Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Rethinking superheroes

Another emotionally stirring Oscar night image was everywhere on the day after. At the celebrity-studded Vanity Fair party after the show, actress Selma Blair made her first public appearance since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) last fall. She stood for photographer Mark Seliger's camera with cape flying and gold-embossed patent leather cane in hand.

Jennifer Brea—who lives with the debilitation of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and who, from her bed, made the very fine documentary Unrest about the frustrations of ME sufferers in their quest for sensitive and competent medical care—tweeted a simply gorgeous reflection on the Selma Blair portrait.

Jen Brea:

Until I saw it, I didn’t know how much I needed this photo of Selma Blair at the Vanity Fair Oscar party last night: beauty, pain, glamor, real life—all in a single portrait.

Blair came out about her MS diagnosis in October: “Going out, being sociable holds a heavy price,” she wrote in a post after her diagnosis. “My brain is on fire. I am freezing. We feel alone with it even though the loving support has been a godsend and appreciated.”

“People write me asking how I do it. I do my best,” she continued. “But I choke with the pain of what I have lost and what I dare hope for and how challenging it is to walk around.”

The portrait is by Mark Seliger, a master celebrity photographer. What I love about this is how every element of the photograph lives on more than one plane. It’s beautifully lit but also kind of dark. Her expression could be interpreted as downcast or signifying strength.

Her dress is fantasy, fragility and royalty at the same time. Representations of disability need to be complex in the way pop culture often isn’t because our lives and experiences can be wonderful and awful all at the same time (or depending on the minute, hour or day!).

Of course that complexity is true of all humans! But we—disabled people—don’t often get to be portrayed in this way.

And in the fantasy, we-all-want-to-see-that-movie-get-made version of the photo: is her cane an assistive device? A family heirloom? The source of her power? The object that helps to channel it?

She’s has Wonder Woman-level goddess-like power, but if she uses her cane for too long, her brain is on fire. Or she turns to ice...or she collapses and can’t move. Just sayin’.

BTW: The superhero universe whether or not it is self-aware has incorporated many of the dynamics of disability, chronic illness, and mental illness in many of its characters without actually plumbing the depths and potential of these experiences.

Imagine a film that attempted to do that. And you could cast Selma Blair as the hero!

I am so inspired by this photo, I might just go write some stuff!

One of Jen Brea's commenters added this:

They probably didn't mean to add this aspect, but it also highlights the inaccessibility of the world for a lot of disabled people—her cane on the first step of a long flight of stairs, maybe she's contemplating how she's going to navigate that huge obstacle.

To which Jen replied:

How did I miss that??


It's possible this image was so moving to me because in truth, I should be using a cane. But despite my own pain and precarious balance when walking, I mostly leave it at home. It embarrasses me. It makes me think that people will judge my mutinous gait as the result of my girth rather than structural issues inherited from my slender and petite mother, who suffered severely with arthritis and the premature dissembling of joints. Admittedly, carrying extra weight all my life has not helped these conditions. And of course, Selma Blair is beautiful and slim, so the correlation here is not exact. But by God she wields that cane like a frickin' superhero and makes me think maybe it's all about the attitude we bring, which means I can be a frickin' superhero too.

Monday, February 25, 2019

All the feels (plus an update)

My niece (in the middle) made my Saturday by inviting me to go with her and two of her six bridesmaids to get her wedding dress altered and then to shop for bridesmaids dresses. In between the alteration appointment and the bridesmaids fitting, we went to brunch, and it was great fun. The dress shopping, however, was exhausting for everyone. "Why are all bridesmaids dresses so ugly?" my niece moaned. "Why do they only carry sample sizes?" my daughter complained. I think the solution will be to have whatever dresses they eventually choose, tailored to fit all the beautiful respective bodies of the bridal party. Watching the Academy Awards last night, I realized there are only so many styles that evening gowns can be, so a tailored fit is key.


Speaking of the Academy Awards, did you catch the duet of "Shallow" sung by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, her director-costar in A Star is Born? Was that performance scorchingly intimate or what? It left me, and everyone else it seems, with all the feels. One woman tweeted, "I'm pretty sure I just got pregnant." But my favorite comment came from our friend Brittany: "That Bradley/Gaga performance was so beautiful because we all know what it looks like when a woman energetically supports a man, but Bradley showed us what it looks like when the man equally holds space for the woman, and it's gorgeous and powerful and stops time."

Sunday, February 24, 2019

This being human is hard

I feel a vague unease. Maybe it's anxiety. I'm traveling to DC on Friday to meet with a book subject who is looking for a collaborator. I would love to collaborate on this amazing woman's book, but this is the beauty pageant round, in which she meets with several writers before choosing one to work with, and my intel tells me two of the other writers she's meeting with are local. Why wouldn't she choose someone local? I'm philosophical. If the book is meant to be mine, it will be, and if not, I will at least have met this badass, history-making woman.

So, the anxiety. It always comes when I need to show up in person, and meet people who don't already know me. I'm less worried about the subject, who seems utterly down to earth and unimpressed by mere appearances. Her agent on the other hand. He will be in our meeting, too. He is based in LA, land of the beautiful people. He and I had a warm, connected conversation on the phone; he sounds like an empathetic, sensitive man. Of course, I also googled him and he is simply beautiful, with sea-glass blue eyes, white blond hair with a perfect wave, bone structure for days. A middle aged Adonis. And then there's me with my ungainly limp and girth, awkward and introverted and frantically devising excuses to cancel having to appear altogether.

I thought I had a good one—excuse that is. I went to get my hair trimmed and colored last week in anticipation of showing up this week. My usual hair person was out of town, so I went to another woman who comes highly recommended. I didn't love the trim, but the color was a disaster. My usual color is light brown, but my hair came out almost black, with auburn red highlights at the tips. It was so stark against my face, and made me look sallow and washed out. I hated it, especially in the morning when I first looked at myself barefaced in the bathroom mirror.

I immediately bought a box of L'Oreal color that was one step lighter than my usual cover-the gray shade, and applied in that very morning. Even though the color red was coming off on my plastic application gloves as I stroked in the color, when I washed everything out the box color had made about a five percent difference. I looked ridiculous to my own eye. I almost picked up the phone right then to cancel my meeting, but instead I called my friend who does the same collaborative writing work that I do. Even as she brainstormed solutions to the hair drama with me, she insisted that I refrain from taking myself out of the running for this book that falls right into my social justice sweet spot, and which she knows I would love to write.

In time, the hysteria passed. I made peace with showing up looking wack. I tried to remind myself that the way people look doesn't really matter to me, so why do I assume my own physical self is so off-putting? I'm sure it has to do (in part) with growing up fat in a family and a culture where everyone else was mostly thin and willowy. My mother, who was slender, was always impeccably turned out, cool and elegant, while I tugged at my dresses and the lace-edged socks that were always sliding down into my shoes.

That feeling of being all kinds of wrong has never left me. I'm sure it isn't helped by my being still overweight, by aging, by being black in a society that doesn't value black skin. Or maybe these are all excuses for a feeling that is far more existential, or perhaps more mundanely rooted in simply being human. I don't really know. I just know it feels damn near crippling.

My daughter took this picture of me when we met for dinner last Friday before seeing the a cappella play Choir Boy (which left us both a little sad). My sweet girl says the picture proves that I don't look crazy with the darker hair, that I look normal and fine. The color doesn't appear as midnight auburn here as it does in life. Makeup also helps make the look a bit less stark, and me a bit less sallow. In any case, I am resolved now, I will show up on Friday. I will do my best imitation of an appropriately socialized human and stay open to any lessons the experience might hold for me. But there is no way around it, I will be all kinds of anxious until then. Nothing to do but let it be.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Comings and goings

Photo by jet7black

I worry about my daughter's comings and goings late at night in her part of town; worry about the street she has to walk down being too lonely after dark; worry about who's around watching out for her safe passage. I'm glad she lives with her boyfriend, glad there's someone who knows when she arrives home each night. But then, in the midst of these thoughts, I stop and remember myself at her age, living alone on a quiet street in the city, coming home near midnight most evenings, from work or revelries, with no one about on my block. The door to the lobby of my building was recessed from the sidewalk. Anyone could have been lurking there as I turned the corner. The building's resident drunk was always leaning unsteadily against a column inside in the cavernous, green-checked linoleum-floored lobby. Liquor bottle in hand, Frank kept watch day and night in a food-stained wifebeater and saggy green khakis, slurring his hellos. It actually made me feel safe to see him standing like a sentry a few feet away from the creaky elevator. On my floor, many blind alcoves dipped off from the long, poorly lighted hallway. Tucked inside each alcove were the front doors of two apartments, their doorknobs at right angles and almost touching. And here's the crazy part, the detail my parents never knew, and one that I was too young and thoughtless to have a care about: My immediate neighbor was a drug dealer. Sketchy looking people came and went from his apartment at all hours, and coming and going from my own door, I would simply nod politely and keep moving. Looking back now, it seems ridiculous that I didn't feel any hint of jeopardy. I'm trying to remember that this sense of invulnerability is the gift of the young, and why should I punch holes in the cloak of security it confers? Besides, my girl is a native New Yorker. She grew up in this teeming city. Her spidey sense is keen. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

This world

This 1969 photo of African American models from a Black fashion agency in the sixties and seventies has been making the rounds on social media. I'm posting it here, because I want to praise and promote their beauty and solidarity at a time when it seems the primary political motivation for a large swath of voters is subjugation and vilification of "the other"—people of color, immigrants and the undocumented, gay, trans and queer people, the disabled, non-Christians. Isn't it ironic and telling that most of these hard core Agent Orange supporters self-identify as evangelicals, even as they spew their hatred? Seems their true religion is xenophobia and the supremacy of whiteness. They surely have no use for the Christ concept of loving their neighbor as themselves. My friend Scott would say it is incumbent on me to love them, regardless.

You know, I find I can't bear to type the Russian-bought president's name, hence my resorting to such inane descriptors as Agent Orange. You know who I mean.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Home again

I flew back yesterday on the red-eye and by the time I got home I had the sniffles, as happens so often after long plane rides. I drank Theraflu and slept for most of the morning, then rose and edited some stories for the magazine, by which time my love had arrived home from work. My Valentine made me lobster for dinner, and gave me the most creatively engineered pop-up cards I have ever seen. But really, it was the words he wrote on them that melted me. Oh, it's good to be home.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Sunrise in LA

I'm out on the other coast for a couple of days for a new work project. The sky was painted all sorts of fantastic colors when I opened my eyes at the ungodly hour of six this morning. I thought fondly that for a couple of days, Elizabeth and I will be under the same sky. I won't have much time to myself though, so I'll just wave toward the horizon, smiling at the thought of being so close. And so a new journey begins.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Unbought and unbossed

Everyone's talking about the photo of Nancy Pelosi giving the president her bless-your-squeezy-little-heart sideways clap at the State of the Union address, but for me the iconic photo from that night is this one, Alexandria Osario-Cortez, aka AOC, walking through Statuary Hall toward the chamber like a boss, white suffragette cape flying, the boys on the side gawking at her sheer badassness and brilliance, the photographers  falling over themselves to get The Picture.

It was a woman, Carolyn Kaster of Shutterstock, who actually captured all the stories happening within that one moment, the arrival of the 29-year-old congresswoman from New York and Ana María Archila, the Bronx immigrant activist who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator and got him to change his vote (for one round anyway) on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

AOC—who's so well known now that people refer to her by initials—would later be criticized for not being "spirited and warm" as the president spoke, for looking "sullen and teenaged" because she didn't smile and clap at his empty blather, and stayed resolutely seated while others stood. AOC responded to the criticism on social media, with her usual mad clapback skills. This young woman, unbought and unbossed, is fearlessly speaking truth to power in congress. Did you see her lightening round in the House on the travesty of campaign finance laws two days ago? I urge you to watch it. No wonder the wealthy ole boys hate her. She's exposing their get-rich-on-the-backs-of ordinary-Americans scams. She isn't your granddaddy's politician, that's for damn sure. And it's about time.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Losses, incremental and not

I have been thinking a lot about death. The loss of my parents in particular, but also of others with whom I walked this journey in such close association for a while. My mother's 97th birthday just passed, and the 23rd anniversary of my dad's death is coming up this month, and I have been marveling that these two people who gave me life, who shaped and protected me the best way they knew how, without whom I did not know myself, could be so long gone from the earth. Lately, they have both been showing up in my dreams. I am always comforted.

Then there's my college boyfriend, Paul, who died of AIDS at the height of the epidemic in the early eighties. He was my best friend till the day he died. Even after we broke up we remained close, supremely at ease in each other's company, an intimacy that only deepened once sex was no longer part of our story. When he was dying, it was to my home he came and stayed until his final trip to the hospital. He died the spring after my husband's father had a debilitating stroke. I think these two devastating losses made my husband and me unwilling to waste time, more able to make the leap into commitment, even though we never lived in the same city until three weeks before we were married.

I've also been brooding about the therapist who saved my life—Saint Eleta, my husband called her. I found her right after Paul died, when I thought I would dissolve from grief, or be undone by the secrets he only shared at the end. Looking back, I can see he was never at peace in this life, and that he was unafraid to die, as if he'd worked out something about what awaited him on the other side.

This morning, on a whim, I google searched Saint Eleta's name. She moved away the year my daughter was born, relocating to Atlanta to be close to her grandchildren. I often reflected to my husband that she stayed in New York City just long enough to help me get my head straight for marriage and motherhood. I was sitting in my living room, aching for her, wishing I could talk with her just one more time about where I find myself in this moment, in a body that is shot through with pain and feels broken, though it still takes me where I want to go, and I'm thankful for that. Eleta would help me look on the bright side. The pragmatic side. She would help me understand that I cannot keep mourning the incremental loss of my children, which is not loss at all, but a blossoming, as they grow more fully into their lives, embracing who they are in ways my friend Paul, who died when he was their age, never got a chance to do.

I am grateful for my children's blossoming, I thought as I searched for Saint Eleta, trying to channel her wisdom. What came up was her obituary from 2005, and suddenly the tears were rolling down my face, because I realized that I had known she died, back when my kids were 10 and 13. Caught up in the everyday hubbub of raising them, I'd tucked the news into a corner of my heart and didn't take it out again until this morning. This grief I feel right now is fresh and new, and finally it honors her, and pays silent tribute to the years I sat across from her in a dim-lit office as she helped me peel back the layers and become myself, my better self, the one my loved ones might more easily live with. I wish I could talk to her again. I'm in a whole new phase of life, and I need to become my better self again.