Friday, January 23, 2015

Trans-parent language

Lately I have been watching and enjoying the Amazon television series Transparent. I was thrilled when it won the Golden Globes for Best TV series as Best Actor in a comedy. And now everyone will have have a chance to watch it when Amazon streams the entire season for free on January 24th.

 Much has been written about this ground-breaking series since it debuted in the fall. I really do love Jeffrey Tambor's lovingly humorous portrayal of Maura, the transgender parent of the title. He is an actor that I have become familiar with over the years. He has triumphed in countless roles before; he outdoes himself here. And series creator Jill Soloway is acting as a positive disruptive force in the world of formulaic, often sexist Hollywood sitcoms.

So watch it if you like comedy, if you like good acting with smart dialogue, and if you like gorgeous California real estate. If you are squeamish about sex scenes or gender-questioning, this isn't the series for you. But you probably already guessed that!

I also really appreciate how the series, and the growing visibility of the transgender community that it reflects, demands that we examine the powerful role language plays. Maura's family has many questions, but they are summed up by his daughter Ali, who simply asks, "What do we call him now?" The name she settles on, "Moppa," is a lovely compromise, one that Soloway used with her own trans-parent. But personal pronouns remain problematic, and cause some confusion, notably in Episode 5.

I welcome this examination of the power of these words. For too long, many of us protested the offensiveness of using "men" or "mankind" for "people" and "humankind." And were told "oh, you know what I mean." Unfortunately, we did. But refusing to acknowledge the power imbalance implicit in this terminology seems laughable to most of us today. Pick up an old textbook or newspaper, though, and that language propels you right back to the days of the unapologetic patriarchy. So I understand the importance of getting this right. Identity is tied up in how we label ourselves, and how the world labels us. If transgender people, or those who identify as genderqueer want to be referred to as ze, why should we fight it? Nouns and pronouns influence how we see ourselves in relation to society.  I grudgingly admit that the growing use of "they" might just solve this problem, though it is extremely hard for my grammar-loving heart to embrace this term. But logic (and the very clever columnist Steven Petrow) convinces me I may have to.

Who knows? If we keep going down this path, someday I may realize one of my wildest dreams, when once and for all we bury the boorish  "you guys" in favor of the simple, elegant "you."

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Year's Day with NPH

Neil Patrick Harris
Happy New Year!
If you want to read yet another blog about New Year's resolutions or predictions for what 2015 has in store for us, I apologize. This is not that blog. You are welcome to look at what I have written about resolutions in the past. I also have an astrologer friend who makes some interesting predictions based on what the sky tells us is happening now and in the coming months.

No, this first column of the New Year will highlight a wonderful episode of NPR's Fresh Air I heard on New Year's Day. The incomparable Terry Gross rebroadcast an interview with actor/singer/author Neil Patrick Harris from October 13,  2014. Somehow I missed its original air date but am glad I caught it this time around!

Harris is an incredibly wise and grounded (not to mention talented) performer, and he gave a warm and funny interview: I recommend it to you. In conversation with him, Gross covered many intriguing topics. NPH (as he is known to his fans) has had an interesting career as an actor, recently playing a trans-gendered German rock singer in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. It was a challenging role, to say the least, and he won a Tony Award for it in 2014. Gross asked him about his approach, specifically about how he transformed physically and vocally into the female rock-singing persona. I was fascinated by what he said about his vocal routine, and his work with veteran New York voice coach Liz Caplan. She engaged him in detailed work on breathing and posture habits affecting his vocal production, just as I do with my clients. And, like most of the people I work with, NPH had a few things to learn: "As it turns out, the way I carry my personal body is a little neck strained... meaning that I don't stand perfectly tall, I jut my neck forward a little bit. And instead of using my diaphragm and my full breath, I tend to sort of clench my breath right around my throat and allow the sounds to come through... that compression is not so good on your cords because  ... [it] causes some kind of vocal problems later, like nodes or losing your voice". Caplan also gave him exercises for tongue tension, which can add to that vocal stress. Gross, apparently as fascinated by his technique as I was, asked NPH to demonstrate several exercises. They weren't exactly the ones I use, but I would guess any clients of mine who happened to catch the show recognized the similarities.

It was a rewarding episode for me to hear. To know that I teach a technique that works (even for such pros as NPH!), that I continue to share with others who can really be helped by it: what a wonderful way to start the New Year!