Selective Memory

By most accounts, George H.W. Bush seems to have been a very nice man who cared about his family.  He was able to leave differences with political enemies behind (Note:  The personal letter he left at the Oval Office for Bill Clinton, whose election famously denied him a second term, is a classic).  He even sporadically brought along his most famous imitator – Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey – with him to sporadic speaking engagements.

Can you imagine Alec Baldwin being brought along by ….

Only if it were in lock-up…

Okay, let’s not go there.  Yet.

Still, it is important to remember that no one is perfect and no president EVER is even close to being so.

In the case of George Herbert Walker Bush, a president I lived through as an adult, I felt nothing but relief when his reign finally came to a screeching, humiliating end.

Oh yes, I’m going there.

From a 1991 ACT UP protest in Washington DC #neverforget

We keep hearing this weekend about the wisdom of the first Iraq War, his adept handling of a crumbling Russia and the personal inclusiveness of the extended Bush family to so many friends and foes in the political world.

Let’s not debate the first two issues because it will become an endless quagmire of left vs. center (Note: Though I do hope one or two conservatives do read this).  Instead, let’s speak to the issue of inclusiveness.

Nothing about the Bush Sr.’s felt inclusive to so many millions of us during their reign.  In fact, it was one of the reasons he lost his re-election.  There was that famous moment where he looked at his watch during a presidential debate because he seemingly had somewhere more important to be.

And then another during the campaign where he seemed flummoxed at the sight of a supermarket scanner.

I need a price check for my EYEROLL

There was also his using racism and racial politics with a TV ad that wrongly linked his 1988 Democratic challenger, Michael Dukakis, to a darkly Black convicted murderer, Willie Horton, raping a woman during one brief prison furlough.   If you need any more historical references to contemporary white racist dog whistles, here’s one not to miss.

Still, that was merely a postscript for me.  From the moment Bush, Sr. was elected to office during the height of the AIDS crisis, it became crystal clear to me that he would NEVER address the hundreds of LGBT friends and acquaintances I saw dying around me at the time, some in the streets.

Complicit

With negligible funding increases in relation to the lethal, and at that time, quickly spreading pandemic, he began to be forever linked in my mind with his predecessor Ronald Reagan as the passively indifferent executioner of thousands who deserved better from a government they in part paid for with their tax dollars – a government they so very much needed in their moment of unimaginable emergency.

First Lady Barbara Bush eventually took a tentative step and hugged a baby with AIDS.  But where was the massive hug for my community?  It was never to come.

1989 #thetruth

Each year this is put into context on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.  Now that there are drugs to ensure AIDS can more than likely be a chronic rather than immediately lethal condition in the developed world of the US (Note: That is if one can afford the drugs), it is easy to forget our recent past and knowingly cruel inaction of US executive leadership, particularly from the Republican side of the aisle.

An AIDS Prevention ad from 1987. Read the fine print.

Combine insatiable ambition and timidity at losing power with inbred prejudice against a niche group of people you don’t know and will provide you no upside in electoral matters, and you have a perfect storm of faulty decision-making in the eighties.  Add to that some real fear and lack of education (and interest) on medical matters and, well, you can read up and fill in the rest with statistics and facts.

This might all somehow remain in the horrible, regrettable past if for the last two years on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) the US government did not advance its chief homophobe, Vice President Mike Pence, to speechify on the subject.

Several days ago Pence purposely failed to mention the LGBTQ community in his very public remarks even though this community is the primary group affected in the US (Note: 70% of cases).  This says nothing of the many tens of thousands who perished over the decades, remain infected and continue to contract the disease.

Needless to say, there was no mention the prior year either.

What Pence did do this year in his remarks was say the word faith 27 TIMES and significantly credit faith-based organizations with leading the fight against AIDS.  One needn’t be a historian to understand that through the eighties and nineties there were countless Christian institutions and religious families who not only didn’t lead but turned their backs on dying gay men, often allowing them to perish alone or, if they were extremely lucky, be comforted by the mercy of strangers. Here’s one story of an incredible woman from Arkansas you might take time to read. There are countless more stories, though most do not involve the type of ultra-Conservative Christian churches to which the vice-president belongs and/or refers to.

American hero, Ruth Coker Burks #thankyou

In fact, here’s another inconvenient FACT of history.  In a 2000 campaign speech while running for Congress, Pence once again made no mention of AIDS and the LGBT community.  What he did do was advocate a stop of federal funding to ANY organization that would celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.

He even topped himself at the time by adding: Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.

In other words, conversion therapy.

I know I’ve used this gif before, but it feels right to use it again. #SOEFFINGMAD

If I were a certain kind of journalist/blogger I might relate here that there has long been talk that Pence himself has undergone conversion therapy, was said to have once collected muscle magazines in college that a roommate wrote were quickly gone after Pence returned from a long summer break engaged to his present wife, Karen, and, as a young adolescent was referred to as Bubbles, a nickname given to him by members of his immediate family.  Some say it might have even been his own Dad.

Well, these days I’m not sure what kind of journalist/blogger I am or how I feel about bitchy, idol gossip.  I only know when it comes to AIDS I have a memory like a selective elephant and am unafraid to fling dung in honor of the people I greatly loved and lost, none of whom even lived half as long as 94 years.

RIP #41.  And say hi to my friends.

Bruce Springsteen – “Streets of Philadelphia”

Advertisements

Surviving the Plague… with Matthew McConaughey

Dallas-Buyers-Club-Poster-Header

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.

The Help

I had planned to write about Woody Allen this week in light of the terrific PBS documentary that covers his amazing 40-year career.   But I put that off when I began to think of all the brilliantly talented careers of people I knew that were cut short.

Thursday was World AIDS day and I couldn’t help but have this reflection, nor, as I’m aware, was I the only one.   If you think this is headed towards a downer — it’s not.  It’s simply recognition of the fact that not everyone gets to have the creative career they deserve.

Unfortunately I can list several hundred people who were my friends or friends of friends that are gone.  Not to mention many hundreds more who were business acquaintances.  It was devastating and impossible to express fully, even when you’re in the arts and supposedly have the facility for that sort of thing.   Or worse yet, are expected to be able to do it.

But the one truism I know is that none of my friends would want to be remembered for the fact that they died of AIDS, but more for who they were creatively.

As for me — I remember many of them not only for their work but for what they did for me creatively.

Mentoring is a very tricky thing.  If the mentor is looked up to excessively that person wields too much absolute power and influence, and the mentees often suffer by being under the thumb of a person who can easily abuse their position by convincing the innocent that their world view is THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH.  Though it’s tempting and certainly safer to think someone more experienced or in a position of power has the magic answer, I’m here to tell you as both mentor and mentee (and a recovering magical thinker) that ANYONE who is convinced they are right 100% of the time certainly is not right even 50% of the time.  How do I know this?    Well,  I’m slowly creeping above middle-aged and have experienced and observed some really, really, really crappy and some super fantastic, unbelievable, I’ve been lucky to have them, mentors.  And a lot in between.

I’ll leave the extreme ones out.  The college teacher who told me I was a very confusing and not very good writer and the graduate school teacher who told me I wrote like Hemingway.  I also won’t bore you with the film director I once worked for who by day was known as one of THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS directors for actors – and by night simultaneously allowed (and sometimes participated with) his inner circle of production people to mock, insult and create little miserable traps for those very actors they loved but decided they didn’t like anymore because they had turned in what they judged to be sub-par performances the day before in dailies.  Or even the producer who nurtured and mentored a now very famous writer and director from one indie movie to the other, only to wind up unceremoniously betrayed by his longtime mentee and kicked off the writer-director’s “big” film once new agents judged this person’s new career didn’t need that particular mentor/producer any longer.

That’s the school of hard knocks, that’s life upon the wicked stage, and that’s show biz, kids.   Everyone has their war stories and somehow the bloodiest ones always seem the most exciting to tell and, yes, the most enticing to hear.  Or are they?

This week I don’t think so.  I’ve had more than a few cool mentors who’ve been gone for as long as 20 years while the lessons they taught me, and continue to teach me in absentia, resonate as if they are still here.  In other words, even though they’re not here, they very much are.  I often hear their voices or feel their presence in my work on various given days or, actually in many other ways, in many most of the things I do.

For instance, I can tell you without reservation that I would not have written any screenplay of any kind; taught any lesson worth listening to; or conceived any blog ever worth reading were it not for my dear friend Brian Lasser.  In fact, it’s not unusual for me to hear (or at least feel) the encouraging sounds of his voice and feedback he’d give to me even now.  A lot of people have talked and written about Brian.  He was a songwriter, pianist, actor, writer and tutor, in the arts and in life.   AND a brilliant mentor.  And to many more people than me.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that there are Tony Award winning, Emmy Award winning and Grammy Award winning artists who were mentored by him, worked with him and adored him.  I met him as a reporter when I reviewed an act he was doing with someone who also became a dear friend.

Maybe I should be glad I don't have that hair anymore. With Brian, 1991

Yeah, you never know we’re you’ll find mentors or even friends  -– and those people who will encourage you to tap into your creative talent even when you’re too shy, embarrassed or insecure to really pursue it the way you secretly want to.  Someone who will urge you to tell the truth in your work by example, and let you know directly but gently when you’ve gone off course and you’re full of it – and/or full of yourself.  Someone who, as Jodie Foster once mentioned about her mother in an Oscar speech, “makes you feel like every painting you paint” is or could be a Picasso even though it likely isn’t or will not be.  On the other hand, as Brian might counter, how do you know it’s not better?

Indeed.

There was also my friend David Fox.  He was a copy editor at Variety when I was a fledgling reporter and he did have a career as an editor at the L.A. Times.  But he also wrote song lyrics, and had unending classiness and kindness when dealing with people both personally and professionally.  He’d be dumbfounded by this weirdly saintly description but would be positively thrilled and flabbergasted with the Internet of today and all of its power – both good and bad — if he were still here to see it.  David showed me that everyone has a light and a dark side and that it wasn’t necessary to bring it all to the table with everyone you met.  He taught me to be just a little bit bolder in my life and in my work and how to keep the ball rolling and actually venture out to people in a more streamlined way.  He was also one of my first friends in Los Angeles and introduced me to many others I still count as friends (and some mentors and mentees) today.  I also keep expecting David to call, write or at least show up after one of his solo trips somewhere around the world.  Sadly, I’ve never quite mastered the creative art of traveling outside the country alone the way he did (I hate to fly and I’m a chicken – meaning whimp), but now that I’ve mentioned what he taught me publicly perhaps I will.  Or will have to.

WWDG: Where would David go?

Finally, but certainly not only (Note: I don’t think we have room for more than three) there was this guy I knew really, really well for a couple of years named Bob Hattoy.  He was a mentor in, well, a lot of things.  He actually did have a longer career than the others and was quite creative — as a lobbyist, political gadfly and public voice of AIDS in the Clinton administration.  He even gave the first address about AIDS at a political convention in 1992.

Our relationship was some years before that but what I learned from him was – well – to be funnier.  And not take myself so seriously.   Truth is, I was always sort of amusing.  But he was outrageous.  Often, too outrageous.  Though I must admit he often came out with public statements that were witty, cutting and pretty darn smart that said what I and many others were really thinking, albeit somewhat pithier and for public consumption.  Like when Pres. Clinton was mulling the idea of letting gays in the military in the nineties but was considering segregating troops on the basis of sexual orientation.  Bob heard about this and told the NY Times: “If we applied that to civilian life we’d all have to be hairdressers and florists!”  It kinda still makes me laugh now, especially since he had the nerve to say it when —  Oh, did I mention he said all that and more WHILE WORKING for the White House? Uh, yeah.

I guess he taught me in the long run to stick up for myself and let the chips fall where they may.   Of course, that would eventually mean challenging him – an unwilling and sometimes irresponsible mentor that he always was.  But ultimately the best mentors are the ones who you can challenge.  And sometimes the ones you can leave behind.

What I’ve come to know grudgingly is it doesn’t matter whether you or they leave willingly or unwillingly.  It’s all about what you learn.  And what you do with that knowledge.  That’s the cool part of being or having a mentor.  And one of the cool parts of life.