Thursday, 27 November 2014

Used to Think...

Hello Friends.

I just saw the BEST movie. A friend and I spent a lovely cheap Tuesday night watching The Theory of Everything. Friends, run, don’t walk to The Theory of Everything. It’s a movie about Stephen Hawking’s life, which sounds like it might be too science-y at best or boring at worst, but it’s neither. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking, is really something. As Hawking’s body degenerates over time, Eddie has less and less to work with in terms of physicality and speech, but the character is so well-rendered, you know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. Anyway, I’m overhyping it surely, but just go watch it because you’ll like it and because what else are you gonna see? Beer Farts? Rage Girl? Dying Tears? Actually, I hear Katherine Heigl gives an amazing performance as Jonah Hill’s mother in Beer Farts.
A lot of things will stick with me about the Hawking movie, but one thing in particular about Hawking’s life and work has burrowed in my brain. Apparently, Hawking spent much of his early work as a Physicist promoting a particular theory about black holes. That theory was the basis of his thesis and his early published work. Later on, however, he determined that his black hole theory was probably wrong and set about disproving it. Think about that. Arguably the most intelligent man of our time looks at his own work and says, “Oh, that’s probably wrong. I was wrong. I should try to fix that.” Amazing! I wish more important people looked back on their actions and said, “I was wrong, let’s fix it.” What if Prime Ministers and Presidents did that? What if the Pope did that? Maybe we’ll never get Bush to admit the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, maybe Cosby will continue to insist that dozens of women are just making stuff up, but I can change my mind about some stuff. Let’s do it now.

Dream: Admit that some of my past beliefs, ideologies, opinions were wrong, and revise accordingly.

Goal: Achievable. I’m just a guy. Who cares if I used to think one thing and now I think another? But I do think it’s important to question one’s values every so often. I feel so young in so many ways. I can’t possibly know exactly what I believe about the world when I have had (comparatively) so little life experience.
Plan: Think of things I used to think, and think about whether I think that thing anymore.

I used to think night was better than day. I was a night owl for many years. At jobs, I would always take the afternoon/evening shift, so I could sleep in, and the night was mine to do whatever I wanted. Turns out all I wanted to do was eat bad food and otherwise defile myself. It would be a different story were I out on the town every night, trying new bars, going to concerts, socializing and cultivating night-based friendships. But I was on the internet in my jam-jams. Now that I work during the day, guess what I use my nights for? Hours of glorious sleep. I indulge in a different kind of gratification by turning in at 9.30 to wake up at ten after seven. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s more than nine and a half hours of bedtime. I can read for as long as I want. If I fall asleep right away and wake up in the middle of the night, I don’t panic like I used to. If I have a lousy night of sleep, I have the next night to do it over. I do this for all those friends with kids, or spouses that work opposite hours, or have such a full life that this amount of time dedicated to sleep is a ridiculous pipe dream they will never realize.
I used to think cream rises to the top. In creative fields, I had faith that the truly talented would prevail eventually, and everything else would fall away. Then I revised that opinion and believe more strongly that it isn’t about what you know, it’s who you know. Now I think it’s a little of both, or a lot of neither. It’s arbitrary. It’s a crap shoot. I know so many talented performers and writers who might not “break out” in any meaningful way, in spite of being incredibly talented. I also know many people who are so good at the game of networking, or making connections. For a long time, I watched the glad-handers, the ass-kissers, and the people who show up to everything, desperate to sell themselves. But I think that desperation comes across.

I knew a guy who was (and I think still is) the Artistic Director of a prominent theatre company. That is to say, I knew him personally more than professionally, and so didn’t consider myself among the networkers and hangers-on, of which there were dozens. People are overly-friendly with him, and slyly working in references to their own ability and wide open schedules. They might say, “So great to see you!” when they mean, “Give me a job, already!” He sees right through it and, while he is gracious, seems pretty immune to the empty compliments. I think honing your talent is just as important as making the right connections, but I also think some people “make it” and some people don’t thanks solely to dumb luck. And lest you think this is a self-pitying diatribe, I make a living writing copy, which is not creative, but I still consider myself among the dumb lucky ones.
I used to think whether or not you were gay was nobody’s business. Now, with important caveats, I think keeping yourself closeted for the sake of “privacy” is a dumb cop out. Obviously, there are exceptions here. If you are young, still figuring life out, and you stand to get the shit kicked out of you, stay in that closet until you can safely get out of there. If you are dependent upon parents who are assholes and will disown you, cut you off financially, etc., then of course don’t come out. If you live in a part of the world where identifying as gay puts you in legitimate danger, stay in the closet with my deepest sympathies and open invitation to Canada. If, however, you are an adult, if you support yourself, and especially if you have some poor secret same sex lover, lurking in the shadows, available for trysts, but not invited to the work Christmas party, then come the fuck out. The water’s fine. I regret waiting as long as I did to come out, as I experienced no fallout, but I also wanted to get out of high school first. I went to a great high school with great friends, and probably would have been fine there, too, but it can be a rough road for any teenager. I knew, on the cusp of adulthood, that I had no reason to hide, and no excuse.

There are still people who will say, “But it’s nobody’s business who I sleep with!” I completely agree. But there’s a big difference between saying, “I have a boyfriend named Greg and this is his home address and we have sex on Tuesdays and Fridays” and telling someone that you identify as gay. Consider, for instance, a person of ambiguous ethnic origin who is learning English as a second language. Maybe they are Japanese or maybe they are Korean, but it’s hard to tell. Another person might ask them, “Are you from Korea?” Maybe that’s a little forward, but it’s not an invasion of their privacy. The person would likely respond, “Yes I am” or “No I’m not”, and that would be that. It would be rude to say to that person, “What are your parents’ names? What do they do? Where do they live?”

Maybe I’m getting too activist-y, but I don’t think telling someone you’re gay is personal; I think it’s political. It helps out. The more straight people know gay people who are cabinet ministers, construction workers, Moms, Dads, colleagues, best pals, and douchebags, the more we’re just part of the world. That’s why I always wake up mad at Kevin Spacey, who plays the “Nobody’s business” game. Or Queen Latifah who “won’t discuss it.” Why not? You’re rich and famous, but made terribly insecure by this part of you that’s supposedly “nobody’s business”? The famous person who made me the angriest was Sean Hayes, who played the flamboyant Jack on Will & Grace. That was the most progressive show on television at the time, he was obviously gay, if not as stereotypical as the character he portrayed and he “refused to discuss it” until finally coming out for The Advocate several years after the show had been off the air. What does that do to the gay kids watching your show, buddy? Man up. And actually, the reason I’m mad at Queen Latifah was that her show was playing in the dentist’s office the other day, and she was taking a picture of her audience with her phone to put on Twitter. She said, “That’s not a selfie! That’s a somebody-elsie! We invented something new, y’all! A somebody-elsie!” The audience laughed and clapped while I seethed. YOU DIDN’T INVENT ANYTHING! A SOMEBODY-ELSIE?! YOU JUST TOOK A FUCKING PICTURE! YOU’RE SO STUPID!

I used to think the world was a magical, wonderful place. I don’t mean that it’s not from a poor me, doom and gloom perspective, because I have been a lucky person for whom the world has been a magical, wonderful place. Everything has been sunshine and lollipops for me because, as a white male, I was born on the sunny side of a lollipop field. Loathe as we are to admit it, much in our lives are dictated by privilege and circumstances, not our positive attitudes. I’m not explain myself well. David Rakoff said, and I’m paraphrasing, that you can believe in all the positive thinking that you want. You can have the sunniest attitude, and a “relationship with the universe”, and the belief that, by putting positive vibes out into the universe, positive vibes will be returned to you. But, Rakoff continued, if you’re a labourer in Bangladesh making 10 cents an hour at a fucking sneaker factory, you can think all the sunny thoughts you like, you’re still going to wake up tomorrow and have to work at the fucking sneaker factory.

I’m finding it hard to transition out of the “magical, wonderful place” model, especially because, as I say, my streets are paved with gold. I’ve got a job and a nice fella and have never been followed around a store, let’s say, or turned down for a job based on anything other than my qualifications. As a white dude, I’ve never felt vulnerable walking alone at night, or standing alone at a bar. I’ve never turned on the tv and not seen myself reflected back a hundred different ways. I haven’t seen hundreds of young white people go missing or be murdered, and if that happened enough times that it was noticeable as a larger trend, it would be on the front page of every newspaper every goddamn day.

It makes me heartsick when well-intentioned people like me say, “I just prefer to see the good in people.” Someone on my Facebook feed, in response to a Ferguson post said, “This whole situation is so negative! There are so many good things happening in the world, why not focus on that?” When someone says something so inane, what they’re really saying is, “It doesn’t affect me.” War in Iraq? “Doesn’t affect me.” Missing and murdered Aboriginal women? “Doesn’t affect me.” Unarmed black teenager shot dead by a police officer? “Doesn’t affect me.” It should affect you, it does affect you. To pretend otherwise is to be at best, a shitty person, and at worst, culpable in the injustices being committed.

It’s so tempting to deal in absolutes. I always do this, I never do that. I believe in this, but not that. I’m not a religious person, and I used to think that was a trait of religious people—the world is black and white, good and evil, etc. But now I think that’s true of only pious people, and the truly faithful struggle as much as the rest of us do.

In the course of proving and disproving his theories, Stephen Hawking became known as the most brilliant mind of our time. David Rakoff, in spite of his pessimistic nature, wrote some the funniest and most elegant prose I’ve ever read. I still can’t read his last book, published shortly before his death from cancer at 47, because the idea that such a writer has nothing left to be read makes me incredibly sad. The point is, neither man was content to say one thing and leave it there, they were furious and curious. Furious and curious aren’t bad things to be these days. At least that’s what I think.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Break the Internet, Volume One

Hello Friends.

Poor Kim Kardashian’s butt. Can you imagine being such a butt? A butt with so much attention? It must be so weird. I’m sure my butt has only received attention for something negative. I almost never look back there and say, “Good job, butt.”

By now you’ve seen or read about Kim Kardashian’s bare-assed cover of Paper Mag with the headline, “Break the Internet.” The suggesting being, I suppose, that this photo will be downloaded and viewed by so many people as to somehow exhaust the very medium that transmits it. We’ll wake up tomorrow internet-less thanks to this malevolent butt. Would that be so bad?

Dream: Break the internet.

Goal: Unachievable. There’s no way to shut down the non-stop garbage parade on the information superhighway (remember when we called it that?). But maybe if we thought a little more critically about what we are constantly consuming, we wouldn’t have to break the internet in order to get it fixed. This topic is a big one, so I suggest we approach the tear down and rebuild of the internet in stages, and this is my first idea.

Plan: Let’s start by revising the definition of pornography, shall we?

Is this naked photoshoot of Kim Kardashian labelled “Break the Internet” meant to evoke the nude photo hacking that occurred a few weeks ago? Classy move, magazine. Is it a commentary on the event, or just capitalizing on the trend of naked ladies? So much ink has been spilled about this, I know I’m just adding to the noise but beyond the fact that making someone’s private photos readily accessible to a public audience is a violation and a sex crime, I still think it positions a woman’s body as currency in a really gross way. The idea that women with their clothes off will somehow create chaos and corrupt us absolutely is just wrong. Again, I haven’t seen a lot of the photos, but these aren’t women having sex, these are women who are nude. Why does Vanity Fair, in their recent cover story concerning Jennifer Lawrence, print her statement in full about her feelings of violation at the release of those photos, with an accompanying pictorial of her naked in a swimming pool (albeit strategically positioned to cover her nipples)? In other words, Vanity Fair prints that accessing naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence is a violation (which it is), while splashing sexy pics inside their magazine to sell more copies (which they did).

Famously, a member of the United States Supreme Court, when ruling on whether or not a particular film qualified as obscene, couldn’t explain exactly what made something pornography or not said, “When it comes to [porn], I know it when I see it.” Is that true? Do we really know it when we see it anymore? A woman breastfeeding her child is not pornographic, but what if the child hasn’t latched on to the breast, and someone takes a picture of a bare-breasted woman about to but not in the act of feeding her child? Such distinctions are ridiculous, at least to me.

There’s a guy in this town that I fucking hate and I don’t even know his name. This guy, who goes by a ridiculous pseudonym and Twitter handle, is a bigot who couches his vitriol in the guise of right wing ideology. The only reason I know he exists is because his stupid blog is widely read (much more so than this one, I can assure you) and, in his review of a Fringe show called a particular performer, “A flaming Fringe faggot” (referring to the fact that this performer has been in several Fringe shows that are queer-positive, some are drag cabarets, etc.) Somebody got ahold of it, told local media, they ran with the story, there was requisite outrage, blah blah blah. I don’t know why, after reading some article about it, I was compelled to look further (the cyber equivalent of picking a scab), but I went to the writer’s blog and Twitter page. The rest of his Fringe Festival coverage was other play reviews, and then each “day” of the festival featured several pictures of women who were attending. Their heads were cut off in the pictures, so it was just the (fully-clothed) bodies of women walking around the Fringe grounds! This guy takes pictures of women clearly unaware they are being photographed covertly on his phone, then uploads them as “scenery.” As in, “There were many other great sights to see at the Fringe this year, heh heh heh!” followed by pictures of these women! From the “I know it when I see it” file, that’s ABSOLUTELY obscene to me. This disgusting man who doesn’t put his real name on anything is the type of person who the internet ought to break down on.

I guess we’re no closer to breaking the internet. Women’s bodies, the male gaze, and what constitutes pornography can’t be solved in a thinkpiece (even one as scattershot as this one). All I can control is what I watch which, for the moment, won’t be the famous butt that seems to be everywhere. I guess we can’t break something that’s already broken.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Old Yeller...

Hello Friends.

Dr. Jon teaches a class on Thursday nights, so I usually use those nights to cook the dinners only I like and watch the shows Jon has no interest in. I’m embarrassed to report that those shows include a program I will call by its Spanish name, Escandalo!

Escandalo! is a soapy, melodramatic program that centres around Kerry Washington and her impossible cheekbones, and together they fix what’s wrong in Washington (the place), and the presidency. Kerry is having an affair with the President (Escandalo!), but has also uncovered a secret government organization that exists beyond the powers of the White House (Escandalo!) and she’s having another affair with the interim leader of that organization (Escandalo!) who holds the position previously held by Kerry Washington’s father (Muey Escandalo!). While the show purports to be about corruption and intrigue in the highest office in the land, it’s basically House of Cards for stupid people. In spite of myself, I am hooked.

One thing the show likes to do (with the subtlety of a freight train, btw) is examine the effects of power. Who has it, who wants it, what will they do to get it and keep it, etc. Kerry Washington is especially good at playing this dynamic as every subtle shift reads on her stunningly beautiful face. She’s a great actress, but lately her job has been to simply react to horrifying things, and you couldn’t find a better canvas. But I digress. Because it’s all about power, and because the show is a little ham-fisted in delivering emotional punches, everyone on Escandalo! is always yelling at each other. As much as I enjoy the escapism of a night time soap, I couldn’t last in that world for two seconds because I can’t handle being yelled at.

Dream: Handle being yelled at.

Goal: Achievable. When I say, “Being yelled at”, I’m defining things very loosely. I don’t mean someone screaming obscenities in my face, which nobody should put up with, I mean when someone belittles me, or chastises me like a child for some perceived transgression. I don’t understand this practice at all.

When I was a child, I stupidly thought that kids yell at each other, sometimes grown-ups yelled at kids, but grown-ups don’t yell at each other (and yes, that naiveté is the incredible privilege of growing up in the stable, happy home that 1/10 of 1 percent of all kids get, my brother and me among them). Consequently, as an adult, I don’t know how to respond when someone starts yelling. My stomach churns, my heart drops, and I am immediately cowed and subservient, even when I know that I’m not in the wrong and have nothing to be chastened for.

Plan: Shake it off.

How does Taylor Swift do it? With all the haters, and the fakers, and the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world?

Sometimes I wonder if I have one of those easy-to-yell-at faces. Like a droopy, “duh-duh” face. During one job I held, I caught my reflection in a window once after I was yelled at from a supervisor who had actually gathered other coworkers around for some kind of public shaming. My posture was defensive, my hands were shaking, and I had the stupidest look my face.

There was a director I have worked with who is notorious for his verbal tear-downs. Years of doing it had given him a lot of practice and he could, without warning, really decimate someone he was displeased with. People will always work with him, though, and I’m certain his tenure as a great director will continue because he gets great results. Loathe as I am to admit it, he knows that intimidation works. After a particularly blistering rebuke of someone on a rehearsal day, he sputtered, “I care about putting on a good show. I don’t care about everyone having a good time” or something to that effect. What bothers me is that both things are possible.

I can think of bosses, supervisors, directors, teachers, and other people of authority who get stuff done willingly by a happy crew. I have stayed in lousy jobs and worked really hard to please people like that. I might put forth extra effort into something if I don’t want to get yelled at, but I’m going to give my truly greatest effort when I’m helping someone that I respect. If you want to find stressed out people, go to a retail store or a restaurant. If you want to find calm people deftly handling stressful situations, go to the some of the stores where I have worked. I’ve seen managers on the floor all day getting shit from customers, then get a call from some head office and get shit from corporate when the day is done, and those managers then take their shit out on nobody. People don’t get yelled at, people get treated with respect, and the work gets done.

There are always going to be people that behave badly, who believe that threats of catastrophe is greater motivation than positive feedback. There’s no point in trying to change people who exhibit that behavior because often it gets results from chumps like me. But chumps like me can change how we respond to bad behavior, even if it means faking the shake off until we can successfully make the shake off.

Dr. Jon never yells at me, nor do my work colleagues, nor friends, nor family, and I don’t yell at anyone myself (at least I don’t think I do). Still, I think it’s important to remind myself that yelling itself is inevitable, but valueless. The more import I give to this lousy method of communication, the more likely I am to internalize it the next time someone yells at me. If yelling at James gets results, James better stop producing results to reinforce the behavior. It is then that I am the worst version of myself and likely to treat someone badly in turn, and that would be truly scandalous.