Thursday, October 5, 2017

Watching the kids grow

Alastair, left; Zach, right
Don't Ask/Don't Tell advocates - eat your heart out
In addition to sending post-it notes to Jared Kushner with ideas he might put to use in his work solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the opioid epidemic, improving relations with China and Mexico, improving care for veterans, and reforming the criminal justice system, I am working on a project to improve the quality of the poop bags I carry when walking the dogs. Once you’ve had one of these suckers come apart in your hands, you’ll appreciate why.

And to make sure I keep a balanced life, I binge-watch in my free time on Netflix and Amazon Prime. They’re churning them out these days almost faster than I can keep up with, but I do occasionally catch up. Like I did the other day when I decided to extend the bingeing to a young YouTuber’s vlog.  Fascinating. Utterly fascinating. I sat for the better part of five days gathering insights into the life of a modern-day twenty-three-year-old media junkie with a need to document his every move and monetize his ramblings by collecting enough YouTube viewers to attract sponsors. He has some 134,000 “subscribers,” at latest count.

I am now ready to drop that project and go back to being a geezer, maybe reading books and keeping a cleaner house with some of that time. But not before taking a minute to consider what a firestorm this delightful young man set off in my head, about him, about me, about the vlogging phenomenon, the state of gay liberation in this country, and the gap between red state working-class culture and the yuppie world I am surrounded by, and how his story forced me to do a serious revision of my assumptions about all these things.

The young man’s name is Zachary Garcia. He comes from a Mexican-American family but is more apple pie and Dr. Pepper than tortillas and guacamole. He speaks in a deep bass voice which, when combined with his Texan and Alabaman speech patterns made me think he was putting me on, at first.  “I need all y’all’s help,” for example. ‘Can’t’ pronounced ‘caint’ – rhymes with ‘ain’t.’ Not your stereotype of a gay man.

At the heart of his four years of getting his coming-of-age events down on tape is his relationship with his boyfriend, Alec, who over time becomes fiancé and then husband. In Texas. In a military family. Alec is Alastair (not Alistair, see below) and we get to watch him graduate from West Point. We watch Zach propose to him on bended knee, after calling his mama and asking her permission to marry him. The story ends with them moving to Ft. Sills, Oklahoma and hopefully living happily ever after. You’ll have to become a subscriber to see how that goes.

Zach and Alastair’s story is, for me, first and foremost about future shock. We're talking the grandkids' generation here. I was already older than they are now when the Vietnam War started and I was marching in the streets to try and make it stop. I also marched in Washington for gay liberation and to call attention to the AIDS epidemic, events they think belong in the history books. I celebrated the really wretched movie, Making Love, in 1982, as a milestone, simply because there was a gay kiss. By the time Brokeback Mountain came out to widespread acclaim, I was already past my activist days. Zach does a video on LGBT cinema in which he pronounces Brokeback Mountain “cheesy.” To say we are not on the same wavelength would be  to understate our differences by a mile.

It’s the incongruities which kept me coming back for more. There are at least three ways you could frame his project, I think. One would be as an applied sociology study of how far acceptance of gay people has come in America, down to and including the red deep south. A second way would be to see it as a study of the uninhibited openness of the post-millennial generation, or Generation Z, as they’re sometimes called, and their embrace of self-revelation in the age of the internet. A third way might be as evidence for how wrongheaded the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy was and how badly the right wing got wrong the threat to marriage gay people allegedly represented. Zach’s is a total embrace of all the trappings of what in America is referred to as “traditional” marriage. Zach films not only his proposal on one knee to his true love, Alec, but also the phone call to Alec’s mother asking her blessing. To say nothing of the insistence that theirs will be a monogamous relationship. He’s a young romantic who dreams of his prince, believes he finds him, and proceeds to set up housekeeping and declare his undying devotion.

Another way to look at all this, of course, for the over-thirty set, might be as a snapshot of innocence and naiveté, but let’s leave that jaded view aside for now.

A fifth way of framing Zach’s video project might be as an extended interview with the kind of people Zach describes as “Cracker Barrel,” which I take to be a synonym for “Southern country.” Not your Greenwich Village gays or your San Francisco Castro clones or your sleek nightlife oriented West Hollywood types. People for whom “ain’t” and “he don’t” comes naturally, and people who view atheists, and probably democrats, with considerable discomfort.

A sixth might be the frame of thoroughly Americanized Hispanics. Zach’s family name, Garcia, and his dark handsome good looks reveal his Mexican origins. But a quick glance at the Face Book page of Alastair J. Patton will reveal that Alec is from Mexico City originally,  unmistakably Anglo name notwithstanding. He speaks Spanish much better than Zach, Zach tells us. These boys are not white bread, in other words, but part of the new world the white supremacists warn us about.  Mexicans at West Point. Gay Mexicans. And you wonder why people voted for a charlatan who promised to “Make America Great” again?

Just a moment's digression here to salute the gods of language and culture...  It's Alistair Cooke’s spelling of his name that is arguably more of an aberration than Alastair's. Both of these spellings are to be found in the English-speaking world - along with Alisdair, Alastor, Allaster, Alister, and Aleister – all corruptions, apparently, of the Anglo-Norman Alexander.  And a second salute to the both/and, not either/or understanding of cultural identity. Zack goes overboard at times with his love for Texas and his waving of the American flag - but they appear together on Alec's Face Book page behind a Mexican flag.

As the taping goes on, Zach’s infectious optimism about his lover and their future is overshadowed a bit – maybe more than a bit – by more than a few contradictions and inconsistencies. To delve into the content of the videos is to reveal that, actually, it’s Zach’s idea to film everything, not Alastair's, and they both say at some point that despite all the suggestion that they let it all hang out, they still keep most of their private life private. One has to question how much one can match up what they say with what they actually do. They also reveal that they have been rejected in Texas as a gay couple, so I really ought to backtrack on my hasty conclusion that gay lib has made astonishing progress. It may have, but this one piece of anecdotal evidence will need to be supplemented by a whole lot more evidence before the generalization can be made with assurance.

In my defense, I ask that you recognize qualitative research, if this quick five-day analyze-on-the-hoof methodology study can be described as such, is almost never to be taken as producing clear evidence for conclusions. What qualitative research does is uncover ever better things worth exploring. I’d suggest this is a great starting place, and if you have the interest and the time, it should be augmented by other stories of the kids of Generation Z putting their lives on line. If not for science, then for no other reason than to take away some of the cynicism that comes to those who believe they’ve seen it all, by providing a sense of how the young keep hope alive with unending surprises.

Before I call an end to this "on second thought" paean to avowedly Christian and (possibly) right-wing Republican Cracker Barrel America, let me give you a sample of Zach’s project which I think should help explain why he’s charmed the pants off of me. Besides his stunningly good looks, I mean, obviously, and his unabashed love for his French bulldog, Bronson.

For you animal lovers, let’s start with this recent appeal to save the animals after Hurricane Harvey:

1. Help the Animals – Aug. 31, 2017  

Then, I think, the conversation with the female-to-male transsexual, Ben, in which Zach reveals that even gay people can be astonishingly uninformed, not only about the trans phenomenon, but queer theory, as well:

2. Being Trans: A Conversationwith Ben – July 29, 2016 

The West Point graduation and the family gathering that proceeded it:

3. An Officer and A Gentleman – July 15, 2017

And Zach the story-teller:

4. Affair with a guy fromFacebook – Aug. 15, 2016

I’ll stop there. You can dig out all the ring and the engagement and the wedding stuff, if you’re into it.

5. OK, then. Just one more - their wedding tape, from which the photo above is lifted.

If you've only got time for one, make it this last one.

Skip the commentary on LGBT movies. It will make you weep.

Don’t know if this makes you want to carry a giant American flag down a country road in Alabama, or start dividing the world into gals and dudes and hanging homemade carve-outs of the State of Texas on your wall, but maybe it will add to your understanding of the complex ripples and folds of the many subcultures of this country. It expanded mine.


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