Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lila Karp

©Bill Watterson
The fun thing about a really great undergraduate program is that you have a choice of truly amazing electives to take advantage of--electives that stimulate new ways of thinking and being. I completed both my undergraduate and my graduate studies at Antioch University Los Angeles, which is a university with a tradition of social justice and inclusion. It is also unique in that it uses a pass/fail system rather than a grading system, allowing for more concentration on the absorption of material than the regurgitation of the same. During my undergraduate phase, I was obsessed with learning about philosophy, especially since my "value system" had been constructed from religious and self-help models of morality. I longed for a premise that allowed room for critical thinking--in other words, I didn't want an outside source to make decisions for me about what was right or wrong concerning personal morals and values. A bold undertaking, to be sure, but before you award me with a merit badge for bravery, please understand that when you grow up gay, you are often "forced" out of traditional mindsets. It is similar to telling someone with cancer how brave they are--do they have a choice? The answer, of course, is that yes they do, but you would be surprised how brave we all are when presented with adversity. I am no hero.

There were, however, heroes at Antioch, and they mostly occupied the position of instructor. One in particular made an imprint on me that was so vivid it changed the course of my life--I kid you not. This instructor introduced me to a way of thinking that proved to be so powerful in its simple challenge that it drove the final nail into the coffin of my "spirituality". The way of thinking was Existentialism, and the instructor was Lila Karp.

Lila was a mess. She was brash and impatient. She wore a lot of purple. She nearly always showed up in class wearing some sort of floppy hat that didn't so much work with her scruffy blond hair as much as it argued with it. She wore a mix of boldly colored drapey outfits that gave no indication whatsoever of whether her body was being hidden or accentuated. She made no effort to hide her distaste for certain students (they usually deserved it), or broadcast her admiration for her favorites. Fortunately, I found myself in the latter grouping.

Following her death in 2008, I attended a memorial for her at Antioch, and I shared that I had only once engaged in a disagreement with Lila. It was on an occasion where I disagreed with her about the relevance of Madonna, the pop star, in modern culture; I took the side of Madonna's relevance, naturally. Lila countered that Madonna was a charlatan, a fake feminist who used images of power and sexuality for her benefit only, and to the detriment of other women. I asserted that Madonna's sexual provocations served to allow women to "own" their sexiness as a celebration, not an objectification. I argued that in a similar way, gay men have appropriated the term "queer" from straight homophobes in order to dis-empower the term of its vulgarity. Now it is important for you to understand that Lila Karp did not suffer fools, in other words, anyone who disagreed with her, but in this case she tolerated my dissent. At the memorial, I shared that this was the first time in my life that my homosexuality had actually protected me from brutality!

Lila was an existentialist, and if I remember correctly, I had her for a course on Existential Philosophy. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the nuts and bolts of this philosophy is that life is meaningless until meaning is assigned (Existence precedes Essence). There are four "ontological concerns", or basic tenets, and they are Solitude, Death, Freedom, and Meaninglessness. The philosophy proposes that there is no escaping these four concerns, so why try! Accept that they are going to create a certain level of appropriate anxiety in one's life, and this can be viewed as proof that you are alive! (So much of the art of psychotherapy is seen as the practice of trying to eliminate the fear of these four concerns--rubbish I say!) I won't go into a detailed explanation of the four concerns in this post, other than to say that they encompass fears that we all have until the day we die, and since you can't avoid them, the goal is to decide what our response to our fear is going to be. Nietzsche suggested, rather brilliantly, that we merely live life, fully, which is, in my opinion, the most perfectly simple piece of advice I have ever heard. An example of this can be found in this wonderful clip from Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters:

In this clip, Woody's character confronts all four of the ontological concerns, and comes out of it deciding that, since you can't get away from them, it would be best to "live life, fully"! His embrace of that idea begins once he starts to enjoy the Marx Brothers film he is watching in the theater.

This was the tenet that Lila lived her life by, and the tenet that she passed along to me. This was around the time I was in my mid-forties; I had left not only a twenty year performing career to go back to school, but also a four year relationship. I was renegotiating my life and heading into middle age, so meaning was being reevaluated right and left. It was also during this time that I began to completely let go of my belief in god, as I began to understand the oppressive building blocks of world religions and their ties to the governing bodies of the time. Needless to say, my world was being rocked. Lila introduced me to a way of thinking that embraced, rather than avoided, the uncertainties, fears, and randomness that emerged from the dying gasps of my fear-based belief systems, and she presented it in a way that emphasized the joy and engagement available once you stop hiding from the reality of life. In a word, I was alive in a way that I had never been before.

Lila died in 2008, as mentioned above. But what she left behind was a legacy of courage and wisdom. Her own journey out of the binds of feminine roles was ignited by the emergent Women's Movement in the 60's, in which she was in the front lines. Her only book, "The Queen is in the Garbage", was a novel exploration of the politics of the body as told through a pregnant protagonist. She taught at many American universities and challenged the male-dominated status quo up to her death. She did this in floppy hats and with a searing disdain for laziness or arrogance. What many students had difficulty seeing was that she was an undeniably passionate woman who LOVED life and literature, and perhaps loved even more the act of sharing that with students. She just did not love Madonna!

I will never forget her or diminish the impact she had on my life. I miss her.


If, in life, you are offered an opportunity for freedom from an eccentric person wearing completely inappropriate primary colors and hats that threaten to completely overtake hairstyles, my suggestion is that you jump head first into the experience. They are the seers, the faeries, the true philosophers; the true lovers, the re-storytellers who bravely step outside the dominant discourse in order to propose a more inclusive one. Lila gave of her time and her life so that others could step into an experience of themselves that was not dictated by straight men in positions of power. I pity those who crossed her, but to be honest, they got what they had coming to them. I am happy to carry on the work, and I am overdue in giving honor to a life well lived, fully.  

Lila Karp:  1933-2008

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Fresh Start

I could have created a new blog, but I didn't. leaving caLi(forniA) is four years of my history, and I like the idea of "change" more than "abandon", which is probably why I did not leave Los Angeles after all those years of head-spinning. Rather than leave the old blog, I decided to include it in my process as I move into the future. So this is how the new format/theme was born. My intention is to continue writing essays, and to open up the topic list to anything that provokes my attention. Just like the old blog, this incarnation will not be overtly about my personal life--not that my personal life is not interesting--but because I am not so interested in writing about it. I would rather write about what I think instead of what I do. I hope you find it interesting as well. So many blogs read like diaries--albeit well written diaries. I even have friends who have published well regarded memoirs. But perhaps I am a bit more private. A judgement on my thoughts is an invitation to a discussion, while a judgement on my actions feels like nothing more than a judgement.

I have been thinking about a lot of things. The world is not the same as it was when I was growing into adulthood around 35 years ago. Well, it is, and it isn't. The human condition is similar (for better or worse), but the environments and cultures that contain that condition are very different. I often reflect back to those early years of my development and try to remember if I ever thought much about what the future would be like. From what I can remember, I did think about it, but not very subjectively. I thought about it from a meta-perspective: flying cars and food pills and living in space and such. I thought about it more like a Star Trek movie, when I should have been thinking about it like a Star Wars movie--less sci-fi and more of the same ol' humans with fancier toys.

I guess that deep down I thought that the quality of life would remain pretty much the same, while the trappings evolved.

Little did I know.

By my observation, we are the same ol' humans with fancier toys, but we are also not the same ol'. People seem to be changing, don't they? I never could have imagined that real time face-to-face interaction and dialogue would become overruled by our constant attention to hand held computers.
I never could have imagined that something with the unbelievable potential to connect us (the Internet) would then become a breeding ground for consequence-free opinions and commenting. I never could have imagined that I would go through entire days where not one person meets my gaze in the world, or feel that nobody is even aware that I have passed them in the street. I never could have imagined.

But then I never could have imagined that I could stay abreast of the daily lives of friends and family who live miles away. I never could have imagined that online dating profiles would finally break the "fourth wall" for me when it comes to meeting men. I never could have imagined that I would get to the day where I never had to set foot inside a mall ever again in order to shop. I never could have imagined that my writing might one day reach readers unknown to me across the planet, all without a publishing contract. All this, and more, I never could have imagined.

Is it getting worse? Is it getting better? My answer would have to be "yes", and "yes". But I suspect that this has been the case for all of history--some things get worse, some things get better. As an existentialist, I may be betraying myself with these qualifiers unless I specify that they are mine. I do concede that one person's "worse" is another person's "better". But my labels are not assigned in a vacuum--I am a well-seasoned enough observer to be able to gauge the effects of all these things on others besides myself.

It strikes me that all this nonsense we all do these days seems to present a very long route to get to such basic destinations. Referring back to Star Wars, it seems that Luke Skywalker went all over the galaxy and back just to get to the understanding that all he really wanted was a Father.
Basic stuff here, folks. Like the Beatles say, "All You Need Is Love", brup-ba-da-da-da , but boy do we all have a fondness for taking the road less traveled on the way home! Perhaps that is why, as I grow older, I simplify more. I find that I don't need to chase so many things because there is not much that I don't have, realistically speaking. Granted, all of this cagey-ness surrounding my outlook on life applies itself rather mischievously when I am writing my online dating profiles, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

I suppose that when it comes right down to it, I am of the age where I get to start complaining about how the "kids" are ruining the neighborhood and how it was so much better in the old days. And while they are, and it was, I am not quite ready to settle into the porch rocking chair just yet. In a sense, I am still right out there with them, ruining the neighborhood for those with closed minds and open entitlement in life, those who refuse to think for themselves and then condemn others with borrowed judgments, those who act out and speak with hatred and then refuse to take responsibility for the results of their words and actions. For any of the aforementioned, I am the one they don't want moving into the neighborhood.

But the upshot of all this is that I intend to work in-house when it comes to being an agent for change. There is a fantastic Buddhist principle centered around the idea that we can never know the reason that someone is in the middle of a particular process, and that our judgment of the same invites separation, ego, and arrogance, and most importantly, unease.
This is not to say that we cannot work for change in the world, or act against those who cause harm, but the motivation for these actions needs to spring from a vision we have for a better self, not a better other. That is a tough one even for me, folks, because I have been surrounded for most of my life by others pointing their fingers at me. Sometimes it is fun to point back--for a minute. But it gets easier. Compassion is so much easier on the body than hate, and the results are so much more rewarding.

And so it begins, my fresh start. My first task should already be evident.

I have started using capitalization when I write. Let the effect on the world begin.