Saturday, August 4, 2012

Elton & Anderson & Me

Recently I’ve come across two interesting stories of the coming-out of celebrities.  The first was Elton John.  It wasn’t until 1976, after he had already made his fame with hits like “Crocodile Rock” and “Saturday Nights Alright for Fighting,” that a reporter dared to ask him if he was gay.  What was so surprising is that he had never been in the closet: he lived an open lifestyle, unashamed of his bisexuality.  He never came out, he said, because no one ever asked him.  And why would he?  Straight people don’t go around announcing their pure heterosexuality, why should everyone else have to announce their preferences?  How far should we take it?  Maybe if we all went around “coming out” as liking redheads, or whips and ballgags, or being furries, the compulsory announcement of sexual preference wouldn’t be so strikingly strange.

The second was Anderson Cooper.  Like John, Cooper has been open about his lifestyle with his friends, family, and colleagues, but not until recently did he disclose to the public, his audience, that he was gay.  This was for a number of reasons, one of which was certainly his marketability as a national newscaster.  As a journalist, his ability to blend and not create tension in a variety of situations (especially in the more conservative and homophobic areas of the world) might have also been at risk.  But, he eventually decided those risks did not outweigh what he felt as a responsibility to come out.  One quote particularly spoke to me:
"It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something - something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true. I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible."
It seems to me unquestionably obvious that the denial of civil rights and human dignity on the basis of sexuality or gender identity is as morally repugnant as the denials of those rights based on race.  However obvious this is morally, it is not quite the same visually.  No one can pick out the LGBTQ individuals in a crowd because they are all around us.  And while Elton is right, that there should be no requirement for an announcement of non-heterosexual interests, Anderson makes an equal point about responsibility.  It’s hard to rally for a cause without a flag waving proudly.

Recent developments have intensified this struggle.  I refer of course to Dan Cathy’s remarks about the political preferences of Chik-Fil-A.  Above the Mason-Dixon their chicken is pretty scarce, so I’ve never been a regular customer.  But it used to be that whenever I was out of state and near one, I’d have to stop and have a sandwich (or three…really, they’re delicious).  That stopped a year or two ago when I first found out about Chik-Fil-A’s corporate contributions.  I refused to give them another dime, and I warned those I knew about making the choice to dine there.  Unsurprisingly, many didn’t care.  The political affiliation of a business made no difference to them, as long as their product was pleasing and the price was right (this type of irresponsible capitalism is another major peeve of mine, but that’s for another time).  But now that Cathy’s comments have blown the story into a national sensation I’m hearing more diverse reactions. 

I knew there would be those who supported Chik –Fil-A because they themselves are homophobic.  I can live with that.  As an individual, your opinion is your right.  What is worse to me is those who say they “respect” Chik-Fil-A for standing by their opinion (never mind those who want to make it a First Amendment issue.  I don’t know why SCOTUS dropped the ball on Citizens United, but I’ll never read the Constitution to include corporations as people).  This is like being proud of Neo-Nazis for exercising their right to assemble and march.  There is nothing brave about spreading homophobia.  Hate has never been brave.  Hate is the refuge of the coward and the weakling.  And hatred in the name of God is saddest of all, a perversion of the moral code preying on the lost and hopeful parts of men’s souls.  There is no justification for the poison and vitriol in signs like “GOD HATES FAGS,” no redemption for those who would send love to hell.

As they abuse their right to speak, so must we embrace ours.

And so we come to the point.


I identify myself as Pansexual.

What does this mean?  Nothing.  And everything.  It means I don’t draw hard and fast lines about gender and sexuality.  I see every individual as an individual.  Parts and preferences are interesting but not defining.  I can be attracted to and interested in anyone, regardless of biological gender, gender identity, or sexual preference.   I’ve never once denied an attraction to females, the presumed desire for my observably male gender, because I have no reason to.  I love women.  Nor have I denied an attraction to anyone else, mainly because the question’s never come up.  What I haven’t done, beyond a few small tests of the water, is proactively announced myself.  And now I have.

Why?  Because I want to be visible.  I need to be visible.  I need every person who makes a slur or homophobic remark to know they have to look me in the eye when they say it.  You’re telling me I can’t marry, you’re telling me I’m disgusting, you’re telling me I’m going to hell.  You’ve been saying the same thing to millions of others for years, but I need you to know I’m standing in the crowd too.  Proudly.  And it should be obvious by now that we’re not going anywhere.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Music in the Streets

I think the world would be a better place if there were more instruments… everywhere.  Remember when Buffalo commissioned painted statues of buffalos to be placed throughout the city? Or how Chicago put ping-pong tables in public areas?  Or in coastal tourist towns, where brightly painted and themed Adirondack chairs can be found on the beach and the boardwalk?  Lets do that with music.

Brightly painted lockers installed on the sidewalk, holding a guitar or a bass, or a harmonica, a recorder, bongos, a tambourine, violins, anything really, chained discreetly to prevent theft without compromising playability, perhaps a little donation box to keep the project well maintained. Just imagine, walking down the street with a song stuck in your head, and there you are: everything you need to stop for a minute, jam out “Rocky Raccoon,” and continue on your day.  Instead of bottling up frustrations and anxieties, or releasing them with anger on your friends and neighbors, you just lean against a streetlight and strum out your feelings.

What a sense of community it could create! All those other people you pass every day are no longer nameless drones, but potential bandmates.  The next Phish or Motion City Soundtrack might be four or five strangers who just happen to pass by the corner of Elmwood and Utica at the same time.  The cultural fusion could astound: a Latino drumbeat with blues harmonica, some indie rock chords over a jazz bass line, and a freestyle rap accented by a classically trained violinist. It would be music truly born in and of Buffalo; the soundtrack from our city’s melting pot.

It may seem insignificant, but I seriously believe that if we all could just stop and play or sing or dance, if only for a moment, with new people we’ve never met, out in public for the world to see, we might live a little better.  Ours is now a world where no one gets the benefit of the doubt, where people walk the streets apprehensively, listening to a little voice in their heads saying, “he might be dangerous.  She might try to rob me. This isn’t my neighborhood: I don’t trust it.” Nothing could assuage those fears like seeing those same strangers in a circle, smiling, tapping their feet and singing along.

And it’s perfectly fine if you don’t know how to play an instrument, we’ll help you learn.  Besides, anyone can shake a tambourine or bang a drum.  If you don’t know the words, you can hum until you figure them out.  Just cross the street and join in: if you can talk, you can sing, and if you can walk, you can dance. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Short, Sweet, Sunny-side Up

I’m tired of angst.  Quite an ironic statement for a blogger I suppose, but the negativity is really getting me down.  So I’ve decided on a little experiment: I’m going to be an undying optimist.  There are so many good things going on right now, and I would hate to let myself get bogged down in problems and trivial shit.  Don’t get me wrong; I am well aware I’ve got problems.  All sorts of them.  But worrying hasn’t really done much for me so far.  I just want to roll with the punches for once, and see how much fun I can have before it all catches up with me.  Doesn’t that sound like a cool idea? Its like jumping on the moon; I’ll shed my gravity and nothing will hold me down.  The way I see it the worst thing that can happen is I land: the experiment fails, and I have to deal with things I would have had to deal with anyways.  So consider this fair warning: be prepared to keep up.  And if I do crash, expect to see me climb from the rubble saying “Damn, that was fun.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

Time to Make a Move

I fear that I have become far too comfortable with fantasies and fictions.  I find myself making plans and coming up with ideas, but never following through with them.  This blog is a great example; I’m embarrassed I let seven weeks go by without writing anything.  And though I may say that I was “too busy,” or “distracted,” I know I have no excuse.

The problem is my imagination runs too wild.  In my head, it is so simple to picture myself actually doing things, making things, accomplishing things.  And in these daydreams I seem quite happy, content with what I have done or experienced.  But all too often I let myself be content to just think about these things, instead of making them happen.

I believe the root of my problem is fear.  Inside my mind I have control; everything is perfect, which is why I am so happy.  But in reality, things are bound to go wrong.  We find things to be harder than expected, and sometimes we fail.  I guess I am just afraid that my dreams will prove to be nothing more than lies I told myself.  At least the fantasies I have give me some pleasure, and perhaps their reward is not worth the risk of failure, rejection, and disappointment.

But I’ve come to realize that it’s a bullshit attitude to have.  It’s the biggest thing keeping me strapped down and stuck in the same ruts I’ve worn the past nineteen years.  I want to live a life full of experience, and I want to leave some mark.  Imagination may make me happy, but the things that I might make or do, the things that are real, just might make other people happy.  And other people are the reason for the world.

I want to write.  I want to compose music.  I want to re-learn the violin, and learn harmonica.  I want to see a show.  I want to explore Toronto.  I want to make a movie.  I want to be famous.  I want to have fun.  And I swear to myself, even if I don’t succeed at all these goals, I will try.  I will take the risks; I will jump and hope something catches me, because I never want to regret a wasted opportunity, or an unanswered question.

I’ve got a few of those questions left in my head right now, but I promise they will be answered the next time I find a chance to ask them.  And that chance can’t come soon enough.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I like to fancy myself an outdoorsman.  Someone who enjoys the great outdoors; the woods, the ponds, the animals.  But I usually find myself far away from my cabin in Cattaraugus County, stuck in the clean-cut and paved suburbs.  But it turns out the great outdoors can be found right here in Amherst, Williamsville, and Clarence.  Add in an incredibly fun, new activity, and you have a great Sunday afternoon.  So I put on old jeans and hiking shoes, and headed out with Neil, as well as Dom, Dave, and Nick.

Geocaching.  Think of it as a futuristic treasure hunt.  Instead of a pirate’s map with X marking the spot, you have a handheld GPS (or even a smart phone, in this age of incredible technology), a given latitude and longitude, and perhaps a cryptic clue or two.  At the end of the trail is a cache, usually a Tupperware container or something similar, holding a logbook, where you sign your name and the date and earn your bragging rights.  You just drive to the location (in our case, Dann Lake in Clarence, a fifteen minute drive down Transit Road), plug in the coordinates, and start hiking.  Some geocaches are placed in urban areas, even on the UB campus. But most, like this one, are hidden in parks and other green spaces.

We pulled off to the side of the road, near an entrance where a crude bridge spanned a drainage ditch.  After checking our supplies (plenty of water, trail mix, cell phones, and GPS) and getting psyched up, we started walking up a well-worn path.  At first our directions were spotty; we walked in circles and found ourselves at dead ends, peninsulas where standing water was several feet deep and several yards wide.  After re-calibrating our GPS, we found a new route around most of the swamp, near the park’s rear entrance.  It became quickly apparent that we weren’t going to find this cache and stay dry.  As hot and sunny as it was that day, it was no match for the past week’s rainstorms, which had flooded paths and turned hard ground into slippery mud.

We progressed through thick brush and sharp branches, eventually emerging at the lake itself.  It was rather beautiful, seeing this fairly large, deep blue lake just a few hundred yards from Transit Road.  A father and two sons were there fishing, and we walked along the edge of the shore until the GPS pointed us down a smaller path into the woods.  We were in the right area; we just needed to find the right spot.
Again the GPS proved unreliable.  We would fight our way amid branches, stepping from stone to stone across the swamp like Indiana Jones, only to have the GPS reverse course, and send us back to the other side of the path.  After a few false starts, we finally got within a few feet.  Dom was sharp enough to spot the cache: a small plastic container covered in camouflage contact paper.

But this was not the end of our adventure. Inside the box was a picture of a barcode: a bonus round for those with the right tools.  Dom came to the rescue again, with a barcode-scanning app from the Android market.  Armed with a new set of coordinates, we set out down the path to the next cache.  After a few more circles we came to the spot where the cache had to be: a very large, foot-deep marsh.  We had gotten all the way here; we weren’t giving up.  Dom and Neil sacrificed themselves, plunging into the water and walking around.  Dave hovered at the water’s edge, and Nick and I looked on from the path, scanning the trees for a sign of the box.  It was a precarious situation: Dom and Neil sloshing through the standing water, gingerly holding and passing the very fragile, very expensive, borrowed GPS.  At this point we became acutely aware of one of the problems of standing water: bugs.  Gnats and mosquitoes were everywhere, making us anxious to find the cache and leave.  As I zeroed in on a promising shadow, Neil made the spot from thirty feet away, and splashed his way to a small tree, where the cache was nestled between a few low-lying limbs.  It was our proudest moment: we each signed the logbook, and left one of Neil’s “random act of kindness” inspirational cards.  Feeling quite accomplished, we began the trek back, which turned out to be no easier than the way in.

We finally reached the road, and took stock of ourselves: sweaty, sore, tired, bleeding; our shoes and pants covered in mud.  So we stood in the road, next to Dom’s brother’s Cadillac, trying to figure out how to keep the car relatively clean.  At the time, we only had one solution.  Our shoes went into the trunk, and our pants followed.  Five college students in t-shirts and boxers, driving on Millersport Highway.  I can only imagine what would have happened if we had crashed, or been pulled over; I’m not sure if bottomless driving is illegal, but I’m sure its frowned upon, and probably laughed at.  Definitely not something you want on a police report.  The excitement of the day, topped off with the thrill of having the wind on our legs, made us giddy.  We took a detour to Dunkin’ Donuts, to see our good friend Kevin and his sister Amy, and cool down with iced coffee.  Kevin was unfazed by our attire; he looked down and said, “Are any of you wearing pants? No? Ok. That’s $11.25.”

We eventually got back to the apartment.  By some stroke of luck, no neighbors were out to see us emerge in our boxers, carrying jeans caked in mud and shoes still dripping from swamp water.  Those we placed on the back porch to dry, and we scattered ourselves across the room, collapsing on couches and trading stories of the highlights of the day only barely gone by.  We were immensely tired, not being used to seven-mile hikes in the midday May sun.  But all we could talk about was “next week,” the next cache we would find, what we would do differently.  It was a good feeling, to end the day worn-out and sore, but with a feeling of epic accomplishment.

Geocaching was a great activity.  There was something sublime about the combination of nature and technology.  It’s hard to believe that a little plastic box can pinpoint your place on the Earth using satellites.  Anything that gets me outdoors, exercising while exploring woods and streams, out in the middle of nowhere, is a good thing.  And the fact that it was hidden right here all along just made it sweeter.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Walking Down a Twisted Road

I am damn lucky that my mom has good taste in music.  First, she passed that gift down to me.  Second, her Mothers Day gift was four tickets to see Neil Young at Shea’s.

When Neil’s solo Twisted Road tour rolled into town on Wednesday, I found myself in orchestra four, row L.  For those of you unfamiliar with Shea’s, that means just left of center, about forty feet from where he stood on the stage.  Absolutely phenomenal seats, with a view that allowed me to see every finger move on the fretboard, and all the emotions that played on his face.

Bert Jansch, a Scottish folk guitarist, opened the show with some beautiful Scottish and Irish folk music.  While his accent left lyrics at times unintelligible, he had a gift for fingerpicking.  He played his guitar with striking confidence, keeping the crowd entertained as we waited for the headliner.

The stage was set like an antique shop: old lamps, 1940’s style kitchen chairs, a wooden cigar shop Indian, and of course several guitars and pianos.  Throughout the show, he would switch on and off between a few acoustic guitars, a Les Paul, an ES-335 hollow-body electric, an upright piano, a baby grand, and an organ.  Between the stage setup, the seats, and the intimate atmosphere that Shea’s offered, it felt as though the whole show was just for me.

When Neil Young finally strolled on, the crowd went crazy.  But he calmly sat down, picked up an acoustic, and launched right into “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).”  It was the first time I heard or saw him play live, and it was nearly a religious experience.  To hear his music on an iPod or the radio is one thing, but to watch him make it in front of you is unbelievably powerful.  He continued on with a mix of his classic acoustic folk rock, and the groundbreaking electric songs that earned him the title “godfather of grunge.”

Some of the crowd favorites included “Helpless,” and the unreleased, autobiographical “Hitchhiker.”  He performed one of the best versions of “Ohio” I’ve ever heard, just a few weeks past the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, and got a great reaction from the crowd when he updated the lyrics of “After the Gold Rush,” singing ‘look at mother nature on the run/in the twenty-first century.’  Finally, he closed with the song my mom wanted to hear, “Cinnamon Girl.”

As Neil walked off stage, the crowd stayed on its feet applauding.  No one dared move; the whole theatre knew that he would be back for more.  After a minute or two, he slipped back onstage with a beer in hand and began his encore.  The final song was “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” the electric version of the song he opened with.  It was a genius way to close the show, and I’m happy he chose it.  Apart from being one of my favorite songs (either version), it reminded me of the Nick Orrange memorial collage at UB, where one of his Facebook statuses is displayed prominently: “once you’re gone, you can’t come back/when you’re out of the blue, and into the black.”

Neil Young isn’t quite so young anymore; he joked about himself to the crowd, commenting “sixty-four and there’s so much more,” a reference to the song “Old Man.”  But age has not slowed him down.  Look at his hair, and you see gray; look at his face, and you see lines of age.  But look at his body as he plays, and listen to his voice, and its as though he hasn’t changed since Woodstock.  Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, with a white cowboy hat, he would bend and sway along to the music, playing and feeling with his entire body.

I promise you, if I had walked out of the theatre and right into the Devil, I would have sold my soul then and there to play like Neil Young.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Treatise on Friendship

Editor’s Note: This piece is not about someone; it is about everyone.  Before the question even forms, this is not a shot at anyone, or passive-aggression.  I speak to “you” for lack of a better pronoun.  This is a composite, made from a wide range of experiences: it is the things I have seen, and the things I fear I may see.

* * *

I don’t care what some song lyrics say: love is not a battlefield.  Friendships are not something to be won or lost.  So much of my pessimism regarding the problems of our world comes from watching the actions of, and the relationships between, individuals.

Just for one moment, step back and consider what any relationship between two people is: pure beauty, two individuals giving a part of themselves to create something more, something slightly more sublime.  Ever see someone playing with two lighters?  Each burns with its own small flame, but hold them close and they immediately become one: bigger, brighter, and hotter.  That is friendship.  Those friendships are the individual links of the chains that form the web we call a society.  We like to believe in the power of one, the idea that one person can change our world.  And yes, one person can make quite a difference.  But not entirely alone.  Mankind could not thrive, could not even survive, as a collection of disconnected individuals.  Forget the basic need for procreation: without shoulders to lean on, and people below to catch those who may fall, we are nothing.  Without others, why should we exist? Without others, I wonder if we even would exist.

And this is why it pains me so to watch people throw others around like chips in a card game.  If that is all the respect and reverence you can give to it, why should I respect you?  Why should I trust you? It might as well be me you just gambled away; perhaps I could be next.  Every betrayal, every whispered word behind another’s back, every friend forsaken, is another crack forming in our society’s foundation.  And I don’t know how much longer until something, somewhere, gives way.

I know that not all relationships will last, and friendships sometimes must die.  I am not blind to reality and practicality.  But isn’t that enough? Must we foster an environment where friends are now, like everything else, disposable? And more pressing, when did I lose the power to keep my friendships separate from those of everyone else?  Someone once told me that the end of a relationship is like a fork in the road: two separate paths, which will never cross again.  The insinuation is that when I come upon that fork I must choose a road, and follow only one.  I say bullshit.  So what if you don’t like them, and they don’t like you.  I like you.  I like them.  Why does that have to change?  Again, I concede that there are situations where this must happen.  I don’t like it, but I accept it.  But not every time.  Not this time.  Don’t ask me to choose between two friendships.  In the end, I will resent you for forcing that choice, and I will resent myself for making it.  If not being friends with them is more important than being friends with you, then I don’t need you.  If it is worth that little to you, then it is not worth the effort on my part.  That outlook tells me you are negative, depressing, toxic.  I’m far too cynical already: I don’t need anyone or anything else to make me more jaded.

So that’s it.  That’s where I stand.  And if you decide you need to carve a new fork in the road, then I wish you well.  But, should you decide to turn back, come find me.  I want you to.