January Light

This is one January where a tradition that usually gets on my nerves, I actually welcome. Though I guess it affects our condominium shared maintenance fee for electricity, this year I embrace the shining Christmas and holiday lights and decorations that are past due this month. We can all use a little extra cheer.

In that spirit, as the days get just a little bit longer again, enjoy the enclosed photo of yesterday’s sunrise- a bit of hope on a winter horizon.

Loneliness vs. Stress

Happy New Year.

From my December 28th, 2020 journal:

Walked today with L. from the building (socially distant). She is lonely and said so. Still working at her office, not at home like so many of us- she speaks of her status of going into work as being lower class right now. Because of the chance of spreading the virus?

Her family and friends get together with their bubble, but because she works on site she is excluded. 

I too am alone, going into school but soon to be back at home. Somewhat of a relief- staying safe and not commuting.

In comparison to her, I guess I am handling it better? Or am I supposed to be lonely and am in denial? Sure I am. I feel it. Felt so good to see friends in my own bubble last night. Won’t be that often. 

I guess I’ve developed a routine. Today. Exercise. Breakfast. School work/ writing. Groceries (Today). Lunch, touch base with my partner online.

Other stuff (went through my apt insurance) walk outside 2:15 (where I met L), eating an apple. Came back, settled in with my book (bio of Wendy Wasserstein has me hooked. How did she climb the heights?)  Nap. Now listening to LP of Beethoven, and journaling. 

More than loneliness, I feel the impending pressure of the next two months at school. Getting organized so the chaos will be less.

Where I’m Reading

What am I reading now? On my bedside table is The Recognitions by William Gaddis- currently on page 395 of its 956 pages. I take breaks from it. I don’t work at following its involving art forgery plot; its stream of consciousness flow reminds me of James Joyce, though I have yet to tackle Ulysses. Should Joyce go on my reading list? Or bedside table?

Through the wonderful library app Libby, I am listening to The Symptoms of Being Human By Jeff Garvin. Started mostly to stay current with a reading list we created for grade 9 English, its gender fluid narrator has my attention. I can only listen to it on wifi (no way am I delving into my data plan for literary appreciation). It’s become a go-to activity during household chores. Listening to it sitting or lying down makes me sleepy. I miss out on content.

What else? Bought and downloaded the collection of early stories and poems by a favourite playwright, Lanford Wilson (edited By David A. Crespy). Happy Lanford Wilson Day I try to borrow library books when I can ( I didn’t bother with The Recognitions, since I figured I would be renewing it endlessly to get through 956 pages). The Wilson collection didn’t appear to be available and I am trying to buy fewer tangible books to reduce accumulation around my apartment. (Nonetheless, I gave in to obtain Wilson’s play Serenading Louie, again not as available at the library. I decided to support locally and purchase it through Queen Books, a local bookseller instead of the usual chains, as I did earlier for Wandering Stars. (Wandering Star*)

And I honestly think about what order in which to read- what do I want to read before I die? Is it dramatic or dire to say it? I’m just frank about being selective about how I spend time in my sixties, including words I take in, either on the page or via a small screen or listening device.

I know there are purists who never read more than one book at a time. As my habits indicate, it depends where I am when I’m reading.

Ghostwritten

I devoured David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2012) to see if it improved on the film version (2013). (I am probably one of the few who enjoyed the adaptation, despite what others found wanting, with its cultural casting choices.) The book was even more involving than the movie.

A NY Times podcast review of Mitchell’s latest (Utopia Avenue) sent me to read his first: Ghostwritten (1999).

It has breadth and scope as Cloud Atlas did, and as Mitchell describes the interconnectedness of the chapters, “They topple, like dominoes of cause and effect.”

Enclosed- quotable quotes from Ghostwritten:

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Little girls are like old cats. If they don’t like you nothing on Earth will make them pretend to.

I love Alfred’s record collection. Real, wide, black, plastic records. Thick. My hands love handling them, it’s like meeting an old friend. CDs…Like instant coffee compared to the real stuff.

When I was a kid and every female an unexplored continent, my heart would gasp in the wind and all colours held new truths.

The world runs on strangers coping.

The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.

The Swimming Pool Library

Quotable quotes from Allan Hollinghurst’s first novel (1988). Elegantly written, so frank and sexual, untempered yet by AIDS and all it brought.

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“There is nothing worse than making a bid for someone’s body & getting their soul instead.”

“When one is beyond love, where does pleasure lie? What does one do, seeing the lustful, disrespectful world going about its business [… ]? Was there ever an end to it, this irresistible, normal, subnormal craving for sex? Or did it go tauntingly on?”

“No discipline made me feel more free, or contained me and delighted me within its own element so much as swimming.”

“They had that touching quality which off-duty soldiers so often do have, as if they knew they ought to be up to something but didn’t quite know what it was.”

“… when I thought writing might earn some slight remission of my solitude and pent-up thoughts, I shunned it, mistrusted it like one of those friends to whom one is drawn and drawn again and yet each time comes away cheapened, wasted or over-indulged.”

“Fact of Life”- A gay teacher’s speech

On October 22nd, I gave the following speech at the high school where I’ve taught for 17 years. I don’t consider it a coming out speech; it’s more a “here’s what it’s been like” chronicle.

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I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not to give this speech. I think the times demand it. We are living in a volatile time, a time when the differences between people, whether that difference is skin colour, culture, or sexuality, or religion, or something else, seem to be pulling us further apart, instead of bringing us together- the wrong kind of social distance. I figure anything that can shed light on the differences, and the similarities, between people, is good. So I am going to share my own lived experience of difference.

I call this speech “Fact of Life”. And it’s in four parts.

1. Gary

Gary was someone I worked with in an office, in the 1990’s. One day, Gary dropped by my desk or cubicle, and stared at me. I asked him, “Gary, is there something I can help you with?” He continued to stare, and then he said, “You’re gay!” Now I knew what Gary was doing. He was processing new information. It took Gary about three more days of coming by my desk, and peering at me, and talking to me, before he fully integrated it. He realized that the information was not bad or good; it was just information. A fact. Nothing more, nothing less. And for the time that I worked at the company, Gary and I got along great.

2. Apple 

How many of you have a Mac computer? Or watch Apple TV? Or have an iphone? So do I. How many know the name of Apple’s chief executive officer? Tim Cook. How many know Tim Cook is gay? Tim Cook, the CEO of one of the most successful companies in the world came out as homosexual in 2014. In a carefully worded editorial, he explained why he had left it unsaid for so long, and why he had decided to mention it now. He knew the impact of being out, given his celebrity and status, especially for young people who are being bullied. In the article, he talked about his pride in being gay.

I’m not. I’m not proud of being gay, any more than I am proud of having elbows or shoulders. It just is. And like Tim Cook, I am proud of the person I have become because of it. I have grown up an outsider- outside the norm. That perspective, though difficult, has afforded me two important points of view. Firstly, I have almost immediate empathy for other outsiders, no matter what their particular identity. Secondly, I try not to take anything for granted. It has made me a better listener, and observer of life. I might have come to those perspectives without being gay, but I know for certain that it has significantly shaped my views, and for all of it, I am grateful and proud.

Now, I am going to say something every young person knows, and no adult likes to be reminded about: every adult is a role model for every young person, in everything we say, in everything we do, and in everything we don’t say, and everything we don’t do. I think I know what kind of role model I have been, and I think I know the kind I would like to become. 

3. Funny Boy  

For grade 9s and new students, Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai is the Grade 10 English text, featuring a gay protagonist. When I have taught the book, I have never directly referenced my own experience. I remember one class last year where we had finished about three quarters of the story, and the class wanted to know if by this point, the main character, Arjun, knew and accepted that he was gay. After all, by this point, he had a sort of boyfriend. I gave a rather generalized response that it wasn’t definite, because Arjun’s family didn’t know and his culture did not affirm it. It just wasn’t that simple.

Not that simple? That is putting it mildly. If I were to reference my own experience, I would say this. Growing up this way, I figure I was formed by two factors. One is the sexuality itself, that’s a given. I think an even stronger factor that formed me was the silence around the subject. The silence of others, and the silence of myself. And no one told me- no one could have told me-  how much I would have to manage and navigate that silence, for the rest of my life. That is something Mr. Selvadurai got exactly right in his novel. And Grade 10s- It is one thing for you to read about it in a book; it is quite another to have that experience confirmed and validated by the person standing right in front of you.

4.  Pronouns

You probably think I mean gender pronouns. But I don’t. I mean pronouns of number: singular vs. plural.

When students would ask me what I did on the weekend, or over  the summer, or at Christmas or holiday time, I would answer that I saw a movie, or spent time at the family cottage, or travelled to New York to see a Broadway play.

That is only partIy true. I did all those things, but not alone. We did. My partner and I. We went to the movies, we went to the cottage, and we went to Brooklyn where his family lives, and we’d go uptown to see a show. I have been with my partner longer than I have worked at this school, and I have worked at this school since 2003. Yet every day I have worked here, I have consciously switched my pronouns from “We” to “I” in order to deflect attention from my relationship. 

Now I’ve struggled with this a lot. I’ve received every kind of advice- all of it well meaning. One kind goes like this: You want to talk about your personal life in the classroom? Go ahead. I talk about mine all the time; why shouldn’t you? I have also received the exact opposite advice. Talk about your personal life? In the classroom? I would never talk about my personal life in the classroom, it’s private, it’s personal, it’s nobody’s business.

Well. It’s one thing to not talk about your personal life out of a sense of privacy; it’s quite another to not talk about it out of fear. I’m still afraid. But I won’t be switching my pronouns any longer.

To finish up, some of you might be thinking: why mention this topic at all? Because the topic needs to be mentioned until it doesn’t need to be mentioned anymore. Until the stigma ends, and the topic becomes redundant and unnecessary. We’re not there yet. Until that day arrives, we need more communication about difference, not less.

So. Over the next hours and days, there might be discomfort around this, but I doubt it. I guarantee you, the person who will be most uncomfortable is me. But it will pass. Just like it did for my friend Gary, it will become old news, and get replaced by “The Next Big Thing”.

And all of this will recede to become what it always was to begin with: just a fact. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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Quote of the day: 

“I don’t want to go into the question of whether [he] was homosexual or not, because the definition is of no use to me…. He is not a puzzle so arbitrarily solved.”

  • Alice Munro (from “The Turkey Season” The Moons of Jupiter 1982)

…. And ladies and gentlemen, neither am I.  Go to class.

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What Happens Next?

It’s October, and I love to screen three favourite scary movies. In order of when they were released: Les Diaboliques (1955); The Innocents (1961); Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

In the late 1980’s, I was fortunate enough to attend screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s workshop. (He and his workshops were later immortalized and satirized in the movie Adaptation (2002).

One day in the workshop he told us to relax and listen to a story. It started off simply and mysteriously. Two women hate the same man. One is his wife; the other is his mistress. Together, they are going to kill him.

We were hooked, and for about another twenty minutes or so, he simply told us what happened. The story kept us on the edge of our seats- that of the women who murder the man, but the body goes missing. And then the husband/lover makes multiple reappearances, driving the women mad.

It was a fireside tale but it turned out to be the plot of Les Diaboliques. His point? That it was all plot. There was no description or character analysis necessary. As McKee reminded us, “All I did was tell you what happened. And what happened next. If you can come up with a story like that, someone will make your movie.”

As a teacher, I have repeated the exercise frequently (sometimes misjudging the age appropriateness of the story. It’s intense and scary.) I’ve told it as a Halloween ghost story, but also used it in English and Drama class just as McKee did- to drive home the importance of plot.

It’s been imitated and been given a nod to in cinema and theatre often. I don’t want to reveal a thing.

As McKee said. Two women hate the same man and decide to murder him. But the body goes missing. What happens next….?