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Truth, or Father

I got a thin envelope from Sarah Lawrence on Friday, which contained a letter informing me that I was neither accepted to nor rejected from their program. Rather I was stuck on their waiting list. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know why they were less convinced of my writing ability than Columbia. They were the only school to ask for an essay responding to the question “Why do you want to come to Sarah Lawrence?” Perhaps they could tell that I had a difficult time answering. Or perhaps it’s because I have testicles.

It’s funny, there’s nothing they could have offered me that would have made a difference, and yet I was still a little wounded by their decision. And though I’ve tried to learn, through much trial and error, not to fire off e-mails when my Irish temper flares, I did just that, saying thanks but no thanks, Columbia offered me a fellowship, please give my spot to someone else.

I admit it. I am human. And vindictive. Frankly their decision was a little dose of humility, and good practice for me.

All notions of rejection or half-hearted acceptance aside, I asked for it. Not long ago, before I heard from any of the schools, I was driving home and (naturally) obsessing over what would happen if I got into more than one school; what if one school gave me more money than the other, which one should I pick? What if I made the wrong choice? So as I sat at a red light I asked God to give me a sign, preferably a very clear sign. I got more than one.

This whole school thing is already changing my life in unexpected ways. My father, who is absolutely brimming over with pride that his son is going Ivy League, asked if he could read the work that got me admitted. I hesitated. Remember when my father found my website about a year and half ago? He read the whole damn thing. Then he told me he couldn’t read any more. “I went from knowing too little about you to knowing too much.” I’m pretty sure he’s kept his word.

So I had to make a decision. Send him the essay about my mother and my HIV. Or the cum-on-the-tank-top essay that includes my first sexual experience. I chose the former. At least he already knew most of the details.

I sent it off on Wednesday. A couple of days passed. I was getting nervous. Normally he’s very quick to reply to my e-mails. What if he hated it? What if he hated the fact that his son is writing memoir, drudging up unflattering, messy personal details for public consumption? What if he thought Columbia made a mistake?

Sunday night he finally replied. He said it was very well-written. Then he said he wasn’t sure how to react. He said he sometimes wishes that he were more than a footnote to my life.

He said he hoped I didn’t wish that he had died instead of my mother.

I sent a hasty reply (we both prefer e-mail over the phone). I tried to reassure him that the essay was just a slice of my life. That I valued his privacy over my right to tell a story. That I didn’t wish he had died. I told him that we’ve only just begun to get to know each other. I told him that he has to tell me if I can write about him.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about him lately. I was accepted into Columbia’s nonfiction concentration. And while I can take classes in fiction or poetry, I will be required to write a book-length manuscript in nonfiction. Which means, at this point, that I will probably keep writing memoir/personal essay-type stuff. And if I do write this memoir, it will seem pretty strange if there’s nothing about my father in there. After all, he, my mother, and I all ended up gay. Which is somewhat interesting, to some people. And that’s where it gets sticky.

He and I weren’t particularly close growing up, for many reasons. Some of those reasons, if written about, would only cause him pain. And yet many of those reasons shaped me.

I’ve read interviews with several famous memoirists, who are adamant that the truth must always prevail, hurt feelings be damned. My guess is that most of those writers have less than brilliant relationships with their families.

I can’t justify hurting him just to tell “my story”. Not after the last couple of years. Not after his gestures of reconciliation. Not long ago I mentioned that I had been e-mailing him all sorts of questions; about my childhood, about his marriage to my mother, about his own coming out. And he’s answered every single question. And I’ve seen more of myself in him. And I understand why he did the things he did, just as I understand how alcoholism sometimes made my mother a different person.

Writers are often accused of being parasites, and anyone who is close to one has probably unwittingly provided the writer with raw material. But while novelists can hide behind the thin facade of fiction, those who write memoir have no such disguise. When you write memoir, you make a pact with the reader that what you are writing is the truth. Betray that trust and you betray the reader. Truth, like memory, is of course subjective. And some memoirists feel comfortable conflating characters or incidents to suit their “art”. I’m less comfortable with this practice.

Memoir is like formal poetry. The truth provides certain constraints. And like rhyme or meter, sometimes these constraints force the writer to create something beautiful, something that never could have been written with more freedom.

This probably sounds pretentious. I’m not trying to prove that I am good writer. I’m just trying to make sense of the messy intersection between writing and my personal life. How to tell the truth, how to honor the pact with the reader, without causing my family and other real people harm.

I could just not write about my father. But I don’t think that’s what he wants. He doesn’t want to be a footnote. He wants to be let into the main story. He wants to know that I love him. And he’s savvy enough to realize how I best express my love. I guess I’ll figure this out, as I go along.

Hidden, Sight: Plain

He had the fish with asparagus. I had the sesame chicken.

The editor of the animal shelter’s prize-winning magazine had e-mailed me out of the blue. “Is the rumor true?” Apparently my grad school news was circulating at work. “Can I take you to lunch?” Considering that I had barely exchanged five sentences with him over the course of my employment, this was a strange offer. But I accepted.

“Why haven’t you written anything for us?!” he demanded as soon as we were seated at the Jade Cafe around the corner on Potrero.

“Uh…” I said.

It was a good question. And while a few of my co-workers knew that I wrote, nobody at work knew that I had even applied to grad school. For the last two years, I had been slowly disentangling myself from work, keeping my outside life more and more private, becoming less and less interested in the office politics. When they got rid of my last boss, the most brilliant person I’ve ever worked for, I got a little discouraged. Then they laid off a few more people, gave me their jobs, and cut my hours. Which, in retrospect, was a blessing. Who knows how long I would have slowly decayed there as a glorified administrative assistant? Without realizing it they pushed me out the door, for my own benefit.

I told him some of this over lunch. He was looking at me in the way that certain co-workers have been looking at me for the past week; like I had suddenly pulled off a mask and revealed my secret mission. It wasn’t an uncomfortable sensation. On the contrary, it gave me a perverse satisfaction, like when I e-mailed my writing instructor, the one I had paid several hundred dollars to and taken several workshops with, the one who didn’t hide her preference for her female students, to thank her for the (half-assed) letter of recommendation and to tell her Columbia offered me a fellowship.

I’m still not sure why he asked me to lunch. He did ask to see some of my writing, but I haven’t yet reconciled my private life with my work life, especially considering the personal nature of my writing. I should get used to it. But it will be easier when I leave this job, when I can live one life instead of two.

He finished eating before me, and I took the remaining fortune cookie. And it read:

Reasonable people endure;
passionate people live.

No, I won’t quit dogpoet. I will probably need it more than ever. Besides, you can only move to New York for the first time once. I hear there aren’t enough writers there, so really I’m just helping out.

But nobody is allowed to ask me the following question:

“So…what are you going to do with an MFA?”

That’s not the point.

Laughing at the Urinal

Man, I was so ready for some good news.

I feel about twenty pounds lighter now, having carried around those anxieties for so long. I checked my archives. It was a year ago this month that I made the decision to apply to grad school.

And I also feel like the deer caught in headlights. I’m sure that any moment I will get the call…”there was a terrible mistake…”

I’ll just hang up.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the overwhelming congratulations, it’s truly a gift to be able to share a little joy around here. I’m not sure if I would have had the material, let alone the courage to apply, if I didn’t have dogpoet. Various posts made their way into the more polished manuscript which I submitted (cum-on-the-tank-top, anyone?). And so many of you encouraged me along the way. You know who you are, and you have my gratitude. Looking back, there have been people along the way, ever since the fourth grade, who told me to keep writing. It’s always been on the wall. The only thing that consistently got in the way was myself. I’m still learning.

A huge, sloppy thank you to Brian and Jennie for writing two of my letters of recommendation, which were so much better than the one I got from my last workshop instructor. (She basically had me write my own letter, then signed her name to it. I think I’ve learned all I can from her).

Four years ago my life was so, so small. It fit within the tiny bag of crystal meth I’d buy from my dealer every few days. Everything’s different. I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been blessed.

God, I miss my mother. I wanted to call her up and tell her the good news. I thought about her when I was standing at the urinal at work after the phone call from Columbia, and I just started laughing out loud. And then I finally cried a little, from relief and gratitude. And then I started laughing again.

Sometimes, Pick Up the Phone

There are people out there who probably don’t obsess over things beyond their control. But I’m not one of them.

I applied to three grad schools back in December, and since then I’ve been doing my best to wait patiently. But then I made the mistake of logging on to the Poets and Writers website. They have a message board with a list of topics, one of which is “Choosing an MFA Program”. This is one of the most active topics. It goes all the way back to 1997, so there are seven years worth of posts. You can pick up the message thread anytime, but I chose the fall of 2003, when everyone was trying to decide which programs to consider. Everyone was full of advice and gossip and heresay, and as the months progressed towards the winter deadlines, anxieties mounted. But they were nothing compared to the anxieties of February and March, when everyone began to hear back from each of their schools.

What a fascinating drama to follow, with distinct personalities and dreams and varying levels of confidence. Undoubtedly there were as many “lurkers” as posters. I thought about posting but the idea saddened me. I may be obsessive, but I didn’t want everyone to know.

One by one they each heard from their schools, immediately posting updates full of cheer and, more often, disappointment. By my informal calculations, the average poster applied to seven or eight (sometimes more) schools, and were accepted to one, sometimes two schools, often relegated to the interminable hell that is the Wait List.

I became obsessed with this board, spending much of the last week reading through each year, through each crop of students (sometimes those who were rejected by all their schools would try again the next year, often with success.) I scanned each post for gossip about the three schools I was applying to, paying particular attention to when they were sending out their acceptance letters or even calling the lucky students at home. One year it was early April, the next it was mid-March.

As I read each post my own anxiety and dread mounted. I was aware of this happening within me. Most people would probably put two and two together, and realize that obsessing over one’s chances at acceptance was pointless. But my addictive personality, no longer indulged by drugs and whiskey, needed something to keep it busy. So I’d read these posts all day at work, and often into the night at home. The sum result was that I became positive that the situation was hopeless, and I began forming a plan B, in case I got rejected by all three. Each day I’d go home to The Mailbox, which contained My Future. Each day I’d only find a bunch of infuriating catalogues from Pottery Barn and J. Crew. Then I’d go back to work the next morning and start the whole process again, skipping back a year on the message board.

Yesterday I was at work and nearing the end of the 1997 posts. Soon I’d run out of posts, and I’d be all alone with my anxieties. Then my business line rang. I picked it up, annoyed by the interruption.

“Is this Michael McAllister?”


“Hi, Michael. This is Stephen O’Connor, from Columbia University…”


“Oh, hi,” I said, my voice pulling a total Peter Brady.

“Hello. We wanted to let you know that we would like you to join our program…”

“Oh, God…”

“And we’d like to offer you the Dean’s Fellowship, our largest fellowship, which is __thousand dollars.”


“We were very impressed with your manuscript.”

So, yeah. I haven’t heard from the two other schools (both in/around NYC).

But it looks like I’m moving to New York.

Chased by a Bear

Sitting in my shrink’s waiting room on Monday I picked up the new Harper’s and turned to the index, which informed me that the new San Francisco mayor donated $500 to George W. Bush’s campaign. This sums up why I don’t like writing about politics. I’m too much of an idealist, and while I have a good grasp of human nature and can understand complexity and ambiguity in others, in politics I don’t have the same patience. I’m aware that Gavin Newsom probably had his ulterior motives for kicking off this man-on-man/woman-on-woman love parade here in San Francisco. But I preferred to focus on the risks he was taking, and what that said about him as a leader. But politics is, well, politics. Decisions are made and actions taken that serve so many hidden agendas and interests that an idealist like me, who prefers to keep things simple, gets a little overwhelmed and feels all naive and trod-upon and generally indignant at how politicians just can’t act like normal people for a change. I naively expect a Democrat to support other Democrats. And I expect my left-leaning Democratic senators to support equal rights for all citizens, rather than whine about it being too soon and all that crap. Yeah, I know that most Americans aren’t ready to accept gay marriage yet. There was a time when most Americans weren’t ready for civil rights, either.

The U.S. government routinely sets deliberate fires to selected wilderness areas to make room for new growth. This is called a “prescribed burn”, and it sums up my life lately. I’m only hoping that the new growth makes up for the third-degree burns.

A couple of times a week I climb on the elliptical machine at the gym for an hour of cardio. This guy who’s usually there at the same time called me the energizer bunny. The only thing that gets me through is my iPod. And yesterday I was listening to this house mix from 1998, which contains my absolute favorite transition from one song to another: as “Annihilate” thunders on towards its climax, you can hear the woman who sings “Music is the Answer” warming up in the background. The beat stutters, kicks in place, holding the song back for several seconds. And then it springs forward like an adrenaline rush, taking you over. And when it sprung forward I got all choked up, and my eyes got wet but I squeezed down, refusing to cry while doing cardio at the gym. All the fires can burn everything down, but I refuse to believe that my lot in life is one of sadness, that I will always lose the things I care about the most. I refuse to buy into that story. And so I don’t cry.

And the way that song builds up, the beats intensifying, as though someone’s winding up a toy car before placing it on the floor: that is how life has felt for longer than I care to remember; I’ve been winding up and winding up and holding a part of myself off for someone who’ll never turn in the claim ticket. And now I’m ready, fuckers, I’m all wound up, and I want to take off.

Yeah, it’s just one long episode of Oprah around here. Next I’ll be using words like “processing my feelings”.

I made an appointment with a local tattoo artist for the end of March. I’ve been wanting to do an embellishment/cover-up of a tattoo I’ve had for over ten years. I decided it was time to forge ahead, and I found a local woman whose work is exquisite, which explains why I have to wait a month for the appointment. But that gives me time to make sure I’m getting what I want, and to fine-tune the details. I stopped into her shop over the weekend to look at her books and there was a nice vibe in there. Women can be so much cooler than men.

Spent much of the past week trying to teach myself Photoshop and Dreamweaver, in an effort to get a little more self-reliant around here. I’m using the “..for Dummies” series of books because, well, the shoe fits. Learning these two programs and their attendant vocabularies is like learning two foreign languages and knowing that they will both be extinct in a couple of years. It’s pretty cool tinkering around and creating new funky images, but I doubt I’ll ever become a web designer. It’s too time-consuming, and my writing is feeling neglected.

I rented lucky number 7 cabin down in Big Sur for this coming weekend. Going for a solo trip, two nights, my first time there. It’s time to start doing things instead of just talking about them.

Friday night I had dinner with Brian and Bearbait in the Castro. Afterwards I parted company with them for my weekly bookshop visit. On the way back to the car I passed this hunky bearded guy who was saying good-bye to some friends on the sidewalk before turning in the same direction I was headed. He had a new pair of construction boots on and one of them was squeaking a bit. I could tell by his footsteps that he was about to pass me. He pulled nearly even with me, then turned into the new Superstar Video store.

Brian has pointed out that I should stop whining, because I get cruised all the time but I never cruise back. So I actually turned around at the same time that the hunky bearded guy did, and I smiled at him which was about as brave as I could get. I turned around and I kept walking. And I hoped that I might hear that squeak again behind me.

And I did. My heart kicked up its pace as the squeak closed in, increasing in frequency and volume and in about five seconds he’d catch up with me and he’d say something that would make me smile, but in those five seconds I thought about how my butt looked in those jeans and I thought about the dinner I ate and the gum I didn’t have. I thought about how your movements change when you know you’re being watched, and I thought about the sparkle of the new sidewalk outside Superstar. I thought about the stories we buy into and the risks we never take. I thought about the smell of stale beer coming from the Pendulum, and how San Francisco men are such flakes and if men on the East Coast are the same way. And how it doesn’t matter since there’s so many other things to do now. And how a friend who had his own heart broken told me afterwards I want to hire someone to beat the shit out of me so that my outsides match my insides. And how my barber and his boyfriend want to introduce me to their whip collection, and how I want to and don’t want to. And I wondered what he was going to say when he caught up with me and if it would even matter.

And it did and it didn’t. And later as I drove up 17th Street I opened the windows and let the cool air in. And the song was quiet and it was Friday night and I was all wound up and set down, the streetlights tracing patterns on my windshield. And I thought about the things you can predict, and the things you’ll never figure out.