Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Hello from Hell Aviv!

I am sitting in a semi-depressing hotel room on a sweltering night in Tel Aviv, where out of some combination of lunacy and masochism I have decided to remain on my own for several days, my Birthright trip having ended Saturday night. This will be my first night spent sleeping in gloriously conditioned air; I spent the past two evenings in a sweaty hostel I booked out of a frugality inherited from my father, but I have decided it’s high time my mother pay for a hotel room. I hope she feels the same way.

Not that any of that is at all interesting, but that’s what being really hot does to you: it makes you incredibly tedious. For the past two days, there has not been much on my mind, as I have little room to think about anything other than the weather. If you would like to hear more about the weather, feel free to contact me, as I could go on and on.

For any Jews reading this, I strongly advise that you do Birthright, especially if you’re tired of being overtaken by a weighty disinterest whenever your grandfather raves about Israel. Isn’t it time you replaced your apathy with ambivalence?

If it's the God stuff holding you back, don't worry: this is no religious pilgrimage—though there are religious Birthright trips too, run by organizations like Mayanot. To any Orthodox Jews out there I say, Mayanot? Whyanot? But for those of us living for this world, I recommend Routes Travel’s “Amazing Israel” tour, which was practically devoid of religiosity (outside of brief, ceremonial Shabbat prayers—granted, I have no idea what was said, but nothing had the feeling of zealotry).

I think my favorite thing about Birthright is the school-field-trip quality to the whole thing. This feeling was ever present during the night we spent at some sort of Bedouin hospice in the Judea Desert. We were first led into a huge tent, where a dour looking Bedouin man sat, stoically roasting coffee beans. We took our seats in a large semi-circle while a more genial Bedouin, received with varying levels of interest, began telling us about Bedouin culture. In real life, this Bedouin was actually a music professor, which made the entire session reminiscent of one of those elementary-school visits from a Native American descendent decked out to look like Sitting Bull whom you would later spot on the street in a suit and tie, smoking a cigarette.

At any rate, we sat around while the Bedouin men pretended it was a hundred years ago. I’ll tell you: if you ever find yourself in ancient times and in need a place to sleep, look for a Bedouin village. If you find one, stand near the village and cough (they don’t have doorbells, so when they hear an unfamiliar hacking noise they know to bring out the good china). The Bedouins will give you several cups of coffee. The first cup means “Welcome.” The second cup means, “You are my guest.” The third cup means, “Make yourself at home.” The fourth cup means, “Please leave.” Hospitality is apparently the bedrock of Bedouin life, as the Bedouins needed visitors to fill them in on what was going on in the world. (“A thousand pillaging Romans due round these parts within a fortnight,” your visitor might tell you, and you would know to prepare four thousand cups of coffee.)

It’s now the next day, and I’ve just had some delicious mushy eggplant and espresso. It is still hot. I am off to the beach, where I will lie in the sun and work on my wan.

Monday, June 16, 2008

O'Hare I Am

I have resigned myself to sitting and waiting. I am in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where my gate-shifting flight to LaGuardia has been delayed five and a half hours and counting, supposedly because it is storming in New York (though I suspect the delay is actually a part of United Airlines’ policy of constant aggravation). I don’t usually unleash the full fury of KawallerBlog on corporations (out of six blog posts a year, I can only lead so many boycotts), but seriously—keep yourself away from United Airlines. I think my least favorite thing about United is that when a flight is delayed (and my lord, these people have trouble getting planes off the ground), they like to change the data on the departure screens as gradually as possible: first it’s delayed ten minutes; then an hour; then four hours; and then pretty soon you find you’re plastered at Chili’s waxing commiserative about gas prices with someone from St. Louis and trying to remember where you are.

So. I hate United Airlines. I refuse to attribute this to the weather; there is no catharsis in that.

As it has been a good long while since my last blog post (or Facebook note, if you are not a subscriber to the nearly-fictional KawallerBlog), I shall give a brief update on my life. Finished an eight-month stint as a menial laborer at New York magazine, where, if my current employment status is any indication, I failed to impress anyone. Still pretending to be a stand-up comedian sometimes. (Will be performing at Broadway Comedy Club on Thursday, if anyone is interested.) Spent the weekend in a Chicago suburb at my dear friend Sam’s house, where I met his mostly unobjectionable extended family. Spent last week in Iowa City, which may or may not still exist.

I was in Iowa for the Iowa Summer Writers Festival there, a summer program at the University of Iowa. I had been under the impression that the Festival was prestigious—this was, at least, how I sold it to my parents, who shelled out the cash for this egregious staving off of adulthood. However, it quickly became clear that I had been thinking of the Iowa Writers Conference, the University’s highly respected M.F.A. program; the Writers Festival is a collection of mild-mannered Midwesterners, several of whom know how to form a sentence that sounds nice.

Which is not to say that the Festival wasn’t delightful. I was in a personal-essay-writing class comprised of a warm and welcoming group of baby-boomers and senior citizens, most of them home-grown Iowans. I was expecting it to be monumental, presenting my personal essay about my years as the mostly apathetic and entirely self-celebrating president of my high-school gay-straight alliance to this crowd of gray-haired heartlanders, and I was somewhat disappointed by their resounding praise—only because it failed to confirm my prejudices against anyone who lives between New York and California. I resented immensely their lack of homophobia, which made me feel like a bigot.

Well, this has become rambling, and it is taking my mind off my frustration at United Airlines, which is an awful, stupid airline. I think I’ll go now and pace around, looking at departure screens, shaking my head, and scoffing audibly at people. Especially anyone who looks Midwestern. I can’t stand those gay-bashers.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Proselytizing to the Hasidim

Walking down Court Street today, I was approached by one of those Jewish youths whom the Orthodox families dispatch to advertise the Old Testament. He asked me if I was Jewish, and I said yes. Then he emitted a garble of noises, apparently asking me if I wanted to partake in some Jewish ritual. “I don’t know what you are saying to me,” I told him. “That’s how not Jewish I am.”

“It’s all right,” he said. “It’s a prayer.”

I said no thanks and started walking away, but then I turned back and said, “You should come over to my team, the atheists. It’s great!” This seemed to pique the Hasid’s interest, and he started following me.

“Don’t you get tired of living in a depressing world?” he asked me.

“Hell yes!” I said. “But my depression is clinical, not existential.”

We spent about two minutes debating inanely (“How do you know anything in the Bible happened?” “Well how do you know the French Revolution happened??”…), and then the Hasid again kindly asked me to pray with him. “It would be a mitzvah,” he said, taking out some sort of red-and-black cube that had two leather straps attached to it.

“Oh, why not,” I said. I guess I felt somewhat hypocritical taking some sort of principled stand against something about as consequential as voodoo, and I see little harm in playing along with a nice deluded Jewish boy (has this piece become vitriolic already?), so I let him put the little cube on my head and say his prayer. “Baruch atah Adonai,” he began, and I started reciting along with him, for camaraderie’s sake. I, of course, only know the version my dad used to say while lighting a menorah, which meant that things went smoothly enough until I enthusiastically proclaimed “shel Hanukkah!” He went on saying things, but I had to put an end to it, as there is only so long I can bring myself to stand in the middle of Court Street performing Orthodox Jewish rituals.

He thanked me for humoring him (not his words), and we briefly went back to arguing. A friend of his, another kippah kid, overheard us and came over, before evidently concluding that I was a waste of their time (which I felt displayed a surprising level of defeatism for a Jewish proselytizer). My Hasid asked again if I would like to pray, and I told him, somewhat callously, that the first time was silly enough, thank you.

“Good shabbos,” his realistic friend said to me, pulling my Hasid away.

“Good shabbos to you too,” I said, before adding, “And atheism is great—the truth will set you free!”

I’m thinking of setting up shop in Crown Heights.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sunday in the Park and Bored

You are about to read a musical-theater blasphemy. Having seen the Roundabout's excellent production of Sunday in the Park with George last night, I am going to come out of the closet about something I've been afraid to admit to myself for many years: the musical itself is often a bore—and I'm not just confining this critique to the second act.

That second act is often the object of criticism, even for those who love Sunday: it feels forced, inorganic, too unnatural a departure from the self-contained first act. That's all pretty fair, though its culmination is breathtaking, even if one has to buy into its somewhat sentimental time-traveling to appreciate the 20th-century George's revelation of "all the possibilities." Its first act, so say the fans, is a beautifully realized portrait of disparate lives that the emotionally removed artist can only relate to by bestowing on them, through the solitary process of creating art, "order," "balance," "design," and "harmony." It's an awfully moving theme (and one of Sondheim's favorites): the individual's inability to "connect" with a world that views him as an other (Cf. Assassins, Company). And there are moments—“Finishing the Hat” is the primary one—where this theme comes to life with great poignancy.

The problem, though, is that in order for the plotless first act to work, these other lives must be given stage time, even though the details of these lives are, in a sense, immaterial. We need to see that these lives exist and that George watches them "through a window" rather than engaging with them, at least outside of drawing them. We do not need to know whether Franz and the nurse are in love or in lust, or whether Yvonne will tear Jules a new one when she discovers his philandering.

And that's a shame; it makes for vignettes that are trivial, and ultimately wearying, on their own. Had Sondheim and James Lapine (who wrote the book) dared for a messier first act, these snippets of human interaction might have been given greater depth. It would have drawn focus from George's autistic involvement in his art to the expense of his interpersonal relationships (which is the whole point), but it might have made for something more interesting than the eighty minutes of fleeting acquaintance with a roster of largely caricature-esque personalities.

Musically, too, Sunday feels almost defiantly dull (gasp!). It's often said that Sondheim is difficult: cerebral and, well, tuneless. With a few exceptions, this criticism is baseless. Cerebral, sure—the man is no accidental revolutionary—but tuneless? A Little Night Music, Company, Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and even Anyone Can Whistle—these are all full of lush, haunting, and yes, even catchy, melodies. It may take a few listenings to let these songs grab hold of you, but never does one feel bored. The same cannot be said for much of Sunday. With some obvious exceptions ("Color and Light," "Finishing the Hat," and the ethereal "Sunday" come to mind first), the first act offers only isolated instances in which Sondheim shows his chops: a gut-wrenching chord or a transcendent belted harmony.

Perhaps this dearth of satisfying material comes from Sondheim's oft-postulated identification with Seurat. It is no accident that Sunday is arguably Sondheim's least accessible musical, and how fitting: Seurat was an artist maligned for his technique and subject matter; so is Sondheim. As Jules and Yvonne say, of George, "there's no life in his art." It's almost like Sondheim said to himself, "You want no life?" and then wrote George's mother's plodding ballad, "Beautiful."

Unfortunately, the time expended on the myriad characters in the park detracts from the level of subtlety afforded to what we're really interested in: George's relationship with Dot, who leaves him for the dull but emotionally available Louis the baker. Their break-up song, "We Do Not Belong Together," veers dangerously close to melodrama, which is most unlike Sondheim. The raw pleading of "Tell me not to go! ... Tell me what you feel!" (and for the record, the current performances by Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell are laudably under-indulgent) might have worked better had we had time to see their relationship in greater detail. But what should be a shattering duet feels too sudden amidst an act that is mostly an assortment of incidental stories that go nowhere.

There is much to be appreciated in Sunday. Not only is the classic individual-as-other theme gloriously realized, but as a meditation on what it means to be an artist, and all of the self-doubt, paralysis, and ecstasy that come with such a role, it is also uniquely thoughtful. To be sure, George’s awe-filled gasp as he faces the blank canvas in the show’s final moment is so viscerally moving, so loaded with inspiration and fear, that one almost forgets what one had to sit through to arrive at such a stunning apotheosis.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This Week in Racism!

Racism has proved an ever-evolving subject of debate for white people in this country: once upon a time, we were all for racism; then we realized racism was not good; then some people thought we’d gotten rid of racism and could therefore continue being racist; and now some of us (perhaps a little carelessly) identify as “post-racist,” which sometimes gets us into trouble with our black friends when we toss around racial slurs.

But even now, comfortably into the occasionally post-racial 21st century, there continues to be controversy over what is and isn’t “racist.” And so to help clear up some present disputes, it’s time to play one of my favorite games: Racist/Not Racist!

This week, race has once again reared its inexhaustible head in the Democratic primary, with Geraldine Ferraro, formerly of the Clinton campaign, unapologetically charging that Obama owes his success to the color of his skin. As the Times reports:

Ms. Ferraro made the comments that touched off the latest exchange of Democratic brickbats after she gave a paid speech last week to the Torrance Cultural Center in Torrance, Calif. The Daily Breeze, a newspaper in Torrance, reported that she said: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

Mr. Obama called the remarks “divisive.”

Mrs. Clinton, saying she did not agree with the comments, called it “regrettable that any of our supporters — on both sides because we both have this experience — say things that kind of veer off into the personal.”

Ms. Ferraro made no apologies. “Am I sorry? No, no, no,” she said. “I am sorry there are people who think I am racist.”

And so Ferraro lays the smack down in a devastating bait-and-switch: “Yeah I’m sorry—sorry you’re an idiot!” Let’s cut the woman a little slack here—have we not heard enough blathering about how earth-shatteringly “historic” this election is because Obama is black, black, black!? On the other hand, does Ferraro really feel that if Obama were white, he wouldn’t be a formidable opponent to Hillary? In other words, that no one could possibly be so enamored with a charismatic, inspirational white guy?

Then again, I think it's splendid that Obama’s dad is from Africa and that he’s got Muslims in the family. I’m quite amenable to that warm, fuzzy argument that says our brown-skinned “enemies” will like us more if they are dealing with someone who’s not white. Ultimately, though, Ferraro’s claim rests on an unverifiable counterfactual (yeah, that’s right, I said it). Who the hell knows how Obama would have fared had be been white?

Verdict on Ferraro: Not racist. The woman may be wrong (or right), but let’s not infer bigotry here based on a unsubstantiated theory. (Additionally, let's also note that the Obama camp seems to have done just this; why they should have felt the need to ask that Clinton "repudiate the remarks" is beyond me. I'd much prefer a candidate let the voters decide for themselves what to make of statements to the public.)

Our next subject of inquiry: Ryan Seacrest’s sudden bout of insanity after Chikezie’s ridiculously awesome performance on American Idol this week. At the risk of sounding racist by comparing two otherwise dissimilar black guys (okay, that's pretty much just being racist), this Chikezie is what Rubin Studdard could have been if he’d been at all exciting, charismatic, or at low risk for a coronary. That twinky little David Archuleta may know his way around a torch song, but Chikezie’s “She’s a Woman” was hands down the most exciting performance of the night.

After Chikezie's number was met with unanimous judiciary praise, a suddenly uncontrollable Seacrest galloped around the stage, circling the singer while cheering: “Chikezie! Love to see that enthusiasm, man! Move around on this stage! Feel it baby, feel it! Work this stage, Chikezie, work it! It’s all you! Work it! Attaboy, yeah! All right! Woo! Yeah! That’s what it’s about, man! This a big deal—top twelve! You work it!”—here he paused to maul Chikezie’s sweaty head—“Soakin’ wet, my man! Soakin’ wet! Feel that sweat! Woo! You got us all fired up now, baby!” Watch the whole spectacle here.

Now I’m willing to entertain the idea that perhaps I’m the one being racist here, in imputing some sort of “blackness” to Seacrest’s reaction. And Chikezie didn’t seem terribly offended (which means that should he ever read this, I may be the one stoking racial tension). But I’m sorry: I don’t recall Ryan Seacrest turning into James Brown for any of the other contestants on Tuesday night. Verdict on Seacrest: Racist.

All right, enough of this. I should be working. But should I manage to update this blog at a respectable rate in the future, I've no doubt we'll play lots of Racist/Not Racist some other day. In the meantime, feel free to leave any thoughts, racist or otherwise, below.

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Locking Up the Immigrants...

I recommend to anyone reading this that you get your hands on this past week's New Yorker (March 3rd) for Margaret Talbot's report on the Don T. Hutto Residential Center, a privately run immigrant-detention facility in Texas. A converted minimum-security prison, Hutto, owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, now houses undocumented immigrants, many of them Middle Eastern asylum-seekers fleeing persecution from oppressive regimes in their home countries (in addition to your run-of-the-mill Latinos looking for a better way to put food on the table), and their families, in a shockingly misguided--if not downright sadistic--attempt to keep track of immigrants without documentation.

Because these prisons are run by private companies (whom the government pays), a number of complications present themselves. For one, gathering information about their interior practices can be particularly difficult. (Talbot points to CCA's recent denial of a Freedom of Information Act request to a sociologist studying the use force against inmates in private prisons; the CCA claimed that such information was "a business secret.") Additionally, the CCA is not required to hire people with any qualifications or expertise in child welfare or childcare--they are not licensed to offer childcare--and most of their employees have backgrounds in the prison system. There is also the plain truth that these companies are profiting off the imprisonment of immigrants. Since 2005, when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of Homeland Security officially ended their "catch-and-release" approach to undocumented immigrants (i.e. allowing immigrants caught without papers to roam free while awaiting court), CCA has enjoyed particularly robust revenues ("We feel very strong about the demand that is developing," C.E.O. John Furguson said).

The article offers various bewildering examples of authoritarian verve: children being denied toys, crayons, and stuffed animals; parents forbidden access to one another's cells, as well as access to their children during the night; disobedient parents being threatened with separation from their children. (Most of the article's accounts are based on interviews with ex-inmates of Hutto.) Conditions have improved since the CCA settled a lawsuit with the ACLU last year; however, as one ACLU attorney put it, "these are still prison walls." Regardless of how many hours children are allowed to run around outside (or go to classes), we still have the mind-blowing fact that immigrants seeking asylum--or seeking anything, for that matter--have been welcomed to the United States with a prison sentence.

What started as a simple recommendation seems to have turned into a much lengthier explanation than I had intended, and now I feel I have to say something insightful. Though I suppose I could express my revulsion adamantly, what can one say in reaction to this story that wouldn't sound banal? ("Inhumane!" "A betrayal of American values!" "Financial incentives have corrupted the immigration system!") And yet, there is a sizable group of people who see Hutto (and other similar facilities) not as outrageous affronts to any idiot's sense of decency, but as simply flawed--some of these are of the "Gotta play by the rules if you're gonna set foot in our country" set. I must say, this current method of dealing with undocumented immigrants and their families does seem to fit pretty nicely with that way of thinking about immigration. It always amazes me that anyone can think of illegal immigration as criminal--as if the twelve million illegal aliens currently residing here all suffer from the same brand of moral perversity. (To offer a rough perspective: there are 1.6 million prisoners in the US--and they comprise all sorts of criminal proclivities.)

I've really only scratched the surface of this article's disturbing revelations about the extent of the casual, regimented cruelty that seems to be the meat and potatoes of these internment camps, and the extent of the problem. Unfortunately, the article is not online, but perhaps I can find a way to get it to you. Right now it is too late, and I need to write about something vacuous. Perhaps I will, if I do not fall asleep.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Dumb Kid Gets Hate-Crime Allegation on Top of Miserable Future

I can't resist the urge to defend the perpetrator of a hate crime...

Last week in Oxnard, CA, fourteen-year-old Brandon McInerney fatally shot Lawrence King, an openly gay fifteen-year-old. In response, King's friends organized a march that attracted nearly a thousand friends and supporters. Participants voiced their anti-homophobia: said one thirteen year-old boy, "It will be a better future if we are more tolerant."

Regardless of how soon such a future will come to pass for the rest of us, Brandon McInerney's future will doubtless be fairly bleak. McInerney is the fourteen-year-old boy who shot and killed King. According to a friend of King's, King had recently told McIrnerey he had a crush on him. McInerney, for reasons not mentioned by the LA Times, will be tried as an adult. He stands to spend fifty years in prison. For good measure, prosecutors added a hate-crime allegation; this could mean an extra one to three years.

A hate-crime allegation?? I know there are going to be some people out there who are getting a good deal of satisfaction out of the severity of this response. But leaving alone the fact that a fourteen-year-old is being tried as an adult in the first place, have we seriously gotten to the point where we're imprisoning teenage boys for being homophobic?! Without teenage boys, where do these people think we're going to get our homophobia?

Let's not forget what (may have) precipitated this tragedy: King had just told McInerney he had a crush on him! Said one schoolmate, "I see no point in shooting someone for telling them that you like them"--a particularly moving response. True enough, but let's allow for the possibility that McInerney's reaction was rooted in a fear that he might too be gay. Or that he was terrified of being associated with the very gay Lawrence King (he wore make-up and stuff). Pervasive homophobia is not just what killed Lawrence King; it is arguably also what has doomed Brandon McInerney to years behind bars and all that comes with that.

I know, I know--we would never accept such a defense for Matthew Shepard's killers. And hell, McInerney may very well be a psychotic menace to society best to leave to his own defenses in prison for a good long time. But is our thirst for retribution here so strong that we are ready to give bonus years in prison to a 14-year-old for his expression of "homophobia"? (A homophobia which, I can only speculate, might have been rooted in feelings of attraction? Or in the immature, adolescent need to prove one's manhood?)

I don't think I support hate-crime legislation to begin with--I ought to come out of the closet about that right away. I'm gay, if that makes you feel any better about it. And I don't know how fourteen-year-old killers should be dealt with. Maybe the little shit should spend fifty years behind bars. But one to three years for, on top of being violent, being the type of kid who calls people "fags"?

Let's hope the gay-rights movement isn't celebrating.