“Me and the Argonauts, Unchained”

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Walking around the neighborhood in a daze, I barely noticed my usual playmates. I was mesmerized by a black-and-white portrait of Steve Reeves. I received it last night at the Fox Anaheim when I saw Hercules Unchained and would not let go. I think I might have slept with it under my pillow, as corny and clichéd as that might sound.

I was so enamored I could barely walk down the sidewalk or into nearby yards to see what neighbor friends were up to. Admiring Reeves’s buffed bare torso, did I want to be him or touch him, or both? What did I know? I was eight years old. I was protective, possessive of my newfound idol. How was this different than the other boys’ obsession with baseball players? They bored me with scores and batting averages, traded baseball cards, and listened to endless radio broadcasts. I was never invited to join the teams they formed in the cul-de-sac, right in front of our family’s house. even if I wanted to be. What was the distinction between their Mikey Mantle baseball card and my fetishized picture of Hercules”?

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I remember that 3 x 5″ scrap of paper. It was glossy, as I see it again in my carefully cupped hand, and “signed”. I wonder what happened to it. Did one of the neighborhood bullies steal it from me, or did I wear it out, or lose it? With his well-developed torso, thick thighs, and dark curly hair, Steve Reeves was dreamy. It didn’t matter that the production values were cheesy, that he couldn’t act his way out of a chariot, or that the dialogue (at least as poorly dubbed into English) was laughable.

Was it because I was a wimpy bookworm, that I was attracted to he-men? I also like George Reeves (no relation). In his form-fitting Superman outfit, he too righted wrongs, rescued victims, and made the world a safer place. Might he rescue me from my boring suburban existence? Again, I remain confused: did I want to be with him, or be him. My pudgy, later gangly, body, was uncoordinated and not particularly strong. I certainly wasn’t going to enroll in the Charles Atlas bodybuilding program, no matter how many times I read the ad on the back of comics, or how many times the neighbor kids bullied me.

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I came for the beefcake, hiding it even from myself, professing interest in Bible stories and Greek and Roman mythology. For example, my teenage fascination with Moses, as depicted in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. I was fourteen when the big budget epic was theatrically re-released in 1966. I was fascinated by the massive sets, the special effects, and — especially –the men’s bare torsos and thighs.

I was even obsessed with original motion picture soundtrack album as if it might be exchanged for the soundtrack of my life. I saved up my allowance and splurged on the expensive double LP set of the score by Elmer Bernstein, listening to it incessantly and poring over the cardboard sleeve featuring color images of pouting Yul Brynner as Rameses and bearded Charleton Heston as the mature Moses.

When I needed a costume for the junior high Halloween dance, I couldn’t expose my skinny chest so I decided to masquerade as Moses. Using the image of Moses on Mount Sinai from the album cover, Mom and I shopped for brown and red fabric that she cut and sewed into a replica of Heston’s. Meanwhile I cut thick pieces of cardboard into the shape of tablets, and covered them with white butcher paper, onto which I copied random Hebrew letters from the World Book Encyclopedia to form what I hoped would look like the word of God.

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Mom’s costume looked good, but I couldn’t very well wear my regular shoes. When I found the perfect pair of sandals, they were declared too expensive. Only after I promised that I would really wear them was I able to convince Mom to buy them. I ended up loving them, wearing them so frequently that for years my friends teased me about my “Moses sandals.” Would I have worn them so proudly had I known my favorite movies were referred to as sword and sandals sagas, or peplum, another condescending term I just now learned, referring to the tunic-style Greek and Roman garment often worn by characters in the films.

There was one more thing. By the time Moses received the tablets he had grey hair. Mom bought silver colored hairspray to cover my dark brown hair combed into its usual pompadour. I didn’t much resemble Chuck Heston, but the effort we put into the costume paid off: I won second prize at the dance.

Was all this an expression of affinity for the hyper-masculine, Republican NRA ambassador? Or an exploration of my blossoming homosexual self? And it wasn’t just Heston, though he was pretty sexy as Ben-Hur, and in Planet of the Apes. There was also Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis, Richard Burton in The Robe and — be still my heart –Todd Armstrong in Jason and the Argonauts.

But my first, my favorite, remains Steve Reeves. And lest this turn into a Reeve-athon, did I ever tell you about meeting Christopher Reeve, on the set of Superman II? After showing me around Pinewood Studio, he offered to sign 8 x10 glossies. I was embarrassed to ask for one for myself, just for a handful of friends.

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The Moses costume, tablets, and sandals are now long gone; over five decades later my hair is now naturally silver. One of my friends eventually took pity on me and generously gave back one of the glossies of Reeve in his tight costume showing off his sculpted body. It now hangs prominently in my hallway, a treasured souvenir of the days when the movies made me gay.

Dennis Altman changed my life.

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Having just finished Dennis Altman’s 1997 memoir, Defying Gravity: A Political Life, I was reminded of one of the very first books I read as I was coming out.

I was twenty years old, working at Books, Inc. at Town and Country Village, a suburban shopping mall in San Jose. I was excited to be working directly across the street from the Winchester Mystery House, which had completely intrigued me when I first visited with my family around 1960. Today, not only the bookstore but the entire shopping center is gone, replaced by ubiquitous high rises. The Mystery House has not only endured, but is likely to get yet another lease on life with a forthcoming biopic with Helen Mirren portraying the enigmatic Sarah Winchester.

But I digress. Barely out and trying to find my way as a gay man, I was not even 21 so couldn’t (legally) get into bars. I somehow found Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, published in 1971. I temporarily “borrowed” it, surreptitiously sliding it off the shelf and into my backpack. I wasn’t ready to come out to my colleagues by actually buying it. I read it gingerly, then a few days later slipped it back into place. The book changed my life, my way of thinking, gave me a road map. Led me to other books, including the 1972 anthology Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay Allen Young. Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. Impressed upon me the power of literature, fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps even steered me to my career as a queer librarian, reviewing books for Library Journal, perhaps influencing library acquisitions across the country. I’d like to think Altman would approve: “Activism takes many forms and since my apprenticeship in underground politics I have come to enjoy certain forms of political activity ‘within the system’.”

Now, 45 years later, I am again communing with Altman. The San Francisco Public Library didn’t hold a copy of the 20-year-old book, nor was it available through Link+, so I requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Who was in charge of acquisitions for gay and lesbian titles in 1997, I’d like to know! Oh, wait, it was me! Apparently, as an Australian imprint, it was not on my radar.

I was surprised to learn that Altman, nine years my senior, is Jewish and grew up in Tasmania. Who knew? I also didn’t know in 1972 that I could claim a Jewish identity, a fact that remained unrevealed until ten years ago. Altman’s sojourns in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris parallel some of the people and places I myself visited, perhaps at the same time. How is it that a man who doesn’t know of my existence has so greatly influenced my life? Such is the power of books. Thank you, Dennis.

Alphabet Pride

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When I began working on the San Francisco Public Library’s project in the early 1990s, it was called the Gay & Lesbian Center, then the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center, and recently renamed the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center.

I am often asked what the alphabet soup of initials represent. There’s even a new anthology entitled ALPHABET: The LGBTQAIU Creators from Prism Comics, edited by Jon Macy and Tara Madison Avery.

As I understand it today (correct me if I’m wrong, it might change by this afternoon):
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex (the umbrella category formerly known as “Hermaphrodite”), Asexual, Agender, Allies, Assholes (my facetious favorite), Unidentified. I’ve now seen the string written as “LGBTQIAU+ ” just to make sure no one feels left out. And of course, they can be reordered as necessary, for example in a nod to history the GLBT Historical Society maintains the G before the L, and I recall the heated internal debates before adding the B and later the T. Where will it all end? Who is feeling included and/or excluded?

I am reminded, on the 21st anniversary of Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, of a conversation with Armistead Maupin, who wrote the book’s foreword. “You’re not going to trot out that tired litany, are you?” I remember him saying. “Just use queer”. Armistead’s words, only a couple of years after the backlash against the San Francisco Pride Celebration for choosing “Year of the Queer” as the 1993 tagline, were music to my ears.

I am so exasperated by the ever-expanding acronym that I’ve started tacking on “LMNOP” and my dear friend (and GBTB co-author) Susan Stryker adds her own “MOUSE”. So, let’s all sing together:
“A B C D / E F G / Come and sing along with me / H I J K / L M N O P / Tell me what you want to be / Q R S / T U V / W X / Y and Z / Now I know my ABCs / Won’t you sing along with me?”

“(N)evermore”

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After a long, wonderful afternoon eating, drinking, and talking with a friend, Darlene and I returned to her new home in Burlingame. The two of us were in good spirits, having shared a bottle of champagne as well as a Manhattan for me.

I was in my car, already pulling away when Dar rushed up, agitated. I didn’t quite understand what had happened until she showed me: a raven lay stiff and still on her front porch. I had never seen a dead bird so close. Lucy, Dar’s rambunctious terrier (?), watched from the window.

What do we do now? Was it really, completely dead, not just dazed? We went to get a broom and dustpan. I tentatively poked at its body, simultaneously sorry/grateful that there was no sign of life. I didn’t want to get too close to it, and its large stone cold form didn’t fit into the small dustpan.

Unceremoniously I scooped it up with the broom and deposited it with a thud into the trash bin Dar had brought over. The unpleasant task was over instantly, but it seemed like there should have a moment of silence or that one of us should say a few words. Our relief felt tinged with unfinished business.

I learned afterward that what we should have done was to put the corpse in a plastic bag that could be twisted shut or sealed, or wrapped the cadaver in newspaper or rags. Though that seemed more respectful than merely tossing its naked form into the trash barrel, it would have entailed getting closer to the deceased. We surmised that it had been the victim of a window strike. Lucy offered no explanation.

It seemed redundant that a raven, a symbol of death, had died. What did this depressing dispatch symbolize? An ill omen in some cultures, good luck in others. Did it represent Bev, Dar’s soul mate, who had recently departed? Was it about our friend, in good spirits but facing the inevitable after his cancer diagnosis a few years ago. Was it yet one more message of memento mori, a morbid reminder on a waning Monday afternoon?

“I hear a symphony”

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I awoke to an unexpectedly spectacular symphony.
Before the backyard fountain began its daily gurgle, 
the dawning sky filled with bird song.
This orchestra wasn’t warming up, 
it was already in full swing:
squawks and squeaks and screeches
            chips and chirps and peeps
                        cries and caws and crows
whistles and whinnies
                                    clicks and quacks and clucks
                    hoots and hollers
tweets and twitters
                        shrieks and chatter
 
Standing on my podium, I mean porch, 
I was not remotely the conductor,
visualizing the various, invisible singers. 
I’ve seen hummingbirds, blue jays, and recognized mourning doves, 
now an entire chorus was out in full force.
nothing to do with me, 
merely a well-placed audience member, appreciating every note, 
marveling at the rich blend of melodies, harmonies, calls-and-responses, 
with nary a hint of cacophony, 
until slowly the trilling trailed off, 
dissipating into sunrise stillness.
 
Coda: my neighbor now informs me that my imagined chorus was merely a mockingbird. 
Does that make the morning symphony less, or more, remarkable?

Location vacation

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Movies may be ephemeral, flickering shadows on a screen, but (or perhaps because) I have always been attracted to their physical remains.

As a kid at Disneyland I was thrilled to walk through sets from the Disney films Babes in Toyland and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. On my first trip to Europe in 1971, my friend Jim and I saw our surroundings, indeed planned our itinerary, through the lens of movies. We experienced London as the home of Mary Poppins and Vienna as that of Miracle of the White Stallions. When we heard that Castle Combe had been used in Doctor Doolittle we hightailed it there, and splurged by taking the Sound of Music tour of Salzburg filming locations.

My early memories of visiting San Francisco include walking down Flower Drum Song‘s Grant Avenue and driving through the towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay to find Hitchcock’s setting for The Birds. I have collected various maps, publications and websites denoting movie locations.  This fixation developed into the book that Will Shank and I coauthored, Celluloid San Francisco: The Movie Lovers Guide to Bay Area Film Locations. Since then I have presented film clip programs depicting the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz in feature films. National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell agrees that much of Alcatraz’s appeal is due to its depiction in the movies, citing nearly one and a half million visitors annually.

Over the years, I toured the backlots of Warner Brothers, Universal, and Paramount studios, and drove by the Hello Dolly set behind Century City more times than I can remember. I was impressed by the Hollywood Heritage Museum, the (now-relocated) barn used by Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille in early filmmaking. I was surprised to learn how many films were shot at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, known as “the movie railroad,” in Jamestown. In nearby Sonora, an exhibit identified locations in many famous movies. A visit to eastern California included the Lone Pine Museum of Film History, followed by a drive through the Alabama Hills to see the unique terrain in Gunga Din, How the West Was Won, Tremors, and many Hollywood westerns.

Costumes are another physical element of what remains after the movie makers have moved on to other projects. Exhibits over the years included original costumes worn by famous stars and had loftier goals than mere hero worship. “Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film” (1988) at LACMA posited that “…Hollywood historical costumes have often initially appeared to be authentic recreations of dress from earlier eras. Contemporary viewers are not aware that the costumes reflect their own standards of style and beauty — that the cave-dwellers’ costumes are cut to emphasize the 1940s silhouette, that the antebellum dresses are made with 1930s bias-cut fabrics. It is only with the passage of time that one can see clearly how all-pervasive the designers’ contemporary aesthetics have been. “Hollywood Costume” (2015) at the forthcoming museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences displayed explanations and examples about the role of costume designers in creating a film’s characters and helping to shape its narrative. Most recently “Dressing Downton”(2017) offered a historical perspective on changing mores and fashion, inspiring me to rewatch the entire series.

I realize I am not alone. Film tourism is a thriving industry. Witness the popularity of the Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand and Harry Potter sites in London and Scotland. Next month Allen will take a TCM bus tour of Manhattan locations. High on my agenda is visiting the archeological dig of the sets from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments, recently discovered in the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes.

The attraction of visiting a setting inspired by fond memories of a film, and the desire to watch the movie again after seeing the site seems to be a symbiotic relationship, All I know is that I look forward to my next “location vacation”.

Living in Latin

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Carpe Diem. Lately I seem to be living in Latin.

Having co-hosted a monthly Potrero Hill Death Cafe with Danielle and Harvey for going on two years I am embracing every moment. Well, as much as possible.

I am inspired by the participants who seek a safe, respectful space where we can talk about this taboo topic. They can feel comfortable sharing questions, curiosity, fears, beliefs and stories about any/all aspects of death, grief, mourning, bereavement. Over the two hours of our wide-ranging conversations, while sipping tea and enjoying cookies, we find that there is often lots of laughter as well as a few tears.

Every morning I engage in a brief meditation (while my English Breakfast tea steeps) which ends with gratitude for another breath, another day. I find myself more sensitive to the sunrise and sunset, to ever-shifting cloud formations, to birds soaring across the sky, to the trees dancing in my backyard. The downside is I’m also more impatient, frustrated with people’s perceived irresponsibility, and sensitive to unnecessary noise. It’s as if by acknowledging my mortality my range of responses has widened. Each second is sweeter, except when it isn’t.

I quip that I need to reevaluate my participation in Death Cafe: people around me keep dying. Of course it’s just that I’m now more aware of life’s fragility and finiteness.

One exercise poses the question: if offered an envelope with the date and time of your death, would you open it? Whatever your response, I believe that embracing our impermanence gives us a new lease on life.

Memento Mori.

Please consider coming to a special Death Cafe on Saturday, March 25 from 2:00 to 4:00 at Skylawn Memorial Park on the peninsula (Hwy 92 at Skyline Boulevard).