Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Lady Parts" Trailer is Ready!

The trailer is ready for Season 1 of Some Lady Parts! Episodes will be dropping summer 2015. Stay tuned ;)

I'm really excited about this project by Katrina Day following the life and times of female actors valiantly battling everyday sexism, in which I will happily appear as such glorious characters as "The Sexy One" and "Homewrecking Slut."

If you've ever known a woman who had more to offer the world than a pretty face, this series is for you. (If you've ever known a woman, this series is also for you.) Feminism is for everyone, and the good people of Some Lady Parts are subverting the status quo in the sassiest, best way possible. Check it out, share, and get ready for some smart (and hilarious) entertainment!

#makeart #womeninfilm #tellstories #keepitreal #doitnow #feminismisforeveryone

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Does it Mean to Be a Working Actor?

Lately I've been asking myself the question, "What does it mean to be a working actor?"

I would argue that all careers have ups and downs. I have friends who went into more "practical" fields, becoming teachers and nurses and technicians and businessmen, and just like me their young adulthood has coincided with a recession and been riddled with job changes, unemployment, switching tracks, and constantly shifting goals. Also lots of wine, moves, breakups, and the occasional zen happiness.

Several of my friends have already changed careers and finished second degrees. Many more have found their career breaking down to one important hurdle at a time: If I just pass this licensing exam. If I just get this promotion. If I just get a job a half an hour closer to home. If I can just get through to Tuesday. If I just can relocate. If I just get a job at all.

Actors and artists are luckier than most in some ways - I like to think; we go into our dream profession expecting upheaval and uncertainty, so in many ways we are better prepared mentally for the curve-balls this life can throw us. Actors have the edge in that we know from the get-go that our career is going to be a madcap adventure through unchartered territory. We can dispense with the illusion of a predictable path from the start, and learn to create our own stability as we go.

But without a map, how the heck do you know if you're doing it right?...Welcome to my ongoing inner debate on this very subject.

So what does it mean to be a working actor, Jeanne Joe?

Does it mean you have to have an acting job at every given moment? Because I don't. Neither does Stephen Tobolowsky, whose column I religiously read in Backstage. Neither do any of the guys interviewed in the wondrous documentary "That Guy Who Was In That Thing," which delves into the stories of sixteen journeymen character actors that have some of the beefiest resumes I've ever seen.

And you know what? None of them work all the time.

No one works all the time.

Not even Meryl Streep works all the time, no matter the appearances to the contrary. I'll say it again, for my own benefit: no one works all the time. Rejection is part of it. Lulls are part of it. Rehearsals and preparation and training and submitting and auditioning and day to day minutia are part of it.

But still, there seems to be this deeply entrenched misconception that you're not a "real" actor unless someone else is currently endowing you with that identity via a "real" job. I've gone to parties in Manhattan and actually been told by dead-serious, hopefully (but doubtfully) well-meaning people that I couldn't really call myself an actor because I wasn't currently performing in something. Or because the thing I'm performing in isn't on Network TV, or isn't paid. Or whatever.

I mean, okay. That just literally makes no sense, but okay; you do you.

"It's like calling yourself a cowboy if you don't have a hat," they say. Because cowboys wear hats 1000% of the time.

"No," I reply calmly, grinding my teeth to distract myself from the desire to grind my heel into their toe. "It's not really like that at all."

Here's a practical-application problem for you, you know, like the word problems in the math SATs, because those were so much fun the first time. Good luck!
Last weekend, at one point, Jeanne Joe was at a bar with three other actors. (I know, I was proud of myself - socializing! Woo.) Two of the actors have full-time jobs (not on Network TV), and the other two have a mishmash of the stereotypical part-time/nannying/freelancing whirlwind that many young New York City actors compile. None of them are currently attached to any high-profile projects, but all four have built their entire lives around their artistic careers. So, are all four of them working actors?
What is the answer? YOU TELL ME, UNIVERSE. Because I say yes.

(If you're having a crisis about this particular job-defined-identity-validation - like I do every Tuesday - I seriously recommend watching "That Guy Who Was In That Thing." Listening to a dude who has acted in literally 165 actual Hollywood blockbusters and 57 TV shows talk about his deep, gut-wrenching fear that he'll never get another job will give you some perspective on the fact that THAT'S JUST HOW THIS BUSINESS WORKS. Sometimes you don't have acting jobs and sometimes you do.)

So what the heck does it mean to be a working actor?

I still don't know if I know. But I am one, dammit.

Does being a working actor mean that your acting jobs have to come from the outside, and involve money and recognition? Is it not professional unless there's money? What is work, or life, even? What is the meaning of life? Is money real? Am I real? What is reality? What?

...I think I exist. I'm pretty sure.

Does being a working actor mean you have to have a recognizable body of work? What is a recognizable body of work? Do I need an Oscar to be a real actor? Am I a working actor even if people in the Midwest have never seen my face?? Why aren't I famous yet?

Do you HAVE to be on TV? Do you HAVE to be making a living at it? Geez, if so, there really aren't that many working actors out there. I've had one, yes one, precious person recognize me from a film. (They were a friend of a friend and it was one of the most surreal and special moments of my life.) I've had countless conversations with people asking, "Are you still doing that acting thing? Are you on Broadway?"

Yes. No. Grind teeth.

I will say this, though: it really helps to know what kind of work you want to do to build towards making a living at it. Some people get further faster than me, but I think the point is to always be asking myself what I really want, and how to get it. And being really, really real about the answers.

Does being a working actor mean that you have to be one of those people who do nothing but promote themselves as actors all the time? 

I don't think so? I hope not?

Look, I fully realize rabid-schmoozy-actor-mode is a valid business tactic. Part of me really envies the people who are good at it, because when I do it it usually involves smiling so hard that I strain my lips and get an eye twitch and aspirate my words and scare people. Frankly, those smooth actory-actors will almost certainly outpace me because I just don't want to promote myself all the time, and sooner or later I'll be at the same industry person's birthday party with one of those actors, and they'll schmooze better than me and get themselves a role that I could have schmoozed for too. I know it. I can predict the future. It is written in the stars.

But guys, sometimes I want a birthday party to myself sans schmoozing. Sometimes I want a weekend, or a week, or a month off from being an actor-in-actor-mode trying to get acting work and showing people how much of an actor I am so that I can act and be acting as an actor who acts. You know? I really think there's more to life?

Sometimes I want to go to Maine or Massachusetts or Texas and just hang out with people who are doing TOTALLY different things with their lives, and touch base with different aspects of what being human is. I mean, that's what I'm supposed to portray as an actor anyway, right? Being human. Visiting the non-acting world also reminds me that what I am doing with my life is kinda unusual and special. Yes, that's some useful #perspective.

It's easy for "being a working actor" to become the be-all end-all, but I don't really think that works for my sanity in the long run. Sometimes I take on internships or jobs that aren't at all about acting so that I can learn new things or survive or be a part of something I believe in or expand my skill-set or question my own life choices a little bit. Sometimes I go home and make myself soup instead of going to a workshop. (Okay, I usually go home and make myself soup instead of going to workshops. Who am I kidding.)

I remember someone telling me early in my career, "You're an actress. People don't want to hear about it if you're sick or have a headache or you're tired. You're an actress. You have to be pretty and vibrant all the time. You're selling an image. That's your job."

Right. And also the job of the Stepford Wives.

I'm more interested in being a human being and telling real stories than in being an airbrushed product, thanks very much. I firmly believe that acting (and all art) is fundamentally about telling the truth. In love. And the first person I need to tell the truth to is myself.

Yes I need to invest in and promote my business, but I also need to invest in and promote my spirit. It wasn't until the last few years that I realized, looking at my list of favorite actors, that most of them had studied something other than acting in school. I don't think that's a coincidence. Most of them had dayjobs for years, and actually kept up some kind of dayjob after achieving financial success as an artist. Advocacy work, charity work, faith, political groups - these things are not necessarily acting-related, people. But they relate actors to the world. Because it's all about being a human effing being. So what else inspires you? What else do you care about? What matters to you? Are you feeding all aspects of your life? Are you investing in yourself as a human? In other humans? I hope so.

So what does it actually mean to be a working actor???

The bottom line is, I think there is no one correct or right definition. Being right or doing it right is not a thing. We each must make the tough choices and fun risks as we deign fit.

To me, lately, being a working actor boils down pretty simply to seeking out opportunities to work in projects that excite me. It means developing my own projects. It means fostering relationships with people I want to work with (I'm looking at you Caroline Dooner. And hey, while I'm looking, I'm look at you too Sam Mendes).

Being a working actor means paring down my schedule to support the things that really actually matter to me, and being painfully honest about what those things are. It means taking an afternoon off sometimes and reading a book or going to a capoeira class or having happy hour with a friend.

It means allowing myself to focus on rediscovering the joy of play rather than constantly hounding myself to "improve my craft." Yes improving craft is important, but if that's all acting becomes for me I will have lost the soul of it.

To me being a working actor above all means living from my soul all the time.

What does being a working actor mean to you?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Returning to Manhattan From the Woods

This essay of mine was originally published in the lovely Quail Bell Magazine on January 18. I thought it was the perfect first post of 2015 for my Calamity Joe blog, too. Enjoy!

Returning to Manhattan from the Woods

January is rough for lots of us; it’s cold, we spent all our money on the holidays, it’s hard to adjust to a work schedule again, hard to say goodbye to loved ones and leisurely days spent eating whatever we want. Yes, January is a quiet month. Someone told me once that if January were a color, it would be blue.

For me, January has an added layer of post-holiday blues: a serious “home for the holidays” hangover, where the ghosts of Christmas past and present and future linger, uninvited and inappropriate and utterly at odds with the date on the calendar.

I realize that the holidays have been over for most people for a while now, but I only just got back to New York City, and I just got back from Del Norte County, California: a place that couldn’t be farther from New York City either physically or spiritually. It’s the place I went to high school, fell in love for the first time, joined the abstinence club, and did a lot of other ridiculous things – like driving my car into a table that was inside a building, driving my car into a fence, and driving my car into a dirt road in the mountains where no one could find us, to kiss for hours and look at the stars.

Del Norte County is a place where people wear plaid and beards without irony, tack the Confederate flag on the back of their pickups, and listen to the country station non-stop. It’s a place where people deer-hunt, prospect, surf, kayak, fish, whale-watch, and live off the grid. It’s a wild place. A wooded place. An isolated place that, this time, took me 35 hours to reach via plane and car. It’s the place about which my mother always said, though she loves it and still resides there, “You can’t stay here. You will go to college.” You will go out of the woods, and into the world.

Her town has maybe 500 people. My borough has maybe 1.7 million. When I am there, I am lonely for people. When I am here, I am lonely for trees.

When I visit my mother and step-father for Christmas, I am also visiting the woods. Literally. Figuratively. We sit together, drink wine, and unwind the spool of our desires, struggles, and history through conversation, and all the while the trees outside rustle in the wind, listening.

There’s a bay tree on the top of our hill that I’ve sat in and talked to for eighteen years now, ever since we moved there. It guards the waterfall that we only have in the winter. It guards most of my secrets. It saw my first kiss, and the mountain lion that could have eaten me alive when I was fifteen. It survived my ill-laid plans for a tree house as well as several epidemics of Port Orford Cedar root rot. I hope it will survive me, survive the plans upriver to install a nickel mine that would destroy Del Norte County as I know it. I hope that bay tree will be around to watch the sun turn red.

Into the Woods just came out, and my mother and I drove two hours to get to the nearest movie theater screening it. She fell asleep after the prologue, and I chuckled to myself all through the lyrics: 

“The way is clear,
The light is good,
I have no fear,
Nor no one should.
The woods are just trees,
The trees are just wood.”

The trees are never just wood. Anyone with half a brain knows that. Not in any woods I’ve ever seen.

The woods of Del Norte County are many things to many people, and for me they’ve gone from woods to solace to retreat to playground to dungeon to padded cell to hostile territory to symbols and back to woods again. It struck me this holiday that somehow, over the last ten years of being outside the woods, I’d come to fear them in a strange way. Not just in a New Yorker vs. nature way: I’d come to fear going into the woods, for fear of what the trees would remember to me.

Each time I enter the woods, I am my twelve-year-old self writing a poem, and my sixteen-year-old self scaling a mountain with my friend Amy who I never see or hear from anymore, and my twenty-one year old self at odds with the world for the first time. The woods play tricks, bend time, and whisper. The woods change color with the twirling light of day, going from laughter to silence.

Del Norte County is the northwesternmost county in California, bordering Oregon to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west and Humboldt to the south. It’s an isolated corner of the state, sparsely habited and poor. Most of the land is protected as National Park, National Forest, State Park, or reservation land of one of the two local Native tribes. There’s a sad history of war and racism. There’s a sad present of poverty. And, within that, there are all the joys and blessings of human life. Families. Schools. Beaches. Most of all, there are the woods.

When I went to school there, Del Norte was the methamphetamine-production hub of the state, smack-dab in the middle of the notorious “green triangle.” It’s easy to hide a meth lab in the woods. It’s easy to do drugs in the woods. When a high school buddy of mine bought a house in Crescent City, she found a recipe for meth written on the inside of a cabinet door in pencil. Apparently the previous owners had forgotten that graphite erases. It was scrawled there, carefully, like lovers’ initials in tree bark.

The woods were where I spent my time in order to avoid the drugs and poverty. My friends and I would bodysurf in the Smith River or forge our own trails behind Stony Creek. We’d lie in the sun and talk about books, or not talk at all, and let the trees do their thing. Once or twice we’d climb to the top of a mountain with no path, and then to the top of a tree on the top of the mountain, and spend the afternoon staring over the velvety-green folds of the foothills of the Coastal Range or the Klamath Mountains, I could never tell where one ended and the other began. I could never tell where the ocean began and the rivers ended, or where the trees and the mountains split into definitive articles.

It’s hard to explain these things to New Yorkers. Most of them have never spent an afternoon in a tree, in the woods. It’s a different breed of tree than park trees, like cats and dogs: park trees are there to please you, forest trees don’t give a damn. They just see you, like another insect picking its way over the bark of the earth’s crust, small and temporary and tame. The trees see, but they are not your friends.

There are dangers in the woods. The woods back home were my escape but also a wild place, like the time my girlfriend and I stumbled into someone’s pot field in the ravine we were playing in and received a shotgun-blast in the air as warning to make ourselves scarce, or the time my dog Teddy disappeared from the trail barking, only to scare two bear cubs out of the bushes to my left that ran straight at me, wild-eyed, afraid of my 50-pound dog, while I looked at them, wild-eyed, afraid of their not-yet-seen but presumably nearby mother, or the time my mother fell and dislocated her hip and had to lay there in the woods for an hour before another human could answer her cellphone call. She's lucky there was another human. She's lucky she had reception.

The woods look down on book-nerds and hippies drug addicts and loggers alike. They look on memories and the present alike. There are voices in the woods.

Not all the people I played with in the woods survived. Drugs and poverty ate up a lot of the kids and neighbors that I knew. A girl who had once been my best friend had a baby in 8th grade. Our charming, handsome class joker was dead my sophomore year of high school, drunkenly playing chicken on the highway that wound through the woods. When I was in junior high we had the highest teen pregnancy rate in California: my high school graduating class started with 418 students, but by the time I walked across the stage as salutatorian, our total numbers had dropped to 214. But me, I had a great time in the woods, even though they didn't belong to me and I didn't belong to them. I knew I couldn’t stay.

To get out of the woods I moved to Manhattan. Except for two years in Brooklyn and a half a year in Ireland, I’ve been in Manhattan ever since. When I go back to visit Del Norte, it seems strange that I am a professional artist, that I spend my time in skyscrapers and sidewalks and not in trees anymore.

Some people never got out of the woods.

I’ve gone back to Del Norte County every single Christmas since I moved away. It’s a ritual. A pilgrimage. A re-opening and healing of a strange wound I only found a name for this year: my innocence. I thought I left it in the woods, when I was in love with them and in love with a boy from the woods, when I was still able to shut out the bad things about the world and rightly whisper to the trees that I was good, back in the time when I'd crush the moss under my feet breathlessly, half expecting to surprise God behind those next huckleberry bushes, eating his fill, always preparing what I'd say if I found him.

When I left the woods and the boy behind, I told myself I was heartsick and broken and that the better part of my heart was lost in the woods forever. I’ve been afraid of wandering through the woods ever since, convinced that at any turn a Hemlock would confront me with my mushy heart, or a Douglas Fir would drop my innocence on my head, and force me to take it up again. It seemed like too great a burden to risk. I didn’t have time or bravery for my innocence anymore. I needed to move fast and light and heartlessly to succeed. And so I’d dread the woods, not wanting to be confronted with bravery, sticking close to my mother’s living room instead.

This Christmas, I realized I hadn’t actually lost anything in the woods. The woods are what you make of them.

Last night I had a long, elaborate dream birthed out of my extended 3-week holiday at my mother’s house. In it, I had a long conversation with my high school sweetheart that was polite and impersonal and devoid of emotion. We were at his parent’s house, or mine, or in the Redwoods – it could have been all or any of those places, they are the same. For the first time in years, I woke up grumpy about dreaming of him, because he had nothing to tell me I didn’t already know, nothing pertinent to add. His kind words didn't mean anything. What’s the point of that? I wondered. I could have been dreaming of Toby Stephens or Benedict Cumberbatch or Jason Momoa. And then it struck me: I’m free, not afraid anymore of going into the woods, going into myself. I can take the woods with me this time.

Then I woke up in Manhattan.

I crossed five items off my 2-page to-do list and submitted for 24 acting parts. I made couscous and pondered how little I have in common with the world I just left behind yet again, and how this particular Christmas somehow shifted and transcended the stormy relationship I’ve had with the river, rocks, and trees of Del Norte County over the years: how very much I am out of the woods, how I no longer dread going there, or leaving. How it’s no longer home or my dream of home, but instead the beautiful place in the woods I go to in order to sit on the couch and drink wine with my mother and contemplate the escape I made from the woods and the yearly escape I make back to them. We stare at the trees through our kitchen window, watching the mist dissipate in the morning and the sunlight dissipate at night and the moonlight dissipate at dawn and time dissipate in our hands. My mother is my haven, not the woods.

I am my own woods, now.

“Into the woods and down the dell
In vain, perhaps, but who can tell?
Into the woods to lift the spell
Into the woods to lose the longing

Into the woods to have the child
To wed the Prince, to get the money
To save the house, to kill the Wolf
To find the father, to conquer the kingdom

To have, to wed, to get, to save
To kill, to keep, to go to the festival
Into the woods, into the woods
Into the woods, then out of the woods”

*Lyrics from Into the Woods by Stephen Soundheim and James Lapine

Monday, November 10, 2014


As artists, it's impossible to avoid the Voices in our heads. I don't mean, like, actual schizofrenia voices (though that may also happen occasionally for some), or the voice of God (I am too superstitions to actually say this doesn't happen but I will go out on a limb and say I am skeptical), or the voice of your mother telling you that she "told you so" about that whole thing you did (you know, the thing, with the stuff).

What I mean by the Voices in our heads are the Voices that tell us about who we are, what we're doing, and what we are not doing.

Sometimes friendly, sometimes fiendish, these Voices have many sources but one common result: confusion. It could begin with a note from an acting teacher that makes you question your mind/body connection (for me, it's the recurring problem of people thinking I am being a smart-ass when I am actually sincere. I blame my face). They could start with an argument with a friend that leaves you feeling isolated; a breakup that hurts way longer and deeper than you expected; a book that messes up your head; or even a discouraging casting breakdown like those featured on the brilliant new actress-run Tumblr Lady Parts, like this one: "[Seeking:] Ultimate fantasy woman of sexually frustrated college graduate. Sophisticated, stylish, sexy, intoxicating."

Any of these things (and more) can set off the Voices. Dialogue ensues:
Voice 1: This is some sexist bull$@*t. This isn't a part for a human. You're an actor. You portray humans. Move on.

Voice 2: What the hell is an ultimate fantasy woman? Am I an ultimate fantasy woman? Am I pretty?

Voice 3: Oh god not you again.
Voice 1: If I submit to this, does that mean I'm egotistical for thinking I'm a sophisticated, stylish, sexy, intoxicating fantasy woman? If I don't submit, am I letting the Man and patriarchy get me down? Stupid Man. Stupid patriarchy. Stupid infinite amount of breakdowns that make no sense.

Voice 3: Is this paid? Because we could really use money about now. Don't submit unless it's paid. Because we don't have time for games anymore, literally. Only submit if you can do the gig. Tick tock rent.

Voice 2: Ummm submitting doesn't mean you'll get it. Because woah there, cocky. Also, am I pretty?

Voice 1: You're supposed to be smarter than worrying about that. Great dramatic artist here, remember? Shakespeare. Devised physical theater. Focus!

Voice 2: Am I a fantasy woman?
Voice 1: Who am I to judge? What is fantasy? What is a real woman? What is reality, anyway? What is art? What is life? 

Voice 3: Blah blah blah blah blah pay your rent.

Oh, Voices. Usually they're trying to be helpful, trying to make choices, trying to help us grow. But Voices, whether from outside or in, can become quickly overwhelming and unhelpful. A big journey in the life of an artist is learning to discern the Voices from the really important questions.

My Voices usually ask me whether I'm doing enough (obviously not - no Oscar yet) and analyze and re-analyze what I've done (Three stars average rating on that thing I did? Why not four?). Sometimes, in the voices of my parents or friends trying to be helpful, the Voices ask what I am working on right now or whether I've considered changing my hair or my city or my life-plan, because that might be what tips the scale. They ask what I was thinking. Why I did that. Why didn't I do more.

Voices. Comparing us to other artists. Chiding us for being so slow, so picky, so unemployed, so over-scheduled or over-worked, or blah blah blah. Telling me to speak louder, or I won't be heard - faster, or I'll be passed over. I publish a poem and then agonize over whether the semicolon was the best choices. I update my reel and then hate what I did with that line about chinese food. And then a Voice whispers: what would Meryl Streep have done? Look at what friend X just did! Why aren't you mobilizing a documentary film team to cover the Ebola outbreak? And Facebook newsfeed-stalking, there's the healthy way to handle this!

Voices need to chill.

I remember one of my all-time favorite days of grad-school. It was in our second-year Voice class, exploring Linklater Technique. Taught by the amazing Susan Main, we had done everything from pretending we were mythic creatures together to laying on top of each other making odd honking, bubbling noises. But this one particularly powerful day, which sticks in my mind, Susan instructed us all to stand against the wall of our black-box studio in a line. Then, one by one, we each had to walk to the middle of the room, turn to face the group at the wall, stand still and make eye-contact with every single person in the class. Each moment of eye-contact with each person had to last for an entire breath: in, out.

In silence.

We were allowed no comment, from ourselves or others. If people messed up this part, Susan would make us start over. Eye contact. Breath. Silence. No movement, no comforting habits or dismissals. Just real eye-contact, for a full breath, with everybody else. One student burst into tears after, when Susan asked us what we had experienced. He had felt so exposed, so seen - and so uninteresting.

"You are enough," Susan said.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't work on our technique or honestly examine what we do with our time, skills, and talent. I'm not saying we shouldn't be prepared and trained and exhausted in pursuit of our art. I'm not saying we don't need to develop a thick skin and discernment to handle the chorus of Voices we'll deal with in our lives as artists. But I am saying that under and over the other Voices, whatever might be said about us or by us or around us, it all comes back to that simple truth that I learned (appropriately) in voice class: you are enough.

Our identity as artists doesn't stem from the last thing we did (how often have you been told that an actor is only as good as their current project?). Our identity as artists doesn't depend on interpretations or reviews. Those things are really, really nice. So is money. But those things are not the basis of our identity, whatever the Voices may whisper. And that's not what got us in this game. What got us in this game was who we are, and what we want to explore. Our core. Our self.

You are enough.

That is where the Voices rest and the artwork begins.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Bunk Bed Bonding in Quail Bell Magazine

Quail Bell Magazine has once again done me the honor of publishing me, this time a personal essay about my beloved roomie of three years, Tiffany. I've re-printed it below. Follow the link to check out my essay at Quail Bell Magazine, and please do roam about and enjoy their many other wonderful posts!!

Reflection: Why Community Matters Even to the Rugged Individual

Bunk Bed Bonding

For three years in my twenties I shared a bunk bed with my polar opposite.

Tiffany was a cheerleader in high school; I read Wuthering Heights and climbed trees by myself. She had never been kissed and still slept with stuffed animals; I was moving into our bunk bed specifically to break my habit of sleeping with men, as part of my intentional two-year dating sabbatical (but that’s another story).

Whenever I think about us sharing a bunk bed it makes me laugh, because we were truly and deeply the Odd Couple. She was a dancer and morning person who for the three years we lived together never once raised her voice, lost her temper, swore, or cried in front of anyone in the apartment—a real, classy, sweet-hearted lady. I was a cranky waitress who ranted about everything from theology to art, nailed blankets around my bottom bunk to create a dark cave to shut out light and human contact. I was famous among the roommates for my moody wine-and-foreign-film nights for one. She was known for her permanent smile, her love of coloring books and baking fat-free, home-baked muffins.

I usually shut people out; she usually hugged anyone that would hold still long enough. Our being bedfellows shouldn’t have worked. But not only did it work, it changed my perspective on community, intimacy, and family. Our whole apartment did, really, but Tiffany was the keystone.

Family is rather a fluid, theoretical concept for me. See, I am the black-sheep wandering child of two black-sheep wanderer children. My immediate family and I moved seven times before I was ten, and we were not in the military. I have a brother and sister I haven’t met. My parents divorced and my Dad moved to Thailand for a while, going on to live in four states and three countries. My brother graduated high school and moved across the state. When I went to college, I moved cross-country.
In a way, I think this splintering of family is an unavoidably American thing. First shedding the broader cultural community of country, creed, or background for the sake of rugged individualism, then taking that individualism and running with it until extended relatives, then immediate family, then spouses and even children part ways to dive into their own separate life paths, never to be at the Sunday dinner table together again.

Sharing a bunk bed with someone, much less any real intimate details of my life, was not in my vocabulary.

I remember when my amazing Mom took me to Italy to celebrate high school graduation. I remember a tour guide looking at me with consternation and confusion when I explained that I was about to move to New York City for college.

“But your mother is in California?” She said, her accent and eyebrows thick.

I nodded. “Yes, she’s in California.”

She stared, stricken. “Aren’t there colleges in California?”

It was hard to try to explain to a person from another culture that family was never the priority. Rugged individualism was. At least, it’s hard to explain that without sounding like a jerk.

It’s also hard to be a rugged individual in a bunk bed without being a jerk.

The first time I met Tiffany was when I went to see the apartment with all the girls. It was the first time most of us had met each other. Mutual friends (community) had connected us all, and on a hunch we decided that living together was a good idea. Yikes.

After agreeing to the move, I was worried that Tiffany was way too perky and sweet to be genuine. She, bless her, never admitted to worrying about my off-putting directness or alarming number of possessions. Somehow, we stuffed ourselves into a room together. A neighbor helped us build this bunk bed we’d ordered online. Tiffany took the top, and we never switched.

I rode that rugged individualist train until it broke down, waylaid by intimacy bandits. By the time I moved into that bunk bed with Tiffany, I had come through an existential crises of questioning every thing I’d ever told myself about who I was and wondering if the nomadic and self-focused life I’d led in New York City was really at all healthy. I was frustrated: If you’re a rugged individual who defines your identity through your actions and work rather than relationships, family, and community, what happens when your actions don’t seem effective? Or your individuality isn’t recognized externally? What if you’re a storyteller but there’s no one to tell stories to offstage, and you can’t get an audition?

This is like that dumb question ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?’ There’s a simple way to answer this. Ask a rugged individualist, because they’re probably hanging out at the same spot in the forest where there’s no one else around. They’d love that spot. Oh wait, that’s right, you can’t ask a rugged individualist because if they see you coming, they’ll run away. They’re elusive, like Bigfoot. Ask me how I know.

Within weeks, Tiffany’s big blue eyes and disarming kindness had worn me down. I found myself whispering my dreams to her through the wooden slats and mattress separating our bunks. Though I was always hot, I found myself switching on the space heater after she’d gone to sleep because she was always cold but would never turn it on for herself out of consideration for me. Having someone go out of their way for me like that made me melt and made me want to step up. I hadn’t had anyone else to take care of or think of in a long time. Though she was always busy, Tiffany would find a night most weeks to invade my fortress of solitude and share a movie with me in the living room. While other roommates would typically accept my brusque dodging of personal questions, she’d fix those bright turquoise eyes on me and wait until I caved.

She made it feel like I was home.

I realize I’m not the first young adult in my generation to build a pseudo-family with roommates and friends. But when I think about it, about how that bunk bed changed my life and how Tiffany worked into my heart so thoroughly, I can’t help but see that the enormous impact she had on me as a direct correlation to the enormous vacuum that preceded her.

I’d built a lot of walls over my time in New York. It’s really hard to be vulnerable enough to be intimate with someone, anyone, when you know your relationship is probably just one stop in his or her transient life. But a culture and mindset of rugged individualism tends to ignore one fundamental characteristic of human nature: We are pack animals who need love. I need intimacy. I need to build families. And my life of self-focused ambition had forgotten something every good artist remembers. You can only create from yourself, from the wealth of your own life.

And people are my wealth.

Tiffany was really the one, I think, that refreshed that lesson for me as an adult. She started as a stranger and became my family, forcing me to recognize that ultimately every stranger is potential family. It was impossible to get away from her in a physical sense, and that led to a deep emotional intimacy I’ll never fully recover from – or want to live without again. By being the ying to my yang at a difficult and significant moment in my life, she showed me that distance and rugged individuality are no excuse for letting intimacy slip. Two strong magnets will snap together even across the kitchen table.

Now Tiffany is about to move to another hemisphere with a new husband, and the cycle of building community and family continues. I like to think Tiffany taught me to be in a family, reminding me to think outside my own defense mechanisms and share. She showed me the amazing difference between being my own audience and sharing stories with another vital being.

Our bunk bed is in two pieces now but I’ll always remember the original shape. While Tiffany's not immediately above me anymore to listen to my dreams, she’s got me in the habit of whispering again.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Bodies: Bizzarre and Baffling in Quail Bell Magazine

This piece of mine on bodies was originally published by Quail Bell Magazine on July 29th, 2014. They publish a mystical range of fiction and reality, check them out! I'm so excited to be a part of the Quail Bell Magazine community, and wanted to re-share the essay below. Enjoy!

Vishnu's Dream Machine

I hereby solemnly swear this is not another essay about body image and self-esteem. It’s more of an existential crisis and I definitely talk about death. Lately, my eyes somewhat glaze over when I see memes about “real” bodies, Photoshop, and beauty. Not because it’s not a thing, so much, as I think it just misses my real question about bodies, which is: What the *#!@ is this whole body thing all about, anyway? What is going on with bodies? Why do I have one? What is it? Whaaat?
My self-portrait created during rehearsals for The Body Stories.

Am I seriously the only adult that thinks it’s bizarre that we have bodies? I know babies know what I am talking about. Watching them constantly re-discovering things like fingers and faces is hilarious. Babies clearly don’t expect to encounter them, bodies: still getting used to them. Bodies baffle babies, and me along with them. 

Somewhere after that stage of life, though, people seem to stop questioning the body thing. Well, I haven’t stopped.

Kids for example definitely seem more accepting of bodies than babies. Sure, everybody poops, they say, I have a book about it. What’s the big deal? That’s just the way it works. And I am the weirdo grown-up left alone going, yeah, but whaaat? How weird is that, that everybody poops? Everybody?! Everybody POOPS! That’s so weird! We ALL do the SAME poop thing together, ONE BIG HUMAN POOP FAMILY!

It’s bizarre to me that human beings, for all our questions and art forms and inventions and winter Olympics and religions and dreams, boil down to creatures of bodies. As a friend recently put it, we just eat, poop, copulate, and die. For some (I’m looking at you, religion and popular culture and longing), this is a problem. The body thing isn’t enough the way it is, or it’s simply bad. Bodies become the obstacle between us and purity/eternity/beauty/glory/whatever-we-think-is-better, an obstacle between us and the way we think it ought to be. And yet we have to have a body because, well, we just do.

So our relationship with our body becomes complicated. We have to fix it. Discipline it. Starve its appetites, sometimes, or fence them in safely. But, dear god, we must control and dominate it lest it dominate us.

My question has always been: Aren’t our bodies…us? Isn’t our relationship with our bodies, fundamentally, a relationship with our very selves? And if yes, then why do I separate myself from my body, even in my own internal language about it? I mean I have to have a body to even have language, right? A brain to think, a tongue to say, fingers to type the question: Am I my body?

It’s very meta.

A dear friend, the amazing Larissa Dzegar, and I co-created a show together in New York City a few years back exploring questions about bodies. We called simply it "The Body Stories" because we’re creative like that. We asked a small group of performers to create 5-10 minute vignettes dramatizing their relationship with their bodies.

It was a pretty open-ended, fascinating process because I was really curious to see where other brains would take that general phrase “relationship with your body.” Of course, because the two guys and the one person not in their 20s in the cast ended up dropping out because of schedule conflicts, many of the pieces were about things you’d generally expect young women to focus on: insecurity about beauty, complex relationships with food and weight, desire to be desired.

I’d like to do the show again someday with a more diverse mix of ages, races and genders, but we still made some astounding discoveries as a group—the main one, for me, being that everybody struggles to accept their body, its limits, and its goodness. A good tagline for our show might have been “Bodies: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” We’re stuck with what we’ve got, and our bodies play a fundamental role in our identities. Maybe not the most groundbreaking theatrical discovery, but it felt like a major accomplishment and affirmation to have this conversation with other artists and audience members and hear my own questions echoed back to me from other people.

Here I am, though, a couple years later, still asking the same questions. Because there might not be any answers.

It’s still bizarre to me that we all know the only way we exist on this planet is ONLY in a body, and yet we seem to be so bad at dealing with this fact all the way up from self-image through healthcare. I mean if you don’t have a body, you can’t be here. Bodies are like the white tie to get in planet earth’s members-only lounge. There’s probably a sign in earth’s driveway that says “No body? No service.” And we only get ONE body (as far as we can prove).

To me, I move to the mystical to try to understand the body thing. I can’t help myself; I was raised in a pretty conservative branch of Christianity, and much as I sometimes fight it that upbringing has permanently affected the way I think about most things—bodies and their hobbies in particular: reproduction, death, food, waste, pleasure, pain, disease, unfairness of size and health and strength and politics. We are our bodies, they exist for a while, then die: that is all we can know for certain. And yet I am constantly pushing past the known and asking myself, what does this all mean, this body thing? What is it? Why is it? How do we all handle it, share it, and yet live completely and only within the walls of our own cellular structure? What is my body?

Growing up, this was my main take-away about bodies from church: they’ll sin and suffer and die, but don’t panic, there’s a way to save yourself from your body of death. Through faith, you can have God’s spirit LITERALLY live inside you and your body becomes God’s temple. And when this body dies, we get a new one. A perfect one. God loves bodies! New permanent bodies for everyone*! (*Everybody who's Christian.)


Obviously this is a religious opinion, but let’s just think about that concept for a second, the body as God’s temple thing, because it still blows my mind with its simple beauty. It’s something like the mirror image of Hinduism where our world and bodies all exist only in Vishnu’s dream in his sleeping head, and therefore we are one with God because we exist in his mind—except that in the Christianity I grew up with our bodies are real and the dream of God’s presence is inside them. God is inside our bodies, or vice versa.

In any religion, belief in spirituality lifts our bodies from the physical to the holy, giving our experience on earth a multi-dementional, sci-fi feel with a very, very happy ending: union with God and a new kind of life after this body’s death. If our bodies could literally be God’s temple or God’s dream, every action and aspect of our physical life takes on the nature of devotion and worship. Even pooping is more special. And our earthly bodies become a sort of cocoon from which we will emerge after death even more beautiful and metaphysical than ever.

I gravitate toward this. It’s a beautiful, seductive idea, just as hell and damnation and cycles of suffering are ugly, scary, off-putting ideas. The main thing is, though, faith is faith and there’s no way to really know what are bodies are: spiritual vessels, or just material? They’re a mystery wrapped as a totally obvious, banal reality. Kids seem to get it. I don’t.

Recently, on a date, two of us stretched our bodies out on a blanket in Central Park under a shady tree and put one earbud each in one of our ears and listened together to a podcast about Alan Turing. (People, THIS is how to woo.) Turing was the genius British mathematician who basically cracked the Nazi code and accelerated the Allied Victory at the end of WWII. After an adventurous and brilliant career as a war hero, Turing was later arrested for homosexuality and chemically castrated by the very British Government he had served.

Turing, it turns out, was raised conservatively Christian much like I was. After watching his boyhood love die of consumption, Turing sought his lost love in prayers and clouds but never found him again. Turing eventually concluded this was because the boy was just gone, and that the Christian idea that humans are more than bodies and that we somehow exist after our bodies die was just a lot of rubbish. As an adult he had a sort of reverse conversion and became an atheist, a materialist, a man of science who decided that the material world and our physical bodies are what they are, and that is absolutely all there is to it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Turing believed that our bodies were the machines of our existence, and that we are essentially conscious machines. Someday he believed humans could build machines that would achieve consciousness, as our equals. The idea rather comforted and set him free, and he went about using his impressive brain/body machine to create machines and codes that changed the world. Then he got arrested for giving his body the love lifestyle it craved, as homosexuality was still illegal in England. Once his own body was turned against him through forced injections of estrogen, Turing grew so depressed and unrecognizable to himself that he chose to end his own life. He bit into a cyanide-laced apple, just like Snow White in his favorite Disney cartoon. (Oddly, it made me feel better to know I am not the only one who has epiphanies about self, bodies, life and death while watching Disney cartoons – but more on that later.)
Is that what our body is, a machine? Turing’s concept of life as a straightforward material equation also attracts and comforts me. To have the experience of inhabiting the sophisticated, complex machine of a human body can be very exciting when it’s working well, and very scary when it’s not.

I’ll never be able to fully burst out of the cocoon of spiritualizing the human body the way that Turing did (I am a bit of a superstitious caterpillar), no matter that I’ve long since resigned my position as president of the Abstinence Club in High School (yes, that’s a real thing that I did) and now live the life of a sinful artist in New York City (sorry not sorry).

Don’t worry, though, spiritualizing the body isn’t all masturbation crosses and chemical castration; one of my favorite Christian saints, St. Francis of Assissi, had a very grounded and humorous view of the body and all the banalities and glories that go along with it. He famously referred to his body as “Brother Ass.” (By the way, children, St. Francis of Assissi, along with every spiritual leader that has ever existed including Jesus and Buddha and Joseph Smith, also pooped. I am quite sure of this.)

I wanted to escape my own “sister ass” for the longest time, but for no reason as profound or tragic as Turing’s government-ordered body hijacking. My body identity crisis was rather clich├ęd, I suppose: puberty and standard-issue Christian sexual repression. I felt like my body was in my way, holding me down, and pissing off God.

As if being 12 isn’t hard enough.

Disney’s Mulan came out when I was in junior high going through puberty. I don’t know if you remember Mulan or not but I had a sort of epiphany because of it. There’s that one song Mulan sings when she’s frustrated with the limitations of having a female body in her society. She looks at her reflection in a pool and sings, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?”

Well, I used to sing this to myself in the mirror, crying, because I felt like my body was something that I wasn’t, preventing me from being who I truly was. And I did this a lot. Yup...afraid so. I hated that when people saw me, they saw me as my body and not as my brain or soul. I wished I could just be a brain or soul and skip the body part because wouldn’t that be nice. Maybe then I could teleport, mind-read, and not have to wear a bra. I could be like the blue fuzzy light-ball Martian’s in Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.” Pleeeease? Why not?!

I doubt I’m the only one who ever thought about that: I bet we all want to escape our bodies sometimes, whether for cosmetic or political or health reasons. But one particular day, when my preteen self was singing that particular Disney song to her naked reflection in the bathroom mirror, I suddenly realized that escaping my body would mean death.

Death is the only way out of this body.

Duh! That was the moment I really realized that my body will someday die, the light clicked on, and I faced my own mortality for the first conscious time. That moment changed my life and my relationship with my body. Not to say I instantly and forever looked on my body as only good, but I’ve certainly appreciated and enjoyed it more ever since. I now know my body is only mine temporarily, like a gift that will one day break.

And so when I wrote my own 5-10 minute vignette in "The Body Stories," I did an interpretive dance about puberty (like you do) and ventured peace between my body and my religious traditions and my current questions by writing it a love letter. I apologized for hating it and being mean to it. I told it I loved the way it felt, how much I enjoyed its ability to move and touch and taste and eat and have sex and sleep. And I concluded my love letter like this:

Dear Body, someday you will die, and I will miss you. When you leave me what will I be? Will I be at all? I am afraid to contemplate the absence of you, Body. It is another world, another side, a darkness that I can’t shine light through from here. Someday we will be separated, Body, and the part of me that wanted to escape you will escape. And maybe then I will know whether that part was you all along or someone else, me, or you alone, or us, or another. Until then, we are together. We are one person, you and I, Body, til death do us part. I am married to you in a union stronger than I will ever have with another, a stronger union than anyone can understand, until we are perhaps one. I am you, Body, and I will always wonder if you are also me. You will always be a wonder to me, never answered, only felt.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


"Maybe your body is trying to tell you to slow down."

Oh, Willy. You're sweet.

Willy, everybody, is my friendly neighborhood healthcare provider who I suspect is several years younger than me. Yes, he insists I call him by his first name, and no, his name is not actually Willy. (Yay, insurance!)

Poor Willy and I have seen a lot of each other lately. It's getting stupid. We may have actually started to form some inside jokes. Today, when he told me to slow down, I retorted with my usual zippy vim:

"You don't come to New York to slow down, sir."

This made us both groan. And then cry. Or maybe that was just me.

The thing is, Willy has a point. (See what I did there?) My body is - often - usually - telling me to slow down. I went through three years of MFA training so that I could listen to my body, dammit. I hear you, Body. I do. It's magical to communicate with you and all but you just don't seem to understand that I am trying to ignore you on purpose.

I don't know about the rest of you artsy lot, but I've realized over the years that I have a rather addictive personality. I over-do things. It's never just one donut hole with me, oh no. Just ask anyone who has supped with me or seen my closet; boundless enthusiasm and terrible planning. (This is why none of my clothes match any of my other clothes.)

Fortunately, I've been pretty lucky. Mostly the things I binge on are pretty innocent so far: work, wine, the occasional guilty-pleasure Netflix marathons, secret late-night Freddie Mercury Google searches...

But I wonder, is this bingey thing that I do realllllly innocent? So I'm not doing drugs, that's good, but is it ok that I have a file on my computer for inspirational quotes I've downloaded in moments of lonely, wine-sodden weakness? (Goals ARE dreams with deadlines. Wow. How did I never see it before?) Can I really justify writing a blog entry after midnight on a Tuesday? Is it smart to expect my body to do well rehearsing two full-length non-union plays at the same time while working all my dayjobs, after five months of hiatus?

Or are my self-soothing/bingeing habits actually detracting from my discipline in creating better art?

I totally stole this from the internet.
Here's what I mean. Fellow actor buddies and I have talked about the famine/feast thing, how work seems to come all at once and then not at all. The pattern seems to be echoed in our personal lives. I'll have a flurry interesting work and my personal life will sort of (necessarily, I tell myself) go on pause. Then, I'll have months of no acting work and I'll burst from my social cocoon and it's all champagne and experimental jazz until the cows come home (ok more like it's all Yellowtail and Bon Jovi until I get a headache, whatever, who cares! life is NOW!). Then, repeat.

Know what I mean?

Thing is, as artists WE ARE THE ONES CREATING OUR WORK. So...

I must be the one setting this bizarre pace. That's my astoundingly deep insight into myself for the day. Maybe I've been approaching my artistic career more like a junkie looking for a fix and less like a journeyman, but storytelling isn't a substance I can hit. I have to make it from scratch. There's a really petulant impatience at the bottom of my decisions: an "I want my artistic fulfillment and I want it NOW!" sort of nonsense, like a big moody baby with grabby hands. And, since that is impossible and actually meaningless as a statement, I guess I've tried to fill in that hunger with things that are actually real. Like wine. Wine is super real. But not necessarily art.

I take that back. Wine is definitely art.

I don't know which comes fist, the instability, the addictive personality or the binging. But I am starting to wonder: wouldn't Willy and I both be happier if we never met again? Nothing personal, Willy.

Oh look, cheese and wine and more not sleeping. How nice. I'll have some.