Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why I'm Happy Rose Won X-Factor Israel!

Rose Fostanes, the Filipino Caregiver (kind work for the "help") won X-Factor Israel.  I stumbled onto her presence via You-Tube, while I was watching other Filipinos singing in competitions all over the world--from American Idol to the British version of the Voice to Australia's Got Talent. 

Why?  Yes, I enjoy seeing other Filipinos express their talent on the world stage; yes, I love a good song by a great voice; yes, I love seeing people go for their dreams.  Especially underdogs like Paul Potts, the opera singer on Britain's Got Talent.

In the 1980s, when I was a college student, I spent a summer in the Philippines.  Like many young people, I spent a lot of time in bars and inhaled an obscene amount of San Miguel beer.  In those bars, there was a lot of live music.  With all of that music, there were a slew of singers who blew the roofs away.  I heard singer after singer who sounded just as good, if not better, than the singers I heard in the United States. 

I still get emotional when I hear the song "Honky Tonk Woman," remembering a large Filipina in a Manila bar rock the joint like I'd never seen a joint get rocked before.  I had a blast.  In the back of my mind though, I thought it a pity that these amazing voices would never be known outside of the Philippines. 

Rose Fostanes is such a voice.  So was Arnel Pineda or Charice--singers who were discovered because of the wonders of You-Tube (helped along with Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah highlighting them on their shows). 

I enjoyed that Summer in college where I visited the Philippines, where I was born.  I thought of all of those grand voices who would never be heard, and I know it colored my world view, my creative endeavors. 

I logged onto You-Tube occasionally to see how Rose was doing on X-Factor Israel.  I thought she was the best voice on the show, but the best doesn't always win (think of Adam Lambert or Jessica Sanchez on American Idol).  She was a foreigner in Israel.  At 47, she was singing against people half her age.  At 4'11'' she was the shortest person on stage (and looked miniscule standing next to host and supermodel Bar Rafaeli).  She was not svelte.  She was the only singer who didn't sing at least one song in Hebrew.  Later, she came out as a lesbian.  In another setting, Rose may have been the maid to any one of the judges or contestants on the show.  (There are roughly 20,000 - 30,000 Filipinos working as domestics in Israel--and a lot more working in the Middle East)

With all of these things going for her (or against her), I thought she would do well, but not win.  After all, Rose was competing against home grown talent: a charming boy band, a cute young guy who sang Hebrew ballads, and a lovely pop singer with a dazzling smile. 

Then my facebook newsfeed went afire with the announcement of her win.  I checked at least two news outlets to make sure this was true.  I was happy for her, truly happy.  I know the Philippines, a country that has been suffering from a spate of bad news (a devastating typhoon, pork barrel scams by local politicians, a brewing altercation with China) made her win a win for many Filipinos struggling to get by. 

Her unknown voice became heard.    The Underdog won.  Who can't appreciate that?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books

I was thrilled to be asked to write a review for Los Angeles Review of Books.  It can be exciting and scary writing a review.  I'm asked to bring my best critical thinking skills--which is good!  However, sometimes a book can be a real stinker--which is bad.  Fortunately, that was not the experience reviewing Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan.

From the review:

Fortunately, Levithan did not write a mere “It Gets Better” novel. Thank Gawd! “It Gets Better,” a ubiquitous phrase to discourage gay youth from committing suicide, was uttered by every LGBT ally, including President Obama. It was a pat message telling young queers to hold-on-and-things-will-look-up. What was missing in the messaging was this: it only gets better if we make it so. This kiss in Levithan’s novel is a defiant act, one that has actual strength.

The Power of a (Gay) Kiss
The full review can be found here.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My First Dharma Talk

It was a stellar year, academically, creatively and spiritually. A highlight for me was giving my first Dharma Talks (Buddhist Homilies or sermons) for my Buddhist Homiletics Course. Here is my final project. I got an "A" in class.



UPDATE: My dharma talk was featured on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Website here

World AIDS Day—a Meditation on Impermanence, Groundlessness and Reincarnation

INTRODUCTION

I want to acknowledge Sunday, December 1, as World AIDS Day, a time to remember those who passed from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. I’d been involved in AIDS work for more than twenty years. World AIDS Day started in 1987. In the last 25 years, I’d been involved in some kind of World AIDS Day event for at least 15 of those years.

Even though it is designated for one day it is not uncommon to have events throughout the month of December. In the past, I’ve participated in World AIDS Day events by hosting shows, performing, handing out awards, or going on marches. This year, I’d like to honor the occasion with this presentation. I’d like to add this this talk World AIDS Day—a Mediation on Impermanence, Groundlessness and Reincarnation to World AIDS Day events happening all over the globe.

I was 12 years old when I first heard of the disease. A local reporter named Connie Chung said something was killing gay men. It was initially known as Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome or GRID. It was also known as the “Gay Cancer.” When it was discovered that this new disease was in the blood, that anyone regardless of sexual orientation could get it, it was renamed: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS.

It was interesting growing up in the 1980’s with this in the periphery of my burgeoning gay life. I was coming out yet didn’t want to come out entirely because I feared somehow this AIDS thing would get me. I knew enough that AIDS could only be passed doing certain behavior—unprotected sex, using unclean needles—and if I stayed away from those behaviors I wouldn’t get it.

Still.

In my mind I couldn’t stop equating gay life with AIDS. Indeed, that was probably the stereotype for most people at the time. It was a message that had been perpetuated for years to come. I was dining with a friend of mine who went through reparative therapy in the 1990’s. Reparative therapy is a technique some believe can actually repair the internal defect of homosexuality. My friend told me that one of the ways they reinforced heterosexual behavior was by saying that gay people die of AIDS.

This is true. Gay people do die of AIDS. So do straight people. So do old people, and young people. Children. Parents. Whole families died of AIDS. I think about the karmic repercussions of this. When it was GRID, with only a few thousand gay men dead, the government, the world did not respond well. Theories were abound about how HIV was a government plot to rid the world of certain undesirable minorities—homosexuals, drug users. President Reagan finally asked his Surgeon General, C. Everette Coop, to write a report on AIDS in 1986—five years into the epidemic.

In other words, there was no compassion, and a world without compassion, leads to the death of gay, straight, men, women, old, young. I must say many faith institutions failed in this regard. Institutions who failed in meeting the needs of the sick, the infirmed, the hungry, the helpless.

There were beacons. Reverend Carl Bean, Mother Theresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu. They were people of faith who instilled faith. However, their voices seemed to be drowned out by religious or political leaders believing AIDS was God’s wrath on sinners.

IMPERMANENCE

"From the highest heavens to the very depths of hell, there is not a single being who can escape death," wrote Patrul Rinpoche in The Words of My Perfect Teacher.

There are 9.9 million people in Los Angeles County. Can you imagine everyone in Los Angeles dead? Then multiply that by three. That’s how many people have died of AIDS. Since the first recorded cases in 1981, over 30 million people have died. Then imagine two people affected by an AIDS Death—a mother and father or a brother and sister or a best friend and a spouse.

For every AIDS death, at least Sixty million people were affected by this. In some parts of Africa where whole families perished of HIV when babies got it from breast milk, another form of transmission. Millions experienced impermanence, the idea that life, things, places are fleeting.

Nothing is static. This is a brilliant idea.  No one talks about how tragic and hard and sad this can be.

I started doing volunteer work at the Chris Brownlee Hospice for People with AIDS in 1990. There was a mother sitting by her son’s bedside. I knew he didn’t have long. In a way, I hoped he’d die soon, because he seemed to be in so much pain. The day came when he passed, and I saw his mother fall apart. She cried and stomped her feet. She wailed and shook her head.

This was impermanence. This is the ugliness of change. Impermanence is not for the weak.

GROUNDLESSNESS

There was nothing more earth shattering than a death. Then to experience them again and again and again and again is not only earth shattering—the whole universe is obliterated. There is no ground. In 1993, I got a job at the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team.

Groundlessness was part of the work. We prevented HIV by handing out Safer Sex Kits. They were small bags which contained condoms and lubricant. We gave away thousands of safer sex kits a year. My co-workers and I would sit there for hours sometimes making these kits. It came to the point that our boss suggested we get volunteers to make them because we should be doing other more important duties related to our jobs.

Unable to find volunteer, or perhaps unwilling to find volunteers, we returned to making the safer sex kits. Again, our boss suggested we find volunteers to take over. We experienced staff and clients dying of AIDS, but we continued to make safer sex kits. Open bag, fill them with condoms and lube, seal with a sticker. Open Bag, fill them with condoms and lube, seal with a sticker.

A grief counselor came in to help us with the high turnover of deaths. She explained that during these times, repetition was good for staff. It gave us something stable to do in an unstable world. We made the connection that making the safer sex kits was way of coping with grief. It was repetitious behavior that gave a sense of certainty. It gave us Ground. Our boss never bothered us again. I didn’t know it then, but I would come to experience Reincarnation.

REINCARNATION

Let me be clear, when I talk about reincarnation, I’m not talking about a physical death leading to another physical or celestial incarnation. I’m talking about finding a new life in this life. Like this blank piece of paper, which turned into a page for my dharma talk, then an airplane. In a matter of less than 12 hours, it had three lives already. I’m talking about finding new meaning in an old one.

In The Art of Living , His Holiness the Dalai Lama, said, “Personally, I have lost my country and, worse still, in my country there has been a lot of destruction, suffering and unhappiness. I have spent not only the majority of my life but also the best part of my life outside of Tibet. If you think of this from that angle alone, there is hardly anything that is positive. But from another angle, you can see that because of these unfortunate things I have had another type of freedom, such as the opportunity of meeting different people from different traditions, and also of meeting scientists from different fields. From those experiences my life has been enriched and I have learned many valuable things. So my tragic experiences have also had some valuable aspects.”

I wish AIDS never happened, but it did. For me, I don’t want the death of 30 million people to be in vain. I want it to have meaning. On a grander scale, we can see how these deaths came about due to ignorance and stigma. We learned: Knowledge is power, Silence equals death. Personally, I learned love is power, and that power can free someone else.

When I was doing AIDS work, my mother, a nurse was also doing AIDS work. She worked at an AIDS ward in a hospital. There came a point when I wanted to come out to her. I was in my mid-twenties and felt it was time. When I told her, she wasn’t surprised. As a matter of fact, she seemed pleased.

She told me about the gay men, the gay dying men, she met at her job. “They really stay with each other,” she said, referring to a man who kept vigil over his dying partner. “I don’t even see that with heterosexuals sometimes.”

For those gay men, they were doing something natural, something that was part of any loving relationship. For my mother, this affection humanized gay people, allowing a gay son to get closer to his mother.

*****  

Back then, the average age of a person who died of AIDS was 44. A gay man in his twenties was middle-aged. I was that gay man. Like a person going through a mid-life crisis I wondered if there was something else to what I was doing, experiencing, feeling. I learned other things, perhaps took chances I wouldn’t have normally taken. I risked being an artist, risked being a writer, risked falling in love.

Pema Chodron spoke of this in her essay When Things Fall Apart :

“I have a friend dying of AIDS. Before I was leaving for a trip, we were talking. He said, ‘I didn’t want this, and I hated this, and I was terrified of this. But it turns out that this illness has been my greatest gift.’ He said, ‘Now, every moment is so precious to me. All the people in my life are so precious to me. My whole life means so much to me’. Something had really changed, and he felt ready for his death. Something that was horrifying and scary had turned into a gift. “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

*****

Last month, I remembered that time in the early 1990’s, a time when more people had died of AIDS than at any other time of this history of HIV. I went to two memorials and Typhoon Haiyan devastated The Philippines, the country where my family is from.

I was reminded of the helplessness and loss. I felt groundless again—things “fell apart.” I also knew that things would come together again.

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, the story of Rick, a man with AIDS offered this: “The first thing I realized was that you must take personal responsibility for yourself. The reason I am dying is that I have AIDS. That is my responsibility; no one else is to blame. In fact there is no one to blame, not even myself. But I take responsibility for that.

“I made a vow to myself and to whatever gods there may be before I came into Buddhism, that I just wanted to be happy. When…I made that decision, I stuck to it. And this is very important in doing any kind of training of the mind. You must make the decision that you really want to change. If you don’t want to change, no one is going to do the work for you.”

Things have, indeed, changed from those deadly days. AIDS is no longer seen as a fatal disease. It’s considered manageable, at least for those in North America and parts of Europe.

For World AIDS Day we must not forget the rest of the world. Let’s remember: love is power, and that power can free someone else.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

...

I've been trying to the write a blog piece, but all I can muster is...typhoon...The Philippines...devastated.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Revisiting My First Published Piece

Finding Touch was a personal essay that I wrote in the 1990's.  It was developed in Hope Edelman's writing class at UCLA Extension.  It was published in the anthology Tilting the Continent: Southeast Asian American Writing.  I still remember the joy in getting that acceptance letter, and finding out something I'd written would actually get published. 

Finding Touch sat quietly in Tilting the Continent.  However it's getting new life as a featured story in  Q&A Space>Coming Out Stories from Asian and Pacific Islanders.  The piece can be found here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Words and Paint this Weekend!

Something tells me I'm going to have an amazing three days.  I hope to see some of you around!
On October 25, a new store in Atwater will be opening up.  It's called BOHO Upcycle, specializing in "Colorful. Chic. Vintage & All Things Furniture."  It's open from 11-6pm.  I'll be there around 4pm to enjoy the Atwater Halloween festivities

Krissy, the owner, was kind enough to offer wall space to local artists--like me!  I'll have the above painting--Still Life: Flowers in Vase--available for purchase. 

BOHO Upcycle really is a magnificent space, and worth checking out.     
On Saturday, October 26 at 2:30pm, I'll honor Filipino American Heritage Month in Echo Park.  I'll do it the best way I know how--sharing words!  I'll be keeping company with the fine Giovanni Ortega and Christopher Santiago. 
Finally, on Sunday, October 27 at 2pm, I'll remember Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan.  Writers Barbara Jane Reyes and Rachelle Cruz will be mixing it up with old pals Giovanni and Chris.  We'll read work from Mr. Bulosan and something from our own repertoire.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Hope and Inpiration at Jury Duty

Last week, I had to be at the Van Nuys courthouse by 10am to report for jury duty (JD).  I've done JD many times.  I was usually assigned a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.  The drive into the San Fernando Valley on a weekday morning was not something I looked forward to.  However, I wanted to do my civic duty.

I brought stuff to read.  I brought my laptop to the jury waiting room.  I'm doing rewrites on some creative projects.  The work never seems to be ready.   

I was prepared for a long and dreadful day.  Then I saw a stack of New Yorkers.  I used to be an avid reader (when my boyfriend subscribed to it).  I hadn't been with him in many years, but always enjoyed an issue when I saw one lying around, say in a doctor's office. 

On this day, there was a stack of them.  Thanks to the kind soul who left New Yorkers around for jurors to read--Good Housekeeping was not something I would have picked up for reading material.
 

I believe that things happen for a reason.  If sending me to Jury Duty was the only way the Universe would get me to read the April 29, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, I offer prostrations to all of the Gods in Heaven.  I stumbled across John McPhee's "Draft No. 4," which can be previewed here

The article basically talked about getting the first draft done of any writing and how the fourth draft usually looks like the most presentable.  It was this letter to his daughter, that inspired me.

Dear Jenny:  The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once.  For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something--anything--out in front of me.  Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall.  Blurt out, heave out, babble out something--anything--as a first draft.  With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus.  Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye.  Edit it again--top to bottom.  Chances are that about now you'll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see.   And all that takes time.  What I have left out is the interstitial time.  You finish that first awful blurting and then you put the thing aside.  You get in your car and drive home.  On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words.  You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem.  Without the drafted version--if it did not exist--you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it.  In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day--yes, while you sleep--but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.  Until it exists, writing has not really begun. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Montgomery Clift's Newphew in my Apartment!!!


In researching my first novel Letters to Montgomery Clift, I read many articles and books about my favorite movie star.  I also watched documentaries.  Who knew I'd be in a new Montgomery Clift documentary, produced by Montgomery Clift's nephew, Robert Clift! Robert Clift is the son of Brooks Clift (Monty's brother) and  journalist (and The McLaughlin Group's) Eleanor Clift.


It was great having Robert Clift and his lovely wife Hillary Daemon Clift in my apartment.  They were both insanely sweet people.  Of course, I wouldn't expect anything less from the Clift family.

It was a dream come true to talk about Montgomery Clift for hours with someone who was related to him.  Hillary emailed me some months ago, and I couldn't believe that I was in contact with members of Montgomery Clift's family.

There hadn't been a new legitimate documentary on Montgomery Clift in some time.  When I mean "legitimate," I mean a well-researched, thoughtful film on the subject matter.  Those salacious bio episodes for cable entertainment don't count.

A new perspective on this important actor and his contributions, taken with a more contemporary outlook is needed. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Good-Bye Vince Flynn


Back in 2007, when my second novel Talking to the Moon came out, I attended a literary event where Vince Flynn spoke.  It was a crime/mystery dinner.  I was invited because "Moon" dealt with a hate crime. 

Mr. Flynn was tall and confident.  He was introduced as a New York Times Bestselling author and with the success of his novels, he had easy access to the CIA.  Apparently, his novels about spies are a favorite among spies.

I remember marveling at his success.  He and I were about the same age, and I wondered what it meant to be that successful.  To have several books make it to the New York Times Best Sellers List, must make him a man of means. 

Now, I wondered, because he and I are about the same age, how he could have died.  I know it was prostate cancer, but that doesn't diminish the fact that he was still young.  He probably had many more books inside of him. 

This is also a reminder that no matter how successful you get, you can't take it with you.  I hope his family and friends find strength to endure this.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Another Draft Out

Last week, I sent another draft to my agent.  I took some vacation days from work to finish it.  So, the dance continues.  He'll look at it, then get it back to me, more revisions. 

There came a point where I wondered: this novel is a piece of crap.  It's come to the point where I've lost any kind sanity when it comes to this book.  All I could do is look at my agent's notes and try my best to follow through.

Many notes are easy to fix--grammar, word-choicing--things like that.  It's the more abstract notes that require the most brain power.  My agent wanted to hear more of my protagonist's internal monologue, his reactions to situations.  That's when it took a little more effort. 

I get to rest for now.