Happy V Day!

To honor women everywhere and to reclaim hetero-patriarchy day, Eve Ensler created this wonderful organization. If you haven’t seen the Vagina Monologues, it is so worth checking out. It is so moving, funny, tragic, and inspirational. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Anyway, this is just a brief post to wish all of my very few readers happy V Day, however you choose to acknowledge it. Or not acknowledge it. Much love and happiness to you.

Reeling Film Festival

My spouse and I just moved to Chicago from the Bay Area, and we thought what better way to get acquainted with the lgbt community than to go to the Reeling Film Festival. We were really excited to check out the offerings, go stand on line and meet random people attending the films. We have attended the Frameline Festival in San Francisco for years, and it is an incredible community event. Great people watching, chance encounters with old friends and random strangers. We had no allusions that this would be as big or as well-attended as the SF festival, but I figured that it would be a smaller perhaps rootsier festival. I guess for that reason I expected it to be an even more important community event for the lgbt community.

So, G and I purchased tickets to several screenings. We’re a fan of the shorts because they are often really interesting and impossible to see anywhere else. We knew they wouldn’t be the most well-attended, but I figured someone would be there besides us. Not so. I would guess there were fewer than 25 people in the audience at the first three screenings we attended. Granted, they were all on school nights, but I was really disappointed that more people didn’t make an effort to get out and see these films. I guess I was expecting a little more enthusiasm from the crowds. I was expecting a little more of a crowd, for starters.

Perhaps this is due to the poor organization of the event. At each venue, none of the volunteers seemed to know what they were doing. It makes me wonder about the community outreach and marketing. We found out about it through Internet research, and there was a publication at the Whole Foods on Halstead. I also heard about on Public Radio here, so it seems that word is definitely out about it.

The films themselves have been pretty good, a mix of course. Some less good than others, but definitely worth making an effort to see. Nothing knocked my socks off, though Red Without Blue was certainly exceptional. This documentary about identical twins, one of whom goes through the transformation of becoming a woman, took me through the gamut of emotions. Her entire family goes through a transformation along side her and comes full circle back to acceptance and love. Truly an amazing story. I also loved Worst Case Scenario: Butch Edition, the super 8 short about etiquette for butch dykes to help them navigate through the dicey situation of holding doors open for femmes and their mothers.

Some of the films were miscategorized. Among the documentary shorts was Tokens, a film about a Mormon woman in the process of coming out. While this film was about the real-life experience of the filmmaker, it was more of an artistic expression rather than an actual documentary. Also, in Funny Lingus, lesbian comedy shorts there was Rub my Chub, which should have been among the documentaries. There were funny moments in this movie, but the women in this film are activists, and the film itself is about a serious subject. It seemed to me to be disrespectful to include this film with the comedy films.

The one sold-out film that we saw was Itty Bitty Titty Committee. Finally, a crowd. We had the experience we were looking for! We ran into someone we know (amazing!), and we chatted with random strangers. We checked out the crowd, making observations to each other about how the edgy “alternative” folks look the same everywhere; tattoos, pink or green hair, pierced lips and eyebrows. We looked for doppelgangers of ourselves and our friends.

The movie itself was a little bit of a disappointment. Its a coming of age story about young lesbians becoming radical activists, embracing the concepts of feminist theory, and acting on them by committing act of infoterrorism a la Act Up and the Guerrilla Girls. It had it’s funny moments, and it is refreshing to see an intellectual and political comedy. Good effort over all, but I really hated the ending. No spoilers here just in case, but let me know if you’d like to know why I hated it so much.

The biggest disappointment was the lack of turn out and excitement in the community for this event. I’m not sure if this is any indication of what the lgbt community in Chicago is like, and perhaps I am jaded coming from California where one can take for granted that queers are everywhere. G and I stopped going to the Pride Parade there because it was so commercial. I’m withholding judgment for future queer events, holding out hope that next year there will be more enthusiasm, interest and dialog in the community about the festival. Perhaps next year we’ll feel more connected to the community. That will probably help, too.

Quilts of Gee’s Bend

Gillian and I went with some friends today to see the Quilt’s of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit is leaving San Francisco soon, and we have been meaning to get there to see it for so long. I regret that we will not likely get back to see it again before it leaves. I am so glad to see these works of art receiving the acclaim and attention that they so deserve. It is interesting to see this “vernacular” folk art talked about in terms of art criticism.

On the audio tour, select pieces are introduced by a knowledgeable art critic who compares the works to more famous painters. This is followed by clips of the artists, women, all descendants of former slaves living in a remote and poor part of Alabama, talk about how they make their quilts. These narratives juxtaposed against each other is fascinating to me. These women humbly and yet proudly designed these quilts. They are all incredibly beautiful, all made with old clothes, rags, and scraps of odd materials, everything from flour sacks, worn work pants, to double knit leisure suits. Each quilt is clearly designed with heart and soul, some are indeed like abstract paintings. And yet when each woman spoke about her design she was very matter-of-fact about the simpleness of how it comes together: tearing the strips apart, sewing them together, taking them apart when it is not what she wants, and sewing it back up.

What I love about them is that as the generations go on and the tradition on quilting is passed down, each design pays homage to the designs that came before. You can see the references to the patterns of the earlier quilts, and yet each quilt is a unique expression of its designer, its own interpretation of a theme.

I also love that it is an art that was born out of poverty, necessity, frugality, and the legacy of slavery in America. These families were poor and needed these quilts to keep them warm through the winter. These families had nothing, so the women sewed together scraps and they made something useful and beautiful. Beauty and warmth in spite of hardship.

It is just funny to me to hear the language of art criticism being applied to this medium that came out of a completely unrelated context. Its an odd intersection of class, race, and art. And you can see in the newer quilts the self consciousness of the criticism, the response to the fact that the medium has been noticed by a class that wants to commodify these objects.

I’m glad these women are getting acknowledged as artists, and that these quilts are hanging in museums. They merit this kind of attention, and the artists should be compensated for the value of the work, however that is defined by the culture that wants to pay for it.

The fact is, however, that the consumption of these quilts as art objects has changed the medium and the tradition. It continues to pay homage to the quilters that came before, but the new patterns indeed reflect new influences.

Resistance is Futile

the lament of a latent activist

(Sarah’s 1997 holiday rant)

My name is on the mailing lists of several mail-order catalog companies. I probably got on the list for Pottery Barn because of my subscription to the New York Times, or Tweeds because someone sent me a mail-order gift from them for my birthday one time. I’m not sure why, but I get their catalogs, along with Eddie Bauer, Levenger, Victoria’s Secret, and many other clothing and home furnishing mail order companies. Especially now that its the holiday season I get a new one almost every day. I come home and my mail box is crammed with glossy pictures of unusually gaunt models wearing cardigans in colors like ox blood, moss, and citrus ($45.99 each), or of other people’s homes featuring furnishings such as the 6-foot “cathedral” wind chime with symphonic sound (“Kenny G’s percussionist plays one”, only $139.95).

I’m aware of the marketing research that goes into these specifically targeted mailings. Within my demographic, zip code, age range, and gender category, these companies know my probable salary range and even what my tastes will likely be. What these mail-order companies don’t know is that I am more inclined to throw the catalogs right in the recycling bin, if they are indeed made of recyclable material. I know better than to think “well, hmm, I may actually want something in here, and who knows, it may not be so outrageously priced, and it can’t really hurt to look anyway.” I have made that mistake many times before, and I learned my lesson. The only thing that leafing through those catalogs does is inform me that my home is not complete without an heirloom-quality hand-carved cedar trunk ($395), and that my wardrobe absolutely must include that basil-colored denim jacket ($150).

I know better than to even bother looking at the catalogs because I understand that capitalism makes you feel empty. You spend the best hours of your day at a job you don’t care that much about, so you come home at the end of the day, energy spent, uninspired to do anything interesting to fulfill any creative need in yourself. So, to numb yourself you turn on the TV, or read the newspaper, or look at catalogs with glossy pictures, passively letting Sears convince you that you need a new refrigerator in order to feel fulfilled. We are bombarded with commercials and billboards and newspaper ads for sales at Macy’s. When I pay attention to them, the ads make me forget that I am outraged when I see homeless people everyday when I go to lunch, or that my vegetables are grown with chemicals and pesticides. Advertisers want me to focus on my need for a $175 Italian calfskin wastebasket rather than on the fact that the United States still spends billions a year on weapons development. Most of the time I can sustain my awareness of how the system works, knowing intellectually that I do not need a $50 leather mousepad to feel like a whole person.

But its the holiday season, and I begin to see those glossy catalogs in my peripheral vision. Even with my personal ritual of throwing them in the recycling pile, affirming my choice of a simple life-style, I feel a tug. My justification is that I need gift ideas, so with that in mind, I give in to temptation and fish them out of the recycling bin. They probably can’t be recycled anyway.

What I am ashamed to admit, even to myself, is that my darkest secret desire is to get ideas of gifts for me. I need to find the perfect tie tack for Dad ($20.00) to go with the Dilbert Christmas tie I want to get for him, but don’t I need a mahogany remote-control organizer ($65.00)? My middle-class existence has afforded me the belief that I have the right to own these fabulous objects, and not only that, but that I must be truly miserable and deprived without them. These thoughts don’t exactly go through my head in that way as I thumb through the catalogs, but I certainly feel an emotion, a dearth, an emptiness in my heart because I lack “barrister” glass-front sectional bookcases at $189 a section (plus $89 for the legs and $119 for the “crown”). Besides, focusing on that lack makes me forget that I am outraged that Pete Wilson wants the University of California to deny health and housing benefits to the gay and lesbian partners of its employees. Why get upset about the fact that I am one ineffective person, alone, small against the huge backdrop of this issue, when I can contemplate what to get for my nieces for Christmas and fantasize about a $65 dental floss dispenser for me.

I am dismayed at my own emotional reaction to this feeling of deprivation in my life. To be completely honest, when it is not Christmas I still have difficulty resisting that consumer impulse. It effects me profoundly even when I go shopping for underwear. This is how it goes: I am going to Target and I am only going in to buy Fruit of the Looms, and maybe some socks; I come out of the store with a shopping cart containing a couple of T-shirts, a new hair conditioner, a rolling pin, some new kitchen towels, a box of 300 Q-tips, and a CD tower made of plywood that I have to assemble myself when I get home. This is what happens when I am using restraint.

Part of me believes that resistance is futile, but I also feel revulsion at my own reaction of want and need when faced with these objects of desire/disgust. I say to myself “do the advertisers for this stuff really think we’re morons and will pay money for that?” And I will pay money myself, get that momentary consumer high, and go back to my unfulfilled life and feel sorry for myself, or maybe go watch TV, indulging myself in passively allowing the Fox Network to distance me from my own feelings and thoughts. I despair because somewhere deep down inside myself, I have given up hope and I participate in this world as if I have no idea how garbage production is affecting the environment, as if I am oblivious to the reality of domestic abuse, as if I truly believe that anything I might do to show my outrage at these things wouldn’t matter anyway. I am disheartened because I start to believe that I don’t have any responsibility to solve the effects of greenhouse gasses.

During the holiday season it is especially hard to resist the consumer temptation, and I feel myself getting sucked into the cyclone of commercialism and family obligation, what I have convinced myself is the desire to show love to those near and dear to me with gifts, gestures of my undying affection. I know that I am not the only person in the world to feel isolation at Christmas, to feel the urge to fill up the void with mulled cider and ginger bread cookies, to suddenly feel an urgent need for a pine tree in my living room strewn with tinsel and shiny ornaments. Even as I dread the onset of the commercial hype, my heart warms at the thought of baking short bread in the shape of reindeer and sleighs, or inviting friends over to enjoy cocktails in front of the Yule Log video.

I swear to myself every year that I am not going to let it suck me in, but I recall a cartoon I saw once depicting fat lady outside of a candy store, caught in a wind tunnel, as if the door to the store is a big vacuum cleaner. She is desperately holding to a parking meter while her hair, dress, and purse, her whole body is horizontal with the ground as the force of desire pulls her in against her will. For me this illustrates quite fittingly the contradiction of the pull of consumer culture against the better judgment of the human conscience. That fat lady is me at Christmas, resisting with all my strength the pull of the holiday vortex where my personality would be lost in the deluge of manufactured desire.

Holiday Musings

The holidays are upon us, and I realize that in all my entire adult life I have never really enjoyed myself at this time of year. Every positive association is a memory, and each year I try to cope by enacting old traditions that I remember from my childhood: decorations, lights, music, wishes for peace on earth, the warm way that old friends get in touch with each other, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, etc. All of these are wonderful traditions that make me feel warm and fuzzy, but those feelings are often overridden by feelings of inadequacy brought on by the consumer society that I am a part of that every day bombards all of us with advertisements that try to persuade us that we will not be happy, complete, or fulfilled unless we possess the crap they are trying to sell us. And we all fall for it, no matter how conscious we are of that little devil on our shoulders.

I end up waxing nostalgic. I hear myself saying things like: “When I was a kid, people didn’t stand outside department stores in the wee hours to get their kids the hottest toy that everybody wanted.” But the reality is that there probably was some equivalent, and I’m just remembering differently. I find myself getting depressed because I never have enough money to get presents for everyone on my list, or that I didn’t get it together early enough to get my holiday cards out on time, or that I didn’t come up with idea or have the time or the energy to make home-made truffles put in pretty little boxes for all of my friends.

And then, of course, there is the news. Inevitably there are stories of violence and tragedy from around the world, tsunamis, war, raping and pillaging, domestic violence, drive-by shootings here in Oakland, and tales of parents fighting in the aisles of Wal-Mart over the last Elmo TMX. What in the heck are we teaching our children?

And I don’t even do family on the holidays any more. I am not principled about it or anything. It just doesn’t make sense to me to go through the chaos of the airports, standing in lines and waiting interminably amidst screaming toddlers, stressing out on the plane through take-off, turbulence, and landing, only to be with every member of my family for a short visit, not having quality time with any of them, dealing with short tempers and the pressure of creating precious memories for the scrapbook. I love my family, absolutely adore them. They are all exceptional people whom I respect and admire individually. Getting all of us together can be fun, too. I love telling stories, talking religion and politics with them, reminiscing, the whole thing. Just not on the holidays.

I have gone through so many holiday seasons totally self-absorbed, immobilized by consumerism, violence, natural disaster, degradation to the environment, light deficiency syndrome, loneliness, and people just hating each other. There have been many years when I just can’t wait for the holidays to be over. It shouldn’t be this way!

So, I have a resolution to reclaim the holidays, create new traditions with my wife, and do what I really love to do. Our church has taken the concept of “International Buy Nothing Day” (the day after Thanksgiving) one step further to proclaim it “International Give-Away Day.” Gillian and I are adopting this concept as a tradition into our life. Gift-giving will be minimal, and we will instead focus on giving philanthropically, and instead of acquiring things that we don’t need, we will give away the things that we don’t need.

I am resolved to prioritize joy and love this holiday season (and every season here after). I am going to send simple holiday cards just to let friends know that they are loved, I am going to make truffles with Gillian because it is fun and we enjoy doing it, we are going to entertain a few friends because we love them, we are going to have some special holiday meals because we enjoy cooking and eating, I am going to watch my favorite holiday TV specials because they are great, and Gillian and I are going to go to church because we think its fun (yes, our church is fun and inspirational) and we’re going to get an injection of love with which to go forward and create peace with justice and love in our community in our own small way.

That is really all we can do. I can’t create world peace by myself. All I can do is make a place in the world where I can help to create and be a part of the community that I want to live in, perhaps be a model for others, and just relax and enjoy all that is beautiful about the holidays.