Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Here Comes the Rain Again"

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Wishing My Memories Could Rest in Peace

November 3, 1982: My first cousin Yanai and I are sitting on the back porch of the home where I grew up and where my mom still lives. He's distracting me from the events of the day by talking about a favorite book of his, *The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy* and about his interest in Space, as in "the final frontier".

What do people talk about at a shivah call with a 17-year-old whose father's the reason for the shivah? What do they talk about if they are among Georgetown's undergrads and on the proudly nerdy end of the late-adolescent spectrum?

There's a famous -- famous, among our family -- photo of Yanai and me in a bathtub with Mr. Bubble when we were two and four years old. And that was practically the last time I saw Yanai, till the shivah call in memory of my dad (z"l) 15 years later.

We didn't grow up together like first cousins sometimes do. And I didn't get to know his younger sister Sarit (Sari) till she was 22 and I was 27, when she called me one summer out of the blue: I was living in Chicago and her college boyfriend had moved there to attend U. of C. for grad school, so why not meet for dinner, the three of us?

It turned out to be a fun, sweet evening and I felt wistful that we hadn't spent more time together growing up. And then we did stay in touch and she met Pat, and we were invited to her wedding, and Facebook has served as a continual bridge to many of my cousins, including Yanai, Gail, Sari and her husband Barry.

Regret that I Didn't Get to Know Gail, or My Dad, Better

October 26, 2013: Nearly 31 years since that shivah call, it's my turn to pay a shivah call to Yanai; Yanai's dear wife Gail is gone due to cancer, as of yesterday.

My dad was 56 and Gail was 49. I was 17 and her kids are probably 14 and 16. Happily, we were at the kids' Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah, where we loved seeing Gail dancing and looking vigorous. Unfortunately, I didn't get to know Gail other than at such simchot or at funerals. I'm melancholy, seeing her Facebook wall now, and that she loved some of the same cultural things that I loved, including the book *A Separate Peace*, the movie *Airplane*, and the musician Melissa Etheridge.

We never learned what we had in common, really, other than the Siegel family. We never had a conversation other than about family, or about a bit of her high-tech work -- and she sounded talented at it -- but I'd rather have found out why she loved *A Separate Peace*.

What would my dad have put on his Facebook wall if Facebook had been around in 1982? Perhaps that he loved P.G. Wodehouse (particularly as a kid, my mom told me), George Booth, the "New Yorker" cartoonist, Georg Jensen, the Danish designer, and Letraset.

I don't even recall the music he liked, other than chamber music and Jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, and that he tolerated a couple of pop songs, "Moonlight Feels Right" because it mentioned Chesapeake Bay and my dad grew up in D.C., and "Sir Duke" by Stevie Wonder, which I adored; it was the only 45 he ever bought me.

On his Facebook wall, my dad might have Liked Max Schulman's books and "Popular Mechanics". And maybe the movie "Diner", which amused him; it was the last film my mom and I ever saw with him. And perhaps Breyers Rocky Road ice cream, though by now, he'd have discovered the many new brands and flavors. And if there were Facebook groups for paisley tie lovers or Carhartt overalls fans, he might have joined them. And he'd have specified that he was married to Edythe Siegel for 58 years, if he were still alive, rather than the 27 years they actually had due to cancer.... I'm pretty sure that Yanai and Gail had fewer than 20 years together.

How did we get from bubble-bath splashing to shivah chats too soon? From weddings and baby-births to Bat and Bar Mitzvot, to more shivah chats again too soon?

Parent Loss

While I'm confident that my mom can relate to Yanai's tragedy directly, I can't at this point, thank God, since Pat & I are both still alive and well k'ayn eyin harah. Instead, Yanai and Gail's kids keep coming to mind because like me, they've lost a parent in their teens.

Everyone grieves differently, but if they feel anything like I did, then it's practically more stress than anyone should have to bear: I was stricken at losing my dad while at the same time, experiencing the first ultimate assessment of my academic talent while yearning for love and romantic attention from my peers in parallel.

It was practically too much to handle. I'd work on my college applications in the hospital waiting room and then walk along the streets of Spanish Harlem, where the hospital was, wishing irrationally that I could get pregnant and have a baby to replace my dying father.

What do Yanai and Gail's kids feel along with their pure grief at losing their beloved mother? And how will they cope with their feelings? I spent nearly a decade coping mostly through junkfood and romantic fantasy accompanied by mostly disappointing reality. I want to say: "And then I got over it," but that's not at all true; I did give up the junkfood and the self-and-other-disrespecting romantic pursuits, but feel no less grief about my gone father than I did when he died.

Spouse Loss

This is territory I've not yet traveled, thank God, but my poor bubble-splashing cousin Yanai now has done so. How will he cope?

How would I cope? Would I go back to junkfood? Would I channel my grief through blogging? Would my remaining family comfort me? Would I find a great grief group or therapist? Would my synagogue community be a source of comfort? Would I swim more? How would I stay strong for my kids (in my case, two feline daughters)? What would I do to survive?

Please, God, help Yanai, Gail's and his kids, and the rest of their families to find life-affirming comfort. And help me not to be self-absorbed when I see them on Monday for the funeral and shivah; help me be usefully, compassionately present.... I guess this is what family is about -- the longevity to splash together in bubble baths, meet for dinner-fun, dance with one another at Bar/Bat Mitzvot celebrations and weddings, and comfort one another at shivot.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Unconventional, 70's & '80s, Pre-Teen/Teenage Dreams

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

And a Relatively Conventional Adulthood By Today's Standards

The year my dad (z"l) died, I distracted myself with letters from a young woman I wished would be my girlfriend, if only I hadn't also been yearning for a boyfriend in parallel -- to make society and my family happy -- and if only she were actually attracted to girls.

I'd run to the mailbox at the end of our long gravel driveway, even when it was snowing, hoping for a thick envelope filled with her lively handwriting and type-written poems. The poems were never about me, but I was encouraged that she said she thought of me every time she heard, "Always Something There to Remind Me" by Naked Eyes. I was 17. It was 1982.

During the eight weeks I lived with my cousins in Israel, I experienced my first bit of romantic experimentation with another girl. She introduced me to Brazilian music, helped me with my Hebrew and indulged me in my Disco rollerskating phase (which has never left me), facing speakers out her home's windows when her parents weren't there as George Benson insisted, nearly persuasively, "Give Me the Night" while I skate-danced in the village-street. Upon my return, I wrote her letters. Over and over. She never wrote back. I was 15. It was 1980.

Throughout the summer that I spent hanging out nearly daily at the beach in Stamford, Connecticut with my beautiful best friend, I felt so much less cool than she, especially whenever she wore her Yes rock band T-shirts. Once, I saw her gorgeous older brother sitting -- tan, broad-swimmer-chested and shirtless -- in the kitchen while his mom cut his gorgeous curly hair just a little shorter. The 7-Up he drank effervesced off his teeth as he smiled at me conceitedly.

Earlier that same day, his sister wrecked our friendship when she asked me to rub sun-tan oil onto her already golden back as she lay on a beach-chair in a white bikini, years beyond me in her physical development, except for our heights; relatively, I was a flat-chested giant. Unbeknownst to her, the tanning-oil request made my pulse beat in my ears -- made me undeniably conscious of my attraction to her, to girls. I was 11. It was 1976.

I could keep going, back to Mrs. Honan in 2nd Grade, in 1972, but you get the idea.

If only my best friend at 11 had had similar feelings, or the Israeli girl at 15, or my high school quasi-girlfriend at 17. If only it didn't feel like it had to be a desperate secret each time. If only my family and friends could have known explicitly and been supportive. If only I hadn't felt that I needed to put up a prissy, nerdy, aloof front to try to hide my emerging lesbianism.

By now, at 48, I've loosened up and have been out everywhere for the past 27 years. And my family, friends and colleagues have risen to my occasion. My wife Pat and I've also lived in a number of countries and several cities, but Stamford and Montclair, New Jersey hold the record for my long-time residence. As of this September I've lived in Montclair for longer than I lived in Stamford -- for more than 17 years. On the eve of New Jersey enabling same-sex couples to become legally married, I'm feeling relieved that my married life is finally legal in both my native and adopted home states, as well as recognized federally across the United States and also in countries where same-sex marriage is legal.

This post didn't go on to catalog my trials in college till I came out explicitly my senior year -- I've done that in other posts -- but as I consider our country's progress around same-sex marriage, I'm also reminded of our country's current college generation:

By contrast to how it still was when I was in college from 1983-87, our 20-year-old niece moved off campus this year at SUNY New Paltz, and during our second visit, Zoe mentioned that two of her four housemates are lesbian. "How cool that you have lesbian housemates!"

"On this campus, you wouldn't be cool if you excluded them," she said, and I smiled to myself; I guess that people like Pat & I really are becoming more de rigueur. Glad I've lived long enough to see these promising times. And I'm also happy that as secret and scary and disorienting as my pre-teen and teenage years were -- I know, everyone's are, no matter his or her sexual orientation, but -- all's well that's ending well.

Yet even as I feel celebratory about the improving times for lesbian and gay Americans, a piece of me will always feel sad when I think of the energy-sapping shame I felt during the times 30 and 40 years ago -- and still feel when I recall them -- when I felt love and desire for another human being and needed to try to hide my feelings. Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes", so popular when I was in high school, felt like it was written for and about me, and I still cringe whenever I hear it.

For me, the best way to transform the leftover shame is to help a new generation avoid it: I'm so pleased to be allotting my United Way contribution to HMI Newark, so that today's lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex and questioning youth in metro-Newark at least might be less likely to need to wait 30-40 years to be able to blog openly about societal progress. And here's another reason why plowing through the shame and being visible has been important to more than just my own peace of mind: I learned about HMI Newark from a heterosexual Montclair friend, Tray Davis; Tray and his family are key sponsors of the program. If I weren't open about my life, I wouldn't be able to have such a great friend. Instead, I'd still be stuck in prissy, nerdy aloofness, and that was no way to live.