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A Family with Four Exits

fourexits1Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina, a book I  should cop to never having read, with the words, “Happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

My own family’s particular unhappiness was, on its surface at least, so unusual that it defied belief, and I tended over the years to keep it to myself. Long story short, when I was ten years old my parents separated, and within a year they both came out of the closet. I’d suffered my first unrequited crush, on a grown man, the year before, and my one brother would eventually turn out to be the only straight one among us, a sort of photo-negative reversal of the usual situation gay kids find themselves in, growing up feeling freakish and alien in a family of heterosexuals.

Given just these bare set of facts, the reaction over the years from friends and strangers has always been illuminating. Certain  gay guys would get a starry-eyed look as they imagined this alternate-universe childhood, as if I’d been raised by some fabulously surreal pairing – Cher and Elton John, maybe. Ellen and Liberace. More than one guy asked if I ever cruised the bars with my Dad.

The gap between these fantasies and the reality kept me reticent. I mean really, look at those plaid pants.

But maybe I should revise my statement. My own family’s particular unhappiness wasn’t about homosexuality. It was about how two adults tried, with varying degrees of grace, to exit a family created more from convention, from social pressures, than from love or lust. To exit a family that didn’t fit, with two sons still in tow.

There was a lot of unhappiness, more than I cared to dwell on, and throughout my teens and 20′s I did what a lot of gay boys do, I too exited my family, the best I could, just like my brother had tried, unable even as a young writer to think of my family as particularly fertile material, and it wasn’t until my mom died, when I was thirty years old, that I turned around and looked back.  And began working on this book.

But if my family has remained, if not completely unique, then at least fairly unusual on its surface, the consequences of our particular kind of unhappiness are common to every family. The pull between social obligation and authenticity. The need for attention. The pain of abandonment. Favored sons, scape goats, and black sheep. The baffling power of parents to reduce grown men to little children again within ten minutes at Thanksgiving dinner.

Unhappy families are so common now as to appear the norm. Friends with happy childhoods speak of their families with a tone of quiet apology, as if they’d been graced with unfair luck.

It took a while, but after my parents’ exit they each created a new family, with same-sex partners and stepkids, each with its own particular laws of physics – each with days both happy and not.

Tolstoy’s opening sentence is quoted often, no doubt because it feels, to many people, true. Maybe your family was happy like other happy families, or unhappy in its own way. Maybe your family, those lovely, frustrating, adoring, infuriating people, fell outside the lines of convention.  How did they form you?

Before the internal editor and the censor and the sentimentalist kick in, what do you think of, when you think of your family?

Half-Crazed at the Foul Line

The nice Asian girl at the bagel shop points at my splint. “Still hurt?” she asks. I nod. She says, “I think you have lost weight, no?” Cue my creeping look of horror. Does she mean good weight or bad weight? Gay weight or straight weight? Is she talking about my face or my shrinking biceps? I want to reach across the counter and shake her for the answer but the CULTURAL DIVIDE BETWEEN US CANNOT BE OVERCOME!

I’m writing this now – a vain, deeply impatient man half-crazed by a deficit of endorphins.

Last Friday I drove down to South San Francisco on a very early Friday morning for an appointment with a hand therapist, scheduled by my surgeon, only to be told by the embarrassed hand therapist that she could do nothing for me until after the surgeon pulled the three pins out of my wrist. Minutes later I was ushered out of the lobby into a back hallway, after I’d begun yelling at a flustered cast technician who’d just given me diametrically opposing information about the procedure for replacing the dingy splint, catching and pulling now against the heads of the three pins sticking out of my wrist, that her co-worker had given me two weeks back.

Later I found myself sitting in an exam room, deeply ashamed and confused by my behavior.

I tried to talk myself back into a state of humility with the fact that the combined doctor and ER visits, pharmacy runs, and surgery had cost me less than $1000.

I’ve wrestled with my impatience, driving the Manly Fireplug to softball practice where I watch from the stands.  I nodded, as if I agreed, when a friend told me that there is always next season, thinking to myself that having watched my mother die at the age of 55, I no longer think that there will always be a next time.

I then tried to remind myself that we were talking about D league gay softball and, like, chill out, dude.

For perspective I told myself that I do not live, say, in Japan. I’ve never seen a tsunami or an exploding nuclear power plant. These thoughts distracted me about as long as you’d guess.

I wrote a story for a local magazine, cobbled together from this blog, about my first season playing softball. Just before I sent it to the editor, I cut out the part about breaking my wrist in the Vegas tournament, because I didn’t want people to pick up on my self-pity.

I decided to be a little less vain here.

My team had their first games of the season, a double header, bright and early this past Sunday. I drove the Fireplug to the field and stood on the sidelines, shivering a bit in the cold morning air, recognizing the nervous looks on some of my newer teammates’ faces.

I’d gone the whole last season, my first season ever, avoiding base coaching, always a bit unsure of the rules. But this year, without anything else to do, I stepped in, figuring like everything else in softball the best way to learn was to just throw myself into it and make a few mistakes.

I stood there just outside the foul line, watching where each of my teammates hit the ball and gauging how far they should run, signaling to them to stop, or to look, or to just plain run. And after each single I’d slap their shoulder and tell them good job, and when the next guy hit I’d tell them to run. “Go,” I’d say. “Go, go go.”