Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Art: The Burghers of Calais

(Original French title: Les Bourgeois de Calais)
Auguste Rodin
Impressionism (1872-1892)

The relatively short-lived period of Impressionism in art was as defined by what it wasn't—clear lines, plausible composition, realistic depictions of figures and the space they occupied—as by what it was: impressions of visual perception told through explorations of changing light and color and even through the rough-hewn textures created in paint using varying brush strokes. A radical departure from the longstanding—though always evolving—rigors of academic Realism, the fresh ideas of Impressionism on canvas quickly inspired similar reinterpretations of artistic norms in music, literature and sculpture.

Enter François-Auguste-René Rodin.

Classically trained and well-established in creating representational art, Rodin saw Impressionism's dreamy figure studies and craggy, dimensional textures as a vocabulary he could use to render bold ideas, subjective emotions, and plays of shape and light in sculpture. His raw, turbulent works brought new, profound depth to the revolutionary cacophonies that had so far been constricted to the flat canvases of Impressionistic paintings, and his most riveting use of this complex, muscular multi-dimensional language is in his mighty Burghers of Calais. The sculpture depicts six men walking to their martyrdom to liberate the French town of Calais during the Hundred Years' War. The men are overcome with terror and anguish and resignation and peace all at once, and Rodin sculpted the figures with such a masterful mix of Romantic realism and primitive rawness that you can see and understand their every emotion from your every angle. The piece is enormous in size and exaggerated in scale and arguably unfinished in its rendering, all of which invite you to approach it with your own perspectives, examine it with your own curiosities and appreciate it with your own conclusions.
French law decrees that no more than twelve original casts may be made of any work by Rodin, which means The Burghers of Calais tells its weighty story in museums and university campuses all over Europe and the United States, including a single figure from the piece who stands resolutely at the entrance to the University of Iowa's Boyd Law Building.
I make a point to see my reproduction of the work every summer on my annual pilgrimage to visit friends in Washington, D.C. It stands with other Rodin masterpieces in a relatively austere corner of the sunken sculpture garden behind the Smithsonian's relentlessly round Hirshhorn Museum. I usually stop there on my way to the airport at the end of each visit. I walk around the sculpture a few times to reacquaint myself with the specific details Rodin included—like articulated toes to help propel the walking figures through space—and the specific details he didn't include—like eyeballs to help the figures see where they're going. Then I sit in my same spot on a little concrete ledge to take in the piece in its weighty enormousness, to contemplate the explosive change Rodin and the Impressionists brought to the way we see and understand and interpret art, and to find comfort in the fact that my Burghers will most likely stand caught in their time and this place, waiting for me year after year every time I come to visit them for as long as I live.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Art: Paris Street; Rainy Day

(Original French title: Rue de Paris, temps de pluie)
Gustave Caillebotte
Impressionism (1872-1892)
Art Institute of Chicago

While technically created in the heart of the Impressionist period—which indulged itself in explorations of light, color and brushstroke techniques at the expense of clear representation and plausible perspective—Paris Street; Rainy Day reigns in Impressionism's visual indulgences with cleaner lines, realistic human figures, and vanishing-point perspective that extends almost mathematically from the rectangular cobblestones in the foreground to the ambitiously double confluences of angles at the distant ends of the forked street. To enhance the effect, Gustave Caillebotte paints the figures in gradient levels of focus, creating a photorealistic contrast between the three figures enjoying relative visual clarity in the middle distance, the three (well, two and a half) figures who are too close to stay in complete focus at the front of the painting, and the increasingly-less-defined human shapes receding into the misty distance.

While providing a convenient context for allowing distant figures to fade to gray—along with filling the setting with shimmers of Impressionistic light and reflection—the misty weather in the painting also allows for the curvy shapes of umbrellas and hunched people to provide visual counterpoint to the geometries of the streets and buildings ... plus it gives the figures a range of purposeful movement, whether they're casually dodging raindrops or hurrying to get somewhere dry. The overall effect is a graceful collaboration of shape, energy, atmosphere, physical presence and measured social observation.

Paris Street; Rainy Day greets visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago at the top of the Grand Staircase as they enter the permanent-collection Impressionism galleries. Its rainy ambiance may seem dour, but the choreography of human figures and the multi-directional spatial composition are an apt invitation to explore the museum, intermingle with the other patrons and contemplate even the things that aren't immediately in focus.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Nobody thought it would be one of the kids

Nobody probably thought the Boat Crew would last this long, actually.

When four young couples from the same Cedar Rapids Lutheran church rented a houseboat and sailed up and down the Mississippi River for a long weekend in the summer of 1971, nobody probably even thought it was more than a one-time vacation.

But the couples invited more couples and did it again the next summer, and the next. Over time, a few couples came and went, but the tradition lived on summer after summer. Eventually a core group of seven couples emerged, and the Boat Crew was established … and a vital extended family was born.

Unofficially (or officially, depending on your personal opinion) the group’s name was the Mississippi River Marching and Drinking Society. But “Boat Crew” was easier to say. And less complicated to explain to the couples’ children, who were all about the age of the Boat Crew tradition itself.

As lives and careers evolved, many of the couples moved away … but everyone came back summer after summer for what had become an annual gathering of Boat Crew family with bonds as strong as any biological family.

And that family bond extended beyond the relationship between the seven couples; their children often spent the Boat Crew weekends together in one couple’s house, under the probably exhausted watch of two or three weekend-long babysitters.

Naturally, the kids developed a family bond as strong as their parents’. They were unofficial siblings in an extended family network, and they felt confident in the parental love they received from every member of the Boat Crew.

As the summers passed, the Boat Crew bond continued to grow and strengthen, especially over a developing collection of in-jokes, funny stories and traditions that became almost sacred. The most prominent tradition was Joy. It started when one couple brought a large white flag emblazoned with the word Joy in bright colors and displayed it on the ship’s mast. The flag appeared every summer, and eventually it inspired the regular exchanging of Joy-festooned knickknacks, shirts, Christmas ornaments (all collectively over the years described as "Joy shit") and even one summer little bottles of Joy dishwashing soap.

Music—an integral part of the Lutheran church where they all met—was just as important to the Boat Crew. The group contained many talented singers, and as they gathered under the stars with a guitar and a couple bottles of wine each summer, they sang hymns and folk songs and show tunes and whatever else they could think of. Their unofficial anthem was “Beautiful Savior,” which they sang together—in full, glorious harmony—on every gathering.

As the kids grew over the next four decades, the Boat Crew also started convening off-season for confirmations and graduations and weddings and grandchildren and the occasional family tragedy … and the inevitable deaths of the Boat Crew couples’ elderly parents.

And through it all, the Boat Crew became a bit of a statistical anomaly: seven couples who lived into their 50s and 60s and 70s and now 80s … and stayed friends … and stayed married … and stayed alive.

As they started to retire from their jobs and prioritize grandparent obligations over Boat Crew gatherings, the group wasn’t always able to find a summer weekend that all seven couples could attend. And the “boat” part of Boat Crew became a bit of an anachronism; the summer reunions were happening now in Bed and Breakfasts overlooking the Mississippi instead of boats on the Mississippi.

And as they started to navigate the medical infirmities and physical indignities that come with age, the Boat Crew members started to contemplate their own mortality. Never ones to face life with fear or even reverence, they were realistic that eventually they were going to start dying … and they were not above having betting pools over who would go first.

But it never occurred to anyone that the first to die might not be one of the adults.

Robbie (who as an adult called himself Robert but I’d known him since we were toddlers and I could never think of him as anyone but Robbie) was 42, pretty much right in the middle of the range of ages of the Boat Crew kids. He started getting sick ten years ago last summer, but he didn’t think it was much to worry about: just some lower back pain, fatigue and abdominal discomfort. But then the guy behind the Chicago neighborhood deli counter where he went every day told him he looked yellow. And he became painfully constipated. And on a trip home to see his parents in Iowa, he decided to see a doctor.

And that’s where he found out.

Colon cancer.

Stage 4.

Colon cancer patients at stage 4 have an 8-15% chance of being alive five years after diagnosis. And Robbie, forever the optimist, dove right into surgery and chemotherapy while his parents took care of him in their home.

But it quickly became obvious that he was losing the battle. And as he eventually slipped into a coma, his parents—buoyed by the love and calls and texts and emails of Boat Crew members across the country—kept a vigil by his bed.

And six weeks after his diagnosis—six weeks after driving himself and his two cats seven hours from Chicago to his parents’ house, five weeks after walking into the doctor’s office with what he thought were just stomach pains, three weeks after cheering on friends in the Chicago Marathon via Facebook—Robbie drew his last breath, sending waves of shock and devastation throughout his extended Boat Crew family.

Robbie’s father had died of cancer 40 years earlier, before the Boat Crew had been officially established. His widowed mother and the man who eventually became her next husband had been regular Boat Crew members from nearly the beginning.

While she was still single, though, she and Robbie had taken vacations with our family a number of times, often to Adventureland amusement park in Des Moines, Iowa, and once on a Bicentennial road trip to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell and to Washington, D.C., to see pretty much everything else associated with America’s birth.

Robbie and I went to different high schools and colleges, but we eventually both found our ways to Chicago. We kept seeing each other at Boat Crew gatherings, but we’d slowly drifted apart … as had many of the Boat Crew kids as we scattered about the country and built our own families.

Robbie’s parents and mine, of course, had stayed fast Boat Crew friends. And when Robbie was facing the first weeks of his cancer treatments, my parents made a trip to Des Moines to stay with them.

Robbie died ten years ago today. Even though I knew it was inevitable, I was more choked up than I’d expected to be when I got the call. We hadn’t seen each other in probably five years. And I knew that he was no longer suffering through an excruciating illness. But his death—especially as a Boat Crew kid and not an adult—was a shock to all of us … and an indescribable devastation to his parents. And though nobody in the extended Boat Crew family has died since Robbie did, we are all tacitly preparing ourselves for the next passing.

But for the first time in many years, the entire Boat Crew—along with a handful of Boat Crew kids—dropped everything in their lives and appeared at the funeral. Forever part of the family, we walked in with Robbie’s parents and biological family members and were seated right behind them. And when the congregation sang “Beautiful Savior,” the Boat Crew’s beautiful harmonies rose above the music as if to lift Robbie to whatever awaited him in the afterlife and remind him of the loving extended family he’d been a part of on earth.

His parents asked me to be one of his pall bearers, which I accepted as an honor. Escorting a lifelong friend to his grave is overwhelming—especially when we’re both so young—but I felt giving him a solemn, respectful final journey was the best gift I could give him.

He was family, after all.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Books: Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871–1874

I was hoping that Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871–1874 would be a breathless page-turner about the human dramas of conflagrant destruction, abject suffering and triumph over adversity peppered with tantalizing details about old Chicago buildings and neighborhoods that I recognize. Instead it’s a hyperwonkish examination of class inequality, political grandstanding, religious imperialism (particularly the emergence of “scientific” relief that favored distributing blankets, food and financial aid to the religious and the “worthy” newly homeless rich over assisting the chronically poor and the working class who were technically able to support themselves despite the fact that there was little to no work available in the months after the fire) and the simmering intolerance toward (particularly German) immigrants in the fire’s aftermath. It does draw some perennial parallels to Republicans' straw-man obsession with “big” government in its discussions of Chicago’s post-fire laws against rebuilding with wood (which made rebuilding almost financially impossible for low- and middle-class fire victims) and its curiously detailed recounting of virulently sabbatical opposition to German-immigrant beer gardens serving alcohol on Sundays, which temporarily drove the mostly single-issue People’s Party into power over the status-quo Law and Order party of native-born religious privilege. The book does frequently refer to one concept that will amuse modern Chicago residents, though: the idea that fire victims “fled the city” northward to the neighboring community of Lake View.

Today is the anniversary of the 1871 Chicago Fire, which historians are not opposed to believing actually could have been started by a cow kicking over a lantern in Mrs. O'Leary's barn—though, to be fair, there are many other credible, though less historically charming, theories as to how the fire started. During the 15 years I lived in Chicago, I saw it as my civic duty to read and learn as much as I could about my city and its history. I was excited to start reading this book when I found it, but—as the above review I'd initially posted about it says—it turned out to be more of a lengthy essay on the cultural and sociopolitical Zeitgeist that framed the fire than on the timeline and geography of the unfolding inferno and the human-level experience of surviving it, which I would have found far more meaningful.

In any case, upwards of 300 people died and thousands were left homeless and impoverished 150 years ago today and tomorrow. I mark this day on my calendar every year so I'm reminded to think about who they might have been and the horrors they most certainly endured. And I encourage you to a moment today in their memory to celebrate what you have while you still have it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

All I need is the ... good sense not to be seen in this outfit ever again

This—THIS!—is what I thought was acceptable attire for setting foot in Washington DC's Kennedy Center to see Tyne Daly as Mama Rose in the 1989 pre-Broadway revival of Gypsy. (Non-linear side note: You never forget your first Mama Rose. And while I don't l-o-o-o-o-o-v-e Gypsy like all the other card-carrying-Platinum gays, I still love Tyne Daly as Rose more than any other women I've seen in the role since then. And that includes Patti. Because Patti’s never met a vowel she couldn't chew into a meaty, puddingy, distractingy triphthong.)

Anywho ... THAT OUTFIT ...

Nothing says "I sit down to pee" quite as efficiently as a bow tie on a college kid. I taught myself to tie a bow tie when I was in high school, while all the other kids were doing more useful things like—oh, I don't know—hanging out with each other and forming meaningful friendships. I thought my little Madras plaid bow tie made me look so throwback-non-conformist hip 'n' cool that I went out and bought a bunch more bow ties in all kinds of colors and patterns. Which makes this plaid one my gateway bow tie. One reason I was so good at tying bow ties was those glasses. Their lenses were so expansively huge—like about-to-be-launched Hubble telescope!—that I barely had to bend my neck to look down and see what I was doing. And as we all know, efficiency is the DNA of questionable fashion. You can't see it clearly here, but I also had a coordinating Madras plaid watch band. As in a bow-tie-matching watch band made of sweat-absorbing-and-quickly-gross fabric. BUT THAT'S NOT ALL! I somehow decided it was totally-probably-sexy-cool to wear it with the watch face ON THE INSIDE OF MY WRIST. Because WHO THE HELL DOES THAT? And let's not overlook those voluminous pleated khakis—not that we could ever tear our eyes away from the uncharted galaxies of animal-balloon space they occupied around my wispy little goblin hips. They were from The Gap, see, and I'd had a bit of an inferiority complex as a younger person that—and I am not making this up—made me feel not cool enough to shop at The Gap. I'd literally walk by it at the then-fancy Westdale Mall and feel awkward and panicked and a little bit resentful that I was clearly being judged so harshly by everyone in the store who was clearly looking up and judging me. (Do not fear: My 2021 therapist has been alerted.) Anyway, one fateful day I scrounged up the courage to wince timidly into that Gap and find the men's section (which in the gender-bendy '80s wasn't clearly delineated, which just compounded my feelings of inadequacy) and immediately found these wardrobe-dream pants with all their essential wardrobe-dream details: classic khaki coloring, heavy cotton poplin (a natural fiber! in the '80s! I KNOW!) (also: like every socially awkward fashionista, I knew what poplin was as a young gaylet ... and why it was more laid-back-casual-and-therefore-better than twill) (also: twill is for librarians who aren't allowed to sit with the other librarians at lunch), voluminous pleats, super-dramatic taper and securely tacked ankle-strangling cuffs. All of which equaled TOTAL MEGA COOL-KIDS FASHION. And I'm pretty sure I was wearing my white suede bucks with red fake-rubber soles with them. Because PLEASE BEAT ME UP I'M SUPER '80s GAY.

So let's review:

Face-swallowing glasses + expertly hand-tied, perfectly puckered plaid bow tie + inside-out sweaty watch + pleats with their own ZIP codes + legs tapered like reverse-cowgirl jodhpurs = man who goes to the theater to SING OUT! with his mom.

Monday, October 4, 2021

1. We’re running out of interesting things to put in our post-run selfies.

2. Like, REALLY running out.
5. Meet ... our recycling bin.
6. It’s blue.
7. It’s full of recyclables.
8. It’s by the curb because today is recycling day.
9. Which nicely dovetails into the fact that today is also garbage day.
10. It’s like a two-for-one.
11. Except the bins get emptied and their contents are never seen again. So it’s more like a two-for-none.
14. Usually the things in our weird selfies give me a launching-off point for my weird-ass ramblings that have at least some semblance of conversational value.
17. I just made stupid-dumb jokes about our garbage day instead.
18. Which is also our recycling day.
19. Sigh.
22. It was all-ass FREEZING this morning.
23. And the trail we run on is relentlessly straight.
24. Which makes it a brutally efficient wind tunnel.
25. My fingers are almost throbbing.
26. And I think I ingested a quart of runny-nose snot on our windy-ass, freezing-ass run.
27. Rob and I (but not our absent and probably imaginary friend Scott) joked about turning around at the one-mile mark.
28. I bet we would have done it if one of us had joked just a LITTLE bit harder.
29. But we didn’t.
30. I’m officially glad we ran our planned three-mile distance.
31. I’m also glad I got out of bed and stuck to our commitment to run in the first place.
34. But not really.
36. It’s blue.
37. Sigh.
40. So.
41. Three miles.
42. 10:55 pace.
43. Half of which was running into an icy wind.
44. Did I mention that quart of runny-nose snot?
45. And people wonder why I’m single.
46. I could really use a nap.
47. And it’s not even 8:00 am yet.
48. But it will be by the time I turn off this word faucet, proofread my unhinged ramblings and post it all.
49. So hello to future-proofreading me!
50. I’m going to leave 51. open for me to say hello back from the future.
52. Shit.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Art: Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring, James Ensor

At first glance, James Ensor's 1891 Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring is perhaps a silly take on Halloween imagery. Or an homage to the memento mori ("remember that you [have to] die") traditions of Medieval and Renaissance art that placed skeletons, skulls and other symbols of mortality among the world and activities of the living. Or a metaphor for the last gasps of Impressionism and its emphasis on color and light at the expense of representational accuracy.

While the latter probably has a grain of truth to it—Impressionism in Europe had largely been killed by the emotional distortions and manipulations of Expressionism by 1891 (think of Edvard Munch's 1893 The Scream)—the skeletons and the pickled herring in Ensor's painting were more along the lines of prescient precursors to the illogicalities of Surrealism and the unorthodox silliness of the Avant-Garde.

And they were totally about his pettiness.

Ensor actually painted Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring in response to negative reviews of his work. In his world of distortions, illogicalities and silliness, the art critics are the skeletons (one with a few wisps of hair on his otherwise balding head, the other with an ostentatious hat that's failing to make him look important) and Ensor is the pickled herring. And the whole idea is bizarre and probably lost to everyone to whom it hasn't been explained.

Today, though, Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring is a relatively obscure work of dark humor with light-hearted imagery that starts 21st Century viewers down the path toward the increasingly spooky, scary traditions of modern Halloween. So enjoy its silliness now. And be sure to lock your doors and hide your pickled herring before the end of October.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Art: September

Like Picasso, Matisse, Pollock and a host of iconic 20th century painters, Gerhard Richter has developed a signature visual vocabulary of sometimes photorealistic images obscured to varying degrees in scrapes, blurs, flecks, and pulls of wet and dry paint. Evoking at once powerful movement and misty tranquility, his works require a commitment of effort and time to absorb. His September (2009) utilizes this technique to stunning effect. Two silvery twin towers, the tops of which disappear into monumental clouds of opaque browns and blacks, stand defiantly against horizontal winds of scrapes and streaks and blurs. The painting captures a moment of enormity with grace and respect and breathtaking radiance.

Remembrances: 9/11

20 years ago this morning I ran a little late and got caught in the rush-hour crowds that prevented me from getting a seat on my EL train. But as I stood there—a relatively new Chicagoan—I was still in awe of the fact that I actually lived in Chicago and rode a train to work and I reveled in the fact that I was one of THEM: my fellow Chicagoans packed in the train car with me, commuting to (or from) our jobs as waiters, insurance brokers, construction workers, actuaries, janitors, bankers, personal trainers, writers, and every other career and purpose in our big, always-moving city.

When I finally arrived at work and got off the elevator, I saw everyone in my office crowded around the TVs in our glass-walled conference room. My first thought was that my colleagues would see I was late. But after joining them—both in front of the TVs and in shared abject horror—and watching the towers burn and fall, seeing the gaping wound in the Pentagon, learning of the disappearance of an entire airplane and its passengers in a fiery pit, I was struck by the fact that my underground commute that morning with my fellow train riders—a microcosm of the city, if not the country—was our last collective moment of innocence before we had access to any news and we suddenly had to face the sickening, horrifying, misanthropic enormity wrought by other human beings on a scale none of us could have ever imagined.

20 years ago today I never felt closer to colleagues, friends, family members and even strangers as we worked to understand the hatred and comprehend the savagery of perhaps the ugliest tragedy in our lifetimes.

20 years ago today we lost a certainty in our collective safety but we gained a powerful strength in our ability to care for and protect and even love each other when we needed to ... and even when we didn't.

20 years ago today, our world changed immeasurably. Our hearts broke irreparably. Our determination grew mightily. Our humanity spread defiantly. Time may erode the intensity of our initial united magnanimity, but we will never forget.

Monday, August 30, 2021

CedaRound: Watch your mouth

Downtown Cedar Rapids was—and still is—a convergence of waterways and railroad tracks. Which—like with many towns—made—and continues to make—it a hub of commerce and manufacturing—along with irritating parentheticals set apart in dashes.

The biggest manufacturing plant in downtown Cedar Rapids today is Quaker Oats, which makes many different brands of cereal but thankfully makes no parenthetical commentary in Facebook posts. As such, the entire downtown area is awash almost daily in an effluvium of cereal smells, some general and some very specific. Today was one of those very specific days. I just drove through downtown Cedar Rapids on my way home from work and as I passed the Quaker Oats plant I was immediately transported to the world of watching Saturday-morning cartoons in my jammies, making a fort out of the couch cushions, and lacerating all the soft tissue in my mouth with spoonful after delicious spoonful of ... Crunch Berries.

Yup. My town smells like Crunch Berries on a regular basis. I hate to brag and yell and gloat, but MY TOWN SMELLS LIKE CRUNCH BERRIES ON A REGULAR BASIS. Your stupid town probably smells like poop or dirt or feet. And if you're having a bad day in Cedar Rapids—like that one time you had to park three whole car lengths away from the door to Hy-Vee—all you have to do is take a quick drive through downtown—with your windows up or down; the magic of Crunch Berries knows no barriers—and just take a few deep breaths. Your Crunch Berries therapy is fast-acting and refreshing and calming ... and FREE. No parentheticals required.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Something nice with swans

Well there are WORSE. THINGS.
Than weeding and deadheading on a Sunday.
There are WORSE. THINGS.
Than weeding and deadheading
In your pebbled front-yard garden
As the hot sun beats down on you
And you’re wearing a black T-shirt
That just proves thermodynamics
Make you swelter, sweat and trickle
To the point that you might pass out
In your pebbled front-yard garden
(Oops but I already said that)
And your lilies have stopped blooming
Plus your hostas look anemic
But you’re using your new snippers
That have been a great investment
‘Cause they’re making it so easy
To snip dying and dead plant parts
And please don’t forget the dog poop
Yes you must pick up the dog poop
That has hit the yard like shrapnel
So please watch where you are stepping
Did I mention that I’m schvitzing
In our weedy front rock garden
That Versailles would mock and laugh at
But EXCUSE ME ‘cause I’m trying
Now my forearms started itching
Because weeds are toxic bastards
And they’re sending caustic weed slime
Up my sweaty tired firearms
But I stopped to take a selfie
With my profile facing leftward
Like the lady in that painting
Who was named Dot by Steve Sondheim
In the musical with Lapine
That I’m curiously quoting
As I’m weeding and deadheading
In my pebbled front-yard garden
In the yard. with.

*Don’t say your name!*


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

#Pride101: What the hell do LGBTQ+ people have to be proud of?

We’re proud because despite decades and decades of relentless persecution everywhere we turn—when organized religion viciously attacks and censures and vilifies us in the name of selective morality, when our families disown us, when our elected officials bargain away our equality for hate votes they try to disguise as so-called “religious liberty,” when the entire Republican party perpetually enshrines a pledge to strip us of our legal equalities in its national platform, when communities and cities and entire states keep trying to codify our families into second-class citizenship, when small-importance bakers with the backing of the big-money hate industry take their unhinged loathing of us all the way to the Supreme Court, when our employers fire us, when our landlords evict us, when our police harass us, when our neighbors and colleagues and fellow citizens openly insult and condemn and mock and berate and even beat and kill us—we continue to survive.

We’re proud because pride is the opposite of shame—and despite what systemic bigotry and the ugliest sides of organized religion work so hard to make the world believe, there is nothing shameful about being gay.

We’re proud because—thanks to the incredible bravery shown by gay people who lived their lives openly sometimes to the point of being defiantly in the decades before us—we can live our lives more and more openly at home, at work, with our families, on social media … and even on national television.

We're proud because we've worked tirelessly to achieve legal equality in marriage, adoption, parental rights and many other ways that make our families recognized as Families in our states and across our country. And though we have much more to accomplish—and though bigotry disguised as morality and religion and the supposed mandates of constituents work and sometimes succeed at eroding our newfound equalities—we have the momentum and intelligence and motivation and humanity and ability to keep driving back the hate as we continue to drive forward with both our newfound and future equalities.

We’re proud because in just last few years an openly gay married man was a long-viable, highly qualified, unquestionably respected candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries and who’s now our country’s secretary of transporation—something most of us never even considered would EVER happen—and not only does he enjoy enthusiastic support across the Democratic party, but leading Republicans seem to have learned that while they can attack him for reasons they’d attack any other candidate, attacking him for being gay is completely unacceptable.

We’re proud because through our tireless work and the prevailing powers of common sense and compassion, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Proposition Hate and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act long ago collapsed onto their illogical, immoral, meritless foundations … and new legislative attempts to dehumanize us—especially during election cycles—gain little to no traction or visibility and soon die on the trash heap as well.

We’re proud because we are smart enough to overcome the self-loathing that our venomous, mindlessly theocratic society forces on us, and we have the power to stop its destructive cycle by fighting back and by making intelligent choices involving sex and drugs and money and careers and relationships and the way we live our lives—and by using our lives as examples of success and humanity and love that other gay people can see and respect and emulate and achieve more and more easily.

We’re proud because after all we’ve been through, the world increasingly continues to notice and respect us and enthusiastically appropriate the often fabulous culture we’ve assembled from the common struggles and glorious diversity of our disparate lives.

We’re proud because more and more often and in more and more contexts our country and our culture see the fact that we’re gay as unthreatening and commonplace and frankly boring.

We’re proud because our tireless efforts to be seen have engendered (which is the perfect verb in this context) massive visible support for us with rainbows and Pride messages on everything from clothing to flags to television commercials—and while we can legitimately be worried that companies are merely riding the Pride wave for profit, we can also celebrate that the explosions of these rainbows on our apparel and flags and televisions overwhelmingly normalizes the understanding that we have a place at the table and a presence in our communities.

We’re proud because especially during this past Pride month and always all year we’re celebrating with parties and street fairs and parades—all mostly virtual in 2020 and 2021—that are overflowing with drag queens, leather queens, muscle queens, dad-bod queens, glitter queens, nonbinary queens, you’d-never-know-they-were-queens queens, people who prefer not to be called queens and even straight-but-honorary-queens-for-a-day queens, and together we can see beyond the pride in the parades of our lives and together celebrate the underlying Pride in the parades of our lives.

We’re proud because 52 years ago a small crowd in a bar in New York City reached the tipping point in putting up with endless harassment and oppression and instigated a violent retaliation to a police raid that escalated to a week of riots and then to a march for equality that grew unstoppably to a national movement for equality and respect that continues proudly to this day.

Quite simply, we’re proud that we have so incredibly much to be proud of.

Monday, June 28, 2021

#Pride101: The Stonewall Uprising

Fifty-two years ago today, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn—a mob-controlled gay bar in Greenwich Village that catered mostly to drag queens—in an ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation specifically targeted at people wearing clothing that didn’t conform to the conventions of what the laws called their “assigned gender.” These arrests usually led to people’s names, photographs and home addresses being published in the newspapers … which carried the high risk of further targeting and harassment, job loss, eviction, and family ostracism.
Usually the bar patrons submissively complied as they were being arrested. But this night—clearly fed up past their breaking points—they fought back. When an officer clubbed a Black lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie over the head for complaining that her handcuffs were too tight, the crowd that had gathered outside the club had had enough. Marsha P. Johnson, a Black drag queen and beloved heart of the community, and Sylvia Rivera, a popular Latinx queen, were two of the first to actively resist the police that night, and their fellow queens joined them in throwing bricks, bottles and shot glasses at officers and effectively shutting down the raid. I’m including these people’s ethnicities and orientations here to give credit to the non-white, non-cis-presenting people who showed the courage and gumption to initiate the fight back and start what ended up being six days of riots in the neighborhood surrounding the Stonewall Inn that finally ignited a national fight for the rights and equalities that *everyone* under the LGBTQ+ rainbow enjoys today.
Stonewall wasn’t the first riot in defiance of police raids and harassments; in 1959 angry gays fought police after a raid of Cooper’s Do-Nuts—a gay-friendly diner—in Los Angeles, and in 1966 a trans woman threw a cup of hot coffee in a police officer’s face in a raid at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, sparking a riot that inspired the city to acknowledge the trans community and develop a network of trans-specific social, mental-health and medical services.
But Stonewall was the emotional—and ultimately cultural—turning point. The police raid there quickly drew a large mob whose collective lifetimes of oppression and discrimination boiled over into a violent revolt that trapped police in the bar until the NYC Tactical Patrol Force was dispatched to rescue them. Riots erupted the next night and through the week in the Christopher Street and other nearby gay neighborhoods, including one mob that threatened to burn down the offices of The Village Voice for mocking the gay rioters and describing the riots as "forces of faggotry" and "Sunday fag follies." The next year, an orginization called Chicago Gay Liberation organized a parade on the anniversary of the Stonewall riot, and the city has staged a parade on the last Sunday in June ever since—with the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic causing the first exception.
Now, every major metropolis and many smaller cities have Pride parades and events—though in 2020 and 2021 they have mostly been (and probably will be) held virtually—and many of them usually spill beyond the last week of June to pop up in celebrations all month and all year.
But June is officially Pride month in the hearts and minds of LGBTQ+ people—and an exploding population of straight people and businesses large and small—and we owe it all to the brave LGBTQ+ people—more specifically, the extremely marginalized drag queens and people of color—who had had enough and fought back at great risk to themselves and even to our community and started our slow march toward equality fifty-two years ago today.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

#Pride101: Marriage equality

Six years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples are guaranteed the right to marry under both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Marriage inequality had been enshrined for decades in a “one man and one woman” state-by-state propaganda crusade—which cycled up to fever pitch in every election cycle—led without irony or shame by “sanctity of marriage” charlatans and adulterous divorce junkies like Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani and Rush Limbaugh.

The Republicans’ desperate “states’ rights” argument also subjected couples to being married then being not married then being married ad infinitum every time they crossed state lines as they traveled—which is not only ridiculous and cruel, but also engendered very real concerns about the couples’ rights regarding hospital visits and property ownership if they had accidents in marriage-hostile states.

The fight against our equality made us perpetual punching bags and political props by the Republican party and the religious right, who positioned themselves as the only moral authority on the issue as they tore apart families, turned citizens into pariahs, and incited both verbal and physical violence against gay people who wanted nothing more than basic equality that posed no plausible threat or danger to anyone.

Republicans’ longstanding argument that same-sex marriage would undermine and destroy heterosexual marriage was desperately ridiculous and honestly called into question the stability of the heterosexual marriages of everyone who parroted this talking point.

The LGBTQ+ community was forced to organize and fight our way through endless battles and setbacks in the lower courts and then wait on pins and needles when our equality finally reached the purview of the Supreme Court, which in the height of the 2015 Pride month finally issued its 5-4 party-line verdict that our relationships are, in fact, equal and legally valid. And despite this, we’re still forced to combat hostile anti-equality eruptions that pop up every election cycle in red and swing states that need to sway voters by manipulating their baser instincts.

But for the last six years, those of us who want it and all of us who’ve fought for it have finally been able to enjoy the stabilities and joys and ups and downs and contentments of legal and social marriage equality.


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

#Pride101: LGBTQ+ survival

Cisgender heterosexuals—how many times have you:
  • Gathered with other straight cisgender friends while people with bullhorns held giant signs and screamed at you that they hope you die of AIDS
  • Gotten egged and insulted by people screaming out of a car as you waited in line to enter a straight bar
  • Pretended to be someone you’re not out of fear that your mechanic or doctor or waiter or accountant or employer or family would do something bad to you, yell at you to leave or eject you from their lives
  • Walked down the street holding hands with your spouse or partner and been accosted by a stranger calling you filthy and disgusting and declaring that he or she shouldn’t be “forced” to see your affection
  • Watched information about cisgender heterosexuals get eliminated from textbooks for the sole reason that it’s about cisgender heterosexuals and schools need to “protect” children from knowing you exist
  • Watched your rights being used as a bargaining chip in national political machinations
  • Had your inequality cemented into law by a public vote over a state proposition
  • Watched people fight so hard to discriminate against you that they take their hatred all the way to the Supreme Court
  • Joined a church that condemns you to hell
  • Been consumed by your own white-hot hatred that you don’t want and you don’t need and you don’t deserve because the above hostilities constantly bombard you while you have almost no recourse
Probably every LGBTQ+ person you know has been called a faggot. Or worse. I have. More times than I can remember.

Probably every LGBTQ+ person you know has had something thrown at them with the intention to hurt or humiliate them. I have. It was a barrage of eggs thrown from a car as some friends and I stood on a sidewalk in Chicago's Boystown … where we'd assumed we were safe from such bullshit. The cowards who threw the eggs missed all of us and raced away cackling like they were big men who somehow mattered.

Many LGBTQ+ people you know have been physically, violently assaulted. I never have, but I have friends who've been assaulted so violently that they've been hospitalized.

It's 2021. The homophobic violence that our forebears endured may have lessened, but it hasn't stopped. And while straight cisgender people probably barely even think about what we endure, we all still get up, walk out the door every day, and live our lives as openly as we dare and as comfortably as we can.


Monday, June 21, 2021

CedaRound: Kingston Square

Incorporated on the west side of the Cedar River as the town of Kingston in 1852 and annexed by Cedar Rapids in 1871, this long-neglected neighborhood is making a slow but gorgeous recovery after drowning in almost 10 feet of water in the 2008 flood.
There is a layered boxiness that visually links the architecture in the area, from the 1911 People's Bank Building designed by Louis Sullivan in his fortressy "jewel box" style to the post-war brutalist commercial spaces clad in corrugated concrete to the new mixed-use residential construction profiled with broad crenellations and proud cornices.
That boxiness creates a relentless horizontalness to the neighborhood's rooflines and setbacks, and someone somewhere in the neighborhood's recent revitalization decided to trace all that horizontal geometry with simple lines of bright white lights. And the effect at night is at once austere, majestic and stunning. So stunning, in fact, that I go out of my way to drive through the neighborhood every time I'm in the area at night. I've stopped and parked and wandered around with my iPhone a couple times to try and capture the magic, but I could never find the right spot to frame the full expanse of everything I find so beautiful.
But I finally captured it a year ago tonight when I discovered I was parked in an ideal location to capture most of it, which—since I've finally accepted that all that grand horizontalness is just too horizontal to squeeze into one picture—is still perfectly breathtaking.

The lights are a small touch, but they beautifully unify a relatively small neighborhood and help make it a smart district set along the river and embedded in our modest but friendly skyline.

Saturday, June 19, 2021


Afro-American Literature (as it was called at the time) had, quite frankly, a killer reading list. In one semester we covered the major works of Amiri Baraka, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin … and those were just the writers I’d heard of. I was a junior in college, I’d just declared my English major and I had only three semesters to complete it … preferably in classes with great reading lists like this one that I could enthusiastically devour.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I might be the only white person in the class. And when I walked in that first day, I was. Until two white girls walked in a couple minutes later. I’d never been the racial minority before—no less the racial minority who paradoxically represented the oppressor to the people around me—and the experience made the class and everything we read and discussed and learned all the more profound.

The professor was brilliant. He peppered his lectures with names and dates and fascinating contextual histories without ever using notes. He got his students to participate with enthusiasm—even the shy ones. His influence literally transformed the way I thought and wrote, and I hear his voice in my writing to this day.

He and his reading list taught me way more than I could even hope to expect about the Black experience in America. I found myself spellbound in incredulity as I began to understand the ubiquity—the enormity—of black suffering in the name of white American “freedom” and “liberty.” I literally wept as I read the stories and absorbed the sociopolitical implications of the literature in our curriculum. And I vowed that I would always strive to be aware and understanding of racial perspectives and how they shape the lives and personal contexts of the people of color in my life and my larger orbit.
The class was truly a transforming milestone in the way I defined myself and the way I related to my surroundings. It blew open the doors of my relatively sheltered world and it energized me as a global citizen.

But it wasn't until a year later, when I ran into the professor at a beautifully minimalist staging of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and he not only remembered my name but also offered to drive me home, that for some reason I suddenly realized—to my absolute, gut-dropping horror—that those two white girls and I had slowly, gradually drifted toward each other and had eventually spent the semester sitting—rudely, arrogantly, cluelessly, cruelly—front and center in his classroom … while our Black classmates had sat behind us. In the back of the learning bus.

The professor died within a year after that ride in his car. Before I had the guts and the decency to find him and somehow apologize. I have never kept in touch with anyone—black or white—from that class. Thirty-three years later, I still feel sick to my stomach when I think about it.

As we are currently fully aware, there is racism everywhere—deliberate racism, violent racism, habitual racism, institutionalized racism, self-unaware racism. "I'm not a racist, but …" conversations happen in hushed tones where white people gather and look around furtively before they speak everywhere, every day.
Depending on the circumstances when I encounter these conversations, I either walk away or stand there awkwardly until the moment has passed. I've called a few people out on their racist comments a couple of times, sometimes angrily, sometimes in a spirit of hopefully changing a mind or a heart. But regrettably all just a couple of times.
I'm—we're all—far from perfect. Despite my best intentions, I'm not racism-free. I admit I fleetingly embraced the overgeneralized idea of "all lives matter" before it hit me like a hail of bricks how that undermined—more accurately, destroyed—the core message of and desperate need for Black Lives Matter. And while I feel a slight level of relief unloading this story on social media, it doesn't exonerate me or excuse me or even atone for my unwitting behavior 33 years ago.
I realize that living in my largely privileged white bubble with my white family and my overwhelmingly white friend base both in life and on social media that it keeps me safe from awkward conversations and maybe even confrontations. But I hope that maybe this admission sparks a dialogue somewhere. That it inspires other people to reach out and just talk to each other. And get to know each other. And start to care about each other. Because it's harder to hate—and harder to even realize that you're hating—when people stop being abstractions and start being, well, people.

I don’t even know how to begin to apologize to the Black people I insulted and the white people I enabled in that classroom over three decades ago. And I hope if you know me or eventually get to know me that I'm living my life in a way that you can accept as an apology … and believe that it’s a genuine, productive path to my own improvement.

As I hope everyone is fully aware, today is Juneteenth—also known as Freedom Day—the anniversary of the 1865 emancipation of the last remaining enslaved African-Americans in the Confederacy. I first learned about Juneteenth in a high-school history class, and I’d often wondered since then why it’s never really been a massive national holiday. And now—despite the devastating circumstances that have finally brought it to the country’s attention—I’m thrilled it’s officially become a national holiday … and an integral part of our larger dialogue about race.

The national-holiday designation came quickly and largely unexpectedly last week—especially given what little awareness Juneteenth had even a year ago—so federal agencies and even private companies didn't have a lot of time to plan and coordinate procedures for proper celebrations and shut-downs.

But many found a way, and they've closed their doors and encouraged their employees to take the day off to celebrate the milestone … the freedoms … the progress … and the hope for continued communion in the march toward equality in our country’s minds, our hearts and our shared American culture.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

CedaRound: Cedar Rapids History Center

The building that for a glorious moment was the architecturally contextual Cedar Rapids History Center was built in 1935 as a Quonset hut encased in industrially horizontal blond brick for the Rapids Chevrolet car dealership, and it stood resolutely as what seemed to be a permanent, demoralizing architectural stain on First Avenue at the edge of downtown until after I was out of college.

It was an exceptionally dreary example of early 20th century prefabricated architecture that was probably seen as austerely noble in its day and was unfortunately built to last well past its visual expiration date a decade later as the architectural world rediscovered the soul-nourishing properties of ornamentation.

So you can imagine how the city aesthetes rejoiced with great jubilation when the building started to be torn down in the 1990s, and then we waited with surprised but hopeful trepidation when we realized that what had brought devastating visual and emotional blight to the city for over half a century was not disappearing entirely but was instead being partially repurposed into delightfully contextual architecture: Ghosts of chipped-away pillars, arcs of corrugated metal and jagged geometries of pre-war brick suddenly stood with beauty, grace and a touch of fun as part of the endlessly clever new Cedar Rapids History Center building. And I quickly learned to stop sighing and looking away every time I drove past it. The new concept was quirky and invigorating and created a meaningful architectural dialogue between antiquated visual efficiencies and Post-Modern plays on scale, material and embellishment.

In 2017, the Cedar Rapids History Center moved to Cedar Rapids' historic 1896 Douglas Mansion—whose adjacent carriage house at 5 Turner Alley was transformed in the 1920s into an apartment and studio by American Gothic painter and Cedar Rapids homeboy Grant Wood—and the History Center building was renovated to become the new Cedar Rapids Day School. I'm kinda sad that the History Center abandoned its delightfully contextual hybrid-architecture home, but I still rejoice with civic pride every time I drive by it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

#Pride101: Supreme Court employment protection

One year ago today, the Supreme Court ruling protecting gay and transgender workers from job discrimination and outright firings kicked the right-wing propaganda machine into high gear as it blustered predictably on and on about about “activist judges,” “religious liberty” (note: “liberty” is a right-wing dogwhistle that translates to “legal protection for hating LGBTQ+ people”) and the especially-laughable-in-the-context-of-its-presidential-administration chestnut “family values.”

Right on cue, people like the homosexuality-obsessed Franklin Graham called the ruling “a very sad day” because he’d be “forced to hire” filthy gay and transgender people—and he cloaked his lust for hatred and discrimination as “a traditional Christian ethic” with the clear subtext that he and his brand of Christian cover story hold the monopoly on ethics and morality in this or any other discussion that fires up his mouth-frothing base.

Cisgender heterosexuals: Have you ever needed a Supreme Court ruling to protect you from being fired just for going to work? Have you ever felt threatened enough that you had to lie about your sexuality and relationships just to keep your job? That’s how bad things still were for gay and transgender people in 2020, more than half a century after the Stonewall Riots that sparked our collective demands for equality, justice and our right to live in peace.
It’s why we still have to carry the campaign and continue the fight and rely on your support and advocacy in our struggle TO THIS DAY to achieve basic, foundational equality so we can hopefully just exist without fear from repercussions incited by so-called moral leaders like Franklin Graham. He and his ilk are stubbornly not going away, but as last year’s ruling shows, we keep making incremental progress toward maybe one day being able to live our lives free from their manufactured hatred and fear—and the destruction it causes in our lives.


Tuesday, June 8, 2021

#Pride101: Blood donation bans

In 1983—at the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the United States—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration instituted a lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men (specifically “men who have sex with men,” a distinction necessitated by a sizable population of MSM who refuse for any number of reasons to be identified as gay or bisexual).

The ban was actually even broader than that; it also included women who have sex with MSM and transgender people. At the time, HIV was—and was perceived by the broader population to be exclusively—a “gay disease” and was gleefully used by religious hate groups to perpetuate their vilification of—and mock and exploit the deaths of—gay people. The ban was an extreme measure, but as 1980s technologies in HIV detection weren’t very effective it was seen as prudent—with no resistance from leading gay organizations—and it no doubt prevented an even larger American HIV epidemic.

As HIV spread beyond the gay population, the infection demographics leveled out and HIV-detection technologies advanced, in 2015 the FDA guidelines regarding blood donations from MSM were reduced from a lifetime ban to a one-year-of-celibacy requirement. Then in April 2020—as blood supplies dwindled to crisis levels at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic—the one-year celibacy requirement was reduced to three months.

Still, the institutionalized discrimination has not been eliminated; a man who has protected sex with another man in the last three months is not allowed to give blood, but—for instance—a woman who has had unprotected sex with multiple men in the last week faces no such restriction. (For the record, the relatively small populations of people with certain medical conditions, people on certain medications and people who have had blood transfusions are subject to other restrictions and bans.)

Today, the Insti HIV test—considered to be the most accurate and convenient, requiring just a small finger prick—has a 99.96% accuracy rate, with results provided in one minute. With often desperately low stockpiles of donated blood in the United States, there is no reason to keep specifically restricting blood donations from MSM based on outdated demographic medical information and stigmas regarding HIV. And yet it is still happening.

But progress in eliminating this discrimination is being made; the march to erase the stigma and embrace 21st Century medicine is on, and MSM without other risks are proudly—despite the humiliation and discrimination of the existing bans—willing to step up and do our part as blood donors.


Art: The Burghers of Calais

(Original French title: Les Bourgeois de Calais ) 1889 Auguste Rodin Impressionism (1872-1892) The relatively short-lived period of Impressi...