An Ego of Steel, A Giant Hat

I’m sitting on the futon at my friend’s house, digesting a food-baby of roasted root vegetables. My feet are cold, but the computer is making my leg warm, in a creepy, futuristic sort of way. Speaking of the future, it’s been apocalyptically warm here in Greensboro- seventy degrees and sunny every day, if you can believe it. Today I played drums with my (on-again, off-again, depending on where in the world I’m at) radical samba marching band, Cakalak Thunder, in what turned out to be a particularly amazing march, at least for me. It was a ‘peace, justice and unity’ march, which sounds vague, but actually spoke to a lot of really amazing, concrete, community-based issues. The march started with a rally at an African-American church, complete with singing and some nice pep-talks about unity, and then wandered its way through downtown (with a police escort, of course- it was a permitted march.) Cakalak Thunder was up front, all thirteen of us, making an incredible sort of noise. Then the march rallied again in a park and various speakers talked on about various things- including the head member of a local Latino ‘gang’, whose members had come out for the march, in full color regalia, as part of calling a truce against their supposed ‘rivals’, and promoting black-brown unity with the African-American community. The head member of this ‘gang’ was a really great speaker, and talked at length about police violence in the area (8 people killed by the police in this area so far this year, if you can fucking believe it) and about police tactics for demonizing the group and making the community fear them, in order to justify their arrests, which drained their community of resources and kept them from organizing. The other speakers were great too, and I wish I remembered more, but I didn’t take notes. (I never take notes. Maybe I should.) One young man talked about the need for more youth to be involved in the local community center, so they could act as mentors to kids who had special needs, and weren’t getting much support at home or in the classroom. Just being around these kids, he said, and teaching by example, how to follow your dreams, how to apply yourself, how to be successful- that can be so powerful. And there were a couple women who sang another song, and many of the speakers brought up how even though Obama had been elected, which was, in the end, a sort of victory- the responsibility for change falls on us, and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, and we need to start now. Everyone was surprisingly sober and realistic about Obama’s victory, or maybe it was a sort of post-election hangover- hearts sort of emptied out, waking up and realizing that nothing, in fact, had changed- putting on your oversized ‘Obama’s face’ t-shirt anyway, slipping on your unlaced nikes with the tongues pulled out, going out into the day.

And while I watched the speakers, while I listened to them talk about black-brown unity, about working with children, about justice for victims of police violence- I felt like I was watching history. More, even, than when I watched Obama’s acceptance speech on the TV a few nights ago. Because to see a community mobilized the way the community in Greensboro is, to see folks of different colors and backgrounds and ages and everything- the African-American preacher and the Latino gang-leader and the queer, wingnut, mostly white Samba marching band, in a sort of grassroots group hug- and to see them actually marching, all together, which, if you know anything about marches, you know that brown people marching, pretty much anywhere, is seen by the powers-that-be as a huge threat- it kind of blew my mind. And the truth is, that’s just the way it is here in Greensboro. It’s a small town, everyone’s all up in each other’s community organizing- much of the town is historically black, so a lot of organizing is done by black churches and community groups. And Cakalak Thunder (the marching band) has, over the years, presented a unique opportunity for us- the mostly white, mostly queer ‘radical’ community, to build a base of trust, a personal relationship, with other groups, and to be of use to them. In Portland, all my friends just hang out and talk about their mental health, or fashion, or gender- the holy trinity of conversation, a well that springs eternal. It’s an incredibly self-centered way of being, which I never, until a few short weeks ago, thought to question. What, I reasoned, is wrong with bettering oneself? How, in fact, can we imagine some sort of better world, when we’re too depressed or anxious to get out of bed in the morning? Let’s just take a break and work on some personal ‘healing’. And while we’re at it, why not just forget that the rest of the world even exists? I mean, it’s Portland! Do you see oppressed people anywhere? Certainly not those people wearing zip-off hiking pants! Let’s just make crazy clothes and think up fantastical new gender identities!

Which is, in its own way, incredible. Sure, Portland is great, if you want to live in a queer thinktank- and sometimes, I do. But every time I come to Greensboro, I can’t help but be blown away by how selfless my friends here are- they give up the chance to live enclosed in a bubble of their peers, doing lazy backstrokes in a sea of validation, and instead they work, day in and day out, with the same ten, maybe fifteen people- all the queer wingnuts this town has to offer. no glamor, no fame, not even, at least after a few good runs, anyone to date. And it’s all so they can feel useful to a group of people outside of themselves- a group of people with access to far less resources, a group of people facing much more day-to-day oppression than they are- my friends here take their privilege, and they chose to spread it around them, like a sort of wood-chip mulch for the depleted neighborhood soils. And at the end of the day, they’re just as humble as ever. Of course- they seem to be saying- why would you do anything but this? And it all comes down to this one thing- something that’s taken all my time here, coming and going, over the course of a few years, to really put my finger on-

They don’t care about being cool.

Wait. Let me say that again.

They don’t. Care. About being cool.

But I, apparently, do.

And it makes me feel like the biggest asshole in the world.

I was talking with a friend on the phone the other day, talking about how writing is more important to me than anything, that it’s my art, how making art is the only thing that makes me feel like I exist. When it comes down to it, writing is the only thing that seems worth doing, if you’re me. “But you have to be so self centered,” I was saying to him, to be an artist. “You have to think- what I have to say is so important- thousands of people just really need to hear it. And to even feel that way in the first place, you kind of have to have a giant ego. A giant, bulletproof ego. An ego of steel.”

In fact, just earlier this year, I was reading that very piece of advice in a wonderful book by Ariel Gore– “If you want to be a writer,” she says, “develop an ego of steel.” So cultivating my inner know-it-all is good, right? Thinking about the whole world in terms of me, talking about myself all the time, and not really giving a fuck what anyone else thinks about how I live my life or what I have to say will make me a better writer?

Definitely. But it will not, after all, win me any points as an activist. In Portland, it’s ok to talk about yourself all the time. Health is paramount. Therapy is encouraged. Processing is important. Creative projects are awesome. In Greensboro, when I tell people I want to be a writer, they look at my like I’m crazy. Stop being so self centered, they seem to be saying. Why do you talk about yourself so much? Anyway, I gotta go repaint the community center. Have fun, um, blogging, or whatever.

I should’ve taken the other piece of advice from Ariel Gore’s great book- Don’t talk about your writing. “When people ask me what I do for a living,” she says, “I tell them I sell T-shirts on the internet.” I suppose the real secret to success is to develop an ego of steel, and then hide it under a really big hat. Waving it around for the all world to see is just inviting them to try and stick safety pins in it, to see if it’s real. And then maybe you find out it isn’t made of steel after all, but a pastel-colored water-balloon. And so you have to walk around all day with a deflated ego trailing on the ground behind you, crushed. And suddenly, your life is meaningless.

I don’t know where I’m going with all this, folks. I guess when I’m in Greensboro I feel both inspired and humbled- and in the end, it feels like a lot of growth. Or at least, that’s how I’ll feel in a week, when I’m headed west on the train, towards Texas and eventually, California- and then I’ll promptly forget about everything, because all that will matter is keeping dry and figuring out how to take a shit on a piece of cardboard in a sixty-mile wind.

I can’t wait. Can you?

4 thoughts on “An Ego of Steel, A Giant Hat

  1. Writing, traveling, living. It’s all a process. And I’m of the firm belief that every human act is at its core self-centered.

    Said my ego of steel.

    Have fun going west.

  2. yes, as you wrote once, “portland is where white people go to be sad”. That makes me chuckle every time I think of it because it is so so true.

    However, I think you are not giving PDX a fair shake. Maybe you need to expand your portland horizons. maybe you are too close to a specific community in portland. all i’m asking is that you not write the city of roses as being some sort of hipster cesspool, because from where i’m standing it doesn’t look that bad.

    also, the “art is selfish” thing is TIRED. Art makes the world go around, it connects people. Art brings revolution, relief from suffering and without art there would be no community. so, write on.

  3. AM- thanks. That’s what I needed to hear. This whole ‘artist as identity’ thing is pretty new to me, and I’m still working out how it feels. I know portland is more than I make it out to be- I just sort of have tunnel vision when I go there. I don’t really like cities and just go there, pretty much, to be around queers and wingnuts like myself. And there are just so many of us, you can forget anything else exists. And in greensboro, there are like ten.

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