Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lebowitz, de Rossi, and Wright

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

My Heroes & Sex Objects Lately

This morning, I woke up, feeling stirred by all three of these women, Portia de Rossi, Fran Lebowitz and Chely Wright -- moved, aroused, compassionate, reverent, coveting them and their talent. I find it much easier to write here on Jewish themes than on lesbian themes. Jewish themes, for me, are connected to my upbringing and family of origin and a well-established, relatively famous culture.

Lesbian themes often are connected to my desires and typically, feel too hot to touch publicly. Non-queer friends could argue, so are themes on sexuality of any sort. And that's true. That is, who am I to write about desire beyond a private journal? The facile, political response is that I want visibility for lesbians; I want us to have a voice, to have our humanity acknowledged -- I want people to understand that typically, lesbian identity includes a sexual component; we spend so much time, trying to get people to stop fixating only on the sexual aspect of homosexuality that I fear we silence it and ourselves. We want the "right" sort of positive attention.

The fully genuine answer is hinted at in a blog-entry from two years ago. I want to be as honest in my writing as Fran Lebowitz, Portia de Rossi and Chely Wright are in theirs. All of these women are intensely sexy to me because they are gifted artistically and vulnerable in their art, enabling me to relate to them; they are also visually appealing in very different ways. Fran Lebowitz is magnetic sartorially; Portia de Rossi has a gorgeous, warm smile and Chely Wright, a beautiful, soulful face.

Last night, my partner Pat and I watched "Public Speaking," the documentary on Fran Lebowitz. As much as I'm in awe of her wit, I don't want to take the advice of a writer who has said she suffers from "writer's blockade," when she says that not everyone should write -- that culture should not be a democracy, but rather, there's, "...a natural aristocracy of talent."

By contrast, a friend who's been published by "The New Yorker," once told me that she thinks everyone should be encouraged to write because really, what's the harm in it? They're not hurting anyone, sitting alone and writing. In that spirit, I maintain this blog.

Also, late last night, I finished reading Portia de Rossi's memoir. I had never seen her act till looking her up on YouTube this morning. She's good.

Likewise, I had never seen Chely Wright sing till her memoir and she came out. I've always favored R&B music, but I liked the songs I saw on YouTube and became a total fan while reading her story.

How I relate to each of these women:

Fran Lebowitz -- We're Jewish; took longer than we might have to become openly lesbian; felt out of place in formal school environments when we were young -- and she did permanently; grew up in the Tri-State (NY, NJ, CT) area; suffer on and off from writer's block; enjoy well-made clothes; are talkative; have no children.

Portia de Rossi -- We're tall (I'm 5'9.5" and she's 5'8"); she lost her father when she was young (younger than I; she was nine and I was 17); growing up, had romantic crushes on some of our best female friends; for comfort, turned to excess food -- in my case, from childhood through my 20s, though never was bulimic, since my metabolism still was so fast, didn't need to purge to ward off obesity; heard, and sometimes still hear, negative voices in my head about my appearance, even though objectively, I'm attractive -- in my case, I heard self-criticism on the size of my breasts and my androgyny; found love unexpectedly with a funny, kind woman who loves animals; have no children.

Chely Wright -- We're lesbians who realized our attraction to girls at a young age, she at nine, according to her memoir, and I at 11; we've felt we had to exile ourselves from our hometown and home region for a period, living in regions that were totally remote from our experience; growing up, she did not know from NYC and I had not been west of Pennsylvania till college; have no children.

The magic of writing is that I can say what I would be too shy to say if I were making eye-contact with anyone; that's its chief appeal to me. These women are heroes because I need heroes. I tend to stand up visibly as my lesbian self in most situations, hoping I'm helping someone somewhere by my openness, and it's comforting to see other women who are willing, also, to be visible. Their visibility as much as their talent and looks makes them desirable to me.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Shakespeare, the Torah & Therapeutic Avatars

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Even I Don't Know Where This is Going

I just know that beginning last Saturday, I thought of the first two, established powerhouses, and two days ago, "The Science Times" reminded me of the potentially therapeutic power of virtual-world-based avatars. Maybe I'll make a connection among the three before this blog-entry is done. Suddenly, I have an image of the avatar versions of Shakespeare, Juliet and Joseph & his dreamcoat....

Last Saturday night, Dr. Eleanor Ehrenkranz got me thinking about shared themes in the Torah and Shakespeare's plays. Dr. Ehrenkranz was a featured teacher at a lecture series, which my mom invited my sisters and our families to attend with her on her birthday. The series had many lecture-topics to choose from, including, "E.T. Torah: What Does Judaism Say about Life on Other Planets? Do We Care?" but we could participate only in two of them, since they were concurrent, so we went to the ones my mom attended, namely the one on Shakespeare and a second one, "500 Years of Hiding: The Lives of the Secret Jews" by Dr. Andrée Aelion Brooks.

During Dr. Ehrenkranz's interactive lecture, if I remember correctly, she spoke of envy/jealousy as the world's most destructive emotion. Earlier in my M.A. pursuit, I blogged about envy, essentially agreeing with Dr. Ehrenkranz, especially in the written-comments-exchange I had with my classmate Zdravko, the object of my envy, following the blog-entry.

The morning after the lecture -- I got home after midnight -- I heard from my partner Pat, who had to miss the whole day, since she lay in bed with a crippling cold; she said, "Envy might be the most destructive outward emotion, but shame is the most destructive inward one." In other words, envy is the most destructive, and shame, the most self-destructive.

Here's where therapeutic avatars might come in:

If, for example, I could go through 3D simulations, where I could experience vivid envy or shame in the safety of a therapist's office while interacting with some 3D automated character, maybe I could experience less of both emotions in the real-world, or be better equipped to handle those emotions.

Here's another possibility that seems more remote at this stage, but I'm prompted to explore it due to a hallway conversation I had with one of the people I met at the lecture series: trying out being an adoptive parent by caring for an adopted baby automated character. Talking with Pat at breakfast this morning in Green Bay, where we have visited her family every Thanksgiving for the past 19 years, I mentioned the idea of a parenting simulation, saying, "If people got to try it out ahead of time, nobody would have children."

"I think some people would like it; some people really want to have babies, whether adopted or organically," Pat answered.

Just when I am feeling some peace around our having chosen not to adopt, since I was unable to conceive by natural means after 18 months of trying, and since Pat, being 15 years older than I was too old to conceive a child by the time we agreed to try to have children, I have the following exchange and get a bit stirred up again:

I'm talking to a new acquaintance about how our 17-year-old nephew enjoyed the lecture on Shakespeare and the Torah and about how one of our 12-year-old nephews enjoyed learning to bake challah in one of the sessions.

"What about your family?" she asks.

"Oh, I don't have any children. My partner is female and I tried for awhile [via anonymous donor], but it didn't work and we didn't want to adopt. I wanted a 'little me.'"

"[Can't recall precisely what she said to encourage me to re-consider adopting, but then simply,] You're a beautiful woman," she said as she turned and walked away and I touched her shoulder gratefully as she departed.

Here's where Shakespeare and shame and envy and the Torah come back in:

I'm left, standing there, feeling positively recognized among this huge sample of humanity -- the whole parking lot was packed for this event -- while also wondering later, the usual chip on my shoulder returning, Did she mean, "You're a beautiful woman; it's a shame you are a lesbian and didn't have children?" or am I projecting? And I'm also standing there, feeling envious of my mother and of her, for having daughters to kvell over while I simply have nephews and a niece for whom I can take nearly zero credit.

Oh, well, it's time for the dessert reception, following the lectures. I enter the busy room and see one of our 12-year-old nephews, Sam, sitting at the "Young Jewish Professionals" table with his plate piled high with cheesecake and cookies. He is a skateboarder and drummer, and likely will burn off the calories of this plateful soon enough -- not that that's on his mind as a 12-year-old boy.

"Are you a young, Jewish professional?" I ask, crouching by his chair, not wanting to take another seat from the earnest, mostly appealing people seated across from us.

"I did a rap at my concert," he answers.

"Oh, great. I thought you were just playing the drums. Take me over to a corner of this room and do it for me."

Sam gets up instantly, abandoning the heaping plateful, and leads me to the quietest pocket of the room he can find. He begins. It's an onslaught of crazy-rhyming and I'm impressed at his memory-retention.

Kids used to memorize Shakespeare and recite patches of his plays; in fact, my mom's dad, who did not get to go to school beyond the 6th grade (a year behind the grade Sam and his twin-brother Max are in now) had sent my mom and her sister to Shakespeare lessons when they were girls.

Who knows? Maybe I'll be like Sarah in the Torah and have a child years from now. I wonder what kids will be reciting by then.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Passing the Parade By

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Why the Crowds Didn't Love a "Parade"

Yesterday, Pat and I saw the astonishingly moving James Earl Jones in "Driving Miss Daisy." Who doesn't love a play that exposes stereotypes, letting the audience laugh along while seducing it into seeing how wrong they are? Who doesn't love a late-in-life, unlikely, beautiful friendship? According to the article linked to from Alfred Uhry's name below, Miss Daisy and the driver were inspired by Uhry's grandmother and her driver.

While raking leaves this morning, I told Pat that I thought Alfred Uhry's masterpiece so far was "Parade," which closed quickly, even though it won six Drama Desk Awards and two Tony Awards.

It demanded so much more from its audience than "Driving Miss Daisy." Based on the true story of the lynching of Leo Frank, it demo'ed a hierarchy of prejudices, at least regarding this particular case: In 1914 -- less than 50 years after the end of the Civil War -- apparently, it was worse to be a Northern Jew than a Southern, Black ex-convict.

Among the reasons to love Uhry is his fairness in parallel with his artistry: In "Driving Miss Daisy," Uhry doesn't let Daisy get away with kvetching about her childhood poverty to her driver and friend Hoke, who is Black. More than once, he reminds her, "But you doin' all right now," [compared with his family, all of whom grew up poor and could not rise in society due to their skin-color]. Likewise, in "Parade," Uhry has a number of the Black cast-members wonder aloud if there would have been so much visibility for the Leo Frank case if it had "just" been another Black man lynched, rather than a White man.

Turns out that Alfred Uhry's great-uncle owned the pencil factory that Leo Frank ran. And Uhry's grandmother was friends with the Frank family.

In both plays, Uhry, who is Jewish and who grew up in the South, does something else interesting: He has Northern and Southern Jews, expressing their alienation from one another; in "Driving Miss Daisy," in the '60s, Daisy's son's competition is a printing company run by "...a New York Jew." The son is concerned that clients could view his competitor as smarter than he, since "New York Jews" are smarter than Southern Jews, he says.

In "Parade," Uhry has Leo Frank, a New York Jew, expressing his culture shock at being in Atlanta, "How Can I Call This Home?" He sings that he's realized there's more to being Southern than simply living in the South. All of this just reminds me that there is no monolithic American, or Jewish-American culture...and I recall while living in India in 2007, being told that Northern Indians are different from Southern Indians. There are endless nuances and stark contrasts within cultures.

Culture, Friendship and Congregations Prevail

This weekend, I'm also reminded of the imminent opening of the new National Museum of American Jewish History, which I hope includes references to Uhry's plays. And I'm reminded of my Southern, Jewish friend, Robert Kingoff (z"l).

Robert and his family hailed from Wilmington, North Carolina and as I've written here before, the first and last time I had fried chicken for Shabbat dinner was at Robert's parents' house; chicken is a traditional entree in Jewish homes on Friday night, but frying it seemed to be a Southern touch. I miss Robert, who taught me about Southern, Gay, Jewish culture; he was taken by AIDS at 28, back when so many dear men were. I lost Robert, yet he remains with me.

More than two decades ago, on Robert's 25th birthday, he took us to see a favorite pop star, Grace Jones. I can't recall if she sang "La Vie En Rose", but life was rosy whenever Robert was around. He made me laugh and feel so much lighter during my early-20s, when I was sure of so little.

We weren't Miss Daisy and Hoke, but still, we were also perfect if unlikely friends brought together by necessary circumstances, i.e., both of us needed a way to celebrate Shabbat, where we felt most at home, which was at Or Chadash, Chicago's LGBT synagogue (which is also where I later met my beloved, Pat). Robert was in Chicago for law school and I was there because I wasn't yet ready to be myself in all my humanity back in metro-New York, where I had grown up.

We became family for each other, Robert and I -- a Southern, Gay Jew, and a Northern, Jewish lesbian -- super-tight and unexpected.

Unlike Miss Daisy's temple, our synagogue was not bombed, though Robert didn't live to hear the news several weeks ago of Or Chadash as a target of an explosive package.

Earlier this weekend, I tweeted, "The unlikely friendship of Miss Daisy & the driver reminds me to be grateful for the likely & surprising friendships I've made so far."

My unlikely Canadian friend and likely colleague Bernie asked in response, "Are you the driver or the passenger?"

"Both," I'd answer, as were they, and as are all friends and family.