views of nearly half the country at that time. For the record, I adamantly support the tearing down of Confederate monuments and statues. And the removal of Confederate names from military bases. And the renaming of streets, schools, and everything else that may bear the name of these hateful forerunners. We shouldn’t celebrate either traitors OR racists in this country. The Confederacy was an illegitimate country sprung from the loins of slavery and built on the backs of enslaved Black men and women. Those people do not deserve our admiration and praise. And they certainly don’t deserve monuments celebrating their accomplishments. However, I also don’t necessarily believe they should be melted down or destroyed altogether. There’s history there, and lessons to be learned.  I am of the opinion that these statues belong in museums and on battlefields where men on both sides died. That would be a fitting reminder of America’s original sin, and the people that perpetuated those atrocities. We need to remember them and learn from them, but no idolize and celebrate them. Just because Germany has no statues of Adolf Hitler doesn’t mean that they don’t learn about him and study the past. There’s a marked difference between recording the past and celebrating it. These statues need to come down NOW!

Things get a little more problematic when we start talking about the Founding Fathers. They were not traitors, and over the last 250 years, they have been lionized and celebrated for their unparalleled achievements, and the unimpeachable mark they left on the world. And yet, for all their high ideals, these men were deeply flawed and are rightfully problematic today. Many of our American heroes were slaveowners, and Thomas Jefferson was particularly bigoted, racist, and virulent in his private correspondence and journals. Reading his works beyond the masterful Declaration of Independence is frustrating and infuriating. How could a man that wrote so eloquently: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” also be an unrepentant slaveowner and horrific racist? What’s more, one that slept with an enslaved woman on his plantation and fathered her children! What hypocrisy! Are we supposed to hold that kind of man close to our bosoms? And yet, are we to tear down all the statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson too? Surely their sins are comparable with those of Jefferson Davis and other traitors of the Confederacy less than a hundred years later. But does that mean we rename Washington DC? And schools and streets in every town and city in America? Is that even possible? How do we erase our “Founding Fathers” and not erase our mythic ideals of the birth of this nation at the same time? Like it or not, our unique American identity is inextricably tied to those who founded this nation and launched the longest continuous Democracy in the history of the world.

What if we continued to celebrate their accomplishments and teach them through an evolved and enlightened lens, putting them in their times, and being critical of their racist views? I prefer the latter. How could anyone reject the beautiful words Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence? And yet, those words did not apply to Black men and women, or women in general. We must learn from those egregious oversights.

Problematic and deeply flawed individuals litter our history, and can often make us feel uncomfortable at best or rageful at worst. These days, it’s hard to fathom these individual’s racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and bigoted views any more than we could our next door neighbor who voted for Donald Trump. Wrong is wrong, right? And understandably, many people who have been historically disenfranchised and marginalized throughout history, want to cancel these ancestors of ours, and erase any contributions they may have made. But people are people. Humans are flawed, and much more complex than our myopic history books tell us. That is why we must rewrite our curriculums, and teach these people in a way that embraces their accomplishments, while rejecting and learning from their hateful views. We must take this opportunity for a teachable moment, and use it to educate and enlighten today’s generation, for the sake of future generations. We must not erase our history and culture, but contextualize it and surround it by works by those who may have punished and oppressed by those ugly beliefs and actions. We must provide a holistic view of history, and take these moments to learn from our mistakes. I feel very passionately that we shouldn’t ‘cancel’ problematic figures from our history. We should teach them.

Jon’s Teaching Philosophy

Unknown

Introduction

In teaching theater, the subject, ultimately, has to be the student. It’s not enough to say that we want to create a student-centered classroom, but then continue to teach a “one-size-fits-all” technique to theater. After all, every actor, director, designer, and playwright has their own perspective and life experience. What works for one student, may not work for another. If there is one overarching theme to my philosophy of teaching, it is that students should be exposed to a wide variety of methods and techniques, in order that they may pick and choose the practices that serve them best.  I believe that we must teach individuals, and allow them to explore a range of styles, methods, and techniques, and ultimately, collaborate with them to help shape their unique voices. As a teacher, I see myself first and foremost as a collaborator with each individual student in the process of exploring their own inner-artists and outer-collaborators. The theater classroom should be a place of self-discovery, and as we partner with students to explore and refine their own personal approach to the theater, there are nine principles that guide my teaching philosophy:

 

Respect
The most important thing we can do as educators is to respect each student as an individual, and demonstrate that respect by listening to them and striving to understand their unique perspective and point of view. There is no greater gift we can give another person than our undivided attention and the intimacy of our interest and consideration. Every student is worthy of our attentiveness, and deserves our respect. The teachers I loved the most in school were the ones who truly listened to me as a person. When I was nervous, or scared, or intellectually curious, those special teachers would listen to my point of view, and respond to what I said, not what to what they may have initially wanted to tell me. During my senior year at Emerson College, I had an excellent teacher named Andrew Borthwick-Leslie from Shakespeare & Company. He was a certified Linklater teacher, and had acted in dozens of Shakespeare plays over the course of his career. The class was Advanced Acting: Shakespeare. I was exploring a monologue by Hamlet, and was really struggling. Andrew made some adjustments to my body and encouraged me to breath from my diaphragm. I had heard all those words before, spoken by half a dozen teachers during my college career. I should have known by then. When I had Kristin Linklater as my freshman year acting teacher, she had said all the same things Andrew was saying then – four years later. When I started to cry, Andrew gently spoke to me, and asked me questions that allowed me to express my fear and explore my vulnerability. Rather than tell me what I SHOULD be doing, he asked what I WANTED to do. He spent over an hour listening – truly listening – to what I had to say. He gave me the respect I deserved, and so desperately needed in that moment. I will never forget that. I want my students to walk away from my class knowing they have my respect.

Diversity & Empathy
As we embark on a new decade, it is even more important than ever that our classrooms be diverse and representative of a plurality of opinions and experiences. A university should reflect the world around it, and there is no one way to teach a student. Since each student arrives with their own identities, it is imperative that a classroom accommodate all opinions, while still being respectful and civil—whatever disagreements may arise. One way to cultivate such an atmosphere is for a teacher to model empathy and respect. When we are able to see from another perspective, we are better prepared as artists to tell divergent stories. I have always strived to nurture empathetic classrooms and instill those values within my students. We must have diverse, inclusive, and tolerant classrooms in order to produce actors who look like the world around them.

Humor
As a teacher, I have always relied heavily on good-natured humor and levity to keep a classroom fresh, engaging, and buoyant. I like to use light-hearted and sometimes silly humor to show the students that I am approachable and always striving for humility. I encourage students to play with each other in respectful ways, and want to create a stress-free atmosphere of trust and discovery. Humor is a great equalizer and is often a healthy outlet for deep emotion and tension. As much as we need to cry and be vulnerable in our acting classes, we also need to laugh. All great plays have moments of levity – even the most deadly serious ones.

Diversified Curriculum
As I stated in my introduction, I believe that it is our job to expose students to various methods, tools and techniques, and allow them to find what works best for them. When a student is allowed to explore various styles, they invariably learn the skills that best suit their talent and personality, while also serving the needs of the play. A skillful artist is an educated artist. A true professional is one who is familiar with the rich legacy of theater and all its various forms.

Creating theater is both a deeply personal experience AND a collaborative one. In order to paint a vibrant picture, an artist must know the various colors of paint at their disposal. Similarly, a carpenter or craftsman must be intimately familiar with the various tools they have in their toolbox. It is no different for the actor. Once they have been exposed to a variety of styles, techniques, and methods, they can carefully choose what tools work best in any given situation. If variety is the spice of life, an artist must season their art liberally, and work from an informed perspective, not a parochial one. As an actor and director, I’ve never been cultish about a particular method, and I’ve always found it better to assemble a broad range of skills, rely on what works, and discard the rest. As a teacher, I have taught Linklater, Meisner, Stanislavsky, Hagen, and others. Although I was initially taught by Kristin Linklater herself, I never allowed myself to exclusively adopt her method at the expense of others. I have learned a great deal from the teachings of Stanislavsky, and always use his techniques in my classroom. An artist should embrace what works for them, and dismiss what doesn’t. Acting is an art, not a science. We must encourage healthy exploration.

Question Everything
As a student, I was always bored by static classrooms filled with passive learners and a teacher-centered pedagogy. The teachers who had the most impact on my life were the ones who constantly engaged me with questions and nurtured stimulating dialogue. As an educator, I have never been a committed talking head—even in a lecture hall filled with students. I prefer to employ the Socratic Method, and enthusiastically ask my students lots of questions, and urge them to ask me lots of questions. What’s more, I encourage dialogue between students, and encourage respectful discourse—rooted in asking open-ended questions of each other. This kind of open dialogue dovetails nicely into my philosophy of diversified curriculum, because the more perspectives, answers, and opinions shared, the greater our understanding of a topic and the wider variety of possible solutions. I find that an inquisitive actor is a thoughtful and informed one, and exactly the type of artist everyone wants to collaborate with. My favorite English teacher in high school was a man named Mr. Ames. He was very short and hairy, with a long and precarious bushy beard. He kind of looked like a character from Lord of the Rings. Mr. Ames was an intellectual, and he always encouraged thoughtfulness in his students. He used humor and curiosity as tools to explore literature, and he always asked dozens of open-ended questions of us. His classroom was a place where students could speak frankly, draw their own conclusions, and question their own rigid belief systems. And I was only 16 years-old at the time. You can understand how liberating this experience was for me. I was just maturing as a young man, and I needed a creative outlet for my inquisitive brain. By allowing me to question everything, Mr. Ames gave me a command of my own learning and the confidence that I so desperately needed. I learned a lot from him as a teacher, and have carried those lessons with me into my own classroom.

Embrace Failure
It is vitally important that as a teacher, I create an environment that is safe and supportive for my students. As theater educators, it is imperative that we set the appropriate tone from day one. We must insist that our classrooms are not stages or finish lines, but rather laboratories for experimentation and exploration. We must ensure that our students understand that we are asking them to take risks, learn trust, play with purpose, and are emphatically not looking for perfection or finished products. Students should be allowed to try and fail, and do so in a safe and supportive atmosphere. The classroom is no place for harsh critics—whether self-directed or from one’s peers. Naturally, constructive criticism and feedback are useful and beneficial. But as teachers, we must make sure everyone understands that failure is instructive, and we will never triumph without taking risks and being fearless. We can only do that in a play-lab of discovery. We must always strive to embrace process over product.

Tap Into Vulnerability
When I was a freshman at Emerson College in 1994, Kristin Linklater was my acting teacher, and her style was foreign and unfamiliar to me at first. She endeavored to create classrooms where students could breathe from their diaphragms and throughout their entire bodies, in order to tap into a vulnerability that good actors needed to possess. Kristin once said to me, “Once you get to the point where your vulnerability is your strength, then you are in charge.” That stuck with me. As teachers, we must create brave and inclusive classrooms, where students can feel safe being vulnerable and exploring their emotions. Eventually, they will need to tap into that vulnerability in order to truly embody a character. As an 18-year-old young man, I didn’t know what that meant. Up until that point, acting had been fun and a cool way to escape into other characters and worlds. It was fantasy, and had nothing to do with me personally. Or my lived experience. Up until that point, I had hardly been seated in my emotions and vulnerabilities. I must have seemed like a tightly-wound immature fool to Kristin, but if that’s what she thought, she certainly never showed it to me. Instead, she spent that semester nurturing me and encouraging me to tap into that raw and vulnerable place deep inside of me. She planted the seed, and continued to water it for months. By the time the class ended, I was crying and laughing and singing, and everything in between. She had demonstrated the patience and foresight to take a scared and closed off little boy, and turn him into a man. An actor. An actor who was unafraid to explore his own vulnerability. In my classroom, I teach Linklater Voice and the Stanislavsky Method – both of which rely heavily on tapping into past traumas and long buried emotions, in order to better create three-dimensional characters who respond to their world as we do as human beings. As a teacher, it is important to me that I impart the lessons of vulnerability to my students, so that they can access greater depths of their own experiences, and craft characters that seem as real as you and me.

Build Wisely
In designing theater curriculum, it is imperative that teachers carefully sequence their instruction so as to construct lessons slowly and deliberately, so that we are building skill upon skill, and not creating a precarious house of cards. As a teacher, it is important that every lesson I teach has a clear lesson objective, an assessment tool, and an evaluation that allows me to judge where my students are at, and where they need to go. Ultimately, a teacher of the theater arts must be a student of the student – taking as his course of study the unique intellectual and emotional journey of each individual student. The teacher must plan their classes carefully, and scaffold lessons in order to build upon previous knowledge in order to generate new skills and aptitudes.

Teach the Whole Learner
Just as I believe it’s important to teach a wide variety of styles and techniques within a student’s discipline, I also believe it is important that we teach the whole student holistically, from the skills of their craft to how they interact with the world around them. Theater is a collaborative art form, and as important as it is for students to learn to be the kind of talent that people want to work with – they must also become the kind of person that people want to work with. Most high school students and undergraduates are at a critical age where they are still finding their voices, and figuring out the kind of person they want to be. These days, students come from such diverse backgrounds, and invariably have different strengths and deficits that we must address. It is not enough to teach the techniques of acting, for example, but we must also teach students how to be citizens of the world, good collaborators, hard workers, respectful colleagues, and ultimately, good people. Nowadays, everyone has an opinion, and social media is full of divisive rhetoric that only reinforces the already hyper-partisan world we live in. Everyone wants to TALK these days, but students need to learn how to LISTEN. In theater, listening is one of the most vital skills an actor must learn. In the Meisner technique, actors are required to truly listen to their scene partners, and respond accordingly. The ancient proverb reads, “The fool speaks, the wise man listens.” We must raise new generations of listeners Theater artists need to learn how to listen to the world, in order to improve upon it. As teachers, we must model good behavior, and instill these lessons in our students at every opportunity. That means, we must teach the intangible values of being a good artist.

Conclusion
The classroom is not about the teacher. It is about the student. One of the duties of teaching that I hold most dear, is the responsibility I feel towards the student, and how fiercely I value my role as mentor and advisor to that young person. Making art takes a lot of courage and temerity, and learning to be a good human being at the same time is even more challenging. Behind every great student is a teacher who believed in them, taught them well, and imparted life lessons that went far beyond the classroom. We must embrace a philosophy that gives the student options, and then allows them to find their own unique voice and the techniques that work best for them.

main-qimg-7dbb170d95a27ade419b4e04efc473db

The Cautious Necessity of Nudity in Film, Television, and on Stage

As a director of both film and stage, I have directed several scenes involving nudity and simulated sex scenes. I find them completely justified, and would argue that they play a vital role in the art we produce and consume.

As Hamlet says:

“…the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.”

In other words, one of the primary purposes of art forms like television, film, and theatre, is to reflect nature as we artists see it, and as it really is. Some people — perhaps you — want their art as pure entertainment, and only require it to distract and entertain. These people want relatively mindless entertainment that doesn’t ask much of them, and is escapist enough that it doesn’t bear any resemblance to their own lives — or even any real lives on earth. This kind of entertainment is often considered wholesome and family friendly. Yet, some of this work transcends the mundane and blithe entertainment some families love, and actually educates and enlightens its audience. This brand of wholesomeness can be found in the work done by Pixar. It obviously has no nudity or swearing, and yet, it is smart and thought-provoking. Movies like Wall-E ask its audience to think about the earth, and how we treat it, and mildly condemn our sedentary consumerist lifestyle. What’s more, it does all of this without the use of very many words. Like the later Pixar film, Up, Wall-E allows the viewer to watch action unfold and tells its story wordlessly, trusting in the intelligence of the audience, and in its own ability to educate AND entertain. Movies like this don’t need to be encumbered by sex or violence to keep our attention, but still appeal to the unique feelings and emotions that make us human.

Those films are special, and although ostensibly being “children’s movies,” they have mass appeal to many adults. This is mostly because they can present kid friendly characters and scenarios in a way that is very adult, and can be fun and entertaining, while still be thoughtful and satisfying to older people.

However, sometimes it’s necessary for the subject matter to get more adult and portray mature themes only appropriate for people of a certain age. If the purpose of playing is to hold a mirror up to nature, that means that sometimes we must be unwavering in our depiction of humanity, and show our lives as they are, not as some Disney movie paints it. The reality is, sex and violence are two of the most enduring facets of human life. It seems that as long as humans roam the earth, they will inflict violence on one another, and they will have sex with one another. The very future of humanity depends upon the latter. As we know, money is the driving force behind the actions of many people, but sex has proven to be an even greater and more compelling motivator. It’s human nature, after all. We are all hardwired to procreate, and this is, and perhaps always will be, a determining factor in the choices we make in life. How could an art form pretend to portray real life, and hold a mirror up to nature, if it didn’t attempt to portray sex on screen or on stage?

When I direct a play, and it has nudity and a sex scene, I am extra vigilant about how I portray those moments on stage. If you consider how uncomfortable sex scenes on screen may make you feel, imagine live theatre, where two naked people could be simulating sex just a few feet away from you. In such a case, it is even more imperative that a director pay careful attention to how they are depicting such intimacy. Personally, I make sure that the nudity is never gratuitous, but is not afraid to show the actor fully and unflinchingly. When directing a sex scene, I pay careful attention to the power dynamic in the relationship. That doesn’t mean one character doesn’t dominate the other, but I try to get at why that is, and how that looks. I direct the scenes to be very realistic, while also artistic and with a slightly lyrical quality. The audience should be pulled into the action, but at the same time, have a vague awareness that they are watching art unfold. That they are watching a glorious illusion, and that these are artists making art in front of them. As a director, I enjoy that duality. It makes the experience meta, and the art can exist as a sort of reality AND like a painting in an art museum. You can be sucked into the painting, but will never totally forget that you’re in a gallery, and there are other paintings on the wall, all around you.

Some directors don’t want any fourth wall. They actually seek to demolish the device, and strive to create art that is so hyper-realistic, you actually think you are in the room, experiencing exactly what the characters are experiencing. The film directors Lars von Trier and Abbas Kiarostami are unflinching in what they show on screen. They believe that a film should be as close to real life as possible, and often eschew the trappings and tricks of filmmaking. Their films are truly examples of Cinéma vérité, a sort of documentary style cinema, where directors attempt to capture the darkness and grittiness of real life. In France, the spirit of the French New Wave, in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was a revolt against the traditional old school Hollywood style that had come before. The classic Hollywood film was the embodiment of wholesome, symmetry, clean, neat, and orderly, and the stories weren’t messy and always ended happily and conveniently. These movies never had any nudity, of course, and the love and violence were G-rated. The French New Wave was an avant garde revolt against all things pleasant and orderly. The films were often hand held, and they were lovingly chaotic, messy, graphic, non-linear, and violent. These directors sought to rip down the fourth wall, and sucked the viewer right into the action. Not surprisingly, the films often contained graphic nudity and depicted simulated sex scenes. These directors wanted to show the vagaries of life, and refused to settle for some syrupy sweet and contrived story that bears little resemblance to actual life.

The primary reason why many writers and directors include nudity and sex in films, play, and tv shows is that it’s a part of real life. Why should we show fist fights, but shy away from murder and death? Why should we show love and attraction, but abstain from showing where those urges lead? Human beings have sex. A LOT of it, and most of it is not for the purpose of procreation. Why would we not depict something that consumes most of our minds, most of the time, and has driven men to murder, started wars, and ultimately led to each of us, from the lowliest born to the most royal King? Sex is what got us here, and it’s apparently what’s getting us through.

Finally, many people feel more invested in a story which they can relate to, and one which depicts a sort of avatar of themselves. Usually, we either see two people we want to be, OR we see two people who could be stand-ins for us. When people see nudity on screen, there are many different reactions. No offense, but some more prudish people have a reaction like you do, and are disgusted and repelled by what they see. They see such depictions of flesh as gratuitous, and can’t find any justification for why it would be included in any form of entertainment. Some are religious, some are moralistic, and some just aesthetically object to the practice. Many feel that sex scenes are off-story and tangential, and pollute an otherwise good story. When done poorly, I completely agree with this sentiment. All sex scenes — like violence — should be motivated by the character, and serve the overall story arc of the plot. Sex should never be gratuitous or salacious, just for the sake of shock value. It should have purpose. Realistically, the type of person likely to be offended is becoming more and more infrequent in society, as more of us have become desensitized to such cinematic and stage devices. Currently, many people demand such verisimilitude in their shows and films.

Without a doubt, for some, the inclusion of prurient material is sexually stimulating, and a draw to the work. These people seek out certain productions for the purpose of seeing sex and nudity. It may come as a surprise, but this group of people is small in number, and doesn’t adequately represent the average viewer.

For many of us, it’s rather something in between. I’m not interested in going to see some movie and being forced to endure some gratuitous sex scene with non-simulated penetration and graphic displays of flesh. To me, that’s not artistic. That’s porn. If I want to watch porn, I’ll simply go on the Internet. However, for the majority of people, the inclusion of nudity and sex adds to the art and reality of the experience. It makes the moment more realistic, and allows for the audience to be sucked in even more to the story. When we see two actors naked, they are vulnerable and reveal much more of themselves than we see when they are clothed. There is something unique and special about those moments, and it endears a character to us in a way unlike any other. When we see two actors engage in sex, we somehow buy into their characters more, and we feel more compelled to believe what we are seeing. People like to see people, flaws and all, and this moment of intimacy reveals a lot about people. Just like we often enjoy seeing actors improvise, or the camera to be placed in jarring documentary-style positions, we also enjoy seeing the story and actors laid bare. There is nothing more “behind-the-scenes” than human nudity and actors engaged in simulated sex.

Graphic sex and violence have no place in your children’s entertainment, and if you find it there, than something is seriously wrong. Children shouldn’t be treated as mindless drones, but we should be mindful of their ages, and what is appropriate for them to see. Family entertainment is all a bit bland and mindless to me, but I see its worth. Personally, I prefer stuff like Pixar, which is family friendly AND thought provoking. It is entertainment that is both socially conscious and responsible. It manages to get my mind moving, and do so without the use of graphic sex and gratuitous violence. And that’s great. BUT there is a time and a place for more mature elements in modern entertainment. A show like Game of Thrones is excessively violent and depicts graphic nudity and sex. AND IT SHOULD. That is the kind of art it is. For us to buy into this world of Westeros, we need to see something we can relate to. Additionally, since it is an analog for the middle ages, it is necessarily as violent and filled with sex as that lurid time in our history. We shouldn’t have to watch some Disneyfied version of George R.R. Martin’s instant classic, and be subjected to G-rated tales of ribaldry and action. The show depends upon its graphic depictions of sex and violence. Earlier this season, many fans of the show were turned off to a scene which ended in one of the beloved characters being raped by a monster of a character. In this particular case, the door closed, and we didn’t actually see the encounter, but briefly hearing it was enough. Many people were outraged at the sexual brutality a male character inflicted on a weaker and powerless female character. Meanwhile, for years these same people had watched people naked, dismembered, burnt, tortured, and massacred, but this was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back. None of this would have been possible had it not been for the graphic and unflinching nature of the show. Was it the right decision or not? Had the show gone too far? IT DOESN’T MATTER. It went there, and it generated a lot of discussion, and invariably raised awareness about rape and sexual assault. Like all good art, it generated a discussion, and that’s something a lot of other films and shows can’t do. And that was all about something we DIDN’T see. Seeing all the graphic stuff before made THAT moment even more traumatic. It wouldn’t have been half as impactful had we not seen such graphic sexual acts prior.

Nudity and sex have their place in society’s modern art. It is our right to see life depicted as it really is, not through some Disney lens or some antiquated story about a Prince saving some damsel in distress. We are born into this world naked, and we spend a good deal of time in such a state. We spend hours of our lives having sex, and the very idea consumes many of us, for much of our lives. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be seeing sex depicted on screen or on stage. Does it belong in your daughter’s saturday morning cartoon lineup? No, of course not. But that is family friendly programming meant for THEM, and all the other graphic sex and violence is meant for US. If you are somehow getting them confused, I would suggest you look into the monitors and control settings on your computers and television. Nowadays, there is plenty of software to filter out inappropriate content for children. I would suggest you look into it.

Having said all that, I think there is probably too much sex and nudity in film, television, and theatre today. And I say that because I recognize that a lot of the time, the sex is not justified, and is included solely for the purpose of titillating and attracting an audience. More recently, I have felt like Game of Thrones injects too much gratuitous sex, and does so in order to entice in an unmotivated and prurient way. This betrays self-indulgence, lack of restraint, and appeals to the lowest common denominator in its audience. As I said earlier, sex and nudity should be like lines of dialogue, and serve the overall arc of the story. They should ALWAYS feel absolutely justified, and motivated by the action in the script. Characters are not mere play things to get naked at will, but should do so for viable and demonstrable reasons that make sense to them. An actor should always be able to justify why they are taking off their clothes.

Near the end of the original Terminator film, we see a sex scene between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, and I would argue that it is one of the most justified and motivated sex scenes ever included in a movie. We are seeing the culmination of love that had been building between these two characters, and it is the very embodiment of humanity, with all its organic hopes and dreams, in the face of this soulless machine that was pursuing them. It was so tender and loving, and it necessarily contrasted the mechanical menace that was hunting them, and the uncertain fate that awaited them. Sure, it was a rather cheesy ’80s sex scene montage with tasteful nudity and a synthesized score underneath, but it was also a much needed glimpse of humanity and vulnerability in a relentlessly violent and merciless story. Furthermore, it is the moment in which the imperative character John Connor is conceived, making it epic and vitally important for the future of the human race, and integral to the Terminator story arc. In many ways, it is rather an “Immaculate Conception.” In a movie full of termination, this is the very opposite…that of conception and rebirth. This is the perfect example of a film where the nudity and sex are completely motivated by the script, and help tell a more meaningful story. There are countless examples of television shows, plays, and movies that have similar moments of sex and nudity. It’s a part of life, and therefore, a part of art. That being said, we need to demand more from our artists, and keep them honest. Using sex and nudity recklessly demeans the art form, and reflects poorly on those of us who are trying to use it artfully.

The biggest complaint besides its excessive and gratuitous inclusion, is the way it is depicted. Since first appearing in film and on stage, sex and nudity has been predominantly represented by women, who have had to bear the weight of the act for far too long. The completely disproportionate number of women who get naked, versus men, is a direct result of the patriarchal nature of the movie business and our society, and sadly reflects how much men still control the production and consumption of entertainment. Women have been objectified for far too long, and as responsible artists, it is up to us to stand up for what is right, and bring more parity to the industry. If we expect our women to bare their bodies, we should have no compunctions about asking men to do the same thing. Next to its over-representation in art, sex and nudity need to be far more equal among the sexes. But to condemn it all as obscene and unnecessary is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It more than has a place in the art of today. We just need to be more responsible in how and when we use it.

A Brief History of Disability: A Response to the Teen Vogue article: “Saying Stephen Hawking Is ‘Free’ From His Wheelchair Is Ableist “

I recently read the article, Saying Stephen Hawking Is “Free” From His Wheelchair Is Ableist published in Teen Vogue. Initially, I had very mixed feelings about this article. In theory, I understand the spirit of saying, “The fact of the matter is that Stephen did all of his amazing work with his disability — not in spite of it.” We shouldn’t try and erase someone’s disability, and it is certainly part of them. I fully understand the idea that Ableism makes people unnecessarily ashamed to have a disability, and we must embrace the whole person, not try and strip them of their disability. However, as someone who is ON disability and LIVES with a disability, I would also challenge most people who have disabilities to honestly ask themselves whether they would choose to have that disability. I have no doubt that Stephen Hawking embraced his disability, and was successful with it and not in spite of it, but if given the choice, I wonder if he would have chosen to stand up and walk out of that wheelchair at any given time.

I know I would not choose to live with debilitating mental illness. Obviously, I don’t like the sentiment that death is a noble escape from disability. That’s reductive and diminishing. Clearly, disabled people can achieve nearly anything an able-bodied person can. But there are great obstacles. Huge challenges. I think its disingenuous to assert that people with disabilities would PREFER to have been born with, or develop a disability. Let’s be honest with ourselves. And yes, I’m sure this post will come under fire, and some people may even assert that I don’t have a qualifying disability because I’m not in a wheelchair. Yet, I still qualify as disabled. Doesn’t that qualify me to speak on the subject?

In this increasingly fractured and divisive time of identity politics, I sometimes wonder if  we take these movements too far. To say I’m disabled, and proud is great. You should be. But is saying, “I’m disabled, and proud” the same as saying, “I’m black, and proud?” There’s nothing innately broken, disabled, or wrong with being black. Yet society seems to suggest there is something wrong with being disabled. Granted, no one chose to be black, just as no one chose to be disabled. But in our society, being black should be life-affirming, proud, and wonderful. Obviously, we live in a society plagued by Institutional Racism, and being black is unfortunately a liability much of the time. We live in an inequitable age, where women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and minorities still face unenviable challenges. Many of them would rightfully suggest that racism, bigotry, and discrimination is a prejudice not unlike being disabled.  However, for those of us who can rationally analyze what it means to be any race (as much as any of us can, given our pre-conditioning and stubborn socialization), we would embrace the fact that there is no inferior race, and that we are all human and blessed with an ineffable beauty. The same can be said about gender and orientation. And yet, in many people’s eyes, being disabled is somehow a state of being “half-formed” or “broken.” How could we not feel that way? Why would we be spending billions of R&D money trying to fix us? Being disabled is a social justice issue, just like being black in America is, but it’s not exactly the same thing. It’s hard not to feel inferior when your disability is trying to be fixed. Sure, there are plenty of people trying to “fix” black people or trans people, but no one worth listening to. Those people are just right, just the way they are. And we want to say that disabled people are too, but it is challenging, when to be disabled also means something or someone in need of a fix. It’s hard to directly compare disability with other social justice issues. No one in their right mind would try to fix being a woman. Or being born black. (although many people have tried) Yet, every day, we try and fix being disabled.

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we must also acknowledge that few people – if given the choice – would actually choose to have their disability. That may not be true for all, but I would venture to guess that a good many of us would. At the same time, I also allow that this thinking might be considered “Institutional Ableism” and that I have been socialized to see disability as “lacking,” “inadequate,” or somehow “broken” or “incomplete.” I accept that. I suppose there is a certain degree of self-loathing when it comes to having a disability, and many of us with challenges are “blessed” with the ignominious defeat of shame coupled with low self-esteem. I don’t deny that. I know that I am plagued by shame and guilt. Much of this undoubtedly stems from my disability. (A challenge, I might add, that has undoubtedly been with me since adolescence, but only recently diagnosed.) Does this ingrained and internalized guilt and shame manifest itself in self-loathing ways? Undoubtedly. I have no doubt that society’s view of disability and being in some way “broken” has worked its way into my subconscious. Hell, it’s right there in my conscious mind. I know what it feels like to feel broken. To be half-formed. To be somehow incomplete. Am I part of the problem?

I’ve sometimes wondered if developing a disability late in life may be more challenging than being born with one. That’s not to say that it isn’t as difficult dealing with the challenges from birth. However, I wonder if those who were born with a disability, and have known no other life, have an easier time accepting themselves and their circumstances. I sometimes wonder if it’s like the famous saying, “Time + Tragedy = Comedy.” Does Time + Disability = Acceptance and Self Love? For those of us who developed these disabilities after having lived a life without them (or without being diagnosed with them), it may take getting used to, and there may be an extended period of denial and/or shame. And grief, at the lives we perceive we lost. I may very well fall into that category. Perhaps I haven’t fully embraced my disability, and I am still entrenched in shame. If I truly felt blessed with my disability, perhaps I wouldn’t be so quick to try and shed it or profess the desire to have been born without this debilitating disease. Maybe I wouldn’t naturally assume that those with disabilities would choose NOT to have them, if given the choice. If my disability has in fact shaped me – as has my intellect, my height, or any other characteristic I have no control over – than perhaps I shouldn’t see it as a deficit, but rather, a trait not unlike the others. It is inescapably and indivisibly a part of me, and my identity. Maybe I would choose it.

In truth, Ableism is the stigma that keeps us from talking about mental health or averting our eyes from those in wheelchairs. It is the proverbial albatross around society’s necks, and one thing that prevents us from talking honestly about the emotional toll our averted gazes, furtive glances, and hushed whispers truly betray. As a society, we must grapple with the paradox that as we try to find cures for diseases like ALS or Bipolar Disorder, we are not trying to unduly cure the person suffering from those diseases of being who they truly are. How do we separate the person from the disease? Or do we? Can we love the whole person, while simultaneously attempting to cure them or their “disorder?” Is it even proper to call it a disorder? If “order” is normal and preferable, than surely disorder is broken and in need of a mend. I suffer from Bipolar Disorder. Am I in need of order? Probably. But is my life broken beyond repair, or is my condition just one of the many traits that make me unique and unquestionably loveable? I don’t know the answer to that question. I would hope it’s the latter.

The point is, the words we choose do matter. My initial reaction to this article was wrong. I was wrong to have a knee-jerk reaction to someone insisting it was Ableist to imply Stephen Hawking might choose death over his disability. Perhaps he might have. Perhaps he wouldn’t have chosen his disability. But he had one, and he chose to live his life fully and in a meaningful way. Maybe none of us would choose our disabilities, but for reasons unknown, they chose us. We weren’t cursed or smote by God, but by genetics, heredity, fate, circumstance, randomness, or whatever else you want to call it. It happened to us without our control, and we can either wallow in shame, or embrace what we’ve been given. Should we reject ourselves because of this? No! Is it okay to wish we weren’t burdened with these diseases? Yes. It’s okay. It has to be. We didn’t choose this. But we can choose how we think about our disability. Maybe we wouldn’t choose the disability. But it must stop there. The words we choose to describe our disabilities matter. We must be careful not to assume that someone would choose death over a disability. Or even that they wouldn’t choose it. Maybe they would. After all, it has made them who they are. Those are strong people, and something I aspire to.

What I do know is that I have a difficult time accepting my disability in its entirety, and I would find it surprising if anyone who suffers from a disability truly – in their heart of hearts – would choose to suffer with their disability or live without the pain, inconvenience, and accompanying heartache that disability inevitably brings. Maybe they would. I long to be that person who is so comfortable in their skin, that even their perceived deficits are seen as unique advantages. Perhaps one day, I will accomplish all the things I hope to accomplish not in spite of my disability, but because of it. With it. With all of me.

The words we choose matter. To be disabled is not to be broken. Even if deep down, I still harbor those hateful thoughts about myself. Even as medicine and science tries to cure us of our disabilities, we must cure ourselves…from the inside out. We must learn to embrace our disabilities, and accept ourselves for who we are. Only then, perhaps, we will choose to stay in the chair. Or learn to walk on our own. Society must learn to see us WITH our disabilities, and not be so hasty to change who we are and what we represent. The stigma is real. And if we cannot love ourselves first, it’s hard to imagine how we can expect others to see us fully and embrace us wholly. It’s a reciprocal relationship, and society needs to change, while we need to embrace our disabilities.

Maybe Stephen Hawking would have chosen the chair. Maybe he wouldn’t. But it’s not for us to decide.

We still have a long way to go. Perhaps me more than anyone.

To Belittle is to Be Little: Mansplaining & Our Words of Oppression

ca4yidtxeaa8t5c

So my mom was just telling me about a man she knows who sometimes talks to her like she was stupid and says sexist things from time to time. I quickly responded that he was “mansplaining” to her. She had never heard that expression. I then proceeded to explain it to her, while also being hyper-aware and vigilant about not doing the very thing I was preaching against.

I realized that this kind of hyper-vigilance is exactly what we all need to practice every day and in every circumstance. No matter who we’re talking to – friend, family, or foe. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about basic human decency and respect. We should always be able to disagree, but it’s about how we do so. 

I honestly think half the problems in this world aren’t necessarily caused by WHAT we say to each other and what we disagree about, but HOW we say it. How we talk to each other matters. It should be discourse built on an unspoken agreement of respect and civility. It’s about empathy.

The next time I talk to a woman, or a child, or a minority, or someone perhaps less formally educated- but no less intelligent, or ANYONE, I hope I remember what I learned today: words matter. Charity begins at home, and the way we talk to each other is the first step towards truly listening. And that’s where true compromise lies.

My Story: Living With Bipolar Disorder & Giving Voice to the Voiceless

wedding-pic-w-jay

My name is Jon, and I live with mental illness. For over thirty years, I have worked as a professional actor, director, writer, and educator. I have taught high school, university, and adult education. As a writer, I write reviews, political essays, social commentary, and have been published on several websites. Despite my many accomplishments, five years ago – at the age of 35 – I was diagnosed with severe Bipolar I Disorder and ADHD, and it changed my life forever. Tonight, I am here to describe my journey into the abyss, but also to share my resilient story of hope and recovery, and how I am living proof that it is possible to live a purposeful and rewarding life while living with mental illness.

Five years ago, I was living in Chicago, and finishing up a Master of Fine Arts degree in Directing. During my three years of grad school, I had been arrested for DUI, faced jail time and thousands of dollars in fines, lost my driver’s license and totaled a new car, gone through a painful breakup, abused drugs and alcohol, and suffered the deaths of two close friends – one of whom had Schizophrenia, and took his own life. On top of all this, I was put on probation in my theatre department, and nearly kicked out of the program. Not because of my grades – I had a 4.0 and was at the top of my class. It was because I was having interpersonal conflicts, and couldn’t effectively collaborate with my peers. I didn’t know how to deal with stress, and was driven by an unrealistic need for perfection in myself and in those around me. I couldn’t handle rejection and criticism, and often lashed out in defensive ways.

In my final semester of grad school, I was working as an assistant director at a theatre in Chicago, with three very famous actors. I was living the dream. What I didn’t know then, was that I was also living with mental illness. Quickly, the pain and stress of those three long years began to catch up with me, and I suddenly had a complete psychotic break. And yet, I felt greater than I had in years. I was sleeping only about an hour a night, but I was accomplishing so much! I was more creative than I had ever been, and began writing books, plays, and keeping a daily journal –which I would scribble in all throughout the day. I thought I was the next Hemingway. I had delusions of grandeur, and pictured myself writing the next great American novel or a hit Broadway show! I was juggling dozens of creative projects, including painting, drawing, and sculpting, and had transformed an entire room in my apartment into an artist’s studio, where I furiously created art around the clock.

I also started spending all my money on frivolous things. In addition to creating art, I was also buying antiques and collectibles at a local thrift store, and selling them online at a business I had created for charity. Soon, I began working as a head chef at a local bar and grill, and somehow I imagined that I was on the verge of launching the next hit restaurant in Chicago.

But there was also a dark side. I was becoming increasingly erratic. I began to hallucinate and hear voices, and came to believe that I was the Son of God—sent here to save humanity. I let my hair and beard grow, and began walking through the streets of Chicago barefoot, giving sermons on street corners and preaching to prostitutes. I walked alone through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, and nearly got shot more than once.

When I wasn’t in the streets, I was preaching crazy ideas on Facebook, and no one had any idea what I was talking about. I was completely unstable, and began fighting with people on social media. I lost a lot of friends during that time. Many people thought that I was just being a terrible person, without realizing I was having a complete psychotic breakdown. The few friends and family I had left were worried about me, but for many, this was the first time they had ever seen someone in crisis, and didn’t know what to do. After several failed attempts to get me help in Chicago, my family finally flew me back to Maine to receive the treatment I needed. There’s no telling how much longer I would have survived in Chicago. By the time I left, I was convinced the CIA were watching me, and planning my assassination. I was a danger to myself.

Within three days of arriving in Bangor, I was at PCHC (Penobscot Community Health Center), and had seen a primary care doctor, therapist, and med manager. Before long, I was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder and ADHD, and put on several medications. I was also referred to the NAMI Bangor (National Alliance on Mental Illness) support group, and a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy class, to receive lessons in mindfulness and dealing with interpersonal conflict. All of this saved my life.

But make no mistake. I thought my life had ended. As scary as my time in Chicago might sound to you, for me, it was thrilling and exciting. Those three months of mania had been the most stimulating in my life, and I had never been so inspired or productive. I thought I was God, and now, here I was back in Maine, on disability, and living in my parents’ basement. All I wanted to do was die.

When I first got back, I attempted to teach and work in local theatre, but once again, I had serious conflicts with my colleagues, and gave up altogether. I became increasingly depressed, withdrew from friends and family, and rarely left the basement. I was overly medicated and could hardly function. I used to be a passionate and articulate person, but now here I was, drooling and could hardly feel a thing. I became suicidal, and made several attempts on my life.

For ADHD, I was put on Ritalin, and before long, I was snorting it for the high. It was the only time I felt creative and alive—like I had felt in Chicago. I was snorting an entire month’s supply in a week, which would make me manic, and not allow me to sleep for six or seven days at a time. My life was spiraling out of control, and I prayed every day that it would just end.

And it nearly did.

But about a year and a half ago, everything changed.

I was addicted to Ritalin, had gained nearly 80 pounds, and had been rushed to the emergency room several times. I finally said to myself: “You gotta get busy living, or get busy dying.” I realized I was trying to kill myself slowly, and things had to change. I decided to get busy living. But I needed to find purpose again. I had been on disability for over three years, and knew I couldn’t work. Yet, all my life, my work in theatre and education had given me all the purpose I needed. After all, I had sacrificed nearly everything—including a wife and kids—for my career. For the first time in over thirty years, I could no longer work, and had to find a new purpose for living. Before I could even get healthy, I needed a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I needed to find something I loved again. One semester during college, I had lived in a castle in the Netherlands, and had traveled all throughout Europe. However, I had never made it to Portugal—the country where my family came from. I decided that whatever it took, I was going to take a trip there.

You have to understand that I hadn’t been on a plane in four years, and was absolutely terrified. I have claustrophobia and severe social anxiety, and I was worried about trying to navigate language, culture, and transportation in a foreign country. I was concerned about breaking from my routine, and becoming disoriented in a strange and unfamiliar place. Every day, I went back and forth between thrilling excitement and absolute crippling terror.

In order to ensure that I was safe and had a good time, I knew that I had to plan this trip very carefully. I spent hours each day pouring over maps, watching travel videos, reading books, researching the culture, and carefully constructing a detailed travel itinerary. By the time I arrived in Lisbon, I knew that city like the back of my hand, and didn’t even need a map to find my way around. My trip was a resounding success! I had no problem with the flights, communicating, or staying on schedule. You see, despite the limitations of my disease, I had managed to turn an unfamiliar place INTO a familiar place, and Portugal became like a second home. Living with mental illness doesn’t mean you have to stop living, it just means you have to plan better!

When I came back from Portugal, I was a new man. I had a renewed sense of purpose, and a feeling of accomplishment. For years, I had been crippled by insecurity and low self-esteem, but after my trip, I had nothing but confidence.

The first thing I did was quit Ritalin. Next, I renewed my gym membership, and started swimming and working out 3-4 times a week. I changed my diet, and lost over 40 pounds. I worked with my doctors to get me off the more sedating medications, and found just the right combination of meds. I started walking several miles each day. And after years of being told I should volunteer, I finally did. Within weeks of my return, I began volunteering for NAMI Bangor, where I currently serve as a Media and PR Assistant, and help the President—Betsy—with outreach and advertising for all our NAMI events—including this one. I enrolled in a training program at Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, and now tutor and mentor adult literacy students, as well as work with children reading and distributing books. As a tutor, I spend hours each week creating lesson plans and instructing adult literacy students.

I also researched and learned as much as I could about Bipolar, and soon realized that having a daily schedule and routine was vital for my survival. I started planning my days, and keeping a strict calendar. Every morning, I wake up at 6 am, do yoga, make coffee, drink a smoothie, and listen to NPR. I work out, relax in the sauna, swim, eat healthy, and attend weekly NAMI meetings and weekly therapy sessions. I devote a few hours to reading and writing, and a couple hours to watching tv. I craft lesson plans, teach students, coordinate NAMI business, and volunteer on political campaigns. The point is…I stay busy. I finally got out of that basement.

I can’t tell you how much NAMI has meant to me as an organization. It literally saved my life. In group, I talk with other people suffering from mental illness, learn coping skills, get advice, and have access to helpful resources. I’ve made deep and lasting friendships, and found fellowship with others who have been where I’ve been. After years of trying to convince my parents to attend a family meeting, they finally did last month, and they loved it. It allowed them to talk with other parents, and get a little bit of perspective about me and my disease. They were finally able to vent, and to grieve, and to seek the advice of others who knew the pain of having to care for a loved one. They are now committed to attending every month, and I’m happy to say that they are here with us tonight.

Recently, I switched to a new therapist, and I’ve made more progress in two short months than I had in over four years! I cannot express how important it is to find a good therapist, and I would recommend it for everyone, whether you suffer from mental illness or not. There is something deeply profound and therapeutic about taking to someone who knows what they are doing. If you’re interested, NAMI can help you find the services you’re looking for.

I’ve also decided to move back to Boston, and return to work again. Over the next year, I plan on applying for college teaching jobs and to start directing again. However, I will never stop volunteering. It gives my life purpose.

I want to say that despite the fact that I have made significant steps in my recovery, I still have bad days. Even bad weeks. In fact, these last few weeks have been tough for me. Every so often, I go through a brief, but deep depression. There are times when I still have fleeting thoughts of suicide. When I don’t get enough sleep, I am always at risk of becoming manic. It’s important to understand that there is no cure for mental illness. Only management. Those of us in recovery are each on our own path to wellness, and realistically, that means times of dizzying success, and times of great struggle. There are relapses and stumbles along the road, and there are times when I honestly don’t know if I’m gonna make it. There is no silver bullet for mental illness, and it’s something I will live with for the rest of my life. I will always be susceptible to the darkness. However, it is treatable, and with planning and vigilance, it is possible to lead a healthy and productive life. It takes work. A LOT of work. But as they say in AA, it works, if you work it.

Since being diagnosed, it has taken a lot of courage for me to admit that I live with mental illness. At first, I was scared and ashamed, and didn’t tell anyone. Over the years, I’ve slowly “come out” to friends and family, and three months ago, I revealed my illness on Facebook, where I’ve received nothing but love and support. Tonight is the first time I have ever publicly spoken about my disease. But it won’t be my last. It’s time we end the stigma of mental illness, and I am personally committed to a life of advocacy. Most people had no idea that I was suffering in silence. And that’s the point. That’s why I’m here tonight. And that’s why I will continue to speak all over the state and the nation, to small groups and large, to community organizations and in front of legislators who have the power to fund mental health care and reform our broken system.

But I’m also here to ask for YOUR help. If you’re afflicted with mental illness, I encourage you to seek therapy, and perhaps attend a NAMI support group. If you suffer in silence, as I once did, I would ask you to consider being open and honest about your condition, and living out loud and proud. It’s not easy. There is still much work to be done. But the more of us who come forward with our stories, the more people will realize how common mental illness truly is, and the easier it will become to accept. The more we normalize mental illness, the closer we get to treating it as you would any other disease of the body. Like every great social justice issue, SILENCE IS DEADLY, and we have lost too many people to mental illness. Every day, in this country, we lose 22 veterans to suicide and undiagnosed PTSD. Over 40,00 people take their own lives every year in this country. For those of you who have friends and family who suffer—and I guarantee you do—I would ask that you educate yourself about their disease, and look for ways that you can advocate for all of us. This is an epidemic, and we need your voice and support. It starts as small as offering aid to a friend in crisis, but it doesn’t have to end there. We here at NAMI have several resources to help, and I encourage you to seek us out. You’ve already made the first step in coming here, and I thank you for listening to my story.

A House Divided Cannot Stand, But Should It? Is This Nation Too Broken To Mend?

civil_war_intropage

In the last two weeks, I have been to a Clinton rally with Bernie Sanders and a Trump rally with Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump, and I must say that I am really frightened and saddened by the state of our nation. We live in two different Americas, and I cannot help but think that perhaps it would have been best if Lincoln hadn’t preserved the nation. What would have happened if we had not fought The Civil War? I know that it’s practically blasphemous or treasonous to even suggest such a thing. And I also know that even with the Mason-Dixon line, there still was no easy way to divide the nation then, and would be nearly impossible today. These days, we have red states next to blue states, and then all kinds of purple states, and then within states, we have large swaths of red rural areas, and dense blue urban areas. Undoubtedly, it would be impossible to somehow divide the country along ideological lines. It’s just not logistically possible. However, in some ways — and on some days — it seems like it would be a hell of a lot easier than healing the divide in this country, which seems ominously close to tearing us asunder.
 
And I know all you eternal optimists will reject my words, and just say we need to all work together, and put the nation first. Sure. I’m sorry, but from what I have seen over the last two weeks, we are not even speaking the same language. We have VASTLY different ideas about which direction this country should go in. WE LIVE IN TWO AMERICAS! And neither side is willing to see the decency and good in the other, and neither is willing to budge an inch. I am not optimistic.
 
I don’t believe Hillary will win in a landslide, but I do believe she’ll win. However, I still think she loses. If we thought Congress was obstructionist and didn’t work under the Obama Administration, I shudder to think about how broken it will be under a Hillary Presidency. Whether I vote for her or not, or like her or not, there is no arguing that she is a deeply divisive and polarizing figure. Just as he is. I hate to say it, but we got the election we deserve. Sure, we could have put up better candidates, folks, but that is NOT what the electorate wanted. That is not who we are as a country at this time. We are a deeply divided and polarized nation of extreme viewpoints, and we nominated exactly who we thought could fight our battles. We wanted two polarizing figures, who were sharply divided on the issues, and spoke our minds. And we got them.
 
Donald Trump will slowly fade from our memory, and eventually be a sad footnote in history. But I’m sad to say, we must share this nation with his supporters for generations to come. He has exposed an ugly underbelly, and given voice to hatred and bigotry. He has somehow empowered the poor working white man, and given legitimacy to their fears of foreigners and other people they see as threats. If you had been at that Trump rally yesterday, you would have seen how scary this portion of the electorate is. Sure, there are good people voting for Trump, and bad people voting for Hillary. There are bad apples in every bunch. But don’t confuse the two parties and candidates. Hillary may have her obvious faults and has clearly made some poor decisions, but Donald Trump is a sociopath, and many of his followers are legitimately dangerous. Don’t sit there and try and tell me that they are two sides of the same coin. Remember, I have been at both rallies. The Clinton rally had no metal detectors, was extremely peaceful, had no protesters, and was ALWAYS respectful. Bernie mostly talked specific policy points, and rarely spoke of Donald Trump. When he did, it was never personal, and it was always respectful. He spoke of why Trump would be bad for this country, but never did he hurl insults or epithets. There was no name calling or calls to “Lock him up!” or “Jail the Rapist” or any other such nonsense. The crowd was rational and even-tempered throughout.
 
On the other hand, the Trump rally was scary. There was OVERT racism and sexism, with all sorts of nasty and misogynistic chants from the crowd. I heard awful and disgusting things yelled in that auditorium, just as we were surrounded by young boys and girls, and their frothing, hateful parents. I saw disgusting tee-shirts with not only hateful and abusive language, but violent depictions of what they should do to Hillary. These were people not only calling for her imprisonment, but demanding she be raped and murdered. Don’t for a minute confuse these two groups of voters. Those people at that Trump rally may not represent all of Trump’s fans. I know there are good and decent people voting AGAINST Hillary, and are admittedly holding their nose, and voting for Trump. But I’m sorry, that’s almost as bad. By voting for this man, you are endorsing him and all his bad behavior. You are giving him your mandate, and you might as well be one of his rabid, frothing followers. You are rubber-stamping a monster. At least with his hateful bigoted supporters, I know where they stand, and who to look out for. I’m more frightened of his silent supporters. If you think it’s just a small segment of the electorate, think again. Consider all the more moderate Republicans who refused to rebuke him or unendorse the man. Men like Paul Ryan. Yes, the Speaker of the House. The third in line to succeed the President, in case of emergency, and a tremendously powerful figure in Congress. He has refused to pull his endorsement of Trump despite blatant xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and bigotry. Even in the face of charges of sexual assault and misconduct. I honestly believe Trump could rape and kill someone on camera, and not lose a single supporter. Could he harm a child, and get away with it? At this point, I think so. 
 
We live in two different Americas. And I have very little hope that they will get along and work together any time soon. A victory for Hillary will not end this “election nightmare.” I’m afraid this is just a prelude to a much more troubling road ahead.
 
Sorry to be such a bummer. 😦

Art May Be Its Own Reward, But Artists Need to be Paid

pygmalion-and-galatea
Art is its own reward.
 
As Shakespeare once said about mercy:
 
“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.”
 
Now don’t get me wrong. For those of us who make a living in the arts, we want to be fairly paid for our services. Many of my colleagues and I resent the fact that so many artists are not paid for their services, and are expected to ‘suffer’ or ‘starve for our art.’ Many in Congress and in the greater public believe that because we love what we do, we naturally would do it one way or another, and ultimately for free. And the sad thing is…that’s true. We do it for free every day. But for those of us who make our living off our art, it isn’t enough. We have bills to pay. We have rent and mortgages. We have families, and need to put food on our tables as well.
 
The difficult thing about having a career in the arts is that because nearly all of us began painting with our fingers, or sat through piano lessons, or dabbled in writing bad poetry, or maybe even landed the lead in the high school musical, we all think — to some extent — that we are artists. And you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But you wouldn’t exactly be right either. Everyone has an artist within them, and all of us are capable of expression. To live a life of art is to love wildly, and to throw yourself into whatever you do. As human beings, we make art every day. No one should be denied the right to consider themselves an artist, and to put as much beauty into the world as they possibly can.
 
For some, art is a hobby. And that’s okay. Your mother may take art lessons, and enjoy painting on the side. Perhaps you’ve taken an improv class, and get a thrill every time you perform in your local improv troupe. And what community would be complete, without its share of committed amateur actors performing regularly in community theatre shows?
 
Yet, for those of us who make our living in the arts, we must not be confused with those who dabble. We must not be confused with those who have full time jobs, and enjoy creating art on the side. That is not to say that their efforts are any less than ours, but only that we have dedicated our lives to our craft, and spent countless hours — and money — becoming the artists that we are today.
 
I have three university degrees in theatre. I have worked in the business for well over 30 years. I have been in over 200 productions, and directed nearly 50. I have designed sets, and lights, and worked countless hours building scenery and hanging lights. The writer Malcolm Gladwell once said that to be an expert in any field, you must have spent at least 10,000 hours solely dedicated to the deliberate practice of your field. I have spent well over that many hours in the theatre. I have been doing this practically non-stop since I was six-years-old. I am an artist.
 
For me, art is a way of life. I have spent my life in pursuit of a dream. I have spent my life creating art, and constantly evaluating and reevaluating myself as an artist, and evolving in my craft. You see, that is the sign of an artist. There is nothing wrong with performing show after show, and getting a high off performing for your peers. But what separates the professional artist from the amateur, is that the artist must constantly evaluate, evolve, and hone their craft to perfection. Of course, there is no such thing. I mean, perfection in the way that Plato meant it, and how we as human beings aspire to it. We must allow themselves to be vulnerable, accept honest constructive feedback, and evaluate how effective our art is, and how we can always strive to be better. It takes hours and hours of self-reflection, and the kind of time and resources that others may not have. Or desire to give.
 
For those of us in the arts, we must be paid for our many hours of service to the field. This is not just a hobby for us — this is a way of life. I would never say that someone wasn’t an artist who creates art. But I would say that for many of us, we have committed every fiber of our being to making great art, and constantly having to reinvent ourselves as artists — and as people. We ‘suffer’ for our art, because it allows us to never be complacent, and always working to get better, and to produce more. It is not an easy or romantic life. It perhaps knows more hardship and rejection, than triumph and reward. Yet, we know no other life, and cannot imagine doing anything else.
 
There is art for art’s sake, and art is its own reward. But for those of us who make our living at it, we appreciate your support in helping us continue. By supporting the arts, you are blessing your lives with what we endeavored to create, and you are blessing us with the means to continue putting more beauty out into the world. By all means, keep creating, and sculpting your own piece of wonderment for this planet, but never confuse what some may do for free with what so many do for food. Because like you, we would do it for free. But we still need to pay the bills.
 
Please support the arts and pay your artists. ❤