Wednesday, October 19, 2016

closing the distance

Let it be known that I have far more in common with my gay friends than not.

Like them, I enjoy the pleasures of a good night's sleep, keeping warm during the winter, a nice meal, the presence of loved ones, and the new "Luke Cage" series on Netflix. And let's not forget that I'm also a snazzy dresser. There is much that we share in common; that's why we're friends.

One thing I do not share with them, and never will: I'm not gay. I'm not attracted to other men, and never have been. When I've fallen in love, whether in my teens or in my twenties, my overriding concern has been a fear of rejection, not a fear of discovery. I've never needed to fear for my safety if strangers see me with my partner. No one has ever told me that I'm going to hell for wanting to be with the one I love.

And while adolescence was rough, people generally assumed that I was straight and eventually would find a nice girlfriend, and I did. I never experienced the disorientation that comes from realizing that such fundamental expectations are all wrong. I'm not gay, so all those things are outside my experience.

Thank God for literature. It has the power to close the distance.

A bad book can treat me to an adventure in feudal Japan where all the people talk, behave and interact like 21st-century Americans, right down to their moral sensibilities. An adequate book will at least try to explain feudal Japan and its customs, while a good book will present me with fully realized characters and a setting so that I gain a better understanding of life in feudal Japan.

A truly amazing book is one that not only will help me to understand feudal Japan and the people who lived there, it will give me a personal connection to the era. By the time I'm done reading, I'll have a hunger to know more, and I'll know whether I would be a samurai, a peasant, a ronin or a monk burning incense to the Buddha. Literature can make all these things real and accessible to me.

I can't overstate how important this is. If a book, a movie, a musical, a poem or a song deepens your appreciation of the humanity you share with someone else and it fires a new connection where none had existed, then the creator of that work has accomplished the work of God.

That was my experience with “Fun Home,” a coming-of-age autobiography by artist Alison Bechdel. Originally written in 2006, “Fun Home” depicts Bechdel's childhood growing up in the living quarters of a funeral home, her teen years, and her early adulthood at college and afterward. The book is an odyssey of discovery. Through her experiences, Bechdel comes to understand not only own identity but also that of her father, a distant and inscrutable figure throughout her childhood.

A little over a year-and-a-half ago, my daughter left a copy of “Fun Home” on the kitchen table. It's like she was trying to tell me something. Dad, look! A comic book without a single costumed hero or ridiculous supervillain in sight. You should check this out.

Not only did it avoid superheroes and their melodrama, "Fun Home" was a comic book with a complex plot and complicated characters. In only nine pages, I fell in love with the writing and kept reading until I had finished. As I recall, I didn't leave the bathroom for about two hours.

Not surprisingly, “Fun Home” was adapted for the stage. The show, which won both Tony and Obie awards, opened off-Broadway in 2013 with a script that weaves its way back and forth among the different periods of Bechdel's life, with a few surprises along the way.

Toward the end of the play, when Adult Alison is starting to truly understand her late father, she hears him ask her younger self to join him on a car ride and spend some time together. And then to her wonder, she realizes that Small Alison is no longer on stage; her late father is talking to her. I'm told that the ensuing song, “Telephone Wire,” is considered one of the most moving of the show.

That may be. I haven't listened to the entire cast album, and so I don't know the music particularly well. Still, the one song I do know well is one that affects me powerfully. It's “Ring of Keys.”

In this song the Bechdel character, Small Alison, is in a cafeteria with her father when she sees a masculine-looking woman enter. This stranger is wearing jeans and lace-up boots, instead of properly feminine clothes; and moves with confidence. Small Alison is enraptured with what she sees, and wonders why no one else in the cafeteria responds as she does to this unconventional woman.

“Ring of Keys” isn't a love song. It's a song of recognition. In seeing her, Small Alison for the first time sees something in herself that she had never been able to notice before, because it never occurred to her that it could be there. For the first time in her life, it hits her that she is not the prototypical girl of tea parties and fancy dresses. She's different. She's like this woman.

For all that I have in common with my gay friends, associates and colleagues, I'm not gay. A physical or romantic attraction to another man is something I've never known, which means that there are sizeable pieces of the gay experience that I'll never share.

I make what bridges I can. At times I've had a front-row seat to the misery they've endured when they've come out of the closet and been rejected, and I've invited them to come to my home and join my family. I've witnessed their hurt when lawmakers and Christians have proclaimed a moral right and obligation to deny them a place at the marriage table, and I've screamed like hell to fight for them.

But I've never understood how liberating it must be to have that moment of self-discovery when they discover the missing piece and unlock the secret of how they are different. That essential piece of the gay experience in America has always been foreign to me. It never even occurred to me.

“Ring of Keys” changes that. The song helps me to get it. I listen, and I'm able to perceive and to understand that aha! moment, and through that discovery, I enjoy our common humanity anew, through an experience I can't relate to. It's a wonderfully moving and deeply humbling encounter.

Just think how much of our conflict and division we could resolve, if only we made the effort to listen to one another, especially when we can't relate.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

locker room talk

I didn't want to go there, but it's time to come clean. Like other men, I too have engaged in locker-room talk with friends and made others uncomfortable.

​There are no recordings of what was said, and I would like to claim it was just talk between friends; but the truth is that there was at least one other person present. At the time I was 17, old enough to have known better; but we were teens, it was a Friday afternoon and we'd been working out in the gym together for the past hour to 90 minutes. We were hanging out in the steam room after our workout, and we started to talk.

It was Keith Wisniewski who started things rolling.

"How did you answer the last problem?" Keith asked. We were in sixth form at John Paul College in Rotorua, New Zealand. The maths test we'd had in Miss Gosnell's class was on his mind, the way it gets with teens. He'd discovered earlier that year that I already had covered most of the math subjects back in the States and often explained it more clearly than our teacher did.

So we started talking about the problem, and how to handle exponents when they're negative integers, fractions or mixed numbers; and after a while Brian Kelly joined in. Before long, the three of us were talking about the rest of the test and how our grades stood as a whole for the entire year. A fourth person, in the steam room with us but not a part of our coeterie of friends, soon gave us all an odd look and rose to his feet.

"Bunch of brains," he said, and he left. The door flapped shut behind him, and we all laughed in that mathematically insensitive way we had.

Other times I've engaged in locker room conversation, it's been around topics of which lockers we used and where our particular items are. Once when I was a boy at an indoor swimming pool in Monroeville, Pa., with my brothers and some friends, I opened a locker and found someone else's clothes already there. Ron Page reached in and moved the poor man's underpants to an adjacent locker.

That's as raunchy as it ever got. If anyone tells you otherwise, that all men engage in crude discussions about women, that we brag about sexual conquests real or imagined, and that we boast about committing or attempting to commit sexual assault, two things are true. Either they are lying because they want to feel that their own actions are normative; or they engage in such conversations about other people with such facility that it seems normal to them.

Either way, they have just surrendered all right to be treated with deference and respect. The mouth speaks with the overflow of the heart, and a person who talks that way about women when they're surrounded by other men, is someone who treats women like that when he can.

That's not locker room talk. That's just contempt.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

trump, sexism and the gop's war on women

Maybe it's just me, but I find Paul Ryan's comments condemning Trump's remarks troubling in their own way.

As he forcefully rejects Trump's overt misogyny, Ryan says "Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified." I get what he's saying -- don't treat women like sex objects, here for your gratification. I approve that.

But his phrasing still puts women in a passive position. We champion women. We revere them. It's as though women are incapable of advocating for themselves, or are something otherworldly and thus above the common fray. That is still a way of objectifying women.

I am all for advocating for women's rights, women's education, seeing that society meets the needs of all women,and seeing that women are free to make their own reproductive choices. That includes when, whether and with whom to have sex, and if they want to use contraception (and yes, it means I will defend a woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy even if I personally disagree with her decision).

But is it a champion women want, or an ally? Do they want to be revered and kept from getting themselves dirty, or do they want someone who will respect them and work with them?

In both those cases, I think it's the latter. It sounds like Paul Ryan is saying the former, and if that's the case, the GOP's problem with women goes a lot deeper than a self-impressed bozo like Donald Trump.

Copyright ©2016 by David Learn. Used with permission

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

star wars retrospective

We have about two months left to go until "Rogue One" hits the silver screen, so I think it's time to stop and take stock of where the franchise has been.

The year was 1977. Jimmy Carter was in office, having carved out a victory over President Ford the previous fall. The United States was in an economic slump marked by stagflation. The energy crisis was on, so much so that President Carter was pushing for ways to get the nation off oil and moving toward energy independence, even taking the revolutionary step of adding solar panels to the White House roof. That May, "Star Wars" came out.

Soon Star Wars was everywhere. It wasn't just in movie theaters; it was in schools as children carried their new Star Wars lunchboxes with them. It was in toy stores, with rack after rack of action figures for characters like Hammerhead, whose entire appearance involved turning his head to follow the camera as it panned across the Mos Eisley Cantina. Phrases like "May the Force be with you" dropped into everyday speech, and people waited in line for an hour or more to see the movie.

And somewhere in CBS headquarters, some genius had the idea of filming a made-for-TV Star Wars movie to broadcast.

The basic plot of "The Star Wars Holiday Special" is fairly straightforward. It's Life Day, the most sacred holiday to Wookiees, and Han Solo is doing everything he can to help Chewie get home. Unfortunately, there is an imperial blockade around Kashyyyk, and there are star destroyers on the tail of the Millennium Falcon. While Han and Chewie do their thing, and the imperials do their thing, Chewie's family are at home, wondering if he'll make it home and wondering if they'll ever be free from the jackbooted presence of imperial troops.

A friend of mine recently shared that he had been unaware of this movie, Oh, Jeff. You don't know how lucky you have been.

The holiday special first aired in 1978, a week before Thanksgiving, and not long after we had made the annual switch to standard time. I was 8 years old at the time "The Star Wars Holiday Special" aired, and remember chiefly being disappointed that I was unable to watch the special when it aired, as all my friends did.

We were an excited group when it came to Star Wars. At the lunch table we talked about which action figures and other toys we had. We argued over who had seen Star Wars the most times. We even brought in Star Wars trading cards to show, to share and to trade with one another.

No one talked about the TV special the next day. It was like it hadn't even happened.

In the years since, I heard stories about how bad it was, and it became something of a legend. The movie never aired again, though there were two more made-for-TV Star Wars movies: "Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure" and "Ewoks: The Battle for Endor." Rumor has it that whenever anyone mentions the holiday special to George Lucas, he gets glassy-eyed and acts like he drifted off and missed what you were saying.

(Not that the other Star Wars TV movies were any better. When I let my 5-year-old watch one, she started crying halfway through because an adult was verbally abusing the main character, a young child whose parents had just been killed. I had to turn it off. She's never asked to see the Ewok movies again. Keep in mind that these were all movies made for the holidays.)

As fate and fortune would have it, several years ago a co-worker lent me an nth-generation copy of a videotape of the original "Star Wars Holiday Special." The copy had deteriorated badly. The picture was fuzzy, it jumped, and sometimes it was marred with green and black lines. These were actually the best features.

"A Very Wookiee Christmas," as the movie also is known, is so awful that it's not even fun to watch for how bad it is. It's just awful. I think it may have killed the comedy careers of a few people who were in it. It certainly claimed the lives of a few people who watched it and were unable to change the channel.

The first five minutes are nonstop Wookiee growling, without benefit of subtitles, dubbing or a human interlocutor. Shortly after that Chewbacca's father watches nine minutes of Wookiee porn. Other highlights include a six-minute Jefferson Starship video, the world's least funny humor sketch starring Harvey Korman (three of them), a really bad musical number with Bea Arthur set at the Mos Eisley Cantina, a 10-minute cartoon that introduces Boba Fett but still isn't enough to redeem the special, and finally Carrie Fischer singing for Life Day.

You might think that the presence of performers like Harvey Korman and Bea Arthur would make this something to see. You would be wrong. Long before the movie is over, you're left feeling sad for them, that their careers actually came to this.

There are other things that the intervening years have allowed me to forget, a gift of time for which I am immensely grateful. The only good parts of the movie feature Chewbacca and Han Solo, or they are clips taken from the actual "Star Wars" movie.

Here it is, but I strongly advise against watching it.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

ajax remembered

It is a lonely soul that has never known the love of a dog, but let's not kid ourselves. Sometimes "man's best friend" is just phoning it in.

When I was a humble schoolteacher living in Haiti, I had a large black Labrador retriever for a companion. ​Named after one of the heroes of "The Iliad," at 80 pounds Ajax was a mountain of a dog. Dogs are abundant in Haiti, but they are a melange of many breeds and usually weigh no more than 20 to 30 pounds. At more than 80 pounds, Ajax was a bruiser, and when I took him places with me, people gave us a wide berth.

Ajax also was solid black, and had both a red leash and a red collar. As black and red are colors associated with voodoo, these became even more reasons for people to avoid him.

Ah, if only they knew. Ajax looked tough, he had a tough name, and he barked even tougher, but that dog was a quivering mass of useless.

Consider the evening I went to visit my friend Brian van Wyhe. Brian had injured himself on his motorcycle and consequently was taking it easy and watching the house of a friend near our school while the friend was in the United States. This was in the spring of 1994, at the height of the embargo before the U.S. invasion, and gasoline was at a premium. Ajax and I had walked three miles or so to see Brian, and now we were walking back.

This involved walking past a police checkpoint on Route de Delmas where a police officer stopped me and asked for proof that Ajax was mine, in an attempt to shake me down for money. I managed to get away without paying anything, partly because I had no money to give him and primarily because I can be a stubborn, respectful person when I need to be.

About two miles uphill, in Petionville, is a second checkpoint, at the start of Route de Kenscoff, the road I would need to take to my apartment. Not wishing a repeat of my previous shake-down, I decided to take a slightly different route through Petionville, and decided to cut through the ravine that runs along Route de Kenscoff.

That was where we met the pack of dogs.

Americans largely think of dogs in the singular. We might own two, or even three, but we typically refer to them as "my dog," or "the family dog." We even engage in charming Western customs like giving the dogs their own dishes to eat from and spending hard-earned money on tins of meat for them. When we're feeling especially cruel, we may even put them in sweaters.

This is not how it works in most of the developing world. Wealthier Haitians may still name their dogs and buy them food and so on, but by and large, dogs there have a function. They protect the people whose homes they live in, by raising the alarm when there is a burglar. For most of Haiti, a dog's only name is chen, and when it raises an alarm it does so as part of a pack of other dogs, with an ungodly chorus of howls, yowls and barking. The commotion is loud enough to wake the dead.

I discovered the truth of this that evening, as Ajax and I entered the ravine and almost immediately were surrounded by a pack of baying, barking, howling dogs. Ajax, who by rights outclassed any three of these dogs put together -- and by "put together," I mean melted down and poured into a very large mold, one with lots of teeth -- did what any loyal dog would do for his master. He rushed into the pack and tore them limb from limb to secure our safe passage.

Ha ha, just kidding! What he really did was to jump up on me for protection and pee on my leg.

People often assume that this reaction means that Ajax was frightened, so badly that he lost control of his bladder like a small child who has had a bad scare at the day care. What we forget is that dogs use urine the way Americans use things like trademarks and cease-and-desist letters. It's meant to mark something as their own and to warn others from trying to take it. Essentially Ajax was telling the other dogs, "This one is mine. Get your own dinner somewhere else."

We ultimately made it through the ravine and got up to Route de Kenscoff fine, unharmed by the dogs and probably giving all the Haitians whom we had woken up something to laugh about.

To this day, I am certain there are tales told in Petionville of the dumb blan who wanders through packs of semi-feral dogs and risks a severe mauling, just to avoid the police. There probably also are debates over whether this isn't actually a good idea, all things considered.

Another time, when I had been up late grading tests and student writing by candlelight, I stepped outside my basement apartment, dressed in my pajamas and wearing sandals to avoid stepping on scorpions or centipedes.

Ajax, always eager to be with me, followed me out. A moment later, he jumped up onto me as was his wont, but missed and hit the apartment door. The door swung shut and latched. With my key inside.

It was 1 a.m. and my landlord, while he lived upstairs, was sound asleep. There was a bench outside my apartment, and though I wasn't adequately dressed to sleep outside at that time of year, it wasn't like I had much choice.

I stretched out on the bench, a 90-pound black Lab curled up on the porch beside me, and slept until 7 a.m. when the landlord came out, saw me, and let me back in.

That dog was such a goofball. I really miss him.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission

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