Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things

My voyage on the shortwaves, mentioned a couple of posts ago, long ago took me to the peculiar country of North Korea — or more formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  DPRK is sort of a bizarre anachronism, a microcosm of old school Stalinism living into the present day.  So its shortwave station, Voice of Korea (formerly and more famously known as Radio Pyongyang) is equally bizarre and anachronistic.  The programs, when you can pick up the station, are usually a hodgepodge of rants and bombast touting the glories of North Korea and condemning the evil West and their “puppet” government in South Korea.  This is old-school Radio Moscow or Radio Peking shit!  And neither of those stations have existed in either name or spirit in about 20 years.  But Voice of Korea is holding it down and keeping it real with their special brand of insular, isolated, the-rest-of-the-world-don’t-exist programming.

The programming is just a reflection of the country as a whole.  North Korea is built upon an extreme, even by Stalinist standards, form of cult of personality.  The personalities are supplied by the family Kim, first Founding Father Kim Il-Sung (aka Great Leader) and after he died his son, Kim Jong-Il (aka Dear Leader).  Dear Leader’s son, Kim Jong-Un, has been tapped to be the next Leader, though I think his title is still influx.  In any case, a great deal of the programs from Voice of Korea, and Radio Pyongyang before it, focus on the activities of the countries leader, visiting places, meeting troops, etc.  Now, in the age of the internet, photos of such events are easier to come by.  And some clever soul has made them into a website perfect for those of us obsessed with this odd place.  Enter Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things.  Now we can see photos of Dear Leader doing what he does best, visiting places in his country and looking at things.  It’s bloody brilliant.  I think nothing better encapsulates this country’s peculiarities than this very simple site.

Short Story: The Swing Shift

This story could be called a love letter to the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  I wrote it around the time I fell head over heels for all things Ellington and started listening to his music 23 out of 24 hours in the day — a practice I continue to the present time.  I immersed myself in all things Ellington to learn as much about what Mahalia Jackson once called a “sacred institution.”  And that’s when I learned about Billy Strayhorn.  Mr. Strayhorn was the Maestro’s composition partner from about 1939 to 1967, when Billy died of cancer at the age of 51.  But I was moved and awed when I learned that Billy was gay and that he was, for his era, fairly open about it.  That is to say, he didn’t go to great lengths to hide it.  He wore no beards.

So this got me to thinking about being black and gay in the 30s and 40s, and that was the inspiration for The Swing Shift.  This story was originally published in the magazine Mobius  in 1999.

Continue reading

Ptolemaic Takeover

With the Republicans taking control of the House, there will be ample examples of ptolemaic logic in the coming days and months.  Chief among them will be items pertaining to the budget.  They will cut, cut, cut the budget until the cows come home and scrutinize any new expenditures to the hilt.  But they will lower taxes without nearly as much scrutiny.  Both add to the deficit, which they profess to care deeply about, but still, tax cuts get a pass.  Why?  Because it makes their base — rich people — happy.

It’s going to be an interesting year.

Homo Sum

I am not a Christian, but I will gladly say Merry Christmas.

I am not a Muslim, but I will gladly say Ramadan Mubarak.

I am not a Hindu or a Jain or a Sikh, but I will gladly say Happy Diwali.

I am not a Jew, but I will gladly say Happy Hanukkah.

I am human

Homo Sum

I am human

Homo Sum

I am human

Homo Sum

And the sum of humanity will always interest and fulfill me.

Let’s get some peace in 2011.

✌ ♥

Shortwaves & Honey Cakes

Some time in November 1975, I was home from school and in something I think we can call a funk.  My older brother Robert and I shared a bedroom.  I was 10.  On this day he showed me what the funny looking metal thing with the vacuum tubes was all about.  It’s a 1937 Stromberg-Carlson Model 250 broadcast receiver, capable of getting AM and shortwave.  He introduced me to the world of international shortwave radio.  From our little bedroom in our house in South Central LA, I could hear voices from around the world.  It was love at first listening.  The geek in me loved the thought of radio waves traveling such enormous distances:  from Cuba, from Canada, from England, from Australia, from Japan, from India, from Holland, from Germany, from China.  And my soul was deeply enriched by hearing those other voices, voices I would never have otherwise heard and viewpoints I would have otherwise never known.  I would not have developed my international perspective at so early an age had it not been for my twiddling with dial of my old radio at all hours of the day and night.

Shortwave radio is the godfather of the Internet.  Radio frequencies between about 1700 kHz and 26,000 kHz have the ability to bounce off the ionosphere, a high level of the earth’s atmosphere, and return to earth where it may bounce off the earth’s surface and off the ionosphere again, and so on.  All this bouncing about carries the signal great distances, much greater than standard AM or FM signals can travel.  And all without satellites.  In the 1920s, governments put this then-nascent technology to use to broadcast radio programs to distant lands, typically to their colonies.  The Dutch were one of the first, creating Radio Station PCJ to broadcast to their then colony the Dutch East Indies — or as we know it now Indonesia.  Holland to Indonesia, not bad.

By the 1970s, when I started listening, there were scores of nations on the radio dial broadcasting news and propaganda to the globe, especially propaganda — this was during the Cold War, after all.  The US’s shortwave service is the Voice of America.  But we also operated Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which aimed transmissions and programs specifically towards Eastern Bloc nations.  To counter this, the Soviet Union had Radio Moscow and Radio Peace and Progress.  Trippy stuff.  More objective news could be found from BBC World Service or Radio Australia.

But my main station was from the country that helped start it all.  Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, or Radio Netherlands Worldwide, used to have a Sunday program called “The Happy Station.”  It was started in 1928 by an Edward Startz, who worked for the aforementioned PCJ.  It was a variety show with music and chatter, programs about Mr. Startz’s travels, listener letters, etc.  The show came to an end during the Second World War.  After the war, in 1947, Radio Netherlands was founded and Mr. Startz was invited back to continue The Happy Station, which he did until his retirement at the end of 1969.  A new young fella by the name of Tom Meijer took over.  That’s who was doing the show when I started to listen to it.  I liked Tom.  He was fun and quirky and could spin yarn after yarn for as long as the broadcast lasted whether it be an hour or two hours.  He retired in 1992 and the show itself was retired by Radio Netherlands a few years later.  (Happy Station was recently been revived, with Radio Netherlands’ blessings, by Keith Perron who’s based in Taiwan.)

One of the shows broadcasted in my early days of listening was a recipe show, featuring Dutch delicacies.  I can’t remember all of the dishes, but one has remained a standard for the past 33 years:  Honey Cake.  I wrote to the station and they gladly sent the recipe along.  I excitedly asked my mom permission to bake it, and she said “Of course!” and gathered all the ingredients for me:  honey, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, eggs, coffee.  The only ingredient she didn’t allow was cloves.  She hated cloves.  She said it reminded her of the toothache medicine she had to take as a child.  So we ditched the cloves.  Otherwise, I made the recipe as proscribed and out came a yummy coffee cake like treat.  Apparently the Dutch eat honey cake as a coffee cake year round, but I got into the habit of making it for Christmas.  That’s when I made the first, for Christmas 1977.  I was 12.  Everyone loved it.

The hardest honey cake to make was for Christmas 1996.  Mom had been gone for six months by then.  But I did something impish, to lighten the mood a bit.  For the first time, I included cloves — just a dash, as the recipe said.  I don’t think it made that much of a difference in the flavor.  I guess only Mom would have noticed.  Moms notice everything, you know.

Shortwave radio has been dying a long slow death for the past couple of decades.  First fiscal belt-tightening put the squeeze on many international broadcasters — shortwave stations are hella expensive to operate.  The transmitters usually use upwards of 250 kilowatts of power and require tons of oil and stuff to run.  That adds up.  And of course, the internet arrived.  It’s much easier to hear and see the world now than it was in 1975.  I can listen to Radio Netherlands easier now via podcast than I can on my radio — you know, the funny looking thing with the vacuum tubes.  My dad restored that radio, by the way, in 1968.  Still works.  My prediction that it will likely outlive shortwave itself may well come true, alas.  Though shortwave radio is still important in the developing world where the internet and satellite radio are still cost prohibitive.

There.  I just took the 34th Annual Honey Cake out of the oven.  Smells like Christmas has arrived.  These days I usually bake a couple, one for here and one to send to family and friends in LA.  For those of you who want to try it, look below the fold for the recipe.  73s and Merry Christmas.

Continue reading

DADT BS (updated below)

I’m really not happy with the way the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal is being handled.  The policy, born in 1993, is pure discrimination, nothing less.  It places on a certain segment of the population an unfair burden, that is, that LBGT service members cannot reveal or discuss in any way, shape or manner their sexuality.  That’s bullshit.  Think about it.  How often do you say “my wife” this or “my boyfriend” that in casual conversation?  No brainer.  You just talk about them in the same banal way you talk about the weather.  But if your partner is of the same gender, then all bets are off.  Can’t mention them, except maybe as a “friend.”  But if this “friend” keeps cropping up in conversations, potentially it could lead to one outing oneself accidentally as co-workers and superiors put two and two together.  Outrageous.

Far more harmful, of course, is the pressure real life couples have to go through if one of them is in the service and the other is a civilian spouse.  Straight civilian spouses have a panoply of support services at their beck and call, including each other.  Gay civilian spouses could never take advantage of this network because it would put their military spouse at risk of being fired.  Worse yet, if the military spouse is injured or killed in the line of duty, the spouse is not notified.  The spouse has no visitation rights.  The spouse has no pension rights.  The spouse isn’t even accorded such standard military dignities as a visit from military personnel presenting a flag and sympathy.  Nothing.  Zilch.  Nichts.  That’s beyond outrageous.  That’s plain cruelty.  My partner and I have been together for over 16 years.  Woe betied any hospital that would try to get between us if anything happened to the other.

The press to overturn DADT has been anemic at best.  The policy was created in a state of weakness and so far it is being repealed in a similar state.  The basic problem with the repeal effort is that it has been a series of capitulations to a population of homophobes who have no interest in repeal.  The generals and commanders fighting repeal are projecting their own homophobia onto their charges, stating that they “aren’t ready” for the change.  Some aren’t, though the much vaulted survey of military personnel showed that for many in the US armed services, DADT repeal is no big deal.  But that doesn’t matter.  In the end, these leaders of the armed services should lead.  If they are commanded to discontinue this policy, then that’s what they should do.  PERIOD.  They need to train their troops not to be bigots and to do their work.  As a manager in a non-military setting, I am charged to uphold the nondiscrimination policies of my company.  It’s as simple as that.  And if the military leaders can’t do that, then they need to resign and let someone else takeover who can.  There is no middle ground in cases of discrimination.  You end it quickly and decisively or it does not end at all.  This nonsense about not causing waves during war time is just a smoke screen, again, that the homophobes use to continue that which they feel comfortable with.

And don’t make me laugh about soldiers worried about bending over in the showers, as if cases of sexual assault are going to rise if DADT is repealed.  Please with that.  The armed forces need to take care of its existing problem with sexual assaults against its servicewomen.  The homophobes aren’t making such a big deal about that.  They’ll pay the problem lip service, but showing leadership to end it is another matter.  But they’ll gladly use the truncheon of sexual assault as a reason not to end DADT.

As I’m fond of saying, you can either pull the bandaid off slowly, feeling the tug of each hair as you do it, or you can yank it off in one quick jolt.  You’ll remove some hairs that way, painfully, but the hair will grow back and the pain will diminish.  The only ingredient missing is leadership.  LEADERSHIP.  No more studies.  No more committee hearings.  No more time wasting.  Just end it.  End it, Mr. President.  I would think that the recent court case that decided against DADT would be a god-send.  It’s like a get out of jail free card.  The finicky Senate gets bypassed and the law gets struck down.  Why do the appeals?  Why must it end by a legislative process?  I expect it is possible for the Supreme Court to uphold DADT in the end, but if we don’t appeal it that far, then it can’t.  Stop the appeals.  Let the shameful policy die an overdue death.

You can’t negotiate with bigots.  You can try and maybe you can change a few minds, but in the end, you have to put your foot down and say “this is what we’re going to do.”  That’s the only thing that needs to happen.  Mr. President, you can do this at any time.  Just do it.

Update – December 18, 2010

And in the end, the Senate does the right thing and banished this ridiculousness to the dust bin of history.  I predict within five years, folks will look back and wonder what the hell all the fuss was about.  So it goes with these sorts of things.  Good Riddance to DADT.  May we never see the likes of it ever again.

Ptolemaic Logic

Ptolemy was an Egyptian-born Roman philosopher and scientist who lived around the First and Second centuries AD.  He’s best known for the Ptolemaic System of the universe, an expansion of Aristotle’s view that the Earth laid at the center of universe and all the heavenly bodies, including the sun and stars, revolved around it.  Aristotle’s theories did not account for certain observed movements of the planets, such as retrograde motion.  Ptolemy tried to clear this up with his version.

Of course, Ptolemy’s version of the universe was wrong, too.  But that didn’t stop others from defending and modifying it to the hilt.   The concentric circles of the Ptolemaic system became more and more elaborate to account for every discreet and hitherto unexplained motion of the planets.  After a while, the whole cosmos looked like a giant a print from a Spirograph set.  Pretty.  Mathematically fascinating.  But astronomically and physically impossible.  No matter.  The importance was that the Earth remain the immovable center of creation.  To maintain this fiction, the Ptolemaic Model was tweaked, twisted, turned, tossed, stirred, and shaken.

And therein lies the heart of my new definition for the adjective ptolemaic:  something intentionally complicated to uphold a belief system that is at its core false.  Note the difference between this use of ptolemaic and that of byzantine.  Byzantine usually refers to something that is intricate and involved, a byzantine bureaucracy, for instance.  A ptolemaic bureaucracy would be one that is intentionally complex to support a way of doing things that is in and of itself false or wrong or silly.

Pope Benedict XVI was widely quoted saying the other day that in some cases condom use is OK in order to help curtail the spread of HIV.  He offered male prostitutes as a (bizarre) example of the sort of people for whom condom usage was fine.  Wow!  I applaud the Pontiff for making the connection between condom usage and the curtailment of the spread of HIV.  But does he really mean to imply that only male prostitutes spread HIV disease?  Or that male prostitutes, and presumably their johns, are the only population at risk for HIV disease?  I think I’ve heard that one before.  But the Pope’s logic is that male prostitutes do not procreate, therefore there is no contraception involved — something which the Church remains steadfastly against — therefore, it’s OK.

I call ptolemaic!  Condoms have been the Vatican’s boogeyman since long before the AIDS pandemic spread across the planet.  Contraception is a no-no.  No condoms for you!  That’s bad enough.  Responsible procreating is something everyone should take seriously.  However in the age of HIV/AIDS, the no condom message is highly irresponsible in the very extreme.  But for a simple piece of formed latex, plus other preventative methods, HIV has run roughshod over swaths of the Earth’s populace for over 30 years.  The message, then, should be loud and uniform:  Use A Rubber.  But to carry forth such a message would contradict too many of the Church’s major tenets:  no sex out of wedlock, no gay sex, no contraception for married (one man, one woman) couples.

So for the Pope to say it’s OK for queer hookers to use rubbers to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, but that it’s not OK for others to so for the same reason smacks of perverse hypocrisy.  Everyone, even straight people, even straight married people, can get HIV from unprotected sex.  This is a reality which the Pontiff and the Church are unable or unwilling to recognize.  Hence, his logic is impaired and deeply ptolemaic.

Sadly, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of supporting positions which it holds dear irrespective of the facts.  Ask my friend Galileo.

KPFA and the Importance of Voices

KPFA and Pacifica are not new to drama, alas.  I remember the last go-round quite well.  I was sitting on the floor of the apartment, doing yoga stretches in preparation for my evening workout.  I had the KPFA Evening News on the stereo.  Long time news co-director Mark Mericle read through the headlines.  Then he became distracted.  There was a pause, which on live radio always seems longer than it really is.  I could hear someone yelling in the background “Don’t hurt me!  You’re hurting me!”  Mark came back on the mike, his voice betraying his anxiety at seeing a colleague in trouble, to explain that Flashpoints presenter Dennis Bernstein was being arrested at his desk and dragged out of the building.  I can’t remember why Dennis was being arrested, except that it was part of the larger purge that was going on at the time.  A measured calm returned to Mark’s voice as he tried to give a blow-by-blow of the arrest occurring just few feet from him.  And then, there was silence.  This time the pause was permanent.  I sat on the floor blinking for a moment, debating on whether to continue with my workout or go to the station to see what the hell.  Naturally, I ended up doing the latter.

I got to KPFA in Berkeley to find many more listeners had gathered to find out what the hell.  By this point, the coup was a fait accompli.  The interim station manager piped in music from the already pacified KPFT in Houston — that’s all KPFT did at that time, air music and light programming.  So now they were bringing this mess to Berkeley.  Yeah, good luck with that.  Fortunately, the coup was short lived.  After many weeks of protests condemning the heavy-handed tactics used to change the network, KPFA returned to local control (as did KPFT and the rest of the network).  Life continued.  For a while, anyway.

Right, so now, eleven years later, KPFA is embroiled in another unfortunate internecine battle.  Pacifica’s current executive director, Arlene Engelhardt, states that the network, and KPFA in particular, are mired in debt.  Drastic Steps are Required.  So, wielding the Beeching Axe, Ms. Engelhardt laid off nearly everyone that worked on the station’s long-running Morning Show this past week.  The Morning Show.  One of the station’s most popular programs, and many state its most reliable fund-raiser.  And the station was planning a fund-raiser this week!  In light of the current circumstances, the fund-raising effort has been cancelled.

This latest episode also played itself out on the air.  Last Tuesday, November 9, was to be the first day that morning programming was to be piped in from LA Pacifica station KPFK.  But the laid off Morning Show staff had other ideas.  They took control of the studios and aired one last home-grown program to explain what was going on and discuss how the station, and the Morning Show, ended up where it ended up.  Made for fascinating live radio.  It really did.  It was sort of like pirate radio.  To her credit, Arlene Engelhardt allowed herself to be interviewed during the rogue Morning Show, though to my ears her explanations for her actions — strictly fiduciary, seniority based layoffs, etc. — rang hollow.  Despite protests, she has not reversed the decision to end the Morning Show.

I’ve listened to the Morning Show for most of the 21 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area.  It’s been a good mixture of local, national, and international news and commentary, reports and rants, summaries and speculations.  Now its gone.  That makes no sense to me at all.  There is word that members of the current Pacifica National Board want to make KPFA and all Pacifica stations an all-volunteer effort, and eschew paid, professional staff all together.  What a waste of fine talent.  In addition to the great talent that’s always comprised KPFA’s news and current affairs staff, the station has for decades managed an apprenticeship program, grooming a new generation of critically thinking journalists.  All of this is at risk now because of this in-fighting.  Amazing.

We need KPFA’s voice more than ever.  The Republican’s are retaking the House in just under two month’s time.  We need as many non-Fox, fact-based voices as are available.  Ms. Engelhardt needs to find another way to balance the bank sheets that does not involve ditching the station’s most popular programs and talented presenters.  We need all hands on deck.

Photoessay: Hidden in the Open

I love photographic exhibits.  One of my favorites was a retrospective of California based 20th century photographers at the Oakland Museum of California some years ago.  It featured the works of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and other masters of that generation.  A good photograph tells a story reflecting some aspect of the age in which it was taken.  It becomes a window to the past.

A few weeks ago my sister sent me a link to an absolutely amazing online photoessay entitled Hidden in the Open:  A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples. Not only did this serve to introduce me to the exhibit’s totally cool creator, Bronze Buckaroo, but the exhibit itself has enthralled me with its depiction of African American males in various poses of closeness and friendship.  As BB notes, we cannot know for certain if in fact all of the men in the pictures were gay.  Though some of them, in my eyes anyway, scream girlfriend! with snaps flung high.  It is too easy to fall into these pictures and speculate on the lives behind them, both the figures shown and the one behind the camera.  Where did they hang out?  What music did they listen to?  What were their hopes and dreams and fears?  What would they tell you about themselves if you could interview them?  Each photo tickles you with these questions.

Hidden in the Open is a well put together exhibition that pries open a window to the past that is too often boarded-up.  I highly recommend checking it out.


1985.  UCLA.  Sophomore year.  I fell into the swell of anti-apartheid protests that engulfed the campus that year and began to live the life of the “activist student.”  My mother made a suggestion.

“You should start writing a journal.”

I agreed with her, but it took another year before I began in earnest.  She knew I was a writer before I did.  She was often right about those sorts of things.

The journal started as a chronicle of my burgeoning career as a student protester.  I was studying the life and ways of Mahatma Gandhi at the time, and it showed.  Yikes!  I cringe at some of my early entries.  I sound like a bloody Gandhian puppet.  My voice, my real voice, was deeply buried, yet to be discovered.

1987 should have been the journal’s first watershed year, but it was a test I failed miserably.  I barely wrote in it at all.  I still look back at that period with much regret and sadness, because I would love to now be able to reread an accurate chronicle of what I truly thought and felt at that time.  I even remember erasing one of the few honest entries I had made.  I wrote them in pencil in those days, so tenuous I was, so afraid to speak too loudly, even as I shouted slogan after slogan at protest after protest.  My journal had (and has) no audience apart from myself, though I fancied it an open book for all to see, again, mimicking the Gandhian model.  A facade, and a sad one, which kept me from having conversations with myself, conversations I desperately needed to have.  I suspect my whole pretense about the open journal was to keep me from having those conversations.  I remember taking an intro to psychology course at that time.  I failed because I never went to class.

In any case, the cracks to my facade began to appear by the end of ’87.  First was the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 11, an event woefully underreported at the time and now a date observed internationally as Coming Out Day because of this event’s importance to queer history.  I knew a couple of folks at UCLA who went.  Their stories intrigued me, even if I was not able or willing to admit it.  They gave me hope.  Then something else happened.  In late November, I had my first true sexual experience, and it was with a man.  Until that point, I had never had sex of any kind with a man or a woman — as closeted as I was with myself, it never felt right to me to date women so I never did.  I wrote about this great episode obliquely in the journal, scribbling some gibberish about getting it out of my system and expressing relief that I could finally “move on.”  Ha.  Move on to the next man, no doubt.

Flash forward to April 1988.  I finally admitted to myself, in my journal, that I’m a gay man.  That broke the dam and the flood has continued, in one way or another, ever since.  So in the end the journal became a tool to help me come to terms with, and accept and embrace, my sexuality.  I came out to my family by writing them a letter entitled “What James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and Gregory Russell have in common.”  I made a special trip to the family house — I had moved out by that point — and gave the letter to my mother and sister, who were home at the time.  My mother put down the letter after reading the title and stood to give me a hug.  My sister joined her.  It was all good with them and later with my father and three older brothers, too.  I exhaled.

It’s impossible to write without honesty.  It’s impossible, I continue to learn, to write well without the courage to say what needs to be said.  As I continue to write fiction, largely about things black and gay, I continue to find new challenges for myself to say what I really want to say, to say it clearly, to say it well.  the gar spot is just another evolution of this process.  Forces in my life have often advised me to start blogging.  (“Fool!  Start a blog!” my sister often said.)  I resisted because I didn’t think I’d have enough to say to maintain a proper blog.  Who knows, maybe I don’t.  I leave that for you and the fates to decide.  But at least now, finally, I’m willing to give it a go.

Mazal tov.