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When it feels authentic you love it forever…
Every other boy had a childhood – or so it seemed to me – where they were coaxed, coached, taught, and polished. Yet their ultimate representation of all-American male youth seemed to evolve so naturally, so organically. Their strengths and traits were layered into a glimmering image of shining boyhood. From the outside looking in, they seemed to be both strong and filled with free will. They seemed completely ready and eager to make that much-talked about leap from adolescence to manhood. But listening to these other boys talking among themselves didn’t empower me to feel the same. Instead, it pushed me farther into my shell of invisibility. If only I could dribble a ball like the other boys. If only I could swagger and shout like them. If only….
My little brother Timmy was what they used to call “all-boy” – an expression that signaled the highest badge of masculinity one could bestow on a properly rough and tumble youth. I thought if only I could be like Timmy, then my Father might love me. Then perhaps I too could be the perfect boy. I could be called ‘all-boy’ too. But as desperate as I was to be that perfect boy, I’d soon discover the things that interested me would find their way onto my father’s list of ‘Real Men Don’t.’
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“You know something, Pinks? A lot of people can’t walk… they knit something. I’d be a lousy knitter. But I could try.”
“Oh, Sebastian, what a lovely summer it’s been. Just the two of us. Sebastian and Violet. Violet and Sebastian.”
“But you are, Blanche, you are in that chair.”
“Buckle your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
“What a dump!”
The voices of my idols – heroines, every one. Not heroes, not icons of masculine indifference or action, but women of strength and conflict and emotion. What was it about these snippets of dialogue that became constant quotations running in my mind? What manner of speech, what feelings expressed would cement these voices in my favorite Hollywood movies? It was as though a Pandora’s Box had been flung open in my very own living room and in my very own pre-adolescent soul.
A parade of dazzling images and voices came dancing out of my television set, filling my mind and imagination. Perhaps it was Elizabeth Taylor batting those violet eyes at the threat of an impending lobotomy.
Or Lucille Ball, wrapped in glittering netting, desperate for Henry Fonda to lift her out of a wheel chair for a ‘Last Dance’ in The Big Street. Maybe it was Marlene Dietrich wearing a blond Afro crooning “Hot Voodoo” in Blonde Venus. Or Anne Francis walking aimlessly though a department store in search of self-discovery in my favorite Twilight Zone episode. Perhaps it was Joan Crawford, the inimitable Crystal Allen, a social-climbing shop girl clawing her way to the top in The Women. I connected to these images, and watching them over and over, I imagined that my peers connected to watching sports figures in much the same way. And in listening to those voices saying those unforgettable and divine lines, I could somehow hear traces of my own, still silenced, voice.
‘Back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels.’
It startled me the first time I heard it. In a flash of premonition, I would whisper that quotation to myself over and over, realizing even the first time that I heard it, that it would become my personal favorite. There was a calm that only existed when it was just mom and I staying up to watch the late scary movie. It was our shared Friday night ritual. During commercial breaks we’d make a kitchen raid. Mom’s delicacies ran the gamut from ice crème smothered in Hershey chocolate or butterscotch syrup to the last two slices of her coconut crème pie made from scratch. And if we were feeling extra deviant and rule breaking, she’d pull out a couple of hidden Payday candy bars for good measure. Every ceremony has an opening, and ours would start with mom removing all bobby pens from her hair. In later years I’d lovingly refer to this as her undoing her old lady church hair. This experience would be bittersweet, as I knew come morning she’d leave for her weekly shampoo-n- set at the salon. Leaving me alone with my Father. But for now, as I stood behind mom running the brush through her hair, I didn’t want to think about tomorrow. Being present in this moment was important. Whenever it was just the two of us, I didn’t have to pretend. I didn’t have to be invisible. And with each brush stroke watching my mothers beautiful red hair lose its lacquered, teased, and perfected form and fall softly across her shoulders, I would wonder. I wondered if she too sometimes felt the need to be something other than what was expected. There seemed to be gilded cages everywhere.
Peeking over mom’s shoulder watching the opening shot of Melanie Daniels, crossing the street and pausing to look over her shoulder, we shared our first shot of The Birds. I must have been around twelve and certainly no idea that this was to become my favorite movie. For lots of reasons….
As the years passed I learned about the cultish admiration for Tippi Hedren. That there was a camp sensibility that somehow preceded awareness of our orientation. I also learned about director Hitchcock’s obsession with his leading ladies, notably almost always icy-cold blondes. I found out that he allegedly exhibited abusive behavior toward this particular leading lady – or, at least, Tippi’s version of events.
Added into this heady mix was iconic designer Edith Head, who, taking inspiration from Chanel, created the unforgettable green suit. The image of Melanie Daniels sitting in her city fashioned suit, smoking a cigarette outside the school, while a host of birds gather behind her in the playground is one of those timeless cinematic moments.
Before the ‘real’ bird attacks begin, you soon realize there’s another kind of female flock surrounding middleman Mitch Brenner, all demanding of him. A mother, fearful of abandonment; his sister, so much younger she seems more like his daughter; a former girlfriend, so lonely she stays in Bodega Bay simply to be near Mitch. And then Melanie, who you discover before the film is over has always felt caged by her spoiled rich girl ways. What is it about a movie filled with characters so deluded and self-absorbed they deny the chaos and horror unfolding around them?
‘Back in your gilded caged Melanie Daniels!’
Keeping secrets came naturally to me. I’d listen to other boy talking sports with shared nods while looking at the latest Sports Illustrated. At times I’d catch one of those boys watching me. Perhaps he’d seen something in me? Something I didn’t want him to see? Something different? My father had repeated countless times that ‘I’d never be happy being me.” That everything about me made others sick. The boys sitting in front of me held themselves with such ease. There they would sit, knee to knee, sharing their camaraderie like a shiny badge of honor. There was no place there for boys like me. I didn’t dare tell anyone of my own buried excitement. That I’d be rushing home after school to plant myself in front of the television to watch the day’s afternoon feature “Cat People” with the mysterious French actress Simone Simon. Until then I’d make myself invisible.
“You can fool everybody, but laudie dearie me, you can’t fool a cat. They seem to know who’s not right.”
Recently I had the thrill of meeting and having a conversation with THE Robert Osborne of Turner Movie Classics. Dazzling, elegant, handsome and passionate about classic movies as you imagine only he would be. His vast knowledge and all-encompassing interest and sheer love of the movies are like (to use a cliché) a trip over the rainbow. We managed to cover everyone from Shirley Booth to Charles Laughton to my personal favorite, Vincent Price. Completely thrilling for me. Near the end of our conversation, Mr. Osborne asked out of all the classic movies I loved what could I name as my favorite. Feeling the color rise in my cheeks, I suddenly found myself becoming that twelve year-old boy again. Only now that boy no longer had to be invisible. I caught that little boy smiling with his answer. Hearing my answer of The Birds, Robert Osborne thoughtfully paused with a half smile and said gently, “Well, it wasn’t Hitchcock’s finest.” Shaking his hand I admitted with a laugh that “Perhaps you had to be there, in my moment.” He smiled and laughed too. Turning to walk away, I wondered if they still made Payday candy bars? I’d like one on the way home.
With sadness I’ve just learned about the passing of Peter Strongwater.
Peter was an acclaimed portrait and fashion photographer, including a highly regarded stint as a cover photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine in the seventies and eighties. Among his iconic subjects were Sir Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Diana Ross.
About a year ago, remembering a beautiful portrait Peter took of Cher in 1982 I managed to track him down and he invited me to his studio. The same studio he worked out of all those years with Warhol and Interview Magazine. Pulling his proof sheets for me to look over he shared amazing stories of Warhol, Way Bandy, Diana Vreeland and many of his iconic subjects. He talked about photography back in that moment of time. This session with Cher had been styled by Andre Leon Talley and makeup by Way Bandy. It was one of those thrilling, only could happen in NYC moments. He was a sweet, unassuming man who seemed happy to share that history with me.
A week later, picking up my print of Cher, he held her proudly and gave me a wink while declaring “You won’t be seeing this anywhere else.”
Peter Strongwater was talented, lovely and generous with his time and stories. I’m proud to own his work. He will not be forgotten.
“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”
Broken shards of an old terra cotta pot lying on the stone path…
A shattered antique porcelain cup…
A rice paper, tattered and torn…
A blue birds egg, fallen from a nest, now underfoot…
Fragrant rose petals fluttering to the ground at the hottest part of the day…
A crystal chandelier, crashing to the cold marble floor;
I feel so fragile…
Beautiful and poignant words from a childhood friend.
When it’s authentic you love forever…
Her world was a world of yeast rolls, bubbling cobblers fresh from the oven, or if the mood struck, perhaps a lemon pie with mile high meringue. In what seemed like a never-ending quest of keeping order, I’d watch Mom reach into her shiny chrome tins, filled with the flour and sugar essential for her daily baking. Always displayed in straight line on the kitchen counter, they gleamed in the morning sunlight and reminded me of trophies. The smell was intoxicating and seemed to provide a sense of calm and safety. That was a feeling that wasn’t always present in this house. Watching her move quietly but with great focus, I felt that in just that moment perhaps everything might be all right.
Mom kept our kitchen floor mopped to a shine so bright that if you looked you might see your own reflection. There were the deep cleaning days (rotated with what Mom called ‘light’ maintenance days) and as I’d watch Mom stop for a second to look out our kitchen window, she seemed suspicious of country life. She looked as though she thought it might somehow seep inside. She disliked the dirt and grime – in particular, the dust from our rock driveway that would blow inside if you kept the door open too long. Even the Sabbath wasn’t exempt in a way – a day which was referred to without question as a day for rest. That day seemed reserved for a different kind of cleansing ritual.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there was my ‘other’ grandmother Zelda. She had little to no interest in baking or cleaning. There were stacks of books and papers everywhere, and she served frozen box pie for dessert. I’m not exactly sure about her religious background, though the mere idea of not being sure says something. The other women her age I knew were mostly from church. They wore their hair teased, sprayed, and without a hint of makeup. In sharp contrast, she wore her hair very short. And I can remember on windy day’s her hair moving softly while she smiled seemingly unaware. When she dressed up, she wore pearls and a healthy dash of bright red lipstick. In her black leather handbag was a supply of clove chewing gum – exotically far from the ordinary juicy-fruit everyone else chewed.
Zelda was articulate, and chose her words with care rather than just talking. Even at my young age, I recognized this as being ‘different’ than everyone I’d become accustomed to. With a soft voice and a quiet laugh she’d glide through a roomful of conversation. She and my father would sit together in the living room for what seemed like hours, having what they called ‘political debates’. Sometimes I’d slip down the hall and listen, not that I understood such big words used with such force, though they never raised their voices.
Sometimes Zelda would take me to her office that was just on the other side of the bridge going into downtown Winslow. At her desk sat a typewriter with the name “Underwood” in gold letters, letting me know this was a serious piece of machinery. She told me when she was writing a story she’d use special linen paper. As she hit the keys – very fast and loud – she would become suddenly lost in her thoughts: as though she were building something. She wrote a short story whose main character was a boy named Eddie. It made me feel special and sort of famous. And she also wrote a story for my brother called Timmy and the Red Wagon.
Zelda recognized my passion for expressing myself through watercolors and chalk. She didn’t just celebrate my efforts, but encouraged me in a special way by calling me artistic. While everyone else talked about how tall I was for my age and how I was going to certainly be a basketball player like my uncle Larry, this ‘other’ grandmother compared me to her brother, my Great Uncle Floyd. He was a landscape painter. She took me to his house and I can remember the room he called his studio/workroom was filled with bushes and paints. Zelda beamed with pride while Uncle Floyd shared all his beautiful paintings with me. They were elegantly displayed throughout his house. Uncle Floyd was soft spoken, just like Zelda, and they also shared a love of dogs. I’d never seen a dog that lived inside the house before – dogs were outside animals. Imagine my shock when this big yellow lab took a deep drink out of Uncle Floyd’s toilet. Boy, would mom ever have a fit about that. When that dog shook water all over the floor, all I could think of was Mom running to get her mop.
Zelda bought me countless illustration workbooks, paints, colored pens, and pencils. She would sit with me outside at the old wooden picnic table and watch me as I sketched and blended colors on my giant sketchpad. I’d become obsessed trying to perfect the drawing of hands and eyes. When eyes can be soulful. When eyes can be sad. When hands can add feeling and mood. You learn so much about a subject from their hands. Zelda sat very quietly, and when I’d look up at her she seemed absorbed in deep concentration, watching what was taking shape on my sketchpad. That felt good and made me smile.
My ‘other’ grandparents retired to Florida when I was still a boy. That seemed like such a far away and exotic place when compared to life on Pike Forest Road. Thus, our once a year trip to visit our ‘other’ grandparents became a somewhat celebrated event. Taking a road trip with my father wasn’t easy. His rigid and uncompromising outlook and list of rules reached high pitch on our ‘family’ vacations. I had perfected the art of invisibility at home and knew how to stay hidden away in my room. But the car’s backseat provided little space to hide away. And though I’d sit as quietly as possible, I’d sometimes find his disapproving eyes locked on me in his rear view mirror. Had I been breathing too loudly? He often told me my breathing made him sick so I tried to slow it down. Inside my head I kept repeating Quiet… Calm… Disappear… There were no stops for adventure on route to Florida. My father wanted to just get there. Bathroom breaks were only allowed when stopping to gas up the car. When Mom and I would return from the bathroom, he was already sitting anxiously behind the wheel. He had this huge map that was bound tightly, and resembled some ancient book of knowledge. It exuded machismo and masculine authority. He studied that map with great intensity and everything about it seemed so forbidding. My father always called me stupid, and it made me frightened to even glance at the map. When he was finished he turned and sat the map on the seat next to me. I pushed myself further into the door of the car, attempting to create more distance between myself and my father’s map. The voices of my parents conversing became distant from my own voice inside my head. I’m broken, I thought, what’s wrong with me?
While most kids cheered when they pulled into the little red and white stand with the huge ‘Golden Arches’ all I could feel was panic rise. McDonalds smothered their burgers with mustard, ketchup, and pickles. A special order plain burger would have required waiting time that would enrage my father – so I would watch as my mom would work diligently to wipe and switch out hamburger buns. But even with all her effort, I could still taste the faint reminder of those dreaded condiments. I chewed fast and swallowed quickly praying I wouldn’t gag. The ‘Golden Arches’ came to represent the sick feeling that remained long after I’d finished that hamburger.
Looking out the car window I’d start seeing the huge Stuckey’s signs along the highway. Only 30 miles till Stuckey’s, they proclaimed. Unsure exactly what a Stuckey’s was, I knew better than to ask. The billboard boasted of their famous pecan rolls and maple pralines. In my mind it seemed like a magical place from the Land of Oz. Passing by it I promised myself someday, someday without my father, I’d walk into one. It would begin to get dark. Darkness provided a blanket of security. It’s easier to hide in the dark. My final thought before slipping into sleep would be a self- reminder: Eddie, when you wake up in the early morning, start looking for the first moss-hanging tree. It would mean we were almost at my ‘other’ grandmother’s house.
I can recall Zelda coming out her front door to greet us as our car pulled up. With an endless supply of kisses and long hugs I was reassured that the long trip had been worth it. Wanting to make sure we had quality time alone together, Zelda had scouted out the newest art stores and off we’d go. She took me to ‘Weeki Wachee’ Underwater Follies. An exotic fantasyland of beautiful mermaids surrounded by bubbles and seahorses, their hair waving in the current like glittering seaweed. For a young boy with a vivid imagination this underwater portrait played out in a dreamlike, otherworldly fashion leaving me breathless. A half dozen mermaids twirling, walking tightropes, eating, drinking, and performing great ballet were suspended in this beautiful, clear, underwater spring. Afterwards in the gift shop, beautiful mermaid figures covered in glitter sat displayed. Oh, how beautiful one would look on my bedroom shelf, I thought. But when my grandmother asked if I’d like one ,I knew I must decline. My father would be outraged.
As the years passed my other grandmother’s encouragement never wavered. How excited I would be when I’d pull out a package addressed to me in her pen from our mailbox. Breathless, I’d race up that long dusty rock driveway to my bedroom. Carefully opening the brown paper wrapping whose return address was faraway Tampa, Florida. Her gifts were always personal encouragements. Art supplies when I was younger and beautiful stationary with pen and ink sets when I was older. The last package I would receive from my grandmother came in spring of 1974. My parents’ marriage was slowly edging to a close and my father had begun to make that long trip to Florida alone. Though I deeply missed seeing my grandmother, there was great relief in not having to endure those ‘trips’ trapped in the car with my father.
It was with complete surprise when I saw her name – Zelda Casson – on that brown paper wrapper marked ‘fragile do not bend’. I unwrapped it to find Cher’s latest album, Dark Lady. On that beautiful cover shot by Richard Avedon, Cher is holding a black cat in the outstretched palms of her hands. I smiled, knowing that at that moment in time, Cher seemed every bit as exotic and magical to me as the glittering mermaids had to that little boy. My ‘other’ grandmother got me. She saw me and understood.
The next time I saw Zelda much had changed. Knowledge about Alzheimer’s in those days was limited at best. I thought I would have lots of time to tell her how much she influenced me and how important her encouragement had been. I’m sorry I didn’t have that opportunity. My memories of her have endured throughout my life. The fact that we saw each other infrequently didn’t diminish her positive impact. As I become older, I understand how precious those memories really are. I miss and honor her to this day. And when I close my eyes and think of her, I hear that typewriter clacking in the distance, and see her lovely open smile on the face of mermaids.
Growing up next to Pike State Forest I recall the summers setting out with my brother, sister and brown paper bagged lunches. Always an adventure wondering where a new path would take us.
Because he who seeks beauty will find it… Always
Nobody can tell ya
There’s only one song worth singing
They may try and sell ya
Cause it hangs them up
To see someone like you…
– Mama Cass Elliott
I know what you are and you’ll never be happy being you.
If gays are granted rights, then we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes next, and then to foreigners, and to people who sleep with St. Bernard’s.
AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.
Gay? It’s anything but gay. It’s a tragedy and a very sad and lonely life. It’s deviant and against God and nature. It’s a part of Satan. Being a homosexual and living that life is anything but gay.
The first time I heard it all was from my father. I was very young. He told me if I continued down this ‘path’ my life would be miserable and unhappy. I would never belong anywhere. He said he’d known ‘guys like me’ in the military, and that my life would be filled with shame. He slapped me across my face and ear, leaving me crying and confused. I didn’t really understand. All I understood was that to be me was wrong and that being me, I was doomed to unhappiness.
Wanting to please I listened to the other boys at school and tried to mimic their interests. Sports, hunting, cars. But those things didn’t grab me. Pretending to be interested in them left me unhappy, and guiltily aware that I was faking. Singing, drawing, reading Vogue Magazine. That made me happy. That felt real, felt authentic.
Authentic. At the time, I only had a glimmering sense of what that meant and how transformative it is to be authentic and true to yourself. In high school, I finally realized that pleasing my father would be impossible. I realized that trying to live your life pleasing others doesn’t bring happiness. But I kept trying anyway.
And in a terrible cosmic boomerang, pretending only ended up hurting many people who didn’t deserve it. People I cared about. In trying to please them, I only ended up building walls as shaky as Jericho’s. I was hurting myself and hurting people I loved. And soon enough, those hollowed-out walls of lies began crumbling down.
Coming out was difficult. So difficult. But so necessary. The truth of who I really was.
I had all the textbook fears. I was terrified that my family and friends would no longer love me. And when you come out, there is nearly always someone you find you have to leave behind. Someone who is hurt by truth, someone who feels betrayed. Someone you care for who can’t handle it. There isn’t anything more horrible than hurting someone who’s done nothing but love you.
By the time I connected the dots and realized that I was gay, all the voices of despair, bondage, and the dreaded unhappiness came at me full force. I heard my father’s voice condemning me and ‘my kind’ to loneliness and isolation. I had to steel myself to shut down that voice in my head. Because I knew the real truth. I knew that above everything, I wanted commitment. I wanted to grow old and share my life with one man. I knew that would make me truly happy. And somewhere, I knew, that it was possible. No, more than possible – it was how it should and would be. Love. It belongs to everyone and everyone deserves it. Even me.
Coming out thirty-five years ago…Back then the voices belonged to the Anita Bryants and the Jerry Falwells. Today those voices belong to people like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Everyone has and is entitled to their beliefs. But when those beliefs extend to hate and perpetuate shame, those beliefs must be countered. They must be pushed aside by love and pride and justice. When someone’s message is “I hold the real truth and unless you follow it, you will be unhappy, you will be ostracized, you will be less than a full human being” then they truly are doing the dark work of hate. If their message is that “unless you are like me, believe as I do, and live as I do, then you will be invisible” then they are nothing but false messengers of a dying past. I refute their shame. I no longer listen to those voices. Their message has no place in my personal world. It has no place in the world – for anyone.
In the BIG picture there is room for us all. There is love for us all. There is happiness, and community, and acceptance, and celebration, and at long last, there is JOY. And if you find it at 15 or 30 or 80 – it is there for you to find. Find your truth. Be authentic. Shout out loud.
As for me? Here I am at 56, crazy in love with my husband with whom I’ve shared my life with for 27 years. I’m not only happy. I’m whole. I’ve got much to celebrate.
You’re never too old to ‘Toss Glitter’.
When it’s authentic you love forever…