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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Florence, AL

I've told this story before. It appeared in a book published through NPR and edited by Paul Auster some years ago and probably read only by the contributors, the editor, and a few family members. Community theatre as written anthology.

The story was this: In the early-mid 1980s, in my hometown of Florence, AL, a friend and I were riding our bikes up and down Prospect Street, where we lived. Prospect Street was adjacent to, but not of, the historical district of Florence. It was one street removed from the southern gothic houses with plaques immortalizing obscure local events (one plaque never to be placed: the time elderly Mrs. Hotchkins' gay hairdresser and his partner attended a nice fall dinner at the Hotchkins home and discovered a very dead Mr. Hotchkins in an upstairs guest room; the fact that construction workers were to arrive the next day to build a new cement back porch for the secretly widowed Mrs. Hotchkins raised eyebrows but couldn't raise the dead).

Prospect Street was also a block away from the campus of The University of North Alabama, and so from my yard at any given moment I could hear the roar of Leo, the unfortunate lion kept in a cage next to the university president's home. UNA's mascot was a lion and the natural thing to do, I suppose, was to keep a live lion around to remind faculty and students of this fact. Living in downtown Florence, AL, meant it was perfectly normal to hear the roar of a beast from Africa.

And Prospect Street had the town's only Jewish Temple, which was directly across the street from my house. The first and last fistfight I got into was in the parking lot of the Temple, and I lost. Turned out my stoic form of sarcasm wasn't appreciated by ten year olds with wrecked families and few emotional outlets.

So. The day Donna and I were riding our bikes up and down Prospect was a mid-summer day. I was eight or nine, which meant Donna was about ten or eleven. Perhaps we engaged in conversation or perhaps not--what I recall, personally, about riding bikes was that I loved the silence and the peddling and the wind. A month or so later we'd move away to a new neighborhood where I was the only kid, and I'd ride my bike for hours enjoying the silence. But with Donna maybe I spoke.

Because it was hot, we also rode through the sprinklers her father set out to water his lawn, which was mostly crabgrass and weeds, but still green. Donna's hair dripped, and tiny rainbows were thrown clear when she shook herself dry. Her hair color was dishwater blond, I recall everyone telling me, and I still don't know what that means except that her hair was blond and brown and wavy but not curly like dishwashing liquid that had been agitated but was now relaxing.

Most of the houses on Prospect Street had crabgrass-green lawns, watered or not, and all except one were proper houses. Both Donna and I lived on the same side of the street, and the one house without a proper green, weedy lawn was on the other side. It was a duplex, single-storey house the color of adobe matching the patches of bald clay in the front yard. In one of the two apartments lived an elderly man seldom seen and much mythologized by even the grown-ups of Prospect Street; in the other, on this day, a new family.

Donna and I were a few days away from learning about the fate of poor Mr. Hotchkins and just seconds away from hearing Leo the Lion roar into the universal abyss. Donna had just swept her way through the intermittent bursts of the sprinkler, her bike tires leaving deep gashes in her parents' lawn, and I was preparing to follow. We heard a voice.


Our heads turned to Prospect, where a little girl was standing, a tiny pink bike leaning against her hip. She was brown. She was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. She was perhaps my age, perhaps a bit younger.

Donna was older than I, and we were on her lawn, so I waited for Donna to return the greeting. I looked at Donna, and waited, and enjoyed the silence which probably lasted only a second or two but seemed longer (that's when we heard Leo roaring through the slosh of the sprinkler). "We don't talk to niggers," Donna said. She shook her hair dry, and the rainbows were thrown clear.

The little girl adjusted her hip. Her pink bike heaved a weary sigh against her. "I got a bike."

"Go away," I told her. "We don't talk to niggers."

Donna pushed off and peddled her bike back onto the street, heading away from the adobe home and her own home and the sprinkler and the little girl, and I followed, avoiding the water, turning to the asphalt. We reached the end of Prospect and turned back. The little girl was rolling her bike back to the duplex, and by the time we were where we had been the girl had disappeared inside. As we passed her new home, we saw curtains in the window split open slightly. A hand moved them enough for me to see the little girl's mother peering out at me.

In the Auster-edited version of this story, written fifteen or so years ago, I called the guilt I felt that day a Gordian knot in my stomach. Auster, for reasons of his own, edited 'Gordian' out, making it a simple knot of guilt. Which was a wise edit, of course, as to remove a Gordian knot one simply needs to slice it in half and unravel the frayed ends. If I were a better writer, I would've gone on to say that the frayed ends of the split knot of Gordian guilt made the rope itself useless, and my racism was just that: a rope made useless through ignorance.

In the historical district of Florence, AL, there are many trees. Old trees. As a kid, on my bike, I'd ride along the sidewalk beside the trees and note how some were twisted and craggy, and some were straight and smooth. Some limbs stuck out at right angles and some pushed up away from the ground. I do not know of any lynchings ever done in Florence, AL, but perhaps the trees deserve their own plaques. When I first told this story, I'd just read E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News and that was how I thought of ropes--useful tools; when I saw the reference had been edited away, I realized ropes in the South mean something else entirely.

Ropes are making a come-back, I'm afraid. We're stitching those wounded, frayed ends back together. Prospect Street was--and remains--a block or so away from Pope's Tavern, a local historical landmark "filled with heavy hearts during the Civil War." Not far from the Tavern is W.C. Handy's birthplace. And not far from either of those historic spots is a park with both a statue dedicated to the Confederacy and a statue dedicated to W.C. Handy.

My mom and aunt, by the way, helped in the fundraising for the Handy statue.

Anyway, about the Gordian knot excised from me by Paul Auster's red pen: it remains. I never cut it, as one should do. I've kept it. Calcified and heavy, it remains within me, and the weight reminds me how easy it is to be an asshole.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Loss and Gain

Some years ago, my great-grandmother died. I was standing on the corner of 81st and Central Park West, about to descend into the moving bowels of the city, when my dad called with the news. For whatever reason, I'd decided to take a moment, look around, and was standing like a statue when the call came. If I had not paused, the news would've been delivered via voice mail. Instead, it was delivered directly, as I stared at the edifice of the Natural History Museum and the gaping maw of the C train station.

Death is death. It isn't a profound thing to say death exists, yet here we are. A meditation on mortality. Let us brush off the chestnuts--the dead are remembered, the pain is for the living, the journey begins at the moment the body ends--because all of that feels good, and right, and comforting.

Death is the ultimate cliche. We can live a life of originality and uniqueness, but in the end there is the end, and all of us do it. But then again, one can also say breathing is a cliche. I got nothing profound to say about death or the feeling of loss the living experience. The only way to bring something new to the slab, here, is if I were to die and then write about it.

Which isn't likely. Writing post-mortem thoughts, I mean. I'm very likely to die. Not very likely to comment on it after the fact.

One expects a great-grandmother to die, of course. Born when I was--which is to say, born of a teenage mother--I was lucky enough to have known all my great-grandparents more or less, and their inevitable ends were like stepping-stones in the river of time for me. Some parents buy their children goldfish to explain life's cycle; my parents gave me great-grandparents.

The last one to die was Ruby. She's who Dad called me about as I stood next to the Natural History Museum. And after the call, I'd like to say I decided to visit the museum. I'd like to say I went in, took in the giant whale and the minerals, reflected on the history of Earth and all the things it has offered up to us.

But nah. I closed my flip-phone, and sank down into the Manhattan land, grabbed the C train uptown, and emerged at 103rd Street. Ascended like a newly-minted god, and walked home.

And I say newly-minted god only because I had to walk up some stairs. I in no way wish to imply I became a deity. If I had, though, I'd like to think I would be benevolent, and kind, and understanding.

Loss happens. Even prepared for it, we are unprepared. Again, there is nothing profound to say about death unless you do it and manage to communicate a bon-mot after the fact. But the grief of surviving can be quite profound. Being alive, taking in air and sun and feeling blood coursing through your veins, forming thoughts and having small moments. There is a profundity in life that can't be articulated. Some days, just getting out of bed, cliche as it is, is a profound statement to the Universe.

Reflecting on loss is not something I do well. I--me--hate losing those I've known, and I've lost a lot of knowns to both death and to time. This is also a cliche: I love.

It's simple. I am bad at life, but I love those who are in my life. It is a terrible thing to wish, but an honest thing: When getting a call about a loved one's death, may you all be standing next to the Natural History Museum. It won't give you any insight into death, and it won't give you any comfort. But it will offer you a chance to go inside, and for a moment get that you're a part of a world that is worthy of a museum.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Distant Music

I was listening to the musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime,' a work I admire in all its forms: the novel, the screen adaptation, and obviously the musical. And, while listening to the cast album, all I could think was, 'Where did this America get off to?'

True, it is a difficult America there in New Rochelle at the turn of the last century, as the white middle class sings, "There were no Negroes" and "There were no immigrants," but it was an America working toward something. There was an undercurrent of movement towards equality and mutual understanding, a jagged harmony of tension and commonality.

Since the election, by hook or by crook, of Donald J. Trump, that America is no longer an America recognize. I may as well be listening to Starlight Express--a musical about singing trains.

Once upon a time, in a land under our very feet, there was a great nation standing for freedom. Its people were flawed to be sure. Its history was not pleasant. But it occasionally lurched a bit forward into the idea of itself. The nation perceived itself to be a land of opportunity, of hope, of equality for all even as it fought with itself to resist such things. And in the fighting was the progress.

No more.

No one truly knows why, but one day the fight forward was lost. Certainly many in the nation discussed--and fought--over the reasons why it happened, but one day the lurch forward ceased, and became a stumble back into the unpleasantries of the past. The stumble became a desperate grasping back, then a stampede trampling many of the citizens of the land.

In 'Ragtime,' Henry Ford is more or less celebrated--he's got his own song, he sells a car to a black man named Colehouse, and Colehouse views this car as a symbol of social progress. It doesn't end well for Colehouse, of course, but it ends very well for Ford, who is remembered as an innovator integral to the development of modern America. What's missing from Ford's depiction in 'Ragtime' is that he was an anti-Semitic racist Nazi sympathizer awarded the highest honor a non-German could receive by Adolf Hitler.

I was brought up in post-Watergate America, in the 1970s, and Regan's America in the 1980s. I was brought up in a smallish town in Alabama. My parents were casual racists who experienced desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, and tried to raise me to be more in tune with what they perceived to be the inescapable reality of the New America: they encouraged me to live in the jagged harmony of equality and understanding. When a new black family moved into our neighborhood, Mom and Dad gently nudged me to welcome them, play with the children, become friends with them. Certainly they made racist comments about them (I was told, for instance, that if I picked my nose, my nostrils would stretch out as wide as the black kids' nostrils, a thing I stupidly believed for years), but my parents never told me to stop being friends with anyone who was not my color or religion.

Also, we lived across the street from the only Temple in town. On Saturdays, my father would refuse to mow the lawn out of respect for the process of worship--and we were not all that into worship. I think I went to church maybe five or six times in my youth.

If it had been a Catholic church, or a Baptist church, or a mosque, I'm certain my father would've been just as respectful.

Incidentally, the only time I ever got into a fight was in the parking lot of that temple. It was unrelated to religion. I got my ass kicked for being sarcastic to the neighborhood bully who probably grew up to be a Trump supporter.

Anyway, listening to 'Ragtime,' I realized I grew up in an America that currently does not exist. I grew up with a media straining to resist their centuries-old urge to belittle and demoralize minorities. I grew up with a family trying desperately to accept the idea of inclusion and equality. It was an imperfect way to grow up--in school I had four years of Alabama history and only a semester of world history, and in none of those classes was the Holocaust mentioned--but in all ways it was made clear to me that the way to the future is the way of diversity and inclusion.

Now? Now we have a government attempting to divide and to preserve something that 'once was' that never was. Make America Great Again. Except America was great.

'Ragtime,' you see, is about how America became more alive with its different shades. Certainly there's some whitewashing, but the message is there: as painful as it can sometimes be, we as a nation lurch forward and reach out for something bigger than ourselves, and hope we push our children into that forward momentum rather than drag them back into the stampede rushing backward. There is violence and tragedy in 'Ragtime' (and a very decidedly overlooked Nazi sympathizing god in Henry Ford) but it is tragedy as recognition and warning.

We failed to heed the warning, of course, and now we have people on television bemoaning 'white genocide' and complaining about multiculturalism. Once ridiculed, these people are now elected officials.

And so I don't recognize my country anymore. 'Ragtime' is now science fiction.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Trump Plans a Trip to Belize

I, Donald J. Trump, am of a sound mind and more sound body, writing this from an undisclosed bowling alley within the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I write this of my own free will. No matter what Crooked Hillary may say, or that Kenyan who messed up the residence in the White House so badly I can't set foot in it. This is my confession.

Melania: It's all true. All of it. I never meant to hurt anyone that wasn't me. I'm so sorry to myself, and my future self, and to Richard M. Nixon, who built this beautiful, wonderful--it's absolutely great, believe me--bowling alley. It's why I locked myself up in here. Did you know--and I know this from the White House usher I fired--Petunia and Dick Nixon had this alley built because they couldn't stand baseball?

I understand. Who likes baseball? A Democrat would've built a baseball diamond in the White House basement, but a Republican thinks smaller. Thinks of alleys. Dick Nixon and his wife, Checkers, thought ahead. "Someday," they said to one another. "Someday we'll all want to live in alleys." So here I am.

Ignore the golden pee
To my sons, Walt Jr. and the other two, I want to say: You have sisters. And I'm not entirely sure which one of you all came from which of my wives, but I do love you all. As a group, you make up the best of my life as a whole.

Except Tiffany. Sorry, but you were the gutter-ball I sent down the lane. Your mother was brilliant in that show about a plain-spoken midwesterner from the future: Buck Rogers Follies. Honey, if only I'd gone after Bernadette Peters! It'd be you instead of Ivanka on my staff!

Or you'd have your own clothing line by now. Whichever. Whichever. It'd be a great clothing line. I know it.

Here's the point. Or the strike. Or the gutter-ball. I'm in the Nixon bowling ball rink because Daddy made a terrible mistake. Okay. I admit it. I did something Daddy shouldn't do. It's true I've spent my life doing a lot I shouldn't do, but now the pins are reseting, and as they do it becomes clear my strikes were actually gutter balls (Sorry, Tiff--we'll always have... something!).

Daddy may have to go away for a bit. But as I always say: I am with you. Mostly because you have my DNA wrapped up with you respective mothers' DNA--you can't escape me.


Forthwith, and nonwithstanding, please be advised that you in no way have rights to the trademarked name of Trump, nor do any of you have the right to use Trump in promotional material.

I remain your loving father,
Donald  J. Trump (tm) (LLC)

PS. Please tell Bannon to pick up the pee jars outside the door.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Puppy

The night Ellen DeGeneres--or 'Degenerate' as she was lovingly called by certain television evangelists and elegant wordsmiths--leaned into a microphone and announced to a disinterested airplane terminal that she was gay, I was alone in my room. There was a TV. There was a bed. There was a closed door. A few books and magazines on the floor. An open window, which I occasionally leaned out of in order to smoke during commercials.

In 1997, having lived for a while in dorms and apartments, I'd moved in with my recently divorced father. Both of us were more or less directionless at the time--1997 wasn't a very pleasant year--and we each kept to ourselves, as if avoiding conversation would in some way conceal the possibility of failure and the reality of loss.

I was 23. I'd dropped out of two colleges in two different states. My days were mostly media-filled, in that I read a lot, listened to NPR and radio talk shows, watched CNN, spoke little, and cared less. While I'd had a boyfriend in high school, most relationships were via the internet, with an occasional clandestine hook-up here and there, usually ending in embarrassment or shame.

It wasn't that I was depressed, or that I thought of myself as depressed then. Certainly looking back on that period of my life it does seem a depressing existence. Possibly in 20 years, looking back on my current life, I will say the same thing--"It wasn't that I was depressed, or that I thought of myself of depressed then." My current life at 43 is so removed from my life at 23, both emotionally and geographically, that I cannot even guess what my life at 63 may be. If I could return now to that bedroom the night The Puppy Episode aired, and watch it with my 23 year-old self, I don't think I would.

The one constant trait stretching from 23 to 43 is that I've maintained existential angst.

Anyway, my steady diet of media had prepared me for Ellen Degenerate's reveal: Yup, she's gay. I knew this. In two years, I would meet the man who would, quite improbably, become my husband; a few years later, I would force us to move to NYC, and we would eventually get a dog, and would--no pun intended--embark on a shared journey of our own. But in 1997, at least for me, everything seemed paused. I was living in my father's house. My father hadn't yet met the woman who would become my step-mother. My mother was dating the man who would become my step-dad. My little brother, 18 years my junior, was still trying to make sense of a divorce he didn't see coming, not realizing his older brother (me) had spent years expecting it.

In the pauses of life--and not to be too poetic here--there are the changes.

So: Ellen. And 'Ellen'. I'd watched the show before, even though I was not a frequent viewer of sit-coms. As I said, I mostly leaned towards media-rich entertainment--in '97 I was into Bill Maher, MST3K, Dennis Miller, and All Things Considered. I liked indie films and indie comic books. I read Wired, and specially ordered books from the local bookstore. One can debate my level of assholetry, but I was dedicated to being different from most 23 year-old Alabamians living in a smallish town.

Jesus. Looking back now I'm amazed I met the husband, and was able to move to NYC, and find a dog that loves me.

Anyway. So 'Ellen,' the TV show, was on my radar because of the media hype surrounding the fourth season, where it was rumored she would reveal that both the character of Ellen Morgan and the comedian/actress Ellen DeGeneres were gay. I'd certainly seen Ellen DeG's stand-up. Was a fan. Loved stand-up comedy since I was too young to be watching Robin Williams live at the Met. The rumblings in the media, though, got me curious in the actual television show.

There's a line in The Puppy Episode about how Ellen--the character--unconsciously knew she was gay, and that her unconscious attempts to accept her homosexuality manifest as tiresome jokes. This of course was a meta-joke about how, over the course of that 4th season of 'Ellen', writers constructed gags and quick jokes playing off of the media's reporting of Ellen's big reveal. Thing is, watching that 4th season in real time, week to week, in my room, alone... It wasn't a tiresome gag. It was a process. Coming out is not a reveal, you see. It's a process.

A few weeks before The Puppy Episode aired, I'd met a guy online--on AOL because that's how long ago this happened--and spent the night with him. Not 'spent the night' as in had wild gay sex, but spent the night in the non-carnal sense. He picked me up, drove me to his home an hour out of town, made mixed drinks with ice and a blender, cooked me a wonderful dinner, and we talked. We watched a Bergman film. We made out. When the time came for sleep, we cuddled up to one another and... I faked sleep while he jerked off beside me. The next day, he wanted to go to brunch and I insisted he take me back home--I made up an excuse of being needed elsewhere, and we drove the hour back in silence.

Point is, I wasn't ready to be gay. All the instincts were there. But accepting the reality of homosexuality was too much. I'd always told myself if I find the right guy, THEN I'll do the coming-out thing. This was the right guy. But I still couldn't muster the courage, so rather than come out, I went inward.

Not a religious person at all, btw. I mean, I grew up in Alabama, so religion obviously stained my brain a bit. Even in elementary school, I was all about others being gay. But me? Too much work. Too difficult. I'd rather--then--be isolated and ashamed than who I am.

The night before The Puppy Episode, the guy IM'd me. He said he really liked me and wanted to hang out again. I told him, essentially, to fuck off.

What's remarkable about this entire period of my life is that none of my family ever asked, "You got a girlfriend?" by the way. Either they thought I was too icky to ever land a girlfriend, or they knew already that I wasn't interested. ANYway.

Ellen. The show aired on ABC, but our local affiliate refused to air the episode. I forget what was shown instead, but it was a religious thing with leisure suits. The same affiliate of ABC had also refused--for years!--to air "NYPD Blue," and like 'NYPD Blue', the local FOX affiliate--FOX54--saw an opportunity and aired the episode. WAAY in Huntsville, AL, in the '90s, was an uptight money-losing station, apparently. FOX-54 was ascending.

To recap: I'm alone in my room, in my father's house, leaning out of windows to smoke and snacking on Doritos, and there is the television. Laura Dern is Ellen's love interest. I've just broken up with a guy who likes me. I'm still in the closet, though supportive of those who aren't. I've dropped out of two colleges. I've got a life in shambles even though it doesn't seem a shambles.

"Susan," Ellen Morgan/DeGeneres says. Leans into a microphone. "I'm gay."


"That felt so good. And loud," Ellen Morgan/DeGeneres says.

It took two years til I'd actually meet the man who gave me the courage to come out. But that moment, sitting in my room, astounded me. We knew it was coming, we were told, and yet she persisted. She, Ellen DeGeneres, changed a lot by simply using a word, 'gay'.

Some years later, Greg, my husband, and I went to City Hall, and were married. Officially, unquestionably, completely married. It was a long process of nearly 15 years, and not a process we thought possible when we first met in Alabama. Our dog was there. Our puppy. Not, of course, in the actual City Hall, but we had a picture of him, and I'm not sure Greg truly understood why it was important for me to have the pup's pic up on my iPhone when the judge bound us together.

It was because of The Puppy Episode.

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