Friday, March 31, 2006

Coming Home

Sometimes you can find yourself moved in the most unexpected places -- such as the New York Times' Thursday House & Home section.

This is from the March 23 article "Personal Style, Unleashed by Divorce," by Jill Brooke, about people who are finally able to indulge their true decorating tastes after splitting up with their spouses or partners. For me it was about a lot more than interior design.

"Peter Quinn, a partner in
John Rosselli & Associates D.C., a store in Georgetown that sells antiques and decorative arts, said that he could trace the power struggles of his last relationship through 'the placement of possessions' in the Dupont Circle apartment he shared with his ex-boyfriend. A mahogany entrance table that he has now given pride of place in his hallway, for example, was relegated to a back bedroom for six years. 'My former boyfriend said he didn't like the table,' said Mr. Quinn, 47. 'I gave in. But giving in all the time begins to stunt you.

" 'I get pleasure every time I walk into my apartment and am now surrounded by things I love,' Mr. Quinn said. 'They are put exactly where I want them. I gave myself up for so long and then found myself again.' "

Couldn't have said it any better.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Old Schools and Rainbows

Friday morning I was waiting for the bus to work with my black shoulder bag as well as a tote bag filled with reading I'd brought home the night before (a new tradition in my life, I'm afraid). The tote, a freebie from my college reunion three years ago, is emblazoned with my alma mater's name.

As I was getting on the bus, a young woman falling into line behind me said, "Did you go to H?" -- referring to the college. I said yes; she said she did too.

She looked to be no more than 30, so I said, "I'm sure I went there a long time before you did."

She said, "I was '97." (Just about right.)

I told her I was '83 -- I like to imagine she was thinking, "Oh, my God, you don't look anywhere near that old!" -- and asked if she had liked the college. She had. I said, "Yeah, it's a great school."

As I paid my fare, I had a split second to decide whether I would continue the conversation on the bus. I'd taken my earphones out to chat with her. Would it be rude to put them back in?

I put the earphones back in and walked to the back of the bus as she sat down in front; she had a bulky suitcase.

For the rest of the ride I tortured myself for not having been friendly enough to continue the conversation: "What dorm did you live in? What was your major?" It felt so heartless, but I just wasn't in the mood.

As fond as I am of my college, there's a type of fellow alum who gets on my nerves (and I'm not saying this young woman, who seemed perfectly lovely, was that person). It's the one who writes into the college alumni news inviting any and all random alums to look him up: "My wife and I just moved to Anchorage, Alaska. Any H'ers are welcome to pay a visit when in the area!"

This type of alum is very common where I went to school. It seems every other blurb in the class news is an invitation to H'ers to drop by and visit others who share the same diploma.

I cannot imagine calling a complete stranger who happened to go to the same college I did 20 years before or after me and arranging to get together for drinks. What in the world would we talk about? I know: the dorms we lived in and what our majors were.

Strangely enough, I actually do feel a bond with my fellow H graduates. I think it's cool when I see someone wearing an H t-shirt or if I read in the paper that an author or actor went there. I feel really happy when I see an H sticker on a car window. I even had such a sticker on the rear window of my first car 20-odd years ago -- and I am not a school-colors kind of guy; I kept a very low profile in college and was involved in few "schooly" activities. But I loved that sticker.

I have a similarly paradoxical relationship to rainbow bumper stickers -- just about the only manifestation of the gay rainbow symbol that I like; I've even caught myself thinking, when seeing a natural rainbow in the sky: How cheesy.

But when I pass a car with a rainbow sticker, I feel buoyed. I speed up and try to get a peek at the fellow Gay who is driving. (Is he cute? Is he . . . oh, it's a she. Cheers anyway!)

I had a rainbow sticker on the rear bumper of my second car. I sold the car to a straight woman I worked with, and she told me when she bought it that she was a lot more embarrassed to have a WHFS sticker on the bumper (which there was) than a rainbow sticker. (This was in the mid-'90s, when that alternative Washington radio station had begun its slide into unlistenable "modern rock." )

The next time I saw the car, both stickers were gone. And I felt a little sad.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Triple Word Score

This afternoon I was playing Scrabble with my mother, as I do on many weekends. She's 86 and has dementia. Her memory and confusion problems, which started about nine years ago, can make it difficult to be around her sometimes. But she, like my father, has always been a word person -- both of them worked with foreign languages in their careers -- and Scrabble is about the best way I know to keep her anchored and engaged. She also does crossword puzzles, though she's not very good at them anymore; when she hands me an unfinished one to "take a look at it," I find myself erasing mistakes as much as filling in blanks.

Today on one of her Scrabble turns, she put down this word: GAY.

Then she said, with a hint of playfulness, "You ought to know about that!"


I came out to my parents 15 years ago, only six months or so after coming out to myself and most of my close friends and siblings. My mother and father came a long way in the first few years, such that by the time I introduced them, in 1996, to the man I was dating and who would be my partner for eight years, it was immediately apparent that they embraced our relationship and accepted him as a family member. He was included in all family gatherings he wished to attend from that point on, no questions asked.

But with the exception of their first confused days following my coming-out to them in January 1991, never once have my parents brought up in my presence any gay topic. No news article, no question about my opinion on some antigay legislation, no feelings of their own about anything even remotely related. I don't remember them ever uttering the word "gay" around me in the last 15 years.

On a few occasions I've been at their house when a story has come on CNN about gay marriage or the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney, Australia. They've listened, by my interpretation at least, in a kind of awkward silence. I have to note that I've enabled the silence at these times -- although about a year ago, during the Mardi Gras report, I decided to acknowledge the subject and made an innocuous remark about how that was supposed to be one of the biggest gay festivals in the world or something. No comment.

Strangely enough, both of them occasionally used to talk about gay people -- up until the moment I came out to them.
Sometime during the year preceding my coming-out, after reading an article about a gay teacher being fired, my father said that he'd worked with gay people and they were "perfectly nice" and respectable and did a good job, and it was ridiculous to penalize them for being gay. I also remember his asking me around that same time, after I had come out to myself but not yet to him or my mother (and I'm not making this up, though it does seem to be a line from a hokey sitcom, father asking closeted gay son): "Why do gay men like Judy Garland so much?"

Ummm . . .

I actually took these moments as signs that he was ready to hear the truth about me, and they emboldened me to make the move soon thereafter. In the interest of moving this story along, and out of respect for my father's own emotional journey, let me just say that my announcement was not initially greeted, by him or my mother, with
"forget your troubles, come on, get happy" abandon. But they emerged relatively quickly as supportive parents of a gay son, albeit in their don't-ask-don't-tell way.

Once during the six years my ex and I lived together -- and after my mother's dementia had begun -- I was showing my family around the upstairs floor of our house. As we passed the bedrooms, my mother asked me, "Which one is your room?"

So when she put down the word GAY on the Scrabble board today, it was a tiny moment that jolted me and then, more quietly, made me smile.

"You ought to know about that!"


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Mr. Tenant Gets Hot

Last night I came home to find this note from my landlord's handyman:

"Mr. Tenant, Hot H2O temp turned up! Be careful!"

It's a good thing it's been a stressful week at work -- now I have reason to treat myself to a bath and see if I can get a tub's worth of hot water. Will this be the end to
my Little House on the Prairie existence?

And today I went to to find this greeting at the top of the screen:

Hello, [Billy]. We have recommendations for you. (If you're not [Billy], click here.)

The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Men

A fun message to have appear on your work computer. (Yes, I clicked on the link that explains why that particular book was being recommended to me.)


I bought 12 new pairs of black socks today. Something I can check off my list! Actually, there's another one too -- I called my friend Holly yesterday. But I still haven't sent her a baby card.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Done and To Do

Things I have accomplished in the 90 minutes since arriving home at 10:50 pm, in chronological order:
1. Cut fingernails.
2. Ate banana split (with nonfat frozen yogurt).
3. Finished reading today's Washington Post (simultaneous with #2).
4. Read "Savage Love" column in Washington City Paper.
5. Put Washington City Paper in recycling.
6. Watered and misted plants.
7. Did load of wash.
8. Vacuumed apartment.
9. Read last week's New Yorker.
10. Blogged for first time since Wednesday night (technically, Thursday morning).

Things whose undoneness can be measured in weeks, in no particular order:

1. Clean oven (can of Easy-Off sitting on kitchen counter as burdensome reminder).
2. Glue handle on favorite Italian ceramic mug from Biordi Art Imports in San Francisco (at least until the next time I go to San Francisco; last time I was there, I replaced an identical mug that had broken). Also sitting on kitchen counter as burdensome reminder.
3. Do taxes.
4. Call my pregnant friend Holly to see how she's doing since I last saw her in December (this technically shouldn't be on the list, at least not in that form, as I found out last Friday that she had her baby on Wednesday, so sending her a baby card is at the top of a separate list of things to do that can't -- yet -- be measured in weeks).
5. Straighten pictures on bedroom wall of me and my friends Sarah and Richard at Crystal Grottoes Caverns in 1995, which have come loose from the mat. (Make this one months.)
6. Pick up Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball (among others) from pile on dining room floor and read them. (Inspiration for biography project; shhhh -- it's a secret.)
7. Get tattoo. (Months. Does this more properly belong on fantasy list?)
8. Start taking homemade lunches to work to save money and increase lunchtime enjoyment.
9. Replace silver hoop that barber accidentally pulled off my ear and lost when splashing me with bracing aftershave (silver stud currently acting as understudy).
10. Buy new socks for work that don't have holes in toes.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


If you'll indulge me, I'm about to go on a bit about a book none of you have read: Anne Tyler's Digging to America, which will be published in May. It's the other book I just finished in galley form.

Two things you should know about
Anne Tyler, if you don't already: (1) She has written 17 novels, and I've read and loved every one; (2) she's not everyone's cup of tea. Though I have a hard time imagining why. I'm just told she's not by those for whom she is not.

Oh, there's a third thing: She's almost never mentioned in the "literary" circles that I sometimes travel in, even though
she has won a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, I can think of only one writer friend of mine, S, whom I know to be as much of a fan as I am. Yay, S.

When I'm asked who my favorite authors are, Anne Tyler is always at the top of the list. From writers, I usually get either neutral looks or some comment like "I've read a few of her books, and they're all the same."

Yes, she has a distinct world she returns to again and again: Baltimore eccentrics. Fortunately, another thing that never changes is the high quality of her prose, the precision of her inner and outer detail, the gentle sharpness of her humor, and her ear for the way real (albeit eccentric) people speak.

I guess she's considered by some literary types to be a middleweight since she's a bestselling author? That's all I can figure out. It's certainly not that she doesn't go deep.

She does go someplace new in Digging to America: For the first time as far as I can recall, she ventures beyond her usual world of white Baltimoreans. In fact, the only serious criticism I can make about her body of work up till now is the ethnically homogeneous world her characters inhabit -- which is strange since Tyler is not from an ethnically homogeneous world herself. She was married for many years to an Iranian-American, who died several years ago.

The new book is all about cultural tensions, isolation, and assimilation: Two families -- one Iranian-American and one Caucasian -- greet their adopted Korean babies at BWI Airport on the same day and become friends. The novel covers the next seven or eight years of their intertwining and often conflicting lives.

If there's a main character, it's probably Maryam, the Iranian-born, widowed grandmother of one of the babies. Here's a passage toward the end that I liked, from Maryam's point of view:

"What a small, small life she lived! She had one grown son, one daughter-in-law, one grandchild, and three close friends. Her work was pleasantly predictable. Her house hadn't changed in decades. Next January she would be sixty-five years old -- not ancient, but even so, she couldn't hope for her world to grow anything but narrower from now on. She found this thought comforting rather than distressing.

"Last week she'd noticed an obituary for a seventy-eight-year-old woman in Lutherville. Mrs. Cotton enjoyed gardening and sewing, she had read. Family members say she hardly ever wore the same outfit twice.

"No doubt as a girl Mrs. Cotton had envisioned something more dramatic, but still, it didn't sound like such a bad existence to Maryam."

Just as Maryam is on the verge of settling for her own existence -- there is something to be said for acceptance of one's lot, after all -- she makes a definitive turn in the 22 pages that follow that quote.

I guess it says something about me that a passage about accepting life's quietness and smallness speaks to me -- and that making a turn in another direction does as well.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

You Heard It Here First, Part I

One of the perks of my job is that I sometimes receive advance galleys of books. I just read two highly enjoyable novels, neither of which is published yet. I'll write about one of them tonight and get to the other later.

Lost and Found is by DC author
Carolyn Parkhurst, who received a lot of attention a few years ago for her first book, The Dogs of Babel (which I haven't read). The new book -- out in June -- might sound a little dumb on the surface: It's about the cast of an Amazing Race-like reality show called Lost and Found. The dozen or so characters are on a monthlong scavenger hunt around the world, and the chapters alternate among their points of view. Two of them are an "ex-gay" married couple. Another is a teenage lesbian traveling with her mother, who doesn't know that secret about her; it's only one of the tensions between those two, and not even the biggest one. This isn't a "gay novel," though; there are lots of nongay characters as well, including two middle-aged brothers and two former child TV stars. (All of the contestants on this show travel in pairs.)

I say the book might sound dumb only because I have zero interest in reality TV. I think it's . . . dumb. But I was drawn into Lost and Found from the first page. I hardly ever get sucked in that early on, even with books that I end up loving. It's a funny, moving, and beautifully written story of flawed people with complex inner lives.

Here's a passage from the point of view of the female half of the ex-gay couple, who are members of a conservative Christian ministry called Redemption. At this point, she's having some doubts as she rides in a car through a remote part of Sweden:

"Sometimes I wonder how we can be so sure what it is God sees. How arrogant we are, I sometimes think, to imagine there's someone watching us every minute. To think our every action matters that much. Perhaps God's eyes are more focused on the landscape outside the windows of this car: these dark forests, this rugged beauty. Perhaps this is where God turns when he needs a rest from all the noise of prayer."

See what I mean?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Once and Future Travels

The Dewey Beach trip went well. Highlights: a walk on the cold, blustery beach and a reading I took part in the last night of the conference. A former writing teacher (a fellow presenter)told me he liked my reading. "I laughed out loud," he said. Fortunately, the passage I read was meant to be funny. He didn't remember I had been his student 19 years ago until I reminded him (and maybe not even then). I didn't mind -- so perhaps that means I wasn't seeking approval from a former teacher but affirmation from a fellow writer?

Austin was okay. I didn't realize what a sprawling city it would be. And architecturally, it's completely unmemorable. I was there so briefly that I saw just a bit of the downtown area as well as some other parts of the sprawl riding to and from my out-of-the-way lodging (the Off Ramp Motel, as a friend aptly called it).

A highlight, having nothing to do with the city: For the first time I met one of my blog readers -- that is, one I didn't already know. Having figured out from my description of the trip that we were going to be at the same conference, this person e-mailed me before I left, and I told her what panel I would be on. Long story short, she came up and introduced herself. It was very nice meeting her; she said mine is one of only three blogs she reads.

She also said I wasn't nearly as "big" as she'd imagined. Apparently, my post on my ill-fitting jeans made a vivid impression. To others of you who picture me like this, I'm not big. But even skinny people can get spare tires.

Speaking of which, today I went for a run in the beautiful pre-spring weather. Just as I was tuning in to A Prairie Home Companion, the band Old Crown Medicine Show came on to perform their rendition of "Wagon Wheel," which I previously praised. Stopped at a light, I did the jogger's street-corner dance to the beat of the song and practically started waving my hands in a "testifying" fashion. If I ever run a marathon (which I never will), I think I'll have "Wagon Wheel" playing on a continuous loop. You can listen to it here; it's in segment 8 of the show, a rebroadcast from June 2004.

Several months ago, I decided I would start making a point to experience some cultural events that I've always wanted to. Just pick up and finally go do them. I mean, I'm 44 -- why keep waiting? One of these is to attend a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion in St. Paul, Minnesota. Another is to see a play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts. (I almost did this one last summer; when the idea occurred to me, there was one play left in the season, but I couldn't fit the trip into my schedule.) Another is to see a show at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the original site of the Grand Ole Opry.

I'll be adding to the list as I think of things, and I hope to check at least one of them off this year.

On a final note, my pal "Diablo" -- who happens to loathe the sound of Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor's voice -- has put down stakes at La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil's Throat). Welcome, Diablo! (He also hates shout-outs. Hee hee.)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Heading South

I always get anxious before a trip (even before a vacation, for Pete's sake!). I get a little wistful (even sad!). I start wishing I didn't have to go anywhere, that I could be in my own bed on the following night, when I know instead I'll probably be between bristly sheets, with a strange, useless heater whirring through the night.

Funny, since I spend the rest of the year longing, in the back of my mind, to go somewhere, wishing I had the kind of job that sent me on trips, wishing I could afford a vacation in Europe or on an island. Hotels seem romantic and exciting to me then. Actually, some of them are exciting. I like that kind of hotel!

I don't think I'll be staying in that kind of hotel in Austin.

I contacted a writer I know from Washington -- she's temporarily in Austin working on a book and teaching -- to see if we could get together. She not only jumped at the chance but offered to pick me up at the airport tomorrow evening. How nice! Then we'll go to dinner. Maybe she'll even drive me back to my remote hotel afterward. A boy can dream.

Thursday I'll have either lunch or dinner with a fellow homosexual who is on the panel with me Thursday morning. I knew him in graduate school almost 20 years ago, and we were in a writing group by mail with some other grad school friends for a few years in the 1990s. Then the other members, all women, started having babies and it got hard to keep it going.

This guy and I aren't that close -- in fact we barely knew each other in grad school. He was very out of the closet. I was very . . . not. I felt threatened and intimidated by him just because he was gay and out. Isn't that silly? It's true.

But in the years since, although we've been only in occasional touch, we've gotten to know each other better, mostly through our writing (which is a certain kind of getting to know each other, but a getting to know each other nonetheless). It will be good to see him.

I have another friend from DC on the panel, and who knows, we might hang out too. She and I used to work with yet another woman who now lives in Austin. I'd like to see her too, but since I'm there so briefly I don't know if it will work out.

I'm sure I'll run into some other people. And I hope to just wander around town a bit.

Today when I was privately fretting about how the trip was starting to feel like more trouble and expense than it was worth, I told myself to just stop already: It will be an adventure.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Very . . . Interesting

An article in yesterday's Washington Post revisited the notorious Bradford Bishop case on its 30th anniversary. In March 1976, Bishop -- a Foreign Service officer who lived in Washington -- allegedly murdered his wife, mother, and three sons; drove to North Carolina and burned their bodies; and then disappeared without a trace. For 30 years, there have been sightings of men who look like him all over the world:

"A Swedish woman who said she had socialized with him in Ethiopia said she saw him in a public park in Stockholm in 1978. A former State Department colleague said he saw Bishop in a restroom in Sorrento, Italy, in 1979. A long-ago Bethesda neighbor said she saw him at a train station is Basel, Switzerland, in 1994. The reports led authorities straight to dead ends."

The Montgomery County sheriff whose responsibility it has been to track this fugitive still has the arrest warrant on his shelf.

This story has spooked me ever since it happened when I was 14 years old. There have periodically been other articles and TV shows about it over the years. I've read or watched every one. I'm fascinated by people who disappear from their lives and assume new identities, whether or not after committing a heinous crime.

Okay, it's usually after committing a heinous crime.

My brother and I lived together for several years in our twenties and thirties, and he thought it was very, um, "interesting" that I had this obsession. Why did that particular type of person fascinate me? What did it reveal about me and my subconscious desires?

During this same period, he found it "interesting" that when I made mix tapes for my female friend A (as she would sometimes do for me), I put so many love songs on them. I'd say, "But most songs are love songs." He'd goad me, I'd deny. Finally, he'd end with: "I'm just sayin' . . ."

I don't like violent or bloody movies. My friend A and I are both gay. Bradford Bishop might still be out there.