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.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 01, 2014


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).

Labels: , , , , , ,