Walt Whitman would be delighted with all the attention paid to him on his birthday. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if he were alive today, he’d blog more often than Neil Gaiman, post more selfies than James Franco, and have more Twitter followers than Lady Gaga. Years ago when I visited Whitman’s home in Camden, New Jersey – now a museum – then curator Margaret O’Neill told me the poet was very concerned with how he would be remembered. So much so, he spent over $4000 on a memorial tomb that he designed for himself. (By today’s standard, around a million dollars.)
I came to Whitman’s poetry late – Dead Poets Society late. But more so ten years later when I read Gary Schmidgall’s biography Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. I made a two-part radio program featuring the author and my visit to the poet’s home. Since then, his poetry has often infused my work. But to be honest, I’ve never been able to sit down and read my battered 500-page copy of his epic life’s work Leaves of Grass from beginning to end.
Watching the Eurovision Song Contest on my computer yesterday in the middle of a sunny afternoon in New Hampshire was odd. It’s the kind of live event for which people in Amsterdam and all over Europe have parties, or gather in bars to drink and scream at the television. It’s the most kitsch, gayest, pop-culture must-see TV of the year. And an audience of some 180 million people in 45 countries watched as a torch-singing bearded drag artist from Austria took home the coveted prize.
Here in the USA most people have never heard of Eurovision, or think it’s a brand of eyeglasses. And it’s hard to explain. “Like American Idol?” they ask. Um, no. I tell them it launched the careers of Abba and Celine Dion. “Like America’s Got Talent?” Nope. I try to make clear national pride is at stake, with a geopolitical element in the voting that runs parallel to the music competition. Their eyes glaze over in confusion. Not for the first time in almost thirty years of living abroad, I feel more than a little European.
In the Netherlands and Europe on May 4th the victims of World War II are commemorated with a Day of Remembrance. At the Amsterdam Homomonument a special ceremony is held to pay tribute to gay and lesbian victims of Nazi persecution, as well as those who have suffered discrimination in any form, worldwide, since the war.
In April 2000 I took a train to Sachsenhausen, a Holocaust memorial site just north of Berlin, to view an exhibition by the Schwules Museum about the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi regime. The program I made for the Radio Netherlands series Aural Tapestry was honored with the 2001 Seigenthaler Excellence in Audio Award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association in Washington DC.
I woke early this morning, as I did when a child many Christmas moons ago. Perhaps I was hoping to meet Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage-Swiper, the ninth of thirteen Yule Lads who visit in the two weeks prior to December 25, according to Icelandic tradition. He might leave a gift in your shoe, depending on whether you’ve been naughty or nice. But mostly he hides in the rafters waiting for the chance to steal one of your smoked sausages. The Yule Lads are the original Bad Boys of Christmas.
In Icelandic folklore, the criminally inclined Yule Lads were the sons of terrifying mountain trolls who feasted on children. (Merry Christmas, kiddies!) But by the early 20th century they’d evolved into mischievous pranksters – with some help from poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum, Iceland’s answer to the Brothers Grimm. I discovered the Yule Lads in the airport as I was leaving the lovely city of Reykjavik last month, after an inspiring crime fiction weekend.
On a sunny spring morning in 1985, I walked downtown to the World Trade Center and took the elevator up to the South Tower Observation Deck. I had lived in New York City for ten years. The next morning I would fly to Amsterdam and this seemed the perfect way to say good-bye… Sixteen years later, I watched the towers fall on a television screen in an eerily quiet Dutch newsroom. Within a couple of weeks I tried to put my feelings into a radio feature. A few years later, authors were doing the same in their books. The following piece was originally written in 2005.