Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturday Morning Coffee II

Not long ago, after the long story about the massage parlor busts, there was a notice in the Sun-News asking any patrons of the place to call a certain number if they wanted to talk to police about their experiences there.
The notice sounded like something a stand-up comic would come up with. First of all, most guys who went there probably knew exactly why there were going and took along money to pay for it. If a few men went there uncertain about how far the massage might go, when the masseuse invited them to go further they probably didn’t object. Even legitimate masseuses in airports and farmers’ markets who offer no sexual services whatsoever but get leered at by half the men who pass.
What the men did was illegal, and many cities do arrest johns. Somehow I’m doubting they’re in a big rush to make a full report to the police. Or their wives and kids).

A candidate for city councilor here, who had touted his law-enforcement experience and his two years in the Navy, was arrested for drunken driving early one evening. Turned out (according to the authorities in Mesilla) that his law enforcement experience included (and perhaps was limited to) his brief stint as a trainee in the reserve Sheriff’s Department there. That ended after he was thrown out of El Patio after some sort of incident in which, again according to the authorities in Mesilla, he was inebriated. Probably not helpful to his campaign. He’d also talked up his Navy experience – and it then turned out that he’d had a liquor-and-automobile incident there too. Not an auspicious start to a campaign.

Some fellow complained in the newspaper recently that he can’t dirt-bike the way he used to because of preservationists. I dirt-biked all around Las Cruces as much as anyone in the 1970's. I loved the desert solitude – and the physical challenge. So when I read his comment, I thought, yo, man, haven’t you noticed they’ve built about six thousand houses (including mine) in what used to be beautiful empty desert? I can’t dirt bike the way I used to because of all the ugly houses, not because someone’s trying to protect what’s left! I figured he was a little confused. Then I read that he’s only lived here about five years! He just doesn’t know better – and probably doesn’t own a dirt bike anyway.

After Clemson upset Auburn in football last Saturday, the Clemson coach (who had played and coached at Alabama, Auburn’s chief rival) said, "All praise goes to God." We’re used to that. (People who lose sports contests rarely mention God, somehow.) And we’ve wondered whether God might not have better things to do than determine winners in college football games. This coach, though, added. "He has quite a sense of humor, to make sure an Alabama grad was coaching the team that ended Auburn’s winning streak." Now he’s got me really wondering. He makes God sound like a 14-year-old nerd who can’t play sports too well but keeps track of all the obscure facts and stats. I think God has quite a sense of humor, too – he keeps sending us people who say things like that.

Mayoral candidate Michael Huerta told a funny story about a gentleman who approached him at the Farmers’ Market, where Michael spends a lot of time talking to vendors and customers about his political aspirations.
"Are you the fella running for mayor?" asked the gentleman, who wore a cowboy hat and a Tea Party pin. Huerta acknowledged that he was. According to him, the man said he’d heard a lot of good things about Huerta from the vendors, but also something that worried him.
"Are you a homosexual?"
Michael acknowledged that too.
"Well, I have one question. If you get elected, are you going to run this city like a homosexual?"
Michael says he has no idea where his answer came from, but he replied, "If you mean am I going to attend city council meetings in high heels, no."
He also says that as they talked, it became clear that the man had never, to his knowledge, really talked to anyone gay – and that after they talked for an hour or so the man said he’d vote for Michael, despite their differences.
I believe it, too.  Michael's a pretty engaging guy.

An elderly friend of mine, on his way in town to see the doctor Monday, managed to run over his dog and then get bitten by it, which was sad. And bloody. That news elicited a story from another old friend, who’d been about to take a pregnant dog to the doctor, many years ago; but when she went back into the house to get something, the dog jumped out of the car, unnoticed, and my friend backed over it. Immediately realizing what was happening, she also recalled something she’d read, that she should keep on rolling rather than jam on the brakes, and she did so, and the dog survived. But as she and her husband knelt looking at the dog and tried to check her out, their other dog, a male pit bull, walked over and peed on her. "He’d never done anything like that before, and was looking right at me the whole time, and all I could think was that he was saying, ‘You idiot,’ and I completely agreed."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Poet

Today some Las Crucens will pay tribute to the town’s late poet laureate, Keith Wilson. Friends of the Library will gather at the Picacho Hills Country Club for their annual luncheon. County Commissioner William Garrett, who also writes poetry, will speak on Keith’s life and work.

The last time I saw Keith Wilson, he couldn’t speak.

Keith had a unique career path: born in New Mexico, he graduated from Annapolis, served during the Korean War, and then returned here as an anti-war poet and long-time NMSU professor.

For decades the kitchen table at the Wilsons’ home on Locust Street was the center of Las Cruces poetry, and familiar to the many nationally-known poets who visited and read here. I first sat at that table in the fall of 1969, when the Wilsons’ four kids were still kids. (Their son Kevin was eight, I think. When we moved back here recently, he was the realtor who showed us our new home.) Keith and Heloise were warm and welcoming.

Over the decades little changed at that table: kids were replaced by grandkids, a greater number of cats and dogs needed petting, and wine replaced coffee earlier in the day, but the laughter and poetry and stories still flowed freely.

Then the wordsmith began to lose his words. His mind was still sharp, but over the course of several years he was less and less capable of speaking. When I shot a videotaped interview with him several years ago, about his Korean War service and his poetry, his reading was uneven and the stories he told were sometimes interrupted by long silences in search of a word, while a cat wandered among the wine glasses and poetry books.

A year or two later, we couldn’t have shot such an interview. Keith could speak only a little, and rarely.
Where he had sometimes dominated conversations, he now sat silently at the table, following the conversation and punctuating it with glances, gestures, and facial expressions that seemed like those of a benevolent but mischievous imp. In mid-life, Keith had not always seemed as benevolent as he was. He was (in his words) a warrior and a shaman. He could be a little domineering at times, or jealous. Now, at twilight, he seemed to love life and us more freely.

On a visit in 2006, I was sitting in Joe and Jill Somoza’s backyard when Keith appeared. It was a short walk from Locust Street, and he still enjoyed it. He said little, if anything; but he beamed with joy. The joy was infectious. We all felt it.

The next time I saw him he could no longer speak. As we talked with Heloise, Keith still participated wittily with gestures and impish facial expressions. He also tried to read Dael a poem dedicated to Heloise from one of his books. The effort began with a few words and near words, continued with a sing-song, humming sort of sound, then sounded like the wordless but anguished howl of an animal.

At one point during our visit he disappeared. He walked out the front door, went into the converted garage that had been his study for decades, and eventually returned and handed me an old envelope, insisting I take it. It was addressed to him from Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso. From it I read out loud the poem he had scrawled there:

That sliver
of a moon
through the pines
opens no pathway
back to your side
Hidden among
the dark trees
fox watches
what we
cannot see
while some thing
slips behind
that darkness

The poem was strong, and succinct. Whatever he may have meant when he wrote it (some time after 12 December 1995, when the envelope was postmarked), the words "opens no pathway back to your side" were especially poignant now. His inability to speak was a frustrating barrier that imprisoned him alone on the other side. Too, he seemed likely to die soon, and I doubted he’d be able to find a path back.

In a quiet way, it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Whether by chance or by completely lucid intention, he had fished out this particular poem and handed it to me at this particular moment. We had been discussing the forthcoming publication of his collected poems, which would feature the photograph I’d taken of him in Joe and Jill’s backyard. By handing me this poem, which had never been published and was not among the poems to be "collected," he saved it from oblivion. We all felt not only that it should appear in the book but that a photocopy of the envelope ought to be included. In a sense, this was his last poem – and as apt as any of the Death Poems written by Japanese Buddhist monks.

That was early January 2009. At the end of February we attended his memorial.

Heloise and two of the Wilsons’ children, and several grandchildren, still live in Las Cruces; and the book, Shaman of the Desert: the Collected Poems, very finely printed, is worth a read, particularly if you like poetry or New Mexico, or knew Keith. [Anyone interested in buying a copy should call Heloise at (575) 5622 8389.]
[The above appeared as a column in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning.]

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 12th

  Ten years ago I happened to be in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., doing some research.  (Plug: if you have never been there, I should tell you the Libary of Congress may be the most beautiful accomplishment our country boasts.  It's a marvelous place to do research -- or sit staring up at the ceiling when one ought to be doing research.) 

  On the morning of September 11 someone spoke, and announced that we all had to leave -- just an hour into our work.  We did, with some dim idea that something was going on.  I've never seen quite a traffic jam of people trying to get out of downtown D.C.  If I hadn't had a motorcycle, I might still be trying to get back up to my house.  For days, helicopters were over head constantly.

   The Library is connected by tunnels with the U.S. Congress.  If a plane had hit the Capitol Building, I'd probably still be alive, but I'd have felt the impact and smelled the burning gasoline.   I've always felt a personal gratitude to the heroes of Flight 93, because at least some early reports were uncertain whether that plane was headed for the Capitol or the White House. 

    At supper that night we could see the Pentagon buring.  For days helicopters roared overhead above my house, at all hours, as if it were a war zone.
    I take pictures, as you may have noticed.   So early the next morning, September 12th, I went out to do that.  The streets were deserted, of course.  Near the monuments, soldiers and tanks were everywhere.  I  had to park a good ways from the Lincoln Memorial.   Once there, though, I was able to take a photograph in the dawn light that could only have been taken that day, when pretty much anyone who had a choice stayed home:

   Soon afterward, contemplating the janitor at work in the photograph, I wrote this to accompany the print:

His step looks almost jaunty. One might even imagine defiance in it. More eloquently, more sincerely, and perhaps at more personal risk, he says what the suits and ties in the White House say: let’s live our damned lives, and the hell with some fundamentalist in a cave, with his threats and suicidal dupes.
No one else is on these steps. No runners jog up them before turning toward home. No tourists stand around with guidebooks and polaroids. I am snapping pictures, not thinking. Later I will contemplate Lincoln’s wonderfully reflective posture and expression, the figure of a firm and strong man who dares to think and act outside the box, a man who sat many, many mornings alone working on the Emancipation Proclamation and watching the spiders building their webs above the borrowed desk where he went to work on it. 
If I were Osama bin Laden, I would destroy this statue, because Lincoln symbolizes our humanist freedom of thought. If I were George W. Bush, I would help destroy it, because the more people recall Lincoln, with his ability to contemplate deeply, think independently, and treat enemies with a wise mixture of the firm and the humane, the more "W" looks like a comical child in a chair so big that his feet dangled short of the ground.

Ten years have passed.  Osama and "W" have left the stage.   A century and a half from now, no one will write best-selling books about either of them, as they do about Lincoln.   One can only hope the world will also have forgotten by then the kind of narrow-minded religious fundamentalism that let Osama slaughter thousands without losing sleep over it. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why Does the Idea of Marriage Between Gays Bother People So Much?

El Paso’s current back-and-forth concerning municipal employee benefits for unmarried partners reminds me of a question I’ve never quite gotten a clear answer to: why do some heterosexual married folks argue that permitting "gay marriage" would somehow diminish the beauty or meaning of their own marriages?

For a long time I tended to agree with the Law and Order detective, Lennie, who shrugged and said "Why shouldn’t gays be just as miserable as the rest of us?" Then I came to love a woman enough that we wanted to marry. We did marry; but before we did, what troubled us was not that gays might be allowed to marry but that they could not.

If Blacks or Jews or Chinese, or Mexican-Americans or Anglos, were banned from eating at a particular restaurant, I’d avoid the place. Similarly, the fact that other folks who felt that they loved each other deeply, and wished to commit to each other for the rest of their lives, were not permitted to do so seemed to undermine the beauty of marriage. (I’ve recently learned that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie feel the same way, but that questions from their kids may trump that feeling.)

Everyone may not feel that strongly about equality. Fine. But what does it say about the fragility of a love relationship if that relationship can be threatened by the existence of other love relationships? If a man and a woman love each other so deeply that they wish to make a life together, how can that love be cheapened by the fact that other folks pair off feeling the same way about each other?

The only answer people seem able to muster is that their (mostly Christian) god wouldn’t like it.

First of all, that isn’t so clear, particularly if we expand the definition of "the Bible" beyond Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John to include Thomas and "Secret Mark." Even in the four gospels the Catholic Church chose to accept, Jesus repeatedly says that "God is Love." He says nothing of homosexuality one way or the other. He says of injustice that "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you have done unto me." He beseeches us to "judge not, that ye be not judged." Generally, he seems to say quite often that while he (and presumably his heavenly father) may not approve what certain people do, such as prostitutes, this disapproval doesn’t disqualify those people from love and respect and equal treatment. Jesus also makes it pretty clear that whatever his and his father’s preferences, Christians should render to the state what belonged to the state – which presumably includes conceding the state’s right to decide who may legally marry whom in that state.

Secondly, the framers of our Constitution took great pains to prevent any religion from having undue influence over our government. I have a right to my religious beliefs, but neither I nor a village or state of like-minded folks can require others to guide their lives by those beliefs.

They also believed strongly that all men were created equal; and although practical politics in 1787 kept them from including darker-skinned folks in that precept, their successors certainly did so in the 1860's. Too, although they didn’t seriously consider allowing women to vote, the document they wrote was live and flexible enough to encompass sexual equality when our country matured enough to accept that idea.

Marriage equality will come. This year for the first time a majority of Gallup Poll respondents favored it. For years, poll results have indicated that whatever we old folks may think, the vast majority of younger folks don’t get why everyone cares so much about other people’s emotional lives. Most young people have a sibling or close friend whose sexual preference is unconventional. (Just this week, a new analysis of census figures shows that New Mexico has the fifth highest percentage of same-sex households in the nation, an increase of more than 73 per cent in a decade, from 4,900 to 7,800. Nearly one of every 100 households here is headed by a same-sex couple, with the majority of them in the North.)

The more interesting question remains, why do so many people give a damn? So long as the state doesn’t require churches to conduct marriages that go against their tenets, devout Christianity provides little excuse for excitement over the issue. Maybe the real sources of strong anti-gay-marriage feelings lie deeper inside the individuals who feel that way.

Gay man often assert that an aggressively anti-gay man is a closet homosexual trying to hide from his own nature. I’ve seen some cases where that seemed to be true. But it’s also true that most of us, particularly those of us getting long in the tooth, grew up in a culture that said gays were disgusting. Not all of us grew up.

Whatever Pastor Brown’s motivation, he has no right to use a tax-exempt religious organization to promote political positions such as the recall of the three officials or the election of his wife to the city council. He calls the current complaints "harassment and persecution," but they aren’t. Political donations are not tax-deductible. Donations to churches are. He’d have screamed loudly enough if a different church group were using tax-deductible donations to back the candidate who opposed his wife in her unsuccessful run.
[The column above appeared in today's Las Cruces Sun-News.  For those who haven’t followed the El Paso story: in November, voters in El Paso approved a ballot initiative to stop gay and unmarried partners of city employees from receiving city health benefits. The measure (said to have been crafted by a local pastor, Tom Brown) was worded vaguely, denying benefits to all who were not city employees. Thus, a retired city employee or a present city council member, for example, would no longer receive benefits. A judge so ruled. (He also hinted that if the only persons stripped of health benefits were gays and live-in lovers, the law might be unconstitutional.) In May, the council voted to revive the pre-referendum benefits law, despite threats from Pastor Brown that he’d mount a drive to recall them. Brown, whose wife had run unsuccessfully for the city council, has since initiated an effort to recall the mayor and two council members. Various authorities are investigating complaints concerning his possible violations of tax and election laws.]

Further thoughts:
1.Brown may still be fighting over his wife’s failed run for the council; he may simply be embarrassed that his inept drafting of the ballot initiative; but in comparing himself to Martin Luther King, as he apparently did during a TV appearance, he seems more than a little confused. King went to jail (and was eventually martyred) trying to end the majority’s denial of a minority’s civil rights, not to perpetuate it.

During decades away, I returned often to Las Cruces.

On one such visit, I ran into a fellow I’d met fairly soon after I arrived here in August 1969.

I’d been highly involved in advocating civil rights, an end to the war in Viet Nam, and other changes that weren’t yet popular. So had he. We weren't close, but we were friends.  We lost touch somewhat after I became a full-time newspaper reporter. He remained a student, then a teacher, at NMSU.

When we ran into each other again, he told me now that he’d been miserable during those years and that I’d contributed to it: we’d be at some event and I’d always be with some girl friend, often demonstrably affectionate, and he could not be that way with his lover, because he was gay. Holding hands on the grass outside of Corbett Center would probably have meant a beating at the hands of fellows who weren’t real cowboys but had the hats. It hurt even more that he felt that we, his allies on various political issues, would have rejected him.

I tried to recall those times, and him.  He'd been alternately timid (almost ashamed of himself) and petulant.  If I thought about it at all back then, I assumed it had to do with his allergies. He bicycled everywhere, and was angry at people’s blindness to the pollution we were all contributing to, and its effects, which he felt more keenly than most.

We had a good talk when I ran into him. I felt sad that he had been forced to live his life under such a blanket of fear and uncertainty. I guessed he was right about the probable beating if he’d been more open. I thought he was wrong about us, his friends. I thought we’d have been a good deal more tolerant than he supposed.  I don’t remember being too concerned about what other folks did, so long as it didn’t hurt anyone. But I wasn’t sure. It was a long time ago. Without it being a major concern, I was traveling a long road from probably loathing gays as a youth (though I didn’t know any, so far as I was aware, except a couple of teachers who were believed to be homosexual and whom I liked well enough) through tolerant indifference to what other folks did, to a positive, if not terribly active, sympathy with the movement for gay rights. Who knows how far I’d traveled by then? I think by college age I’d outgrown that prejudice, but perhaps vestiges still lingered.

I didn’t see him for maybe another twenty years.  Then, shortly before Dael and I moved to Las Cruces, a mutual friend mentioned that he'd moved to San Francisco. We had lunch with him, and I read some of his short stories and the like, on-line.

Of course, he couldn’t imagine why we were moving to Las Cruces. Or, rather, he understood, but we laughed at our different directions.   To Dael and me, though we loved the Bay Area, Las Cruces was tremendously inviting, for a variety of reasons. He had just escaped Las Cruces, after years of struggling to get the University to pay more attention to issues such as gay-bashing, and San Francisco was a haven and a heaven.

What was interesting was the difference in him. Age tends to accentuate our physical flaws and create new ones. But he seemed to be flowering. Where many aging bodies grow bent and stiff, he stood straight – an eloquent contrast to my image of him in youth, when he had seemed somehow to cringe, like a child or dog that has experienced beatings and expects another.  He was a far more attractive person than he’d been forty years ago, which few of us can say.  He was at home with himself, as perhaps he hadn't been in those days.

He’s part of why I do feel strongly about the issue. I have seen our culture bend too many minds and hearts out of shape by judging them: black kids I worked with, in Harlem and in the Mississippi Delta, who had learned from the world around them that they weren’t as good as other folks for some reason; girls of my generation told that the only suitable role for them was wife-and-mother, and that they should always (as Michelle Bachman still says) obey their husbands, or who suffered physical or emotional abuse from which they couldn’t escape; people whose sexual interests, or lack of sexuality, didn’t fit "the norm" and whose psyches, like my friend’s, were a constant interior battleground where stubborn individualism and the internalized voice of society fought over whether to be proud or ashamed.

I was lucky. I never had much of that. The usual sense that I wasn’t very attractive as a kid, and a sense of inferiority next to guys who were bigger and stronger and hit the ball over the fence all the time. But that’s pretty superficial. What prejudice I did suffer as a civil rights worker in the South or an early anti-war activist in the North was different: wrong-headed as I felt it was, it was a reaction to my own conscious choices and actions, as a young adult, and couldn’t create that terrible inner battle that has scarred so many people I’ve known.

I just don’t see why gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry. It’s something the State offers its citizens, and they’re citizens. True, it wasn’t permitted years ago; but whites and blacks still couldn’t marry each other in about 23 states before the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia in 1967; cities could still put whites in one school and blacks in another until 1953, and even into the 1960's folks got beaten up or jailed (or, in my own case, just threatened and chased on the roads, and harassed in small ways by the police) for integrating restaurants and such; and at least one veterinary school repeatedly rejected a woman I knew, telling her that women could not become veterinarians.  It wasn't natural.  (Eventually that school did accept her, and she graduated and became Socorro’s veterinarian – and tough enough to go out and vaccinate a hundred cows the same day she’d given birth to one of her children.).

Nor is there any reason gays shouldn’t raise children. In San Francisco I met some couples, both male, who had adopted children; and at gatherings no one could miss the strength (and, yes, purity), of their love for those children. Given all the studies that show the importance of love to any infant or child’s ability to develop in a healthy way, I can’t see how anyone can question that it’s better to be loved by adoptive gay parents than to be left without love. I’ve yet to read anything suggesting that gay parents are more likely to abuse their kids than other parents are, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were less likely to do so. In any case, sexual abuse of kids by the folks they trust -- parents, uncles, priests, teachers – is so frequent that it’s difficult to listen to folks suggest that children are endangered by letting gay couples adopt.
3. As I think about it, too, I'd criticize my own column for perhaps buying into a we-they concept that is probably outmoded.  There isn't one box labeled "Heterosexuals" and another labeled "Homosexuals."   Rather, there's a colorful continuum: at one end are folks who, so far as they can recall, have never had a homosexual impulse or awakened confused from a dream in which they'd been fondling or kissing a person of their own sex; at the other are people who never felt the least attraction to the opposite sex or the least date that they preferred their own sex. Somewhere in the middle are bisexuals; men like a former co-worker of mine who was thoroughly homosexual in his mature life but had fathered a child with a woman at some point earlier; women like my sister and my first wife, who had a female lover or two while young, but have been with only men since; or a woman who was married for decades, with two sons, but long after her divorce told me that the new love of her life was a woman who was an old friend; or a friend I practiced law with for two decades, who had a wife and kids, but who determined in his fifties (or finally admitted to himself) that he preferred sex with men, and now lives with a male lover.  Talking with young folks, I get the sense that for many of them there's no big deal.  They wonder why adults tend to draw such a sharp line between people.