Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why Does It Hurt So Bad?

Last Saturday, when the very first Facebook status update (from Nicholas Kristof) announcing Whitney Houston's death appeared in my newsfeed, I did not want to believe it was true. "It's a rumor," I told myself, "It will be disproved." Though I knew in my heart that Nicholas Kristof is not one to peddle disinformation and soon it became impossible to deny the truth as most of status updates from people of my generation were incoherent attempts the expressing loss we all felt. That voice that helped us through the pain of breakups and the joy of success was gone.
I have spent the last week attempting to articulate what I have been feeling, why the loss of Whitney Houston, a woman I never met, has touched me as deeply as it has.
Many years ago, when Fred and I were still long distance dating, He picked me up at the Minneapolis airport and asked what I wanted to do during my visit (aside from, you know, Christmas stuff--as a point of reference, this is the year I made him the green fisherman's sweater).
"I want to see the Whitney Houston movie," was my reply. It was opening weekend for Waiting To Exhale and that is how I, and a lot of other people, thought of it, as "the Whitney Houston movie."
So we went. After the film, I remember standing in a bathroom, washing my hands, and watching these two girls standing behind me having the following conversation
"Well, I definitely think I am more of a Savannah, while you are more like--"
"Oh, I am definitely Savannah! If anything, you are more like--"
"How can you say that? I am SO Savannah!"
And at the time, two thoughts went through my head.
The first was: Um, duh, clearly Angela Bassett's character of Bernadine was the best and most relatable, what is your problem?
The second, the one which I ran out of the bathroom to tell Fred, was: These two blonde, white girls are fighting with each other because they both want to be Whitney Houston.
I remember thinking those girls were crazy, but, let's be honest here, were those girls in the bathroom all that different from the rest of us? Haven't we all, at some point, wished we were Whitney?
Now that she is gone, I feel like that was one of Whitney Houston's special talents, her ability to make people empathize with her, to feel what she was feeling, to feel like she was just like us, even though most of us would be so lucky to have an ounce of what she had. She made us want to be her.
She wasn't that much older than I, but when she first came on the scene all those years ago, the span of years was enough to place her in a world I could only imagine, but which she brought alive and made real for me. A girl couldn't know if the boy she liked really loved her and children were the future! Her voice was amazing and enviable. Her body and face were amazing and enviable. And her cousin was Dionne Warwick, this woman was practically royalty in my teenage mind.
What I couldn't appreciate then, because I was so very young, was what an amazing artist she was. In the past week, what has struck me is not the amazing instrument that was her voice, but the way in which she used it, the emotion and feeling she brought to it. At twenty-one years old, she probably hadn't had an affair with a married man, but you wouldn't know she hadn't lived it when you listened to Saving All My Love For You. And maybe that, her ability to sink down deep into the song and feel whatever it required her to feel is what killed her.

Because the price you pay for being a performer is high. An acting teacher I had once said, "we traffic in truth." Yes, you get the indescribable and fantastic experience of performing for an audience. But the price you pay is you have to feel things that a lot of the time you really would prefer not to feel. It's called acting, singing, performing, but really, it's just feeling in front of others for their entertainment. When it goes well, you get their applause (which, I won't lie, is awesome). But that applause doesn't always cancel out the pain.
Many people have talked about Whitney Houston's marriage and her drug use and suggested that those were responsible for her untimely death. I don't disagree with them. However, the thing I think about is a commercial I saw as a child, a commercial for the film The Rose, where all you saw was a rose being shaken and losing petals while a voiceover said, "She gave and gave until she couldn't give anymore." I feel like that is an apt description of Whitney Houston, that she kept giving even as she fell to pieces before our eyes, and then her body gave out, as bodies do.
I worry that all this sounds so pretentious and self-aggrandizing on my part, that it sounds like I think I knew what was in her heart, as if I knew her. But I know a bit about performing and I know a bit about feeling things intensely even though it rips you up inside and I know a bit about addiction and I guess this gets back to what I was saying earlier, about her ability to engender empathy. She was more than just an artist in the public eye. For a brief moment, when listening to her sing, she made us feel what she felt. As I said, she was there, at least in song, for our breakups and our triumphs. How could we not believe we knew her a little bit?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I have always considered Pure by The Lightning Seeds to be one of the most perfect love songs. When I was a teenager, it described my dreams of a perfect, ideal love. Then I grew up and found that despite all my ideals and imaginations, love isn't uncomplicated or easy, it isn't all smiles and shooting stars. But far from feeling like the song is a lie, I realize it describes the hopes we have for our children, the way our love for them can make our hearts burst and our fears for their future can make our hearts break, how we wish them to have sleigh rides and moonlight, how we hope they will never have their hearts broken, never have to compromise their dreams, never know pain. How love for a child can make you love the partner who helped you make and raise the child, how the work of it creates a bond stronger than you ever could have imagined in the sparkle and shine. And how this love makes us better people.

It's what all the great love songs do, isn't it? They describe not only the love you dream of, they describe the loves you get.

Happy Valentine's Day.

P.S. If you don't go in for flowers and feel awe when you look at the night sky, the Rosette Nebula may well be the rose for which you are looking.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

When A Pink Ribbon Is Not Enough

By now, I would assume you have heard about the decision by the Susan G. Komen For The Cure Foundation's to withdraw it's grant money from Planned Parenthood.

They said it was because of a rule they just made that they would not give funds to organizations under investigation (even if the investigation is a trumped one). Nancy Brinker, the organization's CEO has been disputing this in her damage control tour, perhaps because a close look at the organization's giving and receiving demonstrates this is not a rule they apply consistently.

In the past few days, the internet has been set afire with tweets and posts stating how offensive many people find the decision.

In retrospect, it is easy to wonder how the people who made this decision could have been so boneheaded. Are they spending so much time in the right wing echo chamber that they forgot that more Americans are opposed to government intervention into women's health than are for it? Did they not consider that people who care about women's health actually care about women's health? Did they mistakenly assume that their PR machine was up for the task of spinning this?

It would appear that the answer to all of the above questions is yes.

In hindsight, yes, this was a mis-step, one which may well have tarnished the brand forever. But looking back, one can see why they assumed they would get away with it. Given how successful the anti-choice people have been in their long war against Planned Parenthood, both in chipping away at funding and in the general apathy with which most of the population has responded to their actions, they probably assumed this would have been met with a collective yawn.

And, let's be honest here, this organization has already gotten away with so much already.

I started having doubts about this organization some time ago when articles appeared about how they bullied other organizations for using the phrase "for the cure" and the color pink. They spent close to a million dollars of donor's money going after other charitable organizations who dared to suggest that they, to, were trying to find a cure for cancer or used the color that the Foundation had actively promoted as being synonymous with breast cancer advocacy. I am fairly sure that this wasn't the use to which the people who raced and pledged had intended their money to be put. I'm pretty sure they expected their money to be used to FOR THE CURE.

Yes, I know, that doesn't sound right grammatically. I was trying to be clever there. If I wanted to be accurate, I should have said "used to fund research which would find a cure for breast cancer." But, yeah, about that research...

In addition to defunding Planned Parenthood, the Susan G. Komen For The Cure Foundation has defunded research institutions which engage in embryonic stem cell research. Note, the embryonic stem cell research may not have anything to do with the breast cancer research. It may be research performed in a completely different building by completely different people, but just the fact that someone at the same institution is engaged in research that some find objectionable means that Susan G. Komen For The Cure will not fund the breast cancer research done at the same institution. So even if someone at one of these world class research facilities was close to finding a cure, this organization is not interested in helping them find a cure.

Still think it wasn't a politically motivated decision? Really?

The thing about people is that once they start to look at you, they start to pay attention toall the other stuff that has flown under the radar over the years.

The Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly found the drug Avastin to be ineffective and unsafe in reducing the tumors in breast cancer patients. The Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation continues to advocate Avastin as a chemotherapy drug for breast cancer patients. Why? Well, they claimed they were cautiously reviewing the information provided by the FDA and Genentech, the manufacturer of Avastin. But guess what you find if you google Genentech Komen? Now, yes, the connection is tenuous. Surely one of the largest advocacy groups for breast cancer would not allow its corporate partnerships to influence its stance on matters of health. You would think so. However, the Foundation has also continued to dismiss and ignore evidence linking bisphenol A to breast cancer. So while coincidental, there does seem to be a disturbing pattern of this organization ignoring information which negatively affects its corporate sponsorships/financial interests.

And let's not forget how ubiquitous that corporate sponsorship has become. In the month of October, it is hard to walk around and not be constantly bombarded with pink ribbon merchandise, promising a portion of the funds will go to breast cancer research. But the problem with all that pinkwashing is that it has turned breast cancer charities into a big business. Such a big business that many scam artists see it as a great money making opportunity. And even a well regarded organization does not seem immune from greed.

And if all this weren't bad enough, the Susan G. Komen For the Cure opposed The Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act (which provided Medicaid coverage for uninsured women who were diagnosed with breast and cervical cancer), spent years lobbying against the Breast Cancer & Environmental Resaerch Act, lobbied against the Affordable Health Care Act, and are currently lobbying heavily against the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act (which would create an oversight panel to streamline research funding for the creation of a breast cancer vaccine). So far from seeming like a mistake, this Planned Parenthood defunding seems to be part of a larger agenda against underserved women receiving adequate health care.

Now we know what Susan G. Komen For The Cure really stands for. After all, as a friend of mine on Facebook said about her long held dislike at this organization's shady tactics, "who hates a cancer organization?" Hating on the pink ribbon people meant hating on every woman who had or ever would have breast cancer (so any of us).

All I can think about is something I remember chanting two decades ago when I counterprotested against Operation Rescue. ""Pro-Life" is a lie, you don't care if women die." Back then, we meant they didn't care if women died as a result of botched, illegal abortions. Now it has become obvious that, really, they just don't care if women die full stop.


The Susan G Komen For The Cure Foundation has issued a press release apologizing. They are not, despite their claims, reversing their decision.
We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.
But they already were going to honor existing grants and Karen Handel has already said that Planned Parenthood would be unlikely to receive any future grants. So this isn't really a reversal so much as another attempt to repair some of the damage and end the heightened scrutiny which resulted from their own actions.

For me, whether they actually fund Planned Parenthood or not is irrelevant as Susan G Komen For The Cure has already demonstrated itself to be an organization which uses the money it raises to raise the political profile of its founder, to protect its corporate connections, and to further an agenda which harms women with breast cancer. In the future, I will be sending my money to organizations which do more than tie a disease up in a pretty bow.

All images from the De-Fund the Komen Foundation Facebook Page.