Monday, 31 March 2008

Chance Encounter with an Old Friend

There I was. Walking down the street, minding my own business. And what should slap me in the face but a giant cooch!

Of course, there was a woman attached. Like most men, I’m programmed to view her as nice, but merely a gift-with-purchase.

Coming from a gay guy, you might find that last sentence odd. Isn’t our programming different? In some ways, perhaps. And in some ways, we’re a little less different than we seem.

As a confused youth, headbang8 consorted with the fairer sex quite a bit—he certainly gave it the good ol’ college try.

And why not? What’s not to like?

Take tits. I get tits. Could play with tits for days. Bouncy, silly, innocent, tasty, curious, ticklish, fun. Generously-nippled and endlessly unpredictable.

Tits have real personality. Think about how they get all dolled up into a nicely cleavaged bust, looking a million dollars, ready to go out and meet the world eye to eye. Think about them when your lover is lying on her back, her breasts at ease—nipples akimbo, pointing to four and eight o’clock, opening her heart to you.

The vagina, though, remained a stumbling block.

My father had no stash of Playboys for me to discover, nor god forbid, share on the sly. Headbang’s first glimpse of snatch was when he and the young lady were already en flagrante.

Oooh. Scary.

A woman can be groomed, coiffed and manicured. She can keep herself perfect as a work of art. But a vagina betrays all that. It reminds you that woman is animal. It just seems so out-of-character with the rest of her.

That poster on the corner, not five doors from my house, was the first time I’d confronted female anatomy in quite a while. My first reaction was one of sheer delight to live in Europe, since you could never plaster your privates over a billboard in, say, Alabama. My second reaction was, yep, I’m still gay.

The poster sits outside a museum called the Villa Stuck, which is no stranger to the odd flash of gash. Expressionist painter Franz Stuck built it as his studio and atelier, after he married a rich American widow, of course. Some say that the Villa Schtup is the single building that most typifies the Munich Jugendstil style of art noveau, for which the city (and my neighbourhood in particular) is justly famous.

When the building and furniture won a Grand Prix at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, the Kaiser waved his magic wand and turned plain-old Herr Stuck into the glamourous Count von Stuck. This gave him license to be decadent, horny and perverse—the privilege of aristocrats everywhere.

Count von Stuck mainly painted figures from Greek and Roman mythology, which provided an excuse for them all being rather compromised in the clothing department. His most famous piece, The Sin (1893), caused a sensation. Hell, it caused all kinds of sensations.

One of the things that attracted me to the neighbourhood was the Villa’s roof full of tasteful dickage, ready to make a long wait for the nearby tram pass that little bit faster.

It’s grand to see that the current masters of the museum are staying true to Stuck’s spirit in their choice of temporary exhibitions. The current show lasts ‘til July. Plenty of time for the minge and me to reminisce.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Letter to a Christian friend, number two.

Thank you for your splendid invitation to have another debate!

Now, for those readers who may wish to join in—and I encourage them—let me point out three things.

The first is that we both enjoy vigorous discussions on matters of importance, and have since a young age. For you, I note that it grows from an intellectually demanding girlhood cultivated in the company of exceptional young women and the smart, articulate adults who surrounded you. For me, I grew to love intellectual debates because, in my family, we weren’t allowed to have emotional ones.

The second fact is that you are a believer. I am not. Your faith runs deep, with many levels of nuance and colour. With my limited gifts, I cannot hope to capture them here. Forgive me if I do not do them justice.

The third thing is that we disagree, and disagree with the greatest love and respect for each other.

Calling bullshit on me.

You’re quite right to chide me over that previous post.

It’s true, of course, that people don’t abandon religious faith just because their leaders betray it. Look at the Europeans who kept the faith after their crowned heads bit the dust, as you point out. It can be argued that those who kept the faith in a newly republican age (e.g. France) fared better than those who consciously purged it (e.g. Russia).

Faith weaves its way profoundly into our culture and civilization. A bedrock of shared beliefs are what make us function collectively, no? Morals are, at their most basic level, beliefs.

Now, you’ll notice a little semantic trickery here. I’ve substituted the word belief for faith. The two are not the same.

One can easily form a belief on the basis of what one sees, hears, or feels. Mostly, that’s how one does it. I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow because I’ve seen it before. I believe my baby likes bananas, because she wolfs them down greedily. I believe good health is our most precious asset, because I have seen illness.

When one hasn’t felt, seen or heard it, but still believes it, that’s faith. There is much that is real, but not tangible—even the most strident atheist must concede that point.

If you have faith, you don’t demand to be shown the truth. Demanding proof misses the point. Many faithful argue that it takes greater moral courage to believe in the sublime, than to believe in the obvious and demonstrable. A God is one such thing.

Blowing god’s cover.

I challenge you. You do have evidence of God. It’s called love. That’s what the scripture says, no? God is love.

Me? I like to cut out the middle man. I believe in love. Love created the universe. Love is eternal. Love is truth. Love is my Higher Power at Al-anon meetings. I ask myself, in any situation, what would love do? Love, I can feel. God, I can’t.

Love acts as a moral guidepost for me in the way god acts as a guide for many others. Sometimes, I don’t always live up to what love expects of me, and I need to ask forgiveness from those whom I love and whom I have wronged. I don’t mind telling you, this is a lot harder than rattling off a few Hail Marys outside the confessional.

When you reject the power of love as your personal saviour, and take a God instead, bad things can happen. Let’s start with Cain killing Abel, and follow the path to 11/9.

Of course, just because bad things are done in God’s name doesn’t make God—or a belief in Him—inherently bad. Bad things happen without the help of a God, too. I kind of wish all things that we associate with god were evil, rather than just some of them; it would prove He exists, in a perverse way.

Belief first, religion second. Or vice-versa?

Now, here is a big question. No believer has yet answered the question to my satisfaction.

Many of the faithful honour god by living a moral life, whether that life aligns fully with their church doctrine or not. After all, as Barack Obama recently said, the faithful can, and should, differ with their clergy. Most people do, from time to time. It’s your responsibility.

Fine. You may not believe that the words of bible and clergy are literally true—your own personal relationship with God tells you that. So why use such tools for ethical signposts?

Is the Bible any better moral guidance than, say, Aesop’s Fables? (Most of the Fables make better sense than the Bible, and they pre-date it, too.) The Buddhist belief in karma feels much richer and more loving than the Golden Rule, and predates it. And what about the doctrine of good ol’ common sense?

Which texts hold the greatest truth and wisdom? In which should you place more faith?

Does the church not express the congregation’s faith? Does the church express their faith but not their beliefs?

An interesting position on the part of the faithful, don’t you think? The ever-handy Sam Harris points this out. He writes that most Christians, in order to maintain their belief in what is morally good, decent and humane, live in quite bad faith with their professed religion. Most certainly in bad faith with much of scripture.

I did one of those little internet quizzes recently. It was supposed to tell you what religion best fits your beliefs. (Jeez. Raised a Catholic, I thought it worked the other way round—you religion tells you what to believe. Ah, the modern age!)

Well, it seems that Mr. Loudmouth Out-and-Proud Atheist here is really, underneath is all, most like a mainstream Anglican. What a pussy I am! What lousy Christians the Anglicans must be!

So what?

Are all these tasteful bourgeois churchgoers harmless hypocrites? Depends on how you define harmless.

Does it really matter that Catholics divorce? That Jews eat bacon on the sly? That fundies philander? That gays continue to worship in churches which condemn them?

Personally, I think it’s a very good thing indeed that most Christians are hypocrites. We would live in a horrid world otherwise. But alas, moderate Christians legitimise and often fund the debased activities of the doctrinaire ones.

Mainstream Catholics are perhaps the worst offenders. Public, secular courts brought abusive clergy to justice. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file laity disbelieved the word of their own sons, and fed the collection plate handsomely. For decades.

When the faithful stop relying on the distinction between professed faith and personal belief to wash their consciences of the evil committed in their name, that difference will actually mean something.

As I have said, my recent spell in the USA made me a Bolshie on this matter. I’m a terrible hypocrite in many ways—hey, I work in advertising—but this is one subject on which I will broach no hypocrisy. It’s too important, and the consequences too dangerous. As individuals, as a culture, and as a civilization, we can no longer afford to give matters of faith a special privilege. Faith does not prove truth. Often, it does not serve the cause of love. We know better.

I am really, really looking forward to our next exchange!

All my love,


For those of you who are interested, the pictures were snapped in:

Kitzbuehl, Tyrol 2008
Montepulciano, Tuscany 2007
Indian Village, Detroit 2004

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

(Previously) Wordless Wednesday

I posted this entry as a contribution to Wordless Wednesday. But several people emailed me, asking to explain it. So, readers, this Wednesday entry is no longer wordless.

The pictures show an art installation in the guise of an animator's studio. (it was actually in a gallery space on the top floor of a mega-trendy furniture design store, on the Gaien-Higashi Dori in the racy Tokyo night-club district of Roppongi)

I have the artist's name written in kanji somewhere, but really can't decipher it. The animator was a student who developed a historical interest in the old pencil-test techniques which animators used in order to get the flow right on paper, before ink 'n' paint guys put the images on cell.

Rather than settle for the rough drawings of a pencil-test, this young man decided he would make proper pencil drawings (with shading and all that stuff) and animate them. That means one gets so-called "boil", where the outlines and pencil strokes don't quite line up from cell to cell, so the lines look a little like they're wiggling.

He worked on the hoof; completing a sequence, photographing the paper, and projecting it from his Mac before he stuck the pencil drawings on the wall. The paper images appeared in random order, I might add, so the observer finds it difficult to follow the sequence of movement. That makes it more into installation art than just a public workshop space.

The animator was taking a breather when I visited, so that's really all I know.

Maybe next week, the post will stay wordless!

Monday, 17 March 2008

The Great Interview Experiment. Here's Liz, Juan and family.

Liz's Year in Socks, 2007

Neil Kramer, Los Angeles-based freelance writer had a brilliant idea. It's called The Great Interview Experiment.

He's a blogger commited to the ideal of blogging; to its inherent open-ness and democracy. The moment you hit the Publish Post button, you're a writer, a someone, a documented life. Those lives make fascinating interview subjects, as much as any writer's life and outlook does. So he has been matching up bloggers to read each other's work, and interview one another on what they read.

I got lucky. My first interview subject was Liz, a mom from Richmond, Virginia, in the good-ol' US of A. Just about the coolest mom I've ever met.

It took a bit of coaxing to reveal exactly how cool she is. My first question, I admit, was a little blunt. Your life and my life are about as different as it is possible to be. Discuss.

She pulled me up on that one. Liz has sure earned her gay cred. She acted as a social worker in NYC in the late eighties, dealing specifically with AIDS patients. Remember, this was back in the days when no-one knew how HIV was transmitted, or, indeed, what HIV was. To associate with gay men...well, no-one quite knew if it was safe. Liz didn't let this daunt her, and she writes of the warmth she shared with the gay men she came to know. Bravo, Liz.

She also writes that the chaps gave her a very, very gay baby shower when she became pregnant with her first son, Alex, now 16. I can't really imagine what a gay baby shower might have looked like, except the pacifiers would have been interesting. I hope that both Alex and his sister Monica have a brace of gay pretend-uncles who continue to provide them with different perspectives on life.

Speaking of the kids, they have been on a smile moratorium since they became teens, and that kind of irritates their mom. I probed for a family-dynamics explanation of this, and sure enough, Liz confessed up front. She's the "family papparazzi" (should that be papparazza?). She loves to take pictures of her kids whenever they do something that delights her, which is pretty much all the time. The go-slow campaign on the smiles is designed, she thinks, to discourage her guerilla snapshots.

Now, Alex and Monica, listen up. Here's how real celebrities deal with the papparazzi. You surrender yourself for a photo-op every so often, smile for the camera, and then they leave you alone for a while. Try it.

Liz has a racy story about how she fell in love with her husband, Juan. Oh, and she's a master at all the puns on the name Juan, too. So don't try to get Juan up on her.

We discussed how, from time to time, she prepares Elvis-style fried bologna sandwiches for her family. Living in Europe, ironically, one cannot find bologna luncheon meat. Not even in Bologna. I asked if I might not substitute, say, mortadella? I shall never ask that question again. She is an Elvis gourmet purist.

But after her family, her passion is knitting socks. Now, this is obvoiously more than just a hobby for her; she's a real sock savant. Her 2007 output is recorded above, minus those lost in the tragic kittens-in-the-knitting-basket-catastrophe.

Personally, I think that she should turn this into a business. I can see it now. Elizabeth of Richmond. Bespoke Knitter. Quality Undergarments for the Feet. Remember not to underprice yourself, Liz.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Should I trash the War Memorial?

I own a calendar. Like many calendars of its day, this one has a huge ornamental image on top. The image is an American flag, colours rich and deep, with the flags of the fifty states arranged in a clockwise circle around it. These flags follow the order of accession to statehood, starting with Delaware and ending with Hawaii. My home state of Pennsylvania, though a crucial player in American independence, lagged behind the other colonies in signing on the dotted line. Our rather unremarkable flag hides, anonymously, in sixth place. An exquisitely kerned Pledge of Allegiance sits below the central image.

For every day except Sundays, up to and including August 9th,1974, someone has written a single digit number. That day—a Thursday—is marked in red. Thereafter, the hand-written numbers stop.

The calendar was a freebie from the American Ex-Serviceman's Association of Australia, South Australia sub-branch, of which my father was a member. Had he not scored it for free, we would have made do with the Columban Calendar, bought at church every year "to support the missions". Much less flashy, the Columbans showed instructive pictures of their order at work. Perhaps a priest baptising adult Pakistani heathen, a brother teaching the catechism to a bulging classroom of Filipino kids, or a nun washing the eye of an aboriginal child blinded by trichnosis.

The Columban calendar had one advantage. Plenty of space to write doctor's appointments (often missed) due dates for bills (often ignored) and vitally, the number of bottles we asked the milkman to deliver each morning.

Our family drank loads of milk (You can see it today in our waistlines). Raised on cartons of fifties-style Homo Milk in Pittsburgh, one of the pleasures of moving to an Australian suburb was a gentleman who delivered actual glass bottles of fresh, straight milk. Real milk in real milk-bottle-shaped bottles, sealed with a heavy foil cap which we opened by depressing it in the middle with our thumbs.

By straight, I mean that the milk was most decidedly not Homo. The Southern Farmer’s Dairy Co-operative bottled the stuff practically from the cow’s teat. Cream sat in a layer on the top—sometimes a very thick layer, especially in winter, when the pastures were rich and the cows a bit lazy. We kids loved this layer of cream for iced coffee and other treats; creamy chocolate milk is the best. Of course, we got yelled at if we opened a new bottle of milk, just to get the cream, while another remained opened in the fridge.

Mostly, my father conducted the morning milk audit. He was the earliest riser, and the grumpiest about how much the world was out to cheat him. He railed against the milkman—otherwise a perfectly nice chap, I thought—because he always tried to up-sell us to home delivered butter, cheese, or some damn thing.

Checking the milk tally, and recording it on the calendar, was one of the few bits of family life that interested my father. Unfortunately, the American Flag Calendar wasn’t quite up to the task.

The functional bit with dates and such huddled at the bottom on a pad of blueprint paper. It was always meant to occupy a wall in a school, church or clubhouse; to be used for planning scout camps or bake sales, or reminding us when Easter was. Not to act as a diary for those like my mother, too scatterbrained to write things down on anything substantial, like one of those newly-trendy Filofaxes. Waste of money to buy anything so vain and self-important as a diary, went the family line.

I can’t recall what started the daily argument on August 9th. I think the milkman left fewer bottles than he’d been asked. An oversight, perhaps? Maybe he’d just run out. No biggie, one would have thought.

My father was outraged. We had better damn well make sure that we check the bill at the end of the week. Or does nobody care about saving money in this house, greedy spendthrifts that we were?

This led to my mother making a few remarks bout the relative levels of industry which the two heads of household displayed. My mother had recently gone back to work, and my father had been laid off from his job. Perhaps it might be he who should check the bill at the end of the week, since he had nothing better to do?

My mother wasn’t trying to start an argument. She never tries to start an argument. She hates arguments. She simply has no idea that anything she says might cause offense. She just opens her mouth, and when someone takes her words to heart, she has no other reply than a blank, confused stare.

My father always took it to heart. Anger was a hobby.

Now, I’m not sure exactly what they said. How the number of bottles of milk led to affairs of the heart. But at one stage, it became apparent there was an elephant in the room. And it was up to me, eldest son, just turned sixteen, to identify it. After all, they both taught me (at the end of a strap) to tell the truth.

“Well, if that’s the way you feel,” I remarked to my parents, “why don’t you get a divorce?”

I had rubbed the genii out of the lamp, and none of us could recant him. From then on, the arguments weren’t about milk bottles. Not about who was idle and who busy, nor about the hundreds of small snags that family life throws up every day—stuff that most families dispense with in an instant , but which stopped us dead in our tracks and ended in misery and reproach. Now, the issue was divorce. Every argument focused on how much the two spouses hated each other, and how each would be out of the marriage in an instant if the other would just be reasonable about the divorce conditions.
This would continue for another eight years.

One thing that did not continue was anyone marking the number of milk bottles left out for the milkman. Nobody checked the tally; I can’t recall if we even paid the bill very often. Nobody bothered, even, to change the month from August to September.

When the calendar finally came down, I marked the day in red, and kept it. Later, I framed it.

Why? I don’t quite know.

To commemorate a moment of clarity and honesty in the train wreck that was our family life? To congratulate myself for ending a sham? Because it was a nice calendar? No, none of these things.

I kept it to commemorate a tragedy. Kind of like those crosses and flowers people put at the scene of an accident. To honour the suffering. (Mainly, I guess, my own.) I nicknamed this calendar the War Memorial. It has followed me around the world, though in most of the places I lived, there was no spot to hang it. I never even unwrapped it in New York or Munich—the bubble wrap still bears labels from Tokyo.

The other day, I came across the War Memorial. Should I find a spot on the wall for it? Part of me says yes, I should put it on the wall to remind me how far I’ve come. Part of me wants to throw it away; nay, burn it in disgust. Part of me says I could probably get a few bucks for it in the Ephemera and Collectibles section of Ebay.

What do you think I should do? There is a poll at the top of the sidebar, or leave a comment.


The poll is now closed, and you certainly made your opinions clear. Everyone told me to treasure this bittersweet keepsake.

Only two votes dissented. One was me voting from my work computer, and the other was me voting from my home computer. This exercise proved both revealing and theraputic, both in the writing of it and the discussion. Why do I feel so differently from the world at large? Do I really think that trashing keepsakes will erase the past? Probably. All you wiser people are telling me that it won't work, right?

I may well take Arizaphale up on her kind offer. Lemme think about it, Riz.