Friday, November 30, 2007

Challenging the Premise

I'm walking along Sixth Avenue in the West Village. There's a person walking in front of me, short hair, down jacket. A panhandler, trying to drum up business, calls out, "young man! Young man!" As I walk past he says "Young lady...uh, young man!"
Hm, I think, time for a haircut.
The 'young man' in front of me turns and I realize she's a woman.
"He wasn't really helping his case, was he," she says.

No indeed.

For about two years in Seattle, in the early nineties, I had really long hair. During college my appearance was usually in the control of whatever director I was working with, so I hadn't gotten to indulge the experimentation many people do in college. When I graduated, and was not always subject to the needs of a play or director, I started to play a bit. Contrary to prevailing conventional wisdom, I actually worked more with long hair, and got cast in more interesting roles, in part because of the hair. (Yes, that's me up there, in Ireland in '93.)

As with any change in appearance, though, a side-effect was dealing with new reactions from people, especially strangers. Remember, this was Seattle in the nineties, so people frequently assumed I was a straight guy in a grunge band. It was not uncommon though, for people to mistake me for a woman. It was usually if the light were dim, or if they saw me first from the back, or if I was wearing earrings that dangled just a bit too much. I mean I wasn't swanning about in frocks and eye-shadow or anything. Not that I have a problem with that, mind you. Just not really my thing; off-stage at least.

Shut up.

One night I was leaving my 24 hour grocery store around three am; On the other side of the parking lot (I'd say at least one hundred feet) there were a couple of guys about to go into the store. One of them saw me, stopped and said, "Hey... come over here." His tone was flirty, friendly, in no way threatening, but even if I hadn't had a nice fellow waiting for me at home, I wouldn't have gone over to say hi. Somehow I just knew he thought he was talking to a woman. Maybe I was wrong and he was flirting with a guy, maybe I was right and we all would have a chuckle when I went over... but I wasn't really interested in putting it to the test. Especially not at three in the morning.

Most of the time, however, when this happened, the illusion rarely lasted long; people would get a better look, or I'd speak (I sing bass-baritone, for those who haven't met me), and they'd realize their mistake. Then they would usually scramble with great embarrassment to apologize. Apparently if someone, in all honesty and with no intent to offend, mistook me for a woman, I was supposed to be offended.

I get it, of course. I mean, come on, I grew up in this society too, let's not play dumb. People would worry that their mistake would tell me that I was looking ambiguous, or, more importantly, that I wasn't manly enough. That was what was supposed to offend me. That hapless, perhaps near-sighted panhandler in Greenwich Village has me thinking about this again, and making some deeper, more complicated connections.

Fact is, I was quite effeminate as a kid, a classic sissy in the "plays with dolls, dresses up like a girl during make-believe, always gets picked last for any sports teams on the rare occasions he couldn't avoid them all together" kind of way. My family never tried to change me, though I think the 'pretending to be a girl' part was cause for at least some consternation. A few years ago Mom shame-facedly asked if I remembered her giving me a little state trooper's outfit when I was about six. I have no recollection of this whatsoever, but I howled with laughter. The idea that this life-long Quaker Pacifist Feminist thought a law enforcement uniform would straighten me out still makes me snort. Not sure Mom thinks it as funny as I do, yet.

Obviously as I aged though, I, like most guys, was terrified of being pegged as a sissy. I didn't strive to be overly butch (not being good at sports would have always been the fly in that ointment), but I certainly tried to downplay any unfortunate habits or displays. I was lucky in that I was surrounded by a small community of people who a) didn't believe that sports was the only measure of a man and b) believed there was nothing wrong with a guy liking art, music, theatre and even (gasp!) dance. It has to be acknowledged though, the point being made was that none of these things made you gay. The assumption that gayness was to be avoided went unquestioned.

Also to be avoided were any guys who weren't able to butch it up at least to minimum levels. Guilt by association is the Lingua Franca of high school, after all; you're only as cool as your geekiest friend. I didn't challenge this assumption at all either. Then when I started college, and started meeting guys who were openly gay AND flamboyant, I was even more uncomfortable. Why did they have to fulfill all the stereotypes like that? Didn't they see that they were ruining it for the rest of us? It's unfortunate of course, but were they really surprised they were bashed, discriminated against, ostracized, since they just refused to act normal? How could I ever think of coming out if it was immediately going to throw me into bed (ahem) with these flamers? Yes, I had started to question a lot of this thinking before I actually came out, but I can't overlook the fact that the final step that pushed me out of the closet was the discovery that not one, but two 'normal' guys on campus, guys I had crushes on in fact, were gay.

Once I was out, there began to be a new dynamic to this debate. Many people hastened to tell me they didn't have a clue, that I "passed." A few folks also made a point of telling me they had always known, that I was completely incapable of hiding it. This was when I began to realize just how slippery the whole concept of manliness was. Butchness is in the eye of the beholder. I recognized I still felt a bit of pride when someone told me I passed, and I felt resentful when someone insisted I didn't. That passing was the goal went unchallenged.

I can't claim to be completely over this either. I still feel the internal buzzer go off ("thanks for playing!") for especially swishy mannerisms, or fussiness, prissiness or bitchiness. I like to believe this is no worse than disliking rudeness or arrogance, but am not yet giving myself a free pass on that count. I know that I still buy into the idea that anything too swishy connotes frivolity, and men are supposed to be serious business, even when they're funny. I no longer feel personally implicated by other people though, and I guess that's progress. I definitely believe now that every one, regardless of mien, deserve equal rights and equal protection to live their lives, which is definitely progress. I just might not find myself dating them very often. On the flip-side I am definitely turned off by anyone trumpeting "straight-acting" as a desired quality. Even if someone decides I fit this definition, it's safe to say he and I will encounter other problems pretty soon. In a attempt to address this head on I make a habit of wearing four earrings anytime I have a blind date; if this is going to be a problem, better we know now, right? I'm not sure if this is me embracing my inner woman/drag queen, especially now when tough straight guys all over the place have way more holes in their heads than I do. Hell, now the young folks seem to be putting grommets in their ears (seriously, is that a towel rack?), but my little hoops do still send a lot of the gay boys running for the hills, shrieking and flailing their hands.

In recent years I've felt more comfortable saying essentially "this is another way of being a man." Rather than worrying about fitting the definition, I assume the definition includes me, along with RuPaul, Bill O'Reilly, Andrew Sullivan, and Prince. I still make concessions, of course. I still prefer to be ignored most of the time in the city, especially in my macho Latino neighborhood. Still not swanning about in frocks and eye-shadow. In my own head though, I'm just not worried about passing anymore. Most days. The process of getting comfortable in one's own skin, I guess it never really stops.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


I can't remember the date, unfortunately, but just before Thanksgiving, twenty-two years ago (sweet merciful cats), I began coming out. Every year for the past three or four, I will suddenly remember that fact right about now. I think the change in weather, and the looking inward that this season triggers in me is what bring the memory to the surface.

I was a sophomore in college, and actually the whole semester I had been considering coming out, working myself up to do it. I had, up until that year, thought that I would just be single and celibate all my life. That just seemed the easiest and most sensible course of action. I talk about my misanthropy in an earlier entry, so I won't go into it here. I'm thinking about other things right now.

I think that Autumn I was coming to accept that I had a secret that, yes, did matter, and I was withholding it from people whom I loved, and who loved me. I was lying, at least by omission, to important people in my life. The 'Live like a Monk for the Rest of Your Life' plan only worked if I stuck to my original policy to keep everyone at arm's length. I had been rethinking that policy all semester; this secret, I could no longer deny, just stood in the way of relationships I now wanted. Oddly enough I came out first to a guy I barely knew, pretty much in the spur of the moment. Once I said the words, I had a moment of panic where I felt like I could never take it back, that something was about to take off that I couldn't control. Fortunately this new friend turned out to be a good choice. I sat down four of my closest friends the following evening, and told them. So far, I was five for five in the positive response category.

Then came the big hurdle. I was attending the college where my Dad taught, so I realized I would have to tell my family, before they found out through other channels if I didn't want to hurt them all terribly. That gave me a six week vacation to get it done. Just as I was beginning to chicken out, Mom asked ME, on Christmas Day, then I sat Dad, Mary and James down the next day. I was now nine for nine in the supportive category.

You have to understand, I KNEW they would be supportive. Sure, Dad had been fond of the occasional fag joke when in the bosom of his family (and whether he sensed something, or I was just more sensitive, there seemed to be more of them that vacation), but he and Mom had gay and lesbian friends. I knew that during the year my Dad was acting president, students had formed a gay people's union, and causing an uproar on the school board. Dad went into the next board meeting with a letter or resignation in his pocket, ready to submit it if they ordered him to disband the group. My sister had written a letter to the editor when she was in college, denouncing a homophobic article that had appeared in the paper. I was less certain how my baby brother would react, but I was used to bossing him around, knew he loved me, and would listen to all of us. As far as my friends were concerned, I knew they would be supportive too; consciously or not I had probably weeded out the homophobes from my close friends long ago. Everyone reacted as I expected. I had nothing but supportive experiences each time I came out.

What is my point? My point is, I knew the people who mattered in my life would not disown or drop me and I still found it absolutely terrifying to take the plunge. I had worked up to it for at least a year before I could do it. What had been holding me back, if it wasn't family or friends? Hell if I can say for sure now. Part of the problem was I had known I was different for as long as I could remember, and even before I had a name for it, I knew it was shameful thing, to be kept secret. So even when I had intellectually concluded that there was nothing wrong with (other) people being gay, my deep dark secret was too deeply ingrained. The habits of a lifetime simply wouldn't allow me to come out, and we're talking a lifetime that was only nineteen years long. It just wasn't an option for me. Just 'cause.

I keep all this in mind anytime I talk to someone who is just starting the coming out process. He or she may be facing much more daunting prospects than I ever did. Friends, or worse, family could turn ugly. People might lose jobs, homes, or important relationships. I never had to face any of that, and I was still terrified. Coming out for me, not counting the initial moment of "oh shit I can't take it back" was a series of one relief after the other, but this may not be every one's experience.

Right after the big hurdles were behind me, I became furious with myself for all the wasted time. Forgotten was the very real risk of violence I could have faced at junior high or high school. Forgotten was the likelihood that I would have been the only openly gay kid in my school system, hell, town. Forgotten was all the internal rubble I had cleared before I could do it. Forgotten was the nameless terror. Nope, once I was on the other side, it all seemed so easy. Ridiculously easy. Seven whole years I could have been living life, I told myself, and I had been too chicken to.

I would imagine the temptation to think this way gets worse the older one is when one comes out, but I don't think it helps. We just have to accept that we go at the pace we have to. We may need a little push now and then, to inch out of a comfort zone grown unnecessarily constricting, but for the most part, we take the steps when we're ready. I should never think I can tell someone else how he or she should do it. I can just be there along the way to say, "yes, good for you, congratulations, I know it's scary, I'm sorry they said that, yes of course you can call me, hang in there." Secretly I may want to say "it gets better, it gets easier, you'll be glad you did this, really, keep it up, trust me," but I refrain (most of the time). I can't promise that.

So for anyone who is in this process, and may be entering the holidays (family!) with extra butterflies, let me just say yes, I know it's scary. Take it easy, take it slow, hang in there, make sure you have support, be kind to yourself.

And congratulations.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Remembering, Regretting, Releasing

For a number of reasons -some of which are no doubt obvious- I've been thinking about gratitude a lot for the past three days. I've also been thinking about my strange reluctance to accept gifts. Steven at Sooo-this-is-Me has me thinking about regret, self-recrimination, time and opportunity lost -and the dangers of losing myself in them. He also has me noticing how easily I still step out of life sometimes, in the mistaken belief that it will make things easier, if not better. Somewhere Joe and Cooper have me thinking about the ways in which remembered blessings can trigger present gratitude.

As these thoughts roil around in my head, I find myself looking again at a piece I wrote and performed a number of years ago. I performed it several times, sometimes by itself, sometimes as part of a larger piece. For at least four years however, I've felt no connection to it, or the character who performed it. Sometimes that just means the piece has served its purpose, and needs to be put aside. That certainly may be true with this piece. I think though that my lack of connection with the piece reflects a deep disconnection from simple yet significant truths in my life. So I'm re-examining the piece today. Maybe I'll find my way back to it, and the character, maybe not. I don't really know where any of these ideas are taking me. I'm not worried about that right now. Today I'm just remembering.

The Toasts of Bromios
I'd like to propose a toast... For cheese and chocolate, and good red wine, for fresh hot bread and garlic in olive oil, for sour apples and sweet grapes and the salt of a lover’s skin, for these tastes and more, praise, all praise.

I'd like to propose a toast...For lilac and roses, and fresh brewed coffee, for the air near a waterfall, or after a storm, for cedar, and cinnamon, and the first cut of a lemon, for these scents and more, praise, all praise.

I'd like to propose a toast...
For the wind through pine trees, and the crashing of water, for thunder and hailstorms and the silence that follows, for crickets and cellos, and the purring of cats, for cheering and birdsong and really hot dance music, for a lover’s moans and sigh of contentment, for these sounds and more, praise, all praise.

I'd like to propose a toast...
For violets and fireflies and windblown pasture, for horses and dogs and all creatures who dance, for lightening and ice storms and Spring-thaw rivers, for the light of a candle reflected in eyes, for the sprawl of a body sleeping tangled in sheets, for these sights and more, praise, all praise.

I'd like to propose a toast...
For the caress of silk and soft summer breezes, for dry towels after a hot bath or cold rain, for strong hands cradling your head and pulling your hair, for the crash of a wave that makes you gasp with cold, for the lover who knows where, when and just how hard to bite, for these touches and more, praise, all praise.

I'd like to propose a toast... For hard work and dancing and the good sleep that follows, for solitude and companionship and the shoulders of friends, for new sights and old homes, and the travel between them, for being surprised still, every once in a while, for growing old gracefully - or kicking and screaming every step of the way, for all of you here, each of you luscious as grapes, I give you praise, all praise.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Early Thanksgiving

I'm in my local grocery store picking up stuff for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. I have a bag of potatoes, broccoli, two lemons, butter, milk, some sage, a large onion, and a frozen turkey. The place (surprise) is packed. Even on normal days it is often filled with lots of people buying what looks to be a month's supply of food; it's not uncommon to see people with two carts overflowing with three ten-pound bags of rice, hundreds of canned goods, whole cartons of juice boxes, toilet paper or ramen. The cashiers at this place are also some of the slowest on the planet, though I don't think it's always their fault.

As I'm navigating along getting my milk and butter, a lovely older woman with silver hair and surprisingly blue eyes calls me over.

"Let me tell you sonethin'," she says, in heavily accented but fluent English, "if you buy $125 of food, then your turkey is free."

Thinking she is making sure I didn't think the turkeys were just free (as the sign did seem suggest, to be honest) I assure her I know about the store's deal but am all right with buying the bird.

She gestures to the younger man with her, who I assume her son. "But we are buying more than enough, and we don't want the turkey. So why don't we get that one for you?"

First I'm confused. Then I'm floored. I sputter, and demur, I couldn't possibly, it's just too much. I really feel overwhelmed, but she insists, her son insists. I ask if there is something I can do for them, but they refuse. Finally I accept the offer, but am unable to say more in either English or Spanish than simply 'thank you, this so kind, thank you.' In my Dominican neighborhood men are not big on emotional displays, except maybe when it comes to baseball. Generally when I'm on the street here I avoid facial expressions, let alone expressivity, though (this may come as a shock) this is not my natural tendency. Sure the homo thing may be a part of it, but in all honesty I think a much bigger influence is my Irish temperment, as inherited from and modeled by my very affectionate, demonstrative, and easily-moved-to-tears father. So right now in the face of this, I am not maintaining my New York cool, I'm feeling a TEENSY bit fragile, perhaps just a bit watery, and I get the sense these nice people are beginning to wonder what exactly they have gotten themselves in for. I move on before anyone gets embarrassed.

I have a long time in line to think about this (remember those slow cashiers). I'm touched by the thoughtfulness of this gesture, but I'm also very uncomfortable with it. It's not really that I feel beholden to these kind people, but I do feel frustrated at my inability to do anything for them by way of thanks. I consider offering them some money so they at least got some dollars off their bill, but that feels crass somehow, and I fear it might even offend them. It also seems to put a monetary value on their act, and there's more to this gesture than $13. I don't know what else I can offer to do for them (carry their groceries home? Pack up their car? Wash their car? Get their address so I can send them flowers, bake them bread, at least send a card?). If I run into them at a later date, will I be quick-thinking enough then to come up with a thoughtful gesture then?

I'm mulling over all this as I move closer to check-out. The elderly woman in front of me notices how few things I have and almost unhinges me when she offers to let me go before her. I politely decline. I'm not sure she would understand if I started sobbing and threw myself around her neck.

My benefactors get through check-out just before me, and call me over so the cashier knows who to give the bird to when I leave. I introduce myself to them in the hopes that they'll at least tell me their names, but only the man (Jose) does. "Enjoy" they both say, as I kiss the woman on the cheek.

I keep mulling this over as I head home. I realize my discomfort (only slightly abated) includes a sizeable dose of guilt. All around me people had been buying huge piles of non-perishable food, and paying for it with food stamps (now in handy credit card form). For the price of my $13 turky, you could get 18 cans of black beans, probably a month's supply of rice, or an entire carton of ramen. The bird would feed a family of four for maybe two meals, three if you made soup, but that ramen, rice or beans would go much further, maybe for a month of meals if you budgeted right. How many people there hadn't even bothered to put the bird in their carts, seeing it as a luxury? Finances can be touch and go sometimes for me, but I have rarely gone hungry, and this Autumn has been pretty good work-wise. I do not need a free turkey. I consider heading back to the store, standing outside it and offering the bird to the first old person who comes out the door, but my unwillingness to draw attention to myself wins out. Right now the bird is thawing in my fridge. My friends and I will enjoy it tomorrow, I have no doubt.

(On a side note, I had to go to another part of town to pick up cranberries. Either Dominicans don't care for cranberries, or they store them in a part of the store that didn't make intuitive sense to me. At the second store, this one on the Upper West Side, I was again in line behind an older woman who, when she noticed what I had said "is that all you got? Here, you go next." I assured her it wasn't necessary, I was in no rush, but she insisted LOUDLY, causing the cashier to join in, so I took her/them up on the offer. I did not burst into tears.)

I do not deserve this bird. I remind myself, however, that is the point, really. Gifts like this are most precious and meaningful when they come out of the blue like this, with no thought to justification or merit. I'm still curious what made them pick me, out of everyone in the store. Maybe I was just the first person they saw carrying a turkey. I sort of hope it was that random. Whatever motivated it though, I'm still moved by it. I remember that I'm always uncomfortable receiving gifts, and compliments for that matter. I love getting them, but never know how to respond. I'm not sure how one gets better at this. I realize though that a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to accept this offer at all. So that's progress, I guess.

I'm still mulling over how I might do something nice in response, for my benefactors, in the unlikely chance I run into them again, or barring that, for someone else. Any ideas?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Living Right

So, I have a confession to make. This may be hard for some of you to hear; but try to remain open to my message. With the help of Jesus Christ, and the support of good, loving people...

I am no longer living the life of a left-handed person.

Let me share a bit of my painful history with you. As a child I started showing signs of my left-handedness almost immediately. My parents tried to ignore it, hoping I'd grow out of it, and maybe I would have. But then my kindergarden teacher turned out to be part of the Gauche Conspiracy. She made the life sound so glamorous, so exciting. She singled me out for attention, giving me my own special pair of scissors. She told me there was nothing wrong with this life, that it was just as beautiful and fulfilling as the life of a right-hander. She failed to mention the increased risk of allergies, insomnia or migraines. She didn't mention that I was three times more likely to become an alcoholic. She left out the fact that the Bible mentions the word 'right' in favorable terms over one hundred times, and the word 'left' unfavorably twenty-five times. She never mentioned that thousands of lefties were burned as witches in the 1600s. She neglected to tell me that the Catholic Church identified lefties as servants of the Devil well into the 1930's. They stopped forcing lefties to switch hands in Catholic schools at that point, and the Church has been in trouble ever since. No, she told me being lefty was natural, and okay with God and society. I wasn't hurting anyone, so what was the problem?

So I wallowed in my deviant lifestyle, spiraling out of control. I celebrated my sinister ways. I became an activist. I was loud, I marched, I lobbied, I made a stink, I challenged the stereotypes. No one told me all the facts. When they'd mention famous lefties, they'd always bring up Albert Einstein, but no one ever mentioned Jack the Ripper. They'd crow about Michelangelo and Da Vinci, but stayed mum about George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. They'd point out that a higher percentage of geniuses were lefties, but they'd neglect to mention the same was true of the mentally retarded.

Gradually though, I began to see that my life wasn't working. I grew tired of smearing ink on my paper, hand and wrist every time I wrote. I got fed up with scrambling for just the right (pun intended) seat at dinner, so I wouldn't spend the meal bumping elbows with my neighbor. I wearied of putting my arm at risk every time I used a table saw. Hell, I just wanted to be able to use a three ring binder or can opener like everybody else!

It all came to a head one day at a dinner party when I was pouring myself some gravy. Since the ladle had only one spout, I was using a back-hand method I'd developed for this occasion. Suddenly I saw, I mean really saw myself. The snickering and awkward glances from the other guests, it all made sense. They were right, I looked ridiculous. What kind of nightmare was I living in? How could I maintain this was a normal lifestyle?

So I sought help. My lefty and lefty apologist friends all tried to talk me out of it, but I stayed strong. Eventually I found help at The Goats-to-Sheep Ministry. They told me they loved me, that I could change, and live as a sinister-free, dexterous child of God.

I won't pretend it was easy. I spent weeks with my left arm tied to my side. I still have all the left pockets in my pants sewn shut, so I don't accidentally slip up and put my keys in there. I check carefully anytime I come up to a strange door. If the door knob is on the left side, I don't even go in. It's just too risky. I've had to empty one entire medicine cabinet in the bathroom because the door opens on the left, and I'm afraid some morning, still groggy from sleep, I'll reach for my toothbrush with the wrong hand, and the downward spiral will start again. Eventually, as I get stronger, I hope to put up a reminder note ('Think RIGHT'), and start storing just a few things in there. It's a process and we can't be ashamed to take baby steps.

I know some of you may be threatened by my new found righteousness. You may be filled with self-doubt when you hear about my new, healthier ways. I want you to know I don't hate you. I love you. I'm here for you. I can show you the way to leave that life behind. Imagine being able to drive a car, knowing you've cut your risk of a fatal accident by four. Think about the nine extra years of life you are likely to have as a right handed person. Don't listen to the nay-sayers who claim these scientific studies have been discredited. Don't let them tell you that children forced to change hands are more likely to stutter or have dyslexia. No, Satan (who is also a lefty) has many ways of drawing us back in the southpaw life. I'm not going to lie to you; it won't be easy. But all you need to is the love of Jesus and a good stout rope.

I'm here to help.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


It was early on a Sunday morning in Spring, and I was wandering around on Houston St near First Ave. As I passed a small playground, a girl ran past me. She was at least fourteen, I'd guess, but her giggle, and the awkwardness of her running immediately told me she was emotionally much younger. She raced over to a bench in the park, and sat down, laughing, like this was the most fun a person could have. An older woman and a young boy came up to join her, and they began to coax her over to sit on a swing. When they did this, she looked flabbergasted, like this was a joy beyond anything she could have imagined. She took some extra coaxing actually, moving in awe, like she simply couldn't believe what was happening, but eventually she sat down on a swing. I never heard her speak, I don't know if she was capable of it, but her laughter was eloquent, her face rapturous.

The boy was probably no more than ten, voice and movement suggesting a rough-and-tumble kid, someone who races about causing a ruckus that is usually cheerful and harmless, but can be self-absorbed in the way of young boys. I imagined that had circumstances been different, he might even have been one of those boys who made fun of girls like that, not in any sustained way, just horsing around with his friends. Yet here he was, being very sweet and tender with her (though still in a playful way), very aware of how much she loved his attention, and this ride. To my eye, he had long ago accepted his role as the older protective brother; it rested easily on him.

I walked away from this scene overwhelmed and confused. I was choked by the love I felt pouring off the woman and boy for this teenage girl, and by the open, guileless look on her face. But there was also something more troubled in my reaction. I had instantly evolved a whole back-story for this family (even the idea they were a family was an assumption, after all). I pictured them coming to this park often for the boy's sake, giving him a chance to run off high spirits and play with other kids. When they came during normal hours though, it was crowded with kids, and the girl had been taught to sit quietly on the bench. The other kids were frightened of her, you see, or fond of ridiculing her, or both, and more than one parent had suggested that the swings weren't meant for a fourteen to sixteen year old, no matter what her emotional age. Maybe they too were a bit uncomfortable around her, and just preferred she not interact with their children. She couldn't be left at home alone, so she sat on the bench with her mother, and that was okay, she loved it; getting to watch other kids run around, slide on slides and swing on swings was one of the highlights of her day. But that morning, either the boy or mother -I like to imagine it was his idea- decided to go to the park when no one else was likely to be around, and give her a surprise.

What I saw in her face was a joy heart-stopping in its purity. She held nothing back, I'm not sure she would have known how to. I immediately thought about how vulnerable that made her. It's not unusual for people to be casually cruel to people like her, but the damage could come from carelessness or neglect as easily as from deliberate cruelty. Yet here she was, having the time of her life on a swing in a little city park.

I witnessed this about eleven years ago. Who knows if my back-story is true? Perhaps I'm slandering an entire neighborhood. Periodically though, the event springs up to haunt me, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Today is one of those days. She has come to symbolize a specific vulnerability, I think, a total lack of emotional armor. While she might not get to swing every day (and that thought certainly breaks my heart), it looked to me like she always felt free to be the happy child she was. This made me feel such gratitude to that woman and boy. Not only had they made the time to give her an overwhelming treat, they made a safe space for her to be this vulnerably happy, and it was clear they did this all the time. Nor did they seem to think they were doing anything exceptional or arduous. Life with her must have involved difficulties of some kind, financial, emotional, physical, but all I saw that morning was their kindness, their love for her, and they joy they took in making her happy.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


The handful of folks who read this blog but have never met me will find the following entry excessively in-joke as well as self-advertizing. Friends who have worked with me or seen me perform will just find it self-advertizing. I found the experience to be funny though, so I hope you'll forgive me, all of you, and will come back when I'm not patting myself on the back. My life sure has some strange gauges of success.

I modeled recently for an animation class. I've done it occasionally, and it's not that different from a regular drawing class, except that none of the poses are ever more than five minutes, most of them are much shorter. I guess animators have to get good at capturing images quickly, or they need to show motion all the time, yet understand that models can't hold vigorous poses too long. Anyway, I've worked with this guy before, we don't know each other that well but we have a nice rapport (I'm always on time for his class, see earlier entry). Therefore he feels comfortable asking me if I'd be up for trying an exercise.

"I want the students to learn how to modify images, so they learn how to interprete the information they need for one character from a different source. Would you be willing to imitate some animals?"

Um, you have no idea, Buddy.

"Okay, great. Let's see.... now, don't take offense at this, but... could you be a dog?"

You're kidding me right? I resist the urge to be a smart-ass and ask "what breed?" I give 'em a dog (Springer Spaniel: hunting squirrel).

"Yes! That's great!" Students draw cheerfully.

"Okay, now, how about a monkey?"

Has this guy been reading my resume? Is he going to ask me to be a swan, or maybe a Canada goose next?

"Yes, excellent!"

We did that exercise for the rest of the class. They'd never tried it before, and seemed pretty delighted with the results. I did a passable horse (he gave them the option to make me a centaur), and my spider had them all gasping in admiration. I was particularly proud of the latter, but also really glad I only had to hold it for five minutes. Ouchy.

I may have found a whole new niche market. I never know when my stupid human tricks are going to be useful.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Small Favors

Friend Melissa and I had dinner here recently. As usual we talked about everything under the sun, or at least the stuff that matters, relationships, art, sex, food, and gardens. We also, for reasons I can't recall, discuss bed-bugs.

At three o'clock the next morning I wake from a dead sleep with not one, but two very intense bites, one on my hand, one under my arm. I know 3am is not a time when I'm at my most rational. Frankly at this hour of the night I go to the worst case scenario as easily as inhaling, and worst case becomes a whole lot more epic and elaborate than even my most overblown thoughts at any other time of day. No, let's not assume the worst, I tell myself. Let's not jump to any conclusions. Let's not act precipitously.

I wake myself up enough to be sure this isn't just some sort of powerful dream, but nope, those itches are real, I'm not imagining them. And they feel huge, especially the one under my arm.

Okay, no need to panic, there could be any number of explanations for this, bed-bugs are not the only option, in fact they're pretty unlikely, I haven't brought any new furniture or, I don't know, company into the apartment, let alone my bedroom, as I understand it bed-bugs don't bite in ones and twos like this, if you have them, you're infested, and they start feasting the minute you lie still long enough, all OVER your body, in fact you probably can't get to sleep very easily because of the biting and the itching, and let's acknowledge here, I was fully asleep for nearly four hours, that's a good sign, right? I mean there's no reason to assume the worst here, is there, that I've somehow gotten infested, which probably means the whole damn apartment is infested if for no other reason than the dog sleeps on any flat surface he can find, no, there's no reason to panic, and decide I HAVE TO BURN THE ENTIRE APARTMENT AND POSSIBLY WHOLE FLOOR THEN GO SOAK IN AN ALCOHOL BATH FOR 36 HOURS, RIGHT? RIGHT?

I look at the welts in the bathroom mirror. Yup, the one under my arm especially is really big. I put some anti-itch stuff on the bites, then go back to my room, wondering if I should check to for bed-bugs, even though I don't have the slightest idea how, I don't know what they look like, or how big they are, or where they like to hang out, though I think the underside of the bed is a favorite spot, should I go online first and do some research so I know what I'm looking for and what do I do if I find them, go sleep in the living room, do we have enough plastic bags in the house that I could blanket the place, or at least my room, do I wake Tommy up now, or do I wait to tell him the good news in the morning? My brain flying around like a fruit bat with all this, I walk into the bedroom, flick on the side lamp...

and there, just above my pillow, is a mosquito the size of a humming bird.

I squash her flat, and she leaves a red smear on my wall. Don't ask me what a mosquito is doing if a fifth floor Harlem walk-up at the end of October. I haven't a clue.

But I have never been SO happy to see a mosquito before in my life.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Convenient Skepticism

I think astrology is a crock. I mean, come ON, you've got huge balls of flaming gas that are gazillions of light years away from us and each other. When observed from earth, they mark out a pattern that someone ages ago thought suggested a crab or a goat or something, then that ancient observer decided that when the sun, moon, or one of the planets crossed into those animal outlines, this somehow exerted mysterious yet powerful forces on a newborn, that was, this is key, markedly different from the effect it was having on everyone else on the planet at that moment, and thus ended up shaping that baby's drives, emotions, general characteristics etc. I mean, really. Even if we accept the idea that all bodies in the universe are exerting gravitational pulls on every other body, do we really think that the star Sirius is exerting more force on us in September than it is in June? Nope, this is all nonsense.

That said, I love astrology. I think it's a fun little construct, I love how elaborate it is, and I want to know it better. I have on occasion correctly guessed a new acquaintance's sign, and am always pleased when information I read is accurate about me. Seven years in Seattle generally made me more open to hearing about this sort of thing, and a good friend once even did my entire chart. Sadly, it seems to have gotten lost in one of my dozen moves, and I don't really remember what it said, other than the fact that I am a Cancer sun, Pisces moon, and rising sign Gemini, and the rising sign is supposedly a more accurate representation of my personality than the sun sign, the latter is just easier to figure out. Astrology is fun, I enjoy reading about it, discussing it, learning about it, though I don't buy it for a moment.

I have a similar reaction to Feng Shui. Okay with that one I think there are more elements that have validity, being good sense, or good design. Science has found that different colors affect our moods differently, for example, so why not make use of that in our homes? No, your life won't magicly be filled with serenity and riches if you paint your living room orange, but you might feel more cozy there, and what's wrong with that? Feng Shui also recommends a desk always be positioned so one can see the door to the room when seated at it, and while this had never really occurred to me before, I realized that all those times when I had been sitting with my back to a door, deep in concentration, only to find myself hanging from my fingernails embedded in the ceiling when someone tapped me on the shoulder... all those moments could have been avoided if I had just faced the stupid desk the other way.

Now, once you get into the ba gua, and all the different quandrants of the room, house, neighborhood, where the left-hand corner (as seen when standing in the 'main doorway') affects your family life, but it's different if it's on the south side of the building, and if the room is shaped in such a way that this quadrant is 'missing' then you need to do complicated things with mirrors in order to strengthen that missing part, or weaken the adjacent part which might overwhelming your family quandrant... that's where I check out. I would imagine that's also the stuff some clever-boots hundreds of years ago came up with so he would have be able to make money 'tuning' other people's homes, and teaching them secret knowledge.

Okay, so Feng Shui, also a crock, but again, a fun little construct I enjoy reading about and tinkering with, seeing if my mood changes notably if I put up some metal wind chimes (though not too big as this will 'damage my liver'). One suggestion is to have plants in certain areas, to strengthen that area and give it vibrancy. Naturally there are rules about how to do this; I think if that area already has an excess of wood, then a plant is a really bad idea, and one should instead introduce more metal (which cuts wood, dontcha know) to tone things down, I don't really get any of that, mostly because I can't be bothered.

One source I read said it's a good idea to have a plant in your career quadrant, to keep your professional life healthy and expanding. I liked this idea. I had absolutely no idea which quadrant was my 'career' area, nor did I know if I needed to locate it in each room, or only once in the apartment as a whole, and what would I do if the career area for the whole place was in my roommate's room, evict him? No, I just decided to designate one of my houseplants my 'career plant.' I didn't mean it now had magical powers in my life, I just thought it might be useful to have something I regularly looked at and cared for be a meditative focus for an important element of my life. I liked the idea that a career thrives in the same way a plant does, that you have to take care of it, see to its basic needs for food, light and air, check it for disease or parasites and treat it accordingly, but just as important you had to know when to leave it alone, and let it do its own thing. A career needs many of the same things, daily attention, careful maintenance, trust and patience.

So, I chose my angel wing begonia to be the focus of career meditations. This plant is a scion of my grandmother's begonia; at least two of her children took cuttings from it, my sister, brother and I all have cuttings from my mother's plant, so it felt like this plant was well woven into my family's life. It connected me to my relatives and the Iowa farm that was in my mother's family for over a hundred years. It is also a beautiful plant, with big leaves that can be green to salmon color with metallic silver spots, and it puts out blooms that will go through three distinct shapes, that can be anywhere from white to deep red, depending on how much sunlight they get. My plant in particular had already attained an impressive height and vigor, due to the fact that it spent most of its life in a southern window. At one point it was almost six feet tall, with stalks over an inch in diameter weaving around one another, covered with lush, big leaves. Beautiful, healthy, fertile, it was everything I could hope for in a career.

That was three or four years ago. This summer things took a slight turn for the worst. The plant started dropping leaves more quickly than usual and they often had weird burned edges, soft, pale rotten spots, or both. Still, as a whole the plant seemed fine, and I assumed maybe I was watering it too much, or something. Then when I went to Indiana for the month of August, my roommate was uncharacteristically careless in caring for my plants. In a month he watered them all exactly once. I was lucky only to lose two plants, everything else rallied, but when I walked in the door, the begonia looked very distressed, it proud upright stalks all keeled over limply. The plant's distress couldn't have been clearer or more eloquent (not sure how my roommate managed to miss it).

Okay, so, if there were any lessons to learn here about my career -and I'm not saying there are, mind you, but if there were- then maybe it might be something like I shouldn't expect to leave my career in the hands of others, that it is ultimately my responsibility and even if I do need the help of others, I should make my needs clear and make sure the person I ask is willing and able to fill that need. Okay, that seems like a useful lesson. I wouldn't say it was exactly NEWS to me, but hey, learning is often re-learning, in fact when it comes to acting it's almost ALL re-learning, so okay, got it.

I quickly watered the plant, and hoped it would rally. The limp stalks never regained their strength, though, and that was just the beginning. The leaf drop began to pick up, and the burned edges and soft rotten spots grew and spread. I wondered if the prisms in my window were burning the plants in spots, but if so, I don't know why that would suddenly be a problem now, after nearly eight years without mishap, no, I didn't know what had changed, but clearly something had. I checked one of my houseplant books, and began to suspect my poor begonia had a fungus and due to the month of neglect the fungus had become overpowering.

Okay, less certain how to interprete this in metaphorical terms regarding my career. Sometimes your work gets moldy? Sometimes outside forces make your professional leaves rot and fall off? You always have to be prepared to prune your career and spray it with a good fungicide? I got nothin'.

Per the plant book's instructions, I have cut away all the sickly parts of the plant, which means it now has a whole lot of four foot stumps, and the remains of thick stalks that now hold only a single, tiny leaf aloft. I discovered this morning that the scented geraniums nearest the begonia may have also contracted the fungus, so I've pruned and quarantined the worse of the two.

On a side note, a rosemary plant I bought a few weeks ago somehow managed to contract aphids. In a fifth story walk-up. In Harlem. Hmm, a few years back, before it was designated my career plant, the begonia also contracted aphids. It rallied nicely after treatment, but maybe that should have warned me about something. Getting a fungus is bad enough, but when my plants have aphids, it's hard not to feel like I've come down with parasites myself. Very weird.

I'll be sorry if I have to lose this plant all together. It started out as a six inch cutting I got from my mom's plant soon after I moved into this apartment, so its growth and change has stood as a record of my eight year residency. It has helped me deal with my ambivalence about city living. If I have to get rid of it, it will be too bad, my plants do feel a bit like small green pets to me, but I can always get another cutting from the same plant. My mom's, sister's and brother's plants were all thriving when I saw them in August. It will be not the end of the world by any stretch.

I just want it on record that I really, really, REALLY do not believe in Feng Shui.

Small Victories

I thought you'd all like to know that this week I managed to do my laundry without destroying any expensive equipment. Perhaps you find it a bit pathetic for a man in his forties to congratulate himself for making sure that only actual laundry went into the washing machine, and that if I'm going to start with that, I might as well pat myself on the back for remembering to wear pants when leaving the house everyday this week, but I say we should acknowledge the victories of our lives wherever we find them, no matter how small and private.

And also, bite me.


Doing my laundry, I fell into friendly conversation with an older woman there. She was full of interesting stories from when she and her husband spent a few years homeless. Suddenly she looks at me and asks, "are you Irish?"

"Well, I'm kind of a mongrel, but yeah, mostly Irish."

"I thought so. Most white guys don't have butts, but you... baby got back!"

I had absolutely no idea how to respond to this. But as with victories, I guess we should cherish all the compliments we receive. (She was complimenting me, right?)