Remembering Vito, 25 Years Later: Vito Russo, the Visual Arts and AIDS

Vito Russo, the legendary gay and AIDS activist whose achievements have already earned him a biography and several film documentaries, is best known as the author of The Celluloid Closet and as a co-founder of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)

 
 

by Lawrence D. Mass

 
 

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from left, Larry Mass, Arnie Kantrowitz and Vito Russo

 
 

For the last three years, New York City has been host to The “Last Address” Tribute Walk. The event is coordinated by Alex Fiahlo, programs manager of Visual AIDS, an organization that “utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV+ artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.”

 
 

Commencing with a screening of Ira Sachs’s short, moving film, Last Walk, which lingers quietly and respectfully outside the last addresses of a number of artists and writers who died of AIDS-related illnesses and conditions, Fiahlo then conducts a walking tour to a selection of those addresses, where there are readings of remembrance and tribute by colleagues, friends or loved ones of these artists. Among those whose homes were visited in the film are Keith Haring, Hibiscus, David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Harold Brodkey, Robert Mapplethorpe, Reinaldo Arenas, Charles Ludlum, Assotto Saint, Jack Smith, Ethyl Eichelberger and Vito Russo. http://www.visualaids.org/blog/detail/alex-fialho-writes-about-his-last-address-tribute-walk

 
 

This will be the first year that Vito’s home will be included in the walking tour and I was honored to be asked to speak about Vito outside his home, where I spent so many evenings, from the earliest period of having met him and of the epidemic in 1980-81 until his death in 1990. For the tour, I plan to read several passages from the wonderful biography of Vito, Celluloid Activist, by Michael Schiavi, as well as from the foreword to the revised Stonewall classics edition of Under the Rainbow by my life partner, Arnie Kantrowitz.

 
 

In the space I have here, and as we approach the 25th anniversary of Vito’s death from AIDS, I would like to personally remember Vito, whose friendship was one of the gifts of my life. What warm memories I have. As Arnie’s closest friend, Vito became family. Together with their other closest friend, NYC gay civil rights pioneer Jim Owles, I had married into an extended family of giants of the gay liberation movement.

 
 

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Arnie, Vito and Jim Owles

 
 

Even though Vito was someone we saw and talked to and about continuously, such were his aura and energies–his “sparkle and charisma,” as Arnie captured it–that just to be in his presence, at his home, ours or anywhere else, always felt like a special event. Whether showing us snippets of new films with gay characters, actors, themes or issues, old clips of Bette Davis (Arnie’s favorite actress) and Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance, or regaling us with his favorite line from his favorite film, Caged, about women in prison: “Ok, you tramps, pile out. It’s the end of the line!”, Vito was always vibrantly present, always on, always a star, the brightest in our lives. Incidentally, we inherited Vito’s Caged poster which greets you now as you enter our apartment, on apposing walls of which are two other Vito posters, one from Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt, the 1989 academy-award winning documentary featuring Vito, and another from a New York City Gay Men’s Chorus Night at the Movies that Vito hosted. It was always great to see the pictures of his favorite star, Judy Garland, that festooned Vito’s apartment and the film clips of her he probably watched more often than Arnie saw his favorite film, Gone With The Wind. (How we all would laugh at the thought of “Scarlet Kantrowitz”!) Garland was, after all, the greatest singing actress in the history of film as well as the premiere gay icon whose death, as legend has it, sparked Stonewall. We loved her too, but it’s Vito we remember most from all those Judy moments we shared with him.

 
 

Whether we were playing Yahtzee, Risk or poker, dishing the latest dish about this or that closet case or star (so often one and the same), celebrating our birthdays together, ganging up on “the Kantrowitz,” as Vito called him, for always somehow being “the good one”; whether we were catching pearls of wisdom, fact and insight from his encyclopedic knowledge of film or catching him munching on the Mallomars he kept refrigerated and with which he always could be counted on to spoil his appetite for dinner; whether savoring the impressive Italian pasta sauce he made from scratch, ignoring the burping and flatulence that increasingly plagued him as AIDS advanced, or massaging his legs for the pain from the large KS lesions that covered his body, being with Vito was always a family connection, and always a gift.

 
 

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Vito and me at the joint 40th Birthday party Arnie hosted for us at our home

 
 

So many treasurable moments. The first that comes to mind was also the last, in the sense that it happened just after Vito died, in fact as Arnie, Jim Owles and I were on our way to his memorial service at Cooper Union in New York. Featured speakers included Mayor David Dinkins, who had visited Vito in the hospital, and Larry Kramer, who famously began his comments with “We killed Vito.” Alas, the soundtrack of the service was lost because of a recording error. Our taxi driver, apparently bitter about his life, chose our ride to displace his anger.” Life is terrible,” he inveighed. “No money, no women, no friends!” “But that’s just not true,” I shot back. “We’re on our way to a memorial service for our beloved friend, who also had no money, but who had more friends, so many of them women, than anyone I’ve ever known.” What I’d said was impressively true. Vito was always broke, yet always managed to keep earning his way, never exploiting his staggering array of friends, many of them well-heeled and virtually all of them bending over backwards to help and love him in every way we could, even as we failed to rally in time the much greater forces needed to save him. I can’t recall anyone who disliked or who was seriously alienated from Vito, apart from some misanthropes from the next generation of Zine queers, who criticized him for being too mainstream.

 
 

One of those well-heeled friends was the leading New York socialite, charity doyenne and GMHC buddy pioneer and patron Judy Peabody. They immediately struck up a genuine friendship, calling each other at all hours, laughing and chatting intimately about everyone and everything. Judy was just one of the many stars in Vito’s orbit. Bette Midler, Peter Allen, Elizabeth Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellen, Harvey Fierstein…the list is endless. The thing about Vito and these friendships is that they were all genuine. It’s hard to imagine anyone better at making and keeping friends. When Mayor Dinkins visited Vito, Vito confided to him personally, as he would to any good friend, urging him to be true to himself and choose principles over politics and popularity.

 
 

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Vito with Marcia Johnson

 
 

However glamorous and beloved a star Vito was in our firmament, his life’s work was as serious and revolutionary as it was urgent. Before meeting him, I was keyed into his writing, especially The Celluloid Closet, which addressed a key perpetrator of what would eventually be called gay genocide by his increasingly close friend and comrade-in-arms Larry Kramer: the relentless representation of GLBT people in films and media as killers and psychopaths, as evil, sick, demented. The Celluloid Closet was the first book to catalogue what Vito called the “Necrology” of GLBT people in film. At that time I was writing my own first pieces in the gay press, one of which was called “Why is Hollywood Dressing Gays to Kill?” for the New York Native, for which I also wrote what became the first press report and weeks later the first feature article on AIDS in 1981. The previous year I had covered the trial of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy in Chicago for Christopher Street magazine. Individually and together, these developments seemed to have the potential, in the wake of the Dan White trial for the assassination of Harvey Milk in San Francisco, of igniting an unprecedented backlash.

 
 

If there is anything that unites the struggles against AIDS with those of homophobia in the arts, it’s the issue that is captured by the ACT UP logo, Silence = Death. Just as Vito fought so bravely and lovingly to open the closet doors of cinema, so did he struggle mightily to open the eyes and hearts of the world to AIDS. Yet here is where another of Vito’s qualities was revealed–the unconditionality of his love. Although he could be fiercely angry, disappointed, critical and activist, and a true leader as such, he was inevitably forgiving, and without lingering personal bitterness; and he continued to love us all, including closeted stars and celebrities who just couldn’t for whatever reasons of circumspection and career bring themselves to come out publicly but whose confidences and friendships he simply would not betray, even when under considerable pressure to do so. Likewise those within his own and extended gay families who fell short of expectations of who and what we could be and do, especially as AIDS raged on. In a moment that brought me to tears, just before one of his last public appearances, also at Cooper Union, I found myself once again inarticulate in trying to express to Vito how much we all loved him, how much he meant to us, how grateful we were for all he had done, how sorry we were that we hadn’t fought harder and achieved more, better and faster. As Larry Kramer has often observed, the epidemic might have been quashed sooner and a lot more lives saved, including Vito’s, had everybody’s efforts been redoubled. I felt totally inarticulate and failed in my effort to communicate all this, but as our eyes met, he said, “I love ya, Lar.”

 
 

Vito was especially inspiring to me in my own work on opening the closet doors of the worlds of music and opera. I’d hoped eventually to put together a collection of my essays, interviews and reviews, the working title of which was “Musical Closets,” a worthy project that was never completed. Alas, there still is no overview work, no Celluloid Closet, on homosexuality in music and opera, though there are now, thanks in no small measure to Vito’s pioneering efforts, a number of books on homosexuality and the fine arts.

 
 

The Celluloid Closet quickly became a classic that remains a premiere reference for GLBT experience and treatment in the arts, a standard that paved the way for subsequent studies and documentaries, and with which all other such work will continue to be compared. As adapted for film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, The Celluloid Closet was nominated for numerous awards, and GLAAD susbequently named an annual Vito Russo Award to recognize openly GLBT achievement in fighting homophobia in film and the media.

 
 

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Vito with his agent and close friend, Jed Mattes, who was at Vito’s hospital bedside when he died from complications of AIDS November 7, 1990.

 
 

Alas, there is little of the fabulously engaging star, leader and persona that was Vito Russo himself in the 1995 film of The Celluloid Closet, but we are fortunate that Vito’s appearances on film did not end there. There is ample footage of him in Common Threads, and also in Jeffrey Schwarz’s 2012 documentary of Vito’s life and work, Vito. As is now the case with Larry Kramer following the release of Jean Carlomusto’s documentary for HBO, Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, there is now enough of the real Vito Russo preserved on accessible documentary film to give a genuine sense of who that person was, what he was like, why he was so important, and why he was so beloved.

 
 

As witnessed by Arnie and myself from behind Vito and Larry Kramer, and as recounted by Michael Schiavi in Celluloid Activist, the Gay Pride parade, Vito’s last in 1990, passed Larry’s apartment on 5th Avenue just above 8th Street. On Larry’s balcony, Larry and Vito locked arms, acknowledging the roars that kept erupting from the passing throngs below. “Look Vito,” Larry said. “These are our children.”

 
 

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Vito with Larry Kramer

 
 

RIP Vito. When you passed from our lives, the brightest of its light–sunlight and starlight–went with you. You may not have lived to see the AIDS treatment that eluded you by only a few years, nor did you live to see the “end of AIDS,” as we are buzzing about it now. But your spirit and legacies of activism will live on, as will the love and gratitude of all those who knew you, all those whose lives your activism was key to saving and ennobling, including those younger and countless who did not have the gift of knowing you personally, “our children.”

 
 

photos from the private collection of Larry Mass

 

references from The Celluloid Activist by Michael Schiavi and the obituary on Vito Russo by Arnie Kantrowitz, Outweek, 11/21/90

 
 
 

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You Can Meditate While Moving — And It Totally Counts

I first tried to sit still and clear my mind in college, after a nasty breakup where I was consumed with heartache. For weeks, I moped around the city playing whack-a-mole against all the feelings of betrayal and hurt that were popping up in my head, but I had taken enough yoga classes at that point to know that the nasty things I wanted to say to my ex were a poison I was pouring down my own throat.

 
 

I wanted meditation to be the way out, to interrupt the subconscious train of destructive patterns and surround me with all its benefits — the decreased heart rate, the lower blood pressure and the general feelings of improved health and mental clarity.

 
 

But how?

 
 

“I’m really bad at meditating,” I complained to my friend Eric after a few fidgety attempts. “I hate sitting still. My back hurts, my shoulders ache, my feet always fall asleep.”

 
 

Eric happened be a Feldenkrais instructor–a type of holistic movement therapy that aims at bringing people more fully into their bodies. Think of it as yoga’s kin.

 
 

“Meditating while sitting still is unnatural,” he said without missing a beat. “Of course it’s hard. I never sit still when I meditate,” he added.

 
 

“Wait, what?” My eyes crossed. “You can meditate without uh, sitting still? That counts?”

 
 

Eric rolled his eyes.

 
 

“Yeah, especially for people who have mobility issues–joint pain, muscle weakness–moving meditation is much more accessible.”

 
 

Holy crap!

 
 

That feeling of sinking into a deep exhale when I hit my first down dog of the day–that was meditation. That full inhale I focused in on to help hold me up in Warrior II? That was meditating too. Turned out, I did know how to meditate!

 
 

splits

 
 

Some people, usually people who have trained long and hard, can meditate while sitting still. But for a lot of us, moving is the best gateway. Those movements help maintain focus on something beyond our day-to-day concerns and our mind naturally gravitates towards what it is doing. In yoga, breath cues are integral to the practice of stretching, flexing, and holding–it provides a focal point for whack-a-mole minds of all shapes and sizes to latch onto.

 
 

When you have a sequence of connected moments where you have stopped thinking about what you need to pick up at the store, the horrible things you want to say to an ex, and the ten pounds you want to lose, you have successfully meditated. When you can string these moments on demand, you develop a new tool in your arsenal to fight existential angst, anxiety, and stress.

 
 

Yoga teaches that there is prana coursing through our bodies–it’s also called the life force, or Qi in the Chinese tradition. Having a controlled breath means you can get a lasso around your prana. The breath is what bridges the gap–it is the gateway to the mind-body connection. If you can regulate your breath first, you have a toehold in working the muscles that regulate your mind.

 
 

Any ritual that derails that thought train barreling around your brain, whether it be planning for the future or reliving the past, can be meditation. Whether it’s folding laundry or standing on your head–all you need is the proper intent.

 
 

The golden pot at the end of this meditation rainbow is a sneaky feeling that floods the senses when unwanted thoughts come and you have the power to easily release them because you are happily focusing on your breath. A calm, focused presence arises when you don’t have to be or do something else.

 
 

Pausing and consciously relaxing–even for a minute–shifts us away from the defensive and aggressive sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight or flight impulses. Most of us aren’t even aware of the low-level fight or flight anxiety that follows us around all day until we get a break from it.

 
 

Meditation is a pattern interrupt–and whatever skillful means you can use to bring your thought to your breath will derail the unconscious brain train rumbling around inside your head.

 
 

So get fixated on your breath–get all OCD about coming back to every tiny sensation of inhaling and exhaling–feeling the air as it enters your nostrils, feeling the skin stretch at your ribcage as your lungs expand, feeling the minuscule movement as you pause and then take in just a tiny bit more oxygen.

 
 

If sitting still doesn’t work for you, but you want to have a calmer mind, yoga is one of the best ways to start developing the muscles of attention so you can step off the thought train whenever you need a break.

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Illinois Bans Gay Conversion Therapy For LGBT Youths

 

Illinois’ Republican governor on Thursday signed a law banning mental health therapists from trying to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

 

The measure signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner outlaws the controversial practice of “gay conversion therapy,” sometimes called “reparative therapy,” on people younger than 18. Once the law takes effect on Jan. 1, violators will face discipline from their state licensing board, according to the text of the measure. 

 

The law makes Illinois the fourth state to ban gay conversion therapy for minors. California, New Jersey, and Oregon — as well as the District of Columbia — also have outlawed the practice.

 

But the Illinois measure is the first to include language linking conversion therapy to consumer fraud, according to its sponsor, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat who is an openly gay member of the State House. 

 

“Our version of this legislation is the most comprehensive bill in the nation, barring health providers from engaging in this practice and affording survivors access to consumer fraud action against the perpetrators of this abuse,” Cassidy said in a statement.

 

Critics of conversion therapy say the practice is ineffective, because sexual orientation is not a choice, and is harmful to minors in particular. The Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association condemned the practice as far back as 1997.

 

“Every major scientific organization has dismissed conversion therapy as harmful,” Cassidy said. “The Illinois Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association for Social Workers, and so many more have not only disproven its utility, but they have decried its effects.”

 

Cassidy noted that children who are rejected by their communities based on sexual orientation are six times more likely to suffer from depression and eight times more likely to attempt suicide.

 

Jim Bennett, Midwest regional director for the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal, applauded the governor’s signing of the measure, telling The Huffington Post the law “puts the best interest of our young people first.”

 

“A more accurate name for conversion therapy is child abuse,” Bennett said. “Our LGBT young people deserve to be embraced for who they are.”

 

President Barack Obama this year called for an end to gay conversion therapy in response to a White House petition brought after the suicide of transgender Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn. 

 

Alcorn, 17, walked in front of a truck in December after leaving a note in which she described how her conservative Christian parents forced her to undergo conversion therapy in order to change both her sexual orientation and gender identity. In a note posted to Tumblr, Alcorn wrote:  

 

“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.”

 

Also on HuffPost:

 

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The Triple-Check Process to Stop Emotional Eating for Good

When I started the practice of mindfulness to help recover from my clinical depression and anxiety disorders, I didn’t apply it to my eating. Emotional eating was my final security blanket after I shed most of my other unhealthy habits. No one knew I had a problem with food; it was the one thing I had all to myself, and it always soothed any discomfort I was feeling.

 
 

But along with the soothing came guilt, self-loathing and weight gain. I felt like an impostor of a fitness trainer. If I couldn’t get a handle on my emotional eating, how could I teach other people to do it?

 
 

After years of denial and procrastination, I finally committed to applying mindfulness to my food choices.

 
 

Eating mindfully changed my body and my life.

 
 

I lost the excess weight without dieting or feeling restricted, and I have much more energy and brain space for the things that are truly important to me — energy and space that food used to occupy. Eating mindfully also helped me become a more conscious, patient and loving person.

 
 

The thing is, eating mindfully can be really hard if you have no idea where to start. That’s why I never stuck with it in the past. To help you stop restricting once and for all, starting today, I’m psyched to share my practice of mindful eating.

 
 

I developed a triple-check system in my personal mindful eating practice, and it’s worked wonders for me. It makes the process incredibly simple and straightforward. If you’re ready to deal with your eating issues head-on and do the work to rise above them, you absolutely can do this! Try it for yourself and you’ll see.

 
 

1. Emotion Check: What am I feeling?

 
 

No matter where you are or how hungry you are, take a full minute or two to sit and get in touch with how you’re feeling. Think of it as a mini meditation: Sit down, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and ask yourself: “What am I experiencing that may trigger me to emotionally eat during this meal?”

 
 

Take a few more deep breaths to get in touch with your emotional center. Face your thoughts and feelings honestly and fearlessly so that you know exactly what you’re dealing with.

 
 

2. Honesty Check: What do I really need?

 
 

It takes a lot of bravery to be honest with yourself about food, but the payoff is priceless. Ask yourself before every meal: “Will this food choice fuel me or fuel my emotional eating?”

 
 

Facing your honest answer in the moment before emotional eating (or restricting yourself) takes place will feel very uncomfortable the first few times. The part of you that drives you to eat emotionally will fight for power; it will not make the choice to eat mindfully an easy one. If you are truly honest with yourself when you answer this question, it will force you to make better food choices, often much healthier and in appropriate portion sizes that don’t leave you feeling overstuffed.

 
 

Commit to answering honestly and following through on it. Forming new habits requires effort at first. The discomfort will not last forever — you are strong enough to deal with anything that comes your way. Emotions will not destroy you. Refusing to face them, however, will.

 
 

3. Action Check: What can I do instead?

 
 

Perhaps the most difficult part of my journey so far has been discovering other ways to deal with the emotions that arise when I don’t eat over them. There were times when I was riddled with anxiety, which caused me to lash out at my husband or isolate myself from friends because I didn’t have coping mechanisms set up to handle the emotions I was no longer numbing out with food. If I wasn’t careful, I knew I would trigger a depressive episode eventually, so I got smart instead.

 
 

I researched mindfulness tools that didn’t incorporate food and found several that help me every day.

 
 

Preparing for the emotions is the best way to find consistency in mindful eating. There are times when it will be so tough to say no to the comforting call of food, so having a coping skill at the ready could be a lifesaver.

 
 

Here are the tools that are the most helpful for me:

 
 
    • Take a walk outside. Just 10 minutes can help you reconnect to the reasons you’re putting forth all this effort in the first place.
 
 
    • Color in a coloring book. It might sound ridiculous, but there are specific coloring books created for achieving calm states of mind. Coloring gives you something to do with your hands while also distracting your mind from the obsession over food.
 
 
    • Journaling. Those feelings that are cropping up aren’t going to resolve themselves. You have to work through them. Sometimes, though, you just don’t know what exactly is going on. Journaling will help you gain clarity on exactly what’s bothering you so that you can take steps to resolve it.
 
 
  • Talk it out with someone who understands. If you have a therapist, coach or friend who understands emotional eating (or maybe is working through the process along with you), call them and talk it out when emotions arise. Talking it out with someone who understands is a way to find relief and support. The person you reach out to could have a recommendation for a new way to cope that you may never have considered before.
 
 

It’s a lot to digest (hardy har har), I know. I’ve started down and abandoned the mindful eating path many times with other techniques. This triple-check is the only process that I’ve been able to use over and over again without feeling overwhelmed, because it’s rooted in your power.

 
 

Every step in this process is a choice to put your mind and body first. If you can just concentrate on the fact that you are choosing this, and release the feeling of “being forced” to change, each step becomes a bit more easily.

 
 

Relief from chronic dieting, restriction and emotional eating can be yours if you are brave enough to get still, get honest and take action. You have everything it takes to make this happen. Now the choice is yours.

 
 

*****

 
 

Amy Clover is a fitness personality & the force behind Strong Inside Out, a site that inspires you to become stronger than your struggle through mindfulness, movement & balanced nutrition. Get her FREE Emotional Eating Toolkit here.

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Back to School: Not Just a Celebration for Parents

I don’t have tiny humans of my own, yet, and I probably won’t have them for a while. What may surprise you parents out there, though, is that I get just as excited for back-to-school as they do. Obviously my enthusiasm for the end of summer comes with different reasons, but I’m eager for your kids to return to school, nonetheless. Even now that I’m no longer a server/bartender/retail associate with my afternoons free, I’ve found a few stellar reasons to rejoice when the kids are back in the classroom.

 
 

Less-crowded trains

 

In the summer, the commuter trains fill up with people who don’t know the drill. Families and teens flood the city to visit the beach, summer festivals, museums, shopping and more. Some of the time, this is no big deal, but there are always a few occurrences that really irritates the daily commuters.

 
 

Teen-free lunches

 

I can relax in the park on my lunch hour.I work three blocks from Millennium Park in Chicago. In the summer, it’s swarmed with teens in high-waisted short shorts and crop tops. Sure, there may be the sporadic field trip to The Bean or a couple tourists, but the mass exodus of the parent-less hormonal teens at the end of summer sets my heart a flutter.

 
 

Dwindling tourism

 

Every year as summer begins and the hoards of local and exotic tourists descend upon Chicago, trolling up and down State Street, outside the building where I work. I look at these people and scream in my head, “Where were you when the temperature was well below zero?!” As soon as it’s nice out, they overrun the sidewalk, walking in large groups that take up the entire space so I have to push my way through them to make it to my train on time. When they go away, and there are fewer people in my way as I head to and from work, ecstatic doesn’t begin to cover it.

 
 

Vacations

 

While I’m all vacationed out for the year, this is the absolute best time for childless people to hit up the great vacation spots typically overrun with kids and families. My boyfriend and I visited Disney World the week after Labor Day a couple years ago and it was AMAZING. If I could plan all of my vacations during this time, I totally would!

 
 

Matinees

 

I don’t get to experience this nearly as much as I did when I wasn’t working a 9-5, but oh my GOD did I love going to matinees after the kids went back to school! Empty theaters all to myself at the lower price! Glorious.

 
 

What are you looking forward to when the kids go back to school?

 
 

You can read more by connecting with Chrissy on Twitter and Facebook.

 
 

This post originally appeared on Quirky Chrissy.

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Obesity Gene Discovery Could Forever Change Weight Loss

 

Scientists have finally figured out how the key gene tied to obesity makes people fat, a major discovery that could open the door to an entirely new approach to the problem beyond diet and exercise.

 

The work solves a big mystery: Since 2007, researchers have known that a gene called FTO was related to obesity, but they didn’t know how, and could not tie it to appetite or other known factors.

 

Now experiments reveal that a faulty version of the gene causes energy from food to be stored as fat rather than burned. Genetic tinkering in mice and on human cells in the lab suggests this can be reversed, giving hope that a drug or other treatment might be developed to do the same in people.

 

The work was led by scientists at MIT and Harvard University and published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

 

The discovery challenges the notion that “when people get obese it was basically their own choice because they choose to eat too much or not exercise,” said study leader Melina Claussnitzer, a genetics specialist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “For the first time, genetics has revealed a mechanism in obesity that was not really suspected before” and gives a third explanation or factor that’s involved.

 

Independent experts praised the discovery.

 

“It’s a big deal,” said Dr. Clifford Rosen, a scientist at Maine Medical Center Research Institute and an associate editor at the medical journal.

 

“A lot of people think the obesity epidemic is all about eating too much,” but our fat cells play a role in how food gets used, he said. With this discovery, “you now have a pathway for drugs that can make those fat cells work differently.”

 

Several obesity drugs are already on the market, but they are generally used for short-term weight loss and are aimed at the brain and appetite; they don’t directly target metabolism.

 

Researchers can’t guess how long it might take before a drug based on the new findings becomes available. But it’s unlikely it would be a magic pill that would enable people to eat anything they want without packing on the pounds. And targeting this fat pathway could affect other things, so a treatment would need rigorous testing to prove safe and effective.

 

The gene glitch doesn’t explain all obesity. It was found in 44 percent of Europeans but only 5 percent of blacks, so other genes clearly are at work, and food and exercise still matter.

 

Having the glitch doesn’t destine you to become obese but may predispose you to it. People with two faulty copies of the gene (one from Mom and one from Dad) weighed an average of 7 pounds more than those without them. But some were obviously a lot heavier than that, and even 7 pounds can be the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy weight, said Manolis Kellis, a professor at MIT.

 

He and Claussnitzer are seeking a patent related to the work. It was done on people in Europe, Sweden and Norway, and funded by the German Research Center for Environmental Health and others, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

 

Obesity affects more than 500 million people worldwide and contributes to a host of diseases. In the U.S., about one-third of adults are obese and another one-third are more modestly overweight.

 

The FTO gene turns out to influence obesity indirectly, as a master switch that affects two other genes that control thermogenesis, or burning off energy. It’s long been known that brown or beige fatty tissue – the so-called “good fat” – burns calories, while the more common white fat stores them. The body constantly makes fat cells, and the two genes determine whether they become brown or white ones.

 

In one experiment described in the medical journal, researchers blocked the faulty gene’s effect in mice and found they became 50 percent leaner than other mice despite eating a high-fat diet, and burned more energy even when asleep.

 

In other tests on human cells, blocking the gene’s effect increased energy burning in fat cells. Editing out the problem gene in human cells in the lab also restored normal metabolic function.

 

Researchers don’t know the impact of having just one faulty copy of the gene but think it has less of an effect than having two copies.

 

Several companies are trying to develop treatments to stimulate brown fat, and the new research suggests a novel approach.

 

“It’s a potential target” for drug development, said Dr. Sam Klein, an obesity researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. He called the work “an amazing study” and “a scientific tour de force.”

 

Dr. Rudolph Leibel, an obesity expert at Columbia University in New York, used the same term – “tour de force.” Still, some earlier research suggests the FTO gene may influence other aspects of obesity such as behavior and appetite.

 

“It’s possible there are several mechanisms being affected,” and that fat-burning is not the whole story, he said.

 

 

Marilynn Marchione can be followed at http://twitter.com/MMarchioneAP

 

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Black Lives Matter, ACT UP and the Urgency of Violence and Death

There’s been lots of criticism from some progressives after Senator Bernie Sanders was shouted down by Black Lives Matters activists in Seattle recently, especially from supporters of Sanders’ presidential campaign. The basic tenor is that Sanders is a “friend” and thus protesting him is a waste of time, diverting from going after the “real” enemy. But much context is missing among the critics of Black Lives Matter, and, in one case in which a a comparison to the fiery AIDS activist group ACT UP is made, there’s a bit of unintentional historical revisionism that needs to be cleared up.

 
 

I was sitting in the crowd when former Maryland governor, Martin O’Malley, was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protestors in Phoenix at Netroots Nation last month. The activists took the stage and made the point that the issue of police violence and killings of black citizens weren’t being discussed adequately by progressives and political candidates. They demanded answers from O’Malley, and, directly afterward, from Bernie Sanders. It was disruptive, loud, tense and passionate.

 
 

And the first thing that came to my mind was ACT UP, a group of which I was a part, chairing its media committee back in the late ’80s, and which engaged in similar kinds of protest and disruption, including against Democratic presidential candidates. The urgency of the protest was similar as well: People are dying, and no one in power seems to be doing anything to stop it.

 
 

That’s why I was perplexed by at least one critic of Black Lives Matter suggesting that the group could take a page from ACT UP, which is portrayed as having engaged in a more productive form of disruption. Charles Pierce, a sharp, progressive writer I’ve followed for years and who does great work, criticized Black Lives Matter on Esquire.com for protesting Sanders in Seattle — preventing him from speaking — and like many other progressive critics he called the action “stupid” and “counterproductive” since Sanders basically supports the cause, unlike GOP presidential candidates. In a follow-up post he took back the word “counterproductive” but stuck by his general criticism and used ACT UP, which transformed the response by government, media and the health care establishment to HIV, as a model of activism which Black Lives Matter should follow.

 
 

The implied message was that ACT UP was successful by only targeting obvious enemies and not offending supposed allies. But that is simply not true. ACT UP was hated, despised, ridiculed and attacked by supposed friends — including many in the gay community itself — who claimed we were hitting the “wrong” targets, including our supposed allies, similar to the criticism Black Lives Matter is receiving now. The progressive Village Voice, born in the 1960s’ rebellion, was perhaps the biggest critic of ACT UP in the early years. According to some progressive critics there and elsewhere, we were fascists or Stalinists who silenced people with angry and confrontational protests. Or we were alienating the very people we were supposed to bring in.

 
 

The same was true of the criticism of the tactics of the various offshoots of ACT UP in the early ’90s, such as Queer Nation, which focused on the violence against gays and engaged in guerrilla actions to promote queer visibility, staging kiss-ins and wheat-pasting posters around major cities which revealed the sexual orientation of closeted prominent Hollywood and political figures.

 
 

And there were virulent attacks on OutWeek magazine, another ACT UP offshoot, founded by ACT UP members, which was at the center of the so-called “outing” movement (and where I was an editor). The writer Fran Leibowitz, a darling of liberal intellectuals, said of OutWeek, “It’s damaging, it’s immoral, its McCarthyism, it’s terrorism, its cannibalism, it’s beneath contempt.”

 
 

ACT UP regularly protested that supposed friend of liberals, The New York Times, and ACT UP activists literally hijacked the set of Dan Rather’s live broadcast on the CBS Evening News, flashing a message opposing the first Iraq war and calling instead for money for AIDS research. The group disrupted trading at the New York Stock Exchange, unfurling a banner on the floor, invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a civil disobedience action against the Catholic Church and shouted down Democratic presidential candidates, like Bill Clinton, getting promises from them on fighting the AIDS epidemic.

 
 

Years later, people herald ACT UP for the work it did, but they all seem to forget that in the moment there was enormous tension between the group and the larger progressive community — as well with the larger gay community — as people accused ACT UP of alienating allies by being confrontational. And that has actually been true of every protest movement for every cause: In the moment they’re criticized, while later they’re heralded. Black Lives Matter is doing exactly what it should be doing. And it is getting exactly the response it should be getting, bringing attention in every way possible to an urgent life and death issue.

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