While California Burns

Trying to argue myself out of bed this morning—dreaded d.j. (day job) on the horizon—which is now deducting a little over a third of my pay, what with increased mandatory contributions to a retirement fund I’ll never be able to use. In that dawn between dreams and the day, I have strayed into The Loop…

How great would it be if I lived in a place where I could just go out and find an apartment—or any functional space with live/work capacity—that only costs one third of my take-home pay??

(As opposed to the increasingly oppressive, drowning, suffocating, strangling two thirds I’m paying now…)

Wait! How great would it be if one third of my take-home pay covered food, transportation, internet access, phone, power, insurance, medicine?

canvas. paint.


a vacation.

visits to my family.

time in Mexico.

education. workshops. new skills.



Wait! Back that up!  

How great would it be if ART was my JOB? If this was a place that thought art had a place, and I could just get up every day and go do my JOB…

How great would it be to develop just one career?  argue with just one exploitative employer about salary and benefits?  have only one structure to understand and fit into and try to make work to my advantage?

No wait! Back that up FURTHER!!  

HOW GREAT WOULD IT BE to be able to GO TO SCHOOL IN ART?   and come out with the KNOWLEDGE AND THE NETWORK,  and   …given that my education would’ve cost as much as that of any doctor or lawyer or MBA… receive an EQUIVALENT SALARY from my ART JOB??

And I could afford to pay back my educational debt within my lifetime?

And I could still get up every morning and GO TO MY ONE JOB:   ART?!!!…

What if I lived in an alternate universe? What’s the point in chewing on these things? This is how the world I live in is constructed. This, that I’m living right now, is the result of that which I can shape and effect, and that which I can’t shape and effect. This is how it is. Then again, it’s my job as an artist, to chew on how things are, right? (Irony intended.)
So I ask myself to answer questions I have an answer for.
Why have I worked for UC? In the majority of time I have spent as an “arts professional” of one kind or another, why has UCSF been my day job? Especially given that the financial side of that equation has been, undeniably, lousy.
And I actually have an answer to that. Because, if I have to give away half my time, if I have to direct my creative energies, my incisive insights, my directedness and ability to see the  big and small in things and map them out and bring them to fruition, my ability to deal with geniuses, bullies, ego-maniacs, dopes and just-folks, and get them to work effectively together—if I have to give away my juice to something other than art—then I’d at least like to bring that to bear on something worthwhile.  I’d at least like to imagine that, at the end of the day, when I look at the sum of my efforts, half was not thrown away on something I didn’t believe in, honor, or wish to help flourish in the world.
In America, there is a cost to that side of the social equation. We don’t pay the purveyors of good works, and we do so less and less in our more and more profit-driven culture. Good works are the heart-children of the martyred or the wealthy.
In the Montana where I grew up, we thought all “rich” people were evil. Because the only “rich” people there were largely the robber barons, the owners of mines, refineries and lumber operations (though more accurately, mostly the managers employed by the owners of mines, refineries and lumber operations). It was assumed the “rich” got their filthy lucre through some form of dirty dealing, ugly opportunism, the oppression of those with nothing, or all of the above. Non-profits—the good works of the better-off —largely in the interest of the less-well-off, of a  better society, to help the poor, to bring the artistic to and out of average folks, to address un-addressed wrongs, to provide legal or medical or social help to those who need it and can’t pay for it…those organizations barely existed. It might be fair to say they didn’t exist in Montana when I lived there. And I’m pretty sure there has been no non-profit boom in the conservative-leaning state in the interim, despite the population boom of the Hollywood-rich (though there may be more access for people with my interests than before, and that counts).
There was art in the public schools. And music. And theater. And journalism. And marching band, and dance team. So if you could get your fill by the time you graduated high school, you were set. If you needed more, you needed to move on.
So I moved on. To the dual life so romanticized in my college text-books—Kafka’s brilliant, twisted tales, a product of his insurance clerking; Van Gogh’s failed attempts at civilian occupations engendering a fevered artistic output that, in striving to find his voice, his place, to legitimize those failures, left us one of the world’s most compelling bodies of art; Sylvia Plath, with her legendary unquiet balance between creating poetry and the mundane demands diluting her energies—a cautionary tale for us all. (Mind you, it never even occurred to me to question why so many didn’t trod that path, why, say, Meryl Streep never did commercials. Answer: because she didn’t have to.)
I landed, half by circumstance, half by affinity, at an educational “non-profit.” I went to UCSF, fresh from teaching public school, only a few years out from hospital jobs to pay for college (both outside-circulating in an O.R. and housekeeping), overqualified, and immediately undervalued. I resented the dishonest way my skills were classified and underpaid, but I liked the breadth of characters I met there, I liked the level of discourse, I liked the safety of my “otherness,” which was a nice balance to the constantly shifting relationships and competition of theater. UC always claimed its benefits package as its justification for underpaying staff, and I guess I appreciated seeing a good dentist. So I struggled with the economics, and over more than a decade, I found various roles within that system. I worked from almost the lowest administrative classification possible, through temp work preparing grants, and into management of a major cross-disciplinary AIDS research program. I left for ten years, and returned a bit over a year ago.
Across that time, I developed a treasured collection of friends, conscientious, dedicated Real-Worlders, civilians from the academic side of my life. I am lucky for it. Those who have had the stomach to stick around have been the more consistent figures in my life. They have supported my art, both materially and intellectually. My conversations with them spur as much creativity as my conversations with the dwindling ranks of friends still in “the service,” still Other-Worlders. Over the decade when I stepped completely away from the dual life—when ART was my JOB!—when, ready or not, even while I was still teaching myself the basics, I lived almost exclusively by and for my painting, my civilian friends took me to lunches and dinners, occasionally timed purchases of work to exquisitely coincide with the date the rent was due, housed me at times, invited my perspective as an artist to their tables at moments when I couldn’t see any possible value in it myself. My friends in the service have scattered to the four corners of the earth, gone wherever doing what we do seems most doable, and each of us struggles with that duality of our lives—or triality or quadrality, if you add in any additional factor of love, work, support, responsibility…
So maybe the pain is as much the looming truth that California is crashing, and my recently-resumed, fragile, barely-functional but decades-old relationship with UCSF, along with it. And where does one go next, in a whole society that’s crashing, awash in 40-, 50-, and 60-something “displaced workers,” willing/forced to work for less? Not to mention, of course, all the freshly minted high-school, college and art-school grads looking for their place? How does all that factor into keeping the dual boat afloat…as solitary ancient mariner? Even if this is needed evidence that dreaded d.j.’s take more than they provide at this point in life, so what? What’s the alternative? If UC is crashing, it is only further evidence that the sources of support for artists—in the state that ranks dead last in per-capita spending on the arts—are merely the ghosts of another era, of a system as inaccessible as if it were in an alternate universe.
The Loop has, predictably, led to no answers. Only this. If I don’t crack out the paint right this minute, I will most likely implode. It is the one and only refuge, the one and only form of sense and comfort I can actually wrap my hands, head and heart around and make worthwhile. For at least an afternoon.
I keep repeating the mantra I developed for my civilian trade over the years: Strive for the goal. Chase the dream. Deal with the reality.
Some times that doesn’t play out the way you might think it would. Right now, the only way to deal with the reality is to paint. Possibly while California burns. Possibly while I burn along with it. Just paint.