Friday, December 28, 2012

Winter Wonderings

'Twas the day after Christmas,
And the couple surveyed
The pieces of puzzle,
The joint gift they obtained.

The past few years, Jen and I have used Christmas as a time to purchase a gift for ourselves, something we can do together. This year, we bought a couple of new board games since we enjoy playing games like Yahtzee, Risk, and Word Thief. We also bought a Lego set to assemble.

As kids, we both had the Lego building sets, but we never had the specially designed kits to assemble that are so popular now. So, we decided to try building one of the kits together. We chose the space shuttle because we both had fond memories of the shuttle program as kids, and it looked like a set that would challenge us but not be impossible to build.

We started working on it Christmas Day, and we got the shuttle assembled before going to bed. I'm not sure how many hours it took because we really weren't keeping track. We worked on it for a bit, and then we watched a Christmas movie or talked to relatives. Then, we built a bit more.

On Wednesday, we worked on assembling the external fuel tank and booster rockets. Assembling a kit like that was a lot of fun, and it gave us a chance to work together on a project while laughing and joking around. Truly, enjoying an activity together is the best way to spend time with the person you love.

It was also a great way to spend Christmas since Jen caught a Christmas cold. I had a cold two weeks ago, and I was afraid she'd catch it. Either it took a bit or she found some other bug via her colleagues or the train. Either way, she's definitely fighting something. I'm hoping she'll feel better soon.

I also hope she didn't pass it to the friends we saw on Christmas Eve. We had dinner at their house before attending a late showing of "The Hobbit." I'd really feel terrible if they caught her cold since they have friends coming in for New Year's. It's the time of year when lots of stuff goes around, I know. I just hope our flu shots do some good this winter.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Musings on the Holidays

Recently, I haven't written as regularly in my blog as regularly as I intended. That's partly due to work keeping me busy and partly due to pure laziness. Writing a blog with consistency takes discipline, which I don't always have. Writing an interesting blog takes either an incredible amount of conceit (in other words, being in love with the sound of one's own voice) or a "damn the torpedoes" mentality to compel the writer to write regardless of what others think about it. While I admit to both "flaws" from time to time, I don't have either attitude as often as I need it to succeed as a writer. Hence, the frequent breaks in my blogging, which usually coincide with a sense of "all my writing is pure crap." Ah, the vagaries of the creative personality.

Enough navel-gazing. We're currently in the midst of the holiday season and all its joys and stresses. I like the holidays because they're full of good memories from the past, as well as good food and extra time with the love of my life. Some of my favorite memories from the past are school holiday concerts when I was in my high school's chorus, as well as earlier Christmases when I was still little and in love with the spirit of the season. And, each year is a chance to build new memories with Jen.

Holidays in recent years have been good, although I think a number of family and friends might doubt that. Both Jen and I come from families that tend toward what I term as "big productions" at the holidays. That is, both our families do lots of decorating for the holidays, with big trees, fancy little touches throughout the house, large meals, parties, and so forth. In contrast, we don't put up any decorations, really. The one exception is an "Old World Santa" my mother made for us. He looks like the Dutch Sinterklaas and comes with a Zwarte Piet, which Mom crafted in honor of Jen's Dutch ancestry. That duo comes out each year.

As for fancy meals with lots of people, Jen and I tend to shy away from those kinds of holiday parties. That's partly because neither of us is really the "party" type. We don't enjoy being in crowded, noisy rooms full of people. We prefer smaller, quieter gatherings, and we often shun even those to spend time at home. Frankly, my favorite place to be is wherever she is.

One reason we tend to avoid big gatherings is that we can't really relax around other people and be ourselves. Instead, we both feel a need to behave differently when we're around other people, especially if the people around us are mostly straight. When we're around other people, neither of us exhibits those little intimacies that most other couples (whether gay or straight) seem able to display. We don't casually touch one another on the arm or shoulder, not even if we're trying to get one another's attention. You certainly won't see any hugs or quick pecks, even if we're around some of our closest friends. That's probably why so many people assume we're sisters, rather than a couple. We just don't display the kind of connection people expect from a couple, and we don't have many gay or lesbian couples in our lives to socialize with.

If we're around our relatives, It's even harder to tell that we're a couple.The old joke about acting straight is a part of our lives when we visit family. Ironically, we've been out to all of our immediate families for nearly twenty years (ever since coming out together), and yet we still "straighten up" when we're around our parents or siblings. That's probably a holdover from the early years when we were trying to get our families to accept us, and now it's just an old habit we can't change. It does, however, make us hesitant to spend long periods of time around our families since we can't really relax and be ourselves with them. That inability to relax, especially during the already-stressful holiday season, keeps us from braving the travel nightmare that a holiday trip would require.

In reading back over this post, I'm a bit surprised at the direction it took. I certainly don't want anyone to feel bad or to make it sound like we don't enjoy the holidays or our families. We absolutely do enjoy the holiday season and being around family. It's just that our holiday celebrations are usually much quieter and more private than the ones we grew up experiencing. Since moving to New York, we've added a few new traditions, like dinner and a movie on or near Christmas with a friend of mine from graduate school and her husband. We also like checking out the big tree displayed at Rockefeller Center, along with the holiday windows at places like Macy's. And, we've added our own tradition of ordering Boudin's sourdough bread from San Francisco for our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

As a couple who chose not to have children, it took us time to figure out what the holidays mean to us and to design celebrations of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's that are meaningful and satisfying. Much of the holiday "spirit" and expectations for holiday activities revolve around young children and family gatherings or big parties of couples, and none of those activities really resonated with us. I think it took us both reaching a sense of being "comfortable in our own skins" (which seemed to coincide with our early thirties) before we really felt like our holiday celebrations gave us what we wanted from them. At least, I know it worked that way for me.

Some of my old friends from childhood are starting to face "empty nests" with their kids in high school and college. I have a feeling they'll soon find a need to change their holiday plans, and I'm interested to see the kinds of celebrations they'll design after their children are grown.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Shift in Focus

Thus far, November has been an interesting month. I heaved a sigh of relief last week that the 2012 Presidential campaign finally came to an end, which also meant an end to the flood of campaign commercials. Living in New York City, the local networks play ads for New York candidates, New Jersey candidates, and Connecticut candidates. I’m so glad I won’t see those people’s names or faces for a little while. And, I’m certain I speak for a lot of political junkies when I say I’m quickly reaching the point where I hate all politicians and all political parties equally. The Citizens United decision was a fiasco, and it’s time for a Constitutional change that outlaws the SuperPACs and corporations buying elections.

But, I digress. Politics is absolutely the last thing I wish to discuss this week. Instead, I’m looking at a shift in focus as a writer in my creative work. This shift was prompted by my attempt to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year. I’ve tried this in the past, typically with dismal results. This year, sadly, was no different. I quickly found myself behind in the word count by the first weekend. A 2-day migraine this past week ensured that I won’t be catching up this month.

Between NaNoWriMo and a mystery writing class I took about a decade ago, I have a few different novels in various stages knocking around in a drawer. Slowly, the idea is dawning that writing a novel may not be the right move for me as a writer at this stage of my career. I recently saw a suggestion for poets to try writing a poem a day for a poetic version of NaNoWriMo, and somehow that project seems more attainable than cranking out 50,000 words in 30 days does. Therefore, I’m going to shift focus starting tomorrow morning and work on writing a poem a day until mid-December.

What challenges have you attempted recently? How did they turn out? If you weren’t successful, how can you reshape the challenge so that it’s more attainable?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

An Update from Brooklyn, Post-Sandy

I’ll start my post-Hurricane Sandy blog post by assuring my readers that we weathered the storm safely at home. Our neighborhood in Brooklyn is in “Zone C,” which the city designates as an area that would only be evacuated if a category 3 or 4 storm rolled through. Our apartment is located near the geographic center of Brooklyn, nearly equidistant from all the borough’s waterfronts. So, we’re well away from the areas that were hit by flooding and the storm surge.

During the worst of the storm, our power flickered a bit, and it actually went totally black for a few seconds, only to come back on again. We also lost our Internet connection briefly, but it also came back up within a few minutes. That was rather amazing, since we’ve had longer power and Internet outages caused by much milder thunderstorms. We were extremely lucky, and we know it.

Now that the storm has passed, our biggest obstacle is our location in Brooklyn’s geographic center. Many of the subway lines near us haven’t been restored yet or are only running piecemeal. So, if we wanted to get into Manhattan (where Jen’s employer is located), we’d either need to take the subway to a bus transfer point and catch the shuttle into Manhattan or take the subway to a bridge and walk into Manhattan. Plenty of people are doing exactly that, and I admire them for it. Fortunately, Jen can work from home and is spared that process. (The New York Times has a great blog rolling here with stories about the lines for buses, the impromptu carpooling, and the gas shortages.)

 As that blog shows, this storm has brought out the best in many New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. Some examples include folks randomly starting carpools to cross the bridges, a house in Hoboken that ran extension cords and surge protectors outside so neighbors without power could recharge cell phones, and the residents of the East Side who helped carry patients out of NYU’s Langone Medical Center during the storm when its power and backup power sources failed. Truly, disasters can bring out the best in people.

Sadly, though, storms can also bring out the worst. We’ve learned that the death toll from the city continues to rise, with 38 people killed in NYC’s five boroughs (as of 5:00 pm on 11/01/12). Most of those deaths were on Staten Island, where children and the elderly make up a large number of those killed. Many of the storm’s victims were in the areas that should have been evacuated. We haven’t heard why the elderly victims weren’t evacuated, but I surmise they may not have had assistance to leave.

When I hear about the youngest victims of the storm, I’m filled with both rage and sorrow. In one case, a 13-year-old girl was found only a short distance from her home. Her parents ignored the evacuation order because their home didn’t suffer any effects from Irene in August 2011. In addition, one of their neighbors said the family came home from the Irene evacuation to find that the house had been burglarized. So, the girl’s parents decided to ride out the storm at home. Her mother is in the hospital, while her father is still missing.

Another woman lost her two sons, both under the age of four, when their SUV stalled in the floodwaters. She tried carrying them to safety, but they were pulled away from her in the storm. They had tried to stay home until water started coming in, and then attempted to flee during the brunt of the storm.

While I know it’s probably not fair to second-guess the decisions of these parents now, I find it hard to resist doing exactly that. I just can’t fathom placing a child in jeopardy. It’s one thing if an adult wants to make a foolish decision and suffers the consequences of that choice. But children shouldn’t be placed in harm’s way because an adult is too stubborn or foolish to evacuate when a storm is approaching.

Back to the good from the storm, since that’s where I want to keep my focus. The storm also brought out some neighborly feeling, even among those of us who were minimally affected by the storm. The area where Jen and I live has a very large Hasidic Jewish population, along with a lot of Pakistani and Russian immigrants. Usually, our Jewish neighbors won’t talk to us since we’re clearly Gentiles. The other groups also don’t talk to us much for similar reasons. But following the storm, we were walking around the neighborhood to see how bad the damage in the area might be. During our walk, the neighbors we encountered asked how we were. I’m sure we’ll all go back to our usual distance when life returns to normal, but the storm briefly broke down the barriers between us. I’m grateful for that.  

I’m sure the coming days and weeks will bring out more stories of both heroism and heartache from the storm. I don’t want this blog to become nothing but a recounting of Sandy’s affects on the city; however, I’m sure I’ll discuss it again when a particularly compelling story catches my eye.

To all those who weathered the storm and are now in the rebuilding process, my thoughts and prayers are with you.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Coming Storms (Both Literal and Figurative)

This autumn has turned out to be full of surprises. I mentioned in a post earlier this month that several people close to me were facing some challenges in personal and work relationships. This past week brought new updates on two of the three situations.

Our friends here in New York are coming ever closer to needing new employment, which could mean they need to leave the U.S. permanently. That really bothers me, since the couple has been in the U.S. for over a decade. They’re the kind of hard working, well-educated people we want to stay in this country. My friend is an accomplished scholar with a Ph.D. in English, and her husband is a gifted graphic designer, yet the expense of sponsoring someone for a green card means neither can find an employer willing to support their efforts to stay in the U.S. permanently.

A relative who is facing some relationship challenges has let me know that some additional factors are involved in that situation. Some of the things I’ve learned about that situation don’t surprise me, although it makes me wish I were in a position to travel and visit that relative right now. I think being there could help, but it’s just not an option. In that earlier post, I mentioned how frustrated I feel when I can’t fix things, and this is definitely a situation where life is telling me to “sit and stay!” I just don’t happen to appreciate the message.

As if those personal storms weren’t enough, the weather forecast for the next few days suggests that the Northeast may be hit with an actual storm, in the form of Hurricane Sandy. Current predictions (as of Friday a.m.) suggest the storm could hit New York City early Tuesday morning. The forecast suggests the winds and rain from that storm will collide with a winter storm from the west and cold air from Canada, which could lead to heavier rains and/or snowfall. Plus, Monday will be a full moon, meaning higher tides and increased likelihood of flooding. Oh, and all of this could occur right after Jen’s birthday, which is Sunday.

With luck, none of those things will happen, but Jen and I are stocking up on supplies just in case. It’s a bit ironic. We left Arizona (where the worst weather-related issues were heat stroke, lightning-sparked wildfires, and flooding from monsoon rains) to move to Seattle, with its earthquakes, snow-capped volcanoes, and occasional winter snow or ice storms. Then, we moved from Seattle to Brooklyn.

In our six years in Brooklyn, we’ve had an earthquake, a tropical storm/hurricane, blizzards, flooding, tornadoes, and heat waves. For people who like to plan ahead and have control over situations, we sure picked an odd place to live. There’s not much we can do about the weather, other than prepare and hope for the best. Come to think of it, that’s all we can do about any of these situations. And, letting things take their course isn't really our strong suit.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Bit of This, A Bit of That

I don’t have a grand topic in mind for this week’s post, so I’ll just prattle on about a few recent events.

I didn’t get last week’s post written because Jen and I took a few days off. We intended to spend them at the New York Comic Con, and we attended it on Thursday. We saw a lot of great costumes and picked up a few exclusives from some of the vendors. It was our first time attending a comic convention, and I’m not sure if we’ll make it an annual event or not. We certainly had a good time, which makes me think we’ll go again.

However, the things that kept us from attending all four days will probably come up again next time. We wore ourselves out with all the walking and standing we did the first day, and we found ourselves getting a bit tired of the crowds. Also, we’re both homebodies, and having that much time to be together but spending it surrounded by others isn’t really a high priority for us. We’d rather spend that time together, away from people.

With the time that we didn’t attend the convention, we caught up on some reading, watched some movies, streamed some TV shows, and just generally relaxed. I think we both needed a little down time, which was the point of attending the convention. Getting that break without the crowds was an added bonus.

During our long weekend, we found two new favorite TV shows, although we’re about 15 years behind the times. Just before Comic Con, we started watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and we added “Angel” to the mix over the weekend. Streaming the two has been fun, although I’m actually surprised that we enjoy them as much as we do. Neither of us is into horror, whether it’s a novel, movie, or comic. Given that, watching these shows seems a bit out of character.

I wouldn’t normally admit to watching a show like “Buffy,” especially this long after it was in its heyday. But, I’m pretty sure very few people are reading my blog, so I think my admission is safe.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Week of Lessons

This past week has been full of learning opportunities, and I’m not sure I appreciate the lessons I’m learning.

My Facebook experiment has been a challenge. I find myself mindlessly navigating to the Facebook home page a few times a day or checking the Facebook app on my smartphone, which underscores that deactivating my account was a good idea. I hadn’t realized how often I would take “just a quick peek” at it, which usually turned into several minutes of reading posts and commenting. I haven’t seen indications that my productivity has increased yet, but I hope I will soon.

This week has also reminded me of some less-than-desirable personality traits. I’m the kind of person that likes to be in control of a situation, and I also usually plan for contingencies. The events of this past week have reminded me that I can’t always fix everything and my attempts at planning don’t always work.

One example of this affects one of my relatives. Last week, I learned that this person is going through a tough time with a personal relationship. As much as I want to swoop in and fix the situation, this week has reminded me that I simply can’t do that. The feeling of powerlessness that accompanied that realization really bothered me, because it reminds me that I need to stop trying to control everything.

In case I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time, I also learned that a close friend is struggling with a relationship issue too. Again, I can’t really do anything to help the situation, other than give these people my love and support. That’s not easy to do since we live in different states. But even if I were nearer to them, I couldn’t fix either situation. And, it’s not my place to try. But, my impulse to take charge and fix the issues keeps nudging me toward intervening.

And, in case I hadn’t gotten the message the first two times, I received a reinforced version of that message again yesterday. Another close friend, who is in the U.S. on a work visa, works for a company that is going through a restructuring. Several people have been laid off, and this friend is worried because losing the job would mean leaving the U.S. after over a decade of being here and attempting to get green card status. If that happens, my friend has only ten days to leave the country. Again, there’s nothing I can do, but I sure want to try.

The autumn change usually prompts me to some introspection, and I certainly have a lot to think about.

Friday, September 28, 2012

My Social Disconnect

Last week, I posted a Facebook status to say that I’m deactivating my account. I have a lot of reasons for making that decision, and I’d like to touch on a couple of them here.

The first reason is to devote more time to my freelance business, as well as my creative writing. That may seem an odd choice, since so many “experts” tell writers they need a robust online presence to succeed in today’s writing industry. However, a writer needs something to promote, and I find that too much of my creative writing time is spent surfing the web or liking posts on Facebook. I start researching for my novel, and then get sucked down a rabbit hole. As a result, my novel sits waiting for attention. Until it’s completed, building an online presence is the cart before the horse.

In addition, I haven’t given enough attention to marketing and growing my freelance business in recent months. True, I have some steady clients; however, I’m the kind of person who needs new challenges and opportunities to learn new skills. I haven’t done enough with that recently, and it’s time to shake off the rust and learn something new.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the change is that I want a more authentic connection with the people in my life. Yes, Facebook makes it easy to bridge the miles, but how “real” are the interactions through it?

When I was a kid, I lived 13 miles from the town where I went to school. Most of that distance was over unpaved roads, and we were too far from the township limits to be on its water or phone networks. Since this was in Arizona’s Sonoran desert, we didn’t have a water well on the property, so my family hauled water to store in tanks for household use. That practice always made me a little “odd” in the eyes of my classmates.

The bigger oddity, however, was our lack of a telephone. This was the 1980s, when kids were glued to the phone during the summer, and really fortunate kids had their own phone lines in their rooms. Since we didn’t have a phone at all, I was often cut off from the ever-changing social circle during the summer months. While that made the start of each school year difficult (since I had to “remake” my friends each year), I learned to treasure those friends who would write me letters during the summer. I came to appreciate the importance of a personal connection as represented by an envelope in the mail.

Those experiences have prompted me to log off of Facebook so I can connect more personally with the people I care about. I know it takes two to tango, so this experiment will only work if my friends and extended family reply to my emails, phone calls and letters. Since I recognize that keeping in touch without Facebook may be challenging, I expect I’ll reactivate my account at some point. I’m hoping to stick with this experiment at least until the new year. We’ll see if that works or not.

During my Facebook experiment, I’ll still be regularly posting to both this personal blog and my business blog. Hopefully, the quality of my writing will improve if I have more time to think and write about the issues that matter to me.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Seeking New Challenges

I’m a little stumped for a topic for this week’s post. Usually, something has occurred that I feel compelled to share and/or boast about. Even when nothing interesting happens, I can usually count on the political arena to give me fodder for a post. But this week, nothing has sparked my interest or outrage enough to base a blog post on it.

That’s a bit odd for me, since I’m one of those people with opinions on nearly every topic. And, I’m also so fond of the sound of my own voice (whether spoken or written) that I feel EVERYONE should hear my opinions. Yes, my ego is alive and well, thanks for asking.

On a serious note, I often discover what I truly think about a topic only by writing about it (either here on my blog or in my journal). That is, the act of writing about a topic helps me crystalize my thoughts and put new ideas into context with the rest of my beliefs and values. Since writing and thinking deeply are intrinsically linked for me, I’m a bit surprised that I don’t have something to discuss this week.

I’m also one of those people who crave learning and new challenges as often as possible. Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that I feel a bit stuck in a rut with my editing work. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I work nearly full-time as an editing contractor for an educational website company. I’ve had a senior editing position with them for almost a year now, and I noticed recently that the work is longer challenging. Instead, it simply feels routine, and I find myself getting bored.

When that happens, I know it’s time to take on a new challenge. That’s one of the reasons I’m enrolled in a poetry writing class. While that helps assuage my craving for a challenge, it doesn’t feel like it’s pushing me as hard as I need right now. So, I’m looking for something else to add to the mix.

Thinking about it, I get into this “I need a new challenge” situation fairly often throughout the year. While this feeling can strike at any time, I realize it’s most common in May and September. For reasons I don’t fully understand, those two months are when my need for a new challenge most likely compels me to make a major change in my life. May tends to prompt me to look for a new job, while September makes me introspective, looking for ways to improve myself (perhaps by growing spiritually). Perhaps it’s a holdover from childhood and the school calendar, but I have a feeling there’s a deeper cause behind why those two months are so significant. I just haven’t figured out the reasons behind it yet.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Rollercoaster of Life

The past two weeks have been hectic ones, full of emotional highs and lows.

One of the emotional highs was a weeklong visit from Jen’s younger brother, Chris. He flew into New York the evening of August 31st, and returned to Seattle the morning of September 8th. During his visit, Jen and I took time off from work to show him around the city. We both enjoyed our time as “tour guides,” and exploring the city with Chris reminded us of all the reasons why we enjoy living here. Some of the highlights we hit included the jazz scene, the museums, a baseball game, the food, and a Broadway show. Chris also got a kick out of eavesdropping on the colorful locals during our treks around town.

Chris’s visit also brought one of the emotional lows, since our cat, Geoffrey, took ill during that week. His illness kept me home during one of our planned jazz excursions, and that illness led to a trip to the vet. That led to two days in vet hospitals, visits to a specialist, and a plethora of pills, liquids and injections. A large sum of money later, we have a diagnosis of pancreatitis linked to a chronic gastro-intestinal illness, which caused a flare-up of our cat’s diabetes. These conditions can all be managed to give Geoffrey a longer, happier life, and that’s a relief. We had to put our other cat, Maya, down last November because she had cancer. We’re not ready to be a household without pets.

I’m not sure if this is a high or low on life’s rollercoaster, but I’m a few weeks into my poetry writing class. So far, I’m enjoying the class, although the weekly lectures have underscored just how little I know about writing poetry. I’m enjoying the exercises, although I’m not at all pleased with the work I’ve produced. I’m trying to remind myself that I’m a beginner as a poet, and this class is helping me lay the groundwork for future efforts. It’s hard to keep that perspective on things, though, when I’m such a perfectionist.

The weather and temperatures are hinting that autumn is coming. While I love autumn, it’s also the time of year when things get hectic in the legal world, which means Jen spends more hours either in the office or working from home. I suppose I should be used to the rhythms of the legal calendar by now, but it still catches me by surprise each fall. I think one of the biggest frustrations about her longer hours is that autumn marks the start of the new theatre season. That means a lot of shows start up, but it’s harder for us to see them since we’re never sure what her schedule might be.

All in all, though, life in the Nichols-Simon household is going well. Life is a journey, and we’re both trying to remember to embrace the trip, not the destination.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thinking About Integrity

This morning, I've been thinking a lot about the idea of heroes. When we're children, we have a lot of heroes. For some people, a hero may be a parent, teacher, or favorite character. For example, a child might admire a firefighter, her first grade teacher, or a superhero like Spiderman or Superman.

As we get older though, our heroes start to become tarnished. The child may learn that the firefighter isn’t that heroic or may outgrow his admiration of Superman. As adults, we assume that everyone is tarnished, everyone is flawed and we stop admiring people who aren’t “perfect.” We stop believing in the idea of heroism, and we become cynical and jaded about human nature.

I think many of us still have an idealism about what a hero should be, but real life experience teaches us that there are no heroes because a real human can’t live up to the perfect ideal. Perhaps we need to change our definition of heroism. Maybe a hero is not a person without flaws. Instead, the true hero is someone who overcomes her or his flaws when doing so matters most.

Personally, I have four people I admire greatly. Three of my heroes are fairly well-known, while I don’t know the name of my fourth hero. For those who know me well, it won't be a surprise that my four heroes are members of the gay and lesbian community. My first hero is U.S. diver and Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis. Mr. Louganis overcame so much to accomplish his diving records, and I admire the fact that he was flawed but still great. Anyone who hasn’t read is memoir “Breaking the Surface” should buy a copy and read it.

My second hero is Col. Greta Cammermeyer, the Army nurse who challenged “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” in the early 1990s. Col. Cammermeyer served with integrity, and her suit against the Army made her the highest-ranking officer to challenge that law. She later had an unsuccessful bid for Congress. Again, those who haven’t read “Serving in Silence,” the memoir of her service, should get a copy soon.

My third hero is Mark Bingham, one of the passengers on United Flight 93. Mr. Bingham was about my age and also born in Arizona. More importantly, he was among those passengers who rushed the hijackers and kept Flight 93 from reaching its target. I should also add that I respect his mother because she didn't let the media “whitewash” his story. That is, she made sure America knew that one of its 9/11 heroes was gay. I think too many parents would have tried to hide that fact, and I admire her for being true to Mr. Bingham’s memory.

My fourth hero is a woman whose name I have never known. However, her face is seared in my mind. Following the horrific 1989 earthquake in California when two sections of the freeway collapsed onto one another like pancakes, she was regularly shown on the news walking that stretch, tears streaming down her face, searching for her “friend.” I don't know if it's true, but I've heard in the years since then that she was looking for her lost partner. Of course, no news agency would say that in 1989, and I’ve never been able to find out what her name was or for whom she was searching. Whether or not she was actually a lesbian, her devotion and her sorrow will forever haunt my memory.

These four people were not perfect. They were human, which means they made mistakes, they had flaws, and they sometimes did things that weren't admirable. What sets them apart is that when it really mattered, they were true to themselves and they faced adversity with integrity. That's a model we all should follow. I wonder how many of us would have our legacies whitewashed and “straightened up” by those we leave behind?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Creatively Adrift

This week, my online poetry writing class started. I love reading poetry, and I admire those who write good poetry. To me, a good poet is the most gifted writer because she or he can convey important information in the most concise way possible. I also love the wordplay involved with poetics, the way poets use a word’s multiple meanings in the same text.

While I love poetry, I’ve never considered myself a poet. I’ve dabbled in it a bit, which I think is true of many writers. But, I’ve never shared my efforts with anyone. I’m a perfectionist, and my work has never felt “worthy” of sharing. While that’s also true of my prose, I’m more comfortable sharing my prose works with others because I write in prose more often. And, I’m opinionated. (Hence, this blog.)

My poetry class requires us to post poems for our instructor to review each week. Twice during the class, we’ll also post poems for our classmates to read, which terrifies me. However, I’m trying to approach this class with a willingness to take risks. That’s because Jen recently reminded me of an article I read about a year ago, which talked about how many people aren’t afraid of failure. Instead, they’re afraid of success. That article was a bit unnerving because I saw a reflection of myself.

Because of that article, I think my fear of this class is prompted by an opportunity for growth. That is, my terror at writing and sharing my poems could be a fear of success, meaning this is a step I ought to take in my writing life to become the writer I want to be. Since that could be possible, I’m trying to face my fear in hopes that some growth and improvement as a writer will be the end result. Keep your fingers crossed this works out.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fast Food Insanity

In the past couple of weeks, social networking has fueled a brouhaha over the fast food chain Chick –fil –A and the owner’s public stance opposing same-sex marriage. The company has donated large sums of money to groups opposing same-sex marriage, based on the owner’s interpretations of Christian doctrine.

In response, liberal groups organized a boycott of the company, while conservatives planned an appreciation day, in hopes of boosting the company’s sales. Conservatives positioned their event as a “free speech” issue, claiming that liberal activists were trying to deny the company owners Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and religion by boycotting the company.

The claim is patently absurd, although many on the left would be only too happy to deny free-speech rights to conservatives. Of course, conservatives are equally ready to permanently gag the left. No one active in politics can remember that we’re Americans first and political ideologues second. Since both sides of the debate are equally rabid and ridiculous, I won’t address the absurdities they’ve been spouting.

My issue about this entire debate comes from the political arena. Various elected officials in different cities and states have taken sides in the debate over the company and its activities. The mayors of Boston and Chicago announced that they would actively oppose any attempts to open either corporate-owned stores or franchises in their cities. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn originally supported these kinds of stances, but she later revised her comments, indicating that she is only siding with New York University students who are petitioning to close the only location in New York City, which is on the NYU campus.

I read a brilliantly worded Op-Ed on the New York Times by Steve Salbu titled “Let Chick-fil-A Fly Free.” Mr. Salbu’s essay argued that political figures have no business trying to keep Chick-fil-A from opening new stores in their cites, and he argues that attempts to do so are violations of citizens’ rights by these elected officials. That is, he positions his argument to say that an elected official who uses the office to suppress a business is making a choice for all the citizens, when citizens should be allowed to “vote” on the issue by either supporting or boycotting the company. His comments echo Mayor Bloomberg of New York, who said that he opposes the company’s stance but that it has a right to run its business as it sees fit.

While I think there are some holes to this argument, I agree with Mr. Salbu that citizens will vote on this issue, either by giving this company money or taking their custom elsewhere. Ironically, this isn’t the first time that Chick-fil-A has donated money to groups opposing gay rights. And, it won’t be the last. What is notable this time is that a wider portion of Americans is aware of the issue and is taking a stance. In the past, only members of the LGBTQ community and its closest allies were aware of Chick-fil-A’s business practices. In the long run, that suggests that companies like Chick-fil-A are on the losing end of history.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Turning over a New (Political) Leaf

Earlier this week, I posted a teaser graphic about the differences between discussions and lectures. I’d like to expand on that post a bit, since it’s something I struggle with. It’s easy, I think, to become entrenched in my own personal beliefs and values, unwilling to listen to another person’s ideas and reconsider my beliefs in light of the discussion. And, I think that kind of entrenchment is exactly what’s wrong with America today.

Americans used to be able to discuss the important issues with respect. We could civilly “agree to disagree,” but we also recognized that we needed to leave our entrenched positions and meet in the middle to find solutions to our shared problems. The ideologues at each extreme weren’t ever happy with that, but each side compromised for the good of all. Today, no one is willing to compromise, ever. In fact, suggesting that someone “compromise” has somehow become twisted to mean, “You compromise and give me everything I want, but I won’t move an inch.”

I personally blame the political entertainers (or politicotainers as I will call them in this post) like Limbaugh, Maddow, Beck and Maher. And, I blame their followers, the people who watch those programs or listen to their radio shows on a regular basis. Fans of politicotainers like to say that these people serve an important role in politics. But, they don’t. These people are paid entertainers, and their only job is to make money for their advertisers. Most aren’t political experts, yet people listen to their shows and ape their comments and views without giving any of the material serious study.

We’ve become sheeple (that is, sheep-people) willing to stampede in whatever direction our favorite politicotainer points. I even lump Stewart and Colbert into the politicotainer category, since so many people get their “hard news facts” from those comedy shows. While Stewart and Colbert usually remember that they’re comedians first, they sometimes slip into the role of “political analyst” that Maddow and Limbaugh like to claim.

What’s the solution? The first step is easy, but it’s also hard. TURN. THAT. CRAP. OFF. Really. Turn off all those politicotainer programs we all listen to or watch on a regular basis. Those people aren’t really political experts, and they’re not interested in finding solutions to the country’s problems. They only make money if everything continues to fall apart. Then, they get paid for gleefully “reporting” on the decline. So, turn them off. Sure, it means disrupting a daily routine, but like any habit, repetition will make it easier.

The second step is much, much harder. It requires all of us to actively seek out information from all sides of a debate, perhaps in newspapers, magazines and books. Then, we have to read and think about that material, choosing what to believe and what to discount. The recent decline in journalism makes this harder. But, I also think that newspapers and magazines are dying because no one wants to do the hard work of reading widely and thinking deeply. We could put a lot of skilled journalists back to work here while also educating ourselves.

The third and final step is the toughest of all. We must then engage in a respectful discussion of ideas with those who hold the exact opposite point of view. That’s tough, and the chart I posted earlier this week has some excellent tips on how a respectful discussion works. (Since no one I know has practiced that art in at least a decade, including me, I hope the chart will be useful.) It’s only by entering into respectful discussions that we’ll be able to find common ground with those who hold opinions that counter our own. And, until we see what we have in common, we’ll never find the solution to our country’s problems.

This weekend, I’m going to scout out news sources that I can use for step two. It will be tough, since my attention will be on the Olympics and seeing “The Dark Knight Rises” with friends. But, I’m committing myself to this new course of action so I’m ready to cast an informed vote in November. Who will join me?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Discussion or Lecture?

I'm working on a post for Friday that will address the need for "discussions" in greater detail. As a teaser for that, I share this image, which is making the rounds online:

Friday, July 20, 2012

Between Faith and Ideology

In the July 15, 2012 issue of the New York Times, Ross Douthat criticized the current state of liberal Christianity. In the article, Mr. Douthat seemed to place a large share of the blame on the writings of John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop and liberal theologian.

While I’m willing to admit that liberal Christianity has its problems, I’m not sure one man is responsible for its ills. Although I’m not Episcopalian, I’ve read a number of Bishop Spong’s books in my quest to understand and define my own personal beliefs. I don’t agree with everything Bishop Spong’s books said, but I do feel that those works demonstrate a careful studying of his religion and a set of beliefs informed by thought and reflection. His model is one I think every person of faith should follow, regardless of religious affiliation.

 I’m also not convinced that conservative Christianity is as healthy and strong as Mr. Douthat wants to believe. Truthfully, I think many of the world’s major religions are at a crossroads, feeling the pressures of an increasingly interconnected global economy and the changes wrought by technological advances.

Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church is grappling with ideological divisions between liberal and conservative leaders. Most of the Protestant denominations face similar issues, as Mr. Douthat’s op-ed noted. In the past decade, Muslims have also found themselves at an ideological crossroads, with Western nations and liberal imams demanding that liberal Muslims denounce the activities of the September 11th terrorists, while conservative imams have escalated their anti-Western rhetoric in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To my mind, faith is a personal matter, and ideology should be too. Let me unpack that statement. I define faith as the set of beliefs that governs a person’s actions, the person’s moral and/or ethical compass in life. In contrast, ideology is the outward demonstration of that faith. I think that definition works for most of the world’s religions, and it seems to apply also to those who are agnostic or atheist.

Mr. Douthat’s article critiques the liberal Christian ideology that welcomes multicultural influences and pluralism. In leveling that criticism, he forgets that Americans have developed a firm belief in pluralism, using our multiculturalism as a source of strength. To abandon that in the pew or the temple or the mosque is to turn our backs on one of our country’s great assets.

Those of us fortunate to have friends who are Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Wiccan, Muslim, agnostic or Jewish see how interacting with believers from different backgrounds strengthens our own faith and deepens our connections to our own beliefs. The problem isn’t with multiculturalism. The problem is with an anti-intellectualism movement, which asks that people stop thinking for themselves and blindly follow another person’s faith and ideology. People of faith need to examine their beliefs to ensure that the inward faith and its outward manifestations are in accord.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Change, Nostalgia and Sentimentality

I read an article recently that talked about the differences between nostalgia and sentimentality. The writer argued that nostalgia is a realistic and appropriate reaction to change, while sentimentality is an inappropriate romanticizing of things that weren’t really good at all. The article went on to argue that New Yorkers, because of the constant changes around us, are better at handling nostalgia and sentimentality. That is, this writer claimed that New Yorkers don't feel sentimentality, which the article portrayed as a negative emotion built on false memories. Instead, we feel nostalgia, which is a loss for things that were good, an emotion the writer said made us better aware of how to accept life’s inevitable changes.

I’m not sure if I buy into the writer’s premise, but I can see that I’m learning the differences between those two emotions in my own life. Perhaps that's why I'm convinced I could never live in Tucson or Seattle again. That is, maybe I'm on my way to becoming a true New Yorker because I recognize every event, every activity, every change that occurs in our lives changes us profoundly. Because of those changes, when we leave the place that formed us and move somewhere else, the new place also makes impression upon us and it changes us too. In some ways, our new homes make it impossible for us to go back to where we started, which is why we’re told that, “you can’t go home again.”

I also think that those people staying in the same place their entire lives experience profound change, although they may not realize it. For those who live in the same area where they were born, the changes wrought by time are slower and less perceptible. In fact, many of them will argue that nothing about them changes, and they often find comfort in that belief.

For these people, having a relative move away is a scary proposition. When that person returns for visits, she or he doesn’t seem to be the same person anymore. That is, the person who has left the hometown has changed in ways that are far more obvious than the person who stayed in one place. However, the people who stay also change because change is inevitable. It just happens at a much slower pace, which makes the changes imperceptible to those living them.

The truth is, change happens no matter what we might do in our efforts to stop it. No matter how convinced we are that where we live never changes, it actually does. Even the smallest town or hamlet in America experiences change over time. Time is change, and the passage of time results in changes to people and the environment. Even in a small town, new businesses move in with a new family or an old business closes because the family who owned it goes away. Maybe the old man who ran the corner store finally succumbs to old age, and no one in his family is left to take over the store. All of these events, while small in the grand scheme of things, change the character of that town and all the people in it. That's why some of the greatest fiction deals with small towns and the people in them, focusing closely on what happens when one event affects everyone in that town.

 In some ways it's a law of physics writ large and turned into an acting agent upon the human condition. That is, it's a law of physics turned into a law of human nature. The people who stay in one place are like the objects at rest. Physics tells us those objects will not change unless acted upon by an outside force. And, the people who leave are like the objects in motion that won't stop unless forced to do so by an outside force. Where physics fails to apply to human nature is that even when staying in one place, change is inevitable. Human beings don’t like change; we prefer our schedules and to keep everything in comfortable sameness. But, change happens all the time, so we’d do well to learn to embrace it and channel its power to create new and better worlds for ourselves and those around us.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Artist and the Abyss

Nietzsche said if you stare into the abyss too long, the abyss stares back into you. That statement is especially true for artists, and I believe that all great artists – painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, photographers and so forth - often stare into the abyss. The abyss is the human condition, the human soul, the human experience. Artists look into the deepest, darkest part of the human soul or human nature, and they reflect back what they see through their art. The best art works like a mirror, showing us what we truly are as human beings. When a work of art touches upon truth, it’s because the artist successfully stared into the abyss and captured a moment that is universal to humanity. Those seeing this artwork see something internal, as if the artwork is a mirror to the person’s mind and soul. The artwork gets inside that person, showing her or him a truth that perhaps wasn’t understood until she or he saw that work of art.

I am not talking about the flawed concept that humanity has something common, a shared “human nature,” because I think that idea has been thoroughly debunked. To me, the concept of  “human nature” is, at its root, the thing that makes us all animals. That is, I think the only thing that is universally true for all humans is the thing that makes us animals. We all need food, water and shelter to survive, but that’s something that can be said for every species on the planet, whether animal or plant. Each being needs certain conditions to be met in order to survive, so “human nature” doesn’t raise us above the other animals. Instead, it marks us as another living being, but not one that is special or superior to the others.

No, what marks human beings as unique among the natural world is our craving for truth and our attempts to demonstrate “truth” through art. The catch here is that “truth” is a fraught concept, one that is constructed culturally and may change over time. I don’t believe in universal truths, which is the idea that something is always true regardless of location or cultural mores. Instead, I believe that truth is a cultural concept, an idea that only exists within its cultural moment. Truth, to me, is as flexible and variable as “right” and “wrong.” All three concepts are cultural constructs. That is, someone in Omaha may think that it’s wrong to steal food from a grocery store. In another time and place, that act of theft would be condoned (or perhaps celebrated) if the culture surrounding the act had different social values. The idea that “human nature” means that certain things are always right and other things are always wrong is at the heart of every war over religion or politics. The mistaken belief that “we’re right and they’re wrong, so we must conquer and free them from their wrong ways of thinking” has brought more horror and tragedy to the world than we can possibly understand.

To me, an artistic truth is the closest we get to a shared “human nature” or “common human condition.” That is, artistic truths frighten us because great art can transcend its cultural moment and touch us across time. That’s because the artist has to grapple with the abyss. By staring into the abyss, she or he has faced down the deepest, darkest parts of the human psyche, and she or he has also stared in the bright, full sunlight of humankind’s most beautiful aspirations. These events occur every time the artist created new piece of art. If the artist is successful at staring into the abyss, she or he will create a great work that touches many people, a work that withstands the cultural shifts and reaches across the things that divide us from one another. But each attempt to look into the abyss risks the artist's soul, her or his creativity and perhaps even the artist’s very life. For if the artist grapples with the abyss and loses that battle, no art is created. In this instance, the artist may well go mad like Ernest Hemingway did.

Each time the artist approaches the abyss, she or he sends up a silent, secret prayer - “Please let me create something truly worthy this time. Let this experience bring forth a work of art that can withstand the tests of time and transcend my cultural moment. And, if I don't survive this interaction with the abyss, then please grant me enough time and sanity to finish this work of art. If the abyss should win, let this final work of art stand as a witness to my struggle with the abyss, a monument to the creative endeavor.”

American society often cuts its funding for artistic endeavors when economic times are tough, and our current moment in history is no exception. However, we fail to recognize the importance of artistic endeavor, particularly at moments of great social change. American society is facing economic and social pressures that will reshape our nation, changes that will shape and change what America stands for, for all time. Funding artistic endeavors is crucial to understanding exactly what we face and how it may shape us. Without artists gazing into the abyss for us, without their efforts to envision the best and worst possible outcomes of our present challenges, we won’t know which path to choose. Art shows us what we are and what we can be, both the good and the bad. Without artists gazing into what could be possible, we are walking along a dark path unguided.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Idealism of Arts and Politics

American voters head to the polls in November of this year, voting for a President, Representatives and some Senators, as well as state and local officials. We're a politically active family, regularly voting in elections, even when the only items on the ballot are small, local measures, the kind of measures that typically result in low voter turnout. We pay a lot of attention to political ads and issues, and we also have a strong body of ideals about what America should be. Given all that, it's probably not surprising that, yet again, we're re-watching "The West Wing" on DVD.

Of course, part of deciding to revisit the saga of the Bartlet administration is because I recently finished reading Stories I Only Tell My Friends, the Rob Lowe autobiography. Mr. Lowe's early films were touchstones for my generation, and my interest in his career was rekindled by his stellar work as Sam Seaborn, the idealistic young speechwriter on "The West Wing." So, when I heard he had an autobiography and it was being considered a top read for 2011, I decided to give it a try. I really enjoyed the book, and Jen is now reading it. After finishing the book, I found myself wishing the following:

1. I wish we lived in an apartment with a bigger kitchen and dining space
2. I wish I were a better cook, someone who prepares the kind of meals you serve to guests - meals that spark interesting dinner conversations
3. I wish I had Mr. Lowe's phone number, so I could invite him and his wife to share that meal and conversation with me and Jen

Setting that aside for a moment, I was really surprised to read that Mr. Lowe is, perhaps, nearly as idealistic and politically minded as his "West Wing" character was. That really isn't my perception of Mr. Lowe, although it's not uncommon for Hollywood celebrities to be politically active in association with progressive causes. However, Mr. Lowe hasn't been vocal about his political activities or views in recent years, certainly not as active as George Clooney, Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt are. And yet, reading Mr. Lowe's autobiography showed him to be a politically active man, one with fairly progressive values and a strong, idealistic view of America's past and its potential.

Perhaps that's why the Sam Seaborn character resonates so strongly with me. He's a young man who leaves a high-paying job as a New York attorney to do "the right thing" and try to make a difference by taking a job in the White House. And, I keep getting emails from, which ask if I want to join a grassroots, progressive effort to counter the Tea Party sweep from 2010. The email was looking for people to either run for office or serve as staff members on campaigns.

To be honest, I've considered running for political office in the past. However, I can also think of a number of reasons why I shouldn't. First and foremost, Jen hates the spotlight. And, if I ran for a political office, even at the lowest levels, she would be caught in the glare because of me. Also, as an out lesbian in a long-term relationship/marriage, I would have a hard time winning an election, even in liberal New York City. Also, I'm self-employed and have a very low income, while the bulk of our household expenses are covered by Jen's salary. So, financially, I'm not in any position to run for political office. Plus, I don't have a network of friends and associates here in the city, since I work from home. The few people I knew from my graduate studies at NYU have either moved away for jobs or they aren't eligible to vote in New York. So, running for office isn't really an option for me, even though I sometimes wish it were. Like Mr. Lowe's TV character, I want to make a difference and do the right thing while trying to help our great nation live up to its potential.

From what I read in his book, Mr. Lowe's portrayal of the Sam Seaborn character tapped into his own political values and beliefs about what America should be. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like the Sam Seaborn character even more now than I did before, which is really saying something. He's the kind of character I think more people should aspire to be. Even Mr. Lowe's departure from the show was handled in such a way as to follow the character's inclination to do the right thing and work for the good of the nation. Sam Seaborn leaves the White House to run for Congressional office in a strongly Republican district in southern California. He offers to run for the office when the candidate dies in office and the widow asks for a high-profile candidate to carry the party's standard in the district. Seaborn gets clobbered at the polls, which only underscores the character's deeply ingrained sense of justice, responsibility and public service.

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Mr. Lowe is a writer and penned his autobiography. I assumed he'd hired a ghostwriter, which is the most common route for a celebrity wanting to write a book. However, when reading the book, I learned that Mr. Lowe has several uncredited screenwriting turns under his belt, in addition to being an actor, director and producer. And, throughout the book, I noticed passages that could only have been penned by someone who is intimately connected to the acting world and familiar with its nuances and structure. Some of those same passages included really moving and thought-provoking reflections on creating art and the artist's role in society. So, if Mr. Lowe did actually use a ghostwriter, his ghost is either very, very gifted or Mr. Lowe is quite good and conveying his deepest thoughts and beliefs about his work as an artist to another person.

Setting all that aside, I keep wishing that life could imitate art. Why aren't the best and brightest minds in our country, regardless of ideology, the ones called to serve the country? Why does political office only draw the egomanics, knaves and rogues among us? Has that always been the case, or is it a side effect of our current culture? Today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday, and Americans revere him now as one of the greatest men to ever serve as President of the United States. However, history also shows us that in his own time, Lincoln was reviled by his contemporaries as an ignorant backwoods lawyer who was uncultured and lacked the political sophistication needed to hold high office. So, I find myself wondering: Did past generations think that Washington was a vain, egotistical man eager for the spotlight and dangerously attracted to power, the way we think about our aspiring Presidential candidates? Or, did his contemporaries truly revere him as the Father of the Nation?

I'll be considering those questions throughout the coming year, in addition to other topics and headlines that catch my eye. One thing I know for certain, even before we get down to the brass tacks of this year's election cycle - Americans must take an interest in the country's direction and actually exercise our right to vote this year. At a time when corporate dollars have a greater impact on the political process than ever before, every vote, regardless of party and ideology, counts. In the words of "The West Wing," "No matter who you vote for, make sure you vote." Because "history is made by those who show up."