Write Your Manifesto

A week ago, a friend of mine asked me to speak to her class. Lauren was teaching her juniors and seniors how to write a personal manifesto. After hearing that I had written and published my own manifesto a few years ago, Lauren thought I’d be the perfect guest lecturer.

Here’s the thing: my manifesto is all about how to queer ecology. It challenges assumptions of sexuality and gender and naturalness. Lauren and I live in a rural town in western Colorado. People here ranch and hunt elk and wear cowboy boots.  I try not to stereotype people based on their appearance. I mean, I wear flannel and have a big beard and wear cowboy boots too. But I do know this community. There are very religious, very conservative families here. There’s a spray-painted sign as you enter town that says “Frack Obama.”  I was reasonably concerned that the high schoolers might not be too excited to hear about queering, not to mention ecology.

I wore cowboy boots to class. And good thing, because when I entered I found that the class consisted of six stone-faced teenage boys, some in camouflage, others cross-armed behind hoodies. Lauren handed over the reigns, and I stood at the board, a copy of my essay in hand, and acted as macho and confident as I could.

After a brief introduction, during which I did not mention queering nor ecology, I got them writing by asking them this:

Why are you angry? All the reasons big and small, why are you angry? Make a list or not. Offer explanation or not. Why are you angry?

After five minutes, during which they wrote furiously, I told them this:

If you had total power, god-like super-hero power, choose one of these things that you are mad about and then explain what you would change, and why.

After another five minutes of them writing, I stopped them and said:

This is a super-frustrating task, I know. You and I know that we don’t live in a world where we have total power. We never will. So what’s the point of thinking about the “IF”? It seems pointless to even contemplate.

BUT! Even though we will never be super heroes, I said, we still do have power to change the world. 

You can transform your anger into something that can convince people to make the change you wish to see. Convincing isn’t enough, though. You must also inspire people, too.

That is the manifesto.

We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about two manifestos that have shaped the world, my life, and my writing. The first one, to be fair, wasn’t a single manifesto but instead the collective works of Subcomandante Marcos, the public voice for the Zapatista indigenous rights movement of southern Mexico. For the last 20 years, Marcos has been informing the larger global audience about the struggles of the Zapatistas and the reasons why they continue to declare autonomy from the Mexican federal government. The Zapatistas offer many lessons for largely-peaceful social change movements, but Marcos in particular offers an example of someone writing from the place of immense pain and anger in an elegant and even entertaining way. Marcos convinces and inspires people within the Zapatista movement as well as millions of global citizens outside the movement. He has changed the shape of the world through his words.

The second manifesto I offered as example was Larry Kramer’s “1,112 and Counting.” Kramer was a gay man in New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic–I told the six high school boys–and he was very angry and very scared. He was watching his friends and family die all around him, and he was watching the city, state, and nation do nothing to stem the deaths. He transformed his anger into a biting critique that he published in the New York Native on March 14, 1983. The manifesto presented Kramer’s anger, but it also offered hope in the form of action. It focused the gay community to fight back against the disease and the institutional injustices that allowed the disease to cut down an entire segment of the US population without so much as an official announcement by the President of the United States. Kramer convinced and inspired.

With a few minutes left of class, I finally told the high school boys why I was mad. As an out gay man, I was very angry that people claimed gay people were unnatural. And so I had written into that anger, and I had tried to transform that anger into a story that could inspire, convince, and entertain.

I stood at the center of the room and read “How to Queer Ecology” to the class. I read about same-sex pair-bonded geese and the fluid sexual behavior of dolphins and how natural it feels for me to be held in the arms of the man I love.

When I finished, I thanked them for letting me join them for the day. That’s when Lauren and the boys began clapping. They clapped! Of all the best possible responses I had imagined that morning, I had not dared to hope that these six rural high school boys would clap for me.

And so, here’s one more thing about a manifesto: if you can muster the courage to look into the face of your own anger and own it, and then if you can transform that anger into a story that can move people, that can empower people, that can convince and inspire and entertain, then you can change the world. Because you will have empowered yourself. You will have found your voice. You will know what you need to do.

Here’s the really crazy thing: others will see how you have empowered yourself, will hear your voice, and they will want to speak up too. After class, as I was signing out at the front desk, the boy in camouflage stopped halfway out the door, turned to me, and said:

“Thank you for sharing what you did today in class.”

My heart shook with gladness and hope, cowboy boots and all.

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That Music

I’d meant to read this poem at the Fab Planet summit but ran out of time. Fortunately, there’s always time for a good poem here at andtheuniverse:


“That Music”
W.S. Merwin

By the time I came to hear about it
I was assured that there was no such thing
no it was one more in the long trailing
troupe of figures that had been believed but
had never existed no it had not
resounded in the dark at the beginning
no among the stars there was no singing
then or later no ringing single note
threaded the great absences no echoing
of space in space no there was no calling
along the lights anywhere no it was not
in the choiring of water in the saying
of a name it was not living or warning
through the thrush of dusk or the wren of morning


This is resistance: hearing that which we are told to deny. This is hope: that the thrush and the wren will sing their own songs (regardless of the script thrust upon them). This is joy: to fill the darkness and light alike with song.

This poem can be found in Merwin’s gorgeous Migration: New & Selected Poems.

Also: I’m still searching for photo credit. If you recognize this image, please help me out!

Fab Planet 2014

If you missed the first-ever Summit on LGBTQ Identity and Sustainability that took place this past September in Seattle, you are in luck! The good folks at Out for Sustainability, a national non-profit seeking to connect queer greenies, have posted the audio of the day’s sessions.

How could it get even better, you ask?  I had the honor to speak in the opening panel on Intersectionality with the brilliant artist/musician/policy analyst Loren Othon and Out For Sustainability’s co-founder Gerod Rody.

And if you don’t have time at the moment to sit down for a listening session, I’ve included some of my notes for the talk:

As Gerod mentioned, I currently work for the National Park Service, restoring alpine meadows in Yosemite. What that really means is that, as I’m decompacting the soil and shoveling dirt and moving plants, I have a whole lot of time to look around at the pretty mountains and think. Lots of time to think.

For much of that time, I’m thinking about why I am out there. Why do I care so much about these meadows? Why do I care about Yosemite Toad habitat? Why am I devoting my life to conservation and restoration and sustainability?

My answers to these questions include the likely suspects of ecological function; biological diversity; clean water for the Central Valley and San Francisco; the opportunity for people to come to the mountains and experience wilderness. All that feels good.

Invariably, though, my answer to that question of “why do I care?” also includes something distinctly different. There’s another answer, a more important one, even. That answer is more of a feeling, and the feeling goes something like this: I care about the environment because I am queer. I suspect many of you might share in that same feeling.

Which, I hate to break it to you, isn’t much of an answer to the question, really.

Explaining environmental ethics and values are complicated enough. Throwing LGBTQ identity into the mix makes for quite the messy elevator statement or cocktail party conversation.

Even so, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to make sense of this intersection sexuality and the environment.

And I’ve come to believe that this intersection–of sexuality and the environment–is in fact much more than just a feeling, more than just a very niche market of us here in this room.

No, in truth, I see LGBTQ identity and sustainability as two communities–two projects of our modern global community–each of them attempting to determine how we define our collective future.

And I think these two projects–and the scale and quality of their impact on our future–are directly tied up in one another.

So, we are not here to pat ourselves on the back today. We are not here only to stare in the faces of like-minded people. We are also here to look outward. To better understand our selves and our communities in order to more effectively and passionately create our future.

So intersections:

What are they? How does our better understanding of sexuality and sexual identity deepen our understanding of sustainability? And vice versa?

First, let’s start with how our understanding of sustainability and environmental concepts can possibly enrich the lives of LGBTQ people and strengthen the queer community:

1) Nature as Refuge
The concept I’ve spent much of my time writing and thinking about is the old idea of Nature as refuge, and how it affects the lives of queer people.  It is an old story, the idea that the land will take you in, no matter the color of your skin, or your gender, or who you love. By land I mean the more-than-human, non-engineered world.

Ideally, there is no judgment there, or at least, the lack of judgment is inversely proportional to the amount of human impact on that place.

And you know what, it is hard to survive as someone who is LGBTQ in the judgey, prejudiced human-engineered world.  Just like so many other minorities, whose lives are more difficult because of who they happen to be, it is more important for queer people to have places of refuge. Personally, I know of no better place to find refuge than the wilderness.

After Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student, committed suicide after being bullied online by his roommate, I wrote an article making just that point. I hoped he had at some point stood on top of a mountain, or come in close contact with a bear, and known what it was like to be unjudged. To simply be human as free of our physical and social constructs as possible. To be an animal. To be a forest. To find that solace and peace of self can literally mean life or death.

Clementi didn’t necessarily need to be out in the wilderness to find it either, and I don’t want to come off as a wilderness snob either. I personally find it easier.

If he hadn’t, why not?

What are the problems of access for queer people to building a relationship with the natural world?

Queer people are told to live in cities and be urban. This message comes from popular media, but it also comes from family and friends too: join our kind. Live where it is safer for people like us. Beyond the fact that it is not necessarily safer for us in cities, those social pressures present all sorts of barriers for queer people to build a healthy and deep relationship to the land.

Queer people that do choose to live in rural places, or have no choice but to live in rural places, have other unique challenges. The more-than-human landscape might play more of a direct role in their lives, but they also very often face extreme isolation.

While studying at the University of Montana, I interviewed a dozen gay men who are park rangers about their experiences, and they all spoke about the internal conflict of loving the land and the refuge they found within it while also reconciling sometimes an intense sense of isolation.

And so this conversation about the values of Nature as Refuge, to me, seems to be a very important project for both the queer and environmental communities:

–how do we provide better access to the natural world?
–how do we encourage queer people (along with all sorts of people who fall into any number of you-are-a-minority-so-you-must-be-urban category) to build a relationship with the natural world, finding a sense of refuge in it?
–how do we work against the corresponding urban and rural barriers for queer people to be healthy and happy?

2) Evolutionary Biology
A second intersection which I wanted to mention today is the contribution that the sciences of ecology and biology can provide to our understanding of sexuality. It’s still amazing to me how little modern science really has discovered about humans as a species, how we evolved, and the biological origins of so many of our quintessential human traits.

Sure it’s interesting to know how biological mechanisms work within our bodies, but for me it’s way more interesting to know how and why we have such a broad capacity for behaviors. In terms of sexuality, there has been a number of theories to explain the evolutionary origins of same-sex and other non-heteronormative behaviors. And really, we still don’t know.

What we do know, however, is that non-heteronormative and non-monogamous behavior are nearly ubiquitous part of sexuality across the animal kingdom and beyond. There’s something so liberating and empowering about that fact to me. When I look at pairs of geese now, I do not assume that they are a male-female pair. When I see animal mating behavior, I wonder who is who and what their real motivations are. Life is messy!

Better understanding the biological and ecological mess can provide a sense that there is nothing inherently abberant, diseased, defective, or unnatural about being queer, about being a man that loves another man, or a woman that loves another woman, or desiring to present as any number of genders that is not your biological sex.

In fact, I wager that as we continue to study the evolutionary emergence of human sexuality, that the complexity and diversity of human sexuality and gender has actually played an important role in the survival and health of human communities throughout history.

One obvious caveat to this conversation, as explained best by the UC professor Marlene Zuk in her Sexual Selections: what we can and can’t learn about sex from animals–is that it is dangerous to find justification for our behavior based on what we see animals doing.” This goes without saying, but we shouldn’t eat our babies like hamsters, or be as violent as male ducks

BUT by cultivating a more accurate understanding of the biological framework of living things on earth, we can better understand how huge our behavioral capacity is–and how it is our collective project to determine what is considered allowable within our societies.

There are no inherent biological rights or wrongs, despite what we’ve been told for the last 150 years.

In this way, better understanding the messy complexity of Earth’s living systems allows us to more confidently assert the messy complexity of humans as a part of those living systems. In the process, we can find liberation from entrenched pseudo-Darwinian ideas of individual fitness and the supposed purpose of life which is to produce as many children as possible.

3) Queer Ecological Imagination
Which brings me to how the LGBTQ community can deepen our understanding, and in fact, play a crucial role in defining what future sustainability means. What does it mean to have healthy human relationships with the environment.

Currently, we still live in a society that in many ways is a cult of the masculine. Much of our culture’s basic standards of success and happiness are directly linked to production, dominance, and power.  Controlling the wild natural world is supposed to be a good thing.  Even notions of sustainability, in this context, are dependent on how efficiently we can dominate, how effectively we can use resources.

Similarly, sustainability is often couched in heteronormative terms of reproduction. We need to think about our children and our children’s children. What if we have no intentions of having children? Even people’s sense of the outdoors often is veiled in heteronormative terms, like going out to conquer a mountain, or camping in a cul-de-sac campground designed in a very public way for traditionally-structured families.

AND SO, as queer people, we possess a unique identity and set of experiences that might encourage us to question those relationships to the natural world. How do we talk about sustainability if we aren’t acting based on the continued surival of our genetic material?

Who but we can best advocate for more complicated understandings of biological and ecological processes?

Who but we best understand what it means to have to fight for our inherent right to exist, independent of our economic or biological value as an individual?

Which brings me to the bottom line:

I care about the continued existence of other living things, and the relationships between those living things because I have had to defend my own right to exist. I have had to fight so damn hard just to exist. To be who I am.

And so I can empathize. I can understand. I can extend my own sense of equality and justice and liberation ever outward. I strongly believe that my fight for all of those things, equality, justice, liberation, are tied up in everyone’s fight for those things. And what I’m realizing is that that fight, that circle of empathy and compassion, must extend beyond the human world as well–if we are to succeed at furthering these modern projects of “civil rights” and “equality” and “sustainability.”

I recently read an essay in Orion written by a friend, the San Francisco-based writer and activist, Rebecca Solnit. She had researched Thoreau’s laundry habits, in his defense, since he’s kind of gotten a bad rap about it since it is likely his sisters and/or mother often did his laundry. And what she discovered was that yes, they could have done his laundry, but they also formed a very strong, passionate family. Particularly his sisters and mothers, who were politically active, and whose beliefs affected Thoreau strongly.

Specifically, the Thoreau women were strong abolitionists, who founded the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. As Solnit says:

“The women seemed to find a kind of liberation for themselves in this movement for the liberation of others. They were able to act independent of husbands and fathers, to take a public stand, to become political beings in a new way. The women’s suffrage movement, the first feminist movement, grew directly out of the abolution movement. The went to liberate someone else and found that they too were not free.”

We are on that same journey as the women in Concord.

We are seeking to liberate others–our fellow humans first, from environmental and climate injustices while also extending that circle of empathy and liberation out to the more-than-human world.

So I encourage all of us here today to thing of this gathering and this community as more than just a fun niche interest group. This is much more than that. This is an extension of the civil rights movement. And we are uniquely positioned to provide invaluable influence in how we understand our current and future relationship to the living world.

As we learn how to build green communities and talk about sustainbility, we are also talking about expanding the circle of empathy, ecolgoical imagination, and humanity. In the process we are also continuing the process of liberation of ourselves, of others, and of life on this messy planet.

Visit Out For Sustainability’s Fab Planet Recap Page for more information on the 2014 Summit and how you can get involved with Out4S, including socials in a city near you.

And for resources on Queer/Ecology, visit my website!

On writing a memwah

Turns out writing a book is hard (real hard).  Who knew?  Likely just about everybody.  Except me.  Somehow, in my youthful wisdom (read whimsical naivete), I thought I could say I was writing a book.  And then just start writing.  And keep writing.  And voila, I’d have a book!

ImageNot true, good sirs.  Nope, turns out you have to dredge your soul.  Stir up all your demons.  Face all your doubts.  And fail.  And fail.  And fail.  And then after years of this–after the whole idea of the book-length story which you want to tell cuts you down right to your base, then, finally, maybe, it’s no longer an idea.  It’s an actual story-like thing.  And then, maybe, you can actually write it and write it and write it until it turns into a book-like thing.  More than a collection of words, but a body.  A living thing. That breathes and speaks and does the tango with itself and whoever else wants to join it.

Turns out writing a freaking memoir–or as I like to call it, a memwah–is real hardWriting a memwah means not only having to successfully tell an interesting story in the first place (which seems easy enough, but proves exceedingly difficult in practice), but that story also has to be true!  It also has to be fair to your dear loved ones who you are writing about–while also honoring your own, likely divergent perspective on shared histories and experiences.  On top of all of that, the real people I write about also have to be good characters–and the real events good plot.

Speaking of plot: it is the story of an adventure I undertook several years ago with my at-the-time-boyfriend-currently-husband Pete during which we paddled 1800 miles of the Yukon River.  The story is also about us falling in love, of getting married, and honeymooning in Everglades.  It’s also about making sense of love in general–and my gender and sexuality–within the culture in which I live.  It’s also about what and who is natural; where the line is between self and other; what we risk when we are true to our selves–our dreams, our loves, our desires; and what we have to gain.  It’s an adventure story.  And it’s a love story.  But it’s also a queer story, which hopefully means it will surprise and delight and confuse people and their expectations and assumptions.

Oh, golly.  Overly ambitious, right?

Well, as you might have guessed, all this is to say that I’ve dropped the ball on the blog for the past few months.  But for good reason: I was writing the story of my survival.  It took me to some of the darkest, scariest places in my life.  But the good news is that I’m seeing the light at the end of the river.  I’m days and weeks away from the first complete, 300ish-page, manuscript.  I will be starting to shop it around by the end of May.

For this moment when I’m about to embark once again into a new phase of the great unknown that is this living thing, I figured the following excerpt from Chapter 0 – Shape of a River would be fitting:

Peter says he’s feverish. He certainly looks a little pale. Phlegm rolls down my bronchial tubes, and I give a good hacking cough. We launch the boat anyway.

“To the sea,” I say.

“Sssslp, lpp, slep,” says the river against the boat.

I thought it was going to be more than this. There’s no ceremony, no witnesses except the lone Al-Can drivers that flash and rattle across the blue steel-girder bridge that crosses the river here. We talked for half a year, and then decided we had better start actually planning, like a couple who hadn’t believed they were pregnant until the belly started to show. What maps did we need? Were there even maps? Who could we talk to about the lower sections? How do we get home? What kind of boat do we need? How do we eat? We made our best guesses and figures from a third of a continent away. After a full month of packing and driving, driving and packing, packing, then yeah, more driving, we did arrive. In my dreams, we hadn’t looked quite so exhausted. A sign beside the launch reads: Warning: Stay clear of control structure. 400 Meters down stream. Stay right and use boat lock.

Maybe, at least, we look good to those lonely drivers rushing by overhead. If you squint your eyes and lean back a bit, you can see us even now: two lean figures in a loaded red canoe, ready. You don’t see Pouncer’s bow rocking dangerously low above the surface or the whole boat wobbling side to side as we clip our final possessions into it, grasp at the gunnel, perch ourselves half in and half out. You don’t see how lumpy our load is, all three hundred pounds of it, which we’ve squeezed into a family of canvas bags, river barrels, and plastic crates, all of it lashed to the thwart and crossbars. You also don’t see what that same load looked like half an hour prior when it looked more like a full-on yard sale or gas-main explosion.

It’s taken most the day to get on the water, and the sun already stalks to the north and west, pawing round the low dip between spruce and birch, right where we and the river intend to go. We squint as we look downstream, barely able to see it for all the shine and glare. I lift my foot out of the muddy bank while Pete braces the boat. I swear the whole thing nearly flips as I try to sit down. I grip my paddle with white knuckles, digging the tip of it into the shore. Then it’s Pete’s turn to climb in, kicking his feet clean of mud before picking up the paddle. We roost our butts in our seats for several seconds, find places to set the soles of our shoes. And just now, we strike off from the shore, shoving water around without plan until the current catches us and brings us along. We spin in stutter-step unison, Pete sterning on starboard, I bow on port. The sun pushes in through Pouncer’s translucent hull and the light breaks around my legs like an aurora. The sea must be down there somewhere, out beyond what we can possibly know. We push and the river pulls. “We live and move by splitting the light of the present, as a canoe’s bow parts water” says Annie Dillard. And so Peter and I face the setting sun, all that can come, and we paddle one-two, one-two, one-two-three.

The control dam rises up through the sheen, a long and low thing, like the open gates of a horse race, spanning the full fifty-yard width of the river. The current flows right on through the dam, which was built to hold back the water only when there was too much of it for the liking of the downriver residents. We can’t go through any of the open gates without risking our lives and Pouncer’s, so we push river right, slipping between the rusted seawalls of the lock which rise around us like a shipping crate or cell. Closing off the end are doors like old river rafts mounted and hinged. Just as in a dream, a ladder appears, lines of rebar welded to one of the walls. I tie Pete and Pouncer off, then pull myself up on top of the dam, intent on finding the doorbell.

There is none. What there is is a long lever that you can unlock. And a big wheel like you’d find on a sailboat. I am able to unlock the lever, which is about as long as I am tall, but there’s no moving it. As for the wheel, it turns and turns and turns just fine, and would all night long, I believe. With no other options, I holler down at Pete for help. Pete checks again that the boat’s tied off well, which I don’t see him do, but know just the same that he does it, and then he climbs up the dream ladder too. I show him the situation: turning wheel, unmoveable lever, unblinking door-rafts. We’d purposely put in above the lock, just to get the thrill of the experience, I suppose.

Pete throws his whole buck-twenty-five against the lever, then he decides we need our combined two-ninety. One, two, three–we throw ourselves against the lever, which doesn’t even creak and gives only the slightest shrug of a bend. As for the doors? Dead. We do what anybody who’s hit a sudden dead-end does: we scowl, curse, and toss up our hands toward the sky. And we look for ways around.

“I sure as hell don’t want to portage,” I say to Pete. We’d have to make five, six, eight trips to haul all of our gear up and around the dam, then back down the steep slope to an unlikely put-in. I’m more afraid of the psychological trauma than I am of the physical challenge. Even though the distance is short, it could take us another two hours, at least. It is late already. Ten? Eleven in the evening?

The sun is still setting these days around midnight, though we’d probably have enough light to get wherever it was we needed to go for the night. Our plan had been to just get on the river, float down a mile or two, and then find a camp. I hack. Pete broodingly raises his brow first to the bank, then toward the river, which he surveys with an engineer’s fixed intent.

“No, we can’t,” I say, breathless. “We shouldn’t.” Like a thief, Peter grins.

“I think we can,” he says.

A few minutes later, we are back in the boat, paddling upstream on an eddy river right, then Pete says, “now,” and I dig in deeper as Pete steers the bow into the current, catching Pouncer like the wind catches a kite just as it rises above the trees. We whip about and then we are full on, I in the bow, Pete at the stern, paddling in time, one, two, one, two, one, two, moving with the current which is neither fast nor slow, but resolute, calm, like a madman or Siddhartha, bringing us onward toward our waiting door. Loose pieces of the mountain slopes, trunks and branches, have washed down and plugged half the gates. Pete steers us toward a gate that we had agreed looked clear from where we’d peered down upon it from the lock: third from the right. I can’t see Pete behind me, muscling and taught, but I feel him: the quick rocks of the boat side to side from the force he moves through the paddle to the water, the way the bow which is now our compass, slides right, then left, right, then left, to point dead on at the gate third from the right. Why do we risk ourselves? All we need we hold between us and Pouncer’s skin, and here we are pushing it through the gate, third from the right. No matter the outcome, we’re doomed, the two of us.

The river comes on and the future too. I keep paddling as Pete has instructed me. The dam rises up and blocks out the glare of the sun. Now I see the texture of the water, where it pushes up over the logs that jam the other gates, the way it smacks up and curls around the thin cement pillars. I see now that the gates aren’t wide, but enough: five feet, a paddle width–and I can see that each gate is in fact four, all in a line, two paired upriver, two down, and a canoe length of roiling river between them. Now we near our gate, and we keep our paddling. The river breathes through the gates, speaking now in a louder, constant voice. It is the sound of falling. The rush of on-coming. The press of the present upon our temples.

“Looking good,” Pete says.

“We got this,” he says.

“A little right,” I say.

“Looking good,” I say.

Just at the gate’s center, I see that the river pillows through, piling up and tonguing over and into the mouth, down the two-foot drop, passing on through the third and fourth gates, and then out. This is our line we push toward with everything we’ve got. There is no knowing for us now, besides paddling, and breathing, and sliding toward our line. Now the dam is a hand commanding us to stop.

Now it is a mouth, open, laughing.

“Looking good,” Pete says.

“Looking good,” I say.

And then we are in, and I do not pause to look about, but keep paddling, breathing, and sliding along that line. We pass through and out like we are opening a door that we will keep opening forever.

“Pete?” I say.

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

Forgotten Dreams

From the second row of the upper balcony, Pete and I were not afforded a view of the stage unless we stood up.  Fortunately, everyone was standing or leaning in close to the low rail beyond which opened the grand space of Peon Contreras.

The concert hall is one of the oldest in the Americas, built near the heart of the ancient city center of Merida.  The Mayas lived in this city long before the Spanish came and forced them to tear down their white limestone temples and reassemble the stones into cathedrals and palaces and theaters.

We first began attending the Merida Symphony thanks to our new expat-friend Deborah, who plays the violin with them.  We bought the cheap seats because we’re cheap, but as we kept climbing up the circling stone steps, my wonder rose in my chest.  How big was this place?  How grand?  When we opened the doors to our balcony chamber, I went dizzy.   The flying dome.  The floating crystal chandelier.  The heads of the audience on the floor like carefully-arranged pebbles. The space!

Deborah brought us in.  We joined her and the other musicians at the side-alley Italian cafe after the concert.  We went on dates for drinks and dancing.  One of the best was the night she met us after we saw Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the outdoor art cine and cafe, La68.  Our heads swirled with the revelations of the cave artists speaking to us from 30,000 years in the past.  We snuck in late to a government-sponsored free concert in Peon Contreras of the visiting Guanajuato Symphony culminating in the heart-skipping performance of an operatic soprano soloist.  Then we took the long warm walk to Blue Namu, the gay bar where we witnessed the most spectacular especatulo of our young lives.  We gather together and watch shadows dance.

Tonight we are here for Verdí.  The Symphony has assembled 150 people to string and blow and sing.  We can barely see the feet of the bass singers hiding in the back rafters of the stage.

I’ve always loved the moment of the tuning, when the prinicipal plays the A.  It’s when we can’t judge, we can’t weigh our expectations against reality.  It’s just this anticipation and sense of purpose.

What is that purpose?  Isn’t it strange that people gather together like we do to share our music?  We all want the waves to wash over us together.   This is what it seemed to me, as I stood behind the line of people crowding against the rail of the upper balcony, as the Symphony crescendoed and wailed.  I swore I felt the whole place shaking.  And I watched the faces watching the stage.  The light of the stage lights glowed upon them.  The curve of their bodies matched the scallop of the balcony.  I felt as though all we ever want is to be closer to the light and the sound of this thing we share.  I loved us, the symphony, the audience, the curved line that did not bother with formality, that did not stay rigidly in our seats.  We bent toward the center of it as though we were gathering around a fire surrounded by night.

learning culture ten lat pulls at a time

Besides my lonely unemployed “intern” winter in Anchorage, and Pete’s lonely unemployed “intern” summer in Bowling Green, Kentucky, neither Pete nor I have been particularly into working out in the gym.  For one, let’s face it: neither of us have been dealt genetic hands for being body builders.  For two: why would you move your body inside a dark, dank concrete cell when you could move it outside, where there’s fresh air, forest paths, babbling brooks, butterflies, and all that’s good in the world?  For three: weight-lifting gyms, in my limited experience, are generally unfriendly, even angry, macho places.  They are proof, in all the wrong ways, of Einstein’s theories of relativity: certain gyms are gravitational wells into which fell the late 80s and early 90s.  Think Baby Jessica except instead of a baby, it was a decade and a half, and instead of a well, it was weight-lifting gyms.  And no one has ever attempted to rescue the 90s from these gyms, it is quite clear.  It’s a bunch of dudes whose hair is from the 90s and clothes are from the 90s, who are staring at posters of scantily clad body-building ladies from the 90s.  These dudes sit around and literally lift things, insignificant, arbitrarily heavy things, and then set them back down.  And then they do it again, ad nauseum, day after day.  Maybe there’s some Linkin Park blasting through the muffled speakers to get their steroids raging.  Or maybe these dudes are just sitting around listening to the sounds of each others’ grunts and the klunk of the heavy things that they have lifted and set back down for the blippinzillionth time.

Which is why I’m so excited to tell you this news that I’m not even going to make you work for it by reading the rest of this blog post: Pete and I are lifting heavy things! In a real, honest-to-god weight-lifting, body-building gym.  While looking at posters of scantily-clad body-building ladies from the 90s, on whose shirts broadcast “Body by Torture!” And we even grunt sometimes while lifting and setting back down the heavy things!  But, of course, that’s not really the story.

So a month and a half ago, Pete and I moved to the city of Mérida, Yucatan.  We didn’t have any plans beside finding an apartment, Pete going to language school, me writing.  After the first few days of apartment hunting and ambiguously unfortunate hat purchases, we found our home on the third floor of a hotel named Pilar del Carmen in the downtown neighborhood of Santiago.  I promptly caught the influenza, appropriately called la gripa here, and so I lost the second week to delirium and ever-downward spirals of self-despair.  The upswing to getting sick, however, is the upswing, and Pete humored me as I demanded us to “take control of our lives.”

My proposed Life Control Strategy included each of the following in order of most essential to least: 1) routine, 2) excercise, 3) productivity, 4) daily, weekly, and winter-long goals.  The day must be seized! I swore to Peter, my brain  still fever-adled as indicated by its simultaneous hyper-focus and passive tense.

Routine is always item one on my life wish list and always the first I scratch out after an extra hour of being alive post-list.  As Pete and I grappled with item #2, we already knew that us attempting to run regularly through the busy cracked concrete and rebar streets of el centro was a non-start.  No parks large enough for running were within walking distance.  We weren’t brave enough for biking.  No lap pools that we had access to.  And so Pete suggested Bosco, the gymnasio just two buildings down the street.  We’d peaked in each time we’d walk by and joked, but I never thought it would go past that.  Peaking and joking.  Then complaining about how it was impossible to exercise in the city.

So, one Monday morning, we woke with the sun, put on our scanty running shorts and shirts, walked to our gate, woke the front desk guy so he could open the gate, walked the thirty yards down the sidewalk, and then, skinny and tall, (Pete skinnier than me, I taller than Pete, both of us skinnier and taller than most everybody else) we entered Bosco.  I noticed the stale sweat smell first.  Check. Then the walls plastered with the various portraits of classically greased and bulging Modern Hercules contestants.  Yup, about what I expected. Then I heard the music.  It wasn’t death rock or angry rock.  It wasn’t even rock.  It was latin dance pop.  It had a beat.  And that beat was up!

Even so, the first few days I bobbled about like a clown, tripping over the various legs of the old, greasy metal machines.  I avoided eye-contact; in fact, I avoided most any looks in the directions of the other weight lifters.  I reverted to middle school survival mode roving through the four sprawling rooms of the place looking for the most hidden back corners.  I jockeyed between the scattered bikes all meant for shorter folks, on which I kicked my chest as I pedaled.  The treadmills, bikes, stair-steppers all built-from-scratch, with bicycle gears and chains, hand-bent piping. Nothing required a cord, nothing monitored my heartbeat, or calculated my calorie consumption, or gauged my landspeed.  I couldn’t even change the resistance.  And yet, they all worked, every single one.  They were all oiled, tuned.  The benches were stained by a thousand-heaving-backs worth of sweat, but they functioned just as well too, sturdy and shiny.  A few old men, the nominal upkeep staff, sat around near the entrance window, sparring amiably with each other and a few of regulars lifting things and setting them down.  Most everybody ignored Pete and me just as I was avoiding them.  And I liked it that way because it was easier.

The spanky shorts might have been what first caught my eye.  They were impossible to miss, as Pete agreed.  One of the regulars who was lifting things when we showed up each day and still lifting things when we left, wore the tightest, whitest, spankiest shorts I’d ever seen.  And they wouldn’t have been so noticeable if he didn’t possess such spectacularly sculptured glutes.  Yes, that’s weight-lifter talk for butt.  The fact that he had a truly incredible butt wasn’t what surprised me, however.  What surprised me was that he was showing it off.  The whole time.  Whether he was doing backward leg lifts, or squats, or ab twists, or hip thrusts, he was clearly showing off his show-stopping butt.  And even more surprising, after I finally began bothering to notice what was going on, most of the other guys seemed to like it.  Spanky Shorts, as Pete and I dubbed him, was indeed the center of attention, and near the center of the social network that slowly emerged from Pete and my mutual ever-increasingly detailed observations of Bosco‘s going-ons.  These included younger duos of subdued buds coming in off the street, going to the locker room, and coming out in tight-fitting muscle shirts, snug, neon shorts, bright shoes.  Other pairs of men moved about together, smiling and staring, teasingly seductive.  And yet, somehow, all of this wasn’t quite gay.

What I’m trying to say is that I still don’t know what a look means here.  There are different rules of conduct.  Different codes and translation processes.  Are some of these men sexually attracted to each other?  Clearly.  Maybe even most of them.  Do some of those same men who are clearly attracted to each other have wives and girlfriends?  I would hazard to venture yes.  Does it mean something different here to be a man?  A woman?  Straight? Gay? Absolutely.  Many Yucateco people here in Merida are descendents of the Maya, and in fact identify as Mayan today.  The Maya culture possessed all of its own mores and traditions, stories and understandings of what living ethically, morally, healthily meant.  Over the past six centuries, that culture has mixed with the Española culture of the conquerors, through enslavement, wars, and now peace.  And now, the new, uniquely Mayan culture, like all cultures in this modern world, is shaping itself and being shaped by the greater waves of popular, global cultures.  All in all, it’s quite a tapestry or labyrinth or circus, depending on your point of view.

If I’ve made the gym seem seedy, I’ve failed.  It is gritty, but it’s not dirty, or unfriendly, or unsafe.   One morning recently, Pete saw one of the older men who mills about with a broom and a rag and a sly quip walk up behind the spankiest of the men, wave to one of the macho guys at a bench, and offer some air hip thrusts in the direction of Spanky Shorts.  Then he did it again, after getting attention of another man.  While a little rude, it didn’t seem homophobic–far from it, in fact.  There are a few women too, and the whole second floor, well-lit and aired out by a line of windows, has been set aside for women.  The gym has even devoted a whole room for women-only pole-dancing classes.  Our friend Megan flew down to live with us for the last few weeks, and she has taken to the gym too (though not to the pole-dancing).  She gets to enjoy the light and the fresh air of the second floor, while we are destined to live among the men and the happy, smiley, up-beat dinge of the first floor.  Most everybody is friendly, and if not friendly, then just not particularly interested in us or maybe anybody besides their own bodies, and the more Pete and I have offered our own smiles and holas, we’ve received more welcomes in response.

In the meantime, I’ve gotten stronger.  I’ve learned which machines my body likes, and I’ve gone from 60K to 80K with my lat pulls.  40K benches.  I added inclined benches too.  Curls.  I’m up to 80 inclined sit ups, and it feels good, instead of just being torture.  Even if my body weren’t feeling stronger and leaner, I think I’d still enjoy Bosco these days, and not just because Pete is looking so good.  I’m learning things about how men can interact; what it can mean to be a man.  I still know next-to-nothing about how people construct gender and sexuality here, but I do know that it is complicated and different than anything I’ve known.  We humans have bodies, and we can shape them and change them and use them in any incredible number of ways.  I like proving my prejudices wrong.  Especially when it involves getting fit and witnessing the spankiest of spanky shorts.  And while doing crunches the other day, I looked up to the ceiling to find a fabulously-colored butterfly, neon green lines set against deep black wings, resting next to the light bulb.  Here’s to surprises around every corner and past every assumption.