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DeAnne Smith is a comedian who will be featured in the upcoming Netflix special “COMEDIANS of the World.”
Where do you come up with your best ideas? Usually in my mind, but often in my heart. Sometimes in my gut. Every once in a while, out of my ass.
What is the best non-material gift you’ve received? Any and every home-cooked meal! I have a host of annoying dietary restrictions (I mean, look at me, of course I do!), so someone accommodating me by making something gluten, meat, and dairy free is already such an act of love. And because I travel so much, I really value a home-cooked meal. Note to everyone reading this: Feel free to invite me over for something as simple as rice and beans. I will be so grateful!
What is the best non-material gift you’ve given? I’m not sure I know the answer to this one. But I live with a single mom, and I suspect it might be all the free babysitting I do.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced? Getting the help I needed when depression was taking me down. It felt scary to open up and talk to people about how I was feeling, because I couldn’t shake the idea that it was my fault, and that I should be able to will myself to be stronger. Also, one of depression’s biggest lies is that you aren’t worth getting help for. I think I also felt an extra pressure to just “snap out of it” because of comedy. It’s my JOB to be joyful and energetic and bring the party to groups of strangers every night. I had to reach a real low point before I admitted I needed outside help, but I’m so glad I was able to reach out. Now, with the help of talk therapy, meds, exercise, and CONSTANT VIGILANCE, I’m keeping the ol’ D-bag (that’s my fun little nickname for it) at bay.
Either that, or opening pistachios. How does anyone have the finger strength? They’re impossible.
If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do? I’d love to own a used bookstore. Sitting in a cute book shop all day, reading while waiting for customers, sounds like a dream to me. I’m not sure if it’s obvious, but I have very modest dreams, and a flexible definition of what “profession” means.
I lied in church! In front of God! I was sure I was going to go to hell and/or get in trouble with my mom, both of which were accompanied by the same sense of dread.
What is the most useful mistake you’vemade? Interesting question. Probably eschewing any hope of a stable or “normal” life by getting into stand up. It was definitely ill-advised but it’s working out so far!
What opportunity do you regret passing up? I really try to live my life without regrets. That doesn’t mean I do everything perfectly the first time around, but I don’t tend to look back and wish I had done something else. I also have a terrible memory, so that helps.
How do you relax? Hmm. The night guard I wear for grinding my teeth while I sleep indicates that maybe I don’t ever fully relax. Even in my sleep, I’m gritting my teeth and trying to get through it.
But any time I spend with my dog, Rudy, is always the best and most relaxing time, whether we’re taking a walk in the fresh air or cuddling up under the blankets, both of which are our favourite pastimes.
If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go? I am generally content to be wherever I am, and I move around so often that I don’t miss any one place for too long. But if I’m not home, I’d say home. If I am home, and it’s winter, I’d say literally anywhere warm.
What is your most indelible childhood memory? The time I lied about my name at church camp. I was in preschool at the time. When they asked our names to write on name tags for the day, somehow I realized I could make something up. I mumbled “Susan,” which I’m sure came from my obsession with Susan on the show “Eight is Enough.” As the woman was writing it down, in marker black as sin, I was immediately mortified. I lied in church! In front of God! I was sure I was going to go to hell and/or get in trouble with my mom, both of which were accompanied by the same sense of dread. I had a pit in my stomach all day, every time a grown up called me Susan. I couldn’t even enjoy it. Mail from that church addressed to “Susan Smith” came to my house for years after that, haunting me.
Describe a perfect day. A perfect day for me would incorporate all of these things: trees, people I love, my dog, art, comedy, a great book, and a perfectly made cortado.
When you’re stuck how do you get unstuck? Through sheer force of will and habit. When I’m stuck with writing, I make myself clock hours of writing, and let it be garbage. No judgment, just letting my fingers fly over the keyboard or letting the pen fly across the page. Eventually, whatever’s stuck becomes unstuck. When I’m stuck in a larger way, like in life, I find that moving toward my fears always helps. If I’m afraid of acting, I take an acting class. If I’m afraid of delving into my past, I get into therapy. Luckily for me, I’m afraid of so many things that there are always a million ways to get unstuck!
What is your proudest moment? Getting almost to the end of this interview, which I have to say, has felt quite intimate and exposing.
What would you like to experience before you die? A long and healthy life!
Cleveland’s Public Square was designed with free speech in mind. So far, it’s working.
By Erick Trickey
Dread filled Cleveland on the eve of the 2016 Republican National Convention. The GOP was poised to nominate Donald Trump for president, and press coverage voiced concerns about violence, like the street fights outside the Democrats’ 1968 convention in Chicago. Trump himself had stoked those fears. If a brokered convention denied him the nomination, “I think you’d have riots,” he’d predicted.
But when demonstrators gathered in Public Square — a park that had reopened, after a massive renovation, just two weeks before the convention — none of that happened.
Other host cities of major-party conventions had created so-called “free speech zones” that penned protesters into fenced and forlorn spaces. Cleveland, instead, invited speech into Public Square. The city set up a stage and sound system on the Speakers’ Terrace, a curved platform built into the square’s south end. Protesters took that as a cue to congregate all across the park’s six acres: Marchers paraded through, activists performed street theater, and policemen on bicycles wedged their front tires between arguers to deescalate their debates. The 220-year-old town common managed to absorb the rage of protesters and Trump supporters alike.
“Having spaces where the adrenaline and stress of the event could play out,” says landscape architect Veronica Rivera, “allowed for people who might have very different views to discuss them without any major confrontations.” That was no accident: She and her colleagues had redesigned the park with huge crowds and public speeches in mind.
Today, when public discourse is at its coarsest and many people seek community in the virtual world, the reshaping of the six-acre Public Square is a fascinating case study in landscape as destiny. Two years earlier, Rivera notes, the park “was basically just used for transit — a huge bus stop.” The goals of the $57 million renovation project were manifold, from encouraging pedestrian use to turning Cleveland’s often-quiet downtown into more of a neighborhood.
But central to the plans, and to Cleveland’s image of itself, was a revival of Public Square’s dormant tradition as a civic space devoted to public expression.
“I always feel like it’s an open space,” says Nora Romanoff, associate director of LAND studio, a Cleveland nonprofit that managed the square’s renovation. “And I always feel like it’s a space where people can say what they think.”
Cleveland has one of the best historic public discourse traditions of any American city. It dates back to city founder Moses Cleaveland, who plotted out Public Square in 1796 as a New England-style town common — and to Tom L. Johnson, mayor from 1901 to 1909, who encouraged Public Square’s free speech tradition and held his own rallies and speeches there.
After Johnson’s 1911 death, a statue of him was erected in Public Square’s northwest quadrant. For decades, Clevelanders rallied in front of it: for Depression-era protests supporting the unemployed and steelworker strikes, for 1960s protests against the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. But by the 2000s, Public Square’s identity as Cleveland’s common ground had faded.
A big part of the problem was geography. Two wide thoroughfares, Superior Avenue and Ontario Street, crossed through the square, dividing it into four one-acre parks. Each quadrant felt disconnected, surrounded by car and bus traffic. At a public forum about the square in 2003, residents complained that it wasn’t pedestrian-friendly and didn’t feel welcoming. Few wanted to hold events there.
Slowly, support for a massive redesign began to build. In 2009, two local nonprofits hired the firm James Corner Field Operations — which had just reshaped a former elevated railroad into New York City’s High Line park — to rethink Cleveland’s oldest public space.
The firm came up with a bold proposal: to turn the divided park into what Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson called “one big square.” They would eliminate the crossroads at the park’s center, closing Ontario Street and allowing only buses, not cars, on Superior Avenue.
The resulting open space, they believed, could help revive Cleveland’s free-speech tradition. Planners did spatial studies on how many people could gather there and how they’d circulate in and out. “We could fit tens of thousands of people in this square,” says Romanoff.
After the Republican National Committee accepted Cleveland’s bid for the 2016 convention — which included the promise of a renovated Public Square — donations from local foundations came in, and construction started in earnest. Rivera, Field Operations’ designer for Public Square, moved to downtown Cleveland for a year to work on the project.
“People are like water: They take the easiest path.”
She and her colleagues, working with LAND studio, took inspiration from recent trends in urban public spaces. They wanted to reclaim a neglected city center, creating an activity-filled oasis at the foot of skyscrapers, as Detroit had with its Campus Martius Park in 2004.
They planned to return the square to pedestrians instead of cars, a strategy that former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan implemented in Times Square and champions in her 2016 book “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.”
And they wanted to embrace the square’s unique landscape, as New York did with the High Line. To do that, they studied shadows and sunlight. Skyscrapers, especially the landmark Terminal Tower on the square’s southwest end, blocked more sunlight in the square’s south half. So Rivera designed a green landscape for the north half and a “hardscaped” south half with concrete and cobblestones.
They also studied people’s walking routes. “People are like water: They take the easiest path,” says Romanoff. “So we wanted to understand: what are those paths?”
A lot of Clevelanders crossed the square diagonally, northwest to southeast or southwest to northeast. Rivera replaced the blocky quadrants with diagonal walking paths that formed a butterfly shape, hugging the hills, uniting the terraces, and embracing an 1890s-era Civil War memorial in the square’s southeast corner.
“We played a lot with topography,” Rivera says. “The square is very, very flat. So we make sure that as you’re walking places, you don’t necessarily see everything.”
And, mindful of the square’s history, Rivera designed a curved paving-stone path near the southern edge to double as the Speakers’ Terrace, overlooking a vast southern plaza.
After decades of seeing Public Square as a half-dead space, some Clevelanders — including the project’s construction workers — were skeptical that the transformation would work. “Throughout construction, the guys in the field [said], ‘Why are you so stressed out about this? No one’s going to use this,’” Rivera recalls. “It wasn’t until the end of the construction, when they saw all the pieces come together, that they also became excited about the potential.”
At 5 a.m. on the last day of June 2016, the new Public Square opened. Within 30 minutes, says Rivera, she saw a man running, a lady walking her dog, a guy eating a sandwich in the park. “Within the first day, you saw all the activities we envisioned take place,” she says. And Clevelanders quickly became comfortable going to the square at night — something almost no one did before it was redesigned.
To Rivera, it was proof she’d designed the square at a human scale, not an automobile scale. “People are innately attracted to other people,” she says. “We like to sit and people watch.”
Rivera stayed in Cleveland through the Republican National Convention, where she saw the success of the design’s deeper goal of encouraging democracy.
“An open, calm environment with the noise of the water feature and the historic monuments around you — it brought down the tensions of the whole event,” she says. That’s the promise of the park, she adds: “It should be the place where everyone feels free to come and share their perspective in a democratic and respectful way.”
Today, new generations of Clevelanders have embraced Public Square as their reborn town common, the city’s sacred ground for free speech and public discourse. Since the Republican Convention, major protests have returned to Public Square, including the 2017 Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration, the pro-gun-control March for Our Lives in March 2018, and a festival at the end of Cleveland’s 2018 Pride parade.
“I think the redesign of the square has promoted more protests, as it should,” says Kerry McCormack, downtown Cleveland’s city councilman. “It’s more open. It makes more sense for large gatherings.”
Still, Public Square’s transformation is unfinished: Despite the best intentions of planners, it’s still hard for Cleveland to put pedestrians first. The city, pleased with the new park, considered keeping Superior Avenue closed to bus traffic, but local and federal transit officials said Cleveland would have to pay back federal grants worth millions if buses couldn’t come through the square.
Then the Department of Homeland Security, concerned about increased terrorist use of car bombs on crowds in public spaces, insisted on lining a reopened Superior with barriers. So the city has blocked the park’s diagonal pathways — and added a stoplight in the center to regulate pedestrian and bus traffic.
“This is a great unfinished work of art that we’re sitting in the middle of, that has never gotten a chance to fully function as designed,” says Dan Moulthrop, CEO of the City Club of Cleveland, sitting in the square’s terraced south end near a statue of Moses Cleaveland — and staring at the traffic light.
Despite its uncorrected flaw, Public Square’s redesign has accomplished most of its mission. Moulthrop’s organization, a free speech forum founded in 1912, has hosted several civic dialogues since the park’s renovation — including a series on “the power of place,” with Public Square as a prime example. Like other civic groups, the City Club tends to use the shaded lawn, rather than the Speakers’ Terrace, for events. Moulthrop says he doesn’t want to turn off the water feature near the terrace and deprive kids of a chance to play.
“The stage on the lawn over there: That’s a place that we’ve used a lot, and it’s perfect,” Moulthrop says.
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Meanwhile, the ongoing management of the park has accelerated downtown’s conversion into a neighborhood. The Group Plan Commission spends about $2 million a year on operations, maintenance, and programming, from yoga and “goat yoga” classes to kid-friendly activities near the wading pool. In winter, the pool becomes an ice-skating rink. Green-shirted “ambassadors” hired by the nonprofit Downtown Cleveland Alliance patrol the square to keep it safe and clean.
Benné Christian, 63, who has lived in Cleveland all her life, marveled at the park on a summer Sunday evening, when 2,000 people mingled for a 2018 Black Business Expo and Taste of Black Cleveland event. Around her, people grabbed burgers and Polish sausages, custom fruit arrangements, and fliers announcing an African-American playhouse’s new season.
“I love Public Square,” Christian says. “I’m truly thrilled to see the renovation. It’s got more green spaces, more spaces where people can commune.”
Across the square sat Tom L. Johnson’s statue, gazing south at the festival, as a little boy in a sky-blue shirt climbed his pedestal to stand at his knee. Johnson looked calm, curious, and satisfied — as if he knew that a new generation had revived his promise to the city. An inscription on the back of his pedestal notes that Johnson’s statue is “located on the spot he dedicated to the freedom of speech.”
Erick Trickey is a writer based in Boston and a former staffer at Cleveland Magazine.
Top image of a protester walking across the fountain at Public Square during the 2016 Republican National Convention by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
The public temper tantrum feels more commonplace than ever. But there’s a way to control it.
By Alix Strauss
My public meltdown happened on Black Friday of last year, when I found myself at a two-story Gap with a line of holiday shoppers that extended around the store — and no cashiers in sight. I calmly asked a manager to fill the unused registers, but ten minutes later, they remained deserted. Coffee- and carb-deprived, hot and sweaty, and now running late, I leaned over the balcony like Norma Desmond bellowing for her Max and called out to the manager, loudly demanding to know why no one was in charge, and didn’t they want to make the sale?
Many customers applauded; others nodded their approval. A few probably whispered to their friends that I needed a Valium, which I would have been delighted to accept, had someone offered. I faced no consequences, except for the shame of knowing what I had succumbed to: the increasingly common, impossible-to-ignore adult temper tantrum.
Generations ago, people raised their eyebrows over public displays of affection. Now, we’re overrun with public displays of emotion, which often become a one-two punch of bad behavior: passions that burn far out of proportion to the situation at hand, plus a willingness to share those feelings with everyone in the vicinity, or possibly the world.
“People are crying and screaming and having tantrums in what appears to be a public breakdown, and yet when people stop and say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ they don’t want to be questioned. They feel entitled to behave this way,” says Amanda Itzkoff, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
And the rest of us feel compelled to watch. YouTube is littered with videos of people screaming, hitting, and raging at each other — sometimes over a wrongly filled fast food order or a snagged parking space — that can garner four or five million views.
“The media promotes these bad behaviors, while reality TV is turning civilians into cartoon characters. Our emotions are becoming entertainment,” says Charles Coletta, a lecturer of pop culture and media at Bowling Green College.
Apart from the ample internet lists of “Top 10 Meltdowns of All Time,” there are few statistics on the rise of the public tantrum. But it feels like more and more people are losing their self-control, for smaller and smaller reasons. I was entering a Starbucks in Manhattan recently when I heard a woman screaming on the street. Tears exploded from her eyes, leaving a wet trail of black on her cheeks as she spewed angrily into her phone about how disrespected she felt.
Apparently, someone had stood her up for an appointment.
It’s hard to be proud of this new way of being. I wasn’t, seconds after my meltdown in the Gap, when remorse and a sense of foolishness flooded my system. Clearly, I could have handled myself better. Why didn’t I?
I posed that question to Marc Brackett, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. He told me that our inability to regulate emotions is no surprise: Many adults today haven’t had role models or guidance for proper ways of handling anger.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to learn about our emotional life in a systematic way. We’ve learned through happenstance and by watching our parents and people in public or on TV,” Brackett says. Without strategies to regulate our moods, he says, we’re more likely to dwell on “illuminating the injustice we feel, rather than focusing on solving the problem.”
At Yale, Brackett and fellow researchers developed a program that trains children to control their emotional barometers. Called RULER — which stands for “recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating”— it has been implemented in more than 1,500 classrooms, from preschool through high school, building an increasingly complex curriculum around a common language for emotions. Techniques include a color-coded “mood meter” on which kids can label their emotions in real-time: Red is angry or anxious; yellow is excited; blue is grumpy or sad; green is focused and confident.
“Your brain is filled with tools for making emotions, and with a little training, you can learn to use those tools like a skilled craftsperson.”
Adults may not have access to that kind of formal training. But a growing body of research suggests that we can still take charge of our responses, as long as we understand where they come from. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, a university distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University, says emotions aren’t forces that overtake us, but physical reactions we can learn to control.
“Your brain is filled with tools for making emotions, and with a little training, you can learn to use those tools like a skilled craftsperson,” says Barrett, the author of “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life the Brain.”
Barrett studied facial expressions and the vocabulary around emotions — her research showed, for example, that the concept of a “smile” didn’t exist until the Middle Ages — and developed a novel theory of how emotions work. The brain is prewired, she explains, to create simple feelings based on physiological changes in the body, such as pleasure, pain, calmness, and agitation. Emotions are your brain’s interpretation of those feelings, based on context and personal history.
“Your brain explains your bodily feelings, creating emotions in the blink of an eye, very automatically,” Barrett says. “In this way, emotions which seem to happen to you are actually made by you.”
So changing an emotional response, Barrett says, is a matter of changing the inputs. She advises people to develop a vocabulary of “emotion words,” which the brain can use to guess which reaction is right for a given situation — being able to shift, for instance, from “he hurt me” to “we have a disagreement.” And she urges people to cultivate new experiences, since “what you experience today will become the seeds for new predictions in the future.”
Learning to control our emotions internally takes work. Learning when to share them can be equally hard. Generations ago, Itzkoff notes, Americans waged a backlash against repression and pent-up feelings: “It’s all right to cry,” football player Rosey Grier told American children in the 1972 album “Free to Be…You and Me.” But decades later, reality TV brought an avalanche of shows that exploit and reward overexpression, inviting more of it.
Today, social media poses an even bigger challenge; it’s like an open bar to an alcoholic, pushing people toward impulsive responses. Individuals can’t seem to resist, even though they know how easy it is for people to scrutinize and share their social media moves — including employers and customers. In 2014, the Travel Channel postponed the premiere of its show “Man Finds Food” after the host went on a profane rant within the comments on Instagram, in a spat about fat-shaming that spun out of control. Earlier this year, the co-founder of cosmetics firm Deciem went rogue on the corporate Instagram account, threatening the company’s future.
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Like a real-life tantrum, a social media eruption has psychological — and physiological — roots. A post that gets a lot of views can actually lead to a dopamine high, says social media speaker and consultant Natalie Zfat.
“We’re used to experiencing that when we exercise, but research is showing that social media can trigger that same rush,” she says. “Social media is more about psychology than it is about technology. It’s really about how to elicit an emotional response out of an interaction.”
Zfat urges clients and audiences to choose their subjects carefully, post discreetly, and understand the limits of the medium.
“A social media feed is not a diary,” she says. “It’s not for emotional highs and lows that are usually reserved for one or two trusted friends.”
And anyone breathing anger instead of air, Zfat advises, should resist the urge to instantly comment, spew, tape, or upload. It’s like that old advice about tantrums: Take a deep breath and count to ten.
“Record what you want, or write out what you need to say,” she says. “But save it, don’t post it and wait until morning. By then you’ve removed yourself enough where you can reassess…whether or not you want to post your feelings and response for the world to see.”
After all, emotions are temporary. But the internet lingers on.
Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.
Illustration by Michael Workman/Experience Magazine. Photos from iStock.
Murray Horwitz joined the circus out of college — and got an education
By Natalie Pompilio
Murray the clown was feeling low.
The year was 1970, and Horwitz, then 21, was sitting in the clown car of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train parked in Syracuse, N.Y. His routines under the big top had been bombing and he was sharing his woes with fellow clown Mark “Zapata” Barragan, son and grandson of circus performers.
“I’m depressed. I’m not getting laughs,” Horwitz told him.
Zapata was thoughtful. “You know what’s wrong with you when you’re out there?”
Zapata did. “You’re trying to be funny.”
“Isn’t that the point?
“No, the point is to be yourself.”
And that night, under the big top, it happened. Horwitz went from being a bad clown to a good clown.
“It was like a switch had been flipped,” he says. “Before that night in Syracuse, I was always fretting and worrying. ‘Am I doing this right?’ ‘Is that correct?’ I was trying to call attention to myself, mugging, instead of being me.”
He mastered classic gags, like the clown car: in his case, a 1970 Gremlin stuffed with 26 performers.
Succeeding as a clown sounds like a dubious achievement at a time when clowning has, at best, lost its cachet — and at worst, become a kind of cultural joke. It has been more than a year since the Ringling Bros. circus took its final bow, its famed trains auctioned off or sold to scrap metal dealers. About a decade ago, the British health care system asked 250 patients ages 4 to 16 what they thought about the use of clowns in hospital decor: Every one of them said they disliked it, with even the older children calling it scary.
Coulrophobia — a fear of clowns — isn’t an official diagnosis, but still, people claim to have it: In a 2016 Vox survey of 2000 people, a third said they had at least a mild case of the phobia. The revival of Stephen King’s “It” last fall underscored the idea that clowns are creepy.
But in 1970, a guy could tell his parents he was going to run away to join the circus and they’d encourage him to do so. At the time, Bozo the Clown still had a TV show, mimes could draw non-hostile crowds, and traditional white-faced clowns advertised everything from hamburgers and soft drinks to cigarettes and beer. Circuses were cool, with crowds regularly packing the tents of traveling three-ring shows, the best known of which was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The experience of being in a Ringling show? Well, there was nothing in showbiz quite like it. And clowns, as P.T. Barnum said, were “the pegs on which the circus is hung.”
Horwitz was a senior majoring in English and Drama at Kenyon College when he decided to attend Ringling’s clown school in Venice, Florida. He figured he’d use the experience for a school project. He took a leave from Kenyon and threw himself into lessons in yoga, ballet, juggling, and tumbling.
He perfected his make-up and costuming, built props, and came up with jokes. He listened to lectures by master clowns, watched movies featuring the field’s best, and finessed his comic timing. He learned classic routines and ran them over and over, often to a stopwatch.
When he graduated from clown school in November 1969, and from Kenyon in May 1970, the Vietnam War was raging and the country needed laughs. With the encouragement of his parents, teachers, and friends — and the luxury of a high draft number — Horwitz joined a traveling Ringling troupe.
But the welcome he received from the other performers wasn’t exactly warm. He’d “joined out,” as circus folk term it, in the middle of a season, a no-no. He also had a Bachelor’s degree.
“They called me ‘Shakespeare’ and claimed I was the first college graduate to be a clown in the Ringing show, which cannot be true,” he says.
Another big problem? “I wasn’t good.”
But oh, how he tried. He was a “First of May” — a novice — but he quickly learned the lingo, hitting up the donniker, not the toilet; spending his alfalfa like it was paper money (it was); and enjoying after dinner aba-dabas in the cookhouse because clown costumes can hide a multitude of sins. Horwitz’s costume was a school boy’s uniform, a nod to that slip of paper he’d received from Kenyon, with short pants, big lapels, and a cartoonish oversized baseball cap. He let his chestnut hair grow untamed. He didn’t paint his face white, but he did use make-up to exaggerate his features.
And yet he didn’t really have “it” — the good kind of it, not the Stephen King kind — until that fateful night in Syracuse.
From there, Horwitz’s clowning got better and better. He fine-tuned his walk-arounds, distracting pockets of the crowd with tricks between acts.
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He mastered classic gags, like the clown car: in his case, a 1970 Gremlin stuffed with 26 performers. “There’s a system but I’m not going to tell you how we do it,” says Horwitz, admitting he was banned from driving the vehicle after an unfortunate incident while performing in Miami. (No clowns were injured.)
He was part of the levitation skit, in which a “magician” elevates another clown, until the truth — the levitating clown is lifting his upper body and a pair of fake legs under a blanket — seems to be accidentally revealed. He was the anchor in the balloon chase gag, a clown relay race that ends with every balloon popped and a very angry balloon salesman.
Soon, he was a “producing clown,” responsible for writing and directing gags himself. He co-wrote a skit that had one clown depositing dirty dishes in a box that the other would remove completely clean. The reveal was that there was a dog inside licking the plates.
The performance schedule was grueling — twice a day, three times on Saturday — but it was also the secret to success, Horwitz says. Repetition and close collaboration taught him to be both disciplined and relaxed, a mainstay of comedy, “being tight while seeming loose.”
“With experience, successful experience, comes confidence, and that gives you the moxie…to go out there and take on the audience,” he says.
As the circus wanes, and the current comic aesthetic has replaced wide-eyed wonder with jaundiced observation, it’s easy to see clowning as a lost art. But Horwitz notes that clowns have taken different forms over the years, from court jesters to touring vaudevillians to modern stand-up comics and improv performers. The constant, he says, is art that “redeems the sins of the community through laughter, by pointing out human foolishness and failure.”
There’s still a demand for classic clowns in places like hospitals – just not in the U.K., apparently — and nursing homes, where residents crave attention and personal interaction, says Tricia Manuel, a former Ringling Bros. clown who founded the Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp in Minnesota.
And clown training has value well beyond the circus, says Dominique Jando, who teaches classic European clowning at San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory.
“You learn timing; how to interact with partners and your audience; how to react and improvise; how to express yourself clearly and simply; how to not be afraid of being vulnerable,” he says. “All these qualities can be useful to a straight actor, a comedian, and to anyone else in life.”
Murray the professional clown spent three seasons with Ringling Bros., a long stint when some young performers barely lasted one or weren’t invited back. He was a good clown, he thinks, realizing about 80 percent of his clown potential. But he figured it would take him another 20 years to pick up that 20 percent.
And he wanted to write. So he left the circus in 1972, moved to New York and a few years later co-wrote the Broadway musical “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” winning a Tony Award. Since then, he’s written lyrics for the opera “The Great Gatsby;” created the NPR show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me;” and came up with the idea for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a college roommate of his son’s, has said he’s in Horwitz’s debt for the gift of his first rhyming dictionary.
Now, at 68, Horwitz still writes — another play he co-wrote, “RFK: The Journey to Justice,” was recently heard on the radio via Public Radio Exchange — and creates stage shows as artist-in-residence at Washington Performing Arts. He also hosts WAMU’s “The Big Broadcast,” a collection of vintage radio shows from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
But that 1970s training still looms large in his memory: “Those years on the Ringling show were some of the best of my life.”
On a military base, there’s plenty of support for families. But not always for their politics.
By A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez
“Let’s have a police appreciation event. I’m so sick of hearing about that stupid nonsense of NFL players kneeling,” a woman said, rolling her eyes, at the police community information meeting near the Air Force base where I live.
Sitting a few rows ahead of her, I told myself that I should have stayed home. I had come to this Police and Community Together event at the invitation of the police chief, whom I’d met at a local anti-racism workshop. I’d hoped to be a bridge between the black community and the military. I was reminded, again, that straddling these two worlds isn’t easy.
On our Midwestern base, where many airmen are military police, servicemen go to great lengths to show they “back the boys in blue.” Blue striped flags hang from front porches, trucks are adorned with Blue Lives Matter paraphernalia, and condemnation of law enforcement is met with self-righteous anger.
As I follow news stories about police brutality, and see the negative reactions on the base to #takeaknee and Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ads, it’s hard to find my place. But this is also the only place where people understand the challenges of my daily life as a military spouse. And that matters, too.
I am expected to be either against Black Lives Matter or anti-police — to conform to one way of thinking, or be seen as un-American.
There are about 328 million American citizens, 252 million of them over the age of 18. Only 3.5 million join the United States military. My husband — then boyfriend — became one of them nearly five years ago, when we were both college students.
He joined the Air Force, in part, because he found it hard to navigate a Math/Computer Science double major while working full-time (and overtime) in the retail sector. He also hoped to continue a family legacy. All three of his parents — biological and step — had served in the armed forces, along with two of his siblings and a handful of his uncles. My own family has a similar record of service.
The United States military has afforded us many opportunities. It allowed my husband to use his skills for a larger purpose and it has allowed me to experience life outside of my cultural bubble. But the sacrifice is more profound than previous generations understood. For my husband, there are threats of physical and mental harm. For me, there are months of separation, bouts of single parenting, and limited knowledge of my husband’s job.
Fellow military families understand this, and support each other through it. The spouses hold a wealth of knowledge and will bend over backward to suggest solutions for some of the most confusing aspects of military life. I’ve gone to an online spouse group many times to ask questions about managing stress while parenting alone, or how to move off-base with an absent husband.
I’ll never forget the time I posted that I was having an extremely hard day and was on the verge of breaking. It was “TDY” season, when airmen prepare to leave home on temporary duty, and my husband was just as stressed as I was. One spouse saw my post and asked, “Can I bring you some food?” We didn’t speak much afterward, but the act of solidarity and understanding meant the world to me. Military culture is filled with gestures like these; our families have a way of understanding the unspoken elements of each other’s stress.
And yet there have been many times when I’ve felt alone. The U.S. military was one of the first American institutions to integrate.More than 1 million African Americans were inducted into the armed forces during WWII. Their contributions prompted the military to reevaluate its racial policies. In 1948, President Truman signed an executive order desegregating the U.S. armed forces. But a change in policy didn’t change attitudes, and the continued negative treatment was enough to trigger decreased enrollment from black servicemen. Today, fewer than a third of military members identify as people of color.
Recently, the Air Force has grappled with accusations of hiring bias against airmen of color. But the quiet cultural differences are challenging, too. Today, overt racism is socially unacceptable. But black service members and their families still face bias, intentional and unintentional.
I’ve been the only person of color in the room when someone felt it was appropriate to make racist jokes — or to express expertise on race issues thanks to their one black friend.
I’ve learned not to befriend some other military spouses on social media, out of fear that they’d fill my timeline with non-fact-checked hate speech.
The biggest barrier, I’ve found, is the way political discourse is dominated by “either/or” dynamics. I’m often shocked at the number of people who assume that now that we are a military family, we are fully on the side of law enforcement in cultural issues. I am expected to be either against Black Lives Matter or anti-police — to conform to one way of thinking, or be seen as un-American.
But I shouldn’t be forced to choose between speaking out about dismantling racism and developing relationships with other spouses. And current service members and veterans shouldn’t be expected to choose between the risks they face in uniform and the identity they represent in plain clothes.
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Thankfully, veterans of all races have come forward to support NFL players’ right to protest — understanding that these players are exercising their freedom of speech in honor of the armed forces, not as an insult. I only wish more military families would see their protests the way I do.
In the meantime, my husband and I occupy an uncomfortable middle ground. He is celebrated as a hero while in uniform but labeled a threat as a civilian. He is expected to remain silent about that irony for risk of being associated with the enemy.
I hold down the household and try to bridge the gap. My base is filled with love and kindness, but also with people who can’t empathize with the stress that comes with being one of few black Air Force families. I’m forever grateful for my communities. I just wish I could find more people who understand both of them.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez writes about race, health, and reproduction for The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and other publications.
There’s the standard way to do feminism. Or there’s punk rock.
By Joan Anderman
Photos by Gretchen Ertl
Carolyn Zagame doesn’t want to be here, in this scruffy community arts center near the outer edges of Boston. She wanders glassy-eyed past the plastic tubs of earplugs and a banner screaming TEAR THE PATRIARCHY DOWN, her long down coat zipped tight. Normally on a Friday morning she would be puttering at home, chatting on the phone, reading the Bible. But her daughter Ali begged and cajoled for nearly a year, and Zagame finally caved. That’s why, instead of tending to familiar tasks in her small town in Central Massachusetts, Zagame is entering the bubble.
No one quite knows how to talk about the bubble, how to make peace with the idea of it, because bubbles are usually bad news — they stand for swimming in a sea of sameness, fingers in our ears to block out the noise of competing ideas and uncomfortable truths. But the bubble officially known as Ladies Rock Camp is different. To begin with, it’s noisy as fuck, and “fuck,” by far the most popular word here, is generally uttered in unison at high volume to describe the proper response to the status quo. In this bubble, there is no such thing as a bad idea, or a mistake, or even a rule. Uncomfortable truths are received with open hearts and more Cheese Balls than you can imagine. Sounds simple enough. In fact it’s fraught, but then so is rock and roll, which is technically what the campers have signed up for.
Between Friday morning and Sunday night a group of 43 women, no music experience required, will form a band, learn an instrument, write a song, and perform it in front of a packed house at a nightclub. That’s 72 hours from newbie to headliner. On paper it sounds impossible, but it has been done, again and again, for eight years in Boston — twice every spring, including on this chilly weekend in March, when Zagame and her fellow campers file in.
Pretty much every inch of the three-story community center, which bears the fitting name of Spontaneous Celebrations, has been refashioned into a clubhouse/playground/shrine to rock and roll, generally, and female rockers, specifically. The cavernous upper floor, dubbed the Rock Room, is ringed with drum kits and plastered ceiling to floor with photos of female musicians, from Billie Holiday to the Slits to Bjork to Taylor Swift. Every few feet a hand-scrawled genre sign is tacked to the wall: FOLK, METAL, INDIE, RAP, GOTH, GLAM, NEW WAVE, COUNTRY, GARAGE, NOISE, TECHNO, POP, PUNK. Posters in iris-searing shades of pink and yellow have been placed ad hoc; there’s one balancing on the back of a sofa, one stashed against a speaker, another teetering on an easel, beaming out the program’s slogans and mission statements. It’s as if a zine came to life and we are spending the weekend in it.
Campers have signed up for instruction in specific instruments: the guitarists receive their lessons in a light-drenched art studio, while keyboardists use tiny, freezing practice rooms in the basement, reached by descending a steep staircase and body slamming a meat-locker-style door. As far as I can tell, this is the only form of injustice at Ladies Rock Camp. On the ground floor, renamed the Jungle Room for its animal-festooned curtains, someone has hung a heavy plastic sheet to bisect the space, creating the Bass Cave. All three floors are bursting with donated gear, in clusters, stacks, and mounds: dozens of amps, cables, drums, pedals, power strips, microphones, Midi controllers, instruments, picks, sticks, cymbal bags, finger tape — everything the campers and volunteer staff will need for a three-day music intensive.
Except that this isn’t only a music intensive. It might not even primarily be a music intensive. It’s a feminist organization disguised as a music camp. One of its purposes is to raise money for Girls Rock Campaign Boston, a series of summer and after school music programs for teens and tweens. Another is to give women — including trans and gender non-conforming participants — an experience that hinges on risk-taking, rewards self-expression, and rejects the notion of perfection. Not to disparage the well-trod feminist watering holes, the panel discussions and Twitter hashtags and Lean In Circles, but doing something this bold and this public requires a level of badassery — more to the point, instills a level of badassery — that sets Ladies Rock Camp apart. In my long career writing about music, it is perhaps the most punk rock thing I’ve witnessed.
You’re a natural revolutionary just by being female and living in this world. Why? Because guess who made up the rules. That’s Hilken Mancini, the Ladies Rock Camp co-founder and program director, speaking at morning assembly on the first day of camp. We wake up every day, we go to our jobs, feed our kids, walk our dogs, and we don’t really think about it all the time, but we’re punk rock just by being alive. None of this would work without her. She paces the Rock Room, clipboard in hand, words tumbling out by the fistful. Punk isn’t a purple mohawk and ripped fishnets, punk is thinking for yourself. It’s looking at the status quo and going no thanks, I don’t want that, I’m going to do it this way. Picture the silliest combination of clothes you can imagine. Pink tights and gym shorts. Clashing knee socks and a bedazzled fanny pack. That’s what she’s wearing. That’s a really hard thing to do. It’s hard because we have been living it for a very long time, and it’s hard to see in your everyday life that you’re not supposed to look like anything, you’re not supposed to do anything, you’re not supposed to be this thing that they put on you every day.
We know this and we don’t. Rather, we have to learn it again and again. It’s why so many campers and volunteers return year after year. Full disclosure: In early 2016 I received an email from Mancini, whom I knew casually from covering the local music scene as rock critic for the Boston Globe. A band coach for the upcoming session had to drop out at the last minute and they were looking for someone to replace her. She wondered if I was interested and available. It seemed like a joke. I had formed my first band only two years previously, at the age of 56. I was learning to play guitar, figuring out how to write songs, wrestling with stage fright and many of the questions Ladies Rock Camp tries to answer in the loud-as-fuck affirmative: Do I have the right to make noise and be imperfect and be myself?
I also worried that, as a critic, I wouldn’t be able to conjure the unbridled support that is a pillar of the experience. I couldn’t even say that I believed, as one of Mancini’s foundational slogans goes, that every shriek, every chord, is awesome. What if it’s just cheerleading? As it turns out, I am a believer. I know it because I entered the bubble that spring, and the next one and the one after that, where I experienced firsthand the transformational power of conviction.
After Mancini’s opening speech, each of the campers, seated in a large circle on the floor of the Rock Room, answers the question, “Why are you here?”
I’ve been wanting to sing in a band since I was a kid.
I’m here because I get the message every day that I’m not good enough.
My BFF said it was life-changing and that you’re not the same person when you walk out.
I’m nervous all the time.
I turned a big age this year and I want to get way way way way out of my comfort zone.
I’m a perfectionist and I’m here so I don’t have to be.
I’m here for the sixth time because the world is a toilet and for three days I can pretend it’s not.
I said to my friend that if Girls Rock Camp had existed when I was young my life would be so different. She said it can be different now.
I was very resistant. I have no musical ability. None at all.
That last answer, or non-answer, is Carolyn Zagame’s. Tiny, tidy, and fiercely traditional, she is looking at her hands, which are folded in her lap. It’s hard to imagine her crashing in a roach-infested apartment in Brighton with a bunch of roommates while attending Boston College, but back then, in the early ‘80s, Zagame was as ambitious as she was broke. She studied hard, graduated with honors, and began moving up the corporate ladder, dreaming of the penthouse she would one day buy for herself.
She was a young sales manager at a company that made fiber optic products for turbine planes when her boss began sexually harassing her. Two weeks after being summoned to his hotel room on a business trip — it didn’t go well, Zagame says — she was laid off. Her self-esteem tanked and her mother’s words, the drumbeat of a generation, came to her with crushing force. “‘Don’t worry about brains. You’re small and you’re pretty, you’ll find a husband to take care of you.’ That’s what she told me all my life.” And that’s what Zagame did. She never returned to the workplace, finding meaning in motherhood and, eventually, her faith. The feelings of worthlessness that derailed her professional career were long gone, or so she thought. Then she became the keyboard player in Fallen Petals.
The mechanics of band formation, which follows morning assembly on the first day, is confounding. To begin, campers are instructed to stand under the genre sign that best represents their favorite music. Then they’re told to walk to their second favorite genre. For a while all bodies are in motion, bouncing in slo-mo off the walls of the Rock Room, clumping and dispersing like electrons following the mysterious law of musical attraction. You can see women weighing their tastes, second-guessing decades of fandom. As the mood grows more confused, the women are specifically instructed to not freak out. There are nine drummers in the room; shortly there will be nine new bands in the world. Each will spend the weekend with a pair of coaches, who are also wandering around the Rock Room in pre-determined teams, waiting for a look or a vibe or a random act of proximity to match them with their charges.
Grace Buchanan, who is 50, looks significantly less alarmed than some of the other first-timers, maybe because she has done crazy things before, like enrolling in comedy school for the sole purpose of surviving the end of her marriage. A software architect with tattooed calves and a graying pompadour, she describes herself as “a bit outgoing,” which is like saying Bikini Kill is a bit punk. Like many of the women here, Buchanan learned about Ladies Rock Camp from a friend who went and wouldn’t shut up about it. Buchanan played French horn and trombone in high school, but these days she gets her kicks singing along to Erasure and Eurythmics, so she signed up to do vocals at camp.
Here’s how Buchanan describes the process: “I stood between GARAGE and GLAM for a while and then I walked around looking for 80s ALTERNATIVE or 70s ROCK and a few other women were nearby and then someone came up to me and said ‘do you want to sing in our band?’ and suddenly I was like ‘what is happening?’” Half an hour after band formation, Buchanan and the four other members of the newly-constituted Girl Skull are huddled in a corner of the Jungle Room having their first Quiet Band Practice, when groups make whatever progress they can writing a song without plugging in.
To start, a coach encouraged them to map out what they wanted to say. “We had been talking about how few women there are in metal, and the shit they go through, and the common thread was how we don’t want the next generation of girls to have to go through that,” Buchanan says. “One of my bandmates said we need to kick the door open. And I was like, yes. That.”
Rock music can be really dumb. Also: coarse, plain, raw, wanton, blunt, and rough. The 10,000 hours of practice we’re told is requisite simply doesn’t apply. That’s not to say there aren’t virtuosic practitioners who make rock music of the highest caliber, just that there are things that matter more than experience or precision. Early on the second day, Boston-based tunesmith Merrie Amsterburg is in the Jungle Room delivering a laid-back master class in songwriting. All you need, she explains, scratching at her guitar, is three chords and a lot of attitude. Heads start to nod, in recognition, in relief. Campers are sitting on the edge of their folding chairs. Amsterburg begins to sing in her otherworldly soprano.
I saw him dancin’ there by the record machine
I knew he musta been about seventeen
The beat was goin’ strong
Playin’ my favorite song.
By the time she gets to the chorus everyone in the room is singing along, including Carolyn Zagame, who has tiptoed from the back row to the front. She knows all the words.
I love rock ’n roll
Put another dime in the jukebox, baby
I love rock ’n roll
So come an’ take your time an’ dance with me.
Actually, Amsterburg goes on, all you need is two chords. Or less. There’s “Joy,” a song by Lucinda Williams made of a single chord and a truckload of grit.
I don’t want you anymore
Cause you took my joy
I don’t want you anymore
Cause you took my joy
You took my joy
I want it back
You took my joy
I want it back.
Hilken Mancini has felt it herself, that conviction and productive rage. Mancini, 48, once thought she would be a dancer, but midway through her sophomore year at Boston Conservatory she traded her toe shoes for an electric guitar. What she lacked in know-how Mancini made up in zealotry. She dropped out of school, bleached her hair, spent her evenings in rock clubs and her days working at Tower Records, where she met another female rocker named Chris Toppin and the pair formed Fuzzy, one of the celebrated bands to come out of Boston’s ‘90s alt-rock scene. Mancini’s career took off. She settled into a long-term relationship with Fuzzy’s bass player and created Punk Rock Aerobics, a popular fitness regime for anyone who was ever picked last for kickball, according to the companion book. Everything was great.
In rock there’s one thing that matters more than cunning or speed or experience or precision, and that’s conviction.
Fast forward 13 years. Fuzzy is finished, the bass player has left her, and Punk Rock Aerobics has imploded. “I was freaked out,” Mancini says. “I knew I wasn’t going to have a baby and a normal life, but it felt weird and awful to say goodbye to all that. It was a really hard time. I was feeling pretty crazy. Then I went to girls rock camp in Portland and it blew my mind.”
Chance, destiny, karma, call it what you will: timing is everything. Just as Mancini’s life was falling apart, the organizers at the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for GirlsThe camp grew out of founder Misty McElroy’s project as a women’s studies major at Portland State University. There are now Girls Rock Camps in more than 40 American cities.in Portland, Oregon asked her to bring Punk Rock Aerobics to their summer program. Away she went, in emotional tatters, into a community of women — including Nora Allen-Wiles, a college intern and activist who would become the co-founder and executive director of Girls Rock Campaign Boston. All of them fortified Mancini with the sheer force of their radical support. They wanted her to run assemblies. She said no way. She didn’t even know their theme song. She would definitely throw up. The night before camp started, Mancini was handed a script and told she would be fine. “85 girls were coming the next day so I did it, because that’s the ethos. I believe in you. I believe in you. I started to be, like, I can do this in Boston.”
I-believe-in-you ethos notwithstanding, Fallen Petals is struggling to play the bouncy retro-pop tune the group is working on at Saturday afternoon’s Loud Band Practice. The Ladies Rock Camp curriculum is designed to arm novices with the rudimentary tools to write a part for their song — choose a few notes or chords, make up a melody, bash out a beat. Carolyn Zagame has settled on her three notes; the problem is counting. “Is it F, 1, 2, 3, 4? Or is it F, 2, 3, 4? This is challenging for me, you guys!”
Despite her reticence to come to camp, Zagame has loosened up. Cheerful is clearly her baseline, and in a community that skews toward the fluid and the pierced, Zagame, in her favorite beige sweater and unironic mom jeans, has become the unlikely life of the party. “You guys are so cool!” she keeps saying. “I’m just trying to survive over here!” Her demeanor is jocular but there’s a frantic undertow. She grabs a tambourine and shakes it wildly over her head. “Maybe your coolness will rub off on me!” The band coaches have seen it before. Saturday afternoon is when things start feeling real, when the fun idea of Ladies Rock Camp morphs into the alarming realization that tomorrow is show day. Practice is almost over and the band decides to try to get through the song without stopping. JC and Mona, Fallen Petals’ coaches, do everything they can to be supportive, stationing themselves on either side of Zagame’s keyboard, one of them holding up fingers to count beats and the other calling out the names of the notes. Still, it’s rough going, and not just for the keyboardist. Zagame bursts into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Saying I’m sorry at Ladies Rock Camp is like quaffing beer at an AA meeting. Mancini has developed chants and cheers in an effort to cure the campers, not to mention the coaches and instructors and administrators and, truth be told, herself, of the knee-jerk impulse to apologize for their mistakes, which, you’ll recall, theoretically don’t exist here. But of course they do. Which brings us to a game Mancini calls Power Pose.A 2010 study co-authored by Harvard University psychologist Amy Cuddy and popularized in a blockbuster TED talk found certain physical stances can lead to changes in body chemistry that boost confidence.
When you’re on stage there are gonna be things you’re worried about. We’re gathered in the Rock Room at assembly. Am I gonna be good enough? Can I do this? I’m uncomfortable in my body. That’s why we’re gonna play Power Pose. Mancini plays this game with the youngsters at Girls Rock Camp, too. It comes in handy at all ages. All our lives, whenever we do anything wrong, we’re so apologetic for making a mistake, for taking up space, we’re like ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry!’ Her voice sails up into ultra femme range on that last part. How many of you are nervous about making a mistake? Queasy laughter ripples across the room. Yeah. How many of you are nervous about disappointing your band? Murmurs of assent. Of course. We all feel that way. But we don’t care if you make a mistake. We love you when you when make a mistake. If you drop that pick, roll into it. Mancini pulls a pick from her pocket, flings it to the ground, and tucks into an awkward somersault. If you drop a drumstick, jump over your kit. She leaps over an imaginary drum. Boys get that from the start. Go for it, run, fall, scream, spit, sweat. We’re told to stand up straight and get good grades. Her pacing has grown purposeful. Fervent. I want you to make that mistake bigger. Be our heroes, for our girls and for each other. I want you to find the pose that makes you feel comfortable and good. I don’t care what it is. Stand up.
Attitude, the mission-critical element that Merrie Amsterburg talks about in her songwriting workshop, the one that allows scrappy punk bands to take the world by storm, Grace Buchanan has got it. Once Girl Skull stumbled onto the idea of kicking the door open, she says, “I barfed up those lyrics and 15 minutes later we had the song.” For the next two days, “Kick the Door Open (For the Girls Behind)” drifts under the door of Studio D, down in the basement, getting louder and charging harder by the hour.
Measure the ankles, the calves, the thighs
Don’t eat anything that will alter your size
Don’t be loud, don’t be strong
If you’re not docile then you’re just plain wrong.
A little voice in Buchanan’s head is growing louder, too. It’s her mother’s voice, telling her this isn’t the kind of music she should be singing. “This is her worst nightmare,” Buchanan says. “Me in a black T-shirt shrieking in a band.” Everyone is living with ghosts.
Sounds emanating from the practice rooms are building, ineffably, not toward something finished or polished but with a collective energy that feels closer to faith. Remember the levitation game that was popular at kids’ slumber parties, where someone lays flat on the floor and the others place one or two fingertips underneath her limbs while chanting light as a feather, stiff as a board, over and over, until the prone body, miraculously weightless, is lifted off the ground? That kind of faith.
Even as it deepens faith is tested. The self-doubt that Carolyn Zagame figured was ancient history has returned with a vengeance. At practice, she lowers her head and through tears recites a checklist. “I’m just worried I’m gonna look so stupid up there. I really do like the shadows. I never wanted to be on stage.” She looks ready to bail, at least for a breather, maybe forever, but agrees to run the tune one more time before breaking to attend an afternoon workshop (the choices are Rebel Yell Yoga, Conquering the Stage, and DIY Music Creation). Despite the emotional turmoil, or possibly because of it, Zagame and her bandmates look at each other instead of their hands while playing, a risk that pays off. The song is sort of hanging together. This is no small feat; everyone is struggling to remember their parts and keep the tempo. As if on cue, a volunteer pokes her head in the door and apologizes for barging in but she happened to be wandering by and heard the song and just had to tell them how happy it made her feel.
Temporarily restored, Zagame heads off to yoga, but a couple of hours later, between workshops and dinner, she has another meltdown, up in the Rock Room. It comes out of nowhere. In a flash she’s surrounded by a handful of campers and coaches and someone goes off to fetch her daughter, Ali, who joins the huddle. The circle around Zagame grows closer and tighter.
That night, after Mexican food, there’s a surprise dress rehearsal, when each of the bands performs its song on stage in the Rock Room. During Fallen Petals’ performance, Ali is at the lip of the stage with her mouth hanging open, snapping pictures. After they finish, Fallen Petals, like all the bands, exits the stage to ear-splitting shouts of “Holy shit! Holy shit! Holy shit!” Zagame, looking stunned, falls into her daughter’s arms. “Her determination and her willingness amazes me,” says Ali. “I had to twist her arm at first but she’s coming out of her shell. I believe this will change her life.”
It’s been a long day. Instead of returning to her hotel as planned, though, Zagame commandeers the Saturday night dance party. She drops to her knees and launches into an impromptu Kazatsky, the Russian folk dance, squatting and kicking with her arms folded in front of her. The room erupts, in shock, in delight, in the knowledge that badasses walk among us, even if we can’t see them. Even if they can’t see themselves.
It’s show day. There’s a final instruction session and a short band practice. A pair of stylists from a local salon comes in to give the campers cool hairdos and a photographer spirits each band away to a stairwell or the street to snap promo photos. A few hours later, just before the doors to Once Ballroom open to the public, the campers pile into the club’s kitchen, some in glitter and heels, others in jeans and T-shirts, everyone pressed shoulder to shoulder and quivering with nerves and excitement.
Mancini and Allen-Wiles hoist themselves up onto a metal countertop to deliver the pre-show pep talk, crouching to keep from hitting their heads on the ceiling. Mancini is beside herself, exalting the women for their courage and their heart. She promises them that magic is going to happen on stage tonight. She believes so hard I think she could lift the whole room up with her pinky finger. But Allen-Wiles delivers the gut punch.
You can’t forget this. You have to wake up tomorrow morning, even though you’re not putting on your lanyard, you’re not coming back to rock camp, you have to walk back into your job or wherever your life is and say what to the status quo? FUCK YOU. You can’t go back the same. You have to treat women differently. Every day. You have to smile at women on the street. Tell them that you notice them, that they matter, because that’s where it starts. And then you build it and you build it and you build it.
If I could, I would explain exactly how the exhausted campers muscling through the final band practice at Spontaneous Celebrations turned into the rock goddesses on stage at Once, but Mancini is right. It feels like magic. I’m not just talking about the devil-horns hand gestures Carolyn Zagame hurls at the crowd like she’s the mother of all metal, although that sight alone is worth the price of admission, or Grace Buchanan’s pulverizing performance of “Kick the Doors Open (For the Girls Behind),” a bona fide anthem that should be heard around the world. I’m talking about nine swaggering baby bands, loaded with personality and armed with lyrics like pages ripped from a diary or a manifesto or a long-buried volume of poetry that might never have seen the light of day were it not for three insane days in the bubble.
Leaving can be hard. It’s also the point. The idea of Ladies Rock Camp isn’t to keep the rest of the world at bay, but to expand the bubble, make it bigger and bigger until the whole world is in it. Sometimes that means walking away with a piece of that punk-rock conviction and playing it, like a loud guitar, in your regular life. I asked around and heard about campers who had left with newfound courage to end a bad relationship, request a raise, form a band, stop hating their bodies.
But it’s not always that simple or direct. It’s not always a transformation that instantly changes a life forever. Sometimes it’s just a persistent memory, like an earworm reverberating inside a former camper’s head. Carolyn Zagame returned to her hometown, to family, to church, to her routine. When I asked her what will stay with her from camp, her voice took on a tone of reverence. “I did something I never thought I could do. I surprised myself,” she said. “This, I think, is what I’ll carry with me.”
Joan Anderman is a writer based in Boston and a member of the band Field Day.