Friday, December 6, 2013

madela's peace and 1960s christmas

Jim and Jane Henson’s handmade
Christmas card from 1960.
Nelson Mandela’s death reminds me of all the great men and women who put their lives on the line for peace and justice, especial those of my childhood.

As a kid in Catholic grade school in the 1960s I was very aware of what the "reason for the season" really was. It was something more powerful than Santas kneeling before a manger, a fish on a bumper sticker, or a fight in a mall parking lot over being wished the wrong happiness.

We were taught that the message of the first Christmas was the longed-for good news of the coming of peace and justice to those who needed it most: the poor, the war-torn, the oppressed, and to ourselves when we recognize our humble role in the story. The great messengers of my childhood were not just from MY church or MY country, but from all over OUR world, and these men and women literally risked their lives for it.

I remember how, in grade school art classes at this time of year, we made faux-batik Christmas cards, by covering a bright rainbow of crayon colors with a thick layer of solid black crayon, and then carving words and patterns through the black down in to reveal the colors. The waxy messages were mostly of peace, as we listened to the words of JFK, MLK, RFK, Gandhi, John XXIII, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigans. We learned that Peace, with a capital “P” was not a silent night or a snowy nativity scene, but something radical, that stood in the face of the predominant culture, that often told us, even Christians, something we might not want to hear, but sounded more like “glad tidings of great joy” than any other words being preached.

May Nelson Mandela rest in the peace he championed, and may we all continue his work to bring it to the world.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

kempster all-saints day

This week, many people have celebrated All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls Days, but my family has one more of its own: November 5th.

It started back in 1888, when my father's father Edward Llewellyn Kempster was born on that day. And it remained a major day of celebration until grandpa's death in 1990, having lived to be 101.

But only a few years later in 1995, my mother died on November 5th, followed over the next couple years by two of my father's siblings—my uncle Brenton Kempster and my aunt Mary Kempster Hand—both passing on that day in subsequent years.

The year following the last of these deaths, my father called to say that there had been yet another November 5th passing. I braced myself, only to hear him say, "I tried to start my car this morning and found the battery was dead."

In my family, we use the day as an opportunity to send the "traditional" Facebook post or email, to wish each other well, and say "be careful."

I wish the same to you all.

Monday, October 14, 2013

brooklyn boys—danny fitzgerald & les demi dieux

Our book on nearly forgotten 1960s photographer Danny Fitzgerald and his studio Les Demi Dieux was released in October 2013. Brooklyn Boys features over 160 of Fitzgerald's noteworthy photographs and an extensive biographical introduction, excerpt here.

The diffuse light inside the photographer's parents' home in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn illuminated a young man's flesh differently than it did outside in broad daylight. On the street the sunlight was harsh. It blared like a delivery truck's horn, sparked like a welding iron, crackled like a transistor radio on full volume. It matched the temper and bravado of the boys in their cars and on the basketball courts, at every moment proving its power to the neighborhood. But inside the photographer's home, upstairs, where the young men removed their clothes, lit a cigarette and sat naked in a void between the pale wall and the photographer's camera, the sun's quiet illumination gave everything an honest focus, a sensual solitude. It poured through curtains of lace, airborne dust and fresh smoke, as it would through stained glass, providing the young men a silent retreat directed by a master of light and composition, and the photographer himself a focus for the many incongruities in his life between inside and out. In that space, the photographer created some of his most exquisite works of art.

Surprisingly contemporary in his approach to both the male physique and photographic technique, the photographer behind the studio "Les Demi Dieux" was little known among collectors until after his death. Danny Fitzgerald (1921-2000) was born in Brooklyn, New York to first-generation Italian-Irish parents, and developed a love for art and film from an early age. Though he would travel the world with his camera and his partner Richard Bennett at his side, the working-class Italian-American neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn remained his home and the backdrop to much of his photography.

Friday, October 4, 2013

bullying & empathy: honk if you hate bullies

I was bullied in grade school. I hate bullying passionately. It breaks my heart. It makes me angry.

But I was disturbed by this story about a Ft. Hood, Texas father who, upon hearing that his son was bulling his fourth-grade classmates, forced him to stand at a busy intersection holding a hot pink sign that read, "I am a bully. Honk if you hate bullies." The father made the case that “we don’t need another Columbine."

"Bullying is also a form of public humiliation," the father told a radio interviewer. "Maybe he understands that when he humiliates someone publicly that doesn't feel good. Hopefully he'll take that with him so the next time he tries to bully someone he'll think about it twice."

This dad needs to learn the right way to teach empathy.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

love songs to blue skies

With art school, parish duties, and New York at my doorstep, I barely had time to be homesick for California, that first autumn in 1989. But I was. I missed Berkeley's temperate climate and dramatic landscape, the way nature entered everyday life, how people treated one another, the forward-thinking politics, and my friends. Oh, my friends. And the deep, clear blue West Coast sky that saturated Berkeley's daylight, the shadows, and my mood most of the year. 

Having in the past only visited New York during its damp springs and hazy summers, I had no idea that crystal blue skies were a trademark of New York autumns. Nor would I ever have guessed that over the years I would live here, whenever I'd glimpse a shard of azure cutting all the way down between the skyscrapers to the uptown end of an avenue, that I'd begin to associate such glorious blues with meeting Bob in September at NYU, visiting SoHo galleries on October weekends, picking apples from a Union Square farmer's cart, shuttering at the forgotten backdrop of 9/11, embracing the annual brisk relief from summer's oppressive street smells, or relaxing to the sound of a lone saxophone crooning a love song under a canopy of copper leaves in Washington Square.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

pat robertson puts the “phobia” in homophobia

Salon reported yesterday that YouTube refused to be bullied into protecting Pat Robertson and his producers from themselves on this one:
“Last month, Pat Robertson said that gay people wear “special rings” equipped with tiny razor blades as part of a “vicious” gay plot to spread HIV. While most of us would say such an ignorant statement sounds like pretty much all of the other hateful garbage Robertson says on the regular, the Christian Broadcasting Network got really, really nervous about this particular statement and edited it out of the final broadcast of the “700 Club.” They also filed a complaint with YouTube to keep Right Wing Watch from posting the video online.” Read more.
For every 10 or 50 or 100 of us who know Robertson is off his rocker, there's someone who gobbles up what he has to say, and uses it to justify his or her own prejudice, hate speech or physical violence against LGBT people. I was grateful to see that the interviewer was visibly uncomfortable with Robertson's response and that the producers of the 700 Club did not allow it to air on their show. The fact that someone leaked the footage to YouTube says that at least one person on the show's crew either agreed with Robertson or wanted the world to see what a demented monster the televangelist truly is. Either way I fear the small percentage that may see the clip and take it as divine justification.

People like Robertson sometimes seem like a waste of my breath, of the bandwidth and space in my brain or on this blog. But I think this kind of destructive thinking on the part of a religious leader and television personality with a following needs to be called out, as it appears YouTube felt as well.

Watch the video.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


Some days I'm more aware of
my chin’s closeness
to the floor,
the short distance
from shoulder to heel,
the nearness of my bones
to the boards they creak upon.
Feet of Missouri clay and corn-silk stubble,
I rise barely a fence post above the earth
that holds me
like a bird
under a basket.

Monday, September 2, 2013

un-fair pigment: red hair, pale skin and mercurochrome

The first little paint stroke of Mercurochrome to my upper lip seemed like an interesting idea at the time. I, after all, had grown my first mustache and beard over the summer of 1972, between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. To my adolescent mind, it was a badge of maturity that went with leaving behind Catholic grade school and the redneck bullies I had endured for eight years. The next day would be my first day at Rockhurst High School, Kansas City's Jesuit high school, several miles and mindsets away from the Hickman Mills area where my family lived just at the edge of where the suburbs met the cornfields and hunting woods. Grateful to be moving on, I had spent the summer gearing up for what I hoped, if not was almost certain, maybe, would be a new life, and part of the passage included not shaving for three months just to see what kind of beard I could grow.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


After half a century,
every face looks like one I've seen before:
this one like that sweet girl from grade school;
that one like this teacher from college;
another like that actress...or waitress...or both;
or like my childhood dentist,
or high school crush.
I catch myself about to speak,
and then remember
they, too, would be several decades older, by now.

And after a quarter century in New York,

Saturday, August 3, 2013

the hole story: waiting for cronut

So, cut to the chase. Would I stand for three hours in line for a cronut ever again? No. Was it an adventure? Yes. Did we have fun? Yes. Was it fun for all the reasons I expected. Not exactly.

At about 6:30 this morning, Bob and I both woke up and couldn't fall back to sleep. We've been talking about queuing up for cronuts for a while. For the uninitiated, a cronut is a cross between a croissant and a donut, introduced back in May of this year by Pastry Chef Dominique Ansel at his SoHo bakery. Since the first deep-fried buzz began to hit the food blogs, people began camping out on the bakery's doorstep to be among the first lucky 150 to 250 people to snag a cronut or two before the day's supply runs out. (Ansel makes them only once a day, and there is a two-cronut limit per customer.)

So, in that wee groggy, cloudy hour of the morning, this morning, we caught each other's half-opened eye and murmured to each other, "should we do it?" We had learned from a few websites that if we got there by 7 a.m., we were most likely to get a cronut. However, due to that damn Jimmy Fallon inviting Ansel to demo the frying and filling process on the Late Show, the line was already wrapped around the corner of Spring and Thompson, and well past the first couple basketball and handball courts, about as far back as we'd seen in any of the photos on the food blogs.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

pope hope quotes

"Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill?"

Several friends and news organizations posted what seemed to be a startlingly positive quote from Pope Francis I on Facebook and other media today.

From most reports, it appears Francis' statement was made in reference to gay priests, not LGBT people in general. When asked about "how he would respond to learning that a cleric in his ranks was gay, though not sexually active," he responded in Italian, "Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? ...You can't marginalize these people." His response, of course, presumes that a gay priest "of goodwill" is keeping his vow of celibacy, and therefore living the life the Vatican expects all gay Catholics to live.

Friday, July 19, 2013

heatwave haiku

Sun pressed on window
like menace thug peering in
to steal our cool air.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

madison square garden swimming pool 1921

You know you've been living in NYC too long and through too many heat waves when an un-air-conditioned pool full of New Yorkers, surrounded by thousands of spectator New Yorkers, looks refreshing to you.

You can see this and more photos of old New York on the Old New York Photos page.

Monday, July 15, 2013

rembrandt's gaze

I've visited, off and on over the past 35 years, this self portrait Rembrandt painted as an older man. It hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York.

He has always stared just past my left ear, as if he has something on his mind, sometimes concerned about me, sometimes engrossed in his own thoughts. At times he has seemed wistful, other times melancholic. When I was young, I imagined more than a few times that he was perturbed with me for not putting enough time into the painting studio. His younger portraits were more playful, confident, self-possessed, proud. This one looks resigned to the current situation...whatever it may be.

On my most recent visit, it seemed we both were so preoccupied that we left without speaking or understanding the other's thoughts. I missed his advice, his urging, his unspoken confidences.

I'll be back to check in on you soon, my old friend. Until then, happy 407th Birthday.

You can visit him at the museum or here online.

Friday, June 28, 2013

one more for the new york time capsule

Years ago, when one of my sisters and her husband were visiting New York, she returned after a long day of tourist activity still wearing the little tin Met button from her morning visit to the museum.

"Do you know what the 'M' stands for?" I asked.

"Metropolitan Museum of Art," she replied cautiously, aware that the question was too elementary.

"No, that's inside the museum," I insisted, "but do you know what it means outside?"

She stared at me curiously.

"Outside," I explained, "it means 'Mug Me.'"

Bob and I are going to miss seeing tourists with their "Mug Mees" on after next week when the Metropolitan Museum replaces their colorful tin buttons with paper tickets and stickers.

I will need to dig through my drawers this weekend to see if I still have a few Met buttons around, and then carefully add them to the subway tokens and September 11th memorial items that I've put into storage beside things like my Dad's cufflinks.

A little time capsule of nearly a quarter century in New York City.

Read more from the New York Times.

Monday, June 10, 2013

wet summer haiku

Drips from awnings and

Fredrick’s boxes drop down through 

concrete rain forests.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

a gay hate crime ends in murder on 8th street

It's hard to believe I met Bob in a pervious century, but when I think about our lives then and now, I realize how much the world has changed. In 1989 when we met, there was no Ellen, no Modern Family, no discussion whatsoever of marriage equality. The biggest gay rights issue in any of the big cities around the country was legislation for AIDS services and research. Despite that Bob lived in the Village and I in Chelsea (the only real gay enclaves in the City at the time), we did not feel comfortable holding hands just anywhere around our neighborhoods. Even though we often did.

Over the past 24 years, we've lived openly as a loving couple, not so much as a statement, but as a way to live more honest, healthy lives for ourselves. I have spoken openly at work, telling simple stories of what my partner and I did over the weekend as my coworkers have recounted their own with husbands and wives. We've held hands in restaurants and shared with the waitstaff our own playful sense of humor and love of food. We've gotten to know our neighbors, trading recipes and holiday wishes. Whenever I've learned that we have been an example to others, a statement, a revelation, their reactions have in turn been a revelation to me. We're not revolutionaries by any means. We've lived our lives this way to make our own world better.

Two weekends ago when the weather was surprisingly warmer and the sky shown crystal blue through new leaves, Bob and I sat on a bench in Washington Square Park watching the entertaining cross section of humanity stroll by. The ages, languages, styles that pass through the park have become commonplace to me, but that weekend one thing in particular caught my attention. The number of young gay and lesbian couples walking hand-in-hand seemed greater than ever, especially for a weekend outside of June or for a space that has become more like a college campus than the center of the counter-culture universe that it once was. And I imagined to myself that the world was truly, finally, changing...for good.

And then the past week happened.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

the whisker on my earlobe

My Dad and I, circa 1960.
My dad would have been 97 years old today. To remember him, I'm posting a piece (more an anecdotal memory than a story) that I wrote several years ago before his death. Happy birthday, funny man!

This morning while plucking a hair from my earlobe as thick as a chin whisker I recalled my childhood visits to the barber with my dad. Saturday mornings belonged to my dad and me during my grade school years. He and I got out of the house, where my mother and six sisters ruled the roost, not to go fishing or hunting or do little league or some other typical father-and-son activity, but to do the weekly household grocery shopping.

In a family as large as mine, we each had our household chores and the weekly grocery shopping was one I shared with dad. He and I would climb into the big empty nine-seater Greenbrier van, vacant of its usual full load of passengers, and head for the Henhouse, a giant farmers-market-like grocery store with fresh produce, a real butcher with a meat locker, and beehived sample ladies with seasoned sausage on toothpicks and cheese on Ritz crackers. To me we weren't doing a weekly chore. This wasn't the job of housewives. My dad and I were on an adventure. This was man’s work. We would over load a giant shopping cart full of canned baked beans and peas, chicken and burger meat, gallons of milk, and large boxes of breakfast cereal and Modess, a popular brand of "sanitary napkins" in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Monday, April 1, 2013

tall > small

I once had a therapist ask me what was the one thing I would want to say to all the tall people in the world, if I could.

“Trim your nose hair,” I said, which was the first thing that came into my head.

I had indeed, just that morning, stood beneath the looming presence of my six-foot-something Jesuit superior, distracted from whatever platitude he recited for my own good by the several long gray tentacles curling out of the dark cavity of his nostrils like some underwater creature.

It only confirmed for me that he had no confidant in his life, no secret mistress or attachĂ© to whisper quietly over tea or their pillows, “I’ve been meaning to tell you: trim your nose hair.”

Of course, if you’re not in that trusted position, it’s impossible to say anything to someone whose nose hair is out of control. Yet, it’s just as impossible to look away. It’s human instinct to stare, especially if you’re shorter than the rest of the world. It belongs in the same distracting category with things like spinach in someone’s teeth, or a car pile up, or the surprising number of startlingly well-endowed homeless men I’ve glimpsed over the years in New York exposing themselves publicly. (At the latter, I’ve first been shocked, not as much by the nudity as the size, and then thought, “good for you. You deserve some leg-up on the rest of us.”)

Friday, March 29, 2013

junior high good fridays with j.c. superstar

When Jesus Christ Superstar was released as a concert concept album in 1970, I was 12 years old.

I first heard about it on a public TV special that featured most of a London concert performance and interviews with members of the cast like Ian Gillan, Murray Head, and Yvonne Elliman, as well as with the lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Weber who created what was being presented as the first "rock opera."

I watched the TV special as if I was hearing a call.

Having grown up in a Catholic family with scripture stories an important part of my narrative, and at the same time very influenced by the events and music of the late 1960s, this revolutionary treatment of the story captured my young, earnest imagination. I liked the electricity in the music, the urgency and soul of Jesus and Judas' voices, and I was totally seduced by Mary and Peter's intimacy with Jesus.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

things i can't take for granted

I posted the following note on Facebook on November 4, 2012, just before the presidential elections, knowing I had a few family members and friends whose votes could affect my civil rights. As the Supreme Court takes up Marriage Equality today and tomorrow, I thought I'd repost it here.

A few years ago, I thought I was having a heart attack on the Garden State Parkway. Right in the middle of discussing a particularly stressful work situation with Bob, my arms and my face went numb. I could barely move my mouth. It was as if someone had administered a giant syringe of novocain into my jaw, my torso and my arms. We were both terrified. In a mumble, hauntingly similar to that of a stroke victim, I asked Bob to pull off into the rest area, while I fumbled with my tingling fingers to dial 911 on his cell phone.

Friday, March 15, 2013

republican portman supports gay marriage

The interesting thing for me about this story is how often public responses have included the word "empathy," raising issue with many conservative leaders' inability to empathize with anyone who is considered "other" to them. 
While I'm grateful that Sen. Portman came to this understanding upon learning that his own son is gay, I'm pleased to see the question of empathy's role in decision-making raised so often in discussions about his announcement. 

If the rights and needs of people you're elected to represent only matter when they hit home, how do you represent fairly?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

seeing god naked

Fontana del Nettuno, Bologna
The handsome Italian flight attendant unfolded the cloth napkin and rested it across my lap, with big smiling Caravaggio eyes that toyed with me for the moment. Bob and I had left Verona at 4 a.m. to race through the foggy Northern Italian countryside in our rental car and arrive at Milano's Malpensa airport just short of two hours ahead of departure, only to find that Alitalia had overbooked our flight and we might not have seats. 

Bob was miserable. He had picked up a cold in Verona, or Modena, or possibly even in my favorite Bologna. So driving through the dark and the fog to arrive at an airport that seemed to be accessible only by a series of farm roads with foreign names like "la deviazione" and "non accessibile" had been stressful, to say the least, and multiplied when we learned at the ticket counter that we might not get on the plane at all. 

But, after waiting and worrying right up to flight time, we were instead, to our relief, issued tickets at the last moment and sent down the boarding tube to the airplane.

I handed my ticket to the beautiful woman at the door, in her elegant Mondrian Nadini uniform, and peered to my right into the overstuffed coach section. It looked like a casting call for the "befores" of a weight-loss informercial. The tightly packed, darkly clad, heavy mass of humanity was startling after the bright, gorgeous, airy piazze of Italy, where the locals seemed to be able to eat gilati all day and still climb in and out of their Ferrari with ease. I wondered if I'd ever find our seats among them, and whether anyone would find me at all when the flight was over.

"Mi scusi, signore," the beautiful attendant pointed me to my left instead, "Questa direzione. La prima classe. This way."

Monday, February 25, 2013

a eulogy for our friend ruth

Ruth, Bob, and me on Ruth's 
warehouse rooftop in Williamsburg. Circa 1990.
That's the Empire State Building peeking up
over Ruth's shoulder on the left.
I had the honor of offering reflections at the memorial service for our dear friend Ruth Van Erp a year ago today. I first read the following reflections from Bob (who to our surprise had known Ruth longer than anyone else in the room other than her family) and then followed them with a poem I'd composed over the three days since we'd received the news of Ruth's death.

The day I first met Bob at NYU 23 years ago, he was excited for me to meet his friend Ruth. He spoke of her like they had known each other forever, a year or two already. Turned out it had only been a week. But the first day they met they had spent seven hours together talking and had became instant friends.

Here are some of Bob's memories of Ruth:

Saturday, February 2, 2013

groundhog day

The sun lurks past coldly,
an estranged friend
sneaking by
on the opposite sidewalk
avoiding eye contact
behind a turned-up collar of silhouetted buildings.
He hangs in other hemispheres these days.
I must be last season's affair,
if he thinks of me at all.