Defense of MarriagePosted September 15th, 2014 by Sean Williams
I’ve been asked to officiate at three different weddings and I have to say, it is without a doubt the biggest honor and responsibility I’ve had as a theater person. Everything we do as performers is a public discussion of The Big Ideas, even when we hide them as a couple of guys gossiping or interspecies world war, and a wedding is no different.
I have friends, more than you might imagine, who find the very idea of marriage repellent. And I love these people a lot – more than that, I respect them enormously – and so I wonder if maybe they understand something that I don’t. Because to me, it is possibly one of the most important things I’ve ever done.
People have been getting married for a hundred thousand years, maybe more. Pair-bonding has its own advantages (one person could go stab a bison while the other one is collecting… I don’t know, *Kale* or something) but that’s not necessarily marriage. Getting married has a public announcement involved, it’s getting everyone all up in your business.
There have always been a couple of different reasons for this. Chief among these is to create more humans, and separate them into families. The people who knew their families had an easier time not creating more humans that had shitty regressive genes. The babies who couldn’t make it, didn’t, the ones with public pair-bonding had it a little easier.
Then, there’s also the fact that once we started having a bunch of stuff, marriage made it easier to figure out where all that stuff was going once the older generation was dead. All that bison meat and dried Kale had to go to somebody.
And of course, the worst. More and more people thought a jealous god was holding on to the keys of the afterlife and only letting people in if they got married in one of his suspiciously sanctioned churches.
And I guess that gets closest to my own feelings about marriage. I’ve always been of the opinion that if God wanted me to do something, he’d come talk to me about it. If your kid comes home and says, “my teacher told me you were supposed to do all my homework for me” you’d probably go, “Um… I”monna call the school, mkay?” And I trust my kid WAY more than I trust some dude I’ve never met who says he has a message from God.
But it can be lonely as a confirmed atheist. I have absolutely no sense of divinity, no belief whatsoever in an afterlife or magic or God or anything remotely supernatural. But there are moments in my life that have just barely transcended the noxious day-to-day Moving-Units and Getting-Shit-Done existence I have, and all of those moments have been on stage.
I really love TV and movies, but the only magic I’ve ever felt is there on stage when the hundred or so people watching have a unified response. When we show a moment that’s so odious that the entire audience responds with disgust, or when we show two people finding a new way to love each other and everyone understands… that *feels* magical to me.
And when two people stand up in front of a group of their best friends and family and make wishes-as-promises to each other, that is the absolute apex of what theater can be for me.
And it is theater. Invitations are sent out and people travel from all over to be in one room for one shared moment and, for a few minutes, sit silently. Two people declare to the world that they’re starting a new family – whether it be the two of them or a whole brood that they’ll collect, create, adopt, whatever.
And it is the public showing, the moment of theater, that makes the action holy. I’ve never heard God ask me to do something, but I feel a spark of divinity in my black and red heart when I get to bear witness to this moment. And it reminds me that we’re part of a chain of people going back a hundred thousand years, standing in caves, standing in huts, standing in teepees and under chuppahs, even in a cathedral or a beautiful indoor picnic in Long Island City. These two are promising that belong together and belong to each other. And because they do it in front of us, they’re saying we all belong to each other.
I know it’s theater. And I know a wedding has virtually nothing to do with a marriage. But in my dark, lonely life it is the closest I have ever come to hearing the voice of God.
Nat As InspirationPosted June 26th, 2014 by Sean Williams
Does Nat inspire you? Leave response in comments.
My Mom’s ChristmasPosted December 16th, 2013 by Sean Williams
My mom was judging a choral competition in Eastern Europe on September 11, 2001, so she couldn’t make it back for a couple of weeks and she was just in a panic. Three of her kids were living in Manhattan south of 42nd Street, and the emails and phone calls were certainly reminding her that we were *alive*, but the fact that she couldn’t be with us was just maddening. My sister had been at Ground Zero for weeks, passing out water and clean socks, and when my mom finally got back, she ran into her arms and sobbed for five minutes.
But then the five minutes were up, and everyone went back to work.
My mom loves enormously. She’s pathologically affectionate and has turned her very body into a place where all of her grandkids have curled up and slept in the last few years. But she doesn’t *dwell* on it, she seldom rhapsodizes about her love for her family and her job… she just does it. For her, loving someone is an active thing, it’s not a commentary. Nobody has ever wondered if she loved them, and any time she’s *said* something about it, it has felt… redundant.
Her own mother was much the same way, minus the affection. We never wondered if Grandma loved us, we knew she did (or in the case of people on the wrong side of her, that she didn’t). I wrote a blog last year about Christmas and I’m sure that my blue-collar approach to the holiday was passed down from Klea (and Pearl before her) to Linda and then to me. And I hope it’ll go down to my kids as well.
When Klea died, she left a chunk of money to each of her four kids. Some of them invested it, some fixed their houses or their bodies, but my mom went to work. She’s been a composer since high school in the 40s, when composers tended to be old men who didn’t like popular music, and my mom was combining avant garde sensibilities with the new burgeoning pop music, and now, sixty years later, she had a Christmas album she wanted to record.
Twelve standards, twelve new pieces. The first half are all the modal and foreign familiar carols (We Three Kings, El Noi De La Mare, Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella… those kind) and the latter half are the pieces she wrote for her own version of the Christmas story.
Her version is what astonishes me. When she talks about the Christ child’s birth, she tells us of the angels singing, “Be not afraid”, but the rest of the story is so *human* and so workmanlike. The characters in her story are an old father, “his hands are strong, calloused and warm, but his voice is gentle as summer rain,” and a young terrified mother-to-be who “has the face of an angel, even in pain…”
Every Christmas, I never hear about how hard it was for Mary to survive the actual birth. Leave it to a woman who’s had five kids.
The other characters are shepherds and children, coming to the stable to see how they can help and to bear witness. And the men dragging themselves on camels, following a light in the night sky, bringing gifts. And my favorite, the stableman, a character she invented, who’s job is just to make sure the animals let the baby sleep. His last line, “for you and I, gentle friends, have seen birth many times before.” As if *every* time, animal or man, that we bring life into the world, it’s a small miracle.
The album is finally mastered and we’ve finally got it online in time for my mom’s 82nd Birthday just a few days ago. I directed the choir for her and got to sing on some of the pieces. And if you want to know how good her music is, I’d offer “Journey of the Magi” and “Shepherd’s Band” as two of the finest choral pieces I’ve ever had the good fortune to conduct.
We released it through Catapult, and they put it up on iTunes and a whole host of other sites, including Amazon. It would mean a great deal to me (and to my Mom and Grandma) if every single person on the face of the earth bought a copy.
Rising From AshPosted November 21st, 2013 by Sean Williams
Yesterday, I was invited to chaperone my son’s second grade class on a trip to City Center to hear Stravinsky’s “Firebird”. What I know of it, and what I remembered from childhood, is that the time signatures are just nuts and at a certain point you don’t care and want to sing along anyway. I also know that the Firebird is another name for a phoenix and that it rises from the ashes of its own death, but I never really was able to visualize music so that was sorta lost on me.
In looking at my children and the myriad ways in which I’m destroying their lives, it’s hard not to admit that I simply didn’t take advantage of what I was given as a kid. I do SO like to focus on ages 14 to 20, after The Divorce (which basically every kid my age went through) and during the Failing School and Doing Drugs years (again, The 80s, so that’s every kid), but I totally ignore the years before that when I was allowed backstage and in the green rooms of major metropolitan orchestras around the world.
But I was, and it just barely stuck with me. I really ought to have been a well-versed and classically trained musician, but instead I’m basically a dabbler, a guy who knows the greatest hits. I can kick myself, but this stuff is internal – you’re either inspired by it or you aren’t.
We sat down and Barnaby and I were at the end of the row in a back corner so I grabbed his hand and snuck into the row behind us, all the way to the inside aisle. I wanted him to see the timpani and you can’t see stage left from the far side. It *did* mean we were surrounded by kindergartners and first graders almost immediately. Inner city New York 5 and 6 year olds. So… y’know. Not really your typical orchestral audience.
The conductor didn’t start with Firebird, he started with a series of short pieces by Russian composers, to give the kids some sense of the world that Stravinsky lived in. I don’t know, I loved it and Barnaby loved it, but the kids around us were *done* really early. One kid behind me kept saying “this is stupid. This is just *music*, there’s nothing going on.”
My heart just sank. How many times have I sat next to someone at a non-arts-centered meeting, that found out what I do and said, “I should go, I really should, I don’t know why I don’t…” when they talk about live theater. I’ll tell you why you don’t, because in your head it’s a goddam *chore*.
I mean, it’s a chore *to me*. You aren’t really gonna find a guy who wants to see live theater and music more than I do, and I still find myself looking at the “Purchase Tickets Now” button and thinking, “Man, do I *really* want to do this?” I remember myself at seven, in a three piece suit backstage, listening to… whatever, probably The Firebird, and wishing to god someone had brought Cheerios and Hot Wheels. Just bored and exhausted and feeling punished.
We got through Tchaikovsky and Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov – and I should say, each piece was about three minutes long, so they had the best possible shot of keeping the kids in it, it’s not their fault these little assholes are savages – and I just kept hearing the kids behind me bitching and complaining. I shushed them once and this five year old says, “Yo, you can’t tell me what to do, it’s a free country,” and it reminded me of the guy in the park who, when I asked him to put his dog on a leash, said, “You got a problem? Call a cop.”
It’s just so New York. Nobody can tell us what to do.
Finally, we got to The Firebird and the lights started to dim. A group of four people came out on stage with a large billowing puppet, and another group came on with a puppet that looked like a boy prince.
And the music started to pump. Sure, the kids behind me said, “Fake! That’s fake, that’s just a *puppet*,” but I started seeing the kids *in front* of me, the ones in Barnaby’s class. His close friends, K and JP and P, all rapt, and Barnaby leaning forward and talking to them about moment-to-moment brilliance that was happening on stage.
The bird gets trapped by a wizard and the boy-prince, now grown, chases him down and gives fight. In the battle, the Firebird is killed and eaten by the evil wizard, swallowed whole as the puppet is crushed into nothing. The prince gives battle and the wizard is destroyed, but so is the bird.
And something had happened. The low buzz of a room full of children was still there, but it was pulsing and beating, rising with the action on stage and pulling back with the heart break. It had been seven, maybe eight, minutes since the puppets came on stage, but when the Firebird is swallowed by the evil wizard, I hear the smart ass behind me very quietly say, “oh no.”
And the prince came to the front of the stage and lit a small fire. Out of the fire a tiny flowing gem floated up and began to swirl, the puppeteers letting more and more fabric unroll over a fan with a yellow-orange light. And as it built, the kids around me pulled forward. Slowly their voices rose and I started to hear a few kids clapping.
As the Firebird came back to life, slowly unfolding scarves, the kids started clapping louder and louder until the birds beak and head suddenly appeared and the room exploded, the kids leaping to their feet yelling and clapping. It was so loud – it was so loud that I could barely hear the orchestra. And for the final cadenza, the orchestra members themselves lept to their feet and played the last phrase standing.
I was elated, I was rejuvenated, I was reminded of the power of all of us in a room together bearing witness to a single artistic statement and I was astonished at the reversal of the small children behind me. They weren’t just on board, they were conducting, they were bouncing… without regard to the time signature, they were singing along.
I was crying – I’m not gonna lie, I wept. Quietly, of course, and the nice thing about getting old and lined and crusty-faced is that you can cry without anyone really noticing, your tears don’t stand out against your Actinic Keratosis and grey beard, but I cried.
As we were leaving, one of the really erudite and cultured moms looked at me with a huge smile and said, “This was so great! So great! I don’t know why we don’t go more often…” But maybe that’s it. I hear these New York City kids and I think they’re saying “You can’t make me do anything”, but maybe what they’re saying is, “don’t give me the rules, give me the *reasons*. If they’re good reasons, I’ll follow the rules.”
On the bus, I talked to the kids around me and they got it. They were elated, their lives were *made better* by this communal act. And Barnaby leaned on me, looking out the window and telling me a made up story – water-creatures who live by eating rock-people – and I started to think that just because this didn’t stick with me, it doesn’t mean it can’t stick with him.
Bad Plans for Mythological GoalsPosted October 29th, 2013 by Sean Williams
You will think, poets, performers and non-breeders, that this post has nothing to do with you, but I think it does. If you want to know why America can hardly contain its disdain for our way-of-life, you can just spend your morning the way I spent mine. Jaw clenched and fists curled, I just walked out of a curriculum meeting at my son’s school where they discussed the local, state and federal approach to educating my kids.
We begin with the assumption that we are falling behind other Westernized nations and are no longer competitively creating the scientists and computer wizards that will compete in the Future Global Economy. This Assumption has become a Proof, if you don’t mind my high school geometry allusion, because it’s a constant part of our news intake. Do a google search on “U.S. is falling behind…” and the auto-fill gives you “in education” as your first option.
So what does this mean?
1) 50% of reading should be non-fiction. Because a biography about someone who actually did live is far more important than historical fiction, in competing globally. Reading about the Peloponnesian War is totally good and reading The Lord Of The Rings is totally bad.
2) We can’t do math that has no real world applications. This has led my son to come home with homework that says, “We can divide apples into bags of one, bags of ten and bags of a hundred…” Which, OF COURSE, led my son to say, “why would you put one apple in a bag by itself?” and then, a short time later, “How could you lift a bag with a hundred apples in it? Wouldn’t the handle break?”
3) Social Studies is non-narrative. There is deep discussion of the vague responsibilities we have as community members, but no celebration of any one person.
4) Science is hands-on, actual real-world applications. Lots of stuff about how animals behave, or experiments that can be replicated.
Jesus, it just went on and on. Take your kids to the store and time the walk, have them figure out the prices of stuff. Have your kids read the PTA bulletins we send home and have them tell you the information. Have them fill out their Citizenship homework.
I thought my head was gonna friggin’ splode.
Couple things –
1) WE’RE NOT FALLING BEHIND ANYONE.
We’re just not. We’re not. Go look at the scores, we’re fine. The scores are all so close together that saying “we’re number 11 in math in the westernized world” is like saying “we’re fourth in the world in shoe ownership.” WE ALL HAVE MORE SHOES THAN ANYONE HAS EVER HAD IN THE HISTORY OF THE GODDAM WORLD.
Plus, we’ve never scored any better than we’re scoring now. There’s this ridiculous assumption, permeating ALL of our collective self-understandings, that there was a time when America was just *killing it* and we need to get back there. For conservatives it was the 50s and the 80s, for liberals it was the 60s and the 70s, and for assholes in my generation it was 1993 when flannel was awesome… But it doesn’t matter, that’s all a myth. IT WAS NEVER BETTER THAN IT IS NOW.
2) Math and Science are beautiful outside their real-world applications. My son came home with a post-it note of the number 27. He had two rows of ten and seven boxes. I said, “Oh man, I love 27,” and he asked me why.
It’s three cubed. It’s nine times three and, like every other number multiplied by nine, the digits in the sum add up to nine. It’s right in the middle of a stretch of numbers (5×5, 13×2, 7×4) that are all so strange and beautiful. Also, it’s the last breath of every month, it’s the age I was divorced and thought my life was over, it’s a hundred personal things.
It’s not two bags of ten apples and seven bags on one apple. That’s just… It’s just goddam stupid.
Social Studies is the story of individual people making decisions, struggling and changing the world. Even the robber-barons were people who made decisions. And if you think baking-soda and vinegar eruptions are more beautiful than the behavior of sub-atomic particles, then you’ve never met my kid and his friends. They get the beauty of an element, of an atom. They don’t need to know the life cycle of a squirrel just because they live in New York.
3) They’re preparing our kids for a future world, assuming it’s gonna be like this now, when it never has been. There were search engines before Google, there were social media sites before Facebook, but there wasn’t any *there* there yet. The people who made the earlier sites weren’t dumb, their sites weren’t bad, their timing was off. They weren’t *lucky*.
What if my kid becomes a plumber? And then… Holy shit, fracking actually changes the chemical make-up of the water and every single pipe and drain in the North East has to be replaced. My kid’s suddenly sitting on an empire of 200 plumbers and there are waiting lists two years long to get his services.
Couldn’t possibly happen, right? Just like the people today who wrote jokey emails to each other and goofed around with photoshop couldn’t *possibly* be making a fortune providing smart content for corporate twitter feeds and graphic designs for thousands of start-ups.
Look, I know… School sucks. I get it. In fact, screw you, I get it way better than you. It was literally insufferable for me – I had to stop going, I couldn’t bear it.
But then let’s all just admit that this is bullshit, and quit trying to pretend that we’re doing it better now. Don’t ask me to give to the PTA to bring in a teaching artist once a month to get all 1400 kids at my school to do a twenty minute sing-along, it’s NOT DOING ANYTHING.
We’re not doing it any better. When my kids are thirty, they’re all gonna give each other wry smiles and mock “Common Core”, it’s gonna be a joke about endless testing, endless word problems and real-world applications and… they’re not gonna feel any *worse* for it. They’re gonna be fine, the new world will *barely resemble* this world.
But I’m calling shenanigans. They can talk STEM all they want, they can panic about the tests, they can “suggest” we push our kids to “45 minutes of reading every night by April”, but I’m just gonna nod and smile.
And then I’m gonna tell my kids what makes a photon so amazing to me. I’m gonna let my kids watch My Little Pony instead of reading “Grover Cleveland, A Life”. I’m gonna give them legos and say, “See if you can build something that doesn’t make any sense at all.”
All year, they’ve asked the students to write one sentence per spelling word, to use it in a sentence. Barnaby decided instead to write a story about Rogerdt, an astronaut, who has visited a dozen or so planets at this point and met a wide array of aliens. He uses sometimes two or three spelling words in a sentence instead of one sentence each.
His teachers give him bonus points every time, and I can’t help but feel like part of that is just them being grateful that someone is doing *something* that isn’t in Lockstep. A moment away from this breathless, real-world Science, Technology And Math prep. Because as much as I might hate all this, I bet you a thousand bucks that the teachers hate it even more.
CookiesPosted October 23rd, 2013 by Sean Williams
This morning, as I was throwing away an entire batch of truly crappy cookies, I realized that by simply trying a thing you can get a reputation for being good at it. I’m not necessarily a good cook, I’m just a guy who tries to cook *at all* and a lot of times it ends up being somewhere between good and great. Because it’s *food*, all it needs is some salt and fat and it’s probably gonna be just fine.
Everyone who has kids knows they’re on borrowed time. There are some parents who are actively involved in the day-to-day of their kids’ lives as adults, but those are very, very rare. There’s a period of a dozen years or so when we’ll still be trying to communicate with them as they slowly decide not to communicate with us. The years when we matter are numbered. After this it’s gonna be love affairs and chess matches or basketball games… we’re not gonna be what’s important.
I have no secret to parenting, some people think I’m a good father but that’s almost totally because I do it *at all*, which separates me from the vast swath of shitty fathers out there. I probably throw out more than my share of cookies, to extend the metaphor, and the rest of the time it’s just the basic stew or soup – something you can’t really screw up even if it’s not extraordinary.
But my son talks to me a lot. So does my daughter. And I’ve found that if I ask a question and then shut up for as long as possible – if I literally bite my tongue – then they’ll keep talking. No clarifications on my part, no follow-ups, nothing. The less I say, the more they talk.
And yes, the jokes, the jokes. My blog isn’t called “Seanrants” because I’m *very good at being silent*. I have almost no unexpressed thoughts, the louder and larger the audience, the better.
But this, the being-a-father, is something that’s really hard to explain. My blog was silent for about two years while I tried to wrap my head around having two children under four. My life has been rehearsal and performance, since I was very, very young, and that leads to a level of discipline and adjudication that’s almost military. I work towards a production, a thing is produced and then we look back and marvel or cringe at what we made. With kids, it’s not that. The show never actually *opens*.
And right now, it’s a tough patch because it feels like… Like all the cookies are crap. My kids are less happy now than they were three months ago, that’s a simple fact. And people go through periods where they are unhappy, periods of growth or struggle make almost everyone unhappy when they are in them. But I’m not doing anything to make it better.
My daughter has night-terrors, although I’m not exactly sure what that is so I’m not actually sure that’s what she has. She screams in her sleep a few times a night, sometimes more. And while there are nights when she doesn’t, odds are she will.
During the day, she’s gotten more and more likely to fall apart and throw a fit when something doesn’t go her way. It’s gotten to the point where her screaming and crying has ceased to mean anything to any of us, but it has a low-level impact of simply filling our day with expressed misery. All day, at any point, there’s a terrorist in our house willing to hold us all hostage with 110 dbs of screaming.
And my son is just unhappy. School is crap. It just is, it’s garbage – I can say that here because BELIEVE ME I would never say it in front of him. He goes to one of the best rated, highest scoring schools in the entire state of New York, and *none* of his teachers are gonna let the scores go down on their watch.
So every day, every kid in his class is on the verge of being in trouble. Just a constant stream of corrections and disciplinary measures, a constant harrangue of everything the kids are doing wrong. Yeah, we’ve talked to the teachers, yeah we’ve done what we could to help him feel good when he’s not at school, yeah we’ve organized super fun stuff for the weekends and after school. But even during the fun stuff, he’s thinking about the kids who get in trouble at school. It’s not even *him*, it’s other kids, but he has to constantly be around it.
I mean, this is not necessarily the New Normal, and that might be the only actual advice I’d have for parents with kids younger than mine. The shit they’re going through now *might* be who they’re becoming, but more than likely it’s just who they are *right now*, and it’s all gonna change in a month, six months, a year.
But… those cookies I threw away? I actually thought I was doing it right. I creamed the sugars and the butter, I added butterscotch chips and oatmeal, I KNOW HOW TO MAKE COOKIES fer chrissakes. And when they were done, everyone ate one… and a week later the other two and a half dozen were still sitting there.
When my kids talk about how unhappy they are with what they’re doing, I hold my tongue and then I say, “you gotta get through this and it’ll all work out. Believe me, you’ll get better at the stuff you’re struggling with and it’ll all work out.”
I just can’t feel that way as a dad. I can’t just let it happen. It feels like I’m just shrugging away the most important job I’ve ever had and I want to do something, I want to press, I want to run interference and change the world to be better *for them*.
But for now, in the same way that I bite my tongue when they talk, I sit on my hands. I ask them both, after I’ve been silent for as long as I can, “do you want me to try to help you fix this, or can you do it?” and they always say the same thing. “I can do it.”
With everything else in my life, if I just try a little harder it always works out better. But with this, I have to do what I’ve been barely able to do for most of my life. I have to do the most difficult thing, and probably the most important thing, that I can do as a dad. I have to trust in the strength of my babies.
Rose-Colored, Looking InPosted October 21st, 2013 by Sean Williams
My niece Lucy got glasses to better see the blackboard. I remember the moment so clearly, I remember walking out of the dark doctor’s room and looking out the window and being *slammed* with the visual articulation of every leaf on every tree. It was epiphantic, like getting ESP after years of hearing muffled voices.
But I think my brother is understandably troubled. We have a stack of average-to-bad traits we’re passing down to our kids and any time we dodge a bullet it feels like a miracle. Every time we saddle our kids with a bit of genetic baggage it feels like we’ve failed them.
I wish I could help my brother understand what glasses are to me. The same time I got my first pair (probably three years too late for it to have any impact on my abilities as a student) I began this relationship with the world *outside* my glasses. There was a world that existed on the far side of the lenses and a world that existed on this side – my world.
I would sit in class and look down at my hand holding a pencil. Then I would slip my glasses off and look down at my hand, the skin and baby hairs standing out, the paper and desk out of focus. And I realized that those lenses brought everything into focus, but also made everything smaller and further away. And on that side of the glasses, I was failing – I hadn’t copied the homework, hadn’t finished my test, was daydreaming… But on this side, because I was blind to those expectations, my daydreams were all that mattered.
I went years without any stage fright, without even understanding what my fellow actors were talking about when they said they were nervous. Because when I was on stage, without my glasses, I could see roughly where the other actors were and not a single face of the people in the audience. And when I could get close, when I could look in another actor’s face, then even the scenery disappeared. They were in my world.
And now there are only two times I take my glasses off. Every night before I get in bed, the very last thing I do is slip them off and set them on the nightstand before I wrap myself around my wife. She’s the only person who sees me without them on, she’s the only one who’s face I see clearly, but without being stretched and distorted away from me.
Or rather, she’s almost the only one – because my close vision has started to go too. I don’t need reading glasses yet, but I can’t see things up close with my glasses on. So now, when my little girl sits on my lap and puts her face right up to mine to tell me something, I slip my glasses up on my head. Or when my son is sad and wants to bury his head in my neck, I slip my glasses off and set them to the side so when he looks up at me I don’t have to lean back to see him.
I have always had this world that I was happily inside of, a place where I couldn’t see well enough to compare my clothes or catch a ball or even see the assignments on the blackboard. It was for me, it was a source of my real self. And I didn’t mean for it to happen, but now the three people who put their faces next to my face are the three people who live there with me. When I’m on stage and when I’m with them, it’s the only time I take the glasses off and I can be my real self.
I’m not a big believer in making the best of stuff, I’m not a big believer that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or something good can come of something bad. But I know what my glasses have always meant to me, I know why I didn’t get Lasik when the rest of my family did. I have an easy, secret place where I’m not *blind*, but where the lines are a little softer, where the colors blend in to one another, where I can be true to myself. And if I know Lucy, I’m sure she has it too.
A Child Trashes My CityPosted October 15th, 2013 by Sean Williams
Oh, I’m sure from the title of this blog, you think this will be all about one of my kids, or one of my friends’ kids. But it isn’t. It’s about a 26 year old who gave up on New York after one year and then published a blog listing 40 reasons why you shouldn’t move here.
Trashing New York is click-bait. And also lists! Make a list and it’s click bait. But if the internet has taught me anything it’s that Point-Counterpoint online is impossible, so I’m not going to refute his list of infantile complaints that include the kind of assumptions that nobody I know, not even those who no longer live in New York, would make.
I’m just gonna tell you about my month.
My son started second grade in a public school with 1400 students. It’s been a harder adjustment for him than first grade or kindergarten and he missed the friends he left behind. He still misses them. He misses Dua and Gulam, Labeeb and Christopher, Vincent and Hutch and Monsour. He misses the kids who’s names are currently underlined by wordpress because they seem to be misspelled.
Since he was struggling, we called the school. The operator transferred me to the principal. The first time this happened I was shocked, now I take it for granted that when a parent calls, the principal comes to the nearest phone and talks to them.
Three weeks later, he was named Student of the Week. After our call, his teachers had worked out a better system for inspiring him, and he lit up like a Christmas Tree.
I once told him that letting him grow up in New York was one of the greatest gifts I could give him. We go to MOMA in LIC. We go to children’s theater at divey 99-seat theaters. His friends are white, black, east-indian, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian… even Jewish (which is how he self-identifies). The world, the whole world, is being given to him.
But what about me? I was just playing one of the leads in Candida by George Bernard Shaw and we closed on Sunday. On our nights off, I saw three other plays – not as many as I usually do over a four week span but I *was* doing another show.
One play, “Something, Something Uber Alles” was directed by the reviewer David Cote. Because a theater reviewer with a national reputation still has to show his shit in New York to maintain our respect. And MYGOD the show was an utter tight-rope of brilliance.
The other two were new shows. In one show, “Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go Betweens”, I was friends with every single member of the 10 person cast and the playwright, and am very *good* friends with the producer and director. I am that guy, because I live here, because I stayed, because it was worth it to me. And it was gorgeous, breath-taking, an absolute masterpiece.
The other show was also a new show, called “Why We Left Brooklyn”. I didn’t know every single person in the cast, only five of the 9 person cast (and the writer, and the director) would I call good friends. It’s the story of a couple who can’t live in New York any more. They’re in their mid-30s. It was written by a guy who hasn’t left, produced by a company that isn’t leaving, featuring nine actors who aren’t gonna go. I loved it. I missed huge stretches because I was laughing so hard. And the playwright and I talked afterwards about the ideas – and about how neither of us was tempted to leave, but it’s fun to talk about.
The apartments in my neighborhood are about $2500 for a two bedroom. It’s expensive, if that’s your metric. But we do live next to subsidized housing, our school is roughly 55% kids who are eligible for free lunch, and I’m not surprised when I walk down the street and hear Not English.
Because of course there’s Not English. This is America, nobody speaks English when they get here, and getting here is all anybody does. And when they came, it was through Ellis Island, like Barnaby’s great-great grandfather on one side, or JFK, like his grandfather on the other. Maybe there are small towns all over America where English isn’t expected, where Spanish or Hindi or Swahili are perfectly acceptable languages, but it doesn’t *seem* like it. Of course, I’m not there – and Not Being There means I really oughtn’t make assumptions.
I was walking down the street in Astoria and the gay guy behind me was genuinely frustrated as he half-hollered into his phone, “I swear to God, if I don’t find a more straight way of talking, I’m gonna be stuck playing best friends and moustache-twirling bad guys for the rest of my *life*.”
The gay guys here worry about type casting. What do they worry about in your idyllic southern small town?
If you think you know New York then let me tell you about Avonte Oquendo. A young autistic boy – non-verbal and just over 5 feet tall – ran out the front door of his school on October 4th. We haven’t found him yet, it’s been eleven days and we haven’t found him. He doesn’t know how to say he’s hungry or cold, and we don’t know where he’s sleeping or how he’s surviving.
But every telephone pole has his picture on it. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers have been combing the streets looking for him. They shut down the MTA to scour the tunnels because his mom said he loves trains. He’s somewhere in the city and we’re not gonna give up until we find him. And when we talk about him, he’s ours.
I saw a woman faint out in front of a grocery store once and she didn’t hit the ground, two men caught her. Then a cab took her home for free.
So, when you say you saw a homeless man get hit by a car and nobody cared, I don’t buy it. 270 pedestrians died last year in car accidents, out of a city of 8.4 million. Maybe you saw it, I can’t prove that you didn’t, but you’d be far more likely to see it in Los Angeles – and if you did, there’s a 48% chance it would be a hit-and-run (compared to the 11% in NYC).
When you complain about sprawl, that people often have to go to Brooklyn! or Queens!, you reveal yourself to be utterly ignorant of the way the city works. If only because you fail to understand that all five buroughs are part of NYC.
When you say Breakfast costs you $38… then I don’t know what to say. If you literally CANNOT FIND a place to get breakfast with a friend for $15, then I suppose I would suggest you hook up the selfsame computer you used to peck out your article and try The Google. Or ask a friend. Or live here long enough to have friends to ask.
See, there’s a new story being written about New York, and it’s being written by my friends. There’s a playwright in Astoria who not only writes her own theater pieces and produces them in living rooms, but who’s baby was placed for open adoption (with a gay couple, who get to live and adopt openly here in New York), an action beyond my comprehension of bravery.
There’s a woman who rented a loft space on the fifth floor of a building in LIC so that theater companies could build, store and rehearse in the same space. She might lose her shirt, but more than likely…not. She’ll make a new kind of New York.
There’s a woman who started a storytelling series where people get ten minutes to tell a story inspired by songs from their past. There’s a guy working at Fractured Atlas who spends all his time at poetry jams. There’s a guy who makes art out of discarded piano keys.
If you couldn’t find it during your one year here, I don’t know what to tell you.
But I will say this – the internet has made it hard for us to swallow our immaturity and ignorance. Some day, you’ll be thirty. Sometime after that, you’ll be thirty-five. And then forty and then forty-seven and so on. And more than likely, you’ll look back on an utterly vapid piece you wrote and cringe.
But… your piece was fun. It was fun for people to post on Facebook and fun for people who don’t want to spend the time to invest in this city, who would give so much back to you if you just try. And *this* post will most likely be read by a couple hundred people (because it’s not a list, because it doesn’t actually make any kind of sweeping general argument and because it’s not trashing anything). I guess I’ll just have to suffer through another year of living this life and hope that folks with a strong constitution keep looking for the things that my city offers.
In The CarPosted August 12th, 2013 by Sean Williams
Barnaby and I were driving to camp this morning.
Barnaby: I don’t think I’m gonna get a job when I grow up.
Me: You’re gonna have to get a job, Barnaby. Everyone has a job.
B: Really? Everyone has to have a job?
Me: Yeah, dude. You know how you have to go to school every day and do work?
Me: Well, that’s what you’re gonna do for the rest of your life. You’re just gonna have to do a job forever. Gramma Linda still has a job.
B: She’s really old.
B: What if I don’t like my job?
Me: Well, that’s why we’re trying to set it up so you can make a choice. You have to do a job, so we want you to be able to decide what job you want and then if you don’t like it, you can choose another job.
There’s silence in the car for a little bit. Jordana once gave me the advice “only answer the question the kids ask”, and I’ve followed that pretty well. If a kid says “how does a car work” you can explain an internal combustion engine, or you can explain a steering wheel and gas pedal – believe me the second explanation is the one they actually want.
B: Didn’t Grandpa Morrie get me a ticket to college or something?
B: I thought Grandpa Morrie got me a ticket so I can go to college.
Me: Grandpa Morrie and Gramma Clara set up an account to make it easier to pay for college. Grandma Lorna and Grandpa Joe are gonna put money in it too. They want you and Marlena to be able to pay for college or anything else you want to do when you get out of high school.
B: I miss Grandpa Morrie.
B: I hope he comes back.
Me: That’s not really how it works.
Another silence. Very often it’ll seem like you’re on the edge of some Important Conversation, but it stalls out. In fact, almost always. Kids aren’t really interested in big questions as much as you might think.
B: You know how Uncle Alan’s mom died, but now Aunt Sabrina has babies coming?
B: What if one of the babies is Uncle Alan’s mom?
Me: Well, there are some people who believe that’s possible. Some religions think you come back to life after you die as someone else.
B: Do you think that?
B: What do you think happens?
Me: Well, what do you think happens?
B: I think Uncle Alan’s mom is gonna come back, but she won’t have any memories of being his mom and she’ll be a baby and she’ll get a whole life to learn how to crawl and walk and stuff.
Me: Yeah, I can see that. Some religions believe stuff like that.
B: What religion are we?
Me: That’s something… We’re not any religion, honey, I’m sorry. That’s the sort of thing you’re gonna have to work out for yourself when you get older and you do some research.
B: Is that what you did?
This is the sort of corner you get yourself into when you don’t answer the question asked. There’s a very simple answer to his question – “None” and then if he presses, we could be here. Instead, I steered us here.
Me: Your mom was raised in a Jewish family, but they weren’t really all that religious and obsessed with it, and I was raised in a not-religious family, except that Grandma Linda’s family are all Mormon, so we had a little bit of that.
B: I thought you were Christian.
Me: Honey, there’s a difference between being “not Jewish” and being “Christian”. I’m not remotely Christian, but I also wasn’t born into a Jewish family.
B: So what are you?
Me: I’m not anything, honey. There’s a thing called “Secular Humanism” but even that implies that you think about these things, and I don’t think about them.
B: I’m Jewish though, because Mom is Jewish.
Me: Yeah, but that’s a racial thing, not a religious thing. But we definitely want to set you up so you can decide if you want to be Jewish when you’re older.
B: Like getting a job. You want me to get to decide what I’m gonna be.
Me: (laughing) Yes, it actually is quite like a job, honey.
Again, there’s a pause. He’s frustrated by something in my answers, there’s something about it that’s really making him legitimately *angry*. He doesn’t say anything for a minute, but when he talks it’s a little bit louder.
B: Why aren’t you Jewish?
Me: I wasn’t born into a Jewish family.
B: But you said it’s a religion. Can’t you decide to choose the religion?
Me: Yeah, sure. Although… Okay, it’s a little bit complicated but yes, if I wanted to be Jewish, I could go through a bit of research and devote myself to becoming Jewish and they’d totally let me be Jewish. But the thing is, I never think about that stuff AT ALL. It is all something I never, ever think about.
B: But if I’m Jewish, I want you to be Jewish.
Me: Well, you can be Jewish and we can even disagree about stuff that is really, really important but it won’t change our family and it won’t change who we are. Gramma Lorna and Grandpa Joe are Jewish and they don’t care at all that I’m not, they still love me and we’re all still family.
B: Why don’t you think about this stuff?
Me: Because it’s faith. It’s religion. I’m just not interested in religion.
B: Because you like science?
Me: Well, it’s not an either/or thing, but there’s an aspect of science that makes religion really difficult to swallow.
B: Science makes it hard to be Jewish?
Me: NO! Honey, Jesus, No, some of the greatest scientists – Seriously, most of the greatest scientists that have ever lived were Jewish. Einstein was Jewish.
B: So why don’t you think about this stuff.
By now, we’re parked at his camp. I put the car in park and check the time. He doesn’t have to be inside for five minutes but, honestly, I know he’s my kid and everything, but this has to be where you tread lightly. Because I don’t know what he will think is true when he’s older, and if I talk to him about this now and it feels like I’ve been dishonest, then it’ll mean I might be dishonest about *anything*. Believe me, once you know your parent is lying to you about stuff, you assume they could lie about *everything*.
And also… I don’t know what’s true. I have no idea. I feel, right to the center of my bones, that there’s no God, that there’s no magic, nothing supernatural. More than that, I just don’t care if it *is* true. There’s no demonstrable way that the existence of anything spiritual can change my life. BUT I see, in other people, that their lives are made better by their spirituality. It has never done anything for me but, like bungee jumping, the fact that I’ve never had any interest in it doesn’t automatically mean it’s meaningless.
Me: Listen, you put an ice cube in a cup and you wait twenty minutes. What is your hypothesis? What do you think will happen?
B: The ice will melt.
Me: Sure. The ice melts. Why?
B: Because water is liquid normally. You have to freeze it for it to be ice, but the warmth wins out against the freezing.
Me: Okay. But you’ve only done it once. You have to repeat the experiment. You put ice in the cup, you wait twenty minutes, it melts. You do it again, it happens again. You do it again it happens again. This is what makes sense to me, this is what I’m interested in.
B: But what does that have to do with being religious?
Me: I’m getting to that. Let’s say you put ice in the cup and you pray that it won’t melt and then after twenty minutes you check and the ice has *not* melted.
B: Why didn’t it melt?
Me: Why do you think?
Barnaby is silent for a minute.
B: Either because you prayed it wouldn’t melt, or maybe the cup was icy-cold too?
Me: Awesome. So how do you know which one it was?
B: You do the experiment again, but you make sure the cup is the same temperature, and you make sure you pray the same way.
Me: See, and that’s the thing. Nobody has ever had ice not melt because they were praying, and then they do the experiment a *second time* and the ice still doesn’t melt.
B: So the praying only works one.
Me: Yeah, if it works *at all*, it only works once and then you can’t repeate the experiment. People who believe in praying and believe in God and everything, they get a lot out of that first time, when the ice doesn’t melt, but they can’t ever *repeat it*. So, for me, it’s not a thing and I just don’t think about it.
B: Because you think it isn’t a thing that, like, has any effect on the world.
B: Because you think it’s fiction. Instead of non-fiction.
Barnaby has been drawing this distinction for a while. He’s far more interested in non-fiction than fiction at this point in his life. Not because he doesn’t like fantasy stories. I think he’s just trying to get all his shit in one pile in his brain, and he wants to know what’s what.
He’s silent for a minute, so I get him out to walk him into camp. I can tell he’s still thinking about it.
B: Dad, I think you’re wrong.
Me: I might be, kiddo.
B: No, I think you’re wrong about you. About how you think about it.
Me: What do you mean?
B: Well, you say you’re more interested in non-fiction, but you had to choose a job and you choosed a job where you had to tell stories and do plays right.
Me: Well, sure…
B: And you think that the plays are important, like, the first time someone tells the story. Like, you don’t know what’s gonna happen at the end of a story, like, when we’re reading and I don’t know what’s gonna happen and you’re always like, “What’s gonna happen!?!?!” and you’re all excited and everything.
B: Because you don’t tell the story twice, right? You don’t get the same thing the second time you tell the story, right? Because this time you know what’s gonna happen. It’s like truth, but it’s fiction.
B: So, you don’t repeat the thing and get the same outcome and you aren’t praying or anything, but you totally believe in reading the same story or doing the play again or something and you don’t get the same thing in the end, but you totally think you should do it anyway.
Me: I’m not sure that applies to religion and science, dude.
B: It does, though. Because it’s true fiction. I’m gonna call it true fiction. And you could decide to be religious if you want. If you think you can do a story more than once and if you think you can have the same ending but it’s all different every other time, then you could totally be religious.
I drop him off at camp and walk back to the car. I think my kids offer up a word salad that is *interesting*, sure, but any insight I find in it could be no more than seeing elephants in cloud shapes.
But… if I’m gonna go so far as to admit that my own total lack of spirituality is possibly a blind spot, that my utter atheism could be the same thing as my color blindness or my friends’ tone-deafness, than I also have to admit that it’s entirely *possible* that my kids understand something that I don’t.
The mormons call it “closer to the veil”, because they believe there’s a sort of fog that separates this life from the pre- and post-existence. I can’t say I believe it, I don’t. But I knew better than to just start the car and drive. I knew I should probably sit in the car for a few minutes until my heart stopped racing.
The Fourth FloorPosted July 29th, 2013 by Sean Williams
Here’s my version of “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden”. Deborah (I had to look up her name) attempts suicide and is put in a home for mentally unstable people. She’s checked into the third floor, and there are four floors in this hospital. The bottom floor is voluntary, you can come and go basically as you please, but you require access to a doctor and medication and treatment. The floors increase in severity as you go upstairs until the nightmarish top floor, full of screaming lunatics and 18th century Bedlam inmates.
Deborah starts working with her doctor and over a long stretch of time begins to slowly improve her behavior, but doesn’t seem to be actually fighting her illness. She’s told that her doctor is leaving in a month, and Deborah does everything she can to appear to be better, lying about the voices in her head, because she believes the end of her therapy means the end of her health. Before her doctor leaves, she’s moved to the first floor. Once her doctor is gone, she quickly attempts suicide, completely loses her mind and ends up on the dreaded fourth floor.
Her doctor comes back (she wasn’t actually leaving, she was simply going on vacation for two weeks) and they begin their work over. Initially, Deborah is SO RELIEVED to be on the fourth floor with the rest of the spastics, this is where she’d always belonged, but after a few months of therapy and medication, she begins to notice that she has nothing in common with the other denizens of that hell hole. She’s moved to the third floor where she begins to notice the same thing. Then the second, finally the first, where she’s granted full freedom to come and go as she pleases. She gets a job, finds new friends and then realizes that the voices in her head are actually her own voice, she understands that there’s nobody else talking, it’s just her.
NOW. Is that what the actual book is about? I have no idea, I last read it in 1983. But it leads me to a rather difficult admission and I hope that you’ll bear with me as I go into this.
I was a pretty sensitive boy who quickly became an angry young man, with radical enthusiasms and deep troughs of anger and sadness. My parents were divorced and we were broke and I was underachieving at school and a constant discipline problem, so I was largely written off by everyone. Except that I would have these spastic bursts of positivity and energy – bursts that turned into either a fantastic project or a marriage proposal or a move across country or a six figure paycheck. And then the project would fall apart, the marriage would end in divorce, the move required another move six months later and the paycheck would be gone.
It was widely decided, without much argument from me, that I was an emotionally unstable, immature drama queen – who was actually worth being close to because I was funny and you never knew if something awesome would happen.
All of that sounds like there’s an upside, but there isn’t. There wasn’t, I should say. Because the pit of despair is an impossible place in which to get purchase, and the heights of fancy *always* have the looming precipice. There was a monster in the back of my mind that would say, “I will have you soon. I can’t reach you now, but I will have you soon.”
This is the part that’s hard to admit. I started investigating life insurance policies. I began to give serious thought to the difference between living with an emotionally unstable drama queen, versus… Not. Would a young boy and a young girl rather have a father who’s nuts, or a single mother who is brilliant and stable. And could that mother be happier if someone else was there helping with the kids? I went so far as to start another blog, totally anonymous and hidden from everyone, with advice for my kids, in the hopes that it would go viral and they would eventually read it, not even knowing it was me, but getting what I had to tell them.
I fought it like crazy. And I wanted to be well. There was an impending disaster coming, like Deborah’s doctor leaving, and I had to do what I could to pretend to be Not Sick. I went so far as to announce that I was done with acting, because I wanted to make the decisions that healthy people make. Most people aren’t actors because acting is “crazy”, so I quit.
My therapist, who hadn’t fully caught wind of this but could tell things had taken a turn, suggested I seek out a psychopharmacologist that could help me with medication. It’s not the first time I’ve done that, but in the past I’ve been diagnosed with everything from ADHD to epilepsy to Manic Depression, and I’ve been utterly unwilling to go on lithium or whatever the hell else they were offering. But I also knew enough to know I had to look out, so I went.
Again, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but the doctor said he had a medication with almost no side effects. The only one, rash, could be terrible but they would slowly introduce the medication and see if I reacted. I went on it, and no side effects.
A few weeks passed, and then a month or two. And the alarming change is such a subtle one that I don’t know if I can fully explain its power.
I had choices. That’s the big difference, I was allowed to make choices.
On the medication, I had a split second chance to make a decision before I acted, before I said the thing or did the thing that my nutty-ass brain was telling me to do. And that tenth of a second has utterly changed my life.
The monster on my shoulder would say, “I will have you, there’s a precipice and I will have you when you fall.” And I would look at the edge and say, “Okay. Wait. Yes, there’s a precipice and I could fall, but look *this way*. See? I can just walk next to the gaping maw and… just… not go in, right?”
Nothing about me has changed. Nothing. I still get passionately furious, I still get irrationally happy, I remain hopelessly optimistic and teeth-grittingly furious. I’ll be honest, I was perfectly happy with the thought that I might lose some of the more horrible parts of my personality – but my personality is something I’ve been working on for 40+ years. The only way for the Giant Me to leave my brain would be for me to find silence or emptiness, and I’m no Buddhist. The body of my enemy may be floating down the river, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stop rowing up to try and fight him anyway.
But I find myself now six months or more removed from any kind of actual mood swing. I don’t know when it happened, but the monster on my shoulder was trying to talk to me, and I interrupted him and said, “Dude. Wait a minute. Where’s this chasm you keep talking about? Where’s the precipice?” and he said, “Are you kidding? It’s right over… oh, shit. Where did it go?”
And I look out and instead of a precipice, there are deep dark valleys and gorgeous snowcapped mountains, but the only thing that will make me *fall* is if I stop looking where I’m going, if I stop deciding where each footstep goes.
I don’t have anything in common with the demons on the fourth floor any more. I don’t belong on the third or the second either, and I’m not gonna spend too much time on the first. But as long as I’m an outpatient, as long as I get to make my own choices, then I’m going to make a few that are most important. The first few choices, about being a father and a husband, aren’t the kinds of things I can talk about on a blog – not because they’re personal, but rather because molecular movements like these require second-by-second adjustments and can’t be described.
But the last choice is one I didn’t think I would make. I don’t know what’s gonna happen, I don’t know if I’m inviting the monster back or if I’m rediscovering the precipice, but I haven’t always made indulgent choices based purely on my own happiness and as long as my family and producing partners are standing behind me, begging me to do this, I feel like this is the direction I should walk.
I’m gonna go back to acting.