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…”

Manzanar

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I recently returned from Manzanar, a place I’ve wanted to experience for a very long time. The visit was important, powerful and poignant. When I tell people where I’ve been they look at me strangely. Either they don’t know what it is/was, or they wonder why I would want to visit such a site in our state’s troubled history.

I had been interested in the Japanese American relocation camp for many years. During library school I compiled an annotated bibliography for an Ethnic Bibliography class in 1980, which necessitated meeting with Japanese American librarians and activists, a visit to the Japanese American Citizens League, and and research at various Japanese American libraries.

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The following year I attended one of the many redressment hearings, at Golden Gate University. I still remember the palpable anger and sadness in that auditorium, as I listened to painful, personal testimonies. In 1988 I was heartened when President Ronald Reagan officially apologized to the 80,000 survivors and offered them each $20,000. It couldn’t undue the lamentable episode in U.S. history, but it was an acknowledgement of the tragic “mistake”.

That said, I learned a lot by visiting the camp, alternately referred to as a relocation, concentration, or segregation camp. The energy of intergenerational psychic trauma at Manzanar was unmistakable. Driving to the camp, parking the car, and walking toward the museum, I was overcome by an inchoate sadness, which I simultaneously tried to embrace and dispel.

I thought I understood the internment of Japanese Americans, but it’s one thing to read history books and memoirs and to watch documentaries, it’s another to actually stand at the isolated site. I didn’t have to imagine the harsh windswept terrain, set against the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains.

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I recalled my grammar school classmate June Shozi, whose family owned the local strawberry stand in our Southern California suburb. I assume she and her family were incarcerated, but it was never discussed. In fact, the entire episode was not taught, even though it had taken place less than twenty years prior. I wonder to what extent it is now part of California’s curriculum.

The museum is installed in Manzanar’s former auditorium. I learned that Paiute Indians lived in the area before the town of Manzanar was founded in 1905. Apple, pear and peach orchards were planted, until the City of Los Angeles began to secretly buy up water rights in the Owens River Valley, and Manzanar was abandoned by 1929. The area was bulldozed to level the ground in preparation for the building of the camp, which exacerbated the continual blowing of dirt and sand.

We watched the short documentary film, which provided an excellent overview of the historical events. I hadn’t realized the extent to which racist antagonism directed toward the Japanese Americans — mainly jealousy for their hard work and financial success in agriculture and other endeavors — predated the relocation. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the professed fear of espionage was merely convenient propaganda for Executive Order 9066 authorizing “segregation” of an innocent minority group. In most cases the Japanese Americans didn’t understand where they were going, how long they’d be gone, or why they were being moved. They packed what they could carry, leaving their homes and businesses to nefarious or benevolent neighbors.

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We learned about families torn asunder by misguided attempts to prove their Americaness. Japanese-born Issei (who were not allowed to become American citizens) often spoke Japanese, while second- and third-generation Nisei and Sansei spoke English. Traditions were frayed by intergenerational living and eating arrangements, as well as divisive answers to a confusing loyalty questionnaire. Much of this was never spoken by the stoic survivors. “Shikata ga nai” was the attitude: it can’t be helped.

Allen compared the exhibits to Allegiance, based on George Takei’s experience as a child incarceree. Though critical of the Broadway musical, Allen admired how it instigated renewed attention to the underacknowledged episode.

After exploring the exhibits, we walked to the reconstructed barracks, mess hall, and other buildings, seeing first hand the cramped quarters with no privacy for sleeping, eating, or personal hygiene. One surprising realization was an internee’s oral history describing how the camp experience was actually beneficial for his mother, who, freed from her traditional obligations of cooking, cleaning, and other household/family duties, was able to blossom artistically and culturally.

By car, we circumnavigated the one-mile square camp, getting a sense of its magnitude. We stopped at various historic sites including the cemetery and the ruins of Pleasure Park, a beautiful garden created by the internees, later renamed Merritt Park for camp director Ralph Merritt. It was completely consumed by the desert and only recently rediscovered. I thought I would buy a souvenir of my long-awaited visit, but as I perused the well-stocked shop, I couldn’t bring myself to purchase anything other than a postcard of an undated “Manzanar” fruit label.

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Experiencing Manzanar over seventy years after its 1945 closure seemed appropriately timely. Annual pilgrimages take place, involving the friends and families of internees, as well as students. People who were incarcerated as children are now in their 80s. I believe every American citizen should be required to experience the site of this tragic miscarriage of justice.

Representations of Hate

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I have been presenting a program entitled “How has Hollywood (Mis)Represented Homosex538fc7b68b01e9d276c63f9e5aee3295uality” at which I show selected trailers from Jenni Olson’s compilation DVD Homo Promo. Initially I thought the depictions of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people (e.g. Myra Breckinridge and Christine Jorgenson) from the 1960s and ’70s was merely a convenient, campy way to engage in a dialogue about LGBTQI representation and difference. First presented at my pal Doug’s progressive church, it was such a success that I pitched it to the Eureka Valley Branch of SFPL and the JCCSF, where it was equally well-received. This week I am presenting the program at the Potrero Branch and at Morrison & Foerster law firm.

Recently I attended a talk by David Pilgrim about his book Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice based on the collections of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI. I was horrified by the poignant stories about the destructive power of mammy cookie jars, pickaninny posters, and a chauffeur’s cap. I began to think about demonization of other groups: centuries of anti-semitic depictions of Jews, inscrutable”Orientals”, Mexicans, Irish, Italians… Like Rodgers and Hammerstein remind us, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…”

I wondered if there was an analogous material depicting sexual minorities. Fundamentalism religions (of many stripes) that proclaim “God download (1)hates fags” might be a place to start. Popular culture examples such as movie posters and pulp paperbacks another potential source to investigate how members of the groups are pathologized. How imagery and iconography help exert control both from outside (mainstream) and within (personal and/or LGBTQI communities. The stereotypes are rampant. Take your pick: predatory lesbian, depraved gay man, sex-crazed bisexual, confused transsexual. What do these images do to produce and maintain hatred of the “other”? But equally important, how do they impact the psyche of those who identify as LGBTQI or question their sexual identity or orientation?

After showing the trailer for the film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band I joked that watching the film retarded my coming out by several years. I realized that download (2)there might be some truth to that, and wondered about the insidious damage done by these images.

In light of the recent shootings in Orlando, this idea seems increasingly both less historical, more contemporary and less far fetched.  Might there be materials in the holdings of the Hormel LBTQIA, the GLBT Historical Society and/or other repositories that might lend themselves to such an exhibition?

When I posed such questions to the audience, several enthusiastically suggested examples: The Lambda Conspiracy by Spendownloadser Hughes, a 1993 novel that “dramatizes with frightening realism the path this once Christian nation is taking, as society persists in rejecting the biblical foundations of our culture.”

Chick tracts, those short Christian evangelical booklets published by Jack T. Chick in comic book format.jackchickbirdsbees04

 

 

 

I researched religious American homophobes: Anita Bryant, Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger, Janet Mefferd’s “mainstream, faith-based Christian radio”, Donald Trump, Steven Anderson, Scott Lively, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory… and the list goes on. When it comes to hate, there are apparently no limits to those who incite violence.

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I believe this ubiquitous propaganda has pernicious potential for individuals and society. What do you think?

 

 

This example suggested by Dianne:

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Poem for Tom

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In an already crowded apartment 
filled with flowers and food and music,
prescriptions and absorbent pads,
ebbing and flowing with friends and family,
nurses and caregivers,
laughter and tears.

The body in the recliner, 
the center of attention, 
almost in the way,
now talked about as much as talked to.
outpourings of memories, 
photographs,  here and electronically,

many proceeded by “Tom would hate this…”
recalling a life well lived, now ebbing.

A sad, sweet scene,
one that has taken place since time began,
in caves and plains,
parlors and bedrooms, 
hospitals and nursing homes,
wherever there has been life, there will be death.
After seven days of waiting and watching, I quip
“The Jews got it wrong; this is sitting shiva.”

I hold Tom’s hand,
stroke his crepey arm,
tell him that he can go
to that big dance floor in the sky,
I will take care of his beloved Allen.
Allen who has so lovingly taken care of Tom
for almost 35 years,
keeping his secrets, 
enduring his stubbornness,
sharing his love of another era,
a deep, unbreakable bond
that will endure beyond this transition.

My own relationship with Tom more fraught,
the phrase “it’s complicated” seemingly developed for this situation:
a trio, 
a ménage, 
not always in balance, 
but buoyed by love and loyalty,
and sometimes rivalry.
As Allen explains it succinctly to the visiting nurse:
“like lesbians”

Over the years Tom and I developed a routine: 
he continually requesting lemons from my backyard tree
me arriving with a bag of yellow orbs
a peace offering, 
an attempt at connection,
until one last lemon is proffered:
grabbed
clutched
refused to let go
slept with in his curled palm
all night long
until it too will inevitably be released…

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LOL

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“LOL” may be shorthand for “laugh out loud” or “lots of love” but for me it stands for “little old lady”. To be clear: these are not small women, in fact they’re larger than life.

I had lunch last week with Adah Bakalinsky. She is smart, funny, interesting, and beautiful. Still spry and always curious, she is the author of the beloved book Stairway Walks of San Francisco.  I have known her, not well, for ages. Neither of us can quite remember when we first met. It I may have been at a party given by my friend Margaret Fabrizio. I think I gave her a ride home that night, and our paths crossed frequently thereafter. I was delighted when she invited me to her 80th birthday party, many years ago. After we continued to orbit each other’s worlds, she invited me to lunch at the Towers. It was a lovely (re)connection and caused me to wonder about my attraction to what I lovingly call “little old ladies”.

My first little old lady was, undoubtedly like many, my grandmother. “Baba” was my Auntie Mame, with her flamboyant red hair, thick French accent, stylish clothes and jewelry, and a glamorous past.  She encouraged my adventurous palate by introducing me to such foreign foodstuffs as beef tongue, calf’s liver, sweetbreads, quenelles, braised lettuce, marinated cucumbers, among other culinary treats. The fact that she was an opera singer in Paris, with 78 recordings and theatre posters to prove it, only enhanced her role as antidote to my boring suburban experience.  I am proud to say she is the person who most influenced who I am today.

Another early lol was Helen Jean, whom I met in the very early 1970s through friends. “HJ” lived in a SRO in the Tenderloin, and strung beads to eke out a living. I had moved away from my family and friends and was just coming out as a gay man. HJ was my confidante, my mentor. She listened to my tales of love found and lost, and I commiserated with her always precarious financial situation and encroaching blindness. We had lots of adventures and lots of laughs. After decades of friendship we somehow lost touch, and I’m sure she is now long gone. I think of her frequently and fondly every time I drive past her Larkin Street apartment building.

Where did this intergenerational attraction come from? Is it particular to gay men?  I think of my friend Eric Smith’s collection of wonderful lol’s including “Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road” about whom he made an inspiring documentary. What do we see in them, that others might not? How did Betty White become an icon of the gay community? Do we bask in their (fading) glory, desire to emulate their power, revel in details of their checkered or glamorous pasts? Who else participates in this particular pantheon?

Years ago when Michael Montlack was compiling an anthology entitled My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, some of my writing partners and I decided to contribute.  Patrick Letellier wrote about his admiration for Queen Elizabeth I and Lewis DeSimone explored his adoration of the fictional character Auntie Mame. Other offerings included opera stars, popular singers, movie actresses and a few literary figures. My contribution was an essay entitled “Dinners with the Diminutive Diva”, which concludes, “To the world, Betty Berzon was a pioneering gay rights activist, psychotherapist, and bestselling author. To me, she was a dear friend, whose inspiration guides me daily even as her absence deeply affects me.” That sums up my inexplicably deep connection to Betty, and her partner Terry DeCrescenzo. When Betty died I went into such a tailspin you’d have thought I’d lost my own mother and mentor.

My childhood friends were mostly girls, with whom I played jacks and hopscotch and house. I always liked talking to their moms, who seemed nicer than my own. I had no aunts (or uncles, for that matter.)  Why was I so attracted to female energy?

These days I try to spend as much time as possible with my friends Bev Case, who recently turned 91, and and Margaret Fabrizio in her mid 80s. Not because I have any official obligation or for altruistic reasons, but because I enjoy their company. It’s as if I want to experience every drop of wisdom and wit from these wonderful women while they’re still around.

Friends sometimes tease that I’m turning into a little old lady. I can only hope it’s true.

I’ve certainly had many amazing role models.

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Cinematic Souvenirs

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I recently toured the handsome new facilities of Pacific Film Archive and Berkeley Art Museum. As head librarian Nancy Goldman showed the group of art librarians the rich resources of the library, she made passing reference to souvenir movie programs. I thought of my personal stash of programs, collected in the 1960s and ’70s and asked if she might want them for the collection. I never looked at them, but couldn’t bring myself to dispose of them. . I was thrilled when she said yes. Now they would have a permanent home, and be of potential use to future researchers. As I took them off the shelf and packaged them for delivery, I took one last look at these mementos of my youth.

It was a trip down a veritable memory lane, as most of them were bought at theatres along Hollywood Boulevard, where I saw so many movies for the first time. I loved going to the movie palaces along this famous street: Grauman’s Chinese, The Egyptian, The Pantages and The Paramount (aka El Capitan). Sometimes with my parents, sometimes with a school group, but mostly with my grandmother, who lived not far away.

I spent hours reading in magazines about movies being made and eagerly awaited their release. I stepped on or over famous names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, many of which had to be explained to me by my parents. I was fascinated by special effects, dreaming that one day I would work in the industry. The programs offered a tangible memento of the experience. Filled with behind the scenes stories, biographies of the stars, and stills, some of these promotional materials are merely advertising, others offer fascinating information. Most are standard formats, either 8 1/2 x 11″ hardcovers or 9 x 12″ brochures, others diverge. Is it significant that those for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon are offbeat sizes and shapes?

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My eclectic collection boasts many musicals, including classics like My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Funny Girl and Camelot. Julie Andrews is well represented: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Star!, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. 51ihuDp0xEL._SX382_BO1,204,203,200_

Less successful offerings: Sweet Charity, The Happiest Millionaire, Hello, Dolly! and Doctor Doolittle. I bought the soundtracks of many of them, and compared them to the Original Broadway Cast albums that I borrowed from the library. I favored Gwen Verdon to Shirley Maclaine, Mary Martin to Mitzi Gaynor, and Julie Andrews over Audrey Hepburn. But, forgive me, I did prefer Julie Andrews over Mary Martin’s Maria von Trapp.

I would have been ten in 1962, when How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm were released at the Cinerama dome, where a few years later the Battle of the Bulge played. Images from the star-studded western were indelibly imprinted on my adolescent psyche; the fairy tale backstory and the war movie not so much.

While waiting to see the film adaptations I devoured lengthy novels like Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, Hawaii, and Far From the Madding Crowd. I scarcely understood that Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew were based on Shakespeare or that A Man for All Seasons had been a recent play.

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I loved the Biblical epics, The Bible, Ben Hur, and King of Kings. Can I count Cleopatra among the ancient extravaganzas? Other historical favorites were Is Paris Burning and Exodus.download

Before the days of videorecording, I often played the soundtrack and looked at the program, reimagining the experience of watching the movie. My bedroom walls were covered with images from magazines and sometimes even record albums, but never, ever, would I cut up my precious souvenir programs.

My penultimate perusal of these artifacts from the past returns me to my adolescent self and my love of movies. They are permanently imbedded in my heart; I no longer need their physical presence to remind me. After nearly fifty years on my shelves I am delighted they are moving to a new home.