Thursday, September 24, 2009

Arnold to the rescue!

Things looked pretty grim. The article in the Los Angeles Times last week was about how a bunch of developmentally disabled adults were being evicted from their apartments in Monrovia, east of L.A. The owners of the Regency Court had concluded, after a number of years, that the complex had been designed for senior citizens and that people under 62 should not be living there.

This was a classic tale of the big, evil powers that be trampling over the little people, made all the more compelling and poignant with the little people here being not only disabled but mentally retarded. The story was complete with the usual tragic and pitiful but heroic and inspiring examples of disabled people trying to live independently, topped off with heart-tugging photos.
Then, a day or two later, there was another article in the Times, this one about California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger showing up at the Regency Court to tell the disabled residents that their evictions had been "terminated." There was a large picture of Schwarzenegger smiling and leaning down to talk to a smiling, dressed-to-the-nines woman in a wheelchair. In an interview, the former action star explained that he intervened with the apartment owners after reading the L.A Times story and being visited by the ghost of his recently deceased mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver, telling him he had to do something.

It was indeed a happy day, a day of celebration. The big, bad corporation had been brushed off, and the disabled folks could stay in their own homes. Then why wasn’t I feeling so good? Why was I wincing and a bit woozy?

Clearly, this pit stop by the gubinator was the coldest of P.R moves, right down to the gussied-up woman. All while thousands of other disabled people in the state are left in the lurch because of services being slashed by his administration.

Why didn’t old Eunice say anything about them to the restless Arnold? That’s where this all gets downright nauseating, with the stink of patronization. After all, Mrs. Shriver is most admired for starting the Special Olympics.

Ah, the Special Olympics, where the most unfortunately handicapped are oh so graciously allowed not to be normal - no - but to shine. As if a man wearing a life jacket and having to be guided down a swimming pool lane can be as great as Michael Phelps.

And as if he - and perhaps anyone who is anything like him - has no hope of being able to help, much less save, himself.

Monday, September 21, 2009

God loves gay marriage

Quaker weddings, at least in the unprogrammed tradition, are magic. Unlike any other kinds of weddings that I know of, the couple declare their vows to each other, without an officiating minister, in the belief that only God can marry them. Then, those present, all of whom are considered ministers, can speak out of the silence, offering prayers, wishes and comments regarding the couple and the marriage. Afterwards, everyone signs the marriage certificate, stating that the marriage occurred. Magic.
On Saturday, I attended the Quaker wedding of two men at a lovely old meetinghouse not too far from here. It was truly an honor for me to be there. Not only was one of the men, Joe, a wonderful man and good friend of mine, and not only have I gotten to know and like his clearly cherished partner. This was the first gay wedding that I’ve attended.
But it turned out to be so much more. As the wedding went on, it turned out to be not just a nice ceremony with good friends. It became more and more evident, like the increasing heat in the room, oven-like, on the very hot day (when I marry, it will be in January!), that God was definitely present and very much in approval. Clearly - as much as I’ve ever felt - this was an act of God, done through those of us who were present. It was also oh-so clear that God is all about love and delights in it, revels in it, and that the couple being two men didn’t matter in the least. As long as there is mutual love, that’s all that God cares about.
I was very moved by the many messages coming out of the silence, testifying to the rightness of the marriage. There was the woman who thanked the couple for giving her young children a powerful example of putting Quaker belief into action, and I especially loved when one man reminded us that early Quakers signed the marriage certificate because they were breaking the law (not being in "the Church") and needed strength in numbers. We were still breaking the law here in California, where same-sex marriage is not legally recognized.
This all packed quite a whallop. I got to the meetinghouse very early, having been warned that seats were at a premium, and I knew right away that I was in trouble, that I would cry - and not just because there were boxes of Kleenex placed every few feet. I made it until the very end when we sang (unusual in an unprogrammed meeting) "Great Spirit, Joy of Earth and Sky," as the couple had requested. How could I not cry? Two days later, there are times still when I can barely keep from crying.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A fond farewell

I am making an exception here and posting a column I have written for the Claremont Courier. I want to pay tribute to one of my best teachers, who recently died.

Shortly after I came out to her almost ten years ago, Ms. S gave me a lecture on safe sex. In a letter, she shared with me the joy of finding love, but she also went on at considerable length about the gay men she had known who had died from AIDS and said, several times, "Be careful!"
It was decades after I had been in her English class at El Roble Intermediate School, where she taught for years, and Carol Schowalter, who I affectionately called Ms. S, was still teaching me. In later years, after she retired, she would, with her exquisite calligraphy, comment on my COURIER columns, sometimes quite sternly. She reminded me to always, always write from a place of kindness and compassion.
The fact that we were still in touch, that she was still instructing me and I was still telling her details about my life, spoke volumes (an appropriate metaphor, for she clearly adored books, handling them and even breaking their backs with the utmost of care, even reverence). Now that Ms. Schowalter has died, I will miss even this occasional caring and guidance, even if I didn’t seek it out.
I think that, if Ms. S had not told me soon after I landed in her class, I would have guessed that she had been trained as a minister. I and literally thousands of other Claremont junior high school students had the gift of her genuine, deep caring and her warm, heartfelt wisdom. We also knew and loved her as a natural born teacher.
And the terror that she often was.
Ms. Schowalter was (and still is) a Claremont legend. Even before I entered her classroom, I had heard stories about how hard she was, about the endless homework she assigned and the elaborate, torturous project she had her students do. She was known as a teacher that students love even while, or more likely after, hating her class.
Sort of like what I heard someone say about writing: I love having written.
I soon found out that the legend was very much true. Before I knew it, I was doing the infamous Student Dictionary - two words a day, which I had to copy from the black board, then define, write sentences with and find used in outside sources (newspapers, magazines, novels, television shows, etc.). I will never forget the words being there day after day, like widgets on an endless conveyer belt, and, almost teasingly, in that elegant calligraphy and with amusing sentences featuring names such as Mortimer and Gladys. Then there were the crazy book report projects - a simple book report was never enough for Ms. S - on top of weekly spelling tests, lots of essays, memorizing all of the prepositions, learning the difference between a metaphor and a simile and all the usual English class stuff.
I have to admit that I botched one project, but Miss Schowalter did teach me to work hard - or even harder - and to appreciate and indeed love how an author such as Carson McCullers can have quite a distinctive style of writing. Even when I slid, she saw not only my potential but also that I was more likely than not to fulfill it.
This was, I soon saw, a good thing. If Miss Schowalter had any fault as a teacher, it is that she really did not suffer fools or laggards gladly - or at all. I witnessed her talking to several boys who had misbehaved or goofed off, and not only was it not pretty, I’m not sure if any of them were in her class much longer. And watch out - even the star pupils - if Ms. S had a cold or wasn’t feeling well!
She was also fiercely proud of her work. When I told her that one of my previous teachers had used her idea for teaching Greek mythology, she was not amused in the least.
But the fact is that Miss Schowalter was one of the hardest working teachers I have known, and she expected the same from her students. Furthermore, in a special and fascinating way, I was almost as much of a challenge to her as she was to me.
I was in the first class of orthopedically handicapped students at El Roble, back when Danbury was still a school, and, out of that class, I was the first to be mainstreamed into a "regular" class. Miss Schowalter’s seventh grade English class was the one in which I was placed. I suspect this was a gamble carefully considered by all involved, and I have no doubt that she saw it as an interesting little challenge and eagerly took it on. It was interesting, to say the least, with me, a severely disabled boy in a wheelchair, lugging a typewriter (this was way before laptops) to class each day - and who knew how to understand my speech? (Being among the first disabled students in this most bratty of environments was itself quite a challenge, but that’s another story.)
So Ms. S and I both definitely dived into deep, sometimes cold, waters, and I think we both tried our damnedest to swim and make this grand experiment work. I know that, even when I flubbed, I worked my ass off for her. For her part, she always asked me questions about my life and its challenges and tried to hear my answers, even as she added more challenges. Again, she saw my potential - and helped me be sure of it.
For years after I left El Roble, I would drop by her classroom - like the institution it was, it never changed - to visit Ms. S. Even when she was tired or said she didn’t have time to talk, she was very interested to hear about my progress in high school and college, where I majored in English, and, later, downright intrigued to hear about my writing, living independently and theater work. "You haven’t forgotten old lady Schowalter," she would say.
No, I hadn’t. And I delighted in meeting Mel, the love of her life, at long last (she could indeed relate to my finally coming out at 39), who she soon married, and I loved hearing how she and Mel and Mel’s wife had been good friends for years until his wife died. It was right out of a novel, the literature that
she so cherished, and although I never heard Ms. S speak of Jane Austen, I’m sure she would have delighted in my referencing this particular novelist when it came to the courtship and marriage. I liked to think of them as "CarolMel."
And now, just as a new school year is starting, Ms. S is gone, leaving us to remember and honor her dedication to and passion for teaching hard work and good reading and writing. How appropriate! How literary! She would love it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Going into orbit at the Saturn Cafe

I asked my companion what took him so long. He said he had to ask for a key to use the restroom. Apparently, since the last time I was at the Saturn Café up north in Santa Cruz, there had been some incident or problem concerning the restrooms. Perhaps not surprisingly, for when I was there one time several years ago, my attendant at the time couldn’t tell which restroom was for men and which was for women.
It is that kind of place.
The Saturn Café, which proudly and adamantly serves no meat and where you can order raw chocolate chip cookie dough and where a customer may well sport a sky-high mohawk as well as tattoos and piercings and I feel right at home shirtless in my hand-painted overalls, is open until 2 a.m and is the kind of place where, as happened when I was there last week, it took me almost an entire meal to realize that the couple in the next booth were two women and not two men. (At least I think you can still get raw chocolate chip cookie dough. Unfortunately, not only has the menu shrunk, the decor, like North Pacific Avenue which the restaurant is on, has gotten less funky over the years. Like all the tabletops are now the same.)
It is the kind of place where, when my companion and I arrived, a large party of what looked to be two or three families were looking over their menus and abruptly got up and left. As I heard the waiter explain to one of the waitresses, "They went out for meat." All this to a punk-rock soundtrack.
My companion kept teasing me, saying I was smitten with the waiter, that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The waiter wasn’t really my type, but I did enjoy the way he was totally out without being flaming. He had a button pinned to his little apron with a rainbow heart and saying "Support Marriage Equality." Very cute. But what I really liked - okay, maybe I was smitten! - was that he tried to understand what I was saying when I ordered. In fact, when I asked for a hot fudge sundae with coffee ice cream for dessert, he totally got it. Just like that.
(But as for liking the waiter, this was nothing. When I was last at the Saturn, the waiter was so adorable - all nerdy, with a touch of punk - that, after dinner, I went to a movie and then returned, supposedly for dessert. I’m so bad!)
The waiter was definitely not like the one a few days later in, of all places, Berkeley who just stared at me like a deer caught in the headlights when I ordered pancakes. And he certainly wasn’t like the one last year at Orphan Andy’s in the usually cool Castro who strutted around in the tightest of tight pink tee-shirts, pretended I wasn’t there and kept looking at my companion - the same one - like, "What are you doing with that?" Not "that man" or "that guy" - just "that."
That Miss Thing - he needed to get over himself and get a life!