Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On

Recently, while doing some fact checking, I picked up my copy of Randy Shilt’s And the Band Played On. I needed to refresh my memory on a few points of history regarding the emergence of AIDS. As usually happens when I pick up Shilts’ book, I found myself reading well beyond the bits I needed for my research. No matter how many times I have read this book, it always manages to seize my attention and make me want to read it again.

Shilts’ very readable journalistic effort remains essential reading for understanding the perfect storm of cultural dysfunctional that was the response to AIDS and how so many acted so badly when best behavior was most needful. Progressing through adolescence against the backdrop of the rising specter of the HIV virus, I find And the Band Played On to be endlessly fascinating, and as a professor who has often covered HIV/AIDS in the college classroom, I always turn to Shilts for guidance and content.

If one prefers to cliff the text before reading this lengthy—but completely worth the time—book, HBO produced a very watchable film version in 1993. The durable thread of HBO’s frequent commitment to content too challenging for the big screen continues as late as their recent film version (starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts) of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart.

Showing And the Band Played On in the college classroom is always a powerful learning experience for myself and for students.

While I have heard students voice the ignorance and easy prejudice that has always haunted the individual response to the AIDS pandemic, much like the easy prejudice that appears to be rising in regard to immigrants, I am nonetheless routinely heartened by the earnest outrage students voice in response to the film. Students most often respond with disgust to the cultural, nay the political, economic, and poorly moralized response to the medical reality of HIV and with an admirably powerful empathy toward the HIV infected individual. This is why I sometimes find teaching ironically self-serving, for students often inspire the professor more than the professor inspires them. This oddly inverts the professorial goal. Alas, this is a good conundrum for the current humanistic health of our culture, and it portends well for a more productively humane culture in our future.

For, yes, indeed, “When doctors start acting like businessmen, who can the people turn to for doctors?” This question animates the film and provides a rationale for the endlessly needful lessons we can take from remembering the early days of the AIDS epidemic. For yes again, while they–meaning the dominant powers that run the most trusted institutions for our personal health and welfare (namely the blood banks in this case) had reason and recourse to act protectively on our behalf, they DID NOT act. If this fact peaks your interest, then please, read and view on, for this is a powerfully productive cultural rabbit hole to dive into. Hence, my commitment–as it fits the class–to bring Shilts and such into my courses. If not us now, then who will teach these facts to the next generation?

The movie version of And the Band Played On is half the book, but it can helpfully serve as an outline for absorbing the vast complexity of this book that details the response—and painful lack of such—to the emergence of the HIV virus—this is truly a history we should not forget lest we find ourselves living and dying within it again. This is the point Shilts ends his prologue with: “The story of politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice, compassion as well as bigotry, inspiration as well as veniality, and redemption as well as despair. It is a tale that bears telling, so that it will never happen again, to any people, anywhere” (xxiii).

Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On is a touchstone book for our efforts to remember, and reading it performs a significant act of resistance to the cultural tendencies that moralized a virus. Let us not forget the most potent lesson of the AIDS era:


A Connection between Shinto and Yoga?

I have been rereading B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (1966), which is the seminal book that introduced Iyengar yoga and generally helped to introduce America to yoga. Iyengar yoga is the primary school that I use in my yoga practice, and I cannot say enough about its health benefits. It is believed to be particularly impacting for physical and psychological health. I have largely focused on its physical benefits, but I have been thumbing through Light on Yoga to obtain a better sense of the philosophy behind Iyengar practice. Reading the foreword, which was written by Yehudi Menuhin, I was surprised to find myself being enlightened about Iyengar yoga in a way that spoke directly to my approach to Shinto.

In explaining how “most of our fundamental attitudes to life have their physical counterparts in the body,” Menuhin writes, “Continuity and a sense of the universal come with the knowledge of the inevitable alternation of tension and relaxation in eternal rhythms of which each inhalation and exhalation constitutes one cycle, wave or vibration among the countless myriads which are the universe.” Tension and release—does this not capture the core of yoga practice?

Menuhin gestures toward a sense of the universal within the practice, which interestingly echoes Freud’s idea of the oceanic feeling. Freud posited this concept for explaining the root of the religious experience in his book Civilization and its Discontents. I am not sure what to make of Menuhin on this point, but his use of the word vibration pops out at me as it allows for thinking about energy, which is a key part of my fascination with Shinto. Within Menuhin’s description of “the inevitable alternation of tension and relaxation in eternal rhythms,” I find a significant overlap between the philosophy of Iyengar and my approach to Shinto. This is perhaps why the Iyengar practice felt so comfortable to me from my first days practicing it.

Uttitha Trikonasana
Having offered this understanding of the moral aspect within Iyengar practice, Menuhin pragmatically considers why Iyengar practice holds a moral imperative: “What is the alternative? Thwarted, warped people condemning the order of things, cripples criticizing the upright, autocrats slumped in expectant coronary attitudes, the tragic spectacle of people working out their own imbalance and frustration on others.” In other words, a lack of a mindful practice—like yoga—only breeds more discontentment, which interestingly once again makes me think of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.

Menuhin then locates a balanced practice as being parallel to what he terms “universal laws.” He explains: “By its very nature [Iyengar yoga practice] is inextricably associated with universal laws: for respect for life, truth, and patience are all indispensable factors in the drawing of a quiet breath, in calmness of mind and firmness of will.” What Menuhin calls universal laws is perhaps beyond my understanding, but I find value in Menuhin’s assertion when I consider what he calls universal laws as simply being co-existence. And, I find within this formation the basis for a moral practice. This is what I understand as Menuhin’s ultimate point. I find evidence for this reading when Menuhin summarily writes: “In this lie the moral virtues inherent in yoga.”

While reading Menuhin’s foreword, I was struck by how this understanding of yoga pairs with my preference for moral pragmatism as such tracks with a practical approach to ethics. At heart, this is the powerful pragmatic potential I find within Shinto as I have already noted in my first post on Shinto, so it was quite amazing to find a similar practical thread of understanding within Iyengar yoga.

Dosojin: Guardians of Thresholds

Dosojin are also known as road kami, which are nature spirits that may be better considered as natural occurrences of energy. They are thought to be the protectors of roads. More specifically, they are the protective spirits of borders. They are often represented in Japan as stone markers in which kami dwell. As such, they guard borders and protect travelers from unclean energy by deflecting negative energy and preventing bad encounters.

“Dosojin Kami” by Liftarn

“Dosojin Kami” by Liftarn

Given their border guarding status, Dosojin are also generally believed to protect beings at thresholds or those otherwise in transitional stages. For this reason, they are often thought to protect the child birthing process and are often associated with fertility and marriage, which domesticates the otherwise more potent understanding of Dosojin as guardians of thresholds.

MJs Dosojin

Ptown Garden Dosojin

As guardians of liminal spaces, I cannot think of a better kami to accompany these posts on Shinto.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

The High Priestess of (the) Soul: I am not exactly sure what I am recommending here, but if I move my pick out to its largest point, I am simply recommending Nina Simone to those who are not familiar with her life and musical legacy.

Before you think you are unfamiliar with Nina Simone, pause to remember, for you may have already encountered her distinctive voice. Her music has been featured in various perfume commericals, Christian Dior was the latest to do this but Chanel did this before Dior. You have also heard Nina Simone if you have seen Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunset, which will be featured as its own pick at some point. In the film’s final scene, Jesse plays Simone’s version of Just in Time as Celine dances with reminiscence of Simone. Or, you may have heard Simone in any one of a number of Civil Right’s Movement films as she was a powerful and prolific voice of the movement. Within many of these films, you may have encountered the Civil Rights’ anthem–the song Young, Gifted, and Black. If you are already familiar with Nina Simone, then I am simply recommending the latest documentary about her life—What Happened, Miss Simone?

By Roland Godefroy via Wikimedia Commons

By Roland Godefroy (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I have been a longtime admirer of Nina Simone, but my experience has been mostly of her music and less so of her life. This documentary filled in my sad lack of knowledge very nicely. It was particularly enlightening as it covered the influence of the European classical music tradition, specifically Bach, upon Simone, which in hindsight makes sense in my experience of listening to her music. The documentary also expands thoughtfully upon Simone’s years in Liberia of which I had only the most surface understanding before. It was amazing to learn more about this part of her life through her own words.

What Happened, Miss Simone? also thoughtfully covered the question of the impact upon Simone’s life and career when it came to her embrace of Black separatist sensibilities. A profound point  I heard within the documentary is the question of how participation in the Movement exacted a powerful personal and professional toll upon those brave enough to stand up and speak out. These are the heavy steps the saint’s amongst us took and take. Along the same lines of consideration, the documentary additionally offers a fascinating gateway for understanding several of the names and connections that were key in the cultural outgrowth and response of the Civil Right’s Movement.

Poster in Provincetown’s famous A House where Simone Appeared in the 1960s

While I understood something of the political implications within the song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, the documentary provided me with a whole new way of hearing this song. That said, the documentary did nothing for how uncertain I am when listening to Mississippi Goddam, but it gave me a deeper appreciation as this song may well be an example of the classical baroque contrapuntal technique Simone brought to her music. There is some evidence for this interpretation within the lyrics: “This is a showtune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” To my mind, this line juxtaposes the popular feel of the song with its political import. Perhaps, the documentary did answer my uncertainty about Mississippi Goddam after all.

I was very pleasantly surprised by footage of Simone singing For All We Know. I have long been familiar with Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday’s versions of this song and even of Beverly Kenney’s, but somehow, Simone’s cover had escaped my hearing. Her arrangement has already become my favorite version, and this song perhaps showcases what Simone did best–as she imbued the ephemeral with the ethereal. For those who are unfamiliar with Simone, this song is a soft ear way in to her songbook.

Whether a first comer or a longtime fan, the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? is well-worth watching. I envy the amazing cultural rabbit hole that awaits those unfamiliar with Nina Simone’s life and legacy—jump, rabbit, jump! It’s an awesomely impacting, beautiful and important world to explore. Apparently, there is a tribute album and two more films yet to be released this year.

As I type this post, I am listening to Simone’s album Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, and I am hearing it more clearly now than ever before. This is a great entry album to begin hearing Nina Simone.

Two Podcasts for Pop Culture Literacy

This post features two popular culture podcast picks, which I highly recommend. For years now, podcasts have been essential in my efforts to keep up with political and popular culture. While I do not always have as much time to read as I would like, podcasts allow me to remain informed on a wide array of topics while driving to work, driving back and forth between Boston and Ptown, or while taking a walk.

Pop Culture Happy Hour
Above and below please find two podcast picks for keeping in touch with popular culture—just click on the icons to access their web sites or search for them in the iTunes store—or something like it. One podcast offers a fun and breezy discussion that is often genre and fan community based while the other tends to offer a wider discussion that provides a deeper exploration that support one’s cultural and media literacy. One will find you making lists of what to check out–or avoid, and the other will prompt you to use the internet search box for further information. Both podcasts are equally worth a weekly listen as they support a mindful consumption of popular culture.

Slate Culture Gabfest
If you are not familiar with podcasting, please know you can stream many to most for free directly from the web. You can also use iTunes—or something like it—to access them from your smartphone for listening on the fly. Here is the greatest joy that comes from podcasting: finding a new podcast that you really enjoy that has a BIG backlog of episodes. Both of these podcasts have exactly that. This large backlog of episodes allows for a sustained media experience with friendly and smart personalities that becomes something of a steadying balm in our often busy and disconnected lives.

I highly recommend checking them out, and if you are new to podcasting, listen to three  or four shows before you walkaway. Once you get the feel and flow of podcasting, you will not regret the time you invested in listening.

Ptown: Odds and Ends from the Cape Tip

Looks like this book is still available. Fortunately, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has helped to provide resources for reproducing public domain titles that were out of print. For just shy of $14.00, you can obtain a copy of Provincetown or, Odds and Ends from the Cape Tip. From the first couple of chapters which cover the Vikings and the Pilgrim’s landing in town, this book is of definite interest for anyone interested in Provincetown history.

Found Two Provincetown Books!

While I am not a huge fan of antiquarian stores, there are two in Ptown that I really like. One benefit of living here is that one gets to browse these two stores often to find the more interesting items before they are purchased. Today was a gold star day for finds–I found two Ptown books that I could not resist buying and cannot wait to read.

2015-07-10 13.08.26
Provincetown Playboy by Curry Case is an interesting find from the latter days of gay pulp publishing. This book was published by Eros Publishing in 1971. The first page had me hooked, and I am looking forward to reading about Mike Bara as he makes his way through the Ptown of the early 1970s. This read should make for a fascinating peek at the culture, history, and town of the early seventies. It will be particularly interesting to read the sexual mores and the narration of such in this post-Stonewall yet pre-AIDS narrative.

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This book is titled Provincetown or, Odds and Ends from the Cape Tip. It was published in 1890 by Herman Jennings, and it is an early modern day history of the town. With chapters ranging from “Landing of the Pilgrims” to “Long Point,” I cannot wait until I get the bandwidth for reading this book. I miss the days of my oral examination prep where I actually had time to read and could be reading five to six books at once.

Both books will have to be read very carefully as they are in very good yet delicate condition.

I bought both books from Yesterday’s Treasures, which I recommend checking out.

Andrew Holleran’s “The Beauty of Men”

When gay goes gray, an unspectacular homosexual: Holleran’s The Beauty of Men is a stark, powerful, tour de force of a novel—that is not for the faint of heart or for those who prefer not to look life squarely in the eye. Having read this novel several times many years ago, it remains a touchstone for my own writing.

Holleran’s novel offers a rather early challenge to the mainstream perception of the gay male by offering an unflinching consideration of a middle-aged man, who finds himself living amidst the realities and not merely the idealities of a “gay” life. Along the way, the novel explores themes of interest to us all–loss, loneliness, aging, invisibility, isolation, and the question of dreams as directional or delusional. There are also themes ranging from the AIDS era haunting to the question of gay separatism that speak more specifically to a generational gay male experience.

Apparently, the novel is out of print, but there seem to be a handful of used copies available–grab yours today.