Friday, April 13, 2018

BOOKS: Born A Crime

South Africa, both under apartheid and after it, is such a different place to anything I have experienced, making Trevor Noah’s autobiographical “Born A Crime” such a fascinating book. Even for South Africans, Noah’s perspective is rather unique. His title “Born A Crime” comes from the fact he was born of a white father and a black mother, which violated anti-miscegenation laws still active on the books at the time he was born. My eyes were opened to so much about South African society. I hadn’t understood and appreciated how blacks are so divided by tribes with distinct languages (a situation ingeniously and insidiously exploited by the apartheid system to discourage blacks coming together), nor how people were divided not only black and white, but also an intermediate category called “colored”, which included people of mixed ancestry, Indians, and other arbitrary distinctions (for example, Japanese people were officially “white” while Chinese people were officially “colored”). Noah was raised by his mother, an extraordinarily strong and independent woman who was pushing boundaries even before apartheid was abolished. She taught him English and Afrikaans as well as several tribal languages, sent him to private schools, and gave him a window on many parts of society, living at times in a black township or middle-class neighborhoods, attending white churches. His mixed-race status, many languages, and varied experiences made him someone who could fit in anywhere but belong nowhere. He thus grew up developing keen insight into the complex society around him as can only be gained by someone who is “insider” enough to understand and sympathize but also “outsider” enough to make objective appraisals. His stories are packed with humor, understanding, insight, and at times a challenge to see the world a different way. In one story, he thoughtfully unpacks why among South African blacks the name “Hitler” doesn’t have anything like the infinitely negative charge we assume should be universal, and how that lead to a colossal misunderstanding with a black dance troupe performing at a Jewish school hosting a multicultural diversity festival. Through other stories, he explains life in the township and life in what we would call “the ‘hood”, and why they may think about crime a bit differently than you do. Other stories are just generally human, experiences growing up in various schools trying to fit in, getting a date for the prom, and so on, all told with great charm and humor. And his keen insight is also brought to bear on abuse and alcoholism, in stories of how his step-father abused his mother. This is a fantastic book, and it is even better as an audiobook, since it is read by the author. He has the gift of writing the way he talks, which since he is a comedian (and now the host of the Daily Show) is quite engaging. Hearing him do all the voices, the dialects, and even occasionally the languages (including those Xhosa clicks) as he tells his stories brings them even more to life in vivid color.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

BOOKS: Behind The Beautiful Forevers

In Behind The Beautiful Forevers, author Katherine Boo renders a fascinating slice of, as her subtitle has it, “life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity”. The slum called Annawadi lies on a patch of empty land between the Mumbai International Airport and a row of gleaming high-end airport hotels, a crowded community of people struggling to stay alive and perhaps get just a little bit ahead, living precariously in improvised shacks on land they have no legal claim to, which could be bulldozed at any time. In this community lies a rich tapestry of dreams, schemes, motivations, crushing circumstances, corruption, prejudice, envy, and surprising wellsprings of hope and perseverance. This is a work of narrative non-fiction. It is non-fiction in that all of the characters are real people, using their real names, and the incidents described are real. The author spent years visiting, interviewing, getting to know, and following a number of people over many years. She witnessed some events herself, gathered other events from interviews, cross-checked, and verified where possible with public records, with a journalistic diligence. Boo’s descriptions of the characters and their circumstances are vivid, and she skillfully weaves them into an engaging narrative by using a pivotal event – a woman who sets herself on fire, with lasting repercussions on several families – as a through line to propel a sense of story. I was rapt in the stories of these people, their lives so foreign to my own experience, and appalled at some of the things they suffer. I think what I found most unexpected was how much these people who have so little are regular targets of extortion by corrupt police, corrupt doctors, and corrupt teachers. Many of them work hard at what they can, a few actually claw their way ahead, but all are so buffeted by larger random circumstances that any connection between hard work and getting ahead is quite tenuous. Larger events, like the construction of the airport, the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and the 2008 Great Recession in America, all had their ripples in this fragile slum. A century ago, Sholem Aleichem vividly described the struggles of Jewish life in 19th century Russian shtetls (tales which inspired Fiddler on the Roof). Boo brings that same kind of sensitivity to precarious lives in tenuous tenements, combined with the accuracy of a journalist, in painting this portrait of Annawadi and its inhabitants.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

FILM: Love, Simon

We thoroughly enjoyed Love, Simon, a sweet coming-out romantic comedy that just “came out” this weekend. Those of my generation will remember John Hughes films, and how he so poignantly captures the characters and the drama of high school, all the angst and awkwardness of figuring out who you are and finding your place in the teenage world. Director Greg Berlanti captures that same kind of authenticity in this Sixteen Candles meets You’ve Got Mail with a gay coming out twist. It’s especially heartwarming to see coming out films like this, so different from the coming out films of when I was coming out. Back in my day, coming out itself was the drama. In this film, I think it’s fair to say that it’s a regular teenage rom com, where coming out just makes for an inventive new plot device that drives the inevitable complications of a good rom com. He has a great family, great friends, and a school where the teachers and the administrators all do the right thing when some students behave poorly. Granted not everybody has that even today, but supportive parents, friends, and schools are not nearly the unicorns they were when I was coming out 35 years ago. When Greg Berlanti directed The Broken Hearts Club back in 2000, that was mostly an art house film appreciated by mostly gay audiences. Now in 2017, most of our gay friends who watched Love, Simon reported cinemas filled with teenage girls. And this film was noted as the first major studio release focusing on teen gay romance. One reviewer used the phrase “revolutionary normalcy” in describing the film, and I think that really hits it. In the context of the progress of gay acceptance, it does feel surprisingly revolutionary in its just being a sweet, light, enjoyable, mainstream rom com that happens to have a gay lead, with mainstream audiences all cheering him on. After all these many years of visibility, I didn’t think we had new breakthroughs yet to be had, until I saw this, and it was like “Oh! This! Yeah, we haven’t actually seen this before.” It just seems to be a moment of this new level of mainstream visibility between Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon. And I got the same feeling from Romil and Jugal, a charming Bollywood web series with a revolutionary-normal coming out romance. There’s a line in the film where Simon’s Mom says she didn’t know that he was gay, but she knew that he had something heavy on his mind, “It seems like you’ve been holding your breath for years. Now you finally get to exhale.” Sometimes you don’t realize how long you’ve been holding your breath until you exhale. And this film is such fresh air.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Why I'm Captivated by Romil and Jugal

To the makers of Romil and Jugal: Thank you for this wonderful creation of yours. I have been captivated by it for the last two weeks, and many scenes authentically touched me and flooded me with emotional memories of when I was Romil and Jugal’s age and just coming out myself. When Romil says he felt as a young boy like he had some sort of “manufacturing defect”, I remember that feeling. I had times when I thought I was some kind of alien. And when he talks about being “on top of the world one moment and scared shitless the next”, oh I so remember that! My first romantic encounter was an exhilarating revelation, and I thought “This! This is what I was supposed to be feeling with girls but never did, and now this feels so right!” And then wondering the next morning how to make sense of it all, and what the heck was I going to do. When Romil and Jugal are on the mountain wondering what their future could possibly be like, that takes me back too. I always tell people that we gay people grow up with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. I imagined a life getting married to a woman, having children of my own. Then when I discovered I was gay, my picture of my future was torn into a thousand pieces, and I had no idea what to put in its place. At that time in my life, in America in the 1980s, there was nothing to point the way, nobody I knew, no characters in film or on TV, no picture at all. But I was so much like Jugal, unshakably convinced that what I was feeling was right and good and true, despite everything in society telling us otherwise. Even though I could scarcely imagine how two men loving each other could openly fit into the world, I knew I would somehow make it work, even if I had to change the world. Coming out with integrity takes real courage, and I loved your portrayal of that. When Romil kisses Jugal in the café, that takes me back too! I remember well when kissing in a public place was a calculated risk, a self-conscious activism, never just innocent affection. But those small acts are the kind of thing that slowly change the world, and I know that your web series will have an impact in changing the world for the better. I do not know India, but I do know what it is to come out as gay, and I promise you that there will be countless young gay boys across India who will be so encouraged by this. Love is love in any language, as I proved by watching your show. I speak not a word of Hindi, and I didn’t discover until the 10th episode that there was an option for English captions, but I was still gripped by your story. The acting, the expressions, the tone of voice, and the occasional English words were enough to tell the story (although I’ve gone back and re-watched with captions to pick up more of the nuances). I should also add that the Shakespeare rehearsal scene, when Jugal steps in for Rosie, was especially magic for me. Those very lines were read at my own wedding in 2001, before marriage was legal anywhere in the world. Later in 2008 when it became legal in California, Juliet’s banter about whether vows once given can be given again became quite real for us, as we did just that before a judge. Even though my own experiences were in a very different time and place, and though I was fortunate enough not to have to face a choice between family and integrity, I know the challenges you depict are still all too real in too many places today. Thank you for helping to change the world!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

TV: Romil and Jugal

I blame our friend Nitin. He started me on this. While everybody else is binge-watching The Crown or Stranger Things, what have I got hooked on? Romil and Jugal. It’s loosely inspired by Romeo and Juliet, except the star-crossed lovers are two college boys in a hill station town in northern India. Their families aren’t so much feuding, although the fathers are rivals at work, and there’s a north/south Indian culture thing I’m just learning about, with Romil’s family being flambuoyant northerners while Jugal’s family are buttoned-up “Tam-Brahms” (the highest caste from Tamil Nadu). But of course the real crossed stars are the love that dare not speak its name. Sodomy is still a crime on the books in India (though the Supreme Court may reconsider the infamous “Section 377” this year). Romil and Jugal was originally planned as a feature film but they feared it would be butchered by the censor board that regulates films in India. Instead it was produced for streaming media which is less regulated. Not that it’s very racy at all, certainly by American standards. It’s a light-hearted soap opera, a little goofy, sweet in its earnestness, the boys are adorable, and it’s hard not to root for them. Of course I would think that, but judging by fan comments I’ve read, it really appears to be winning over a new generation in India. I saw many comments from people confessing they’d had negative attitudes about homosexuality but seeing this show helped them realize that love is love. This is exactly the sort of thing that turns tides, recognizing that love transcends arbitrary human bounds. Speaking of love stories crossing boundaries, there is one little hitch I should point out if you’re tempted to check it out. I’m watching it in Hindi. You can also get it in Tamil, Telugu, or Malayalam, but not in English. Not that I understand any Hindi, but it turns out that the way a lot of people naturally speak in northern India is more like “Hinglish”, Hindi with a lot of English mixed in. Between the action, expressions, tone, and the partial English, you can follow along enjoyably enough without knowing any Hindi. Love is love in any language. (Also, the first five episodes are free, but then you have to spring a few rupees.)

(Update: After watching 9 episodes without translation, I discovered there's an option for English captions by hitting a button on the lower right corner of the browser.)

Saturday, January 06, 2018

FILM: The Post

Outstanding! What a great story, and tremendous performances from both Streep and Hanks. Not only a great story about the crucial role of a free press in checking government abuse, but the transformation of a socialite wife into a formidable publisher. A story of nearly 50 years ago, and yet sharply relevant to the present moment.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

FILM: Darkest Hour

We really enjoyed it. Great performance from Gary Oldman, who really captured the mercurial Churchill, who could be mumbling through his cigar one moment and thundering orator the next. The film really zeroes in on a moment in time, just before Britain had really committed itself to the war against Germany, and when some people thought the better course was to stay out of it and pursue peace talks with Hitler. Very interesting to see how the decision came about. And to see some of the truly hard decisions leaders may have to make. The film had a special resonance for George and I, as just last year, we had toured the Churchill War Rooms as well as Buckingham Palace, so it was fun to see historic locations in the film that we'd recently visited in person.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

FILM: Call Me By Your Name

What an achingly beautiful film. Oh to be 17 again, and to experience such an idyllic summer of first love, first sex, and first heartbreak, in an charming Italian village, surrounded by cosmopolitan liberal intellectuals, with nothing to do but read, play the piano, ride bikes, swim, dance, and pick fresh fruit. And make love, of course. Never mind that it's 1983, and that the central love affair of the film is between two young men. These boys, and everyone else around them, seem delightfully insouciant about homosexuality. If there is even a whiff of stigma in their world, they're more self-conscious about being Jewish than they are about being gay. Their summer of discovery has only its own lovely complications, completely free of external worldly cares, as unburdened as the dappled sunlight coming through the leaves of the peach and apricot trees. The story is as fresh and as sweet as the just-squeezed apricot juice they drink, and the metaphor of summer love being as pure, sweet, and perishable as summer fruit pervades the film. You will cry tears of wistful joy when the summer inevitably ends. And you will never look at a peach the same way again.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

FILM: God's Own Country

Comparable to Brokeback in a beautiful portrayal of two men in a very rural situation stumbling onto a relationship without words or models of how it's supposed to work. Much is conveyed by the actors without a lot of words. (Which is good, because when some of those Yorkish people speak, it's scarcely recognizable as English. I wanted subtitles at times!) Outstanding performances. Bleakly beautiful Yorkshire Dales countryside. And some unflinching footage of farm life (imagine Tarantino doing "All Creatures Great And Small"). I'd recommend it. Some of the wordless scenes felt very authentic to me and took me right back to my own very early experiences (lying next to someone, pretending to sleep but not sleeping, desperately longing to make a move but not knowing how or if I should), while other minimally worded scenes with his parents seemed a bit elliptical or pat - how did they get to understanding or acceptance so quickly. Maybe that's just the Yorkshire way, working things out with very few words.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Remembering Fred Borsch


I was saddened to read of the passing of Fred Borsch, whose mark left on the world is beautifully described in this LA Times obituary. I loved the story of him bringing the Archbishop of Canterbury into one of LA's sketchiest neighborhoods to give him a new perspective. I was acquainted with Rev. Borsch at Princeton, where he was the Dean of the Chapel when I studied there in the early 1980s, and his son Ben was a classmate. He was a kind, gentle-spoken man who did indeed ask people to call him Fred. If you picture someone like Father Mulcahy on the old MASH TV series, you wouldn't be far off. But I think he made a mark wherever he went. I will always be grateful that, under the sponsorship of the Borsch's Office of the Chapel, a space in the basement of Murray-Dodge Hall was set up to create a café, where tea and fresh baked goods and occasional live music were on offer, but more importantly, an alternative social space for people who for various reasons didn't entirely fit into Princeton's regular social scene. That doesn't sound like any big thing today, but it's hard to project ourselves back to a time before there was any Starbucks, before there was a ubiquitous Internet, and before Princeton had a Gay and Lesbian Center (actually before Princeton even had a real student center at all). Back then, that café was a haven for, among others, a whole circle of students tiptoeing to terms with their homosexuality. It was quietly subversive and essential. And looking back, I think that Borsch probably understood that even better than I did at the time.

Flash forward 20 years to 2001, and I just missed meeting Borsch again, although I discovered his handprints when I moved to Echo Park, a now trendy but then rather edgy barrio near downtown Los Angeles. As an Angeleno, I had been well aware of the construction in the 1990s of the controversial Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown, a dramatic modernist architectural landmark. But it wasn't until I moved to Echo Park that I became aware of the Episcopal Cathedral Center of St. Paul, also constructed in the 1990s, a modest set of buildings that wouldn't draw particular attention to drivers-by let alone international tourists. I think the Catholic and the Episcopal churches both have strong traditions of "high church" majesty as well as social justice. But I find it emblematic that while then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Mahoney was building his grand edifice on the hill downtown, Archbishop Borsch was rolling up his shirtsleeves and getting to work in the barrio. I've been to services in both places, and there's no question which one feels more warm and welcoming to me.

The world is a notably better place for Fred Borsch having been in it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

This Is Not Fake News, The President Really Did This, And It's Outrageous

This is NOT fake news, it really happened, and it is appalling. The President has signed several acts into law. One of them, recognizing that immigrant citizens more often vote for the opposition party, makes it much more difficult to become naturalized. Another, aimed at the potential danger posed by immigrants, gives the President sweeping power to incarcerate or deport any non-citizen that the President deems "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States". The last and most alarming one curtails the rights of American citizens by prohibiting assembly "of the people with any intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States" and making it a crime to "write, print, utter, or publish" any "false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States". That last law, which makes criticizing the government a crime punishable by fines and jail time, was written to be used against the press, which the President has declared to be the "enemy of the American people".

This is not fake news, it is real. Real history. The president who signed these laws was John Adams, and this actually happened in 1798. But the parallels to today are both frightening and instructive. The Federalists (the conservative party of their day, lead by Hamilton) were in control of Congress, and the Democratic-Republicans (the party of Jefferson and later Jackson) were on the outs. Adams was despised by Jefferson's party, and had an uneasy relationship with his own party from whom he was independent and considered a bit unpredictable. Newspapers were highly politicized, with right-wing news and left-wing news furiously putting their spin on events, and there was a fair amount of "fake news" flying around. Politicians considered newspapers to be patriots or traitors, depending on which politician and which newspaper. The Federalists were pushing for war with France, seeing the French Revolution as a sheer terror, while the Democratic-Republicans saw the French Revolution as the people rightfully rising up to overthrow a tyrannical aristocracy and monarchy. There was a great fear of immigrants from France in America, and the influence they could have on our own young country. It was in this context that the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts came into being. Under the Sedition Act, a number of prominent left-wing publishers and even one Congressman were fined and jailed. (Alas, the notion of going to court to challenge the constitutionality of a law hadn't yet been invented.)

The Sedition Act had a sunset clause and was allowed to expire in 1800. However, in the fever pitch of World War I, another Sedition Act was made law in 1918, making it a crime to use any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the US Government, its flag, or its armed forces. The act was used against a number of party leaders and labor leaders before it was repealed in 1920. One piece of the 1798 legislation, the Alien Enemies Act, still remains on the books today. This was used as the basis of authority for the notorious Executive Order 9066 in 1942, ordering the internment of Japanese-American citizens. (That happened 75 years ago today.)

The original Alien and Sedition Acts and their subsequent reincarnations are generally considered shameful black marks in our history, overreactions to fear. It should be clear to any good student of history that we are on this same path yet again.