In Memoriam:

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols, who passed away last month at age 83, began his career in a club in Hyde Park, which was my Chicago neighborhood, in the 1950s and 1960s. He met Elaine May while attending the University of Chicago, where I went to high school. Though I did not know them, they are part of my history, because they introduced a style to comedy that made so many young people, including me, feel freed up to express ourselves in more direct and outrageous ways. They were involved with the improv troupe The Compass Players, which later gave birth to Second City, still considered America’s top comedy club/theater/school of improvisation. Nichols and May eventually moved to New York where they worked together and, in 1961, developed their individual careers. Nichols added directing and producing to his skill set, and, over the years, he won a stellar collection of awards for his extraordinary body of work. 

My first Mike Nichols Broadway experience was in 1964, when he directed the delightful Luv. More recently, he directed my all-time favorite production, of Death of a Salesman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a heartbreaking Willy Loman. His brilliance on screen included the groundbreaking The Graduate, Silkwood, she made me proud to be an activist, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which helped me understand that divorce might be preferable to torturing one’s spouse. Perhaps the work that touched me the most deeply and related the most to my daily life, was his 2003 HBO production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. For all of his work and his passion to do the right thing to support those in need, I am grateful, and join the legions who have been touched by Nichols' Quality of Caring. 

In his private life, Nichols was half of one of those rare golden couples. He met Diane Sawyer in 1986, when she was the first female correspondent on 60 Minutes, allowing them to carry on what has been called a 26-year romance. In 1991, in response to the growing AIDS crisis, Nichols and Sawyer joined their long-time friend Cynthia O’Neal in founding the non-profit organization Friends In Deed (FID), in New York. FID continues to provide support for people with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as their friends and families. I am personally grateful to FID for allowing me to facilitate the workshop I created in 1986, The AIDS Mastery, at no cost to participants. I facilitate the workshops with Robert Levithan, who is on FID's Board. At FID, I have always found a welcome embrace for my long-time philosophy that “The Quality of Life is not determined by the circumstances, but by what we do with them.” More about that later. 

Our Illusions about Bill Cosby

My introduction to Bill Cosby was I Spy, an NBC series that ran for three seasons, from 1965 to 1968. He and Robert Culp played a duo of secret agents who traveled the world to right wrongs. Culp’s cover was Kelly Robinson, an international tennis player. Cosby played his trainer, Alexander Scott, "Scotty." They took their television audiences along as they went about chasing spies, villains and in a tradition newly-established by the James Bond films that were rapidly gaining popularity, beautiful women.

I Spy and Bill Cosby broke ground in many ways: 
  1. The show featured the first African American lead role in an American television drama.
  2. Scotty was a Rhodes Scholar, and the brains of the team, while playboy athlete Kelley lived by his wits.
  3. It used exotic international locations in the Bond manner, which was new to television.
  4. The banter between Scotty and Kelley helped lead to the creation of the “buddy” genre. 
  5. In real life, the two actors stayed great friends until Culp's death in 2010. 
  6. Cosby won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1966, 1967 and 1968, becoming the first African-American male actor to do so. 
Cosby and television had a great romance through the years, including the PBS series The Electric Company (which my kids loved), and his greatest television success, The Cosby Show, which became the highest-ranking sitcom of all time. Cosby was an advocate for family-oriented humor, and exercised total creative control of the series. Like the characters Cliff and Claire Huxtable, Cosby and his wife Camille were college-educated, financially successful, and had five children. The show was unprecedented in its portrayal of an intelligent, affluent, African-American family. 

But recent revelations by the women who have come forward to accuse Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them when they were young and seeking career guidance, belies the myth that his characters reflected his own life.  Like many, I thought of Cosby as a cross between Huxtable and Scotty. But as the allegations piled up, his image has been irrevocably damaged, as has his income and his future in the industry. So, here we are, with the Cosby we loved and the Cosby we may some day love again. Yes, that might be possible, if he comes clean about his life, his sexual predilections, and how he plans to recover and make amends for the pain he caused to the women he took advantage of, and the public whose trust he betrayed. I do believe in the possible.

The Quality of Life is Not Determined by the Circumstances, but by What We Do With Them

As we approach the New Year, I thought it would be a good time to explain why the above statement is my approach to life, and to tell you a bit about how I came to that conclusion. It seems to me that I've always had some sense of their truth. This certainly was not because my parents nurtured some inherent or inherited intuition about life. Nor did I have a clue that I was forming a life-long philosophy. I actually attribute my sense of life to the things I learned from, and a way of thinking I developed through, my relationship with Ethel, my family’s housekeeper. 

Ethel was a loving, light-skinned colored woman, which was the appropriate word to use when I was four. I spent much of my time with her. It was my habit to follow Ethel around the house as she washed the breakfast dishes, did laundry, and restored order to anything that needed attention. In the afternoons, when her chores were done, I’d take a coloring book and crayons to her room and stretch out on the dark blue carpet as she listened to the news on the radio. I would pepper her with questions, and she would answer: “What’s lynching?” “Being hanged by the neck until dead.” “Why would people want to do that?” “Maybe a colored man acted too friendly to white girls.” “How can somebody be too friendly?” No answer. “Why did America drop bombs that killed children?” “Somebody thought it would end the war sooner.” “Where’s the South?” She showed me on a map. “Why are there bathrooms marked for white people and others marked for colored people?” When she finished telling me I had tears running down my white face. “I hate white people!” I said as I raced into her bathroom to use her toilet. That was my first act of civil disobedience, which marked the birth of my activism, and I’m pretty sure neither Ethel nor I ever mentioned it to each other or to my parents. 

The other thing that helped develop my activism was my discovery of Wonder Woman. I would put tape around my wrists to deflect bullets, which has been replaced with wide silver or Bakelite bangles in my adulthood. I was determined to save the world, so I kept asking questions wherever I went, which was how I learned that people who didn’t have it so good could be happy, and that those who had what appeared to be everything, weren’t necessarily glad about their lives. I also began to understand that some people suffered over things that other people got mad about and still others tried to fix. In other words, I was learning that the quality of life is determined by what we do with what life hands us; that we have choice, and can always view our lives as rich and full, or empt. I liken this to a glass of water filled halfway. I figured an optimist would call it half full, while a pessimist, half empty.

In the early 1980s, while studying and leading workshops with Dan Fauci at his Actors Institute, I turned my slogan into my credo, though I must admit that there have been times when I was less sure that the words were true. One of those times came when I was about to facilitate my first AIDS Mastery, a workshop I created for people with AIDS, which was devastating the gay and arts communities at that time. 

The day of the workshop arrived, and as participants started showing up, I repeated, “The Quality of Life is not Determined by the Circumstances, but by What We do With Them,” to myself. But then I noticed that two men were in wheelchairs, and several were so thin I wanted to weep. When the elevator doors opened and a man on a gurney with an IV bag was wheeled in by his nurse, I went into the office and put my head down on the desk. The circumstances these men were living with made my slogan sound ridiculous to me, so I said a little prayer, took a deep breath and went for it anyway–and each participant’s story showed me the truth of my credo. 

At the end of the weekend, the participants declared what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives, whether that meant six months or sixty years. Some of them are still very much alive, while others who were dear to us died before Protease Inhibitors, the medications that saved so many lives, were available. Though it was a time of great loss, it was also a time of passion, service, support, tears, and laughter. Or, in the words of my favorite Sondheim song, “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all. And my dear, I’m still here.” And even all these years later, I still love my life, and do what I can be to be of service and to inform people about things that might move them to be activists and to serve.  

In Search of Justice

Eric Garner and Michael Brown

There have been reams of paper devoted to the murders and life stories of these two black men—well, Brown was actually only on the cusp of adulthood—so I would rather leave you to whatever memories, thoughts, feelings, meditations, and actions these needless deaths called upon you to confront. Each of us has our own tale of where we were the day each of these people were struck down in altercations with cops, one of whom choked Garner to death, and one who shot Brown. Neither of these men’s killers had formal charges or indictments brought against them. Quite naturally, this led their communities—and in fact the whole country—to come together in order to lobby, demonstrate, march, rally, chant, cry, and act out—though vandalizing private property clearly has nothing to do with justice, and is just a reflection of immaturity, greed, and extremely poor judgment.

The Peaceful Side of the Aftermath of 
the Ferguson and New York Verdicts 

The quality of protest, like the quality of life, is not determined by the circumstance, though it might be generated by them. What I mean is that there are many ways to express the grief, outrage, rage, horror, and politics around the current rash of well observed, filmed, and highly publicized killings of Black men by the police. 

On Thursday afternoon, December 11th, dozens of congressional staffers walked out onto the steps of the nation’s Capital to protest the recent and ridiculous, misdirected, and inexcusable decisions by the two grand juries that failed to indict the officers that killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The result was an incredible display of solidarity, with staffers raising their hands in the air to invoke Brown's "Hands up, don't shoot!" image. The following are some of my other favorite photographs of peaceful protests.  

The Not-So-Peaceful Side of the Aftermath of
the Ferguson and New York Verdicts

While I’m on the subject of the police, I thought I’d mention a conversation that was videoed by a woman on her cell phone (click here to watch) of a policeman hassling her during an arrest stop. In the midst of this all, the cop tells her, “You’re a dumb bitch!” All I could think was, “You’re calling her dumb while you are screaming, cursing and battering her as she’s capturing you on her cell phone?” Finally he grabbed her phone and tried unsuccessfully to erase her evidence. I guess he wasn’t cyber-currant enough to know that once it’s there, it’s there.  So I ask you officer, does it seem so smart to treat another human being like that?  


Please note that yes, there was violence by the police, but also violent rioters who burned cop cars, and looted, robbed, and destroyed the property community residents’ families depend on. And let’s not forget how dangerous it is for the police. On Saturday December 20th, as two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, sat in their parked patrol car in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, where they were assigned for the day, they were shot by Baltimore resident Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a gunman on a mission who had shot his girlfriend before heading to New York. He walked up to the police car and shot each officer directly in the head. Both officers died shortly thereafter. Later, Brinsley fatally shot himself in a subway station. This is a sad state of affairs, and my heart goes out to the families of the policeman, and to the family of their murderer.  

I pray that all this violence stops on both sides of the guns. 

What We Can Do: 
  1. Hold your breath as best you can without inhaling and try to read “I can’t Breathe” aloud eleven times. “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe,” “I can’t Breathe.” Now do it while imagining or replicating strangulation and the weight of big cops on top of you, and you may get close to the last moments of Eric Garner’s life. And revisit the idea that no one is being held accountable.
  2. Remember that the large majority of the police we deal with have a job to do. If we’re speeding, we’re speeding. If we’re breaking and entering, we’re breaking the law. If we break windows and steal stuff, a riot doesn’t give us a reason to behave like a criminal. Yes, tensions build up, but know that everyone is responsible for damage done even if the system is unfair. Unfair is how life sometimes is, but again, “The Quality of Life is not Determined by The Circumstances, but What We Do About Them.” How about rising above your anger? How about doing something to improve your own life and that of others? How about contributing some significant time to improving communities that need help? How about making sure that you treat others the way you want to be treated, including the police? 
  3. Watch Chris Rock. 
    The issues between the police and minority communities are very serious, and there are many serious meetings taking place between police departments and groups of active citizens coming together to create common goals and a variety of possible solutions. But Chris Rock offers up some very solid advice to minorities about how to get along with the police, or as he calls
    this video (click here): How Not to get Your Ass Kicked by the Police. I think you will find it an enlightening and very entertaining way to suggest how to deal with the circumstances that some Americans face on a daily basis. 
  4. Add your voice to the 'comments' section below.

Does America Torture?

Merriam-Webster on Torture: 
“The action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.” 

United Nations Conventions on Torture: 
“For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.” 

The picture below right was one among the memorable photographs collected in evidence that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Bush administration was guilty of Crimes Against Humanity, with Bush, who wrote about it in his new book, Cheney, who remains unrepentant, and Rumsfeld, who may still be living in Taos, New Mexico, being the three primary criminals. There were several runners-up. 

The Torture Report: 
On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, Dianne Feinstein, in her role as Chairperson of the Select Committee for the Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program took the Senate podium to present the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on CIA torture under the previous administration. The document, which is available online by clicking here, seems to echo all of the previous reports and point fingers at the same people we’ve been talking about since the facts emerged. What the report shows, according to its introduction, is that the abuse performed by the CIA and documented by the investigation was found to be in direct "violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values." 

Some things in particular made me wince, such as the medically unnecessary forced rectal feedings. However, on Sunday, Cheney still claimed the feedings were done for "medical reasons." The former vice president showed little remorse for the dozens of prisoners who were found to have been wrongfully detained, for the man who died, or for people like Khaled El-Masri—a German citizen who was shipped off to Afghanistan and sodomized in a case of mistaken identity. 

Here’s what I’d like to see happen: one dark night, a special ops team slips the same kind of soft cloth bag worn by the detainees over the heads of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld—and whomever else you’d like to add who should be accountable. The next thing the men remember is waking up in small cells in The Hague, where they are tried and found guilty of Crimes Against Humanity. Then, after another long, head-covered nap, they all wake up and find themselves in even smaller cells next to one another at Gitmo, where they are forced to spend the rest of their lives together along with their detainees. Sounds like torture! 

According to Feinstein, the four key findings of the report include: 
  1. The CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not effective. 
  2. The CIA provided extensive inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to policymakers and the public. 
  3. The CIA’s management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed. 
  4. The CIA program was far more brutal than the CIA represented to policymakers and the American public.

Has Torture brought the Maverick Back? 

For those of you who are shocked to see me praising a man I have called bitter and resentful, I have to say that the words he spoke about torture this week sounded like the McCain who made so much sense in years past. When McCain ran against Bush in the republican primary he said, regarding his own party, that he would, “…reform a party corrupted by big money” and, as he later put it, “agents of intolerance.” His comments were accurate, but, instead of working to make his party relevant rather than revengeful, McCain and his buddy Lindsay Graham spent their waking hours—and probably their dream-time as well—thinking about ways to undermine President Obama. But John McCain has a unique perspective on torture, fueled by his personal experience. His words were eloquent and important: 
Mr. President, I rise in support of the release—the long-delayed release—of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summarized, unclassified review of the so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that were employed by the previous administration to extract information from captured terrorists. It is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose—to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies—but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world. 
I believe the American people have a right—indeed, a responsibility—to know what was done in their name; how these practices did or did not serve our interests; and how they comported with our most important values. 

What We Can Do: 
  1. Read or watch the full presentation, or if you’re up for a 500-page read, go for the entire report, which you can access at:
  2. Watch video of Feinstein's remarks here:
  3. You can write to Senator Feinstein to let her know what you think about the report and what you think should be done: 
  4. Read McCain’s Response to Feinstein:
  5. Or  watch it:
  6. You can be in touch with your own Congress people and ask them to see to it that these War Criminals are brought to justice: and
  7. Add your voice to the 'comments' section below.

CUBA Si! Sony No!

I sit at my computer moving to the strains of Ibrahim Ferrer’s music, which is representative of a sound that thrives in Cuba. Ferrer performed with various musical groups including the Afro-Cuban All Stars, and came to international popularity when the film Buena Vista Social Club was released. I loved these rhythms and for years had wanted to dance to them in Cuba, but during the Bush years, when the film came out, it wasn’t so easy to go legally. My chance finally appeared when the Fourth International Conference on HIV/AIDS in Cuba, Central America, and the Caribbean was scheduled to take place in Havana in January, 2000. I did two things in preparation for the trip: I scheduled a workshop to facilitate while there, and I called my friend and colleague Jeremy Landau, who in addition to being an AIDS activist and a wonderful photographer, had been to Cuba several times. He organized the details of our trip.

I was 11 when the Cuban people began their struggle against their once-benevolent, American-supported, leader, Fulgencio Batista, who became despotic and much-despised as he began to be primarily interested in supporting the wealthiest class to the detriment of the working class and the poor. This created the appetite for change that led to the Cuban Revolution. Toward the end of 1958, rebels began to drive out Batista’s forces in the name of the people. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, a romantic beauty, took over the country. 

Clearly, as has happened with so many revolutions, the liberators, in order to run their country, began to look for financial support from the United States. But the U.S. decided to continue supporting what were, at the time, its own financial interests. So, the new Cuban leaders turned to the Soviet Union, which had a better grasp of what the revolution had been about. These actions brought Communism and a new version of repression to the island, but it also garnered cheers of “Viva la Revolution!” I was one of those wooed by the romance of the story, and even when I understood what had happened there, the sense of romance stayed with me.

             Ibrahim Ferrar                                                                                             Che Guevara
Cuba! La Bella Isla; Jeremy G. Landau, Photography

Obama Greets Castro in South Africa
I have not been back to Cuba in all these years, but I took heart when I saw the photos of President Barack Obama as he greeted Cuban President, Raul Castro, before speaking at the memorial service for the late South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. President Obama delivered a moving tribute to the late South African leader, telling tens of thousands of South Africans packed into a soccer stadium in Johannesburg that Mandela was "the last great liberator of the 20th century." I have spent enough time in, and loving, South Africa to imagine that Nelson Mandela would have smiled at the thought that he brought these two leaders together to forge a new relationship between their nations. I can also imagine that Pope Francis gave it a smile—and more—and must be pleased that President Obama has, in a wonderful visionary display of wisdom linked with personal power, seen how important it is to both countries that we break a completely unsuccessful policy that has turned into a fifty-year-plus stalemate. Loving Cuba, having spent time with Cubans from many walks of life, and acquiring a real taste for Cuban cigars, I applaud President Obama for his courage to take this stand while knowing that the rabid right would go for his throat.  

Marco Rubio got right to it. He tried to sound eloquent but basically did the President a big favor by being semi-articulate and factually wrong, forcing him to revise a statement he made on Fox News: “Barack Obama is the worst negotiator that we’ve had as president since at least Jimmy Carter.” Fox News must have told him that Jimmy Carter, among many other things: 
  • Negotiated the still-successful Camp David accords 
  • Led a coalition that reduced the incidence of Guinea worm disease from 3.5 million cases in 1986 to fewer than 148 today,
  • Observed 99 elections in 38 countries to help establish and strengthen democracies
  • Established a village-based volunteer healthcare delivery system in thousands of communities in Africa
  • Strengthened international standards for human rights and the voices of individuals defending those rights
  • Helped advance efforts to improve mental health care and diminish the stigma against people with mental illnesses.  
Rubio’s idiocy required him to change his tune and revise that line, simply calling Obama “the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime.” Clearly that’s untrue, since his lifetime includes Bush’s delusional war on Iraq and the lives lost for the sake of Republican vanity. But not to be outdone in the Obama-bashing adopted as the center of the campaigns being run by Republicans hopefuls to run in 2016, the even less articulate Ted Cruz gave it a try with, “One more very, very bad deal,” and “A tragic mistake,” which is what I consider the idea of Rubio, Cruz and others on the right who are very short on ideas, and very long on hate speech. 

What We Can Do:  
  1. Take some time to look up the history of the Cuban Revolution. While it’s not as romantic as I had thought when I was young, it’s a pretty great story.
  2. Look up the tyrant Batista, America’s favorite dictator at the time, to see what Cuba was like pre-revolution.
  3. Write to Ted Cruz: and Marco Rubio:, and tell them your version of suggesting that they need to get their facts straight and stop confusing their ambition, bigotry and lust for their own turn in the White House for truth. 
  4. Write to the President and thank him for taking the high road in Cuba rather than continuing to do things the way others have done it while expecting a different result.
  5. Give yourself a treat: as soon as you can, go to Cuba. It’s an amazing country filled with wonderful people.
  6. Add your voice to the 'comments' section below.

"The Interview"

The other area I’d like to address is the film, The Interview, which Sony is supposed to open in theaters in the U.S. on Christmas Day. In case you are unfamiliar with what this film is about, the following official description will fill you in: 
Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) are the team behind the popular tabloid-TV show Skylark Tonight. After learning that North Korea's Kim Jong Un (Randall Park) is a huge fan of the show, they successfully set up an interview with him, hoping to legitimize themselves as actual journalists. However, as Dave and Aaron prepare for their journey to Pyongyang, the CIA steps in, recruits them, and assigns them an incredible mission: Assassinate the dictator. 
The dictator they mean is the actual current dictator Kim Jong Un. Now, the reason the film isn’t opening is that days ago Sony’s files were hacked, and the hacking has been traced back to the regime in North Korea, as have the threats to pull a 9/11 at theaters where the film is shown. The theaters pulled the film. President Obama, in an interview with Candy Crowley on CNN Sunday morning, said that he thought Sony had made a mistake, referring to freedom of speech, the right of the arts to tell a story that not everybody agrees with, and the fact that we've fought wars to make sure we enjoy these rights. He also said he wished Sony had called him, which it turns out they had, but the call never make it up the White House Staff chain. He also said that he was unwilling to let North Korea dictate to the United States what films we can and cannot show, and that when the United States is attacked, cyber or otherwise, the attacker will come to rue the day. I was thinking that if I were President Obama, I would have immediately arranged to do a screening of the film at the White House for the First Family and the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as other appropriate committee heads, before heading to Hawaii for a family holiday. 

What We Can Do: 
  1. Let your local theater know that censorship is not your thing. 
  2. Write to Sony immediately and ask them to televise the film or make it available on YouTube.
  3. Remind both Sony and theaters near you that The Last Temptation of Christ was too smart a film to garner a big audience until the Catholic Church mounted huge protests against it and created a great audience for the film. You can't buy advertising like The Interview is getting. 
  4. If you end up seeing the film at home, why not make it a movie event and enjoy some popcorn along with the show? 
  5. Add your voice to the 'comments' section below.