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, 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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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Just Books

Several years ago, I started a book group. This is remarkable because for years I'd resisted the idea of book groups, scoffed at them even: I'm done with English class. Why would I want to discuss the books I read? I want to read them. And everyone says no one really talks about the books in those clubs, it's just a social hour; if I were to join a book group, I'd at least want to talk about the books! (Wait . . . )

Then I found myself both not getting through as many books as I used to and wanting a little more sociability in my life, so I got, as I like to say when something like this happens, a bee in my bonnet. (I need a cool-looking alarm clock, so I get obsessed with alarm-clock shopping. Or it turns 95 degrees and I suddenly need linen shirts—so within 24 hours I have three linen shirts in my closet. My most recent bee: flannel sheets! I ordered them last night.)

I got the idea of hand-picking the members of the book group: a half dozen or so friends who are gay men, and we'd read gay books. Within a few weeks, we were having a potluck planning meeting at my place.

This turned into a very short-lived group. Here's what I remember reading: Faith for Beginners by Aaron Hamburger (about an American family with a gay son visiting Israel, which I think I liked well enough but don't recall very much about six years later); The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín (about political intrigue and closetedness in Argentina of the early '80s, which I enjoyed more); The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (about Edgar Allan Poe; I'd read a couple others of his, including the far superior Mr. Timothy, about Dickens's Tiny Tim as an adult); and the tediously sitcommy My Lucky Star by Joe Keenan (who happens to have been a sitcom writer, on Frasier).

By that time, my enthusiasm was already starting to dissipate. The discussion wasn't of a very high level or even long-lived, and frankly I realized that I wanted to pick all the books, which wasn't fair (I'd chosen only one of the above officially, but I think I exerted more influence, including veto power, than others, who were much more go-with-the-flow-and-pass-the-lasagna). I used the excuse of my parents' seriously failing health as a reason to put the group "on hold," and as excuses go, it was a pretty legitimate one. But I think I realized I'd been right about book groups all along, at least as they pertain to me. They're just not my thing.

I do kind of miss getting together with those guys, though. And I really miss reading as much as I used to, long before the group existed. I don't seem to have the time I once had, and I'm ashamed to admit I don't have the concentration. I lose patience with books quicker than before; now I often don't finish if I'm not into them. (I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing, but I rarely gave up on books when I was younger, so it's definitely a change in sense of responsibility.) I don't do Facebook or Twitter and spend very little of my downtime online, so I can't fully explain the shorter attention span. Perhaps it just pervades the culture and even I'm not immune.

A couple weeks ago, I had brunch with my friend C., an avid reader who I think has always considered me an avid reader (we know each other from an erstwhile gay writing group from the early to mid-'90s) because he's always asking me for book recommendations, and I do "present" like an avid reader, even now. Anyway, when I told him what I consider to be the paltry number of books I finished last year, he said, "Yeah, that's pretty bad." Which wasn't what I wanted to hear.

Part of the problem—and this has been going on since I came out of the closet almost 25 years ago (yay, finally this late bloomer can say a big number like "almost 25 years ago"!)—is that, with occasional exceptions, I have little patience with books that don't at least acknowledge that gay people exist. (That pretty much takes care of catching up with landmarks of world literature that I missed over the years, eh?) They just bore me, particularly of course contemporary literature. This stance of mine has holes all over it, I know—some stories simply have nothing to do with gay life through no deliberate avoidance on the author's part—but that doesn't change how I respond in the moment.

Would I have liked, for instance, Mentor: A Memoir (one of the books I forced myself to finish last year because my boss had lent it to me) better if the self-absorbed Frank Conroy suck-up who wrote it had mentioned a gay fellow writing student at Iowa or something? Probably not. (One thing that kept me reading was my memory of being a Frank Conroy admirer myself back in the day; I even met him and had him sign Stop-Time at a reading. Mentor made me thoroughly loathe him—which is actually fine, as I moved on from him years ago.)

Right about here, I was planning to list the books I finished and liked last year and the ones I didn't finish. (Of the latter group, I'll mention only the most surprising, the award-and-praise-laden Just Kids by Patti Smith, who made life in the East Village with Robert Mapplethorpe in the late '60s and early '70s sound positively Victorian; I became very skeptical very quickly.) But I've already gotten bored with that idea.

I did read a few really good books. Maybe that's all that matters.

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Saturday, February 01, 2014


A couple of weeks ago, I got an e-mail out of the blue from N., the daughter of longtime friends of my parents'. She had come across an essay I'd written about my family, prompting her to track me down. N. is about a dozen years older than me, and I never knew her well, largely because of the age difference, which made her an adult while I was still a kid, but I did know her parents. 

Her father and mine had met in college in the 1940s, then my father helped get her dad a job in Washington and they remained colleagues and friends for decades, even after their retirement from the government, when they both worked for a private firm for another 20 years or so. Our mothers were also close. I remember luncheons Mom would host for small groups of women friends, mostly wives of my father's colleagues, including N.'s mother. The menu might include vichyssoise or chicken in aspic or something prettily sliced like stuffed flank steak. Dessert could be plum kuchen or individual caramel custards.

I learned from Mom how to be hospitable, the value and satisfaction of welcoming people into your home and making delicious things for them to enjoy. (So why don't I do it more often?)

As N.'s parents, then mine, succumbed to the trials and diminishments of age, they fell out of touch. Her dad died in 1999, her mother in 2012, the same year my father passed away. All were in assisted living.

My mother, as I've written before, is still alive and in "memory care." I've also written here of a long-ago teaching colleague of hers who connected with me through the same essay of mine that N. read and who continues to visit Mom after more than two years. But N. is the first person to share with me in such detail the impression my mother made. Here's an excerpt from her note:

I was always fond of your parents, but I adored your mother. She was beautiful, stylish, talented, cultured, creative, articulate, and a wonderful cook. I still own and cherish some things she made for me—a knitted tea cozy, accompanied by a poem that she wrote, a patchwork hot pad, badly faded 40 years later, but still treasured, and a little collection of handwritten menus with recipes I still use.  Once she gave me a pretty glass jar filled with potpourri she had harvested from her garden.  Your mother was so un-ordinary, and I wish I had kept in closer touch with her. . . .  

Sometime in the mid-'60s, your parents gave a 12th Night party one winter afternoon after Christmas, and children were invited. Do you remember that? I can see exactly what your mother wore in my mind's eye—a gorgeous, long emerald-green hostess dress, which she told me your father had given her for Christmas. (I'm pretty sure I'm remembering that correctly.)  It was a wonderful party—lots of delicious homemade things, including candied grapefruit, which I'd never had before. 

Your mother never took the easy way out. If something was worth doing, it was worth doing to perfection. Once on my mother's birthday, your mom invited her over for lunch. My mother came home with lovely birthday gifts your mother had made—including homemade croissants in a basket with a beautiful embroidered cloth. By the way, I recall that your kitchen was all pink. Was it still pink when you sold the house?

I was sitting at my desk at work practically in tears at these lovely, unasked-for reminiscences—all, I might add, accurate. I do remember the 12th Night party. It was an open house—come anytime between, say, 3 and 6—and it became sort of legendary in the family. Mom would often say, "We should have another 12th Night party." But for all the other entertaining she did over the years—and she was essentially a shy person, a tough thing to reconcile with an inclination toward graciousness—we never had another bash like that.

I remember the green hostess dress, too—if you'd asked me what she wore to that party nearly 50 years ago, I couldn't have said, but N. helped me recall.

What I've realized reading and rereading N.'s e-mail (and we've continued the correspondence over the last two weeks) is that she has idealized Mom—and I love that she has. I think it's great.

I knew all of the same traits of my mother's that she describes, along with the more human side that everyone knows of a parent: the misunderstandings, the bathrobes, the TV dinners, the workaday. But N. saw her from a remove; maybe she even admired things that were different from her own mother (I didn't know her mom well enough to say). But what she has captured in those sentences is true—all of it. There are so few people in the world whom I have access to anymore, outside family, who cherished the beautiful things Mom brought to the world. The fact that N. went to the trouble to tell me was a real gift.

And no, the kitchen was no longer pink.

Before I was born.
Same front porch eight years later (me on the right).

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Wood and Clay, Bricks and Mortar, Iron and Steel, Silver and Gold

I see it was exactly eight years ago that I started this blog. At the time, my goal was simply to put sentences together. It remains so today, though it seems I manage to do it much less often. And it's no easier.

I sometimes feel like I'm entering an empty room every time I sit down to blog—or attempt to—whereas back then, a mere eight years ago in human years, I had a regular little community of readers and fellow bloggers almost right from the start: friends, friends of friends, people who stumbled across my Mantelpiece by accident. A conversation of sorts took place on any given evening. (In my memory it's always evening in bloggerland.) Commenting on one another's musings, linking back and forth, idly checking acquaintances' sites for new posts. It was cheerful and stimulating and revealing and fun.

Then friendships changed—fell away or morphed. Parents fell, got sick, were hospitalized, moved out of their longtime home. Work ramped up. Facebook came along. Like an attention-sucking extrovert at a perfectly good party, it grabbed the spotlight from humble blogging, at least in my circle. Now there are a lot of empty houses in my neighborhood. And noisy parties in that sprawling highrise down the street.

Yet here I am, still stepping into my quiet room, with occasional friendly visitors. The light is bright, the floors polished, the furnishings spare, but there's lots of space to move around.

I don't write about the minutiae of my day as much I did in what you might call the Mantelpiece's heyday. I guess I find myself going within more often than not, though it has never been a conscious choice.

The sentences are still there to be put together, those bridges made of—and between—words.

*Yes, I know this is Tower, not London, Bridge.
London Bridge* is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair Lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair Lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair Lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair Lady.

Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair Lady.

Set a man to watch all nigh,
Watch all night, watch all night,
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair Lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,
Fall asleep, fall asleep,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
My fair Lady.

Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
Smoke all night, smoke all night,
Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
My fair Lady.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Autumn Sonata

Fall—true fall—has come relatively late. On Thursday, I wore gloves for the first time while biking to work; this morning I put on a fleece hat to walk the dog. I haven't given up hope that there'll be a few more chances to wear shorts.

I recently had new windows installed, finally allowing light to enter unobstructed by scratches and corroded screens—although a new building across the street means less light for the bedroom through those expensive new panes. Still, I'm happy.

I have my second cold in a month. This time, except for vitamin C, an occasional hot ginger-lemon toddy, and something to treat the symptoms, I'm letting it run its course rather than trying to fend it off with Cold-Eeze or Zicam or Airborne ("invented by a teacher!"). It always comes full-force eventually—why delay the inevitable?

My dog is moving slowly but hanging in at age 15 or 16. There's a crisis every so often—the latest being what appeared to be a broken bone or joint problem but turned out to be a  treatable hip-muscle sprain. I carry her up and down the six brick steps to the street; she can walk fine, but I don't want to push my luck. Someone is often going by just as I'm scooping her up or setting her down with a pat; sometimes I have to pause in the middle of our descent, holding her in my arms, to let a pedestrian pass. I usually get a look of one kind or another. I'm sure some think I'm simply a coddler—which would be more believable if she didn't weigh 40 pounds. Most often I get a sympathetic smile.

This time of year, as the light slants through clear or clouded glass, perhaps we're being asked to bide our time, to wait for the frail to pass or be borne up, to attend with compassion, even joy, the colors' late burning.


Monday, October 07, 2013

Are You Alright?

On Friday, July 6, of last year, I got the news from a hospice nurse that my almost 92-year-old father probably wouldn't live through the weekend. I left work and made the 40-minute drive with my brother from the city to Dad's assisted-living facility in the suburbs.

I'd made that journey countless times in the preceding four years, and before that to the house in another suburb where he and my mother had lived for half a century: to deliver prescriptions, figure out why the cable wasn't working, bring a meatloaf, take him to the doctor, take him to physical therapy, take him to McDonald's, shovel the sidewalk, have a cup of tea, try to cheer both of them up or run interference—just be there.

Now, I realized, this might actually be the last time I'd make that drive for him. (Mom was still very much alive, though in the grip of dementia.) Each time I visited, there was less of him there. His small, thin body curled in bed or slumped in a wheelchair, the ever-shortening sentences of this linguist, this man of words.

I'd been slowly saying goodbye for years.

In the car, my brother and I knew, there was little left to talk about. What do you say when all of life has been lived, all measures taken, all opportunities for denial or solutions exhausted? So we awkwardly chatted about our jobs, our health, the weather—I don't even know what. My brother manned the text messages—to his wife, our two sisters (both out of town), his office—as I drove. We made more small talk, then were quiet for a long stretch.

I don't remember if the radio was already playing or if I turned it on at that point. But into the silence came a familiar voice. 

Are you alright?
All of a sudden you went away.
Are you alright?
I hope you come back around someday.

Are you alright?
I haven't seen you in a real long time.
Are you alright?
Could you give me some kind of sign?
Lucinda Williams. I'd never heard this particular song, though I used to follow her avidly. As we drove on, I gazed out the window listening to her unmistakable car-wheels-on-a-gravel-road voice, full of the ragged strength of survival and the fragility of longing. I felt as if a piece of music I didn't even know had flown out of my heart, giving voice to my worry and anticipated loss. 
Are you alright?
I looked around me and you were gone.
Are you alright?
I feel like there must be something wrong.

Are you alright?
'Cause it seems like you disappeared.
Are you alright?
'Cause I been feeling a little scared.
Are you alright?

But it wasn't only the words. It was the timing of it, the mind-reading. 

I begged the silence to continue till the end of the song, then directed the sentiment to my brother: Please don't start talking, I thought. Please. Let's just listen. 

And this, underlying it all, directed to someone else: Don't go before we get there.

Are you sleeping through the night?
Do you have someone to hold you tight?
Do you have someone to hang out with?
Do you have someone to hug and kiss you,
Hug and kiss you, hug and kiss you?

Are you alright? 

We made it through almost the entire song, were less than a mile away from our destination, when my brother spoke. 

"Are you a Lucinda Williams fan?"

I flinched and for an instant didn't want to say anything in reply. He'd broken the spell, intercepted the message. But I answered anyway. I couldn't hold it against him.

"I am," I said, "but I've kind of lost touch with her."

Are you alright?
Is there something been bothering you?
Are you alright?
I wish you'd give me a little clue.

Are you alright?
Is there something you wanna say?
Are you alright?
Just tell me that you're okay . . . . 
I'd seen Lucinda live, had several of her albums. But after 2001's Essence, which a friend gave my ex and me when we were living together, I never bought another. No particular reason—like friendships, sometimes musical relationships wane or go on hiatus, through no one's fault. Here she was again.

The song finally ended, and my brother and I were there. 

For the next 13 hours, we sat with Dad, my partner, D., joining us for most of that time. We brought Mom in for a short while—a chance for our parents to complete a circle, even though neither was fully aware. It gave us peace of mind.

Just around midnight, he died. And another long silence descended.

Sometime after that day, I put the song on my iPod. I haven't listened to it too often, and I haven't yet bought any more of Lucinda's music. But I know it's there, waiting.

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