Being FatPosted May 15th, 2013 by Sean Williams
You live in a terrible and expensive home. It’s hard to move around in it, nothing works right, you’re always uncomfortable in this house. The bushes are full of trash, the doors don’t really open or close, it’s hot inside all year long. And it’s expensive, and the landlord is raising your rent every year.
Your neighborhood is nice. Everyone has nice houses, everywhere you look there are nice houses. And when people walk by your house, you’re embarrassed, you say something. You say, “Jesus, your house is lovely, my house looks like shit…” and the people smile and say, “your house is fine!” or “look, that’s *your* house, don’t let anyone tell you it’s awful, just live there! Love it! It’s your house and it’s beautiful!”
But everywhere you go, it’s lovely houses in great shape. Every magazine cover features a nice house, one that seems to have been meticulously cared for. A house that has been loved – been maintained. Everywhere you look, it’s houses with perfect, straight picket fences and high clean lines, the windows half open to let in the breeze. And you know that the people who own those homes aren’t lazy, aren’t bad people, they care for their homes, they maintain their homes, they WORK on their homes.
And you tell yourself that the pictures of the homes aren’t real pictures – everyone knows they’ve been doctored. And those famous people can *hire* folks to clean their homes, can hire doctors and mechanics to keep everything inside the house in perfect shape. And more than that, you know that most people’s homes are in good shape purely because of what the parents passed down to the kids. It’s *genetic*, that people who live in shapely beautiful homes give the gift of shapely beautiful homes to their children.
But none of that matters because you still have to live in this house. Walls littered with barnacles, impossible to move from room to room, steep stairways that leave you out of breath… And all those people who say, “your house is fine!” – those people say that *first*, and then, a few sentences later, will start telling you their secrets for why their houses are SO MUCH NICER than yours.
I just takes work. That’s all, you just have to work on it. You have to deny yourself the impulse to do things that mess up your house in the first place. Twenty minutes three times a week, is all. You just have to do a half hour of maintenance every morning. You need to do a little bit of work in the evening, after the kids go to bed. You have to stop letting stuff come *in* to the house that makes it a mess, even if that’s the only stuff you can get.
And you listen, thinking, “I spend hours and hours every week. I didn’t stop letting in crap, I stopped letting in almost anything. I work on the house for hours, and I’m humiliated during the time that I don’t. If a day goes by and I haven’t tried, desperately, to change everything about the house, then I feel bad ALL DAY.
While I’m doing *anything*, the SECONDARY thought running through my head is about how to accomplish that thing, but the PRIMARY thought running through my head is about how terrible my house is, how humiliating my house is, how everyone who sees this house is repulsed, how everyone who sees this house knows that within its walls lives a horrible crouching church gargoyle, catching its own leaking feces with its hands and desperately hiding it behind a couch cushion.”
And you get older and the doctors say, “this house is literally killing you. If you live in this house, you will die. Maybe not right away, but this house will give you pain in your joints, early onset diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, reduced kidney and liver function, insomnia and an early death. This house will make your wife a widow and your children cry at your grave.”
And so you move. You have to move. One day, you simply say, “Even if it’s an hour of sprinting every day, I can’t live in this house any more.” And you pack. You spend hours and hours, deep into the night, packing and the night drifts away and it’s been a day and more and more and there are more hours and you’re still packing. The boxes piling higher than the things in the boxes had been piled, the boxes filling the rooms so that you no longer can move from room to room, and you turn around and all of your things are still there. The boxes are full, there is less room, but none of the things have been packed. There is no more room for another box, but you still have the exact same amount of stuff to pack as you did when you started.
How? How could I have tried this hard for this long, and I’m not in the same place, I’m actually worse?
You have to move the boxes to the truck, it’s the only way, the truck parked out front, the truck that your family and friends and neighbors have been wondering why you didn’t hire *years ago*. You bring out a box, then two. You pick up a box and go down three flights of stairs and back up a flight of stairs through the basement door, because the other doors and windows quit working in this horrible house years ago. You load it into the truck and go back down, then up and up and up and get another box.
And the day gets long and turns to night and the night breaks and it’s now day, or maybe the next day, or the one after that. And your neighbors and family see you packing and they’re proud of you. Yes, right now you live in this horrible house, green with moss and tangled with cobwebs and rat shit, but you *are* trying to move. At least *now* you’re no longer the kind of man who just *lives* in a place like that.
And the day turns back to night. Your arms ache, your thighs are shaking with each step, but you go back to the room and you see there are three boxes left. And you have two choices -
You lift all three boxes, barely able to hold them, and you cross down one, then two, then three flights of stairs, and across the mud and offal filled basement floor, with decayed and discarded children’s toys and ancient indistinguishable black vegetables from a Salad Never Eaten and then up a flight and out the basement door, legs shivering and twitching, back breaking and sweat pouring from your body, OR
You lift one, make the trip, make the trip back and then lift one more, make the trip and the trip back, and then the last, muscles now twitching, back now breaking, sweat so bad rolling down you that you can barely hold the box, t-shirt black from where the loads have rubbed into your disgusting moistround gut, and swimming ankle deep through the sludge and up the basement stairs for the last time…
But either way what happens then is this. You slide the box into the truck and you turn back to look at the house. And it’s more horrible than you remember but the worst part is this – you see that it’s structurally sound. The house will not fall. You can see that your name is on the front, engraved, never to come off.
And then you turn to look into the truck and it’s empty. There are no boxes there, and when you turn back to look at the house, you aren’t outside looking at the house anymore. Suddenly you discover, you’re back in the room, nothing is packed, there are no boxes, it’s simply days and days and weeks and months later and all the work and the sweat and the pain was only that- it existed only to be work and sweat and pain because your goal will not be reached. It will lead to nothing. As hard as you want to work, maybe you’ll get one piece of garbage out of one bush. But your goal will never be reached.
And you slip out of the house, just in front. And your neighbors and your family and your friends, somehow not totally repelled by the smell coming off you, somehow not understanding that their time would be better served doing literally *anything* other than talking to you, come by and put a hand – not on, but *near* your shoulder and say, “it’s a good house. I think your house is just fine. This is where you live, you should love it.”
And you know you’re going to die before they die. And you know it’s the house that will kill you. And you know it will never work, but you know you have no choice. You pick up the box and go back inside to start packing again.
These ThesesPosted March 18th, 2013 by Sean Williams
I spent a week some time ago writing once a day with a theme – “coming clean”, where I did my level best to tell the truth about some of my personal myths. I talked about parenthood and my artistic life and all of that was very personal and therefor pretty interesting. Everyone likes nudity.
I’m going to talk about something this week that is probably far less interesting, although I’ll certainly do what I can to sprinkle it with personal storytelling. I think we’re at a really interesting crossroads right now in terms of arts-funding, specifically, and regarding our personal financial/moral obligations as consumers and creators of art. With the larger cultural conversation that’s going on in America, I’m going to write down my thoughts on several different aspects of that this week.
Before I go any further – or rather before YOU go any further, I’d like to present some facts. This is not meant to be aggressive, but if you think these *aren’t* facts, then there’s no point in going any further reading anything I’ve written this week. In fact, if you can’t agree to the following facts, there’s probably not much point in reading this blog, or talking to me about anything.
Except jokes. We can still make jokes if you want. But talking about stuff? Not much point.
1) The wealthy in America have more access to the consumption of, and the creation of, art.
2) The Arts are the driving force behind American Culture.
3) Profit motive is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, it’s simply an economic system.
4) Hegemony and a lack of innovation are not good ideas for corporate culture, but they are devastating practices when it comes to the arts.
5) Almost nobody is stupider than me. Almost nobody is smarter than me. There’s no bell curve to American Intelligence, there’s about a thousand people at either end and the 380 million Americans who are all roughly the same.
And now some quick clarifications, which you can totally disagree with -
1) When I talk about The Arts, I’m including high and low and everything in between. I’m talking about anything that survives on the hardwork and craftsmanship of content creators who supply everything from porn shops to museums to mulitplexes to magazine ads. If you start with nothing and have to invent a thing, you are in the arts.
2) If you disagree with me because of your personal animus towards me, there’s nothing I can do about that. If you feel that I am somehow privileged or that my gender or race nullifies my perceptions, then there’s probably no point in engaging with me. I do my best to try to deal with what *is*, but I am a product of everything that’s ever happened to me and, as such, an ad hominem attack on me will work, always. Just know that proving I’m a dick doesn’t exactly prove that I’m *wrong*.
In fact, here: I’m a dick. So, now you don’t have to come at me with my own dickishness, the point has been pre-validated.
3) In the same vein, I don’t believe I have a right to broadcast these positions or that my opinion is more important than anyone else’s. I write these blogs with the exact same motivation every time – that my grandkids can get a chuckle when they read this shit in 2080.
4) 1.2 million years ago, an ape managed to tilt his hips and walk upright, 120,000 years ago we started working together as families, 10,000 years ago we cultivated crops, 5,000 years ago we built pyramids. Today, one in five Americans are born into poverty, the entire European Union is on the brink of economic collapse, everyone has nuclear weapons and we’re murdering thousands and thousands of people with drone strikes.
I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT ANY OF THAT.
Perspective is important, yes. There are more important things, yes. If I were to make the argument “People with money are currently controlling the artistic conversation and this is one of the reasons we aren’t *aware* of the fact that one in five Americans are born into poverty” and your answer is “people are starving and you want to talk about paying artists?”, my answer is “Um… yes. That’s what I want to talk about.”
We can talk about starving people whenever you want, but that’s not what I’m talking about this week. Feel free to link to your blog where you talk about starving people, have interesting things to say and offer up solutions. I’ll be here creating content because that’s what I do.
Excepted, Not ExceptionalPosted January 17th, 2013 by Sean Williams
Of the many wonderful things the internet has brought us (porn and… y’know, other stuff, NOT porn) my current favorite is the social media “humble brag”. This is when you post or tweet a seemingly innocuous or even negative thing, but it contains a really audacious bit of self-celebration. “The MTA fucked me AGAIN, and I’m late for my third audition today,” says the actor, who wants everyone to know his career is going great. “One more cup of coffee, and this novel is gonna be set in Brazil,” says the novelist, who’s writing a novel and getting his novel done. “Marlena just poured juice in her boots,” says the high school dropout, desperate to prove that he got married and had kids just like he was supposed to, and is living a totally reasonable life with adorable pitfalls…
So, it’s hard for me to figure out how to talk about some of the stuff I see and feel without feeling like I’m doing the same. In a way it’s insidious, because the guy who’s writing his novel is probably struggling, and he’s reaching out to the rest of us for some sign of support, some sense that this lonely horrible thing he’s trudging through is meaningful to someone, anyone. To accuse him of the humble brag is to attempt to humiliate him for even subtly claiming that his work is important.
So, when I talk about the people I know as being “strange” or “singular” or “unique”, you have to know that a big part of *being that* is just horrible. The defining aspect of the small group of people that I adore is our total lack of definition. My community is defined by our inability to form a community. The club that we belong to requires, for membership, a complete inability to be a part of a club. We try, we open our hands to one another and we form loose bonds and when we see each other at a bar or a reading or something, we run over and hug each other and drink in the jokes and one-ups-manship, and we bemoan our inability to land any grants or get into grad school and then hours later or days or something, we retreat back into ourselves, we roll over in bed with the covers up over our ears.
But that… loneliness, is the only word I can use, is apparent in everyone’s work. It informs everything we do. The isolation, the independence, and that information colors the work in such a way that we recognize it in one another. I see great looking people with awesome shoes and easy smiles, so I go out and get awesome shoes and go to the gym and try my easiest smile for everyone I see, but there’s not a SINGLE PERSON who buys into it.
And here’s the thing, how do I put this? Do I write down the fact that I love deeply and easily? That if you’ve ever seen me smile and it felt genuine, it’s because I genuinely adore you? That if it ever seemed like I was forcing a smile, it probably was forced, that I can’t seem to be kind and gracious? Do I try to describe this pathology, this horrible life long gun pointed down that will shoot my feet as some kind of *gift*? Am I going to say that this loneliness, this isolation is what makes “me and my friends” wonderful artists? Do I craft this humblebrag in such a way as to make yet another Seanrant into some kind of celebration?
Because it’s awful, for all of us. I’m under no illusion that there is a Duran-Duran-video yacht somewhere covered with beautiful people in bikinis sharing cocktails, and that I’m not invited. But I do believe that there are people who walk around without a crippling sense of regret and shame for all the times they *didn’t* say the right thing at the right time, the people who figure – that moment came and went and they may as well just let it go and keep dancing. The people who think what they write is probably pretty good! It’s at least good enough! When they’re on stage, they’re probably great! When they go into a party, they’re probably gonna have fun! I know there are people like this.
But man, I sit down with a friend I haven’t seen in a couple of months and we start talking shit and there’s a moment, early on, five minutes in, when we’re cracking jokes and there’s a weird… pause, we’re not sure who should be talking. We can crack each other up on email but in person we’re just. sentence ending. in some – paragraph editing, punctuation problem with – what, no you- oh no, I was just gonna say, actually that was just, like, a minute ago and -
And that’s the moment when I think “this is where I live, in this moment, when we’re lost, when we don’t know what the next moment is supposed to be and this is why God made pockets, so we could do a thing with our hands…”
And then I’m talking to someone and I’m trying to tell them about a moment, about a thing that someone said to me or something and suddenly I can’t talk because I think, fuck, I think I’m actually kinda crying and what the fuck does that even mean? Why would I do that now, and then I stop because it’s fucking humiliating and then it feels like an affectation and… we’re all okay if we’re behind a sheet of white paper because we can read this out loud a couple of times before anyone else reads it, so why the hell am I here, why am I AT this place, why am I carrying all this godawful ME around with me everywhere I go, like a giant fucking elephant suit I have to wear to a black tie party?
And I remember being at a concert in college – one of four colleges that I barely attended – and I was watching a chamber orchestra doing a handful of pieces, modern pieces that I wasn’t gonna know but for some reason in the middle of it they did Elgar’s Nimrod, and it shouldn’t matter that it was my dad’s favorite composer because what am I, an asshole? And it shouldn’t have mattered that I had an LP of the piece that I used to play and switch out with Adagio for Strings or whatever…
It doesn’t matter, because everyone else at that college was DONE with Elgar and Barber, and there’s only two opinions you can have, you can not know who they are and not care, or you know, you know the whole thing and you’re DONE, but for my rattlesnake brain, just responding to stimulus like “beauty” without any kind of information or context, I was overwhelmed and I sat there in more and more pain and when the timpani rolled at the climax I cried in what I thought was silence, but it was obviously not as silent as the people I was sitting with, including the woman I was with at the time, who looked at me with crooked smiles as if to say, “surely not *this*. Surely you have better taste than *this*.”
Man, I don’t. And when I talk to someone and they phrase their opinion as if they are speaking, with authority, as a member of a large contingent, I just shrink into myself. When someone says, “Well, my friends and I have BEEN skydiving and what you need to know is …” and I’m just like “okay, you belong to the subset of aviation experts, that’s you, that’s your group and you speak for them and my group is, and always has been, just me and my incredibly limited experience. My larger group is comprised of disjointed individuated circles who’s venn diagrams intersect but don’t overlap, at least not with more than one color…”
I take comfort in the fact that some of our greatest poets and playwrights were men and women just like me. And I’m terrified because so are the lone gunmen, and so are some terrible poets and playwrights. Even worse, so are brilliant poets and playwrights who become so uncomfortable with the accolades of joiners that they sabotage themselves to reaffirm their sense of loneliness. Because in a world of cliques and ethnicities, of soldiers and terrorists and survivors, of artists and engineers, for some of us, who can’t tell where those groups start and where they stop, our only sense of identity is that loneliness. We may be capable of greatness, but we live in that awkward pause and no matter how much I may want it to be something to brag about, it is, more often than not, just awful.
On Thinking On ThinkingPosted January 15th, 2013 by Sean Williams
It’s about an hour after the kids have gone to bed. Jordana has excused herself for a long winters’ something-r-other in the bathroom when I hear Barnaby’s bed shift, some feet patter and then the door open. I head up the stairs to intercept him before he goes into the bathroom, but I’m about 20% as fast as I need to be to pull this off. I hear Jordana laugh and tell Barnaby to check with Daddy for the downstairs bathroom, just as I am dragging myself up the stairs. Barnaby’s head appears at the top.
Me: Hey kiddo, what’s going on?
Barnaby: Well. I’m having a set of problems that I can divide into two parts. The first part is that I’m having some bad thoughts, but I know how to make the bad thoughts stop so I can go to sleep, but the *second* part is the interesting part because, I’m not having bad thoughts? But I AM having my brain going, and it just keeps going and going and I can’t seem to find a way to stop it.
Me: (bringing him into our room) Okay, what are the bad thoughts?
Barnaby: Well, I was thinking about Marlena’s Farmer, and this is where my bad thoughts actually became just my brain going. I was thinking that she shouldn’t be scared of The Farmer because I don’t know what she’s talking about – there is no farmer. But then I thought that *ACTUALLY* she isn’t scared of The Farmer, she’s scared of some things and she doesn’t know what they are and she’s too little to *explain* what she’s scared of, so she calls it The Farmer. And that way, if she’s feeling scared, just of being little and being two and a half and falling down the stairs and ALL THE OTHER STUFF THAT SHE IS SCARED ABOUT, then she can just be scared of The Farmer and she can tell us that it’s The Farmer, but it’s actually everything else.
Me: That makes sense.
Barnaby: But I was thinking that all the stuff that I’m going to invent when I grow up, the new Mars Rover and the special houses for Little Guys and the Carnaby and all that stuff, all of that stuff might be stuff that I’m just *thinking about* instead of thinking about other things.
Me: What other things?
Barnaby: Like food. Or dirt. Or I don’t know, just, things. Presents. Just, like, things in the world.
Me: And that’s what’s going on? Your mind is thinking about the inventions?
Barnaby: Partly yes and partly NO. My mind is thinking about my mind thinking about inventions.
Me: Dude, that sounds like your mind is just a mess.
Barnaby: Yeah, but I don’t know how to clean it up.
(Jordana enters from the bathroom)
Me: And that’s why you’re having trouble sleeping?
Barnaby: Yeah, I just can’t turn off my mind. Even when I have the Bad Feelings, I can turn them into something else and just think about solutions, but then the solutions are *very interesting* and then my mind is thinking about *that*.
Me: You know, that happens in our family.
Barnaby: It does?
Me: Oh yeah. It happens to me and mommy all the time. Our minds can get messy like that, especially at night, we’ve always had insomnia both of us.
Barnaby: You can’t sleep because of your brains?
Me: When Mommy and I were first living together, we’d do our day and then we’d say good night and we’d go to sleep and then, at some point in the middle of the night, one of us would wake up and we’d listen for the other one and if the other one was breathing like they were asleep we wouldn’t say anything. But a lot of times, we’d hear that the other one might be awake and we’d whisper “hey… are you asleep” and the other one would whisper, “no…” and then we’d sit and talk. For hours, sometimes.
Barnaby: Even though you’re grownups and you stay up later than kids, you still can’t go to sleep when you go to bed?
Jordana: Totally! We still have trouble now.
Barnaby: Because you can’t turn your brains off?
Jordana: Yeah, that’s about right. It’s hard to turn your brain off.
Me: But kiddo, you need to be able to use your brain tomorrow, so we need you to go back to bed.
Barnaby: Okay. I think I can go to sleep now.
Jordana: Come here.
He jumps up and instead of just hugging him, she starts to carry him in a hug.
Barnaby: Are you gonna carry me?
Jordana: Yeah! I can carry you.
Barnaby: (as they go down the hall) Mommy, I think you shouldn’t carry me. I think I’m too big.
My Expert OpinionPosted January 14th, 2013 by Sean Williams
I have no interest in pretending this isn’t outright bragging – I have *fantastic* hearing. Seriously, really, really good hearing. When I’m downstairs and we’re watching TV, I can sometimes hear the kids rolling over in their beds upstairs. I can hear people in the bar across the street when it’s raining and the door is shut. The cat used to wake me up when I was a kid. Also, on top of that, I grew up as a classical musician, became a vocalist and had a totally shitty career in musical theater, so I have decades of training and experience under my belt.
A fair number of people had asked me what I thought of Les Miserables, the movie. Because of my superior hearing and training, I’m about to tell you.
When I first saw the play, I was in my late teens. My sister and I were in the audience, somehow we scored tickets in the center of the orchestra seats, and she turned to me and said, “(sigh) I mean – Look, is this gonna be any fun?” and I turned to her and said, “Well, I’m no scholar and I failed French Two twice, but I’m pretty sure we’re watching ‘The Miserable Ones’, so I’m guessing- No.” She said to me, “There’s a new Indiana Jones movie, with Sean Connery, opening *right now*…” and we both stood up – JUST as the lights were going down. So we sat back down.
At that point in my life, all I cared about was musical theater (and, probably more often, sex). The show opened and this band of men were bouncing giant voices off the walls behind me, singing “Look down, look down. You’re standing in your grave…” and all normally overpowering thoughts of my genitals evaporated. It was like being hit with a shock wave from an explosion.
As the show went on, all I could see were people driven by the one thing they judged themselves by – their singular dedication to That Thing They Held Most Dear. From the priest at the beginning giving Valjean the candlesticks, even the relentless dedication to the law from Javert and, eventually, the men preparing the barricade. The men on the barricade.
Marius shows up and starts talking about this girl he’s met, and his friends say, “Look. There’s something bigger here. There’s something more. Listen, listen to us. Do you hear the people sing? These aren’t just colors. This is the blood of angry men, the dark of ages past. If you’re gonna talk about girls, we don’t have time for your shit…” And I sobbed. I sat there all of seventeen or whatever and sobbed, from shame, from inspiration, I was transported.
Yes, the turntable and the barricade and the high B on “24601″ and the vocal acrobatics from Cosette, it was the theater and it was the thing I cared about almost more than anything else – but it was seeing a group of men who had dedicated themselves to something larger that made me sob and sob. The way Les Mis made me feel might have fueled my totally shitty career for ten years. So… y’know – thanks for *that*.
When I saw the movie… the opening swell, the slow pan in on Hugh Jackman and then… the men. “Look down. Look down. You’re standing in your grave…” and I started to cry.
I did, but once the nostalgia wore off, I started to pay attention. And I was watching a different story then the one I knew. I cried when the priest gave him the candlesticks, I sobbed, but it was different. I sobbed because an old man was reaching down to a young man, a young man he didn’t know at all, with whom he’d barely shared a word, and he said, “I claim your life for God.” He is saying “I reach back to you through time, and you reach back to those who come behind you…” That priest is claiming Valjean as his heir. His son.
Then, when Fantine is thrown out, she gives up her hair, she gives up her teeth and finally she gives up all of herself to reach back to her child. Her daughter. She could walk away, the dream she dreamed is still there… but she can’t because “there is a child who will die if I go to prison.” As she is dying, Valjean promises to take care of Cosette and fights Javert because THERE IS A CHILD WHO WILL DIE IF I GO TO PRISON fer chrissakes.
The villains? The inkeepers who don’t take care of their children. The wealthy who won’t take care of their fellow people. Javert, childless and heartless, who wants the prisons filled even if all the children will die because of it. And of course, the soldiers who make sport of killing a child. How did this become a play I’ve never seen before?
And then – The barricade. And the note from Cosette. And Valjean sees the sleeping Marius and looks to the sky…
If I told you the *physical machinations* I had to go through not to openly sob, you’d be impressed. You’d think I do yoga. I could feel how difficult it would be to breathe, and I had to stretch my torso and open my throat so I could cry as hard as my body was demanding without making a spectacle of myself and ruining the movie for those around me.
All he knows is this – there’s a boy and that boy makes his daughter filled with love. He looks to God and makes an open prayer, a cri de coeur, a deal that, were it with the devil, he would make the same… If I die, let me die – Let *him* live. Bring him home.
If I told you I couldn’t make it through writing that last paragraph without sobbing, I wonder if you’d believe me.
My point is this – when Valjean gives his life to God and Christ, it means something to me. It has nothing to do with actual God or actual Christ, I fucking *invented* my own version of all of that. I translate “God” to mean “every other person, the sum total of humanity” and I translate Christ as “the weak, the meek, the downtrodden, those who need help, everyone mentioned in the beatitudes…” I’m sure some gay-bashing Christer would be furious about my *complete fabrication* of what it means to be a Christian, but that’s what happens in my head.
And when I see a show, I’m bringing so much of me to it that my opinion is useful only to the subset of humans that have my identical circumstances and history. When I was a young man, it was the dedication to a meaningful life well-lived that sent me sobbing. As an older man, it’s the passion for those we are responsible for, the ways we meet those obligations and also fail them.
I look at my own spawn, the charges I’ve created and am responsible for, and countless nights I’ve watched them, scribbling through idiotic homework or meticulously dressing a toy car in a doll’s dress, and I think, of him, “Give him peace. Give him joy. He is young… he is only a boy…” and, of her, “suddenly the world seems a different place, somehow full of grace and delight…”
Feet to the fire, I could tell you what I heard. I could pick apart the vocals, I could take a darning needle to the stitches and tell you what my marvelous, marvelous ears told me. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. When he was a year old, Barnaby would turn to me, point to the window and say, “train!” and three seconds later I would hear it. Right now, in all things, if they can keep collecting the best of me, even as I lose a bit of the best of me every day, then that’s the measure I choose for my life.
All The Young DudesPosted January 9th, 2013 by Sean Williams
If you know me at all, it will come as no surprise that I have, over the course of my life, been punched soundly in the face.
Here’s the thing you should know about that – it doesn’t hurt as much as you might think. Looking at my extended group of friends, I doubt many of them have been punched in the face, so I’d like to make sure you all know – it’s really not *that* bad. The nerves on your face have been exposed to a lifetime of yanking and pulling, of windburn and kissing and shaving or whatever else you do, so it’s not like the nerves on the inside of, say, your upper arm. You can be punched in the face and, so long as it doesn’t snap your head back and knock you out, you’ll just be super sad and miserable. But it won’t hurt as much as you might fear.
(When I say that I know my friends HAVEN’T been punched in the face, it’s not because they aren’t tough or street-savvy or anything like that, it’s because they are, by and large, kind. And even when they aren’t kind, they aren’t usually cruel and small. I was punched in the face (repeatedly, I should admit) not because I was tough or standing up for a princess or whatever, it was because I was cruel, small and usually obnoxious.)
But I know a thing. I know it doesn’t hurt that much. I know that if I fall asleep on a park bench and it snows on me, I’ll wake up cold but I won’t actually get sick. I know that if everything is taken from me, I’ll figure it out.
There is a cost to knowing stuff. I paid for this knowledge and I’m still paying for it. I don’t pay NEARLY as much as some people – the mistakes I made went largely unpunished since our culture tends to turn a blind eye to white boys with upper class charm, even if they’re wearing a black mohawk and eyeliner and a disgusting jean jacket stuffed with bags of weed. But I did pay for it by NOT taking advantage of the many advantages offered me. And not heroically but because I was (and often still am) a total dick.
Marlena fell down the stairs a month ago. She broke her collarbone – went to the hospital and everything, and they x-rayed her and sure enough, she’s got a broken collar bone. Two days later, she was at the top of the stairs and she said, “I CAN DO IT” and walked down the stairs holding the banister.
A few weeks ago, she fell down a totally DIFFERENT set of stairs, in California. When we got home, she said she didn’t want to go down the stairs by herself because she “will fall and break my bones”. I really, really want her to try, I want her to know it’s okay but… you know what? I’ve never broken my collar bone. She knows a thing.
We walk to school every morning, Marlena and me. And I’ve had a couple of different moms stop me to congratulate me on making her walk. Strollers are for lazy kids of lazy parents. I don’t have the heart to tell them that my stroller is just fucking huge and I’m too lazy to take it out, I never *decided* that she should walk, I just don’t want the hassle. Sometimes she runs, sometimes she jumps, and she almost always sings the whole way. Yesterday, she was at a full sprint, arms out to the sides so she could twirl the sleeves of her jacket, and her feet went out from under her.
Her face took the brunt of the fall, her feet off the ground above and behind her. When I picked her up, there was blood everywhere, all over her mouth and cheeks and eyebrows and hair. Blood all over her jacket, my jacket.
Once I got the blood cleaned off, I realized she had just split her lip and scratched her nose and knees.
Sometimes I hold her hand when we go to school. More often than not, she declines.
I want to blame my parents for the times I was beat up in school. I want to SO MUCH. I don’t know if it’s a middle-child thing or what, but I want them to suffer for not protecting me. But the fact is, I got beat up at the poshest southern private school in Virginia… and I got beat up at the shittiest High School in New Jersey. I got beat up wherever I went, until I stopped getting beat up. It’s been a dozen years since I got in a fist fight with anyone, and that would put me in my late 20s – how on earth could that have been my parents’ fault?
I tried to catch her when she fell down the stairs, I was RIGHT behind her. My arm moved to grab her at the same speed that she fell, I just wasn’t fast enough. I can replay it in my head a hundred times, my hand moving as fast as my body can move, and her body moving through the air, drawn by gravity, nothing but the drag of atmosphere slowing her descent.
And I can see her sprinting in front of me, the number of times I’ve thought “I should tell her to slow down/No/No, I shouldn’t/I should tell her that she can run/she can fucking run/she can run anywhere and run anything/she can run the world” and then the soles of her shoes are facing me and I see her face drag on the concrete, and I moved to pick her up as soon as I even KNEW SHE WAS FALLING, and it was already too late.
From now on, what do I do? When she’s in danger, do I stop it? If my mom… If my fucking DAD had seen me, drunk and high, sleeping on a bench at a church while the snow fell on my disgusting jean jacket stuffed with bags of weed, would they have picked me up and brought me inside? Almost certainly. And what would I know right now? I would know that if I fall asleep on a bench, someone will pick me up, instead of knowing that I can sleep the night on a bench outside and I’ll make it. It will be horrible, you will be super sad and miserable, but it won’t hurt as much as you fear.
We walked to school again this morning, Marlena and me. I thought I heard her whimpering, but I didn’t want to bring attention to it. And I didn’t want to carry her – NOT because I’m a great dad and wanted her to learn a lesson, but because my back is tired and it’s cold and I had my hands stuffed in my pockets. I realized her whimpering was singing, just nonsense stuff that she sings.
I said, “are you okay?” and she shook her head no. I said, “what’s wrong?” and she shook her head no. I said, “Are you hurt?” and, in her two year old logic, she looked at me and said, “I’m not a *wrong* girl, daddy! I’m not a *hurt* girl, daddy!” I said, “Okay, honey, what are you?”
And she said, “I’m a *school* girl, and that means I’m a BIG girl, Daddy!” And she stopped walking and spread her arms out as far as they would go and said, “I’m a *BIG* *GIRL*!!!”
On CensorshipPosted December 11th, 2012 by Sean Williams
We began watching Homeland the other day, and I’ll admit that I had a really bad reaction to one aspect of it. I have a really hard time watching movies about people with mood disorders, it makes me feel so profoundly sad and horrible. In the pilot when Claire Danes went ripping through her closet trying on different shirts, I found myself falling down a hole in the middle of my own chest and I began to feel like I’d rather be doing anything than watching this show.
Which led me to a second feeling that I get quite often – when writers use shortcuts to add depth or pathos to a character and, in doing so, hurt me specifically. Because of the life I’ve led, when I watch abandoned children, or a person with a severe mood disorder or drug addiction, I immediately start questioning *the writer’s* motives. Couldn’t really figure out how to give this guy depth, right? So you gave him a dead son, and you think that’s *okay*, don’t you? It’s okay for you to kick me in the ribs because you aren’t willing to do any *work*, right?
Except, of course, that I am totally and without a doubt WRONG about all of this.
I’m particularly sensitive to some of these things, but I’m in a very, very small minority. It isn’t offensive to talk about mood disorders… in fact it’s probably *helpful* for TV shows to fetishize them. And more than likely, people who write about kids, have kids of their own. They’re just exploring the worst situations they can imagine… or they’re talking about something that actually happened to them and by talking about it, they’re healing.
But I can still hate it. Sure! I will hate it on my own, and when I bitch about it, most people will just shrug and say, “yeah, I get that you hate it, but it doesn’t bother me.” Bitching about it, from my end, doesn’t mean I’m trying to *censor* anyone, it just means that these situations where I’m uncomfortable will lead you to losing my viewership. One asshole in a sea of assholes doesn’t like what you’re doing, while countless millions believe you’re making the best show on TV, I don’t expect my opinion to matter much.
The same is true if you make a rape joke. The only difference is the numbers. I don’t find rape jokes funny, just as a regular reaction, so if you make light of rape you’ll lose my viewership. Me and countless millions of other people who don’t think it’s funny. And if countless millions think you’re not funny, then several thousand will probably say something, and you’ll feel pretty frustrated. You thought it was funny, and we’ve all laughed at a lot of your *other* jokes, and you’ll think it’s unfair.
All of this is fine, but none of this is *censorship*.
We live in a world now where advocacy is a lot easier than it has been in the past. I don’t pretend that this blog is read by a lot of people (quite frankly, when I write it, I *pretend* that it’s read by my kids when they’re in their twenties) but it’s really easy for me to hold forth on things I think are important in long-form monologue, not unlike everyone with their own twitter handle or Times Op-Ed. We stand up for one another better now than we have in the past, so it’s much harder to be an insulated blowhard making not funny jokes about your own privilege.
“Wait, I stopped saying ‘nigger’, and then you took ‘faggot’ away from me, and then I couldn’t even say ‘gay’, and now you’re saying I can’t say ‘retard’? But OF COURSE, you can say ‘Jesus Christ’ as much as you want…”
No, actually, you can say all those words as much as you want. Look, right there, see that? I just wrote all those words in my blog. And I don’t say ‘Jesus Christ’ in front of most people. Just my wife. And my kids…
Nobody is *silencing* you and there’s no police, it’s just the invisible hand of cultural movement. The world has been run by one kind of person for thousands of years, and that has led to people in that group assuming that the concerns of any disenfranchised group can be mocked. What the disenfranchised groups, and those who believe the old system is inequitable and bound to fail, are saying is, “you will lose our viewership if you speak like this. You won’t get our attention, your employers won’t get our money and you will get no traction in the ongoing cultural discussion.”
For the record – “censorship” is when a governmental body restricts what you are allowed to say, and in America our governing body is comprised of people we elected and the restrictions put on, say, prime time television reflect a majority of what the American people want. If you think that sexual penetration should be show on prime time TV, you’re allowed to express that view but you’ll be sitting in the cheap seats with me, complaining about the use of mood disorders as a crutch.
*One last word on censorship – When I was a kid and started developing a foul mouth, my mom (no slouch in the foul mouth territory herself) explained it to me this way – If you find yourself using words that make the people around you uncomfortable, it’s an indication that you are either too lazy or too stupid to come up with a more interesting way of saying what you want to say. Point being, I don’t care what your definition of “gay” or “retarded” is, once these words have been put in the box of “words that make people miserable” then you’re gonna have to do a little bit more work, or be a little bit smarter, if you want to be understood.
Holy NightPosted November 26th, 2012 by Sean Williams
There is a story we tell, about our first date. Jordana had a notion that your favorite story from childhood can say a lot about who you were (and hence, who you are) and how you grew up. Her favorite childhood story is called “Clever Elsie” about a girl who is so smart and second-guesses herself so often that she ends up losing everything and wandering the world alone, and that’s a can of worms I can’t even address in an aside in a blog. But when she asked me, I told her that my favorite story was the Christ child’s birth.
I suppose it goes without saying that we were at a passover seder. Or… yeah, maybe I should point that out.
I am a non-believer. I know so many of my friends go with “agnostic” as a way of hedging their intellectual bets, but I genuinely think I’m a straight-up Atheist. A non-god-ist. Everything in my life that felt magical at the time can be so easily explained. Standing in a field with a beautiful girl who said, “I bet you could make it rain right now” and I said, “here you go -” and it started raining… that’s very cool, and was a big moment for 16 year old me, but I made it rain in the summer in New Jersey. It rains every 45 minutes. If I did that in New Mexico, I’d start believing in magic.
But 13 years ago, when asked, it was still the birth of Christ that moved me so completely that I wasn’t able to tell the story without choking up.
A young woman marries an old man and before they can consumate the marriage, she reveals that she’s pregnant. The old man sits in a room by himself for an hour or so and then he comes in and says, “Listen, I don’t know. I don’t know about any of this. But I know this, I made you a promise, that I would be your husband and that we would make a family. So, however you got this way… I’m yours. If you tell me it was God, then so be it. Either way, I’m yours.”
As she gets bigger and more uncomfortable and more sick, they suddenly get the news that they have to go all the way to Bethlehem for a census. And they have nothing, Joseph is a day-laborer, all they’ve got is a donkey. So, he puts Mary on the donkey and they walk all the way to Bethlehem. They have to leave *now* or they’re not gonna make it.
They go, but they make terrible time. She’s huge, she’s miserable, even riding the donkey hurts, and walking is only a little better. They’re getting later and later, the days they thought they would be in Bethlehem are slipping away. By the time they waddle into town they find that all the public houses are already full of everyone *else* who needs to be counted for the census. And every hotel, motel, holiday inn is owned by some Bethelehemian who’s already psyched that his every room is packed. They all turn him away.
After hours of trying, they finally get to an inn, and the guy who runs the place sees Mary and says, “look, all the rooms are full, but I have an idea. The barn is actually really nice. I know it might seem crazy, but the barn is actually *warmer*, the place is full of hot-blooded animals and I’ll bring you some blankets and stuff.” He can’t kick anyone out that would be unfair, but he can do *something*.
As soon as they get in, Mary goes into labor. It’s her first time, and she’s terrified. But there’s a stableman and shepherds and they hear the screams and they know what it is. They come to the barn and they lean down to her and say, “Listen. I know this is terrible, I know this is hard, but look around you. Every one of these goats and sheep and lambs and ox were born by our hands. We’ve seen birth a hundred times and this is what it looks like, you’re gonna be fine.”
And the food had been eaten out of the manger a long time ago, so one of the shepherds helped Joseph line it with straw. And the baby came into the world, and one of the shepherds brought Mary water and another shepherd wrapped the baby in a swaddle. The animals knew what this was, they just stood around keeping watch and giving off heat.
As the baby was being born, some of the shepherds went to find some little things they could bring the baby and the word spread. A child was born, shivering in the night, let’s bring comfort to him and his family. Because we’ve all had children, we’ve given birth or watched our wives and sisters give birth and we know – this sucks, right now. This is as hard as it’s ever gonna be, so let’s do something tonight.
So, they came, they rallied. Middle of the night, but they brought presents for the baby, the baby being born in a barn and now sleeping in a trough for animal feed. And maybe a boy softly played a drum, maybe three wise men brought expensive gifts and maybe a voice came from the sky and terrified the shepherds on a nearby hill, but none of that is as important as what these people went through.
Because… maybe the Christ child was always meant to be Jesus Christ. But maybe not. At that point, he was a baby in trouble with a mom and dad in just as much trouble. Broke, exhausted, sleeping in a barn, born with nothing, my ancestral brothers and sisters stepped up. They had something, some small thing, and they saw a family that was in need and they reached down. A thousand small kindnesses were laid at this baby’s feet, a thousand moments when someone could have closed the door or let the labor cries go un-noticed, they instead said, “we are people, and this baby is ours.”
In my retelling of the story, we made this baby into a teacher of kindness and love. We started on his first day, we showed him the very best of humanity, we showed him that love – without ambition, without ego, without credit or cash – was the thing that defined the best of who we are.
I don’t believe he was the messiah, I don’t believe he was the lamb and I don’t believe there was some magic moment when all the sins that ever were and all the sins that ever would be were laid upon him so he could die. Honestly, none of that even makes *sense* to me. But I believe that on that night, we showed that family that every person, any person, can live a sacred life.
When I hear them say, “Fall on your knees. Hear the angels voices. Oh night, divine – oh night, when Christ was born,” I am moved to tears not because I believe this baby would grow to be a man that could save us all. I cry because this is one time, one time of countless thousands, when we came together to save this baby. And because we did he grew to be one of our greatest teachers. The angels’ voices we hear are not from on high, they are ours. And this is the story of one time when we were singing.
Tackle BoxesPosted November 13th, 2012 by Sean Williams
I dropped a line in the middle of a monologue on Friday.
You know what? I have to go back a little ways. There’s more to it than that. Let me tell you two stories.
First. We were doing a bus and truck tour of “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, a complete rip-off of the movie that was playing in the theaters at the time. I was Quasimodo (the jokes, the jokes) and the director/producer had offered me the challenge of creating the physicality of the character on my own, as well as design and build the prosthetics, which completely thrilled me. It didn’t even occur to me that I had been conned, and was now financially responsible for something he should have had a designer do – I didn’t care, I loved it.
It did mean that I had to start getting ready an hour before the rest of the cast, and it took me a half hour longer to get out of make-up at the end. Now, this was non-union and they were paying us a fortune but also treating us like shit. We’d have a show in Wyoming one night and the next show was in Nebraska, so we’d load the set, drive all night, get to the theater, build the set, sleep for five hours on the floor of the dressing room (*four* hours for me) and then do the show. Everyone got sick, everyone was exhausted and when we realized that the half week at the beginning and end of the tour weren’t being counted, we had to refuse to go on unless we got paid.
I loved it. I loved every second.
Our last show was in Las Vegas and as was usual, the last half hour I was by myself in the dressing room. I cleaned my face and loaded up my make-up kit. My Ben Nye Tan #2, the Mary Kay white that I used to open my eyes on the inside, the different maleable putties I created the face with, all the brushes and sponges, along with a small collection of talismans from shows past – they all fit into what is actually a fisherman’s tackle box. And as I loaded up the case, I looked in the mirror and caught my own eye and realized… I wasn’t gonna do this anymore. I didn’t know what I *was* gonna do, but I was done with *this*. I haven’t opened the case since, and it’s getting close to 20 years.
Next. My marriage was in trouble and I was fighting like crazy to save it. My wife at the time had lost her bearings and didn’t really know what she was doing. Desperate to have a career, she made the same mistakes that a lot of young women in Los Angeles make, but I was trying to forgive her and I was trying to keep the whole thing working. When she said she needed her own apartment, I helped her get it and gave her our car. When our marriage counselor met with us (just the one time) she pulled me aside and said it was time to let go, but I don’t give up that easily.
The night she moved out, I dropped by her place and she wasn’t there, so I waited. It got to be later and later, but I knew she was coming back and I was worried about her, she was off on her own. So I waited. I sat and waited as 11 o’clock became 2 o’clock, became 6 o’clock, the whole night sitting outside her apartment. I was terrified, something had happened, she could be in a ditch somewhere, so I called her dad to see if he had heard anything.
He listened to me, said nothing for a minute and then said, “Son. I love you. I’m always gonna love you, please remember that.” And that’s all he said. He didn’t say goodbye, it was like in the movies. The phone just stopped.
I wrote to the Gideon members yesterday morning and told them that I do not want to be considered eligible for acting roles within the company anymore, and that I would no longer be acting with any other company either.
Making this decision is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve done.
When I closed up that tackle box of make-up, what I had decided (I only realized later) was that I was no longer going to do plays I didn’t love. If that meant I wouldn’t be on stage for long stretches, so be it. Then, after living in New York for a few years, I decided I would only do the plays of playwrights I loved. Soon after that I decided I would only do plays directed by people I respected. It’s a rabbit hole, and I kept going down and down and down.
I’ve produced things that meant almost nothing to me, produced them for *years*. Whenever I write music and it gets criticized, I almost always a) agree and b) start over without any sense of loss. I wrote an entire two act play some years ago and we did a reading of it – Mac and Jordana started giving me notes and I just held up my hand and said, “Y’all, there’s nothing there. Don’t worry about it, it’s gone.” And I didn’t feel the least bit bad about it. All of this is blue collar stuff, you just keep doing it and eventually you get better and then you get good.
But as a little boy, I dreamed about being an actor on stage. My teenage years were defined by performing, I just went step by step, adjudicating my life purely based on how the last show went, and when the next one was coming.
As I drove to the theater on Saturday, I thought about the costume racks and the dressing room lights, I thought about character shoes and two minute public showers with five other randomly gendered people, I thought about cleaning the kitchen while I run lines and I’m not gonna lie to you, I cried the whole way there. Because I knew it would be the last time I was on stage.
I dropped a line in my monologue. And while it’s no big deal, and while the audience didn’t care, and while the director and the other actors didn’t care, and while even *I* didn’t care that much, there’s a reason I dropped the line and a reason I couldn’t recover. I had never really committed to this project and never completely gotten off-book, and I have spent so little time on stage lately that I have no skills.
In a moment, there on stage, I had the same realization that I had on the phone with my ex-father-in-law – the marriage wasn’t in trouble… The marriage is over.
This last production, I had my two favorite directors in the audience. My favorite playwright and one of my favorite producers saw it. Even two of my favorite non-theater people in the world popped over from across the street. I would love to do one more show, to let my little sister see me on stage or to do something that my son and daughter could see. And maybe I will, maybe I’ll change my mind about this in ten years. People get divorced and don’t speak for decades and then get back together again.
I would apologize for the drama and the public statement, but first of all it’s my damn blog – what did you *think* I would be talking about? – and secondly, despite the fact that I don’t actually serve the pieces I’m acting in very well, I’m still being asked to do plays all the time. Partly because on one level I’m quite good and partly because I’m a boundless enthusiast and hopeless optimist when it comes to what I think *can work* on stage. But I need to say, in public, that I’m no longer doing this for anyone – not for my best friend and the love of my life – not anymore. I love her so much, but it’s time to let her go.
I Want To Be A Part Of ItPosted November 1st, 2012 by Sean Williams
“Are you okay?… I’m okay! We’re okay! Thank God, thank God, we’re okay, is the deli open?… On Crescent? The deli on Crescent?… Nah, I’ve got coffee, do you need coffee? I’m not walking to Crescent!.. I know, but that’s three more blocks than I want! HAHA! I know, I know! But who walks three blocks to a deli, am I right?… HAHAHAHAHA! No, I’ve got coffee, I’VE GOT COFFEE! Come here!… No, come here, come here, I’ve got coffee, don’t go to the deli…”
Everyone, the night-of, the next morning, everyone I know yelling, “We’ve got power, come charge your cellphone!” or “The internet’s down, but we’ve got hot water if you need a shower!” or “We don’t have power or internet, but our oven’s gas so we’re making muffins! Come have muffins!”
I’m sure it’s the same everywhere. I believe that people are basically good and good to each other. I know, there are people trying to run scams, there’s looting, there are bound to be some shitty people making headlines, but the way the people around me rally, the way everyone started, from the second the waters started to rise, they all said, “if I’m spared, I’m coming back for you.” And the people they said it to said, “all right, and if it gets you and passes me by, I’ll come and grab you.”
Because People are the same everywhere, but New York is special. We have to live on top of each other every day, our walls are attached to our neighbors homes, our morning coffee depends on a guy getting on a subway in a neighboring town to come open the deli and a different guy in a different town on a different subway coming in to make it. Our meetings are at restaurants where our competitors are three tables away but they still can’t hear us. And every night we climb into underground trains and stand nose-to-nose with people we will never see again, but that we know are brothers because they are HERE.
We’re all here. We all made a choice to be here, and we all made a choice to stay. And we have to make the choice every single day, because every single day gives us two things – it gives us a chance to understand that everywhere else in America is a little bit easier and has the possibility of a one degree shift towards sustained happiness… *but*, it also gives us that one moment, every day, where the sum total of the best of humanity reveals itself to us – when an old woman can’t faint without a stranger catching her and a cab giving her a ride home for free, where a guy in a deli talks to another guy because one’s wearing a UCLA hat and the other’s wearing a USC hat, where a woman who doesn’t speak English at Union Square gets train instructions from four people who think LOUD English will help her understand… Every day offers us the chance to leave and every day seduces us to stay.
The morning after the storm, the emails started, the phone calls started. Who needs help? Can we host a fundraiser? Which theaters are underwater, which lost power? Which companies had to cancel their openings, who had to move strike, who lost their set, who lost their rehearsals? HOW DO WE MAKE UP FOR IT, those of us who were spared? And as much as I tried to do, as quickly as I tried to act, everyone was doing more and was ahead of me and most people who needed help didn’t ask because they were so busy helping those who needed MORE help.
I make theater, and I raise children. In the grand machinations of history, I live a small life. And that life is rushed, the kids don’t get the hours they need, the shows don’t get the hours they need, every achievement is quickly replaced with a new goal. And the moments become minutes, the minutes hours, and the hours quickly turn into *years* and at the end of that time I will have to look back on the time I spent on this globe and ask myself the same questions every person asks themselves at the end of their lifetime, was the time well spent, did I invest in people and ideas that were worthwhile, was I selfish and did I love enough or give enough to deserve the things I got?
I don’t know what the answers to any of that will be, but I know there’s one question that I will *never* have any doubt about. Was I in the right place? For me, for my children, for all of us who are here now, I can say I will answer “Yes”. Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes…