Friday, December 28, 2018

Literary Friday: The Struggles Between Religion and Homosexuality in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"

In reading and reviewing Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the audience is introduced to a mid 1980’s world where the characters struggle with accepting their homosexuality, face challenges in their contraction of AIDS, and battle their innermost desires with the values and beliefs of the religions that condone those desires. In Angels in America, Kushner uses the struggle between homosexuality and religion to illustrate the unstable and constantly shifting relationship between the sexually transgressive and religious values (most notably values from Judaism and Mormonism) to show that though the characters seek to find stability and belonging, they still remain “different” and alienated from the heteronormative world. 

Kushner introduces this theme in scene one of Millennium Approaches when Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz is giving a eulogy at Sarah Ironson’s funeral in front of her grandson Louis and his lover Prior. Chemelwitz preaches that they “can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not… exist” but that “every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross”  (Millennium Approaches 10) the bridge between the rejecting heteronormative world and their personal world where they are accepted for their varying religions and sexual identity. The rabbi claims that Louis and Prior “do not live in America” and that their heritage is “[the] clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of steppes” (10). Chemelwitz is comparing the fate of the Jew and the fate of the queer to be the same: they will both “be eternally other even in the Utopian land that proclaims itself a haven for all aliens (Freedman 92). Kushner is emphasizing the contiguity between the Jew and the queer (Freedman 92) but instead of fusing the two together to create synonymous outcomes, whether the character in question is Jewish or gay or both, he interplays the two traits to identify the similarities and differences between what it means for a character to belong to a minority religion in comparison (or contrast) with what it means for a character to identify as anything besides heterosexual. 

These characteristics of religion and sexual identity manifest themselves within their characters and cause internal struggles that must be dealt with; for the character Joe he struggles with both his Mormon religion and his suppressed homosexuality. Joe’s dream of Jacob wrestling with the “golden-hair[ed]” (Freedman 92) angel expresses his homoerotic desires in the male-male imagery and his internal struggle with his suppressed homosexuality. In relation to Joe, the vision of Jacob wrestling the angel takes on two interpretations. Joe relates to the Jacob-angel scene as a homoerotic image, desiring to press himself against another man in a sexual manner; but he also relates to Jacob in the sense that Jacob is a weak human wrestling with an all-powerful angel, representing his Mormon values that condemn homosexuality.  Joe sees this image as a battle he is guaranteed to lose in the struggle between his homosexual desires and his religious values. Giving into his homosexual desires means that he would lose his fight with the angel, and therefore his “soul [would be] thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God’s” (Millennium 50). Joe’s recurring homoerotic dream of Jacob and angel show his inner struggle with homosexual desires he can no longer ignore but his desire to abide by his Mormon values, ultimately leading Joe to a wandering, unstable life in which he can choose to struggle with his religion vs. desires forever or choose to act upon his desires and therefore be “different” and alienated from the world he lives in. 

From a Jewish standpoint, Kushner uses the openly gay Louis to show a greater struggle between religion and sexual identity. Louis first becomes aware of himself as a Jew only after encountering anti-Semitism from a Jamaican-born black man in a London gay bar (Freedman 92). Louis recalls that he “[felt] like Sid the Yid, you know I mean like Woody Allen in Annie Hall with the payess and the gabardine coat” (Millennium 91). His Jewishness first comes to light for himself and the audience when he’s rattling on about the politics of others in the gay community. This is the first time we note that Louis feels like he’s “different” from the normal world; in this case it’s because of his religion. 

Throughout both Millennium and Perestroika, Louis’s primary conflict with his religion isn’t with his Jewish values (he doesn’t seem to live by many, if any, Jewish teachings) but with his unending feeling of guilt for abandoning Prior while he suffers from AIDS. Louis is very clearly afraid of death and does not have the courage to be around those who are suffering and guaranteed to die (his grandmother and Prior specifically). When struggling with his conflict to stay by his lover Prior through this last difficult time or to abandon him to satisfy his own desire to not witness Prior’s slow demise, he consults Rabbi Chemelwitz on what the Holy Writ preaches about abandoning a loved one in need. Chemelwitz replies that the Holy Writ does not say anything on the subject, and that if Louis did decide to abandon a loved one, “Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt” (Millennium 25). Louis finally gives in to his desires to abandon Prior and satisfy his need of being ignorant of Prior’s suffering, but in doing so he commits himself to a wandering existence and unbearable guilt; he picks up Joe as a temporary lover but feels incomplete and eventually regrets his actions and tries to persuade Prior to take him back but is rejected. Louis’ struggle between the moral consequences of his religion vs. his personal desires to avoid the pain of others’ suffering cause him to choose his desires over his fear of consequence, leading him to an unstable path on which he loudly voices righteous virtues but shirks his own responsibilities to those virtues and is left searching for the stability and belonging he craves but is too cowardly to actively pursue. 

Kushner takes on a different approach in setting the struggles and conflicts for his primary antagonist, Roy. Roy Cohn, the power hungry consciousless New York lawyer, is based on the late Roy M. Cohn (1927-1986), whose illegal conferences with Judge Kaufmann during the Rosenberg trial led to the Rosenbergs facing the death penalty. Much like the real life Roy Cohn, Kushner’s Roy follows the popular American image of the Jewish male as a peculiar combination of sexual and political power, perverting gentile bodies and the political body in one gesture (Freedman 94). Using this well-known historical context of the late Roy’s tendency to dole out unnecessarily harsh punishments in court and his non-observant Jewish background, Kushner based his Roy upon this same persona, only with his own unique dialogue.  Despite Louis also being Jewish and attentive to signs of anti-Semitism, Louis likens Roy’s personality to populist images of Jewish monstrosity (Freedman 94), saying he was “like the polestar of human evil, he’s like the worst human who ever lived, he isn’t human even…” (Perestroika 95). Roy himself does not adhere to his Jewish upbringing; Kushner uses him as a comment on anti-Semitism and prevailing images of Jewish people. Roy’s primary struggle is his unrelenting denial that he is homosexual. During his AIDS diagnosis, Roy insists to his doctor that “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.” Roy even goes so far to claim that he does not have AIDS because only homosexuals and drug addicts can contract AIDS. He isn’t a drug addict and he isn’t homosexual; he only fools around with homosexual men but since he refuses to accept his own homosexuality, he cannot possibly have AIDS and instead has liver cancer (Millennium 46). 

Roy’s conflict in accepting, or even recognizing, his own homosexuality isn’t the only conflict he embodies. Pederson argues that Roy is the most relatable character to Jacob in the Jacob wrestling the angel image. In his constant reference to archaic Judaism explained in The Book of J by Harold Bloom, Roy embodies the lawlessness of archaic Judaism and does not follow the law or prostrate himself before it (Pederson 593). He lives by his quote “Make the law, or subject to it” (Millennium 108). Roy himself describes Jacob as a "ruthless motherfucker, some bald runt, but he laid hold of his birthright with his claws and his teeth" (Perestroika 81). Jacob thrived because of his single-minded, grasping pursuit of his goals and subversion of widely accepted customs and tradition; Roy reflects this same description (Pederson 594). Roy sees himself as Jacob in that he takes what he sees as his birthright and entitlements and does not release them without a fight; this is extremely present when he fights to keep himself on the bar but right before his death is disbarred by the panel. In this conflict, Roy fights for his own interests and to protect his “birthright” (being a lawyer) from a resisting world that battles to keep the heteronormative and its ideals and customs stable despite Roy’s attempts (but guaranteed failures) to undermine those ideals and customs with his own ambition. 

Through his meritable dramatic writing and clever staging, Kushner brings the struggles of religion and expectation vs. homosexuality and personal desires to life for many of his characters in Angels in America. In exploring how the characters desires (sexual and nonsexual) transform them into the sexually transgressive, while their religious beliefs contrast with their desires, Kushner follows his characters through their struggle as aliens in an unaccepting heteronormative world through their pursuit of stability and belongingness, even though their religions and sexual identities will never allow them to achieve their quest for a normal, accepted lifestyle. 

Works Cited
Freedman, Jonathan. “Vol. 113, No. 1, Special Topic: Ethnicity.” pp. 90-102.
Modern Language Association; 1998.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part One: Millenium Approaches. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991. 
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991
Pederson, Joshua. “Contemporary Literature Vol. 50, No. 3.” pp. 576-598.
University of Wisconsin Press; 2009. 


Monday, December 24, 2018

A Sweet Potato Predicament

It's finally Christmastime! Which means lots and lots and lots of food; so many dishes and calories and only so much time to consume it all. Like plenty of families, my family does a potluck Christmas dinner where everyone brings a dish or two. Unlike some families though, my entire extended family congregates for Christmas potluck. Where Christmas meal prep is typically reserved for 4-6 people, my family preps for around 20 people every year.

In the past, my familial potluck responsibility has always been to bring some form of alcohol. Many people assume that I have a refined palate for wine and am a budding connoisseur; sadly that's not the case. Rather, my culinary skills have always been so dismal that no one trusts anything I concoct in the kitchen and instead leaves me with the one beverage I could never ruin. But as of this year, things have drastically changed: I began the new year taking cooking classes once a month and as soon as people started tasting my food, I've received nothing but rave reviews and everyone wants to try the latest Arnold recipe.

My usual dishes trend towards only a handful of cuisines: Latin, Indian, French, and the occasional catch of the day. Being a newly budding chef inspired me to finally offer my family something at Christmas that I've never offered before: actually bringing a potluck dish that experienced some type of heat transfer. I'm usually quite an easy going person and gain so much personal satisfaction from making others happy, so I offered to bring any dish that was still needed for the usual gigantic Arnold potluck. I assumed that a vegetable would most likely be assigned, as meat is usually served by the host and everyone loves to bring their favorite dessert. I pondered over which vegetable would be asked of me: maybe maple bacon sautéed Brussel sprouts,  possibly my favorite grilled asparagus with a homemade balsamic reduction, or even my brand new and perfected sautéed radishes tossed with rosé and thyme. Never did I imagine that I would be assigned the one holiday dish I've never touched in my life: the sweet potato.

It's not that I've ever been personally offended by a sweet potato or have any sort of (sweet) trauma in my past: I've just never understood how a root vegetable could be acceptable with both brown sugar and marshmallows. Brown sugar and marshmallows are dessert ingredients: acceptable for cookies, hot chocolate, and anything that inspires a cavity.  I've never put sugar on a carrot or melted marshmallows on top of baked green beans; how the hell was it acceptable to put both these things on top of the most orange potato I'd ever set eyes on? Needless to say, my distrust for sweet potatoes didn't necessarily arise from the potatoes themselves but really from their very odd, unusual presentation.

So here I am with an unusual predicament: I have to fix mashed sweet potatoes for at least 12 people (not everyone likes the orange root) and not only have I never made mashed potatoes before, but I've never even eaten a sweet potato. Sure, I've had sweet potato fries before and they're incredible when they're a tad overdone doused in ketchup, but a mashed sweet potato? I didn't even start eating regular mashed potatoes until I was out of college!

Thank goodness for southern family who have perfected the apparent art of the sweet potato and are willing to provide direction and suggestions for how to take a weird, orange root vegetable and convert to smooth, whipped goodness. I've always associated my culinary skills more to science than art, with my cookbook being more closely associated with a lab book rather than a sketchpad. Only time and many dirty dishes later (plus a possible panic attack) will I know if I've got a mashed sweet potato to be proud of to feed to my family. I might even do the unthinkable and actually taste it. It's Christmas; anything can happen.

Happy Holidays!!

Friday, December 21, 2018

Fun Christmas Facts

Happy Friday everyone! To celebrate the Friday before Christmas, I thought I'd share some interesting facts about Christmas traditions around the world. Grab your milk and cookies and let's get to unwrapping some knowledge.

Did you know? 

mince pies and guinessIn Ireland, children leave out mince pies and a bottle of Guinness for Santa rather than milk and cookies. The good news is that the reindeer remain sober for the entire journey. Whether Santa brings along a designated driver to help him after Ireland remains unknown.

Japan famously serves poultry for their Christmas dinners too but rather than roasting a turkey or chicken, the Japanese head to their closest Kentucky Fried Chicken instead. KFC is so popular for Christmas dinner that many locations in Japan require reservations in order to feast on the delicious finger lickin' good fried Southern delicacy.

Like a number of predominantly Christian nations, many Venezuelans attend Christmas Mass to celebrate the holiday. However while other nations may drive to their nearest church for mass, the roads in Venezuela are completely closed on Christmas. Rather than walk to church, many Venezuelans save a little time and roller skate to Christmas Mass.

Every nation has its own unique Christmas delicacies but South Africa's might take the cake... or the wing? Once Christmas comes around, South Africans enjoy chowing down on deep fried emperor moth caterpillars. Sounds rather far fetched to be true, right? I thought so too, which is why I checked with my good friend Andrew from Pretoria, South Africa and confirmed that yes, this is actual fact but only in very rural areas. While caterpillar consumption isn't common throughout South African cities at Christmas, some parts of the country deep-fry the protein-rich grubs and go to town.

Though not every family subscribes to the holiday traditions held by their country or region, every family has their own unique holiday traditions that bring everyone together for the season. My family enjoys going to Waffle House in Doraville, GA for Christmas breakfast and has done so for the past 23 years, with opening presents afterwards. We also fix chicken enchiladas for Christmas lunch then congregate with extended family for a potluck dinner and white elephant gift exchange (although white elephants never seem to make an appearance).

Whatever your holiday traditions are, here's wishing you and your family a wonderful and loving holiday season! ❤️


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thursday Thoughts from a Spotify Rock Binge

Everyone listens to different genres and styles of music and we all have our reasons for liking the music we do. We also understand that each style of music has a certain stereotype associated with it: good ol' boys growing up on farms love country music; urban, hip enthusiasts love hip-hop and rap; pretentious preppy music snobs prefer top 40s pop and Broadway, and drug addicted, grungy, emo kids swear by their hard rock. I'm not saying that we all fit the stereotype associated with our favorite music; of course we don't. But those stereotypes do exist. However, even while you know that these stereotypes exist and you consciously know that not every fan falls into the stereotype of their preferred genre, your automatic response in learning of someone's music preferences is to lump them into their "stereotype."  

We've all jumped to these baseless conclusions just because someone likes a different music style than we do. And at times we judge how "different" someone is from ourselves based on how their musical tastes differ from our own. For example: out of all music genres to clash, wouldn't you think that pairing a metalhead with a classical fan could only end in disaster? Doesn't that sound like a pairing of polar opposites who could never, ever find common ground? 

Guess what: you're wrong.  

Hard rock fans are stereotyped to be violent, suicidal, and even Satanic. Hard rock music is often isolated and shunned from mainstream music culture; not just because it is so different from most music styles but because its fans are assumed to be dangerous, violent individuals. With so many songs focused on dark material like death, drugs, loss, and hopelessness, hard rock has earned its reputation of being rebellious and aggressive. But with that its fans have inadvertently earned reputations of being depressed, suicidal individuals who are a danger to both themselves and society. 

But did you know...

Most hard rockers are actually very peaceful, content individuals who have a delicate nature. In fact, Adrian North, a professor at Heriot-Watt University who studies genre listeners, says that this peaceful, delicate nature is almost identical to fans of a different music genre: classical music. North's study nailed down a combination of traits that are identical between the two listener types: both metalheads and classical fans are introverted, at ease with themselves, and above all creative. He even goes to say that "aside from their age, they're basically identical."  

North says that the gentle and creative persona shared by hard rock and classical fans allows them to freely encounter nontraditional occurrences (i.e. non-mainstream music) with more open minds than their peers. Which means when these more open-minded individuals are introduced to these styles of non-mainstream music, they are more likely to become fans of their preferred music style (whether hard rock or classical) and start limiting their listening of mainstream music because mainstream music isn't nearly as creative or diverse as hard rock or classical. 

Viren Swami, a psychologist at the University of Westminster, studied this open-mindedness and found that hard rock fans are overall more open to experience, which is fueled by a higher drive towards uniqueness. This drive to be unique helps us understand why both classical and hard rock fans verge on obsession about their music and how each genre is increasing divided into smaller sub-groups. Classical music sub-groups tend to focus on the eras of specific composers like Mozart and Beethoven while hard rock sub-groups tend to focus on a combination of lyrical message and instrumental volume, power, and speed, thus giving us groups like death metal, Christian rock, and punk rock.  

Both hard rock and classical music incorporate elaborate theatrics into their performances. Orchestras can easily pack 70 musicians on a stage, all with an intimidating presence dressed in formal wear with perfectly in-sync movements. Rock concerts host some of the loudest bands to ever grace a stage, and heavily emphasize their uniqueness and nonconformity through their use of costumes and stage theatrics (like setting the stage on fire). These theatrics also help draw in certain kinds of listeners, and if a person is immediately a fan of the theatrics and aura of a certain style of music, they will likely remain loyal fans to the entire genre (or at the very least, their particular sub-group).  

In conclusion, we need to stop assuming that every metalhead is a junkie with a violent streak and a death wish just because they prefer to listen to hard rock. Not every country fan has a thick southern accent and drives a pickup truck, nor is every top 40s fan a materialistic blonde taking their parents' credit card on a shopping spree. Hard rockers don't need to be into drugs or sport "goth" or "punk" looks with many tattoos, whilst classical fans aren't limited to being in the elderly community or only lead extremely sheltered lives.

Let's kill the stereotype: not just for hard rock, but for all genres. We like our music. It doesn't mean that we ARE our music.  

Welcome to My Brand New Blog

Hello World. And leave it at that.

I'm just kidding. What I really mean is: Hi Internet! I've got a blog now. It's brand new, it's under construction, and it'll have content, shortly. I realize there's one burning question on everyone's mind when viewing an empty blog like this: why bother having one?

It all started with this job opportunity. Not just any job opportunity, a great opportunity. There's a company in town called PrimeRevenue and I applied for a particular role on their team (I'm not disclosing which role here but rest assured, it's incredible). I first stumbled across the job posting on Glassdoor and after reading through it, I knew that this was the job for me. Have you ever read something that spoke to you so strongly it's like the author was thinking of you when they wrote it? That was my reaction to reading through this job posting: I could have sworn they were writing a job description tailored solely to me, my skills, and most importantly, my passion. Needless to say, I applied and was thrilled to learn that they were equally interested and have been continuing through their process since.

One part of their process is sharing several writing samples, blogs included. I ran a very short blog through college sharing my thoughts and feelings on certain class topics (usually first amendment law, film production techniques, and script writing ideas) but haven't consistently managed one since. Everyone I know always tells me, "You should have a blog! You're funny, smart and have so much to say" but I've always been rather stuck because I've never figured out what my blog would be about. I haven't had a theme, nor a niche goal; therefore I haven't had a blog.

But why should lack of theme or a vague niche stop me from writing down my thoughts, ideas, jokes, stories, and adventures? Has a lack of theme truly held me back from blogging or was it really confusion on where to start and searching in all the wrong places for inspiration?

Thank goodness for PrimeRevenue for providing that inspiration to actually start blogging fearlessly as well as providing a wonderful experience through their candidate process, regardless of the final outcome. Obviously I'm hoping for the best result but in a worst case scenario, I've met some incredibly kind and intelligent people and now have a brand new blog!

So in closing: welcome one, welcome all. I hope you enjoy my new blog because I've got plenty to say.