Wednesday, December 23, 2009

All too easy to be smug rather than compassionate

It's all too easy to smugly mock "political correctness," and the silly excesses of cultural discourse that it can get itself into. In fact mockery has become all too fashionable these days. Everybody does it, even those who otherwise believe in social justice, the rights of diverse people to live by their own beliefs, and freedom. Everybody looks at the silliest excesses of those who act PC, and in doing so they forget that PC had at its root a desire to increase human dignity, social justice, and equal rights.

What I see all too often when people mock PC is that what they're really trying to do is hide the fact that they're deep down in their hearts full of regressive, repressed prejudices and bigotries. You can't change peoples' minds overnight about beliefs and prejudices they learned at their parents' knees. If PC fails, it's because it tries rational argument against deep-rooted emotional prejudices. Even when people want to give up those deep prejudices, and on the surface have done so, deep down they can still be present.

What happens when some people mock PC is that they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater because the last thing they want to admit to themselves is that they're still, in their own hearts, bigots. They do their best to conceal their shame by shaming others. That's a classic form of psychological projection: make fun of other people for what you don't like about yourself.

The hidden agenda of dismissing PC out of hand is a disguised way of saying that all people aren't created equal and don't deserve to be treated as if they were. Most anti-PC rhetoric is covertly elitist; some of that rhetoric tries to pretend it's populist and egalitarian, but it's really contemptuous of "the people" at core. It's really easy to see this happening as a hidden agenda when some right-wing pundit does it; it's more concealed when those of the left do it, too, although it's possibly more corrosive.

What all the mockery completely, willfully, deliberately wants to overlook is that we still live in a world in which people are put to death or tortured, actively and passively, for being Different, for being Other.

George Orwell once opined that we'll know that totalitarian tyranny has finally taken over the West when the totalitarian arguments all sound their trumpets about Freedom. He was right. And that's exactly what's happened to the country that I live in and love, since 9/11. I've seen civil rights being eroded right and left while people just bent over and took it up their asses about it. I've seen the gap between the haves and the have-nots gape to its widest margin in recorded history. I've seen what Benjamin Franklin, one of the Frames of our Constitution, warn us about, 200 years ago, when he said, "Those who would exchange liberty for security deserve neither."

As for the Salvation Army, fuck them: their hands won't be reaching out to any disaster areas I've ever been at the epicenter of. The day the Salvation Army funds an AIDS Hospice, I'll change my opinion about them, but not before. The Salvation Army remains one of the most regressive and political of relief agencies, with a specific list of peoples they WON'T help. They are selective not because the job of saving the world is too big, but because they are bigoted. Do they do good work? Certainly. Do they do good work evenly amongst all those who need their help? Not at all.

I give money to the Red Cross, and to other similar organizations who really do not have any politics beyond that of compassion, support, and social justice. Amnesty International is about stopping torture and increasing personal freedom and personal dignity—which are prerequisites for social justice. The Sierra Club is about preserving the wilderness for generations to come, to see and enjoy, and remember what the world used to look like.

I'll end with a personal story:

When my father retired from being a doctor, he joined Rotary, as a way to get to meet new people in the community and as a way to participate in doing good social works, which he did all his life. One thing the Rotary members volunteered to do was ring the bells for the Salvation Army at store entrances around our community during the Christmas season. Dad did that for a few years.

My father was a lifelong advocate for social justice and personal dignity. As a doctor, he went to India sponsored by the mission, to be of aid to others. He could have been a wealthy surgeon or pathologist, but he was always oriented towards helping others, even if it meant his career was neither famous nor wealthy. He always tithed part of his income to relief charities and preservation organizations, from Amnesty International to the World Wildlife Fund to the Red Cross, among others. He usually rotated among a list, giving money to three or four different charities every year.

One year, my father looked into the politics and policies of the Salvation Army. He's always been curious, and always had a real zeal for history. He found out how homophobic and right-wing the policies of the Salvation Army are, and, of his own volition, decided that he would no longer volunteer to ring bells for the Salvation Army, nor ever again donate any money to them.

This was one of the most loving things my father ever did for his gay son. I love him for this one gesture beyond what words can say.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing Eros

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Becoming a Gay Artist

At what age do you become a gay artist?

Is being a gay artist something you always were, something that permeates every aspect of your being, a permanent filter through which you view the world? That's the essentialist argument, argued in the same way, and for similar reasons, that women see the world differently than men, that blacks see the world differently than whites, that Asians see the world differently than Latinos. Many of civil rights arguments are based on essentialist assumptions; many other civil rights arguments area based on our essential Oneness rather than our (essential?) differences. The "gay gene" idea, that being gay is genetic and not determined by choice of will, is an essentialist argument; however, although it is supported by documented research and scientific study, it remains controversial even in LGBT circles because it's not a definitive proof. There remain apparent exceptions. (And we don't really know enough yet about the human genome to be able to be definitive.)

Is becoming a gay artist something you choose, some stance or methodology you learn or adopt, something that is transmitted culturally via role model and learning? That's the constructivist, or cultural, or social/environmental, argument, which views every human behavior as a choice constructed by the individual, a matter of free will and elemental decision. The constructivist argument, of course, is the one that is always used to deny civil rights to LGBT people: since gays and lesbians can choose to be straight, they should. Such is the rhetoric of the religious right, and of some of the more ideologically repressive factions of the psychological profession. Never mind that those psychological theories have been thoroughly discredited, they are still cited by the "ex-gay" movement, which itself has been thoroughly discredited, yet retains followers for ideological and superstitious reasons. (Morals are inherently ideological and tend to be externally proscribed; ethics are inner-self-generated and tend to be pragmatic.)

There are elements in the essentialist camp who use their arguments to shut down discussion and dissent: "That's just the way it is, so shut up about it." As a response to the constructivist anti-LGBT-rights camp, that seems a valid response; the constructivists after all have used their argument to undercut civil rights. But when essentialists direct the "shut up" argument at their own numbers, as a way of quashing dissent, it can cross the line into ideological fascism. The essentialist argument is a strong argument for civil rights, yet it does have some limits, in that free choice cannot be entirely removed from the human equation. The truth is a mix.

In my experience, both of these viewpoints have some validity, and both also remain largely theoretical, neither completely supporting the observed data and relationships. The distinction between these arguments has often been framed as: "Are you a gay artist, or are you an artist who happens to be gay?" Endless discussions, arguments, and dialogues have gone around and around that distinction, never satisfactorily resolving it.

I'm not sure it matters.

For myself, in my own practice, it's best to just go ahead and make art, and not worry about it. For one thing, being gay or not doesn't directly matter, either way, to my making art. I make art, no matter what, whether or not I happen to be thinking about LGBT issues at the moment, and whether or not the art I'm making at the moment contains explicit or implicit elements of gay imagery, iconography, or cultural references. I enjoy photographing the male nude, and I enjoy working with nude male models to achieve the photographic and artistic elements of expression I seek. And I also enjoy making photographs of mountains, sunsets, flowers, trees, buildings, pets, typewriters, and beautifully-arranged furniture displays. Does everything I photograph filter itself through the lens of my gay experience? Does it matter if it does, or doesn't? The more fruitless aspects of identity politics all involve arguing (rather Scholastically, one might add) about one aspect of my life as if it were the only important aspect, or the dominant aspect.

Being gay may well be a dominant aspect of my life, and my art-making, but it is never the only aspect—when I make art, all aspects of my whole self are engaged, focused, involved—and sometimes not the most important aspect. At the same time, I can never fully remove being gay from my art-making, because it is an aspect of my whole self—all aspects of whom are present and engaged, focused and involved, when I'm making art, or when I'm just doing my chores. For myself, I accept this both/and way of looking at the issue as being fundamentally true; where I might typically quibble is where and how much each aspect of the whole is present, or exactly when.

Gay artists have always been able to produce non-gay art. An artist, self-identified as gay or not, who produces homoerotic art will also produce art in which gender identity and sexual orientation have no measurable presence. Is a still life drawing of a vase, an orange, and a pen an inherently gay? The essentialist argument would say, yes it is—when drawn by a gay artist. The essentialists typically raise the issue of "gay sensibility" at this point, which is basically a way of saying that, because you're gay, everything you do is gay, therefore all of your art is produced through a gay sensibility. As though even my most abstract piano music—which is much more directly influenced by Debussy, Messiaen, and Takemitsu, that entire French-Russian-Japanese lineage of influence in contemporary music; rather than by known-to-be-gay composers such as Britten, Corigliano, or Noel Coward—is still gay abstract gay piano gay music. You can see the circularity of this reasoning: the essentialist viewpoint assumes a priori that everything a gay artist will ever do is filtered through a gay sensibility, so everyting you is gay, because you're gay, and because everything you do is gay, then you must be gay. By contrast, the constructivist argument allows for the artist to be able to make a choice about whether to utilize the gay sensibility, or not. Yet I do not entirely embrace the constructivists, nor do I entirely reject the essentialists; again, the truth is both/and.

I do believe that there is a "gay sensibility"—although it's a fuzzy set, whose contents are always-changing and not always clearly known, and it has changeable boundaries that are complex to the point of being fractal. I do believe that my own "gay sensibility" is in operation when I make art that contains homoerotic themes, imagery, or other content. I do believe that my artistic "gay sensibility" probably does add some coloration or shading to even my non-homoerotic art-projects; for example, would I write the abstract piano music that I do if were not who I am, which includes my being gay/bi? There is some truth, I believe, to the idea that a "gay sensibility" leads to art-making that is often more exploratory, experimental, more tradition- and rule-breaking; in part because being gay means being a cultural outsider, or insider/outsider: when you've been positioned as non-normative to the culture, you tend to go looking for yet more non-normative ways to dialogue with and express the culture. Camp and genderfuck are all about mirroring back to the normative culture ways of being non-normative; they are ways of performing the Other, as if in a funhouse mirror.

At the same time, my own "gay sensibility" cannot account for all aspects of my art-making, nor its contents. I am not a stereotype; even within the gay subculture(s) I am not easily categorized into any of the familiar types or stereotypes. Yet I am quite certain, at this point in my life, that my "gay sensibility" of being Other and non-normative deeply affects my creative process, that it has led me to look at the world from subject-subject consciousness rather than subject-object consciousness. It is one root of my empathy, both as a person, and as an artist. In other words, my being gay affects how I go about making art. It affects my approach to making art. At the same time, it does not determine the contents or materials that I use to make art. My being gay might steer my art-making process—and indeed, it seems at times to be so innately bound up with the why of my art-making that I can't easily separate the two—yet my being gay doesn't determine what art I make, what kind of art I make, nor does it determine what genre of art-making I might be working in at the moment. (I practice crop rotation between music, visual, poetry, photography, calligraphy, land art sculpture, woodworking, etc.) So, my being gay seems to affect the why and how of my art-making, but not the when, where, or what.

So perhaps what it is true is that there are aspects of my being gay that are innate, that i was born with, that I have no choice about. At the same time, I have choices I can make about how to express those innate aspects of myself. I have the power to choose what I do with that innate part of myself; and I have the power to choose how I enact, express, present, and perform that innate part of myself, in public and in private. I am gay, and I can choose how I want to act gay, and how gay I want to act. In terms of art-making, then: I am gay, there's no doubt of that, and yet I can choose how "gay" my art is made to be.

Of course, some anti-LGBT constructivists try to hedge their ideological position of moral condemnation by claiming to, in their own words, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." In other words: we don't hate who you are in your inner nature, in your heart, we just hate your attempts to act from your inner nature, from your heart. Your soul is pure, but yet it's not pure because if you do act from your soul we can't approve of it. This variety of ideological hedging is utter bullshit; it communicates an extremely mixed message. It is not unconditional love precisely because it places conditions on loving behaviors.

And then there is Kinsey's continuum of sexual behavior, his infamous seven-position scale, which implies that most people are innately bisexual and choose an identity and orientation based as much on their ideas of who they want to be as upon clinical observation of who they really are. Kinsey's scale leaves the door open for self-delusion, in other words. It allows a man to claim to be completely heterosexual even though he had sex with other boys as a teenager, and still occasionally does so. it allows a woman to claim to be completely lesbian, even though at one point in her life she was married and had children.

Where do you find an artist on Kinsey's scale? Or are they separate axes of knowledge, as I believe they are? They do converge and overlap at points—we are whole beings, not collections of particles—but they don't fully account for one another, and neither is determinative of the other. Where do you find artists on Kinsey's scale? Everywhere.

Perhaps the known exceptions to the essentialist arguments, such as presented in the "gay gene" theory, can be explained by viewing sexual orientation as flexible and fluid rather than fixed. Conventionally, physical gender and sexual orientation may be viewed as biologically fixed, or innate, but gender expression and sexual identity are not. Kinsey's research seems to imply that fluidity in orientation may be the norm, and may change over the course of a lifetime—despite all our attempts to permanently fix an orientation upon ourselves by using a label the way an entomologist might use pins to affix moths to a bulletin board. The labels make us seem more fixed and permanent, more solid and unchanging, than we really are. Since everything is always changing, nothing is immune to change or independent of the ripple effects of changes going on around us. We change, we evolve, we learn, we develop; or we resist change, we fight against it, we deny the possibility of development or personal evolution. Some of the loudest and most repressive voices in the essentialist camp are those who want things to be permanently fixed, always just-so. (Fear of uncertainty and/or change is what often drives the totalitarian impulse.)

In my own experience, although I did not openly come out as gay until I was in my 30s, I have always been more physically and emotionally aroused (excited, if not erect) by viewing naked men than naked women. Yet some naked women do turn me on; and I have had two serious, successful (at the time) loving sexual relationships with women in my life. Nowadays I identify as gay, mostly because it's the easiest of several fuzzy gender-and-orientation categories that one might identify as, but I never forget that my identity as gay is part-innate, part-constructed. What is innate is that I am more sexually attracted, on average, to the male of my species than to the female; what is constructed is everything else. I have never forgotten the formulation of a gay/bi friend, an artist and therapist, whose life and desires and experience were similar to my own; he said to me once, in conversation about the topic of sexual identity, "I tell my straight friends that I'm gay, and I tell my gay friends that I'm bi. It's true, anyway, and it keeps them on their toes."

In some ways, it's more interesting to ask of myself: When did I become an artist? rather than When did I become a gay artist? I can honestly say that I've always been an artist, in that I've always had the instinct for art-making. Regardless of whether it was a childhood crayon drawing or a contemporary computer-assisted musical composition process, there has never been a time that I can recall when I wasn't Making, or if not able to be Making then at least wanting to on some deep level. Making is compulsory: if I'm not able to make something today, a pressure builds up deep inside me, until it can be released as art-making, or some other creative channel. I learned about myself at a very early age that I must let out that need to Make, or it will drive me crazy from the inside out. So, on days I can't make art, or music, or a poem—which are culturally-recognized and -approved, if only marginally -supported) modes of creating tangible art-products—I might peel an orange as beautifully as possible, or rake leaves with full artistic intention, or stack boxes of nails with artistic precision. The content or end-result of what is Made isn't what satisfies the need to make something, it's the process of Making that does.

There's a lot to be told about becoming an artist. At what age did I become a gay artist? At what age did I become an artist?

To be continued.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why We Sing

Why do I sing in gay men's choruses? Why do I like to sing in male choruses? Why do I sing with Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, in Madison, WI, the chorus I currently sing with, and have written a new piece for, that will be premiered in December 2009?

Short answer: Because I love singing in male choruses, I'm gay, I love singing in gay men's choruses with other gay men, and most importantly, we are musical ambassadors to the world. We give back to our communities, and at the same time raise the general community's consciousness about the social issues and concerns of our gay lives by celebrating them, singing about them, and sharing them. We reach out with music to heal and give hope and beauty to the lives of others.

These are all generalities, but they're true for me nonetheless. I've known for a long time that my personal form of social activism happens most effectively through my music, my writing, and my artwork. I used to be an activist who marched in the streets. I participated in the very first LGBT Pride March ever organized in Madison, WI. I did outreach to both the LGBT and straight communities in Madison; I sat on discussion panels; I participated in speaker's visits to schools and corporate offices. We had fun, and we had strength, and we knew we were helping to make the world a finer place for everyone.

We were right—and we were wrong. We did catalyze change, and yet the world stubbornly refuses to improve faster than a snail's pace. It's true that the Tribe can only evolve at the rate of its slowest members—a truth I learned later, after I had left my overt activist years behind.

So here's my really long, personal memoir answer:

I've always been a choral singer. I loved singing in church choirs, starting about age 7 or 8. I graduated from my church's youth choir to the adult choir in my mid-teens; they needed tenors, and I was gifted musically. I sang in the Michigan Men's Glee Club from my first semester in college. It's probably destiny that has led me to sing in not one, but three or four gay men's choruses over the years. I view it as part of my social outreach, my activism, and also a way to stay musically active, which for me is as necessary as breathing.

As a boy, I was a soloist, a boy soprano, and for awhile an alto. My middle choral teacher, Hunter March, trained me in the techniques of the English choral tradition, the pinnacle of which in many opinions (including mine) is King's College, Cambridge. I still listen to that group's annual broadcast of lessons and carols at Christmastide. But most boy sopranos don't have adult voices as good as their boy voices, once their voices have changed and stabilized. That was my fate. Yet I had all this training. I was recruited right out of middle school by the choral teacher of the high school I would be attending. I remember a meeting in the middle offices, before the end of my last year there—my voice had just broken, spectacularly and embarassingly, during a solo in a choral performance—in which I sat down with my current choral teacher and my future choral teacher, and we talked about my future. Plans were made. I was a little intimidated and overwhelmed by the attention of these highly musical, highly trained teachers; but I also liked it. I already knew I had some musical talent beyond the ordinary; I was already writing music, and I had already been given the chance to play with a suitcase-sized Moog synthesizer, and make a little tape music. I remember my two choral teachers discussing my situation, and what to do to make sure I continued to improve as a singer.

My voice had just changed. The long hot summer between the last year of middle school and my first year of high school was also the summer of my sexual awakening. We lived in what was at the time the outermost northeastern corner of Ann Arbor. Our subdivision was the edge of town. Behind our house was open, empty fields—fields which had been nothing but wheat for several years after my family bought that house, but which by this summer had begun to be filled in with row-house condo construction. The construction moved slowly, and took several years to cross the field from its opposite to end to behind our fence. During this long hot summer, I spent many hours in naked play with two or three of the neighbor boys. We explored how our bodies could bring us pleasure, and how to pleasure each other. It was always exciting, too, because it was forbidden and risky to get caught at it. I wrote about it, even then, as a teenage boy (my parents had given me my first typewriter for Christmas). I wrote about my fantasies, and I wrote about my memories and dreams. I'll write about that some more, here, at a later date. There's a lot of memory material from that time of my life that I want to reconsider and reinvent. Later.

There is a classic question: are you a gay artist, or an artist who happens to be gay? Does your sexuality inform your art-making? A lot of gay artists get hung up on this question, going in circles while never answering it definitely. Of course, asking the question is a matter of identity politics for many: of discovering and identifying who you are. It's an essentialist question, and an existential one.

I find it irrelevant and uninteresting. Perhaps a couple of decades ago I might have debated it. The fact is, I'm an artist who happens to be gay, and I'm also a gay artist. I'm a gay man who makes gay art and non-gay-themed art; I'm a man who makes art; I'm a man who makes gay art and non-gay art. If indeed these are separable modes, which is debatable, I work in them all. I don't make a distinction, because I don't believe it important to make a distinction. My sexual orientation is part of who I am—not all of who I am, but an important part of the whole—and as a man who makes art, all the parts of who I am are present when I'm making art, to a greater or lesser degree. Not all of my art is overtly homoerotic, or even sexual, or sensual. And some of it is.

My first year in high school was the year my voice was settling. My choir teacher, Miss Ruth Datz, who became over time one of my important mentors in life, guided me carefully through the change. For a few months I sang baritone rather than tenor, so as not to strain my newly-changed voice. (I still have that lower range.) But I was also trained in barbershop quartet, and as a countertenor. My head voice, or falsetto, proved to be very useful. I have never had the soloist's voice as an adult: neither the power, or the range, or the quality of openness prized in opera, or the projection prized in musical theater. But thanks to my choral mentors at this time in my life, I have a tremendous amount of vocal training. I am rarely picked for solo parts in the choruses I have sung in: I don't have that kind of voice. But I have three times the training of most of those who I sing in chorus with.

I also have a very good ear, and a very trained ear, for pitch. I am very good at blending. I discovered that I can control the timbre and pitch of my voice so well that I can blend with anyone. I make other voices sound better. Put me in the middle of the first tenor section, which is where you'll usually find me anyway, and I make the whole section sound more like one voice, than a group of individuals. It's a knack, an instinct. I just seem to do it, and it's not always conscious.

In college, I sang in the Michigan Men's Glee Club. I was not yet fully out to myself as a gay man, but it was clear to me that most of us in the first tenor section were either queer, bisexual, or at least open-minded. There’s an old joke on the choral circuit, that there are three kinds of people in the world: men, women, and tenors. There's some insight and truth in that, after all. Anyway, I began to get a sense of a gay sensibility, a homoerotic gathering of sensibility, a sense of male comradeship, of Whitman's "adhesiveness," during those years singing in the Men’s Glee Club. We toured Europe and many regions of the USA together during, those years; staying in a hotel, staying in homes of alumnae, being hosted and feted wherever we went. I learned things about myself, and my colleagues, on many occasions.

After graduating college, I largely turned my back on Western music for about a decade. Surviving after music school meant a period of unlearning: being a composition major, mostly what they could teach us was music theory and history, and they crammed so much theory done our throats that I was compositionally constipated for a few years, and could write nothing. (I eventually began over with Western music by learning jazz improvisation, improvised music, the arts of spontaneous composition.) But at the same time, I had discovered Javanese gamelan, and played that music for many years. One element of certain pieces of Javanese gamelan is the unison male chorus, or gérong, which sings traditional texts as one layer of the music. For example, here is a performance of Ketawang Puspawarna, a traditional opening piece for concert performances, used by many ensembles.

Listen to how the male chorus, which is members of the gamelan group, some playing instruments as well as singing, do punctuated calls at key moments in the form, as well as performing the sung unison text. Puspawarna, a classical Javanese poem, means “kinds of flowers.”

Thus I kept my vocal chops up, albeit in music from another culture. I learned I had an ear for precise pitch, for being able to match different tuning systems, for being able to sing correct intervals in more than one tuning system. I played and studied Javanese gamelan for many years. I lived in Indonesia for a year, as a Fulbright student on a grant, studying traditional gamelan. I taught gamelan as a graduate student teaching assistant, later, at the University of Wisconsin. This music has left a permanent mark on my own music, the way I write music now, even the way I improvise when playing in jazz and rock music settings.

My coming out process as a gay man was long and late and slow. I wasn't exactly in the closet, I wasn’t exactly pretending to be something I wasn’t, but it takes time to learn self-acceptance and self-esteem. I came out fully sometime in my late 20s and early 30s. That's another long story, which like my sexual awakening as a teenage boy, I have written about extensively, in my journals and in my poetry. I'll be writing more about that, later, as well.

Living in Madison, WI, playing gamelan, discovering the Radical Faeries and going to annual gatherings, being involved in the Rendezvous Reenactment circuit, being an LGBT activist, coming out to my family, taking my first long-term male love relationships, discovering what I liked about sex and what I didn't, being in grad school, becoming a serious photographer, writer, and Photoshop user. These were all happening at the same time, form my late 20s through my late 30s.

Some years later, I found myself living in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota. There are long stories in the interim, some of them related to both music and sexuality, and if I were to tell them all now, all at once, this would be a novel-length memoir, pull me far off the topic of choral music. So I’ll save some of those for another day.

I was living in St. Paul, and having a difficult time of life. I felt the need to connect with the larger gay community, as I was feeling very isolated. Just to be around gay men socially, in ways that were positive. So it occurred to me to revive my interest in singing in male choruses. I have always loved the sound and timbre of massed male voices, singing in chorus, and my years in the Glee Club had cemented that preference, musically and socially.

Here’s where why we sing begins to matter.

Singing in a gay men’s chorus is about presenting a face of the gay community to the general community: an artistic face, an ambassadorial face, a face of unity and empowerment, of reaching out with music to heal both gays and their friends and families. It’s about entertainment and having a good time, but for me it’s only secondarily about entertainment. Primarily, it’s about letting people see that we are human, ordinary, serious, fun, and genuinely part of the community. Every chorus in a community has its following. Every chorus does outreach, of one form or another. It’s about reaching out to the community, but also about reminding the community that we are already there, already people you know, already a part of it all. We are your brothers and sisters, your children, your family, your coworkers, your friends.

I sing in a gay men’s chorus because I love singing in a male chorus. I sing in a gay men’s chorus because I need to be with gay men, and making music provides me a way to be with a community of gay men in a way that I’m comfortable with, that supports me positively, that makes me feel a part of something important. I got none of that from the bar scene. I got a little of it from being an activist.

Singing in a gay men’s chorus is a quiet, artistic form of activism. For me, it’s about being part of something larger, something that is gradually, gently, slowly, almost invisibly changing the world.

I joined the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, which was my reintroduction to singing in a male chorus, but it also provided me with opportunities to make new friends, to reach out to my community, to invite my other friends to part of something. When I moved out West, I joined the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The same opportunities in a different place. With the exception that the SFGMC is the original gay men’s chorus in the USA; they were the first, for all intents and purposes. When they did they first national tour across the US, they sowed the seeds in their wake in many cities they visited for the LGBT choral movement to spread. Now there are hundreds of LGBT choruses of all sorts of configurations and styles and memberships and missions. The LGBT choral movement has gone worldwide. It’s mostly based in cities, but just in large cities; choruses are present in many mid-size cities, and some smaller cities. My personal preference is for a male chorus, because I like to sing in that style, and within that repertoire. And I am now contributing, as a composer, to that repertoire. Now I sing with Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus, in Madison, WI. It’s a smaller but growing chorus. It gives me what I want, musically, and I give back to the local community via our music. We work together to make music into our message of peace, hope, and love.

And for me that is my best, most satisfying form of activism. To make art that feeds a movement towards greater unity, greater community, and outreach. We invisibly, gradually change the world by just being ourselves. We don’t always march in the streets, and we don’t always engage in political activism; although almost every LGBT chorus does engage in some form of social justice work. We use our art to educate. One of the most important ways we educate is to show how your sons and daughters are not so Other, not so alien, are regular folks who can have fun, make music, have a good time, and not be so alien to your life that we have nothing in common. If we start by having music in common, that opens the door to having hearts in common. Music is the way to the heart that bypasses the mind and all its prejudices. I’ve heard story after story about how some person who thought they hated gays and lesbians changed their minds, after actually encountering us, as singers, as people, and not as stereotypes.

And that’s how you make the world a finer place. By changing one heart at a time. That’s why we sing.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Classic

A lesbian pop classic, k.d. lang's "Constant Craving." There was a period for awhile when you couldn't go into a lesbian bar without hearing this track at least once an hour. I suppose some got tired of it. I never have. This is an almost perfect piece of music: brilliant hook, brilliant melody, great lyrics, the entire mood of longing and loss, of unfulfilled yearning and desire. It's an erotic masterpiece, in a way most pop love songs try to be but few ever achieve.

But what also interests me about this video is that it's based on a reconstruction of the French premiere in the 1950s of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. There are several scenes from the play in the video, which Beckett fans will recognize. There is also in the video an allusion to Krapp's Last Tape, with k.d. sitting next to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, reels in motion, playing back sounds—whether the Beckett diary tapes from the play, or k.d. singing to herself, is delightfully ambiguous.


The song is about loneliness and desperation, about yearning and longing. It's also an anthem: I want you, I want you constantly, I can't get enough of you. It's a call out into the darkness. But it's also got some humor, and some hope to it.

Rather like Beckett's play. So that's a good match.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Homoerotic Photography

I have a couple of friends who live down in central Tennessee. Last June I drove down there for several days of visiting. They live on 100 acres in the middle of the riverine limestone karst country of central TN. We drove around a fair bit, so I could do some photography and video work in the very beautiful State Parks nearby. Their land is secluded, and they're pretty much nudists. So since it was 90 degrees or more most days I was there, clothing was not much in use by anyone.

There is also a cave on a cousin's land, which we spent some time exploring inside, again nude. These are some photos from my visit.


Cave Shaman

Evening Stroll

I regularly engage in outdoor nude photography with some of my gay men friends as models. I've been doing this since 2000, and have compiled a few distinct bodies of work from these sessions. I love the secluded outdoor locations involved, especially in summer's heat, and I really enjoy working with my models, all of whom have been wonderfully open and giving to the artistic process. Working with nude models is a collaboration. Things happen that I never planned, or discovered in the moment, some feature of the land or light, which I never could have found without my models' presence and input. I like working with friends because I am interested in real people, with real bodies, not airbrushed icons of advertising perfection. I prefer natural ordinariness to idealized and unreal perfection.

This photographic work is an important part of my life as a gay man in rural, smalltown Midwestern America. These connections. These dialogues. They fuel my creativity for months after each collaborative encounter. I especially find it rewarding to work with other gay men who live rurally, who share my interest in naturism, who are comfortable with their bodies and sexuality, who are open and casual in demeanor.

This is a growing body of work that is increasingly important to my visual artistry. The key elements are, of course, rural life, outdoors life, being naked outdoors, open to the wind and sun and the touch of grass on the skin. What this is really about is the beauty of the human form within the beauty of the natural landscape. The contrasts and connections between skin, stone, water, green growing things.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hate Crimes Bill Signed Into Law

I hear in the news today that Pres. Obama has signed into law the new bill adding sexual orientation to the existing hate crimes bill. Here's some of CNN had to say:

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama on Wednesday signed a law that makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

The expanded federal hate crimes law, hailed by supporters as the first major federal gay rights legislation, was added to a $680 billion defense authorization bill that Obama signed at a packed White House ceremony.
The hate crimes measure was named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man dragged to death in Texas the same year.

Shepard's mother, Judy, was among those at the ceremony that also included Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric Holder and leading members of Congress and the Pentagon, who were on hand for the appropriations bill signing.

—from a CNN news release, 28 October 2009

I hear general clamoring of celebration from most corners of the gay community, or rather, communities. I hear celebration, and I hear cheering, and I hear relief, and also the feeling that now, something will be done, if anything like Matthew Shepard's murder happens again.

And I live out here in the rural small town conservative Upper Midwest, and although my own friends here who know I'm gay have been likewise congratulating me on this news, I know that we're surrounded by many who would still have no problem putting Matthew's corpse up on that storm fence themselves. I wonder what all this will change.

I hear one voice on a gay blog website saying words like: If i am ever beaten or killed it's good to know something might be done.

And I am staggered. If I am ever beaten or killed, it's good to know that something might, perhaps, maybe, hopefully, be done. . . . As though that were never a possibility before. This is how we live our lives: knowing that we can still be murdered, for no reason other than that we're gay, or lesbian, or intersex, or purple. And we all still know that no law can stop people from hating; it can only make the consequences for their actions more severe. Perhaps they'll think twice. But since hatred and fear are emotional and irrational, a potential gay-basher stopping to think before acting seems unlikely. Like the death sentence, it will prove to be no real deterrent, although it might lead to justice.

And I find myself responding to this dilemma, as follows:

Having been bashed, verbally and physically, at different times in different places, for being gay—which is doubly ironic since I'm more butch than femme to all appearances—for being smart, for being opinionated, I suppose that I'm glad to see the legislation added to the register.

Yet I am led to a deeper question:

Is this anything but a symbolic political victory? Will it actually change anything? How long will it be before those who uphold the law actually do uphold the law, and take for granted that gay-bashing is wrong, rather than needing to be pushed into enforcing the laws already on the books? (This new law just makes Federal what many States had already done.)

Will this really put an end to anything? Will it really save future Matthew Shepards? Or will it just make those killers easier to prosecute? Does it save lives, or does it allow us to take better revenge?

If I am beaten or murdered for being gay, will this law mean much to my ghost?

As someone who has been bashed, mugged, and assaulted a few times in my life, over the years—and as someone who was regularly bullied and beaten during my school years—I can't as if I have much faith in the power of this new law. I can't say as if I feel much safer, tonight, knowing that such a law now exists. My feelings of safety come from within, from refusing to be a victim, from my learned ability to take care of myself. I won't depend on the law if I find myself in a situation in which I am at risk; I will defend myself. I won't depend on law enforcement. Being bullied in my youth taught the very important lesson that you cannot always rely on those in authority to come to your aid; in fact, you'd better not.

And then there's the issue of revenge. Is bashing back, if that's what it comes to, satisfactory? Does it make us feel better? Does it make the world a finer place? I can't get Gandhi's words out of my mind tonight: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

I'm not just being contrary here. I think these are genuine questions, which haven't been addressed yet.

Real change, the real prevention of more murders and bashings, will only come when people no longer care whether you're gay or not. When being gay, itself, is not an issue, and neither hated nor feared.

Hate crimes legislation may be a good start. It may in fact be the only place available to start from.

But it's not enough.

This law is only the beginning. There remains a great deal more work to be done.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Remembering Matthew

I once had a big argument with a gay man I knew slightly, who was going on and on about how unrealistic he thought the movie Brokeback Mountain, about how we've made such strides towards gay liberation that surely the movie doesn't represent the truth.


I assured him that Wyoming is still more like it's depicted in the movie—which, a detail he had overlooked in his argument, was set in 1960s Wyoming, not in 2000s Wyoming—and that in fact parts of Wyoming are still just as bad as depicted in the movie. As is much of the rest of the rural West, in many areas. I've lived in Wyoming and in New Mexico, and I know people who are more like the characters in the movie than not. Heck, if I'd stayed in Wyoming, I might have been one of those lonely rural men, myself.

But this city-born-and-city-living gay person still didn't get it, and still insisted that everyone was doing better than that now. He went on and on and on. We've come so far. Even LGBT people in rural USA are doing better that that. Surely everything's changed for the better, now. It's time to move on now. Etc.

I spoke in return about how there are many kinds of bullying, many ways in which verbal harassment is almost as bad as physical gay-bashing, and doubly worse when done by gay men who should know better. I could tell I wasn't getting through. It's become clearer and clearer to me, over time, and this was a key moment in learning this, that one of the biggest divisions in gay culture is between urban ghetto-dwelling fags and rural-living fags. Many city boys just don't get it, when it comes to rural life. Or want to.

Finally, I looked this man in the eye and said to two words to him, after which he finally shut up. I don't believe he "got it," but he couldn't deny the reality of what I was saying after that.

He couldn't deny it. He could only refuse to accept it.

The two words I said to him were, "Matthew Shepard."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Spirits in the Material World

Having been haunted all week by the aftermath of a bad roadtrip, having traveled a long way to try to help only to be rejected, even abused for my troubles, having been trying to restore myself upon returning home, having found that difficult, both mentally and physically, having been so wiped out that I'm not good for much, having been under the weather in the literal sense of my body not liking the sudden turn towards cold, wet, autumn, weather—I find myself watching a movie or two, over the week, and being pulled in perhaps more deeply than usual.

Gods and Monsters, a fictionalized portrait of the last days of James Whale, the great director who set the standard and style of the best Hollywood horror movies in the 1930s. I watched this movie again tonight, having not seen it since I first watched it in the theatre during its initial release. I found it to be deeply affecting, in ways lots of my literary friends no doubt would dismiss—but then, the whole gay subtext is beyond most of them, except intellectually. No one knows what it's like to have to encode your self in your art quite like artists who have been LGBT, or other minorities or attacked groups. Except perhaps intellectually or theoretically,

If you believe the New Age cliché that We're not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we're spiritual beings have a physical experience, you can come around to the idea of the spirit-in-flesh rather naturally. But what of the monster's flesh? What of the role the monster plays in each of Whale's films, in which it, or he, stands in for the compleat Outsider, the rejected Other? The monster never asked to be made—none of us ask to be born, either—and finds himself in a world that hates and fears him. It's not hard to view that as a gay subtext within Whale's horror films; and it's a subtext that has been discussed, written about, and portrayed extensively, not least in this modern film. We are our own gods, as well as being monsters. We are both.

Much is made of Whale's experiences in the trenches of World War I, where he first fell in love with another man, only to see him murdered by war. At the end of his life, in the film, Whale can no longer evade or escape the horrors of his own life: he has too much time on his hands, and the distractions aren't working anymore. Not even memories of the pretty boys frolicking nude in his pool in the middle of the night, as he watched, smiling.

Having spent a week dealing with my own memories, my own horrors both recently-overcome and recently-renewed, it's hard not to see the parallels. Isolated by distance, age, time, knowledge, experience: things that cut us off from each other, from the general run of humankind, from the usual topics of ordinary conversation—which all seems so dull, anyway, when you're feet are in the fire—you relish even a moment of voyeurism. (Which is not the same as pornography.)

As a photographer I'm more of a voyeur than a pornographer—even when making photos of the erotic male nude. I'm not interested in titillation for its own sake, but only as a byproduct of something that is beautiful. Is it the beauty that turns us on, that makes us monstrous? Or is it the monsters that make themselves desirable. The argument about whether or not homosexuality is monstrous or natural is entirely irrelevant: what matters is whether beauty is also terrible.

Well, it is. It inspires awe, which is a form of terror. Beauty is but the beginning of terror. —Rilke

The other movie I watched this afternoon was the movie based on the Marvel Comics antihero, Ghost Rider. In many ways just as campy as a James Whale movie. Gods and Monsters is certainly the more serious of these two films. But both carry similar tropes about being the Outsider, the misunderstood: being the Monster. In both, the heroes are the monsters; the point is made absolutely, and explicitly, in each case. There is no pretending otherwise.

I used to read the Ghost Rider comic book pretty regularly during its most philosophical run in the 1980s. The character of Johnny Blaze, and his demonic alter ego, appealed to me, I now imagine, because I was feeling more and more like an Outsider myself. My favorite soap opera at that time in my life was not a TV drama, but another Marvel comic book: The Uncanny X-Men. I've watched all the movies made from those characters, as well. In the second film, X2: X-Men United, there is even an explicit scene in which one of the student mutant characters comes out as a mutant to his family, who are scared and angry. At one point, the mother asks her son, the mutant, "Couldn't you stop being a mutant?" The parallels to so many coming-out stories of LGBT youth and adults to their families are explicit and absolutely obvious. The connection of being rejected as being Other is the same whether you're gay, or have mutant powers. It's rare for an otherwise action-oriented movie to get it so openly, so readily. This coming-out scene was so familiar to me, from my own life, that I had to both laugh out loud and cringe at the same time—which again, is the sort of response the coded layers of humor and pain in James Whale's movies also typically evoke in the clued-in watcher. The parallels are again obvious.

Ghost Rider, the Devil's bounty hunter, who takes his curse and makes it something of a force for good rather than evil, is a spiritual being having a physical-world experience. Movies are flickers of light on a screen: it's hard to get less physical than that, and remain substantially part of the physical world. The generations of men and women who have had to hide their true nature from others, for whatever reason, hid behind screens of coded behavior, coded messages, encoded speech and gesture and knowing looks. And each of these are stories that both tell us who we are, and help us figure out who we are, when such stories are reflected in entertainment. And what else are campy horror movies and comic books but entertainments?

Or perhaps they are something much, much more: perhaps they are the myths we tell ourselves about ourselves, however coded or layered with meaning. Perhaps they are a kind of archetypal autobiography: which is why they remain compelling, decades after they were first written, or drawn, or filmed.

And that's what art does, even more than entertainment: It endures. It still speaks to us, to our human condition, to our wounds and our hopes, long after its makers are gone.


rapture? no: just the handily erotic,
the lover near at hand, the night flesh.
tonight, only: never repeated. two collide
and part, lips avoiding kisses like commitment.

and after you’re gone, I take the bedclothes and,
instead of laundering, wrap myself in them,
in the remnants of your scent and warmth,
swaddle myself like an infant, and rock in the corner chair,

and remember. till the last trace of you lingers, remember.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A House in Bali

An ongoing discussion, regarding a new opera about the life of Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer who spent several years living in Bali, who built a house there, and who is known to be gay. There are several problems with this opera's assumptions, and its portrayal, of McPhee.

The discussion speaks for itself, as the opera should.

However, this discussion also highlights how cultural asymmetries (to use Michael Tenzer's phrase) can come into play at any moment. The asymmetries in question here can be summarized as: imposing Western morals onto Balinese behavior; imposing current attitudes about homosexuality onto the past, and onto the past in another culture; the question of consensuality in sexuality between someone who is perceived as local to a culture and someone who is perceived as an outsider with wealth and power and status (after all, he did come to visit us)—in other words, perceived inequalities in socioeconomic and social power relationships.

Such perceptions are built upon assumptions, and conflict often arises in such situations precisely because different players have different assumptions about the nature of reality. In some ways, imposing our current ideas about sexuality onto the past, much less onto those in a foreign country, is a form of intellectual imperialism. Intentional or otherwise, the assumptions in play about what's appropriate, sexually, in a given time and culture, cannot be subject to our current moralizing, if we are to be fair and objective in our assessment, or our fieldwork.

Where I have difficulty in this discussion is the way threads of homophobia are woven in, almost unconsciously.

It reminds me very much of discussions—cultural assumptions, cultural asymmetries—about sexuality in the urban gay ghettoes regarding the way gay men connect with each other in the non-urban areas. It reminds me very much of the assumptions that many city gay men make about living in the rural areas.

They need to remember: The cities protect us. They give us a place to be ourselves, in numbers, in mutual support.

Much of that remains unavailable to those who live outside the big cities, and their active, activist, gay ghettoes.

In the same way, being an ethnographic fieldworker—a participant-observer among the people whose culture and lives one is studying, and writing about—can be a protected status. It can provide a cocoon of (judgmental?) distance, a field of observation that attempts to be objective. But we all carry our prejudices, and the assumptions about life we learned at our parents' knees, with us wherever we go. Half of the fieldwork experience, if we're being honest, is about stripping away our own assumptions, and learning to blend in, to be accepted, to "go native" at least part way. To "go native" enough to be able to empathize with and understand the local customs, cultural assumptions, and belief-systems; and yet to not lose oneself into one's adopted culture completely, but to retain a core of individual self. Finding the balance between Self and Other is precisely what happens to the engaged fieldworker.

Also, we seem to judge McPhee now by the standards of contemporary fieldwork. If he slept with some of the native boys, we seem to want to judge him for that. (The definition of "boy" is problematic at best in this context, as it doesn't really imply an age difference so much as that power imbalance inherent to relationships between the visiting outsider and the locals.) We have an ideal, as ethnographers, that it's never okay to "sleep with the natives." (And because our own culture is so interlaced with homophobia on such a deep level, in its rooted assumptions, many of us aren't even self-aware enough to know why we squirm more when it's boys rather than girls.) And yet we, as fieldworkers, are also human beings, engaged with other human beings. Sometimes the enchantment of the Other, whether its exoticism or intoxication at finding oneself on another planet, can be overpowering. Sometimes we fixate on an individual we ought not to interact with, as fieldworker, or as sexual being. And yet we do.

Is this a situation in which we are judging McPhee for what we ourselves have done? Is this a situation of "judge not, lest ye be judged"?

And then there is the question of gender roles, gender construction, and gender fluidity, in which the "rules" of gender performance are not so fixed, especially between cultures. North American culture is particularly puritanical in its rule-set about gender, and gender performance—even relative to Europe. (But then, the religious heretics of Europe, from the 16th Century onwards, were often exiled, sometimes by choice, to North America; and several of these, from the the Puritans to the Shakers, were particularly potent influences on overall North American culture, in its attitudes about sexuality.)

if we persist in judging McPhee as wrong in his actions, we must at least be aware that we are judging him by our standards, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps inappropriately to the time and place in which he lived, and loved. That McPhee himself was equivocal about all this must also be remembered. Sometimes the body acts before the mind can answer all these questions. It's the compulsion of desire, and it is capable of overruling the most sanguine of mortal souls.

And we also must remember: McPhee wasn't primarily an academic researcher, a fieldworker, an ethnographer first and foremost. His purpose for living in Bali was to learn about the music, and the musical influences eventually went in both directions. (So much for objective reporting.) He was there as an artist, not as an intellectual; a composer rather than an ethnomusicologist. (Although McPhee was neither the first, nor the last, to blend those two roles.) His intentions were not the same as ethnographic fieldworkers who go to a foreign culture nowadays. So we judge him, once again, by our own standards, appropriately or otherwise.

If we must judge McPhee, let's at least try to judge him fairly.

Being Gay in Smalltown Pennsylvania

CJ Springer

Gay Boys in Oil City, PA.

On my trip out to Connecticut and back this past month to do what I could for my ailing aunt and uncle, I passed right through this area. I was within an exit ramp's distance of Oil City, PA.

I drove through Harrisburg on the trip back. In the parking lot of the truck stop next to a chain restaurant where I stopped to eat a late lunch, there was a pentecostal church built into the trailer of a semi truck, complete with a cross in LED lights on the entrance door: a literal chapel-on-wheels.

Although most folks think the Bible Belt is more a southern phenomenon, right there in rural western Pennsylvania, in those smalltown hills between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, you are in fact right in the heart of rural Christian fundamentalist Bible-thumping, tent-revival, no-doubt-intensely-homophobic country.

Which is what the documentary film linked to here is all about:

Out In the Silence

I've had arguments over the movie Brokeback Mountain with some urban gay men. I'll write about that in more detail someday. But the argument was centered on how realistic such a portrayal of gay life could be; my position was based on the truth that I have lived in Wyoming, and it's still more like the reality depicted in the movie than most urban gays can comprehend.

There really is a strong misunderstanding amongst most urban dwellers about how gay life is in the rural areas. This documentary serves to remind us that, no matter how much we pat ourselves on the back in the cities about our accomplishments in terms of civil rights for LGBTs, there remains an entire rural culture where most of this work is still to be done.

People need to still remember that the battles are not done yet, and that there's still plenty of hatred out there. Not that we need to dwell on it, or make it ruin our day, but we also can't afford to ignore it.

I live in a small town that's more like rural PA than it is like any of the big cities that have urban gay ghettoes. Let's be blunt here: Lots of gays in big cities are protected enough that they sometimes forget that they are protected, if only by being around other gays in big enough numbers that they can have a voice. There is a very telling line in the wonderful movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, that says this exactly: "The cities protect us."

So, again, I remember having this big argument with some San Francisco Castro-dweller who thought that Brokeback Mountain wasn't a very realistic movie; it was completely outside his experience and imagination. Having lived in Wyoming, myself, I could have been like those characters in the movie. Fortunately, life didn't turn out that way for me, and I thank all the thousand little gods for my good fortune.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Returning from Elsewhere: Resolutions

Traveling again. Leaving home for non-home, this time dislocation from home more poignant. This time there are shadows on the road, deep trenches one may plummet into if unaware or taking the road for granted. The world is so fragile sometimes. The world is made of glass.

I need to travel. I have to travel. At least some days out of every few weeks. Even if I just go away for two days, no further than a day's drive and back again. I stagnate and putrefy in my own juices if I am stuck at home for too long. I learned that the hard way last winter, when I stayed home for a full six months. I should at least have gone out to California in the depth of winter, to get warm, to change my scenery. I won't make that mistake again, and this winter I already plan to head out West come late January. Sometimes the photography is the reason for travel, sometimes it's just an excuse.

This time the reason for traveling is horrific family problems, inherently dark and stressful material, another round of dying and endarkening. This time leaving I feel resentment for having to put my life on hold again just as I beginning to get it back from oblivion. This time I will not give in and take care of others before myself. This time I am traveling and none of it so far has been sublime.

Pacem In Terris, near Warwick, NY

Except for some portion of an hour at Pacem In Terris this afternoon, when I sat zazen beside Frederick Franck's gravesite there in the sculpture garden behind the house. Before I set out I planned to stop in, and spend an afternoon there. A way of soaking up some spiritual succor, tranquility, and support, before being gravitationally impelled into the latest family black hole. Yesterday it came into my mind's eye to see myself sitting there by his grave, companionably, weeping. Which I did, today. It also came to me to ask the spirit of this man, this longtime mentor to my spirit, for advice. And in my mind's eye, he smiled from behind his grave, and said, You already have all you need. I knew that was true. Even if I wanted more, even though there was no more that I needed to hear. He said as little as possible to me, with a smile to remind me that I already knew all this, of course, so go on and let me sleep.

And so when I sat crosslegged by his grave, this afternoon, meditating, watching the light change and the breeze flicker the trees above us, all was silent. He was silent, my heart was silent, and I managed at least a few minutes of no-mind. The silence was a balm, even the non-silence of people wandering through the grounds. Some might have even taken a photo of me meditating there next to Dr. Franck's grave; I don't know, I had my eyes downturned, sometimes closed. I suppose I was for a moment an icon among the icons, for part of this afternoon. The grounds were busy; there was a concert about to happen, and the concertgoers were wandering the grounds.

After awhile, I laid my left hand on the ground. I felt everything dark flow out of me, absorbed into Mother Earth to be cleansed and returned as living energy, the way tree-roots exchange molecules and worms churn the topsoil, cleansing everything. It's a wonderful truth that everything in the soil that we use for our flowers and vegetable patches has been through a worm's gullet, one or more times. Compost is the end-result of death and destruction. I formulated it to myself many years ago, and wrote it on a drawing I made: Shit and blood grow healthy roses. I felt my hand being pulled down further. It seemed as if the grave of the human man next to me was in league with the earth, both cleansing, both recycling the spirit to the pull of light. We are compost, we are starlight, we are the essence of exploding suns, we are dirt. Everything gold is supernova shit.

Eventually, I felt done. I rose and wandered through the gardens as before. I spent a long time looking at each of my favorite sculptures—he called them icons, or images—before deciding whether or not to take a photo. The light was very dramatic, and I made some photos that are unique. Even the previously-published photos of these icons, in his own books, don't look quite like what I saw and captured today. The light on the icons changed their meanings subtly, deepening and resonating. St. Francis' birds were more in flight than ever.

I thought about attending the concert, but I was called instead to spend more time amongst the icons. This was the right choice, because it led to me being all alone in the gardens for another hour, in near-silence but for the natural sounds of cicadas, birds, and wind, and the typing of the traffic. I spent a lot of time waiting for the shadows of the trees to move across the faces of the icons, just to get the right feeling in the photograph, the right blend of natural light and shadow on the steel and stone and glass of each natural face. I will look at those photos tomorrow night, not before.

The Unkillable Human, by Frederick Franck, at Pacem In Terris

This time out on the road I am destined to arrive wearily and warily at the home of my relatives, who are dying and losing their minds. This time there may be nothing I can do, or anything I can learn that will help us learn what to do. This time I already accept my helplessness in the face of willful denial of mortality; I'll just nod my head and pretend to play along and agree, and do what I choose to do, what I need to do. This time I have license to be the Trickster.

This time I have the rare license to use my vast powers for manipulation and management and grey eminence control. This time I can use those powers because they serve the highest good of all concerned. I rarely have such permission. We all have abilities and powers we choose to use seldom if at all; just because we carry them around with our wheel of archetypes doesn't mean we're to use them. This time I have license to watch the vampire's eyes. These are powers I've known I've had for a very long time; but I almost never use them. I am capable of many things: I am capability. Even less often do I get such permission. These things have to be handled the right way, by right action, even when right action uses patterns and tricks usually considered of the dark.

This time I will have to struggle to remember to treat my relatives as fully human. It's hard right now. This time I will have to retain some kind of discipline to get my own projects done in the midst of all this chaos and denial. This time I must keep myself centered despite all odds. To be human against all odds. To remember also to be gentle with myself. Dead deer by the roadside, the smell of a skunk, a possum laying by the highway rail, looking dead, but who knows with possums. The animal voices talking to me all day, in the clear light. This time to listen is to remember what I trust, and what I don't. To venture out from what we trust, remembering always to carry them within us, and to return home to them.

This time I will be happy to go home again, many journeys later.

Returning from Elsewhere: Theories

Well-known and influential literary critic and professor Hugh Kenner wrote in 1998 a small themed book of reminiscence and theory combined. Titled The Elsewhere Community, it discusses the mode of learning new ideas that involves travel. It also contains memories of his encounters with many of the literary Moderns, many of whom created displaced, expatriate communities elsewhere. The book is in five parts, which are talks originally meant for radiobroadcast. So a little necessary repetition occurs between sections, so each can stand on its own.

In talking about the Grand Tour, a common practice a century ago of visiting the central cultural sites of Europe, Kenner defines, if only indirectly, what he means by an Elsewhere Community:

"All humans, by their nature," said Aristotle, "desire to know." A special and unparalleled way to know is to go where you're never been. And the key to this quest for knowledge is "elsewhere." In going there, you join what, in these lectures, we will be calling an "Elsewhere Community." It's a concept that is impossible to define strictly. It can name where you dream of going—where bluebirds fly, perhaps. Or it can describe the people you've met somewhere, memories of whom have helped to change you. Or it's an awareness of your own growth and change, arising from the places you've been: Rome's Sistine Chapel, perhaps, or the Zen Gardens of Kyoto, or the green oasis of Manhattan's Central Park.

Going someplace I've never been always makes me feel alive, alert, aware, and undulled. Even on a long day of driving, if I'm on a highway I've never seen before, surrounded by lands, lakes, mountains, fields I've never seen before, I feel particularly alive. It is my goal, in the next few years, to visit all of the US National Parks, and every state in the Union. At some point I want to drive along the Canadian passage to Alaska. I love the north country, and I don't want to just fly over it to get a notch in my belt for visiting Denali, and making photographs there. Photography is the goal, but in a way it's also the excuse. Just going, being able to go, being able to travel, is equally important.

I like to travel slowly, if possible, to take several days to get where I'm going. I enjoy seeing the land along the way. If I could drive to Hawai'i, I would; next best would be to take a boat there. But I'll probably end up flying there, renting a car, and taking off. Who needs hotels when you have fields of pineapple to explore?

Where I differ from Kenner, and from his generation's assumptions that the Grand Tour was to those places that shaped our history and culture, is that my own Grand Tour is about places more than people, geology more than landmarks, geography more than culture. Kenner's artistic generation was drawn, as children of immigrants, to Europe. The Grand Tour was essentially a cultural tour, a tour of the great cities, artists, museums, and history of Europe. Kenner's own form of the Grand Tour, which he describes in his book, was to visit those literary greats of the generation of Moderns that he could encounter who were still alive. He traveled to Europe to see Eliot and others; he traveled in the US to see Pound, Williams, and others. From his encounters with the Moderns he noticed that so many of them had been ex-patriates, displaced, travelers, living overseas; and from this observation was one of the roots of his idea of Elsewhere Communities.

By contrast, I am drawn to tour the National Parks. I want to be there, to feel that wind, that air, that light, that silence, for myself. I am further drawn to visit many state parks around the Union; for state parks often are equally beautiful to the National Parks, but they are relatively unknown. You can almost always find a campsite at a state park, and there are often state parks so near to National Parks that they share their geography and beauty.

For years I've envisioned myself traveling in a small van which I would have converted to sleep in, and have in it a small workspace corner, a small kitchenette. It would allow me to travel and camp at places that are sometimes too hard to set up a tent in, or unsafe to do so because of weather or local wildlife. (Like the time I pulled into an Everglades campground only to read several signs warning about cougar.) I could travel at a slower pace than I do even now, stopping whenever I was tired, or wanting to work. It would be the Zen of Travel: travel when you're alert, sleep when you're tired.

One of the great Chinese poets, one of my favorites, wrote in one his poems the state of being that an aware traveler takes on: Heaven my blanket, earth my pillow. Yang's approach to poetry changed, when he began to travel, from a focus on the poetry of the past, to that inspired by what he saw right in front of him:

Mountain thoughts, river feelings—never betray them.
Rain forms, sky patterns are always beautiful.
"Closing the door and searching for verses" is not the way of poetry.
It is only when you travel that poems will come naturally.

(trans. by Jonathon Chaves)

Yang says, It is only when you travel that poems will come naturally, and this echoes my own attitude, based on my experience. It is a classical Chinese and Japanese poetic attitude, seen in the great Chinese poets, in Basho, and in one who was self-admittedly inspired more by the Moderns' discovery of Asian literature than by their own experiments, Gary Snyder. That's a capsule summation of a central thread of my own literary lineage. I do some of my best thinking when driving on a long roadtrip. I do some of my best writing, my best photographic work, when traveling. It is from encountering the land directly that the poem arises. When I come home and start to work with the materials I've gathered on my most recent travels, I am still Elsewhere even though I am Home. I see my photos, as I sort through them, and they bring up bodily sensations—memory is an experience, not an idea—which give me more poems, art-making, and music. It's a paradox of inspiration and memory and making.

When I think about the van I want to eventually travel in—face it, I'm not 25 anymore, and setting up a tent under some conditions is really hard work—I also think of William Least Heat Moon's travelogues, beginning with Blue Highways, in which he traveled and lived just such a converted van. I also think of the station wagon that Ansel Adams traveled in on many of his journeys, which he sometimes slept in, sometimes traveled with others in, and on the roof of which he had built a platform for his camera. Stories abound of Adams pulling over, quickly setting up, and making a photograph.

I have to say, here, that I had the idea of traveling in a converted van for myself; but I am pleased that other artists have had the same idea. It's a natural idea, seen in many cultures across many times. The word "caravan," from which "van" is derived, is itself a very old word.

In my own instance, rather than a rooftop platform such as Adams used, I would build a small corner behind the driver's seat, with a computer and flat-panel screen built in on shockproof mounts, where I could download and archive the day's digital photos, and begin to work with them, at night, camped, after a day's travel.

I realize that there would have to be a bookshelf in the van, as well, secured somehow against the books scattering onto the bed at every sharp turn in the road, because as I sit here writing, I realize that I am pulling books off the shelves and scattering them on my desk to make these references. I would have to carry at least a few texts with me, there's no way around it. Some for inspiration, some for pleasure—a lazy day when you don't want to go anywhere, just loaf and read all afternoon, is bound to occur on any given trip—some for knowledge.

Hugh Kenner says, a bit later on:

Within The Odyssey we find the story of a second journey. A supernatural being named Circe—a female magician—tells Odysseus that the only way to get around the Sea God and get back home is by traveling to the Far Shore where dwell the Dead. Once there, he must consult the ghost of a sage named Tiresias. And so Odysseus undertakes a journey after knowledge, fueled by his desire to get home. The knowledge he acquires turns out to be his means of finally getting home. For to travel is always, in some sense, to learn. What we don't know yet, is to be found Elsewhere.

I want to continue with that idea: people traveling after what they do not know. Such a pursuit is a way of seeking entrance to the Elsewhere Community.

So we set out after knowledge, to see places and people we've never encountered before. Joni Mitchell once wrote in a song from her "road album," Hejira:

People don't tell you where they've been
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself
You never really know.

Hejira (the word denotes a journey to escape danger or oppression) is an album of music that lives among others in my truck as a permanent fixture, as a central part of my road music listening collection. It's an album I listen to mostly on the road, because it perfectly captures the feeling of long-distance traveling, its dislocations and its joys. In another song, Mitchell writes:

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows
Of my wanderlust.

One point of traveling with a few creature comforts, like in my theoretical caravan, is to minimize the effects that "strange pillows" have on one. Sometimes you want the pillows to be exotic and strange and unknown. Sometimes you want to carry your own pillows with you, and sleep in your tent, even when the parcel of ground you're on changes every night. And even my own pillows can seem strange, at times, when I've been traveling for a long time.

In a final turn of strangeness, when we have danced so hard that we slip sideways into other times and spaces, we come to the most recent, most technological form of the Elsewhere Community: the Internet. Kenner discusses the Internet near the end of his book, describing how it has the potential (not yet fully realized) of becoming a truly global communication tool. It creates virtual relationships that collapse geography, bringing people who share affinities into apparent close proximity and dialogue, disregarding the separations of actual distance. In this, Kenner follows the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, who was one of his first mentors. (McLuhan was traveling with Kenner when they first met Ezra Pound; it was this first meeting with Pound that shaped a great deal of Kenner's future interests and career, and Kenner cites Pound as another of his great mentors. Mentoring writers was, after all, one of Pound's great contributions to modern literature.)

Because the Internet collapses space, traveling to learn is less necessary. Your library desk becomes your office or home desk, where The Library of Babel is available now, mostly, at your fingertips. The Final Encyclopedia or Universal Encyclopedia is starting to manifest itself. It is a scholar's paradise. Both data and interpretation are available directly from sources that in previous times would have been either unknown or unavailable. One can go out and do research, and make relationships, in ways both simpler and more complex than ever before.

The Internet is made by its users. There are portal-tenders and gate-keepers, but the content of the Internet is ultimately made by, contributed to by, invented by, its users. Kenner describes the Internet as not being owned by anyone yet; other writers have also described it as a free zone of thought, a temporary autonomous zone, and the last (or next) wild frontier of free thought and free speech. Its attraction to me lies in those realms, in fact: democratizing connection and removing the gatekeepers of discourse allows me, as well as you, to go out there and say what you need to say, for better or ill.

So I don't need to travel as much as I did, to get knowledge. I can stay at home and find many things out. Still, I do travel to learn, and I travel to go see places I haven't seen before, because I want to let those experiences have an impact on me, and change me. I use the Internet a lot for my pre-roadtrip research: to find out about places I want to visit, to find out about places along the way where I might want to stop, to discover information I might need to know traveling. And there are always surprises on the road, nonetheless. The Internet contains only an illusion of approximate total content; in fact, a great many experiences in life cannot be virtual, and never will be. It's easy to get caught up in the "new is inherently good" cycle, that dream of progressive technological utopia that is a principal legacy of Modernism, without ever conceding either consequences or alternative channels of learning. The Internet is still the new toy on the block, still very shiny, still very narrow-band in what it can actually give us.

The chief danger of virtual community is that it might only be pseudo-community, an apparent community that can fly apart from its own energies at any time. Sometimes we think we know people better than we do, online; virtual reality gives us a sensation of intimacy, especially intellectual intimacy, which can be illusory. (Hence the high drama of betrayal and argument cycling constantly throughout the literary blogosphere.) Relationships can be built across vast geographical distance, yet one perceives is still a representation, a persona, an avatar. It's not a matter of who you trust, or what you believe is real. It's rather a reminder that in some ways, all of experience is maya, illusion, virtual or otherwise, and it is necessary to sort through all kinds of noise to get at the signal.

If the Internet is not a huge Elsewhere Community, it is at least a collection of many Elsewheres. Some merge and overlap, many do not. But discovering which is which is another kind of learning journey, another kind of roadtrip for the mind to discover and gain knowledge from. And be changed by, even as the land and what we build upon it change, albeit at different rates.

Other entries in this series:

1. Returning from Elsewhere: Narratives

2. Returning from Elsewhere: Sidebars

3. Returning from Elsewhere: Dislocation

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Returning from Elsewhere: Dislocation

Having spent much of the last month living from a tent—sleeping in a tent, waking when the sun hits the tent, going to bed when tired, traveling long distances by driving, all across the northernmost parts of the Midwestern parts of the US, the northern regions of the States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—I'm having serious difficulty with re-entry. I feel dislocated, like I'm not really here. Here I am, back home, after some serious driving, feeling like I'm camping in my own house: like it's not real, just a bigger tent; like I don't really live here or own the building; like it could fall away from my life at any time, be folded up and put aside. For awhile, after almost every roadtrip, I feel like I'm just camping out here, with no real sense of ownership, or mutual contractual possession. Eventually I can sleep in my own bed again, but for awhile I sometimes find it easier to sleep on my camping air mattress, on the floor, cocooned in my usual nest of blankets that I sleep in when camping out. Things fail or refuse to work properly, when I first get home, that I used to depend on. You can be scared by how enraged that makes you.

Time is part of my dislocation. I wake with the dawn, even as I usually do when sleeping in a tent. It's that one is not ruled by the clock, so much, but that the clock becomes irrelevant. Where's the sun in the sky? Is it warm enough to emerge now from my cocoon of blankets? How much sunlight do I need for today's chores and/or planned activities? How much daylight is left? These questions are more relevant. But so are the questions raised by the spiritual reading I tend to do in the morning, and even take with me to read in the tent, first thing in the morning, over a cup of tea brewed on the propane-powered portable Coleman stove. That first cup of tea makes a huge difference.

So it is with a recently published book by Zen master and teacher Dainin Katagiri, Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the way of being in time. A book compiled from transcripts of dharma talks, like many similar Zen-talk books, this one is themed around the questions of time, organized around the central truths of Zen philosophy. Katagiri-Roshi says, for example:

Sometimes we think doubt is not good, but doubt is important. It's not so important that we should become crazy from it, but if you are questioning, that's fine. We need to question. Even though you don't get answers to your questions, all you have to do is just swim. Questioning is always going on in real time; it is always returning to zero. So, little by little, questioning becomes questionlessness. That's why Dogen says to swim on the surface of the ocean with your foot touching the bottom of the ocean. This is just swimming. We have to swim in the big scale of the world. Then questioning is also right in the middle of time, and very naturally questions disappear. Why do they disappear? What makes them disappear? Time, truth, buddha-nature, makes them disappear. Time gives us questions; time gives us answers to our questions.
—Dainin Katagiri, from Each Moment Is the Universe

Space is part of my dislocation as well. I've been a peripatetic wanderer much of my life, semi-nomadic even when rooted. This comes, perhaps, from traveling so much as a young boy that I don't have a real feeling of Home Town, the way most people seem to have: when your childhood is literally split across the planet's antipodes, and you don't have a sense of growing up surrounded by one familiar set of surroundings, people, and culture, sometimes the only sense of Home you can generate is about where you are right now. The nomad's Home is wherever his tent is set up for the season: you carry Home within you, and constantly re-plant it. This I do know.

Thus I had a most peculiar sensation, yesterday, driving across Michigan's Upper Peninsula—a rare sensation for me, even a phantom one—that this land, this place was Home. That I could, eventually, move there, settle there, feel at home there. I can't explain why Michigan, as a larger place, would start to feel like home to me, now, after years away, and even though no one specific place in Michigan is Home, just that sense of being up North in Michigan. Perhaps it's because my parents' ashes are now buried in Muskegon, in northern Michigan soil. In one day's driving, up and down the Leelanau Peninsula, then over to the UP and down, I crossed the 45th Parallel three times: that mid-way line between planetary equator and pole. Each crossing seemed significant. My thoughts wandered. But nonetheless Michigan around the 45th started to feel as familiar as I imagine a Home Town must feel to those who, unlike myself, have had one in which they grew up: the land, the light, even the smells, are familiar, comfortable, known. I felt perfectly at ease, at rest—able to come to rest—comfortable and calm on the roads and trails, wandering along under even a bleak rain-filled sky.

There is little nostalgia for place in me (except for sacred places I have encountered and significantly remembered), and very little sentimentality about childhood. It's not that I lack feeling, in fact I feel rather too much from childhood still, it's that it isn't sentiment, which is always unearned emotion, it's a sense of place. I am connected to the North American land—geology, lake, formations, and textures—in ways I can feel deep under my feet but that words cannot contain. Right here, under my feet, I can feel the distant hot throat of the Earth's mantle, and every layer of new and old rock between my feet and the unimaginable antinomic alloyed core. The crust of our planet, from a certain point of view, which many geologists learn to see from, is as chaotic, messy, fragile, and changeable as today's news. It's all a matter of time-scale, of viewpoint. The earth feels permanent to us, who move quickly across it, but it all changes, has changed, and will change again.

In a life of dislocation, how many things can you learn to trust, and to continue to trust? Only those few things that remain universal, despite your travels, that have never let you down. I trust the stars, even when they change overhead as I travel. I trust the earth under my feet, its sense of solidity and geologic history, which I have a strong feel for, in that strange way that geologists become slightly odd about time, flipping back and forth as they must between considering deep time and making sure to steer the car down the road rather than into an outcrop.

So I'm reluctant to dive right back into the fray, to re-engage, to take up the sword of cutting remarks made to display wit's weaponry in arguments about absolutely nothing. The world expects you to dive right back in as soon as you get back, no hesitation, no pauses, no time to re-adjust, and I find myself rebelling, even angrily ignoring those demands. So much gets put back into its proper perspective when one travels and returns: The news is not newsworthy, but a filler of silences and a slurry of time you could spend in the garden; the news would have one believe that the apocalypse is always happening, right now, and we'd all better care that the world is coming to an end. But the world is always coming to an end, and always has been. The things people seem to care about most matter the least; you know you're supposed to also care, yourself, but you find yourself unable. What I linger on is what I've encountered at the end of a bad day of departure: a six-point buck standing by the roadside, waiting to cross, its gaze meeting mine fleetingly; a mature bald eagle in a branch of a tree ten feet above the road, talons and beak digging into its prey, in its majestic self-confidence unafraid of the road beneath it, and who might pass fleetingly by. If they're not dead, they live there still.

The endless arguments and debates one encounters wherever one turns are about nothing, and matter nil. I pay my bills, I read in the morning, I ignore the news. (Every genuinely important piece of news gets through to you, anyway, when a friend calls to tell you, or you get an email, or it's everywhere on TV interrupting everything.) There are events and pseudo-events, and the news mainly reports the pseudo-events of minute changes in the political climate or the lives and deaths of the celebrities whose lives one is supposed to live through vicariously. As though we peasants had no lives of our own. I see in my absence one of the morning glory plants has exploded with new leaves, and is beginning to attach itself to the stone wall next to it, training itself horizontally along the slates. Is that not news that matters?

I let my beard and hair grow a bit shaggy while traveling this past month, and I see some white-haired, wizened poet's face in the mirror this morning who I don't recognize. He looks more like an experienced, now-deceased 60-year-old gay poet I've renowned, James Broughton, than he does like the 20-year-old uncertain young man I often still feel like, inside, unsure of what he wants to do when he grows up. Am I finally grown up? Humans have a unique ability, it seems, due to the gift of consciousness, to time-travel between younger and older selves. We play like children at any age. We fool ourselves into fixed opinion, thinking it to be wisdom, far younger than we ought; then we spend our adulthoods stripping away those youthful certainties, not replacing them with new certainties, but with deeper questions. If we can learn to live the questions, time-travel between older and younger selves becomes all that smoother. Time gives us questions; time gives us answers to our questions.

My slogan this epoch, invented jokingly with friends while camping earlier this month, probably something I'll design a t-shirt around at some later date, was:


It's not just a choice.
It's a lifestyle.

I remain disoriented by what I'm told I need to care about, which I mostly find myself unable to care about. I cannot claim, like a monk, to never watch TV; but I do claim to strictly limit that diet, and to do my best to avoid its junk-food components. I cannot claim, like a wizened poet, to have an experienced overview of what really matters in life; I can only claim, at this point, that there are few things that really matter, after all. One of those is love. I do my best to remember to say I love you to those people I do love, at the ends of regular conversations, just in case it's the last thing we ever say to each other. Freshly back home, when the little technologies and means of daily life fail, I am scared of how angry it can make me. Can't the Things in life just work right, for once, just for once, without falling apart or failing? Just once? We know we live in an entropic universe, which is the modern Western scientific equivalent of the myth of the Fall. Myths, if you recall, are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Entropy is the new face of evil.

One of the stresses of travel is change: travel is a real breaker of routines. Those patterns of habitation and possession one builds and collapses into when living in one place for a long time all get thrown out the door when you hit the road. You have to remember to take enough of your routines with you that your health and well-being remain guarded and cared for. Some days you even have to remember that you get tired, simply tired. Travel is tiring. But so is returning home. Which routines do I want to pick up again? Which as necessities, and which are optional? You find yourself asking these questions anew, and perhaps making changes. When I come home again, I can briefly see it as a strange place, just another hotel room, with an objective eye that reveals what might be improved, might be altered. I make decisions about what I want to do next with the place. Some of these are organizational, but others are aesthetic. It's a brand new home, each time you return to it. Maybe that's why I only get around to fixing some of those failing technologies when I'm fresh home from a roadtrip: they irritate me more, or newly enough to do something about them.

So where am I supposed to feel at Home? I still feel like I'm camping out here, back "home." It's all very familiar, yet it's also rather alien. I can't seem to summon much interest in anything, especially in diving right back into the fray. Maybe the old myth, found in more than one nomadic culture over the millenia, is true after all: If you travel too fast, or too long, it may take a few days before the soul can catch up with the body. And so I must wait awhile, before taking up those burdens of life again. It takes a few days to really arrive. If I ever really do.