Saturday, May 29, 2010

Grand Pooblog

I know.

It's been so long since I've written, half of you are probably wondering if I shut the blog down, lost my fingers in a bizarre Froot Loops accident, or ran off with Josh Holloway from Lost. (OK, Lost series finale.  Tonight.  Are you dying? I'm dying.  The final episode, which will apparently last something like four days, will either finally reveal the island's secrets and provide a satisfying ending, or mockingly inform me that I've wasted six years of my life.  I'm betting on the latter.)

In truth, I have been a little low on passion recently.  It's not as if nothing's happened - but I certainly haven't wanted this blog to become some sort of third-grade level "What I Did This Weekend" - but it has taken a while for the events and circumstances of life to crystallize with my thoughts in a way that would be worthy of mention.  Now that it's happened, I have something to say.

But first - just to catch you up - I spent some time in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver and Des Moines.  Then Phoenix and Albuquerque. At one point I was in four of those places on the same day.  And despite this frenetic activity occurring within a two week span of time, precious little has happened, so we're doing bullet points again:

1.  The Chateau Marmont may be a great place for celebrities to stay, or give an interview, but the restaurant sucks.  I went with the friends I call "Carrie" and "Steven."  I was glad to see them, but the meal was a bust.  And our waitress looked like Pebbles Flintstone and wore a halter dress that was so loose on top that her breasts would have fallen out if they weren't some sort of weird, miniaturized micro-breasts.

2.  There's a Marriott in Albuquerque that is architected and painted to look like a tepee.  Or maybe it's a wigwam.  Whatever it is, it offends me.  Not just because it's racist, but because it's ugly.

3.  Is there any point in seeing the new Sex and the City movie?  I loved the TV show as much as anyone, but I don't know that they have left any story un-told at this point.  Plus - the show wasn't just about the evolution of these four characters, but an allegorical expression of single life in New York in your 30s.  Now the "girls" are nearing - or over - 50.  And most of the movie is set in Dubai.  Tha's not Sex and the City, that's Menopause in the Desert.  (Show I would watch: spin off Jennifer Hudson's assistant from the first film - make her an assistant for her day job, and an aspiring singer/musical theater actress - and give her a roommate who works on Wall Street, a best friend who works at the Met, and a gay pal with relationship drama.

And now, on to our point...

Have you ever been to an Elks Lodge?

Probably not, I'm guessing, since Elks Lodges are relics of a roadside Americana that's long gone the way of lemonade stands (which can still, oddly, be found - even on the sidewalks of Manhattan - on warm weekends in late spring.  I find it odd that the children of Wall St financiers and power-attorneys are sitting on a corner selling lemonade, until I see that they're charging $4.50 a cup and boasting of freshly squeezed organic lemons.  These are the kids who are going to grow up to own things like Wine Bars, Hotel Chains, and Greece.)

Well, Neil's parents came to town this weekend.  They visit from Houston once a year, and we enjoy spending time with them.  Thursday night we took them to Grano Trattoria in the West Village (I had the teak, for the first time, and can HIGHLY recommend it.)  Friday, Neil took them to see the Highline (they are both native New Yorkers, and remember when the Highline was actually in service as a train line, rather than an urban park that repurposed history into retail, offering stunning views of the northern New Jersey shore, a mix of sun-worshipping twenty-somethings and German tourists, and over-priced baked goods (nothing tops off a hot day like a $12 chocolate chip cookie.))  And, on Saturday, we went with them to visit Neil's aunt and uncle (his father's brother) in Westchester.

We spent most of the day sitting out on their deck, grilling out and chit-chatting.  Neil's cousin was there, with her two young children, and entertaining the kids (who have the best disposition of any two children I've ever met) filled most of the day.

Neil's aunt is a gracious hostess who can't sit still for more than 10 seconds and is constantly adding something to the table or feeding the kids.  By 3pm they'd had so much sugar I thought they were going to take flight.  By 6pm, when their dad arrived, Neil's cousin had been nearly driven to distraction, and looked grateful for reinforcements.

Anyway, after spending most of the day eating and drinking, Neil's parents wanted to take us all over to the Elks Lodge in Peekskill.  His father has been an Elk for decades, and likes to visit the local lodge whenever he travels.

I don't think he was prepared to arrive and find a bunch of African-American teenagers sitting on the stoop, spillover from the sweet sixteen going on inside.

There's a fine line here - and I'm trying to figure out how to tread it.  I wouldn't call his parents - or mine for that matter - racist.  Yet, in both cases it's a generation of middle-class white people, the first white-collar generation from blue-collar upbringings.  If their parents went from "Nigger" to "Negro" (at least publicly), their generation went from Negro" to "colored" to - now - "they."  It's a word that, in and of itself is innocuous, but is used in a way that clearly delineates a separation.  "They."  "They" as separate from "Us."  They are not Us.  They are Different.

(I'm working to a point here, but I do need to pause to point out how hard it was to stifle a chuckle as this unfolded.  It's as if we showed up for a reunion of the Lawrence Welk show and, instead, wound up on Arsenio.)

Anyway, the Lodge Hall was booked for Shaquan's Sweet 16 (yes, that was her actual name) but the social room downstairs was open.  After figuring out how to enter, showing a membership card, and giving the secret handshake replete with virgin sacrifice (I'm kidding about the last part.  Please.  When was the last time you saw a virgin?) we entered Elks Lodge 744.

I found it difficult to resist Flintstones jokes (remember, Fred and Barney were loyal members of the Royal Order of Water Buffalo?  With those stupid hats?) - but the parallels were too easy.  There's a membership structure, including officers with titles like Exalted Ruler.  I don't mean to be alarmist, but that really does conjure up images of white sheets and burning crosses.  I made a mental note not to so much as stand next to Neil for fear that we'd wind up beaten or thrown into a volcano.

The Lodge itself wasn't much.  There was a bar, with a bartender, and only about three guests.  The rest of the hall was empty.  The Elks are, to an extent, really relics of a time gone by - so membership can't be too robust, and I imagine it's aging rapidly, with fewer younger members replacing the ranks of the departed.  Thus, I imagine they're not terribly flush.  The building is aging, and the social hall could best be described as a basement, with a smell of mold, and that fake wood paneling affixed to the walls.  It reminded me of the many basements in which I spent the early years of high school, drinking beer and wine coolers (don't judge; it was 1988) while my peers experimented with sex and I was awkwardly off to the side trying to figure out if I liked Cheez Doodles better than pretzels.

But, as I looked around, something struck me.  On top of that fake paneling were photos of members, dated back more than a century.  Many were in uniform.  Other photos and memorabilia honored members and their families who served, or were currently serving, in the US Armed Forces (interestingly - the military may wind up accepting gays before the Elks, but that's another column.)

Sign up sheets abounded for pancake breakfasts and pig roasts.  The names of members who were homebound or hospitalized were published, with directions for how to visit or provide support to their families.  A code of honor was posted.

I looked around and Neil's dad was talking to one of the guys at the bar.  His mom was talking to another.  They were all chatting as if they'd known each other for ten years.

I realized that there is something comforting about the concept of fraternity.  About the values of friendship and the ability to embrace strangers from 1500 miles away, simply because you both belong to the same organization.  This organization may not share my values - and may be repulsed by mine, and by my life - but they support each other.

I also realized the impact of perspective.  I can't imagine my initial impression of the Elks lodge was any more disorienting for me than the places we frequent would be for Neil's parents.  I can't exactly imagine they'd immediately adapt to a happy hour cocktail at g or a Sunday afternoon tea dance.  Neil's dad may enjoy hanging around the bar with a bunch of guys in the spirit of fraternity, but I imagine he draws the line when none of them are wearing shirts.

However, as much as I could easily understand the need for any organization to form and provide a safe community and gathering place for their members, I do struggle with the question of whether certain groups institutionalize intolerance.  I'm not talking about the groups who place intolerance at their focal point - I can assure you I have no mixed feelings about such obvious radical groups as the KKK or Focus on the Family.  But the Elks or the Rotary Club or the folks who gather at the VFW present more of a grey area.  They don't exist for the purpose of discrimination, but it's a function of something generational - a conservatism that cultural, often regional.

Is that OK?

Neil's parents do not know that we are married.  They know that we are "together" and have been "together" for a pretty long time.

Maybe that's the most they can handle, since they never really talk about or ask about our relationship - a silence that communicates some awkward compromise of acceptance and avoidance.  Or maybe that's just me projecting onto them Neil's interpretation of them, and imputing intent.

He never wears his engagement ring or wedding band when we're with them.  It bothers me, but it's no more my business than my relationship with my parents is his.  My parents may accept me, but it doesn't mean I don't have a whole series of issues with how I relate to or communicate with them.

But there is a bigger picture.  Last week, two men were tried and sentenced in Malawi (that's in Africa; you may remember it as the country Madonna adopted a baby from.  Doesn't pop culture make understanding geography easier?  Angelina Jolie alone has done more to help a whole generation of Americans find southeast Asia on a map.) The men were given 14 years hard labor for the crime of being gay.

They will be lucky to survive their sentence.

They will be lucky to survive one year.

The government and prison system will do nothing to protect them.

That this could happen - even as remote and backward a place as sub-Saharan Africa - is terrifying.  We like to believe that such a thing could not happen in 2010.  That the world we live in is a better place.

Yet outside the cosmopolitan urban areas and bedroom suburbs of the northeast, midwest and west coast; beyond the world of progressive middle class society populating our popular culture - even in America freedom and equality remain elusive.  (And, Yes, freedom and equality are, ultimately, the same thing.)

We are just now approaching a point where integrating the military is a realistic possibility, long after countries with much stronger theocratic and cultural aversions to homosexuality - places like Israel and Great Britain - have done so.  We still do not have a federal policy of non-discrimination in employment.  And marriage - which is a civil rights issue - is limited to 6 states, while countries like Denmark and Spain (SPAIN!  Could there be a more Catholic country?!) have nationally permitted it.

I'm not equating the right to marry with the situation in Malawi, but it's worth remembering that the crime of sodomy for which the two men were tried and convicted was also a crime here in the US until the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas - less than ten years ago.  And, as long as we continue to permit institutional discrimination in any way - employment, marriage, any right fundamental to freedom - we are allowing, indeed fostering, an impression that some of us are less than others.  And when we send that message, it's just a slippery slope, a matter of degree, separating us from Malawi.

And that's not OK.

Friday, May 7, 2010

37 Hours in Manhattan

An appointment in the city forced me to rearrange my travel and managed, miraculously, to get me home last Monday night (despite rain in DC and New York – which can usually be counted upon to delay the Delta Shuttle by a matter of hours, but only cost me 15 minutes.) As a result, I sped from LaGuardia to lower Manhattan where I was able to meet Neil and some friends at Do Hwa, a Korean Barbecue joint that we’d been eager to twy, I mean, try.

I’ll dispense with the review in short order – I enjoyed my meal and would definitely go back – but make no mistake that the black lacquered tables and red accents create an ambience reminiscent of the Chinese restaurant in “Oh God! Book Two” (if that reference is too early-80s for you, imagine the one in the remake of Freaky Friday starring Jamie Lee Curtis and a pre-cocaine and lesbianism Lindsay Lohan.)

The conceit of the place is that, though you can order several Korean dishes right off the menu, the specialty is a Korean barbecue where they bring you a plate of raw meat and turn on a burner embedded into your table. You then get to spear, cook, and season/sauce your meat appropriately. It’s very “Melting Pot” (that tragic fondue place attached to shopping malls nationwide) – only New York-ified (which means “expensive.” ) Still, we enjoyed ourselves and would go back – though I’m still a little angry with myself for tipping twenty per cent when I had to prepare my meal myself. It’s kind of like going to the supermarket (except, here, 60 bucks buys you 10 ounces of meat instead of 10 pounds) and tipping the cashier on the way out.

Still, I was in New York. NEW YORK! On a weekday. It was like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one!

I’m starting to reach critical mass with my job. If I don’t start saying no to all this travel, I’m going to end up right where I was when I began freelancing – too exhausted from the travel to prevent the enjoyment of my work from getting overshadowed by resentment. It’s gotten to the point where even the weekends are ruined by the awareness that my first act on Monday morning will be boarding an airplane.

I realized how much I missed New York on Tuesday, when Neil had spontaneously been offered tickets to a new musical on Broadway and I was actually able to go. On a weeknight. In NEW YORK!!!

“Everyday Rapture” is an almost-one-woman show, written and starring Sherie Rene Scott who has become almost famous as a musical theater actress. I say almost because the geographical limitations of Broadway have prevented most successful legit performers from attaining fame and those that have (Bernadette Peters, Kristen Chenoweth to name a few) often did so by supplementing a largely theatrical career with television and film.

I also say almost because, even among avid theatergoers, Sherie Rene Scott is largely known for either opening shows that don’t last terribly long, or replacing the actress who created a role in the original Broadway production.

That almost should be almost over, though, since her show is fantastic, is receiving a great deal of critical attention, and – in a season with limited new successful musicals, and even more limited roles for leading actresses, I’m betting she’s got three Tony noms coming her way (Leading Actress, Writing, Musical) and at least one win (Actress.) (EDITOR'S NOTE: This was written before Tony nominations were announced this week - two for three ain't bad.)

In a book co-written by Sherie, she tells a modified story of her life growing up half-Mennenite in Kansas and making her way to New York, to (semi-)stardom and to (semi- and then full) motherhood. (If you want to know what that means, see it. The music is largely an appropriation of standards, and the recurring leitmotif of religion (Judy Garland or Jesus Christ being the warring messiahs) set in a cabaret show writ large enough to play to a bigger house.

The arrangement of standards like “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” is winning, while Sherie mines humor from “You Made Me Love You” and pathos from a medley of songs from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Her voice modulates to convey character from early childhood through the first blush of puberty; from late adolescence through adulthood. And what a voice it is – in fine form for 90 minutes, without intermission – the show is briskly paced yet, by the end, you realize she’s been singing flawlessly for an hour and a half.

Go now.

I’ve got no review on the restaurant we went to afterwards, unless you’d like me to comment on mini-bagels we toasted in our kitchen and washed down with Ben & Jerry’s (Milk & Cookies flavor – delish.)

Then it was on the road again: Lincoln, Omaha (you know, despite my restlessness with travelling, I actually enjoy Nebraska) then home again on Friday. We met a group of friends at Cabrito (right down the block from Do Hwa) for Mexican food. This is the second time we’ve been – we like it. It’s not too pricey, it’s always young and crowded and energetic, and the drinks are good.

By Saturday the temperature had risen to almost 90 degrees, so after our errands we packed some magazines, a blanket, and some towels and headed for Central Park, where we baked in the sun. The park is always a great place to people watch in early spring; the long winter has brought out the urge to emerge from hibernation and the masses come out in full force. Couples with children park strollers under the trees and let their kids run amok while cheap white wine makes them blissfully unaware. The men will talk about baseball or their jobs in law firms or Wall Street while peeling off shirts to reveal milky white chests and a layer of flab that doesn’t yet entirely obscure the bodies they had in college (but will by 38.) The ones that don’t are watching the 20 year old guys playing Frisbee a little too intently.

Their wives compare yoga classes and kindergartens, clad almost entirely in apparel from Lululemon. Nearly all of them are in better shape than they were ten years ago, in some sort of inverse proportionality to their husbands. From a distance, they are all candidates for Bravo’s next reality show, smacking of an irony borne from the unreality of it all.

Towards the center of the park are those Frisbee players. Along with baseball players, volleyball players, and football players. Or just players. Men in their 20s are surrounded by women of the same age – all engaged in routine rituals of relationships among people who slept together, are sleeping together or will soon sleep together – like some sort of active verb, a sexually active verb – being conjugated in real-time.

Everyone over the age of 30 is jealous. And is, in some way, watching them. And it is New York, so there is some regret, some wistfulness, some thing, in their eyes – even if they are perfectly happy – because they are not any longer young. And in New York (like LA, where I am headed yet again) to be young is to have promise, to have a future, to have freedom and fearlessness and adventure.

To be young is everything.

Wow – that was a little depressing right?

All right, let’s lighten it up, here. This ain’t meant to be Sartre.

Marcelene (speaking of young) met us in the park to regale us with stories from her job hunt, her man hunt, whatever hunts she’s been on lately. Joining her was a friend from high school and, initially I thought it was a friend she went to high school with – but I think she must have meant a friend who is still in high school. This girl was positively fetal. Asian, with long hair cavalierly contained under an oversize ball cap, she wore a denim skirt that wouldn’t have fit me as a wrist cuff and a t-shirt with an artist’s print, casually informing us she used to model for him. Seriously, she was so perfect a harbinger of a certain kind of New York sensibility that her name might has well have been Target Demo.

Needing a drink, Neil and I headed off to meet friends from our own century, only to arrive at the Frying Pan (26th and the West Side Highway) to find the entire complex of boats and piers completely overrun by an assortment of Manhattanites engaged in an everlasting frat party. Opting for our own kind, we made our way to Boxers, on 20th between Fifth and Sixth Avenues – ironically newly opened on the site of a sports bar that looked almost exactly the same 15 years ago. When you’ve been around long enough to see the same spaces recycled as the places they were, before they became everything else, you’ve been around too long.

And then, just as I got tired of all things young, I found something both young and old simultaneously. On the personal DVR player aboard my flight, I finished watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory and got up to go to the restroom. When I returned, I found I must have accidentally hit one of the keys, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s was just finishing the opening credits. Having never seen it, I allowed myself to get absorbed in the glamour and the style and the Mean Reds and all of it – with the impossibly beautiful Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. It’s a shame so many romantic comedies today are so poorly written, because the film makes you long for a great love story that doesn’t end tragically; that reminds you that art illuminates and inspires. I loved it, from that first croissant all the way to a three-way hug involving a wet, nameless cat.