Monday, December 26, 2016

The Five Best Books I Read This Year*

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
A thrilling extended essay on being black in America and the fallacy of whitenessthe best book I've read in years. The sentences are so beautiful as to be lessons in themselves. Coates's compassionate voice combined with not giving a fig who's made uncomfortable hit me with the same force that Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place did more than 25 years ago. 

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard
My pal at the Total Femme turned me on to Howard's brilliant Cazalet Chronicles quintet a few years ago, and I've since moved on to several of her other novels about domestic life, class, and sexual dynamics in Britain. This is the best of the non-Cazalets I've reada gripping, at times shocking story about a selfish young woman crippled by lack of love and about the damage incurred by her and on her after a married couple takes her in. Perfectly, devastatingly calibrated.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Not the first writer to interweave alternate paths a life might have taken, but the most accomplished I've seen at attending as much to the subtle psychological shifts as to the differing physical and circumstantial outcomes. A wily, moving tale of that infinitely fertile chemistry: England, war, and the 20th century. 

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The somber unspooling of a men's-room hookup between an American teacher in Bulgaria and a manipulative younger Bulgarian. Greenwell nails the pulse-driven momentum of a relationship that begins with sex and that develops into a stumbling two-step of neediness and unknowing. 

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
Coming to terms with her anger at her late-in-life trans father over his violence and abandonment when she was a kid is as big a task than accepting her as a woman, though it's often hard to separate Faludi's feelings about eachwhich ultimately seems to be the story she's telling: of dualities haltingly resolving into something close to wholeness. 

*Note: not all published this year (unlike many best-of lists). Also, I actually listened to all of these on audiobook, my preferred delivery method these days.

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Friday, December 09, 2016


About six weeks from now, at age 55, I'm having cataract surgery—a procedure more common among people in their seventies and eighties. 

It's further fallout from my bike accident almost three years ago. Turns out that successful retina-reattachment surgery—which I had to repair the detachment that occurred a couple of months after my spill in the bike lane—results in a cataract, because the gas injected into the eye to reattach the retina compromises the lens; it seems that going two whole years before developing a cataract is very, very good. 

Both of my eye doctors kind of "buried the lede," as they say in journalism: All of my careful adherence to the recovery regimen after the retina surgery (sleeping only on my left side—not my right, not my back or stomach—for the first week or two and, during the day, holding my head down to my chest for 50 minutes out of every hour for a week and a half, then 30 minutes every hour for several more days), which I was told repeatedly was to "avoid a cataract," was, come to find out, to avoid an immediate cataract. Until a few months ago, no one informed me it was inevitable that I'd develop a cataract within a year or two.


From the bewildering menu of surgical options and expenses, I've chosen to have my  severely nearsighted vision in both eyes changed to only slightly nearsighted in my right (the one with the cataract) and slightly farsighted in my left. I'll basically use one eye for reading and the other for distance. The result should be that I won't need glasses for most tasks. (The reason to have both lenses replaced is that if I had only my right done, the discrepancy between the vision in my two eyes would be, my ophthalmologist—also my brother-in-law—says, "unbearable.")

When I told my surgeon that the idea made my head spin, he said, "Well, you're basically seeing out of one eye now." Touché. The blurring in my right eye has gotten so bad that do indeed I favor my left by far.

"Your brain will adjust," both doctors reassure me. Even my sister (not the one married to my ophthalmologist) texted me: "I was going to get contacts like that, one near, one far. They say your brain just fills in the blanks, as long as the two eyes aren't wildly different."

In this same text exchange, she and I talked about our mother, who has entered hospice now for the third time in the last year and a half—Mom regains strength, stabilizes, and is "released" from hospice after a few months, even as she can't speak, walk, or feed herself. 

"I feel kind of sad and afraid that when she's gone we'll all be disconnected because so much of our getting together is Mom this, Mom that," my sister, who lives in another city, said. 

"We will have to build a new relationship with each other," I said. "That's what my therapist is always telling me. We can do it!"

She replied: "What your therapist says just made me cry because it sounds so hard."

"I think it will be like my new split vision," I found myself typing. "Our brains will adjust."

I'm not sure I convinced her. It was late, she'd just flown back home after a visit for our mother's 97th birthday (like funerals, sometimes birthdays are more for the celebrants than for the honoree), along with all the attendant caregiving, errand-running, and emotional surge-protecting. She was exhausted. 

But I actually do think we four, we survivors, will learn to see each other anew, perhaps more sharply, and forgivingly—after all, I might end up needing glasses for some things, such as long periods of heavy reading or driving at night. 

Confidence isn't always my strong suit, but in this case I really believe we'll make the compensations our brains and eyes and hearts require and keep going through the darkness, through the light.

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Saturday, December 03, 2016

A Man, a Ship

Oh, it turns out today is the 11th anniversary of my blog (I thought it was the 5th). Some relationship, with my months-long absences! The blog's guiding principle from the start, which I've had to remind myself of more than once, has been to "put sentences together." I've done so in other ways over the years, but I'm trying to recommit to this formerly fashionable genre. So many muscles in my life have gone slack. This is one.

My previous post was rudimentary thoughts that have been preoccupying me. I don't know yet how they might ultimately connect, particularly the piece about the doctor who delivered me, which in my mind, if not on the page yet, is key. I don't quite know why I'm as obsessed with him as I am. In fact, "obsessed" is not the right word, so I used "haunted" in the post. Actually, neither hits the mark; the truth is somewhere between the two. The ship is important as well. I need to do more thinking and writing and research. Regarding the last of those, I've owned the book above for three years and have yet to open it up. (Isn't that interesting?) I will now.

Getting my thoughts down helped me see there might be something. I had no idea Bobby Vee would drop by! I certainly had no conscious awareness, until I reread it, of the echo between his name and Dr. V., the doctor's real initial. Although I'd first researched him a year or more ago, I discovered only this week, when I revived my Googling, that he'd been on the same ship my family had. 

Wanting to know, as my mother neared the end of her life, about the guy who delivered me was mystifying—well, it is still, but when the SS United States (another obsession of mine in the last few years) edged into his story, it felt like a gift.

For now, the sentences, the surprises, are enough to keep me thinking.

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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Take Good Care of My Baby

As my mother's life slowly winds down (not to say with certainty that the end is imminent, though yesterday, four days before her 97th birthday, my siblings and I raced to her side, thinking it was), I find myself haunted by the doctor who delivered me.

Having recently fixed on his name at the bottom of my 1961 birth certificate from the US Army Hospital in Munich, Germany, I've discovered, among other things—thanks to Google and—pictures of his wedding and of his gravesite in Quantico, Virginia, a scant hour from where I live. 

Yes, the doctor who delivered me died—in 1968 at age 35, in the Panama Canal Zone (of what cause I don't know), seven years after bringing me into the world in a hospital where my mother always said the American nurses were brusque and impatient, even rude, so unlike the German hospitals where friends of hers had given birth, with weeklong stays, feather beds, and geraniums on the windowsills.

Was Dr. V., this blond 28-year-old Army captain, equally cold? How did he comport himself as he pulled me from my mother? I experienced the touch of his hands before I did hers. 

She has known me for 55 years—knows mainly the touch of my hand now and the sound of my voice. Does she recognize my face in those fleeting moments when our eyes lock, when her eyes are even open?

As it happens, Dr. V. came back to America on the same ship my family returned on, a year and a half after we did. I know this because I found a photo of him and his wife and two children onboard. It was the SS United States, the fastest ocean liner ever to cross the Atlantic. 

SS United States today
Today that enormous vessel sits empty and rusted at a dock in Philadelphia, but still hanging on 47 years after its final crossing in 1969, awaiting its hoped-for second life, an effort I've contributed money to. Save the SS United States! If you've driven along I-95 through Philly, you've passed it. You've also seen it, from above, if you've watched the opening credits of West Side Story, released a month after Dr. V. cupped his hands around my slippery head for the first and probably only time. 

Bobby Vee
Another coincidence: Several weeks ago, I read the obituary of singer Bobby Vee, who recently died. His biggest hit was "Take Good Care of My Baby," a song I've always liked. After reading the article, I did some additional research out of curiosity and learned that "Take Good Care of My Baby" reached number one in the US on September 21, 1961, the day I was born—not in the US but across the Atlantic, into the hands of an intimate stranger who transferred me, kindly or officiously, into the arms (or not) of my exhausted mother. 

These are the pieces of a story I seek.

My family (left half of group) and the SS United States, 1963

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Friday, February 05, 2016

Brief Encounters: A Ramble

Today I had two surprise encounters: one in the office, one on the street; one from a former relationship's circle of friends, one a former (different) relationship himself.

It was a lot for one day.

The old boyfriend happened first. 

"Billy [not Kristofferson]!" 

I was coming out of the Gap (or, as I understand it's actually called by millennials—an example of successful, albeit pointless rebranding—Gap). He and I dated for several months a decade ago, kept up as friends for a bit, then have run into each other, warmly, a few times since. He's married now, I knew from our last run-in. This afternoon, he deflected a cheek kiss because he had a cold, so we fell into a clumsy gay-modified bro hug. (Strangely, on a break from writing this, I just did the New York Times mini crossword online. 3 down: "Awkward people to meet on the street"—EXES.)

Back in the day, he had a dog, I had two, and one night in my apartment, all five of us shared my double bed. There was some awkwardness then, too, till we all settled in. 

On the street, those three animals now deceased, we talked about dogs—his new one, an old guy he recently adopted from a friend of a friend, and the one I've been searching for over the last couple of months since the death of my dear P. The truth is I always get the sense he still has a little candle burning for me (I'm afraid I did kind of break his heart), so I'm wary of getting too close. 

Our conversation ended with ellipsis rather than, as on previous occasions, vague talk of a dinner party with our current partners. But I walked away smiling, glad to have seen him. Ten years ago, I was so lost in so many ways; it's nice to know there's someone I met during that time who recognizes the person I was then in the person I am now, and seems pleased to see both.

A couple of hours later, an old friend of my long-term-relationship ex (the one whose breakup with me triggered the aforementioned lost period) appeared at my office door. She was there to see a colleague of mine who has, coincidentally, become a friend of hers. 

This woman was one of my favorites of all my ex's friends—they'd known each other since college. Shortly after the breakup, she and I got together for lunch once, at her initiation, a gesture to let me know she liked me independently of the painful thing that had happened and she hoped we could stay in touch. What surprised me, at the time, was how painful it was to hear her breezily chat about going to a wedding with my ex, or simply to hear his name come up casually in conversation, as if he were merely a mutual friend and not someone who'd ended our relationship. (Okay, yes, the relationship was ending on its own.) So I didn't actively pursue a friendship with her after our lunch. I assumed, under the circumstances, she was leaving the ball in my court, and I didn't pick it up. 

Many years later, I e-mailed her to explain why I'd fallen out of touch, that it had just hurt too much then, through no fault of her own, but that I enjoyed hearing about her from my colleague over the years and hoped she was well. She never replied

Then today happened, and she was as lovely as could be, filling me in on her life, asking about mine and whether I had a partner. I told her about D.—whom she probably already knew about, but it was sweet of her to offer me the chance to tell her about him: no hard feelings or awkwardness all these years later.

She has two sons in college (little kids when I first knew her), recently took a buyout from her longtime employer, and is starting a new career. She said she was sorry about my dog P.—my ex's and my dog P.; we adopted her together and shared custody for far longer than we were a couple. She told me he has a new dog now. 

I'll have a dog of my own soon. And we'll probably run into him someday in the park.

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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.