Wednesday, December 31, 2014

once upon a time

Warning: spoilers ahead!

In 1987, I was an ambitious, undereducated, oversexed, too-smart-for-my-own-good, 24 year old. Ronald Reagan was President, Ed Koch was the Mayor of New York City, and AIDS was ravaging both coasts of the country. To those who weren't there, it's difficult to explain how extreme the levels of fear and anger permeating nearly everything in New York City, especially the world of the performing arts. Rock Hudson and Liberace were the highest visibility celebrity casualties of the epidemic (Hudson died in '85, and Liberace in '87), but the worlds of fashion, opera, ballet, and Broadway saw daily losses. Casting directors were actively overlooking gay men for less talented heterosexual actors for fear of illness or death, and in social circles, friends would get sick and return to their childhood homes to wither away with their families, or they'd simply disappear. On the dance floor Saturday night, gone by Monday. These were very scary times.

Amid the horror and tragedy, Stephen Sondheim, who is both openly gay and arguably the father of the modern American musical (that particular torch having been passed to him from Oscar Hammerstein), opened his eagerly awaited Broadway musical parable, "Into the Woods," which featured a cast of characters straight from the pages of familiar fairy tales. Incongruous? More ingenious, really. 

He's never said so, but to those cognoscenti-New York-theater-goers who were lucky enough to have seen those first run of performances at the Martin Beck Theater on West 45th Street (renamed the Al Hirshfeld Theater in 2003), it was clear that Sondheim was using the murderous, and in that production, unseen giant as an allegory for AIDS. In the play's second act, characters we'd grown up with, known all our lives, and felt a deep kinship to were inexplicably taken from us; violently snatched away, some as retribution for personal transgressions, others completely randomly. The Happily Ever After at the end of the play's first act proved a fallacious construct that couldn't be realized no matter how much we wished for it (I wish...). 

Robert Westenberg as the Wolf
Despite its fancy-free, fairy tale facade, "Into the Woods" was a dark piece of theater, one that dared to address and even push the public's comfort boundaries on topics that rarely see the light of day, at least not in musical theater. The original scenes between Little Red as a sexually curious teenager and the Wolf as an insatiable sexual predator deliciously teetered on inappropriate. So much so that when I saw the original production in previews, the wolf appeared on stage wearing just a motorcycle jacket and a huge, hairy, prosthetic cock and balls. I understand that after many complaints from theater patrons who'd brought children to the show expecting a family-friendly fairy tale musical, the Wolf's costume was changed, and he got a pair of pants for the opening.

The Disney-fied film version completely avoids addressing any sexual content within Little Red's story line by casting the prepubescent Lila Crawford. While the young Ms Crawford's performance shone for me in the film, of course, none of the vital and electric topics (childhood sexuality, female sexuality, sexual curiosity and experimentation) that made her story line in the stage production so compelling were able to be addressed. And given the cartoon phoning-in of Johnny Depp's, Wolf (more like Pirate Jack Sparrow in a kitty-cat costume), it would be preposterous if he'd had any sexual appeal at all. Though Little Red's lyrics remain unchanged, what I remember in the theater as clearly indicating newfound sexual knowledge and loss of virginity, read as hollow in relation to her bizarre encounter with the Wolf in the film.  

There are numerous other vital happenings that were in the stage production that have been scrubbed from the film. Perhaps most notable, and most mentioned in nearly every review I've seen (which is admittedly, not many), is the absence of the Narrator; an important role whose song, "No More," a partial duet with the Baker (his son), was not only beautiful and poignant, but important to the trajectory of the story. The Narrator also served as a go-between from audience to action, and when he was brutally killed in the second act, the delineation between audience and on-stage action was symbolically eliminated, making the tragedy of the second act that much more real for the audience. 

Also sadly departed, and I feel equally important, is the reprise of the song "Agony." The Princes sing this song in the first act when they're longing to be united with their Princesses. The reprise of the song in the second act (missing from the Disney version), comes "happily ever after," when the Princes have already been united with their Princesses, who are now waiting for them at home. In the reprise, however, the Princes are not only bored with their Princess wives, but long to stray with, respectively, a sleeping girl as white as snow encased in a glass casket (there's a dwarf standing guard), and a sleeping beauty isolated in a castle surrounded by brambles and thorns. The song sets up Cinderella's Prince's adulterous encounter with the Baker's Wife, and also highlights the piece's overarching moral, "be careful what you wish for." Those who saw it will remember that in the original stage production, the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince were played by the same actor. This, of course, is harder to pull off on film than it is on stage where the audience's suspension of belief is heightened, but it was a very successful device, which helped to suggest that perhaps there is a little bit of Wolf in even the most charming of princes. 

The theme of death and disillusionment remains in the film, but seems so watered down so as to not offend or challenge Disney's target demographic. In the stage production, for example, when Milky White (the cow, and Jack's friend) dies, Jack's loss (Jack, simple-minded and also played by a teen on stage) is deep and poignant, yet Milky White's screen death seems to pass with no mention at all, save how the cow might help resolve the Witch's spell.

Also absent was the vital struggle of the Baker's Wife to be seen as an equal by her husband. The action of the film seems to start with both Baker and Wife on equal footing, seemingly eliminating any need for this feminist subplot. And while that may be a good indication of how far we've come in the past 27 years, the urgency of the Baker's Wife's struggle to be seen as an equal in breaking the spell (a struggle which won Joanna Gleason a Tony award for Best Actress in a musical) was missed by this viewer. 

Perhaps most intrinsic in the film's not working for me is the Witch. There are two points related to the Witch where I feel the film goes astray. The first is that, in the original, Repunzel is killed by the Giant. This, of course, helps explain the Witch's urgent and extreme descent into madness and her disappearance. 

There is certainly more to be gleaned from the Witch's character that I may be missing or am glossing over simply for the sake of time and space - notably that the Witch's love for Repunzel indicates that "Witches can be good," among other things. This piece is very complex and rich with plenty of room for analysis. 

The second problem for me with the Witch in the film, and I know I may get some flak for this, is the casting. Yes, Meryl Streep is an amazing actor; a magician who can do no wrong. She can conquer any accent, time period; she can sing, dance - we love her, really, we do, but, forgive me, she is just too old for this role.  

In 1987, when Bernadette Peters, as the Witch, was freed from the spell that turned her into a crooked-nosed, wart-covered, hump-backed old crone, she transformed into, well, Bernadette Peters! And not just any Bernadette Peters, but a sparkling, voluptuous, 38 year old Bernadette Peters, whose snowy-white breasts were spilling from atop her silken curvy hourglass silhouette. A transformation that made the audience gasp as one - we all suddenly realized how unfair and cruel the spell was to hide this glorious beauty behind the mask of an old shriveled gorgon. When Meryl Streep's Witch, by comparison, breaks the evil spell, she is transformed from a disheveled old woman, to a very well-put together old woman. Again, she's terrific! I love her, but no amount of cinematic movie-magic is going to transform a 65 year old Meryl Streep into a 30-something year old knockout. She gets transformed into a great-looking 60-something year old Meryl Streep.

Some of this may read as petty and nit-picky, and I apologize for that, but as I watched the film, I actually wept remembering what was going on in my world when I'd first seen the show, and how deeply it had effected me. Watching the film, I also felt cheated that such an important and richly textured piece of musical theater had been robbed of its dark and prophetic messages, and turned saccharin for Disney's box office, family-friendly purposes. While perhaps understandable that the celluloid version be sweetened up for its Christmas day release, it's also, unfortunately been stripped of its psychological complexities and much of its emotional content.

In light of what was happening at the time of its premiere; Right-wing religious fanatics claiming that homosexuals had brought a pestilence upon themselves, FDA regulations refusing life-saving drugs to dying young men, hospitals denying humane treatment to patients, and a President who hadn't mentioned AIDS until that very year (compare Reagan's response to more than 20,000 dead Americans with how the press treated Obama when 1 American was diagnosed with Ebola), I continue to hold the show's original messages close; not only that I must continue to be careful for what I wish for, but that someone is on my side, and that no one is alone. 

That damaged and beaten small community; that nontraditional family of those frightened and traumatized few that remain at the closing of the show promise to rebuild, and that is just what we have done, and continue to do. 

Isn't it nice to know a lot?
... and a little bit not.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

cola cola granola ebola

What was going to finally inspire me to return from my extended blogging hiatus? I'd barely scratched the surface of my impressions of Dominica; its lush beautiful Caribbean landscape, the friendly people, those joyful and frolicsome children, and the disturbing lack of African culture in a Black nation that's been culturally and historically regulated by Christian missionary doctrine. I pondered my experience long and hard, but, for some reason, didn't turn to the blog as an avenue of expression.

Certainly years of bottled-up emotions had been dislodged and rattled by watching the HBO presentation of Larry Kramer's, "The Normal Heart," but apparently that wasn't enough to motivate a blog post either. Likewise, the recent overabundance of violent police overreach, the cold-blooded murder of unarmed Black children in the streets of America by those sworn to serve and protect. I've thought about pouring my emotional response about that onto the internet, but what could I possibly write that wasn't being said more eloquently by people and communities more directly affected than me? Instead, I simply turned away in disgust and tried not to engage in the media minefield of tragedy and bad news, or the embarrassing and shameful debate about the law's just/unjust use of force in such cases.

Gun control, climate change, Truvada... there's certainly no shortage of news items or political stories to get my attention or to fire me up. However, I'm trying to limit my media consumption lately, and am simply attempting to practice more detachment and acceptance these days. Of course, this might not help my radical, community organizing, one-voice-can-make-a-difference protesting inner child, but it does allow more room for serenity and detailed attention to the small stuff of daily living. 

So what brings me here now? 

I've become disturbed by a trend I see on my Facebook feed and on some Internet news sources encouraging hysteria with over-the-top fear-mongering regarding Ebola. Sure, I expect science-free bullshit from FOX "news" and other ignorant right-wing propaganda machines, but not necessarily from individual people on my Facebook feed. Frankly, the people I see stirring up a ballyhoo about Ebola are more likely to be taken down by heart disease, diabetes, or random gun violence than a West African virus. Perhaps they'd be better off exhibiting some of the same urgency in regards to donuts or fried food. 

And am I the only one to notice the distressing parallel between these initial Ebola reactions and what happened in the early days of AIDS? A deadly virus runs unrestrained in communities that are seen as expendable, and the majority of the world looks away. Suddenly, Western white professionals (doctors, people seen as important or as having value) are infected and the world press takes note; right-wing pundits begin to promote fear and irrational, restrictive measures against the virus' most likely potential carriers, who are, after all, people who always seemed suspicious and dangerous anyway. Politicians and certain media outlets, of course, benefit by stoking these fires of fear. Lack of treatment and the documented tragedy and horror of those infected become conflated with fears of transmission, and it's all too familiar and all too infuriating. 

Thomas Eric Duncan, the 42 year old Liberian, and the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. died this morning at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. Why, I'm wondering, were the two white, American missionaries, who contracted the almost-always fatal virus, and who have been recovering in an Atlanta hospital since August, given the experimental serum ZMapp and Duncan not? Why, for that matter, has the serum not been given to the almost 4000 other people who have died from the fatal virus in other West African nations?

Just like in the 80s when I saw elders in my community and some of my own friends dying; when I was an emotionally overwhelmed, dumbstruck kid wondering what was happening, I wanted to believe that the negligence of the U.S. government had nothing to do with the orientation of who was most being affected by a killer virus. I wanted to believe that I could trust the healthcare system, trust my country, trust the United States because life mattered. Life was sacred. I grew up fast, and I learned.

Funny how certain factions are calling out Obama for not taking fast enough action to combat this potential epidemic. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that there have been no American deaths due to this virus: none. Zero. Zip! Yet shrill cries of the President's negligence and ineptitude are being sounded from televisions and Waffle Houses from sea to shining sea. Cries from the same folks who've shot down his nomination for Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, because the man dared tell the truth that gun violence in the U.S. is a national health threat. 

I would also like to remind those same strident anti-Obama-Ebola's-gonna-get-cha shrieking chicken littles that president Reagan, their very own hallowed Ronnie the Great, didn't even mention AIDS until there had been more than 20,000 dead Americans. And in the event that you've forgotten just how the Reagan administration handled that health crisis, you can read this 1982 detailed account of Reagan's Press Secretary, Larry Speakes responding to questions about the burgeoning epidemic.  

Now, here we are in 2014, and I'd like to believe that we live in a post-racial world, but I'm not blind and I'm not stupid. I'd like to believe that race has nothing to do with saving lives, or with police shooting unarmed children, or with anti-Obama vitriol, or housing, or employment, or crime, or education, or infant mortality... 
but like I said, I'm not blind and I'm not stupid.

Wake up America! Wake up world! Our responses are being documented. The rest of the world is watching and taking note. African lives matter. Asian lives matter. Black lives matter. Life matters, and life is short. So do the right thing; be just, be kind - the alternative is simply too costly and too terrible. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

purple turtle beach

I feel as if I should be gushing with endless details of the natural beauty of this island. It is astonishingly beautiful, at times breathtaking; lush, green, covered in flowers that don't look real, with vistas that look like painted backdrops, waterfalls, sulphur springs, natural pools, black sand beaches, and rain forest-covered mountains that jut straight out of the sea.

Yesterday, my cousin Rebecca and I took a bus from Roseau to Portsmouth. When we reached the Indian River, we hired a dreadlocked guy with a boat, Stevenson, to row us up the river; peaceful, lush, thick mangroves growing from brackish water alive with fish (apparently a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed there - I haven't seen it, but I'll watch it when I get home). Then we visited David, a friend of Rebecca's and a Peace Corps worker in the vocational school where he works with teenage kids - woodworking, sewing, computers, school rooms, and a nursery for a few of the babies of the kids. We walked up to and around Fort Shirley in the hot midday sun. The three of us sat for a while marveling at the spectacular view from beneath the protective shade of a huge mango tree at the fort before we walked back down the hill to Purple Turtle Beach. I changed into my swimming trunks at the side of the road, and floated in the water. I can't explain how delightful the water felt. The beach is separated from the street by a strip of almond trees, and the water is blue, calm, and so salty that one just floats.

As I floated, thoughts of loved ones rushed over me. I often feel that because I'm on vacation, I should be carefree, and only have happy thoughts. There is, however, something about the magnitude and hypnotic cadence of a calm sea that creates a melancholy in me; the endless and timeless rhythm of the tides that evokes thoughts of those no longer here. Perhaps it's the excitement of being in a faraway and exotic land, the magical power of nature, or the vast expanse of something much more powerful than I am that resonates backward and forward into infinite time and coaxes out of me memories of lost loves, broken connections; that allows me to feel them, to love them again as if they were still here.

I lay on the shore and felt the warm sun on my body and on my face. Gentle tides washed over me, up and down, repeat and repeat. I smiled, my back and shoulders braced in the warm black sand, tears rolled down the side of my face and mingled with the salty Caribbean Sea. I was silently weeping, not dramatic, just a sensation of being simply overwhelmed with deep loss as gentle waves washed over me. I felt simultaneously fortunate to have loved so deeply; happy, trying to take time with each memory, each beloved friend, the beating of my heart, the rhythmic movement of the waves: Greg, Tom, Johhny... I was momentarily carried through time and space as the remembered essence of each held me in the cool water.

As pleasant and transportive as my experience was, I understood that I needed to pull myself out of my reverie if I were to continue to socialize. I dove from the shore back into the water, and slowly made my way up the beach, pulled my t-shirt over my wet self, and the three of us, Rebecca, David, and I, walked down Purple Turtle Beach to an open bar in the shade where I drank a sweet and refreshing, ginger Quenchi. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

on this island

The day before yesterday, I was awakened by the sound of my phone. I'd foolishly set my alarm for the wrong day. I'd barely slept. My good friend, George was texting, "eta 5 mins." Uh oh!

Luckily, I had packed everything the night before. I double checked around the house and ran downstairs to find George waiting in front of my building. It was 12 degrees that morning. I climbed into the passenger seat, and George whisked me off to Newark airport, a completely unnecessary yet greatly appreciated kindness. I got through security and arrived at my gate where I boarded a flight.

I'm now in a small hillside village called, Eggleston. It is nestled in the hills above Roseau (pronounced Rose-oh), the capital of Dominica (pronounced Domin-eekah, yes, like the Singing Nun). Eggleston is hardly what you'd call a village, there are no shops, or gas stations (though there is a rum shack on the side of the road), it's more an extended cluster of houses built alongside a steeply raked hillside. What Eggleston lacks in businesses it more than makes up for in chickens, roosters, dogs, goats, cats, children, and some of the most dense and lush flora I've seen anywhere. Overgrown bamboo bends down alongside the road and falls against huge avocado trees with thick, gnarled bases and twisting branches. Ginger, Anthurium, Caladium, African Tulip Trees, and Heliconia add shocking specks of color to the deep variegated green backdrop, while the sound of Calypso and neighbors' patois add a constant rhythmic soundtrack.

I'm visiting my cousin, who has been here for the last year working with the Dominican National Council of Women through the Peace Corps. Dominica is a poor country, not the Caribbean of the yacht-owning one-percenters like many of the other Caribbean islands. It is called The Nature Island of the Caribbean, as it is the least built on; covered with rain forests and rivers, falls and volcanic hot springs. The local people take great pride in the natural beauty of their Island. I've only been here two days, but the Dominicans are colorful, loud, and friendly people.

A former British colony (clearly evidenced by names like Salisbury, Great King George Street, and Princess Margaret Hospital), Dominica was only granted independence from UK rule in 1978. In terms of architecture and businesses, downtown Roseau is crowded with small brightly colored cement houses, rusted corrugated tin roofs, clothing stores, and vegetable stands lining narrow streets. The people are relaxed, friendly, colorful, and it seems everyone knows everyone else. And why shouldn't they? With a population of 17,000 for Roseau and its surrounding towns, it is comparatively small. 

Yesterday a HUGE cruise ship was docked in the port, literally towering over the harbor and the town, taller than any building in Roseau, and in the time it took them to disembark, the town more than doubled in size. Because I've been walking around with a camera (and because I'm white), everyone assumed I was off the boat for a day trip. I watched the boat pull out to sea last night, from atop the hill, at dusk. Today, not only was the town much less crowded, about half of the businesses were closed as well. And even though I was one of few white people in town, I wasn't treated the same way I had been yesterday. 

The Old Market, just one block from the waterfront in town, is where slave auctions used to take place. Of course, the Caribbean is rich with this kind of disturbing history. It was disquieting walking through it this morning before the businesses were set up. Then, about a half hour later, stalls were up selling the usual tourist crap: Rasta hats, T-shirts, coconut monkeys, etc..  While there is an historical commemorative marker, one would think The Old Market might be treated as a more somber, hallowed spot, but with a deficit of tourists, save the intermittent cruise ships, and few local industries, the Dominicans want whatever revenue they can get. Hard to blame them. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Sunday Afternoon, I'd arrived early to meet a friend in The Village, and as I stood waiting on the cold and windy street corner, I mindlessly scrolled through friends' updates on my phone. Several updates were expressing shock or sadness at the loss of some celebrity. Finally, someone used his initials, and after doing a Google search, I learned that only blocks from where I was standing, Philip Seymour Hoffman had overdosed and died. Right there, I burst into tears.

Hoffman was undeniably a great actor – an unlikely movie star with a doughy body and a big strawberry face that could be either warm and comforting, or menacing and cruel in equal measure – an awkward sidekick with enough internal emotional intensity to make him a compelling front man.  Praised and loved by audiences, critics, and colleagues alike, now he’s gone. Of course, I liked his work, (how could one not admire his brave and improbable performances?), but it wasn’t the loss of a great talent that struck me so sharply when I learned of his passing. It was that, once again, one of my own had succumbed. With such a body of work, so much success – family, career, money, fame, and prestige – why would someone as fortunate and gifted as this guy use drugs? Addicts use. Simple.

This coming Sunday I will have been without a drink or a drug for eleven years. My sobriety hasn’t come easy and it’s certainly not something that I take lightly. Getting sober is a treacherous and oftentimes soul-crushing challenge. Staying sober is painstaking and tricky. One unfortunate truth is that life happens, and sometimes it just plain sucks. Wouldn’t it be nice to “take the edge off” with a glass of cabernet or a cocktail? How bad could that be, really? How dangerous is recreational marijuana use if it’s being legalized across the country? Not very is my guess. And for a normal person those choices make perfect sense.  But for someone like me, or someone like Hoffman, once ignited, that ravenous and urgent inner need for relief and comfort becomes paramount to all else, and can never be satisfied by simply “taking the edge off.” I’m usually thinking about the third one before I’m finished with the first. Whether or not one concedes with the theory that the alcoholic suffers from an allergy, this is my experience. Personal history has shown me that having momentary relief leads me to seek oblivion – something “normal” people just don’t get, and this unexplainable internal demand remains what makes addicts and alcoholics different from other people.

I don’t think it was part of his press packet, but I don’t think it was a well kept secret either that Hoffman had been in recovery for more than two decades. So when I learned of his death, I wept. I wept for him, for others I've known who've been lost to the disease, for those yet to be taken, for those yet to be saved, and for myself. I wept and I heard the message loud and clear: long-term abstinence is not equivalent to a cure. I have a daily reprieve, that’s all.

I’m grateful and proud of my eleven years. They were painful, joyous, and hard-fought – I've earned my place at the recovery table and I don’t ever want to lose it. So today I will do what I did when I was new, and tomorrow I will do what I did when I was new, and I’ll help others when I can, and if I’m lucky, I’ll continue to walk in Grace. I am not a movie star, or a family man. I don’t have money, prestige, fame, or a list of glistening credits to my name, but I understand who that man was, and I understand him because I AM him. And by some Grace that I will never understand, I have another chance to live in remission.

Just for today.