I’m at Charles de Gaul airport waiting to board a flight to New York. This after spending over an hour in line for the only airline left on earth that does first-come/first-serve live-in-person-not-online check-in. This after sitting on a train that took over an hour to get to the penultimate stop, and then a half hour to get from that stop to the airport. It was 95 degrees and two dehydrated and grouchy families surrounded me in my drenched tank top. By the time I got in line at the airport, I looked like I’d just taken my turn at a wet-tee-shirt-contest. And no one on earth could possibly love his life more than I do mine right now.
The tiny tiny apartment in Paris my friend Ebi rented was a half-block from a bakery that almost always had a line of Parisians out the door. This morning, on the way back from my workout at a neighborhood park, I bought enough quiche and bread to feed a family of five. She and I had our final Parisian lunch in the shade of the trees on the lawn at the place of my first Parisian outing: outside the architecture museum at Trocadero facing The Eiffel Tower.
We packed melon and cheese and quiche: one with tuna and black olives; the other with salmon and spinach. Also a baguette with pistachios, walnuts, golden and dark raisins. Spread out on Ebi’s sarong, we talked about how extreme the weather was(we both froze and boiled on the trip), the heft of our accomplished itinerary, and we congratulated ourselves for staying within what may’ve been the tightest budget Paris has ever allowed.
While others were drinking their coffees and eating their nicoise salads in sidewalk cafés, Ebi and I had our bags full of goodies: sandwiches with French ham and French cheese on French bread…all bought from the grocery store…so we could eat on the steps of Notre Dame or in the Pompidou’s sculpture garden high above the city or on the left bank’s walkway hugging The Seine.
Afterward, we drank coffee standing at the bar. We returned at 9 for a homemade dinner and showers and change of clothes before heading out to the Marais to walk among the Parisians until 1 or 2.
Museums, shops, churches, views…we wanted it all; and we got it. The only thing we didn’t get was sleep.
A relatively long time has passed since I’ve sent out a monthly check-in from my life as a writer and teacher as it relates to The Douglass Street Lab; and it hasn’t been for lack of inspiration.
This year has been a trip in more ways that one. I taught 6 classes last year at State, did three sessions of The Lab, and interned four or five new artists at Performing Arts Workshop. I also subbed a bunch of 3rd grade poetry classes, started a new novel, redrafted the finished manuscript, all while looking for a new agent.
I was lucky enough to spend Christmas in Pittsburgh with my older brother, Jon, his wife and three daughters, before and after flying back and forth to Colorado Springs. There, I stayed with my mom, sister-and-law, niece, and brother Paul as he prepared for and then underwent chemo therapy and radiation for neck cancer. More than ever, I committed to teaching, art, and exercise (I lost 20 pounds without noticing) as vital outlets for the full gamut of human emotion as it vibrated through me.
Professional envy, impatience and frustration with the agent search mixed with the joys of my own creative breakthroughs and the successes of students. I experienced spotty and breathtaking inspiration as the kids (and the teachers) at The Workshop struggled to fit all their huge humanity into their creative movement, theater, world dance and creative writing classes.Session after session of The Lab saw its participants take risks, engage in critical thinking, and use the arts to practice seeing how seemingly distinct forms have more in common than it may seem on the surface. If that wasn’t enough, I rode waves of appetite-robbing fear that I’d lose my brother. The fear would wane and a strange peaceful acceptance of the absurdities of life and my complete inability to control almost anything would wax..
In the middle of my trip to Paris (my first) I was able to go to Italy and visit my friend Daniela who I met 20 years ago soon after my best friend Richard died of AIDS.
Daniela was the person who made me feel young again. I was young. In my early twenties, but at the time, I was so old. Two close friends’ deaths a year apart the two years of relentless illness leading up to their deaths preceded our meeting. She and I were inseparable. We worked at the same restaurant, had slumber parties, and went dancing three, four, five nights a week. Now she’s a married mother of two and I’m the godfather of her oldest son.
The years I lived in Italy were nothing like what my former-teacher Francis Mayes described in UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN. The last few months in Italy vie for first place in the category of most challenging times of my life.
In was during this time that my friends Eddy and Lore and Ebi, perhaps without knowing it, came to my rescue. All three were people I’d befriended after starting as an English teacher. I don’t like to ponder, not even for a second, what that episode in my life would’ve been like without them.
Through Daniela and Eddy and Lore and Ebi—I learned something new about my own family. To others, we may seem an odd bunch—and while we’re all living lives quite different from one another—the older I get the more I realize how wrong I may’ve been at times.
What I interpreted as the crimes my parents committed against my freedom (which added to the reasons I had for running away at 15), I now understand the emotional filters through which I was interpreting their behavior.
All of it makes sense. Their interpretations through the years. Mine. But the reuniting that started after my oldest niece was born continues to sustain me emotionally.
The strange bonds of my family fascinate and move me much in the way great fiction does.
Susan Sontag says, “A great writer of fiction both creates—through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through new forms—a new world, a world that responds to a world, the world a writer shares with other people but is unknown or misknown by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.”
When I travel, I take a resistance band, some pushup handles and a DVD of P90X my brother Paul copied for me. On my last day in Italy, my hosts Lore and Eddy left me at their home to slowly enjoy breakfast in their garden, to exercise, and to pack for my return to Paris.
As they own their own business and work close to home, I was invited to join them as soon as I’d had all the time I needed to prepare. Without adequate time to do and dry additional laundry, and with luggage weight-restrictions that prohibited traveling with damp clothes, I decided to do a session of P90X wearing only a hand-washable pair of underwear.
In the middle of a kick-punch combo, Lore’s 80-year-old mother, walked in to pick up their recycling, leave lettuce from her garden, and “check-up” on “things.” No call. No doorbell. Just a key in the door and then a greeting while I dripped sweat and tried to cover my very exposed body.
She seemed completely un-phased.
I like the fact that my family calls before they visit. I’m pleased that most of them prefer to stay in a hotel rather than try and squeeze into my 400 square-foot apartment. I appreciate that there are locks on the bathroom doors of my own and every bathroom in the members of my family’s individual dwellings. (Daniela’s and Eddy’s do not, and when Daniela’s kids wanted to know where Uncle Matthew disappeared to, they came looking).
Naked? No big deal. Mid-business? No big deal. The two years I lived in Italy also encouraged me to ponder the context in which I grew up. It was the time of the talk-show obsession with “The Dysfunctional Family.” It told me my family should not have been the way it was, it may’ve skewed my objectivity, and worse: it interfered with the joy that can come from accepting people for who they are.
This is an adult’s perspective, and I was a teenager at the time I left home—and the context of The Dysfunctional Family was only one of several complicated dynamics in my life at the time. I’m not implying that a person should stay connected to his or her family under any circumstance. Those choices are personal, and I’m happy that I left home at fifteen.
I might as well be. It’s what happened.
Like in a good play, no one in my family, including me, was blameless—and at the exact same time no one was exactly to blame. It’s so much richer when I look at it like this. I’ve been able to glean so much joy from the strange and compelling bonds of family.
Twenty years ago, when I aspired to become an actor, I used a monologue from that play as both a rehearsal and audition piece.
At the time, my friends and coworkers in the restaurant business were dropping one after another of what Kramer calls The Plague.
It seemed the only monologue that captured what it was like to be me at the time. It contributed to my becoming a writer and reader and lover of art. In the monologue there’s a long list of gay or presumed-gay artists throughout history. I looked up every one I’d never heard of and read their work.
Until last night, I’d never been to a “straight” play (meaning a non-musical) where the audience burst into applause between acts. More powerful for me today than it was then, I’m utterly encouraged by Kramer’s ability to have two matched sides in scenes where a lesser writer would’ve skewed the argument to one side.
Like with all the best work, the play seems more of an investigation—a desperate yearning to grasp the motivations of a group of people all responding in such different ways in the early years of the crisis.
The play is autobiographical. The characters Ned and Ben Weeks are similar in every way to Larry and Arthur Kramer, brothers who had a complex relationship filled with love, occasional estrangement, disagreement, and passion.
Arthur put Larry into therapy to “cure” him of his homosexuality at a time in history when this was thought of as a kindness. Over the years, Arthur was interviewed and said he’d changed his position. That he’d become convinced that his brother’s homosexuality wasn’t an aberration, but a mere difference.
There’s a scene in the play when both brothers argue their positions, when Ned is desperate to have Ben validate him—and Ben will not. He can’t. He believes his brother’s sexuality to be an illness. The actors, Joe Mantello and Mark Harelik managed to play Kramer’s scene with so much passion and humanity—I found myself agreeing completely with each of the characters as they spoke. This while I completely disagreed with each of the characters as they spoke.
Ah! The theater!
Because of my own complicated relationships with my brothers, I wondered what if Larry had given up on Arthur because of his struggle? What if Arthur had given up on Larry? For one, Yale University would not have had The Larry Kramer Initiative from 2001-2005.
On the Italy trip, I noticed how expressive my Italian friends are with their love and affection. They wouldn’t stop showing me and telling me how much they cared about me. Maybe because I only had a week. Perhaps they’d always been that expressive but I didn’t register it. Or maybe because both of my friends have had kids and perhaps they’ve gotten used to saying “I love you” a lot.
Or maybe because some serious shit has gone down in all of our lives since we’ve seen each other last. Who can know? but Jesus,did we demonstrate how we feel for one another.
This is not one of my strong points—but I think it needs to become one. What am I waiting for? I slept on the couch the three days I stayed at Daniela’s house. Every morning, her husband/father of my godson woke me up at 5:30 in the morning to tell me to go get in his bed with his wife. “It’s more comfortable and the kids won’t wake you later,” he whispered.
The first morning, I padded into the bedroom, timid because of the cultural context I come from, but because he insisted, I groggily followed instruction. Daniela, without opening her eyes, folded the comforter like giant bird opening its wing. After I was in the bed, she covered me. In minutes bother of us were asleep again.
I dreamt of my friend Richard and San Francisco in the early 90s and Daniela’s and my slumber parties. During the day I couldn’t stop telling her I loved her.
Lore and Eddy were my hosts for another three days. Lore had her first and only daughter at around forty. When I told her that she seems to have taken well to motherhood, her eyes welled with tears and she told me she has the sensation of being in love with her own child.
We talked about the decision I made soon after I left Italy, nearly seven years ago, to try and practice abstinence from anything with a chemically depressive effect: nicotine, alcohol, even refined sugar—what led to it and the joy it brings me—and I realized right in front of her, that while both of us have our fair share of complaints—we’re happy.
If you know me well, you know I’m incapable of syrupy happy. More like: content; invested; present.
Lore and I didn’t romanticize our lives. I told her of my struggles as a single guy in San Francisco. My struggle to let go of what I perceive to be my autonomy and independence, and she spoke of her own trails.
All of our best conversations have taken place in the kitchen while preparing food. We put together a feast and carried dishes from the kitchen to the table on their outside garden deck—and I remembered Thanksgiving one year at my first apartment on Divisadero.
I was 19 years old and my lesbian (at the time) roommate/bosom-buddy always said we’d always be each other’s family. That one day we’d have kids together. She sent me to Safeway with a shopping list and on it she wrote, among the ingredients for stuffing and mashed potatoes, “Turkey Baster: the reusable kind.”
This before anyone I knew was dead of AIDS. Chuck was already sick but he hadn’t died. That day that year he’d starting having occasional dementia. He also liked to experiment with his own dosage plans for the pain meds, so no one really knew what was up when he showed up in Jackie-O sunglasses and a head scarf carrying a centerpiece featuring a Barbie Doll in Alice Cooper hair and make-up.
She stood in a field of Gerber daisies. I remember that we were all so alive and all so afraid and was that a wonderful Thanksgiving.
So I’m back in New York and I haven’t even talked about the art I saw in Paris or the flight I took in a tiny plane over the lakes of Northern Italy.
I’m feeling open. Hopeful. Wanting to take a step toward that freedom to express emotion that I learn from my Italian family of friends. In fact, my cousin who hosts me in New York every summer just came in to say hi and I wanted to pick him up and spin him around and soak his cheeks with kisses for the opportunities he and his partner have given me over the years.
The support and the freedom to get out of my daily life and such a wonderful place to write. I didn’t do it, because that’s not exactly how we roll, and I trust I’ll find a way to let him know. He’s one of the angels that lets me have this amazing life.
My friend Mark who hosts The Lab on Douglass Street; the people who sign up for it; my peers at Performing Arts Workshop; my colleagues and boss at San Francisco State. If you made it this far: congratulations! Now you get some practical updates. Thanks for reading and for all of your support.
I’m reading Saturday in Brooklyn at Book Thug Nation with Leigh Gallagher, Evan Rehill, and Anne-E Wood. Here’s the invite on Facebook. NY homies: PLEASE COME!!
Former Labber Ethel Rohan has a new chapbook out by PANK.
Former Labber Roseli Ilano is the editor of a new anthology.
Former Labber Lorelei Lee is teaching: Sex, Death, Laughter, Disease: Writing and the Body at The Center for Sex and Culture. Are you a former Labber?
Do you have any writing-related announcements?