Olympic Outing Outrage: Shame on Nico Hines

Way back when during my waning days at UCLA, not long after I came out, the Daily Bruin did something unconscionable. Buried in the paper appeared a story about the campus police arresting some guys cruising each other in a men’s room. And the paper printed their names. I was mortified. And livid.

With youthful, righteous indignation, I marched to Kerckhoff Hall and raised hell in the Daily Bruin’s office. I found the reporter who wrote the story and called him on it. “This type of shit ruins lives!” I said. Even freshly out of the closet, I knew of this history. In large cities and small towns, countless gay and bisexual men lived in fear of discovery. In a bar, in a bathhouse, in a park, anywhere, police could arrest them and the papers could print their names. They printed their names as a form of public shaming, a latter day scarlet lettering. The men often lost their jobs and families. Some had to move out of town. Some ended up taking their own lives. Society purposely destroyed these men, because of their same-sex attractions.

And before going on an indignant tangent and claiming that “well, no one can have sex in public” just stop and have a seat. I had two friends admit that they had sex in classrooms and even a phone booth on campus. Straight folks having sex in public get shooed away, maybe a ticket. They don’t get their names published in the paper for the purposes of a public shaming.

That the Bruin would do this in 1989 dumbfounded me. Why? The reporter stubbornly insisted that they just reported crimes that happen, and that’s that. His lack of social consciousness was appalling, but not uncommon at that time. We had a president who ignored AIDS and only begrudgingly admitted its existence. We had anti-sodomy laws on the books in many states. We had nothing resembling domestic partnerships, much less marriage. We had a very homophobic and queer ignorant society. On October 11, 1987, hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ folks and their straight allies marched in Washington, DC, for equality and freedom and the mainstream press said NOTHING. I only knew about it because I knew folks who went. That event helped to propel me out of the closet.

Overall, invisibility still overtook visibility, in ways big and small.

It’s 2016 now. We don’t live in that world anymore. We don’t live in a perfect world, to be sure. Folks getting married Sunday can still lose their jobs or rented housing Monday, because many states lack employment and housing protections for LGBTQ folks. But visibility today is lightyears ahead from the late 80s.

So in this enlightened world that we live in, why did the Daily Beast feel the need to publish a story about a straight journalist pretending to be gay, picking up athletes via Grindr, then writing about his experience? Why, indeed.

The writer, Nico Hines, thought it would be funny (HA HA!) to explore the horniness of athletes competing during the Olympic games in Rio. He largely chose to write about those looking for same sex contact, claiming that he received better pickings with Grindr. (HA HA!) Of course, he immediately inoculated himself by stating that he has a wife and child. (HA HA!)

Two problems. I find the very premise of his story patronizing and insulting. Queers are not zoo animals to be looked at and mocked. And hyper-healthy teens and 20-somethings have large sex drives. Big deal. It’s a non-story. Move on.

Most horrifically, however, the story as it originally appeared outed people. Hines gave enough basic info about the athletes he encountered — or more accurately entrapped — that, as Mark Joseph Stern at Slate notes, “anyone with basic Google skills [could] uncover their identities.” Some of these athletes come from highly oppressive counties that treat homosexuality as a crime. Hines’s article literally put their lives in danger. They could end up homeless after family rejection. They could lose their jobs, their homes, or even their lives in acts of state-sponsored sadism.

First Daily Beast defended the story and condensed it by removing parts that could identify any of the athletes. Eventually, they took it down altogether and apologized. Nico Hines, meanwhile, has yet to say anything about the controversy.

Hines’s pathetic piece mimicked the outing/shaming newspaper articles of old. It matters not that he wrote it with supposed humorous intent. No one is laughing. His article could have already done lasting damage. Why couldn’t he have instead written about the plight of LGBTQ athletes from oppressive countries? Such a story, done properly, could have been moving and informative. Instead, he went for cheap thrills. #Fail

As with the Daily Bruin story of many years ago, I took this story and its consequences very personally. Because I belong to the tribe of folks who first explored their sexuality in public restrooms. I lived a horrible life where I had strong same-sex attractions, but denied having them, even with myself. Like many who live or have lived such a life, I sought refuge in the anonymity of tearooms. When I did have sex, I immediately felt shame, disgust, and self-loathing. But while living in shame and hiding, at least I was not outed. I found peace with myself and came out in my own sweet time. Everyone should have that right.

Had Hines written his piece 30 years ago, there would have been outrage, but it would have been ignored by the larger, non-queer community. That this article received the quick, severe, and universal backlash it deserved heartens me. But it never ever should have existed in the first place.

This is Johnny Hodges

Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra had many great soloists. Indeed, it was a band of great soloists. But one stood a notch above them all, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Jazz writer Scott Yanow states that Hodges possessed “the most beautiful tone ever heard in jazz.” He formed his style early in his career and never varied far from it. Like a fine wine or good whiskey, it just became more smooth and mellow as the years went by.

Johnny Hodges

Johnny Hodges

Johnny Hodges was born on July 25, 1906 (some sources say 1907), in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He grew up not far from another future Ellingtonian, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney. His mother played piano and he first started on that instrument. As a teen, he took up soprano sax. Early on he met one of his idols, soprano sax legend Sidney Bechet. Though influenced by Bechet, Hodges formed his style on his own. After making a name for himself in the Boston area, he moved in New York, in 1924.

He joined the Ellington Orchestra in 1928. By this point he played both alto and soprano sax, though he would ultimately give up on soprano by the 1940s.

How does one describe Johnny Hodges’ playing style? Adjectives include luscious, seductive, salacious, smooth, cool, mellow, hopping, and nonpareil. He has a wide vibrato and distinctive way of gliding between notes. His embouchure is as identifiable as a singer’s voice. He’s so unique that I can usually tell if it’s Hodges playing within a few notes. Though he has many imitators, including tenor sax master Ben Webster, who stated plainly that Hodges was one of his main inspirations.

Duke Ellington famously wrote pieces to highlight the strengths of his musicians. He had a field day with Johnny Hodges. “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Never No Lament” (later “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), and “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” are but a few of the Ellington works written for Hodges. Duke’s son Mercer Ellington contributed the blues stomper “Things Ain’t the Way They Used To Be” in 1942.

A first hint of Hodges’s distinctive style appears in the 1931 recording “Creole Rhapsody.” Starting around 1:54, he solos for a few bars. Note his relaxed delivery as he articulates his phrases, like he’s telling a story. His phrasing plays with time, floats over it, never its slave. The line he plays around 2:51 would become his signature, the long, gliding upward note starting just behind the beat, cut off with a short phrase.

One way Ellington kept his cats happy was to give them a chance to lead small band recordings. In these settings, the band leader became just the “piano player.” During one such session, Johnny Hodges debuted “Jeep’s Blues.” “Jeep” was one of his nicknames — the other common one was “Rabbit.” If you want to hear a variety of “Jeep’s Blues” recordings, listen to Michael Burman on KCSM Jazz 91 at 6:00 Monday mornings when he hosts “A Morning Cup of Jazz.” He always starts his program with this blues flag waiver. My favorite version by far is the one from the legendary 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. Like. Butter.

Composure and arranger Billy Strayhorn joined the Ellington Orchestra in 1939. He had a very close relationship with Hodges and immediately began composing feature pieces for him. One of the first was “Day Dream.” Others include “Star-Crossed Lovers,” “Isfahan,” and “Blood Count.” The last, from 1967, was Strayhorn’s final composition. Hodges played it as a eulogy for his long time friend and comrade.

Despite the liberty he enjoyed within the band, and the occasion to lead his own sessions, Hodges grew restless to go out on his own. This finally happened in 1951. Big Bands were dying. Tastes were changing. He felt he had a shot at leading a small combo based on R & B. He scored an early success with “Castle Rock,” which ironically does not feature his playing. At one point he employed a young John Coltrane, though the future master did not have a lot of solo space in Hodges’s group. Ultimately, leading a band proved too difficult. Unlike Ellington, Hodges did not have a warm, ingratiating stage presence. Indeed, he was famous for looking disinterested while blowing out gorgeous melodies. He rejoined the Ellington Orchestra in late 1955, just in time to be part of the Newport Jazz Festival, and Duke’s career revival, the following year.

After returning to the fold, Hodges was permitted to take approved “vacations” from the band, sometimes for months at a time, to pursue other work. This included fulfilling his recording contract with Verve Records. Though he often brought on Ellington colleagues to these sessions — Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Ray Nance (trumpet, cornet), Lawrence Brown (trombone) — he also played with others. These included younger musicians just getting started like guitarist Grant Green. And he also formed a close relationship with Hammond B-3 organist Wild Bill Davis. They made several recordings together, including the album Blue Hodges. Wild Bill would later join the Ellington Orchestra in the late 60s.

Though a runner in his youth — possibly the origin of his “Rabbit” nickname — by the late 1960s, Johnny Hodges developed heart problems. Smoking and many long years living on the road no doubt took their toll. Duke Ellington began hiring back up altoists to fill-in as chorus players in case Hodges was too ill to make performances. Though of course no one could replace him as a soloist. (Tenor Norris Turney probably came closest.)

He last toured with the Ellington Orchestra in Europe in the fall of 1969. A couple of the performances recorded in England became the seminal Ellington album The 70th Birthday Concert. Hodges received the spotlight on three tunes and shared the spotlight with Wild Bill Davis on a couple of others. “Black Butterfly” appeared on this tour. A relic from the 1930s, Ellington revamped it and turned it into a showcase for Hodges. Here is a video from their performance of this tune in Berlin. The version that appears on the Birthday Concert CD is among my favorite recordings ever.

Johnny Hodges recorded his final album in early 1970, Three Shades of Blue, made with Leon Thomas and Oliver Nelson. Shortly thereafter, he recorded for the last time with the Ellington Orchestra, The New Orleans Suite. Hodges features prominently on the first track “Blues for New Orleans.” Hard swinging, fluid, soulful, it is pure Johnny Hodges. I like the false ending, after which Johnny comes back to blow some more, as if to say “I ain’t done just yet!”

He was to perform on the piece “Portrait of Sidney Bechet.” Duke Ellington sat in his living room, trying to figure out how to convince Hodges to take his soprano sax out of retirement for the piece when he received a phone call from Cue Hodges, Johnny’s wife. The great sax master died while at the dentist’s office from a heart attack, May 11, 1970.

Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes – this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.
-from Duke Ellington’s Eulogy

Saxophonist Norris Turney composed a piece dedicated to Hodges called “Checkered Hat.” It appears on the Togo Brava Suite album from 1971. He does a masterful job of imitating Hodges’s distinctive style.

Johnny Hodges was a blues man through and through. Most of his solo work consists of blues, some stompers, some swingers, some more laid-back. But his work on ballads is unparalleled. It can literally bring tears to the eyes. Some shortsighted critics, like Ellington biographer Stanley Dance, have commented that while Hodges played ballads beautifully, that it was unfortunate that he is mainly known for this work. Baseless, machismo rubbish. Dance is the same ninny that thought that Billy Strayhorn’s music was too “mawkish.”

Fortunately, posterity wins. Such thoughts exist only in dated biographies. They do not live in the minds of those like myself who worship at the alter of Johnny Hodges and revisit his vast library of work again and again.

Run Screaming to the Right? I Hope Not

Lots of screaming occurred during the Republican National Convention this past week. The Never Trump folks had a series of hissy fits as they tried in vain to derail the inevitable. Hampered by shenanigans during the Rules Committee, overruled on the floor of the convention by the chair, a group of folks saw no other option but to leave the floor mad and screaming. Though presumably they returned eventually.

Ted Cruz proved that he still doesn’t like Trump by refusing to endorse him during his prime time speech. And the convention booed him for his insolence.

Hillary Clinton induced the most screaming. Lock her up! Shoot her up! Faster, pussycat! Kill! Kill! It was ugly. The whole spectacle was an ugly turn in American politics.

So now we have Trump, officially, at last. One of the oddest turns at this oddest of conventions, where screaming and hatred ruled the day, was the sudden kumbaya gestures made towards the LGBTQ community. Peter Thiel, billionaire and destroyer of Gawker, proudly proclaimed himself gay, a Republican, and an American when he spoke at the convention. And folks cheered him on. Later, during his long-ass acceptance speech, Trump talked about supporting all Americans even LGBTQ onesAnd he thanked folks for applauding him for bring up this much-maligned population. His sudden embrace of the LGBTQ community, rather than reassured me, creeped me out. I felt like Draco after Voldemort hugged him.

But don’t let the superficial overtures fool you. Trump is still Trump. Build the wall. Keep out the Muslims. Diss our allies. Bullhorn bigotry at its most bombastic. It’s what he didn’t say — how he would do any of the things he planned — that scares me the most.

Right, we’re stuck with him as a candidate. And learned folks from Michael Moore to Nate Silver say he has a good chance of winning. So what will Hillary Clinton and the Democrats do? Here’s what I hope they do not do: run screaming to the right. It’s a old story. When the shit hits the fan, when everyone points and yells LIBERAL! LIBERAL! — when it looks like the odds are stacked 1001 against, what happens? Democrats run screaming to the right.

Numerous examples exist. One that sticks to mind, because it pissed me off so much at the time, is the case of former Senator Blanche Lincoln. Ms. Lincoln represented Arkansas in the US Senate from 1999 to 2011. During the health care debate, she came out against the “public option,” that part of the Affordable Care Act that would have created a government-run health care option that folks could choose on the healthcare exchanges. It would have competed head-to-head against corporate healthcare companies, something conservatives didn’t like. After all, they only like competition when the monied class wins. Since Ms. Lincoln saw herself in a tough reelection battle in 2010, she thought it best to run screaming to the right.

Lots of Democrats ran screaming to the right in 2010. And we saw what happened. Democrats lost the House and barely held on to the Senate. They would go on to lose the Senate in 2014. The main casualty in 2010 were Blue Dog, conservative Democrats such as Ms. Lincoln. I’ve always said why vote for an imitation Republican when you can vote for the real thing. Apparently, a lot of other people felt the same way. Blue Dogs are a rare breed these days.

Will Hillary Clinton run screaming to the right? One wouldn’t think she would have to, considering who she’s running against. But the temptation always seems to be there for Democrats. Bill Clinton did rightist bullshit prior to his 1996 reelection bid, such as sign the stupid Defense of Marriage Act. Even though he was a popular incumbent that most felt was assured reelection, fear, apparently, tempted him to run right, albeit without too much screaming.

Secretary Clinton faces greater temptations since she is trying to get her foot in the door. Some worry that her VP pick, Senator Tim Kaine, is too safe a choice, too middle-of-the-road. A step to the right? Not necessarily. Patrick Caldwell at Mother Jones called Kaine a “reliable, quiet progressive.” Kaine personally opposes abortion, but is pro-choice, like Vice President Biden. He also supported the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, at least until Clinton tapped him to be her running mate. Based on his record, then, I wouldn’t call him a lefty firebrand, but I wouldn’t label him a Blanche Lincoln-style Blue Dog either.

The Democratic National Convention will put the party and their candidate in the spotlight. I do not expect to see the same level of screaming vitriol that Trump put on last week. But will they run screaming to the right? I hope not.


I started writing a very different post the other night about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I wrote a draft about the need for police departments nationwide to better police themselves, to root out bad officers, and to hire better officers to begin with so that problems do not occur.

And then Dallas happened. What an awful week.

Just prior to the shooting at the Dallas Black Lives Matter demonstration, where 5 police officers lost their lives, all had been well. The large crowd moved peacefully through the streets. And Dallas police officers marched with them. Some even took selfies with protesters.

Dallas’s Police Chief David Brown, an African American in office since 2010, has worked hard to make his department accountable to all the people of Dallas. Early in his tenure, a police shooting scandal took place: an unarmed man was shot to death after a foot chase. Chief Brown responded by initiating reforms on the use of deadly force. He has also overseen community policing reforms and created a website that posts information about police involved shootings, one of the first in the nation. DPD will also begin using body cameras over the next few years.

Most astoundingly, Chief Brown has also fired officers involved in abusive situations and publicly shamed them on Facebook and Twitter. In one case, he praised an officer for outing a bad one, and called on his force not to retaliate against the one who “broke” the blue wall of silence. This type of behavior does not usually go over well with the rank and file. Indeed, just last spring, at least one of the police unions for DPD called for Chief Brown to resign after he proposed staffing changes that many officers disagreed with. Chief Brown refused to resign, but eventually backed down on the staffing changes.

Generally, however, the Dallas Police Department has been a model of reform. Even during the tragedy of the shooting, calmer heads prevailed. The department initially identified the wrong man, Mr. Mark Hughes, as a “person of interest.” They did so because folks had seen Mr. Hughes wearing a rifle strapped across his chest. (Texas is an open carry state.) However, once Mr. Hughes learned of the shooting, he quickly turned in his gun to an officer. The officer calmly took it and exchanged information with Mr. Hughes. No incident arose.

More continues to come out about the real killer, Micah Xavier Johnson. He was an army reservist who had served in Afghanistan. Early reports did not confirm if he had had special weapons training. But Army Lieutenant Colonel Major Michael Waltz, a White House aide, reviewed the video of the shooting and believes that Johnson had been “well trained” in “close-quarters battle” and urban combat. Johnson also posted rambling rants against white people on Facebook, but no one thought him predisposed to violence.

He was a ticking time bomb, however. He had stockpiles of weapons and bomb-making equipment. So once again, a month after Orlando, we have to question ourselves as a society about the easy access to guns.

The tragic killings of Messrs. Sterling and Castile brought the conversation about police violence against unarmed African Americans back to the mainstream of American political dialogue. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton declared quickly after Mr. Castile’s death, “Would this have happened if those passengers would have been white? I don’t think it would have.” A black female police officer from Cleveland vented her frustrations at the killings in a very moving video posted on Facebook. She did not hide her anger, disgust, or hurt about the racism she has seen in her profession. It looked like the conversation, though deeply painful, was getting somewhere.

Johnson’s obscene, senseless murders have interrupted the conversation. Shills of hate like Matt Drudge and former Congressman Joe Walsh have dutifully reignited the “us versus them” battle lines. They stoke the false narrative that the Black Lives Matter movement wants to see all police dead. Nothing could be further from the truth. BLM is about ending violence, not perpetuating it. It’s about justice, not revenge. Bad cops should face criminal charges for wrongdoing, not murder.

We can’t let the conversation end. If it does and “us versus them” prevails, more lives will be lost.

A Night of Jazz with Daria and the Beatles

My earliest Beatles memory: Mom dancing in the kitchen and singing along with “Hello Goodbye.” I peered at her through the bars of my crib. I was probably 3 or 4 years old. My parents, my three older brothers, and I (no sister, yet) still lived at my maternal grandmother’s house. Having been born a few months before Help was released, I obviously did not live to see much of the Beatles era in person, so I cling to my one memory dating back to that time as a badge of honor. I entered my heavy-duty Beatles phase in high school.

Beatles music has long been fertile ground for jazz artists. Much of their considerable catalogue has become standards. Artists with talent, sensitivity, and a taste for exploration can find new meaning and beauty in these often played, familiar tunes.

Strawberry Fields ForeverBay Area based jazz singer Daria is one such artist. Her latest album celebrates the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Strawberry Fields Forever — Songs by the Beatles. To support the album, she has given several CD release concerts. I attended one such performance at The Sound Room in Oakland, on Saturday, June 18, 2016. Performing with her were Jonathan Alford on piano, Dan Feiszli on bass, and Deszon Claiborne on drums. Messrs. Alford and Claiborne also appear on the CD.

The band launched into the title track, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a beautiful, hypnotic interpretation that enhanced the song’s existentialism. I also enjoyed their take on “Come Together,” which oozed with seduction. Daria’s voice molded and shaped the tunes, giving them a personal touch, while remaining recognizable and accessible. Her band amply supported her explorations. I particularly liked bassist Feiszli. Beyond his excellent chops, perhaps I took to him because he played a 5-string electric, like my late brother Robert did.

In addition to her excellent musicianship, Daria has a warm stage presence and playfully teased the audience with Beatles trivia questions. I pleased myself by answering nearly all of them correctly, proving that reading the same Beatles biographies over and over in high school did indeed pay off.

Daria performed several tracks from the CD, including “Fool on the Hill,” “If I Fell,” and “Fixing a Hole,” an underrated McCartney masterpiece in my opinion. In the “Bird” medley, she wove “Blackbird” with “Icarus” by Ralph Towner and the Henderson/Dixon standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” And I enjoyed her playful version of “Drive My Car,” which does not appear on the CD.

Another tune not on the CD, but beautifully performed, was “My Valentine.” A recent work by Sir Paul McCartney, appearing on his Kisses on the Bottom album from 2012, this piece proves that Sir Paul can still write very movingly. Daria opined that he may have written it with his late wife Linda in mind. Thus, longing and poignant memories informed her performance.

Another performance I really enjoyed was John Lennon’s ode to his mother, “Julia.” A delicate tune, it received a slight bossa nova tinge, as did a few other songs. By contrast, the band could swing hard. And in fact, Daria invited the audience to snap along with “Helter Skelter.”

During my mad Beatles phase in high school, I gravitated towards George Harrison. Even then I liked underdogs, I suppose. Harrisongs, however, do not appear on the CD. But on the CD version of “Strawberry Fields,” Daria’s husband Joe Cohen plays sitar, perhaps as a nod to George. (Full disclosure: Joe and I are old friends, having both studied tabla with Ustad Zakir Hussain.) I would love to hear her interpretations of “Taxman” or “Here Comes the Sun,” or more obscure tunes like “Don’t Bother Me,” Harrison’s first Beatles song. Maybe a follow up CD will explore the Quiet Beatle.

Daria closed the show with the CD’s final track, “She’s Going Home,” an answer to the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” Its melody reflects late-era Beatles, with just a hint of Wings. And the lyrics speak of wisdom gained after many years of youthful explorations. She’s finally going home the long way round.

The CD features guitar, saxes, trumpet, trombone, and the aforementioned sitar on the various tracks. I highly recommend it. But I enjoyed the intimacy of the quartet that performed at the Sound Room, a cozy, relaxed space with good energy. If Daria performs near you, do go check her out.

Mom – 20 years later

A megathrust earthquake struck on June 22, 1996. Mom died. So powerful an event, I knew it had happened without solid confirmation.

The nurses kindly said that there had been no change in my mother’s condition, though the pauses in their speech told me what they did not want to say. Later that morning, I cried all during breakfast, unable to finish my blueberry pancakes.

I have a friend who lost his mother when he was only 12. Only recently has he opened up about how her early passing has affected him. Revealing. Another friend, a Twitter acquaintance, wrote about losing their mother when they were nine. A haunting piece. The deepest grief: how to cope with losing someone one barely got a chance to know. That’s a megathrust of a different magnitude. My mom lost her own father when she was 14. I’m sure that haunted her all of her life. She loved her father.

No, I was 31 when mom died, so we had a chance to develop a maturing relationship. I told myself that at least we parted on good terms, with not much left unsaid. And yet, and yet.

She knew her time was near. A few weeks before the end, she asked me if I had had a good childhood. I assured her that I had. I told her that I was about to meet my partner’s family for the first time next month. She “I’m sure that will be a great journey for you.” Mentally, I paused, even as I kept talking. She saw herself not making that journey with me, I thought.

The hardest part was seeing how her death affected my dad. The megathrust struck him hardest. He lost the greatest part of himself that day. Brother Robert had already called to tell me the news when my father did the same some hours later. I was playing tabla at the time, trying to steady my nerves. My other half was booking a flight for me. Dad cried during the whole short phone call. I know, I said, I’m flying home as soon as I can. I love you too, Dad.

If that day had been a Doctor Who episode, I would have entitled it “The Road to Monterey.” As it happened, my other half and I were in Monterey that weekend for a conference he was attending. I don’t think I’ve been to Monterey since.

Amazingly, I found a cab to take me to the house in South Central from LAX. Dumb luck. Fate. Whatever. The street looked unfamiliar. The house still and eerie. I had a drama queen moment. I saw her empty wheelchair in the corner of the living room and a ran towards it, crying. I hugged the empty chair while my family watched, tearfully.

Just a month earlier, I rode the motorcycle down to visit during Memorial Day weekend. The last waltz. Mom had been in the hospital a few weeks earlier, after the first heart attack. She had recovered, though was weaker. I measured her strength by the tightness of her embrace. Lovingly solid, but definitely weaker. When I rode up to in the front yard, she was sitting in the doorway, in her wheelchair. Waiting for me.

There are songs from that period that I can no longer listen to. Nor will I say what they are. I still haven’t played them, all these years later. Megathrusts have lots of aftershocks.

Dad came out, a smile on his face. He was happy that to see us. My three brothers, my sis-in-law, me. My sister wasn’t there. She had been out at an event, hours away. An early adopter to cellphones, she nonetheless was out of range. I had a secret dread. What if something happened to her? What if we lost both of our strong women that same accursed weekend. I felt great relief when she finally got home.

The next day, Sunday, we all gathered again and talked. What do we do. How do we proceed. My dad seemed lost, and genuinely confused. When he asked questions, he looked at us for answers. I felt his eyes waiting for me to give a reply. A shift of duties. I became the adult. That was hard. My parents did not belong to any church, so we had no church service. We divided up the roles. Robert gave the benediction. Louis the eulogy. I mc’ed. I think that’s how it went. I have the program buried somewhere. One day, I may dig it out.

Dad made only one request for the service. He wanted the Might Russell Players, me, my sister Tania, and brothers Louis & Robert, to perform “You Are So Beautiful.” We obliged.

I think I went into a form a shock. I heard voices that night while trying to sleep. One brother, then the other, then someone else. It sounded like they were in the room with me, though I was alone, lights out, the radio quietly playing classical music. I couldn’t hear my mother’s voice, or even remember exactly what it sounded like, and that scared the shit out of me.

The megathrust took on various forms in the weeks and months afterwards. As I have written before, classical music had to go for a while. In came jazz. After the initial crying spells, I really couldn’t let myself go again for months. I tried, feeling that I needed the release, but it just wouldn’t happen. Until October. I got my long-distance phone bill and it was noticeably smaller. Mom and I talked a lot on the phone, sometimes several times a day. Seeing the smaller bill told me that she was really gone. Forever. And I stayed home from work and cried. After a few hours, I went out a bought a copy of Mary Poppins to watch. I had wanted to get my usual depression go-to film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but the store was out of copies.

It’s hard for others to fathom what a megathrust can do to you. Someone I worked for as an assistant said to me that she knew was I was in grief, but that I really wasn’t there for her. She needed me to be more focused on the work. What I had failed to do for her, she never said, or maybe I just don’t remember. Regardless, my anxiety about being good employee clashed with my anxiety over losing Mom. Another aftershock. We hadn’t worked together for a very long time. She may have been having a bad day. We all have bad days. I lost a beloved relative, and my body and mind were still in adjustment. Such things take their own time, not anyone else’s. I’m glad we no longer work together.

Aftershocks fade after a while. The ground settles. Other events happen to fill the mind and occupy the time. But they still occur, sometimes at the oddest provocations. Brahms can still be a problem. And then there’s the other, whom I still haven’t played. Maybe I will again, one day.

But now Dad is gone and Robert is gone. So much loss. Too many ghosts. When my dad died, I said that his death was sad — he was just shy of 80 and had lived the last 10 years of his life in grief over his wife — but my mother’s death was a tragedy. She was only 67 and had lived too many years in pain from lupus and other ailments. Robert’s death came back full circle to tragedy again. It was a different type of megathrust. I’m still feeling my way around it, two years later.

But 20 years has not erased the intensity of the Original Megathrust. Like an actual earthquake, it caused upheaval, cracks, uncertainty, panic, loss, loss, loss, loss, and more loss. Since 1996, I’ve measured my life in events that happened before Mom died and after. She met my husband, but she never read the final version of my book. She never heard Shirley Bassey’s “History Repeating” no matter how many times I think we discussed it. She was there for Rodney King, but missed 9/11. Oh, 9/11 would have destroyed her. My faith in humanity came from her, and such a cold, murderous act would have undone her. The hatred and islamophobia that followed would have crushed her further still.

Ella Fitzgerald died a week before Mom did. Finally, towards the end of her own life, she admitted that she was jealous of Ella, and that’s why she claimed not to like her. She finally came around, in the end. Heaven knows why she was jealous — she had a gorgeous voice. But these things happen. Because human.

I heard a voice in my head that day, while walking around a park. It was my mom’s voice. She said “And while my time is nearly done, the best of times are yet to come.” I head it twice, like an incantation, and then it stopped.

Our last phone call, two days before the end, had a pregnant pause. I still wonder what we both said to each other during that moment, before we said goodbye, then hung up.

Mom, 1965, around the time I was born.

Louise McVey Russell, 1965, around the time I was born.


Homophobia Kills – The Lesson of the Pulse Massacre

The other day, I listened to Kate Bush in the car on my commute to and from work, specifically tracks from The Whole Story. This album has a special place in my heart and history. I first heard it, and listened to it obsessively, when I came out 28 years ago. So I will forever connect it to that time in my life when doors opened, eyes widened, perspectives grew, and just so much in my life began to make a great deal more sense.

Many at the Pulse in Orlando, Florida were at a similar point in their lives, their doors opening, their eyes widening, their perspectives growing. A madman ended all that. And now nothing makes sense at all, for their love ones, for the LGBTQ community, for decent citizens everywhere. Nothing can explain the hurt, pain, panic, anguish, or frightful rage that wells inside as a result of this meaningless, senseless attack.

The Pulse had been a safe space for its mostly Latina/o denizens. Folks found themselves and each other in a supportive atmosphere of sweaty dance floors and hot music. It sounded a lot like the Catch One, the legendary black gay club in LA, where the children went after coming out into the life.

It angers me beyond words that so sacred a space has been violated. I applaud the Pulse’s resolve to reopen.

Who did this? Some facts about Omar Mateen have come out quickly. He was born in New York City. He was a domestic abuser who beat his first wife so severely that her family staged an intervention to rescue her. With her family’s support, she divorced the man. His former coworkers say that he had an explosive temper, that he flew off at the slightest provocation. And apparently, the FBI had suspicions about him and investigated him twice. Yet this man was able to legally purchase guns, including a high-powered assault rifle. What does that say about us, as a society, that we allow someone like that to buy firearms?

Later more information emerged. He apparently went to the Pulse several times, as a patron. On a couple of visits, he got thrown out for rowdy behavior. And he cruised guys with dating apps. In other words, he lived in the cyber-closet. These creepy details now paint a picture of a man in conflict with himself. Just before starting his rampage, he called 9-1-1 to say that he belonged to ISIS. The terrorist group quickly claimed him as their one of their own.

Bullshit. The Orlando Killer was at best an accidental jihadist. He had no other agenda but hatred, self-hatred. His last-minute attachment to ISIS was the act of a soulless person searching for identity. Rather than face the truth about his sexuality, he chose the identity of a mass murderer, a demonstration of his lack of character. The murderer’s young victims, some just coming out and discovering themselves, had a greater sense of self than he ever would. So often those with the greatest self-awareness (Harvey Milk) are murdered by those who have no self-awareness at all (Dan White).

Idiots that say that homophobia had nothing to do with the killings are themselves blinded by their own homophobia. Homophobia had everything to do with this attack, all the more so because this guy hated himself for being queer.

The most violent homophobes are always the self-haters. Roy Cohn went to his grave swearing that he wasn’t gay (he was) and that he didn’t have AIDS (he did). His self-hatred led him to destroy many lives though his fanatical persecution of gays in civil and military service. Both Cohn and the Orlando Killer destroyed themselves with their self-hatred. It just pisses me off, though, that the killer took so many with him.

So there are two important lessons from this tragedy. First, homophobia kills. Homophobia causes the derange to harass, bash, and kill LGBTQ people. Society enforces homophobia by saying nothing when the harassing, bashing, and killing happens. Silence still equals death. Do not compound this vile man’s acts by denying its true character. The Orlando Killer hated himself and could only reconcile his hatred through violence. Proper intervention somewhere in his life may have steered him towards a different path. Judging from the misguided statements made by his father, he clearly did not have a lot of good examples growing up.

The second lesson is one I’ve talked about before, one that may have talked about for years. Guns. How the fuck was this man able to get a goddamn assault rifle? Well, for one, the assault rifle ban expired in 2004. Thanks, George W. Bush. Second, the common sense gun laws, which even a majority of gun owners support, have yet to materialize. Once again, the blood of the dead stain the hands of the NRA and the cowardly politicians who do their bidding.

We can learn these lessons, or keep ignoring them and allow people to die. If we chose the latter path, then I don’t want to hear anyone saying “you have my prayers and sympathy” the next time something horrific like this happens. Because the words will ring hollow. I’m with Samantha Bee.

Love does not win unless we start loving each other enough to fix our fucking problems.
From “Full Frontal w/Samantha Bee,” Monday, June 13, 2016

Amen, Samantha, amen.

Jazz on the Hill, 2016

{Editor’s note: This piece in celebration of music was conceived and written before the horrific events of Saturday night, June 11, in Orlando, Florida. the gar spot conveys condolences to everyone affected by this unspeakable tragedy.}

I have a cold. I hate getting late spring/early summer colds. The weather invites outdoor explorations, but the body’s energy flags. I don’t get them every year, but whenever I do, it sucks. However, in what I call a bit of good planning on my part, I caught the cold this week, not last. This meant that last weekend I got to start summer properly by attending the annual KCSM – Jazz 91 Jazz on the Hill concert at the College of San Mateo. It’s an event I hate to miss.

In the library quad in the middle of campus, on gently rolling grassy hills, between buildings, a fountain, and tasteful hardscape, jazz fans gather from far and wide with blankets, lawn chairs, picnics, umbrellas, and sunscreen. Erected in front of the library, and Jazz 91’s basement headquarters, is the main stage. As we bask in the weather, sunny or windy, warm or chilly, we immerse ourselves in the dulcet tones of live jazz.

Jazz on the Hill has a long, storied history in the Bay Area. For whatever reason (general lameness, I expect) I never attended back in the day. Then came a pause before KCSM brought it back a few years ago. It’s been a hit ever since. Vendors came and sold trinkets. Food folks brought good eats — though this year I missed the food trucks. I particularly liked the vendor who did quilt work and had created an amazing reproduction of the legendary “Great Day in Harlem” photo.

Great Day in Harlem Quilt

But the main attraction, of course, is the music. And as a special gift, for the first time, KCSM broadcasted the concert live over the air. So as I drove over the San Mateo Bridge, I could listen to the early acts, in this case the SFJazz High School All-Stars Combo. In keeping with Bay Area tradition, these young masters could swing. There are so many wonderful jazz programs for budding musicians, and there is so much talent to be had. We here are spoiled and fortunate to have such art at our fingertips. After their set, announcers Sonny Buxton and Dick Conte marveled at how these young players demonstrated their jazz history by casually referencing past masters as their main inspiration. Jazz lives, indeed.

I arrived in time to hear Etienne Charles: Creole Soul take the stage. I heard Sonny and Dick interview Etienne while driving over. His newest is called the San Jose Suite. The music draws its inspiration from the peoples who inhabit the cities of San Jose in Costa Rica, Northern California, as well as Etienne’s native Trinidad. He explores the history of African and First Nation peoples in North America, their struggles with colonialism, the blending of these cultures, and how the cultures manifest in today’s world. It was the sort of mellow, thoughtful, provocative music I find particularly appealing and I fell into the groove quickly. One piece stood out, “Gold Rush 2.0,” a representation of Silicon Valley and the high tech era. It’s in 7/4, which tickled and delighted my tabla-trained ears. I told Etienne as much when I bought a copy of the CD, and he signed it thus:

San Jose Suite

Kinda cool. (And I highly recommend this remarkable CD, which also features spoken word by sports sociologist and activist Dr. Harry Edwards.)

Next came pianist Lynne Arriale, saxophonist Grace Kelly, and vocalist Charenee Wade performing together to celebrate Great Women in Music: Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Joni Mitchell. Introduced by KCSM announcer Melanie Berzon, the group, augmented by Evan Gregor on bass and Ross Pederson on drums, played a set worthy of the masters they paid homage to. Ms. Wade managed to bring the essence of each of these distinctive women alive as she sang their various tunes; I enjoyed her Nina Simone songs best, which she sang with spirit and decorated with audience participation. Ms. Kelly killed her axe, and I loved Ms. Arriale’s fluid piano playing.

The headliner for this year was legendary bluesman Charlie Musselwhite. I believe when “Crazy ‘Bout the Blues” host Kathleen Lawton introduced him, she mentioned that Mr. Musslewhite believes that music comes from the heart, not the head. Or maybe I read that somewhere else. In any case, he launched into a set of gritty, down home, toe-tapping, hand clapping blues. I’m a perennially geek, so my musical tastes tend to lean more towards the head. However, all music comes from the heart in the end, and his certainly did.

I hung with my buddy Jonathan during the festivities. We took breaks to stretch, to get food, to ogle over the all-electric BMW i3 — SF BMW was one of the sponsors — and just take in the atmosphere. It was the perfect mellow afternoon. Evening obligations meant that I had to leave before the final act — the San Francisco Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble — took the stage. But thanks to the simulcast, I got to hear them as I drove back over the bridge to the East Bay. More talented youth, encouraged to play an encore by announcer Jesse “Chuy” Varela and an adoring audience.

It’s hard to say goodbye at the end of Jazz on the Hill, but we’re heartened to know that they’ll be back next year. (Keep pledging so that they do!) I always look forward.

Election 2016: The Ultimate Dog Whistle

A dog whistle silently signals to its target audience that the speaker will work to prevent “those people” from interfering with your life without mentioning “those people” by race, color, or creed. In the context of Ian Haney López’s book, Dog Whistle Politics — How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class, dog whistling politicians tell white people that if elected, they’ll ensure that black and brown people no longer leach off of their hard earn tax dollars, threaten the safety of their community with their violent tendencies, or steal jobs from them by coming into the country illegally. The author states that conservative politicians have used dog whistles as a means to promote their radical conservative agendas, to cut taxes, and scrap social safety net programs like welfare and Medicaid. He presents a great deal of history to back his assertions, from George “segregation forever” Wallace and Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Haney López recalls how Ronald Reagan invoked the Welfare Queen during his campaign for president. I remember this caricature very well. She lives in Chicago. She drives a Cadillac. She goes to the bank to cash multiple welfare checks derived from “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards” that allowed her to “[collect] veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.” She does not work, because she does not have to. “Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000,” Haney López quotes. Reagan did not need to give a graphic description of what she looked like. That is, he did not have to mention her race. Everyone knew: she was African American. “Chicago” and “Cadillac” triggered the image.

The black Welfare Queen belongs to a long history of African American caricatures. It is a descendant of the laughing mammy and the black jezebel who shamelessly stole other women’s men.

Haney López also notes that Reagan used another dog whistle, one I do not recall: that of the “young fellow” who used his food stamps to buy T-bone steaks, while his target audience (fellow white people) “were waiting in line to buy hamburger.” Reagan apparently first used the expression “strapping young buck” rather than “young fellow,” but that crossed the line. A young buck, of course, invokes the image of a dangerous, well muscled black man who never works, but leers lecherously at white women. By using “buck,” Haney López writes that “[Reagan’s] whistle shifted dangerously toward the fully audible range.”

Less one think that Democrats get off easy, they don’t. Early in the book, Haney López states that Democrats have also used and benefited from dog whistle politics. Jimmy Carter, in his 1976 presidential race, made awkward statements against integrating neighborhoods, claiming that folks of different groups, black and white, had a right to maintain the “ethnic purity” of their neighborhoods. A clear pander, Haney López writes, to Wallace voters, whom Carter needed in order to win. And Carter won in ’76 with 48% of the white vote.

In my opinion, Bill Clinton’s “pandering to dog whistle sensibilities” was more damaging. To prove that he wasn’t soft on crime, he spearheaded the federal Three Strikes law, pumped billions into Reagan’s “war on crime” programs, and increased the number of offenses listed as capital crimes that could result in the death penalty. He also capitulated on welfare reform, gutting Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other programs. All of these measures disproportionally affected African Americans.

One Clinton dog whistle that I’ve written about many times is the stupid, and now mostly dead, Defense of Marriage Act, a salve to prove that he wasn’t too nice to gay people.

As I read the book, I wondered how the current presidential election looked through the lens of dog whistle politics. On the one hand, this election is almost post-dog whistle. And on the other, it is the ultimate dog whistle.

Enter Donald Trump.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people…But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting… They’re sending us not the right people.”
– Trump announcing his candidacy, June 16, 2015 (via C-SPAN)

Remember how Ronald Reagan backed off the “strapping young buck” phrase during his campaign because the dog whistle became too audible? Well, Trump doesn’t seem to have that problem. By and large, he has traded dog whistles for bullhorns. He mocks Mexicans. He mocks women. He mocks Muslims, including Muslim Americans. He patronizes and mocks African Americans. And some of the electorate have lapped it up.

At the same time, Trump knows how to blow the dog whistle. His very slogan, “Make American Great Again,” is the perfect coded language, straight out of Orwell. What does it mean? When had America stop being great? The dog whistle answer I hear says “when it got a black man in the White House.” Given Trump’s birther past (and present?) I have no doubt that many of his supporters hear the same dog whistle.

In a way, support for Trump’s political career — 1 year-old as of this month — is a big, fat dog whistle. The Republican leadership has begrudgingly decided to follow him, despite his obvious lack of qualifications for any elected office, much less the presidency. That they do so, however tepidly, speaks to me of their cowardice and racism. They would rather support a loudmouth bigot with no qualifications than support a highly educated and thoughtful person with proven ability to lead simply because the former is white and the latter is black. Republicans have doggedly resisted working with Barack Obama during his entire presidency. They voted against many of his proposals, even those with Republican origins like parts of the American Care Act (aka Romney Care 2.0), simple out of spite. Yet and still, they will support someone who has no business running for president. That’s one hell of a dog whistle.

Democrats, including Barack Obama, have, according to Haney López, largely tried to stem the tide of increasing attacks against from the right by championing “post-racialism.” That is, deal with issues that affect all Americans universally, such as healthcare, and thus raise all boats. The limits of this approach are obvious. During the Obama presidency, the country has witnessed an alarming rise in police violence against unarmed African Americans as well as a rise in the number of white supremacists groups.

Haney López writes:

Post-racialism justifies walking away from direct responses to racial inequality by promising universal approaches, and in doing so, it not only betrays minorities but dupes the middle class more generally.

Bernie Sanders has had a challenge gaining large support from African American and Latino voters. This is likely because he started out as almost a single-issue candidate, focussing on economic inequality. Most of his stump speeches mirrored the sort of post-racial shortsightedness Haney López warns against. Over time, he has changed his rhetoric and has been addressing issues of racial inequality as problems that require special addressing. A step in the right direction that the Democratic Party as a whole would be wise to follow.

The only way to really combat racism is to address it head on, in unvarnished language, to show how racist policies and sentiments affect large groups of people, and to not apologize for being liberal or progressive. Conservatives have enjoyed victory after victory because they have given liberalism a bad name and then they have tied liberalism to race. Thus, race and liberalism have become political third rails. Pretending that the problem doesn’t exist is not the answer. The problem must be attacked head on.

From Dog Whistle Politics‘ final chapter:

The research is clear that colorblindness does not help us overcome racism: on the contrary, colorblindness as a strategy (rather than as a goal) forms part of the problem. Attempting to ignore what one has inevitably already noticed only makes it more difficult to recognize and thus control internalized racial stereotypes.

Trump’s brand of in-your-face racism is impossible to ignore and easy to call out. Hillary Clinton did an excellent job of this recently. Ultimately, however, the followthrough could remain elusive if Democrats do not make good on promises to address the racism behind the dog whistles.

Comic Strip Heroes

I’m a long-time reader of the comic strip pages in newspapers. Peanuts and Doonesbury were favorites growing up. Nowadays I like Luann and Pearls Before Swine. And of course I’m thrilled that Berke Breathed has revived Bloom County. Even back in the day, I tried reading myself into some of the characters. I wasn’t so much looking for black characters, but gay ones.

I had a secret thrill whenever Marcie called Peppermint Patty “Sir.” My closeted queer eyes saw them as a butch/fem couple long before I knew those words or what they meant. Peanuts Wikia states that Charles Schultz denied any relationship between the two, writing “the characters are supposed to be very young children and they both have crushes on Charlie Brown.” A fascinating statement. On the one hand, they have a crush on Charlie Brown. But on the other hand, they are “very young children.” This appears to fit the trope that homosexuality is an adult thing and that children have no sexuality or gender identity, unless it’s cis-heterosexual, of course.

The pickings for queer characters in newspaper comics has been slim. Doonesbury had Andy Lippincott, but he died of AIDS. Later, Mark Slackmeyer came out of the closet and even had a relationship with a conservative character named Chase. Fairly recently, in 2014, Scott Adams had long-time intern Asok come out in Dilbert. This was in response to the Indian Supreme Court upholding an anti-gay law. The character’s homosexuality has not been much of an issue since. I always thought (hoped) that nerdy Gunther in Luann would come out, but instead a newish character named Pru declared herself a “thespian lesbian.” It was a plot device meant to show that she was not going after Luann’s then-boyfriend, Quill, like everyone thought.

And this is all well and good, but apart from Doonesbury, none of these characters have had major issues revolving around their sexuality or how it impacts the characters’ lives.

A friend of mine on Facebook shared a comic strip from Tumblr I found quite arresting and moving. Created by artist Panic Volkushka, it depicts a gay couple at couples counseling: Bart Simpson and Chris Griffin, all grown up. My 12 year-old self started doing cartwheels reading these two well known characters done up in a queer setting. But Volkushka did more than just play with their sexual orientation. He gave them depth by showing how their abusive childhoods wrecked their adult lives. It’s a story all too common in the queer community. Their counselor is R. J. Hill, aka Bobby from King of the Hill. I always loved Bobby, one of the most developed characters of that show. Volkushka rightly notes that despite his father’s inability to understand his son, he still loved him and treated him well. I also like how Volkushka maintains the mystique around Bobby’s own sexuality, a quality that made him such a good character.

This sort of character development does what good fiction needs to do: put a mirror to society to tell truths. Instead of gay caricatures, Volkushka created people trying to overcome realistic problems. I had a very strong reaction reading his cartoon because he made me care about the characters. This is why it is important to have well-developed queer characters in fiction, even the funny pages. Such depictions will help turn queer folks from being “others” to being humans.

We need such symbolism now just as much as 40 years ago, when I was growing up. Kids today may have more examples of queer folks living happy lives, but the backlash continues to be fierce. The US House of Representatives just killed an amendment to a bill that would have protected the civil rights of LGBT people working for government contractors. The amendment had passed, but the Republican leadership extended the voting time so that its members had a chance to switch their vote. Just enough did so to kill it.

This is but one example. The other obvious example has been the rush to pass anti-LGBT rights laws in states all over the country, particularly law denying the right of transgender people from using the restroom of their choice.

So while comic strips might not seem like a battleground for civil rights, in a way they are, the same way all media are. Representation matters. Lack of representation maintains invisibility. And invisibility, like silence, equals death.