Monday, June 05, 2017

WOMEN AND PRIVILEGE

“I'm a white man. You can't even hurt my feelings! What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? ‘Hey, cracker.’ Ugh. Ruined my day. Shouldn't have called me a cracker. Bringing me back to owning land and people, what a drag."~ Louis CK, comedian

As much as I rail on against Patriarchy, and ways in which I have been challenged by it, I do know it could be worse.

I am a woman, subject to all the discrimination and onerous social burdens that entails. However, I am also a white woman. A white woman of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent. I am descended from Charlemagne, and am qualified to be a card-carrying member of the Daughters of the American Revolution through more than one branch of my family tree.  The last immigrants in my family tree got here in 1874 from Bremen, Germany, long before there was an Ellis Island.

My genes scream the story of my endemic Christian-descended whiteness, with their 94% Northern European origins. Of course, there is that tiny barely 2% of Ashkenazi Jew frolicking merrily amongst all the Catholic, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian DNA, sliding down the proverbial bannisters of my twisting double helices. Okay, maybe “frolicking” is too strong a word for what my Ashkenazi DNA is doing. Maybe it’s more like a little kvelling. Maybe some kvetching even, but what are you going to do?

My DNA hints at other stories on its own that have never been elaborated upon by relatives’ “round-the-Thanksgiving-table” chats. Where did the half a percent of West African DNA came from? It’s anyone’s guess, though I’d love to hear the story. Sadly, I’m certain that if any of my genteel maternal Southern relatives are alive who actually know the story, they aren’t telling it any time soon.

Suffice it to say that, in all ways visible to the naked eye, I am a WASP.  And though I suffer a plethora of disadvantages based on my gender, my race and my religious heritage give me huge advantages in this country. Even as a small child in the late sixties and early seventies, with the tumult of racial tensions swirling around me, my whiteness and Christian-ness shielded me from the fray in a way I was tangibly aware.  My working mother was an on-fire political progressive, still angry over the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King. Every night, she worked quickly to get dinner on the table for our nightly guests, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Every night, as their talking heads bobbled on our tiny black-and-white television, my mother explained in detail what we were watching.  So maybe school busing and the Vietnam War weren’t exactly what every nine or ten year old was learning at home. But I was probably the only ten-year-old who knew who could tell you who William Westmoreland and William Calley were. Come to think of it, that probably made me more weirdly nerdy than well-informed and interesting.

But it also made me acutely aware of things that were going on outside our little house in the Valley. My mother enlightened me about white privilege from an early age. “Doors will swing open for you,” she once told me, “just because you’re white and you’re pretty. Just be careful before you walk through them.”

Cryptic, I’ll grant you, but I see now what she was trying to tell me.

Privilege is fabulous. Being able to walk into any restaurant, club, traffic court appearance, apartment rental office, job interview, and know that I have one thing automatically in my favor - that of being a white person - takes a certain amount of sting out of any situation. But it comes at another, often unseen price.

Because, as previously stated throughout this book, if one of us is suffering, we’re all suffering.

If one of us is oppressed, none of us can be free.

I am in no position to document the myriad of ways women of color suffer at the hands not only of the Patriarchy but of a system designed to subjugate them based on their religion and/or skin color as well. I will leave the telling of those experiences to women who’ve experienced them. But let’s take a look at how the world that white people in general, and white women in particular, live in every day, sees women of color. And what better way to glean what our culture thinks of us than to delve into the vast, mysterious world of… stock photography.

Google something for me. Google “stock photos of business colleagues in meetings”. Now click “Images”.  See what comes up. Oh, the blinding sea of whiteness that floods your monitor, mostly white maleness. White men in business suits. White men in shirt sleeves. White men laughing in business meetings. White men laughing at white-board studded presentations. White men laughing while they’re talking on the phone. And do you know why they’re laughing. They’re laughing because being a white man is fucking hilarious and awesome, goddammit. If you were a white man at a business meeting, you'd be laughing your ass off right about now.

If any women appear in those stock photos, they are usually represented in one of two forms - either they are clearly subordinates, or they are clearly only in the presence of women or minorities. The message is clear.

“You can lead, but not us..”

“You can be in charge, but not of us.”

In a disturbing number of these photos, the white men who are having rolicking good times at these business meetings are, in fact, in the presence of women, but the woman is pictured in the foreground, back to the camera, often blurred by depth of field.

There’s a message here, too.

We can show up to these meetings. We can have a laugh or two. But we’re not of significant importance to actually be pictured doing so. We will never deserve to share the spotlight with men.

While we're sitting here with Google open and we're on a roll, let's go ahead and Google one more thing: “stock photos of female business colleagues.”

WHOA! More white people. Holy crap! Could you ever imagine there were this many white people staring at incomprehensible diagrams and pie charts on dry erase boards in the entire world?

Granted, this Google search will be slightly less white than the previous one. But only slightly. If you ever wondered why people of color rage about tokenism, and you asked yourself, “Exactly what is tokenism, anyway?” This shit right here. This is tokenism. Throwing the occasional woman of color into a sea of white business women in stock photos. This way,  we can see clearly that white people and black people can just get along when money’s at stake (but only if all the participants are female).

That’s tokenism. Tokenism is a way that privileged groups sort of, kind of include less privileged groups, so they can fend off the argument of privilege, without actually running the risk of doing away with any of their real privilege.

So why am I going on about stock photos, anyway? They’re a bunch of staged pictures, sold to companies whose marketing budgets are too small to afford to hire actors and actresses to pose for their marketing brochures and website demos. What could Shutterstock possibly have to do with patriarchy and white privilege.

Here’s what.

Stock photos are sold to branding and marketing companies for use in materials that, presumably, will be used to sell products or services to the people with the money to buy them. Stock photo companies like to make money. So they are very careful and strategic in the photos they choose to take and post for sale.

Furthermore, the reason those specific photos came up when you typed that phrase into Google comes down to something called “metadata” - invisible tags that stock photo companies assign to those photos so that when you Google “stock photos of Asians at a cocktail party,” you’ll get precisely what you’re looking for. (I’ll now pause for a moment, so you can Google “stock photos of Asians at a cocktail party.” Because you’re dying to. I can feel it.)

And it is clear by the predominant composition of visual marketing material available from stock photo companies that the people they are selling their photos to hold certain beliefs about race and gender to be self-evident.  Those beliefs translate into something real, something tangible. Images we see in advertising, in marketing, in branding suggest truths to us -- whether they’re true or not.

Not long ago, a large studio merger put me in the position of job hunting (once again). I went into an employment office, where I was being prepped for an interview. The artwork on the wall of the recruiting office was mostly inspirational posters. But the featured wall contained three posters of suited sleeves, engaged in enthusiastic handshakes.

To its credit, two of the posters contained the hand of at least brown hand.. But they all had one thing in common. Every hand was a be-suited male. At least, as a white person, my race was represented in those posters. But if I were a woman of color, those posters, featured so prominently in a place promising to find me gainful employment, I believe I would feel completely disenfranchised to the point of despair. I can only imagine that cognitive message a woman of color gets when confronted with the representation of a world where, not only is she not in charge because of her gender, but she is barely invited because of her race or religion.

Maybe some posters in an employment office aren’t indicative of the business world at large. So let’s turn to the illustrious Fortune 500 list to see if reality is a little more broadminded.

As I write this, of the five hundred listed chair people or CEOs Fortune magazine lists as the top companies in America, twenty-seven of them are female. Only five of them are African American. None of them are female and African American. In fact, in the entire history of the Fortune 500 list, there have been only fifteen African American CEOs or chair people.

According the U.S. Census Bureau, though black women are very nearly as educated as their white counterparts, their median income is about five thousand dollars a year less than ours.  Much is made of the seventy-cents on the dollar that women earn to a men. But when race is added to the mix, the disparity in income becomes even more shocking and harder to stomach.  African American women earn between fifty and sixty-eight cents on the dollar as non-Hispanic white men earn. Though I’ve never raised an African American child, I am going to postulate that they are every bit as costly to rear as white children, so the idea of having to work just as hard, but make do with even less, in a society that devalues you because of your gender combined with your skin color is darn near intolerable.

Or at least, it should be.

Why, in the middle of a book about smashing Patriarchy, are we now discussing race? Because Patriarchy and racism are both institutionalized artificial social constructs that exist to the same end - to bestow upon one group of humans, at the expense of another group, a privilege and entitlement by virtue of an incidental and irrelevant happenstance of DNA - either gender or skin color.

I am not a black or Muslim woman. I am white. I have suffered the tyrannies of Patriarchy, but never the tyrannies of racism. And certainly, I have never been required to suffer both simultaneously. Millions of American women of color suffer these indignities daily. But I am as dedicated to abolishing racism as I am to smashing the Patriarchy.

What good does it do to tear down one artificial social construct if we're not prepared to do away with all of them. Especially when they are so damaging and hurtful as America's history with racial subjugation. And especially where women of color are concerned.

If you are a bystander to racism or bigotry, and do nothing to squelch it, you are, in effect, saying that oppressing people is just fine by you. If you are a participant in racism, but believe Patriarchy creates an unlevel playing field for you as a woman, then you are missing the point entirely and probably deserve to be subjugated yourself. Go stand in the corner and think about what you’ve done.

If we are going to beat this thing called Patriarchy, then we have to be prepared to abolish all  forms of privilege -- even our own. As a white woman, I must be comfortable with the idea that, as ideology shifts and things level out, my competition gets tougher and the automatic pass I get for being white and culturally Christian falls away.

It has to be this way. Because our enemy in the fight to smash Patriarchy is not manhood. We love men, sexually and platonically, familially and fraternally. Men are stupendous. Men are not the enemy here. The enemy here is the privilege. The enemy here is the automatic bias that accompanies something as random and meaningless as possessing two X chromosomes. Our allies in the battle aren’t just women, but also men, who instinctively see that such arbitrary assignments of credit are just that - arbitrary.

This is true of race and religion. It isn’t black against white. It is inequality vs. equality. It is disdain vs. dignity. The color of one’s skin, the practice of one’s religion, these things should only be relevant to the person or practitioner in question, and should have no meaning to anyone else. To assign societal and monetary benefits to such superficial criteria diminishes us all. And to allow it to continue makes us all complicit.

Equality is equal. It doesn’t put one person over another for any reason. And if you and I are going to tear down the walls that Patriarchy has built around us to keep us from our rightful due, then we must be prepared to do that for our sisters of color and for our sisters who speak to a different higher power (or no higher power at all). It’s all of us or none of us. And the sooner we accustom ourselves to a balanced, just, and fair world, where one is judged strictly and honestly on merit and effort, the better off our children and their children and their children’s children will be.



Monday, May 01, 2017

The Next, Best, Worst, Maybe-Just-Not-So-Great-But-What-Do-We-Know Dalai Lama

Could it be that, because we're all fired up about Tibet, we have inadvertently become over-attached to a process by which we are selecting the literal poster child for non-attachment? Let us take ourselves and our big, gigantic, know-it-all egos out of this for a moment and reflect.

Suppose this entire process is unfolding exactly as it is meant to? Suppose that, no matter who does the submitting or selecting or entitling, the person who is intended to be the next Dalai Lama is chosen, precisely as intended by the Universe?

What if, for just a minute, we set aside our worldly anger, bitterness, confusion, and righteous indignation, and assume -- for just an instant -- that the Universe is more vast and intentional than we can even imagine, and understand that, no matter who the Dalai Lama is, and no matter who selects him/her, that the world moves on OUR love, and OUR intention, and OUR faith, and OUR compassion.

Raging against the politics of the selection of a spiritual leader that represents the letting go of things over which we have no control, over acceptance of worldly things as just that -- worldly, and thereby transient -- is the epitome of irony.

One of two things will happen here, folks. Either the exact person who is meant to be the Dalai Lama is chosen the Dalai Lama... OR... another person will step into the light and fill the void. Either way, there isn't a person here, or on Twitter, or on Facebook who can control the outcome of this, no matter how rageful, fearful, bitter, or violent they choose to be.

To paraphrase the current Dalai Lama...

"Chill, dudes."

(Or words to that effect.)

 ~C~



Monday, March 28, 2016

I Think I Just Scared Myself

There I was, minding my own business, going through old Dropbox files, when I stumbled on something I wrote last year that I barely remember writing.  Clearly, it’s the beginning of a short story, and clearly the genre is Horror/Suspense (though I rarely delve into this genre).  But the font is italicized and from the POV of a very minor character, which means it’s part of what I had intended to be a much larger piece.  What that piece was, I couldn’t tell you.

But reading it kind of scared me. It’s darker than I usually write, and more implicitly violent than I’m usually comfortable. The dates on the file indicate that I wrote it during the day whilst working at Al Jazeera America. (That may explain more about it than I am prepared to acknowledge.)

I thought I’d share it, since I have little inclination at the moment to continue the piece. But maybe we should con-fab on this. Is it suspense thriller? Is it supernatural? Is it apocalyptic?

(Editor’s note: I promise you, at no time, in the history of anything, no matter how dark life was, was there ever going to be a zombie in this story. ~AS~)

Here’s the first few paragraphs of a lost little story, found today in Dropbox:
______________
Mrs. Kennedy moves gingerly around the detritus scattered from one end of the hall to the other. 
She’s older now, and her once-keen night vision isn’t what it used to be. But there is some light, a little, from the half-moon just outside the living room window, beaming down the hall. Mrs. Kennedy can make out the sheen on the polished marble of the hall, and the glints of broken light flitting off the shards of shattered glass, and a perfect little reflection of the arched living room window, reflected in the red-black, spreading pool of fresh blood pouring from Lorna’s mortal wound.

The curls of fragrant smoke issue forth from the incense pot on the mantel, the twirling white vines of vaporous lavender and chamomile creating an aura of false serenity. Incense, so pleasing to Lorna, has always confused Mrs. Kennedy. Smoke is a sign of something bad in a cat’s world – even when it is sweet-smelling and sanguine. To create it intentionally seems dangerous.
Mrs. Kennedy navigates the impromptu obstacle course, and comes to a stop at Lorna’s body, sniffing the bloody hand that rests just above Lorna’s head. Mrs. Kennedy switches her tail, and flares her nostrils as the smell of fresh blood inflames her senses, calling on something wild and feral that no amount of domestication has ever been able to remove from cats. Her burlap tongue darts from her mouth and collects a single drop of Lorna’s blood – just enough for Mrs. Kennedy to assess that Lorna is very freshly dead. 
As she reaches this conclusion, Mrs. Kennedy spots the shadow in the corner, and in an instant, she fluffs her fur on end, arches her back, and releases a long, dark, guttural growl.
__________

And there it is. Or isn’t. As the case may be. What was I thinking? Where was my head at? Was I really this dark at AJAM? Who knows? What’s this story about? Help me out here. Maybe we can resurrect it, with some good ideas (Let me reiterate - NO FUCKING ZOMBIES!) and some mutual brainstorming.


My Own Personal “Yes”

Okay, sooo.....

As those of you who are my Fitbit buddies know - especially if you’ve challenged me to a “step-off” lately - my old Fitbit Flex, that I’ve been wearing pretty steadily for the past 2 years, is kind of on its way out... it won't hold a charge for long, it keeps disconnecting from Bluetooth... it's tired.

I was on Amazon, shopping for a new one, and debating between the old Fitbit (which is now $80), and a newer model, that measures heart rate (which my nutritionist is telling me, while not necessary, is probably a good thing for me).

I was flipping back and forth between the two models, reading the descriptions, mulling the options ($80 vs. $145), and then I realized it was lunch time, so I saved both to my "Saved for Later" list.

Or so I thought.

After lunch, I got an email alert that my fancy-schmancy, plum-colored Fitbit Charge HR was wending its way to me even as I munched my salad.  Apparently, I'd inadvertently clicked "Buy with 1 click" during my comparison.  Which is really no big deal, because we all know that Amazon Prime has an awesome return policy.

Except I was listening at lunch to Shonda Rhimes' memoir, "The Year of Yes", and she just happened to have spent the entire lunch hour whispering in my ear about how fortuitous happenstance blended with opportunity to offer her many chances to expand her world (and shrink her waistline), and how she had vowed to spend a year saying "yes" to everything that scared her.

And it occurs to me that, while I'd love to spend the money on something else more fun... the old Fitbit was my constant cheerleader and nagging trainer, refusing to let me lie to myself, refusing to back up any of the lies I told other people ("At LEAST, 10,000 steps today... maybe even 12,000". Liar, says Fitbit... you barely broke 9K today.)

So, on Friday, my new plum-colored Fitbit Charge HR will show up, and I will buckle it on (this one buckles) and sync it up, and I will put my little Flex unit in the drawer for a long nap, which it's earned.

I'm saying "yes" to the Fitbit, to the walking, to the salads, and all that it entails.

~A~

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jack-A-Palooza

(With Dad's birthday just passed, and Father's Day not far away, heading into this three-day weekend, I wanted to share this, which I wrote for the memoir class I took recently with Sara Benincasa.)

Catharine & Jack, Christmas, 1995
My father was born in Texas in 1929, and died in California in 2007.  I believe he was rather startled by both events.

Dad was one of those people who always seemed a little puzzled by life in general.  He did achieve a considerable success as a writer for television series and movies-of-the-week, and a single feature film that managed to do exceedingly well at the box office, and in fact lives on, on cable television, premium movie channels, and video-on-demand. 

Still, my father never quite mastered success. He never fully embraced it.  He was never really gracious or elegant at it.  He treated success and professional praise as if he was being stalked by a woman he picked up in a bar one night, that wouldn't take "no" for an answer in the bright light of day. 

He somehow managed to snag my mother at a party one night, though what, exactly she saw in him, I still cannot image. I cannot help but believed liquor was involved.  My father was, it is true, charming, witty, and intelligent.  But he wasn’t really “a catch”.  He was a less-than-tall, less-than-employed actor, attractive in a rather ordinary way. My mother was a beautiful and successful theater actress. She had ridden into to town on the wings of a Broadway touring company. She was beautiful and brilliant, if a bit spoiled and petulant. She had run away from an impetuous marriage to a New York business man who wanted nothing more than to make her happy. 

My father, on the other hand, did not want to make my mother happy. His attitude toward being loved was similar to his attitude toward being successful. He was unable to accept either. So he ended their affair, with me already on the way.  The idea of “doing the right thing” by his pregnant ex-girlfriend was not something my father was even prepared to entertain.  He’d already moved on, was sleeping with my mother’s former best friend (though she would go to her grave not knowing this, as he chose only to confide to me in adulthood), and had no intention of going back, baby or no baby. 

Rules didn’t apply to him. Social boundaries didn’t apply to him. Things like mores and standards didn’t apply to him. Being proper and manners didn’t apply. I’ve no doubt his mother taught him all of these things, the way she did with her other children.  I’m just pretty sure he didn’t think she was talking to him. 

Growing up, we would sit around the table and listen to the adults tell the most horrible jokes – offensive, racist, awful, vicious – some of them about real people. My mother, for all her sarcasm and sly wit, would have cringed at that kind of inappropriateness.  But when you’re immersed in it, you become desensitized, inured, immune.  Years late, my half-sisters and I would construct the Sowards family motto, which my father quickly embraced, once he’d heard it – “If it gets a laugh, it’s not in bad taste.” 

My father used to tell us all the time that he was going to be the only person to “get out of this alive”.  Meaning life.  He also told us that, if he did go, he was “taking it all” with him.  But I think he truly believed that somehow, when the time came, he would find a loophole or a backdoor or a cheat code that would get him an extra life, like in Donkey Kong.

After all, this was the man who invented the Kobayashi Maru test – an unwinnable test that, regardless of what decision you make, what path you take, you and your entire crew are destined to die.  Except one guy actually beat the test.  He did it by cheating. And he was the hero of the movie.  People sat in the movie theatre, watching “Wrath of Khan”, thinking it was a clever little plot twist, designed to show us Kirk’s bad-boy nature and to reveal a part of his character we have heretofore only suspected.  My sisters and I sat in the theatre and saw it for what it was – an escape plan.  Somewhere in his mind, my father was pretty sure that, if he could just get in there and invert that fly wheel, he’d figure out a way to cheat the test.

So when he got the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), he was a little shocked. When the doctor gave him the period at the end of the sentence – “terminal” – he was dumbfounded.  Not one to entirely give up on a legacy, he said that, henceforth, ALS would no longer be called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but rather, Jack Sowards’ Disease.  When I asked him how he figured he’d warranted that, his reasoning was pretty simple:

      “Finders, keepers.”


Hard to argue with that kind of perfect logic. 

My father had always said he wanted to die suddenly, of a heart attack, in bed with a beautiful woman.  He died in bed, but it wasn’t quick, and it wasn’t during coitus.  He was in a coma – had been for days – during the first week in July, 2007.  My sister, who was now his full-time caregiver, had had his bed moved into the living room, because it was cooler than the bedroom, where the windows faced full west.  In the end, the closest he got to a party was when, on the Fourth of July, a small group of family and very close friends arrived with steaks and beer and some sparklers and ice cream. We sat on the screen porch, ten feet away from my dying father, broiled steaks, drinking beer, talking about the best memories, the funniest, most inappropriate jokes, and doing “Dad” impressions all day.  There were so many Dad impressions, in fact, that we began referring to the event as “Jack-a-palooza”.  Every few minutes, someone would spontaneously yell out, “Gahhhd-DAMM-it!”, in the same sing-song-y intonation Dad had used to say it.

Maybe we were hoping we could mock him out of the coma.  My father was never one to let a straight line go, or even a punch line, without trying to top it.  But he didn’t try to top it this time.  He let our jokes lie on their own. My sister spent time between Dad jokes, alternately slipping spoonsful of liquid morphine and chocolate sorbet – first, a teaspoon of one, then a teaspoon of the other -- carefully into his slack mouth, trying to stay ahead of the painful cramps that go along with ALS, 1while ensuring that the last thing he tasted would be the thing he loved most – chocolate.
Is it you?

He died four days later, on the 8th, after my sister had sent all the vigil-keepers home.  Once we’d all cleared from the house, he let go and slipped away. Maybe the audience had to leave before he could wrap up the performance.  Still, I think somewhere inside, he was still a little perplexed – by his life, by his death, by his children, by the women in his life who chose to love him.  It was all a mystery to him, one he never figured out. 

I’m a firm believer in reincarnation, and I do wonder if my father is slated for a comeback. Surely, he didn’t master what he came here to learn, unless telling off color jokes and mastering a pithy one-liner can be considered a spiritual dharma. I look at my grandson, born three years and one day after his great-grandfather’s death, and wonder to myself, “Is it you?” Sylas is also puzzled by life, but then again, he’s four.  The kid can’t tie his shoes yet. 

Still, he is inordinately fond of chocolate.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Leaping Without Looking

I'm trying to teach Sylas how to pump his legs on the swing.  He has the general idea, but he hasn't fully mastered the technique for increasing velocity, height, trajectory, etc.  So, for much of his excitement, he must rely on someone - in this case, me - to push him from behind.

It's a tricky business, this swinging thing.  It seems simple enough. You go forward, your feet go out, swing back, and your feet go back. But there's timing and reach and a certain amplitude that determines just how high you swing, how far you can push chain and hook and steel frame, and it must be mastered before one leaves childhood.

Why?

Because learning to swing by yourself, as high and fast as you can, under your own power and control, may be one of life's most valuable lessons.  There's a moment when you've mastered pumping your legs on the swing, when you've got it just right, and you know how it works - how hard to pump, how high to go, how far you must lean back, then bow forward to go just how fast, and at what angle - that you realize that if you wait until just the right moment, let go of the thick chain, pull your arms into your body, time it just right, and then leap, for a moment, you can fly.  For just a moment you hang in the air at the top-most arc of the swing's pendulum, before falling to the soft sand below.  And in that moment of airborne bliss, whole lives are lived.

Jumping out of the swing is not for everyone. I know people who learned to swing when I did who still haven't done it.  Not even once.  They never dared let go of the big steel chain links long enough to feel the nothing underneath them for a few brief fractions of a second. The weightlessness of it, the anti-gravity at that point in the arc, it's a glimpse into what life would feel like if it were lived with no limits.

Limits come in all forms - natural and man-made. But they can always be overcome. Look at that plane NASA uses to train astronauts to accustom themselves to weightlessness - The Vomit Comet.  It's just a particularly nimble, agile fixed-wing aircraft that can fly on a specific parabola, the peak of which produces a 20 - 25 second immunity from gravity's pull. But for nearly half a minute, an ordinary person can feel what it's like to escape one of the most persistent, powerful forces of nature.

The boundaries of science can be overcome, even if only for a few seconds, through cunning, determination, and fearlessness. And most of our limits aren't scientific.  Most of them are simply self-imposed ceilings we've incorporated into our lives to stay "safe". Like the decision one makes never to let go of the steel links at the top of the arc of the swing and set sail for the unknown. The 2000s have been a ceaseless attempt by me to break those bonds I've set on myself. Work, education, the body... Since the millennium, I've been working to try and make the last fifty years of my life as full of growth and danger as the first fifty were.

I think 2015 is, for me, the Year of Love. Not just romantic love, but all kinds of love. This is the year where I figure out how to start looking at everything through a lens of love. As opposed to the lens of cynicism or anger or extreme annoyance.

This is the year when I look back at the chances I've taken and I embrace all of them - both the ones that worked out in  my favor and the ones that didn't.  Embracing success and failure, with neither hubris nor regret, is the overwhelming goal of 2015.

Also, I think, falling in love... with my whole heart... with someone who deserves it.  Even if it doesn't work out.  I want to love as if I were 17 again - that love that you feel when it would never occur to you that the other person might not reciprocate.  It's harder now, because now I know that the other person might not reciprocate. I know that when you're in a love relationship, the door locks from the inside, and everyone is free to leave at will.

That's the miracle. The miracle is that you can leave, or they can leave, but neither of you does. Every day that you both stay, especially when the days get hard and un-fun, that is where the miracle of love abides.

I used to think that being alone was a safeguard against a broken heart. But it's not. It's the quieter way to go, for sure, but no less horrible.  We are put here to love each other - platonically, romantically, sexually - and sometimes all at once.

Louise Erdich wrote in The Painted Drum:
"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
This is the year I will taste as many apples as I can, even if some of them are rotten. This is the year I swing as high as I can, pull my hands around the chains, point my toes, and - without looking - I leap.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy Will Never Truly Die for Me.

Some time in late 1980, my father, Jack B. Sowards, was approached to write the screenplay for the next attempt to bring Star Trek to the big screen. The first attempt, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, had been a box office disappointment and had cost Paramount Pictures a small fortune to make.  Though it would, through cult standing alone, eventually make back its money (and then some), the motion picture arm of Paramount had little taste for trying to bring the franchise to the big screen.

Enter Paramount Television.

Television executives at PPC, who had an ongoing relationship with ST creator, Gene Roddenberry, refused to give up on the idea that Star Trek could play to a film audience successfully, and would regenerate interest in the characters and the premise of the story.  They suggested making a second feature, but this time, producing through the television arm. Paramount had proven in the 60s that with some ingenuity and clever budgeting, they could make a science fiction space travel series on a relatively small bankroll.  The powers that be at Paramount agreed to give them another chance, and hired television showrunner Bennett (known for his penchant for coming in on budget) to oversee the production.

Bennett quickly set about collecting Star Trek's actors to participate. Almost all immediately, readily agreed.  Except one - Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy had never made any bones about being glad to move away from Spock, and had only participated in the first feature reluctantly. He had moved on, was a writer, a photographer, an artist and a poet.  The constant airplay that the three seasons of the television series provided him were enough to provide him with the ability to pick and choose how and when he worked, and he had moved on to other series work, as a regular (Mission: Impossible, In Search of....) and as a guest star (Columbo, Night Gallery). He didn't need Spock anymore, and wasn't anxious to don the ears for what might be another box office letdown.

Thus, when Harve Bennett approached my father to write the screenplay, he told him there would have to be a new Vulcan character, because the old one wasn't available.  My father (being my father) wasn't about to quit so easily.  "Get me a meeting with him," he told Bennett. "Just a lunch. I will get him to sign."

A week later, he was sitting across a table from Leonard Nimoy himself, the latter having agreed to a brief, half-hour, hard-out meeting with Bennett and my dad.  My father listened carefully to Nimoy's rational explanation for why he did not want to rejoin the cast.  Then he said to Nimoy, "What if I could give you a glorious death scene in the first 10 minutes of the film?"

Silence.

Then Nimoy said, "The first ten minutes?"

"Yes."

"A glorious death scene?"

"Explosions. Fire. Sizzling control panels. The works."

He pushed the first draft of the first 20 pages of what would become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan across the table. Nimoy agreed to read them.

He'd captured Nimoy's attention.  Nimoy was no fool. He knew that, should he sign on, no producer or writer in their right mind would actually agree to kill Spock off in the first 10 minutes. There had to be a catch. And, of course, there was one. But Nimoy was intrigued by a writer who seemed to be more in tune with the original concept of the show than the high-fallutin' movie producers and screenwriters who had botched the first film.  My father knew what made the series great, and Nimoy was able to see that and understand that it could be great again.

The first twenty pages of the film, for anyone who knows the movie, contain the Kobayashi Maru scene, where Spock does indeed "die" in the first ten minutes of the film. For those not familiar with the movie, it's a simulated death during a training exercise. But once Nimoy had read the pages, he was onboard. He signed the next week, and the rest is, indeed, history.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan opened in theatres in the U.S. on June 4, 1982, and went on to gross over $14 million dollars that weekend, the largest opening weekend in history at that time.  In its first release, it made $97,000,000 worldwide. And it spawned the resurgence of the franchise, which later went on to make four more films featuring the original cast members, plus three additional television series, and features made from those series.  And J.J. Abrams' remakes still continue to rake in the cash. STII:TWoK "saved the franchise", as my friend, Tony Serri, once said.

Those first 20 pages were the hook for Nimoy, who would, through the films and his appearances on the spin-offs, make peace with Spock, come to love him in fact. Without Spock, STII:TWoK would not have been the film it was. It would not have provided my father with a lasting legacy as a screenwriter.

I'm sorry Leonard Nimoy is gone. He was an artist on a lot of levels.  He took great pictures, and wrote lovely poetry, and saw the beauty in everything.  He was funny and smart and eloquent.

Safe travels, Mr. Nimoy, and may you find a new adventure waiting for you on the other side. You live on in the series, in the films, in your pictures, your paintings and your poetry.  To me, you are tucked into a casket pod, lying on a steamy, just-baked, fern-filled planet, waiting for right moment to regenerate.









(Note: For the sake of expedience and focus, I have truncated the story somewhat. A more detailed account can be found here, in this HuffPost blog by Robert J. Elisberg, for those who are interested. And it is an interesting story, because Nimoy was so key to the success of this film. No one knew that better than Nimoy himself, except for maybe my dad.  I encourage you to read Elisberg's account.)

Friday, January 02, 2015

Retro-Chron: Land of the Beautiful (Squished Flat) People

First published here in November, 2010:

A couple of days ago, I walked from the office where I'm temping to the Century City Mall.  It's warmed up in Los Angeles again, and it was about 90 degrees out. I had the iPod on, and that always has a strange effect on me when I walk. Usually, I walk in the city the way a city-smart person walks -- alert, aware of my surroundings, conscious of what the strangers around me are doing. When I'm wearing the iPod, I generally only pay attention to the city, not the people. The buildings, the street, any physical obstacles, walk/don't walk signals, automobiles (but not the people in them) -- these are the things that catch my eye in between the measures and the rests.

Two days ago, I noticed an inordinate number of dead things on the way to the Mall. There was something in the road that resembled a little hedgehog (probably a baby porcupine), prickly and crushed in the street. A few yards away, an earthworm that had gotten caught on a busy sidewalk in the searing Indian summer sun. And then a bit further down, a bird, fallen, crushed and decomposing in the carefully sculpted landscaping outside of the Sun America building.  All of these casualties can lead one to only one conclusion.

This city will run right over you, if you're not careful.

Today, I had occasion to drive through Beverly Hills on my way somewhere else. You can't mistake driving through Beverly Hills.  The people have a look about them.  Even the ones in their cars look different if they're coming from Beverly Hills.  Walking down Rodeo Drive, you see the most beautiful women. They're all wearing the same uniform -- tight ponytails, calculated to show off the work of their brilliant plastic surgeon (and the work is beautiful -- not that hideous, rubbery-lipped, pug-nosed atrocity one usually sees as L.A. plastic surgery), tight t-shirts to show off their hours in the Pilates studios, expensive, well-cut designer jeans to show off the hours of yoga and spinning. Big sunglasses, wildly expensive jewelry, wildly expensive shoes, all of them seemingly desperate to be looked at, yet all of them looking exactly the same.

And all of them looking just ever-so-slightly unhappy.

I'm wondering where I'm going to be living in a month or two. I'm fat, I'm getting old, a plastic surgeon hasn't been within miles of my face, my shoes are from DSW, my shirt and jeans are from Target, I'm driving a banged up Hyundai... and... I think I can safely say that I am miles happier than the vast majority of these women.

Why?

Because they failed to be careful, and this city ran right over them.

L.A. will poison you if you let it.  It's a beautiful place, full of beautiful people, and it runs on one of the most glamorous industries around. The most beautiful people come here and they work to make themselves even more beautiful, by Hollywood standards. This city tells you there is one standard only for Beauty -- the Hollywood kind.  And maybe, if you're a studio executive or an agent or an actress, you buy into that lie.  But there are a lot of us for whom Los Angeles isn't an entertainment mecca.  It's home. It's not home because we came here with a suitcase full of dreams and a heart full of hope.  It's home because we were born here, raised here, just like so many of the emigres here call Duluth, Minnesota or Syracuse, New York home.

We're not here for the glamour.  We're here because here is where we have always been. We know this city -- know it like the back of our hands.  This city can't lie to us.  It can try, but we'll see right through it. This isn't a mecca for anything. It's just a place where people come, hoping their lives will be better and happier and more affluent than the place from whence they came. Or it's a place where people stay because it's everything they've known or want to know. Or it's just a place they move to so they don't spend the better part of every winter digging their way out of 22 inches of snow.

It won't make you happy, and it won't make you forever young. If you are beautiful, it might make you more so (with the right trainer, the right aesthetician and the right plastic surgeon), but it won't care one way or the other. It will tell you what you have to do to make it love you, you'll do it, but it still won't love you.

Let's face it -- L.A. is a bad boyfriend. If you let it, if you show it you care what it thinks about you, it will use you and abuse you, then step on you and leave your decaying, surgically enhanced carcass on the sidewalk, just like that baby porcupine.

Those sad ladies in Beverly Hills, wearing their little Rodeo Drive uniforms, with their Botoxed foreheads and their tight ponytails, will never understand that. Those of us who are from here, who belong here, who can survive here... we already know.