For the most part, my divorce from Frank was a “conscious uncoupling” years before the term was popularized, with a minimum of blaming and arguing. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t devastating.
The worst moment for me was the hour or two I spent going through the boxes of Christmas ornaments we’d collected in our thirteen years as a couple. Christmas, especially for families with kids, carries a huge symbolic and emotional weight, and dividing up those ornaments was like amputating bits of myself, one at a time. Some decisions were easy: any ornament that was a gift or hand-me-down from family obviously had to go to the person whose family it was. Some were painless: one red glass ball looks pretty much like another. And some, like the ornaments we’d acquired because they reflected our tastes and would please our kids, were agonizing.
The ones the kids had made had to be divided 50/50, which is how I wound up with a little pillow with a jack-o-lantern on the front: Miles had gone to a birthday party that involved making ornaments, and he made an ornament for infant Ben, who was only allowed yellow vegetables at the time. How can a six-year-old draw a convincing pumpkin without putting a carved grin on it?
But I eventually got the dividing done, gave Frank his boxes, and kept my own. There weren’t enough to fill a decent-sized, family-with-kids type tree, though, so shopping was in order.
That was when I had an inspiration for which I’ve thanked the gods of creativity many times over.
The first time the kids and I went ornament shopping together, one of us found a really weird-looking ornament; it might have been this one, an angel riding on the back of a fish. And at that moment was born a ritual that we’ve now been performing for upward of twenty years: the Weird Ornament Hunt.
When we were young and broke, we found most of our darlings in dollar stores and thrift stores; they were clearly made overseas, by people who had little or no understanding of how Christmas plays out in the US. Even with careful shopping, we could only afford two or three that year – but then the deities of single parenting handed us a freebie.
I’d thought it would be a nice family bonding activity to make, decorate and hang a batch of gingerbread men, which we’d done a few times before. However, that was the year I forgot to grease the pan, so almost none of our gingerbread folk survived intact: they were all missing arms and legs.
The Dudes, undaunted, decorated all our gingerbread people as accident victims. White frosting became bandages and slings, red food coloring was blood, and raisins stood in for bruises.
They were perfect.
We also diverted a few found objects into the Christmas project. The day we walked by the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, we accepted one of their free Weinermobile whistles. I stuffed a pipe cleaner up its ass and fashioned the pipe cleaner into a makeshift hook, and the Weinermobile is hanging on my tree as I write this.
Some were gifted to us. There’s a Sculpey figurine that my mom gave us; it’s nominally of me, carrying a little sign saying “COPYWRITER,” my job description at the time. It didn’t interest any of us much, until the year that one of her little Sculpey legs fell off and we had an amputee copywriter on our tree. (Amputation seems to be a theme.)
The late great Raelynn Gallina, the Bay Area’s premier whipmaker, brought a lovely little rawhide star, bound with waxed thread, to a holiday gathering at our house.
As we all grew older and my financial situation became less precarious, we found that natural-history museum gift shops were a trove. A bat made of wheat straw had pride of place near the top of the tree for many years, before it finally fell apart. Less fragile are the bobblehead black widow spider, the hippo with hinged arms and legs, the small terracotta frog with wings, and the rubber dragonfly, and they’re all hanging on my tree.
Now that I’m retired and relatively affluent, a couple of our ornaments actually cost more than normal-people ornaments. This tin cowboy struck us all funny for reasons we couldn’t begin to articulate, and we make a point of hanging him near a cow made of metal scraps so he doesn’t get lonely.
Miles and Ben are both older now than I was that first Christmas after the separation, and Miles is expecting his own child in a couple of weeks. This quarantine-afflicted year will be the first one in which we haven’t bought weird ornaments together.
Fortunately, we have enough of a collection that it comfortably fills my eight-foot tree (although there’s certainly room for more, and as soon as I’m allowed to go out shopping, I will start acquiring them again).
Family traditions start in the oddest ways, and the Weird Ornament Hunt is one of the best. Don’t tell Miles, but I’m already planning to start sending weird ornaments down to his place so that he and his new child can begin a ritual of their own.
Brandie really deserves a whole book all to herself. She was the first (although not the last) person I met who had actually been martyred on the pyre of sexuality: as a teenager who got caught stealing women’s clothes, she was repeatedly institutionalized and subjected to multiple courses of electroshock therapy, which left her with a permanent traumatic brain injury.
Brandie was smart, verbal and – fortunately – had a sense of humor about herself. Why “fortunately”? Well, the TBI had left her with some permanent deficits in executive function, including some difficulties in personal hygiene – not to put too fine a point on it, she smelled bad. Moreover, even as a man she would have been startlingly homely, with her stringy hair and the kind of long hooked nose that is usually a prosthesis given to actors playing witches or offensively stereotyped Jews. As a woman, she turned heads, and not in the way most people would wish.
But all of us in the San Francisco scene back then cared about her deeply – she was a genuinely sweet person, an excellent bottom, and had built herself a life that wasn’t easy but was ethical and manageable. She got admitted free to play parties by acting as doorkeeper, and several of us played with her, not so much because we found her attractive, but because she deserved good things and a nice flogging or caning made her happy. She made what money she had beyond her disability checks from her friends hiring her for tasks like assembling mailings and babysitting: the few of us who were parents (not common in the scene back then) knew that she was great with kids. She was a daily caregiver for one woman’s son, and was happy to come hang out with Ben when Miles was somewhere else for the weekend and I had a party or other commitment: I’d get home and find the chessboard still set up in the living room after the two of them had played a couple of games.
Brandie was my, and my sons’, first exposure to someone whose gender was not fixed. I’m still not clear in my own mind about whether she was a better fit for the category of “crossdresser” or “trans woman” – she lived full-time as a woman, but it was also clear that being female was a turnon for her in the way it is for many submissive men. I think what she was, was Brandie, sui generis: a small but crucial part of the ecology of our household.
I refer to Miles and Ben collectively as Les Dudes – it’s an abstruse joke on an old unremembered Gene Kelly movie called Les Girls. I’m too old for “dude” to be a regular part of my vocabulary unless you’re Jeff Bridges, but they’re not, and I still remember how startled I was the first time one of them addressed me as “Dude!”
Gender in our family has, unsurprisingly, been an occasional point of ambiguity. When Miles was very small, he insisted he was a girl, which he said was because the hair on the back of his head was curly. For some reason that almost certainly had to do with my own unrecognized dysphoria, it infuriated me; Frank asked, “Why do you care?” and I couldn’t answer, but I did care, deeply. Fortunately, that phase lasted only a couple of weeks. Since then, Miles has shown no signs of being anything but a nurturing, artistic, unmistakably male human.
Ben’s sense of gender seemed less flexible. The first time he went to a barbershop, when he was around two, he announced, “Mom, tell the barber to make it very small” – and hence was born the Ben Taber Buzz, which he wore well into his teens. I’ve never known whether he loved it because it was butch or because it made strangers ask to rub his head, but it was part of his identity for more than a decade.
Both of the Dudes greeted my own experimentations with gender with blasé amusement; they were entirely accustomed to seeing me in short spiked hair, jeans, boots and a tank top. The only pushback I can remember was Ben, looking at me femmed up for an age-play party in a schoolgirl outfit and ringlets, snorting, “And what are you supposed to be?” (My age-play persona was the only unqualifiedly female part of my identity – the rest is, and probably will be, always up for grabs.)
I probably encouraged this comfort around gender stuff by filling the house with folks of all genders and gender expressions; Brandie was the first, but she wasn’t the only one by far.
A household friend named Jamie, mid-transition, offered to help us move. To avoid the kind of awkward observation of which every parent of young children lives in dread, I thought it wise to spend a few minutes ahead of time explaining that Jamie used to look like a boy, but was taking medicine and choosing clothes so that she could be a girl. As it happened, Jamie was a tech geek, Ben’s favorite kind of person, and they got on like old pals. Ben mused afterward, “I really like Jamie, but I have trouble remembering which she used to be and which she was turning into.”
I’ve lost track of Jamie, but if I were a gambler, I’d bet their identity these days is non-binary. Ben may have been more precognitive than I knew, back in those simpler days of only two genders.
I think that the effect such people created in our lives, though, went beyond gender, and I don’t know whether we learned it from them or whether they were drawn into our lives because we shared a similar drive toward self-definition.
All three of us, the Dudes and I, have a horror of being restricted in any way, in being forced to be only one person. We all have the same restlessly creative drive: all of us write and make art, Miles and Ben are musical (they owe that to Frank, not me), Miles performs as an actor and puppeteer, Ben designs video games. We’re all puzzle junkies, and each of us is attached to certain pieces of art that we have a better chance of explaining to each other than we do to anyone else. If someone calls us writers, we feel the need to point out that we’re also artists, or performers, or programmers, or cooks, or all the other things we need to do to fill up our souls: getting trapped in just one thing, even if it’s a thing we love, is anathema.
I remember a night that Les Dudes were helping me set up some warehouse shelves in my office space. We were all exhausted and in pain, but we simply couldn’t stop until the job was done, until the thing – however mundane and utilitarian – was created. I see the same thing in myself when I walk into my office to send an email and wind up sitting at my desk tinkering with an essay until I suddenly notice that everyone else has gone to bed, or in Ben when he shows up puffy-eyed and grouchy because he got into the groove with a piece of game programming and couldn’t stop for fear of losing direction, or in Miles when he works himself past exhaustion trying to perform in three different shows at once at the same time as he’s trying to maintain an income doing the various bits and pieces that constitute his actual living.
Ben has written, “This discomfort in time and place and vessel is one reason why I feel a great deal of empathy for trans folks. Though I certainly can’t claim to feel it with the same urgency they do, the dissatisfaction with having a body which doesn’t really feel like home is unnerving. For me, though, it’s not just my body: I want sometimes to change my mind in an unusually literal way, to take on a whole new mantle of personal history, to be someone completely.”
The only evidence I’ve ever had of my ability to write fiction was my creation and dissemination of a Christmas letter to my extended family, every year for most of a decade. The main thing this exercise in heavily filtered half-truth did for me was to instill a deep cynicism about the Christmas letters I got from other people.
In 2004, I wrote: “His name is Edward, and we’ve been spending most of our time together in the last year… however, a couple of years ago, an old spinal injury flared up badly and he’s now trying to find a kind of work – probably writing or politics – that he’ll be able to do from home.” This was edited down from: “His name is Edward, and we’ve never had intercourse because his body is too fucked up, but we’ve done a few amazing scenes together, switching roles and exploring what fun is to be had with his sensitive tits and my iron butt.”
In 2006: “I decided this year to return to school to work on a Master of Fine Arts degree with an eye toward teaching writing at the university level. I’m in the Creative Nonfiction program at St. Mary’s University in Moraga, about half an hour from here, and completely loving it.” Edited from: “I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to write about sadomasochistic sex, gender-bending, polyamory, and traveling around the country to teach those things, for everything I write to be critiqued by a roomful of people – including most of my professors – young enough to be my children.”
In 2007: “Miles cashed in almost everything he could… and took off for six weeks of solo backpacking across Europe: London, Dublin and Galway, then across the channel to Paris and on to his ultimate destination, Prague.” Edited from: “Miles went to Europe and came home with a large bottle of absinthe in his luggage. His new girlfriend L was here waiting for him, and the two of them disappeared into the spare room for two days. Every time I tiptoed through there with a load of laundry, the level in the bottle had dropped another inch or two.”
In 2008: “I haven’t yet had any luck finding a home for my book; I had an agent for awhile, but we had very different visions for where the book was going, so I decided to move on.” Edited from: “My book Girlfag: A Life Told in Sex and Musicals has been looked at by dozens of agents and publishers, every one of whom has said, ‘I’m not sure what the market will be for this book.’ Well, that’s never stopped me before, so I guess I’ll self-publish. Again. (PS: The agents and publishers may have been right, but I still love the book.)”
In 2009: “Even by usual crazy standards, this has been a year full of rapid change, most of it due to this difficult economy.” Edited from: “We’ve been here in Eugene for six months and have already moved twice, renting while we wait for the economic chaos to settle and something to happen with our house in Oakland.” And, if I’d written one in 2010, I could have added: “The Oakland place went into foreclosure and we wound up moving four times in two years, and it’s looking like we’ll be renters – in a town where the rental market is tailored to college students – for the foreseeable future. And, oh, yeah, one of the ‘owners’ we rented from turned out not to own the house at all, which we didn’t find out about until her ex-husband showed up expecting to find the place empty.”
At that point I gave up writing the Christmas letters. I’ll probably never be much of a fiction writer.
When I’ve told people about Dad’s death, they’ve often assumed that I’m sad. I’m not, really, although I do miss him a lot.
Here’s what I am sad about. Dad was always the toughest person on my Christmas list; he didn’t want much, and when he did want something, he bought it. So I fell into a ritual: each year I packed up a box of jams, cookies, fruitcake and other homemade goodies (with extra gingersnaps, which he loved), and added a copy of whatever book I’d most enjoyed in the preceding year.
The book I most enjoyed in 2018 was George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo – but as a gift for a dying man, the story of the lost souls in the graveyard of Lincoln’s son Willie seemed a bit tactless. So instead, I bought him the ebook of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Good Omens, because I couldn’t imagine anyone not loving Good Omens.
In the days after Dad’s death, I was packing up a few things to take home with me. I picked up his Kindle, thinking Miles or Ben might want it, and looked to see what he had been reading.
He was only a third of the way through Good Omens.
Death interrupts such small pleasures: the end of Good Omens, the next episode of Masterpiece Theatre, the tickets to the big game. To choose death, as he did, means that these little expectations have been outweighed by a bigger consideration: for the depressed, the inability to take joy in such temporary pleasures; for the sick, the imminence of enough pain to outweigh the joy.
For Dad I think it was a little of each. His beloved wife Mona had died the previous summer – aside from a few short hospital stays, the two of them had never spent a night apart in their thirty-four years of marriage. Mona was ten years his junior, so he had never imagined outliving her, until she died of pancreatic cancer just a few weeks after her diagnosis.
There’s no way to describe what happened next without resorting to cliché: the spark went out of his eye, the lift out of his step, all the ways we try to describe the sudden shrinkage of a soul. When Mona died, Dad became old overnight. His Parkinson’s flared and overwhelmed the medicine that had controlled it, he stopped taking pleasure in food or books or television. I think receiving his own cancer diagnosis a few months later was almost a relief. The doctor said they’d caught it soon enough that chemo and surgery stood a pretty good chance of success, but Dad was old by then, and all that sounded like way too much trouble.
After it was all over and the guys from the mortuary had come and gone, my sister Leah suddenly said, “Where’s his wallet?”
We looked everywhere: in the room downstairs he’d moved to, in his real bedroom upstairs, under the bed, in the closet, in the mudroom. No wallet.
“You don’t suppose… he had it in his pocket?” I asked dubiously.
And that’s exactly where it was. The lady from the mortuary called us back the next morning to say that there had been, not one, but two wallets in his pockets: one, with cash, in the front pocket; one, with credit cards, in the back.
And since you’ll never get to meet my dad, that’ll give you an idea of who we’re talking about here. He had awakened that Sunday morning, knowing he was going to die that afternoon, and dressed carefully in his uniform of khakis, a polo shirt, a v-necked merino sweater, and his wallets. Because God forbid he should die in his pajamas, or that someone could come to the door wanting to get paid for delivering the newspaper and he wouldn’t have his wallet on him. The largest concession he was willing to make was to remove his watch and leave it on the nightstand, and to take off his father’s handsome jade ring, which never left his finger, and hand it to my sister. Beyond that, Death found him neatly dressed, hair combed, beard trimmed, and with both wallets where they belonged. The law calls it “Death With Dignity,” which in his case was great marketing.
Leah is four years younger, six inches taller, and at least fifty pounds lighter than me. Nevertheless, I love her very much.
We don’t always like each other, though.
As is true in many families, each of us has had “our” parent, with whom communications are easy and non-fraught; each of our relationship with the other parent was… not.
Leah resembles Dad physically (tall, lanky, narrow-shouldered); I resemble Mom (stocky, short-legged, with a tendency toward sedentariness and a heartfelt love of pretty much all food). The similarities continue into our values. Leah, in spite of being a lesbian, is at heart a traditionalist[*]: she has risen high in a sales-oriented job, speaks corporate-speak fluently and effortlessly, and has been with the same partner monogamously for at least twenty years. She loves working out at the gym, swimming laps, wearing designer clothing, and going with her wife on vacations with Olivia[†] twice a year, where they meet up with the same handful of women they consider their best friends (this is her entire social life; aside from family, she’s never had people over to their home). She loves her two grown kids and four grandkids but is okay with them living on the other side of the country, dotes on her motley assortment of dogs, and eats sparingly, based on whichever diet is in the news that year.
Mom, on the other hand, was a marriage and family counselor who loved to entertain, ruled (not always benevolently) over her second husband, never met a dessert she didn’t like, and cared more than anything about freedom and happiness. She was proud of the work I do, stocking copies of my books in her therapy office to give out to clients who wanted to explore polyamory and/or kink, and inviting me down a couple of times to speak about alternative sexualities to her local humanist therapists’ chapter.
Got the picture?
Leah and I don’t understand each other at all, and there are some topics we’ve learned to steer clear of. But we care about each other a lot. In contrast to many folks I know who have undergone nightmare scenarios when it’s been time to portion out their parents’ estates, Leah and I have yet to disagree even a little on ours.
Leah and her wife were dear friends with Mona; they talked about their exercise programs, their dietary experiments, their jobs, and laughed and laughed. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Mona was a little scared of me: a conservatively raised Kentuckian English teacher and Weight Watchers instructor has very little context for the stepdaughter who makes her living writing kinky books, who eats what she wants, and who hasn’t bothered with monogamy in decades. Nevertheless, Mona was unfailingly kind and welcoming to me, until the cancer roared up in a matter of weeks and she didn’t want any visitors at all.
So, when it came time for Dad’s life to wind its way down the following year, Leah took the lead position, traveling up to Seattle to spend as much time with him as she could. I went up there too, of course, but not as often, because I knew having me around the house was stressful for Dad in a way Leah wasn’t. When Mom had died ten years previous, we had assumed the opposite roles, without needing to discuss it much. We made a pretty good team for both our parents, I think.
Death found Dad appropriately memorialized. He had asked me beforehand to write his obituary, which seemed a very small contribution compared to the monolithic work he was doing – but when someone asks you to do such a thing, of course you do it. Really, writing it was easy. What was hard was handing it to him, during his last night on the planet, for corrections and line edits. As strange as that was for me, I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like to him.
Death also found him slightly tipsy. The typed instructions from the Compassionate Choices people suggested chasing the phenobarb cocktail with a shot or two of the good stuff, but that had very little to do with his state of inebriation. Quite simply, it was late afternoon, and that meant it was time for his glass of scotch.
It was time. The others in attendance – his dear friend Anne, whose credentials as a nurse meant we didn’t have to have a stranger in the room; Anne’s husband Tim, looking a bit queasy; and Leah – were planning a final toast with and to him, as he waited for the lethal draft to take hold.
I was not going to participate in the toast. Not because I loathe scotch, although I do. But I’d anticipated this moment, and when I’d left my home in Eugene to drive up to Dad’s place outside Seattle, I’d packed a bottle of excellent rum, specifically for this very moment.
However, the last stop I’d made here in Eugene was at our neighborhood cannabis dispensary. “I’d like some of the Siskiyou FECO[‡],” I told the very young man behind the counter.
“Oh, I’m sorry, we’re out of the Siskiyou,” he told me. “But we have some other FECOs that are pretty similar.” He brought one out and showed it to me.
“Sure, that’ll be fine.” I paid for my purchase and hit the road.
Of course, because chronic pain is a contrary motherfucker, I felt okay that night, in spite of the long drive. Dad and I sat together at his counter, eating the spaghetti I’d thrown together out of what I’d been able to find in his pantry and freezer.
But the next afternoon, on the day Dad had chosen as his last, my back decided it was unhappy with the way I was handling tension, and staged a small rebellion. I squirted a tiny amount of the FECO onto a cracker and ate it.
Anne and Tim arrived shortly thereafter. As we chatted, I noticed an odd, warm, dry feeling in my eyeballs. Every time something moved, I saw it in jerky silent-movie-like bursts. My heart sank.
“Shit,” I hissed to Leah. “That stuff had a lot more THC than they told me. I am fucked up.”
She looked at me helplessly: the last thing this scene needed was one of its principals in a significantly altered state of consciousness. “Maybe if you had a drink, that would relax you?”
I shook my head. “That just makes it worse.” (I’d learned this the hard way the last time I’d had a glass of wine on top of my usual dosage.)
We looked at each other. Neither of us had a clue. “I’ll have a glass of milk,” I decided. I had no reason to suppose that milk would actually help, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
Anne was in Dad’s room, “making the bed,” by which she meant putting down disposable underpads: Dad’s greatest fear about having Leah and me in the room was that it would be “messy.” We pointed out that we both had had babies, and that was pretty messy too, and he should decide what he wanted instead of trying to anticipate what we wanted. Amazingly enough, he believed us, and agreed that we could be there with him.
So we were standing there, fidgeting, waiting for things to start happening. The milk didn’t seem to be helping, but it tasted good so I drank it anyway.
You’ll have trouble believing this next part, though, because while Leah and I were waiting, I could have sworn I heard Taps.
“Whoa,” I said. “Do you hear that?”
She looked at me blankly, and I was just about ready to chalk it up to hallucination. Then she cocked her head. “Is that Taps?”
I edged into the room and saw the TV set, still on. Dad said, “I’ve never seen From Here to Eternity, but it seemed apropos.” I was stoned enough that I wasn’t sure whether he was actually making a joke about his own death (he was), so I muttered something unintelligible and backed out.
The law is very specific about how a chosen death should work. Two doctors must agree, two weeks apart, that the patient’s readiness to die is reasonable. They sign some paperwork, and then one of them orders a prescription for a powder[§] that is chemically very similar to the injection used in veterinary euthanasia. The patient himself must pour the powder into the glass, but someone else can add the water or juice into what is apparently a truly foul-tasting concoction.
So the scene was this: Leah, Tim and I were sitting around the guest-room bed. Anne, for whom this was not her first rodeo, steadied Dad’s Parkinsonian hands so he could pour his powder, and topped it up with some orange juice. He chugged it down like a pro, and made a wry face while Anne was taking the glass of dregs away and replacing it with a squat tumbler of heavy crystal.
Leah poured everyone but me a hefty Scotch as I sat helplessly, waiting to toast him with the last inch of milk in my glass. I was uncharacteristically quiet, because I was afraid that anything I said would come out weird – or at least weirder than sitting in a corner nursing a glass of milk while the source of half my DNA was confronting his final journey.
We clinked glasses and drank. Leah poured a second round. By the time the level in his glass was near the bottom, Dad was fading out.
“Someone should take his glass away,” Anne said quietly. I was closest, so I went over and took it out of his hands – I had to pry his fingers gently away, one by one.
He opened his eyes briefly, smiled, and said, “Good idea.” Those were his last words. I was the last one to touch him.
And then we waited.
I thought longingly of the speed and finality that was euthanizing a pet. When someone dies in the movies, it goes one of two ways: either they close their eyes and that means they’re dead, or they slump over with their eyes wide open. This was a longer and less conclusive process by far.
I can’t speak for any other deaths (Dad’s was the only one I’ve ever attended; Mom, a decade previous, had waited till I was out of the room), but Dad’s eyelids fell till a new-moon crescent of milky white was all that showed. His mouth did something similar – with no muscle tension to pull it upward, his lower lip fell away from his bottom teeth. And perhaps if you’ve attended many deaths this is not news to you, but to me it was a revelation, the first of several.
I could not take my eyes away from him – my stoned soul was mesmerized by the process revealing itself to me.
As I watched, his face began to morph. First it was a skull. Then, the face of an ape. Then, the face of an angel. Then it was my dad, my Daddy, my father. And then a skull again… and the process repeated itself, around and around and around.
And then, during an angel phase, I saw a disturbance – a ripple in the air, like the ripples rising from a hot highway, over his left shoulder. The morphing stopped.
He was gone.
And I was so glad I knew it, because the next few hours started off excruciating and evolved into low comedy, as the rough involuntary breaths that novelists call the “death rattle” continued at longer and longer intervals.
Toward the end, we’d all be certain it was over, and Anne would be on her feet to take his pulse so she could declare the time of death, and the rest of us would rise to leave so she could do her job… and then his body would rattle like a Model T and we’d all sit back down.
Toward the end, we – three tipsy people and one stoned one – were finding it darkly hilarious; there were several fits of contagious giggles. But with a couple of years of hindsight, I don’t think that was inappropriate: the body’s determination to hang onto the spark of life in spite of its occupant’s desires is the oldest, darkest and funniest joke on earth.
The next time I saw my sister was a month later, at a small memorial gathering. In a moment of privacy, I said, “I’ve been thinking about Dad’s death.” (I’d already told her about my hallucinatory experiences.) “Was it transcendent for you too, or was it just because I was stoned?”
“It was perfect,” she said.
[*] “Leah” is not her real name. My name is on the cover of thirteen outrageous books about sexual extremes; she wasn’t comfortable having hers in this article.
[‡] FECO, for those of you not fortunate enough to live in a state with liberal marijuana laws, stands for Full Extract Cannabis Oil. The one that seems to help the most with my back pain is almost entirely made of cannabinoids, with only a tiny amount of THC, the chemical that gets you high. THC and I were good friends in high school but have since come to a parting of the ways; these days it sends me down a rabbit hole of inescapable self-consciousness, of the “oh my god everybody thinks I’m being weird” variety. However, cannabis wisdom holds that a minuscule amount of THC helps activate the cannabinoids, which actually does seem to be true.
[§] I was shocked to hear its four-figure cost. Are poor people not allowed a dignified death?**
Once again, apologies for the lateness of this entry – I’ve been dealing with some health issues that have me running a bit slow. But I have a big one in process that I hope to get up here sometime in the next few days.
[Background: I met Jay in 1990, and by mid-1991 had applied for and gotten a copywriting job in the Bay Area. Triangulating the distance between my social life in San Francisco and my job in Santa Clara, I decided to live in San Mateo, and signed the lease on a comfortable two-bedroom townhouse.]
Miles and Ben really didn’t want to change schools, so Frank and I agreed to switch roles: he became the weekday parent and I the weekend one. Every Friday and Sunday night, we met for dinner in Vacaville, roughly halfway between my place and his, and handed the kids back and forth.[*]
Being the weekend parent was fun. Life in the Bay Area offered a zillion choices of things to do: movies, theater, outdoor events, excursions, a great library half a mile from our door. I did my best to make their weekends with me enough fun to take the sting out of the long commute and the reality of being the kids of divorce.
The three of us had already made a habit of seeing animated films together: Ben’s interest in anime dovetailed nicely with Miles’s love of Disney, plus that was the year that the Spike and Mike Festivals of Animation began to tour – we never missed one. So when San Francisco’s famous Castro Theatre played Yellow Submarine, we were first in line for the matinee.
Afterward, thoroughly enchanted but also starving, we strolled over to another Castro institution, Orphan Andy’s, home of decent burgers and the best shakes in the city. The kids – Miles would have been about twelve and Ben six or seven – were too naive to get much meaning from the campy art on the walls, or the menu graphic that showed a curly-headed, blank-eyed, hairy-chested, bare-midriffed young man.
While we were waiting for our food, though, Ben said, “The guys out there are scary.”
“Oh?” I asked carefully.
“They’re wearing all those chains and stuff, and leather jackets. Are they bad guys?”
I took a deep breath. “No, they’re not. You remember when we talked about how some guys like to be in love with guys and other guys like to be in love with ladies?”
“Well, those clothes are what they like to wear to look good to each other. Like if I were going out on a date, I’d put on something nice so I could look good for my date, right?”
He looked reassured. “Oh. Okay.” And our food came, and we got back to talking about the movie.
For all you parents stressing over what to tell your kids about what they see at the Pride parade, that’s how difficult it is: not difficult at all.
(It occurred to me later that if an adult male had shown up in the Castro wearing what Ben had on – this was the heyday of little boys dressing like gang members, with baggy pants, big sneakers and backward ball caps – they would have found him scary. But that seemed a little too complex to explain at the time.)
[*] As post-divorce expedients go, this turned out to be a very good idea. Dinner twice a week gave us a chance to catch up with each other’s lives, to remember the things we liked about each other, and to build the foundation of our future as friends and coparents. Miles tells me that his ability to remain friends with his exes has a lot to do with having seen his dad and me doing the same.
The last generation of pre-Internet kinksters, queers and sluts are nearly all collecting Social Security by now (those of us who are still alive). We look backwards and see a sequence of electronically mediated resources, from Fetlife back to Usenet back to BBSs – bulletin board services. These got their name because you left messages for everyone to read, like a bulletin board (the closest analog today is probably a listserv).
Some people I still hold very dear came into my life on BBSs, notably Barbara aka Bigboobs aka Snow White, who I met on an adult BBS called Virtual Pleasures and who is the first and so far the only woman toward whom I’ve felt romantic love (hi Barbara!).
The other important connection I made in those days was Derek, whose life has woven in and out of mine in complex patterns for nearly 30 years. Derek was Muse on Nirvananet, a general-audience BBS on which I was one of few women and fewer people over 30. These days he’s Uriel, another good choice – Derek was, and is, a bit other-worldly in a Stranger in a Strange Land kind of way, so the names of supernatural beings are an excellent fit for him.
I knew before meeting in person that Derek was around a decade younger than I. The nice thing about meeting people online, though, is that you can get to know their minds before getting a look at their exteriors. Before we met for coffee, Derek told me to look for a guy who was 6’3”, thin, with long curly hair and a high-bridged nose. Based on what I knew of him, I was sitting in the diner looking for a central-casting geek – Weird Al Yankovic with duct-taped glasses and a stretched-out t-shirt. So when a Burne-Jones angel came up to my table and asked if I was Janet, my first impulse was to hide: the guy was clearly out of my league.
But it turned out that Derek is one of the few human beings I’ve met who genuinely doesn’t care about appearances. His girlfriends – not many; he tends to stay with the people he loves for as long as they’ll have him – have been of all imaginable shapes, sizes, ages, colors and gender presentations. So as we talked, my troublesome body image issues slowly dissolved.
It didn’t take long, of course, for me to get around to propositioning him. (One of the many things I love about sex-positive communities is that women get to ask for what they want.) I showed up at his apartment at the agreed-on time, bearing coffee and pastries because feeding people is the way I roll. We chatted and ate, and then I said, “Well, this could go a couple of ways. We could have vanilla sex, or I could tie you up a bit and experiment, or we could try a little painplay.”
Then I looked at him. He had shrunk into a position of pure fear: arms and legs crossed tightly, pupils contracted.
Oh, I said to myself. You forgot. There are still normal people in the world.
Clearing my throat, I suggested, “How about we take our clothes off and you lie down?” He did. We made out a bit – some massage, some fellatio – I think he came, but I can’t remember whether I did. (This was the session that taught me to ask about someone’s experience before the clothes come off – it turned out that I was only his second partner, and his first blowjob.)
We became what I guess today would be called friends with benefits – hanging out, fooling around, discovering each other’s quirks and kinks. Derek was not particularly into BDSM, although he was happy to offer spankings on request – but mostly, he loved being around people who asked for what they wanted and said no to what they didn’t.
Jay and I had him do a bit of work for our nascent publishing enterprise, which I was running out of the dining room of the big rambling house we were renting in the outer Richmond district of San Francisco. He was a regular visitor, with us more days than not.
At the time, Miles and Ben were with me weekends and most of the summer. Derek was an instant hit with both of them, particularly twelve-year-old Ben, who shared Derek’s love of all things game-related. More weekends than not, the three of them would settle into the living room with stacks of Magic: The Gathering cards and They Might Be Giants on the stereo – I’d see them only when I opened the door to throw in a pizza or a bucket of chicken.
One afternoon, Derek and I went together to see Spanking the Monkey, a movie about a teenaged geek’s not-quite-consummated affair with his mother. Derek squirmed in his seat; I could see out the corner of my eye that he was at least partially erect. I was feeling a little damp myself, but also feeling kind of grossed out – the movie made it quite clear to me that our friendship was verging on the incestuous. When I told Derek I couldn’t continue the sexual part, I don’t think I was imagining that he looked a bit relieved.
Derek, an avid cyclist, was determined to get me back on a bike for the first time since grade school. He helped me choose an affordable and idiot-proof bike sized for my short legs, and guided me on a few gentle trips around the block. He then decided I was ready for the next step, so we biked the few blocks to a small lake in Golden Gate Park and set off to circumnavigate it. Breathless, wobbly and nervous, I hung in there to the best of my ability, until I realized that we were the perfect human avatars for Kermit and Miss Piggy’s bicycle trip around the lake in The Muppet Movie – at which point I was done with the whole enterprise. He and I walked our bikes home and I never rode mine again.
Derek, however, was deeply attached to getting around hilly, heavily trafficked San Francisco by bicycle – his days of working at my place started and ended with a brutal eight-mile ride all the way across town. But if he was happy with that, I was happy too.
Until the day he was due to come over to do some data entry. I was in my office working when I heard him come in. I called “Hello!” and he answered “Hi!” in a strained voice, which at first I attributed to breathlessness. But then I heard him on the stairs – instead of his usual light-footed tread, I heard an ominous drag… thump, drag… thump, drag… thump.
I was there to help him up the last step or two, while he told me the story: as he was cutting through the Panhandle, the cyclist in front of him had braked suddenly, sending him rocketing headfirst over his handlebars onto the pavement.
The poor guy was covered with scrapes and bruises; however, the only part of him that seemed seriously injured was his knee. Jay, the former ambulance crewman, wrapped it up and packed it in ice – but when it continued to swell after an hour or two, we helped him back down the stairs and I drove him to SF General.
I was teaching classes about pain processing for the kink communities around then, so of course when he was getting the knee x-rayed I went into the well-grooved routine: “Okay, look me in the eyes… breathe with me… you’re breathing in cool clean air and breathing out through the pain….” The radiologist looked at me sharply and asked, “Are you a midwife?” I gave him my best bland smile and said, “Not exactly.”
The results came back: Derek had snapped his kneecap clean in half. They encased his leg in a heavy hip-to-toe cast and sent him home to recover. His roommate was not interested in nursing an invalid, so Derek spent the next couple of months sleeping on a futon in our living room.
Our household at that time was kaleidoscopic and blurry, with the only steady points being Jay, me, and our housemate Tom. Other occasional denizens included, of course, Miles and Ben, Jay’s two kids (his daughter was an infrequent visitor, but his son lived with us for several months while he looked for his first job after high school), and various lovers, friends, friends-of-friends, and barely nodding acquaintances, occupying what Jay had dubbed “the lifeboat,” a small mother-in-law apartment behind our garage. So one more person added to the tangle of personalities made very little ripple, especially since Derek, unlike most of our visitors, took the initiative to find ways to help around the house. (Before I moved to Oregon I always had him over for holiday feasts, mostly because he was family, but also because I never had to clear a table or wash a dish afterward – and, better yet, he corralled Miles and Ben into helping too, teaching by example the proper way to contribute to a gathering.)
After Edward and I moved to Oregon in 2008, Ben moved in with Derek for several months, helping Derek overcome a hoarding tendency by working with him to sort through the accumulated chaos of books, clothing, games, appliances, magazines, papers and sundry other dearly held possessions. They were fairly successful in clearing out some spare rooms, but Derek’s own bedroom was impervious because there was no way to declutter a 12’x12’ room containing two adult males with all their work equipment, clothes and miscellany. The one time I visited them there, I sat in one of the two desk chairs because the only clear-ish surfaces in the room were Derek’s twin bed and Ben’s pallet of mattresses and bedding, plus two computer desks, with paths between. The rest of the room was hip-deep in boxes and detritus that I tried not to look at too closely.
Ben still chats online with Derek almost every day, so that’s mostly how I hear about his latest adventures (he and his girlfriend have moved to West Sacramento, less than a mile from where Frank, Miles and I were living when Ben was born). I haven’t seen him in quite a few years now, but he still figures in the ecology of the folks I consider family: not quite lover, not quite friend, not quite son. He is my Derek, and everyone should have a Derek.
 When I got my first tattoo, on the side of my left breast, a poster scolded, “Do you know what that’s going to look like when you’re 60?!” I responded, “Yeah. Longer.” Which, with 60 a few years behind me, is exactly what happened.
 It’s worth noting here that all the long-term male partners in my life have had hoarding tendencies – make of that what you will.
Apologies for the delay in posting! My state was on fire for a while and nobody could breathe, and then I had technical trouble with my drawing tools. But the fires are dying down, the air is… not too bad, and Ben came over here and fixed the problem with my tablet (thanks Ben!). Here’s a short piece for now, and with luck I’ll get a longer one up soon.
Alternate Reality #1
In my freshman year of college, a sex educator comes to campus and, by some miracle, I don’t employ my usual strategy of deciding I already know everything. During her very informative talk, she mentions “S&M” as a normal sex variation, and describes some typical behaviors.
Pow. Now I know. It takes a few months to work it through, but at the end I realize that my sexuality is inescapably linked to pain and power.
It isn’t easy to find partners in 1973, but soon I learn that if a person has had their tongue loosened with wine or weed, they might confess to fantasies that match mine. I start experimenting, learning more about what works for me and for them.
One day, a man tells me about a session he’s done with a professional dominatrix in San Francisco. After several days of waffling, I gather up my nerve to call her. I ask her about her work, and she takes me on as an apprentice.
I quit school – which isn’t doing me much good anyway – and move to San Francisco. After a year as an apprentice, I start taking clients of my own. All the money I can spare goes into the acquisition of fetishwear and toys, and my reputaton grows.
I start teaching workshops at the kink gatherings that are just starting to be an important function of the coalescing leather scene. I write a book, then another. By the time my age and weight start eating away at my client list, I have a decent if not brilliant income from book royalties and speaking fees.
On a speaking tour in my early forties, I meet a man, fall in love and get married. He’s vanilla, but we fumble our way toward an open relationship so that he can have boyfriends and I can have play partners.
I was sitting by my in-laws’ pool, watching three-year-old Ben splashing around in the shallow end. “Guess what, Mom!” he called. “I know how to swim now!”
His voice held such utter confidence and sincerity that it never occurred to me to doubt him. For all I knew, he’d had a sudden epiphany in which the physics and body mechanics of swimming had been revealed to him in a vision. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see you swim.”
He strolled nonchalantly out to where the water was over his head. I sat there and watched him – or at least I watched the part of him that was above the water, a circle of scalp about the circumference of a large apple.
It took a minute or two of waiting for the swimming to start before I realized that there wasn’t going to be any swimming. I kicked off my shoes and waded fully clothed into the pool, where I picked him out and carried him back ashore, coughing and spluttering.
The first thing he said when he got his breath back? “Well, next time I’ll know how to swim.”
There is no question from whom he inherited this blithe belief in his ability to do something he’d never learned how to do. I wasn’t much older than him when I believed with all my heart that if I ever really needed to fly, a good running start would launch me into a low graceful Peter Pan soar across the living room – it’s pure luck that I never attempted to prove that belief.
In the six decades since, I have done all kinds of things I didn’t know how to do – mostly very badly, at least at first. Before I founded Greenery Press in 1992, my only experience in book publishing was a part-time gig as a glorified secretary at Jalmar Press, the home of the 1970s classic TA for Tots. (TA, for those of you who missed that era of psychobabble, stood for Transactional Analysis, a trendy way of understanding interpersonal communications. I still don’t quite understand the philosophy but I do remember drawing a lot of “Warm Fuzzies.”)
But in 1992, I wrote, designed, illustrated, produced and marketed my first book, The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous Beginners. It was terrible in almost every way. I’d actually been a dominant woman for two or three years, I’d never designed a publication, and I had no idea how to market a book. But SDW went into a fourth edition a couple of years ago, a quarter century later, and is still in print, so apparently I figured it out as I went along.
My early kink scenes weren’t much better, constructed as they were from a knowledge base consisting of a lifetime of wildly unrealistic fantasies, a couple of articles in Penthouse Variations, and a paperback book published in the UK called S&M: The Last Taboo. I hurt one guy significantly (how was I to know that you had to stretch an anus before sticking things in there?!), but other than that I got lucky. Once again, I learned as I went along.
I can’t possibly remember the number of rooms I’ve painted, repairs I’ve attempted, garments I’ve sewn or knitted, items I’ve bought in the cherished and false belief that I’d have enough money when it came time to pay for them, scenes I should have safeworded out of were I not afflicted with what a friend calls “masochismo” – well, you get the idea. Most, thank god, were easily repaired afterwards, when I noticed what a shitty job I’d done.
Another manifestation of the same worldview is my invariable belief that I can fix whatever is wrong with the person I’m sleeping with at the time. News bulletin: I can’t.
The only sphere of endeavor in which I lack this unearned confidence is the physical. My mesomorphic frame makes me pretty good at picking up heavy things, and I like doing it – but my 65-year-old back makes that particular pleasure a bit less pleasurable than it used to be. And as for any other physical enterprise, the ones that require stamina and/or flexibility and/or reflexes and/or coordination – well, let’s just not talk about those at all.
But I think my greatest baseless confidence was the day I said to Frank, “Hey, I think I might be pregnant,” and he said, “Huh, what do you want to do?” and I said, “What the hell, let’s have it, how hard can it be?”
I should note here that confidence like mine is a hallmark of privilege, which is why it’s characteristic of so many straight white guys my age. I think I’ve been able to maintain it all these years simply because I’ve rarely encountered serious consequences for getting stuff wrong.
And I’m a fairly quick study. I didn’t know anything about being a parent or a publisher or a partner or a dominant or a homeowner, but I figured it out – generally, thank god, before I’d made any mistakes I couldn’t unmake. And now that I’m old enough to have some dough and also old enough that my oblivious marches into the unknown are a bit riskier than they used to be, I’ve gotten a little better about hiring people to do the things I can’t or shouldn’t – although I doubt I’ll ever learn to like doing so.
But I guess I can stand by my results. My kids are good human beings. Greenery Press published some terrific books. My exes are better off (I think) for having known me. And my current house contains no embarrassing paint jobs whatsoever.
I still can’t catch a ball to save my life, though.
 This book, charming as it is, reinforced my belief that “S&M” consisted entirely of spanking, plus maybe a bit of bondage to get them to hold still while you spanked them. There was no mention of D/S, or even of other types of sensation play. Which was fine for me, given that my tastes run that way anyway – but it came as quite a surprise, a few years later, to learn that kink comes in more flavors than breakfast cereal.
 Although I do take some pride in leaving them in better shape than the way I found them.
 I still suck, badly, at telling people what to do. I let Edward do that part.
As I write this, late in the summer of 2020, Santa Cruz is on fire. The UC Santa Cruz campus was evacuated earlier this week, and photos showed the Boardwalk glittering against a backdrop of ominous orange, with a setting sun of otherworldly magenta.
Santa Cruz was a major character in the first half of my life, and has been an occasional correspondent since. Watching it suffer feels like visiting the hospital bed of an old but no longer dear friend.
Frank and I met when he was a sophomore and I was a freshman at UCSC: I saw a card posted on the dining hall bulletin board, from three people looking for a fourth for bridge. Given that I’d spent most of the year vacillating from depression to terror and back (the serial killer Edmund Kemper was picking off girls my age and leaving them strewn in pieces around the campus’s many forests, crevasses and ridges), the idea of an occasional bridge game was compelling. But I had no idea what a big part of my life the game, and the three of them, would become – we wound up playing cards more nights than not, often piling into a VW Beetle to go downtown at 2am and eat fresh donuts from Ferrell’s, a local haven. Sometimes we came back and played more cards after that.
Scott, our informal leader (and the owner of the Beetle), was tall and slim, with wavy sunbleached hair and an engagingly crooked smile. When you asked Scott what his goals were, he said “getting rich”; last I looked, he was the Chief Technical Officer of a huge national media empire. Maureen, dark-haired and easygoing, was one of the campus’s very few female math students. Scott’s roommate Frank was taciturn and wry, and was majoring in chemistry.
I made a move on Scott, who gallantly pretended not to know what I was trying to do. (He knew.) So it was Frank who wound up in my bed – his first time, my eighth or ninth. And when I realized that another year in the dorms would be hazardous to my mental health, it was Frank who I invited to share a large off-campus room with me, near a campus bus route.
We lived together for a pleasant, if very stoned and sloppy, year. Then he changed his major to Civil Engineering and transferred to UC Davis, back in his hometown. I stuck it out in Santa Cruz for a year, working as an “usherette” in a movie theater and going to classes when I felt like it, which was seldom. Then I dropped out and moved to Davis, where we found an apartment together.
But Santa Cruz wasn’t through with me yet. Frank’s family owned a huge old beach house on the west side of town, overlooking the vast stretch of the Pacific. So for all Frank’s and my decade and a half together, we spent nearly all our vacations – first with my big crazy standard poodle Mac, then with Mac and Miles, then with Miles and Ben – in that house, along with a shifting cast of a dozen or more grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. (Those vacations spurred my earliest impulses toward extended family: there was no question that both the kids and the grownups were calmer and saner with a lot of loving company to blunt the harsh edges of any particular relationship.)
It was also in Santa Cruz that Frank and I decided to end things. We left the sleeping kids with his folks, drove far enough out of town that we were unlikely to be seen by anyone who cared that we were sitting over coffee with tears running down our faces, and together sketched out our separate futures.
I was no longer welcome at the Santa Cruz house after that, but the kids were still spending lots of long weekends there with Frank and his family. Today, they both adore Santa Cruz in the way that any kid loves the site of repeated fun and affection: Miles had hoped to have his wedding to his wife Destiny there, although the logistics proved impossible – they ended up marrying in Long Beach, Southern California’s closest analog to Santa Cruz.
I tried, once, to vacation in Santa Cruz myself, building a few days’ break around a speaking gig at a downtown sex shop. But the topography of the town had shifted after the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, so many of my haunts and landmarks were gone; those that remained all carried a ponderous weight of memory. I drove home in an odd, sad, might-have-been mood, wondering if what I’d gained was worth what I’d given up.
Les Dudes continued to report back to me about the doings in Santa Cruz. Their great-grandmother was there and then she wasn’t, and then their grandmother, and then their grandfather. Cousins I remember as infants came, played, went to the Boardwalk and for walks on the beach, left for college and other towns, and their kids came back to Santa Cruz.
Over Labor Day weekend of 2006, Ben heard a noise from Frank’s room. When he went to investigate, he found Frank on the floor in the throes of what turned out to be a major stroke. But a few months later, he drove Frank back to Santa Cruz, where the deaths of the family elders had left the wheelchair-accessible bedroom available. The family, its topography changed by the earthquakes of life, still gathers at the house several times a year.
I’ve had one more visit to Santa Cruz. When Edward and I got married, we spent as little as possible on what was at our ages a fairly unexceptional rite of passage (the County Clerk’s office, then later a modest gathering in a church meeting room, with some cheeseboards and some champagne and a cake). With the money we had left, we took a “honey-asteroid” at a place in downtown Santa Cruz that billed itself as a “bed, bud and breakfast,” run by a pair of dyke cannabis activists who turned out to know Edward already from the queer and activist communities.
Santa Cruz, on that trip, was the end of another story: the site of the last full-on kink scene I ever did, and also of the last time I had genital sex (making the place a Bed, Bud, Breakfast, Bondage and Blowjob). Another landmark, I guess.
By the time I get back to that part of the world, it will have shifted yet again: the fires are still uncontained, and whatever remains of the town and the campus will be irrevocably changed. But you can’t change the past, and Santa Cruz is a permanent part of my brain and my heart.
 Contemporary college students might not recognize how startling a statement that was in 1972, particularly at “Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp.” For comparison, imagine asking a fellow student in the 2020s what they want to do after college, and having them say “I dunno, man, just hang out, smoke a bit, figure out who I am, you know?”