Monday, September 28, 2015

Slut (Affectionately, of Course)

Sometimes my job as an editor gets a little personal. For instance, one phrase I detest is "start a family," when what's meant is "start to have children." Whenever I come across "They wanted to start a family," I either change it to something like "They wanted to have kids" or, if the wording doesn't fit with the tone or I have reason to think the writer could stand to be educated, I'll tell him or her that two people in a relationship are a family—and saying they aren't until they start reproducing devalues not only them but other couples who don't have offspring. So can we please come up with another way of saying this?

Last week, I was copyediting an article—that is, doing a second read after the assigning editor had done the main job. And also after our boss had read it, come to think of it, so two people had signed off on it before me. It was a somewhat irreverent piece about a hairdresser who happens to be openly gay. At one point, the author says the guy "goes through men like Kleenex," according to his gaggle of loyal female customers. 

I first queried the editor, saying I found that phrase unnecessarily judgmental. "So he sleeps around or has lots of boyfriends or whatever," I said. "Does this mean he 'disposes' of them? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. Does [the author]—or these women?"

The editor said to ask the writer, which, because she's normally very opinionated and hadn't hesitated to address my other queries about the article, I took to mean either she thought it was a good question but wanted the author to come up with the actual rewording or she considered it a dumb, nitpicky question she didn't have the patience to address. So I asked the author, using pretty much the same words I'd used with my colleague.

The writer replied: "This was actually one of the milder descriptions. Someone else used the term 'slut,' affectionately of course—and just during my time with him, I was on hand to see one relationship go from prepping for third date (the sex date, he reminded me) to crazy love to kaput. But maybe something like: 'His clients say you need a program to keep up with his love life.' "

I forwarded that note to the editor, and since she'd been noncommittal before, I underscored my concern (just in case she was considering leaving it as is): "I still strongly feel—no matter what the women said—that it seems gratuitously judgmental to use the 'like Kleenex' line. So I favor the rewrite, or something like it. If it were a quote, I actually would have no problem, because then it would be specifically attributed to one catty person, but 'his clients say' he goes through them like Kleenex? That's a very specific simile attached to a not-at-all specific group of people."

We decided to change it, with the tweak of "you need a flow chart to keep up with his love life"—my idea since we agreed that "program" was a vague, bland word. I was fine with a vivid description of his love life—it was the shaming attitude that was uncalled for, and downright annoying. 

Do I think many straight people (which my colleague and the writer, a freelancer, are) are often clueless and Puritanical in their perception of casual sex, particularly among gay men? Yes, I do.

Weekend, a really beautiful movie not
unrelated to the subject at hand.

I'm sensitive to this subject because during a particular period in my life when I was single, I had a lot of sex with a lot of men I met online. Sometimes now when I can't fall asleep, instead of counting sheep, I'll count the number of guys I hooked up with between 2003 and 2007. I always come up with a slightly different total, which is what makes it challenging—kind of like a sexual Sudoku. The number is less than my age today, but that's all I'll say. 

I'm determined to settle it definitively one of these days, but for now it varies: In one tally, I'll forget the silver daddy with the pierced navel ("a reminder to keep my belly in shape"), or the guy who lived over the coffee shop I got together with after Thanksgiving dinner with my family, or the very first guy I met on the first night after my ex and I definitively broke up—the liberating encounter that started it all. 

They were almost all, each of them, lovely: courteous, warm, considerate, affectionate men—whether, as in most cases, I never saw them again or, as in others, we had a few assignations. Nothing degrading or dangerous happened once. (Lucky? Maybe. But the majority of people are, I found, basically decent.) 

So yeah, I was having tons of sex. Would that make me a "slut" in the eyes of some skinny horse-country lady with straw-colored hair extensions? Probably. And what about my two coworkers (one female, one male, both straight) who read the hairdresser article before me and didn't pause at the extraneous and irrelevant characterization of a gay man as someone who supposedly treated his sex partners like "Kleenex," based on nothing other than the mostly anecdotal evidence that he had many of them?

I think they'd consider me a slut, too. So I spoke up for all of us. 

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Friday Morning Coming Down

This past Thursday at work, we had an all-staff lunch meeting—nothing fancy, just burrito fixins ordered in from Chipotle, an opportunity to celebrate the issue just completed, our biggest in terms of pages (which means in terms of ads, which is good for all of us) since 1989. The publisher thanked the ad "team," the design "team," and certain individuals who had made it all happen, particularly the guy who oversaw the cover package. He has been there about two years and has worked with me closely, which is to say I clean up after him and make him look good. Nice guy—we could be friends if our work relationship weren't so respectful-but-fraught.

At the lunch meeting, in front of the entire staff of about 50 people, he said his own thanks to those who had supported him this month and made his job easier, including "Billy Kristofferson, who proofread everything, caught all my mistakes, and was here till 10 o'clock last night."

All true. Except my name isn't Kristofferson. It has the same number of syllables as Kristofferson and ends in the same letter, but that's the extent of the similarities. 

For a second I honestly thought he was talking about some freelancer I'd never heard of. But I would have known if we'd hired a freelance proofreader. Because it would be part of my job to do so. In the next second, I realized, no, he meant me. But owing to a fair amount of ambient noise, I wasn't sure I'd heard right. So afterward, I e-mailed a colleague who has known me for a long time. I said, "Am I going crazy or did P. refer to  me as Billy Kristofferson at the meeting?" She said, "No, you're not crazy! Until you mentioned it, I had NO idea who he was talking about!"

For a long time I've been feeing pretty invisible at work, like the guy everyone relies on but no one really sees. Finally I get a little recognition and I'm still invisible! The majority of the staff, who do not work with me directly because they're not in my department, no doubt thought he was talking about some other crackerjack proofreader. (By the way, my job, which contains the word "senior" in its title just as his does, even though he's worked there 14 years less than I have, entails much more than prooofreading.)

I decided to let it go and chalk it up to nervousness on his part (who likes public speaking?), but that night it really started to bug me. Kristofferson? WTF? I send him probably a dozen e-mails a week that have my signature on them. And why did he even use a last name in the first place? I'm the only Billy in the office! If he'd simply said, "I'd like to thank Billy for his help . . . " there'd have been no confusion whatsoever. I felt really, really insulted. 

By Friday morning, I'd resolved to say something to him, not in a threatening or accusatory way, just kind of like "Hey, did you realize . . . ?" But not long after I got to work, I had reason to be in his office to talk about an unrelated matter, and I immediately realized I couldn't bring it up without sounding utterly petty and completely embarrassing him. He's a decent guy and I couldn't see the point. I had to suck it up and get over it.

Last night I had dinner with an old friend, a gay guy, and was telling him about this incident. His theory was that my coworker with the apparent Kris Kristofferson fixation—a coworker who is straight, as it happens—was subconsciously distancing himself frome me by assigning me the wrong name, both because I'm gay and because I had saved his ass by mopping up after him on this project and he may be uncomfortable with both. 

"And you know," my dinner companion said, " 'Me and Bobby McGee' is a very intimate song."

I take this with a grain of salt—my coworker has always seemed gay-friendly and in fact has a a gay brother, though of course that does nothing to disprove any deep-seated unease—but I also love it as theories go, and it made me feel better. There could even be some truth to it.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Catch the Wind

My mother did so well in hospice care that she was "discharged" after three months, in June. The real game-changer was the 24-hour aides we hired to supplement hospice, at the recommendation of the palliative-care doctor when she was hospitalized in March. Perhaps more important, these wonderful, loving, professional, and creative women complement the often overtaxed staff of the memory-care unit in her assistant-living facility. As a result, she is always clean, well fed, stimulated or rested as appropriate, and much more alert in general.

Strange to say about a 95-year-old with advanced dementia, but at times I almost forget she has dementia, because the connetion—in her eyes, in her smile, in her gestures—is so much more acute and deep than it has been in, well, years. She still doesn't speak, really, and she certainly doesn't show any sign that she knows I'm her "son," per se, someone named "Billy." But she knows me—has never stopped knowing me, actually, even when she was most out of it—and when I speak she seems to hear, even if I'll never know how her mind processes what I say to her. 

It's an ineffable feeling that a veil has been lifted, not permanently but for now—she was not ready to say goodbye, it seems—a veil that has partially occluded her vision for some time.

I hold her hand and we listen to music on my phone, lately the '60s folk channel on Pandora—Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, songs she once knew from the secular-inflected folk Masses my family attended. I also sometimes play '70s light rock—Linda Ronstadt, CSNY, Fleetwood Mac, the stuff that filled her house when her kids took over the stereo. All that is in her too, because she's more than big bands and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, and more than classical, which she undeniably loved and which plays on the radio in her room most of the time when I'm not around. She's a fabric with many threads, a suite with many changes.

(And happy birthday, Dad.)

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Last 15 Years

by Billy Collins

As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.

Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.

And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.

In memory of Patsy, who passed away May 8, 2015, age 17 or 18

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Way You've Changed My Life

Today I spent several hours with my 95-year-old mother, who has been in hospice care for a
Mom and I doing some leg lifts last summer.
little over a week. We don't know how long she has, but as D. once so aptly said about my father in the weeks before he passed away, she's winding down. 

Ten days ago, as her frail yet strangely resilient and willful body was jostled onto a stretcher (with great care but jostled nonetheless) for the trip from the hospital back to her assisted-living facility—where we would initiate hospice and 24-hour aides—I thought: You'll never have to go anywhere again. This was good news for her, but it made me sad.

These are the words that came out of my mouth to D. yesterday: "She was my first friend, my first love, and my first ally." 

The person I am today is more due to her than anyone else in the world.

This afternoon, as my sister dashed home to attend to some pastries rising in her kitchen and the aide stepped out for a break, I held hands with Mom—lying in her bed, her feet lightly moving under the sheet—while a CD of old musical numbers played. This song filled the silence like a chest expanding:

The way you wear your hat.
The way you sip your tea.
The memory of all that—
No, no, they can't take that away from me.

The way your smile just beams.
The way you sing off-key.
The way you haunt my dreams.
No, no, they can't take that away from me.

We may never, never meet again
On that bumpy road to love
Still I'll always,
Always keep the memory of . . .

The way you hold your knife.
The way we danced until three.
The way you've changed my life.
No, no - they can't take that away from me.
No, they can't take that away from me. 

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Monday, February 02, 2015

Drop Me a Line Sometime

I started teaching a new essay workshop a few weeks ago. My pace is down to about one class a year now, whereas I used to do three or four (each is eight weeks long, two and a half hours at a pop, which wears me out, on top of my day job, more than it once did). Last month marked my 22nd anniversary teaching at this creative-writing center for adults. 

I started taking workshops there myself in 1984, a year out of college, in my first professional job, feeling creatively antsy and looking to revive—or get guidance for—an interest in creative writing that had gone dormant after a bad experience during my first semester of college, when I was made to feel discouraged about my nascent talent by a grumpy old professor. I majored in German and wrote virtually nothing for five years. 

When I began taking workshops at the place where I now teach, I was amazed at the power of encouragement—I went from a column-writing class to a workshop called Autobiography as Fiction and Nonfiction to my first real attempt at fiction (I considered fleeing the room but mentally bolted myself to the chair) to more fiction and more fiction and more fiction (I couldn't believe I could actually do this!) to applying to MFA programs to quitting my job and devoting two and a half years to getting my master's in fiction writing and, all that time, swimming in the amazing soul-building pool of encouragement: encouragement of the pursuit of writing, the idea that it was worth devoting time to. Not the kind of encouragement that meant people said only nice things to me about my very imperfect drafts. 

The belief that to teach writing is to encourage writing has guided me since I taught my first fiction workshop to undergrads at my grad-school alma mater in 1990 and then—after gravitating back to nonfiction in my own work (almost immediately upon getting my MFA in fiction!)—when I started teaching the personal essay in 1993.

If you had told me 27 years ago, in the first year of my master's program, that all this time later I'd still be struggling with the up-and-down effort to integrate writing into my life, I'd have been, well . . . a little discouraged. In those days, surrounded every day by equally eager, literary-journal-submitting friends, I envisioned myself someday as an author, regularly publishing short stories, perhaps with a collection or two under my belt. 

If "regularly" can be understood to mean "occasionally, with wide gaps in between," then I am indeed a published writer, and proud of what I've managed to shepherd into print. But I long ago realized that I'm unlikely ever to write a book. (I'm not putting myself down, and yeah, I know, never say never. I get it.) Publishing a book requires a certain kind of motivation and doggedness, just in the writing, let alone in the right-hand-on-red, left-foot-on-yellow, right-butt-cheek-on-blue Twister game of finding an agent and publisher and then promoting the thing. It takes a particular sort of person with a particular sort of life and vision, and I'm not that guy. (Shhh, don't ever tell the 26-year-old me.)

What I have succeeded in doing, and thriving in, for 22 years is being a teacher. It's stunning to remind myself that I have taught literally hundreds of people better ways to tell their stories. Many of them return to my classroom multiple times—the number is still in the hundreds even if you count those folks only once. I've forged connections among the various professional and personal areas of my life and enjoyed minimal degrees of separation from other interesting lives both modest and distinguished.

My current class of 11 includes four repeat students. One of those was a young intern at my day job 15 years ago; he's now a married father of two. A young woman, herself the mother of a three-year-old, was one of my students when I taught a class in literary journalism a decade ago at the university where I'd gotten my MFA. A student closer to my age has a teenage daughter who received a heart transplant at age three, a subject her mom wrote about in a previous workshop; several years ago, the daughter wrote an essay about meeting her donor family that I edited and published in the magazine I work for. Another student is the wife of a man who started in the graduate writing program with me in 1987; I remember meeting his baby daughter at an MFA event—she's 28 now.

One 74-year-old man in my class is the son of a famous classical musician. I get a kick out of my indirect connection to the kind of prominence I neither aspire toward nor will ever achieve. In my early years, I taught the wife of a well-known journalist. Teddy Roosevelt's great-granddaughter has been under my tutelage. A few years ago, John McPhee's sister-in-law took my class. Many students have gone on to publish books. My name appears on some very impressive acknowledgments pages! Am I now in the habit of turning first to the acknowledgments page of pretty much any book I pick up? Yes!

It's satisfying to help others tell their stories, to cheer them on in the undertaking with which I myself have had a love/hate relationship nearly my entire adult life. Writing, to me, is like a member of the family. (Not, in this case, a famous member.) Loved and loving, irritating and insistent, a source of both puzzlement and expectations, someone to whom I'll always be bound, whom I can never see enough of and from whom I sometimes can never get sufficient distance. 

I may not keep up the correspondence to his satisfaction, but he keeps writing to me.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Fall Descends

They say everything can be replaced,
Yet every distance is not near.
So I remember every face 
Of every man who put me here. . . . .
Last month, I went to a memorial service for a woman I met 27 years ago, when she was the administrator of the graduate writing program I was in—the very first person I met on the very first day—and whom I last saw in 2003. 

At the outdoor service in Rock Creek Park, we were led in sing-alongs of a few of T's favorite songs—"Blowin' in the Wind," "I Shall Be Released," "Forever Young." Lovely and moving, and some of my favorites, too. The only problem was I found myself singing Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Blowin' in the Wind," Bette Midler's "I Shall Be Released," and Joan Baez's "Forever Young" while the song leader, the printed lyrics, and the rest of the obedient crowd followed Dylan's locutions and beats. 

See, I like Bob Dylan's songs a lot more than I like Bob Dylan's singing—and the renditions that came out of my mouth were the ones that have resided in my head (and music collection) for years.

T. might have appreciated that story. She had a wry (occasionally caustic) sense of humor, a big laugh, and a welcoming manner. It helped that she seemed to like me. A lot of people probably had the same thought (that she liked them, I mean, not me). She managed to pull off a rare, felicitous blending of "get over yourself" and "how can I help?"

That was more or less the gist of all the speakers' reminiscences at the memorial, and I would have joined in with my own if the open period for stories had lasted longer. But almost all the speakers seemed to be designated as such, even those who weren't officially listed in the program. Then it was over. 

It's probably just as well I didn't come forward because I couldn't have said much more than the general, abstract characterization of her I've given here.

Other than my affection for T., my memories of how well she ran the office and supported people like me (a somewhat nervous 26-year-old returning to school after four years away), a memory of one dinner party at her house a few years later, and another at my apartment long after grad school (the last time I saw her, in fact)—coupled with my regret at having fallen out of touch over the last 11 years—I have virtually no specific memories of her at all, in the sense of stories, particular times she did this and I said that and she came back with this bon mot. Nothing.

She's not the only person I could say this about—I who, according to some, have such an amazing memory. (I just happen to remember different things than they do.) More often than not, what I retain are the little things, inconsequential details: music that was playing, food people "et" (to quote the pronunciation of the British actress reading the British book I'm listening to), what grade I was in when a particular movie came out (sometimes when I never even saw the movie—I can often remember what grade I was in when the stars appeared on Merv Griffin or Dinah Shore.)

I wish I could call up more interactions with those people who may not have been major players in my life but affected me nevertheless. Who in sometimes small, daily ways made me feel valued, respected, interested, engaged, inspired to return the favor of their ways.

"Fall Descends on Rock Creek Park" by Matthew Lehner

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