Adventures In Saving Our Democracy

CREATE CULTURE

“Lifelong Vegetarian. Cultural Carnivore.” That’s been my life’s subtitle since I was 10 years old.

“Culture. Creation. Community. Connection.” Those have been my four core values since I was 20.

In high school, I remember asking my World History teacher why armies at war destroyed cultural centers first. He kneeled down, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Culture is civilization, Michael. Culture is humanity. When you attack a nation’s cultural centers – libraries, theatres, museums – you attack their humanity. Without our humanity, who are we? What are we? Like the rubble, we are dust.”

Now I *may* have given this memory a sprinkle of Dead Poets Society heft, but the sentiment landed, and it’s stuck with me to this day.

The history buffs out there know that following the destruction of cultural sites in WWII, the UN put together “The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.” For the most part, this international treaty made destroying another country’s cultural centers a war crime. However, there are still no protocols in place for when countries destroy their culture from within.

We must not give up on our culture. We must continue to create and commune and connect. Your efforts do not go unnoticed. I see your perseverance, your artistry, your grit. Keep going.

I love how the government of Ontario defines culture on their website: “Culture is the lifeblood of a vibrant society, expressed in the many ways we tell our stories, celebrate, remember the past, entertain ourselves, and imagine the future. Our creative expression helps define who we are, and helps us see the world through the eyes of others.”

No matter the medium, I live to tell stories. I live to connect humans. I live to build culture. Better Work Week was my small attempt to help build a better culture. Thank you to everyone who participated and helped make it a reality. I’m thrilled that it was free and open to the public. I’m thrilled by the assembled talent’s diversity and expertise. I’m thrilled that it brought a little joy, a little ease, a little connection to people scattered across the globe. (And to keep the goodwill going, I’m giving away free SunBasket meals to anyone who reads this. E-mail me and I’ll send you a link.)

Let’s collaborate and build back our culture together. A culture of empathy and wonder. Let’s reclaim our humanity. I know sincerity can feel retro. Sue me. Call me old fashioned. We all could use a little sincerity these days. Chins up, my friends. We have work to do.

MAKE ART

E​ight years ago today, as Hurricane Sandy prepared to batter New York City, I stuffed my soaked limbs into the last train out of the city. I traveled back to New Haven, where I was directing and choreographing The Drowsy Chaperone at Yale.​ (Ah, theatre. <clutches heart> Remember theatre?​) ​We were scheduled to start a weekend of tech less than a week before opening. The weekend of tech was cancelled.​

Despair was not an option for this incredible group of theatre makers. (Kudos always to this amazing creative team.) Everyone pushed through – theatre makers are experts in pushing through – and a few days later, we managed to open one of my favorite productions I’ve ever directed. While mounds of snow encased the gothic arches of Yale University, I watched friends and strangers huddle in a theatre to watch a man in a chair, alone and lonely in his dark apartment, find joy and meaning in his favorite piece of art.

Do you like theatre? Or ​maybe ​film? ​Perhaps ​you like music or dance or museums or literature or TV? ​Over the last 7 months, have you turned to a book, a show on television, or even a song to bring you a moment’s comfort?​

The Arts are essential. Our culture, our humanities are essential. ​​I’ve already shared the staggering data around arts employment and economic output. The Arts are one of our country’s biggest foundational industries. So here’s a different bit of context:​

The United States government spends less money supporting the Arts than EVERY OTHER country tracked by The Arts Council of England​.​ (As an example, Germany, a country comparable to the U.S. in terms of per capita gross domestic product (GDP), spends more than 14 times greater than per capita U.S. spending, and even Ireland, with less than half the per capita GDP of the United States, has higher public spending on the Arts than the U.S.)​

Right now, workers​ in the U.K.​ who cannot do their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have up to 80% of their wages covered by the government. On top of that, the U.K.’s public funding body for the arts announced a $190 million emergency relief package for artists and arts organizations affected by the ongoing public health situation, specifically earmarking $23 million in emergency relief to freelancers in creative industries who were not sufficiently covered by the government’s existing bailout package.

With all this in mind, did you know that every year for the last four years, our current administration has tried to significantly cut or eliminate altogether the federal funding allocated for our arts and humanities? In their budget proposal for 2021, these cuts can be found under the header, “Stopping Wasteful and Unnecessary Spending.”

I’ll tell you again. The Arts that you enjoy, that relax you, that thrill you, that comfort you, that serve your communities, that create millions of jobs, that withstand plagues and wars, that give your life ​pleasure, connection and ​meaning, they are not unnecessary. The Arts are essential.​

We’ve done it before. ​During the Great Depression, the U.S. government invested $27 million​ with The New Deal​, a huge sum in those days, to employ artists, musicians, actors and writers via the Works Progress Administration.​

The Arts are essential. ​Dear reader, I hope you’ll vote for candidates that feel the same way. I know, this simple bout of nostalgia turned left real quick. But so be it. So much is at stake. Now excuse me. I’m ​gonna turn up some music real loud in my apartment and dance ​with joy around my living room.

AND VOTE

Fun Fact: I’m smiling because I have my kippah from Jared and Ivanka’s wedding stashed in my pocket and I’m willing to perform a hex if necessary.

No, no, no. I’m smiling because I voted!

Okay, false promises of ancient Kabbalistic witchcraft aside, there are a thousand reasons I proudly voted for Joe Biden. As we near the finish line, I’ll share with you just one. (And it has nothing to do with policy.) Joe is a healer. He has endured the most painful personal tragedies imaginable and instead of retreating or growing hard, he continues to model his life with dignity, compassion, and a drive for national unity. It’s easy to forget we are The United States of America. It’s easy to choose cynicism, to believe our wounds can’t ever heal. They can. We can unite. We can heal. In fact we must if we’re ever going to survive.

I would never rely on Joe to heal our nation’s wounds. That’s on us, as individuals, as interconnected communities. But with Joe as our President, we’d have a leader who leads with empathy, not division. Who believes in science and equality. Who champions working families, not with empty words, but with action plans. He’d be an advocate for all US citizens, not just his followers. With Joe, we all can start to thrive. With Joe, we all can start to heal.

You could call my words unbridled optimism. Not sorry. Optimists get shit done. They imagine and work towards that “more perfect union.” Republicans are going to do everything they can this next week to steal the election. They can’t win if we make it a landslide.

Every day for the last month, I have written personal, non-partisan letters to swing state voters through Vote Forward. It’s been a heart-stirring experience to spend time with each name. To imagine what life might be like on their street, or how they’ll react upon reading my words.

Big ups to all y’all waiting in long lines, phone banking, texting, writing letters, volunteering, and donating. Big ups to all y’all having hard and painful conversations with loved ones. I am so inspired by you all. Your efforts to save our democracy and our planet do not go unvalued.

See you on the other side. Godspeed and love to you all.

PS. Thank you New York Magazine and I Am A Voter for these artist-designed stickers! Stickers really do make democracy saving more fun. #BlueWave #IfYourWaveIsRed #SomethingIsWrong #LikePlagueWrong #TheOceanIsBlue #TheMoreYouKnow

Adventures In Sharing Your Art

A small story of joy at the end of a dark week in our country.

As some of you know, I build experiences across unused, Class A commercial spaces for one of my clients. My job is to essentially engage, strengthen and connect disparate communities in any given building.

One of the ways we recently achieved this for a particular building in Midtown was by inviting all tenants who had side passions as creators, makers, and artists to exhibit their work in our common space. So an HR manager at a hedge fund brought in her homemade greeting cards, an executive assistant at a law firm brought in his 3D paintings, a front desk associate at a beverage distributor brought in her photographs, and so on. Once we collected and proudly displayed all their work on the walls of our common space, we threw everyone a big Art Party. They could invite their colleagues, friends and family to attend in celebration (and hopefully sell some of that side hustle work too.)

I was particularly struck by a series of prints that appeared to be images of microscopic specimens, so I tracked down the artist. She was unbelievably sweet. Her name is Stephanie, and she’s been a secretary at the same company for nearly 30 years.

I asked her about her work. It turns out they were prints of various recyclable objects found around her desk. For the last three decades, whenever she’d get bored at work, she’d collect discarded staples, trashed packaging straps, and wayward hole punches, and make beautiful pieces of art out of them.

I asked her if she had ever shown her art before. She laughed. These prints had been accumulating under her bed, collecting dust for thirty years. No one had ever seen them before. In fact, she had hundreds and hundreds more where these came from.

I then asked her why she hadn’t shown her art before. She said she didn’t think she was a “real artist.” She said she didn’t think people would like her art. She said she didn’t think she had permission.

So I told her I wanted to buy a piece. Her mouth dropped and stayed open. I changed my mind. I told her I wanted to buy three pieces. She fell to the floor and sobbed. What seemed like a small gesture on my part felt like a tidal wave to her. Later that day, she submitted a few of her pieces online to a contest. And this weekend, her work will be shown publicly for the first time in her life at an art show in Red Hook.

I share this story as a reminder, friends. Please don’t hide your art under your beds. I say that both literally and figuratively. Show your colors to the world. If you’re angry, share your anger. If you’re happy, share your happiness. Enjoy your process. Share your work. Share your passions. Share your story.

This world could afford a little more of your light.

And if you’re interested in purchasing a piece of Stephanie’s, I’ll gladly put you in touch.

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Adventures in Loss

She was the first artist I knew. She was a painter. She made her living oil painting over the portraits my grandfather, a photographer, took in his Brooklyn studio. Their business was called Vega Photography.

She was the first chef I knew. When I was a child, her visits were hotly anticipated. She arrived bearing the gooiest and most delectable rocky road fudge you could ever imagine. Frankly, you couldn’t imagine it. Human imagination could never grasp such godly, culinary ecstasy. The fact that she made rocky road seems apropos. She always found sweetness in and around hardships.

Janet was born in Harlem. Her birthday was my half birthday. My half birthday was her birthday.

She played basketball in high school. Baller. FullSizeRender

She began dating Robert, my grandfather-to-be, when she was 18 years old. He was a photographer in the Army. They met at a dance. He drove her home. When he leaned in to kiss her, she slapped him.

Shortly thereafter, they started dating.

Shortly thereafter, Pearl Harbor was hit.

Robert was to be sent overseas, except a funny thing happened on the way to war. At the end of his final medical check-up, the doctor hesitantly asked, “Robert, I’m not supposed to ask things like this, but are you by any chance dating a girl named Janet Axelrad over in Bensonhurst?”

“I am,” Robert said. “I’m gonna marry her, and we’re gonna start a family too. As soon as I get back from the war.”

The doctor subsequently diagnosed Robert with flat feet. Accurately, I might add. Robert was never sent overseas. Instead, he remained stationed stateside, first in Colorado Springs, then in Oklahoma City, then in Kansas City. The doctor ensured that Robert could stay with Janet, which he did, marry her, which he did, and raise a family with her, which he did.

The doctor turned out to be Janet’s cousin.

As for the ship Robert was meant to deploy on?

It was torpedoed in the South Pacific and sank.

Janet married Robert at age 20, and had my father, Lee, at age 22. Four years later, she had my uncle, Cliff.

She was a first generation American, the daughter of Polish immigrants Harry and Gussie Axelrad. Harry opened and operated Cathedral Bar & Grill on Christopher Street. It is now an Italian restaurant called Gaetana’s. The floor tiles Harry laid down a century ago remain. I often wonder if he imagined his great-grandson would one day stand on those very tiles.

Harry spoke Polish, German, English, and Yiddish. The usage of Yiddish would decrease with each passing generation, though my parents never failed to tuck me in without a Schluff Gezunt. “Sleep well.”

Janet was a Modern-Orthodox Jew. She kept a Kosher kitchen. As a kid, I could never comprehend why she had so many plates.

Janet and Robert left Brooklyn for West Palm Beach in 1983, shortly before I was born.

A few years ago, I visited Robert’s sister Annette, who was still living in the Brooklyn home where Robert grew up. In the basement, I stumbled upon my grandfather’s dark room, still intact from the 1950’s. I took pieces of paper off the walls with handwritten quotes, as well as hundreds of paper scraps that I later spent a year piecing together, forming both a 19th century Dutch shipping calendar, which I kept for myself, and an early 20th century map of Brooklyn, which I had framed and gave to my father on his 70th birthday. Annette passed away and the house was demolished shortly after my visit.

My grandfather called Janet “Red.” Her big red mane was unmistakable and unavoidable. I was a perpetual disappointment to her strictly because my own red hair became increasingly brown with every passing year. FullSizeRender_1

“Where’s your red?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“Are you dyeing your hair?”

“No, Grandma.”

“Why is your hair getting so dark?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“You know you really should stop dyeing it. It makes you special. Let your red come out to play.”

She never called me Michael. She called me, “My Michael.” I never knew exactly why. But I always liked the fact that she claimed some kind of ownership over me. I was in good hands.

I remember celebrating Janet and Robert’s 50th Wedding Anniversary at my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Robert died shortly before my Bar Mitzvah.

Unable to find a conservative temple in her area, Janet founded one herself. This is where she met her second husband, Harry Wolovitz. They were together for 5 years before he passed.

In 2010, due to declining health, Janet moved to California to be closer to my Dad. She lived in an assisted living home called Alma Via, a few doors down from the grandfathers of my friends Marissa and Jena. In her final days, she had dementia, one leg, and a tumor on her face. But she never complained. She continued to laugh. I loved her laugh. Her eyes would squint and her voice would crack and it was the cutest darn thing you ever did see.

The thing I’ll remember most about Janet is how we would look at each other from across a room. In the afternoons at Alma Via, Janet would park her wheel chair in the common area. Clusters of people in wheelchairs would surround her. While their eyes would glue to the TV screen, Janet’s eyes would gaze out the windows at the flowers and the sunshine.

Whenever I would visit her at Alma Via, I’d peek my head around the corner of the common area and stare at her until her eyes found mine. Sometimes it would take a few minutes, but it was always worth it. She would discover me, then stare at me blankly for a few moments. Then a smile would slowly creep across her face. Her eyes would twinkle. And we’d stay there for a few minutes, just smiling at each other from across a room.

The last time I saw her, we stared at each other for what felt like 50 years. Eventually I approached her.

“My Michael,” she said, slowly. “Where’s your red?”

I tapped my heart and smiled.

Then she tapped her heart and smiled.

Schluff Gezunt, Red.

____________________

Janet Axelrad Schwartz

1923-2017

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