Friday, January 05, 2018


After eight months of unemployment in Portland, sleeping on a rollaway on my mother’s sun porch, I finally landed a civil service job with the City of Portland.  The PERS retirement from that six years I spent in the job (clerical specialist, they called it) are a significant part of my income now.  But it was an introduction to how tangled government “professionals” can be.  I was only hired because there were few applicants and the woman who made the decision regretted it almost right away.  She said she had “felt sorry for me.”  (It was shortly after being divorced and leaving Montana.)

The head of the whole Bureau liked me.  In fact, she loaned me some books I had never run across:  “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin.  I thought it was because of the “city” reference.  They were good books, full of cheer and jokes and true emotions among a particular sort of San Francisco person.  I was only vaguely aware that this was about gay people, pre-HIV.  I thanked her and returned her books.  I didn’t realize that she was testing to see whether I were gay.  The rumour was that she herself was gay with a very handsome gay husband and some adopted children.  Deniably closeted.

I was reminded of this tonight because an interview with Armistead Maupin popped up on YouTube.  I was a little surprised that Maupin is a jolly old grandpa now, though he’s only a little younger than I am.  He was being interviewed by a young gay actor and I enjoyed it, not least because that context of gay actors is one I know a little bit since my undergrad degree was in theatre and many of my classmates were gay.  The occasion of the interview was Maupin’s memoir.

I’m not gay/lesbian.  I’m just “Western,” which is to say I don’t do the “femme” thing.  I can dress up and even enjoy it once in a long while, but to sit here and type all day, sweats and work shirts are practical.  Valier had to think about it, but they finally decided I was a “character” and therefore not subject to the rules of the town.  (Except for the height of my grass.)  Actually, it troubles them more that I’m an “intellectual” because they don’t like being put down and they think I might be doing that.  

Another angle is that “cowboy” and “ranch” culture has been made into a marker for wealth and ostentation, but “farmer” is a kind of downscale category unless you’re Senator Jon Tester.  Ranch women are supposed to be glamorous, maybe even have manicures, but farm women might wear bib overalls and practical boots that lace up.  Or Crocs.  They might not watch their weight.  This theory was made explicit in an interview with that carefully observant writer, Thomas McGuane.

Listening to these two gay men, Maupin and Jonathan Groff, banter and joke is a good corrective to the rank-smelling and self-contradictory exchanges going on about a different kind of book, “Fire and Fury.”  An astounding thing has become apparent:  our country is not governed by laws so much as “norms” and conventions.  Gentlemen’s agreements that cannot be enforced.  They depend upon the larger culture to have instilled the social rules in these people, but evidently no one did.  The struggle with Trump — a known vulgarian and fake — has revealed that the whole system is infected with apologists, fraidy cats, and people on the take.

Yet these two gay men have good will and restraint.  Why do they? Because their work is based on empathy, understanding accurately and vividly how they and others feel.  Maupin says, obviously, that he is all the people in his stories.  Yet, when he wrote one book in the first person, impersonating the main character, he reports that in England the books was taken as an act of egotism, telling all about himself.  But everybody was himself!  And the English are supposed to know that sort of thing.  But cultural prudery recommended against it.

Over the last ten years I’ve been investigating the literature of parts of the gay community, which is very complex, sometimes ungraspable by a person not involved, and yet rewarding to think about.  Another literary community I’ve visited for many decades is that of the indigenous people of the high prairie.  Yeah, “Indians.”  But they are often so violently emotional — especially as the demographic characteristics get farther and farther away from what they were in the 18th century — that sometimes the only way to talk about them is covertly or in the cordoned off white enclaves.  Even stigmatized gays are rarely so vengeful.

A third category of writing is one I investigated because my father’s death revealed that he had been reading truck driver’s porn (his job was PR to ag cooperatives across the state) as well as buying every serious study of human sexuality as it was published.  I found the serious books early and read them all as a kid.  I read some of the paperback porn before my brother took them all to the dump.  Thus, I’ve been aware of the enormous range of “forbidden” writing about sex.  

Or thought I was until discovering in a feminist bookstore while I was in seminary that there was such a thing as female porn.  I’m not talking about “Fifty Shades of Gray” but rather about “The Story of O.”  Some of it was fancy writing (if you can write fancily enough, it stops being porn and becomes literature) and some of it, like the lesbian-written mysteries on which BBC’s “Wire in the Blood” are based, were as sadistic as anything I’ve ever read, even in clinical literature.  What was present in the men’s porn that I never saw in women’s was bathroom stuff — poop and piss transgressions.  It was more likely in hetero than gay stuff.  (In fact, the sort of Armistead Maupin gay is often a gentleman, concerned about grace and dignity, justice and protection.)  

I’ve been watching Lynda LaPlante’s series called “Trial and Retribution”, a less well-known police procedural than “Prime Suspect”.  The last episode I watched required the female detective to go undercover in a brothel, a fav plot gimmick, but this time with the added factor of revealing the rage and lust for punishment in the female cop, who must whip the brothel owner or blow her cover.  (Sorry about the pun.)

One character, played by an actor who usually “does” bad guys, has a vivid speech in which he explains that sex is never about sex, but always about control and power.  And there we have it.  When we drop the arts and culture stuff, the diplomacy and gentlemen’s agreements, the power turns raw and stark.  The story becomes merely vengeful tattling without any restraint.  They say Melania wept when Trump was elected.  She knew what it would mean.  It was her life experience and she thought she had escaped it.  She understands Putin.  He is no king-maker.  His intent is to BE king.

The world changes in direct proportion to the number of people willing to be honest about their lives.

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