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).

Esalen experience

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I am surrounded by sea foam green. Tugged and twisted, stroked and pummeled. As my body lies still, it is tossed and turned in a turbulent tide. It floats under the ocean’s surface, comforted, suspended. I am completely safe.

My breath aligns with the relentless undulation of the surf, crashing, roaring. Warm salty air sweeps over my physical being. I can taste the brine. The more the waves caress my limbs, the more vivid my vision. Slowly I start to see myself as copper-colored kelp. Bulbous. Rubbery. Bendable. Unbreakable.

My body is a fragile sack of skin holding bones and muscle and blood-pumping organs, a temporary vessel of mortality and movement.

As the sea stretches my limbs, the symbiosis between seaweed and surf solidifies. Surrounded by jade green luminescence I have transcended my body, tight and stiff and aging, I am rapturously fluid, flexible, floating. I have died and gone to heaven.

The sea sounds diminish as I hear a divine voice whisper: I’m Elise. Your massage is over.”

“Last Dance”

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“Last Dance. It’s my last chance for love…” The disco diva’s voice soars. I smile with memories of moving to the relentless beat. Suddenly I realize my eyes have filled with tears and I am weeping. What? Why? I am remembering all my dance partners, seeing them raise their arms, kick their legs, shake their booties. Full of life, desiring love.

We are filled with the bone-marrow loud music, and likely some drugs. The lights flash, a glitter ball twirls, colors shoot in every direction. I am here and I am there, but they — most of them — are no longer here: Randy, John, Frank, Matt, Tom…

My heart can’t hold the names of all the friends cut down too soon. But it can, and it does. They are here now with me in the music, their souls in the sound waves, their smiles in mine, their dance floor moves never sharper, more focused. I smell their sweat, the poppers, patchouli, stale beer and I dance with them, without them.

“I need you, by me, beside me, to guide me, to hold me…”

Transported across the decades, I am laughing and crying and knowing I’ll be joining them someday soon. We’re all moving in the same direction, different timing, different steps, but the beat is the same. It’s a heart beat, the rhythm of our breath, partly from one too many high energy songs back-to-back, the unseen DJ unwilling to give us a chance to catch our breath.

I miss these men. They were my brothers. We were in this together. Until one by one they were taken away, like some macabre version of musical chairs.

“Disco is dead” proclaimed those who didn’t understand. They were wrong. As long as disco was alive so were we. So were the flamboyant queens with huge shiny fans preening, cavorting, presenting themselves to the world, night after night. And though they’re gone, they’re not really. I am grateful for the grief. Grateful for their return on Donna Summer’s vibrato. They show their ID, order a drink, and sashay on to the dance floor of my heart, one more time. “Last dance…”

It’s happening again, right now, as I write this. I am laughing and sobbing simultaneously, making an imaginary rainbow. And that too makes me smile, at the corny cliché that’s perfect, as I remember my departed dear friends dancing.

And now I realize it’s not only them I’m remembering but myself. The cute clueless guy looking for love, not just sex like everyone else, and never quite finding it. And now I know I have, thanks to Donna Summer. “It’s my last chance for love…”