Coronavirus, Where Does This End?

I live in California and voted for Senator Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday, a day before Los Angeles announced a State of Emergency after the first case of the Covid-19 infection was confirmed in Los Angeles County. I texted my husband immediately, the worst was now inevitable.

I’ve been following the outbreak online since January 25th when I first heard about it.

Occasionally I travel the Los Angeles area as a freelance makeup artist for a department store cosmetics line. On January 25th, I worked at Nordstrom in Arcadia near the Santa Anita Racetrack. During the Chinese Lunar New Year, this Nordstrom celebrates with dragons, acrobats and traditional Chinese drums. It’s a spectacular site and one I was thrilled to witness this year.

It was then that I first heard of a mysterious virus that had shut down Wuhan, China. One of my customers, a medical student and Chinese National, had decided against traveling home for the Lunar New Year on January 8th. While the Communist Party had downplayed the outbreak, even lying about its existence, the first recorded case of the mysterious virus was on December 8th. She said, somewhat conspiratorially, “That means, the virus has been spreading throughout the country rampantly. Now hospitals are overwhelmed, and trust me, it’s already here.”

She was right, the problem was so much more serious than the Chinese government had said. On January 23rd China locked down all travel in and out of the country and quarantined Wuhan, the largest quarantine in human history.

That night I returned home and started learning everything I could about China, the virus and the possible cause or causes of the outbreak. Knowing it could already be in the U.S. at this point, having had more than a month to arrive, it would only be a matter of days or weeks before cases here emerged.

In this country, we’re used to enjoying the benefits of continental isolation, no land wars, no epidemics and certainly no pandemics in recent memory.

I obsessively began washing my hands, limiting my time in large gatherings and trying like mad to get my husband to understand the emergency. You see, whenever he gets sick, I get sick. Like most Americans at that time might, he just laughed, until he got irritated and then he finally got mad when, on March 3rd after voting, we went to lunch at a Subway that had no public restroom and he refused to return home to wash his hands before we ate. Home was a mere five minutes away. No, he wanted to eat his sandwich then go to Starbuck’s for his regular afternoon coffee.

“What is washing our hands going to do? Tell me?” He snapped.

I looked at him like he’d lost his mind. I had no words. I repeated his question in hopes he might understand the absurdity of it. Having lost patience myself I then said, “Scientists, infectious disease experts and doctors are telling everyone to wash their hands! Hands are the leading cause of disease transmission! We just came from standing in line for 2 hours and then using a touch screen voting machine that over half of the L.A. population has used!” A little hyperbole was in order. He then touched his sandwich with two fingers as he picked it up. A Subway worker, a woman in her forties, watched this exchange and ran out to our table with a handful of alcohol-based hand wipes.

“Thank you,” I said relieved.

My husband put down his sandwich and picked up the wipes. “There, are you happy now?” He asked.

“I am,” I said. “I’m not trying to control you, I’m trying not to get sick.”

Needless to say, lunch was a little tense.

The next day Los Angeles, with one case confirmed in Los Angeles County, declared a State of Emergency. I texted my husband immediately. He didn’t respond to it, but when he returned home, before saying anything else he exclaimed, “I washed my hands as much as I could today and used a paper towel to open every door.”

“Thank you, honey. I love you.”

See, dear reader, I’m not one to say, “I told you so.”

To be fair to my husband, I am and have often been an alarmist at times.

I tell this story not to embarrass him, but because his response was like most people’s response has been and still is. A poll taken by NBC and The Wall Street Journal showed that “47 percent say they aren’t too worried or aren’t worried at all.” 60 percent say it’s about to get much worse. Because it is. If you’re paying attention, it is.

In this country, we’re used to enjoying the benefits of continental isolation, no land wars, no epidemics and certainly no pandemics in recent memory. Sure, the Sars virus, a close cousin to Covid-19, could get you very sick and kill you, but it was only transmissible through direct contact with an infected person already exhibiting symptoms. Avoidable, yeah?

A Chinese funeral worker reported that an estimated 60 percent of the bodies they were cremating were untested and had come from private residences.

Zooming in With Simone Gao

“The flu will kill more people faster this year,” my husband had said.

“There’s no evidence to support that,” I said. No one knew the true potential of the virus and China has been lying about its death toll from the beginning. A funeral worker reported that an estimated 60 percent of the bodies they were cremating were untested and had come from private residences. That’s potentially a death toll 10 times higher than what the The Communist Party reported to the World Health Organization.

I suspect the City of Los Angeles had waited to call a State of Emergency until after Super Tuesday so that everyone would vote. Right now, California is galvanized, excited, angry, focused. This was the largest turn out of voters in anyone’s memory. It’s critical we don’t lose that moment. So, I don’t blame them. The greater good is getting this President out of office and morale is everything. What is it that Spock said to Kirk just before he stepped into a radiation-filled chamber to save the universe? “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.”

Which is easy to say in a movie. They brought Spock back to life. So, I don’t mean to trivialize the risks of this. Additionally, I have no proof that the case wasn’t confirmed the morning of March 9th, or even the night of March 8th after the polls closed. I just don’t believe in coincidences or perfect timing of things, particularly not in government.

Broadly speaking, California’s response has been more immediate than the federal government’s, but without a unified national response, it’s just band aids on a gaping wound. Republicans are still tweeting that people should go out to restaurants, with their families.

There’s a lot of concerns with the economy here, because people are scared to go out. But I will just say, one of the things you can do, if you’re healthy, you and your family, it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant, likely you can get in, get in easily. Let’s not hurt the working people in this country that are relying on wages and tips to keep their small business going.

Devin Nunes, California Republican Congressman

Alex Jones is selling vitamins that will “prevent you from getting the coronavirus.”

Because of Donald’s travel ban, international airports were packed with thousands of Americans trying to make it home over the weekend.

St. Patrick’s day, a busy bar day in Chicago, saw lines of people waiting to get into bars all across the city.

So while many of us hunker down in 29 states as schools, bars, restaurants and places of worship close, the pandemic whips across our nation unseen and unchecked.

America is still a country of cowboys and religious fanatics; neither archetype is known for its measured responses in a crisis.

These are heavy times. In my neighborhood right now, grocery store shelves are empty, everyday. The employees are exhausted and to add insult to injury, shoppers unleash on them regularly if they can’t get what they want.

Elsewhere there are lines around the block at gun stores nationwide.

Panic makes hoarders. Hoarding creates shortages. And in the case of guns, it’s life-threatening. America is still a country of cowboys and religious fanatics; neither archetype is known for its measured responses in a crisis. All of this could have been avoided had The Donald not disassembled the CDC, hired his cronies to head it and then lied about the seriousness of the outbreak. Oh, and most critically, if he’d provided tests for every American his precious Stock Market might not be in a free fall. Tests create surety. Markets like surety. People still go out and buy things when they know they’re not sick and those who are are staying home.

Where does it end?

Biden, I think. If Donald doesn’t succeed in stealing the presidency again.

It’s Just a Cat

A friend said goodbye to her cat today. Cancer, she said. “I will be the responsible pet owner and take care of her before she suffers.” Her voice broke, uncharacteristically. She’s tough, but that’s how it is. “It’s just that she doesn’t understand.” And that’s the hardest part for any of us. It’s more humane. You always have to look at the quality of life factor and measure that against treatment outcomes. 

“She’s, you know, she’s a sweet cat,” she managed. My friend, not one to overstate things, what she really meant was, she shared our home, made me laugh, took up residency in our lives, was just the right amount of dependency, and for no good reason at all, loved me.

Cats love. It might start with food, but they bond to the one who provides it and the result is love. They need affection, touch, just as we do. And for the most part, they remain kittens in need of their mother when they live with us. The drive for affection is much stronger when their physical needs are met, just like ours.

Saying goodbye never gets any easier. My friend’s husband took off work to take the cat away because the last time she did it and that’s a hard thing to do again when you know what you’re in for.

My husband collected the ashes of my beloved Chloe, because he knew I’d walk in there and, in front of God and everyone else, start weeping. The day I said goodbye to her I wept so hard in the exam room the vet didn’t want me to drive. Well, these things don’t embarrass me. I cry. I don’t care who sees me or what they think. It just never occurs to me that it matters. Though, perhaps it should.

A soul cat, those only come along once in a lifetime. You don’t plan it, can’t look for it. You must take them on their terms. Is it like that with dog people? Do dog people feel a soul connection to their four-legged friends? I knew someone who, each time her dog died, went to the same breeder to get as close an approximation of her former dog as possible. She even gave him the same name. When we met she was on Charlie number three. I saw a newscast from f a woman who cloned her dog for $50,000. She said he remembered some things she’d taught him, going to the refrigerator, opening it, returning with her favorite beverage, for example. But his personality was different, similar but not the same. Is that a dog person version of what I mean?

Not that I believe in souls. I don’t not believe in them, just don’t know that there’s any hard evidence to support the idea. Nevertheless, I think of it as a kind of expression. Soulmate. Sure, I get it. There’s no better way to describe the connection when it happens.

 

Cats bond, even if their owners don’t understand it, and many owners don’t. I foster. Cats are abandoned, surrendered and euthanized far more than dogs. Kittens are euthanized more frequently than that. Don’t blame the “kill” shelters. By law they must take every animal. Do something about it. Adopt. Foster. Give them money to expand. Cats don’t present well in shelters. They sit in their litter and won’t respond when you come. They’re terrified and probably grieving. They’ll bite and be labeled as unadoptable. They’re not.

Take Ollie. A six-year-old scaredy cat who sprayed all over his house and bit when overstimulated. Just about anything set him off. Neighborhood cats wandering through the front yard. Spray. Raccoons in the garbage. Spray. Possums slinking through the bushes on the side of the house. Spray. After four years his owners took him to the vet who told them it would only get worse.

In a last ditch effort to save him, they brought in Mirian, a feline behaviorist and owner of Lily’s Haven Rescue. To their surprise and delight, he began improving. So they changed their carpets. It set him back. They made an appointment to euthanize him on a Monday.

Mirian, far from her vision of some land with small structures to rehome unwanteds like Ollie, made a Hail Mary pass. She put out a call on Facebook. But when a cat sprays, well, you do the math. Hundreds of shares, but no takers. 

I took him. Mirian and I brought him to my vet who, after blood tests and a physical exam declared him as healthy an adult cat as he’d ever seen. I brought him home and held my breath. I have two resident cats and am fostering a feral kitten.

That first night he keened. I don’t mean meowed. I mean he sounded like a human mother who’d lost her child. He wailed. It went on for an hour before I realized he wasn’t going to stop. I made a bed in the bathtub and lay down. He stopped crying immediately, came to me, pressed his whole body against me, and stayed like that for as long as I, and my chronic neck pain, could last, a couple of hours.

The following day he refused to eat. The next day, the same. If he didn’t eat within the next day, we’d start to lose him. At this point some of you might ask, why not give him fluoxetine, a type of animal Prozac. It can turn a cat around. My resident senior takes it for extreme anxiety. He’s a pretty happy guy now.

When a cat isn’t food motivated, is traumatized, and isn’t eating, you don’t want to do anything that will further traumatize him. I tried to squirt some fluoxetine in his mouth. He bit me.

Cats grieve. Vets will say they don’t; but I’ve seen perfectly healthy cats stop eating at the loss of a companion or owner. After blood tests and exams and x-rays, healthy. But still, the animal won’t eat. Within a matter of days, they’re gone. How does a vet explain that?

Am I preaching? Do I sound preachy? Have you stopped reading? Well, for those of you who haven’t, perhaps you understand; they’re not just cats. They’re unique beings with singular personalities and preferences. While they can manifest aberrant behaviors that all fall within the realm of “cat,” when scared or threatened, the key to their mental health is as individual as our own. Unlike dogs, they don’t want to please us, making dogs far easier in many ways to help. But like us, cats want to be loved. They have sympathetic nervous systems similar to our own. When they feel safe, you will unlock their love and when you do, it’s like experiencing a kind of magic.

Safety is the key, and the key to that is patience. I mean patience of a kind you’ve yet to know. My whole life I’ve been an angular, impatient, irritable person. My work with cats has changed me, forced me to be compassionate when it’s counterintuitive, make sacrifices no human should make and wait longer than my interest holds.

Why have I done this? I need to be a better person for myself, my spouse and everyone else.

And, I know, each cat I save and help place within a loving home, is not just good for the animal. I’m not in this just to save the animals. I’m in this to save us. To bring more love to humanity. Animals love with a capacity far greater than our own and offer a kind of unconditional companionship unrivaled by other humans. Many times, so much so, that they can even save their owners’ lives.

When suicide beckoned, a long time ago and I shut out all human contact, Chloe and Charlie called me back from the edge every time. They pulled me to life because they needed me exactly the right amount. Mental illness makes you selfish. Human need will overwhelm you, but animals? They’re the ticket back to sanity. 

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Animals meet us where we are without judgement and ask for relatively very little. And the animals you rescue are, in fact, grateful. They know they’ve got it better than where they were and they recognize that you are the reason.

How’s Ollie? you ask. Not spraying. Not once. And though Mirian said he’s the toughest case she’s ever seen, he’s making progress every day. I do exactly as she says. I never trust my own instincts because I’m out of my depth with him. He bit me six times. Never broken skin…I’ve learned his limits and by giving him more of what he loves and learning his warning signals, that’s stopped. Many cats bite when pushed to their limits. It doesn’t mean they are always going to bite. It’s not like they get a taste for flesh and that’s it, they’re hooked. They hiss, scratch and bite when pushed to their extreme limits. And most of the time they’ll warn you before it happens. They’re wild animals. When you live with one, you must respect the wild in them. And when you do, they’ll give you the domestic.

What’s more, remarkably, he and my youngster, a nine-month old calico, have made the first steps toward friendship.

 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

“Noboru Wataya probably had some special power, and he knew how to find people who were especially responsive to that power and to draw something out of them. How he managed to do it and what the occasion was I have no idea, but at some point Noboru Wataya increased his violent power geometrically. Through television and the other media, he gained the ability to train his magnified power on society at large. Now he is trying to bring out something that the great mass of people keep hidden in the darkness of their unconscious. He wants to use it for his own political advantage.

“It’s a tremendously dangerous thing, this thing he is trying to draw out; it’s fatally smeared with violence and blood, and it’s directly connected to the darkest depths of history, because its final effect is to destroy and obliterate people on a massive scale.”

Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Published in 1995, this passage from The Wind-Up Bird chronicle struck me as particularly applicable today. But then I suppose it would. In the book Murakami details atrocities of wars long over repeating themselves throughout history. No matter the war, no matter the conflict, violence, sadism, torture again and again demonstrating our own powerlessness to combat the darkness within us.

So here we are, with a madman in the whitehouse, his one talent, his all powerful weapon, the ability to bring out something that the great mass of people keep hidden in the darkness of their unconscious and use it for his own political advantage.

Is it as hopeless at it feels? Is all truly lost?

Scientists say it is. Too late to reverse the inevitable death of the planet. Well, it’s all connected, isn’t it? Our mistake was in living like it wasn’t.

Movies lie, well, most media lies, particularly when it tells you it won’t. Never trust anyone who says, “You can trust me.”

“What’s the good news? What’s the bad news?” Kurt Vonnegut often asked his audiences, rhetorically of course. He lived the bombing of Dresden; its complete annihilation. Centuries of historic art and artifacts turned to dust in moments. That’s what he wrote about in Slaughter House 5. That and how men fight and die, when they’re lucky. When they’re not they keep living and remembering, carrying a burden of shame. They know what lies within men’s hearts, within their own and now they must try to forget it. How does one know that and return to a normal life?

Men know how men die. Men understand that violence. Let me tell you how women die. It’s entirely different.

No, perhaps not today.

What’s the good news? What’s the bad news? Vonnegut said that Hamlet knew. Hamlet who learned his uncle killed his father to marry his mother, from his father’s ghost. But we all know that ghosts can be extremely unreliable. They may not be who they say they are at all. They may simply be spirits preying upon human weakness, feasting upon the energy of our sorrow. Or they may be nothing more than a manifestation of our darkest dread, the product of a disintegrating psyche consumed with emotion too heavy for the vessel.

Who hasn’t been there?

Nevertheless, it does seem plausible because it feels true. And what is truth except that which confirms the things we already know? Facts be damned.

So Hamlet confronts his mother and kills Polonius, an annoying nat of a man, but father to his financeé, so well, now they have that in common, he and Ophelia, fatherless. Still, not a great way to start a marriage.

Which was never to be because there’s a play Hamlet commissions to shame his uncle into a confession and in his zealotry he humiliates Ophelia for sport, it would seem. Anyway, she kills herself.

Nothing good comes from Hamlet’s actions. I suppose that’s what makes it a tragedy. So what’s the point Vonnegut wanted to make? Something about good things might bring bad results and bad things could bring good ones. I must be leaving something out of his Hamlet analogy because I can’t remember one good thing that comes out of anything Hamlet does. Although, there’s a bigger picture. Perhaps, from Hamlet’s perspective, he is fighting for justice. From everyone else’s perspective, he’s a tyrant-in-waiting ready to behead his political enemies because his father’s ghost told him to.

Our lives are not a hero’s journey. Happy endings are a lie. Yes, that was it. Vonnegut wanted us to know that happy endings could bring bad beginnings, with the reverse being true as well.

So where does that leave us? Somewhere in the zip code of hope? That this terrible thing may not be the end, but the beginning of something, if not good, then at least better?

That’s hard to see. Reality lives outside the realm of imagination and theory. Good news. Bad news. There’s just a lot of bad news. I could go through it, a litany of all the bad things that have ever happened. But I won’t force you to look at it. Heck, I can’t look at it.

The next question. Is it fate or can any of us create the change to bring about something good? Will our actions lead to justice or just more tragedy? Isn’t there a road that’s paved with good intentions, but ends up somewhere bad?

I think, do you want to know what I think? I think we have to try to do something. David Mamet, in 3 Uses of the Knife, wrote that often we prefer to stand up and rush around boldly instead of doing any actual thing that matters. Yes, so instead of marches and Facebook rants, in place of things that look like doing something, we do an actual thing to make the world around us a better place.

I know what you’re thinking, but just listen. This is all I’m going to say. We’re in a battle everyday and whether or not any one of us recognizes the part we play in it, what we think, how we act, the words we say, place us squarely on one side or the other. When someone can use the forces of television and the media to draw out the worst in us, then the reverse must be true. It must be true that if we choose to live, even in the smallest ways, better, kinder, more generously, when no one is looking, we can push back the rising darkness. That’s its vulnerability. It overlooks the smallest of us, the least important, the powerless because it thinks its inoculated us, rendered us useless in society. But it does not have our thoughts and in that way, our actions could create a ripple effect that goes all the way to the top to topple the tyrant.

It’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

Mirror Game Premier

Cybil, Olivia and Melody play a video game with real-life consequences. “Playing With The Big Boys” is a multi-player game designed to teach women how to “make it in a man’s world.” The “man’s world” is a Silicon Valley gaming company. It rewards toxic masculinity while challenging the women with an onslaught of casual and overt misogyny through Tony, the manager and Rohm, the CEO. Cybil, inspired by disgraced Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is determined to win at any cost. She constructs an elaborate lie to win the game, but finds it comes at great cost.

Overtly, you could view the women’s journey as a cautionary tale warning women to beware ambition. Yet, beneath the surface lies an allegory that aims to indict the systems that oppress and objectify women and celebrate toxic masculinity.

Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Washington D.C., corporate America–each system fails our culture. The media they produce and the ways they function, strangle innovation and imagination in favor of a brutal and cruel kind of capitalism.

In terms of Mirror Game and the central theme, the phrase, “It’s not personal, it’s capitalism,” is no more than an excuse for bad behavior that negatively impacts both the worker and the consumer, and eventually the one at the top.

As an aside, I encourage everyone, if you haven’t, to check out The 1619 Project. It draws a direct link from slavery to our modern economic systems.

Ultimately, one hopes a piece can speak for itself and that the ideas don’t weigh too heavily on it. Any artistic endeavor, particularly one as collaborative as new opera, must offer the very talented artists it assembles space to articulate their experience. Above all else, this piece must allow the audience member the freedom to discover it and perhaps enjoy it on the way. 

Unbranded

Everyone wants it. That silver-bullet brand that shoots you to the top of search engines, amassing legions. I do. It won’t happen. Does that mean I stop producing, shutter my little vanity project and give over to the inevitability of anonymity? It wouldn’t matter to anyone but me, but the point is, it matters to me.

What Neuroscientists Know

I’ve left, returned, gone away, come back, failed to produce a consistent practice that builds a career. Yet, here I appear again. This time it’s different. I know why I write. I’ve meditated and journaled each morning for a number of months now. Not for self-improvement. Ask my husband. Not sure there’s been much. I did it to finish a creative piece within five months. Digging deep, telling truth, finding organic characters whose complicated desires drive plot–well it could take years. I didn’t have it and wasn’t willing to sacrifice those standards. Your subconsicous has all the answers, neuroscientists argue.

Each night I asked myself to solve the day’s plot hole. Each morning I’d rise, meditate for 10 minutes and mind dump into a journal working out the problems from the prior day. The answers arose, every time and I began a new habit that carried me back to my original purpose. Write with confidence, surety, insight. Write without apology.

The energy and effort branding requires cannibalizes truth’s pursuit every time.

There’s a cost, of course. People only pay for well-branded script. Still, I remain unbranded. That’s ok. I continue to write for hire, now I also write for me. I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. I want to be celebrated like my heroes: Harold Pinter, David Mamet, Maya Angelou, August Wilson, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Hunter Thompson, Flannery O’Connor, to name a few, in the order that I discovered them.

The Fight IS the Brand

They grabbed space on a hostile stage and found an audience who needed to be heard. (The white men, the exception. I’ll get to those.) Their fight was more difficult than ours, in a way. We fight search engine algorithms from our living rooms. They played their works to tiny drunken audiences in grimy bars, or wrote tirelessly for a page-10 space in their local paper.

Yet we share the same struggle, growing an audience from a handful of people to a legion. For ego? Sure, but it’s a mixed bag. If you’re any good, you struggle to right wrongs no one else addresses. In that way, you can make a contribution hefty enough to transcend trends and withstand time.

For many of us, writing is a populist medium. In the vacuum of pedigrees, expensive educations and introductions, we write to those who need our voice to make theirs heard. We, the writers who emulate the greats with slavish devotion, understand early that great magpies grow into visionaries.

Hunter Thompson wrote plainly, and created violent prose. He transcribed Hemingway, Fitzgerald and others at his typewriter hours a day, until he heard their rhythms in his head. They unlocked his voice. He unlocked mine.

To any writer who cares little about grammar, don’t be a fool. It is the most powerful writing tool on the planet.

You’ll notice, at times I drop verbs or articles. Write in fragments. Misuse grammar. I hate any tense of “To be.” Passive, lazy, “To be” smacks of early drafts and single thought arguments. Sometimes however, it’s unavoidable. This technique, entirely self-invented, allows the heart of the idea faster passage to the reader. I hope. But we struggle for common ground, you and me.

Language is fluid. Grammar, when you know it, can be broken. I break grammar well. Maybe that’s my brand. Well, I’ve a lot of competition there.

Words Fail, Brands Endure

Thompson, Pinter, Mamet– the white man exception to my earlier argument. These men stepped into the public space with more ease, because, you know, white men. The world’s ear is tuned to their voices. Even in speaking against power, as these men did, they don’t begin from a disempowered state.

Getting on with it.

Thompson, Pinter and Mamet demonstrated a powerful efficiency in emotional expression. They arrived at the heart of the matter, fast. I saw subtext emerge and the depth of human experience visible through craft in a way that gave my own voice permission. Mamet, for example, translated the language of thought. The words emerge in broken phrases, stunted, forceful, speakers overlapping one another, to dominate, control, harm and sometimes soothe. Words, he demonstrates, frequently fail us, often betray us and generally speaking, prove inadequate to translate the truth. His characters live in this constant frustration.

Often the most profound revelations require the fewest well-chosen words. All three men told on themselves and the culture, revealing its flaws at a time when people needed to tear the system down. Yet, they all suffered from a misogyny blind spot. Heroes are problematic.

Brands aren’t. A good one makes you impenetrable, unstoppable, a going concern. Yet truth, conversely, defies branding. It’s unclickable, uncommodifiable, uncomfortable. The writer must choose. The energy and effort branding requires cannibalizes truth’s pursuit every time.

What the Truth Can Do

I mention the white men first, not because they deserve it, but because they don’t. Their contributions proved valuable to me only after I discovered the others on that list. They helped me with the “how,” Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, August Wilson, Langston Hughes, helped me with the “what.” Collectively, they revealed the harrowing truth about my country and my race. In short, they challenged the infrastructures of my narrow paradigm and white-washed education. They spoke and I grew more empathetic, in effect, more human. Truth-tellers, ball-busters, tear-it-down-to-the-foundation storytellers, they each revealed the power of truth-writing. Fearless, justifiably angry, they spoke what generations before them suffered, piercing through millennia of lies and forced silence.

Truth, if you seek it, grabs you by the throat and makes you listen. Fact: great art emerges from great suffering. The privileged classes make pretty things that shine briefly. What do they know? Ease? Comfort? Intellectual pursuits at best. What do they have to say?

My suffering bonafides? That’s a lot to unpack. Here, if you’re interested. I’ve said all I’m going to say on it, for now. What really matters, do I say what I say well? If I do, does anyone need me to say it? Ah, the rub. The truth about branding–without one, I may never know, I’ll never be found.

Well, in the words of Billy Budd, “That’s alright, sir,…I’m content.”

A Rorschach Test

Who do you see in this photo? A female superhero strong enough to kick a whole army of men in the teeth? A descendant of Amazons, female warriors so self-sufficient they don’t need men? To many, Wonder Woman is a symbol of female empowerment–a shining star of feminism in the pantheon of hyper-masculine alpha greats.

To me, Wonder Woman subverts true femininity. Super sexy, gorgeous, daughter of a father god and warrior woman, Wonder Woman has as much to do with actual womanhood as Barbie in a suit. She’s an object of desire, an archetype of cis-male fantasy. Literally a gorgeous Lesbian from Lesbos, she awakens to her true nature (the need of a man) when she meets Pilot Steve Trevor. Aside from her brawn, which I’ll get to in a moment, her greatest power against him is a lasso of truth. Why is this a thing? Men lie, you see, but a virtuous woman tells the truth, something the Lesbians of Lesbos hammer home quite a bit in the film. “The World of Men is evil. It will destroy us all.”

Captain Sexy Names finds he’s utterly powerless against her UNTIL he realizes she’s never had sex–with a man—the only kind that offers one carnal knowledge, right? Her child-like innocence yet another quality of fantasy femininity.

As for her brawn, it’s something every true superhero needs, yes? That’s what makes her a superhero. Yet, unlike Batman, Ironman, Spiderman, to scratch the surface, she was never human. She fell from the heavens, a perfect specimen of purity and sexual potency. Sure, one could argue that Superman is also a god, but it’s a false equivalent. He’s just one of many male figures in this world. Cis-boys of all psyches and shapes can find themselves in DC comics. Wonder Woman is tokenism, and tokenism takes an underrepresented demographic and distills it down to one unattainable ideal–ultimately more harmful than helpful.

Of course I loved her as a child. Of course the thought of her made me feel strong. Maybe she’s a step in the right direction, but as she remains the dominant representation of femininity in the superhero world, she reinforces sexist tropes that infect the DNA of social discourse.

A friend of mine, I’ll call her Tanya, is the new CEO of an arts-related non-profit. She asked a colleague, and frequent art donor, for help. He generously obliged. He wrote her a blank check to cover the cost of their first fundraiser. They’d never discussed her relationship status. It had never come up. Grateful for the support, she thought she’d take their friendship to the next level. She invited him to her wedding. Then things got weird. He was cold, distant and dismissive in their phone calls. He attended the wedding, but went out of his way to blow her off. He walked away when she approached and left having barely greeted her or her new husband.

Another friend, Julie, let’s say, is a Marketing consultant. A CEO brought her in to help him take his company to the next level. He was excited by her work, complimented her on her intelligence and enthusiastically talked of their future together–until he asked her for coffee. She mentioned she and her partner had plans at that time and suggested an alternative day. She never heard from him again.

Jen, another friend, attended a recent conference. During a panel discussion between several men and women, one of the men stopped the conversation to tell the women, “Can I just say, I have a crush on all of you!” Don’t be so sensitive, you may say. He was complimenting them! What’s wrong with that? Because it makes women objects of desire in a space where we seek to engage with our minds. This hurts our bottom line. Men’s desire can literally take the food out of our mouths. They have the luxury to determine when it’s sexy time and when it’s work time. And if women don’t play ball, men take it and go home.

This is the pernicious problem with a figure like Wonder Woman. There are many examples of toxic femininity that get tangled up in the muck and madness of good-intentioned media. I would love to think that movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp might move the needle, but as long as gender disparity is measured in wages lost and careers stalled, I’m dubious.

Mirror Game, An Opera

MIRROR GAME

IN SILICON VALLEY, THE GAME Will COST YOU EVERYTHING

Mirror Game is a new opera by Composer Celka Ojakangas with story and libretto by me, Amy Punt premiering November 29th at Portland State University. 

Gaming programmers, Cybil, Olivia and Melody get transported into a video game called, “Playing With The Big Boys,” the game that teaches you how to make it in a man’s world. In order to escape, they must win. In order to win they must eliminate one another from the game entirely as they compete for the same promotion in a Silicon Valley company. However, Cybil and Olivia are in love. Each must choose between power and wealth and their relationship. 

It is about the silent messages that influence bedrock values driving gender bias.

Overtly the story explores the consequences of internalizing a masculine narrative and subverting the feminine. Cybil, (inspired by disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes) creates a lie that sky-rockets her to fame and success. Yet, it metastasizes within her, perverting the woman she once was. While it first appears she wins the game, once the lie is exposed, she loses everything.

Why this story now?

I saw an opportunity to explore themes that, just a few years ago, didn’t feel culturally relevant to most people. This, despite the personal and individual costs many women pay for ambition, drive and achievement. While pursuing full time careers, women largely remain the primary domestic caregivers. Studies have shown that this decreases their chances at promotion over men and keeps their salaries a full 19.3% lower.

Our culture values men over women by a considerable margin.

A year or so ago I began seeing “Take Time To Be a Dad Today” billboards all over Los Angeles. It was a public service campaign created by World Wrestling Entertainment and the Ad Council. To be sure, Vince McMahon, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of the WWE, is well known for his bigotry and misogyny. In fact, it’s his brand. So, if you want to discount this campaign as you consider the source, consider this. The Ad Council developed it on behalf of you and me, the tax-payers. Fatherhood.gov, run by The National Fatherhood Clearinghouse, is a “funded national resource for fathers, practitioners, programs/Federal grantees, states, and the public at-large who are serving or interested in supporting strong fathers and families.”

I appreciate that at one time society may have needed it–in 1962. However, right now, it sends the wrong message. Through it we further the regressive values of Leave It To Beaver-style parenting that continues to place the domestic burden squarely on women. What does this mean? All women, not just the women who have children, pay a price in lost wages and stalled careers. This, in effect, incentivizes women to stay home with the children. I can’t believe this is an accident.

BECAUSE DADS MUST BE REMINDED TO PARENT

To be clear, Mirror Game is not about a woman trying to find balance between domesticity and her career.

Instead it’s about the impact these silent messages have on us all. They influence bedrock values driving gender bias. Our culture values men over women by a considerable margin. Do I spell it out? Money = Value.

Why Silicon Valley?

In Silicon Valley, masculinity reigns in a way that’s somewhat unique. It’s widely felt that young, nerdy, introverted males make the best programmers. The degree to which one reflects that narrative determines the level of her success. The traditional alpha male bombast and frat boy hijinks of say, Wall Street or even Hollywood, doesn’t exist. I’m hoping that placing the story in Silicon Valley offers a fresh and modern take on the misogyny influencing every aspect of one of the most powerful industries in the world.

 

 

 

Cicadas in the sorrow of night

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Cicadas buzz in the sorrow of night. Late summer heat and humid fear vibrates on my skin. Insomnia breeds paranoia and terror.

Dad’s gone. Two days left of this visit. My first one back since his death. This is not a night, or a day, but an in between. A purgatory. I remember another sleepless night in this bed a year ago. They’d found the cancer that killed him in the frozen dead of winter. We were hopeful then. We sat at dinner, over Mom’s vegetarian bbq. He was in a good mood as they discussed the spot on his pancreas.

God would heal.

Later, abandoned by sleep and haunted by the future, I feared losing him when there was so much left to say. Not unsaid things. But things that were on their way. And unremembered things. I kept meaning to ask why he walked away from God for 15 years when he was my age. There were other things like that, but he was dying and our will was bent towards his living.

Continue reading “Cicadas in the sorrow of night”

USC, You Have A Problem

Due to a back injury, I started physical therapy at the USC Verdugo Hills Hospital on August 28th at 1:15 p.m. In a large hospital room designed to serve a number of patients simultaneously, each bed is separated from the others by a curtain. Following my first session, my therapist turned off the light while I lay on an ice pack and relaxed. Across the way, behind another curtain, a therapist, a man, worked with his patient, a woman and senior citizen.  His tone was friendly and professional. They discussed her progress, her heart, and he asked her whether or not she felt any numbness in various parts of her body as, I assumed from her responses, he touched her. It all seemed above board. Then the conversation turned from the professional, to well, something else.

“So, every year to a year-and-a-half or I go with my patients to get a massage,” he said.

“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” she said.

“Usually, I take my patients downstairs to the spa. You know, I wait until the spa has a deal– 20% off or so.”

“I know, they’re so expensive, otherwise I’d get them all the time.”

“Good. So, we go and get a couple’s massage in the evening. How does that sound?”

“That sounds fine,” she said.

“And then we can grab some dinner,” he said cheerfully.

I could barely contain my shock and mouthed, “OH MY GOD!” Two other female colleagues of his were milling about the room. One of them saw my face, looked away and exited the room.

In the spirit of “If you see something say something,” I’d like to say I said something. I did not. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what I heard. I could be missing something. Perhaps they know one another well. Perhaps there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. Perhaps…

Here’s the thing, it’s not my determination to make. I will say something, and when I do, it’s in his supervisor’s hands. And therein lies their biggest problem. USC school officials ignored and suppressed evidence of the sexual misconduct and criminal behavior of two powerful campus medical figures for decades.

Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, disgraced dean of the Keck School of Medicine and renowned eye surgeon, resigned his $1.1-million-a-year post in March 2016 following the drug overdose of a young woman in his presence, in his Pasadena hotel room. After nearly a decade of overseeing “hundreds of medical students, thousands of professors and clinicians, and research grants totaling more than $200 million,” he said he wanted to, “explore other opportunities,” The Los Angeles Times reported July 17, 2017.

It was just the tip of the iceberg. The Times uncovered video footage and photos of Puliafito using methamphetamines and other drugs with criminals and drug dealers spanning his decade as Dean. Times reporters also discovered evidence indicating that the school knew about it all along.

It’s hard to imagine anything more egregious than Puliafito’s behavior, or the school’s aiding and abetting of it. That is until this spring, when The Times published a bombshell revelation that Dr. George Tyndall, a campus gynecologist, had been sexually abusing his patients and harassing fellow employees for nearly 30 years, and, again, the school knew about it. In spite of their public denials of wrong doing and obfuscations, paper trails, discovered by The Times, don’t lie.

USC might want to consider a rebranding campaign: “USC, A Safe Space.”

Which would be a hard sell considering the number of Tyndall’s alleged victims could reach into the thousands. Jon Manly, a lawyer well-versed in mass litigation for sex abuse victims, told The Times, “I have never seen anything like the volume of calls we are getting.”

The details are harrowing in both cases, the coverups worse.

You’d expect then, that the medical professionals at USC might be more vigilant about identifying and rooting out those who behave inappropriately with patients. You might even think that the predatory medical professionals themselves might reserve their questionable comments and suggestions for a time when they are actually alone with their patients. However, Dr. George Tyndall received a large payout after decades of sexually abusing his patients in full view of countless other staff members. If he wasn’t hiding, well, why would anyone else?

What I overheard pales in comparison, but in light of these things, it’s speaks to a troubling pattern at USC. Whatever this physical therapist’s intent, it sounds like he’s taking advantage of his patient’s trust for his own benefit. Let’s be clear. He suggested a patient share an intimate evening with him as if it were medical therapy. I once managed a spa. Psychologists frequently recommended couples try a couple’s massage to remedy sexual dry spells. Follow that with a dinner date and you have the makings of something far outside current models of patient care. You have the makings of a lawsuit.

It makes me wonder if this kind of thing isn’t endemic at USC. Predators seek out professions that offer them easy access to vulnerable populations. I’m beginning to wonder if they don’t also seek out employers that offer them protection as they offend with impunity.

Your move, USC.

Louis C.K. Returns, But Where Are the Women?

Louis C.K. showed up for a surprise gig at the at the Comedy Cellar in New York City on Sunday night. According to the New York Times, he received an ovation before he even began. According to Vulture, there were at least two women who were not having it. And they felt they weren’t the only dismayed members of the audience, but it sounds like they were the minority. One of them reported seeing only four other women in the front row sitting stone-faced throughout his 15-minute set.

It was classic Louis. Surprise visit and 15 minutes of working out new material. He’s one of the hardest working comedians in his industry–and well respected for it. That is, until his fall from grace last year. Following the release of a short statement in the New York Times copping to masturbating in front of at least five women and coercing them into silence, he was dropped by Netflix, Amazon, shut out from the box office and dropped by his manager and previously devoted agent. The very agent who had threatened to ruin the first two women to call C.K. out if they came forward.  And he did. They received death threats, were blackballed from auditions and clubs and lost television opportunities that were all but a sure thing.

The two women in the Comedy Cellar audience reported feeling a similar kind of silencing as the men in the room boomed out their approval. “If someone had heckled him, I think they would’ve been heckled out,” one of them said.”It felt like there were a lot of aggressive men in the audience and very quiet women. It’s the kind of vibe that doesn’t allow for a dissenting voice. You’re just expected to be a good audience member.”

Yes, be a good girl and agree with the men. If you’ve ever been in a room throbbing with testosterone, you know better than to disagree.

The club’s owner, Noam Dworman, told the New York Times, “there can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong.” The social standards about how to respond to errant behavior are inconsistent, he said, and now shifting ever faster, and audiences should have the leeway to decide what to watch themselves. “I think we’ll be better off as a society if we stop looking to the bottlenecks of distribution — Twitter, Netflix, Facebook or comedy clubs — to filter the world for us.”

Dworman’s argument seems logical. Nevertheless, the audience’s response shows how little so many men understand about the MeToo movement, how dominant their voices are and how the needle on predatory sexual behavior hasn’t moved. Sure, men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are gone forever, perhaps leading us to conclude that overtly criminal and predatory behavior has been curtailed. Please. Consider Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and our Predator In Chief. Nobody talks about Thomas’ well-documented sins against Anita Hill. Why even talk about C.K.? Really, when there are predatory men setting laws that will impact women for generations. Aren’t they the very ones who should be shamed out of office? If anyone?

But I digress.

But do I?

What does C.K.’s comeback mean?

Many of C.K.’s fans and supporters argue that C.K.’s offenses didn’t rise to Weinstein’s level. Yet, that argument fails to address the real issue–that when victims come forward, they face swift and immediate retribution. They face losing everything. The problem with C.K.’s return is that the women involved don’t get one.

As a one time fan of C.K.’s, I always felt there was room in his comedy for me, for women. However, I predict that may no longer be the case. I fear his comeback will widen the gender divide as he pulls away from more inclusive topics. If Twitter offers any insight today, those most vocal against his comeback are women and those for it, are men.  This tweet first Screenshot at Aug 29 16-08-51Screenshot at Aug 29 16-08-17

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SNL’s Michael Che, comedians Marlon Wayans and Mo Amer were the first of his colleagues to speak in his defense, but I doubt they’ll be the last. Men are angry and confused. They identify with the public figures who’ve been called out. Even those who say they support the MeToo movement, fail to get what it’s about. An interview last year on MTP Daily with Chuck Todd encapsulated this perfectly for me. Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard say they fully support the MeToo movement and believe the women who speak out. When asked about Woody Allen and whether the two would do another film with him, Sarsgaard levies a decisive no.  Daniels, however hesitates, yet quickly says he believes Dylan Farrow. Then, this happens: Sarsgaard says, “Throughout history there have been so many artists that had bad behavior. Picasso, I mean my god, it’s just been one after another, right? In all professions, but a lot of artists, right?”

And he was doing so well.

Then he adds, a bit defensively, “I would continue to watch Woody Allen movies, I’ll tell you that. I would go back and watch those movies. He’s a fantastic filmmaker.”

Uh huh. Woody Allen’s films demonstrate the various ways in which women exist to serve men’s needs and desires–something that has existed so long in the arts, we don’t even question it. His female characters succumb to his sexual desire as soon as he arrives. When they don’t they are portrayed as devious, manipulative and untrustworthy. Manhattan, for instance, is about a 44-year old guy who dates a swooning 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway.

That’s exactly the point of the MeToo movement. TimesUp on that behavior. Someone’s genius does not excuse his predatory and misogynist point of view or artwork. It does not give him a free pass to continue to undermine women, while his career soars. His talent or ability should not trump a worldview that feeds a narrative that disempowers half the population.

That said, I don’t believe people should be tried, convicted and destroyed in the court of public opinion. I don’t believe that Louis C.K. should go away forever. Instead, let’s stop talking about him and the men like him. If we’re ever going to move the needle, we need to hear from the women.

Let’s give them the opportunities they lost. Let’s showcase their work and their voices. Let’s find their genius. If we are ever to strike a balance, the Entertainment Industry power brokers, the same ones who vanquished the worst offenders in the MeToo movement, should seek out the women who were wronged and give them their lost platforms. Offer them the same opportunities to prove themselves. If they really believe them as they say they do, put their money where their mouths are.