April Snow

May 1, 2016 by

Beltane has arrived, with the advance of new souls into the world. Outside the window, over the kitchen sink, a cardinal is sitting on her nest. The morning after Prince was found dead, I saw her sitting on a branch there with a twig in her mouth. Cardinals take their time selecting a place, and I prepared myself to wait for her decision. It was the birthday of William Shakespeare, in the midst of the green weeks, when the blossoms surge, before the fragile leaves harden into maturity. This green is beyond the power of language for me, and it is at this time of the year more than any other that I sense the immaterial nature of everything natural. I’m confounded. The death of Prince ushered in three days of small distortions and ritual productions that my spirit demands.

Over at work on my hospital locker I fused a photograph of Prince singing to the Giotto painting of the angels grieving for the dead Christ. I cut the little cocoon of him out and pasted it over the body of Jesus in the arms of the saints. I glued dust glitter around him, ascending in a trail of rising purple swallows, seven of them, for his preferred number. The last of the swallows flies at the window of a skyscraper where Prince stands, above the clouds. Down among the mournful living I added the banner: “The beautiful ones always smash the picture.”

Two days later I mistake the writing on a piece of Staffordshire pottery in an antique shop. “Look,” I tell Kim and the clerk, “it says Prince!” The clerk nods along, knowing that it does not. Kim sees only what I have seen. Later we sit under a tree laden with apple blossoms, and I place the figurine on the old grey slats of the picnic table outside the shop. Kim photographs the slight dark man in a purple jacket riding a zebra that appears to be intoxicated. When we get home, I put Prince on the coffee table and see it clearly written on the base: “P Bince”. I paint out the little bar that makes the letter “B” itself, and see it again as I did in that momentary mirage of sorrow.

I’ve been reading about aging and death, and walking out among my own species I have realized I am no longer visible to them. I think of a game we played as children, asking one another- would you rather fly, or be invisible? I always chose flight, being afraid to imagine myself overhearing something terrible. Most of my companions thought that very thing made the enchantment of cloaking the most desirable; they were eager to hear the worst of what was hidden. Now I inhabit the super power I never wanted.

After he died, Kim prayed for snow to fall before the month ended. On the last night of April in my dreams, Kim and I walked in the falling snow. It was night, and we were in our own neighborhood only a few blocks from our house. As we walked past the little bakery around the corner, I saw a white wolf crouched on the roof. I moved in front of Kim to protect her, and the wolf floated slowly, more slowly than the snow, toward us. When it touched the ground it had become a tiny lamb, and I put my hand softly on his head.


Trump L’oeil in the Purple Rain

May 1, 2016 by

The season of presidential politics has rarely been less silly, or more alarming, than the one unfolding before us in 2016. The GOP Clown Car has ejected Jeb Bush; anointed Ted Cruz to sacrificial lamb status; and gone hog wild over Donald Trump. As the holiday season approached late last year, no one would have predicted this.

Back then, Trump was the joke du jour. Trump, let’s make no mistake, is a man of mere wealth, casino wealth –wealth generated entirely by those who cannot help flinging all their own money into his clanging slot machines; who cannot bear to look into a mirror and fully grasp how hopeless they really are. It’s fluid, tricky wealth – he’s gained and lost it over and over, until we no longer know if he possesses any true riches or is just fooling us with a propped up, shimmering mirror image. Trump’s wealth is to his real financial status as his hair is to his real head – we may never know the truth of it, but in its horrifying way, it dazzles the beholder.

Trump came out swinging as the nation laughed – against immigrants, against female correspondents (and later females in general), against non-white Americans; and even against the poor in America, regardless of race.

This strategy, deliberate or instinctual, was canny. As we watched transfixed, the bile secreted by Donald Trump began to accrete around him, drawing together every misbegotten, bitter reject of every war for advancement this nation has fought. Civil rights? The losers of that battle scurried to Trump’s corner. Respect for people forced to flee distant lands and risk everything, children in tow, to find freedom and security? The losers of that battle rallied beneath his banner. The rights of women to vote, to receive equal treatment in the workplace? The self-perceived losers there scrambled to join him.

Now, it is May. Trump’s army is fully assembled, knocking down state after state in primary contests, leaving no quarter for his foes. Actual fisticuffs erupt at his rallies between the adoring and the appalled. Blood is shed, people are carried out. Trump calls up for congratulations thugs who have beaten protestors, says he wishes he could do what they did.

To one side, tilting his rusted lance, stands the GOP Quixote, Ted Cruz, with his nightmare pouty face and religious zeal. He announces he has picked his “running mate” Carly Fiorina. Ms. Fiorina, of demon sheep campaign commercial fame, takes the stage at his side and sings a song about her happiness campaigning with his young daughters – a song you could easily imagine (again, in a nightmare) insinuating itself into the late spring air from the speakers of a pedophile’s ice cream truck.

I leave the Democrats aside for today. They can wait. They have a couple of candidates who are not of nightmare stuff. The struggles ahead for them are those of a family already bound together for good, whether they like it or not. They will find their way.

But the GOP, having rent the veil and exposed to us all this horrid spectacle of fraud and hatred juxtaposed with a sticky zealot and his ‘other mother’ running mate, are in full meltdown. The denouement of their contest promises to be so harrowing, so volatile, that my wife and I have taken the whole week off to watch it as if it were a gladiatorial sporting event. There will be special meals – carnivorous feasts of beef, chicken and pork, with mayonnaise-and-spice- infused side dishes, chips and alcoholic beverages. In a just and righteous world, there would be special commercials during the convention. Networks could make sizable fortunes encouraging politically-themed ads for beer and snack foods. A despairing nation turns its careworn eyes to Doritos. We never thought we’d be here. Now that we are, we should just go with it, pedal to the metal, right over the cliff. Just as if…almost as if…

…we were in a huge, cinder block building in Chanhassen, Minnesota. A building where Prince Rogers Nelson, his phallic purple mystery symbol guitar pointing away from his business section, was using that voice of his to scream and howl us into a perfect lather of jazzy pop prurience and ecstasy. We would dance as a tribe, sweat streaming, smiling like idiots, imagining the pancakes soon to come as we wondered at the wiry, elfin miracle whipping around before us. He would be everywhere, suffused in purple light, pounding keyboards, snaking his hands up and down the bridge of that guitar, grabbing the mic and screeching his heart out.

There was no fakery to Prince. He was all, as he himself might croon, ‘right there.’ He was loaf and fish both, along with the wine – an unending source of nourishment, an intoxicant to be used in moderation, perhaps, but engaged in fully and ecstatically while imbibing. He knew us, and he never let us get away from ourselves for long. This is what some hated about him. He knew all the slippery little moral corners of our libidinous selves, and he insisted on their exploration and exposure. He celebrated all the most difficult and maddening facets of our humanity. And the prudes always hated him for it. Today, when the world is beyond weird, and well beyond control, it feels good to be known so well. The familiarity of Prince’s music, even as it surprises, is a blessing. His honesty is an antidote to all that is faux around us. His loss is a great one to bear, but his music remains, as massive and miraculous as the heavens that have taken him up, and we shall always have it with us.

Carol: Let the Games Begin

December 6, 2015 by

A fine, fine movie is released and begins to garner awards. The cinematography, music, setting, costumes, and acting leave people swooning in droves. As usual, this initial wave of blissful response quickly gives way to the kind of analyses that tend to wring all moisture, substance, and mystery from whatever they touch.

The movie is Carol, a Todd Haynes film based on the novel ultimately of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, originally called The Price of Salt. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy has lived much of a lifetime with her treatment of the book. She’s ridden many ups and downs as it was picked up and dropped repeatedly by those who pick up and drop film projects like so much change on a countertop. A grim way to live, but as Nagy recently said to the LA Times, from it she learned “all I’d need to know — and some things I wish I never had to learn — about the craft of screenwriting.”

The most aggravating strain of analysis of Carol comes from those who wish to bat it like a tennis ball back and forth over a net demarcating some imaginary border to a land of pure sexual identity. These are the people who think you are either a) gay, b) heterosexual, or c) someone who pretends to be one when in reality you just haven’t quite figured out you’re actually the other. That third tidy little millstone is almost always hung round the necks of hapless artists, performers whose only crime is having portrayed a gay person, or, in some instances, a straight person, in their body of work in a project so impeccable an agitated observer becomes convinced they have mistaken themselves as to sexual identity. And so it begins.

The first shot across Carol’s bow came from Ms. Stephanie Fairyington, in Slate. Her article’s screaming title is:  Sorry, Cate Blanchett, Gays Really Do Need to Shout Their Sexuality From the Rafters. If that didn’t grab your attention smartly enough, Ms. Fairyington begins her thesis by admitting that, like ‘any other red-blooded American dyke,’ she had been driven quite beside herself by a number of articles errantly (yet baldly) ‘quoting’ Ms. Blanchett describing herself as a woman of very fluid sexual preference. The specific word Fairyington used to describe herself when confronted with this ‘news’ about Ms. Blanchett was “aflame.” Way to turn yourself into a cliché, girl. And I can say so with impunity: I am a card-carrying member of the Greater North American Lesbian Guild myself. I can only hope my big gay blood cells are red enough to qualify me to weigh in here.

The trigger for Ms. Fairyington’s subsequent sputtering dudgeon was a statement from Blanchett at Cannes that “sexuality is a private affair,” followed by the addendum, in what Fairyington took to be ‘perceptible disdain:’ “What happens these days is if you’re homosexual, you have to talk about it constantly; it has to be the only thing; you have to put it before your work, before any other aspect of your personality.”

With similar ‘scorn,’ per Fairyington, Blanchett said again, in Variety, “Carol’s sexuality isn’t politicized. I think there are a lot of people that exist…who don’t feel the need to shout it from the rafters.” Well, this was apparently more than any red-blooded American dyke could bear. In the very next sentence, the words ‘ignorant’ and ‘homophobic’ both appear. What a one-two punch – and directed to the selfsame woman who had you all aflame just a short while ago! Well, well, well.

In all honesty, no one can ponder this world without feeling a bit of Ms. Fairyington’s pain. Here’s an example. Italy is my favorite country, and one of my favorite observations about it is that, while they adamantly refuse to budge on any practical, state-granted rights or acknowledgement for LGBT folk, no Italian would ever demean another for having a torrid affair with a member of the same sex. It’s love, for God’s sake, and every Italian (this is no mere cliché) has a special warmth in their heart for the torrid affair. Worshipping at that altar practically constitutes a second national religion. But call yourself gay, and ask for rights of marriage, adoption, or survivorship, and you are no longer of the happy tribe of l’amore all’Italiana. You are ridiculed, decried in legislative bodies by bigots (yes they have their share) – and if you’re a renowned poet and filmmaker named Pasolini, why, you may even end up beaten to death.

But none of that has a thing to do with Ms. Blanchett, who alone cannot do anything to roll the rock of enlightened civil laws up the hill past Italy’s state of civil intransigence – whatever she says or does not say at Cannes or in the pages of Variety. Jesus, people. Get a grip.

Fairyington closes by reciting the horrors of the LGBT past – which, if we forget, she barely fails to say, we are doomed to repeat. I get that. I feel certain Ms. Blanchett gets that. She’s studied Highsmith, a fabulous writer and a woman whose life was littered with the wreckage of other women without her spark – women who died one way or another, burned at the ice cold altar of their own inability to grasp onto a life worth living in such restrictive, punitive times. But Carol isn’t directly, pointedly about all that. It does not have to be. And actors, God bless them, exist and perfect the shooting flames of their craft in spite of our perfectly hideous tendency to saddle them with our baggage – never because of it.

Carol is a movie that has moments of pure perfection. It isn’t yet widely released, and I am in Iowa, so yes – I am writing this before seeing the damned thing (I blame you, Ms. Fairyington). But there is a moment, a face I already know I will never forget. It is not Carol’s face. It is the face of Therese, played of course by Rooney Mara. She is lying with Carol. Her hands reach for Carol’s face, and as Carol rises to come into her arms, Therese’s face is… it is … everything. There is an exquisite sorrow, a delicate sense of loss amidst a perfect joy that I cannot adequately convey here. It all plays across her face. It is one of the loveliest single moments I have ever seen on film. And it is not hinged to anything more specific than love, ardor, and human movement through passionate expression.

I would not – I simply could not – trade the essence of that moment for all the legislation I’ve ever helped pass, for all the coming outs, for all the editorials and speeches. Fortunately I do not have to – our world is multi-level, and despite the efforts of some to hammer and flatten all planes into one, it can’t be done. This film has the right to exist on a different plane than that of our sorry history of tolerance.

Film is a human art. Humans are messy, and at the bottom of all else even arguably pathetic. We obsessively name ourselves – we can’t help it. We have to try to know and announce who we are in the vast ocean of space and time, or life seems too immense, and our terror grows too great. So we say we are this, or we are that. And we cling to it. We defend it, and promulgate it. We write books. We appear on television. Some cite religious texts; others look to archeology and history. The debate, the clamor, it never stops. It never resolves. It is our hamster wheel of conviction, the wheel we obstinately tread while whistling past the graveyard.

It’s all perfectly understandable. Like us, it’s human. Like us, it’s elementally flawed and arrogant as hell. I’ve also learned, over years, that it is worthless. All of it. For when the moment comes, and the gods of love decide you are up next, your self-identification means nothing. You are nothing. You are caught up, in love, driven by forces so deep and ancient, so mysterious and stunning, you are lucky if you can remain standing upright. You blink at yourself in the mirror. You feel struck by a great force. Yet you somehow go on. You walk back into your life, or whatever is left of it.

Oh, Stephanie Fairyington, we are masters of nothing! Our only choice lies in how we rise to meet our fate, our love. Carol is about that. We should have the good sense to accept it as a very great gift instead of twisting it into a polemic.

Eulogy for My Father

December 28, 2011 by

My father, Warren J. Painter, known to most everyone as “Lefty,” passed away on December 14, 2011. There will be much more to say about his life as time goes on, and about his marriage to my remarkable, redoubtable, inimitable Mama, the one and only Mary Alice. For now, I will simply post these remarks, which I somehow managed to deliver at his funeral. Doing so was quite possibly the craziest – and the finest – thing I have done to date.

We are here today, when all is said and done, however you look at it, because of the heart of Warren Painter.

First of all, because his physical heart, an organ which was a functioning miracle for nearly half his life, finally reached a point where it could no longer keep working.

It was 1973 when he had the heart attack that started his lifetime of cardiac care. Dad had congestive heart failure, but he had a lot of other stuff too. Atrial fib, PVC’s, bundle branch blockage, heart block, v-tach. These terms struck fear into various doctors, especially the younger ones, but to us they were simply terms for Dad’s ‘funny’ heart. In later life, hospital ICU staff would learn to turn certain alarms off lest the monitors clang without stopping.

We all learned to recognize the look that would come over a young doctor’s face when, decked out in his first white coat, he bent in with his stethoscope, poised to give a listen to Lefty Painter’s heart. His expression was at first puzzled, then disbelieving, then panicked. He would often walk quickly out of the room seeking help. If he paused in astonishment, Dad would glance up, a big grin on his face, and say, “It sounds like an old washing machine, doesn’t it?”

So we are here, literally, because of Dad’s heart, in the sense that it was a machine that finally grew unable to work as hard as it had to in order to sustain him. But we are also here because of Lefty Painter’s heart, the heart you all knew and loved so much. We are here because he had a great heart and he touched people’s lives with kindness and decency, and that is far more important than any medical terminology telling us why he is not here today.

Dad had cancer three times, in addition to his heart problems. The first cancer was a gall bladder cancer, undiscovered until a routine laparoscopy to remove it. This meant the cancer was cut into four pieces inside his body prior to removal, making it impossible to be certain all the cellular contamination had been removed afterwards.

The family was ushered into a room days later to hear the details, as a very senior staff doctor knelt beside Mom and Dad and delivered the news. It was grim – they told him to get his affairs in order, and take a few days to decide whether or not he wanted to have radiation treatments, which they said may or may not help him, and might make him quite ill and decrease his quality of life in the time left. “This is about the worst news we can give a person, Mr. Painter,” the doctor said.

We left that day feeling shell-shocked. Dad, as we drove out of the hospital, didn’t answer when we asked “What do you want to do, Dad?” We repeated it, and we didn’t mean about radiation. We literally didn’t know whether to turn left or right – to go out for lunch, or just head out to Lone Tree to Deb’s house.

Dad sat quietly, and then he said, “I want to fly my plane upside down.” I looked at him. He did not have a plane, and to the best of my knowledge none of his war experience included flying. Asked what he meant, he simply repeated, this time with a little smile, “I just want to fly my plane upside down.”

Maybe sons will get the meaning of that right away, but for the Painter daughters on hand his response was mysterious. I figured out that he was talking about something way beyond literal flight, but it took some time before I understood. I gradually came to see he meant he wanted to do something different in his life, to make a statement, to live in an interesting way all his own under the shadow of his own mortality. He wanted to fly his plane upside down, and I believe he did it.

He went on living his life – gardening, spending time with family and friends, being an advisor and neighbor, husband and friend, brother and father, until the darkest days of our lives, in 1995, when Mary Alice grew suddenly and catastrophically ill and passed away after five days. In those moments, Dad’s heart was wounded more than by any illness, yet he was a hero for his wife. He tended her at her bedside with grave sorrow and great care, always being kind to us as we talked to her in her coma, carried in her beloved objects of oceanic art, brought her flowers, and put her favorite tv shows on hoping to lure her back into this world.

None of it worked, and we were all with her as she passed, leaving Dad with the greatest sorrow he had ever known. Still, through it all, he was heroic. In the face of a sadness we could see all over him but could not fathom, he was her perfect partner in life, helping her to leave this world with a tenderness amazing coming from a man so big. He did every brave thing he could for her, and he was in those moments a hero to me and to us all. The lessons we learned then were among the most important, and terribly difficult, lessons a father can ever give his children, and Dad was magnificent. His own faith helped us to keep our faith alive after this great loss.

Two more cancers came and went, each one vanquished by Dad’s spirit and strong constitution. Each time the doctors gave him the news, and told him their recommendations, he would consult with us and especially talk with Mary, who was always his confidante then.

“Well,” he’d finally say to her – “I guess we’ll fight it. We have to fight it, don’t we?” And he’d smile that big smile of his, and we all knew then we were in for lots of hospital time, but somehow also lots of fun with Dad.

He was fun, and he made friends everywhere, even in crisis. Nurses checked in on him, and he always had a joke. This last trip he said to one of us about his nursing care, “If they leave the room laughing, they’ll come back.” At a less happy moment, he said to one doctor, “If you’re not going to do anything, you might as well go home!”

When he passed, we were all there. He was quiet, and had no pain. We got to tell him how much we loved and admired him, we got to tell him to be with Grandma Painter, Mary Alice, and his brothers and sisters who had passed before him. We tried to be for him as strong as he had been for Mama, but it was hard. You see, he had a great heart, and it is harder than anything to let go of someone like that.

Today we say goodbye to our father, our friend, our inspiration and anchor in life. We are at sea, but we know he will be there to guide us, like a blanket of stars. He was a man without material wealth, but he was nonetheless rich in all that mattered. He taught us that a man of strength can afford to be tender and merciful, that to win does not mean to subdue or humiliate another, and that if you possess strength it is your duty to look after those who do not.

As we leave here today, we must remember: We each have a heart. From Lefty Painter we learned that we should never be afraid to use it – it is a miracle within us. We can never exhaust its love, no matter how much we call on it. Beating within each of us, it is a little engine that will carry us farther and farther, just as far as we need to go and farther than we ever thought we could manage.

Thank you Papa, for all you gave us, and for all you were to us.

L’Italia: Hypocrisy in High Places

December 1, 2011 by

Qua la moglie e là il marito,
ognuno va dove gli par;
ognun corre a qualche invito,
chi a giocare e chi a ballar. 

Here the wife and husband there,
Everyone goes where he wishes.
Everyone runs to some invitation,
Who to play, who to dance. – Goldoni

I’ve been paying greater attention to Italy lately in an attempt to resuscitate my familiarity with the language and now it is always in my head. I’ve been tweeting about the public evils of Silvio Berlusconi, the civic virtues of Emma Marcegaglia, and assorted other personalities and issues for the better part of three months now. One of the more interesting topics to erupt there in the fall was an ‘outing’ of legislators that drove the country into a positive frenzy.

But first, this necessary word on European/American relations. One of the great ironies of the fragile personal relationships between Europeans and Americans is this: We feel immensely, achingly inferior to them. And they feel immensely, achingly inferior to us. And we feel immensely, defensively superior to them. And they feel immensely, defensively superior to us. We carry ourselves internally with the hubris and optimism of the very young. They carry themselves internally with the arrogance and pessimism of the very ancient. It is around this awful nexus of pride and humiliation that we dance through our encounters in life, politics, and culture. It makes for a damned funny picture sometimes, but it also makes cross-continental commentary something of a minefield. Do trust me when I write that I love Italy with my whole heart, and also when I lay claim to the full panorama of hypocrisy, violence, and stupidity (plus all the finer stuff, for sure) that has made American public life what it is today.

On to the story: A list of ten names appeared on a phantom blog hosted in the US as September drew to a close. The blog purported to be outing ten Italian politicians accused by the publishers of being closeted gay homophobes who use their political positions to deny civil rights to LGBT citizens.  It was the same fiasco we’ve seen unfold here in the US so many times. It was, apparently, something close to a first for Italians, at least in terms of its concreteness. Everyone was up in arms. I’ve been reading the sites of journalists, (now former) government ministers, and others concerned with the situation.  It was an interesting scrum.

The prime objection that came as a backlash against the publication was, simply, that blogging the list was in itself a crime against human dignity and the right to privacy. In addition, it was perceived as an invitation to those who would perpetrate still more discrimination or even violence against LGBT Italians. Finally, the release was itself deemed a violent and ham-handed canard by no less a personage than Mara Carfagna, Italy’s (former) Minister for Equal Opportunity.

It is always fascinating to me to see how various people cope with this type of revelation – or more to the point, how they rationalize a failure to cope. For many people – certainly not just in Italy – there is a desire to let human attraction simply be what it is: a mysterious wonder that descends and sweeps us poor saps off into various states of intoxicated bliss and misbehavior. Then there are those who wish to label everything, so they can (presume to) know it and understand it and file it away in a neat category where it will sit in stasis forever. Still others simply want ‘truth in labeling’ so they will know what they are getting in the wilder marketplaces of romance.  I understand the wish for each one of these things. But the one inescapable issue with politicians in these situations, in any country in which they’re being outed, is the undeniable stain of hypocrisy. In this case they are alleged, by the light of day and in the Camera dei Deputati, to be giving and benefitting from the impression they are one thing – presumably, straight married people. In their off-hours, they are doing who knows what with who knows whom, apparently of the same gender.

Let me say right now that due to direct experience and observation I know a little something about the fabled ‘continuum’ of human sexuality and romantic attraction. I am quite comfortable operating without the use of tidy sexual labels. I know very well a person may have a relationship with a person of the same gender without being homosexual, simply by virtue of falling in love.

Coming from this vantage point I can honestly say I don’t care if some legislator has lovers of the same gender and chooses to shield those relationships from the public. I believe private matters do exist and it is fine to make room for them in our lives. But from the moment – and I mean the moment –they cast a vote against a gay rights bill, or issue statements about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, they are fair game to at once be placed in the sights of the loaded revelatory guns of any and all activists possessing the pertinent information. No tribunal, no mercy, case closed. You may fire those names when ready, attivisti!

The reasons for the perfect ethical appropriateness of such a response are apparent:  these are people who enjoy the privilege of holding public office, and the regard of the people they serve. It is not the noblest thing to have a lover in addition to your spouse in any case, but it is not something I am willing to rage sanctimoniously about or, certainly, reveal. However, acting in the manner of a rank hypocrite raises the choice-making of such officials to a whole new level of turpitude.

It is a dreadful thing for a politician to harvest all the back-slapping congratulations he can get for upholding the family when he turns around and cavorts sexually with the gays in his free time. Words fail me in my attempt to render the moral ‘ew’ factor of such a thing. Anyone who does it should be turned into a public joke at the earliest possible moment and hopefully soon thereafter turned out of office. (And let there be no doubt – I feel precisely the same about heterosexual politicians with opposite-sex lovers who tout in their speeches the sanctity of the marriage they later spend so many happy hours violating. Out them, and vote them out! Say – I think I feel a slogan coming on.)

Italy is enduring a multitude of paroxysms right now, chiefly assorted economic travails and the ongoing cringeworthy high farce that is the life, libido, and now aftermath of (former) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. These difficulties are playing out in the world’s instantaneously updated media and increasingly jittery global markets, ensuring that Italians feel to varying degrees dispirited, anxious, or downright angry. There is a lot of great humor out there too, of course, but I see more serious emotions on venues like Twitter, the comments sections of Italian dailies, and the Facebook pages of (former) officials such as Minister Carfagna.

We should hold in our thoughts our long-suffering friends in Italy. We Americans have had, after all, way more than our share of embarrassing, hypocritical leadership. We have felt ourselves to be laughingstocks of the earth at any number of points in our history. [As I write this, in fact, we have police summarily battering protestors as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement expands to encompass more and more states and locations. Our president has reserved unto himself – and used – a proviso for actually assassinating American citizens under certain circumstances. And we are apparently perpetrating torture in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, country singers compare our president to Hitler and complain about the consequences in the entertainment marketplace, and presidential candidates positively stinking with self-righteousness claim their adulteries are “nobody’s business.” Clearly, we have no room to talk.]

But the troubles of the historical moment, however mortifying, always turn around. There aren’t any shortcuts, though. Politicians who misuse their offices to degrade the public trust through infamous hypocrisy – even in their ‘private’ lives – are a great place to start in pressing for reform.


August 24, 2011 by

“I’m just waiting to die,” my father told me one August afternoon in 1987, the very month and year of his death. I often think of that moment, when I struggled not to argue with him, not to distract him. There was hopeful news yesterday on the ALS front, the slow movement toward cure. I saw it on the crawl of CNN, right after I woke with a start and sat up in bed after four hours of sleep. It was one pm and the Mineral, Virginia earthquake was just beginning to be reported. I have a long strange history of waking whenever there is a big quake anywhere. I think it has something to do with my deeply flawed electromagnetic fields. My fingerprints can’t be read and I cannot turn on water in any bathroom that operates on an electric eye. Women stare at me in washrooms as I pass from sink to sink trying to activate water and wash my hands. It is always a weird moment of tiny shame, and it is among the things I don’t understand about myself and find troubling.

At work this week I am exhausted in the night, distracting myself with as many things as I can while the patients sleep and do not require my direct attention. I am reading Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “A Gilded Lapse of Time” and tonight have acquired the word “melismatic” in her reflections on a bee reliquary. To place bee and reliquary in a single line affects me to a degree I can hardly express even to myself.  To find out that melisma can be defined in terms of Handel’s Messiah just elevates the degree of delight to something approaching full mental collapse from pure joy. It occurs to me that my extreme fatigue might actually be operating in my favor, for it mitigates my ecstatic response to this book of poetry I purchased in 1992 and then put away until just now. Things always come for me at the right time, and I am amazed by the way this truth continues to unfold around me.

I am preparing for our twelfth year celebrating the Days of the Dead. As the time approaches I scan the famous dead and make my lists, planning the altars that will be made and the final cut that will allow a handful of the deceased to be presented to the Virgin of Guadalupe in my transformed dining room. My old colleague James Ebert will be the guardian of this year’s altar, and I’ve thought to present him in a format that will commingle his mountaineering achievements with the voyage of Dante through the dark wood up into the white rose of Paradise. Jim was the sweetest adult man I ever met, a man utterly without guile and powerful enough that he never spoke of his climbing at all while we worked together caring for the mentally ill. He was a god in that world, and I never knew anything about it until he died on a mountain in California last month. His heart burst open. Right now he stands on my kitchen altar in a white frame, but in two months he will be on the main altar with the Lady of the Americas.

The summer passes away. I am watching the hummingbirds overfeed as they prepare for their autumn journey across the Gulf. I add a bromeliad with a tiny pink pineapple to the Buddha garden. I put out solar prints I’ve made, right down in the flowers. I set out paper butterflies, in the bushes and on the old Victorian firescreens behind the three Buddhas. The white butterflies love these Buddhas, and prefer to drink from the stone of their bodies after I water the area. I noticed this last month and now I always wet down the Buddhas and watch the butterflies gather on the stone and drink as that particular smell of wet stone rises in the warm air.

Before coming to work tonight I find a huge spider in the corner of the bathroom. He’s a jumper. I’m running late but I watch him and decide the rest of the family will not be pleased to see him there. I put a glass over him and slide a greeting card underneath him. Out into the heavy night we go, and I put him on a leaf before returning to the bathroom to apply eyeliner and some purple eyeshadow and my favorite mixture of lilac and red pommade for my cheekbones. I spray my hair down with the same rosewater I use to comb the cat and which I love to force on Kim and Tim for grooming purposes, right out of the fridge where I keep it chilled. Back out into the dark which is like daylight for me, it is so ordinary. Off to the hospital to solve problems and try to stay alert and present. How much it is like that singing of a single syllable over a text of successive notes is striking and wonderful. I am sure if I could get a little more sleep I would understand everything. That is still my favorite among all my many illusions.

But She Said ‘No, No, No’

July 23, 2011 by

Amy Winehouse is dead today. The news comes from London, where she died, at 27, of causes not-yet-determined but certainly surmised by many.

Here in sweltering Iowa we cower beneath the “heat dome” of July 2011. I’ve just consumed, courtesy of beloved wife Jessica, a major league Julep in Amy’s honor.  It is now being followed by a beer chaser, a Sierra Nevada Hefeweizen called Kellerweis. Just because I too say ‘No, no, no.’ There is a time and a place – perhaps many times and many places – for intoxicants. It’s been known fact since ancient times. Heady brews and concoctions, herbs and ales and fermented plants and so forth, call up strong spirits and visions – creative forces both Mercurial and Vesuvian by definition. Such forces are capable of bringing forth all manner of greatness as surely as they can reduce a mere mortal to so much human rubble.

I am always unutterably saddened to see a creative force battered by excess, dying by their own hand, or some combination of the two, crazy heroes stumbling along their doomed path with as much bravery as they can muster by the sheer force of gifts the Master of the Universe bestowed upon them at birth, yet ultimately unable to rise from the ashes of their own repeated, reckless and Dionysian bonfires until finally they lie extinguished in a smoldering heap. All that creativity gone from this world. All that energy dissipated, bouncing through the cosmos and reinfusing the very fabric of space and time in some way we cannot yet understand but which I am quite certain is real and  significant.

On this Saturday of swelter where the air itself is devoid of air, is liquid and somehow smothering, I see my personal litany of greats gone from this Earth unreel on celluloid strips before me:  Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson, Alexander McQueen, and now Amy Winehouse. All shot so much life into this world – this crappy, rude, unappreciative world, where they labored and suffered and created what they could when they could manage to rise up and do it – and all died awful deaths, deaths many of us call needless or meaningless and lament as “a shame.” I suppose they each were a shame, and yet each was also an endpoint for a specific person, a person endowed with much, who gave much to everyone they touched and who struggled to honor their talents against long odds. What is the meaning of all that accomplishment, then, on this day?

I can’t say as I know. It’s hard to piece together a wall of logic to reassure anyone against life’s random and massive ironies when, as one small example, Ms. Winehouse’s Tarot card is…wait for it…Temperance. Yes, hers is the lovely and somber card of Temperance. I am amazed and somehow humbled to know this. Jessica has created an altar here in our house, where she commemorates Ms. Winehouse with that card, and a lovely picture of her before she laid herself at the altar of various intoxicants to the point of permanent disability and ultimate demise.

Amy Winehouse Altar

Jessica's Altar for Amy Winehouse

Rehab…I am of mixed feelings there. I love Rickie Lee Jones, and think work made after her own life changes is as lively as her earlier work. She gathered unto herself all her sparks, somehow, while distancing herself from the fire’s deepest heat and saving herself from immolation. I have to respect that. But I respect Amy, too. She died and it was a hard and probably an ugly death, but it was all hers, and she had lived her own life while getting there. I refuse to dishonor that or diminish it by calling it “a shame.” It was something far more vibrant, volcanic and wild than that. It was an implosion, a pyre of perhaps her own design.

I love to see artists of all kinds who can pick up their burdens and wield them, move along, and survive, giving us the gifts only they can muster up out of the mean and rough fabric of life. I love them perhaps best of all. But I will always remember and honor the lives and work of those who do not make it through. They too struggle, they buff and burnish, shine and polish all their rough stones to present to us, and we are better for receiving them. I thank each of them, and wish them all peace, and rest.

Come Back to the Ladies Room, Michele Honey

July 14, 2011 by

It surely counts as one of the tortures of the damned to be a liberal, openly lesbian elected official in Iowa listening to the likes of Michele Bachmann pontificating on the matter of marriage with her Giant Gay Husband, Marcus, at her side. It is galling. Of late, the question of Marcus being a Giant Gay Husband has become something of an irritant to the wife’s campaign. Thus we Iowans hear rumors of Marcus stopping just shy of mounting her on the proverbial stump in the hinterlands, where he presses his wide, girlish hips into her backside to show What A Man He Really Is and How Hot He Is for His Wife. Jesus. It makes my teeth hurt.

Meanwhile, my wife Jessica and I deal with the daily barrage of rhetorical arrows as best we can, taking detours onto sweet, breezy summer lanes marked White Côtes du Rhône as we sit together after work, analyzing the latest. There is Michele’s alleged bathroom cornering by two aggressive Minnesota lesbians (tho’ I never like to disappoint voyeurs, you should know that qualifies as a solid oxymoron), the Giant Gay Husband disporting himself shamefully in an attempt to appear less gay, and then the matter of Iowa’s Family Leader Marriage Vow. This is a nasty bit of business, and bears a little examination.

Michele Bachmann was the first presidential candidate to sign what Gawker has called “Iowa’s delightful marriage pledge.” And what a delight it is. My careful synopsis follows. Signatories to The Vow commit to the following solemn oaths:  1. I will never screw anything that isn’t my wife or husband. 2. I will never support porn, even if it helps me in my efforts to screw my wife or husband. 3. Slaves had it bad, but at least their offspring had the benefit of two-parent homes. (Seriously – this stunning misapprehension of history was only removed days ago.) 4. Four is tricky. Four is sort of a come-to-Jesus call for politicians who have already strayed. It’s designed to provide an opportunity for light confession and public contrition over any cash-on-the-barrelhead whoring, porking of rent boys, heavy porn consumption or other forms of extramarital mayhem that may have occurred. This public penance is to be followed by a quick, no-questions-asked embrace back into the fold of sanctified married candidates seeking support in the Iowa caucuses. It’s like that craze of re-virgining yourself. Remember the delusion that one could wish oneself back into mint condition via some quasi-religious frenzy? That one was big awhile back. America is one huge, quivering, crazy nation when it comes to sex. It seems we can never holistically integrate the urges and workings of our sex parts and frenzied libidinal impulses into everyday living. Many apparently never get there, and most of that group of damaged souls self-select into the world of right-wing politics, where outrage over erotic indulgence is prized more highly than cleanliness or a good addiction recovery story. These politicians love the idea of re-grown maidenheads, sham spousal virtues or pretend marriages to Giant Gay Husbands who Probably Secretly Adore Porn.

You may sense a certain level of disgust at this stylized Kabuki of politically-driven marital purity, and if so you are not wrong. I’m fed up. Jessica and I have heard more often than two people who truly and simply adore one another can bear of all the ways in which our marriage is setting up the final, utter disintegration of the United States into a band of borderless tribal areas without minted money in which there are no longer any families at all, a land in which Michele Bachmann is forever locked in sexual torment in a ladies room full of perverse (possibly even French) lesbians. With Marcus peeking through a keyhole while a comely lad whips his giant girly backside with a flourish. It’s the Iowa caucus season, by way of the Marquis de Sade.

The news here seems to have been about The Marriage Vow forever now. I am weary beyond my power to tell. It’s a black eye to the state. Colbert spent five effing minutes on it last night. Gawker is all over it. And despite three candidate rejections of it, the state GOP shows no signs of distancing itself. It’s all Torquemada, all the time here.  Emphatic, blow-hard candidate pledging and a mad right-wing clamor for fealty oaths abjuring hanky-panky – have these married political Republicans been poking everything within reach unbeknownst to all the rest of us? It dawns on one that perhaps a whole world of spousal criminality is flourishing on the conservative political stage, an endless, rampant round of Satyricon sexual frenzy that would embarrass Caligula, barnstorming through the placid, presumably decent state of Iowa.

It’s all so-strange to me, this fighting over marriage and who should have one and how it should be honored. Jessica had three husbands before me, so I’m not a parochial lesbian or anything, and she counts herself as “a minor Gabor… a wee Gabor” due to all her marriages. But life happens, you know?  You meet someone, suddenly you start dropping the silverware and blushing and running into plate glass windows and before you know it love is professed over Neruda and bread and wine in a local eatery. There are flowers. A fully decorated Christmas tree appears in season out of nowhere in your apartment, and the love just gets bigger and bigger and pretty soon it’s moving day and you’re all in the giant house together:  her, you, your darkly suspicious, obese cat, and her dear son, the perpetual child you shall always have with you. Later there will be raccoon kits in the firebox, scaring you nearly to death. Chipmunks and possums cavort on the property. You will sit in hospital waiting rooms through two surgeries, terrified for her. She will endure the anxieties and aggravations of election cycles every four years, with the family in newsprint. She will have to hear about your stalker, who is out on YouTube in big glasses and a hoodie claiming you are don of Iowa’s Lesbian Mafia and behind every murder in the county for the last 30 years. You will worry about the inevitability of occasionally violent patients in her workplace. In short, your married life unfolds right in front of you, in all its clutter and whirl of activity, the relentless drum beat of existence. But every time you look at her, she is pretty pretty pretty. Every time you open a newspaper and find yourself excoriated on its pages, you laugh and laugh together at all of it. Never does it occur to you – not once – that your marriage, which you could not even have for the first 13 years of your life together, is anything less than everyone else’s. Then one day this couple comes riding into Iowa attacking you – frankly and without reservation, as if it were a selling point. He, a giant pantload of a girly man who has made his living in part by promising to cure gays, she a politician buttoned down so tightly she flips out when two dykes in Minnesota try to speak to her about their civil rights in a ladies room.

I don’t know how Jessica and I will get through this caucus season. I’m already angry, and anger is not something I wear well. To make matters worse, @ramonasinger has not managed to get her freaking pinot grigio into this state yet, despite my frenzied tweets. We’re patching in with white Côtes du Rhône, gin and grapefruit juice, and the occasional Julep. We’re resourceful girls. We’ll get by. But a person has every right to be angry about this theatre of the absurd when it impinges on reality every waking day.

I despise Michele and Marcus Bachmann because they dishonor their own marriage by dishonoring mine, and they are both too stupid to recognize even that much. They hardly deserve our passing collective scorn, but as she seeks the presidency every wild distortion born in the stubborn, atavistic sludge of her Cro-Magnon ideology receives an appalling level of consideration. We can only hope every rent boy on earth comes tumbling out of that giant closet, and soon.

If Ever I Would Leave You

July 12, 2011 by

Monday afternoon, errands after a brief sleep. I am always most exhausted on Mondays, and most of all summer Mondays. The deepest part of July and August bring me to the edge of despair, and it is only the presence of the hummingbird that has made this season desirable. I am out at the recycling center singing the songs of Camelot. The songs are brocaded, sugar icing over glass. One must hold the voice strictly to account or you slide from the natural rich ornamentation of these gorgeous pastiches, right off the ice into the muck.

If I begin with “If ever I should leave you” and briefly confuse the season that begins the narrative, this is not to say I will fail to recall precisely where Franco Nero began his montage with Vanessa Redgrave and right myself, beginning with summer and ending with the glorious springtime. It is obvious when one watches the film that Nero has either just knocked Redgrave up or is about to- and they had their love child from this time. I wonder what it would be like to be that child and understand that commingling of art and appetite. I think it might be wonderful.

I refuse to lower my voice while I fling plastic bottles into their giant metal bin and to that end I sing with a little bit of defiance: “I loved you once in silence”. I sing it beautifully despite never having known a moment of restraint in love and especially not the absence of words. In love I have always come to the feast prepared to pitch a big tent festooned with garlands and floating lights and floating words and actual food, too, since it has always seemed to me that love requires more than itself to flourish.

I am a romantic who has occasionally tried to sidestep this truth about myself. I apprehend each day a world that seems to me to be strung together loosely of enchantments, like a powerful web that will slowly occlude my ability to perceive it with any measure of accuracy. Among the bored and pragmatic young of the species I am often sad. During the night I worked with several young men who talked Lawrence. One said to the other: “Dude. I’ve been trying to read “The Rainbow” for four months.” The other replied: “I know. They say “Sons and Daughters” is his best novel.” I thought about the firefly I pulled out of a spider’s web by the back door the other night, coming in. I could not bear to see his light trapped in the iron of that web and I pulled it out, brushed off all I could, and placed him in the Buddha garden far from the spider, whom I have to admit I also love.

With the young men who have no interest in me or what I have seen or thought of, I spoke up. “Women in Love” is Lawrence’s best novel,” I told them. “And also that book is “Sons and Lovers,” okay?” They were silent, and not with love of me, either.

I finish up my medley of Camelot standards with the verses of the theme song that finish the film, and when I sing them I weep. I am crying for loss- the loss of innocence, the loss of Richard Harris, JFK, dreams of the nineteen sixties, all of that and more. I weep as I sing. That is why I cannot be a real singer out somewhere in the world, away from the recycling center. I weep when I sing what moves me. And nothing moves me more than the loss of a kingdom when it is joined to the hope of rekindling that kingdom. I’ve watched this movie countless times alone, Harris heralding the young plucky lad he exhorts to carry the story of Camelot forward- “Run, boy!” he shouts, down the corridor of endless summer. Oh, run.

etruscan places

June 27, 2011 by

I’m spending my summer with David Herbert Lawrence, not for the first time and surely not for the last, in my life. I read every one of his novels in my twenties and thirties, but it has taken all these years to begin to look over his travel writing. I am reading Etruscan Places and discovering in a wonderful new way that the character of Rupert Birkin in Women In Love really must have been Lawrence as an idealized self, for here he is, all over these pages.

Presently I’m about midway into this little book, and Lawrence has begun to wax manic over the beauties of the Cerveteri graves, which are easily visualized with a quick Google. There one may see that he has done a credible job of describing these ancient wonders in mere words. The photographs I see jump out at me wearing his turns of phrase and I feel again many of the same things I felt reading the Lawrence novels. In other words I feel both a sense of delight and an intermittent desire to slap him. He’s too giddy, too whimsical, too self-satisfied. He suffers from an overdeveloped prissiness. He staggers, then he embarrasses.

I will go back to the novels and allow myself to be enchanted and repulsed all over again. I’m not afraid of that. Meanwhile I pursue the other things of the summer. Over the weekend saw our hummingbird at the feeder at least six times a day if not more. I prefer him in the shadow of the redbud tree, where he remains a strange little leaf shaped darkness which touches my heart more quietly. In the sun he becomes the kind of small god Lawrence describes in the Tomb of the Leopards, all radiant with his inner fire. He is almost too much for my heart. In darkness he is more soothing. He might sit on my hand.

I am a little afraid of everything I love on this earth, that much is true. I feel it again whenever I witness this small whirring life force. I suppose the fear is simply that of anticipatory dread, the dread of separation. Meanwhile I sit at the window with my head on my hand like a child and wait for the hummingbird to arrive. I sit until my head hurts from bending to my hand. I sit until I see him and then I want to sit until he returns. An endless cycle of return like all the others surrounding it. Life as a ferris wheel, a spinning top, a child’s toy.

Then there is gin. I have finally given in to this taste and have fallen in love with the botanical urgency of it. I drink it in pink grapefruit juice with ice and it is so great I no longer need to stand in the kitchen and construct my alchemies of the cocktail. I don’t pull out my homemade vanilla, my special orange bitters, my peels and potions and special secrets. I just throw in a handful of ice and step out into the warm bath of the backyard. They call this drink a “greyhound” and that seems just right for this time in my life.

I am writing a series of short poems about the image of the ghat as a vehicle for the soul to step into itself. That seems perfect for summer too. Ghats and graves and gin and my leafy hummingbird. In some perfect storm of all of these I stir myself in and wait for the autumn to come and refine me. I have my thirteenth Day of the Dead coming this year, more than a dozen years having passed since I constructed my first triple altar. Tonight someone asked me to explain this holyday and I found to my amazement I could not reduce it to words very well at all. I could say how heavy the statue of the Guadalupe is and how hard to place her at the zenith of the highest of the three altars. I could describe how one might make an offering, and how I like to sit afterwards and write down what I have made with my hands so I can look back months and years later. But I found I did not have sufficient language to bring the scene to life. It is difficult to speak of  memorial. It wasn’t hard for Lawrence, bringing back what was made before Christ walked on the earth. I would aspire to this freshness, this flashing in the light.