Summertime…

…and the living is easy.

The Awkward Poser is going to take a break from his ruminations. I wish you all a warm and happy summer. I will be back come September. In the meantime, be kind to yourself and to every other creature on this lovely planet.

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A Shared Approach to Addressing Our Housing Crisis

The United States is experiencing a severe housing crisis. Cities with high housing demand are woefully short of supply. Over the past two decades, monthly rents have increased 40% more than wages. Over the past two generations, the ratio of home purchase price to annual median income in Boston has ballooned from 2:1 to 8:1. The housing crisis has reached such proportions that Architectural Record—not a magazine noted for its social conscience—devoted an entire issue to the problem.

AR addresses the issues from predictable perspectives: affordability; income inequity; demand beyond supply; and diminished government assistance. All true, and all arguments that lead to the conclusion—consistent with our economic-growth mindset—that we need more housing. They offer little argument that we need different types of housing or—capitalism forbid—share the housing we already have.

Over the two generations that the home ownership affordability gap quadrupled (1950 vs. 2015 statistics) the average size of a home tripled, from 900 square feet to 2800 square feet, even as the average family size dropped from 3.5 to 2.5. Today, one quarter of Americans live alone. It is true that housing is more expensive than it was for our grandparents. It is also true that we expect much more of it than they had.

Except for the single year (1977-1978) that I served as a VISTA Volunteer, I have shared living space with others. From a social perspective, I cannot understand why people want to live by themselves. But when I weigh the economic burden that a single person or nuclear family carries to operate its own home, our focus on private habitation baffles me.

 

The old adage, ‘two can live as cheaply as one’ is not literally true, but it’s a pretty good first-degree estimate. Because I have housemates, everything is cheaper for me: food; utilities; Internet. I have less space to furnish; maintenance is shared. Someone else takes out the recycling when I’m gone; I water the garden when my housemate travels.

Sharing a house in middle age is not like living as a student. In addition to our shared living room, dining room, kitchen and den, we each have a private bedroom and a study. Yet allocating 2300 square feet among three people puts my personal space allocation in the 800 square foot range: more like 1950’s than 2015. In addition, my two housemates do not contribute to the ‘demand’ problem in Boston’s tight housing market.

It’s not all as rosy as I render. Living with other people requires accommodation. I never leave a dirty dish in the sink because I expect my housemates would never leave one there. We have to communicate; we have to respect each other; we have to get along. We have to apply those antiquated values that our culture undermines by the illusion that every person can be an island of self-sufficiency. At the most local level, the three of us have to extend the common courtesies that all of us need to convey if we want to society to be civil.

The real reason our nation does not promote shared living is simple: there’s less money in it. Mortgagors, insurers, appliance manufacturers, furniture makers, utilities; they all make three times more money from three people living in three 2300 square foot houses, than three people in one 2300 square foot house. Money is the real reason our culture promotes the supposed joys of independence and dismisses the satisfactions of interdependence.

I favor all the good ideas espoused by Architectural Record and others to address our housing crisis. But my strategy is better, and cheaper, and healthier for our social and mental well-being. Promote sharing. Don’t just build new housing. Build new forms of housing. Ones that provide private space, but also require interaction. Redirect public money to support group living. Use the public purse to explore new ways of living, homes that not only provide refuge for the individual, but also create places for us to come together.

__________

Note: All images in this post courtesy of Architectural Record, October 2018.

 

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Four Years On

Four years ago this month I sat out the afternoon sun in a Mexican cantina in Postville, Iowa, gorging on $6.95 fajitas and scrolling through the websites of the folks running for President. On Flag Day 2016, I asked each of them my question, ‘How Will We Live Tomorrow?’

None of the candidates responded that day. Or any other day. There was no political upside to the speculation my question required.

The basic gestalt of Postville, Iowa in the summer of 2015 was this: there are too many candidates, none of them are terrific, and besides it doesn’t much matter. In that not-so-long-ago era when the march to globalism seemed inevitable, we thought the economic juggernaut of US-China and our tag-along nations was more important in determining the state of our world than who occupied the White House. Clearly, being President had lost status: we already had a Black President; now we might even get a woman.

While no one paid much attention, the field of candidates got whittled to two; neither of which anyone much liked. One was the ultimate insider with a long public track record to ridicule, who appeared anointed by her party without requisite effort. The other portrayed himself an outsider, kept his track record out of view, and apparently rose from nowhere to command his party.

Although we knew, even then, this guy was not a straight shooter; he was provocatively amusing. And he was a man: a white man. Since we didn’t much think that who was President mattered, we voted for the guy who dominated the media by denouncing it, and we got exactly what he promised. No matter what you think of the last few years, they haven’t been boring.

 

Four years on we find ourselves in essentially the same boat. There are too many candidates; none of them appear all that good. A few things have changed. This time round it’s the Republicans whose candidate is anointed, while the Democrats shuffle a huge field of potentiates. And anybody whose even half-awake has realized, hey, the President still wields power. The power to skew the Supreme Court to unequal protection; the power to destabilize relations with long standing allies; the power to own the news cycle through endless agitation, accusations, threats, and counter threats supported by imagined truths, half-truths and outright lies.

Four years later, it’s easy to see how 2020 could produce a similar outcome as 2016, with the last-Democrat-standing facing the withering assault of an incumbent capable of anything. Or, we can make it play out differently. Will we, the electorate, pay attention sooner? Will we select at least one candidate for President based on his or her plausible vision for tomorrow? Will we then follow through by electing someone with a message of cooperative hope rather than divisive fear? Time will tell.

__________

Be informed. The first round of Democratic Party debates will be held on Wednesday June 26 and Thursday June 27 on NBC.

 

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A Folk-Art Flag for All of Us  

June 14 is Flag Day; a day to honor the flag of the United States of America. Our nation’s standard includes thirteen alternating red and white horizontal stripes representing the original states, plus a blue field gridded with fifty white stars: one for each current state.

The United States Flag Code, drafted in 1923 by the National Americanism Commission of the American Legion, outlines respectful flag protocol. It became federal law in 1942. The Code specifies how to raise, fly, lower, fold, transport, and even dispose of a flag. It prohibits flying a flag tattered or upside down. It bans flags on clothing, except for patches on military, police, or firefighter uniforms, or worn by members of patriotic organizations. The flag can never be displayed in advertising.

1960’s protestors wore flags, dragged them through mud, and burned them. Among supporters, invoking the flag bolstered their claim of free speech. Detractors were enraged. By the time the Supreme Court upheld flag burning as a form of free speech in 1989, the emotional pulse of the stars and stripes was shifting right. Today, what some considered patriotic expression of free speech has become a symbol of national fealty: our flag is more often displayed on baseball hats and beer coolers than hoisted in protest.

Neither the left nor the right owns our flag. Whether a person wears a flag as protest or in pride, it is still a violation of the Flag Code.

American flag graphics are also integrated into art, echoing claims of free-speech versus nationalism. Jasper Johns’ surreal rendering, Flag, is embedded with scraps of newsprint and fabric. It hangs in the Museum of Modern Art. Wooden flags that display however many stars and stripes fit on a shipping pallet, are mounted on fences and outbuildings all across our nation.

In 2015-2016 I bicycled the 48 contiguous states and encountered dozens of folk-art flags. From rural Mississippi to rural Montana, the message they conveyed to me: ‘I am poor in material resources but proud in spirit.’ Every one of them warmed my heart.

When I returned home, I decided to make a wooden flag for my own yard. Cambridge, Massachusetts: urban, affluent; is markedly different from the economically declining, politically conservative locales where I discovered these constructions. Yet as citizens of the same country living under the same banner, I wanted to create a display that honors our mutual heritage and celebrates our commonalities, while conveying my own community’s vision of America.

I assembled my flag from scrap wood and leftover paint, although I included the full complement of thirteen slats and fifty stars. I arranged the stars in a circle, reminiscent of Betsy Ross. Then, I made a conscious departure from my flag’s inspiration. I painted each star a different color: red, white, black, and yellow at the four compass points, with unique blends of these skin-tone colors for every star in-between.

Our nation’s ideals have always been loftier than our reality. The white men who founded the United States created a more representative government than any of their time, but representation fell short of our total populace then; and it still falls short of our full citizenry today.

I call my assemblage the Constellation Flag: a constellation of stars that reflects the full human spectrum, brought together within one great, imperfect nation. Its iconography is rooted in our national standard; its meaning rooted in what that banner means to each of us. I planted it in my front yard with the hope that it offers a bridge to national division, perhaps might even leverage our historical icon forward. It is a flag that heralds the ideals we have long asserted. Perhaps someday we will make those ideals real.

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Good Catholic Boys: Reject thy Church

“A reminder that Catholics should not support LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful to children.”

Thomas Tobin, Bishop of Rhode Island , on Twitter, June 1, 2019

I was a good Catholic boy, obedient and devout. Everyone thought I would become a priest, including me. Brainy and subservient, I would follow in the footsteps of my Franciscan uncles. But then I developed qualities anathema to the Catholic Church: curiosity and independence. So I eschewed the priestly life, and the security that the Church offers men like me became shackles of sin and shame, which I’ve spent the last fifty years unraveling. I can distill my evolution to four distinct moments in time, landmarks of my personal liberation. Doubt steered me away from the priesthood. Arrogance prompted me to leave the Church. Scandal triggered my rejection of the institution. And now Thomas Tobin’s judgmental—and blatantly false—tweet incites my personal rejection into public action. It is time to make this Church: history.

September 1969

A new year of CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), which is a solemn name for teenage Sunday School. I am fourteen, eager beyond reason. Our teacher, Peter Stravinsky, a Diocesan Seminarian, is only five or six years older than me. He begins our instruction by extolling how a call to religious vocation is superior to all others. I wonder, perhaps, whether a doctor, a dentist, a farmer, even an architect, might make important contributions to the world; that the superior calling for each of us is the one that best suits our skills. I raise my hand and suggest this. I am shut down immediately and not called upon again. Peter’s surety, his superiority, is absolute. It also becomes the seed of my own doubt. I know, right then, that I will never be a priest, though I remain a steady practitioner of the faith.

 

May 1979

I am getting married! My fiancé is not Catholic. However, she agrees to be married by one of my uncle-priests. Our pre-Cana lessons are condensed into a weekend retreat: workshops, seminars, congregate meals, and communication-building sessions from dawn past midnight. Since Lisa doesn’t plan to convert, we are targeted as a ‘problem couple’. Men in black shadow us the entire weekend.

We survive the cultish proceedings, marriage plan intact. Then meet with my college chaplain to seal the deal. Father Moran explains that, as the true Catholic, I am required to sign a paper stating that I will raise our children in the faith. When I question this policy, the bearded Jesuit says, “No one can ever know how you raise your children. Just sign the paper.”

I always figured I would raise my children Catholic. But in that instant I realize how poorly my Church treats my chosen wife; what little faith their contract places in me, or in us. I am also shocked by my pastor’s moral shrift. I refuse to sign. I stop going to mass. The Catholic Church played me like a numbers game, gambling on bagging Lisa, or at least my unborn children. Instead, the Church lost me.

June 2002

Morning after morning The Boston Globe headline captures my eye. The sexual abuse by priests within the Archdiocese of Boston pollutes the news. People are appalled by the fallen vows and cover-ups, the abuse of young children, the abuse of power itself. I am less surprised. Any babe weaned on Catholicism knows that the Church is not a democracy; it doesn’t pretend to equate all humans. Priests are God’s intermediaries; they are better than the rest of us. The Church will never turn them out for something insignificant as diddling little boys.

I absorb the clerical abuse story, but try not to let it absorb me, until one morning when the headline proclaims a fresh rash of predatory behavior. I stop dead still. I stare at the newsprint. I begin to sweat. Was I abused?

I have no conscious memory of anything untoward during those sacred moments as an altar boy, after mass, in the sacristy, washing Father’s cruets, kneeling before him for his blessing, feeling the whiskey warmth of his breath on my tender shoulders. I am closer to God, through him. Still… If a priest ever touched me, I would have taken it as a special blessing. If a priest asked me to touch him, I would have considered it holy intervention. And if a priest told me this was our private secret, I would have felt our bond more deeply blessed.

I don’t believe I was ever abused. But I know for sure, that I would have interpreted the touch, the pain, as a spiritual experience. I would have accorded it the same sanctity as the confessional; I would have concealed it beyond that hallowed chamber.

That was the moment I stopped simply being a lapsed Catholic. I became anti-Catholic. I stopped calling the religious in my family ‘Father’ and ‘Sister’. I called them ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle,’ like all the rest. When they lectured me about my failing marriage, I lashed back, “You know nothing of marriage.” When they called out my sin of being an openly gay man, I replied, “This is how god made me.” When they chided me for sending my children to an urban public school, I shot back, “My children will be exposed to the full rage of life, not the propaganda of the Catholic Church.”

The last mass I ever attended was my mother’s funeral. She remained Catholic ‘til the end, though I eulogized that her most generous gift was to love and support five children, all of whom left the Catholic Church. There’s a quirky logic to my generation abandoning the flock, as the Church abandoned us in kind. When my parents divorced after thirty-two years, my mother’s shame was so great that she spent a considerable sum to have her marriage annulled. At the Vatican, for a price, any lie can be scrubbed true. This good Catholic boy, whom everyone thought would one day become a priest, became a certified bastard.

June 2019

I don’t know why Thomas Tobin’s ugly, hurtful tweet triggered such a strong response in me. The Church has hurled hundreds, thousands, of judgmental directives to bring me to heel. But his is the one that made me understand that it is not enough to doubt, to leave, and to reject the Church. I must oppose it. I must help others oppose it. If the highest official in Rhode Island’s Catholic Church can spew such lies, I have a greater moral responsibility: to shout the truth back at him.

Before I came out I suffered depression and anxiety vomiting. I steered clear of ‘men who made me nervous.’ I knew the evil that nature planted within me; even though it took thirty-eight years to even utter its name. Too often, I weighed the relative weight of complementary sins. Ending my life would free me of homosexuality. Twice, the desire for extinction held sway, and though I am successful in many things, apparently suicide is not one of them.

At my tenth high school reunion, an old friend told me, “Of all the angry young men I know, you are the angriest.”

When I finally came out. I had long ago stopped going to mass. Now I stopped going to therapy, I stopped seeing friends from my previous life, I stopped being married. I also stopped being angry. I had nothing except the responsibility to raise two children, whose immediate needs saved me from drowning in emptiness. Always a latent learner, I started reading about others like me, I went to discussion groups, I sang in the chorus. By the time I finally kissed another man, all the shame had drained out of me. It was as pure and delectable as a kiss should be.

I became more patient, with my children, with my clients, with my fellow humans, even with myself. In fact, I became more patient with everyone. Except priests. My only insight into PTSD occurs when I encounter a Roman Collar. My heart speeds, my temperature rises, anger zooms. He might as well be wearing a Swastika armband or Klan hood; a Roman collar triggers that much wrath in me.

Which brings me back to Thomas Tobin’s tweet, posted twenty-five years after Boston’s clergy abuse scandal, two thousand years after a clever group of manipulators twisted Jesus’ message of human charity into a platform for power and privilege. Tobin’s hateful words make me realize that the Catholic Church will not change. The few who hold the power and the money will not loose their grip. Whatever good the Church may have done in the past is clouded by its inability to clean its own house, and its unwillingness to embrace and celebrate the variety of human conditions. Since the Church will not change, we must destroy it.

After Tobin’s tweet, hundreds of well-intentioned Rhode Islanders proclaimed that he does not speak for the Church, that the church is the community of God, that the Church can be reformed by working for change from within. I have three words for these good folks: You are wrong. Thomas Tobin is the appointed head of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island. When he speaks, he speaks for the Church.

If you sit in a pew at mass, you are affirming Thomas Tobin’s view. If you open your mouth to receive communion, you are abetting a bigoted Church that controls people through shame. And if you–god forbid–put even one dime in that collection basket, you are supporting an institution premised that a select few are better than all the rest of us, a church that will never capitulate that imbalance.

Bringing down the Roman Catholic Church will not be easy, but it isn’t all that hard either. The largest spiritual institution in the world has no army; it controls only a tiny parcel of land. The church will fall apart when we simply stop participating. Catholicism’s Catch-22 is that, although not a democracy, it is more dependent on direct participation than any nation state. The church cannot force you to attend; it cannot tax your tithe; you can leave without becoming a refugee.

The Church will not fall quickly; it’s richer than Midas and can sputter on for decades without further contributions. But if we stop listening to Thomas Tobin’s bilious lies, we make him impotent. If we scratch Pope Francis’ inspirational words to reveal he hasn’t instigated any real change, we expose him for what he really is: a clever spin master.

The more difficult aspect of bringing down the Church is: what will we have in its stead? We need faith. We need community. We need each other. How will we come together to create that, without the Church’s guiding hand? Without its mystery and satisfaction? Being churchless is lonely; I know this firsthand. But the true cross we have to bear is not trying to reform a church that will not change: it is to create a church that nourishes our spirit through love rather than edict.

The Awkward Pose’s byline is ‘Seeking balance in a world of opposing tension.’ I strive to acknowledge, even understand, all perspectives. But each of us has triggers that propel beyond moderation, and I do not maintain a balanced perspective on the Catholic Church, especially with regards to how it treats gays. The Catholic Church did more damage to me than any single person or influence in my life. Being an out gay man is the singular most positive step I ever took. I could not be my highest and best self until I threw aside the shackles of shame the Church piled on me. I am not interested in appeasing the Catholic Church. I want it gone. I want every Catholic to throw off whatever chains the Church uses to imprison them, and experience the wonder of a world liberated from this heinous institution.

________

The images in this post are from Sacred Heart Church, once a large parish in my neighborhood. It has closed its school and holds only two Sunday masses.

 

 

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“You’re Lucky”

“You’re Lucky.” I hear that phrase every day. Sometimes more than once. It’s the ubiquitous response I receive from folks when they learn that I live in Cambridge, that I travel by bike, that I retired at age 58, that I don’t take any prescription meds, that I have no debt, that my belly is still flat.

“You’re Lucky.” I nod in quiet agreement and then keep my lips sealed. Yes, I am lucky, whether measured by the global lottery of being born a white American male or the molecular composition that bestowed me a fast metabolism. But does luck fully explain my fortunate circumstances? Is it possible that I made some prudent decisions along the way? Did I perhaps even do a bit of work?

“You’re Lucky.” Life is a cocktail of effort, circumstance, and choice. By middle age, the concoctions we’ve endured define who we are. If we are content or satisfied or proud, we fancy that our effort, rather than luck, landed us so well. If we are angry or wanting, we can identify myriad scapegoats who blocked our way. Yet when we consider others, we often figure the opposite. Whatever good fortune they achieved must be largely due to luck; if they are downtrodden there’s reason.

“You’re Lucky.” People who utter that to my face don’t want to hear about my effort or my choices, especially since my choices are often at odds with most middle-class Americans: a bike instead of a car, housemates instead of a single-family house; a lifetime of eating moderately and drinking even less, purchasing only what I can pay for, stepping on the scale every morning before heading to the gym. Tedious discipline is at odds with a culture enamored with fall and redemption, so years of consistency get rebranded ‘lucky.’ Acknowledging that I might be the agent of my good fortune would cast a shadow over others’ more sedentary, more encumbered existence. Chalking my situation up to luck deflects a mirror on different, more conventional, perhaps easier, choices.

“You’re Lucky.” I keep my mouth shut and nod in agreement. After all, they’re right, to a point. And I’ve heard it so often I don’t argue the point.

 

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Jim and Margery and Boston Traffic

‘Boston Public Radio,’ with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (WGBH weekdays from 11 to 2) features interesting guests and discussion. Except for the call-in segments. That’s when Margery and Jim pick a topic, riff personal rants, and throw open the lines for others to complain. I don’t see the point, except perhaps to illustrate that talk radio dialed left can be every bit as angry as talk radio dialed right. And on ‘Boston Public Radio,’ the favorite rant is: traffic. Lines light up, vitriol spills, and nothing changes.

One thing all can agree upon: Boston traffic is horrific, much worse than comparable cities our size. And its companion public transit system, the T, has the unique tragedy of being extensive in scale yet miserable in performance. It’s like a Christmas tree train set: cute, quirky, and ineffective.

Beyond that, there is no agreement. More roads? Where to put them? Better transit? The system is totally broken. More bicycles? Please, this is talk radio, where cyclists occupy the lowest level of hell.

One recent morning Jim kicked off a half-hour of collective whining by describing his 50-minute drive from Inman Square Cambridge to Boston’s South End the previous evening: a distance of 3.5 miles. His injustice fueled mighty ire.

Just before I switched off the blather, I realized, the answer to Boston’s transportation problems is straightforward, almost simple. It is also politically impossible. Although, optimist that I am, I will recategorize that as ‘politically unlikely.’

What do we need to do? Simple. Move a million people or so from multiple Points A to multiple Points B, many of whom want to travel at the same time. American wisdom suggests that we move them with as much autonomy, comfort, and speed, as fast as possible. Hence, the automobile. Hence, the highway. Hence, Los Angeles, the city that proves the more you pave, the worse traffic becomes. Unfortunately, the only examples of car-centric American cities that don’t have major traffic are those that have suffered economic contraction. Driven in Detroit lately? It’s a breeze. But that doesn’t make it a good model for Boston to emulate.

We also need to burn less fossil fuel. A lot less. True fact: when humans are extinct traffic will be manageable. But we ought to explore less extreme solutions.

In the United States, where we worship individual privacy, eliminating private transportation is not a viable option. The T can barely handle the volume it carries now. But still, we have to incentivize people out of their cars and get them traveling together. This requires change. Change implies pain. Pain triggers resistance. What can we do to shift folks from polluting cars on congested streets to reliable, efficient transit?

Let’s start with a 50 cent per gallon tax on gasoline, ear marked to public transportation.

Fifty cents a gallon? Are you kidding? That will kill our economy! Actually, it will still leave our gasoline prices short of these in California, where the economy remains strong.

 

Give more money to the T? You’re nuts! They can’t manage what they have now. Yes, the T needs reform and direction. We need to make sure any more money it gets goes for better service not just station facelifts.

First, the T needs make the commuter rail lines, not the subway, the primary backbone of the system. The commuter rail lines cover the entire region, and if we want folks out of cars, we have to give them something viable instead. Commuter trains should run more often, more reliably. Then, we have to make the subway more efficient. Eliminate stops that are only blocks from each other (bye-bye Boylston and Chinatown, maybe even Shawmut and Green). Give above-grade trolley lines green light bypasses; if the Green Line along Comm Ave becomes faster than driving, people will switch. Strengthen bus service. The new bus lines along Mount Auburn Street in Watertown and Cambridge give priority to bus riders, who comprise more than fifty percent of rush hour commuters in that stretch of road, while taking up less than twenty percent of the road space.

Other things will be required to transition from cars to transit, like increased density development around train stops. Wouldn’t it be sweet to live in an apartment next the Lincoln train stop? Such dreams eclipse reality.

 

Actually, this is all a dream. Yet we all know that we must make it a reality if we are to sustain life in this city, on this planet.

One small place we can start is with Jim and Margery. Jim complained about his 50-minute drive from Inman Square to the South End. Many callers echoed his frustration. But not one—not one—questioned why the heck he even tried driving that 3.5-mile stretch at rush hour. There are buses and subways that connect those locations. On a nice spring evening, it’s a great walk. I have no empathy for Jim’s complaints because we have to get out of the mindset that we can just drive anywhere we want any time we want. Especially when we have other options.

Let’s make more options available for everybody, and let’s promote them as the preferred way to get around Boston. You have our ears, Margery and Jim. Lead the change.

 

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