Mole, and Other Small Happy Things

Today walking home from school with Owen, I saw Levi, another fourth grader. Levi has Down’s Syndrome, and he and Owen were in 1st grade together. Whenever I see Levi, I remember the time I went in to read to the class. I was wearing a long skirt and sandals, no panty hose, and the teacher had me sit in a chair in front of the group of kids who were sitting on a rug facing me. Levi was right beside me, with his aide by his side. As I read, I noticed that Levi was looking intently at a mole I have on my ankle, warmly brown, nice and oval, about the size of a pencil eraser. I imagine it looked really luminous and lovely to him. After a while, he couldn’t help himself anymore, and he reached out with one finger and gently, gently, stroked. It was the sweetest moment, and a kind of understanding passed between us. I completely got why someone would want to stroke that mole. His aide immediately discouraged him and asked him to tell me he was sorry, but I just smiled and said, “It doesn’t matter.” In fact, it was one more beautiful moment in an already beautiful day reading some of our family’s favorite tales to Owen’s funny, happy, grumpy, curious, engaged, bored classmates.

At the time, I was in constant pain from an arthritic hip, and sitting there with my alluring mole was actually something of an agonizing situation.

Lately, I’ve been watching people and wondering how they’re going to die. There are so many ways! So many different kinds of diseases – the kinds of cancer alone boggle the mind. I watch people walk by as I’m out in public and wonder what’s going to take them down.

I have a long history of watching people and being taken in by their private lives. When I first started my period, I looked at women, marveling and being sort of horrified that every single one of them had or had had periods. It totally blew my mind. I read a lot of Archie comics at the time, and I remember thinking, “Fuck, Betty and Veronica get their periods!”

Later, when I became sexually active, I looked at everyone and thought about them fucking. I thought about guys’ dicks getting erections. Freaked me out!

Now that I’m middle aged, I think about death, about the failure of the body. It’s driving me fucking crazy! Because I don’t actually want to be going around doing this, it’s not like I think it’s particularly healthy. It’s just when I’m stressed, which I am now about so many things, my hypochondria kicks into full gear and then it spills out onto other people. SUCH A PAIN IN THE ASS!!

I just picked up this book called Living Our Dying: A Way to the Sacred in Everyday Life by Joseph Sharp, a gay guy who was a chaplain to terminally diagnosed patients and founded the Dallas Center for Life Healing. I haven’t read much of it yet – I started getting weepy reading the first bit in the bookstore, about a mom in her late forties with cancer (I’M IN MY LATE FORTIES!!!), who asked him to help visualize her death. Anyway, I need to let go of being so afraid of death all the time – I mean, I know it’s about my anxiety, but it’s so immobilizing – so I am really looking forward to hearing what he has to say (he’s a long-time survivor of AIDS, by the way), even though I’m kind of scared to read it, in that oh-man-I’m-going-to-have-to-do-some-stretching-and-growing kind of way.

When a friend and I saw Susan Jeffers, the Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway lady, she recommended making a list of 50 positive happy things that happened that day before going to sleep. My friend and I did that, first thinking it would be impossible, but it was really cool – the more you wrote, the more you thought of. Jeffers says we are pulled by the negative for whatever reason, and concentrating on the positive is like building up an unused muscle, and you have to keep working it to keep it in shape. I remember one of the things I wrote, so long ago (this was in the late 80s, early 90s) was “How pretty my new rug looks in the sunlight.” The positive happy things don’t have to be really big, and in fact, it turns out that the small things are some of the sweetest ones, like Levi honoring my mole with a gentle touch of his darling finger.

I’ve been sick with a cold all week. Most of the day today I spent on the couch with one of the cats, reading Set In Stone: Butch-On-Butch Erotica edited by Angela Brown. I’m coming out of my hypochondriacal phase a little bit, just because I got busier and then I got sick. It lurks, though, all the time – have to keep building up my positive muscles. I mean, it staggers me how people long ago just kept on keeping on, even during the plague, even when some unbelievable number of kids died before they grew up, even when people often didn’t make it to my age. I mean, how did the survivors go on? They just made themselves a little hair locket and got on with their business. Of course they were sad, devastated even, but they kept living their lives.

It’s no different now, not really. As my Beau says, one of these days one of us will be diagnosed with something nasty, or will drop dead – it’s a given. I HATE that! There’s got to be a middle ground between being psychotically focused on worries about my body and denying death completely. Shit. It’s hard being human, as I tell my boys.

Today, driving home from dropping Seth and Owen off at their other mom’s, I watched a guy crossing the street. Just a kind of schlumpy white guy, in a puffy jacket, maybe in his early forties, long-ish untidy hair. I caught myself thinking very briefly about his death, but suddenly, almost despite myself, I began thinking that there are things in his life that bring him such joy. I tried to imagine what they might be – probably sipping on the coffee he’d just gotten from Dunkin’ Donuts was a happy thing for him, for instance. The next person I saw, I thought the same thing – her life is filled with many, many joys, small and large.

What a relief. What a blessing. What a life!

Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 9:57 PM  Leave a Comment  

Goodbye Nasty, Goodbye Lux

“Huh, huh, huh,” chortled my very straight, very conservative friend, Jim. “What kind of name is that for a band? The Cramps! Huh, huh, huh. Are the band members called, like, Before, During, and After?”

This same Jim and his roommate Cary had previously introduced me to The Boss, someone I hadn’t known existed, and I had completely disgraced myself by bursting into laughter at the first sound of his earnest, boring music. Turned out I was much more interested in a band who sang about not eating stuff off the sidewalk.

It was probably the next year, my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, that a bunch of us made the trip into Detroit to see the Cramps. I don’t remember the name of the club, but I sure remember Lux Interior. Sweaty, crazy, basically naked (goodness, your bikini bottoms are eensy-weensy, Sir!), he inspired my love. I don’t think I really knew why I loved him so much. At the time, I assumed I was straight (despite a troubling brush with homosexual longing and near-consumation with a handsome dormmate earlier), I knew I was a feminist, I didn’t really drink or use drugs, and I had been a virgin until I was 19 and still didn’t get a whole lot of action. The whole band gave me pleasure, although Poison Ivy kind of scared me (go figure). But Lux up there, embodying pure nasty, was ringing my bell the most. Here’s a picture:

Yesterday when I was driving to work, I heard on ZBC that Lux was dead. Then the dj played “For the Love of Ivy” by the Gun Club. I had to sit in the parking lot, call my Beau, get a little sympathy, and then collect myself. I wanted to bawl, but I was already a few minutes late, so I just sucked it up. Later, I did cry a tad, and I’m feeling mopey this morning, for sure. Back then, Lux beckoned to that kinky femme inside of me, that irreverent, sexy, fuck-you, life is a gas gas gas girl who was struggling to unbud. I think he probably did that for a lot of people, regardless of their sexuality, because he was so out there, so obviously not giving a shit, except for I think he probably did and he was going for it, all the way. There are people you encounter along the way who throw you a lifeline, even though you might not know it until much later, and Lux was one of those for me. Just knowing he was out there, being crazy, being himself, has been a great comfort to me. Last night, I dreamed I was at his funeral, and Ivy was there, with all gray hair, and I was thinking, “God, she looks good!” I am the way I am – finally having unbudded with a vengeance and looking good despite the gray in my hair – because of Lux, just a little bit, you know, but an important little bit, and I am grateful.

My life has had many blessings, and one of them was getting to see the Cramps in Detroit in the early 80s and feel the light of Lux shine into my soul.

Published in: on February 12, 2009 at 1:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

Tiny Orange Trousers

Seth had to get a lead test. He was serious little boy and hadn’t grown much hair in his one year on earth, but he was trusting and interested in the world around him. The hospital was fun, with bright lights and automatic doors and he was having a pretty good time. Wearing his incredibly spiff orange trousers, he marched boldly ahead of us down the hall to the lab. And the next thing he knew, he was being held down on my lap and he was being hurt. The look on his face right before he started crying haunts me yet. His world shattered, my heart broke, and just as quickly, I did everything I could to comfort him. I cuddled him, we nursed, I told him he was brave and that everything was ok. Everything was ok. Just maybe not exactly quite the same ok it once was, and maybe I cried about it later in private, ok, I’m sure I did. That first loss of innocence and trust was just the beginning, and my Mama leap of faith was, and still is, that we would both survive and be happy regardless.

A couple of days ago, I got my ex’s reply to the settlement papers my lawyer and I gave her in December (we’ve been separated for years but are only now attempting to get a legal agreement in place, at my insistence). It is a great sadness in my life that Sarah and I have such completely different world views that we are virtually unable to agree on anything, because it really impacts our children negatively. Our differences are why we got a divorce, and this is why we need legal help with our custody arrangement. My biggest concern right now is that Seth is being brutalized by the crazy schedule Sarah insists on (I’ve been fighting her for years on this), where the boys have to shuttle back and forth every couple of days, rarely getting a chance to settle down at either house. This actually seems ok for Owen, who is a very go-with-the-flow kind of person, but it’s really working poor Seth’s last nerve. Friday, as we were about to get in the car so I could take them to Sarah’s, he started yelling at me, accusing me of treating him and Owen like property, “something that has to be shared, like a book!” There are still pieces of my heart on the kitchen floor from that one, as much as I rushed in to reassure him that I know he and his brother are people, not property. How can I protect Seth from Sarah’s dismissive, counter-intuitive parenting when it’s true, we do share custody? I can’t, even though I’ve enlisted a lawyer and put much of my life on hold to try.

When I was an adolescent, my mother drove me absolutely crazy by infantilizing me, reminiscing about how cute I’d been as a baby, exclaiming over my changing body and interests. Her way of letting go of my childhood ended up making me feel guilty about growing up – something I was conflicted enough about already – like somehow I was disappointing her by not remaining a child. I know she didn’t mean to make me feel that way and was only going through her own heartbreak in her own way, but it’s made me very wary of doing the same thing with Seth, who is so ready to bust out of the family and make his own way. Still, his toddler self has been much in my mind’s eye of late. He’s in 6th grade this year, and goes daily into battle at the middle school, a place that is rapacious and mean, that sandpapers off his innocence, and from which he returns home snarling and swearing. I know he still needs me, of course, and I also know I can’t protect him from peer pressure, pushy girls, indifferent teachers, and we are working on how our relationship needs to evolve (one of us more consciously than the other, admittedly). But these divorce issues are none of them of his own making, and I so wish that Sarah and I could more amicably work out a better way for the boys to share two houses and two very different styles of parenting.

Nothing for it but to just keep doing the best I can. Even the happiest and intact of families come up against the harsh realities of the world, and Seth and Owen are hardly the only kids around dealing with divorce – they’re not even the only ones dealing with divorced parents who are gay. Seth will know when he’s older (and perhaps knows on some level now) how firmly in his corner I am and how hard I’m fighting for his wellbeing. Whatever his armor – tiny orange trousers or Ax-soaked Abecrombie and Fitch t-shirt and baggy jeans – he is marching boldly away from me, out there where the wild things are, and I am loving him like crazy as he goes.

(This is nominally part of the blogswarm that Freedom to Marry is doing —  I’m a little hesitant to include it since it’s sort of the flip side of happily married but it certainly is part of the spectrum of queer families, and I continue to believe that we need recognition and legal help when our marriages disband. This is their link:

Published in: on February 9, 2009 at 3:11 PM  Comments (1)  

Companion Pain

When I was a teenager, it was something of a joke in my family that my mother absolutely refused to see anything other than a happy movie. She said that she’d seen enough doom and gloom – she often referenced some hideously depressing film my father had taken her to in their youth, “Night and Fog” or something by Bergman, I can’t remember – and she felt there was no longer any need for her to subject herself to such agony.

At the time, I was immersed – nay, wallowing — in the great abundance of human tragedy: the American Indian genocide, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, slavery, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those are only the beginning. I didn’t understand how my mother could so blithely choose to ignore these realities and I felt rather scornful and superior to her stubborn turning away from the truth about humans.

Well, I understand it now, and I also know it’s much more complicated than what I saw then as choosing to stay ignorant. How can a mother in her 40s (she was then, I am now) not have a deep understanding of humanity’s failings? These depthless tragedies become utterly personal when you first hold your baby in your arms – I had to stop reading the newspaper when I had a newborn to avoid coming across stories involving the death and destruction of families and the incredible wash of despair that would come over me, imagining my own family similarly affected. I had to be careful what books I read – a sudden death of a child, say, by choking on a marble (thanks a lot, Lorrie Moore!) could send me into a desperate spin.

The other day, I was complaining about this or that ache in my aging body, and my Beau said matter-of-factly that she thinks when one reaches a certain age, there are just companion pains that you have to settle in and deal with. That’s the way I feel about the state of the world, the history of humanity, the obscene way humans have and do treat each other. I am not stupid nor am I ignorant; I am exquisitely aware of the suffering going on to humans just like me all over the world, all of the time. It is my companion pain, and I have to live with it. But, like my mom, I have found that if I actively seek out depictions of it, I will become too depressed to carry on, when carrying on is just exactly what I have to do.

How ironic, then, that just as I wish to withdraw from active contemplation of human tragedy, my boys and students are at a time of their lives when these are the things that they must learn about. In the past few months, Owen has read (and asked me to read) a book about Jews in Denmark during World War II (Number the Stars by Lois Lowry), Seth is reading a book for school parents have also been encouraged to read, So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins about a Japanese diplomat’s family in North Korea during World War II, and my student, Shin, is reading, also for school, The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig, a memoir of the author’s girlhood exiled from her privileged Polish life to Siberia, during (you guessed it) World War II. They’re children’s books, so they are perhaps less detailed than they might be, but lord have mercy, they’re still incredibly tragic.

Yesterday at work, I was looking at The Endless Steppe while Shin was working on another homework assignment, writing an African folk tale. I came to a really sad part and sighed; he looked up at me and I asked, practically in tears, “Why are people so mean to each other, Shin?” “Be quiet, I’m writing!” he replied cheerfully, making me laugh. Because really, there is no answer to that question, at least as far as I know. Or rather, the answer is so complicated and deep that you just have to keep marching along, doing the best you can, and hoping for the best. Not ignoring the companion pain, but not letting it stop you from doing your work, which for me, includes teaching kids (my own and also my students) about that other, quite miraculous part of human beings, the part that performs miracles, the part that radiates love and peace. For me, that means writing, trying to be a good mom, a good daughter, a good wife, a good friend. And with that I will leave you. I have to go back and read about the Siberian winter, and marvel at the courage and ingenuity with which Esther’s family gets through it all.

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 3:38 PM  Leave a Comment  

Sonnet to the Stepbutch

(With a tip of the cursor to Marilyn Hacker for her marvelous book, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons.)

You’re playing Uno – waterproof – upstairs,
with Owen, splashing, pruney, in his bath;
it makes me smile to hear your belly laugh
and Owen’s giggly, happy, high-pitched, “No fairs!”
You built a grind box with our boys – a what?
Seth found the plans online, a skater’s site;
All three, you sawed, you glued, you vised.
Dear Beau, you teach us all the joy of put-
tering, of gardening, of caring for the yard;
With you the boys can wrestle, tickle, throw
around the ball until I call you in
for supper: light the candles, see them glow!
We eat, they clear, we play a hand of cards;
We four, this love, this peace, this blessed kin.

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 12:41 AM  Leave a Comment  

“Venus Boyz”

My Beau and I had a date last night – well, we started out on one, anyway. (As parents and curmudgeons, we don’t get out much.) We made it to a favorite restaurant, had supper, then almost saw an actual movie in an actual movie theater, but the wind was freezing and my Beau, recently recovered from a sore throat and nasty cold, realized she hadn’t recovered after all and I fussed and insisted we go back home. We did manage to get to the video store that has a Queer section (so refreshing!) and rented “Venus Boyz.”

For those who haven’t seen it or heard of it, it’s a documentary by a Swiss director, Gabriel Baur, nominally about the drag king scene, but actually about gender, identity, race, fucking, and just what the hell does it mean to be human, anyway? The cinematography, pacing, and directing are seamless, and the people she interviews are fascinating. At one point, the photographer Del LaGrace Volcano says that he (probably he would use that pronoun) wants to show the genitals of intersexed people in the most beautiful way possible; Baur also manages to show the people she follows in “Venus Boyz” in a haunting, respectful, and gorgeous way.

I loved that the people she talks to are often 40 or over – folks a ways along life’s journey who’ve put in time thinking and experiencing what it means to fit but nominally into the status quo of the binary. What I also love is the focus was not on these people’s pain – of which they’ve obviously had way more than their share – but on their art, their exuberance, their delirious sex, their love of themselves (hard won) and of each other.

There are a lot of laudatory reviews on the back of the cover, and I do hope this film was viewed by people other than queers and freaks (a word I use here lovingly and which I would also use to describe myself). I remember a dinner party long ago at which I hugely embarrassed my ex by getting up on a soap box and going on and on about what “normal” people could learn from the SM community, even if they themselves are not interested in getting flogged. I still believe that, and I know that “normal” people do need to have “normal” busted wide open for them – not that everyone has to shrug off their gender and cavort in the chaotic/erotic universe (although wouldn’t that be interesting?), just that I truly believe that it’s useful to push the boundaries and feel a fresh breeze against your cheeks.

It was fun seeing a few familiar faces from back in the day: Diane Torr and Shelly Mars (who I saw perform long ago and far away), and Judith Halberstam (yum). I was doing quite a bit of cavorting myself in the early 90s before I got pregnant and almost as quickly realized I had seriously fucked up in my choice of partner. (The reason I didn’t see this film when it first came out in 2001 is because I was the stay-at-home mom of 2 kids, 5 and 2 and was trying to figure out how to get out of my marriage and regain my sanity, sexuality, and frivolity without completely ruining my kids’ lives.)

How grateful I am to the people filling the spaces “normal” society ignores: the inches between a “normal” clit and a “normal” dick (Del LaGrace Volcano shows us a chart on his computer), the emptiness on the chart of female genitals that we’ve all studied in the gynecologist’s office, and, of course, that limitless limbo between “boy” and “girl.” How lucky my Beau and I are to have been able to watch this movie, snuggled together on the couch, hearing things about our own lives, seeing our own concerns, joys, questions, loves, desires, and hopes being taken seriously and lovingly discussed, lived out, honored and respected.

We must write! We must do our art! Do our work! We must reach out to each other! The zeitgeist rushes on, the new becomes old and we are admonished for continuing to think that “old fashioned” ideas are still important, despite that fact that for so many of us, these are not just ideas, but complex and gorgeous and deep parts of who we are that could take lifetimes to explore and musn’t be thrown out with yesterday’s news. When Judith Halberstam talks about her brand of butch in an almost apologetic way, I just cheer her on – your brand of butch buoys up my brand of femme and without you I would be diminished, no matter that perhaps the loudest queer voices are now advocating a different brand. All our flavors are delicious, we are like a farmer’s market at the height of the harvest, shining, plump, luscious, and we are mixed up together in an aromatic, nutritious queer soup. Sup daily to bolster your soul!

Published in: on February 1, 2009 at 8:16 PM  Comments (2)