Archive for category: Idiosyncratic Celebrations

Just Plain Folks

22 Feb 2004
February 22, 2004

The Washington Post Article where I reconnected with David and Les

Washington Post article from February 1997 featuring my friends David and Les (on the left)

My best friend from high school, David, got married to Les last weekend. Finally. We were wondering if they’d ever make it legal. Those boys. After all, they’ve been together for 35 years.

I suspected they might do “it.” I watched for signs on the Evening News. I was checking the newspaper daily for their photo. Even though we now live 3000 miles apart that’s how we’d reconnected after 28 years.

One winter morning seven years ago I was attending to my usual workday pre-dawn ritual: oatmeal and coffee with the morning paper. I turned the page of the Style section, quickly scanning the headlines from each article. Out of the corner of my eye I registered something vaguely familiar. My eyes darted back to the top of the page and there they were: David and Les. Older but, without a doubt my friends. I shouted in surprise. My wife came rushing from the bedroom to see if I was ok.

David and Les had posed for book by John Getting called Couples. Michael Sullivan, the Washington Post reporter writing about John’s book began:

There is nothing special about the plain and handsome pictures in “Couples…” The subjects are not models or celebrities… What is extraordinary is just how ordinary these portraits of togetherness are. Because for many of the gay men and lesbians in the book, even the smallest public expression of affection has so often been taboo.

With Michael’s and John’s help I was able to reconnect with David and Les after all these years. I hadn’t seen them since 1969.

The remarkable thing about them is that they’ve been together for so long. I don’t have any straight friends who’ve been in a committed relationship that has lasted three and a half decades. So this week I wrote them to see if they had made a trip to San Francisco’s City Hall. When I got their reply, once again I shouted. Now they had the chance to publicly and legally acknowledge their loving and stable union. It seemed so logical.

They wrote:

It is amazing to us that some in the United States are so afraid of us. We don’t feel like a threat to anyone or their married relationship… We may not have even gotten married (as we already considered ourselves married for a long time now), but the opponents to same sex marriage made a statement “It’s simply municipal anarchy.” Something about that statement had a nice ring to it!

You iconoclasts!

Personal faces and lives. Stereotyping and marginalizing “the other” is easy when we keep them distant, amorphous, and unknown. It makes the threat so much more convenient to hold. THEM verses US. So twentieth century.

I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or another.

George W. Bush

George, let’s get our priorities straight. Leave the lawyers, the courts, and Constitutional amendments out of this. If you want to focus on family values, figure out a way of preventing our children from paying for your trillion dollar deficit.

My gay and lesbian friends are in strong and committed relationships. Many are parents who provide their children with loving and centered homes. These are the same family values the Right fights for –something all of us work hard at. Loving and stable families.

My friends David and Les are one hell of a stable family. And they are so ordinary. Extraordinarily so.

I raise a glass of champagne in a toast to you two. Say, where are you registered? A wedding gift is long overdue.

A Man and His Leaves

10 Nov 2003
November 10, 2003

Self Portrait with Leaf Blowing Nozzle
As sure as Indian Summer recedes, falling leaves ensue. That means it’s time for the Gates’ annual Falling Leaf Blowing Festival.

Whereas last year’s festivities were attended by millions (of leaves), this year’s numbers are way down. The threat of terrorism nor the 80-degree weather wasn’t to blame, although I did discover that raking is much more pleasant when dressed only in a Gap T (I’m trying to court product placement for next year’s Festival). Up and down the block it is the talk of the neighborhood: Hurricane Isabel prematurely blew off a major portion of the audience for our fall classic.

Past years’ celebrations have been copiously reported both here and in the Washington Post, and include an award-winning documentary, Leaving: the Movie (2.2 MB, Quicktime required). So I will be brief. I blew for almost 3 hours yesterday and that was just the front yard. The backyard still beckons.

When I was done, my left hand, which did the bulk of the work aiming my Toro electric leaf blower for maximum effect, wouldn’t stop shaking for the rest of the day. And my youngest daughter now refuses to hold my hand (even though THE HAND has stopped it’s involuntary palsy). “It’s too scary,” she reports. Indeed it is.

No Pains, But a Lot of Kisses

02 Nov 2003
November 2, 2003

We’re having Indian Summer in our nation’s capital. Yesterday the temperature rose to 80 degrees (27 C). Today will be the same. It is a day when not riding your bike in padded Lycra® bicycle shorts should be a capital crime. I’m in a warm mood.

This is perfect timing. It coincides with one of my favorite days of the year, El Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. While death is more of a taboo subject in this country, it’s treated much differently in Mexico.

Right after graduate school I took my first job in East Los Angeles as part of the Barrio Mobile Art Studio. BMAS was part of a larger community arts program, Self-Help Graphics. Using a van, four artists went to schools and adult centers in the area where we conducted workshops in painting, sculpture, puppetry and photography. Using the inside of the vehicle as a darkroom I taught children and seniors photography. I was also the only Anglo in the program.

In a way, the community felt very comfortable to me. In the 30s and 40s East LA was a mixture of Jews, Latinos, and African Americans. My mother grew up there. And in the 60s I lived in Pacoima, in the East San Fernando Valley. Home to Ritchie Valens, Latino culture was prominent in Pacoima back then.

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Many Years Ago, On a Day Just Like Today

17 Jul 2003
July 17, 2003

If July 17 is your birthday...

Related Link: This Day in (My) History

Born on the 4th of July

04 Jul 2003
July 4, 2003

Our 4th of July Flag

As I turned onto my street yesterday after work I immediately noticed a small American flag had been planted in front of every house on our block. Independence Day was just a day away and someone had decided this would be a good way to display our patriotism. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention.

Last weekend, when I went to help my mother-in-law at her garage sale I noticed an identical landscape in her neighborhood. I had never seen this before. When I questioned who had put the flags there she replied “I think a real estate agent but I’m not sure. I wasn’t home when it happened. But I kind of like it.”

I started to get angry. Flag waving has become a trigger for narrow-minded sloganeering in this country. From the Vietnam era’s “America: Love it or Leave it” to the Right’s latest redirect of anyone who questioned the Administration’s Iraqi incursion, people can become very passionate about opposition to popularly held beliefs. Our flag has become an unwitting accomplice in this process.

I had a hard time controlling my immediate desire to take on anyone who would listen to my pedagogical lecture. This wasn’t my neighborhood and my mother-in-law wasn’t upset. So I wisely decided against engaging her and her friends in between sales of their knickknacks.

Three days later I walked into my own home and asked my wife what she knew of our new lawn ornament. She, too, knew nothing. It was there when she got home along with a jar of apple butter sitting pretty on our front porch. The label identified the gift giver as “Jo Ann” from a local real estate company. She was nice enough to include her photo and phone numbers. This morning I decided to give her a call.

I was particularly nervous. Not one to shy away from animated discourse I wanted to keep in check my own knee-jerk reaction to the narrowing of American political debate. I took a deep breath and wished for the best. Jo Ann answered her phone.

I introduced myself and asked if she had been the one to place the flag in our front yard. “Yes,” she admitted proudly. “That was me.” I began by asking her if she had considered asking homeowners if she could place the flag on our lawns. The notion of land ownership is also deeply imbedded in the American psyche. We fought a civil war over rules of ownership. I didn’t appreciate her assumption I would be pleased with the gift she left in front of my house. She told me it would have been difficult to ask each homeowner as she had placed over 700 flags throughout the area. I suggested this might be a reason to rethink her act of generosity.

In the past, I have written about the social pressures inherent in American patriotism. I’ve even tried to recontextualize the meaning of our national symbol. So I will only state that my love for my country is very profound, personal, and complicated, akin to my religious and spiritual beliefs. While I enjoy discussion, I was reticent to talk about these ideas with the stranger whose boundaries were so different from my own. I thought for a long time before finally deciding to dial her number.

I was incensed. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to control my anger when I really needed to convey these beliefs and link them to the line she’d crossed. Liberals, too, think deeply about freedom, sacrifice, and patriotism. I could not ignore her act.

“I’d be glad to remove the flag. Just give me your address.” “No, I can do that myself if I want.” Did I want to? What would my neighbors think? How would it look if ours was the only house on the block with no flag? I drove down the street to check. Was this really about the flag or was it about someone telling me how I should think about and use it? I told her I thought she’d meant well but the flag as a symbol had been so misused over the years it had driven my patriotism underground.

I chose my words and the boundaries of this conversation carefully. The word fascist kept ringing in my head as I envisioned my neighbors looking askance at us as they passed our house. By mid call I was exhausted as I fought to keep a balanced attitude, one that might yield the most understanding. “You’re the only person who has called me.” I wasn’t surprised. Were any of my neighbors feeling the same way? How could I find out without becoming a community pariah just by asking? I felt perilously close to numerous slippery slopes.

As we closed, she said she understood. I had not browbeaten her as my insides had initially demanded. I took a deep breath and paused. “But what did you think of the apple butter?” she continued. “Well, to be honest, we’re going to throw it away, unopened. I would never serve my family something that was given to me by a stranger. In the last couple of years we’ve had to deal with anthrax and snipers. Life is no longer the way it was when you and I were growing up. It’s an unfortunate truth. I am sorry.” I found it hard to believe anyone who had lived through all of that could be so clueless. Yet she listened quietly as I spoke. My heart continued to pound.

It was a chance meeting, not between two entrenched ideologues spinning the truth from one end of the spectrum to the other. Just between two Americans trying to do the right thing: something each really believed in.

Related Links:
Wave our Flag by Jim Hightower
My Country: The World by Howard Zinn

Such a Match!

30 May 2003
May 30, 2003

September 15, 1990

It was a match made in an art gallery. I was there to support Maryland Art Place in its annual bid to keep its head above water. She had a piece in the benefit show. It was the best piece there: a glass book.

My art making philosophy is simple: A + B = C. That is, put one incongruous idea next to another and, hopefully, it will yield something new and thought provoking. A glass book fit the bill perfectly. Ten minutes later I met her. She was with another man, her date. He introduced us. We started talking as he wandered away. His loss.

She left a message on my machine saying she was going out of town for a couple weeks and would give me a call upon her return. She never did. She recounts today that she had just about given up on meeting that special someone even though she thought of me every day. I had to do some serious sleuthing before I found her.

January 26, 1991

Our first date. I was living in Baltimore but was coming into DC for the anti-war rally on the National Mall (you remember Gulf War I). I was staying with friends and she and I agreed to talk after the rally to set up the specifics.

The phone rang and the machine picked up before my friends answered. Unbeknownst to either of us they listened as we negotiated our first date dance. The audiotape recorded our overly polite posturing for posterity. We only found out about this when they played it for us on our first anniversary.

We ate Ethiopian for our first dinner and found out we both collected cacti. It was a match made in the Southwest desert. I was happy we recognized each other after the four months since our first meeting.

June 1992

We dated for a quite a while before deciding to take the big leap: a trip together. I was giving a talk in London. She was organizing a show of her work in Hamburg.

The very first argument of our lives together occurred in Kasel where we went to see Documenta. We were staying out in the Kaselian suburbs and had to catch an early train for Cologne —she had an appointment to show her work to a museum. I spoke German, she didn’t.

While I was busy dragging our luggage to the street, I suggested she find the concierge and ask her to call us taxi. It was going to be impossible to hail one in that quiet neighborhood. As I stood there she came out and said she couldn’t find her.

She came out too fast. I knew she hadn’t even tried to talk to her. It was the first time I had caught her in one of those tiny white lies I’ve learned to love. We were late and were about to miss our train for her appointment.

“You didn’t even try, did you?!” The tips of her mouth moved imperceptibly. But I could tell. She had obviously never been caught before. “We’re going to miss the train if you don’t find her.” “But I don’t speak German.” I put my fingers to my ear and mouth. In my best early morning imitation of a phone receiver I mouthed the words Telephone and Taxi. “It’s the same in any language.” I said. She turned around and went back in.

When she returned she was beaming, as if she’d just climbed Mt. Everest. She recounted her ascent. “I knocked on her apartment door and she answered, her hair in curlers. I gave her your message and she understood immediately [See!]. She was very apologetic. I think she said she should have known. The taxi’s on its way.” Relief.

We just made the train and laughed about our tête à tête on our way west. Hmmm. Laughing after an argument. That was a new and very surprising sensation.

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