Archive for December, 2021

Reconstructing reality

My apologies for the late augmenter post. Hope you enjoy it.

The authors of the convener post on Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague presented us with very interesting questions. They first explain how there’s “a variety of responses to the plague…displayed in [the] play.” And they note that there’s a spread of “emotional responses to it.” They importantly tie this to societies’ usage of social media; which “polarizes the information we receive about the pandemic”. And ask if this further becomes a challenge or an opportunity to control public reactions during pandemics?

Jason Silva in his video titled How I Feel About Pandemic “Facts” discussed the blurring of the fringe stream and mainstream reality in the midst of a the COVID-19 pandemic. Silva finds himself convoluted while hearing out persuasive speakers on every side, with every opinion on different issues. This makes him feel disoriented. He describes it as living in a “post-truth world which is really problematic”. Furthermore, he compares the experience of living through this pandemic as being lost at sea. Not knowing who to believe, as the “agendas have hijacked the situations.” Do you follow the hysteria on one side or the arguments that claim it’s all a hoax? Silva calls for coherence and asks that we “disclose a set of common frameworks and objective realities” once again. So that we can “cooperate and collaborate and move about the world with some kind of orientation.” That’s his invitation during these times. And he hopes that’ll help us emerge out of the storm stronger, but he is concerned nonetheless.

Our conveners asked: how should we treat and respond to detrimental shocks like the plague? Is there a proper timeline or principle to moderate this shock to prevent mass hysteria and misinformation? They then provided us with an excellent hedgehog metaphor, painting a picture of our relationship to one another. “It is inescapable that we stay together for warmth, but if we are too close, too connected, we hurt each other.” Silva in his video sits with a similar dilemma. He is torn between the persuasive information on both sides trying to reconstruct a new reality by reevaluating his relationship to other people’s opinions, desperately in need of a common framework. How does one resolve that? That’s one of the challenges that pandemics leave us with. It’s a dilemma for all of us, humans, “to reevaluate our relationships with each other”, explain the conveners. “Pandemics pose a challenge for us to reconstruct the interdependent relationship between ourselves and our community.” Silva’s video is an exemplification of one person’s challenge, his emotional response to that dilemma, and how he articulates it. I invite you to explore his channel for more thought provoking videos on various topics and themes like: Mental health, Sex, love and relationships, Creativity, Technology, Fear, and much more!

If you’re curious about where to start, maybe start with this video: The New Normal 2020 in which Silva presents many questions which surround us during these times. Happy watching!

A final convener’s post: thank you, Bryan

For almost ten years, Bryan Waterman has been an integral—dare we say—core part of the NYUAD community. He has shaped an entire generation of students and community members with his spirit, empathy, and leadership. Although he will continue to impact this campus from afar, we wanted to take a moment and celebrate his time in Abu Dhabi. There’s nothing better than a convener’s post to express just how grateful we are that our paths have crossed with Bryan Waterman.

In the classroom, Professor Waterman goes above and beyond to challenge us beyond what we thought was capable and does so without compromising his empathy and humanity. Contagion is both a safe space and an opportunity to take risks; by breaking down our writing, he has helped us build it back stronger. Professor Waterman teaches us new ways of looking at ourselves and the communities we inhabit. In his classroom, literature transforms from an escapist fantasy into a vital resource for our survival as a species. As our studies of pandemics took on new meanings, Professor Waterman helped us make sense of the chaos outside and never lost empathy for his students. His genuine interest in us, not as objects to be taught, but as human beings to learn from is the defining element of his pedagogy. Professor Waterman is never out to push an agenda but continually demonstrates flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to explore new perspectives. In his classroom, teaching is a dynamic exchange between professor and student. He is eternally patient and supportive as we develop the courage to find our voices and express our opinions. At the same time, Professor Waterman manages the careful balancing act of creating a learning environment that is inclusive and kind without sacrificing the academic rigor for which he is famed. Of course, it wouldn’t be Contagion without infection! Professor Waterman’s enthusiasm for literature has even spread to our new habits of reading passages out loud and annotating books by hand.

Professor Waterman’s dedication and spirit have never been limited to the classroom. From the Core Curriculum to Howler Radio and early morning HUA sessions (virtual or not), he has been a fixture of this community for almost a decade. His commitment to bettering NYU Abu Dhabi sets an example for all of us. Professor Waterman’s work could have ended the moment class was over but instead, he continually chooses to be a member of the community and has created a home here. When he talks about supporting students and investing in people, he follows through with his actions and dedication. His passion is infectious and he has truly inspired legions of students with his commitment to community-building. The time, energy, and effort Professor Waterman has invested in this place outside of the classroom is proof that he truly exemplifies the spirit of this place. Thanks to him, this institution and all the people who have passed and will pass through it are more generative and generous.

Despite his energetic teaching and campus-wide leadership, Professor Waterman’s greatest impact has been at the most elemental level: interacting with students. Professor Waterman is a combination of Sam and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. His heartwarming optimism and faith in us when all seems lost makes us feel like the main character in our lives and in return, we strive to meet his expectations, even if it means waking up at 8:55am. At the same time, his wisdom and guidance are tremendously helpful, particularly in these plague times. Professor Waterman is a constant source of comfort as we weather the beginnings of adulthood. Through scholarship essays, capstone crises, and late homework assignments alike, he is continually understanding that we are human beings above all else. When we have struggled, Professor Waterman has gone above and beyond for us, taking an active role in supporting us as best he can. In an institution with a toxic work culture, his validation that we are more than students is truly grounding. At the same time, his passion for learning and sharing is a reminder of why we are all students in the first place. Our interactions with Professor Waterman are shaped by a unique dynamic that few others can match. In seeing us as humans with value to contribute, he erases much of the power dynamics and distance that mark traditional relationships with professors. This attitude based on mutual respect and empathy is truly reaffirming as we find our voices. Professor Waterman’s empowerment of his students will be remembered long after we all go our separate ways.

Professor Waterman’s joyful and creative spirit will be sorely missed in Abu Dhabi. This is a bittersweet moment; new beginnings are refreshing and we are excited to see how he will leave his mark on the next generation of students. At the same time, we cannot help but mourn his absence on Saadiyat. His constant dedication, care, and empathy are felt by all and we are so grateful that he has chosen to share the past ten years with this community. Thank you, Bryan!

— your students, past and present

‘Not Just an AIDS Play’

It’s interesting to see how a play that looks at the AIDS epidemic at a time when not many were willing to talk about it keeps getting reproduced to this date. Why is that so? According to Gary Abrahams, director of a 2017 production of Angels in America, the play goes beyond just talking about AIDS. The play uses AIDS to talk about world politics and issues that the queer community continues to face. The AIDS crisis continues to remain important as it brought up conversations about homosexuality and allyship for the queer community. Due to the impact of theatre, plays like Angels in America have played an important role in initiating conversations and bringing a cultural shift related to civil rights and social justice.

Also came across this critique of the play and how it deals with race.

“Aren’t you courageous? What a hero!” – Stolen years of the wife of a closeted gay husband

“I get angry because everyone’s said to him how fantastic, aren’t you courageous, what a hero,” writes Beth. “I wanted to beat the living shit out of him for what he did to our family. There were no repercussions for him. My anger was mind-blowing.”

Beth, an Australian woman whose husband came out

On the occasion of a long-time closeted man coming out, we normally congratulate and celebrate the rebirth of a man, his bravery in self-authenticity. However, this positive reaction towards the man often causes more damage to the woman who has devoted her time and effort to their marriage. From the stories of women seeking help from the Women Partners of Bisexual Men service, we can see the anger, betrayal, disbelief, and among all, helplessness when the partner they have chosen to spend the rest of their lives with reveals that he is not attracted to them. By putting myself in their shoes, it is not difficult to understand Harper’s breakdown.

The book released by the Women Partners of Bisexual Men service, run by the Leichhardt Women’s Centre in Sydney. 
To mark its 25th anniversary, the service is releasing a new book, There’s Something I Have To Tell Youfeaturing 20 stories from the women’s perspective.
Photograph: Leichhardt Women’s Centre

The worst part is, there is no one ultimately to blame except the intrinsically homophobic society that has locked the men-loving men in the closet consciously or unconsciously. Then, they made the wrong choices.

“The way he described the boys: ‘he’s very handsome’, ‘he’s very muscular’He probably didn’t know he was gay at the time,” she writes.
“It broke my heart to read the diary of a sweet young boy on the verge of making the wrong choice.
“And that choice was me.”

Lucy, in her acute distress, read her husband’s teenage diary

Read more of these women stories and how they coexist with reality or leave:

When AIDS Was Funny

Angels in America takes us back to the AIDS pandemic in America. The play is set in 1985, 4 years after the epidemic first started and 2 years before President Reagan publicly addressed the epidemic by its name (see here for a detailed timeline of HIV/AIDS in America compiled by New York City AIDS Memorial).

The first cases were reported in 1981. By 1984, 7,239 had been infected and 5,596 died. In 1985, there was an 89 percent increase in new AIDS cases compared with the previous year. The severity of the epidemic and the apathy of the Reagan administration formed a stark contrast in those days. Here’s an exchange between Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, and journalist Lester Kinsolving in 1982:

Kinsolving: Does the president have any reaction to the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?

Speakes: AIDS? I haven’t got anything on it.

Kinsolving: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.[Press pool laughter.] No, it is. It’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this.

Speakes: I don’t have it. [Press pool laughter.] Do you?

Kinsolving: You don’t have it? Well, I’m relieved to hear that, Larry! [Press pool laughter.]

Speakes: Do you?

Kinsolving: No, I don’t.

Speakes: You didn’t answer my question. How do you know? [Press pool laughter.]

Kinsolving: Does the president — in other words, the White House — look on this as a great joke?

Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.

The jokes from the White House carried on despite soaring death tolls. Here is another exchange between the two 2 years later in 1984:

Speakes: Lester is beginning to circle now. He’s moving up front. Go ahead.

Kinsolving: Since the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta report is going to… [Press pool laughter.]

Speakes: This is going to be an AIDS question.

Kinsolving: …that an estimated…

Speakes: You were close.

Kinsolving: Can I ask the question, Larry? That an estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the president, as commander in chief, take steps to protect armed forces, food, and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they bed typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services?

Speakes: I don’t know.

Kinsolving: Is the president concerned about this subject, Larry?

Speakes: I haven’t heard him express concern.

Kinsolving: That seems to have evoked such jocular reaction here. [Press pool laughter.]

Unidentified person: It isn’t only the jocks, Lester.

Unidentified person: Has he sworn off water faucets now?

Kinsolving: No, but I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?

Speakes: Lester, I have not heard him express anything. Sorry.

Kinsolving: You mean he has expressed no opinion about this epidemic

Speakes: No, but I must confess I haven’t asked him about it.

Kinsolving: Will you ask him, Larry?

Speakes: Have you been checked? [Press pool laughter.]

Unidentified person: Is the president going to ban mouth-to-mouth kissing?

Kinsolving: What? Pardon? I didn’t hear your answer.

Speakes: [Laughs.] Ah, it’s hard work. I don’t get paid enough. Um. Is there anything else we need to do here?

(For the audio of this exchange, see this documentary called When AIDS was Funny

Besides the homophobic jokes and infuriating indifference, we also see how little was known about AIDS (people still thought it could be transmitted through saliva and was only a problem within the gay community, thus, called the “gay plague”) despite the fact that 3 years have passed since the epidemic started–a telltale sign of the lack of research done at the time. To get more funding for research, over 100,000 people marched in San Francisco during the 1984 Democratic National Convention. 

An AIDS protest in front of the White House. ACT UP activists hang a "Silence = Death" banner on the White House gates.
An AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) protest in front of the White House (Jeffrey Markowitz / Sygma / Getty)

All this time, the President was silent. It was only until the spring of 1987 did Reagan give a public speech about AIDS at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington DC. By that time, 36,058 Americans had been infected and 20,849 had died. The speech was also no more than a mere acknowledgment of the happenings: “But let’s be honest with ourselves. ‘AIDS information cannot be what some call ‘value neutral’. After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?” There was no mention of increasing government-funded research, but rather to “give educators accurate information about the disease. How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not Government.”

More on Reagan and the AIDS:

The Blessing Angel

In the final Epilogue, Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah sat on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. That was one of the most memorable shots in the HBO series for me. These four characters sit under the giant statues of an angel, surrounded by the wings of the angel. This angel is a sculpture by the lesbian sculptor Emma Stebbins. Emma Stebbins was openly part of the LGBTQ+ community. She sculpted this artwork based on a biblical story. It is an angel holding a lily, blessing the water with healing power. Back in the day when the queer community is strongly looked down upon. Central Park became an important spot for the gay community to hang out and meet. By setting the final act in the central park in front of the angel, the play linked itself together by referencing this important artwork.

read more about the artist: