What Difference Does it Make?

p213624_2aMy lifelong habit of reading the news every morning, especially the political news, has become a real issue for me. What are you supposed to do when every single day brings multiple stories that shock, depress or terrify you? I used to find some distraction in the entertainment news… but now that Hollywood has started exposing and confronting its bullies and predators (e.g. all the executives and half the actors), that’s out too. These days I look at the news the way you might check out a terrible breakfast buffet: lift the cover, shudder and put it back quick, move down the line, and finally give up. I’ll just have coffee, thanks.

In calmer and more reflective moments, I think maybe we need this, that it’s a necessary purging. The shock of 2016 was realizing how wide and deep the racism and sexism run in our society, the horror of discovering that your benign-looking neighbors and friends might be raging bigots, anti-Semites, homophobes or god knows what. Probably everybody who wasn’t a straight white dude had already figured this out, but I hadn’t. Now in 2017 it’s been like we’re turning over all the rocks and the vermin have been slithering out into plain sight. Nazis? What the fuck? I didn’t plan on dealing with Nazis as I entered my so-called golden years.

And really, what is up with all the hate? Well you know what’s up with it, because you feel it yourself. Your own tendency to notice differences, and to use them to make yourself feel better. To judge people, as a handy way to stop having to think about them, consider their perspectives, and accommodate them a little bit. Put them in a box, and you’re not only done with them but you get to feel superior at the same time. At least I’m not a [fill in the blank]. We all do it, and what’s really crazy is that women can be sexists, gays can be homophobes, people of color can be the worst racists of all.

Think of the bitchy, snarky, nasty comments you hear when anybody is trying to climb out of the box they’ve been put in. Oh, look at her. Who does she think she is? The friendly fire from your own tribe is the most painful of all, because it’s a reflection of your own self doubt and self loathing. Right, who am I to think I could get that job, or go to college, or cross a gender line, or just stand up proudly in public with my real face showing? I’ll just crawl back to safety and join the others taking shots at the people in the arena who are sweating and bleeding and potentially looking vulnerable.

Indeed, that’s what you see in the Comments section of virtually any article foolish enough to allow comments. The sniping, the tearing down, the trash talk. It’s the absolute worst of human nature. It’s also embodied by our current *president, who is a walking talking Comments section. In fact if a Comments section had a face, it would have that face: fat, pasty, perpetually scowling, and slathered in poorly applied bronzer. And again, once you could just ignore the comments, but what do you do when the Comments section has a megaphone and the power of the state behind it?

You “Be the Change,” that’s what. I am noticing some things about my own reactions this past year. On the one hand, I’m listening more. I find myself stopping and considering other points of view that I might have steamrolled past. I’m letting other people have their say, and trying to understand. I’m trying to see where I might be asserting privilege, at least unearned privilege. And sometimes I step back. But on the other hand, I have some earned privilege, and I’m getting very comfortable with that. I’ve been speaking up more: confronting bullying, openly promoting what I believe, being an unapologetic voice for my own views. Lately I find myself with zero tolerance for bad behavior. And you don’t have to be a bully in return; sometimes a quiet, assertive change in topic or tone is enough.

I run an arts event in Orlando and for the past couple of years, I’ve been using it with more intention. I’ve put speakers on the stage who strongly advocate for the things I care about: tolerance, equality, justice, conservation, everything that’s under attack at the moment. Sometimes I think, well I have a very tiny voice and what difference does it make? But as my friend Aquanza put it, each of us is an instrument and if we express ourselves in harmony with those around us, the accumulated sound can be very powerful. I felt especially powerless after Pulse last year, when I was 3,000 miles from home and my people were attacked. And I thought over and over, “what can I do?” until I realized: I can do my work. That’s what I can do. And the event we put on a few weeks later was the Anti-Pulse: a bullet of inclusion and pure love to the heart of Orlando.

So yeah, we’re living through an ugly moment. A roiling and tumultuous time, and something tells me there might be worse to come. But hasn’t it always been this way? Hasn’t humanity always been in a battle with itself against its own worst impulses? Haven’t people always had to suffer and sweat and even die to conquer hate and oppression? Is it so bad to be in this fight, especially when you know you’re on the right side of it? I happened on a quote from Franklin Roosevelt yesterday: “Calm seas never made a skilled sailor.” In my best moments over the past couple of years, I haven’t cursed my bad luck at having to live through this shitstorm. I’ve seen the light through the darkness, and to me the light is as simple as this: Just show up. Speak up. And don’t give up.

What Sort of Man Reads Playboy

Back in the late 60s, somebody gave my father a birthday present of a jigsaw puzzle. It was a Playboy centerfold of a playmate wearing nothing but argyle socks, and it was packaged in a little canister that he put up on a shelf above his suits and ties. If you were a boy of that era and you wanted to see a girl with her clothes off, and I’ll confess that I was one of those boys, you had to do things like make sure everybody was gone, take a stepladder into your dad’s closet, and give yourself enough time to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Parts of one, anyway.

You couldn’t just buy your own copy of Playboy (I found out later), because they were sold over at a separate stand that was presided over by a gimlet-eyed old coot who knew exactly what you were up to. You couldn’t even look at the cover, because the stack of copies was behind a wooden plinth with a bunny logo on it. Playboy belonged to Adult World, and it was separated very firmly from Kids’ World. You could peek through the fence sometimes, but it remained remote and tantalizing.

This was the very uptight, knees-together America that Hugh Hefner slowly pried open. Impossible now to recapture the guilty thrill of being a young boy looking at a Playboy centerfold. Not just the photo, but the fact that it was three times the size of the magazine, and if you were actually able to pull it out, you were making a statement. You weren’t just looking at pornography, you were holding a poster of it with both hands. No hiding it. Something about this act of assertion got into your blood, gave you a first taste of what it might be like to be that unimaginable thing: a man.

There’s a moment in the best James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), when George Lazenby is cracking a safe, and in this highly tense moment while he’s waiting for the decoder to finish working, he picks up a Playboy and glances at the centerfold. Just to be cool, you know. Sixties Bond was the Sort of Man Who Read Playboy, and I will risk branding myself as an old coot when I say we lost something when the Bond movies lost their blatant sexism. Yes, women had to endure the Male Gaze, but they were a lot wiser about it than you think. The blatancy of it looks faintly absurd now, but guess what? It was absurd then, too, but people had something back then called a sense of humor. Pussy Galore — that was a joke, son, and everybody was in on it. The joke kind of wore thin by the 70s, and nothing ages worse than a previous generation’s idea of what’s naughty, and of course for me like everyone else, the reality of becoming a man was nothing like the fantasy. Bond cried at the end of OHMSS, cradling the body of the strong, resourceful, beautiful woman he loved. That might have been a clue.

So yeah, we started reading it for the articles. And in fact the articles were often really fine: long, detailed, and informed by the publisher’s intelligence and taste, and Libertarian politics that now look leftist. Slowly and subtly things changed… life became serious and complicated and the forces of Puritanism that Hefner seemed to have vanquished just became meaner, more punitive, and more dangerous. I was reading Playboy on December 8, 1980, in the dim, cavernous basement of the department store where I sort-of worked the night shift. A young man by that point, I was having my own adventures, grimy though they may have been. I was drinking a beer and paging through an epic, exhaustive interview with John Lennon on the occasion of his first album in five years. I was halfway through when my friend Gary called to say Lennon had been shot. There were no cellphones then; he had to call the store and make them find me. The interview went from being a hopeful new beginning to a tragic remembrance right in the course of reading it; that long night of blood and sorrow turned out to be the overture to a decade of ugly new political realities. Culturally, psychologically, energetically, the 60s died that night. How fitting that I had a Playboy in my hands.

The President’s Guide to Being a Man

If you’re paying attention, the President is providing an object lesson in how to be a fine, upstanding, honorable man. Just watch what he does, and do the exact opposite. Call them Trump Tips:

  • Stay informed and be hungry for knowledge.
  • Work hard.
  • Think before you speak. Maybe don’t speak at all.
  • Let your reputation take care of itself.
  • Remember, you get what you give. Bullying and force will come back to bite you.
  • Be mindful about your diet and get regular exercise.
  • Watch very little TV. Never watch Fox News.
  • Value women for more than their ladyparts.
  • Pay your vendors in full, and on time.
  • Make sure people can rely on your word.
  • Cosmetics make you look like a fool.
  • Airing your grievances makes you sound like a fool.
  • Keep business and family separate.
  • If you plan on being successful, learn the difference between a reporter and a PR person.
  • Minimize your time on social media.
  • Never take on any role (father, boss, partner) unless you intend to totally fulfill its obligations.
  • The more bling, the less class.
  • Neither your adoring crowds nor your dick are as big as you wish they were. Deal with it.
  • Don’t be a racist.
  • Money isn’t everything.

 

Life After Irma

Some random thoughts on this first “real” morning for the past week in Central Florida, after Irma came through.

That was a trauma we went through here in the state of Florida. Knowing a huge storm was coming was like being forced to play Russian roulette. Like having a gun pointed at your head for a week. Sunday night, the last news I could get was that it had veered off track and was headed right for us. Then the internet went down. As a matter of fact, it seems to have come right over my house, but thankfully it had weakened enough that it didn’t flatten everything.

There’s a tendency after a traumatic event to push it away, to bury it in being busy (and now there’s a lot more to do, which makes that easier). The thought goes something like this: “well I didn’t die, I’m not even really hurt, so it must have been nothing.” But that’s the brain trying to heal so it can move on. I’m doing the opposite. I’m sitting with it. I’m honoring it by giving it some attention. I’m not denying that I feel roughed up, that my emotions are off-kilter. I’m moving back into my routine slowly and mindfully.

We drove around the immediate ten-mile area yesterday. If there’s such a thing as driving gingerly, that’s what we did. It was a gorgeous afternoon… nothing like a hurricane to make the air sparkle and shine. Storm damage generally got lighter as you traveled to the east. Not much damage in Sanford, the next town over, except for one street where an entire line of big trees was uprooted and lay fallen toward the south, like dominoes. A little micro tornado must have gone up the block. Those are the worst; I hate those little mofos.

This storm showed me that I’ve gotten complacent about the threat of hurricanes. I’m taking them more seriously now. Back when I lived in California I was totally prepared for a major earthquake, so it’s not like I don’t know how to do this. There’s a whole list of precautions and actions you can take. It’s not complicated. But I wasn’t ready for this, and I had to scramble, and it added to a feeling of powerlessness. I had a dream last night in which I was supposed to give a keynote speech at a dinner, and I had forgotten to print out my script and couldn’t access it online; the time of my talk kept coming closer and closer and I felt this dread of letting everyone down who was depending on me, this fear of total unpreparedness. Don’t need Freud to figure that one out.

I’m not specifically worried about the next storm, Jose. Right now that looks like it’s no threat to Florida. I’m not panicking about that one. But I do expect more big hurricanes will be coming through here more often. I’m not leaving Florida, in fact I’m planning to die here—of natural causes—so it’s necessary to start living differently. Be more on guard; have more contingency plans. If a micro tornado hits my house all bets are off, but I should be ready for a big, blustery old storm now and then.

Another random thought: for the past week, the furthest thing from my mind was Donald J. Trump and whether he might squeeze on a pair of jeans and come down to hand me and my neighbors some bottled water. The ins and outs of politics seemed very far away, and my concerns were exclusively local. I’m not reading the news in general. I know what I want to know, which is that the people I care about all came through this intact. The beauty of this post-traumatic moment is that we all know the same thing: with that gun pointed at our heads, we thought only of each other, and wished each other well. Something to ponder as we pick up the pieces.

One Last Roll of the Dice

Working a big conference several years ago, I had the bad luck to stay in Las Vegas for a whole week. When you’re organizing large meetings, you’re the first one up and often you’re downstairs dressed and ready while other people are still asleep. So every morning at The Mirage, I’d leave my room in the tower and take the elevator down to the conference center at 5 a.m. To get there I had to walk through the casino. And it seemed I wasn’t the only one awake after all.

There they were, sitting at the slots or the bar, always with a cigarette burning and a drink next to them, not so much greeting the new day as sucking on the butt end of the night. Hopeless, exhausted, but with just enough energy left to throw away a bit more money in the hope that some magical turn of events would transform the lives they had so far completely fucked up. Hoping just this once to be “winners,” and tragically blind to the fact that this wish was, more than anything, what made them losers. It made me uncomfortable to look at them, frankly, and I hurried past without lingering on their pasty, sick-looking faces.

If you want to experience the very worst of human nature, step inside a casino. No matter how luxurious and elegant the surroundings, you can feel the energy: desperate, powerless, greedy. Deeply depressed. They say depression is anger turned inward, and you can feel the anger too. It’s no wonder that booze and cigarettes and stale food abound in these buildings—if you’re going to destroy yourself, you might as well speed things up as much as possible.

And so it seems to me that of all his sleazy business ventures, Donald Trump’s owning of a casino is the most appropriate of all. Because his promises as a candidate for President are the same as the promises of a casino: magical thinking combined with bad behavior will do wonders for your self-esteem. You’ll feel great about yourself by giving in to the worst in yourself. Through no fault of your own, you’ve been a loser, and here’s your chance to feel like a winner. Just give up all your real power, give up what really matters, and feel the rush as you toss it away!

This is what so many of our fellow Americans have come to. They believed in many things that turned out to be mirages, but mostly in a consumer culture that long ago learned how to push their buttons and promise them fulfillment in a new possession, a new experience, a new President… a new anything. The ego knows nothing but clinging and craving, and if you let it run amok it just strives to pour whatever it can into the gaping empty hole at the center of it.

There’s one thing the ego doesn’t know, can’t know by its very nature. That selfishness leads to self-annihilation. That the only way to get—to really get—is to give. That empathy and love are the only paths to salvation. That making someone else happy, improving someone else’s life, is the fastest way to improve your own. And that defending yourself, putting up a wall around yourself for your own protection, may feel like power but is really the most powerless thing you can do.

The Democratic Party is flawed, like every other human institution, but it has this going for it: it’s full of people who want to help other people have a better life. Often, the ways they go about doing this aren’t all that helpful. Often, they don’t live up to their own ideals. Hillary Clinton, who will almost certainly be their candidate, is a flawed and compromised human being who has made a lot of mistakes in her life—a life that has nonetheless been all about public service. Many people hate her for that, it seems. Or they see her as a phony who is all about personal ambition. Or someone whose presumption to know what is in the public good is deeply arrogant. Some of them, whether they know it or not, whether they are men or not, hate her for being a powerful woman who is completely unapologetic about it.

Many of those same people prefer the Republican party, with its “greed is good” ethos and its survival-of-the-fittest outlook. A party of government that does not believe anything good about government except its ability to recruit and train soldiers, and build weapons. A party that exalts triumph and “winning” above all other values. And large numbers of them prefer the party’s apparent standard-bearer Donald Trump, a man whose life has been about surrounding himself with the appurtenances of success. Fistfuls of money and tall buildings and gold lettering and porn-quality women on his arm. It’s the image of success on a billboard outside a casino, and it wouldn’t be there if it didn’t draw a crowd.

But there are other crowds. Huge numbers of legal and illegal immigrants who had the courage and willpower to leave their homes in search of a better life, and who have found it harvesting your food and cleaning the mess you left in your hotel room. Groups of people gathering in poor neighborhoods doing free repair work on weekends. People in support groups helping each other past their addictions and their trauma and their sheer loneliness. These people could be Republicans or Democrats, because individuals have more savvy and compassion and complexity than large organizations do. There are people of both parties who find themselves repulsed by Trump’s narcissism, his crudity, his lack of ideas, and his bullying that seems to shade more into facism every day. I’m talking about the rest of us, in other words, who haven’t given up hope just yet.

And so for the rest of us, hating on those Trump voters is not going to help us get past this grim national moment we’re having. These are our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors, who feel they’ve come to the butt end of the night and want to throw away civility, compromise, and maybe democracy itself in one last desperate throw of the dice. We have to stop them, of course. But somehow, we also have to help them. Not try to hurry past and ignore them, because they feel they’ve been ignored already and that’s part of the problem. Look them in the eye, talk to them, attempt to understand them, and then point out that there are better ways to “win” than this.

 

 

Bowie’s in Space

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One of the funniest and most lovable tributes in music is the live version of the folk duo Flight of the Conchords singing “Bowie’s in Space,” aka the Bowie Song. There’s some sweet banter at the start that makes clear how much they love the guy, and then they go into the call-and-response song that’s a perfect mimicry of Bowie’s style: the bitten off diction, the severely affected vocals, the allusions to space and drugs and a strangely divided mind. Both Bret and Jemaine are Bowie, one at Mission Control, the other out in space. “This is Bowie to Bowie. Do you hear me out there, man?” “This is Bowie back to Bowie. I read you loud and clear, man.”

I’ve covered this song with my friend Derek and it’s a blast because I get to do my Bowie impression, which I’ve been doing mostly in the privacy of my car or shower for about 30 years now. I always felt a strangely personal relationship with David Bowie, and the outpouring of grief this week makes it clear that a whole lot of other people do too. Suddenly on social media there’s all this Bowie love, from so many different friends, some of them a surprise. The grief is more widespread, and more profound, than I’d have expected. It hit me harder than I expected, too. And I’ve been thinking about the reasons.

Well for one thing, he was so fearless. Looking like he did, David Bowie could have had a career like his one-time bizarro duet partner Bing Crosby… just coasting on looks and voice and a series of identical-sounding hits. Instead he boldly threw away styles and modes and set off in new directions. Sometimes those new directions were actually alienating — I didn’t always have the courage, openness, or patience to follow him. The fine pop culture writer Mark Harris tweeted something very apt: that Bowie was the first artist to make him feel scared.

Of course, he was also cool. Literally cool, with his bone-straight hair, cut-glass cheekbones and wiry frame. He used theatrical devices like makeup and glitter and wildly fashionable clothes, but not the way most people use them, to get some kind of cheap immediate response. He was removed, distant. He didn’t seem to give a fuck what you thought. But then he’d turn and give you a wink or a smile, and it always seemed like it was just for you. He learned a lot from Marlene Dietrich, who used the same aloof kittycat tools of audience seduction.

Like Dietrich, he had a tantalizing androgyny. He flirted openly with gender bending and gayness, and he did it in the early 70s when nobody else dared. Actually very few male performers dare to do it now. There’s Prince, but what’s interesting is that a lot of men casually despise Prince in a way they don’t despise Bowie. Again, he seemed to be dedicatedly following some internal compass, and that sense of personal integrity was so strong that he wasn’t subjected to the usual disrespect that keeps most bisexual men quiet about it.

Beautiful people get a pass, of course, and he knew he was beautiful. But like everything else, he was distant from his own vanity. He threw it away sometimes, with crazy haircuts or masks or disfiguring outfits. In his final, amazing video for “Lazarus,” released last week, he’s lying on a symbolic deathbed, his eyes wrapped in bandages. There are little metal studs where his eyes should be. It’s disturbing, and it’s frustrating, because we want to look at him. He knows it, too. You watch and you know he’s doing it on purpose. He’s teasing, like he always did.

Then you get to see him without the bandages… he looks ravaged but still beautiful. The voice is thinner, and rougher. The song and the video confront his own mortality very directly, but without a trace of self pity. There’s nothing maudlin; he isn’t trying to make you feel anything, or rather he isn’t trying to make you feel anything simple, like sadness. He’s staring at death the way he used to stare into space with his glassy faraway eyes. He’s seeing something the rest of us aren’t. It might be something terrifying, or it might be something wonderful, or it might be both. He’s not afraid. He’s reaching for it.

It takes a true warrior to make dying look cool. Maybe somehow I could be that strong, that honest, that self-assured and brave. I read you loud and clear, man.