It's January 6th (i.e. the feast of the Epiphany, i.e. the Twelfth Day of Christmas, i.e. twelve lords a leaping etc.)! In Spanish-speaking cultures, this is "Three Kings" day, when children wait for the visit of the three magi (with their camels!) and leave food (and grass for the camels) under their beds at night and awake to find gifts.

I'm at home today, waiting not for a camel but for a lovely boy to return from Bogota, which will be the nicest gift I can imagine (sorry, folks, I got a bit mushy while I was away!). I've been meaning to write another blog entry for weeks and even started one on the last day of the transit strike (more on that later), but even though I've been off of work since Dec. 23(!) I never got around to doing it.

Since this is the feast of the Epiphany and I typically devote these blog entries to long, thesis-based mini-epiphanies, how about a change of format? Instead of providing a nuanced analysis (at great length) of some topic, here are some random jottings with which to begin 2006:

The transit strike! I miss it, sort of. It's probably irresponsible (or, to use Mayor Bloomberg's word "thuggish") of me to say such a thing, since it cost the city millions (or was it billions?) of dollars in revenue right at the height of the consumerist shopping season, but I was actually glad that we had a strike. Yes, I was inconvenienced -- not as much as some people, of course, but I did have to arrange for rides from three different sources to get back and forth from Brooklyn each day, and I also squatted one night with the Mennonites (thanks, guys!). One day I even trudged out the door laden with all my Christmas presents and the belongings I needed to travel to Boston, fully expecting to have to cross the Manhattan Bridge on foot, when a serendipitous car of complete strangers drove up and gave me a ride. I was at work before 9 that day!

Yes, if I lived far out in Queens, say, and had no car or friends with cars, if I had an unlenient boss who wouldn't be flexible about my hours and my pay, if I had had to pay $30 for each cab ride to and from work, I would not have been so cheery about the strike. Mayor Bloomberg's line about the "criminality" of the strike was that the real victims were the average commuters (people who earned $10,000-$20,000 annually) and who would lose pay or maybe even lose their jobs because they couldn't get into work, when the striking workers had a starting salary of (I think) $30,000 (which is higher than the salary I started at at my job). Mike had a point, but that remark, like so much else in the cultural conversation surrounding the strike failed to take into account the larger context. The transit workers have a decent wage because they've unionized -- perhaps the appropriate response shouldn't have been to pity the suffering low-wage workers but to encourage the solidarity of the entire working class, encouraging more people to organize.

I know very little about contemporary labor relations, but as I see it the decks were really stacked against the union. The only bargaining chip that workers have in these negotiations is the right (and it is a right) to withold their labor, but a 1960s law makes it illegal for "essential" workers to do so, imposing incredibly burdensome fines (in addition to their lost pay) on each of the workers on the days that they exercise this right. Of course I can see the rationale, but I also strongly object to such a biased law. Where are the penalties imposed on the Transit Authority if they are simply intransigent in their negotiations? Without the specter of a looming strike what pressure is there on management to make concessions?

It was amazing to me how the media covered the story -- watching the television coverage you would have been hard pressed to hear anything that explained or analyzed the points of dispute. Instead it was all about traffic pileups; the media love a disaster because they know how to frighten people, but not how to raise their consciousnesses about the world around them. Bloomberg and the MTA went to great length to keep referring to it as"the illegal transit strike" and also to subtly try and isolate union president Roger Toussaint as if this one man had mulishly ("thuggishly"?) decided on his own to created mass chaos. Where was any consideration of the justness of the law that made the strike illegal? Why not depict Toussaint in the position he actually holds, as the representative and spokesperson of a large collective body? Getting people to think collectively is not in the interest of the state or of the media, especially not during the holiday season!

The education came from the experience itself; whenever the world goes topsy-turvy, you're bound to learn something. How many of us ever sat around and realized quite how dependent we are on public transit before it was taken from us? How many of us have ever chosen to band together with our co-workers or indeed with complete strangers in order to make the most of a difficult situation? Dealing with the strike was (for a brief period) an education in collectivity, it was an occasion on which many of us had to rely on others in new and unexpected ways. Going to work and being at work seemed different on the days of the strike, the very air of the city seemed somehow crisper as if it had been caffeinated. I'm not saying we should take away essential public services on a regular basis, but the deprivation was definitely a wake-up call for those willing to heed it. Too bad our society is set up to isolate the striking workers and to foment animosity against them, rather than encouraging us to consider the ways in which we can all begin to develop a sense of solidarity.

I've read very little interesting commentary on the strike, but here's a nice little blurb from (of all people) Squid and the Whale writer/director Noah Baumbach on the way the strike made the city feel. "Uninviting"? "In turmoil"? I share his nostalgia.

I guess I promised you some tidbits and then I went on a rant. Oh, well! There aren't a lot of coherent thoughts in my head these days (being away from work for so long really does a number on you!). One thing I did yesterday was to sit down with my new 2006 daily planner, dutifully copying in already scheduled appointments, classes and meetings, which brought me all the way up to next Christmas! (Most of them had to do with the three semesters of classes in the community-based performance school I work at; some others had to do with a show I'm directing in April.)

Scheduling appointments in January for events in December may seem like the height of hubris. Who knows what contingencies will intervene between now and then. It's entirely possible that my life will change in some drastic way -- I might have to find a new job or a new place to live. Maybe another transit strike will be called. A year ago, did I ever imagine I'd be sitting in this apartment awaiting the return of a 22-year old Colombian boy? It's human to look forward, trying to set things in stone, but important to recognize that you can never be certain what the next day will bring. (Don't you love how I always tie everything together, even when I'm not even trying to? There's something unexpected for ya!)

Speaking of the limits of human knowledge, I think I will end with an excerpt from W. H. Auden that I discovered today when perusing some love poetry (why on earth would I be doing that?). I'd link to the whole text (the poem is called "Heavy Date"), but I haven't been able to find it online. It's a nice reminder, I think that we never quite know what we're getting into, in love or anything else upon this mortal coil:
Slowly we are learning,
We at least know this much,
That we have to unlearn
Much that we were taught,
And we are growing chary
Of emphatic dogmas;
Love like Matter is much
Odder than we thought.


just another love story

It seems like I ought to have an opinion on Brokeback Mountain, so here it is. S and I went to see it last night in Chelsea and predictably every type of homosexual couple was in attendance: preppy gays, muscle-bound Chelsea boys, overweight middle-agers, Gaysians, over-fifties each reading their individual copies of HX magazine (turned to the back pages which advertise escort services), skinny Ivy-league types (that was us). BM had been on the radar screen of the gay community for years but it seemed to hit the mainstream media like a bitzkrieg about three weeks ago and it has emerged rapidly as the movie of the year, ensuring (along with Capote and TransAmerica) that we'll all have a gay old time at the Academy Awards this year.

Each pair of gay men in the audience (and they were mostly in pairs) seemed to want something different out of this film -- they wanted to be turned on by two hot pin-up boys making out, they wanted to have their lives reflected back on the big screen, they wanted to see their political agenda advanced, they wanted to finally be embraced by that town so beloved by the gay community which has also so excluded us: Hollywood. As for me, what I really was hoping for was the pure aesthetic pleasure of seeing another expert cinematic exploration of director Ang Lee's favorite subject: repression and release. My expectations were only partly rewarded.

Despire all of our desires being pitched up their on the screen, I concluded by the end of the film that whatever the gay community thought about BM matters very little. The significant response will most likely come from straight viewers in middle America, people who have never heard of Beautiful Thing or Yossi & Jagger and the countless other gay love stories that have abounded in indie cinema in recent decades. BM is not groundbreaking for its treatment of homosexual love; the story of young men falling in love and coming to terms with their sexuality has been told time and again in the very movies that helped nerdy cinephilic young men of my generation find a language to express our repressed longings. What's significant is the end of ghettoization that this movie represents, the bid for mainstream status. This is, after all, a movie in which one major Hollywood heartthrob is shown sodomizing another.

BM is significant, too, I think, in that it is not an "issue movie," like Philadelphia -- a movie in which the gay characters were so sanitized, saintly and generalized that they ceased to be characters. This is not a movie that has any argument to make about AIDS or gay-bashing or gay marriage, though the last two topics are certainly relevant to the story. It's not about those issues any more than Terms of Endearment was about cancer. No, this is a gay love story, just like any other Hollywood love story -- from Gone With the Wind to The English Patient -- in which the protagonists are passionate, tortured, selfish, at times hurtful and we are meant to weep big tears.

So, if it must be judged by that standard, let me admit that I cried (my boyfriend would add that I cried more than he did). Ang Lee has a way with tension (I've read that he looks at each film as a sort of Taoist mixture of yin and yang) and there are amazing sequences where he, abetted by a fantastic, completely natural performance from Heath Ledger, really unleashes the floodgates. Lee has turned his talent for unobstrusively precise and balanced photogrpahic composition to a new terrain (the American West), having already shown us his take on Restoration England, American suburbia, and feudal China. The film makes its strongest claims for true "art" status in the first hour or so, when the boys are up on Brokeback Mountain. The introduction of the characters and the situation is spare, nothing is extraneous. There is a minimum of musical scoring, a minimum of words. The tilt of every stetson emphasizes the constricting masculine roles these men have been forced to play, even as the natural beauty of the background urges them to let loose.

The balance, hoewever, doesn't hold. The film is flawed (not fatally, but seriously) by some infelicitous casting and production choices. Jake Gyllenhal is no match for Heath Ledger; his Jack Twist is supposed to be more open and eager, but Gyllenhal overplays every moment to the degree that the viewer is often embarrassed for him, we are always acutely conscious of the effect he's going for. He also looks about as comfortable as I would in boots and a ten-gallon hat. Unfortunately, his whole plotline is hampered by other details that clank unharmoniously with the picture as a whole. Ann Hathaway is forced to wear hideous wigs (apparently in an effort to match the ridiculousness of Gyllenhal's moustache) as the characters age; their domestic drama has none of the gravitas of Ledger's parallel story.

The last third of the movie is weighed down with plot and the whole tone of the picture seems less assured. These men can only be themselves, of course, when they are up on Brokeback Mountain (just as Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence or Francesca and Robert in The Bridges of Madison County must mask their love when they are under the watchful stare of the civilized world), but the movie itself starts to feel as constricted as its characters. Lee doesn't seem to know where his emotional releases are -- we get a big one on their final fishing trip, when Ledger tells Gyllenhal that (even after all these years) he can't run away and live with him. Lee elegantly cuts to a shot of their younger selves, easy and comfortable, holding one another, and the effect is powerful. The demoument that follows, involving death and remorse and mourning, takes too long to play out and (for the most part) left this viewer emotionally cold.

There are other quibbles to make with the film, especially with the handling of the protagonists' wives. Michelle Williams' pain is shown, but that's about it -- she only seems to suffer, not to have any independent life -- whereas Hathaway is blithe and apparently accepting from the start of the romantic emptiness of her sham marriage. I'm glad that in one of the most gorgeously romantic shots of the movie (as Ledger runs down the steps of his house to see Gylenhall for the first time in four years and cannot prevent himself from passionately kissing and craessing him) also shows us the betrayal felt by Williams as she witnesses it from the sidelines. But we can't really feel for her because we are never let into her psyche. Having shown us the smallest piece of these women's lives, they are pretty much side-tracked.

In short, I don't think Brokeback Mountain (considered in its totality) is the greatest love story ever told. It's not even the greatest movie Ang Lee has made (try Sense and Sensibility or, if you want a gay storyline, The Wedding Banquet). Like his characters, Lee seems at home with the sheep but when he's back in civilization his story falters. Clint Eastwood's Madison County is, for my money, a more elegantly realized and moving depiction of love stifled by small-town mores. But, of course, that film didn't have the inflammatory political baggage of BM. It's trying to do an awful lot of things at once -- to harness the power of classic Hollywood tropes of masculinity and romance, even as it asks us to reconsider them. (For a typically insightful analysis of the cinematic historical context of the film, see the invaluable Mahnola Dargis in the New York Times.)

This movie is the first mainstream attempt to tell a gay love story with charcters who are not emblems but roles, to apply all the Hollywood gloss and glamor and heartstring-pulling to the lives of men who profess to love other men. If it doesn't fully succeed, perhaps all we can say is, let there be more attempts.


false premises

We're all sick and tired of hearing about my personal life, right? How about a nice thought-provoking entry about politics, or art, or better yet art and politics!

I've been reading a fantastic book, one which I think everyone in America should run out and get. I'm half-way through the essays and I've already dog-eared half the pages. It's funny that a book published in 2001 (just after 9/11) and featuring pieces that were originally written from 1988-2000 should seem like such imperative reading to me. There's nothing "current" about the topics of Didion's essays (Jesse Jackson's 1988 Presidential campaign, the Reagan Administration's meddling in El Salvador, Newt Gingrich), rather it's her stance on these issues and her analysis of them that so compels me. It's as if she's tapped right into the thoughts that have been formulating in my brain over the last several months and has given voice to them, the thoughts of a disaffected Leftist who has (finally) decided that he is no longer a Democrat (because the term "Democrat" is now an empty concept).

Strangely enough, Didion -- the high priestess of the extended essay, the doyenne of the New York Review of Books -- here speaks for all kinds of "marginal" Americans who are never catered to in American politics, rarely even considered, notably the urban poor and those whom she calls the "largest political party in America": those who choose not to vote. Rather than condescendingly lumping these non-voters together as "apathetic," Didion takes them seriously as a disenfranchised class who've come to see that voting in late 20th and early 21st Century America doesn't actually give you a voice in the American political process.

I encountered this dispiriting view back in August of 2004, when I ran an open at a voter registration event I conducted with the formerly homeless tenants at the building where I work. I responded to their cynicism with the traditional platitudes of the high school civics student ("Well, if you don't vote, you're definitely not going to let your voice be heard...") I don't think I would respond in quite the same way today. People should vote, I believe, they should say something, but voting alone in this country is never going to make any fundamental changes in our society -- not when we have a choice between two parties that in such essential agreement about core issues (or worse, core "values") that the purported "opposition" party can't even bring itself to articulate a challenge to the philoophy of the party in power. I consider it relatively clear-cut that any truly sentient, ethical person ought to be against the agenda of the Republican crusaders, but does that mean that they have to be "Democrats"? In the voting booth, it does and until we organize to create an effective alternative to the two party system, maybe it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to vote.

Our electoral system is currently configured to make it really hard for anyone outside of the two-party system to meaningfully participate (unless they happen to be a billionaire). That's where the disaffected tenants in my building have it right: voting is not going to solve their problems. It only would if every disaffected poor and minority citizen decided to mobilize one day and vote -- but that doesn't happen without major work, by which I mean grass-roots organizing, political education, "empowerment." You've gotta put in time, build a meaningful constituency whose votes will seem to matter to the big guys. And that's an uphill battle.

Even back in 1988 (a year in which both of the parties' candidates were noticeably uncharasmatic), Didion saw clearly that our fixation on the personality of the President served as a narcotic that occluded the real issues of import (I would argue that liberals' active personal disgust for Bush creates similar results and brought us the horrifically failed candidacy of John Forbes Kerry):

In other words, what 'it came down to,' what it was 'about,' what was wrong or right with America, was not an historical shift largely unaffected by the actions of individual citizens but 'character,' and if 'character' could be seen to count, then every citizen -- since everyone was a judeg of character, an expert in the field of personality -- could be seen to count. This notion, that the citizen's choice among determinedly centrist candidates makes a 'difference,' is in fact the narrative's most central element, and its most fictive.

It doesn't surprise me that many of the early reviews of Didion's book, coming on the heels of 9/11, stress its "irrelevance." This book, for all of its skewering of conservative targets, challenges a lot of notions that mainstream liberals desperately want to believe in, most importantly the essential "fairness" of our political system in general. But that collective myth is the chief "fiction" that Didion is documenting.

Three years after the book's publication, it's the simple-minded victim rhetoric that so overwhelmed our national discource after the terrorist attacks which now seems irrelevant. Where is the irrevocable break with the past that so many armchair pundits spoke about in the aftermath of our national "calamity"? As we live on in the post-9/11 world, everything actually seems more continuous than ever. One only has to read Didion's "The West Wing of Oz" (her account of Reagan's passivity, his buying into the rhetorical fictions on which his Presidency was predicated) to see its immediate applicability to our current President and the fictions he seems to buy into (even as his Machiavellian aides try to sell those same fictions to the public to support more pragmatic but nefarious ends).

9/11 hasn't changed anything; we're grappiling with the same disconnect between our political class (by which I include not only policy-makers, but also the media that report on them and frame the stories) and the endemic problems that are truly destroying our society as a whole. The liberal media (and it is liberal, who cares? "liberalism" is about as bankrupt a political stance as they come...) makes it easy for the right to control the discourse by continually taking their bait, by ofcusing incessantly on superficial issues instead of talking about the underlying dynamics of inequality and injustice in this country.

What's the worst class division in this country? It's probably the division between most of us and the "political class," the people who have the influence, who have a chance someday of calling the shots. I have some experience with this distinction, having spent most of my Rhodes Scholarship among young people actively training to join that class, whether as actual politicians or journalists or think-tank policy wonks. This is a narrow field, not necessarily defined by wealth and education, though certainly so in large part. How "robust" is our democracy when of the last three Presidents two were father and son and the wife of the other is poised to become the leading opposition candidate to succeed the son? There are not a lot of people who "break in" to American politics these days -- there are very few Shirley Chisholms. Those who rise, no matter what they're economic background, must do so by appeasing the interests of the moneyed elite (either the liberal moneyed elite or the conservative, take your pick). There is no such thing, really, as an "insurgent" in American politcs anymore, no chance of rising to power from the bottom up.

And the hard truth about this "political class" is that their jockeying for power seems to have less and less to do with ideology than with a hunger for power. There was more ideological distinction in a Yankees-Red Sox playoff series than in the 2004 Presidential election. What do Democrats really want to say anymore but "See, we were right!" "Gotcha!" or "Isn't it our turn yet?" When winning the Presidency becomes a goal unto itself, then the Presidency is no longer about being an employee of the people. It is about being a successful charlatan.

Where does Joan Didion (or me, for that matter) get off saying things like this? What does she (or I?) know about how politics works? Therein lies the problem, and maybe the solution. Didion is known as an essayist, but not a "political insider." She's no Bob Woodward. But her outsider's perspective serves to constantly remind us that politics in America has become an insider's game. This is no longer a democracy on the Athenian model (if it ever was!) in which a man may set aside his plow for a term and head up to Washington to represent his fellow citizens and then return (like Cincinnatus) to his private life. We ought to rethink the idea that one must be a politician in order to govern.

Harold Pinter delivered an address when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature that touched (somewhat more crudely than Didion, it must be said, but, hey, Pinter's penchant has always been for terse, spare dialogue) on some of the concerns I've been covering here. Pinter says essentially what I've just been saying about politicians' self-interest and contrasts it with the artist's pursuit of truth (in all its ambiguity):

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

Pinter goes on to bludgeon his audience with the assertion that the invasion of Iraq was predeicated on a web of lies about WMDs. That argument, while worthy and necessary, has been heard before but the paragraph I've quoted above is more thought-provoking. It's an example not of political grandstanding (as, no doubt, many people took Pinter's address to be) but an essential explication of the dangers of entrenched political power in general. (Interestingly, Pinter later refers to the massacres conducted with American support by the Alcatl regiments in El Salvador, to which considerable space is also devoted in Didion's book.)

Whenever I hear anybody bemoaning the fact that Pinter (or Susan Sarandon or Kanye West) shouldn't be talking about politics, or worse "imposing their political opinions on the public," I'm going to ask them why they think politics is such sacred ground. We need more outsiders who can see through the fictions and challenge the unacknowledged assumptions. If we think too highly of our politicians, then only politicians will be involved in politics.


begin with the beginning

For someone who's never been in a relationship, I've certainly had a lot of opinions about them. I've given my friends tons of advice about them over the years and then, as I started dating and getting within sniffing distance of the real thing, I started opining about how they didn't have to be the center of one's life etc. etc. And I still believe all of that.

But things feel different on the other side. I have a boyfriend now (yes, folks, in case you haven't heard it in person, it's "Sammy") and I must admit that there's a hell of a lot of difference between a "boyfriend" and "this guy I'm dating." This is one matter that I will not claim to be an expert on, having only experienced boyfriendhood for slightly more than a week. The difference so far is not in what we do or how often we do it (there were times when I was seeing guys I was dating more frequently than I'm seeing Sammy; because of our schedules, he and I are lucky if we see each other twice in a week).

I guess the difference starts with the mutual declaration, the admission really, that this is what you both want. In the past, it was always me who wanted this or that person to be my boyfriend, while their wants always remained elusive. There was a gulf of silence between me and those other boys, the gulf of my longing to have something from them and their witholding it from me.

For approximately three weeks, though, it's been clear that S and I didn't operate by those rules. Where silence reigned with other boys, with us it was all talking, telling one another way too many things about how we were feeling towards one another. And when the word "boyfriend" finally broke the nighttime silence (that word that I've thought about and typed so many times but rarely spoken with any kind of personal relation to its meaning), it felt exciting and surprisingly unfamiliar.

I wasn't prepared for how long it would take me to adjust to the new nomenclature. Surely, it was just a word to describe something that had been going on for a while already: we'd been spending more time with one another, becoming intimate, enjoying one another's company, sharing things. All of that felt natural. And yet, when it came time to declare a new state of being, a start to something, I who'd been longing to do just that for so long was unprepared for how that rupture, that starting point, would feel.

Looking at my altered Friendster profile (which, of course, brought S and me together in the first place), I felt like I was looking at a different person: no longer "Dating Men, Relationship Men" but "In a Relationship." That preposition makes all the difference. It's not the warm, fuzzy feeling of a prospective, theoretical relationship we're talking about but a real (and really specific) one. Here was this online profile that I'd spent nights tweaking (perhaps most significantly on the night when I kept all the text the same but removed all capitalization!) in an attempt to both capture my essential nature and make myself seem enticing, to present myself on the marketplace and arouse interest. The profile began as an advertisement and here I was declaring that the sale was over.

It can feel arbitrary to pinpoint the start of something. The night I changed my Friendster profile felt important because the word was finally there in black and white. But I'm starting to think that any relationship worth being in keeps starting all the time. Even in the brief week that it's been "official," I feel as if the relationship has started numerous times, each time in a different way. It almost ended, too.

Without getting into all the details, I stupidly behaved in a way that was totally opposed to the special openness and honesty that S and I have between us. Ironically, it happened on the very night we first used the word "boyfriend"; honest as I acted like I was being, there was something I didn't tell him. We've been dealing with it the past couple of days and I think it's going to be OK. The experience only made me value more what is developing between us and it made me grateful that I still have a chance to work on it.

Maybe anything that endures always begins in difficulty, even if we thought it started well before. It's only in difficulty that you know if it's substantial. When I was first getting to know S, he joked with me about the name of the color he'd chosen to paint the walls of his room: "Endurance." That was a long time ago -- he and I know each other a lot better now, and yet we still don't know each other well at all.

Anything good keeps starting again and again. It's always new. In a sense, my relationship began again in a new way when I told S about this blog (anybody that I'm close to ought to know about it, I thought). And this blog starts anew by me bringing him into it. You may or may not hear much about him in the future, I don't know. I don't know how inclined I'll feel to set down the details of our relationship here. But I thought you all ought to know that it's official -- and getting more official every day.