wet earth


Stories we hear growing up can really linger in the mind. Yesterday I told my father on the phone that Jeff and I are looking forward to the occasional rendezvous in Chicago while I am in Iowa.

“Chicago!” he shuddered. “Don’t go there.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too dangerous,” he said. “Gangsters.”

As my father’s mind continues its bumpy downward slope, I’m not surprised to hear such things. He was born in 1932, a time when “Chicago” and “gangster” formed an easy association.

“I think Chicago is okay,” I said, wanting to reassure him. “I think it’s like New York, there’s less crime than there used to be.”

“Hmm,” he said. He sounded doubtful. I changed the subject.

I am excited to visit the art museum with my husband, to hear the Symphony, to walk along the lake. But then I started thinking. What if my dad is right? His considerable wisdom continues to surprise me, arriving in unexpected, luminous bursts, not yet extinguished by the graying of his fading brain. While writing this post, I Googled “Chicago,” and at the top of the scroll was this headline: “Forty-five people were shot over Easter weekend in Chicago.” Most of this violence was gang-related: the new gangsters.

So my father is awake. Maybe he knows more than I think he does about the state of the world. Is this one of his wise flashes?

I think it is as safe to visit Chicago as any other major American city. I anticipate with pleasure and curiosity, not with fear, the discovery of a vibrant city. I choose to shed my father’s protective cloak of fear as often as I can.

And yet. And yet, a parent who still, no matter what our ages, worries about his son traveling so far from home, so far from his care: what could make more sense than that?

An Open Letter to Jack Burkman

Dear Jack,

I read about your idea of getting the United States government to pass a bill outlawing the presence of gay men in the National Football League.  I’m curious why this is so important to you.  You state that your motive behind the bill is that America is “losing its decency as a nation.”  In this view, you are not alone. In all fifty states, indeed throughout the world, there are people who see the recent and continuing progress in LGBTQ equality and same-sex marriage rights as a threat to society.  Something is indeed threatened, but I suggest that it is not what you think it is.

The increased freedom and acceptance of gay people threatens you because you are afraid. You aren’t afraid of gay men—why should you be, since gay men have no interest or intention to hurt you—and your fear has nothing to do with the Bible, or the sanctity of children, or your feelings about anal sex.  You are afraid because you, and many men like you, have allowed your identity to be constructed around the singular fact that you are not gay.

Your masculinity is a fragile, hollow shell, a mask so brittle, so vulnerable, that the mere idea of gay sexuality requires a fit of outrage to cover up your deep fear.  And what exactly is this fear?

It is this: that you, Jack, might be less than a man.  If you were to truly feel the shame behind this thought, you would collapse.

Your idea of maleness has become calcified around what a man “is” or “is not,” what a man “does” or “doesn’t do.”  For instance, in your view, a man is the one who penetrates, and is never penetrated.

But now, all around you, there are signs of gay people finding acceptance—from others, and, most crucially, from themselves.  And because of your tribal mentality, where for every winner there must be a loser, you are freaking out.  All these gay wins!  Does this mean you are a loser?

I myself do not believe you are a loser.  I think that you are lost, which is not the same thing, and that you are seriously out of touch with your deepest nature, which is love.  And because you have so much fear in you, and because I myself know what it is like to feel afraid—try growing up gay if you want to know fear—I cannot hate you.  You and I are both men who have known fear.  I will fight against all your attempts to demean my existence as a person and a citizen, but today what I am feeling most of all for you, Jack, is compassion.  There is a place in my heart for all living creatures, and that includes you.  True, it is a small place—I can’t deny that you really annoy me and piss me off—but it is there.

And that place of compassion is there because, having been hated by so many, I do not like the way hate feels in my body.  When I hate someone, I give my power to them, I make them more important than myself.  Is that really what you want to do: make gay men more important to you than yourself?

I also read that you have a gay brother, who is not a fan of your politics.  I can’t blame him.  I hope, for both your sakes, that you and he find a way to reconcile and appreciate the beauty and value in each of you.

My final message is this: the day you understand that your identity as a strong and worthwhile man is not threatened by the existence by gay men living and loving openly, you will be freer, and happier, than you can possibly imagine today.  And I want that for you.  I want it for everyone.  Thanks to the struggles and courage of so many, including myself, I can savor that freedom and happiness myself today, and let me tell you, it is awesome.



A Personal Theory of the Movies

I am three years old.  My sister and brother aren’t born yet.  I’m with my parents, inside my father’s black Chevrolet Rambler, at a California drive-in theater, somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.  It’s the 1960s and we are watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the three of us: father, mother, and little Kevin.  Little Kevin is scared—the dark woods, the gleaming apple filled with poison, the malevolent queen—yet he’s also aware of a red-and-black checkered wool blanket that covers and protects him and smells of home and safety, a familiar, slightly scratchy veil separating him, just enough, from the moving pictures, vast and terrifying, on the tremendous screen that looms high in the night, high and illuminated over the Rambler’s curving windshield.

“Snow White” was my first movie, and one of my earliest memories.  The film, the night, all of it was red and black: the apple with its dark poison inside, Snow White’s red lips and her black hair, the red taillights of all the cars, lined up in rows, the evil queen’s dark cape.  My father’s black car.  The red-and-black blanket.  My three-year-old eyelids slid downward before the film’s cheerier middle section, so there is no memory of that.  Instead I imagine the pale red images flickering, shadowing across the skin of my closed eyes as I slowly fell asleep.  There would be no happy whistling, no seven dwarves for me.  No rescuing prince.  My eyes were shut: I’d seen enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot about movies lately, and the strong feelings they seem to provoke, in myself and others.  When I saw “American Hustle” and was hotly disappointed, it felt urgently necessary to vent my feelings on Facebook, just as I could not stop talking about how much I loved “Frozen.”  Why the intensity?

My personal theory is that movies are about love and betrayal.  When I enter into a movie theater and the lights dim to a womb-like darkness, I submit to an experience I do not control.  All the pores of my mind, body and spirit are open to receive what is on the screen.  And when I feel let down by the movie, as I was by “American Hustle,” the feeling for me is not unlike having had sex with the Wrong Person: I let someone into my body, past my defenses, past my boundaries, and it was a mistake.  And I feel betrayed.

Some people carry thicker armor than me, and are able to see images that I would consider completely appalling and unacceptable, and then go outside afterward and enjoy a pizza—no harm done.  Certainly when I was younger, I saw plenty of scary movies.  I also rode roller coasters, had sex with strangers, and drank too much.  Now those choices don’t work so well for me.

I distinctly remember the movie that made me question my identity as a moviegoer: “Cape Fear,” starring Robert DeNiro.  In that movie, there is a brutal scene in which DeNiro’s character strangles a man with a piano wire.  That night, and several nights thereafter, I had vivid nightmares—clearly, seeing part of a piano, an object as inherent to my identity as my own body, used a a violent weapon, had struck a chord, one I never wanted to hear or feel again.  After that, I grew more careful about my moviegoer choices.

Today, the movies I like display those same qualities I look for in a friendship, and try to cultivate in myself: sincerity, vulnerability, honesty.  I have no time for the sour taste of cynicism, the sad self-puffery of snark, though clearly there is an enormously profitable market for these dubious pleasures, which I gladly I leave to others.  I will never be Hollywood’s prime target audience.

Recently I saw the film “Her,” written and directed by Spike Jonze, and starring Joaquin Phoenix.  Oh, how I love this movie!  Its subject is male loneliness, and the hunger to connect and feel loved and seen and known, and the temptations of isolation, and the common male tendency to retreat into anger and distance instead of feeling what is there to be felt.  But through the brilliant script, direction, set design, and performances, the film is in fact a gentle tutorial into the art of feeling.  So many films shout, gesticulating wildly—Look at me!  Instead, with quiet confidence, “Her” whispers.  And because it whispers, I am seduced, and not betrayed, and this is the second part of my theory, that films can also be about love, and a reminder of what pure love first felt like.

Who loved us first?  Who betrayed us first?  No wonder the feelings are so strong.

I think a great many films are loud and violent and snarky and cynical because they allow us to numb or deaden or ignore or deny those feelings that derive from childhood, feelings like grief and rage and bottomless pain.

What do you do with pain?  I don't know, but I do know that, for me, tenderness and kindness are a good place to start.  And there are films that I experience as tender and kind, which is not the same thing as sappy-sentimental—some of the favorites that come to mind at the top of my head, at this moment, are “Central Station,” “You Can Count on Me,” “Parting Glances,” “Lost in Translation,” “Moonstruck,” and “Working Girl.”  Just thinking about each one of these movies opens up a little place of joy in my heart.

With a friend, with a lover, I want tenderness.  I want kindness.  I want movies that welcome my trust, the openness I bring to that darkened room, movies that whisper into my ear stories of real life, real feelings, enveloping me with softness, the better to softly press against those places in the heart that still hurt.

I believe that art is a delicate balance of innocence and skill, naivete and craft.  Given the thousands of compromises and decisions, collaborative or top-down, that it takes to get a single movie on the big screen, one that manages to capture that feeling of tenderness without falling into sentimentality is, for me, nothing short of a miracle.

I recently took one of those Internet quizzes that asks you “Which [fill in the blank] are you?”  It turns out that, among Disney’s roster of princesses, I am Snow White, described by the quiz as “gentle, loving and trusting.”  Perhaps too trusting—I must be careful about what I let into my body, be it what I eat, whom I make love to, or what I watch.  I appreciate the skill and dedication it takes to make a film like “American Hustle” or “Wolf of Wall Street” (which I choose not to see), but I know myself well enough now to say that such things are not for me.  I’m a man now, not a three-year-old boy anymore, yet if I slow my breath and relax my mind, I can still feel that boy inside me, holding on to the red-and-black checkered blanket, closing his eyes to the fearful witch on the screen.  That boy has seen enough evil already; the next time I take him to the movies, it will be to enjoy a movie that makes his heart sing.