Perseverance

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I was flipping channels last night and The Big Chill was on cable. Though younger audiences primarily know Lawrence Kasdan as the original writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, and co-writer of the latest Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he broke out as a major writer-director with The Big Chill. In that film he told the story, along with co-writer Barbara Benedek, of a group of baby boomer friends who come together for a weekend after the suicide of perhaps their most idealistic member.

The Big Chill still has its charms, particularly its sixties style soundtrack. But what kept popping into my mind while I was watching it was a personal experience I had with Mr. Kasdan in the late eighties when I worked in publicity on a film he was producing.

The cast doesn't hurt either. #80srealness

The cast doesn’t hurt either. #80srealness

Since I’ve written about my not so great times with him once before I won’t belabor it. But suffice it to say that what specifically came to mind this time was the one moment I mistakenly happened to share with Mr. Kasdan my aspirations to be a screenwriter and the fact that I was working on a script.

After a small silence, he looked up at me through his small, wire-rimed glasses and, dripping with condescension, directly met my gaze.

And I bet you never finished it, right?

In fact, I had finished a script and was working on another one at the time. But so taken aback by his response was I that I blurted out, probably a little too snidely:

Yeah, how did you know?

I think I feared he would actually ask me to read it and he’d take it and me apart piece by piece to such an extent that I’d never have the nerve to pick up my pen again. That must be the reason I lied. Because that’s how sure I was that he would hate it on principle.

Since I was a fan of his work and respected him this experience hurt – I can’t lie about that part, even now. Because to this day I don’t quite understand why any successful and clearly talented writer would go so far out of his way to clip the wings of a neophyte. Certainly, he couldn’t have felt threatened. Did he hate me?  But what did I ever do to him?

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wahhhhhhh

Maybe I should have kept in my place and not mentioned anything, even thought we were in the midst of an interesting discussion about Hollywood and writing and he seemed to be intellectually engaged. Maybe all of the above… or none of it? Or maybe he was just having a bad day. Or maybe, just maybe, he was (is?) a jerk?

Well, we’ll never know. Because I won’t be asking and neither will you – though even if we could I doubt he’d remember.  But I did, do – clearly. Yet in all honesty I can’t say his not so subtle cut-down of me didn’t spur me on to keep working and do even better out of some perverse personal revenge.

What was that... you said I couldn't do it? #illshowyou

What was that… you said I couldn’t do it? #illshowyou

Most pros don’t react this way.  In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. But make no mistake about it, each and every one of us in the biz of a certain age has a story or two like the one I’ve just told. We either use them as fuel or as a reason NOT to work.

Early on one has to make the decision about whether to cave or to persevere. It’s not easy and is a lifelong challenge. One can have all the success in the world for decades but at some point there is bound to be failure. Or self-doubt. Or life getting in the way. How do you get beyond it? How do you keep going forward without “caving in?”

It's all about the climb, baby. #eyeofthetiger

It’s all about the climb, baby. #eyeofthetiger

There are all kinds of reasons not to work. The house is dirty. Laundry needs to get done. There is no chance you can ever make it in such a competitive field. Your girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with you or you will be alone for the rest of your life because you don’t even have a boyfriend or girlfriend. Or prospects of a date. Not a nibble.

Your goals are unrealistic and you don’t fit into the commercial paradigm, whatever that is. Your friends are doing better than you are. Or your friends are more talented than you are – or less and they’re getting paid for doing a worse version of the work you can no longer bring yourself to do. Perhaps your family doesn’t understand you or your choices and never has. Though perhaps they used to and no longer feel that way anymore. Not to mention, who has the time for all of this anyway? Why be a dreamer in a soberingly real world?

Believe me... this is MUCH easier

Believe me… this is MUCH easier

The cruel irony is that a career in the arts – any art – is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for everyone.  But when it is for you it is something that you know deep down. It’s a type of calling. An undeniable itch. And in reality, career is probably the wrong word. Devoting oneself to the arts but not making money or having a day job in no way means it is not your career. Because here’s the broadest definition I could find:

A career is an individual’s journey through learning, work and other aspects of life. There are a number of ways to define a career and the term is used in a variety of ways.

This is what I know about working at your craft, your art, your career: You will feel A LOT better working at it than not working at it. On your worst day, you will be a lot more exhilarated doing it than on all the other days you don’t do it and chastise yourself for not working and feeling like a failure. The truly good feeling is not something you can ever get from others. It is only the simple elation you can feel within yourself that day for a job well done. When you know you’ve tried and put in the time. Whether you’re done, on the road to something, or just simply persevered.

This girl knows

This girl knows

I’ve been teaching for 15 years and lately I’ve seen too many students get too discouraged with the journey or stop themselves before they really gave themselves the chance to get started. Yeah, we live in a particularly unstable world these days with no end in sight to the bad stuff. All the more reason to put in the time for yourself and work at what pleases you.   This doesn’t mean starving in a garret. It simply means looking at what you want your life and career to be over the long haul and doing what pleases you.

Some people call this following your destiny. But that feels like way too heavy a burden to lug around. Instead, consider it simply putting in the time and doing the work you want to do so you can get better, learn more, and improve that much more without preoccupying or fixating solely on result.

The truth is for every naysayer there’s a cheerleader. Five years before I met Kasdan I was a journalist and had a similar writing conversation with James L. Brooks. Younger people know him as one of the creators of TV’s The Simpsons but when I met him he was about to direct a movie he wrote that would put him on the map, Terms of Endearment. And had not yet written one of the best original screenplays of the eighties (or ever) – Broadcast News. Shyly sharing my ambitions with Mr. Brooks I received nothing but encouragement and questions and more encouragement. So naturally, I thought everyone would be that way. Well, they’re not. But it doesn’t matter.

The only thing that does is to persevere.

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The Little Gays

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One night several weeks ago in a nice area of downtown Philadelphia – and on the 13th anniversary of 9/11 – a group of about fifteen well-dressed white men and women in their twenties, who during the previous hour were seen enjoying drinks and dinner at a popular restaurant nearby, confronted a gay male couple their age on the street and beat them severely. One of the leaders of the group allegedly shouted to one of the two men: “Is he your fucking boyfriend?” whereupon he and many of his group began to relentlessly pummel them. The couple was then rushed to the hospital where one had to have his jaw wired shut and the other was photographed with a deeply lacerated black eye, among other injuries.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

There are numerous videos and photos of the group accused of doing the damage and they seem like any other normal crowd of young people out for the evening. The guys are alternately wearing button downs, khakis, jeans, shorts and pressed sport shirts and the girls are in dark dresses or nice pants and are wearing makeup and jewelry. As for the gay men – there are no photos of them other than a close-up of a distorted, sliced eye of one. Though there is a descriptive comment from a police officer who spoke anonymously about the case to Philadelphia Magazine referring to the gay men as “two little guys.”

To be fair, let me give you the exact quote:

P Mag: What of the early report indicating that they (the accused) were trying to claim self-defense?

Officer: You have two little guys who are gonna pick a fight with a mob, a bunch of meatheads? I haven’t seen that happen.

This last exchange really pisses me off. Not as much as the three people (one woman and two men) in the group who have thus far been taken to court where they were promptly released on bail within a day. And certainly not as much as the homophobic Twitter rants of the aforementioned young woman, the daughter of a local Police Chief (!), who has typed into the world such missives as: The ppl we were just dancing with just turned and made out with each other #gay #ew and Why do Asians always put their kids on a leash? Or as completely as their attorneys, who variously claim that their clients never touched the two gay men or see the disagreement as either unprovoked or mutual. One can just hear their reasoning now:

The fact that no one in the larger group had more than a scratch on them and that the gay guys were bloody and disfigured is just confirmation of what we all know deep down inside – gay guys, especially little ones, really can’t fight so they should think extra hard before they invite one.

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Okay, certainly they would be clever enough not to say this out loud but that would be their clear implication. Just as clearly as the arguments on recent past legal cases which implicitly argued that young black boys who wear hoodies are ominous interlopers or a group of rude mixed race kids in cars who answer back a middle-aged white man with an obnoxious retort can justifiably be shot. Since you never know just what else any of them have up their sleeves that can endanger the well being of the average citizen – who is certainly not Black, mixed race and definitely not gay.

But back to the little guys.

I suppose that as a smaller than average gay guy myself, I should cut Officer Anonymous a little slack since he seems to be on the height challenged side of us “little guys” – which is not to be confused with the commonly used phrase of the little guy we use when speaking of a working class Joe or Jane who can barely make ends meet. No – these are the kind of little guys who are literally, well – diminutive, small in stature – and power. Or, as the dictionary says: small in size, amount or degree. In some cases all three.

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It’s my belief that Officer Anonymous needs a little training himself. Referring to a gay couple who were just savagely beaten as two little guys or their attackers as a mob of meatheads is the kind of thinking that is a small but significant building block to this kind of crime in the first place. It’s a way of reducing people to a stereotype of their specific group and, in turn reducing the validity of them and their lives and any crime they find themselves a willing or unwilling participant in – as victim or perpetrator.

As a homosexual male who is just below the average height of the American male in 2014, I haven’t been a little guy since about, oh, 1962. And even then I didn’t think of myself as little even though you might have. Nor, I’ll bet its safe to say, do the two gay guys who were outnumbered by that gaggle of fifteen meatheads. On the same token, I wouldn’t presume to generalize about the motives or IQ brain functions of 15 people I didn’t know who either watched or engaged in a fight that landed two young men in the emergency room – especially if I was an officer tasked with upholding the law. That would reduce a very serious crime that will undoubtedly happen again in some other form, and admittedly could have been and inevitably somewhere again will be worse, to a frat level scuffle on the scale of, let’s say, jock vs. nerd. This is the kind of reasoning that leads us to wonder whether extreme domestic violence in an elevator between a husband and wife is really the typical private business of a married couple or if the sexual assault of a teenage woman wearing a sexy dress on a date with a hormone fueled, red-blooded all-American boy should merely be seen as an unfortunate example of benign signals at cross purposes.

Apples and Oranges are closer than you think

Apples and Oranges are closer than you think

Perhaps I’m being too picky but you have to start somewhere. Until we see the connections we won’t begin to solve the issue. The hoodie, the elevator assault or the terrorists who hate our way of life who it turns out aren’t terrorists at all but the children of immigrants who were born here. Several of the latter, in fact, might have even gone to medical school and become doctors at work in several of the nation’s five-star hospitals, one of which was able to restore my second Mom’s breathing this week through brilliantly new surgical techniques. But I digress.

I’ve never been beaten up physically for being gay. Only been called names, laughed at, mocked and imitated in school by teachers and classmates alike, as well as by coworkers, neighbors and random passersby on the street. I’ve also been told numerous times over the decades by people older than myself to keep my private life private, to rethink my sexuality, that I need to give the opposite sex more of a chance, that I am living a sinful life and that any expectation that the world should at all change to accommodate my choice is misguided and threatens the very existence and continuation of the world as we know it.

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Luckily, through a lot of therapy, reading, experience and love I knew enough not to let these misguided judgments about who I am prevent me from having what I now consider to be an extremely happy life. But these experiences and accusations – every single one of them – hurt deeply and cut me to the quick at the time. That I can remember each and every one of them decades later and not all of the many wonderful supportive words sent my way speaks to the power of just how much psychological damage negative words and hate-filled verbal exchanges with others can do. I can’t even imagine what the effects of a physical encounter would be – especially one as vicious or even more vicious that those described on the streets of Philadelphia and elsewhere around the world – now or in the future.

It’s something to think about as we sound off anonymously, reaching people and places we have never seen – or to be mindful of when we’re face-to face with friends and neighbors in locations closer to home.   I laughed as I heard Sen. Cruz categorize Iran as swilling chardonnay in NYC with the US this week during nuclear talks, knowing full well the representatives of a strict Muslim government would, if nothing else, clearly avoid the public consumption of alcohol. But it’s just another generalization of yet another entire group of people we might not like but most certainly have not taken the time to fully understand. And it’s not particularly funny, especially when it comes from a bigot. It’s dangerous.

Surviving the Plague… with Matthew McConaughey

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I went with my longtime partner to see Dallas Buyers Club this weekend at the local movie theatre. This was not an easy feat.   The mere image of a very gaunt Matthew McConaughey on the movie poster stabbed me in the gut with a generalized feeling of terror and nausea that brought me back to what I imagine will be the most horrible times of life I will ever barely live through.  That would be AIDS in the 1980s

Posting a blog thirty years later on a date that also happens to be World AIDS Day is an odd proposition.   Seared in my mind forever are the faces of living and dying people I knew well, knew slightly, or only knew of as I passed by them at a party or a business meeting – people who wasted away dead or killed themselves before the inevitable ravaged outcome of AIDS happened to them.   That I survived at all is a matter of luck, timing and, well…luck.  Not to degenerate into pop culture references, but to the gay community in particular this was a kind of real-life Hunger Games where many, many more than one person per district had to fight something quite insidious, evil and amorphous in order to survive.  The primary culprit was a lethal and mysterious virus.  The secondary enemies were ignorance, prejudice, our own government and, in some cases, our own friends, neighbors and loved ones.

more than just a ribbon

more than just a ribbon

But simply remembering one’s own story discounts the power and effect of something so massive.  The story of AIDS, like the story of any worldwide plague, cannot be summed up through the experience of a single individual or even group.  I might get cards and letters for this but it would be akin to saying that The Diary of Anne Frank told the story of the Holocaust better than Elie Wiesel’s Night or William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.  Or that somehow Gone With The Wind covered the Civil War era in a more realistic way than 12 Years a Slave or Glory  or even vice-versa.  The larger and more tragic the event, the more stories there are to tell.  It all depends on where you were and who you were at the time– your perspective and your point of view.

There is a short remembrance in this week’s New Yorker by a reporter named Michael Specter.  He writes about a  photo that was given to him by a friend of two dying men in the Castro district in 1980s San Francisco – one confined to a wheelchair and another, tall and gaunt, bending down to help him – so he can be reminded of the actual story of those days as he wrote about the plague and gay history in the future.  He references this photo as he tells us of the current skyrocketing rates of new HIV infection in the gay community due to resumed risky sexual practices on the part of young people who were not around to see the ravages that came from the disease at a time when there were no or few effective drugs to ensure long term survival.  He also touches on the fact that by the end of this year AIDS will have killed FORTY MILLION people in total, many of them heterosexual and living in Africa.

powerful reminder

powerful reminder

Once again, who died and why and who lived and how is only part of a much larger story.  This is a medical story, a sociological story, a political story and a human story of the world community and, in no less of a meaningful way, individual lives.  That I know a few wonderful guys who continue to survive the plague 2-3 DECADES later is another story in the mix of all the others previously alluded to.   Where we get into trouble is trying to compare, quantify and draw definitive conclusions as to what is most meaningful or even noteworthy.  How do you qualify survival?  Or quantify death?  There is no way to do it and to truthfully bear witness to the actuality of the worst of what occurred.  There is, only — what occurred.

Which brings us back to Dallas Buyers Club.  This is the story of an admittedly racist, homophobic, white trash talkin’ Texas bull rider and electrician named Ron Woodruff who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and given one month to live.  Mr. Woodruff was a real person and, by all accounts, not a particularly pleasant one.  But like many unpleasant individuals, he is not without his charms.  The latter qualities are brought out with the sort of bold verve and definitive eye twinkle that plays perfectly into the talents of an actor like Mr. McConaughey.  He does a lot more than lose 50 pounds from his normally tan, muscular frame and paste on a bushy moustache to bring us back to the skin and bones Russian roulette days of the 1980s.  He actually manages to bring to life the kind of guy that would repulse you if it weren’t for the fact that he was sick and dying.  In all honesty, he might repulse you still.

Despicable Ron?

Despicable Ron?

At one point early on in Mr. Woodruff’s company I, a gay man, turned to my partner of 26 years and sarcastically whispered:  Why can’t they just make a film about all of this for us?  Not surprising on my part.  For all the tragic dramatic stories about AIDS that could be tackled by major or mini-major studios in the last 30 years, the only one that comes to mind that had a gay protagonist was 1989’s Longtime Companion.  Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia but the protagonist in that movie was Denzel Washington, the straight African American lawyer who defended the dying gay man in a lawsuit.  And The Band Played On was an HBO movie that chose, among all of its many characters, to star Matthew Modine as a straight white doctor fighting the good fight against the disease in San Francisco while numerous gay men stressed and played all around him.  Several years ago I Love You, Phillip Morris treated AIDS as the punch line to a sociopathic joke of a con artist we presume to be a bisexual man in the body of Jim Carrey but are never quite sure of on any level.

Among many others...

Among many others…

Owning a story, even one that you have lived through, is a very slippery slope that I began to slowly tumble down into as Dallas Buyers Club continued.  The character of Mr. Woodruff, who I do recall hearing about in real life, was bold enough to go against the accepted medical science at the time and travel down to Mexico where he found alternative drug treatments dispensed by a disbarred American doctor that, unbeknownst to him, would prolong his life for many years.  He then chose to circumvent the laws at the time, illegally transport the drugs back to Texas, and open up his own “club” to dispense these medications to members who would pay a $400 per head, per month membership fee.  Never mind that he was making out like a bandit – he was also temporarily enabling many other people to save their own lives for significant amounts of time using a model that he mentions in the film was really created by homos in New York, San Francisco and other big cities across the country.

Hmmm – in a normal movie this kind of talk would not redeem Mr. Woodruff’s character in my eyes.  But those were not normal times.  Somehow, as the movie progressed this asshole became a bit of a hero if only because he managed to take away the profound suffering of what stood in for the many young men that I knew personally at the time who would, in the end, have no such relief at all.   Well, extreme circumstances do call for extreme reactions – both in life, movie fantasy and upon reflection.  Never mind that Mr. Woodruff briefly made a personal fortune and the massive nationwide fight gay men were waging on every front, including the ones Mr. Woodruff trod in, were mostly ignored here. Despite my great reticence, as I watched the film, I found myself rooting for this egocentric ignoramus – a guy who wound up being far smarter and eventually, but not totally, a lot more enlightened than I had previously seen as being possible.

(Side note:  The movie also co-stars Jared Leto as one of the few straight actors I’ve ever seen pull off a believable drag queen on film.  Forget William Hurt’s best actor Oscar in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman.  As most gay guys will tell you, that was mostly about a straight guy showing us drag and flamboyance in a film made in the early days of AIDS rather than a straight male actor being a real character in a movie that takes place during the early days of AIDS).

Make room on your awards shelf, Jared.

Make room on your awards shelf, Jared.

I’m assuming that like all real-life movie heroes and anti-heroes in recent years – from Johnny Cash to Richard Nixon – Mr. Woodruff’s true edges have been softened and hardened to meet the filmmakers’ dramatic needs.  This is how it is and will always be in the creative arts.  Even documentaries are not totally real depictions of what actually happens.  They can’t help but be influenced, if only slightly, by the filmmaker’s own interpretation of the events.  Ask D.A. Pennebaker. Or even that master of restraint – Michael Moore. (Note: I love MM and the latter is, um, a joke). (Note #2 – And yes, since memory is at the very least selective, even How to Survive a Plague probably missed a few things).

As for Dallas Buyers Club it might be at turns clunky, thinly developed, or lacking in an overall broad historical perspective. Most movies are, or do, in parts.  But what it does extremely well is evoke an important era and tell yet another story about a human plague that seems to have no end for those of us lucky enough to have survived it.  It will also do this for others new to the fight who will now, and in the foreseeable future, find themselves navigating the waters if the gasps I overheard from several young people around me in the movie theatre are any indication.  And, additionally and in particular, it might slightly sway one or two or more of those others who don’t really care about this fight at all.

If Mr. McConaughey’s portrait of the sometimes off-putting Ron Woodruff enlightens even one small-minded jerk about all of this it will have been more than worth the effort.  And even if it doesn’t, it has every right to stand along all of the stories of that time.  No one owns The Plague Years – even those of us who were fortunate enough to live through them and bear witness to our own individual stories of hell from that time.