Friday, January 30, 2009

A Small Promise

When I woke up this morning, something seemed a bit different in the plant window.
Months ago I planted some sweetpeas in a big pot. I've had luck with growing morning glories indoors, but I'd never tried these before, and had no idea what to expect. From what I'd been told, it sounded like they could be a bit fussy, even when planted outdoors, so I was pleased when they sprouted and started vining. Still, I was beginning to wonder if that was all I was going to get. I can't quite recall when I planted them, but I think it was early September. I had assumed by now I'd either have blooms or a pot ready for a new experiment. Some of the oldest vines began dying off, but plenty of them still seemed vigorous, and a few new ones even started sprouting. I liked the look of the vines themselves, with their curly tendrils, and was content to consider the experiment a qualified success if this was as far as it went. I hadn't even seen anything that looked like flower buds yet.

So imagine my delight this morning when the first thing I noticed across the room was a mysterious white shape in the window.

So far the scent is very faint, and I have to be careful not to brush against the scented geranium (see lower left in top photo) when I lean over to sniff it, since its lemony smell easily overwhelms anything else. But I've definitely caught a faint whiff of sweetpea.
Maybe this will be the only blossom I get out of it. Maybe my room will never be filled with the perfume of sweetpeas as I hoped, but I'm still feeling like the experiment just got more successful. Amazing how something as simple, even predictable as a flower will feel miraculous.
Happy Almost Groundhog Day.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Prayers for Bobby This Saturday on Lifetime

Last night I saw an advance screening of a new made-for-television movie, Prayers for Bobby, starring Sigourney Weaver. It seems a little silly to go to a public showing of a movie that will be playing on television, doesn't it. Well, I had a couple of reasons to be there. One, Ms. Weaver was going to be there to take questions afterwards. My main reason though was the subject matter.

The movie is based on a true story of the Griffith family, specifically dealing with the mother, Mary, as she struggles to reconcile her devout Christian faith with her son Bobby's gayness. I have many friends who may feel this already constitutes a spoiler, so in deference to those friends I'll just say, watch the movie this Saturday, Jan 24th, on Lifetime, at 9pm. Within in the limitations of a made-for-television movie, I think it does some remarkable things. If you can, watch it with any friend who believes the Bible is unequivocal on the subject of homosexuality. And don't read any more of this entry right now.

Prayers for Bobby was a book first, one that had somehow escaped my attention, but it is now often the book that glbt children give their parents when they first come out to them. Mary Griffith, believing she was acting out of love, tried every method out there to 'cure' her son of his homosexuality, and didn't start to question her actions until it was too late. Understand, this is not a happy movie, though I do think ultimately it's a hopeful one. Mary Griffith is very firm now in her acceptance of glbt folks, and she has come a long way from her previous Biblically-based disapproval. The movie reflects that journey, so there will be plenty of people who find it easy to dismiss as polemic. That said, I think the movie also does a good job of showing her intentions were always based in love, even if they were (in my, and now, her opinion) dead wrong. Mary was a mother doing what she thought was right for her child and now is working hard to do what she believes is right for other children. Ms Weaver said she hoped that having this show in people's living rooms would, in the most loving way, ambush a few people. Maybe folks would turn on something starring that lady from the Aliens movie, find the story compelling enough to stick it out, and end up re-examining some of their beliefs afterwards. There was a time when I would have thought that was a sweet yet silly pipe-dream, but that was before I met many of you. That was before Brokeback Mountain. Many of you found your way to a more accepting place through all sorts of surprising sources. Maybe this movie will do the same for at least a few others.

Recent conversations and blog-reading have reminded me how easily the fears, insecurities and plain-old feelings of worthlessness crop up for glbt folks, no matter how long we've been out, no matter how accepting the people around us are, no matter how good a life we've managed to build for ourselves. I suspect most people battle demons their whole lives, but since my experience is as a gay man, that's the one I understand most easily. Seeing the movie last night reminded me how much of a struggle coming out was, and continues to be, even after more than twenty years. Understand, I think I escaped the most vicious forms of the message. I did not grow up hearing homosexuality regularly denounced in Quaker meeting, at least not that I can recall. While my loved ones did occasionally make jokes or scathing remarks in my hearing, I'd also seen each of them go to bat, publicly, for gay friends, and never questioned that they would love me no matter what. Yes, I was surrounded at school by students AND faculty who rarely missed an opportunity to make fags the butt of a joke, but as the child of pacifist liberal-socialists in a conservative town I had already been taught it was valid to question conventional wisdom. Yet none of that made a difference; I still loathed myself for being gay. I still lay awake nights praying I would be cured. I still decided, at age thirteen, that since the cure thing didn't seem to be happening, I would simply be alone and celibate my whole life. I was nineteen and in my second year of college before I even considered re-examining this choice. I even avoided becoming too close to people, just as friends, because I had this deep, terrible secret. I still believed I was worthless. Suicide was a constant spectre in my adolescent years. Looking back I am hard-pressed to identify the specifics of where, when or how I took in this message, nor why I accepted it so easily, but I did. If I, with unconditional love at home, and at least the theory that the issue was debatable, felt this worthless, how much worse must it have been for teenagers who lacked even these glimmers of hope? As a forty-two year old man living in NYC, with a loving network of friends and family who have known the real me for nearly twenty-three years, I still sometimes discover feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt creeping in. They usually wear clever disguises these days, but when I unmask them, they often turn out to be old yet still potent emotions from adolescence. Sex is still fraught with thoughts of death, disease, humiliation and wrongness. I still sometimes feel a momentary disgust -and complicity- if I meet the 'wrong' kind of gay man, or I see one behaving in a way I consider 'unseemly'. Feelings of guilt are still a hair's-breadth away for a wide array of causes (and if I shared some of those causes, you'd be amazed at the level of ridiculousness).

I was, without a doubt, one of the lucky ones. The homophobia I lived through was a glancing blow compared to what many suffer. How much harder do others, lacking my good fortune, have to fight to maintain a sense of human dignity, hell, a sense of simple pleasure in their days? How many kids never even get this far? How many closets are still out there?

Mary Griffith has become an activist for glbt rights with a special insight on children in religious communities. My memory won't do justice to a statement she made, but the gist of it is "before you say 'amen', remember, a child is listening." Experience, and many of you, dear friends, have taught me that movies like this often DO reach people in surprising ways. The organizers of the advance showing last night were specifically hoping we would get the word out, so that's what I'm doing here. It's my special hope that this movie reaches people who work with kids, and even if it doesn't change their views of Scripture, that at least it leads them to new more loving ways to approach the topic. A tall order, I realize, but I've seen it happen, as have so many of you. Understanding only comes when we're able to talk and listen to one another but this hard enough for adults; it's simply beyond the average teenager. As someone who made it through to a better place, this movie reminded me how lucky I was, and how much responsibility I have to people, especially kids, to share my good fortune.

The movie is far from perfect. Some of the strokes get painted a bit broadly. Ms. Weaver herself, seeing the final cut for the first time last night, said she found the commercial breaks annoying. Did I mention this movie is playing on Lifetime? It definitely bears that stamp. But it portrays a struggle that still goes on, all the time, all over the country, even in supposed bastions of tolerance like New York. The movie is unabashed in its espousal of a message. But that message is still needed.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Patrick: The Early Years

My dad taught English at a small college for over forty years. This provided the whole family with some wonderful opportunities, one of the best being the time we spent in Ireland and the UK. Between sabbaticals and foreign study programs from the school, we lived in London (with regular excursions elsewhere) on three different occasions. The first time this happened, I was about ten months old. Sadly, I don't have many memories from this three month period.

I blame the drugs.

The trip started with a five-day boat crossing. Because the time difference between the US and England is five hours, it seemed like a sensible plan to move the clock one hour each day of the voyage, so people could get acclimated easily. Like most infants however, I was a conservative child, and did not cotton to this kind of messing about with clocks. According to my parents, I stubbornly maintained my schedule and routine in the face of all obstacles and entreaties. Eventually I must have given in to the new schedule, but it sounds like I did not do so with much grace.

No, there were no drugs involved in that part of the story, but I suspect my recalcitrance may help explain a later event. See, it was early Spring in London when we arrived, and for those of you who don't know what that means, it means cold and damp. In 1967 central heating was unknown in most of England so the cold damp seeped into our bones, making relatively mild temperatures seem much more frigid. Almost everyone on the program (this was one of those times Mom and Dad were leading a student group) came down with a cold at some point. I went one better, and came down with the croup. No, I don't really know what that is, I'll google it later. Feel free to do the same, and let me know what you discover. The important point here is that said croup made me very cranky and noisy. After my cranky, noisy ocean crossing, this was probably getting a bit old. Following the advice of a local pharmacist, my folks doused me with something available in England called Gripe Water, and it worked like magic. Suddenly I was calm, quiet, not coughing, just a whole other baby. I finally appeared to be comfortable, so everyone in the household breathed a sigh of relief.

It's unclear how long I was on the Gripe Water. It may have been only a day or two, I can't really say, probably because the medicine affected my sense of time. You see, eventually my folks discovered that it contained laudanum. Did I mention this was London, in 1967? Yup, I was following in the footsteps of Coleridge and others of the Romantics. Frankly I think it's too bad no one gave me a pen and pad at the time, maybe I could have discovered the ending of Kublai Khan. My folks got me off the stuff ( if heroin is horse, what would laudanum be? Pony?) seemingly with no ill-effects, but the story isn't over yet.

(On an unrelated note, one of the students on the program discovered I was able to palm a basketball. No, we have no idea how that worked, and sadly, it's the last time I ever distinguished myself with a basketball.)

When it was time to head home, we were scheduled to fly out of Shannon airport, in Ireland (I'm not sure if this had always been the plan, or if my behavior on the voyage out had ruined my family's taste for sea-travel). We had dinner in the airport, and Dad had some sort of whipped cream dessert that I took a great liking to. I kept leaning forward in my high chair, mouth agape like a baby bird, and I guess I was just too cute, so he'd give me another small spoonful. It wasn't until we were on the plane that my folks realized the dessert contained Irish Mist. The amount was negligible to my dad's taste buds, but I couldn't yet hold my liquor, and was now nice and toasty. According to Dad I was -surprise- a noisy drunk, singing songs, telling stories, offering to fight anyone on the plane, and sleep was simply out of the question. Mom and Dad had to take turns walking me up and down the length of the plane. For the entire trip. I bet they -and every other person on the plane- wish they had packed some Gripe Water. Or possibly some cyanide.

It's a testament to my folks that I lived through this trip (maybe there were just too many witnesses, including my six year old sister), and again, there don't seem to have been any serious repercussions, but we weren't out of the woods yet. I had begun crawling while we were in London, naturally. We'd been staying in a typical London flat, with small rooms, so when we were back in our more spacious Indiana house, I tended to huddle in corners. My family assumed I was just a little freaked out by the greater size of the rooms, but I don't know. It sounds to me like I was going through withdrawal, don't you think?

I did manage to get clean, but there was at least one relapse. At some point I got a hold of a jar of rubber glue, and drank it down. When my dad realized what I had done, he picked me up to smell my breath, and I cheerfully licked him on the nose. Until I barfed the glue up later that night, I was a very happy little fellow. Thank god I was at least quiet about it. I'm not sure how much more my poor family could have taken.

I think all this early experimentation on my part actually served me well. I've never even been tempted to try hard drugs as a teenager or adult, and I think I had no more the requisite number of stupid drunk experiences in college. If I suffered any developmental delays or damages, we've never noticed them. Frankly I think my folks deserve credit for seeing that I made it to my second birthday alive, let alone unscathed.

Parenthood is not for sissies, is it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Harlem Serenade

Saturday morning, around 6am I was wakened by a man singing in the street. In a Latin accent thickened by drink my troubadour bellowed -there is no other verb to describe it- the following ditty.

I'm thinkin' I want my water bottle
I'm thinkin' I want my water bottle
Water bottle, water bottle.

Between renditions of this song (there appeared to be only one verse, though he did improvise some changes) he alternated -rapidly- between passionate declarations of love ("I love you, Juanito, man!") and hate ("I hate you, N****!") At some point a woman's voice entered the fray. She was much quieter, most of the time I couldn't make out what she was saying though "go home" did ring out clearly every once in a while. The troubadour took exception to this advice ("Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!") would bellow "La Policia," then return to his song.

Even though this went on for at least an hour, I was uncharacteristically relaxed, even amused by all this. Sure I wondered why Juanito wasn't returning the fellow's water bottle, seemed like that would be an easy solution to the problem, but undoubtedly there were complications I knew nothing about. Even so, I really didn't mind the disturbance too much. Partly this was because The Water Bottle Song triggered thoughts of another song, one my sister reminded me of over the holidays, The Elephant Song.

Two elephants went out to play
All on a spider's web one day
They had such, enormous fun
They called for another elephant to come
Elephant, Elephant,

Three elephants went out to play

Maybe hearing my sister's voice singing this song (and recalling the context in which it came up) is why I was mostly amused by Water Bottle's antics. I love the surreality of this tune; I mean, elephants playing on a spider's web? "Enormous fun"? This song is genius, and fortunately for me was the one more likely to be played on the continuous loop in my head. I like it. If you're not familiar with this song, let me tell you the tune is also pretty catchy.

It does come with some dangers though. The fact that it counts UP rather than down strikes me as trouble in the making; I mean, when do you stop? Naturally thinking about this triggered thoughts of another song.

99 bottles of beer on the wall
99 bottles of beer
Take one down
Pass it around
98 bottles of beer on the wall.

This song has none of the charm or inventiveness of the Elephant Song, in my opinion, I might even prefer the Water Bottle Song over this one, but at least you know it's going to end sometime. This then reminded me (ah the associations one's brain makes at 6 in the morning) of a story a friend of mine told me. When he was ten or so, this friend was on a car trip with his parents, when he elected to sing every verse of the Bottles of Beer Song, starting from some ludicrously high number. I want to say he started with a million, but it was probably a thousand. In recounting this story, he and I both marveled at the fact that not only did his folks not choose to muzzle him, stuff him in a suitcase and put him in the trunk of the car, they DIDN'T EVEN ASK HIM TO STOP SINGING. Every single verse, he sang every single one. All the way through. Because it amused him. He thought it was funny. Entertaining even. One thousand verses of this song scrupulously rendered.

Dear sweet mother of God.

Either his parents were masters of meditation, and tuned him out, or they deserve sainthood. I suppose it's possible they were so smitten with their youngest child that they were actually entertained by his singing, but come on, how likely is that? Nobody can love their child that much.

So, thanks to the troubadour, I've had all three of these songs popping into my brain at regular intervals over the last two days. And now, probably so will you. Well, the ones you know, anyway.

You're welcome.

Friday, January 09, 2009

I'd Prefer Adobe

Usually I like to be in New York for New Year's. After all, this is where I am making a life, I should start the year here as a symbolic commitment to the place. This seems especially necessary given how ambivalent I am about living here, or in any city. Even so, I decided this year to stay in Indiana, preferring to celebrate with family, trees, quiet, and a big happy dog. That all went as planned. What I hadn't planned on was coming down with shingles.
As uncomfortable as I am, I have to say it's really not too bad so far (knock wood) and I probably lucked out in many ways. The initial symptom was a weird sensation that the skin under my skin had gotten chafed, but it approximated sore muscles just enough for me to think I was merely getting used to an unfamiliar bed. When the itching started, I attributed it to the forced air heat of my sister's house, and the dry Midwestern weather. I'm used to being a little itchy in the winter in Indiana, if I've forgotten to get body lotion. Once the lesions started though, I got a little freaked out. For reasons that remain obscure (oh, I have my theories) my skin has been rather temperamental the last five years (simply getting older figures into at least one of my theories). What was refreshing about this time though was for once a medical person could look at me and diagnose the problem immediately. My experience with many in the medical profession the past fifteen years has been they examine me, look perplexed, schedule lots of expensive tests and subsequent office visits, occasionally imply that maybe I'm making it all up, finally shrug their shoulders, wish me luck, and send me on my way without any answers. Simply getting a diagnosis was an incredible relief, and I didn't realize it would be until she gave it. I'm also grateful to have been in Indiana when all this started. In New York I would have simply waited to see my regular doctor, which often can take as much as a month because she's an over-worked good Samaritan working sixteen hour days (I suspect) in a swamped clinic, and during that month my active imagination would have conjured all sorts of implausible yet not entirely impossible worst-case scenarios. In Indiana I was able to walk into a drop-in clinic and walk out with answers and prescriptions in about forty minutes. Better still, I had my sister along for company, and her cheerful, supportive spirits practically made the whole occasion FUN.

Lunch at Laceyland afterwards revealed that I was carrying on a family tradition; both Mom and Dad have had them, Mom in fact came down with them last Christmas. Oddly enough, that too seemed comforting. At this point, the itching has stopped and the pain is quite manageable. Frankly it's not much worse than the chronic pain I've been dealing with since '92; the quality and location is different, but the level of intensity is about the same. I'm lucky in many ways; I could have gotten them in my eyes, and gone permanently blind. I could have gotten them someplace other than my chest, making it uncomfortable to sit or lie down. And yes, apparently I could be in a lot more pain than I am. I'm also lucky that I knew I was going to be in a seasonal lay-off right now, so I had budgeted last month for no work until the 20th, by which point I should be in fighting (well, as much as we Quakers fight) trim. I'm thinking the students and teachers might be less than enthusiastic about drawing me if I were still sporting my scabs.

There have been some sobering moments; I had to avoid visiting a loved one who is finishing up chemo after a year of successfully fighting cancer. The nurse practitioner told me that with his weakened immune system, exposure to this virus could kill him. She also warned me from spending time with pregnant women, immune-compromised folks, and any adult who hadn't had chickenpox. Naturally my coming back to New York on the plane seemed to necessitate snuggling up to about four million pregnant ladies, 9 million extremely old folks, and at least one woman recovering from a full hysterectomy (I learned this standing next to her in the security line, when she explained to a guard why she needed help putting her suitcase on the conveyor belt; I held my breath the whole time I was near her). Back in New York my regular doctor was able to give me a bit more perspective on all that over the phone, and I no longer feel like QUITE such a typhoid Mary. I do still feel like a leper a good part of the time though. It's hard not to, when you have lesions. I have resisted the urge to get a clapper and scream "unclean! unclean!" everywhere I go though. After two weeks away from my life here, even with the holidays, I came back to find a few things seemed to be in danger of going off the rails and I simply had to attend to them. They all worked out fine, but today is the first day since Sunday that I haven't had to do SOMETHING out and about. I'm looking forward to a lazy, loungy, easy day. The lethargy and ennui is probably due to the medication, funnily enough. When I wasn't on anything my energy wasn't too bad, and once the pain replaced the itching, I wasn't too uncomfortable. The most common side-effect of the medication (Acyclovir) is -get this- 'feeling unwell'. Okey-dokey. For now this just means I'm being lazy and unproductive COMPLETELY GUILT-FREE. Maybe not how I'd have chosen to kick off 2009, but for now I'm not minding so much. Indiana was a wonderful restful time for me, before the shingles showed up, and my impression is Laceyland as a whole had a pretty good holiday too. This has been a hard year for some members of my family; things are definitely looking up now, but I think we were all just a bit more aware of how lucky we were to all be together this year. I got a little morose and weepy towards the end of my stay, to be honest, but I think that may also have been caused -or at least heightened- by the meds. Looking at the Christmas tree at Laceyland, and thinking about the history of individual ornaments sent me into a deep Irish melancholy one evening, and I'm SURE that was the drugs. I mean, come on.
Today though, the sun is shining, I've put out all the minor brush fires, I've gotten to see some wonderful people (all with good hardy constitutions and a bout of chickenpox in their pasts) and I've got some good books to read. Oh, and some things to show you. In no particular order...
Sitting in the big easy chair at Hazelthorne (having successfully displaced Eddie the cat in it) I looked over at the tree my sister and brother-in-law had decorated. On the side closest to the window there appeared to be some of that artificial snow some people like to put on their trees. It was only in one spot though, and isn't the kind of thing I would have thought either Mary or Tony would go for, so I investigated more closely. Turns out it was an entire metropolis of spider webs, stretching from the ceiling down to the floor, all along the tree, running even to the window. I looked carefully for an enormous spider capable of such a feat, but realized that it was actually the work of a whole lot of tiny spiderlings, each the size of a dust-speck. I showed it to Mary who was similarly fascinated, and we agreed to leave it until Tony got home. Once he had a chance to marvel at it, Mary got rid of it with a feather duster. I was gratified to find that even my brother-in-law the entomologist is creeped out a bit by spiders. None of us really minded these little guys, but we didn't see any great need to let nature take its course, which would have involved them getting bigger and eating each other until one prevailed. I was also quite itchy (but in the dark as to why) by this point, and even though I knew these little guys probably weren't to blame, it was still hard not to associate them with my malaise. You know, itchy, creep-crawly bitey things, the imagination can do wonders with that fodder. Here we have Mom flanked by two of her best friends. This image epitomizes something cozy and home-like for me. Mom has the guarded look most of my family members have when I try to take candid shots. I don't know what Fang is so alert about. The three of them spend a good amount of time like this. Cleo is also fond of taking Mom's chair at the dining table, forcing Mom to perch precariously on the edge. God forbid she actually move the cat.

I'm beginning to think Fang doesn't like having her photo taken either. This is probably because when I'm trying to get a close-up of her, I'm trying to get her to look at the camera and hold still. This really only happens if she is resting. I wonder too if having a camera lens aimed at her feels just enough like being stared at for her doggy wariness to kick in. I have at least one shot of her where she looks as if I were scolding her. I did manage to get a few shots of her though. Here she is opening her Christmas present. One of Fang's favorite activities is disemboweling stuffed animals. She saves all the pelts, occasionally burying her bone under them so she can 'dig it up' and she'll often settle down for a nap with all of them resting between her forepaws. Clearly she loves these toys, but only when they're pelts. Giving her the present right away meant she was happily distracted while the rest of us unwrapped things. She is thorough and unrelenting when it comes to evisceration. The floor was quickly covered with fluff.
After many attempts over many days, she finally let me get a close-up of her resting. This is the only shot where she agreed not to move either her tail or head. If you look carefully in the upper right quadrant, you can see the mighty hunter poised to catch a vole. At this point Fang has at least fifteen squirrels, a handful of baby rabbits and god only knows how many voles under her belt. She's an effective killer of small animals. Kind of makes the disemboweling of stuffed animals a little less cute, huh?
While Fang appears shy around cameras, Cleo the Laceyland cat just never seems to have time in her schedule for photographs. I get the impression she's had to deal with a lot of paparazzi. Eddie, the cat of Hazelthorne, on the other hand, not only is quite willing to hold for photos, he seems even to pose at times. Yes, the majority of them involve lounging decoratively on a bed in the sun; I didn't say he was innovative, but his sense of composition is decent. He might even know which is his best side. In real life it often looks like he's wearing a lopsided toupee (earning him the nickname Mr Tudball), but that isn't what comes through in the photos I've taken so far.

To his credit, he's also fairly playful, affectionate and goofy. I've learned to love cats, but I still bond more quickly with cats that act like dogs. If I want to be ignored by an animal I'll get fish. Or a pet rock.

My siblings and I still make Christmas cookies every year. We use a recipe of our maternal grandmother's (the one who could cook, according to Dad). It would be so easy to feel a little bashful about maintaining such a tradition now that we're all in our forties, but fortunately no one seems tempted down that path. I suppose holidays often come with traditions that tap us back into child-like pleasures. I certainly look forward to this every year.

As usual, the two weeks included several satisfying walks. I may share more photos from them over the next few days, once I figure out how many different shots of trees I really need to subject you all to. Funnily enough we never had any snow, and more than one day was virtually spring-like. All the storms that passed through went north of us, to my disappointment, to be honest. Bad weather did manage to turn my four hour flight to Indiana into an eighteen hour day (and as Tornwordo observes, just sitting for that long is exhausting), but even that was because of trouble everywhere else, not where I was coming from, or where I was going. Ah, the romance of air travel. I respect it when weather reminds us that it is still in charge, though. Luckily the trip home was as easy as could be, since I now had the shingles to remind me that my body isn't always under my control either. So far that seems to be the message of 2009, for me: let go. Workin' on it. (The shot above is sunset on Christmas Day, looking out the living room windows at my parents place.)

I hope your holidays were comforting and joyous, and that the new year is starting off full of hope.