Saturday, January 30, 2016

Doris Kyburz

Doris Kyburz
I am writing this for those of you who knew our friend Doris Kyburz.  Doris died Thursday night and we are dealing with the shock of the loss.

With all the rains hitting the Bay Area, Doris had slipped and fallen on her deck and thought she had sprained her ankle.  She called the doctor but couldn’t get an appointment till the next day.  When she went in at 3 p.m. the next day, she got the ankle x-rayed and was sent home to wait yet another day for the results.  At some point, though, it turned out there was a break and a blood clot developed, which traveled to her heart.  She died in the ambulance on the way to Richmond hospital.

My office at Keio University was four doors down from the German Department, and Doris and I met back in the early 90s because nobody who ever saw Doris in those days missed an opportunity to get to know her.  In a world where learning German involved becoming dutiful and focused on which prepositions took the Dative and which the Accusative, Doris had her classes singing and dancing and acting out Grimm’s fairy tales.  I spotted her as a natural born teacher and we became friends immediately.

One of my favorite moments of all time was when she entered the faculty dining room, her hair dyed flaming red, covered head to toe in black leather.  The only way she could have garnered more attention would have been to ride her Harley Davidson onto the balcony.  I suggested it and she said she’d give it some serious consideration for her next entrance.

Taku and I had just met and while many of my friends were riding me about robbing the cradle, Doris decided we made a cute couple and became our most frequent dinner guest.  At some point the strict environment of the language department made her seek greener pastures and she decided she’d become a masseuse.  Taku and I had the benefit of being her first guinea pigs.  Next thing we knew she was taking photos of us in our underwear.  God knows what the neighbors would have thought who might have gotten wind of this.  Doris was single-mindedly concerned with demonstrating over time that she was not merely concerned with tight muscles.  She wanted to help us stand taller and straighter and live more healthy lives.

Because whatever Doris did she did earnestly, this new passion took her first to Massachusetts, then to Hawaii to learn from the best how to pummel strangers on a massage table.  By the end of the 90s Taku had moved to California and Doris joined us at some point and decided California was the place for her.  The passion for “whole body health” went the way of “German through laughter” and she found her way into the age of the internet.  Specifically designing software for toys for the German market.  She joined our chosen family by making a connection with Dov and Cathy Rosenfeld that has lasted to this day when she was still a regular at seders and Thanksgiving and other occasions.  Dov and Cathy like to tell the story about how when the daughter they were going to adopt was being born and they needed to run to the hospital to be there for her birth, it was Doris they called in the middle of the night to be with their other daughter.  “We need you, now,” Dov said.  “How soon?” Doris asked.  “Three centimeters,” they answered.  Doris was there in ten minutes.

Doris wasn’t much of a housekeeper.  Her kitchen was filled with screeching birds and her living room the playground for Moya, a huge German Shepherd and for Calhoun, the dog known as the crazy dog.  I can’t tell you how my heart aches as I imagine these wonderful creatures (not the birds – I never cared for the birds) sitting and waiting for her to return.  This image says all there is to say about the cruelty of death and the horror of loss.

At the moment we are working with Doris’s family in Switzerland as they face both the loss and the need to pick up the pieces that an unprepared-for death involves.

It’s too soon to be writing this.  The shock has not worn off.

But I write because I just don’t know what else to do.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Not just a pretty face

Ernst, if you could have seen the future!
Sometime in the 1860s, most likely, somewhere in Lower Saxony, in Northern Germany, a young man named Ernst met a young girl named Sophie and they started a family.  Not far away, a young man named Heinrich met a young girl named Johanne and did the same. Ernst and Sophie Gundelach’s son Paul married Heinrich and Johanne R├╝hmann’s daughter, also named Johanne. A few years after their son, also named Paul, was born and after they had adopted their niece, Clara, they boarded the good ship Bayern and made their way from Hamburg to New York City.  Warren Harding had just died and Coolidge was president, Oklahoma had just passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, that famous Hollywood sign on the hills outside L.A. had just been inaugurated, Walt and Roy Disney had founded the Walt Disney company ten days earlier, and Charlton Heston was born two days before that.  Paul and Johanne Gundelach of Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, would soon come to be known far and wide as Mutti and Vati, proprieters of the Germania Singing Society of Torrington, Connecticut.  

It was Johanne’s sister Bertha who gave birth to my mother in 1915, right in the middle of World War I.  Bertha’s husband disappeared and because raising a new born as a single mother in war-torn Germany was more than she could handle, she gave my mother to her sister Johanne to raise. Johanne and Paul Gundelach were living on a farm in Braunschweig and had food to eat.  They had a month-old son of their own at the time, also named Paul (the family obviously has a propensity for recycling names), and in time, in America, they would have two more children, Carl and Rose.  And so it was that Paul, Carl and Rose, my mother’s biological cousins, became her siblings.  Once in America, they made it official and she took the name Gundelach.

Carl married Concettina Mollica and they had two red-haired children, one of whom, back in the 60s, thought Timothy Leary was peachy keen.   That was my cousin Jimmy.  Jimmy’s first marriage ended in divorce, but not before they had a son they named Sean.  Sean married Joanna (no h this time) and had two children, Austin and Lexa.

Lexa and I had lunch today at the Mt. Everest Nepalese Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue.  She did not know that by law she was my first cousin, twice removed and by blood my second cousin, twice removed, but we enjoyed the Tikka Masala anyway.

Her great great great grandfather, Ernst Gundelach, who gave both her and my mother his family name, would no doubt have commented, had he lived long enough to meet her, on how pretty she was.  I would have had to remind him that she is a student at the University of California at Berkeley, and that suggests she is more than just a pretty face.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Nice Indian Boy - A Review

Keshav (Erik Scilley) and Naveen (Aditya Thakur)
in A Nice Indian Boy
I had a delightful encounter with globalization the other night at the Cubberley Auditorium in Palo Alto (California).  Friends had invited me to join them for an amateur theatrical production of a play called A Nice Indian Boy.  I went mostly to share an evening with my friends, but came away really taken with the performance, both for its quality and for its historical significance in the history of gay liberation.

I’ll name the friends.  They were Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani.  I met Arvind thirty some years ago now at the Gay and Lesbian Center at Stanford and his partner Ashok soon after at the very next Gay Pride Parade.  What stands out in my memory from that time was the uphill climb these two gay activists faced in raising consciousness among Indians and other South Asians about some very serious homophobia in their communities.  Arvind and a friend, Suvir Das, co-founded a gay South Asian non-profit LGBT support organization which they named Trikone (after the pink triangle, the Nazi marker of gays in the concentration camps; trikon = triangle in a number of South Asian languages) and he and Ashok ran the organization for years before they retired. Trikone is still going strong.

It’s still an uphill climb.  As in Uganda and other former British colonies, institutionalized homophobia in India may be traced in large part to the religious values of Victorian England. Prior to colonialization, Hindu culture had never criminalized homosexuality, but Britain’s anti-sodomy law of 1860 went into effect only two years after India’s incorporation into the Empire. Ironically, historically clueless modern-day Indian politicians have been known to describe homosexual behavior as a form of corruption.  Even India's Health Minister has described it as a "Western disease."  Despite the presence of around 2.5 million gay people in India (this figure reflects not the total, but only the number of self-declared gays), the vast majority of Indians still regard it as undesirable. 

Homophobia, we have learned the hard way, cannot be fought on the political level alone, important as recent court cases and legislative actions have been to the cause of gay civil rights.  It has to be fought on the cultural level as well.  It’s a question of hearts and minds, and of reaching members of the national community one by one and making them understand just what homophobia looks like up close.

Although it has a broad appeal, A Nice Indian Boy is an all-Indian production set in and addressed to the Indian community which does this brilliantly.  The local-born writer, Madhuri Shekar, still only in her twenties, has already written three plays.  This one, her first effort, was written for her MFA dissertation at USC, and the program states it has received a number of awards.  It is also a first attempt at directing a comic drama (and second directorial effort) for Ranjita Chakravarty.  Bringing it to the stage is the work of the Bay Area South Asian Theatre Company EnActe, its founder, Vinita Belani,  and a number of members of the Indian community on the production staff.

The play centers on the domestic difficulties faced by a Silicon Valley Indian immigrant couple with a gay son who wants them to accept his lover, the “Nice Indian Boy” who turns out to be Caucasian, just at the time their “well-married” daughter informs them she is getting a divorce.  What makes the play work, and keeps it from falling into slapstick or soap-opera territory, is the remarkable skill of writer Madhuri Shekar in getting each of the five characters just right.  She hits all the buttons, love marriages vs. arranged marriages, sex and gender stereotypes, racial prejudice within the Indian community.  The case for a more positive approach to homosexuality works because the struggle is depicted as just another one of many challenges the family needs to overcome, and because in the end the love parents and their children feel for each other can be channeled into mutual support and the strengthening of family bonds.  

Not all polemical efforts such as this succeed on stage or in other media.  It’s easy to get preachy.  But this one has a loving touch and the comedy is used not as a spin-off but as a skillful means for releasing tension.  The parts all come together, the lights, the sets, the costumes – even the Bollywood song and dance at the end – just in case you’d forgotten this was all about things Indian.

I began this by telling you I found the play a "delightful experience."  I might also have framed it as a case of future shock, given the changes it suggests in the Bay Area Indian community I first met thirty years ago, which changes I take to be a result of that community's interaction with the gay-friendly Bay Area.  But those are empirical issues best left to social scientists.   The bottom line, I think, ought to be to point out that one can do politically responsible theater while still giving the audience a great night out.

photo credit:  Photo is by Prabhakar Subrahmanyam and appeared in The Almanac in an article written by Karla Kane of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Southern Baptist Sissies - A Review

Southern Baptist Sissies. To any gay kid, male or female, who grew up in Protestant America anytime before the last ten or fifteen years in most of the country, or even much more recently in the Bible Belt, this movie is a stunner.  I'm referring to the 2013 filmed version of the 2000 stage play, but I imagine it applies to earlier versions as well.

There’s good religion, not so good religion, really toxic religion, and then there’s the Southern Baptist fundamentalist type of religion.  Pure poison, if you’re gay.

To people whose lives are fused with religion, who think about it, talk about it all day every day, who go around praising Jesus and thanking him for every meal and every business success, religion is not simply a guiding light.  It can become a pathology.

What playwright and filmmaker Del Shores has done in Southern Baptist Sissies is remarkable.  He has captured the power of the church to inculcate self-loathing.  To take young psyches and twist them and turn them with the kind of mind-control it takes to make a suicide bomber.  The Taliban turn the kids outward toward political enemies.  The Southern Baptists turn them inward on themselves.  Suicide among gay teens remains epidemic and the killing agent, the impulse to hang yourself, jump from a bridge or in front of a train, is toxic religion.

The Southern Baptists are not the only ones to teach self-hatred.  Clericalist Catholics do a fine job of it.  So do the Mormons,  the Muslims and the arch-conservative branches of other religious faiths.  The damage is limited, fortunately, because most kids exposed to this kind of indoctrination grow up in pluralistic societies.  They see alternatives, and with luck, find mentors and friends who help them discover a way to get outside the mindset of their church-centered lives and see them from a more objective perspective.  When they do, they sometimes spend their lives raging at the injustice they come to realize was visited upon them.  As one psychotherapist told me once, when I proudly announced that I had shed the religion of my youth, “You’ve smashed the statue, but you’re still struggling with the mold it came in.”

That’s still true to this day.  That fact came home to me when, watching Southern Baptist Sissies on Netflix the other night, a line popped off the screen at me.  “This is my church,” the actor said.  “This is where we were taught to hate ourselves.”

It felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. From that point on, I was willing to dismiss what others have labeled the film's limitations: its excessive emotionality, its staginess, its length.  I saw in the four young boys trying to play the cards dealt to them as gay kids in a soul-killing environment a story that needed to be told.  Finally, I said, somebody has managed to let these motherfuckers have it.  The Southern Baptists have produced in their young people the antidote to their poison.  The kids have woken up.  They’re telling their stories.  And if you have even the slightest sympathy for what they have gone through, you’ll agree with me they’ve done a bang-up job of it.  I say "they."  I should give more credit to the writer/creator, Del Shores, but I don't want to slight the splendid performances.

I’m over a decade behind in singing the praises of this piece.  If you’re closer to the gay theater circuit you may have seen Southern Baptist Sissies as a play as early as 2000 when it was first produced on stage.  And if you follow the gay film festivals, you might have seen the film version a couple years ago already.  It has been out since November, 2013.  For this stick-at-home, Southern Baptist Sissies crossed my radar only just now with its release on Netflix, for which I am grateful.

What you are watching is a filmed version of a stage performance, reworked somewhat to allow close-ups and other shots not possible with a stage version.  It’s a bit jarring, at first, but you quickly get into the characters and forget the staging.  Two different things happen simultaneously.  You get the four distinct stories of the young boys, with all the pain and grief of their struggles to maintain balance against the onslaught of self-hate messages.  This is offset by a kind of Greek chorus pair of drunks played by Leslie Jordan, whom you may remember from Will and Grace, and by Dale Dickey.  The two are drinking and smoking away their declining years and ought to be too tired and worn-out to keep going except that they are simply too hilarious to fade away.

If you get the DVD, don’t miss the extras.  It is hard conveying to my Japanese life-partner what it was like to be raised in a religious mindset.  He just can’t get his mind around what he considers a form of madness.  Even more difficult for him is my insistence that I am still moved by the music.  I was a church organist in my teens and regularly played for hymn-sings in the “Church in the Wildwood” in the summertime. The music in Southern Baptist Sissies is glorious if you have a similar memory of happy hymn-singers in years gone by.  That sticks with you well after religion has left the premises.

“Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” can still rattle the nervous system, no matter the conviction that your brush with death maybe ought to have cured you of such addictions. In fact, before watching the movie, I’d recommend going straight to the Special Features section and clicking on Levi Kreis singing “Pass Me Not” to get you into the right headspace before watching the film.

One last thing, which I ought perhaps to leave out as a spoiler, but I feel it’s only fair to warn those who, like me, would love to see the story end as the lead characters slough off their religious chains and shout, “I’m free!”  They don’t.  The come to embrace what they see as the love of God.  They simply insist it cannot be found in the current mindset of the Southern Baptist Church.

Really powerful stuff, even if it’s not entirely your cup of tea.

 photo credit