The Casual Blog

Tag: Tyler Clementi

Sensationalizing homophobia, engaging with aging, and testing mindful eating

Coming back yesterday from a short trip to Manhattan, I had a few minutes to spare in the crowded Delta terminal at LaGuardia. There were no seats near my departure gate, but I found one three gates away, and flipped through The New Yorker magazine. With only a few minutes, I purposely chose a story I expected to be relatively uninteresting — a piece by Ian Parker titled A Reporter at Large: The Story of a Suicide: Two College Roommates, a Webcam, and a Tragedy.

The story keyed off a widely reported incident at Rutgers University in 2010 in which a student spied on his roommate with a webcam and tweeted that he’d spotted homosexual behavior. The ensuing mediathon developed the story line that a heartless homophobe had posted video on the web that caused a vulnerable closeted gay student to kill himself — an emblematic hate crime.

In Parker’s reexamination, the popular media story turns out to be a gross distortion. Dharun Ravi, the surviving roommate, is now facing a criminal trial on vague charges with the potential of years in prison. Ravi created an extensive record of tweets, texts, and other communications that seem stupid and immature, but not unusually so for a 17-year-old. There turned out to be no web cast of video. The suicide victim was actually out of the closet. Ravi’s juvenile online socializing comes across as frenetic and somewhat pathetic. He seems smart, selfish, insecure, and not all that unusual.

I got a few a columns into the story before I decided with boarding time approaching I needed to position myself closer to my gate. I wheeled my possessions a hundred yards or so. Somewhere in that process, my New Yorker disappeared. I retraced my steps, but it had vanished. How annoying! I hope whoever recovered it enjoyed it. After I got home, I managed to download the piece to my iPad and finished it.

It’s too bad, in a way, that the facts don’t support the story line of a bullied gay martyr. Homophobia plainly exists, and violence against gays exists, and those things need to be publicly condemned and appropriately punished. Tyler Clementi’s suicide was unquestionably a tragedy. But, as Parker’s story shows, the cause is unknown, and probably complex. There’s no simple way to assign blame for it. The media’s hype and erroneous reporting fed hysteria and calls for revenge, and now comes a criminal trial that will at a minimum scar a second life.

As an alumnus of the editorial staff of The New Yorker, I enjoy flipping through it every week, though I admit to reading less of it than in days gone by. Last week I read with intense pleasure in the January 23d issue a piece by Donald Hall titled Out the Window: The View in Winter.

The 83-year-old poet has written about getting old. He now needs a wheelchair and has various physical problems. He’s conscious of being “a separate form of life,” treated with either indifference or too much solicitude. He spends a lot of time looking out the window at his bird feeder and the countryside beyond. The outline of his life sounds sad and dull.

This is the amazing thing, though: his life is full of incredible beauty! His descriptions of the drama at his bird feeder are marvelously clear and vivid. He writes of the sequential blossoming of spring flowers with rhythmic, muscular prose. To think that this depth of perception and power of expression can be part of growing old is inspiring.

I’d like to become more conscious of ordinary sensory experience, and to reduce, if only a little, the percentage of each day lived on autopilot. It’s challenging, though, to engage with the present. There are distractions inside and out. Art, like Hall’s essay, can help. I find yoga is also helpful. I hadn’t really thought of meal time as a possible aid, but was inspired by a column this week in the NY Times headed Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.

The basic notion is to focus carefully and completely while eating on the sensations of eating — the flavors, smells, and textures, down to tiny details. The way I normally eat involves talking to people, reading, listening to music, thinking about things, and sometimes combinations of these, jumping from one to the next, hardly noticing the food. Mindful eating is the opposite — quiet and slow.

According to the column, this approach to food is an antidote to over eating and helps with distractedness. It also could lead to greater pleasure. I was reminded of my old friend Tom, now departed many years, a casualty of AIDS, who considered great cooking to be an art entitled to no less respect than painting or music. Accordingly, he had an enthusiasm for high-end restaurants at a time when neither of us could well afford them. He once used part of his Watson fellowship money to treat me to a meal in a four-star restaurant in Paris. His only request was that we not talk while we ate. We enjoyed the incredible meal in perfect silence.

More recently, on an average day I have a hard time focusing for half an hour on anything, and that includes eating. But at least now I’m thinking about it. So far, I’ve managed to eat only a few mindful bites at the beginning of a meal, but I’m going to keep trying.

Young lives lost, and a note on homophobia

One of the things I like about my morning newspaper is the obituaries. I paid no attention to them in my younger days, and thought it odd that older people read them. Then, somehow, I got older, and became sort of a fan. Many are pro forma statements, but as a group, they give some clues as to how people manage grief. Every now and again, there is an account of someone who apparently lived a life that enriched the lives of those surviving, and those cheer me up.

But the obits I tend to focus on are those involving young people. Old people are supposed to die eventually, but not young people, so there’s always an element of tragedy. Every now and again, I get a sobering dose of pain, as when a death looks like it could have been a child of my own. There was one such this week — a young woman named Grace White from Cary (like use, until recently), who’d just graduated from N.C. State (like my dear Jocelyn), worked in Hemlock Bluffs Nature Center (where I’ve been many times), who died in a wakeboarding accident on Harris Lake. Apparently she hit her head hard in a fall and had a fatal brain injury. Her dad is speaking out on the dangers of wakeboarding without a helmet. I am so very sorry for his loss.

This week the suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old violinist at Rutgers University, became a national story that also seemed close to home. Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson after his roommate posted a video on the internet of him kissing another male. Much of the commentary has focussed on the effects of bullying and the power of the web. But the story is surely in part about homophobia. The reluctance of the mainstream press to treat this aspect of tragedy directly is dispiriting.

I keep thinking we may have turned the corner on homophobia, but Clementi’s death is a reminder that it’s alive and well. The resistance to gay marriage has weakened, but a major segment of the population is still fearful of gays, and there are still politicians (including gay ones) who exploit this fear. One of the hardy perennial fear narratives is conflating gay sex between consenting adults with deviants who prey on children. I think such myths are gradually losing their power as more people realize that gays are normal people with normal ethics who pose no special threat. Everyone knows and gets along with gay people, whether they know it or not. But there are still minds that need to be changed. The Clementi tragedy reminds us that this is an urgent matter, because some lives are at risk.

One aspect of the story that made it more personal for me was the fact that Clementi apparently was a talented music student. In my time as music student at N.C. School of the Arts and Oberlin Conservatory, I knew many gay students, and came to understand that gays are major contributors to our artistic life. Just as gay friends have enriched my life, gays have made our society richer.

I have a theory as to why gays are so important in the arts. Artistic expression involves emotional exposure that runs counter to male stereotypes. Stereotypical American males don’t say much about their inner feelings. Art goes against this grain, since it involves exposing feelings. You don’t have to be gay to be an artist, and plainly being gay will not make you an artist. But the willingness to reject stereotypes is something gays almost have to have, and that type of courage is helpful for an artist.

I’d guess that Clementi had not worked through and accepted his sexuality, and so he was probably particularly vulnerable to cruel homophobic gibes. That sort of behavior, and homophobic thinking, has got to stop. It could help to speak up on the issue, and invite others to examine their prejudices. I’ll say it, though it probably rules out any chance of elected office: gays are good for our society. Or to put it in bumperstickerese: gay is good.