Reading: Ann Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH

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COMMONWEALTH, by Ann Patchett, hardcover, 336 pages, HarperCollins

After many years of much noise and bustle, I made a decision to redefine myself. I now lead a life of quiet observation; mindfully uncluttered, simple of purpose: to find meaning in being present, unfettered by restrictive societal presumptions and biases, apart from the culture of acquisitiveness and achievement, resisting the urge to collect and accumulate stuff.

That said, there are some things I feel I must own, like new releases by Ann Patchett. So, despite my determinedly (and necessarily) reduced and frugal life-rejiggering, I pre-ordered Ms. Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, from my dear, local indie bookstore, The Curious Iguana, who lovingly saved me a signed first edition.

So much for me not being acquisitive. But readers, forgive me. It’s Ann Patchett. And so you understand what this choice means, the cost of a hardcover book is almost as much as I make for a day of house/pet-sitting. That said, I understand the ability to buy a book at all means I’ve a life of privilege many other people in the world do not have and I am extremely grateful for that.

Now, on to the novel. Here is what is written about Commonwealth on the Parnassus Books website, which is the bookstore Ms. Patchett co-owns:

Commonwealth is the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families lives. One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny s mother, Beverly thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

I don’t often cry when reading a book, but this story gutted me. In part, it is that my family was like the one in the novel with six children, one of whom died, and we navigated the treacherous, tortured path of sibling rivalries, the shifting and complicated loyalties and alliances exacerbated by an absent parent. With her usual scrupulous emotional honesty and artful lyricism of language, Ann Patchett captures decades of a family and the ways in which the same love that transforms and transfigures can paralyze and petrify.

Don’t let me dissuade you by misrepresenting Commonwealth as a tragedy or belonging to the lamentable agglomeration of recently heralded novels full of determinedly horrible human beings behaving abominably and suffering themselves to suicide. No, bursting from Commonwealth‘s pages are humor and insight, and convincingly real humans, vividly drawn, who you will want to embrace, scold, warn, and comfort — like family.

Ann Patchett has mastered the complicated art of writing simply. Her prose flows with such ease as one reads it, but careful examination reveals its masterful construction; its rhythms and tempos shape and are shaped by the emotional beats and actions, flowing with such grace, never show-offy or obviously technique-y, but, rather, closely observed lives given mindful, uncluttered voice. Ann Patchett writes life with a clear, unfettered generosity of spirit and brilliance of language for which she is justly celebrated. She is a national treasure, one of our greatest writers.

I feel certain if you read my blog, you are already an Ann Patchett fan, so I don’t need to go on to convince you to read Commonwealth, and perhaps I can fulfill my quest to redefine myself in simpler, cleaner, less convoluted lines by stopping here. Which I will, with this brief excerpt from the novel that brought me to tears where a mother, Teresa, is talking about the death of her son, Cal, to her daughter, his sister, Holly. Listen:

“Then after Cal died.” Teresa shrugged. “Well, you remember that. We sure weren’t moving to Virginia after Cal died, though I’ll tell you, it bothered me to have him buried there. It was just about going forward in those days, one step, one step, not falling all the way down into myself. I didn’t think about changing my life. My life had already been changed. I just had to get through it.”

“You got through it.” Holly took the car down to second. They were behind a truck, climbing and climbing.

“We all did, I guess, in our own ways. You don’t think you’re going to but then you do. You’re still alive. That was the thing that caught me in the end: I was still alive. You and Albie and Jeanette, still alive. And we wouldn’t be forever, so I had to do something with that.”

There is so much lyricism in the “one step, one step” and the “…changing my life. My life had already been changed.” And the “…climbing and climbing.” Those doubles, the build of repetition, so perfectly placed in a scene where Mother and Daughter, after a great absence from one another, in a country not their home, climb together a mountain in a tiny vehicle, behind a huge hulking truck, and those word-doublings followed in the next paragraph by not two, no, but three uses of “alive” after which Ann Patchett renders in a gorgeous, straightforward declaration of a hard-learned truth, that feeling familiar to anyone who has lost someone and watched their relationships with the other survivors metamorphose, the closure that is not at all closure, but, discovery and acceptance about being alive, this: “And we wouldn’t be forever, so I had to do something with that.”

That’s genius. That’s heartbreaking. That’s a writer whose books you buy because doing so isn’t collecting stuff, it’s receiving treasure.

Thank you, Ann Patchett.

Deciduous Me: Finding the Miracle in the Marble

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MiracleCharlie, Autumn 2016 Edition

Even as I ready to press PUBLISH on this post on which I have been working for 3 days (Not non-stop. I don’t write like that.) I am certain I will come back to it and edit (again) and add (I know, it’s already 3000 words) and delete (I know, thank heavens, you say) and — but, I am putting it out there because it is where and who I am in this moment. And a friend has STRONGLY suggested I give up writing fiction, re-visit all my blogs, and shape it into a memoir. Alas, I fear the only people interested are either dead, or already read my blog, so, anyway, Here we are. Going!

Fall began Thursday, September 22nd. I started house/pet-sitting at a gorgeous mountain retreat Friday, September 23rd. That night the television series version of “THE EXORCIST” debuted and like a fool, I watched it. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to write this, which started out as a memory about my brother, L, taking me to the movies, and somehow transmogrified into a meditation on marble and naked trees and gender and Michelangelo and … my usual babbling bullshit. So here we are, going.

THE FALLING LEAVES/OCTOBER APPROACHES

Autumn is my favorite season. I love the peeling away, the gift of being encouraged to lay bare the bones, disrobe and denude and divest and uncover, to have permission to abandon maintaining the adornment and artifice of the colorful and too often noisome business of being, to be allowed the enchantment of sloughing off, encouraged to welcome stillness, a peaceful, quiet, fallow resting, inside of which is the promise of renewal and spring.

Providentially, for these first ten days of Fall 2016 I am house/pet-sitting in a lovely mountain location just distant enough from the nearest town to afford an extra chill in the air, foliage making visible the breeze, brilliantly unfettered showers of sunlight, and silence enough to hear the birds, insects, and chattering leaves saying their goodbyes before they flutter and flitter and fall to the ground in the glorious quietus of release in which resides the covenant of resurrection.

But first, before we rise again, comes the letting go.

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MiracleCharlie 1962-63 Edition, being held by brother, L.

As I’ve aged, life has turned out much differently than I had planned, imagined, hoped. And as I accumulated experiences and disappointments I lost the smiling, optimistic, embracing, believing, open MiracleCharlie I was as a child. Now, after what began as a forced letting go and continued as a prolonged keening over and mourning for what was, what had never been, and what would never be, it has become clearer and clearer that finding MiracleCharlie again is more about that quote attributed (questionably, I think) to Michelangelo: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free.”

This blog is a reflection of that process in my life, these stories I examine and re-examine as I chip away at the marble of memory and imagination, shaping this me; MiracleCharlie 2016 iteration.

THE GENDER THING

I was twelve when my brother, L, did the only thing with me I ever remember the two of us doing together: He took me to see The Exorcist.

In the semi-autobiographical concatenation of romantic remembering, longing, and solipsistic ambagiousness that is this blog, rarely has L been involved in the stories. Long have I attributed the trajectory of my life to what my family seems tacitly to have agreed was our defining moment: the death by combination of alcohol and telephone pole of my father in the late evening of September 17, 1962. And while we were all shaped and shattered by our father’s careless suicide, it was L who woke up on September 18, 1962, expecting to celebrate his tenth birthday, only to find he was now half-an-orphan.

Although I know one can’t (shouldn’t?) measure or compare, I think L suffered more — or at least, very differently — from the death of our father not just because it forever marked his birthday, but also because it left for him a vacuum of like masculine energy. I — the only other biological male in that out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere household — was not yet two years old, and the five remaining survivors were female. Though L made a few attempts along the way to teach me to throw or dribble a ball, it was clear early on from my proclivity for arranging one of his white T-shirts on my head, insisting it was long, luxurious blonde hair as I gaminely tossed it, twirling, trilling, and affecting a tremolo in my delusional attempts to affect a Judy Garland mien, that we would not be sharing the sort of bond I shared with my sisters.

What I most clearly (I think) remember about L from those years is that even when he was around he was locked behind the door to the room we shared and the distinct although tacit understanding that he was not like the rest of us. He was — like my scary uncles — that mysterious, dangerous sort around whom you had to be careful not to be fully yourself, he was: A Man.

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MiracleCharlie, 2, beside aunt Sissie — where he would happily spend much of his life — who is holding younger sister, J, at her 1st birthday party.

It may be difficult for those born into the information age to comprehend how circumscribed and protected was the world of the 1960s in which I was raised. My family lived miles from the nearest town, there were no neighbors whose houses we could see, and before I could read my only contact with the outside world was through television, radio, and St. Peter’s Catholic church where I spent Sundays. I was a joyful, precocious, laughing and loving child who was happy to belong to the coven of brilliance which included my mother, four sisters, and aunt, Sissie. Even when I began school, it was the tiny Catholic one attached to the church, where the nuns knew my tragic fatherless story — we seemed to be the only family of children in the school without a father —and so in addition to my family coven, I then had a convent of School Sisters of Notre Dame who drew tight the circle of love and light around me in which I was shielded from the reality, protected and coddled.

Then, fourth grade happened.

St. Peter’s school was redlined out of existence by Vatican financial cutbacks and I was forced into the real world as represented by public elementary school without sisters of any sort to protect me. I was ill-prepared for its cruelty and primal-Darwinian violence. There, for the first time, I was expected to be a member of the tribe to which my brother and uncles and those mysterious creatures other people had called “fathers” belonged.

I could not. I did not belong. And I did not want to belong. But this is all a confusing mess of  still sometimes embarrassing and painful remembories, a block of marble in which I am trying to find my 2016 shape.

The thing that finished me was when a duplicitous cretin named Kathy Tacks (sue me, go ahead) goaded me by calling me a goody-goody (among other names) into drawing pictures of a naked boy and girl.

Now, I know because there are pictures, that I took bubble baths with my baby sister when we were very young, but, as I said, our world was small and we were not a family who walked around unclothed. So, when I drew a naked boy and girl, they looked alike save for the girl’s long Marlo Thomas, early That Girl flip-hairdo. Tacks, who had pretended to like me in order to get me to do the drawings, started screaming with laughter immediately, showing everyone my art, leading the movement which continued throughout my school career where I was labeled not only a queer, but a sexually backwards freak.

I was finished.

I honestly had no idea what made a girl a girl and a boy a boy except that whatever it was that everyone else seemed to know a boy was, was not something I knew how to be. I walked funny. I talked funny. I looked at my fingernails funny. I carried my books funny. I liked the wrong music. I read too much. And the wrong things. Nancy Drew for fuckssake. I was too smart. I hated sports. I was excellent at jumping rope and hopscotch. I didn’t know how babies were made. I didn’t know anything at all about sex. My idea about what would happen to me in the future had something to do with — sorry to be such a cliché but it’s true — Judy Garland and the boy next door in Meet Me In St. Louis and Barbra Streisand crooning “Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein” in Funny Girl.

That’s a lot of funny in that paragraph. Too much.

I wish I had been able to find the funny in it then. But, the bullying and name calling and daily terror scarred me, forever. I still have a great deal of trouble believing anyone truly likes me. I have always believed I am a choice people make — as son, brother, friend, lover, actor, writer, whatever — when no one else is available. And, what makes it more difficult is that I still struggle to recover from the belief with which I was back then indoctrinated, a belief worse than the ever-present fear of being name-called or beaten up, a belief generating endless, crippling shame, the belief that whatever was “wrong” with me that caused me to be such a pariah, was my fault.

What else would I believe? Trapped as they were in the same cultural zeitgeist as was I, the people who loved me tried to help me by telling me not to be myself; “Act more like a boy,” or, more frequently, “Stop acting like a girl.” Messages which not only said, “There’s something wrong with YOU, Charlie” but, too, that there was something wrong with being a girl.

And I knew that was not so. All the people I most loved, all the people who had been kind to me, all the people who could be trusted and didn’t raise their voices or hit, all those people were girls.

And my brother, well, he was locked in his room.

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David Cassidy, my adolescent throb

It never occurred to me to ask L about being a boy, because not only did I not really want to be one, but I knew I’d be no better at it than I had been at baseball and basketball or other sporty-skills he had tried to teach me only to end up screaming and storming off to lock himself again in our room. Too, by eleven, puberty had hit and having gotten my hands on a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint and discovered masturbation, I had faced up to the fact — if only in my head and only to myself — my Portnoy-ing stories about David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman and Leif Garrett and Robby Benson and Jan-Michael Vincent were not going to magically metamorphose into fantasies about Susan Dey or Raquel Welch or whatever other female I ought to be thinking about.

L may have been locked away behind the door to our room, but I was locked up with my pathetic secret that I deserved all those names people had been calling me for years because, well, I wanted to kiss boys. Or, actually, I wanted them to kiss me.

And I couldn’t change.

And, holy crap, my inability to be the boy I was supposed to be was embarrassing not only for me but, it seemed, for everyone else. It became clear that not only was I not going to be Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand, I was hurtling toward the doom of being Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, or his portrayer, Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. Maybe, if I was lucky, I would turn out to be Charles Nelson Reilly; at least he’d done Hello, Dolly! on Broadway.

So, on the occasion when L gave in to my pleadings — actually, he caved to the demands of his girlfriend at the time, Charlotte (What are the odds she’d have the female version of my name? I loved her.) who was extra fond of me — and took me along with them to D.C. to see The Exorcist, I was excited. No, I was overwhelmed. It meant a lot to me that L wanted to do anything with me. He was magical in our family — taciturn where the rest of us were effusive, calm (which I now suspect had something to do with the amount of weed he smoked) where the rest of us were excitable and nervous, male when the rest of us were female, or, whatever I was, that thing between — and so his inviting me to do something made me special. Made me cool. Especially because he was doing it behind my mother’s back. Especially especially because I would be able to tell everyone at school I had gone to a movie no one under 18 was supposed to be allowed to see. All wins.

AND THE EXORCIST RETURNS

2000 words later, I’ve arrived at the event that prompted me to write this entry. Succinct, I am not.

Friday night I watched the television re-boot of The Exorcist and I was terrified all over again. I thought — four decades later — I had recovered from the can’t go to sleep, bumps in the wall, demons around every corner horror I had suffered after L took me to see the film. I was so traumatized at twelve that I would not sleep in my bed until the frame was removed and my mattress put directly on the floor because I was convinced otherwise, each night, Satan was rocking and levitating it. My mother wanted to kill L.

She had learned her lesson a few years earlier when she’d given in to my pleading and taken me to see Love Story, during which I sobbed with such vigor and at such volume audience members voiced their dismay at the parent who’d subject a child of such sensitivity to the film. I did not stop crying until almost six hours later and for weeks afterward the opening notes of its theme, heard on the radio, could (and did) start my weeping again.

It is interesting to me, here in my fifties, when I tried recently to watch Love Story I laughed out loud at its manipulative plotting and the ridiculously bad acting. But, The Exorcist, I still can’t watch it. SO WHAT IN THE WORLD MADE ME THINK I SHOULD WATCH THE TELEVISION SHOW?

I spent most of the hour texting my sister, D, in panic. She had suggested I not watch it in the first place and then begged me to turn it off and finally forbade me to ever watch it again. I am, however, obsessed.

Partly because I am fascinated that a movie about love now seems silly to me while a movie about fear still terrifies me.

But, mostly because, watching The Exorcist series debut took me back to that movie trip with my brother. Why did he take me along? The more I considered it, tried to emotionally parse it, the clearer it became to me: if I didn’t know how to be a boy like he was, if the rest of the family lived on a plane of female energy and emotion, how left out must he have felt? The things he loved were of no interest to me. We had nothing in common. Who I was and who he was and our age difference didn’t present us many opportunities to do things together, to be together. Too, I dismissed the things that mattered to him — whether out of defensiveness or fear — and looking back from this vantage (took me long enough) I see that when I presented him with openings, he always said yes.

I brought him into my world when I couldn’t find a grown-up to play Doc in my youth production of West Side Story, and despite the fact he hadn’t set foot on a stage since his senior year in high school, L said yes when I asked. But that milieu, much like our family, was too clamorous and dramatic and out-there for him. “How,” he asked me one night, “do you stand all this noise and all those people in your face all the time?” But, I noticed when he said it, he seemed proud of me, proud that I could command and conduct the cacophony.

Until, I couldn’t. And had to leave.

I thought about killing myself. A lot. Many times over the years. I tried. Many decades ago. And for the last few years of my past life, I would pray every night to a god I no longer much believed in to have mercy and let me die. But, finally, I realized I am not like my father, and I didn’t want to choose fear over love and go in a truck, drunk driving like a coward into telephone poles until the story ended, but, rather, I wanted to have courage enough to say, “I am somewhere in this chunk of marble and I need to chip away at it until I find MiracleCharlie again.”

LOVE & LIGHT beat fear and darkness

This is all part of another story not yet ready for the telling (Not yet ready for me to really look at, too much marble, an overwhelming amount, I can see nothing but how heavy it is and how I cannot — now, anyway — imagine tackling it.) about the kind of man others wanted me to be, which had as little to do with me and who I really was as did all the “be a boy” taunts of my youth.

But, it’s fall. I am in a beautiful place, surrounded by nature’s music in which there is resounding, marvelous silence, rests of length enough to invite in the remembories that prompt blog entries, that make me re-think and shed the leaves (chip away the marble?) covering my trunk, my core, my strength, my spine, and look again at what holds me up, what grew me.

What I have grown. What I can let go. What seems silly to me now. What I am still afraid of. What — despite all the years of examining and over-examining my life and my thoughts and reality — I misunderstood along the way, or, maybe, being kinder to myself, hadn’t yet grown vision enough to fully see.

The Exorcist scared me Friday night. But, I talked myself down and went to bed here at my house-sit, and I laughed when I got under the covers, realizing that here, in this bed, I could remote control raise the head of the mattress and make it vibrate. Fuck satan. Fuck fear. I’m letting go the things that prevent me from being the MiracleCharlie in the bubble bath, free of shame, free of labels, happy and splashing in a cozy world full of people who love me.

The rest, well, it’s just a story someone told to make me cry or make me afraid. This is my movie now, and its shape doesn’t fit the “norm” of American-acquisitiveness any more than queer-little Charlie fit the “norm” of boy — and I’m not making that same mistake again of believing there is something wrong with me.

I’m MiracleCharlie, and I almost (I’m afraid to fully commit) even like the body I have made for myself (see first picture in post) even though I wish it were 15 pounds thinner, still, I have recently walked naked in front of another man (or two, I go to a gym) with that body and felt, well, okay about it, and that is a lot of many kinds and levels of marble I have chipped away and leaves I’ve let fall and I love my brother and I forgive Kathy Tacks and even more important, I forgive MYSELF, and here I am, dammit, laughing, smiling, happy, loving, fucking, being me, and baby, I am going.

Love you all. Be back soon.

 

 

 

 

READING: Nathan Hill’s THE NIX (and a few others)

I’ll be talking about four books today; IN MIKE WE TRUST by P.E.Ryan; HOME BY NIGHTFALL by Charles Finch; THE WOMAN IN CABIN TEN by Ruth Ware; and my favorite of this post, the very good THE NIX by Nathan Hill. You can click on any of the titles in red below to be taken to either the publisher’s page or the author’s page for the books. Enjoy.

in-mike-we-trustIN MIKE WE TRUST, by P.E.Ryan, hardcover, 366 pages, Harper Teen

After having reveled in the glories of Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts, I worried the next author I read would be at an unfair disadvantage. So, what did I do? Followed up with Mr. Ryan’s — this time writing as P.E.Ryan — young adult novel, In Mike We Trust.

15-year-old Garth and his emotionally and financially stressed Mom are adjusting to a smaller life when the identical twin of Garth’s deceased father, Mike, a sort of prodigal brother/mysterious black sheep, arrives on the scene. Garth has recently come out as Gay to his best friend, Lisa, and to his Mom, the latter of whom wishes him to keep it quiet until he’s older, refusing even to discuss it with him. Mike shakes up the fearfully circumscribed world in which Garth and his Mom have mourned themselves into in ways that alarm Garth’s Mom, Lisa, and finally, Garth himself who is also falling for Lisa’s friend, Adam, further complicating matters.

This is a very fast read (with a slow-ish start) and, like I said, after The Dream Life of Astronauts, nothing stood a chance with me. I liked this well enough but something about Mike felt unfinished to me, as if the author meant him to be more, or to go in a different direction originally, but was convinced not to. In general, the characters and the story felt underdeveloped and too plotted and planned at the same time, unlike Astronauts, which was full of surprises and breathtaking realities, this felt predictable and not really from the truth of a heart.

home-by-nightfallHOME BY NIGHTFALL (Charles Lenox Mysteries #9), by Charles Finch, Hardcover, 304 pages, Minotaur Books

I have read only one other in this series, a much earlier installment. The aristocratic Mr. Lenox, in 1876 London, having left Parliament, is partner in a detective agency. What I love about these novels is that you can pick up any in the series and it stands on its own, although I imagine having the entire backstory would enrich the experience. Too, I am a sucker for 19th century London tales. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, I just am. And, finally, the crimes may be awful but never grossly, sensationalized as are too many detective procedurals placed in modern times. I enjoyed it. While the Lenox series is not one for which I await and snap up the next installment as soon as it is printed, I always enjoy them when I do find one in my TBR pile.

THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10, by Ruth Ware, Hardcover, 352 pages, Gallery/Scout Press

I did not read Ruth Ware’s much acclaimed In A Dark, Dark Wood, so this is my first adventure with her writing. Travel writer on a ship; history of mental illness; thinks she sees a murder; nefarious goings on. Everyone thinks she’s crazy. Or drunk. Twists. Turns. All of which I saw coming from miles away. I must say, I thought this was slapdash. I can appreciate a mystery/thriller full of tropes, but, it needs to distinguish itself somehow, with brilliant literary quality or characters about whom you really care, and, for me, this just didn’t have anything to make it special. I think I’m suffering from an overdose of girl-on-a-train-itis.

nixTHE NIX, by Nathan Hill, Hardcover, 628 pages, Knopf

I was wary of picking this up. Reasons: 1) It’s buzzy and I’ve been burned (a lot, of late) by buzzy books, those much recommended, literati-loved hot reads. 2) 628 pages. Again, the long books I have picked up of late have been less than compelling, all having seemed to me in need of trimming. In fact, the last two 400+ page books I started, I put aside, unwilling to devote that much of my time and energy to them after the first 100 not fascinating pages.

So, at the risk of being part of a buzzfest — The Nix was worthy of all 628 of its pages.

It begins with what appears to be an attack on a soon-to-be presidential candidate of obsequiously conservative stripe by a supposed sixties radical/criminal; one of our main characters, Faye, mother of our other main character, Samuel. She left him, decades earlier, with nary a thought as to his happiness. Or, so it seems, but like almost everything else in this wonderfully structured debut novel, it’s quite a bit more complicated than it at first appears.

In deftly handled time-leaps and alternating close-third points of view, the narrative flies, full of fascinating, well-limned characters in situations seesawing from laugh out loud funny to weepy sad, and while credibility is sometimes strained and stretched, it always feels grounded and done in a purposeful way.

Some reviewers have called this a satire on the sanctimonious times in which we live; maybe,there is this quote from Samuel’s literary agent, Periwinkle (who is much more than an agent but, read it):

“We’ve tested this. Your mom has huge crossover appeal. This is rare and usually unpredictable, the thing that pops out of culture and becomes universal. Everyone sees what they want to see in your mom, everyone gets to be offended in their own special way. Your mother’s story allows people of any political stripe to say ‘Shame on you,’ which is just delicious these days. It’s no secret that the great American pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.”

But I think to call the novel satire is reductive and misleading. I found the novel to be profoundly insightful into the ways in which we love and fear and fail and struggle and, mostly, misunderstand ourselves and others along the way, so busy are we sticking to and/or longing for the script we have in our head to come true, we miss the life we might be living. That is a difficult thing to capture, and Mr. Hill has managed brilliantly to do so.

Another theme, stated in various ways throughout the book, is this, early on: “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst.” Stated again later in the novel: “Why do the best things in life leave such deep scars?” This concept explored along with the journey of self discovery, as in:

“What Faye won’t understand and may never understand us that there is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones. … Will she ever understand this? Who knows. Seeing ourselves clearly is the project of a lifetime.”

That’s beautiful. And while the underlying philosophy of many of the characters is one of cynicism and calculation, even still, there is this seed of hope, this patina of “well this is how it is, there must be a reason, I’ll keep going.”

I think it was that hint of optimism in the face of a horrifyingly unfair and often painful reality that struck such a chord in me. The world, right now, is horrifyingly unfair and often painful and terrifying, so, I appreciate a little optimism in my novels.

Not to mention humor, pathos, and insightful, moving, skilled literary writing.

Read it. Please. I think you’ll be glad you did.

 

Why I Blog. Why I Write. Why I?

I need to understand things.

I cried in the gym parking lot Wednesday morning.

Why?

A few days ago I messaged this sentence to a friend; “Especially since she seems no longer to have any use for me.” I was confessing my sadness for envying another who was being showered with attention I no longer receive from someone whose approval and approbation have become part of my measurement of self-worth.

My friend mentioned being struck by my choice of the word “use” which made me think. A lot. The “get off Twitter, stop texting people, shut the hell up” kind of thinking brought on by the suspicion (fear?) that something foundational in my cosmological makeup might be flawed, and before I disappoint or chase away anyone else (as in, the person I was messaging): Shut the fuck up.

All these decades I thought I was strong, but, is it possible I am pathologically needy and my strength merely a facade I’ve constructed to win admiration? All front and no center? Do I honestly believe that unless I can somehow fill a void in the life of another, serve a purpose, I’ve nothing of value to embrace? And am I so bereft of self-regard that the way I’m responded to (or, not) on social media by people who I’ve never even met in real life matters to me to this degree?

Is that why I was crying in a gym parking lot Wednesday morning?

Wednesday Waking 5:59 a.m.

I woke at 5:59 a.m. It was the final waking in a series. I am usually in bed by 9 p.m. cuddling with a book (or two or three)  until I find myself reading the same paragraph three or four times and having no idea what the words mean, having entered a fugue state in which the sentences morph into an alternate reality having nothing to do with the book the author wrote, but, rather, are part of my just-beneath-the-surface semi-consciousness world, that mess of a mass of unprocessed emotions, vague notions, half-formed theories, unexamined beliefs, and the detritus of fifty years of being alive, at which point I mark my place, take off my glasses, turn out the light, and try to sleep.

Try.

All of my siblings (and most of my friends) have diagnosed sleep-disorders for which forced-breathing masks are prescribed. I suppose I would have one too had I not chosen a simpler life in which my what-amounts-to-Medicaid insurance coverage assigned me to a practice in which I have not seen an actual M.D. in three years and I have yet to see more than once one of the collection of physician’s assistants and nurses who last approximately three months max with the group before discovering it to be the clusterfuck of overworked, under-concerned soon-to-be malpractice-case witnesses it is.

I rarely sleep more than two hours without waking. Often the waking requires a trip to the bathroom because as you age, your body does this thing where the parts you want not to grow, balloon, and the parts you wish would grow, shrink, as in the bladder and its male associated organ become ever smaller. This up and downing, in and outing, is not only not restful, it’s annoying, frustrating, the old-age bookending to the toddler fury of being told it’s too early to get up, one needs to sleep or nap longer. Only, now I am the authority figure — a role for which I am poorly suited — and I have made a rule that I am not allowed to get out of bed, lights on, day begun, until at least 5:00a.m.

Furthermore, what passes for “sleep” nowadays is all too often a half-waking, tossing and turning, fever-like semi-night-terror. My subconscious picks some nugget of unprocessed botheration and turns it into a scenario from which I cannot escape, all night long. Tuesday into Wednesday involved  a scenario in which members of a sort of NSA-like version of the Literati-Twitterati world determined not only that my writing lacked any worth, but I was also a dangerous spiritual vampire with whom talking sucked the talent and joy out of people, so I was, forever after, to be ignored on Twitter and in life.

Why would a dream about people I have mostly never even met IRL make me cry?

I suppose, had I better health insurance, along with a sleep apnea mask, I would also be prescribed anti-anxiety medication. And Ambien or Halcion. Or, a straitjacket.

Anyway. 5:59 a.m. I allow myself to get up. Coffee. Water. And I leave for the gym at 6:15.

The Gym 6:30 a.m.

I have tried the gym at nearly every hour in search of a quiet, less populated time. I want a gym absent the teens and tweens whose bodies and needy-look-at-me-gruntings distract and intimidate me. I need a gym absent the old men (My age? No, even older.) who parade their nudity and start conversations, indicating they think I might be one of them. I need a gym without the school-moms who use my favorite machines and talk, often about god, but always — like the teen and tween boys — too loudly and with an eye to the performance they are giving. Thus, 6:30 a.m., it is too early for teens except for a very few over-achieving sports-team-y types who populate the free-weight region into which I never venture, after which they speed through a shower/locker room visit long about 7 a.m. when I am on my elliptical, and the senior men and school-moms don’t start arriving until 9 or 10 a.m., so at this time of the morning I am left, mostly, alone.

Okay, not completely, there are some regulars.

There is the fellow who used to talk to me on Grindr when I still had that account, a man I messaged not for sex, but because he looked EXACTLY like someone I know personally who is married with children and I wanted to make sure it was NOT that person. We became something like friends and he recognized me from the gym; I’ll call him Grindr Pal. After that initial app-contact, we’d end up on nearby machines and in the sauna and showers at the same time, a few times, and we never once spoke out loud or learned one another’s names; all of our words were traded through Grindr messages. Then, there is the red towel man, a short, smooth-bodied, beefy and soon to be balding blond, who never makes eye contact on the gym floor or locker room, but sits naked on his towel in the sauna, casually stroking himself in a way meant to convey unawareness he is doing so, and positions himself in a shower stall across from you, closing his curtain only halfway, jacking off openly. Grindr Pal wrote to me and asked me if Red Towel had done his public masturbation for me, too. Yes. Also morning regulars, Married Couple; one dark, hairy, shaped like a heavy-ish Jason Segel, who only treadmills, while his partner, shorter, blonder, smoother, with just a small beer-stomach and no ass at all, moves from machine to machine, returning to the anti-bacterial hand gel dispensers between each step of his circuit and spends as much time wet-wiping equipment as he does using it. And, less frequent but also a regular, the hot, tattooed swimmer. He has a shaved head and an enormous dick that he is always letting slip out of his towel in the sauna. He, too, showers with the curtain mostly open. And invites people in. After which, he closes the curtain.

I hide. Once I enter the locker room, readying for shower and sauna, I remove my glasses which makes me legally blind. I sit in the darkest corner of the sauna. Eyes closed. Head back against the wall. And I use the differently-abled shower. It is larger. And in a corner where no one goes. Unlike me, Grindr Pal, Red Towel, Married Couple, and Hot Tattooed Swimmer have real jobs and lives with schedules, so their arrivals and departures are predictable. Usually, I make sure to arrive in the sauna and showers as they are leaving, but, I own up to sometimes feeling lonely or bored or in need of life-excitement, and so time my gymming to observe these fellows doing their mini-seductions and game playing.

But, like the Twitterati in my Tuesday night-semi-insomnia-terror, I don’t really know these gym people either, despite them being a large enough presence in my life I am thinking and writing about them. I am affected by what they do, how they do or don’t react to me. When Red Towel jacked off across from my shower, I felt wanted. When someone on Twitter likes or comments on something I say, I feel valued.

I need to understand why it has come to matter so much to me that near strangers evidence approval of me.

Do I blog to understand? For approval? Both? Neither? And the crying in the parking lot, which is what I’m trying to get to. Why?

Why I Am Crying In The Gym Parking Lot 8:30 a.m.

Wednesday, the thing: I wanted to be alone at the gym. I didn’t want to worry about whether Red Towel or Grindr Pal or Married Couple — or, too, the detective fellow who always takes the locker next to me and wears a very fitted pink button-down shirt with a neon blue tie at least twice a week, and who doesn’t play any of the sauna or shower games the others do, but who — in that threatening, daring way of the terrorist-boys in high school — is always putting himself in my path, watching me to see if I’m watching him, which I am careful never to let him see me doing, that Speedo wearing, “here I am, drying my genitals for a very long time right next to you” fellow whose hinted at cruelty and roiling suppressed desire make him almost irresistible to me, yes, well, I didn’t want to be worrying about any of them Wednesday morning. I was still stuck suffering the echoes of my semi-waking-terror-insomnia-dream in which I’d been kicked off Twitter by the literati.

So, I went slowly through my paces on the gym floor.

And then, they came.

They were probably six feet tall and somewhere past three hundred pounds and maybe twenty or maybe older or younger and of indeterminate gender. They radiated sadness. They never raised their eyes to a level where they might meet or notice the gaze of another. I recognize this sort of avoidance. I lived it for many years. And they were the kind of big that people look at. The kind of big that makes it hard to walk. They carried a gym bag with them, because, I imagined, a locker room held all sorts of terrors for them. They tried, first, to use the recumbent bike. They did not fit in the seat. It was clearly so uncomfortable, they could not bend enough to adjust the straps on the foot pedals. They looked around to see if anyone was watching. I, being the only other person at that time in the cardio equipment area, carefully was not. They got up. This effort had made them sweat. A lot. Without having exercised at all, their T-shirt was soaked. They had a small blue towel with which they kept wiping their face. They moved to a treadmill not far from me. They started. They were so clearly carrying such a burden of every kind of weight, I could feel the sorrow and the loneliness and this loud, painful ache, and the effort of walking through it was soaking them through, exhausting them.

And it was too much for me. I left the elliptical. I quickly showered, skipped the sauna, dressed and headed out.

And there they were. Sitting on one of the benches on the sidewalk outside the gym. On their phone. And because I am who I am, I walked slowly, trying not to be seen, not to intrude or invade, because I could not get to the parking lot without walking near them. And I heard:

“I hate it here. I have tried. Please, can’t I come home?” And pause. “I don’t care about college. I can’t do this. Let me come home. Please.”

And it came at me, from those sentences. They were a child. Here, new to Frederick, probably at Hood College, having managed to make a life in a world where people like them are dismissed and ignored and made fun of and insulted, having had courage enough to deal with that and matriculate at a really good college and join a gym where the judging is serious and constant and harsh and bounces off the walls and shiny glassed and mirrored surfaces in a riotous roaring ululation of “you’re not enough you’re not enough never enough” and they were, now, collapsing from all the new, all the alone, all the having to find a way in a world where what you are is outside the boundaries of what most people think you should be.

And it pushed every button I have and some I didn’t know I had.

Because I didn’t have the courage to sit down beside them and try to do something. To solve something. To say, “You are enough and you are not alone. Let me help.”

Because I have, of late, when undressed, been avoiding mirrors because I feel fat. I have gained fifteen pounds in the last few months and it makes me feel UN. NOT ENOUGH. Because I have, of late, been pissed (again) that I screwed up my chances to be an actor, a singer, a writer, by being so afraid — a feeling which is always closely followed by the voice — LET’S FACE IT, YOU WERE NEVER THAT TALENTED ANYWAY. Because I have, of late, messaged a friend whining about not being loved enough by Twitterati. Because I have, of late, turned down an invitation to an event because it would be attended by lots of people whose stories about me are harsh, distorted, untrue, some people I loved, who loved me, and I didn’t want to make it uncomfortable for them, nor did I think I could face it.

Because, by the time I was done thinking about this and writing about it (which I have been trying to do for days) I had come to realize that this depression I have is about me being them; I have spent a life not sitting next to myself on that bench. As many times as I have said it to others, given others the path to find their way to their own Love & Light, I have never, truly, sat with myself and all the ways I believe I am not enough, unlovable, and said to me: You are enough. You are not alone.

Which is self-help-y, new age-y bullshit, I guess.

But, too, is why I think seeing them, hearing them on that bench, all those buttons, it’s how and why I ended up in my car, in the parking lot of the gym, sobbing.

A stranger to myself, still?

Why I. Sunday. 10:30 a.m.

Listen, dear ones, you readers, the 500 or so a day who check in here, and the sort-of-strangers I know from Twitter, from the gym, who I have mostly made up, by thinking about them and imagining them and writing them, maybe, in important ways, they are part of my process of defining who I am. Imagining you people who read this, imagining my Twitter friends, imagining the gym people, filling in details and backstories and wondering why, is my way of finding the truth of who I am.

How we see others, how we imagine others, our ability to empathize, sympathize, humanize others defines us. I often don’t much like myself, feel a failure, wish I were not here anymore, but this part of me, the part who writes is the best of me, the heart and soul and love and light of me, who sees the actions of others and tries to make sense of those actions, who truly believes that at the core of truth in every story, the center of every soul, there at the beginning of each of us, is Love and Light, and why I blog, why I write, why and how I manage to go on, is because I have always believed I was here to find that for me, yes, but even more so, for others.

I blog because it is my way of reminding myself it exists, of seeing the Love and Light.

So, here I am, going.

September Mo(u)rnings

Many loved ones who know me well, and some who know me just by social media, have inquired as to my well-being. Thank you, I am fine. September is a rough month for me. And my health challenges are exhausting me right now, but I will be fine. I am fine. Just tired. I am always fine. But if I am quiet right now, it is because: reasons. And me, being me, being prone to sharing TMI and with so few walls and so little fear of revealing anything anymore, felt that an explanation would help me cope, and let those of you who wanted to know, know. So, here it is . . .

Oh September.

September 1962: The Beginning Ending

It is fifty years later, after my mother and I have worked through so many losses and back to one another, finding our way first as mother and son, then, to the surprise of both of us, becoming friends, and finally, when I who she carried and for whom she sacrificed became the one doing the carrying and caring, she offered me the warmest embrace: her unguarded truths. I asked her about what had happened when she’d answered the door that night.

As she told me her story, I saw it in black and white until she started to describe the officer who’d been sent to change her life. He was, she told me, very young, boyish, and fifty years later she did that deflection thing she does where she makes what everyone else is going through more important than whatever is happening to her; “I feel so sorry for that policeman, there I was, answering the door, seven months pregnant out to here, and I knew what he had to tell me and he just didn’t want to say it. But I knew. As soon as I saw that boy in that uniform; I knew.”

Her husband, my father, was dead.

And in my head, as she told me about that young officer, that boyish looking man, in all the past and black and white of her sorrow, I saw A., in color.

September 2003

Stephen was recovering from a routine hernia operation when I went to his apartment to drop off the script for Batboy: The Musical, for which I’d gotten the rights for the premiere Maryland production. Stephen and I had worked through so many losses and back to one another, finding our way again as dear, hysterical friends who shared a predilection for horrible men, bad choices, and financial ineptitude. After years of dueling theatre companies and classes, he was going to be in my Batboy, and I was going to be in his Dracula, and we had been discussing our plans to rid ourselves of the dross and offal in our lives, excited to re-bond and support one another in this purging of people who didn’t deserve all we’d done and did for them and who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate the joy we got from waving at strangers and taking chances. We laughed like loons that Saturday morning at all the stupid we had been, the silly we had done, and love, until he stopped, stopped breathing it seemed and said:

“I hate to be the one who has to tell you this, but A. died last night.”

A’s presence in and absence from my life is all the buttons, all the if onlys, all the should have and wish I’d and what if and sorrow and regret and confusion and fury at a world and people who cannot let people be who they are, who brainwash and terrorize and bully and hate so that love that ought to be, can’t be.

A’s presence in and absence from my life is all my fear about how I have failed and compromised and lost and lost and lost and lost.

In the months preceding his death, my only interactions with A had been an argument in a parking deck where I’d screamed and accused and berated because he pretended not to know me, and seeing him in his officer’s uniform, driving the police car at the head of funeral processions.

Now, he was dead.

And then, two days later a call came in the middle of the night — not a knock on the door by an officer, but a call from a friend — complications from the surgery, intestine nicked, septic poisoning, something ridiculous, just fucking September I guess: Stephen was dead.

September 2016

Today I got up at 5:45 a.m., the sun didn’t rise until 6:44. I much prefer an earlier sunrise. When September comes and the mornings are darker, the nights so much longer, the leaves not yet turning but changing, invisibly, preparing to fall, I can never quite catch my breath. Like a child who has taken a hard fall, hit the ground with such force the breath is lost, and the body shocked out of its AIR IN/AIR OUT rhythm, that moment of paralyzing nothingness, the upending of the system, the horrible panic of recognizing the body can betray, can just STOP, the inability in that frozen second to be alive; it is the moments after that, the involuntary gasping, the waves of pain in which it feels one might drown, that is the way I feel, that is the way I am terrified in September.

It comes at me no matter how I prepare. There is this weeping at everything. At anything. Or, and, also, a hysterical laughing at something not at all funny. And manic-babbling-monologues. All the Charlies in my head come out, talking out loud at and arguing with each other.

October 2013

Things had been hard for a few years. I gave up much of the life I had, many of its people, most of its activities, to try to save my life. But, I wondered, what good was the life I had saved? I had waited too long to change what needed to be changed, there was so little of me left, I’d given the best away in service of other people’s dreams; and while I didn’t (and don’t) believe I deserve love or happiness any more than anyone else, I have never been able to figure out the despair visited on some.

There is no way to make sense of my mother having lost both parents by the time she was sixteen, then to have three miscarriages, bury two husbands, outlive all of her brothers and sisters, and then, it wasn’t a policeman at her door, or a friend calling in the middle of the night, it was me. I found her in the laundry room of the assisted living complex where she had an apartment and asked her to come with me (and my sister) back to her rooms. She knew. She kept asking who was sick, what had happened. I kept saying just come on back to your rooms first.

I would be the one to say out loud that her daughter, my sister, had died. And though she’d told me she had been quiet and calm when the officer told her my father had driven, drunk, into his final telephone pole, when I said, “Peggy is dead,” my mother exploded into a keening wail, a painful cursing at god in whom she still somehow believed, asking how he could take her parents, her husbands, her brothers and sister, and now, her child. She railed in such agony at the unfairness of it.

I moved in with her for a week. Through the funeral — during which I was assigned to hold her up — and a few days after, until she said, “I’m okay Charlie, you can go home. And you can cry if you want to.”

I didn’t cry then. Legend has it I stopped crying when my father died, that I, at seventeen months, somehow intuited I needed to be strong, out-of-the-way. I never knew him. I know he liked Mahalia Jackson. He drank too much. So, I am careful about my drinking. I go months at a time without any alcohol. I saw Jennifer Holliday play Mahalia Jackson in a horrible musical.

September 2016

I went to the gym this morning. September 7. Which was the day, you know, I told you, Stephen told me that A. had died. I should forget these dates. I cannot breathe. My chest hurts.

Dear friends wrote to me today to say, each in their own way, “I know this is a tough time. I love you.”

I meant in these paragraphs to tell you why September is hard. I made a cake today. Beautiful. And dinner for my sister and dear, dear great niece and great nephew. I never cooked for A. We only really ate as an excuse to drink.

Tomorrow I will be with my Mom. And sister. I will go to the gym. I will maybe fill eight test tubes with samples of myself to take to a lab. Again. We’ll see.

It will be dark when I wake up. Again. And still September.

I was supposed to go to coffee with Peggy the morning after she died. I am disjointed here, I know. Sorry. We hadn’t — Peggy and I — spent time together for a long time. But she was on her goodbye tour. How is this fair to my Mom? Peggy was moving from Connecticut to a house she’d designed and built in California. To retire near her grandkids and children. Stopped in Maryland to say goodbye to everyone. We were going to fix things. Broken things.

I am a broken thing. Always a broken thing. Broken people. All of us. I know. Everyone, I mean. The world. I can’t watch the news now. All the broken people choosing hate instead of love. What is this about?

Is everyone stuck in September?

I love some of you. I wish I had said that instead of screaming at — never mind. It wouldn’t have saved him. And laughing hysterically with Stephen that morning, surely that didn’t tear an intestinal wall and cause the infection. And having so many children to support, when he felt so unable to care for himself that he had to drink who he was away, that couldn’t have killed my father. Right? It wasn’t my fault. None of them were my fault. It is never your fault. We love the best way we can. Listen. I’m fine.

I went to the gym today. This morning. In the dark, this dark, by which I will not be defeated.

There is a man there who saunas in a red towel. He is beautiful in the way A. was beautiful. I have long enjoyed watching him. This morning, he made clear he wanted to be watched. It felt, to me, like a message from A., because it is September, it was September 7th this morning and so dark and dammit I would like to think that somehow it could be possible that he and I — had he lived — could have worked through our many losses and back to one another, finding our way free of fear and the past, to carry one another, to at last revel in that warmest embrace: our unguarded truth.

Oh, September.

Reading: Finding Patrick Ryan

Over the holiday weekend I read three books, 2 of which I will describe in brief at the end of this:  SCREAM, by Tama Janowitz; and PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov, and then, one of those books that fill a reader with joy, the pages of which introduce you to a new author to whom you can turn when you need to say, “AHHH, this is what writing is and reading should be!” I start with this:

THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS, by Patrick Ryan, hardcover, 272 pages, Dial Press

dream-life

Click on cover to visit Patrick Ryan’s website

Behold the first thirty-four words of The Way She Handles, the opening story in Patrick Ryan’s collection, The Dream Life Of Astronauts:

“Late one night during the summer of Watergate, I was in bed reading a Hardy Boys novel by flashlight when a car pulled into our cul-de-sac, its headlights sweeping the walls of my room.”

That sentence tells the reader at least ten things about the narrator and one thing about the writer; he’s incredibly gifted. I was so enraptured by the promise of the opening line, I hesitated to read on, fearing disappointment. Instead, I found a new favorite author.

I suppose I ought to have expected as much since the book was blurbed by Ann Patchett, no slouch in the writing department herself. And I then discovered a chat between the two on her Parnassus Books site. Click here for that. 

The Way She Handles is about four lonely people, isolated together, which is less oxymoron than miracle of writing, managing to capture the damage people do to one another just by virtue of proximity. Like many of the stories in the collection, members of these fractured, fragile families Mr. Ryan so vividly captures, resent one another, often for an absence — whether it be physical, there is much abandonment herein, or emotional, in that those others we love seem never to appreciate enough how we love them, what we do for them, what we’ve sacrificed for them.

The title story, The Dream Life Of Astronauts, is one of the finest, most moving, layered stories I’ve read since Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck collection. In it, space-nerd Frankie, who is sixteen, almost seventeen, is awe-struck by an almost astronaut he thinks he is stalking; but who is pursuing whom and what they both gain and lose in their misapprehensions about one another make for a tale both hilarious and horrifying. When we meet Frankie again, much later in the collection in a treasure called Earth, Mostly, well, I wept.

Part of the genius of this collection is that while each story stands alone, they all take place near Cape Canaveral and some of the characters reappear, having changed (rarely for the better) in the way people do when you’ve known them for long years but haven’t seen them for ages; upon recognizing them and realizing who they were and what they’ve come to you gasp the “Oh, shit, that could be me,” sort of panic.

Like Bonnie Jo Campbell in her glorious collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters [click here], Mr. Ryan imbues his characters with a native wisdom and a real-life, real-people, day-in-day-out acceptance of their lives and realities. They may have tragedy, they may have regret, but they go on, they trudge, they cope through the terror of life in lower-middle-class America, where all the dreams and possibilities politicians are always blathering on about are pretty much acknowledged to be the things that happen to people not like us; happiness is a thing mostly out of reach.

I loved this book. I cannot recommend it enough. Which was a nice feeling after the two books I read right before it.

SCREAM: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, by Tama Janowitz, hardcover, 304 pages, Dey Street Books

This was a terribly depressing memoir to which I was led because a few people I know on Twitter were talking about it. But, yuck. I quote;

“I found rotten people to be more interesting. What made them the way they were? Thankfully, I found that even nice and decent human beings are pretty rotten as well.”

One can imagine the sort of unhappiness and bleak existence experienced by someone with that cosmology. I feel sorry for her. I’m sorry I read this. And, not only was it unpleasant, but it was poorly edited with many repeated lines and fragments of semi-stories and bitternesses. Just — no.

And then, in my never-ending quest to prove autodidacticism is a viable alternative to a degree, I decided I just had to read what was recently called in print “Vladimir Nabokov’s genius gay classic”;

PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov, Hardcover, 239 pages, Everyman’s Library, 1992

Clearly, my lack of formal education has rendered me unable to appreciate what others (many, many others) have called an ingenious masterpiece of form and structure. Well, okay. But, let me tell you an embarrassing little tale about my writing. Once upon a time I wrote a weekly column and theatre reviews for a small on-line magazine. Its publisher invited a former New York Times editor to workshop with us and he said to me; “Do me and all your readers a favor, confine your masturbatory urges to your private time. If you’re working that hard to prove to us how smart you are, we’re never gonna believe you anyway. Dial it back.”

Of course I got furious. Of course he was right. Now, I am NOT comparing myself to Nabokov, but it strikes me that Pale Fire wasn’t written for — as Dorothy Parker called us — The Common Reader, but rather, for other writers and graduate students enthralled by the technical aspects of literature and rubbing-one-another off about how clever and intellectual they all are.

Listen, I’m not much interested in flipping back and forth and deep-deep delving into a book to appreciate its genius. Truth: I’d rather jack off myself.

Later kids, Love and Light.

 

 

 

Wilde and Bosie and loving unwisely, but profoundly

It’s a beautiful, clear, breezy, near 70 degree Sunday here in Frederick, Maryland, United States, the day before Labor Day. I am listening to author, Neil Bartlett, live from Reading Gaol, reading De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s 50,000 word letter to his dear one, his betrayer, Bosie.

Wilde bosie colorizedI am weeping. As is Mr. Bartlett, periodically. One catches one’s breath, one recognizes in these lyrical lines one’s own experience, that unfortunate accident of an uncontrollable and ill-advised attraction to someone within whom one recognizes all the love, all the light, all the good, all the possibility, someone within whom one imagines there to be all the might have beens one missed out on, someone onto whom one projects all the fantastic future that might have been made of one’s own failed past; that attraction which has the unhappy ending of being attacked by that same loved one with a despairing hate, a purposeful, contemptuous darkness, a calculated and pointed evil, and nothing but the willful urge to destroy, all the might bes scoffed away, the future which — no matter its shape — will always bear the scar of a past in which one was heedlessly, pointedly, deliberately cruel.

Since my own Bosie-experience, I am less able to love. It isn’t bitterness or anger, it is an absence. The sorrow of having watched a loved one choose to ravage and deny eviscerated a part of me. The ultimate essence of who I am was surgically altered, changed when someone I loved with near-complete disregard for my own well-being or good, made the choice to negate, forsake, and slander with lies and twisted narrations the truth of who we were, what we were, who I am, who they are.

But, that is just my story. My experience.

Wilde knew this, too. He wrote about the difficulties of finding the truth and essence of things via a translation of a translation; there is no way for language to capture the individual experience of love. Wilde and Bosie, their society, historians, we readers now, all have unique ideas about what and who Wilde and Bosie were, what their love was worth or what it meant.

So, what miracle and magic is it that Wilde’s words do manage to evoke so much of the horror, shame, pain, and regret of having loved unwisely? The sorrow and the anguish, the heartfelt cry of his deepest feelings made mockery; the need to find a way to come to terms, come to peace with the love one gave so freely having been so hatefully rebuked.

The same miracle, I think, as is this beautiful low-70s breeze caressing me today, all the windows open, and through them to see such a gorgeous blue sky, and to find myself content, accepting, without rage or anger, and, slowly but surely, doing away with regrets.

I have lived a life much-examined. And while I will never be as profound or insightful as Mr. Wilde, I am blessed with the luxury of time and freedom to consider what is, what was, what might have been, and what still might be.

I want to visit New Orleans and eat Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s. I want to see Falsettos on Broadway. I want to forgive myself for the things I failed to recognize until it was too late to save myself, and, I want to understand why.

Not much, right? And here I am, going. Love and Light, kids.

 

 

 

 

Reading: 33 Books Of My Summer

From June 1 to August 31 I moved for the third time in four years, did six (or was it seven?) house and pet-sitting gigs, visited the doctor repeatedly for a gastrointestinal disorder that has been going on for three years, and read 33 books.

And you know what? I hate moving but I love my new apartment, love living with my sister, am grateful for the house and petsitting jobs, and today visited a gastroenterologist who seems to be determined to help me, which would be enough in itself, but, too, he is almost a dead-ringer for Raza Jaffrey—

 

— after whom I have lusted since I first saw him wasting himself on Katharine McPhee on SMASH, (FULL DISCLOSURE — I was ALWAYS Team-Ivy, and have seen Megan Hilty in multiple Broadway shows as well as in concert — a lot — twice in one night, in fact, when she did THIS —

–holy shit I love her so MUCH! And I am scheduled to see her again with my dear Team-Ivy and gastrointestinal distress cohort, A, in December — I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, A!!!!) and, my dears, to have the luxury of a life in which I can read 33 books over the course of a summer — I am NOT complaining, in fact, I am expressing my gratitude to the universe and to you people for reading me.

And, since this is SUPPOSED to be about the books I have read this summer, ha, here I am, going, offering short summaries of my summery-reads arranged by date read.

Think TwiceTHINK TWICE (Rosato & Associates #11) by Lisa Scottolinethis was my first Lisa Scottoline and I wonder how I have missed her up until now? On the other hand, grateful I now have a lengthy backlist to savor. Well done, fast paced, nicely plotted, moves like a bullet-train.

THE ASSISTANTS by Camille PerriA fast read about those living privileged lives which are not privileged enough; explores in a satirical way the damage done by sexism and classism, but, almost admires the capitalist destruction of self. Torn about it. But, funny, well structured, and, again, very fast.

THE NEST by Cynthia D’Aprix SweeneyMore privileged people dissatisfied with their level of privilege. Why are all the “summer reads” this year so obsessed with the haves who feel they haven’t enough and act execrably because of it?

MOST WANTED by Lisa ScottolineMy second Lisa Scottoline read since “discovering” her earlier in June. This, a plot involving sperm donor being a serial killer and mother-to-be determined to get to the truth of it all. It moves. It goes. It does what you want it to do and gives you what you want. I like that in a sperm donor and a book.

Our Young ManOUR YOUNG MAN by Edmund WhiteI have read almost everything Edmund White has written from A Boy’s Own Story to City Boy to The Joy of Gay Sex to the Proust and Genet biographies. He is a part of my history, a part of the history of all gay men of my generation. He broke ground. He pushed. He pulled. He succeeded. He failed. He blazed trails. And I will honor him and every word he writes for as long as he writes.

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline I liked this. I marvelled at the insight of an author so young, in particular her ability to capture the feeling of the late sixties and early seventies, and the lamenting, ennui, and patina of regret & disappointment coloring the remainder of the lives of survivors of the radicalism & extreme believing of the time. That said, not quite sure it was worth all the summer-buzziness it got, but, there it is. I have come to think nearly all buzzy-books have more to do with who is marketing them as opposed to how well they read, if that makes sense.

Then and NowTHEN & NOW: A MEMOIR by Barbara CookIt’s Barbara Cook, who is such a part of my life, so integral to my experience and the stories of who I am, it is as if she is a close, personal friend. She is that sort of talent, that sort of love, and so whatever she sings, says, offers, acts, writes will always be a five-star event for me.

THE CHILDREN by Ann Leary Fast summer read. I found the ending a bit less than satisfying and the characters’ traits seem sometimes pasted on and pat rather than earned and true, but, all hail a writer who has a plot and moves things along and doesn’t indulge in MFA-fuckery.

THE DEADLY DANCE (Agatha Raisin # 15) by M.C.Beaton

I love Agatha, and in this episode she begins her own detective agency, which has given her a welcome increase in the bite and spark which was very much on display in earlier installments and which had faded into a less interesting near-nastiness in the last couple — although I still loved visiting with her in those, too. But, hoorah for this turn!

GRACE: A NOVEL by Natasha DeonThe writing was well-calibrated in that “I’ve been workshopped a lot” sort of way, but I found it difficult to follow the time-jumping narration, its back and forthing, perhaps because its voices were all too much the same, needing more individuation. And I thought it went on longer than it needed to. And it was very hard to take, its tragedies were painful to bear.

THE UNDERGROUND MAN (Lew Archer # 16) by Ross MacdonaldMy first Macdonald, though this is 16th in Lew Archer series. It transcends the faux-detective-noir-ish sort of genre: he is a true pro at this, a master. The plot was twisty, the characters well-defined, the writing phenomenally evocative. Had I not read Eudora Welty’s review of it, and known her fondness from MEANWHILE THERE ARE LETTERS — the brilliant collection of the correspondence between the two — I’d have missed Mr. Macdonald’s work.

They May Not Mean to But They DoTHEY MAY NOT MEAN TO, BUT THEY DO by Cathleen SchineI loved this book. Quite the brilliant exploration of the love, guilt, manipulation, anger, joy, forgiveness, and insanity of being family. The insight into an octogenarian main character was a refreshing change of pace from the usual senior character portrayals in fiction. Read this if you have parents. Or kids. Or, a family.  ONE OF MY TOP SUMMER PICKS.

THE GIRLS IN THE GARDEN by Lisa JewellWell constructed, suspense-thriller-ish novel, fast read with a young adult vibe, great for a hot summer day. Again, though, maybe a little more media-buzzed/hyped than warranted.

SWEETBITTER by Stephanie DanlerA very fast read & well done, the writing is lovely, here and there one comes across a stunning insight, but, in the end, it felt cheated and posed, like one of its major characters, Simone. Somehow not all it was pretending to be, a little pretentious and too much muchness. Still, I do recommend you read it, but, again, buzzy-hype warning.

Some Enchanted EveningsSOME ENCHANTED EVENINGS: THE GLITTERY LIFE AND TIMES OF MARY MARTIN by David Kaufmanmy dear aunt, Sissie, adored Mary Martin, and thus, so did I. She was and is a legend, the likes of which we won’t see again. Annoyed this book did things like call Rose in GYPSY Mama Rose, and misspell Minnie in HELLO, DOLLY! as Mini. Sloppy for a book about musical theatre. And the author seemed determined from the outset to prove that Mary Martin really wasn’t as nice as she pretended to be, making sure to find lots of people who had issues with her. A bit bitchy, I think, but, still, I devour anything with old-Broadway gossip so, I loved it, though it felt somewhat disrespectful to do so.

THE INNOCENTS (Quinn Colson #6) by Ace Atkins

I didn’t read the first 5, nor have I read any previous Ace Atkins, but this was a great noir. Dark, full of uncomfortably real, small-town, small-mind ignorance and hate to which Quinn Colson stands up. I liked it. Fast read. Well done.

MODERN LOVERS by Emma StraubThis is an easy read, short chapters, many interesting characters, well constructed. What kept me from 4-starring was its lack of exploration of the possibility of happiness outside coupledom, or, the absence of an examination of how that cultural assumption might be a kind of bigotry/hindrance. But, as far as buzz-hype-y summer books, this one came rather closer to deserving the noise than did most of the others.

Excellent LombardsTHE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS by Jane HamiltonI am a fan of Jane Hamilton; reading her is akin to hearing a great & beloved friend share a personal story. I enjoyed this book very much, until the last few pages, by which I was a bit confused and then felt abandoned, as if the story had no ending, as if I’d been left hanging. I needed (wanted?) more closure, which is perhaps more about me than about the book, and even with that I am saying ONE OF MY TOP SUMMER PICKS.

CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK (Amelia Peabody #1) by Elizabeth PetersI liked this but I did not love it the way I expected to. I expected to because so many of my Twitterati pals love this series. I will probably try the next one at some point and see if it grows on me.

TRYING TO FLOAT: COMING OF AGE IN THE CHELSEA HOTEL by Nicolaia RipsFurther proof one should wait until one is older to write a memoir. I expected from copy and write-ups it would be about characters in the hotel, but, not really. It was about a young girl’s journey, which is fine, but not how it was marketed.

AN INNOCENT FASHION by R.J.HernandezI began to suspect about halfway in this novel of mordant wit & fashion publishing industry insider roman a clef surface, was a much deeper look at society, class, and the illusions and delusions of millenials (and all of us) which would turn out to have a less than happy ending. I think, in fact, it is one of the saddest stories I have read in some time. Well written, yes, but ultimately bleak.

ROBERT J. PARKER’S KICKBACK (Spenser #43) by Ace AtkinsI am newly addicted to Ace Atkins. He is smart, witty, and moves a story. Things happen and the voices in which he writes always interest and amuse and compel. Nice work.  

BELGRAVIA by Julian Fellowes I wanted it to be Downton Abbey. It wasn’t. A bit predictable and it felt, to me, and I’m sorry to be negative, calculated: a formula written for reasons other than the author being compelled to tell a cracking good tale.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam HaslettA family, a history of mental illness, well written. Moved when I read it, three weeks later I had forgotten the plot and had to read reviews to remind myself. Maybe the intense relationships/actions within a family destroyed by depression caused me to block it out. Maybe not.  Nice cover design.

LOST GIRLS: AN UNSOLVED AMERICAN MYSTERY by Robert KolkerRecommended by a number of people I follow on Twitter. I found it confusing — the structure and jumping about was extremely difficult to follow — and, finally, it felt as if the whole enterprise was without thesis or point, really. As in, whatever he meant to do, didn’t — for me — get done. And I think it would have benefitted from stronger editing.

SWEET LAMB OF HEAVEN by Lydia MilletNot for me. I read books from every genre, and I am fine with authors playing with those, but this seemed an ill-conceived mish-mash of indecision about what it ultimately wanted to be and say, what story it meant to tell, and I ended up feeling disappointed and annoyed.

YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan AbbottAnother hot-buzzy-summer read, especially because it came out during Olympics season and was set in competitive gymnastics milieu. I worked around competition parents for many years; those kids, those teachers, those parents, nuts and totally capable of murder. Fast read. Fun. Sad. The real crime is the ruination of kids for distorted, so-called American dream.

DAMAGED (Rosato & DiNunzio #4) by Lisa Scottoline –  Obviously, this summer I became a fan of Ms. Scottoline’s. Her plotting, pacing, and characters are reliably fine and this novel also offered lots of relevant information about the foster care system; and, perhaps slightly unbelievable but much welcome happy endings for everyone. I’m good with that.

THE LOST GIRLS by Heather YoungI wanted to like this more than I did. I wish I had an in-depth understanding of why it didn’t capture me as it ought, but I don’t. Taking nothing away from the writing, which really was quite good, but somehow I knew too early what was going to happen & I felt a bit emotionally manipulated, and maybe by August 21, when I read it, I was exhausted by so many “buzzy” summer reads being just not nearly as fun and hype-worthy as I’d been press-repped into believing they’d be. Which is maybe why my next book was —

perfect paragonTHE PERFECT PARAGON (Agatha Raisin #16) She is one of my reliable loves, Agatha Raisin, as is her fabulous author, M.C.Beaton. I have all of the books, up through 25 waiting to be read (I’m saving up for 26 and soon to be released 27) but am rationing myself. It’s a real comfort knowing 17 awaits me when next I need a visit with someone on whom I can count, and my dear Agatha is always SUCH A DELIGHT!

UNDER THE HARROW by Flynn BerryA promising debut; I like being unable to tell whether or not the narrator is reliable; I thought the ending was a bit unearned, as in, perhaps too facile. But so admire the ability of authors to build mysteries, what a gift.

Penny, Louise A Great Reckoning 2A GREAT RECKONING (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #12) by Louise PennyI cannot briefly express my love for this book, for all the Gamache books, for the artistry of Louise Penny, so, check my blog earlier this week for a complete review, just click here: A GREAT RECKONING — my appreciation. ONE OF MY TOP SUMMER PICKS.

PARADISE LODGE by Nina StibbeThis was — sorry to use such overused words — a charming and delightful read. Funny. Touching. Lovely tale of a fifteen-year-old young person coming into her own while working in a home for the elderly. Truly enjoyable.

So, there it is. I’ve managed to write about 33 books in under 2500 words, which, if you know me at all, must be some sort of miracle at work. Oh, right, I am, after all, MiracleCharlie. One day I’ll talk about how I got that name, but for now, here I am, going, off to finish reading an old Nabokov I’d missed and a new Tama Janowitz memoir which is — so far — delighting me. Happy Labor Day, dear ones. Much Love and Light and HAPPY READING!

 

 

 

Reading: A GREAT RECKONING by Louise Penny

Penny, Louise A Great Reckoning 2A Great Reckoning, Louise Penny, Cloth, 400 pages, Minotaur, August 30, 2016

“It’s a little humbling to realize the pedestal isn’t quite so high after all.” This confession by beloved Armand Gamache, near the climax of the alchemy of prose and humanity called A Great Reckoning, illuminates the genius of genre-busting author Louise Penny.

First things first; a precis of plot. Gamache is continuing his effort to clean up the corruption in the law enforcement organization to which he has devoted and for which he has risked his life, now taking over as commander of Surete Academy, when irascible, middle-finger-flashing poet, Ruth, presents him with a map which had long been hidden in the walls of Gabri & Olivier’s Three Pines bistro, a copy of which ends up in the bedside table of a professor found dead at the Academy, a murder for which Armand, his lifelong best friend and mortal enemy, Brebeuf, and four young cadets for whom Armand feels guiltily responsible, having given them copies of the map to investigate as an exercise, become suspects. The connections between the murder, the provenance of the map, a stained glass window in the Three Pines chapel, the four cadets and their relationship to the murdered professor and Armand, and the secrets, shames, and suspicions in the histories of everyone involved make for a riveting twelfth installment in Ms. Penny’s Gamache series.

Such is Ms. Penny’s authorial acumen, as with every entry in this series, you need not have read the preceding Gamache novels to understand, enjoy, or appreciate this one. That said, for those of us who have done, each return to Three Pines, each visit with its community of compelling characters who manage to be both clamorous and concordant is like a reunion with treasured friends during which one is reminded of all they’ve been and been through, while marvelling and catching up with where they are now and who they’ve become. The real magic of the spells woven by Ms. Penny though, is the ways in which the characters’ journeys — no matter how heightened and outside the realm of most of our daily lives — limn those all too human moments we all experience.

A Great Reckoning manages to move along at cracking-good mystery/whodunnit pace, at the same time layering a literary fiction’s worth of emotional exploration, insight and depth, all in clear, precise, evocative language, full of sentences of lyrical beauty and penetrating observation, too there is often a gentle but incisive wit, and in all of this the reader recognizes their own humanity and experience; because while Ms. Penny’s books may be genre-labeled as mysteries, the real mystery always at their center is how does one manage to remain a decent human being in a world full of pain, evil, danger, and those who have failed at or eschewed decency. Armand Gamache does not run from his flaws or duck his challenges, he stands, he faces, he does his considered and considerable best to be the best he can be, to do the least harm, to navigate with honor, dignity, and grace in a world where such things are not always valued, are not always the path to success, are sometimes used against him.

Armand Gamache is who we would all like to be, who we would all like to emulate, who we would all like to know, and when he falls short, when he faces failure, when he recognizes that although he has striven hard to be upright, honest, and an example, still even those he loves and trusts the most can suspect him of having slipped, failed, erred — well, that’s the human experience, the occasion of “a little humbling to recognize the pedestal isn’t quite so high after all.” That’s gorgeous writing.

My only cavil with this novel is a petty, personal note: I don’t have it in me to be Armand Gamache, nowhere near. I am more unto bad-tempered, tetchy, foul-mouthed, fractious poet, Ruth Zardo, and I should very much like it if she entirely took over an installment or two. I can never get enough of her. And her duck.

This is one of my favorites of the Gamache series, and I say that having loved every one. If you are a fan of good writing, literary fiction, mysteries, beautiful sentences, fascinating characters, surprising plotting, books you cancel plans for and can’t put down, and yet you haven’t started reading Louise Penny, you must. Start here with A Great Reckoning, or, go back to the beginning of the series. I promise you, you will not be disappointed and I bet, like me, you will have many moments of, “Aha! I have felt that very thing and she has put it into words!” For, like Gamache, Ms. Penny is uncannily attuned to the human condition, an astute observer of the experience of being, and her writing is both a delight and a revelation of self. READ HER.

And while you’re at it, don’t neglect the Acknowledgments at the end of the book (which I always read first) where Ms. Penny gives evidence of just how close is her heart and soul to that of beloved Gamache. I don’t know her at all, but she seems to be every bit the wonderful person he is, and, she thanks her “astonishing editor”, Hope Dellon, for being a great friend and checking in to see how Ms. Penny was doing on a personal level. I do know Hope Dellon, who I met through Twitter because of my admiration for Ms. Penny’s work, and in the years since, she has been a good friend to me, offering encouragement and affirmation, checking in and urging forward, onward, and rising from her own sick-bed to meet me for lunch when I was visiting New York; they are both lucky to know one another and it gives this reader comfort to know the world is populated by people like Louise Penny and Hope Dellon, people of honor, grace, dignity, and decency. For me, they both stand on pedestals quite high, indeed.

I pre-ordered my copy of A GREAT RECKONING from The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], my independent bookstore here in Frederick, Maryland. At the same time, I reserved a copy at the library and they mistakenly gave it to me a week early, so I have been sitting on this excitement for a week — which nearly did me in! Now, if only someone would likewise slip me an early copy of Ann Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH.

 

Survivors

Garth Greenwell [click here for his site] wrote the brilliant novel, WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, and Garrard Conley [click here for his site] wrote the eviscerating memoir, BOY ERASED, which have in common besides being fantastic writing and moving reads, that they are informed by the gay experience; these are life stories still too rare, still too stigmatized, still too dismissed and denied in too many places, which makes the world dangerous for people like Garth and Garrard and, well, me. So, part of my story, here, where I am, going. 

I am up at 5a.m. cutting up ten pounds of vegetables.

This weekend there’s a family gathering of my only living parent, Mommy, her five remaining offspring accompanied by members of their individual branches, and, too, relatives borne by the deceased offspring. We will celebrate the visit of one niece/cousin/daughter and the return to college of another niece/cousin/daughter, and, if we’re honest about it, this fried chicken dinner is about what every other joining of more than one or two of us has become: a marvel that we have survived.

I try not to invade the privacy of others with my writing. I understand people in the same room having had the same conversation will individually experience it through their own filters of frame of reference, life experience, and personal prejudices, so I hesitate to write about something (anything) someone else has “done”, the doing of which has resulted in me feeling a certain way. This is why, I think, my blogs are often so solipsistic; I believe we are responsible for our own reality, as in, I am responsible for how I react to whatever the world gives me.

As an actor, director, teacher, writer, and now, house/pet sitter, I have spent most of my life examining and contemplating what the world gives and how the gifts make people feel and react. Cause and effect. Things happen because . . . this is what interests me; the WHY of life.

I see now that for many years I couldn’t get to the pith of WHY — my own WHY anyway — because I harbored such anger. Anger born of fear. Fear of rejection. And as is so often the case, that thing I feared was the very thing I sought, set myself up to find.

Now, let me begin by saying, I am not looking to blame anyone for anything. It is not the fault of my family I was born into a heterosexist culture from which come my earliest memories, these family members I cherish disapproving of me. The “stop acting like a girl” and “boys don’t wiggle their rear ends when they walk” and “boys can’t have long hair” and “stop pretending you’re a girl wearing dresses” and “don’t you want to play with your trucks?” and the subtler sort of tsks and turnings away, the times they pretended not to see me with a towel on my head substituting for luxurious, long blonde hair, the times they would tell my sister how cute she looked in a found dress-up dress but pretend not to see me there next to her, these communicated to me from the beginning of my consciousness that I was, somehow, not right.

Not what they wanted.

I want to be absolutely clear: My family loved me unreservedly and any hesitations had to do with what they thought would happen to me out in the world because of who I was and how I behaved. My family — to a person — all struggled with feeling not enough, not right, not belonging, not deserving of love, success, being seen. We all made life decisions we regretted based on the belief we would never, could never really be loved if anyone actually knew who we were, what we were, so we’d best be grateful for every crumb sent our way and hope we were never found out for the losers we really were.

When I formally came out, there was no rejection, only support, at a time when many LGBTQ people (although that term did not exist) were disowned, denied, and destroyed by their families.

None of which changes the chronic stress of being other in a world where it was clearly communicated that other was unacceptable. If I wanted to be happy — hell, if I wanted to SURVIVE — it depended on me pretending to be someone and something other than who I was. It was a natural trajectory that I’d gravitate to the arts, where pretending to be something and someone else was rewarded and where I was able to find cohort and companions who understood — even if it wasn’t said out loud — my journey.

The sadness of that; as a performer I had a good-enough voice and a no-holds-barred intensity, but I did not have the masculine mien that allowed me to be cast in most available male roles. I was, as they said at the time, “light”. I tried, but not hard enough, I did not have the required fortitude or confidence to bear all the rejection of being sort-of-talented and a type. I ended up directing and teaching, which was a mostly good thing. I worked very hard to embrace other when casting and teaching, to include and expand, to see soul, not gender, color, age, size, when making stories. I succeeded quite a bit. And, yes, I also failed. I misunderstood some people, I missed some opportunities to see and encourage people, I had a prejudice toward beautiful voices and troubled souls and floppy, gangly movers.

But, I made a world. Or, more accurately, I made a safe room in a scary world where others were supposed to be safe to be who they were, the kind of room I wished I’d had as young Charlie.

And then, for reasons too private and in many ways the telling of which — even my part of the story — would elide into the realities of others I do not wish to denigrate, criticize, nor in any way harm or judge, it became impossible for me to stay in that room myself; impossible because it had become clear that in ways I’d never suspected — or, perhaps, willfully ignored — I was again not being seen for who I was by people who meant to love me, but, instead, loved who they wanted or needed me to be, some other version of me, a version it was killing me to try to be. It was past the time where I could keep morphing to make others happy, I needed to try to be me for me, and let that be enough.

So, late-ish in life I struck out, giving up many things, quietly. In the process, I was given up by lots of people, most of whom meant little to me, acquaintances, but some of whom I loved and trusted deeply, family and dear friends whose absence and/or lack of understanding and support cut me deeply, felt like rejection, very nearly killed me.

But one goes on. Or, I did. I knew that I too had hurt people. One doesn’t mean to, one sometimes can’t do anything else, most people act from self-preservation and we don’t consider what others believe to be our heinous acts of betrayal to be heinous in the least. We are all sociopaths when it comes to getting what we think we need to survive.

And so, as I had with acting, producing, and teaching, I concentrated on writing, which has the same sort of audition/rejection foundation as does acting. I repeat, as with acting: I tried, but not hard enough, I did not have the required fortitude or confidence to bear all the rejection of being sort-of-talented and a niche-type. I ended up odd-jobbing, house and pet sitting, living far below the poverty level.

During which process I, well, let Roxie Hart speak for me:

Look, I’m gonna tell you the truth. Not that the truth really matters. But I’m gonna tell you anyway. The thing is, see, I’m older than I ever intended to be. And all my life I wanted to be —- but No, No, No, they always turned me down. It was one big world full of No. . . . Anyway, to make a long story short, I started fooling around. Then I started screwing around — which is fooling around without dinner.

While I might have faced mostly rejection in acting and writing and love, to my surprise, late-ish in life, in ways and to degrees never the case in my youth, I was remarkably successful at tricking. And its rejections didn’t bother me because it wasn’t me. Not Charlie. I didn’t have a name. Or, if I did, it wasn’t my real one. No one gave a crap about names. Or resumes. Or my singing. Or writing. Or my ability to make people feel safe or seen. Or anything but this six feet, one inch, one hundred and something (private, that) pounds, age undetermined (lied about, actually), average-bodied, relatively sane, clean, smells good man onto which these other men projected whatever it was they needed me to be, and we all got what we needed. Right then. Moments. Pretending to be whoever they wanted us to be, pretending they were who we needed them to be, pretending to be.

And I am okay with that. And damn good at it.

And this: I’ve spent the majority of my life with a room of my own. I don’t want to share my bed. I don’t want to get married. It’s too late to have a child. I don’t want to start another career. I want to be content in my space of me.

So, I need to protect that space. I don’t invite people into my rooms — wherever they are — I go to theirs. And that, less and less. I am in retreat. Where once I was on Twitter hours a day, now I check in once or twice. Or, not at all. I love the people — my dear ones — on Twitter, but like my family and dear friends from before — I don’t want to face the thought of losing them, of watching them go, as has happened so much in life. So, in my bed, now, (in my life, now?) I have room only for me, my books, my Moleskines. Where I sleep is my sacred retreat from the possibility of rejection of any kind. Where I sleep is my place of inclusion for me. Just me.

The me who has survived in a world where the minority stress caused by cultural externalized and internalized homophobia coupled with a genetic predisposition toward self-abnegation and early Catholic training in the benefits of being a martyr to others, could easily have done me in.

I survived. I’m not sure why, to what end, or, frankly, some days, that I wouldn’t have been better off not surviving, but here I am. Cutting up vegetables for what remains of my family, even those who broke my heart. Swiffering someone else’s floor. Cuddling someone else’s pets. Holding someone else’s space. Being where and what I am needed to be by others for a while during the day. My choice. And, having reached this place in life, too, my mistakes, I’ve owned them. I am not ashamed of the things I did badly and wrong, of the things I fucked up, nor am I ashamed of being fond of casual sex with virtual pretty strangers. Now, when I get into bed at night, wherever that bed happens to be that week, I am unashamed and contentedly alone with my books, with my me, the me who has against gargantuan odds of predisposition and disease, survived when many of my gay brothers did not. Have not. Could not. I am a survivor.

And we are all of us that, yes? Survivors. The secret aging tells us, the whittling away to essence, the pith of our personhood, what remains when all the bullshit and braying and boasting and believing and betrayal is done with.

Happy weekend, kids. Going.