Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Jehovah and a Wrinkled Blue Collar

Heaven has been kind to me this week. The annual Sokeisen (“War” (sic) between Keio and Waseda), and annual baseball championship, had to be extended, giving me a day to play at home with a complete sense of freedom.

Just as I began to get seriously engaged in contemplating the luxury of so much free time, the doorbell went. I thought it was the cleaning lady (she comes on Tuesdays), ¬ so I shouted out that I would be right there so she wouldn't drop dead of a heart attack when she used her key and saw me standing there unexpectedly. And I hear this male voice, shouting out, "Mr. McCornick? Can I speak with you?" in native-speaker American-English.

I open the door and this Greek god is standing there, wearing a suit and tie and a cotton shirt with an imperfectly ironed collar. My first instinct was to tell him to come in and take off his shirt. The iron was still hot. But then I saw there was a modest young lady standing just behind him.

"Mr. McCornick?"


"I've come from Kamakura to talk to you."


"Would it be all right?"

"Talk about what?"

"About the truth of modern times."

Now normally I give out that I don't give a rat's ass about truth or modern times, but I won't pretend to you that I'm sincere about that. And when I smell organized religion my mind tends to roar through the halls of memory and courses of action available to me for dealing with it. Like push you down stairs. Poke you with sharp objects. Fart. Remove all clothing and stand naked. Inform you that I have a small child cooking on the stove.

But all these circuits get shorted when faced with a Greek god. What is there about Greek gods that does this to me? Must go into meditation and find the answer.

"Would you two like to come in and have a cup of tea?"

(Would you like to come in and take your clothes off and lie down on my bed... and you, miss, please wait here?")

"Oh, really?"

Bright eyes of excitement. Happy anticipation. Deep churning satisfaction that I could make GG smile like that. If there's anything better than a GG on your doorstep, it's a GG with a smile from ear to ear.

"Yes, and bring your Bible. I'll put the kettle on."

I run downstairs to get into some respectable pants. Pajamas won't do for a serious exploration of truth. If I'm going to go gaga, I need some dignity in my uniform. And there's a small chance my gaga is showing.

So he begins to talk. I watch his mouth move. He has a charming teenager English. One of hundreds of Japanese kids I have listened to over the years who learned to talk in the high schools of Westchester, Winnetka or San Diego. He's dead earnest, and his brow furrows each time he struggles to find just the right word. He's well-rehearsed, and his fingers fly through the good book with total familiarity. He starts with Daniel. Daniel tells me that God's kingdom is going to be established on earth.

"Right now?"


"I don't see where you found the dates."

"Oh, Daniel doesn't say when, but it is clear that he means now."

I decide to continue focusing on the mis-ironed shirt collar. I wonder if his mother did it. I decide he probably ironed his own shirt, and I see him in my mind's eye standing there in his underwear, biting his lip the way he did when he told me about Daniel's prediction. Such an earnest young man. So good to look at. Hunky. Big thick eyebrows. Soft eyes and strong hands.

He sits across from me with a tall posture, thanks me for the tea and sips from the cup, using each sip to collect his thoughts. He's hard at work and I admire his dedication. His female companion sits between us at the table, so when he quotes from Scriptures, she is able to follow and open her Bible so I can read for myself along with GG. It is a well-rehearsed performance.

We're talking about Isaiah now, but I'm only half listening.

"Are your mother and father also Jehovah's Witnesses?"


"And yours too?" I ask the young lady.

"Well, my father isn't but he sometimes comes to church with us."

"I think it's wonderful that you are working so hard about something you care about."

"Thank you," they both say. Again, it's ear-to-ear smiles.

It's obvious they have been doing this together for a while, and this response is not something they're used to. I begin to feel devilishly powerful.

"What made you Jehovah's Witnesses?" I ask.

"I learned about it from my mother and I want very much to do God's work."

A boy who looks like a god who loves and respects his mother. Allah is great.

What's not to love about this guy. I wonder if he would like to move in. He hasn't a clue how gorgeous he is. Clear, open, honest eyes, a genuine smile that makes even your cold worldweariness melt, this little voice says, a modesty that keeps his message from cloying, a desire to please and to share what he knows.

"Some more tea?"

"Do you mind if I ask about your religion?"

Aha. Time for T h e C h a l l e n g e. Can I tell him about "my religion" and keep him interested long enough for it to sink in that I am not the steward of the devil.

"Let me tell you what I think I share with you."

They're listening intently.

"I think there is good and there is evil. I am not surprised that people explain the world in those terms, because they come from direct human experience."

"So you believe in God?"

"Well, yes. And that's something else I share with you. You believe God is beyond our understanding, right?


"That he is bigger than any of us and that no matter how hard we try we can't understand the true nature of God."


"And that the best we can do is think and talk and share our ideas with people, and check with those who have gone before and see what they have discovered, and then come up with a 'best guess.'"


This is too easy. They're listening as much as they are talking. When was the last time a Bible salesman came to the door and actually listened? What is this, affirmative action for Angel School month? Reaching out to Jehovah's Witnesses this year maybe? My mind races for an explanation. Too much cognitive dissonance. A face and a body like that and an ability to listen as well as talk?

He's waiting for me to go on!

"And because God is so big and so far beyond our understanding, all our attempts will be imperfect ones, because just as God is perfect we are imperfect and everything we do is imperfect."

"Yes, that's true."

"And the Muslims and the Jews and the Buddhists have all made their best guesses, and their imperfect conclusions are unsatisfying to us."


"And the Christians who went before us, with their Crusades and their Inquisitions and their arguments over whether the pope was the sole owner of the keys to the church, and all those battles over who should speak for Christ, all that, too was a sign of our limited understanding of god and his plan for the world."

"I guess so."

"See how much we share about God?"

"I'm glad to see you believe in God."

"Well, I'm glad to see you want to be good and to do good."

So far so good. Haven't said a damn thing yet I don't sincerely believe. What is it about male beauty that drives me to be all that I can be?

I change the subject, ask them about their English-learning experiences, about life in San Diego as a child. We are having a good time. I don't want them to leave.

"May I read you another passage from the Bible?"

"OK, if you want to."

This one is the one about beating swords into ploughshares. I'm tempted to ask them if they could draw me a picture of a ploughshare, but as I've been telling you, his beauty keeps me on the high road. Besides, I want to steer clear of the imagery of beating swords into anything.

"Very beautiful poetry, don't you think?"

They do think so.

They turn to the creation story and want to tell me how man disobeyed God. I let them read the part about the casting out from Eden and then I say to them,

"Wasn't it interesting how consistent God was? He created us 'in his image' and that means, you just told me, we have the features of God. And the most important of those features is our mind, that which, as you said, separates us from the animals. God's plan was for us to live in the garden as children. We would know no evil, and be like children who can count on being fed when we're hungry and paid attention to when we're needy. But God's plan was that we would have the freedom to choose, and we made a choice. We said to God 'This choice between living here in Eden with you or eating the fruit of knowledge? We choose knowledge.' Isn't that marvelous? God actually gave us the freedom to choose knowledge. With all his power, he could have removed that choice-making ability from us, but he didn't."

"But we were evil, and we chose to disobey God."

"And we used the gift God gave us of choice."

"But God told us not to choose disobedience."

"Then it wasn't a real choice. It was a temptation. Do you really think God acted the role of a Tempter?"

"I never saw it like that."

"Is that your image of a loving parent? One who toys with you, "I give you a free choice, but if you make the wrong choice, I'll make your life miserable?"

"That's not the way Christians see it."

"How do Christians see it?"

"We think we had a choice but we should have chosen God."

"Then there would have been no need for Jesus Christ. Obviously Christians also believe God came to terms with the choice of knowledge. He didn't give up. In fact, he came around to forgiveness. That first image of an angry god throwing his kids out into the street was later changed to a God full of remorse about having lost his children and willing to go to great sacrifice to get them back."

"Yes. That's what the Bible tells us of God's love."

"God loved us so much that he gave us freedom to disobey him. And he knew we would, obviously, since God knows everything. Doesn't that make you suspect that our disobedience was part of God's plan?"

"But he wanted us to obey him."

"The image is of a father who wants his kids to like him, and tests to see if they do. When they don't live up to his expectations, he kicks them out. Later, he regrets the harsh decision and takes steps to bring them back. That is a beautiful image to me. Not consistent with my idea of god as an all-knowing creator, or a force of nature, or a manifestation of beauty. What I see in the biblical creation story is a wonderful image of an imperfect but loving parent. It's more of a Greek god on a human scale than a Middle Eastern god of total power and knowledge. But I love the imagery used by the Hebrew writers of Genesis."

"So you love the Bible. That makes you a Christian."

"Yes. If you mean that a person who loves the imagery of the Christian faith is a Christian."

"Well you also have to believe Jesus was the son of Jehovah."

"Then I'm not a Christian. I don't believe he was not, it's just that that's too much particular information for me to swallow. You see, I am also a Jew, because I love the imagery of justice and righteous behavior that the Jews cling to. And I am also a Muslim, because I love the imagery of the total surrender to a force larger than your own comprehension, the humility of recognizing human limitations. And I am also a Buddhist because I love the wisdom of recognizing balance is superior to imbalance, and that day is always becoming night and night is always becoming day and there is nothing on earth than never changes. I am impressed by how much wisdom humankind has collected over the centuries."

"You have a very wide idea of God."

"And so do you. You just told me God is beyond understanding."

"But if you believe all these different religions know God, then you don't believe that the Bible tells us Christ is the answer?"

"That's the answer to the questions that the Christians raise. Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and Hindus all have other answers to other questions and they all have scriptures where they wrote all these questions and answers down and they all have people just as earnest as you telling me what they think."

"We are not trying to convert you. We are just trying to tell you what we believe."

"I know that. And it wouldn't matter if you were trying to convert me. I saw earnestness in you, so I invited you in to tea."

Oops. Here it is. The moment of truth, if you'll pardon a pun. If I were totally honest, I would have to say, 'your earnestness, and more importantly, the unearthly beauty of your mortal coil.'

I leave off the bit about the mortal coil.

They smile again. And thank me again. And it looks like it may be time to go.

"Do you see God in nature?"

Now where did that come from? Something outside the routine string of biblical readings.

"I don't see God; I see what I think is God. I am humbled by the magnificence and power of nature and by the thought there might be a single creating force, and that almost makes me a deist. And I like to think there is a powerful a force for good, and that makes me an ethical being. And I like to think of God as the essence of beauty. (And that definitely makes you a vessel of God, young man.) But these are images I get of God through just two or three little holes in the curtain of ignorance separating me and God. I don't really understand the connections between creation and good or between good and beauty. I just sense that there may be something tying them all together, and I'm not surprised that people are claiming all over the globe they've found that unifying force and it is the basis of their religion. But I've been blessed to have had conversations like this with Muslims and with Jews and with Buddhists and with Hindus and with Christians who tell me that Jehovah's Witnesses are mistaken but they are right. If you never go out into the world, if you never meet anybody who thinks differently from you, you can carry on in your certainty. But when you do go out and you do listen carefully, you see conflicting descriptions of truth. Having lived so long among Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists, it's not possible for me to take any one description too seriously. Instead, I come away with the idea that we are all blind children describing an elephant. You think he is built like a tree trunk; somebody else says he's like a wall, a third person says he's like a fire hose. All I can do is observe how we all do best when tell it like we see it and allow others complete freedom to do the same."

"But you believe in good and evil."

"I was raised in Western Civilization; it's hard for me to escape the division of the world into good and evil, black and white. But I am fascinated by Buddhists and the ancient Greeks and others who didn't separate them so clearly. One time when I was grieving the loss of someone dear to me and I felt I had died and was living in hell, I came to realize that this encounter with the dark spirits was also giving me insight into the nature of things. I understood my fellow man much better in that grief than I did normally. And I saw a creative force in me, and saw how it was that painters and writers and other artists can work through depression and misery to create things of beauty. And I developed a new respect for the Buddhists and the Greeks and others who did not divide the world into black and white, good and evil, like the sons and daughters of Abraham do, the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims."

"What you say is very interesting."

"And now I seem to have a choice. I can say, "You're all wrong! You're all running around like chickens with your heads cut off pretending to know God when you're all mired in ignorance." Or I can say, "Isn't it wonderful how much we have all accomplished, each in our own way, to put together an understanding of God." When I'm feeling angry and depressed, I tend to look at it the first way. When I'm feeling good, I tend to look at it the second way. You will agree with me, I suspect, that, given the choice, the second way is better."

"Oh, yes."

"Then let me tell you again how glad I am you are wearing that suit and blue shirt and tie and going from door to door trying to share good news rather than wearing a military uniform and carrying a gun and dropping bombs on people in some far-off country."

"I'm glad you feel that way."

"And I hope you will think about how many different ways there are to think about God and be glad he gave us the freedom to choose the tree of knowledge rather than live in childish ignorance in paradise and the freedom to think and share our thoughts with all his children all around the world and work together to map out a way to be good."

"I will. Thank you for teaching me."

OK. We're done. I haven't let on to either of them that it was his earthly beauty that stopped me in my tracks. Or that it was the odd circumstances that I suddenly found myself with an extra day in the week to do with as I pleased. Or that the sun was shining in and I felt more generous than usual and I was going to make an extra cup of tea anyway and was delighted to have the company of people who wanted to share something they valued with me. Or that one of them could have had the gold in my teeth for the asking. But outside of those omissions, I haven't lied.

We exchanged names and he asked if he could come back some day. I told him he would be welcome anytime, but that normally I am working on Tuesdays. "What about Fridays?" he asked. I'm home on Fridays, but I do my work at home on those days, so normally I don't have an hour free like I did today. But I will always have time for a cup of tea, so if you're in the neighborhood, do knock.

And I'll iron that collar right for you next time.

Sunday, October 21, 2001

Some Reflections on Being a Gay Uncle

At times, my friends get carried away talking about their children. And sometimes they hesitate, almost as if they wanted to say, "I'm sorry. It must bore you to hear us 'breeders' go on like this about our children." "Don't stop," I want to say. "I love it that you have this passion. I love it that you can be so unbalanced. That you reveal to me how much something matters to you outside of yourself and your work and passing interests. Something wonderful happens when people talk of their children. There is an atmosphere of love and security. You're safe when you're with people who love their children, and you know you are looking at their best side.

Gay people, at least in the United States, are now having children in ever greater numbers. I read the news and the academic studies of gay families with interest. Unlike some, I find it not at all surprising that gay people, once they have children of their own, often comment that they then come to feel they have more in common with straight people with children than they do with gay people. Certainly, for most, the "gay scene" recedes in importance. They learn that raising children takes a village, as Hillary put it, and it must be not only that the children raise the quality of their lives, but that there is value in finding connectedness with people you might otherwise avoid.

Gay men and lesbians have always been around as a part of larger families. That is what makes the "Save the Family" wagon-circling by the frightened right so grotesque. The family is coming to be understood differently as our society slowly evolves into a more democratic and inclusive one. Gay people are anything but a threat to the family. Just as San Francisco and other cities came to appreciate how gay men with wealth could spruce up a neighborhood and engender civic pride, people who welcome gay siblings and friends into their lives often find a surprising bonus of love and attention for their children in return. Gay men and women fill in some of the blank spaces in families, and add a dimension to healthy ones as well.

Sociobiological explanations of homosexuality (why do we constantly have to explain the human condition to death) have included the notion that it provides a natural buffer between the family as a vulnerable institution and the outer world. Gay men and women are supposedly designed that way by nature so that they will not have children and thus be around to lend a hand, financially and in other ways, to their siblings' children, providing more resources to the family than a lone set of male and female parents might.

This notion has always struck me as dumb. First off, it doesn't consider the cultural variation in patterning. The whole world is not structured like the American family in the first place. But far more importantly, it draws a line between reproduction and sexuality where it shouldn't, and misses an important point. One "reproduces" on both sides of the gay/straight line, in other words, and reproduction does not come in a package necessarily with family. Many gay men - and far more gay women - produce children of their own. And the fact that the number of gay adoptions is rising further challenges this functional theory of evolution, along with the idea that nature has a purpose in the first place.

But while the explanation doesn't fly, the phenomenon is real. My view of family is not the orthodox one. For me, who includes my biological sister in my chosen family, it is not that the biological relations create the "real brothers and sisters" and the close friends are brothers and sisters only in a metaphorical sense, but the other way around. Real family is as family does, and if you're lucky, the biologicals will be true brothers or sisters as well.

I have a large family. It includes more than a few nieces and nephews (far more nieces than nephews for some reason). Right up there second to none is Amy, the daughter of my longest longterm sister- and brother-by-choice, Harriet and Craig. She's fully grown, making her way in the world, and when I talk of her I hear the sound in my voice I hear in the voices of my friends with children—a pride and an inclination to overdo the praise.

Amy's mother and father died and left her to her own devices at much too young an age. But not without resources. Besides the certain knowledge that she was a much loved child of loving parents, Amy also has a large collection of aunts and uncles, some "natural," and some members of her parents' chosen family. Included in these are a number of gay uncles. At her mother's funeral service, her Aunt Jane (a natural aunt) presented Amy with a key to her house, a real key, one she could use any time. All she needed to do was come and she would be "at home," Jane told her. It was a touching moment, and some time later, at a dinner with Amy and her several gay uncles, we decided we'd make it explicit what we hoped she understood anyway — that we all wanted to match and extend the offer.

Anthony, for example, used to take Amy shopping. An annual splurge. I was never so good at largesse, but I felt a pride of connection nonetheless with Anthony for playing that particular avuncular role. My idea of how to play it is to fly to Paris, where she has been the past few years, and take her to dinner. (Obviously, we each have our own way to play.)

I have several other chosen nieces. Elizabeth, for example, who sends me videos of West Wing, and lots of meat-on-the-bone ideas to chew on. I'm not going to tell you so much about her, because I couldn't do that without mentioning her sister, Rachel, and then I'd want to talk about watching Paz and Sol grow up, and more recently the awareness that I will have a lifetime connection with two little girls named Anna and Ziva. And I haven't begun to tell you about my Japanese nephew and niece, Stuart and Leslie (and now their spouses, Juli and Simon) and their children, Jessica and Aston and Graeme and Olivia and Connor. But I didn't start this to go there. I started this reflection on being a gay uncle because my thoughts are now with my good friend, Bill. Let me tell you about Bill, instead.

Bill is the closest thing I've got these days to a soulmate, somebody I can talk to without having to finish my sentences. He lives in Indiana and we talk by phone once a week. Last summer, after many years of hearing about his nephew, Kevin, I finally got to meet him. Kevin suffered from cystic fibrosis and moved around only with the aid of an oxygen tank and a long hose. Twice a day, Kevin would have to go into his room and cough until the blood came, to clear his lungs. He would then need to sleep to recover the strength it took till the next time.

I was horrified at the sight of this oxygen tank, and at having to live with the noise of a pump going 24-hours a day. And listening to the coughing was almost unbearable. Bill went about the house keeping his normal routine. He had lived with this burden for some time. The other thing about Kevin that caught your attention was his full-body tattoos. I have an unabashed loathing of tattoos, for their associations with the yakuza and other thugs. But here, suddenly, was the great object of my best friend's affection, challenging me to come at this from another direction.

Within five minutes of meeting Kevin, we were talking about death. Kevin was barely into his twenties, but he knew death. It was coming soon for him. He talked about death as the framework to his life. Cystic fibrosis used to kill kids long before they reached their twenties. With current medications they can go much longer, and the medications give hope there will be a cure found eventually. That first evening, while Bill cooked dinner, and for the rest of the days I spent with them, we moved from death and the meaning of life, through the existentialist literature he was reading, to films, sex, and the nature of friendship at a level I had never imagined discussing with someone his age. Kevin was obviously wasting no time with trivial pursuits. He was squeezing it all in, and he was a fascinating conversationalist. I saw Bill's reflection in this man and could trace the ideas in many cases to their source. They had, however, been sifted and filtered through his own quick mind. Bill beamed with parental pride as over and over again he would read the look of surprise on my face at discovering so much wisdom in someone so young, and at learning once again the paradox of how embracing the dark side could bring light, how touching death could make evident the joy of life.

Being with Kevin took me out of my own life almost completely. It was the highlight of the summer for me, and it held much of my attention for weeks afterward. Kevin gave such pleasure. He had the insight to make talk meaningful, and he had not lost the freshness of youth, even with the burden he was carrying. The only incongruity in the picture was the tattoos.

In time, I came to see what was going on. Nature had ravaged Kevin's body and rendered him powerless. Nothing he could do could reclaim it. At his age one expects he would drive too fast, maybe jump off bridges on a bungee cord, certainly experiment with sex and relationships and possibly drugs, and quite likely turn up the music until the walls shook as the beat came through his feet and up his legs—all in the firm conviction that the body is invincible and mighty and something to be used to bring pleasure. Kevin had no body of his own to speak of. He was thin and pale and not in charge. The tattoos gave him what little decision-making power over his own body he could muster. He could determine what his body would say, and he used to ponder up to a year just what markings he would have put where, and who he would have do it.

Kevin came to stay with Bill again this summer. Each of these journeys from Pennsylvania to Indiana involved renting a van big enough to transport the oxygen tanks and arranging for their replacement locally. It involved seeing the medication is there, the preparations are made in case a sudden trip to the hospital is required. It is a life-consuming process. Bill lived for those summers when Kevin would come to stay, and regularly made the trek back to his sister's home when he couldn't.

If you have access to a good library, have a look at the American Arts Quarterly, the Summer/Fall edition of 2000. On page 29 of that journal you will see a picture of Bill and Kevin in a review by Karen L. Mulder of the portrait made of them by Catherine Prescott. With luck, you may find the portrait itself, although I believe it is not on public display at the moment. Mulder's review captures, I think, what the portrait artist's eye saw in their relationship:

In Body and Mind: Kevin with Uncle Bill (68in. by 68 in., oil on canvas), Prescott puts a name to a complicated relationship fostered by tragic circumstances. An ascetic young man, slightly larger than life, co-inhabits his space with a man crowned by an aureole of white hair. The relationship is not immediately apparent, but a dynamic between them virtually hums with layered possibilities. Their postures and expression may initially seem adversarial, as one leans away from the other, yet both glance toward each other with gazes that barely miss in flight. What may seem an expression of sullen rebelliousness or disaffection in the youth matches, in intensity, the older man's hunched pose of concern, and patient submission.
The avuncular Bill is a university English professor from Indiana; the terse Kevin is a 22-year-old in the midst of a losing battle with cystic fibrosis. Neither one, according to Prescott, fits their world. Bill is set apart because he is the sole intellectual and the only gay man in a family of pragmatists. Kevin is also separated from the rudimentary associations with life that most of us take for granted by his disease, which alternatively forces him to face the unwanted pity of others, or to grapple with a mounting set of limitations, or to weather exclusion from his peers. Kevin's slumped posture reveals the weight of his trajectory.
Losing physical stamina forces Kevin to travel with his mind. Like Dante's Virgil, Bill feeds the journey with Plato and the classics, humor, satire, and studies in aesthetics. The book Kevin leans upon is emblematic of his fundamental reliance on reading at this stage; it is actually one of David Sedaris's witty commentaries, Naked. The first time Prescott saw the two together she intuited the deep bond between them; they were simultaneously conjoined and self-contained. Both sat in ways that immediately struck Prescott as iconic, so fixed in memory that she was driven to capture each man's presence. "I liked it so much that they had each other," she says. "It became such a stunning image; I had to remark on it, not preserve it, because what I made is not more real than what I saw. I had to make it mine."

There is more, which you can find if you're interested. I just wanted to demonstrate that I am not alone in recognizing the relationship between this uncle and his nephew and the meaning it gave to both their lives. Bill and I talked a long time this week about his fear that he would not be there for Kevin when he goes, and that he would not be able to bear the grief.

Kevin died last night. His Uncle Bill was there. Now comes the test of Bill's ability to bear the grief.

Oiso, Japan
October 20, 2001