Saturday, June 19, 2010

They Knew What They Wanted

Optimism is one of the greatest blessings a person can have. It's a self-affirming life force that can help someone get out of bed in the morning, look for the proverbial silver lining, and appreciate good things when they happen (rather than obsessing about all that did not).

An optimistic soul is less likely to become bitter about all the "coulda, woulda, shoulda" factors in life and more liable to extend a helping hand to someone without putting a price on the gesture. While an optimistic person may be wise enough to know that merely singing "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" is no guarantee of success, he tends to look at his cup as half full, rather than half empty.

At the conclusion of Thornton Wilder's play, The Matchmaker, Dolly Levi suggests that the youngest person should tell everyone what the moral of the play is. Barnaby Tucker nervously describes how, all too often, someone might find himself sitting at home, wishing he were having an adventure. But then, when he is actually caught up in the middle of an adventure, he might just as well find himself wishing he was safe at home.

While there is no doubt in Barnaby's mind that we all need a certain amount of adventure in our lives, there is also a keen awareness that if nothing is ventured, nothing can be gained. In the early stages of their lives, some people have a great capacity to set goals for themselves, knowing what they want and performing the necessary tasks to make their dreams come true.

No one ever told them that life isn't always fair. The difference is that, when life hands someone a lemon, it is the optimist who makes lemonade.

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With the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell headed toward a full Senate vote, the debut of a new documentary entitled Out Of Annapolis could not be more timely. The fact that this film was made by former graduates of the United States Naval Academy gives one faith that the skills they learned while in the military have not been wasted. It also means that everyone involved in the making of this documentary has been thoroughly schooled in the U.S. Code of Conduct as well as military ethics.

Far too much testimony about whether or not LGBT people can serve in the military has been offered by straight men and women (who have been spared the witch hunts and self-loathing that come with living a closeted lifestyle). During Out Of Annapolis, the documentary's cast and crew are among those who testify to the hopes and dreams they had when they entered the Academy and the bitter realities they faced when forced to disclose their sexual orientation.

Because the military is caught in a Catch-22 situation wherein it cannot ask uniformed LGBT members to testify without their being threatened with discharge under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a group of USNA alumni have delivered a viable alternative with surprisingly skillful results. Bottom line? This is the kind of documentary Rachel Maddow needs to see.

Instead of asking military families how they might react to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Pentagon brass should order this film shown to everyone in the military as an educational and consciousness-raising tool. This film should especially be seen by everyone on the Armed Services Committees of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the United States Senate.

Even though the documentary's statistics are based on a limited number of responses to the Out of Annapolis Project's surveys, the results from more than 300 LGBT alumni who participated reveal that:
  • 12% of the alumni identified as a sexual minority (had come out to themselves in high school or earlier) at the time they initially entered the military. The vast majority did not understand/correlate their friendships/relationships with others in a sexual context.
  • 18%
    were completely and totally unaware of the unexpected possibilities that lay ahead for them in their future.
  • 18% felt that, at some time in their career, their sexual minority status was used against them as negative leverage by a peer, subordinate, or superior.
  • 21% of the alumni in classes prior to 2002 married heterosexual partners (marriages they subsequently ended when they realized that the wedding had been a mistake).
  • 23% of the alumni sexually “re-identified” as lesbian or gay while ranked as a midshipman at Annapolis. (38% did so as junior officers in the fleet/FMF, the remaining 27% did not come out until the end of their initial obligation or as senior officers).
  • 26% of those who self-identified as LGBT while ranked as a midshipman were out to their roommates in Bancroft Hall.
  • 33% felt that by not revealing their true identity, they had been unable to fully integrate themselves into their units as well as their peers.
  • 46% of those who voluntarily resigned their commissions stated that the specific reason they left the service was the policies in effect. They felt that had the policies not existed, they would have remained on as career officers in the naval service (a key factor for an additional 22% of resignations).
  • 55% felt that their personal professional performance was negatively impacted by the policies in effect at the time of their service (17% felt their performance was severely impacted).
  • 67% of those who identified as gay/lesbian while on active duty have been engaged in long term relationships with same-sex partners while serving on active duty.
  • 72% of those who identified as gay/lesbian while on active duty have been out to select friends in the military, including 29% who are out to some members within their same command.
  • 96% of those who came out to other service members felt that their peers' opinions of LGBT officers were positively influenced by actually knowing someone who was gay/lesbian.
According to the Out Of Annapolis Project, there are still many LGBT alumni who remain closeted. These officers in the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps serve in silence while on active duty in the service of their country. What the film does so beautifully is to put a human face on the sacrifices made by those who have chosen to place their own personal integrity over the Pentagon's ludicrous double standards. The following clip from The Rachel Maddow Show demonstrates exactly what they are up against:

The next time a powerful and self-righteous -- but tragically ignorant -- politician like Congressman Ike Skelton (who represents Missouri's Fourth Congressional District, is currently Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and is also a distant relative of Daniel Boone), tries to rely on a set of irrational and obsolete beliefs and practices in order to prevent LGBT people from serving their country, here's what should be done:
In a brilliant essay on Huffington Post entitled How To Do It: An Open Letter to President Obama, social science analyst Steven G. Brant outlines how Hollywood's vast edutainment resources can be used to wean Americans from their addiction to fossil fuels. Out of Annapolis offers a shining example of how documentary film can be used to wean the military from its addiction to homophobia. Here's the trailer:

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There is much to admire in the world premiere production of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven. A collaborative effort between the California Shakespeare Theater and San Francisco's Word For Word Performing Arts Company, Steinbeck's short story cycle -- originally published in 1932 as The Pastures of Heaven -- has been cleverly adapted for the stage by Octavio Solis.

The cast of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The evening starts as Richard Whiteside (Richard Thieriot) stands atop a ridge describing the house he wants to build, the valley it will look out upon, and the family he hopes to raise in the "Pastures of Heaven" near Salinas, California. Under Jonathan Moscone's gentle stage direction, what follows is an evening of dramatic storytelling that is as potent and intoxicating as anything written by Mark Twain. Among the colorful characters are:
  • Shark Wicks (Rod Gnapp), a man whose long history of entering transactions into a ledger has provided a handy cover for the fact that he has no money.
  • Alice Wicks (Emily Kitchens), his ditzy teenage daughter who desperately wants some contact with the opposite sex.
  • Helen van Demeter (Julie Eccles), a stoic widow whose husband asked that his ashes be placed between two of his favorite taxidermy specimens.
  • Hilda van Demeter (Amy Kossow), an unmanageable problem child with an overactive imagination.
The ensemble (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Molly Morgan (Emily Kitchens), a new, idealistic and very pretty schoolteacher.
  • Tularecito (Tobie Windham), an artistically gifted, probably autistic child who believes he belongs with the gnomes he has heard about in a fairy tale read to the class by Miss Morgan.
  • Junius Maltby (Charles Shaw Robinson), a former accountant who, after arriving from San Francisco was content to read aloud from his book collection while sitting on a tree branch discussing history, literature, philosophy, and science with his friends.
  • Robbie Maltby (Joanne Winter), Junius's impoverished son who may possess a wealth of knowledge but has no shoes.
  • Rosa (Catherine Castellanos) and Maria Lopez (Joanne Winter), two Mexican women who try to start a local restaurant. Their cooking is so bad that everyone assumes they are whores. They eventually move to San Francisco where they become extremely popular as "The Temptation Sisters."
Richard Thieriot, Tobie Windham, and Amy Kossow
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The richness of Steinbeck's stories (populated by a wealth of eccentric souls who try to do their level-headed best -- often in spite of themselves) plays out with much humor, wistfulness, and poignancy thanks to Jonathan Moscone's astute direction. Although the ensemble is uniformly strong, there were some inspired bits of casting (most notably in choosing Amy Kossow to play a petulant child).

There is, alas, a structural problem that might easily be solved if Solis's play gets another production. At present, the creative team's attempt to get as much material as possible into the evening has put an unfair burden on the play's two acts (making one wonder if the first act would be stronger without the story of the Temptation Sisters). Although rarely done these days, I think John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven could actually benefit from being performed in three acts instead of two.

Performances continue at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre in Orinda through June 27. You can order tickets here.

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