There are so many American cities that I love: Pittsburgh has got to be located in the be most fairy tale/textbook ideal spot on the continent; Gallup is a dream I can’t shake; Baltimore and DC are more Janus than the Twin Cities; St. Paul in the late spring (right now) is temptation; New York, much like Miami, is a pain in the ass but for entirely different reasons. And then there’s Los Angeles, Jason’s home town and a city that – for the last 20 years – beguiles me like no other. If I stray from Boca Raton, it’ll be to cheat with LA.
Which, Angelenos don’t say ‘LA’; they say ‘Los Angeles’. I think that’s nifty. The air is dry. What the hell!? People just pick up and hike the the canyons. Everyone seems to be casually eating at some great little spot all the time. The city rolls out of and into bed. And, underneath all that apparently unstudied ease… things get done – without the Midwest’s self-righteousness or the East’s harshness or the South’s weird defiance (or South Florida’s garishness, sheesh).
I muse on American cities in general and Los Angeles in particular because of Dope, a wonderful movie wherein one specific scene caught my attention. Midway through their misadventures, Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy arrive at AJ’s house. AJ’s son, Jaleel, invites them in to wait for his father and raps for them in his home studio. The three friends haze Jaleel a bit for his unique, self-diagnosed dyslexia, and, in so doing, in-joke a line from one of their own band’s songs. Without missing a beat, Jaleel invites them to record a song. That moment is ‘so LA’.
There’s a way in Los Angeles that people can seem to ride out minor humiliation because a more attuned portion of their consciousness continuously scans for ‘that thing’. In New York and DC, people always on the make come across as smarmy but are typically tolerated. In the Midwest (and Canada, interestingly enough), such behavior is undignified and its perpetrators can wind up pariahs. In South Florida, it’s how anything, everything gets done. But in Los Angeles, it is a Zen art guided by a spirit of possibility.
That scene reminded me immediately of a parallel moment in American Dreamz, another fantastic – although far less well-regarded – movie. American Dreamz is a satire where Dope is a fable packed with some of the painful and amazing things that can happen in that part of the world. American Dreamz handles adjacent themes with cutting humor rather than Dope’s absurdities. But both films are gimlet-eyed and do not insult the reality of their characters’ or their audiences’ lives.
In American Dreamz, Omer surreptitiously goofs around on his cousin Iqbal’s home stage as disco lights and Casio beats roll only to be ‘discovered’ by the movie’s eponymous TV show’s scouts. Omer – rather than Iqbal who’d initially submitted an audition tape – is selected for the star-making singing contest. When Omer delivers the news to Iqbal at dinner, Iqbal shouts, “Do you know how hard I’ve worked to get on this show!? You’ve stolen my dream!!!” and flounces out. In their next scene together, however, like Jameel in Dope, Iqbal, with happy self-satisfaction and confidence, decides to coach his cousin to prepare him to win American Dreamz.
Now, Iqbal (portrayed by Tony Yalda) lives in Orange County, not Los Angeles proper, and, unlike Jameel (played by Quincy Brown), he is wiry and shrill. But proximity matters, and Iqbal has keenly internalized the neighboring Angeleno’s sharp eye for possibility and ability to instantaneously overcome slights in service of bigger things.
Jameel is Black and Iqbal is Arab, and this matters. The actual and stereotyped-perception of violence that shape and mark both of their communities serve as interesting juxtapositions to their willingness to move past humiliation toward the possibility of success in the entertainment industry. Jaleel is clearly pulled between Ladera where he lives and “doesn’t have a set” and Inglewood where “my heart is… even though my body’s right here.” He’s hard to a fault, but clearly has a talent for music that is as true to him as his father and uncle’s roots in the Bottoms. In opposition, Iqbal who appears to simply tolerate his family is in reality very comfortable with himself and in his environs – and is very welcomed and supported by his loved-ones.
I imagine that in Chicago and Atlanta people similar to Jameel and Iqbal are checking the lower frequencies for possibilities. But, the nonchalant, dare I say, grace with which these two characters handle it is a faithful representation of how things get done in Los Angeles, a testament to both actors’ and sets of filmmakers’ attention to detail when it comes to that city. The American Dream, like the American Condition, is founded, as Fitzgerald put it, on “an infinite capacity for hope.” In Los Angeles, that hope is realized and monetized and capitalized with elegant, matter-of-fact company town industry.
One of my favorite word games is fake etymology. Or, rather, imagined etymology. Right? ‘Fake’ means it’s a total fabrication, knowingly false. Imagined etymology could actually be right, but is just as likely wrong. Imagine. Whenever I try my hand at fiction, some character, often a younger, less murky version of myself, says, “I imagine that…” I hear myself saying “I imagine” often in conversations with my students.
What a great word, ‘imagine’. Which is ironic since I hate ‘imagination’. Like detest. Gah. Saying ‘a work of great imagination’ sounds to me like saying ‘a work of great fabrication’. Pee-yoo. I’m not interested in ‘imagination’ so much as I’m interested in ‘possibility’. But, possibility alone has its limitations in that it is predicated on logic. To imagine that something is possible takes linear thinking and bends it across time and space. Right? What might… What could… What if…
This morning, I’ve been doing that thing that they tell teachers to do, backwards planning. What should students know and be able to do at the end of the lesson/week/quarter/year? Ultimately, I want my students to think of themselves as empowered members of their communities who articulate their thoughts with clarity and have the courage to act on their most generous, civic-minded impulses with care and tenacity. I think creating an open, supportive, friendly, lively classroom environment and teaching American Literature as an on-going, vital conversation gets us part of the way there. I also want them to critique the various ‘standards’ that are in place to regulate our lives and thinking. Teaching the history of the language and having open discussions about how narratives work develops this critical thinking. Joy, too, of art – engaging and making art – is important. When we share our stories, watch and discuss film or TV or music in addition to written texts, there’s space for joy. Obviously, I can do better. I think I need to be more organized, a bit more systematic…
But, to what end?
More and more, I’m obsessed with the actions that make change. What actions? What steps?
The only thing I’ve come up with to make the world a healthier place is that we have to want different things. Or see differently. Or think differently. Something. Else.
I’m skeptical of spectacle. I’m dubious of logic. I distrust anything that isn’t focused on harmony with all of nature and all human communities. Which, I suppose, doesn’t leave much that’s readily available to work with. The master’s tools and all that.
And I am so disappointed. ‘Disappointed’ is a word that, whenever I feel it, I go into its imagined etymology. ‘Dis-appointed’. Like I was ‘appointed’ to a position, but now I’ve been removed from it by some harsh reality. ‘Let go’ rather than ‘let down’. Huh. See? This is a fun game, no?
Metaphors are so tricky; I use one, it seems to perfectly encapsulate my meaning, but then I do a bit of digging only to find that my metaphor is rooted in the language of capital or war. ‘Outpost’ is exactly what I mean: I think of centers, of cores, and then, connected by an artery of some sort, a smaller node. That site is, in my mind, a nimble outpost – a part apart yet self-sufficient, rich in its own objectives and ways, marked by its own climate and topography. When I think of my work as an artist and as a teacher, I think of myself working in an outpost. This is strange because South Florida is, in several ways, not an outpost at all. It is the American center of the Caribbean and the major American terminal to South America. It is the corridor between New York and Kingston, Port-au-Prince, and Havana, or, further south, between DC and Lima, Buenos Aires, and Managua. Even so, there’s a stability to places like Los Angeles, Toronto, and the Twin Cities that is not characteristic of South Florida at all. Even the people who’ve been in the area for three of four generations understand the region and themselves in terms of mobility and change. Hurricanes can change and move everything and everyone. Boom and bust cycles, too. Like the sandy soil that plays host to our crabgrass lawns, South Florida roots and shakes people loose with ease.
My work and other people who do similar work seem to thrive in more stable urban centers. And I hear it all the time. Conceptual art and experimental classrooms belong in New York or Los Angeles or at some small liberal arts college somewhere or in some program in some other global metropolis. I think I’m stubborn. It’s not a word I would use to describe myself in any area other than my work in art and education. I firmly believe in the nature of both projects: conceptual art belongs to diverse communities of people; literature and the humanities rigorously pursued can form the foundation and shape of healthy, enjoyable lives. And, to my bones, I believe that neither urban centers nor elite institutional spaces should have a lock on people in communities who encounter, engage, exchange, and exist with the arts and humanities. The abstraction, the critique, the whimsy inherent in my artwork, the frameworks of understanding and the questions we ask of the texts we explore in my classrooms are all rooted in ideas of community. And it pisses me off to think that the only communities that are expected to be fully invested in this type of work are capitals of either nations or industry. Bleh.
So, I work in what feels like an artistic and intellectual outpost – not because there’s no art or scholarship in South Florida; rather, the specific ideas I engage are not as yet linked to the area’s wider systems of art and education. The more I move away from object-oriented art, the more I challenge the purpose of public education, the less connection I feel to most of South Florida’s existing art and educational institutions. But like I said, I’m stubborn. And, while I imagine I could be quite fulfilled doing my work in places where those conversations already thrive, I resent the implication: that here isn’t as good as there, that there’s something wrong with us here.
In both art and education, I’ve seen people who are deeply engaged in questions of aesthetic and narrative leave our area for other, ‘more supportive’ places. Curators and artists, students and educators go away to directly engage the plurality of voices in our fields. I did it to work on my MFA. Interestingly, even though I had the option of going to New York for my degree, I chose the Twin Cities because I wanted to think about and make work without fighting against a clamor of names and trends even as I sought more voices than those that are prevalent in South Florida. But, although it is far smaller than New York, the Twin Cities are hardly outposts of the art world.
Few of us who leave come back. Those of us who return often find ourselves fighting feelings of frustration at the lack of infrastructure and interest to support our work. My network of similarly-focused groups and individuals starts in Minneapolis and extends east and west to DC, New York, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Only now do I have nascent connections in South Florida. For the last three years since my return, I’ve wrestled my desire to stay in South Florida against the siren call of more established hubs. I’ve actively pursued both angles, and my efforts here in South Florida have yielded very satisfying if moderate results. Another person in my situation would continue this work and, in a year or so, take their show on the road. But I have decided not to do that. I’ve decided to stay and make a case for my outpost.
Well, I for one wish that someone had written a manual on how to do experimental work in the arts and humanities outside of traditional urban centers. No one that I know of has done this, so I suppose I have to do it myself. I imagine that I am not the only one who is so deeply in love with some aspect of their home town (the beach and the atmosphere and the overlapping diversity) that they would rather live there than in some place that already has everything and everyone (I’m looking at you, Brooklyn). For good or for ill, cosmopolitanism is the heart of outpost thinking. In those major cities and cultural centers, multitudes of praxes collide with one another and shape and reshape thinkers and practitioners. And, for good or for ill, this is where the military roots and capitalist applications of the outpost metaphor are most accurate: major cities and cultural centers protect themselves by drawing in everything and everyone that might possibly feed their enterprises. To do this type of work in the away is to build capacity elsewhere, is to resist the thrust of contemporary society that takes us far from the people and places that we genuinely depend on over the course of our lives.
Look, jobs with lots of money are great. Engaging the cutting-edge of a chosen discipline is stimulating, satisfying. We can and do make families out of friends and colleagues. But life inevitably takes turns where siblings and parents and children require historic resources, lineages with roots. I’m more interested now in what the hero does when she returns.