Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Old Ox Plows a Straight Furrow

Six days after the inauguration—six days after Pastor Rick Warren, looking like a reupholstered Jerry Falwell, bestows his blessings on America and Barack Obama’s Presidency—the Chinese New Year begins.

It will be the Year of the Ox. Oxen, as you probably know, are castrated bulls.

Lacking a true gift for superstition, I assign little real importance to this fact. But as horoscopy goes, Chinese astrology has always served me better than the Western version. Under the latter, I am an Aries, therefore, stubborn, egoistic, combative, impulsive to the point of foolhardiness, all moral sense subjugated to raging lust. Fair enough. Under the former, I am a Snake, therefore, carnal, sensuous, intellectual, artistic, unforgiving with a preternaturally long memory for grudges. Bull’s eye.

The United States is in deeper debt to China—$585 billion—than to any other nation, only another reason to believe our collective futures lie in Chinese hands. So let me peer into my weathered, brittle paperbound edition of Theodora Lau’s The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, copyright 1980, to see what the new year holds in store.

Lau opens her section on The Year of the Ox with the statement: “We will feel the yoke of responsibility coming down on us this year.” Okay, so after 2008, we could all see this one coming, though Lau pegged it 28 years ago. She follows with “The trials and tribulations the Ox year brings will be mainly on the home front. It is a good time to settle domestic affairs and put your house in order.” Henry Paulson should only have been this prescient.

After stating that the Ox views politics and diplomacy, along with frivolities of every sort, with indifference, Lau begins to sound like my dad: “No work, no pay! … The Spartan influence of the Ox will be a constantly cracking whip over our heads. [T]he year of the Ox favors discipline. … This is no time for tricky shortcuts.”

Just so I get her point, Lau aims a closing shot directly at me: “For the rebels, it may be worthwhile to point out that although the stoical Ox is soft-spoken, he carries a big stick, and this is his year.”

In particular, the year 2009 will be the year of the “Earth” Ox—not a nod to environmentalism, though no doubt cleaning up the mess we’ve made of the planet is part of the work cut out for us. The Earth Ox favors duty over creativity, practicality over idealism, stability over progress, sense over sensibility, endurance over complaint, and determination over cynicism.

On a happier note, children born next year can be expected to whine less (“This child will not be a crybaby”), value privacy more, and exhibit patience, perseverance, and responsibility. Ox-people thrive on discipline and order (Richard Nixon, the Emperor Hirohito and Adolf Hitler were all Ox-people, but, happily, so were Walt Disney, Vincent Van Gogh, and Charlie Chaplin).

Astrology aside, it seems clear to me that we have work to do in the coming year. Given the work’s immense importance—to our pocketbooks, to peace, to justice, to life, to the preservation of what it means to be human—it’s important that we look at the tasks ahead with all the optimism we can humanly muster. We must persevere to survive.

We must not panic, and we must contain our worries and sense of dread. We need to gain or regain a sense of the common good—set aside our private interests, if necessary, even perhaps our high ideals (at least the ones so high we can’t actually see the tops of)—and pitch in to make things better than they are.

Even without lunar insights, I can pretty well assure you that we will not entirely solve the mess we’re in—and are about to slip into deeper—even with God’s and Obama’s help. But we can take a point or two from the stoical Ox, and whine and moan a little less, however Mad Max the world becomes, and temper the cynicism we’ve so carefully cultivated since our freshmen years at college with a little kindness and humane understanding.

One certainty I subscribe to, which all forms of astrology support: Things will change.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dima Shine

If you hear I've run away and joined the circus, maybe you'll understand why.

23-year-old Bulkin Dima Shine of Russia has performed for Cirque du Soleil in North America, Cirque de Demain in Paris, and now Cirque Phenix.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Doubt (Movie Review)

Despite its title, Doubt, the movie and presumably the play (which latter I have not read or seen), offers a good many answers—and only one question.

First, one thing the film accomplishes with dramatic clarity is to distinguish between pedophilia and homosexuality. Anyone (say, Rick Warren and his admirers) who has any doubts on this matter should see Doubt. The film handily separates the two issues—though I won’t say how.

Second, the film answers the question of which is better, doubt or certainty. Though some audiences may find the film’s answer equivocal, I think it’s fairly direct—doubt is better in building community and a connection with others; certainty is better in reaching short-term solutions to immediate problems—while tending to polarize members of a community and often failing to make needed changes to a larger system of corruption.

Third, the film answers the question of whether it’s all right to do something bad in order to accomplish something that’s good. Yes. And no. Here the answer sounds exactly like what you’d expect your priest to offer you—the same guy who tells you that God does answer every prayer; only sometimes the answer is no.

The question that remains unanswered at the end of Doubt is of what, if anything, is Father Flynn guilty. Even here, the film offers heavy hints—but ultimately the hints support a multitude of answers, equally plausible.

But neither these answers nor the intriguing brainteaser is the reason to see Doubt.

You should see Doubt for one main reason: Meryl Streep.

How this actress continues to astound is, well, um, astounding. My dear friend Mary and I have deified Streep as a goddess in our own private religion. What is remarkable about her talent is that she accomplishes both ends of the movie star’s typical dilemma—do I lose myself in the character? or do I make myself impossible not to watch? Streep, of course, does both … in virtually every film she’s made … and nowhere better than in the role of Sister Aloysius in this film.

The wonder of this incredible actor is not how she has earned an astounding number (14!) of Oscar nominations, but rather why the fuck she hasn’t won them all … and even more. That she has won only two is a stain on the reputation of the Academy Awards.

Sure, other actors are in Doubt and they all do remarkable work, blah blah blah. No disrespect intended—I love them all. But without Meryl Streep, this movie would have been merely a reasonably strong film adaptation of a stage play. With Streep, it is something of an event—life altering as well as brain teasing.

I also want to add some good words for the writer and director John Patrick Shanley. Having twenty years ago won an Oscar for his original screenplay Moonstruck, Shanley takes his first shot as a director in this, the adaptation of his successful stage play starring Cherry Jones.

I do think the last minute of the film suffers from an overly theatrical gesture and an arguably incongruous change of heart (or, at any rate, affect). But the film up to that point is nearly flawless on a number of levels. It beautifully captures the setting of mid-1960s America. It is a visually arresting movie.

It maintains a single stark tone for 104 minutes—relies heavily on dialogue, even monologue (three sermons!)—while remaining entirely cinematic.

Especially early in the film, it makes lucid though only implicit comparisons between post-JFK-assassination angst and post-9/11 angst.

It captures, too, the still problematic way American society treats its minority groups—how lack of understanding or tolerance quickly evolves into violence, both physical and emotional. It portrays the marginalized position of women in the Church—most eloquently in crosscut scenes of priests chortling over their red wine and rare steaks and nuns silently sipping their milk and—what was that shit? —porridge?

We see in this film that abuse is not just a matter of sexual abuse or physical brutality. Spiritual, psychological abuse, including self-abuse, appears to be the most damning form of abuse of all.

Doubt is a film that believers and infidels can alike enjoy and learn from. It touches on much more than Christian faith. It addresses the ways we know the truth, any truth, and the responsibilities we must take on, on the basis of that knowledge.

Rodrigo's Christmas Miracle (Work it Out)

O little town of Ibiza
Still how I’d like to lay
Throughout thy long and dreamless nights
Latinos gay for pay;
Yet still thy back streets shineth
In everlasting lights
The swimmer’s bods and Grecian gods
I’d like to ream tonight!

Friday, December 26, 2008


Minus the screaming girls and the cellphones, this would be the makings of a lovely evening.

Goodbye, Johnny Cakes

John Costelloe, 47, who played the short-order cook and mobster Vito Spatafore's out-of-town love interest on HBO's The Sopranos, died on December 18, an apparent suicide, a gunshot wound to the head.

The gay story arc on the hit TV series drew attention for introducing gay characters matter of factly to the New Jersey crime show and realistically portraying the effects of homophobia.

At the time of his death, Costelloe was performing in the play Gang of Seven at La MaMa E.T.C. The actor's most recent film credit is Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. His credits include supporting roles in films such as Die Hard 2 and Last Exit to Brooklyn.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt, 1927-2008

Pure evil Eartha Kitt died today--hopefully in her cha-cha heels.

Harold Pinter, 1930-2008

Acclaimed playwright, political activist, and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter died yesterday at age 78.

His best-known plays include The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming. He also wrote screenplays.

He is survived by his second wife, novelist and historian Antonia Fraser, six adult stepchildren from Fraser's previous marriage, and estranged son Daniel, by his first wife, actress Vivien Merchant.

It’s often said that Pinter's plays became overtly political in his later years—some critics even made the observation as a reproach—but an interest in power, thus politics, is central to even his early dramas of family life.

His work portrays, with vivid understatement, how one strong-willed individual is able to control the behavior of multiple others simply by conjuring some vague, outside menace, in response to which, otherwise capable adults willingly put themselves in his thrall.

Furthermore, no matter how brutish the tyrant is, the weak though not altogether powerless dependents show the utmost care in preserving his delicate ego, bending over backwards so as not to offend their supposed protector. Clearly, assholes maintain control because others acquiesce, often simply to preserve the pretence of their own “niceness.”

The artful pauses in Pinter’s plays are the direct result of the characters’ inability or unwillingness to address situations bluntly and realistically. The underlying tension is both erotic and violent, and if and when it erupts to the play’s surface, the effect is all the more disturbing.

Pinter inspired all the playwrights who matter to me, from Joe Orton in England to David Mamet in the US to Martin McDonagh in Ireland—in style if not altogether in the issues that interest them. I have greatly admired Pinter’s style and achievement for decades.

I never met the man. My personal connection to Pinter is through one of his late plays, One for the Road, in which I played a small role at its 1986 US premiere in Charleston, SC, as part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Amnesty International, which Pinter actively supported.

The play centers on Nicolas, a petty functionary in an unidentified authoritarian state, whose cheerfulness and can-do attitude chillingly contrast with the fact that he is torturing a family—a father (ironically named Victor, the role I played), a mother, and their child—though the word “torture” is not once uttered in the play.

Nicolas sees himself as the defender of the good (“Everyone else knows the voice of God speaks through me. You’re not a religious man, I take it?”). Therefore, the word “torture” cannot apply to him, however much he practices its substance.

Pinter saw the theatre as a phenomenon for both social engagement and aesthetic experimentation. He brought Samuel Beckett’s stark surrealism into suburban sitting rooms—inventing a minutely detailed style of observing and portraying human behavior. His presence will be missed, but his legacy lives on in the best of contemporary drama.

Merry Christmas

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Milk (Movie Review)

I’m hard pressed to find much to distinguish what director Gus Van Sant accomplishes in his biopic Milk that was not already accomplished in the Academy Award-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein.

Both are excellent films. Both use archival footage to chronicle the life and times of America’s first openly gay public official. Both use Milk’s taped last will—recorded in the event of his assassination—as the thread upon which to construct the plot. Both regard their central figure as both a devious politician and a true American idealist.

What most obviously distinguishes the more recent film is the bravura performance (another one) by Sean Penn as Milk. Penn breaks my heart in this. Not just because of his character’s fate, which, like the Epstein documentary, opens the film, so that the imminence of death is felt at every step, but mostly because Penn captures Milk’s magnetism and mannerisms, along with, more profoundly, merely human moments—like the thrill of falling in love or fighting for a great, just cause.

Van Sant’s film covers Milk’s life from 1970 to his death in 1978 and appropriately reduces the events subsequent to Dan White’s assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone to a brief captioned epilogue.

Instead, it provides deeper insight to Milk’s loving relationships with Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna). Van Sant is able to use these relationships to portray a more complex picture of gay life—not pleading for tolerance and equality, as did the documentary—but showing how the personal and the political can converge and clash and presenting us the audience with a fuller panoply of gay characters than we usually get to see at the movies.

Josh Brolin’s nuanced performance as Dan White is also remarkable. Whereas Epstein’s film mainly presents White as the iceberg that would eventually sink Milk’s Titanic, Van Sant’s film shows the pressures of maintaining and upholding hetero-normativity as a political issue and the toll of staking too much of one’s self-identity on one’s being “normal.”

What makes the new film in many ways a more (or differently) elegant film than its predecessor is its attempt to show how, over and over, Milk and White attempt and fail to reach out to each other—especially in a realistic scene of White’s drunkenly pathetic exchange with Milk at the latter’s birthday party—and this is the tragic heart of the film.

Big Three

Sunday Beefcake: Charlz

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Warren Commotion

Perhaps it would be easy to overestimate the importance of Barack Obama’s invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the 2009 Inauguration. Warren is the bestselling author of The Purpose Driven® Life, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and outspoken critic of gay rights and same-sex marriage,.

It’s not as if Warren’s been asked to join the President’s Cabinet, after all. And, besides, the Lesbian and Gay Band Association is invited to march in the Presidential Inaugural Parade, having played only on the sidelines for the two Clinton Inaugurations.

Warren compares homosexuality to incest, polygamy, and adultery. He makes false claims, such as that marriage between one man and one woman has been the model of all religions for five thousand years (polygamy, for instance, has routinely reoccurred as an element of religious observance, and revered patriarchs such as Jacob, Moses, and Solomon practiced it, and even today a number of religious groups and Christian denominations accept same-sex marriage).

Still, Rick Warren is not Fred Phelps—Warren, like former governor and current Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee, presents a friendlier, even-tempered, and apple-cheeked face to bigotry.

It’s fairly clear to me what Obama is trying to do—reach out to social conservatives and evangelical Christians who have, as Warren supposedly has, expressed an interest in dialogue with those who do not share their views.

But Warren has not been open to such dialogue, particularly with gays. What Warren wants, like many evangelicals and conservatives, is a platform for criticizing other people’s lifestyles, while claiming to be persecuted if his own life choices and opinions are criticized or even questioned.

What Obama fails to recognize is that sitting down to dialogue is one thing, but it’s something else entirely to give a platform to a man who calls for the continued political disenfranchisement of a small but significant part of Obama’s base. Obama did the same thing back in October 2007, when he led a “gospel tour” on the South Carolina leg of his Presidential campaign, fronted by Donnie McClurkin, who wrapped up every show with a 15-minute “prayer” thanking God for delivering him from the debasement of homosexuality. When GLBT activists objected, Obama’s people used the “dialogue” defense and then told the GLBTs to pipe down and stop being “divisive.” Some dialogue.

Undoubtedly one reason gay people don’t get much respect from political candidates or representatives in government is that we’re a minority—representing perhaps less than the proverbial 10 percent of the total population. On top of that, we are one of the merely two or three minorities (off the top of my head, I can’t think of another one, though) one can safely ridicule and denounce in sweeping blanket generalizations—not to mention find defenders for physically assaulting, even killing. In fact, when gay people simply complain that they are mistreated, they are accused of being politically divisive and small minded, endangering children, and persecuting Christians.

Part of the problem, too, has been sloppy strategizing by gay rights activists. The whole issue of whether gays are born gay or choose to be gay is irrelevant to whether gays deserve the same rights as any other citizen or human being. Did biological determinism do anything really to speed up women’s and blacks’ struggles for justice and equality? If one could choose to be black, would such a choice justify discriminatory practices against that person? Even if God can and does “cure” the habit of gossip or the desire to eat shellfish (both condemned in the Bible), would such miracles justify passing laws and amendments that forbid basic legal privileges to shrimp-loving blabbermouths?

It’s also a bit insensitive for Obama to ask a vocal supporter of California’s Proposition 8 to speak, since, for many lesbians and gays, it rehashes and confirms the conflicted feelings of elation and insult that the November victories of Obama and 8 evoked. If Obama sympathizes with gay people’s struggle for equal treatment under the law, as he claims, why is he insensitive and/or indifferent to their concerns and interests?

Sometimes I have to wonder whether Democrats choose to be hypocrites or whether they’re just born that way.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

America Is Not A Family Business

I like Caroline Kennedy, daughter of JFK and big sis to John John—two other people I have a soft spot in my heart for, may they rest in peace. On the few times I’ve heard Kennedy speak, I’ve been reasonably impressed, though it’s hard for me (for a lot of Americans) to really hear her and not her family legacy in US politics.

She’s had a remarkable life—surviving every member of her immediate family, escaping death from an IRA bomb, and inspiring a Neil Diamond hit.

Now she’s interested in taking over the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of Bill Clinton and soon to be Secretary of State. But she’s in competition with Andrew Cuomo, son of former NY governor Mario Cuomo and ex to Terry Kennedy, Caroline’s cousin. Ultimately the decision will be made by the current NY governor David Paterson, son of a former NY state senator.

One of the reasons (I had several) I voted for Barack Obama instead of Clinton was that, deep down, I feel that the United States of America should not operate like a family business. I could have lived with a Clinton nomination, but I really favored Obama for this reason (and several others, as well). I wanted the Bush-Clinton-Bush chain to end with George W.

I would never vote against a candidate merely because she or he has family ties to politics. But this sort of thing does figure into my thinking at election times. It is a matter of some importance to my concept of a working free democracy.

Now that the royal lines of Europe and Asia have either petered out or lost the powers of governance, is there really any need for America, where everybody is “created equal,” so we hear, to perpetuate dynastic politics past its expiration date?

Of course, the UK still has its Queen—but the governmental chief is the Prime Minister, of whom, recently, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major, and Margaret Thatcher have had only remote family ties to politics—mostly descending from farmers, grocers, entertainers, educators, and clergy—and came into high office through lives of public service and/or law careers.

Aren’t there enough brainy, capable people in the United States—like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton—to fill top government positions without resorting to nepotism?

Do we really believe that bloodlines confer the know-how to lead a democratic nation? I would not want to impugn Caroline Kennedy’s, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s, or Andrew Cuomo’s political savvy or statesmanship by crediting it to genealogy or genetics. I also don’t mean to demean their individual accomplishments by assuming that everything they have achieved is due to nepotism. And yet what, apart from their names, distinguishes them from other qualified persons with political ambition?

Have Kennedy, Clinton, and Bush become brand names like Pepsi or McDonald’s? Certainly, name recognition is a selling point for politicians campaigning for elected office—but what advantage does it offer for political appointments?

Last month the citizens voted Barack Hussein Obama into the nation’s highest office in spite of his name (which, let’s face it, was no selling point, as the Republicans so often liked to emphasize). Like Bill Clinton, he was the son of a single mother—the paternal namesake being absent for most of his life. In many respects, unlike either Bush 1 or Bush 2, he represents the American dream—of assimilation, of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, of rising without the help of family or family connections.

So now that “change” seems so necessary and, for the first time in decades, so possible, why must we turn to brand names and/or dynasties for leadership?

Good luck to you, Caroline, and if you make it to the Senate next year, I hope it’s because you’re the best person for the job—and not just because of your tragically romantic name.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Atheist Christmas

I embrace the label “atheist” reluctantly because it smells of militant reaction to the monotheistic religions that long ago turned militaristic and, somewhat more recently, reactionary. The word sounds angry, when I’d much prefer that it sound simply bored and uninterested. So, usually, I use the word “irreligious” to describe myself.

Of course, there are matters I am angry about—homophobia, imperialism, wage slavery, subjugation of women’s bodies, destruction of the environment (on oh so many levels), child abuse (also on oh so many levels), war, torture, terror—matters on which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have, at their best, looked with blithe, big-hearted condescension and, at their (usual) worst, have sided with, inspired, inflamed, and offered comfort to the oppressors.

Christians complain that “Christ” has been taken out of “Christmas.” This is more or less the bottom of the barrel as far as martyrdoms go, and Christians have been scraping this wood for a long time (1). It almost hurts to have to tell them, as they nail their hands to their Christmas trees, that Christians stole the holiday from the pagans (2)—and that their puritanical and more fundamentalist brothers have banned celebrating Christmas altogether (3).

I like Christmas well enough. It’s some days off work—and God knows the greedy capitalists would have us at the grindstone 24/7/365 if they could. And, now that both my parents are dead—and I have no brothers or sisters, no husband or wife, no children, I am relatively unburdened by the family sniping and the burden of obligatory gift giving that others (with good reason) so often complain about.

For the past five years, I celebrate Christmas the first Saturday of every December. I invite some friends over and we eat crab cakes, drink wine (and sometimes absinthe), get high, and bake cookies—either following recipes (the orthodox wing) or freestyle mixing shit together (the heretics)—the heretics have more fun, but orthodox cookies are generally edible (4).

I also buy the guests some small tokens of the season—ornaments, hard candies and mints, holiday music, dreidls, DVDs of Bad Santa and It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a “small, good thing,” to cite Raymond Carver, to share like this with people I enjoy—no burden or obligation at all.

Generally I am in favor of gift giving, not to help or save the economy, but to express some measure of transcendent connection with the people I care about. (I am even a bigger fan of birthdays than Christmas.)

Gifts are—or should be—symbols for sharing oneself. Gifting should not be competitive, expected, obligatory, or too deeply read into. Gifts should be selected on the basis of one’s feelings or hopes for the gifted. They should be wrapped, if possible, because wrapping can suggest the mystery of our fellow feeling, and unwrapping can suggest the opening up of the self to others.

I like the word “Christmas.” It does not too heavily intone Christianity for me, as an atheist—no more than “Thursday” reminds me of the Norse god Thor or “Saturday,” of the Roman god Saturn. As I am not a Christian, I don’t object to “Xmas,” and as I am not an idiot, I recognize that “Xmas” is simply an abbreviation of “Christmas,” “X” long being an abbreviation for “Christ” among monks and scholars, either to save time or to show reverence (like the ancient Jews and the later Muslims who eschew naming or portraying their God).

Atheist Christmas seems so much richer and dreamily loving than Christian Christmas. Still, I enjoy nativity scenes and “Silent Night,” in pretty much the same way (and to pretty much the same extent) as I do The Nutcracker and Peter Pan, with a willing suspension of disbelief to provide only the finest, lightest crystals of magical thinking to dust and sweeten the long, dark nights of winter and the long, dark night of humanity’s intolerance, self-righteousness, cruelty, ignorance, and greed.

(1) Think of the outrage many Christians felt when Phyllis Burgess, 69 and Christian, protesting against gay marriage at a pro-gay marriage rally, had a Styrofoam cross yanked from her hands by fire-breathing homos and saw it broken and dashed to the ground. This was no spiritual release from the heavy burden of Styrofoam; this was, of course, anti-Christian persecution—which, as Mike Huckabee instructed the women on The View, is analogous to the pistol-whipping of Matthew Shepard (and the beatings and deaths of many, many others—unavoidably linked with Christendom) or the merely mischievous exclusion of thousands of queer Americans from the legal, civil privileges of marriage.

(2) Namely Pope Julius 1 in the fourth century—Isis worship, Saturnalia, and Yule all have earlier claims to December 25—and the Druidic custom of worshipping nature by decorating trees and logs was ripped off somewhat later in history. Julius also squashed the Arians, who opposed the worship of Jesus (as, apparently, did Jesus—John 14.28; John 17.20-26—and possibly the apostle Paul—1 Cor. 8.5-6).

(3) Reed, Kevin. “Christmas: An Historical Survey Regarding Its Origins and Opposition to It.” 1995. Still Waters Revival Books.

(4) I belong to the orthodox wing, but with liberal tendencies, permitting myself to substitute walnuts for pecans or dark for milk chocolate. My Bible is Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book (1963; Old Testament) and the 2005 Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies magazine (New).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Only Themselves to Blame

I can’t quite bring myself to wish for a too speedy recovery of the economy, fearing the selling out of unions and workers in the interest of Wall Street investors and corporate CEOs to achieve an empty, polarizing national “prosperity.”

When I hear Republicans (Senator Bob Corker et al.) blame unionized auto workers for the collapse of the US auto industry—not bad management, not overcompensated CEOs, not arrogance and irresponsibility towards the environment and consumer safety, not the prioritization of advertising over customer service—and, further, to tweak the figures on worker compensation to include benefits as part of hourly wages and yet make no comparison to what the highest paid execs get for failing miserably in their jobs—I suspect that the plan in the works is to screw the little people to make them compliant employees and consumers—like the Chinese, from whose financially engorged government the US will borrow the billions that will disappear into the black hole of corporate bookkeeping and overseas wars (lest we forget the $9 billion that vanished in “Iraqi reconstruction” in 2005).

I am hardly an expert on money—I’m deep in debt, living payday to payday on a community college instructor’s salary, yet as subject to the allure of smart, trendy bistros and glittering commodities as the next guy—so I do not understand how further debt and inflation will solve matters.

Isn’t a large part of the problem speculation and the fluffing up of fiat currencies to self-fulfill capitalist myths that business must grow or die? Really, why can’t somebody who makes a million dollars, let’s say, live comfortably on that amount—and not immediately set sights on a billion? Why must a corporation favor investors so very much more than its customers and employees?

No, I have no answers, and I fear I have an insufficient grasp of the problem—but even if American workers are indeed “overpaid” when compared to workers in India and Mexico, how is it that they—and not CEOs who average over $600,000 per year ($14.2 million per CEO at Fortune 500 companies)—have “only themselves to blame” for the collapse of the economy, not only in the United States, but in Japan, the UK, Iceland, etc., etc., etc.?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Do Something!

Previous epochs had their axioms: “Know thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” The motto of the twenty-first century is “Do something.” A variant on Nike’s “Just do it.”

With astonishing vagueness, leaders and populace alike seem to believe that doing something, anything whatever, about the events that distress us is always and in every way preferable to doing nothing at all. Such is modern faith—not simply leaping into darkness, as Kierkegaard once described it, but leaping in any direction.

Thank God we are not beings capable of reason, which would only complicate matters.

To date, the “something” we have done includes invading Afghanistan, giving the President unimpeded war powers, invading Iraq, renaming French fries “freedom fries,” justifying torture, relinquishing civil liberties in travel and communications, selecting Sarah Palin as a running mate, bailing out lending agencies (with no or few strings attached), taking bids on seats on the U.S. Senate, and now bailing out the American automobile industry.

Recently, December 10th, queers were asked to “disappear” for the day as a protest (!) against the limitations on gay rights and legal privileges in states like California, Florida, and Arizona—a purely symbolic gesture (but “something” still) that, as a tactic, seems more in line with Fred Phelps than Harvey Milk.*

I fully understand the potential destructiveness of immovable idealism—certainly I wouldn’t say that we should wait on the best or perfect solution—or even a “sure thing”—before taking any action at all.

And I understand the concept of “analysis paralysis.” Only I don’t see much analysis at all—just a lot of hand-wringing—“To do nothing … would be irresponsible” (PM Gordon Brown, 11/24/2008)—and empty gestures which, as even the folks who propose them admit, do little or nothing to solve our problems in the long run.


*And same-sex marriage itself sometimes appears to be just “something” to struggle for in opposition to general discriminatory practices still in effect five years after the Supreme Court threw out states’ unconstitutional sodomy laws—not to mention the disturbing upsurge in anti-gay violence (which Governor Mike Huckabee, on The View, had the nerve to equate with some gays’ busting some pro-8 woman’s tacky Styrofoam cross during an anti-8 protest—after, reportedly, she had pushed a disabled guy down to the ground in her push to get up close to the speakers—yeah, Mike, clubbing to death and damaging a tsotski, pretty much the same thing).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Six Ugly Truths

(1) Children are no better than adults. Some kids are great, but the vast majority are just so-so, which is okay since the supply of so-so adults will then never trickle away to nothing. No one’s to blame here, because, since a child is evolutionarily designed to tug at heartstrings of adults capable of protecting him or her from natural predators, adults understandably tend to overestimate the value and potential of every child they meet.

(2) Superficial stuff (like youth and beauty) matters. Yeah, a good soul is nice to have, but try picking up somebody at the bar with the goodness of your soul. Wisdom, honesty, dependability, and creativity are less likely to get you laid (or gainfully employed) than clear skin, a full head of hair, big but not monstrous muscles or big but not monstrous boobs, and bright, even teeth.

(3) Eat as healthy, local, and macrobiotic as you care to, but you are still gonna die, probably after a long, uncomfortable illness that some asshole you know will peg to your past life-style choices. I strongly recommend taking care of your body; just don’t fool yourself into believing that passing up French fries or coconut cake significantly improves your chances of being here in fifty years.

(4) Nobody in politics gives a rat’s ass about you—unless you’re a person with more clout and power than he or she has. Sure, we little guys make the votes, but the face you will have to look at for the next four years on CNN does not have to return the favor. Welcome to the anonymous masses. Your chances are better for screwing the American Idol contestant you voted for than getting a special favor from your senator.

(5) Your last opportunity to do something wonderful and exciting in life was probably your last opportunity to do that particular wonderful and exciting thing … ever. Potential adventures are nothing to turn your nose up at. They are rare and crop up unpredictably and often inconveniently. The word “yes” always has a sell-by date, sooner than later, but “no” can sit on the shelf till the day you die.

(6) Whining doesn’t work. I once was told that 80% of the people you complain to don’t care one way or the other, and the other 20% think you’re getting exactly what you deserve. Sure, it feels good to vent—sometimes the urge is irresistible—but being a victim is something you feel inside which hardly ever translates well when expressed out loud or in print.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Honor and Dignity

Lately a number of standup comedians have lamented that President-elect Barack Obama does not appear to promise much fodder for ridicule—no funny mannerisms, no scandals, no serious known breaches in integrity. Plus, he’s our first black President—and that fact in itself poses problems of decorum in a nation still sensitive about race and racism.

By comparison, President George W. Bush has provided a goldmine for satirists and impressionists—only recently upstaged by Sarah Palin.

Today, though, Bush is being credited with preserving “the honor and the dignity of his office” as U.S. President … by the Bush White House.

“Titled ‘Speech Topper on the Bush Record,’ the talking points [in a two-page memo sent to Bush Cabinet members] state that Bush ‘kept the American people safe’ after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lifted the economy after 2001 through tax cuts, curbed AIDS in Africa and maintained ‘the honor and the dignity of his office.’" (1)

I wonder whether the Orwellian war-is-peace newspeak will stop here or whether Bush will copyright the words “honor and dignity” the way Fox News once claimed “fair and balanced” as its own (and then tried to sue Al Franken for using the phrase in the subtitle of a book in 2003—subsequently it dropped the suit).

After all, Bush is all about “ownership”—though that’s a tune he’s been playing seldom in these past 60 days of foreclosures, buyouts, and bailouts. Ditto “bring it on”—in fact, Bush preserves a great amount of the Presidency’s dignity by simply asserting obviously fallacious recollections as true history and trusting in the American people’s short memory.

Don’t you love the bit about lifting the economy? Clever people must realize that “lift” means “revoke” and “pilfer,” among other things. I, for one, have totally forgotten that Bush entered office with a surplus—which he spent in part on $300 and $600 handouts to the American people, purportedly because the money was theirs, but more likely because he wanted to shut down talk about the dubious facts of his 2000 election.

One might further suppose curbing AIDS means, in part, letting lots of people in Africa die … of famine, genocide, and AIDS … thus, in fact, setting definite limits to the numbers of Africans suffering with AIDS. But, in truth, Bush may have done some good here. The White House reports that $148 billion has gone to AIDS relief worldwide since Bush assumed office in 2001, and, to be fair, his plan for providing emergency AIDS relief to sub-Saharan Africa, while greatly benefiting Big Pharma, has also expanded care to the sick apparently by 40 times over the past five years. (2)

As for keeping Americans safe, it’s easy to say that there were some 3,000 Americans not kept safe on September 11, 2001, under his watch. Of course, it’s unacceptable to lay the blame entirely on Bush for those horrific events, but I’m not sure he’s to be credited for the fact that a highly unusual and unprecedented event has not yet repeated itself. Perhaps he can take credit for no new attacks on Pearl Harbor as well. Or perhaps we can thank Bush and Cheney that a major earthquake has not leveled San Francisco lately.

In my lifetime, the honor and the dignity of the Presidency have suffered horribly—the most honorable and dignified being Eisenhower, under whose aegis I was born (though I would say that the prize goes to Carter for establishing the honor and dignity of the post-Presidency).

In my memory, no President has been worse than or as bad as Bush. Whether writing his own valedictory blurbs will affect the public’s memory of his two terms in office remains to be seen. I suspect that Americans will (as Americans tend to) forget, if not forgive. Perhaps he will write his memoirs (though I’ve heard that publishers aren’t really interested in them at the moment). A bestseller followed by a film adaptation could substantially erase memory of the last eight years. Perhaps he will reinvent himself as a spokesman for a cause. Or retire to a secluded compound as Nixon did, back when disgrace was not yet synonymous with honor and dignity.

Or perhaps he’ll do standup.


(1) Nicholas, Peter. “For Bush’s staff, upbeat talking points on his tenure.” Los Angeles Times 9 Dec. 2008 http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/washingtondc/la-na-bush9-2008dec09,0,4145069.story

(2) United States. White House. Office of National AIDS Policy. President’s HIV/AIDS Initiatives. http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/hivaids/

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Boys to Men

Eating at an elegant, yet inexpensive restaurant in Prague last week (my first trip to the Czech Republic, owing to a wedding of friends), two women at the table with me observed that the men there were hot.

One woman wondered out loud why it was that the men in Prague were, in general, more poised, well dressed, and sexy than their American counterparts … again, in general.

It was a question that occurred to me, too, on my first and so far only visit to Madrid 13 years ago. Madrileños were square shouldered and masculine, yet they wore their machismo easily—no attitude, no swagger—well spoken (when they spoke the one language I can understand) and polite.

What I thought then and was reminded of at the restaurant last week was that in the United States men tend to follow two archetypes—they are boys or slobs.

The slobs stereotypically express their masculinity through disgust—often being disgusting, deliberately for effect, and belching out their disgust at everything that does not revolve around sports, fucking, and themselves.

The boys, on the other hand, repress their masculinity—perhaps the only way they can think of to avoid looking and acting like wife beaters (the worst of the slobs). Adult boys perpetually reenact the role of grinning little brother or Mommy’s little do-gooder, especially around women, by whom they are usually intimidated.

The slobs, too, may be intimidated by women, therefore preferring to hang out with “the guys” or bearing chips on their shoulders when interacting with women.

I know a few American men who don’t fall into either category. As I said, I am generalizing, but, as we have all probably heard, stereotypes bear a grain of truth.

And I also have to say that, like a lot of gay men, I have a soft spot (if that could conceivably be the right word) for American jocks—more often than not the chrysalis-stage of slob-hood.

But what happens to these Abercrombie and Fitch Adonises to turn them into leering, inarticulate bums in middle age? I hate to admit it, but, in their youth, George W. Bush and John McCain looked kinda hot—but today they look dull and bloated as bulls lumbering towards the Golden Corral.

The men in Prague and Madrid were, on the whole, men—not guys. They looked like they could handle situations—whether it be defending themselves with their fists or picking the right wine for dinner. Their manner towards women looked suave and considerate—comfortably so, not like they were afraid of getting their heads bitten off if they took a wrong step.

The deer-in-headlights glaze junior-high boys affect on their first dates atrophies into the sluggish, slump-shouldered daze of a good 80% of married American men of a certain age escorting their wives round the shopping mall.

I don’t think it’s the women’s fault—though American mothers should probably be less exasperated by and less doting on their young sons. If anything, I blame America’s larger issues with sexuality. American popular culture, including a preponderance of the mass media, makes acute homosexual panic inevitable for young males—a trauma reconciled by either rejection of manners altogether (as too “sissy”) or sheepishness and abject servility.

The truth is that American parents watch over their sons with dread and dismal expectations.

Thus, for the past 100 years or so, America has failed to permit intimacy in boys—for fear of turning them gay or encouraging effeminacy. In the nineteenth century, young American men, Harvard undergrads and cowboys alike, held hands with their pals, slept in bed with each other, and exchanged affectionate words with their friends and family. Butt slapping on the football field or rough-housing at summer camp is about the full extent of physical camaraderie permitted to boys age 6 through 21 today.

Most American males do not fully grow up—at least not in their social attitudes—frozen in fear lest their every move be interpreted as inappropriately erotic—unsure of their abilities to control their bodies and unacquainted with the graces of mental and spiritual intimacy.

I dare say, few today even experience much romance, even secondhand in tales of chivalry and knightly derring-do—instead, superheroes provide over-the-top standards of masculinity and accomplishment, further emasculating the typical male.

They may grow up to be fussy and nervous, but rarely elegant and self-assured. They may grow up to be opinionated, but often unable to hold their own in a serious conversation, much less a polite argument.

As I said, there are exceptions—George Clooney springs to mind (at least his public persona)—but 9 out of 10 straight American men refuse to dance with, romance, or politely listen to their female friends—probably have never learned how to—and, apart from obsessive working out and insecurity over body odor, few American males know much about grooming, fashion, or (that highly distrusted word) etiquette.

By contrast, American girls are still allowed more romantic friendships and encouraged to learn the arts of intimacy with their girlfriends—though perhaps this situation is changing as the culture slips further into eroto-phobia. I’m of the opinion that the situation won’t change until America adopts more reasonable attitudes about sexuality—more specifically, homosexuality.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Day 1 in Prague (Nov. 26)

U Stare Pani, jazz club/restaurant/hotel where I (and others in our party) stayed

Views of St Charles Bridge

Old Town Square

absinth shop

street scene

[In the evening we celebrated Laurie's birthday--we being Sherry, Farley, Tim, and I--at the elegant but not obscenely expensive Palffy Palac on the Mala Strana--I had foie gras (best I've ever had--like butter), roasted deer meat in a berry sauce, potatoes au gratin, spinach, carrots, and profiteroles for dessert.]

Day 2 in Prague (27 Nov 2008, Thanksgiving Day)

Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock

Karlova Street, the way to the St Charles Bridge

St Vitus Cathedral above the Royal Palace

Alien babies in front of the Kampo Museum

The view of Prague from Kampo Island

Kampo graffiti

Bust of Kafka near Old Town Square

Thanksgiving Dinner, Czech-style, at U Zlate Convice

Post-opera (Carmen) drinks with Sherry, Laurie, and Farley at the Ethno Cafe


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