Sunday, November 20, 2016

Notes from A Jewish Exploration of LGBT Musicals Part 3

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

Session 3, November 15

Since we continue to meet in the chapel, where congregants' relatives' yahrzeit plates appear on the far wall, my parents (z"l) still are auditing this class, effectively as a pair of brass-plated (dead) flies on the wall (see photo below). My dad's annual yahrzeit lamp was lit this time; it was his 34th yahrzeit on the 11th, so the lamp was staying lit till the following Shabbat:

Exercise: Create a curated exhibit of a day in the past week, or your past week altogether, as represented by three objects that you describe on three index cards and leave somewhere in this room near one another.

My cards, all from one day last week:
  1.  Viva la vida-inscribed, watermelon-slice-shaped-and-colored key-chain from a street artist in Mexico City 
  2. Damascened vessel in silver and bronze, with Arabic inscriptions from Medieval Jerusalem
  3. [A memory of] Size 14 sneakers for skateboarding.
Give everyone a tour of your objects. We walked around on a guided tour of each exhibit and did not necessarily explain the significance of our objects; in my case, I simply described them.

"How does this exercise connect with last week?" asked Jonathan.

"Objects give an entryway into the story," I offered.

"Ok, and objects help us remember. There's something about going around the room to "look" at the objects that helps us recall and remember. It helps us encapsulate emotion. And jump off to go deeper into ... a specific set of events that are embodied by a number of objects."

I loved this exercise and will re-use it somehow. I loved it because it made me feel so invested and engaged in expressing myself creatively, spurred on by what had amounted to the most vivid objects of a particular day.

Video of Alison Bechdel, explaining her artistic process

We watched this video next and I recalled being lucky to go to a live lecture by Alison Bechdel at the LGBT Center in NYC several years ago, where she gave a longer description of her technique. I was amazed by its meticulousness. And then I marveled again at another artist's precise, original method of glass-blowing. I blogged about his demo and lecture and compared it with Bechdel's process a bit. You can see for yourself; just scroll down to the section, "Two Artists, Equally Inspired and Inspirational".

Next, we compared pp. 96-98 of the graphic memoir to the scene/song, "Party Dress".

Both the panels and the scene/song reminded me of a painful memory. My face was so troubled, I imagine, that Jonathan asked if I had something I wanted to say.
This just reminded me of a very painful memory. It was Deena Gans' birthday party and I was 12. [Nearly all of the girls in my class already needed bras, but I didn't yet, at all. I was ashamed that I was still wearing undershirts. I couldn't stand wearing an undershirt any longer, not even under the striped Danskin shirt I put on for the party.]

My mother insisted that I wear an undershirt. "No, I won't," I insisted back.

"Put on an undershirt  n  o  w  !'"

Instead, I ran out of the house and down our long driveway as my mother yelled out the front door at me, "Butch!" I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it wasn't good.

It was fresh, the pain of our exchange of more than 40 years ago. It was another five years before my mom (z"l) was even more consciously vocal about my lesbianism, when by mistake/on purpose, I left a love letter to another girl on the kitchen table. I was a high school senior and just weeks prior, my father (z"l) had died of bile-duct cancer and only my mother (z"l) and I were left in the house, since my sisters were older and had moved out. "Don't you marry some man and ruin his life!" my mother yelled as her initial reaction to the discovery of the letter. She came around to being compassionate and was greatly supportive for most of my life, but those early years were crushing for both of us.

Then we looked at pp. 189-190 and listened to "Clueless in New York". 

I had a couple of memories pop up during the panels and during this scene, too. The panels referred to a trip with Alison's father and her siblings to New York City for the Bicentennial. Along with my mother (z"l), my father (z"l) took my siblings and me to New York during the Bicentennial to see the Tall Ships. Compared to Alison's experience, it was one of the nicest family days we ever had -- we parked with many others in a parking garage near the river and watched from there with tons of humanity pouring out of other parked cars. My mom (z"l) had packed a picnic for us, and we munched our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while leaning against the station wagon and watching the ships glide by.

The scene in the play didn't refer to the Bicentennial, but rather to her father's cagey wish to find some excitement in what was the gay hotspot back then, Greenwich Village. It reminded me of me, 10 years after the Tall Ships trip, when I turned 21. My middle sister and brother-in-law invited me to stay with them in their apartment at the time, in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. To celebrate my coming of age for legal drinking, they gave me a bottle of champagne as a birthday gift. We drank some and then they went to bed. I told them I was going to go for a walk. The difference was that all of us were adults officially, rather than that I was a parent, leaving my kids alone in a huge, strange city, as Alison's father did to her siblings and her.

I left Kayla & Elliot's apartment, hoping for the adventure of seeing real lesbian and gay people, walking around the Village. I scouted for a bit and no one was apparent, not any women in any case, so I decided to do something wild and entered a neighborhood magazine shop to find something racy to read.

The only LGBT-oriented publication for sale was "Gay Community News", a weekly newspaper out of Boston. I didn't peek through it at all. I had the cashier stuff it into a paper bag and walked back to my sister's, where I planned to read it if they were already asleep. They were, and I was excited, till I scanned the headlines. Yawn. It was all straight news ... so to speak. There was nothing pulse-provoking about it. I'm fairly confident that Alison's father found what he was looking for on his Village jaunt compared to my thwarted exploration.

Exercise for Homework: Consider three iconic moments in my whole life that reflect an arc of experience and write/illustrate them; the illustration option is my inference, as the form that Jonathan handed us had three caption fields with space next to each for a drawing. I'll think about it. So far, here are some candidates without doing any refinement, prioritization or arc consideration:
  • Learning to swim / ride a bike / recite the Ma Nishtanah (Four Questions) at the seder / to love rocks and minerals at Dr. Henderson's encouragement
  • Helping complete a minyan by lying by omission at my mother's (z"l) encouragement; they thought I was a bar-mitzvah-aged boy when we were in Mayah Sh'arim, but I was a tall eight-year-old girl
  • My mom (z"l), yelling Butch at me
  • Noticing my physical interest in one of my best friends, rather than in her older brother, at 11
  • My first lesbian experience, in Israel at 15
  • My father dying when I was 17
  • Going to college and exploring my sexuality, including while living in Jerusalem during junior year
  • Getting fired from a job I thought I was too good for in 1990
  • Beginning my relationship with Pat in 1992
  • Starting up the LGBT B2B business development team at my company 
  • Having my Master's sponsored by my company
  • Going with my future wife Pat to India on assignment for my work for six months in 2007
  • Marrying Pat legally in 2011
  • Graduating with a Master's in 2012
  • My mother, dying in 2014 ....
We have just one session more on "Fun Home" and then we switch to "Falsettos" in two Tuesdays, after Thanksgiving.

Here are links to the first and second in my series of notes on this course.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Notes from A Jewish Exploration of LGBT Musicals Part 2

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

Session 2, November 8, 2016, Election Night

Exercise: First, we'll think about the election and then we'll get away from it. Think of the first election you can remember and write about it in present tense:
Sealing envelopes for McGovern mailings in a dark room in his Stamford headquarters. It might have been the first volunteer work I ever did.
How do you begin to fictionalize a true story, asked Jonathan, and how do you create an entryway for the audience?

Exercise: Look at young Alison from "Fun Home". Describe her.

We called out: playful, precocious, inquisitive, tomboy, verbal, aware, observant, older sister, wants her dad's attention.

Now, describe images you remember from the play that are associated with her.

We called out: ring of keys, lace-up boots/short hair, coffin, airplane, barrette, dress, piano with Mom, sketch book, objects of living room, Tall Ships.

These images are more compelling than attributes of the character.

Exercise: Now, choose an age and do the same with yourself; write it down:

Age 11 - flat-chested, tomboy, enthusiastic, vulnerable, observant, aroused, active, loyal, tall, anxious, secretive, suntanned from playing outside.

Images associated with that age: white bikini, sunrise from Jennifer's bedroom, Coppertone lotion, Yes concert T-shirt filled out by Jennifer, beach chairs, terracotta roofed home on the water, the Sound, city bus, white-toweled brother with teeth effervescing from 7-UP.

What was hard about doing that exercise, asked Jonathan? The yearning and the pain from the pleasure that, practically immediately, became a feeling of shame in my case; I recognized, viscerally, that I was attracted to my early-developing, curvy friend and not to her gorgeous older brother.

In groups of three, share what you wrote with one another. And then in plenary, everyone, just share one image from your group of images: bicycle ... seeded jam in a sandwich ... locker room ... white bikini ....

The archival work of your own life maybe requires memoir-ing an image, suggested Jonathan to all of us.

Video clip #1: We watched an interview of the "Fun Home" composer and playwright on how they arrived at an opening number for the play. When the lights went down in the downstairs chapel, where the class was held, the ner tamid (eternal light) and current yahrzeit (death anniversary) memorial lights remained on. Last week, I didn't notice the yahrzeit lights. This year, my dad's (z"l) Hebrew yahrzeit is on November 11th. I hope the light comes on and stays on through our next session next Tuesday.

Video clip #2: We watched the lyrics for the opening number, "It All Comes Back"and I thought about how my older sisters, not my dad (z"l), used to give me our version of "Airplane", which we called g'yupapah. When I was little, I loved for my dad (z"l) to carry me from the back of the station wagon in the garage up to my room; I'd pretend to be asleep, so that he'd carry me.

Written in front of the TV while watching election results:

From the opening song's lyrics:

"My dad [z"l] and I were exactly alike." [Our appetites, our stature ....]
"My dad [z"l] and I were nothing alike." [I eat healthy food. I've been employed by the same company for more than two decades so far.]

The play, "Fun Home", reminded me of my own life, since the main character lost her dad too early and since she was also a tomboy as a kid and an active lesbian by college. At least three of my classmates, one man and two women, are parents themselves, so perhaps they can relate both to the parents and the kid. We have two more sessions on "Fun Home" before we switch to studying "Falsettos".

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Notes from A Jewish Exploration of LGBT Musicals

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

Session 1, November 1st 

Here's the course abstract from the Lehrhaus course catalog:

A Jewish Exploration of LGBT Musicals: FUN HOME & FALSETTOS
Taught by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and CBST Member Jonathan Shmidt Chapman

Explore two iconic musicals currently on Broadway that feature LBGT stories front and center. Through text study, hands-on activities and discussion, participants will actively engage with these two dynamic works of art while making connections to Jewish teaching.
(Note: CBST will organize member trips, featuring talk backs with the creative teams. These trips are not included in the class registration).

Required Reading In Advance: FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel

Here are my notes from the first session: 
  • Four sessions each -- Fun Home & Falsettos
  • Favorite theater experience ever, we were asked, by way of self-intro. Don't over-think it, we were told. Thought first of "The Children's Hour", but Jonathan asked for favorite theater experience, not favorite play. Ok. The original version of "Pippin". First Broadway play was Gigi with my dad, but fave was Pippin at age eight or 10. Best drama experience was "The Beauty Queen of Leenane". Pippin because of the music and lyrics and the drama because it was just crazy -- what an intense mother-daughter relationship. [Now, I'm also thinking of "'night, Mother", another mother-daughter drama.]
  • Asked why we were drawn to the class: "I just need more fun in my life. This sounded like pure fun."
  • We were asked to interview each other in pairs, asking about each other's week so far.
  • Dramatized each other's interview by drawing it. Paralleled what Alison Bechdel did with the graphic memoir of Fun Home. Liked how well I listened. 
  • Rabbi Kleinbaum: "Lisa Kron [the playwright of "Fun Home"] is Jewish and was deeply drawn to Alison's story." She did a one-woman show on her relationship with her father. 
  • My parents (z"l) are taking the class with me; they're up there on the Yahrzeit wall, since we're having this class in the downstairs chapel, davke with Session 1 on the English calendar death anniversary of my dad (z"l), who died 34 years ago today.
  • I also like that even when we turn off the lights to see a clip of the play, the Ner Tamid (eternal light) stays on.
  • Who mesmerized me first? Unlike Alison's version, where she identified with the butch woman, wearing a ring of keys, and felt like she had found her people, but wasn't attracted to her per se, mine was an object of desire -- a dark-tan, bright-blond woman, who was acting in a local, community play, the star of it. I think I was five or six at most.
  • So far during this class, I drew, I wrote, I read dramatically, I interviewed. Loved the experience.
Further jots during my train-ride back from Penn Station to Montclair: 
  • Why do I like graphic novels and memoirs? They are more immersive for me? They give me permission to linger? They forgive my relatively slow reading pace?
  • Election Day, we'll have class. Hope we won't during Thanksgiving Week, since I'll be in Green Bay with Pat & Jim [my brother-in-law].
  • My experience of "Fun Home" also included seeing new friend Lauren & her partner, and her mothers in the audience. Was jealous of Lauren & her partner. [Pat's & my mom were already dead by then.]
  • My mom (z"l) and I went to "The Lion King", but not to "Fun Home". Not sure she'd have loved it, so best we didn't get to go.
  • My mom (z"l) and dad (z"l) and me.
  • My mom (z"l) always had my hair cut short and let me wear all sorts of clothes. My dad (z"l) let us dress up as Uncle Sam. 
  • When I asked my mom (z"l) for clues about me, all she could say was that it seemed strange to her during our first trip to Israel, when I was eight, that when she let me pick out a commemorative Israeli doll as a memento and I chose a male Chassid, rather than a female doll.
  • I said simply that I liked his shoes and shtreimel [faux-fur-rimmed hat], but that didn't explain it for her.
  • There was a girl who seemed like the me I didn't want to be when I was 13, David's friend. I forget her name -- blocked it out.
  • There was a baby girl at the Charbroil Grill Diner in Montclair, who wouldn't stop staring at me and smiling at me. I was like her ring-of-keys moment, or she thought I was a "boy", perhaps, since I was wearing a baseball cap and had short hair then.
  • The Ring of Keys song, Rabbi Kleinbaum emphasized, was the star's/Alison Bechdel's identitification song, not her love song. Even the joy she felt in finding someone like her was tempered by her father's unhappiness at observing her recognition.
  • All of us have secrets. Mine just burst forth because they were harder to hide, since they were physically visible.
  • Ever since I've known her, Joyce [one of the people in the class], has been an activist around aging, and older people's rights.
  • Am I still an activist around being a lesbian? Does my identity -- that part -- still dominate my days/existence? Or have I settled into being a corporate suburbanite, who just wants a peaceful life?
  • [Like the star of "Fun Home"/Alison Bechdel], what are the three pivotal stages of my life?
At 11, staring at my beautiful best friend and her gorgeous brother in bathing suits and realizing I preferred looking at my best friend, rather than her brother, and being devastated by what I realized.
In college, hunting for men & women till owning my lesbianism senior year.
As an adult, after 19 years together, marrying Pat legally in my hometown, Stamford, surrounded by my family, at 45, including a short video on and a wedding listing in "The New York Times".