Sunday, April 4, 2021

"7 Questions"

Last month, The New York Times published a piece called "7 Questions, 75 Artists, 1 Very Bad Year," surveying artists about the work they made in the pandemic. I am often at odds with the idea of calling myself an artist. Sometimes I think it’s something only other people should call you and taking on the moniker is an act of self-aggrandizing pretension--I feel similarly about people who call themselves “poets,” because I always thought that if you were really a poet, you’d just call yourself a writer--and other times it’s merely a statement of fact, the naming of a practice: if you make art, you are an artist. So, my feelings about the word aside, I decided to answer these questions here, since I was not among those originally queried, self-deprecation intended.

1. What’s one thing you made this year?
I’ve written it about it before and I’ll undoubtedly write it again: my book! Glitter and Concrete and I continue to be in the throes of passion and agony. There are days when slicing open a vein and offering its contents to The Great Muses proffers merely 300 words. Other days I sit down and spit out 1380 words in two hours. I am finding that writing history is like math, in that there is only one answer, but there can be artistry in getting that answer across. My days are filled with extraordinary tidbits I occasionally share on Twitter and Instagram. These include but are not limited to the drag queen who claimed to be straight despite marrying his wig stylist and living in their home with 19 Siamese cats. The grandmother of Jackie Curtis, Slugger Ann, who owned a bar of the same name and was known to “have a half dozen Chihuahuas stuffed inside her low-cut dress, propped up by her enormous breasts." The drag king who became one of the first choreographers for television, and many more.

2. What art have you turned to in this time?
At a certain point, I wondered what it might be like to become Nora Ephron in another (read: post-pandemic, post-book) life. I took to filling my soul with what were considered great romantic comedies of these last nearly hundred years in hopes of making myself a student of the genre. I don’t know if I succeeded because, as often happens, I get stuck in the movie itself, wide-eyed bobbysoxer at the picture show stuffing popcorn in her face, and I forget to more actively “study.” Despite my bobbysoxerdom, I did still manage to fall in love, if you’ll pardon the phrase in this context, with the snappy dialogue and inventive storytelling of the following:

When Harry Met Sally (1989): Duh. Nora’s classic, which I didn’t truly appreciate the first time I saw it as a teenager. Upon viewing as an adult, what a classic and, I’m bold enough to say, not just of romantic comedy, but of modern cinema.

Sleeping With Other People (2015): Devastating and quick with a finger on the pulse of the complexities of modern love.

The Grass is Greener (1960): Ferociously ahead of its time in temperament and viewpoints about love and marriage. A magnificent-as-ever Cary Grant accompanied by Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, and Jean Simmons (in a host of lush, loud wacky outfits and scads of sweeping black eyeliner).

If You Could Only Cook (1935): Herbert Marshall (*swoon*) and Jean Arthur in a wacky comedy of mistaken identity where an auto tycoon (Marshall) becomes a butler to help a cook looking for work (Arthur) after he meets her on a park bench. While I don’t know if it earns a place in the grand halls of moviemaking, I watched it at the beginning of the pandemic when I was so sad, and it was just delightful and sweet and fun. And I think it’s okay when movies are just those things, too.

I also read Nora’s Heartburn, I Remember Nothing, and am currently reading I Feel Bad About My Neck. I feel like she is the vivacious aunt I never had and I love looking at the world through her eyes. In her work, she developed a signature storytelling and point of view, something I hope I can continue to move toward as well.

Marc Maron’s WTF podcast was also instrumental in my survival during the first few months of the pandemic. The comedian became simply “Marc” to me, a consistent enough force in my life that I would talk about him to my mother as if he were a dear friend. “I was listening to Marc today and…” He became someone she had heard enough about that he became familiar to her, too.

I did a dive into Mel Brooks as well, revisiting his early filmography as well as his standup and television appearances.

There was, in short, safety and comfort to be found in the work of older Jews.

3. Did you have any particularly bad ideas?
I barely picked up my camera. I photograph people and cultural happenings, and I felt no desire in particular to remember this time, people’s faces obscured by small bits of fabric. I photographed the vital and historical protests last summer, running through the crowd and asking permission as they weaved their way through different parts of the city. I photographed what were in November the last days of Astor Hair (they’ve since been saved, hooray!) for a magazine. I brought my camera to some places, but I hardly took it out of my bag. I miss wanting to remember things, to capture them and hold them as images forever.

4. What’s a moment from this year you’ll always remember?
While I know the key here is “always remember,” I’m going to approach this in a different way. Despite everything, there were still so many great moments I was able to craft with loved ones in masks, and while I might not “always remember” them, I remember them now.

Visiting Alissa in Philadelphia while she was pregnant, seeing the sights around the city, buying too many books, eating delicious food we cooked ourselves and bread we got from the Lost Bread Co. at the farmer’s market near her house. Feeling her baby kick and painting her toenails. Cheeseteaks and water ice with Sean. A vintage air force shirt that was reasonably priced.

Walking to Zabar’s from my house once a week, even in the cold, a tradition I think I’ll keep up post-pandemic, because why not?

The ways we fought to spend time with people even if it meant sitting outside in the steaming heat or frigid cold, and how it meant more when people sought you out this time over others.

The time I had a panic attack and walked myself over to the local CBD monger to load up on treats to heal my aching brain and body. I took probably more than necessary (a mint, a gummy, and a lollipop) and got *REAL* high, then got a vanilla milkshake and sat in the park listening to Marc Maron’s podcast.

Getting my book deal.

5. Did you find a friendship that sustained you artistically?
I think “sustained me artistically” is far too great a pressure to put on another human being, but I did meet people who inspired me. Last summer, Meena and I started chatting while waiting for an elevator outside a gallery. Seeking a sense of normalcy, I had seen that the galleries on the Lower East Side would be open later on a Thursday night, so I put on an art-seeing ensemble--black on black, I think my soul was feeling that day--and made the rounds. Eventually I ran into Meena, a musician, chef, and sound artist, and we walked around together. We talked about art and men and New York and Los Angeles and even had dinner together. She is a force of nature, always working on a new project with interesting collaborators or on her own. I am flattered that she sees in me a fellow creative, our witchy senses often aligned.

Dean, we will call him, to me is a person who truly embodies what it means to be an artist in that he uses his day job to afford himself time to make his creative work. A musician, he made three EPs in the pandemic, all of high quality in my opinion, and is currently working on a fourth. A screenwriter and comedian, he is also developing a film. Real art doesn’t sleep, and real creativity must come out of you or it will eat you alive. It’s important to access these things about ourselves, to exorcise the demons by exercising the angels. I think he does this better than most creative people I’ve met.

6. If you’d known that you’d be so isolated for so long, what would you have done differently?
I would have wanted to do a long-term side photography project, maybe starting up something similar to Project 30, and I would have made more of an effort to sell prints of my work online. I also would have written in my blog more so I could chronicle the good things that did happen in a more active way than photo series on Instagram.

7. What do you want to achieve before things return to normal?
This is another question I don’t love. What is normal? Why can’t I achieve that thing during other times? Why can’t whatever the thing is be a work in progress?

That being said, I really do need to be better about putting a trash bag back in after I take out the garbage.