3. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A NATUARL SPRING, SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE OF ORLANDO, FLORIDA — Two middle-aged “mermaids,” Yordie and Vanessa, share a meal between shows. They talk about life. About what they imagined their lives would be. About the jagged edges between imagining and reality. About the million TV commercials telling you what life is supposed to be. About how you’re supposed to figure out if you’re living a good life even if you’ve chosen or been dealt some path other than the ones shown in the TV commercials. They talk of Mermaids and Pissants.
And then Vanessa talks about two “friends.” She calls them “friends” even though she’s never met them for reals. You know, like face to face. They’re actually only “friends” she met in some computer game. She met Hanna in a virtual world called “Tumblr” and she met Bryn in a virtual world called “Instagram.” They’re both 15. Or they were. Hanna’s already turned 16. That’s the thing about 15-year-olds, they turn 16. Anyway, apparently, Hanna and Bryn have some things in common. And some things pretty different. Hanna is a writer. Bryn is a ballerina.
25,891 people follow Bryn on Instagram. By the time you read this it’ll be in the 26,000’s. It’s remarkable that someone so young can have so much focus, drive, talent, clarity, intensity, relentless work ethic. It’s not surprising she has so many Instagram fans. She’s in incredible shape. Strong. Ridiculously flexible. A ballet line that seems to never end. So much poise and grace. So much career focus.
If you took all of Bryn’s clarity and put it in a blender at “chop” or “dice” or “liquefy,” you would have Hanna. It’s not fair to call Bryn’s life “easy” when you realize how hard she works. But Bryn can at least see the road ahead. I think for Bryn there is a clarity of destination and path.
I wonder if Hanna will find clarity one day? Or if her entire life will be a struggle. Where Bryn glides with elegance, Hanna trips and stumbles and falls and cries and asks why it has to be so hard. One of the most painful things I’ve ever done is to read Hanna’s tumblr. But make no mistake about it, Hanna is every bit as beautiful and amazing and filled with promise as Bryn is. At sixteen Hanna has a depth of feeling and perception that people far older have never achieved. If it wouldn’t make me another 10 years older than I am already, I’d gladly jump in a time machine to see what their lives are at 25.
When I was a choreography student at HKAPA — and the reason you’re getting this answer to your “other profession” question, is that I feel like Bryn is the real ballerina that I never was — anyway there was a number of us “International Students,” including this really tall guy from Spain, Alanzo. Alanzo was a curious guy. So smart. A little weird. The theory that my friends Terri Ray and Liz Tarnov had on him was that he was a genius who had done too many drugs. So he was kind of messed up in the head. Kind of confused. But through that haze you’d get these moments of brilliance. Anyway, I remember working all night on a piece we had to perform the next day. During breaks Alanzo would go off on all these stories and tidbits. A silly one was his crazy infatuation with Christiane Amanpour and all the things he’d like to do with her. It was so random. And just funny that he had such intimate fantasies of the ultimate in professional journalists.
The thing about Alanzo was, he was brilliant. But it was never an easy brilliance. It wasn’t handed to you on a platter. It wasn’t soft and smooth. You had to chew on it for a long time. I guess both Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan were that way. They never gave you the answer you wanted. They never gave you an easy answer. But if you were really willing to do the work, to unpack the ideas, their insights could change your life.
I don’t even remember the exact conversation now. But whatever it was, Alanzo said this simple thing. So simple I’ve never forgotten it:
Sometimes art is just painful.
I don’t want to perpetuate the trope of tortured van Gogh. I don’t think all artists are “messed up” or “must suffer” or “must be apart” from the rest of culture. I don’t believe that. But I think Alanzo’s simple statement that floated through the rehearsal studio air that night said something real. Something powerful. If you really want insight. If you really want new vision. New understanding. I think you have to challenge yourself. You have to struggle. You have to grapple with hard questions. You have to challenge all your assumptions. You have to do the work that so many of us would be perfectly happy not doing.
I’m not sure if there was a tear in Mermaid Yordie’s eye, or if it was just the sun, but as we got up from lunch to get ready for the next show she lightly kicked my ankle and said,
Can’t we just be Bryn?
I don’t know if Hanna’s life will ever be easy. But what I do believe is that when Hanna speaks, people will listen. I think her words will resonate with the depth of her life experience. I don’t imagine Hanna’s life will ever exactly sing like Beyoncé, but I think she can already sing a bit like Tom Waits. And how much more bittersweetly amazing can you get than that?
4. Who is the most important person in Second Life?
SaveMe Oh is a “Bad Actor” or a “Bad Messenger” and that’s really good!
Of Mermaids and Pissants
In my recent post, Another Internet is Possible I wrote that after my experiences in 2007 my ideology, creativity, and life, changed focus. My issues today were not mine in 2006. With one exception: Civil Rights. I’ve cared a lot about Civil Rights for just about my whole life. My father was a democrat. My mother is a republican. There were lots of ideological “discussions” around the house. Even though my parents differed on many things, they were both card carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union. My father was a Russian Jew. He was actually born in America, but my grandparents both emigrated from Russia. My mother is a Latina. Like my dad, she was born in America to immigrant parents. In their different life stories I think they each had a deep, visceral understanding of the enormous importance of Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Free Speech.
I often don’t agree with my mother’s ideas. The other half of the time I do agree with her, but I claim not to just for the fun of arguing about it. But one thing I completely took from my parents was the essential importance of Civil Rights. Interestingly though, that too has changed this side of 2007. I think before, while my commitment to Civil Rights was serious and real, I think it was also more intellectual or conceptual. These days I think it’s far more personal. Look what a shitty year 2013 has been for freedom:
• Aaron Schwarz dead
• Bradley Manning guilty
• Edward Snowden stranded
These guys are my heroes. They should be winning Nobel Peace Prizes for their courage, not be run to ground like criminals. When China arrests someone like Ai Weiwei, it’s both a crime against freedom and a chilling message. If we can make someone of Ai Weiwei’s global stature disappear with no charges for 81 days, we can make you disappear forever. When you silence one person, you silence a billion people.
Speech is Fragile
What I’ve come to realize, whether it’s these crimes against freedom by physical nations, or the crimes against freedom by new media nation-states like the Google+ Nymwars, is just how fragile speech is. And what horrific chilling effects censoring just one book, or arresting just one whistle blower, or banning just one avatar, can have on the speech of so many.
I’m fond of citing Christophe Bruno’s brilliant Google Adwords Happening as proof of just how much the public values “free” and how little it values “freedom.” The thing is, the public is just wrong on that. Just dead wrong. Richard Stallman was absolutely correct when he said that Free Beer is nice, but Free Speech is essential to our very way of life.
SMO is the best Bad Actor I know.
Who do we think of in the struggle for Human Rights? Civil Rights? Free Speech?
Anne Frank? Rosa Parks? Tommie Smith? Harvey Milk? Nelson Mandela? Sure. People like this are all extraordinary heroes. The thing is, if the answer to Where do you draw the line on who gets free speech? is Somewhere below Tommie Smith. That doesn’t really help us. All of us are somewhere below Tommie Smith. If you really want to protect the speech of everyone, you don’t need your test case to be a hero, you need it to be a “Bad Actor,” a “Bad Messenger,” a “Pissant.” If you’re willing to protect their speech, then you’re willing to protect everyone’s speech. If you’re willing to tolerate the annoyance of a legendary pissant like SaveMe Oh, then the speech of an everyday pissant like me seems pretty safe. That may not help too much in the physical world where nations crush speech every day, but at least it means our little virtual world is capacious enough to celebrate diversity, and patient enough to listen to many voices.
If you really care about protecting speech, you need a bad messenger. And SaveMe Oh is the best bad messenger I know.
L i n k y . L i n k y
• Scarlett Luv / The League of Extraordinary Fashionistas
• City of Mermaids / Weeki Wachee Springs
• Instagram / Bryn Michaels
• Tumblr / Hanna Lee
• Blog / Being Yordie Sands
• Blog / SaveMe Oh
• iRez / Bryn Michaels
• iRez / Hanna Lee
• iRez / Yordie Sands
• iRez / Another Internet is Possible