Sunday, November 23, 2008

Life, Death and Time

This post is a day late; my apologies.

I know I’m not alone in always thinking about JFK’s assassination every time the calendar hits November 22nd. Just looking at a picture of Jackie Kennedy in that little pink suit brings all the horror and drama and significance of that incredible weekend rushing back to mind. It was a terrible, seminal, and in some ways magnificent moment. Among other things, it killed a dream, ended the openness and access that both the public and the media used to have to public figures, and it made television the unifying social force it is today.

But for most people under 50, the death of JFK is just dusty history, as distant and removed and unfamiliar as the assassination of Czar Nicholas, and just one more thing we tiresome Baby Boomers cling to, like Woodstock and Kent State. Just another day on the calendar; just another date in the history books.

The passage and perception of time, and the understanding of events in their context, are so interesting, as well as mutable and enormously subjective. When I was studying Spiritualism and psychic development, I had a brilliant teacher who often said that time is completely fluid: the present is in constant flux, the future is always changing shape, “and the past is always changing, too,” she used to say, “but don’t tell that to people; it makes them anxious.”

Indeed, the changing past is our constant, disturbing companion, rendered invisible by ignorance and often distorted by malicious intent – invisible, as in: knowing nothing about everything that’s ever happened anywhere, so far as many young Americans are concerned, the ones who giggle as they struggle to name the first US president, but can’t; distorted, as in: those who would have you believe that the WWII Holocaust never happened – and wwii is an audio device. If you live long enough, you could die of despair.

Not to mention the weight of Life’s Big Issues as they impose themselves on the minutia of daily life, sometimes with the suddenness of an out-of-control car barreling onto a sidewalk, sometimes with low-key style, like a gracious best-selling author at a book store signing event, lending an air of wisdom and distinction to otherwise awkward chatter and anonymous autographs.

The latter style presented itself on Wednesday, when a couple of dear friends had their second child, a little girl who was scheduled to be born at noon via cesarean birth; talk about malleable time. The former style was the order of the day on Thursday, when I officiated at a memorial service for a talented young composer who died most unexpectedly the previous week, the close friend of another dear couple I know. Talk about “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (If you don’t know who said that, Google it…!) At their request, I said sage and comforting things without mentioning God or quoting from any kind of scripture – which was fine with me, since God can be of great solace to some folks at times like that, but to others, religion is just an irrelevant pain in the ass, and I totally get it.

On Friday, minutia held sway as I slept as much as possible. Then I awoke in time to contemplate Life and Death while making a chicken casserole for my friend and neighbor of more than 30 years. She’s 94, and we’ve been having dinner together almost every night since last March, because otherwise she wouldn’t bother to eat. She has senile dementia: not as devastating as Alzheimer’s, but very much the same kind of mind/time-fuck for the person who has it and can’t remember much of anything from moment to moment, and, very disconcerting for the people around her, who fear they see their own disintegrating brain and vulnerable future reflected in her frightened eyes.

Then this morning, after CNN left me breathless and nervous about all of the day’s life-and-death current events, I kept myself company while washing the dishes with the 1965 film, Go, Monster, Go, the kind of movie they used to use to great comedic effect on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I won’t bother to explain why, just suffice it to say there was a scene with a bunch of teenagers dancing to rock music. Back in actual 1965, movie scenes like this used to make me nuts, because the terrible made-for-the-movie music they used bore no relation whatsoever to the real music of the day; neither did their klutzy dancing or silly outfits. I used to complain to friends: “In 50 years, people will think this is what the 60s really looked and sounded like!”

Which, of course, they do. Just like people today think the 50s (an era of repression, boredom, and clunky style) was actually like an episode of Happy Days and filled with what interior designers now call mid-century chic. Go figure.

Word of warning: If you didn’t live through it, don’t automatically trust what history tells you about it. And if you did, don’t automatically trust what’s left of your memory. Keep a journal, and remember: time marches forward, backward, and all around you. In truth, we really never know what the hell is going on.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Still Less Perfect Union

Although I’ve been basking in the warmth of Barak Obama’s victory last week, that great milestone is tainted for me by the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which reversed that state’s legalization of gay marriage. And, at the end of last week, watching Charlie Rose’s interview with Kay Ryan, the new U.S. Poet Laureate named in July, really drove home my disappointment.

Ms. Ryan isn’t the first lesbian to be named Poet Laureate, but she is the first openly gay woman to be so honored. Ryan and her partner of 30+ years, Carol Adair, pictured here (left to right) during their wedding ceremony at San Francisco’s City Hall in 2004, are both professors at Marin College and, by all accounts, live a fairly idyllic Gertrude & Alice existence in the city by the bay.

When I was in my teens and 20s, I wrote quite a lot of poetry (much of it pretty good, if I say so myself) and entertained conflicting fantasies of being A Famous Singer and (more sensibly, more realistically, I thought) A Great Poet, just like Gertrude Stein, and also like her, with a loyal, loving Alice B. Toklas-type by my side. As it turned out, I didn’t become a great or famous anything and, being sexually ambivalent (along with being ambivalent about everything else), I never did find my Alice, though it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Stein and Toklas have always been very romantic figures to me. I’ve read Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas several times; ditto for James R. Mellow’s great biography, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company. My best friend since high school, the artist Charles Chamot, and I, saw ourselves as very Stein and Picasso-like figures and for years planned a trip to Paris together to pay homage at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein and Toklas’ apartment and the site of their famous art soirees (imagine living with walls and walls of original Impressionist paintings by all the up-and-coming artists of that influential movement!).

Because of my own mixed emotions, my admiration of Stein and Toklas, and the fact that I’ve always had close gay friends (both women and men), I’ve always regarded gay love as just as normal as straight love – which, by the way, it is. I’ve always viewed gay rights as a civil rights issue, and am proud to say that I played a meaningful role in the early years of gay rights activism. And in my capacity as an Interfaith minister, I’ve performed only three weddings: one straight, two gay.

Forty years after Stonewall, the battle for gay rights is still being fought on many essential fronts. While there is certainly greater openness and acceptance than back in the day, the passage of Proposition 8 confirms that there is still a lot of resistance out there. Obviously, there are many straight people who dislike and distrust homosexuality. The still-oft-raised objection to gay people raising children continues to be based on the mistaken idea that gay people are child molesters; statistics have long shown that child predators are generally straight. And these people who talk about The Sanctity of Marriage at a time when the divorce rate is at 50% and marital infidelity is a national sport (have you seen those horrible TV commercials for, the adultery-dating Web site?), simply refuse to accept the idea that gay love is the moral equal to their own.

Barack Obama was not elected president because racism is over, but in spite of the fact that racism is still very much a part of lopsided American life. Proposition 8 didn’t pass because gays are immoral and undeserving of the legal protection and recognition of marriage, but because sexual fear, hate, ignorance and intolerance are alive and well. Ultimately, Kay Ryan and Carol Adair remind me as much of the many long-term, often lifelong, gay couples I’ve known for decades as they remind me of Gertrude & Alice, who were always recognized as a couple but "discreetly" never said a word about it – and indeed, became ex-patriots in Paris because living openly in America was impossible. Until all love is viewed as legitimate and nothing less, and all prejudice and discrimination become a thing of the past, we will remain an imperfect union no matter who is at the helm.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008








Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

In Conclusion

I can hardly believe that The Campaign Without End will (hopefully) end tomorrow, and I believe it will be a happy ending and we’ll have President Obama replacing President Unforgivable. However, having endured this entire campaign as a concerned and participatory citizen, there are a few things I’d like to say about the electoral process before I return my attention to other matters.

Despite the shortcomings, inequities and peculiarities of this campaign – and there were many – it was a blessing. It inspired America to think and talk about politics again, and brought many new and previously disenfranchised citizens into the political fold. It forced us as a nation to start talking about racism, sexism, and economic disparity, and it put our most pressing national concerns – the economy, education, the Iraq War, oil dependency, the environment, health care, and the Big Three entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) – squarely on the table. Issues such as civil and human rights, Constitutional protections, poverty, drugs, crime, and immigration, among them, got little or no direct attention, but hey, the campaign was only two years long, they couldn’t cover everything. The simple facts of Obama, Clinton, and even Palin, as major candidates, made history; we’ve turned a page and that’s a good thing. And of course, this campaign was the first to reflect the full power of the Internet as a major new medium, one that promoted enormous civic involvement by individuals and permitted the dissemination of much more information than ever before.

That said, it behooves us to acknowledge and discuss now, before we get lost in the happy haze of a new beginning, the problems of the campaign. It was ridiculously, exhaustingly, unproductively too long, and outrageously too expensive. The debates, from the primaries to the final matches in October, were awful; they weren’t debates at all, they were bad press conferences. The campaign also brought into shocking relief just how much politics is a team sport in this country, and to what extent party loyalty impedes truly bipartisan, cooperative governance. It also highlighted the simplistic, narrow vision that many Americans have about their country and themselves; if we keep thinking we’re The Greatest Country in the World, how can we improve and grow?

Media coverage, particularly on TV and in tabloid newspapers, should be roundly chastised for continuing to shape American politics as a horse race, a popularity contest, an opportunity for scandal, and for relentlessly focusing on irrelevant minutia. By the end of this week, they’ll already be discussing, in earnest, the 2012 presidential election, which is a huge public disservice (and should be punishable by death…). Since we as a culture are increasingly driven by information technology, we as a people must start to demand grown-up, nuanced, significant media coverage of all news, especially politics.

And with Election Day now just hours away, it’s time for us to fully consider the value of eliminating the electoral college so that every vote really does count, instead of millions of votes being rendered almost irrelevant, depending on what state one lives and votes in. We also must address the chaotic condition of the voting process, from convoluted registration procedures to dysfunctional voting equipment; The Greatest Country in the World shouldn’t have such a difficult time casting and counting electoral votes.

It is my heartfelt wish that before the next presidential election we can address the many problems just cited. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to true leadership and responsible, innovative and supportive public policy. We survived this campaign. We’ve earned it.