Archive for December, 2013

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Tradition means a lot to me.  I come from a large Italian-American family and my generation of that family has always been proud to learn about and continue the holiday traditions passed on to us by our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles.  We haphazardly formed a chorus of cousins and sang Christmas carols after dinner on many Thanksgiving nights.  We joyfully sat down to a meal of seven fishes every December 24th.  We played with the big spinning tops Aunt Ida placed under her Christmas tree every holiday season.  There were ancient ornaments and decorations displayed each year and then carefully passed on so they could be enjoyed and appreciated by future generations.  There were foods and desserts that simply had to grace the table, to make any special occasion complete.  We were taught, my siblings, cousins and I, to keep certain routines in our hearts, because, as we now know,  pulling them out every year inspires memories, stories we share with the new generation we have brought forth.  Tradition brings back to life the family members who have gone before us.  We honor them by remembering them, by continuing their ways, by invoking them at our celebrations and thrilling our children with tales of their exploits, their heroics, their laughter and love.

They were the Greatest Generation.  Born in the teens, 20s and 30s of the 20th century, they endured the Great Depression with dignity and faith.  They fought and won World War II with a sense of purpose and determination no subsequent generation would ever dare to claim.  They did whatever they thought they needed to do to make life better for their children and grandchildren, without complaining.  And then they encouraged us to start traditions of our own.

So we did.  We, two of us, would walk on the beach and sing California Dreaming every year on vacation in Florida.  When we were able, we’d play a wild game of charades after dinner on Christmas Eve, a tradition we will try to revive this year when some out-of-town cousins will be near to us, once more.  Three of the cousins found the seven fishes for Christmas Eve tradition a bit too daunting and changed it to a simple meal of linguine with clam sauce.  Some cousins still go every year to midnight mass.

And we invented the Christmas Bowl.  Four of us.  Crazy cousins.  We would eat our amazing Christmas dinner; antipasto, lasagne, meatballs and sausages, wine, braciole, stuffed artichokes, glazed ham and mushrooms, pies and cookies, struffoli and chestnuts, fennel.  Uncle Frankie had served as a cook in the Navy.  Aunt Ida had learned secrets from our grandma.  Their Brooklyn home was filled every Christmas with relatives, music and food and candy canes and silver lanes aglow.  We’d eat and laugh and celebrate the day and then clear the table, digest and rest.  And then my sister, two cousins and I would head outside.

The weather never mattered.  One year it was 45 degrees and foggy.  One year the temperature was a frigid 7, with a wind chill that made it feel much worse.  Some years, East 8th Street was covered in ice.  Some years, it was downright balmy.  We didn’t care.  We dressed accordingly.  And we made up the rules as we went along.  There had to be a new football every year.  The first year, it was an old tennis ball.  Another year, it was a yellow Nerf ball.  We were all on the same team, so we had no real opponent.  We pretended we were the lowliest team in the NFL at the time.  I can remember being the New Orleans Saints or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quite often.  We “played against” the winner of the previous year’s Super Bowl, which meant Pittsburgh, Oakland, Dallas, San Francisco or Washington, since this happened in the late 70s and early 80s.  We could never run with the ball, we could only pass.  We gave ourselves four downs to make it from one manhole cover to the next, a distance of about 100 feet.  If we didn’t score a touchdown, our opponent scored.  Each possession was a quarter of the game.  After two quarters, we’d march back down the street humming a John Philip Sousa tune, to mark halftime.  My cousin John was almost always the quarterback.  My sister Gloria, cousin Judy and I were the receivers.  One year the fog made it almost impossible to see the ball.  We actually “lost” that year and when we went inside, our family members, some of whom had watched, squinting, from the living room window, wondered how we could have lost when there was no opposing team.

The best game happened in the bitter cold, on a Christmas night when the nearest streetlight was out.  Our “field” was very dark.  We joked about how, if one fan in the stands stood up to cheer us on, they all had to stand up because they were all stuck together, like icicles, that’s how cold it was.  At the end of four quarters, the game was tied, 14-14.  We were using a small brown dog-toy football that year which, given the lack of light, was incredibly hard to see, so we had only managed to score two touchdowns.  We decided, despite the cold, to play overtime, since no one was satisfied with a tie as the final score.  We started at the north manhole, as usual, the one closer to Foster Avenue.  Someone caught the first pass for a gain of about 20 feet.  The next pass was dropped, either because of stiff, frozen fingers or impossible darkness.  The next pass gained us another 25 feet or so.  That left us with one more chance, one more pass to win the game.  But the end zone was at least 18 yards away, at the darkest end of the street.  John told us all to just bolt for the far manhole and turn around.  I ran the fastest, buzzed up the left side and crossed to the right once I was in what we considered to be the end zone.  I saw John launch the little brown ball.  It disappeared into the blackness for a second but I could tell it was headed my way.  I turned a pinch to my left to try to see it and suddenly, there it was, headed directly for my right ear.  I caught it, basically, with my head and then quickly covered it up with my hand so it wouldn’t bounce away.  It was the luckiest, craziest, most amazing football catch I had ever made and it saved us the embarrassment of having to tell our warm, relaxing family members that we had lost the Christmas Bowl once again.  A true Christmas miracle.  The final score was 21-14 (OT) in our favor and I don’t think a more fun football game has ever been played.

We keep threatening, the four of us, to get together some Christmas night and go back to East 8th Street in Midwood to play the Christmas Bowl one more time, even though a new family occupies that house we used to visit with such joy and anticipation.  The front door is the same, the nine living room windows are the same, the stoop is still separated into two sections.  Maybe we really will do it someday.  For now, we revel in the memories and photos and we share embellished, exaggerated tales of the glory with the newest members of the clan.

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When I was in college I wrote a book of poetry and photography.  The title I gave it was Influence of Absence.  I gave it that title because I believed then, as I still do now, that so much of who I am, what I am, HOW I am has been greatly influenced by the absence, almost my entire life, of my father.  My mom used to tell me that I walked like him and had his dry, northwestern sense of humor.  This revelation has perplexed me for decades and the only explanation I have been able to muster is that my gait resembles his because I inherited his bone structure.  My right foot angles outward with every step because of how my legs and hips are constructed.  It’s a working theory.  As far as sharing his sense of humor is concerned, I am open to suggestions to explain this phenomenon.  It makes no sense.  He died before I had any serious verbal abilities and I find it hard to believe that something as abstract as a sense of humor is genetically transferable.  I tend to attribute it to lucky coincidence.  Because of the stories I have been told by family elders, I am perfectly willing to accept that I do indeed share my dad’s dry wit and I consider it a gift.  I embrace it.  Still, he never had the chance to influence me by his actions, by being a role model or actively sitting down to teach me things.  It was his absence that influenced me more than anything.

My oldest sister tried to take his place and she has been another significant influence in my life.  She taught me a lot about playing the guitar, appreciating all kinds of music, doing the right thing and not being afraid to be myself.  She even let me know that, although it was the 1960s and Title IX did not yet exist, it was okay, good even, for girls to be athletic.  I am a ballplayer, a lifelong Yankees fan and a New York Giants fan thanks to her.  Our favorite teams have not done so well lately, but it’s okay.  I learned team loyalty from my sister, also, and I am happy to say that I will never be a fair-weather fan.

My “stepfather” was another big influence in my life.  For pretty much the entire nine years we lived together, he was a fantastic example of how not to be.  He showed me that being cruel hurts everybody involved, that there’s nothing joyous about life as a bully, that meanness is a happiness thief.  Thanks, asshole!  I have not forgotten you, but I have pretty much forgiven you.

The best, most influential professor I had in college, Ignacio, is 80 years old now and still an active part of my life thanks to social networking.  He re-taught me how to think, as a poet and a philosopher, in my freshman year.  If not for Ignacio I would still be that dopey kid who meant well but just didn’t get it.  There’s still a whole universe of things that I just don’t understand, but now I can recognize and accept my vast ignorance.  And speaking of a vast ignorance, is it the opposite of a split infinitive?  Ignacio?

In the very early days of my professional career there was Laurel, who basically, flat-out asked me, “Are you gay?” way past the time that I should have accepted, embraced and explored this myself.  Whew!  Thanks, Laurel, for being brave and coming right out, pun intended, to plainly illustrate the obvious.  Who knows how much longer I would have gone on denying my true identity if you hadn’t come along to positively influence my life.  Where are you now, anyway?

The Merriam-Webster definition of influence, as a noun is

: the power to change or affect someone or something : the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen
: a person or thing that affects someone or something in an important way
and as a transitive verb is
: to affect or change (someone or something) in an indirect but usually important way : to have an influence on (someone or something)
The key words in these definitions, I think, are power, change and important.  I am trying to be a powerful influence in the lives of my daughters, an agent of positive change.  Someday I’ll be dust, hopefully sweet memories for them to share, fodder, possibly, for their own blogs or memoirs or screenplays.  This afternoon, at a middle school meeting about the progress of child number two, I was told, by some of the teachers, many wonderful things and that I must be doing a lot right.  It felt great to hear all this, but I can’t take all the credit.  It’s a trickle-down effect.  So be good, be kind, be helpful and forgiving toward the people around you.  The effects can linger for generations.
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The Roost Pub was crowded and smokey.  Bob Marley was blaring from the CD juke box.  Eddie was behind the bar.  A typical night, in other words, at our team’s sponsor bar.  The owner made good money off of the entire softball league, even though he only gave money back to our team.

Minerva was here somewhere.  I didn’t see any extra bar stools or tables or video games, so I wondered how she was disguised.  Then I realized that she probably wouldn’t want to just transmute back to herself in front of a whole bar full of people so I tried the women’s room.

It felt ridiculous to be in there with the drippy sink, the mop and the plunger, whispering her name and begging her to show herself, but my hunch paid off.  In one instant there was an extra roll of toilet paper resting on a corner of the sink.  In the next, Minerva was sitting there, cross-legged and gorgeous.

“Oh, shit,” I exclaimed as I turned around and nearly fell over her.  “Don’t scare me like that when you transmute!”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “How can I avoid scaring you?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I responded, trying to keep my voice below a trembling roar.  “Make a noise first or something.”

“You mean a noisy roll of toilet paper would scare you less than…”

“How the fuck should I know?  Geez, what the hell were you doing disguised as a roll of toilet paper anyway?  What if someone came in here and used you?”  My moments with Minerva were beginning to feel increasingly like a bad Friday situation comedy on TV.  My Pet Alien or something like that.

A smile crossed her face and lit up the tiny room.

“I’d come back with a little less nostril hair or something.  And wouldn’t it be worth it?”

“Gross,” I said.

“Gross?  How can you say that?  Are you a lesbian of the 90s or aren’t you?”

“Of course I’m a lesbian!”

“Well then what’s gross?  Think about it.  What’s between your legs more, toilet paper or a lover’s tongue?  Or fingers?  Or whatever.”

I couldn’t believe this whole conversation.  Not only was I stuck with My Pet Alien, but I was stuck with My Pet Alien, the Ralph Kramden edition.  Toilet paper?  She really was nuts.  I was dooming my entire team to not just a nut house but a nut planet.  Yet we hadn’t had much time to just plain react to one another as, well, as buddies, I guess, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt and went along with her.  She was grinning anyway, so I supposed she was just yanking my chain and enjoying it.  Glitteraxian humor.

“Okay,” I said.  “Considering I’ve been using toilet paper for more than thirty years and I’ve only been out as a dyke for eight or so, I’d have to go with toilet paper.”

“Kim, Kim, Kim,” she said, laughing and shaking her head.  “Toilet paper takes three seconds to use.  Making love, however….  Well, you’re good for at least two hours if what I know about your sexual appetite is correct.”

“My sexual appetite?  Just what could you possibly know about my sexual appetite?”

“Ah, you forget, I’ve met your girlfriend.”

“Yeah, so?”

I assumed she was talking about Paris, whom I considered more of a lover du jour than a real girlfriend.  I knew she smiled a lot but I didn’t think she was the type to go talking about our sex life with a near stranger.

“She thinks about it often.  Sometimes it’s difficult to screen out what’s really on someone’s mind, even when she’s thinking about something completely different.”

I leaned against the bathroom door, heat pulsing from my cheeks, heart throbbing.  It was beginning to bother me that I was going to risk my life to help alien women on another planet and I was going to be totally at their mercy for air, water, food, shelter, everything.  For what would seem like two weeks.  And they would be able to read my thoughts.  Our thoughts.  All twenty of us.  If something went wrong there would be no escape.

The grin faded from Minerva’s mouth and she told me to relax.  She jumped down from the sink and her right hand reached up to rest on my shoulder.  It was then that I realized how tightly I was gripping the doorknob behind me.  Slowly, I let it go.  Minerva came closer and carefully folded my trembling body into her arms.  She held me and rocked me and whispered that it was okay.  Her whole body felt like a pillow.  I sank into its warmth and let her be in charge.  My fear and my need for control melted to the bathroom floor.

“Yes, that’s it.  All your muscles. Kim.  I have you and I won’t let you go.  You’re safe.  Your friends are safe.  We’re all intergalactic sisters.  My people truly need you.  Nothing will go wrong.”

Her voice was an elixir.  Her arms were security and truth.  I held onto this glowing, beautiful alien and gave in.  The tightness that had reached across my back from shoulder blade to shoulder blade for years was suddenly gone, replaced by a vibrating heat.  My limbs felt heavy and hot.  My neck and head were nearly weightless.  I sobbed.  And I trusted her in a way I instantly knew I’d never have to doubt again.

We stayed that way for a moment, gripping each other tightly, until a knock on the door brought us both back to hardcore reality.

“Okay,” I shouted as Minerva and I parted.  “I’ll be right out.”  I sniffed a little, washed and dried my face and flushed the toilet once for good measure.  Then I turned to Minerva and grabbed her elbow.

“Thanks,”  I said.  “I feel much better now.  But before you go out there you should know something.”

Her eyebrows inched towards each other.  So much of what she did made her seem incredibly human.  How was it possible that she was of a different species entirely?  Was the Milky Way really populated by humanoid creatures with only subtle differences, the way it was portrayed on Star Trek?  Would the nine other Glitter-X ambassadors traveling the galaxy looking for other volunteers bring to their planet ninety humanoid women from other Earth-like planets and if so, would we Earthlings get to meet them once we made it to Glitter-X with Minerva?  I knew she would read these thoughts flying through my mind if I let them linger there too long so I got back to the task at hand.

“My teammates should be out there by now,” I said with all the seriousness I could muster and a thrust of my thumb towards the door.  “The interested ones.  Just like we planned.  They’re scared, excited, anxious.  On the way over here one of them expressed concern that her clone won’t ever learn about about her African heritage.  Made me wonder about my clone and her daughters never knowing about their Italian and Scottish heritage.  Or anything about the existence of the USA.”

“But Kim…”

“I know.  I understand.  Our clones and their children will be Glitteraxians.  All I’m trying to tell you is that if you ever took a course in public relations, now’s the time to use it.  Be honest, Minerva.  But be convincing.  Be charming.  They’ll listen to you.”

I opened the door and was relieved to see Paris at the far end of the bar, chatting it up with Eddie.  The only person who saw Minerva and me leave the bathroom together was a red-eyed, foot-tapping Bomber outfielder who seemed more interested in peeing than keeping tabs on who was going in and out of the women’s room.

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(Chapters 1 & 2 of this story appear earlier in this blog)

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There’s a history of heart disease in my genes.  On my mother’s side specifically.  My mom was one of ten children in a lively, Brooklyn-based, Italian-American family.  The food was always delicious.  The conversations were always loud.  The gatherings were always special.  Mom lost her mother, a sister and a brother to heart attacks.  And she also lost a nephew the same way.  Joey.  He was way too young to suddenly drop dead on a trip with his parents to the town near Naples where our grandmother was born.  He could not wait to take them there.  As a travel agent he had taken many trips but his workaholic parents had never been much of anywhere, other than yearly Caribbean cruises on their favorite ship, the Oceanic.  How sad it was, almost 30 years ago, during their first and long-anticipated trip to Italy, to have lost their only child.  Joey was the oldest grandchild of the 20 my grandparents had.  He lived to be 41.

As the oldest cousin, he, I suppose, considered himself our ringleader, responsible for our safety and good times when we all got together for holiday meals.  My grandparent’s house was large and creaky, a 3-level, detached frame house on the corner of Ocean Parkway and Parkville Avenue.  728 Ocean Parkway, to be exact.  It was torn down years ago to make room for condos.  There were two kitchens; one in the finished basement and one on the main floor.  When the grown ups were in the basement, we’d go upstairs.  If they were gathered in the living room, we’d head to the basement.  The lower kitchen had a Formica and stainless table with a diner-like bench seat that went 3/4 of the way around.  We’d get in on one end and bounce on our butts all the way around to the other end, get up and out and slide back in to do it all over again.   When I walk into an Italian grocery that smells like that kitchen I want to buy everything in sight.

When we were upstairs, we played in the living room.  Joey had invented a club for us, cousins only, which he called the Bock-A-Boodle Club.  The only requirement, other than being an actual cousin, was to do whatever Joseph said to do.  When he said spin in a circle, we all tossed our heads back and spun in a circle, like tops on a rampage.  When he said to change direction, we all stopped and went the other way.  Finally, he would tell us to drop to the floor and the room would keep spinning around us.  It made us all giddy.  If any of us tried to do this today, it would make every single one of us sick.

Sometimes he would turn off all the lights and tell us scary stories.  The ones that got to us the most were about the fictional Mrs. Cummings.  She was old and her fingers were gnarled like the roots of ancient trees.  She wore all black and drove up to the houses of misbehaving children in a shiny black sedan.  Where she took bad kids we preferred not to be told.  All we younger cousins knew for sure was that if Joey uttered the much-feared line, “Mrs. Cummings is coming,” it was time to sit up straight, be silent and await further instructions.

Quite often, the further instructions would indicate that it was time for my favorite activity, a game I have long thought of in my mind as Piano Jumping.  My grandparents had a baby grand in their living room.  In front of it was the sleek, dark piano bench.  Next to it was the mushy old sofa.  The game was to hop up onto the bench, step from there onto the closed lid of the baby grand and from there jump recklessly down to the soft cushions of the very old couch.  Our actions, much like the seat-pouncing game we played at the downstairs kitchen table, took us all in giant letter “C” formations, from piano bench to piano to couch.  Over and over and over we did this, with Joseph at the open end of the “C” to help us down and back up as we circled.  We got away with this activity for only so long.  Eventually, the stomping we did down onto the floor would become too much for the adults in the basement and my grandmother would amble upstairs to yell at us in her Neapolitan dialect, her false teeth clattering in her mouth.  The ’58ers, my cousins Tom and Philip and I, would never get in trouble because we were all small enough to fit under an end table together and would hide as soon as we heard her on the stairs.  Hiding from her in this way and visiting her at her florist shop, creating the arrangements on a rough wooden table in the back room and then turning to stir soup or gravy at the stove she had at the store are the only memories I have of my amazing grandmother.

We all knew Joey was gay.  Still, he remained in the closet his entire life.  As we got older he would tell us about girls he was “dating.”  He would show up at graduation parties with his boyfriend Al in tow and introduce him as a friend.  I guess, as maturing members of the Bock-A-Boodle Club we still felt a loyalty to our leader and never outed him or told him to just come out already because it would be fine with us.  A bunch of us were gay, too.  And we were a close family.  He may have encountered disdain or disapproval from a few at first but ultimately, no one in the family would have stopped loving him.  When Al died, also of a massive heart attack at the age of 41, I called Joey to tell him how sorry I was and how much I knew Al meant to him.  It was code, still, for “I’m so sorry your lover is gone.  I’m here if you need me.”  Joseph started to cry on the other end of the line.  He thanked me profusely and kept telling me how much it meant to him that I understood.  I was a baby dyke at the time, deep in my own depths of denial, but what I knew for sure about Joey, Joey probably also knew about me.  I officially came out to my family a year after Joey was gone.  I wish I had had the courage and strength to do it while he was still alive.  We could have been gay together!  And I think that would have made him more comfortable with himself.  My theory is that the stress of being in the closet for so long, feeling the responsibility as the oldest cousin to be what his parents and aunts and uncles and cousins would consider a perfect example of Italian-American masculinity and his constant need to make up stories about himself all contributed to his early demise.  I have been “out” for 30 years and I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to try to live a closeted life.  I miss my cousin Joey so much.  He’d be in his early 70s now.  He’d still live in Brooklyn.  He’d be out.  He’d love my girls to the moon and back and maybe he’d even admit them as members of the Bock-A-Boodle Club.

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