Archive for April, 2009

The Author Today

Life is a jest...

Life is a jest...

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Spine Intact – The Very, Very Last Epilog

I intended, when I started this project, to keep it under wraps as it were, until it was finished. The news did get out, however, as news will, and I was astonished by the amount of interest that it generated.

It is nighttime as I write and I can see, out my window, an enormous crowd of my fans approaching on the street below, coming no doubt to celebrate the manuscript’s completion. I think the torches were a brilliant idea. Nothing makes any event more festive, in my opinion.

And the ropes. I suppose they are to rope off the streets, to give free rein to this special night’s mingling and dancing. Already my toes are tapping to the beat of their chant, though I cannot yet quite make out the words.

The pitchforks are a bit puzzling, though…why would you want pitchforks at a party?

 

* * * * * * *

 

Oh—at the very last minute I did finally think of some wisdom that I could impart. It isn’t mine, it’s John Gay’s, but I am sure he will be glad for the coverage. Any man who writes “Our Polly is a sad slut,” needs all the good press he can get, if you ask me.

 

                 Life is jest; and all things show it;

                 I thought so once;

                 but now I know  it.

 

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Spine Intact – As Long as I Have Your Attention

 

(Of course, I realize that I may not, but then

you wouldn’t be reading this page anyway, would you?)

 

 

 

I have written here mostly about my experiences as a paperback pulp writer, so I suppose it may seem odd to some that I have ventured in the same book to write about spiritual matters. And I certainly know that you cannot mention God or religion without stirring up a hornets’ nest. Nevertheless, I could hardly tell you about what I did or why without telling you who I am. And in the end we are what we believe.

My agnostic and even atheistic friends are fond of pointing out that, as there is no way of proving any Divine presence, I must accept it solely on the basis of faith. The answer to that is, of course, that they can no more prove the non-existence of such a Divinity and so must base their position on faith just as I do.

I can’t help but think that my position is the wiser one since if I am mistaken my only penalty will be oblivion; but if it should happen that I am ultimately called before some Heavenly tribunal to explain my life (and what an embarrassment that would be!) I will at least have my faith to offer as Exhibit A. Pascal more elegantly suggests that you make a bet with yourself that God exists. If he does, you win. And if he doesn’t, you win as well, since you have given yourself in the course of your life something to keep you warm against le silence effrayant de ces espaces inconnues—the dreadful silence of the unknown void. I don’t see how I could put it any better than that.

Anyway, as it happens, I don’t believe literally in any Heavenly tribunal, nor in some white bearded patriarch on a throne upstairs flicking off occasional thunderbolts for the sheer fun of disconcerting humankind.

If you didn’t already know, God started out as a She. To the earliest of our ancestors woman was seen as the giver of life, since she clearly gave birth. In the beginning no one realized the connection between the sex act and the birth, so the male’s role in the scheme of things was not so very great. As a result, these were matrilineal societies in which property passed from mother to daughter.

It was woman, too, who “invented” agriculture, so she was also the giver of food, and since agriculture meant that families and tribes could now stay in one place and feed themselves, she became the patron of the hearth and home as well.

The Goddess was worshipped throughout the ancient world—from the Mediterranean to India to Australia and all points in between—for thousands of years under hundreds of different names—Nana, Innana, Isis, Ishtar, Ishara, Hawthor—but represented in surprisingly similar physical form, mostly what today we would call obese. The point here was not how she would look in a string bikini but woman as the symbol of abundance.

It was not until late in the Bronze Age that men began to realize their role in the act of procreation. By that time agriculture had resulted in the creation of settlements and towns. The new importance of owning or controlling the land shifted the role of the male from that of hunter-gatherer—where speed and wits count—to fighter and defender, where what matters most is brute strength—power.

Power corrupts. It surely wasn’t long before some of the boys started thinking that, if they could control their lands and their towns, shouldn’t they be able to control their households and their women as well? And no doubt they wanted to get their share of that family property while they were at it, property that had increased and become more valuable as they had settled into more stationary lives, with actual homes, furnishings, carts, farmlands, domestic animals.

Now, if Wayne Caveman suddenly announces to his mate “I own you. You obey,” Lorena Caveman might just bop him on the head with a gourd from her garden and go on about her business. And guess who’s sleeping on the living room rock tonight.

If, on the other hand, the priests—a new, male breed of them and bigger and stronger than the old priestesses—back Joe up with the threat of stonings and burning at the stake, it becomes a different matter.

It is ironic when you think that once men gathered under the hawthorn fig tree sacred to the Goddess and ate of the fruit as symbolic of her body; and a few thousand years later the Hebrew scribes were writing of a naughty, naughty woman sweet talking an altogether innocent man into eating fruit off a tree and thus bringing ruination down upon their heads. Hmm. How the mighty have fallen. Well, if you want to change the order of things, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of religion. In no time at all, God was history’s first sex change.

Incidentally, the last great temple to the Goddess was the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Of course, St. Paul made the conversion of the Ephesians a cornerstone of his ministry, with the result that ultimately the temple was destroyed and all traces of the Goddess vanished.

Or did they? It wasn’t so very many years later that the Christian writers announced the Ephesus was the very place to which Mary retired for her twilight years. It’s so nice to have a dame about the house, don’t you think?

But I don’t honestly see God or Goddess in a literal physical form modeled after our own. I do believe that there is an intelligence that permeates the universe and that perhaps even is the universe.

We cannot hope to grasp the infinite with our finite consciousness but it seems to me that there is another consciousness that is universal and into which we can tap. The clearest evidence of that is, I believe, the fact that the greatest thinkers throughout history, people so separated by time and space that they could not have consciously compared notes with one another, seem time and again to come up with the very same ideas.

For example, there is hardly any religion or school of philosophy that does not include some form of the Golden Rule. It appears in both the Old and New Testaments, in Buddhism, Islam and the writings of Confucius. It is offered in the Vedas and the works of the Greek Philosophers and probably written in hieroglyphics in one or two Egyptian temples. Because it is so generally agreed upon, we group it with those ideas that we regard as “universal truths,” and if it were the sum total of your moral code it probably would do the job just fine, as all those different wise men realized—independently.

It is possible, one supposes, that these universal truths, this oneness of thought, is nothing more than coincidence, but such a cosmic coincidence seems to me far more incredible than to believe that all of those thinkers drew their inspiration from some common source. A source, then, unlimited by time or distance. Omnipresent in other words, and omniscient as well, which would at least imply omnipotency—and which is probably as good a definition as we are likely to come up with for God or Goddess.

It is not just those great thinkers, either. When you and another person share the same feeling, idea, sense of things, you are surely dipping into the same well, are you not? When the great Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco arouses in your breast the same longing that Verdi felt for another place, another time, a better world—when you gaze at a fragment of pottery from ancient Mesopotamia and you feel the same thrill of beauty that the potter felt as he fashioned it thousands of years before—when you read a line of verse and your eyes sting with the poet’s tears—then at such times the miles and the centuries fall away and for a fleeting moment you and the artist are one, a part of something greater than yourselves. A something that knows no separation, neither of personality nor of time nor of space. And what is that something, if not the very soul of the universe? If not God?

 

* * * * * * *

 

Much of what is written herein is about the past and less about the future. But I must again emphasize that even when I write about history or about “known facts” they are only my version, my opinion, of those facts.

I have said often “I am fond of reality, I’m just not sure this is it.” Which is another way of saying that our “reality” may not be so real as we think it is. It is likely that what we perceive as our “body of knowledge” is in fact only a body of opinion. There was a time, after all, when the world’s greatest thinkers believed—and believed they had proved—that the world was flat.

It seems to me that it is best to take with a grain of salt those things that are regarded as certain and at the same time to keep an open mind toward those things believed to be impossible. It has often happened that both beliefs were incorrect.

There is a common perception that it is easier to read the past than it is to read the future but the opposite may well be true. We view the past through such a veil of emotion and bias—not only those we held at the time but all those we have held throughout the time since—that it is surprising that we see it at all clearly and not at all surprising that people see it differently.

A time of stress or unhappiness quite commonly causes us to look back fondly on a past time that in fact, when we were in it, was no less stressful or unhappy. The past, as it turns out, is too often what we want it to be rather than what it was, and what it was is open to myriad interpretations. Opinions, in other words.

Of course, the seers notwithstanding, it is impossible to exactly predict the future. But the future is not something that is handed to us tomorrow morning all tied up neatly in a box, like a Christmas gift. In a sense, your future is your present, only more so. Whatever your future will be you are shaping it in this very moment. If you want to know your future, take a look at where you are today and the direction in which you are headed. If you hold something up to the light, it is no great trick to predict where its shadow will fall and the shape that shadow will have.

The real trick, of course, would be to cast no shadow—which is to say, to become the light. That, I believe, is the true goal of all spiritual endeavor. It is those places within ourselves that have not been illuminated that cast the shadows, after all.

The fact is, you cannot have a past or a future except at the expense of the present and the cost is probably too high. It has been said that the past is a cancelled check and the future a promissory note—only the present is hard cash. We live in the present moment; it is all the direct experience of life we can ever have. Every moment that you spend remembering your past or dreaming of your future is a moment lost from your present life.

That is not to say that you should never remember. I have certainly had fun remembering the things I have related in this book, or at least remembering what I think I remember. To study the past can be a path to wisdom. And our dreams for the future can be stars that guide us along that path. But you would not want to find yourself nearing the end of your life, would you, and look back over your shoulder to see behind you only a trail of wasted moments? You might want to make some of them count. As many as possible, I should think.

Despite all our efforts at control, the control we have over ourselves is tenuous and mostly illusory. We are driven by needs and urges that even the wisest can but little comprehend. To think that we have control over our lives is nothing more than hubris. We are none of us wise enough to know how to live our lives.

It is here, then, that faith becomes the most helpful. If we can believe that, however poorly we grasp it, we are a part of a larger life, and that this larger life is a part of a purpose, it is far less frightening to relax and, in the sixties phrase, “go with the flow.” Without such faith that letting go is, I think, altogether too scary.

 

* * * * * * *

 

As I have said repeatedly, however, these are only things as I see them and by now you are all too aware that I have no claim to any particular wisdom. When everything is said and done, you get to sort all this out for yourself; and, though this may surprise you, I hope that some of the conclusions you reach are different from mine.

Ultimately the point of writing, as of all art, is to stir, to prod the consciousness. If you are disagreeing with me you are thinking for yourself and if I have had any part in inducing you to think, then I have done my job as a writer as well as can be hoped.

Just don’t expect me to bail you out when you get hauled before the tribunal. I shall have my hands plenty full trying to explain that divorce business back in Dayton, Ohio.

Where are those Pulitzer people when you need them?

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Spine Intact – Acknowledgments

 

Here is a mystery for those of you so inclined. When you buy a bottle of Beefeaters gin, which is a perfectly tasty gin and makes a tasty marinade as well for a chicken’s bosom (I don’t care what they tell you in cookbooks, if it doesn’t have nipples, it’s not a breast) you will find that it is 80 proof. The gin, that is, not the chicken. If Beefeaters markets a stronger version I have never seen it.

If you buy a bottle of vermouth—Martini & Rossi is nice and if you add a little of this to the marinade the chicken will be all the better for it—you will see that it is 32 proof. Simple logic tells you that if you dilute an 80 proof gin with even a little 32 proof wine, the result should be something less than 80 proof, right?

How is it then that when you order a martini on an airline they are likely to bring you a pre-made one in a little Beefeaters” bottle, and when you read the label on this it is 90 proof?

It is just such little oddities that make drinking the absorbing pastime that it is.

Here is another mystery. How can it be so difficult to find a good martini, particularly in a so-called saloon city like San Francisco but really, in so many places? It is not a difficult drink to make, requiring only a good quality gin or vodka, a few drops of a good dry vermouth, an olive with, if you like, a drop of two of its juices or, if you prefer, a twist of lemon peel, and lots of ice.

I won’t even dwell upon those establishments that attempt to make this noble concoction with rotgut booze but those of you have not read the unexpurgated version of Dante’s Inferno may not know that there was a special circle in Hell set aside for just such miscreants. This detail was eliminated from the revised edition under pressure from the liquor industry and the publisher’s marketing people, so you will just have to take my word for it, but I think you know by now whether or not I am likely to exaggerate.

A more common sin of bartenders—and Dante knew what to do with them as well, you may be sure—is to interpret the request for a dry martini as meaning straight gin or vodka. That is not a martini, alas, dry or otherwise. Something subtle and truly wondrous occurs with the blending of the two spirits, something that cannot be explained by mere chemistry alone but must be experienced to comprehend. Mind you it wants only a few drops of the wine—and this is another all too common failing—to do the job. If you do not trust your wrist absolutely the safest thing is to pour the vermouth into its bottle cap, a half a cap full at most or better, a third.

There are bartenders who, without asking and having made a perfectly good job of the proportions, spoil it all by handing it to you in a glass full of ice. This, too, is not a martini. I truly believe that a glass of ice water makes a good companion to a martini but it should be served on the side.

On the opposite side of the coin—and there is probably no punishment commensurate with the crime—is serving a martini insufficiently chilled. A martini must be ice cold, practically gelid, and preferably served in a chilled glass so that its brisk coldness will last. And eschew, please, the deplorable habit of keeping gin and vermouth in the refrigerator to obviate the need for ice. The ice is indeed necessary. That slight dilution of the spirits with the melting ice—the clearest, purest ice you can find—smoothes the edges, as it were.

And since it is perfection that we are after here—for a perfect martini stands as one of the purest examples of perfection in a too often imperfect world—we might as well address that “shaken or stirred” business. Never mind what James Bond says. He is British and the British are very good with tea but have never quite grasped the essence of the cocktail. Where would you go, I ask, in search of a great martini: a New York cocktail bar or a London pub?

Both shaking and stirring will chill a martini, of course, and I personally think that shaking became popular because it does so more quickly and we are always in a hurry, aren’t we? To be sure, there are drinks that are appropriately shaken; drinks, for instance, with fruit juices in them are meant to be a bit frivolous, effervescent, frothy even. Shake the dickens out of them.

Drinks that are pure spirits, however—the martini, the Manhattan or the Rob Roy as examples—deserve to be stirred. If you will make two martinis in separate shakers, violently shaking one and gently stirring the other, you will clearly discern two things. First, as any good bartender can tell you, stirring produces a colder drink, and the colder the martini the better. And second—this is easier to grasp if you use gin—you will find that the shaken method truly does leave the gin “bruised,” as evidenced by the oils you can see for yourself left floating atop the cocktail when you have poured it into its glass, while the stirred version retains that crystalline purity which is to be desired. Case closed.

I have been a martini drinker for many years, gin originally and still sometimes, but now mostly vodka. In the fifties everyone drank martinis. Writers, chefs, doctors, church ladies and even politicians, who are not otherwise known for their judgment.

By the mid-sixties something dreadful had happened to cocktails, however—not everyone drank them now and those who did, drank them on the rocks. You may be confident, however, that I eschewed such silliness and continued drinking my martinis as God intended, up in a stemmed glass.

By the mid-seventies civilization, in the fullest sense of the word, had deteriorated even further. Hardly anyone was drinking cocktails. The tipple now was the little glass of white wine and sometimes even that otherwise acceptable drink was bastardized with seltzer water, for reasons passing understanding.

I do not mean to imply that I have any objections to a glass of good wine, without the desecration of seltzer, of course. The grape and I have a long standing and honorable relationship marked by mutual respect on both sides. And I think as an aperitif before a luncheon, say, when a martini may be a bit much of a muchness, a glass of wine will do nicely. Nevertheless, there is only one proper appetizer for a good dinner and that is a martini.

I ignored the madness of “wine coolers” and continued to drink my martinis as I had always done, though there were those who looked askance at me and it became harder and harder to find a bartender who knew his business.

In the mid-eighties, recently arrived in San Francisco, I went to dinner with some friends. At the bar I ordered my customary martini, spelling it out for the bartender so that there could be no mishaps—dry, up, a drop of olive juice and both a twist and an olive.

One of my companions, new to me, offered what he thought was praise, lauding me for being so up to date—the martini, it seems, was again in fashion and he thought that I was adhering to the latest “thing.” Since then, the martini has gone once more out of fashion and once more is “in” again. You may be sure that my drinking habits have remained the same while the world had yet another opportunity to catch up to me.

My point is this: do it right and never mind what the others are doing. Or, in a line from The Opening of Misty Beethoven, “Never let the fact that they are doing it wrong keep you from doing it right.” If you wait, fashion will always in time return to the classics. Which may in part explain my new—or perhaps I should say, renewed—popularity, at my advanced age.

I seem to come back often to that subject of age, don’t I? I was recently in an airport bar in Pittsburgh and a large woman of a certain age took the seat next to me and told the bartender what she wanted without waiting to be asked. His reply was short of being outright rude but was nevertheless not altogether welcoming, either. She informed him in a booming voice, “sweetheart, I am a fifty-six-year-old former hippie. I no longer have to play the game because I already know the score.”

A good attitude, I thought, toward aging. Some years ago, in Sex and the Single Gay, I wrote: “What do you consider middle age? Well, ask any twenty-year old and he’ll tell you thirty. Ask a thirty-year old and he’ll tell you forty. Never ask a forty-year old.”

As I write this I am past the age of sixty-five. Not ancient by today’s standards but certainly past any definition of middle age. As Yogi put it, I find that it is growing late much earlier.

I think that it has been an incredible life, certainly one that little boy in Eaton, Ohio could not possibly have imagined in his wildest dreams. Despite some difficult times and a few dangers, it seems to me that it has been a charmed life for the most part. I don’t know why that is so but time and again it has proven true in my life.

Moreover, much good has come to me all on its own. I have more often than not been the happy recipient of kindness and generosity from others. I used to think that perhaps I was being prepared for some great role in life but I now think that was only a young man’s sense of self-importance. If there is any purpose to my good fortune, I think perhaps that I was only intended to pass it on, and I have made a sincere if sometimes misguided effort to do so.

I am, as I said at the beginning, a private person. It seems a bit of a paradox that someone who grew up in such a large and close family should be a loner, but it is really not difficult to explain. When you are crowded all together with a great many people in a small space, you learn to value your solitude. Just so they say that the meditative religions and philosophies flourished in those crowded countries like India and China where people live in an enforced proximity, the only escape from which is to turn within.

Even as a child I was inclined to wander off into the woods on my own and I think part of what drew me to books was the quiet and solitude that I early discovered in our old library, where there were endless nooks and niches in which a small boy could all but vanish. And admission was free, not an insignificant detail.

I am not a particularly social person. It is not that I dislike people. Indeed, quite the opposite. I feel a deep affection for my fellow creatures and I am an incurable optimist who believes that people are mostly good. I think that people recognize this, or sense it, and it is why there are those few who seem to enjoy my often not very scintillating company.

As I got older I got more comfortable with just being myself but when I was younger I was a chameleon, a mirror that reflected back to each individual what he wanted to see. This may be in part why I was never comfortable in groups, where I could not focus my attention on one individual alone. Reading another’s mind is difficult under the best of circumstances and all but impossible when there are crowds to distract you.

Whatever the reason, it is a fact of my life that I have never been able entirely to relax in the company of another person, however much I enjoyed that person’s company, and am only completely at ease when I am alone. There are many, I know, who cannot enjoy their own company, but I am not one of them. Truth to tell I find that I truly must have a certain amount of solitary time each day, to “charge the batteries,” in a manner of speaking. Without it I find myself weary indeed. But everyone who knows me knows this and mostly respects my need.

Some years back—in that time of crisis I have already mentioned—I sat myself down and took stock of the person I was. I think the description “a fully paid up bitch past his use-by date” (self-analysis is made much simpler when you have friends who are entirely blunt) may have been a little harsh but I could see that there was certainly some room for improvements and I decided I would try to accomplish them.

I have devoted much of my time and energy over the past twenty or so years to trying to be a wiser person and a better one—which may be the same thing, when you think about it. For all my efforts, however, I cannot see that I have ended up any better than anyone else. I would like to think that I have acquired certain virtues along the way but when I look more closely I see that, while I do indeed possess them and they are certainly virtues, there is not much virtue in my possession.

Which sounds confusing but let me explain. I believe, at least in theory, in the concept of reincarnation, if only because it seems to explain nicely some things which are otherwise inexplicable. Why, for instance, some people are born already crippled in one way or another. It is easier, I think, if one can see that as simply another chapter in a long running saga—a balancing, perhaps, of mistakes in a previous incarnation, or a soul’s necessary lesson in humility—than merely the cruel caprice of an unfeeling God.

I think, then, that it is a good thing to live my life as if I were going to be held accountable—if not this time around, then the next, or the one after that—for my thoughts, my words and my actions. If I am mistaken and there is in fact nothing after this life but oblivion, I will have no reason to regret, since, let’s face it, I will not know the difference. And if I am right then I will have taken out some very felicitous insurance.

Which is to say that while, yes, I try hard to be kind to and respectful of others, it is with one eye on my Karma’s path and so really is for the most selfish of reasons, isn’t it?

It is probably impossible to get through life without hurting others but I try to avoid consciously or deliberately doing so; it has been my experience, however, that when I do inflict pain on others I don’t even need to wait for the next go-round to suffer for that crime.

I don’t think that I am unusual in this. I believe that everyone who consciously or deliberately hurts another experiences a commensurate pain himself, though I do know that some are successful at hiding that pain from themselves. This does not, however, mean that they do not in one way or another suffer from it. It is much like the compost style of dealing with society’s garbage that was so popular in the fifties—dump it in a hole, cover it with dirt, and once it is out of sight it ceases to exist. Homes are built over it, shops, streets.

Unfortunately the garbage doesn’t go away, it rots and decomposes and produces methane gas, which in time can seep up through the soil—so that, years later, someone pauses to light a cigarette and, boom, the gas blows. It is not that single little match flare that causes the explosion, it is what is going on all those years beneath the surface, unnoticed.

However, as I have said already, I do not have to wait years to suffer for hurting others. I avoid doing so to spare myself the pain. So again my motives are entirely selfish and I can’t take much credit for my forbearance.

I make a point of honesty but the truth is that I am all too transparent when I try to tell untruths so I am unlikely to get away with them; and anyway, my memory too often fails me and when I try to fib my way through a situation I have the unfortunate tendency to confuse my falsehoods or forget what I have said and so trip myself up. This is embarrassing and usually fruitless, and I am essentially honest because it is easier. But doing what is easiest does not seem to me much of a virtue.

Likewise I avoid taking what is not rightfully mine but that is mostly because, as I have said, things have a way of coming to me and I am afraid that if I get greedy I will mess that up. Alas, I fear that fear is no great plus either.

I am a good friend to my friends and loyal, too, and I would like to think that, aha, at last I am entitled to take a bow. Yet when I shine the light a little more carefully into the dark corners of my behavior, even that looks a little less noble than it might.

Generally, one learns to interact with friends in early childhood, playing with others. As a loner I mostly learned about friendship from books and movies, which is to say, an idealized version of it. Men and women, of course, are not altogether ideal. “Fair weather friends” sounds harsh but I think that most individuals are friends to the extent that you walk through the part they have scripted for you in the movies of their lives and are inclined to leave you on the cutting room floor if you step out of character. That is not such a terrible thing. People have the right to their own lives and can include you or not or in whatever way that they wish, just as you can retain them in yours or walk away if that suits you better.

I would like to feel smug about my Three-Musketeers-one-for-all-and-all-for-one way of looking at friendships. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that my tendency to take the moral high ground in such matters is not much better really than a more subtle way of hectoring others to be good and loyal to me. We are back, in other words, to the idea of control, which is not something I can feel too pious about.

The only really good thing that I can see in all this is that, having uncovered so many failings and weaknesses in myself, it has made me far more tolerant of the shortcomings of others. (“Between the sins of the world and mine, I find the differences of degree, not kind,” as someone far wiser than I has put it.) Moreover, having forgiven another person, it is not so difficult to go on to loving them. That must surely be a good thing but it is not much, is it, to enter in the asset column, when the debit entries are such a voluminous bunch?

As for becoming a wiser person, the closest I have come to wisdom is in realizing how little I know and—this is the point I was working toward—in realizing how much I have to be grateful for.

I cannot too often express my gratitude to Mike and John of Bolerium Books and I am happy to do so once again.

Dr. Fabio Cleto worked tirelessly to bring me back to the attention of the reading public and I certainly owe him thanks for his efforts. And I owe Gian Piero Piretto a very special thanks as it was he who introduced me to Dr. Cleto, and so could be considered responsible for reviving my writing career—which I hope pleases at least one or two of you.

I am grateful as well to Rebecca Mead of UCLA for her research on my behalf. I have mentioned Todd Clark before and must do so again, though it will no doubt embarrass him to be singled out. And to Bruce Brown and Gary Dickson for support and encouragement. David McTarnahan volunteered time and again to solve the many mysteries of computers for me, else you would not now be reading this—and don’t take it out on him, either. Audrey Joseph has been a friend and a fan, and who would not feel grateful for that? Lynette Anderson has been there for me at every moment of need.

I am lucky, indeed, to have the friends I have (doubly so because I am quite sure that friendship with me is not an easy thing) who have encouraged me and supported me in more ways than I could enumerate here. Matt Ogden and Jim Walker, Joe Kelly and Gary Lea, and Tom and Ray and Matt, and Matt and Diane, and Russ and Heidi and Roby and George and…well, too many, I’m happy to say, to name them all here (don’t you just hope I never win an Oscar?)

And some of them are no longer available for me to thank, notably Lynwood Anderson and John Beard, among others. And Don Schaffer, who started with me when we were little boys and girls together. Well, we didn’t know the difference then. Truth to tell, I don’t think he ever did.

I can see that some of my remarks on the subject of friendship could be seen as cynical but I don’t mean them that way at all. I think there are few things in life—if any—more precious than friendship. Donald liked to say that a friend has the right to ask anything whatsoever of you and the obligation not to ask. That is perhaps a little too neat but it does express the essential truth, that friendship both confers privileges and imposes obligations, though we are generally quicker to embrace the former than the latter.

Chief among those obligations, one must suppose, is honesty. If I can’t believe what you say, how can I believe your friendship? And close after that one must surely be loyalty, which mostly brings us back to that business of forgiving. It is not, after all, when another is doing everything right that he most needs your friendship, but rather when he is screwing up. And your friend doesn’t need you to tell him he’s behaved stupidly. There is never any shortage of those willing to impart that information. Anyway, he probably already knows it himself.

I like to recall a remark someone once made of a mutual friend, who had just made an utter fool of himself: “it’s easy to overlook his faults because they are common and to be grateful for his virtues, which are not.” Honor your friends despite their faults and be grateful for their virtues.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Needless to say, though I have said it already, I am ever thankful for that bunch of loonies—I mean, my family. We are an enormous bunch so again I cannot name everyone here. I have mentioned Fanny already, and Pat and Ann, but I cannot not mention Karen, who helped me with the history of Eaton (and I must add in a great many other ways over the years) and Ruth and Eve and May and Al, who is no longer with us; and there was a difficult period that I might not have survived without the generous help of my brother Sam, who has always believed in me even when my own faith weakened. There is a long, long list of nephews and nieces as well, and grand nephews etc. It would take many pages to list them all, so I will settle for saying that it has been a comfort and a blessing through every trial and tribulation to have my family’s love and friendship.

The staff at our Eureka Valley Branch of the San Francisco Public Library System were helpful beyond the call of duty and cheerful about it, too, which is a refreshing evidence that civilization may not yet be at its end. Some historians date the beginning of the “Dark Ages” from the destruction of the library at Alexandria. Certainly the library has always been a cornerstone of civilization and in any list of unsung heroes, I think the librarian should figure prominently. Ours just happen to be particularly wonderful.

It is encouraging, is it not, that when children were polled recently as to their favorite forms of media, books still topped the list? I hope some of them read this. Well, some of the older ones at any rate, though it is my belief that children are far wiser and understand far more than people give them credit for. Left to their own perceptions children are almost invariably accepting of gay-ness. Alas, their tolerance too often proves intolerable to adults.

I have quoted here and there from other works. I intended to do so within the confines of the “fair-use” provisions of copyright law and have certainly not in any instance wished to step on anyone’s copyright toes. And surely any who consider my usage of their material will find that it was inevitably flattering and could only do their causes good. If I didn’t like it I didn’t quote it. Except, that is, for Dr. Wertham, whose remarks were too priceless to ignore.

I am the first to admit that my memory is not perfect. It is surprisingly difficult to verify exact dates and such for material from the era of which I have written. I have made every effort to see that my facts were correct but if I have gotten a date wrong or misspelled your name I humbly apologize.

I am particularly grateful to all of you who bought this book.

If you borrowed it, please send me my royalties.

 

* * * * * * *

 

As a matter of record, I went by The Burnt Place not so long ago. Or rather, I went by where it had been. The house is gone, and the big pine trees and the rock that we used to ride for a horse. The creek has shrunk almost to nothing.

The Streetcar is still where it was, though. When my brother, Pat, explained that he had been born in it, the woman in the house next to it opened the door and let us look inside. There was nothing to see, really, just the sort of things everyone stows away. If there were any ghosts of the family who once made their home there, they were silent on that occasion.

It looks very nice from the outside. It has been painted white and a foundation added underneath and a proper roof on top. It looks hardly at all like a streetcar, only a very respectable storage shed. You would never guess what a poor thing it had once been.

Still, had there not been a Streetcar, where might my brother have been born? There is always something to be grateful for.

 

Oh, those chicken bosoms, I nearly forgot. When they have gotten good and tipsy from the gin you can drain them and cook them just about any way you normally would cook chicken breasts. They are good slathered with butter and simply baked, but I like to pat them dry, dip them in a batter—you can use any batter you like, or just dip them in some milk—and then dip them again in finely crushed corn flakes. You’ll need a fair amount of corn flakes, depending upon how many bosoms you have gotten drunk.

Line a shallow pan with some foil and lay the bosoms in it. Drizzle them with some melted butter (don’t be stingy, baby) and bake them at 350 for forty-five minutes or so, without covering or turning them. I call this “stewed chicken” but you may call it “Victor’s Bosoms”, which will almost certainly disconcert your guests, and what is the point of a dinner party, after all, if you are not going to have fun?

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Spine Intact – A Final Note

 

 

 

A writer friend of mine once said of his then current project, “I guess I’ve offended everybody, I can wrap it up now.”

I have not intended to offend anyone, if only because I am quite sure that I have never knowingly caused another pain without suffering at least as much as he. Still, I have lived long enough to know that there are those people for whom no joy quite equals being miserable and I have no doubt that there are some of those who are mad at me for what I have written.

What I am trying to say is that, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t see things your way. Someone once asked Lady Churchill if she and Sir Winston always agreed on everything.

“If we agreed on everything,” Lady Churchill replied, “one of us would be unnecessary.”

So if you find yourself offended by what I have written, you can just consider me necessary. The French have an expression: Tant pis. (By now you will have noticed that I appreciate a little foreign tongue, which I think can add so much to an episode.) And no, it doesn’t mean that, either. It’s just another way of saying, as my friend Donald used to put it, “If they got mad, they have the same dresses to get glad in.”

Anyway, I showed this manuscript to a friend and when he gave it back to me he said, “This has everything in it but your recipe for Cheese Balls.”

Which only served to remind me that I told you a fib earlier. It was only a minor one, true, but lies are to your soul as rust is to your fender—well, that is to say your car’s fender, although I will admit that my own fenders aren’t what they used to be—Anyway, my point is, if you don’t clean it up it will keep spreading until it spoils everything.

I said earlier that my cheese balls were legendary. The word, really, was infamous, at least in certain circles, though there were those who loved them, and I suppose I shall have to explain that.

I co-hosted a party some years back with some friends. We considered having the food catered by Perino’s, which was then the grandest restaurant in Los Angeles. This was not, I should explain, a “beer keg and dance away the night” affair, but an honest-to-goodness stand up cocktail party with bartenders dispensing drinks and the entire dining room tented in green and white silk. And with the guest list at one hundred and fifty and climbing it quickly became clear that catering was out of the question.

We set out to do our own spread and I can tell you it was plenty spiffy. I think the hit of the afternoon was the little chicken drumettes, an idea that then hadn’t yet been done to death. One of the guests asked me what they were and I laughingly told her they were hummingbird wings.

To my surprise she called me a few days later to say that she had been all over town looking for hummingbird wings and had gotten nothing but some funny reactions, and could I tell her where I had gotten mine. I gave her a lengthy description of the work involved in accruing that many hummingbird wings from nature, and suggested she try chicken wings instead; but I considered her request a favorable comment on the food.

Then there were the cheese balls. It was evident while we were working on them that they were not turning out as we had envisioned them. One of the roommates said he thought we should toss them. And that would have meant literally tossing them. We tried putting the first batch down the garbage disposal and stopped up the plumbing for the entire building.

Still, doing away with them seemed to me unnecessarily extravagant. “Don’t be silly,” I replied, “I know they are vile and you know they are vile but someone is bound to love them. I say we serve them anyway.”

Serve them we did and in the course of the evening, a guest, unaware that I was one of the hosts, made a disparaging remark about them.

“Really?” I replied in the most innocent manner I could summon—and those of you who know me can well imagine what that was like—“I am surprised. The food was catered by Perino’s.”

It was not fifteen minutes later that I heard the same guest tell one of his friends, “You must have one of those cheese balls. They”re from Perino’s and they are divine.”

What I am trying to tell you is, serve the cheese balls anyway, someone will love them.

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Spine Intact – Epilog

 

 

 

My historical novel San Antone was published in 1985. I did not again work on a novel or a book-length project until 1998.

During that period, I was often asked why I had stopped writing. I never knew quite how to answer that question, because I never thought of myself as having “stopped writing.” I said earlier, writing is not something that you do just when your fingers are flying over the keyboard. It’s a twenty-four-hours-a-day thing, it is the way you think and the way you deal with life. If you are a writer, I don’t think you can give up writing.

Nor did my fingers ever entirely abandon the keyboard. My brother and one of his daughters were involved in children’s theater and at his suggestion I wrote a play for them. For one reason and another—health mostly—it did not get produced. One of these days I should like to go back and take another look at it. I don’t think it was half bad.

I wrote a piece of dinner theater too, one of those audience participation mystery affairs. This was intended for the opening of a luxury hotel in Palo Alto. Shortly before it was to be performed, the producers sent out a publicity mailing, a “help-I’m-in-danger-come-to-X-Hotel-Saturday-night-and-save-me” sort of thing. Though it is difficult to think how she might have done so, a columnist for the local paper took it seriously. She was frightened and, when she learned the truth, angry (and, I should think, embarrassed) and she wrote a scathing column on the wickedness of unnecessarily frightening lady columnists.

This, of course, was exactly the sort of publicity a new luxury hotel does not need and the production was withdrawn.

I consulted on the idea for a movie script. I had to give it back to the producer with the information that it didn’t work, based as it was on a mistaken interpretation of the legal concept of double jeopardy. The movie was made anyway, by the by. It bombed. Far be it from me to say “I told you so.”

From time to time I did bits and pieces of things—titles, opening scenes, a bit of dialogue, a description that popped into my mind, a character sketch. But no novels, no case history books, no male nudes gracing magazine pages.

Why? Mostly I had gotten tired of it all. I had been writing non-stop for more than twenty years. With rare few exceptions that meant 365 days a year. When I began I was a young man and had a young man’s unflagging energy, but by 1984 I was approaching fifty and writing historical novels, which require lots of research and detail work. And writing of any sort, as I have indicated already, is harder work than a non-writer might imagine.

During most of those writing years, I lived with the threat of prison hanging over my head. By the mid-seventies I had moved on to writing mysteries and historical fiction, but there was always the possibility that my past would come back to haunt me in the form of new indictments and trials. Novels about gay men and women were still regarded by governmental authorities as in and of themselves obscene and I must have remained a thorn in the side for many years.

I had lost my dear friend and colleague, Lady Agatha—Elbert Barrow. Out of the blue, in 1977, Elbert took sick. He developed a rare kind of pneumonia as a result of “mysterious allergies”, as the doctors saw it. He began to waste away and ugly lesions, a rare form of skin cancer, began to appear on his arms and legs—sound familiar?

For the next two years we went from hospital to hospital, with little success. The doctors would release him, I would take him home, and within a few days he would call me, barely able to breathe, and off we would go to yet another hospital. His weight dropped from a hearty 160 pounds to ninety. In appearance he went from forty years old to eighty, his hair, what was left of it, from dark brunette to snow white. He was confined to a wheelchair and kept a tank of oxygen with him at all times.

It was a grueling couple of years and heartbreaking to watch this old friend waste away. It was not until he had gone and I began to read newspaper accounts of a mysterious “gay cancer” that I realized the truth: El had died of AIDS before it was AIDS. He was, as it turns out, one of the first of what my friend Luis Cordero has dubbed “the missing generation.”

I had also been through a break up with a long-time friend (well, I thought he was a friend) and business partner, who had emptied the bank accounts and the safety deposit boxes and fled to Hackensack, which I thought punishment enough for his sins. As Sam Houston once put it, “All the qualities of a dog save loyalty.” Or, to quote a delightful little black lady whom I knew many years back, “White trash is white trash, it doesn’t matter what color they are.” It was a painful lesson and one I ought to have learned sooner.

I had parted as well from a long time lover. We will skip the details. It was another lesson I was slow to absorb. Loving one another isn’t always enough.

In time I came to look upon both of those events as fortunate, but at that time they were dispiriting, to say the least. There were health problems and for a time I turned to drugs for relief from the stress—a self-defeating prescription and a lesson which, fortunately, I did learn in time.

I went through a lengthy and unhappy quarrel with my publisher at the time, St. Martin’s Press. I’m not sure even today I quite understand it—a communications failure, certainly, which resulted in the first book-length manuscript I had ever written which failed to be published. Frankly I am glad it didn’t. For reasons we needn’t go into here it was a lousy effort, surely the worst thing I had ever written. I’m glad I don’t have it to apologize for.

I wrote a better book, San Antone, for Arbor House, a Hearst company, but that turned into the sort of experience that most writers only encounter in their nightmares. The editor, Bill Anderson, did a major rewrite on his own (by actual page count about one third of the finished book was not as I had written it; I know, I counted). I did not learn of these revisions until the galley proofs arrived—too late to undo the damage but I pleaded with him at least to let me rewrite three of the worst scenes he had penned.

I thought we had agreed on that but when the book was released it was exactly as he had written it, though it was my name on the cover. By that time I had already seen the first review, in Kirkus, in which the reviewer ridiculed one of the editor’s scenes. He called it “an unintentional parody of a Dickensian retribution scene.”

He was entirely right but what was I to do? I was convinced that the editor’s unauthorized revision was illegal and immoral and probably fattening—but I had not the resources to take on the Hearst Corporation. Nor could I win without ultimately losing. Publishers do not take well to writers who sue other publishers. I was angry, humiliated and frustrated.

The bottom line to all of this was that my heart was no longer in it. I had started writing for my own pleasure but I now found no pleasure in writing. The publishers and editors that I had worked with in the beginning were one and all gentlemen and ladies, who were doing what they loved and believed in and who I felt could be counted upon to do the right thing, the honorable thing, contractual obligation or no.

That was not invariably my experience in dealing with the major New York publishing houses. As had happened in other areas of the arts, publishing was now largely the business of accountants and lawyers. There were, and are, a few small, independent houses for whom writers and writing matter but for the most part, publishing had become a different world and one in which I was not entirely comfortable.

Before you envision me, however, wringing my hands and sobbing, I should tell you I don’t believe that things just happen in our lives. I believe that Life is a teaching, though admittedly there have been times when I seemed to be flunking the course. I think that we attract into our lives the people, events, experiences that we require to learn the lessons we need to learn.

For years I kept these lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s taped to my typewriter and later my word processor:

 

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers,

         but to be fearless in facing them.

Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain,

         but for the heart to conquer it.

Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield,

         but to my own strength.

Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved,

         but hope for the patience to win my freedom.

Grant me that I may not be a coward,

         feeling your mercy in my success alone;

But let me find the grasp of your hand

         in my failure.

 

Sometimes what we perceive as “failure” is merely the opportunity to learn what we need to learn to graduate. And, yes, sometimes we have to take the same class over. It can seem then as if Life is being cruel to us but it is not. Life is only giving us yet another opportunity to pass the course.

Have you ever been involved with a stinker and broken up? Your heart mends in time, you meet another man, you start going around together and…he turns out to be another stinker? I have seen friends go through this a dozen or more times. The names and faces change but the stinker remains the same. Why?

Let me offer you what could be the most liberating news you will ever hear: if you find yourself going through some unpleasant experience a second, even a third time; if you find yourself in one bad relationship after another; if your bad luck seems to repeat itself over and over—the truth is it probably isn’t bad luck at all. Life, or your higher self, or God if you will, is trying to show you where you need to work on yourself. And (here is the important part) it is always yourself and not the co-workers or the friends or the lovers who need the work. After all, what we are talking about is an Achilles’ Heel. Who will benefit more from learning where or what your Achilles’ Heel is—you or they?

Men marry what they need. For one reason or another, I had “married” that editor at Arbor House. So, what was the lesson I was meant to learn from this conjugal unpleasantness?

I decided that perhaps I needed to turn away from writing, at least from writing as I was then doing it. A rest, then, certainly, but more than just that. I made up my mind that I would go back to where I had begun, writing solely for my own pleasure. If I wrote another book it would be the book that came to me and demanded to be written, and I would write it because it was what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it.

I took fifteen years off, is all.

In the end writing came back to claim me. My friends at Bolerium Books, as I have explained, proposed this project and reminded me of it each time I saw them. That Italian professor, Fabio Cleto, suggested reissuing some of the C.A.M.P. novels, and whenever I saw him or heard from him he pressed his case.

And something happened that hadn’t happened to me in quite a while—a young man began to visit me in my bedroom at night. He had something on his mind and insisted on sharing it with me. I told myself I wasn’t interested and smacked his hand away. But I did get up the next morning and write down what he had to say.

Only a page at first. Then two.

Not content with disrupting my sleep, the young man began to follow me around during the day as well. He shared his views with me. He talked about where he was from. Really, despite myself, I began to see his world through his eyes. He had a problem, certainly, I could see that. It needed to be solved but I could not see how it would be done.

The two pages became five. Then they were twenty. And fifty. He was a talky sort.

One day I was astonished to realize that I was well along into writing a book. And soon after that it was not just one book either. From being in semi-retirement, I suddenly found myself working on three different projects.

And enjoying it.

Once you’ve got the disease there is no cure for it.

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ready to serve

and sailors, too

and sailors, too

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Spine Intact Chapter 27

And Queens Hereafter Shall Be Glad to Live

 

(Michael Drayton)

 

 

 

I stand on my balcony in the special San Francisco twilight. The day has been warm and summery but already a flock of white clouds gambols over the hilltops. The evening will be cool, sweater and jacket weather. Somewhere nearby someone is cooking. Chili, I think. It will be a good night for chili.

On the street below a young man hurries to meet his friends. He has an air about him, confident, unapologetic, that says more than any words how far we have come in the past thirty years.

He pauses at the corner. Something in the line of his shoulders, in that little gesture he makes with his hand, makes me think of another young man years before, strong of back and light of mind, on his way, but to where?

From the apartment behind me Hank Williams pleads with me to turn back the years…

 

We can’t turn back the years, Hank, and frankly I wouldn’t if I could. I have enjoyed my life as I lived it, good times and bad, but I am content now to let others carry that gay torch and to amuse those who care to listen with tales of a time when the torch was only a candle.

Still, as someone wiser than I has said, the flame of a single candle will pierce even the blackest night. Time has proven him right, hasn’t it, and when those who so carefully shielded their candles from the winds of hate and demagoguery began to come together and blend those little flames into one, what a wondrous light they then shed.

Did any of our efforts—those other writers, editors, photographers, publishers and brave soldiers—really count for anything in the end?

I like to think so. That young man on the street below persuades me so. Today, gays live in relative freedom; there is hardly a city in the world in which they do not have their meeting places where they argue and debate and come together and apart, and are better for it all.

It was not only gay society that was changed, either. Had the writers and publishers of the sixties not fought the fight, Danielle Steele might very well find herself today charged with writing “dirty books.”

Would Arnold Schwarzenegger or Kevin Bacon or Bruce Willis ever have shown their you-know-whats on movie screens if it hadn’t been for DSI, the Athletic Model Guilt, or Naked Men #1 and #2? I know there are many women and men who are glad for that. There was a time when they might have been, as I was, indicted for conspiracy to distribute obscenity.

Would actors like Kevin Kline, Tom Hanks, Hillary Swank, or Susan Sarandon have risked gay or lesbian scenes if our books and our magazines and our marches hadn’t brought us out of the closet? To do so in the not too distant past was sure death for an actor’s career. In the sixties, it could have landed them in prison. Nowadays, hardly anyone even blinks. Surely the world is a better place for the honest portrayal of different lives.

Say what you will, I believe it was gay men and women who put the boogie in those boogie nights at the dance clubs. Straights have always flocked to our clubs. You don’t find us in theirs.

Movies, theater, television, publishing, dance, merchandising, medicine, politics, welfare, racial interaction, education, law, police work—it’s hard to think of any aspect of our lives today that wasn’t touched by the revolution. Just between you and me, I am convinced that Julia Child filched one or two of her ideas from The C.A.M.P. Cookbook.

The publishing revolution of the sixties and the broader social revolution of the same period fed each other and are inseparable. We are all of us today the beneficiaries of those events. I have said a number of times that my contributions were minor ones, though I am proud to have made them. But I would not be able to sit and write these notes today without fear, nor could you read them, were it not for a host of writers, editors and publishers who stand at my shoulders as I type. I have been fortunate to still be around at a time when the community has begun to take note of what we did back then, but many of those others never got to hear the applause. Many are gone, and even many of those who remain, remain in obscurity.

I am happy to say that Earl Kemp’s contributions are finally being recognized, at least on the heterosexual front. Writers like Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins have lauded him and he is an honored guest annually at the Paperback Book Show and Convention in Mission Hills. Still, I remain puzzled that Earl, who did more than anyone before or since to change the face of gay publishing, remains utterly unremarked in gay history.

 

* * * * * * *

 

While my contributions may have been minor, the revolution of which they were a part was not minor. And it had its heroes—real ones. The Stonewall demonstrators, of course, but really, the gay liberation movement started long before then and on the West Coast, though I know I will take some flak for saying so.

It could be argued that the revolution began in 1950 when William Jennings was arrested in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and charged with indecent behavior. Jennings has been called our Rosa Parks and with good reason. The usual response to one of these arrests, as I have said earlier, was for the gay victim to plead to a lesser charge and pay a large fine, but Jennings refused to roll over. He demanded a jury trial and pleaded innocent. To the surprise of many, the jury acquitted him.

Until that time no jury in California had ever acquitted an openly homosexual individual on this type of charge and it was looked upon as a slap at the police entrapment policy. To be openly homosexual in 1950 and to stand up to the police entrapment of that era took balls.

That winter Jennings and Harry Hay brought a few friends together and formed the Mattachine Society (later the Mattachine Foundation), a support and information group modeled after the naacp and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. (One of those founders, by the way, was Wallace de Ortega Maxey, who later went to prison for publishing gay paperback novels.)

In 1951 the Foundation issued a declaration of purpose in which they held it “possible and desirable that a highly ethical homosexual culture emerge, as a consequence of its work, paralleling the emerging cultures of our fellow minorities”

It was the first time that homosexuals had linked their plight and their fortunes to those of the various racial and ethnic minorities—Blacks, Jews, Mexicans—a move that yet today remains controversial on both sides of the fence. Black activists sometimes complain that homosexuals have at least the opportunity to closet themselves and conceal their minority status, and gays complain that blacks have an advantage in a legal status that confers upon them rights still denied to homosexuals. All of which misses the point, doesn’t it? Oppression is oppression.

The Foundation’s statement was also the first public call to gays to conduct themselves in an ethical manner. Moral looseness was a charge too often laid at our feet and that charge was a weapon used repeatedly against us. Gay showed themselves eager to disprove that contention. In time, in that spirit, gays would establish their own churches, eventually their own support groups and, in the AIDS epidemic that erupted in the late seventies, prove themselves exemplars of the Christian philosophy of love and charity.

In 1953 W. Dorr Legg started another group, One, Inc., and began publishing a magazine, One, the first American gay review, in the manner of Der Kreis from Switzerland.

In 1955, in San Francisco, Phyllis Lyon, and Del Martin founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first ever lesbian rights organization. Interestingly, the pair had never heard of the Mattachine Society or of One, Inc. and it was nothing more than coincidence, and maybe something in the San Francisco air, that led them to form a secret group who met weekly at one another’s homes.

All of these groups became objects of scrutiny and even harassment on the part of the legal authorities, in particular the fbi and, of course, our old friends, the U.S. Post Office, who refused to mail the October 1954 issue of One on the grounds of obscenity—because it discussed homosexuality in a favorable light. I have always believed that it was my subscribing to One magazine and Der Kreis that first brought me to the attention of the federal authorities. I suspect that all the subscribers were subject to scrutiny. We were certainly a threat to society, don’t you see.

A 1955 issue of the Mattachine Review mentioned homosexuals in “key positions” in the FBI hierarchy. There had long been stories about J. Edgar Hoover and his top aide, Clyde Tolson, and these two took the Mattachine’s hints personally, as fighting words. The FBI repeatedly charged that all three rights organizations were communist fronts. It was true that Hay had been a party member but there was no evidence to suggest that the groups’ members in general had any kind of communist affiliation. Reality, however, did not often rule in these matters.

In the forties gay bar owners in San Francisco routinely paid bribes to the local police, but in 1951 Sol Stouman, owner of the Black Cat Café, decided he had had enough and refused to pay. He risked the loss of his liquor license, which is to say, the loss of his business, and he suffered repeated harassment for his stance. Members of the vice squad and even uniformed officers visited the Black Cat on evening after evening, simply to intimidate the customers and frighten them from the bar. Some did leave, of course, but many refused to be cowed and stayed anyway.

José Sarria, who would later become the first Empress of San Francisco, used to entertain at the Black Cat in drag, and at the end of his show he would lead the customers in a rousing rendition of God Bless Us Nelly Queens, to the tune of God Save Our Noble Queen.

It was a courageous act of defiance and deserves to be saluted. Thanks, José, we owe you. And Sol Stouman, too, who eventually ran up something in the neighborhood of $40,000 in legal bills. To put that in perspective, in 1951 you could rent a very nice apartment for one hundred dollars or less. Top of the line cars—Caddies and Lincolns—sold for $3,000 to $4,000. $10,000 bought you a very nice house. $40,000 was a fortune, in other words.

Oh, by the way, the authorities did eventually manage to close the Black Cat, using attractive young decoys to solicit passes, which became “offenses” and led to the revoking of the club’s liquor license. What with Hoover’s fbi and most city police departments all using the same tactic, it would seem that at that time that there may have been more police officers in tight jeans cruising the gay clubs than there were in uniforms patrolling the streets. Priorities, you understand. Where, after all, was serious crime to be found if not at the Black Cat’s opera nights? We all know what Aïda can lead to.

In 1961, in part inspired by the efforts of Stouman and Sarria, a number of San Francisco bars went to court rather than continue to pay police bribes. In 1962 Bill Plath, owner of several gay bars, brought bar owners together to form the Tavern Guild, the nation’s first gay business organization; the following year, Plath helped found the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), which actively worked for gay rights through legal channels and with civil disobedience.

1964 saw the formation of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, the first organization in the nation to use the word homosexual in its name. The Council, largely the work of Donald Steward Lucas, sponsored a ball that New Year’s Eve, and the police raided the ball, arresting several ministers, gay and straight. A serious mistake. The uproar that followed the arrests was the first public demonstration for gay rights and set the stage for the Stonewall uprising five years later.

Between the Council’s New Year’s Eve Ball, however, and the Stonewall uprising, a revolution in self-perception had taken place. In the early fifties, when the Mattachine Society, One Inc. and the Daughters of Bilitis were founded, and even as late as 1964 when the Council was formed, homosexuals were still largely a secret, an underground society of outlaws and outcasts. Even when we began to organize, we were still organizing from the basement of self-esteem, burdened with unnecessary guilt and all sorts of negative hangups. We were still regarded as psychotic by the psychiatric community and as prey by police, blackmailers and homophobes; and far too often seen by ourselves as victims.

By 1969, though we had not yet found a united voice with which to stand up and demand our rights, we were no longer underground but, at least in the major cities, very much visible and already enjoying a new sense of freedom.

We had begun by then to break free of the stereotypes by which we were usually judged, not only by others but by ourselves. When the John Goodman sitcom, Normal, Ohio (like no Ohio I have ever seen, I might say) debuted on television in 2000, an astonishing number of critics carped that Goodman’s character, a beer drinking football fan given to shouting at the players on the television screen, did not accurately represent gay men.

I can only suppose that these critics have never walked through the Castro on a Sunday afternoon when the Niners are playing and gay men and women by the thousands are screaming at the TVs. They were watching the games in 1969 as well, though they may have been a bit quieter.

Already by 1969 we no longer saw ourselves as limited to hair styling and interior decorating. To be sure, there are still today plenty of gays—and straights—in both those noble professions; but by now you are just as likely to find gays working openly as policemen and firemen, as ranchers and farmers, auto mechanics, truck drivers, professional athletes, you name it. We are parents, too—natural and adoptive, single and married. And you can trace all this back to those early efforts to break free.

I believe it is clear that much of that liberated image of ourselves that we acquired in those five years between 1964 and 1969 came as a result of the revolution that had taken place in publishing. If I contributed anything of importance to our society I believe it is in leading the charge to change gay publishing. Yes, thank you, I will take a bow.

No tomatoes, please.

Still it was those others who did the real work, who took the real risk. All of us who lived through the fifties lived with the daily specter of violence, arrest, harassment. Mostly, we found ways to minimize the risks and protect ourselves.

These people, however, didn’t minimize their risks, they maximized them. Each time that they met, each newspaper or bulletin that they published, at each public demonstration and with each defiant song, they put it all on the line—their freedom, their livelihoods, even, yes, their lives. You could be killed then for being gay. You still can, of course, as the stories in the news make all too evident, but the odds were even greater then and those who suffered had little recourse under the law.

“Courage” is one of those words that the media has cheapened with repeated over and mis-use. Notwithstanding the gushing of television commentators, courage is not an ice skater throwing in a triple axel at the end of her performance nor a baseline tennis player rushing to the net to score a point. It is not even a pop singer recording a different type of song, perilous though that may be.

Courage is protecting or rescuing another at the risk of your own life or wellbeing, whether braving a burning building as many heroes did in the World Trade Center 9/11 attack or dragging a wounded comrade from the line of enemy fire, or refusing to bow to tyranny. Courage can be plodding, too, and long lasting, as my mother’s was. Courage is fighting for what is right no matter what the fight costs you. It is standing up for what you believe, in the face of hardship, ostracism, harassment, even physical danger.

It took tremendous courage and unshakable conviction to do what these gay heroes of ours did and those of us who benefited from their heroism—certainly that is all of us who are gay and in my humble opinion the majority of straight society as well—ought to be erecting monuments to them. At the very least couldn’t we set aside one day a year in their honor? Yes, I know, there is Pride day, but that’s all about parades and parties, isn’t it, and celebrating ourselves.

Which is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with celebrating ourselves but I think there should be a Heroes Day or perhaps a Founders Day, specifically for them. There’s little hope, I am sure, of a national or even a local holiday, but since when have we needed governmental approval? If we had waited for our government to recognize us or grant us equal protection under the law we would still be dancing with those chains around our ankles.

Gays love a cause. And it isn’t like the old days, after all, when we communicated in codes and whispers. The gay press now reaches across the country, even around the world. Those on the internet can communicate instantaneously. There are organizations that meet virtually every day in virtually every city, and no shortage of activist groups busy with what they insist are our best interests. What is to prevent us, the gay community, from designating a day to honor our own? It wants only someone to spread the word, to get the ball rolling.

Do I see a hand?

 

* * * * * * *

 

We have modern day heroes, too. If his Pope-ness wants to find himself a saint, he need look no further than Ruth Brinker, an older, straight woman who cared about her gay friends who were too sick with AIDS to feed themselves and began to deliver meals to them. That initial effort became Project Open Hand, which now feeds over 600,000 people each year in San Francisco—not just AIDS patients but seniors and anyone who is home bound—and inspired similar efforts in cities around the world.

What about Rita Rocket, a young straight woman who was comforting AIDS patients at San Francisco General long before it became chic to do so (and whose work also is now done by thousands of others in hospitals everywhere)?

Or for that matter maybe the entire gay community. I am a history buff and I can think of nothing—not a single page in recorded history—to compare to the response of the gay community to the AIDS crisis.

Those religious zealots who condemn homosexuals as anti-Christian ought to take another look at their Bibles. The outpouring of loving kindness and givingness that arose within the gay community at the outbreak of AIDS would have been truly miraculous if it had gone on for a single year. It is now twenty years or so and has become a way of life in gay communities throughout the world. AIDS patients—gay or straight—can count on an army of heroes and heroines to pay their rent, bring them groceries or delicious prepared meals, walk their dogs and groom their cats, clean their homes, chauffeur them around and see to every medical necessity and, when it is inevitably needed, provide a friendly shoulder to cry on.

No business could operate for long in any gay community without lending its support for the cause. Every bar—virtually every business establishment—has its Every-Penny-Counts jar waiting for patrons” loose change, to give to an army of support institutions. In San Francisco the store Under One Roof sells merchandise donated by artists and manufacturers, and every cent earned goes to AIDS charities. There are raffles and beer busts and drag contests. There are AIDS runs, AIDS bike events, AIDS marches. One would have to look long and hard to find a gay or lesbian who isn’t somehow involved.

The gay community that we set in motion in the sixties and seventies came of age with the arrival of AIDS. I will let you in on a too-little-known secret, however. It is not only AIDS patients and not only their own kind for whom gays care. Perhaps because they suffer so much pain in their own lives, gays have always been particularly sympathetic to the pain of others. Whatever the reason it is fact that gays and lesbians tend to be caring, giving people.

Some years ago at a cocktail party in Manhattan I met a young man who told me a wonderful story. It seems that he and his partner were coming home from shopping one Saturday afternoon and in the elevator met their neighbor from across the hall, an elderly lady, struggling with her own groceries. They helped her carry them to her apartment and she fixed them a cup of coffee. This began a weekly ritual of taking her shopping with them each weekend and carrying her bags for her. In between there was an occasional dinner, birthday lunches and some chicken soup when she was sick.

In time their neighbor passed on and they were astonished to discover that they were her sole heirs in her will—she had left them a couple of million dollars in blue chip stocks.

A nice ending to his story but the real point is, they had no idea she had any stocks or any money at all; they were just being kind, without any thought of reward.

Lots of gays do the same day in and day out. We help old ladies across the street, care for sick neighbors and aging relatives, give to the homeless. The next time you have been jilted by a lover, a husband or wife or have been fired or found that you are seriously ill, call your gay friends—they will almost certainly be there for you.

Isn’t that what J.C. preached so very long ago? There are those who profess to be Christians who sincerely believe that Christ condemned homosexuality. It would behoove them to take another look at their Scriptures. Christ never directly addressed the subject at all, though there are those who believe that his reference in Mathew to those who are “born eunuchs” refers to homosexuals. Jewish law condemned the eunuchs for the same fundamental reason that it condemned any practice or condition that limited procreation—it was vital, after all, for the tribe to increase.

Moreover, Genesis promises that the Messiah will come from the seed of Adam, which is to say that any male child could turn out to be the Messiah; so anything that interfered with procreation could be seen as preventing the birth of the Messiah.

But Jesus welcomed the eunuch into the fold. Indeed, if there is a common thread to be found in all of Jesus’ teachings it is that of inclusion—which makes it all the more puzzling that so many who call themselves Christians are so obsessed with exclusion.

The Biblical strictures against homosexuality come mostly from the Old Testament and many of them, as I have already indicated, had to do with failure to procreate. In just the same way masturbation—Onanism, if you will—is condemned. One wonders how many of those religious zealots who are so down on homosexuality have never spanked the monkey, so to speak. And when the Church agreed to birth control in any form, even the rhythm method, or first sanctioned wedding vows between sterile couples or those too old to have children, it really surrendered the moral high ground, didn’t it?

Granted not all of the Old Testament references are a question of procreation. In Leviticus, for instance, homosexuality is called an abomination. But that specific reference is to temple prostitution, which is a far cry from what we mean today when we speak of a homosexual life style.

The fact is there is no word in the ancient Hebrew language nor the Aramaic nor even the Greek for homosexuality as we know it today, only words for particular acts, most of those concerned with idolatry or the subjugation of slaves or losers in battle.

All right, I just know some are dusting off their Sodom and Gomorrah mantelpiece villages at this very moment. Even that tale, however, is ambiguous so far as a condemnation of homosexuality per se. If you really care to know, the first Biblical reference that clearly links the sin of Sodom to sexual activity is in the Palestinian apocrypha, in the Book of Jubilees, 16.5-6.

Yes, in Genesis, the village men did gather outside Lot’s door and insist that he send his visiting Angels out to them, so that they might “know” them. And, yes, that verb can have a sexual connotation—but that Hebrew verb is used nine hundred and forty three times in the Old Testament (you may count them yourself if you don’t trust me) and in only ten of them does it signify carnal knowledge, so one can’t be altogether certain in this instance, can one?

In any event, even assuming that to be the case, the issue then would be one of homosexual rape, wouldn’t it? Quite a different matter I should say. Rape and abuse of hospitality, hospitality which was sacred among people living in such a harsh land. Certainly it appears in Mathew 10:14-15 and Luke 10:10-12, that Jesus himself was under the impression that Sodom’s sin was abuse of hospitality.

But all of that simply begs the point. The fact is, whatever was the grave wickedness of Sodom that caused its destruction it was not this incident with the Angels in Lot’s house, though there are many who mistakenly think that to be the case. If you go back and reread the story you will see that the Angels were there to warn Lot of the impending destruction of the city. Sodom was already condemned before this incident even occurred.

There are, of course, plenty of other Biblical passages that one can examine and plenty of books that do examine them, in a far more scholarly fashion than mine; I would recommend Peter J. Gomes’ The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (W. Morrow, 1996). Nor do I have the familiarity with the sacred books of other religions to qualify to discuss them. The point I am making is, if any congregation wishes to exclude homosexuals from their Church that is certainly their privilege. To do so on the basis of Christ’s teachings, however, is either ignorance (at best) or base hypocrisy. There is no Christian justification for condemning anyone for living his life as a homosexual, though within the framework of that life there may be plenty of other points on which an individual may be criticized—or praised.

Alas, you can never defend the rights or freedoms of gays without someone jumping up to rant about pedophiles. Yes, there are homosexually oriented—and heterosexually oriented—individuals who prey on children. And yes, of course, every sane, decent person finds repugnant those who abuse, not only children, but the elderly, the infirm, all those who are helpless and unable to protect themselves.

I have always believed that gays have a particular affinity for children; perhaps because so many were unhappy themselves as children it left them more attuned to the pain and terror of childhood.

But caring for children and molesting them are quite different things. There isn’t a single shred of evidence to show that this illness is any more common among homosexuals than heterosexuals.

Indeed, there is much to suggest the opposite. If a major movie musical showed a park with lots of young boys playing and an old queen came on screen singing, “thank Heaven, for little boys” the religious zealots would burn down the theater, but when it is Maurice Chevalier leering and singing about little girls it’s “charming.” What is Minnelli’s Gigi about, after all? Two aging grandes horizontales wait for a young girl to get old enough to begin entertaining gentlemen. And let me tell you, if you haven’t read the book, it isn’t her eighteenth birthday they are awaiting.

I’m not trying to defend child molesters nor to impugn the reputations of Lerner and Loewe. I’m not even suggesting you can’t hate homosexuals if you choose, it’s your Karma, after all. I am saying, however, that I think there are those who use the charges of pedophilia to mask what is nothing but plain old homophobia.

I like bigots better when they are at least a little bit honest.

 

* * * * * * *

 

There are those, too, and they are particularly reprehensible, I think, who contend that AIDS is God’s punishment of the homosexual. Were that the case one would have to suppose that he particularly detests blacks, since it is the heterosexual black populations of Africa who are now suffering the worst of the AIDS epidemic (and one would suppose, too, that he is truly fond of lesbians, for whom the incidence of AIDS is practically zero).

Nature has never been reluctant to sacrifice an individual—or even an entire species—for the greater good of the whole. It is easy to look around us in the present moment and see the ills of the world; but if we take the longer view it is clear that even in the last few centuries—a mere drop in the ocean of time—we have evolved to a much higher level of civilization.

It wasn’t so very far in the past that women were not much more than chattel to men. An eighteenth- or even a nineteenth-century woman born without independent means must necessarily find a man to take care of her. For many women marriage was only a licensed form of prostitution; few women could afford the luxury of marrying for love. And aside from marriage the opportunities for legitimate employment were rare. The gothic novels of frightened governesses notwithstanding, such positions were few and far between and even those women did not usually enjoy the sort of romantic pleasantness we find in the Brontës’ novels.

Childhood is a rather modern concept. It is only in recent time that children were regarded as a separate class, protected, looked after, and entitled to spend much of their time at play. Only a few years ago they were regarded more as small adults. And routinely exploited mercilessly. They still are in many places, true, but at least much of the world condemns such practices.

It is only in modern times that debtors’ prisons were abolished and that there has come to be help for the poor and the needy and until the twentieth century decent medical care was mostly for the wealthy. And though we have certainly not eliminated wars we have come, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, to a serious understanding of the horrors and dangers of armed conflicts and the world’s major governments confer regularly in serious attempts to prevent them.

Of course, we humans take an egocentric view of life—as I am sure do all life forms—but it is really only hubris to think of our bodies in personal terms—my body, your body. For starters, it’s really only a loaner, isn’t it, and I don’t recall having any voice in choosing model or color.

Anyway, it would certainly be more correct to say “our body,” since it is really home to trillions of living things aside from your personality—bacteria, viruses, the like. At this very moment there are microscopic creatures living at the base of your eyelashes. It may well be that these other creatures are the dominant life forms and that “our” bodies are only evolutionary adaptations to provide them with congenial hosts.

Now before the Christian Right starts shrieking at me about that evolution/creation argument, let me say that I do not see that there is necessarily a conflict between the two. Why, if one believes in God, would one suppose that evolution is not itself a part of God’s plan? After all, even God could not create a perfect man and give him free will, which in itself implies the right to imperfection. And supposing anyway that he could, what would that mean? An infinity of his own clones? What would be the point in that?

It may be that we and our evolution are a necessary part of the perfect design. God could not, could he, be perfect without the fullest knowledge of all evil, all pain, all failure? But if God were a failure, if God suffered pain, or committed evil, why then, he would again not be perfect, would he?

Perhaps we are only a sort of proxy for him, experiencing through the course of many lives all of life’s goods and evils and as we learn from them and shed the necessity of experiencing each, growing ever closer to the source from which we sprang and into which in time we will return.

Like those long ago Zoroastrian magi searching for the Messiah (history tends to believe that there were only two, not three, but I can’t say; whatever you may have heard, I was not there) we are all of us hearts in exile, stumbling about in the dark as we try to find our way to an unknowable destination. Perverse as it may seem, I believe that the loneliness of the journey may be God’s greatest gift. After all, if we could find perfect happiness, perfect contentment, in any person, in any work or place, what would there then be to urge us on in our journey?

Not far from where I grew up in Ohio there are remnants of an ancient mound-building people. The largest of these mounds takes the form of a serpent swallowing an egg. What is odd is that you would never guess at this representation seeing the mound from the ground, you see only curving hillocks of earth. To see the pattern they make you must see the mounds from the air, though the people who built them could hardly have done so.

I believe that we live surrounded by God’s pattern but we aren’t high enough to see it. You can elevate yourself, of course. That is the point of education, of meditation and prayer. The more one lifts oneself up, the more of the pattern he is able to discern. Only the enlightened few have a perspective lofty enough to see the outline whole. I do not pretend that I can make out that pattern but I do believe I can discern that there is a pattern.

The Holocaust, for instance, was certainly a tragedy of incomparable proportions. Yet it is largely as a result of that nightmare—of the shame and guilt and horror that it engendered in civilized people throughout the world—that the nation of Israel now exists and the Jews, who suffered endless persecution down through the centuries, now enjoy a freedom and respect—and power—that they had not known since the Biblical dispersal.

The slavery of the blacks in the nineteenth century is another epic tragedy. Yet it was the very horror of that system that caused good people to rise up and condemn and finally outlaw the practice of slavery, a practice that had been accepted, even taken for granted, throughout man’s long history until then. You could look at that and see one of history’s darkest hours or one of civilization’s great steps forward.

I cannot pretend to wisdom or to any particular spiritual insight. But it does seem to me that when we are able to look back upon the AIDS epidemic from the perspective of history, it may well be that we will discern in that tragedy a new and wonderful chapter in the history of the gay “nation.”

The Pride that we celebrate each June isn’t just an empty word, it is a dignity that gays have earned with every penny donated, every moment given, every kind and loving word, with each soul that we have wished God speed, with every vaccine test we have signed up for, with every candlelight march we have joined in.

In the forties and fifties gays were made to feel guilty, like freaks of nature who must hide their true selves and apologize to any who realized the truth. Today no man or woman has any reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed for being gay.

If that isn’t a revolution, I don’t know what is.

The fight isn’t over, of course. The fight for freedom never is. Gays and lesbians are still bashed and killed for nothing more than being what God or nature made them. There are plenty who want us dead or at the least back in our cages. In Russia and many of her former satellite countries the laws against homosexuality mostly remain harsh. Recently in Egypt twenty-three men were sentenced to one to five years of hard labor for simply congregating in a gay club. In many Arab countries gays are put to death as a matter of course.

But it isn’t only other countries in which such ugliness remains. Here in the United States, bastion of democracy and decency, the Jesse Helms and the Phelps and the Sheldons and their minions of darkness still preach hate and evil and call it God’s work. The United States military still has a policy of gay persecution and the violence and even murders that sometimes result are indelible stains upon the souls of those in charge. The moving finger writes and, as the poet said, not all your tears nor all your piety can wash away a single word.

The persecution of gays seems to me particularly tragic because it is so often waged in the name of “normalcy.” We are commonly labeled as abnormal, unnatural, freaks, perverts, inverts—regarded, often even by those who are our friends, as somehow unnatural.

Unnatural? CNN Correspondent Jeanne Moos recently did a story on a pair of male penguins who have lived as a couple for seven years—which certainly qualifies as a long term relationship in my book.

Wendell and Cass share a penthouse burrow—I know, wouldn’t they just have the poshest digs?—at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island. They preen one another and when they are apart they vocalize to one another just like their straight neighbors (who, by the by, don’t seem to mind their relationship at all). At feeding time Cass stays home to watch the burrow—you never know when some upstart neighbor may think about moving in—and Wendell, who seems to be the butch, brings home the bacon—or in this case, the fish. And, yes, they do all the things that other penguin couples do.

Seven years. A romantic tale indeed, in my opinion. If those guys can find one another, I like to think there is still hope for me.

All right, yes, penguins are sort of funny critters to begin with. But it isn’t just penguins. Dr. William J. Sladen of Annapolis has found a solution to the proliferation of mute swans and their damage to the endangered vegetation of the Chesapeake Bay, by bringing together as cygnets pairs of male swans. These same sex couples live together for lifetimes in adoring happiness, without the problems of reproducing. So far Dr. Sladen has brokered no fewer than fifty-four of these long term relationships, a solution he considers infinitely preferable to the calls for swan slaughter that have come from others wanting to protect the bay’s environment.

Among the tropical ants Cardiocondyla Oscurior, the sexual competition is so fierce that the aggressive wingless males fight to the death for the privilege of mating with the queen. But there are winged males as well, far more docile—in a sense, the sissies of the colony. Now, one would think that these gentler fellows would almost surely get their butts kicked by their super macho hill-mates, and would have little chance for romance besides. That is not the case, however, because they secrete a chemical very much like that produced by the queen, a sort of chemical “drag,” as it were. As a result, not only do the butch wingless males not fight them, they often try to mate with them. Hmm—reminds me of that experience I told you about earlier, when I decided to dress up for Halloween.

In Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) Dr. Bruce Bagemihl states that homosexual or transgender behavior has been documented in no fewer than four hundred and fifty species, which seems to me to make it altogether a natural behavior. If you care, almost all bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees (our closest primate cousins) engage in homosexual acts, and only about one percent of ostriches.

Which is to say, if you are contemplating a bit of bestiality, you might want to skip the ostriches and hit on chimps instead.

Of course I just know someone is saying, but those are beasts and we are a higher form of life (at least in some opinions, although if you ask me, l’uomo è bestia, which freely translated means, men are beasts). Nevertheless, there is no country, society or culture in which we do not exist, often under the most arduous of circumstances.

A friend tells me of being taken to see a vacant lot separating the Arab and Jewish areas of Jerusalem and finding it busy with Orthodox Jews and young Arab men doing the deed together—not the first time, one must mention, that the sexual instruments have served as organs of rapprochement. I have no doubt that some will consider that scandalous but it seems to me, big silly that I am, that getting one’s rocks off is nicer for everyone than throwing rocks.

But my point is that we are everywhere, regardless of any circumstances of war or enmity, and ever have been. One need take only a cursory look at history to see that we have been around since the beginning. The writers of the Old Testament wouldn’t have had to shake their fingers and say “no, no,” if there hadn’t been guys saying “yes, yes.” We know we were represented in Rome and Greece and Egypt, and ancient Japan and China; and I haven’t the slightest doubt that one day some of those old cave squiggles will be translated to read “Peter loves James.”

What is more significant, I think, is that there isn’t a shred of evidence that either the repression of homosexuality nor the open acceptance of it has changed the numbers in any significant way. Homosexual behavior might be accordingly more discreet or flagrant, but the indication is that the overall percentage of the general population has remained more or less constant.

Which seems to me to say that we are altogether a normal part of human society, quite as natural as our heterosexual brothers and sisters and simply another facet in Nature’s grand design, which neither you nor I nor they can pretend to grasp entirely. But I am only a writer and an observer of the human condition and I am sure there are experts who will take exception with my observations and bigots who will continue to exclude us from the family circle.

Nevertheless, I have every confidence in the young men and women who will be our watchdogs and fight our fights through the next generation and the one after that.

And let it now be proclaimed herein and known by all, that, age be damned, I remain ever ready to serve as I did in our past battles, to solace and succor our brave soldiers.

And Marines, too, of course.

Oh, and sailors.

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Madison, Wisconsin, October 2008

with some fans

with some fans

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Spine Intact Chapter 26

With These Words…

 

 

 

There is a story told of Dorothy Parker and Irving Thalberg—he is reported to have remarked, “What is so special about writing anyway, it’s just putting one word after another?” To which Mrs. Parker supposedly replied, “Begging your pardon, Mister Thalberg, but it is putting the right word after another.”

When all is said and done, of course, you can take or leave everything I have had to say about books and writers. I have been shuffling words around on paper for a long time and like to think I have gained some sense of what words go after another and that my opinions in these matters are solid ones—but they are just my opinions nevertheless.

As, needless to say, all reviews and critiques are only that person’s opinion. As a writer you should not be intimidated by them if they are bad or too puffed up if they are good, though obviously we would rather the latter than the former. There are many who believe that the critics whose opinions really matter are the ones who fork over their hard earned money to buy your opus (and hopefully tell all their friends how wonderful it is) and there is something to be said for that point of view. I believe that each writer must decide for himself which opinions most matters to him—certainly one likes to think one’s friends and family would approve, and a nod from one’s peers is always welcome.

In the final analysis, though, I suppose the opinion that really counts is your own. Write to suit yourself. If you are lucky the world will come around to your position; if not you at least will sleep at night with your artistic conscience untroubled.

I would be the first to say that my talents (in any case my literary talents) are modest, though I would disagree vehemently if you tried to assert that they exist not at all. Still, I have no expectation of being nominated for Pulitzer or Nobel.

I was nominated once for a Silver Spur. It caused me a moment of consternation—I thought fleetingly that someone had learned of my childhood fantasies involving Roy Rogers. But, no, of course not, I had never shared those with anyone and certainly never acted upon them. Which is just as well for me when you think about what he did with Trigger. Imagine me, left for decades in the high desert, tourists taking badly framed photos of me and little boys peeing surreptitiously on my leg (I don’t care what ugly stories you may have heard about me. People will say anything).

The role of the critic in publishing is often disparaged. Jonathan Kellerman has one of his characters refer to critics (among others) as “leeches on the body artistic,” but I think even Mister Kellerman would shy away from describing G. B. Shaw or Edmund Wilson in such terms. It is true I once said of critics that, because of the many physical similarities it is easy to mistake them for humans, but that was the writing of a young man more interested in effect than truth, a sin far worse than any ever perpetrated by any critic hither or yon, and for which I apologize heartily. You shall have to take my word for it that I have grown wiser as the years have accrued.

In truth, I can say in all candor that with only the rarest of exceptions I always fared very well at the hands of critics. There were times, in fact, when I thought the reviews were better than a book deserved.

A couple of times I got lambasted. Sister Mary Somebody (I should want to remember Sister Leech’s name?) in The Catholic Journal wrote a scathing review of my historical opus, San Antone (1985), but I myself thought it not a very good work, at least as it was published. Kirkus Review gave the same novel a so-so review, but did poke fun at one particular scene; truth to tell, I agreed entirely.

So far as I can recall, however, that was the extent of my pans—pretty good considering how much I wrote.

I don’t have the reviews for The Why Not so you will have to take my word for it that they were good. The only printed review I have of any of the gay novels is one for The Gay Haunt (1970). California Scene described it as

 

“Most outstanding of the gay novels read this month, an amusing and entertaining story […] Paul, an ex-gay trying to go straight […] is a couple of weeks away from marrying the boss’s daughter when […] Paul’s former lover, Lorin, shows up […] the problem is further complicated by Lorin’s having been dead for the past five years. Mr. Jay is to be complimented for the development of such an extremely intriguing idea into such a completely satisfying story […] I think anyone who enjoys gay literature will find a few hours of better than average entertainment.”

 

I have no idea who or what California Scene is or was—I never looked too closely because I feared I might find my mother’s name on the payroll. It was enough to know they liked the book. As I did, and do, frankly. The theme has been borrowed since then but I can’t mind—my version owed more than a little to Thorne Smith’s Topper (1926). As Kenneth Clark once pointed out (he was discussing Raphael’s clearly purloined angels), the artist takes what he needs where he finds it.

Wait, though, it gets better. Publishers Weekly, reviewing This Splendid Earth, credited me with “the master’s touch in storytelling” and The Nashville Banner called me “A Master Storyteller.” And Publishers Weekly described one of my romantic suspense novels, Green Willows (1977), as “exemplary of the genre.” That review, I should say, came after my period as a gay paperback writer; the reviewer might not have said quite the same thing about, say, Fields of Love.

You won’t find Fields of Love in my bibliography, though I did write the book and it is significant. By 1968 the gay publishing revolution was in full swing. Greenleaf Classics was producing numerous titles every month. Sherbourne Press was active, though less so, and there were others—in the east H. Lynn Womack’s Guild Press, originally a gay-oriented mail order business, had begun publishing paperback originals. Most of what Womack printed was dreadful indeed, but he did publish Phil Andros, a byline for Sam Steward, a member of the Stein and Toklas Paris set and well regarded as a writer.

Unfortunately, among writers Womack had a reputation for being difficult to work with; worse, you could not be altogether sure of ever getting paid. Luckily for me I didn’t need the market. I had all I could do to supply the publishers for whom I was already writing, and when I was approached by Womack about doing some books for him, I was able to say thanks, but no thanks.

Still, I was glad to see Guild Press enter the field. I wanted to see as large a market for gay writers as was possible. Which meant I had to bring Milt Luros into the fold. Milt was the biggest of the pulp publishers of the day and if you wrote for Milt you didn’t have to worry about getting paid.

Unhappily, in 1968 Milt was still stubbornly outside of the gay arena. I have no doubt that this reflected a personal anti-gay bias. But Milt was a fair man and a tolerant one, always willing to consider an opinion unlike his own. He was also a sharp businessman.

Now, who would ever have thought that I would look back on a federal obscenity trial, with ten years hanging over my head, and see it as a stroke of luck? But there it was. Milt and I were not only friends, we were comrades in arms. Which meant that at the time I was probably the only gay writer in the business who could sit down face to face with him and sell him on the idea, one which he admitted he was reluctant to embrace. Undaunted, I told Milt that I would write him a gay novel and he needn’t pay me a penny.

When Milt was restored to consciousness I made the rest of my pitch. I would write him a gay novel. If it sold out its run or close to it, he would pay me my standard fee. Otherwise I would get nothing.

Bear in mind I regarded writing in those days as strictly business. You paid me so many dollars, you got so many days of my time. I was convinced, however, that converting Milt could only help the gay publishing cause—and my own, of course.

I wrote Fields of Love. I do not pretend that this was any great literary effort but I did take pains with it that I did not often take with these manuscripts. I spent several weeks writing a romantic suspense novel with a rural setting, in which two young farmboys come to terms with their love for one another, a major departure from what was then being done.

I persuaded my editor friend, Gil Porter, to read the manuscript and help me polish it up and I did copious rewrites. I felt confident that the novel I delivered to Milt was as good as he could get from the writing pool available to him at the time and that gay readers would take to this different offering like ducks to the water.

I reckoned, unfortunately, without the insecurity of Milt and his heterosexual staff when it came to the gay genre. Fields of Love did not seem to them the sort of title that would move a book in their markets. Hey, I admit it wasn’t the punchiest title I had ever come up with. In my wildest dreams, however, I could not have dreamed that Brandon House would retitle my romantic interlude Homo Farm!

“For God’s sake, Milt,” I railed at him when I got my copies of the book and saw what they had done, “Why didn’t you just call it The Pig Fuckers? That’s colorful, at least.”

Despite its dreadful title, however, and an arty cover that offered no clue to the book’s contents, Homo Farm (1968) did sell out its run or close to it. Milt, ever the gentleman, paid me my usual fee and over the next few years his companies were probably second only to Greenleaf Classics in the volume of gay material they published, though I can’t say that most of it approached the quality of Greenleaf’s best material. Still, I had opened up a significant market for gay writers, an accomplishment in which I took pleasure and pride.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Do the glowing reviews my books generally received mean that I am more fully qualified to offer my opinions on the writings of others? Maybe. But remember, as I said before, these are just the reviewers’ opinions. Except for Sister Mary’s I regard them as wise opinions, revealing the very best of taste, but only opinions nonetheless.

I think that the best review I ever received came from the most unlikely of sources. My home phone rang one afternoon and a woman’s voice asked if I was Victor Banis, who also wrote as Jan Alexander. I admitted that I was—at the time there was little likelihood that this was a bill collector and the death threats were not as common as my critics would have you believe.

The woman introduced herself. She was eighty years old, she informed me, calling from Pittsburgh and, to judge from her voice, black. She had gone to great trouble to track me down, first calling my publisher in New York—Pyramid Books, in this instance. As a rule publishers do not give out an author’s real name—certainly not his address or phone number, though they forward any mail, positive or negative, that arrives at their offices for the writer. This one time, however, the woman’s story impressed them enough to put her in touch with my agent, Jay Garon, and Jay was sufficiently impressed to give her my telephone number in Los Angeles.

My caller explained that she had not read a book in fifty years, maybe longer. She had lost her husband perhaps a year earlier and, finding herself alone and lonely, had joined a seniors’ group at her local community center. The group had been given an assignment, homework of sorts—read a book. Any book, on any subject. Just read it, and come prepared to talk about it with their fellow seniors.

The book she picked up and read was one of my romantic mysteries—I don’t recall now which one and don’t think it matters greatly. She had enjoyed it immensely. So much so that she was all of a sudden hooked on reading. Not just my books, either, though she had by this time read several of them, all she could find.

She was calling to thank me. She felt that reading my book had changed her life. I don’t know what any author could ask for better than that.

I received, as I have indicated, fan mail—rather an astonishing amount of it, it seemed to me. Over the years I have had letters from throughout the United States and even from abroad—Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands. I have always answered these letters and sometimes established long running correspondence with individuals who read a great many of the books I produced.

I have also been fortunate enough to meet many of my readers and since much of what I wrote was written under pseudonyms, I was sometimes lucky enough to hear their candid opinions of what they read before they learned that it was I who had written it. I am happy to say that the vast majority, if not quite all, of those opinions were favorable and I am truly grateful to know that I gave pleasure and entertainment to so many. To the others I can only offer humble apologies.

Well, all right, not so awfully humble. I mean, really, what did you expect for seventy-five cents?

 

* * * * * * *

 

Just this very day I was riding on one of San Francisco’s trolleys next to an elderly black man and in the course of conversation he mentioned that he had in the same day managed to break both pairs of his glasses.

“Gosh, this has been your unlucky day,” I said.

“Unlucky?” He gave me an astonished look. “I’d say it was pretty lucky. I woke up, didn’t I?”

Good point. Every day is a gift, isn’t it? Sometimes we demand too much of ourselves and of life. Daphne du Maurier, when she had finished her 1938 classic novel of suspense, Rebecca (now there is a great opening paragraph), gave the manuscript to her good friend, the literary lion, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (who wrote as “Q”). He read it and when he gave it back to her, told her that if she went ahead with it, the book would make her rich and famous—and the literary world would never forgive her for it. As it turned out he was right on all counts.

I am aware that there are those who look down upon what I have written. That is their problem. If mine was not the sort of career that led to great fame and fortune it was nonetheless successful in my own terms, on nearly every count. I have no regrets.

Indeed, I view regret as just another, more subtle way of flagellating oneself. Every moment of your life, every person and event, every mistake and triumph, has contributed to bringing you to where you are, to making you who and what you are. If you like yourself what is there to regret?

Don’t like yourself? Work on it. People take their cues from you. I can tell you for certain, in your entire life no one will ever like you any more than you like yourself. Looking for love? If you are not looking first at your self you really are looking in all the wrong places.

The legendary soprano, Luisa Tetrazzini, was interviewed late in her life. By this time she was living in a retirement home (they called them “poor houses” in those days) her operatic triumphs and scandalous romances far behind her. When the interviewer asked her about her voice, she went to the piano and sang a few measures from Lucia’s notoriously difficult mad scene, in what the interviewer described as an astonishingly young, fresh voice. She gave a cackle of glee and cried, “By God, I may be old, I may be poor, I may be toothless, but I’m still Tetrazzini!”

You’re still you, aren’t you? Whatever else may have gone from you with time or the sometimes puzzling machinations of fate there is one thing that you can never lose—no one ever has occupied, or ever will occupy, your unique place in the universe. Cherish it.

Take a look around yourself—better yet, take a look inside yourself. This is your life. Right now. Right here. Take responsibility for it. Are you happy? If not, why not? Unhappiness is mostly wanting things to be something other than what they really are. Wanting your next door neighbor to fall in love with you doesn’t make it so, it only makes you unhappy.

The conditions you put on being happy are the exact measure of the distance between yourself and happiness. Happiness cannot be deferred. We tend to choose to be unhappy until we can have our way with things. Like the child holding his breath until his parent gives in, we tell God, or life, that we are willing to be happy—when we get that new job, when so-and-so falls in love with us, when we have lost twenty pounds. This is not happiness, this is contract negotiation. Unfortunately, the other side across the negotiating table from you is just you again. We have met the enemy, as Pogo used to say, and he is us.

Pretend that you’re happy. The people who look into these things now say that when you smile the brain responds with a dose of the chemicals that it normally provides when you really are happy. It is sort of as if the brain says to itself, “Gosh, he’s smiling, we must be happy and I missed it,” and adapts to the program. If you pretend for a while that you are happy, you may trick yourself into feeling happy.

Find some time to be still. A woman once complained to me that she prayed and prayed incessantly but God never seemed to call her back. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “when he tries he gets a busy signal.”

Get rid of the busy signal: Meditate. Now, meditation is not the same as prayer, though ideally both will get you to the same place. We tend to associate meditation with Buddhism and indeed meditation is an essential element of Buddhism, but Buddhism is not essential to meditation, which is not the exclusive province of any religion. I have known Protestants and Catholics, Jews and atheists who meditate in one way or another and with no conflict with their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

If you look into a pool of clear water and splash it all about with your hand you will find it difficult to see the bottom with any clarity, but if you let the water go still you will find that you see right through it. Meditation is nothing more than getting the pool of your mind still.

Try chanting Ohm. The metaphysical people say that this puts you in tune with the universe but there are very practical and down to earth benefits as well. You will discover at once when you try that it stimulates your sinus cavities; if you have sinus problems, ten minutes a day of chanting will prove wonderfully therapeutic. At the same time you are stimulating the various glands, like the thyroid, that control your metabolism, which is to say, whether or not you believe that you are tuning into the universe, it’s certain to make you feel better.

There’s nothing mysterious about how to do it either—just take a deep breath and say Ohm on the exhalation. If you want to do it the really best way, make almost, but not quite, three separate syllables of it, which sounds far more difficult than it is. Begin the O sound in your throat as you would, say, singing. Then push the sound or the vibration up into you nasal cavity—you will find it easy to move the vibration around. Finally move to the front of your mouth for the Mmmm finale.

The experts say it’s not worth the effort if you aren’t going to do this a minimum of ten minutes a day but I say, pish, even a minute or two of peaceful focusing will do you good. Of course ten minutes a day is better. If you can manage that for a while and then try going to twenty, you will see that twenty is not just twice as good but many times better. Let’s be honest, though, one can’t always squeeze in that extra time. Do ten and if you are truly in a rush, do whatever you can and let yourself feel good about it.

Incidentally, if you are into affirming or visualization, the ideal time to do it is before chanting—stilling your mind allows time for your desires to sink into your subconscious before your negative energies go to work on them.

If chanting seems too esoteric for you, just sit and quietly observe your breathing, the flow of air in and out of your nostrils, the rise and fall of your diaphragm. Let your thoughts arise as they will, observe them and let them go without attaching yourself to them.

There are plenty of ways to meditate, however, and lots of good books to tell you how. It doesn’t matter, really, whether you chant or gaze into the flame of a candle or contemplate your navel, the whole point is to focus your mind, to help it shut up in other words.

Stand naked in front of your mirror. Yes, I know. But if you can’t love the warts you can’t love the dimples, you don’t get to pick and choose. Love doesn’t work that way, not with someone else and not with yourself.

If you are going to make perfection the price that must be paid for your love you are going to find yourself with very few shoppers. Practice forgiveness. Start with forgiving yourself. Stephen Levine writes of how very painful it can be to shut yourself out of your own heart. Forgiveness is the key to open the door.

We have all stepped on someone’s toes at one time or another. Silently ask those whom you have offended to forgive you. Go on to forgive those who have offended you. It can be difficult to grasp when you are angry but really, whatever it was that they did had nothing to do with you and everything to do with themselves. Don’t take it personally. The only personal part is the damage you are doing to yourself harboring those unhappy memories. Thoughts are things. Forgiving thoughts are healing things. Forgiveness is love and love is the answer. It doesn’t matter, Alex, what the question is. Love is always the answer.

Incidentally, don’t be surprised if that person you have been at odds with for ten years suddenly calls you on the phone and asks you to lunch. If he doesn’t, don’t worry about that either. This isn’t about him it’s about you.

Give. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Whatever you give comes back to you in like kind. But consider that a warning as well. Things return in the spirit in which they were given. Whatever you give lovingly, freely—and best of all unannounced—will find it’s way back to you in just such terms. If you find your life all tied up in knots, however, it may be the strings you attached to your gifts.

And don’t think you can use lack of money as an excuse, either. Considering how little it costs the giver it is astonishing what value a smile may have for the one who receives it. An honest compliment may be enough to get your waiter, the sales clerk, the bus driver, through a really hard day. Don’t sneer. We all have them, after all.

Practice a little tenderness. We live in such a crowded world it is inevitable that from time to time we are going to bump into one another. If we keep our edges a little soft, it won’t hurt so much. Courtesy, manners, respect for others—these are not “extras” in life, they are a major part of what separates us from the kids with the tails. Miss Manners jokes about saving civilization but her claim is not as exaggerated as it sounds. Throughout our long history, in every civilization that has come and gone, the first signal of decay, of the unraveling of the fabric, has always been the decline in everyday manners, the failure of the common courtesies people visit upon one another.

Of course, you cannot single-handedly save our society nor can I. But I truly believe that no one has ever set a strong example—for good or for ill—that someone else hasn’t followed it. Make your example a good one. Trust me, someone will emulate it.

It was Yogi Berra who pointed out that you should make a point of going to the funerals of others because if you did not they might not come to yours either.

His point was a valid one. We all need a little consideration from others from time to time. Sooner or later someone is going to need your kindness, seriously need it. You will miss out on that hot date because a friend needs to cry on your shoulder. Someone will say something stupid or spiteful and while disdaining to apologize will nonetheless hope for your forgiveness. Aunt Dilda will talk your ear off because she is lonely and you will have to take a pass on that lovely frock your heart was set on because a friend is in desperate need of a cash infusion.

These are the dues that we each of us have to pay from time to time for the privilege of being part of the family and though you may see yourself as the black sheep of the family, pay them anyway and be glad that you can. As sure as God made little green apples the sling pump will be on the other foot one day. Think of it as insurance and keep your policy paid up.

We are all, after all, a part of Mankind. Just now as I breathed out someone else breathed in from the same atmosphere and out again. The island word, aloha, translates literally as “joyful sharing of breath.” Joyful or not, however, we partake daily of one another’s breath in some infinitesimal degree. And not just those of us now alive, either. The scientists say that the supply of oxygen on our planet remains fixed, it merely recycles and remixes, which is another way to say that you are even now inhaling the breath of our predecessors.

Consider the plants, too, breathing in and out with us, exchanging nutrients. We sweat, we lose minute bits of hair and skin and they fall to the earth and become a part of its makeup. We die and in time our bodies return to dust. We eat food grown in the soil and in it are traces of everyone and everything that has ever lived on our planet.

So it turns out that it is really not my life and your life but Life, and we are all a part of this same vast organism, infinite and endless.

Damn, I just put my foot through my soapbox.

I guess what I am suggesting is, try living your life in such a way that if the curtain goes up sooner than you expected you’ll be ready anyway for the tableau.

 

* * * * * * *

 

When I mentioned these memoirs to an acquaintance of mine (as opposed to a friend of mine) he said, “Don’t you think you’re taking yourself a bit too seriously?”

Too seriously? I don’t think anyone who has read this far will accuse me of that. But I will tell you in all candor, I am convinced that I am the best thing that ever happened to me.

Sound egotistical? Then let me add, I am equally convinced that you are the best thing that ever happened to you. Forget the fat pictures, tape that message to your refrigerator and make the effort to live accordingly. It’ll change your life. It certainly did mine.

But wait, I said at the beginning that this wasn’t about me. Ha ha. Of course, if you are a writer you laughed when you read that. That’s one thing that every writer—every painter, every singer and dancer, every actor and sculptor—every artist—grasps intuitively. It’s where it all comes from and our ultimate reference work.

In one respect or another it’s always about “me.”

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