Thursday, June 30, 2016

Beach Time

So it’s official. At some point in the near future, Puerto Rico will be run by a junta of seven people. Four of them will be appointed by the Republicans, and only one of them will be Puerto Rican or have a business in Puerto Rico. So that was on my mind, this morning, as I left the apartment to go off to the beach. And that’s when I saw the first person employed by the government: a woman with a broom and dustpan who was cleaning the street.

My first reaction, of course, was to wonder: will she have a job after the junta shows up? Because after many years of living here, it seems perfectly normal that a woman should be out on the street, her yellow vest announcing that she keeps Old San Juan clean. And she, or rather, the many “shes” does / do keep the city clean. I get that, but will the junta? Does anybody clean the streets of New York or Chicago? Have I ever seen anybody out there with a broom?

So I walked to the beach, and once there, passed six policemen, who were busy chatting. Right—as much as I’d like them to be busy catching criminals, let’s be realistic. Were there any criminals at the Escambrón Beach? Of course not—so what else was there to do but chat?

We have, in fact, either the largest or the second largest police force in the nation; a cursory view of the police website didn’t tell me which. So do we truly need all those cops? Well, seven people will let us know!

In fact, nobody quite knows what’s going to happen. We do know that we’ll be electing a governor and a legislature, but nobody is asking the question: what for? Because the governor will make a budget, yes, but then he will have to run it by the junta, and what they say goes. So the junta could very easily say that there has to be a 20% cut across the board in all government agencies, and what would the governor do? Answer: tell his department heads to institute the cuts.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the influence of the government here. Consider that the rate of participation in the workplace is a very low 42%; by contrast, New York has 60%, and the nation-wide average is 63%. So where are all those people who should be working? Answer: living off the government or working in the “grey” economy.

And so seven people will now be in charge of 3.5 million of us. What will they do? The answer is very likely the Krueger Report, which had island liberals howling. There was, for example, the assertion that the federal minimum wage should be abolished on the island, since it leaves us at a competitive disadvantage with other Caribbean islands. So the report advocated cutting minimum wage to $4.25 for workers under 25. Work 40 hours a week, and you’ll earn $170 a week, and that’s before taxes. And that translates to $680 a month. Oh, and that’s $8500 a year.

In addition, the Krueger Report came out and said what we all knew, and here I quote directly:

Workers are disinclined to take up jobs because the welfare system provides generous benefits that often exceed what minimum wage employment yields; one estimate shows that a household of three eligible for food stamps, AFDC, Medicaid and utilities subsidies could receive $1,743 per month – as compared to a minimum wage earner’s take-home earnings of $1,159.

In short, the real miracle is that the labor participation rate is %40, as opposed to something like 10 or 15%. When I worked at Walmart, my students across the political board were unanimous: why in God’s name were they there? Why cope with Walmart when the weather is sunny all year round, and you can get more money going to the beach?

Economists are, generally speaking, rosy-eyed optimists; even so, the Krueger Report makes for grim reading. The number of 72 billion dollars is bandied about as our current debt: but the Krueger Report says this:

Using standard IMF metrics, the overall deficit is larger than recognized, its true size obscured by incomplete accounting. This means that any fiscal adjustment program to restore market confidence starts in a deeper-than-assumed hole.

All of this augurs for major cuts in government budgets. It also augurs for increasing revenue sources: given that the University of Puerto Rico erupted several years ago over tuition cuts, what will happen when the yearly cost of 2,019$ is increased? After all, the cost of in-state tuition at the University of Wisconsin is $24,000. To a Republican mentality, why should the minimum wage be the same, but tuition so much cheaper?

There will probably also be cuts in benefits at the public agencies. Full-time employees of the electric company, I was once told, got Lasik surgery included in their health benefits. Was it true? Well, the student who told me was the daughter of a guy who had had the surgery: what reason did she have to lie? So our public unions, who can be relied to amass in the streets if anyone so much as sneezed in their direction—where will they be? Arm in arm with the students?

Then, of course, there are the retired folks, and guess what? All of the retirement funds are severely underfunded, so can you guess where that is going to lead? And then, what about the Department of Education? We have managed, over the years, to completely invert the docent / non-docent percentage, with the result that the non-docent is about 60%, versus the 40% that it should be. And the Krueger Report did sort of wonder what was happening to the education department budget, since look at this little graphic:

Small-minded economists tend to wonder why, well, you did see up there the sentence, “Education  expenses increased the past decade while total school enrollment declined ~25%,” didn’t you? So what does that mean to an island that has already closed almost 100 schools?

The answer may be in the title of the Guardian article: Hedge Funds Tell Puerto Rico: Lay Off Teacher and Close Schools to Pay Us Back.


That’s the narrative: what’s the reality? Hedge funds own 30% of our debt. The rest is held by institutions, regular retirement funds (401Ks, for example) and individual investors. True, the hedge funds bought at greatly reduced prices. Also true, however, is that everybody and his brother sat around and watched governments of both political power dig us into this hole.

It is, in short, a wrenchingly bad scenario. Add to that our population, which, though we spend big-time on it, has produced several generations of people who are completely uninformed, unaware of it, and incapable of critical thinking.

Now do you see why I sent to the beach this morning?  


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Chapter 15, Bad Novel

I came upon them when I started up the hill. The trees were denuded, standing bare against the hill. Had some fire passed? A blight of some sort? It was a place of sickness, a bleak and desolate landscape, but it was there. I decided to pass through on my way to the top of the hill. I stepped foot in it, and was hit with a maelstrom of noise and of sights—I closed my eyes, but my head was spinning so hard that I had to open them again.

The effect was incalculable—I saw faces with no bodies, bodies with no face. Triangles and rectangles became ovals and circles. The ground itself heaved, and graves gaped, and cadavers sprang to life. I was at once in the tops of the trees and several feet under the earth; I was slapped, pummeled and then caressed. Nothing lasted more than a secon; there was no permanency. No sooner had I struggled to adjust to one sound, one sight, than everything changed.

“This is the world as it is,” said a voice. “Here, you meet reality without the blinders you wore in the rest of the world. Here, you experience everything as it is, and as it is coming to you. And as it is going away from you.”

“But it is madness,” I told the voice. “And where are you? And who?”

“I really have no idea,” said the voice. “I too am changing at every moment. I am man and woman, young and old, healthy and infirm. There is nothing that stays with me, or rather, everything stays with me. I am every hero known to man, and every villain. I am the rake and the virgin, both. I exist and I die, and really, very little matters to me….”

It was simultaneously blindingly bright and utterly dark. All the notes in the world were roaring at the very same time that the silence of the universe rang throughout the woods. Shapes appeared, spun wildly around, and remained rooted as the stone. A blast oven melted with the glacier.

“What must I do to leave this place?” I asked the man.

“You must desire to be here,” he replied. “For here you meet reality, as it was all along for you in the other world. You must linger here, luxuriate here, and come, finally, to take your solace here. For here, there is everything, as there was always before. Here, you meet the world as it is.”

“I will go mad,” I told the man.

“Of course.”

“But how will I survive it?”

“You will also go sane,” he said. “You will be both. And is it so bad to be mad? Or so good to be sane? There is as much of a landscape in the land of the sick as there is in the land of the healthy….”

“I’d rather be sane,” I said.

“Of course,” he said, “but do you have that choice? And if you did, how do you know that you would choose the right one? For really, the world of the mad is so much more interesting. Though difficult, of course….”

“I’ll say,” I told him, “my head is spinning, my world is spinning, everything is spinning. Make it stop!”

Abruptly, it stopped, and I was flung ten feet in the air. I landed on a rocky bank, but felt no pain. Rather, there was a curious sense of peace in my body.

“Am I dead?” I asked.

“Partially,” said the voice, “as well as alive. Blessedly, we are dying at every moment of our life. And never more alive than when we are dying. You must work hard, as you lie there in repose….”

“Anyone can talk in riddles,” I told him. “It’s a fool’s game. You tell me that up is down, and that dry is wet.”

“Well, the trick is not to talk a fool’s game—the trick is to live it, and then, having played it, leave it. Not as easy as it seems…”

“When will this end?” I asked.

“When we come to the beginning.”

“I must leave here.”


“Do you know the way out?”

“Yes—but only for myself.”

“Then you’ll not tell me?”

“It would be better if I didn’t,” he said. “You have had people telling you things all your life, and well rewarded were you when you did as you were told. There is a way out, but it will almost certainly not be my way out.”

“Then must I stumble through this mad forest until I find the way out?”

“That may or may not be the key. Have you considered that you might better remain completely still, focus your thoughts, and wait until you’ve found the right way out? And how do you know, by the way, that it is a physical exit you seek? There are moral, or psychological, or ethical or philosophical exists, you know.”

At once, I was filled with despair. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this challenge. I was bombarded with every sound in the universe, every emotion ever felt or imagined, my mind raced with brilliant insights, and stalled at the simplest concept. My body felt both alive and dead. I was weary and savagely alive.

“It may be enough to seek,” said the voice. “And how much seeking is waiting? Curious how many, many forms of waiting there are, though none of us pays much mind. Perhaps you should make your waiting a prayer. Or perhaps your prayer should be waiting…”


And then I knew he was gone.   

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Gay for a Day

“There’s absolutely no reason to do this,” I told her, “because while you’re busy sipping champagne in idyllic French towns, I’ve been doing my civic duty! I walked a mile down the main drag of Condado holding a small sign of the archbishop of San Juan, Roberto González Nieves.”

“And what has the archbishop done now?” asked Lady distantly.

“I never got the full story,” I told her, since the article I read was either badly written or I was hungry and disinclined to concentrate. But it was more of the same stuff: the “family” values people stirring things up as usual. So there I was, watching the gay pride parade, and then Pablo came by, holding one end of a big sign. Well, when Pablo comes by, he always has a little plan for you, so there I was, with a group of people holding up signs of legislators and fellow riders who had voted for whatever it was. Anyway, they all had “culpable” written in red ink over the face. Oh, and blood stains splattered across the top of the placard. It was a definitely ‘80’s moment. You know, Act Up….”

“Well, well, the price one pays for having the courage of one’s convictions. I’m sure the archbishop was deeply hurt…..”

“Actually, I didn’t have the archbishop,” I admitted. “Though I lobbied hard for him. I even offered 10 bucks to the organizer, but he wouldn’t give him away. Everybody wanted to carry the archbishop…..”

“Well, there’s that great fashion sense,” said Lady. “Really, it’s about the only thing of good taste left in the church. The music? Awful! The art? Horrible! But they still know how to dress!”

“Their redeeming quality,” I told her. “Anyway, the parade was great, though the heat was daunting. We knew it would be, and had worn our swimming suits, since the parade ended at the park next to the beach. But by that time, my back was starting to hurt. So we went home….”

“Pity, that…”

“Well, at least I got to see Pablo,” I told her. “He’s sort of my elder brother. And he definitely gets around: he was flying right over Orlando when the killings were going on. Got in at three that morning from New York….”

“Anyway, Pablo had told me that the largest Evangelical church in Orlando had opened its doors to the LGBT community. Imagine it: Iglesia el Calvario, whose name is off-putting, to say the least. But with a little congregation of 4,000 or so, it can’t be dismissed….”


“Well, yeah, although when I did the search, it turned out that the pastor had moved to New York just before September 11. And he had moved to Orlando just a few months ago. Something the FBI might want to check out….”

“There are no coincidences,” said Lady, which makes sense, since she also believes in the law of attraction….

“Anyway, it was fun to get out, and fun to be in a crowd of several thousand. Actually, it was the biggest pride parade in Puerto Rican history….”

It was not, however, all frivolity. How could it be, when 23 of the victims in the Orlando attack were Puerto Rican? So Pablo and I were talking about that, and I told him about the one body that the family—or at least the father—hadn’t wanted to claim. According to one source, it was “touch and go” getting the family to pick up the body.

So we were talking fathers, Pablo and I, since Pablo is planning a book about his father. Why? Because after years in the ministry, he’s finally stopped wearing his collar. So now he’s pissed at religion, for the moment, and people are telling him to write a book. But, as he put it, “I don’t want to write just another ‘gay pastor’ book…”

“My father came out of the sugarcane tradition,” said Pablo, and though I hadn’t heard the term, I knew just what he meant. How did I know? Well, the detail that before Pablo’s father married Pablo’s mother, the couple had only spent fifteen minutes alone with one another. In short, had Pablo been one of the Orlando victims, his father was just as likely to refuse to claim the body.

“My father wasn’t there when I was born,” said Pablo. “He was in Korea. And I wasn’t there when he died.”

“By choice?” I asked.

“Think so,” he said. “The last time I saw him, he was functioning like a two-year old. He was clutching me, and crying, and I wanted to comfort him and I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do….”

Right—pastors don’t always have the answers…..

“We only get so far down the road,” I tell him, “and sadly, some of us never quite get home, or wherever it is we’re going….”

So we parted, when Pablo stopped to talk to a woman wearing hijab, and carrying a sign announcing herself as “Sociedad Islámica.

“OK, I definitely think we should march with that woman,” I told Raf, and we were still pondering that when Pablo came by, and put us to work.

“She’s an excellent woman,” said Pablo, and I told him that I had privately named her “Daniela,” since she was definitely thrown in with the lions. Anyway, she made the front page of the newspaper, today, and good for her.

So today I read that the pope thinks the church should ask forgiveness of the gay community. And I wonder, if I were in any position to grant it, would I? Would I say to the pope, “hey, it’s OK. I understand about those millennia in which you condemned us to hell, punished us on the stake, urged the local authorities to harass us! No problem, those 40% of homeless youth who are LGBT, when the rate of LGBT in the general population is about 7%. Not a problem, all the alcoholism, suicide, depression, let’s see…am I missing anything?”

I once told Pablo that I preferred the old pope, Pope Benedict, to this current one. After all, do you want your enemy to be the liberals’ poster child?


But if the pope ever wanted to come and walk down the streets of San Juan—perhaps hand in hand with the lady from Sociedad Islámica—or even send the archbishop in his place, well…

…it would only be as start!    

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Case of Omar Mateen

What a lethal mix it turned out to be.

There was the religion, that vaunted religion of peace. Is it? Yes, with certain restrictions: to those who believe in Islam, and to those willing to live according to whatever customs and cultural norms that Islam is being expressed, Islam is a religion of peace. And so I—an openly gay man—might well be welcomed in a mosque in Toronto, Canada. And that would be a very real expression of Islam. Just as being welcomed in an Anglican church is a very real expression of Christianity. In fact, I’d like to believe that both are the realest expressions of those religions.

Ready to be rudely awakened?

The openness of some religions, or of some churches in some religions, is only of some twenty years or so. Thus, in the case of Christianity, this amounts to no more than a thousandth of its history. And the case of Islam is much worse: trust me, if the Arab world rose up in horror at the sight of gay people being thrown from buildings, the world would have a few more gay people today.

There’s an old saying in the gay world: the more you repress it, the more you get it. Which means that I, a wicked openly gay man, committed the moral horrors of eating dinner with my husband, sitting down in front of a television, and then consuming two hours of Netflix. I compounded this abomination by kissing my husband, and then going off—alone—to bed.

Contrast this with the blameless behavior of powerful Afghan men, who employ the service of the Bacha Bazi:

In a 2013 Vice Media, Inc. documentary titled "This Is What Winning Looks Like", British independent film-maker Ben Anderson describes the systematic kidnapping, sexual enslavement and murder of young men and boys by local security forces in the Afghan city of Sangin. The film depicts several scenes of Anderson along with American military personal describing how difficult it is to work with the Afghan police considering the blatant molestation and rape of local youth. The documentary also contains footage of an American military advisor confronting the then acting Police Chief on the abuse after a young boy is shot in the leg after trying to escape a police barrack. When the Marine suggests that the barracks be searched for children, and that any policeman found to be engaged in pedophilia be arrested and jailed, the high-ranking officer insists what occurs between the security forces and the boys is consensual, saying "[the boys] like being there and giving their asses at night." He went on to claim that this practice was historic and necessary. "If [my commanders] don't fuck the asses of those boys, what should they fuck? The pussies of their own Grandmothers?"[31]

Right—situations like these are what makes gay men bristle when the conservative right labels us “child molesters….”

So in the west, we have a whole group of gay men who are learning to change diapers and go to work after being up all night with a sick infant. But in Arab countries, we have societies that are deeply conflicted about women, sexuality, and especially homosexuality. And is there any reason to think that Omar Mateen’s father was any different?

A better blogger would have the answer: I watched Mateen’s father for three and a half minutes on YouTube, before I got a queasy feeling of sadness and disgust. I think the police have to ask tough questions, and I think the public has a right to know what happened. I’m less sure that I have the right to be part of a feeding frenzy of the press hounding a deeply proud, and now deeply wounded, father.

That’s the sad part. The disgust comes from suspecting that everything I’ve read about Mateen’s father’s views on homosexuality is true. That said, enter Miguel.

According to the interview, which is riveting, Miguel met Mateen for 15 or 20 dates in November and December of last year. He describes Mateen as loving, not violent, but also as someone who abused alcohol, and had a completely confused view of his sexuality. In Miguel is not Miguel, nor is Miguel’s face the face of whoever-the-not-Miguel is. So name and image have been changed and why? Because Miguel is afraid of ISIS, yes, but also Mateen’s father. The father, according to “Miguel,” loathed homosexuality so much that he said that gay people should be killed. And yes, he could forgive Mateen, but that forgiveness could only happen after Papa Mateen had killed Miguel. Or had him killed. 

And so, if you believe Miguel, we have a man—Mateen—who had little interest in Islam, was completely gay, and was in a marriage of convenience, probably to please his father. And then, since he had, according to Miguel, two apps for finding gay men for sex, he had two threesomes with gay Puerto Rican men. It was after one threesome that one of the men told Mateen that he (the sex partner, not Mateen) was HIV positive.

According to Miguel, Mateen freaked. Wouldn’t you? And so Miguel counseled Mateen to get tested; Mateen did, apparently by a home test. The result was negative, but also inconclusive, since—again, according to Miguel—insufficient time had passed for the result to be definitive.

And so Mateen harbored a grudge. In addition, he had suffered some rejections at the hands of some of the Hispanics at the club, where he had been many times before. Hardly surprising—unless you are Ricky Martin, or his twin brother, rejection is part of gay men’s life. As well, of course, as straight people’s lives.

He was, according to Miguel, attracted to Latinos, or perhaps specifically to Puerto Ricans, who are a large community in Orlando (there are over 500,000 Puerto Ricans there). And it’s easy to see why he’d be attracted: Latin culture is famously free and sensual. Every movement is a dance, every look is a flirt, sex is at least implied everywhere. What must Mateen, having been raised in a rigid, oppressive atmosphere, have felt on being introduced to the young, hot Puerto Ricans dancing freely in an Orlando nightclub?

Is this speculation? Of course, but is it any more farfetched than Mateen’s claim that he was a member of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and ISIS? Yeah? All—when all three are fighting each other? But could he say the truth? Could he admit, even to himself or especially to himself, the truth?

The truth would be that he was closeted, he was average looking, he lusted after the freedom and the sensuality of a culture that was harshly homophobic. For him, the young men dancing into the night must have seemed impossibly free and unfettered. He, in turn, could only look at them, want them, want what they had, and what he would never have. And then he returned to his wife and child, and to the father who had arranged and forced him into that prison. But to say all that was impossible, and so, in one of the curious twists of the story, he was busy calling 911 to establish himself as a terrorist.

That’s a scenario—but will we ever hear it? Miguel says this was not a terrorist attack. After all, Pulse is not, according to him, the biggest gay venue in town. But it was having a salsa / bachata / Latin music night.

So does it make a difference?

Yes, it makes a difference. We now have Trump talking again about stopping all Muslims from entering the country. The many Muslims who are peace loving and law-abiding are looking over their backs now, when a week or two ago the never dreamed of it. And the FBI and other law enforcement agencies will be given even more leeway to trample on the civil liberties of us all.

And we could be having another discussion, but that might a trifle embarrassing for some of us. We would have to look at ourselves, and admit that the Afghan practice of Bacha Bazi was outlawed under the Taliban, and then came back under the government we instituted. And we looked the other way, until enough media of sufficient prestige forced to admit it.

And Muslims might have to admit that there is, after all, some housecleaning of their own to do. They might have to look at their cultures, and those cultures’ attitudes toward women and sexuality.

He was a bomb waiting to go off, and he did. To some extent, we never know why any of our numerous mass murders go of. But why do I feel that in the case of Omar Mateen…

…we will never, never know?