The Chair’s 10 Best of 2014

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Of course 10 best lists are bogus. After all, what exactly is “best?” Even the first dictionary definition itself can’t decide. It states:

BEST

  1. 
of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.

I don’t know about you but I find there is a hell of a lot of difference between excellent, effective and desirable. In fact, the moments in my life I can remember being at my most desirable in no way made me the most excellent person in the room – especially when that number was two. Truth be told and given what usually prompts human desire, I’d actually argue that the exact opposite was true.

I can recall once or twice being so excellent at something that it is hard to imagine someone wouldn’t have found me equally desirable. But wait, let’s forget that. If you’ve been in the presence of any writer at his or her most excellent you’d know it’s not a pretty sight. Hair askew, loved ones, friends and usually hygiene totally ignored. Not to mention common courtesy. Meaning – don’t even THINK about interrupting, much less BREATHING, because I will KILL YOU. Or worse, BLAME YOU for stopping the flow. Not to mention what the world will do to you if any more of this genius is lost from its most excellent source – Me.

I have no idea what you're talking about Chairy

I have no idea what you’re talking about Chairy

Finally, we’re left with effective and nothing about the word effective comes close to evoking best. Michael Bay is probably one of the most effective filmmakers to ever work in contemporary Hollywood but, uh – best? Well, you see how words deceive. And yes, he can take it. He married us for it. Which only proves that Edward Albee is the all-time best.

Here then in no particular order are my 10 best of the year. I define best as jarring, original, memorable and cool – to me. There is nothing scientific about it. It’s a purely subjective list. As are all those that deal in bests.

FILM: Birdman and Boyhood

Looking up

Looking up

No one except a few film critics, most of whom do not partake fully in life because they don’t have the time, have seen every film in any given year. But at least I see a lot. And I say these two stand above and beyond the pack for different reasons.

In the case of Boyhood, the feat of shooting a film with the same actors aging over a 12 year period, rewriting as you go, and emerging with anything coherent – much less emotionally affecting – is nothing but the best. It takes drive, focus and talent. Richard Linklater has always been an interesting and adept filmmaker but in this case he’s managed to circumvent the Hollywood system with a truly original approach to a universal story. Anyone can pick apart the movie’s faults, but no one in the narrative commercial world has had the nerve to take a path this original lately. In 2014, that’s my equivalent of the B word.

Birdman has stayed with me for months and I’m not quite sure why. I liked the film yet in teaching screenwriting have certainly been one of those jerks to – yes – pick it apart. Still, there is something about watching Michael Keaton, a former megastar of the eighties who my college age students now barely know, play an outlandish version of his public persona so heartbreakingly that it makes me occasionally want to weep. Yes, weep. I’m not a total cynic. This is a project that for all of its faults could have gone horribly wrong. Credit director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, another fearless chance taker, and a cast of actors working at the top of their game, for keeping the high wire act alive more times than not to its pretty thrilling results.

THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE: Malala

Yes, you are

Yes, you are

You’re a smart teenage girl from Pakistan who got shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out for other girls and their education. You then endure a bunch of surgeries and manage to not only survive but to continue to speak your mind as you gain intelligence and, well, even more nerve (Note: As if that’s possible). Then several weeks ago, these same Taliban types shoot up a school and kill 141 people, mostly children, and you still continue to speak out. Not with speechifying anger but with calm wisdom and directness. This is why you win the Nobel Peace Prize before you are old enough to vote. And how the world begins to slowly change.

AMERICAN POLITICS: Elizabeth Warren

America's truthteller

America’s truthteller

Let’s have a show of hands – how many of you are still pissed off at the big banks and Wall Street but don’t know what to say or do about it? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) does. This time she might have been unable to stop Congress from passing a bill several weeks ago that will once again deregulate Wall Street and allow major banks to engage in the kind of risky investments that almost brought down the economy more than six years ago, but that doesn’t mean she will the next time. She’s like the best and smartest teacher in school that you always remember because she was able to take a subject you never could understand and present it in a way that not only made it clear but made you became engaged. The reason for that is that for years she actually did teach at Harvard and innately understands how to simplify unnecessarily complicated principles to undergraduates – meaning the rest of us. Like all the best academics I have ever met, now Sen. Warren doesn’t fall for the fancy linguistic tricks or ill-conceived arguments the establishment class in her field consistently tries to pass off as absolute truth. She questions so we, in turn, learn to question. This is why she probably always gets high evals at the end of every year.

POP CULTURE LOSSES: Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman 

Gone but not forgotten

Gone but not forgotten

This is not the best but the WORST. Still, it needs to be included because of the ripple effect their deaths seemed to have had across the world. Doing great work in the field of entertainment puts you in public view and when you do it over a long period of time the world feels as if they really knew you and mourns accordingly. And perhaps we all did know them – at least partially. It’s an element of what made them all such outstanding artists.

Still, it is quite odd for three such unexpected celebrity deaths to occur in such a relatively short period of time by less than natural means. Flip the channels on television or the peruse the shelves of a film DVD library and you can’t help but run into these three and marvel at the talent as you simultaneously consider the sudden loss.   JR was in her early eighties, RW was in his early 60s and PSH was in his late forties. Yet in their own very individual ways they each were among the very best at what they did. Which is all any of us can hope for at any given moment in time.

TELEVISION: Lisa Kudrow and HBO’s The Comeback

Oh how we "cherish" you (sorry, couldn't help myself)

Oh how we “cherish” you (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

There is nothing currently on television that evokes the humor, pathos and general uneasy brilliant comic drama that Lisa Kudrow brings to her portrayal of actress/reality star Valerie Cherish on HBO’s The Comeback. And when I say nothing I mean her performance is unlike anything I (or you) have ever seen on TV (nee HBO) or pretty much anywhere.

This series has returned ten years after being cancelled after only running a year the first time around. That alone is remarkable. But nothing prepares you for the eight episode arc of the new season as you watch Valerie/Lisa endure the indignities of rising towards the top of a profession that often leaves little room for any real dignity (Note: How may professions do?). Or maybe she just chooses wrong. (Note: Who doesn’t sometimes?). Whatever the reason, she is simultaneously the underdog and her own worst enemy and it’s sad, recognizable, funny and uncomfortably cringe-worthy. Most of all – it’s real.

I will miss Valerie Cherish for everything she is and everything she is not. If you haven’t tuned in, do so. And for god sakes, given Lisa/Valerie the Emmy.

MEDICINE: Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox

You ride that bike, girl.

You ride that bike, girl.

What can you say about a nurse who goes voluntarily to Africa to fight a deadly disease, returns to the US where she is put into mandatory quarantine by New Jersey governor Chris Christie (even though she showed no symptoms and did not test positive for the virus) and then publicly stands up to said well-known political bully without cursing him out or punching him in the face? That she’s my kind of gal? Needless to say.

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch...

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch…

For those who don’t recall, Gov. Christie insisted on quarantine for Nurse Hickox in a makeshift tent when she returned to the U.S., which caused her to go public and take a stand against the governor by defying his quarantine and returning home to Maine. She did all this with calm determination and the backing of medical facts despite the hysterical witch-hunts and political grandstanding that began swirling around her.

Then once she got to Maine, she and her boyfriend dared to take a bike ride while being hounded by a gaggle of media. And remain polite and calm. I shudder to think what I would have said. #GetChristieNoLove

MUSIC: Annie Lennox, Nostalgia

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

In the 1980s, Annie Lennox was the lead singer of The Eurythmics and known for huge hit records like Would I Lie To You. Once I saw her in concert where she leaned so far into the stage on one foot with her mic that I thought she’d fall over as she hit a note so raw and pitch perfect that you could hear an audible gasp throughout the entire concert hall. Some years later she went on her own and won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal for No More I Love Yous from her second solo album Medusa. She followed that with an Oscar some years after that for best original song, Into the West, from the last of the first three Lord of the Rings movies.

All that being said, it should come as no surprise that for me the best CD/download/album or whatever you want to call it of the year is hers. In Nostalgia she takes classics like I Put A Spell On You, You Belong To Me, Georgia on My Mind and Billie Holliday’s haunting song of the lynching of Black men in the Deep South, Strange Fruit, and presents them all in stripped down versions unlike anyone you have ever heard before. There are so few true real artists these days with worldwide commercial success. She’s one.

APP: Aaron Paul’s YB

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For free or by paying 99 cents for a more advanced version, you can download an app where actor Aaron Paul’s resonant baritone speaks phrases like Yo, bitch or Happy Holidays, Bitch or See ya, Bitch any time you want. Yes, I find this exciting.

See, when Breaking Bad ended its series run we also lost Paul’s Jessie Pinkman, the dumb as a fox crystal meth-cooking sidekick whose signature phrase, Yo Bitch, became a national obsession. A multiple Emmy winner and fan favorite, Paul raised almost $2 million for his wife’s charity, Kind Campaign, which helps young women in need, with a series of contests and giveaways that coincided with the final season. But after being stopped on the street, emailed and tweeted by thousands of people imploring him to curse them out with variations of his signature phrase he gave in and decided to generate some cash with it – for charity and, hopefully, for himself. Because even cursing people out loses its thrill after a while – and especially when they ask you to.

SOCIAL ACTIVITY: Protests 

Sad realities

Sad realities

The consecutive deaths of too many young Black males in the last year in numerous states by law enforcement has created both spontaneous and planned nationwide protests across the country. In the moment it feels as if this is doing nothing but letting off steam yet through the lens of history one can clearly see this is the American way to social justice and evolution.

I would not have thought this was quite true decades ago. But having been born at a time when the civil rights movement first began taking hold, and then living through the Vietnam War, Kent State, women’s rights, gay rights, AIDS, homelessness, nuclear proliferation and marriage equality, I’ve seen how it works. Societal shifts are only fueled through provocateurs that have a real and righteous point about injustice. Therefore it’s our job to take it to the streets, talk about it, write about it or even just write a check in order to make something happen. It moves at a snail’s pace but things ultimately evolve when we don’t give in or give up. #ICantBreathe.

NEWBORN BABY: Sam Van Buren

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Who is Sam Van Buren, you might ask? Well, the coolest, snappiest and best-dressed baby I’ve ever seen – who happens to be the firstborn of my blog cohort and dear friend Holly Van Buren and her husband Michael.

Holly chooses the images and writes the captions for Notes and it might surprise you to know that she literally gave birth two months ago without missing a single week of choosing images, tagging and posting the blog. How is she able to do this along with everything else she is responsible for in her life – I HAVE NO IDEA!!   

It helps when Sam the Man looks like this...

It helps when Sam looks like this…

Sam the Man, as I call him, takes great photos because he is able to both smile and come off as a hipster all at the same time. Again, I have no idea how to do this. But it does give me hope that one day as he gets older he might teach me. That is if I am not too old. Do not say – too late.

GQ baby of the year

GQ baby of the year

For myself, Holly and our marketing director Samantha Rabstein – who has a few surprises in store for 2015 – that’s all he wrote. In 2014, that is.

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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.