Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Marvelous Maggie at 70

Maggie Heineman and Steve Schalchlin
Maggie and my big head.

My favorite moment of my recent visit to Philadelphia happened during a special birthday concert I was singing for my netfriend, Maggie's, 70th birthday party. It was in her living room. I was surrounded by her kids, their spouses and grandkids. Suddenly, in the middle of it all, I looked at the grandkids and said, "By the way, did you know that your grandmother taught me how to use the Internet by bringing a major American corporation to its knees?"

They all looked at me like I was crazy.

Her children looked at me like I was crazy. Our mother?? The grandkids looked me. Our grandmother?? Our sweet mother/grandmother who goes bike riding everyday??


One of her daughters said, "I never heard this. What are you talking about?"

And I told him how Chrysler Corporation, at one of their plants, had done something -- I've already forgotten all the details, but it had to do with violating, or refusing to deal with fairness for gay and lesbian employees; anyway, Maggie used the Internet by creating a website that made it look like the wrath of the entire gay world was about to come down on their heads and sent them the link.

And they changed their policy.

And that's when I knew the Internet was the most powerful form of personal communication device ever put into the hands of a single human being. I had already, by then, begun my online diary and Maggie was a friend I had made through the PFLAG email list. But it was her example, scaring the bejesus out of a bunch of clueless executives who knew nothing about the web (because no one knew anything about the web back then), that I realized that in a world where, previously, one had to have millions of dollars to communicate with large numbers of people, the Internet was the most democratic and powerful tool a single human being could wield if that person was creative enough to figure it out.

At that point, I wrote Maggie a note and said, "I am officially adopting you into my family. You are my teacher."

Actually, in real life, Maggie is a modest and kind person with a huge heart and quick and creative mind that never stops working. She's endlessly curious and never fails to seek new ways to improve her life and the lives of the people around her. Since those heady days of Internet activism, she has, with her husband, "retired" to a community of adults where she bikes 100 miles a day, is active on about 10 committees, and god knows what else.

When she first asked if we were going to be near for her 70th birthday party, I thought we might be in New York within spitting distance of Philadelphia, but since we weren't, I used the last of my frequent flier miles a couple of weekends ago and I flew to be there.

I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Her daughter, Sue, is a bassoonist with the National orchestra in Washington DC. Her daughter Elizabeth is a scholar who has written a book about the lives of women in postwar Germany called What Difference Does a Husband Make? Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany (Studies on the History of Society and Culture). Elizabeth's son, Josh, is the creative genius behind Notorious Studios, the flash animation site I wrote about last week. (He's only 15 -- that was the secret I was saving until now.) Josh's other mother is Johanna, but she couldn't be there. Johanna is "somewhat famous." She made waves with her research - here's a Newsweek article about it. Son Jim is a city planner.

At dinner, the topic of discussion was some regarding some theological and philosophical discussion between two leading figures in the 16th century.

I guess saying "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" would be an understatement. I told them when I get together with my family, we usually all eat until we pass out and the only topic that ever comes up is whether the Cowboys are gonna beat the Redskins this year.

I felt dwarfed in the presence of these people.

The weekend began with a brief visit with my friends, the Landaus, who Jimmy and I met on one of our cruises. Jimmy, Bart and Barbara have become very close over the past several years.

It was nice to spend a little one on one time with them. Like myself, Barbara has had her share of health struggles and we kind of have a little kinship. To say I love this woman would be an understatement. On Saturday morning, they drove me over to the Philadelphia Art Museum on their way to Atlantic City. Bart and I got out of the car and posed with the Rocky statue (of course).

Bart Landau and Steve Schalchlin with the Rocky Balboa statue
Just as they were pulling out, I reached back into my pocket and my wallet was gone. And they were off to Atlantic City! How would I get back on the plane to get home? Panic-stricken, I looked back over to the curb and they were JUST taking off. I ran like crazy and flagged them down. They were gracious enough to make the trip all the way back to their house for me. (10 minutes after dropping me off a second time, my phone rang and it was Jimmy. Bart had called him and they had all had a good laugh at my expense, of course.)

Philadelphia Art Museum

Meeting up with Maggie and Herb and several of the others, we joined a tour in progress of the French Impressionists. It was very educational. They even let you take photos inside, which is very cool.
Herb Heineman
Herb is singled out

The next day, Maggie scheduled a tour of a local cranberry farm. We piled into a bus (dragging a comatose Josh out of bed; clearly not a morning person) and took the tour. The lady conducting the tour was fascinating. She told us that here in the New Jersey pines are a group of people called the "pineys" who are ridiculed by outsiders as being rather backward and retarded, and who are, therefore, suspicious of outsiders. She said she was a piney and even kept her last name after she married because her husband's family didn't go back as many generations as she did. She told us she was descended from the American Indians (though she was whiter than I was) and that they were all descendents of one of Noah's sons (Japeth, I think).

She explained, "Ham went to Africa, Shem went to Europe and Japeth to Asia where they crossed the ocean and became Native Americans." I thought, "How sweet, to get the mythology of the area."

She took us through the farm past the old buildings that, at the turn of the century, housed the immigrants that would farm seasonally, and then to the vast cranberry fields which are harvested semi-annually.

Cranberry fields

Cranberry fields
Cranberry fields forever.

These are the three harvesting machines. They are guided by geo-positioning satellites. Each one shakes the cranberry bushes below, alternately, until they all rise to the top of the flooded fields. They are carefully flooded during the winter to keep them from freezing. Our guide, who is part owner, is also an expert on insects. She analyzes which insects are in any given area of a field and then, using a computer, they spray insecticide very carefully only where it's needed. It was all very technical and scientifically advanced.

Cranberry fieldsAt one point in the tour, we saw a turkey buzzard. One of the guests asked if it was true that they were around millions of years ago with the dinosaurs.

The guide quickly shot back, "That depends on which science you believe in. We believe the earth is only 6000 years old, so they were around with the dinosaurs, but not millions of years ago."

That's when I realized she wasn't kidding about Noah and his three sons repopulating the earth. When she said she was descended from the Indians who were the sons of Japeth, she meant it. Ah, those pineys.

Cranberry fieldsAt the end of the tour, they played a video on the drop-down screens in the van called "Red" that was a song praising the values of the "red states." And I realized we had just gotten an advertisement to vote Republican. Ah, those pineys.

Back at the ranch--er, home, we relaxed for the afternoon.

reading and restingHad a wonderful meal:

dinnerPlayed with the kids:





Josh of the brilliant Notorious Studios


That night, I sang my concert, inviting Maggie to request any song she wanted to hear. The big hit was "Cool By Default." The next day was the big celebration. We all went to the community center for the big concert featuring a pianist, a soprano and daughter Sue on bassoon. Everyone in the area was invited.


Sue Heineman on bassoon
Sue Heineman on bassoon

Then, they brought Maggie and Herb up, where they danced a dance and we all sang a birthday song for her. (Not, thankfully, "Happy birthday." It was something else.)

Herb & Maggie Heineman
Herb & Maggie Heineman

It felt a bit weird to be the outsider at someone else's family reunion, but I also felt honored to have been asked. Maggie, as I said earlier, is an inspiration to me. She's an important figure in early online activism for GLBT people, and she has been, more than anything else, a steadfast friend.

Happy birthday, Maggie. You are well loved.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Steve, regarding the Pineys of New Jersey. They may be "Red" but they're also well known for their homebrew "crank" aka "crystal meth", i.e. speed. The pine barrens are home to some of the biggest manufacturer/dealers of the killer drug in the nation.

And they may be "Red" but remember that they live in what is arguably the Bluest of the Blue States, New Jersey (an opinion which could change this afternoon at 3:00 p.m. when the NJ Supreme Court finally hands down it's long-awaited decision on gay marriage in The Garden State -- stay tuned for more).