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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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

Un-Ordinary

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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