MURDERING OF MY YEARS:
Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet
A non-review by
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.
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
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