A Little Less Conversation…

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I don’t like guns and I particularly dislike violence. Not in fictional movies or in real life. Death, murder and variations thereof scare me. So when there are mass murders in the U.S. every few months, usually at a school, I immediately wonder – what is the price of making it just a bit more difficult to buy an assault weapon or even a handgun.

There are many who disagree and I get it. It’s nothing for me to give up a bit of gun rights because I want nothing to do with them. Still, that doesn’t mean my viewpoint is wrong. For instance, I’d be happy to pay more taxes in exchange for universal health care. I already have health care so one could argue, using that line of reasoning, why should I volunteer to pay for it for someone else? Especially when it hasn’t been proven that it will absolutely reduce costs or save lives. Well, because it’s the right thing to do. And it has been proven theoretically.

#MileyTruth

#MileyTruth

In the case of guns, no theoretical proof is necessary to argue that at the very least 1 or maybe even 2 lives will be saved if we institute some sort of more stringent rules. It is self-evident the way one can assume a peach left out in the sun on a sweltering day will eventually rot. Well, I don’t know about you but 1 or 2 lives spared from a barrage of bullets are more than enough for me. Just as saving one or two more people from death due to some terrible disease because they can now afford to go to a doctor is enough for me to fork over just a little bit more to Uncle Sam.

This brings up an interesting question – how much time do I want to spend with those who have opposing points of view? I don’t mean in public discourse, at a party or among members of my extended family. Rather I wonder – what is the deal breaker for including people in our close-knit circles? Or even your extended perimeter?   I mean, as the victims of the latest shooter in Oregon might now say to us – “your time is limited. Make the most of it. “

So I ask again – how many hours, days, weeks or years do you want to expend on those whose viewpoints go against the core of what you believe?

Reality

Reality

And now bear with me – I’m getting to Pope Francis. Yes, I just can’t let it go.

He seems like a nice fellow and certainly SAYS all the right things. But as a very wise psychotherapist told me years ago – if you want to understand who someone is or what they want, look at what they do. Consider their actions.

This bromide has also served me well as a dramatic writer. The core of someone’s character is not what they SAY. People say all sorts of things. It’s easy – you just open your mouth, or write it down, and words come out. But doing takes a bit more effort. It’s harder to take an action – especially when you get past middle age, which my almost 87 year old father tells me all the time. So when a 78 year old man like Pope Francis takes certain actions I, in turn, take it very seriously.

Like.

Like.

It’s all well and good for this man to not openly condemn gays and lesbians on his recent U.S. trip but what he actively DID last week in the nation’s capitol was have a SECRET meeting with a Christian woman who broke the law by refusing to do her $80,000 a year job as county clerk and issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. This got the LGBT community up in arms because many assumed his recent words about us – who am I to judge – meant something. Well, they do. But his actions meant more.

Still sting, Frankie.

Still stings, Frankie.

In a p.r. counter punch to the backlash from his meeting with Clerk Davis was the Vatican announcing two days later that Pope Francis also met with a former student of his from many years ago who is gay – AND his partner of 19 years – on the same trip. Is this the equivalent? Um, well, not really. The equivalent would be him calling in, say, Dan Savage and his husband and child. Or perhaps talking with Edie Windsor, whose case in the US Supreme Court broadened the definition of marriage to include the LGBT community.

This is all to say that the Vatican’s some of my best friends are defense to counter the fallout from the SECRET Clerk Davis meeting where he told her to stay strong and gifted her with rosary beads – is really an offense towards the people who it seemed were finally being, if not officially befriended, at least not discounted and devalued.

Here’s a rule of thumb to consider: A marginalized person will most likely find it difficult to get beyond your “actions” by mere words of love and caring. So when Pope Francis declares publically that gay marriage is “the work of the Devil” and the Church gives money towards or campaigns for laws preventing the legalization of LGBT couples adopting children or tying the knot, well – that tells us A LOT more than mere words. It shows us who its leader and his organization really are beneath the words.

Oh dear

Oh dear

And – let’s be clear – this goes for Jewish leaders, Muslim leaders and all other religious bigwigs of any kind, shape or form. It just so happens Pope Francis is the Man (well, he is, sort of) of the Moment.

Praying is a personal choice but we don’t live in a magical world. You can’t pray cancer away without medical treatment just as you can’t “pray the gay away.” If you’re religious and believe this is so – knock yourself out. But we have moved on from a time where one’s country dictates one’s religious beliefs or requires that mainstream America or its laws accommodate the idea that praying alone is an acceptable antidote to homosexuality or cancer. There is a separation of church and state in the experiment that was the U.S. We can be religious but we work and live in secular society according to objective laws, medical science and intellectual ideas – in other words, empirical facts.

This goes not only for the Pope but the NRA and other supporters of the gun lobby. Doing NOTHING to modify our gun laws as of late has not decreased the violence. If anything, it has had the opposite effect. Ten people died at a community college in Oregon on Thursday and every Republican running for the 2016 presidency has said variations of continue to do nothing. Jeb Bush noted “stuff happens” and Donald Trump shrugged his shoulders and remarked there are always going to be “crazy people.” Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson were not as colorful but each made it clear that they were against stricter gun laws and believe they would do nothing to curb the bi or tri-monthly mass shootings we’ve grown used to. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes called their combined strategy a “language of futility” and that’s as good a definition as I’ve heard.

Ladies and gentlemen, the GOP strategy.

Ladies and gentlemen, the GOP strategy.

Stating publicly that the death of all of these people – young and old – over the last few years is a tragedy are nice words to hear but do nothing to address the issue if one refuses to take ACTIONS so less tragedies occur in the future. You can say some of your best friends are gun owners or that some of your best friends’ children were victims of gun tragedies but still, it means you are on the side of letting this continue. In essence, it means you’re okay with these and future deaths.

Similarly, if you are against LGBT people legally marrying or adopting children in 2015 it doesn’t matter how many of us you invite into your personal space or hotel suite. You are not truly our friend. You are part of our problem. Love us a little less. Accept us a little more. And do something about it.

Swinging from the Chandelier with the Pope

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When I was a young teenager I was 25-30 pounds overweight. It wasn’t a happy time in my life though I’m not sure if that’s why I was overeating. Maybe it was just adolescence. Or maybe I liked food. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all of the above.

I mention this because this week I watched a young man on NBC’s The Voice who was quite overweight who reminded me of an even heavier version of my heavy self when I was his age. Except he had one thing that I NEVER had – he could sing.

Wow – could he sing. If you imagine a cross between Adam Lambert, Mariah Carey with maybe even a little Mary J. Blige thrown in by way of Stevie Wonder, you get the picture. In fact, he himself joked that he often gets mistaken for a woman on the phone and at drive-thrus. He also admitted that his appearance and manner was clearly not what others are normally used to and that it took him a while to realize these were his special qualities, that he was born this way and that God didn’t mistakes.

Fight on, little monster

Fight on, little monster

In any event, this young man – whose name is Jordan Smith – was vociferously praised for his mind-bending talent by four experts. And he received a standing ovation from the audience. Not to mention, he was told repeatedly by the judges that he was not only inspiring but an important contestant for the world to see AND for the world to understand that talent and original voices – be it singing or original points of view – are what come from inside. How one looks on the outside has less than nothing to do with what is being expressed. (Note: This is, of course, a talent show and granted, has little to do with the music INDUSTRY, which is a whole other kettle of worms. Yes, worms).

Anyway, I found myself wishing two things after spending some time thinking about Jordan. One is that I grew up in a time when people would have said those things to his 1970s doppelganger (Note: Okay, Me when I was praised for my specific talents). And second, though infinitely more important, is that in 2015 I lived in a country where the political rhetoric being bandied about by THE most popular news network in the country (that would be Fox) and by many of the candidates in one of our two major political parties, reflected that kind of inclusion and understanding. Sadly, it does not. It’s exclusion of the worst kind – to gay people, to climate change believers and to Muslims – just to name a few of who at the moment seem to be the top 3. And those are just the groups that instantly come to mind.

This is not a diatribe against Evangelicals, Republican conservatives or even The Republican Apprentice, who I believe is neither of the above but simply an egomaniacal boor. Rather it is a recognition and reaffirmation of what exactly is going on in acceptable, seemingly intelligent public discourse these days.

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Inclusion is seen as political correctness, political correctness is seen as coddling, and coddling is in turn seen as destroying the fabric of American society by overprotecting children (or even adults) at too young an age from the bullying they will unavoidably receive in the real world. As if we need to provide more of that in our language and conservations because the world isn’t already cruel enough.

Speaking of which… Pope Francis was in the United States for the first time this week – have you heard? Yes, I thought so. Well, these days you have to admire a religious leader – any religious leader – who spends much of his public speaking time emphasizing the brotherhood of man (which presumably includes women), reaching out to each other with love, and taking care of the poor and any of those less fortunate. Not to mention any person of the cloth at all who is humble enough to ask us to pray for him and inclusive enough to include this request to non-believers – who he merely asks to send good wishes and thoughts. The implication that he is not all-knowing and merely just another regular guy who needs all the help he can get in doing his job sounds unlike any religious leader I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime, either in synagogue, in books or even on the pages of the NY Times – which is where I get most of my religious leader info anyway.

#PopeonTwitter

#PopeonTwitter

On the other hand, if you are different the way I am, it’s sometimes a bit challenging to watch the absolute furor in which this particular Pope is greeted (24/7 news coverage, crowds in the tens of thousands, gesticulating, fainting and near hysteria) and not consider several thoughts. Among them is that he has publicly advocated against gay marriage, gay adoption and transgender rights. It is also difficult to ignore that he is the leader of an international religious institution – which make no mistake about it is a very wealthy, disciplined and doctrinaire organization – that believes any number of behaviors that fall within any of many mainstream activities among significant minorities (or even majorities) in everyday life are sins deserving of varying degrees of punishment – or illegalization.   If I were female I might bring up a woman’s right to choose, women being priests, divorce and any host of other subjects. And what about atheists? Do they have no moral standing on any grounds whatsoever? The list could go on and on.

Touche, CoCo

Touche, CoCo

Love is, well, lovely – and so are good thoughts. But when you are in a sub-group all the love in the world will not alone get you on an even playing field with others who have the majority amount of money, power or, let’s just say it, moral high ground. Religious leaders, especially the most popular ones, by definition own the moral high ground and are fronts for extremely large institutions that more often than not are responsible for maintaining the status quo, including the discriminatory parts of it. To do it in a nicer way is, well, nice – but none of us should be fooled – underneath the welcoming rhetoric it is merely a nicer variation of what we already have.

Or is it? Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge climate change in several of his speeches and appeared to be speaking almost directly to the flock led by The Republican Apprentice when he praised and reminded the U.S. that one of our greatest strengths is that we are and always have been a nation of immigrants. Perhaps gay marriage is next? On second thought (or even your 17th one) do not count on it.

Well.. this is a good start, but let's not get too excited.

Well.. this is a good start, but let’s not get too excited.

This is not to say that there is always agreement within the subset of your special interest group. Speaker of the House John Boehner, a conservative from Ohio, resigned from his position Friday after 35 years in Congress, in large part because he was tired of fighting the shut down the government at all costs demands of the Tea Party ultra-right wingers of his group. And there is a pop culture fight going on within the gay community at the moment about the movie Stonewall, Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day) new film about the 1969 uprising that is often cited as the birth of the fight for LGBT rights.

Because Mr. Emmerich chose to invent a young, white handsome male protagonist as the main character audience surrogate for his film, a very local group of critics are convinced that he sold out history by marginalizing the significant contributions of gay people of color, not to mention that of drag queens and transgender individuals. Never mind that all of these different types of people play significant roles in the film – none of them are THE star. On the other hand, each protestor at the time WAS the star of their own story of those riots and no one knows for sure who threw the first brick. Just as today we are all the STARS of our own lives, whether we know it or not, or choose to exercise it or not. It’s always a question of one’s POV and how one decides to frame their narrative. This is not only the mission of a very mainstream filmmaker like Mr. Emmerich, but the same challenge faced by the Speaker of the House – or by a Pope.

Well at least Emmerich acknowledges it!

Well at least Emmerich acknowledges it!

Which brings us back to young Jordan Smith. He will certainly have his haters, as well as lovers, as he goes through life. On the latter score lots of significant progress has been made since that time in the late seventies when I was his age. But let us be very clear, this progress was made not due to the benevolent language of any religious leaders or by any acts of Congress. Those are merely by-products of a hard fought fight led by a group of surly INSURGENTS. Decades of ACTIVISTS who died and/or risked their lives for a simple idea – equality. Among these activists were also lots of regular people who simply chose to live their everyday lives unapologetically and out in the open.

We all advocate for our causes and it’s nice to be loved. But it’s better to be accepted and included on an equal pay scale and rights scale. Not doing that for any one of our sub-groups – that’s the only real sin, in my mind. The original and ongoing one.

Minority Reports

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Everyone feels marginalized at one time or another even when they’re not.  You know it when it happens to you – even when you’re generally safe, comfortable and in the majority.  It’s the moment when you perceive you’re not being treated fairly or the time where you helplessly watch as an undeserving person or group achieves a goal that should’ve been bestowed on you or yours.  Or, at the very least shouldn’t have been theirs.

The downside of this is that furor reaches a tipping point – sometimes nationally or even internationally – and sends the planet into chaos.

The upside is it’s responsible for great art.  And sometimes even change.  And, in rare times, both.

The above accounts for the national temper tantrum currently being thrown by White America via the Tea Party (uh yeah, they’re mostly WHITE) and the determination of their national representatives to shut down as much government as possible under the rule of that Kenyan Muslim Communist Marxist or just plain Black President Barack Obama.

But it is also reflected in such boundary pushing current movies as 12 Years a Slave, Blue is The Warmest Color and Dallas Buyers Club.  If it were not for the miscarriages of justice each illustrates on the part of the African-American, gay, female and poor and sick communities, none of these films would exist in their current form.

No one wants to support human suffering in the name of potentially great art – except perhaps a writer or two.  As a member of the general population of the latter group, I must admit I have wondered where I’d be creatively were it not for the traumatic moments in my childhood that I managed to spin into stories of snide yet noble survival that reflected what I perceived to be some of my own unfair misfortune (Note: Is there fair misfortune? Something to think about).

Jury's still out on this one.

Jury’s still out on this one.

Still, that’s an entirely other, too personal subject and strays away from the main point.  In clear-minded moments I choose to believe if given the option I would gladly trade in the art in for a more blissful beginning.  But deep down I’m not so sure if, knowing the eventual good outcome, that kind of trade would even be possible.

No one is safe from perceived oppression even if the facts are that you’re not particularly oppressed.  That’s because human nature being what it is, we will all experience real slights, often based on nothing more than the way we look or what particular group we’ve been marginalized into via race, religion, body size, sex or sexual preference, athletic skill, age, money (too much or too little) or some other incendiary category. (Note: Yes, some slights, though they may be real hurts to you, do pale against the more big-ticket items).

The question is: what do you do to counter, cope or overthrow what’s going on – or what you think is going on?  How do you marshal the forces to get your point across? What creates change, or at least catharsis?  How long does it take?  How do you live with it?  Or better yet – can we ever eliminate it all together and, well….all just get along?

Not likely.   But as we currently say – eventually – it gets better.  No one movie or song or TV show will do it and it will likely not happen in a sinlge year.  And certainly our political systems move at a snail’s pace – even as they’re prodded by art and cultural upheaval.  Often it takes generations and creates change so glacial and imperceptible for the current generation that it becomes difficult for them to really understand the severity of what existed decades before they were even bought into or became part of the world.

Last weekend I watched both 12 Years a Slave and Blue is the Warmest Color back to back – and bully for me because that’s 5 and a half straight hours of dramatic filmmaking, a rarity these days – I became acutely aware of how similar all of our struggles against oppression are.  And yet, how individual and dissimilar certain elements of them are when we’re put into the position of watching them dramatically unfold in no consecutive order other than the timing at the scheduled movie theater and screening.

Serious stuff.

Serious stuff.

12 Years a Slave was my first lesson – and yes, it often felt that way.  There will be no spoilers here other than to state what you already know from the title and the trailer.  An upscale free Black man with a loving wife and family from the North gets snatched off the street in the mid-1800s and sold as a slave to the South in the halcyon days of the Confederacy.  Much of the movie is rightfully grotesque and hideous as we watch this classic case of the worst kind of mistaken (or perhaps engineered) identity play out.  This is not a Gone with the Wind, Amistad or even Django Unchained kind of story.  Director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley, both of whom are Black, are determined to tell the unvarnished truth of what it meant centuries ago to be a human being who is owned by other humans in much the same way that a farmer owns any animal that he intends to use for work and/or eventual (perhaps even likely) slaughter.

There is rightness to this film, if for no other reason than to make up for the century old legacy of movies that have presented slavery as anything more nuanced than the above.  But there is also a heavy dramatic price to pay for what we’re watching.  Countless repetitious moments of bloody torture.  A mostly one-sided depiction of cruelty by broadly drawn villains from another time.  Rarefied dialogue that often feels written – alternating between speechy or spoken in a period syntax that occasionally comes off as grandly Shakespearean or just a little too plain grand.

ACTING!

ACTING!

And yet – you can’t leave the theater unhappy that this movie was made or that it is getting some attention.  No, this is not liberal guilt.  This simply is.  Why hasn’t a big, solely dramatic movie ever been made that gives us such an unrelenting picture of what it was like to be a slave from the point of view of being a slave?  Has it really taken this long?  And why has it taken this long?  This story, and the book it is based on, has been around for decades.

On the other hand, as someone who likes multi-layered plots and characters I couldn’t help but feel that I was being left behind for some broader political statement that was being made – one that has been earned but one that is, in the final analysis, not very complex.  I don’t want the Southern White guys to get off too easily as simply monsters from another era.  I wanted to see more depth, more layers of perceived oppressions from both sides – strange as that sounds.  What is it an old writing teacher once told me – a hero is only as well written as the villain who is oppressing him.  In this case, there’s not much there there.

In light of the rave reviews and overwhelmingly positive cultural reaction so far to 12 Years A Slave (Note: Cue the news shows, the talk circuit, the awards and the Oprah), as I write this I’m feeling as White Male Privileged as I’ve ever felt.  That is even if, in my mind, I’ve never really felt a part of that fortunate majority as a short, gay, Jew.  Is it because this is not my history that this movie didn’t resonate for me in the way that…uh….Schindler’s List or, well, Parting Glances did? Perhaps.  But as an American this IS my history.  Or is it?  Well, let’s just say it’s part of my history – actually our history.  Whether we’re Americans or not, we are all human.

Feeling Blue?

Feeling Blue?

Blue is the Warmest Color has another issue.  It is a three-hour French film with no plot other than what will happen in a love relationship.  Will the lovers stay together or will they break up?  Usually a movie logline continues and sets the relationship against –-

  1. The backdrop of war
  2. Feuding families
  3. A skating or piano competition
  4. A boxing match.

It is to this film’s credit – and partly due to the fact that it is French because no one makes better and more leisurely films about romance than they do – that Blue offers no such counterpoint.  Oh, well other than the fact that in this case these two lovers are both FEMALE – nee GAY.

The achievement here is that the gay is fairly incidental in this love story.  Perhaps that is why it was so widely lauded as the Grand Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival and is on every critical prognosticator’s list of top films of the year thus far.  Can the fact that there is a film starring two gay characters that doesn’t really seem like it should be a considered a film that primarily examines gay issues be considered, in itself, progressive?  Oddly enough, yes.

A gay mentor of mine from the early eighties who is no longer around once said to me that it is when we treat being gay as an integrated and almost incidental part of our characters in books, movies and on television that we’ll know we’ve made real progress.  In this case I think he was right, as he was on many subjects, though it pains me that partly because of our lack of progress on gay issues at the time of his death he is no longer around to see his pronouncement become a reality.

OK peel me off the floor

OK peel me off the floor

I am again not engaging in spoilers when I tell you that Blue traces the sexual awakening of a high school girl who instantly becomes fascinated with a blue-haired young woman four years older and many more years experienced than she is. But beyond its very initial stages, the story pretty much ignores the LESBIAN issue in favor of what happens when two matched yet mismatched young people fall in love.  It’s leisurely, evocative, erotic and very real.  And it is especially, for this type of film, very long.

In Blue, character doesn’t enrich the plot – character IS the plot.  There is nothing else.  Gay, shmay.  It’s not about that.  Which is part of what I loved about the movie.  And part of why I suspect I could so relate to it and didn’t particularly mind the length.  My romanticized versions of some of my early relationships were reflecting back at me from the screen – all I had to do was change a few body parts.  Okay, I wasn’t a high school girl but I certainly felt like a high school girl, at least archetypically, in the midst of those experiences.  And now, in one of those rare times, I was watching them being played out onscreen– in French, no less!!

On the surface, I didn’t at all wonder why I ultimately preferred Blue over 12.  I’m much more of a love story guy than a historical action guy.  But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that it was more than that.  Who we are and what we’ve experienced is the window through which we feel and it will significantly determine how we’re moved and why we’re moved.  It is the reason why I keep not going to screenings of Dallas Buyers Club, a movie set in the mid-80s AIDS crisis where there were no effective drugs available and at a time where primarily gay men in the US were getting sick and quickly dying at record speed.

The skinny on Matt

The skinny on Matt

I watched the bodies of too many people I knew involuntarily emaciate the way the film’s lead actor, Matthew McConaughey voluntarily did when he went on a 1300 calorie a day diet to lose 49 lbs and become a skeletal version of his onscreen persona.  Never mind that he plays a heterosexual, bigoted White Texan – the image more than works for me.  Actually, too well.  Though I will see the movie and, at least from the trailer, it feels accurate, I’m not rushing out to the theater.  Yes, just as we need to relate our experiences to what we view and who we empathize with, the contrary is also true – some things can, at their very core, hit even much too close to home.  And you just need to gird yourself in order to get in the mood.

That is not to say that a story of Black America can’t move me as much or more as a love story between two contemporary gays, or even a plethora of dying gays and the friends thereof.  Only that, all things being fairly equal (which they never are) I can probably forgive a lot more in a film about the latter two because they more closely resonate to where I’ve been and who, at heart, I perceive I am.

As a wee child in the 1960’s through today, I have always believed, spoken and written that the struggles of each oppressed or marginalized minority were on some basic level the same.  That is the fight for equality and acceptance – the acknowledgement by others that we be considered no different than the person next door despite how we looked or where we came from.

I now see it is somewhat deeper than that.  Until we can recognize that there are some struggles that we can never fully understand, but yet can honor in the same way as our own, we will never quite be free of our divisive pasts.  This is not to proclaim I think about 12 Years a Slave any differently.  Only that I acknowledge that, given who I am, my perceptions about art and a lot of other things, are merely opinions rendered through my own personal lens.  This is equally true for everyone else on the planet – a fact that might be worth remembering next time we bridle at the radical personal, business or political statements of protest that comes from someone on the other side of an issue we might think we clearly see.