Monday, January 25, 2010

Hell of a Town

That's a view of the bus. To get from the DC area to New York, you have a number of options, but in terms of cost and convenience, you really can't beat the bus. Especially if you work in Bethesda and can leave your car in your office garage for free and then walk either across the street or a couple of blocks to where one of the bus lines leaves from. And if you go in the middle of the day, the trip takes about 3.5 hours. The Tripper bus gives you a bottle of water and free WiFi, too.

I was headed to New York to sing as part of the chorus in a production of Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. About twenty-five of the members of my church choir were going, and many of them were traveling together on a different bus, but that bus left from Rockville, nearer the church, so it wasn't as convenient for me. Besides, bus travel, like hiking is best done as a solitary endeavor. The slow accumulation of miles and the mild rocking of the bus are nearly trance inducing, and it's best to let the fatigue and grit of the current trip merge with that of trips past, yours and everyone elses. As it happens, grit is in very short supply on the Tripper bus, but bus travel in generally is a significantly gritty undertaking, so it requires only leaning your head against a window for a bit to imagine yourself a blues guitarist riding to Memphis, or a prodigal son returning home with only a few dollars and the hope of a kind greeting.

I tend to recall the forty-five hour (each way!) bus trip I took to visit my brother and his then-wife in Colorado Springs back when I was seventeen. I think my parents didn't want me to go, so they told me that I could only go via bus, and I thought, "Why not?" and went. I was an especially naive seventeen-year-old, so when an older man (I have no idea now how old he was, maybe forty-five) started to feel me up, I freaked out a little, albeit quietly. He stopped. Also, I had to ask some guy who was mumbling at me to repeat himself a third time before he finally said, with considerable volume, "I SAID, 'DO YOU WANT SOME HASH?'" I, barely, had enough sense to understand that he was not offering me foodstuffs, and I declined, very politely. Anyway, there was plenty of grit, and plenty of fatigue, on that trip. On this trip, there was mainly plenty of Interstate, and the occasional very large retail establishment.

We didn't stop at Ikea, though, which is just as well since there wasn't a lot of spare room in my luggage, what with my having to pack a tuxedo and everything.

I had had very mixed feelings about the trip. I figured that singing at Lincoln Center could be kind of cool, but it just didn't seem likely to be the experience of a lifetime that most of my fellow choir members expected it to be. For one thing, the concert was being run by a group that was charging us to sing with them. They seemed a reputable outfit, and they had the blessing of the composer, and they didn't invite just anybody to fork over a few hundred bucks to sing with them, but still, paying to sing is always at least a little bit Florence Foster Jenkins. On the other hand, I figured that spending time with a very large group of good singers (and they were very good singers) under a different director would be good for my choral development, and mid-January is a slow time at work for me, and, well, five days in New York. Also, I wanted to be a team player, even though I figured that I probably wouldn't spend a lot of time with the team, outside of rehearsals, once I got to the city. So I decided to look at it as a vacation with fifteen hours of rehearsals and performance thrown in, and off I went.

There's no real point in my writing much about New York itself. I tend to go there about once a year, and I always enjoy myself, but I don't have the sort of pilgrimage-to-Mecca reverence for the city that so many gay men do. And I don't, frankly, work all that hard at getting beyond the surface of the city. I have a relatively short, modest list of things that I want to accomplish when I visit:
1. See a show.
2. Walk by the Bethesda fountain.
3. Buy a cheap watch from a street vendor.
4. Pick up some sort of souvenir for the girls.
5. Stop by Kalustyan's for spices.

I should say right off the bat that I failed to procure a cheap watch. I was down on Canal Street and someone approached me muttering "Rolex," and I stopped briefly, but then I thought better of it. I already have a fake Rolex from Florence. Besides, I figure the fake Rolexes in New York are likely to be a) too expensive, and b) not sufficiently obviously fake. Wearing a real Rolex is ridiculously pretentious, and wearing a fake one is only better if the watch says "Rollex" or something equally ridiculous. So what I usually do is get something from one of the tables in midtown, but I didn't spend a lot of time in the thirties or forties this trip: I was staying up on 67th, which was very convenient to Lincoln Center, and I spent a good deal less time out and about this trip than I have in the past, when I usually visited with b&c. So this time, instead of a watch, I spent some time making the acquaintance of the local population. I probably could have done both, but if I had to choose, I'd probably go with making the acquaintance of the local population.

Anyway, a list of five things is ridiculously long for traveling. I've always felt that the way to travel is to have one goal that can be relatively easily achieved, so that one can ensure the trip is a success. I'd had a brief discussion with b&c about what to see while in New York. I had nixed Rosenkavalier at the Met, and I was decidedly cool to either Finnian's Rainbow (why does he even suggest such things to me: dude, the project of teaching me to care about the history of musical theater is a big fail) or South Pacific, when he mentioned, as if it were a matter of no importance, "Well, there's a revival of Hair that's gotten good reviews." So there was my goal for the trip. I'd never seen Hair on stage.

I arrived in New York around 3pm, somewhere on 34th Street, so I took a cab to the hotel, where I checked in. I was shocked to find that my room was huge, especially by New York standards. Arguably, 57th street between 9th and 10th is not the most convenient location in the world, but if one is hoping to make the acquaintance of the local population, a large room is a plus, and it was still only a couple of blocks (albeit long blocks) to an entrance for the Columbus Circle station. Besides, the entire four-night stay cost me under $500, including all the taxes, fees, whatever. Such a deal!

I spent a little while unpacking, corresponding, and making the acquaintance of one member of the local population, and then I headed down to Times Square, which, no matter how many times I go, is always brighter than I remember.

I stood in line at the TKTS booth for at least two minutes.

And I ended up with 40% off tickets -- orchestra, row L, center -- for Hair.

And OMG, y'all. That was likely the best production of a musical I've ever seen. So much energy. So much youth, displayed in a way to make me joyful, rather than wistful. So much talent. So many hot naked bodies arrayed on the stage at the end of the first act, though the moment passes rather too quickly. And such a devastating ending, followed by an equally joyous curtain call. I regularly resist standing ovations, but I stood eagerly at the end of Hair. I did not dance on the stage, as much of the audience did, but I did sing along. Let the sunshine in, indeed.

Anyway, I'd only been in New York five or six hours, so my trip was already a rousing success. I also figured that, artistically, there was no way to go but down, but I decided not to dwell on that. When I'm granted the great good fortune to see something like Hair, any response other than joy seems ungrateful, and I have come, lately, to feel that ingratitude is rather a large transgression.

The next morning, I was due at the rehearsal venue at 8:30, so I walked up Tenth Avenue, which is also called something else altogether.

The rehearsals (a four-hour rehearsal Saturday morning, another Sunday afternoon, and a dress rehearsal Monday afternoon, all for a Monday evening performance) were a lot like choral boot camp. They were a bit grueling, but, as I expected, I learned a great deal, and I'm hopeful that what I and others learned will be very valuable to the choir on a going-forward basis.

When I wasn't in rehearsal or in the hotel room, I wandered around the city.

I was, on Saturday perhaps, having a post-horizontal conversation with an extremely affable Frenchman, who lives in New York, but who is originally from Paris. We were conversing in French, and when he told me that he came from Paris, I said it was the best city in the world, and he said yes, after New York. I was a bit shocked that a Frenchman would prefer New York. He said that he preferred Paris for ambience but that he preferred "le vibe" of New York. Chacun à son goût, I reckon. New York is, of course, a beautiful city, especially if you visit it at the right time of year and have nice weather. My usual luck with vacation weather held: there was rain on Sunday, but mostly while I was in rehearsal, and the rest of the time it was fine, and not nearly so cold as it had been days earlier.

As of mid-day Monday, I had still not gone for a walk in the park, and I was concerned that I would not get the chance, but when I arrived at Avery Fisher for a group photo with my church choir, to be followed immediately by a dress rehearsal, I realized that I was an hour early. And only a block or so from the park. Serendipity!

Shortly after entering, I went through a tunnel that had a wonderful acoustic. I sang for a bit to enjoy it, but then I stopped. I am, occasionally, sensitive to not wanting to appear bizarre, though, surely, if there's a venue where bizarre is appropriate, that would have been it.

I do not navigate well inside Central Park. I have been known to enter on the east side, intending to cross the park, and come out back on the east side. So I might well have consulted one of the maps (which, amusingly [not so much], often do not include a "You are here" designation) posted around the park, but I figured that in an hour I could not get so badly lost that I could not find my way back. Besides, I always find the Bethesda fountain by wandering, and on faith.

Not that it's all that easy to miss, mind you.

As with many angels, and fountains, there's a story behind this one. I didn't bother to look it up, but if memory serves, it is believed that the statue will one day come to life and kill all the pigeons who have ever perched upon it. And their descendants. Apparently, however, the pigeons themselves are unaware of the prophecy. Or perhaps they figure that they're already damned because of the sins of their fathers, so they may as well perch and enjoy the view. Who can say?

I took a picture of three young women and their dogs with a camera that they handed me, and then I stood for a while and stared at the serene countenance. For a moment, I could have sworn that her face moved, but I am pretty sure it was just my imagination. I blame Tony Kushner. In any case, the pigeons never moved.

I had approached the fountain from above, but I decided to walk back under the road. It's very pretty down there, and it really was a gorgeous day.

There was, sitting near the arches, an Asian man playing a long, one-stringed instrument, which he would occasionally set aside to play a short wooden flute. He seemed as serene as Bethesda. Just up the stairs was a Black man, who appeared to be in his fifties, skating up and down the stairs, stopping occasionally on the landing to do an extended spin. I listened and watched from below, and then from above. It was a very calming, expansive moment, the sort of thing that makes people want to move to cities generally, and New York in particular. Quelle vibe!

It's unlikely that I'll ever live in New York, the vibe, and the local population, notwithstanding, but it's a great place to visit. And who knows? Maybe when I retire, I could spend a couple of years living in, say, Queens. I'm pretty content where I am, though. Grateful, even.

I found my way out of the park and back to Lincoln Center without incident. I met up with my fellow choir members. The director remarked that she hadn't seen much of me on this trip and wondered whether I'd been enjoying myself. "It's a hell of a town," I replied. Then I mentioned the instrumentalist from the park, so as to avoid having to give a more detailed account of my actions. I'd already raved to her about Hair, and it seemed likely that my getting to know the local population was something she really didn't want to hear about.

The rest of the day passed somewhat unremarkably, at least to the extent that putting on a new tuxedo and standing with two hundred people on the stage of Avery Fisher hall can be unremarkable. We sang very well, I thought. The house was only about 2/3 full, but that was because we were only half the program. The other half was a Requiem by the same composer, and the chorus for that piece was composed of groups that included a girls' high school choir from New Jersey. All of their parents had bought tickets and then didn't bother staying for the second half. For some reason, I found that almost impossibly amusing.

I did manage, after dress rehearsal, to miss a step while heading towards the stage door and come crashing down hard on my knees on concrete steps. It was somewhat painful, but it didn't really affect my ability to stand and sing during the performance itself. The swelling set in fairly quickly, but the big bruises took a few days to show up. They're still around, making my left leg look much worse than it feels.

It'll be fine in another few days, I reckon; in the meanwhile, I figure it's a souvenir.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wide View

The slowness with which I have been domesticating my domicile has begun to be something of an embarrassment. Just the other day, when I was entertaining a particularly toothsome Latin American lawyer, I actually went so far as to lie about how long I'd been living here. He asked me when I'd moved in, and I said, "Oh, just before the holidays," which, I suppose could technically be the truth, provided that you consider "the holidays" to include Halloween.

Anyway, I went through some of my old vacation photographs on my computer and came up with a series of six shots from Joshua Tree National Park. I took them using the panorama feature on my camera, which causes picture 2 to overlap picture 1 by about a third. I had taken the series using a lightweight tripod that I took with me. I use Costco's online service for most of my photo processing, and then I pick the prints up the next time I'm there to get some groceries or whatever. My camera takes pictures with a 4:3 ratio, and Costco doesn't offer 9x12 prints, but the significant overlap from one picture to the next allowed me to crop them down to 8x10 without losing any content. So I sent the six prints off, picked them up, got some map pins at Staples, lined the prints up, and pinned them to the wall. It only took me two tries to get the result I wanted, and the total cost for a panorama that's about 8x47 was less than ten bucks. Plus a sore thumb from pushing the map pins into the drywall, but I reckon that'll sort itself out in a day or two.

There's some unevenness in the color from print to print, but I'm very happy with the overall effect. Since this was sort of the test case, I put it on one of the interior walls in the office/library, or what will be the office/library if and when I ever get around to erecting bookshelves. Right now, it pretty much just has my computer and a lot of boxes, but it also has white walls, and unframed prints look good on a white wall.

I was sitting in church this morning, and my mind wandered, as it is wont to do. I was thinking of writing "Ode to Osculation," which would begin something like this:
Though I have the body of Adonis, but do not kiss, I am nothing.
And though I can suck without cease like a Dyson, but do not make out, I am as a torn condom.
And though I can crack pecans between my marble smooth buttocks while never damaging the nutmeats, but will not kiss, I am as empty Whip-Its.

But then I had to stop. I would like to pretend that I stopped out of deference to the Biblical source material, but the simple fact is that the rest of 1 Corinthians 13 doesn't lend itself as easily to replacing "love" or "charity" with "kissing," and I was too lazy to make it work. And then there was another hymn to sing.

The young couple sitting in front of me had their infant son with them, and during the last hymn, he kept looking back at me and smiling, causing me to smile back at him and miss some of the words, which was just as well since it was some sort of dreadful humanist hymn trying to link religion and science, two things that I usually feel should be kept apart. I was unable to work up any pique about the hymn, though, because of the smiling baby, sitting on his mother's hip.

It took me back to eleven or twelve years ago when YFU was a baby and always wanted to be with me when we were in church. I would sing solos with her on my hip, which was definitely a win-win situation. She liked it because she got to be with me, and I liked it because everyone was looking at her, so I had less reason to be nervous. I sure wish I had a picture of that. These days, I'm rarely nervous when I sing, and YFU isn't even in the same room. In about a month, she'll be fourteen. EFU will be twenty-one, also next month. Tempus fugit, eh?

February is also the month when I turn a year older, at least in those years when I acknowledge that my age has changed. I can't remember the last time I thought that my birthday was a big deal. Probably when I was twenty-one, I reckon. Since I was in my late twenties, all of my birthdays have fallen during my busiest season, when there's no real time to celebrate, and perhaps that's part of why thirty and forty came and went without any dread on my part. Or maybe I'm just generally content enough not to worry about arbitrary temporal landmarks. Then again, maybe panic will start to set in when I'm approaching fifty. But probably not. I am blessed with low expectations. I come from a lower middle class family, and my parents never really provided a context by which to judge my accomplishments, if any. If I had any goals as a child, they were probably to grow up and have kids of my own, and I'm already doing that.

The toothsome Latin American attorney who visited me last week told me that he doesn't often spend HQT (horizontal quality time) with men because he's so busy with his job and with getting his next book published, and sex dilutes his efforts in those other areas. Whatever makes him happy, I suppose, though I didn't get the impression that he was an especially happy person, despite his somewhat impressive accomplishments, his thoroughly slamming body, his sartorial splendor (French cuffs!), and his generosity of spirit.

It almost seems like someone with so much going for him is obligated to be happy, if only to avoid ingratitude; then again, it seems uncharitable to blame him for not being happy. Surely he's already suffered enough.

Occasionally, I'm tempted to think that my own high level of contentment keeps me from accomplishing what I might accomplish if I were more of an unhappy sort, but I'm not sure to what extent it's really a choice as opposed to just how I've always been. If it were a choice, though, I'd choose contentment.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Death on the Internet

A good man I never met died this week. Bradford Graham (more commonly referred to as Brad L. Graham) passed away on or about January 4. Places as diverse as Metafilter and NPR have reported his death and celebrated his life: he was a blogging pioneer and coined the word "blogosphere" (as a joke), but he was more proud of the fact that Fred Phelps had called him "the most dangerous Sodomite in Missouri." I just knew him as somebody I used to hang out with online, back in the day.

There is much about him, in his own words, at his website, and I leave it to others who knew him better and more intimately to reflect more completely on his extremely ample and joyful life, but I couldn't not take a moment to remember his kindness and humor. Part of me regrets never having met Brad face to face; I know from our online friendship that we would have gotten on well. And I'm sure, from the accounts of many, many other people, that he was someone who did not disappoint in person. But mostly I'm grateful for the interaction that we did have.

I'm also grateful for his boldness. When I knew him, I was something of a newbie gay, and he was frequently an inspiration, though one that I rarely lived up to. One of his comments on the site where we both spent a good portion of our days back then is still my favorite contribution of his:
I actually just came back from the eye doctor's office. My doctor is very, very handsome and so awfully nice and funny.

After he had examined the fit of my new contact lenses, he said "I'd like to see you again in about four weeks for a follow-up exam."

"OK," I said. "I'd like to see you sooner, perhaps for dinner and a movie."

"OK," he said.

That's how I'll always remember him: as someone who knew what he wanted, wasn't afraid to get it, and made a lot of other people happy in the process.

If there's a heaven, no handsome man is safe there any more, but a lot more of them are smiling.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Our long, national nightmare is finally over: my shower is fixed. The second contractor and his crew appear to have done a competent job, and they were in and out in only a few days. The only problem was that they weren't able to match the tile, so the bottom row doesn't match the rest of the wall. It's not the sort of thing that bothers me; besides, I like the new tile on the floor much better than the old tile. The shower was actually finished on New Year's Eve, but the older Chinese couple (I'm guessing they're a couple) who worked for the contractor had to come back the next day to finish off some ancillary matters and to do some additional plumbing fixes I wanted taken care of, and they left their tools (neatly) piled in front of the shower, so I decided to wait an additional day, even though the contractor said the grout, etc. didn't need any additional drying time. So I got to use it the first time on January 1.

The Chinese couple (or not) talked to each other in very loud voices, but every once in a while, they'd start to murmur, as if they didn't want me to hear them. I suppose you should never take it for granted that someone doesn't speak your language, but I would have thought that our earlier difficulties communicating would have made it clear that Chinese is not one of my languages. Still, caution is usually a good thing.

Because of said difficulties in communicating, I was presented with a somewhat awkward situation. On December 31, the plumber/subcontractor told me "Home Depot" and I said, "Back tomorrow?" and he said, "No, today." That was around noon. Home Depot is about five minutes, if traffic is bad, from my house, and when he wasn't back by 2, I figured they were gone for the day, which comported with what the main contractor had told me, so I extended an invitation to a potential friend, and at about 4:15, when said potential friend and I were horizontal and comfortable, I heard a noise downstairs. Fortunately, we were pretty much done with our socializing, so by the time the contractors came upstairs, we were both vertical. And dressed.

I think my potential friend, with whom I had much in common, was somewhat put off by the intrusion, given that he didn't answer my subsequent email. Then again, it's more likely that he was put off by the deplorable state of the house. I really must get unpacked and organized. There are still boxes and piles everywhere, and there is nothing on the walls. The print that I picked the wall color to match (I hope) is still leaning against the wall in b&c's bedroom.

But I've been busy with other projects. This past Saturday, for example, I spent an hour or so fixing my bed. When the movers put it back together, the side rails somehow ended up slanted so that the bottoms of them were farther apart than the top, with the result that the slats holding up the mattress did not fit snugly on their supports, and if the bed moved, as it is wont to do from time to time, some of the slats would eventually fall off their support, causing a loud bang and the bed to sag in the middle. If there happened to be someone other than me in the bed at the time (which may or may not have contributed to the movement: who can say?), he would generally be significantly disconcerted by these events, and by being shooed off the bed while I lifted the mattress and pads, rested them on my back, and replaced the slats. It seemed like a less than ideal situation.

So on Saturday morning, I pulled everything off the bed to examine it more clearly during a period when my attention was not otherwise occupied. The driver side foot corner seemed particularly loose, and when tightening the bolt produced no effect, I decided to try removing the bolt entirely, whereupon I learned that the connecting bolt and the barrel nut had different thread sizes and had thus never been engaged. This, too, seemed less than ideal. I headed off to Home Depot and spent twenty minutes in the hardware aisle trying to find an appropriate combination of nuts and bolts. I eventually succeeded, returning home with a pack of four nuts and two packs of four bolts (I wasn't sure about the length). Further inspection revealed that three of the eight bolt/nut combinations holding the bed together were not really attached. It's a wonder the bed didn't fall apart even more entirely than it did. Eventually, though, I had a repaired bed with snug slats. As you might expect, I felt the need to test the bed, strictly for quality control purposes, you understand. I can report that it held up well under a variety of conditions. Also -- albeit at the risk of extrapolating from a limited sample size -- I can report that button-fly jeans appear to be experiencing something of a comeback. If, indeed, they ever left.

My other weekend project involved trying to get EFU home from Mexico. She had gone there to do some field research for her thesis, and she had originally scheduled almost three weeks to get her questionnaires filled out. But I got an email from her Friday night saying that she had finished her data collection and requesting help rescheduling her trip home. So at about 1:30 Saturday morning, I spent forty-five minutes on the phone with Delta, during which time I learned that:
1. There was a $200 rebooking charge associated with her ticket.
2. She had gotten a very good fare, and the fare differential would be an additional $200 to $400.
3. To get the total amount under $400, she'd have to wait to fly until at least Wednesday.
4. Because the first leg of her flight was controlled by AeroMexico, I couldn't handle the rebooking over the phone: she would have to go to the airport.
5. Even though she was in Mexico City, and even though her return flight was routed through Mexico City, because the original flight originated in Guadalajara, she would have to return to Guadalajara and rebook the flight at GDL.

When I explained all of this, via email and then a gmail chat session, to EFU, she wasn't happy. I told her that between the money she'd gotten from her grandparents for Christmas, the money I'd get from returning the camera she hadn't needed, and the additional money I was willing to kick in, she had about $320 available without going into her own savings. She looked around, found bus tickets from Mexico City to various Texas locations for about $100 and asked me to call my sister and see whether she could pick her up. And then she asked me to find a plane ticket from Texas. My sister (who lives near Fort Hood) said she could pick EFU up from Houston but that the easiest and cheapest place to fly out of would be Austin. I found EFU a ticket for about $160 on Tuesday on Southwest, and EFU purchased a fare on Autobuses Americanos.

Everything seemed fine until I got a call yesterday midday from EFU who was near the border (after, I suppose, about fifteen hours on the bus). She said that there were thirty buses ahead of them, and the driver reckoned on a seven-hour wait before they cleared the border. This made a 4pm arrival in Houston seem very unlikely. I figured she must be right near the border, and I knew that she had to transfer buses in Laredo, so I told her to find out if the bus station was near the border and see whether crossing on foot was an option. I was beginning to get very nervous.

Twenty minutes later, EFU called to tell me that the driver had said it was only a two-hour walk (only!) from where they were to the bus station in Laredo and that she was on her way and that someone had told her she was headed in the right direction for the border. I was, um, anxious.


But I did my best not to let my growing anxiety show. After all, EFU had told me that she had been feeling inexplicably anxious a couple of days before (I think it's impending-graduation-in-a-weak-economy anxiety.), and I thought it best to appear calm. Besides, it's not like anyone can tell her what to do. Fortunately, it only took her about ninety minutes to cross the border and reach the bus terminal, whereupon she called me to let me know she had made it. I wasn't totally relieved until I called my sister at 9:30, and she told me that EFU was in the car with her. I would have been a little put out with her for not having called me as soon as she picked EFU up, but she did spend all day traveling back and forth to Houston to retrieve my child, so I couldn't legitimately complain.

I'm convinced that parents die because it's the only way they can stop worrying about their children. I don't know why the childless die. Lack of adversity, I suppose.