Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Three Score Inventory

    Somehow, without grace or dignity, I’ve completed sixty years of life.  It seemed appropriate to write something about it, but it’s been hard to settle on a form.  Literarily, there are many choices – essay, manifesto, autobiography – they all seemed too self indulgent and narcissistic.  Considering who I am, I don’t need more encouragement in that direction.

I settled on an inventory.  I'm listing, more or less, objectively what my life has summed up to now.  The inventory doesn’t allow me much sensitive privacy, and honesty has always been an important part of who I am.  It’s not always what I do, but it is what I aspire to.  

There are no secrets.  There are only facts that can hurt you and facts that can't.  It's only the facts you try to hide that can hurt you.  Someone always knows. That's why I keep so few secrets.  Plus, it's easier to keep track of the truth.

So here’s the inventory.

Passport photos, L-R 1967, 1970, 1979, 1985, 1996, 2006 - artifacts are due to passport stamp on photo
I have two brothers and two sisters.  I love them more than anyone on earth.  The kinds of engagement I have with them is different for each one.  They are my best friends, and I haven’t the shadow of a doubt if I called from Antarctica and said I needed any one of them, they would be at my side as fast as the universe would let them.
Beaupre kids, circa 1960

I have visited 129 cities in 42 countries on four continents (although not Antarctica).  I’m way behind schedule.  An Ecuadorian friend once said to me “…la vida es corta y el mundo es pequeño…”  (“life is short and the world is small…”).  It’s been a guiding principle.  I will not have the opportunity to visit another planet in my lifetime, so I should see as much of this one as possible.  I’ve visited Mother Theresa’s tomb in Kolkota, and swam with the seals in the Galapagos.  I’ve walked the hallways of the Sydney Opera house, gone to the 80th floor of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, meditated in the ruins of the great theatre at Mycenae in Greece, and ridden horse back in the Valle de Maravellas in Colombia.  I’m mostly reminded how little I’ve done, and how much there remains to be experienced.

I have shared a Long-Term Bed, a decade each, with precisely two.  The Home-Town girl went with me to live for a year in Paris and moved to New York with me after that.  I moved to California with The Colombian, sending him ahead by air and me driving across the country with all our belongings.  Then I taught him to drive.

The one common element between each of those spectacular crashes is me, so I must carry responsibility for the failures too.  It’s little consolation, but it’s only fair.  The best I can figure is that I have a strong and suffocating personality, and each of them simply wanted away from me.  WHY we broke up in both cases has been easier to understand than HOW they happened.  It was likely not intentional, but they each broke my heart, needlessly, pointlessly, in their own special way.  It only proved to me that no matter how old you are, there remains the capacity to be an impetuous brat.

The weird thing is that neither of them held much of a sexual attraction for me.  But sweetly, gently, and in increments, we grew to love each other; both The Home-Town Girl and The Colombian, a decade each, a decade apart.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was out of both of those relationships that I came into my own, sexually.  I grew up in Nevada, but I GREW UP in New York.  I’ve always found it sexy, scary, intoxicating, addictive, inevitable; a place that knew me better than I knew myself.

I’m not alone, or lonely, even though I live by myself now.  I have a handful of really close and beloved intimates, and a huge extended tribe of students, cousins, old friends and colleagues from the various endeavors of my life.  They console me, despite the fact that I tend to hide out a lot and avoid everyone.  I love them more than they know and attend to them less than they deserve.

The closest of those friends is Ivy.  It is impossible to explain our connection, but it is deep, rich beyond measure, and a sustaining fountain of my life. 
Ivy, circa 1990,
photo by Ashkan Sahihi
A friend asked me if my passionate friendship with Ivy would change when she married David.  There wasn’t a moment of hesitation.  I figured if he loved Ivy as much as I do, then I had to love him too.  Done.  Easy.  I love them both.

I’ve been HIV+ for over a quarter of a century, my survival due as much to fate and physicians, as it is to working constantly on the little things required to stay alive.  There have been harrowing episodes, and close calls.  It has never been guaranteed I would make three score years, but I must have accidentally done some things right, considering that I am writing this now.

I try to bake my own bread as often as I can.  I don’t always have time, but it’s  it’s good for the heart and soul; a useful skill to have; one of which I am inordinately proud.  It connects me with centuries of ancestors and civilization, and makes meals as much a sacrament as a source of nourishment.

The one person who has had the greatest influence on me – with all deference and respect to my Mom, who has loved me unconditionally, and my Dad who loved me conditionally – was my beloved grand mother, Marjorie Hugo Tanner, known to her grand kids as ‘Mimere’.  She died in 2006 at age 100 & ½.  She was a huge, quiet, creative force who never doubted that I would do something important, even while I did.

When you talk about most people, there’s always a caveat:  “…he’s a good father, but…”  - or “…she raised some great kids, but she…”  There was no caveat or conditional explanation with Mimere.  She was loved by virtually everyone. I never knew anyone to have a beef with her, and even her sometimes sensitive relationship with my dad was never communicated to us.  I assume she wasn’t happy with the way my dad lived his life and more important, how he treated her daughter, my mom.  Nonetheless, she never showed anything but respect and deference to him, and for his part, I think my dad worked to try to earn her respect as well.  I don’t know how they felt about each other when they passed; Mimere outlived my dad by half a decade.  I don’t read
With Mimere, Bar Harbor ME, 1981
any special message in that; it’s simply the case.

I have a number of measurable accomplishments – awards, degrees, positions.  I’m mostly proud of them, although winning the earliest of my journalism awards was sometimes poignantly painful, as the statue or plaque or whatever seemed to mock me saying “…see, you won this award, but you live alone…”  I’m a bit more generous with myself now, and am genuinely proud of that recognition.

Of all my current accomplishments, however, I am most proud  that for the past four months, I’ve been swimming a little over three miles a week.  I don’t go for speed; it takes me over an hour, but I manage each mile without being winded or exhausted.  The water feels sensuous and it’s a good time to meditate, reflect, and focus my mind on the present.  I can’t imagine not swimming now.

My two best friends died last year; neither making it to sixty.  Claes Andreasson was the finest audio engineer and journalist I’ve ever known.  We travelled and worked together in Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Nevada and a number of locations in California.  He had a heart-attack four days before my birthday last year.  I miss him terribly.  He was the perfect friend at a perfect time in my life, the person I could speak to without judgment, edit or censor.  He’ll always be a presence and guiding force in my life.
Claes, 2011

The other friend, Christopher David Trentham - everyone knew him as 'CDT' - was one of the first people I met when I moved to LA with The Colombian.  We did our first national radio stories together, and grew as journalists, radio producers, and story tellers, pretty much learning on the fly, and winning a shelf full of awards.  Our friendship was as comfortable as an old pair of slippers – familiar, goofy, filled with inside jokes and convoluted language.  He would never ask me if I wanted to go to the movies; rather he would inquire “Might there be a cinematic event in our future?” – and invariably, when he purchased the tickets, he would text me “I have acquired the elusive ducats…”  My life was richer and fuller with Christopher as a friend.

Last July, Christopher announced that he was going to Paris and that I was going with him.  I thanked him, and said I’d love to go but that I didn’t think I could afford it.  He looked me in the eye and said “Money (long hesitation) is no object…”
CDT, Paris 2012

An offer I couldn’t refuse.  Besides, the one thing I love more than visiting Paris is showing it to someone for the first time, watching them discover the Ile de la Cité, my favorite (if touristy) restaurant Chartier, and all the other highlights we could jam into 10 days.  We hit l’Opéra (Garnier really was out of his mind), Louvre, Champs Elysee.  We visited the Eiffel Tower, but with a six hour wait, didn’t go up.  We went to Saint Denis to see the graves of Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette and the succession of French monarch.  We even got to the Marché aux Puce in Clignancourt, which is not exactly a tourist destination, but an favorite haunt of mine.

For the first time, to be perfectly pretentious, I couldn’t remember how many times I’d been to Paris, not including the year I lived there with The Home-Town Girl.

Six weeks later, Christopher was dead from pancreatic cancer.  I don't know if he knew in Paris that he had mere weeks to live; I don't think so.  I sat at his bedside till the brutal end, but have some consolation in knowing the fun we had in Paris.

His passing was different from losing Claes exactly seven months before, but sadness is sadness.  There are no variations in flavor.

Both Christopher and Claes had become such pillars of my life, it had never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be there; that they would pass so long before me.

But when you think about it, you are going to outlive only half of your friends; the other half will go before you and you will have to grieve for their loss.

I expect to be promoted to the rank of full professor within a couple of weeks.  Teaching at this university is the longest job – by far – I’ve ever had.  Over the course of the past decade, I’ve moved through the ranks, earned tenure, served on countless committees and boards, taught something like 2,000 students.  I don’t know if I’m a good professor or not, but I think the students entrusted to us leave better than when they arrived. 

If there is anything about the inventory of three score years, it’s how little I really know.  My curiosity and inquisitiveness has never been stronger, but as for drawing great conclusion about life, I think I am more of a loss now than when I was younger.  Wisdom is elusive, and doesn't come on command, like an obedient dog.

No matter.

The big difference is that it worries me less now.  I’m more concerned with accomplishment than achievement, more comfortable in my skin, and have most of my faculties intact.  I assume that's a good way to look ahead to the decades I have left.