The aged: A life of training

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“How the gravitational field behaves when it heats up is still an unsolved mystery.” – Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (Carlo Rovelli)

J said to me: “You seem to be someone who is blissfully, refreshingly, enviably free of… pressure.”

Perhaps this too is an unsolved mystery. It took time to be this calm. Or indifferent. (Picture John Hannah here, menacingly responding to an entreaty to calm down: “I’ve never been more calm.” I’d include the video but couldn’t find it.) Pressure isn’t building, even if heat bubbles up under the surface. That’s different: but how does the gravitational field behave when it heats up? We all want to know. But it’s probably not a pressure cooker.

Calm, one would think, comes with age. But not really. It’s an individual thing. Some continue to grow more uptight, rigid and agitated as time goes on and responsibilities, decisions and grievances accumulate. I, on the other hand, have moved slowly in the opposite direction. Is it some discipline that was once conscious that shifted imperceptibly into a natural, unconscious behavior? Some form of lifelong training?

FROM The Spirit of Place
-Adrienne Rich

Are we all in training for something we don’t name?
to exact reparation for things
done long ago to us and to those who did not

survive what was done to them    whom we ought to honor
with grief    with fury    with action
On a pure night    on a night when pollution

seems absurdity when the undamaged planet seems to turn
like a bowl of crystal in black ether
they are the piece of us that lies out there
knowing    knowing    knowing

But it does not matter. Not the why or how. Just that I am.

Many things that end up attributed to age, aging or being aged, may not in fact be related to age. Duh. Experience, and perhaps even more importantly, openness to experience, imbues one with a curiosity and, as Erich Fromm describes it, a concentration/sensitivity. It is learning to stand on your own two feet, to be freely alone, to embrace patience, to be sensitive not only to oneself but to others. I am not always good at these things, but it is a process:

“If I am attached to another person because I cannot stand on my own feet, he or she may be a lifesaver, but the relationship is not one of love. Paradoxically, the ability to be alone is the conditions for the ability to love. Anyone who tries to be alone with himself will discover how difficult it is.”

“To have an idea of what patience is one need only watch a child learning to walk. It falls, falls again, and falls again, and yet it goes on trying, improving, until one day it walks without falling. What could the grown-up person achieve if he had the child’s patience and its concentration in the pursuits which are important to him!”

Mature sex: Stay calm, but hot

Embracing age, being alone and even the fundamentals of unconditional love (as a concept), we are still left with our bodies and the demands they make. And then what is most telling is how one thinks about the sexuality of the aged/aging. I’m calm, facing the realities of wild and dramatic corporeal metamorphosis (when is the body not changing, either from uncontrollable forces or our own manipulations?) and half a lifetime of experience and observation. I know the story isn’t finished. We are not a very mature society, at least from an anglo-world perspective, imagining sexuality to be the domain of the young, nubile, and virile, turning away from and denying that it may very well drive us at all ages, continuing to add fuel to the fire of our lives, until the end.

In a somewhat related sphere, I have come to evaluate the people I meet based on how they react to a specific film: Cloud 9/Wolke 9 (a German film – not the Disney film). I wrote about it before. Basically it’s a story of average, normal senior citizens and their love and sex lives. It acknowledges how the body, how the perspectives, how the perceptions, how the wants and desires change. Do you stop wanting sex – or, more importantly, the intimacy of being with someone with whom you can talk and laugh and be understood through it all just because you’re old? No. I keep coming back to and referring to this film. Not that it was a masterpiece, but I have rarely seen these issues that we will all face depicted in a real, honest and stark way. Somehow “old people sex” as a topic is the butt of sitcom jokes and lines the pockets of big pharma.

I tell everyone I meet about Cloud 9 and gauge their reaction. I don’t love or rely on knee-jerk reactions and wholesale judgments based on something like this, but their immediate reaction gives me a glimpse of how the person works – and ultimately about their respect and compassion for the aged, for others, for themselves – and the aged people we will all become. A reaction of disgust or laughter causes me to pull back mentally. And frankly this is the reaction I usually get. Except from senior citizens, generally, although even they often tell me, “I would not want to see that.” Then I actually brought it up with someone recently, who said, “I saw that film at a festival. I found it very moving.”

After wading through so much nonsense, and living a life of experience and training “for something we don’t name”, that is exactly what I wanted to hear.

Photo (c) 2013 pelican used under Creative Commons license.

Lunchtable TV Talk: How to Get Away with Murder is Damages

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As I tuned in for the much-anticipated start to the sophomore season of How to Get Away with Murder, hot on the heels of a deserved Viola Davis Emmy win, I was struck by how a lot of TV is about placement and timing. See, How to Get Away with Murder is basically Damages with much more diverse cast and much better promotion.

Damages had a worthy rival to HtGAwM’s Annalise Keating in a strong, ruthless and tightly wound Glenn Close as Patty Hewes. Both women are conniving, bright, cutthroat and lethal in their own often twisted pursuit of their own definitions of justice. Both have done insane and questionable things. And most of all, both women have very little control over – and are practically unhinged in – their personal lives. It’s in their personal lives that things come apart. The story comes from those cracks in the power-hungry, driven veneer they project. And both stories are compelling and revealed key pieces of information in fragments, so you might think you knew – sort of – what was going to happen later in the season based on glimpses of things you had seen earlier – but not until the final episode would the entire story have unfolded.

The difference… Damages got short shrift, at least from viewers. Damages was intense and critically praised, but never found an audience. It was technically cancelled, in fact, after FX decided to get rid of it after three poorly performing seasons. It was given a two-season reprieve via a deal with DirecTV (which also revived the loved and lauded Friday Night Lights after NBC wanted to cut it short). With the way it moved around, it certainly never found its footing, and was gone too soon despite stellar casting and tight stories for all five of its seasons. In addition to the formidable Glenn Close, Damages featured Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant (the one and only from both Deadwood and Justified), David Costabile (increasingly visible all the time in all manner of shows, from Flight of the Conchords to Breaking Bad, from Suits to the rather irritating and cancelled Dig, from Ripper Street to Low Winter Sun), Janet McTeer (love her and sad her recent show, Battle Creek, was cancelled so soon), Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin, John Goodman, William Hurt, the ubiquitous
Željko Ivanek, Ryan Phillippe and the leader of the John Hannah School of English Elocution, John Hannah.

When I binge-watched the compelling first seasons of HtGAwM, it felt familiar in many ways because it covered a lot of the ground Damages had already tread. It was still fresh because it has its own story and feel, but it made me feel regret that Damages was so little seen during its original broadcast (hopefully people are picking it up on Netflix). None of this takes anything away from the magnetic nature of How to Get Away with Murder, but instead, it’s worth stating that if you like it, maybe you will also like Damages.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Black Mirror

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It was not that long ago that I finally got wrapped up in the existing episodes of the genius, twisty, unsettling Black Mirror. And then it was announced that it would be back as a Netflix production. I won’t ramble about what made Black Mirror genius – it entertained at the same time as being terrifying, thinking about how we’re probably only a step away from the kinds of invasive technology that disrupted, destroyed and in many case ruined the characters’ lives in the effectively standalone vignettes presented in the few episodes that exist. All the “conveniences” that we embrace without thinking how they expose us and monitor us 24/7, not at all unlike the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales that is 1984. But in a world where people volunteer to put every minute detail of their lives on (reality) TV in the name of some kind of misguided fame, can I be surprised?

The other thing that surprised me was learning that Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator/writer, also co-wrote the Sky1 police-drama spoof, A Touch of Cloth, starring the dazzlingly clear-spoken Scot John Hannah, actor and would-be proprietor of the John Hannah School of English. Who would have guessed?

Lunchtable TV Talk: A Touch of Cloth – The John Hannah School of English

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Firewall and I have created the imaginary John Hannah School of English to acknowledge Hannah’s brand of exaggerated, overenunciated English as spoken by a Scot – that’s John Hannah! I love it. We love when his voice suddenly comes on in a voiceover. In this show, the voice is matched only by the determined (but intentionally overacted) intensity on Hannah’s face.

In much the same way that Hannah’s way of speaking is a kind of parody of actual English, A Touch of Cloth spoofs procedural police dramas. Virtually every action, every word they say is an inside joke, a reference (“You’re nicked.”) to something else (often within the same genre) or over-the-top parody of the Law & Orders (and other shows like it) that have long saturated the airwaves.

Also, the boss, Tom Boss (of course), looked familiar – finally I realized he is one of the prisoners in the Australian show, Banished.

But what else is there to say except to concede perhaps that the cop investigation and justice system procedural has gone too far, if something like this show is possible? (Indeed, in interviews, Hannah has said as much. He asked his agent to stop sending him cop procedural scripts but changed his mind when he got the Touch of Cloth script. Why wouldn’t he, considering that it blows up the whole genre and laughs at it?)

What is fresh and refreshing about the show is that you could watch it a few times over and catch new things each time. In the first episode, for example, Hannah’s character, DI Jack Cloth, gets irrationally angry and violent (a la Elliot Stabler in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) in the interrogation room with a potential suspect – to the point that even he admits in a worked-up frenzy that he doesn’t know what he is doing. Afterwards, he realizes that the suspect is probably innocent, but his boss forces him to arrest the guy anyway. Cloth goes to the local pub, where his partner (Anne Oldman, pronounced repeatedly as “an old man”) meets him; he complains, “Yeah I always come here when we lock up and innocent man, helps me forget everything.” His partner: “You in here a lot then?” Cloth: “Have no idea.” And the bartender hands Cloth Cloth’s mail. Haha. Then the female partner gets a phone call, and her ring tone is kd lang’s “Constant Craving” – as if to beat us over the head with the “lesbian cop” trope. Here I don’t really mind because that’s the point, right? Every single minute of this show is something equally as ridiculous. If it weren’t quite this ridiculous, it might be offensive. But when it doesn’t hit, it seems stupid but innocuous, and when it does, it’s quite funny – in the same vein of, for example, Airplane!.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Looking – “Doris, I will definitely go swimming with you even though my legs are painfully white”

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Imagine you are an overweight, confused, closeted gay, adolescent boy growing up in the US Midwest. In your 13-year-old imagination, an “out” future could be filled with equally out friends in San Francisco, a mythical mecca for everyone like you. Your imagination would be full of gay gamer conventions and gay gamer proms where you could get a happy prom-night photo with your cute new boyfriend. You’d probably have a cool job and many nights would end in party sequences fueled by loud music and very little, but stilted, dialogue – possibly parties in the woods where anthems from Sister Sledge would form your soundtrack. (Days before the show’s party-in-woods premier featuring “Lost in Music”, Mr Firewall and I planned a Scottish John “Enunciate Excessively” Hannah remix. Whatever else I might criticize about Looking, it’s got a fab and fun soundtrack.)

If the premise of Looking, the recently canceled HBO show about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco, were to dramatize what a 13-year-old gay boy imagined his future would be like, the show would be perfect.

I am not a gay man; I am not in San Francisco; I would therefore never claim any kind of expertise about a gay man’s life, in San Francisco or not. Like most lives, there is no such thing as one, “normal” way to live. I wanted to like this show. The premise had promise – squandered because I don’t think the show resonated with viewers of any demographic.

Believe me, I kept trying to watch – giving up and coming back, hoping it might have been one of those shows that takes time to develop its characters. But it never got any better. Instead the characters mostly became more like caricatures and more petulant with time. I got the occasional glimpse of self-awareness in these characters, but opportunities were frittered away casually. The worst character and my biggest problem with the show was its main character, Patrick. His behavior and manifold diatribes and tantrums were reflective of a teenage kid – all bluster, fluster and inexperience – trying to assert himself. Unfortunately that is the problem with the whole show – it comes back to this unsophisticated and teenage approach to virtually everything, especially in imbuing characters with identities. Maybe viewers could relate to that kind of awkwardness and discomfort. But average adults in their 30s and 40s generally don’t behave like Patrick or his friend, the just-turned-40 Dom, who is struggling with facing the onslaught of age (but not with particular subtlety or realism).

The best characters and only ones I cared about were barely there – Scott Bakula’s recurring guest role as Lynn; a random wheelchair-bound guy at the gamer conference who, in a blink-and-you-missed-it conversation, called Patrick out on his cluelessness/obviousness; Malik, the boyfriend of Dom’s constant friend and roommate, Doris (who never ceased to annoy me), and Richie, Patrick’s ex-boyfriend. Yeah, in fact, if the show were about Richie and his life, I think that might have been a better premise.

TV critics and others who really rooted for the show, at least on a thematic level, have echoed my sentiments with greater eloquence and clarity. For one, it’s a bloody boring show. I kept waiting for something really interesting to happen, for someone to express something close to the depth that all the characters claimed to want. But it never elevated itself above the level of engagement or excitement I find in an ad for pharmaceuticals, nor above the manipulations and presumption of what will interest the viewer also characteristic of pharma ads. This same boredom is echoed in the aforementioned citation.

Many defenses of the show attempt to explain that the show’s ho-hum dullness is where its genius comes from – the world can finally see that gay people are just people like everyone else. This is not a revelation. There are other TV shows about all manner of people, including gay individuals and couples, that show us how normal they are, with daily routines, normal problems and happy families, who are not mind-numbingly boring. And their lives don’t revolve solely around being gay. It’s a big part of the identity as much as sexuality is a part of anyone’s life. But does it define everything? It feels like Looking wanted to find the balance between “look at how dull and normal we are” but still wanted to make the entire existence of this group of guys be about being gay. All of that is perfectly fine – I don’t expect a show to be perfect. I don’t expect this or any show to represent an entire, and varied, community. But I do expect that there will be some entertainment value or some compelling reason to watch.

It’s a tough balance to strike, as a fantastic Gawker article points out:

“And, of course, above all else, a piece of gay pop culture, in these United States, in 2014, has the challenge of arguing that gays are people too—that we’re more than sex maniacs and objects of amusement” and “In Looking, gay men get to be boring on TV at last.”

It would be stellar if, as the same great critique put it, the show didn’t make you feel like watching is akin to “paging through a magazine at the dentist”. Looking felt like work to watch, which was disappointing.

It does give me comfort to know that something like Looking (but good heavens, NOT Looking!) makes its way to TV and is seen as just another part of the TV landscape. Looking makes it all seem farcical, as an article at Huffington Post explains:

“Like those mostly forgotten, cheesy 1990’s “gay” movies that we watched because they put us in a fishbowl and were pretty much all we had as media representation and also had dark sets and muted tones and lots of Erasure songs (seriously, guys, in 2014 Erasure’s the band you pick to give your show its Episode Two finish?), Looking spends all of its time telling us what we already know: We are men, we are gay men, and we like to have sex with other gay men. If the show were about straight guys it would be 60 seconds long and a beer commercial.”

Despite all of this, and my relief at being able to cross this show off my Sunday-night viewing list (yes, I like torturing myself with miserable TV), Looking did find its way into so many of my TV-related conversations. Granted, I was always talking about how much it sucks and how much potential it wasted week after week. But perhaps that is a mark of something the show did right – it certainly did not unify any group of people behind it. Was it designed to spark these debates? Opinions were decidedly mixed – plenty of haters and then plenty of people who felt that its presence on TV was proof that there is not really such a thing as “gay life” – life is just life. Fair enough.