Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lover's Leap or Lover's Lane

Growing up as a teenager in America has meant, or at least used to mean, for lots of people, getting a car. The car was America's symbol of the freedom--the freedom of the road, the freedom to go where you wanted, and--in our youth--the freedom to interact, without supervision or oversight, with the opposite sex. In high school, a lot of the anticipation of growing up meant qualifying for your driver's license, and then either having the use of the family car, or somehow acquiring a vehicle of one's own. When I was growing up in 1950's, many boys dreamed of owning a car, and customizing it into a "jalopy."Jalopies were older cars that one rehabilitated into a "hotrod" or a cruiser. Owning and being seen driving one's own car were marks of distinction, particularly among lower class boys, whose interests tended toward the mechanical, rather than the intellectual. Auto shop class existed to prepare boys to become professional mechanics, but it wasn't just an "elective" shop--it was almost a way of life. America's romance with the automobile has been going on for the last century, though the decline of American automobile companies has dampened some of the excitement that it once enjoyed among American youth. And the computerization of automobile technics has made amateur tinkering with cars very retro. 

Every small town in America has had something akin to a so-called Lover's Lane, a place where kids in cars could go to park, and "make out" (or neck, or . . . well, you know). The slightly illicit and forbidden aspect of teenage romance made growing up seem a little naughty. Smoking, dressing in a certain way, fighting, going steady--these were things that parents tended to frown on. One could be put on probation by parents for indulging in these kinds of behaviors. These were things associated with growing up, though acting truly mature, we always knew, wasn't simply about cigarettes and manly competition, or (heaven forbid) condoms. Growing up, becoming adult, meant taking responsibility and pursuing serious goals, accepting civic and family and perhaps religious duties. 

Sexual dalliance is probably a "gateway" drug to getting into the really serious addiction of begetting children. And reading was probably my personal gateway drug into advanced education, and a life-long interest in literature, design, travel, etc. Drinking beer was another of those tacitly "forbidden" indulgences of the teenage years, so beer was probably the gateway to alcoholism, though I didn't grow to like beer until I was middle aged, and when, coincidentally, the boutique beer business really got going.       

The notion of taking a leap--as with a leap of faith, or an intellectual leap--suggests a fatalistic risk, whereas the idea of going down a lane might seem less dangerous, though not necessarily altogether safe either. Wandering down a pathway could be simply a misdirection, whereas jumping from a precipice would suggest an ulterior gesture, like suicide, or a relinquishing of some commitment, perhaps of the despair of love spurned, or love lost. I'm not sure what to call this concoction, but if it has to have one, let it be Lover's Leap. But enough of this!

"He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument." --Shakespeare (Love's Labor Lost)  

Here's a love potion to twirl on your tongue. Swirled and served up in the usual very cold (freezer cold) cocktail glasses. By proportion, if you please.

3 parts Jack Daniels
1 part drambuie
1/2 part creme de noyaux
1/2 part amaro
1 part lemon juice

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Valentine (Delayed)

I have been married to the same woman for almost 45 years. Perhaps this is not noteworthy, despite the epidemic of divorce, and the inclination of people of my "liberated generation" to engage in other sorts of "arrangements" (short of matrimony), but it's a tribute to something--perhaps my wife's stubbornness, or to my lack of imagination. 

The notion of celebrating love by devoting a single day a year to it is a pretty silly gesture. Love--and lust--are powerful motivators of emotion and action, though in our puritanical culture, displays of emotion and feeling are somewhat muted. In true capitalist spirit, we've turned Valentine's Day into an extravaganza of gifting and spending, appropriating what once was considered a religiously based observance. If Saint Valentine actually ever sent a farewell "valentine" to the daughter of jailer, he'd be surprised to discover, were he conscious today, eighteen hundred years later, how flagrantly trivial and secular his official day has become. 

But we don't need excuses to express positive sentiment, do we? I mean, you can kiss or hug people you love or admire anytime, and many people do. Personally, I was raised to do this only on occasions of intimacy or extremity. Young people do a lot of hugging these days, and it's become sort of obligatory. Between men, a good handshake should usually be sufficient. Women are expected to emote more openly. Kissing the air beside someone's cheek has always seemed ridiculous to me, but in other cultures, it's de rigueur. I've always thought kissing a woman's hand is a really cool thing, but try it today, and you're likely to be laughed at. 

But enough excuse-making. Here's a concoction for the terminally jaded, or an innocently sweet way of saying I love you. I noticed today at the grocery that those really big strawberries they sell nowadays look rather like hearts. 


Are strawberries a good valentine's symbol? 

In any case, I recently discovered a new mixer--the so-called Cotton Candy liqueur. It works perfectly in some drinks, so I invented one application that really tastes like a valentine.  

2 parts gin
1 part Cotton Candy Liqueur
1 Part Lemon juice
Dash of Parfait d'Amour

--shaken and served up in a well-chilled cocktail glass.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Burton Weiss [July 4, 1945 - June 19, 2011]

Photo courtesy of Americana Exchange Monthly@

On October 17, 1989, I was still employed at my government job in San Francisco, where I'd been working since April 1974. That day I left work early, as I did as often in those days, to avoid traffic on the Bay Bridge, taking the route home to Kensington in the East Bay. That day, too, I hadn't wanted to miss the third game of the World Series, which featured the Oakland A's versus the San Francisco Giants (the "Bay Bridge Series" as it came to be called), which would be televised at about 5:30 that evening. 

When I got onto I-80, I decided to segue over to Serendipity Books at 1201 University Avenue in Berkeley. I was a regular customer of Serendipity in those days. I'd become a book collector, against my better instincts, and Serendipity was the finest antiquarian bookshop I knew, at least in the nine county Bay Area. The owner, Peter Howard, had the best stuff, and he knew how to cultivate customers. Anyway, that day I pulled into Peter's little parking-lot and made my way up to the second floor at the back, where the mysteries and some of the older stock was shelved. I can't remember exactly what I was looking at--perhaps a copy of Fielding Dawson's collected stories--but at exactly 5:04 PM the building began to shake. People who live in earthquake country have a kind of intuition about quakes: when one begins, there is a sudden feeling of inevitability--"is this the big one?" you ask yourself. In those few seconds, it became clear that this was indeed "a big one" though how big was not entirely clear. As I stood transfixed standing by the second floor window, I had the distinct feeling that things were on the verge of catastrophe. The books were falling off their shelves, and I could hear tall book-cases careening onto the floor on the ground floor below. "If this gets any more intense," I thought to myself, "this second floor might collapse." All this happened in the space of only about 15 seconds, yet it might have seemed to last a minute or more. I rushed downstairs, stepping over big piles of fallen books, and encountered Burton Weiss frantically taking an inventory of the customers and the damage. "Are you alright?" Burton blurted. "Yup, just fine," I replied. My first thought was for my own house, and I hightailed it up the hill. To my relief, it hadn't suffered any significant damage, though our two cats at the time, Vanilla and Java, were spooked. 

By 1989, Burton had been working at Serendipity for some years. I don't know a lot of details about Burton, but he grew up in New York, attended Cornell, majoring in English literature. As an undergraduate there, Burton became active in political causes, as many of us did during the 1960's. In Burton's case, this involved demonstrating and contending with the University itself, primarily about Gay rights. As a Gay man, Burton felt strongly about the Gay Rights movement, and he was among the first to take up the issue as a personal crusade, rather early in its history. I don't know the background details, but at some point Peter hired Burton to be his assistant. Working for Peter was difficult, but Burton persevered for many years until circumstances permitted him to resign and become a part-time bookseller on his own. Burton had a home high in the Berkeley Hills, and he would eventually also acquire a house south of Barcelona on the east coast of Spain, where he would spend part of each year. 

Not long after Burton left Serendipity, Peter and I had a falling-out, and I stopped going there. In the meantime, Burton and I became acquaintances, and I bought books from him from time to time. Burton was a fastidious man. If you went to his house, there were certain rules you had to follow. First, you were not allowed to touch anything, because you might disturb the order, and there was also the issue of cleanliness. I was allowed into Burton's "closet"--a small room off the upper hallway--because I was shopping, but one was not allowed to touch the books in his own collection, which were impressive indeed. Burton's collection's theme was Gay literature, and he had pursued it single-mindedly for decades. 

In any event, Burton became seriously ill with cancer in 2011. He refused to talk about it with me, but it was clear that his time had come. He had worked and planned to live the life he'd dreamed about--the house in Spain, the independence of being his own boss, and a stable relationship with his partner Elliot Schwartz--and now it was all to come to a too-early close. In an ironic twist of fate, Elliot died just a few months later, also from cancer. Peter Howard had died only three months earlier, in March of that year. The collection was broken up and scattered to the trade, confirming the adage that we mortals are all just custodians of the physical artifacts that we invest with so much meaning and covetousness; we won't take them with us, no matter how determined we are not to relinquish them in life.    

In any case, Burton composed the following keepsake, Aphorisms of the Rare Book Trade, for distribution to members of the Roxburghe Club, a bibliophilic club, which I've copied below. 


These aphorisms bear more than a little truth about serious book collecting. As anyone who knows, knows, a book you acquire to add to your collection, isn't a book you want to handle. You keep it safely on the shelf, or in a custom made box, and you may take it out occasionally just to admire it and contemplate its rarity and fine condition, but actually reading it is strictly out of the question. That one might actually do so, is a privilege of ownership, but resisting this impulse is the higher purpose to which collecting, for collecting's sake, aspires. Materialism has gotten a bad name, since the advent of socialism and the distaste for effete acquisitiveness. But things are the hallmark of all societies, the repositories of our culture--books perhaps most of all, beside great paintings, buildings, musical compositions and events. 

Burton's little trifle is a gentle poke at our pretension, being both true and charming at once. 

Early in our acquaintance, Burton regaled me with the melodramatic account of a torrid love affair he'd had with a man who lived up around Santa Rosa. Burton had felt blessed to be found attractive by a man whose beauty he worshipped, and he considered leaving Elliot. This caused much agony and grief and embarrassment. Why, I wondered, is Burton relating to me these very private emotional matters? As I later understood, this was typical of Burton--he held nothing back. I realized that this was just the same kind of "deep gossip" my mother had used to practice, revealing the rumors and secrets of one's love life in intimate detail. The fact that such details emanated from a late-middle-aged Jewish Gay man, was only a matter of slight difference.   

I miss Burton. I don't know what else he might have become. Perhaps an academic. Perhaps a bureaucrat. Perhaps even a writer (?). But as a bookseller, he knew his stuff, and reveled in its complexity. 

Sometimes, the things you don't know about people are as important as the things you do know--as Ernest Hemingway said about literary works, what makes them powerful is the two-thirds portion of the floating iceberg that is submerged beneath the surface of what we're told or shown--the unknown, only implied by the part we're allowed to see.    

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Conjugal Conundrum - France Confronts Same-Sex Marriage

The French were out demonstrating this last Sunday in Paris and Lyon, against the government's Same Sex Marriage statute, passed and signed into law in May 2013. Recent rumors that the government would soon be implementing the so-called "equality ABC" program, in which public school children are to be subject to so-called "gender theory"--taught, in effect, that their genetic identity is only a blue-print for their sexual persuasion--were the impetus for the latest unrest. The French love to protest, anyway, but this appeared to represent a very strong sentiment. Reports differed, but the total numbers were probably in the hundreds of thousands. I can't remember when anything like this number of ordinary citizens took to the streets in America. These people mean business.   

Opinion around the world has been changing. The new campaigns for legalization of same-sex marriage, same sex couple adoption and inheritance rights, have gained traction in many countries. For someone of my age (66), this is all a very unsettling and astonishing development. In the space of just a couple of decades, public opinion has undergone a profound shift towards widespread tolerance. 

What I find most curious and peculiar is the way in which the nature of the promotion has itself changed during that same period. When I first knew Gay people in the 1960's and 1970's, the major concerns were prejudice and harassment. The Gays I knew mostly didn't have permanent relationships, didn't want them for the most part, and would have been mystified by the idea of legally binding contracts. Marriage was something that straight people did. They liked their freedom, and tended to condescend to "breeders" and all the responsibilities and inconvenience that marriage and child-rearing entailed. Insofar as I knew, there were no same-sex families with children at all--it simply wasn't something that occurred. In a few isolated cases, traditional couples that had broken up because one member had decided to "go Gay" after having lived the straight life, found themselves in the position of being same-sex "parents" to a child conceived in their previous straight marriage. Since they couldn't have "conceived" a child on their own, this was the only way it could occur. 

In the years since then, proxy conception and surrogate breeding have become a reality, enabling same-sex couples, for the first time in history, to contemplate a kind of constructed parenthood. 

Despite what one hears in the media from LGBT advocates these days, it is perfectly obvious that the whole campaign for legalization of same-sex marriage, parenting and inheritance is a new invention, designed to legitimate the sexual behavior and life-style of the LGBT communities. Posing the issue as a struggle over rights, was the strongest way of presenting the case, for marshaling sentiment and overcoming the customary resistance which has characterized cultural tradition around the world since the beginning of recorded history. This change in strategy happened almost overnight. 

Most people, LGBT or straight, tend to think of sex as a private matter. It isn't something that people generally feel comfortable discussing in public. Among the LGBT communities, this reservation is no less common. Most LGBT people were content, as most people are, for the most part, to live quietly, alone or as couples, without serving as an example or challenge to the society at large. But the campaign for rights and recognition has encouraged  them to think of themselves as revolutionaries and guerillas in a struggle they never expected to fight. It has galvanized what had been intensely private emotional and personal feelings into political principles and propaganda. 

As a child of the 1950's, raised in a traditional heterosexual household, the idea that Gay people might actually want to have families where children were raised, seems absurd to me. When I began to know LGBT people, as an adult, I found them to be uniformly unhappy--unhappy with their families, unhappy with their childhoods, their identity, their place in the world. My generation (the Sixties) was rebellious by nature, but the LGBT people I knew had another whole burden of resentment and anger they carried around. They tended to distrust, even to hate the straight world.

It's difficult for me to comprehend how people who have a historical bone to pick with the traditional family, and with the religious and civil prohibitions against same sex behaviors and arrangements, can have been transformed, within a single generation in time, into committed partners and guardians. 

France is a complex society of different political and religious affiliations. There are Protestants and Catholics and Muslims, Communists and socialists and radical rightists, and coalitions of every stripe. You'd need a Ph.D. in political science just to unravel them. The French right, however, seems to have decided that this new liberalization is a threat to their way of life--the traditional family, and everything it stands for. 

Any issue that becomes this politicized, is bound to perpetuate animosities on both sides. The partisan debate that has developed between the advocates of traditional conjugal institutions, and those promoting new kinds of arrangements, is sewing the seeds of distrust and hostility which are bound to continue for many years. Children raised in "normal" households and in "new" ones will serve as hostages in the conflict. It will be a war fought in neighborhoods, in schools, in churches, in associations and societies, in locker-rooms and bathrooms and health clubs. It will create more confusion, and more distress, and more victims, than ever.