Wednesday, December 24, 2008

living cities

I am trying to write something cohesive about last year, but I can’t seem to find a way to do it. One of the questions that keeps bugging me is why I never feel "at home" wherever I am.

Home: I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what home is to me. At times I have said that home exists wherever you love someone. We each have a bit of home divided up and spread throughout the world. As I get older and as I move more and more, I am not quite sure that this is the case. When I go to a place with people that I love, the place feels comfortable, but not like home. I found this out first when I moved back to California after college. The place felt comfortable and I knew my way around, but I had a tumultuous relationship with Orange County and quickly realized that I always had. I don’t think that I wasn’t welcome in OC, but the welcome felt temporary, as though the county was trying to tell me that I didn’t belong.
Neil Gaiman, in his Sandman series, has a comic called “A Tale of Two Cities.” In the comic a man wakes up and finds himself in the dream of the city in which he spent his entire life. In that dream he encounters a man who tells him that the city is indeed asleep. He did not know when the city would wake, but was fearful of what might happen if and when that occurred.
As I move from place to place, and city to city, I wonder if some cities are asleep and some are awake. If I personify Orange County, I can imagine someone with authority fast asleep. As they sleep, a raucous party forms around them. Throughout the party, people draw on OC’s face, they put OC’s hand in cold water and cover OC’s face with shaving cream. OC sleeps so deeply that eventually the partygoers stop worrying about the possibility of OC waking up. They shave OC a Mohawk. They tattoo “enter here” just above OC’s ass. With all this having happened, what will the repercussions be when OC finally does wake up? Maybe OC will just accept what happened and try to move forward. Maybe OC will get belligerent and do something crazy to the partygoers. Who knows. Time will tell.
Just thinking of a city as alive is, I think, a productive act. This is not to say that I think that people will treat their cities better if they thought of them as alive. We treat living things poorly all the time. To look at a city as alive is to see that everything about that city has gone into giving it the life it possesses, from the lay of the land that attracted the first people to it and determined how the infrastructure would be laid, to the people who continue to build/destroy/preserve the city today. These things affect the temperament of the city. They make it so some parts work better than others and some not at all. We can think of our relationship to a city, then, as sometimes parasitic, sometimes symbiotic, and sometimes both. Furthermore, if we think of these relationships as not inherently good or bad, but simply complicated and fluctuating (we move back and forth between the various relationships, and the city does as well), we can see that, depending on the current state of a city and its population, those relationships might need to shift and change. What is good for one city and its residents might not be good for others. Of course, what is good for one city is not necessarily good for its inhabitants, and vice versa.
I said that my relationship to OC was tumultuous. I felt that I was welcomed, but not because I belonged, but because I had been there for so long and had given a lot of my life and time to OC and its inhabitants. I had friends and family there, some of whom really belong there. However, what I wanted from a city was not what I found in OC. I used the analogy of a sleeping authority and it well may be that OC is sleeping and yet to wake up. It could be the inhabitants of the city that I don’t mesh well with. It could be the city itself. It could also be, and this is probably it, a combination of the two.
I have lived in 8 cities. I have visited countless others. It’s hard for me to say if any of the cities I’ve visited could ever be home. I’m still not quite sure what home is. I’m thinking that it has to do with being able to maintain a symbiotic relationship with a city which means that I would be willing to give and take from the city and allow the city to give and take from me. I have yet to feel comfortable enough with a city to allow this exchange to take place. I want to say that the closest I’ve felt to this was the few months I spent in Dublin, and the couple of weeks I spent in San Francisco and Boston. I was attracted to each of these cities for different reasons and found more reasons once there that I wanted to be there, but have still not explored them sufficiently. While in those cities I acted primarily as a tourist, which is a very different experience than living in a city. I also sometimes wonder if I have created some sort of idealized city in my head that doesn’t really exist. Of course, I’ve never really felt comfortable in the places I’ve lived and always wanted to move on, and I think that there’s something to be said about that.

Monday, December 22, 2008

seeing white: part 2

*spoiler alert*

I don’t remember what it was that got me thinking about Harvey Milk for the second time, but sometime between college and grad school, I rented a documentary called The Times of Harvey Milk. The documentary, released in 1984, chronicles Milk’s activism as a community organizer and politician in the Castro in the 70’s. The film is particularly adept at revealing the amount that Milk was able to accomplish in his short time in the Castro and in his even shorter time as a politician. What the film fails to show is the progressive nature and hopes of the time. We see a community brought together by a single man, and at the end of the film, when Dan White is awarded the minimum sentence, we see the riots break out and the community ruptured. Without Milk it seems as though the movement is quick to turn to violence. Now, it’s been a while since I saw the film, but I believe that after the riots, it moves on to quickly chronicle the last few years of Dan White’s life, from his short time in prison to his move back to San Francisco, and finally to his suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The initial reaction to Milk’s death was the candlelight march through San Francisco and up to City Hall. We hear the interviewees say how much Milk would have enjoyed this moment. It becomes, then, an act done for Harvey Milk. The riot, on the other hand, is an event that is depicted as independent of Milk, and shows very little other than the anger that the gay community felt at the sentence received by Dan White. This sequence in the documentary is, as I remember it, as follows: Milk is assassinated; candlelight vigil; sentence declared; riots ensue. We interpret the vigil as something caused by Milk and the riots as something caused by the sentence meted out by the jury. Neither, we see, were of the audience's doing.
Gus Van Sant’s film sends a new message, one that is reverent of Milk and what he was able to do, but also casts the net a lot wider. Through “Milk,” we see Harvey Milk as a strong and influential catalyst, but by no means the only one. We see the work and the skills of a variety of individuals put together that made the movement. An individual does no act alone unless that act is misguided, destructive, and caustic. What we see as productive acts are all done by a community. In Van Sant’s film, for instance, the assassination of Milk and Moscone is brought up at the beginning. We know what is going to happen and we sense that Dan White will be the one who does it as we watch him grow more and more unstable throughout the film. When Milk is killed we see Milk’s friends Anne Kronenberg and Scott Smith wondering why no one came to city hall. As they leave the building dejected, they are suddenly confronted by thousands of people walking the streets holding candles in memory of Milk and Moscone. It is not an act of one person, or for one person, but instead an act by a community, for the community. It serves to hold the people together in this time of great loss. Additionally, the riots are never shown, only told, through screen text. This telling, not showing, is significant. It does not leave us with an image of violence. Instead, it says that after the riots, despite the massive amounts of destruction, no arrests were made. In the documentary we see the violence as an effect of the outcome of the trial. In Van Sant’s film, however, we see the violence as a communal catharsis sanctioned by the city through the lack of response from city officials. Earlier in the film we see state sanctioned violence against homosexuals in the form of arrests and police brutality. At this moment, when violence is greatest and committed against the state, the fact that the state does nothing to reprimand the protesters suggests that even if the state doesn’t stand with the protesters, it does not stand against them.
There is, I think, much more to talk about in this film but for the moment I will stop and suggest a discussion if anyone would like. I am interested in violence against the state and how/when it is affective and effective. I might post one more entry about “Milk.” If I do it will deal with Dan White, how he was portrayed, and the role of absurdity and individual action in the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It was directed towards a sympathetic audience and might not read as strongly to an opponent of gay rights and I’m glad that it eschewed this larger (or so I’m led to believe) audience. It’s purpose was to send a message of hope, and I thought it did this quite well. To watch an individual change a community is one thing, but to watch a community come together and try to make the world a better world for everyone is another thing entirely. Van Sant’s film shows one aspect of what a community acting together can accomplish and the necessity of such acts.

seeing white: part 1

The other night, after I finished my last paper for the semester, Sarah and I drove to New Orleans to pick up my sister, Shira. We then met up with Andy, had some extra salty and cheesy Mexican food, and went to go see Milk, the new Gus Van Sant movie about Harvey Milk.
The first time I heard about Harvey Milk was during my sophomore year of college. I was taking a solo-performance class and was performing an interpretation of Tim Miller’s “Spilt Milk.” Miller’s piece accentuated what it means to have your hopes shattered in a major way for the first time. I read it as a parallel story to my own, and as such, the death of Harvey Milk was not that interesting to me at the time. For me, the death of Harvey Milk in Miller’s story struck me as the moment that sealed Miller’s temporal doom. It meant that his journey was not going to be as simple as he thought. It was the realization that he had a journey, in the Gilgamesh, Jesus, Buddha kind of way. Miller says that San Francisco felt like a gay utopia in the late 70’s and the death of Harvey Milk shattered that false image. It’s here where the title of Miller’s piece is particularly disturbing. Miller is a highly affective performer, but if and when I have seen him cry, I can’t help but feel that there is still a part of him that is “acting.” This is by no means an admonition, especially since I think that he is only in part acting. The best affective performances are where the performer knows how close they can get to the line and position their performance at that point. Miller excels at this, and as such his performances are emotionally and politically charged. When we hear the last lines of this particular piece, and we hear of the death of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, we don’t see Miller break down. We do not see Miller cry over “Spilt Milk.” Instead, we see the burgeoning political activist coming into his own. We do not see that the utopia was shattered, but that the utopian image was shattered. The utopia never existed. When I was 19 and performing my adaptation of this piece, I focused on the shattering of the image without giving much thought to the particular image that Miller was evoking. In his piece, Miller was remembering a point in time where, for millions of people, an image of what could be seemed so close but was proven to be so very far away. Miller situates this in relation to his own story but is constantly evoking this larger audience.
I look back on my performance at the time and see that what I did was leave the global message that Miller was evoking, totally out of the performance, and focused instead on myself at a particular moment in time. My performance, while highly effective (I drew some conclusions that I otherwise wouldn’t have, and I created an enjoyable thirty minutes of theatre for my audience), was barely, if at all, affective. As such, I allowed my audience and myself to leave the theater unchanged.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

My choice for president

The other day I walked into my public speaking class and told my students, as I’ve told them all semester, that I was not going to try to persuade them to vote one way or another. I think it would be unethical to do so. What I told them instead is that when I go to vote, the way I make my decision is to figure out what is most important to me. What is it that I think, from my own particular vantage point of the world, that we need in order to make this world a better place. For me, I believe that the most important thing, and you can take this straight back to the constitution, is that everyone should have the ability to do what they love, and to do what they do best. In order for that to be possible, I believe that people need to be healthy, and well informed. Not just informed of the possibilities available to them, but of the steps that need to be taken in order for them to achieve those goals. I believe that what Barack Obama is planning with health care and education will help make it so that more people in the United States will be able to achieve their goals and live a life that they find fulfilling. I think he achieves this by looking ahead and working to preempt problems that might arise in the next twenty years. By offering health care to all children, it is more likely that children will not only grow up healthy, but will remain health conscious when it comes time for them to pay their own way for health care. By making it more possible for all people to attend college by engaging in community service, we help build a commitment to the country and to community in the young adults who go out and work for a public works project. After they complete this project, they will be offered money towards college and tuition reimbursement. In this way, Obama is attempting to reinforce a generation of Americans with a love for community and country, and the education that would allow them to continue building community in a way that is interesting and provocative for them.

The last few months have been stressful for me, in large part because I am afraid of us not looking far down the road. I’m afraid what will happen if we continue to try to fix and save for the present, instead of preparing for the future. It is hard to have faith in something and over the past few years my faith in just about everything has wavered from time to time. I have put my faith in Barack Obama not because he’s going to solve all of our problems right now. I have put my faith in him because he knows and freely admits that we can’t solve all the problems right now. The world is growing smaller and people are more connected than ever before. As we move forward, we need to do so intelligently. Yes, we need to work to make the world safer now, but if we are doing so at the cost of future relationships, that just doesn’t seem right. If the world is growing smaller, it also means that we are growing closer and closer to our neighbors. We have to find a way to be on equal ground with them, and to do so demands a population that is cognizant of other worldviews and willing to entertain new ideas. For that to happen we need a population that is well educated, and healthy, and I believe that that is what Barack Obama stands for.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


We are currently on day 5 without power, but last night the capitol building and the streetlights downtown came on. We were told that the latest our area will get power will be september 11th. then we were told that if it doesn't happen by then, the latest will be the 14th. That didn't make too much sense to me, but we're hopeful. Last night we went to one of our professors houses for dinner and today we are here getting work done. A couple of friends received word from FEMA today that they would be given a voucher to stay in a hotel for up to 30 days until their places become liveable again. That would be great except for the fact that all the hotels that are on FEMA's list (and there are a substantial number of them) are all totally booked up, indefinately. We were told to fill out the FEMA forms on line if we were without power for more than five days, so this morning I filled mine out. Not sure what is going to come of it, but we'll see.

In other news, LSU opened up with full power yesterday and classes are to resume Monday morning. I am both looking forward to this and dreading it as well. We have no food in our house, still no power, and frankly, the place is pretty disorganized. We haven't been able to do laundry and we had as many as 8 people staying with us and 5 cats. We've picked up as much as we can and Sarah was out sweeping the porches and doing other clean up the other day as well. I'm excited to get back to work, but with no power and my life kind of a mess, I'd also like some time to get it back in order before.

The last thing I will say before I go try to find some food (free food at the LSU dining hall!), is that everyone seems to be doing alright. there is a general air of exhaustion, but spirits still seem to be up. We're all slightly worried about Ike, especially as he seems to be following the same path as Andrew, but we're trying to avoid thinking about that until thinking about that becomes necessary. Thanks to everyone for their thoughts over the last week. My wonderful landlord also seems to be managing to make some headway on the van situation, so with fingers crossed, things are looking up!

Disasta' Map!

Friday, September 5, 2008

where is the power?