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Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet
A non-review by

Mickey Z. had been contemplating a memoir. I'm pretty sure he was being playful when, after reading Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, he decided his life was just as interesting, and why not write it up? Money was one reason. Like most writers he needed some and that led him to wonder how other struggling non-mainstreamers made ends meet. The memoir evolved into a look at how to subsist in a society that values consumerism, placing a dogged work ethic ahead of a questioning or artistic or activist life. Said another way: to be willfully non-profit is to be a freak. So, how do we survive outside the thickening walls of a corporate state? Not easily, as the book reveals.

Other Book Reviews:

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering of My Years
- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby
Wei Hui
Shop Talk
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel
David Markson
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

The contributors are considered marginal, counterculture, alternate or otherwise apart, and a snapshot of socially disaffected artists and activists comes into focus. The format is a compilation of questions asked via e-mail. According to, uhm, Mr. Z.'s preface, each of the twenty-four respondees has, "made the premeditated decision to become an activist and/or artist, and, by definition, be "different" in a culture that values sameness while marginalizing individuality." Sure, but I have to ask, what society really does value the "different" or individual? Not totalitarian or religion states. Democracies at least entertain differences and even pay handsomely when talent manages to combine business savvy with message. It does happen. Bob Dylan is an obvious example; artist and social conscience rolled into one, a hugely successful misfit who found a paying fit. Once the large dollars start to roll in it doesn't seem to matter how an artist or activist lives. Except maybe as a point of media gossip.

Biographies come first, and they ought to have been kept shorter and simpler, as in: What is your occupation, that which you strive for and spend time pursuing? Plowing though too much colorful information, I dug out: Vegan activist, actress, musician, entertainment lawyer turned subversive publisher, writer, student, disabled rights activist, stunt man--to name a few. But it was too much work to get a handle on who the contributors were, plus, I don't consider childhood trauma, aspirations and loving people to constitute a life's work. Too much of that sort of thing was sprinkled throughout the bios, so I stopped reading them and went on to the text. Later I doubled back and made a list of what each person did, mentally disqualifying some from being included. Like undergraduates.

That bit of uncomfortableness out of the way, the book is actually interesting and does build to a coherent picture of intelligent people living outside the stream, often making substantial sacrifices in personal comfort. Taking unpopular or difficult positions, and doing so with determination takes a certain amount of courage. One area where out dwellers often feel the pinch is within their own families to whom they are hobbyists at best, anomalies at worst. Yet the majority feel they have been supported by those families in spite of the differences. I was surprised at how little resentment came across.

I have to say something uncomfortable again. There is the tiniest tone of self-righteousness. Tiny. The author is careful to point out that his respondees often claim they are doing nothing special, even apologizing for "dull" or "mundane" lives. These are not, by their own admission, stars or heroes. Many of the answers are almost self-effacing, while at the same time very self-confident. But there is a whiff of anti-establishment superiority. It should be said, though, that it is possible today's movers and shakers (Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, the loose cannon, Rumsfeld--to name but a few) might genuinely wake up each morning believing they have the right and the good on their side. Philosophy 101: How much essential difference is there between ideologues, right-handed or left? Hating The Gap or money or meat eaters or suits and ties and SUVs is, on one level, parallel with hating natural cotton, broke poets, raw grain diets, atonal music, or small foreign cars. The point being, no one holds the cap on rightness. (Okay, class dismissed.) However, I do believe the aforementioned movers and shakers, and I think I can safely toss in a great percentage of the corporate class, very probably do not care about people, beyond their immediate tribes.

The respondees to Mickey Z.'s thesis generally do, or try fundamentally to care about people. And there is a profound difference. What the contributors have in common is a determination to live among the world rather than through it, as in not using the world for personal gain at the expense of human, animal and natural recourses. The contributors know they have faint chance of ruffling the fabric of the universe, and that in part may be the point. Mickey Z.: "Are the struggles of artists and activists worth reading and sharing and emulating?" He thinks so. And I think the book is worth the read. Though contributor, Rachel F., a multi-faceted activist, strikes a cautioning note, "I think there's a danger in assuming that the person in the mainstream is a slave, and the person on the "alternative" track is independent. For example, an artist could be obsessed with--ruled by--the opinions of the circles he or she travels in, no matter how out in the margin."

The poet and writer, Sparrow seemed the most even-headed, a humorous absurdist who has spent a long life up against the tide. Sparrow on success, "Success in work comes when 1) you know what you enjoy and 2) are willing to suffer." Tim Wise, a white anti-racist activist is level-headed. He actually makes a living spreading the good word about equal human worth. He admits that while paid by corporations, schools, police departments and the like to educate and elucidate the problem of racism, he feels he infrequently changes many minds.

I was drawn to some contributor's stories more than to others. Mickey Z.'s questions are not typically sociological, and might even be called leading, with categories like: Passing Inspection (resumes and interviews), Hidden Talents, The Dark Side (illegal jobs), Selling Out ("going mainstream, wearing a tie"). And, Deep Impact (on sex, family, clothing, health, etc.).

In the Hidden Talents section, Pamela Rice, a vegan activist says, "I know how to placate policemen. This comes from many years of being asked to fold up and move my outreach educational table off of a public sidewalk." Of her Worst Job, Jen Angel, who works for Planned Parenthood while at night co-editing and publishing, with Jason Kucsma (also in the book), Clamor magazine, says, "I don't like doing temp work a lot because people treat you like shit...there are some people who every comment out of their mouth makes you feel like shit, when if they rephrased they would just be giving you constructive criticism." Chaz Mena, an actor, once considered selling his sperm to a bank for $50 but couldn't go through with it. Novelist A. D. Nauman on her first office gig: "Within two weeks of starting my job at Mosby, I thought to myself, 'My life is now officially over: I am dead and entombed in a cubicle.'"

Marta Russell, a self-described crip, started out in film but turned to journalism and full time activism when her own disability forced her into a wheel chair and employers began to view her as a liability. Seth Asher was a high paid corporate man who dropped out; omitted the red meat, the car, the ambitious wife, turned on a vegan diet (there are many of those in the book), and pared his life style to the simplest means. He is an activist by example, an argument in the flesh for keeping one's priorities in line with what one actually does.

A. D. Nauman's story was perhaps the fullest. Like the others, she doesn't flinch from the hard facts of her life. I liked her tone, cautioning against a life of, as the poet, Wordsworth said, getting and spending; aware of the double edge that "getting" can buy comfort, and maybe time, but that the trap is always set for empty accumulation and loss of self. She takes a refreshingly honest look at making babies and making art. She wonders if she didn't spend enough time nurturing friendships instead of staying so close to her work. The question is probably unanswerable. Sparrow on regrets, "Yes, I do have regrets about my entire career in 'the arts'. Like a nun or an invalid I have watched society from my windowsill, preoccupied with my inner memories. I wish I had DONE some job, or action, or saved a person. But whenever I start to do so, I believe I am neglecting my real purpose." These lives are not for the faint of spirit.

Mickey Z. answers some of his own questions, so we have a memoir glimpse of him after all, of how he survives off the beaten path. He says he wants to widen that path, the margins where those not hell-bent on "material accumulation" live. Unfortunately, things in the richest nation in the world so often boil down to money, the trick is how to live with less of it yet accomplish a dream or two.

©March 2003 J. Stefan-Cole

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[email protected] | March 2003 | Issue 36
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