On Certain Derogatory Words I Don’t Use

Long ago, I personally stopped using the nasty “c” word, a label for a certain part of female anatomy. Going as far back as my adolescence, the context of usage of it in American culture left me especially turned off to the term. I respect women’s personal choice around reclaiming the word if they wish. Author Eve Ensler made an eloquent case for doing just that in her wonderful book THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES. But, as a (biologically assigned and mostly identifying as) male ally of women and feminism, I have no use for it. For me, this is parallel to how white people really need not have any use for the “n” word, even though some Black people rightfully choose to say that descriptor amongst themselves.

In parallel to my feelings around the “c” and “n” words, as a gay man I have no interest in reclaiming the words “fag” or “faggot,” though many of my queer brethren and sistren do and say it freely amongst themselves. These terms are especially unpleasant in sound (as is the “c” word) in addition to being associated with my years of hearing them said directly to me with such a meanness, particularly in middle school and high school. I am happy to leave them behind out of my personal lexicon. People who know me respect this and do not use these epithets around me, even in jest, except, on occasion, in quotes to make a point or to quote someone else (again, to make some point, such as how difficult or ignorant the quoted person is). I appreciate their respect of me and my wishes.

I understand how some may judge me as being “overly sensitive” for having such strong boundaries around a small handful of words. My response to this is that I finally reached a shameless acceptance of the reality that I am indeed very sensitive, including around the above-discussed terms. I feel no need or wish to desensitize myself to them. My sensitivity is a part of who I naturally am and has led me to some wonderful insights and experiences in life, not the least being the profession I chose for myself (psychotherapist). I think many people could benefit from developing more sensitivity, which is another way of saying that empathy and compassion are important for everyone to cultivate in themselves and for others.

Charlie and Leroy

Around the summer of 1975, my parents and I moved into a semi-communal house on Cragmont Street in the hills of Berkeley, California.  Since February of that year, we’d been traveling around the state and up to Oregon and Washington, seeking out land to purchase and settle down on.  I was almost nine years old and looking forward to starting school nearby for some much-needed structure to my life, not to mention socialization with others my own age.  This home we lived in for the next year or so was filled with adults who, like my parents, were in their mid twenties to early thirties.

And then there was me.  I conversed as much as I could with our three to four ever-changing housemates, all but one of them moving out over the months to soon be replaced by others I then did my best to get to know.  There was Paul the lawyer, a very tall, bearded man who drove a Citroen, which fascinated me to no end, the way it rose up on its wheels after turning on the ignition.  I decided that I too would become an attorney so I could own a similar kind of car when I grew up.  Ron the dentist replaced Paul in the room across from ours.  He was quiet and looked somewhat like Lee Majors, pre-THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN.  Then, I believe Michael the musician filled Ron’s spot.  I would make up adventure stories which he would accompany with passionate guitar playing.  Harry and his girlfriend Sandra lived in the room next door, closest to the front entrance.  Harry wore wire-framed glasses, had thin wisps of blond hair, and was a bit stiff in demeanor.  He played Steely Dan all the time, filling the house with those smooth, jazzy rock songs I still love hearing no matter where I am.  His girlfriend Sandra was kind and gentle, wearing thick dark-rimmed glasses and long straight brown hair.  Downstairs lived the anchor tenant, Jeffrey, who my dad knew from college.  He was a suave graduate student of music, his shoulder length black hair, big brown eyes, and wide chiseled jaw lending him a somewhat Byronesque look.  I remember my mom commenting to me about how “very handsome” he was.  Jeffrey dated two beautiful half Indian and half British sisters, Emma and Lucy, until they found out about each other’s shared involvement.  This was thanks to me standing with Emma in the kitchen one day, inadvertently telling the blonde, blue-eyed statuesque woman that I’d seen her younger sister (also statuesque, but darker skinned and raven-haired) coming around recently.  No-one had told me to keep mum about this observation of mine.  Lucy and Jeffrey would soon marry, then later divorce.  When Steely Dan wasn’t blasting in the living room, Jeffrey could often be found playing piano with one hand and gracefully waving his baton with the other.

There were at least three other housemates in this rotation of occupancies.  One was Joan, who could be moody, though I did deserve her irritation at times with my attention-seeking, such as one afternoon when I quietly loaded up her dark brown hair with grass and leaves while she read a book in the nearby school grounds.  Then there was Nancy who kept her makeup in the medicine cabinet of the shared upstairs bathroom.  I made use of her eye shadow on more than one occasion.  I stopped this when Mom suddenly turned to me one day and sternly said, “Don’t get into Nancy’s makeup!”

There was another woman who lived in the same room previously occupied by Harry and Sandra, but I forget her name.  I was puzzled with the big curlers in her dirty blonde hair she wore some mornings, resulting in perfectly straight locks.  “I curl my hair to make it straighter,” she eventually explained to me.

When I wasn’t talking or trying to play with one of my adult housemates, I usually entertained myself effectively enough, going on imaginary journeys in the brick-laid front and backyards, bamboo (or some other kind of high shrubbery) growing tall between the sidewalk and the front area of the house.  I was too young at the time to appreciate the sweeping view down to assorted trees, other homes, and the spacious playground of a local grammar school.  A tall Rainier cherry tree tickled against the living room window of our abode,  yielding delicious red-yellow fruits.  My father would tie an old sock and wire to a long stick and then scoop up cherries for everyone in the household to eat.  I did not mind sharing these natural treats with the chattering squirrels that hastened along the tree’s branches.

Adjoining the living room, the dining room was framed by a large window overlooking the verdant backyard below and, further off, the ocean.  It is possible I am remembering this view incorrectly.  Memory is tricky, often inaccurate, merging different places together into one, changing colors of things, moving people and objects from their original locations.  Hence, the Oakland Bay may have been even further away and/or completely obstructed by buildings and trees.  The skyline was wide, though, and, in my mind, through that window I keep seeing the grey-blue Bay surrounding a deep brown-hued Mount Tamalpais off in the distance, all this held within a vast dome of clear to faintly cloudy sky.  I reflect now with a sense of gratitude and wonder that I lived for a time in such beautiful surroundings.

I often hungered for face-to-face engagement with other adults.  Boredom was sometimes the reason.  But, mainly, I was still reeling inside over my father’s divorce from my birth mother over four years before and her subsequent leaving me with him and his new girlfriend (and wife-to-be) about a year later.  At the time, I didn’t consciously understand the deep significance of these events, I simply yearned to be with any grown up who would give me their undivided, loving attention.  I started venturing next door to a few neighbors’, having met them on different occasions while we each stood outside, a line of shrubs as the property boundary between us.  Twenty-nine-year-old, deep-voiced, bespectacled Vicki often had me over in her dark downstairs apartment, where I watched TV, since there wasn’t one in our house.  I primarily remember seeing reruns of BEWITCHED and episodes of the then newish series THE WALTONS at her place.  She was generous with her time and attention, and I’m forever grateful to her for all that she gave of her home and herself.

Another neighbor was Gage, who lived next door in a two-story apartment by the other side of the house.  I watched TV sometimes at his place as well, while downstairs, he often created spray paint art on large canvases composed of differing patterns of intertwining string.  Perhaps he felt a bit compensated for putting up with me via my parents and our housemates allowing him to keep his cannabis plants nestled away in our brick-covered backyard, far from the street and hidden from other residents’ view.  I had been instructed by my folks to tell any visitors that they were tomato plants, should anyone happen to ask about them.

Of all the people I lived with and around during this period in my life, Charlie made the deepest impression on me.  The first time I saw this dark-brown-skinned, towering-appearing man was on his second floor apartment balcony, right above Vicki’s unit.  Seemingly rising up out of the high shrubbery along the property line, he stood playing his saxophone, repetitively blowing out the same partial tune, whatever that was.  (One of my female housemates– Nancy, I think– would later tell me that he was trying to play “Misty,” though I’m not sure if I have the correct title after all these years.)  I was intrigued.  This was pretty routine for him.  My mom and others in the household chuckled now and then, remarking how untalented he was.

I think I started conversing with Charlie from the back deck during one of these jam “practices” or “sessions,” if you could even call what he was doing either of those.  He probably appreciated this audience of one, a curious child largely uninformed about music, albeit someone who was non-judging.  One afternoon, Charlie spontaneously walked with his saxophone all the way down to the schoolyard, which could be viewed from his balcony, and met up with me there.  I happened to be hanging out with moody Joan or softer-spoken Nancy, I can’t remember which.  I enjoyed watching this man, the sounds out of his instrument being secondary, unimportant.  I’d probably known him for at least a few months at this point.  I think both Charlie and I longed to be fully seen and heard without criticism.  I could give him that and he, seemingly so naturally, returned the favor.

I started visiting Charlie and his white girlfriend Marne in their apartment.  Like Charlie, Marne was probably in her late twenties, maybe thirty, though I recall Charlie seemed a little younger.  Always one to take notice of and be fascinated with people’s hair, Marne’s was impressive:  past waist-length, thick, black, and wavy.  I remember her as being quiet, serious, and patient, a bit depressed.  Charlie, on the other hand, always seemed to be smiling, his white teeth cleanly juxtaposed against his dark skin and large Afro.

There were two other residents in this apartment of warmth and welcome: Leroy, Charlie’s pet Great Dane and Lab mix, and David, Marne’s much smaller, older dog who was probably part Beagle, part Lab.  They were both black in coloring, with Leroy being more shiny, like a panther.  The two got on well enough together.  I don’t recall them ever fighting or even barking at each other.

Leroy and I instantly became buddies.  Affectionate and playful, the huge dog was always ready for pets and gentle wrestling, never once snapping or barking at me.  If I wasn’t paying direct attention to him, Leroy would stand close by, looking up expectantly, waiting.  I felt guilty one time when I moved my hand suddenly without looking and jabbed him in the eye.  No apparent harm done, thank goodness.  He didn’t even squeak.  I’ll never forget watching Leroy play tug-of-war with a huge bone of his that a visiting friend of Charlie’s held up high in both hands.  The dark canine seemed to tower over the somewhat heavy-set African American man, simply glad for the attention and fun.

Leroy’s exuberance seemed to be an outward expression of the more subdued yet warm current of enthusiasm I felt between Charlie and myself.  It impresses me to this day how Marne did not mind my daytime and evening visits with she and her boyfriend.  She hung back, more reserved, yet also felt easy to talk to.  Sometimes, I sat on their bed watching some show on a black and white television set with the two of them or just Charlie, though perhaps always with both.  I remember Charlie and I in closer proximity to each other than Marne and I ever were.  His body warmth still seems palpable.  I only remember once being asked to leave, which was a time Charlie wasn’t home and Marne seemed particularly tired one afternoon.  Otherwise, I usually naturally knew when it was time to go home, including to avoid worrying my parents (which did happen once one evening, though).

As I reflect on these visits with Charlie and Marne, I wonder what may have been going on between them that I, an attention-hungry nine-year-old, did not pick up on.  Was Marne unhappy because Charlie abused her in some way?  Were my visits possibly a brief respite for her from an intermittently unpleasant intensity of living with him?  Or was she depressed, or simply run-down, for reasons other than issues with her boyfriend?  Undoubtedly, Charlie’s incredible warmth towards me completely skewed my already naive perspective.  I’m left with just my impressions, which have their own intensity.  It’s also possible that I’m now looking back with clinically-trained wondering and suspicion over a problem that didn’t exist.  I’ll never know.  For what it’s worth, I don’t recall hearing a harsh word or seeing a disapproving look pass between them.  I do know that Charlie’s demeanor and friendliness were radiant, balanced with a proper restraint.  I never once felt intruded on by him, such as left with any lingering sense of “icky” or “bad touch” or even a minute sense of pressure to somehow engage with him in such contact.  None of this.  I’m not sure if we were even ever alone.  I felt completely safe around him at all times and I was.

One day, I believe Charlie showed me pictures of himself, friends, and family members in a large photo album.  This must have happened because I sat close to him on the edge of his bed one afternoon (probably one out of perhaps three occasions).  Glancing down at something in his lap, I asked a question now and then about what we were looking at.  I can’t recall any of the photographs, though I’m certain those are what I saw.  What I do clearly remember is Charlie, how I kept looking up at him, admiring his thick Afro, his pleasant smile and soft, soothing deep voice, the warmth of his body, his muscled arms.  He often wore only a sleeveless t-shirt for a top, unpleasantly referred to by many as a wife beater.  Perhaps he just wore this once and my selective memory leaves me thinking of him wearing one all the time.

It may have been during this same visit that Charlie shifted to showing me something more intimate than his personal photographs.  Or perhaps it was during a separate occasion altogether.  I’m not sure how this sharing got started, but Charlie informed me that, some years before, a man fired a shotgun directly at him one day.  I wish I could remember more details to the story, but I don’t.  I may have found it hard to believe, or that I didn’t want to accept that he, such a kind man, had been through something so awful, cruel.  Unprompted by me, Charlie gently took my left hand and guided it to his right upper bicep or deltoid (I’m not sure exactly where), pressing my fingers into the flesh and moving them in a small, brief circle.  I felt a hard pellet move tightly within tissue.  He then guided me to his chest, somewhere by or just below the collarbone, repeating the circular motion of my fingers.  Again, a hard pellet, this time closer to bone and the surface.  I think I also felt the upper edge of his pectoral muscle against my palm, unless this is just what I later imagined feeling.  One final holding of my hand led me to his skull, close to the temple.  I forget which side.  Close to the surface under the skin:  yet another hard pellet.  Fascinating.  I felt relieved that he was still alive, healthy, there spending time with me.

If I hadn’t initially believed Charlie had been hit with shotgun pellets, I believed him after this intimate show and tell, or, more accurately, find and feel.  I was a very inquisitive child, so I’m certain I asked him about details.  The dialogue during these moments is largely gone from my mind.  This exchange entered a more primal realm for me.  Charlie’s face and chest dominate the scene, as if I see him in a movie closeup, only I’m right there, feeling the heat of his body, enveloped in his large presence, comforted, intrigued, desirous.  And aroused– or, more accurately, feeling the beginnings of this state.  I wasn’t familiar with that word at the time, but I’ve long since realized nascent arousal mingled with desire were in the mix of my feelings and sensations.

I can count on one hand the times I remember finding grown men attractive before and when I was nine years of age.  But, Charlie was my first in-person crush, not a fleeting attraction to an image or someone briefly in my presence or passing by.  In my own young way I think I loved him, as best a child traumatized by divorce and the upheaval of frequent moving knew how.  And it certainly felt like he loved me, what with sharing his home and personal life so openly and warmly the way he did.  This rare combination of interest in and respect of me– particularly by a man– felt so affirming, energizing, comforting, evoking space inside for desire to come forth.

Around the summer of 1976, we moved from the hippie-filled household on Cragmont Street into a second floor  apartment close to downtown Berkeley.  I never saw Charlie or Marne again.  But, I would go on to often admire, feel curious about, and lust for Black men for the rest of my life.  This came to a head in late 2012 or early 2013 while participating in a months-long series of intensive weekend trainings on the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model.  For several days, my mind kept periodically showing me a lurking, nearby presence of a tall African American man.  This was not at all upsetting, just intriguing and distracting.  I can only guess that this inner stimulus was somehow prompted by the deep psychological work I was engaging in with several other people, almost all of us psychotherapists.  With the skillful help of a certain woman therapist, who also worked from the IFS model and practiced EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I unlocked this little inner mystery.  While following her moving fingers across my line of vision, I thought of this recurring image of a muscular Black man.  Suddenly, I remembered Charlie and grief welled up inside me.  I burst into tears.  I’d long missed him, or some young part of me sure had.  I then talked this through with the therapist, completing a sense of release.  What remained was a gentle wistfulness and a lingering curiosity to find out whatever happened to Charlie.  Alas, I didn’t know his last name, let alone his date of birth, probably all just as well.

Sexual and emotional attractions are complex and mysterious.  I don’t claim to fully understand all of what has me feel so strongly interested in certain people and not others.  But, I do know that some particularly powerful, lasting attractions can and do come from a longing, which interweaves into romantic fantasy, a longing to return to a real or imagined (or combination thereof) time of special, exclusive, all-encompassing sense of connection with another.  Perhaps, as in my case, this often stems from a childhood experience, when one’s senses are clear, filled with innocence, curiosity, a wide openness and hunger to connect, and wonder.

[Note on the accompanying photograph with this post:  Me in the summer of 1976 in Alameda, CA, near Berkeley, around the end of the time period this personal account occurred.]

A Queer Gen X White Guy’s Childhood Reflections on Interfacing With African Americans’ Experiences

I’ve spent most of my life moving around, starting at age four, only settling down into a true home within the past two years. There are many stories to tell along the way of my past itinerancy and this is just one of them.

For a few years, my father, step/adoptive mother, and I lived in Berkeley, California, starting around the summer of 1975. We had recently left the inland city of Modesto to start about an eight-plus year period of exploration, a time when my hippie-identified parents left their formal careers as junior college English instructors to hold assorted jobs, occasionally interspersed with episodes of unemployment and much creative writing. In the fall of 1976, having attended a small, flaky, but well-meaning alternative school for fourth grade in the Berkeley Hills area, I entered fifth grade at Longfellow, a public grammar school close to downtown. I was not aware of the term “culture shock” at the time, but that is one phenomenon I experienced as a student there.

Longellow School’s student body was more diverse than I’d ever come across in my short life, though I had already attended about seven other schools by then, counting pre-schools. The student body was about 40% (or perhaps even more) African American, 40-45% Caucasian/white, with the rest being Asian (and of that demographic, mainly Chinese and Japanese Americans) and a very small amount Latinx. I wish I had the formal break-down in front of me of what the actual percentage of ethno-cultural groups were represented at Longfellow in 1976 and ’77, but I don’t. Researching that information feels distracting away from my own impressions and subsequent reflections I wish to focus on and convey here. I realize I could be off with the numbers due to my own sense of overwhelm with the presence of what felt like so many Black peers around me compared to what I had ever previously, or thereafter, experienced. These students largely seemed to come from lower to lower middle-income homes, which included my own at the time.

A brief observation of my father’s sums up a lot of my feeling state I lived within while attending Longfellow. While he and his second wife, my adoptive mother, happened to be taking a walk near the school one day, he saw me standing up against the playground wall, scared. Adjusting to yet another new school while trying to downplay my high sensitivity and frequently “girl” labeled persona, I was also trying to negotiate this seemingly new to me culture of forthright verbal and physical expression, even aggressiveness, among these largely comfortably embodied, confident seeming Black kids. Repressed gay white boy that I was, I indeed felt scared, on many levels. It took me several years to grow comfortable in my own skin and stop being so afraid. These exuberant African American boys and girls reminded me of how I had a long ways to go.

Black history was a key part of the fifth grade curriculum at Longfellow. Each of us twenty-four students in white Mr. Abadie’s class was assigned to read biographies of influential Black people in U.S. history, which we then had to write about. We often watched films on Black history and historical figures and also went on field trips on at least two occasions to the Berkeley Film Archive to view movies about African Americans. We watched the miniseries ROOTS on video over a period of several weeks, joining with other classes in an assembly room to do so. There was even a field trip to see THE WIZ, a big theatrical hit in San Francisco at the time. Not long after this, another trip occurred in which our class got to see a handful of that play’s all Black cast as they were interviewed. Some limited questioning by us students was allowed. I watched, impressed and fascinated, glad for my fellow Black students having successful role models to see, take in, and even interact with. One boy in my class had a fun exchange with a female cast member, the boy giddily, half-heartedly protesting, “Whatcha doin’?!” as she took him by the arm and whispered something in his ear. He quieted down and returned to his seat in the audience, a smile on his face. I felt slightly envious of the special, brief exchange the two seemed to share. Black camaraderie seemed constant around me, an outsider.

The following year, I had Mrs. Duperron at the start of sixth grade (until I moved out of the area). She was African American and very no-nonsense. Tall and strong-voiced, this teacher would not hesitate to loudly tell a student or the whole class she had had enough of their/our “crap.” Black history continued to be part of the curriculum in sixth grade, though I’m not sure if it was still treated as a separate, stand-alone subject like it had been in fifth. This may have been the class that actually went on a field trip to see THE WIZ and not the previous year’s.

Mrs. Duperron expressed a fun side on occasion. In another example of Black camaraderie I observed, she pretended to throw a piece of fruit in the air to a biracial (Black and white) classmate, playfully asking, “Want one, Louie?” I forget the context of this moment, but not the then very familiar feeling of being an outsider. To her credit, one afternoon, seemingly out of the blue, she did make a conscious effort to give me some positive, caring attention. She took my hand and gave me some snack treat as we walked a short ways down the hall at the start of lunch. This felt awkward but I also appreciated the gesture, mixed in with some uncertainty and suspicion over why she was doing it. Mrs. Duperron never made such overtures again, but she did seem to soften a bit with me after that, mixed in with her hard, driven side she continued to generally express in class. She was probably at least forty years of age, trained more in the “Old School” ways of teaching and parenting. I believe she was the only African American teacher I had between Kindergarten and high school, not counting the occasional substitute teacher of color.

Active affirmation of the African American (then largely referred to as Black) experience at Longfellow seemed to flow steadily, at least in comparison to any other context I found myself in before or since then. I am grateful to have witnessed the camaraderie between Black students and a Black teacher with these pupils. They all had a lack of camaraderie and outsider status to deal with in so much of the rest of the world, something I didn’t think of when I was ten and eleven years old.

One day, feeling especially discouraged about my days at Longfellow, I started a conversation with my adoptive mother about the tension I felt with fellow Black students. I asked her if I was largely resented by them because I was white and white ancestors had enslaved their Black forebears. She explained that, possibly, yes, but that other, more current factors were far more at play, namely ongoing racial discrimination. I wish I could recall this long-ago exchange, but I hardly do today. A range of feelings arises as I reflect on this scene, particularly embarrassment, guilt, sadness, and then compassion for my white, naive oversimplification of a major, systemic social problem and projection of fault for my personal difficulties onto these peers– in short, racism.

I was a sensitive, genderqueer gay white boy who had endured parental divorce before aged five, quickly followed by a succession of moves, including overseas and back again. And I was coping with some culture shock, not at all inherently a bad thing, on top of an already deep sense of insecurity in the world. I was scared and distrustful of anyone new in my life, save for any nearby, kind adult willing to give me a bit of attention. African American peers with their more bold, straightforward ways was not an actual problem, just more new stimuli for me to integrate/make sense of along with everything else that I still hadn’t yet. I do know, however, that I felt markedly different than a lot of my peers– Black, white, et al– who were largely fully cis-gendered and heterosexual, at least the most visible, attention getting ones appeared to be. Within all my layers of fear, what I found startling was how courageous I found a lot of Black pupils, the way they seemed to take up space so unabashedly with their strong, often loud voices and gestures. They spoke about sexuality very openly with each other, the boys emphasizing a macho pursuit of girls. In sixth grade, I remember being called by a Black classmate a “square.” That summed up all my inhibition and fearfulness pretty succinctly.

A few African American classmates stole items from me, or tried to. Poverty elicits desperation which can sometimes evolve into survival-based strategies like theft, especially if one feels so deprived in a materialistic world. As a white boy, I already was more privileged, though, at the time, I was not yet very aware of all the ways this was so. That said, I would later find that theft was plentifully engaged in here and there by my white peers, many of them privileged like myself or more so. Desperation doesn’t just have to be from economic impoverishment. This racial stereotyping I was mentally doing concerning what kind of people are thieves ultimately soon proved to be wrong in my own life experience.

I never got to find out how my school and social life might have progressed in diverse, progressive-minded Berkeley. Shortly after the birth of my (half) sister in early December of 1977, we moved to Grass Valley, a city in Nevada County consisting of 6,203 people at that time– or so the entrance sign stated. Nestled about 2,500 feet above sea level in the Sierra Foothills, Grass Valley and its even smaller neighbor Nevada City were key locations during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Buying and then moving into a fixer-upper house to be close to an urban expatriate hippie-filled community in and around North San Juan Ridge was the compromise my parents had reached after a land purchase for them had fallen through. We would not be on the Ridge, after all, but close enough, engaging in creatively festive and spiritual get-togethers, like annual May Day and Halloween gatherings and periodic full moon poetry readings. A certain Ridge dweller, Robbie Thompson, ran a theater where Ridge and city locals alike performed in the productions, my father and adoptive mother in a few of them. I remember one Black woman with her young son attending one or two of the seasonal gatherings. One other Ridge resident was of Lebanese descent. Her older boyfriend was Black. One woman was Japanese, married to a noted white poet. They had two sons. A certain man was Native American, either half or fully. Another fellow and his cousin were Mexican American. I know I’m leaving out a few small handfuls of others who were non-white or partly so. Otherwise, most of us were white.

Grass Valley itself was predominantly white during the seven years I lived there. Same with nearby Nevada City. This hit me as another culture shock within my first week of middle school at Lyman Gilmore in January of 1978. I asked an English teacher, Mrs. Hinman, who happened to be on yard/hall duty at the end of the day, “Are there any Black people who live here in Grass Valley?” I don’t quite remember exactly what she said, but the very tall, severe-looking gray-haired woman stated something like, “Yes, there’s a Black family living over on [somewhere near downtown].” She delivered this matter-of-factly and satisfactorily, as if assuring me that the large, varied demographic I was asking about was adequately represented simply by the sheer fact that a single family of Black folk existed nearby. I didn’t know what to say. This felt like my formal introduction to a weird-feeling cultural reality of relative homogeneity in my new home community.

My encounters with African Americans and other Black people remained extremely limited while I grew up in Grass Valley. One particular memory comes to mind here. Within the first year or so of living there, I remember walking a short ways down the street from our home to someone else’s house for some reason. I was to speak with the woman there (Debbie I think her name was) possibly about baby-sitting arrangements for my then infant sister. The rationale remains vague to me. I knocked on the door. A handsome, deeply brown-skinned African American man with a short, well-kept Afro answered, Debbie’s boyfriend. She wasn’t home. We spoke briefly about the purpose of my visit and he agreed to give her my message. I think his name was Keith. He was very friendly and glad to converse, which I found discomforting. It’s taken me years to figure out exactly why. An obvious reason was that I felt bad for him that he lived in such a conservative, white area with his white girlfriend. He surely felt isolated yet obvious like a sore thumb. And then I felt guilty for feeling bad for him, like that was somehow condescending. Shame on me. But, deeper down, what I felt was afraid, of myself and for my safety, though not from him. His outer skin color reminded me how I too felt and was different, only I had wiggle room to at least try and hide my difference, albeit often pretty unsuccessfully. Here I was being reminded of how I also didn’t fit in with the locals and was under so much pressure to conform: be straight and straight-acting, not seem like a girl or a fag. I had no visible gay peer group or elders at the time to turn to. None. But, I was in denial about somehow needing such a community, since I was committed at the time to being straight and traditionally masculine. In parallel to me, this guy Keith didn’t have any Black brothers or sisters nearby to hang with, at least not that I could see. Painful. The dissonance for me was palpable, physical, though I couldn’t name it. Also, it’s very possible that I found him attractive and felt self conscious and awkward about it, like I was somehow being bad but didn’t know quite why. (That wasn’t the first or last time I experienced this oblique shame and fear around attractive men during my childhood and adolescence.) I wasn’t surprised when he’d moved away by the next year. I quietly wondered what happened to Keith, but I didn’t know who to ask. He wasn’t a friend of my folks’ or of anyone they knew well. One day, he was simply gone. Some years later, I would be too from Grass Valley, likely for some parallel reason to his, in addition to my parents leaving town for better job opportunities anyway. They settled down as junior college English teachers in the Los Angeles area, not exactly within neighborhoods of diversity in regards to people of color, but closer by such communities. The tension-filled, cheek to jowl pluralism of America continues.

Black history and lives seemed cursorily covered in middle school at Lyman Gilmore, particularly compared to how these subjects had been gone over at Longfellow School in Berkeley. I might as well have moved out of state as opposed to less than three hours’ drive away, the School and local culture felt so different than the Bay Area’s. Steadily, I participated in the racism of the place, seemingly forgetting about my fellow Black humans I’d gone to school with the year before. Horrible racial jokes were told among my peers and, on occasion, by adults around me, such as a bus driver for the local high school. I repeated them now and then, finally stopping this altogether by fifteen or sixteen years of age. It’s like I had been awakened, albeit somewhat overwhelmed for assorted reasons, and then lulled back into a sleepy ignorance, only to finally wake up again. I find that it’s always about constantly waking up, some more, and then some more, and on and on. But, then, life is that way if one is committed to always learning.

While I was being racist with my occasional off color joke telling, I endured homophobic jokes and even told them too sometimes, as a way to try and fit in, denying and shaming a whole part of my own nature. Middle school and then, to a lesser extent, high school was a time of enduring bullying, pretty typical for a femme gay kid in that era and in such a conservative community where the high school football team was so highly celebrated. At least I was never physically beaten up, for which I am grateful. Others have had it much worse, including so many of those who are of racial/ethnic minorities. But, by denying the humanity of others different from myself and the dominant white culture I lived within, I was further denying more of my own humanity, piled onto my internalized homophobia. Depressing. The racism I started to shed, as best I could, later in high school, the homophobia not until college. Some of us are late bloomers, but we evolve and eventually get where we need to go.

In August of 2018, I visited Grass Valley and Nevada City for the first time in twenty-five years. I was heartened to see a large, art-filled cafe in my former hometown, the likes of it akin to places in downtown Cambridge or Somerville, Massachusetts. One of the managers was African American, having moved from the Bay Area to clean up his previously trouble-filled life. He was part of a wave of Bay Area residents, come to Grass Valley and Nevada City to add more progressivism and diversity whilst seeking quieter, simpler lives. The area still was mostly white, but somewhat less so than when I’d left there in 1984. Interestingly and also, the large public high school I attended for ninth and tenth grades, Nevada Union High, seemed to have become a safer place for gay students. At least that’s what I was led to believe by a (white) classmate of mine who I caught up with on Facebook in recent years. His gay son, a dancer, came out while still a student there. I was glad to see some cultural evolution had happened in a place that a part of me thought never could or would change. I appreciate any degree of it wherever and whenever I see it.

I am grateful for my time at Longfellow School in Berkeley. It is now a large middle school, as I just found out online. I’m guessing that Black history is still taught there, which is a blessing that I happened to be regularly exposed to this vital topic in addition to some amount of Chinese American history, albeit far less so. My favorite subject in fifth grade was human anatomy. Unbeknownst to me, I would indeed pursue a career concerning the internal life of humans, just not so much the physiological but, rather, that of the human psyche and all of its resplendent (and not quite resplendent) parts. But, anatomy of the human body and psyche includes and pertains to all of the wondrous people on Earth. I would have missed out on the deep importance of and respect for diversity of humanity had I never gone to rough and tumble feeling Longfellow School and, instead, straight on for fifth grade to homogeneous Lyman Gilmore in conservative Grass Valley. I had traveled across much of Europe, Central America, and Mexico while six years of age, so some seeds of appreciating the vast range of human cultures had been planted inside me. However, only quite recently have I gleaned that more seeds of wonderful connection to humanity and culture got planted a bit later while at Longfellow and living in Berkeley. I’ll never forget the periodic walks with my parents down Telegraph Avenue with all of its street vendors, so many of them people of color. But, that is part of another story.

Mini Movie Review (MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES)

I’ve been watching documentaries lately– three within this past week. The one that stands out for me the most is the fascinating MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES, from 2016. The title is wittily taken from a statement made in the U.S. Senate by the late, ultra conservative Senator Jesse Helms. He pushed to ban the artist’s work from being shown in a museum in DC in 1989, shortly after the famous photographer’s death at aged 42.

Having long enjoyed Robert Mapplethorpe’s skillful, thought-provoking, sensual, and sometimes disturbing photography, the narrative of his life from a Catholic-raised suburban, middle class gay boy to controversial New York City-based avant garde artist of the late 1960s through the ’80s was deeply compelling to me. The visual exploration of gender and race of his human subjects was both playful and venerating. Even this creative master’s photographs of flowers come across as powerfully erotic and beautiful.

For the general public, Mapplethorpe courageously threw open a window into an existing urban gay subculture. By extension, I think this helped force people to acknowledge and grapple with the very real sexuality of queer people in general. And while I wouldn’t have wanted to live his intense life of self destruction and enormous creativity, I very much appreciate the legacy of work and cultural expansion this talented artist left behind.

Science Fiction Story Development Musings: K. AND THE HOMO CEPHALOPODS

The homo cephalopods, or whatever they actually call themselves, are a long-existing species inhabiting a world somewhere far from earth by millions of light years. A land-based civilization, their actual population is unknown, but it is probably somewhere in the billions. They have progressed in technological advancement in seemingly subtle ways. The outside human observer would find it difficult to discern what is actual technology versus extremely efficient evolutionary adaptation of the h. cephalopods to their natural environment. They make use of some created tools with their eight appendages, with just one tool having multiple purposes. In short, they are materially very efficient.

An earlier evolved subspecies of h. cephalopods resides deep under the oceans of this planet of concern. Their population is comparatively smaller than their land dwelling descendants. Contact between these two societies is rare and considered particularly taboo among the above-water kind. However, on occasion, intermingling between them has occurred, leading to many episodes of recorded lore by each set of beings and a small population of half-breed homo cephalopods arising from some of these encounters. These comprise a rare and often especially adaptive and gifted group.

Homo cephalopods, as I shall keep referring to them out of convenience and sheer ignorance (until one or more of them conveys their true nomenclature to a human being), shall be encountered through inner space, namely via shamanic journeying by a very attuned person traveling to the Upper World. It is there that a certain non-binary individual will come upon these sophisticated, mysterious beings. I shall refer to this shamanic journeyer as K., though their name may change during future writings. K. will mentally-astrally ascend to the world of the h. cephalopods and witness an incredible sight.

It will be instantly deduced that the human is in astral form, so the h. cephalopods will reciprocate in kind, journeying mentally so as to properly attend to this out of body visitor. Through K.’s eyes, we will be introduced to what appear as human-sized, and larger, octopus-like entities. These hermaphroditic creatures will likely allow a particularly precocious one of them to approach K. Rapidly gathering information from each brain within every one of hier suction cup-filled tentacles while touching the earthling, s-he will then process it in hier larger central brain. Hier leathery skin and dark, almond-shaped eyes will surely at first be frightening to behold for K.

K. will wonder at the combination of exoskeleton and strong, pliant tissue that comprise the outer body of a homo cephalopod. Since evolving from the ocean over millions of star revolutions of their world, h. cephalopods developed extremely hard shells over their heads and sections of their tentacles. Their marine counterparts do not have these, rendering them comparatively more vulnerable to injury, though they are far better at maneuvering their bodies through small passages and camouflaging themselves to blend in wherever they happen to be.

Sections of this exoskeleton are shed from time to time, to accommodate growth of the h. cephalopod. This aspect of anatomy used to act as armor for the race during their now ancient history of warfare and small scale territorial disputes. Homo cephalopods eventually achieved homeostasis for their kind via peaceful means. A critical mass of them realized large-scale cooperation would save their population and result in more innovations for the overall betterment of the civilization. K. will unknowingly come upon a flourishing society ready to welcome contact with other beings.

Within the same solar system as the planet of the homo cephalopods is another world inhabited by a large mantid peoples, with three particularly dominant species roughly about as tall as human beings. There are green mantids, tan ones, and then those more mixed in coloration, with shades of red, blue, and purple being the predominant hues on those belonging to this third species. There are a range of much smaller, less advanced mantid genera, probably in the hundreds, residing across this primarily arboreal jungle of a world, though there also exist large swaths of savannah land. The tan-colored species of enormous mantids reside in this latter habitat.

All of these insectoid beings have always been war-like. They comprise a beautiful but cruel and hazardous network of societies battling for dominance over the entire land and resources of their verdant planet. The homo cephalopods have been aware of this neighboring world and its comparatively less advanced populations for a while. They have felt reticent to try and assist them with changing their destructive way of life. However, it is possible that the three dominant mantid groups will finally confederate and battle to the death against the underground dwelling tarantula-like creatures, a recently-discovered culture of giant, deadly venomed spider beings inhabiting the vast tundra of the planet’s north pole region. Interestingly, h. cephalopods have been in telepathic contact with these other eight-legged entities. This offers a sliver of nascent hope for peace to possibly occur between the mantids and these advanced arachnids. The h. cephalopods continue to discuss among themselves the best ways to approach helping the neighboring races of their shared solar system.

K. will journey several times to the world of the homo cephalopods. They will show them many places and things on their lands, including clutches of h. cephalopod eggs. These are cooperatively laid and attended to by several adults, with babies hatching and already familiar with each other within a wide radius, having telepathically communicated while still embryos with their fellow hatchlings. All tentacles of each creature pick up sound and tactile vibration signals at the start of gestation, the central brain then storing and slowly translating them throughout the cycle of development. A basic language is then already known by each new h. cephalopod upon hatching.

The knowledge K. takes with them from each shamanic journey back into their physical waking life on earth will be dense and take time to understand and carefully, selectively disseminate to their fellow humans. Fortunately, they belong to a circle of open-minded journeyers, led by a particularly wise and astute shaman and healer, with whom K. can slowly begin to impart some of this wisdom. It is possible that others within this close-knit group will each then also journey to the planet of the homo cephalopods when they next choose to go to the Upper World. Maybe the group leader will ultimately have all members simultaneously journey to this mysterious place K. initially came upon. From there, this small delegation of sensitive humans can begin to share select information of peaceful higher consciousness to others around them. In turn, perhaps even more people will then shamanically travel directly to the h. cephalopods and pass on their deep learning– occurring during these inter-species astral exchanges– far and wide across America and the world.

(This all comprises the framework of a story, or set of stories, waiting for me to write.)

Bruce Lee, Kung Fu Dancer

Recently, while watching Bruce Lee in the ridiculously dubbed movie FIST OF FURY (1972), I was reminded of how I’ve always found his graceful Kung Fu moves just as beautiful as the motions of a talented dancer.

For me, Bruce Lee (birth name Lee Jun-fan) came across as a real-life superhero when I was a child. Sadly, he died not long before I turned seven in the summer of 1973, shortly before I returned to the U.S.A. after a year abroad in Europe and Central America. I spent the next few years or so enjoying images of Bruce wherever I came across them, such as catching snippets of his movies on TV and coming across posters of him in stores or other people’s homes. I wish I could confidently remember the very first time I saw Lee on TV or in a photograph, but I can’t. It wouldn’t be until around aged thirty that I’d finally watch him as Kato in the 1960s campy TV series THE GREEN HORNET and then, still later, in a few cross-over episodes of BATMAN. Certain media celebrities and fantastical beings (such as Marilyn Monroe, Godzilla, or the mighty genie/djinn of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, for example), have a relatively clear touchstone memory of introduction into my world and psyche. It surprises me that Bruce Lee doesn’t….or maybe he does.

There is a memory I have of being about nine years old and visiting a house where my father happened to be busy on a carpentry job. This was in Berkeley, California. It must have been on a weekend or an afternoon, after school. There before me in what seemed to be an entry room or hallway of the house hung a large poster of Bruce Lee, shirtless. His smooth and defined pecs and abs gleamed with sweat. His thick black hair and side burns framed his face, which held an expression of determination, focus, and defiance. I believe it was an enlarged still from his final completed movie ENTER THE DRAGON, released in 1973. Perhaps this is my initial touchstone memory of Mr. Lee, though I’m not at all certain. I sense that I knew about him even before this moment. It is possible that I’d heard talk of Bruce and already seen him in photos or briefly on TV at friends’ or neighbors’ homes. Anyway, I think my mother was standing right next to me during this deeply impressing moment. She explained, either right then or a little later, that Bruce Lee had died from “a stroke” a few years before, due to being too hard on his body. He had exercised too much, too harshly. At that time, I had never heard of this happening to someone. This man of incredible strength and agility, who looked so fit and healthy, had died suddenly from actual physical abuse to himself, like a master pushing a slave to keep laboring through their exhaustion. At least this is the sense I’m left with of how my parents explained what had tragically happened to him. The image of my father pretending to bang his head against a wall to demonstrate just how brutally Bruce practiced his discipline resurfaces in my mind here.

I felt sad for Mr. Lee, disappointed that I would never be able to meet this handsome man of such skill and grace. I have found that grief so often arises over the loss of potential, what could have been but wasn’t. I grieved over something that, for me, never existed, in this case, the possibility to follow with adoration the life of someone actually alive in the world. There I was, come to awareness too late of a great man long gone while also being too young to fully understand what I intuitively was appreciating. I would simply have to make do with treasuring whatever legacy Bruce Lee left behind– his movies, TV show appearances, photographs, and writings.

Life has a way of distracting and taking one’s focus elsewhere. I had frequent moves with my parents and subsequent adjusting to deal with, school to attend and homework to complete, and an imagination already filled with assorted imagery and other stimuli to keep me plenty occupied. Bruce Lee entered the labyrinth of my psyche, taking his place among many icons and magical beings. On occasion, he would be mentioned during play with childhood peers, where sometimes I pretended to be Mr. Lee fighting off villains, executing what I thought to be his trademark “flying kick” to fell evil men.

At around age twelve, I seized the opportunity to finally see Bruce Lee on the big screen. Having moved to the small Northern California city of Grass Valley by this time, I attended a screening of ENTER THE DRAGON put on by a local projectionist, who made it a point to show movies in town for a reasonable admission fee. I was entranced from beginning to end with the film, marveling at Lee’s incredible grace, agility, speed, strength, passion, and– though I dared not admit it to myself then– sweaty, lithe sexiness. In one scene, a supporting character in the drama musingly referred to him as a “human fly” while watching Bruce jump high up onto a rock wall and either proceed to scale it or walk with ease along its narrow edge. (Given this was over forty years ago, my memory of the actual imagery is not very clear. Regardless, it was some impressive feat of balance and strength evoking comparison to the fine movements of an insect.) His animal-like stances, leaps, punches, hand chops, and kicks relayed a super-human, aggressive form of dance, the intensity enhanced by his constant howling-like kiai’s/battle cries. Every time Bruce was on-screen I watched with rapt attention, captivated by such charisma.

What particularly both moved me yet also puzzled my naive pre-teen mind was Lee’s dramatic facial expressions, namely in one slow motion scene where he jumps upon a villain’s back, crushing it. The camera focuses on Bruce’s pain-filled visage, his eyes wide and mouth pulled back. The emotions of rage, anguish, sadness, perhaps also disbelief, pass through him like shifting lightning bolts captured on very slow film. Pure passion within such intense focus. I wondered what was actually going through his mind in this scene, both his own and the character’s he was portraying. That particular image of Lee’s face lingered in my thoughts for at least a few days. I never arrived at a clear answer to my wondering, but simply found peace around the not knowing. I came to realize that Lee was a complex person, driven yet thoughtful, with a profound ability to focus his will like a laser. My much later reading of a book he wrote about his actual life philosophy confirmed this impression. There, he stressed the importance of being both formless yet adaptive and flowing like water.

The union of beauty in form and movement, such as Bruce Lee’s, is special. Dance often relays this embodiment, succinctly stated by W.B. Yeats’ question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” According to Wikipedia, dance is defined as “a performing art form consisting of purposefully selected sequences of human movement. This movement has aesthetic and symbolic value.” Martial arts, including Bruce Lee’s invention of Jeet Kune Do, is considered to have a dance-like quality to it, because, though it is a fighting art with vanquishment of a perceived foe as a primary goal, there is also an aesthetic intent to its movements. Dance occurs mainly to evoke pleasure, wonder, even bliss in the viewer and/or participant. In regards to Bruce Lee and his film and television performances of Jeet Kune Do, he especially met the criteria of doing actual dancing in conjunction with displaying a fighting (warrior/martial) art. Since performance for viewers was primary, with actual defeat of opponents in combat scenes being fictional actions as a means to create entertainment, the aesthetic purpose of Lee’s martial art was pushed to the forefront for a worldwide audience, like what is done with dance. (More intimately, the truly martial aspect of his art was, of course, expressed through the actual classes he taught and his own personal practice. But, I am less concerned with that whole domain of Lee’s discipline here.) I have no doubt he performed his deft foot work, kicks, and strikes to evoke in viewers a sense of wonder and pleasure at the incredible grace emanating from his body. His on-screen opponents are partners in dance. They follow through on choreographed moves, as traditional dance techniques do, albeit explicitly driven by polarized aggression, with touches of erotic energy and intent more in the background, just enough to enhance keeping the opponents’ attention locked on each other. Conversely, traditional dance moves appear to stem more from a source of polarized, controlled erotic energy, the aggression aspect underplayed yet present as well, or sometimes even equally so to the erotic, depending on the dance style. Hence, dance and martial arts– certainly Jeet Kune Do as performance– can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, if not two neighboring sections on the same side. An end result for both of these different movement arts is a multi-dimensional– or form and movement united– expression of beauty, to be enjoyed by onlookers. Bruce Lee for me was and is like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire was to my grandparents and parents, masters of graceful movement through time and space, i.e., dance, immortalized on screen, while each looked wonderfully dapper in his unique ways. It is no wonder Mr. Lee developed such a following and maintains one to this day, attracting men and women alike for both similar and different reasons as fans experience for Kelly, Astaire, and other famous dancers.

Over a year after watching ENTER THE DRAGON, I started attending a local Jujitsu dojo (school). This Japanese martial art, which focused on avoiding aggression and deflecting attackers via using their own forceful energy against them as much as possible, could not have been more different than Bruce Lee’s explicitly aggressive Jeet Kune Do. For a time, Tyron, the tall, muscular, raven-haired Italian-American Sensei (teacher) at the dojo became somewhat super-imposed in my psyche with Bruce Lee. Before me on a weekly basis was a real-life, darkly handsome martial arts master who, on at least a few occasions, gave me extra attention in between classes. However, at thirteen and fourteen, I was too young and insecure to fully appreciate this man’s kind gestures. What else strikes me, though, about that two years-long experience of martial arts training was how the Sensei mentioned Bruce Lee on a few different instances while teaching us students. He compared styles of certain Jujitsu moves to Lee’s Jeet Kune Do ones, demonstrating how Bruce was a worthy, memorable influence in the overall field of martial arts. I warmed at these brief intersections of my inner world with outer life. Lee’s legacy really did live on(!).

It took me years to integrate my understanding of why and how I embraced Bruce Lee as such a worthy icon. Often, venerating beauty is initially a simple impulse, born of intuition and longing, like a budding flower opening to the sun. It simply feels right to do. Being attracted since childhood to an assortment of appealing, fascinating images, tales, and concepts borne out of the Near and Far East, Lee harmoniously fit within that matrix of my interests. How he stood out from all of this was that he was a man who had actually been alive in relatively recent times and possessed seemingly heroic powers. He represented a union of male beauty and strength, sheer power in pursuit of the greater good, channeled through perfecting his body and movement while deepening his mind. Paradoxically (and, hence, humanly), Lee pursued world stardom, an often selfish endeavor, while also generously developing and teaching others a philosophy of harmony through clearer thinking, being, and movement (like water). He was still early on in developing a healthy life path for others to further emulate or at least draw from, his movie and TV show appearances an expression of his public persona, one of beauty in form and movement. He apparently explained that his martial art was poetic metaphor for his philosophy. Cut down too young (aged 32) from cerebral edema, Lee’s loss was tragic, given his deep potential that he’d only just tapped and started sharing with the world. But, in my own way, I slowly took in what I could of Bruce Lee’s legacy of beauty and wisdom he left behind. And, now and then, I return to take in a bit more.

Road Rage as a Learning Moment

Road rage in Massachusetts is out of control, as I imagine it is in a lot of other states throughout the U.S.  Earlier, I was driving down a main thoroughfare when a burly white guy from off a side street pushed his car into oncoming traffic, in front of me, to my left.  I shook my head at him as I drove on by.  Shortly, he sped up from behind, turned into a store parking lot (to my right) and barreled along there while making it a point to flip me the bird– instead of watch where he was going.

Toxic masculinity is a real thing, be it on the road or anywhere else.  This problematic phenomenon admittedly irritates me when I’m faced with it head on.  It’s all such an obnoxious exhibition of childish entitlement, lack of empathy, and poor sense of boundaries.  Very un-evolved.  Breathe and enter a peaceful place, I try to remind myself, time and again.  This behavior from some men is troublesome and, ultimately, rather sad.  Toxic masculine men deeply challenge my human compassion capacity.  Therein lays the reason why they continue to be teachers of sorts for me.  Live and learn, then wake up another day to keep living and learning, while also taking no shit.

Taking Up Space

I walk this graceful and sometimes clumsy line of doing my best to take up my rightful physical (and otherwise) space in the world without over-stepping into others’ space. I’m very aware of my privilege as a white, professional male and how I’ve overly taken up a lot of space, some of which here and there was not rightfully mine to take. Then, there’s the actual space that I and my needs naturally fill up, which is ultimately non-negotiable. Between this delineation has been a confusing, gray seeming area for me, which, thankfully, has become less and less so over the years. I think this is a challenge many of us– if not all– humans learn to navigate better as we grow.

Hear hear to all the disenfranchised people taking up more of their rightful space!

Quick Thoughts on Kraft and Human Traffickers

Personally, I have no moral judgment against consenting adults receiving money for sex from other consenting adults, as long as all parties concerned are doing so completely from a place of free will. I don’t think it’s my place to judge what consenting adults do with each other behind closed doors, including whether money is exchanged between them or not. But, it’s a different matter altogether with trafficked individuals, who have been captured and imprisoned into a life of prostitution. Shame on both the traffickers and purchasers of the “services” provided in such heinous, criminal circumstances. Robert Kraft and others should know better. To Kraft et al, I say, find unfettered consenting adults for sexual servicing and stop perpetuating a cycle of brutal exploitation. And I do think that paying for sex with a trafficked individual should be considered a serious felony offense, and an even more grave one if the person is a minor.

This incident involving Kraft is yet another example of largely rich white males continuing to exploit women and minorities in this skewed, power-imbalanced culture. Nothing new, sadly, but well-worth fighting to stop.

Me, Maria Muldaur, and Black Panther

In February of 1975, my parents decided to resign their posts as English teachers at Modesto Junior College to travel around California and, if I remember correctly, British Columbia, Canada for the rest of the school year.  We mostly stayed at friends’ and friends of friends’ homes, driving around in my mom’s 1960-something VW station wagon and then, soon, a 1969 VW van.  It may have already been the latter vehicle we rode in entirely during this period.

In any case, my parents made it a point to go to my 3rd grade classroom and gather text books and consumable lesson manuals for me to work through during the months ahead.  I did not consciously know it at the time, nor did my parents, but this method of on-the-road homeschooling would be problematic for me.  I learn best by listening to and watching someone disseminate information in a classroom setting, taking in information primarily via my hearing, enhanced along by visual aides, such as viewing writing on a chalkboard, slideshows, movies, etc.  Some interactive question and answer time can help with my learning as well.  But, alas, here I was left to my own devices to take in information and express it back via only the two-dimensional pages of texts and workbooks.  Through life experience, one lives and clearly learns what works and what doesn’t.

Focusing was a challenge to no end, made particularly difficult by having no routine of place and time as we moved around from day to day or week to week.  My parents’ minds were preoccupied elsewhere, such as deciding where to go next and how to save money, among many other adult concerns.  “Did you finish your homework today?” was a frequent refrain I heard from Mom and sometimes Dad.  “No, not yet,” I often replied.  “Well, get to it!” was said, usually by my mother, or some other similar response.  That was largely the extent of my parents’ involvement with my schooling during this latter part of my year in 3rd grade.  I was eight years old.  I sat with school books in other people’s dining rooms, living rooms, outside on sidewalk curbs, doing my best to get through some reading, writing, or math lesson (though the math I barely remember working on, as it’s possible I did not have a math workbook).  My imagination and ever-changing environment distracted me to no end, that and a deep sense of loneliness and uncertainty.  Looking back, it is amazing that I managed to complete whatever schoolwork I did.  Many of the pictures in the books and manuals were interesting to look at, which helped somewhat to sustain my attention.

Around the beginning of this itinerant period, I remember us staying on a few occasions in a semi-communal household of young women.  This was still in Modesto, or somewhere close by, I believe.  One of them, Christy Ellis, had been a student of either my father’s or mother’s and had taken an interest in me.  The year before, when she lived alone, I had spent a lot of time with Christy in her small apartment listening to then popular music, such as Joanie Mitchell’s latest album, and doing things together in downtown Modesto.  But, that is perhaps for another story.  So, there we were, hanging out with Christy and her roommates, a group of women in their early to mid twenties, my parents being older by less than ten years.

I started talking to one of the roommates, bonding with her around the new Maria Muldaur album she was playing one morning.  “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion,” crooned a sultry woman’s voice through the stereo.  I was entranced.  Some months before, I’d been swept up by Ms. Muldaur’s 1973 and ’74 hit song “Midnight at the Oasis,” my imagination carried along to an exotic desert locale with camels and a large, bejeweled tent filled with plush cushions and female belly dancers.  I was thrilled that this beautiful woman singer had another record out, this time with a song that made me want to move from within a deep erotic place that I was far too young to understand.

While staying in this household, two publications made deep impressions on me.  One was the week’s current issue of PEOPLE MAGAZINE laying prominently out on a coffee table in the living room.  A closeup of Cher was on the cover.  She wore multiple turquoise necklaces and her head of long black hair was topped with a cowboy hat, feathers stuck in its brim.  A Native American look was clearly going on, which was especially trendy at the time.  She smiled broadly at the camera, her long purple polished fingernails matching her dark lipstick and eye makeup.  I was impressed and intrigued but in a muted, interrupted way.  On one hand, this photo embodied the dark-haired witch imagery of powerful, mysterious women with whom I’d already started to become intrigued.  On the other hand, my parents disapproved of such an expression of blatant excess and, I’m pretty certain, co-opting of Native American culture.  Mom also found imagery of women in commercial media, such as that of Cher on PEOPLE’s cover, to be sexist, objectifying.  Dad found that particular picture pretentious and, again (I strongly believe), co-opting of Native Americans.  I remember him complaining about the picture to someone when we were away from the house.  (My folks had already begun researching Native American cultures and we would later visit Indian reservations in the years to come.)  So, to avoid irking Mom and Dad, I secreted away my own fascination with this photo, which was neither borne out of sexist objectification or viewing it as having anything to do with crass, superficial emulation of Native Americans.  To me, in a deep intuitive way, the image simply embodied an aspect of the Great Goddess, who I would grow up to understand and revere as a core part of my spirituality.  I would go on to watch THE SONNY AND CHER SHOW on TV now and then, enjoying Cher’s chameleon-like quality of colorful, showy costume changes and theatricality, though never caring much for her singing.  There was something magical to her then that captured my rich imagination.

The other periodical that struck me deeply at this time– far more so than the PEOPLE issue’s cover– was the Marvel Comics series BLACK PANTHER.  I was either in a local supermarket or convenience store with Christy or one of her roommates when I came across the latest issue of it on a stand.  The actual initial moment of discovering the comic is vague to me, but I know I was accompanying one of the young women of the household and not either of my parents.  At my request, she bought a copy for me, which I’m pretty sure neither Mom nor Dad would have done at the time.  Back then, they often were reluctant to buy me such mindless “trash,” especially my mom.  (She has long since relaxed around my liking of comics, having even bought me one or two as gifts.)  The comic cover was that of a hyper muscular man covered from head to toe in a tight black costume that stuck to him like a second skin, a pointy little feline ear on each side of his head.  Pure masculine strength stared out at me with virile determination, ready to lunge.  I was hooked.  Complementing Maria Muldaur’s wonderful, sizzling “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion,” here was the object of my interest to act out that song, except it was both the meat and the motion.  However, I had no idea about such a connection between the song and this image for me at the time, I just knew I had to have the comic.

Back at the house, I proceeded to look through the colored newsprint pages and managed to recruit Christy to read the story to me, which I found both suspenseful and disturbing.  I have very little recollection of the actual narrative, which was mid-story, following from previous issues.  What I do remember is that the opening scene beheld the hero, Black Panther, bending over a pool of water in a wild jungle, nursing his wounds.  His body suit was torn in several places, revealing bleeding, brown-skinned flesh.  His vulnerability and pain upset me deeply.  I wanted to go to him and help somehow in his time of need.  I wanted him to be strong and healthy again, like how he was portrayed on the cover.  Some villains were stalking Black Panther and it was basically a kill or be killed situation.  I think I had one of Christy’s friends read the comic to me as well.  I stashed the comic somewhere and eventually misplaced it during our travels and many moves.

Like Black Panther by himself in the wild and facing danger, I felt alone and uncertain during that year I discovered him and throughout most of my childhood and adolescence.  My wounds weren’t physical like his in the comic book, but they were there inside me due to familial discord resulting in my parents divorcing before I turned five and me subsequently having to adjust to a new mother, Dad’s second wife.  In the summer of 1973, I had lived with my father and (new) mother in a thatched roof hut in the jungle of Belize for two months, which I had very much enjoyed, the weather being warm and the lizard and amphibian fauna particularly fascinating to observe.  I’m sure this positive experience further enhanced for me the mystique of Black Panther and his own jungle life.  In short, I could deeply relate to Black Panther and his predicament in the comic, even though my jungle was no longer a literal one but one often made up of asphalt and concrete, unpredictability, and social isolation from peers and consistent adult attention.  I had to learn to navigate this frequently rough outer and inner terrain on my own, or so it felt at the time.

The primal male strength yet vulnerability and heroism of Black Panther deeply appealed to me as a fatherly protector in my colorful, wish-fulfilling fantasy life.  This contrasted with the actual life of a sensitive, sad little boy in need of more tender attention than he happened to be getting from loving, but otherwise preoccupied and insecure parents.  Obviously, though, there were more implications than this.  Black Panther was clearly an early fantasy crush for me, one clue of many that I was different from most latency-aged boys and their nascent sexual interests.

In 1975, my imagination did not just find ways to comfort and entertain me, for it often met those deep needs just well enough.  My creative thinking led me to inwardly and outwardly listen to my very own growing life impulses, impulses of how my body wanted to move and feel and who I wanted to move and feel with in the world.  Listening to Maria Muldaur awoke something in me, her singing giving voice to these budding stirrings, those nonverbal, primal urges to celebrate life, such as through dancing alone and with others, which I would eventually do now and again over the  years to come, while enjoying feeling deeply erotic, both alone and with others.  Black Panther offered me a sense of where and to who I would direct and share those impulses as I grew up.  This would almost entirely be with men, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.  And both Ms. Muldaur’s singing and the images of Black Panther gave me meaning when I so badly needed it, being an oasis or safe clearing for me in a desert or jungle of fear, loneliness and frequent boredom, affirming that the sky was the limit as far as being able to envision the great expanse of beauty and wonder in the universe.  From grand tents filled with belly dancers in a faraway desert to hunky, powerful feline men in a jungle, or anything else you can possibly imagine, there is always more to life than whatever tedious, solitary-feeling difficulties happen to be at hand in the moment.  Meaning and connection to something more and bigger than one’s own lonely existence is there to be found.  Connecting one’s imagination to the imaginable in the world around you, it’s all good.  Doing so has been a life saver for me.