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 know 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


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, 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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