Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On My 35th Birthday

Two hundred years ago, life expectancies were shorter and "35" was synonymous with "middle-aged."  Now, it's more like the late morning of youth or the final entrance into adulthood.  I don't feel old, but when I talk to my 18-22-year-old students I sense a distance.

I spent yesterday evening at a dive gay bar in Portland.  It had slot machines and strippers.  I saw a middle-aged woman walk in, lose a solid amount of cash on the slots and then leave.  There were half has many strippers as there were customers and they were hungry for work.  One came over and leaned into me.  He had terrible breath and an irritating personality.  I looked at my phone and realized that I would be 35 in one hour and somehow all of my previous 35 years had led me to this particular bar.  I went back to the hotel.

I spent today driving down the Oregon coast.  It was rainy  I stopped periodically and contemplated the high waves.  On better days and in better seasons, I could have spotted some whales.  I also would have been surrounded by crowds.  I liked the way I spent today.  It was peaceful.  I always liked the winter more than the summer.

There's a lot I could write about, how little I feel I've accomplished so far in life, the disappointments, the friends I wish I hadn't lost contact with and the missteps.  Right now, though, I'm thinking of the accidents in life that lead someone to be in a certain place at a certain time doing the work that he is doing, being around the people he is around.  Ten years ago, I was up for a job as an arts editor at the Honolulu Weekly.  I was one of two final candidates.  They gave the job to an islander, and so instead of moving to Hawaii, I took my savings and went to Eastern Europe.  I worked for a few months for a newspaper in Bulgaria and then for a year for a newspaper in Latvia.  While in the Baltics, I wrote profiles of a Latvian animator named Signe Baumane and an Estonian animator named Priit Parn.  This led me to apply for a Fulbright to study Hungarian animation in Budapest.  I spent a year in Budapest and came home right at the time of the financial crisis.  What to do?  I applied to grad school, and now I've spent two years doing an MA in Iowa City, and four years pursuing a Ph.D. in Seattle.  My first peer reviewed article, based on interviews I conducted in Budapest seven years ago, will be published this spring.  If I had gotten that job in Hawaii, I would be in a very different place right now.  

There are the things you can't control.  There are the things you think you can.  Last year, around the time of my 34th birthday, I made a list of all the things I would tell my 15-year-old self.  I sent them to a friend of mine.  This is a slightly edited version.

1.     Everyone has prejudices.  That includes you.      
2.     Most people don’t know what they’re talking about.  That includes you.
3.  You have no idea how many of your beliefs will change over the years.  Your 35-year-old self will still support the Democratic Party, still be in favor of gay marriage and still be pro-choice, but he won’t recognize the attitudes you express on a day-to-day basis. Outside of murder and rape being wrong, cancer sucking, and no war being a good war, never stop questioning.  
4.     Smoke marijuana, but don’t do it more than three times/month.
5.     Get drunk at least once.  You are a lightweight.  This will never change and that’s okay.  Many people enjoy getting drunk, but you don’t.  That’s okay. 
6.     Any given person’s political/religious beliefs are usually uninteresting.  A person can have uninteresting beliefs but still be interesting.
7.     You never have to get an A.  Let me repeat that.  YOU NEVER HAVE TO GET AN A.  Nurture your talents, but don’t be afraid to rigorously pursue subjects in which you will never earn more than a D plus.  Your 35-year-old self practices yoga almost every day and is trying to learn a Slavic language.  He’s terrible at both.  People tell you to always try hard.  The better advice is to increase your tolerance for humiliation.
8.     All status is bullshit.  There is no binary between success and failure.  There’s no such thing as a “loser.”  
9. You know nothing about any country until you’ve visited it.  After you’ve visited it, you’ll know even less.
10. Your high school is a very small place, but there’re more interesting people around you than you realize.  Seek them out.  There will always be more interesting people around you than you realize. 
11. Dress well.
12. Go hiking.
13. Get a real job in the summertime.  
14. Learn to like children.
15. You’ve hurt more people in your life than you will ever know.  You’ve also helped more people in your life than you will ever know.  This will continue to happen until you die.
16. On that note, people say awful and hurtful things about you, often without any malice.  Everyone is guilty of this crime, including you.  
17. Only 10 percent of the people you meet have an opinion about you that matters.   
18. Read Philip Roth, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, James Baldwin, Edmund White, Nathanael West, Walt Whitman, Philip Larkin, The Forever War, The Brothers Karamazov and Cancer Ward.  Jane Austen is better than you realize, but it’s okay to put her back on the shelf and pick her up again in 10 years.  Most people who say they like James Joyce are lying.  Most people who say they like Virginia Woolf are telling the truth.  It’s cool that you dig Faulkner, but you’ll like him more in college.  Read more history and books that explain science to a lay audience.  (You are always the lay audience.)  One of your brother’s college friends has a huge collection of alternative comics.  Raid it.
19. Country music is fantastic.  So is gospel.  Get every Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash record you can get your hands on.   There’s a box set of Ray Charles’s country covers.  Mahalia Jackson.  The Louis and Ella recordings.  Miles Davis’s Porgy and Bess album.  Old Elvis is better than Young Elvis.  Keep going with the Dylan obsession.  In a few years, all music will be free, but you won’t enjoy any of it the way you enjoy it now.   
20. All those things you want so much right now?  You'll get a lot of them in the future, around the time you stop wanting them.   

Friday, December 11, 2015

On Taking Your Pain All the Way to the Supreme Court

The first students to desegregate schools in the South were all excellent students.  It was a no-brainer. If you wanted to prove that black students could thrive and handle themselves in a racist environment, you needed to pick excellent, disciplined students.  Those kids would be the most likely to earn the sympathies of Southern moderates.  It wasn't fair.  It wasn't fair at all.  It's enraging that such concessions were ever necessary.

The woman whose case is now before the Supreme Court is extraordinary only in her extraordinary mediocrity.  She was a good student with a 3.59 GPA in an era of rapid grade inflation.  She did some activities, but doesn't have much of a history of leadership.  Her family wasn't poor.  She isn't the member of any minority, any minority that I can see.  Couldn't they have found the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who worked 40 hours a week outside of school?   The standard claim against affirmative action is its unfairness towards Asian-Americans.  Couldn't they have found a poor white kid with a similar GPA?  After all, one of the other complaints against affirmative action is that it "privileges" middle-class black people over poor white people.  Couldn't they have found someone who didn't land a job with a starting salary of $60,000 after she graduated from another school?  Good god, couldn't they at least have found someone with even a white ethnic background, the great-great- or great-grandchild of Italian or Jewish immigrants?

I get the complaints against affirmative action.  I think they're wrong.  I think they ignore the reality of the world we live in.  Institutions suffer when they roll back affirmative action programs.  It's not just a matter of correcting a historical wrong.  It's about creating a more just and more functional society.

And the fact that this woman is the best the lawyers could find may be the best argument for the policy on the cultural if not the legal level.  There's a certain kind of person who will complain about her lack of success because of a policy that is designed to help others.  There's a certain kind of person who will be so indignant that she didn't get into the school she wanted to go to, she actually will take her argument all the way to the Supreme Court.  That poor white kid who struggles and gets a 3.59 and that child of Vietnamese immigrants may or may not agree with the policy, but by virtue of their life and their background, they won't suffer from such entitlement.  They were taught early on that life isn't fair and they won't expect everyone to hand them everything they want.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

On Guns

Some people like to carry guns on their belts where everyone can see them.  They like to touch guns.  Americans don't have genes that make us this way.  I went to a shooting range in Latvia back in 2006 where I shot an AK-47.  It was a hollow experience, but the other people on my tour, folks from Scandinavia, Germany and England, couldn't stop taking pictures of themselves with guns.  

A few years before, I went to a shooting range in Maryland with an old high school buddy.  The people who ran the place were good, responsible men.  They walked me through the safety regulations, gave me advice.  My friend let me shoot his pistol.  I barely had the strength in my hands to squeeze the trigger and I remember recoiling at the thought of the power contained within a gun.  I suppose my car has a similar power to hurt, maim and kill, but there's something more visceral about the ability to shoot a man clean in the head, to destroy his life with such a small toy.   

About 11 years ago, when I was in Vietnam, I had the pleasure of having lunch at a wedding with a kind old Party man.  He had met Castro back in the '70s.  He called him an intellectual. He told me about his life in the years after the war, when he was stationed in Saigon.  He had been an officer, but not a fighter and he had to carry a pistol at all times.  He hated carrying that pistol.  A few days later, I went to a small gathering at his house.  There weren't many chairs in his living room, but he demanded that I take his.  He showed me his study.  It was filled with books, but I only remember two of them, Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and a copy of one of Joseph Conrad's lesser-known novellas which, he was excited to discover, included a passing reference to Haiphong.  Our politics were not the same, of course, Castro-hating small-d democrat that I am.  Still, we had more in common than not.  He loved spending hours in a library surrounded by books from which he would note the least significant details because they meant a lot to him, and he hated carrying a pistol. 

This post is not an argument about gun policy.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

On Motives

It's the Law and Order theory of murder: Every crime speaks to a recognizable social pathology.  A sexually frustrated misfit declares his vow to seek revenge on the women who refused him and we call it misogyny.  A white supremacist opens fire in a black church and we call it racism.  A Christianist opens fire in a Planned Parenthood and we call it religious extremism.  In all cases the killers, whatever their grasp on mental health, have declared their motives and we accept them at face value.

We have a habit, however, of seeking such explanations everywhere.  Columbine, we told ourselves, was about bullying.    The crazy news guy, a black gay man, kills his former colleagues on camera and we consider it indicative of our culture's continuing dehumanization via the media.  A college dropout opens fire at a congresswoman's meeting and we call him a Palin-inspired right-wing nutcase.  The first claim is inaccurate.  (One killer was a diagnosed psychopath who would have killed someone at some time and was just waiting for the opportunity.  The other was a troubled kid who fell into his orbit.)  The second claim might be true, but seems a little tenuous.  The third claim was inaccurate as well.  The killer had recently suffered a psychotic break.

Then there are the murders that defy anybody's explanation, like the shut-in who killed a classroom of kindergarteners.

There are two reasons, I believe, for the desire to define motives:

The first is that we all seek out examples of the extreme results of social pathologies we fear most.  If you are a woman who has been harassed at a comic-book convention, the story of a geek who kills because he can't have sex will strike a chord.  If you are a neoconservative who believes we should be bombing Syria, the story of jihadists at home will strike a similar chord as well.

The second is that we need explanations for people who do evil thing we could never see ourselves doing, or to see the roots of these killings as related to social problems, problems that we might, in the long long long run, be able to solve.

This is not to say that the motives don't matter.  I believe they do.  I also believe that the motives in all cases are far more complicated and far more individualized than Facebook memes and political posturing suggests.  I admired the Rolling Stone cover story on the Boston Marathon bomber, because it understood that as much as we would like it to be the case, our most evil citizens and our social pathologies cannot be summed up in a paragraph.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Monuments

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included this grievance against George III.

"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

This is not the private Jefferson, the man who raped the mother of his children and kept both she and them in servitude.  This is the public Jefferson.  His neighbors had been the subject of intermittent bouts of genocide since the early 17th century.  They would continue to be the subject of genocide for more than a century after Jefferson wrote these words.  I could also quote his weird pre-eugenicist eugenics that appear in "Notes on the State of Virginia," in which he suggests that freed slaves should be colonized in areas far from the white races.  Such racism has evolved into various forms and still exists today in the form of redlining and the fact that Charles Murray is still published by respectable houses in New York.  There's an eerie line about the inability of the black man to experience physical pain to the same degree as the white man.  That line resonates in Darren Wilson's testimony on the killing of Michael Brown.

Thomas Jefferson appears on the two-dollar bill, which no one uses and the nickel, whose reverse side includes a picture of his beautiful neoclassical home, which was built on the backs of slave labor.  A major monument to him stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of a minority of people based entirely on their ethnic background.  His New Deal policies, the major achievement of 20th-century American liberalism, required the accommodation of Southern segregationists.  His face is on the dime.  A monument to him also stands on the National Mall.

Andrew Jackson was a genocidal maniac.  His face appears on the 20-dollar bill.

It's easy to look back and declare that these men were all just products of their time and that their crimes are just details within lifetimes of accomplishments, but consider this, liberal friends: If in another 50-100 years, someone decides to place Barack Obama's face on our currency - in commemoration of health care or gay rights - he will be commemorating the president who fathered drone warfare.

The keepers of monuments don't want to start conversations.  They want to end them.  They don't want to tell you that most major leaders in world history combine, to various degrees, god and the devil.  They want to tell you that they all walk with the angels.  They want to set their narratives in stone not for generations, but for eternity.  I have mixed feelings about the campus protests, but the recent flare-up at Princeton about the name of Woodrow Wilson, white supremacist extraordinaire, and president of a university that has long been a byword for Wasp power, has my respect.

The easy way out of the issue is to replace commemorations to national pride based on political figures for commemorations of artists.  Put Walt Whitman on the nickel, Ray Charles on the dime, Philip Roth, when the time comes, on the 20-dollar bill.  Another way out, the more popular way out, is to build monuments to the underdog freedom fighters, Martin Luther King, Jr. (which we did already), Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth.  A third way out is to tweak the monuments that already stand.  Put the face of a Cherokee on the reverse side of Jackson's 20-dollar bill.  Add statues of a slave and an Indian to the Jefferson Memorial, so both can stare at the Third President of the United States for eternity.

The final way out, the least satisfactory way out, would be to let these monuments stand and then reinvent them in our own minds, not as monuments to our greatness but as monuments to our shame.  Allow your own imagination to turn Jackson's face on the 20-dollar bill into a constant reminder of America's Holocaust.  Add a picture of a slave to the Jefferson Memorial on your own.  That would take some work but that work might be more effective than any of the previous three options.  Don't ask the powers-that-be to make you a better student of history and a better citizen.  Read the history on your own, ignore the heritage, and make yourself a better citizen.      

Friday, November 20, 2015

On Come From Away

Last night I saw Come From Away, a musical about the 7000 airline passengers whose flights were diverted to the tiny village of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001.  It's a whimsical Irish-rock musical, a celebration of small-town decency amid historic tragedy.  The simple folk of Newfoundland welcome one and all.  The black New Yorker, the gay couple and the African family's fears of these backwoods cod fisherman all prove to be misplaced.  A woman from the ASPCA spends the days after September 11 caring for the animal cargo on one of the planes.  A British oil man and a divorced Texas woman strike up an unlikely romance.  A polite Egyptian man who excites the fears of all turns out to be a top-notch chef.  An old man, the son of Polish Jews who was forbidden by his parents to show his background, confesses his roots to a young Orthodox rabbi.  The mother of a firefighter in New York waits anxiously to hear news of her son, relying on the counsel of a local. The musical is an Irish wake.  The world was going to hell, but in a tiny village of Newfoundland, on the eve of what would be a decade of war, empire-crumbling and a near-debilitating financial crisis, a diverse group of people created, as the British oil man describes it, "a diversion."

You either let yourself laugh and be moved by this sort of thing or you don't and I happen to believe that life is too short not to surrender to sentimentality every now and then.  I maintain that the behavior of New Yorkers in the days following the tragedy reveals a profound wish for community.  I don't think many people want to admit it, but there was a great joy in lining up at blood banks and discovering a small-town relationship to the big city in which you live.  Pretty much all of us wouldn't mind living in a socialist utopia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On Refugees and Recognizing Hard Questions

In the midst of the first wave of articles on the refugee crisis in Europe, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

"My attitude towards the refugee crisis in Europe is pre-intellectual. When a starving child asks you for food, you feed him. When a person is drowning and you have a lifeboat, you provide it for him. It's not the time to weigh pros and cons. I don't care about the near- or long-term ramifications to the continent's culture or economy. I don't care about the complaints that refugees might prefer to live in richer countries and not in poor countries. I don't care that Malta and Italy might be disproportionately affected under EU laws. I don't care that the natural path of immigrants lays an extra burden on Hungary's security. I don't care about the integrity of a country's borders. I don't care if any of the statements above suggest a misreading of the controversy. I don't need you to correct me. I...DO...NOT...FUCKING...CARE. 
"I am not going to mention any of my personal experiences of Hungary, where I spent a year of my life, to shed any light on this situation. I am not going to discuss how any of my travels through the rest of Europe may shed light on the situation. My personal experiences are irrelevant. 
Does this video make you angry? If the answer is yes, congratulations, you're officially a member of 99% of the human race. Let me ask you these questions: What is the difference between this woman, and the people of Europe, North America and the rest of the Middle East, who are unsure of exactly what they're supposed to do in this situation? How is their inability to make a decision any less destructive than this sociopath's behavior? Are the answers to these questions easy? If so, you're a very different person than I am."

An old friend from Eastern Europe took this personally and responded with a string of attacks that struck me as ad hominem, mostly about how I was writing this from my comfortable living room in America while Bulgaria had to take in 2000 refugees.  Bulgaria, for what it's worth, has a population of 7.1 million people.  Two thousand refugees did not strike me as a terrible burden, particularly for a country that had enjoyed the largesse of the European Union, and which contained several abandoned hotels constructed amid a climate of corruption and greed.  I believed those hotels could easily house refugees.  The discussion was heated.  She de-friended me.  I moved on with my life.
My attitude was the attitude of many, the kind of thought process that is triggered by photographs of dead children.  Even the staunchest logician shuts himself down when faced with arguments that may be legitimate.  I have never taken defenses of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombings with any seriousness.  Many people far smarter than me have made those arguments, but there's very little you can say that will make me support the instant incineration of thousands and the creation of a cancer zone.  
Even now, after a horrific attack against a culture not all that different from my own by what one of the world's most evil organizations (there's a lot of competition), I stand by my initial response.  When a child is hungry, you feed him.  When a man is drowning, you save him.  When I stop and try to be an intellectual, I apply my cold, hard, utilitarian logic and I estimate that 99.99 percent of these refugees are not trying to kill anyone in Europe or North America.  The chances of any of that .01 percent getting through and killing a few thousand people is higher than I would like it to be, but it seems a small price to pay for the lives of hundreds of thousands.  And anyway, that .01 percent of refugees seems less dangerous to me than the homegrown terrorists, the middle-class nihilists who get into ISIS the way other teenagers get into Dungeons and Dragons.
Still, my liberal friends and I may be wrong.  And even if we're not, we live in a political system that has to accommodate the fears of small-minded bigots as well as decent people who have every right to fear for their own families and communities, and who are just as pre-intellectual in their assumptions as I am in mine.  You come to accept a political reality in which you have to bargain with those neighbors. You agree to accept a few thousand refugees here, another few thousand there, and as you bargain, you cringe at the thought of how long it takes and of the children languishing in hellish camps, some of whom you'll be able to save and some of whom you won't.  
If you demand that we feed all the children and that we save all the drowning men, you won't save any.  If you agree not to feed all the children and you let some men drown, you may save a few.  You won't be the first person in history to make such compromises.  You won't be the first to hate yourself for doing so.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

On Terror in France and Respectable Opinions

There was a run on American flags.  One hundred US senators most of whom still had bitter thoughts about an impeachment proceeding that was less than three years old and a recent presidential election decided by the judicial branch, convened and sang a popular ode to their nation.  It was not the time to condemn a single fact of American life.  It was a time to celebrate our values, values that were so clearly under attack.

In the next few months, years, opinions that should have earned the respect of no one, earned a comfortable place in the mainstream: racial profiling, government surveillance, torture.  When in 2002, Steven Spielberg, a bellwether of American centrist liberalism, promoted Minority Report, a science-ficition thriller about the perils of government surveillance, he made it a point to defend the Bush Administrations's stances on civil liberties.  

Everyone was shocked by the first photos from Abu Ghraib.  This was not us.  This is not what those American flags stood for.  Where the hell did this come from?

We are now raising French flags.  My Facebook friends are covering their photos in the blue, white and red.  We speak of solidarity, and I'm sure in France, on this day, there is much talk of solidarity as well, and of all the wonderful things France stands for that the terrorists hate.  It may be rude, mean to issue a warning at this moment of mourning.  But I will say this: Dear France, dear Europe, dear US, and dear world: now is not the time to make the indefensible defensible, now is not the time to deny basic decency to refugees from genocide or to talk of racism's good points.  If you let such opinions become respectable, you let the terrorists win.

Monday, November 9, 2015

On Protesters

Two protests.  The first involves black football players at a state university.  The other involves people of color at one of the world's most elite universities.  The first has achieved its main goal and has earned the goodwill, more or less, of the media.  The second has not achieved its main goal and has been eviscerated by almost all.

I don't enjoy protesting.  I don't enjoy listening to other protesters.  I don't like shouting in unison.  I don't like showing up at rallies and cheering for people I may disagree with.  The University of Washington had a Black Lives Matter march back in the winter.  One of the protesters complained that the school didn't postpone exams in the wake of the Michael Brown verdict.  I thought this was a stupid complaint.  I still think this was a stupid complaint.  I left the protest.

I often agree with the protesters' general objectives but disagree with the specificities.  I have sympathies with those who protest sexual harassment on campus, but the policies they demand may create problems concerning the rights of defendants.  So I don't join the protest.  Some may consider me a member of the white male patriarchal system for taking this stance.  They can believe what they want, but if that's all they have in response then they aren't going to convince me or anyone else.

Protesting is an anti-intellectual exercise.  Slogans don't have nuance.  Protesters aren't interested in discussion or debates in which there can be fair disagreements.  There are times when they are right to take this stance.  There are times when they are not.  The consensus is growing that the Missouri football students were right to not discuss.  The consensus is growing that the Yale students were not only wrong to avoid discussion, but that they were actively demanding a miserable, anti-intellectual atmosphere, a world without discussions.

Intellectuals can be protesters.  An intellectual can take part in a protest, but in the moment of protest, in the moment of shouting and sloganeering, he ceases to be an intellectual.

When students protest, we have a knee jerk reaction to refer to them as "juvenile," "immature."  "Hopefully, they'll grow out of it." "Don't they realize that they're going to have to argue in the real world." "There's no safe space where they're going."  The truth is that most adults are no different from these students.  They get angry if you disagree with one of their fundamental political beliefs.  They are susceptible to the outrage machine.  They find common cause with fellow adults based on predetermined beliefs.  You couldn't find a single person in my circle who defended Sarah Palin back in 2008.  I and they may have been right, but we didn't come to our conclusions with any discussion.  We just knew the story.

There are many victims in this world.  Protests deny the real existence of victims who complicate the most familiar narratives of victimhood: the white straight male rape victim, the Brown University graduate who is now homeless because of an addiction to heroin, the Jewish student who suffers slurs because she holds conservative views on Middle East politics.  I sympathize with all three, the victim of sexual violence, the victim of a criminal justice and health care system that misunderstands drug addiction, the victim of bigotry.

Poor victims are more sympathetic than rich victims.  This is as it should be.

Many protesters are narcissists.  A narcissist can be a good protester.  More often than not, narcissists are unsympathetic and thus ineffective protesters.

The world needs protesters.  The world needs non-protesters just as much.      

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On the Superhero Movies I Like

In the climax of Tim Burton's first Batman movie, Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale seduces Jack Nicholson's Joker.  She runs her lips up and down his clothes, declares her love for the color purple.  The camera settles on a medium close-up of Nicholson, as Basinger slowly drops to her knees below his waist and below the bottom of the screen.  Nicholson's permanent rictus smile almost breaks into an "O".

In Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman seduces Michael Keaton's Batman.  Her hand lovingly runs along his suit's articulated abs down to his articulated genitals.

In X-Men 2, Ian McKellen's Magneto suggests that Rebecca Romijn's Mystique entertains him by morphing into young good-looking men.  He purrs at a protege of Xavier's, letting him know that he's a god among insects, essentially that he has a wonderful body he should be proud of.

These are just plot points.  I would also say that Burton's camera makes love to Pfeiffer, stuck in a beautiful, shiny S&M suit.  The soundtrack captures every bend and stretch of the latex.  Bryan Singer's camera studies Lady Deathstrike's contortions as adamantium lead destroys her body from inside.

The scripts in Iron Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 make clear that, respectively, Tony Stark, and Peter Parker are not virgins, and yet you would be forgiven if you believed that Robert Downey, Jr. just wasn't that into it or that Andrew Garfield didn't get past first base with Emma Stone.  Chris Evans's muscled body in The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier is no more alluring than Leni Riefenstahl's athletes.

Nicholson's Joker is a sexed-up madman.  Heath Ledger's Joker is an evil soldier in warpaint, and though he likes to kill, you can't really imagine him raping anyone.  Christopher Reeve couldn't hide an erection.  Henry Cavill is a eunuch.

Good superhero movies are carnivals.  Good superhero movies are orgies.

Friday, October 30, 2015

On the Girl with the Smartphone

No video tells the whole story.  You don't know the before.  You don't know what anything looks like to the actors in extreme close-up.  You only see two bodies.  One is adult, male, white and powerful.  The other is female, young, black and weak.  And you see the adult body attack the weak body and you know what this is and you know the story because you have read the story and the story goes back hundreds of years and it is inscribed in the consciousness of your culture.  The video is evidence of something you already know.

I'm inclined to believe that the office is a bully and the teenager may have been obnoxious but did nothing to deserve such violence.  (Does anyone deserve such violence?)  Now, we hear about a walkout of 100 students in support of this officer.  Does that mean there's another layer to the story?  Do these students have a point?  Does the racial divide at this school trickle down to the student body, the next generation?

I would say that I had my own knee-jerk reaction to that news.  Our pop culture may celebrate the underdog, but in the real world we support the bullies.  No individual person can be as stupid or as self-righteous as a crowd.  And a lot of people had to hate this girl, for one reason or another, for this officer to believe that he had every right to hurt her.   


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On Bridge of Spies

Spielberg's great when he's weird: the D Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan in which blood, sweat and mud splatter on the camera lens, and every man falls dead instantaneously when he's shot; Eric Bana and Daniel Craig's clinical assassination of a femme fatale in Munich; the methodical investigation and capture of the would-be murderer at the beginning of Minority Report, the close-up of scissors, the purpose of which we don't know, the close-up of a mind-control device, the purpose of which we don't know; a crashed airplane in suburbia in War of the Worlds; the bizarre, witty debates on the House floor in Lincoln.  Spielberg's awful when he's unembarrassed by his sentimentality: the ubiquitous American flag in Saving Private Ryan; every "what does it mean to be a Jew" speech in Munich; Tom Cruise thinking about his dead son in Minority Report; Tom Cruise thinking about his annoying son in War of the Worlds; a union soldier reciting the Gettysburg Address at the beginning of Lincoln.  

I enjoy Spielberg's weirdness more than Cronenberg's or Lynch's because it's couched between his Hallmark moments.  It's 9 pm at night.  A man has put his six-year-old son to bed and he's preparing for his seventh birthday tomorrow morning.  He writes a message on a birthday card and tears up, hoping that he could arrest time.  He puts the card in his desk drawer.  While his wife and son are asleep, he surfs the net for scat porn.  He has a hard time sleeping after that, so he starts reading a book about Stalingrad and gets off on all the graphic detail.  

The best parts of Bridge of Spies, Spielberg's dramatization of the U-2 incident, are his introductions of the main players.  Mark Rylance's Rudolf Abel is a hyper-intelligent spy, who carefully smudges out nuclear secrets on his paint palette while the CIA rips apart his apartment.  Tom Hanks's James Donovan is the insurance lawyer, an middle-aged, smart schoolyard bully who enjoys the way legal wordplay can get assholes off for the worst transgressions.  Austin Stowell's Gary Powers is an overgrown child eager to prove himself during a lie-detecter test.  The narrative in the rest of the film diminishes each of them.  They become mundane, familiar and a little too likable.  Abel, we learn, is really your quiet Jewish grandfather, a man of Old World wisdom.  Donovan is a crusader for the US Constitution and human decency amid Cold War paranoia.  Powers becomes a POW who endures torture with bravery and dignity.  On one level, you could argue that the movie is a case study in why heroism is so boring.  I would argue that Spielberg's movie, like most of his movies, reminds us that every hero has a fascinating creep hiding inside him.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

On Not Knowing Names

Here is a short sampling of things I don't know:

1. The name of the current Prime Minister of Japan, the third largest economy in the world.

2. The names of the components of a chromosome. (I used to know. Now I don't.)

3. Any of the names of the killers put on trial for crimes in Cambodia or Rwanda.

5. The names of Jupiter's moons.

6. The name of most of Obama's cabinet members.

7. The names of the Indian tribes who once lived in my home state of Maryland.

8. The names of the major leaders of Hamas.

You need to know much more than names and dates to understand anything.  And there's nothing more annoying than a person who can spit out facts with no ideas behind them.  Still, you have to stop and wonder if you really have any right to talk about anything, even in casual conversation, when you really know so little.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

On Recognizing Yourself

Pierre Bezukhov, Robert Cohn, Magneto, Professor X, Dr. Doom, Walter White, Nathan Zuckerman, Bojack Horseman, David Lurie, Michael Henchard, Cyril Fielding, Tonio Kroger, Quentin Compson, Miss Lonelyhearts, Proust's narrator and among the memoirists, Paul Fussell and Edmund White.

I met you all at some point in my life and I thought: "This is me. For better or worse, this is me."

On Jim Webb

I had a conservative friend in high school.  His politics have changed in the years since, but he approached the two main strands of his ideological leanings - Catholicism and libertarianism - with cold hard logic.  He could be a little glib when faced with the shortcomings in any one of his beliefs.  He believed in complete drug legalization without regulation - a position I agreed with - but did not consider the counterarguments all that seriously.  If you told him that heroin legalization would mean that more people would use heroin, he would just tell you that he wouldn't do heroin.  I thought his approach to faith was weirdly unemotional.  He had read the scripture and the intellectual arguments.  He thought it was clear that Christianity was superior to Islam because Muhammed was a thief, and it just made sense to spend his life trying to get to heaven.

I met him when we were 14 and we still keep up with each other.  About ten years ago, we were walking around a campus where he was pursuing a Ph.D. in history.  I had just come home from a year-long gig in Vietnam.  We passed a veterans memorial, and I just blurted out that I thought the concept of war heroism was bullshit.  My friend was hyper-logical, but he couldn't understand where I was coming from.  I asked him if he really thought all the soldiers in Vietnam were war heroes?  They were fighting an ugly war.  He said, ok, but maybe all the soldiers in World War II?  I said, in the reality of war, the people you end up killing don't necessarily deserve to die. It's hard to see any soldier as particularly heroic, as much as someone who fights for his own and his friends' survival.  My friend was extremely anti-war, anti-US intervention anywhere, but this was a difficult idea for him to process.  I told him that "war heroism" is a concept civilized people hold onto in order to make themselves feel better for supporting barbarism.  He started coming around to my way of thinking, but it's clear that I had finally presented some cold hard logic that frightened him.


My first instinct - everyone's first instinct - was to laugh, uncomfortably.  Here was Jim Webb running for president, laughing, bragging about killing an enemy soldier who tried to kill him.  That soldier was probably no better or worse a human being than Jim Webb.  In all likelihood, Webb never learned the story of that man's life or what led him to fight a war for an ideology Webb disagreed with.  The man he killed had no idea who Webb was.

And though they both fought in the name of a nation-state, they were clearly not thinking about their ideological beliefs at the moment of confrontation.  At that moment they were nothing more than animals struggling for their own survival.

When you go to war, you enter a dimension in which the rules that used to govern your life no longer make sense, and when you return home those rules will never really make sense again.  Clinton, Sanders and the rest defend themselves from these facts by talking up their love for veterans.  Webb loves his fellow veterans too, but at some point he just has to laugh at the sham we call civilization.  That's the only way he can continue to live in this world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On Yoga

I started doing yoga about three years ago, when I was 32.  I was depressed and I had read two testimonials attesting to yoga's benefits.  In her graphic memoir Marbles, Ellen Forney explained that she originally started doing yoga because she heard it was slimming.  She kept going because it helped her manage her manic depression.  In an interview, Giancarlo Esposito said that his yoga practice helped him get inside the head of his Breaking Bad supervillain "Gus" Fring.  It taught him how to be a better listener, an essential part of his character.  I'm still a bit of a stage-door johnny, and still, against all odds, aspire to a level of coolness that I see on screen and that I will never, in a million years, obtain.  (Aren't and don't we all?)  And I thought if yoga could help me obtain anything like "Gus" Fring's imperturbability, than yoga it was to be. 

I went to Yoga to the People, which was less than a mile from my house.  I had to sit out more than half the poses through the first class.  It was painful to stare at myself in the mirror, surrounded by many fine-tuned male and female bodies.  You're faced with your own body's imperfections, and although the mirrors in yoga studios, like those in dance studios and department stores, are relatively flattering, you still have to overcome your vanity, as you struggle to get into the right position for say an eagle pose, a struggle that exposes flab you didn't know existed.  I slipped on my own sweat and I almost broke my ankle.  Today, when I follow the routine, my heart rate rises and falls as its supposed to.  When I started, it spiked and remained spiked.

When the class was over, I couldn't move for a few minutesand I teared up.  I crawled out of the 105 degree room into the cool lobby.  I couldn't quite make it to the bathroom to fill up my water bottle and I would just grab a two-dollar 1.5 liter bottle from the fridge next to the door.  Those two dollars were worth avoiding the work of a 30 second walk.  Throughout those first three months, I could feel my heart beat almost all day long.  I would hear it before I went to sleep at night.  

I've learned that good yogis have similar philosophies to good writers.  No one is really "good" at yoga.  At best, you just get better, a little closer to perfection, but you're never perfect.  My practice has never been great, and there are some things I'm probably worse at now than I was just one year ago.  I could tell you all the great things that it has done for me.  It's slightly improved my body and my slouch.  It puts me in a good mood, and on a good day, a euphoric state.  The real pleasure, after three years, is this: There is a great pleasure in doing something, over and over again, on a daily basis, for which you have absolutely no talent, and for which there is no pressure to be better than anyone else.

In yoga, I avoid competition.  I wish I could avoid competition in all elements in my life, but I suppose a capitalist system and our culture's attitudes towards the arts and learning makes competition a depressing fact of my life.  I have enjoyed some fleeting joys when I am better at something than someone else is.  You achieve a much more permanent joy in avoiding any competition at all.  

Friday, October 9, 2015

On Martyrdom

I was a college freshman the first time I went to a gay club.  It was Kurfew, a twink party for the 18+ crowd, which was part of the Tunnel, one of the huge industrial dance parties that are far less common than they were then.  To get there you had to take the 1/9 train down to 28th Street and then walk four long blocks west.  The streets were poorly lit, and mostly empty at that time of night.  It went there on a Saturday night in the dead of a New York winter.  When I was one block away from the club, I found myself behind a group of other gay kids.  As we were walking, a group of 20-somethings headed to what was presumably the majority, straight part of Tunnel came up and walked alongside of us.  One of them said, "Hey, faggot.  I'll kick your ass."  Nothing more than that happened.  They laughed and walked on.  It was one of the very few times I was ever physically threatened by someone for being gay.  The moment passed quickly.  It was over.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, it had been more than that.  Let's say, that jerk decided at that moment to target me, to throw me against the wall, perhaps kill me.  When the police came, that group of gay kids would tell them what happened, would have told them that the very last word I heard in my short life was faggot.

If that had happened, my name might have become famous nation-wide, the new Matthew Sheppard. I would have been a teenage Columbia kid, with a huge future in front of him, killed because all he wanted to do was go to a gay club and find himself.  Everyone in the country would have seen my senior class high school photo next to Peter Jennings.  That I had been the president of my archaeology club in high school, the captain of my quiz bowl team, a huge film buff, a weirdo jokester, a person given to highly inappropriate jokes in the worst situations, a kid with severe mood swings, an engaged student in all my seminar classes, an idiot who got into six car accidents when he was in high school, a Jewish kid who refused to attend a single High Holiday service after my bar mitzvah in Israel, a kid who was beginning to roll his eyes at the Israeli nationalist crowd, a kid who spent one summer volunteering at a local shelter during which he spent most of his time chatting with the homeless and not really helping them, another summer as an intern at a tech company, two summers as a volunteer at the National Zoo where he fucked up over and over again, a kid with zero athletic ability who ran everyday to get through his depression, a kid who wondered the campus at 3 o'clock in the morning when he couldn't sleep and who could never make it on time to his 11 am Literature Humanities class where he was one of a brand new professor's three favorites in the room, a kid who couldn't hold more than one drink on any given night, a kid who didn't like drinking at all, a kid who spent 2 hours on a train out to Jamaica to hear Arthur Miller, V.S. Naipaul and William Styron speak, a kid who spent another two hours on the ferry and train with his brother to see a movie at a mall in Staten Island just because, a kid who could scream with infinite rage at his family but who never did anything of the sort to his friends, a kid who once turned in forty dollars he found on the floor of a middle school and who later pocketed 100 dollars he found lying in the middle of the street, a kid who could take on the most insane and most contradictory political positions at the drop of the hat, a kid who walked out of an anti-death penalty demonstration during his first week of school because he couldn't stand the socialist rantings, a kid who wrote one of his first major college papers on the Incredible Hulk in the nuclear age, a kid whose best friends in high school were casual homophobes would not have existed.  That kid would have been nothing more than a symbol of an ideology, a belief system that stated that to be gay in America was to be a life less valued than others.  One or two of the details of my life would have made it into the obituaries, and I guarantee that one of them would have been about my past as a captain of my high school quiz bowl team, a status that I wasn't actually that proud of.  My less likable traits would have been ignored.  I would have become a martyr, and martyrs can't have faults.  I would have ceased to be human.

I would not have been around to say whether or not I would want such a status.  I would not have been around to say that I questioned the very notion of a hate crime, or that I thought that such a designation in our legal system amounted to punishing thought crime.  I would not have been around to say that my killer may be a more complicated person than a simple-minded bigot, and that although he deserved life in prison, he may also have deserved a better-researched biography on the part of journalists.  The GLAAD folks would have reduced my name to an incantation in a religion I didn't entirely believe in, a name shouted at rallies and whispered thoughtfully in conversations at activist meetings.

Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin were complicated people.  All of them were imperfect, and whatever the ambiguities in their individual cases, none of them deserved to die.  But please forgive me if I hesitate to turn any of them into symbols.  They deserve more than that.  

Thursday, October 8, 2015

On Status

When I was a senior in high school, I was the captain of my It's Academic team, the Washington-area equivalent of Quiz Bowl.  One of my teammates is a world-renowned harpsichordist.  The other is high up in the Obama Administration, helping to direct environmental policy.  I was the president of the archaeology club.  One of the previous members just got a MacArthur.

My classmates in college include an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, a Broadway playwright, another very successful playwright, a world-famous composer who wrote a new opera staged at the Met, the founder of Upworthy, at least five nationally-recognized journalists, a state senator who is now a candidate for the Lieutenant Governor of Washington state, Harry Reid's press secretary, a novelist and short story writer to whom the Paris Review provided a major award, a successful entrepreneur who sells vodka and -- they can't all be so impressive -- Jonah Lehrer.

A student a couple of years below me is an SNL cast member.  They were already famous, but the year below me included Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Stiles and Anna Paquin.  Jake Gyllenhaal, who was a year above me, dropped out.

This does not include the brilliant academics I knew, among them Mellon scholars.  More than a few of them have contracts with OUP and HUP.  You may not recognize their names, but they will probably be in the top ten in their individual fields in 20 years if they aren't already.

Of course, most of the people I knew became lawyers.  At least 75% of them graduated from one of the top five -- Yale, Harvard, Stanford, NYU and Columbia -- or Duke, Penn, Northwestern, or received full scholarships elsewhere.

I also knew a few geniuses who mastered fields I didn't know exist.  I don't need to name them.

I tell myself that there's no binary between success and failure.  I tell myself that all status is bullshit.  Both those things are true.  I tell myself that if I achieved anything like my colleagues achieved I would still be missing something.  True too.  I tell myself to be happy for my old classmates, which I am, because most of them were good people and they were nice to me.  I tell myself that I've amassed an enormous amount of experience in the 13 years since I graduated, with a few highlights along the way that I would tell my grandchildren if I ever were to have grandchildren.

Still, as much as you tell yourself those things, and as much as you know that the real pleasure lies in the process, you really want a gold star.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On Joe Biden

I am not a parent.  I don't expect to ever be one, but I will make one guess about Joe Biden's psychology.  Other than one of his other children or grandchildren, I believe he would give up everything, absolutely everything for one more day with his late son and daughter.  He would give up the vice-presidency, his entire career as a senator, every wonderful meeting with a foreign head of state, his house, his education, his career.  He would give up everything good that he accomplished, every piece of legislation that he believed in.  I believe he would sleep with the devil to be with his son and daughter.  He would outlaw abortion, divorce every gay married couple in America, increase torture, send more American troops into combat and to their deaths, burn church after church, murder the pope if it meant one more day with his son or daughter.

I am not a politician.  I don't expect to ever be one, but I will make another guess about Joe Biden's psychology.  He would take off his clothes and give a blow job to a man in the middle of Times Square to be president.  He would bathe in his own feces to be president.  He would expose every one of his most private thoughts in order to be president.  He would betray everyone of his personal beliefs and betray every one of his constituents to be president.

These two paragraphs do not contradict each other.

Monday, October 5, 2015

On Not Really Liking The Martian

I wasn't that into The Martian, which is another way of saying that I like space movies that emphasize romanticism over the actual science.  I've never been into hard science fiction.  I like the idea of a good science-fiction novel getting the science right as a means of creating a more fully-realized world, in the same way I really like the research Philip Roth puts into glove-making to make American Pastoral work.  I don't like it when interesting facts and well-considered hypotheses become the engine for the story.

I'm missing the point, of course.  Everyone else loves the movie.  They like the lack of Interstellar-level pseudo-intellectualism.  They like its humor.  (I would like its humor too if I thought it was funny.  Disco in space!  Saying the F-word to the whole wide world for even the president to hear! Wow, this guy is no goody-good John Glenn. )  They like the joyful space adventure and the charming personalities.  It entertained me.  I liked it better than I've liked any of the last 7 years' worth of superhero movies, but that's about it.

At one point in the movie Matt Damon declares that he's the best botanist on the planet.  He's alone in this giant wasteland, but the movie never makes him feel alone.  He finds a means of communicating with Earth, and the sense of isolation which drives most people literally insane only seems to energize and excite him.  And this is how the movie started to make sense to me.  Here is the man alone against an astonishing landscape, a landscape he doesn't pay attention to, and all he wants to do is stare at seeds, to make potatoes grow.  He seems detached from the starvation he suffers.  It's just another problem that needs to be solved.  Of course, he wants to survive, but he's less interested in the goal of survival then he seems to be in the process of making it happen, in sciencing the shit out of Mars.   He doesn't come face-to-face with the Lord.  He doesn't come face-to-face with the Devil or himself.  He comes face-to-face with just a few creative ideas to make Mars work for humans.

So many of the early astronauts became alcoholics or born-again Christians.  They had seen too much.  Neil Armstrong was an exception.  Like Damon in the film, he became a scientist and a humble teacher. He was the first man in the moon and he didn't have anything interesting to say about, at least nothing that would be interesting to a science illiterate.  Like Damon, he didn't linger on the landscapes or the grandeur of space.  This would have been his kind of movie.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

On Hillary Clinton and the Gays

Gay marriage was never a primary issue for me.  I always believed in it, but I bristled whenever anyone described it as the "civil rights issue of our time."  I did march for it once or twice.  I signed the petitions. But in the era of Guantanamo and the drug war, that claim struck me as short-sighted and a little lazy.  Yes, I know you could care about gay marriage and Guantanamo.  I just didn't like the myopia of so many of the gay rights activists I knew.  This isn't so much a reasoned response.  Just an emotional one.  Take it as you will.  

About ten years ago, though, I did develop a working theory on how to judge politicians.  Their position on gay marriage, circa 2005, seemed to be an indicator of character, an indicator that they might support many of the policies I support.  I think a lot of voters pick candidates based on one or two issues.  In my theory, a John Lewis, who categorically supported same-sex marriage, was absolutely the kind of civil rights, human rights, economic rights guy I would want in office.  John Edwards's obnoxiousness towards a young lesbian couple at a campaign event was evidence of smarminess (I WAS RIGHT!).  Bill and Hillary's history of cowardice and triangulation on the subject paralleled their middle-of-the-road policies that led to all the New Democrat policies that led me to vote for Nader in 2000.  

There were limitations to this theory.  The late Paul Wellstone opposed same-sex marriage.  An old-school business guy like William Weld supported it.  Dick Cheney, circa 2000, was to the left on the issue compared to Bill Clinton.  Still, you get the idea.

The latest email controversy suggests that Hillary holds LGBT voters in contempt.  She was furious with a State Department directive that decided to replace the terms "father" and "mother" on passports with "parent 1" and "parent 2".  I may have opposed the policy too, but I, like most of my generation, gay and straight, would probably not have couched my argument with the claim that I "could live" with the existence of non-traditional families.  I don't blame her for wanting to avoid a Fox News/Palin freakout, which was another of her concerns.  We all choose our battles.  I do blame her for angrily demanding that the default mode for families should remain based on "father" and "mother".        

In the end you're really just voting for the presidency.  If she gets the nomination - and I do think she will - I will vote for her.  She picks the next two Supreme Court justices. Still, this email is just one more piece of evidence that the woman I will be voting for in the general election cares more about her career than she does about her constituents.  It's proof that she lacks a moral imagination, the ability to understand that people with a different life experience may be hurt by just a small detail on a government-issued document.

Hillary compared herself to Lyndon Johnson during the 2008 campaign.  She's being a little too kind to herself.  Johnson was a bigot who wanted to help people.  When he said, "Let the niggers vote," he meant every single word.

Monday, September 28, 2015

On Danny Pintauro's Face

I must have been three years old.  I was sitting on the children’s seat in the back of the car.  The interior was dirty and an ugly tan.  I stared at the floor in front of me and studied the shadow underneath the front seat.  I turned my head and looked at the overgrown bush growing over the brick fence.  The radio was playing “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”  The car was parked in our driveway. 

I’m in a café.  I’m 34 years old.  The café is playing eighties pop tunes and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” comes on.  The song is evacuated of all its intended meaning.  It does not mean heartbreak.  It means ugly, dirty tan car interior, green shrub, red brick.  It means tan, green and red. 

This is a universal experience, I’m sure.  The culture of the first few years after one is born connect with the primal state of any toddler, whose brain is developing at a rapid rate, whose perception of the world is still wrapped in synaesthesia.  A man born in 1961 may have a similar reaction to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”  A child today, poor soul, may one day have a similar reaction to Taylor Swift. 

This effect slowly dissipates throughout your childhood and probably disappears around the time of puberty.  My mother’s boyfriend was a Dylan fan.  I remember hearing Bringing It All Back Home on a cassette tape during a trip when I was nine years old.  When I got the album on CD when I was 16, the lyrics had a political meaning, but hidden within the sounds of those words and of Dylan’s voice then and to this day, was the cramped backseat of my mother’s boyfriend’s black Porsche.      

It takes awhile for visual and aural sensations to carry political meanings.  I don’t know when a child breaks out of the pre-political state.  Is it when he first recognizes an injustice in his own life, the first time he declares something “unfair” for himself?  Is it the first time he declares something “unfair” for someone else?  Who knows.  A good part of my childhood was spent at a computer and in front of the television, reading comics, reading Shel Silverstein.  I didn’t listen to much music at all during this time, other than Billy Joel, and the soundtracks to musicals. 

The visual sensations on television ran together.  In Media Studies, we have described the “flow” of television programming of this period, by which any number of sounds and visual sensations of various sitcoms, commercials, sportscasts and news shows flow into each other into a singular almost infinite entity that the viewer dips in and dips out of.  After awhile, it’s hard to distinguish between the various sensations.  It may be even harder for children.

So in the late eighties there was “Who’s the Boss?”, which I didn’t watch very much at all, but did feature a young blonde boy named Danny Pintauro.  I don’t remember a single line he spoke.  All I remember is the visual impression of his stature, standing behind a living room couch staring at a tall likable man played by Tony Danza.  I also remember any number of AIDS PSAs from this time, which seemed to show up periodically in commercials.  I remember sitting with my mother and brother at age 7 and watching the 1988 presidential debate in which George Bush said AIDS was related to behavior.  It all flowed together.  There were inputs from the ages of 5-10 that meant something to me close to their original meanings: G.I. Joe, Little Shop of Horrors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Princess Bride, He-Man and The Legends of Zelda. Pintauro, “AIDS”, George Bush and Alaska oil spill did not.

In the late ’90s, Danny Pintauro came out as gay.  This meant something in as much that an image of a young man, who was only slightly older than me, from a distant recess of my youth was admitting to a sexual desire I was just beginning to accept for myself.  I thought he was very good-looking. 

This weekend, Danny Pintauro admitted to having HIV for at least 12 years and to his struggles with meth addiction.  He’s older and he’s less pretty, and his face seems to contain the ravages of either the side effects of HIV medication or meth addiction, or both.  Of course, those markers could just as easily be the natural markers of aging.  In his confession, he uses the political language I have been hearing since my teenage years.  He wishes to be a beacon of light for the gay community.  He talks about how gay people’s desires for acceptance eclipsed gay people’s realization that they need to take care of one another.  Danny Pintauro’s aging face and his words now have distinct political valences. 

I wish him well, of course.  I’d be a monster not to.  But when I watch and listen to him now, my primary thoughts are not of his well-being.  His voice, his body and his words break down and remind me of a primal state before Danny Pintauro’s face had been cursed with any political meaning.