Are You Working for Free

A hula hoop artist (I’ll wait)

A hula hoop artist named Revolva (ok, I’ll wait again)

A hula hoop artist named Revolva recently wrote an open letter to Oprah. Oprah’s people asked Revolva if she would like to perform as an opening act for Oprah’s tour. After her initial excitement, Revolva learned that she would be performing on a stage outside, not actually with Oprah, and would not be paid for her performance. She declined and instead wrote Oprah a letter.

Internet outrage erupted. How dare Oprah, she of the millions, ask anyone to do anything for free?

When this subject erupts, I always feel a little conflicted. On the one hand, as a writer, I’m part of a group that is frequently asked to do things for free or less than a living wage. On the other hand, as a content marketer, I frequently work with writers who willingly create work for me for free. On the third hand, some of the groups I write for most frequently, small business owners, entertainers, and wedding vendors are among the most abused by the idea that people should work for “exposure.” On the fourth hand, I’ve seen that exposure really pay off for some people.

I completely understand and support anyone not feeling like they should work for “exposure.” I’m thrilled that this woman managed to turn an offer to work for “exposure” in to much more exposure than she would ever get if she had accepted the job. But I don’t get the Internet’s collective outrage at this.

If Revolva had been a musician with a CD to sell, that she was allowed to sell at the event, accepting this job for free might have been worth it. If Revolva had been offered a chance to perform on Oprah’s TV show, even with no payment, the “exposure” might actually have made sense for her. I am not a big Oprah fan, but there is no denying the “Oprah” effect. If Oprah blesses you, it is worth a lot of money.

Revolva was made an offer. She (rightly) decided that this offer wasn’t in her best interests as a professional. Most of us have been offered jobs that we don’t want, for salaries we don’t want. Yes, it stings a little. It stings a little when people don’t realize that your career has passed the point where you need that kind of work. It stings a little when people don’t offer you the big bucks. But I fail to see how that sting rises to the level of insult.

Revolva didn’t want that “job.” She didn’t take it. You can bet someone else who thought it made sense for them did take it. Is it really working for free if you actually do stand to gain something from it? Revolva was quite right that she didn’t really stand to profit from the job, but is that true of every artist?

I noticed on Revolva’s blog post that she has 198 comments, most of them thanking her for writing what she wrote. I also noticed that her blog has a “Tip Me” function allowing people who like her writing to pay her for it. I’ll be curious to learn in coming days how many of the people who feel so strongly that Oprah should pay Revolva paid her themselves.

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Cars and Goodbyes

In 1999 I was 30 years old. I was thin, single, and much more professionally successful than anyone with a MA in literature ever thinks she will be. I had been driving a 1977 Nissan Sentra and one winter day, it finally died. The death was not unexpected. For a while that year little things would go wrong and various guys I worked with would fix them for me. On days the car wouldn’t work a friend I worked with would kindly pick me up in the mornings.

At the time that my car died I had been thinking a lot about what it would take for me to be a single adult woman. Obviously, I’d always been single, but in my 20s that had seemed like it was  a temporary thing. At 30, almost 31, being single seemed less temporary. I thought of myself as independent. I had been living alone for ten years, but I also knew that I always asked a guy to change the light bulbs in my apartment, open jars, and fix my car.

I decided one of the necessary steps for being a successful, single woman was to own a reliable car. I knew that women routinely paid more for cars than men, but I decided it was important not to ask a guy to help me buy a car, so I decided to buy a Saturn, no negotiating required or possible. A friend (OK, yes, a guy) drove me to the dealer and two days later I was the proud owner of a 1999 Green Saturn SL1.

It was the first new car I’d ever owned. It was the first car I’d ever bought without my father’s help, financial or otherwise. It was the first car I had ever owned that was built in the same decade I was driving it. That didn’t last long.

I turned 31, then the year 2000 came and I wanted to make a change. I wanted to take advantage of  my independence. I wanted to do something, anything.  A few months after I bought the car I quit my job to go run a hotel in the desert for six months.

My Saturn and I drove for two weeks across the country, with no cell phone and no hotel reservations. I picked up a hitchiker in the Badlands, I fell in love with Mount Rushmore, I hiked and shopped and sang songs at the top of my voice. While I drove I wrote a complicated dissertation in my head about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jack Kerouac that I wish I could remember. I occasionally stopped to visit friends. I saw Shakespeare in Montana and Seattle and the first X-Men movie in San Francisco.

The trip and my time in the desert remain the most important, and best, decisions I have ever made. After six months alone, writing and thinking, after six months of meeting people I never would have met otherwise, after six months of intense and amazing friendships with slightly older women who had been where I was, after six months of a really great, but possibly ill-advised and definitely future-free love affair, I decided I wasn’t quite as ready as I thought to commit to a life alone.

I drove my green Saturn, now with a Desert Hot Springs license plate holder home. I followed as much of Route 66 as I could, reversing the course of settlers before me. I got in my car and I left the golden land. I was stopped under suspicion of drug smuggling. I visited Lincoln’s home, and then one February day there I was, not just in Chicago, but in my old office.

Three months later I met Danny and a year later, I married him. Less than two years after that we drove our daughter home from the hospital in my green Saturn and less than two years after that we installed the second car seat and brought home our son. For years, the Saturn was the “good car,” the one we used for transporting the kids. It was still my car.

When my husband’s car of the same age died, I got a mom car and he took my Saturn. I rarely drove my Saturn and was possibly a little resentful when I had to do so, preferring the more comfortable, quieter microvan.

I can’t say that I’m a “car person.” I believe you should buy the most reliable, least expensive car you can and drive it in to the ground. I do not stop and look at cars on the street or dream about car features.

But, a week or so ago the Saturn started to go. Then, the other day, it died. Today, after 15 years of faithful service, after bringing me first to independence and freedom and later to love and family, my green Saturn is headed for the junk yard, and I’m a little more sad than I have any right to be.

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Eric’s Eulogy

Note: Today should have been Eric’s 47th birthday, but in November 2009 he left us. We still miss him deeply. My husband Danny was thinking of his friend today and wanted to share the eulogy he delivered at Eric’s funeral, but since one blogger in the family is enough he didn’t have a platform for it. So I publish it here for him, unedited.

I think I remember meeting Eric, but I  may just be remembering my Dad telling me the story. I had just turned 2. It was 1969. We were both playing in a playground, in the sandbox I think, in Lincoln Park. My Dad saw Eric and his Dad, and Dads being kind of unusual at the playground, especially then, looked at me and said, “Danny, that looks like a nice boy for you to play with.” You know what, he was right. So right, in fact, that we kept on playing together for 40 years.

At my 6th birthday party, we both knew that we were moving to Evanston, me from Uptown, him from far-suburban Woodstock, where he had moved. We ran down the street singing “We’re moving to Evanston.” Every once in a while, when we got together, we’d stage a re-enactment of this event, as recently as this August. When we were ten or eleven Eric and I had a phone conversation for an hour and a half without words…both of us just made “boingy boing” sounds the whole time. We were trying to see how long this would go. I think my parents finally put an end to it.

Despite both growing up in Evanston, we didn’t go to the same school until high school. In high school, we never had a class together and never even had the same lunch hour. The closest I came to an art class was when I signed up for drawing my senior year. I dropped it to take AP European History, a move Eric never did understand. Despite all this, we were able to maintain being close friends. Not going to the same schools, I didn’t know Eric’s other friends very well, but whenever I was over Eric made sure I felt part of the group. This characteristic, of knowing when someone might be in a situation where they might be a bit uncomfortable, and acting to bring that person in, to create an atmosphere that makes them feel at home, was one of his greatest characteristics, and one I learned from even as a child.

Eric in high school was like no one else. He spent hours painting, often working through his lunch hour. We spent hours together at the Art Institute or endlessly looking through the records at the used record store, although we could only afford to buy one or two a month. But he wasn’t a recluse. We had a close-knit group of friends, often centered at John Quinn’s house, where there always seemed to be fresh baked cookies or fudge.

Later, sometimes we would somehow go months without speaking to each other. But, when we did it was the most comfortable thing in the world. After I graduated college, Eric was in his final year at U of I. I went there for my master’s. We were roommates for a semester.   I had this idea coming in that Eric would introduce me to dozens of Champaign art-babes and we would be out at parties every night. Instead, Eric spent the entire semester, including many Friday and Saturday nights, finishing two paintings, including one that covered an entire 10 x 12 foot wall, and a sculpture. Despite a little disappointment on the lack of partying, we got along wonderfully…my memory of that time is just contentment.

Incidentally, the sculpture and the other painting were on a potato theme. Eric was given an assignment to create something useable. Eric created a large pyramid shaped sculpture that held one potato, and an accompanying painting of a potato. He also created a long spiel that he told art professors and others on the significance and symbolism of the potato….which didn’t seem to be really based on anything other than getting a grade…but when Eric gave that spiel he a twinkle in his eye that said I may be serious…or again I may not be…and either way it will be fun to listen and you might learn something.

Since that time, I moved to LA for a while, then Oklahoma, then back to Chicago. Eric met and married Ali. Later, I met and married my wife Marta and then had two kids. Though all of this, visits to Eric’s, and later Eric and Ali’s, house were like sitting in a comfy easy chair. It was so relaxing that we would plan to come for a short trip to the beach and lunch and would wind up returning to our house twelve hours later. While it didn’t really seem like any effort had gone into it, food and wine we all liked was always available and the music playing always seemed to be picked out for us without us ever being asked.

The people at these events were from all parts of Eric’s life. Neighbors, old friends like me, friends of friends, friends who became friends through Eric, work friends, friends from college and grad school, all gathered in the house, on the patio, or on the beach below. Eric created community.

Recently, when we were over at Eric and Ali’s, Eric got my 3-year old Joey, to stop whining by suggesting making peanut butter sandwiches out of rocks and sand. They eventually had a whole operation going on. Two months later, Joey mentioned out of the blue “That Eric…he’s silly,” which is about as big a compliment as you can get from a 3 year old except perhaps for my shy 5-year old daughter who said when leaving their house that no Mommy, I don’t want to hold your hand on the way down to the car, I want to hold Eric’s.

From break-up’s to family deaths, Eric was always there in times of trouble too. The last time I saw Eric was in September at my grandmother’s shiva, a Jewish wake. My parents were worried that no one would show up. Eric showed up, he brought food, and he stayed.

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Whatever Happened to Saturday Night

Rocky Horror Picture ShowI was twelve years old the first time I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show. My older sister was in high school and she had been going with her friends. My parents and I wanted to know what it was all about, so one Saturday night we went.

I wore a cowboy hat and boots because they were the only clothes I had that looked like they might belong to someone else. Under strict orders from my sister not to embarrass her, my parents and I sat in the back of the Vogue theater (but not “in the back row”).

It’s hard at 45 to try and imagine what I knew and understood about the movie at 12. I grew up in a house that tried to be as blasé as possible about sex and sexuality and so I do not think I was shocked by the movie’s sexual nature, although it would be years before I completely understood what was going on in “Touch a Touch Me.” I like to think that even at 12 I understood that I was not the naive Janet or the experienced Magenta, but rather the desperate Columbia. Manically tap dancing in an attempt to get someone to love her, Frank, Eddie, anyone But realistically speaking, that realization came much later.

What I know I understood was that the movie showed me there was a whole world of people out there who were allowed to be someone else whenever they wanted. There was a world of people who could dress and look how they wanted. Who were allowed to not just dream it, but be it.

My ability to be a manic tap dancer figuratively, if not literally, served me well and I became a mascot for my sister’s friends. They wanted me with them, if my sister did not. Off to Rocky Horror we went, over and over again. I went to the performing arts high school in part because in the movie Fame, they go to Rocky Horror. I took that to mean that if I went to a performing arts high school, I would finally find my people. I would find where I belonged.

The funny thing is, by the time I was a sophomore in high school I was pretty much done with Rocky Horror. We’d moved on to getting stoned and seeing harsher movies, The Wall, Repo Man, Liquid Sky. I only saw Rocky Horror a handful of times in high school and not again until my mid-twenties.

My best friend was marrying a man from Mexico and he had never seen it, so we went, not in costume, and once again sat in the back (but not THE back row). I remember this time finding the movie sad and being a little angry. I had seen this movie so many times and it was so full of lies. Living your dreams, being who you were, loving everyone did not bring you freedom and happiness, it brought you heartbreak and AIDS. I could not help but notice that Brad and Janet escape at the last minute, Magenta and Riff Raff go home, and Columbia dies next to Frank, still unloved.

Over the years Rocky Horror became mainstream. You could buy it on DVD and watch it in the privacy of your own home. The Time Warp became a Halloween song, and showed up on video dance games. Bary Bostwick played a bumbling sitcom mayor and then the grandfather in my daughter’s favorite Disney movie.

A few months ago though I got word that one of my dearest friends would be playing Frank, not in a shadow production for the movie, but in a production of the original play. And I thought, as Frank sings,  “I’m going home…”

On a Saturday night, I sat with friends from high school watching our friend rule over a baby-faced cast. I had been right about the high school I chose. It was where I found my people, where I found my place.

I wondered what the young cast, even the oldest ones in their twenties closer in age to my ten-year-old daughter than to me, thought of this show. If any of them understood what it was like in 1980s when the movie started becoming a cult hit, let alone the 1970s when the play was first written. I wondered if the cast found the show sad or naive or stupid, or if maybe kids still learn something about themselves from it.

For me, seeing the show, hearing the music, remembering the lines again was pure joy. There is still a little bit of Columbia in me, but now I know that I am loved and so I do not dance quite so manically any more. I doubt my own daughter will be seeing Rocky Horror two years from now. She is a younger ten than I was, and will hopefully be a younger twelve. But I hope one day my kids do see Rocky Horror. I hope they find it funny and sweet, and a little weird.

Instead of my movie, I hope my kids find their own movie that speaks to them, that helps them find their place in the world, that helps them “stay sane inside insanity. ” When they tell me all about it, I’ll pretend to understand why they like it so much, but really, I’ll just be doing the Time Warp in my head.

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The Personal Is Political

“The Personal is political.” When I first started hearing this phrase in college it was more of an accusation than anything else. Wearing lipstick, dating men, these were all personal choices I was making and they were somehow harming feminism. I had seen this train of thought in action from the other side. For years, my mother hated the way she looked. Her jaw stuck out at an unattractive angle. My sister and I had the same jaw and we’d had orthodontia to correct the problem.

Over the years at appointments for my sister or me a variety of dentists and orthodontists had suggested that they could fix her jaw and make her more attractive. She dismissed them, angry and upset at their sexist focus on her appearance. Then, one dentist finally explained that fixing her jaw was not just about appearances, it was a health issue. My mother broke down in tears and shortly after began the long process. I wondered how long my mother had wanted that surgery, how long she’d hated her jaw but been limited by her notion of what a good feminist would and wouldn’t do.

The personal is political. I wanted no part of that second wave feminism, the subjection of my personal needs and desires, to a greater political goal.

As my friends and I all got older and better at political debate and nuances and less eager to attack each other, I came to understand that the phrase means something slightly different. The personal and the political are not separate things, they are entwined. You may see your choice to quit your job when you have kids as purely personal, but in fact, you’re making that choice based on some political realities. Would everyone who quits their job do so if a more robust maternity leave were offered, if childcare was subsidized, if flex-time were feasible, if working mothers were not routinely portrayed as cold and uncaring? These are political factors that play in to your personal decision.

Today though, I think the expression is taking on a new level of meaning. Personal stories have always been used to advance political causes. It’s why we refer to famous court cases by someone’s name, not a number. It’s why we have laws named for crime victims. It’s why the President invites ordinary everyday people to watch the State of the Union address to help sell his agenda. Telling a story helps make a situation real and important, it helps make it personal and understandable.

Blogs are allowing more and more people are telling their stories. Those stories are personal, but they are also becoming part of the political conversation. People have always had personal reactions to political stories, but are we now allowed to have political reactions to personal stories?

Emily Letts, an abortion counselor, filmed her abortion and wrote about it. She wanted her personal story to become part of the political conversation about abortion. But does that make her personal decisions fair game for political or public discussion? Having read her story are we allowed to criticize her for using the rhythm method instead of a more reliable form of birth control? Are we allowed to criticize her for not telling the man who impregnated her of her decision? Are we allowed to criticize her personal choice to have an abortion?

I imagine many people would say in this case, the answer is obviously, “yes.” She made what was personal public. But remember Kim Hall, who wrote a blog post about why girls shouldn’t take sexy selfies, and then published photos of her shirtless sons. Her post was on a small, personal blog, like this one. It went viral by accident. It entered our public, political conversation about gender roles and social media. But, does the fact that we read her views mean we get to criticize her personal parenting decisions? Does it make a difference if the writer wanted to be part of the public conversation? If a blogger writes about her family’s struggles, if she encourages us to read her writing, is that inviting us to comment on her family and her decisions?

What if the comments and stories aren’t really public at all? Is it possible, for example, to make a political critique of the ice bucket challenge, or Susan G. Komen’s pinkification of cancer, or homeschooling without implicitly criticizing those who have made a private decision to participate? What about the recent Slate article about a study showing that many people find cooking family dinner difficult. A lot of people saw the article not as a report on a study, but as an attack on their personal commitment to cooking family dinners.

If the personal is political, is the political always personal as well?


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Summer Farewell

When I was in college I liked to write narrative poems. Before the Internet and blogs were invented narrative poems were the perfect outlet for people like me who lack the attention span necessary to write a short story and the attention to detail  necessary to write a regular poem.

I think it was my junior year of college when I wrote a narrative poem about summer. It was all about the plans you make at the beginning of the summer, the trips you’ll take, the discussions you’ll have, the parties you’ll throw, and then suddenly, it’s August and time for the State Fair and you realize that summer is over.

Obviously, it was longer than that – and hopefully more poetic.

I think you would have to lose all sense of childhood and joy not to mourn the end of summer at least a little, but I remember that year there was an added sense of drama and sadness. A friend of mine, a boy I loved, was going away at the end of the summer. He and two friends were moving to the Virgin Islands (I think, but maybe it was some place else, it was some place exotic).

He was not my boyfriend, this boy I loved. He was in fact the boyfriend of one of my best friends. I loved them both and they loved me and we were all much too sophisticated and mature to think of it as anything like a love triangle.

I was barely 20 at the time and I had spent most of my teen years walking carefully on a line between trying to fit in and trying to stand out. But there was something about my friends, about the way they were together but open, a couple but without the normal rules. There was something about all this openness and freedom, and their beauty that made me feel like I could be free, too. It made me feel like I did not have to decide between all the parts of me, that I could just be me.

It was understood by everyone that the boy would come back in a year or two, and some day my friends would get married and make beautiful babies.

But I did not really believe it. Somewhere in my attic I have a photo booth strip from the State Fair that year. The three of us are smiling and goofing around but I feel like I knew that at the end of that summer, when the boy went away, everything would change.

I don’t remember the details. I know that soon after he left, the girl began seriously dating someone else. Of course, they had both agreed that dating while he was gone was fine,  because, you know, they were sophisticated. Seeing her start a serious relationship so soon after the boy left showed me something in us that I hadn’t known before. For years, I think I blamed it on her. But now I know, I finally saw that we were not sophisticated and free, we were young and afraid and none of us wanted to be alone. I don’t know if was that discovery or just that I didn’t know the new boy very well, but my friend and I began to spend less time together.

The boy came back sooner than planned. The adventure hadn’t been as expected, I remember something about a robbery, and maybe some drugs. It seems to me that suddenly he was home and then he was dating a girl who had been on the outskirts of our social circle for a while. I was not fond of her, but because he was, I decided to like her. Eventually, I had to admit that she was good for him in ways that my friend had not been. Eventually, all three of us married and made beautiful babies with other people. There has been divorce and death and all the things that happen as you get older.

Every August, when people start to talk about State Fairs and going back to school I think of that summer. Every August I feel a little sad, because I know, when summer ends, everything changes.

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Daily Online Meeting of the Aggrieved

aggrieved dog

Hi, my name is Sammy Segal Beagle Block. First, please note, I do not hyphenate any of my names because I think that indicates an acceptance of a false binary when it comes to identity. I want to thank you for welcoming me here to your daily online meeting of the aggrieved.

I must admit that it wasn’t until I underwent a temporary move to Bozeman, MT that I realized that I am in fact, aggrieved. Here in Bozeman, as a dog of small stature and uncertain origin, I am subjected to daily microaggressions and triggers.

Now, any of us who are dogs know that humans feel entitled to come up and touch our fur because it is so different from their hair, which has somehow gained stature as the normative covering experience. I am thinking about seeing if I can crowdsource some funding to create a humorous video showing humans how wrong they are in all their interactions with us. I’m sure adding humor to it will mean that everyone will learn their lesson and begin to interact with all dogs in the way that I approve. I’m going to call it “If dogs did the things humans do,” but that’s for another day. Although I would like to point out that since humans tend to control the banks, it is unlikely that I will have my important social projected funded in any other way.

Here, in the land of large dogs their human owners routinely demand to know “what I am” and, because of my small stature refer to me as a “puppy.” This last remark is especially hurtful and triggering because of course, I transitioned to adult dog status and clearly prefer to be referred to as a “dog.”

The dogs who are native to Bozeman do not seem to understand my grievances. I feel that these dogs do not understand the privilege that they enjoy as large, native, non-afraid dogs. They are routinely allowed to wander off-leash and display this privilege by rushing up to me and barking in my face. This flagrant disregard of one of my many triggers can only be solved if these large dogs are willing to check their privilege, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Speaking of triggers, since I live near a university campus, I do not think it would be too much to ask if the following things came with trigger warnings: Magpies, construction vehicles, squirrels, cats. I understand that education is supposed to take me out of my comfort zone, but I have the right to be here without anyone ever triggering any possible bad memory from my past as an unfairly incarcerated dog.

Anyway, thanks again for accepting me in to your very large group of the aggrieved. I hope to be able to check in again soon as I have more to say. A lot more to say.

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