Thursday, June 30, 2011

What’s in a Word?

Since the passage of gay marriage in New York State last week, I’ve been talking to friends about their reactions. Gay and straight, some people are delighted, others seem disinterested, particularly straight people who think it’s fine but it really doesn’t have anything to do with them (and are therefore not thinking of the rights issues and political implications of the matter that affect us all).

One straight woman said she’s very happy and proud of New York and cited, along with the fairness of the law, the many ways that the state/cities can benefit financially. I agree. This will be a boon to wedding-related retail goods, services and tourism (honey-moons!), which is a great side benefit of something that needed to happen for completely other reasons.

Another friend said the greatest importance is that gay couples will now have all the legal rights and privileges (and shared problems) that married straight couples have, from health care coverage, to hospital visiting and living will decisions to greater child adoption and custody rights, etc., et al. These and other practical key issues will continue to be highlighted as the fight for marriage equality continues.

The two responses that interested me the most – and which have been a large part of the marriage equality debate since it began – were the liberal woman and conservative man who both said they were fine with gay couples having the rights of marriage, but they don’t like that it is called marriage. They feel “the union of a man and a woman is the definition of marriage” argument is inviolable, he on religious grounds, she on the grounds of tradition and proper English usage. And apparently the state of Rhode Island agrees, because yesterday it legalized “civil unions” for “same-sex couples,” not gay marriage.

Although I’m an Interfaith minister, I have no religious issue with the use of the word marriage, and as a prescriptive language maven (which I wrote about extensively a few posts back), it doesn’t bother me either; published definitions of marriage of course describe it as a union between a man and a woman, because until very recently (and hardly entirely even now), gay people were not considered normal, healthy, equal persons and their relationships were not considered legal, even valid, in most places.

Using the word marriage – and the word gay – is vitally important. From a civil/human rights standpoint, as well as a legal definition, the word marriage is what makes the committed relationships of gay people equally legitimate as the committed relationships of straight people. It sends important messages: love is love, commitment is commitment, and families take many forms, no matter what combination of two persons the marriage is comprised of.

Emotionally, being two wives or two husbands is very different from referring to each other as “spouse” or “[life]-partner.” Those words have none of the romance of husband, wife (or marriage), and they fail to convey genuine intimacy and betrothed alliance between two people. Not using the word marriage makes the relationship seem lesser-than [straight marriages]. If you’re a straight, married (or even divorced) person, think about how it first felt to call someone husband or wife, to describe yourself as married. Wasn’t there a special sense of warmth, connection, and status, that came with that? Isn’t there still at least a semblance of that, even if you’ve been married for a long time?

I believe the root of the objection to the word “marriage” for gay couples is largely religious, rather than linguistic. While I believe in the importance of the stability and consistency of language in the main, I also appreciate that great social change, such as civil rights and feminism, have brought new words into the lexicon and altered others, and when that happens for such major reasons, I think language is improved, rather than degraded.

But more than religion or language, I think the idea of “gay marriage” is very new, very uncomfortable, very alien to lots of straight people – who have never met a gay person (to their knowledge). Many of them equate gay with the most outlandish participants they see in gay pride parades. Some still don’t believe people are born gay; and they certainly don’t believe that gay relationships are equal to straight ones. To them, gay marriage is an oxymoron and a cheapening of their “real” marriages. I know my two friends who dislike the use of the word marriage don’t fall into this category of less sophisticated people, but I think many do, only it’s become politically incorrect to express such ideas (which is why political correctness is such a pain in the ass and should be the antithesis of progressive thought – but that’s another post…).

The continuing fight for gay marriage is essential. But so is giving all Americans a chance to knowingly interact with gay people so they can see that gays are not freaks to be scorned or feared. And the only way that’s going to happen is if more and more people come out of the closet – to family, friends, people on the job, folks in church, the other guys on the bowling team, the other gals in the quilting and book clubs – just plain everybody everywhere. And invite these straight people to your gay weddings. Every little bit helps.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why Gay Marriage Matters

June is Gay Pride Month and on Sunday, June 26th, the annual Gay Pride Parade will wend its way down Fifth Avenue to Christopher Street in the Village. For many young and middle-aged gays and lesbians, this is a familiar rite of Spring; they know gay people haven’t yet achieved full human and civil rights, but in their experience, gays have visibility and a considerable measure of legitimacy.

Anyone 60 or older can remember when being gay was a dirty, dangerous secret; when being exposed as gay could destroy your career or separate you from your family forever; when gay people were called the “twilight people,” because they only came out at night, seeking connection in Mafia-run bars or sordid gathering spots, such as “The Trucks” in NYC’s not-yet-trendy meat packing district, or the secluded “Rambles” in Central Park.

As I write this, my head swimming with many youthful memories ranging from the sad to the bittersweet to the exuberant, the New York State Senate is one mature vote away from legalizing gay marriage – or, as it’s becoming known, “same-sex” marriage, because there are still a lot of people who can’t croak out the word gay. Call it what they will, it is vitally important, because it will bring gay and lesbian “twilight people” a giant step closer to living in the full light of day.

PBS is broadcasting at least two wonderful gay documentaries this month (in place of some of the old war horses we’ve been watching for more than 30 years): American Experience: Stonewall Uprising and Out in America, both of which do an excellent and artful job of summarizing the misery of gay life before the gay rights movement came of age and rage on June 27, 1969, and what has happened since.

In brief: prior to that early summer night, the vast majority of gays and lesbians lived lonely, desperate lives in which lying and hiding were the norm. Homosexuality was illegal and the American Psychiatric Association defined it as a mental illness (a form of psychosis). Gay bars were routinely raided and patrons arrested and often brutalized by law enforcement.

Often, families would have their [teen/adult] gay children confined in mental institutions, where they were generally subjected to aversion/shock therapy and even lobotomies. Military purges of gay service people were common and usually ended in dishonorable discharge. It was assumed that homosexuality was a depraved lifestyle choice and it was the Dark Ages for millions of men and women in 20th century America (before that and elsewhere, it was even worse.)

Gay people were deprived not only of their human rights but also of their right to be human: to have a positive sense of self, to love and be loved, to have family and community and the protection of law, to live in the full light of day. And if, despite these impediments, gays and lesbians were able to form committed, lasting relationships, they were denied the opportunity to announce, celebrate and affirm their love in the time-honored covenant of marriage. The gay rights movement has come a very long way. It still has a way to go – but in New York State, right now, there is the very real possibility of legal gay marriage. Halleluiah!

As we know all too well, there are those who oppose gay marriage. They say it’s a “threat” to the American family. They say it’s an abomination before God. They say that marriage is sacred – and that it is only meant for a union between a man and a woman. If pressed, many of these same people will tell you that homosexuality is at best a sin, and at worst a depraved… lifestyle choice. They don’t believe people are born gay – and even if they are, gay marriage is a bad thing, especially for children, who might, as a result, get the idea that being gay is okay. (Note to kids: being gay is okay.)

To those people who are guided by conservative, religious values, homosexuality will never be regarded as healthy and normal, and gay marriage will always be unacceptable. However, since this is still (ostensibly) a secular country, individual religious views need not be considered. All that the law has to recognize is that gay people can be respectable, responsible, law-abiding citizens, and their committed relationships are as legitimate as straight relationships.

This has been amply demonstrated throughout the land. Indeed, gay marriage reinforces the institution of family; gays and lesbians have a special appreciation for marriage and family precisely because it has been denied them so long. Given the 50% divorce rate among straight couples, gay marriage could emerge as a significant stabilizing social influence. (Wouldn’t that be a kick…?)

So, here’s to a Happy Gay Pride Day, one and all, an occasion which will be made all the more joyous if the New York State Senate does the right thing and makes gay marriage legal now. It’s time.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Weiner Weary

The smart, delightful Maureen Dowd wrote an interesting column about the fallen-from-grace Rep. Anthony Weiner today, “Your Tweetin’ Heart,” in the New York Times. She’s clearly put out with and put off by the cyber-licentious Congressman, and I’m not saying I plan to start a fan club for him, but (as Dowd points out about many contemporary women), I really can’t get worked up about this.

Whatever Weiner or any man does sexually (or pseudo-sexually) is his own business and that of his partner, if he has one. A man’s sex life should not be an issue in regard to his role, and performance, as a political leader. Of course, many folks claim to be upset because he lied – to the press and public – and Americans like to pretend they’re all incensed about lying, as if they never do it themselves. Yes, of course he was stupid to lie, but that’s what people do, especially public people, particularly when it’s about (gasp! horror!) S-E-X!!!

To me, the issue isn’t what Weiner did sexually, or even that he lied about it. To me, the issues (there are two of them) are that this country is immature and Puritan when it comes to sex, and (we claim) that public behavior – especially if it’s political – can’t be separated from private behavior. I disagree.

There have been sexual/political scandals since the beginning of political time; people are titillated by what their public figures do in the bedroom (or the back of a car, or a bathroom, or in the netherworld of something called cyberspace). I’m probably in the minority in not caring in the least. I also don’t judge the “health” or “goodness” (or lack of it) about what people do sexually.

My attitude is: whatever two (or more) adults do that is consensual, non-violent, and does not deliberately spread disease, is their business. If they want to slather each other in peanut butter and swing from a chandelier, who cares? It’s time that we as a nation grew up about sex, rediscovered the notion of privacy, and protested loud and clear when the media and other politicians try to bring down a politician because of his sexual behavior. It’s bullshit.

One can be a “kinky” liberal or conservative or some political stance in between or otherwise. That doesn’t mean you can’t be politically rational or serious or genuinely effective. If we (as a nation) are going to condemn every political man – or woman (God forbid!) – for what they do sexually, we’re going to end up with (a) nobody, (b) a handful of happily monogamous people or (c) a bunch of celibate wackos who worry me more than the ones who dress up like Little Bo Peep.

The other thing I want to say here is that I think women who have a man in their lives – husband, boyfriend, whatever – shouldn’t get so uptight if he’s into porn or sexting or even cyber-sexing. It’s time we accepted that men apparently have different sexual needs and drives than we do (this distinction is, of course, a generalization and surely there are exceptions to any rule).

Men – or so male comedians keep telling us – need a greater variety, creativity and frequency of sexual outlet than do women. I would not be happy about my man (if I had one) gallivanting in the real world outside of our relationship; I’d feel betrayed and, quite honestly, threatened. But, if it made him feel better to watch porn or sext to a stripper or whatever make-believe crap gets him off, so what? It leaves me time to watch movies he doesn’t like, read a book or take a nap.

I think America needs to take a nap, then wake up and say: “We’ve got serious stuff to deal with. Enough about Weiner’s wiener and let’s get down to business!”

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Another Week in Wonderland

What is one to make of the fact that Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness) and Dr. Death (Jack Kevorkian) died in the same week? Probably nothing – except to note that both old heroes and more contemporary ones are leaving us in droves. That’s because so many of them are old. I don’t get too distressed when noting the deaths of very old people; what else can they do (they can’t live forever, no matter who or how rich they are)? But symbolically, it was sad to see that two men – one who portrayed a heroic character, another who was an heroic character – died in a week when we could have used a few heroes.

For example, I’d like to think that Marshall Dillon would have run the likes of Sarah Palin out of town, had she and her Magical Twistery Tour bus arrived in Dodge, because he didn’t cotton to con men, even if they were pretty women. This post represents the last time I will mention Sarah Palin, because that dingbat shouldn’t be getting any attention except to point out her unceasing stupidity.

To wit, here’s what she said when she visited Ellis Island: "The immigrants of the past, they had to literally and figuratively stand in line and follow rules to become U.S. citizens. I’d like to see that continue. And unfortunately, the DREAM Act kind of usurps that – the system that is a legal system to make sure that immigrants who want to be here legally, working hard, producing and supplying revenue and resources for their families, that they’re able to do that right and legally. Unfortunately, the DREAM Act doesn’t accomplish that."

I’ll ignore both her deplorable speech and the fact that immigrants didn’t stand on line “figuratively,” and just point out that the DREAM Act only applies to persons who were brought to this country when they were young children. Their parents came here illegally and, since they were kids, they had no choice but to come along for the ride. So, our problem with illegal immigrants has nothing to do with them.

Here’s what Palin said about Paul Revere when she was in Boston: "He who warned, uh, the ... the British that they weren’t gonna be taking away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells and, um, by making sure that as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free…and we were gonna be armed." I’ll just let that speak for itself.

In general, I have no interest in the Republican fracas to find a candidate, because I don’t really care who they select. I won’t be voting for him or her, and I refuse to pay attention to this frigging campaign until after the Conventions, when there’s something tangible to pay attention to. And in any case, I’m reserving my concern for what Obama will say to win again (and he plans to have $1 billion to say it with) and what he will do after he wins again.

I find it amusing (because if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry) that Republicans and Conservatives [still] talk about Obama as if he were The Great Socialist Hope that one might concede he seemed to be when he was running for President the last time, since he almost immediately made a mad dash for Center Court (as it were) and has been doing an unsettling version of Republican Lite from Day One. The fact that he’s not right-wing enough for the right-wingers doesn’t mean anything; if Barry Goldwater were alive today, he wouldn’t be right-wing enough for the right-wingers. That’s how far right the right-wingers have flown.

I also no longer have any interest in (or much compassion for) politicians who let their dicks take the lead, thereby rendering them useless for viable public service. Way back then, John Edwards was the only Democratic contender who was seriously talking about poverty and its dangerous leading role in everything from bad education to inadequate health care to poor economic growth on several levels. Now he can’t say…well, “dick” about anything.

Similarly, Rep. Anthony Weiner’s “that depends on what the definition of is is” response to the appearance of supposedly-him-but-he’s-not-sure pictures of him in his undies on Twitter (who knew you could upload photos on Twitter; I thought it was just for 140-character statements). We needed his balls in Congress, not his dick. What is it with these guys and their juvenile obsession with their wee-wees? We are such a sexually immature, Puritan country, it turns me red with embarrassment and white with fear of what will become of us.

So, I spent the week trying not to think about current events: not think about another banker who tried to play footsie with a hotel maid who didn’t want to play; not think about the e-coli outbreak in Germany that is demonizing vegetables, once again; not think about the Republicans playing “symbolic” footsie with the debt ceiling because they’re clueless about how the economy they created actually works; and not thinking about Syria or Yemen or Libya, because I just don’t have the strength (I wish they’d all just self-destruct).

Instead, I’ve been thinking about food prices, because I went shopping and every week it’s a greater shock than the week before, and I’ve been thinking about the chicken curry I’m going to make tonight, and the jicama (which I haven’t had in years) that I’ll be putting in my salad, and what kind of bread and muffins I want to bake, because I do bake, since it’s cheaper and I try to keep it cheerful.

I’ll let you know next week if anything more substantive comes to mind.

Friday, June 03, 2011

English On the Rocks

As a writer, a reader, and a person living in a supposedly civilized society, I despair about the future of English, because it’s being misused, abused, belittled and just generally trashed at every turn.

I was saying to a friend just the other day: there are two kinds of language mavens – the prescriptive and the descriptive. The descriptive school says language is a living thing and it changes with the times and we shouldn’t get hung up on grammar and spelling and usage, because all that can and should be flexible. The prescriptive school says language has been honed and perfected over time and it’s important to speak and write properly, because that creates the opportunity for maximum communication, as well as an expression of the beauty of language.

As a prescriptive maven, I also feel strongly about the role of good language in thought. If your understanding and usage of language is poor, it follows that the quality of your thinking will be poor: simplistic, incorrect, limited. Clear thought, original thought, rests in good language.

I’m concerned about English, because that is the only language I know, and it is (still, so far) the international language of diplomacy and trade. (French used to have that position, but it lost it. See what happens when you don’t take care of your language?) I’m not proud of only knowing one language; I should know more, at least Spanish, since it’s becoming our nation’s second language. I don’t have a problem with that, but I do think all of us should be bi-lingual, because that will foster greater understanding among us. But for the moment, my subject is English.

First I want to address usage, because the meaning of words is becoming twisted. The Times’ language guy was recently complaining about figuratively, and the fact that people are using it to mean literally and actually, which is the exact opposite of what it means. If we don’t share agreement about what words mean, then we can easily misunderstand each other – even before we get around to disagreeing with each other based on common understanding.

Some of my other pet peeves: irregardless, a word that doesn’t exist, but is often used to mean regardless. Simplistic in place of simple. Simple means easy or straightforward or unfettered. Simplistic means stupid, or more precisely, to speak or think of complex things in an inappropriately simple manner. Decadent used as a synonym for luxurious. One could make a working class argument that luxury is decadent, but that still doesn’t give the words the same meaning. Decadent is, more accurately, a side-effect of too much luxury; it means jaded, even depraved, but certainly wallowing in the worst kind of sophistication – another word that’s rarely used to mean what it means (jaded not glamorous).

Infamous [when] used to mean famous, perhaps really very famous, but that’s not what it means. Bad people, bad things that become famous are infamous. Adolf Hitler is infamous. Adolph Green is famous (or at least he used to be…). I once heard someone call someone else superfluous, but she didn’t mean that the person was unnecessary, she meant to say that the person was super! That’s a problem.

The fact that many people today can’t distinguish among there, their and they’re drives me nuts, along with your and you’re, to and too, weather and whether, its and it’s, fewer and less than, as well as more than and over. And don’t forget about using like when you mean as. If you don’t know the difference, look it up; I don’t have the space to go into it here. Because (and, by the way, it is not incorrect to begin a sentence with because, it’s incorrect to begin a paragraph with because) I want to address other pet peeves.

The first is using nouns as verbs, which has appalled me ever since things started impacting other things. I wince when I hear that people are scrapbooking or journaling. Now they’re blogging, tweeting, texting and friending. I’m vomiting. A noun is a person, place or thing. A verb is an action. In essence, what I’m saying addresses one of our core social problems: confusing being with doing. Think about this one, it’s important.

Then there’s the frequency with which people add mis to the beginning of words and ize to the end of words that formerly had neither. I can’t explain why it’s okay to formalize but it isn’t okay to incentivize, and indeed, Strunk & White did not approve of formalize. In any case, English is inconsistent. A foreign-born person once asked me why Kansas and Arkansas are pronounced in their different ways instead of alike. Who knows? All I know is, one can misspeak, misunderstand and misinform, but one cannot misdescribe, which is what Paul Ryan accused Barack Obama of doing in regard to his kill-Medicare budget.

Last but not least – and this is perhaps the most egregious – is the offshoot of English created by…texting. If U thnk its k 2 reduce language to charmless abbreviations, you’re wrong. It’s a bastardization (I’m not sure if that’s a word…) of the language that is creeping (running, actually) into other forms of written communication, and it’s ugly and ignorant and decidedly ill-advised.

Yesterday, I wrote about our being overly concerned with unimportant things, because we can’t cope with the big issues of our time. Perhaps my fixation with proper English is one of those unimportant things. But it isn’t to me. I’m a writer and it bothers me that nobody seems to care about good writing, good use of language, anymore. I think it says bad things about where we are and where we’re going. Take it as you please.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Problem With Life in the 21st Century

In a nutshell, the problem with life in the 21st Century is that many people aren’t living in it, we’re living in a vacuum or denial, but we’re not here in the now. Others are totally living in the now – but with no sense of history, even of the recent past. The combination of folks who can’t cope with the present and those who won’t cope with the past doesn’t bode well for the future – politically, economically, socially, personally, collectively – pick whatever context you like; we’re screwed.

Let’s start with politics. The Republicans and Conservatives are among those living in denial; they will not recognize that the present is not the past and that the future is in peril. Accordingly, they’re pursuing their old-school agenda of no taxes, slash spending, protect the rich and fuck the poor. They’ve allowed themselves to be completely co-opted by the right-wing-extremist fringe of their party, thereby aligning themselves with ignorance, hate, rejection of science and common sense, and engaging in more than a little misogyny, racism, homophobia and xenophobia, none of which have a place in the present or the future. They’re behaving as if we’re still living in the “greed is good” 1980s, and that they can continue the Reagan schema as if nothing’s changed. This is not smart. It’s stupid and dangerous and, ironically, the attitudes that will rob them of the things they hold most dear (power and money) much sooner than later.

For their part, the Democrats are hardly living, barely breathing. They won’t behave like Democrats in the traditional, progressive sense of the word, because they’re riddled with fear, confusion and self-service. The Republicans are dangerous, but they’re united in the crap they believe in. The Democrats don’t seem to believe in anything, except telling the American People that our best days are still ahead of us – which is patently false. The 20th Century was the American Century. What the 21st Century will be is still to be determined. But nobody – including the Democrats – is willing to recognize that we as a nation need a whole new perspective because our demographics, economy, environment, available resources, and the global power structure, have changed. This is not smart. It reveals an extraordinary lack of imagination, vision and flexibility, which will endanger us all, much sooner than later.

Politics aside, our society – and that of the other developed nations – has allowed technology to replace humanity in too many quarters – including jobs; remember when, in the 60s, workers feared automation? This is it! Forget for a minute that I’m personally a Luddite. I recognize that much of the information and communication technology that has come to define our lives is in many ways useful, whether I personally like it or not. However, since I’m not entranced by it, it’s easier for me to recognize that we’re paying a very high price for these new powers. We’re degrading language. We’re ceasing to have intimate, in-person human contact. We’re damaging our brains in unknown ways (besides the threat of cancer, we are destroying our attention spans and our sensitivity to real-life experience). And because we’re constantly in overload while moving at top speed, we’re overwhelmed by the serious issues that define our time.

As a result, we’ve become preoccupied with minor things – things we think we can change, or that distract us – because the major things that we feel we can’t change are terribly daunting. We can’t think about global political upheaval, the prospect of international financial collapse, shortages of water and energy, overpopulation, human rights, civil rights, the urgent need for campaign reform, dilapidated infrastructure, the horrific state of education at every level, the crippled state of health care at every level, inflated food prices and food shortages, the rise of possible new plagues and the lack of solutions for existing ones, the new nature of war and terrorism, homelessness, hunger, predatory banks & foreclosures, veterans in need, children in need, the death of print, the dangers of cyber-terrorism, blah, blah, blah.

So, instead, we worry about obesity and smoking and whether or not we should be vegetarian and if our age lines are showing. And we amuse ourselves into a stupor with reality TV and celebrity gossip and entertainment that gives new meaning to the words banal and mediocre. However, just as our government can’t afford to be oblivious to change and big issues and the need for right action, we cannot betray the responsibilities of citizenship, as well as being righteous human beings: good people, people with real values, not the Norman Rockwell nostalgic shit that some people define as values. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, we’re as polarized as our politicians and quite judgmental and uncaring of others. This is the problem with life in the 21st Century.