Monday, May 21, 2012

someone left the cake out in the rain

An awkward, isolated, and fearful child - I comforted myself with music. I'd sequester myself for days on end; barricaded in my room listening to and singing along with records (remember records?). Show-tunes, rock, jazz, folk, disco, everything and everyone from Peggy Lee to Pink Floyd... and beyond. Along with a rich fantasy life, my isolation from the world allowed me an extensive and eclectic musical education. 

I've learned that my early experiences of finding comfort in music are not unique. Many people who've felt different or outcast as kids, or were socially awkward, seem to have had comparable experiences. Similarly, the relationships created with musical heroes, if at times delusional, have taken on deep personal meaning and intensity.

In addition to the ever-increasing, heterogeneous playlist in my own little corner of the world (my room), I was also very much aware of current popular music trends. As I entered my teens, found drugs, and dared to venture away from my self-imposed seclusion, my personal soundtrack began to intermingle with what was going on around me. Never able to fully commit to either end of the pop music spectrum, I'd bounce between the world of CBGBs punk and Studio 54 disco. While I always admired the revolutionary and in-your-face artistry of the punks (I was especially fond of Patti Smith's hard-driving, androgynous poetry), I eventually realized that dance floors, bathhouses, and the West Side piers were far more conducive to a hot-blooded, teenage gay-boy than the grimy rock clubs of the East Village. My coming out in a post-sexual-revolution, pre-AIDS New York City meshed perfectly with the hyper-sexual music of the dance floor and the Love to Love You Baby provocative beat that accompanied me as I humped my way through adolescence into a fully realized young adulthood.

As always, there is evidence everywhere of the passing of time and of my own aging. Last week, I walked through an exhibit called, The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront; a collection of photographs at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. A beautiful visual reminder of days gone by. Long before gay rights was an issue of marriage equality or of serving openly in the armed forces, groups of men were hammering out the identity of their community through subversive art installations and clandestine sexual encounters in public spaces. The piers - these were my after school playgrounds. It was there that I simultaneously discovered my own sexuality, learned about sexual excitement and pleasure, and realized that I had a particular persuasive power over grown men; an intoxicating combination for a boy who had always felt isolated and ineffective. The piers were taken down years ago, and now, due to the success and tourist draw of The High Line, as well as the inevitable gentrification and evolution of Manhattan real estate, the neighborhoods that used to border the waterfront; meatpacking during the day and sex-clubbing at night, have given way to luxury living spaces, high-end designer boutiques, and chic eateries.

Four days ago, Donna Summer died. The queen of disco and the voice of a generation passed from cancer at the age of 63. Yesterday, Robin Gibb, one third of the sensational singing brothers that made up the Bee Gees, passed from cancer at the age of 62. These are the days that disco died. The pioneering, innovative orchestrators who helped shape the soundtrack of a generation have gone. Whatever one's musical tastes, the cultural significance of the disco phenomenon was inescapable - the legacy of these cultural icons has left an indelible impression on our collective psyche. However sweet and melancholic "Saturday Night Fever" was before last week, it now falls into the category of archival commemoration - not strictly because of the passing of any one particular singer or musician, but because of the distance and delineation between that era and this. There have never been any good old days - our modern understanding of poverty, civil rights inequities, and government corruption has deemed that concept a fallacy. Only imagine a pre-Reagan America, a pre-AIDS world; imagine boogieing with abandon in ignorant bliss to an unrelenting synthetic beat and an intoxicating promise that could only ever be fostered by youth and idyllic inexperience.

This week also saw the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the brilliant German baritone, who is, perhaps, the most recorded man of all time. A gifted singer and dazzling musician, Fischer-Dieskau's recordings of Schubert and Wolf Lieder remain the standard of musical accuracy and taste. He'd retired over a decade ago, and died it his home in Upper Bavaria, ten days before his 87th birthday. Not sympathetic to the Nazi party, but forced to fight for the German army in World War II, Fischer-Dieskau's infirm brother was institutionalized and eventually put to death by the Nazis. Fischer-Dieskau, himself, spent two years as an American prisoner of war, singing lieder to homesick German soldiers until his release.

All three of these talented music-makers had a hand in shaping large swathes of the twentieth century experience. They brought joy to countless listeners. It's hard to make sense of a world that would take away these members of the family of music (two of them quite young), yet someone like Dick Cheney still marches on; indefatigable and malevolent.

But I digress.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Last night, by a vote of 61 to 39 percent, North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being solely between a man and a woman, making it the 30th state with a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Same sex marriage is already illegal in North Carolina, but this most recent anti-gay amendment goes beyond any already existing state laws by additionally voiding civil unions and domestic partnerships from having any legal status. Just prohibiting gays from marrying wasn't enough for these folks, they had to ensure that any gay relationship was illegitimate in the eyes of the law. Consequently, opponents of the amendment believe that many hetero couples will also be effected by this discriminatory law; it will impact custody issues for unmarried couples, hospital visitation rights, inheritances, and unmarried victims of domestic abuse. Apparently the majority of North Carolinians feel that these are small prices to pay for the satisfaction of having anti-gay legislation written into their state's constitution. 

The last time that North Carolina's state constitution was amended was in 1875. At that time it was amended to declare that “all marriages between a white person and a Negro or between a white person and a person of Negro descent to the third generation inclusive are, hereby, forever prohibited.” North Carolina's 1875 interracial marriage ban remained part of the state's charter until a new constitution was adopted in 1971; even though the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated anti-miscegenation laws in the famous 1967 decision, Loving v. Virginia.

It was a very sad and grey morning this morning with news pouring in of legislatively sanctioned discrimination being voted in by a state's majority. Then, unexpectedly, later in the afternoon, in an ABC special report, Barack Obama, the President of the United States, told "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts, "I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally." Well, this might have been enough to re instill a glimmer of hope in this gay American's morning, but then the President said, "I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors -- when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married." 

Did the President just say what I thought he said? In an instant, North Carolina's ignorance and bigotry was old news. The President just said that he thinks same sex couples should be able to marry! 

The phone rang, facebook exploded, history was unfolding before our eyes as we were being catapulted further along into the twenty first century. All through the remainder of the day there have been teary and breathless reactions to Obama's affirming announcement. The breadth of the reaction speaks to an emotional response from a group of people who have historically been marginalized, dehumanized, and discarded. The visceral collective validation of an entire community has been legitimized by the President of the United States. Of course his decision to make this announcement at this particular moment in time is one that has been dissected and analyzed by an army of strategists, but its impact still remains significant. Particularly in light of the fact that churches and communities continue to tell gay children that they are freaks and abominations. I am old enough to have watched friends whither away in sickness and die as Ronald Regan refused to publicly mention AIDS, as it was a pestilence only effecting gay men at the time. To have our President say what he did today is a BIG DEAL. Today I'm proud to say that I voted for him, and I'm gonna do it again.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

hello kitty

Pets aren't merely domesticated animals whom we feed and care for; they are family members, service critters, heart regulators, surrogate children, and more. Most especially for un-partnered and childless people, the bond between owner and animal can take on deeper and multidimensional significance. Oftentimes we don't even choose these animals, rather they find their ways to us as if walking on some predestined path. One of these very creatures has been present in my life, yet barely mentioned; I'll do that here.

Sometime in 1997 or '98, my then boyfriend found a frightened and disheveled looking cat in the parking lot of the Safeway off of Geary Street, near Japantown in San Francisco. He brought the cat home and the two of us slowly nursed it back to health. The cat was terrified and in pretty bad shape; it was filthy, its fur matted and mangy. It had been wearing a torn spiked collar. One theory about the cat's history was that it had been used as bait in a dog fight and then discarded. Though underfed and in bad shape, this was a large cat; white with big orange patches. Because of its size and color (all Tabbies are male) I assumed the cat was male and named him Carl. 

Carl was famished and very skiddish; he had clearly suffered some severe trauma. We took Carl to a vet, discovered that the little black spots on and around his ears weren't mites, as we'd suspected, but were actually burns caused by sun exposure. We also learned that Carl was a not an orange Tabby, but was what is classified in cat typography as "Buff." We also learned that Carl was female. Thus Carl became Carla.

As slow as Carla was to warm up, she was quick to gain weight - she ate and ate. She wasn't interested in going out; she stayed away from doors and windows. She was cautious around people, hesitant to be petted, and was only interested in food. Having known hunger, it appeared that she wasn't going to chance being hungry again - Carla quickly became a very large cat.

She occasionally meowed, but more often hissed. She wasn't doing this when threatened, or necessarily as a warning; it seemed hissing was the only way that she knew to communicate (know any people like that?). Even when she'd eventually let me pet her, she would softly hiss as if she didn't have any other method of expression. I remember thinking it was odd that she couldn't purr. I'd pet her and she would rub her head against me, but she wouldn't purr. Her experience and history had programmed away her natural pleasure response.

At the time, my boyfriend and I were living in separate apartments; Carla stayed at his house and my cat, Cleveland, a big beautiful black cat that I'd rescued a number of years earlier, stayed at mine. We were spending more and more time at my house and less and less time at his, so we decided to move Carla to my place. Introducing the two cats took a while, maybe a few weeks. They would be on either sides of the same door, tails fully puffed, meowing and hissing at each other under the crack in the door. Eventually, they learned to live in harmony, though they never became truly close friends. In Cleveland's old age the two would sleep together, but it always seemed that they did this out of necessity or obligation rather than any feeling of closeness.

We all moved back East: boyfriend, Cleveland, Carla, and me; packed into a Nissan Pathfinder, the back squeezed full of belongings, stuff loaded and tied to the roof of the car; looking like the Clampetts. After we had been back in New York a little while, in the early spring of 2002, I rescued Zeke. When I brought Zeke home, Cleveland immediately welcomed him by purring and rubbing against him. Carla, who had since learned to purr, but certainty wasn't purring at Zeke's introduction, watched indignantly from across the room. Eventually she crossed the room, walked directly up to Zeke, a slightly dopey and confused young pit bull, and swatted him square across his snout. It was a gesture that seemed to say, "I was here first, this is MY house. You may be big, but I have retractable claws - Don't fuck with me." She confidently turned and walked away. It worked; Zeke was terrified of Carla. For years afterwards, if Carla was in the hall, Zeke would sit and wait for her to move rather than chance walking past her.

Zeke and Cleveland became close friends almost immediately. The two of them would lie about together, and Cleveland would clean Zeke's ears for hours on end. Carla, on the other hand, would have little to do with either of them. Perfectly content to obsess about food and wander off by herself, she would let them have their little love fest for the next few years.

Always demanding when it came to food,Carla would often wake me by finding any body part that had been left exposed while I was sleeping; a hand, a foot, and slowly apply pressure with her teeth until I woke up. I would wake with a start and find her looking at me. She'd meow, and I, being an obedient human, would reward this horrible behavior by feeding her. She's trained me well.

Cleveland became ill, and in 2005, he died in my arms, here at home as Carla and Zeke looked on. Zeke seemed to suffer terribly from Cleveland's passing, and eventually, Carla would take to sitting with Zeke; though there was certainly no licking or ear-cleaning going on between them. Again, as if by obligation or necessity, the two of them understood that they were family, and were expected to be civil, if not affectionate.

Carla isn't of the same temperament or stature as she once was (sometime in 2003, I took her to the vet and she weighed in at close to 30 lbs). I have no idea how old she is, maybe 16 - an old lady by anyone's cat standards. She's still food obsessed (she'll often eat until she pukes, then meow for more), she's lost a good third of her body mass since her weigh in at 30 lbs, and she's calmed considerably. A few months ago, Zeke died, leaving Carla the unlikely and lone remaining quadruped of the stable. From impoverished and traumatic California kitten-hood to pampered Upper West Side old-age, Carla is a survivor. She often wanders into the other rooms at night and meows loudly, conversing with ghosts or her imaginary playmates. She's more needy and affectionate than she's ever been, sometimes circling my ankles while I'm at the desk, or flopping on her side, silently begging for a petting. Despite her big personality, I often take her for granted. What with the recent blog postings about Zeke and the void that he's left, I thought it was time I give a shout out to Carla and give her an extended blog posting of her own.