Ash Wednesday: A Personal History

When I was a kid, Ash Wednesday was one of those extra-props observances, like Palm Sunday. You walked away with face-painting and a few palm leaves, respectively.

Catholic rites are typically more ornate, more involved, higher-production-value productions than their spare Protestant analogs. Beyond the stand-sit-kneel calisthenics, I mean. A wooden, ritualistic pass-it-on handshake, hymns sung at specific times—generally doing double-duty as a backdrop for the less interesting parts of the service. The Transubstantiation: Catholics believe that the wafer of bread actually becomes flesh and blood; this is no mere symbolism, but the very core of what makes Catholics Catholics, and what the Protestants (well, most of them) gave up when they separated from Holy Mother Church. And there’s Holy Communion, of course, the eating of the bread-made-flesh.

When I say that Ash Wednesday was and extra-props day, I must point out that it’s also a very spare ceremony. There doesn’t have to be a full Mass, just a distribution. You queue up just like for Communion, but instead you’re getting marked with ashes from the prior year’s Palm Sunday palms:

“Man, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

That’s what the priest says when he smudges on your forehead a cross with ashy thumb.

I remember walking around all day with that smudge, and feeling a sense of belonging when I’d see strangers with a like smudge. Think of it as sort of a Hanky Code for practicing Catholics, or like seeing the white headphones and wires of an iPod used to identify a Mac user before hell froze over and Apple let Windows people in on the iPod party.

Inwardly, there was a sense of pride, I suppose, or rather a sense of impending martyrdom—or the histrionic hope for such!—while wearing the fetish of Ash Wednesday. I thought people would pick a fight, or make fun. I’d hoped with swollen and prideful ego that I would be challenged so! That I’d defend my faith and my heritage and my choice, and maybe someone else would learn something. It’s entirely possible, little martinet that I was, that I also believed there might be a Conversion or two.

But now, when I look back at it, I guess it was that one outlet a year to be badged as a Catholic without having to explicitly tell people I was—sort of like wearing a rainbow flag or necklace in the 1990s to signify that you were gay. Same kinda thing.

Now that I’ve not been a Catholic for a long time, there still is nostalgia when I see smudges. Oh, the Catholics have found plenty of other ways these days—largely through the mainstream Christian political process—to be out and proud Catholics, but back then. Back then it was the day you were given to be explicit about your faith. Those days of moderation are over, though, replaced with days of whine and rouses.

Maybe be it’s a sign of age that I long for simply, more gracious times, and it’s certainly age that lets me remember days long enough ago that I can be wistful and oversimplifying about the past.

So when you see the smudge today, also hear the words Man, you are dust and unto dust you will return. and note that this is supposed to be a reminder of the humility of the human individual and nothing more.

Tales of the City Again

A little while ago, I decided it was time, again, to read Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. My friend Rex pointed me to them long before I moved to San Francisco. In fact, I bought the first book when I was living in Chicago[land] and was back visiting friends in Pittsburgh. It was a good beginning, starting off in my first adopted home reading a book about the magic of my future adopted home.

I can’t say how many times I’ve read through the six volumes (they’re a rather quick read, full of bursty descriptive passages and a whole lot of snappy dialog), but it has been a long time since the last time.

For how much a constant denim jacket served to measure the changes in me, Tales of the City only reinforced that which endures: my love of San Francisco.

I’m on the third volume, Further Tales of the City, just having finished More Tales of the City, where Mouse writes a coming-out letter to his parents who live in Orlando, FL, and were, at the time, praising that bitch Anita Bryant for her misguided (and misnamed) “Save Our Children” campaign against the perversion of us homosexuals. There’s a siege mentality I seem to have had to adopt lately, when the world, most especially a handful of crazy christians—I’m sure that most of you christians out there are perfectly loving and decent and kind people—set out to tell you they don’t judge you but that your relationships just aren’t as good and natural as theirs; who “love the sinner, hate the sin” and then set out to force you into accepting their perverse notion of “sin”; and who promise eternity and trivialize this earthly existence while simultaneously throwing away their own ethics just to remake the world in their own image.

But reading Michael Mouse’s letter to his parents reminded me that positivity works better than finger-pointing, works better than a defensive posture, and just plain works better for me, I decided that I would include that letter here (without permission from Mr. Maupin):

Dear Mama,

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. Every time I try to write to you and Papa I realize I’m not saying the things that are in my heart. That would be O.K., if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my parents and I am still your child.

I have friends who think I’m foolish to write this letter. I hope they’re wrong. I hope their doubts are based on parents who loved and trusted them less than mine do. I hope especially that you’ll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my continuing need to share my life with you.

I wouldn’t have written, I guess, if you hadn’t told me about your involvement in the Save Our Children campaign. That, more than anything, made it clear that my responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant.

I’m sorry, Mama. Not for what I am, but for how you must feel at this moment. I know what that feeling is, for I felt it most of my life. Revulsion, shame, disbelief—rejection through fear of something I knew, even as a child, was as basic to my nature as the color of my eyes.

No, Mama, I wasn’t “recruited.” No seasoned homosexual ever served as my mentor. But you know what? I wish someone had. I wish someone older than me and wiser than the people in orlando had taken me aside and said, “You’re all right, kid. YOu can grow up to be a doctor or a teacher just like anyone else. You’re not crazy or sick or evil. You can succeed and be happy and find peace with friends—all kinds of friends—who don’t give a damn who you go to bed with. Most of all, though, you can love and be loved, without hating yourself for it.”

But no one ever said that to me, Mama. I had to find it out on my own, with the help of the city that has become my home. I know this may be hard for you to believe, but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being.

These aren’t radicals or weirdos, Mama. They are shop clerks and bankers and little old ladies and people who nod and smile to you when you meet them on the bus. Their attitude is neither patronizing nor pitying. And their message is so simple: Yes, you are a person. Yes, I like you. Yes, it’s all right for you to like me, too.

I know what you must be thinking now. You’re asking yourself: What did we do wrong? How did we let this happen? Which one of us made him that way?

I can’t answer that, Mama. In the long run, I guess I really don’t care. All I know is this: If you and Papa are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart, for it’s the light and the joy of my life.

I know I can’t tell you what it is to be gay. But I can tell you what it’s not.

It’s not hiding behind words, Mama. Like family and decency and Christianity. It’s not fearing your body, or the pleasures that God made for it. It’s not judging your neighbor, except when he’s crass or unkind.

Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. I has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength.

It has brought me into the family of man, Mama, and I like it here, I like it.

There’s not much else I can say, except that I’m the same Michael you’ve always known. You just know me better now. I have never consciously done anything to hurt you. I never will.

Please don’t feel you have to answer this right away. It’s enough for me to know that I no longer have to lie to the people who taught me to value the truth.

Mary Ann sends her love.

Everything is fine at 28 Barbary Lane.

Your loving son,
Michael

•••

By the way, the bold-face emphasis is mine.

From my point of view, as a gay man, as a San Franciscan, as an observer of the world, this ‘Letter to Mama’ is about the most profoundly and simply honest and accurate representation of what it’s like to be a gay man in San Francisco, watching the rest of the world get its collective panties in a twist.

It does sadden me that ‘family’ and ‘decency’ and ‘Christianity’ are still words that the cruelly pious hide behind, that there are now legions of Anita Bryants out there, and that twenty-five years have passed since this ‘letter’ was first written.

I guess that some bad things endure as well.

Michael Mouse never let it get him down for too long; I shouldn’t, either.

Dellllllllicious Irony!

Through some rather twisted websurfing path (thanks, hoody!), I arrive at Capitalism Magazine. Some Danish guy wrote a rather unscientific, rather unsupportable book about the purported lies and exaggerations among current “radical” environmentalist thought. I was accused of ignoring questions about this guy, questions that were never asked in the first place.

Long, perverse story. Anyhoo, check out the link to Capital Magazine, the magazine “in defense of individual rights”, go to the right side bar, to the last paragraph there:

Capitalism Magazine survives on donations.

Quantity vs Persistence

Have you see the Napster To Go [Away?] ads? Here’s the marketing mathematics:

iTunes + iPod = $10,000 (to fill an iPod from iTMS)
[various clunky MP3 players] + Napster = $15/month

Isn’t that interesting? Oh My Goddess, you mean I can just spend $15 per month—why, that’s only 50¢ a day!—instead of ten thousand dollars to have full use of my iPod? Why, this can’t lose!

Now, there are many times where I see certain similar patterns in very different domains. This is just the garden-variety human ability to abstract and generalize; this is just one mechanism of learning.

I knew that Napster’s math was off of reality for a few reasons, but the pattern of this struck me more fundamentally that just a lame attempt by an also-ran to grab attention to itself. There are other examples of this line of thought, but they’re boring.

No, the more interesting part of this is what compromises Napster is making of itself here in order to compete with a more natural model (i.e., ownership). It’s the same compromise of ethic that many of the religions—or at least the most visible and extremist members of such religions—are making: they’re trading long-held ethics for the shot at a Transient More. They’ve traded their own morality, their own compassion, in favor of political prepotence. A ridiculously unworthy trade, but there they are, giving away their own permanence in favor of cheap shots at homosexuals, punishment of women who dare believe they should have a say over their own reproductive systems. Make no mistake…these religious types are the modern day Pharisees…they are the money-changers in the temple. They are the Caesar that the fringy, unwashed hippies and other liberals are supposed to be rendering unto.

Rome has come and gone (though it’s making a return these days), but the Christians had endured because they chose the path of permanence. And now they’re cashing in.

So you Napsters out there, pay your $15/month. Five years from now, you’ll have paid out $900 and if you stop paying, or more likely, if Napster shuts down, you’re out $900. If I buy $15 worth of songs from iTunes Music Store every month, after 5 years I’ll have 900 more songs. Oh, you’ll still have all those old songs too, the ones that Napster doesn’t want you to remember you have, but you’re throwing your energy away while I am investing mine.

So you Christians out there, pay your political dues and cash in. Years from now, you’ll have emptied your moral and ethical stores and if you stop politicking, or more likely, if your party comes crashing down, you’re out of all decency. If I continue to do what’s right, what’s compassionate, what’s decent, what’s freedom-loving, what’s respectful, years from now, I’ll have my pride and the world around me will be better because of me. Oh, you’ll still have the right to claim a lifelong devotion to the Jesus-meme, the one that the Falwells and Robertsons don’t want you to remember you have, but you’re throwing all of your energy into their campaigns instead of towards your god, while I, with no god to speak of, am investing in my fellow human beings.

Marketing messages are funny, aren’t they?

Prey for Our Leaders

Set ‘em up, knock ‘em down, George.

You simply lied. We still don’t know the real State of the Union, we just know what you told us. Which isn’t much.

“Federal spending should not rise any faster than the paychecks of American families”

Beg pardon? How much has spending risen under your watch? How much has my paycheck risen?

“Tonight, let us bring to all Americans who struggle with drug addiction this message of hope: The miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you.”

Recovery is not a miracle; it’s hard work by a person to recover. Don’t trivialize the efforts of those who worked so hard to get better.

“Tonight I’m proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.”

I know you, like, own the entire government, George, but I don’t think that endows you with the powers to change the laws of physics. Producing hydrogen fuel is costly and does produce pollution. And why hydrogen? There are other cleaner solutions. Hmmmm, do you have friends who stand to make a ton of cash if hydrogen is the fuel of choice? Where is your $1.2B going?

[15 lines on AIDS]

Apparently, gays aren’t a high-risk group anymore, George? Gee, thanks! Condoms be gone!

•••

Quite a speech last night, huh? Except the above quotes weren’t from it. They were from 2003. How’s he done in 2 years?

This year was SOOO much better:

“My budget substantially reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs that are not getting results, or duplicate current efforts, or do not fulfill essential priorities. The principle here is clear: A taxpayer dollar must be spent wisely, or not at all.”

Is this the end of No Straight Child Left Behind, then?

“It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists.”

In other words, come and do our shit jobs, pay taxes, but don’t expect to be represented or protected in any way at all.

“During the 1990s, my predecessor, President Clinton, spoke of increasing the retirement age. Former Senator John Breaux suggested discouraging early collection of Social Security benefits. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended changing the way benefits are calculated.
All these ideas are on the table. I know that none of these reforms would be easy. But we have to move ahead with courage and honesty, because our children’s retirement security is more important than partisan politics. I will work with members of Congress to find the most effective combination of reforms.

In other words, let’s assign Democratic names to the hard choices, and then offer nothing of our own.

”Here is why personal accounts are a better deal. Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver and your account will provide money for retirement over and above the check you will receive from Social Security.“

Will you provide a guarantee that the money will not dwindle, George? If so, will you cover my investments in Enron and Worldcom, too? I mean, like, your Daddy did for S&Ls…

”Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society, it should not be redefined by activist judges. For the good of families, children and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage.“

Coward. Say it. C’mon, say it! As Martin Luther once said, ”Sin bravely.“ C’mon, George. You’re stuck, aren’t you? Hate to say the word ‘gay’ because it gives the reality airtime, but then again, how can you really hate something unless you slap a label on it first? At least the crazy crackers of the religio-republican blogosphere boldly state their hate. Can you do any less?

”The Constitution also gives the Senate a responsibility: Every judicial nominee deserves an up or down vote. Because one of the deepest values of our country is compassion, we must never turn away from any citizen who feels isolated from the opportunities of America.“

Oh, Pinocchio…

”Because HIV/AIDS brings suffering and fear into so many lives, I ask you to reauthorize the Ryan White Act to encourage prevention, and provide care and treatment to the victims of that disease.
And as we update this important law, we must focus our efforts on fellow citizens with the highest rates of new cases, African-American men and women.“

Again, no gays? What are you really saying, George? That only white people deserve the luxury of the occasional D.L.?

”In America we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit, so we are dramatically expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction.“

Translation: we kill people in TX and boy is there egg on our faces when we’re wrong!

”The United States has no right, no desire and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else. That is one of the main differences between us and our enemies. They seek to impose and expand an empire of oppression, in which a tiny group of brutal, self-appointed rulers control every aspect of every life.“

Say it with me: Democracy for Islam!

”Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens and reflect their own cultures. And because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.“

…and democracies that are placed instead of gradually grown are so much easier to attach marionette strings to…

”Today, Iran remains the world’s primary state sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve. We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing, and end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.“

I always wondered what sound was made by that first shoe dropping.

”And the whole world now knows that a small group of extremists will not overturn the will of the Iraqi people.“

This one may come back to bite you on the ass, George.

”The attack on freedom in our world has reaffirmed our confidence in freedom’s power to change the world. We are all part of a great venture: to extend the promise of freedom in our country, to renew the values that sustain our liberty, and to spread the peace that freedom brings.“

Extending the promise of freedom, not freedom itself. And the check’s in the mail. And I promise I won’t come in your mouth.

•••

I grew up never understanding that saying what was on your mind was anything other than the default. I never really knew what it meant to be materially injured for having one belief or another (well, except for how the Catholics in my church and the Protestants elsewhere treated Madeleine Murray O’Hare). I credit the ideals of the United States for that. But in reality, it was a straight white suburban cocoon, sequestered away from the reality of living.

Being a gay white male gives one an interesting and rare perspective: the personal experience of having been on both sides of the straight-white-male privilege. Credible discrimination is something that straight white men have never understood, and virtual freedom from discrimination is something that the vast majority non-white and/or non-male persons cannot claim.

It’s exactly why so many gays take so long to come out of the closet; it’s exactly why virulently christian gay men will turn to snake oil for lube salvation.

That straight-white-male privilege knows no class or economic boundaries. Bubbamerica and Pacific Heights both enjoy it. Still-closeted gay men can see how gays are discriminated against through natural empathy and who the hell would want that?

George is one of those straight-white-men who will do as he pleases, not because he doesn’t care that he’s hurting so many of us, but because he can’t possibly understand the kinds of hurt he dishes out.

He’ll never know those who are not like him. He’s a hunter. Other-than-hunter is just prey.

He Shall, From Time to Time…

There is no law that requires the President of the United States to appear before a full congress, nor to do so annually, biannually or once a term.

The Constitution simply states that the President “shall from time to time, give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” That’s it. Nothing more is said about it. In fact, because there is no law even requiring the President to walk into Congress to give an address, Congress is also not required to make accommodation to the President. Therefore, the President must be invited.

It’s an interesting little tidbit, for the illustration of how it’s often the case that tradition is a more natural, even more universal thing than law. Traditions—maybe because of built-in restrictions or maybe because they exist solely by fiat—tend to be immune to the interpretational whim of a changing culture.

Interesting then, that most political organizations these days—and by political organizations, I include corporations (politics of greed), governments (politics of society) and even religions (politics of the soul)—tend to drive any situation towards the letter of law, seemingly in order to remove interpretability.

But law will always be subject to interpretation, and traditions supposedly not. Look and see how the conservatives, who are supposed to be in favor of the smallest government possible, has no problem passing law after law that grows and grows the government to provide an umbrella over their supposedly strong morals, strong faith.

The strict father of government gets a bigger belt, a longer arm, a more powerful fist and far better eyesight. The Fatherland gets to take the locks off the children’s doors, to chase after women who insist on the right to choose, to slap down weakness, where weakness is defined by Bubba America.

It’s never strong to discuss, instead to dictate; never strong to recognize nuance, instead to broadside with simplistic pablum; never Athens, only Sparta.

Tradition isn’t supposed to be fucked with; moralists always rely on tradition. Morals are relative, morals are subject to Time, morals are a personal matter. Say this to the intravenous aphorism junkies who mainline Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity, and you’ll be called a Liberal or a Traitor or you’ll just have your mike cut off.

These are people with no respect for law, only tradition, even as they deconstruct tradition to suit their Ascendancy.