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Another Year, Another Pollyanish Breakfast Metaphor, But This One In The Style Of Vice Magazine.

I fucking love to make pancakes from scratch. I think they are pretty good, too, and my wife loves them also, as does my son. My son (get ready to be jealous other hipster hippie art parents who try to give their kids healthy eating habits in this fucked up consumer junk food culture) likes them PLAIN. Fucking plain pancakes. That’s how good they are.

You fucking know what else? They’re fucking gluten free, dickheads. Fucking. Gluten Free. Pancakes. That a toddler boy likes without any syrup or butter on them. BECAUSE THEY ARE THAT GOOD. Fuck you.

Okay, but here’s the fucking thing: it took a long time, hard work, experimentation and sacrifice, to get the gluten free pancakes-from-scratch recipe right. Okay, maybe not fucking sacrifice, fuck you, but all the other stuff. Maybe I just sacrificed some flour and eggs. Does that count? I don’t know.

But listen, here’s another detail to sweeten the pot: I don’t use a measuring device. I fucking eyeball these pancakes. Also? I fucking alter the recipe on a whim, depending on what I feel like, and what’s around. So fuck you and your Bob’s Red Mill. Okay? I love my pancakes, and I could make them blind, probably.

Here is what I use. I use some millet flour, some corn flour, some buckwheat flour, and if it’s around, I use chickpea flour. Some fucking walnuts. Yeah, some eggs and whatever milk or yoghurt I have around, maybe some sunflower butter, and baking powder, little salt, vanilla, cinnamon, whatever. Fuck it. I mix the dry ingredients up, then do the wet ones in a separate bowl. A little more liquid than dry overall, but I don’t know, it just fucking looks right. And then put them together, let it sit, fry them up. Fuck you. Amazing pancakes.

But look, you can’t just make these pancakes the first time, okay? Or maybe you’re special and you can. Maybe you cooked at Bouley years ago and talk about it like you were a track star. Maybe you can, but then the next time you’ll just fuck it up ‘cause you’ll get cocky. You have to commit to the fucking unknown, you have to go too far, you have to add too much of one thing and not enough of another. You have to accidentally make fucking BANNOCK one day, and then end up with some weird pudding the next, and you have to feel like you’re a fucking loser who can’t even eyeball a pancake correctly. And then you finally find it. And if you don't know what Bannock is you can look it up. 

I mean you can read a recipe. You can get a bag, read it, follow instructions, open the bag and stir and make and shit. But anyone can do that. You’re reading this. You’re an asshole. Like me. You can make pancakes from scratch. If you just fucking let yourself fail.

Welcome to 2014. This is the year we will fuck up our recipes until we make breakfasts so good that sugar-loving toddlers will eat them plain.      


PAVE Lecture

I gave a little talk on "Thriving As An Artist," this fall, at ASU's PAVE Program. I hope you enjoy it.



More Questions About Detroit (And Other Places)

In particular, indigenous peoples and people of color become the occasion by which the white subject can self-reflect on her/his privilege.” – Andrea Smith,“The Problem With Privilege.”

The post I wrote over the summer about Detroit was nicely picked up by Culturebot, and was praised by a lot of my friends. Soon after I put it online, I had a conversation with a colleague in that city – also white, like me - and a longtime activist and artist. We discussed a few gaps I might have left open, a few questions I couldn’t answer, or oversimplifications I might have made. At the same time, I noticed that most of the people visibly approving or championing the post were white. 

I wonder how my point of view was impacted by the access I have to certain forms of societal opportunities as an educated white person of some means. By ‘some means’, I’m specifically talking about the education I had, and the access to social and job networks granted to me by my education, and other opportunities. No, I’m not rich, but money isn’t everything.

In the last post, I wrote about artists I’d met through the Kresge Fellowships, for whom I teach a yearly workshop. My Detroit friend and colleague pointed out that, while the fellowship is of tremendous value there, the language of those fellowships – their guidelines and mission – are the language of a particular kind of cultural norm – a mostly white, mostly educated norm. Kresge is, of course, not alone here, but just my closest experience at hand.

These opportunities are great. The people who get the award, all of them, are remarkable artists, all deserving, regardless of their level of access. But as an example and embodiment of the seemingly subtle (but not subtle if you’re black or brown) ways that exclusion takes place unintentionally, without even anyone needing to discuss it, Kresge, like many grantmakers, might have some more work to do. And my practical experience in that one city brings up questions for me about the way many funders and their guidelines interact with diverse communities. I hope anyone reading this from that community can take this inquiry in the spirit of generous progress. 

Another way to put it is, in a city that’s 80% African-American, the grant recipients are largely not African-American. Again, it’s not that the intentions or practices of the foundation are excluding black people by design. It’s that they don’t even have to. Nor am I suggesting that the population of grantees should necessarily be an exact reflection of the overall population, just that the disparity seems glaring. A starting point to unpack the problem is this: that the way the grant is positioned and described is race neutral, yet the results of the process are not. Because nothing is.

For those of us in the middle of it, whose intentions are 100% positive, the critique here can be mystifying. What I would say is that, if we should look at the language funders use, and the language surrounding concepts and trends like “social practice”, “community engagement” and “artistic excellence” as being in part specific to a particular set of people, then issues of unintentional exclusion might start to make more sense. Or, put another way, as an African-American colleague said to me at a conference recently, “Social practice. We’ve been doing social practice for a long, long time. We just didn’t call it that. Now we can’t get in the door.”

I don’t know answers for Detroit. I’ve seen and read work by people like Grace Lee Boggs and Invincible, Allied Media and the US Social Forum, as well as smaller collectives and even individual activists like Bill Kellerman. I’ve met and loved the work of artists and gardeners galore, and I’ve been visiting with my in-laws for a bunch of years. But in the larger discourse, I keep seeing a kind of blind adherence or a resignation to market principles (profits over people, business start-ups over needs and services, though perhaps this time couched in a comfortable scruffy hipster coffee shop instead of a casino), and to the rhetoric of ‘opportunity’ and ‘entitlement’ over justice, equality or democracy.

“…our project becomes less of one based on self-improvement or even collective self-improvement, and more about the creation of new worlds and futurities for which we currently have no language.”Andrea Smith, “The Problem With Privilege."

There is a dynamic and almost dialectical tension in the city that is palpable and painful – between the rhetoric of improvement and the continued desperation; between the fact that people are making things happen everyday that do not conform to what we think of as renewal, but those same people are largely shut out of the official process of renewal and salvation the city proposes. Because those people are engaged in daily acts of renewal, and daily acts of resistance, does not mean they are doing okay. The system doesn’t work in Detroit. Other systems are forming. Both of these facts highlight the ongoing racial scars in our history, our present, and perhaps our future. 

The Questions

I ask readers, especially white readers, the following questions. People of color have been asking them and answering them for a long time. Whether or not you’re in the arts, these are questions I actually don’t know the answers to, and I think they’re worth thinking about. There will not be a test, or there already is.

What do you feel responsible for, politically?

What don’t you feel responsible for?


How do you benefit or suffer because of restrictive offerings?

What is the cost of making politics solely about economic impact?

What is the cost of making politics about ‘the best we can do,’ ‘the sensible solution,’ ‘the most we can hope for?’ What have we lost by our pragmatism?

What are many well intended people forgetting when it comes to race and class, when it comes to trying to remake, renew, or simply re-engage a place like Detroit?

What are the unspoken assumptions about what’s possible in the realm of what we now call “politics’, when it comes to Detroit’s future, and the future of cities in general?

How is the language behind certain opportunities offered by well-intentioned bodies – foundations and government agencies offering grants and fellowships, educational institutions offering new models, bodies politic changing governance to surmount a real problem – restrictive or exclusive to the underclass, however unintentional or covert those restrictions might be?

How are you creating opportunities for people unlike yourself to have the systemic, embodied power that you have?

Do you feel you ought to be doing “more?”

Do you feel you ought to be doing better?

What do you assume to be true about the necessity of the entrepreneurial spirit, the profit motive, competition?

What are the corollary benefits to being white, over and above the color of your skin?

Have you accidentally internalized the dominant rhetoric about poverty?

Does some part of you believe it’s a choice to remain poor?

Do you believe that there is a level playing field?


Further Reading


Dual Economies

My first visit to Detroit, in 1994, was also the first time I caught a glimpse of my future father-in-law John Meyer. He was out behind his church, which was across the street from the now-defunct Tiger Stadium in Corktown. A strong, stern but joyous-looking man in a clerical collar, he directed sports fans’ cars into parking spots before a twilight game. The wind blew dust everywhere in the sunset, and his hand signals made it look like he was invoking the earth to rise.

People from the suburbs tailgated in back of St. Peter’s Episcopal; their small change kept afloat the soup kitchen, the home for young mothers, and even the congregation. Some years, parking for games was one of the top sources of income for the church; a little creative fix for an entrenched and impossible problem.

At a time in which most “solutions” to Detroit’s entrenched problems are punitive and racially biased, three things have remained positive in the nearly 20 years I’ve been visiting: culture, religion and activism. This is the home of Grace Lee Boggs, of Allied Media Projects. It’s the home of St. Peter’s new pastor and longtime activist Bill Wylie-Kellerman, who rebuilds park benches the city tears down, because he wants to make sure the newly minted “historic district” of Corktown still offers somewhere for its many indigent to sleep.

Politics has failed the city. The democratic process, writ large, has failed. The city, economically, has failed. So people make up their own solutions – temporary, imperfect and small-scale. I hope these solutions don’t get lost in the reshuffling of the Detroit’s larger structure and finances.

As Boggs told me when I met her a couple years ago, “Detroit is a city of dual economies.” There is the economy that is in the newspapers, and that continues to deteriorate and oppress. And then there are micro-economies that pop up in a neighborhood, on a block, or even in a single building, where residents take on the basic services a city normally provides, like policing and mediation, water, education, and garbage. Some of these micro-economies serve entire neighborhoods; some exist without knowing others like them are out there.

What Do Artists Know?

In addition to my family visits, I’ve been making a trip every year for the last five, to teach professional skills workshops to Detroit artists who’ve received a Kresge Fellowship. Every time I’ve taught there, there’s been a discussion about whether Detroit’s new cultural visibility, weighed against the continued dysfunction on governmental and economic levels, will propel it forward or set it back yet again. Cultural renewal takes a long time on its own. It does not equal civic engagement, and can easily become instrumentalized (witness many other major metropolitan areas).

This year the questions were especially poignant. The workshop started on July 19, the day after the city declared bankruptcy. There weren’t any hotel rooms within 8-Mile Road because so many officials and business owners with a vested interest in what happens had filled them all. We were all in the city at the same time, which made the divide especially poignant to me. I wanted the financiers all to take a break from the numbers, and stop by our workshop, because I was amazed, as I always am, by the adaptability and generosity with which artists I meet in Detroit deal with so many entrenched and massive problems.

Some of them were relatively recent arrivals who felt the call to be there, wanted to live off the grid in an urban setting; maybe they romanticized the metaphor and then fell in love with the actual place. One started a farm, lives on $6,000 a year and feels like she has enough. Another has a bookshop that’s been open since 1982, and also formed some legendary and rambunctious creative collectives in the meantime. Another made paintings in secret while working a regular job for 30 years, and then opened up his garage studio to the world one day. Yet another has a day job in restorative justice and started writing speculative fiction because, “So much of that writing is about apocalypses, and we’ve already been through our own.”

Now, I know that on a bad week artists can be as dysfunctional as anyone; I know we can be corrupt and scheming, competitive, even cruel. I know many of us can’t do a budget to save our lives. I know that there has to be an official component to any renewal that happens – a restoration of services, of deliberative democracy, of streetlights and ambulances, schools and cops.

I also know that artists make something out of nothing, and, generally, they know when they have enough. Maybe the extreme circumstances of Detroit make that kind of skillset even more necessary to hone than other places.

The way Detroit’s problems have been addressed on an official level has largely been about impositions of policy over people who have already lost their civic voices, the vast majority of them people of color. Even the notion that what will save Detroit is to lure “creatives” there so that they can start up new businesses misses the point. The creativity is already here. It’s so far advanced and so far removed you just might not recognize it as such. This is a post-market city. This is the city we can both help to re-emerge and from which we can learn.

I don’t think Detroit can be “fixed” by a single overarching solution that is seen as the lesser of two evils – I don’t think the neo-liberal consensus-based approach will work here. In part because it’s not working well most of the time anyway, and in part because it doesn’t allow us to do the deeper work of examining why this place has fallen apart so thoroughly, what ingenuity has arisen within the gap, and what we could do differently, maybe in other places, too, moving forward.

As everyone converges to figure out how to cut the losses (which, put another way, means figure out which lives matter least enough to forsake), or how to cut up potential spoils, how to twist the arm of a place already hobbled from bending to the latest slow disaster, maybe people should stop and hear from activists, artists and priests. They’ve been there the whole time.

What will happen if we both start to address structural problems, and also understand the value of daily miracles, even if some of them just work for a single block, and others might be viable for miles? Here’s how you change the tone of capitalism, they could say to us, here’s how create a beautiful light in the dust. Here’s how you use your eyes, your ears, and your mouth. Here is how you make a new city. People are doing that right now, and have been for years. We just may have overlooked it because it doesn’t look like what we are used to calling America, or what we are used to calling progress.

Further Reading