Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Beloved Old Goat


"They that enter into the world are too often treated with unreasonable rigour by those that were once as ignorant and heady as themselves; and distinction is not always made between the faults which require speedy and violent eradication, and those that will gradually drop away in the progression of life. Vicious solicitations of appetite, if not checked, will grow more importunate; and mean arts of profit or ambition will gather strength in the mind, if they are not early suppressed. But mistaken notions of superiority, desires of useless show, pride of little accomplishments, and all the train of vanity, will be brushed away by the wing of Time."

-- Samuel 4Johnson: Idler #25 (October 7, 1758)

She was kind to me, to us, even when she probably shouldn't have been, certainly when kindness was more than we deserved. She was the mother of my friend and as such just one more I might have meant to charm. I was good with mothers when I was young, fathers not so much, my own or others'.  Mothers liked me, always did. Most of them loved me sooner or later. Some of them I came to love back, but not all. One or two never liked me much despite my best efforts. Disappointing but understandable really as I was having sex with their sons. They must have suspected this even if they didn't know. I was obviously an influence at the very least, and not always for good. Her daughter was my best friend, never a lover, so that is why it probably mattered more. She was kind to me, the mother of my best friend then, to all of us, and so I have loved her ever since.

Forgive me for not using their names. It was only a day ago, at 2:12 in the morning that my friend's mother died. And yes, she died of what you'd assume given the times, and you're right to think that she needn't have if people weren't so selfish and stupid but we are. We do not listen and some of us think we know better when we don't and so people keep dying. It's horrible and infuriating and the woman who's died would not have disagreed I think but she isn't here to say so and it isn't my place to speak for her even now she's dead. It isn't my place to announce her death either.

Please forgive me then for writing in this awkward way-- without names -- about my friend's mother. Those who knew her will recognize her in this, I hope, but I speak here only for myself.

 When I was young I believed that the mothers of my friends liked me because I wanted them to, and more, because I needed them. It wasn't that I didn't or don't have a mother of my own, and a good one too, in whom I am lucky. Wasn't why. From a very early age I preferred the company of women, saw more of them and admired them more than men. Men were fascinating, but more as a matter of reverence or study. Men confused me. Still do, often as not, and I've been one and lived with another now for a very long time. Women were more interesting, had better conversation, better manners, and paid me more attention. I liked that. Women did more of the things in which I was interested and they ran most of the things in which I came to be involved; whether it was church or theater or politics, education, books, gossip, art -- it was women who could help me. It was women I could make laugh without malice. All the women I knew when I was a child, the women who weren't related to me, and who weren't my teachers, were either the friends of my parents or grandparents or the mothers and grandmothers of my friends. Children are selfish creatures and are meant to be I should think. I certainly was. If I needed something as a child, I learned quickly if not from birth that it was better to ask a woman, they may even have taught us that now I think of it. Lost? Ask a policeman -- or a lady -- for help. So I did, and they do, still.

Mothers liked me because I was helpful just as I'd been taught to be and polite. I was clean and well spoken and my people, if not well off, were nice. This may matter more in a small town where everyone pretends to know everyone else, or at least everyone else's business. It may still. I was not altogether unsupervised or wild. Working mothers like my own didn't much like it when we ate up all their food before they got home, but other than that they didn't mind us much so long as we weren't too noisy and later they hoped we weren't getting drunk or too high. When I met really middle class people in their very nice homes with very nice furniture on which one did not sit and with more forks than were needed on their very nice dining tables, I did not embarrass myself too much or presume too much on their civility. I didn't goggle when the mothers of my new middle class friends drank cocktails at lunch or when middle class fathers got drunk over dinner and flirted with the girlfriends of their sons. I admit I found them all quite fascinating, like characters in a book, which my middle class friends found mystifying I'm sure. (They, I remember were generally astonished at how much my mother tried to feed them at a sitting, that my father gave me money without being asked when we went out, and that no one in my family seemed very interested in where my friends intended to go to college or what my friends intended to do for a living when they grew up.)

My best friend's mother was different from all of these other women, or so at least she seemed to me at the time. She was a single mother, a divorcee at a time when that word was still exotic in the place where I grew up. She was a beautiful woman, always in some ways younger than her years, with stylishly short hair and simple make-up, a trim figure and tasteful business clothes. She supported herself and her only child without help from her ex-husband who I never met and wouldn't want to and her home was modest but modern and chic. All of the women I admired were smart and most of them were kind but she was tested in ways that most of them weren't, and not just by her daughter's strange little friends, and she seemed to me even when we'd made her most angry, entirely admirable. I don't know that we ever made a joke at her expense, any of us ever. Imagine that.

It would be years before any of us ever called her by her first name or anything other than "_____'s Mom" even to her face which quickly became something of a permanent endearment even after her daughter's friends were all grown. (The last time I had a meal with her I had to make myself use her Christian name, even then, all these years later.) Her daughter would occasionally and jokingly address her as, "old goat," as in, "hey, you old goat, we're home," but the joke was only funny because it was so obviously ridiculous. The very last person to be described as such, even when she did in fact grow old. She always laughed at this -- I think -- and we certainly did. She was frankly too glamorous to me, and too sophisticated in my eyes to take anything we said to shock her entirely seriously. (Perhaps she should have, as some of the things we told on ourselves were true.) When we were grown and kept only in imperfect touch, my friend and I used "The Old Goat" as a kind of shorthand for asking or telling after this woman we both loved.

I did love her, and always will. She was genuinely funny, in her own sometimes acerbic way and more often than not in her willingness to play along in almost any silly thing we played at; childish noises, mock fights, outlandish stories told on each other. Constant companions in high school and into college and even now on the very rare occasions when we communicate, my friend and I are still very silly with each other. Grimmest tragedy, which we've both known, she more than I, failures and disappointments, romances gone awry, deaths, addictions, loss, we've never not been able to talk about these things eventually and we still always come back at some point to the awkward goofs we were as adolescents. We find it strangely reassuring. My friend has always been a bit butch, even when she did her hair properly or wouldn't go to school. I've always been rather... theatrical. We always made each other laugh. Her mother must have found us quite alarming. We gave her cause. Still, at least in retrospect she was always willing to laugh along with us, despite our appalling behavior separately and together and with our weird need to be boorish with each other and joy in embarrassing ourselves, in public and private. We behave like fools, my friend and I, because each recognized in the other something of the same foolishness and to make it all if not better, then bearable; anecdote as antidote. Let's tell that terrible story again! At least "_____'s Mom" will laugh. It's always worked for us, if not always for her, poor woman.

 I sought tolerance and found it from more than I'd been led to expect. Got a little older and I sometimes succeeded in bullying or shaming into silence some of the people I could not convince or charm. But my friend's mother was different in so many ways from most of the women I then knew, and in this most particularly. When she loved someone, as I believe she loved me, it was unconditional and considered and sincere. I was not unloved otherwise, but I at least had the sense to recognize what love looked like as it was given to me and I hope I was grateful.

Of all the women I've ever wanted to make laugh, none was a better audience than "_____'s Mom" from the day I first met her to this. She was a smoker back in the day when that could still be elegant and between the two of us, however bad we'd been or however late I'd shamelessly waited to be driven home, etc., the common goal was to make that woman laugh until she couldn't breath. She would laugh until she cried and swatted us away. She would laugh until she told me I had to leave -- and when would I see her again? She laughed at herself and her own bad choices and she laughed even when I know we broke her heart. Later I suspect she laughed less. A second marriage. Jobs at which she was better than she needed to be. Widowhood. Loneliness. Illness and frailty, disappointment and pride, worry and wandering, and yet she laughed when I saw her, even when we cried for cause and not from laughing. 

I've always thought that phrase, "indomitable spirit" absurd, and not just because it is usually deployed by persons looking to benefit by standing next to rather than in the shoes of the person thus described. It's a verbal decoration, like pinning a medal over a wound and then moving on down the ward. "Aren't you brave. Where next?" Besides, it simply isn't true. There is no spirit which mayn't flag, no one who might not be beaten if by nothing less than time and death. I know nothing of eternity, but something now of this life, if less than I ever thought would be possible at my present age. What I know now is that spirits can be broken and can mend. That is our salvation and our hope. I have seen it. My friend and her beloved mother are among those who have shown me the possibility of this even in their darkest days, together and separately they have come back from places I would be too terrified to even visit. I do not say that either was "indomitable." Buffeted and bruised, certainly, dominated, even broken, but always they've come back and together we have somehow always still laughed.

My best friend's mother was kind to me when I was unhelpful and lied, when I was took advantage of her generosity and abused her hospitality, when the whole unhappy gang of her only daughter's only queer misbegotten friends broke her lamps and spoiled her rugs, disappointed her and failed to protect her child. She was kind to me when I had no right to further kindness, when I was really no friend to her daughter just as when I was. I learned very early that I might ask of her anything in her power to help me and that is a rare thing to know of someone else's mother. She was kind to me because she was kind. She liked me because I liked her. She loved me, present and absent, when I deserved it and when I didn't not because of who I was then or might be now but because, like her, I loved my friend. She was an admirable person, a good mother, a good friend. 

I cannot even offer my condolences in person. I do not know if or how there might be a funeral. I cannot send flowers even with a card addressed, "In Memory of The Beloved Old Goat," in the hopes of making my friend laugh.

Her death shocks and horrifies me and as a nation we should be ashamed to let such people, and so many people die. I am so furious just now, and so sad. 

I trust she would understand and forgive me even for going on and on about myself, even now. I like to think that if she were here, my friend and I might make her laugh. I'm glad the person she loved best in the world was with her. I sent my love. I send it here again, to that silly, extraordinary woman I count my friend still, and to her surviving family likewise always kind to me, and to the memory of "_____'s Mom," my friend likewise, and me so much the better for it. I'll remember. I've learned. Thank you for the lesson among so many.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Gnawed and Mumbled

There should be a rule about how they load a church van. There isn't, but there should be. In my time I crawled into and out of many a one and it never went well. Generally the people with the greatest flexibility and the smallest bladders tend to rush to the back and as the load increases, stack and fold themselves into the available space as best they can in order to accommodate the slower adults to follow. Heat and hilarity ensues, though genuine discomfort soon follows. Now, this seems only polite but it proves impractical as soon as it comes to unloading since upon arrival wherever, the oldest and slowest, being the last loaded in, are then called to be the first out, with usually only the driver to help see them safely to the ground. All that pent up energy buzzing and bawling behind, and nowhere to go until the substantial person of Mrs. Whomever can be un-wedged from a bucket seat and lowered less than gracefully down, while the bum knee of Mr. Bucket needs straightened gently before he can be dislodged from space between the driver's seat and gearbox. And all the while, like a loaded cannon, kids trying to rush the exit.

"Can't you wait a minute? Wait, I say, damn you. Oh, not you Mrs. Whatsit, my apologies."

This is a mere van, mind, nothing so grand as a bus. Mightn't be from an actual church, or it might be, but borrowed. Might be a delivery van of some sort or a panel truck, come to that, commandeered into temporary service for the occasion, but nothing so roomy or regulated as a bus. (I sat many times on an ice-cream freezer, or on the open bed of a pick-up truck in the winter wind, and more than once sat in the open stairwell of a moving vehicle.) Like the conveyance, the contents varied according to the occasion, but generally there were one or two functioning adults; organizers and acting chaperones, a driver not altogether happy and probably scared out of his or her wits, and then entirely too many cub scouts, or members young and old of the Grange, or 4H, or some other country fraternal organization, stacked less like cord wood than a load of noisy, wet gravel, every icy road and or sharp turn eliciting a loud and unhelpful, "Whoaaaa!" Unruly bunch, cheerful but not helpful, all smelling of damp wool and farm boots, rarely uncorked scent bottles and fresh baking, and not a drop of drink anywhere to take the edge off the enterprise.

I speak, just here, of country carolers, not the kind in a proper chorus, not so much as rehearsed, circa somewhere between say 1968 and 1976, my best remembered childhood. These would not be singers necessarily, mind, and not so much organized as randomly gathered. That would be the point.

I'm put in mind of this when I finally considered hauling out my Christmas music, and then didn't. Two big moving-boxes of the stuff just sitting in our garage, gathering dust the year 'round until normally some day soon after Thanksgiving when I drag the lot of it upstairs, spread jewel-boxes over the floor, and fire up our now much neglected stereo system.  But this year? I certainly had the time. Lord knows I love the stuff; the season, the bells, the carols, the songs, the choirs, the kitsch, the lot. But then I found even as late as this week, Christmas all but just around the corner, I could not quite rise to the occasion. Wasn't in me. Where the happy, off-key caroler of Western Pennsylvania childhood?

"The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas Carol: but at the first sound of

God bless you, merry gentlemen!

May nothing you dismay!

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost." 

Stave One, Marley's Ghost, roughly a dozen pages in, that. Oh dear, am I Scrooge now?

Short of the thirteen surviving minutes of Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, the first extant film adaptation from 1913, every version stage and screen of the immortal Dickens' story that I've ever seen -- and I swear I've seen them all --has unsurprisingly featured carolers at whom the old wheezer might sneer. Yet another of the Dickensian reinventions of Christmas; that tight quartet in the full Victorian, harmonizing heartily on the cobbles. Easiest thing in the world to establish period, place, time, antagonists, and an appropriately festive atmosphere. Often as not, right under the credits or first across the stage: enter caroling.

I know it's not to everyone's taste. There are those who can't abide so much as the tinkling of jingle bells, fellow retail workers ruined in their seasonal joy by the too oft' repeated loop of saccharine inanities, persons of refined opinion who shiver not in anticipation but disdain at the first hint of Tchaikovsky's nutcracker. I sympathize with but have never shared their pain. It isn't all Luciano Pavarotti's Gesu Bambino and cathedral choir soloists calling oh, O for the Wings of a Dove. Hell, it's not necessarily even Miss Brenda Lee. 

As someone who has amassed a considerable collection of Christmas recordings, I feel fully qualified to say that not all all of it is anywhere near good, and that some of it is frankly dreadful. Further, I will admit to taking a perverse pleasure in not a few records the value of which is largely in their un-self-conscious awfulness. (Not the dreaded novelty numbers I mean so much as the full-throated sopranos mit orchestra yet, assailing a simple tune as if it were an aria from Norma, and or the various attempts by well meaning or greedy producers to bring a bit of contemporary pizzazz to old chestnuts with misjudged arrangements borrowed from 80s exercise videos to gangsta rap. Shivers. Good shivers, you understand, but in a bad way.)

But I think what I most want just now and cannot have, is something like the sound of the caroling I remember being carried from nursing home to shut-ins and on to isolated farms in those steaming vans of my youth. 

Don't misunderstand me when I tell you it was not good. We sang as I remember from mimeographed pages, often impossible to read in dim porch-light, or limply wet and runny in a snow storm. We sang, if you can call it that, crowded in the front of community rooms and fidgeting in drafty halls, to audiences often smaller than the crowd from the van. Our put-upon listeners were expected, not unreasonably I think, to appreciate our enthusiasm and the effort made, rather than the resulting noise.

There were always good natural singers among us, adults and children, but even their best could not always rise above. I remember there were always ladies -- seldom but occasionally gentlemen -- who would try, bless their memories, to get or keep us on pitch and in tune, and some brave soul would even try to keep time for us, when there wasn't an upright piano to follow. It all in the end usually came to almost nothing very nice, but at least we were cute, as I remember us then, and it was over soon enough.

I do remember one such performance in particular, not because of anything we did, but for a moment after. Might have been at The Odd Fellows Home, or somewhere like. Sad, sometimes frightening places for the smallest children, nursing homes. Not then so sad as they seem now, for reasons we were then blessed to never have anticipated, but sad nonetheless. Unhappy, mostly as I remember them, with crepe paper bells and sad strings of saggy tinsel, the inmates often decked in small tokens of better memories: Christmas broaches and garlands draped like scarves, perhaps a Santa hat on some stray staffer.

The moment I mean to recall came after we had finished our "program" and had gone at our minders' insistence out among the occupants to offer season's greetings individually before we fell to on the cookie tables and watery punch. It wasn't me who heard her first, nor do I know who or what may have prompted her. But somewhere in that painfully bright recreation and assembly room, one ancient lady decided to sing. Seemingly unbidden by anyone or anything but memory, without accompaniment or the slightest encouragement, perhaps not even altogether aware of what she was doing, a very old lady -- sang.

I wish I could tell you that her voice was still thrilling and strong. It wasn't. I wish I could remember what language she sang in, or that someone present could later identify the song. It wasn't English I know, might have been German, Italian, Polish. Somebody would have said that much at least, but I do not remember. All I remember is the quiet. I remember there the sudden hush and that all of us, even the evil-minded teenagers stopped what we were doing, stood still and listened. The carol she sang, if carol it was, couldn't have lasted more than a very few minutes but it had the shape of something beautiful still, something familiar even in its foreign language, something sacred. It rose and fell to nearly a whisper, it broke going up and shook when it had ascended and it was everything but pretty or professionally done. And while it lasted, the little time it did, it was beautiful. It was Christmas, hers as she remembered it if she remembered nothing else, and wherever it came from, however she came to be there, in a small country place, among people who barely spoke the little English we used, it was a gift.

And when she'd done, when what she'd done trailed away to nothing, we did not applaud or shout or make much of her really. As I remember it, some adults made a point of going to wish her well. I saw her then, as some attendant wheeled her back no doubt to her bed. She was no more awake or aware of us than a sleepy baby. I cannot say I remember her face, let alone her name if I ever heard it.

When she'd gone, we went back to our happy buzz, now somewhat subdued and soon after it was back to the van. I believe we were done for the night. Going home people said nice things about what they'd heard. Somebody probably picked a fight when somebody else shifted and crushed a toe or kicked an elbow away. Come the first hard turn, we all shouted, "Whoaaaa!" and were told yet again to shut the hell up, it was hard enough trying to see in such weather, hard enough not to kill us all such roads.

Right this minute, that's the carol I want to hear. I wish I knew what it was. That's the music for this moment and all I can do is tell you to listen to it however it comes to now, in the quiet hereafter, come the stille nacht, heilege nacht, and wish us all happy holidays, better days hereafter, and a very good night.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A Brief Introduction to an Old Friend

Some of us didn't die. That's obvious now, but it wasn't at the time. Far too many people -- a generation -- did die as a result of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome: friends, family, lovers, strangers, artists, innocent babies and villains like Roy Cohen. People still do die of it, but for gay men of our generation, there was an agonizingly long stretch when it felt like we all would sooner than later. Then a lucky few lived long enough to just survive. New medicines, new hope. New lives? Well, sorta. Pleasantly surprised doesn't do it justice, but calling it a miracle still sounds unseemly when we think of all those for whom it came too late. As Browning said, “how sad and bad and mad it was - but then, how it was sweet.” 

Brian Bouldrey's novel is that rarest of fictions that tells the ever-after. I can't really think of another in this context. There were tragedies of course, tributes, valedictories, memorials, memoirs, politics, yards and yards of poetry, and fiction long and short. Much of it was good, all of it was necessary and some of it should last. But who tells us the story after the surprise party, the days, weeks, and years after the happy ending? And who on earth would read it?

Well, not nearly enough did. By the time The Boom Economy, Scenes from Clerical Life was originally published in 2003, the fashion had changed, the news had cycled on, and the market for gay fiction was not what it had been, or so we were being told all the damned time. And this story? 

It's 1999, in Vancouver, BC, and three unlikely friends, Isabelle, Jimmy, and Dennis are sitting in a most unlikely bar, and no-one is having a very good time, except us:

"They studied the menus, full of too many choices that tried to span the cuisines: chop suey, burritos, spaghetti, hamburgers. Dennis felt queasy around such icky heterodoxies, common along the Pacific Rim. In San Francisco there were at least four shops called 'Chinese Food and Donuts,' and other stores sold Indian Food and Pizza,' 'Deli, Ice, Bait, and Liquor.' Was there nothing pure left in the world? Sex and food, both nice ideas, but not together. Even if he were his old self, unvested."

Come on. That's delicious because nothing sounds good together except those sentences. And did you catch that last word? Sneaky.

Our hero Dennis Bacchus has not died and neither has his best friend, Jimmy but that is not the story, though it would seem to be the point. Seem. Dennis has decided to become a priest. Of all things. The world is new. And yet, old friends and old habits -- made with every expectation of mortality -- carry on. And maybe that's the point? Remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the ride is starting again, so hang on. Bouldrey is a traveler of the best kind; excitable, brave, peripatetic and genuinely good company even when or specially when things are not altogether as they should be. Life happens in his fiction and as in life, real life, some of its pretty ghastly but even the worst of it can be entertaining and the best of it quite moving when it is written this well. Even the simplest thing can be beautiful and funny, as when we first meet dear Isabelle, very French, on a train six years earlier: 

"Out on the platform, he saw a girl get on, maybe twenty years old at most, in a short skirt that was pink with white polka dots. She had no hat, but she should have had one, to match her little brown suitcase. She was not sacking Europe."

As George Eliot says, "Nice distinctions are troublesome." I would just add that here is another writer who knows how to make the most of trouble. Dennis, our hero, the survivor and would-be priest, is trouble -- also troubled, troubling, and distinctly unsuited for either sainthood or Hell. Asceticism seems to suit him, but then so did being a bit of a sybarite, back in the day.

"He'd been trying to get away from all his stuff for years now, the things, the friends, the sex, the freedom burdens all. But oh, the pleasures (...) Dennis loved the pleasure and its attending pain: the bee's sting that is the price of honeycomb, tickling, the rose and its thorns, attempting to tell a joke to Isabelle in French, buttfucking, a productive cough, horror films, cracking walnuts to get their meat, the goofy, funny last words of a dying friend, the spectacular crash to the floor of an ornate dish."

Perhaps that's another reason this particular novel was denied a proper audience back in the day. Perhaps we were all still a bit too tender? Maybe we weren't quite ready yet to have our assumptions about romance and death and the nobility of our poetic cliches mixed quite so barbarously and brilliantly up and dropped like a sack of angry cats on our doorstep?

Why we should want to read it or reread it now. The spiritual journey of a man redeemed from death would be about as interesting as it sounds. It happens. Meh. But this isn't that novel. Yes, it's about a man in search of all sorts, from assignations to abjuration, from God to guide-books. And yes, Dennis is in flight from his past, from the jokes and the friends and fun that may not have been (poor Jimmy), but that isn't the point of reading it now. It's the voice. That's the point of it now. There hadn't frankly been anything quite like it then and there hasn't really been since, alas. 

And the times described, and the characters met, can now be read without the burden of our aching self importance then. Sad but true. Surely the world would note? But, no. There were very few writers of Bouldrey's generation who entirely escaped that rather formal, almost Cornelian hauteur and nobility of profile in the face of you know what. For all his generosity of heart, and the accuracy of his time-keeping, Brian Bouldrey takes everything so seriously that he can't help but occasionally laugh. It is redeeming. Poor, dear, benighted Dennis! Perhaps if he got a decent haircut? 

"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." So said the very lamentably long late Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. I wouldn't know. Theology is not my subject. Maybe Brian could explain that to me, though I wouldn't dream of asking. Questions are better than answers anyway, particularly and perhaps peculiarly in novels. For me, having read my friend's novel again after nearly twenty years, the question he asks is better than the theologian's mystery because the paradox makes me smile. What happens when a man is called to live? No less profound, I should think.  The answer, if there is one, is up to you, dear reader, to find or not herein.

I can't think of better company on the way.


Saturday, July 11, 2020

My Dear Clerihew


Sherlock requiring a foil,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Slots in Watson --
To tie knots in.

Daily Dose

From The Portable Rabelais, selected and translated by Samuel Putnam


"I'm a creator, you say, and of what? Why, look at all those nice little creditors!"

From Book Third: Pantagruel, Panurge Praises Debtors and Borrowers

Friday, July 10, 2020

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann


“I've got a library copy of Gone with the Wind, a quart of milk and all these cookies. Wow! What an orgy!” 

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Help Me Now

I'm not going to lie, I don't know that I have a damned thing to say. And I can't help but feel, it's not my place to talk.

I'll try to explain.

I'm listening to Mavis Staples. Have been for I don't know how long. Years of course, but tonight? At least an hour now. Longer. Listening to her sing with an Irish boy named Hozier, on a great song called, "Nina Cried Power." Then her most recent album, We Get By, with Ben Harper. Then all those  otherworldly, immortal recordings of The Staple Singers. I listen to "Great Day" and just her father's opening guitar is enough to make me cry.

"Who shall be able to stand?"

Nobody needs me to say this is hard, that these are hard times, that times continue hard for more than not. I'm pretty sure I don't need to tell you. I have no right to tell anyone's hard times back to them as if I was there, or did a thing about it much worth doing, or as if their hard times were mine.

Come to that, this music from which I draw inspiration and strength and catharsis, this music isn't mine. I've no right to it. I can only accept it as a great gift, an act of unearned generosity. Hell, I don't even share the faith from which so much of this music came. And to say that this music is art, great art -- which it is -- does not entitle me to any share in it. I am no part of such a dispensation and can only be grateful to have found a quiet place to listen to what I frankly may not and may never deserve.

All I can be is humble. Do you understand?

I wish I did. I wish I knew. I wish I knew what to do and what to do next and what to do after that. I won't say that I wish I could help. (Was there ever a more meaningless contribution to any conversation than that?) I can't do nothing, so I don't, but what have I done to change myself, and my country, and the world that I might not have done anyway, when so much more is required, even if I don't know what all that might be?

Lately, one thing I've felt the need to do more of was shut the fuck up. (I told that to somebody recently and they smiled and said, "that's harsh", but they didn't tell me I was wrong. I'm not.) I still remember the first time somebody told me how important my silence as a white man could be. It was my first time ever in a Women's Studies class. First day, there were about four men. By the second session, there was just me and one other fellow and he either had the sense to not, or a general disinclination to speak up. Not me. About the third time that class met, we had a guest speaker. It was an evening class, and because it didn't meet as often as a day class we stayed longer and had a break after the first hour. When the break came, the speaker came up to me and took me aside in the hall. Ever so gently she burned me right down to the ground. She asked me to look at all the women in that class, and specifically at the women of color and see if I could remember any of their names. Did I remember any of them asking a question, as I did so often? Had I listened to any one of them as I seemed to expect the teacher and all of them to listen to me? She explained to me that women, even grown, better educated, far more intelligent women might defer to me, as a man, even a boy, might let me talk over them as I had, and she could not have that happen again. However good my intentions in taking that class, I brought who I was with me. Time I looked at that before I spoke again. That woman never raised her voice to me and when she saw I was shaken by the things she'd said, she took my arm to comfort me -- me -- and said she wasn't going to call on me again, but if I had any questions she'd stay after class and answer them if she could and did I understand why? And I began to, right there and then.

This is not such a different place we are in now. Makes me sad to say it, but it isn't. Not for women, not for African Americans, not for me. Am I different? Are we?

Nobody needs me to count the ways we are and are not and yet might be.

Another time I remember tonight. I had just started dating the man with whom I would come to spend my life, hadn't even moved in with him yet. I was getting a ride from a friend and like any fool in love I must have talked a blue streak about how wonderful he was and how handsome he was and how lucky I was and on and on I went and my friend? My friend was genuinely excited for me. Neither one of us might have foreseen my good luck, frankly. My friend was a dancer and cute as could be: with thick, natural curls -- it was the eighties -- and long, black lashes with which he could paint a barn, and he was adorable. Were we going to a party? Coming home from a movie? I don't remember. I just remember that when we got where we were going, my lover was there and I got to introduce him to my friend. Nice. Again, someone took me aside then, this time it was my friend and he was furious with me. Why hadn't I told him my boyfriend was black?! Again, I did not understand.  It had never occurred to me to mention that I guess, just as it had never occurred to me that my friend, that a gay man my own age, could have a problem with this. And then he couldn't admit that he did. "It was just such a shock," was what he said.

And again, not just from that instance but probably starting there, I had to learn that being gay did not  of itself make any of us not racist. It sounds stupid to even say this now, but somehow I had thought one thing led naturally to the next, that our oppression made us sympathetic if nothing else to the oppression of others. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn't. The point being that it wasn't enough to change us, any of us, of itself, that sympathy when it was even there. My sympathy didn't change me, didn't lift me anywhere out of who I was, where I lived, what I did. If I changed at all it was because I had to and to the extent that I have, I have had to do that work and still have work to do.

So am I to be congratulated? Do I deserve praise for contributing less than I might have done to the hard times of others? Am I now, unbelievably expecting to be thanked for perhaps taking slightly less advantage than I otherwise might have consciously done as a man? As a white man? Now as an adult man?

Or ought I to sit down? Is that what I should do now?

I am inside my own house and glad to be here. I am with someone I love and that is lucky. I believe in that luck because I know as you can't how many times I might have lost it. I am glad not to go out unless I have to and to try not to bring anything home with me that might kill my husband whose health is even less certain than my own. With this at least I am certain of the right thing.

What else though?

Black lives matter, but how much do they matter to me? Other than the people to whom I am now related, to the people I know and love, to my friends, what do I owe to all the others? To the people who are being murdered by the police, what do I owe them? To the men and women who are marching, what do I owe them? To the people who have made my life possible, to the artists who have made my life better, to the people who may be killed tomorrow, what do I owe them?

And to the people I still know who do not understand even the little that I do of our history and who deny the moment we are in, what do I owe them? To the people I may know who still would deny the humanity of George Floyd, what do I owe them? To the people who will not so much as wear a mask at the grocery store, what do I owe them? To the people who continue to support a criminal administration, who would preserve the symbols and the systems of racism and colonialism and economic injustice, what do I owe them?

"If you're ready, yeah
Come on go with me"

That's from another great song from the Staples Singers. I'm listening to it now, again. Well, am I ready?

Mavis Staples has been quoted as saying that she sings these songs, her songs, her family's songs, to inspire us, to keep us going, to lift us up. Am I part of that or am I not? Have I earned that gift or might I yet?

I can't tell anyone what to do now. I can't speak for anybody and right now I wouldn't if I could. I am not enough for this moment. My life is not over, but neither has it been enough. Sitting safe here in my house, knowing what I have, knowing I am loved, all I can say is that mine is not the voice we need. It just isn't. All I can do is ask everyone to listen to voices better than my own, as I must do. Listen. I've talked enough.

I will do what I can, I will try to do more, but I've talked enough.

Now I'm listening.

"I know a place..."

Daily Dose

From Wife of His Youth and Other Stories, by Charles W. Chesnutt


"She spoke to them of the hopeful progress they had made, and praised them for their eager desire to learn. She told them of the serious duties of life, and of the use they should make of their acquirements.  With a prophetic finger she pointed them to the upward way which they must climb with patient feet to raise themselves out of the depths.

Then, an unusual thing with her, she spoke of herself."

From Cicely's Dream

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 2, by Edward Gibbon


"... and, if we are more deeply affected by the ruin of a palace than by the conflagration of a cottage, our humanity must have formed a very erroneous estimate of the miseries of human life."

From Chapter XXIV

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 2, by Edward Gibbon


"Those who press the literal narrative of the death of Arius (his bowels suddenly burst out in a privy) must make their option between poison and miracle."

From Footnote 83, Chapter XXI

Monday, July 6, 2020

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From In the Miro District & Other Stories, by Peter Taylor


"She described what she had seen so graphically I have ever afterward imagined that I actually did look into the room with her. As she opened the door she beheld Lila stark naked except for her hat and shoes and just picking herself up -- herself and her handbag -- from where she had fallen, in the center of her large room. She had plainly been preparing to go downstairs and then go out on the streets of Nashville just as she was."

From The Captain's Son

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Chapter 11, from The Grapes of Wrath

Daily Dose

From The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck


"There is a crime that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is failure here that topples all our success."

From Chapter 25

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The People Will Live On

Daily Dose

From The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg


I have seen 
The old gods go 
And the new gods come. 

Day by day 
And year by year 
The idols fall 
And the idols rise. 

I worship the hammer. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Unchanging Attitudes

Daily Dose

From Resident Alien: The New York Diaries, by Quentin Crisp


"While I was typing the last words of the above, an unknown woman telephoned to ask me for eighteen dollars and fifty cents. I told her to come to the front door, where I handed her a twenty-dollar bill. She thanked me and departed. As I walked back upstairs to my room, I wondered if I should hear from her again in a month or two. I misjudged her. Within two hours, an operator was asking me if I would pay for a call. I said, 'No.' A few minutes later, the unknown woman was telephoning me with another incomprehensible saga of misfortune. I refused to give her any more money. I hated myself for this, but I hated her even more. Since I came to America, she is the first person to drive me beyond the bounds of politeness."

From 1991 * Winter

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Things Adults Don't Have to Finish Once They've Started:

(A Short List)

Unpleasant jams and jellies
Bad but well reviewed novels
Scandinavian detective shows with too many suspects
Weak drinks
Dinner salads
Writing exercises
Folding laundry
The National Anthem
Epic poems
Organizing photos, recipes, etc.
Marie Kondo
Online romance
Salad dressings
Song lyrics
Shopping lists
Old New Yorker magazines
Earnest documentaries
Christmas letters

Planning a Prayer Meeting

Daily Dose

From Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, by James Baldwin


"It had cost them something: and they would never let me see the bill."

From Book Three, Black Christopher

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Principalities of June

Daily Dose

From Firebird: A Memoir, by Mark Doty


"I am amphetamine bright and glittering on the inside, too, possessed by my song. I am a Judy, right down to the prescriptions, in tight black stockings, the tuxedo jacket slicing across her thighs just below the waist, eyes huge with the force pouring out of her gaze now into the music."

From Chapter 6, Seventy-Six Trombones

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Draft Physical

Daily Dose

From Feasting the Heart: Fifty-Two Commentaries for the Air, by Reynolds Price


"You might help an unheralded young person who'll live to become a benefactor of the Earth. And the elderly may reward you equally with nothing more than that spark of thanks which is still the most welcome gift of our species."

From Lucky Catches

Monday, June 29, 2020

Maugham on Literary Fame

Daily Dose

From Mr. Maugham Himself, by William Somerset Maugham


"It was by way of being a literary party and Henry James was of course the lion of the occasion. He said a few polite words to me, but I received the impression yjat they meant very little."

From Some Novelists I Have Known, II

Sunday, June 28, 2020


Daily Dose

From W. H. Auden Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelsom


"Somebody shouted, I read: We are ALL of us marvelously gifted!
  Sorry, my love, but I am: You, though, have proved that You ain't."

From Shorts II

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Spending His Allowance

Daily Dose

From Henry James Letters, Volume I, edited by Leon Edel


"I have long meant to answer your last letter, but somehow the pen wouldn't move. At last I push it along, but I know not what will come of it."

From a letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry, dated Cambridge, March 27, 1868

Friday, June 26, 2020

Child and Poet

Daily Dose

From If Men, Then: Poems, by Eliza Griswold


A spring day oozes through Trastevere.
A nun in turquoise sneakers contemplates the stairs.
Ragazzi everywhere, the pus in their pimples
pushing up like paperwhites in the midday sun.

Every hard bulb stirs.

The fossilized egg in my chest
cracks open against my will.

I was so proud not to feel my heart.
Waking means being angry.

The dead man on the Congo road
was missing an ear,
which had either been eaten
or someone was wearing it
around his neck.

The dead man looked like this. No, that.

Here's a flock of tourists
in matching canvas hats.
This year will take from me
the hardened person
who I longed to be.
I am healing by mistake.
Rome is also built on ruins.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Summum Bonum

Daily Dose

From Why Writing Matters, by Nicholas Delbanco


“Time now to write of that rare thing, originality -- the opposite of imitation and its outlier, plagiarism. It’s the pearl among white peas.” 

From Chapter 6, Originality

Wednesday, June 24, 2020


As an atheist I have to ask, why are we invariably "unabashed"? Seriously, ought I not to be? Surely the implication of calling anyone an "unabashed atheist" is to suggest that I, as someone who does not believe, either ought to or at the very least should have the good grace to be ashamed that I don't.

Need I say I am not?

A friend on social media posted a link today to an essay online (-- and for anyone interested, I put it here.) The title, "Is There a Better Way for the Left to Talk About American Christianity?" told me straight away I had some work to do. It seems "people are talkin', talkin' 'bout people," as Bonnie Raitt so wonderfully sang in another context altogether, and once again it seems, "we laugh just a little too loud," etc. Well, let's give 'em something to talk about.

I am less interested here in the author Marie Mutsuki Mockett's well-intentioned if imperfectly made argument in this essay for civility, than I am in who she thinks needs the talking to. I bet you can guess. If you can't, let me just point out some clues; like the opening quote being from the brilliant novelist and unabashed Calvinist Marilynne Robinson, and the inevitable resort to the unabashedly "loud" evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins. See where this is going? Now, the "unabashed atheist," to whom she refers specifically in the essay turns out to be Ta-Nehsi Coates, but I feel pretty safe in assuming I'm also somewhere to her Left, maybe right there behind that other unabashed fellow, Colson Whitehead. She's talking to me. My question is, why?

It seems we -- the Left with the capital "L" and specifically we "unabashed atheists" thereof -- are not trying, or at least not nearly hard enough to not only talk respectfully about American Christianity, but more importantly as it develops in the piece, we aren't trying to talk with American Christians. 

Problem, or rather the first problem, as clearly I'm going to have more. To assume an organized, let alone a uniform response, to anything from "the Left" in America is to already be walking a chimera onto the stage. As my Dad might have said had he ever heard of the beast, that fire-breathing female monster with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail won't hunt. Organization above the community level, and uniformity of any kind, ain't really our thing. Whatever one might think of the most recent innovations of a younger generation, and I wish them nothing but well, experience has taught me it will always be easier to open a discussion on the left -- little "l" -- than it is, for example to close a bridge or keep a protest moving in the same direction. (Goddess help you if you think you are going to keep to the agreed speakers-list or a time-table. Good luck with that. It's all about process, people.)

But that's not the assumption I resent. I'm just old enough that the idea of "the Left" is still thrilling, if unrealized. Again, why me? And just who do you think I am?

Marie Mutsuki Mockett's essay also put me immediately in mind of Toni Morrison's question regarding Ralph Ellison's classic novel; "Invisible to whom? Not to me." Can anyone assume that I don't know Christians? Have Christian friends? Talk to people not entirely of like-mind? Where is this place the author seems to think I live? This wholly secular Left? I mean, I live in Seattle, people. Seattle, and I've never been to the place her essay assumes. I lived in San Francisco for a dozen years and you know what? Nope. not there either. (And to assume that that is the Utopia to which all we "unabashed atheists" aspire is to again a WAY bigger assumption than any I may make about the generalized Christians to whom the essayist seems to think I need to learn to talk.) In my case at least, disbelief is something I came to, arrived at, stopped worrying about. I wasn't raised in it, and in contemporary culture it is still nonsense to say we live in a wholly, or even majority secular society. At least according to regular polling and pearl-clutching in the media, while church attendance in most of America continues to decline, the number of people who describe themselves as Christian still constitute a majority. And just as I am constantly being reminded, sometimes by my friends, that that majority is far from monolithic and that communion made up of very diverse beliefs and values, so I have grown more than a little tired of being told that I really need to learn not how to talk to my friends and neighbors, but rather to my actual enemies.

Nope. Not my job.

Because that's who I'm being asked to understand. I personally don't need to be told not to call someone stupid for not thinking the way I do, or not, in short, being me. I wasn't raised by monsters, thank you very much. But it isn't really my manners that are ultimately in question here, however the essayist has framed the discussion so that it might seem so. No one raised in a society where that old cudgel "hate the sin, but love the sinner" has left a mark can seriously be expected to not recognize that as a dodge when it comes directly after a blow. I know what it is to have and to be a friend. I understand respect, earned and offered and withheld. I have learned to recognize hate as well, however and from wherever it comes at me. Don't tell me it's because I don't try hard enough to understand the language with which my oppression is expressed.

It's very like being LGBTQ when someone other assumes we somehow sprang from the earth like so many gloriously variegated tulips. Not how that works. We come almost exclusively from straight people, even now. Nature. To be in any significant way other, to be of a minority by birth, is not to be unaware of who else there is in the world. Quite the opposite. To be in a minority is sadly first and foremost to learn the hard lesson that I am required more than most to accommodate if not accept the potentially violent rejection of the majority, in whatever ironic or seemingly well meant way it may be initially expressed. (It is with a heavy heart that I must admit that being of any minority does not automatically or necessarily extend our sympathies or commit any of us to understanding or supporting any other in their struggle. We all have work to do. Heavy lifting, even now. It didn't end when I came out. I still need to do more than I have and that will not end because I say so here.)

So, Christians.

Faith may indeed be a perfectly natural, perfectly beautiful, perfectly human response to existence. I personally do not accept that its only function in human history has been to explain the natural world before science took up that task with better tools. That's a straw man you will meet again in the essay that has set me off, that as an unabashed atheist that is my only thought on the subject. I don't dismiss that explanation, and I don't think anyone ought to, as there's truth in it, but it isn't the only thought I've ever had on the subject of faith. Lord knows people keep telling me I have to think about faith more than I might if left entirely to myself. I will say that faith may even be enviable when seen from outside, without being required in my personal understanding of the world. But let me reassure the reader, even or especially any reader of faith, it is not something I seek to overcome or escape or out of which I now feel the need to argue anyone. (If I once did, I can only say my reaction was to my own isolation and estrangement from the people of faith I then knew. Yes, I remember the long and ugly rhetorically florid jive I once preached to some harmless high school classmates late one night, after play-practice, when we were sitting at Mr. Donut. My apologies. Far from their fault.  I was trying to survive the place in which we were raised, and yes, maybe to hurt them if I'm being honest, but then I had been hurt first, if not by those kids. Doesn't entirely excuse the behavior, but it might go some considerable way to explain my motivation, don't you think?) Faith has indeed made art, great art. Christianity specifically has framed and taught me much of my own sense of morality -- how could it not have done growing up where and when I did? 

The Christians I know now are not the Christians I knew then, most of them. More importantly, my friends are not the Christians I am now being asked to understand better or to whom I am told I need to learn how to talk. I don't have to try not to confuse the two as they are nothing alike. No. I am being told yet again (and again and again) that what I, as an unabashed atheist need to do is, first, to mind my Ps and Qs, -- and I think I've covered that  -- and secondly, to study war no more and take up again with those who would, in my experience, all too happily tell me to my face that I am not simply in error, but damned.

And, again, why is this my responsibility?

Well, it seems we unabashed types have hurt their feelings, if not actively or aggressively, then simply you know, by ignoring them. It seems, according to one who went among them and studied their ways, my opinions and by extension my very existence has yet again left that population of believers feeling very much put upon. Mind now, it isn't that the religious reactionaries here described feel they have done anything wrong or purposefully injured or impaired my liberties. No, I am the one who has deliberately misunderstood their good intentions and abiding concern for the state of my soul, if not my body, well-being, or rights as a citizen. I owe them a more thoughtful and considerate hearing it seems, and scoffing at this is frankly part of my damned problem.  I've got a chip on my shoulder, a beam in my eye, and I need to see to this before I am invited back to the welcome table.

Recently reading Edward Gibbon's massy work, I was reminded of the foundational problem of the majority, any majority, religious or secular; namely that every majority was inevitably made from something less than complete unanimity of purpose, as almost every majority invariably lacks just that, until they don't. Gotta start somewhere. Where that somewhere always is and from what majorities are made are disparate, quarrelsome, and often as not disgruntled groups. What happens when such find common ground and form coalitions is the bedrock of Republican democracy for instance, no? But I was also reminded that having achieved a majority, any majority, human beings can't help but remember what it was to have not been in power, and to resent the forces that resisted them. Christianity in the body of the historical church has preserved its minority in the record of the saints and martyrs who died defending a new and often unpopular faith. My own experience of Christianity, before and after I was saved at the age of eleven or twelve, has been that the suffering of the church's minority is kept fresh in a constant insistence that the enemies of the faith are ever busy, not just in the theological abstract of temptation from the path, etc., but in the secular, not to say demonic mission to undo the good word and destroy the church. It is never enough to join the elect, as we are reminded there will always be someone shaking the ladder behind us. 

I am not in a position, or of an inclination to argue with the faithful as to any of this, and if my paraphrase is unjust, I admit it as no better than my own. Won't argue, in part because it isn't something to which I am willing to give much more energy.  And that is my point, come to it.

I don't feel the need to engage with Christians, friends or foes, on the level of the truth or history of their faith because it is now, as far as I am concerned, none of my business unless they choose to make it so. Honest. I'll talk about this if you want me to, my friends, but we needn't if you don't. Don't see the good of it myself, this conversation, for either of us, but my offer stands. Don't be shy, but then I am of this, a little. Like I said, not really how I was raised.

But then some well intentioned soul will unavoidably rise up yet again to tell me that as a progressive and an unabashed atheist the fault is mine for seeing a foe in any person of faith, as such, that our disagreement is the result of me not listening to what they say or understanding they way they say it, and I have to tell you, I don't accept that anymore. I think that is just bullshit. Listen to them? How can one not? Where can one go to not hear them constantly and what they think of Black Lives Matter, and the LGTBQ community, of a woman's right to control her own reproductive destiny, of religious and ethnic diversity, of atheism, of the president, of global warming, of every and any damned thing they care to shout and moan and piss endlessly on about, even as they insist that the only legitimate hurt is theirs, as the rest of us will insist on being so very rude in suggesting that they might be wrong, and or not the majority, or ridiculous, or if not evil -- as that's their favorite word, not mine -- then at very least a HUGE part of the fucking problem?

I'm sorry, but I think it is not me who should be abashed in this moment. I have already claimed my shame, as we used to say back in the day. Stop telling me to listen harder. How about you tell your new friends to stop talking for a minute about things they choose not to understand? How 'bout that? Then maybe we'll talk. 

Or maybe not.