Manspreading is So Much More Than Space on a Train

Berlin is a city of artists, both aspiring and actual, so it makes sense that I am confronted with street musicians daily. Depending on my mood and irritability, I can have a range of reactions, from a visceral irritation to a kind of reverent gratitude, but of course it depends. If the music isn’t great or I’m in a bad mood, my first reaction is, “What gives you the right, to interrupt, my space, to infringe upon my vicinity? No one invited you here. No one is paying for a show. Most of us would be happier to sit in silence rather than hear your shitty Ed Sheeren cover. We don’t even have the option of walking out.”

Subtext: Who do you think you are?

It doesn’t seem like an accident that most street musicians are men. Men have been taught that taking up space, physically or metaphorically is okay. I am not the first person to write about this and studies have shown that men are more likely to overestimate their abilities while women tend to underestimate theirs. This has led to a huge confidence gap, and it shows up everywhere—in the office, on the stage, in the gallery, and on the street. Do a simple Google search of “street musician” images and count the ratio if you don’t believe me.

I went to an amateur stand-up comedy show a few weeks ago—pretty much the same thing, eight guys who thought they were really fucking funny, and two women who really busted their asses to prove that they were. There is a longstanding dearth of women in comedy, probably because it is one of the most gruelling and risky art forms. In that way, men seem to have a certain freedom, to be seen and heard, confident, regardless of failure, where women feel they have to be perfect before they make an appearance. My reflection here isn’t a criticism of men’s ability to take up space or perform, but rather, a woman’s ability to stand her artistic ground.

street woman

“Don’t even get me started on men. Men are never afraid to take up space,” my friend Serena said to me over lunch while we talked broadly, about life and art. Serena is an established painter from the U.S.  She described her earliest paintings as tiny, detailed and ornate smaller than her palm. At an exhibit, one would have to stand close, put their face nearly inside the paintings to see every detail. She explained to me, that at first, she believed it was about her talent, showing how painstakingly she could execute her art with such precision, but then realized, it had more to do with space, specifically, minimizing her presence.

There is a reason manspreading is a thing, the way men spread their legs in public spaces, often taking up more than their share of one seat. It has sparked debate and internet memes, and some countries have even made efforts to ban manspreading on public transit (El Manspread in Madrid).

manspreading

But, manspreading is so much more than space on a train.

“Who do you think you are?” It was that criticism, that voice, the same one that had stopped me for years.

Serena’s early entry into visual arts and evolution with space reminded me of my own artistic path. I always wanted to be a visual artist, but I worried about wasting supplies, creating art that damaged the environment, mostly taking up space in a way that wasn’t worth it. Before that, I wanted to be an actress, but I was afraid of trying to command physical attention—what if they did not want to see me? And the audacity of the stage! I couldn’t handle it. I started playing guitar and writing songs, but again, there was something so unabashed (i.e. brave) about creating something that someone would not want to hear or see. And so, music was something I did, hidden in my bedroom, away from scrutiny or worse, the potential that the sheer act would infringe upon others.

In that sense, my fear of taking up space, visual or otherwise, it is not an accident that I became a writer. Writing is also one of the most silent and hidden and less invasive art forms—it can hardly be forced upon others and for the writer, even if you are widely hated and criticized, you are always lucky someone actually made it through your work. The exposure to writing as art is a choice, whereas the exposure to visual arts, or music, or photography or other more visible forms are easily thrust upon you as an audience member. You will never be accosted in the street by the written word. No one is going to seriously disrupt your commute with a page of scribbled text.

As she evolved as an artist, Serena learned that she had to be willing to take up space as an artist and not be fearful of the demand to be seen. She learned to expand her work, taking up wall-sized canvasses, and her upcoming plans go beyond the frame, she is interested in installations that take up an entire room.

The more I think about it, the more I have come to admire street musicians, even ones I don’t particularly enjoy hearing—like that American dude covering the Black Keys yesterday. He wasn’t great, it was sort of trite, but he smiled boldly and I put some coins in his hat. For street musicians, it’s not only putting yourself out there to be criticized for your art and abilities, but it’s the constant shifting of reactions that you have absolutely no power to control.

And, isn’t this true for all of us in our art, our careers, parenting and relationships? We are constantly faced with an audience, circumstances, and a world that we have no power to control or even understand. Every day, we react, make decisions, choices, and put ourselves out there, without knowing exactly what will happen next, what other people will think, or if we will get the results we hope for.

Now I see, of course street musicians have the right. Of course, I have the right too.

To take up space in art and in life means, taking risks and being seen without knowing the outcome. It means authentic expression, being bold, and loud, regardless of consequences. And, learning to take up space, to interfere and disrupt, that is point of all expression, that is art.

artwoman

Muse

In love, despite any efforts to stray—my “type” has always remained—the artist. As artist-lovers know, the path can be colorfully romantic, but, often unrewarding. Male artists are sensitive, but selfish, they are passionate, but mercurial, they are full of hope, but also self-doubt. For the women in their lives, it is a constant battle between holding them up and fighting to stay relevant as an equal, a lover, and a muse. Continue reading “Muse”

Talking to Dogs

When I was 19 years old, I bought a pit bull from two shamans on 4th Avenue in Tucson.

“What’s a shaman?” I asked the women, who sat cross-legged on the corner, wearing patchwork strips of buckskins, suede, and varying leather textures, selling rare gems and puppies, as if they were in the same product line. Their skin also blended into shades of leather, the exchange of absorbing decades of desert sun.

“It’s like a spiritual guru. We understand the alignments of the stars, we see things, we engage a transcendence of the material world and use ritual to access a spiritual world…we understand animals and their connection to the earth…”

The taller woman had piercing green eyes, the kind you don’t trust, as if they were stolen, like rare gems, too glaring, too bright, for someone with such tanned skin. She puffed from a rolled cigarette and pushed the puppies towards me, starting to haggle, like we were at a street market in a third-world country. Continue reading “Talking to Dogs”

Art Brain

Last week, a lawyer told me that the mayor of Berlin has declared it an artistic hub, and that immigration authorities should treat artistic visa applications kindly. The city is drawing artists from all over the world for its financial support of the arts, affordability, and the broad and varied arts scene. It is not surprising and the artistic qualities of Berlin manifest in its street life, history, and even in the everyday. I met a street artist the other day who sold me a few of his pieces and though he was not rich, he offered hope that there has been a city-wide personal and systematic investment.

Like New York and most international cities, in Berlin, you will always find the street musicians and performers, the painters who decorate the sidewalk, and the unexpected intersection variety show. There is also a kind of underground scene, even the graffiti or more fittingly titled “street art” that the authorities do not wipe clean. It’s refreshing and democratic and the artistic voices dominate the buildings and walls more than billboards.

The first time I met a real *artist*, I was in love. Though he was a highly trained and talented guitar player and song writer, it wasn’t his music that inspired me: it was his freedom in life and dedication to living passionately. He may have been the first person I ever met who fearlessly and abjectly denied a four-year degree to write songs.

There was his ability, and then there was his life. He picked me flowers off the street sidewalks and tucked them behind my ear. He drank beer with the homeless who slept along our block. He stayed up late playing piano and belting folk and blues like Tom Waits. He only paid in cash which he kept in a sock in his closet. His socks always had holes and he smelled like cigarettes and leather.

The summer I was studying for the bar, he brought me to a hidden lake in the backwoods at midnight to go swimming. A sign posted said the park was closed and I had heard of cops ticketing those who broke the rules. The water was calm, lit only by the veneer of moonlight, and I said to him, “I can’t.” I was afraid of getting a ticket at the same time my bar application was being processed by the Supreme Court.

Looking back, there were many things I feared unnecessarily.

To be fair, I had just picked him up in jail the week before after he was arrested in the same spot when he tried to fight a police officer. Young girls love anarchists, apparently. Every time we went to the grocery store, he would get caught with fistfuls from the bulk candy buckets. They would kick us out and he would laugh maniacally, throw his head back and ditch the remaining candy in his mouth before we ran out and jumped back on our bikes.

Art (and anarchy) were in his blood and I have always remembered and cherished this about him. In many ways, he changed my life, allowing me to forget about rules and expectations and allowed me to see myself without degrees or licenses or jobs and money. Who we are, is really, more tangible, more alive, when we let go, stripped down, even if it means illegal skinny dipping at midnight.

Though the musician was definitively prolific, the second “artist” I met in my life is anything but. She is eccentric, creative, brilliant, but cannot seem to finish anything. Her artistry, is not in an form or end, but in a kind of freedom: reckless and larger than life. The woman is connected to something that transcends the material world. She makes children light up. She is bright, weightless, and free. Despite her fraught aimlessness, she continues to be one of the most inspiring people I have met. She wears big hats and her car is a trunk full of clothes.  This is how I remember her, as she was always drifting between L.A. and New York, depending on the weather.

One year on her birthday, she shamelessly appeared at the restaurant in a short, yellow, layered, busty, satin $600 Betsey Johnson dress, fishnet stockings and 6-inch leopard print heels. Fabulously obnoxious, she also carried a dozen yellow roses to match. After dinner we went to a club called “Happy Endings,” an old Chinese (ahem) massage parlor near Chinatown. When the dancing slowed and the crowd trickled out into the night, I remember the trail of petals out of the club and onto the dirty Lower East Side streets, the way the roses fell behind her, tracing a path as she jumped on the back of a motorcycle and tore off down Delancey.

It is still one of my favorite memories of her, and of New York.

My friend Auley here in Berlin works a 9-to-5, but wants to leave his office work to be musician. He is classically trained though never considered himself an “artist.” He hesitates when I use the word to describe him. I think this is why he has been reluctant to pursue his vision, even though his passion has been clearly articulated (at least to me). He is also a professional dancer, guitar player, and genuinely committed to all art forms, but more importantly, a creative life.

I said to him, “But, you are an artist, so you will always have to create no matter what you are doing.” This got us to talking about what it means to be an “artist” and at what point the term applies to you or your life. I am also in the throes of writing an application for an artist visa, so it seemed particularly fitting to examine the question. As I explained to him one day, I always envisioned the arts very broadly and for my purposes consider artists both as producers of art but more importantly, having a vision, and living with creative purpose.

Still, there is a fear in letting go and in using the “A” word (I have found it difficult myself). I think for some, the question has to do with income—are you supported by your art or are you just creating alone? Born into capitalism, we are in many ways, defined by what we are paid to do. This can make any artistically motivated person strapped by an identity crisis the same reason writers become professors, publishers or critics, and painters become therapists or teachers. We are desperate to define ourselves, even at the cost of our passions.

I think the most important part of being a creative person, or an artist, is letting go, of fear, of expectation and of self. It occurred to me that I could not encourage Auley to let go of artistic fears, without also letting go of my own. Artistic progression demands risk and there are always parts of the self that we are unwilling or reluctant to share or express. We had a brief conversation about the difference between the image projected by artwork versus truth: reality versus desire in interpretation.

Still, artistic work must be vulnerable.

I decided it was high-time to release some (amateur, raw) recordings I have kept hidden, but for a few friends. While sitting at a bar in Kreuzberg, contemplating this blog, I sat next to an American who works for Sound Cloud in Berlin. Encouragingly, he quickly set up my account and helped me with the coding. I thought it fortuitous, and a sign.

You can find these recordings here.

I am adding some anecdotal history, because in the end, I am still a writer with a need to explain everything. Here are some raw, very simple recordings and a few stories to put them in context.

Big River (2009). This is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs I covered a few years ago when I first landed in New York. I always liked the very stark tonal change that shifts when a woman sings a man’s song, or vice versa. More importantly, this song reminded me of  the pain of women lost and of a woman who still chooses the wandering river over a man.

Who Will it Be (2009). I wrote this song for a lover, who threw down the gauntlet, in an age-old struggle over impassioned, but ultimately unrequited love. Most of the lyrics were inspired by one line he said over pillow talk: “You were built for unconditional love.” I could only take his words as an insult, for he saw me as a source of love, but not an object worthy of his own ‘unconditional’ affections. It occurred to me then, though, that it was better to be built this way, to risk love, than never to give love at all. I lost him to his own inability to love (I believed), though in the back of my mind I was always haunted by the idea that someone else would change him or give him the inspiration to love back. I obsessed over her, who she was, how she would captivate him or make him love, in a way that I hadn’t or ever could.

Winter’s Come and Gone (2008). This is the first song I ever recorded(a Gillian Welch cover)  in my bathroom in Minnesota as you can tell from the weak vocals and repetition. I loved my apartment in the attic; this room that felt like a tree house. There were raccoons in the trees, bats in rafters and always birds on the windowsill. I liked the idea of winter and the mood of seasons expressed in the organic shifts; the ability to take signs from nature; the tender range of human experience simplified in the color of a feather.

Lighthouse Keeper (2010). I love this song, which was first sent to me, converted from a rare 45 by my (ex) fiance before we left New York. At the time, we were in love and the song represented to me the secret desire to find respite in the storm. I liked the idea of a lighthouse keeper (a symbol of the soul), but also, dreaming of dedication to one that is aware, a true protector with a hyper-sensory connection and a keen sense of the world and the exploratory vision that isthe sea.

Last weekend, Auley and I took a road trip to Prague and stayed in an old dance studio away from the tourist hub, with large skylights and bouncing naked acoustics, where we had two guitars and created a kind of freedom of space to explore what I have dubbed, “art brain.”

We carved out these days to embrace our detachment in dance, music, lyrical experimentation in a way that gives way to the creative. Letting go, we spent the weekend, exploring the back streets of Prague, sitting and scribbling at cafes, then returning to the studio to sing and dance and work on some new music—we are both affixed to folk given the one voice-guitar duo, though (fearlessly) pushing some boundaries towards the electronic.

Freedom comes first: a freedom of mind, freedom from fear and freedom from “self.”

We let go…and then…we make art.