Classic Holiday Movie Post #5

This one we never miss. Every year Jaxon and I have managed to watch this together, either on video at home or at a local movie house. It’s best on the big screen, for sure. And, one of the few films I’ve been to where the audience without fail applauds and sings along to the musical numbers. Try it sometime!

Classic Holiday Movie #6: White Christmas

Bing, Danny, Rosemary, and Vera dance and sing their way through a decidedly unsnowy Vermont inn, bringing together the entire population of Broadway and the U.S. military to wish their retired general a very Merry Christmas. Aside from the final act (including both General Waverly’s entrance and the final rendition of the title number) which always leaves me a little teary-eyed, my favorite scenes are always the “Choreography” number and of course Bing and Danny’s hilarious pantomime of “Sisters.” Here’s some additional video.

What I Meant to Write Last Week, Only Surlier

Before the tragedy in Connecticut last week, my intention was to write about our short mid-week trip to Iowa. I was also going to get a wee bit political. Let’s see if I still can.

Toward the end of November, I had a pleasantly surprising phone call from a very dear friend. I’ve known Tony for about 10-plus years, going back to when we both interned/worked on contract for a small AIDS organization in Michigan. Although about 25 years my senior, he and I easily bonded and in some ways over time our relationship evolved from mentorship to something more fraternal as we both moved, changed jobs, and had various ups and downs with our relationships.

He and his partner Joe now live in upper Michigan, not far from Lake Superior and not too removed from Minnesota. With my school commitments, we haven’t seen much of each other in the last few years, but Tony called to tell us that they were traveling to Iowa to officially get married. With the latest election results, he concluded, federal recognition of same-sex marriage is an inevitability and, the sooner they have official paperwork, the more likely that in the future, social security survivor benefits will have to recognize that official marriage date. Additionally—and this was the most touching piece—Tony and Joe asked if Jaxon and I would come down to Iowa and serve as their official witnesses. It seemed fitting, both for our relative proximity and the way our personal and professional lives have been woven together over the past decade. To say the least, Jaxon and I were humbled and moved. We said yes.

The ceremony was pretty straightforward. The judge was extremely kind and cordial, and the recitation of vows went smoothly. To summarize: Tony and Joe promised to enter into a publicly-affirmed, legally binding (in Iowa) declaration of their commitment to one another. They promised to care for each other through hardship. They affirmed their intentions to remain committed to each other for the rest of their lives. They put their love for each other on paper, in a court of public law. To witness our friends make this commitment was a privilege.

Of course, a few days prior to this, one Supreme Court Justice, who will soon cast a vote determining whether or not the United States should recognize same-sex marriage, used the opportunity of a public confrontation (by a very brave gay college freshman) to re-affirm his view that the public has a right to label same-sex intimacy as morally reprehensible as murder. Now, I am not a Constitutional scholar, and without a doubt Antonin Scalia can argue me under the table when it comes to the Founders’ true intentions. Given the horrible nightmare Newtown, Connecticut, just endured, perhaps Justice Scalia simply needs a refresher in a couple key qualitative differences between same-sex coupling, and murder. Now I am aware that Scalia directed his comments toward “homosexual behavior,” but given how the arguments around homosexuality before the Court have coalesced around marriage equality, I am going to stick to that framework for my points below.

Difference #1: One involves consenting adults, agreeing to mutually support each other through life’s difficulties and highlights. The other involves taking human life, presumably without their consent.

Difference #2: Over time as people have gotten to know and grow familiar with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in their own families and communities, support for same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination measures have generally increased. Support for murdering other human beings (with the exception of our confounded tolerance of post-colonial warfare and the death penalty) has generally remained low over time, even when people have gotten to know the murderers in their communities.

Difference #3: There doesn’t need to be a Difference #3. But, apparently the distinction isn’t clear enough for others who share this man’s views. In the wake of Netwon, both James Dobson and Mike Huckabee boldly declared that society’s growing tolerance of gay people bore some of the blame for a twenty year-old, mentally ill loner taking several automatic weapons into an elementary school and hunting down its children, faculty, and staff. In their estimation, America (and we gay people specifically) have turned our backs on God.

I’m going to offer a slightly different interpretation: people who seek the right to marry a partner of the same gender (and frankly, people whose gender identities have changed since birth as well), and people who support these efforts may or may not recognize the God of Messrs. Scalia, Huckabee, and Dobson. But, increasingly I would say that Americans are turning away from huckster capitalists who use their increasingly outmoded platforms to try to bully and intimidate people into believing something that is contradicted by the evidence we collect in our own lives and experiences. Believe what you will about the Bible or any other sacred text. People have the ability to determine with their own eyes, ears, and feelings whether or not same-sex intimacy is morally reprehensible, and increasingly that evidence is making lay people question the unyielding authoritarian (yet increasingly desperate) huffing from evangelical radio and TV (or Rome for that matter). Where previously people could be bullied into believing warped depictions of individual misbehaviors or social outcasts, more and more they recognized their loved ones. Where people had previously viewed those who were different as somehow diseased and depraved, more now recognize and empathize with very human struggles and triumphs. Ultimately, in my opinion the depravity these men now rail against is in fact the continued withering irrelevance of their own overinflated control over a society that, while certainly flawed, is growing more keen to recognizing authentic struggles and basic unfairness. Those who are most threatened, I believe are those who have gained the most from systematically maintaining these inequalities.

I have no doubt how Antonin Scalia will vote in the arguments pertaining to same-sex marriage. His “originalist” perspective certainly affords him the opportunity to sit comfortably behind an orthodoxy that emphatically views the Founders’ words as final (even though they quite nakedly punted the moral issue of slavery down the field for future generations to resolve). But, the next time I see someone equate queer people to murder, I’ll remember last week. I’ll remember Tony and Joe, embracing before the judge and their two admiring friends, promising to love and honor each other for every day of their lives. I’ll remember the horror of Newtown that came too soon after. And, morally speaking. I am pretty confident that an increasingly abundant number of citizens will be able to recognize that the two events are not remotely equivalent.

Newtown, CT, and the Gun Conversation

Fighting off an early winter cold hasn’t given me much energy or desire to write. I had intended my first new post to focus on the wedding of our friends Tony and Joe, but that will have to wait, given the heartbreaking and haunting ordeal that took place yesterday in Connecticut. I’ve only had a couple experiences with gun violence in my life, certainly not enough to qualify me as an expert on either mass shootings or gun laws. Looking back on the vivid accounts of yesterday’s tragedy, I think that I could take any number of directions in writing this piece today. It seems only proper though to start with my own lived experiences, which although limited, at least speak to what I know, and what I imagine might be the perspectives of those living through yet another apparently senseless and surreal set of circumstances.

When I was maybe four or five years old, my parents took us (my two older sisters and I) on a walk through a stretch of woods owned by my grandfather. It was the site of the family’s old hunting camp, a rotting old structure tucked away on 40 or so acres of woods in rural northern Michigan. I think it was mid-fall, although I don’t remember much more than sunny conditions, mild temperatures, and stomping through leaves on the ground. I do remember that there was good visibility through the trees though, because some people in a gold Jeep started shooting at us from the road, through the trees. I remember going to the ground and being held there, probably by my sisters. After the gunfire persisted for a few minutes, my father jumped up and started yelling that he had his family with him. As he ran toward the road, the jeep sped off. Keeping close to each other, we hiked quickly up to my uncle’s nearby farm to safety. Although we crossed open pastures to get there, I remember how my sisters and I kept looking around, backwards and sideways to make sure that the shooters hadn’t circled back to ambush us. I don’t think my parents ever figured out who these people were or their motives. It may have been poachers, mistaking any movement for deer. Or, it may have been people playing a cruel prank to scare us.

Despite the fact that multiple people in my family—my father, uncles, aunts, and cousins—all routinely took time for deer hunting, I never had an interest in owning a real gun. Almost twenty years later when I was a college hippie queer radical, I would take weekends to visit and weld sculptures with my mentor, a clinical social worker and minister living in a rural mid-Michigan township, right in the heart of deeply conservative citizen militia country. To some degree, the presence of guns in homes, church, and the local café was just more or less accepted. On a trip to the diner one evening, we ran into an older man I would later learn was the second highest-ranking official in one of these militias. Upon meeting me, seeing my long hair, and learning where I lived (the state capital), he commented, “There’s gonna be hunting season down your way soon.” We didn’t have much to really say to each other—my particular radicalism and critiques of American government weren’t really compatible with his. In fact, I saw enough of his worldview to know that if “hunting season” really did come to my city, I’d probably be wearing a big, pink target in this man’s eyes. After eating, we went home where my mentor cleaned his pistol and I welded a new sculpture– a compact, sturdy column of stainless steel strips I ended up calling, “The Shaft.”

The limited news from Connecticut indicates that this new shooter was a “nerd” type who had a mental illness diagnosis of some kind. Having lived the life of a too-clever social outcast at various points in my youth, I can relate to how lonely and difficult that experience can be. And, although mental health hasn’t been my focus in social work, in my personal life I have witnessed psychotic breaks before. It’s a surreal experience to see a person you know and love, responding to some kind of stimuli that isn’t apparent to anyone else in the room. People wonder how this twenty-year old kid could shoot a roomful of elementary school students. I wonder what he was seeing and hearing that led him to feel like the only thing he could do was arm himself, pull the trigger, and keep firing. I wonder because when I was a child and people shot at my family, my dad’s instinct was to run toward the shooters, arms flailing and screaming for his family. When I was a young man and a grizzled militiaman measured me up and pronounced me “bait,” my impulse was to withdraw and make something cold, steel, and comforting but not lethal in my hands. I cannot imagine what it feels like to pull a trigger, knowing that it would in fact annihilate. But, I can relate to feeling powerless, frightened, and isolated, a set of primal emotions that I suspect were shared in various ways and stages by the victims, the heroic teachers and responders, and the shooter.

There’s a difficult conversation brewing around guns, violence, and the proper approach for regulating society’s interactions with these weapons. At any point this is a challenge for our severely polarized communities, but with the enormous grief so many are carrying right now, I can’t imagine it will take long for rage and mutual recriminations to surface. In a way, I see guns as tools of proxy in that generally, they enable human beings to exert our power toward others (human or otherwise) from a somewhat removed position. A gun is a less intimate tool for resolving conflict than say a knife or one’s own hands. It’s been argued by some that the solution to preventing gun violence is having more guns, and more weapons-trained gun users in the community. I’ve heard mentors and other close family members say that regardless of whether they have to use it, just possessing a gun reassures them that they can defend themselves from intrusions or incursions. The question I still have, the question I struggle to get, is this: When someone is convinced that the absolutely correct decision is to pull the trigger, what do they perceive around them? What do they see, hear, and feel that convinces them that shooting is the most “right” thing to do? And, to what degree did they feel like they had the power to choose any other alternative?

Whereas for me the impulse and resolve to fire a weapon at someone is relatively alien and unsettling, ultimately I do think the gun law debates that are about to erupt will serve as proxies for a larger and more unwieldy conversation that needs to happen around power, self-determination, and shared wellbeing. If we cannot agree on the propriety of regulating firearms, can we at least reach a consensus on certain events being preventable tragedies? Where said events are in fact preventable and certain safeguards can be established and reinforced (either by authorities or a committed citizenry), to what extent can we at least agree to these contingencies?

Classic Holiday Movie Post #4

This one’s truly in the “great” category for Christmas comedies. About 10 years ago I worked for an independent video store, and the owner wanted to make a commercial with each of us reciting a “favorite” line from a holiday movie. After a while he had to say, “No, not that one.” So many quotable lines…

Classic Holiday Movie #5: A Christmas Story

“You’ll shoot your eye out!”

“Fra… geeeee…. leeeeey… Must be Italian!”

“It’s a beautiful duck, it’s… you see, it’s smiling at me.”

Any other favorites from A Christmas Story? Comment back and add to the list!

Thoughts on Hitchcock, Stress, and Weight Loss

I don’t know much about Alfred Hitchcock’s personal life, certainly not enough to judge whether the movie Hitchcock is a faithful representation of his character or marriage. It was, however, a very entertaining story, well worth the time to see Hopkins and Mirren fill their larger than life personas. While Helen Mirren’s Alma Reville certainly rises to the occasion, the Alfred Hitchcock portrayed here betrays a deeper insecurity, which is especially apparent if you pay attention to Anthony Hopkins’ eyes. I’m not giving away much by pointing out that Hitchcock’s legendary portliness, while certainly influenced by his filmmaking success and rich appetite, is also shown here as due in many ways to stress, anxiety, and insecurity. In the scenes where he’s very clearly stress eating, he looks very much like the scared little boy, hiding behind his fleshy defenses.

Without a doubt these images resonated with me. I first began to struggle with my weight around age 7 or 8, although maybe it was earlier. Looking back, I can see a combination of factors that worked against me—being a clever kid with good grades, physically awkward and awful at physical sports; social awkwardness that made me more comfortable talking to grownups than kids my own age (who generally disliked my overachievement in class and enjoyed my shortcomings in gym class and other sporting activities); and, generally speaking, just not knowing how to cope constructively with stress, anxiety, and depression.

I can identify a few key moments in my adult life when I managed to re-make my body. First, like a number of gay teens I have met I dropped a substantial amount of weight when I came out, found friends, and gained a ton of confidence in myself. Over time though, the blessing of an enriched social life (especially in college) can turn into joyful overindulgences, and college especially added some (but not all) of the pounds back on. The second time I felt a significant change came when I went to NYU for a summer, when the experience of being alone in Manhattan and needing to walk everywhere certainly had an impact. Getting a Master’s degree in social work, however, re-introduced me to food as a way to cope with stress. I’ve often said that comfort food is the social worker’s drug of choice—and after years of work in the social services, I haven’t seen much evidence to convince me otherwise.

The third occurrence came when I moved to the Twin Cities several years ago. I was single, taking walks every day over the lunch hour, and working at a job that frequently had me on my feet doing outreach in the local gay bars. Although I was able to keep that weight level for a few years, gradually it creeped upward as my job became more stressful and Jaxon and I settled into a domestic routine. I’m absolutely convinced that stress plays a major role in how I gain and lose weight. My first year in the Ph.D. program—when I was still working full-time at my old agency—led me to balloon up again, with my blood pressure spiking as well. Even though I swam laps twice a week, it was easier to grab pre-made food or order out than drag my mentally exhausted brain and body to the co-op and then the kitchen.

Over the last year or so, I’ve tried to re-introduce some balance in my life. It helps that we started making communal dinners with our housemates and changed our shopping habits so that we get fresh food in shorter amounts, over multiple trips to the co-op each week. Recently though, a big catalyst for me has been meeting a new friend, also gay and about the same age that I was during my last major weight loss period. Having someone who’s been in my shoes, who doesn’t necessarily want to adopt the hardcore “training” mentality but is galvanized by his successes so far, has given me a new motivation to get a bit more active. (Not that I haven’t been active, but given how much time I spend on the laptop with research and lesson planning, I could use the boost.) I don’t know if I’ll be able to replicate my previous successes—honestly, right now I think that significant weight loss is less my goal than simply finding and keeping a balance. More importantly, I think back on the image of Anthony Hopkins as the unquestionably brilliant but deeply insecure Alfred Hitchcock, feverishly stuffing food in his mouth in an attempt to fortify himself from his own fright. I’ve been there, and will probably revisit that state of mind at some points again in my life. Part of this journey, this struggle, inevitably involves revisiting the pitfalls of my own past. Revisiting, however, doesn’t mean that I have to live there.

Classic Holiday Movie Post #3

Not technically a holiday film, but it opens with events centered around an opulent Christmas party, with gunshots and Southern-style justice quick to follow.

Classic Holiday Movie #4: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Strong performances by Kevin Spacey, the Lady Chablis, and Jack Thompson (a personal fave from the Australian film “The Sum of Us”), not to mention the city of Savannah offered as a shimmering Christmas present. Also I’m entertained by the depiction of gossip as currency in a town where everyone knows each other’s business and not a word is said… in public at least! Note the juxtaposition between what people privately disapprove of (but sometimes covet) and what they publicly tolerate (if not fully accept).

Our House

Houses like ours were truly made for the holiday season. I often think of myself as its current caretaker, not the “owner” per se. The story of how we came to buy it and what we’ve done with it is pretty cool.

We live right in the heart of South Minneapolis, in a Victorian farmhouse built in 1886. Well, the original building permit for a barn structure says 1886. The historical records show that it was finished as a homestead in 1894, the basement and foundation were added in 1897, and it was first wired and plumbed in 1907. The place has incredible bones—the original hardwood flooring, banister, and trim are intact, and we’re blessed with a wraparound, screened-in porch that serves as our outdoor living room and bedroom during the summer months. We used to rent half a duplex up the block, and jumped at the opportunity when the previous occupant put up a “for sale by owner” sign.

Even prior to buying the house, Jaxon and I have always put time into decorating for the holidays. It’s one of those rituals, though a lot of work, that feeds both of our creative outlets and reminds us that another year together has just passed. Since he owns all of his late grandparents’ antique ornaments and a whole lot of Eastern European glass ornaments from before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my partner has the ability to make Christmas trees that cause Macy’s to weep in shame. Throw in the TV showing a roaring fire in our fireplace, and the charm factor goes sky high this time of year.

The dining room tree is our “red, gold, and green” theme, very homespun with more woodland ornaments. The living room tree is shinier and has a mid-century modern feel to it. This year we added in some strings of the class big bulbs, just to heighten the nostalgia. Here are some pictures.

Our mid-century modern tree.

Our mid-century modern tree.

Red, gold, and green!

Red, gold, and green!

Note the nostalgic light bulbs.

Note the nostalgic light bulbs.

Note the more homespun ornaments.

Note the more homespun ornaments.

Periodically one of these ends up on our bookshelf or buffet. Good for meditating!

Periodically one of these ends up on our bookshelf or buffet. Good for meditating!

Also, here’s a link to the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s feature on the house from a few years ago:

Classic Holiday Movie Post #2

Post #2 but Movie #3! This week it was another beauty from the World War II era, starring Barbara Stanwyck on a farm that looks eerily similar to Bing Crosby’s digs in “Holiday Inn.” A redress of the set? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me!

Classic Holiday Movie #3: Christmas in Connecticut

Does anyone know why they used to release Christmas movies in August…? Anyway, it’s a cute romp and stomp around the grand old American notion that deception and fake matrimony (not to mention childrearing and cooking) make the holidays much more interesting. Although Barbara projects cool confidence and quick thinking even in the most uncomfortable moments, ultimately I have a soft spot for Uncle Felix.