Black, White and Mute

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I wrote the following paragraph back in August – a few days after teenager Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson on an otherwise ordinary summer day.

As a white person you shake your head at the television screen when you watch the police in Ferguson, MO tear gas mostly black protestors who are on the street because an 18 year old African American male with his arms raised in the air was shot six times and killed by a white patrolman who seems to have been allowed to vanish into thin air.

We have since learned and experienced quite a bit. Among them is the officer’s name, location and story of what happened – which directly contradicts that of several eyewitnesses, one of whom law enforcement officials did not bother to interview until many days later.

... what Amy said

… what Amy said

We have also gotten to know Mr. Brown’s family through numerous television interviews and statements (well, as much as you can) and have seen their pain publicly projected across the world courtesy of our uber-advanced, ever-evolving global communications systems.

We have done even more.

We have observed as numerous political figures from white and black communities have demanded that once and for all we attempt to address why it is so many young black men seem to be getting shot these days by white male authority figures while we have noticed almost simultaneously the white male authority figures in Missouri, led by Ferguson’s district attorney and the state’s governor, digging in their heels and indignantly railing against the protestors who dare to question and cross the line in frustration as their anger explodes through the streets.

Asking the right questions

Asking the right questions

We have also participated, virtually and otherwise, as this anger spreads to most major cities across the country where other indignant authority figures are no doubt lying in wait trying to control events from their offices and court houses so as to avoid the inevitable next racial and very public catastrophe.

As if the latter is even possible – especially with that strategy.

So what is next and advisable? On the former point, probably a lot of chatter and attempts at some legislative adjustments until the next shooting happens. What is advisable? Well, shutting up and listening without speaking would be a start. This is not cynicism but merely fact based on recent history. And it’s mostly directed to the white people reading this.

The New Yorker nails it with their recent cover

The New Yorker nails it with their recent cover

As a very white person I’m angry and, quite frankly, don’t even know what to think or do about any of this. After all, Ferguson, MO, like Sanford, FL, the city where another black male teenager, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was murdered last year by a neighborhood watchman, is not Alabama or Mississippi – the historical epicenters for the gunning down of unarmed young black men in the U.S.   Heck, neither one of them are even in the Deep South.

I don’t know what you do or think about all of this if you’re black – especially a young black male. Though I would imagine back in August that at the very least I’d have been on the streets and would probably have stayed there past midnight. (Note: Even before I first became a teenager at the tail end of the turbulent 1960s, curfews were never my strong point). After the exoneration of the man who shot Trayvon Martin, followed by exoneration of Officer Wilson from any wrongdoing in the shooting of Michael Brown, which, only several days later, was followed by the shooting of a 12 year old black boy in Ohio by a police officer because the guy thought the toy gun the kid was pointing was real – well, at the very least I’d now not only take to the streets but would try to destroy something, or even someone. Though in my case, it would probably be through nasty, sarcastic, cutting words. This is understandable because those are the weapons I grew up around and have been trained with. Had I had another kind of life, well… who can say?

A different version of "bad breath"

A different version of “bad breath”

What I did do in desperation was email a former student and friend/writer colleague of mine – who happens to be tall, African American, male and in his mid-twenties – and pled with him in a caring yet somewhat humorous way to “please, please, please be careful.” I did this because I felt as if I had to attempt something concrete other than to rant and rave. Besides, I know that sarcastic, cutting words are, to a large extent, also his weapons of choice. And he brandishes these weapons quite well, almost as well as I do. My fear is that as a journalist covering those events, or as a twenty-something guy in the Midwest buying a smoke or even a soda at his local convenience store, he’d launch his ammunition in exactly the wrong direction. I couldn’t let that happen. In my mind, this was perhaps one small thing I could prevent. Though in retrospect my gesture feels awkward and ill-advised. Still, it’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. Or will do in the future.

gBx185u

To those who want to categorize my musings as pseudo liberal crap or white guilt (or both) let me brutally honest. I respect both the law and law enforcement and imagine that being a beat cop in any city in the US is a scary proposition these days. And let’s be even more blunt, it’s probably more than a little bit scary for white guys who patrol black neighborhoods given how these white guys are perceived and dressed. And given reality. But what also seems a given, more than a given, is that if you are a trained policeman there is no reason in the world to shoot an unarmed 18 year old 6-10 times (the latter being the number of bullet shells found in the area) in order to prevent him from…well, doing anything. I would think three or four plugs from a decent officer would do it and even if he weren’t a very good shot. Wouldn’t you?

That being said – here’s the truth. I’m sickened and embarrassed for my pigmentation. Seriously. As a gay, Jewish, somewhat short guy (Note: That’s triple minority status), I have tried through the years to reason with fellow whites on the privilege of being in the majority and the marginalization of “the other.” I particularly did this with my parents’ friends when I was younger and as you can see – well, a lot of good that did. I have even continued to do so through the years though nowhere near as vehemently. Then again, you find that as time goes on you don’t have the energy to do everything – or really, anything – quite as vehemently.

... and social media only makes it worse

… and social media only makes it worse

That being the case let’s try a new tactic. And that would be to spread the word for white people – and particularly our political leaders in Missouri, Florida and Ohio (the latter being the location of the most recent shooting of that pesky 12 year old) – to NOT SAY ANOTHER WORD. Rather, hand over the stage to the protestors – preferably the non-white kind, and HEAR what is being said. Do not simply listen, but HEAR. And then, HEAR some more. Continue on and then… ZIP IT. Zip it GOOD. Because now you need the time to THINK AND REFLECT. Make that a long time.

I have no idea what to tell the black community to do at this point. Which should be a welcome relief to them – especially coming from a white guy.

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The Valedictorian

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The visual imagery director Mike Nichols brought to The Graduate was so strongly persuasive that for several days after I saw it he had the clearly gay, not yet out, early adolescent me convinced that I could actually be straight. The stocking leg of sleekly sexy Mrs. Robinson beckoning the scared and too internally worried young boy/man – it all worked and made me wonder, “Hmmmm, perhaps there’s a…chance?”

meeeeeowwwww

meeeeeowwwww

I’m not sure whether this was a good or bad thing. But I do know for certain it was as effective as it was unlikely. And any resentment I might have had towards Mr. Nichols for prompting that momentary confusion is forgiven not due to the fact that he died this past week but because it all worked out so gloriously for both of us in the end.

Mr. Nichols died at the age of 83 and accolades have sprung up, as they do, all over the globe for someone who has had such a prodigious career and was, incidentally, also married to one of the most famous newswomen in the world.   It’s also what will inevitably happen when one of a dozen proud earners of the EGOT – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards – passes away. A merely talented person can get fortunate and as a fluke be awarded any one of these in their field in an off year. But all four – and in this case awarded multiple times – it seems like the overused title of “genius” is for once earned.

Make room on the mantle!

Make room on the mantle!

I have many friends who have met, hung out and worked with Mr. Nichols over the years. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to do any of the three. But I feel as if I have because their stories are endless. They alternate between his brilliance as a director, the extreme smarts he brought to everything he touched in work and in life and an unrelenting and often quite scabrous wit. Not to mention his sophistication, occasional superiority, playfulness, penchant for secrets, kindness, generosity and yes – sheer, unadulterated genius.

Ugh, not that word again. Well, as my little sister used to say when that early adolescent me also begged her to let me play with her jacks on the kitchen floor – tough.

To be a recognized genius in show business is no easy feat – mostly because the arts are in the end so utterly subjective.   Still, in Mr. Nichols’ case any rational person measuring “genius” by any rational standard could be overwhelmed by his canon in just film alone. Very few directors make one or two memorable movies in their lives, much less five, six, seven or eight over almost half a century. That might not seem as impressive as I hoped to make it sound – that is until I start listing the films.

How many directors among us, or those aspiring to do anything meaningful in the movies, are capable of making their debut with something on the caliber of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Think you can? I invite you to Netflix it or rent it or even borrow my copy and then get back to me.

That pretty much sums it  up

That pretty much sums it up

If after watching one of the best movie adaptations of one of the best plays ever written with one of the biggest movie star couples that ever lived, then watch his follow-up film – a little throwaway classic we like to call The Graduate. These two releases in two consecutive years? Are you kidding? Not only will the latter live on as a seminal work in the history of movies, it also happens to be one of the few films that captured the tumultuous themes the 1960s and manages to stay relevant today. Don’t believe me on that either? Sit in on one of my college screenwriting classes, or the film classes of any of my colleagues at pretty much any university across the country and do an informal survey of this younger generation’s view of The Graduate – something I have done on and off for more than a decade.   Not a negative word about a movie that was shot nearly five decades ago (Note: Rare in itself) – a time not long after most of their parents were born.

Where do you even begin?

Where do you even begin?

Then there were other classics like Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge (Note: One of the truest and funniest movies about show business that I’ve ever seen) and Primary Colors. Not to mention the brilliant and seemingly inadaptable epic play Angels in America as a multi-part HBO movie. Which begs the question of Silkwood and Heartburn – about as different as two films can get but both equally affecting and chilling in very different ways. There’s no time to get into those or any others of the above or we’ll be here all night. Better to spend your time watching or re-watching any of them instead of spending one more second reading any more of what I or anybody else chooses to write about them.

We could stop there but we haven’t gotten to the theatre. I’ll try to make this brief but what do you say about an eight time Tony Award winner who directed so many of Neil Simon’s most seminal and successful early Broadway comedies – including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite – only to produce the megahit musical Annie a decade later, follow it up by directing the even meggier hit musical Spamalot thirty years after that, only to follow that by winning a Tony Award less than a decade later for directing the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a much-acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s classic American play Death of a Salesman?

And he looked so freakin' cool doing it

Right at home

Had enough yet? It might surprise young people to know that Mr. Nichols began his career as a performer. Along with his friend and frequent collaborator over the years – Elaine May – he was one half of one of the most successful comic duos of the 1950s and 60s – Nichols and May. They played clubs around the world, guested all over television and sold millions of records – earning him his first “G” in the EGOT – the Grammy award.

The dynamic duo

The dynamic duo

For those who believe to be a brilliant director or artist of any kind means that one must create a very specific and very individual style that permeates their entire output, it is particularly interesting to note that as a filmmaker, man of the theatre, and performer Mike Nichols had no such signature or even strategy. Of all the many thoughtful quotes I’ve read and heard from him since his death the one that stayed with me is probably the simplest. When asked about how he directs scenes in comedy vs. drama he noted that all he really tries to do is figure out “what’s really going on” between the people. That search for “the truth” among human beings could be why he so easily cuts across so many genres and styles. On the other hand, it could just be that he was smarter and more perceptive than the rest of us.

Of course, EGOTS – or in layman terms: little statuettes voted to you by your peers – don’t account for or even prove genius beyond a shadow of a doubt. Still, it’s one of the only measures we have for the immeasurable. But if you still don’t buy that reflect on what Mr. Nichols has left behind in the aftermath of his death. No, I’m not talking about the massive tributes throughout the world from all of the top people across the board in the entertainment industry. Consider the work.

Oh.. and he was besties with Meryl Streep.

Oh.. and plus he was besties with Meryl Streep.

One final note: Mike Nichols was an immigrant.   He was born in Berlin with the name Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky and arrived in the U.S when he was seven years old with his family in order to escape the Nazi regime. He recalled that at the time he could only speak two phrases in English. One was: I do not speak English and the other was: Please don’t kiss me.

Clearly he was a dreamer to have achieved as much as he did.  So perhaps it stands to reason we give a few others the chance to follow in his footsteps and at least attempt to begin to fill the void. I think he’d approve. Though certainly he would say it more elegantly and with a dash more humor. Which sort of proves my point.

Rear view

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I’ve been told one or twice over the years, certainly never more than two times in a 12-month period as far as I can recall, that I have a nice butt.  This is not something I advertise or, really, am particularly proud of.  I don’t do anything to maintain it, I never think about it because, quite frankly, I can’t see it, and certainly it hasn’t really gotten me much that I know of except a few compliments now and again.  The latter has always puzzled me since I would think of all the wonderful things family, friends and the general public could flatter me about this would not be one of them.

Then again, I’m not complaining because as an ex of mine used to jokingly say – though I realized after two years of his bull that this was not really a joke – I accept all free-floating compliments.

How to take a compliment

How to take a compliment

No, this is not a piece about the world’s obsession with Kim Kardashian’s butt.  Though certainly the provocative pictures of her very shiny and – since there’s no other way to say it I will – very large and very toned posterior that was designed to “Break the Internet suggest that if it were I could probably increase my readership at least twenty thousand fold.  Nevertheless, I am still choosing not to go there.  This should not be surprising since I have also opted for so many decades to not do much of anything about the sporadic compliments I have gotten about my own behind.

At the end of the day all this really proves is not only do I know little about generating (m)ass appeal but that I am probably just about the worst person alive to market my own ass(ets).

OK OK we get it...

OK OK we get it…

Still, as a writer and college professor I am a pretty good provocateur and poser of questions.  And while once again I will state this still is not a piece about KK – though she certainly has managed to dominate the proceedings so far, huh? – I can’t help but wonder out loud in print:

  • Why something or someone gets attention in our world?  OR
  • If it’s ever possible to know other than by trial and error and personal taste just what the best subjects, persons and events are to either work on, research or let your eye or mind generally wander to?  AND
  • Once these things get stuck in your craw, which ones will you, not to mention the entire world, choose to indulge in briefly, sporadically, intermittently or endlessly? OH, AND — ONE LAST QUESTION
  • Given the disposable nature of subject matter in our ever-evolving age of information, do any of these decisions or choices even matter?

This all came to mind this week because we people on Earth for the first time in, well, EVER managed to land a spacecraft on a comet.  Not the cleanser but a real live celestial object made of ice, dust and gas located 317 MILLION MILES AWAY.  This alone might not seem exciting to non-science geeks except when we’re told that the constant stream of 24/7 photos from the surface of that non-cleanser just might answer the age-old questions of: how the World began, how Earth was first formed and if humans are the only intelligent beings in the universe.

While NASA/the US is usually in the lead on these types of things it is interesting to note that the achievement of the Rosetta Spacecraft was due to 10 years of perseverance by the European Space Agency.  Not to mention those cheers and congrats of victory took place in Germany and were not in large part due to what we here in the US consider to be our greatest asset – American exceptionalism.

Oh, who cares about that and who says we’re not exceptional – we can still lay claim to Kardashian’s gluteus maximus!  And who says we’re not into science the way we once were when we’re clearly leading in um… anatomy.

You had to know this picture was coming

You had to know this picture was coming

You might dismiss me as Mr. Sarcasmo.  So many of my family and friends have over the years while still sporadically applauding me about my own tushy.  But the facts speak for themselves.  KK’s photo spread (no pun intended) on both the cover and inside the pages of a little known publication called Paper Magazine, is now close to getting 20,000,000 views.  Have there been 20 million views of the comet’s surface or the space probe Rosetta?  Well, perhaps.  But are you willing to take that bet???  No, I didn’t think so.  (Note: And for those who are willing, which of those images were you most excited to see first?  Be honest).

Nope. I won't accept it!

Nope. I won’t accept it!

Well, of course there is a time for science and a time for bottom feeding, right?  Intellectual advancement for mankind does not depend on a majority of us viewing space photos – just on a select few understanding what they mean, interpreting them and advancing knowledge that will cause others to make discoveries for the betterment of mankind.  Other discoveries made by NASA over the years are responsible for the science behind the MRI imaging tests that will likely prolong your life, the artificial limbs that allow those with disabilities to move about like never before, and the clear Invisalign braces that two years ago finally freed me from a lifetime of crooked teeth.  And most of us don’t know how the heck any of them work or why.  Or even care to understand them.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then why care about Rosetta’s photos since clearly there are others around more well-versed than ourselves to do the dirty work?  Meanwhile we get to fantasize endlessly about oiled up derriere photos of… many people – as we simultaneously benefit as a people from the scientific findings of others.

Does this help us focus?

Does this help us focus?

Well, because in the US – as well as many other places in the world – we live in a free society where everyone gets to vote (okay, mostly everyone) and decide how much money goes to science in order to explore.  We also all collectively decide by our voting of what is popular and trending just what the priorities of the world should be and how our time, money and attention will and should be allocated in the future.  Some ancient societies were built by peasants and ruled by royalty who chose to construct up and out.  Other civilizations were and are about survival and the worship of a God, Deity or Figurehead of choice with more of a focus on piety that can get you into the Afterlife rather than what benefits you in your present life.   Some have even chosen to simply revel in the decadence of the day, pleasure seeking and partying their lives away with the most desirable among them – or at least available to them – as long as possible.

Several weeks ago there was an election in the U.S. with the lowest voter turnout in 72 years – meaning only 36% of eligible voters showed up at the polls.   The age group with the lowest turnout figures was those 18-29 years old, accounting for only 21% of all total voters.  When that is broken down to simply Democratic voters, the number drops down to 13%.

Good Grief

Good Grief

This will cause a shift away from issues heavily favored by young people – such as the preservation of the environment.  The new Republican controlled Senate is touting a heavy shift towards oil drilling with a promised passage of the Keystone Pipeline.  In simple terms, that means digging deeper into the Earth than ever before up into Canada in order to excavate as much oil as is inhumanely possible.  It will also mean that the Senator who will be put in charge of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will be James Inhofe (R- Oklahoma), one of the leading climate change deniers in the country who authored the 2012 book:  The Greatest Hoax:  How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

No, I don’t think the majority of young people were spending their time mooning at the backside of KK instead of voting.  Her audience extends far beyond that, and in the case of those photos it could indeed skew a bit older and much more male.  They are also not to blame for our shift away from science to social media.  That’s Mark Zuckerberg’s fault and since he already turned 30 years old in May he’s clearly not so young anymore.

... but I still wear a hoodie everyday

… but I still wear a hoodie everyday

There instead seems to be a mass exit away from…. what shall we call it…. reality and a growing emphasis to a more short-term, pleasure driven, hedonistic – or at least egoistic culture that has ironically been fueled in part by our recent technological advancements.  These toys allow us to watch the trending showdown between the surface of a heavenly body many millions of miles away and Kim Kardashian’s buttocks.  We enjoy each together, alone and apart from the scrutiny of anyone else.

And we enjoy it at our own peril.

Chair in Space

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Almost two weeks ago I went to a screening of Interstellar at the Motion Picture Academy. About a day and a half later I had my first ever attack of sinus-related vertigo, which is a condition characterized by extreme dizziness, nausea and vomiting.   Were they related? I’m not quite sure.

Certainly, it is tempting to get on the bandwagon and blame Interstellar for all the ills of the world, including my own. Plus, I can’t for certain say that the film didn’t make me dizzy – both literally and figuratively. But what good does it do to complain about it? For as much as I am stuck with a lingering case of vertigo every time I move my head around a bit too fast, there is no escape from the cultural impact of a new film by a director as renowned and popular as Christopher Nolan.

Maybe I need to borrow his suit?

Maybe I need to borrow his suit?

The most that we all can do is deal with both illnesses – my vertigo and Nolan-mania – as best we can. Of course I, for one, have a sinus rinse, cortisone nose spray and antibiotics to counter the Big V and it’s slowly getting better.   But right now there is no known treatment for Nolan-mania or those determined to spread it around to the rest of us. Certainly, quarantine hasn’t seemed to work as a cure for other recent outbreaks, not to mention it’s mostly unpopular. And in this case, it’s counterintuitive. If we know anything Nolan, it’s that you don’t try to remedy the effects of him or his films with anything that is even vaguely unpopular.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown...

Heavy is the head that wears the crown…

Full confession upfront: there is nothing Interstellar offers to exactly hate but an absence of hate does not necessarily translate into a presence of love. It has its moments, though one would expect that in any movie with an almost three hour running time and a choice from among the best of what commercial Hollywood has the offer in terms of above and below-the-line talent. But what it has little of is sustained and coherent dramatic tension as well as a plot that is entirely discernable to those who have never studied astrophysics. Not to mention it has nothing truly original to say in the final analysis, that is unless that message was encoded and transmitted in a way that only people in another galaxy or time dimension could discern and then explain to us naysayers in simpler terms – which is certainly possible given the atmosphere Nolan-mania has us now living in and the literal lack of it we get in the film itself. And NOTE: No, these are NOT SPOILERS (not that you’d understand them if they were). NOR WILL THERE BE ANY!

Alright, Alright, Alright.... continue on

Alright, Alright, Alright…. continue on

The one indisputable piece of good news here is Interstellar is an attempt at taking chances and doing SOMETHING, even though a dizzy, cloudy-headed, middle-aged sinus sufferer like me didn’t quite get what that was or at least can’t recall it. And this is very much better than the choice to make NOT VERY MUCH NEW or NOTHING MUCH BUT MONEY that most big studio movies/filmmakers are opting for these days.   So one supposes sickies like us – meaning we who have somehow avoided the disease of Nolan-mania but are nevertheless still considered ill in the culture as we know it – should be grateful. And to answer your next question: Yes, it has truly come to that.

Yes. YES.   And – YES.

I happened to catch Interstellar with two other screenwriter friends – both of who went to film school – which I didn’t – and both of who have more major studio writing credits than myself. In my mind, this somehow means they were more likely to be bigger fans of the previous three hours but this didn’t turn out to be the case. One liked it a bit more and one a bit less than myself but we were all in the general ballpark of – huh??? Still, given what we’ve all experienced in Hollywood during the last decade we all agreed we were happy a movie that was trying something “different” – though none of us quite could verbalize what that was – was at least given the green light.

One of these things is not like the other...

One of these things is not like the other…

Given the fact that I can’t let a subject drop – as should be evident by now – I couldn’t help but then pose this imaginary scenario to my two friends:

If you had submitted this screenplay in any of your screenwriting classes, what would have happened?

One immediate answer was: “Oh please, it would’ve been ripped to shreds,” and the other was a non-verbal head shake which I translate to, “Are you kidding, even in my most neophyte writing days, this is nothing that I could ever do because I would never, ever write anything as pretentious as this.”

But more telling was the follow-up one of my Nolan-immune buddies posed:

“Suppose we each submitted this to our agents or managers?” Before I could even answer he jumped in. “I can tell you what would happen, they’d NEVER send it out. They’d throw it right back at you. But Nolan has earned the right to do whatever he wants.”

Yes, this is true. And well deserved because this is how the system we’ve all signed up for works. Yet as the Spiderman comics themselves at one time wrote, and the Spiderman movies decades later once offered:

With great power comes great responsibility.

(Note: Most sources credit Voltaire for first coining this phrase. Still, Stan Lee adapted it to modern times and who am I to argue with the one guy who has probably out-Nolan-ed Nolan?).

Ya damn right!

Ya damn right!

Another perspective on this is what that same writer friend, who also happens to be a parent, quickly added:

Sometimes it helps when there are people to tell you NO.

This speaks to the imagined nirvana for most of us doing creative work – a world where we can do whatever we want, a place where there are little if any “no”s, and a situation where we are both paid and given almost unlimited money in order to make our visions come true.

Hmm, be careful what you wish for or at least consider if you are always the best judge of what you are wanting.  Because above all else there is always one ultimate power – your audience.   No one can ever take away your artistic power to do anything what you want but a lack of audience disposes of the money and creative freedom in Hollywood as quickly as others think it seemingly came. This can be problematic once you get to a certain place if you’ve gotten used to the perks or enjoy making a sizeable living. Sure, it’s a high-class problem but then again – everything is relative. There are those back in your hometown who fantasize daily about living yours or my dingy little non-Nolan-like life – especially if it has anything to do with show business.

One of the oddities for me of Interstellar was how much its first act reminded me of… Michael Bay’s recent Transformers 4: Age of Extinction.

GASP!

GASP!

The same life-has-passed-him-by scientifically handy good ole boy Dad, the similar spunky daughter who has always been Dad’s favorite and is probably a tad too much like him, and the identical heartland Americana setting where the American flag is sacred but its citizens have somehow been betrayed by a government that has either disappointed them, betrayed them, or out and out lied to them. There are secrets, there are shadow corporate interests and there is the advancement of technology that might or might not destroy, betray or save the world.

Well, one supposes the way you make a tentpole film is to somehow tap into the mythic family and the Heartland (whether it be faux Nebraska or Texas), right? Hmmm, not necessarily. No one makes a blockbuster tentpole like James Cameron but not even Avatar or Titanic chose to delve in so obvious a territory. Not that those two films both didn’t have faults and employ archetypes but somehow it felt as if, well – they had a bit more coherence, emotion and well, dare I say it…honest humanity?

... and I just remembered they were blue

… and I just remembered they were blue

Part of Christopher Nolan’s appeal and originality is that his films are a bit colder and more brittle and that is certainly an admirable stance to take rather than to drown viewers in bathos. It’s what makes his take on the Batman films so compelling and how movies like The Prestige and even Inception – both of which have emotional characters making odd and sometimes even distancing choices – work as well as they do. It’s also part of what put him on the map to begin with in Memento – a movie that perfectly employed his high intellectuality with the very flawed and/or too perfect husbands or former lovers he likes to put at the center of his movies.

This, among many reasons, is why Interstellar is a head scratcher. It’s good that it’s not Transformers or Gravity or 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film Nolan himself admits was an inspiration here) but – exactly WHAT IS IT???

The only thing I can come up with is an overly long studio film with technical Irving the Explainer speeches that feel as if they were written by the guys or gals who want to get paid to author books like Stephen Hawking for Dummies but are not quite yet masters of the craft. But Christopher Nolan is at his best a master of film. That’s why Interstellar is so confounding for so many of us, and why we can’t drink the Kool-Aid. To do so would be like saying we enjoyed a Big Gulp that has sat out in the sun for too long and lost its fizz.

Life and Death

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Important note before reading this week’s entry:

Brittany Maynard, one of the two subjects of this blog, chose to end her life on Saturday at her home in Portland.  Little did I know that the day I was writing this entry, she was taking the very action she had fought so publicly for.  Rather than edit  what I have written to focus on her death, I think the better way to honor Brittany’s bravery is to leave the words intact and focus on the positive examples both Brittany and Nurse Kaci Hickox, still alive and well in Maine, are providing to the world – not to mention our 24/7 news cycle.

Ok – now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

No one wants to get Ebola because no one wants to die. Well, most of us that is. But on the opposite ends of the country two very different yet quite similar young women this week helped lead the way in our continuing understanding of life, death and all of the messy stuff in between.

In Maine, we have a 32-year-old nurse named Kaci Hickox and in Portland, Oregon, at least for now, there is 29-year-old newlywed Brittany Maynard. Both want to continue their lives the way they choose. It’s just that in the case of Brittany, who has advanced Stage Four brain cancer, that means having the freedom to decide when to die. And with Kaci, who recently returned from West Africa after caring for a 10-year-old girl dying alone of Ebola, it’s simply about the freedom to ride her bike in the woods rather than endure quarantine in a makeshift New Jersey medical tent sans plumbing or at an undisclosed government chosen hospital somewhere inside the Pine Tree state.

I know a good place to hide away

I know a good place to hide away

I refer to each of these young women by their first names. Which only seems fair since they have also chosen to let us get to know them in unusually intimate ways. Also, since it makes them feel more like real people rather than merely names in the news, and being I admire them both greatly, well – I figured it’s the least I could do.

Ebola, ebola, ebola, ebola, ebola. Something about the way it sounds even feels dangerous, doesn’t it? Or at the very least exotic or unknown. Which most certainly makes it scary. Well, any disease that can kill you is frightening, especially when you didn’t ask for it or even put yourself at risk for it. Not that the latter matters. Or does it? I mean, no one made Kaci go to Eboland, right? Why should the rest of us have to suffer for her nobility?

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Let’s get something straight about science – medical, environmental or otherwise. It is, all of it, based on facts as we know them at the time. For instance, I could have told you with all certainly that the world was flat several thousand years ago and pretty much you would have taken it for granted as true. However, all these centuries later it has been proven time and again that we live in a round world so what is true changed based on research. Is it then possible 500 years from now science will shift and prove the world is really shaped like a question mark? Well, of course anything is POSSIBLE but it hardly seems likely based on what we have learned over the last 2500 years. Although given the popularity of absolutist thinking lately, I do fear for the extinction of question marks of any kind.

The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community at the moment on Ebola is that it is a virus that is transmitted from one human to another through direct contact (broken skin/eyes, nose or mouth) with bloody or bodily fluids (urine, saliva, sweat, vomit, feces, breast milk, semen) with a person who is actively sick or through objects like syringes and needles. It is not airborne unless a current Ebola patient who is actively ill and who has a fever pries open your mouth and spits (or does worse) directly into it.

Ewwwww

Ewwwww

Many Republican conservatives have voiced the perils of those with the Ebola virus riding the subway or bus systems and randomly infecting the rest of us innocents just because they were too careless to stay home. Certainly, that is even what the scared, poor old bleeding heart liberal me at first thought until I took off my hypochondria hat and considered – when was the last time anyone threw up, bled or deposited their semen directly into my nose or mouth on the bus or subway? I suppose they could sneeze into my mouth or nose if I didn’t watch myself but they’d have to be actively sick and sweating with a high fever and I don’t tend to sit or even stand directly next to those people in public places, given the kind of weirdo I am. Plus, there is always Purell.

I really don't look good in yellow

I really don’t look good in yellow

Unfortunately, I remember this type of panic exactly three decades ago around a disease called AIDS. I also recall as if it were yesterday the now 20 plus years dead but then 13 year old boy named Ryan White who was thrown out of his school by alarmists for being HIV positive even as he lived six more years to infect no one. Not to mention Conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. going on TV at the time and suggesting young dying gay men and IV drug users in New York, and presumably very young boys like Ryan White elsewhere, be tattooed and quarantined – sort of the way they were in Nazi Germany 40 years before that. Lovely.

If that sounds as if I’m being unfair, I am not. Yes, of course I am biased. But in this case, I am simply reporting on the facts at that time. Just like you can’t un-infect yourself from a virus you can’t change the reality of the past three or ten decades later simply because it is embarrassing. Of course, you can cure a virus with knowledge the scientific community has uncovered. Much in the way you can re-educate yourself and change your way of thinking to something a bit more rational and factual. That is if you choose to do so.

Which brings us to Brittany Maynard.

Happier times

Happier times

Here is a vibrant young California woman who was just married and by all accounts smart, happy and active, diagnosed in the late stages of a lethal brain tumor that will end her life with a barrage of unrelenting headaches, a loss of motor skills and certain death in less than a year. Numerous doctors told her that her case is accelerating rapidly and that not only is there no cure but little respite they can promise her from an extremely painful and severely mentally debilitating decline.

After some thought and consultation with her doctors and loved ones, Brittany made the decision that was right for her and she and her husband moved to Oregon where euthanasia is legal. What that means is a doctor can legally prescribe Brittany a small lethal dose of pills and, if she choses to take them, can end her life in a manner of minutes privately and painlessly.   Now that wouldn’t seem to be all that controversial, would it?

Well, it turns out that it is and that even with a debilitating brain tumor Brittany was smart enough to be one step ahead of all the protestors. So she decided to post an online video explaining her decision at some length, which, to her and everyone else’s surprise, quickly went viral and has now received over 6 million hits. Wow. That’s a lot of interest. Makes you even think some of those people actually realize that they too, like Brittany, just might be faced with a similar end of life decision at some point in their lives where they just might want to explore a similar option.

Well, that would be quite cowardly, or at least not brave, according to a 30 year-old man with a brain tumor named Phillip Johnson. A Catholic seminarian from the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. who six years ago was diagnosed with a similar though not entirely identical brain tumor, Phillip came out quite vehemently and quite publicly against Brittany’s own end of life choices in a widely read though not quite as viral article 10 days ago. Here are just a few excerpts:

Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take.  As humans we are relational – we relate to one another and the actions of one person affects others.  Sadly, the concept of “redemptive suffering” – that human suffering united to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross for our salvation can benefit others – has often been ignored or lost in modern times. 

There is a card on Brittany’s website asking for signatures “to support her bravery in this very tough time.”  I agree that her time is tough, but her decision is anything but brave.  I do feel for her and understand her difficult situation, but no diagnosis warrants suicide.

I will continue to pray for Brittany as she deals with her illness, as I know exactly what she is going through.

Gee Phil, and I thought only God himself (or herself) can only really know all the true experiences of all the men, women and beasts in the world.

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I try not to write much about religion unless it has to do with fundamentalists who are determined to bring their way of thinking into the mainstream and that is only because they leave no room for any dissenting thought. Whether it’s done for selfish dogmatic reasons or in the name of a loving God whose word you are determined to spread because part of your religion, you believe, makes it your mission, it’s never proper to order others to adhere to your way of life en masse or judge them harshly as long as they are not hurting anyone else. Still, it does puzzle me why anyone would go out of their way to so publicly object to how a terminally ill patient chooses to end their life and why that anyone would do it in the name of God. As a NY Jew who for 27 years has lived with an Italian Catholic who did quite well as a boy in Catholic school, I’m here to tell you that even God wouldn’t like it. To wit: here’s the one Bible passage my former altar boy taught me that I can actually remember.

John 8:7: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

In the name of Brittany, take that, Phil. Not that she needs my help – at least not on that score.

As for me, I choose to think about it this way. I’m not going to use Kaci for a blood transfusion or a bedmate but I would be happy to hug her in thanks for the selfless way she chose to fight a deadly virus at its source. Not to mention, if she were in town I’d happily invite her over to my home for dinner and an evening of crazy 8s. I’d do the same for Brittany if she were well enough to travel or had the strength to have me over. Though perhaps I would give her a blood transfusion if she needed it. Which might not happen since because of AIDS gay men are still forbidden from donating blood to non-family members and most certainly to those we don’t know. We are all, each and every one of us gay guys, in the high-risk category despite our HIV statuses. Yup, there are some things we as a society still just don’t grow from. But perhaps one day we will. In time. How fortunate for those of us who still have that luxury, and for those who decide to fight for it.