Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Year in Review

Last January, when I began this blog, I never intended it to be a diary. I had loftier ambitions. I wanted to write the kind of articles that, in more skillful hands (and perhaps better connected hands), you might find in The New Yorker. That might seem presumptuous but I never assumed that I was that talented; it was just a goal to work towards. The most important thing for me was to develop the discipline to meet my self imposed deadline – a new article every Wednesday. I am pleased, and surprised, that throughout this past year I have met that goal. This is the fifty-sixth entry in “The Bitter Old Queen.”

I am happy that I have received many responses from readers. Some have sent emails to me. I have also received feedback on Facebook and to a lesser extent in comments posted directly into the blog. Blogger does not make it easy to enter comments so I especially appreciate those readers who have persevered and submitted their thoughts.

I got the most reaction, and most of it was negative, from “Reflections on Vallarta”, published on March 31. Many regular visitors to Puerto Vallarta, along with expatriates who live there, took great exception to what they read as a condemnation of their version of Paradise. The point of the article was that our perceptions of a place can not be separated from what is happening in our lives at the time. In this case I had just broken up with my partner, who I had met and lived with in Vallarta before he came to live with me in New York. When I returned to Vallarta after the breakup I saw it more objectively, both the good and the not so pretty, rather than through the eyes of a man in love. Perhaps some of the recently arrived foreigners need to remove their rose colored glasses and see it more objectively as well. They may discover that they like it even more.

My most read, or at least accessed, article was “Miss Columbia”, posted on June 2.  It was about a contest for Latino drag queens. I was surprised that it has received ten times more page views than any other article I posted. It turns out that most of the traffic came from Google searches for the terms, not surprisingly, “Miss Columbia.” My article comes in at number ten on a list of 2,280,000 results. Just think how surprised the devotees of the Señorita Colombia (Concurso Nacional de Belleza) must have been to find themselves reading about two fat old homosexuals listening to bullfrogs in a campground in Pennsylvania.

Another article that got a lot of response, and this time overwhelmingly positive, was “The Rescue”, posted on November 3. This was the story of how I rescued two abandoned cats from a campground in the Poconos. I’m happy to say that one of them is living with me here in New York and the other has been adopted by one of my camping buddies. They are both doing well and have turned out to be delightful pets. I have since taken training classes and been certified by the City of New York to participate in the Trap-Neuter-Return program. TNR is the most successful and humane way of dealing with the severe overpopulation of stray cats living on the city’s streets.

Most of my readers are in the United States. I also have readers in Canada, Mexico, and the U.K. but Google Stats reveals a few surprises. For example, I have had page hits from Austria, Ukraine, Croatia, India and throughout central and south America. (I suspect many of the latter were looking for Miss Columbia.)

I think a few of the articles turned out quite well. I have listed my favorites in the sidebar to the left. If you missed them the first time around you might want to sample one or two of them now.

I took up blogging as a way of continuing my effort to improve as a writer. I have also taken several classes at the New York Writers Workshop. One thing I have learned in the workshops, as well as in writing this blog, is that my best writing occurs whenever I write from the heart. It is often painful to reveal myself personally. I have written about things that have opened old wounds and I have exposed myself in a way that leaves me embarrassed, humbled, and vulnerable at times. But, in doing so, I have occasionally written things that have resonated with readers. That is, of course, the ultimate goal of every writer.

So I close this year by saying something that I could never have said last January. It is simple and yet it is an affirmation that I have accomplished something important to me even though, at times, it was very much in doubt. I think I can now say it: I am a writer.

Thank you for hanging with me through this process of learning and discovery. I hope you will stay with me as the journey continues in the new year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Oh Christmas Tree!

I hate Christmas. There, I said it. Bah-fucking-humbug.

We all know that Christmas is an over-hyped gimmick to prop up the sagging retail industry and to somehow revive our economy by promoting wanton consumerism. (Although it seems more likely to help China’s economy than our own.)

This is the time of the year when suicides and psychiatric hospital admissions spike. For many, it is not a happy time. There is an expectation that we are supposed to be happy, more happy than usual, at Christmas. When it doesn’t live up to expectations, we feel more down than ever.

Not everyone lives in a house that looks like the Currier and Ives illustration on the front of a Christmas card. The snow, if there is any, is more likely to be slushy and dirty. The woodland was cut down a century ago to make way for farms and orchards and more recently for planned “estate” communities. Sitting in a traffic jam in an SUV is a far cry from a one horse open sleigh.

Christmas has never been a happy time for me. As a child, my sisters and I used to dread it. Our obsessive-compulsive dad would put up the same white artificial tree each year. He would allow us to assist in putting up red balls (all the identical shade of red) scolding us if we were not careful to graduate them from small at the top to large at the bottom. Those red balls were the only things we were allowed to put on the tree. He aimed a red spotlight on the red balls. He liked the uniformity and simplicity of it. Our obsessive-compulsive mother liked not having anything messy that might detract from her immaculately clean living room. The tree itself was disruptive enough.

We did not have a happy family but at Christmas we were supposed to play the role of happy children. We would dutifully make wish lists for Santa Claus, carefully editing to be sure that we listed only gifts that were within Santa’s price guidelines and that were readily available at the local mall. On Christmas morning we did our best to pretend enthusiasm and curiosity about what might be under the tree, knowing full well what was there. The things we really wanted – to be loved, encouraged, made to feel we had some self worth – those things were never under the tree.

As a young man, Christmas was even worse. Everyone would be preparing to go home to their families. They were excited. What little was left of my family had become so dysfunctional that we did not even see each other for holidays, or any other time for that matter. I spent Christmas sitting at home alone. Everything would be closed. The decorations and holiday music outside mocked me, reminding me that my life was a failure.

So forgive me if I fail to wish you a merry Christmas. Let Christmas revert to the religious holiday it once was and let Christians celebrate it. I do not identify myself as a Christian and I have no more need to make a big deal over Christmas than I do over St. Francis of Assisi Day, Purim, or Ramadan.

Instead of looking to the unhappy past, let me focus on the promise of the future. I wish you all a very joyful New Year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Life on the Off Ramp

When I was a grad student at Syracuse University, I took a course in media criticism. It was taught by a visiting lecturer who flew up from Washington DC once a week to fill in for the full time professor who had suddenly vacated his post. I believe our instructor was a past president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or some similar entity which would have been suitably impressive to the hopeful future broadcasters in the class.

One day, apropos of nothing I could discern, he drew a timeline on the marker board representing the various stages of human development. At about the twenty year point he drew a tick mark and labeled it “relationships.” Apparently we humans are supposed to begin mastering the ability to form committed, long term relationships with significant others at that age. He marked various other stages along the line culminating with self actualization – that point where you become a very successful human in all dimensions.

Then he said something which froze me in my seat. He said that you must master each skill in sequence and that if you become stuck at any point, you can not progress to the next. I was staring hard at the relationship tick mark and I knew at that moment that my life was destined to fail.

Even in my twenties, I had already fallen behind in the march along the human development line. I couldn’t recall any successful relationships to that point, not even with my own parents. They were the caretakers who ignored me most of the time except for those occasions when they chose to actively thwart any aspirations I might show.

As a boy, the neighborhood kids would torment me. I got picked on, beaten up, and had stones thrown at me any time I ventured outside. To this day I don’t know why I elicited so much negative attention, but the fear I developed remains with me. I am afraid of the world that exists beyond my apartment door. It is a hostile place.

Yet I remained unrealistically optimistic. Ever since I first began to contemplate my own life and compare it to others, I have felt that I can overcome everything and still live the life I fantasize. There was always tomorrow. Such ungrounded optimism must be something that is hard wired into me. There is no basis for it in reality.

Now that I am in my sixties, I realize that the direction of my life is unlikely to change much. There is no precedent for suddenly popping back to that twenty year tick mark and hitting the play button. Aside from all the psychological baggage, there is the physical reality of aging that hinders making up for forty lost years.

Sometimes I think about the boy I once was. He was quiet and gentle, a fair skinned red head with freckles, and a sunny disposition. I want to protect him. I don’t want him to become cynical and bitter. I want to teach him the lessons I have learned through all the years and tears of my life. I want him to live his life fully and not wait for a better day to come. But I can not do anything for that boy. It is too late.

I believe that the visiting professor left something off his diagram. I think that there are alternate branches for those of us who live a compromised life. Instead of progressing in a straight line towards self-actualization, there are paths to other destinations. One of those destinations is self-acceptance. That is the point where one realizes that he will never achieve the happy and successful life he has so desperately chased for most of his life, but he can settle for the comfortable realization that he did the best he could with what he had to work with.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

You Put de Lime in de Coconut but Not in de Beer!

The other night I asked the bartender to put a lime in my bottle of Rolling Rock. He looked at me with incomprehension.

“You want me to put lime in a Rolling Rock?” There was suspicion in his tone.

I assured him that it was perfectly legal even though it wasn’t Corona. He did his best the-customer-is-always-right shrug and jammed a fetid little sliver of lime into the mouth of the bottle. I didn’t really want lime in my beer; I was just messing with his head.

I don’t know why Americans think that Corona, and only Corona, must be served with lime. Mexicans certainly don’t. Mexicans only put lime in a beer bottle to keep insects out. They are careful not to squeeze the lime. They don’t like the taste of lime in their beer any more than they like the taste of inebriated insects swimming around in it. It doesn’t matter if they are drinking indoors either. Most Mexican buildings don’t have screens.

When Mexicans do choose to put lime in their beer it doesn’t matter what brand of beer they are drinking. Most likely it is not Corona. Corona is not a popular beer in Mexico. It is mostly produced for export to the United States and, as such, it is crafted to be tasteless. It’s amusing that Americans think they are drinking real authentic Mexican beer when they have Corona. But then what can you expect from a county that celebrates Cinco de Mayo? In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in only two small villages and wherever there are a lot of U.S. tourists. Many Mexicans have never heard of it. Those who have think it’s an American holiday.

Mexicans don’t drink tequila the way Americans do either. If it’s good quality tequila they sip it slowly, like Cognac, savoring the rich and subtle flavors. If you try a premium tequila, such as Don Julio Añejo, and you think you detect a slight taste of whiskey or bourbon, you’re right: tequila is aged in oak casks which have previously been used in the production of American whiskeys such as Jack Daniels. Lesser quality tequila is usually drunk along with sangrita, a sweet, spicy drink made from orange juice, grenadine, and hot chilies.

If you’re not in a sipping mood, the correct method for slamming a shot of tequila is as follows: Have ready fresh limes, quartered, and a bowl of salt. Pour good quality tequila (save the cheap stuff for margaritas) into shot glasses. Throw the entire contents into your mouth and allow it to sit on the tongue. Then dip a lime wedge into the salt and suck the juice into your mouth. Enjoy the exhilarating sensations.

My ex introduced me to a charming variation of this technique for use with someone special. Proceed as above but only one of you should suck on the salted lime. Immediately thrust your tongues into each others mouths while the tequila, lime, and salt are still present. Kiss deeply. You need only do this a few times before you will be swearing your undying love to each other.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Loss of Language

Those who first encountered the keyboard as a writer saw it as a better way to write. Since they were already accustomed to composing at length, most learned to touch type so they could do so quickly and efficiently. The advent of the word processor was the next leap forward. Editing and rewriting became a joy rather than drudgery. To writers, language is a medium just as paint is to an artist. Writers enjoy bringing creativity to the correct use of grammar and vocabulary.

On the other hand, those who first encountered the keyboard as a computer geek see it as a necessary evil to get to what they really enjoy: playing with technology. Since typing is awkward and annoying for them, they invented a shorthand so they could do less of it. From them we have things like IMHO (in my humble opinion) and ROFLMAO (rolling on the floor laughing my ass off).  As you can see, they are not very original either.

Language took it’s biggest hit when text messaging became widely used in the late nineties. You could hardly blame people for taking shortcuts when they had to type on a miniature version of a touch-tone dial pad. Who wouldn’t substitute “u” for “you” when entering the latter required pressing the 9-key (WXYZ) three times, the 6-key (MNO) three times, and the 8-key (TUV) twice? Or substituting “2” (one key stroke) for the words “to” (4 key strokes)  or “too” (7 key strokes)?

But what’s the excuse for using the same abbreviations in an email when it’s composed on the full keyboard of a computer? Could it be indifference? Next time you post something on Facebook or dash off a quick reply to an email, consider this: if it isn’t worth the extra few seconds it would take to proofread it and improve it, then it probably isn’t important enough to do at all.

As our means of communication has shifted from the slow, thoughtful discourse of the written letter to the instantaneous one-liner of the text message, the intent has also changed. We used to have longer thoughts. We used to have deeper dialogue. Now we seem to be texting the electronic version of carving our initials in a tree or drawing moustaches on subway ads. Everyone wants to jump in, say something really witty, and jump out again.

The trouble is that being clever or witty requires expressing yourself intelligently. Having lost the ability to craft language, we resort to ending every sentence with smiley faces (in the form of punctuation marks that attempt, and often fail, to resemble facial expressions) or the acronym “lol” (which no longer means anything). The fallacy which is used to justify emoticons is that since words do not convey the facial expressions and body language of face to face conversation, nobody can tell if you’re being sarcastic or attempting a joke. Thank god nobody ever told that to Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or any of the other great satirists or humorists.

People have bemoaned the degradation of language throughout literary history. Usually they are regarded as anal retentives who just don’t like things to change. But there are real consequences to the severe deterioration of language that is taking place today. People are losing their ability to communicate with each other. The evidence of this exists on every bulletin board and chat room on line today. Flame wars regularly break out as participants fail to understand each other. They seem as incapable of expressing themselves clearly as they are at understanding what they are reading.

We know from psycholinguistics that language and thought are intertwined. Our language not only reflects the culture we live in, it also shapes it. That accounts for some of the differences between western and eastern civilizations. Language is the currency of our thoughts. It allows us to solve complex problems and to survive as ever greater challenges confront us.

Eighty percent of the cortex of the brain is used for speech and language functions. As our language contracts and becomes less sophisticated, we need less and less of our cortex. What happens to the unused brain cells? If we allow our language to continue to regress, we will lose the ability to create not only great works of art, literature, and philosophy, but also the very technologies that led us to this state in the first place.

Will we become the mindless consumers of technology products invented by other cultures which have more carefully nourished their language skills?