Wednesday, January 30, 2008
So let's hear it for meditiation. It's drug-free and costs nothing. Remember TM? The Maharishi? As fads go, it was huge. I had a friend in the 70s whose entire family, mother, father and all his siblings, tuned in. One brother got a staff position at Maharishi University in Iowa, which, by the way, is still going strong. He claimed to be levitating, last I heard. My friend and his brother have graduated from pure TM to careers in various alternative types of personal counseling. I may sound arch, but I believe this is all to the good. Bless them for trying to teach people how to use themselves to find inner peace rather than drugs. (I hasten to say that I give drugs their place. I've seen the terrible effects of chronic depression brought on by brain chemistry gone awry. I just think our convenience-oriented culture prompts us to ask for drugs before we explore more rewarding and less expensive and harmful alternatives. We are creatures of the market place, to our detriment.)
I decided to try meditation out of desperation. The concept was completely foreign to me--I am a very linear, cause-and-effect type and the idea of sitting quietly and zoning out was definitely on the mumbo-jumbo side. But I was into my thirties and my life just wouldn't gel. I felt hounded by a chorus of well-meaning people who kept saying "You should...." and I of course internalized all those "shoulds" and felt not good about myself. I "should," but for whatever reason, I couldn't. So I plunked down a precious $100, got my mantra, and sat down.
Listen closely to the words of the Beatles song, "Let It Be." The song is familiar to the point of cliché by now, but John and Paul were really trying to tell us something. In a nutshell, the idea of "let it be" is the core lesson of this type of meditation. Stop trying so hard, whatever you do and however you do it are OK and by extension you're OK. How corny that looks, how "70s," even as I write the words! But it was the lesson I needed. And it wasn't easy. If our brains aren't literally hard-wired to make us driven and "success"-oriented, we are so imbued with the principal of material success that it is extremely difficult to see things in any other way. It still took a while for the pieces of my life to fall into place, but I began to feel enormously better about things as they were. The best things usually happen to you when you stop waiting for them, looking for them. TM taught me to stop waiting, stop looking, and to just be, content with my life in the moment. It worked.
Once my life did take shape, I drifted away from the discipline--I didn't have the time, was too happy just living. That's OK, too, in fact, it was the goal of meditation in the first place. (There are some die-hards who say, "If you're too busy to meditate, you're too busy!" How un-let-it-be-ish of them....) Now it's a part of my life's toolcase, and I can draw on the lesson of letting go when I need it. Nobody's life is all roses and I have drawn on it occasionally over the years. In fact, now that I have the luxury of time, I actually do sit down for 20 minutes every morning and just let go.
It's the best hundred bucks I ever spent.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Aches and pains all of a sudden--where the hell did they come from???
Have to clean the house because a real estate agent is coming Friday to give us an idea of what we can ask for the place when the time comes. Can't have him thinking we're trying to sell a pig pen. By rights we should hire somebody to come here and do the housecleaning, but my own conscience won't allow it. Here I am, playing housewife. The least I can do is keep the house clean. Oh, it's neat, all right--things are put away. No unnecessary clutter. But clean? Um........let's just say when it gets to the point where I can't stand it, it's time for action. Steve is amazingly forbearing on this score.
The real estate agent is the one who will tell us it'll all be great if we just: repair the drywall, remove the wallpaper, do some painting, refresh the landscaping. As usual, it'll fall to me to do the grunt work. Removing the wallpaper, putting the primer coat on for painting. The wallpaper thing is what I dread most because it makes such a huge mess and creates the biggest upheaval. I don't mind the priming or the work outside on the landscape. But a painter? I have no such pretensions. Not a steady enough hand for a decent finish. Steve will easily deal with that and the drywall.
Happy Monday, or, if it's the end of your day, I hope it was.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Aside from no sales tax on groceries and clothes, rock-bottom property taxes, sun, sand, water, blue crabs, great restaurants and funky one-of-a-kind shops, a big reason we want to live in Delaware is that it is not Virginia, or as some seem to prefer, "Vuhjinyuh." Yes, I was born in this state. It educated me and housed me as a child and I'm supposed to feel warm and fuzzy about it. But it's been dawning on me for a while now that this Commonwealth, whose capital, Richmond, served as the capital of the Confederacy, does not really seem to have changed much in attitude since the Civil War. In my own lifetime, the first example of this reluctance to try something new was the state-sanctioned "campaign of massive resistance" to school integration in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Flash forward: did you know that just last week the state legislature, here in the home of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, voted down a meaure that would have required a background check on customers at gun shows? And did you know that last year that same legislature passed some of the most restrictive "defense of marriage" laws in the country, threatening to endanger even the jerry-rigged legal protections people like Steve and I must cobble together? Including hospital visitation rights? It's going to take a Supreme Court test to try to have these laws overturned. That means some brave souls are going to have to spend their personal time and treasure to help the rest of us. God bless them. But sorry, life's too short and it just gets shorter. I'm not wanted here, and I've found the exit.
End of rant.
We had some extremely educational conversations with builders and bankers over the two days away. On the upside, we learned that financial arrangements such as construction loans are easily set up and easily paid. Timing will be delicate; that is something we will just have to play very carefully as events unfold. On the downside, we learned that the home design we had settled on really wasn't going to work unless we made some pretty sizable concessions. We have a relatively tiny (100 feet square) lot. We are first constrained by required setbacks from the water. A further consraint arises from the fact that there is no municipal water or sewer service where we are--these are handled by individual wells and septic systems. Our septic system has to be so many feet from neighboring septic systems and wells. It's all possible for us to do, but space is very tight. The design we came up with couldn't fit on the space we have. So we're looking at alternatives. During the long-running construction project we had here in this house, we learned we are both pretty flexible when faced with ultimatums. We can adapt. Good thing!
Of course, the huge unknown is Steve's job situation. We simply wait for June, anticipating the worst but hoping for the best. That will have a huge influence on where these "days of transition" are really headed.
It was wonderful being back after three months away. The roads are smaller and the fields wider. Snow geese by the thousands inhabit every square inch of what are corn and soybean fields in midsummer. The people at Lowes and even The Home Depot actually smile at you. The local NPR station cuts away from the regular news of war and racially tinged primaries to local happenings: a man in Lewes is being held for "shooting three cows to death." My condolences to the cows, of course, but wouldn't life be great lived permanently on that scale? With any luck, soon ours will be.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Grandma presented a simple, child-like character to the world that was no act. Many realities of the modern 1950s simply eluded her. My earliest realization of this came when I was very young, five or six years old. My mother and I had gone over to Hillcrest Heights one summer Tuesday. I had brought a box of crayons and unthinkingly left them in the sun on the shelf behind the back seat of the car. A bit later when we got back into the car to go to the store, the crayons had turned into a colorful wax puddle on the shelf. As clear as day I can still hear Grandma say in utter surprise, "oh, do crayons melt?" I remember thinking I was surprised, but that Grandma shouldn't have been. And my mother was so shocked at the question, she forgot to reprimand me for being careless. (Thanks, Grandma!)
Grandma loved her "stories," the soap operas she had started listening to on the radio and followed to television. But her involvement with them went beyond mere entertainment. She was convinced that there were real people in those boxes living out their problem-fraught lives. More than once she declared, "someone has got to tell that woman what her husband is doing behind her back!" If you told her it wasn't real, it was just a play, she gave you a pitiful look that clearly indicated she thought you were crazy. These people were in real trouble and here you were doubting it! There used to be a TV show called "International Showtime," a review of circus acts from around the world. The actor Don Ameche hosted from a seat in the audience, where he'd look into the camera and introduce the acts. Once when Grandma and I were watching the show together, she took the opportunity to clear something up she'd been wondering about. When Ameche starting talking, she asked, "can he see us like we can see him?" I explained he couldn't, that he was looking into a TV camera that broadcast his picture around the country. "Camera?" she asked. I let it go. I'm sure she never quite understood what this TV phenomenon was.
After Grandpop died, Grandma came to live with us in Falls Church. She was very religious. Every afternoon she'd go to her room to say the rosary and then take a nap. Hoping to get her interested in reading, my mother gave her one of her favorte inspirational books, The Sermon On The Mount. Every now and then Mother would ask Grandma how she was doing with the book. "Oh, I like it!" she'd say. "I'm up to page 37!" For her books were things to be got through, not understood. She'd watch Bishop Fulton Sheen on TV and get the message, but books were not known for their messages, as far as Grandma was concerned.
If it is true that women in her day were not expected to learn any skills beyond those necessary to care for a home, then Grandma Mac was a prime example of her generation. Of a piece with her ignorance of crayons and TV was the fact that she knew nothing whatsoever of the larger concerns about running a household, such as money management. She was given an allowance by Grandpop to spend as she saw fit. When Grandpop died, Grandma was in her late sixties and had never written a check. She knew nothing of budgets or paying bills. In order for the lights and heat to stay on, the Hillcrest Heights house budget became one of my mother's jobs until Grandma moved in with us.
In spite of her simple nature, or maybe because of it, Grandma loved to laugh. She was always up for a joke, and in spite of everything she possessed an unshakable, core-deep optimism that passed from her through my mother and now resides in my sister and me. It wasn't a matter of persevering against odds, or showing a game face to life's challenges. She was just, in her heart, happy. Grandma had a stroke when I was around 12, from which she never recovered. Soon after was taken to the hospital, my mother and I went to visit her. The stroke made it impossible for Grandma to form intelligible words, but evidently she didn't know that. She saw us enter the room and immediately began a long and animated discourse in utter gobbledygook sounds. My mother and I glanced at each other and burst into embarrassed laughter, the kind that is the more irrepressible because it isn't supposed to be happening. Grandma saw us laughing and joined right in. Whatever the joke was, she wanted to be a part of it.
That picture of her broad, laughing Irish face is my Grandma Mac's final, indelible gift to me, and I will carry it with me until my own last laugh. When that time comes, may I be half so generous.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
I was born into the family relatively late in my parents' lives--my mother was 34, my father, 38. My mother said she wanted more kids, but was told by doctors that she "wasn't built" for many children, so basically took a chance on me, 9 1/2 years after giving birth to my sister. (I suppose to start all over again with a new baby at that age was a healthy thing for my parents' marriage, but one unanticipated development it led to was my hitting puberty exactly when my mother hit menopause. Toxic. If you're planning a family, throw that possibility into the mix as you contemplate.)
I was always "the kid." Everybody seemed old. Well, there was no "seeming" about it, they were old. There were no kids my age among any of the cousins, and we weren't that close to the rest of the family anyway, so I had to either look for kids outside the family to play with or, more often, just fend for myself. Being forced upon my own resources very early probably explains my rich internal life now, and the fact that I've always felt like a law unto myself.
There were always Grandma and Grandpop Cherry and Grandma and Grandpop Mac. I never knew Grandma Cherry (another Minnie--what are the chances?), who died before I was born. Grandpop Cherry (another James) I only remember as ancient from the day I first set eyes on him. He lived in a nursing home and came to our house occasionally for Sunday dinners. I remember him as distant and rather austere. That austerity was passed on to his children, including my father. My mother and father spent little time socializing with my father's siblings, there being not a great deal of warmth or closeness, and my father was standoffish and never shared much of himself. Grandpop Cherry died at 90 in 1953.
Then there was my mother's family. Other people have warm, apple pie- and lavender-scented memories of their grandmothers. Not I. I remember my grandmother's house as chaotic and not very clean. Instead of huge family dinners, Grandma Mac was known for her enormous lunches, where you'd find piles of white bread, all sorts of deli cheeses and meats, salads and beer.
My mother was the eldest of five living siblings. Fixing things when they went awry for her brothers and sisters, as well as for her parents, seemed to fall naturally upon her shoulders, and she always felt both duty-bound to carry out these duties and resentful of them at the same time. Grandpop was a larger-than-life Scotsman, 6'3" and well over 200 lbs. He dominated any room he was in, as he dominated his family, especially his wife. He could be violent and crass. He was a diabetic who took his insulin, but did little else to look after himself.
When I entered the picture Grandma and Gandpop Mac were living in a townhouse in Washington, at 3rd and I Streets NW. In the early 50s they bought half of a duplex in the new subdivision of Hillcrest Heights, in close-in Prince George's County, Maryland. Every Tuesday for many years, before I started school and during summers after, I traveled with my mother to her parents' house, where she picked up the pieces of the previous week. She would help clean the house, do laundry, take Grandma shopping. When Grandpop's diabetes became more serious, it was my mother who studied low-sugar and low-fat diets and devised menus for him, even cooked the meals. (An interesting aside: Grandma and Grandpop built the first "Florida room" I had ever seen onto that house, complete with louvered, "jalousie" glass windows. They bought some very beautiful, heavy rattan furniture for it which is still in the family and nearly priceless today.)
More Saturday. Tomorrow will be an early Food Day.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
And it's not even February yet.
Ok, ok, you live where it's colder and I don't know from cold. You're at zero while we're in the balmy 20s. Here, you'd be sweating, you'd have to wear shorts and a tank top, you'd be having cookouts and taking sunbaths. Well, good for you and your thick blood. I'm cold!
In 1958 Falls Church had a snowstorm with just the right conditions to knock out our electricity for a week. How cool! You could see your breath in the house. We camped out inside. We had a fireplace and a gas stove, so we didn't starve. Somehow our plumbing withstood the cold--no pipes broke, so we could still flush the toilets. We had no TV, but we didn't miss it, because my mother had only recently lifted her year-long embargo on it. A while earlier, she had decided that she hated the noise and the crazy laugh tracks and just wanted quiet. If there was something really good on we'd go to the neighbors' and make an evening of it. So we got used to reading, or talking, or listening to music on the radio, where at that time stations were still --radical notion--trying to cater to the broadest possible audience and so played a huge variety of musical styles.
When we finally dug out we felt how animals must feel after hibernation--except we weren't starving. Here are the two neighborhood kids I grew up with, Judy Clever and Don Miller, on the first day out. You can see most of the snow is gone--it took that long for the electricity to be restored.
It's about 45 minutes since I started writing. Nothing falling yet. Will the weatherman be proven a liar once again? The sky is still enceinte. I'll be perfectly happy as long as we don't have a replay of 1958.
Judy and Don, where are you????
Monday, January 21, 2008
I was in the third grade in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision. My state of Virginia had thumbed its nose at the federal government and mounted a campaign it called "massive resistance" to the de-segregation of schools. At that very moment, one of the most influential characters of my life entered the scene: Inez Pratt, my third-grade teacher.
Mrs. Pratt's husband worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they had spent years among the Hopi and Navajo in Arizona. She was full of stories about the Indians, as we unself-consciously called them back then. She made it her business, in the gentlest way imaginable, to teach lessons of equality and fairness as she spoke of the Hopi, the Navajo, and the Apache. She brought kachina dolls in for us to see, and papery, pink and blue Indian corn bread. She told us that even though the Indians had different ways of life from ours, they were Americans, too, and had concerns just like our own. Delicately but persistently she drove the lesson home: we are all alike. It made perfect sense to me. And never once did she mention the events of the day.
Of course, neither had my parents mentioned the current events, because there was no reason to. There were no arguments to be had on the matter. Virginia would resist, the (n-word)s would stay in their place; my parents assumed everyone was on the same page on the issue. But since they'd said nothing about it, and since I didn't watch the news or read the paper at the age of nine, I was completely ignorant of what was going in Virginia. I had different assumptions. Innocently, I brought Mrs. Pratt's lessons about the Indians home to the dinner table. My father, aghast, asked me, "are you a (n-word)-lover?" Oops. I suddenly learned to eat fast. Instantly, my parents were strangers. Worse, they were strangers I didn't like.
Remember, I was nine years old. This was years before another issue, sex and my gay adaptation to it, reared its head. On that score, I had always known that I was somehow different, but I never really dealt with it until I was in college. Once it did became a part of my life, there was of course no way I could share it with the people with whom I'd been mostly angry for the previous 10 years. So we remained estranged until I was well into my thirties. During those years, I did the obligatory holiday and birthday obsevances with them, but mostly I just stayed away. As adulthood forced its way on me, though, I began to miss them. I began to see in myself so many of the good things they had given me and I embraced those qualities. I forgave them for their sins. When Steve came along I was thirty-three, and he just started showing up with me at family functions. Bless my imperfect, racist parents. He was an immediate part of the family. They welcomed him literally with open arms. They helped us move into our first apartment.
When it comes to identity politics, 2008 is not a bad time for us to reflect and say, "be careful what we ask for." As a gay man, I am a card-carrying minority, and oppressed to boot. But I am tired of such high dudgeon. Group identity has overtaken our much more, vitally important, collective identity as members of a society that I believe can still live up to its potential. We are the only country in the world whose founding document contains the words, "all men are created equal." We lose sight of that promise at our peril. We are part of an ongoing experiment in tolerance, and it is only we who can make the experiment succeed. We are apart now in so many ways, but I believe we can close the circle.
Me, I know a little something about closing circles. My mother's last words to me were, "give my love to Steve."
Sunday, January 20, 2008
As for my father, I never knew what his religious beliefs were. He was a newspaper reporter and therefore a cynic about most things; I wouldn't be surprised if he went to his grave a doubter, but that's just my guess. He and I nor anyone else in the family ever talked about it.
I went to college in Kentucky and had my first experience of culture shock there, amazed at the influence the church had on peoples' lives, and at the family crises that arose as children went off to the big city and started learning about things outside the hellfire-and-damnation context of their fundamentalist upbringings. (I did have a crisis with my family, but it had to do with race. I haven't figured out how to write about that yet.) My own religious schooling had been entirely pro forma. My parents wanted me to have some kind of religious foundation but I never sensed that they cared much that I had religious belief, just that I learned about it. My family was living here in Arlington when I was born and I've always thought I was raised in the Episcopal church because there was one within walking distance of the Arlington house. I was 2 1/2 when we moved further out, to Falls Church, Virginia. We eventually joined the namesake church of that city, where I was confirmed, again pro forma, at age 12. I stopped going to church as a teenager, when, one Sunday morning as I was getting up, my parents, from their bed, where they with all good sense were sleeping in, told me to get dressed to go to church. I asked them why I had to do that if they could stay right where they were. They had no answer and that was that.
The Sunday school classes I did go to as a kid were memorable, but not for the religious molding my young mind received. My fourth grade Sunday school teacher had been an intrepid explorer of the world's dangerous places. Every Sunday he regaled the class with stories about close calls he'd had with various wild animals. Never a bible or prayer book was cracked, but maybe he thanked God he survived and made it a religious experience. I don't remember. The next year's teacher taught us about astronomy and the planets. At least that had something to with heaven, or at least the heavens, I guess. He had the class out to his house one night so we could look at the moon through his telescope. Very cool. Even my confirmation classes, which are supposed to imbue young people with Christian and Episcopal doctrine, are most memorable for me now because of the questioning spirit in which the young priest-teacher conducted them. In a session about hell, I asked him point-blank if such a place exists, and he gave me the type of answer you'd get from an intelligent philospher. Does hell exist? This priest basically didn't know. I wish I could thank him now for his blessed honesty.
I have friend in his mid-50s who has lately discovered atheism. He has all the hallmarks of a recent religious convert. He's joined groups, goes to lectures, gets into arguments with believers, and, if nobody stops him, will talk, nonstop, all day, about the good sense atheism makes. He'll berate anyone who doesn't agree. I call him a "born-again atheist." He and his arguments embody the polarization on this topic that has taken over our dear country, whose success as an experiment depends on open-minded pluralism. To think the fundamentalists in South Carolina can't vote for Romney because he's a Mormon and therefore "not Christian." To think the discussion is even taking place....
If there is a hell, maybe this is what it's like.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Here's what I hope I can do: 1. Share some good music from my pretty big (and always growing) collection of just about every kind of music imaginable. 2. Show you some of the things we really like to eat around here and how to make them--and I promise it'll all be simple; some recipes will even involve opening a can or two. 3. Share my observations on life in general without getting all political and angry, with the aim of inspiring you to share back and dialogue. 4. Finally, I want to tell you the story of what other half Steve and I are Up To these days. I'll start that now:
In a nutshell, we're getting ready to move. It's going to be a long process, not really complete until Steve retires in November, 2009. And that's assuming everything goes as we hope. We have big plans, all of which could be dashed by various imponderables. A roller-coaster ride may be in store, and that's what I hope will keep your interest.
Since 2004, we have owned a quarter-acre parcel of waterfront land in Delaware. (The picture at the top of the page is a sunset taken from our dock.) We bought the land originally as a tax write-off after we paid off the house we're in now, in Arlington, Virginia. The land came with a derelict, 1967-model trailer that at some point in its past had been graced with a stick-built addition, creating a new living room and bedroom. When we first saw the place it was like walking into a time capsule. It had been abandoned for several years, and whoever last stayed there disappeared, leaving every belonging behind. It was junk-filled and beyond filthy. In the process of cleaning it up we fell in love with it, and over the years the idea planted itself: when the time comes, demolish the trailer and build a house we can move to when Steve retires and we no longer need to be in the DC area.
Like most middle class Americans, our wealth is in our house. Arlington County (trivia: the smallest county in the United States) is the closest-in DC bedroom community in Virginia. It's filled with graceful older homes on the one hand and is quickly urbanizing on the other. We paid $89.5K for this place in 1981. It is a 2-bedroom colonial very solidly built in 1938. Over the years we have completely re-created the place, adding so many updates and bells and whistles that it is no longer recognizable as the house we originally bought. For your curiosity, here are before and after shots:
This house bought the Delaware land. The plan is to sell it and with the proceeds pay off the land loan AND build a house and end up mortgage-free.
You can see where I'm going with this. Among the many things that can go wrong for us is the...um..real estate market. There was a time, maybe just a year ago, we could be assured of getting at least $600K for this place, and that would have left us comfortable. Now, who knows? We have another year for real estate to get itself right again, so there is always hope. Arlington has been hit by the current market sickness, but not nearly as hard as other parts of the country, indeed, not even as hard as other parts of Northern Virginia.
And here's what else can go wrong. Steve works for a tiny company chartered by the state of California. By some miracle a few years ago it landed the contract to hire and train all of those Transportation Security Administration baggage screeners who make traveling the pleasant experience that it is today. It is a gargantuan project that this mom and pop operation in Sacramento basically doesn't know how to manage, and they have decided they no longer want to be prime on the contract, but sub to another company. The current contract ends in June. If the new company that Steve's employer has hitched its wagon to gets the new contract, Steve may still have a job, depending on what this new, prime company wants to do with him. If that new company doesn't get the contract, all bets are off. Steve needs less than two years to be fully vested. If he can stay where he is for just that short time, we will be golden. If he loses the job, we're up a creek.
I told you it would be interesting. I think the story is worth telling, but I promise we won't be all house, house, house here. When important things happen, or we make some kind of progress one way or another, I'll fill you in. But we'll also have lots more to do.