Saturday, June 30, 2012

The It Factor

Lately, there has been so much talk about having it all that I wonder exactly what "having it all" means. Having a roof overhead and enough to eat may be all one person desires while another person may want much more. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a brain surgeon, a pilot or the president of the United States, or possibly all of them while fronting an all-girl band. My idea of having it all has evolved radically since those days. Now, it has much more to do with being true to myself and having time for a creative outlet.

The recent debate about "having it all" was triggered by a story in the Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, sensationally titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." The cover shot shows a woman toting a baby in a briefcase. I disagree with the title, not only because it should have read "and if they can't, then neither can men" but because the phrase "having it all" is so imprecise. How are we to know if we can or can't have it all, when we're not even really sure what "it" is? If the titular "It" refers to having a baby, what does that say about women who cannot or choose not to have children? Does that somehow make them incapable of having a complete life?  Indeed, having it all is a subjective measure of success that is as much shaped by an individual's interests and aptitude as it is by socio-economic level, ethnicity, culture and yes, gender. 

Slaughter's use of the term "having it all" really refers to a mythical state of being where one is fully dedicated to a career while at the same time being an available, nurturing and supportive family member. Although this often seems to be a predominantly female concern, some men also express concern over being able to balance the two, and while there are many things that our society could do to help people achieve these goals, like encouraging employers to provide better childcare options or allowing people to work from home, the goals themselves may be flawed.

Without Hermione Granger's magic charm which allowed her to be in two places at once, most of us find that there are times when you have to make a choice. But which choice to make? I have several friends who are perfectly happy and feel completely fulfilled without children. I'm currently a stay-at-home mom and although I worked as a teacher for many years, I am very happy to stay home and feel fortunate that at this point in my life, I can be available when my child needs me.

I suppose having had a job I loved while at the same time being a mom,  it may have appeared that I had it all - but I never really did. It was always a struggle to be a dedicated teacher, available to my students, parents and fellow teachers as much as I wanted to be, knowing that I also wanted to be a hands-on parent. I wanted to cook dinners, join the PTA and go to school events. There were always compromises and choices to be made and someone got short-changed from time to time. All the pots couldn't be on the front burner all the time; some had to be moved back, even if only temporarily. The thing is some dishes benefit from a slow simmer with an occasional stir and patience, while others require a hot flame for a brief time. I made choices on a day to day, case by case basis.  It was a difficult time. My most successful years were the ones when I took half-time leave and I was able to split my time between work and my toddler. Of course, there were also financial implications to that decision but I won't go into those here because the whole debate hinges on the assumption that one has a choice.

I agree with an important point that Slaughter makes when she urges us to redefine the arc of a successful career path by embracing its peaks, dips and plateaus. Maybe the secret to having it all is looking at your life and seeing that you have enough time to be many things, but excelling at something requires focus, time management and wherever possible, allies. Trying to do too many things at once is never advisable, but giving up on your dreams is just not an option. Having long term goals while simultaneously adopting a willingness to change and adapt to whatever comes your way will ultimately serve better than trying to follow a rigid career and child rearing trajectory.

Perhaps success is not about having it all but about making the most of what we have, here and now. I would like to propose a new definition of success: the ability to live life on one's own terms, free of externally imposed and arbitrary standards. I propose we reject media-created images of "having it all" as false and designed to enslave us in the pursuit of a mythical consumer happily-ever-after.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Violence Girl Review by Sam Lefebvre

"Violence Girl" Book Review / From MRR #345 and Degenerate #9. This article was originally posted here:

This review ran in the most recent issues of Degenerate and Maximumrocknroll. I also had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Alice for SF Weekly. - Sam Lefebvre

Punk literature is often given to tiresome romanticizing and rehashed clich├ęs, but Alice Bag’s recent autobiography, Violence Girl, is written from the perspective of a poor Hispanic raised in East LA by a tyrannical father. She inherits an acute awareness of the duality of man, a Catholic-guilt complex, and the self-consciousness of an awkward girl who could not relate to her peers. Finding solace in the seething anger of punk, Bag’s story focuses on her time as the front woman for a pivotal early Hollywood punk band, The Bags. Immersed in the first wave of punk in California, her skeptical predisposition informs her writings and she carries the voice of an outsider. Punk reinforced the negativity of her violent childhood and ultimately forced her to reconcile and grapple with it as well. 

Although Alice Bag is best known as a punk musician, the book takes time to reach that point in her life; instead it focuses in candid detail on her childhood. Whether it’s the volatile experience of loving a father who encouraged her one day and beat her mother the next, the abject failure of East LA public school in the 1960s and 1970s or the enticing sexual ambiguity of glam rock, all facets of her childhood are analyzed in depth. She not only describes those experiences in a compelling way but shows us how those early obstacles endeared her to the extremism of punk rock. Bag’s depiction of Hollywood from the early days with no expectations, through the establishment of scenes in cities along the West Coast that allowed The Bags to achieve notoriety, and onwards to the explosion of hardcore punk in the suburbs is shown from the lens of a young girl as equally enamored of the eccentric liberation found in punk as she is critical of the tendencies towards excess and self-destruction. Of particular riveting significance is her tumultuous friendship of Darby Crash, as she watches the development of his nihilistic outlook and crypto-fascist treatment of his fans lead to his tragic suicide. 

The violent rage Alice Bag channeled into her confrontational live performance is explained as a reaction to her violent childhood. What she refers to as her father’s “duality,” his tendency to both abuse his wife and fawn endlessly over his daughter, is reflected in Bag’s combination of philosophical pontificating and willingness to violently engage with little provocation. In this sense, punk became an outlet for her rage that wasn’t entirely healthy, even reinforcing the negativity she grew up around, but eventually her peers’ self-destructive habits begin to take a lethal grip on her scene, and the fierce independence she learned in the punk scene becomes a tool for redirecting her life.

Bag’s story also details her membership in Castration Squad, an early, all-female gloomy punk band that had considerable influence on the proliferation of death rock and goth in 80’s LA. She was a reluctant member of the group, having retreated to her parent’s home to focus on school, but found some solace in joining the all-female band she had always desired. When The Bags were initially conceptualized, Bag and Patricia Morrison craved an all-female line-up, but when men repeatedly arrived to audition, they accepted the mixed gender dynamic. Later, when Bag witnessed her friends form The Go-Go’s, her reaction was bitter-sweet. She adored the concept of an empowered, all-female punk band, but her support was tempered by a longing to join. With Castration Squad, that dream materialized, but her life had already begun a new trajectory towards education and a global perspective.

After completing college, Bag travels to Nicaragua after the wake of a revolution, and upon returning to California, she becomes a teacher in the very school system which she depicts as a tragic failure during her own childhood. Of course, the story is not completed, since Bag is still continuing to create, inspire and educate today, but the largest conflict of her life seems to resolve in one of the final chapters. That dramatic and poignant reconciliation is with her dying father; the most profound enemy and inspiration of her entire life.