Half Hour Away from Being Old

Last week I was invited to a friend’s house for dinner: at 5:30 p.m.

I can still recall dinners at eight, though it’s been years since I attended one. Most of my friends invite guests at seven. Six-thirty is my preferred start time when I host. If there’s a movie or performance wrapped into the evening, people might gather at six. But 5:30? Never before.

Anyone who came of age in the 1970’s knows the measure of getting old. Janis Ian laid it out for us in ‘Tea and Sympathy:’

 

Lunch at Half-past noon,

Dinner prompt at five

The comfort of a few old friends long past their prime

When we’re twenty, we consider being old is a diminution, a litany of all we’ve lost. But on the far side of sixty, the list of all the things I’ll never do again liberating. With no further need to prove myself I can decline cocaine and cigarettes, shooting guns and tequila, arm wrestling, support groups, charity runs, company parties, lobster, candied apples, and cotton candy.

A few years ago I might have included marijuana on that list, as reefers only render made me withdrawn and bemused. But I retain the right to toke up again if pain kicks in.

I plan on being a great old person; it’s a period of life that plays to my strengths. The early bird special pairs two things I love: good value without a crowd; my personal attitude grows sunnier every year: just ask anyone who knew me back then; and I’ve always spoken my mind. It will be bliss when those nuggets get burnished as wisdom.

I’ve also prepared well for growing old. I cut ‘Over 60: A Healthy Obsession will Keep You Busy’ from the Boston Globe back in the day of print news. These days, it’s yellower and wrinklier than I am, but its advice still rings true. I am a man of many projects—borderline obsessions—most of them healthy.

Although I only have a half hour uptick in my evening meal to be officially old, I suspect it may take ten, twenty years to breach that gap in time. Just because I am looking forward to something doesn’t mean I need to rush it. I’ve got a great gig going: plenty of time, plenty of interests. If I’m lucky, getting old will simply shift active engagement into more passive pursuits. By then, dinner at five won’t be an absurd concept. It will be welcome nourishment before that long, long night.

 

 

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Tomorrow Finally Arrives at Amazon

After several months and many snafu’s, the full color, coffee table version of How Will We Live Tomorrow? is available to order through Amazon.

I apologize to all who ordered the book back in December, when Amazon named it a #1 seller and then cancelled all orders, for reasons I have never been able to determine. This time ‘round I ordered one myself and tracked it just to make sure.

Still – ordering it not for the feint of heart.

Here is how to proceed:

Go to Amazon and search How Will We Live Tomorrow?

You will encounter one of these unappealing messages.

  

ORDER ANYWAY!

This is a print on demand book; the only way to trigger an order is to place an order. I don’t know why Amazon doesn’t offer a message block that explains this, but there you have it.

Next – wait! It will take 4-6 weeks for your order to go from Amazon to the printer, get printed, and then get delivered to you.

Can’t wait? Order How Will We Live Tomorrow? – ebook edition in less than a minute. It includes all the same stories, without images, accessible on almost any mobile device.

Want both? Folks who purchase the hardcover can order the ebook at half price.

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Homosexuals Rub Shoulders at The Met

Dapper gents in green ties have eyed each other across the galleries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for over a century. There’s nothing new in that. What’s new these days, green ties long discarded, is that we get to do it among throngs of art aficionados: old and young, fat and fair, straight and gender fluid: all of us perusing a pair of exhibits that embody different aspect of homosexual experience. On a crowded winter morning, it seems the entire world is enthralled by two of our most distinguished, if oddly paired, peers: Michelangelo and David Hockney. Each show is important in specific ways. Together, they provide a contrapuntal vision of how homosexual hands enhance our world, though I don’t recall the word ‘homosexual’ used in either gallery’s extensive notes.

‘Michelangelo: Devine Draftsman and Designer’ (hurry: ends February 12) is a glorious celebration of drawing. Although Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling demonstrates masterful painting, Michelangelo’s drawings are also extraordinary. The show inverts our usual sense of finished product; it includes a few sculptures and paintings in support of the drawings, although many of the drawings were originally produced as studies in advance of permanent execution in oil or marble.

The exhibit is not encyclopedic; rather it’s comprehensive within its precinct. It chronicles Michelangelo’s entire drafting career, from apprentice to elder artist, and includes works by his teachers, peers, and apprentices. Since drawing is so often about process, I appreciate the detailed notes about Renaissance production. How pin-prick holes transferred outlines to walls or ceilings when the drawings were pasted in place and rubbed with charcoal; the crosshatch method Michelangelo learned from his master, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and then refined to a higher level; the stylus grooves that were later filled with luminous gouache highlights. These drawings, composed of thousands of staccato lines, rise off their paper, transcending their plane into three dimensions.

The Michelangelo galleries are appropriately dark, the rather small objects spotlighted, the appreciative crowd clustered tight around detailed images of sinewy muscle. For that is subject of Michelangelo’s drawings: men’s muscles. Over, and over and over again. There are a handful of virgins, a few cherubic nymphs, but mostly Michelangelo drew portions of men in shadowy light, not unlike the mid-20th-century photos in magazines like Physique Pictorial. There are occasional faces, and a few hands. But mostly Michelangelo drew buttocks and thighs and torsos and shoulders, all rippling with testosterone. The accompanying notes itemize an equally impressive list of male patrons and companions. The word ‘homosexual’ doesn’t appear in the exhibit, because the term was not coined until the nineteenth century. Also because it would be redundant.

Coming out of Michelangelo’s shadows of insistent scratches rendering incomplete masculinity and entering David Hockney’s brilliant light and saturated colors is fresh, liberating. In the Hockney galleries, the term homosexual is passé, superseded by more recent terms: gay, homoerotic.

David Hockney (hurry slower: on view until February 25) may have been an out gay man since before sodomy was legal in England, and his images may have been inspired by the Physique Pictorial’s that fetishized Michelangelo’s perfect forms, but in truth, David Hockney’s art is not homoerotic. It’s not erotic at all. Two androgynous creatures squirting white stuff from phallic Colgate tubes into each other’s mouths may be Pop Art with social commentary, but it’s hardly erotic. A gigantic painting of a Southern California pool with a lone pair of his recently departed partner’s empty sandals is heart wrenching, Eros removed. A paired portrait of Christopher Isherwood, turning his profile toward his much younger partner while Don Barchardy looks straight ahead without even acknowledging the older man isn’t about erotic charge. It’s about what remains as passion fizzles; it’s about homosexuals grasping for a depth of connection too long denied; it’s about trust, commitment; it’s about fear.

  

 

 

 

David Hockney is a welcome antidote to Michelangelo. The broad flat colors of Poolside Splash are the perfect foil to Michelangelo’s frenzy detail. Hockney’s drawingsare not an amalgamation of small strokes, they are sinuous lines that reinforce, even celebrate, the two-dimensional medium. David Hockney does not create mass; he illustrates character.

 

Each exhibit is worthwhile: Michelangelo satisfies my intellect; David Hockney nourishes my soul. Together, each becomes deeper, profound.

These two shows at the Met also renew my sense of good fortune, to live in a time when it’s (mostly) okay to be homosexual. To loiter among all sorts of people gushing about art derived from a homosexual sensibility, yet still be able to meet the eye of a stranger with a strong chin; parse lips into the faintest smile, nod to one another, and acknowledge without a word, that we belong to the same club.

 

 

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Call Me White

I stayed awake for three days straight during senior year fraternity rush. All day socializing with prospective members, late night parties back in the halcyon days of age 18 alcohol, topped by after-hour meetings deciding which guys to offer a bid. Who did we want to welcome as fellow Phi Delts? We took it very seriously.

When a freshman caught enough attention, an upper classman was designated to be his mentor, made sure he met all the brothers, and tried to keep him away from rival houses. At the after-midnight meeting, each mentor made the case for giving his guy a bid.

I was assigned to ‘Jerry.’ Jerry was unlike any other freshmen touring our fraternity; he was black. The previous year, 1975, a black student had visited our house during rush, but he didn’t gain much consideration. A single member could squash any potential brother, and ‘Harold’ was blackballed when his name got mentioned. Two black freshmen joined another fraternity that year; the first African-American fraternity brothers at our school. I was determined that 1976 was the year we’d follow suit. Jerry was a good guy; and besides, it was time.

I agonized how to present Jerry at our midnight meeting. I described his high school background, his interests, that he wanted to study EE and play football. What I never said—ever—was the most obvious thing about Jerry. I never uttered the word ‘black.’

According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are up to 50,000 adjectives in the English language. Most of us use no more than 500. Rarely do we apply more than two or three to embellish a particular noun. The most appropriate adjective is the one that best differentiates. Which is why, if I hadn’t stirred myself into a PC muddle, I would have described Jerry as ‘the black guy’ and everyone would have known exactly which freshman I meant.

I couldn’t bring myself to describe Jerry as black. No one ever called me white, a meaningless descriptor in the ubiquitously white world I inhabited. Yet the term black seemed targeted, prejudicial; a word blacks might choose among themselves, but not one I was allowed.

A variety of terms have described me over the years: chubby, devout, curly-haired, geek, husband architect, father, skinny, secular, balding, writer, cyclist. No one ever called me white, until I went to Haiti. There, I was called ‘blan,’ a Creole derivative of the French world for ‘white’ that’s applied to foreigners of any skin color. An African-American in Haiti might be called ‘blan’ while a fair-skinned native would not. In my case, there was no confusion; I am ‘blan’ in every respect.

In Haiti I began to think of myself as white, which, after all, is a minority human shade. I started calling myself a ‘white guy’. It felt awkward at first, a betrayal of color-blind liberalism.

When I returned home, I realized that whitewashing racial terminology would not make racism go away. On the contrary, as long as white people feel so much in control that we don’t even have to acknowledge the dominant attribute of our privilege, we propagate our superiority.

Whatever happened to ‘Jerry’ and my ridiculous attempt to champion a young man while pretending away his most obvious characteristic? We gave Jerry a bid, but he didn’t accept it. He joined the other fraternity, perhaps because he wouldn’t be the only black guy. The following year, the Phi Delts gave bids to other black guys. One joined; the next year a few more. Change happens over time. These days, fraternity men come in all colors.

Someday, I hope, I can stop calling myself a white guy. But not until white ceases to be the default color of power, and human skin shades become hues to celebrate rather than instantaneous ways to discriminate and divide.

 

 

 

 

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Yet Another Bastion of Privilege: The Chaste Mouth

To be a white man in 2018 is to find yourself dug daily into ever deeper depths of Dante Inferno-like privilege. I recently learned of an entirely new arena in which my behavior supposedly reflects my precipice status: I don’t curse.

I have cursed, on occasion, in the past. A random ‘damn’ slips my lips even now, though it’s been years since I let out a satisfying string of expletives. I don’t use vulgar language in my writing; I agonized over whether to include ‘sh*t’ in a direct quote until my editor cautioned that masking the word would violate the quote. I don’t even raise my middle finger when I cycle any more, though I assure you many drivers deserve it.

My father cursed, like the Dickens, which likely explains my aversion to the practice. My housemate, the nicest person on the planet, lets four-letter streams loose. My brothers curse, probably my son as well, though he’s too careful to do so around me.

The day our President ranted against Haiti and African countries, reporters initially cited an ‘inappropriate’ word, without actually uttering it. The first banner headline I saw contained the term, ‘Sh*thole.’ Within hours, commentators said the actual word on air; banners spelled it in full. In less than one day, media protocol shifted. Whatever words a President chooses immediately enter common parlance.

In a recent New Yorker piece—a magazine that prints the F-word pretty casually these days—author Emma Byrne (Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language) says that the idea that we were once more courteous and less obscene is a fiction. “That attitude comes from a place of privilege. If you can be in this world, and not feel a level of intense frustration, upset, or even desperation such that you feel the need to sear, then you are in a very lucky position indeed.”

I am intrigued by Ms. Byrne’s notion, and admit to my own lucky position, but I’m not convinced her correlation is valid. I’ve always credited my chaste tongue with me being a prig more than being privileged. Sure, American subcultures that emphasize obscenities are more prevalent among marginalized people, but not all oppressed persons find escape in a curse. African Americans are often prolific and creative in bad-mouthing: Native Americans, not so much. Meanwhile, are any of us surprised to learn that Donny Trump can mouth a foul word or two without skipping a beat? And who, after all, possesses more privilege on our planet than that man?

 

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Entertainment Tonight … and Tomorrow … and the Day After That

It’s inauguration anniversary week—one year since Donald Trump took the Oath of Office. Many will pen commentaries on whatever good or ill our President has delivered. I fall square in the camp that believes Donald’s a bully who’s diminished our domestic lives, compromised our world standing, and made the world an even more dangerous place to live. One thing I’ve learned from him: the world is not simply divided into win-win relationships or win-lose transactions. Trump has introduced an even baser level of human interaction: I only win when everyone else loses. The man and I possess diametric worldviews.

Nonetheless, I’ll let others articulate his policy faults or triumphs. I’d rather focus on an aspect of this man’s rise to power too much overlooked: his entertainment value. In this regard, The Donald delivers.

Donald Trump rose to power in 2015 and 2016, coincident with me pedaling the pulse of our nation. It was a time of national complaint, despite scant to data support our malaise. True, many got left behind in the recovery from the 2008 recession, but the recession was over. The military industrial establishment had finally achieved ideal stasis: a continuous war that can never be won but which occupies so few citizens, we foot the bill without real objection. Our social systems—healthcare, public education, taxes, immigration, equality, and environmental policies—were all flawed, but trending in mostly good directions. Our problems were real, but of first world amplitude. Still we complained.

 

Democracy is a messy process, never complete. Responsible decision-making is too nuanced to bloom in the age of twitter. We yearned for a simple narrative.

Trump played the media and the populace like the astute barker he is, and we played right

 

along. Corporations appeared to have more influence over our day-to-day lives than government. As long as the stock market rolled in sync with Walmart’s replenished shelves, we figured we were doing all right, so why not choose an amusing front man for the political sideshow?

People may object to my rationale for Donald Trump’s election as flip and dismissive: I think it gets to the core of our problem. Americans have more say in our government than most people on this earth; we have enjoyed a high standard of living and freedom of expression for over two hundred years. We are quick to claim our rights, though less speedy to own the responsibilities those rights entail. Since anything taken for granted loses value, we grew complacent. Only an uninformed populace jaded to the political process could have elected a man like Donald Trump. That uninformed populace is us; elect a Very Steady Genius is what we did.

 

I’m surprised to hear people say, “He’s worse than I thought he would be.” Was no one listening through the anger, the double talk, the deceit? So far, Donald Trump acts exactly as I thought he would. One year in, what he does best is what he’s always done best: elevate hate and fear to a fever pitch that commands neither wisdom nor truth: only attention. That’s entertainment.

 

 

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Rules of The Road

Everybody loves a guy on a bike. Except when you’re driving alongside one. Then you just want that bicycle gone.

As a man who cycles for primary transport, with a track record of pedaling pretty far, automobile drivers often pinhole me with complaints of reckless cyclists, while cyclists regale me with the injustices of folks behind the wheel. Like all conflicts in our divisive society, we’re more inclined to point out the other guy’s yoke rather than clean up the egg on our own face.

The rules of the road are simple: bicycles are supposed to follow the same procedures as motor vehicles; cars and trucks are supposed to accommodate bicycles. Great in theory; difficult in practice.

Bicycles. Cyclists are iconoclasts with an independent streak. We buck the trend of a world that celebrates all things fast and fossil fueled. We chafe under rules designed for larger, more dangerous machines. Most cyclists I know operate under the assumption, “If I can glide through that Stop sign or pedal through that red light without a problem, I will.” We rationalize this makes traffic run smoother, though in fact, we just like flaunting rules.

“I will because I can” is an egotistical stratagem. It assumes nothing will go wrong (like the bike slipping in the intersection), and ignores the uncertainty errant cyclists inflict on vehicle drivers. Better, I think, to operate on the assumption, “I will, only when no one is affected.” I don’t run a red light against an oncoming car, even if I know I can make it, because I don’t want to cast anxiety on the approaching driver.

Automobiles. Please, just treat us with the same rights as any other vehicle. Give us three feet when you pass. If the road is narrow or lined with snow, and we claim a full lane, slow down behind us. Drivers that pass too close are dangerous. So are drivers that abandon the rules of the road under the auspices of being nice.

The most dangerous situation I encounter sharing the street with cars is when drivers who have right-of-way yield to me. I understand, in theory, they’re benevolent. In reality, they create confusion and danger. The diagram illustrates the awkward place I find myself at least once a week.

I want to turn left. I am in the left lane, with my signal arm out, waiting for traffic to clear. The approaching car stops and waves me in front of him. But his vehicle blocks my view of anyone in the right lane. I wave him on because I don’t want to turn into a blind spot, even as I’m a target for any traffic coming up too fast behind me. The driver trying to be nice thinks I’m an a@#hole. Everyone is annoyed.

How to resolve this dilemma? Follow the rules of the road. Altering the hierarchy of right-of-way for a bicycle makes things less safe, not more. Yield to a bicycle exactly the same as you would for a car. If the driver opposing me moves on, I can see what’s ahead and make my left turn more quickly and safely.

There was a time when our public streets were a confusion of horses, pedestrians, trolley cars, and motor vehicles. Then the cars took precedence. Now, more and more cyclists vie for space. Drivers resent vehicle lanes cut back to create bike lanes.; it’s hard to give up something you think you own. But the streets are for all of us, and the more we share, follow the same rules, and accommodate each other’s differences, the better off we will all be.

 

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