Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Second-Hand Rose" (on the marriage of Douglas Messerli and Howard Fox)

second-hand rose

Howard Fox and Douglas Messerli were married at the Beverly Hills Courthouse on November 22, 2013.

Father has a business strictly second hand
Everything from toothpicks to a baby-grand
Stuff in our apartment came from father’s store
Even things I’m wearing someone wore before
It’s no wonder that I feel abused
I never get a thing that ain’t been used

I’m wearing second hand hats
Second hand clothes
That's why they call me
Second hand rose

Even our piano in the parlor
Father bought for ten cents on the dollar
Second hand pearls
I’m sick of second hand curls
I never get a single think that's new
Even Jake, the plumber, he's a man I adore
Had the nerve to tell me he's been married before!

Everyone knows that I’m just
Second hand rose
From second avenue!
From second avenue! nu!

Lyrics by Grant Clarke

After just a couple of months short of 44 years of being together, Howard Fox and I were married at the Beverly Hills Courthouse this past Friday—thanks to the Supreme Court ruling to dismiss the challenge to a California court ruling and the higher court’s abolition of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. Since we had missed out on the brief period some years ago when we night have married in California, I had argued that if the Supreme Court decision did again allow it in our state, we should finally marry—if for no other reason than declare publicly our love, even though we had privately made that clear for so many decades. The overturning of DOMA, moreover, now meant that married couples might receive each others' social security and other benefits after death. While we were able for the past two years to file joint Federal Income Tax as California Domestic Partners, we now could do so only if were to be married. So our desire to announce our long-time love also nicely dove-tailed with further protections and benefits that had previously been denied us.

      We had been proud of our relationship, however, for all these years, pleased that we had stuck out are sometimes difficult times, despite the fact that we could not legally reiterate it. Indeed, it had almost become a badge of honor that we had remained so close despite the fact that we could not legally marry. That we had achieved a social marriage that many of our heterosexual friends had not been able to maintain created, in some respects, an even deeper bond between us, a bond that didn’t need the social institutions of church and state, or even the support of friends—although most of our friends had, in fact, supported us, and we had experienced very little if any prejudice or disparagement (at least to our faces). Yes, my and mother and father, when we first told them back in 1970 that we were gay and in a permanent relationship, had stood up at the dinner table in Washington, D.C., collected their luggage and drove immediately back to Iowa in disdain. Yet, even then, they had eventually come round, accepting Howard as someone they loved because I loved him. More recently, my mother had expressed her reservations again by suggesting that I need not tell any of her friends in her assisted living home that I was planning to marry another man—to which I laughed, assuring her that I had no intentions of telling her friends anything, while reiterating to her that I was entirely proud of the upcoming event. But these were perhaps the only negative reactions we have ever witnessed. In the Capitol city we were invited and attended a dinner at Vice President’s Mondale’s home and a party at Jimmy Carter’s White House. When we moved from Washington to Los Angeles, the Washington Post announced that Howard would be leaving the Hirshhorn Museum with his companion, me—which I believe was the first time that august paper had referred to a gay relationship in such a matter-of-fact manner. In short, we had long perceived ourselves in a situation such as what the New York Times today described :

                        Marriage as an institution lost much of its power over our lives,
                        but marriage as a relationship became more powerful than ever.
                        (Stephanie Coontz)

      Yet, for years we had naively made no plans for what might happen after one of our deaths. We had several joint bank accounts, and many things, such as the car, were in both our names, so we felt protected. When we did consult a lawyer to discuss our wills we were startled to be told just how vulnerable we had been. Without a will and several other documents we might not have visiting rights if one of us were to be hospitalized; certainly we would have no power to make decisions for the other concerning health care and artificial extension of life. If one of us had died, money and possessions could be claimed by each others' family members, leaving the survivor without anything. Dutifully we corrected those issues, writing a will, establishing decision-making rights for hospital care, etc. We also were among the first to sign with the State of California as domestic partners. So, except for spousal benefits, we were, after all, not in a situation very different from legally married heterosexuals.
      Or were we? As more and more states--and the gay, lesbian, and the transgender citizens within them-- began to change their marriage laws, I felt, surely much like Mary Chaney must feel about her Republican sister, Liz, who, in running for the Senate in Wyoming, opposes same-sex marriage: how can someone whom supposedly loves you stand against your equal rights (Mary wrote: “You’re just wrong, and on the wrong side of history.”) If marriage is the important institution that many claim it to be—reiterating the couple’s love, solidifying their goals, and allowing them to raise a family—why should we, same-sex American citizens, not have the opportunity to share that rite?
     If Christ proclaimed that the greatest  commandment is love, why did others, speaking in his name, keep people like Howard and me from expressing that commitment? Granted that Jesus was not speaking necessarily of “eros” (sexual love) but “agape” or “philia”; yet throughout the Old Testament love is used much more widely to mean both love between the sexes and love of God or of God’s love for his people. And how can you truly separate these forms of love, when words expressing love are used throughout both Testaments as metaphors for one another?  
     To express it more colloquially, why are people like us often treated as “second-hand” beings, permanent outsiders to one of the most basic joys of life? We were, so I suddenly contemplated, a kind of "second-hand Rose."
      Increasingly, I discovered, I was growing angry with people, who I now perceived as outright bigots, for their opposition to something which so many other countries (even countries where Catholicism still matters very much, such as Spain and France) had accepted and even blessed. Why were Americans continuing their love of guns and hating married homosexuals? I believe that, inevitably the whole US will have to come to the conclusion—as they have had to concerning so many other issues—that equality is the only choice. But why are those others so intent on delaying or ending that choice?        

    Accordingly, Howard and I both became increasingly determined after the Supreme Court decisions to act, and in the last week of October we drove to the nearest courthouse, in Beverly Hills, to apply for our marriage license. Even that act brought some joy to both of us. Certainly, we knew nothing in our lives would outwardly change; we’d already been through “better and worse,” we’d strongly survived all the difficulties marriage can present, except perhaps for the indignities of old age. Yet we did begin to feel somewhat differently, with Howard, in particular, growing increasingly pleased with the upcoming event. We called our friends, Diana Daves (my former editor at Sun and Moon and Green Integer) and her husband, John McLaughlin, to see if they might serve as our witnesses, to which they readily agreed. On a trip to Minneapolis I bought two $1.00 rings at the Walker Art Gallery shop, since neither of us wear jewelry. We might have deleted the exchange of rings from our ceremony, but I liked the symbolism of the act. Two days before the wedding, our cleaning woman and friend, Ana-María Abraham, a devout Catholic, arrived with pink roses to celebrate the upcoming event.
      Another of my former editors, Perla Karney and her husband Ami, sent us a beautiful succulent arrangement on the day of the wedding. At the courthouse we met up with Diana and John, and then entered, after several other weddings, the room devoted to marriages, where a wonderful Black woman judge earnestly and quote meaningfully married us, imploring us to put one another before ourselves while not giving up ourselves and our differences. Our mention that we had already shared nearly 44 years together, greatly impressed her. We then joined our witnesses at a wonderful lunch at a nearby French restaurant, Buchon.
      That afternoon we sent out Facebook and e-mail notifications:

                                    JUST MARRIED—AFTER 44 YEARS
                           DOUGLAS MESSERLI AND HOWARD FOX
                         at the Beverly Hills Courthouse, November 22, 2013

     Over the next few days we received over 500 responses from friends with mazel tovs and congratulations. Some teased us about waiting so long. Others were surprised that we planned no honeymoon. A few asked us if we now felt—after all these years—any different. Surprisingly, we both did feel somewhat changed. We felt the joy, if nothing else, of finally being able to express our solidarity with our friends, family, and the generations who had been able to choose to momentarily express their specialness as a couple, to demonstrate, if only for a day or two, that they were part of the entire community of individuals instead of being perceived as slightly inferior beings living a “second-hand” life.

Los Angeles, November 26, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

"Meetings and Departures" (on a visit to my sister and mother)

meetings and departures

I visited my sister and mother in Boone, Iowa on November 8th through the 10th in 2013

I’ll meet you at the bottom of the escalator, e-mailed my sister about my impending arrival in Des Moines on November 8, 2013. I had been to a sales conference in Minneapolis, and being that close to my home state of Iowa, I had determined it was time to revisit my 88 year old mother, whom I had not seen for three long years, the last time being a special Thanksgiving dinner which my sister and I had hosted, the last event celebrated in her home before she determined to return to assisted an living home in which she had temporarily been staying. Now she was living across the state from that original residence, in an Eastern Star Home which my sister had found for her. Although I called and spoke long to my mother every week, I felt I had to see her again before the inevitable might occur.

    I had seen my sister, Pat, fairly recently, on a trip to California that she had made with her husband, Scott, her daughters Jenny and Jill, Jenny’s husband Ryan, and their two twins, Maggie and Savannah. During my brief stay in Iowa I was planning to stay with my sister.
     The small plane connecting from Minneapolis to Des Moines, a Delta Airlines flight, arrived uneventfully and on-time, and I quickly preceded with the others on the flight to the afore-mentioned escalator. In the second row of a series of fixed seats sat a woman, who I recognized, faintly, as my sister. I say “faintly” because I was tired, my eyes slightly blurred, and my powers of perception not as sharp as they usually are. There are also times when we see, even loved ones, from a slightly new perspective that, although reminding us of the original image of family and friends, presents them also in a slightly disorientating and “different” perspective. This woman, who I logically knew to be my sister, seemed somehow transformed. In part, it was because she was reading, leaning into her computer, head bent, completely transfixed by the words before her. In that position she looked slightly older than I had ever perceived my sister (who is now 60 years of age), her breasts slightly sagging, her eyes a bit tearful. Perhaps she is being emotionally moved by the work, I thought to myself. I stood for a while beside the row in which she sat, hoping that she might look up and recognize me, freeing me from any lingering doubts. But she remained “caught up,” so to speak in her reading, transfixed in a world that clearly did not include me and which also, accordingly, slightly transformed her own visage.
     Pat is a vigorous, forceful woman, whom you might describe as an high-achiever, an organized and engaged woman, clearly in charge of her world. But this “figure,” hunched over her Kindle, in her inattentiveness of the world about her, in her fixation on the text before her, seemed like someone else, and I was a bit afraid of disturbing her, afraid that I might, in fact, discover that she was not my sister, at least not the sister whom I felt I knew so well.
     “Pat,” I called out. There was no response, as if I were speaking in a vacuum. “Pat,” I dared speak even louder. Still no recognition that anyone stood near or, for that matter, that all of my fellow fliers had just trudged past. My sister hates her given name, which I now brandished in the hopes that it might awaken her from her enchantment: “Patricia?” Still, no reaction came from this dreaming woman. Since she did not respond to her own name, perhaps, I imagined, a bit like a blind man, that she was not “Pat,” but another woman sitting there in her place. So confused was I that I walked past her, checking out the baggage area, where I saw no one even slightly similar to her appearance. Laughing at myself and the ridiculous situation, I turned back.
     In my absence the reader had apparently stood up to put on her coat. Perhaps the spell had been broken, I pondered. But still, the magic talisman of her name had no effect. “Pat?” I cried out, slightly desperate at this point to be recognized. Still the reader was silent, caught up in her book. I considered actually going over to sit beside her, but that seemed so intrusive that I stopped mid-way. What if she really weren’t my sister, I ludicrously considered. Finally, the reader momentarily awoke, looking up and then, quickly, at her watch.
     “Pat,” I called out one last time. She looked in my direction and quickly stood, suddenly becoming the woman I had known now for 60 years. She was now my sister without a doubt, and quickly led me out to her waiting car.
      When I later humorously tried to retell the story of her inattention, she felt abashed and embarrassed, insisting that I must have whispered her name. But I saw the momentary (about 10 minutes in all) lack of recognition—hers of the world outside the word, mine the failure to identify my own sibling—as slightly moving, certainly poignant. For a few moments we, both of us, were not the beings we thought we had become, but were somewhat elderly figures in a landscape in which we could no longer recognize even ourselves. I tried to explain it to Pat by recalling the time, years earlier, when Howard and I had dined in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. Across the way was a woman who eerily looked, at least from a certain angle, like my mother. Of course, my Midwestern mother was not dining in this D.C. restaurant, and besides, head-on the woman did not look like my mother at all. Yet….again and again I kept staring at this woman who, in profile, looked so much like my mother that I couldn’t comfortably eat or even sit in that restaurant without feeling ill at ease.
     Pat laughed. “You should have spoken up,” she responded, always the rationalist.
    The next day she took me to the Eastern Star Home to see my mother. Both Pat and I had told my mother numerous times that I was coming to visit her, but my mother’s short-term memory had nearly disappeared, and when we suddenly came upon her and her walker in the hall, she was startled by my sudden appearance, although most pleasantly surprised. I greeted her almost as I might an acquaintance whom I had just encountered on the street, but a quick return to her room, which she ruled, sitting upon her favorite chair, brought back our intimacy. If she had forgotten that I might be there, she was nonetheless absolutely delighted that I was there and was planning to share lunch with her. 

     In the dining room, the workers had set up a separate table for me and my mother, which clearly disappointed her, since she was hoping to sit at her usual table so that she might introduce to one and all her older son come all the way from California. Soon, other diners began to appear, each of them with a walker in front, she way-laying each of them with her introduction of “My son from California.”
     As I sat across from her after all these years, seeing her in her new “home,” I could suddenly saw how, although she was still a regal beauty, that she had grown older, her beloved hair (she demands a weekly permanent and rinse) beginning to thin out. She was, however, still strong of mind, able to recall things long past, only forgetful about what I had told her a few moments just before. Pat had told me the joyful news that my brother Dave, his wife, Jill, and his son, Pete, along with Pete’s fiancée Ashley—whom none of us had yet met—was coming to join us the next day. My mother’s three children had also not been together for years, and the event loomed large in my mind. Every few moments, however, my mother would repeat, “Are you going to see Dave on this trip?” or “Are you coming back tomorrow?” or “I better fill out a form for tomorrow’s lunch.” I repeated, “Yes I’ll see Dave, and you will too. We’re all going out to eat,” or “You don’t need to choose tomorrow’s meal, because we’re taking you out.” But she simply could not recall a few minutes later, repeating her questions over and over.
     From my phone calls with her, I knew that she had become slightly demented, but I had no idea how serious it had become. And it was utterly no use to say, “you just asked that,” or even slightly scold her for her inattention, because she was oblivious in her lack of remembering, blind even to the frustrations one might feel for her inabilities.
     I tried to imagine the fog in which she must live, a world in which she can obviously recognize and know what is going on, but, simultaneously, is unable to piece it all together, unable to comprehend that my being there might also result in another day or two of joy. And I realized how fearful one might feel in such a situation, where at any moment, inexplicably, the joy one felt in suddenly and accidentally encountering a loved one, might suddenly disappear as quickly as it had come

    The next morning, Pat called my mother to remind her we were coming to pick her up, and my mother, miraculously, seemed suddenly to recall the promise I had several times made. Well dressed, she arrived,  quite literally, basking in the joy of the arriving family members. I cannot ever recall her smiling, as if being washed over with an afternoon sun, so continuously. As little as she usually eats, she downed two pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and two cups of coffee at the Pizza Ranch where the 14 family members celebrated.
     Afterwards, Pat, in taking my mother home, suggested she take us on a short tour of the schools and houses where her daughters lived. It was almost touching, as we passed the high school, to spot my niece, Jill, with whom we had just dined, busy grading papers in her classroom. It was a pleasant journey, much of it through a beautiful park, a journey which my mother seemed to encourage—that is, until suddenly, half way through these various detours, she announced to my sister, “My goodness, I never knew that I lived so long away from your house!” We laughed and returned her to her residence.
     Pat and I took her to her room, and there, after a few more words, we did, just as my mother had always feared, “disappear.” Kissing her goodbye, I noticed tears welling in my mother’s old eyes, tears of love and joy certainly, but also tears of loss and loneliness. She would not see me, and she knew it, for a very long time—perhaps not ever again, although I promised to revisit her soon.
     My sister reminded her of their regular Wednesday meetings, when Pat always brought her a bottle of wine, which the two women, mother and daughter, shared in a slightly illicit bond. “Mother loves her wine,” she repeated about a woman who had been a teetotaler almost all her life.
     Pat is less of a sentimentalist than I, and upon leaving her she briefly allowed a kiss before driving off  as I stood still at the curb. The pleasure of her and my family’s company, also for me, had been far too short.
     Upon opening the door to our condominium on my return home, our cat Lily loudly called out to me in what seemed like genuine joy, rushing toward me to get her deserved petting.

Los Angeles, November 14, 2013
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2013).

Photographs ©2013 by Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Meat" (on dinner with Pablo in Minneapolis)


Dinner with Pablo at Manny’s Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis, our dinner was on November 7, 2013

I have several vegetarian friends who eat neither meat nor fish. Fortunately, the two friends with whom I dine most often, Deborah Meadows and Pablo, are not entirely disgusted with my open consumption, when I am with them, of fish, meat, and other of what they obviously consider unhealthy and, perhaps, even unethical foods. For the most part, I try to meet them half-way in our choices of restaurants, dining at Indian, Chinese, Himalayan, and Japanese eateries—although the last of these cuisines sometimes poses challenges as well.
     When I recently took my typesetter Pablo to Minneapolis, we began, the first night of our stay, at a nearby restaurant, Riverspoon (apparently a reference to the city’s large spoon bridge with cherry by artist Claes Oldenburg), which, we were assured, had a large vegetarian menu. The food was quite eclectic and, despite my fears, was fairly sophisticated. I ordered up a delicious wall-eyed pike (a specialty of city in the land of a thousand lakes), Pablo ordering a salad and white bean soup.
     The next evening, however, I selfishly took a step further, pulling Pablo into a nearly all-fish menu at Sea-Catch, a restaurant located within the Guthrie, where we were attending a play. Here the vegetarian selections were winnowed down to just a couple of choices, and again Pablo chose a dish with white beans, the base also of my eye-catching Arctic Char. He seemed satisfied however, accompanying his dish, once again, by a salad—which, we both agreed, had a dressing that tasted somewhat of bacon, even though the waiter assured us that it was just a non-meat ingredient.
     On our final night in the Twin Cities, however, I went, so to speak, “the whole hog,” insisting that he accompany me to one of my favorite steakhouses, the always popular Manny’s in the downtown area. We could only get a reservation at 7:45, which did not permit us to attend my publisher’s cocktail party, but I was determined to bite into one of Manny’s prime ribs once more before I died.
     Certainly, I felt guilty, and discussed with Pablo what he might possibly eat in such an establishment. But he assured me that, if nothing else, he’d order a baked potato and broccoli or some other vegetable, which, along with a salad would certainly fill him up.
     What I had forgotten, however, is that Manny’s wall is lined with cow-hide, the sight of which might amuse but, also, slightly frighten any diner sensitive to animal life. Indeed the whole meal at Manny’s is a bit like hoof to heart, intimating the carving up of the whole beast.
     Never before, it suddenly dawned on me, had Pablo encountered the common steakhouse display of the various cuts laid out on a cart. Our excellent waitress, Fanny, took us through a detailed presentation of the various cuts, holding them up before our eyes as if, even in their raw state, they were sacred treasures, only to throw them back down upon the cart, to slap them a bit, as if awarding the cow’s various cuts for their pleasurable perfections. As her little lecture-performance moved on, I could see Pablo’s eyes growing larger and larger in near horror, until finally she lifted up the large living lobster and swung it in front of his face, as if trying to tantalize him with its delicate meats. For a moment, I thought Pablo, attempting to hide his apparent disgust of this non-vegetarian orgy, might bolt, but he took it all in stride, particularly when we explained to Fanny that Pablo was a vegetarian. “Oh I used to be one too,” announced the friendly server, “until I moved here!”
      She leaned toward us, as if to confide a secret. “We have a special, off-menu pasta, which is all vegetarian,” she whispered. And suddenly a large smile broke upon Pablo’s previously slightly-troubled face.
       I even ordered acorn squash as a side-dish so that Pablo, sharing it with me, might have something else to eat, but it turned out he didn’t much like the squash. I loved, finally, the first few bites of the medium-rare monster of prime rib that Fanny served up. But I warned Pablo that most of the large center of the cut would, sadly, be left over, for I could no longer eat all the meat I used to when I was young.
      I don’t know if he was more shocked by what I was putting into my mouth or by the massive amounts of food that, left behind, would go to waste. But I am sure that we will now always remember the night when almost an entire cow was paraded before us to entice him into its consumption.

Boone, Iowa, November 10, 2013