Wednesday, April 12, 2017

we're here, we're queer, we're not yet used to it: s-town and my uncle bob

Like all my favorite novels, the podcast Shit Town is about a lot of things: the tension between home and the larger world; the many sides to every story; what it means to care for another person; the curse of genius; depression; time; clocks. Like all my favorite novels, it's a mystery whose answers are both bigger and heartbreakingly smaller than the questions initially posed. It is a work of art, and you should listen if you haven't already.

But today I'm blogging about Chapter VI: "Since everyone around here thinks I’m a queer anyway." Our protagonist, John B. McLemore, embodies many paradoxes (worldly hick, tender asshole), but he especially straddles a generational and regional divide between Out Gay/Bi Man and Shadow-Dwelling Pervert. I listened to Chapter VI with a growing recognition that was one part empathy, one part dread. 

Uncle Bob was a redhead too.
My Uncle Bob wasn't a suicidal mad genius. He didn't have gold buried on his property. He was an accountant who lived in a tract home in Torrance. But he was born in 1943 and died in 2013, and those decades encompassed a sea change in how America views gayness. I have to imagine that trying to contain such radically different messages in one lifetime could make a person a little neurotic.

Like John B. McLemore, Uncle Bob had a tendency to rant ad nauseam about topics in a way that made me wonder, Is that really what you're mad about? Like John B. McLemore, Uncle Bob was obsessive about his cultural passions: ancient Egypt and British comedies. He spoke about the latter as if we'd all caught the last episode of [insert random Britcom here] because it must be as popular as American Idol (which I also didn't watch). I believe the stories we consume can save and sustain us, and that both high and low art forms are as important to our culture as most elections. Yet hearing Uncle Bob prattle on about TV shows always made me cringe a little; it seemed not just nerdy, but like a painfully transparent substitute for a life. And to consider that he was lonely is to face the fact that loneliness was the only semi-acceptable option for queer people until incredibly recently. 

"Did you see that one Bucket Woman where...."
Uncle Bob wasn't my biological uncle. He was my dad's best friend from childhood, and they both hung out with the funny, eccentric lady who lived up the hill from Bob, who I know as my Grandma Jac. It's a credit to my parents that they both accepted Uncle Bob when he came out to Grandma Jac's crew in the '70s, and were candid with me about the fact that he was gay, and didn't pass judgement. That shouldn't be a lot to ask, but in the '70s and '80s it was.

Uncle Bob brought various "friends" to holidays at Grandma Jac's. Some must have been his boyfriends, but I don't think they all were. I think gay men back in the day defined relationships in terms I wouldn't completely understand. Take John B.'s relationships with Tyler and Mike--he never acted sexually or inappropriately with them, and yet it doesn't seem like a coincidence that they were both young, good-looking men who needed him, loved him and ultimately rejected him. My parents talked in vague terms about men who'd taken advantage of Uncle Bob's generosity. In his latter years, Uncle Bob lived with a younger man named Dean. Everyone in our family liked Dean, but none of us quite knew whether he was a boyfriend, a friend, a roommate or a sugar baby. Maybe because he was none and all of the above. 

When I was first inching toward coming out, I decided Uncle Bob was super interesting, and I wanted to talk about all the musicals under the sun with him. Later, when he struck me as painfully old school, when his conservative politics got under my skin, I cooled my affection in a way I'm not proud of. Part of my internalized homophobia was not wanting to see the ways that earlier, deeper homophobia shaped who he was. It's easier to love and accept John B., because I'm not John B.'s niece.

All good stories are a maze.
In my Parenting for Social Justice Facebook group, which I recently left (on friendly terms), I often got frustrated with how the recognition of oppression seemed to follow trends. Currently race and transgender issues seem to get the spotlight and the benefit of the doubt. If a comment contained the faintest shadow of a racial micro-aggression, the admins were all over that commenter. But I--and some of the other queer women in the group--were often left with the vague feeling that the group was like "Sure, yeah, of course we're all pro-LGB here, but we wrapped that up in 2015 with that one Supreme Court decision, right?" It's not that anyone would say that (and it's not that I think racial micro-aggressions aren't real; I strive not to participate in the Oppression Olympics), but most people didn't seem interested in considering the deep, insidious ways that, even for someone like me--born in 1977 to accepting parents--the message that "Your desire is disgusting at best, evil at worst" still lingers. Slavery still lingers in major ways--in DNA itself, according to epigenetics--so why wouldn't widespread systemic and cultural oppression against queer people?

My friend Nicole runs a social media/storytelling campaign called #StillBisexual that sort of speaks to this. I admit to going back and forth over the years as to how much of a thing biphobia (as distinct from homophobia) actually is. But the underlying message of the campaign's title, as I read it, is "Look, you can change the term to 'pansexual' and change the laws every five minutes, but there is a group of people who have always loved both men and women and dealt with the consequences of it. We are here and our stories are particular and worth telling." Maybe John B. McLemore was one of them.

I guess my point is It wasn't that long ago. And one of Shit Town's many beauties is how it conveys this point, not in social justice lingo with pointed fingers and manifestos, but in an intricately woven personal story. 

A long time ago I read a profile of an elite swimmer who'd had a serious and poorly treated injury early in her career. Eventually she got a new coach and the treatment she needed, but you could see how the muscles in her back had grown around the injury to compensate. Her back was her story. I think we are all like that.

Friday, April 07, 2017

ciudad de parques

From my travel journal:

Thursday, our first in Mexico City, we kept it mellow and walked around Polanco, which all the guidebooks say is the "Beverly Hills of Mexico City." It's true that I saw a BMW motorcycle and lots of professional dog walkers, but Polanco has more urban flare than BH. We spent a lot of time at Lincoln Park; there's a statue of Lincoln here that says "a gift from the people of the United States to the people of Mexico." Nearby a store had hung a #fucktrump banner.

Better than a wall.
We stayed up talking to the friends we're staying with, Laura and her wife, Molly. I've known Laura since I was a little kid; our moms were good friends, and hers passed away recently, from Alzheimer's. Laura said that navigating her mom's illness would have been twice as hard without her sister Lindsay, and that's part of why they wanted a second kid (Cora is four, Evan is 20 months). It's sobering, but it did push me more in the direction of trying--somehow, with some nonexistent money and energy--to bring a sibling for Dash into our lives. I don't know. Maybe we can start with a cousin and take it from there.

Friday morning we visited Coyoacan, an arty, historical neighborhood that's held a place in my mind since reading The Lacuna (although I sort of thought it was a small town, not part of Mexico City). Being there was immediately just-right--the blue and yellow and salmon-colored buildings, the red and pink flowers. The market like the old Grand Central Market, with its gorgeous fruit-porn, neon smoothie kiosks, fish, chiles, arte, pinatas.

Mexico loves fruit.
The first restaurant I saw with Frida's name on it, I started crying. More than any other artist, she embodies for me the spirit of "My body may have problems, but it is my tool; I will make you share its fierce beauty and pain. No one gets to look away." Some people make pilgrimages to La Virgen; the artists and lesbians line up against a bright blue wall in the sun to pay our respects to Frida.

Frida loves fruit. Fruits love Frida.
AK played with Dash in the courtyard (he loved throwing coins in the agua) while I visited a temporary exhibition of Frida's clothes and all the plaster casts she decorated; even a prosthetic leg with a gorgeous red flowered boot. For lack of a better word, it was kind of triggery, taking me to a time when I didn't have the luxury of forgetting about my body and had to convince myself that losing parts of it was cool if I could figure out how to own it. All those hours I spent perusing alternative nipple tattoos. I cried and felt grateful and wanted to throw up all at once.

That night Molly and Laura and I went to Lucha Libre, which was pretty great. Afterward, I told AK (who stayed behind because we had some logistical confusion and because Dash has bedtime separation anxiety), "They say it's a sport, but it's actually acrobatics and theater."

AK said, "So what you're saying is 'but it's actually good.'"

I think Molly was mildly worried I'd be offended by all the eye-candy girls in fishnets and pseudo-violence, so she did a lot of contextualizing. But the whole thing is amazing, even ideologically. It's this mix of improv and choreography, stereotype and complexity, masculinity and homoeroticism. One of the "good guy" teams consists of two beefcakes who do hip circles after pinning a dude, and a guy in a little tutu who literally minces between (badass) moves. To me, that's three or four degress removed from mocking homosexuality. It's more like finding a way to embrace it.

Maximo Sexy.
Saturday we paid a guy named Dante to drive us to the church where La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego, and then to the pyramids. Seeing La Virgen--the painting with the blue and gold rays emanating from her--is a little like seeing Frida imagery. She's in a million hipster boutiques and on the side of the closed-down convenience store across the street from our house, but this is the real thing. It's hard to wrap your head around. But two of the three churches on the site were beautiful (the third was built in 1972 so...not so much). These ornate, listing, brick-and-concrete homages to faith and colonialism.

I was wearing shorts, semi-inappropriately, but the space was full of little kids in frilly dresses and tiny white suits. We saw a couple of people making pilgrimages on their knees. Families of poor Indios with skinny kids who seemed like they'd come a long way.

Dash pointed and said "house."
CDMX traffic being what it is, we had a lot of car time with Dante. All of us improved our Spanglish. We learned about his four kids and his parenting philosophies; he asked about adoption and our parenting differences, and teased AK about her bad Spanish (the consensus seems to be that I have a few more words, but she has more confidence and a better accent).

By the time we got to Teotihuacan, we were both exhausted from trying to carry on a conversation with a stranger in a language we didn't really speak. I'd been letting AK do the heavy lifting on that front. She was intimidated by all the shallow-but-steep stairs, but I was seized by a sudden desire to do something impressive. I've spent so much time lately feeling mediocre at everything--work, writing, parenting, marriage. I wanted to do something great in the simplest way. So with Dash strapped to my chest, I powered up all those stone stairs. And my knees were jelly and I cried; I think my body just remembered what it was like to actually push myself to do something other than stay awake. In other words, I finally worked out hard enough that some endorphins got released.

Dusty but happy.
We ate fish and lamb and drank tequila with Dante while Dash got drunk on mango juice and befriended some hairless dogs.

Dante and Dash.
Sunday we hit Chapultapec Park with Molly and Laura and their kids in the morning. It's a beautiful space--the center of CDMX seems like a gorgeous maze of parks. There was a long walkway of fountains--a kind of stream divided into like twenty connected rectangles--and the kids went nuts making their way upstream.

Babies on parade.
Then AK, Dash and I walked to the Museo Antropologia, which has to be one of the most beautifully designed museums I've ever visited. In the courtyard, there's a big column with water pouring onto the ground, looking out at a sliver of cityscape horizon, like an urban rain forest. Dash adored the fish pond. Pointed to a big fish and said "orange." Insisted the fish go into a "tunnel" (new obsession since riding around the city sans car seat, which is more fun that I'd like to admit).

I understand the significance of ancient artifacts, but a lot of times they don't speak to me. It's like, yep, there's a carving. But behind each exhibit, the doors opened onto an outdoor space where you could climb on replicas of pyramids or wooden houses. It was jungley and kid-friendly, and it felt more like inhabiting an ancient world than learning about one.

Our docent had a short attention span.
We ended our week in Xochimilco, a neighborhood of canals where you can charter a boat. You become a captive audience for people to sidle up on smaller boats and sell you things: mariachi and marimba songs (which Dash decided were too loud), jewelry, food, pulque, flower tiaras, plants, dolls. It was a little overwhelming, but I had a good quesadilla and AK bought me a silver and coral ring for my birthday.

I'm forty now. That's a whole other post.