Oakland

The city of Oakland has a long history of civil unrest, political activism, militant citizen groups, edgy art, underground activities, and a blatant distrust for the authorities. This is not without reason. It also has a history of corrupt city leaders, murder, criminal enterprise, police brutality, city-sponsored displacement and gentrification, and swift vigilante justice. This city will never be soft and easy and it never stays quiet for long. People who live here accept that and we know that when the city does erupt, the mainstream media will ALWAYS get it wrong. They will always blame the protestors for “riots” even when their reporters witness the brutality of the militarized police firsthand. They will always fall back on the bad reputation of Oakland when reporting a crime or a shooting, instead of looking at how desperate the city’s population has become due to the rising costs of the bay area and the gentrification of the neighborhoods. The cause never matters to journalists, only the effect. This is why many now turn to social media sites for their news instead.

For years a snarky website called IsOaklandBurning? entertained (and pissed off) the population with its constant, giant YES message. It also had more web traffic than nearly any local official news source. Thing is, Oakland does burn a lot of the time and it is never funny when it does. This weekend the city endured what will likely be the worst structure fire in California history with the biggest loss of life. The Ghost Ship warehouse fire started during a party and dozens are still missing and presumed dead. The official death toll tripled overnight and only a fifth of the building has been searched at the time of this writing. There was only one injury reported, and as many reporters have noted, either you got out of the building or you didn’t. Survivors tell of how quickly it went up and how little time people had to flee.

The tone mainstream media has taken with this story is appallingly judgmental, classist, and dismissive. We owe it to the lost to demand better from those who are reporting on their deaths and the lives of those who survived. We need to find a way to honor the victims – which include the Ghost Ship collective – no matter what our opinions may be and to allow space for that grief before going into judgement or repeating what could have saved them, but didn’t. Speculation and small talk for ratings don’t matter right now and who or what caused the fire will come later, with a thorough investigation. Right now local news should be on standby and shut the hell up until every victim is found and named, at least.

Almost all of the victims were vibrant and individualistic – many did not conform to societal norms which the media continues to point out, as if that made them lesser people. They were at this party to dance, to enjoy themselves and to be in an awesome, artistic, and bohemian environment. There are a ton of similar compounds in Oakland and almost none are legal. This is not because the people in them are drug addicts who like living in deathtraps and don’t care about codes or safety as the media would have you believe. It is because these places are the only way that many can afford to live here. The Ghost Ship was not merely a “labyrinthine maze of clutter and wood” as many news sites have reported, it was also a beautiful space that was full of art, makers, and incredible craftsmanship. The tenants illegally living there don’t actually have anywhere else to go and the “rickity staircase made of pallets” was the best idea they had to maximize the space they were sharing.

You won’t hear TV reporters or local politicians admitting or acknowledging things like this. They have spent too long ignoring the housing crisis and are far too quick to look for blame and villainy to point their fingers and cameras at. They aren’t even waiting for the victims to be found and the families to be notified before they start demonizing their choices and making assumptions about their lives. It’s despicable, infuriating, and typical. Tragically they are not alone and tons of people have joined them. Many who once lived in the same type of situation are now quick to talk about the importance of safety and the rules and regulations that they never adhered to. Clubs who have parties that are regularly over capacity are now calling for inspections on rival locations and artists who love opulent fabrics and giant art are suddenly bending over backwards to prove that they are compliant with rules they didn’t know about until yesterday. Armchair philosophers, reporters, politicians and police with hindsight vision and the benefits of traditional housing state over and over that this tragedy was preventable, making sure that everyone knows they are right. It doesn’t matter that they are talking over the bodies that haven’t yet been found and the friends and families who are living in fear and unimaginable grief. All that matters is that everyone agrees that the rules are there for a reason and the authorities are always right.

Fuck that. There will always be unregulated parties. You’ve had them in your own home without a permit or you’ve been to them in art spaces, frat houses, abandoned buildings, clubhouses, box trucks, and living rooms. Half of the bay area has a fondness for fire-based art, thanks to Burning Man and the Crucible and I’m sure you’ve seen fire performances in houses, clubs, or parties that weren’t technically allowed. Perhaps you paid (or charged) at the door of one of these gatherings to chip in for the keg, the food, the cause, the DJ or the band. Maybe you or people you know have lived in spaces just like Ghost Ship so they could keep making music, sewing, building Burning Man art, and painting or sculpting for a living, since they are surrounded by skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing. Live music gigs, raves, and loud parties have been forced into unsafe buildings and illegal venues for years by the very same people, politicians, and authorities who are hijacking this tragedy now to further their own agendas.

Take some time to remember those parties of your past and recognize that it is only through the luck of the draw that you weren’t caught in a deadly trap or a blazing inferno. This doesn’t mean all warehouses should be shuttered, it means that this tragedy could have happened to anyone. Before moving on to who is at fault, think of the people who are dead or still missing and give them the moments and the proper respect they deserve. Shut up about rules and safety check-ins and blame for long enough to acknowledge that more people died in a few precious minutes than they did during the Oakland Hills fire and don’t dismiss, belittle, or demonize them for being where they were. They were celebrating however they wanted to at a party and enjoying life without any idea that it was about to end. Their youth, their lifestyles, appearances, choice of venue or home, and their love for electronic music shouldn’t make them any less important than the homeowners in the hills or the firefighters who are searching for their remains.

We need solutions for sure. And yes, we need some safety regulations and some prioritization. But first, we need to remember the dead – and learn their names. We need to mourn with their families and friends. We need to remember that we are no different and no better, and that we are all touched by this tragedy. There’s a time and a place for armchair wisdom and debates about regulations – and that time is after we give the victims their due.

And in their honor, perhaps then we should also talk about housing, art, affordability, and the policymakers who don’t care about any of these things. We need to have conversations about landlords with ties to city officials and inspectors. We need to protect our artists and help each other stay safe, instead of penalizing and demonizing those who can’t. Our mayor may pretend to care about Oakland’s art culture, but she didn’t hesitate when she stood on the ashes of that building and threatened other spaces like it. The giant warehouse that housed her inauguration is evicting their artists too. This is why we do have to talk about these things – but only after we talk about the lives tragically cut short by a towering wall of flame. Only after we respect and speak about those ‘ravers’ in the same way that we would anyone else. And only after Oakland has time to grieve yet another vital part of its city that has vanished and the many people who were taken too soon.

We are Orlando

My heart has been pretty heavy since the news hit about yet another massacre in the States. I have been quiet and reflective; not sure I was going to say much of anything publicly. After all, I did not know any of the victims and we all already know that it’s a horrible tragedy.

However, I reconsidered that because there is no part of my life that isn’t touched by this. I live in the bay area of California, where Harvey Milk served when he became the first openly gay politician before he himself was massacred. There has never been a single time in my life that I have not had at least one gay friend.  At various points throughout the last couple of decades, I have worked at nightclubs – both gay and straight. My sometimes boss was (is) a flamboyant and wonderful gay man. Last year I took my six-year-old faery goddaughter to the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco right after gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court so she could witness a happy moment in history. A little over a month ago I attended a lesbian wedding. Last week I spent time talking to a friend about whether or not she wanted to explore a same-sex relationship. And last night my heart broke as I held up a candle, raised my voice in song and marched with thousands of others through the streets of San Francisco.

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Why Hedwig is so important

I flew to New York a few weeks ago and am only now catching up with the writing. My head has been so full of things to remember and talk about that the thought of beginning it has been overwhelming. All of it was such a whirlwind that it’s still all jumbled. I finally made a decision though and I am going to start with one of the highlights – Hedwig.

I think it is pretty safe to say that Neil Patrick Harris is amazing. Casting him and allowing him to elaborate and expand as Hedwig was not only brilliant for the money-making aspect of the production, but it also makes random television-watching humans want to go see the play. This is super important particularly now with all of the states that are tackling gay marriages and the bigoted reactions that we as a nation are all dealing with. That being said, these are not the reasons I was at the show. I flew across the country to see it, because as I said, Neil Patrick Harris is amazing. Hedwig is one of my favorite soundtracks of ALL TIME. I’m actually not really into musicals and I didn’t gush over the movie of Hedwig at all – however the music is brilliant and I had a feeling that this production would knock it out of the park. I was right.

My best friend is also in NYC for a seminar, so truthfully Hedwig wasn’t the only reason I went across the country. When I made him get a ticket, I think he was humoring me – knowing that it’d be OK but really he was there because I insisted. Due to poor planning, we were not sitting next to each other and instead I was sitting next to a woman from who knows where in her sixties or seventies. While we were waiting for the show to begin, I couldn’t help but overhear her loud complaints about being dragged to a “silly play about disgusting drag queens”. She was not shy with her opinions about “the gays” and that she “may not be able to tolerate that young Doogie Howser fellow after being forced to sit through this” by her granddaughter.

I was appalled. I looked around and emotions were mixed. Those who had heard her were either horrified and speechless like me or they were kind of silently nodding along with her, as if they were all there by some force that was not their own and were uncomfortable and disappointed by their very surroundings. I could not fathom paying so much money and traveling from wherever they came from to complain before it even began. I could not understand choosing that play to go to if you were truly so bigoted and against the characters. I was  totally confused by anyone who would say that OUT LOUD in this show.

And then I remembered. People love Neil Patrick Harris. They were going to sit through a play that went against their morals just so they could see him. They may hold it against him if it is bad, they may use him as an excuse to their friends or family as to why they were there, but they were going to go. It was a very strange realization.

I was no less appalled. The lights went down and I picked my jaw up off the floor – just to let it fall there again – but this time in a good way. Neil Patrick Harris’ Hedwig is the most beautiful train wreck to ever grace the Belasco theatre. The funny banter with the audience is crass and perfect. His acrobatic song performances have a life and a swirling energy of their own – and his ability to draw the crowd in to his every single word is breathtaking. In the more poignant moments, a sold out crowd was so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop – not even a shift in the chair or a cough could be heard. The theater was utterly transformed into Hedwig’s world – a world of the most heartbreaking pain and challenging taboos ever imagined. It was at once much more serious and much more irreverent than I ever expected – and I expected a lot.

I cried nearly all the way through the show…and I am not usually that woman. I looked over at my friend who had only bought a ticket to humor me and he was on the edge of his seat throughout the whole performance while occasionally throwing a fist in the air or bursting out with a belly laugh. The show was magic.

I had forgotten about all of the people around me – including the woman who had been so terrible before the lights went down. During the last number, the phrase “lift up your hands” repeats over and over – and many of us did just that. Because I was already familiar with the play, I knew the ovation would come 20 seconds later so I got to my feet to raise my hands. As I did, I looked at this judgmental, bigoted woman next to me and nearly fell over. She had tears streaming down her face and her hands in the air, just as riveted to the story as I was, and when the lights came on she jumped to her feet clapping furiously and reaching for her kleenex.

That right there is why reviving Hedwig right now, in this day and age of discrimination being written into law, is so vitally important. That is why casting someone like Neil Patrick Harris as the star is genius. This woman went from one extreme to the other in 100 minutes – but would never have been there at all except for who was starring. By the end, she didn’t see a “disgusting drag queen” – she didn’t even see Neil Patrick Harris – she saw a broken person sing his way out of the darkness. She saw a tale of love that every single person deserves and should be lucky enough to find – and she was fully engaged. It was amazing to see.

Now I don’t know how long that feeling will stick. She could have woken up in the morning and been the same person she was before she ever sat through that show. I like to think the next time she describes someone of any other proclivity that she will not use the word disgusting. I like to hope that she may not vote against “those people” ever again in her life and that she will always remember that play.

I know for a fact I will. My friend and I both were unwilling to leave the theater when it was done. He was more choked up and emotional than he ever thought he’d be and was blown away by the production. We let everyone walk out before we stood up again, choosing instead to talk about sexuality, gender roles, the white hot love people can feel and empathy for the broken among us who might never get that chance. When we walked out of the building, we sat on a concrete bench outside to continue the conversation and 45 minutes later when the stars came out a side door, I was lucky enough to tell them ALL that they were stunning and amazing. I know that everything is about Neil in the press and most of this post is too – but every one of those musicians works their fingers to the bone for that show – and they all deserve praise. One can’t happen without the other. When I walked away with almost all of their signatures (dammit Lena!) on my playbill including Neil Patrick Hedwig’s (as we have rechristened him) it felt like a dream and it does even now.

If I could, I would fly right back and see it tomorrow and the next day and the next because it truly is that good. I would also try to tell them about that woman – to let them know that they truly changed someone for a brief moment because I think it is important for people to know when they’ve gone above and beyond. I would have that night if it had been possible. And yet now, as I write this, I realize that they changed more than just her because witnessing her transformation due to their show gave me an extra bump of emotion, an extra inch of tolerance and a tiny bit of hope where there was only frustration before.

I guess I’ll go ahead and add that to the list of why Hedwig is so important right here, right now.

signed

 

 

The Waltz Goes On…

Sir Anthony Hopkins is perhaps best known for his psychopathic character of Hannibal Lector, but his favorite role of mine was that of Burt Munro in the World’s Fastest Indian. At least it was, until he took on the real role of composer. He composed a waltz nearly fifty years ago and then went on to act in amazing films and to do other little things such as GETTING KNIGHTED. Like you do.

His waltz was unearthed by Andre Rieu and performed for Sir Anthony Hopkins a few years ago. I’m late to the video but it is amazing and just another example of the fact that no one is merely a one trick pony – no matter how good they are at that one thing.

Enjoy

Today is the final day that anyone can watch this amazing video. It is breathtaking to see and unfortunately, the permissions run out today for the video, so if it were to stay up officially, Commander Chris Hadfield would be sued. It’s an unfortunate world that we live in where something this gorgeous could lead to a court case. Do yourself and everyone you know a favor and watch this before it’s gone.

Ground Control to Major Tom