Sunday, December 21, 2008

As Always, the Smartest Person in the Room.

What's interesting about this to me is that you see how unknowledgeable Obama is about so-called LGBT issues, which mirrors I think the American people's state of familiarity with them. It's a strange sort of half knowing that maybe (to them) feels more complete than it is because of the massive influx of gay and lesbian images in pop culture with Will & Grace, The L Word, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and other miscellaneous homosexuals on reality shows and commercials, etc. in the last 10 years. Not to mention everyone's favorite homosexual, the one who started the conversation, Ellen. I think people are much less afraid than they were 10 years ago, but they're still pretty uncomfortable with homosexuality unless it's entertainment.

This Rick Warren thing really throws it into the light. The gay community is all like "But I thought you loved us! I thought you understood," and Obama is like, "I do!" and we're like, "Apparently not."

And maybe I'm gonna be hugely wrong on this in the end, we'll see, but I still think it's the wrong approach to compare the homosexual struggle to the civil rights movement. Of course there are parallels, but I think the argument's persuasive power is too limited. Because gay rights is about sexuality rather than ethnicity, it's a different row to hoe. The conversation requires a comfort with talking about sex that most Americans just don't have. The Rick Warren-type 3rd grade schoolyard arguments against homosexual relationships -- "people aren't made that way," "the parts don't fit," etc., the so-called plumbing argument -- are impossible to refute without having a fairly graphic discussion of body parts and sexual behavior. I think most people feel such intense discomfort with the subject matter, a discomfort that I think a lot of people aren't even aware of or wouldn't acknowledge, that they are literally unable to have that conversation, to learn the stuff you need to learn in order to understand that homosexual desire is just as natural as heterosexual desire. I think what most people want to be assured of is that it's natural. It's a steeper learning curve than the race stuff, and it's unreasonable to expect Obama to be anywhere other than where he is with it.

It's so clear, when you look at a mixed race couple, to see what a simple, glaring injustice it is to deny them the right to be together in the exact same way we allow non-mixed couples to be together. The argument against mixed-race couples falls apart when you look more closely at the idea of race. The argument is based on the idea that the races shouldn't mix, but that's ridiculous because of course they already have. Each of us is already a great mixture. So you can't argue that there's some fundamental biological difference between, for example, a white man and a white woman marrying and a white man and a black woman marrying. But two men together, two women together, does present something biologically different than a heterosexual couple. Not that it's not natural or right or good, not that they necessarily shouldn't be encouraged to emulate heterosexual relationships, but it's a different argument to make.

Am I missing something?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Actually, That's Not True and You Know It. Asshole.

He's either stupendously ignorant or he's lying, and I assume this guy has read the Bible, so that leaves out ignorant. What bothers me more than the meanness or power-hunger or whatever it is that makes people want to control how other people live their lives down to its most intimate details, is the contempt for history, for knowledge, for science, for simple common sense.

It's like they're talking about Sasquatch when they repeat their "definition of marriage that has been in place in every culture and society for 5,000 years" mantra. On some level I can understand the ignorance of science and history, if these crackpots were educated in American schools, where they don't really teach that stuff to kids because it offends their parents and so after generations American science and history curricula are just a big swamp of avoidance, denial, and misinformation. So maybe Warren is a little weak on science and history. But how many wives did Moses have? I assume he knows it was more than one.

I'm still practicing patience about this one, but I have to admit it hurts. Surely there must have been a less appalling choice than Warren to participate in this historic inauguration.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Semester 3.

If you were wondering, I finished the semester on Monday with my last two finals. Here's the breakdown: all A's except one B in my geography class, and I got A's on both papers, the one about Native American homosexuality in Texas and the one about the Mike Nichols films and marriage in the late 1960's.

The geography class ("The Modern American City") was a bit frustrating. Overall, it was one of my favorite classes I've taken at UT. The lectures were fascinating, the professor is very funny and opinionated, the reading was interesting. If you gauge the value of a course by how much it illuminates your view of the world, this one would score very high.

But the exams were insane, not so much hard as loopy. They defied any notion you might have about what is important to remember and what is not. Questions were often along the lines of, "What was the pun I made in my lecture about residual spaces?" The class grade was based completely on 3 exams, and I studied hard and couldn't get much above an 85 on any of them. There just didn't seem to be any way to prepare for them, they were so unpredictable. If you didn't write down that pun and memorize it, you were out of luck. (Yes, I know this is essentially about my ego. Whatever. I'm not a B student!)

Inclusive Means Everybody.

The fact that the griping classes in both the Christianist and gay camps are in full indignation mode about this is probably a sign that Obama calibrated his choice perfectly.

My take on this, and on pretty much anything Obama does that at first doesn't sit right with me, is that Obama is a black man who was just elected president of the United States, which must make him like the smartest person in the world, politically speaking, so why don't we just relax and give him the benefit of the doubt instead of jumping all over him about which preacher he picked to say a prayer at the inauguration. Yeah, he could have picked a lesbian Unitarian, and that would have pissed off about 90% of the population. Rick Warren only pisses off about 3%.

I kind of like the notion of a Evangelical bigot being compelled to bless the presidency of Obama, whose election basically says to Warren and his people, "Your time is up."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I've been trying to find information about GRE scores (what's good, what's average, etc.) because I got my scores right after I took the test, but I had nothing to compare them to. I should look on Wikipedia first for everything, because that's usually where I find it. According to the entry on the GRE, my verbal score is in the 99th percentile and my math score is right around the 50th percentile. To be honest, I'm surprised that 50% of people who take the GRE are worse at math than I am.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Poor Tinkerbell.

We live with a pig. Our friends -- whose house we're staying in while they're on vacation and for a few months after they return until our new container house, which they are building on their property, is ready -- have a pig named Tinkerbell, and she is turning into a bit of problem child. What does she want?

I can't cook with her in the kitchen (she's huge and unyielding and constantly begs for food or attention or whatever, butting her big wet snout against my legs), so I shoo her out. She just gripes at me and won't move until I push her, sometimes with a chair (gently) because frankly I'm a little afraid of her. The other day, she bit my big toe. She didn't do any damage, but it did hurt a little.

The last couple of mornings, she's been intense and persistent. When I go to the kitchen to make coffee or refill my cup, she scurries over to me and butts my legs . So I've taken to running from her. There's kind of a lap around an island formed by the stove and a table between the kitchen and the big main room, so I run in, fill my cup with coffee, and when she comes at me I walk around the island, she follows me, I grab the 1/2 and 1/2 as I pass by the fridge, pour some in my coffee quickly because she's coming around behind me, return the 1/2 and 1/2 to the fridge and grab my coffee, she's on my tail but I'm out the door before she catches up.

It sounds funny and it is, but I can tell she's unhappy. There are several big pillows on the floor that she sleeps with, and when she gets frustrated because I'm running from her or pushing her out of the way, she throws the pillows around, and yesterday she tore one of them up.

J put up dog gates in the doorways to our half of the house, so Tinkerbell and Bones the boxer can't come back here -- so that Timmy the cat can escape from them when he wants to, but they serve the same purpose for us. Tinkerbell smashed through one of the gates this morning. My friend A told me yesterday about a friend of hers who had a pig who, when it got too big to stay in the house and they put it in the yard, would tear right through the screen door.

The photo is not Tinkerbell, but that's just what she looks like.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

I Had No Idea.

I'm writing a paper on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge (3 films by Mike Nichols) and what they say about marriage in the late 60s and early 70s, and while I was doing research I ran across this:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Here We Go!

I took the GRE today, the last day of classes and the audio portion of my Spanish final is tomorrow, and Saturday we're moving!

The GRE was not bad. I got 740 on the verbal section, 610 on the math. I assume the verbal score is pretty good and the math score is just okay, but I'm not really sure. Does anybody know what the numbers mean? (I got a 610 math score on my SAT, too, when I was in high school.) There's a writing section, which I kind of enjoyed -- I won't have the score on that for a few weeks. The "test center" was a small, very hot and dry room full of computer cubicles. I liked taking the test on a computer. It was much better than the fill in the bubble tests. Those drive me crazy -- I can't see the bubbles very clearly because the rooms are always poorly lit and my eyes are bad.

So, over the next week and a half, I'll write a 15-page paper and take 3 finals. Then I have a few days off. I'm flying to Indiana to visit my family the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve. Then probably off to New York. There's going to be a showcase production of my Lizzie Borden show in mid-February, and they'll be auditioning in early January. Lordy.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Drifting Too Far From the Shore.

First it was going to be very non-traditional: poblano chiles stuffed with ricotta custard and herbs, creamed chard, potatoes and sweet potatoes roasted together (I cut them in chunks, toss in garlic, salt and pepper, and olive oil and roast till they're very slightly golden), and crispy-fried polenta with an ancho-chipotle sauce. I made one concession to tradition -- sage dressing. Because I love it and Thanksgiving is the only occasion I have to make it or eat it. Oh, and J was going to make his famous Grand Marnier cranberry sauce.

I was looking for some kind of vegetarian entree -- I'm not a vegetarian, but J is and our kitchen is. But it seemed like we had invited more meat-eaters than vegetarians, so I thought about roasting a turkey (another thing I love but hardly ever get to eat) but J was obviously uncomfortable about the idea when I brought it up, so, after giving it some thought I dropped it for the simple reason that I don't want an uncomfortable Thanksgiving. Who does? In the meantime, I had come across a recipe for a mushroom barley pie with a puff pastry crust. It's pretty easy, sounds festive and delicious, so I put that on the menu for our entree.

I thought, since we were having the bready pie thing, I'd drop the dressing. But when I told J that, he said, "Well then I'm not going to make cranberries." I said, "Why?" and he said, "Because it goes with the dressing." I wasn't willing to go without the cranberry sauce, so I put the dressing back on the menu. And then I started thinking about succotash, which wasn't a family tradition for me (the recipe came from a restaurant I worked at in my twenties in New York called Mike's Bar & Grill on 10th Ave and 46th St.), but I had been making it for Thanksgivings on and off since the 80s, when my ex-boyfriend B and I had dinners for sometimes as many as 25 people at our apartment in Ft. Greene. It's really simple and so good: just corn and baby lima beans, butter, cream, and red pepper. And I was thinking how something really nice about Thanksgiving is that you eat stuff you usually don't have occasion to eat. So the succotash was back on the menu.

And then last night as I was drifting off to sleep, I realized that if we have dressing, we need gravy. No turkey, but I can make a really good mushroom gravy by deglazing the pan after I sautee the mushrooms for the pie. And if we have gravy, we'll all be thinking, "Where are the mashed potatoes?" So, this morning, I'm thinking that I'll roast the sweet potatoes alone and do mashed potatoes. And we didn't get the chard I expected from our CSA last week, so instead I'm going to sautee green beans, which might be vaguely suggestive of the notorious green bean casserole (which I love, and I used to make a great scratch version of it, but I've already got too much stuff in the oven).

Somehow, except for the lack of turkey, I'm back to a pretty traditional Thanksgiving dinner. (I will not however puree the sweet potatoes and bake them with marshmallows.) I'm still going to make the fried polenta, but as an appetizer. And the stuffed poblanos have evolved into a roasted poblano and goat cheese appetizer. So at least my appetizers are not traditional.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why Not Boycott California?

Why haven't the marriage activists proposed a boycott of California? They're picketing Mormon churches (like that'll get the Mormons to change their minds about homosexuality); I've heard lots of calls to boycott the state of Utah. It wasn't Utah who voted for Prop. 8, it was California.

In the early 90s, Colorado passed an anti-gay law, activists organized a boycott of the state, and I remember it being pretty effective. The amount of money gay and lesbian tourists and businesspeople spend in California must be awesome. A boycott of California would be epic, it would get lots of attention. Why has no one suggested it?

Friday, November 21, 2008


Before all this hoopla, the institution of marriage was on its way out anyway. (Maybe it still is.) The women's movement mortally wounded it in the 70s, and it was dying a natural death, being replaced by a variety of family structures. We all know the statistics: most marriages end in divorce, almost half of children are born to unmarried women (whether single or co-habitating with the child's father). As "alternative" families became the norm, there likely would have been a shift in public policy regarding families. Marriage could not have held onto its privileged status forever, because it no longer reflects the reality of most family arrangements. We should have let marriage die. Instead, we've spurred a national marriage revival.

It would have been much easier to work for stronger support of domestic partnerhips. We would have had as allies all the people whose families are left out when marriage is privileged. Domestic partnership was already an idea most people were comfortable with. We could have let people who want traditional marriage have it, but fought to extend to all families the privileges that marriage now receives.

The tragedy is that, now that the gay establishment has made so much noise about marriage, it's too late to turn back and try something else. The traditional marriage people have dug in their heels. The very people that the gay marriage advocates think should be their natural allies -- social conservatives who believe that marriage is the backbone of a stable society -- are the people most dead set against them. You will always hit a brick wall with those people. The gays say, "But don't you understand? We want to be respectable, just like you," and the God-people reply, "I'm sorry, you can't. It's against the Bible." And there it sits.

(Did I already post this? Pretty interesting group of signatories.)

And Another Thing...

I guess the real nut of what bothers me about government privileging marriage over other family structures is that it attempts to regulate sexual behavior. Only if you have this narrowly proscribed type of sexual relationship (or at least profess to) do you officially exist as a household. Anything else is invalid.

Stripped (rightly so, because they are also the things that made it oppressive, mostly for women) of all the things that made it meaningful as an institution for community stability -- the strict gender roles, the more or less compulsory children, the near-impossibility of divorce -- there's nothing left of marriage except the being in love part, the sex part. And that's what bothers me about the same-sex marriage campaign, that it is based on the sentiment that everyone should have the right to marry the person they fall in love with. Why? Maybe we should have the right to marry the person or persons we commit ourselves to nurture and support unconditionally forever. Maybe. But the person we fall in love with? Why?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

MFA not MRS.

I've been on my high horse this afternoon, leaving long comments on various blogs. I had a grueling week of exams which are all done now and went fairly well, so I feel tremendously relieved tonight and still full of useless nervous energy. When J gets home from yoga, I think we'll smoke some weed and watch The Bicycle Thief which came from Netflix today.

I'm so tired of studying!

I was telling my sister in an email yesterday that I'm kind of over this undergrad thing. I'll have to summon some energy from god-knows-where to push through the final semester and a summer I have left before I get my Bachelor's degree. I'm sure this feeling is brought about this fall by the process of applying for grad school, which reminds me what this whole expedition was about in the first place and I can't wait to get into filmmaking! I do love reading and learning etc., but memorizing pages and pages of arcane science facts is getting a tad tedious. Now except for finals, I'm done with exams. I have two papers to write. Writing papers stresses me out a bit too, but it's a very different stress than exam stress. It's a type of stress I enjoy because I feel like something is actually being accomplished. Whereas, 80% of what I memorized for the Biology exam I took this morning, I have already forgotten.

Anyway, back to my high horse. Adding to the general feeling of irritation the last week has been all the complaining about how we shouldn't really be too happy about Obama's election because after all California voted to take marriage rights away from homosexuals. I'm not totally insensitive to the fact that this is in some way a serious civil rights defeat. But as you know, I'm not a fan of how the marriage fight now dominates the gay and lesbian rights movement. There was a good post on The New Gay, one of the blogs I read, which provoked me to be maybe a little more articulate than I usually am about this issue, so I thought I'd paste my comment here for you. But I recommend reading the post and the comments there to get a good idea of how this issue flies lately in "the community."

Here's my comment:
Thanks for this post. I hope it provokes some good discussion. I feel like, when people start talking about gay marriage there's this assumption that of course it's what we all want or should want, and I'm always the one in the room going, "Um..."

Some time in the 90's the gay and lesbian movement took a really sharp right turn. First we were fighting for a bigger definition of family, then suddenly we were fighting to make it as narrow as possible. I think the reason marriage captured the imagination of the gay civil rights movement is that it touches on a very basic human insecurity, a fear of being alone. A fear which is exacerbated by growing up homosexual, especially for older generations whose only queer role models were reststop trolls. (I use that expression with the utmost affection!) We all want to believe in the myth of Mr. Right or Ms. Right, Prince Charming, we all want to flip through bridal magazines and dream about a fairy tale life full of sweet love, and oh my god how will I ever get to wear a white dress and marry the man of my dreams if it's illegal!

I think it would be more fair, more progressive (and, just as importantly, more palatable to the mainstream) to be fighting for the rights of ALL families, unmarried heterosexual partners, homosexual partners, and all the varieties of families that aren't structured around a sexual relationship (elderly sisters who share a home, a disabled person and his or her caretaker, friends who live together communally long-term, single parents with kids ...). All these relationships should have the benefits and societal support that civil marriage has now.

I say it all the time to my friends (who usually just roll their eyes at me) and I'll say it again. Marriage is a fundamentally conservative institution. It is conservative people who promote it (Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, etc.) in order to create a world in THEIR image. But as an institution, it's been broken for a long time. It doesn't even work for straight couples. Why do you want it?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The End of the World as We Know It.

We spent most of the evening at the Driskill Hotel downtown with the Travis County Democrats, watching the returns. There was a long, narrow lounge on the first floor, wall-to-wall people, and a huge ballroom and other large reception rooms on the second floor. All packed. It was a mob scene. Huge video screens showing CNN and MSNBC. Shortly after 10, when they called Virginia for Obama and then called the race, the place erupted with screaming and sobbing and wild embracing. Then we all watched McCain's concession speech and waited for what seemed like forever for Obama to appear and then he did. I don't have anything to compare it to. Everywhere I looked there were women and men, especially men, just standing there weeping. It's hard to absorb it, what just happened. I can't wait to see my friend in Spanish class who is 18 years old and campaigned for Obama. Can you imagine?

It looks like Obama won in North Carolina, and Indiana is still too close to call this morning. Indiana. How can I get my head around that? It's a new world.

I think now I finally know what patriotism feels like.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Good Morning.

I woke up at 3:30 this morning and couldn't get back to sleep. Lying in bed in the dark I slipped seamlessly from mild anxiety about the two papers I have to buckle down and start writing and the three exams I have next week to a near panic-attack as I started to wonder what I would do if Obama does not win the election today. A little after 4:00, I decided to get up and make some coffee!

J and I are going to a party at a local restaurant tonight -- I'm not clear on exactly what it is, but it has something to do with election night and queer people (and Mexican food). After that, we'll head to the Driskoll Hotel downtown to watch the returns with the Travis County Democrats.

I thought this day would never come.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


J and I are having our first salon tonight. This is something we've wanted to do for years. When we first talked about it, it was going to be called Eating and Writing or something like that, a gathering with a literary focus. And food, of course, because food goes with everything. We've made it a little more broad, with songwriters and filmmakers invited too, and we don't have a clever name for it yet. We're just calling it the salon.

I'm going to play a recording of one of the songs from Lizzie Borden from the concert reading we did last spring, the finale of the show. It's called "Where Are You, Lizzie?" It's an old song -- I wrote it in 1989 for the first incarnation of this musical -- and there are several new songs in this new version but I don't like the recordings of them as much as this one. I'm also going to sing a song I wrote in 2005 called "Fine." It's not new either, but it's my most recent song other than the new Lizzie Borden songs and I want to sing something live tonight.

I made a slightly spicy and very orange squash soup with coconut milk, using acorn and butternut squash from our farm. We also got lots of kale from the farm last week, so I made potato, kale, and roasted red pepper soup based on a recipe from the chef at the restaurant where I cooked in Utah. And I made baba ganoush for an appetizer. The only bad thing I have to say about our CSA farm is that they plant way too much eggplant. We get barrels full of them in every delivery for months. I have a freezer full of roasted eggplant. But we love baba ganoush, so I guess it could be worse.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Maybe there really is hope.

Born on the cusp, I don't identify with the Baby Boomers or Generation X. I often see the baby boom generation defined as those born between 1945 and 1965, and I was born in 1961, but I was too young for Vietnam, too young for the 60s. My babysitters were hippies, not me. I think of Generation X as the Janeane Garafolo generation, I guess because she was in Reality Bites which was such a zeitgeist movie, and I always thought, still think, a lot of those actors and other artists are very cool -- Garafolo and Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, and even the so-called brat pack Breakfast Club crowd. But in the end, they're my little sister's generation, not mine.

I even see a distinction between me and my friends who were born only 2 or 3 years later, because they grew up with Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock, which I just missed. I had Captain Kangaroo. Another major dividing line is HIV. I was 22 when the virus was discovered, so I sowed my wild oats (and those were some wild oats) at the extreme tail end of the age of sexual freedom. People just a couple years younger than me began their sexual lives in a very different world, and people a few years older than likely were done with their experimental years. For those of us born in the very early 60s, the iron fist of safe sex came down smack in the middle of our party.

So I'm declaring myself an honorary Millenial. (Can one declare oneself an honorary member of something? I guess not. I'll ask my classmates today.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cold Feet.

J and I went to an event at U.T. last night called Fest Africa ("celebrating the mosaic that is Africa"). A girl in my Spanish class had given me a flier for it. Dancing and music and -- this is what caught my eye and made me want to go -- $5 a plate for African food. We watched a couple of the acts, had some food (it was yummy), and didn't stay longer than that. J had a itch for dessert so we walked home and rode our bikes to Blue Dahlia, a newish cafe in the neighborhood where I had bread pudding and J had cheesecake. J has been treating me pretty often to meals out and movies lately, because I don't have any extra money and because he's just a nice guy.

Over dessert he told me that he's getting cold feet about our move to M&J's property. To be honest my feet have been chilly from the beginning. We both love our neighborhood and we love being downtown and near the U.T. campus. But we talked about it for a while and decided, I think, that the advantages of moving outweigh the disadvantages.

I stopped by the financial aid office yesterday to ask a few questions about summer. I will be 9 credit hours short of my degree this spring, so I'm going to take 3 courses this summer. I was reassured to find out that there will be some financial aid available to cover it. Still, I'm going to run out of money around about April or May, so even though my school expenses will be covered I need about $5,000 to cover my rent and food through the spring and summer. Actually, I don't spend nearly that much on rent and food, but I'm still paying off a credit card from my documentary. That bill is almost as much as my rent.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I Voted!

I had a little time to kill between classes Wednesday, so I decided to change the world.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Imperfect Saviour.

I was just reading this essay by Michael Pollan and it reminded that Obama as a Senator has been very supportive of farm subsidies for Illinois factory farms. Which is bad. (Probably anyone reading my blog knows this already, but just to summarize: factory farming, enabled by federal farm policy which includes huge subsidies for farmers who grow massive amounts of corn, has wrought havoc on the energy-food supply cycle, leading to more pollution and less nutritious food, among many other problems.)

Anyway, being reminded of something negative about Obama actually felt reassuring to me. He's not perfect, he's not our saviour. But he is a man who listens and responds to reality, and I think that's the essence of the "change" we all keep talking about. Knowing there is an issue I disagree with him about makes me feel more engaged. There's a conversation. Democracy is supposed to be a conversation, isn't it? (The closest I've gotten to a dialogue with the Bush administration has been shaking my head and saying "unbelievable.")

The other area of disagreement I have with Obama -- regarding war -- seems very different to me. Somewhere deep in my heart I'm a pacifist. But I am able to somehow reconcile that deeply-held conviction with a kind of philosophical distance from some military action.

For instance in the case of Osama bin Laden. Even though I find killing people morally repugnant, I understand the need for justice. When Obama says "we'll take him out," something deep in me reacts with sadness and horror. But at the same time I understand how killing Osama bin Laden in exchange for him having killed thousands of people may be necessary to restore balance, or justice. I know this is intellectually incoherent.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Thing About Cats.

It's bedtime, but J's cat Timmy is asleep on my bed and I don't want to disturb him. That's the thing about cats.

I slept till 9 this morning, so I'm not really sleepy anyway. I've adjusted to low-level sleep deprivation since going back to school. Actually I kind of like it. If left to my own devices I'm one of those people who need a lot of sleep. At least 8 hours, and 9 is even better. But on the other hand if I have to be somewhere in the morning I like to get up at least 2 or 3 hours before I have to leave the house so I can be fully awake when I need to be. And I hate feeling rushed in the morning. So these days, 6 or 7 hours is about all I get.

Timmy rarely hangs out with me, except when J is out of town, and J is out of town this weekend. That's one of the advantages of living together but not being a "couple": everything doesn't have to be ours. Some things can be mine, some things can be his. Like the cat. I get all the nice things about living with a cat -- companionship, entertainment, rodent control -- without any of the responsibility. Except when J is out of town.

J and I used to have a bunch of cats. Two of them were his, and two of them were mine. And all four of them were ours.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Identity, Politics, & Buddhism.

I read this blog One City. It's the blog of the Interdependence Project in New York, which was founded by Ethan Nichtern, who was J's meditation teacher when he was living in New York most recently.

If you're interested in Buddhist meditation and politics, you might find the blog interesting. Sometimes I love it. Other times it irritates me. Usually I like the enthusiasm of it, the energy they give to looking for ways to live better. Other times, I think they're a bunch of spoiled, insular and clueless New Yorkers. New Yorkers are better than anyone at being jaded and totally naive at the same time.

Last week there was a post that really needled me. I went back and forth in the comments section for a few days, trying to make a point which I was never successful at making. I offered to write a guest post on the subject but got no response, so I'm going to post it here:
The reason I'm so persistently trying to make a point here is that I believe cassmaster's story is a parable showing one of the spots where Buddhist practice and activism intersect. I think a huge liability for every political movement that is based on identity (the women's movement, the gay rights movement and all its spawn, and take your pick of racial and ethnic civil rights movements) is exactly what begins as their great asset: the individual's self-identification as a member of an oppressed minority.

It is that identification that brings people with common grievances together to fight. Strength in numbers. But then we become so strongly attached to our identities as oppressed minorities that we begin to read every situation in which we encounter frustration as the same story, in which we are the victims, the oppressed, and the other person or institution is the oppressor.

The tale of the spa gift certificate is a perfect example of how this works. In cassmaster’s telling of the story, there’s absolutely no support for an assumption that the boss’s gift was sexist (maybe condescending, maybe sweet, but who really knows?), yet the post is titled “the perpetual undercurrents of sexism in the workplace,” and the whole story is an attempt to gain support for, to solidify, that interpretation of the scenario.

So what starts out as empowering and ennobling -- our recognition that we are not alone, that there are others who are similarly oppressed -- eventually eviscerates any power we gained because we can’t see ourselves as anything other than victims. We respond as victims, we ask to be identified and classified as victims (hate crimes legislation, anyone?), we become permanent victims.

As long as we hold tight to this view of ourselves and our place in the world, we’re caught in a Catch-22. But I think, as Buddhist meditators, we have a special perspective to bring to the problem because we have found a method of unraveling it. Our path is all about loosening the bonds of identity, letting go of the storyline we feel secure in, in order to allow a more open perspective on our suffering, a more “real” view of how the world works. Can we bring this special perspective to our politics? What would happen if we did?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Money money money.

I have to admit my first response when I got home this afternoon and read that the bailout was rejected by the House was relief. There have been a couple times in my life when for one reason or another I've spent a lot of money I didn't have and my debt has gotten out of control, and even I know that the worst thing I could have done at that crisis point was to just apply for another credit card. And I'm one of the least responsible people I know, in terms of managing money in that way we're expected to manage money when we become adults. So what is with these people? Maybe the best thing that could happen right now is for a lot of people to lose all their money. Maybe then we could all grow up and stop expecting to have everything we want when we want it.

... still holding up this little wild bouquet.

I don't think I've ever felt this much faith in the possibility built into our system of government to move our species toward freedom and compassion.

It has been hard -- everyone says "in the last eight years," but hasn't it really been twenty-eight years, since Reagan was elected -- to believe that we could ever buttress ourselves against such a tidal wave of ignorance and bigotry and greed, let alone push back. There have been a lot of moments recently when I've wondered if this big experiment in self-governance is in its death throes, but, maybe because I've been studying American history again, rereading the founding documents, recognizing that the so-called founding fathers knew it would be a constant struggle against tyranny, this morning I'm thinking maybe we're not doomed.

The Leonard Cohen album that this song "Democracy" is on came out in 1992, which is the last time I felt hopeful. I'm less naive now. What Clinton taught me is that even though Democrats might be more in sympathy with my stances on particular issues, they can be just as cynical about government and politics as Republicans. But cynicism is cynicism and the end does not justify the means.

The first presidential election I voted in was the one in which Reagan was elected for his first term. There has not been a president in my adult life who has not been a lying bastard. An Obama presidency will not just change the agenda. Hillary Clinton could have done that. What Obama offers is a tangible change in the way we interact with our government. A fundamental change in the way we are treated by our president.


It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.

It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we'll be making love again.
We'll be going down so deep
the river's going to weep,
and the mountain's going to shout Amen!
It's coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on ...

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Friday, September 19, 2008

James Baldwin.

Last night J and I went with our good friend A to see a documentary about James Baldwin called The Price of the Ticket. Baldwin pops into my life from time to time to edify and inspire me. I would recommend this film, but I just looked on Netflix and saw that it's not listed, which means it's probably not generally available. It's a great doc if you run across it. There's also a great biography by David Leeming, which I read a couple years ago and would recommend.

I don't know how I'm going to manage it with this pile of books I have to read for classes, but I'm going to try to read The Fire Next Time (Baldwin's long essay about being black in America) again this fall. I don't know of anyone who was smarter about racism than Baldwin and now is the season to brush on that subject.

After the film, we had dinner at Curra's, one of my favorite Austin restaurants, and we talked about Baldwin and Paris and the election. We're all so hopeful that Obama will be elected, and I said that what I look forward to most is feeling proud to live in a country that can elect someone like Obama, proud to live in a time and place where that is possible. It feels huge to me. And then we allowed ourselves to speculate on the possibility of McCain winning the election, and we all decided that we wouldn't be able to tolerate living in a place where that could happen, and we thought about Paris, where Baldwin lived for many years because he couldn't tolerate the racism in the U.S. in the fifties, but then I said that since I'm learning Spanish I would like to be an expatriot in a Spanish-speaking country, so we decided on Spain. I'll have to brush up on my vosotros.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Math: Making Me Crazy Since 1978.

I dropped that math class and all is right with the universe again. I hated admitting to myself that I wasn't up to it, but I just wasn't up to it. Even after working with a tutor twice a week for the first few weeks, I couldn't keep up. I've never felt so lost in a class in my life.

The course was called Applicable Math, and it was designed for non-math majors, but particularly for the sciences, economics, and social sciences. From the description it looked like something I could handle, but once I was into it I realized it required a facility with high school algebra that I may have barely had when I was 17, but it's been 30 years since I've had a math class.

After I took my last math test in high school -- I still have it that test in a scrapbook somewhere; it was a real nailbiter; my 4.0 gpa depended on getting an A in Algebra II and getting an A in Algebra II depended on getting at least I think a 94 on that math final and I think I got something like a 94. 3 -- I promptly evicted things like factoring and quadratic equations from my brain. In defense of my neurotic need to get good grades, I knew that if I could pull off a 4.0 I would get a bunch of scholarship money (I did) which would allow me to go to college out of state. At the time I was hellbent on moving to a place where nobody knew me so I could come out. I have second-guessed that decision many times because I think that Indiana University in Bloomington would have been a great school for me and a great environment to be in at that age, but who can say. (One more way in which intolerance of gay kids fucks with their lives, in case anyone is making a list.)

I had registered for 18 hours this semester anyway, so dropping the class is not such a big deal. There's another math class for non-majors which looks like it approaches the subject more from a philosophy point of view. Maybe I'll be more suited to that one. I have to take one math class to get my B.A., but for now, I can get on with the semester and put my energy into more important classes.

The temperature dropped by about 20 degrees this week, another reason for celebrating. I love getting up in the morning and it's cool, and I'm not already soaked with sweat just from walking to the bus stop in the morning. (You know you live in Texas when it's 70 degrees out and the bus driver has the heat on in the bus.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace R.I.P.

I'm so sad this morning to read that David Foster Wallace has died. He's one of a small handful of writers (Dave Eggars, Annie Dillard) whose work not only moves me but makes me glad and proud to be an artist. On top of all the other amazing things his writing does, it retains the orgasmic thrill of writing itself, leaves the shimmer of it there on the page as a gift to the reader.

Reading his fiction is like reading George Eliot. It seems that on every page there is something that makes me stop and think, How can anyone be so smart? How is it possible for anyone to see so clearly?

It terrifies me to wonder if that kind of access to the truth is a direct line to suicidal despair. I might on my best days be able to conjure a tenth of David Foster Wallace's inspiration, a fact which normally would frustrate me to no end. But today I'm okay with it.

This is a transcription of his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005:

(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that happened was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I shouldn't say that math is an unmitigated horror. I have a wonderful tutor without whom I would be 100 times more lost than I am. I meet with him every Friday and he calmly answers all the dumb questions I'm afraid to ask in class -- question that are usually along the lines of "what the hell is that?"

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fuck Math.

For the record, math is a nightmare. I don't say that to be dramatic or funny or for any other reason than to state fact. It is a total, unmitigated nightmare.

I want to state that now, so that, if I jump off a bridge some time between now and Christmas, we will all know why.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

We Are on the Brink of Disaster.

My big fear now is that McCain will win because there are enough American voters who are big enough dumbasses to vote for this woman because it'll make for good US Weekly reading.

You think the FLDS are scary? Check out her church, the Assembly of God. At least the FLDS keep to themselves. These people walk among us. I was going to say that you can pick them out because they wear too much makeup -- AOG was Jim and Tammy Faye Baker's church, just to give you a point of reference -- but that doesn't work in Texas, where there's no such thing as too much makeup.

Summer Will End.

I didn't fall off the face of the earth, I started school.

This semester is going to be intense. It already is. I have second-year Spanish (great teacher, lots of homework every day, I feel like I've learned more in 4 classes than I learned in 4 months last year); a class called Applicable Math (one math class is required, and this class is as basic as it gets -- still it's a nightmare, Cartesian coordinates? what's going on?); Biology for Citizens (I like this one, seems to be mostly about human evolution, the professor is German); Movies and Modern America (a seminar history class, meets once a week, we watch movies and write a long research paper); Native Americans in Texas (anthropology, Portuguese professor who is the expert on the subject, lots of writing and no exams, yay!); and a geography class, the Modern City (the professor is hilarious, very confrontational teaching style).

On top of all that, my application for graduate school is due this fall. I have to take another look soon to see what all's involved in that. Do I really have to take the GRE? Seems silly to me, but there are always hoops to jump through.

The real news is that I had to get out a blanket last night. The temperature got down to about 70! It's cool in my room as I sip coffee and write this at 7:30 a.m. The high today is 93. I feel redeemed.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Story.

My last post brought to mind this Gillian Welch song, which is "the story." The video is a bit precious, but it's a great, great song.

And, because one can never get too much Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, here's another. One of my favorite songs -- I'd never heard them sing it before.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Last night I was out in front of the house with a pair of scissors trimming back a rangy bougainvillea that sends thorny shoots across the path between the garden and the house, because every time I have to go around to the back of the house to flip the breaker switch (because the wiring in our house can't handle the air conditioners) I get scratched and I'm sick of it. It was still very warm out and humid, the air was thick. I heard someone faintly say, "Excuse me?" and I turned to see a small thin man in a white t-shirt that came down to his knees standing in the street. He started talking, but I couldn't make out what he was saying, so I moved closer, and he said, "I'm sorry, I have lung cancer and can't speak very loudly."

Then he told me the story, the one somebody must teach classes in because panhandlers everywhere I've lived from New York to Nashville to San Francisco all tell some version of it, and it ends with, "... and I just need $_____ to get back home." But halfway through the story, this man's eyes teared up and his whole head broke out in a sweat and he said, "and I'm so hot, and I don't even know where I can get some water."

I told him that I couldn't give him money but that I could give him water. I went into the house and filled a quart bottle with cold water and took it out to him. He thanked me and walked back the way he came, tipping the bottle up to take a long drink. I could feel that cold water running down his throat, and I hoped it made him feel a little bit better for at least a little while.

If I were in that situation, alone and in such dire need in a city on a hot and humid night, no matter what the circumstances that brought me there, I doubt I would survive it. I think I would just collapse, mentally, emotionally, physically. I think about that pretty often. I feel a great admiration for that man because he is stronger than I am.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Since I got back from Indiana, I haven't been able to concentrate on anything for any length of time. I've been reading one novel for weeks now (Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I am loving, though slowly), whereas I would usually finish 400-pages of fiction in a week or so. I am also reading a draft of J's novel, I've been working on it ever since I got back the last week of July, and I'm only through about 40 pages. I just cannot concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.

It seems the only thing I have the attention span for is comics and porn, which conveniently come together in two books I recently bought and enjoyed: Side by Side by Mioki, and the third volume of Hard to Swallow.

Classes start a week from yesterday, and I'm worried it's going to be hard to switch it all on. Back to the books, back to the gym.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Tattoo, Sunburn.

Here's my new tattoo. I was walking around town running errands yesterday with my shirt unbuttoned on the top and got a nice pink triangle burned onto my chest.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Molly Venter.

Here's Molly:

Friday Melanie.

I've been uploading to youtube some video clips of my friend Molly Venter -- I'll share them when they're ready -- who reminds me, at least her voice, of Melanie. Most people I think only know Melanie from "Brand New Key," her big novelty hit, or possibly "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," the song she wrote about Woodstock, but she wrote and recorded and performed for years and years (and may still be out on the road -- I know she was touring a few years ago with her daughters who have a band).

She likes old timey instruments and arrangements, which gives her songs sometimes a music hall vaudeville-ish sound. Some of her songs are silly -- on her live recordings, she seems to love making the audience laugh -- some are a bit maudlin, others are serious, poetic, introspective. (Reading back over that last sentence, I realize that all those elements were part of the sixties folk revival that she was a big part of.) But then, over and against all those elements is that voice that seems to just spill from her heart undiluted. Patti Griffin does it. And Molly Venter does it, too.

"Peace Will Come" was on a K-Tel compilation that my brother and I got in the early 70s -- the single version starts with only a plaintive vocal and I think accordion and builds to a full orchestration with all sorts of odd instruments and layers of vocals (all her). I used to listen to it over and over because it made me cry. I didn't even really know what it was about, still don't, but something about the sonic quality of it would go right to my tear ducts.

I had no idea who she was or what else she did and I guess no curiosity about it until many years later. I still think it's a mysterious and moving song.

And this clip of "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," I can't even find words for how happy it makes me to find this.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


The big gay news lately is, the web site where men go to find other men to have sex with. Manhunt basically consists of pages and pages of profiles with small photos and a few lines of text running the gamut from those who are seeking love, romance, dinner and a movie-type dates ("I know Mr. Right is out there somewhere") to graphic solicitation ("BB bottom cumdump seeks NSA loads"). It tilts pretty hard toward the direct appeals. Men will be men.

There's an article in the new issue of Out Magazine called, "Has Manhunt Destroyed Gay Culture?" and yesterday it was in the news that the owner of Manhunt is a Republican who has donated money to John McCain's campaign. All the gay blogs are talking about it.

I'll offer a couple random thoughts (which I posted as a comment to the post in The New Gay). There are so many aspects of this issue -- cultural, personal, political -- that it's hard to tease out a point of view.

Just think about two guys cruising Manhunt: one is there because he's deeply ashamed, married and closeted, desperate for the touch of another man, and this is the only way he knows. The other one is Out, sex-positive, and believes that sex is a political act and a fundamental right. (I think you get the same extremes with people who cruise parks or public bathrooms.) Pride is not the opposite of shame, it's the other side of the coin.

There's also a practical consideration. Heterosexual men live in a world where 97% of the women they encounter could at least theoretically, potentially be attracted to them. Homosexual men live in a world where 97% of the men they encounter would not under any circumstances be attracted to them and in fact a large percentage of them would be hostile or repulsed by the suggestion. As gay men, we look for and create situations where the probability of sex is higher. We want better odds.

We need places to find each other, and it's easier to sit in front of the computer at home than it is to sit in a bar. The Internet is a horny man's dream come true. But I don't think I like this development. Alcoholics are much more fun than Internet addicts.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Jay and I have been watching Extras, the series by Ricky Gervais who did The Office. I loved The Office, but this is even better I think. The Office was so relentlessly cynical, which was one of the things that made it so funny, but after a while that tone makes me a bit claustrophobic. What I love about Extras is that it is just as biting, but the characters are sympathetic. There's love in it. The Office was short on love. From what I saw of the American version of the Office, they tried to put some love in it, but it didn't ring true to me. The American version would probably be pretty good if you'd never seen the original. Steve Carell is pretty funny, or I should say used to be. He doesn't make me laugh any more. It's like Will Ferrell. I don't know if they're not funny any more or if I just got sick of them.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Moving Out.

J and I are moving some time soon to a house built from shipping containers and building materials salvaged from movie sets, which our friend JP (of M&JP) is building on their land. JP says it'll be done before Christmas.

I was talking with J a few days ago about how -- though I'm excited and happy about our future home -- the move comes with some sadness. It feels like a farewell to a kind of life that I dreamed of when I was a kid and lived for many years, in New York and then briefly in San Francisco, and to some extent in Nashville. A big city life where you live and work and play, shop and eat, all nearby or in places that are easily accessible by public transportation.

I've continued or tried to continue to live like that here in Austin, but it's a struggle because public transportation is so spotty. Sometimes, without a car, I feel isolated, stranded here. I can walk to the post office. I can walk to the bar, movie theaters, coffee shops, restaurants, and various other businesses. But I can't walk to a grocery store. And if I need something outside my neighborhood, I have to do serious planning. I can't just hop on the subway. Usually I can borrow J's truck. If I can't, a bus trip is often an hour and a half to get to a place that might take 15 minutes to drive to. Austin is a driving city, and I hate driving.

So moving out to M&JP's is like giving up, admitting that it may be impossible to have that life now. Life in the urban core is more and more just for the rich. The kinds of neighborhoods I lived in (the East Village and Lower East Side of New York, Ft. Greene in Brooklyn, Waverly-Belmont in Nashville) flip too fast now. There used to be a window of several years between when the artists moved into ghettos and the developers and yuppies came and wiped everything out. Now, I look at the neighborhoods east of our present home, where there is still serious poverty, drug dealing, prostitution on the street corners, not infrequent shootings, etc., and across the street they're building "luxury lofts."

Our new home will be about 4 miles from downtown and the U.T. campus. A reasonable bike ride and a very quick drive. M&JP are family to me, and though I'll be farther away from downtown, I'll feel less isolated there with them. The house is going to be beautiful. We'll have windmills and solar panels generating most of our power, a composting toilet, rain water collection will provide most of our water, a bigger vegetable garden. We'll be more closely in M&JP's orbit, a big and varied group of artists, friends, family. M&JP are like magnets for good, generous, interesting, hard-working, smart, creative people.

This move is a relief. No more yuppies nipping at my heels. It's the end of a long trail of spoiled neighborhoods that were once full of life and art and danger and possibility and are now full of strollers and retail chains and rents that are way too high for the marginal people.

(The new light rail system they're building now will stop near our new home and it goes downtown and to the U.T. campus. And we're right on two major bus routes, one of which goes to U.T., so my commute to school if I don't feel like riding my bike will be quick and easy.)