Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Living with passion

Cleve Jones says he was once as cute as Emile Hirsch, the actor who played him in Milk, last year’s bio-pic starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. For about three months.

But, as I saw when he spoke here last week a few days after being involved in leading the October 11 gay rights march in Washington, D.C, he has no regrets. Mr. Jones is not bitter about being an older, somewhat sagging gay man, past his prime, so to say. In fact, he insisted that he is having a wonderful time now, perhaps the best in his life, telling the many college students in the audience to enjoy their youth but not to despair about getting older.

And what a life Mr. Jones has had! Not really a wonderful life, or a charmed life, but certainly a life lived with passion. And he spoke about it, quite generously, with considerable passion.

I am sorry I can’t recount all the details, but they are not so important. What grabbed me was the force and emotion with which Mr. Jones spoke of leaving his family as a very young man, going out to San Francisco and meeting and working for Harvey Milk; seeing Milk as he laid dead after being shot by fellow County Supervisor Dan White and taking part in the huge, silent, candle-lit vigil following the murder and the violent march after White got off with a light sentence; meeting a man who would be his best friend - "only a friend" - and then being devastated but embraced by the man’s family when the man died; starting the AIDS quilt with a friend and being amazed by how it grew and how beautiful and eloquent the panels were/are; being diagnosed with AIDS and almost dying.

Clearly, such a full, dramatic life have left him full of strong feelings. Indeed, he ended his formal talk with a full-throated demand that GLBT people have full, equal rights - not one right there and a different right here. I heard him saying that queer folks should be accepted as they are and not have to assimilate, and I suspect he’d agree with me that it was wrong that the No on 8 campaign here in California last year never mentioned the word "gay," furthering its shame.

By the way, the talk took place at Claremont McKenna College, a couple weeks after hosting RuPaul, the super drag queen (see "Playing with all the colors in the box" below). I was also impressed to learn that C.M.C was the first college to display the AIDS quilt years ago, which I remember attending. Not bad for a school known for conservative jocks!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Parks for all

I almost feel sorry for Ken Burns. His films, shown on PBS, are almost parodies of themselves.

Even before I watch them, I know them. They are so familiar, like the back of my hand. Yes, always, always, there are the lovingly presented black and white and sepia photographs; the haunting, repeated, folky music; the letters and reports read by the best actors; the talking heads who are actually engaging; the narrator with the perfect, sonorous voice; the interest-piquing section titles and the thousands of fascinating, poignant, charming and humorous details and anecdotes. And then, although Burns has made shorter films, there is also the marathon, Wagnerian length of his documentaries.

Although he started out with a number of shorter films, this all really began with The Civil War. The trouble was that he started off with the perfect film, setting the gold standard, and his subsequent mega-docs - on baseball, jazz, the West, World War II - have almost been let-downs. Many other film-makers, including his brother Ric, have copied him with multi-part documentaries on everything from the Mormons to New York City and with varying degrees of success.

Last week, I watched Burns’ latest opus, the six-part, twelve-hour The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Sure, it got stodgy and exhausting, and I did roll my eyes, but I adored it.
Certainly, there was all the spectacular scenery, including in some parks I had never heard of, such as Arcadia in Maine, and there were all the juicy and sad and funny and incredible tales and tid-bits about the people involved in the founding and development of the parks. And there was the inspiring message, hammered over and over, that these parks belong to all of us taxpayers and are thus, as is also seen in them being wide open and breathtakingly impressive, a reflection of our democratic ideals (if not our society).

But what really struck me - and this relates to the concept of the parks belonging to us all - were the stories of families having their most cherished times and precious memories in the parks. Not only that but of children being introduced to the parks by their parents and then, later, introducing their own children to the parks. There is something powerfully profound and touching about this.

I thought of the amazing amount of time I spent in Yosemite when I was growing up, with my father’s parents living a short distance from the park and my family going there at least twice a year until I was about 15 when my grandfather suddenly died of a heart attack while up on a ladder, and I thought of how incredibly lucky I was to be able to become so familiar with such a gorgeous and literally awesome place during my childhood. Even more, I marveled at being able, with my parents’ help and encouragement, to get so close to such wonders as Yosemite Falls and Mirror Lake and to wander through meadows with deer not far - all in my wheelchair. No doubt, I realized, this is a big part of why, today, I am quite adventurous, not afraid of going out (often on my own) and trying new things, and why I love to travel.

I haven’t been to Yosemite for about 15 years and want to go back, and I still hope one day to get Yellowstone.

Not all is wonderful about the National Parks, as the film pointed out with stories of vicious fights over the federal government taking land. During one of my last stays in Yosemite, I was very upset by how crowded it was, with the valley floor being like L.A, complete with smog - another issue brought out in the documentary.

And then there’s my wheelchair and how much it should be accommodated. I once almost got in a fight with a ranger at Zion National Park in Utah - figures! - over how wheelchair-accessible a trail was or should be. I forget the details, but I do remember my attendant practically having to hold me down when the guy opined that James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s notorious Secretary of the Interior, "was a great man."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Playing with all the colors in the box

Who knew?

I went to see RuPaul Charles - RuPaul, "the most famous drag queen in the world," the host of "RuPaul’s Drag Show." the star of "Star Booty," etc. - at Claremont McKenna College the other night, and it was no joke.

C.M.C used to be a men’s college and is still known as a school for jocks majoring in econ and poli-sci and with a conservative bent, and its Atheneum is the kind of place that usually features dignitaries and scholars at its dinners (and sometimes at lunch), so I thought it was interesting, to say the least, that RuPaul had been invited to speak there.

Wearing a black and orange checkered suit and raised platform shoes and with his black head shaved and shiny, he did literally strut into the room upon being introduced, having no doubt requested to do so, and he was clearly tickled by the whole scene and laughed when he showed slides of himself in a variety of outrageous get-ups. But what RuPaul had to say was serious. Or it was something I needed to hear, seriously.

Entitling his remarks "Observations from the Inside," he spoke of always knowing that he was different, from the time he grew up with three sisters and a feisty, ultimately divorced mother in San Diego, and his he used this knowledge instead of being a victim of it. He showed a school picture from when he was a small child and said that that small child is still in him, just as there is a small child in all of us, and that he always tries to take care of that little child, and he talked about realizing that life is about more than what we do and what happens to us, that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

According to RuPaul, who said he grew up with a sense, encouraged by his mother, that he would be a star, a key to his development came when he was in trouble at a performing arts high school, where he went after getting in trouble at another school, and a teacher told him not to take life so seriously. Later, he came to see that such notions as one not being able to be a mainstream pop star while wearing drag were ridiculous and holding him back.

RuPaul insisted several times that he is a man and that he does not see himself as or want to be a woman, even when he is in drag. He explained that he’s not taking life so seriously, that he is enjoying his human experience as a spiritual being, having fun with his body and "playing with all the colors in the box." Nothing more, nothing less.

Sounds like what I do with all my overalls and my mismatched high-tops and rainbow laces, with my shaved head and with my long dreads flying. Is this all my drag? Mmmmm.
The best part of the evening for me, and probably for RuPaul, was during the Q & A, was when a young man, no doubt a student, in a dark suit and tie, stood up and shared his drag name. (RuPaul congratulated him and said that he had a way to make a lot of money if school doesn’t work out.) Super sweet!