Postcard from the Future: No Injuries?

The FBI deployed robots to disarm explosive devices found in a backpack in Elizabeth, New Jersey early this morning.   The robots snipped a wire and accidentally detonated one of the devices.   From the New York Times:  “No injuries were reported… one robot was destroyed and another had a mechanical arm blown off.”

Sounds like a robot fatality and a robot dismemberment to me.  In the future, will we have to be more sensitive to the feelings of robots once they have feelings?  Hal, what do you think?

Postcard from Chicago: 15 Years Ago

Morning, Chicago
I had flown to Chicago
on business the night before,
last flight out of LaGuardia
before thunderstorms.

I was due to meet clients
at the Hancock Building,
came down to the hotel
dining room for breakfast.

A bounty of silverware
glinted in the morning light.
Tablecloth corners hung,
a perfect flock of swans.

A businessman sat at the bar,
his suit-jacket stretched
across a waist falling in folds
over his belt like a chuckle.

The waiters were in uniform:
white aprons, patterned vests,
clipped bowties. The bartender
sleeves were rolled. One hand

rested on the bar, the other on
his forehead. Everyone stared
at a television. No one spoke.
On the screen, I saw the upper

stories of a single building,
miles of empty blue sky
around it and a caption
in the upper left-hand corner:

Moments ago in New York.

Postcard from the Pride Parade: Just Do It

Everyone loves a parade: the cheering crowds, the confetti, the flags, the bands and the balloons.  Parades are best on summer afternoons, when even the sun seems to celebrate.  In just such an atmosphere, the New York Gay Pride Parade stepped out at 12 noon yesterday from 36th Street on its march down Fifth Avenue to Christopher Street in the Village.

Seven and half hours later, when I left to meet my friend Marisa for a glass of chilled rosé at Le Zie (OK, it was a bottle), the parade was still passing my block at 16th and 5th.

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The Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps

I’ve been going to the Parade off-and-on since sometime in the late 70s.  I confess I used to be frustrated by the images that dominated the parade and which inevitably appeared in the press coverage: leather daddies in ass-less chaps, bare-breasted overweight lesbians, drag queens in stiletto heels and little else, the Dykes on Bikes, and any number of others who didn’t represent the gay person I perceived myself to be.  Marisa used to say she wished the parade organizers would request marchers and spectators to “come as you are everyday,” so that the world would see gay people in business suits, military uniforms, nurses’ and doctors’ lab coats and scrubs, that we were everywhere among and no different from the rest of the world.  If anything could counter homophobia, the realization that gay people were “no different than me” ought to do it.

However, over the past year or so, I realized something about homophobia: that its root is not a feeling of disgust or shame or fear over people of the same sex having sex or being physically affectionate or even being in love.  It’s much deeper than that.

It’s about gender — what’s acceptable behavior for boys and girls or men and women and what are acceptable public expressions of gender, and even the binary gender notion itself.  I realized this when I was writing a poem about a time when my father criticized me when I was in high school for using the word “exquisite.”  Boys don’t use that word, he said.

I have no doubt that some of what fueled my father’s reaction was his perception (and fear) that his son might turn out to be gay.  But I also realized that any boy — gay or straight or somewhere in between — could have been criticized by his father for using language that society deemed inappropriate for males.  Gender behavior and expression were the real culprits.

The gender binary is deeply rooted inside all of us.  It is the first point of identity assigned to us and the original point of “difference” we’re made aware of.  “It’s a boy” or “it’s a girl,” the doctor pronounces, and parents prepare the pink- or blue-edged announcement cards, or more likely today, the proud posts to Facebook and Instagram.  With those pronouncements and announcements, we’re changed from the neutral pronoun “it” to a definitive noun that goes one way or another — “boy” or “girl.”

The mind needs to categorize things.   It’s part of our DNA and essential to our survival as an individual organism, as a member of a tribe, and as a species.  “Friend” or “foe,”  “family” or “stranger,” “one of us” or “not one of us.”  I could argue that those distinctions are becoming less essential to survival on our globalizing, urbanizing, networked and over-populated planet.  In fact, they may be antithetical to our survival as a species at this point.  But old habits die hard.

So I’ve come to understand and appreciate the deeper meaning of the rainbow flag, of the concepts of diversity and inclusiveness that create such awkward identifiers for the gay movement as “LGBTQ.”  (It seems like every other year, another letter needs to be added to the acronym lest someone be excluded.)

What all those letters have in common is this: NOT adhering to traditional expectations of gender behavior and expression.  Or to avoid the negativity of “NOT” — outside of, beyond, having transcended, and perhaps most accurately in terms of the benefit — FREED from the restrictions of those expectations.

So, as I watched the parade move down Fifth Avenue this year, I rejoiced in all the wonderful people dressing and behaving however they chose.  And I was very clear that everyone — regardless of sexuality — benefits from that freedom.

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The House of Yaz Float

Indeed, the Pride Parade has become the place, the day, a moment in which everyone gets to enjoy and celebrate that freedom.  More and more, one sees families, parents, groups of teens, friends and colleagues along the parade route all draped in pride beads, waving rainbow flags, jumping at the chance for a selfie with a famous drag queen.

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Drag Queen with Fresh-Faced Youth

Of course, this year, more sobering thoughts were never very far away from the celebration and the smiling faces, as reminders of the 49 murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando were everywhere throughout the parade.

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We Are Orlando

I had expected tight security at the access points to the parade route, thinking maybe that backpacks and such might even be prohibited.  There was none, however; seemingly anyone could have walked onto the sidewalk with whatever they wanted to carry with them.

There were, of course, armed policemen everywhere.  One walked up and down the block of Fifth Avenue where I was standing.  But it seemed to me it would have been ridiculously easy to snatch his pistol from its holster as he passed inches in front of me time and time again.

The Israelis — for whom security is an art form — brought their own heat to the parade.  Two men whose dress and demeanor telegraphed Mossad (I suppose that’s the point) trailed the Israeli float.  What you’re not seeing in this photo is the coiled wire behind this guy’s left ear, nor his watchful pacing between the float and the crowd, as the parade paused in one of its frequent parade-jams in front of me.

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Mossad on high alert behind the Israeli float

In this vein, there was one sign I saw in the parade that more than any other summed up my feelings today about the position of gay people (and all the other letters; I use “gay” for convenience) in the world today.  It was  a small sign, and it was carried by someone in a group of Asian-Americans.

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In the media, questions continue about the shooter in Orlando.  Was he actually gay, and were the murders, in essence, a horrible act of self-loathing?  What was the role of his religion?  Was he just an angry lunatic with an axe to grind about gay men hitting on him?

None of this matters to me.  Regardless of his personal motivation, he specifically chose a gay club and gay people to target.  And as he pulled the trigger over and over, he was killing gay people.

What suggests to anyone — deranged or not — that killing gay people is justified?  What gives “permission” for that?  Whose hand is also on the trigger?

Pope Francis was quoted in the New York Times this morning as saying, on his plane trip back from Armenia, that “the Roman Catholic Church should seek forgiveness from gays for the way they had treated them.”  This in response to a question from a reporter asking if the Pope agreed with a similar statement made recently by a Cardinal of the church in Germany.  To quote the Times: “Francis, looking sad, recalled church teachings that homosexuals ‘should not be discriminated against…  They should be respected, accompanied pastorally,’ he said.”

This sounds good.  It’s the kind of thing the Pope has a habit of saying that makes him the darling of good liberals like myself.  But it’s worth parsing the Pope’s words precisely, as I do for a living in my communications consulting and as a poet as well.

The Pope said that the Church “should” apologize; not “is apologizing” nor “will apologize” or “is going to apologize.”  He also, notably, did not apologize, something you’d think he could do as the titular head and de facto chief spokesperson of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Times goes on to point out that “the church teaches that gay tendencies are not sinful but that gay acts are, and that gays should try to be chaste.”  That sounds a lot like “Boys don’t use that word” to me.

So I would challenge the Pope to stop pronouncing what the Church “should” do and to do as a famous advertising slogan suggests:  Just do it.

And I would maintain that anyone who represents any institution that seeks to “teach” or portray in any way that gay people are somehow “less” than anyone else, also had their finger on the trigger that killed 49 gay people in Orlando and wounded 53 more.

To those people, and especially to religious and political  figures who “lead” people around the world, I say: Take you fingers off the trigger.  Stop killing us.

Postcard from Armenia: Shnorhakalut’yun

Our final day in Armenia began with the obligatory view of Mount Ararat, this time through the archway of a monument inscribed with the closing lines of “For My Sweet Armenia,” a poem by 20-century Armenian poet, Yeghise Charents, who died at age 40 in a Soviet prison hospital.

“Travel the world, you’ll not find a peak as white as Ararat,” he wrote.  “As the path of glory is endless, so is my love for my Massis mountain,” Massis being the Armenian name for Mount Ararat.


Jerry and Mount Ararat at Charents’ Arch

The inscription on the arch gives you a taste of Armenia’s idiosyncratic alphabet, designed by St. Mesrop at the beginning of the 5th century, still in use today and shared by no one else in the world.

Geghard Monastery was just down the road from the arch.  It was founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator, our friend who spent 17 years imprisoned in a deep well in a previous Postcard. He must have developed a thing for darkness and water while in the well, as he built the original structure here around a spring-fed cave.  There are a number of churches built into the hillside, some of them with whole rooms carved completely out of the rock of the cliff.  The main chapel dates from 1215.


Entrance to Geghard Monastery

There was a Gorey-like atmosphere to the empty churches:  shadowy corners of crumbling rooms  illuminated by shafts of light from oculi in the ceilings; the dampness; the strange inscriptions and carvings; the remains of a blood-red dye.


A spring at lower right feeds into a chapel.


A column in a room carved completely out of the hillside.


Strange runic inscriptions in the Armenian alphabet

The red in the inscriptions and carvings is from the Armenian or Ararat cochineal, a scaly insect used since ancient times to produce the carmine dye.


Gorey-esque coat of arms of a noble family who constructed a church.

Dodging other tour groups for your group’s optimal viewing is a tour guide’s challenge.  We tried to stay one room ahead of a very large Polish group.  Here, I spied on them from another level through a hole in the floor.


Playing “I Spy” with the Poles.


Our guide Elisa discusses an oculus.

The Temple of Garni, a 1st-century A.D., pre-Christian, Greco-Roman temple, later converted into a royal palace was nearby.  It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1679, excavated in the 1950s and reconstructed between 1969 and 1975.  It’s the only standing building of its era in the former Soviet Union.


The temple sits above the Azat River Gorge.  For $20, you can rent a driver and a beat-up 4WD automobile (we did) to drive you down into the gorge.  We were rewarded with some impressive basalt cliff formations.


Basalt cliffs below Garni

Richard and I had a surly, silent driver.  As we reached the cliffs, he stopped the car.  With a dismissive wave of his hand, he gave us the “get out of the car” motion.  Then with his index and middle fingers, he indicated we should walk on from where we’d stopped.  Around the bend was a view of the Temple up above.


Temple of Garni from the Azat River Gorge

I did get a bit of a smile from him after he’d driven us back up, when I tipped him 1000 Armenian Dram (about $2.00) and said thank you in Armenian, which sounds something like Schnora-galootzy-OWN.  Our guide Elisa said my pronunciation of it was charming, which I took to mean “incorrect but amusing.”

Postcard from Armenia: Mount Ararat

It’s impossible not to have the high peaks of Mount Ararat in your consciousness while in Armenia and in its capital Yerevan.  Not only is it physically visible from many parts of the city, as a brand name it’s also ubiquitous — Ararat this and Ararat that, including a well-known Armenian brandy.  It’s the Armenian equivalent of Acme, which incidentally means “highest peak.”

Ararat is also famously mentioned in Genesis 8:4 — “And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat.”  There is a lot of quibbling among biblical historians as to whether this refers to this mountain itself or generally to the ancient lands of the kingdom of Armenia, though Mount Ararat would still be their highest peak.

It matters little: in Western culture and certainly in the Armenian psyche, Noah’s ark rested here.  We saw Mount Ararat first from a highway as we entered Yerevan, but got up close and personal with it on a visit to the Khor Virap monastery.


Mount Ararat and Khor Virap Monastery as seen through a vineyard.

Khor Virap means “deep well.”  It’s famous as the place where Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned by the King of Armenia for 17 years for proselytizing Christianity.  Impressed by Gregory’s survival, the King converted and Armenia became the first officially Christian nation in the world in 301 A.D.

There is a small chapel built around the well, and you can climb down a ladder into the well itself.  Several of our group do.  I passed on the opportunity.  Ever since an incident in high school where I was confined for a few minutes in a fetal position on the lower shelf of a dumb-waiter between floors at a church retreat (it’s a long story), I have a bit of claustrophobia.

However, in the gift shop, I bought a small book in Italian (they were out of the English version) describing Gregory’s ordeal in detail.  Me é abbastanza.


Khor Virap Monastery

From the monastery, you can see how the mountain dominates the plain of the same name.  It reminded me of the Grand Tetons, which seem to rise to their peaks absent preparatory foothills immediately from the floor of Jackson Hole.

All of this — the mountain’s physical presence, its majesty, its biblical asociation, Armenia’s position in early Christianity, the fact that Ararat is pictured on Armenia’s coat of arms, its currency, its stamps and is the brand name for scads of products Armenians consume — makes it even more galling to the Armenian psyche that the mountain is across the border in Turkey.


Mount Ararat rising about the plain of Ararat — in Turkey.

The ancient kingdom of Armenia was much larger than the present-day republic.  What we know as Armenia, and what we visited, is Eastern Armenia, which had become part of the Persian Empire, later to be ceded to Russia in the Russo-Persian War of 1826-28.  Western Armenia — roughly the eastern third of what is now Turkey — had been part of the Ottoman Empire and remained in Turkey following the Turkish-Armenian war of 1920.

Everything gets historically a bit squishy at the beginning of the 20th century as the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I, and finagling for influence in the region by the British and French combined to determine the fate of Armenia.  It seems the only group to have no say in the matter was the Armenians.

All of this has created a situation in which Armenians tender a sense of permanent loss — not just for this symbol of their nationality but for their historic homeland as well.  It’s said that every household in the Armenian diaspora — approximately 7 million people of the 10 million ethnic Armenians in the world today — has a picture of Mount Ararat on the walls in their home.

And, of course, the fault line of this loss is accentuated by religion: the symbol of the first Christian nation in the world is in Muslim Turkey.


Ararat from the hilltop of Khor Virap.

The victimization of Armenia finds its ultimate expression, though, in the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16.  We visited the Memorial to the Genocide of the Armenian People in the afternoon.


Armenian Genocide Memorial

1.5 million Armenians living in that part of historic Armenia controlled by the Ottoman Empire died or were killed.  How the Muslim Ottoman Turks treated the Christian Armenian minority living within their borders was discussed in Christian Europe as “the Armenian Question.”

The Armenians claim that an intentional genocidal project was carried out by the Turks under cover of the First World War.  Modern-day Turkey claims that those who died were simply the victims of the Turkish civil war that destroyed the Ottoman Empire — not unlike what some might say about the Syrian people today.

You may recall that on June 2nd of this year, the German parliament passed a resolution acknowledging the killing of the Armenians as a genocide.  This, although, three million people of Turkish descent live in Germany.

Just days before, I’d watched François Hollande and Angela Merkel commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Verdun with proclamations about French-German friendship.  I thought it was quite extraordinary, given that just over 75 years ago — a nanosecond in the grand sweep of history — Nazi Germany was occupying France.  I’d just walked on the beaches in Normandy that were the site of the beginning of France’s liberation.

Of course, no one holds Angela Merkel’s government responsible for the atrocities of Nazi Germany, but it’s part of their “dark history” as some have said.  Likewise, modern Turkey can’t be held responsible for atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire, but one wonders what is to be gained by debating or denying or otherwise not acknowledging Turkey’s historical role in the killing of the Armenian people?


Eternal Flame at the Armenian Genocide Memorial

Touring the museum at the memorial with a museum guide was sobering.  Hearing the stories.  Seeing the photographs.  In one of the more chilling moments, the guide pointed to photographs of members of the clandestine Armenian Revolutionary Federation who in the 1920s tracked down and assassinated members of the Turkish government held responsible for the genocide.  I was reminded of the movie The Debt, the story of  Mossad agents on a mission to bring a former Nazi to justice.

We had several minutes after our guided tour to wander around the complex, take photos, and contemplate what we had seen and heard.  Off to the side of the memorial, through a gap in the shrubbery, I noticed it again: Mount Ararat, looming above Armenia, making sure we never forget.


Mount Ararat from the Armenian Genocide Memorial

Postcard from Armenia: Church Lessons

The border crossing from Georgia to Armenia felt more like a marked transition than had the crossing from Azerbaijan to Georgia.  We unloaded our luggage from the bus, kissed our Georgian guide good-bye, and got our passports exit-stamped by an affable Georgian border guard.  “Travel a lot,” he opined as he flipped through the pages of my passport looking for an empty spot to place his mark.  And that’s when it started to feel like we were really crossing a border.

We dragged our luggage across a no-man’s-land on a badly maintained sidewalk in the midday sun.  There was no one to be seen, other than us poor travelers with our worldly goods of the moment in tow.  The sun beat down on our backs.  Finally, we crossed a bridge over a smallish river, a booth came into sight, and a woman was waving at us — our Armenian guide.

A new driver relieved us of our luggage, loaded it onto another bus, and we were on our way to our first destination in Armenia, the Haghpat Monastery Complex.


Haghpat Monastery Complex, Armenia

Here we had a lesson in 10th-century Armenian ecclesiastical architecture.  The Church of Surb Nishan has a large room in front of the actual sanctuary.  Not unlike the parish halls of my Episcopalian youth, it was a place for social gatherings, a sort of community center, built as an Armenian home of the time would have been, but on a grander scale: four central pillars support arches on which rests a central dome.  At the apex of the dome, an oculus let in light and allowed the smoke of warming fires below to escape.


The oculus of the Church of Surb Nishan

We were introduced to khachkars or cross-stones that are typical of Armenian churches.  This one, erected in 1273, is one of only a few such stones that depict Christ crucified rather than just a cross itself.


Khachkar in the Church of Surb Nishan

The church had features we’d seen in Georgian Orthodox churches as well: a central dome with a chandelier below it and, above the altar, a half-dome with a faded fresco of Jesus Christ.


We stopped briefly (read: toilet break) in the spa town of Dilijan, a summer watering-hole and artist colony for Armenians, nestled in the northern hills which the locals call Little Switzerland.


View from a overlook in Dilijan

Reaching Lake Sevan, we visited the 9th-century Sevan Monastery, perched on a peninsula extending into the lake.  It was once an island, but after irrigation draining in Stalin’s era, the lake dropped twenty meters, almost 66 feet, and the island became a peninsula.


Sevan Monastery

From there, we descended onto a broad plain which is home to the capital, Yerevan.  Just outside the city, we had our first view of Mount Ararat, the symbol of  Armenia now a part of its historic enemy and neighbor Turkey, and the resting place of Noah’s Ark, according to the Bible.  We would learn how significant the mountain is to the Armenian psyche in the coming days.


Mount Ararat from the highway into Yerevan

Postcard from Georgia: Some Things Old, Some Things New

As in many developing countries, Georgia’s population has urbanized disproportionately in its capital: around 40% of the country’s 3.7 million people live in Tbilisi. The city was an important trading center along a branch of the Silk Road, and the Russians made it their administrative center for the whole of the Caucasus before the creation of the separate Soviet Socialist Republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Now it’s the capital of the independent Georgian Republic.

We were staying at the Courtyard Marriott on a roundabout called Freedom Square (which is actually a circle.)  In many places overseas, these mid-range even budget sub-brands of American hotel chains are the higher end in the lodging and considerably nicer than what you’d expect in the U.S.  Such was the case here.  A gleaming, golden statue of St. George killing the dragon atop a pillar towered over the square.

It was a stone’s throw from Old Tbilisi, but with the help of some well-intended but misguided directions, group member Richard and myself managed to get lost looking for a specific Italian restaurant.  English was not so helpful here, despite our strategy of approaching young people who are more likely to be studying it for help.  Eventually the front desk of a small hotel found the address for us, wrote it on a post-it, and by showing it to people, we eventually ended up on a cozy little pedestrian street lined with restaurants with outdoor seating, and there was Prego.  Returning to the hotel was easier.

The next day, Sunday, was a full day of sightseeing, starting with a walking tour of the Old Town.

Narikala Fortress overlooking Old Tbilisi

Narikala Fortress overlooking Old Tbilisi

Sunday morning wasn’t the best time or day for visiting churches, as services were being held. Georgia is a conservative society, and national identity is still bound tightly to the Georgian Orthodox religion.  The churches we stopped by were packed with worshipers.  Loudspeakers broadcast the services in the courtyards around the churches, which were lined with people, crossing themselves at appropriate moments, the women constantly adjusting the scarves they’d thrown over their hair as required by custom.  We wandered around with our cameras.

Sioni Cathedral in Old Tbilisi

Sioni Cathedral in Old Tbilisi

Our 25-year-old guide Salomé, however, was a single mother with a four-year-old daughter and provided a spirited and refreshing counterpoint to the traditional cultural identity.

At the same time, the city prides itself on the hallmarks of its modernity, including some notable modern architecture.  We stopped for a photo op and a walk across one of them, the Bridge of Peace, which has been given a somewhat unfortunate nickname by the locals owing to its distinctive shape — The Always Bridge — after a well-known brand of sanitary napkins.

Iconic modernist structures along the Kura River

Iconic modernist structures along the Kura River, including the Bridge of Peace.

Crossing the Kura River by the Bridge of Peace

Crossing the Kura River by the Bridge of Peace

We talked throughout the day about developments in the Orlando shooting and the issues it raises. At one point, revisiting the restaurant street Richard and I had found our way to the night before, we saw a humorous sign, and I thought, if only that could be true.