Tone-Deaf and Life-Stupid at Metro

The annals of stupid are long and deep, but some of the worst offenses, I think we must agree, occur in the course of trying to sell something—particularly when that something is very transparently a load of bull.


Keep in mind I grew up on Virginia Slims commercials, back in the dark ages of analog TV, when Madison Avenue decided to grab hold of (that is, exploit) the nascent women’s movement of the late 70s and turn it into a pitch for cancer in a stick. I for one was thrilled to learn that my sex had earned the right to choke to death right along with the guys. Enjoli perfume wasn’t far behind when it came to offensive advertising. If you don’t know what that was—consider yourself fortunate to have been born after 1980. 


But apparently the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority–which we folks in D.C. fondly refer to as “Metro” or, in some quarters, “the ride from hell”– didn’t get the memo. So they don’t seem to realize that we women have come a long way, baby, and therefore have other things on our minds besides a new pair of shoes or frying up the bacon in the pan (And yes, after 10 hours on the job, I will let you forget you’re a man—unless you plan to cook dinner, honey. But I digress).


Photo by Lucy Westcott

Photo by Lucy Westcott, on Twitter @lvzwestcott

Check this out—it’s the latest in Metro’s series of ads aimed at informing us of the fantastic progress being made in improving the transit system, which is notorious for performance issues and equipment failures—not to mention fatal collisions. The foot-crushing capacity of Metro’s ineptly designed escalators was once the worst danger facing an inattentive commuter, but since the 2009 wreck on the Red Line, things have taken an ugly turn. As it has been well-reported, Metro’s problems stem from its long-standing policy to save money by putting off fixing things until they fell apart. Needless to say this short-sighted approach to maintenance has caught up with Metro, and now that the agency has embarked on a multi-year effort to finally set it right, the agency has also embarked on an ad campaign (god knows how much that cost) to let us know just how great things are going.


The ad in question has caused quite a stir for its blatant sexism ( DCist  here, and Buzzfeed, here, had a few choice things to say). Ho hum who wants to hear about Metro’s improved performance when we can talk about shoes? After all, we are really only interested in shopping, aren’t we, girls? Shopping and fingernails, I guess. Woman as bimbo is a tired old trope, and the fact that the two women in question are women of color only adds to the insult. But this is garden variety sexism—the advancement of stereotype in the guise of humor.


For my money, the offensiveness of the ad goes even deeper—because it reflects a peculiar kind of narcissism unbecoming to a public transit agency whose mission is, well, to serve the public. Considering that this poster is supposed to impress the cynical commuter, I don’t think Metro has much to brag about. I mean, I don’t know, maybe going 8,200 miles between breakdowns is good for a bus, but really who gives a sh*t? I’ve driven my VW 50,000 miles without it ever breaking down—so I kind of agree with the woman on the right. That doesn’t sound like much to talk about, so why don’t we talk about shoes?


It gets worse, though, when you look at another ad in the same series—two dudes chatting each other up about—I am not lying—rail fasteners. Because Metro has replaced 30,000 of them and we all need to know that and be very very impressed! But, sorry, Metro, I am not particularly impressed with the number of rail fasteners  you’ve replaced. You are, in fact, operating a railroad, so it seems to me that putting down rails and rail fasteners ought to be something you do pretty routinely. Yes, 30,000 is a big number but that only speaks to the fact that you spent a lot of years not doing the work that you should have been doing all along, so no, I am not especially impressed.


Guys don't talk about shoes.

Guys don’t talk about shoes.

I will tell you what will impress me:


I will be impressed when I notice that my trip is actually smoother and faster, and I get to work on time.  When breakdowns and delays become a rare occurrence—instead of an almost daily routine—then I will be impressed, thank you.


All of this points to the essential self-absorption of the campaign itself, because these figures are internal metrics–the kinds of numbers that excite bean-counters and engineers, bragging rights for the system’s managers to take to the board of directors. For somebody waiting in the rain 40 minutes for the next bus, or jammed into a Red Line car that is stalled on the tracks because of a signal problem, these kinds of details don’t add up to jack. And there is no reason why they should.


The commuter is the customer—on the receiving end of the service, which is to get from place to place on schedule. A railroad bragging about how many rail fasteners it put down is like Dell  trying to sell computers on the basis of how many screws it uses to attach the motherboard. Glad it’s in there, guys, but all I care about is when I hit that power button the thing fires up and loads my applications.


When it comes to Metro there are only two statistics that matter to me: 1. Exactly how many minutes late are you going to make me today? and 2. What is the probability that you don’t kill me before I get there?


Anything else is just noise.


UPDATE: Looks like Metro is not just sexist but racist too.

The Long Shadow, Part III: A Soldier’s Story

The package that arrived  in my mail in mid-January came as a surprise, not because it was unexpected, but because the contents were so much more revealing than I had imagined possible—nearly 70 pages of Photostats, detailing the movements of my late uncle Jack in the three years he spent in the Army Air Force during World War II. Jack’s records were largely intact, having survived a 1973 fire in the National Archives in St. Louis that had destroyed nearly 80 percent of the military records then on file.



What those records revealed was a short life far more troubled than I had realized.



Jack’s induction papers, 1942

My mother never spoke of this mysterious younger brother unless prompted by one of us, and even then her stories were spare and brief. What I knew of Jack was that he had been rebellious and bold and that he had died, in an apparent car accident, years before I was born. The few photographs we had of him showed a cheerful, friendly young face with a spark of mischief in his eye;  it was left to us to fill in the details, and I did: in my mind he was reckless but sincere, good-hearted and kind, adventurous and noble—the kind of uncle every girl wanted, who would have taken me on long walks and imparted to me the wisdom he had gleaned from his years of unrest. He might have been a bit wild, but he was not a bad boy; he simply loved a good time and took nothing seriously. We knew this to be true; we could see it in his eyes.



But the picture that emerges from the documents is much different, much darker—a story of a troubled young man with a fondness for drink—who lost more than 100 days of service to his habit of leaving the base without permission—who married because he had to—and who died in the fall of 1946 by an unspecified cause. I knew the cause—I’d already gotten his death certificate—he died alone in October 1946, killing himself by putting  his head in the oven and turning on the gas.

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The Christmas Card from Hell

I got a Christmas card today from the child molester’s wife.


This is not an unusual event. For the past several years, this woman has persisted in sending me birthday cards, Christmas cards, Easter greetings—this despite what should have been a clear directive to her years ago never to contact me again. Yet she persists.


For years I evaded her ridiculous missives, but somewhere along the line one of my misguided relatives gave her my current address and so, for the past few years, I have suffered through a series of “greeting cards” from this woman. Usually I throw them away. But tonight, for some reason, I am moved to action.


The door that wasn’t opened …

You see, I have the misfortune of being related to her husband and, thus, I was one of his targets. I prefer “target” to “victim” because I decided a long time ago that what he did to me was not going to define me forever. And if I was a victim once, I am no longer. But God knows how many more children have come into his line of fire—how many of his own children? We cannot begin to know; his life is a lie wrapped in denial, embroiled in deception. We can guess, but we don’t have the luxury of the confirmation. Once, long ago, I confronted him in the belief that I owed it to his children to try to stop him. But I could not stop him. The lie was too strong.


But his wife is a great curiosity to me. When we undertook to confront him, my sister and I,  in the process, we confronted her as well. Her anger was a sight to behold. She literally shook with rage. Not at him, of course. At us. For daring to tell. For daring to say what had happened and demanding—how dare we demand it!—an apology.


We never got it.

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Now, Who Can’t Relate to This?

Sometimes you just have to open the Jack.

Tamara Federici’s production notes show why some playwrights ought to write fiction and be done with it. I particularly liked this one:


Regarding pauses: short pauses are short, three seconds or so, like the time it takes to sneak out a little fart, i.e. Lucia’s line “No, I told you to bring me the head of Cornel, not [little fart] Gary.”


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Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Me and Jackie

The wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton has included me in her series on women playwrights in D.C.

My newest best friend

You can check out the interview here.

Thank you Jackie for thinking of me and including me in such illustrious company as  Laura Zam, Karen Zacarias, Renee Calarco, and Jennifer Nelson.

And you can check out Jackie  here.

And do check her out because she is one cool cat. She would be cool even if she didn’t write about me.

The Drama in Drink, or Vice Versa

Barking Up a Wrong Tree is one of my favorite blogs and here is why:


Eric Barker routinely compiles fascinating observations about all aspects of human nature and experience, with the stated purpose of learning to live life to its full awesomeness.  But me being me, which means predisposed to moments of dark ruminations, or in more pedestrian terms, a moody crank, I take perverse comfort from posts like these, in which Eric assures us that the crazy times just might be the best, at least when it comes to literary output.


Dionysius was the god of theatre for a reason.

Citing the Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, Eric tells us that:



In studies of deceased writers— based on their letters, medical records, and published biographies— and in studies of talented living writers, mental illness is prevalent. For example, fiction writers are fully ten times more likely to be bipolar than the general population, and poets are an amazing forty times more likely to struggle with the disorder. Based on statistics like these, psychologist Daniel Nettle writes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the canon of Western culture was produced by people with a touch of madness.” Essayist Brooke Allen does Nettle one better: ‘The Western literary tradition, it seems, has been dominated by a sorry collection of alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, manic-depressives, sexual predators, and various unfortunate combinations of two, three, or even all of the above.


Well that’s no surprise to readers of literary biographies, but what should we conclude?

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Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Adam & Me

The prolific Adam Szymkowicz is famously prolific in another way—interviewing other playwrights for his blog–and today he honors me as writer No. 484 on a venerable list that includes, among others–yes I’m bragging, yes I am, so what?–Liz Duffy Adams, Lonnie Carter, Kia Corthron, Julia Jordan, Rajiv Joseph, and of course my lovely and wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton who always greets me with a hug.


My new best friend

Yes I am ecstatic to make Adam’s list of people worth talking to. Wouldn’t you be if you’d been slogging away at this as long as I have?


So while I’m braggin’ on it, here’s a taste of my own wisdom. Don’t I sound fine?


Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?


A:  This advice is borrowed from Ira Glass. Be prepared to suck. Learning to write well requires a long, long apprenticeship. Mastering the form takes literally years and it takes a long time to find your voice and your style.

No. 484, circa 1896

As for me, I would say the earlier you start, the better, but no matter when you start, give yourself five years before you write anything worth showing to a theatre. Don’t try to get your stuff produced right away. Join a group or hire a tutor and write crappy plays. Write a lot of them, keep a journal, develop a keen eye for human foibles and a keen ear for natural language. Don’t underestimate the power of your own story, but don’t make playwriting your avenue for revenge or personal therapy. Nobody gives a s**it what happened to you as a kid. Your job is to write plays so stunning that when I come to see them, I can’t get them out of my head; so make me stop and take a deep breath and think twice about something I never doubted before. Whether I laugh or cry, make me pay attention and never, never let me off the hook. You are not writing to make me feel good, you are writing to reveal the world to me in a way I never saw it before. You can’t do that unless you are willing to go there yourself and bleed along with your characters.


Not that I follow my advice, mind you.


For the full interview, now that I know you’re fascinated, click here.

The Birth of Cute

And now for something completely different.

Word origins, always of interest to me, might be of interest to you as well. The Hairpin explains  the birth of cute.

Maybe I’ve just been spending too much time thinking about cute guys I used to know ….


The Long Shadow, Part Two

My mother and her brother in 1937

The death of his mother as a complication of his own birth meant that Jack Collins would be raised by relatives, not all of them vitally interested in his welfare. In his infancy, his care was left largely to his father’s much younger sister, Margaret, then a winsome and cheerful 16-year-old; as he grew older,  he spent more and more time with his mother’s mother, Ida Finch,  and it was to Ida that he fled when his stepmother’s rages became too much to bear.


Jack was 15 months younger than my mother, and she described him sometimes as a “pesky little brother” who stole her roller skates and used the wheels to make a skateboard. Her tone of voice betrayed affection, though; I could see that she had loved him.  Generally, she said little of Jack, and we had only a few snapshots to anchor him in our imaginations: Jack at age six, blond and sweet, squinting into the sun as he grasps a croquet mallet; Jack at 14, gazing whimsically at the camera, as if daring the photographer not to laugh; Jack at 17, standing stiffly on a cold Easter morning, his best blue suit not quite fitting as it used to, his hair slicked back in the fashion of the day, his expression no longer so eager nor sweet. The boy who once put on such a good front was by now already grappling with the demons that would eventually destroy him. His attitude seems grim, resigned.


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The Long Shadow, Part One

Late in September 1920, a notice appeared in the Springfield, Ohio, newspaper that the young wife of Bill Collins had died. The cause was edema, a complication of pregnancy that she might have survived had her caregivers not put her to bed—and thus ensured the onset of the pneumonia that took her life. The fluid that swelled her legs also filled her lungs. Feverish and weak, she passed away within a month of giving birth to her only son, my uncle Jack.


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The Soul of the Drama

Plays have to be lived to be written. This much I know.


If a character’s heart is broken, the playwright’s heart must be the first to go.  So be willing to live and relive the struggle and loss and hope that drama is made on, because if you refuse to feel these things, you can never write authentically.


Dare to suffer.


Dare to endure.


Endure the sense of inadequacy that comes from slogging through scenes that aren’t working and can’t work and won’t work. Choke back the panic of not knowing how to get started or how to stop, or how to fix that dreadful scene or how to fall out of love with those six lines you know just cannot stay and yet you need them, surely you need them, at least for now.

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Doors & Windows

Let us consider a simple mystery.


A man at a party lights a cigarette; from ten feet away, at the end of a narrow hallway, a woman observes him. The next room buzzes with talk and laughter, the rattle of glasses over a Patsy Cline record in full croon. But she sees only him.  For months he has been the focus of her fascination, moving at the edge of her circle of friends, chatty and charming, always clever, usually evasive, never alone.


And now there he is: by himself, striking a match with one determinedly casual stroke, a movement so sleek that she wonders if he had practiced it before a mirror. She smiles at this idea, and as she does, she catches his eye. This time, she holds his gaze. Continue reading

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