Still Here – World AIDS Day, 2013

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I’m 35 years old and I’ve been a HIV/AIDS activist since I was old enough to walk the AIDS walk in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. I think my first AIDS walk was around 1986-1987.

We met at Paramount Studios, up the street from my house, and I walked a 10K with my godfather, his friends, my family and thousands of others. I did this every single year. Including the year where I made absolutely sure that I made enough money that I could go to Disneyland with the rest of the people who raised enough money to go to Disneyland. My friend Elana and I, both 9 or 10 years old at the time (if you think that I try to enlist people into my work NOW, you shoulda seen me as a chunky little kid!!) each raised at least $1000 dollars so that we could go to Disneyland. At night. By ourselves. With hundreds of awesome gay men. Buying up all of the princess costumes and fairy wands. And yes, that was REALLY what they were doing. Also? They were the most excellent babysitters you could ever ask for, by the way. We had more fun that night than…who knows. I remember that night so well. It was 25 years ago.

The adult me remembers the laughter. The adult me also wonders how many of those amazing men and women who asked us, “Who are you here with? NO ONE? By yourselves? Wow!” are still alive. HIV/AIDS became a much more serious thing in my life than something you walk for as I got older.

A few years after that fabulous (in every sense of the word) Disneyland night, I became a HIV/AIDS peer educator for Peer Education Program Los Angeles (P.E.P.L.A) and beganpepla spending time speaking at a variety of youth institutions, educating kids my own age about HIV/AIDS. I was about 13 years old. I went to all-girls-private schools where girls were given SUVs for their 16th birthdays. I went to places like Children of the Night where kids were pimped out by their parents from the age of 9. I went to homes for pregnant teens, drug rehab centers in east L.A., elementary schools (yes, we had to completely restructure our discussion for the under-10-years-old-set), and a school where they knew that we were bringing a HIV+ speaker with us, so parents came and sat in a special section, wearing latex gloves and medical masks. Because the disease is AIRBORNE.

My mother let me skip Real School sometimes to go to do P.E.P.L.A events. It was pretty amazing. I met some of the most amazing people there. Some friends that I still maintain today. The structure was an amazing one: a few teens to talk to other teens about how they specifically are at risk. Because, well, teenagers are well-known for that whole “we’re gonna live forever” thing. So condoms, protection, diseases? Yeah, none of that really comes in. And in the 1990s? Fuggetaboutit.

PEP/LA changed my life. Before that, I had one experience with AIDS. I grew up in a highly gay/queer family landscape. My godfather is gay, a HIGH population of our family friends are gay, so on and so forth. I think I had more queer people around me when I was little than straight people, come to think about it.

So while my father died in the early 80s from a car accident, we were still very close with his musical writing parter named Marc Trujillo, and his “friend” named Frank (this was my interpretation. I was so very young). I have two very specific memories of these important men in my life: Marc and Frank passed away, and they were the first men I knew who were taken due to HIV/AIDS. And my mom told me this. My mother never lied to me and she was always very honest with me. I don’t remember who passed first, how it went, it’s fuzzy. But I do remember having this knowledge. And I recall going to the memorial with my mom. Marc’s family owned a flower store on the corner of La Brea and Fountain. And I think that’s where it was. I have no idea how old I was. But I could also  be mixing memories. What I am not mixing up is the fact that they were the first people I remember being close to me and being part of MY HIV/AIDS world.

Years later, I became such a heavy-duty advocate for HIV/AIDS education that I would start arguments with people (me? no, never!) in my all-girls-Catholic school after ACT-UP was handing out condoms outside one day about how great they were and so forth. I made sure that I always attended the PEP/LA events at Children of The Nightchildren_of_the_night_logo

This was always one of our most difficult events. Many of these kids didn’t stay there and protection on the streets isn’t always an option. Sometimes we would have to talk about how to “fool a trick” into using protection or things like that. WITH YOUNG KIDS. I was 13 and they were my age. And white. And privileged. With a supportive loving family. What right did I have? Except that I cared. Also, some of the kids were already positive. So did it matter at that point? YEAH, it did. We had the information to talk about how the hell to take care of yourself and that there is HOPE. The idea that AIDS is not a death sentence was pretty damn revolutionary in 1994.

I remember the weddings and the funerals. The weddings were amazing. The funerals were fucking crushing. I had more dead friends before I was 16 than any of my other friends in school. But why count? It’s not a competition. I’m just SO MASSIVELY lucky that I got to know them before they left. And for the record, they were not all gay. My first friend who died when I got to PEP/LA was Gary- a gorgeous guy that I had a huge crush on. He had a model-type girlfriend. I used to carry the picture of him & his girlfriend around for a long time. I think that in all my moves it may have gotten lost. But I think I still have the invite to the memorial. The church is in West L.A. He was great.

However, I am deeply grateful to have been a part of my friend John Scott’s life. I was there when he married his beautiful partner, way before legal gay marriage seemed a possibility in anyone’s mind. When he did so, I was a freshman in high school, and all I remember thinking was, “I’m going to an awesome wedding,” and….not even knowing that there were things about getting married THAT WERE ILLEGAL.  My mom drove me all over town when he got sick. I visited him in the towers in Century City, at a few different other places, and at a hospice somewhere too.

But he kept coming out and speaking with us. And he was the “no-bullshit” artist. He would talk about what it was like to end up at the corner near a stoplight and not remember where you needed to go. He would talk about what it was like to always carry an extra pair of underwear with you in case you shit your pants without any warning. He would do this to little spoiled girls at Marlborough school or gangbangers in East L.A. With a smile on his face. Because he would also talk about the fact that these kids had the power not to be in his shoes. tcell1

He spoke with us on a regular basis. I spent so much time with him. I remember his laugh. His smile. These things ring on my ears, my eyes. My John Scott. He was devoted. Until he got really sick. To give you an idea of who my beloved friend was, I need to tell you one more thing. One of the things that I loved the most about John Scott is the fact that he named his T-Cells.  tcell count By the very end, he was going down from 7 to 5 to 4. He would say, “Oh, well!  We’re down to Marlena, Joan, Bette and Judy, now! But they’re tough gals! They can handle it!” I may be a little off on the names, but I am 100% certain on Marlena and the idea that he chose tough film stars to name his T-cells after so they could fight for him. John Scott. I have yet to meet his equal in my lifetime. That was 20 years ago.

I left to go to Israel for high school in the spring of 1994, and that April I got a phone call from the head of my program, Wendy.

“John Scott died this morning, Ariel,” my body went cold. He was supposed to wait until I got back so we could talk about cute Israeli boys. I didn’t know what to do with this. I was a world away with people who I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, even if we had been climbing mountains together and traveling through deserts for months. “Hey Ariel, did you hear me?”

“Yeah, Wendy, I heard you.”

“I was there with him at the end and he wanted me to tell you goodbye. Specifically.”

“?”

“John wanted me to say goodbye to a few people. He said to say goodbye to Erin and to you. So I want you to know that. You were important to him.”

My 15-year-old-self was numb. My now-35-self still doesn’t know how to process that kind of statement. I mumbled thank you, that I would write (there was no email or cell phones…Imagine THAT, y’all!) we both knew how expensive the phone call was, and hung up.

So here we are, and I still feel a responsibility to my dear friend to remind the rest of the world that AIDS still exists. It may be a more manageable condition here in the US and North America, but it isn’t in many places in the world; places where sex education is a privilege not a right; places where protection isn’t even an option. There are many places in the world where masculinity, war landscapes and other ugliness takes precedence over health concerns. In addition, in any country (our own included), anal sex still leaves women “virgins” in many cultures and anal sex is the most at-risk sexual activity when conducted in an unprotected manner. Think on that. So this is most certainly not a gay disease. It is blind to color, race, sexuality and age.

It doesn’t care. But I still do.

AIDS hasn’t gone away. And it’s not like migraines or a bad knee, either. This is still here and it still needs to be attended to. Because I spent most of my young adult life watching my pals die and speaking to kids about it and hoping that someone listened. Because I have friends who still are HIV+ for 20 or 30+ years. Because we want to stay happy and healthy and we don’t want to be the last name on someone’s lips before they are really really really old. Because this is a subject that requires our continual attention- for our health and for the health of those we love. So that next year we will ALL be Still Here.

 

There Never Were Any Snakes: St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland

So I’m not Irish. Not even a teeny bit.

I’ve never even dated an Irishman, as much as I may have wanted to. I dated a guy from Boston once. Turns out his origins were Eastern European, like mine.

But I have been to Ireland. Multiple times. I’ve even been to Belfast and other areas in Northern Ireland, which, by far, was once of the most intense experiences of my life.

I have also been to Ireland during St. Patrick’s Day. It was, simultaneously, one of the most enjoyable and most chaotic experiences of my early twenties. It was also one of the first things I ever wrote about in this blog (albeit not very well). To this day, it is still the most time I have spent in a police station.

However, after reading this excellent piece on Cracked.com, I thought that if we have ONE day that we’re going to think about a country that I love so much, then I’d like you to consider 3 aspects about Ireland that have absolutely nothing to do with green beer, puking in the streets, or saying that you’re Irish if you’re really not. If you love Ireland like I do, that’s super cool. Why not love it 365-days-a-year? There’s no reason in the world you should select only one day to listen to The Pogues. And trust me- Christy Moore sounds good ANYTIME, not just when you’re feeling like you need to have a connection to some kind of history.

History is important and essential. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be going into the field I’m going into. But always consider the kinds of activities that you engage in, as they sometimes effect other people and their cultural sensibilities. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go have a beer or even corned beef and cabbage. But…maybe hold off on the green food coloring. For me, eh?

1) Literature OK, for those of you in the cheap seats, Oscar Wilde was as Irish as it gets. Which I find awesome. I spent multiple days sitting by his statue in Merrion Square park writing in my journal, while 6 and 7-year old Irish kids skateboarded over and around me. Witty, smart and incisive, Wilde represents some of my favorite aspects of Irish culture: a sensibility that varies from dark to light at the drop of a hat, yet never drops the ball on staying smart.

My experience with Irish cultural fare (plays, music, books, film) is that it has always maintained a strong intellectual sensibility. Even comedy, which many people interpret as being a “lower” form is intelligently done within Irish literature. Wilde’s comedy was (of course) beyond compare, but writer Roddy Doyle has also shown himself to be highly capable of providing off-beat and wonderfully rewarding comic writing in pieces like The Van, and the rest of The Barrytown Trilogy. If you haven’t read Doyle, I highly suggest his work. Another rarely read Irish writer that I enjoy on a regular basis is Patrick McCabe. Dark and definitely not for people who can’t handle a bit of harshness, his work, much like Doyle’s reflects a quirky unusual lyricism (even in the violent sections) that I enjoy far more than most American literature. Obviously you have James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. But you also have Brendan Behan and a man who changed the way I saw comic books forever, Garth Ennis. Not that I should have to say this, but yes, comic books are literature. By the way- did you know that Bram Stoker was Irish? No joke. So, when you move forward to that next round of Guinness with the pals, think on drunkenly hopping on to Amazon and grabbing a book to nurse your hangover with. It’ll be worth it.

2) FILM  Yeah, now we’re cooking with fire. Go look at my shelves. Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) gets played quite regularly in this apartment. C’mon! Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Sure it’s a McCabe adaptation (it’s the film that got me interested in his literature, incidentally), but Neil Jordan’s film making is exquisite. Having won an Academy Award for The Crying Game (1992) he’s also responsible for a good chunk of other films. I even liked his film In Dreams (1999), but I also have a massive, Godzilla-sized crush on Irish actor and Jordan-stand-by Stephen Rea.

Stephen Rea was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Crying Game

In addition to Neil Jordan, there’s John Ford, who, while American-born, counts in the Irish-filmmaker set. And if you’re a film fan and you didn’t know Jack had the big Irish-pride going, well…shame on you. No, just kidding. But he did. He was first generation, so it meant a great deal to him and it can certainly be seen in his cinema. So, go out, rent The Quiet Man (1952), fall madly in love with Maureen O’Hara like every other opposable-thumb-having person with reasonable vision, and be done with it.

More recently, we have had some absolutely exquisite Irish cinema. While amazing Irish actors have been a constant through the ages, the film work has been especially great as of late. It is very likely that this  recent growth has been due to the fact that funding for Irish cinema has gotten better thanks to the Irish film board, and, as an archivist-in-training, I know that funding is essential for any kind of success and growth. One of the best films of 2008 was a phenomenal piece that I own and sob and laugh over regularly called In Bruges  by Martin McDonagh. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this film. The acting, the writing, just amazing. I have also heard that 2011’s The Guard blew its audience’s out of the water. I’m pretty devastated that I missed that one. Due to my adoration for, and faith in, Brendan Gleeson’s skill as an actor, I may just buy this one sight unseen!

Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson inIn Bruges. This may be one of the most watched films in my whole collection. I have upwards of 700+ films. I last counted a few years ago.

Irish Cinema, much like literature has a flavor that is singular, original and entirely its own. There is no mistaking an Irish film from any other cultural product. Even films that deal in and around “The Troubles” like Long Good Friday (1980)  were British cinematic product, regardless of the fact that John Mackenzie was actually Scottish and had a reasonable history working in politically-aware material. Irish cinema is one of my favorite genres due to the fact that even when it’s light, it’s dark. Waking Ned Devine (Kirk Jones, 1998) is a comedy but…about a death. On the other hand, what can you really expect from a country that has had to endure some truly hellish experiences over its history? I love Irish cinema because while you have the darkness and the historical “never forget” films like In the Name of the Father  (Jim Sheridan, 1993), you can have a pint and sing along with the celebratory ethos of The Commitments (Alan Parker, 1991). In summation, Irish cinema is a genre that takes itself seriously yet celebrates every bit of that to the nth degree. I love that.

3) Community  I loved Ireland because I got to sit on the docks in Galway and listen to the Pet Shop Boys, write in my journal, and see a father and son in a boat in the distance, returning to the mainland, waving at me, a perfect stranger. You know what I got in other countries? Some really weird looks and guys thinking that I would automatically go home with them because I have a few tattoos. All I received in Ireland was pure, unadulterated warmth, from every single person I met, young and old.

Oh, and the honesty! If only we were more like that here! I loved the older man in Kilkenny who looked at me, squinted a little, put down his beer and said “What ya got all that shit in yer face for?” We proceeded to have an extensive conversation about my various piercings, his granddaughter, he bought me a drink, and we laughed. A LOT. He hated the way I looked, but he was so genuine, inviting and nice.

This was what I received from everyone I met. I may have smiled more and enjoyed myself more with Irish people than I did with anyone else in any other country. I traveled alone for three weeks and people talked to me, asked me about myself, my life, bought me drinks, took me places. People took me to their houses! I remember one night in Galway, after hanging out at Sally Long’s (which might be my favorite pub in the world, by the way) the folks I was chatting with simply invited me to their place to hang out for a bit.

But with all of these amazing warm fuzzy moments, I was especially struck by the way that Belfast was constructed. As someone who has been dealing in the visual for the better part of her lifetime, Belfast became burned into my brainscape due to its visual dynamism. If you are unaware of the conflict that has been going on between England and Ireland for an unprecedented amount of time, you are either a) too young to remember the “big” stuff or b) don’t do a lot of time with international matters. In either case, Belfast is best told by pictures and not by words.

Not unlike the infamous one that separated the two portions of Germany for years, there is a wall in Belfast. It's called the Shankill Peace Wall. This is a picture of a youthful me, writing a message for peace.

This is also part of that same place, Shankill Peace Wall. "Before the video game..."

Bobby Sands died after 66 days of hunger striking, at age 27. He is commemorated here. He was a political activist, poet, and was the leader of the 1981 Hunger Strike, where 9 other Irish republican prisoners besides himself died, attempting to fight for Special Category Status (essentially POW-type privileges).

This mural commemorates the Great Hunger which took place between 1845-1852, and most people know as the Irish Potato Famine or something similar. A terrible tragedy, it affected the whole country forever.

I never went to the Louvre, but I saw this.

Then there's the UFF murals. Scary, intimidating, also intense. It was a real distinct change to go from one type of mural to the other.

I suppose it was inevitable that I ended up going into the field I'm going into. Instances like Bombay Street and the visual outgrowths (murals) that were resurrected to commemorate it fascinated my. In August of 1969, Northern Ireland EXPLODED. Bombay Street, part of a residential area in Belfast was burnt to a crisp, and approximately 1800 families were left homeless. This mural commemorates those riots...

What doesn't change, no matter what country you are in, is the children. These little boys followed us around a bit, playing football, curious about what we were even doing there. I think I loved that more than anything. These boys are now young men, maybe married, who knows? That child-like playful innocence so far gone. It's hard to believe that this was 12 years ago.

My time in Ireland and especially Belfast was well-spent, and I would highly advise anyone and everyone to visit or at least investigate the cultural riches that the country offers, whether it is through its history, theater, cinema or literature. As an archivist, I am dying to return to Dublin so that I can go to Trinity College again and ask for a tour of their archives!! I think Trinity College library is where they send all good little librarian type girls when they die and go to heaven. No, really!

Trinity, will you marry me???

In any case, I hope that you all have a lovely St. Patrick’s Day. If you are in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend going to see the band Ollin. You honestly cannot get much better than that. If I didn’t have finals, that would be precisely what I would be doing. If you are not within Los Angeles-area, just take Ireland into consideration as a real country, with a real history and a real culture and not something to be reappropriated as Super Party Day. I like to have a drink or two just as much as anyone else, but hey- isn’t that what New Year’s is for?

*this message brought to you by someone who thinks Guinness tastes better in Ireland than in England*

So hoof and mouth was HUGE when I was living in the UK. So much so that they cancelled the St. Patrick's Day parade (the animals), they refused to bring any tourists to Stonehenge, and when you flew you had to do a MASSIVE foot wiping when you got on/off the plane. Thus...this graffiti. And, if you were curious, the advert above it? It's an advertisement reminding you to making sure to check yourself for testicular cancer. Out of all the photos I have ever taken, this is one of my absolute personal favorites.

So This is Permanence: Joy Division and Me, Pt. 2

I never realized the lengths I’d have to go

All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know.

Just for one moment, I heard somebody call,

Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing at all

Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong,

Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long

—-“Twenty Four Hours”, Closer, Joy Division (1980)

I know that it is largely frowned upon in academic and professional communities to get “too personal” within the realm of online writing, but sometimes I feel it is important to drop our guard, let people in, and give readers access. Sometimes, the more personal the better.

I was asked by someone today, “Have you come out as an epileptic?”

It was a strange question. I have never considered myself  particularly “closeted” nor have I ever felt that it was something that I have had to necessarily hide. On that same token, hearing that question, I have also never placed it on the same level as the struggles that people have had with their sexuality and coming “Out of The Closet” in that context. However, after giving it some thought, I came to a striking conclusion: the process of dealing with life as an epileptic can bear remarkable similarities to the process of dealing with living life as a person of alternative sexuality in a heteronormative culture such as ours.

Please do not mistake what I am trying to say- I am in no way trying to say that what epileptics go through is on par with Matthew Shepard, per se. But I live this life every day. It’s no party. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up, the last thing I consider when I go to bed. It affects everything I do and everything I am. It makes me entirely different from the average person walking down the street. I cannot imagine that this experience is that far from the queer experience. You may be surprised to hear it, but my entire world and life has had to be reorganized due to epilepsy and not everyone is open to it. I never really sat down and thought about it at all. Until today. Then it really blew me away.

Would you be surprised to find out that the reaction that I get from many people when I tell them that I’m epileptic mirrors homophobic reactions? Let’s face it- aside from politics, religious nonsense, and plain old-fashioned stubbornness, homophobia is really just a bad case of not being educated about the LGBT community. Well, when people squirm around me, and refuse to meet my eyes, begin to treat me with kid gloves, or, in some cases, take me off the “date-able” list immediately after finding out about my seizures (it has happened), it’s simply due to not being educated about the disease. In 2012, that makes me really depressed. It certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

OK, I don’t get to live everyone else’s life. And at the end of the day- am I unhappy about this? Not really. I enjoy my life every single day. I have an full and astonishingly brilliant life! I’m training to become a film archivist (my dream!), my film calendar is always full, and my social world is rarely lacking. I’m an exceptionally lucky individual. But being epileptic is difficult and exhausting, both mentally and exhausting. And as my life continues to get more exciting and wonderful, my mind returns again and again to Ian Curtis and my heart aches for him. I wrote about my relationship with Joy Division once before, and said I would return to the subject, so due to the earlier prompt, it looks like I now am.

People like you find it easy,

Naked to see,

Walking on air,

Hunting by the rivers,

Through the streets,

Every corner abandoned too soon

Every time I hear “Atmosphere”, I hear Ian’s pain, so loud, so biting. And to be perfectly honest? I recognize it. I feel it. It reflects my experience. To an extent, it irritates me that I use this song to synthesize my own poorly functioning neurology, but the kinship I feel with Ian Curtis goes a long way. In general, I try not to personalize things but with Curtis…it’s remarkably difficult. Additionally, not knowing about any other public figures with seizure disorders until I began doing research (as it turns out, Prince had epilepsy as a child), he was the one person that I could identify with. Joy Division’s songs, while clearly appealing to a mass audience, really had very specific meaning to me. I believe that Ian Curtis put a good amount of his experience with epilepsy into his music. It’s too present and I can read it too plainly. Indeed, the fact that Curtis was Joy Division’s only lyricist supports that thesis.

At times, even song titles read like the feelings that I have felt since my first diagnosis at 13 and since my condition has worsened after age 30. Tunes like “Atrocity Exhibition,” “I Remember Nothing,” “She’s Lost Control,” and, especially, “Isolation” have all played large parts in the make-up of my epilepsy-marriage to Ian and his own possible lyrical catharsis.

Isolation” is a really tough song for me. Released a few months after Ian’s death on the album Closer, this song really cuts into what some of the bigger chunks of epilepsy can be, psychologically. When he sings

Mother I tried please believe me

I’m doing the best that I can

I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through

I’m ashamed of the person I am 

it always hits me in my gut; knocks the wind right out of me. Whether it makes sense to anyone else or not, the most embarrassing thing I have ever dealt with in my life has been my seizure disorder. It has taken me years to overcome the shame and embarrassment that I used to feel in regards to my disease. Not only did that shame create even more problems for me, but it also blanketed me in the very thing that Curtis sang about: isolation.

Ian Curtis was only 23 years old when he hung himself. People have been arguing for years about what the “real” catalyst for his suicide was. If you listen to his lyrics, it’s all right there, plain as day. But that’s just from my perspective.

I realize that Ian many other problems: depression, familial discord, the lot. However, it would be dense and ignorant not to recognize that brain function is linked to both depression and seizure disorders. Ian’s former band members have come forward in the last few years talking about his epilepsy and painful struggles. Stephen Morris told NME magazine, “Looking back, I wish I’d helped him more. I think that all the time… But we were having such a good time, and you’re very selfish when you’re young. Epilepsy wasn’t understood then. People would just say, ‘He’s a bit of a loony – he has fits.””  According to an article in The Guardian, Bernard Sumner says that, amidst the plethora of problems raging in Ian’s world, it really was the epilepsy that did him in.

“Ian’s problems were insurmountable.Not only did he have this hideous relationship problem, he also had this illness that he contracted at 22. And it wasn’t a mild form. It was really, really bad and it occurred frequently…The epilepsy must have cast a shadow over his future, particularly his future with the band, and his relationships cast another giant shadow. Plus, he felt extremely guilty about his daughter Natalie… I remember him telling me he couldn’t pick Natalie up in case he had a fit and dropped her..Sometimes a drumbeat would set him off. He’d go off in a trance for a bit, then he’d lose it and have a fit. We’d have to stop the show and carry him off to the dressing-room where he’d cry his eyes out because this appalling thing had just happened to him. The heavy barbiturates he was on seemed to compound the situation; they made him very, very sad. I just don’t think there was a solution to Ian’s problems.”

Every bit of that makes perfect sense to me. I can’t begin to tell you how many tears I have shed due to being epileptic. Out of frustration, embarrassment, anger and resentment at my “lot.”

I have had seizures at the movie theater in front of my friends and perfect strangers. I have had seizures at the gym and fallen off exercise equipment. I have had them alone on the street and then tried to get a taxi but found that I was literally unable to speak because my brain was not in working order yet. I attempted to tell the cab driver where I wanted to go and all I could get out were the words for the mall that was near my house. I cried a good amount that evening. Can you imagine not being able to speak? The words were in my head, I could imagine a picture of my house, my street, but I could not tell him where I lived nor could I get words, simple WORDS, out of my MOUTH. I have seized getting ready to go somewhere and had to call someone to ask them if they knew what I was supposed to be doing that night because I couldn’t remember.

Mind you, I have a graduate degree. I am working on a second one. I can have an incredibly detailed conversation about the glories of pre-Code cinema or Sam Fuller with you. I can do a great many things. My epilepsy in no way affects my intelligence level on the whole. But the minute my brain short-circuits, I don’t remember my own name and I become a semi-functional vegetable.

I remember watching Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) for the first time, and I was overwhelmed.

I had read Deborah Curtis’ book Touching From a Distance a long time previous and had been so hungry for some sort of media engagement that featured an epileptic that I don’t think I ever looked at the book critically. I still haven’t. To tell you the truth, I am uncertain if I could separate myself from Ian Curtis long enough to look at the book critically due to my connections with him. And Corbijn’s movie only tightened the grip.

Ian was on Tegretol. I’ve been on Tegretol (or the generic form, Carbemazepine) for a little under 20 years. They put Ian on Phenobarbitol. They put me on Phenobarbitol as a teenager. It was probably one of the worst levels of hell-drugs I have ever experienced. Phenobarbitol turned me into LINDA BLAIR in The Exorcist. If I wasn’t crying, I was yelling at my baby brother. If I wasn’t crying or yelling, I was sleeping. If I wasn’t crying, yelling or sleeping I was completely and totally irrational and unpredictable. So, being a teenager and irrational and unpredictable anywayphenobarbitol took me up to 11+. Ian Curtis was in his early 20’s. That’s not far from where I was. When his bandmates talk about his mood swings and his depressions and his unreliability, I cannot help but wonder: was this actual depression or was this the hardcore barbiturate that they had this young kid pumping through his slender frame, multiple times a day? Phenobarbitol ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.

Thirty years ago, they really didn’t know much about epilepsy, let alone the medications for it. They learn all the time. I remember that they had me on a medication at one point when I was 15 years old that I thought was great! It was a hunger suppressant, so I lost an incredible amount of weight really quickly, which I thought was fantastic! Unfortunately, the side effect of this medication for other people was a red blood cell count so low that they died. Nice, right? Needless to say, they’re still working out the kinks in MANY of the medications that deal with these issues. But I think it’s essential when thinking about Ian Curtis to recall the surrounding medical conditions of epilepsy and seizure disorders, because no one knows about them and no one talks about them.

For example- did you know that many of the very same medications that they prescribe  as antidepressants are also used as anticonvulsants or can be used for people with seizure disorders? Most people I talk to don’t know that. But it makes sense, right? It’s all brain chemistry; mixed up in that crazy web of electricity and wackiness between the ears.

I guess the question still remains for me today: how much of Ian’s depression came from a depression disorder and how much of it stemmed from the anti-seizure drugs and simply being epileptic? It’s a reasonable inquiry since I have on the receiving end of both. Who’s to say that if Ian hadn’t suffered from epilepsy he wouldn’t have been completely normal? From what we know, he had been having seizures for far longer than he had been letting on, and from personal experience, that is usually the case. I had little petit mal seizures for an entire year in junior high and never said ONE word to anyone about them. Nothing at all.

Peter Hook says of Ian’s suicide, “The police described it as a textbook case: suicide brought on by depression, well-documented by his cries for help…Unfortunately, we were all too young to understand.” While most of this is true, I would have to disagree about his death being a textbook case. Ian Curtis suffered from a variety of outside stressors, but he was a very young man who had absolutely no one to turn to about being stigmatized by an illness that he never asked for and yet was put upon him. He was involved in a music scene that catalyzed and worsened the condition and yet it was his life. How do you manage this? The pills are supposed to make you better, but they are, quite literally, making you see double, causing mental confusion, possible nausea, and mood swings like you never even knew were possible.

My memory of the drugs they gave Ian were that they made me feel like the girl that I once was had shrunk up inside me and was in the fetal position, looking out, and the world was really really fuzzy. Yet, in that condition, I was still physically functioning. It was a living nightmare. I was lucky: my parents saw my misery and got me off that medication straight away. Our boy was not in that position. Maybe that’s also why I feel for him.

Joy Division speaks to me because I know it, I live it, I am those songs. The themes that he would write about- ideas of atmosphere, memory, time, control– these are all things that an epileptic has in limited doses. I never know whether or not I’m going to be on my way to school and will have to pull my bike over to avoid having a seizure while I’m riding. My memory? Well, seizures control that. And one of the medications I’m on makes my memory not as sharp as it used to be. And time- I have no idea how long my seizures last. No idea at all. I have to ask people. As Ian’s epilepsy worsened, his songs got progressively darker and more tied into all of these themes. They became his only outlet.

Additionally, I don’t believe that Deborah or Annik Honore (the woman with whom he was carrying on an affair just before his death) were able to understand his feelings about having a seizure disorder anymore than he was able to express them. I have only been able to come to grips with and express my own feelings about my seizures in the last few years and I am 10 years older than Ian was when he died. To this day, this is the first time I have written out anything having to do with my seizures or what I go through. Why is epilepsy private, personal, intimate? I don’t know. It’s a stigma. Ian didn’t feel that it was socially acceptable to have it 30+ years ago. I don’t feel like it’s socially acceptable to have it now. It’s certainly not the topic to discuss at parties. Wanna clear a room or stop a conversation? Talk about the seizures.

Some people call epilepsy a disability. I haven’t let it rule or ruin my life. As I said above, I love my life and I’m living my dream. And I consider Ian Curtis to be a strong, talented and gifted icon that was dealt a really rough hand. I believe in my heart that if he had not had seizures, things would have gone differently. I cannot guarantee that he would not have OD’d or something of that ilk, but I am fairly confident that the kind of pain that he suffered in his life would have been much less.

Ian Curtis’ suicide was tragic, unnecessary, and entirely preventable. I wish I could travel back to England circa 1980 and say, “Ian, it does get better.” As cheesy as that current anti-bullying campaign and its ads are, I believe that they’re the truth. Especially in this case. Since 1980, the medications for depression, seizures and all kinds of neurologic therapies have improved by leaps and bounds.

I can only hope that within the next 30 years it gets even better. Not unlike the gay community, people with seizures hurt, feel pain, feel isolated, embarrassed by the fact that out of nowhere our neurology will suddenly control us instead of the other way around. Our lifestyles are different and we have different ways of doing things, but, at the end of the day we’re not different people. Ian Curtis was more talented than a large percentage of the non-seizure-having folks I know, and has been inspirational on the music that has been made since his passing. He was creative, unusual, and gifted. The brain misfirings never changed that.

My biggest fear is that one day I will not be able to write anymore. There. You have it. I have admitted to the larger reading public and strangers everywhere my biggest fear. I am deathly afraid that one day I will have a seizure that is so big that it affects my brain to the point that I am no longer able to function on a writerly or intellectual/academic level. These are the things I think about every day when I take my pills in the morning, afternoon and night. “Please let me be ok today, and let the pills continue to work.”

I used to think that the seizures were gone, then I got older and they came back, and my relationship with Joy Division took on a new meaning. So this is permanence means something totally different to me now. I will be an epileptic for the rest of my life, but it is not a death sentence and it does not in any way shape or form mean that I am a lesser person. If Ian Curtis could be so incredible and fire up that stage, I can do whatever I want to do. He did not have the resources that I have. That shatters me. But I am not Ian. So for now, what it means is that I should move forward with my dreams, keep doing all the amazing film work I’m doing and just dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio…


Let Your Seoul Glow: My Journey to Korean Cinema

This will be my last and final piece for the Korean Blogathon. It has been a pleasure to participate in it, and I can’t wait to watch a slew of the films that have been written about by everyone else! Thanks to everyone that put this together and to Martin for designing such a lovely page to showcase our writing! It’s been fantastic. So, in conclusion…..

I live in a city where everyone is obsessed with the motion picture industry. If you aren’t pitching a script or don’t have one on the backburner, then you’re on your way to a meeting or to meet with your agent. If not that, then you are location-scouting or bitching about budgets or other production issues. Yes, that’s right folks, I live in the Devil’s Playground- Hollywood, CA. I was born and raised here, and it’s what I know. Is it always what I enjoy? Not by a longshot. But it’s where I’m from, for better or for worse.

In any case, try as I might, I was unable to get away from the cinema. It was like the siren’s call to me, although not in the same way as everyone else. While I fought anything and everything cinematic up until college (I was going to be a social worker, dammit!), I was unable to distance myself from the silver screen any longer, and got several degrees in it- but all in theoretical writing. Not as useful as building construction per se, but I loved it, and still do.

Within my film education, I encountered several kinds of Asian cinemas from my professors- but never Korean cinema. So I became very fond of Japanese cinema, and Hong Kong cinema and different Chinese filmmakers. From there, it was all up to me. So, being a rather exploratory person, I dove in head-first and didn’t come up for air for a very, very, very long time.

The first filmmaker I fell for was Wong Kar-Wai. His films came highly recommended by a friend, and that friend could not have been more correct. They were beautiful, sensual, graceful and smart. Some were action-type films and still contained the afore-mentioned descriptions. Wong Kar-Wai sold me, and got me involved.

About the same time, I developed a keen fascination with the Japanese New Wave and wondered intensely why no one knew more about it or was writing more about it. From there, I found Kenji Mizoguchi and became deeply obsessed with his work as well. To compliment the highly sexualized New Wave and the historical-yet-feminist-tinged-Mizoguchi, I was then introduced to my first slightly Korean figure- Takashi Miike. While born in Japan, he was from an area that was dominated by Korean immigrants. In addition, his father was actually born in Seoul. Miike had multiple Korean connections, a fact I was not aware of until a little while ago. He was still, however, a Japanese filmmaker, more or less, and so I added him to my bundle. However, his style added to the New Wave and Mizoguchi really made the kettle start to boil.

Miike has been described as “controversial and prolific” (both of which he is) and his films have been described as being “perverse and extremely violent” and also “dramatic and family-friendly.” Watching Miike’s work made me interested in seeing what else the Asian world had to offer.

Takashi Miike's film "The Happiness of the Katakuris" (2001) was a remake of the Korean film "The Quiet Family" (1998) by Kim Ji-woon

It was not until much later that I became aware of Korean cinema and what it had to offer, but I have to say that the previous films mentioned were the items that whetted my appetite. J-horror and all of its various offerings was starting to get a little repetitous, tragically, and I was not always a fan of how perverse Miike could get. Or at least not his methodologies. It wasn’t my bag, baby.To quote Huey Lewis and the News, I was in the cinematic mindset of: “I want a new drug.”

And lucky for me, I found one: Korean cinema. While doing my research and writing for this blogathon, I remembered that the first Korean film I ever saw was Tell Me Something (1999). To be honest, I have to congratulate Chang Yoon-hyun. While I may forget things about movies I saw last week or last month, I saw this movie over 10 years ago and it still stuck with me. I have thought about the film over the last few years, not remembering the title, but vaguely sure of the storyline and definitely remembering the imagery, and always thinking: “Damn. I need to find that movie and see it again.” So thanks, Chang Yoon-hyun. I’ll be making that purchase soon.

"Tell Me Something" really told me something about Korean cinema...

Continuing onwards, what I have discovered about this country’s cinema is that it has the unique ability to pull the rug out from under me in every single movie I have seen. Just when I think I know what’s going on, I don’t. I can’t think of another country that does that as well as Korea. Really, sometimes the content itself pulls the rug out from under the viewers feet. Look at Oldboy!

But that is what I like the most about Korean cinema and why I cannot stop watching it. My good friend (and fabulous writer) Dennis Cozzalio just recently pointed me in the way of a Korean cinema in my city. The CGV. It looks great. Some American films with Korean subtitles and recent Korean films with English subtitles. It’s got a little cafe, apparently, and I happen to know that it is surrounded by really great (and inexpensive) local food establishments. I’m sold, hook, line and sinker.

When I saw Mother (2009) and Memories of Murder (2003) on a double bill at the New Beverly Cinema, all I could think was that Good Suspense Films had returned to the silver screen. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. I could just imagine him, sitting in the back, smirking away. I was astounded at how good they were.

July 6, 2010- New Beverly Cinema, Los Angeles, CA

Every time I see a new piece of Korean filmmaking I am blown away. I’ve seen Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw The Devil twice now, and I finally feel like I may be ready to write something coherent on it. It’s a pretty fascinating piece to me. I think what I am seeing come out of Korea is what Japan has not been able to do for me. There is something unexpected, every time. And living in a land where I have come to call almost everything in every film I see, it is a more than welcome facet to a film.

In addition, the humor makes me happy as a bird in springtime. It is so damn dark. This is a characteristic that I find endearing. Here in the US we find cynicism and sadism enjoyable, especially in our “dark” humor. I find that pathetic and super unfunny. I’m not a fan of Todd Solondz. I think he intentionally tortures his audience. But the Korean sense of humor comes from a pretty nasty history anyway, so why not laugh? If one looks at the random aside comments that are made in certain films, or the things that we are asked to find funny…not everyone I’ve been in the theater with has laughed, but I think that they are being played for fun. Almost all of the films that are serious films have a great deal of humor in them.

I know I’m new. I know I haven’t seen everything. But you know what? I’m really damn lucky.Now I get to go and watch all these other films that all the other folks in the blogathon have written about (and ones I’ve found while I’ve been researching for my writing) for the first time. And to me, watching a film you’re really excited about for the first time is like kissing someone you are really attracted to for the first time: you can only do it once, and it is destined to be amazing, even if it might seem a little sloppy at first.

I’m glad that I started out with my background in the Japanese New Wave and ghost stories, John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Miike, and all that. It was great stuff. There are aspects within those cinemas (especially horror-wise) that are shared. However, I am mostly glad to have seen those films/those cinemas so that I can appreciate  the Korean cinema on its own terms.

Silence=Death (to Feminism & Sexuality)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to share a dinner table in Santa Barbara, California with many amazing women who were, like me, presenting at the Console-ing Passions conference. We had phenomenal discussion, some laughs, and great times. Over the weekend, I was incredibly impressed with many things, but that meal stood out in my mind as it drew me to some incredible panels and introduced me to intensely interesting new scholarship I was previously unaware of.

One of the primary figures at that meal was a woman named Tristan Taormino. Not only was she well-spoken and funny, but she was quick, smart and incredibly incisive when discussing issues in and around feminism and sexuality. I remember sitting across from her and thinking, “This is what a successful woman looks like.” It was a fabulous time, as right beside her sat another woman who I have greatly admired throughout my academic career, Constance Penley. Needless to say, the fact that I didn’t sound like a babbling idiot would have been enough for me, but we ended up having some very intriguing conversations on the projects that Taormino was working on and the state of the adult industry  in general. I learned quite a lot. I would like to think I contributed, but who knows?

Since then, I have followed Taormino’s career in earnest, having seen her presentation at the conference and found it to be like her: bold, intelligent, and necessary. While being a feminist does not mean that you have to be interested in pornographic content or the film work that she does, I feel that her work is incredibly helpful on many levels to many groups of people. She is sex-positive (refreshing in a world that seems to hate the body and sexuality so very much), and has made the attempt to use that in a very productive way to help others, through books, articles, and cinema. This is a very basic and shallow description of her, and I would ask you to inquire further into her career if it seems like something that would be of interest to you. Be warned, it is all adult-themed (not work-safe), but it is all worthwhile, as is she.

So why this article? Well, this morning I awoke to some rather disconcerting news. Taormino, who had been scheduled to be the key-note speaker at Oregon State University’s Modern Sex Conference, was “uninvited” due to her resume and website.

Um, excuse me? So, let me get this straight- you booked her, knowing full well what she does for a living (which extends so far beyond pornography it’s laughable), confirmed the date, agreed to fees, did all the business-y type stuff, then you looked at the resume and website? And, OSU, I hate to split hairs, but I looked at your Modern Sex Conference and…you have some panels there that seem decently risqué. So can you explain to me why you are tossing Tristan Taormino, former editor of On Our Backs, the nation’s longest running lesbian-produced lesbian magazine, a woman who has been on a multitude of television channels discussing sexuality, a woman who lectures at universities from the east to the west coast (ones WAY more highly regarded than you), and (not that this matters, but if a pedigree means something to you) the niece of Thomas Pynchon??

They said something about fearing that they would have the university’s budget cut as it was being used to support pornography. Um, ok. Interesting that Tristan’s response to the entire debacle was:

“I’m extremely disappointed that OSU has decided to cancel my appearance. I’ve been protested before, but never uninvited. I have never misrepresented who I am or what I do. I am proud of all the work I do, including the sex education films and feminist pornography I make. The talk I planned to give at this conference, titled “Claiming Your Sexual Power” has nothing to do with porn, but the porn is such an easy target for anti-sex conservatives and censors. I find it ironic that one of the missions of the conference is to understand diverse perspectives of sexuality. Apparently, my perspective—one of educating and empowering people around their sexuality—isn’t welcome at OSU.”

I have two words for you Oregon State University: not cute. And actually I have one more word: CENSORSHIP.

See, here’s the really sticky part. And this is the part that got in my craw the worst. On Tristan’s twitterfeed today, she wrote:

“Several OSU staff have contacted me w/support but won’t support me publicly for fear of losing their jobs, they say.”

WOW. I don’t know about you, but that got me. As someone who got laid off from a job I liked, in a bad economy, I know how much a job means. So this is no joke. But I’m not going to mince words here: this is some fucked up shit. My gut reaction made me ill. Why? I didn’t know what I would do if I was in the position of one of those staff members. I thought about it for a few minutes. Then I realized that there was no way in the world that if I worked at OSU, I would ever pussyfoot my way around the situation.

What if this weren’t about sexually charged subject matter?

Would we allow censorship to take hold of us that hard that we would not stand up for ourselves and what we believe in? And if so, what will we become? I know that we have families, children, friends, lovers, pets, responsibilities. Hell, times are tough. But do tough times mean that we sell out each other? Some may say I cannot equate what happened today with Tristan Taormino/OSU to historic events like McCarthyism or Germany in WWII. And yes, it seems like hyperbole. Maybe it is. I haven’t eaten a lot today. But when I sit here, and think about the situation, it scares me. This is a mild situation. What if it were something larger?

The concept that fear overrides personal values frightens me. If every one of those staff members publicly came together in support of this women, they would not be afraid of losing their jobs. Yet, losing one’s job in this economy is a fate close to death it seems. Unemployment is an endless void that one does not want to fall into. “Keep that job at all costs,” the voice says, “even if it means sacrificing your own belief system.”

ROUGH.

In truth, the fact that they are not letting Tristan Taormino speak at a MODERN SEX CONFERENCE means that they are not so modern after all. Instead, she will be appearing at a place called She Bop in Portland, a female-friendly adult shop. Preaching to the converted, I guess, but at least still doing it.

If any of this bugs you the way it bugged me, please read this note from Tristan and respond in kind:

Note from Tristan:

Don’t Let the Anti-Sex Conservatives Win!

If you support free speech and my mission of sexual empowerment, please voice your opinion about OSU’s decision to cancel my appearance at the last minute (and not reimburse me for travel expenses) to the following people. I would really appreciate your support —Tristan

Larry Roper
Vice Provost for Student Affairs
632 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2154
541-737-3626 (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
email: larry.roper@oregonstate.edu

Dr. Mamta Motwani Accapadi
Dean of Student Life
A200 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2133
541-737-8748 (phone)
541-737-9160 (fax)
email: deanofstudents@oregonstate.edu
twitter: @deanmamta

Dr. Edward J. Ray
President
600 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2128
541-737-4133  (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
email: pres.office@oregonstate.edu

Please subscribe to the RSS feed and follow Tristan on Twitter to stay up-to-date on all her upcoming events. Thanks for visiting!

I Must Make My Witness: Technojunkie-ism, Unemployment and the Loss of Anger

I’m sitting in a coffee shop. Surrounded by techno-junkies…and I…well, I might as well be one of them.
My “smart” phone is on the left of me, charging through my computer. I have my headphones on, listening to the clips that I’m playing and readying for this piece and my iPod is on the right of me, charger underneath, just in case the battery runs low.  It is truly amazing, this. What the hell am I doing? This isn’t me.

I look, for all intents and purposes, either like some weird Star Trek creature, with wires and mechanical technology hanging out all over the place (that is, if you include my tattoos & piercings), or some mad automaton you would call for assistance with your cellphone perhaps. “Hello, this is Verizon, how can I help you?”

The rest of the coffee shop? Not so much. They look happy. Dependent. Smiling. Ready to send off that next resume before hitting that next audition. But first, they’ll hit up Facebook to see what’s up, ya know? And that’s the hilarity. I come to this place with some regularity. It’s near where I live. I can take a pretty good gamble and say that amongst the very filled up shop (yesterday it was almost difficult to find a place to “plug-in”) most of ’em, myself included, are unemployed.

But this is Los Angeles. The LAND of the unemployed. After all, isn’t it still possible to get discovered? No, boys and girls, it’s not. Oh, and just to shatter your dreams even more, That Schwab’s story is an urban myth as well. Lana Turner, if she was discovered *anywhere* was most like discovered somewhere down the street. Schwab’s, on the other hand, much like the place I current am inhabiting, was also a  locale for the unemployed to “check in” and “catch up” and perhaps get a break from someone else who may have a lead.

When I lost my job, everyone smiled and laughed and said, “Hey!! Now you’re on FUN-employment!” and I looked at them like they were crazy because, really, it’s an insane way to look at the world. Insane, in every sense of the word. See, you take away someone’s work/worklife/space, and you take away their reason to get up in the morning or their reason to leave the house. Quite literally. Say what you will, but it is true. And I always knew this, which is why I never took my job for granted when I had it. I liked my job. I loved my job. I did anachronistic activities sometimes with anachronistic materials but that made me feel like a million bucks. Now? Well, I’ve totally read a mass of books. I’ve watched a bunch of movies. But I’ve gotten to the point where Law & Order episodes are repeating themselves and that. Is. Not. Good. I miss having a job.

Here is the basic problem: Working give us parameters and schedules and rituals and routines. Human beings need these things. We always have and we always will. Most importantly, work gives us purpose. Just like relationships with other people give us purpose. What happens when we lose one? What happens if we lose both?

See, we have social worlds that are significantly interwoven and related to our working lives. Take away one…well, I don’t think I have to explain what happens to the other. You would be surprised at how much you actually depend on your co-workers. Those people may not be your best friends; in fact, you may not even like them, but you need them. The nauseatingly interesting thing is this: we are learning to supplant all of our social interactions- even those with the most disliked of office co-workers- with those of technology.

So perhaps, then, due to your Iphone 8.5,000 and your awesome new Ipad and whatever the latest and greatest techno-toy is, when you get laid off you won’t be so lonely?

See, I’m not actually sure that this will be the case. Argue what you like, but I have historical back up. When I was in elementary school, I became madly obsessed with the transcendentalists. I thought they were incredible. I should not have been surprised, therefore, when I went straight into an obsession with the Beats. Just made sense. What didn’t was the fact that I was also reading Stephen King and ridiculously thick, poorly written gothic romance novels, searching incessantly for another Jane Eyreor “Rebecca”, but hey…who’s counting?

At any rate, there was this guy. Henry David Thoreau. I thought he was a rock star; his ideologies and his whole conception of the world were beyond anything I had ever heard before and it blew my mind. At one point in his career he decided to go and take a cabin in Massachusetts, alone.

By spending  a good long time there, he realized he had to leave. But not before having learned something extremely important. In his words, he left the woods:

…for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now. (Thoreau, Walden)

His desire not to “go below” speaks of something a bit more than simply non-conformity. Walden is, by no means a simple piece of literature. It is a gorgeous piece that discusses a litany of topics that, while having some sway on this discussion, would, literally, SWAY us off-course. Thoreau did not wish to “go below” because he recognized that his place was with other human beings, not in seclusion. To paraphrase and oversimplify, people need people in order to move forward through the world in a productive manner. He left for as good a reason as he came: solitude. The recognition that he had lived the “solitary life” and found it to be not as satisfying for the long-haul was a big step for a man as independent as Thoreau. So he left the woods.

The human connection is actually quite strong. Strong enough to leave the woods for, strong enough for people to give up organs for, strong enough for people to do lots of incredible things that make all the people on Oprah cry and go “Aw…” and “Wow!”  And that’s great. It’s the wonderful part of the Opposable World. But it seems to be changing a lot as we attempt to turn flesh and muscle into metal and wire, like in the latest Droid commercial…

So here is the problem: we are working very very hard at making very very sure that we do not need people at all. The more we do that, the more jobs are lost and the more unemployment we have. The more unemployment we have,  the more relationships and social worlds are lost and broken. See a pattern here? So, with all of this, and especially with the substantive rise of unemployment, don’t you think we should be more ANGRY?

You would, wouldn’t you? Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet certainly did, back in 1976. But back then, their major technological contender was the luminescent screen of the television, with some politicians and advertising schlumps vying to control people’s minds! What a thing to say…Oh Network, life was so much simpler then…*cue old-timey music and the squeak of a rocking chair*

I am not trying to downplay Network‘s content or the film itself by any stretch of the imagination. Every word, every bit of that narrative, every slice of that piece of cinema remains as true today as it was in 1976. What terrifies me is that in 1976, Paddy Chayefsky was discussing anger, and in 2010, due to a malaise come upon by what I call technojunkie-ism, no one gets angry anymore. Or heartbroken. Or even, dare I say it, really excited or happy. Being attached to these techno-toys, as shown in the Droid commercial, is turning us into robots, really sick robots, dangerously fast. There is even a new anxiety that is being written about called “disconnectivity anxiety” and it is EXACTLY what the words mean. It’s damn scary.

As you saw in the above clip, Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, walks into the studio to “make his witness.” What isn’t shown is that he has recently been fired and this is his last appearance on the show. He is, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. And he isn’t just unemployed, he has threatened suicide as a result…while he was on live television. The “last broadcast” in the above clip is supposed to make up for this “poor reaction” to being told he was, as the British say, being made redundant.

What we are shown here is his rage, pure and primal, beautiful and real in all of its intensity. As he asks the audience everywhere to join with him, we watch as he is being co-opted by Faye Dunaway’s character, and the remainder of the film just spirals gloriously from there. However, what is essential to this discussion is the way that Howard Beale expresses himself at this moment in time. He is being removed from and losing everything. He has spent his life working towards his goals, he has the aforementioned social connections (in fact, his best friend/co-worker was the one who had to give Beale the news) and now he has…nothing.

What Beale does, at this juncture, is appeal to the one community that he still has: his audience. He is no longer their television anchor; he is one of them. At the beginning, it seems that every time he says “we”, Beale might as well be saying “I.” However, his only somewhat-subtly disguised subjectivity does not take away from the effect his speech has on his “new peer group” due to the fact that he has now joined their ranks. In fact, if his rawness does anything, it only draws them in closer (thus making it easier for Faye Dunaway to continue to exploit him, and the television audiences, throughout the film).

His next dialogic switch from accusatory direct address to strong demand for everyone to stand up and assert themselves is key. Due to his recent termination, Beale has been left feeling invalid, not even human. He was going to take his own life on broadcast television due to the fact that the station had already done so. Beale gives adamant instructions. He states,  “All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamnit, my life has value!'” Beale, through his anger, has connected with another community (his audience) and gotten back some sort of personal value for himself.

Tragically, that same personal value that Beale regained doesn’t seem to come into play when it has to do with techno-toys. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything much “personal” about them, save, perhaps, the painfully bedazzled cell-phone case or an iPod with your name inscribed on the back. Even those aspects seem to speak more about the “value” than the “personal.” Due to our heightened dependence on the largess of the technological empire, whether it be within Network (1976) or reality, our connections to each other are failing deeply. Howard Beale says it perfectly at a different juncture in the film.

Yep, Howard Beale, I couldn’t agree with you more. We ARE in a lot of trouble. These days, it’s not just that one tube we have to contend with. There are chips and boards, and all sorts of wonderful items that create trouble. Oh, Howard, we’ve let you down. 30 years later, have we learned nothing? When you pleaded for us to turn off that set, who actually did? More importantly, was there anyone at that juncture who actually would have? Who didn’t want to see what “happened next”? And ah…therein lies the rub.

We are now a generation of people in need. We need to know, need to have, need to be updated, needneedneed. It is as though we went through two World Wars, Vietnam, Korea and other assorted conflicts, and then, upon getting new technology, decided it was high time to regress to child-like mentality again for everyone so that we can play. The most problematic feature of this (ok, so it’s all problematic, but the very worst one) is that we have no one to parent us or tell us no. Thus, we are losing our way (and each other) as fast as we can develop new toys to play with.

David Wong wrote a brilliant article entitled, “7 Reasons Why The 21st Century Is Making You Miserable” and he hits the nail on the head every single time. He mentions that our social interactions have degenerated to basically less than nothing, making it so that we rarely interact with strangers and we very (if ever) open our friend groups. This alone is heartbreaking. OK, so beyond our retracting our social claws, we also communicate increasingly poorly (almost exclusive through text and online), are almost never criticized (there is a difference between a criticism and an insult…he explains it quite well!), and because most of our friends are online or “virtual,” they are actually a great deal less demanding and therefore the friendship is much less fulfilling and deep. Those are a few of the reasons. I would love you to read the article. It is fantastic and alarmingly accurate.

What Wong hits on is something that I find scariest of all: it is all being taken in stride. Our separation from ourselves and our friends is being shrugged off like a drug charge on Paris Hilton. There is no Howard Beale out there, and if there was, who would listen? These instruments are too much part of our culture now, too convenient…If anyone got upset, all someone would have to do is offer them a free upgrade or a new model and *whoosh*…gone…They would be happy as hell, and gonna find a new app!

As we slip further and further into the abyss of some Cronenberg-ian nightmare, where our Smartphones become part of our hands and our iPods and their holders become permanent bicep attachments from jogging at the gym, it would be nice to think of Howard Beale every so often, and hope that maybe we can figure out a way to put down the techno-toys for a bit before it becomes too late. Unless it is too late. But I would like to think that it isn’t. We need to be responsible about our technologies and each other.

Realistically, I’m not sure I want to know everyone sitting at my coffee shop. But I’m unemployed, I’m lonely, and frankly…I’m game. If we don’t get along, fair enough. But to be perfectly honest, I would rather be out in the world right now trying to have conversations with sentient beings than cooped up in my room continuing a road to ruin and devastation along the lines of what David Wong discusses.

Dear Howard Beale,

Thank you for inspiring the anger in me, and reminding me that I, too, am a human being, goddamnit, and I have value.

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!

Love,

Ariel

Every time he says “we”, Beale might as well be saying “I”

Killer (Prom) Queen

So, pun intended, I suppose, let’s get something straight: I fully support gay rights, k?

But I am also a critical thinker and so when I see or read something that catches my eye and makes me think “Hrm, I dunno…” I gotta say something. Especially when no one else really seems to be doing so. In the Proposition 8 melee, we cannot afford to lose our critical thinking skills simply upon hearing about something that seems celebratory within the gay world, correct? If we do, then we become sheep and vegetables with opposable thumbs, clapping and saying “Hurray!” at anything that seems like it might be progress. Because, see, what if it really isn’t progress? And even morese, what if it isn’t progress in the way that we would like it to be? Kinda like a ballot measure that hides its true intentions underneath a whole lot of political mumbo jumbo and gobbledy-gook that the average person cannot understand, some things really need to be looked at under a much higher lensed microscope.

That said, I’m not saying that this issue is evil or like one of those measure. FAR from it. It is a very simple everyday type thing. However, the way I see it, it should be at least gazed at a bit closer due to the simple fact that it IS such a simple local “nothing” issue.

So I opened up my Facebook today, and I noticed that a few of my friends were posting this article about Sergio Garcia, a Senior at Fairfax High School. Apparently, this young man was just crowned “Prom Queen.” Um, OK, no big. Kinda cool, right? I went there, I know what that school was like when I was there, so I was excited in a way to have this occur. So I posted it. But….I took it down within 2-3 minutes.

Houston, we have a problem.

Should’ve been fine. Should’ve been great. Should’ve been able to just add this to the list of the pro-gay equality stuff that I post on the ol’ social networking stuff. Except…I couldn’t. Whether it was due to the writers or due to his own speech decisions, what was within the article made it impossible for me to get behind this issue. As a woman and as a woman who has been a significant gay-rights advocate for her whole life. See, the byline underneath his picture in the LA Times quotes him as saying, that he “felt invincible after beating out the female candidates.” OUCH. Then, to add to that, within the article he states that he doesn’t want to be a girl, reiterates that he will not be wearing a dress, and that the whole thing began as a “stunt or a challenge.”

promqueen

Perhaps if they had not postured the entire thing as Sergio having “beaten out” the female candidates. And perhaps he was misquoted. But I bristled a bit. I really did. I asked myself, “Would a woman have been able to run for prom king?” And………..I got a resounding NO WAY, JOSE. So, I ask you, is this progress? I suppose it is in a way, but most of us recognize that the younger generation really could care *less* about sexuality. It’s even stated in the article.

See, there’s also this historical dilemma about women and the gay community, too. When the AIDS crisis was at its height, an incredible amount of women’s health groups and lesbian groups supported this issue, marched and helped out, even though it wasn’t even “their issue” at the time. In countless documentaries that I have seen, and people I have spoken with, these same women have expressed a sad sentiment that they do not feel or have that same support from the male gay community. (*disclaimer: this is not meant to be a statement about all gay men, btw*) As a woman who can (and has) go to (male) gay leather bars and usually exchange phone numbers sometimes more often than in a straight bar, I very clearly have a wonderful relationship with the male gay world. However, there is a certain misogyny that exists. There is a prejudice against men that exists within certain areas of the lesbian community, as well, I have seen that too, but…in a world that already predicates itself in a manner that does not necessarily favor those of the XY-chromosome persuasion…..well? It can be tough.

At any rate, back to prom, right? Look, I’m excited for this kid. He made headway in something that made him feel proud and happy, he feels like he did good for his gay community and made strides or whatnot, and I do support him in his struggles. He’s a latino kid in LA who is openly gay and proud, which is problematic in and of itself. I mean, his homelife can’t necessarily have been a picnic, right? Add gay archetypes to the mix and, well, we have something else entirely. In this way, I believe that Sergio is taking it to the next level. Applying an aspect of gay culture to high school culture, in a way, enmeshing the two into one. However, I do not believe that this is a necessity nor do I believe that it is a positive or a progressive stance to take, for women or for men. In fact, I feel it is quite self-centered and selfish. However, as we all know, high school kids are some of the most self-centered people in the universe so this is no big surprise. But it is by no means a malicious act, and I do want to be clear about that as well.

The issue comes from not thinking ahead and not listening to his peers and not thinking about what the effects of this act could be. Sure, it’s cute enough, have a prom “queen.” But the LA Times positioned it poorly- they (whether he intended it or not) made it sound like he was quite pleased to have won over the girls, which sounded pretty nasty to me, although not to the immediate reader, still reeling from Prop 8’s fucked up repeat beatdown the other day. Most everyone these days is looking for something-anything-positive to hear/post/know about how people are reacting to the gay world. But the problem is, this isn’t the thing. And we really need to take a closer look at what would have made a real difference.

Wouldn’t it have been more effective to have him be the prom king and come with his male date? Wouldn’t that be more of a fuck you in the face of the masculine-defined idea of “prom king” a la films like Carrie? He states that he does not want to be a girl and that he’s a boy with a “different personality.” So how does “different personality” all of a sudden equal prom queen? He’s not a tranny, nor does he express the desire to be one, he seems to be quite secure in being a gay male of the most average variety. What was wrong with running for prom king?

I’m just not sure how to place this one. And to an extent, writing this makes me feel like I’m a hater, which I know, full well, that I am not. I know that this is a messy and tricky situation that puts women in a precarious situation where they get to play second fiddle. And while I do love my gay boys something fierce, I think I’d be pretty pissed if a guy won for prom queen and I was running and had a chance to win. ESPECIALLY if they were initially just doing it for a lark, and then the idea got unintentional momentum.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that this situation is quite a bit more complicated than just posting the article on Facebook. I couldn’t do it. It is not 100% celebratory for me. I support, but I question. It may simply be prom, but hey- prom means a great deal to a lot of folks. Look at Carrie. That’s a perfect example of how that event can be so momentous in one person’s life. Also good example of why you should treat people better in high school, but that’s a WHOLE different blog.

While I congratulate you Sergio, I would ask you to take a closer look at what your royalty has actually given you. Publicity, sure, yup. You got your 15 minutes. But where does it go from there? Please think about what equal rights means, not to mention the progression of archetypes and stereotypes. Is a “queen” what you wish to represent? Is that who you are? Is that what you are? Does that actually do much for the positive progress of the gay community, let alone this marvelous program that you seem to have been a part of at your school?

As for me, I find it disappointing and disheartening. Until the day comes when we can have a prom king who is a female, I think the idea of a prom queen who is male and does not consider himself to be transgendered is a bit more than frustrating and a bit head-shakingly irritating, to be perfectly honest. And accompanying that is the passion and fervor with which people seem to overlook these issues in favor of positive stories about gay issues. Hey! Newsflash! Positive stuff happens all the time and always has! Even before Prop 8! Hard to believe, I know, but true. Either way, keeping your eyes on the prize also means keeping your eye on the ball and staying critical. So long as we do that, we should be fine. For now, I hope the young man enjoys his tiara.