Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Winnipeg

Went with Christopher and Paulo to the San Francisco opening of a new film by Guy Maddin called My Winnipeg. It's a dreamy introspection worked around what the narrator describes as yet another attempt to flee the town in which he has lived for his entire life. He is on a train and much of what we see is projected through the window as the train rolls endlessly along. The cinematography is rough, black and white, choppy, raw, new footage mixed with old. Certainly avant garde, but compelling and demanding rather than aloof and evasive. I wrote a few quotes down as we accompanied Maddin on his flight, as we tried to flee with him.

How can one live without one's ghosts?

This is a film about memory, and its vagueness, and how it deceives and traps us. How you can only try to run away, but even in flight you are already heading back. Even at the end of the film, we do not know if he escaped, or if he really tried to escape. We know that he doubled back on himself and found a way to release himself from his self-made vow. But we do not know what happened, or indeed if anything happened.

Whatever happened only took 80 minutes to happen ... I appreciate a film that says what it has to say promptly ... but it was a long, drawn out 80 minutes. It seemed like two hours ... and I say that not with fatigue but with the entrancement of fixation. He didn't even lose me with his long riff on the travails of hockey rinks and hockey teams in town. He let go for a moment of the dreamy quality of his narration and got a little fevered ... though the dreaminess returned with the phantom hockey teams of aging stars.

The breath freezes in front of your face and falls to your feet with a tinkle.

You have to feel for a place like Winnipeg. It is truly lost in the middle of the continent. From a distance it is a haze of winter breath, vague, unknown, not on the agenda. But it is, more than any other city in the Canadian prairies, a real place with a history that mattered, with enduring cultural institutions. As the world collapses on itself, and as everything turns into suburbs and commodities and the latest thing, Winnipeg gets even vaguer, even less there. And this film accepts that vagueness. It lives entirely in the chill of the winter where, and I can attest to this, the crunch you hear as you walk is as much your breath as it is the snow under your feet.

I lived in Winnipeg from the summer of 66 to the summer of 68; I was in grades 9 and 10. I knew about this film only because Christopher told me when I told him that I have been planning a vacation that starts and ends in Winnipeg. When I lived there, I loved the winter. I rose early, even though I was in my young teens, to walk my dog Laddie in the dark and snow and freezing cold. I still dream about Winnipeg. And my dreams too are about being trapped there, even though I am not trapped there any longer.

Who gets to vivisect his own childhood?

Maddin took this film as an opportunity to revisit his childhood by reconstructing its key events. He got Ann Savage to play his mother, and he rented part of the house in which he grew up. Who gets to do that? He states in the film that Winnipeg has a law that everyone must carry a key to every house they have ever lived in ... were that the case, I would have quite a weight of keys. When we left Winnipeg in 1968, we were in a car on our way to the train ... not sure if it was a taxi or what, but my Father had left earlier and was already in Toronto. Mother asked where was the dog ... we looked around, and he wasn't there. So we had to head back to the house ... 181 Oak ... to get him, and the new tenants had already arrived and were examining this great placid beast who would not budge. We didn't need keys. Imagine, though, being able to stage that scene again, to pick the actors who play your family as it appears through the fog of years.

A little indulgent, perhaps, in the wrong hands. But in Maddin's hands, the scenes are haunting and elusive, foggy and alluring.

Everything that happens in this city is a euphemism.

Early in the journey, the film turns on sleepwalking ... Maddin asserts that Winnipeg is the sleepwalking capital of the world. Sleepwalking is a purposive vagueness, adroitly performing actions without knowing what you are doing. Zombie-like. Sleepwalking, I suppose, is the euphemism for enduring the torments of life, for growing up when we are so conscious and yet so out of control ... so totally in a situation that we do not know how large or small it is. The Maddin character is vaguely sleeping or dozing on the train ... here he is in full flight form everything he has known, but he cannot rouse himself to attention. Sleepwalking into freedom. Does he ever arrive?

Maddin is a classic unreliable narrator. Down the street and around the corner from where he lived is the Sherbrook Pool. Maddin claims that it is the only pool in the world where there are three pools built one on top of the other, that the bottom two were closed in 1966. I bolted up when he showed the pool ... because I had my bicycle stolen from in front of that building in the summer of 1967. A terrible day that pierced my innocent sense of right and wrong. I never got the bike back, but I did get trip to the police station to look at recovered bikes.

I didn't know about the three pools for the very good reason that there never were three pools; it's pretty clear he uses the stacked pools as referent for the Indian belief that there is another confluence of rivers beneath the confluence of the Red and the Assiniboine which is at the heart of Winnipeg. You never can know what to believe in this film, so it is the easier, and more fun, to give up at least as long as you are in his snare. The frozen horse heads are true ... and as I search the backrooms of my mind, I seem to recall that I knew about them. It's a great Winnipeg story ... a bunch of horses bolt from a fire in early winter, fall through the ice on the river, and are trapped, frozen to death, their heads projecting through the ice for the rest of the winter. The stuff about the gay mayors and the hot dude shows at the Golden Boy Club are at least partly true. But homeless people are not confined to rooftops in Winnipeg.

I guess all the rambling ends up with this: Guy Maddin is still confined, and so are we all. Confined not to memory but to memory's tricks, its deceits, the way in which it undermines truth and leaves us vulnerable. Confined to where we know who we are sufficiently that we can sleepwalk through the every day ... and confined sufficiently that even when we try to escape, we fool ourselves into not quite making it. Home is where memories are frozen in the ice, and yet where they sublime into an ether in whcih we are doomed to sleepwalk. That My Winnipeg for ya.

I do plan to return to Winnipeg, and I expect to use viewing this film as a goad. This is the plan: fly into Winnipeg in October, rent a Prius, drive to Ottawa, stay for five days to visit with my sister who is making one of her periodic pilgrimages from her home in Queensland, then drive back via the northern route (Hwy. 11) and spend another couple of days in Winnipeg. Lots of photos and blogging.

Nice interview with Guy Maddin here. Cleaner copy of the trailer here An intelligent reflection on the film here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Watch Yer Mood, Dood

So, I've been in something of a black mood, as anyone who has suffered through my last few posts will know. Not unusual for me to be in a bad mood in July because this is the month before I go to press with the course catalog at the major research university (MRU) which pays my bills. The stress level gets titanic ... it is not just the pressure of chasing down all the myriad details and confirming that everything is true and grammatical and spelled correctly. It's more the maddening blizzard of email ... the dozens of requests for information that I have securely stored on my web site. For crying out loud, some people send me email asking me the location of a building where I am holding a meeting. Duh ... look at a map. I edit about 2500 course descriptions ... when I am done they are like little materialist koans, all tight and intertwined and thick with content. I cannot bear flabby prose, and in this job I get to root it out.

So I get a little crazy.

I am a little less stressed because, for perfectly rational reasons that are too particular to worry about here, my big boss decided that the book can arrive 2 weeks later than in previous years because we are going live with a web site the day that class registration opens. That means a 10-day press-date reprieve ... I kept saying it was like having a death sentence commuted to life no parole. I was giddy. 10 extra days makes the whole thing a piece of cake. So I am taking tonight off .. .really, an evening off in July is pretty rare in this journey.

And I am a little lighter of mood. Light enough to muse that blackness of mood appears to the natively pessimistic as simply absence of the dross of happiness ... the absence of the illusion that things are on some level okay. So I am not withdrawing from the bleakness of some of these last few posts, but rather affirming that there is something to be said for finding a little joy despite knowing.

So to find a little joy, yesterday I took my lunch hour to watch the first half of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (I am working mostly at home) and watched the rest of it before I fell asleep. It is about a remarkable man, Mark Bittner whose gentle intelligence is the other motif of the film ... i.e., other than the spectacular images of the parrots. The film is about Mark the drifter who found a temporary home, more like a squat, in a ramshackle cottage on Telegraph Hill after a couple of decades of bumping around North Beach like lots of other over-the-hill after-the-fact beatnik types. (For those not from San Francisco, North Beach is only slightly north and not a beach at all. It is in the shadow of Telegraph Hill where the parrots roost and feed, and it is the fabled home of the beatniks of the 50s.) From this shack he established a relationship with a flock of Cherry-headed Conures, and later wrote a book and was the subject of a film by Judy Irving who he later married and with whom he is now living in the gardens of Telegraph Hill.

So things turned out well. Notwithstanding that there is a chilling interlude in the film where this frigid middle class married pair slowly manages to choke out that they are tossing this unique man out of the little shack where he had been living rent-free. The pair is so slimy, so assured of their privilege. What ensues is heart-wrenching. Mark has to give up the wounded parrots he has rescued and nurtured to a rescue group. He has to say good bye to his avian friends including the unique Connor (I think) who is of a different related species for the rest. He has to move in with human friends in the East Bay ... San Franciscans shudder when someone has to move to the East Bay. We watch as his shack is demolished, and then we see the suburban "architectural" monstrosity that replaced it and the for rent sign.

What would it have taken for those peacock-proud middle class homeowners ... obviously rich enough to buy the most prime real estate in San Francisco and then renovate it from top to bottom ... what would it have cost them to make a little space of Bittner, to be the patrons of this kooky San Francisco legend? Would it have in any way substantially reduced the vast excesses that are theirs? Of course they don't have to. But that is the difference between the San Francisco of memory and the increasingly suburban greed that crowds in and destroys the very reason these people came in the first place.

At least those creeps get to live the rest of their pampered lives in the shadow of that ignominious exposure of how shallow run their souls.

It makes me think of the middle class again ... another sampling of the same middle class whose passivity and satisfaction and indulgence enabled the extended livelihood of the Junkers who led Germany and Europe to disaster in 1914. Now we all want to be middle class ... by "we all" I mean the entire species except for the infinitesimally tiny minority of the super-rich ... and I am lucky enough to be one of those who are middle class. Great work if you can get it. But we are no more than ostriches if we do not examine the unresolved contradictions of the middle class ... the tendency to equate their own comfort with good, the failure to use the gifts they are given, the casual rationalizations. In the modern American context, reduce it to this: the planet is going to hell because middle class Americans figure they must drive monster SUVs or their children's lives will be forfeit.

But prices must be paid. And the dread of those prices is hard bedrock of pessimism.

See how easy it is to work back from a little glimmer of happiness to underlying despair. But it should also be easy to work the other direction. If you look at Mark Bittner's site now, he is a happy man ... married, writing, living on the same Telegraph Hill from which he was so callously evicted. He has been a vocal defender of the wildness of the flock which only he tamed and then only for the few moments that the flock granted him.

This post has been written in three sittings, and by that it is probably a little disjointed. If some respite from my present travails presents itself, I will search for some photos from Telegraph Hill. Even better, I will walk the dog there on Sunday morning and take some new pix.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Art and Hanging Out

I am in the midst of my annual MRU course catalog production madness ... this year we are implementing a new software called Author-it and that is challenging and exciting and daunting. Have been working a lot from home which is very efficient, but also has the curious effect of failing to shield me from the immediacy of my emotions. Today I had a little meltdown that would not have occurred if I had been at work. So I took an early lunch, watched an hour of 48 Hours and then returned to the fray refreshed if not actually happy. By the by, that 48 Hours featured the sad story of a 16-year-old who slaughtered two friends in a drug-induced haze with a shotgun. He got double life. Meanwhile, in Canada, the Globe and Mail reports that Canada released a 42-time hit man killer and child molester on compassionate parole because he is dying.

Saturday Night: Found myself at an art opening for a fascinating young gay and deaf painter by the name of Philip Chanin, a friend of mine. There's a strange YouTube experience here. I am a skeptical art opening ingenue ... by proclivity if not by reason of any depth in the art critical genre ... but Philip won me over in the course of three or four meanders through his work. He favors a certain amount of glitter in the combination of bright and glowering colors ... I think his greater success is when he uses it in moderation. Many of his paintings are large heads, frequently earless, that confront the viewer starkly and opaquely, notwithstanding the vivacity of the rendering. It was the eyes, I think, that drew me in ... staring and demanding, windows into meaning and moment, the emotion apparent but not decipherable. His faces are demanding, not inviting. My encounter with them required that I give in to them, and perhaps that is how they came to grow on me as I submitted to their silent imposition.

The best of the head paintings were in his bedroom, the private collection of his lover Bob Ostertag, a musician, composer, and performance artist of long acquaintance. I snuck a photo of one of them, but I am loathe to upload it here without permission.

But it was another painting that came to represent the evening for me ... I noticed it right away in the hall because it had a sticky beside it ..."SOLD". But that clue to its uniqueness did not cause me to stop and examine it. I am afraid that sometimes I am too beholden to unexamined prejudices in matters in which I am not expert ... o what a terrible confession, and one that exposes me as not as unique as I might prefer in my phantasmagorical and internal perorations ... and I just missed what had made this at-that-point anonymous buyer stop by that painting. Later he told me that his mother, who is by his description a successful buyer of unknown artists, advised that when he buys young artists, he should look for the pieces that are different from the others for they will be the ones sought after if the unlucky young artist becomes a lucky old artist.

I felt that taking a pic of the bought painting would be wrong and I did not do it. Later I wished that I had because it became such a moment.

My roommate RL brought his friend Daniel ... also a painter ... and it was he who turned out to be the buyer. I was as impressed by his thoughtfulness about art as I was by his evident bitterness. Take "impressed" to mean "made an impression upon me" rather than "favorably impressed." Notwithstanding the bitterness and my own tendency to scowl at bitterness, I liked Daniel, and made a point not to indulge myself in any fury if our discussion turned confrontational. A good plan, as it turned out.

RL, Daniel and I decided to leave after a couple of hours of the meander described above. Bob asked me to stay because a musician friend of his planned to perform, but hunger stemming from a delayed dinner drove me out. I am such an emotional sop ... I still feel bad that I left early. Oh well. The three of us wandered along Valencia looking for eateries that were open, not crowded, not loud, and not yuppie. Ended up at a sushi place on Church near Market.

It's been a while since that discussion, and I should have written the details down a little sooner. I wanted to cue Daniel into telling me why he paints, but we ended up talking about the state of the gay movement. I said above that Daniel was bitter, but I would prefer to say the more precise notion that he proffered a bitter stance. I should not really comment about whether or not he actually "is" bitter ... and I do mean that in the Clintonian sense of it depending upon what the meaning of "is" is. At one point he complained that he didn't like Gay Day because he doesn't see why people should have sex in public ... I told him I thought that was a profoundly conservative approach to looking at gay politics. He didn't like that, but we continued the discussion ... in fact he pressed to continue it up to the moment where we parted company with him at the foot of our hill to home. Then he told me that he appreciated our discussion because I had not caved to him as many evidently do.

I like the guy and I hope he becomes more a part of our circle. I describe the discussion briefly, and perhaps not as favorably to him as I should, because it got me to thinking about youth and age, in particular gay youth and gay age. I remember in my much more activist youth that I was very bugged by old guys who countered my steadfast and frequently un-nuanced political views ... more than bugged, it enraged me and I would get yell-y and obnoxious. I got the more enraged when they proffered a sage stance, as it were, treating me benignly. So I was playing a game on my old self and not being fair, I guess ... perhaps I should have argued more passionately.

But Daniel is a young gay man in an era when the movement is something that has been taken away from them, something alien to them, in the form of an establishment even if it does not have the power of an establishment. I think the gay rebels of this era mistake that establishment-like behavior as having actual social power over them, and they associate the only gay community that exists in a physical with that political establishment. So if the gay guys in the Castro are an aging bunch of householders, and the political movement is a bunch of Democrats slicing up a tiny pie, then gay life and gay community is illegitimate. In my, alas, angry way, I think that is a lot of what I was trying to say in the my piece on Gay Day. Young gay men live lives, increasingly, that have nothing to do with gay community ... they can easily come to straight friends as community, and see the Castro-gay-guy-Demo-establishment as alien, and by back formation fail to remember that the fight for gay liberation is still very young. So, as I noticed at Gay Day, the young gay guys who came tended to be coupled ... perhaps they see in the current movement the advantage of marriage rights. (And, as I noted, the young lesbians hung with themselves in more exuberant modern rendition of the separatism that has always haunted our movement.)

These are generalizations based on observation but not study. I want the Daniels of our world to be modern gay liberationists. Not my choice, and the forces at work on them seem to press in another direction.

So back to where we started in this post. There did not seem to be any ideological content in Philip's work, but there was a straining to see and to project. Notwithstanding the seeming horrors of distorted and wrenching figures, this work is not dark and it presents an optimism and vivacity and screaming for life. I'd like to see Daniel's work ... I rather suspect that it features a darkness, but one that might also be deconstructed into life and urging ... just a guess. He prefers large canvases, and the painting of Philip's that he bought was one of the most narrative of the works on display, so I suspect that they have a narrative quality. I am permanently fascinated by active minds ... and this evening of art and hanging out was a rather too rare excursus into two new fascinating minds in my life.

Top photo by Arod of Philip Chanin and one of his pieces. Middle photo from Philip's web site; click on the photo to go to a slide show of his work. This piece actually was written in several sittings, not a good idea for blogging. The pressure of this year's course catalog work is sitting heavy, and I go back to my labors soon after I hit "Publish Post".

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Iron Kingdom

Out of weakness comes strength. Out of strength, weakness.

Not necessarily now, but eventually ... sometimes very eventually. But history is in many events the story of the unraveling of unresolved contradictions, and those that come from the weakness/strength dialectic have a particular ferocity.

Prussia arose in weakness ... underendowed in natural resources, central to its enemies, remote from natural allies, surrounded by great empires yearning to undermine each other. Prussia had the good fortune to have a sequence of great kings ... well electors and kings ... the Great Elector Frederick William, Frederick I, Frederick William I, Frederick the Great. They managed to consolidate a power that entered the great power system of Europe and remained a force in Europe until 1945.

What happened? We know how it turned out. Why did it end so badly? That is one of the enduring questions of European history. Even as Europe rose to dominate the planet and to impose its terms of civilization worldwide, it could not solve the fundamental undermining contradictions of its political life until it had consumed the entire world in the two most monstrous man-made catastrophes of history.

So let's start with a list of figures:

1648 • 1763 • 1806 • 1870 • 1918

weak • strong • weak • strong • weak

1648: The 30 Years Wars, one of the most cynical in history until WW I took the prize, in which sundry armies slaughtered and raped their way across what is now Germany for, yes, three decades. The weakness of division and merely being barely alive

But then Prussia had those four great kings, and they ended by securing their place in the power system of Europe with Frederick's great victory in 1763 by way of not losing the Seven Years War ... which many refer to as the real first world war. The strength of surviving with a state that would outlast the absolutisms that threatened it

Frederick was followed by the first in a long line of Hohenzollern imbeciles on the throne, and they ended up being humiliated by Napoleon in 1806 at Jena and Auerstadt. So weak again.

But that weakness on the throne found its complement in the strength of Bismarck who led Prussia/Germany to a series of victories in three wars from 1863-1870. It is not an accident that the crowning moment of this strength was the elevation of Wilhelm I as Kaiser happened at Versailles in France.

Wilhelm's successor, the huffing and puffing bombast Wilhelm II, Kaiser Bill, presided over the suicide of empire that also ended in France, in a railway car, in 1918. Weak again.

SO I have been obsessed with revisiting these questions for several months now, reading first Christopher Clark's delicious Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, followed by the magisterial Hajo Holborn's A History of Modern Germany, and most recently a re-reading of the iconic Liddell Hart's History of the First World War, not so much because I want to depress myself ... the careful reader of recent posts will realize that I did that all on my only ... but because I wanted to keep Germany on my mind long enough to get this post out. So, start again with Clark on page 431, speaking generally but referring to the period after the fall of Napoleon ...

The one institution that all Prussians had in common was the state. It is no coincidence that this period witnessed an unprecedented discursive escalation around the idea of the state. Its majesty resonated more compellingly than ever before ...

Frederick famously saw himself not as monarch but as the first servant of the state ... and given that it was he who put the finishing touches on the construction of the notion of Prussianness as nation, we can say that Prussia was born not of ethnicity but of an idea, the idea of the state as organizing principle superior to all other organizing principles. It is worth noting that those of us ... and we are legion ... raised on the neo-marxisms of the 70s, and the crypto-hegelian detours of one kind or another that were so fleetingly popular in the milieu, owe to Frederick much of the way that we still think in our skeptical if comfortable post-post-marxism.

Clark had earlier referred to Prussianness as "a curiously abstract and fragmented sense of identity." But the Prussianness that rocked the world in the early 19th century (which started in 1815) was more noted for its romanticism and art than for its military prowess which took a long back seat notwithstanding all the posturing and strutting around. So even as Prussianness rose from the ashes of 1806 to become the core of the unified German nation by way of the defeat of the French in 1870, it reproduced in its national definition the unresolvable contradiction between authority and creativity, between the regimentation of the military model and the liberty of free thinkers and artists. This was not, of course, only Prussia ... it was all of Europe with the curious exception of Britain, I would argue. But in Prussia the unresolvable nature of the contradiction found its most enduring and explosive form.

The strength of this contradiction was between two social weaknesses ... the Junker class whose material underpinning, that is land and authority over peasants, was drip-drip-dripping away, and the bourgeoisie who whorishly and repeatedly caved to every foot-stomping fit of the Junker class and their representative fawning at the side of a series of feeble monarchs. It was through the gap between these two forces of fulminating weakness that the personal project of Bismarck found its opening.

The state delivered to Bismarck in 1862 was bursting with its sense of mission, derived from the enthusiasms of these wounded social classes, a sense that endured in one form or another for almost a century. That sense of mission itself derived form the long Prussian dialectic of strength deriving from weakness, and the frustration of that sense of mission combined with the weakness/strength dialectic to become one of the driving forces in European history.

The Prussians figured, "hey, why not us?" Why don't we have colonies, why don't we have a navy, why can't we dominate? France was a shadow of itself, Austria a gaunt spectre, and Russia a vast misery which imposed its will by itself seemingly endless willingness to suffer and die. Prussia and later Germany was exploding with creative and industrial energy, and the commmonplaces of Europe which still reproduced the power system that emerged from the Seven Years War, still hamstrung by the indelible shadows of the ancien regime, found no place for this energy.

Europe made no place, and Germany could not make itself modern, and eventually it blew up in everyone's face.

Accident in history: why was Germany saddled with that incomparable blowhard, Wilhelm I. He fired Bismarck in 1890 because he figured he knew better. Bismarck had made Germany, had secured its strength, and sought by his policies to maintain his creation. His weak-minded successors botched the job.

Liddell Hart, the incomparable historian of war ... and let me note as a sidebar that one terrible failure of liberalism is its failure to understand the absolute necessity of studying military history ... notes that the 18th-century (i.e., through 1815) had great generalship, but the 19th-century (i.e., through 1918) was saddled with pompous, self-satisfied morons, and it was they who brought down the apocalypse. So here was Germany, flush with is false consciousness of mission and its industrial virility, but led by the representatives of its weakest most historically transcended, and then there was France and England, bound to defend a commonplace of order in Europe that bore no relation to the development of forces. I still rage at the madness of rulershiop that allowed WW I. The depth of the catastrophe is difficult to fathom, the more so by reason either of accepting the heroic myths or because of the terrible ignorance of history that is the stock-in-trade of modern consumerism.

And so to today. Are we not i the grip of a decades old unresolved contradiction between our preening strength and the weakness of the national institutions that underlie it? Is our national sense of mission not a fraud invented by a self-satisfaction that looks only at ourselves? Are we not overdue, in the sense of historical counting, for a comeuppance?

Imagine being born in Germany in 1870. A life in the strong Germany, the rising Germany, where every year saw growth and creation, where an empire seemed finally to find itself after centuries of pointless, almost inexplicable division. As the new year dawned in 1914 ... you are 44 now and life is sweet and pleasant, the cafes full, the arts alluring ... notwithstanding the seemingly eternal international tensions, could you have imagined the horrors that would be unleashed before another new year?

I do not blame Germany for 1914. I blame all the rulers for the madness, but it is not Germany's alone. All were operating on the same principles by explicit agreement with each other. No, ther is no blame to assign. The history of Europe in the 20th century was born of the failure of the 19th century to move on from what it inherited.

History demanded a price. Never forget the price it demanded. That is the lesson of Prussian.

I'll try for some photos tomorrow ... anyone who made it this far gets an Iron Cross.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Walking with Loki: July 4 and all that

We had our annual Independence Day BBQ on Friday ... we hold it on July 1 or July 4 depending upon which falls on the weekend. 26 good friends, loads of food and drink, and hearty conversation. Still warm two days afterward. The long weekend has otherwise been composed only of working ... it is course catalog time again at MRU ... and walking the old pooch, Loki.

On Saturday morning, blissful and muscle weary from the BBQ, Loki and I headed on our usual walk up through Golden Gate Park with a pass through the National AIDS Memorial Grove where I habitually pick up garbage in memory of my many lost friends. The grove is a broad modified ravine, with three stone enclosed circles ... one at the foot, another in the middle, the third at the head. I start at the foot where Thom Gunn's words are engraved on the stone:

Walker within this circle pause
Although they all died of one cause
Remember who their lives were dense
With fine compacted difference

I pause every week in that circle and recite those words silently three times while thining of those I have lost. But this weeks curious action was not there ... it was in the head circle.

I had cleaned up the usual scattering of cigarette butts and wrappers ... no bottle and can orgies this week ... when I espied a curious purple gnome on a rock outsie the circle. I wondered over, and there was this little seated nude man in plaster with a rock hiding his genitals. Beside him was a a pink heart-shaped piece of paper with a note in florid cursive: "Keep me if I make you joyful!" I laughed when I saw him, and he bounced me out of a subverting gloom that was threatening the sunniness consequent upon the Glorious 4th celebration with which I started this post. I photographed my new gnome friend, and then I placed him in a plastic bag and bore him to his new home ... my home.

Gloom and doom, warmth and friendship. Like a pinwheel, the mind flies from one to the other, the succession rapid or slow by reason of the force of the particular wind in which one finds oneself, the blur under pressure sometimes so great that distinguishing is an exercise in futility. The pinwheel in effect for me during the July 4 BBQ was by reason of a conversation about my Gay Day blog post among four of us ... myself and the sainted ex RB, my roommate RL, and my old friend the world-traveler DH who stopped by for an evening between planes. RB thought my remarks on Gay Day were sour, and that bugged me ... stopped my pinwheel short, as it were. I protested, and no doubt took liberties in protesting as one is wont to do with an ex, sainted or otherwise. I claimed it was glum, not sour ... to no avail. I think DH agreed, or at least felt that my present pessimism about the future of the species is at least shallow if not entirely wrong-headed.

I do not want to be sour, or bitter. I cannot help but to be glum on occasion, and I have dark fears about the future. DH asked if I genuinely felt that gays would be hauled off to concentration camps in 2020 ... remember that I have argued that gays today are the like Jews of Germany in 1920. I think I would be a fool to suggest that with any certainty. But gays are, in essence, under the threat of concentration camps as we speak in Iran and Russia and China and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Egypt, and in myriad other places we could face such immanence within a few years at most if conditions were to deteriorate. Der Spiegel had a chilling report only a few days ago about rising homophobia in Germany, fueled not so much by nativist new-nazis as by viciously intolerant muslim youth and bloody-minded Russians. There is some little creep rapper, Bushido, who is of mixed Tunisian-German background notwithstanding the too-cool-for-school Japanese name, who actually sang lyrics calling for gays to be gassed at an anti-violence concert. Gay protesters were flipped off and booed.

But the immanence of violence against gays is not the root of my glumness about the future ... it is immanence of social breakdown by reason of the catastrophe that global warming and its consequences. But even that is not what gets under my skin when the pressure, at work especially, rises.

It's this: how do you plot your own happiness when you find yourself in a society where so many social factors trend in the wrong ethical direction? That's what got me going at Gay Day ... it's what pisses me off when I walk Loki and am jolted out of my reveries by some fool in the middle of the morning park barking rage into a cell phone, or some dimwit in a planet killer sailing a stop sign and putting the fear of gawd into me. That's the me-me-me-ness I referred to, the obesity of American life where all consumption must be defended and all restraint is an evil of otherness.

So it feels sour ... you can see how that bugs me ... but I argue that it is a rational and thoughtful response to a society hamstrung by its joyous oblivion in the face of its unresolved contradictions.

So whadda you do? Activism, of course. Activism requires at least some form of optimism, whether real or feigned. It also requires the means to do it ... whether that be a movement or the leisure or proclivity to operate independently and heroically. Retired activist here, I do not want to hear myself bemoan the lack of opportunity, the more so given the shot of at least feigned optimism that is still attached to Obama notwithstanding his McAuliffe-like pandering and retreating of recent days. But it is not an answer on the personal level to the anxieties of living in a society bound upon eating itself alive.

So one seeks some solace in friends and warmth, in walking the dog, in happenstance, in taking photos and speculating, in reading the past, and especially in trying to do the right thing in your own life. Others see movies, revel to music, renovate the house. And there are those, of course, who sink their sorrows under various excesses. I'm past the party stage, and the solace of retreat is always feigned no matter that it is sometimes fruitful.

I have vowed of late to undercut my own overly responsive anger to the constant little insults ... the bad driving especially, and the ignorance of the cell-addicted who flip you off one way or another all day long. I have to keep at that, especially when the external pressures rise.

This post hasn't gone like I intended it to ... vastly too self-referential and bleak. I feel like a night heron on a rail with a bunch of seagulls! Funny thing about blogging as a genre of writing ... no matter how you plan, you gotta spit it out reasonably fast, and it might not follow the script that seemed so clear as you were wandering around Fisherman's Wharf with the dog.

I wanted to say that life goes on when society is in the grip of its own indissoluble failures, when the casual but fatal decisions taken decades ago are nearing the moment when they explode. The night before the Archduke was shot, merry revelers got drunk in Sarajevo. Imagine Baghdad in 1257 when Hulagu was a rumor ... merchants came and went, lovers sought out-of-the-way hay bales, people washed and dressed and comported as if the sun would keep on rising. It did not save them from the firestorm that wiped their world from the planet ... but they did not know for sure. Life goes on.

I figure the next apocalypse is decades off, maybe I will not see it. But it fills me with gloom when I am not quick enough to think otherwise.

I'm going to work extra hard this week ... I've got to ... and try to get my book, which goes to press on August 4, into a shape such that I can feel lighter. And I will try to write something nice, notwithstanding that I still owe you a post on the Prusso-German state.

So let's be happy ... party while you can! Even if you gotta fake it. And find some joy in the odd purple gnome who crosses your path!

Photos from walks yesterday and today: top photo from Golden Gate Park, the second from the big tourist commercial pier at Fisherman's Wharf, the third from a still accessible working fishing pier, and the last from a storefront on Haight Street.

Jesse Helms

Another old bigot bites the dust, and the world is a vastly better place for it. I cannot as a humanist wish for suffering ... I only wish the man had died 50 years ago instead of stinking up the planet and filling countless millions of lives with hatred and bile.

AP produced a nauseating collection of bons mots about the old fascist that the Chronicle printed. For once, Jesse Jackson was the only one to get it right: "At the height of his power, he fought for the values of the old confederacy. He resisted the new South. He resisted the opportunity to fight for a more perfect union." Well, half right, anyway. Typical of Jackson, he pointedly ignores the blistering, virulent homophobia. Helms actually argued that fags should die of AIDS ... no money, no research, just let 'em die.

That he is dead is a boon for the Republic. That he ever lived is a shame. Good riddance.