Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Sad Day for Us Children of the '70s

Thursday, June 25, 2009 has been a very sad day.

It was a sunny day here in L.A. Brilliantly sunny (what's new), warm but with zero humidity and a nice, cool breeze.

The day began for me as it usually does. I wake up, turn on the radio and continue to lie in bed for 20 minutes or so. Well, today, I woke up, turned on the radio, and heard the breaking news that Farrah Fawcett had just died.

"Aaaah, SHIT." I said aloud, and got out of bed and made coffee.

Farrah Fawcett was my first crush. I had that red swimsuit poster of hers, that famous-famous poster, on the wall of my room, when I was like 8-years-old. I also had the poster of her as Holly in Logan's Run.

I adored Farrah. I was too young to think of her in a sexual way. To me, she was just a beautiful angel. And I don't say "angel" because she was on Charlie's Angels. She quite literally looked like an angel to me. Perhaps it was her feathered hair. Angels' wings have feathers on them...

Anyway, Farrah soon had competition when I saw Jessica Lange in King Kong, and then a couple of years later, they were both wiped way by Olivia Newton-John in Grease. Still, Farrah was my first (along with Nadia Comaneci, who was more my age).

Farrah's was a death foretold. We all knew it was coming. She was fighting cancer, and the cancer was winning. I watched the documentary about her battle with the malignant killer, and was tremendously moved. It reminded me of my own father's heroic struggle with cancer.

Although I was not surprised by her death, I was very saddened. She was a huge figure in my childhood, and I continued to be a fan in my teen years, watching her in The Burning Bed and Extremities.

Later, I got on the computer and went to YouTube, looking at Farrah Fawcett video clips from the '70s... Farrah shampoo, Farrah dolls, Farrah hair dryers... then I got on Facebook, and started reading many of my friends' statuses honoring her passing.

Suddenly, as I was immersed in Farrah nostalgia, I heard from the TV that Michael Jackson was reported to be in the hospital, having suffered a heat attack.

The Facebook statuses began to change.

"Michael Jackson may be dead!"

"Oh no, not two on one day..."

"This is surreal. First Farrah, now Michael?"

My eyes glanced back and forth, from my computer monitor to the TV. And I'm not even on Twitter. I could imagine what I'd be reading there.

I honestly didn't think that he was going to die. I mean, it really was surreal, the idea that two icons from my youth could die on the same day. An icon from the '40s, the '50s, hell, even the '90s, wouldn't have been so surreal, but Michael Jackson, the pop icon of pop icons?

I was convinced that he would pull through, and was annoyed that this latest Michael Jackson drama was stealing all the attention from Farrah. I was uploading a tribute photo of Farrah to my Facebook profile, and statuses saying "RIP Michael" appeared above and below it to my homepage. It was so aggravating.

"HE'S NOT DEAD YET!", I said to my computer monitor.

CNN was on, and I was switching back and forth between it, and MSNBC. Neither channel was saying he was dead.

On Facebook, I was commenting under my friends' status reports... "I don't care what TMZ says, I have CNN on right now, and they are not saying he's dead. He just had a heart attack, that's all."

Then I saw on TV, that he had suffered cardiac arrest. Uh-oh. That's worse than a heart attack. That's like, a dead heart, which means a dead person.

But still, I wouldn't believe that he was dead. It's really crazy, but the true reason was... that I didn't want him to die on the same day as Farrah. I instinctively knew that Farrah's death would not be publicly memorialized to the extent that she deserved, as a cancer fighter and as a childhood icon of mine. Her death would be forgotten if Michael Jackson died on the same day.

My friend Shannon, who was at work, sent me a text message. "I can't believe this. Is he dead? What does it say on TV?" I looked at the TV. The new graphic said, MICHAEL JACKSON IN A COMA. Oh shit. I texted Shannon back, "No he's not dead. He's just in a coma. Not good, though."

Not GOOD though?!? JUST in a coma?!? A stupid thing to text, but hey, people DO come out of comas.... sometimes.

As the minutes dragged on, I watched the TV on foot, not even sitting on my sofa. I saw aerial images of the L.A. hospital where they had taken him, the fans beginning to gather under the glaring sun, in a energy-filled vigil.

Then Wolf Blitzer confirmed it. Michael Jackson was dead. Dead at age 50.

My head was spinning. Jesus Christ, I thought, who's next today? John Travolta? Cher? Both Donny AND Marie?

My Facebook homepage brimmed with statuses about Michael Jackson, along with photos and video clips of his performances. Then CNN showed a clip of him, as a beautiful young boy, singing "I Want You Back" with The Jackson Five, and I had to admit it, I cried. Not a lot, but some tears did flow.

For the last 15 years or so, I've done nothing but ridicule Michael Jackson. The fact that I had loved The Jackson Five as a small child, that I thought "Off the Wall" was the most amazing album I had ever heard my last year of elementary school, that "Thriller" was THE soundtrack to my last year of intermediate school AND my first year of high school, that "Bad" was the biggest album my first year of college... all of that had been washed away by events of the '90s.

I hated what he did to his face, the way he mutilated it with those horrific plastic surgeries, to the point where his face was no longer a face, but a white mask, a dainty, feminine, white kabuki mask. He was his own Dr. Frankenstein, and his own Frankenstein's monster.

He had a sex change and a race change, I had felt. His marriage to Lisa Marie Presley was a sham, as were all his romantic relationships with women, I had felt. He was lying to say he was the biological father of those three children, when they obviously were the product of two white parents, I had felt. It was bizarre to make those kids wear masks and veils, I had felt. It was creepy to spend so much time socializing with other peoples' children, whether he molested them or not, I had felt. I had felt for the longest time that this great, amazing talent from my youth had become the ultimate freak roadshow.

Yet despite all that, I cried today watching him as a boy sing "I Want You Back". I wondered what had happened to that innocent boy. How can a boy with such an angelic face, voice and demeanor, become what he had become? What had happened in that head of his? How could he have known at that age that he would become the most famous person on the planet, and that he would morph into an unrecognizable being, the figure of such international adulation and scorn?

I also got emotional seeing him sing "I Want You Back" because my sister used to have the 45 record of that song. The record player was in her room. I was only like 6-years-old, and not deemed old enough by my parents to have a record player, so I used to go into my sister's room, and annoy the hell out of her by playing her records.

I loved "I Want You Back". I loved Little Michael. Even though he was older and thus bigger than me, he was the littlest of the Jacksons. I loved that the youngest Jackson brother was the biggest star. I too was the youngest, and I always felt like I was second-fiddle to my sister. Little Michael wasn't second-fiddle to his big brothers. He was THE fiddle.

I, Little Larry (which was my real nickname--my dad was Big Larry), would play that record, and hold some object in my hand to represent a microphone, and I would dance on my sister's bed and hop up and down on it until she would scream and push me off and tell me to stay out of her room.

I'd go back to my room, which in a couple of years would be graced with Farrah Fawcett-Majors posters, and kill some time, and wait for my sister to leave her room... then, I'd return and play the record again, and mount her bed with my fake mic and sing with Michael: "When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around..."

And there he was on CNN today, 34 years later, looking about the same as I had remembered him in first grade, singing, "...those pretty faces always made you stand out in a crowd..."

Despite the appalling surgeries, the dreadful skin whitenings, the perplexing child molestation trials, he was still a beautifully black little boy on my TV screen, like he was when I was 6, singing, "Oh baby give me one more chance..."

How could I not cry? First Farrah, now Little Michael.

Today was a sad day for us children of the '70s.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Everybody Votes for the Other Guy, But..."

Well, yesterday Iran had their presidential election.

It was pretty impressive seeing the lead-up to it on TV. Tons of people, masses of them turned up in droves to the polls. Lines stretched on forever. Polling places had to extend their hours. There was an energy and anticipation that emanated from the TV screen; I could feel that this election was incredibly important to the Iranians. They really seem highly invested in the concept that the choice of the majority of voters would win.

The election was between the current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the internationally renowned kookball who needs no description, and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his reformist challenger.

I thought Mousavi was going to win in a landslide. Granted, I knew nothing of the polling, but I again saw the images on TV, and I figured such excitement for an election bodes well for the challenger. Also, I had faith that the Iranian people had caught on that Ahmadinejad is a total kookball.

Well, curiously, Ahmadinejad won! Suprise-surprise! What is even more curious is, not only did he win, but he won with 69% of the vote, even sweeping Mousavi's home district!

Curiouser and curiouser.

I'm trying to imagine John McCain having swept the votes on the south side of Chicago or in Honolulu, delivering a decisive defeat to Barack Obama, even on his home turf.

Curiouser and curiouser, it would have been.

The supreme leader of Iran is not the president. The supreme leader is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the supreme leader was in favor of Ahmadinejad.

Curiouser and curiouser, Mr. Ayatollah.

In Iran, 70% of the vote comes from urban areas, and the urban areas were heavily favored to Mousavi. Yet Ahmadinejad easily won the urban vote.

Curiouser and curiouser, the inverted urban vote.

Not surprisingly, Tehran, the largest urban area of the country, has erupted in riots. Disgruntled voters are taking to the streets, throwing objects, burning tires, displaying banners, and being greeted by police and security forces bearing truncheons. Cell phone networks were shut down. Satellite news channels were scrambled. Mousavi tried to have a news conference, but journalists were not allowed to attend. Riot police clad in body armor beat marchers and passersby, and still, the voters keep on protesting with fury.

I can imagine their anger.

Imagine standing in line to vote--standing in line for hours--for A LOT of hours. Imagine the buzz in the city, the thrilling feeling of transition in the air, which makes the victory of Mousavi seem assured... then Ahmadinejad wins, and wins BIG. It's like being spit on in the face.

I myself feel like joining in the protests. I don't know crap about Mousavi, but I do know what it's like to be incensed by a stolen election. I remember Bush vs. Gore 2000. But that election was contested by only a few thousand votes. Yesterday in Iran, Ahmadinejad miraculously won in a landslide.

You would think that if they were going to rig an election, they would have chosen to be a bit more subtle. They could have staged Ahamadinejad's win as a squeaker, rather than as a routing. His winning buy such a large margin is adding insult to injury. It's so transparent, and such a slap in the face.

But what is even more insulting, what is not so much a slap in the face as a punch in the gut, is that they declared Ahamadinejad the winner before all the votes were even in. And it's not as if there were only 20% of the votes left TO BE counted. No, he was declared the winner with only 20% of the votes COUNTED. For those of you with dyscalculia, Ahmadinejad was said to have won a mandate with 80% of the votes yet to be counted.

They might as well have erected a huge, blinking neon sign over the capitol building that said in Farsi, "UP YOURS. THIS IS FLAGRANTLY RIGGED."

This all reminds me of a young Serbian woman named Natasha.

When I lived in New York City, I worked with her, and we used to talk quite a bit. This was in 1998 and '99, during the Kosovo crisis.

Natasha was a tall, striking woman who had worked as a professional model in Milan. She was no poli-sci major. She had a very home-spun way of talking politics.

Once, when talking of the Serbian siege of Pristina (the capitol city of Kosovo) she said in her thick Serbo-Croat accent, "The common people of Serbia don't care crap about Kosovo. This is all Milosevic. The Serbian people hate Milosevic and don't want this war. I don't know anybody in Serbia who give a shit about Pristina. Who want Pristina? Who want to go there? It's boring. In Pristina there is nothing... no discos, no night life. There is just babushka."

With a quote like that, you may see why I loved talking politics with Natasha.

Another time she made a comment that is actually the inspiration for my writing this piece. This other comment of Natasha's was the very first thing that I thought of when I heard of Ahmadinejad's inexplicable victory...

I asked her why, if Milosevic is so hated by his people, why is he still in power, given that there are elections. She said with a shrug, "Yes, there is elections, and every election, everybody votes for the other guy, but Milosevic always wins."

And that, in my opinion, is what it boils down to with Iran: Everybody voted for the other guy, but Ahamadinejad won.

And today, people in Tehran rage against the machine. I wish them all the best, because they deserve nothing less.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Best Nation That Has Ever Existed?

Last night I was watching Larry King Live, and he had a segment with James Carville and Liz Cheney. The two debated current events, with James representing liberal thought, and Liz representing conservative thought.

At the end of the segment, they were rating President Obama overall, and Liz Cheney said, "One of the things that is troubling to Americans is the extent to which this administration is focused on the president's popularity overseas."

I've never understood this Republican attitude that it is not important that the president be liked in other countries, and that it is certainly not important enough to warrant much focus. Lately it has gotten to the point where they think that being well-liked abroad is a bad thing, and being ADORED by foreigners... well, that's downright un-American and deserving of suspicion.

Much of it, I suspect, has to to with George W. Bush. As his presidency progressed, he became more and more disliked overseas (not to mention HERE) to the point where he was virtually an international pariah. That famous video clip that was shot towards the end of his second term, of the Iraqi man throwing his shoes at him, became to me the symbol what most people in the world thought of Bush.

It therefore doesn't surprise me that Republicans have made being loathed in other countries a badge of honor. They've made it seem like being abhorred abroad shores up your America First bona-fides.

What really flummoxed me (and the word "flummoxed" was used three times last night) was when Ms. Cheney went on to say that it was disturbing that, while overseas, Obama, "has not been willing to say flat-out, 'I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe unequivocally and unapologetically that America is the best nation that has ever existed in history, and clearly that exists today.'"

This is why I am soooooo happy that these people are out of power.

Imagine somebody from Texas coming to California and saying that about their state. Imagine somebody from San Francisco coming to San Diego and saying that about their city. How many friends would they make? How many bridges would they build? How much cooperation would they encourage?

It seems to me that such talk is a perfect recipe for instant antagonism and animosity. Is that what the USA wants from the other countries of the world?

I'm really trying to imagine it now... Obama having done as Ms. Cheney desired... in London, he says to Queen Elizabeth II, in Paris, he says to President Nicolas Sarkozy, in Prague and in Cairo, he says to the assembled crowds, "I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe unequivocally and unapologetically that America is the best nation that has ever existed in history, and clearly that exists today."

Imagine Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy coming to the USA and telling our people, "Io credo nell'eccezionalismo italiano. Io credo in modo inequivocabile e senza scuse che l'Italia e' la migliore nazione che mai esisteva nella storia, e chiaramente che esiste oggi."

Wouldn't that be off-putting? Wouldn't that make him reminiscent of Benito Mussolini?

And let's be honest with ourselves. ARE we the best nation that has ever existed? I would say no, because there IS no such thing as a best nation.

I know because I've been to other countries, quite a few of them, like 20. I am always amazed by Americans who say that life is the best here of any country in the world, and yet they've never stepped foot in another country.

I myself can really only make the comparison with Western Europe, though. It's the only part of the world where I have spent a substantial amount of time in. I have only spent a total of five weeks in Latin America, a week in the Middle East, and have never been to Africa or Asia.

So the USA is the best country, Liz Cheney says. Has she lived in Europe?

I've seen that in Western Europe, people work to live, not live to work. In Italy, they have the entire month of August off. They call it "Ferragosto", and they spend it usually on a beach, or traveling to another country. Here, we are lucky to get 2 weeks of paid vacation.

In Spain, I saw people in their 60s and 70s up late at night, at 2am, drinking sangria out outdoor tables having fun and chatting the night away. Here, the elderly in general are in bed by 9pm.

In Holland, I saw so many people on bicycles going to work (even in their suits) that it simply astounded me. No wonder they are all so thin and lean. And it's not just due to bicycling. They eat better in Europe, and not such gargantuan portions. They don't have the obesity, diabetes and heart problems that we have. They live longer.

As I traveled through Europe, I saw so many regional festivals.... each region with its own native dance, music and cuisine... the giant puppet heads, the costumes, the torches, the fireworks. I wish we had that here in the USA.

If you get sick in Europe, you don't have to worry about sliding into bankruptcy. And people don't hold off going to the doctor because they don't have insurance, or because they do, but they are afraid that their premiums will go up. I got ill when I lived in Milan, and I went to the doctor, and I was shocked when no one asked me upfront how I was going to pay. I didn't pay because it was free. And I did not have to wait a long time to see a doctor.

Are there negatives about life in Europe? Sure. Aspirin can only be bought in little boxes of 20 aspirin each, and there is only one brand--Bayer. In the USA you can buy a bottle of 300 aspirin for $13, and you can choose among brands. In Europe, you'd have to buy 15 boxes of aspirin to get that many tablets, costing you the equivalent $60 total.

Milk in the grocery store can only be bought in liter boxes. The equivalent of a gallon of milk would cost you $8.

Stores and shops close early, or in the middle of the day, or for entire days, and for any unpredictable amount of time. It is not a consumer-first society. It seemed to me that in Europe, the customer is always wrong.

And let's not get started on the price of gas. It can cost you the equivalent of $80 to fill your tank (but hey--the trains run on time and they are fast and frequent).

Sound bad? Well, keep in mind that going to a university will cost you almost nothing. Students don't graduate from college in Europe saddled with debt.

They also graduate with a much more profound knowledge of the world at-large, and I mean after graduating from high school. They don't have superficial testing there; no multiple choice or True-or-False questions. You read whole books and write essays to prove your understanding of the material. You don't forget what you learned a few years after graduation. And you are also capable of speaking a foreign language or two.

The stereotype of the ignorant American is a stereotype because, for the most part, it is true. We have an amazing amount of ignorant people for a country that is so rich and powerful. Americans and world maps are like oil and water.

But hey, here in the USA, there is much more of a sense of freedom in switching jobs, changing your career, that's good. That's personal liberty. In Europe, once you have a job, YOU KEEP IT. Preferably for life.

What I'm trying to get at, even at this simplistic level, is that there are pros and cons to life in every country.

I do think one can say that America is the greatest country on earth, if you mean "great" in the sense of being powerful and dominant both pop-culturally and militarily. This greatness is not to be the disputed because it is so obvious.

But if you mean greatest as in "best", then no, America is not the best country, because NO country is.

I'm just really glad that Obama has never said such a thing abroad, and that he cares that we are liked in the rest of the world, and that he IS liked.

That's a nice change after the past eight years. I want my president to be liked. Sorry Liz. That is not something that is "troubling" to THIS American.

Friday, June 5, 2009

My Anonymous Hero

I have a lot of heroes. Most of them are freedom fighters. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Joe Marti, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Franklin... and a skinny Chinese guy in a white shirt and black pants holding two plastic bags, standing defiantly in front of a line of army tanks on Chang'an Avenue, near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.

I have no idea who this hero of mine is. Nobody does. The anonymous man stepped in front of the rolling tanks and stepped in photographic history at the same time, as a handful of photographers took still photographs and shot a video of his gut reaction to having the seem the "People's" Army massacre the People the night before, in the mammoth square.

He stood before the tanks, blocking their path. Then the tanks tried to go around him, and he moved in the tanks' way. Finally, he climbed up on top of the first tank and banged on the lid. A soldier within opened the lid and they spoke. Who knows what they said. Perhaps the brave civilian said,

"Brother soldier, why are you killing our people? Do you want to kill one more? Well, here I am, my brother."

That's what I imagine he said, but then again, it's pure imagination, because this man is a figure of my imagination, and has been for 20 years.

Yes, 20 exact years. He stepped in the path of the those tanks on June 5, 1989.

For 20 years, whenever I see that iconic image of him, I've wondered, What was he doing there? Was he coming home from work? Why was he holding plastic grocery bags? Did they have food in them? Was he bringing home the food that he would cook for dinner? Was he a factory worker? Maybe the bags had his sweaty work clothes in them. Was he a university student who had been involved in the protests? Did he live nearby? Was he a survivor of the previous night's massacre in the square? Did he just happen to be at that moment crossing the street when he saw the tanks and said,

"I've had it. ENOUGH. Enough already"

and, despite all the carnage that the army had unleashed on unarmed civilians, he, an unarmed civilian, stepped in front of those tanks, making himself a human shield, shielding an already overwrought populace from more government reprisals.

And then, what happened to him afterwards? On the video, you can see that he was whisked away by a few men. I've always had the gut feeling that those men who led them away were not connected with the Chinese government. I don't think they were leading him away to be arrested. There is something about their body language that to me, says that they were trying to get him away before he got himself killed. They looked like concerned pedestrians.

But did the police find the tank man? The area, after all, was crawling with police and state security. If he was found, he was surely executed.

I imagine that he wasn't found, though. I imagine that he blended back into the masses as seamlessly as he stepped out of them. I imagine that he had a solitary moment of promininence, when it was JUST HIM in the spotlight, and that immediately after, he returned to being what he always was: just another face in a country of a billion faces.

But again, this is just pure imagination, because this man has been a figure of my imagination for 20 years.

In June of 1989, I was a college student, just like the protestors in Tiananmen Square. I had just completed my second year of college, and was still living in Clear Lake City, a suburb of Houston, Texas.

To me, college was acting in the theater. For two years, I had gone from one play to another in my college's theater department. I had acted in like ten plays. When I wasn't rehearsing or performing, I was in class... English Literature, Botany, American Government, what have you. My spare time was spent hanging out in the green room backstage, socializing with my theater friends. We often spent our nights drinking beer and driving around.

I was NOT a politically involved youth. Seven months before the events of Tiananmen Square, I had voted in my first presidential election. I voted for George Herbert Walker Bush, because my father had voted for George Herbert Walker Bush. In retrospect, I shouldn't have even voted, because I had no idea about what the election was about, except that Bush visited flag factories and Michael Dukakis looked silly driving an army tank.

So when the Tiananmen Square protest began to dominate the news, I finally paid attention. I paid attention because these were STUDENTS, like me. Students who didn't have the right to vote like I did, and if they HAD had the right to vote, they would have made a more informed decision than mine, they would have had more appreciation for that right to vote.

These students weren't hanging out with their friends, goofing around, drinking beer and acting in school plays. They were acting on the WORLD stage, openly rebelling against a totalitarian regime, showing little fear of the consequences, with the TV cameras of countless countries focused on their bravery.

I knew what that meant, defying the regime, because despite my political apathy, I do come from a Cuban family--mother, father, grandparents, all exiles from Communism. My father did time in a Castro prision. I had heard stories all my life about the repression of a Communist regime. So I looked at those students on my TV in wonder, they were my contemporaries, and I felt a sense of shame for being such a fluffball at my age.

Then the massacre came on the night of June 4th. Horror.

Then the following day, the sun rose and was shining bright, and a column of tanks was leaving the square, where the night before they had squashed the students like so many cockroaches.

THEN: a skinny guy in a white shirt and black pants stepped in front of the tanks, and he stood his ground.

And I cried.

Tears flowed down my face, and from then on, I paid attention to politics, and kept myself informed of what was happening on the world stage, and by the next presidential election, I had realized that the Republican party may mesh with my father's views, but it didn't with mine; and I became a Democrat.

The tank man has been a big influence on my life. As I watched him and saw the photos of him in the papers, I thought, I'm not fit to shine that guy's shoes.

And actually, I still don't think I am.

That man is a hero to me. He's an international icon of defiance in the face of oppression-- the everyman against the grinding machine.

May he still be living today, and may he know that what he did in those few minutes has been seen and admired by millions of people around the globe. I imagine he knows this, and is keeping his renowned heroism a secret with a slight smile.

But again, this is just a bright scenario which is a product of my imagination, because that wonderful man has been a product of my imagination for 20 years and counting.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

La Citta' Piu Bella del Mondo

The night before last, I went to the Los Feliz Cinema to see the movie Angels and Demons. I was disappointed in the Da Vinci Code, yet I wanted to see this movie anyway, because I knew that it was filmed on location in Rome.


My adoration for it was only strengthened by seeing it used as a backdrop for a pretty preposterous thriller. While the movie did keep me on the edge of my seat and never had a dull moment, the story was rather ridiculous. As it progressed, and I saw The Eternal City swirling around behind Tom Hanks, I couldn't help but marvel at how even the most absurd plotline could not diminish Rome's warm, elegant, earthy beauty.

In my opinion, Rome is the most beautiful city in the world.

I know, I know, I haven't been to every city in the world, so it's silly of me to have such an opinion. But still, I have been to an awful lot of cities that are internationally renowned for their beauty... Venice, Florence, Siena, Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Paris, London, New York, Bruges, Dublin, Boston, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Jerusalem, Havana, Quebec, Morelia, Buenos Aires...

Granted, I haven't been to Prague or San Francisco or Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro, nor to any city in Asia, but still, I don't think that if I visited them I would find them more beautiful than Rome.

Rome was the first city in a foreign country that I had ever visited. I was 25-years-old, and I had never been out of the USA. I couldn't have chosen a better city to get my first taste of the Old World. I had a Roman holiday that lasted two weeks, and I also spent three days in Florence and a day in Pisa, but man, they weren't Rome...

Rome is, quite simply, an extravaganza. To me, what makes a city beautiful is the natural setting, the architecture, and the street life.

Some cities have a beautiful natural setting, but unremarkable architecture. Others have beautiful architecture, but the natural setting is not at all remarkable.

For example, Seville is a remarkably lovely city architecturally, as is Florence. However, for me, Florence trumps Seville, because Seville is located on a plain, while Florence is nestled in a valley surrounded by high hills, which "ups" its fairy tale quotient. Florence has the gorgeous natural setting that Seville lacks AND the architecture and street life that is equal to Seville's.

Well Rome, like Florence, has both.

There are the famous seven hills of Rome (a spectacular natural setting), as well as the architectural treasures which overwhelm those of Florence (or Venice or Paris or London).

Rome is not called The Eternal City for nothing. As you walk through the streets, you see Classical buildings of the ancient city, as well as Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, all seamlessly mixed together. Sometimes you'll see ancient columns incorporated into a newer building (and in Rome, "newer" is 300-years-old).

What other beautiful Baroque or Renaissance or Medieval city has the ancient forums-- a grand, monumental series of ruins from the Republican and Imperial epochs... the ancient triumphal arches... not to mention the Colosseum... the Baths of Caracalla... the ruins of Largo Argentina... the Portico of Octavia... the Temple of Vesta... the Temple of Fortuna Virilis... the Theater of Marcellus... the tomb of Augustus... the Porta Maggiore... the Porta Asinaria... the Pantheon... my God, the Pantheon alone would be the most stunning structure of the majority of the world's great cities.

Not only is the Pantheon a utter wonder, but it has at its entrance one of the loveliest squares anywhere on earth, Piazza della Rotonda.

What makes a great street life to me is the presence of beautiful town squares, lots of them. Well, the piazze of Rome are the most stunning squares in the world, and it's mainly due to the spectacular fountains.

The fountains the fountains the fountains.... many of them, each an utter work of art, designed by some of the world's most revered masters, and they're just THERE, in the piazza, or on a street corner, or at an intersection, out in the open. Any of those fountains in the USA would be in a museum, and if you touched them, the museum alarm would go *beep*beep*beep*.

Not in Rome. In Rome you can stroke the fountain, sit on its edge, take flash pictures of it, toss coins into it... and unlike in museums that close at 6pm, these works of art are available 24 hours a day. You can take a stroll at 3am, as I did, and be the only one in the piazza, just you and the magnificently sculpted fountain, with no museum guard watching your every move.

It seems that every square in Rome has a stunning fountain in it. This is not the case in other cities. The countries that I visited afterwards were England and Ireland, the following year. The year after that, I visited Spain and Portugal, and always, in every city I visited, I kept asking myself, Where are the fountains? Why do hardly any of these squares have fountains? Finally I gave up asking myself this question, when I realized that Rome is unique in this regard.

Beginning with Piazza di Trevi which contains what is perhaps the world's most famous fountain, the Trevi Fountain, and continuing on to Piazza Navona (my favorite square in the world) with its Four Rivers Fountain, the Neptune Fountain and the Moro fountain, Piazza del Popolo with its fountain ornamented by Egyptian lions, Piazza Mattei with its exquisite turtle fountain, Piazza di Spagna with its half-sunk boat fountain... I could go on and on.

Shall I mention the famous Spanish Steps that lead up the the church of Trinita' dei Monti? Or how about the monumental steps that lead of the Piazza del Campodoglio, from which you have a panoramic view of the ancient forums below.

There's the winding Tiber river, which has the Ponte Elio, a 2nd-century bridge lined with priceless statues that lead up the the Castel Sant'Angelo-- the mammoth mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian.

Beyond Castel Sant'Angelo is Vatican City, which technically isn't a part of Rome, but what the hell, it really is...

La Citta' del Vaticano... the amazing Piazza San Pietro, a.k.a. Saint Peter's Square, with its twin fountains, its Egyptian obelisk, its ring of colonnades surrounding it, and as its main feature: Saint Peter's Basilica---the largest church in the world, and the most magnificent.

I can't express just how far my jaw dropped and how much my eyes widened when I first entered Saint Peter's and eye-witnessed its grandeur. Words can't describe it, photos can't, videos can't. You must enter and see the gargantuan dimensions for yourself... the soft, warm light, the details of the interior decor and design.

What is truly memorable for me is that I visited Saint Peter's again, when I was in Rome 5 years later, and my jaw dropped even lower the second time than it did the first; it's that much of a marvel.

And don't even get me started on the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel... I just wanted to expel all the other tourists from it so that I could lie down on the floor, and gaze up at the ceiling for hours, studying every detail. And then there are the Raphael rooms... Mmm!

Is this getting boring? Sorry, if you've never been to Rome, it probably is, because without photographs, these words can be pretty meaningless.

So I'll just try to convey something that can be felt without having visited the city. The colors. The colors of Rome are uniformly warm. There really don't exist cold colors in Rome... no blues, no grays... at least none that I can remember, and if they do exist, they are in such miniscule numbers that they don't register on the eye.

The whole city has a warm glow of orange, gold, copper, burnt umber, what have you. All the buildings are painted in the orange/tan/copper-hued palate. The colors of Rome are the colors of the sunset.

After I first saw Rome in 1994, I kept telling myself that I had to see Paris before I could definitively say that Rome is the world's most beautiful city. After all, Paris is Paris.

Well, I finally visited Paris the last week of 1999 and the first week of 2000, and I thought it was an utterly beautiful city. So stately, so sophisticated, so finely ornamented... yet so cold (and I don't mean the weather). The color that I remember most is gray. Almost all the buildings are gray. It's a truly beautiful city, but it's a cold beauty. Place Vendome is utter perfection, but it's cold. It doesn't have warmth of Piazza Navona or Piazza della Rontonda or Campo de' Fiori.

What makes Rome a cut above the rest is (in addition to all the reasons stated above) its calming, soothing warmth. That a person can feel soothed and calm in such a crazy, haphazard city is a testament to what a lot of beauty can do for the soul.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Here Today, Struck by Lightning Tomorrow

Today was a rare day in Los Angeles, I mean rare, rare, RARE. It rained. In June.

It rained in Los Angeles in JUNE.

I had an audition in Santa Monica, and I was nervous because, well, it was RAINING. In Los Angeles. In June. And well, the people here don't know how do drive in the rain, especially when it hasn't rained for a few months. To put it bluntly, the folks here can't drive for shit in the rain.

I live in Hollywood, which is pretty far from Santa Monica. Yet today, I did not take the freeway. I went the long way: Sunset to Santa Monica to Wilshire until I got to Santa Monica. I was not gonna get on the freeway in the rain, 'cuz folks here can't drive for shit in the rain.

Even as I drove along the 40 m.p.h. speed-limited, two-lane Santa Monica Boulevard, I kept hearing cars skidding and slamming on the brakes, and I kept thinking, Please let me get to this audition alive, 'cuz folks here can't drive for shit in the rain.

My fear though, should not have been a car crash, due to the rain. My fear should rather have been of electrocution due to the lightning.

Two women were struck by lightning today.

STRUCK BY LIGHTNING. In southern California. In JUNE.

One woman survived, the other died.

I learned about the lightning-struck women on the radio as I was driving home after my audition. I couldn't stop thinking about the woman who had died.

All I heard on the radio was that she lived in Fontana, she was 35-years-old, and she was standing next to a tree when it happened, at 4:30 in the afternoon.

4:30 in the afternoon. The time that I was in the waiting room of the casting office, waiting to audition. My audition was for 4:10, but there was a delay, and I remember at one point, I glanced at the clock in the waiting room, and saw that it was 4:30.

I couldn't help but think this as I drove home, how much life is the accident of where fate puts us. Why was I indoors, in a studio in Santa Monica where no lightning struck, while she was outdoors, standing next to a tree, in Fontana, where lightning DID strike?

Life leads you in different directions, that's why. Somehow, the path of her life led her to Fontana CA, and today, for some reason, she was outdoors beside a tree, which is a prime conductant for lightning during a storm. The path of my life has led me to Hollywood CA, and for some reason (my agent having called me and told me where to go, to be precise), I was inside a waiting room, and waiting rooms, as a rule, are not a lightning conductors.

The drive home from Santa Monica was eternal. As I kept inching along in rush hour traffic, I began to criticize myself for thinking about the matter in such a trite, cliche' way.

"Paths leading us in different directions: one to an audition, and one to lightning." How trite. How cliche'.

There has to be a deeper meaning, and as I sat, stuck in traffic, it came to me: the most bizarre thing about that woman's death...

Just yesterday, she obviously couldn't have dreamed in a million years that tomorrow she would be dead, and of A LIGHTNING STRIKE. I mean, I remember yesterday. It was sunny. It was another typical day in southern California: yet another sunny day in a chain of sunny days that would continue uninterrupted until November.

To think you're going to die of a lightning strike in southern California in June is tantamount to thinking you're going to die of drowning in the Sahara desert in June. It just doesn't happen.

But it can.

Life can be taken from you any time, any place, for any reason, no matter how fantastic and unexpected.

Yesterday I was taking photos of the royal palm trees on my block. They are like 60-feet-tall. As I craned my neck up to take pictures of the tops of the trees, the sun blinded me. I had to photograph in the other direction, so that the backdrop of the trees would simply be the light blue sky. If somebody had told me yesterday, as I looked at that relentlessly blue sky, "Be careful tomorrow, Larry. You could get stuck by lightning and die."

I would have thought they were on crack.

I'm sure that the woman who died today would have had a similar reaction. "You think I'm gonna die tomorrow due to a LIGHTNING strike? Are you on crack?"

Of COURSE her reaction would have been something like that. After all, she was living her life. Perhaps she had plans for tonight. Maybe she was going to do something special over the weekend. Maybe this summer she had a vacation to Europe planned. Maybe in the fall she was going to start taking a class, or maybe she had a wedding to go to-- a friend's or her own. Whatever her plans may have been, they have been cancelled now, because


In southern California. In JUNE.

At this point, I am tempted to say that this is an example of how Life should never be taken for granted, that we should live our lives day by day, that we should live each day as if it were our last. Carpe diem! Here today, gone tomorrow!

Hmm. I'll resist the temptation to say those things (even though I totally feel that way) because they are so trite, so cliche'.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Justice, Be a Lady

I'll start out by saying that I don't know crapola about the law. I'm a reasonably well-read person, and I'm always watching news programs and documentaries, I've known American lawyers and Italian magistrates on a social level, and I've seen lots of serious courtroom dramas, like Judgment at Nuremberg and My Cousin Vinny, so I have a rudimentary idea of the law which is perhaps even better than crapola.

So, I've got a problem with the way the California Supreme Court ruled in the Proposition 8 issue.

I know they ruled on this a week ago, but somehow I forgot to write about it in my blog, and just now, I was looking at some photos of protest march that I attended the evening of the ruling, so my mind is on the topic again.

Last Tuesday, Lady Justice was not being very lady-like when the state Supreme Court upheld Prop 8, which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state of California. People who are against legal same-sex marriage were very happy, because "the will of the voters was not overturned by the court".

But my issue is this: Did the voters even have the right to take away a civil right from a minority of the population?

I mean, the 50 states of the union all have their constitutions, but all of the states are bound by the federal constitution. I am fully aware that the Declaration of Independence is a separate document from the Constitution of the United States, but still, don't the famous words of the Declaration (Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness) still pertain?

And isn't the ability to marry the person you love and want to share the rest of your life with, isn't it a part of the "Liberty and pursuit of Happiness"? And doesn't the Declaration say that these are UNALIENABLE rights?

I just looked up "alienable" in the Webster's dictionary. The definition is: "Transferable to the ownership of another."

So UNalienable means NOT transferable.

So how could Proposition 8 have been kosher? It proposed that the rights of Liberty and pursuit of Happiness would be transferred from a group of people.

Unalienable rights are not to be put up for a vote. They can't be taken away from you. That's why they are called "unalienable".

And in any case, is this how it has been traditionally done in this country? Is this past practice? that the majority, by a referendum, can take way the rights of others?

It seems to me that in the past, when the constitution has been amended, it was to give people ADDITIONAL rights. The only instance I can think of, of an amendent taking away people's rights was the 18th amendment, a.k.a. Prohibition, which took away people's rights to buy and consume alcohol. But even then, it took away EVERYbody's rights, not a just a segment of the population, and it wasn't done by a referendum (because you can bet that had it been put to a popular vote, the majority of voters would not have eliminated their own right to get drunk).

So as far as I can tell, this popular vote which put the rights of gays and lesbians on the line, was an unjust method on deciding the same-sex marriage issue.

I mean really, if we had put up the most notable rights-gaining issues to a popular vote in the past, would this country have progressed as it has?

Do we really think that if we had put the slavery issue up to a vote in say, 1850 (a time when all the voters were white), that blacks would have won their freedom? If we had a referendum on women's suffrage in 1900 (a time when all the voters were men) would women have acquired the vote? What if, in 1950, we had put de-segregation on the ballot? Would it have won? And in 1960, when many states had miscegenation laws, would the majority have voted to say that it was okay for straight blacks to marry straight whites, and vice-versa?

In this country, the minority does not win equal rights by a popular vote of the majority. It is done in the courts and in the legislature. And constitutions are not amended to REMOVE rights from any one group.

The most bizarre thing to me though, about the California Supreme Court's ruling is that, while it upheld the elimination of the right to marry from same-sex couples, it DID permit those 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who had tied the knot before the Prop 8 vote to REMAIN married.

Now, I am very happy that those 18,000 couples were not forcibly divorced by the will of the "righteous" voters, but how can the court protect THEIR marriage rights, but not those of all the other gays and lesbians? How is that


Again, I don't know much about the law, but it seems to me that these Supreme Court justices don't know much about the law either. They must have, in order get appointed, but since their appointment, has the California sun cooked their brains?

How is this justice? How is it just to uphold a popular vote that was unjust to begin with?

How is it justice to tell one segment of the minority that they have a right that other members of their minority no longer have, simply because they had the good luck to meet their life-partners and marry them before November 7, 2008?

This is equal protection?

I may not know much about the law, but I can say this: Lady Justice is not a lady in the state of contradiction that is California.

Monday, June 1, 2009

My Post-Apocalyptic Audition

Look at the photo above. It's a still frame of a video shot of me yesterday, as I was auditioning for an independent feature film.

Now, by looking at my face, does it look like I am

A. Falling asleep.
B. Receiving fellatio.
C. Getting stoned.
D. Dying a painful, hideous death in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where everything I ingest causes horrific infections: food, water, air, etc.

If I were not the person who had actually auditioned, among the multiple choice answers, I would choose B.

Yesterday, I was told that the character I was auditioning for, was literally minutes from death, a grueling, torturous death, his body plagued by all sorts of insidious infections. He is lying on the floor, begging his brother to take him to a hospital (but there ARE no hospitals, because they are in a post-apocalyptic L.A.)

I was told to lie on the floor, use my messenger bag as a pillow, and say to my invisible brother, "Hey, I need a hospital. Why aren't you taking me to a hospital? It hurts so bad, why aren't you taking me? No. I'm not gonna die. You can't let me die..."

I was told to portray a dread and fear and fragility and pain that shows how close I am to death.

Oh boy. This one's gonna be tough, I thought.

I have had some tough auditions in the past. I have auditioned for plays written by Shakespeare, Brecht, Strindberg, Moliere... I have auditioned in Milan Italy, doing a monologue from Chekhov's The Seagull, in ITALIAN (molto difficile)... I have even auditioned for Miss Saigon on Broadway, despite the fact that I am a mediocre singer at best.

But this audition yesterday took the cake.

A DEATH SCENE, on the floor, in a Hollywood casting studio, with a video camera pointed at my face. One minute I was trying to find parking, the next I was on the floor, dying.

I realized yesterday how hard it is to authentically act like I'm dying. I trembled, I winced, I closed my eyes and withstood the relentless pain...I thought I pulled it off rather well, given the circumstances (having to die on-cue, with no real knowledge of who the character is).

Well, maybe I didn't do it rather well after all...

The casting office sent me an e-mail with a link to my audition, in which I could watch the video. I didn't watch it, because I would have had to pay an annual membership of $59.99, and I don't know if in the next year, I'll be auditioning there enough to merit paying 60 bucks to watch my audition videos. I certainly didn't think it was worth 60 bucks just to watch one, 5-minute audition, so I had to settle for just seeing a still frame of me in the audition video, in which, to my chagrin, I did not look like I was about to die, but rather, I looked like I was

A. Falling asleep.
B. Receiving fellatio.
C. Getting stoned.