Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Can You Give It Up?

It all started with the smell of Febreeze in a classroom. Someone had spilled something that smelled bad, and to cover up the smell, one of the students got out the Febreeze.

This led to a few comments about what other smells they might be trying to cover up, and I, remembering the 70s very well, said, "Oh no, that's what we used incense for."

One of the students looked at me and said, "Mr G, did you really smoke that stuff?" I know, it seems hard to imagine, but yes, I did. And unlike Bill Clinton, I actually inhaled. But a bit of explanation is needed here.

The times were different back in the 70s. Much different. Possession and use of small amounts of marijuana had already been "decriminalized" in places like Ann Arbor, MI and the entire state of Alaska. In those places, the penalty was the equivalent of a parking ticket. And it looked like there was momentum to change the rules nationwide. In addition, when I was in high school, I had read the 1944 report of the LaGuardia Commision, and saw its conclusion that the dangers of marijuana were quite overstated. In fact, put into historical perspective, I saw the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act which led to the criminalization of it, to be just another attempt at Prohibition, and we all knew how well that worked. So it seemed just a matter of time before the lobbying efforts of organizations like NORML would result in the laws being changed so that using marijuana was no different than having a couple of beers.

And so it was in that era, with many law enforcement people turning a blind eye to people who just had a little bit, that I occasionally smoked the stuff.

What was most amazing to my friends at the time, was not only that my mother knew I was doing it, but her reaction to it. She said something along the lines of, "I know that there are lots of drugs there at college, and that you'll be tempted to try some of them. My only rule is that when they start to affect your grades, you have to stop."

After a long pause, I said to the students, "It never affected my grades, but eventually I did give it up."

When one of the students asked why, I said "Because my new girlfriend didn't approve of it and asked me to stop."

Well, you can imagine the reaction that got from the room. Giving up something you liked doing just because your girlfriend or boyfriend asked you to. At least one person in the room made the comment that I was "whipped." But I had a reply to that.
Think about it. If you can't give up something when someone you love asks you to, then it means that you're addicted to it.
The room got really quiet, and one of the students said, "You know Mr G, you're right."

Now let me say right here that there's a big difference between someone you love asking you to stop smoking dope or drinking and that same person asking you to stop watching The Office or reading Harlequin Romances (No wait a minute, the last one really is a harmful addiction. Those Harlequin Romances will rot your brain). There's a difference between someone caring about what's good for you and someone being downright controlling. The problem comes when you confuse the first with the second, as too many people do.

I was able to tell my girlfriend that I wouldn't do it anymore, and I kept my promise. Even six years later, after we had broken up, and there was no way we'd be getting back together, I turned down a joint when it was offered to me - and that was 23 years ago.

I could give it up, and did. The question is, can you?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Richard Nixon, Sexual Visionary?

This summer I read an absolutely fascinating book called Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. It’s a must-read for anyone who talks about the “traditional marriage,” because it shows just how un-traditional the model that most of us have in mind is. It also shows how marriage is an amazingly flexible institution, adjusting to meet the needs of the time and the culture; and an institution which despite the cries of many alarmists, isn’t going away any time in the foreseeable future.

As I read and marked up my copy of the book, I kept some of my friends up to date with some of the more interesting things I'd read. And perhaps one of the most fascinating things I read is this section about Richard Nixon:
Almost immediately [in the late 60s, after Loving v Virginia], several gay and lesbian partners argued that they too should have a fundamental right to marry. In 1970, President Richard Nixon commented that he could understand allowing the intermarriage of blacks and whites, but as for same-sex marriage, "I can't go that far -- that's the year 2000." Little did he realize how close his estimate would turn out to be. [pg 256]
The reason I bring this up is that even a staunch conservative like Nixon didn't say that it couldn't or shouldn't ever happen, but that he, and perhaps the rest of society, just couldn’t go there yet, and that perhaps it would be something that would see its day in 30 years, at the turn of a new century (and when he was sure to not be around anymore).

Say what you will about the rest of "Tricky Dick's" failings, but this is one place where he was spot on. Not only in the prediction that it would come, but in what I'm reading as his implication that he wouldn't get in the way of it when that time came. Many of the people I read about trying to prevent even civil unions from occurring are trying to prevent them from ever happening. RMN knew better. He knew that gay marriage would happen when a critical mass of people found no problem with the idea, and that the critical mass would likely happen 30 years down the line, as younger and younger people became more comfortable with the idea.

I'm betting that 30 years hence, we'll look back and say "What the hell took us so long?" Sure there'll still be pockets of people who disapprove, just as there are pockets of people who disapprove of me and Cheryl because we’re an interracial couple, but they will no longer represent the mainstream, and most people will look at these dissenters as if they had three eyes.

Perhaps it would be good (and I still can’t believe I’m saying this) if everyone if everyone learned a little from the example of Richard Nixon, the conservative who saw gay marriage on the horizon, but just not in his lifetime.

I also think it would be good if everyone picked up a copy of Marriage, A History. It’s a fascinating book, and one that you’ll hear more about from me in the coming months.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Modern Condom Marketing

Driving somewhere in the van recently, we were actually listening to the radio instead of having one of the family iPods plugged into the sound system. And while we were listening, we heard a condom commercial.

Then another.

And another.

During the course of less than an hour, we heard three different condom commercials.

After the third one, I turned off the radio, and plugged one of the iPods in.

It’s not that I object to condom commercials. I think that they should’ve been advertised a long time ago. It's the way they're being marketed that bothers me; to a crowd of people who sees no problem with sleeping with a different person every two weeks.

I remember, and miss, the “good old days,” when you wore a condom to keep the one girlfriend you were sleeping with from getting pregnant, and not to prevent spreading diseases among the six that you’ve slept with in the past three months. I have no problem explaining to my seven-year-old daughter about not wanting to get pregnant. My wife's a nurse, so she knows all the details anyway. I suppose that based on that, I shouldn’t have any problem explaining to her about the diseases you can get if you "sleep around," but I really didn’t want to go there yet. So it was iPod time.

Have you read the instructions on a package of condoms lately? They’re scary! Once again, 30 years ago, all you were concerned about was not getting your girlfriend pregnant, so the instructions for putting one on, taking it off, and disposing of it were fairly straightforward. Read a package now and it’s like reading the instructions for dealing with hazardous materials. Heck, you are dealing with potentially hazardous materials. The package might as well say “If you can read this, you are way too close.”

And yet, if I am totally honest with you and myself, the “good old days” from 1974 to 1982, when I was an undergrad, and had an active interest (although not as active a part as I would've liked) in the “sexual revolution,” were probably full of as much “serial shtupping” as there is today. In fact, I remember one housemate who seemed to have a different girl over every weekend. But he was the exception to the rule among the people I knew. All of my other housemates were with the same girl for a semester or more. Yet one thing remained the same: for all of them condoms were about not getting the girl pregnant, and a used one wasn't considered a biohazard.

That all changed when we learned about AIDS. This was a venereal disease (to use the terminology of the time) that penicillin wouldn’t help, and that would kill you. You’d think that days of sleeping around would be over with that. Yet, ironically, it was probably AIDS that saved the condom from irrelevance in an era when most sexually active women were on the Pill anyway. Because instead of being seen as something that could prevent a new life from starting, it was now something that could prevent yours from ending. As a result, they were no longer marketed as contraceptive devices for relatively stable couples, but as disease prevention devices for people who flitted from bed to bed to bed.

Which brings us back to the three commercials I got tired of hearing.

With all this having been said, I think I have a much more effective, although old-fashioned, way of preventing the spread of STDs.

Keeping your pants on for a few months until you really get to know and trust each other.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Schroedinger's Dance Partner

My students jokingly call me a stalker when I tell them about how, back in 6th grade, I tracked down Karen, a girl I had a crush on, but had moved at the end of 3rd grade, using only the Suburban Essex White Pages and a map of the county.

And they're right. Even though we didn't have the word then, I guess I was a stalker. And I'm betting that a lot of girls I had crushes on, and later moved away from East Orange, were glad that the Internet didn't exist back when I was in elementary school, because I would've been dangerous.

But over the years, because of my library training, I've been able to use new online tools like Classmates, Reunion, USA People Search, the Syracuse University alumni directory, the online White Pages, and of course, Facebook, to satisfy my occasional curiosity about "what ever happened to..."

However you have to be really careful, because sometimes you end up with more information than you really wanted.

It started with the 1977 Dance Marathon. My partner and I hadn't been on speaking terms for weeks leading up to the event, but I was determined to be civil for the 48 hours we had signed up for months earlier. But when her boyfriend from home showed up on Friday night, and took my place, that put the final nail in the coffin, and I was now a dancer without a partner.

After a little time just drifting about on my own, this girl with a great smile came up to me, told me that her partner couldn't make it because he was sick, and asked if she could dance with me. I may have been lacking a few social skills at the time, but I had enough to know to say "yes" to her.

Her name was "Diane," and we spent pretty much the remaining 48 hours together. She was really nice, and I wanted to ask her out sometime after the Dance Marathon was over, but I didn't quite have the social skills to do it and so nothing ever happened. I'd run into her on campus from time to time over the next year or so, and then at some point she graduated and disappeared.

Well, one day a few years ago, I decided to use my "stalking" skills to find out whatever happened to her. Where was she now, what was she doing? You know, just plain old human curiosity, nothing that would warrant a restraining order. I've learned a thing or two since Karen.

Somehow, through one of the sources I had found, I discovered that someone with her name, from SU, and roughly the same age, had been killed in the 9/11 attacks.

I stopped right there. She had a common enough first and last name - in fact, the alumni directory showed two or three people with that name at SU around 1977 - so there was a chance that it might not be her. But still, this was more information than I needed. Dammit! This was more information than I wanted. This was stuff I was much better off not having known in the first place. I didn't check any further. I didn't look for any more information to either confirm or disprove that it was her - and I won't either.

Because as long as I don't know for sure, that really nice girl, with the great smile, that I got to dance with for almost 48 hours back in 1977 is still alive.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

A few weeks ago, as I was in the fabric store looking for fabric for Cheryl to make a new shirt for me out of, I saw that the Christmas fabrics were out. In July.

And you know what? I wasn't bothered or offended by it.

That's because I'm an old choirboy, and, as you know, that changes my perspective on a lot of things.

I remember every September, when we came back from vacation, and the boys in the choir at St Andrew's went back to their every Tuesday and Thursday schedule of rehearsals, right there near the back of our folders would be music for Advent, which I learned was the four-week season preparing us for Christmas. Then, as the music at the front of the folder was sung each Sunday, collected, and removed from our folders, the Advent music moved up closer and the Christmas and Epiphany music would start showing up in the back.

The point here is that we were learning music for the three liturgical seasons in the Christmas story arc (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany) in September, and we were a church choir. We started practicing those songs in September so that we'd have them spot on by the time Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany actually came. Having a bunch of 5th through 8th grade boys try to learn the music for the Christmas Eve service a mere three to four weeks beforehand just wouldn't cut it for Mr Blake. It was all about giving yourself enough time to do a job well.

It was pretty much the same thing when I was a member of the Hendricks Chapel Choir at Syracuse University. We had two big concerts for the year; the Christmas Concert (which is probably now called the Winter Concert) and the Spring Concert. You can bet that we started looking at the Christmas music (or the "Christmas arc" music) the first Thursday night that we were all back on campus. There was no way we were learning pieces like Lo, How A Rose by Distler, No Sad Thought by Vaughn Williams, and Deck the Halls in 7/8 well enough to sing in front of a packed Chapel in just three weeks. Again, it was about giving yourself enough time to do a job well.

And if we were rehearsing these pieces in September, that means that they had to have been ordered in - July, when Boosey & Hawkes, G Schirmer, Belwin-Mills, and all the other choral music publishers had their catalogs of Christmas selections out for choral directors to look at.

I know this first-hand, because I've also been a choir director, and have been to the summer workshops that publishers put on to showcase new pieces for you to order for "the season."

Which brings us back to the fabric store.

Based on my experience in choirs and directing choirs, it made perfect sense to have the Christmas fabrics out in July, so that people who wanted to make things for Christmas would have ample time to do a good job in a leisurely manner between now and then, rather than making themselves and their families crazy rushing to do all of their Christmas crafts and sewing projects between the day after Thanksgiving and December 24. It's not about the over-commercialization of Christmas and wanting to sell as much stuff as early as possible; as with my choirs, it's about planning in advance and giving people enough time to do a job well.

And so I welcome the July appearance of the Christmas fabrics, and the dedication to a job well done that it represents.

Merry Christmas!