This Is The Level Things Could Be At

I graduated in the top ten percent of my high school class. And this is the sort of thing I don’t think you’re supposed to know, but I also had the highest SAT score in my class. I’m not saying that to brag, I’m not sure how impressive it is to do well at Norwell High School in Ossian, Indiana. Those two facts bounce around in my head a lot. They’re a snapshot of who I was then, this smart kid whose life had, up to that point, been decided pretty much by where he grew up.

I carry that snapshot around because of what happened next. I didn’t go to a great (or even good) out-of-state school, I didn’t even go to one of the big in-state schools. I went to Indiana State University, solidly ranked in the top six public schools in Indiana, but light years away from IU or Purdue. (When you go to State, a lot of people confused that for IU. Eventually, I stopped correcting them.)

State happened for me because it was the only school I could find that had something that looked like a Film program. And by that, I mean it had the only program that had Film in the title. I literally looked at a list of all the majors in Indiana, provided by my high school counselor, found the word Film and said “yeah, that’ll work.”

For a while, as late as a few years ago, I’d get questions about why I went to Indiana State when it came up (Now, it just doesn’t come up.) ISU’s a safety safety school for a lot of people – not a first choice, definitely not the only place you apply, dumbass.

Applying to ISU was easy. Sure thing. No problem. No worrying. No conflict

Cashing in on that snapshot of myself (the one I still carry) would have taken work, and it looked like there was a perfectly viable alternative that just, uhm, wasn’t going to take that work.

My time at State was great, but man, it was filled with that same sort of attitude. I left high school wanting to make movies, but during my four years with essentially unlimited access to equipment and more than enough free time, I think I made one thing I didn’t have to make (and that was mostly because I talked a cute girl into being in it.)

I wasn’t scared of success. It was just easier not to even try for it. At least, it starts that way, but then you start to look around and realize there are all these people who are doing all these good or even great things and you’re just… not. And the crazy, maddening, frustrating thing about underachieving is that you only have to make excuses for so long before you just forget that you’re doing it.

You can feel that there’s better in you, but it feels trapped somewhere else. Even if you think that it might be right outside the door, questioning why you can’t find it leads to an agoraphobia that makes it impossible to leave the house.

You forget that you’re the one who caused it. And you never learn that you’re the only one who can stop it.

After I didn’t study for the GRE, picked a school I knew I could get in to, and eventually graduated grad school, my girlfriend found me an apartment. And a job. Because those were things I couldn’t do for myself.

I was done with school and knew I didn’t want to go any further, but I didn’t know what was next. There was no easy option, and I was paralyzed.

The job wasn’t a great job, but it was exactly what I needed. I needed to show up some place at 8:30 every morning and work at a job that didn’t push me. Because when you have to get out of bed every morning, when you leave a lonely apartment where you’ve pulled your bed into the living room so you can play Xbox until you literally fall asleep, if you absolutely have to wake up, you eventually want it to mean something.

You eventually remember that you can do better.

I put together a document that said “I can do more for this company” but meant “I can do better than this.” I stopped doing data entry, started doing communication stuff, and caught the eye of the sales consultant that worked with the insurance company and started making the drive from Muncie to Indianapolis to work with them.

daneepye and ajbrown7, before we were pye,brown. Photo by Holly Holladay, before she was Holly Holladay.

daneepye and ajbrown7, before we were pye,brown. Photo by Holly Holladay, before she was Holly Holladay.

It’s during this chunk that danee and I found each other again and we started calling ourselves pye,brown, even though we didn’t really know what that meant. I moved to Texas because loving someone from very far away is stupid if you don’t have to.  The sales consultant took me on full-time and said I could work from Austin.

That move was maybe the first time I really took a chance on myself. The first time I wanted to go make something awesome.

And then I got laid off. Seven months after I moved. Two months after we got married. And, again, I was done. So done. Gutted. Totally out of energy, totally out of faith in myself. The morning I got the call, July 5, I cried like I can only remember crying once before, but this time danee was there.

This wasn’t just my problem this time, this was also her problem, and that made things so much worse.

I regressed. Hard. I started a lot of projects I never finished, I played a lot of pinball, I applied for jobs as required by the State of Indiana to receive unemployment, and I was lucky enough to have a handful of good friends and this still-new person in my life to keep me above water, however barely.

I needed them. I wasn’t sure I could do better. I was pretty sure I couldn’t.

And then danee found me a job. Because that was something I couldn’t do myself. The job was back in Fort Wayne, and it let us check off two of the three things we had on our to-do list. (1. Find Jobs. 2. Move. 3. Fuck Shit Up.)

Working at that job, the arts non-profit marketing job, was a constant struggle to do better. My co-workers, my boss and I would work daily to make things better, to make something awesome, and then watch as those ideas were beat back down to the status quo by a culture of fear, misogyny, and British accents.

After twelve years of trying to convince them to do better, my boss did better for herself and moved on. I got promoted, I got stiffed on pay for the second time, and I decided my business card said Director of Marketing and Public Relations, but my job was to fight.

I fought with my new boss, weekly. I was too young and inexperienced for the job, and too low in the organizational chart to make big differences on my own, so I fought and begged for him to fight for me and my team and for the organization.

He won those fights, the ones with me. And he never had the other fights, the one for the team or the organization. Five months into my new job, I asked him for one thing I’d done well since I took over. He couldn’t come up with anything.

So, I left. I left in the same way I think my old boss did, defeated but sure I could do better, trying not to look back but stealing glances and hoping, praying, that someone behind me was going to take my leaving as a sign that maybe that place could do just a little better.

No one did. No one’s gonna take your fights as seriously as you do. Especially if they’ve underachieved for so long that they’ve forgotten they can do better.

At the Grammys back in February, Kanye West jumped on stage as Beck was accepting the award for Best Album, an award he beat out Beyonce for. It all felt incredibly familiar, a throwback to Kanye’s prior interruption of Taylor Swift, when she beat out Beyonce for MTV’s Video of the Year award in 2009.

Kanye stopped short of interrupting Beck, really, and a ton of people (including Jay Z and Beyonce) let out this giant sigh of relief. But West wasn’t done.  Later that night, on the E! post show hosted by his sister-in-law Kourtney Kardashian, Kanye went back in. 

“I just know that the Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We ain’t gonna play with them no more. And Beck needs to respect artistry and he should’ve given his award to Beyonce. Because when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration. And we as musicians have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyonce album and they feel like it takes them to another place. I’m not gonna do nothing to put my daughter at risk, but I am here to fight for creativity. That’s the reason why I didn’t say anything tonight, but you all know what it meant when ‘Ye walked out on that stage.”

There’s so much going on in there. If you only saw Kanye’s almost-hijacking, you might think he was willingly making himself the butt of the joke, but when he’s given a live mic and time to explain himself, it’s clear that’s not the case.

This isn’t a joke. It’s serious. And it’s not about Beck and it’s not really about Beyonce, I think. It’s about doing better. 

Here’s Bullseye host Jesse Thorn, writing about after Kanye’s initial incident with Taylor Swift:

Throughout all of this, West has occasionally had a bizarre and unpalatable outburst like this. But what’s fascinating to me about his outbursts is that they’re always about merit. Wrong or right, he seems to care so passionately about popular art that he can’t help but speak out. There were times when it was about him thinking he should have won, but there was also this time — when he thought Beyonce deserved credit. Or the time Kanye won and promptly handed his award to one of the few hip-hop artists who’ve matched his creativity and fearlessness, Outkast. Not as a tribute, but because he thought they had earned it more than him.

Merit matters to Kanye. A lot, clearly. Four years after the VMAs, the topic came up again in an interview with Jon Carmanica of the New York Times as West was promoting his Yeezus album:

West: I don’t want them to rewrite history right in front of us. At least, not on my clock. I really appreciate the moments that I was able to win rap album of the year or whatever. But after a while, it’s like: “Wait a second; this isn’t fair. This is a setup.” I remember when both Gnarls Barkley and Justin [Timberlake] lost for Album of the Year, and I looked at Justin, and I was like: “Do you want me to go onstage for you? You know, do you want me to fight” —

Carmanica: For you.

West: For what’s right. I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things. So when the next little girl that wants to be, you know, a musician and give up her anonymity and her voice to express her talent and bring something special to the world, and it’s time for us to roll out and say, “Did this person have the biggest thing of the year?” — that thing is more fair because I was there.

Carmanica: But has that instinct led you astray? Like the Taylor Swift interruption at the MTV Video Music Awards, things like that.

West: It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.

“I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.” “It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.”

As someone who’s a fan of Kanye West, some of the language he chooses is incredibly frustrating. Somewhere in what he’s saying, there’s an idea we can all get on board with, right? Some things are really good, and those things should be the things that we raise up as good! It’s really straight-forward!

The problem comes in because Kanye doesn’t couch his opinions in those kind of terms. He’s not interested in taking the temperature of the room to find out who had the best album. He heard Beyonce’s album and it’s the best album of the year. End of discussion. Give her the trophy.

It’s easy to criticize Kanye for being tone-deaf, for not knowing the “proper” time to speak out, for grabbing attention he doesn’t deserve, for being difficult. 

There are smarter people than me who’ve written about the problems of criticizing Kanye (white people, think real hard or risk sounding racist) and the constant hand-wringing over Kanye’s ego.  As Heben Nigatu at BuzzFeed wrote about the first track of College Dropout, “We Don’t Care”:

If you chalk up his “we don’t care what people say” attitude to simply his ego, then you have missed the point entirely. This isn’t about ego; this is about boldly asserting yourself in a world that is not meant for you. This is a vanity that is rooted in bringing the community up with you. To the ire of some who are so wrapped up in the anxiety of respectability, the message he gives the kids (in front of all these white folks who are listening to his music!) is not to be modest but to unapologetically laugh in the face of a world that does not care about them. The joke’s on you, white America. We made it, and we don’t even have the decency to be grateful. We’re laughing. We dare to laugh.

Maybe that makes sense to you, maybe it doesn’t. And maybe it’s enough to excuse Kanye’s brashness and maybe it’s not. Maybe, like so many of the people I talk to when Kanye does something like he did at the Grammys, you want to ask questions about whether or not he “understands irony” or if he’s just being a dumbass, or some other question that leads me to believe you think this 37-year old multi-millionaire musician has the intellect and self-control of a toddler.

However you react to Kanye is fine with me, because I’m pretty sure it’s fine with Kanye, but I think you’re doing yourself a disservice to write him off.

Kanye West is using the tools he has to fight for a world that fits a little closer to his ideal. These outbursts, these interruptions, they make headlines because they’re such a shock to the status quo. No, the committee didn’t immediately change their mind and no, Beck didn’t give Beyonce his trophy, but those weren’t things Kanye had any control over, not really.

He did have the ability to change the conversation.

There was a thing he could do and he did it.

Sure, it might not mean a lot in the big picture, but every time Kanye does something like this, every time he makes waves and causes controversy and takes some kind of action that he honestly thinks is going to make his world better – it’s really inspiring to me.

And I don’t mean that in the motivational poster sense, I mean I have a physical, mental and emotional re-action to it. When Kanye gets “crazy” I want to write or start a project or make a mess or stay up late or wake up early. Kanye West gets me excited, every time he does something like this, to get back to the fight against bullshit.

It is so easy, especially if you’re the type of person who is prone to forgetting that they can do better, to get sucked into thinking about bullshit. If you’re a writer, you’re tired of seeing E.L. James make a fortune off something you “could have written.” If you care about your city, you’re tired of seeing money go to the “wrong places” or projects. Whatever you care about, it’s so easy to find all the wrongs that need righted.

But if you’re like me, with a long-track record of not doing things, of not feeling like there were things you could do, of feeling power-less and less-than and along for the ride, of waiting for something to happen to you that will make your situation better, finding wrongs that need righted doesn’t help anything.

Doing literally anything does.

For me, Kanye’s this reminder that we all carry around a vision for the world we’d like to be in, a way to make things better, and that there are times when the best thing you can do is just run on stage, grab a microphone and say “this is not right.”

I was so hesitant for so long to do that, either publicly or with myself. And the thing about not wanting to put in effort and not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to make things better, is that almost everything in your life will tell you that’s the right thing to do.

Stay in your seat. Don’t speak up. Don’t hope for better.

I went to the college I went to and I took the job I did and I did so many other things because it was easy, because it was the status quo, because I didn’t have to work at it and it wasn’t going to offend anybody.

I do less of that now. Danee sees it more than anyone, I get angry at myself when something isn’t good enough and then on the good days, I go back and make it better. I didn’t used to do that. The work we’re doing with pye,brown – that’s not easy either. But, years after we came up with that name – we know what it means now. It’s long hours writing and editing, it’s meetings over lunch breaks, some nights it’s only sleeping a few hours (if at all) and some weekends it’s standing outside in the cold with football fans when I’d rather be somewhere warmer.

And the result is more of the kind of marketing we want to see in the world.

I’m taking more stands, too. Not exactly Kanye-level yet, but something like publishing my proposal for Arts United (along with a note that says they’ve already seen this and turned it down) is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have done before.

It’s not perfect. But it does make me feel like I’m in a fight for something better.

There are times when I’m not a good fighter, too loud or too sloppy or misguided or just ineffective. I’m doing that less and less, I think. I’m learning to stop myself before I grab the microphone, at least some of the time, and wait until the post-show.

But seeing Kanye fight his fight makes me want to keep fighting mine. Not in spite of the people he’s pissed off – because of them.

Fighting is hard. And the people you’re fighting against (whatever you’re fighting for), will always work to convince you that your fight is hopeless, misguided, inappropriate, worthless.

For a long time I believed them. And then I stopped, and I started believing they were wrong, and things got better.

Kanye’s a reminder of that for me. His fights aren’t perfect, but they are important. And in a lot of ways, I think he’s winning – despite the critics.

Maybe we can win, too.