Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Wise Fools

Hands - MC EscherMy freshman year in college sucked like a giant sucking thing that sucks. I’ve referred to it obliquely before, and at some point I may go into more detail. But this post is not about that, it’s about my sophomore year. So here’s a quick summary of year one so we can move on: 1981, still mostly closeted, deeply depressed and occasionally suicidal, continually on the verge of flunking German, roommate from purgatory. That last was amongst the worst. A roommate from hell is at least interesting.

At the end of freshman year, I got almost the worst room draw lottery number possible. At my college, virtually all students live on campus in the dorms, so room draw is a big deal. The higher your number, the better your chance of getting a good room. And my number was shit. Because, you know, after a really sucky year, things can, in fact, get worse. I was really hoping I might score a high enough number to get a single room; my actual draw, about the 7th number from dead last, made me likely for post-draw admin placement. Probably into a triple on an all-male floor in that trashy dorm with the tiled walls, with two unfortunate and unknown roommates with numbers about as bad as mine. Yippee. Fortunately, Perry came to my rescue.

Perry was a really nice guy, whom I had met at the Carleton Gay Lesbian Community (CGLC) meetings I had begun attending about midway through my freshman year. When I joined, there were a total of three guys already in it, all of them older than I – Chuck, the president; his friend Michael, an African American man from Chicago; and Perry, a small town hick like me, but from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

At the one and only party the group held that freshman year, I drank most of a pint bottle of Southern Comfort (euhhh. To this day…) and finding that I was no closer to scoring with my original quarry, Chuck, I took Perry home. I wasn’t attracted to him beyond what Southern Comfort could provide, so this wasn’t the wisest move. We fumbled our way to drunken orgasms, staggered off to vomit in our respective lavatories, and put it behind us. More or less. It wasn’t exactly in Perry’s nature to completely give up, but I let him know pretty quickly that he didn’t have much chance. I was still on the rebound from the anonymous sex of my high school years, and I was still determined to find at least one guy I actually loved. Perry, nice as he was, wasn’t it.

Not that Perry was an unattractive guy. No model certainly, but not bad. But not my type. Smoker, for one. Sharp features, sharp chin, long sharp nose cleaving his face right down the center. Equally sharp shoulders and elbows – the guy was all angles. He dressed like a hick (which means we had similar wardrobes, heavy on jeans and western-cut pearl buttoned plaid shirts), and could never decide what to do with his straight mousy brown hair, or whether the mustache should stay or go (go. no question). When I first met him, he had the worst, the most atrocious, the most egregious perm. At the infamous party, he’d just had it all cut off and parted neatly down the center, or even the Southern Comfort could not have compensated for both that and the smoking. No way.

But mostly, what drove me from him emotionally and intimately was the same needy, small-town, hick mannerisms that I so despised in myself, and was trying to school myself out of. Small town boys don’t know how to behave with strangers, because they don’t meet many. So right out of the gate they’re telling you too much, trying too hard. Making unfunny jokes. Wanting you to know how much they like you, so way too much eye-contact, way too much flirting, that they swear is subtle, and um, no. Not subtle. Not at all. Kind of like this blog, I suppose.

Since I’d been so cool to him since the party, I was rather surprised when he asked if I needed a roommate for sophomore year. I said I’d think about it, and I did. The prospects were bleak, as I had absolutely no male friends at the end of that abysmal year. So I decided that as long as we could agree on some ground rules, this could work out okay. Rule One: No sex. I knew it would just complicate things. If either of us got emotionally attached when the other wasn’t, this year would be even more hellish than the first. Rule Two: See Rule One. Rule Three: No smoking in the room. He agreed.

Perry had a very good draw number. He had an outside chance of getting a single room in his class’ dorm lottery, but decided he might have a better chance at a nice room if he drew at the top of the freshman class with me. Which is what we did. We scored a great double in the small college-owned house called Faculty Club. This often-overlooked gem had only 5 rooms on the floor; one other double, the rest were singles. The lower floor was pretty much the same, and that was the house. Twelve units, with a kitchen in the basement the equal of any in the larger dorms, more than adequate laundry, and quiet. Wonderful, study-supporting quiet.

It turned out to be even better than we had hoped. When we moved in the following fall, we found that one of the singles closest to ours had been vacated by its original winner, and Michael, the black guy from the CGLC, was going to be right across the hall. Coincidentally, I’d just spent the week before classes commenced at Michael’s apartment in Minneapolis – a mutual friend, Katie, had suggested I contact him when I needed to return early to Minneapolis for a seminar. He kindly offered up his couch (futon, actually) and I’d really enjoyed getting to know him. He was graduating this year, and was finishing up a paid internship with Pillsbury. Michael seemed like the smartest man in the world, and, quite unintentionally, made me feel like the most naïve. Michael, the sophisticate from Chicago, quickly became our den mother, and we two small-town boys were eager scouts. It was gay boy heaven.

Not for sex, you dirty minded pervs. No, for comfort. For being able to be out, for one thing. I’d been awkwardly in the closet most of my freshman year; when I started coming awkwardly out at the end of winter, it did not improve my living situation in the slightest. Now, Perry, Michael, Chuck, Katie, and I could drop back and forth, dish the rest of the building, dish the boys we liked, dish the boys we didn’t like…you get the picture. Perry and I could actually be ourselves for the first time in our lives. Actually talk about what being gay was like. Was going to be like. We dealt with our smallish room by building lofted beds and pooling our storage. We even pooled our porn collection, but with Perry’s mustached cowboy fetish, there wasn’t a lot of his that I found appealing. We both got a lot better at socializing like normal people. We shared small town tales, and commiserated about nobody ever knowing where you were really from. Perry got it worse than me – coming from New Mexico, he got the packet for students dealing with English as a second language, and other resources for foreign students. We were at a quite reputable school, but apparently some of the support staff weren’t altogether clear on the difference between Mexico and New Mexico.

Perry was full of surprises at times. For a guy that wasn’t that attractive and not at all feminine, he’d managed to score with both of his straight roommates the year before, the knowledge of which always made me feel rather awkward when we ran into them on campus. Perry did tend to over share the details of his life. I knew his mother didn’t approve of his being gay, being of a particular religious stripe. I knew Perry was trying to figure out his own religious feelings, having been involved in the church since his youth. He also played the pipe organ beautifully – I remember how hard he worked to conquer a particular Buxtehude prelude for the spring recital. Speaking of which, what a revelation! Gangly cowboy sits at keyboard, makes tasteless joke about his fondness for pipes, turns to play, God’s own music pours forth.

And the one time about mid-fall just after we turned out the lights that Perry said “I’d really like to be close to you right now” I was actually tempted. But rules are rules.

Michael called our first meeting of the CGLC, which was still meeting at unpublicized locations the first two years I was there. After last year in the “yellow room” in the basement of the chapel, we had a brainstorm – what about the lounge at Faculty Club? Nice furniture, a few windows, almost but not quite off campus…this could be good. We ran our ad, and I even agreed to be the contact point for the new folks. Big step out!

Freshman year, I was the only boy, and Sue was the only girl to join CGLC meetings. This year was much better – we had two new freshman boys, and four new girls. As the year went on, membership grew steadily. One of the new boys was the infamous David, mentioned elsewhere, the other was Whit, about whom I have little to say right now. Oh, plenty to say over all, but little to say right now. At least Perry and I got the system for room privacy worked out in that little late-fall flingette.

Perry was there for me when Whit coldly dumped my ass right after winter term resumed. This was also the winter break in which Dad and I had our conversation mentioned in Dad’s birthday post, and Mom, uh, shouted some. So it was a big drama time. Whit was actually somewhat instrumental in the home drama as well, since it was a letter to him that Mom found and thereby discovered my big gay secret. So basically, my parents were pissed at me for a relationship that was over, as far as Whit was concerned, before they even found out about it. We were probably even studying situational irony in my English classes right then, too.

Perry and Michael were there for me when I needed to emote over that whole mess, anger and grief for the twin betrayals of both Whit and Mom. Their clarity helped mine, which resulted in a surprisingly well-written and effective letter home in which I expressed exactly what disappointed me about my parents’ response and what I hoped we’d be able to accomplish as time went on. They told me later that it was the perfect thing to do – it made it clear that it was not a phase, and was something I expected them to deal with, not avoid.

What Michael and Perry were to me were my first gay male friends. People who knew I was gay, and who were gay themselves, with whom I was not sexually involved (well, not really). Aside from Harry, they were the first gay men whose names I actually knew, and who knew my name. It was the beginning of the subculture for me.

With the gay group meeting twice a month in the lounge, and our little corner of the residence, we had managed to create the world’s smallest gay ghetto. Soon, other nascent queers were spending plenty of time in the vicinity, and that. Was. So. Cool. We became a de facto gay center of sorts, with planning, budgeting, and networking all happening in our rooms or in the lounge. David was around a lot, for reasons you can probably guess, and again, we’ll save that for another time. The saga of Randy, Whit, and David really does deserve a post of its own sometime. But this post is about Perry and Michael.

We thought we had it all figured out at last. We finally had learned how to be gay. And that was the best feeling in the world. When I think about where I was freshman year and where I was sophomore year, I have to say I wouldn’t be alive today without Michael and Perry, especially Perry. If the second year had gone like the first, I never would have made it. I’m a better person, because of him. Which is why it pains me so much to say that Perry isn’t around for me to thank him.

Most of you are probably smart enough to look at the decade that these events occurred and the date of this post, and put two and two together. But just in case it isn’t clear, this is my World AIDS Day post. Perry’s dead. Died 1987. He’d been out of college for three years. The first year out was hard for him – he was back to not knowing where he fit. He drank too much, and made some bad choices. Once he got sober, things improved rapidly for him, up to a point. He found his music again, his church again, and he found the right man. He quit smoking. They had six months together before he got pneumonia for the first time. The third time it killed him. His organ professor played the Buxtehude prelude at his funeral.

I lost touch with Michael almost immediately after he graduated in June of ‘82. The alumni magazine published the announcement of his marriage to some woman in 1985, but I wasn’t invited, and I wouldn’t have gone. For all that I learned from him, I guess I didn't know him that well after all. In 1989, the alumni magazine published his obituary. Michael and Perry. They weren’t the only two, but all I can bear to talk about right now.

The word sophomore is derived from two ancient Greek terms: sophos meaning wise, moros meaning stupid. I remember those days of thinking I knew everything, at last. I still had a lot to learn. It never occurred to me that I’d be learning so soon about the death of friends. It’s 20 years later, but I still remember you, and I’m still learning things you started teaching me then. In the spirit of the season, God rest ye merry, Gentlemen.

And, thank you Damion at Queering the Apparatus for reminding me why this is important.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Dad is 70

Familia by Paul Granlund

So, Dad is 70. I’m just today back in Minnesota after a week-long stay in Oregon celebrating my dad’s birthday, which was the 18th, and Thanksgiving. I don’t really know what to say about a guy I’ve known for more than 40 years, for my entire life. Where to even begin?

He’s a great dad. We share the same first name. But it often seems I hardly know him. I’ve always been confident that he loves me, but often much less confident that he’s been proud of me, or, more to the point, isn’t disappointed in me. I’d guess he is. Proud that is. But I’d also guess he’s always wanted more for me. More from me.

I’m certainly proud of him. In preparing for his party, which was held last Saturday afternoon, I helped Mom put together a display board of photos from his life. There are pictures of him as a young man posing with his violin, which I later played for about 6 years, and posing with the trombone that my sister later took up. There are pictures of him roughhousing with the two of us, and my younger sister, too. There are pictures of him in the army uniform that he was lucky to be wearing in the brief peace after Korea, but before Vietnam. Pictures of him with archaic computers, fingers tapping at the chunky keyboards as glowing characters flicker on tiny screens. Pictures with his model trains, pictures of him covered with automotive grease. Pictures of him with his two younger sisters, with his mother, with his father, both before and after the divorce. I tried to find pictures of the man we know, and we did the best we could, but as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, in one of my father’s favorite quotes: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.

As a son, I’m sure I come up short. In whatever ways I do, it’s certainly not due to lack of effort on his part. I remember him attempting to teach me algebra when I was eight, sitting on the front steps with a small chalkboard and rapidly straining patience. Building dinosaur dioramas with me when I was six on scrap plywood, with papier mâché mountains, and a clear polymer lake. Modeling the human ear with a paper plate, a mailing tube, and a Dixie cup of water. A lot of it took - I grew to enjoy and excel in math and some sciences, but a lot of his efforts did not. I certainly also remember him throwing a softball with me at ten, until our mutual frustration dissolved us - me into tears, and he into angry shouting. He was never a sports fan, and he could not make me one, nor achieve the underlying goal (which I easily perceived) of making me less a sissy.

Both of my parents could wield disappointment, or the threat of disappointment, like a weapon; they seldom raised a hand to us, but a lowered gaze and a sad head-shake could sting just as deeply. We learned to achieve grades as high as possible, not always for the joy of learning, but just as often for the fear of bringing home something less than expected. And the expectations were always high.

I lived in terror of the day they would find out I was gay. I had no illusions that this would be the worst disappointment I could deliver. Not only my own failing, but a clear reflection of their failure as parents to shape me. I would shame the family, and they would blame themselves, and I hated myself for being the cause of that shame. I could picture it; Mom would be sadly devastated, but aver that she still loved me, while Dad would be unable to hide his anger and disgust when he looked at me, would shout, would humiliate me, and would never look me in the eye again. I don’t think I could have been more mistaken. I really will never have any idea how Dad will react to something, I think.

When it came down to it, and I took my stumbling steps out (I’ll save the embarrassing details for another post), Dad took the higher road. He took me for a ride in the car, and told me that they knew. He said that Mom was having a very hard time with it, and would be angry for a while. He said I needed to know that they both loved me very much, even though Mom would have a hard time showing it right now. He said he was worried about my future; that I might be lonely, and that made him sad. That he didn’t know very much about “it”, but that there was a lot of misinformation about “it”, and that I should be careful. That he didn’t subscribe to cultural and religious evaluations of morality, and neither should I. That I should be a good man. He repeated that I should be careful. He drove us home.

He was right about Mom. She’s due her own complete tribute on another day, but I can say that the parenting cliché “this hurts me more than it does you” could have been invented for her alone. She was angry, and she said a lot of angry things. I’ve forgotten all of them, because she was angry and she didn’t mean them, even though she thought she did at the time. But I know that she remembers every word she said, and that every word cuts her to this day. I forgave her almost immediately; I think she’s forgiven herself, finally. But unlike me, she’ll never forget.

This all happened on a college break, and, lucky for all of us, I was soon 2000 miles away. We wrote. We stopped talking about it. I thought it was behind us.

I think Dad knew that without him to remain calm, Mom and I could do some real damage. Maybe having his own father wrench himself out of their family when he was ten shaped that for him. Maybe having to spend summers at a boy’s home because his divorced mother, a school teacher, couldn’t afford to feed three children when school wasn’t in session shaped it. Maybe it happened later, in the five years before I came out, when his career moved him to Portland while Mom’s kept her in Toledo, and he had to drive three hours home each Friday and three hours back each Sunday to maintain the connection. That he values family. That family matters more.

He had been so calm about my coming out that both mom and I could move along. I was surprised, therefore, to hear a couple of years later, that Dad was attending pflag meetings in Portland. To me it sent a clear message – Dad had issues with me. Maybe it was because I was now in a relationship; my big move out of the dorms and in with David. Or maybe it was because “it” was still happening, and hadn’t turned out to be just a phase. I took it to mean he wasn’t all that okay with me being gay; wasn’t completely free of “cultural and religious evaluation” after all. I found out inadvertently that he was going to pflag, and that added to the feeling – that he was attending “behind my back” suggested that there were things unsaid between us. I thought things were worked out, and it seemed that they weren’t after all. I shyly said that if anything came up that he wanted to talk about that it would be okay. But it never really did. He kept going. At some point, after they sold the house in Toledo and she also moved to Portland, Mom started going, too.

Then along came the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance, and Ballot Measure 9. Measure 9 stated that all government agencies and schools would recognize that homosexuality was “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” The proponents of the measure touted the fact that Measure 9 would stop “special rights” to gays, but in reality, Measure 9 ensured that civil rights of gays would be stripped away by prohibiting and revoking laws that protected gays from discrimination. Well, you can’t tell a family man that his kid is going to be fair game for discrimination. You can’t tell a school teacher like my Mom that public education systems must assist in fostering hatred and bias. The OCA turned my parents into gay activists.

They were good at it too. They were well-established in their communities and careers. They were Toastmasters, well-practiced at writing and delivering speeches. They had leisure time, and passion. They were church-going, long-married, parents of three. But most of all, they could turn the whole “protect the family” argument on its head – the OCA was clearly attacking our family, and if it could attack us, it could attack your kids, too. They could easily connect, speak with passion, and inflame the passions of other parents and families.

I was at least a little uncomfortable with this – it’s irksome when your straight parents are better gay activists than you are. But I soon realized that it really wasn’t about me. The more we talked, and could talk about it, I found that I factored in somewhere at the beginning, as an impetus to find out more about gays, to find a way to understand. But when they found out what it was like in America, in the world, a situation to which they’d been largely ignorant, they simply couldn’t live with the discrimination and keep silent. As they talked with families who’d lost their children to violence or AIDS, offered support to parents with more troubled family relationships, hugged children whose families had cut them out, it became really clear to them what the real threat to the family is: ignorance and hatred. For almost twenty years, they’ve been fighting ignorance, and hatred, and the OCA.

When this is your dad, it seems like you ought to become something. A politician, an activist, a spiritual leader, something. I want to be great, to make him proud. But so far, I haven’t. Been great, I mean.

I’m a simple adult educator in a large bureaucracy. I struggle continually with money and making ends meet. I’ve had relationships fail, and I’ve been treated for mental illness. I’m an artistic dilettante, developing a recipe here, writing a script there, arranging a song over there, but mastering none. I have made no great statements. I’m only beginning even to be able to articulate my spirituality. I have a long way to go.

Dad is 70. Most of his more memorable achievements, aside from parenting, have been in the last 25 years. That gives me hope. I have a debt to honor. And I need to get started. The expectations are high.

I love you, Dad. Happy Birthday!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Two Menus, Two Recipes

Pumpkin Chocolate Layered Mousse Torte

Lots of cooking and eating this week, as I prepare the spread for Dad's birthday party and the Thanksgiving dinner. Here's what's happening ...and two of the recipes in case your chocolate needs are not being met adequately. Because I'm here for ya, baby.

Dad’s Birthday Party

Mushroom Almond Paté with crackers
Cheddar, Red Pepper, Horseradish spread
Gouda platter
Baked Brie en Croute with brandied cranberries
Warm Crab Ramekin
Sesame Eggplant Salsa with Pita Crisps
Kentucky Truffles
Veggie Trays
Curried Yogurt Dip
French Onion Dip

Citrus Ginger Ale Punch

Thanksgiving Dinner

Sage Roasted Turkey with Onion Sage Gravy
Cranberry Kumquat Dressing
Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potato Hash
Creamed Onions
Brussels Sprouts
Pumpkin Chocolate Layered Mousse Torte


Peanut butter filling:

1 1/2 lb powdered sugar (almost 6 cups)
1/2 lb room temp butter or margarine (2 sticks)
1 lb creamy peanut butter (2 cups)
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Combine in a large bowl. Mix well. Form the dough into small balls, about 1/2 inch in diameter. Put the balls in a bowl, and chill in the fridge about an hour. Or chill the dough first, and then roll into balls. Or just grab a spoon...nah. They're better with the...

Chocolate coating:

In a heavy bottomed saucepan or double boiler, combine 12 oz chocolate chips (regular bag) with 1/2 slab of paraffin wax (found in the canning or baking section of most grocers) cut into small pieces. Heat over lowest heat, stirring every minute or so. In the meantime, have a bunch of cookie sheets and toothpicks or bamboo skewers ready. When the chips and wax have melted together, turn off the heat, and remove a handful of peanut butter balls from the fridge. Don't grab the whole bowl; you'll need reheat the chocolate at some point anyway.

Poke a toothpick or skewer in a ball far enough to hold it. Dip the ball in the chocolate, and swirl to coat it about 3/4 of the way up. So it looks, you know, like a buckeye. Place the dipped buckeye on a cookie sheet and move on. There are gazillions to do. If the chocolate gets too cool, warm gently over low heat. The buckeyes should be chilled after dipping; in Minnesota, that's easy - we put them on the porch, and keep an eye out for squirrels. Or slide them in the garage. In warmer climates, do as many batches as will fit in the freezer, freeze them solid (about 20 minutes) and remove to ziplock bags or cookie tins, and return to fridge or freezer to keep. Repeat until you're done. When removing the skewer, some people like to smooth over the hole, frankly I think it's a waste of time. Invite friends, and eat till you're sick.

This recipe originally appeared in the Penzey's Catalog. I think. Either that or I have a mysterious note here about a "pencil" and "cartilage".

Layered Pumpkin Chocolate Mousse Torte

(This baby’s entirely my own creation. Believe it!)


1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa (dutch process)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
2 tsp grated orange peel
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into 8 pieces
1 Tbsp dark molasses
1 large egg
1/4 cup chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate.

Mix flour and next 6 ingredients in food processor bowl. Whir to blend thoroughly. Add butter, and process 30 seconds til mixture forms coarse crumbs. Stir molasses and egg together in a measuring cup. Add to processor and whir until soft dough ball gathers (about 30 seconds.)

Roll dough on lightly floured surface to 1/8 thickness. Gently press into bottom and up sides of a PAM sprayed 9-inch springform. Prick the bottom all over with a fork. Stick in freezer for 30 minutes while oven heats to 350. It wouldn't be a bad idea to drop in some foil with some pie weights on it for baking, but I didn't - live dangerously! Bake 12 minutes. Gently deflate if necessary with a clean dishtowel. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate (I had some Sharfenberger on hand, but mini-chips would be fine). When melted, smooth with offset spatula.

Filling (the pumpkin layer):

4 oz Cream Cheese
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1 cup canned pumpkin
2 tbsp dark molasses
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp brandy
2 large eggs

Combine 4 oz room temperature cream cheese with 1/2 cup creme fraiche in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on medium til smooth. Add pumpkin, and mix til smooth. Add two tablespoons dark molasses and 1/3 cup brown sugar, mix thoroughly. Add spices, vanilla, and brandy, mix til smooth. Add eggs 1 at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Pour over chocolate in crust. It will probably just fill the crust (assuming it slumped slightly during baking) however, it is fine if it comes above a little bit. Wrap outside of pan in heavy duty foil without covering the top, and place in large roaster. Pour in enough boiling water to come partway up the sides of the foil-wrapped springform. Bake at 350 for 35-45 minutes until soft set. Set aside on rack to cool.

Chocolate layer:

1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp orange liqueur
1 tbsp brandy
2 tsp finely chopped grated orange peel
1 1/2 cup chocolate chips or chopped bittersweet chocolate
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped

Heat cream, liqueurs, and orange peel to simmer. Pour over chocolate in a bowl and stir until smooth.

Mix egg yolks, sugar, 1/4 tsp cloves with mixer until thick, fluffy, and light yellow (2-3 minutes)

Fold egg mixture into chocolate mixture.

Gently fold in whipped cream. Mound on top of pumpkin layer, and smooth to edges. Refrigerate covered several hours or over night.

Shiny top:

2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips or chopped bittersweet chocolate

Heat cream and butter til simmer. Add to chocolate and stir briskly til smooth and melted. Pour over top of chilled cake. Chill. Decorate as desired. I usually use edible copper Luster Dust sifted on through a tea strainer.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Songs for the Road

OVMC in New Ulm

I’m pretty well just fascinated by music in general. Isn’t it pretty amazing? I mean, any toddler can wail out a tune, strange and wordless as it may be. All it takes to make music is a voice or an instrument that will resonate, producing sound waves.

Almost as quickly as we learn to speak, we learn to recognize our culture’s musical patterns – the sequence of tones, the structure of rhythms, the basic elements that define what our culture describes as music – that some wave patterns are more listenable than others and mean more to us than others. The existence of these patterns is only the beginning of the fascinating part – the rules that describe the relationships between notes apply and imply certain physics, and the way that tones can fit together, sound waves amplifying, multiplying and canceling each other to build chords, discords, and harmonies is beautiful in the way that snowflakes, nautilus shells, and faces are beautiful – not just esthetically, but in that almost frightening way that they imply an order to things that we can’t really find the tools or the math or the faith to put a name on. Maybe it’s God. Or maybe that’s just another name for an even larger mystery.

Yet observing only the physics and math makes music sound dry – as any six year old can tell you, you don’t sing or play an instrument because the math is cool. You do it because once those notes join to become melodies, and the other resonances produce harmonies, and the logical progressions lead to the next chord and the next, while the beat goes on, metering out measures of stress and unstress, repeating patterns, progressing to the next, this grammar, this syntax can build an emotional wallop ranging from repulsion to ecstasy. It’s humanity’s second language. I see little evidence of actual magic in the day to day lives of humans. Except when they make music.

I got to watch a bit of that magic this weekend while on tour with a choral group to which Boo lends his lovely tenor voice. One Voice Mixed Chorus, and its spinoff ensemble OVation, is one of a plethora of queer and queer friendly arts groups in the Twin Cities. In addition to OVMC, there’s the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Army Chorus (and their spinoff ensemble Outloud!), Calliope – a women’s chorus, TransVoices – a recently formed transgender community choir, the Rainbow Families Children’s Chorus, Timbre - the newest kid on the block, the Twin Cities Women’s Choir - who aren't primarily GLBT, but friendly, the Minnesota Freedom Band, and the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra – the first GLBT orchestra in the United States. And I won’t even go into dance groups, theater troupes, or the most fabulous glam-goth genderfuck rock band in the entire world, All the Pretty Horses.

But…that’s the Twin Cities. Get only a few miles out of town, and not only do queer arts not exist, it’s possible to find communities that insist that queers don’t exist. Or shouldn't exist. At least not in their town. In each of the past three years, OVMC has taken a tour to remote towns, such as Vermilion, South Dakota; and Marshall, Stillwater, Bemidji, and Duluth, Minnesota. This year’s tour headed south, hitting Northfield; LaCrosse, Wisconsin; Mankato, and New Ulm (enough links - here's Google Maps, do your homework!). It was the first time I went along on the tour – I had a great time being a roadie.

Getting 80 people, their luggage, five sets of portable risers, a box or two of props, and a backup electronic piano (just in case) from the Twin Cities to five or six remote destinations without losing anything (or anyone) significant requires a great deal of logistical planning and a lot of cooperation. Since both of those things were in short supply this year, we were very lucky to have a force of nature on our side. I’ve mentioned him before; we shall call him Boo. He’s my spouse.

When Boo releases his inner dominatrix, the world must bow to the whip. Thus, despite road detours, a slightly directionally impaired driver, and a schedule tighter than Nathan Fillion’s trousers, we arrived everywhere we needed to be on time, fed, and rarin’ to go. Essentially (inside joke). This is Boo’s fourth tour as tour dominatrix, so he was in fine form.

Our first stop was Northfield, a town of “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment.” (Says so right on the label). I went to one of those colleges, incidentally, which is how I came to be in Minnesota after growing up in Oregon. (I’ll bet that had been troubling you up until now. No? Huh.) At any rate, this performance was at the other college, the one with the world-renowned choir. So, no pressure...

It was mid-day on a Friday with unwarranted pleasant weather, so a huge crowd was not in attendance. But a good friend that I've known since I lived in Northfield was, so yay! I’ve known J for 23 years; a lesbian a few years older than I who with her partner-at-the-time provided home-away-from-home to me and my partner-at-the-time when we were newly-minted and still-happy; she now works on the St Olaf staff. It was wonderful to see her, as well as her lovely daughter, who was planned, conceived (with the minimum required male contribution), and born while I was still in college. She’s now a student at St. Olaf, which makes me feel ridiculously old.

While Minnesota seasons come on fast, there was still a little leaf-color on the way down river to LaCrosse. But I must confess I strapped on the headphones, tossed on Sigur Rós, and slept most of the way.

The dinner and performance at UW LaCrosse went smoothly, despite the auditorium not having the right kind of risers (we backed up the bus and unloaded our own – hooray for the roadies), the right kind of lighting (they were pre-set for a rock show the next night), and a auditorium that seemed huge and empty. Acoustically, it was quite good nevertheless, and while a few of our very-white Minnesotans gleamed a little hot under the lights, it didn’t look bad either. Also not looking bad? That would be Chris, the far too young, far too muscly, cuter-than-all-hell leader of the campus queer group, who was wearing a very fetching black t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “I ♥ (heart) Female Orgasms.” I’m quite sure several basses and tenors wanted to give him one.

The next day, we set off for Mankato, via route 16 through the Bluff Country. I only encountered the Bluff Country in southern Minnesota a month or so ago; it really is a lovely area. I opted for Neko Case for most of the route, but needed a little aural caffeine part of the way, so switched to System of a Down.

Along the way, we stopped in Forestville for a tour of the Mystery Cave, which was cool (48 degrees to be exact) and fascinating, but ran a bit long. We dashed through Austin for an all-too-brief lunch and visit to the SPAM Museum. This is a very well-designed museum for a very campy product, and we enjoyed it a great deal; getting all 80 of us lined up for the photo op out front by the bronze pig farmer. We arrived in Mankato to a delightful soup supper at the UU Fellowship, then off to Minnesota State for a fun and well-received concert for far too many women with hair that apparently escaped from one of those two horridly coifed television psychics. Why do these psychics have terrible hair-dos anyway? Is it a requirement for spiritual communion? A mystery for the age.

Now One Voice is a fairly eclectic group musically, but in the short amount of time in which they put together this concert, I don’t feel they really played to their strengths – which are typically humor, and exotic musical compositions. The humor pieces they did (I Do – a riff on marriage, and Bittersweet Tango, a riff on chocolate) are ones they’ve done for three seasons I’m tired of them.

Further, they didn’t really find anything unusual – in the past they’ve done some amazing diverse work – a brilliant choral work in Mongolian, a composition employing overtone singing, some very nifty and challenging folk works from all over the world. They’ve even performed a piece entirely in ASL, interpreted for the hearing audience. This show, unfortunately, was heavy on anthems, all performed in English, and frankly, yawn.

Somehow, though, it all came together the next morning, in New Ulm – where One Voice performed for a UCC church service. New Ulm is not a big town, is not cosmopolitan by any stretch, and is about as representative of southern Minnesota as a town founded by Germans, dominated by Lutherans, and home of a brewery (Schell’s) can be. Aside from the giant statue of Hermann up on the hill.

Anyway, I’ve heard One Voice perform “I Come From Good People” about 30 times by now. I’ve heard other choruses perform it at least another dozen times. OVMC first performed it about eight years ago, and just brought it back for tour. It is, without a doubt, a simple, beautiful, and moving piece, some of Robert Seeley’s and Philip Littel's best work. But I’ve heard it. Many times. Hell, I’d already heard it four times that weekend.

Were the soloists that much better this time? Was the space that much more resonant? Or did the phrase “my family are neighbors, and my neighbors are my family” just hit us all with such a force of truth about what we can be to others if we try? Why, when my friends sang it in New Ulm, were tears rolling down my face (and many others) and the pews shaking with barely suppressed emotion?

There’s just a very cool thing that happens when the right performance of the right music for the right crowd goes just so incredibly right that the magic I was blathering about back a million paragraphs or so sweeps down and converts everyone in the room into one big thing. Something bigger than differences and prejudice. Something bigger than fatigue and cynicism. Something that doesn’t have a name. Maybe it’s God. Or maybe that’s just another name for an even larger mystery.