Saturday, August 02, 2008

The American Dream

A longer blog from John here:

This year I am going to Burning Man for the first time. I've been meaning to get around to it for a while. Lots of my friends are regulars. Most of the people I meet when I'm touring who are involved in creating beautiful, interesting works and / or spaces turn out to be Burners. It's time for me to see where they're drawing their inspiration from.

Now that I know I'm going, I've been asking some of the old timers if they plan to return. Many do not. Some cite the fact that the festival has become too big and the sense of community is now diluted. Which seems like the old "I was into punk before it was cool." complaint: sort of valid and sort of pathetic, too. Others say they have a big problem with this year's art theme: The American Dream.

I happen to think it's brilliant. No one is insisting that people create works of art praising the American Dream. I expect to see several dystopian urban wasteland installations, for example. But I like the theme as well because it's a throw-down to all us resistors and freaks: Can you curb your knee-jerk cynicism? Do you dare to see the good that's inside this country?

Cass and I come from Canada, where bashing the USA is our real national sport. (Hockey's just a way for us to do this while also wearing ice skates.) The USA is brash, we like to say. It's a bully. It has no health care. It's mean. It has vast inequalities. It's vulgar. In Canada our values are slightly different, and we are a whole lot smaller than our neighbour to the south and we are deeply insecure. So we feel justified in being a bit righteous, a bit smug. I grew up with a punk rocker's snotty disdain for just about everything, and I was virulently anti-American for a long time. Without having met many Americans. A bigot, in short. So I find it interesting that in my mid-thirties I am falling head over heels for the old whore.

To me the American Dream is opportunity. Opportunity that does not exist elsewhere. The Wet Spots do not have an opportunity to be full-time cabaret performers in Canada. This is not Canada's fault. The Wet Spots are a niche act. We appeal to a small percentage of the population. In Canada, the overall population is fairly small, so the percentage of Canadians who are our audience are too few in number to keep us working.

In the USA too, only a small percentage are Wet Spots fans but that small percentage is a whole shitload of people. So we jump through the hoops and get our work visas and come down to work here, and we survive - barely - as artists because of it. And we have the potential for much more. And that's what keeps me awake nights. Opportunity is also the American nightmare. The burden of knowing that the chance of success is here. Not the guarantee. Perversely, not having a chance has it's own sick sort of comfort. But here we are all summer working in New York City and I have never been happier. I see the Chrysler building and the Statue of Liberty every day, and every day they choke me up a little.

Cass and I are in Washington DC this weekend for some shows. I am more ambivalent about the architecture here, and what it represents. This is America's official government iconography writ large in all its schizophrenic drama. In the National Mall you get these theme-park-like monuments to the beautiful, demanding ideals of the nation's founders. Stroll a few blocks in any direction, though, and you get these almost fascist architectural compounds that just scream exclusion and power and rich indifference. And these gated places are where the action really goes down. On our day off, Cass and I wander around a few sites, then head back to the hotel since we're feeling drowsy in the damp August heat. Then I decide to go to the gym.

Have I mentioned I have some body issues? I was the fat kid in school, the unathletic one. For brief periods in my life I have been lean and fit, but it took a massive, daily commitment to achieve and maintain. Nowadays I'm always mildly disappointed with the shape I'm in, and to maintain this shape takes a massive, daily commitment. It would be a lot easier if someone put a gun to my head every day and told me I had to exercise. It would also be easier if someone put a gun to my head and told me I was not allowed to exercise. But the choice is all mine, and so are the consequences, and I can't pretend I don't know what will happen if I don't get keep it up. But our hotel here has a partnership with a local gym. According to their website, all I have to do is ask at the front desk in the lobby and they'll give me a guest pass for some place down the street.

I go to the receptionist and ask her for a guest pass.


"For the gym."

"Ain't no guest passes for no gym."

"But the website says..."

"They ain't fixed that yet. But there ain't no gym passes."

This is great news. I had the intention to go to the gym. I even got dressed for it. But now I am thwarted in my quest for exercise through no fault of my own. I can go back upstairs and watch some dumb TV and laze around for a few hours like I want to. Totally vindicated. Off the hook. On the other hand, going back upstairs is not going to help me get to where I want to be in the long run. Plus the receptionist seems to enjoy saying "no" a bit too much. I decide I'm going jogging instead. Just to let her know she hasn't thrown me off my game, I ask the woman if there's anywhere nice nearby for a good run. She glances out the window at the torrential afternoon thunderstorm I've only just now noticed, looks back at me and says with a raised eyebrow "You just go run wherever you like, sir."

OK. Now I'm doubly thwarted. Clearly the universe is telling me to take a break and relax. To stop being so hard on myself. That I'm simply not MEANT to keep this exercise program up. That it's hard to maintain good habits when you're on tour, so I shouldn't bother. Plus, that cool documentary is on and I might have just enough time to watch it before our show tonight... But god bless this receptionist, she's looking so damn smug now I decide fuck it - I'm going running in the rain. I thank her and head straight out the door.

Earlier in the day Cass and I were chuckling at the douches who were jogging up and down the National Mall in the blazing heat. Now I'm the douche who's running it in the middle of a thunderstorm. The air is electric around me. Lighting is hitting cranes less than a mile away. Thunder is cracking like bombs. People are running for cover. And I'm splashing by in my soaking wet tank top, shorts and shoes. It's one of the best runs of my life. The air is lukewarm and the rain water is soothing, and the sun is setting brightly through the mist. It's one of those storms where half the sky is cloudy and black and the other half is clear and blue and you can see the dividing line right overhead. I get a good distance down the Mall but decide I shouldn't get any closer to the Washington Monument. It's the tallest thing for about half a mile in any direction, and I don't want to be near by if it gets hit. But the sun is setting directly behind that big old national phallus, and for once it's unambiguously beautiful to me. I drink it in and then loop back east where I came from. And then I see it.

The Capitol Building stands out stark white against the deep grey thundercloud sky. And the setting sun behind me throws a perfect semicircular rainbow arc directly over the dome. Like, DIRECTLY over it. Perfectly framed. WAY too perfectly. If you put this image in a movie it would look like such sickeningly hokey CGI that a San Franciscan queer activist and a rural Texan Republican could each agree to hold the other's hair while they puked into their popcorn. And yet here it is, for real, right in front of me. At first the arc is faint, but as the sun dips lower and the clouds darken further, the colours become more distinct and vibrant. And they get right past the DEW line of my irony. In that moment, I think about the American dream of a truly representative democracy, where money and power do not necessarily trump justice and the will of the people. And I think about how we have the opportunity to create it, but no guarantee of success. And I think how those hip radicals who scoff at the possibility of meaningful change in this country are letting themselves off the hook. They think they are smarter than those of us who hope, but maybe they're just lazier. And they share their cynicism with the ones in power who stack the deck against them. A last look, then I veer off the lawn of the Mall and head back north up the hill where I came from.

Opportunity is a bitch goddess. If you don't believe in her, you sort of just drift along, a souring spectator to the inevitable decay. If you do, she doesn't give you anywhere to hide from yourself. For today, though, I've bought her off. On the way back into the hotel I walk past the receptionist in my soaked clothing. She shakes her head at me and rolls her eyes. And smiles.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE your writing, and read your posts with interest (from each of you!) I can certainly relate to the struggle of the American/Canadian Dream.

I think this would make for a great song, something you could perform for both audiences. It is amazing to me (now living here in the US) all of the 'freedom' and opportunity combined with the incredible level of moral rigidity and body fear.

I can hardly believe a country of this size and influence can be brought down by a flash of a nipple or a raunchy sex act. It is America's biggest weakness and something I think you two could really highlight in a playful and direct way. Just a thought!

If you make it over to Detroit... you always have a place to stay. xoxoxo -Tanya (DDLicious)

Anonymous said...

We Very much enjoyed your show on Friday night! Our presence there, was my birthday present.

*G* Yes, the nation's capital is frequently a dichotomy wrapped in a contradiction, swaddled in a paradox.

It's whats makes being around here interesting, provided you don't mind living under a giant target marked "bomb here". *G*

Continued good luck to you both!

-K (the chick who said "amen")

marcia said...

John, that was beautiful. Thank you.

Rebecca said...

Agreed with Marcia. What a writer you are, Mr. Woods!

Rebecca said...

Where's my comment go? I'll try again to tell you that this post, and you, are beautiful, John.

Bitsy said...

Agreed, I did very much enjoy your show on Friday.

On Saturday when I left my apartment I looked at the sky and said "rainbow weather." I'm glad to hear it was.

Also, completely unrelated, I live about a mile from the White House, in the closest residential neighborhood to it, which so happens to be a historically gay neighborhood, there was only one person I could picture in the song George. Not novel, but amusing to me.