Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Denial Is the First Stage of Grief

Sonia had two or three dinners with her parents during which they flatly ignored the fact that she had come out to them.

This didn't surprise me at all because my parents had gone through (and are possibly still in) a similar stage of denial. However, I was more than a little surprised when literally every gay person we talked to about this, responded with a knowing, "that sounds familiar." How common is denial?


Denial is the first stage of grief. As much as it breaks my heart that so many parents of gay children approach being gay as a loss, at least it's predictable.


The five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.


It's still uncommon for parents of gay children to celebrate rather than mourn the chance to learn more wholly who their children are. But perhaps our response to this, as gay children, is to judge them by how quickly they move through these five stages, so that we can all at least get on with our lives.


For Sonia's parents, it was about seven weeks. Their quick turnaround, despite a horrible initial reaction, makes me wonder if my parents are even there yet.


Following those few dinners of denial, Sonia's mom came around with a light prod right after the New Year. Sonia asked if her parents would like to meet me, and before we knew it her mom was asking what I liked to eat and I was in the car driving with Sonia to Sunday dinner for the second time in the three and a half years since we've been dating.


(The first time, I'd met them as Sonia's friend after we'd been together only a few months. If they remembered that other meeting, they didn't let on.)


We entered Sonia's parent's home and balanced our flowers, coats and bags as we took our shoes off in the entryway. Her parents came into view in the living room. 


I said, Annyeonghaseyo, twice, smiling and bowing awkwardly, worried she hadn't heard the first one or that I'd said it from too far away. 

Sonia's mother brushed off my carefully practiced Korean "hello," and greeted me with a warmth my own mother had never shown Sonia, hugging me with my coat still on and patting my cheeks with her hand.


"So pretty," she said, as she pulled me into an awkward embrace.


Her father and brother asked me questions about my job as her mother and sister-in-law brought dish after dish to the table. They were somewhat incredulous that someone could make good money at a nonprofit, but Sonia reassured them.


During the meal, we talked mostly about the recent snowstorms and the food. A lot of the conversation was in Korean. The food was all familiar; Sonia's mother sends her home with at least two shopping bags of Korean food every two weeks, so I'd been getting familiar with all of it for years. I knew what I liked, and I even surprised myself by liking the soup with rice cakes, a texture I usually avoid.


After dinner, her mother brought out two bowls for each of us, although some family members declined one or the other. Unlike me, they knew what more was coming. One was a sugary liquid dessert with rice; the other tasted like a cold cinnamon tea with pine nuts. Then there was a fancy cake her brother had brought -- because it was an occasion, right?


As Sonia has taught me, no Korean meal is complete without fruit at the end. The orange slices came last. Count 'em: that's four desserts.


We went home with full bellies and a sense of whiplash. From Sonia's description of her coming out night only seven weeks prior, we didn't believe such a lovely night would be possible, maybe for years.


As we drove home, I explained the honky phrase, don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Sonia Came Out!

Our "couple logic" went something like this. Holiday season 2016, I let Sonia know that I didn't want to spend another holiday season attending separate holiday gatherings hosted by our separate families. I didn't want to face my own family without her. I thought I might go crazy if they tried to ignore her existence again. It was harder to do that when she was present.

Sonia planned her coming out by counting backward from Thanksgiving, the indisputable beginning of holiday season 2017. She decided to tell her parents two weeks before Thanksgiving. That meant telling her older brother and sister-in-law two weeks before that.

First, some background. Sonia's mother and father immigrated to the States from Korea in the late 70s. They worked a tourist stand, hawking American flag t-shirts and Eagles tossle caps until they could afford a store of their own. They've been working six days a week at their corner store in North Philadelphia for at least 20 years now.

The store is their livelihood: what put food on the table in the early years & eventually what bought them the down payment on a four-bedroom home in a gated community an hour away. Turned out the American Dream house was too much of a commute; Sonia's brother moved in and her parents still live in the row house where they raised their children.

Sonia is the baby of the family, and the darling. So much so that, when she came out to her brother over the phone four weeks before Thanksgiving, her brother insisted that everything would be "fine and dandy," so loved and admired was she by her parents.

Sonia wasn't so sure, but I dared to hope. Within a week, I was met Sonia's older brother and sister-in-law, a nurse from Korea whose academic papers (for her B.S. in nursing) I'd been helping to edit for months.

They were kind. Conversation moved naturally from education to jobs to her brother's new car. I floated through the meal, only slightly more demure than I am in my daily life. When I went to the bathroom, Sonia's brother told her she should be nicer to me and make me eat more dessert.

The night Sonia came out to her parents, her brother and sister-in-law were at dinner, but it was harder than they'd expected. Her brother didn't expect the overwrought emotion from her mother, and ended up crying himself. Her sister-in-law struggled to support her and also maintain her role of accommodating daughter-in-law. I sat at home twisted in knots.

I met Sonia at the door when she came home. "It did not go well," she said.

We played Thanksgiving much as we had in previous years -- Sonia drove about an hour with me to my family's dinner, then I sipped wine at home while she visited her own family. Her parents pretended that nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

It didn't feel like other years. Something had shifted.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Blake Morgan Is Bi!

Happy Monday! I'm on a roll this morning: lunches made, kitchen swept, laundry folded. I have a little over 30 minutes to drink some tea and write so I can exercise for 30 min. and still get to work at a reasonable time. Can every morning feel this good?

Because of my time crunch, this will be a short blog post in homage to the writers of Madame Secretary, which I've been watching solo on Netflix (Sonia avoids political shows).

After working together for three years, Blake Morgan, assistant to Tea Leoni's Secretary of State, finally came out to her. Any queer person watching knew this character wasn't just a straight guy. There was something truly satisfying about this revelation.

Blake Morgan is awkward. He's been burned. He maintains his right to hold some thing or things sacred, and decide himself when he wants people in his inner circle. He'll tell you what he wants you to know when he's ready, and not before.


Plus, he's a dashing dreamboat. He's a bi guy I would've gone for in a heartbeat.

One of my first books after beginning to date women was Look Both Ways (NYTimes review). It gave me confidence but not necessarily a language, or a way of talking about bisexuality to gay (especially lesbian) people I knew or my Christian parents.

Among lesbians, beginning in college, I was an outsider. If they suspected I had crushes (oh, did I have crushes!), I was dismissed as one of the silly straight experimenters. I even thought of myself that way.

Among my straight Christian family, I was already an outsider with my education and liberal views. Add feminism, then bisexuality and eventually moving in with a woman & the bisexuality tends to get lost. It becomes a fuzzy stepping stone rather than a part of my identity to choose and fully own.

Thank you, writers of Blake Morgan. It was a rare pleasure to see a bisexual character on television whose sexuality is secondary to his work ethic, determination and adorably anxious overachieving.

I liked this character because he bucks the "all-out, all the time" mandate from LGBTQ leaders like Dan Savage. I see where they're coming from, but I also think it's a little bit like asking your black friend to represent all black people whenever you have a question that concerns "the black community." It's not his or her job, just like it's not my job to represent all queer people, all the time.

Like "the black community," maybe the "LGBTQ community" is less a community and more of an umbrella that serves its political purpose. I'm under it. Is that enough?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your Life Story Isn't Your Life. It's Your Story.

"Your life story isn't your life. It's your story."

I'm feeling that quote acutely as I sort through thirty-five years of pictures, handwritten correspondence (letters! notes from abroad! the best postcards!), awards, published and unpublished writing and other random keepsakes. The small, finished room in our basement is full of this shit.



While I have an occasional flash of joy a la "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," I'm keeping more than I want to keep. I'm keeping it out of a vague sense of obligation to my mother or unborn child (not sure which).

I'm keeping letters from my college friends because the humans themselves bring me joy, and I'm not inspired in this moment to reread every letter I've ever received from them. Does that mean I'll never want to do so?

I'm keeping the box of pictures from my mother because, while I've been completely happy cutting my own photo collection in half, I've run out of steam. I can't hold another 300-500 pictures in my hand, one by one, and decide what to do with them.

This weekend, Sonia and I went to Connecticut to visit one of her friends from law school. On her fridge was a magnet: "Life isn't about finding yourself. It's about creating yourself."

The friend is gorgeous -- tall and African American with perfect skin and amazing, long dreadlocks. She's from Virginia and told us the story of her husband walking into law offices where she was working and looking her up and down, clearly curious about her but clearly not going to do anything about it. Against policy if not the law, she searched in his file for his email address and sent him a message asking him out. They were married a few years later.

When I praised her bravery, she said, "Girl, I had to find my husband," and shrugged it off.

I don't know too much about this couple, but I liked that quote on their fridge. In the course of a weekend, we went to a winery, a cider mill, a casino and a corn maze. We made small talk easily and avoided politics and anything too personal. There was a sense of confidence in both of them, a sense of plunging headlong into the future together.

There are things I kept because I'm creating myself.

Because I kept the letters from a youth counselor named Mark, I'll remember lying on the floor of an elevator with him in a hotel near the Mall of America. I was sixteen, he was twenty. We didn't kiss. He wasn't my first taste of the illicit.

Because I kept the laugh-out-loud "communication contract" written by my ex boyfriend Dan, I'll remember how funny he was, how I probably would have chosen him if I was able to choose a man.

Because I kept a book constructed by Ari and written in a few months into our relationship, I'll remember the intensity of my first relationship with a woman, how it came upon me like a revelation.

There are things I didn't keep, too. But they're not a part of my story.



Recently, I sat in on a session about trauma's effect on the brain in young children. In all children, the neural pathways that are encouraged (i.e., "If I cry, I am comforted.") are the pathways that become set. Other potential pathways are pruned away. This pruning continues through our lives.

There were maybe a dozen letters from unrecognizable names. These completely forgotten intimacies -- both friends and lovers -- had been completely pruned from memory. Yet I'd been present with them all once, maybe more than once. Regardless, they were in Friday's trash.

It's both empowering and tragic, the relentlessness of time. The reality of so many people -- and each moment -- intersecting with your life so briefly. The constant need to create one's life, and the fact that each moment passes into the abyss if we don't seize upon it.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Our First Month as Homeowners

When last I wrote, Sonia and I were selecting paint samples and gathering boxes, finishing the bottom of peanut butter jars and pitching stale snacks. 

We've been in the new house a little over a month.

The most surprising thing?

I'm doing a lot more "when my parents were my age..." math. It mattered less when I was in an apartment. But check out this smattering of riches:

  • When my parents were my age, they'd owned three homes. 
  • When my parents were my age, they'd built their dream home, which they live in to this day. 
  • When my parents were my age, I was eight. 
  • When my parents were my age, my brother was five. 
  • When my parents were my age, they had two acres of land that they somehow kept pristine while keeping both my brother and I alive. 
I guess you could say I'm appreciating them a little bit more this morning. 

The most lovely thing?

Sonia and I are communicating well, maybe better than ever before. 

We had our first two major fights since moving in, about money and my taste for alcohol. We do math completely differently and get to the same answer, but it drives us both nuts that the other person cannot understand our methods. I drink more during transition times as I'm working on getting into a new routine. 

Also very cool: 
  • Waking up in the bed we own, in the house we own!
  • The Icelandic blue Sonia painted our bedroom with the help of some friends. Both the color and the fact that it happened without me. Like magic!
  • The gorgeous feng shui of our tiny office after I moved some furniture around. 
  • We have a laundry room. 
  • I can't wait to come home after work. Making dinner and walking around the neighborhood feel like bigger occasions than they have in the past. 
Home ownership never excited my imagination in the hypothetical. I didn't dream of a house I might love to own. I didn't even have a long-term plan for home ownership "one day." We both had good jobs and a little savings, so we made it work quickly. 

Now that there's an actual house, I see projects everywhere. Bring down the wall in the front foyer; expand the small first-floor bathroom; rip out the scraggly hedges lining the sidewalk. Sonia sort of understands that this is my creativity at work, but made me promise not to tear any walls down in the middle of the night. 

Not only do I see projects, but I'm excited to tackle them. Bring on the surprises, the magic, the future!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

How White People Write Race

The Doctorow book has me thinking about how I write race.

As a writer, it’s easier to see my black neighbor or the Coalhouse character as sympathetic humans than it is to see my own parents, with all of their ingrained prejudice and homophobia, as sympathetic humans. 

But that’s the easy way out, a temptation we have to resist as white writers, says W. Kamau Bell.


In an interview on With Friends Like These, he told white people to handle ourselves, calling out racism when we hear it and advocating for a new narrative of whiteness.

To participate in writing that future, I might have to understand where my parents are coming from.

The white supremacist is a familiar character, and it is not them. They deserve better. There isn’t a strong narrative of the “good white person,” racially speaking, but perhaps we can only get there by exploring all of the good intentions that lined our path to today.

The task becomes not writing black characters but trying to find empathy or insight in my parents' view of the world.

There is so much I want to say about our time that I felt ill-equipped to say, but surely the only white voices cannot be the bigoted ones. That's serving exactly no one.

Talking about whiteness, talking about blackness, talking about race in America is like talking to my parents about sex. There’s simply no good agreed-upon language for it. There are landmines everywhere.

I've ridden the wave into adulthood on the premise that the old white, Christian tale of America was simplistic and ignorant, the result of brainwashing or fear. Yet my parents are complex people.

Good intentions got us here. We’re going to need more bravery than good intentions to get us out.

Coalhouse Walker: Real Character?


Into this waiting-to-move period, I've injected an old favorite: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow. Before I opened the book this time, I remembered loving the book but I did not remember the story. I got to fall in love all over again.

The book is a collage of the early-1900s. Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman make appearances. Two families, one upper-middle class and the other new immigrants, meet these giants of their time in likely, sometimes inconsequential scenarios.

Because there are so many "real" characters in the book, you imagine Doctorow researching and discovering all of the characters: Father, the executive at the fireworks factory, self-empowering Mother and the revolutionary Younger Brother. Tetah the artist who makes it big and his little girl. Their lives elevate to be as important to the course of history as all the names a reader in 2017 still recognizes.

When I last read the book, Emma Goldman was not familiar to me. Now that I know her as a historical figure, the book reads differently: as though any character, if you explore enough old newspaper articles, could come to life and be proclaimed as "real."

This brings me to the central character: Coalhouse Walker. In this reading, I was sure he was a historical figure. Following humiliation at the hands of the local all-white fire department, Coalhouse and his men (a ragtag team of 3-4 black youth and one middle-aged white man) barricade themselves with explosives inside the library and museum of J. P. Morgan. The metaphor is simply too perfect. I wanted to believe it.

From a NYTimes article written shortly after the book was published: "Asked if this angry black man were a real person Mr. Doctorow said, 'There are several hundreds of thousands of Coalhouse Walkers in this country.'" (Article here.)

But Coalhouse Walker entered the novel as a polite and proud black man determined to marry a young maid who was already the mother of his child. It was only through humiliation and his insistence on his own humanity and worthiness that he became indignant, and ultimately dead at the hands of his oppressors.

I believe in the reality of Coalhouse Walker, as unique or as aggregate, as both human and metaphor. I wonder if many black readers also believe in him.