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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Monday, October 27, 2014

That Night

My first thought was "Now I've done it. I've finally done it." 

It was similar to the feeling I had at age 16 when I totaled the family car while making a right turn on red. That time, despite having crushed my parents' Vega to half its size, I was able to walk away uninjured ("Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" people were screaming.) This time, I could only acquiesce.

My second thought was "I have no idea what happened, but I appear to be in extremely competent hands." 

I remember the flashing lights of an ambulance and many hands on me and being on a stretcher, but I'm not entirely sure which of those memories took place on the street, which were in the ambulance, and which were of being unloaded at the emergency room. As things started to come together more, I knew I was in the ER.

By this time, I must have figured out I'd been in a bicycle accident. The last thing I remembered—as "memory" itself haltingly reformed—was leaving the office with my bike, walking it across L Street, and turning onto the bicycle lane. Or maybe it came back to me later. But that's the extent of the events preceding the accident that ever have come back.

I remember having a neck brace put on me and being reassured by someone that it was just a precaution, that I didn't appear to have a spinal injury. I was asked if there was someone they could call. I don't remember saying the words, but I apparently came up with my brother's land line, a number he'd had for more than 20 years (and that he's since changed; I do not know his new number by heart).

At some point, as medical personnel started stopping by, I found out I'd fractured my right elbow (I always say "fractured" instead of "broke" because that was the word first used in my presence), knocked out a tooth and maybe damaged more, and cut up my face. 

An ENT (again, who introduced himself as such, so I'll never forget his specialty) stitched up my face—two gashes around my right eye, one on my upper lip where a tooth or teeth went through. I'd never had stitches before (at age 52, never been treated in an ER, never spent a single night as a patient in a hospital). The sensationless sensation of thread being pulled through tissue and tugged was new to me; at the same time, it reminded me of numbed dental work—that impression of major construction going on not quite here but in a room next door, the mysterious vibrations and structural manipulations of space felt all too viscerally.

My brother arrived in the emergency room and told me D was on his way. I was calm (drugged), probably apologetic, definitely immobile, and appreciative of what felt like order around me. 

I'd be spending the night (no kidding), and we were waiting for a room.

My brother manned iPhone central at the foot of my bed in the ER, communicating with our sisters and with his wife. At some point, D arrived, smiling, tender. My brother, D, and me—the trio who'd been with my father when he'd died at age 92 a year and a half before. This was the first time just the three of us were together since that day in July 2012, though I wasn't thinking that then. (I'm thinking it now.)

My injured right arm rested painless and immobile in a splint or brace across my chest. At some point, I met the orthopedist who would operate the next day. A young guy in his thirties, as young as my regular doctor, whom I'd seen just a few days before for a checkup at which all was well.

All evening long, I listened to gentle information and was ministered to—my first experience with the utter surrender of control entailed in the receipt of trauma care. Somewhere down deep, grief and sadness awaited their entrance, as did patience and fortitude, Sharks and Jets on opposite wings. But for now, the only thing required of me was to wait.

Later that night, when I was settled (oddly content) in my hospital room and my brother and D had left for the night, I was near-dozing when another doctor came into the darkened space—a dentist (dental surgeon, it turned out), closer to my age than the young orthopedist. He was nice, had grown up in Washington like me, and we talked about the high schools we'd gone to. All evening at the hospital, despite having no idea what had happened to me on the bike lane, I'd been able to converse relatively lucidly with anyone who came up to my bed.

He touched my shoulder in a comforting way. He examined my mouth and told me a tooth next to the one that had been knocked out was compromised and would have to come out as well. I thought he was referring to an upcoming procedure, but he started jiggling the tooth right then with his bare hand. I said, "You're going to pull it out now?" Saying it was already crumbing in his fingers, he tugged, as if removing a splinter, and it was out, leaving the root behind.

He said, "We'll take care of you." Then he touched my shoulder again and said goodnight.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Flame

Last night before bed, I picked up a guttering votive candle on the coffee table to blow it out and practically fused my fingertips to it, it was so hot. The remnant of wick, flaming out of proportion to its size, had migrated to the edge of the liquid wax and was leaning against the blackened glass like a hepped-up thug smoking in an alley. 

I'd had no idea how hot it was and spent the next 30 minutes with my fingertips submerged in a bowl of ice water (“You’re soaking in it”). As a result, I wasn’t able to indulge in the nightly bedtime ritual I’ve come to look forward to for practically the entire day: puzzling through a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday New York Times crossword. The day of the week is important because the crosswords get harder as the week progresses and Monday through Wednesday are just too easy to be fun—or relaxing. 

Strangely, I can't think of a more relaxing way to end the day. These are sometimes puzzles I've been working on for a week or two. Staring at the same spot over and over, mentally trying out each letter of the alphabet on an incomplete syllable ("--bow, --cow, --dow, --eow . . . ?), straining to remember the name of an Ingrid Bergman character in a movie I've never actually seen (so much of cultural literacy is hearsay)—these are not frustrating practices for me but meditative.

Anyway, I couldn't do it last night because the fingers of my writing hand were burned. So instead I watched Charlie Rose interview Martin Amis, who as it happens is the stepson of Elizabeth Jane Howard, the author of the book I'm currently listening to, Confusion (the third novel in the Cazelet Chronicles). Both his latest book and the one by Howard are set during World War II—his a Holocaust novel, hers about an upper-class English family whose staid propriety gradually, through each book in the series, succumbs to cracks and reveals turmoil, uncertainty, betrayals and, in the case of one or two characters, unerring goodness. 

I've never read anything by Amis, but maybe I should, if only to honor this minor coincidence triggered by a singeing of my fingers that for one night kept me from digging up words.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Making Sense

As I walked my dog yesterday, a guy called to me from across the street, "Excuse me, may I ask: Is your dog walking that way because he just got fixed?"

I said, "It's a she. And she's walking that way because she's 17."

That way is haltingly, slowly, crookedly, seemingly a little drunk. Often I have to boost her hind quarters at a curb, sometimes even use an improvised (vet-recommended) "sling" on her back end, fashioned from a cloth grocery-store bag with the sides cut out. I carry her up and down the stairs.

The other day, someone asked "Is your dog okay?" 

I said, "She's old." 

As if I would would be blithely walking her, oblivious to some problem that made her "not okay," waiting for a passer-by to point it out.

"What's the matter with his legs?" is a very common question. 

"It's a she," I say, again. "And she's really old." (It honestly seems not to have occurred to the majority of the public that there's the same proportion of female dogs as there are female humans. How about starting out with something like "Oh, how cute—is it a boy or a girl?")

One guy who asked the legs question walked on, then stopped, stood stock-still, and stared back halfway down the block as I lifted her up from a pooping position—the look on his face not sympathetic but almost suspicious. 

I said, "Is something wrong?" He shook his head and walked on.

She has had a rough summer, with a sudden lameness in her back legs coming on in mid-June—she couldn't move at all on her own. On more than one occasion, she has seemed to be near the end, but now she's on excellent medication in the right dose for the pain caused by arthritis and a slipped disk in her spine (which is healable, and in fact healing, so there actually is a point to it) and is walking again, and while she has bad days when maybe her stomach is bothering her and she doesn't have a lot of energy (she takes Pepcid and a probiotic every day for her tummy) or when the heat is so oppressive that walking is the last thing she wants to do, she still usually enjoys sniffing around outside, eating her 97-percent-lean ground beef served to her by her 97-percent-vegan dad (she won't eat canned food anymore), snoozing on the couch, cuddling up in bed, and fully being just a very old dog. 

It is hard to imagine a world without Patsy—and I've said goodbye to three dogs as an adult, so this is not a new experience for me. Putting her down this summer, had it come to that, would have felt very abrupt and uncertain. Now when the time comes, as wrenching as it will be, I think I (and her other dad, my ex) will more confidently feel it's the right time because we did all we could. And I'm glad we did.

A vet has mentioned the word "dementia," and Patsy does sometimes walk into a corner of the room, uncertain what to do or how to get out of it. I know dementia. I pick her up and turn her around.

Amid all the "How old is he?" and "What's his name?" and "Why does he walk funny?" —she's not a he, people, really!—there were two encounters.

As I walked along with the sling supporting Patsy's back legs, a man stopped and said, "That's beautiful." 

Thinking he might have been talking about her beauty (she is beautiful, in her kooky, scrappy way), I said, "What's beautiful?" 

He clarified: "Just that. So many animals aren't loved."

Another day, a woman who had just parked her car toddled over to give Patsy a pat and a hug. "I had to put down my dog a few weeks ago," she said, smiling.

"So you recognize that stage of life, huh?" 

Yes, she said. 

It made perfect sense.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Window Dressing

Last night I dealt with writer’s block by shopping online—an undertaking of questionable equivalency. Nevertheless.

I got some fairly pricey men’s skin-care products: Body wash because I considered going for a swim last night at the '60s-era public-school pool with a '60s-era unequipped shower but I was out of portable soap, so guess what—I didn’t go swimming! (Though I did run.) And facial scrub because I’m starting to pamper myself more in that area. (I turn 53 a month from today.) I justified the expense of these non-sale items by finding a $30 summer fedora for only $9 to add to my hat collection (Lord & Taylor has great discounts on top of discounts on top of sales) and a crinkly, long linen-blend scarf ($44 reduced to something like $13). This last one is new for me, as I’m only a winter-scarf man like, I think, most men. But at this price, what did I have to lose? Given that the “beauty products” I got qualified for free shipping, I made out pretty well, even though it’s all filler for the real stuff swirling around in my head awaiting expression. (Yeah, I know, that's happening now.)

About the scarf: The slight do-I-dare aspect dates back more than 30 years to my junior year abroad, where German men wrapped long flowered gauze scarves around their necks year-round, even in summer, no jacket required. It was kind of hippyish, vaguely sexy, and cool. Some American guys I knew adopted the look, too.

Oh, the hesitation that has followed me through the years—I've written about it a lot. I even mentioned those German scarves in an essay I published a decade ago about my pierced ears. And about a year ago, I added a tattoo essay to my oeuvre. Life is short, I remember telling myself as I headed to one establishment. Progress.

The scarf I bought is nothing radical—not even much like the German ones, which had a distinct  femininity about them. On a very masculine guy (I'm thinking of a particularly hirsute friend back then), it was a mysterious, androgynous counterpoint. Mine will either look good on me or it won't. 

I just noticed that twice in a row now I've written about body decoration and clothing. Surfaces. It's a start.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

One of the Free

Christopher Isherwood
The other day I started listening to an audiobook of Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood

Two recent events had put Isherwood at the top of my to-do list (well, three if I go back to last summer when my pal the Total Femme told me of her fondness for his writing; four if I go back to maybe a year and a half ago when D. and I watched Chris & Don: A Love Story, a documentary about Isherwood and his lover Don Bacardi). A couple of months ago, I watched Cabaret for the first time since college and was even more impressed than I was 30 years before (which was a lot). And just last week I finished listening to all nine of Armistead Maupin's terrific Tales of the City books—the original six plus the more recent trilogy he added on in this decade, beginning with 2007's Michael Tolliver Lives

I actually read Michael Tolliver a few years ago in book form and enjoyed it. This year when I was recovering from a detached retina and joined Audible.com, the first audiobook I bought was the follow-up to that one: Mary Ann in Autumn (2010). I went on to the final one, The Days of Anna Madrigal (2014), then circled back to the very first of the original six, which I'm embarrassed to say I'd never read. By the time I reached the end of those, I had to buy the audio version of Michael Tolliver and listen to what I'd already read on paper, because I now had all the characters' histories in my head that I didn't have the first time around.

At the end of that audiobook is an interview with Maupin in which he states his reverence for Christopher Isherwood (who of course lived openly as a gay man decades before it was widely acceptable), "a charming man who lived totally in the moment . . . . There's not a day that goes by that he doesn't inspire me in some way."

In Christopher and His Kind—a memoir in which Isherwood refers to his younger self as Christopher and uses "I" when looking back from his later vantage point—Isherwood writes of a German lover, Bubi, when he was first living in Berlin in 1929:

When Christopher left for London, Bubi pulled a cheap gold-plated chain bracelet out of his pocket—probably an unwanted gift from some admirer—and fastened it around Christopher's wrist. This delighted Christopher, not only as a love token but also as a badge of his liberation; he still regarded the wearing of jewelry by men as a daring act, and this would be a constant reminder to him that he was now one of the free.

Today as I type, I wear a rather substantial ring on the middle finger of each hand: on my right, a silver signet with my father's initials, of no great value (he didn't even wear it himself) but one he passed on to me years ago, before any of my fingers was even fat enough to fill it; on my left, a midcentury-style ring (or so it was described in the Provincetown shop where I bought it on New Year's Day 2013, having had my eye on it for five years), also silver, with a disk of green onyx surrounded by a thin gold rim—now nicked up from my bike accident six months ago, making it all the more beautiful to me. Hanging from my neck are two small silver baubles on separate chains. Until the accident, I had the thinnest of silver hoops through my right ear, a shiny parenthesis glancing my lobe; they took it out in the hospital and I never got it back. I have a small drawer full of pinkie rings, pendants, bracelets, chains, and more earrings (none of which I like as well as the one I lost). 

For a few years in the '90s, I wore studs in both my ears. It's incredible to me, looking back, that I could have been so bold—I who never had even one ear pierced till I was in my thirties. A student of mine once wrote a description of the writing workshop I taught; I was the unnamed teacher with "a diamond stud in his ear." (A diamond? I don't think so. Calling it cubic zirconium would have been a compliment.) The fact that that was the detail she seemed to notice most about me—the shorthand that sketched me for the world—was flattering and surprising.

I was always envious of my sisters' charm bracelets, jiggling parades marching around their wrists: trinkets, commemorations, gifts, pretty little things. Today I see men—straight and gay—wearing bracelets and wish I could pull that look off. I have as many of the things as Cleopatra but always give up. The rigid bands clink against the desk as I work and get in the way; the link bracelets fall down my skinny arms and halfway over my hands. 

Last month in Provincetown, I wanted to buy one of the tiniest ear studs I'd ever seen—a mere period without a sentence. It was on display with some other "singles" in a window, but I suspected my hole had closed up—something I confirmed when I got back home and tried to push through one of my old posts. I'd have to get it pierced all over again (which would actually be the third time). Maybe someday. 

In the meantime, I wear my rings, and the necklaces peeking from my collar. Constant reminders.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Scent from the Jar

The last time I blogged was five months ago—yet another wide gap in the Mantelpiece's well-meaning smile. Two weeks after that last post, I was in a serious bicycle accident of unknown, and irretrievable, cause (though I'm lately pretty sure it was a mechanical mishap, evidence of which got pushed aside in my mind in the initial aftermath). It was not life-threatening per se, but it could easily have been life-ending if, say, I hadn't been wearing a helmet (which I always did) or had fallen out of the bike lane and into the adjacent car traffic. 

I have no memory of the incident itself, just the moment I was surrounded by EMTs and everything else that followed.

I'm not going to recount the details of my recovery here—and I am mostly recovered (though still a member of the doctor's-appointment-of-the-week club: only a slight exaggeration and, yes, I do have one tomorrow morning at 9). It would take too long.

What would take even longer would be to describe how the accident changed me, because I'm still figuring that out myself. The bread is still rising. 

One thing it's been very hard for me to even contemplate doing is write. (And not for the first time—see previous gaps.)

It so happens that next to me right now lies a softly breathing dog whose final days are very likely upon me. I cannot grasp this. I try to talk about it intellectually, calling upon earlier deaths of loved ones I've survived, human and animal. 

Can't beauty and sweetness—the steady rising and falling—withstand anything? Have we really covered this before?

So I'm unable even to document my survival, it seems, without introducing impending loss. I've opened the jars, but they go back on the shelf. That act I've survived.

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