Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Too Many People

Even as I type this, I'm watching part two of the riveting and exquisitely produced Frontline documentary The Age of AIDS on PBS. I didn't mean to get hooked last night and I didn't mean to get hooked again tonight -- I have a ton of things to do, including writing this long-overdue post -- but it's an exceptional program: dramatic -- even suspenseful -- infuriating, moving, expansively informative. Truly television with a world view. If you missed it, it will be available for viewing online at the above link starting Friday at 5 pm.

***


Last night I saved $3 on my grocery tab at Safeway while simultaneously staking out my side in the Paul-vs.-Heather split.


My allegiance predates posthumous mac-and-cheese by decades: We're talking
the second album I ever bought. (And this one was the first.)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Speak, Memory


Yesterday I had lunch with an office mate from my first job out of college -- or rather, my first workplace; by the time we shared an office, I was on my third job title there. (And I'm back working at the same place, with yet another title; she left ten years ago.)

Something she said at lunch reminded me of a day in about 1985, when we all came into work to find a note on our desks from a woman in another department. It read: "I have a surprise for everyone today! This afternoon around 2 we'll have a special visitor to the office --
Spanky McFarland from The Little Rascals!"

Almost everyone else was "like" Wha . . . ? and went back to their work. I and one other coworker -- a guy about ten years older than me -- were "like" Wha . . . ? Spanky from the Little Rascals is going to be HERE? In person???


I adored The Little Rascals (a.k.a. Our Gang) as a kid. Are those shows run anywhere on TV anymore? Back in the '60s and early '70s, Washington's Channel 20 ran several of them every weekday. (More than one short fit into a half-hour slot.) I now think part of the attraction for me was that these antique comedies connected me with my parents' childhood, four decades before my own -- Depression days of castor oil and "you're darn tootin'!"

In the same way, I think I Love Lucy connected me to the time of the first years of their marriage and my older siblings' early childhood in the 1950s, and reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show connected me to the era of my own infancy and toddlerhood before memory fully took hold. (The original broadcast of that show premiered 12 days after my birth and ended the month I started kindergarten.)

These three shows are without question the most influential pop-cultural touchstones of my childhood.

Anyway, at the appointed time, my coworker and I, along with a few other curious people, walked back to another part of the office and met Spanky McFarland himself. It turned out he was a business associate of the husband of the woman who had distributed the note about him and he'd stopped by the office as a favor.


In his late fifties by then, he was overweight and lumpy and had a blasé air tinged with mild cordiality. He'd clearly been doing this kind of appearance for many years -- though perhaps not usually at a spare desk in an office in downtown DC on a Tuesday afternoon.

We asked him a few questions about what his fellow Rascals Darla and Alfalfa were like. Isn't it terrible that I don't remember the answers when I'm portraying this encounter as such a big deal? My coworker asked if the rumor was true that Petey the Dog had been stuffed for posterity. "No!" Spanky said. That I remember -- and that "capiche?" was part of his answer. That's the kind of guy the middle-aged Spanky was -- the kind who says "capiche?"

I tore off a sheet of paper from a pad of letterhead, and he gave me his autograph: "To [Billy]," it says, "from your Little Rascal 'Spanky' McFarland."

That's it. That's the end of my story. Spanky died in 1993 of a heart attack. I still have his autograph somewhere, but I can't put my finger on it right now.

It's just like the other day: I was looking for the cufflinks I bought for my sister's wedding five years ago -- at the reception, I had to step to my 80-year-old father's side at the microphone when he was giving his toast, prompting him like a stagehand as he struggled to read a poem he'd copied out himself and that I knew by heart at that point -- and I couldn't remember where they were, either.

But I know I have them. They'll resurface, I'm sure, at the most unexpected time.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Resistance Is Futile

Today -- after how many prideful years? -- I finally caved to the cargo-shorts lobby.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

No Altar Boy

When the ideas don't come, it's time once again for On This Date in History.

Wednesday, May 23, 1973: Today the alter [sic] boys went on their picnic to Marshall Hall amusement park. Because of the ones in my class leaving there were only 5 boys in the class including me. All the girls were at school. It was dark, foggy, rainy and gloomy today.

"The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain!"

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Undergrowth Revisited

I blogged about the British writer Alan Hollinghurst early on in The Mantelpiece's existence, but a passage from his novel The Folding Star that I didn't quote actually might be my favorite. I remember reading it on the morning bus one day last fall and then e-mailing it to a gay male friend as soon as I got into the office. I think I may have hesitated to quote from it here for fear of offending straight readers, but it's been on my mind lately.

In this scene, the single gay narrator is visiting an old school friend, a married man with three small kids:

We were both men of the world, of different but adjacent worlds; and we were about the same age now, though Willie seemed to me to have entered the placid, incurious middle phase, the semi-sedation of hetero expectations, whilst I was still running loose, swerving and tripping through the romantic undergrowth outside. He must be thirty-five, I was thirty-three, would be thirty-four in the week after Christmas; but as always I felt that my age was only a term of convenience, an average age, and that one moment I was donnish and past it and the next a bewildered youngster scarcely out of school.

I may have also hesitated to reveal how much this passage still spoke to me, well past the ages of those two characters. I suppose I feel a little more comfortable admitting my affinity today, when there's no romantic turmoil going on in my life (no romantic anything, as it happens). It really captures a true feeling -- even now -- especially that last sentence.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Peace in Urbia

The garden is more or less in shape and the weather is warm, so tonight I began my spring and summer ritual of sitting out in the back yard for at least a few minutes before bed.

Being in the green, white, black, and scattered window light of an urban garden at night is a good way to dissipate job anxiety, at least temporarily -- an exercise in staying in the moment.

The longer I sit out there, the more the garden comes into view.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Quick Quick, Slow Slow

Henceforth, on Monday nights, forever and ever amen, you will find me here.

I have finally crossed some barrier in my attempts to learn the country-western two-step. I don't mean that I've got it down -- hardly -- but I actually had fun tonight. After the lessons were over, I danced with several guys (not just with one or two, as I did last time).

These various partners tonight illustrated the particular pleasures of having a commanding leader (I'm a follower on the dance floor, and I've come to realize it's all about having a commanding leader) as well as the different, but in its own way equally comforting, pleasure of having a leader who is just as klutzy and incompetent as I am.

It's when I'm with someone who's just good enough to be better than me that I get into real trouble.

I first encountered country-western dancing at Remington's in 1993, when I went on a date with a guy I'd met through a personal ad I'd placed in the City Paper. I later described the evening parenthetically in an essay I wrote on a different topic:

I have him to thank . . . for my love of country music. No fan himself, he picked a gay country-western bar for our first date because he thought it was easy to talk in. As we chatted, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the men on the dance floor, their thumb-in-pocket line-dancing a chorus of seductive yet unself-conscious swagger.

That seductive yet unself-conscious swagger! I never did get over it. I took a couple of lessons back then, but both the dancing and the ogling at Remington's fell by the wayside when I got into a long-term relationship with another guy (now my ex) who wasn't interested in it. But I'm not going to put the blame on him. I could have continued the lessons on my own; I just didn't.

I sold my cowboy boots in a yard sale several years later when we were clearing out the house for a renovation. It pained me to do so. But then so much pained me at that point in the relationship.

Several months ago, a friend who is an expert two-stepper got me back to Remington's. (And I got a new pair of boots. The cowboy hat is optional, and it's not going to happen for me.) Between his commanding leadership on those occasions when we've danced together and the Monday-night lessons I've started attending by myself, I am determined to get this down.

My entire life, I have never before been able to dance any dance with steps.

I am determined to get this down.

As much as I enjoyed Dan Savage's book The Commitment, he's full of shit about the sight of two men dancing. In the following passage, he's not talking about two-stepping, but I'm sure he'd feel the same way about it:

"I think it looks silly when two men ballroom dance. There, I said it. . . . I'm sorry, gay ballroom dancers, but you look ridiculous. And do you know why? Because ballroom dancing is a parody of heterosexual courtship and mating, an elaborate send-up of male and female sex roles, and it just looks strange when two men in tuxedos float around the dance floor together doing the fox trot."

As I texted Diablo tonight, "Gay cotillion" -- as I've taken to jokingly calling Remington's two-step lessons -- "is subversive in its corny way. Love it!"

He texted back: "Yes -- in the way that drag subverts femininity."

He and I are right, of course, but . . . whatever. The sight of two men two-stepping, or a couple of dozen men line-dancing, is mesmerizing to me. And to be one of those men myself is . . . well, I'm still getting used to it, but "ridiculous" and "strange" are the last words I'd use to describe how it feels.




Saturday, May 13, 2006

Postcard to Mark: Not an Essay


I'm looking at a picture of my friend Mark hanging on the wall by my desk. He's the one and only friend of mine to have died of AIDS. We met our first semester of college, in September 1979, and he died in April 1997, a month away from turning 36.

I wrote an essay about him that will never be published -- trust me, I finally gave up on it just this month. It's irreparably flawed, a fact I've finally accepted after nine years of revisions and rejections.


One of the things the essay is about is the consequences of coming out of the closet relatively late, as I did -- when I was 28, in 1990. Here's how I put it in the essay:

The truth is, staying in the closet till nearly a decade into the [AIDS] crisis is a mixed blessing: During that time, you don't acquire any gay friends to lose.

The irony, as I wrote, was that it was one of my oldest friends who died. I learned Mark had full-blown AIDS at the same time I learned he was HIV-positive and had been for 12 years. Our mutual friend K. told me -- Mark was very sick by that time. They both lived in New York City, and I hadn't seen Mark in two years at that point. The last time had been in 1994, when I was up in New York for the 25th anniversary of the
Stonewall riots:

The day before the march, Mark and I met for lunch. Mark hated parades and marches -- he liked to complain that one of them passed below his apartment every damn weekend. We caught up on work, family, dating. He was still seeing the same woman he'd been with for a few years, whom I hadn't met; I wasn't seeing anyone. He was doing yoga, meditating, working out -- and, I noticed with my smug nonsmoker's irony, making short work of a pack of cigarettes. He'd be skipping the march the next day, he told me. Even if he didn't detest mass gatherings, it wasn't his issue. He supported K. and me and his other gay friends, I knew, but he had his life.

When I found out Mark was sick in 1996, I started to realize that we really weren't as close as I'd thought. Although he presented himself to the world as straight, he'd contracted HIV from sleeping with men (I found out from K. after his death). I chose to believe he was straight, even as I and everyone else he knew thought -- and would often joke in his presence (he'd laugh along) -- that he seemed, well . . . kinda gay.

I had come out to him almost as soon as I came out to myself. In fact, I traveled up to New York specifically for that purpose.

When I came out to him in 1990 . . . he admitted he'd been attracted to one or two guys over the years, but it was a path, as he put it, that he simply chose not to follow. Like any novice queer, I ate it up at the time -- thanked my lucky stars for the blessing of another hip straight friend.

So the essay is about, in part, my hurt over having been left out of the facts of his own life for so long -- even as I also acknowledge that telling someone your HIV status isn't necessarily the same as coming out as gay; one could argue that the emotional, and other, risks are in no way equivalent.


The last time I saw Mark was when I took a trip to New York in the fall of 1996. By then, he was very ill and staying with his parents in Queens. (He'd lived in Manhattan ever since college.)

It was there, at the house Mark had grown up in, where I saw him seven months before he died. . . . K. and I drove out from the city with a couple of other New York friends.

There's nothing I can add to the experience of those who have seen the physical effects of AIDS. What still feels worth reporting, worth honoring -- all this time after Mark's death, all this time after the initial onslaught of gay deaths from AIDS -- is that the shock dissipates. You get over it, and fast: This is what your friend looks like. The old smile, the heart, the stories don't change.

We sat on his parents' deck, four men and one woman in their 30s, talking Seinfeld reruns, college parties from 15 years back, bosses and too-distant vacations. Then Mark mentioned his will -- some technicality of interest. (He and two others in the group were lawyers.) A comment as insignificant as a splinter under the skin. A beat, and then: "Do you guys have wills?"

Like some kind of Duck Duck Goose for grown-ups, we each, one by one, said no -- a little ashamed, as if admitting we didn't wash our feet when we bathed.

"You should," he said, smiling kindly, looking us in the eye.

The essay is also about the friendship Mark and I did have -- however flawed -- and that's where I think it fails as a piece of writing. It's almost impossible to convey the breadth of a friendship in any written work, let alone in a relatively short essay.

The picture on my wall is one I took the last time I saw him healthy, in June 1994. We'd just had lunch on the day before the Stonewall march.


Afterward, we said goodbye amid the flower and herb vendors on Union Square, and I told him I'd call him from DC. I took a picture of him -- laughing, his hair summer-light, his cheeks the color of the impatiens behind him -- but I never got around to calling.

His last note to me before he died was at Christmas 1996.

"Things very much the same around here," he wrote. Remembering that I'd told him my partner and I were planning a trip to Hawaii, he closed with: "Promise me one thing -- go to Maui and Kauai, two of the world's greatest paradises."

In the essay, I wanted to convey my love for Mark, and my sadness at the loss of a friend -- so paltry, in a quantitative way, compared with the loss of dozens of friends that so many gay men experienced in the 1980s and '90s -- and my forgiveness for what he wasn't able to tell me (not so much that he was HIV-positive but that he was, as I know now, at least bisexual). Here's how I closed the essay:

I did go to Hawaii, two months before Mark died. But I didn't get to Maui or Kauai. If I'd gone there, I could have sent Mark a postcard showing him that I'd seen his paradises. I like the idea of there being more than one of them in this world.

Instead, I sent him a card from the Big Island. Not Maui or Kauai, but beautiful enough: charred volcano and bamboo orchid, lush valley and black-sand beach, sacred temple and buried town. The delicate, petrified muddle of nature, alive in the middle of the sea.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Recipes

"Less fear, more action," a friend wrote in an Instant Message a week or so ago.

He was speaking to himself, but it was the best advice I'd heard in a while. So I appropriated it for my own life.

It's an even trade, as sometime last year he appropriated a mantra of mine that had spontaneously come to me one night as I left the house on, if you must know, a date (iron turned off, back door locked, keys in pocket): "Be yourself. Be honest. Take it as it comes."

Saturday, May 06, 2006

"Haven't I Seen You Before?"

I received in the mail today two pictures of myself from a conference at which I was a presenter in March. They were taken by the conference organizer during a workshop I taught on the first day. I remember being peripherally aware of her coming in with a camera while I prattled on.

I've never seen myself teaching, and I'm rather stunned and fascinated by these pictures. I can't stop looking at them. As I see it, there's a relaxed confidence and authority in my posture. In both photos, I'm caught in the middle of speaking, and while such a moment is often highly unflattering to most people, I've got to say I don't think either is a bad picture.

What strikes me more than anything is how different both are from my prevailing self-image. Not that I don't think I'm a good teacher or that I feel like a quivering mess when I teach. I don't -- though I was very anxious before this particular workshop, because I had never taught it before. It's just that, day to day, I don't imagine that the world sees me as someone who exudes relaxed confidence and authority. And Lord knows I don't see myself that way.

But it's right there in these pictures.

I did get a lot of positive feedback on that workshop, despite my advance jitters, so perhaps I'm someone who occasionally . . . um . . . exudes relaxed confidence and authority?

I would show you the pictures if (1) I had a scanner and (2) this weren't a (more or less) anonymous blog. So instead, for those of you who have never met me, here are some people who, at various times in my life, I've -- honest to God -- been told I resemble: this guy, this guy, this guy, this guy, and (splash of ice-cold water) this guy.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Danger, Will Robinson: Dog Story Ahead


Here's what I have to look forward to in approximately four and a half hours:

At 4:30 AM, my beagle, C., will wander into the bedroom from his night on the living room couch (or armchair, depending on his mood) and stand looking quizzically and helplessly at the bed, where my terrier mutt, P. (see long-promised picture above), and I will be sleeping -- only now P. will be all roused by C.'s entry onto the premises.

But wait -- we have strict rules around here: No breakfast before 5 AM! No, sir. So I'll get out of bed, scoop C. up, plop him on the bed, and shut the bedroom door. Then P. will be truly excited and will start licking my face and walking on top of me.

"P., lie down!" I'll say firmly. "Lie down!" She'll lie down for five to ten minutes, then will start all over again. I'll start my part all over again once or twice more over the next ten to fifteen minutes. Finally, I'll realize that I'm not getting any sleep anyway and the notion of "discipline" will be exposed as the sham it is as P.'s paws track across my neck, my cheek, my groin one time too many.

So the three of us will go into the kitchen ("Sit, C.! Stay! Down!"), I'll give them breakfast, and then I'll let them out back to tinkle.

Here's the drill from this point on: I'll go get the newspaper if it's come this early (lately it hasn't) and then sit at the table reading it or a magazine. (Take it from me, the New Republic's frightening cover story on Virginia senator and possible Republican presidential candidate George Allen is enough to keep anyone's eyes open at 5 AM.)

P. will return from the backyard first and sit beside me, her wagging tail demanding that I scratch her mohawk as I read. Then, in his own sweet time, C. will wander in.

But I can't move yet! I have to let C. toddle past me and into the bedroom by himself. He won't hop onto the bed if anyone's looking, and he'll growl if I try to lift him onto it (unlike at 4:30 AM, when he's happy to be helped into the bed, as if he doesn't know how do it on his own).

When I hear him hop up, it's safe to put my reading aside, shut the back door, turn out the lights, and settle back for two more hours of sleep -- the most blissful of the too-short night -- in the family bed.