Friday, October 29, 2010

Wish Everyone Could Get the Message...

I wish those zealots across this country who spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and money trying to convince others that God would want them to discriminate, hate and hurt people, could see this billboard as a sign.

Maybe someday. :)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Review: "Palo Alto: Stories" by James Franco

People in the public eye are always looking for the next big thing. Singers want to act, actors want to direct or sing, and they all want to write a novel. Add James Franco to that literary list. Franco, who has acted in movies and on General Hospital, made a short film and went back to school to get his master's degree, recently published Palo Alto, a collection of 11 linked short stories about teenagers growing up in (where else?) Palo Alto. I'm a big James Franco fan, but most of the stories in this collection make me think he should stick to acting.

The collection started out with a few promising stories. In "Lockheed," a very intelligent young girl is stuck in a boring summer internship and then she witnesses a disturbing act of violence at a party she shouldn't even have attended. "American History" tells the story of a student who feigns racism in a class assignment to impress a girl, only to have it backfire. But beyond that, every story is about rootless, self-absorbed and self-destructive teenagers who resort to drugs, violence, sex and, in one story, sexual abuse, to pass the time. I know that Franco was probably trying to make a statement about these kids needing direction, needing something concrete and worthwhile to fill their days, but I honestly felt very little empathy for most of the characters. Instead of exploring why a narrator of one of the stories would want to crash his car into an abutment, Franco sensationalizes it and turns it into a joke afterward.

I believe Franco's writing shows promise, but honestly, I think that this collection got published mainly because he is James Franco. I'm not a squeamish person, but the excess of drugs, violence, abusive language, animal cruelty, sex and reprehensible behavior became tremendously unappealing very quickly.

Does It Really Get Better?

As I've written a few times now, many people in society have rallied following the recent spike in teen suicides as a result of anti-gay bullying, contributing videos to the It Gets Better Project. President Obama has contributed a video, as have legislators (national and local), celebrities and everyday people. Even me.

The videos are designed to let those struggling with being bullied and questions of self-worth know that life does get better, and that suicide isn't the answer. As someone who was a victim of bullying and one who contemplated suicide to escape this on more than one occasion, I can say that life did get better.

These messages are important, and I hope that hearing the stories of those who have been through these difficult times will provide the necessary support and encouragement to keep these young people away from suicide.

However, the cynic in me wonders whether the inspiration and encouragement of these videos is enough to trump those voices in society who equate homosexuality with sin, publicly wish that all gay people would commit suicide and compare same sex marriage with marrying animals or inanimate objects. The cynic in me wonders how we can tell these young people that life gets better when so much of our society is so filled with hate toward gay people?

Today I heard that Texas NBC affiliate station KTEK and radio station KTBB did a segment entitled Will Gays Destroy America? Both stations invited viewers to call-in, and the radio station is also conducting a poll on its web site.

How can something like this be allowed in today's world? How can a major network condone something so discriminatory? Could you imagine a network asking if giving African-Americans the right to vote would destroy the country? Or if Jews will destroy America? No one would stand for either of those. But yet this segment aired.

And scarily enough, this isn't the worst of it. Arkansas school board member Clint McCance allegedly wrote on his Facebook profile that the only way he would have worn purple to show solidarity for bullied gay and lesbian youth "was if they all committed suicide."

Said McCance: "Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin."

Now, let's not even touch the fact that a member of a school board used the word "thereselves." But isn't a school board supposed to advocate for students, all students, regardless of race, sexual orientation, income, intellectual prowess, etc.? How could a school board member encourage children to commit suicide and condone anti-gay bullying?

Oh, yeah, and today also saw coverage of Wisconsin lieutenant governor candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, whose recently shared her views on same-sex marriage (in addition to it being a "fiscal back breaker") as: "At what point are we going to OK marrying inanimate objects? Can I marry this table or this clock? Can we marry dogs? This is ridiculous."

We need to stop condoning hatred.

We need to stop acting as if not everyone in our society deserves the same rights.

We need to stop worrying about votes, worrying about offending supporters and worry about humanity.

We cannot go on this way. Anti-gay rhetoric already leads to bullying, discrimination, violence, suicide and murder.

We need to stop believing being gay is a choice. Who would choose to surround themselves with this much hatred?

It's time we think beyond our personal beliefs and prejudices. These are human beings.

But the only way this will change is if we refuse to be complacent. Our society can no longer afford complacency. This will only change if we are willing to change.

Make it happen. Demand that it happen. Stand for nothing less. That is the only way we can honestly say things will get better.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review: "Savages" by Don Winslow

Ben and Chon are tremendously successful marijuana kingpins in Laguna Beach, CA. But they're not your average, run-of-the-mill drug lords: Ben is a philosopher and philanthropist, who spends most of his money saving the world, while ex-Navy SEAL Chon is the muscle and the attitude (or baditude) behind the operation. Things seem to be fairly copacetic; they've fended off challenges to their territory without running afoul of the law, and each has a successful relationship with Ophelia (aka O), a somewhat flighty yet fiercely loyal Valley Girl.

And then Ben and Chon are approached by the Baja Cartel, a powerful Mexican cartel, which has decided they want Ben and Chon to work for them. They run afoul of the cartel's leader, Elena "La Reina" (the Queen) Lauter, and O gets abducted by Elena's minions, who promise to return O unharmed—for $20 million. How Ben and Chon choose to obtain the remaining funds they need proves to be tremendously ingenious—and has repercussions for everyone.

I'm a huge Don Winslow fan, both of his stand-alone books and his Neal Carey series that includes A Cool Breeze on the Underground. And while I enjoyed the characters and the plot of this story, for some reason Winslow abandoned his usual writing style for an Elmore Leonard-esque, surfer-boy style that I never quite warmed up to. It really undercut the story because while I found myself completely immersed in the plot, the narrative style really irritated me. Hopefully Winslow won't continue this in his next book. But stoner language and structure notwithstanding, this is really enjoyable.

Friday, October 22, 2010

And Now, A Word from the President...

Since the tragic spike in suicides among young people who were bullied for being gay (or simply accused of being gay) occurred several weeks ago, we've seen a tremendous rise in the public's addressing this bullying and encouraging those being mistreated to seek help and have courage in the face of adversity.

Dan Savage and his husband, Terry, started the It Gets Better Project, which invited those who were bullied for being gay to post videos encouraging those struggling. A number of celebrities—both gay and straight—recorded videos, as did some politicians, and many of these people disclosed their struggles publicly for the first time.

I even contributed my own video to the project.

Yesterday, President Obama recorded his own video. While the president hasn't been the most ardent supporter of the gay community in his nearly two years on the job, you cannot doubt the sincerity—and necessity—of his message. How many of us would have felt just a little bit better if we saw a video like this from the president when we were growing up? How many of those who took their lives to escape the pain of being bullied, of being different, of being gay, might have benefited from a message like this from the leader of our country?

Whether or not you agree with his politics, you cannot help but admire the president's convictions in feeling this was an issue too important to leave to others. And it's tragic that many in our nation feel these young people are sinners who deserve the treatment they get, lessons they are learning at the feet of many in the public eye. What a wonderful opportunity to use words to heal, not hurt.

Thank you, Mr. President.

Book Review: "The Hanging Tree" by Bryan Gruley

For local reporter Gus Carpenter, the apparent suicide of Gracie McBride is more than just a news story that shakes up his sleepy hometown of Starvation Lake, MI. Gracie was Gus' second cousin, and while she had a wild past, and their relationship was fractious, she appeared to be on the verge of pulling her life together. But even many of those closest to Gracie think it could have been suicide, and Gus is dissuaded from pursuing the truth.

The Hanging Tree is Bryan Gruley's second mystery featuring Gus Carpenter, following last year's Starvation Lake. Gruley captures the desperation, anger and hurt of a small town on the verge of total collapse, as well as the frustrations Gus feels on a daily basis about his promising journalistic career in Detroit being derailed, forcing his return home. Couple that with the never-ending resentment of many Starvation Lake residents who still hold a grudge about Gus' letting the winning goal score in a state hockey tournament some 20+ years earlier, and you can understand it's not easy being home.

Gruley is a great writer and I definitely enjoyed the twists and turns this story took. I really like Gus' character and many of the supporting characters who have appeared in both books; I can visualize many of them in my mind's eye. I was a little frustrated with this book, however, for two reasons. First, I felt as if Gruley threw every possible plot device—the estranged husband, the boss who just doesn't understand, the townspeople angry over something that happened years ago, etc.—into the story, which detracted from my full commitment to it. And second, it always frustrates me when so much in a book (or in life, for that matter) could be solved if people would just talk to one another. But instead, we had people avoiding one another, not saying how they feel, not answering the phone, etc. That being said, however, these are more my pet peeves than actual flaws in the story, so I'd highly recommend both Starvation Lake books, and I eagerly await the next one in the series.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Best Use of The Muppets...

This video, of an actor performing Under Pressure while assisted by two Kermit the Frog puppets, has swept across the internet in the last several days. Some rumors had the performer being homeless, but he has since clarified that the video was done for "the men, women and children on our streets who don't have bright green puppets on their hands. The people who aren't always as easy to see."

Brilliant video, although to be honest, I'm surprised that Disney hasn't stopped this from being broadcast on YouTube given their near-fanatical protectiveness of their copyrighted images.

That being said, my second-favorite use of The Muppets is in Weezer's video for Keep Fishin'. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

It's a Vote, Not a Message...

A favorite topic of the news media in the months leading up to November's midterm elections is the anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat spirit that appears to be sweeping the country. Voters' displeasure with the majority party as well as with many incumbent lawmakers has resulted in significantly tight races in states once considered safe, and the Democrats are expected to lose control of the House and perhaps even the Senate. (All of this despite the fact that many of the country's problems started during the previous Republican administration.)

While this is certainly frustrating given all that the Obama administration and Congress actually have accomplished in the last two years, what angers me the most is that many voters aren't as interested in voting for a particular candidate as they are interested in "sending a message."

One place this is occurring is West Virginia, where the current governor, Democrat Joe Manchin, is seeking the Senate seat recently held by the late Robert Byrd. Manchin is a tremendously popular governor; his approval rating is around 70 percent. His opponent, millionaire heir John Raese, has advocated the elimination of the minimum wage, his wife is registered to vote in Palm Beach, FL, and he likes joking that "I earned my money the old-fashioned way: I inherited it."

Any other year, Manchin would be able to start practicing his victory speech. Raese has run for statewide office before and only mustered 30 percent of the vote. But because voters feel duty-bound to send a message, the Manchin/Raese battle is too close to call. A West Virginia resident explains the problem in the simplest terms: "There's not much wrong with [Manchin]. It's just that he's a Democrat."

There are still countries in this world where people cannot vote, and even more where their votes either don't count or are manipulated to achieve the desired result. And yet here we are, using our votes not to support a candidate or position, but to "send a message." Is this what our ancestors fought, marched and died for?

If you want to vote for a candidate, please vote for whomever you choose. But if you don't even understand the issues or know who the candidates are and are simply voting against an entire party, why bother? Is this the message we want to send to the next generation of voters?

It's a vote. If you want to send a message, write a letter. Send an email. Protest. But don't circumvent progress out of spite.

Book Review: "Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch" by Richard Hine

Office politics and the incompetence of the business world always makes for amusing storylines, which is why television shows like The Office and books like Joshua Ferris' And Then We Came to the End are so popular. Into this arena comes Richard Hine's Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch, an enjoyable and fun story of a newspaper executive struggling with dysfunction both at home and at work.

Russell Wiley works for the Daily Business Chronicle, the fourth most popular newspaper in New York, which has undergone a great deal of corporate restructuring in the wake of print news' declining popularity. All around him Wiley sees his colleagues are anxious, angry and ambitiously trying to stay above water, and while his position is fairly secure, he isn't quite sure what to make of the new fresh-out-of-business-school consultant his boss hired to do the same project Russell did when he started at the paper, but the consultant is looking for others to do his work for him. And to top it off, Russell's relationship with his wife, Sam, is becoming increasingly chaotic—and sexless. (Russell refers to this period as "reclaiming his virginity.")

While I've never worked in as large a corporate environment as the one Hine describes, there were certainly aspects of dysfunction I've recognized through my career. I found all of the characters enjoyable (although Russell's wife isn't fleshed out nearly enough, so you never get the chance to understand why she's so angry with him) and definitely was compelled to keep reading. My one issue is that the book has been reviewed in many circles as being "as hilarious as The Office," and I don't see that. True, I rarely find things to be as hysterically funny as I'm told they will be, if the book was written to be uproariously funny I believe it fell short, but I did find it amusing and fun, and a very quick read.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Book Review: "Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins

When reading a series of books, I'm always faced with a bit of a dilemma: do I tear through all of them quickly, leaving myself with nothing, or do I savor each book slowly and space out my reading of each one, so I keep having something to look forward to? Despite the excitement around their publication, I had avoided reading the last book in both Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy and Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, but could only hold out so long...

Katniss Everdeen has now survived two iterations of the Hunger Games, a government-sanctioned battle to the death that pits young adults from each area of the fractured republic of Panem against each other. Technically, only one winner is supposed to emerge from each Hunger Games, but Katniss and others have survived thanks to strength, ingenuity and more than a little manipulation. Now the republic is seeing the first seeds of rebellion manifest themselves, and the Capitol has little choice to fight back against the rebels, who view Katniss as their inspiration. As the lives of those she cares about are in jeopardy, she has no choice but to join the rebellion.

I'm trying to keep the plot description fairly general so as not to be a spoiler for those who haven't read any or all of the books. I really thought this was a terrific series, and while this book was definitely bleaker and a bit more expository than action-oriented, it proved a fitting conclusion. Many of the characters are much more layered than you think at first glance, and Collins does a great job handling both action scenes and quieter, more introspective ones. The world she has created is a fascinating one, and I look forward to seeing how Hollywood interprets it, as the film adaptation is imminent. I am sad, however, to say goodbye to Katniss and company. Which means I may hold off a little while longer on reading the last book in Larsson's trilogy...

A Politician Who Stands for Something Real...

During the October 12 meeting of the Fort Worth City Council, openly gay Councilman Joel Burns used the time reserved for council announcements to share a message with those struggling with suicide and depression as a result of being bullied in school.

But more than a message simply for political expediency, Burns shared his own story of growing up in a conservative Texas home, of feeling he didn't "match" the image of what someone growing up the son of a cowboy and a Methodist music teacher should be, of being bullied and contemplating suicide. Burns' speech was emotional and heartfelt, and tremendously necessary, I'd imagine, especially for children growing up in traditionally conservative states.

I hope that at least one person who needed to hear Burns' message of hope did or does instead of picking up a rope, a gun or pills to end their life.

I hope—although I'm too cynical to believe it could happen—that one bully might hear Burns' words and reconsider their actions.

And most of all, I hope that those people who have decided they will be voting for politicians like Carl Paladino, Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle, politicians who have clearly demonstrated their hatred for gay people, might consider that sending a message with their vote is less important than helping save a life.

Bravo, Joel Burns. Your courage is an inspiration.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rising Hope...

Sixty-nine days. A little more than two months, a period of time in which so much transpires. And yet 69 days was the length of time 33 miners remained trapped underground in Chile's San Jose Mine.

The one thing the miners never lost was their sense of hope. They believed, even in the darkest of times, that they would be rescued. And today, the rescue efforts began—as of this post, half of the miners have been pulled from the mine.

I'm not a particularly spiritual person, but this is definitely one of those instances in which a higher power was at work. One of the miners said that a white butterfly led them to the spot where they were rescued. And another said that there were 34 miners, not 33, since "the first miner was clearly God."

We live in a world in which tragedies are heard more often than victories, where sadness reigns the media waves stronger than happiness. But today, hope rose out of that mine.

And it will keep rising, until the last miner comes to the surface.

Book Review: "Unexpectedly, Milo" by Matthew Dicks

Quirky characters are a staple of fiction; most writers believe it's more rewarding to create dysfunctional characters than seemingly normal ones. Milo Slade, the title character in Matthew Dicks' ultra-quirky novel, Unexpectedly, Milo, has more than his share of issues. Suffering from a super-charged version of obsessive-compulsive disorder (although one that requires creativity and excellent problem-solving skills, as Milo acknowledges), Milo is randomly struck by strange compulsions: the need to bowl a strike, open a sealed jelly jar, sing 99 Red Balloons at a karaoke bar (in German, no less), or crack ice cubes from an ice cube tray. If he doesn't perform these "demands," the pressure in his head gets worse and worse, sometimes splintering into multiple compulsions. (Milo felt as if the demands were "programmed" by a German U-boat commander who becomes more and more frustrated when his orders aren't obeyed.)

As if handling this problem isn't enough, Milo's marriage to Christine is suffering, partially because he is hiding his disorder from her. She has asked for space, he finds an apartment, only to find out that she just wanted him to sleep over at a friend's house for a week or two. And then he finds a camcorder in the park with a bag of videotapes. On these tapes is a mystery woman's video diary, in which she expresses regret for causing a friend's death and divulges other sadnesses in her life. Milo watches long enough to find out who she is (and develops a bit of a crush on her), and then goes on a mission to right one of the wrongs she mentions in the videos.

I wanted to love this book. I really did. The description of Milo's disorder was really vivid and I can only imagine the pain and anxiety he must have felt dealing with it on a day-to-day basis. But after a while, his quirks became too numerous to bear and it was hard to identify with him or follow his motivation for certain actions. I felt more like the frustrated Christine, wondering exactly what made Milo tick. The book was well-written, and I enjoyed many of the supporting characters, but in the end, I just needed space from Milo.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy National Coming Out Day!

October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Like many, I came out in stages—to friends first, my then-roommate, more friends and my parents within a three-year period, and then to my younger siblings a number of years later. It wasn't a surprise to most people (if any); what was a surprise is many people imagined I'd live a life of denial in order to pursue the "normal" path of marriage and children.

Looking back on that time in my life, I'm so glad to be where I am today. I've been with my partner for more than eight years and while I'm never quite where I want to be physically (and often professionally), I am very happy with who I am.

For those people coming out of the closet today, life is a bit easier and a bit harder all at once. A number of celebrities have come out in recent years, and public acceptance is much stronger than it has been. But of course, we still live in a society in which states have voted for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, gay people are bullied and beaten and killed simply for who they are, and conservative politicians routinely try to score points with their constituents by calling gay people everything from immoral to dysfunctional and everything in between.

At the end of the day, coming out needs to be your own personal choice. And know that when you're ready, there are so many people out there who will continue to love you for who you are. So take your time, but never be ashamed of yourself.

How Do You Get That Lonely?

Last night W logged onto Facebook and saw that the status of a childhood friend of his read "(name) has committed suicide." There were a number of distressed comments from other friends and relatives that had seen this post, people thinking he was joking, people trying to convince him to call them for support, etc. Ultimately, the friend's cousin posted that he had called his aunt and uncle and, since no one had been able to get hold of him, they were calling a squad car. Shortly thereafter, his cousin and someone who said he was the friend's landlord confirmed that he had indeed taken his life.

From all accounts, he had struggled a great deal throughout his life and recently had ended a relationship. Because he worked the graveyard shift, it was difficult for him to connect regularly with friends so no one truly knew the depths of the depression that led him to suicide.

Since hearing this news, I'm constantly reminded of the lyrics of a country song by Blaine Larsen called How Do You Get That Lonely, which is about a teen's suicide. The lyrics that stick in my head are:

How do you get that lonely
How do you hurt that bad
To make you make the call that having no life at all
Is better than the life that you had
How do you feel so empty
That you can let it all go
How do you get that lonely
And nobody knows?

My heart goes out to his family and friends for this senseless loss. If anyone reading this ever feels as if suicide seems the only solution to your problems, please remember it is never the solution. You are loved and those around you will help you. I promise.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Review: "Blue Boy" by Rakesh Satyal

Kiran is a sixth-grade student who knows he's different from his fellow classmates, but in his mind, different is better. He's intrigued by his mother's makeup drawer, takes ballet class instead of basketball, is tremendously focused on his schoolwork and is determined to show everyone how amazing he is at this year's talent show. But all of the things that make Kiran who he is cause him to be ostracized by his peers, which he just doesn't understand.

Blue Boy is an extremely entertaining, heartwarming story about a boy trying to come to terms with who he is (and mostly liking himself) while reconciling the desires of his parents and his need to be "normal." At this time in our society, when kids are bullied for being different and many are driven to drastic measures, Kiran's story is a refreshing one, because while he doesn't quite understand why he is different, he knows that being different isn't a bad thing.

Having been in a situation somewhat similar to Kiran growing up (although I never wanted to wear makeup and couldn't dance to save my life), Satyal did a fantastic job in creating Kiran's character and depicting the tug-of-war of emotions and thoughts he experienced. While some of the situations Kiran found himself in were somewhat typical, his perspectives on the situations were tremendously unique. This was really enjoyable to read.

A Little Something You Might Not Know about Me...

If you know me well, or you've been reading my blog, you know that I have a lot of varied interests and passions. But one interest you might not be aware of is pageants. No, not Toddlers and Tiaras or kiddie pageants. I am a gigantic fan of the Miss America, Miss USA, Universe and Teen USA Pageants, and in fact, I've been a volunteer in the Miss America system for the last six years.

I can't honestly say where my interest came from. I remember watching my first Miss America Pageant in 1982 and getting hooked from that moment on (several friends count as very salient memories watching the pageant with me over the years, so at least they can attest that I didn't model a pretend crown or foam at the mouth). A girl I went to high school with was Miss New Jersey Teen USA 1986, and she made the top 10 at that year's national pageant, so I remember watching that one on the phone with friends.

And then the savant in me kicked in, and I started memorizing (don't ask why) the names of all of the winners, finalists, semi-finalists and contestants of the pageants from 1983 on. As I've joked more than once, this knowledge isn't very useful in the outside world—sadly, no one has asked me for the name of Miss California 1988 (Marlise Ricardos) or who the 1st runner-up to Miss Teen USA 2004 was (Sonya Balmores, Miss Hawaii).

Finally, after years of watching from afar and participating on a Miss America Organization-sponsored message board, I started volunteering. And in the last six years, I've had the opportunity to judge pageants in Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. I've also had the opportunity to help a large number of contestants strengthen their interviews before their state competitions and even before Miss America. And in the process, I've made some terrific friendships and I've gotten to meet contestants I actually watched and rooted for on television.

I've been asked why pageants appeal to me. I don't want to be Miss America. I guess it's incredible watching someone's dreams come true. When a contestant wins a local pageant, she's one step closer to competing at Miss America, and when she wins her state pageant, she really does get the chance to compete for the Miss America title. While only one each year is deemed "the best," that doesn't lessen the amazing contributions that the other state contestants and local contestants make in their communities.

For those not familiar with the pageant world, to hear me say that contestants have blown me away with their talent, their passion, their humility, their desire to see change happen may seem strange to you. But when I look at these women, I truly am blown away. This year, a good friend of mine, Lindsay Staniszewski, will compete for Miss America as Miss Maryland. I had the opportunity to judge Kayla Martell, Miss Delaware, in the very first local in which she competed in 2005, and I also judged Lauren Werhan, Miss Kansas, in the very first local in which she competed in 2008. And this weekend, when judging the Miss Omaha/Douglas County pageants, I met Teresa Scanlan, the reigning Miss Nebraska, who at only 17(!) years old is a force to be reckoned with.

So the next time you see that Miss America is on television and you wonder "who watches this stuff anyway?," now you know.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review: "By Nightfall" by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham, it's so good to have you back. After writing a number of great books and one of my favorite books of all time (The Hours), Cunningham's last book, Specimen Days, was an interesting experiment. But with the release of By Nightfall, I believe he is right back at the top of his game, creating an emotionally compelling and intriguing story of love, longing, happiness and family dysfunction.

Peter and Rebecca Harris are a New York married couple in their early 40s. Peter is an art dealer and Rebecca is the editor of a struggling arts and culture magazine. They are mildly happy; both have flirted with affairs but seem rooted to their life together and the struggles they are having with their daughter. And into this complacency comes Rebecca's much-younger brother, Ethan, aka Mizzy (short for The Mistake), a beautiful but flawed young man who has drifted from thing to thing in his life—scholastic success to drug addiction, woman to man, career ambition to a search for inner peace. In just a few short days, their lives (Peter's in particular) change dramatically, as Peter's obsession with Mizzy takes him on an as-yet-undiscovered path.

At his best, Cunningham can weave compelling narrative out of fairly "normal" situations and create flawed characters who remain deserving of our empathy and, sometimes, sympathy. And with By Nightfall, Cunningham is at his best. This book is somewhat short but tremendously powerful and is a wonderful meditation on life, love, loss and art. Read it.

Book Review: "The Lock Artist" by Steve Hamilton

The crime/thriller genre has expanded significantly over the years, seeing the development of some terrific authors. Steve Hamilton is one of them—a terrific writer with the ability to create memorable characters and compelling action. Hamilton's latest, The Lock Artist, is the story of Michael, a teenager who hasn't spoken since a traumatic incident in his childhood.

Michael may be silent verbally, but his story is a tremendously vivid one. Learning how to pick locks—keyed locks, combination locks, safes, etc.—at a very young age, he becomes a valuable commodity in the crime world. His first brush with the law brings him into contact with Amelia, a beautiful young girl whose father is in a great deal of trouble. Michael and Amelia fall in love, and in order to save her, he agrees to help those people whom her father owes. This decision sets him on a destructive path where he is forced to make some important choices that will dictate his future—and whether or not he will ever see Amelia again.

I thought this book was great. Although Michael is unapologetic about his transgressions, I still found myself rooting for him and a happy ending for him and Amelia. The story jumps back and forth between the past and the present, and at times it is a bit confusing to keep the incidents straight, but that is a tiny bit of criticism for a novel that kept me engaged from start to finish. Steve Hamilton is definitely an author worth following, and once you read The Lock Artist, you should definitely check out his series of books featuring Michigan PI Alex McKnight.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

We're Inclusive, Just Not to Everyone...

The Jewish Standard is the oldest Jewish weekly in New Jersey, providing news and information to Northern New Jersey since 1931. The Standard's mission statement contains the following:

"The Jewish Standard is not affiliated with any program, organization, movement, or point of view, but is dedicated to giving expression to all phases of Jewish life."

On September 24, the Standard published a notice announcing the upcoming marriage of same-sex Jewish couple Avi Smolen and Justin Rosen, who are to be married at a Long Island synagogue by a rabbi. According to a statement from Editor Rebecca Boroson, publication of the announcement "caused pain and consternation," especially among a group of Orthodox/Traditional rabbis that complained to the publication.

Boroson said, "The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future."

Can someone explain how a publication that strives to draw the Jewish community together feels that refusing to acknowledge same-sex marriage announcements promotes inclusion? Clearly, Justin and Avi were being married in an affiliated synagogue by an ordained rabbi. But because a group of Orthodox and Traditional rabbis complained, their voices should be heard above the fray?

For a community that has historically been discriminated against and met with prejudice, this prejudice within its own community seems unfathomable. But it serves as an important lesson to teach people it is not just the "religious right" refusing to believe all people should have equal right to love whomever they choose.

Love is inclusive, not exclusive. Religion should be, too.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Does Embracing the Stereotype Help or Hurt?

Tonight on the Logo Network is the premiere of The A-List, Logo's answer to the "reality" phenomenon that is The Real Housewives series. The guys featured on the series are models, sometime actors, fashion designers, salon owners and pseudo-celebrity hangers-on, each one more famous for being in the public eye than anything else.

True confession time: I do not "get" the appeal of the Real Housewives programs or other similar shows, so clearly I am not the audience for The A-List. But watching the promotional trailer for this show, I can't help but wonder why the stars are all too happy to reinforce the stereotypes of gay men as preening, self-important, body- and status- and fashion-obsessed people.

Take Reiken Lemkuhl, for example. The former Air Force pilot was part of the first gay couple to win The Amazing Race—and by and large, they did so without falling into the typical bitchy ruts gay characters since them have. He has been an outspoken advocate against Don't Ask, Don't Tell and other equal rights issues. And while he may now be more famous for his dating partners than anything else, does he really feel reinforcing people's beliefs about all gay people will do good?

The entertainment world seems to have little problem creating "colorful" gay characters that are total caricatures—Jack on Will & Grace, Marc on Ugly Betty, any of the more outlandish fashion designers on Project Runway—but I feel they struggle with portraying "normal" gay people. There is nothing wrong with people who are flamboyant or colorful or bitchy, but is that the only face the gay community benefits from showing up on television or in the media?

As I posted last week, the gay community has recently been rocked by a large number of suicides of young gay people. Does the reinforcing of campy stereotypes make it harder for these young people to convince their friends and family that they may be different? Does it make acceptance harder?

I don't know the answer to those questions, but I know it's something we need to think about. We can ill afford to have people believe all gay people are like those on The A-List any more than the African-American community can afford the continued belief that all young Black men are thugs.

Sometimes the easy way out isn't the best way.

Book Review: "Room" by Emma Donoghue

Jack just turned five years old. To celebrate, he and his mother play games, watch TV, eat cake and his mother measures his growth progress by marking his height on the wall. Sounds like a great birthday, doesn't it? The only thing is, Jack has never been outside the storage shed where he and his mother are being held captive. In fact, Jack was born in Room (his name for the shed) and his mother was kept there for two years before his birth. Their captor, whom they call Old Nick, brings things they need—food, clothing, the occasional book or toy—but Jack has to sleep in Wardrobe when Old Nick comes late at night.

This is a tremendously affecting story of the amazing love a mother has for her child, creating a whole world in just one room. Jack doesn't know what's outside Room and doesn't really care; it's not until he turns five that his mother starts to plan how Jack can be used to free them from captivity. The challenge is that neither of them truly understand what being free would really mean to them—the world outside of Room proves to be even more threatening in some ways than being held captive did.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, even if at times it was a bit predictable. The only adjustment that needed to be made was that the entire story is told from Jack's point of view, so at times the narrative is hard to follow given his unique grasp of language. But I constantly marveled at the world Emma Donoghue created for Jack and Ma in Room, and then I wondered if something like this could actually be happening just under our noses. Wow, what a book.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Another Lady GaGa Cover...

I've been a Joseph Gordon-Levitt fan since his days back on Third Rock from the Sun. And in the years following the hit TV show, he's become quite the actor. My favorite performance of his was in (500) Days of Summer, which made my list of favorite movies of 2009.

Turns out, he's a pretty good singer, too. Here's his cover of Lady GaGa's Bad Romance. Enjoy!

Friday, October 1, 2010

It Gets Better...

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I shot a video for the It Gets Better Project. I look awful, but it's not about the vanity, you know?

I hope that my story and my encouragement can make a difference in one young person's life, somewhere.

Start Making Sense...

Today is one of those days I feel shaken to the core. It's one of those days when events occurring in the world around me have affected me a little more than they do normally, when I feel sad for where humanity and our society are at the current point.

On his personal blog, Andrew Shirvell, an assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan, viciously attacked University of Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong for being gay, calling him a "radical homosexual activist" and photoshopping pictures of swastikas on his face. And Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (on whose campaign Shirvell worked) defended Shirvell's freedom of speech.

Atlanta Pastor Eddie Long continues to deny accusations that he pressured young men he mentored to have sex with him, even as more accusers point their fingers, and fairly bizarre self-portraits of Long appear on the internet.

But worse than either of these incidents is the fact that at least four young people (that we know about) committed suicide over the last two weeks because they were bullied for being gay. Two boys were just 13 and one was 15.

And then there was Tyler Clementi. Many now know the tragic story of this shy Rutgers student whose roommate videotaped his encouter with another man, then broadcast it on the internet and bragged about it with another friend. ("I went into Molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay," Dharun Ravi tweeted.) Tragically, Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge shortly after all of this occurred, and while Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, await some type of punishment, chances are it won't be nearly enough penance for what they've done.

How did we get here? How, in 2010, can we continue to live in a society in which we still look away when kids bully others for being gay or just being different? How can we continue to allow our elected officials to vote against equal rights but for lowering the volume on television commercials? How can we continue allowing professional athletes, musicians and others in the public eye to call people "fag" and "gay" and let them walk away with no consequences? How can we turn the other cheek time and time again as anti-gay politicians and preachers are exposed for their self-loathing hypocrisy and think there are no lessons to be learned?

We must do better. No child, no person should ever feel their only recourse from bullying is suicide.

Dan Savage and his husband, Terry, have started the It Gets Better Project, on which celebrities and others who were bullied for being gay are encouraged to post videos encouraging those struggling. I plan to record my own video this weekend, because I know all too well the despair these young people feel and what it is like to be bullied.

I am doing my part. We all can. But we need to hold our society, our media and our government to the standard many of us live in. We need to raise our children to value human life, and not chalk up bullying to "typical" behavior.

We need to wake up. We cannot afford to, and should not stand for, losing more Tyler Clementis or Billy Lucases or Lawrence Kings to suicide or violence.

We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to young people everywhere.