Sunday, December 18, 2011

Travel Advisory

Last week held probably the last day we will see above 50 degrees for quite a while, but then who knows these days?  We are likely to be having a green Christmas hereabouts, which will be very disappointing to my niece Graciela (George's daughter) and her 4-year-old, the latter of whom is hoping to experience snow for the very first time this year; they are flying up from Houston.  Going from Houston to anywhere else on Earth, including Darfur or Helmand province, is a step up.  In fact, young Miranda's father Hector does work in Afghanistan and, if he doesn't exactly love the place, he sure does love the enormous loads of cash deposited in his account monthly.  

Speaking of parts foreign, a funny thing happened to me in Bahrain when George and I were staying there, waiting for Papa's vacation to begin so that we could all fly together to India.  On my last day (of five) in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, I was sitting at an outside table with George at a Starbucks.  I tended to go to this particular place for coffee each day, because I had really hit it off with the guys who work there: Omar and Amal from Bangladesh, Zoros from Nepal, Othman from India and Marco from the Philippines.  I would drop in each day at times they didn't seem to be busy and joke around with them.  The Starbucks in Manama - the only one I know of, anyway -is on a very westernized street in Bahrain (although most of the streets are pretty westernized) - lined with all the usual suspects: DQ, Seattle's Best, Chili's, McDonald's, Burger King and slew of others.  There are also some chains from other places such as Nando's from South Africa.  Sitting in any of the outdoors areas, one sees as many Americans passing as Arabs, because the U.S. Navy has a large base nearby and this street is one of the popular venues during their off hours.   Of the Arabs one does see, both men and women are doing their best to look American, men riding motorcycles and women in tight jeans and so forth.

Normally, I avoid areas frequented by Americans and Europeans in Third World countries, because these areas are so westernized I might as well stay home and go to a mall.  In addition, in countries with a Muslim population or a population hostile to the U.S. government, places like this street and these restaurants are the most likely to attract the attention of suicide bombers.  No one appreciates excitement on a vacation more than I do, but one must draw the line somewhere.  I actually felt a tiny bit of discomfort when I would sit at Starbucks for any length of time, wondering if I would attract just such attention.  Bahrain is one of the countries experiencing the current Arab spring-cleaning and there had been a bit of a dust-up the week before George and I arrived.  The insurrection in Bahrain failed largely because King Hamid called in his Saudi allies, who rumbled across the causeway that joins the two countries in full force.  The area where the action centered, the historic Pearl Square, was demolished and that area, when I was there, was blocked at all points of entry by the Saudi - not Bahraini - military, and was fully occupied by Saudi forces.  

Like many of the Middle Eastern countries - pre-war iraq or Syria,  for instance - Bahrain has a large majority of one Muslim sect (in this case Shi'a), but is ruled by a government entirely composed of people from a different, small minority sect (Sunni).  I am not sure why this occurs so often in the Middle East - whether the disadvantaged are drawn to different religious practices from the advantaged and thus become different from the rulers, or whether a minority somehow imposes its government on the existing majority.  In any case, the Bahraini majority, besides being Shi'a, looks to Iran as it natural ally, which is a fact of even more import to the Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia, than the heretical beliefs are.  

So to continue, I was relaxing at an outdoor table with Ted at Starbucks, when a youngish Arab man and I struck up a conversation.  He spoke fair English, but was impressed by my Arabic - and it is odd, but as soon as my feet hit the ground in Bahrain, a great deal of Arabic which I thought I had forgotten came flooding back - and soon he joined us at our table.  He was a Saudi and very much a Bedouin by nature; he lacked some of the modern overlay that one often finds among younger Saudis.  He brushed his leg against mine a few times, but Arabs, like most Asians, are far less jumpy about touching between men so I thought little of it.  But when we went inside for refills, he suddenly threw his arms around me and said a couple of things, addressing me as 'habibi'.  Habibi means literally, 'my love', but Saudi friends sometimes use it in a kind of ironic way - something like an American man calling his friend 'buddy'.  But the hug was too tight and too long to be entirely innocent.  Here was sad, saggy old me being hit on by a 34-year-old!  I can tell you that bucked up the sadly eroded ego something fierce.  

I have often said that "if a gay man can't get laid in Saudi, he can't get laid anywhere".  Because Saudi had, in the days when i was there at least, virtually no way for men to date women, and in addition the cost for a young man to marry was so high, a huge number of Saudis are single and desperately horny.  The result is much like the result of a similar deprivation in American jails, men turn to men for relief.  Since there is an enormous population of foreign workers (I have heard that one out of two people in the Kingdom is foreign) and since word of this state of affairs has gotten around, as such things will do, causing foreigners who prefer men to take jobs there, it is common for amorous Saudis to turn to willing foreigners - less risk to the Saudi of shame or legal trouble, and something to do for fun for the foreigner. (This is an answer, of sorts, to Laoch's query about what there is to do for fun in Saudi).  The odd thing (to my mind) is that these men seem to find anyone from eight to eighty worth their attention, unlike the more enlightened westerners who rarely want to date anyone over 25.  However, as is the case with American prisoners, most Saudi men prefer women and once the opportunity arises, they will return to the straight and narrow, or straight and female, at least.  So my assumption is that when in Bahrain, a relatively open country where one can find female companionship safely and fairly openly, a Saudi man would be looking for girls, if he was looking at all, and if he were truly interested in men, he'd be looking for the young good-looking ones.  

George left us soon after this hug (which he did not witness, having remained outside at our table) to grab a nap before our flight later that day and Khalid, for such was his name, invited me to see his room, which was "in walking distance".  In fact, he actually had to rent a room after we arrived at the hotel, but I do not strain at gnats, as the saying is.  We spent a lovely day together, and by the time I actually returned to the Desert Pearl, Papa had arrived and he and George were entirely panicked, thinking I had been abducted and would not make the flight for which we were due to leave at that very instant.   Khalid insisted on driving me to the airport, and he was eager to help all of us with our luggage and so forth.  Any time he and I were alone, he vowed his undying love, and his hope to be together at some future point.  I took this all with a grain of salt, but he has been in constant contact with me ever since by Facebook, Skype and telephone.  In fact, his messages in the public ares of Facebook have been so indiscreet as to pretty much blow open any remnants of my comfortable closet.  The thing is, his Facebook page (which is under a pseudonym) has entries, including pictures of men, from prior to our meeting which indicate that his preferences are for men who exactly match me.  

Naturally, I condered that he could be some young guy hoping for worldly gain from a besotted old man or a would-be immigrant looking for help in coming to the U.S.  But he has actually offered to pay for me to fly back to Bahrain soon, and he cannot come to the U.S. at least for two years, because his elder brother took his passport and told him that he will not get it back until he finishes school.  Khalid had been out of the Kingdom a number of times to New Zealand before this happened, and has even been married, so the school he is to finish is actually high school.  He is taking physics and chemistry (among other things) so it seems he is really buckling down; even more indicative of some degree of seriousness is that he has told me that he can't call on certain nights because he is studying.  Since he is open about other amorous adventures since my return, I don't think it is an excuse to cover a boy's night out.  He also holds a job, though nothing lofty, so he does seem to have some sense that the future really will happen, an understanding I often found lacking in young Saudi men.  

Khalid and I are not soul mates; above and beyond the language and cultural differences, we have different interests.  i have met people who hardly spoke a word of my language or me theirs with whom I had a certain mental connection, people of whom I could say we got  each other.  This is not fully true of Khalid, but I like him and he likes me.  Better, he likes the way I look, and the way I look pretty much has ME eyeing the arsenic in the morning.  I cannot tell you how much this has bucked me up.  I'll see how it goes, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find a vacation in Bahrain (the ticket for which I will pay) in my not-too-distant future.  Khalid has all the virtues and faults of the Bedouin - he is generous, impulsive, bigoted, demanding, fails to see obstacles and is quick to judge.  I am mostly the same (omitting 'generous' and hopefully less blatantly bigoted - honestly I think I am way less bigoted).  By bigoted, I don't refer to racial bias so much as culturally, nationality-based and religiously biased.  It is bias, in itself, to assume that other people's biases are based on the same factors (i. e. skin-color) as our own.  I am making no big plans, but I must say that life is just a tad more full of possibility than I thought a couple of months ago.  You can't ask more of a vacation than that.  Travel is, indeed, broadening.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It's a Good Sign!

The Bahrain hotel suite in which my brother George and I stayed for a few days en route to India contained two appliances which even here in America remain largely unknown quantities to me, given my slipshod lifestyle: a clothes washer and a dryer.  George, however, is a far more tidy and orderly soul than I am, so he decided we must make use of this largesse on the part of the Desert Pearl hotel.  And, in truth, even I could tell that, after a series of interminable flights, my clothing could do with a bit of cleaning.  We set forth for the Megamart, a large supermarket nearby, which also sold clothing and various other useful items, to buy some laundry soap.  There we found Tide which, when I lived in Saudi, was the brand everyone used, and next to it was a laundry soap called Omo.  I vaguely recall seeing products from this brand when I lived in Saudi where I assumed it was some brand used in European countries, like Fa or Fairy.  I do know that Tide was so popular that I literally never saw any other product used by Saudis or Westerners or anyone else from the highest paid to the lowest paid groups in Saudi.  I commented at the time, more than once, that I wished I got a penny for each box of Tide sold in the Kingdom.  

George and i were feeling bohemian and adventurous and we decided to try Omo laundry soap, and I think we may have discovered a source of Omo's difficulty in competing with Tide.  Right under every display, on each box, of the brandname 'Omo' was the company's slogan: "Dirt is Good".  I do not kid; that is the slogan, printed proudly and repeatedly on every box.  I have a box here with me to prove it.  

One of the joys of travel in third world countries is the English signage.  It is easy to make fun of these, although who among us can be at all certain that he could correctly advertise any product in a foreign language.  When in Saudi, I saw "Big Sails" advertised and a shop that sold "grosseries".  What is even more enjoyable for me is where signs are correct, but the usage is a little different that that which we might find here in the US of A.  Whose heart would not be warmed seeing the Sincere Saloon, which is located right next to the Nice Bakery in one Indian village?  And does amputation have to be a dreary affair; why not shop at the breezy Prosthetics 'n' Splints shop which we saw in one Indian village?  

Our purpose in visiting India was, of course, to attend the wedding of Gopu and Sreeja.  Gopu is the brother-in-law of Papa, my former room mate from the Saudi days, and my long-time friend.  In order to dress properly for the big event, Papa, his wife, George and I went to Kochi (formerly  called Cochin) to one of the finest clothing stores where Mrs Papa purchased a number of glorious saris while the three of us men bought kurtas, which are long overshirts with the old Nehru style collars, and lunggis, white sarongs with a decorative gold band along the hemlines.  The hem band need not be gold - it can be another color - but ours were gold-banded, though the lunggi George chose had a second narrow band of silver thread inside the gold band.  The remarkable feature for George and me in this elegant multi-floored establishment called Jayalakshmi was to be found on the third floor where we waited drinking excellent coffee supplied gratis  by the staff while Mrs Papa was selecting her saris.  We sat on chairs near the elevator doors and on the wall above us was a huge decorative ad poster which looked very much like an ad from GQ or one of the upscale fashion magazines.  Depicted in it was a sultry-eyed man in a white suit staring in that smoky fashion found only among fashion models, who was leaning against a white piano.  The whole picture was printed primarily in a pale blue-green color and in white; the man looked like an Indian version of Johnny Depp with long dark locks fashionably rumpled.  Clearly this was no locally produced poster; no clerk had been asked to run up a sign for the wall in his or her spare time; the whole presentation reeked of the highest degree of professionalism.  What drew our gaze most was the title of the sheet music displayed clearly on the piano: Prelude to Fornication.  (The piece was, if you are interested, in the key of D flat.)  

We all know that that title is probably the best possible description of a wedding in such a traditional culture as that of India, but couldn't Jayalakshmi be just a little more reticent here?    Or couldn't they, instead, focus on the true purpose of weddings everywhere, which is to display a family's wealth and (lack of) good taste?  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Around the world (or halfway at least)

I suppose it would behoove me to mention that next week I will be in Bahrain.  Alas, I will probably not be mingling with the activists there - I haven't even been mingling with the activists here - but I'll be staying in a temporally rented apartment for a few days and then on to India.  

I have mentioned, I am sure, my former room mate Papa, with whom I shared an apartment for about six years when I worked in Saudi.  The company I worked for, a Saudi manufacturer, provided deluxe family housing for Western employees who were married, and modern, though Spartan, housing in a separate area for singles.   Asian and African employees were paid much less and were given allowances with which they were expected to rent locally.  The last thing I wanted to do was to hang about with a bunch of western ex-pats bitching about Saudi life and planning their next vacation.  So when I met Papa at a company department  goat-grab, which is the term westerners used for the type of Saudi celebratory meal which involves sitting on the ground or in a tent  around a huge platter containing an enormous bed of rice flavored with oil, tomato, cardamom and the like atop which rests a whole roasted sheep or goat from which one pulls chunks to eat with one's hands, I soon wound up agreeing to share lodgings with him in the older part of town.  I kept my company-provided apartment, which was a single room with a kitchen along one side and a private modern bathroom, but I shared half of the rather low rent on an apartment spang in the middle of old Jubail.  As the company hired more Indians to work with Papa as computer operators, they joined us in the apartment, which had two bedrooms.  Papa and Matthew (a Christian Indian) shared one bedroom and Martie (a Catholic Goan) and I had bunks in the other.  The four of us remained roomies and good friends for all of my six years at the company.

I lost touch with Martie who married and emigrated to Australia, and in the last few years I have also lost track of Matthew.  Matthew married and then, to his shock , his wife divorced him.  He had brief stints in the USA but so far as I know he now lives in Mumbai.  However, I have remained in contact with Papa who still lives and works in Jubail, though now he is a programmer at a private company with greatly increased wages.  Papa married not long after I left Saudi in 1996 and he has visited me almost annually, twice with his wife and son.  Papa wanted to return my hospitality and that of my brother George, who was also his host the last time Papa's family came with him, so when his brother-in-law arranged a marriage for himself, Papa invited George and me to attend.  In india, weddings are not the exclusive sorts of events that we have here, although there is a similar desire to spend too much.  Indeed, the last time I was in India I attended the weddings of four perfect strangers; as the first Western man ever to visit the small village I was staying in, I believe I served as cheap entertainment for the guests.  I was only able to speak with one of the four grooms at all because although none spoke any English, this one man had worked in the Gulf and we were able to stumble through a few sentences in Arabic, which he spoke far better than me.  

Anyway, now Papa is reasonably rich by Indian standards and George and I are to be his guests at a home he has built in Palakkad in the state of Kerala for a couple of weeks.  We had hoped to get a visa for Saudi for a couple of days en route; Papa says Jubail - and Saudi in general - have changed beyond recognition and I'd have liked to see the new Saudi Arabia, although i kind of loved the old version.  But visas are hard to come by, so instead we will spend a few days in Bahrain and then fly together with Papa and his wife and 12-year-old Bubba (we call the boy Bubba and have done so since before he was born although of course that is not his name) to Kerala.  I had assumed that the plan was to hang out in Palakkad for a while, but no, Papa has booked us on a tour of all kinds of sights.  He sent us an itinerary and when George went on line to see what these various places were all about, he was stunned to see we are in a 5-star sort of situation everywhere, staying where kings and film stars (which is the same thing, really) have stayed.  This was slightly alarming because although it seemed like Papa had said he was hosting (i. e. paying), it had never been specifically stated.  Up until we got the itinerary, I had assumed that  the beaches and temples and forts were day trips Papa planned, but now, I find we are on some kind of grand tour.   I delicately brought up the financial situation that George and I find ourselves in, and Papa said to worry not - everything was on the house.  Oh my!  

Is it churlish of me to mention that I loathe sightseeing?  And I would never, on my own, book any kind of packaged tour, although it is not exactly 'packaged' in that we won't have a guide, but we will have a driver.  My idea of travel is to go, stay in a cheap local hotel patronized by locals and to get to know a place by walking around and making a fool of myself.  I always say if one is going to a five-star hotel one might as well save the airfare and stay at the one in the closest town because they are all the same.  Although there is a smiling friendliness amidst all the staff, it is a bought and paid for experience and is as close to really having a friendly conversation with a local as the Disney Jungle ride is to a trip down the Amazon.  But it looks like this is what I am going to have.  

The right way to look at this trip is a visit to a friend, rather than as travel.  A friend who, whether he is visiting me or I him believes that the hour not spent in strenuously doing something or seeing something or, preferably, buying something is an hour wasted.   I already have 9 packages from Amazon sitting on my kitchen table, which Papa has had sent here for me to tuck into my luggage for him.  Oy!  And a week to go; what new surprise will be delivered to my door?  So I foresee a high level of activity doing things I would not consider doing if I were on my own.

It should be fun, though.  The scientific principle that best applies to me is Newton's law that a body at rest tends to stay at rest.  I don't go to a great number of events because all I can think of is the parking problem or the cost of admission or the crowds or being out too late.  I am a sad wreck of the adventurer I used to be.  One thing that does appeal to the adventurer in me is another idea that Papa has proposed.  He will be working in Saudi for the forseeable future - he is quite a young man compared to me.  He is 47, but looks like a man in his twenties.  He has built a house in Kerala, as I said, and at present his mother and one of his brothers live there.  But the brother has bought his own place and the two will be moving to this, therefore Papa's home will lie vacant much of the year.  He has proposed that I  - or George and I, or whoever I want and I - live in it for a couple of months in the winter of next year.  I see no downside to that.  Because I am an eternal pessimist in some things - again, anything that requires me to move my butt - I am sure I will manufacturer a number of objections in the coming year, but , hey, right now it sounds cool.

I guess I might mention that my Cambodian cousin Warren, (well, half-Cambodian cousin - if he was all-Cambodian he wouldn't be a cousin, would he?), offered me a job teaching English in Phnom Penh a few months ago.  Unfortunately it would mean teaching the sons of privilege, not just some village kids, and the sons of privilege everywhere are the same nightmare for a teacher.  I used to hear a few horror stories from teachers in Saudi.  Being a teacher when you are outranked socially by your students is not a picnic.  People talk about the tribulations of teaching in rough poor districts, but there is a whole different hell with rich kids.  They say it is hard to engage the parents in some poor districts; it is harder to disengage the parents in the wealthy sectors, parents who think that an A+ is hardly enough reward for little Bree or Buckleigh.  And that A+ should arise from the beloved one's essence, not his or her work; and certainly that the child's playful nature should not be curbed just because there are others trying to learn.  Nonetheless, I should have taken the job, because my life sucks big-time and anything would be better than drooling in front of a screen - which I am doing as we speak, yes, but usually I am drooling more passively than this (and usually there's more drool).   

So anyway, if I don't write for a while, I will have a different excuse at least.  

By the way, Marge, if you are reading this - I can't get to your site anymore because my computer informs me you've gone all high hat and are not letting in hoi poloi.   And even when I could get through in the last month or two, none of my comments would post.  Weird things happened.  But now I get this message to ask for permission even to read, but how the hell do I do that when I can't get there to ask?  So I am asking.

I wonder if I can get kidnapped in Bahrain?  Now that would be different!

Monday, October 17, 2011


Am I the only one who has noticed how effeminate that pastor is - the one who said that Mormonism is a cult and then went on to throw his arms out toward Rick Perry in a gesture that must have been the envy of drag queens everywhere.  I am guessing we are just about one lacy ruffle from our next clergyman scandal; I only hope drugs are involved.  It's just more fun that way.
I listen less and less either to the news or to any of the talking heads, but there are a few things I have noticed lately from the little I have seen.  One is that those who are not raging against the Occupy Wall Street folks with small flecks of foam flying from their lips, are nonetheless baffled at what it is, exactly, that "those people" want.  I have also heard comments that ranged from gleeful gotcha-type snark to rueful bafflement as to why these folks who "can't be that poor" because they have iPhones or iPads (or both) seem to have so little resentment of Steve Jobs since they are "against the wealthy".  
It is clear to me that first of all, the idea that they are against not the wealthy per se, but rather against those wealthy people who have not earned their wealth, or those who use their wealth to unfair advantage.  Steve Jobs is eminently not among those.  Old Habakkuk said it well in his own little book of the bible: "Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain".  Looks like Habakkuk had more going for him than a cool name.
In general there is now, as there always has been in the USA, three things going on.  There is the legitimate disagreement about social issues - the place of religion, abortion, gay rights, marriage, parental rights and responsibilities, crime and punishment, gun issues, the role of schools and so forth.  Secondly, there is the issue of spending - how much and whence the money to pay for it, and on what to spend public money.  These are two separate issues - fiscal and social - which are constantly being conflated so that many people who have strong feelings about social or 'moral' issues find themselves willingly or otherwise, allying themselves with people who have a particular stance on the spending issue, and vice versa.  Anyone who is socially liberal but fiscally conservative or socially conservative but fiscally liberal is reviled as a moderate, a fraud, or what have you.  Many people who feel strongly about social issues but less so on fiscal issues, or those who feel the reverse, must actually become frauds to be heard or elected by espousing strong positions they do not actually care about as much, in areas they find secondary in their beliefs about how to 'fix things'.  
As I said there are three, not two, things going on all the time.  The third thing is the growing power of those who win either way and who make every effort to keep the public focussed on emotional issues and acrimonious debate: the gotcha commentary, the 'assault' upon 'our rights' or upon the poor or upon those who 'earn their money and don't go looking for a handout' or the decline of the middle class or whatever resonant phraseology is current.  If every single congressman and senator were replaced by his or her chief opponent in the coming election, the effect would be miniscule.  There is no difference, really, between George Soros' political spending and that of the Koch brothers.  
In the antebellum South a small group of landowners oppressed both the poorer whites and the enslaved black population.  After the Civil War, this group - with a few desertions by leaders who fell from power and a few additions from both Southern and Carpetbagging Northern opportunists - pivoted smoothly into the Jim Crow era, where the poor whites were kept in line by threats of what would happen if blacks got rights and the blacks, poor or otherwise, were kept in line by what they had to lose from the little they had if the 'poor white trash' gained control.  The degree to which the poor whites had some awareness of their lack of real commonality with the aristocracy is reflected by the number of poorer mountain folk from slave-holding states who chose to join the Union army - there were rather a lot of these.  In Virginia, the poor mountain people seceded from the Secession majority in the state and formed the state of West Virginia, which remained with the North.  The passionate hatred between the "white trash" and the blacks was subtly stoked by those few who profitted either way; these poorer folk found themselves consistently supporting the lesser of two evils, as indeed we all find ourselves doing today with almost every vote we cast.  The problem is that the lesser of two evils is increasingly not all that much different from having to decide whether you'd prefer to be murdered by a serial killer or by a guy who just lost his head that one time.  Hmm; still dead.
It matters who wins an election in regard to the outcome of social issues, in regard to fiscal issues it matters somewhat also, in terms of where the money will come from and where it will go - although things will be far more the same, no matter who wins - than the rhetoric implies. However, it makes much less difference - almost none - in terms of how much money will be at issue.  In order to support our social beliefs we are sadly forced to accept the status quo politically and fiscally.  People who vote Democratic lose, people who vote Republican lose, and people who proudly proclaim that they never vote because it makes no difference lose.  
There is only one thing that would make any difference. It is something that the wealthy government officials - which includes every Justice on the Supreme Court, all the decision makers in the White House and Cabinet and all of the Congress - (although a few of the newer Congressmen may not be wealthy yet, their future wealth is guaranteed by their ability to slide smoothly into lobbyist firms or to start charging four, five or even six figures for a single hour of speaking at various venues for the rest of their life).  And that one thing is to add an amendment to the constitution divorcing the idea of spending unlimited money from the right of free speech.  There is no seat in Congress that isn't beholden to some wealthy person(s) or other.  None.  We all know this.  These wealthy few may be disguise themselves as interest groups or PACs or charities or any number of things, but in the end the money comes from people who had money to spare.  It is obscene how much it costs to run for office, and how much time most office seekers and office holders must spend seeking funds.  So much time is spent thusly that even the most conscientious of men or women must leave their research or decision making to a staff that has been largely chosen on an ideological basis or to a friendly lobbyist who will help him or her out by writing the legislation which he or she is to present or vote on.  
There will always be crooks in government but increasingly everybody is forced, by the cost of running for office and of countering expensive misinformation campaigns, into compromising independence and integrity if not into flat out dishonesty.  Whether it is hope and change or 9-9-9, no candidate for President will ever deliver, because Presidents do not make law, Congress does; and Congress won't because no Congressman is entirely free of indebtedness to the wealthy, and by wealthy, I am not talking of those who have five or ten million socked away, I mean those few families wealthy enough to buy a state.  Term limits don't help because two crooks are not better than one.  Campaign reform laws are useless, even in the rare case where they are meaningful, because the wholly-owned Supreme Court routinely overturns any real reform.  The one hope is a Constitutional amendment, because (so far) even the Court cannot declare an amendment unconstitutional. Unfortunately no amendment can be passed because the legislatures which would have to ratify it consist of men and women who are also beholden to the same wealthy few.  
What the Occupy Wall Street people are reacting to is the complete powerlessness of most of us to get out of this awful bind.  One of the last times such an all-powerful establishment was truly reformed a guillotine was involved.  The longer reform is suppressed, the more cataclysmic the reform will eventually be.  That is the way it has always been. 
It is not envy of the wealthy that is fueling this latest protest.  As I said, I have heard of few who begrudge the wealth of Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or any of the others who actually DID something to earn what they have.  It is the CEOs who get seven, eight or nine-figure bonuses and payouts when they ran their firms into the ground, or wealthy people who are using money they never earned to demonize poor people for using, or trying to use, wealth they never earned - i. e. welfare.  People who do nothing but live well off the money some ancestor made should not be so quick to castigate people who receive medical care they cannot actually afford.  It is disheartening that those who rob a bank of billions are all over the society pages while those who rob the same bank of a couple of hundred dollars are, if caught, doing hard time.  
Poor people are notorious for not bothering to vote, but for whom should they vote?  They should, perhaps, run themselves, but they'd only be spending money to do so that they don't have or can't spare - and if they raise the funds to run, they will be raising them from rich or at least richer people, and then here we are: back at square one.   
I don't expect any improvement; I think it quite possible that we have passed the point where real reform can occur.  But I shall be watching the protest movement with great interest.
By the way, the Blogger KING OF NEW YORK HACKS has talked to a lot of different folks in the Occupying crowd and has published some excellent pictures and commentary showing who's there.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In Other News...

Periodically some bit of headline news excites comment all over the talk shows and editorial pages as to how whatever just happened proves once again what a great people we are here in the U. S. of A. and how it is all onward and upward and nobody since the dawn of time was ever so - goddamn it, let's just admit it, good - as us-here Amurricans.  I recall one old news sensation years ago that received this kind of commentary when a toddler fell into a well in Texas or Kansas or some such place where folks are true Americans and love their Jesus.  The entire community rallied round and as tense hours passed and people prayed and worked round the clock, especially the newsmen, to finally successfully get the child safely out.  People stopped what they were doing; in Texas hundreds of black men were NOT dragged to death behind pick-ups for a full week as every thought was turned toward the safe extraction of the baby.  It seems in my memory that the baby's name was Jessica, although I could be confusing that baby with some in vitro kid - it seems that all babies were named Jessica at the time, just as all the young actresses famed for their hotness now seem to be named Jessica Something-or-other.  Implicit in all the coverage seemed to be the idea that if the baby had been Baby Indira in India or Baby Ingrid in Sweden, the locals would have passed heedlessly by on their way to work saying, "Hmm. baby in a well?  Good luck with that!"  But we were the wondrous, caring Americans and we, well, dammit, we CARED!

I have this attention span that is akin to that of a mayfly; I get sick of just about any news story somewhere around the second time I hear it (third, if it involves nudity) and I tend to read the OTHER news when one of these stories breaks (and breaks and breaks and breaks) which leaves no columnist or newsman or talk show host so filled with non-stop self-congratulatiory bloviation.  So in my quest to find out what America is all about, I was following the OTHER news story that was going on about the time of Baby Jessica's descent into a well, where every effort was being made in Florida to keep two little boys who had tested HIV-positive from going to any school where other, more decent children might come in contact with them.  That deep faith in God's protection which Floridians are so wont to proclaim when somebody ELSE is at risk did not seem to come into play when the issue was HIV, so the good citizens of Florida felt that that do-it-yourself spirit, which is such a hallmark of the American character, must be relied on.  What these enterprising parents and their allies did was burn down the home of the the two little boys.  "If yuh don't live int this-heah district, yuh cain't send your kids to ouah schools!" was the general consensus.  And, of course, who can live in a burnt-out house?  So God's will was accomplished without God having to lift a finger.  

This habit I have of reading ALL the news came into play again this week when I could hardly get within ten feet of an opinion spewer, if he wasn't on one of the Murdoch enterprises, without hearing about the triumph of the American spirit of fairness when the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy was scrapped.  Apparently there are gay people who want to die for their country and - hey - at last we are going to let them do so.   I shall leave aside the illogic of people who hate gays supporting a position which actually saves gay lives (if I felt that way, I'd FORCE them to join the military and to fight in the front lines).  At any rate, as I say, my attention wandered after just a few minutes of these chatty folks pissing all over themselves in the sheer ecstasy of America once again showing the way to such countries as hadn't already integrated their gay citizens into their armed forces without nearly such a struggle or subsequent orgy of self-congratulation.  So I looked at the other news to see where we as the greatest nation that ever lived under the special dispensation of a loving god, and lo! what did I see?  Well, for starters, just down the road from me a piece another young boy was hounded to death because he was perceived to be gay.  This boy, who was 14, had been bullied for years because he was gay.  So let's say it started when he was 10 or 11.  How gay can anyone be at that age?  

The Catholics, Ku Klux Klan, Mormons, Focus on Families and similar Christian groups seem to take the position that being gay is a decision that someone makes at some point in his or her life.  Outside of rape, having sex IS, of course, a decision, but that doesn't seem to be what I hear from these sects and organizations.  Their position seems to be that a person decides what he or she will want, not just what her or she will actually do.  One apparently decides ahead of time what will flash across one's mind when one glances at a person or object.  I was raised a pretty strict Catholic; in fact, I was a much stricter Catholic in my youth than my parents were at the same time (with my bi-polar Dad it was an off and on thing - one week a pagan hedonist, then next week sack cloth and ashes - but his median mode was slightly less all-or-nothing than mine was when it came to sin and issues of right and wrong).  So I know a bit about this type of thinking.  

The reason - I suspect the ONLY reason - I did not commit suicide when I was a teenager was because nobody seemed to know I was gay.  I had a lot of friends; and my family, on down to the cousins once-removed, liked me or so I felt at the time.  Kids who were uncontrollably and visibly effeminate had a much harder time than I did, but there were so few of them and the general awareness of homosexuals in my school was so vague and non-specific.  Now there is such awareness at such an early age, that fewer kids can skate by the issue as I once did.  My belief, when I was young, was that were I to be exposed as gay, my family and friends and everyone else, without exception, would feel nothing but repulsion and disgust.  As soon as I reached an age where I understood the concept of Judgment Day, my vision of it was of a horde of people I knew gathered in a vast arena (I visualized something like a great colosseum with people on rising tiers so they could get a good look) staring in horror at me standing alone in the middle as they saw written across the sky by celestial planes of some sort spewing the text in smoky letters like an ad for beer or suntan lotion, of a minute by minute account of what I had been thinking all my life.  Not what I had DONE, because I hadn't done anything at that time, but of what I WAS.  I recall that for some reason the faces I was always most aware of in this vision were not those of my family or fellow Catholics but of the Lomaxes, our neighbors who were a byword for probity in our town and whose five sons were popular and athletic and just such darn real men.  I found this vision almost unbearable, but like those people who are scared of everything yet can't resist renting every horror flick that comes out, I couldn't turn my inner gaze away from it.  To this day, whenever I hear a reference to Judgment Day that is the first visual that crosses my mind.  

I just can't see that poor kid in Buffalo CHOOSING to embark so unpopular a course.  And why would he?  What would possess a 10 or 11-year old to be something that didn't even promise any physical gratification anytime in his near future?  I know that if I made a choice as to preferences in my partner's gender, these preferences were in place when I was three or four years old, because I clearly remember what still feels, when I recall it, like a physical yen for certain men in my surroundings.  I liked a lot of girls, but there was never an erotic tinge to this liking; with many of the males there was that element of lust, as far back as I can remember.  I flat out KNOW, in short, that I had no choice and I am equally positive that this boy in Buffalo never had a choice either, as to who he was and what he was drawn to.  And one of my great take-aways, the great gift that I was given by this knowledge, was that those who spake in terms of certainty on this topic were either lying or were willing to to state as fact something they did not actually know anything about.  When someone tells me as fact a thing I know to be false, then I know that someone is not to be trusted in pronouncements of any sort.  Maybe other races or other nations or other beliefs are NOT inferior, maybe I do not have to be in church every seventh day, maybe there is not some guiding - let alone loving - intelligence running the show and totting up my performances for later punishment.  

It took years to work this through of course; more fear was instilled in me by Holy Mother Church than anything else before or since, and fear is the hardest thing to eradicate.  I have heard the argument that the safe course is to believe because if you are wrong you get nothing, whereas if you choose unbelief and are wrong you get the Judgment and it ain't gonna be in your favor.  Of course, this is a false hedge.  If I choose to live as a believer in the unbelievable I give up entirely the only life I have for nothing.  Maybe those beans WILL grow a giant beanstalk that reaches riches in the clouds, but this kid ain't betting his cow on that proposition.  

So I am waiting for the next chapter in the breathless tale of the specialness and gosh-darned goodness of this here America and its specially selected by God - and designed just for us! - mission.  And I'll fill the wait with all those OTHER news stories - the floods, the mothers killing their kids, the tornadoes, the coal mine disasters, the hurricanes, the fires, the droughts, the recessions.  I understand that these little bumps in the highway to our apotheosis are there because we don't believe ENOUGH and so forth, but still, I am strangely unpersuaded to send my love offering (and nothing says 'love' like a cheque, we thank you and God thanks you) to the would-be chroniclers of this destiny.  There is an urge in each of us to be lackeys, to get that autograph, get our picture standing next to someone greater than ourselves, to be told what to think, but I am holding out for something just a tetch more comforting.  And think of the special pleasure I will provide for all the godly when I am burning in the afterlife along with all those gay kids and foreigners, while they can watch and withhold their help, just as they did in this life.

It'll be just like Earth all over again for them.  Not just Earth: it'll be just like America!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It's Only Words

I find that anything I say, do or write during or immediately after any experience is never representative of my final conclusions about the events or issues to which I am reacting.  Often, while the the heat from the moment still lingers, I blind myself to any lessons, conclusions or accurate evaluation of an event.  I think, if one looks back at one's college career, or high school, or a job one left more than five years ago, one will sum up various personalities encountered or one's own behavior, very differently from how one might do at the time.  It is much easier to evaluate a relationship long after it is over, and specifically to evaluate one's own errors therein, when the passions have cooled.  I suspect many people who have an angry parting will acknowledge years later (if they are not totally narcissistic and if they are not still fighting over children or possessions - in which case the relationship isn't over, only the partnership is) that there were plenty of faults on their own part which were not simply because "he (or she) drove me to it".  Just because one got the other party to actually ask for the divorce that both saw coming does not mean that one tried harder to save the marriage; it simply means that one was the more passive-aggressive partner or that one was better at gamesmanship.  No one in a relationship is playing Solitaire.  

My last entry was a fine example of exactly what I don't want to do, which is write a running commentary on my current life.  And, since I brought it up, I probably owe some kind of resolution: my time with Diem did not go well.  But my opening remarks here are an explanation, I hope, of why I am not going to explain what went wrong.  I think I learned something, but it is not something I can articulate - at least not accurately - at the present time.  

William Wordsworth described poetry (I can't recall his exact words) as being emotions recollected in tranquillity.   I suspect wisdom could be described much the same way.  There is no truth possible, no real understanding possible, until emotions have played themselves out.  Wordsworth is entirely right, not only about poetry but about any writing.  One can write well re-living a peak moment or a past affair, but one cannot write with much insight or wisdom during that moment or affair.  Think how tedious it is to listen to someone first in love when he or she is talking about the many virtues of the beloved; once is fine, but by the next day we really prefer to hear about something different.  Or out of pure boredom with the topic we begin storing up parts of the catalog to mention back to the impassioned one when the same degree of emotion is spent listing the deep black flaws in the now-discarded partner.  We are at our least interesting and certainly we express ourselves least uniquely when we speak of someone we have just fallen for, or of the baby that has just been born.

The only useful way to look at any broken relationship, any lost job, any past disappointment is with the assumption that we ourselves are partly at fault - and not just by reiterating one of those 'horoscope' faults ("I am too trusting",  "I am too generous", etc.).  It is useful instead to think of those times one kept silent when one should have spoken, when one should have been helpful instead of letting someone flounder, when one tried to force changes to make a person 'better', when one should have done the difficult thing.  It is self-defeating to catalog the faults of the friend or partner or boss after a separation; it is far better to examine that catalog of flaws before one plunges in.  Anyone can love or trust a complete bounder once; if there is a second occurrence then, well, as Cassius said, "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves…".  The second alcoholic or batterer or selfish prick or whatever that you love or marry is entirely upon you.  This is actually good news, because that fault which is yours is the only one that you can do anything about.  

It occurs to me that this also explains why the current style of candidates' debates is one of the worst possible ways to determine who is a good candidate for office.  The old style of debate where people were willing to take the time to listen an hour or so to each candidate laying out his positions followed by discussion might have been useful, but the format where a questioner tries to catch a candidate off-guard and unprepared and where opponents seize not on an idea but on the phraseology with which it is expressed, merely awards glibness (which may be the worst possible quality in an office holder).  Whatever a candidate blurts out in a debate about an issue hardly reflects accurately how he or she will perform, even in matters pertaining to that issue.  Who hasn't said something like "They ought to shoot them all" about one group or other, or made some similarly sweeping statement in a moment of passion, or during a moment of light humorous conversation among friends?  I certainly have, yet I would be hard put to think of a single situation where I would attempt as President to push through any action (as if one could) remotely resembling such a statement.  It is true that carefully vetted 'positions' on issues are supremely uninformative, but I submit that they are no less indicative of the behavior we can expect in office than are the quick answers to 'gotcha' questions in the heat of debate.  Harry Truman is now much revered for his actions as President, but at the time he was in office he was famed for shooting off his mouth and having to retract later.  Mom used to tell me of a famous comedy sketch showing an actor representing Harry trying to retrieve a letter from a public mailbox.  It was funny to audiences because it captured this personal quirk so well.  

Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, wrote and spoke beautiful words, but his behavior in office was thuggish and undemocratic.  Besides screwing the help, he schemed successfully to have his chief rival, Aaron Burr, executed; attempted to impeach Chief Justice Marshall for opposing him in some matters; established an embargo during the war of 1812 with the chief purpose of destroying those arch-rivals to Virginian supremacy, the merchants of New England; and sent warships to try and quell the outbreak of democracy in the black nation of Haiti to remove a bad example to the Blacks on his own estates.  Jefferson's idea of democracy is what we would describe as oligarchy: the only real objection he had to British Monarchy is that he wasn't the monarch.  This is remarkably similar to the motives that set bin Ladin on his path, as a Yemeni by family origin he was limited in how much power he could amass in Saudi Arabia, hence he set out to overthrow the monarchy which would always outrank him.  Originally he didn't give a shit about America, but like Jefferson, he was finely attuned to what sells with the people that he wanted to rule.   Not only did Jefferson did not want the vote extended to blacks or the white poor, he wanted to prevent the French and Spanish inhabitants of any class in the Louisiana Territory from voting also, based on their inferiority to those descended from the ethnicities we now call WASP.  

So words, especially those spoken on the fly or in the midst of passion, are mighty poor indicators of a man's fitness to hold office in a democracy, or his ability to frame policy in concert with supporters, opponents and the indifferent.  Actions (like punching a wife or opponent) are far more telling at those times, because these show what a man might do in office when aroused.  The ability of a man to speak dispassionately of his mistakes and of his own part in the failure of previous enterprises is, in my mind, one of the strongest indicators that he will be successful in the future.  At worst he will err differently, and two examples of failure might just inspire someone else to find the true solution, or the better path.  

And so back to the solitary life...

Friday, September 2, 2011

A light! Dim or Diem?

O gosh - the first thing I see is that they have 'improved' Blogger.  Not a good sign...

It is said that when you need something done, ask a busy man.  I am reluctantly having to admit the truth of this, at least in relation to me.  When I have nothing going in my life, I find I just can't sit myself down and write despite the fact that my aim here has never been to create a diary, "what-happened-today" type of blog and that there are plenty of people and events (and even a few ideas) that I have yet to write about.  Boredom for me is probably my name for a mild-to-middling state of depression.  When there are no people in my life - and by people in my life, I have found co-workers to be a big chunk o' that in the past - I have no oomph, no stimulation, no desire to get out of bed.  Well, I always get out of bed, in fact I often do so at six a. m. or earlier, but the amount of time between that event and my first nap can be about the amount of time that it takes me to descend the stairs.  

I began writing an entry when Marge's last nudge showed up in my "Comments" section during a week-long visit in this area from my first-cousin-once-removed Warren, he of the Iraq "hurt locker" service and my host in Bali last year.  Warren inspires me (so does Marge) and he makes me feel I have something to say.  I recently had a visit from another inspiring friend - a high school classmate and fellow altar boy from the past, a man who spent most of his life as a teacher, and who loved doing so.  He always acts so admiring of me, that I am fooled into believing it myself for a bit.  But the real reason I am back at the old keyboard is that I am all excited - unreasonably so - about a visit soon to transpire.  

When I lived in Houston for six rather awful months something like ten years ago (give or take), I was, as usual, pretty much alone most of the time and I had the usual amount of social life: almost none.  I dabbled in on-line dating, which for a person my age is the quickest path to a leap off a high bridge that I can think of.  However, I did find one exception to the general lack of interest or wild mismatching.  This was a man in his mid-forties whom I will call Diem.  Diem answered my ad, we decided rather quickly to meet, not least because Diem's English was minimal; he had, it turned out, arrived from Hanoi only two years previous.  I am nothing if not an optimist when it comes to dating, and I invited Diem to my apartment, which was in one of those horrible outsize complexes where one could be murdered and no one would know or care until they came to evict one because the rent was five days overdue, and where the murder would come as a welcome outcome (if it weren't too messy and one had the good taste to bleed on the linoleum area in the kitchen or bath rather than on the carpeting) because now they did not need to go through a lengthy eviction process, just a quick sweep and mop up.  Diem, who proved to be an extremely traditional soul terrified that he would be discovered by someone to be gay had not posted or e-mailed his picture, so it was with a certain degree of doubt that I waited outside the complex gates for his advent.  

Because of a series of errors and misunderstandings, mostly due to his poor English and my non-existent Vietnamese (these things work both ways after all), he actually was in the office trying to locate me while I was standing hopefully by an external gate.  My niece Graciela also lived in that complex and she encountered Diem in that office and got us both headed in the right direction, so I finally met Diem.  My first reaction was not negative, but not completely enthralled either.  Diem considers himself to be quite ugly, I think, and I suspect that by Vietnamese cultural standards he would not be considered handsome.  I have discovered that people who find those of other races attractive are often drawn to the extremes of such features as are deemed to typify that race.  Thus many whites who prefer blacks like very dark skin and facial features that whites find 'different' about blacks - large lips, wide noses and so forth which blacks themselves often tend to find less attractive.  Most whites can remember seeing stunning black men with white women who were, to white eyes, rather unattractive and certainly not 'in the man's league', as the saying goes.  I have found myself that my pastiness and blue eyes have gotten me far better reception when I traveled in non-white areas than they ever garnered in white America.  So I did not think Diem was ugly at all, and his sturdy frame was quite appealing; he was not fat, nor artificially muscular as a weightlifter might be but he was hardly the slim figure that one often sees with the Vietnamese.  There is nothing better (for me) than finding someone I find attractive who thinks he's ugly.  

When we were inside my apartment we hugged and then he threw back his head and gave me The Kiss.  I have thought about it lately, and I realize there are five kisses in my life that I actually recall specifically, where I remember the time, the kisser, the place and the circumstances.  The first was  a greeting kiss from my Aunt Delia in her kitchen when we'd come to the city to visit her when I had reached the age that I was self conscious about kissing people - especially old people - on the mouth and right then I made the conscious decision that although I didn't like it, that she and my Aunt Agnes were the two people for whom I would willingly make an exception.  The second was the the last kiss I received from my Mom when I was young.  We were in what we called the dining room although it was not adjacent to the kitchen and we almost never dined there, and Mom was making a happy fuss over whoever was the baby at the time.  Mom was very affectionate with her babies, but our family was extremely undemonstrative and rarely touched affectionately when past the toddler stage.  I had not been kissed by Mom for some years, but when she gave the baby a big, sort of a stage kiss, I said, "What about me?" and she turned and gave me a kiss.  It made me feel kind of awkward, although I liked it a lot on one level, I pretty much knew I wouldn't ask again.  It was a small odd moment, but I never forgot it.

My third remembered kiss was when I was in the mental institution, good old Maricopa State.  There had come onto our ward a black man named Levi, much older than me, who was there I believe because his alcoholism had caused enough previous commitments to that institution for him to be considered too chronic or damaged or whatever for re-admission to the alcoholic ward.  This was the progression at Maricopa State for alcoholics: the first few times people were admitted to the alcoholic wards, but frequent returners were determined to be mentally ill and were instead placed in the acute (i.e. people who were in a crisis that would require less than a year of hospitalization) mental ward.   The alcoholics hated to go to the acute ward because 'people there were nuts', while those of us in the acute ward looked down on the alkie ward because they were 'hopeless' (in our view).  Levi was a very good looking man of early middle age and as one of only two black men on the ward in 1966 or 1967, a time when black had not yet become beautiful in the popular imagination, he kept mostly to himself, although he was friendly and cooperative.  Levi went on leave one weekend and he returned in the evening totally blitzed and barely able to navigate.  I happened to be at the door when he entered and he pretty clearly was not going to make it to his bed.  I put my arm around him to help him to reach his bed (our ward was a dorm of some 20 exposed single beds) and when I did so he kissed me.  I never knew what to make of that, but I never forgot it.  It was a little exciting and kind of gratifying; it made me feel that I wasn't being viewed as some asshole in the 'other race' but as a friend.  It stirred some exciting fantasies, but I never showed any sign and Levi, though friendly, never was particular in his attentions to me again. 

The last kiss I remember was in the middle of the busy street which runs past the al-Batha Souk in Riyadh.  I had had an intensely passionate relationship with a Sudanese man named Mustafa when I was in Riyadh in the mid '80s and although Mustafa was largely illiterate even in Arabic, I had exchanged a few simple letters with him after I was sent home in 1986.  Mustafa made me dizzy with love or lust or desire or whatever and I missed him terribly.  When I got a job in Saudi again, this time in the coastal town of al-Jubail, three hundred miles from Riyadh, I began traveling to Riyadh on the weekends and among other activities, I managed eventually to track Mustafa down.  I reached him by telephone - I had gotten in contact with someone who knew him and who had a phone (which Mustafa did not) and we agreed to meet the following weekend in al-Batha Souk which is a large busy block of small shops where electronics, music and cheap clothing are sold, mostly to male Asian and African foreign workers, and which thus became a favorite meeting place for these people to socialize, as well as a busy pick-up area for men who preferred other men and who knew how to read the subtle hints being thrown out by some.  I cared so much for Mustafa, but had no idea how he remembered me, or if he had any particular feelings about our relationship which in any way resembled those I had.  When we finally spotted each other, the busy throng had spilled into the highway itself and Mustafa was out in the roadway.  I hurried to him and to my eternal joy, he threw his arms around me and delivered a hearty kiss - on the cheek, to be sure (we could have gotten into real trouble for a mouth kiss) - but so spontaneous and welcoming and so much what I had longed for - and in public!  That was number four of the five kisses that I never forgot.  

Diem's kiss was the last of the kisses that I never forgot.  It was as though he simply put his whole being into it.  A guy who up to a moment before had been a 'maybe', suddenly became a 'wow - what a guy!'.  We didn't even know each other yet - we had exchanged only a few stumbling sentences, but this was now a guy to be reckoned with.  I was able to see Diem only a few times before my work required a move to Delaware.  In my last months in Houston, Graciela and I had taken an apartment together because it made financial sense.  Diem could not be disabused of his notion that she would hold him in contempt because he was gay; although he visited me occasionally, he was ever wholly comfortable.  He was a very strict Catholic and believed completely in the teachings, yet alone with me he was completely open and very giving of affection.  But he never shook the feeling that he was contemptible in the eyes of everyone but ourselves.  He limited his visits because he lived with elderly parents and feared that too frequent visits would raise questions.  His parents depended on him completely; they spoke no English and he was their single line to non-Viet America.  He loved karaoke, and was provoked with me when I wouldn't sing on one of our visits to a karaoke bar.  I can't account for the block I have about singing in front of people now, when back in the San Francisco days I performed in Jesus Christ, Superstar and in other shows where I sang publicly.  I guess without Tumwell's support, I just lost my mojo.   

A couple of years after I left Houston, I had a job which led me to take an apartment in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.  Diem and I had kept in desultory contact; he always sent gifts for me and my mother (whom he had never met) at Christmas and he always remembered my birthday with a card.  He enrolled in college and struggled mightily with learning his subject matter while learning English at the same time.  His English improved, but not quickly.  We spoke by phone.  He struggled to find work, and the jobs he held tended to demand a great deal of his time at unusual hours.  He seemed to be saying (though I was never completely sure about any complex issues we discussed) that his married siblings were coming to live in the US and that he would be freed up somewhat from his obligations toward his parents.  He was adamant that his parents had done everything for him and that he owed them everything.  I finally persuaded him to visit me  for a long weekend in Beaver Dam.  He came and I enjoyed his visit very much.  I began to think I could actually see myself in a relationship with him if only I could get him to garner the courage to admit to at least having me as a friend and to be willing to spend more time with me.  I had to find him a church and take him there on Saturday as well on Sunday of his visit.  He is genuinely religious, and is the most principled man I have known.  Yet, somehow he was able to give himself over to a gay relationship and when with me, he could live in the moment with none of the 'this but not that' reservations usually found in people so deeply conflicted.  I sensed he was of that mentality where he would make a decision about a partnership with someone and then make the best of it, much as if he had been thrust into an arranged marriage.  Although it would be his decision, not someone else's, he would stick it out once decided and make it work as if it were a marriage he couldn't leave.  I also sensed that I was, if I were willing, the one he would chose - not because he loved me madly, but because I liked him, I was willing, and he wanted someone with whom he was comfortable and unashamed.  He didn't want to kiss a lot of different frogs, and if I were not the prince, I was a frog with few enough warts to get on with it.

After that one visit, which he said he enjoyed, I never saw him again.  I felt that it could be a good partnership, but that it wouldn't be, because I was stuck in whatever city I worked in, which never again seemed to be Houston and he was stuck with the parental units and a lifetime of shame.  His mother constantly schemed and nagged about his marriage, while never seeming to give any thought to loosening the bonds at home enough to allow someone else in.  In Houston I had worked with an American Viet woman who had started her marriage by moving in with her husband's traditional family, but who came to a point where she laid down the ultimatum "me or them", and 'me' meant a place of their own.  The husband had moved with her to their own place, but she was never forgiven by her MIL and though they interacted socially it was always a very negative experience for this woman, who was criticized by the in-laws at every turn.  People often cite these third-world extended family relationships as some sort of ideal but I have met many people who are members of such families and I have never met anyone for whom it wasn't a deep and constant negative experience.  Somebody is winning presumably, but it isn't the people with whom I have worked or socialized.  It is all obligation and guilt and very little joy whatsoever.  

After Wisconsin I tried hard to get Diem to visit again but he never would.  Either he had a demanding job with little free time or he couldn't justify another visit to his family.  "They will wonder why I keep visiting this American man,"  he said.  The siblings did arrive, but as with all married siblings, it was assumed that the single one had nothing else to do, so the parents continued to be Diem's responsibility.  He did manage to get his own apartment but it was in the same building as his parents, so there was no chance for me to visit and stay with him.  Once had I retired and had gained the time for a visit, I could not find the money to visit, since it would require a stay in a motel and rental of a car with no assurance that Diem would be brave enough to visit me there more than once or twice, since there was no way I could stay with him.  Finally I gave up.  Although I still wrote to thank him for Christmas gifts and to acknowledge birthday cards, I didn't call or initiate any correspondence because when a man hasn't left home by the age of 50, he probably never will quite garner the courage to do so.  

While I totally had put the whole thing into the 'never happen' category, I had this fantasy that it would be the most wonderful solution to my problem of loneliness and my wish to be part of a loving couple.  When in Wisconsin together, we had gotten along fairly well.  I find Diem very attractive and though we differ greatly in our desire to be active, the types of socializing we prefer, the entertainment that we enjoy, we nonetheless seemed to accommodate each other.  He was washing dishes one night while I watched TV and felt a bit guilty about it; when I mentioned this, he said, "That's OK, I like doing this and you like to watch TV."  Is that an angel come to Earth or what?  He is scrupulously honest; if I left him alone in my house for a month with a million bucks on the table, I'd likely come back to find a million and one there.  We accept each other's radically different views on religion.  My fantasy of how great we might be could well be that typical 'if only' people indulge in when the proof is impossible.  A woman I knew who worked in prisons told me once, "They all have this fantasy of the house with the white picket fence, but when they get out it is straight back to the action."  I am aware of that phenomenon in my case.  It kind of happened for me when I retired - a lovely setting is not enough; the relinquishing of  of a perfect fantasy that I control absolutely, for a reality that is - well real - is a whole lot less joyful than it is cracked up to be.  

A couple of weeks ago on a Thursday I got an e-mail from Diem saying happy birthday, but that he'd forgotten the exact day and would I send my phone number since he had lost it.  I mulled my answer - not from a sense of strategy, but because I didn't find a good time to write and how effort much did I want to put into a lost cause - that weekend I had the usual Breakfast Club with Mom and MY extended family as well as a visit from an old classmate.  I planned to respond on the Monday after my classmate left, but Diem must have found my number - well, obviously he did - because he called while my friend was still here.  He wondered if there were any jobs up here.  He couldn't find anything in Houston despite the Rick Perry miracle.  He had completed his 4-year degree three years ago (his English was also vastly improved; my Vietnamese, in sharp contradistinction, remains nonexistent).  There seemed to be some solution to the parental situation (I wasn't perfectly clear on this).   I still believe it is rude to have one social interaction in the midst of another, so I didn't talk long, but I told him I'd call back on another day.  On that Monday I got a birthday gift in the mail from him - a nice shirt which fit like a glove.  

I called and the upshot is that he is coming for a two week visit during which he will look for a job here locally.  He asked me to check around.  I suspect that he is desperate enough for a job that he is finally willing to leave home for one.  In short the dishonor of being unemployed is now trumping the honor of being an attentive son.  If he is a cost to his parents, he is no longer the good son he was with a job.  How much this is their thinking and how much his, I don't know.  That this means a relationship with me may be either a cost he is willing to pay or an added treat that he finally gets to enjoy.  I am not sure, but I hope and believe it may be the latter.  He is not quite the man of my dreams, but I really do like him and respect him and he is attractive to me.  I am certain I am not the man of his dreams in all respects, but I think he does like me and I think he is attracted.  We set this visit up a couple of weeks ago and the plane tickets are not refundable and he certainly understands that!
I have called him a couple of times since, and one time Mother's spidey sense must have started tingling, because her health took a bad turn, which caused Diem to waver on the job front and say he didn't know how long he might be able to stay here.  At my end, my longtime stalker (Tiko: I have written some about him) called all the way from Africa the same day Diem and I bought the airline tickets for Diem's flight on Sept. 6 and told me that finally after almost a year in Africa he would be returning to the USA - on Sept 6!   We each have powerful forces arrayed against our successful outcome, but hopefully we will prevail.  Since the wavering call, I have discovered a job fair here on the 13th, and Diem sent me his resumé and a cover letter for me to print out, so he does seem to have some thought of pursuing a job here; if he lands one, I think he will have a strong motive to stay.  Working is all-important to him.  I hope I am at least a pale second motive.

I am giddy down in the pit of my stomach with a buzzy kind of excitement.  I know that we have actually spent little time together and I know I will be moved out of my comfort zone, (or lethargy as some will call it).  I know Diem has a certain rigidity that might prove too much for me.  But maybe - oh, maybe - this could be it!  I really am no good alone.  I just don't move of my own volition.  I need a kickstart, a cheering section, a willing ear.   I know I haven't seen him, or he me, of a number of years - he is now 56, and we all know I am tottering at the edge of senescence.  I just don't know - but that is half the fun, isn't it?  There is realistically a 1% chance of this working out happily, but that is 1% more than I had of yore.  And I really always secretly suspect the best will happen, when anything is in prospect.  When nothing is actually on the horizon, I expect the worst.  Neutral I am not.  

In other news, Papa my old roommate from Saudi, whom George and I will be visiting in late October and much of November in India (did I mention that?) told me that his relatives are moving out of his house in Kerala and he is refurbishing the house, and that next year and during ensuing years  I will be welcome to spend a couple of months there even if he is still living in Saudi, which he expects to do for some time.  Winters in India as the snow piles up in Reedville?  Where is the downside to that?  

So all of a sudden I am writing again.  Tuesday is the big day - will the fire still burn with Diem?  Wish me luck.  Suddenly I feel sixteen.  In a good way.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dipping My Toe Back Into the Water

Well, whaddaya know! Me!

OK, there’s a shot that won’t even be heard around the house, let alone around the world. The fact is, in this world where a ‘friend’ is a few keystrokes and, maybe, a small photo of him or her mugging for the camera (or even possibly a photo of someone other than him- or herself who is hotter, younger or better groomed, being palmed off on the unwary), that the presence or absence of one’s BFF in the blogging or Twitter or Facebook or web world is a moment of transitory consequence. In the virtual world where every man has a full head of hair and a larger than average dick and every woman has a D-cup bra and a 19-inch waist, BFF means ‘Best Friend Forever’, but in the real world where there is more sagging and wrinkling than that found in the average herd of elephants, the full acronym should be BFFTM, which – wait for it! – would be Best Friend For The Moment. I think most people believe what they say when they are saying it (or writing it), but I am pretty sure that most people can look back on a conversation or essay or what have you, twenty four hours after it has been completed and realize that, well, maybe I said a little bit more than what I actually believe or feel or know. There are, I think, two types of people: those who realize that they have overstated the case when they look back on a conversation and those who are psychopaths. So long as one is talking or writing or communicating, one can remain in that happy (or angry) place in which one began the interaction, but given a few hours’ rest or a night’s sleep after the event, most folks can honestly say that they might have travelled a bridge too far.

A year ago in March, as perhaps one or less of you may recall, I joined a gym and worked out almost without a miss, three times a week. Then last August, I woke up and I just didn’t want to go any more. So it goes with me in so many areas. It is a matter of some astonishment to me, that, until about two months ago, I actually kept up blogging, usually one a week, or once every two weeks – sometimes oftener, sometimes less often, but with some degree of regularity, either here or on SpacesLive, since 2005. Wow! Yay, Me! I started out with a vague personal goal to tell as honestly as possible, the stories of my life. There is no earthly reason why anyone should care about any of these, particularly the facts – who cares where or when I was born or what my parents were like, or my school or my jobs or my loves or my hates or my travels? Who cares about those facts about anyone? The truth is that what happened to anyone, unless it was extraordinarily dire and involved ghastly death, dismemberment or intimacy with a farm animal (preferably all three of these), is of interest only to him or her to whom said facts of life happened. No blog that I have ever read (or book or article or TV interview or conversation) has been interesting because it happened to the writer or speaker. Events are interesting because of the way the story is told. If someone actually thinks of readers as readers rather than as fans or friends, one realizes this. I try writing with this in mind, but it is so easy to slip into thinking that one knows the people whose writing one reads or who read and comment on what one has written oneself. It is easy to think that one’s own opinions or travails, or the weather in one’s hometown this day is of intrinsic interest. This is a deadly error for anyone except, perhaps, a child or grandchild who is speaking to his parents or (gasp!) grandparents.

An adolescent, or a member of a family, or a member of one tightly-knit group or other, is often wont to tell a newcomer what a wild and crazy bunch his crew is. Um, no. Never, NEVER claim anything that is an awesome compliment when said by another about you, but which is sure to provoke, in a neutral listener, the desire to prove the contrary when one says it about oneself. Do not claim to be "crazy" – in either the fun or clinical sense. Do not claim that you are not racist or not sexist or any of those –ists, because the first thought a listener will have (spoken or not) will begin with the phrase, “Well, what about that time you…”. When you say you are speaking frankly, you aren’t. Don’t say you are a good parent. Let the facts – and, hopefully,  your admirers – do the talking. Remember someone famous saying, “I am not a crook!”?  How’d that play out?

(Note: Word, the text editor which I use in writing, has placed a green squiggly line indicating bad grammar, under the sentence beginning with “Never, NEVER…”.  And, as you see, that IS a proper (though hortatory in form) sentence. I have had occasion to purse my lips and raise my brow about Word’s idea of grammar before and I find myself doing so again. How I can know grammar better than an entire software corporation with multi-thousands of degreed employees is a mystery to me – or would be if I hadn’t read once that Bill Gates was upset the day that he found that the average age of his employees had risen to 31. My under-30 cousin Warren, a sometimes writer, told me a year ago while we were in Bali that no one cared about that stuff (meaning grammar, spelling, and quite possibly coherence) anymore. Reading my local newspaper and the national newsmagazines as well as most of the fiction on the NY Times best-seller list inclines me to believe he is on to something. Folks can tell a story, but they can’t write well.)

Holy shit, I am doing just what I set out NOT to do. What I am trying to say is that I have a hard time sticking to one particular overriding vision for my writing. Originally, I wanted only to record things that happened to me in the past which I recall with fondness or some other emotion, in a way that I hoped would be interesting to some. But then I kept slipping into reacting to news items – not so much political crap, but stuff like seeing something in the news that provoked nostalgia or outrage or a strong desire to mock or soundly slap the subject of the article. I originally hoped to say what I thought, not today, or about a single event, but as a result of a longish arc of my personal experience; less my thought than the conclusions to which I had come. Alas, one thing I know for sure: if I say I will never do something it won’t be a month before I do it. Most of my life, the last step I took before any act was to say that I would never, under any circumstances, perform that act. I HOPE I will never have sex with an elephant. But I am not terribly optimistic. Indeed, the fact (which I only noticed on rereading) that elephants have come up twice in these few paragraphs is sadly troubling.

I know one writes best when one isn’t still angry or shocked or in the first throes of reaction. But sadly, that is also when one is motivated most strongly to write (or blabber to anyone who cannot flee quickly enough). And one, when one is me, is a sadly weak vessel. One is, as well, lazy and unmotivated in the normal course of the average day or week, or as you have seen this past Spring, season.

As you see, I got nothin’. And yet, just at this moment in time, I felt like doing a little writing. Thus proving my point; just because one wants to say something doesn’t give that something value. And I see I am ending with a green squiggly line under the last two words of the previous sentence. Really, Microsoft??? I need an elephant.