Sunday, May 15, 2022

America’s Uncivil War

This morning I awoke to an email from The New York Times about the latest mass shooting in Buffalo, NY, but I didn’t read the article. I didn’t read the article because, frankly, I’m exhausted and overwhelmed. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed because mass shootings have become an almost daily occurrence in the United States and our government has become powerless to do anything about it. Our government has become incapable of exercising the will of the American people.

Part of this is because our government is inherently undemocratic. From a Senate that gives the same number of senators to Rhode Island as it does to California, to an Electoral College that twice in the last 22 years has given the presidency to someone who didn’t win the popular vote, to the Supreme Court, which has become yet another partisan branch of government. (Then again, when you over 400 million guns combined with a nearly nonexistent mental healthcare system, that’s a recipe for disaster.)

Every time our democracy fails, people like Vladimir Putin use that as proof of their theory that democracies don’t work. I know that there’s a war between democracy and autocracy going on in Ukraine, but we can’t even defend our own democracy at home.

Ironically, this is precisely the kind of environment that’s a breeding ground for authoritarians and dictators. It gets to the point where people get so fed up, they just want “law and order,” even if they have to give up some of their rights in order to get it.

I keep thinking of that line in Network where Howard Beale says, “Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone."

That’s increasingly how I (and I suspect many others) feel, especially now that so many people are working from home. We’re all just crawling into our own personal fortresses just to stay sane.

I often joke, “Thank God I live in the independent republic of New York City” because I increasingly feel like I wouldn’t even be safe between the two coasts. I actually feel safer in New York, because of its tough gun laws, then I would in, say, Texas.

This is the kind of environment that swept Trump into power and could sweep him into power again if Democrats don’t get their act together RIGHT NOW.

For the last three days, I’ve been having conversations with my friends about the increasing incivility of American people (all people?), at every level of society, from my neighborhood, with its noise and graffiti, to comedians being attacked on stage, to the assault on the Capitol. It’s starting to feel like nobody’s in charge.

Why is this happening?

I think part of it can be traced to the Covid pandemic, which, in addition to killing one million Americans, has been far more destructive than I think anyone thought it would be. For almost two years, we’ve been essentially locked up in our homes, and I honestly think that people have forgotten how to behave in public (assuming they knew how in the first place).

I think the other part can traced to Donald Trump, who, through his words and actions, gave permission to people to say and do things that, prior to his presidency, were, at the very least, considered impolite.

What else?

Police departments (or at least New York City’s police department) that basically stopped enforcing the law (especially quality-of-life laws) after the Black Lives Matter protests.

I hate to sound like I’m defending Rudolph Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory of policing, but there has to be a way to enforce the law without resorting to his racist stop-and-frisk tactics.

Bill Maher did a segment on his show this week that showed shoplifters brazenly stealing from a drug store while security guards just stood there and watched. And anyone who’s ridden the subway in New York City (that is, anyone who still is riding the subway) can attest to the number of homeless people—some of whom are obviously mentally ill—who have made the subways their home. Yes, Mayor Adams has added more police to the subways, but a lot of times they’re just looking at their cell phones.

We shouldn’t be worried about foreign countries attacking us. (OK, we should, but not exclusively.) We should be worried about ourselves.

I have seen the enemy and it is us.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Rereading The Andy Warhol Diaries

I just finished rereading The Andy Warhol Diaries after having seen the Netflix documentary series of the same name. I have to say, it was mostly filler, which makes the Netflix doc’s accomplishment even more remarkable. By focusing on Warhol’s relationship with Jed Johnson, an interior decorator, and Jon Gould, a movie producer at Paramount, the documentary succeeded in somewhat humanizing Warhol, who always presented himself to the public as a somewhat asexual person (even though his art had an extremely gay sensibility).

The main revelation of the diaries is that Warhol was a workaholic. During the period covered by the diaries (1976-1987), Warhol was primarily known for his society portraits. It’s hard to say which came first. Did he associate with rich and famous people because he did society portraits or did he do society portraits because he associated with rich and famous people?

He was also very insecure about his position in the art world, constantly comparing himself to contemporaries like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and members of the new guard like Julian Schnabel and Jean Michel Basquiat, with whom he had a close relationship and on whom he seemed to have a kind of crush.

Another revelation is that Warhol comes across in his diary—especially reading it in “woke” 2022—as someone who was racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and (ironically, since he himself was gay) homophobic. The most charitable explanation I can come up with (not that I condone such behavior) is that he was a product of his time and upbringing. The other explanation is that I don’t think this diary (as the word implies) was intended for public consumption; it was mainly a means of keeping track of expenses, which he details meticulously. (The shocker here is that his cab fare was often what it costs just to get into a cab these days!). But, hey, even I have been known to make the occasional off-color (no pun) remark in private.

The main value of this diary is that it records what I think of as the last great creative period in New York City’s history—and by “New York City,” I mean Manhattan. That’s because this was the last time in which artists could actually afford to live in Manhattan.

It’s also the last great period of sexual freedom, coming as it does before the AIDS crisis, which looms heavily over this book. (Jon Gould is only one of the many people in this book who died of AIDS.)

Ultimately, though, Warhol remains an enigma. Someone who was obsessed with fame, wealth and celebrity (which were often the subjects of his work) and at the same time was filled with existential dread (which could be seen as the theme of his skull and shadow paintings). His life can seem either glamorous and exciting or meaningless and empty, depending on how you look at it.

Even so, I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.

Monday, March 28, 2022

The Slap Heard Round the World

I must admit, before the beginning of last night’s Oscars, I was seriously thinking about watching something else. (I know, that could cost me my gay card!) Unfortunately, even HBO’s Sunday night lineup sucks right now. So, I reluctantly tuned in, taking care to avoid most of the ass-kissing red carpet arrivals. (Case in point: Kristen Stewart: a beautiful woman with an awful hairdo. Why didn’t anyone tell her?!)

I thought the big story of last night’s Oscars was going to be boobs. Big boobs and lots of them. Boobs falling out of dresses as far as the eye could see. You know things are bad when a gay man (i.e., me) can be accused (as I was on Facebook) of being obsessed with boobs. But, hey, you couldn’t get away from them.

There were a number of noteworthy moments, but unfortunately, one of them is hogging all the attention, so let me get the elephant in the room out of the way right now.

I’ve never had strong feelings about Will Smith one way or the other, but his slapping Chris Rock in response to a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s close-cropped hair, is still bothering me a day later. Let me just state up front that violence is never an acceptable response to free speech that you don’t agree with. As a stand-up comedian myself, the idea of somebody in the audience walking up onstage and assaulting me because they didn’t like one of my jokes is terrifying, and when someone of Will Smith’s stature does it before a worldwide audience on the Academy Awards, it’s extremely dangerous.

Now, I should also say that it’s generally considered to be in bad taste to make fun of someone’s medical condition. I didn’t know until after the altercation happened that Pinkett Smith has alopecia (a condition that causes one to lose one’s hair) and I don’t know if Chris Rock was aware of it either. If he did, then he was wrong, too. But at the moment it happened, it seemed like a harmless joke (and, for the record, I think Jada looks great with a shaved head). That’s why I, along with probably a lot of other people, thought it was a staged routine at first, until I saw Smith’s angry verbal response to Rock being silenced by ABC (even though I could clearly see him saying the “f” word)

That makes Smith’s subsequent acceptance speech for Best Actor (in which he talked about being “called on” “to love people”) all the more galling. (To be fair, Jessica Chastain’s acceptance speech for Best Actress was also kind of cringeworthy.)

As someone on PBS News Hour pointed out, if there were to be any repercussions for Smith’s behavior, they should have happened immediately. As it was, he got to deliver his acceptance speech as if nothing had happened. I think this illustrates the power imbalance between a movie star like Will Smith and a stand-up comedian like Chris Rock who, even though he’s made movies and is widely considered to be one of the best comedians working today, is still that red-headed stepchild of show business: a comedian. (It also demonstrates the power of ratings: ABC isn’t going to cut away during one of the only moments of real drama in the three-hour ceremony.)

I think the reason we watch the Oscars is because it allows us a peek at a rare moment of spontaneity within the carefully constructed public persona of Hollywood celebrities. No one (except perhaps people in the film industry) cares about the actual awards.

These celebrities sometimes have an exaggerated sense of their own importance (shocking, I know), and it’s not surprising, living in the bubble of Hollywood, surrounded by sycophants.

It’s a shame that Smith’s altercation with Rock eclipsed an evening of notable firsts: first acting Oscar for a deaf male actor, first acting Oscar for an openly gay Latina actress, first Best Picture win for a streaming service.

But, hey, at least it was real.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

On Nostalgia

According to the New York Times email I received this morning, nostalgia is now a thing. “As Gen Xers and many millennials approach or move through middle age, the entertainment industry has become determined to soothe their passage with a ceaseless and sentimental remembrance of things past.”

It also mentions the Super Bowl halftime show (which I didn’t watch) because Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent are now considered nostalgia acts. It goes on to say that, “This fall, Avril Lavigne, Bright Eyes and My Chemical Romance will perform at the early-aughts emo-and-rock festival When We Were Young.”

My reaction to all this is twofold. First off, I was nostalgic when nostalgia wasn’t cool.

Second of all, boo fucking hoo! Gen Xers and millennials are crying into their avocado toast because they’re approaching or moving through middle age? Wait til you get to my my age! Boomers are invisible!

I’ve been watching Seinfeld reruns since they went on the air (after having watched the original series—because I’m that old). I’ve gotten to the point where I can recite pretty much any Seinfeld episode verbatim.

“Why?” you ask.

Apart from the fact that it’s a brilliant sitcom, there’s the undeniable nostalgia factor. The characters on Seinfeld (particularly Kramer) could never exist in today’s New York City. They could never afford it! All the interesting kinds of people who made New York a place people would want to live in (or visit) in the first place have either died or left!

As for music, I basically stopped buying music after the 1980s.

Last week I went to see Howard Jones in concert. Let me tell you something. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen an audience of 60-somethings going, “Ooh ooh ooh” to “New Song”!

Even more ’80s bands will be touring this summer (including Jones): Tears for Fears, Devo. Madness was supposed to be doing a 40th anniversary tour, but their New York dates were canceled. (Not enough boomers?)

I even had an idea for a movie script. I was going to call it Every Band in the ’80s. (Agents, if you’re reading this, I’m happy to “take a meeting”!) The plot would center around a character whose goal was to see every band that came out in the ’80s before either he or they died. Unfortunately, many ’80s music icons already have: Prince, George Michael, Whitney Houston. Yikes! It’s depressing! It would probably have to be rewritten as Every Band in the ’90s! Oh, well…

I’ve been known to go into what I call a “nostalgia K-hole” where one memory triggers another and, thanks to the Internet, I can spend my entire evening playing “Whatever happened to?” (Speaking of which, that cute little boy from The Hours has grown up to be a hot young man! But I digress.)

I even wrote a novella called Nostalgia, a sequel, of sorts, to my book New York Trilogy, which was about my coming of age in the ’80s. (Nostalgia-in-the-making, if you will.) And that was 30 years ago!

So when it comes to nostalgia, remember: you heard it here first! (Or second, if you get the New York Times email.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Our Government Is Broken

Our government is broken. Congress can’t legislate and the Supreme Court has become a partisan institution that’s lost all credibility.

In just the most recent example, two senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are standing in the way of passing a voting rights bill or changing the rules of the filibuster so anything can be passed (or even debated).

So this is where we are. Republicans stonewall for two years and then retake the House. We saw a similar playbook with Obama, when they blocked his nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court until a Republican—Trump—was elected and then let him install three Supreme Court justices.

They’re also gerrymandering Congressional districts and installing political appointees to oversee elections in order to guarantee permanent Republican rule.

If ever there was a reason to storm the Capitol (and, no, I’m not advocating violence), this would be it.

The irony is that the party that is actually rigging the system is the same one that tried to overturn the election when their candidate (Trump) didn’t win.

And that’s to say nothing of the Electoral College.

Twice in the last 22 years, the person who lost the popular vote actually wound up winning the presidency.

So now we have a nonstop election cycle and nothing gets done. Not just voting rights. Not just Build Back Better. Nothing. No gun control, no abortion rights, no universal healthcare. Nothing.

And the irony (there’s that word again!) is that the majority of Americans want these things.

But our system of government is inherently undemocratic.

The Senate is an inherently undemocratic institution.

Rhode Island has the same number of senators as California. The 50 Republicans in the Senate only represent a minority of the population.

So we now have minority rule.

And that’s undemocratic.

And there’s not a fucking thing we can do about it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Confessions of a Grindr-holic

As we approach a new year, and people start making resolutions, I have a confession to make: I’m a Grindr-holic.

There, I’ve said it. (I’ve already broken the first rule of Grindr: don’t talk about Grindr.)

There are several reasons why I’m a Grindr-holic, and not all of them have to do with sex.

First of all, it’s a boredom-killer. What better way to kill time while you’re waiting for the subway (or on line at Whole Foods) than to scroll through a bunch of naked pics. Just make sure nobody’s looking over your shoulder or they may catch you looking at (or sending) a dick pic. (It might even be yours!)

I’ve even incorporated Grindr into what I call my “15 minutes of bullshit time.” That’s where I look at my phone for 15 minutes when I wake up in the morning (Grindr, email, Facebook, etc.) in order to postpone the inevitable moment when I actually have to get out of bed.

Then there’s the endorphin rush endemic to all forms of social media (in which I’d include Grindr). Having someone “tap” your profile on Grindr is like having someone “like” your post on Facebook. And just as meaningless.

That’s because with eight million residents and 60 million tourists a year in New York City, the illusion is that there’s always someone better. I’ve dubbed this phenomenon “There’s Always Someone Better Syndrome.”

Sometimes you just want some physical intimacy (especially after two years of Covid) and Grindr is the only way you can get it.

And sometimes you’re just (all together now!) bored.

Which leads me to some other rules about Grindr.

Rule Number 2. If you don’t hook up with someone immediately, it’s not happening. (And forget about making a “date.”) That’s because most gay men (OK, most men) have the attention span of a gnat. If there’s the slightest hesitation on your part, you’ll be blocked. And that’s another thing about Grindr (and other social media). Guys will say (and do) things to you on Grindr that they’ll never say (or do) to you “in real life.” That’s why I try to avoid guys under 30 (hell, guys under 50!). Because most of them haven’t had much experience with, you know, “real life.”

Rule Number 3. It’s rare to have sex with someone more than once (see “There’s Always Someone Better Syndrome”). It’s not even worth using Grindr’s “favorites” feature, because as soon as your hookup (or you) is out the door, you’ll never see each other again. That’s why I sometimes refer to Grindr as “oneanddone.com.”

The good thing about Grindr (if there is a good thing) is that it’s location-based and its GPS is fairly accurate, unlike Adam4Adam, which seems to consist mostly of closet cases, hustlers and, best of all, fake profiles. (There’s an awful lot of gay men in Cheney, Kansas! And they’re all “100 feet away”!)

The bad thing about it being location-based is that I seem to have “used up” all the gay men in my neighborhood. Now if I want to get laid, I have to move!

Either that or spring for “Grindr Xtra” (600 profiles, starting at $19.99 per month).

But as a famous comedian (OK, me) once said, why should I pay $19.99 per month when I can get rejected for free?

Maybe in 2022.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Anything But Joyous

Covid. Climate change. Republicans.

I took a walk to Rockefeller Center on my lunch hour yesterday and, in spite of it being less crowded than usual, I almost started crying. Why? Because this is supposed to be a joyous time of year and I was feeling anything but joyous.

As I write this, a new Covid variant, Omicron, is starting to spread across the United States. Several Broadway shows have had to cancel performances (after having only recently restarted them) and the Radio City Christmas show has canceled their performances for the rest of the year. (I don’t even like the Radio City Christmas show, but still!)

And this is after we’ve been through almost two years of shutdowns, having to wear masks, and having to get vaccinated (to say nothing of the 800,000 Americans who have died).

It seems like every time we think we’re finally about to be done with Covid it comes roaring back even worse than before.

So, if you feel like you’re going crazy, you’re not alone. Along with the Covid epidemic, there’s been an epidemic of people dealing with mental health issues.

Just last week, the New York Times published an article about a website that instructs people how to commit suicide. Shocking, yes, surprising, no. (For the record, I don’t want to commit suicide, but the fact that I even think it’s necessary to say that shows how low we’ve sunk.)

Also last week, a tornado tore through several states in the Midwest, causing death and destruction. This was almost surely another example of the disastrous effects of climate change. Yet whenever Congress tries to pass a bill that deals with it, Republicans (and Democrat-in-name-only Joe Manchin) invariably vote against it. (President Biden’s infrastructure bill was a rare exception, but at this point it’s probably too little too late.)

Gun violence continues to wreak havoc on this country. In just the most recent example, two parents bought their child a gun for Christmas (who does that?!) and he then turned around and killed several of his classmates with it. And yet we can’t even pass a federal law that makes the parents of minors keep such weapons locked up, let alone renew the assault weapons ban.

Finally, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Capitol Riot, Donald Trump and his allies seem likely to run out the clock (once again) and escape any accountability for trying to overturn the election results and promoting the Big Lie that the election was “stolen” (which the Associated Press just proved yet again has no basis in fact whatsoever).

Republicans have also been gerrymandering Congressional districts, restricting voting rights and installing political appointees to oversee elections in order to ensure Republican control of our government indefinitely, regardless of election results.

Democrats better start taking this threat to our democracy seriously RIGHT NOW or this will be the last Christmas we have one!

So forgive me if I’m feeling less than celebratory. But something tells me I have lots of company this year.