Friday, October 26, 2012

War & Peace, Kaeshi, PURE... and Me: A Q&A Blog Entry

"So.... you and Kaeshi... what's going on there?"

I'm homebound on the subway and have run into an old friend who happens to be dating a bellydancer. We chat about this and that for several minutes and hit a yawning pause.

Then he asks The Question.

It is about the last thing I expect to hear and I realize that, owing to the many such questions and conversations about my public comments regarding PURE's recent War & Peace project, it is time to finally and fully answer them all.

So what follows are assembled questions and answers that have come to me over the past weeks regarding this situation. I hope my answers satisfy, but by all means, do not be shy about asking me online or in person about anything that needs further clarification. So...

Q. It is very unusual in the bellydance community to publicly critique another's work. You must have known you would stir the pot. Why did you do this?

A. Well, first of all, it is not so unusual to critique work that is presented for public consumption (as opposed to at haflas). There are magazines, websites and podcasts devoted to bellydance which often offer reviews of professional work.

Q. But PURE is not a professional group. They are multi-level, aren't they? Why would you critique their work? And why would you do it on Facebook and your blog?

A. Yes, PURE has multi-level dancers, but isn't professionalism an attitude and commitment to quality? Further, PURE is first and foremost a non-profit organization dedicated to "[bringing] positive change to the world through dance and theater." And since it receives tax-deductible monetary donations as well as the time, energy and devotion of countless volunteers all over the world its projects should unambiguously support that goal. To not do so is fraud.

I and many others felt strongly that the War & Peace performance not only failed to do this, it could be seen to do the opposite. Since it is disrespectful to another's work to say, "Well, you didn't do what you said you'd do" without explanation, I felt it was important to lay out specifically how I had come to that conclusion.

Another very important reason involved truth and legality. Since I was making a connection between the performance and her situation with me, I would need to give details about that situation. To make statements that are untrue in a public forum constitutes libel, so by doing it publicly, I was testifying to truthfulness and was welcoming serious consequences if my statements were not true.

Incidentally, Kaeshi and others in PURE kept using the word "slander" in their description of my writing. This is inaccurate for two reasons: Verbal defamation is slander; written defamation is libel. But in order for any claim to be considered defamatory, it has to be a provably untrue allegation of fact (e.g. He or she did or said that), and not only was every factual statement of mine true (i.e. Kaeshi removed me from PURE, etc.) and verifiable from her own emails, those facts are not even in dispute!

It seemed that they were using the word "slander" to mean "anything a person says that you don't like." To use the word "slander" is itself libelous since they are claiming I am lying when I am not.

Q. You said "I and many others." What others are you talking about?

A. That is a tricky question, and one which speaks to why I've taken so many weeks to write again about this (aside from the odd Facebook post ☺). When Kaeshi first proposed the War & Peace project, its intent was to explore "[w]ar and peace within ourselves, communities and countries. What is conflict? What is resolution?" Now, as announced, the project unambiguously supported the goal of bringing "positive change." But in practice... it did not quite work out that way.

True to the spirit of the project, PURE conducted many workshops over subsequent months exploring this theme. But Kaeshi herself, I understand, was travelling and missed many of them. So, when it came time to put together the choreography -- at the last minute, as often happens in these cases -- the dancers found themselves enacting a battle in which everyone died, which was disturbing to many.

Q. Well, why didn't they bring this up to her during rehearsal? Why did you get involved at all?

A. That is a good question!! When the project was first announced back in June, I got the mailing for it -- which was strange since I had not been on PURE's mailing list for many months at that point. In any case, I recognized it as possibly relating to Kaeshi's feelings of conflict towards me and I wrote back to her and the group that it was a good project and made some suggestions for exercises that specifically related to her feelings towards me. Kaeshi responded that she would take my suggestions to heart.

Q. Did she do that?

A. Did she use the exercises I suggested? I don't know. I doubt it. But it doesn't really matter. My underlying message was to let her know I was aware of the project and had some concern about it.

Q. Why? Hadn't you been out of PURE for a long time by then? Why did you care at all?

A. Yes, I suppose I had not been a part of PURE since December 2011, which is the time she sent me several hurtful emails and removed all trace of me from the PURE websites. We never had an official discussion about it, though, beyond her saying she wanted us to take "a hiatus from each other."

But regardless of my "official" connection to PURE, I still had many friends in the group -- having been a part of it for over six years -- and I still have a great concern that my work in PURE Reflections: Beauty Reimagined be used to further the goals of peace and healing under which aegis the show was created.

Q. So these friends in PURE reached out to you?

A. Yes. Some did. Others simply knew about me from the email I had sent the group about the project. My understanding is that many suspected the source of the project involved me, so I felt some obligation to it. I and others believed that Kaeshi would use it as an artistic exploration of her feelings, and even dared to hope that, if she succeeded in this she might better understand her feelings towards me and perhaps bring herself to deal with me directly.

At first it seemed this might happen, but as rehearsals continued, it became increasingly apparent that she was determined to enact a rather violent vision, even though she was told directly by more than one dancer that "you can't just be friends when everyone is lying around dead" (or words to that effect). She didn't listen.

Q. But at the end of the performance, they weren't lying there dead. They were dancing together. Isn't that a peaceful vision?

A. Well, first of all -- and I have this from a variety of contradictory sources, so please forgive the fuzzy details -- but my understanding is that as of Thurs/Fri before the performance, everyone was just dead except for the leaders. I am not sure whether the leaders' expression of grief was a part of it. The resurrection didn't happen until the Philadelphia dancers arrived (incidentally, I had no contact with them, so their perspective sprung wholly from their desire to fulfill PURE's vision of healing and peace).

It was the Philly dancers who asked for the resurrection, and indeed it was they who played the "angels" who came in at the end.

But I still do not believe this offers a constructive vision of peace. Concepts like resurrection fall into religion and spirituality, so if the goal of the work had been: "To show how grief can bring God's grace," then maybe.... but that was not the stated goal of the project.

The goal, as written in the program, was: "[To] explore the conflict between two sides escalating into war and the subsequent consequences, loss of life and eventual evolution to forgiveness, healing, peace and celebration."

The choreography unambiguously had war, loss of life and, strangely, celebration; but I did not see consequences, forgiveness, healing or peace.

Q. You didn't think they were peaceful at the end? They looked pretty peaceful to me. They were dancing and holding hands.

A. It's debatable. I am saying that the message of peace should be unambiguous in order to fulfill PURE's mission. All I saw there was an absence of violence -- which is wholly different from the achievement of peace. Ironically, Kaeshi herself acknowledged the importance this distinction in one of the quotes she put in the program: "Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means."

What is strangest is that, in her letter to PURE "defending" her artistic vision (her quotes, not mine), she wrote:  "I believe that Carol's motivation with writing her public essay dissecting our 10 minute choreography is she wants to prove to the world that we are lost at sea without her 'superior intelligence' as our compass to stay true to the message of PURE."

But the fact that she chose Reagan's quote, about the "absence of conflict," proves that she is fully in possession of that compass; she is just not looking at it. And when others point to it, she does not pay attention.

Q. OK. But you still did not answer the original question: Why did you post this on your blog and on Facebook? Why didn't you just write to her in a private email?

A. She had long since stopped listening to any private email from me. In the semi-public email exchange about this project on June 28th, she had written: "Thank you for your suggestions Carol. : ) All great points. I will be sure to keep what you suggest in mind and use some for exercises."

But I had made similar suggestions to her in a private email exchange earlier that month.

Specifically, I wrote, among other things: "There are many qualities that you ascribe to me which you, yourself, possess. But you can’t or won’t see them in yourself, and so you put them on me. ... May I suggest you write down a list of those qualities, both good and bad ... and meditate on that list. ... [Because] it is wholeness, being able to humbly see oneself as one truly is -- 'warts and all' and accepting the difficulty and discomfort of that -- which allows the ego to relax making compassion and compromise possible."

She wrote back: "At a glance I can see that you feel depressed, bitter and angry [and that] your words are dripping with vehemence and hate toward me."

So private messages from me were not going to reach her at all.

I also knew that a public message wasn't going to reach her either -- at least not directly -- but there was a chance it could reach those around her. It would give voice to those who felt they could not speak up for themselves, or those who tried but also went unheard. It could create a forum for an honest discussion. At least, that was my highest hope.

Q. Uh-oh. I get the feeling that's not what happened. How did she take it?

A. Not well. But before I go into what happened, I'd like to address my use of Facebook.

I and everyone else connected with this situation felt it was important for her to read these thoughts about the War & Peace performance. And the best way to get her attention was to post it as a series of comments to a  Facebook thread about the procession. Dramatic, but effective.

There were several such threads originating from different participants, but I decided it was best and most fair to post it on Kaeshi's own thread -- which would bring it to her attention most quickly, and also give her the option of preserving or deleting it as she saw fit. I didn't want to involve anyone else in that decision.

Anyway, when she saw the comments, she immediately blocked me, so I don't know first-hand exactly what she did. I am told that she deleted some -- but not all -- of them (I broke the essay down into about a dozen comments). Then the thread continued in a pretty brutal way towards me, but that was to be expected.

Q. What did they say?

A. I don't know exactly what was said on Facebook, but I was forwarded many of the emails that were circulated around the PURE community afterwards, which called me angry, negative, slanderous, etc.

Q. I read what you wrote and it didn't seem angry. It was critical, but you were fair, I thought. Why did they say you were angry?

A. Well, they were upset. I think many of them didn't read what I wrote; they only saw that it wasn't wholly praising of the piece, and that sent off so many red flags that they couldn't see anything else. Which is unfortunate; we should be able to accept criticism without seeing it as a personal attack.

Q. They thought it was a personal attack?

A. Yes, unfortunately. I am not sure if Kaeshi wrote that on the Facebook thread, but the next day she sent an email to the PURE community saying: "I received an attack last night from a dancer named Carol Tandava Henning who is currently going on a completely unnecessary public Facebook and Blog denouncement (not the first)."

Actually, it was the first time I had addressed her behavior towards me publicly, but regardless, it was a poor move for her to describe my critique as an attack.

Q. I totally understand how she felt that way, though. I mean, if that happened to you, wouldn't you feel attacked?

A. Maybe. But if I am a leader of a group, then it is my job to protect my group members' feelings first and foremost -- regardless of how I feel -- especially in a what could be volatile situation.

If I had created a choreography that someone criticized publicly, the first thing I'd do is read the critique and decide if it had any merit. If I thought it had no merit, I'd tell my dancers, "I read this and I do not agree with this person's opinion." And then I would give reasons why I did not agree, and I would also ask my dancers to be honest with me about their feelings towards the piece.

If I did think the critic's opinion had merit, I would write, "I read this and understand the writer's viewpoint. There are things we could have done differently in this piece, so let's meet to discuss our thoughts and feelings so we can create a stronger work in the future."

I can understand how Kaeshi, personally, might feel attacked by criticism, as my comments were indeed a denouncement of her failure to live up to her own goals as a leader and co-creator of PURE. But it was very irresponsible for her to then spread her own negative feelings to the group.

Q. What do you mean by "spread her own negative feelings to the group"? 

By crying to the group that she had been attacked, slandered and denounced, all she did is stir up lots and lots of negative feelings.  People felt hurt and "shocked," and began to feel that they, themselves, had been "attacked."

Predictably, many wrote back telling her how wonderful she was and how horrible I am, which no doubt soothed her bruised ego -- but in the end all it did was create hostility, contempt, anger, and insecurity when none of that was necessary.

What she could have done instead was say something like:  "I read these comments and they seem to be directed at me, not you. In fact this person said many good things about your work, so please continue to feel good about it."

She could also have added something about how important it is to be able to hear criticism and receive it fairly without feeling hurt, etc. and reassure them that she felt OK and offer to discuss thoughts and feelings at the next meeting.

After all, I was very careful to distinguish between the dance -- which was terrific -- and the narrative's overall message, which was inappropriate for PURE. I described their dancing as "enjoyable and entertaining" and added that "the choreography is indeed impressive and exciting; it is clear everyone worked very hard on it to a stunning effect" and later referred to it as having "riveting choreography and skillful dance."

In fact, if that dance had been presented by any other group, I would have endorsed it wholeheartedly. But it was not appropriate for PURE, and it carried a backstory and agenda that was personal to me.

That was my singular message, but it got translated within PURE as: "Carol has chosen to vent her blind anger" ... or that what I wrote "was told in a public and slanderous way" ... or "It is sad when a beautiful dancer or artist is no longer beautiful on the inside that they must tear someone else down to make themselves look good."

That last one was especially upsetting since the writer doesn't know me at all, and apparently didn't read what I had written. All she knew was what Kaeshi told her -- that she had been "attacked" and "slandered" -- and simply believed it.

Some even expressed pride in "[not needing] to know another side of the story" ... which is itself shocking and disappointing.

Q. So what is the situation now?

A. Well, a lot of people who don't know me are angry at me for no reason other than that they have been told to be angry at me. A lot of other people agreed with what I wrote; they respected my stepping forward and have been extremely supportive towards me.

Others simply don't know what to make of the situation, but they know me well enough to realize that I had a very good reason to do what I did, and have been supportive for that reason. Others who are closer to Kaeshi are embracing a perspective that is closer to hers, but is still trying to be fair to me.

Q. What do you mean? What is Kaeshi's perspective?

A. I will address this at greater length another time by fully answering her email -- aptly entitled "My Perspective" -- where she detailed her rather distorted view of me and my role in PURE, but in a nutshell, she feels she had to remove me from PURE because she considered my presence burdensome. And that the burden she experienced was entirely my fault.

For example, in one of her December emails, she wrote: "Our relationship takes such enormous effort to maintain that it does end up draining a lot of my energy." Or: "Your unstable emotions and strong personality are a huge challenge for me. ... As leaders, we cannot afford to have this sort of relationship with each other where we are constantly fighting with one another. It's not fair to PURE or the rest of the team."

First of all, the comment about me having "unstable emotions" was way out of bounds. It was extremely unprofessional, and personally hurtful, for her to characterize me in this way. But in so doing, she puts all the blame on me.

In some ways, I have gotten the feeling that she sees me as a bad child at the dinner table, and she -- as the firm but loving parent she'd like to believe she is -- has had to send me to my room for the sake of the family, and ultimately for my own sake. And she is sending me love and good wishes, and praying for my "healing" even though I must be so very, very hurt, angry, resentful, etc. towards her. And all she wants is "what's best for me." (Even though she has not done one thing in this entire ordeal that has remotely been fair or kind to me.)

And she, being the kind, wise, "ego-free leader" she would like to think she is, hopes I will eventually see the wisdom of her actions, "heal from this, move on with [my] life and take [my] boundless energy and talent and start up [my] own group or project instead of channeling it into negativity toward [Kaeshi] and PURE."

Q. Wow. She said that? 

A. Yes. In her letter to PURE. "Negativity" is her favorite buzzword. But I will get into that at another time.

Q. I have to say, you do sound a bit angry and resentful there.

A. Well, anger is a pretty normal emotion when one has been mistreated by those one has trusted. So yeah, anger is in there. Not so sure about resentment. I think it's more like scornful disbelief that so many people are buying this.

Anyway. In her mind, she is the "responsible and reasonable leader" and I am the "bad seed" causing all kinds of problems for her and in PURE, so she had to oust me.

Fortunately, my reputation in the dance community is strong enough that most people know this is not true.

So those who are more sympathetic to her are framing it this way:  They understand that I might feel hurt by Kaeshi's actions, but have decided she and I "just don't get along" (even though we worked together for seven years), and she was within her rights to exclude whomever she wants from her dance group.

This is true, by the way, but I would not say her doing so is consistent with PURE's goals of healing and peace.

Anyway, many of our mutual friends are seeing it as a necessary evil and are hoping I will heal and it will all blow over.

Q. Then will you let it blow over?

A. It isn't entirely up to me. If Kaeshi really wanted it to "blow over" she wouldn't have done the War & Peace project in the first place. Or she would have allowed it to fulfill its intent of exploring and understanding conflict. She knew I was paying some attention to it. And she also knew I'm not someone who sits idly by when others are suffering.

Q. "Suffering"? Isn't that a little dramatic?

A. LOL. Yeah. Well, I do have a flare for drama.

But seriously, many people were unhappy. It was not what they signed up for. And now many more people have been hurt unnecessarily.

Q. Who has been hurt?

A. Well, aside from me and Liz Free, now all of the people in PURE who are "hating" me are hurt -- though they may not see it that way themselves. Hatred is, at essence, a hurtful emotion -- both to those receiving it and to those feeling it since it allows no peace -- and Kaeshi stirred it up in them unnecessarily.

And now Rita, the former chapter leader of PURE Orlando and her husband have been hurt terribly, as well as the members of PURE Orlando itself, which is now disbanded because of this tumult.

Q. Whoa! What happened with PURE Orlando?

Ugh. Nothing good. When Rita, who had similar concerns about War & Peace, read my thread on Kaeshi's Facebook wall, she piped up with her own observations about the work and made the same connection between it and her feelings towards me, which she had watched cause a great deal of tension during the production of PURE Reflections in Florida last November.

Her comments are reposted in full on my blog, but she said things like: "I liked the appealed to my inner klingon. BUT ... Positive change is not something i saw in this piece... two warring factions ... beat each other to death ...okay...this makes us quite aware that violence is bad. people die. ...But then, the PURE Goddesses came in and brought everybody back to life. ... All that did was show that in all the conflict there is out there, it's okay. when we all die, we will all be risen again. ... Still, I liked the piece as the violent person i know i am at times. it fed that 'inner klingon.' But, was it really appropriate for PURE?"

And then she had the temerity to ask:
Was this actually a representation on [of conflict] going on unconsciously within Kaeshi and/or others in PURE? [That] conflict spread down here to Florida last year [during] our production of PURE Reflections ...  
The emotions spread to others, bringing out problems that would have otherwise waited until after production. ... I would never take out my emotions on a person within the group. But i did see that happen when we were producing PURE Reflections Florida
I saw bad emotions from one to another, from within the actors and from within the creators and directors.
She mentioned also her personal depression after the production, which I was distressed to learn about;  even  though she and I have become quite close over the year, she has never burdened me with that knowledge.

Anyway, as you can see, her comments were respectful and from the heart; they praised the choreography, but also expressed sincere concerns about both productions as well as the state of PURE. And, yes, they were critical of Kaeshi's behavior; but they were critical of mine as well and I did not take it personally.

Q. Kaeshi took Rita's comments as a personal attack?

A. Yes.

The next day Kaeshi sent Rita multiple texts accusing her of "publicly denouncing [her] as the leader of PURE" and then began "questioning where [Rita's] alliances lie." She then suggested that "PURE Orlando take a hiatus" and demanded to conference with Rita at a time that was impossible within Rita's work situation. Rita begged her, "My actions are my own. Please don't punish the other members for it." But Kaeshi was unrelenting and the text messages kept coming until Rita's husband Robert took the phone away and told Kaeshi to speak to him instead.

A few hours later they spoke and Robert repeatedly asked why she felt Rita's comments were a personal attack. Kaeshi's only answer to this was to begin to say, "I am PURE!"

Robert countered that PURE was not just one person, that it was a vision and a community, that it was about the members and their works and asked again why she felt this was personal. Still, Kaeshi did not answer, but continued to say that she was PURE, then declared that PURE Orlando was disbanded and hung up.

Robert posted the whole thing on the PURE Orlando Facebook Group, much to the dismay of that entire community.

Members were shocked and posted everything from, "I can't believe this" to "We're still with you, Rita" and "I never liked Kaeshi, anyway."

When that sort of talk began, I weighed in asking them to not bash Kaeshi; that she was undoubtedly distraught during the conversation, and that my critique had likely stirred up a lot of confused and conflicted feelings in her as she is not used to people standing up to her.

A week later, Rita officially stepped down as that chapter's leader and another well established dancer stepped in. Kaeshi told this person that she felt PURE Orlando was "inactive" -- though later this was revised to "dwindled to a few members" (or something like that) -- neither of which was true, since the chapter was in great shape and had just completed its own Procession the week before.

Q. So is PURE Orlando officially gone?

A. I'm really not sure. Last I heard, the intent is to "regroup, renew, revitalize" in January -- even though they were a strong and vital group. But for now they are not meeting.

Q. This still doesn't make sense. I can understand Kaeshi being upset with Rita, but PURE Orlando had nothing to do with it. Why are they disbanded?

A. That is a very, very, very, VERY good question. Honestly, I think it was Kaeshi's way to punish Rita, and probably me as well since now I have apparently been "banned" from the PURE Orlando group. It is similar to what Kaeshi did in New York:  She was upset, so she had to make sure a whole lot of other people would be upset too.

The members of PURE are very devoted to Kaeshi. They will never see Kaeshi as the real cause of their distress, so they blame Rita and me -- creating more negative feeling towards us, and more support for Kaeshi whom they sympathetically see as having been "personally attacked."

This whole thing about being on "hiatus" ... I think that's just bullsh*t. It's Kaeshi's version of a "time out." It is her way of punishment, to put a person who has angered her in a corner where they can reflect on how bad they've been -- even though the dancers of PURE Orlando had done nothing to her at all; theirs is merely a case of guilt by association.

The "hiatus" is the same thing she did with me.

In December 2011 she wanted to meet with me, but I asked for a mediator. Then she refused and said, "I don't like who I become when I am trying to share the leadership role with you, so for now, I would prefer if we took a hiatus from one another."

Six weeks later she wrote again asking to meet, but she made no acknowledgment or apology for the many cruel and insulting things she had written to me in December. So by February I was done with her and I refused.

Q. Wow. So what is next? 

Well, she and her husband Brad said many unkind and untrue things about me in their respective responses to my critique, and these emails were apparently forwarded rather widely, so I feel a need to address them directly and will likely do that here in the near future.

As far as my personal and professional connection to PURE is concerned, the thing I care most about is PURE Reflections. I do not believe that Kaeshi has the emotional or professional maturity to understand or responsibly convey that material, so it would be best for PURE to discontinue its production.

Beyond that, she can do what she likes ... though I am sad to see what PURE has become. It had a tremendous vision, one which I embraced for many years, and one which I had hoped Kaeshi would live up to.

But perhaps it is the teachers who are the last to learn.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Life Imitating This American Life (or Quit It, Ira Glass, You're Freaking Me Out)

It's Friday, October 5th around 10pm.  My chosen listening for my commute to and from work is the recent podcast of This American Life, "Send a Message."

The opener describes the bizarre coincidence of Kepler's translations of Galileo's coded messages.

In a nutshell, as host Ira Glass describes, "[Here was] a guy ... [Galileo, who] would send a message that he probably hopes will never be decoded. And then it gets decoded, but incorrectly. And then the wrong message turns out to be right not once but two times."

(For details, you're just going to have to listen to the episode, or read the transcript.... it is too weird and arcane to get into here.)

The next story, the show's Act One -- The Motherhood of the Travelling Pants, delved into weirder synchronicities, as a family recounts its generations-old tradition of sending either a pair of little-boy pants or a little-girl dress to the next expectant mother. And, with a statistically brain-breaking level of accuracy, the sender (usually the last person who bore a child) correctly predicts the sex of the newborn.

This is put to an astonishing test when one prior mother can't decide which to send -- so she sends both the dress and the pants to the next mother. And the new mother has... wait for it... fraternal twins!!

So here it is, 10pm and I'm  on my way home after having stayed late at the office to put the finishing touches on my solo show. And I am up to the next segment, Act Two -- Message in a Bottle -- told by stand-up comic and musician Dave Hill -- which, as one would expect from a stand-up, contains its share of playful crudity.

He begins bemoaning the current edge-lessness of our recently sanitized  city:
I understand that there was a time in New York when you could walk down the street, and just crack open a beer, and just suck it down, and throw the bottle on the ground. [LAUGHTER] And you might get, like, a little raped, or whatever. [LAUGHTER] But it didn't matter. It was like a give and take. You took the good with the bad. And everyone was fine with it. And now you can't really get away with any of that stuff. But you can get a really nice brunch at a lot of places. Just go with your friends, free refills on mimosas. It's great for everybody.
And this is true. As a native of this town, I remember all too well the crack dealers prowling the corners of Lafayette and Bond (on my way to do stand-up, myself, at the First Amendment Comedy Club), and I remember vaulting over mats of sleeping homeless on my way to class at NYU.

And I have seen my share of exposed body parts and those parts' various secretions. 

But I have never had an experience quite like what followed that evening on the downtown B train.

So, as I am listening to this segment, where Mr. Hill describes putting a rather harmless piece of refuse on top of  one of those large black garbage bins that can be found at the edges of many subway platforms. This apparently disturbs a homeless guy sleeping near the bin:
And he's like this sleeping giant, just like, [GROWLING SOUNDS]. And he gets up. And his bones are creaking. And his hair is, like, all crazy all over the place. And he looks at me. And he just starts yelling. And he's like, back up! Back up! 
Hill fails to back up.

At that moment, a B train pulls in. Now, I always get on at the last door of the last car because I need the rear exit of my stop. And I usually sit in one of the forward-facing window seats of the back-most cluster of the B's R68 cars.

But there'ss a homeless guy huddled up in the backward-facing seat of the rearmost cluster, so I move to the next cluster up and sit facing backwards (which I usually never do on an empty car since I prefer to face forwards).

So I am sitting there, directly behind the homeless guy, spacing out a little with my eyes gazing towards the floor, and Dave Hill continues on:
And then he goes, back up or I'll throw this bottle of piss on you! And then from out of nowhere, like a ninja, all of a sudden he's got this Gatorade bottle.  And it's a huge Gatorade bottle. ... Only, instead of being full of delicious and refreshing Gatorade, it's full of pee, of urine.
And at the very moment Hill says this:
And before he even finishes his sentence, he cocks his arm back and just launches it at me. ... His aim was incredible. It was just coming right at me. The first blow nails me right in the head.
I begin to notice some liquid travelling down the center of the car towards me.

Now, liquid in a subway car is not that big a deal. People still drink all kinds of beverages (even though you are not supposed to have open containers anymore) and they slop them cavalierly whenever and wherever they please.

But this liquid is special. It isn't spilled-soda liquid -- a single, localized hit -- this liquid keeps on coming. I trace my eyes along the widening rivulet, following it towards the back of the car and I see ... wait for it... a full Bethesda Fountain emerging from the lap of the homeless guy. It is arcing its perfect parabola towards the center of the car.

Now, as I mentioned, I have seen a lot of stuff -- but I have never seen this -- a full-blown, unrepentant micturition right into the center of a subway car.

It takes me at least 20 seconds to wrap my mind around what I'm seeing, as Hill goes on:
It's going down my back and down my jacket. And it's soaking my pants. It soaks through my pants, soaks my underwear. He had effectively wet my pants with his pee.
And I'm realizing, "Hey this is a crazy-assed coincidence!" And then I think, "Hey maybe I should take a picture of this..." But he's been at it for at least 30 seconds, so I figure it's probably all over and I continue to listen to the podcast.
Because if you figure if your opponent's first move in a confrontation is to just drench you in his own pee, like, what's next? At the very least, he's got a couple more bottles of pee back there, you figure.
The pee fountain continues full force, and finally I decide that yes I will photograph this insane event, but the moment I get my phone out the car stops and the people sitting in front of me get up and block the last few moments of the geyser.

So it's all over.

I move to the next backward facing seat hoping get a good shot of the urine starburst on the floor and its watery trail through the car -- which is shown here -- as well as the homeless guy himself, who huddled back to sleep the moment he was done.

And in a testament to the fact that neither New York nor New Yorkers have lost our edge, another passenger continued to sit blithely just a few feet from the homeless guy all through the urination episode (see his feet at the right of the photo). 

Yes, Dave, this motherf*cking town is back!!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Get Up, Stand Up

"Some people -- I swear -- they just won't leave me alone!!"

It's a few minutes before my improv class and I've run into a classmate, Melissa, in the ladies' room. She is red-faced and nearly in tears. "What??" I ask, "Who won't leave you alone?"

"You know who!"

The week before, Melissa had invited me to perform with her boyfriend's indie improv group. The boyfriend, Jack, had been a minor celebrity with a few bit parts in big films under his belt, so there was a nice crowd and some good talent onstage. I was honored to join them.

A few days later, I got a Facebook message from a woman named Lynette. She had been brought in to photograph the event and asked if I would like the shots she had of me. Since she was still building her portfolio, she said she would send hi-resolution images for free, as long as I credited her. I agreed and friended her.

We exchanged several more messages about photography and improv and the difficulty of photographing live performances. We were about the same age and had long histories in performing arts (she had been a model and was now transitioning into photography; I had been a comic/actor, now transitioning into improv and bellydance).

I found Lynette to be intelligent, thoughtful and funny. I shared some of my comedy and dance videos, which she enjoyed; she sent a few music videos she appeared in. She was quite a presence on screen -- focused, grounded, and breathtakingly beautiful.

The next day, I got a message from Melissa: "Hey...I just saw [Lynette] come up on your friends list so I have to warn you that this woman is a lil off," and to "please, just be careful ...b/c ...I would feel really bad since you connected with her through me."

This got my spidey sense tingling. I told Melissa I had had a pleasant exchange with Lynette about the photos and asked why she felt the need to "warn" me about her.

She wrote that Lynette had known Jack and his then-improv group many years ago and was an "obsessed fan ... who came to all of his shows and photographed him constantly. One day she just freaked out on him [over a photo]... and he asked her to stay out of his life." She continued to say that when Jack joined Facebook, "he accidentally friended everyone in his address book including her, and she started showing up at his shows again, obsessively photographing him and making him very uncomfortable..."

So now, since the events were public, she "just kept showing up" even though Jack had expressly told her to stay away and now she was "showing up at [their] friends' events on the chance of seeing him or [her] there." She ended the letter by saying, "We haven't yet shared this with everyone we know and asked them to help us keep her away but it's getting to that point. ... Whatever you can do to keep her out of my life (including unfriending her) would help me a lot to regain some peace of mind."

This put me in a tough spot.

I liked Melissa, though I didn't know her well, and while she seemed nice and I was glad to be invited to her boyfriend's events, she did strike me as a bit immature. Plus the person she was describing Lynette to be was completely out-of-line with the person I had experienced her to be.

I was also unnerved with the remark about "[sharing] this with everyone [they] know." She had pretty much called Lynette a stalker, which is a serious accusation (she later used that word directly). Had she sent others the same message she had sent me? This worried me ... because what people do to others they will eventually do to you. So it gave me pause about Melissa's character.

Add to that the fact that I had come to like Lynette quite a lot.

She and I had plans to meet for coffee the following week, and I was not going to do Melissa's bidding and unfriend her. Further I do not like to hide my friendships (or much of anything), so I wrote to Melissa that I had had several conversations with Lynette and had come to like her. It would be inexcusable for me to dump her without a reason that seemed viable to me.

I wrote: "[I've been] thinking about what you mentioned about her freaking out over the photo. My sense is, if she's obsessed with anything, it's with photography... maybe in the same way I'm obsessed with performing, and you know how I can get a little emotional in rehearsals... and I know that can put people off, although I don't mean to. So I was wondering, maybe she was just emotional about the photo because she cared about her work being good, and [Jack] took it the wrong way."

Then I asked if there had been any problems with Lynette lately and added, "I asked if she was coming to the improv show and she said she wasn't because she was asked not to, but she didn't say why."

Melissa responded that there hadn't been any problems with her, but that she'd prefer not to see her at improv events. "[But] I can't control what people do, so if she comes, she comes."

The next week I met Lynette for coffee.

We chatted about this and that, everything but the Elephant in the Room.

I don't even remember how it came up -- but of course, how could it not have come up? -- I think the conversation first went to Melissa. "She's pretty talented," Lynette said, "She has a warm personality on stage. Audiences like that."

I agreed. "Jack has good presence too. Doing improv has helped his acting a lot."

"Yes," I agreed again, adding, "You've known him for a long time."

"Yeah ... we used to hang out a lot. People used to think we were involved, but we never were. I've seen him go through quite a few girlfriends. I hope he treats Melissa better."

Uncomfortable silence.

"I mean. I just don't understand it..." she choked up a little.

"I know. People are strange ... why they ... um... decide to like who they like."

"Yes, but all of a sudden??"

"Well..." I shifted uncertainly. "It wasn't really all of a sudden. I mean... whatever the problem was between you and him in the past... he did tell you to stay away...and you kept coming... I mean, earlier this year..."

Her mouth gaped. "Whaa..? Wh- what are you talking about??"

"When you started showing up at their events this year, Jack told you... I mean ... he invited you accidentally.. I mean... Facebook..."  The words twisted around in my mouth, gummed by their palpable untruthfulness.

And Lynette saw it.

"No... no... I was invited. I mean, what do they think I am, a stalker?"

My breath caught and she saw it. God I am a bad liar.

"Oh my God? What did he say?" she pleaded, "What did he say about me?"

There was no backpedaling now, I realized. And it was a serious thing. She deserved to know. "It wasn't Jack," I breathed, "it was Melissa. She emailed to 'warn' me about you ... that you had been coming to their shows, that you had been told to stay away."

Tears swelled her large blue eyes. "Oh god... how could he do that? We were friends for years. I mean, yeah we had a falling out a long time ago... he yelled at me for no reason in front of everyone, so I walked away. But I ran into him at the Mermaid Parade last year and he gave me a flyer. And I figured, why not let bygones be bygones..." The words spilled out of her, dribbling to a long pause. ".... I-- I just can't... why would he do this? Did he say this to other people??"

"I don't know. I only know what Melissa told me."

"Do you think she said this?? Is she still saying this??"

"I-  I don't know."

Her face hardened. "I'll sue. This is defamation! They have no right--!!" Her voice trailed into sobs. I felt beyond awful.

"Look," I said. "Melissa's just a kid. Let me ask her what she's said. Maybe I can get her to undo any damage she's done."

"You know," Lynette added, "I was wondering why you were the only one who responded about the photos to that show! God!! I'm calling a lawyer tomorrow!"

"Please don't..." I fumbled, "Lawsuits are miserable. I know; I've been through them. Even if you win or they settle, it's really hard and expensive. And Jack and Melissa don't have tons of money, so all you will get is satisfaction of..." I couldn't even finish. I started wondering if the reason I was begging her off had more to do with protecting myself because I was in the middle of it.

But it was pretty certain:  Lynette's reputation had been damaged; she deserved something...

"He made me take down all the photos," she added quietly.


"On the Wednesday after the show, Jack called and said I should stop coming to the shows..."

"I thought you said he didn't."

"You said he told me and I kept coming... I didn't. He called out of the blue and said I shouldn't come to photograph the shows anymore. That's why he asked me to come in the first place. He liked my photos..."

"He told you this?"

"Yes. He knew I was building my portfolio and would take pictures for free ... but that day, he called and told me to stop coming. And he made me remove all the photos... all the albums from every show... my whole portfolio..." She choked up again.

I realized, that Wednesday was the very day I'd found Lynette in the bathroom... all teary and red-faced because "people wouldn't leave [her] alone." But it was the other way around: Melissa had just gotten off the phone with Jack. It was she, I now realized, who had demanded in that moment that he bar Lynette from the shows, and it was she who insisted Jack force Lynette to remove all the photos.

It was Melissa who would not leave Lynette alone.

They had really hurt this woman. And who the hell knew why. Maybe because she knew his track record with women, or maybe Melissa was jealous to have a beautiful woman around who had history with her squeeze. But it was rotten.

In any case, it was clear she was far from the screaming banshee they had portrayed. Even suffering this awful blow, she handled it with dignity, rare vulnerability, even compassion for Melissa whom she feared was being manipulated by Jack.

"Let me talk to Melissa," I offered, "Maybe get a read on the damage..." Lynette shrugged. "I guess."

After our next improv class, I took the subway home with Melissa. As we waited for the train, I said, "Uh.. so you know I'm still friends with Lynette, right? That's OK with you?"

She nodded, "Yeah..."

"I have to say... what you said, about her being told not to come to shows ... that wasn't true."

"Jack said he did...."

"Well, she says he didn't ... not until the day he made her take down the photos. And she did that. And she stayed away. That doesn't sound like the way a stalker acts... does it?"

"I-- I don't think she's a stalker," Melissa shrugged, with a sheepish grin, "I just think she's a bitch."

Thinking about all this now, I should have walked away at that point. It was clear what had happened, who did what -- who deserved what, and who didn't. But I was cowardly, and I was new to improv and I liked working with this group.

And this is the central problem of being caught in the middle.

I went over the whole narrative in my mind. Melissa had asked me to dump Lynette... and I think that is what everyone else did whom she'd contacted about this. But I was the only one who had actually gotten to know Lynette. And besides, I really, really don't like being told what to do.

Melissa's urging me to unfriend her reminded me so much of a cliquey high school mean girl going, "Let's not like her!" But all too often I have been the "her" in question. How dare people form a bond by disparaging another. It's disgusting.

A few months went by. I began to distance myself from Jack and Melissa, socializing less with Melissa in class, not going to parties they'd invited me to, and turning up less on Jack's improv nights.

It was harder to pull away from that as I had begun to form bonds with other people in the group -- in particular with the unhappily married Evan, who was always the last to leave any party. One evening after a show, he and I chatted over beers into the wee hours.

Evan had known Jack nearly as long as Lynette; in fact, he said, she had introduced them to each other and to a third person who had formed their first short-form improv group "way back when." In other words, Lynette had been far more than a friend for many years. And there had indeed been a falling out. But this was not Lynette's "freak out" -- rather Jack had yelled at her for some trivial thing, as he had done to her and others before. She told him to go f*ck himself and walked away.

When she turned up at events earlier that year, Evan figured they'd buried the hatchet. And indeed they had; Jack had in fact continued to bring Lynette in as a photographer -- until Melissa decided she didn't want Lynette hanging around ... for reasons only Melissa knows.

Now it is one thing to decide not to have another person around; it is quite another to slander that person to effect this purpose.

Over those months, my friendship with Lynette deepened. She never mentioned Jack or Melissa again, but I knew the wound was still there, still bleeding, and maybe festering. I had convinced her not to sue ... but I had yet to convince myself that this had been the right thing to do.

One day I posted a date-gone-wrong story on my Facebook: I'd gone out with a guy to a bar. Within moments he was chatting up the woman to the other side of him. After four or five minutes of failing to get his attention, I called him a jerk, grabbed my coat and left. He chased me out of the bar, calling me a "Fatal Attraction Glenn Close stalker." I commented that it was amazing what people would say and do just to avoid acknowledging their own bad behavior.

Lynette chimed in, "I know exactly what you mean! Like, imagine being friends with a guy for years and years, and then one day he gets a new young girlfriend and then either she decides she's jealous and doesn't want you around or maybe he decides to have a problem with the fact that you've seen how badly he treats his girlfriends and doesn't want you to tell the new girlfriend. And so they decide to call you a stalker and tell other people you're a stalker, and the next thing you know a whole bunch of people you don't even know are believing this and you can't do anything about it. Imagine THAT happening to you!"

And there it landed ... a 10-ton megabomb right on my Facebook status.

I considered deleting it, but then decided to let it stand. First, the poor woman had held her silence for months. I had convinced her from taking legal recourse, and even from confronting them directly (they would not have listened anyway).

The woman deserved her due.

Plus, given the way she wrote it, without any identification of person or social circle, the only people who would know she was talking about Jack and Melissa were Jack and Melissa themselves -- and anyone to whom they'd spread the slanderous rumor that Lynette was a "stalker." If, indeed, Melissa had been telling the truth -- that I was the only person -- then there should be no problem.

But there was a problem. Within minutes, I got this message from Melissa:

"i can tell by some of the things that she said in that comment that you have been talking to her about me. you're the only person that i've described that situation to from my perspective as it was happening, so that's the only way she would understand it like that. i would appreciate it if you would take down her nasty comment about me and jack and also please stop talking about us."

Now this was strange for many reasons. First, the way Lynette described the situation speculated that Jack had a larger role in this than Melissa has ever admitted to (at least not to me); second, she complains that the comment was "about [her] and jack" -- but only she would know that, unless she had lied to me about spreading the rumor; third, her preoccupation that we were "talking about [them]" -- present tense -- signaled paranoia on her part.

In Melissa's world, everyone was talking about her; the reality was that she was talking about others.

It took a while for me to put all this together in my mind. At first, even though I felt she was justified, I was pretty upset with Lynette and felt she had abused my page to send a message to Jack, Melissa and their circle. I even wrote to Melissa that "I should have believed you more about Lynette" ... which I regretted moments after hitting "send".

In spite of everything there was still that part of me that wanted to smooth things over, to play both sides. But this is contemptible and cowardly behavior. I knew who was right and who was wrong in that situation, and if I had any doubts about it, Melissa's scathing response made it clear:

"What really bothers me is that I trusted you with my feelings and I asked you as a friend not to get involved with this person before you even knew her....and now, you've taken her word over mine, you've repeated to her everything that I told you.... You basically stabbed me in the back so you back develop your friendship with a manipulative liar. ... Well, good luck with that Carol. This is just a preview of the bullshit you can expect from that bitch."


Melissa, in fact, did not "trust [me] with her feelings"; she told me a vicious lie about someone who did not deserve mistreatment. What she "trusted" me to do was to uncritically accept her twisted version of reality, contradicting my own perceptions. That was the unforgivable "stab in the back" she could not tolerate. And I certainly didn't "repeat... everything that [she] told [me]" which I assume refers to her distorted account of events; and there was nothing in Lynette's comment -- beyond having been smeared to a bunch of people she didn't know -- to indicate I had.

Melissa's perception of Lynette's comment was filled out copiously by her own guilty conscience.

Curiously, shortly after, Melissa sent a long letter to Lynette apologizing for having disparaged her, and even admitting to having been jealous. What she was most upset about, apparently, was that Lynette had "stolen" me as her friend.

Suddenly I felt very bad for Melissa. A world ruled by petty alliances that require a very flexible approach to reality must be a sad and frightening one.

Needless to say, I was no longer welcomed by the improv group (which disbanded a year later anyway). I still continued to see Melissa in improv classes. After a few months, her stony cold shoulder was replaced by sheepish grins. We exchanged friendly words now and then, but were never friends again.

Lynette and I are still friends, though, and she has proven to be a kind and honest one, who holds true to her point of view and never shrinks from voicing her opinion regardless of whether it agrees with mine.

And in the end, what more can we hope for or expect from our friends?

Loyalty is important, but there must always be a greater loyalty to the truth and to justice.

I have always regretted not doing better by Lynette sooner; I should have confronted Melissa sooner, or told Lynette sooner ... or ... something. It is always a hard spot when one is stuck in the middle -- especially when one chooses that position, as I had.

But what good are we to our friends and indeed to ourselves if we can't stand up and try to do the right thing, even if it causes us pain in the short term?

We sign petitions and send money and join protests and raise our fists in support of great causes. But what good is all that when we allow cruelty and injustice in our own private spheres -- from the schoolyard bully to the harassing boss?

Standing up for truth and for justice will always make us a target; and sometimes, we end up a greater target than the person we are defending.

But it is still the right thing to do.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Never Judge! (Things are rarely what they seem...)

Chatting with a friend last night in front of Penn Station, we became aware of a large, heavy-set man standing a few feet from my left shoulder staring at us.

We were making our goodbyes, subtly upping the level of our chat to block our awareness of this odd fellow  and his persistent gaze.

"Well, OK, see you later!" I chirped, stepping backwards.

"Um excuse me," said the man. I looked down with a frustrated huff, preparing to deliver my usual firm-but-compassionate lie, "I'm sorry I don't have any money" -- but the moment I opened my mouth to say, "I'm so--" something in his eyes caught my breath. I looked at my friend, who had a similar reaction.

"Hi..." he fumbled, "I'm uh..... I'm sorry to interrupt but I just wanted to say I was watching you two talking... and, I don't know, just the way you are looking at each other and listening to each other ... Well, I don't want to say.. uh... about your relationship. But whatever it is, it's beautiful."

We looked at each other, and at him, both completely speechless for a few seconds. I couldn't wrap my mind around what this was... Was he suggesting we were lovers and leering at us looking for some lesbo action? Maybe.. but his tone wasn't "leery" or "creepy." It was kind of warm and sweet ... and sincere.

Maybe, just maybe ... he was moved and curious and just wanted to say something nice.

"Um... thank you," my friend said, returning his smile.

"Yeah..." I smiled too, "that's very sweet of you to say."

"I don't mean to be weird or anything... I just wanted to .. you know...." he trailed off.

"Yeah," my friend said, "Thank you."

"You have a good night now." He turned and headed towards Penn.

My friend and I regarded each other for a moment. "Um.. that was ... kind of nice!" she said. I agreed.

We made our goodbyes and she headed down the subway steps. As I walked over to Duane Reade I turned the episode over in my mind. Was it weird and creepy? Was he just hitting on us?

Maybe... probably ... But you know what? If a guy is going to hit on me, then that is the way he should do it:  respectful, appreciative, sincere -- asking nothing more than simply to be heard and received with a smile.