Other Writing

29/03/15 Other Writing # , ,

Live Long with Ping Pong

Part 1:  Getting Healthy is Half the Fun. The Other Half is Surprising Yourself and

Getting Better All the Time.

pingpong 

 

“A few months back”, I said to a friend, “We’ve taken up ping pong for exercise.” He laughed, “Well, I guess swinging your arms around and hitting that little orange ball back and forth counts for something.” I smirked a bit and tried again. “You don’t get it,” I insisted. “We’ve really come upon a way to exercise and have fun. Gamericise instead of exercise.”

Read any article about staying healthy as you get older and they all say the same thing. Move, think and enjoy. But move sounds like effort. Think sounds like work. And enjoy sounds like a dream when your muscles ache. So, trade exercise for gamercise. A half-hour of ping pong raises your heart beat, improves reflexes, strengthens your quads and boosts confidence. Cardio circulation, fast reactions and footwork balancing are all natural to playing ping pong.

Ping pong encourages mind-body coordination regardless of your level of play and it’s crazy fun. You move your arms. You move your feet. You move your head and turn your neck. You leap unexpectedly. You start flipping a paddle around in your hand. You take chances, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. You laugh a lot, make funny noises and applaud your partner when they make a great shot. And you bend over dozens of times to pick up balls.

If that’s not enough, there’s more. What’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Neurons snap and memory brings back images of yourself from years gone by. A first step to keeping your mind sharp is a challenge that’s fun to take on and keeps your brain striving to get just a little bit better.

Getting better at a sport, rather than getting worse, is a welcome surprise as you age. You may start out just being glad to get the ball back and feel a little pissed that you have to pick up so many missed balls. Then you notice you’re not missing the table as often. You even make a couple shots on the spot intended. Field a few zen returns without much thought. A rally gets longer and points get won on demand. You slam a few perfect shots, send a couple spinners over the net and sneak a winner when your partner least expects it.

Pretty soon you’re ready for the family youngin’s who’re going to show up with their out-of-practice hubris and you’ll really start having fun.

So, I’m just sayin’, “Try it.” Get the table out from under its cover in the back yard or in the garage, hit a few balls with friends and you too will start saying — ‘live long with ping pong’. It’s a sure fire fun way to aim a ball at longevity, creativity, levity and elasticity.

 

Part II: Ping Pong Soundtrack from Ping Pong with Jane and Jerry

(Punctuate with the catchy Beatles refrain “Getting better all the time” or read with a 1-2-3 staccato rhythm or just try them out in your next game.)

Ooops, Whoops, Whoosh;

Devil Shot, Smasher-oo, Thumber;

Knuckler, Edger, Fooey (a favorite);

Sorry, Ratz, Whatzat?;

Old Hole in the Paddle, Shoot, Haha-haha-haha;

Hate That Netter, Hate That Dribbler;

Good Shot Jane, Good Shot Jerry;

Ooooooooo, Wow, Awesome;

The Shovel Shot; Ugh Ugh Ugh, Sorry-Sorry-Sorry;

The Ball’s a Little Rascal, Last Rally!”

In full disclosure, Jerry and I have invented a gamercise style of ping pong where our object is not to win games but to keep a rally going, surprise ourselves with excellent shots and punctuate the air with a colorful naming of shots. We admit to trying to avoid too much bending over, squatting and retrieving balls from the bushes, backyard and pool by hitting balls that would, given that we were playing a legitimate game, be counted out — off the table. When we play, we keep up a running commentary on our good and not so good shots.

Here’s a glossary of terms to decipher our soundtrack:

OOoooppps…that’s the shot I was sure I had and instead – ooops – the ball popped up and went flying into the bushes, the backyard or the pool.

Whoops…a power shot oops.

Whoosh…that’s the shot Jerry was sure he had and the ball misses the table by an inch.

The Devil Shot…that’s the lucky shot we wish we’d made on purpose that barely hits the white line on the edge of the table and veers off, impossible to return

The Smasher…that’s the irresistible shot that is fun to hit but hardly ever hits the table

The Thumber…thumb instead of paddle returns the ball, usually into the bushes

The Knuckler…hurts fingers and distracts more than sending ball off kilter

The Edger…the ball catches the edge of the table, angles off for an impossible ball return, totally lucky

Fooey…that’s the shot I meant to hit to a particular edge of the table and it misses by a simple inch

Sorry…that’s the shot I hit wild and Jerry has to bend down and pick it up

Ratz…that’s the shot I was sure was going to hit the table as a winner but no no no…

Whatzat?…those are the shots we whiff with our paddle while the ball flies by

Old-Hole-In-The-Paddle…those are the shots that we never see whiff by as we swing and are left looking for the hole in the paddle

Shoot…that’s the one that barely misses the table, blame it on the wind

Hahahahaha…I hit corner to corner back and forth, Jerry hits them all back.

Hate That Netter – nicks the net and floops over for a winner from spin.

Hate That Dribbler…hits the net and climbs over, impossible to reach and hit back.

Good Shot Jane!…that’s the one I slide low over the net after a long rally into the front corner and Jerry has no chance.

Good Shot Jerry!… that a slam that hits the table and I, of course, just watch it fly by

Oooooooooooo…that’s the one that so totally should’ve missed and catches the line on the edge the table. Raises awe of ping pong prowess. (Andre Agassi says the lines were made for him to hit J)

Wow, awesome…that’s the shot that should never have been returned and was.

The Shovel Shot…dig it up from below the table’s edge and make it land perfectly on the other side.

Ugh, ugh, ugh…that’s the ball I’m picking up for the third time in a row.

Sorry, So Sorry…that’s the ball I’m making Jerry pick up for the third time in a row.

Little Rascal…that’s the ball with a mind of its own, eluding us and on the loose like a pin ball bouncing off everything and making us stoop over numerous times

Last Rally – We end the game with a rally that meets our standards for a challenging exchange and winner wins ‘fair and square’…game over.

Let this list be yet another inspiration to get out the ping pong table, do some good for your heart and your brain. To our amazement, ping pong is an invigorating forty-five minute workout that whizzes by before breakfast! We’re not sure how our neighbors feel about the commentary that accompanies the clip-clop but, so far, no complaints and we’re having a very good time.  

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03/01/10 Other Writing # , , , , ,

Why Cuba?

Cuba is off the tourist trail for Americans. The U.S. “no visit, no business” policy is very much in effect, condemning travel in Cuba unless you have special permission. So, why go to Cuba? Of course, I had an official reason. I’m a psychologist with published essays on feminine archetypes in film, sufficient credentials to qualify me for a research category authorizing first hand study of Cuban culture by a U.S. citizen. But the quirky “yes, but” smile on people’s faces when I give that answer tells me I’m not giving the answer they want. And I admit it. I did have a personal reason. I wanted to feel and draw my own conclusions about the spirit of a people cut off from the rampant, relentless materialism, consumerism and media-ism America has known and exported for the last forty years.

I wanted to see Cuba before the country becomes another “Big Mac”, a golden arches franchise of corporate America. Once upon a time, Cuba was America’s playground and it’s very likely the embargo will be lifted, as the fantasy of a ninety-mile barrier against communism can no longer be sold to the American public. The U.S. embargo against Cuba is in the news, undergoing reconsideration as U.S./Russian relations improve and U.S. corporations find little reason to restrict trade with Cuba when they actively do business with many other Communist countries. However, it wasn’t the remnants of a secret hideaway Havana of celebrities and mobsters nor Cuba’s stunning but abandoned beaches that I wanted to see.

There’s an old movie, Lost Horizon, of a place out of time that raises the question of whether progress is a boon or a curse. I wondered. Would I be met with a disheartening sight, a Cuban people overwhelmed with poverty and resentful of lost opportunity? Or, would I find a haven of simpler values? I hoped to find a Cuba alive with a culture that defied the poverty I knew would be there. What I found was an odd poverty, but not the homeless sort. Shame did not seem to be a part of the picture. Starvation is not etched into the faces of people sitting in doorways with nothing to do, nowhere to go. Men and women don’t stand around on street corners with their hands out. And I felt safe on the streets on Havana at all hours day or night and while traveling on a vastly empty highway to Trinidad with no gas stations or fast food in sight.

People in Cuba today live very modestly, many live in poverty and, since a dollar goes a long way, everyone seems to be figuring out ways to work the tourist business — from the bottom up.

Entrepreneurial Cubans rent rooms in their apartments to visitors from all over the world, offer their services as guides and set up tourist marketplaces in vacant lots. And there are many clever – enjoyable – ways Cubans have learned to shake extra dollars out of tourist pockets. After several taxi cab drivers entertained me with a story about these huge red apples that they used to be able to get before the embargo and how they wished they could still get those apples, I caught on. His story slowed down the short transit from hotel to old town, instilled a little guilt and inspired a bigger tip. I watched a kid copy a TV interviewer. He fashioned a camera out of a cardboard box and, with a mike cleverly concocted from a plastic water bottle, was unabashedly charming tourists and “earning” dollars by polling them on what they liked best about Havana.

And there is much evidence to support the beloved cliché that money can’t buy the important things in life. While Cuban schools have few books, literacy is reportedly one hundred percent. Strolling along the sidewalk beside Havana’s famous wall along Malecon Boulevard, I saw young people slip in and out of the sea as if it were a backyard swimming pool. Old men fish there happily for hours. On Saturdays, Cubans can buy ice cream for peso pennies in the garden park made famous in the film, Chocolate and Strawberry. I bought the same ice cream in a New York minute for a U.S. dollar but it was clear, I only got half the treat. The families, friends and couples lined up around the block turned waiting into a social event, laughing and socializing with one another.

All over Havana, elegant buildings and promenades are crumbling from lack of repair. But people still live in them, lifting their children over missing steps and preparing meals in the apartments that still have water and electricity. Couples line up to get married in the Hall of Marriages on a Saturday afternoon, one after another arriving in a vintage fifties car, too poor for a church wedding but pretty as a picture in black tux and white dress to get their license. As I watched kids pushing each other on packing boxes turned into makeshift racing cars on the grand colonial promenade, I felt some nostalgia for a Cuba that made a valiant effort to be something other than a fancy island plaything for wealthy high rollers.

So, I wondered. Is Cuba headed back to the future, destined to become a latinized Las Vegas? Cuba is drawing more and more tourists from all over the world every year – including the U.S. In fact, there are legal charters direct from Los Angeles to Havana. Even exiled Cubans can now return once a year on a simple visa. And when Roselyn and Jimmy Carter were there, making a weeklong visit earlier this year, Fidel Castro appeared frequently on TV, uncharacteristically out of uniform, in shirtsleeves. He was discussing international concerns with the first American president to visit since Calvin Coolidge. And Carter, a respected leader of the western world is advocating a normalization of relations with Cuba.

CNN devoted a good size slice of its coverage of Carter’s visit to investigating the desire of young people in Havana for more things American. They certainly found it. The deliberate impoverishment of Cuba by its own dictator and the U.S. embargo has isolated Cuba for more than a generation from basic goods and ordinary opportunities. The embargo intimidates other countries from trading with Cuba, creating a hungry marketplace. But, to my way of thinking, CNN interviewers begged the question, didn’t ask it.

Does the little girl ballet dancing on the sidewalk outside a window of a hotel lobby to the music of a fine pianist want ballet lessons in a ballet studio? Do two women sitting idle in a hot doorway in brightly colored skirts and blouses want to go to lunch and a movie? Does a skinny man and a large woman in spandex, laughing and hugging on the wall of a park, want to go for a coffee or a beer at a sidewalk café? Do the musicians who play nightly, study daily and perform for peanuts want better instruments and access to recording opportunities? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that barehanded kids hitting baseballs with flat sticks want gloves and bats. Basketballs are rare and teens play out their dreams spinning empty handed against walls without hoops in cheap sports outfits emulating Michael Jordan. In Cuba, Cubans need dollars to buy normal things.

Yes, Cubans may want more things American but do Cubans want what America will want for Cuba?

Seemingly intact, in spite of all odds, this small country’s soul reverberates in its music. Inside the crumbling shell of its architecture and under the lid of poverty, Cubans speak a distinct voice of enthusiasm in their music. Ry Cooder, a well-known American musician, did an end run around U.S. restrictions, giving some Cubans some access – and the rest of us a treasure. He couldn’t resist making Cuba’s music available to the world through film with Buena Vista Social Club. While I was there, I heard a classical guitar recital given at Havana’s Muse Des Belles Artes in which each student’s composition was highly unique, yet each marked with a Cuban flavor. Strings broke during the evening but didn’t stop the performance. I didn’t get a chance to ask the performers how they felt about their low quality, visibly worn instruments but, again, the need for dollars is clear; the desire for an Americanized culture is not.

Progress, however, will be a mixed bag, full of tricks. Cubans have made major sacrifices, been wooed by one of the most charismatic and dedicated leaders in the world and waited patiently for a better day. Relentless deprivation prevails all over Cuba, breeding an intense longing not only for things but access. Cuba lives primarily on dreams of possibility. Even though lifting the embargo will cause problems, my questions about easing relations with the U.S. met with enthusiasm. Legendary music, an uncanny production of outstanding baseball players and a wily spirit have helped people survive Castro’s power struggles. But images of Che Guevara still hang from old bicycles and decorate everything from tee shirts to pesos, ever reminiscent of an idealist who represents dying for an unconditional, possibly unattainable dream of freedom that has no room for compromise.

Walking the streets of Havana is like visiting the back lot of an old movie studio that someone forgot about, let go to seed but didn’t destroy believing that – one day – silent movies would come back into style and just such a set would be needed. Apartment buildings, houses and hotels line the streets like lovely goddesses of an ancient civilization, worn down by the ages but still gloriously suggestive of better times. Each structure, though pock marked from salt and crumbling from neglect, holds a mystique. Each seems like an archetypal column holding up remnants of an historical civilization and representing — as surely as Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena — the mythic ideals of beauty, strength and creativity necessary to building a civilization.

As I talked to the owner of a restaurant about how many of these grand old beauties were now rentals for large groups, I had a revelation. She talked about how abruptly the destruction of the old grandeur had occurred when Castro came into power. But she felt ambivalent about rich people streaming back into Cuba. Forty years had given her time to become middle class. She was a future that didn’t exist in the times of colonial, baroque and art deco goddess buildings. She was a fifties baby, nursed on modern designs punctuated by colorful and flamboyant shapes of architecture — that last decade of building before the revolution.

I graduated from high school in 1957, a bare few hundred miles north of Cuba in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. I didn’t just observe the up swing of materialism. I felt it. Or, more to my point, I didn’t feel it. Florida loved modernism. Plastics; they were resistant to mildew. Concrete slabs; they could be hosed clean of sand. Sliding glass doors; they kept out the bugs and let in the light. At the time, I resisted the modern materials and designs. They seemed empty, devoid of those mahogany, handcrafted memories carefully carved into armoires and railings polished to a shiny gleam marking steep, circular stairways from mysterious rooms above. Modernism was cold. Straight lines, cookie cutter diamonds dotted with little balls in bright colors that offered a future without meaning, quickly stamped out by a machine rather than yielding a shape over time. Silly superficiality broke from the past but promised little meaning for the future. Vance Packard wrote the book that told it all. Commercialism was taking over. We would soon no longer care what came in a box of detergent as long as we liked the box. What I realized talking to this Cuban restaurant owner was that Cuba didn’t become a box.

In other words, Havana’s streets are full of people with dreams cut off in the sixties. In the fifties, just before Cuba went under the embargo, cars had become getaway cars — Chevy’s, Ford’s and Caddie’s with fins, bright colors and eight cylinder motors. Gas was only 29 cents and symbolized by Pegasus, the white horse with wings flying over Texaco stations could take you anywhere your imagination could reach. If you couldn’t own a dream mobile, you figured you could fly into the future on your own wings of desire. Cuba is the only ‘living car museum’ in the world; more models of restored cars are being driven in Cuba than any other country. And though the present price of gas leaves plenty of these classic cars sitting idle in parking lots or working as tourist taxis, they are also owned and maintained as prized possessions. I’d like to believe Cuba could meet the challenge of ‘the day the embargo lifted’ and make the American dollar – when it comes – fund a Cuban dream, long in incubation and ripe for blossoming.

The Cubans I met felt alive with a dream. What one of us doesn’t know what living on a dream means? Longing is an old friend of Americans. With all that we have, we are still dreamers of greater greatness. Dreams are strong aphrodisiacs, feeding the spirit when the stomach is empty. And, if you look closely, it isn’t the dream come true but the dreaming that creates the future.

For a couple weeks, I was part of Cuba’s dreaming and it was part of me. In that dream world, I got a handshake instead of a receipt for my hotel bill, shared my taxi with a stranger who ended up having dinner with me and went nightclubbing with friends until 2 am without worrying about getting mugged on my way home. Still, I – like the Cubans I met – look forward to the end of the embargo because I want those kids to have books and mitts. I want the woman restaurant owner to reap the rewards of her hard work. I’d like the spunky kid interviewer and the aspiring student musicians to grow up and have their fifteen minutes of fame.

But I do fear Cuba will suffer yet another revolution when the embargo is lifted, one where the openness I enjoyed while I was there in Spring, 2002, will be lost.

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03/01/10 Other Writing # , , , , , ,

Ram Das Speaks in Silence

Ram Das. You remember who he is? Sure, he was the Harvard professor who gave his students LSD, went to India before anyone else did it, and wrote “the book” of the ’60’s. Be Here Now put the spiritual backbone into memorable times. Ram Das was a charismatic speaker. Most of us can remember when we saw him the first time. I have a vivid memory of the time I heard him speak in small, packed theatre in New York and I especially remember the excitment people felt just being in his presence. He was joyfully alive, a wild phenomenon holding center stage midst flowers, candles, and random young men and women sitting cross-legged. He wove the audience right into his talk until everyone was swaying to his irreverent, original, and funny thoughts. After that, he became a fixture of American culture — like the Nike swoosh, everywhere and nowhere. He never wrote another great book and he never seemed to get a real job. But we all seemed to be wearing him on our shirts and shoes, inspiring us to be all that we could be. Whenever, I heard him speak, he continued to ramble on about his latest discovery of consciousness and wanted you to love rambling as well. He walked his talk.

Well, he’s back. A stroke that has left him somewhat speechless has given him something powerful to say. There was an article about him in the NY Times about how he’s on the circuit, presumably selling a book he wrote before the stroke. But he’s lost his glib ability with speech. Sometimes he has no words to say what he’s come to say and he lapses into silence. He waits. The audience waits. Ram Das invites the audience into the silence with him. Instead of hiding away from the problem, he makes it part of his talk and brings his experience out into the open. The loss of speech has often seemed to me like the next major human fear after the fear of falling. Silence makes everyone comfortable, reminding us of the ultimate, inevitable end of human consciousness. He is out there, one more time taking people where they fear to go — into the void. He may not be speaking, but he’s still teaching.

He comments on how he ‘once upon a time’ thought he knew what people who were sick and dying were experiencing. He thought they felt closer to God and felt a more direct contact with the divine. Now that he has had his own near death experience, suffering every day with a debilitating illness, he acknowledges that this was a projection. Being ill or dying are just more states of living. Not especially special, different. Not to be afraid of, but not to be ignored or interpreted out of existence. But Ram Das is doing what he’s always done. He makes the void palatable, more comfortable, and sharable.

My dad liked to tell me stories when he was bed-ridden from strokes that would one day take his life. My favorites were about an angel named XOX who taught him how to levitate, use magical words to get what he wanted and bring my mother when he needed her. One story that he told many times was about how my mother would take him to a faraway church at night, leaving him there even though it was very cold. Somehow he would return, finding himself in his bed in the morning. He told me that he knew that one night he wouldn’t come home but I shouldn’t tell my mother. And often he would fall silent between stories. Ram Das gave me a way to understand that the silences were part of the inner landscape he was traveling. I wished I had known that I was sharing a special stretch of the road. I usually thought it was time to leave.

 

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03/01/10 Other Writing # , , , , , ,

Croatia: An Horizon of Hope

Croatia. Not a war zone. Paradise. I drank pure sweet tasting water from the tap, swam in the buoyant Adriatic at inviting temperatures, ate fresh fish, mussels, clams and lobsters caught daily from a crystalline blue sea, and hopped easily onto ferries visiting offshore islands with antique towns and sandy beaches.

Everyone tucks a bathing suit into a pocket or wears one under their clothes. I was in and out of the Adriatic Sea even while I was going for lunch, shopping or sightseeing. The Adriatic is salty but not itchy and the Croats have showers and hoses everywhere in anticipation of people taking quick dips in the sea.

But isn’t NATO bombing that place; isn’t Croatia located midst the strife- stricken Balkans? Well you might ask. I did. Before I signed up to attend a “Peacebuilding Conference for the 21st Century” in Cavtat, just south of Dubrovnik, I had pressed organizers, travel agents and knowledgeable friends with the question —— “Is it safe?” Even though I’d read Lonely Planet’s new guidebook on Croatia subtitled “Get in before the crowds return”, I didn’t believe it. Only once I arrived and had one contradictory experience after another, could I put aside the images of Croatia I’d formed from the news. Where was the Croatia I’d been reading about — the one with tinderbox elections, reeling from a century of combative Serbian demands?

War was invisible unless, of course, I turned on CNN. In truth I felt caught in the film, The Truman Show. I expected the sky to be pulled back, revealing the real world. As a single woman, I was enjoying a rare luxury offeeling safe. I felt safe traveling, exploring and walking everywhere alone. Even in the city of Zagreb, I walked miles along deserted beaches in the early morning hours and returned without fear to my hotel after dinner, often late in the evening.

The presence of the 1991 war does persist — in conversation. A simple question to a waiter or shopkeeper, as vague as “how are things for you now?” easily penetrated any thin formality. Everyone under thirty seems to speak and understand English. But even older Croatian vendors selling newspapers and postcards at portable kiosks found a way to answer my questions. And when I thanked a store clerk for his courteous service, he smiled an emphatic “Thank you” of his own, explaining “We are brothers making a business. Your business is welcome.” A florist who created a bouquet of flowers for me to take to the sister of a friend who lives in Zagreb spoke very little English but proudly introduced her eight year old son to me and explained (in Croatian), “She’s American. English, not German.”

Life was good while I was in Croatia. People were glad for peace and glad for tourism, but they’ve been hurt. I was told many personal stories of a war they never saw coming. Telling me seemed to ease the pain. In Dubrovnik, a taxi driver pointed to “the red tiles where they bombed the roofs”. A doctor next to me in line commented, “The emergency rooms took everyone, Serbs included.” A Croat, who drove me around outside Dubrovnik explained, “that house stands empty where a Serbian family lived and never returned”. A waiter in a small restaurant shrugged when I complimented him on the food, “Times have been difficult, but no one is hungry here.” And so on.

The local red wine was so good in one small Cavtat restaurant that I wanted to buy some and bring it home. The restaurant owner explained its source as his own small vineyard, adding a quiet, “the war is over now”, as if the quality of his wine was a telling sign. Such is the beauty of this land; even when tanks were coming across the fields, no one could believe it. One man heard the news on the radio and since he could see no evidence from his window, he drove around the countryside in his car to find it! The war continues now in Croat minds as a deeply felt injustice — wrong, like graffiti desecrating a sacred wall.

I found the healing power of this land worked with travel mishaps as well as on the vast distress from war. Several personal tourist problems were “somehow” transformed into unexpected gifts. Making my way from Los Angeles to Frankfurt and to my final destination, Dubrovnik, I had a scheduled two-hour layover in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. But an airline official met me at the gate with the bad news that my Croatian Air flight was delayed — four additional hours! — and, furthermore, the flight would stop over in the town of Zared before going on to Dubrovnik. Just as I was wondering how I was going to survive airport chairs after a full day and night of time zone travel, I realized the Zagreb airport was located across the street from a park! I spent the afternoon lazing around in shaded sunshine, dozing and people-watching. Whoever heard of such a delightful layover!?

Then, more problems. Due to high winds, my flight to Dubrovnik was grounded in Split, a seaside city still five driving hours from Dubrovnik — a little like getting grounded in San Francisco. Croatian Air dumped all passengers, rather unceremoniously and without much direction, onto a curb in a parking lot to wait for a bus at midnight! While waiting for the bus, I struck up a conversation with a man from Canada who had grown up in Croatia. He explained that the winds at the Dubrovnik airport were extremely dangerous and the airline was making a good choice not to take us there. After an hour waiting around for a bus, cab drivers approached and asked if anyone wanted to pay 2400 kuna (approximately $300) and share a taxi to Dubrovnik. The Croatian Canadian negotiated a reasonable deal for the two of us and I got a crash course in Croatian history.

The traveler from Canada was a natural storyteller. Even in the dark, he highlighted the Croatian coast and relieved the tension of single lane driving between Split and Dubrovnik. Three and a half hours later (instead of five), we arrived at Hotel Croatia at 4 a.m. He told me that, in 1991, when the Serbs had unsuccessfully attempted to make Croatia their own state, the Hotel Croatia had been stripped and vandalized. Now, proudly refurbished the splendid five-star hotel sports indoor and outdoor swimming pools as well as spa and recreational services, rooms with balconies overlooking village or sea, and nightly disco dancing with a live band. As I walked down the hotel’s spiral staircase to the dining room, he showed me how the architect left the dynamite blasted rock foundation exposed as a natural wall casing. Once again, I was struck with Croatia’s magical ability to merge tough realities with a lightness of being.

This was going to be a wonderful site for the “Peacebuilding in the 21st Century” conference I was attending in the seaside town of Cavtat, six kilometers south of Dubrovnik.

Since I had arrived before dawn’s early light, I woke up to an unexpected paradise, stretching out as far as I could see. First a swim and then dinner, enjoying the clear waters of Cavtat. You haven’t had calamari until it’s been grilled fresh from the Adriatic Sea. The next day, I traveled forty-five minutes by water ferry across the sea to Dubrovnik. Nothing prepares me for the perfection of what some people call the most beautiful city in the world. I felt like I’d stepped into a fairy tale, been refused ordinariness and given royalty in my sundress. I wished for a costume and a procession, some ritual event to match the surroundings and provide pomp and circumstance as I walked around the high walls of this glistening ancient city. I attended a magical evening concert by the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra in the open-roofed Rector’s Palace Atrium where the starry sky of Dubrovnik was momentarily defined by four stone walls, installed as a captive night sky ceiling over an evening of orchestral music and ancestral marble. I lay still on the second story balcony floor feeling the resonance of modern day music and long ago centuries in my body.

More magic. I can’t really talk about Dubrovnik without becoming a poet. Shops still feel incidental to the stone and marble. Kids using phone cards seem oddly out of place. And there just weren’t enough young people leaning up against the fountains, families eating ice cream on church steps, or tourists pouring through the narrow streets that have never known cars to bring me back to earth. Laundry, even laundry (which is strung out on lines everywhere) felt romantic! Croatia casts a spell like a Zen koan, calling out “be here now”.

Croats are exceedingly friendly. Restaurants treat tourists more like guests than paying patron. And, in fact, taking room and board in a private home is a great way to enjoy a lengthy stay in Croatia. A friend enjoyed spending a week on the island of Hvar with a family he’d never met, vowed he’d never stay in a hotel again.

So, like the Lonely Planet advises — go before the crowds arrive. They will surely be on their way.

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03/01/09 Other Writing # , , , , , ,

Missed Diagnosis

This is my story. It could save your life.

My story begins late one night in December 2008. I’d just come home from a long and wonderful trip to Bhutan, Nepal and India and was in the midst of moving in with a man I’d met and fallen in love with two summers before. We’re both in good health, exercise regularly and keep our diet on the light side. But this night we’d been out to a fancy restaurant. We were in a high mood, planning a celebration for our 70 and 75th birthdays as one big party in February. A few hours after I’d gone to sleep, an intense cramping in my lower left side awakened me. My abdomen was bloated. My stomach felt hard as a rock. I couldn’t lie still so I stood up. I immediately bent over in pain. Feeling pretty weak I supported myself with the back of a bedroom chair. Sitting or lying down felt worse. That night, I walked around and around and around the living room wondering what was wrong and what to do. I’d suffered digestive discomfort for years but never anything like this. It was logical to believe I’d picked up a bug in India. As I walked, I took GasX. About ten minutes later, I felt better and was able to go back to sleep. I thought that was the end of it but it was just the beginning.

I’m a psychologist who hears many clients describe digestive discomfort, especially after a meal out in a restaurant. I’ve listened to many women describe similar nightly walkabouts in which all they could do was wait for gastrointestinal pain to subside. One woman told me her mother had been having attacks for years and tried every home remedy and medical prescription in the book with no sustainable relief. It’s common to hear people report getting so frightened by the pain that they believe they’re having a heart attack. They go to an ER, lay around on a gurney for hours and come home with a diagnosis of indigestion. Still, since the pain was extreme, I called my internist the next day and got an appointment a few days later. He sent me for scans of my liver, kidneys, gall bladder and esophagus, gave me an ECG in his office and prescribed Prevacid for indigestion. All the tests came back normal.

But nothing was normal. I continued to have severe digestive discomfort and painful spasms every few nights. I searched the Internet hoping to understand my symptoms better. I kept coming up with GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disease) and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Each search described many of my symptoms but there was little mention of the pressure from gas that I was experiencing or the pain. I saw a nutritionist who was convinced that my gall bladder was malfunctioning. Her dietary recommendations didn’t work but she heightened my awareness of the importance of diet. In particular, I learned that carbohydrates produce gas and overeating at any particular meal puts extra stress on the stomach. I started a low carb diet and ate small frequent meals. I also stopped eating anything after six pm. Even though my alcohol habit consisted of little more than a glass of wine with dinner, I stopped drinking any alcohol. A glass of wine seemed to set off a spasm. Same with my morning cup of coffee. Taking these measures slowed down how often I experienced these episodes of intense pain but did not affect the intensity once one got rolling. Modifying my eating habits certainly helped but didn’t solve the problem.

Next I saw a gastroenterologist who was convinced I had SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). He prescribed Xyfaxan, an antibiotic that targets bacteria in the intestine in order to restore proper balance and cease pain caused by spasms of the gut. I did several series of this antibiotic over the next months. The third, pulling out all stops, was for three weeks. He also prescribed Levsin, an antispasmodic medication. The antibiotics seemed to lessen the frequency of occurrences and the Levsin was a godsend. My symptoms were increasing and the episodes becoming more frequent, more unpredictable. It’s hard to describe how disturbing it was to be clueless about when an episode might occur. If I had an afternoon of clients, I ate a light breakfast with no carbs and skipped lunch. It was the only way I could be sure I wouldn’t crash in the middle of a session with a client. With Levsin in my pocket, I felt more in control but when I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t get an attack I just didn’t eat.

Oddly, when I was fine, I was fine and that was most of the time. Difficult to predict, symptoms often came out of the blue and while very intense, passed within minutes. I learned that I could avert an episode by taking Levsin at the first sign of symptoms and even stop a rising spasm on its way to full bloom if I acted quickly. Because Levsin worked and because the antibiotics seemed to be working, I had confidence that the GI doctor knew what he was doing and felt confident he would solve the problem. I began to keep a journal of what I was eating and when I had symptoms. Eating carbs and eating too much at one meal continued to be major culprits. They led to gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, heartburn and scratchy throat. As months passed, I sometimes felt an intense pressure pushing on my diaphragm and rising to the center of my chest. I sometimes felt a hot spot behind my sternum, pain in one or both arms and soreness under my ears. I took Levsin everywhere with me. On a walk, to the movies, to bed.

Adding to my difficulties, I felt depressed, tired and annoyed. So many interactions in life revolve around food. “Let’s get together for lunch” became a challenge. Not being able to eat freely meant playing a game when we went out with friends. I began a blind man’s game of not seeing food on the table, on my plate or on a menu in order to enjoy myself. At least in California where I live, restaurants are used to people customizing their meals but I only had one diet I knew worked. When it didn’t fit the occasion, I cancelled. It’s an education to notice how central food is to so many ordinary things we do in a day. Being so restricted often secretly stole the fun out of a get together for me but I couldn’t risk a build-up of pressure.

On occasion, symptoms got started and subsided on their own. But mostly, the only thing that made a spasm bearable was Levsin. GasX always helped. Sometimes Gaviscon or Prevacid helped. I tried PPI acid suppressors (proto pump inhibitors) but with little reliable effect. On my low carb diet, I lost weight, 20 lbs from 138 to 118 in eight months. In a society where “one is never too thin”, I was looking good and getting lots of compliments but I did not feel good. It’s one thing to modify life to live around symptoms, another to think of living with an imposed restriction day in and day out for the rest of my life. As time wore on without a diagnosis, I began to think the painful episodes were here to stay.

My spasms felt like contractions in childbirth, horribly intense but subsiding in minutes. Resolved to their intrusion, at least I knew they would end. Like a woman giving birth, I went with the pain, breathed as rhythmically as I could and held the faith that I could get through it. I leaned against a couch, a fence or a wall depending on where I was when they happened. Since I felt like a pregnant woman with too much pressure on her stomach, I slept on a wedge to keep my head elevated to alleviate weight on my digestive tract. Keeping my upper body elevated while I slept helped me feel better but it didn’t prevent pressure from building up. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of a nightmare dreaming that I was being strangled or crushed or worse. To combat this invisible foe, I did everything I could, but to no avail.

Since I believed my symptoms were clues, I described them numerous times to numerous doctors, each with a different specialty, hoping one of them – internist, nutritionist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist and holistic md – would recognize what I could only sense. I kept asking questions, kept looking to them for answers. What’s causing all this? Where’s all the gas coming from? If it’s acid reflux, GERD and/or IBS, why doesn’t elimination of the usual culprits – gluten, dairy products, chocolate, wheat, red meat and alcohol – make a difference? If it’s SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), why aren’t the antibiotics working? And, bottom-line, how does pressure from intestinal gas cause a cramp in my chest? Since my problems started the week after I came back from a trip to India, doctors and friends joined me in speculating that I’d brought back an obscure bug. That added to the mystery but it still didn’t explain how indigestion was related to spasms.

Did I take tests? Of course. Blood tests, electrocardiograms (ECG), scans and scopes of the upper and lower GI tract. They ruled out esophageal problems, gall bladder, liver and kidney problems, heart problems – or so I thought. Did I follow doctor’s instructions? Of course. Three rounds of intestinal antibiotics. Did I talk to people? Of course. Smartest friends in the room. Everyone had their own experience and/or someone close to them who had similar symptoms. They also had lots of advice. Apparently, there are millions of Americans suffering from chronic bouts of indigestion that they’re treating with billions of dollars of digestive aids. But no one pieced together the combination of symptoms I was describing into a diagnosis.

To add to my confusion about what was happening and, in hindsight, to the hidden danger of a missed diagnosis, I had a para-thyroidectomy in December 2008. I had been diagnosed with parathyroid dysfunction during an annual checkup with my internist before my trip to India. There was some speculation about whether it could be a cause of my digestive discomfort. Not likely but a possibility. Apparently faulty calcium regulation can contribute to digestive problems. The surgery required – of course – blood tests and another ECG. Fortunately (especially in hindsight), I flew through the surgery with flying colors. But it further confused the picture. After my calcium levels were restored, I enjoyed an upsurge of energy. When I was not actually experiencing an episode or its aftermath the next day, I felt better than I had in years.

Incidentally, in January 2009, I saw a cardiologist. It was a routine visit, like seeing a gynecologist. It was simply part of my overall pursuit of greater health appropriate to my age. My cholesterol levels were a bit high (LDL 120) and I was considering statins. I did, of course, describe my symptoms to him, including the fact that I was seeing a GI doctor. During the exam, he thought he noticed a murmur and recommended I get a stress-echo test to complete my work up. “Nothing urgent”, he assured me. Nothing that couldn’t wait until after a spring trip my partner and I were planning to Paris. In fact, none of my doctors expressed any caution about traveling for six weeks out of the country or any urgency regarding any other tests.

In August 2009 – after eight months of mind-numbing episodes of pain — I did find the answer. Persistent questioning – and, I believe, lady luck was on my side. We came home from Paris mid-June and I made an appointment to complete my cardiology workup with a stress echo test at the first opportunity. That would be August 7. By this time I was afraid my digestive difficulties were burdening my heart. I thought I might not be able to complete the stress echo well enough for accurate results. But by August, I was a pro at dealing with my attacks and felt confident I could get through it even if I felt one coming on. Exertion at this time was the least of my concerns.

Even though I knew that going up a steep sidewalk, swimming 4 short laps in a row or spending ten minutes on the elliptical trainer could arouse symptoms signaling the likelihood of an attack, I could work around it. I’d learned to pace my walking, slow down my exercising and not lift anything heavy. On the stress echo treadmill, it didn’t surprise me that I was fine for 4 minutes, 134 heartbeats. At that point I began to feel the usual pressure in my stomach, a light-headedness, pain behind my ears and a desperate need to rest. I’d been told 138 heartbeats was the target so when the monitor flashed a red 141, I figured I’d more than accomplished the target. I gasped for breath and asked the nurse, “Is that it? Can I stop now?” And she answered, “Only if you want to.” She didn’t bat an eyelash at my obvious distress. I’ve since discovered that people like to challenge the treadmill when they take the test so I guess that’s what she was used to. Then I did what I usually did when I was faced with an imminent attack. I calmed myself down. I breathed, meditated and thought pleasant thoughts while the nurse scurried around getting her numbers.

I was completely unaware of what had just happened. Customary for me, by the time I got to the waiting room, I felt fine. In this case, I felt pleased that I’d recovered without taking a Levsin. As I waited for the cardiologist, I was in a good mood, sure that – one more time – the test showed nothing definitive. My blood test numbers looked better than ever. They had all dropped dramatically from the year before. Total Cholesterol — 202 (from 247), Triglycerides — 61 (from 95), HDL 79 (108), LDL 111 (from 120). Clear proof that diet can affect your cholesterol — in case you had any doubt!

This was Friday afternoon. I was reading these results when the cardiologist came in. I was fully expecting a smile on his face. Instead, the look on his face was dead serious. He was very careful with his words. His words. “You have angina. Your reaction to the stress echo test is one of the most extreme we’ve had here in quite awhile.” My brain. “Is this something new, different or related to my problem?” He wanted to schedule me for an angioplasty as soon as possible. He asked me “Were you frightened while you were taking the stress-echo?” Wryly I answered, “No, I’ve felt similar spasms hundreds of times since December.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He was the first person to mention the word ‘angina’. First to indicate that I should be very concerned, even alarmed. He scheduled an angioplasty for Monday. I had a vague idea of what an angioplasty was but I had no grasp on angina. I certainly wasn’t thinking what I should’ve been thinking. ‘Good grief, I’m lucky I’m not dead.’

The cardiologist knew, of course, what I didn’t know – that the angina I had experienced on the treadmill was a life threatening aspect of blockage of the arteries in my heart. He continued to talk while I continued to blur. He assured me that the beta-blockers and nitroglycerin he was prescribing would, as he put it, “make sure I got through the weekend without an incident”. After not worrying for months, I now had to fret the weekend? Blur. As it turned out (and as usual), I had attacks both nights. And I used the nitroglycerin both times and it worked very quickly. I guess the good and the bad of the nitroglycerin was that it worked. It was evidence that the condition of my heart was the root cause of my painful episodes.

Fear blocked the big picture, distracting me from the warning my body was giving me that something very serious was wrong. Pain swept me off, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, into a foreign land of medical expertise desperately in search of an answer to my symptoms. For eight long months, I had been swept away by a tornado of puzzling pain into the medical specialty of gastroenterology. As much trust as I’d put in the wizards of medicine, as conscientiously as I’d sought answers from them to show me the way home to health, the man behind the curtain didn’t have the answers.

Now, after the fact, I’ve learned that the information my doctors needed for a differential diagnosis for a woman has been all but excluded from medical research until recently. According to Harvard Health Letter (Vol. 34, 9/09), medical research on heart disease has steadfastly overlooked women because maleness has been considered the top risk factor. There is precious little published, even for doctors, indicating that gastrointestinal distress is a possible much less definitive symptom of heart disease in women. Furthermore, according to the same Harvard Health Letter, even when diagnosed, a woman still must be “a little more aggressive in getting the care” she needs. I can attest that I passed from doctor to doctor in Los Angeles, seeing some of the best doctors in the country without arousing the slightest expression of urgency about what they were seeing and hearing.

Medically speaking, I had angina pectoris. The spasms radiating to my arms finally made sense. After the fact, everyone seemed to know that angina causes pain when the heart experiences competition for its oxygen from digestion. I can’t imagine what would’ve been required to alert anyone of my doctors to imminent danger while I was traveling the yellow brick road of doctor’s appointments. What more could I have done? I even had an attack during an appointment with the GI doctor. As it was, the diagnosis did not get made until after I nearly set off a heart attack during a routine stress echocardiogram. Who were these doctors seeing in their examination room?

Angina is dangerous. It typically sets in motion a quadruple by-pass. I was diagnosed on a Friday, went in for angioplasty on Monday. In an extraordinary procedure that is now so standard it takes your breath away, a surgeon weaved a little camera up through an artery in my groin to my heart and discovered a 90% blockage. Instantly, he inserted a stent. Saved my life. That’s the only way to say it. I was very very lucky. Any untoward event. Any slight fender bender. A heated argument. Sudden anxiety. Traumatic surprise event – to me, a member of my family or one of my friends. Any unexpected stress that would’ve demanded more than 10% flow to my heart and I’d be dead. It’s a humbling thought.

The first thing my friends say when they hear my story is “That’s great. You’re going to be fine now.” And then there’s a pause, a second take. The next thing they say is ‘Ohmigawd, 90% blockage, you could be dead. That’s weird. How could your doctors miss that?’

I know I tell a harrowing truth that’s hard to believe. No one, not one doctor, friend or family member ever mentioned the word ‘angina’ to me in eight months of suffering. Angina was not in anyone’s vocabulary. Angina was never mentioned until my cardiologist said the word to me after the stress echocardiogram, a test ordered because he’d thought he heard a slight murmur in my earlier exam. Maybe my heart was murmuring to him, telling us to check out my heart and discover the angina behind my digestive distress.

Further in the ‘believe it or not’ department and to my complete delight, I’ve experienced a complete erasure of digestive distress since my angioplasty. All of my digestive problems have cleared up. I can eat anything I want. Drink wine and indulge in desert. My choice for the first time in almost a year.

But more important. Missing the diagnosis was extremely dangerous. Angina is as close as you can come to having a heart attack without having one. Angina is a build-up of plague in an artery of the heart – called atherosclerosis – that interferes with blood flow. Angina attacks don’t kill heart muscle but angina is a ticking bomb, ready to set off a heart attack with just the right amount of pressure – from stress, exertion, excitement. I’ve run across an impressive anecdote about angina written in 1790. Before the tests of modern medicine, Dr. John Hunter showed himself to be an astute observer of his own angina pectoris when he wrote, “My life is in the hands of any rascal who chooses to annoy or tease me.” What he knew is that an imbalance between the metabolic demands of the heart and the adequacy of one’s coronary circulation to provide oxygen causes pain. I wish I had had his insight. I experienced surges of physical symptoms when I got angry, upset or frightened or ate too much but I had no inkling what it meant. Now I know, angina interferes with the flow of blood when we need it the most. Not during an ECG when the heart’s at rest. If my heart had needed more than 10% blood flow to deal with a sudden jolt of fear, heavy lifting or – as with the stress echo – running, I’d have had a heart attack.

Time to ask the big question. But before I do, I’d like to make a qualifying statement. Even though it’s clear to me, after the fact, that my doctor’s lack of insight endangered my life, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not blaming my doctors for missing my diagnosis. I’m grateful for their continued concern and, ultimately, thankful for to their expertise. As I said, they saved my life. But why didn’t the absence of a source for the relentless distress I was experiencing arouse a sense of urgency in my doctors?

Recent news headlines about being in charge of your own health care have taken on new meaning for me. Here are some thoughts to ponder, more frightening than they seem when one’s life is at stake.

1) It’s no secret that there’s a breakdown in the health system that doesn’t encourage communication between specialties. I don’t have statistics but, as in my case, it could be critical if lady luck isn’t on your side. My cardiologist believed I was in good hands for digestive distress and stayed his course until a stress echo that put me squarely in his ballpark. When my GI doctor tapped the bottom of his bag of tricks, he didn’t have a policy directive to pick up the phone and call my cardiologist even though he was seeing symptoms indicating a crossover. My internist, persistent and conscientious, is not a coordinator of services.

2) Medical training is not oriented to educate patients as partners in finding a diagnosis. Yet patients need help now. We need to know how to go beyond the walls of a particular specialty. Even my ability to ask in-depth relevant ‘doctor to doctor’ questions did not uncover my diagnosis. Not one of my doctors expressed the need for a stress echocardiogram. Though I’d seen the cardiologist initially in January, his response was routine. My internist, who I saw often, first in December and last in June, mentioned in passing “if you’d like to move your appointment (for the stress echo) up from August, you probably could.” I took that to mean the stress-echo was one more elimination test.

3) Where does the fabric of integrity underlying the medical field as a whole come into action? My GI doctor, with whom I was in continuous contact, agreed with my plan to finish up my cardiac workup after I got back from France. But he expressed no sense of urgency and no possible explanation of how my heart might be related to my digestive problems. Is that an appropriate end to his responsibility? Did he suspect a connection between digestion and the heart and not say so? Or if not, why not? If the patient is the lynch pin, the only one carrying information from specialty to specialty, they need education as much as elimination to find a diagnosis.

True, I didn’t fit the picture for Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). I had no markers, as they call the signs of CHD in medical circles. My numbers are good. I’m a happy 70 year old in a relationship, slim and in general good health. I stretch, walk, and workout daily. I’ve followed a fairly good diet for years. And I had my heart checked. I’d had two ECG’s. I’d had surgery, a high heart stressor. And I’d seen a cardiologist. I also felt fine when I wasn’t having an attack. No doctor objected to my taking a long trip out of the country even though we didn’t know what was causing my problem. No one explained I might need more than an ECG – or insist on a stress echocardiogram or a nuclear cardiogram, the tests that take pictures of your heart in action and when increased blood flow is needed – to determine whether my heart was okay. Even the idea that blood flow might be related to my spasms and/or digestive problems did not enter the equation until after the fact.

It seems more important than ever to see oneself as a detective hot on the trail of your own case. Or, a Dorothy who has pulled back the curtain and knows a doctor is just a person, not a god. It’s pretty much a medical fact these days that each doctor who sees you looks from their own particular specialty and that there’s little crossover from one specialty to another. As I heard one cardiologist put it “When you’re a hammer, everything you see is a nail”. Makes it not only good but necessary, I believe, to track your own clues. As if you were finding fingerprints, you can identify a pattern running through one appointment after another even when logic is missing and everyone is looking in the wrong direction. As hidden as it may be, a magical through line exists. On the road, a tin man without a heart, a scarecrow without a brain, a lion without courage all became more than when they started. Even though nothing made sense, I persisted, never lost my curiosity and, in the end, I found the answer. Like a murder mystery without the murder, my tale would make a captivating adaptation of the Wizard of Oz.

The moral of my story? Don’t hand over your ruby red shoes. Doctors are ordinary people. It has to make sense to you before it makes any sense at all. Put angina in your vocabulary alongside heart attack and stroke. No reason to wait and wonder if your heart might be the heart of the matter. Check it out. Don’t wait for your doctor to tell you it’s urgent. And don’t settle for a test that won’t give you the full picture of your heart at work. It’s when it has to go to work that your life depends on it.

I’ve lived my life citing a couple mantras. One from Bob Dylan — “Those not busy being born are busy dyin’.” Another from Yevgeny Yevtusheko — ‘Don’t die before you’re dead’. I’ve never had my life saved before. Now death is more than a metaphor. Perhaps old age is the age of miracles. Or at least the profound realization of life as miracle. Take it to heart. Literally.

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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , , , ,

The Female Trickster Hero in Contemporary Cinema

Presented by Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D.
for Aphrodite and Hermes Colloquium at the University of Alabama

Movies can be much more than entertainment. They can be modern day mythmakers activating new archetypal images in the culture. Together, sitting in the dark, we can change our lives and update ancient mythology. Mythic figures like Aphrodite and Hermes are not simply characters but psychic energies that come alive through the medium of film. For instance, when we go to the movies and identify with images of women appearing in film, we are not only observers but participants in the making of myths about the feminine sensibility we live by.

The feminine trickster hero in film is a female protagonist who plays her role in the liminal zone of creativity, going against the grain of convention to achieve a high purpose. She seduces her male consort and us – as her audience – with humor and feminine ingenuity into believing in her power and legitimacy as an enhancing figure in public life. I call her hero and not heroine because the designation of “hero” elevates her to a mythic status in our culture of one who makes a difference. As much as the hero’s journey of transformation is meant for women as well as men, it is still primarily envisioned in masculine form. Perhaps one day the feminine trickster will surprise us, changing the common meaning of “heroine” to be more than the main character in a story.

To my way of thinking, Aphrodite and Hermes have been vamping it up in the movies for the last hundred years, transforming the way we, as a culture, value what has traditionally been labeled “feminine”. The mythic beauty of Aphrodite, fascinating as both an individual character in film and in the nature of film itself, lures great numbers of people into movie theatres, seeming to be a radiance outside oneself. Then Hermes, mercurial to the core and a trickster completely at home in the liminal zone between self and other created by film, ignites everyone’s imagination. How talkative and expressive we feel as we walk out of the theatre infused by the light-footed Hermes teaming up with Aphrodite. Somehow, they’ve turned us around and turned us on to the beauty of the feminine that lies within.

In my presentation, I discuss and present clips from three award winning American movies – The African Queen, Marnie, and Erin Brockovich – showing women in the role of what I call the feminine trickster hero, changing the way we think and care about girls, women, and a feminine sensibility in everyday life.

Revisit Katharine Hepburn and see her as a trickster hero working her magic on Humphrey Bogart (and us) in The African Queen in 1951. As Rosie lures Charlie into believing they can actually blow up a German gun boat, his spirits rise against all odds during their treacherous journey. He gives up drinking, navigates to safety, and falls in love with Rosie. And we become convinced that feminine wiles deserve a great deal more credit than they usually get. But Rosie is a serious woman. She doesn’t just want love; she wants to save the world. What trickster’s slippery hand are we to believe is at work when the African Queen surfaces on its own, no one at the helm, and with its makeshift torpedo blows up the gun boat, releasing Rosie and Charlie from the hangman’s noose and setting them – and us – free to imagine a future in which the good guy wins?

Whether anticipating or participating – take your choice – in the creation of an unprecedented change of attitude toward the sexual abuse of girls that has been taking place in America, there’s Marnie, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film with a heroine of the same name. Marnie quite literally opens with Tippie Hedren bouncing a purse with a highly suggestive design on her hip, mesmerizing us into a story of how a young woman wounded by childhood trauma resorts to multiple identities to survive. Perhaps this is the feminine trickster hero at her best, awakening us to the significance of sexual abuse on girls and women. Marnie opened our eyes to a truth that was just coming of age. Today, the damaging effects on a young girl’s self-esteem and her ability to form healthy relationships seem obvious.

With eyes wide open, we celebrate a modern feminine trickster hero, Erin Brockovich, winning an Oscar in the hallmark year of 2000 as she turns the tables on a corporate Goliath. It’s hard to know where to put your attention, on the real woman or the actress. The big screen tells the story of a real woman’s groundbreaking accomplishment with America’s sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in the lead. Together, they pretty much bury the cultural stereotype of a beauty without brains, sending a clear message that women with stunning looks are not only bright and capable but awesome under pressure. It seems the heroine has crossed over. The Erin/Julia heroine who uses her cleavage to entice a male clerk into losing his good sense so she can gain access to Water and Power records could be the woman next door. We believe it. She parlays a single-minded determination into a seven-figure salary. And she furthers a lot of good causes while she’s at it. A woman using the power of sex appeal to get past a male gatekeeper may be as old as the hills but in 2000, the weapon’s legit. In film and real life, the feminine trickster hero has made her way to the new millennium.

Archetypes on the big screen come alive in society as audiences take them home. A feminine trickster hero like Rosie who steps forward and speaks up inspires achievement through risk-taking. One like Marnie whose pathological behavior is revealed as adaptive shakes loose old thinking. And Erin who honors a deep truth about feminine intent, hopefully furthering empathy in both men and women. When we watch a movie, identifying with a female protagonist and her dilemmas, the archetype is at work. As we’re enjoying the heroine, crying or laughing in the dark, we’re also taking her into our hearts and minds – and letting her change us. We feel smart, clever, and good. The next thing we know, she’s in our workplace, pulling the lever in our voting box, and making different choices down the street at the local store.

However, the feminine trickster hero faces an especially difficult task when she struts her stuff. Identifying with magical beings like Rosie, Marnie, or Erin who lure us into valuing the assertion of “feminine” values in public arenas arouses vulnerability as well as strength. While watching her, an audience feels an ambiguous fear – afraid for her and of her. She may be leading us down a wondrous path quite capable of inseminating new insights but we’re concerned that she may also be inviting trouble. She must counteract a knee-jerk reaction of fear when she steps out against convention. We worry that she’s going to get killed, reveal secrets best kept as secrets, or bring down house and home. Paradoxically, this is where her talents truly shine – in circumstances of ambiguity and complexity where a woman’s own life, and those of others that she loves may be in danger.

The feminine trickster hero aims high, often ignoring the disagreeable nature of uncharted territory. She envisions turning the tables one hundred and eighty degrees, making clear the absolute necessity, the terrible tragedy of excluding the wiles of the feminine in facing uncertainty. If she doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, she surely gives us the opportunity to make up the future as we go along.

  • The African Queen, Dir. John Huston; Perf. Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Fox, 1951
  • Marnie, Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock; Perf. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Universal, 1964
  • Erin Brockovich, Dir. Steven Soderbergh; Perf. Julia Roberts and Albert Finney. Universal, 2000
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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , ,

Sightings of a Global Feminine Hero

“What new feminine hero glimmers in the shadows of international filmmaking? Forget about the victim movies. Let’s take a look at the films bringing an empowered image of a multi-cultural female sensibility, prowess and purpose into play in the world. Definitely more than an action figure, a feminine hero does everything a hero was ever meant to do and does it with her eye on what furthers and excites regeneration, rejuvenation and redemption. She’s good, she’s bad, she takes sides, she doesn’t, she holds her ground, she yields, she entices, she looks away, she knows what she knows – and she wants you to know what you know as well. That’s it. There may be another world out there somewhere but, for the moment, life is here to be lived as fully as humanly possible – and it’s not always pretty. So new skills, new values and new visions are in order. Here are a few glimpses of a new feminine hero archetype emerging in well-liked films featuring women protagonists who come from around the world.”

 

CinemaShrink Says – “No one expects ‘The Divine One’ to come as a girl. Whale Rider could well be the Lion King for girls. It’s a lot more than cute, a far cry from the usual victimizing, sacrificing and idealizing of children who come female instead of male into this harsh world. Whale Rider makes the spiritual practical. It celebrates the power of an enlightened girl’s heart to change old ways of elders who have good intentions but an accumulation of far too much fear.” (New Zealand/Maori)

CinemaShrink Says – “In Bend It Like Beckham, a young East Indian woman living in London not only breaks with the traditions of her family to become a successful soccer player, she rescues her father’s dream, makes her mother proud and opens up new possibilities for her friends, family and culture against all odds.” (UK/India)

CinemaShrink Says – “If you didn’t get to see The Secret Ballot, be sure to rent this inspirational film about what a difference one very small and very ordinary woman can make. An Iranian woman makes her way around an isolated island collecting votes from people who never thought about voting, who view her carrying around a cardboard ballot box as an inappropriate activity for a female — and who get won over to her cause by her sheer persistence, her belief in herself and her caring. Awesome.” (Iran)

CinemaShrink Says – “There’s so much of the feminine in Dirty Pretty Things that it goes beyond a single protagonist. The presence of the feminine floats like a good fairy throughout, sprinkling magic dust on the ugliest side of human beings, the seamiest side of London. Somehow – and never has ‘somehow’ held so much promise – hope emerges from a mean game of chess played by ordinary people against a dominant predatory evil. A young woman inspires a man to some fine moves of compassion, intelligence and impeccable ethics to checkmate greed, small mindedness and arrogant indifference.” (UK)

CinemaShrink Says – “Amelie, sprite incarnate? This may be an ‘everywoman’s’ film. In ‘everywoman’ lives a small girl who looks on the bright side of a sorely lacking childhood, dreams of rescuing a depressed father and, in real life, sets clue after clue for a boyfriend to find her. She makes new meaning out of lost, spiking bleak situations with an instinctive ingenuity.” (France)

CinemaShrink Says – “Lola chases after the fraction of a second that changes destiny in Run Lola Run. She may not be faster than a racing bullet but she is so swift that she can reshape time, flip it back on itself and rewind the story until she gets it right. Sounds like a new skill to me. She’s pals with lady luck, gives dad an awful shock, gets the guy – and, and – she walks away with a big bag of money!” (Germany)

CinemaShrink Says – “Colorful, smart and looking right through you with each of her world class paintings and a life to match, Fridademands respect. Sometimes she gets it. Sometimes she doesn’t. But in every instance, she digs deep for a personal, individual and grand emotional response that defines her humanity — and never apologizes. Frida Kahlo – real woman, artist and cinematic phenomenon – commands respect. And while this film comes from the United States, its protagonist is thoroughly Mexican.” (USA/Mexico)

CinemaShrink Says – “Almodovar sticks it in your ear with Talk to Her and makes a fine point. Perhaps it’s not so unusual that two women – even if they’re in a coma – should provoke a friendship between men. Neither man ever ‘talks to her’ but they do begin to talk to each other. Two men locked into silence, shame and a questioning adherence to traditions of what it means to be a real man, come together when they find themselves both loving endangered women. It’s that feminine hero in the closet at work again.” (Spain)

CinemaShrink Says – “It’s rare enough to see a woman in a mid-life crisis portrayed in film, even more rare to see her solve her dilemma by diving deep into her inner world and coming up with a solution that works in the outer world. In Swimming Pool, a crime fiction writer turns her considerable visionary skills to killing off a depression, a fake lover, an old self, a dead end career — and coming up a winner.” (France)

CinemaShrink Says – “Y Tu Mama Tambien challenges the mores of Latino machismo, opening eyes to a different kind of love and lust. It turns endings – end of adolescence, end of innocence and end of a life – into something fun and profound. Two young studs get more than they bargain for when they invite a slightly older young woman along on a joy ride to a hidden beach for the weekend. They find themselves lit by fiery passion and sobered by her touch. She’s the sea that binds forever, flows everlasting and contains all secrets. Well, of course, she’s a girl.” (Mexico)

CinemaShrink Says – “Australian Aborigine are famous for their dreamtime walkabouts, hundred mile treks in the outback without any destination but home. So, when three young Aborigine girls rebel against the idiocy of a British plan to ethnically cleanse them by taking them away from their families and sequestering them in a boarding school, they simply walk away. They follow a Rabbit Proof Fence, defying rules meant to separate them from their rightful destiny. It doesn’t spoil the thrill of following their escape to know they live to be lovely old – very old – women.” (Australia)

CinemaShrink Says – “On the cutting edge, Oasis features a highly unlikely romantic lead, an isolated young woman twisted with cerebral palsy, who inspires a man who lacks common sense or book smarts to the kind of love that heals a family. If you ever wondered what real love looks like, this film reverses every cliché. It’s not the pretty pictures but the depth of character that matters. (South Korea)

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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , ,

Animal Rights

“In The Piano, as Ada sought Baine’s help to return by horseback for her beloved piano left abandoned by her husband, Stewart, on an isolated beach, the camera hesitates for a moment on the eye of Baine’s horse. What vision is being sought of the danger that’s brewing as Ada breaks with convention? Why do we believe animals can see what we cannot, or will not, see? What wisdom lies behind their eyes?”

At the end of the IMAX movie, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees, Goodall says if she had one wish left unfulfilled from her life work with the chimpanzees, it’s to look out from their eyes, see what they see, feel what they feel. What secret vision might she be seeking behind the look she gets from a chimpanzee?

Barry Lopez suggests an answer in his Field Notes* when he writes, “My one salvation, a gift I can’t reason through, has been the unceasing kindness of animals. Once, when I was truly lost, when the Grey Spider Hill and the Black Sparrow Hills were entirely confused in a labyrinth of memory, I saw a small coyote sitting between two creosote bushes just a few yards away. She was eyeing me quizzically, whistling me up with that look. I followed behind her without question, into country that eventually made sense to me, or which I eventually remembered.”

What look passed between coyote and man that day to show him the way home?

We cannot be sure whether we project the wisdom we find in an animal’s eye or whether the wisdom comes on its own but an eye to eye connection between human and animal often creates an alliance of mysterious strength and renewal. Babies know it, chimpanzees know it and especially an endangered animal knows it. It’s a natural, unconscious tendency on the part of humans to see an answer to a desperate need, wild desire or sacred dream in an animal’s eye. An animal’s eye, perhaps, is the ultimate mirror of the wisdom that has brought us this far.

My friend, poet and author Deena Metzger, had an opportunity to have a brief look into the eye of a great bull elephant in Africa when he approached her transport truck curling his raised trunk with clear determination to defend his turf and family from the mechanical intruder. In her book, Entering Ghost River, she wrote about having a few minutes with him, eye to eye, as he came within an elephant trunk’s distance of her. He gave her long enough to ask a question from deep within her mind. What wisdom for an alliance of peace in a world torn by terror, famine and atrocity could he give her? As if a pact were struck, the great bull elephant, his friends and family moved on into the valley along the river. So did Deena’s truck with her friends and family. I’d like to think Deena and the elephant cleared more of a path that day for all of us, one opened by ‘the look’ Barry Lopez followed when he was lost in the canyon. Whether the world itself makes way or we remember our way, ‘the look’ is there if we take a moment to notice it.

In the following films, there are some markers showing that path of creative alliance marked by ‘the look’ from an animal. Films often bring their audiences eye to eye with animals, giving us a gift of being up close and personal long enough to ask a question. Watch for the moment. And ask your question. And tell me the answer you receive by emailing jane@cinemashrink.com.

Horse Whisperer
Directed by
Novel by Nick Evans II
Performances by Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas

“I don’t help people with horses. I help horses with people.” Tom Booker (Robert Redford) says. He might well have said, “I help horses help people. When the horse in Horse Whisperer gets crushed by a Mack truck as he rears in a mighty attempt to protect his young rider, he is left with more than bodily wounds. He is terrified to reconnect with another human being. This 20th century catastrophic collision between machine and horse is a powerful metaphor for the effect of machine on humans that has left so many people feeling alone, homeless and terrified. However, the fear beneath loneliness is usually well hidden beneath the busy lives of modern families – like the one in this film – coping with city life. As Pilgrim, the horse in Horse Whisperer, progresses in his healing with a man who lives close to the earth and near to his soul, the spirit of family is renewed. They find a home they’ve never known with each other and, for the moment, terror is pushed back.

CinemaShrink Asks, “What does Pilgrim need? What does his family need? What does we all need?

Her Response, “A renewal of trust.”

Gorillas of the Mist
Directed By Michael Apted
Written by Dian Fossey, Harold T.P. Hayes (article)
Performances by Sigourney Weaver, Bryan Brown, Julie Harris, Iain Cuthbertson

Fortunately, the best part of Gorillas of the Mist are the scenes of Dian Fossey with the mountain gorillas. She rolls on the ground, squats in the bushes and grunts realistically as she imitates their behavior, making her way into their midst. Perhaps because we don’t get as attached to Dian Fossey as we do to her favorite gorilla, Digit, her murder does not shock us as deeply as his. But, perhaps, we see more death in his than hers. It takes your breath away for this beloved gorilla who becomes our friend (as well as hers) to be crudely decapitated, hands and head stolen by poachers for sale as trophies. Of course, the desperate plight of the mountain gorillas simply mirrors the desperation of people in central Africa. What an awful choice to have to make, kill a mountain gorilla for its trophy value or let your child die of starvation.

CinemaShrink Asks, “What are the mountain gorillas dreaming? What are African children dreaming? What are we all dreaming of?

Her Response, “A safe home.”

Misfits
Directed By John Huston
Screenplay by Arthur Miller
Performances by Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter

Marilyn’s getting a divorce in Reno. “You can’t make me sorry for you any more”, she says on the steps of the courthouse when her husband asks for a second chance.

Eli Wallach’s lost his wife to childbirth and Marilyn asks, “She’s dead because you didn’t have a spare tire?”

Thelma Ritter reminds Marilyn, “Dear girl, you’ve gotta stop thinking you can change things.”

But Marilyn persists, “We’re all dying aren’t we. We’re not teaching each other what we really know, are we?” She dances with the men on her lovely toes but leaves them to dance alone with a tree.

When Clark says he wants to get her home all in one pretty piece, Marilyn asks, “Would you have a spare tire”?

Clark puts the moves on Marilyn without knowing she’s not kidding. He wants respect for being a man but she wants respect for her feelings. That’s a problem. And it all comes out after they pick up Montgomery Clift, a young rodeo rider who can’t even buy his mama a birthday present. Poverty of man meets poverty of horse meets poverty of the spirit.

Cowboy meets Marilyn, an endangered species who can take a bet and keep on ticking but can’t see a man or beast take a beating. One woman, two cowboys and a rodeo rider with a father who was killed by a hunter and became a step-son to a man who wanted to offer him wages on his own father’s ranch. After all, Clift asks, who do you depend on?

All three men look to Marilyn who looks into the eyes of animals looking for an answer that can make yesterday today. Clark has no tomorrow to offer. Only Marilyn has an idea and that’s no idea at all. She can only feel what she feels, looking out from her eyes at men willing to ride a bucking bronco to their death, drink to oblivion and hang on to failing egos for dear life.

Clark is a man who thinks he just gets a little angry, not understanding a woman’s fear that a man will hate what he just, one moment before, found irresistibly desirable. And that’s the story of the Misfits.

Once upon a time, the mustangs were the pride and joy of the very men who now send them to the glue factory. Dogs were wild too, once upon a time. They, like women, are still afraid they’re going to end up dead when a man becomes a stranger. Nothing can live unless something dies; that’s a manly story. A woman’s story of a love that prevents death may seem silly next to it but she wants the same respect a man wants.

When she does her thing, he says he takes his hat off to her. But things look different in the morning. And Clark is back to manly business, rounding up mustangs for sale as pet food pretending that he, himself, is not following the same route. What comes into his sights – a stallion, four mares and a colt — is unmistakably the family he’s never had. And as the men encumber the stallion with spare tires, the metaphor of a woman who died for lack of a spare tire is not far behind.

When Marilyn pleads for the mustangs, a triad of heroism – Clark, Clift and Wallach – falls before her. Clark will give the mustangs to her but not if she gets what she wants, only if she gets what he wants to give her. Wallach will give them to her but only if she gives him what he wants. Clift sets the mustangs loose because he’s a man with nothing to lose, nothing to gain. Marilyn stands screaming in the desert, wanting what a man can’t give her but what he takes from her. Then Clark wrestles the stallion, a battle between man and beast that cannot be settled in any desert of discontent.

Clark’s final manly words? “I don’t want anyone making up my mind for me. I got to find another way to feel alive, that’s all.”

And then he offers Marilyn a ride back to Reno. They pick up the dog. The mustangs run free. And, Clark promises that the big star in the sky will take them right home. He’s right, right?

CinemaShrink Asks, “What do wild mustangs need? What do men need? What do we all need?

Her Response, “Respect”.

This month New Cinema Lab may be searching in the eyes of animals on film for their “common sense politics”. Yet CinemaShrink found a real life story of an animal on the verge of extinction that ran smack into human respect, had an amazing return and inspired a renewal of family spirit. Perhaps it should be a movie?

Once upon a time, the duck hunters in the swamps of Louisiana could look upon wild ducks as an endless target for sport, endless food upon the table. Then duck hunters began to use semi-automatic rifles, killing an unprecedented number of ducks in a single season. Soon the skies above the swamps were empty. Preservationists and game wardens were helpless to stop the slaughter. No amount of game regulation could keep up with the hunting spree. Duck hunters would simply pay the fine, do the time and return to hunting with an even greater sense of entitlement.

It wasn’t until a dedicated duck hunter realized if the slaughter were to continue, there would be no ducks for his children to hunt that things began to change. He began to advocate a quota on ducks so the sport of duck hunting could be kept alive for coming generations. With a little help from his friends and local game wardens, he visited schools, community organizations and corporate headquarters to talk about quotas and the joys of duck hunting. Within a few seasons, the ducks were thriving.

In this case, it wasn’t laws, good intentions or spiritual ideals that made the difference. It was one duck hunter’s desire to keep duck hunting as a sport for his children that connected self-regulation and preservation. To this man’s mind, the sport of duck hunting was essential to a healthy up-bringing of his children. Well, then, it was logical. The ducks as well as his children needed his protection. Tony Soprano sought a shrink when he realized that his life of crime could not protect his family — and the realization launched one of the most successful tv shows of all time when a family of ducks landed in his swimming pool giving him ‘the look’.

Animal wisdom or good common sense?

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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , ,

AIDS Movies

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what motion pictures about AIDS are worth. Film has not simply changed a cultural attitude toward AIDS as a disease, preventing it from becoming closeted like tuberculosis was. Films about AIDS have broken through stereotypes, boundaries and emotional barriers that feed alienation and breed disaster between family members, friends and communities – not to mention nations. As World AIDS Day brings attention to the heroism required to bring unpleasant truths out into the open where health can triumph, take another look at films that have paid attention — and made a difference. What was once shrouded in darkness and prejudice has now begun to inspire kindness, courage and humility in people who thought it was only an affliction of ‘the other’.”

What films have made what kind of difference since 1980 – a scant twenty-two years – since the NY Times first reported AIDS as “gay cancer”?

The FirstParting Glances, 1986, dated as it may be, assumes what later had to be proven — gays are normal and worthwhile. It’s a milestone film, an up close and personal story of small scope where a freelance writer in Manhattan has a friend dying of AIDS and a boyfriend leaving for a job in Africa.

The BestLongtime Companion, 1990, dashes the stereotype of gay men as promiscuous against the wall, elevating their ‘manly man’ traits of caring, concern and fierce loyalty in a crisis to a well-deserved, long ignored, heroic status. It dramatizes a change in consciousness arguably equivalent to the atom bomb; no longer can even the first sexual encounter of any young person be innocent, free-spirited without fear of something more devastating than pregnancy or herpes.

The Oscar BestPhiladelphia, 1993. No doubt about it. Tom Hanks opened the hearts of the American people to AIDS. Hanks represents the apple of any parental eye, gift to corporate glory and the perfect honey of a guy to his honey who, in this film, happens to be gay. Watching lovable Tom Hanks, shut out by mean-spirited bigots, succumb to the horrors of AIDS brought the issue home to everyone. It could be you. What the film lacks in veracity of true experience by those who’ve ‘been there’, glossing over and idealizing realities, it makes up by being honorably memorable, embossed in the American psyche.

The Most RivetingAnd The Band Played On, 1993, reveals the terrifying fear, laced with every kind of resistance, that government agencies, gay groups and scientists alike felt while bringing the truth about AIDS to the American public. It documents the long, arduous trail of the Center for Disease Control’s initial discovery in Africa and San Francisco in the mid-seventies to its medical clarity of AIDS as a virus in the eighties. The information is enlightening, the search is intense and the performances – with special cameos by actors who know how to tap soul – remain fresh. It’s message of caring, fighting for the good of country, is still relevant to health issues now, approaching 2003, as we discover that half the population with AIDS are women.

The Most Life AffirmingBefore Night Falls, 2000, opens with a naked child playing with a dirty bottle in an empty dirt hole that serves as his playpen in Cuba, 1943. Reynaldo Arenas was born, as he says in the voice over “in absolute poverty and absolute freedom”. He managed, somehow, to publish twenty books and win international acclaim in spite of being scorned, hunted and imprisoned as artist and homosexual before dying in New York City of AIDS. A magical triumph of spirit, Arenas came to the U.S. in the Mariel boat lift with a friend who was not gay, bringing us a deeper, broader understanding of what freedom truly means.

The Most Like TV SeriesJeffrey, 1995, inverts the typical, almost infamous stereotype of the heterosexual man who cannot commit and tells it like it is. He may say he’s afraid to commit to someone he may lose (in this case, to AIDS) but, just like a man of any persuasion, his real problem is that he doesn’t have a clue how to connect emotionally so control is his only solace. Comedic as the film is, it never loses sight of the tragedy of AIDS — Patrick Stewart’s performance may be worth the whole movie unless you count his partner’s after-death message “Hate AIDS, Jeffrey, not life.”

The WackiestThe Cockettes, 2002. Has America arrived? It’s hard to imagine the antics of this group being received anywhere outside its Haight Ashbury origins, interesting to anyone but a groupie of sorts. But The Cockettes, half of whom died of AIDS have caught a national airstream, playing in movie art houses in major big cities all across the country. With little interest in anything but their ‘art’, The Cockettestreats its film audience like its old time theatre audience; they go for the laugh, performing life to the hilt with and without clothes, talent or restraint. The message? Life is short. Have a great time!

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03/01/01 Other Writing # , , , , , ,

Do On-Line Games Create Isolation or Community?

Published January 20, 2001

You can write a book in six months and it may take someone a week to read it. You can make a movie in a year and it takes someone two hours to see it. On the other hand, when you create an on-line computer game, thousands of people spend mega-hours, seven days a week, and may continue playing it for two years. One of the oldest games, Everquest, is still around and continues to be played by thousands of people. Is this an addiction or a modern window of opportunity? Many people are asking. But do on-line games further the alienation of already isolated people or educate curious people in a safe venue with an unprecedented forum of creative communication.

I’m not sure I have all the language to describe the interactive entertainment that comes under the name of “On-line Games” but I’m learning and you will be too. On-line computer games aren’t new. They’ve been around since it’s been possible to go on-line. What’s new is how many people are playing them and how many are playing at the same time. Community. That’s the catchword. Players want to be a part of a community. Makers want to create community. Community is the opportunity to make yourself up, change yourself at will and interact with others who are doing the same in the same world of reality you’ve chosen. The makers of the games will tell you that individual choices are limited but when you’re playing the game, you don’t know that and you don’t feel that. As a matter of fact, if players figure out how to affect the structure of a game, they wreck it for themselves and for others. They’re called hackers. But here comes community again. The makers look at the hackers as players and plunge right in to figure out how to make a game that includes them.

For instance, one game attracted killer players. They were more interested in how to “kill” other players than they were at playing the game. Big problem. Any new player who logged on got annihilated before they ever got started. Bad feelings. Bad for business. Another game attracted hackers who learned how to go behind the scenes, rack up the maximum scores and lord it over their friends. Everyone wanted to learn how to beat the game rather than play it. Bad feelings. Bad for business. The creators of each game took different tracks. The first group took a social approach and created a reality within the game where “killer players” could play their killing game and another where it was impossible to kill anyone. They also took a social approach in one reality structure where players could sanction killer players or gang up against them and give them handicaps. The second group took a different approach and broke their game into several different structures so that playing the game or hacking it became a choice. But you get the gist of it. The makers have to be interactive with the players to survive – and thrive.

And then there are the creative players who create realities for other players who aren’t into the “kill and be killed mentality”. They create a space (website) for players to come in, choose an avatar personality and interact with other players who are also appearing as a selected avatar. Wondering what an avatar is? An avatar is an artificial likeness of a character that usually has some archetypal quality – a hero, an animal or historical figure. The player fills out their identity and comes into the game as this avatar. This can be on a low level of chat in which you come in as a cat and have conversation with dogs and monkeys. Or it could be a high level of gamesmanship in which a central avatar creates an opportunity for any and all participating avatars to engage in a particular reality – grief group meeting around the loss of a loved one, a romantic tryst a la courtly love, a circus adventure auditioning as a trapeze artist, etceteras. A player logs on, takes on an avatar persona, begins to make up an identity, joins the story at hand and finds out where it takes him or her. Identity morphs according to one’s choices. The story has a broad structure but one’s choices determine the direction and the depth of the pursuit. And you can quit at any time. It seems that most people don’t. They become part of the community and stick around for hours and hours, days and days, months and months – as well as years and years.

One begins to wonder. Does this alienate or facilitate relationships in real life? Of course, one also wonders, where does on-live and on-line begin and end? And, of course, there’s no answer. For one person, an exploration of self as an avatar may offer just the freeing up experience that furthers a relationship that has been problematic. For another, it may be an alternative that is more captivating. It is definitely time consuming. To make or create alternative realities for other people takes a major amount of time. To log on and engage as one or many avatars sucks up time like soda through a straw. But there hasn’t been much research done on what people are getting out of their experience. Some people would just watch a soap opera or randomly search the web if they weren’t playing; others take the game they’re playing and make more of the game they’re playing in real life. The latter group turns a birthday party into a survival game, writes up dialog for a cartoon series as a homework assignment and starts thinking about what games would be good for hospitalized invalids or corporate executives on a training weekend. And therein lies the dilemma. We’re back to basics. How do we raise children and educate grown-ups to view the Internet as just another tool, not a life in itself?

 

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