Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Girl Interrupted at Her Music


I have a confession to make: I am worried about Amy Winehouse. I really don't mean to be. It's not like we know each other personally. I haven't seen her live shows. I've never even listened to her album. But Yahoo! bombards me (almost daily) with the latest "news" about her young, damaged life, and what can I say? At my worst, I am a product of my culture. Our cultural obsession with the husky-voiced, tattooed, British, ancient-Egyptian-eyeliner-sporting, big-bee-hive-flaunting brunette is as contagious as it is distressing.

The first time I heard the catchy/overplayed/problematic song "Rehab," I tried to shimmy along to its hypnotic horns and drums, but I couldn't keep the beat. The lyrics threw a shard into my groove. Winehouse's suggestion that the word "black" was an appropriate substitute for "junkie" made me cringe. I also found myself thinking: "What if this isn't just a facetious party song? What if this is a danceable suicide letter?" A year later, I am convinced that the controversial hit single was indeed a cry for help.

Seriously, the woman is breaking my heart. I think of her the way I would think about a crazy ex — that is, I think of her mythologically. Amy Winehouse The Legend. Amy Winehouse The Addict. Amy Winehouse The Racist. Who is she, really? Amy Winehouse The Event is eclipsing Amy Winehouse The Musician. As an artist, I find this catastrophic. I want to be known for what I dared to create, not for how badly or how often I messed up. We barely remember that Amy Winehouse The Drunken Husband-Beater is also Amy Winehouse Five-Time Grammy Award Winner.

I feel an icky combination of helplessness and fascination when I watch YouTube clips of her super-stoned performances. I feel guilty for consuming endless documents of her path to self-destruction. She is simultaneously unintelligible, sparkly, fragile and brazen. It's like watching a proverbial train wreck in progress. She is a disaster I cannot prevent, a tragedy I cannot take my eyes off of. I imagine this is what people felt when they hung out with the brilliant but doomed visual artist Jean Michel-Basquiat or Marilyn Monroe. Elegant decay. You watch, but not because it's charming or because you feel entertained. You watch like it's a sad documentary. Something horrible is happening in the world, and you are transfixed. Amy Winehouse The Epidemic.

Is it an epidemic? All these rich white starlets "going wild." The ever-present paparazzi. The endless scandalous photos. Against my feminist will, I find that glamorized violence appeals to my morbid curiosity, especially when I'm standing in the checkout line at the supermarket.

I know people like Amy Winehouse. I know artists — some forgotten, some famous — who are also addicts. They are complicated and have not yet started the process of recovery. They are shiny denial. Gregarious and charming. Hilarious and outrageous. Self-involved and hard-loving. They are tricky, flirtatious and a strange kind of beautiful. They are unpredictable and predictable at the same time: you never know how badly they're going to screw themselves over, but you know it's coming. Any minute now, it's coming. You hope they'll dodge it, but it's coming.

My newest play, Expatriate, is about women, addiction and fame. Perhaps I keep thinking about Winehouse because she is an unfortunate case study in how closely related these subjects sometimes are.

Some people think "artist" is synonymous with "self-destruction." But I want to know how we can help addicted artists recover. What can we do to support those who have the impulse to self-destruct? How can we help addicts develop a will to live (cleanly)? Girl, Interrupted author Susannah Kaysen wrote: "What is it about meter and cadence and rhythm that makes their makers mad?" What can we do to promote artistic sanity? Is that an oxymoron? Artistic sanity? Do you think the music would be as good if the musician weren't so troubled? I do. My partner tells me that John Coltrane achieved genius after his "spiritual awakening." This was his term for getting clean.

There are already too many people making fun of Amy Winehouse, so what gentle words would you offer to her if you could? What would you have said to Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Dorothy Dandridge or Dinah Washington? How can we encourage musical icons to be the best, living humans they can be?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Straight Allies: Please Marry in P-Town

I believe in love.

Moreover, I believe that if you are not for love, you are against love. So, whatever form love comes to you in, trust that I am your ally. Whether you are single or partnered, I hope that you thoroughly love yourself or that you are hard at work learning how to self-love. I hope that whoever you (eventually) choose is emotionally available enough to also (eventually) choose you.

I hope that you are out there making good, satisfying, challenging, protected, freaky, unexpected, wild, inspired, sky-rocketing, time-consuming love. I hope that you feel entitled and/or safe and/or valiant enough to reach out and touch whatever appreciative, pulsing body you can get your precious, greedy hands on. I hope that you fall in love regularly and deeply and rise up again with the power of what is possible when you can unite with another person or with other people, if your heart works that way.

But I'm telling you now: if One Man and One Woman come together in search of romance, health insurance, tax breaks or other forms of societal legitimacy, and One Man and One Woman insist on having an expensive public ceremony to celebrate their union, I will only attend the wedding if it happens in Provincetown, Mass. I am serious. A Provincetown wedding is the very least our straight relatives and friends can do for those of us who are systemically shamed for our same-sex love commitments, but are expected to show up to their ceremonies in support of their love. Tie your effing knot where I can also tie mine!

My partner and I have fought after too many straight people's weddings. Before these typically disturbing events, we have showered, powdered and oiled ourselves, colorfully dressed to the nines and muttered prayers to our respective goddesses, begging them for the courage to be ourselves in the face of the most hetero-normative institution of them all. Petrified, annoyed and dutiful, we have stood before daunting chapel doors, locked our eyes and pinkies to promise that, no matter what, we would not let traditionalist vibes bring us down, and we have failed. We have walked into churches hand-in-hand only to be immediately separated by eager male ushers who decide that two youngish women who come to a wedding together are not doing so willingly.

I cannot describe how disgusted I feel when a random dude in a suit puts his arm around my woman's arm without her permission and leads her down the aisle to her seat without me. It is a testament to my grace that I have not kicked more tuxedo-clad shins.

It takes a lot of grace and guts to be gay and show up for a straight wedding.

We have sat fidgeting on hard church pews, glancing about at all the other gay friends and family members who always seem to be sitting in the back, close to the exit, their eyes rolling or wide open during prayers. We have bitten our bottom lips while unoriginal preachers have gone on and on about Adam and Eve's supposedly original love. We have come bearing gifts and smiles and will and nerve to celebrate our hetero loved ones who can only return the favor if we happen to get hitched in California or Massachusetts.

But I am happy to report that I have just returned, refreshed, from my partner's cousin's straight wedding in P-Town and it was awesome. I call Provincetown Gaylandia because, unless you happen to live in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, you may never see as many white gay men in one place as you will see in Provincetown. It's the beach town that never sleeps. It's the very last stop on Cape Code. Celebrated gay author Michael Cunningham wrote a great book about it called Land's End. There are lots of lesbian mullets, buzz cuts and DeGeneres-inspired hairdos in P-Town. And since this past weekend was "Women of Color and Allies Weekend," much to the delight of my eyes and affirmation of my soul, brown-skinned lesbians were present, representing and abundant.

This time, I didn't mind listening to a bishop lecture us about the merits of marriage because the bishop seemed gay. This time, I didn't worry about being one part of the only lesbian couple at the reception because the reception was held at a restaurant called Bubala's by the Bay on Commerical Street, and Commercial Street flaunts the gays. This time we did not feel insecure, slighted, ignored or lonely. Instead of fighting after the wedding, we walked to the beach and smooched during sunset. We had a glass of wine and laughed at the karaoke event hosted by a hilarious drag queen in a silver mini-dress. We went out clubbing at the Pied Bar, sweating to Beyonce's "Upgrade You" with some fine-looking queers from all over the country — possibly the world — diverse in race, age, gender expression and personal style. This time, the context for the celebration of straighthood was queer. It felt balanced and fair. So there.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Ode to Northampton

I travel a lot, but (for now) I keep my old journals, family photos and ribbon collection in Northampton. It's a cute, western Massachusetts college town just two hours west of Boston. I've lived here for almost six years, and a part of me will always live here. The part of me that feels entitled to live safely as a woman who loves women will never forget the power and permission I found in Northampton.

An enthusiastic friend once insisted, "It's the only place in the world where strangers smile at you for being a lesbian." She was exaggerating, but I will tell you this: when my partner and I visited "Noho" back in April 2002, we felt so affirmed by its saturated Sapphic visions and vibes that we jam-packed a rental truck full of our vintage clothes and garage sale belongings and had a local land line by August of the same year.

When we lived in upstate New York, we told our friends and ourselves that we were simply "not big on public displays of affection." But after just a few days of observing townies as we strolled along Northampton's Main Street, we spontaneously shifted our PDA gears. It seemed like every third pedestrian was some obvious variation of queer. Indeed, sources claim that of the city's 30,000 residents, 10,000 of them are lesbians.

Living in Northampton, my partner and I felt a kind of freedom we had never felt before. We were no longer "the only ones." Without even discussing it, we began to reach for each other's hands, smooch each other's necks and snatch each other's buns out in the open. Much to our delight, not very many people flinched. Northampton is a haven where queer is the norm. Women, wimmin and feminist grrrls and bois abound. Queer PDA is commonplace, quietly celebrated but shruggable.

Imagine a waif in wrinkled cargo pants with "SMITH COLLEGE" crawling across her sweat-shirted chest. Imagine a Venus of Willendorf-figured femme in a tight fuchsia skirt strutting arm-in-arm with her spiky-haired, tie-rocking lover. Northampton flaunts cotton candy-colored dreadlocks. Northampton munches freshly made granola in her untucked, button-down, checkered shirt and 10-year-old Birkenstocks.

There are bottle-tanned complexions and bleach-blonde tresses tucked under Red Sox baseball caps in Northampton. There are wide black jeans dragging on the pavement and silver chains dangling from thick black belts in Northampton. There are dykes pushing strollers filled with chubby brown babies. There are dykes eating ice cream and swapping gossip on the curb. There's an androgynous hottie who lets me into the local art movie house for free because she likes my poems. (Thanks again, Androgynous Hottie.)

There are dyke therapists, dyke baristas. Dykes with buns of steel who schlepp the city's recyclables behind their bikes. Dykes serving pizza. Dykes who teach karate. Dykes who teach Russian literature. Dykes standing in line at the Iron Horse Music Hall where they can hear musical dykes play good dyke music.

Imagine lesbian poet laureates, lesbian farmers, lesbian artisans and a butch tattoo artist with a bull dog and a beard. My partner was a lesbian librarian. We even have a lesbian mayor.

It's like living among the diverse characters in Alison Bechdel's comic Dykes To Watch Out For. In fact, Bechdel once lived in the apartment across the hall from mine. Heather Has Two Mommies author Leslea Newman lives here. Amelia Earhart lived here. Sojourner Truth lived here. Bitch and Animal lived here. Sonic Youth lives here. Dar Williams lived here. The Nields and Erin McKeown are also in the vicinity. Gloria Steinhem (a Smith alum) stops through every now and then. Imagine The L Word sans the high fashion (sometimes). Imagine the safety of OurChart in the flesh. Consider that the place you're imagining is real.

My wack-over-the-head nickname for Northampton is Lesbos, but First People call it "Norwottuck" or "Nonotuck" which either means "the mist of the river" or "in the midst of the river," depending on who you ask. In 1992, National Geographic dubbed it "Lesbianville, U.S.A." Tourists call it "Paradise."

I live here (sometimes), and (sometimes) I like living here. It isn't Paradise. Like Wonder Woman's famed island home of the same name, our so-called Paradise is mostly white. And, although I generally find lesbian white people to be among the easiest white people to get along with, it's pretty frustrating to be the only brown-skinned person (or one of too few) at local parties, restaurants and bars. People of color make up a mere 10% of the population.

We're a good-looking 10%, though. ;-)

I should mention that there is a significant population of male homos in town. Apparently, there was once a t-shirt or banner that read "FAGS FROM LESBIANVILLE." Some visitors are shocked to realize that straight men and women also live, breed, work and own businesses in Northampton. What can I say? For better or for worse, it's not a separatist commune.

I have to admit that I'm really moved by the alternatives to aggressive hyper-masculinity that I get to witness as a resident of Noho. It seems that a number of the male-identified people here also feel free to live, love and express outside the box. Imagine hipster trans guys with feminist leanings and women's college degrees. Imagine gamine-like metrosexuals who stride like Bowie. Imagine androgynous, hippie intellectuals stroking thick, tangled beards with painted fingernails as they bob their heads to hip hop or strum out DiFranco-like ballads on their acoustic guitars... Yeah, queered masculinity is big here...

But lesbians rule the town. Our visitor parking lot sign says "Welcome to Northampton: Where the coffee is strong and so are the women." You really ought to come visit us sometime. You know you want some.