3 Questions for your “Coronaversary

By Gabbi Traub

I recently read an article  about the three questions you should ask yourself for your “Coronaversary.”  The author also mentioned how the term “Coronaversary” wasn’t quite the right term considering it’s not something to celebrate, and I happen to agree.  But there isn’t a better word for “the one-year mark for when the world shut down and everyone lost something due to a global pandemic.”  So, Coronaversary it is. 

But her questions were really thought-provoking, and I thought I’d share them with you, as well as my answers, or what I’ve come up with so far.  

  1. Where were you last March? 

I’m going to answer this question and all subsequent questions both literally and figuratively, because I think both are important to note, and because it really has changed for so many people.

Let’s see, last March, the Before Times.  I was living in Jersey City, commuting 5 days a week to a job at a restaurant in Manhattan, and dreaming of a day when I wouldn’t have to work in the service industry anymore (LOL). I was overworked (though I didn’t know it at the time) and simultaneously stressed about money (I had just taken a week off work to attend a friend’s wedding out of state, and no, servers do not get PTO). I was exhausted, but complacent enough as I was making good money for easy(ish) work and thought I was “doing what I was supposed to be doing”. I was also happily cohabitating with my partner and the cat we had just adopted.  

I remember thinking – man if I could just afford to take a month off of work and do nothing and reevaluate things maybe I could finally breathe and get my sh*t together. (Little did I know my wish would be granted, tenfold). Looking back I see I was doing it all to myself – I could have taken fewer shifts when I needed to, I could have buckled down and looked for a new day job.  But I had always moved very quickly, filled my days to the brim, overworked myself until I had to completely shut down for a time and reboot.

  1. Where are you now? 

Physically, still in JC living happily with my partner and our cat (who I have come to love more than any other creature in existence and that includes my partner – don’t worry, he knows and feels the same about her). But wow.  This past year has kicked me in the a$$.  I just hit my one-year unemployment-versary (this “versary” is also not quite so celebratory…).  My restaurant still hasn’t opened back up, and I just didn’t feel safe looking for another restaurant job during the pandemic.  Plus my partner works in healthcare and I didn’t want to add to our risk.  I’m currently at a crossroads of what I want to do with my life in terms of profession, though my path has recently become a bit clearer. I am living in a constant state of limbo- and that has a lot to do with my partner’s career being up in the air as well.  It’s hard to start anything new when you don’t have solid footing.  

  1. How have you changed in the past year? 

I could talk for days about how much I and my life have changed. Here are my most important highlights: 

My priorities have shifted a lot.  I have always been career first, relationship second. However, being with my current partner and making it through quarantine and covid together (so far) has honestly saved me, and, at least in my eyes, really strengthened our relationship.  We’ve always been pretty good at communication, but having to share a space 24/7 while having totally different personalities has been quite a…challenge. This was definitely a make-it-or-break-it scenario for so many couples and I just got lucky.  I wish I could joke around and say we were at each other throats or wanted to kill each other but sappily this just reaffirmed why we chose each other and why he is a priority for me.  (And for anyone who knows me well, is a HUGE world shift).

The pandemic (and subsequent political issues and racial reckonings) put a lot of pressure on my relationship with my family and have really redefined how I view my relationships with them.  I have always been close with my immediate family and still am, but it has definitely been an eye-opening year. Cryptic I know, but there are some things strangers on the internet aren’t privy to (no offense, I’m sure you’re all lovely). 

My relationship with my body has changed.  I honestly don’t know if that’s better or worse.  I gained most of my pre-covid “working too much eating too little” weight back.  Not being busy and being forced to sit still has left me with no choice but to both “make an effort” and to think about it constantly.  I spend much more time thinking about why my thighs don’t gap and why my skin isn’t clear and glowing. On a positive note, I now have a consistent workout routine, and I have gotten very creative with my cooking and baking adventures.  But it’s no longer “easy”.  Which I know is a luxury to say, but it’s still such a challenge for me.  I will say, with a year of workouts under my belt, my butt has never looked better. 

Finally, theatre, my true love and professional aspiration since I was a little girl- has fallen by the wayside.  I barely sing anymore (except the occasional Bridgerton Musical sing-a-long on Instagram; don’t @ me, it’s incredible). While performing will always be my first love, my drive for being a professional performer just isn’t there anymore.  I want to love what I do, not fear and loathe the process. I hope it comes back into my life in a fun and loving way, but my priorities have shifted so much that there isn’t room for it to be my whole life anymore.  

On that mildly depressing note, I do want to say that overall I feel much more secure as a person than I did a year ago.  Granted, I’ve been in therapy for 6 years now and that definitely has something to do with it, but having the past year of forced stillness and reconciliation has taught me so much.  It’s kind of like that saying “the older you get the less you know”? I’m just excited to learn and move forward in a way that’s just unapologetically me.  I think I’ll get there, but change takes time, and patience is not my finest virtue.

Pivoting During the Pandemic

By Chrissy Brooks

Chrissy Brooks is a San Francisco Bay Area wife, mother of 2, actress, singer, dancer & blogger. Check her out at: chrissybrooks.com

On March 13, 2020, amidst the settling of the bleach-like powder in the audience seats, sprayed earlier in the day by men in white medical grade suits in an effort to disinfect the theater, I belted out Climb Every Mountain to an audience of a select few. As I performed this stirring aria, I tried not to choke on the chemicals floating in the air, or the emotional finality of the performance. The audience, the actors, and the backstage hands – we all knew this would be the last of our live performance opportunities for a long time. The musical, The Sound of Music, produced by Broadway By the Bay, was never opened to the public, and our country was on the brink of complete shutdown to address the COVID-19 spread.

And now here we are, one year later. I have not returned to the stage since March 13, 2020. Over the past year, I have spent the majority of my time tutoring my 10-year old. She struggles with the stress of online learning, like so many others. So, I am able to, and have chosen to focus my energy on helping her power through this tough time. With in-person learning on the horizon, soon she will be back in school; and I will have time on my hands again. But what should I do?

The performing arts world has come to a screeching halt, and jobs are difficult to find. Instead of going to a Palm Reader, which I seriously considered, being a virgin to palm reading, and so desperately needing guidance, I decided to ask my colleagues and friends for help. I wanted to hear other people’s stories in hopes it would help me find inspiration and direction, so I reached out to a few of my colleagues I have met over the decade of my life performing, working and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. These lovely humans are just a few of the brave people I know who have pivoted during the pandemic.

They are:

  • Leandra Watson (Pre COVID: Costume Designer / Present: in process of rebranding herself)
  • Tripp Hudgins (Pre COVID: Admin & Student / Present: Communications Catch-All)
  • Katie Coleman (Pre COVID: SF Hamilton Pianist & Musical Director / Present: NYC Real Estate Agent)
  • Nina Meehan (Pre COVID: Artist Director of BACT/ Present: CEO and Founder of BACT)

Leandra Watson, 32, was a full-time costume designer for theatre and opera. PreCOVID, she was traveling the high seas as a wardrobe supervisor for live entertainment on cruise ships. But once COVID-19 started affecting her work, she had to pivot. “Yes. At the time, it was out of necessity for survival,” Leandra explains. She was not making enough money doing theater, and her job kept her from making her health a priority. She continues, “I used it [her job in theater] as an excuse not to take care of myself, letting my health get pretty bad. It prevented me from having much of a social life or dating. And I couldn’t see it at the time, but it stood in the way of a lot of dreams and goals I have for my life.” Leandra hopes to have a career centering around herbs or interior design, but also hopes to settle down and raise a family as a full-time mom. Looking back, Leandra feels grateful for having to pivot careers, and she advises others looking for a career change to not “let fear hold you back from seeking your highest potential!”

Tripp Hudgins, 51, is a “communications catch-all at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA”. Prior to this position, he was writing his dissertation and working for Design Set Match as an admin in Berkeley, CA. “Then, everything shut down and the almost full-time nature of my [his] job ended as he went online. I worked far fewer hours from home. My wife’s position was also terminated. Then, to make matters more interesting, my family and I had to move. Our building scheduled to be torn down. This was not a surprise, but we were forced to move about a month after everything was shut down in the Bay Area. As fate would have it, we found a place to live all the way across the country in Richmond, VA so we could be near family.” Tripp is still looking for full-time work in and around Richmond, and even so far as D.C. His family’s move across country was necessary and motivated by the pandemic. His advice to others looking to pivot is, “you have to be really flexible and imagine ways of rebranding yourself as an employee. Get creative with how you re-imagine yourself. That’s what I have done and I have a phone interview tomorrow.”

Katie Coleman also left the Bay Area for the East Coast, after the pandemic hit. She moved out of necessity and was motivated by the pandemic. Katie is a professional pianist, and pre-COVID she was a musical theater director and pianist for the SF company of Hamilton. In March 2020, the SF Hamilton show abruptly closed. Katie then waited for months, not sure if the show would open again. She writes, “For the first six months of quarantine, there were a lot of teasers regarding when theater would come back. At first we thought we’d be shut down for 3 weeks or a month. Then two months. Then it was announced the show wouldn’t reopen in San Francisco.” Knowing eventually she wanted to end up in New York City, she decided to move across the country where she eventually got her real estate license. She officially started her new career as a real estate agent on February 1, 2021 in NYC. Her advice to others is “try your best to not have imposter syndrome, and instead, fully embrace FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT.” She has re-invented herself many times before, and thinks that this won’t be her last.

Nina Meehan, CEO and founder of Bay Area Children’s Theater Company (BACT), has gotten creative with her pandemic pivot. She used to hold the title of Artistic Director at BACT, but since the pandemic hit, she changed her career path to help her company survive. She writes, “my job involved the art on the stage, the education programs happening all over the Bay Area, the audience experience, selecting future seasons…There was a lot of hands-on work that it takes to create live theatre.” Since live theater has suffered during this time, she pivoted to focus her efforts on creating Audio Musical Subscriptions boxes. She oversees a team in charge of packing, shipping, and creating online audio-musicals kits called Play On!. She views her pivot as necessary to her company’s survival, and is glad she made the shift in her career. Her advice to others having to change careers is to “try to give yourself the space to see the positives and the opportunities.”

It’s now March 13, 2021, and the world looks very different than it did a year ago. So many lives have been lost, jobs have been laid off, schools are struggling to open, and our country’s division and history of inequity has been brought to the political forefront. The physical and emotional strain of today is unprecedented, but we still must survive.

I am proud to say these brave few, interviewed in this article, are my colleagues and friends. They have persevered in unique ways to evolve in the world around them. Although their situations can appear to be unique to the Bay Area, we can all relate to their struggles. Their need to pivot during the pandemic is a global reality. These inspirational stories have helped me gain the confidence in making hard decisions.

This seems like the right time to take a leap of faith, to be brave, and to look for new opportunities. Once my kids are back in school full-time, I will be committing to a new career. What that career is yet, I don’t know. Although I am looking forward to the return of on-stage performances, I need to take this chance to explore other career opportunities. The performing arts world has been devastated by this pandemic, and it will need time to recover and renew. So, check back on June 14th at undiscoveredworks.org for an update on my pandemic pivot. I promise you this: I will be brave.

Finding the G_d in Small Things

By Dylan Goodman

“When we begin to experience the sacred in our everyday lives we bring to mundane tasks a quality of concentration and engagement that lifts the spirit.” – bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

I can mark the changes of a year’s worth of living alone in quarantine by the abundance of silence. It did not used to be this way. Me, a queer Jewish unicorn with extroversion to spare, making it work in Brooklyn. In fact, I used to wonder if what I was missing in my twenties was an ability to sit still. Well, be careful what you wish for.

Under the pandemic, my life is slow now. I regularly fill my evenings with the time it takes to make dough from dollops of butter, eggs and flour. How the methodical kneading against the bowl can meld these disparate materials into a cohesive, sticky whole. I get lost in the routine of a baking recipe. It still feels like alchemy the way the same few ingredients, in slightly different combinations, make multitudes. A cup of bone-dry yeast, with some warm milk and patience, murmurs with bubbles – like dust into life.  As much as I want to control the outcome, the ultimate ingredient is time, waiting for the right chemical reactions to create a change.

I like noticing the way the smell of my apartment blooms with sweetness once my latest concoction is done. Of course, it also helps me track my Covid status. That I still have the ability to smell, a luxury I didn’t even know to be grateful for. 

I fill the quiet with thoughts, as well. In my notes app, I scribble down ramblings about the world, and how I want it to be better. I think about immigrant detention centers, and wonder that our government fears immigration by land so much because it’s a reminder that borders are not real. I wonder about capitalism, how the U.S. only values its citizens as much as we’re able to do a job, evinced by the lack of urgency around any kind of comprehensive stimulus. I wonder about the Covid vaccine distribution; every boyfriend I’ve ever loved and what they’re doing now; the white supremacy of America; abolition of the police; my own mortality. I miss my friends. I wonder if it’s so hard to date these days because everyone else is thinking about their mortality too, and the stakes of finding a partner feel unrealistically high. But then again, the reality is that 500,000 people (and counting) have died.

In the early part of the pandemic, I flew to Hinge in hopes of finding an apocalyptic companion. “Looking for a partner for the end of the world,” I texted one of my matches. He said, “Me too.”

We fell out of touch because I realized he only wanted me for sex. Everyone copes in different ways.

It’s hard to accept that this gap in my life where easy chaos used to dwell is simply gone, cannot be replaced. I miss the tumult. I miss being surprised.

My therapist, over Zoom of course, encourages me to go outside more often. As cruel as Covid can be, she urges that – in my precise situation – the mental health challenges of such immense isolation are beginning to wear me down. After all, I had only just moved to New York in the fall of 2019; and the world went into lockdown just as I was beginning to make friends. Those people mostly left.

The isolation is its own kind of loss. And it is particularly invalidating when the loss cannot be witnessed.

A part of me is writing to you right now because I want to be witnessed, and to let you know that we might be grieving the same thing. We might not be alone.

A year ago, both of my housemates left our apartment in Crown Heights under the impression that they’d be gone for “two weeks” – each packing suitcases haphazardly for last-minute tickets. Whether by denial or obstinacy, the thought to escape never crossed my mind because I didn’t know what I was running from. Hugging each of them goodbye in that faithful week in 2020’s March ended up being our last shared moment. None of us could have predicted that a microbe would upend the very fabric of what we consider “normal.”

Within that first week of quarantine solitude, I journaled, “And I want to live. It came rushing into me all these days alone. I want to live so bad. I want to survive. And this determination balloons my spirit and fires my soul.” Even though this statement came from a place of rose-colored adrenaline, the words still ring true, and I can say with defiance that, even when my world evaporated into fragments, I still find G-d in the absences.

What I mean is that one small brown bird landed on my sunlit fire escape on a Friday morning, chirping; and I noticed, remembered its shape even, and looked back into its eyes. I have since replaced chasing men with chasing fresh fruits and veggies at the Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market. I understand that taking the time to boil water and hear the gurgle of steam soaking coffee beans is equally as rejuvenating as that first caffeinated sip. When I see other people in my apartment pass me by, I try harder to extend kindness. One man on the floor below remembered my name to say hello as we passed each other in the hallway, and he chuckled, “We’re officially neighbors now.” It wasn’t revelatory or romantically charged – plus, I’m very certain that he is “a straight” – but it mattered all the same: the remembering.

So, even as I am grieving, I still have hope. “I want to live so bad” because the pandemic has reminded me that, in slowing down, I see that beauty never left, and there is so much peace to be found in stillness, in waiting. What I’m searching for as a twentysomething continues to evade me, but the grace of this collective pain is that I’m gaining the trust that I do not need an answer to be happy. Being is enough.

An Understanding of Basic Finance Born From a Global Pandemic

By Gyasi N. Barber

After thinking about the racial wealth disparity in the United States between Black people and White people, I knew I couldn’t just keep this knowledge for myself. After all, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the median household wealth for White people is $134,230, compared to $11,030 for Black people. 

I’m sure some of you have taken the “opportunity” since we’ve been working from home to pick up a hobby, do some leisure reading or something else to make up your time. If we took all of the people who picked up a COVID hobby, we could make a pretty large club. 

In the first few months of the pandemic, I definitely watched a lot of movies, read some books and spent a lot of quality time with my partner, Maddie and our dog, Champ. I also decided to gain a better understanding of and control over my finances. Before the pandemic, I always found different opportunities to spend money as a young adult with very few responsibilities living in the greatest city in the world (<3 NYC). 

However, when things closed up, so did my spending. I missed the flexibility, but I grew to appreciate the time to evaluate what I was spending and what I was actually getting out of it. I came to realize that I wasn’t getting much. Nice clothes, electronic goodies, falling for Instagram sponsored content. Not a good look for your boy. The reason why I wasn’t getting much is because of how I defined “much”. I was getting goods, yes, but those goods wouldn’t appreciate or help me in the future. 

So I reevaluated. I didn’t stop completely, but I made a conscious effort to think about what I was consuming. If I saw a nice candle on Instagram, I still bought it. However, it was nice to have a little extra money to pay down my credit card bills, student loans and actually start saving. I do want to take this time and say that, during the pandemic, I was able to keep my job and I already make a decent amount of money. For that, I am truly blessed.

I started reading more about basic finance, investing and anything related to it. I took a few classes on Udemy that were really insightful and got me thinking about how I could continue to help myself and the people around me to gain some control of their financial future. 

It took a few months to really understand everything that I needed to do to get my financial education on track. I figured out the best way for me to set a budget, I made a short-term plan to pay down my high interest debts and I started putting money away for an emergency fund. Then George Floyd was murdered at the end of May, and everything changed. 

It was a pivotal moment–especially for me, a Black man in the United States of America. It took me a while to come to terms with what everything meant and how I felt about it. I decided to enlighten and educate White people so they could understand how this all came to be, but to be honest, I felt angry, tired and I really wanted to give up a lot of the things I had taken on during the last few months. 

While I did donate a lot of my extra money over the following few months to various charities, bail bonds funds and really anything I deemed worthy, I decided that my long-term financial goals should not change. After thinking about the racial wealth disparity in the United States between Black people and White people, I knew I couldn’t just keep this knowledge for myself. After all, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the median household wealth for White people is $134,230, compared to $11,030 for Black people. 

Just as I did during the immediate months following the murder of George Floyd, I’m now choosing to help enlighten and educate people on their understanding of personal finance. I believe that there are people out there who were just like me last year. At the beginning of last year, I did not have a handle on my high interest debt, I was spending more than I was making and I was thinking too emotionally and not financially enough about my non-essential purchases. So I am starting a blog that will uncover my current journey as well as the journey of others. It will also break down why we as Black people are in situations like I was in last year to begin with.

I hope to help some people, but I hope you will enlighten me in return. I hope you’ll join me on this journey, and that you’ll use this space to connect, ask questions, and empower yourselves along with me. You can look forward to a conversation about the psychology of money and how our backgrounds affect how we consume as well as an honest conversation about the difficulties of setting budgets (but hopefully how to set one anyway).

The Artist’s Power & Joy

By Leah S. Abrams

If you are an art enthusiast or a casual fan of the visual arts of any kind, this is the time to be in NYC. This is unlikely what you’d think in the midst of a pandemic that has been unbearably destructive to the arts and cultural organizations around the world, not just here in the home of Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Right now, at the city’s New Museum in the Bowery, there is a 4-floor exhibit accomplishing exactly what some of us insist art can do – it illustrates with an immediacy our individual and collective stories, impacting the viewer on a visceral level that opens the door wide for taking in different perspectives.

The exhibit – “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” was originally conceived by Okwui Enwezor who, in 2018, offered: “The crystallization of black grief in the face of a politically orchestrated white grievance represents the fulcrum of this exhibition. The exhibition is devoted to examining modes of representation in different media where artists have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of black grief. With the media’s normalization of white nationalism, the last two years have made clear that there is a new urgency to assess the role that artists, through works of art, have played to illuminate the searing contours of the American body politic.”

Much praise and gratitude should go to artist Glenn Ligon and curators Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, and Mark Nash for bringing Enwezor’s vision to fruition after his 2019 passing and the show’s COVID-related postponement that prevented its intended opening prior to the 2020 election. The notion of mourning as action rather than a state of being is empowering as the idea of freedom as a verb rather than a noun expressed in another artistic medium via a Daniel Kahn lyric. Every work featured in “Grief and Grievance” suggests movement over stasis, processing over stewing.

Without taking the reader on a tour of the nearly forty contemporary artists included, there is one piece in particular that exemplified for me what visual artists can uniquely express. Imagine, if you will, that I share with you a statistic – I tell you that, in 2018, 14,719 individuals were shot and killed in the U.S. How can you possibly conceive of such a number? How can you connect with it, feel what it means rather than trying to intellectually process it?

Now, imagine instead that you come upon a narrow flight of stairs and draped down above them, from a ceiling you cannot see, are dark blue banners with countless white stars in neat rows, military like precision in their placement, reminiscent of the U.S. flag. They are striking and you can’t get them out of your head as you move from room to room, floor to floor, taking in Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin set to classical music as you read along on massive canvasses, photographs illustrating lives of families in America’s stripped industrial cities that are not the families you typically see in such stories, installations that gob smack you at first sight, until you come to the top floor, turn a final corner, and find yourself at the top of that staircase.

You stop now to read that you’re looking at Hank Willis ThomasTitle 14 719, commemorating the number of individuals shot and killed in the U.S. in 2018; that the most likely way for a young African-American to die is by gun violence; that the artist remembers joking with his cousin, at age 21, that being that age and Black, they’d “made it” before losing that cousin to gun violence just a couple of years later; that this artist is just a few years younger than you.

And then you descend those stairs, staring upward, taking in how you, who likes to count everything, couldn’t fathom counting all those little stars, so many you can’t even seem them all, realizing now just how high up they stretch, how you feel as though you’re in a funeral procession.

That means something a statistic will never convey, that, frankly, as someone whose primary artistic proclivities are in the theatre and written word, cannot be accomplished there either. It is only the visual arts and music, all ingeniously on display at The New Museum, that can accomplish the immediacy of the situation facing us.

Over in Chelsea, you don’t want to miss actor and visual artist Tricia Paoluccio’s pressed flower exhibit, featuring a centerpiece canvas that is a Steinway piano, at the HIGH LINE NINE, currently hosting artists who would, in pre-pandemic days, have been unlikely to show there. Tricia found herself, like everyone in our theatrical and film/TV industry, facing an uncertain future last year as projects were cancelling for months on end – a whole season of work disappearing.

With a husband also in the theatre, they quickly left to stay with family in Northern California where Tricia dove into what had been a lifelong passion of flower pressing. The result is the collection, “I’ll Meet You There” (inspired by a Rumi poem), on display through month’s end.

Ms. Paoluccio is donating 9% from gallery sales to the COVID 19 Emergency Relief Fund and 1% to the CA Native Plant Society, offering yet one more example of how artists contribute directly back into the health of our communities and the larger world around us.

While you’re in that neck of the woods, brave the kinda scary building at 547 West 27th Street to see Susan Grabel’s “Homeless in the Land of Plenty – Redux” at the Ceres Gallery. The striking sculptures of our homeless neighbors were originally displayed in 1989, but not knowing that when I wandered in, I’d assumed they were newer work. These pieces don’t tell the story you expect – Ms. Grabel said she was confronted with the burgeoning population of homeless people on the city’s streets while commuting in the 1980’s and set about creating a series aimed at bringing these folks’ plight to attention, focusing on their humanity.

She is quoted: “We usually ignore homeless people; we pass them by as if they were invisible. They represent the failures of our society and we don’t want to face them.” The craftsmanship, artistry, and humanity on display here are extraordinary. You’ve got ‘til the end of the month and Ms. Grabel is scheduled to be there on the 27th, 3 – 5pm.

Finally, while you’re on the 2nd floor of 547 West 27th, I leave you with an offering of pure visual delight, free of any of the societal commentary I’ve focused on or COVID associations: end your day at Blue Mountain Gallery for Kim Van Do’s “Light and Air of Summer.” If you have been to the Catskills or Northern California, you will be immediately whisked back there in what I can best describe as akin to a VR experience through painting. And if, like me, you’re a bit of a geek for old tools and untraditional canvases, the scenic saws will delight you.

The truth is, I’ve given you the tiniest sampling of all that is out there to soak in and now’s the time. Do you know how crowded art museum and even galleries can get? How many germs go flying about? Go now while double masks are all the rage, crowds are limited, and there is an embrace of so many artists whose work is not always given the prominence I’m sure you’ll agree is deserved.

My (unpopular) opinion of Valentine’s Day

By Gabbi Traub

I have a very complicated relationship with modern-day Valentine’s Day. On the one hand, I think it’s beautiful to designate one day to celebrate your loved ones. I grew up “celebrating” Valentine’s Day with my parents and family. However, as I got older, it became (or perhaps I was just starting to become more aware of) this insanely over-commercialized romantic holiday where you were required to shower your significant other (if you happen to have one) with gifts, activities, and a crowded overpriced dinner with 200 of your closest friends. 

The origins of Valentine’s Day fascinates me.  Like any now over-commercialized Hallmark holiday – it has pagan origins and is based on a Roman tradition of men getting drunk at the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. The women welcomed it because it was thought to bring fertility.  Later in history, it became about honoring a saint in the Catholic tradition.  In this case- Saint Valentine.  No one can agree who was the actual Valentine. According to the History Channel, it was (probably) one of three men.  All of whom were executed by the Emperor for various crimes including performing secret marriages or helping Catholic prisoners escape Roman torture. Super romantic. 

I’ve never really understood the appeal of a modern-day Valentine’s day.  Maybe I’ve never understood the need to shower your significant other with gifts and flowers and candy and spend exorbitant amounts of money on a mediocre 3-course prix-fixe meal, especially when one could do this any other time of the year or even spread it out over the course of the year – for significantly less money.  Why do we feel the need to shower each other only once a year? 

Perhaps that’s my naivité, perhaps it’s how I grew up, and perhaps it’s the fact that I was single for the majority of my life and was (still am?) bitter about it only being marketed to couples. I certainly celebrated many “singles awareness days”, or “SAD” (pun unfortunately intended). Perhaps it’s all three.  Who knows.  Regardless – I’ve spoken about my feelings before and been met with overt frustration.  How could I not want to be showered with gifts and told I’m loved? How could I not want to celebrate love? And while I certainly understand the appeal of having one designated day a year to vomit up as much “love” as we can muster, why not expect that always? Why does it have to be one day and one day only?  

Now I’m not saying that one should expect to give/receive flowers, gifts, and candy (or your gift of choice) every day of the year.  That’s a bit much.  But why can’t we celebrate love in our own way, every day?  Why does it have to be romantic love? Why can’t it be platonic, familial, or god forbid, self-love? 

All I’m saying is – I don’t appreciate over-commercialized Hallmark stamped proof of love being shoved down my throat every year.  It (in my humble opinion) has no other purpose than for us to feel guilted into buying things and professing our love in a way that could be uncomfortable, for no other reason than it’s what we’re told to do.

Now, if you love taking one day a year to just go nuts for your loved ones, by all means, go for it.  And one perk of this crazy holiday? Severely discounted heart-shaped candy at every major store the following day.  Honestly, I’m all about that life.  Just some food for thought. 

Ed Jackson’s Lifelong Civics Lessons

By Leah S. Abrams

My friend, Ed Jackson, offered me one of the wisest life lessons I’ve learned anew many times: “Sometimes, in life, a twig is just a twig.” He shared this nugget with me when I was in high school, when he was Dr. J., my history teacher. It was profound to me that this notion should come from someone who was always teaching us to dig down further into the story.

A few weeks before this past November’s election, I asked Dr. Jackson – now Ed – why the way I’d been taught seems so vastly different from how I’ve recently found myself learning is not how most folks appear to have been educated, particularly in high school. How was it, I wondered, that so many people learned what seems a very one-sided, glossed-over version of U.S. History. What were these text books responsible for people’s knowledge base?

You see, I learned history and government through teachers, beginning in junior high and fully blooming with Dr. Jackson in high school, who offered us a variety of books, essays, lectures, and facilitated discussions. As a rather direct result of Dr. J.’s sophomore year class where I spent weekends with my classmates in our city’s then very intimate library, tracing the routes followed by Native American tribes as they were continually pushed off their land, I ended up on a cross-country trip.

My sister and I were the only students on that summer’s teen bus /camping tour who most relished the history and geography of the trek. My sister had inherited our father’s passion for local history. We were from Boston, he’d enthused, steeped in our Nation’s long narrative for all the pride that comes with it, along with the responsibility for the many accompanying ails. My sister, upon moving with her mother to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn two years before that summer journey, was steeped in pursuit of becoming the local fountain of historical knowledge that my dad was on our home state and, like him, she soaked in tales of any place she visited.

As for me, geography had long eluded me, until Dr. Jackson brought it to life, connected it to stories of progress and of all the tribulations, suffering, injustice, loss that is the ongoing price paid for those bits of advancement. To see the country I’d finally understood on a map, to physically attach landmarks and rivers and mountain ranges to all I’d been studying was thrilling.

In another of Dr. Jackson’s classes, I wrote a paper comparing three U.S. cities, looking at subjects that included education and economics. That is the first time I remember encountering a dismay that would come to continually pang me as it did my grandmother with whom I discussed it years later when she visited me in Oakland and noticed it herself. Namely, the condition of places named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While I no longer recall all three cities I researched in Dr. J.’s class, I remember vividly the fury and heartbreak of reading about East St. Louis, Illinois. It was in Jonathan Kozol’s then just-published “Savage Inequalities” that I first ran across this passage quoting a 14-year old girl:

“Every year in February we are told to read the same old speech of Martin Luther King. We read it every year. ‘I have a dream…’ It does begin to seem – what is the word?… Perfunctory… We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King. The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”

There is a review from the Chicago Tribune at the front of that book that strikes me now, nearly thirty years later, with a heavy blow: “One wonders, though, whether a sequel to Savage Inequalities – written, say, twenty-five years from now – will document a country that decided to embrace and educate all its children.”

If one is to tune into any reputable news outlet, it is abundantly clear that we would have to answer Thomas Cottle of The Tribune with the response he clearly feared: no. Inequities reign. Our schools are still largely segregated and not at all equal. And, at 2020’s Martin Luther King Day commemoration in East St. Louis, The Rev. J. Kevin James Jr. called on the community:

“to not wait for the one time a year when King’s dream is celebrated… This should not be the only time we push for justice… Imagine an East St. Louis with black-owned businesses, black-owned grocery stores, a Walmart with a black general manager, a city where our schools are thriving not because of test scores but because of content… I wrestle today with this idea of this beloved community. Dr. King’s dream spoke of hope. He wanted us to continue in this dream and make it become a reality. But, in the world we’re living in today, it almost seems like we’re going backwards… All around this country we call the land of the free, we find there’s a continual joy in allowing other people to suffer and be persecuted.”

My pre-election conversation with Dr. Jackson – now Ed – shed a good deal of light on how we’ve gotten here and why it is that my history education was unique. In the 1980’s, Ed explained, states began pushing for more standardized tests – tests designed by outside consultants rather than by teachers, and those tests would be used to grade schools. One result? A nationwide slashing of civics courses – no more education around voting, the Constitution, city and state government workings.

I was fortunate. I grew up in a Boston suburb that my mother could not afford because my great-uncle had built my grandparents a house there long before and we moved in with them before she met my dad in the same town. And so, because of good luck relating not at all to anything I did or accomplished, I went to a high school where Ed Jackson, along with another of our teachers, had responded to those educational system changes by creating a “Government & Politics” course that proved so popular it was expanded to include 10th graders.

That move away from an in-depth understanding of how our country has evolved, of the way our Democracy works, of the ways in which systems perpetuate inequity if they remain unchallenged leads directly to where we find ourselves in this moment in history. We must do better. We must not turn to yet another generation and demand they continue fighting the same battle for simple human decency in a country more than capable of providing for all its inhabitants. We must not continue paying attention to what we call Black History only in February.

I want my nephew to come of age in an era where Black History is fully absorbed into all U.S. History courses, in classrooms that are truly representative of all of us. I want him to know a society that finally woke up, once and for all, to all its faults and realized it had the power to change – to actually embody the principles upon which it proclaims to be based. When he hears from a student at that East St. Louis school named for Dr. King, I want him to hear of an education like the one I got from Ed Jackson, in a building as safe and overflowing with resources as the one where I got that education. And when he drives down Martin Luther King Blvd. in any city in this country, I want him to see those thriving Black-owned business described by Reverend James, being frequented by people of every race and ethnicity and gender identity and religion as makes up our species.

Ed was right – there are too many very real, very big things in this world for us to work toward repairing to spend time on those small, personal things we make into so much more than they are – the twigs that are just that. The complicated part – the part that needs our attention – is the tree as a whole, its expansive root system, the communication system that runs among the forest as a whole. Let us turn our attention there – let us tackle it once and for all so that today’s young people are not, thirty years on, shaking their heads at books they studied long ago under a misguided faith that, ugly truth exposed, we would choose a different path once and for all.

The Language of Pause

By Leah S. Abrams

To hit PAUSE forces a certain stillness, reflection. A pause is different than a STOP – it suggests a natural un-pause – continued movement, eventually…

Oh, how I mocked the language when it all began. We weren’t going into quarantine or lockdown – oh, no – we were, the governor insisted, going to PAUSE. As a state, as a community, we weren’t, New Yorkers that we are, going to STOP – just… PAUSE. Together. Language, Mr. Cuomo averred, mattered, and words can carry positive or negative connotations. And, while my industry may remain largely decimated, I now believe wholeheartedly in Cuomo’s choice of terminology.

(As an aside, you may want to make a note of this moment because I am far more often found chiding the governor, even more than I do the mayor which is really saying something.)

To hit PAUSE forces a certain stillness, reflection. A pause is different than a STOP – it suggests a natural un-pause – continued movement, eventually, but forcing you to, say, get up for that computer-alert stretch break you typically dismiss.

Last January obviously looked very different for me than the month we’re now wrapping. I rang in 2020 with college friends and their families, as I do nearly every year – something the pandemic would steal from the group at large for the first time in nearly thirty years of gathering. A week later, I celebrated Rona’s birthday at her 54 Below concert, with my mother and Norm who’d made a special trip down for it, and surrounded by this most generous artistic community that continually inspires me. I signed a theatre contract to produce a playwright whose extraordinary gift with language is the very definition of what our society needs in this moment.

In those early 2020 months leading up to the long PAUSE, I saw more than sixteen shows, including “Come from Away” for the third time and “Mazz & Bricks” whose writer/performer I just watched in Origin Theater’s First Irish Festival gone virtual for 2021. I’d made my inaugural outing to the Cooper Hewitt Museum with one of my newest friends who, the week before the pause officially began, would take my bride’s maid’s dress to alter for a wedding that has been twice postponed, before I headed to my final in-person play – Simon Stone’s “Medea” at BAM.

In that time, I’d also attended a protest march when this country’s failed leadership refused to hold its egomaniacal leader accountable for his first called-out impeachable offense, and a concert commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz with my mother and Norm in what would be our last visit for what is now over a year and where I spent the evening well aware of where each security guard was stationed and where were the children in my section who are always first priority in protecting under life-threatening circumstances. And I went to see Hilary Bettis’ “72 Miles To Go,” about a family living in Arizona, 72 miles from their deported mother in Nogales, Mexico.

And, then, PAUSE. Fast forward – a worsening pandemic that much of the country ignores or, worse, calls a hoax; the country watches, on video, police officers deliberately and slowly kill an innocent man, surrounded by civilians; peaceful protestors of that violence are met with kettling and tear gas and clubs and mass arrests; an armed mob breaks into the Nation’s Capital, calling for legislators’ deaths, and is met with no violent resistance.

And people, in every one of these instances, are shocked. I am not. I simply wonder how any of it is news to anyone. Has everyone gone ignorant of U.S. history? Of humankind’s history? I could easily continue down this road, as I often do. Or, I can use the PAUSE – regroup, shift.

One week after that insurrection, the country swore in its 46th President, a man who has spent his life in service to this country and who chose, as our Vice President, the first woman, first person of color, first Indian-American to hold the position – all in one. For the first time, a President’s inaugural address called out our cancer of systemic racism. In their first week in office, both rhetoric and action shifted to pro-immigrant which, as a reminder, is actually the single identity each of us shares unless one is Native American and just now finally being represented in the federal cabinet of the country that was stolen from them in the first place.

And, a week after white supremacists proudly sported “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirts while waving confederate flags in an attempt to overthrow our Democracy’s fair elections, a worldwide community of Jews and non-Jews alike gathered together online to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the camp’s liberation with readings from children’s, from young people’s diaries of the time, after days before having celebrated the 40th anniversary of both the Yiddish Book Center and Klezmer Conservatory Band – two organizations each launched by a college student’s dogged enthusiasm for a culture and language on the brink of extinction.

Like everyone, I miss my pre-pandemic life. But I don’t miss the pace of it – the societal pressure to always be working, doing, striving. I fear the desperation in people to return to “normal” when so much is ailing us will result in lessons having not been learned, a return to complacency.

But then I see so many little glimmers of hope – the friend of privilege who has had an awakening on the subject this past year, the community refrigerators neighbors are stocking for one another, organizers keeping people engaged in political activism and volunteer efforts to care for one another, storytellers and artists of all kinds calling out our truths and continuing to entertain us. And, like so many others report, I no longer wake up in a state of a panic because my government is being led by a madman on a social media platform originally designed to help folks navigate conferences and which has, in this writer’s humble opinion, yielded the worst bastardization of language we’ve ever seen.

The governor was right – language matters. We have a long road ahead, full of work I fear never ends, but to turn on the news for White House press briefings where eloquence and decency are back in fashion, where the people in charge take science and our health seriously, leading by example? That is reason enough to hold onto a bit of faith that starting up again may actually yield improvement rather than simply a neglectful return to pre-PAUSE status quo.

Letter to the President and V.P. of the U.S.A.

By Rona Siddiqui

Arts & Culture generates at least $1 billion in every state. We account for 4.5% of U.S. GDP (more than Agriculture and Mining combined, and bigger than Transportation or Tourism).

Dear Mr. President and Madam Vice President,

Artists are in peril and we need your help. We all know we could not get through the pandemic without our frontline workers, those in critical retail and trades, food production, transportation, and child care, but imagine getting through the pandemic without music, film, television, books, photography, art. Historically, Arts & Culture have been considered just as essential to the human experience as the air we breathe and here is why:

-Artists remind us of our humanity.

-Artists tell the stories of our past that have fallen from our collective consciousness, but live in our bones. Our gravest mistakes are forgotten within a generation unless we continue to remind ourselves of the dire consequences when our actions are motivated by lies.

-Artists are the harbingers of danger, the speakers of truth, the connectors of generations and cultures, the voices of the marginalized and forgotten. We are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us. We are here to remind you.

-Artists reach to the heart of the human experience to make people feel. When people feel, the pathways to empathy open and beliefs can change, and right now, we need a whole lot of change!

-Artists are powerful. They are often the first to be silenced under governments who lie, cheat, and attempt to bend reality to serve their own selfish ends. Remember when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan and outlawed music? Or when Hitler banned abstract art?

Beauty is essential to remind us that we’re good. Music is essential to remind us that we vibrate at the same frequencies, theatre is essential because it causes our hearts to beat together and our minds to expand. We are reminded that we share one common experience of life on earth. Each one of us has equal value.

We need artists more than ever to tell the truth, draw us out, and give us all the strength to face our demons together.

We need the government to help us do our jobs so we can help you do yours: Provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for every American.

Artists are in peril. 2.7 million Arts & Culture workers are unemployed. 41% of Arts & Culture institutions report they will not survive the pandemic. Arts & Culture generates at least $1 billion in every state. We account for 4.5% of U.S. GDP (more than Agriculture and Mining combined, and bigger than Transportation or Tourism). With its undeniable impact on our lives, how do we not have a national department of Arts & Culture like so many other countries do?

I know that you understand what is at stake. I implore you to be bold and take action to lift up Arts & Culture, make sure this community is taken care of now and beyond the pandemic, and give Arts Workers their place at the table. It is essential to our emotional and spiritual well-being as well as our economic health.

With your action, you will allow artists to continue to give us hope, drive us to be better and to understand the world around us, frame difficult conversations and dream of new possibilities for a brighter future.

Thank you for your service to our country during this troubled time. Your bravery and integrity will not be forgotten. We will tell the story.


Rona Siddiqui

Right of Way

By Jamie Rosler

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, over fifty years since his assassination, and American politicians are making excuses for white supremacist rioters’ invasion of our government buildings.

There’s a general rule (laws, actually, all over the United States and in several other countries around the world) that pedestrians have the right of way at all intersections and crosswalks (marked or unmarked). As a pedestrian, though, one knows how rarely that rule is adhered to by drivers.

Regardless of legal standing, the responsibility ultimately rests with the person most likely to sustain a life-threatening injury, assuming they care to keep living. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

Also not fair but true, as with many other statistics in the USA, people of color are more likely to be injured or killed in a vehicle-pedestrian accident. This is the result of various factors, all of which could themselves be written about at length (and indeed have been and should be). Those factors are not inevitable facts of human existence. They are entirely within our control if only we (white people, those in power anywhere, you who are reading this essay) would stand up every day and speak these truths out loud.


As I sat in a Jayco-brand camper in a Dallas wood lot less than a ten-minute drive from where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I wondered why messengers of peace are murdered but messengers of murder aren’t.

Not wanting to be a messenger of murder myself, I have to acknowledge the innate hypocrisy of having little to no objection to someone assassinating the 45th President of the United States. For people who care about humanity, and have been paying any attention to American politics, it seems hard to argue against the idea that innumerable lives would be better, if not outright saved, had he been disposed of a few years ago.

Of course there’s no knowing what his most rabid supporters might have done in reaction, just as there’s no reason for progressive liberals to think a Pence presidency would have been kinder (the modern Republican party has been heading down this road for decades, after all), but the mob that stormed the Capitol earlier this month would certainly have been fed less fuel by their narcissistic dear leader.

As I was writing this, an historic second presidential impeachment came to pass, and of a one-term president no less. The likelihood of a conviction in the Senate is sadly not guaranteed. We’re looking at the very real possibility of a second American Civil War, fought over much of the same ideologies (hint: it has nothing to do with federalism or states’ rights). 

People are posting on social media to help their community prepare for the worst possible scenario. I changed my travel plans (don’t @ me, I’m being Covid-safe) from driving from Texas to New York right now, to waiting until after Inauguration Day to avoid a potential spike in nationwide violence. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, over fifty years since his assassination, and American politicians are making excuses for white supremacist rioters’ invasion of our government buildings.


Walking my dog in west Dallas the other day, a pedestrian in a city of drivers, I stood on a corner across the street from a park and at the entrance to an interstate on-ramp. There was no traffic light to wait for or obey. Cars from two different directions were taking their turns, as they saw it, disregarding the person standing and waiting to cross, until one driver stopped. Instead of making a left turn onto the highway when traffic stopped coming from the other direction, they stopped and waited for me to cross the street.

This simple act resonated so deeply, in a way it might not have in a different time or place.

We all have the power to change patterns of behavior that seem otherwise ingrained in our society. We have the power to see, to decide, to act for change. We have this power every day in everything we do. We can be the government official supporting sedition, or we can actively stand against it and protect our fellow humans.

Which do you want to be?