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.

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