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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

We're Buying a House!

"We're buying a house!"

I understand that sentence now more than ever: two months of limbo, negotiations and anxiety. Also, the exclamation point. There is an end in sight, after which we'll be homeowners.

This wasn't a part of the plan for 2017. In late April, we got a letter from our new corporate landlords saying that rent would be raised over 10% this year.

Plus Sonia would have to start paying for her garage space. Plus all of the good people -- the ones who have lived here for decades and make this place feel like a community -- are being priced out.

It was time to go. We wouldn't waste another year of rent.

We looked at less than a dozen houses. In three weeks, we found an adorable stone row house in Mount Airy.

It has sun tunnels that tunnel natural light into the top floor. It has a small, carefully manicured front yard. It has a large picture window in the living room.

Before we said "yes," I emailed Sonia my list of improvements I'd like to make in 1-2 years, and improvements I'd like to make in 2-5 years. It was a cultural wake-up call.

Sonia's Korean immigrant parents moved into their house 30+ years ago, and haven't changed a thing. They didn't alter anything unless it broke.

My white parents (2-5 generations removed from their immigrant roots) built their house from the ground up 30+ years ago, and a year hasn't gone by without a major renovation or improvement.

We'd both fallen in love with our new house, but Sonia loved it as it was. I saw only potential: new flooring in the foyer and basement, new drywall in the laundry room & select replacement tiles in the kitchen and bathroom. Once we could articulate that, and I could reassure Sonia that I would not be randomly ripping through drywall in the middle of the night, we could move forward.

On Sunday, I told my parents the news. After trying to call the house, I played the coward and texted them both a long message. Turns out, they were just getting in from the beach. They did not respond with any exclamation points initially. After they caught their breath and looked the house up online, they called.

"Looks like a nice place," my dad said. "There's a baseball field nearby, I think. Did I see that on the map?"

"Do you mind if I ask how much you paid and how much your mortgage payment will be?" my mom asked, relieved when I told her we hadn't paid full asking price.

When they were 24, my parents were married. By 26, I was born and they were in their first row house. By 29, they were parents of two sacrificing daily for their dream, raising a couple of kids in the country on a homestead where, if needed, they could grow their own groceries. They don't understand city living. There are many ways in which I'm foreign to them.

Two years ago, my dad asked me why people of my generation didn't seem to care about buying houses. I realized later this was as close as he'd get to suggesting I buy a house. Such is our communication.

As we spoke about the new house, I kept saying Sonia's name: Sonia's commute would be longer, Sonia is wary of big renovations, Sonia was reading The Automatic Millionaire when we decided to buy a house. My parents didn't respond to any of those points. The conversation skated onward.

As we hung up, my dad said, "Tell Sonia we said hi."

Baby steps.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Old Skins to Shed

The narrator of Rachel Cusk's Outline might or might not be a singular person. By the time I began to suspect that the characters were folding into one another, I was nearly finished. It will be a good one to reread, but I'm uninspired to do so right now.

I didn't have enough empathy for the characters, or interest in their movements. This may have been because the whole book was a brain tease and I didn't catch on until too late.

However, this reflection by Angeliki, a mother of one son, knocked me over.
'...for me, of course, it would be disastrous to have more children: I would be completely submerged, as so many women are. I ask myself why it is my mother wishes me submerged in my turn, when I have important work to do, when it would not be in my best interests and would be, as I say, tantamount to disaster, and the answer is that her desire is not about me but about herself.
'The parts of life that are suffocating,' Angeliki said, 'are so often the parts that are the projection of our own parents' desires. One's existence as a wife and mother, for example, is something often walked into without question, as though we are propelled by something outside ourselves; while a woman's creativity, the thing she doubts and is always sacrificing for the sake of other things...has been her own idea, her own inner compulsion.'
I don't want to be submerged.

In high school, the Immaculate Conception scared the shit out of me. There wasn't an Internet and sex education was virtually nonexistent. My overactive brain couldn't handle that combo. I convinced myself that when I got pregnant due to some freak accident, I would be strong enough to kill myself. I carried this conviction into my twenties and I'm not even sure when precisely I let it go. Once you've gone down that road, I'm not sure there's any coming back.

So many of my friends are having their second babies. My best friend is pregnant with her first. Two others are attending a book/therapy group called Maybe Baby for queer couples thinking about kids.

On Saturday, Sonia and I went over to a couple's house and met their daughters, who are two years old and five months old. The woman and I used to be roommates in Philadelphia; we'd run into each other at Molly's funeral and didn't want to leave it there. I'd always liked her.

Sonia spent most of her time with the baby, but that two-year-old was my favorite. I am 35; Sonia is 32. No decisions have been made. I don't doubt for a second that I'd love raising a kid, but the pathway there is still unclear.

Plus, I have some old skins to shed: that scared teenager I used to be and others' desires I've been carrying around. Spring's a good time for that.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How Death Animates Us

Perhaps this blog will become: life as animated by literature.

I couldn't fall asleep last night, as happens when I'm newly off alcohol and back to the gym, so I read this graphic novel that's been sitting on my coffee table for about a year: Unknown by author Mark Waid and illustrator Minck Oosterveer.

It's about death. Since Molly's it's become clear that every piece of art and literature is about death. I knew this at fifteen and twenty-one. Just forgot.

The main character, Cat Allingham, is a detective with a brain tumor whose last mysteries involve learning if there is or is not an afterlife. It was only the first in a series, so the jury's still out.

On Sunday, Sonia and I had lunch with my parents and they acted like themselves for the first time in her presence, teasing one another relentlessly, engaging with us and actually showing some joy. It felt good.

We met at the Cheesecake Factory in the suburbs. My parents bravely tried the thai lettuce wraps and loved them. We shared two pieces of cheesecake (all chocolate) at the end and moaned about the indulgence. We walked around the mall together afterward and went shoe shopping, where Sonia impressively saved me $30 on a pair of $105 shoes at DSW.

Who knows why people do what they do? Given time or traumatic events, my parents seem to have turned a corner. They seem more open, more accepting, lighter. I have two theories and they both have to do with death.

A few weeks ago on the phone, my dad told me about a 26-year-old boy who had gone missing from the bar a few miles from their home. It was the same bar my brother and I frequented in our twenties, the closest one to our childhood home. The boy had suffered from mental health problems and substance abuse. He'd joined my mom's church to get help with the drinking and the drugs.

Then one evening, he left the bar, threw his phone and his keys in his car and walked into the woods. It took them a few weeks to find his body, but everyone knew what had happened. My dad told me that path led to an overlook where it would be easy to jump into the river. He didn't tell me that the boy was gay.

The boy who killed himself was or was not gay. In any case, he was in working class Pennsylvania where some combination of lack of opportunity, lack of options and lack of mental health services led to him finding this way out. His options were religion or alcohol. If he was gay, a religion that despised him wouldn't cut it.

Another thing happened this winter. Driving home from the high school where he's been substitute teaching since he got laid off 12+ years ago, my dad did a 360 on an icy two-lane road and narrowly missed an 18-wheeler. Says his life flashed before his eyes. He is increasingly the kind of man who will say things like that, although it's a new look for him.

My mom texted me about the incident the night it happened. She expressed thankfulness for Sonia and my brother's girlfriend. In their shock after that near-miss, they knew what mattered. They knew that Sonia and my brother's girlfriend were the people that their children would come home to if something similar happened.

In The Unknown, death is a chalky-faced stranger with the build of Herman Munster. In my life these days, it seems to be animating a little empathy among my family from a still-safe distance. The empathy is motivating -- it feels like all I've ever wanted -- and makes me want to spend as much time with them as possible. Help them keep their monsters at bay.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

An Ocean of Knowledge

The pond in the back of the Hempstock's house in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is also the ocean that carries Lettie's body away, merits more unpacking.

The metaphor of the ocean in this book is so rich it feels Biblical. It is both a placid pond and a ferocious ocean. It's also a bucket of water that transports the seven-year-old narrator to another dimension.
I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.  
Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all. 
The ocean is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. Makes perfect sense that the writers of the Bible would want us to avoid it, too. Seems to me that the keepers of the keys of knowledge too seldom wish to share, as though disseminating knowledge decreases its value.

Or, what if the tree/ocean of knowledge was cast as "original sin" because spending too much time thinking about it -- how souls are made, where we go when we die -- prevents us from being present here on earth, which is the whole point?

After his ocean experience, the narrator has a conversation with Lettie that illustrates this beautifully.
"Do you still know everything, all the time?"  
She shook her head. She didn't smile. She said, "Be boring, knowing everything. You have to give all that stuff up if you're going to muck about here." 
"So you used to know everything?" 
She wrinkled her nose. "Everybody did. I told you. It's nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play."  
"To play what?" 
"This," she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.
It's nice to believe that when she died, Molly entered this ocean, that she's been granted understanding and wisdom and comfort of a kind I hope not to see for several decades. It's an image of afterlife I can get behind, and provides me comfort comparable to what my mother probably feels when she visualizes heaven.

Long ago, literature became my Bible. I return to the books that have shaped me -- Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Stephen Dunn's poetry, and many more -- in the way Christians return to the Bible.

Literature does the Bible one better, I think. It's not a closed system; writers are constantly adding new ideas and metaphors to the conversation, interpreting the world as we find it for a new generation. Thus a book written in 2013, when I was cooking dinners and partying with Molly, offers me comfort when she's gone, just a few years later.

Shine on, bright star. Swim in knowledge.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Ocean Has Taken Her

What a book to read in the weeks I've been staring down death for the first time. Molly's casket was open, my first experience of one. It was bizarre.

I kept looking around, afraid of offending someone, and wanting to whisper, "It doesn't look anything like her." I didn't dare. Did I think the mortician was hanging around, might be insulted?

The body didn't look anything like the human I remembered seeing just over a year ago. Yes, the disease had ravaged her: made her thin, allowed sores to pop up around her mouth. But I'd known Molly on acne-plagued, hungover days without makeup. I'd known her to fluctuate between skinny and a little bit chunky. The changes were more than cosmetic. Molly simply wasn't there.

Which begs the question: where did Molly go?

I struggled with questions like this as a young person -- middle school, high school. I had the Catholics' answers to wrestle with then. By the end of college, I'd adopted a wholistic spirituality inspired by books like The Celestine Prophecy and The Secret, with a little Kerouac thrown in. I trusted my own subjectivity and the power of my mind and my life force to drive compassion, integrity and decision-making. They haven't let me down.

My questioning today feels less like a struggle and more like a point of curiosity, something I wouldn't hesitate to bring up at a dinner party. You know, the nature of mortality. Let's talk about it.

Enter The Ocean at the End of the Lane. In this lovely, scary tale reminiscent of A Wrinkle in Time, a seven-year-old boy discovers truths that remain hidden to the adults around him. He also befriends a girl named Lettie Hempstock.

Lettie looks like she's eleven, but she and her mother and grandmother are older than the world. They get our main character twisted up in other dimensions. A window to another world becomes embedded in his heart, quite literally and quite dangerously.

Lettie ultimately has to sacrifice herself to save the little boy, but the exact nature of that sacrifice remains blurry. Lettie's mother wades with her limp body into the backyard pond. The body floats. We hear about what happens next from the seven-year-old boy.
The great wave came, and the world rumbled, and I looked up as it reached us: it was taller than trees, than houses, than mind or eyes could hold, or heart could follow.  
Only when it reached Lettie Hempstock's floating body did the enormous wave crash down. I expected to be soaked, or worse, to be swept away by the angry ocean water, and I raised my arm to cover my face.  
There was no splash of breakers, no deafening crash, and when I lowered my arm I could see nothing but the still black water of a pond in the night, and there was nothing on the surface of the pond but a smattering of lily pads and the thoughtful, incomplete reflection of the moon.
If only all sendoffs from this world came complete with erratic, otherworldly weather. In fact, as Molly's brother spoke at her "celebration of life" last Saturday, it started to downpour. As he was wrapping up, a clap of thunder shook the Irish center.

"That's Molly telling me, 'that's enough sad talk,'" her brother said.

She's in the weather. She's in the ether. But where is Molly really?

Lettie's mother has an explantation for what happens in the end, to a girl whose spirit is as old as time itself.

"Lettie's hurt. Very badly hurt. The ocean has taken her. Honestly, I don't know if it will ever give her back. But we can hope, can't we?"

Thursday, February 23, 2017

It's So Good to Be Alive

These are the flowers Sonia and I got one another for Valentine's Day. Most of them are still going strong.

Last Friday, I lost a friend. Molly was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a child, and lived her life on borrowed time. She was diagnosed in the 80's, when it was rare for people to live past their teen years. She made it to 35.

Cystic fibrosis affects the lungs and digestive system. It's a hereditary condition in which the body produces heavy mucus and eventually shuts down multiple organs.

We lived together for three years, in a three-bedroom house in Center City with two different roommates. The first roommate was standoffish; the second became a friend.

Molly loved the Steelers, and she loved to drink. She was gorgeous and vibrant and blonde. She mastered the art of the flowy shirt to hide her CF-bloated belly. She was welcoming of my partners and curious about my queer identity. It seemed to me as though she simply hadn't known many gay people, especially women. Molly also loved men.

It was the early days of my nonprofit job. I went about three years without a day off, besides the common holidays. I remember one of the first weeks I took off, for a trip to Florida with my partner to see friends. It wasn't even a whole week.

Molly said, "You work so much. You deserve some time off."

At the time, I remember thinking I had her fooled. I didn't really deserve it.

I didn't have a clear picture then of how lazy many people are in their jobs. Instead of competing against humans, I was competing against my own best ideal of what I could do. I fell short every time.

Her words stayed with me. They brought tears to my eyes, even as I denied them. Over the years, they have rung in my ears whenever I'm being too hard on a friend, partner or coworker. I give myself permission to be generous in the way that Molly was to me. Even though I didn't think I deserved it, it felt nice to have someone else believe in both my hard work and inherent worth.

Just as we'd settled on what felt like a comfortable, drama-free household, our ancient landlady showed up one morning. She hadn't seen the neighborhood in 10 years, but that didn't stop her from using her own key to enter our home as Molly and I ate breakfast. She couldn't believe how the neighborhood had changed.

Within a month, we received notice that she would be selling the house. We needed to find a new home. Our roommate moved in with her boyfriend. Molly stayed with family for a brief time, then with the boyfriend who became her fiancé. I moved to West Philadelphia and made new friends.

Since Molly died, I've found myself reaching for Sonia more often, more desperately. The way I feel reminds me of the Stephen Dunn poem, I Came Home Wanting to Touch Everyone. Even in her death, Molly brings me an appreciation of each breath.

It's so good to be alive, to be able to work and love. No qualifications.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Little Feminist Seamstress

I found Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress on a post-election booklist beside Orwell's 1984. It was a part of my last big Amazon purchase before I committed to the boycott (see Trump products and allies to boycott at #grabyourwallet).

The fact that I ordered it at all -- let alone picked it up shortly after it came in the mail -- makes me a little sheepish. At one point in my life, half of my male friends were dating Asian women. I'd scoffed at their sudden, put-on interest in everything Asian.

Now here I am dating a Korean woman and genuinely drawn to Asian-themed news stories, books and arts. Drawn, I should add, in a mostly white fashion: I'm curious about all of Asia, regardless of region or ethnic group. The exception is news stories about modern-day Korea.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set in Communist China, when two city boys from middle-class families are sent to the countryside to be "re-educated." The center of the book is a young seamstress, raised by her father, just discovering her womanhood and power, alongside the two boys and a handful of Western classics in Chinese translation.

Spoiler alert.

I loved everything about this book: the vivid descriptions of the Chinese countryside, the dailiness of rights infringement in a totalitarian society and the way in which people resist oppression, in big and small ways.

We see the girl's strength when she handles an unplanned pregnancy without consulting her boyfriend. It's a powerful picture: this slip of a girl, all of eighteen, from the middle of nowhere with no education, pulling herself together to get an illegal abortion and high-tail it out of town, leaving the boys in the ancient dust.

So I resisted the last line: "She said she had learned one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price."

That's not the lesson! It's anti-feminist! It's objectifying!

Then I took a breath. The last lines come to us through her rejected love, and may be unfair or inaccurate.

Another breath. Beauty and power are not mutually exclusive, and the journey to confidence often contains both, especially for young women.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Letter to Pat Toomey - Feb. 4, 2017

Senator Pat Toomey
248 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator Toomey,

Donald Trump was elected by the working, disenfranchised middle class. I have a unique perspective because I saw where my Berks- and Leigh-County-based family was in 2008, 2012 and 2016. It’s not what you would think.

My family is evenly divided between Blue Dog Democrats and middle class, Catholic Republicans.  In 2008, nearly everyone voted for Obama. In 2012, a token few went to Romney, but most still had faith that Obama would bring some kind of change to places like Reading and Allentown. In 2016, about half voted for Trump. At least a dozen former Obama supporters who I know intimately voted Trump into office, reaching for the most outlandish option in the hopes that he would “shake up” Washington.

If you want to survive Trump’s four years as a politician, distance yourself from him now. He’s appointing billionaires and deregulating Wall Street, and you’d better believe that we’re paying attention.

On Friday, Trump threatened the fiduciary rule, which protects people like me and my family from self-interested brokers. The fiduciary rule requires that brokers must make decisions in the best interest of their clients, not in the interest of their own portfolios.

We need Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule intact, to protect the American people from another runaway financial crisis. We don’t want to bail out the banks with our tax dollars any more.

P.S. Betsy DeVos is still a terrible idea. Come to the right side of history. She’s a terrible idea for Pennsylvania, and the nation. I know because I’ve been doing the work of education – and paying attention to the politics of it – for 15 years longer than she has.


To learn more about how YOU, reader, can fight back against Republican extremism, check out the Indivisible Guide. It was written by Obama White House staffers, and modeled after the ways in which the Tea Party worked against him throughout his Presidency. It's our turn. 

Letter to Bob Casey - Feb. 4, 2017

Senator Bob Casey
2000 Market St # 1870,
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Dear Senator,

Thank you for standing against the Muslim ban. It is unconstitutional on multiple points, beyond being careless and cruel. If we’re not careful, the United States of America is going to go back in time.

Our new president is pushing the limits of the constitution beyond the breaking point. We need all Democratic representatives at every level of government to actively work against every injustice he proposes. Many are worried that he is pushing so far so that even when he is opposed, we will still land on the wrong side of justice.

Please speak out against the following three priorities, in addition to continuing to hold the administration’s feet to the fire regarding the #Muslimban. I know that it’s a lot to keep track of, but we must keep energy high and not stand aside and give our democracy to a demagogue.

First, resist any attempt to destroy or disassemble Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule, which protects the American people from another runaway financial crisis. We don’t want to bail out the banks with our tax dollars any more.

Second, please speak out against the appointment of Betsy DeVos. She’s a terrible idea for Philadelphia, for Pennsylvania, and for the nation. I know because I’ve been doing the work of education – and paying attention to the politics of it – for 15 years longer than she has.

Third, continue to insist upon Trump’s release of his tax returns. This first of his crimes against American ethics, norms and traditions,  can still be the reason that we ultimately ensure that he has less than a 4-year term in office.

When you resist Trump, you are representing me as a constituent. Thank you in advance for doing everything you possibly can in the coming days, weeks, months and years. Let’s ensure this administration is as brief and painless as possible.


To learn more about how YOU, reader, can fight back against Republican extremism, check out the Indivisible Guide. It was written by Obama White House staffers, and modeled after the ways in which the Tea Party worked against him throughout his Presidency. It's our turn. 

Letter to Pat Toomey - Feb. 1, 2017

Senator Pat Toomey
100 W. Station Square Dr.

Suite 225Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Dear Senator Toomey,

Your voicemail box is full, so I’m writing instead. This is a dire time for America, and you will be hearing from me for four years if that is how long this presidency lasts.

Please consider changing your position on the unconstitutional Muslim ban. It legitimizes religious discrimination by the executive branch of the government, and we have to stand up and refuse to let America go back in time. It also endangers America’s position in the world, threatening our troops by breaking promises to citizens of other countries who helped them in the battlefield as translators and fixers. Finally, it creates a cultural climate that condones xenophobia, exacerbates racial tension and escalates hate crime.

Secondly, the citizens of the United States have not forgotten about Donald Trump’s tax return. I have at least a dozen relatives from the middle of PA (mostly Berks Co.) who voted for him, but still believe that he should release his tax returns. They bought the audit story for a while, but now they’re catching on.

This is an historic time in the United States. Many of us believe that Donald Trump’s days in office are numbered, but the outstanding question is: how long it will take our representatives in government to act on behalf of the American people? Will we have a democracy left when it is all over?

Please, be on the right side of history. Oppose Donald Trump and his dangerous policies.

Educator & Concerned Citizen

P.S. I love my sanctuary city, and we were much safer before Jan. 20. Hands off!


To learn more about how YOU, reader, can fight back against Republican extremism, check out the Indivisible Guide. It was written by Obama White House staffers, and modeled after the ways in which the Tea Party worked against him throughout his Presidency. It's our turn. 

We Can All Write Our Reps -- Here's How

I haven't been blogging, but I have been writing. Mostly letters to my representatives, in the following categories:

With the exception of a few city councilwomen, these are all straight men. Most of them are white. The exercise in learning who they were and that they represented me -- while I hadn't really bothered to learn much about them -- was eye-opening in itself. 

They are all Democrats with the exception of Pat Toomey, so he gets more letters from me. Interesting fact: U.S. Senators have multiple offices in various districts of the state (PA has seven; I imagine smaller states may have fewer). That means for each Toomey letter I write, there are eight copies: one to each district office, and one to the office in Washington, D.C. Even if he doesn't read one of them, his staffers will. 

As I share about my letter-writing on social media, several people have asked me for a copy of the letters. I debated sharing these letters on this blog. Was the content "queer" enough? Did it have anything to do with happiness? 

Jenny adeptly pointed out on a very cold walk the other evening that if it's coming from me, it's queer enough. And while happiness may not be in our politics right now, this is how I'm keeping my sanity. So here goes. 

For a how-to guide for your own activism, read the Indivisible Guide. Then feel free to steal any of my language or letters to send to your own representatives. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Our Bodies for the Revolution

As I watched the premier of Philly-based Interact Theater's MARCUS/EMMA last Wednesday, I thought about the Women's March on Washington, which reached seven continents on Saturday, January 21.

Marcus Garvey was a native Jamaican and one of only two children in his family of eleven children who survived to adulthood. He studied philosophy in London and became a great American orator, advocating for Pan-Africanism and founding the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. (Video: Know Yourself Speech) (NYT obituary.)

Emma Goldman was a Russian-born anarchist who immigrated to the United States as a teen. She'd already been a victim of her father's steady abuse, endured rape at the hands of a suitor and borne witness to brutal state violence. Within a few years, she was at the center of New York's anarchist movement advocating for worker's rights, women's rights and free love (although she was too far left for the suffrage movement). (Video: The Revolutionary Life of Emma Goldman.)

In the play, Emma is an oversexed older woman who seduces the younger Garvey. They were contemporaries, but didn't meet in life. Somewhere in their fictional seduction, they find common ground: human suffering.

Both revolutionaries had early and regular reminders of mortality and the power of having one healthy human body: Garvey's nine dead siblings, Goldman's regular beatings. They brought the power of their physical bodies directly to their revolutions, and therein lay the strength and integrity of their message.

Bodies: the actor's bodies onstage in passion and violence embodying our revolutionary forebears; the physical bodies of millions of Americans in dozens of cities denouncing the discrimination, misogyny and narcissism of our president.

In recent years, Black Lives Matter knew it first. Perhaps only through risking our bodies can we keep them safe.

The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man's right to his body, or woman's right to her soul. -- Emma Goldman. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

To Meryl, with Love

Hollywood actors are: educated, diverse and liberal, "just a bunch of people from other places." And Meryl Streep is their queen.

She didn't disappoint last month, accepting her lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes and delivering a speech that cut right to the heart of the issues of this election: insiders vs. outsiders, freedom of the press and what we can possibly do next.

Some of my favorite moments:

"This instinct to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing...When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose."

"We need a principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage. That's why our founders enshrined the press and its institutions in our constitution."

And, quoting Carrie Fisher, "Take your broken heart. Make it into art."

Long live, Queen Meryl. We're going to need her wisdom in the days, months and years to come.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Not-gay Novel

Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas is not a novel about being gay, and it's not a novel about how a Greek immigrant family comes to terms with their oldest daughter being gay. But it sort of is.

The main character is an egotist named Stavros Stavros, the father of three daughters, the owner of two restaurants, and the ex-husband of one woman, who announces in an email to his family in the opening chapter that he will die in ten days.

There's a lot going on in this novel. The novel takes a close third-person perspective that sometimes sits with Stavros; sometimes his oldest daughter and namesake, Stavroula; sometimes his ex-wife Dina; sometimes one of the other two daughters, each with their short list of working class struggles.

Because there is so much going on, and because I read this hoping for a little more lesbian action, I was particularly honed into the treatment of the lesbian character and oldest daughter.

In one of the first chapters, she rewrites the menu of her restaurant to honor July, the name of the coworker she has been pining after for years. It's awkward, and another 200+ pages go by before they find themselves in a late-night kitchen, with food as the metaphor for love and desire.

The possibility of an affair, one of the primary drivers of the book, ends without a kiss, unless you count Stavroula's "We just frenched," joke, uttered as they worked together to tie a rack of lamb. Let's just say the comic release of the book wasn't the kind of release I was hoping for.

I've been reading more first novels, imagining what mine will be, gathering courage from the idea that these writers toiled away for so long before finding a pathway and putting this first work into the world. I liked this one, and there's probably more for me to excavate in that father-daughter relationship than I'm ready to do right now.

But my novel will definitely be gayer.

Angels and Miracles for Trump

I just watched John Dickerson's Christmas interview with Stephen Colbert, and it has me thinking about the worldview I derived from my early Catholicism.

Stephen Colbert and I were both raised Catholic, and there's something in our perspectives that matches. We were taught to believe in angels and miracles, so it's possible for us to believe in things we do not understand. We were taught to question and doubt our own thoughts and desires, which allows a way in for radically different perspectives.

Angels and miracles create a space, for me, to imagine my way into my father's psyche, a man I love who thought Donald Trump was the right choice. I can imagine it even though my logical mind resists it. 

"An unquestioned belief is almost vestigial," Colbert says. "It doesn't motivate you in any way...a belief is a filter. You have to run things through it, so you know how you see the world. It's a lens, not a prop."

Trump's election is the last thing I would have wanted for our country. But it has opened an opportunity for me to question and recommit to my beliefs and choices. 

The result? I'm grateful for the meaning I find in my work. I believe more than ever that exercise keeps me sane. I love my friends. Sonia is still my favorite. 

Two things I plan to do differently in 2017: call more Congressmen. Write more everything. 


Monday, January 16, 2017

Dear Ellen, I'm Ready

Why have I been resistant to, or skeptical of, the awesomeness of Ellen? Internalized homophobia, or mistrust of how she can still be so incredibly cute at the age of 58?

But seriously, Ellen is so joyful, even when she's talking about oppression and patriarchy.

I was reminded of Ellen a few weeks after the election, when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He had the nicest things to say about her bravery.

Seeing the video above, and reflecting on the kind words of the best President of my lifetime, made me comb the archives for what she had to say after the election. Donnie will be sworn in on Friday, and I needed a little hope. She didn't disappoint.


Dear Ellen,

My happiness -- my particular (hopefully) marketable brand of gay happiness, that is -- will be different than yours. 

I'm a little too melancholic to maintain your indefatigable optimism. I have that academic's bias that in order to say something new, we must be very logical and serious about it all. 

But I'm ready for a little silliness, too. Thanks for the reminder. 

Yours very truly, 
A Lesbionic Sister

Monday, January 9, 2017

Why We Write Novels, Inspired by Trump Supporters

I grew up in rural America among those who elected Trump. In mocking interviews, his supporters say, "I don't care about the facts. I know it’s true."

Or, “you have your facts and I have mine.”

Working in education, I see an opportunity for curricula about facts vs. opinions. But these statements go deeper than poor critical thinking, to the root of subjectivity. 

Imagine person A and person B.

Person A decides by age 25 that evangelical Christianity is the answer to life's pain and a path toward meaning. She goes deep into religion, and everything she encounters in life seems to affirm her religion. If you think that religion is not circumspect enough to inhabit the modern world, look again. 

Person B has been exposed to religion for her whole life, and never once inspired. By age 25, she is reading every book she can get her hands on and believes literature is the path to truth. The study of philosophy, history and psychology make sense of the world, and everything she encounters in life seems to affirm the primacy of empirical understanding.

My mother is person A. I am person B. This is why one writes novels.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Questions about Writing for the New Year

What I Can Do by Mary Oliver

The television has two instruments that control it. 
I get confused. 
The washer asks me, do you want regular or delicate? 
Honestly, I just want clean. 
Everything is like that. 
I won't even mention cell phones. 

I can turn on the light of the lamp beside my chair
where a book is waiting, but that's about it. 

Oh yes, and I can strike a match and make a fire. 

Mary Oliver's poem reminds us that poetry still exists in our digital world. We can still make fire. There is something fleshy and physical about the reminder. 

Mary Oliver is a gay writer. Mary Oliver is not a gay writer. I feel the same way about Michael Cunningham. They are lofty and ambitious and smart as hell; they transcend.

Some mornings, I am pressed to come up with a queer topic. Are they all queer topics if they're coming from me? Or are they all queer if (as Sonia likes to say) I'm "just making things up with my fingertips"?

Is queer writing necessary, or a distraction? 

Better yet, is all poetry queer? 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Juliet Takes a Breath

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera had at least three entry points into my life.

First, following the election I sought book lists. In particular (1) provocative books to read after the election and (2) new queer and feminist books. Rivera's title was on the second of these lists, and I ordered it immediately.

Second, in reading her bio, I learned that we're in very similar lines of work -- seriously, we have almost the same job title -- and yet she's had time in the past few years to write a book. I took it as a point of motivation for 2017.

Then -- if you can believe it -- I was paging through an issue of my college alumni magazine as I was putting together this year's intention collage, and I learned that Gabby Rivera graduated from Goucher College, just like me. One year after me, in fact.

I'm reading her book now. I'm also writing mine.

And just in case you'd like a glimpse of that intention collage...

Hey Hetero!

This photo exhibit by Tina Fiveash is today's (first) gem. It's been circulating somewhere on earth since 2001, and was translated into Greek last year for an exhibit in Athens.

I can't imagine kissing my love openly on the streets of New York, let alone the streets of Athens.

My two trips to Greece were in 2001 and 2002. Culturally, they still had that Mediterranean machismo going on. I was repelled by the men and their comments, liberties and assumptions more times than I can count.

Much has changed in Greece since my last visit: the debt crisis, instability within the EU and the Syrian refugee crisis.

It's interesting that Hey Hetero! came to Greece at the height of political upheaval. In Greece, rooted in Socratic Method and so proud of its philosophical tradition, is it possible that it took instability of this pitch to begin breaking down decades-old misogyny and heteronormative thinking?

Or is that silver lining a little too easy?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Confession: I've Been a TERF

I just finished this page-turner. Reading it, I felt like I was in college again, but college was cooler (and easier).

The most disconcerting revelation: I've been a TERF, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or at least, I held one belief in common with them.

"Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys have argued that trans surgeries are a form of mutilation, carried out for political reasons because of the way gender is constructed in male-dominated society."

I wouldn't have used mutilation. But I had to admit: I'd had similar thoughts, and thought myself completely original for having them. Did gender reassignment surgery serve the patriarchy by confirming a false dichotomy?

My question also came from a new-age belief that we're born into this world with circumstances and challenges to learn lessons. I thought it followed that the gender we're born with had something to do with our destiny on earth.

Of course, it does. But that doesn't negate trans experiences, or anyone's choice to have gender confirmation surgery.

I dropped my skepticism about the necessity of surgery after I met trans people who seemed truly happy and -- dare I say it? -- "well-adjusted" after surgery.

One Small Beauty or Happiness

I'm back. And still finding my voice, the voice of this blog.

The next experiment: less than 200 words, one small beauty or happiness each day.

Christmas 2015: Sonia and I did not send Christmas cards; we weren't living together. We went to my parents' house for Christmas Day brunch. It was just the four of us. There were many silences, my parents' and Sonia's. I carried the conversation, resentful that no one else seemed to be making much of an effort. We exchanged gifts awkwardly and ducked out quickly, avoiding the extended family gathering later that day. Sonia went to her own parents' dinner alone in the evening.

Christmas 2016: Sonia and I sent Christmas cards to my entire extended family, signed with both our names. Christmas morning, we popped into her friend's engagement party then drove 90 minutes to my aunt's house, where everyone was polite. Even the Evangelical relatives were kind and welcoming. My mother was still wound as tight as a spring, but I was at ease with Sonia by my side.

The effect of that -- the simple presence of her, the confidence and calm it carries -- is entirely new. I'm so grateful.