A mutual friend once said, “The best way to describe Doug is he epitomizes oops-ishness.” And half the reason that stuck with me (besides being true) is that I simply love the coined word, “oopsishness!” I met Doug back in 1976, shortly after moving to southwest Washington from Colorado. I met him shortly after joining an interdenominational (fundamentalist evangelical) teen touring choir, as we were both placed in the same section. Doug two years younger than I was. He was one of the first guys I had ever met who was nerdier than me–and that’s saying something!
Now, his oopsishness wasn’t just a matter of clumsiness. No, Doug took things to a much higher level. Doug wasn’t dumb, by any means, but sometimes he would be extremely oblivious. He would get himself into strange (and usually hilarious) predicaments without being able to explain afterward exactly how it happened. Which meant people who knew him wound up laughing, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, or picking their own jaws up from the floor after some of his mishaps. You know that old silent movie scene where a character steps into what appears to be an ordinary puddle of water on a street, but plummets completely out of sight? That actually happened to Doug. It was a flooded basement at his workplace rather than a street, but it happened.
Twice in a single evening. The second time at a different basement nearby.
That hardly scratches the surface, though. No, to really understand how oopsish Doug could be, you have to hear about the Train Crossing Incident.
We’d been out gaming with friends, and Doug was giving me a ride home. I was attending community college part-time and working multiple jobs at the time, and living at my grandparents’ house. I was trying to get the funds together to transfer to a university. Anyway, my grandparents lived in a part of town that was between several mills and the port, so there were a number of train tracks that crossed roads. None of the crossings had gates, but all of them had lights and those clanging bell signals. And because none of the crossings had gates, the trains were required to sound their whistles a lot. Living in that neighborhood, by the way, is where I developed my ability to sleep through just about any noise.
We were driving along a dark road and Doug was enthusiastically telling me a story about some horrible thing that had happened to him recently. Ahead of us was a crossing, there was a train off a ways to our right, sounding its whistle, and the lights and bells of the crossing signal ahead of us were going full blast.
And I realized, suddenly, that Doug wasn’t slowing down. So I said, “Doug! There’s a train coming.”
Doug kept talking, and he’s not slowing down.
I repeated, slightly louder, “Doug! There’s a train! Stop!”
Doug kept talking. We are now close enough that I don’t know if we can stop in time, and the train is awfully close. I exclaimed, “Train! Train! Train! Stop the f–ing car!”
We crossed the tracks. The train was so close to us that as I shouting obscenities and looking out of the passenger window, I couldn’t see the headlight because it was blocked by the roof of the car, but I can count the smashed bugs on the front of the engine.
I was holding on for dear life, absolutely certain the train was going to hit us before we were past.
And then we’re on the otherside and I’m still shouting, and honestly, I don’t know how Doug could hear me over the deafining whistle, but he says, “What are you so upset about?”
“WE NEARLY DIED! DIDN’T YOU SEE THE TRAIN!?!”
I looked at him, and he’s peering at the rearview mirror, his mouth dropped open in a shocked expression, because all he can see is freight cars rushing past fairly close behind us. And then he said, “Wow, where did that train come from?”
Given the physics of the situation and how long Doug’s big ol’ four-door Oldsmobile was, I think the train couldn’t have missed the back bumper by more than an inch.
Doug stopped the car. He sat there, gripping the steering wheel and almost hyperventilating. “I didn’t hear anything. Was the signal working?”
“Yes. Bells clanging, lights flashing, train whistle blow, and me shouting at you to stop!” I replied.
After about a half a minute he says, “Wow,” and he starts laughing as he takes his foot off the brake and we start moving again. “I don’t know how I missed that!”
I was still trying to calm down. Doug seemed sincerely shocked and insisted he hadn’t seen or heard the train or the signals, nor my first several warnings. And I believed him. It fit perfectly with many things I’d seen before. He could recall miniscule details from a movie he had just watched, or a book he had read, but swear he didn’t notice that a door which had been open a few minutes prior was now closed and walk right into it.
I used to love telling this story to both people who had never met Doug, and to folks who knew him. And the thing is, Doug loved telling these kinds of stories about himself, and did so all the time.
As funny as they are in retrospect, the experiences were often painful and terrifying to live through. And then, years later, we got an explanation.
Doug and I hadn’t lived in the same town for some years when I heard that he had become seriously sick and was trying to get on disability. I had last visited him and his wife about eight years previously, but we kept in touch via email. I pinged him to see how things were going, and soon we were on the phone. We laughed a lot, despite the subject matter being so serious.
Originally he had been diagnosed with generic peripheral artery disease, which is most commonly the result of the gradual build up of fatty materials inside the arteries. But they eventually discovered that the underlying cause was a more rare condition, one in which a person has fewer capillaries per volume of tissue to begin with. It was a congental problem he’d had his entire life, it was just getting noticeable as a medical issue as the ordinary build up of fat inside the vessels restricted things further.
In effect, his entire life every organ in his body had struggled with less than optimal levels of oxygen and nutrients because there were literally fewer tiny blood vessels, everywhere. It’s probably the reason that he always caught every virus or sniffle that went around. It also contributed to his longer than usual recovery times when he got injured. And it also meant that under lots of circumstances, his brain would be left with inadequate oxygen. And we think that one of the ways that the brain defends itself from damage in those cases, is to essentially shut down some functions temporarily, until oxygen levels return to normal.
I was getting depressed listening to him describe it, and starting to feel guilty for all the times we had shared those “Doug does something unbelievable weird or dumb” stories.
But Doug didn’t look at it that way at all. “It’s a relief, actually,” he said. “I mean, for years I kept wondering if something was wrong with me, mentally. But finding out that yeah, something is wrong, but it’s medical is a lot easier to accept. It’s not that I’ve got an intellectual deficiency, it’s that my body was dealing with this weird problem we didn’t know about. Literally, part of my brain would be starved of oxygen and shut off!”
Sadly, by the time of this diagnosis, there wasn’t much they could do. He had already suffered a lot of tissue loss not just in the muscles of his extremities, but also throughout his organs. They could slow the progression of the tissue necrosis by keeping him on oxygen, for instance, but the usual techniques for treating arterial disease such as bypass and so forth couldn’t address the underlying issue. The blocked arteries made it worse, but the capillary deficiency would still be there.
We stayed in touch mostly through the magic of the internet until his death just over six years ago. He remained his usual cheerful self throughout the last few years of his life. He always made a joke no matter how bad the news that he was sharing about the latest development was. As he said just about every time he told a story about one of his mishaps, “If you can’t laugh about it, what’s the point?”
Nineteen years and one week ago, Michael and I went on our first official date.
We had known each other for a few years. Ray and I had met him at a NorWesCon a couple years before that, and then again at the next NorWesCon (where he signed up for the Tai-Pan mailing list), and then he came to a Red Dwarf Marathon Party at our place and we started hanging out a lot. Then, when Ray died, Michael was one of the friends who kept me from completely falling apart.
It hadn’t been quite three months since Ray’s death when I asked Michael on a real date. I was nervous, not about the date, because we were already friends, but I wasn’t sure how some of my friends would react to the news. The first person I told was Kehf. She put her fists up, went “Woooo! I hoped something like this was happening. He lights up when you walk into a room.”
And the only thing I could think of was that I wanted to keep making Michael smile. I wanted that smile in my life forever.
I didn’t propose that weekend. But it wasn’t long after. We didn’t tell people, because I was still getting some weird reactions from several friends (and even worse from family) at just the thought that I was dating so soon after Ray’s death. So we made this very sober and rational plan that we would wait until at least November before moving in together. And we might have sticked to it, too. But some weirdness happened with a p[air of new roommates at the house he was sharing with several (they weren’t hostile, they just had no sense of boundaries and did weird things like decide to switch rooms with him and moved all of his stuff without consulting first, and other creepy things) and I barely stopped myself from going ballistic. He was being calm and telling me I was overreacting, and I was “No! We’re getting you out of there now!”
So he moved in with me in August of ’98 and we’ve been together ever since.
I would have to go dig around in the filing cabinet to remember the date of our commitment ceremony. My then-employer changed the rules for adding domestic partners to insurance, and we had to have certain papers signed by a particular date, so the times was thrust on us. We decided to sign medical powers of attorney while we were at it, and since you need to have a notary and witnesses for that we made a small party out of it. It was fun, but wasn’t timing of our choosing. Neither to I remember the exact date we officially signed the paperwork for the state level civil unions, when they became legal.
Our wedding when marriage became legal in the state was also a date that wasn’t entirely our choosing (the very first day you could legally do it), but because of when the law passed the previous spring, and its implementation being delayed because of the anti-gay referendum attempt, and ultimately the voters getting to approve marriage by a comfortable margin, we had months to plan. And our friends threw us a great shindig. So that date I remember. It’s an anniversary, legally and otherwise.But while I don’t remember other details of our first date, I do remember it was February 7, 1998, and it was clearly one of the most important days in my life. We didn’t have a meet-cute. We didn’t experience a lot of hijinks or drama. I still can’t quite believe such a funny, smart, talented, wonderful man can put up with me at all, let alone love me. But he does. And clearly I’m completely and totally gone on him. Happy Valentine’s Day, Michael!
I come from a long line of packrats. So I have a very strong visceral reaction to the idea of throwing something away. Especially if there is any sort of sentimental attachment to it at all. So, when Ray passed away twenty years ago, when his mother, sister, and I went through all of his things to decide who would keep what and which things would go to a thrift shop, it was a very emotionally difficult time for me. I hung on to all sorts of things. And a couple of dozen of those things were some mugs. I didn’t hang on to all of his collection, by any means. For one thing, there were a several of the mugs that his mom, his sister, and one of his brothers wanted, because they reminded them of him. Those were easy to let go of, because I wasn’t disposing of them, I was sharing them with someone else who loved Ray as much as I did. But I still had a rather lot of them after that process was over.
And when I said I hung onto a couple of dozen, that’s a bit of an understatement. We had these racks mounted on the wall in the kitchen, each of which held ten mugs. There were four racks on the wall, and all of the racks were completely full. That wasn’t the entire collection. Even after several of his family members took some away. To be fair, not all of the mugs left hanging on the wall had been Ray’s. There were a couple that had been mugs I owned before Ray and I met, and there were several more that had been gifts to me from either Ray or a friend or family member which I hung onto with at least as much of a sentimental attachment as Ray had clung to his.
When Michael and I moved in together, I went through all of my stuff and all of Ray’s former things again, and had a not terribly pleasant emotional time picking more things to haul away. And that included some of the mugs and tea cups. Periodically over the years, we’ve repeated the process of going through things, getting rid of stuff we don’t use any more and/or forgot we had. It gets easier, particularly when I find something squirreled away on a shelf in a closet that I barely recognize, and can only vague describe as, “these are some souvenirs Ray wanted to keep of… something.”
The mugs have been a weird case because they’re hanging on the wall in the kitchen. I see them all the time. Unlike the boxes in closets or cupboards, I don’t ever forget they exist.
And we keep acquiring new mugs. People find funny or pretty mugs and get them for one or the other of us for various birthday occasions. Or we buy them for each other. So I have to go through the mugs from time to time and decide which one or two or three to get rid of to make room for the new.
The most ridiculous part is, that most of the mugs hang up there on the wall and never get used. It’s sort of embarrassing if we have company over, and we have tea and/or coffee on offer, and somebody picks a funnyy mug off the way before I can get them one, because most likely which ever one they pick is going to be really dusty. So much so that they need more just a quick rinse to clean out. Part of that is because there were forty mugs hanging from the wall one only two people living here. But another part is that bit I mentioned at the beginning about me being an I-need-my-favorite-mug kind of guy. I almost always drink coffee from this very over-sized purple mug of which I have written before. And I almost always drink tea from my “Queen of Everything” mug. I rinse and re-use those mugs day after day. And when, for whatever reason, I use a different mug, there is a fairly limited number of the mugs among the forty that are my go-to next favorites.
Which makes hanging onto all of the others even more ridiculous,—right? There are, for instance, two Christmas themed mugs, one that Ray gave me, and one that someone else gave Ray, that are among those I’ve hung onto forever. Most years I make a point of getting down each of them around Christmas and using them at least once. One of them has and odd-shaped handle with a jingle bell built in that is a bit awkward to hold onto, and isn’t as festive to use because it’s hard to make the bell jingle. But it’s the mug that Ray gave me for, I think it was, our second Christmas living together, so the thought of parting with it is painful. The other one has a much narrower base than its mouth, and therefore is prone to being knocked over, but Ray adored it, so… Another odd one is a Valentine’s Day themed mug that Ray gave me on our very first Valentine’s Day together. It’s handle is heart-shaped, and very awkward to use. I haven’t used in it many years, with the excuse being that it is literally almost impossible to get off the rack because of how tight a fit the weird handle it. But I also wouldn’t part with it because, you know, first Valentine’s Day, right?
With the upcoming move, and the fact that I’ve lived in this place for more than 21 years (whereas Michael has lived here with me for 18½) we have a whole love of stuff that either needs to be packed and moved, or hauled away. Among the things I went through this weekend was the mugs. Among the large load that filled the back of the Subaru which I took to Value Village on Sunday was a very heavy box with at least 38 mugs and tea cups in it, plus three no longer needed racks. This left ten mugs hanging on the wall, plus my two favorites that never get hung up on the wall.
It felt really good to unload the stuff at the thrift store, and to carry out the five big bags of recycle. But I had made a comment to Michael last night that with the amount of emotional effort to pull down all those mugs, it’s kind of disappointing that it didn’t result it a space I can use for staging in the coming packing efforts. When I’ve been going through shelves and closets, afterward I’m left with space I can stack packed boxes in, and so one. But these were all on the wall—not really a usable space.
So I wrote most of this post last night while I was trying to unwind from the long day and get mentally settled so I could go to sleep. That post ended with a comment about trying to remind myself of the end goal of not trying to unpack and find room for a whole bunch of stuff we never use when we find out new home.
But this morning, when I walked into the kitchen shortly after waking up, I was startled at how different the wall looked without those other three racks full of mugs (and while I was working on the wall, I also took down and hauled away a bunch of copper jell-o molds that have just been decorative for years as I stopped making jell-o things when I was diagnosed pre-diabetic back in 2001!). The kitchen still has a lot of clutter in it. Other than the mugs, the rest of my purging this weekend was focused on the computer room and bedroom. But I was amazed at how less crowded the kitchen felt with more blank wall visible, and the immediate emotional lift I got. I am making progress, but even more, I didn’t feel any guilt about getting rid of Ray’s mugs.
Yay for letting go!
In December 1991 Ray and I were spending our first Christmas living in our own place. It was a tiny studio apartment whose windows overlooked an alley behind a bar. I was in the middle of getting divorced. Ray had had a recent significant job change that was complicated by the involvement of one of his exes. So we were both broke and most of our personal property was at least temporarily in someone else’s custody.
His mom or his sister had given us a small artificial Christmas tree that had been boxed up in a garage for some time. Ray came up with a few old strings of Christmas lights somewhere. We had bought a single box of very cheap glass ball ornaments in multiple colors, and a similarly cheap tinsel star tree-topper with a cluster of lights. So we had the small tree perched on a chest of drawers. It’s the kind of first Christmas stories lots of couples tell. One of the things I really liked about that silly star treetopper is that it looked exactly like one my parents had bought when I was a baby, and had been my childhood treetopper until sometime in grade school when they replaced it with an angel.
One weekend a couple weeks before Christmas, we helped one of Ray’s friends, Miss Lee. She was an older woman that Ray had met when he had worked as a nursing aide a few years before. She had only recently moved from a nursing kind of facility to a sort of assisted living apartment. It was the first time in years that she had had more than a single room of her own, and she had recently gotten a bunch of her things that had been in storage at a relative’s house, including a box of Christmas ornaments. She had been told she could have a tree and that the maintenance staff would take care of disposing of cut trees after the holiday. So she needed someone with a car to take her to buy a tree, and then help her set it up.
Miss Lee lived in the south end of Seattle, not far from one location of the former Seattle institution known as Chubby and Tubby. Chubby and Tubby started as an army surplus store run out of a tin shed in the Rainier Valley neighborhood of Seattle by two friends after they came home from serving in WWII. They moved to a bigger location in Rainier Valley in the mid-50s, then opened at least two other stores (the one in north Seattle being the one I shopped at most often), before the owners passed away, then eventually their heirs sold the locations and closed down the stores in 2003. Chubby and Tubby was a strange store that’s really hard to describe. They sold blue jeans and tennis shoes and fishing poles and tools and gardening things and… well, just a whole lot of weird stuff. Always cheap.
And every December, each Chubby and Tubby store offered Christmas trees for sale, cheaper than you could find them anywhere else. In the 80s and 90s the price was alway $5 a tree, no matter what size. I’ve talked to people who remembered during the 70s when Chubby and Tubby trees were only $3. The owners sold the trees at a loss. They said they wanted to make sure that people who couldn’t afford a Christmas tree could have one. The trees were usually Douglas Firs, and they were… well, they were never very symmetrical. They were never as scraggly as the proverbial Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but they were always unique. I had purchased at least a couple of Chubby and Tubby trees in the years before this particular December. We hadn’t bought one ourselves that year in part because I didn’t think we’d be able to dispose of it easily afterward. Also, the loaned artificial tree was even cheaper.
Anyway, Miss Lee wanted a Chubby and Tubby tree, in part because she had fond memories of getting trees from Chubby and Tubby when she was younger, but also because you can’t beat the price. Before we’d gone to the store, we had untangled her strings of very old lights and determined that at least one of them was probably a fire hazard and shouldn’t be used. So she also hoped to find a cheap string of lights or two at Chubby and Tubby as well.
It was less than two weeks until Christmas, and Chubby and Tubby was absolutely packed. It took Miss Lee a while to pick out her tree, mostly because she wanted one small enough to fit in the spot she’d chosen in her living room. And then there were strings of lights and ornaments to look at. There was one particular string of Christmas lights that Ray was very taken with. A string of a couple dozen lights with plastic teddy bears wearing Santa hats. It was at Chubby and Tubby, so it was cheap, but even cheap was out of our own budget at the time. Miss Lee wanted something simpler, with multicolored lights for her own tree. She offered to buy Ray the string of Teddy Bears, but he told her very firmly no.
At each check-out line they had a bucket of odd little brass keys. There was a contest. Every customer could pick a key out of the bucket, and then try the key on this Treasure Chest at the front of the store. If the key opened the chest, you’d get a gift certificate good for certain items in the store. Miss Lee told Ray to pick a key and give it a try. The key he picked unlocked the chest. Ray asked her what she wanted to use the gift certificate for, and Miss Lee said, “It yours.”And yes, the string of Teddy Bear lights was one of the things he could redeem the gift certificate for. So we took home the string of teddy bear lights.
We got the tree back to her place, got it set up, helped her put her lights on the tree and hang her ornaments. She told us little stories about each ornament as she unwrapped them. It was a fun day.
When we got home that night, Ray hung up the teddy bear lights in the window over our bed. That silly string of teddy bear lights hung either in windows or on our tree every Christmas for the rest of Ray’s life. Ray died mid-November of 1997, not quite six years after that first Christmas living together.
For Christmas 1997 I barely did any decorating. Ray had only been dead a few weeks at the time we would normally start pulling decorations from the basement. I knew if I started unpacking our ornaments and such I’d break down sobbing and I wasn’t sure I would stop. I barely felt brave enough to open the storage closet in the basement to pull out one of the smaller artificial trees that I knew I could get to without opening other boxes. I decorated using some ornaments and a string of lights Ray had purchased on sale somewhere a week or so before he died, thus they were already upstairs and they didn’t have a history of Christmases with him.
In 1998, as I unpacked boxes of ornaments, I broke down crying several times. Ray had loved Christmas so much, and so many of the ornaments evoked memories of when he had found that particular decoration and showed it to me in the store. Or times he had fussed with where to hang it to best show it off, et cetera.
Yes, one of the times I broke down was when I pulled the teddy bear santa lights from one of the boxes. I hung them in the bedroom window that year. The next several years I put the teddy bear lights up. At least once on the tree, but usually in one of the windows. The last few years I’ve gotten them out and looked at them, debating whether I should put them up. They’re more than 20 years old. At some point old electronics, even something as simple as strings of mini lights, break down and/or become fire hazards. So I would plug them in, look them over, and some years I’d decide to put them back in the box. But most years I have still hung them up.
Our building, which was the last home Ray lived in and has been my home for a bit over 20 years, has been sold and the new owners want to do major renovations. They’ve given us advance notice that everyone’s going to be evicted sometime before 2017 year is over. So this was my last Christmas in the place that was Ray’s last home. I’ve been… moodier than usual this holiday.
I put the teddy bear lights in the kitchen window. Every evening they turned on and shown their silly light until the wee hours of the morning. I checked them frequently, but they never showed signs of problems.
But when I took them down out of the window, I noticed that several stretches of the wire are stiffer than other sections. The plastic doesn’t actually crack when you bend it in those locations, but clearly 20-some years of use is taking its toll.
While we were packing things and taking the tree down, I was looking at all of our decorations with a critical eye. If we have to move, it would be silly to move old ornaments and lights we know we’re never going to use again. I now have a couple of big boxes of old light strings and the like to recycle, and a big pile of other decorations that I think are in good enough shape to donate, if I can find a place that will take them.
And those teddy bear lights (or at least the string itself) shouldn’t be used again. No one wants the lights to start a fire some December in the future. So its time to says good-bye to Ray’s teddy bear lights. 25 Christmases later, they’ve earned a rest.
I don’t think I realized that Williams was the host of a weekly musical variety show until he changed networks in the late sixties. As far as I know, our family never watched his show except for the one Christmas-themed episode each year. There were a lot of variety shows on network TV back then, and there were several that we watched faithfully every week. I’m not sure why Andy’s wasn’t one.
And the Andy Williams Christmas shows were hardly the only Christmas-themed specials and musical programs we watched every year. I know I loved watching all of them. When I was about 10 or so one of my cousins went on a bit of a rant of what a freak I was because I liked watching specials—why would anyone want to watch people sing, for instance? But I realize the Andy William’s specials stuck out in my head precisely because we had the albums, which included some of his own original songs (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “A Song and the Christmas Tree”), so I could listen to them until I’d learned the lyrics, but also learned a lot of the harmony and counter-melodies and other vocal flourishes. So when those particular production numbers came up on screen, I could follow along.
I understand, now, why the cousin (and other relatives) thought I was a freak. I was the kind of boy who danced and sang along with the big theatrical production numbers in movies and on variety shows. I thought nothing of behaving that way in front of the family television. Which was quite entertaining for my adult relatives when I was a cute four-year-old, but much more disturbing as I got older.
When I got my own record player so I could listen to music in my bedroom, the Christmas season was when I’d close the door and imagine that I was the star of my own musical variety show, with the elaborate sets and costumes and the large groups of dancers and singers backing me up. I was worse than that. With careful use of a portable cassette recorder, the big stereo in the living room (when I was home alone), and some of those studio musician instrumental-only Christmas albums, I recorded my own Christmas shows. Not just me singing along with the instrumental albums, but then playing that recording over the stereo then with the recorder and a second (and third, and sometimes fourth) tape, recording myself singing the harmony parts along with myself.
Freak might have been putting it mildly.
I watched Williams’ faithfully into my teens. Even the really disastrously bad one that involved the cast (along with special guests Captain Kangaroo and Gomez Addams) are transported to Rock Land and Doll Land and I don’t remember where all else in a strange attempt at an original Christmas fable that made no sense…
When Williams’ weekly series ended, he signed a deal with the network to produce three or four seasonal specials a year, and one of those each year was a Christmas special.
Williams’ work weren’t the only Christmas albums I sang along with. And they aren’t the only old albums of that vintage that I’ve since tracked down and added to the insane amount of Christmas music that resides on my computers and phone. But even now when I find newer recordings by modern singers and bands that I like, I find myself imagining those songs performed on a stage in the style of one of the Williams’ Christmas episodes, with the costumes, sets, fake snow, and multi-camera coverage.
And sometimes, especially if I’m listening during the long walk home each night from the office, you may still catch me at least doing jazz hands while I sing along. Might as well make a production out if it, right?
Just a bit over 26 years ago I met a boy…
He was 25 years old, so not really a boy, but then I was only 29. I wasn’t completely out of the closet, yet. I regularly went dancing at a gay country bar, and I had just started singing with a newly formed lesbian & gay chorus, so I wasn’t deeply closeted, either. But as far as I knew at the time, other than one cousin none of my family knew I was gay. And only a few of my long-term friends knew.
Ray and I met online on a gay BBS system, and after lots of chatting over several weeks, had finally agreed to meet at a restaurant. I had trouble finding him, because he forgot to tell me that he’d recently dyed his hair. I wasn’t looking for a redhead.
I suspected he was a keeper when I saw the small bookcase beside his bed. I knew he was a keeper when we talked about one particular worn hardback. Not because of which book it was, but because he had a favorite book that he re-read several times a year. And talking about it made him start talking very animatedly about a lot of his other favorite books.
We’d been officially dating for a few months when he first told me that he liked to write. He hadn’t mentioned it before because I earned my living as a technical writer, and while my fiction had mostly been published in small, non-paying ‘zines, he was a little nervous about showing me his work. Turned out he’d never shown anyone his writing before. He had a bit of an inferiority complex about his education: he’d dropped out of high school after his father died to go to work to help his mom support his younger siblings. He had since gotten his GED and taken some community college classes, but he wasn’t confident in his writing skills.
I asked him if he wanted my honest opinion. I admit I was a bit nervous, too. What if I hated his work and couldn’t hide it? Fortunately, the first story he showed me wasn’t bad. It needed work. But he was happy to receive critiques and borrow some of my books about the writing process.
He kept working at it. Revising, writing, reading. He started occasionally sharing his work with other people. He even managed to get a couple of stories published in small ‘zines.
Then he got sick. When the doctors first told us he had two years or less to live, I refused to believe it. I was certain we were going to beat this. For the next few years there were lots of tests, treatments, a few scary visits to the ER, and then chemotherapy.
One night just over three years after they had told us he had less than two years to live (seven years and three months after our first date) he had a seizure and fell into a coma. I spent the next several days sitting beside his bed in an intensive care unit, waiting for him to wake up. But it wasn’t to be.
During the weeks afterward I went through his things, with help from his mother and sister. In the cabinet under the night table on his side of the bed, inside an envelope that said, “No Peeking!” I found a small package wrapped with Christmas paper, with a gift tag that said, “To Gene, Love Ray.” I didn’t open it. But the package was the size of a paperback book. And in another envelope in the same cabinet were two identical copies of a paperback anthology, along with some correspondence from the editor of the anthology.
He had sold two short stories that were included in that anthology. He’d sold them the year before, and had received copies of the book nine months before he died. And he’d never said a word to me about it. He’d wanted it to be a surprise.
He had a deadline for another anthology with the same editor coming up. I couldn’t figure out which of the stories he had on his computer he had intended to submit. I wrote to the editor and explained that Ray had died. The editor sent a very thoughtful condolence note back.
Ray had made his first professional fiction sale—two stories! —a mere six years after shyly admitting he was afraid to show his work to other people, but didn’t tell me because he wanted to see the expression on my face when I opened the package Christmas morning. I wish I’d known. I wish I’d been able to tell him how proud I was of him. I wish I’d been able to grab a Sharpie, hold the book out to him, and ask for his autograph.
Make no mistake, I love my husband, Michael. Every time I see his smile, I feel like the luckiest man in world. But I loved Ray, too. I miss him. I wish he had lived to see the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to see the citizens of our state vote to give same-sex couples the right to marry, to see the Supreme Court overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and of course to see that same court make marriage equality the law of the land.
This week Michael and I are going through our things, hauling stuff to Goodwill and so forth. We’re both packrats from long lines of packrats, so we have to do these purges every year or so. I tend to hang onto things, and I get overly sentimental over a lot of those things. I had a couple of rough moments Monday. One was when I came across the book with Ray’s stories on a shelf. Another was when I was pulling plushies from another shelf and found a small, peach-colored Teddy Bear. Only a few weeks after we started dating, Ray had to fly to Georgia for a business obligation. He picked up the teddy bear for me and a coffee mug for himself in a souvenir shop. Yes, 26 years later, I still have the “Georgia On My Mind” mug, and I still think of it as Ray’s mug.If he’d lived, today would have been Ray’s 52nd birthday. That’s right, our birthdays were only two days apart. We usually wound up celebrating both birthdays together with his family, and then would celebrate just the two of us on our actual birthdays. I assume that that is the reason that I start getting a bit depressed and moody every September. I can’t think about my birthday coming up without thinking about his birthday that we don’t get to celebrate.
I would love to see his goofy grin over a cake covered with candles at least one more time.
I think that I read it for the first time in the fall of 1976, shortly after my mother, oldest sister, and I had moved to southwest Washington some months after my parents’ divorce was finalized. My subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had lapsed not long before we moved, but I had been happy to discover that the public library in our new home town subscribed to the magazine. A couple times a month I spent a couple hours at the library reading the magazine, and I am fairly certain I read the October issue, which contained “The Hertford Manuscript” on one of those visits.
I definitely read the story a subsequent time when I bought the paperback of Donald Wolheim’s anothology, The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF a couple years later at the used bookstore. And since I re-read stories in that collection off and on over the next seven or eight years, I probably read it again several times.
Each time I’ve read the story, I began to suspect that the story was going to be a Lovecraftian tale, even with the hints in a completely different direction. And then each time there’s a point where I say to my self, “Oh! I think I remember this story…” Including when I re-read it this week.
The tale starts slow. Our narrator, Francis Decressie, tells of us of his eccentric Great Aunt Victoria, whose husband died in World War I, leaving her to run a rare books business, which she excelled at for many years. She occasionally told slightly scandalous stories of her youth when she was acquainted with H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. When his Great Aunt dies, her will bequeaths on him a 17th Century Registry—specifically a list of the admissions, discharges, and deaths of patients at a Franciscan Charity Hostel/Hospital in London.
In addition to the ordinary 17th century pages covered with small columns of very compact writing, are a number of pages that don’t match the others. The paper is just as old, but it is clearly manufactured using more modern methods, and the handwriting is very different than the rest of the register. And it appears to be a journal.
The narrator then reproduces the journal, and we find ourselves following Dr Robert Pensley, an acquaintance of H.G. Wells, as he recounts how, having completed his journey into the far future, meeting the Eloi and escaping the Morlocks to return to his own time and recount his findings to some friends, had undertaken a journey into the distant past. Except one of the quartz crystals in the mechanism of the machine breaks (he attributes this to damage inflicted by the Morlocks), trapping Pensley in 1665 England—right when the Plague is ravaging the land.
Pensley must find a jeweler or lens maker to create a replacement crystal, and has to deal with all of the problems of a nation in panic over an illness they do not understand. There are increasingly amusing attempts by Pensley to convince various authorities that the illness is spread by fleas on the rats. The lens-maker has difficulty tracking down a large enough piece of quartz, and various other things go wrong over the course of the tale.
The story ends with a few pages of the narrator explaining how he tried to prove that the pages were a hoax, but experts all agree the book has not be taken apart and restitched since the late 1600s, and he does find various bits and pieces of obscure historical evidence to back up some of the minor details the journal recounts.
And that’s it. The story ends with a philosophical observation about tragedy by the narrator.
The tale told in the enclosed journal was very engaging. The descriptions of the time traveler’s experiences in the mid-1600s pull you right into the tale. Cowper’s attention to historical detail is something that is seen in many of his other works, and serves him quite well here. The framing story is written in the style of a 19th century novel, evoking Dickens and Anthony Trollope and even a bit of Bram Stoker. Which is a little out of place given that the narrator is living in the late 20th Century, but is a nice homage to Wells.
As a kind of sequel to The Time Machine the story works well enough. The framing sequence is not quite as good as the time traveler’s journal. Especially the ending, which I found a little flat. I wanted more. I’m not sure how, exactly, but rather than leaving me wondering what happened next, it felt like he left out something.
So it was enjoyable, but not a mind-boggling revelation. Still, each time I read it, I recognize certain minor details that stuck with me, and have resonated with some of the ideas I’ve tried my hand at in my own stories. Every story we read doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Sometimes merely good is good enough.
In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando shooting, President Obama’s remarks were met with criticism from many corners, as they do, but there was a particular comment that seemed to really upset a lot of straight people on social media. This bit really got some folks’ panties in a bunch:
The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked was more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment…
Some people had a real difficult time understanding why anyone would refer to a gay bar as a place of empowerment. It’s really hard for most straight people to understand just how isolated and alienated queer kids feel their entire lives. We take a lot of flack, particularly white male queer people, from people of color whenever we draw parallels between our struggle for acceptance and equality with the struggles that racial minorities face. There are more similarities than some people want to admit, but they are correct that there are differences. And one of those differences is that isolation.
A member of a racial or ethnic minority growing up in a racist society is never told that other people like him or her do not exist. At all. Usually a person of color is aware of the existence of other people of color if for no other reason than the rest of their family is also a member of that racial or ethnic minority. They may live in a neighborhood where other members of the minority are neighbors, classmates, and so on.
Not queer kids. Until very recently, queer kids were pretty much guaranteed to grow up being told and shown again and again that every human is straight. Little boys are teased about having a crush on any girl or woman other than a close relative that they get along with. Little girls get told they will be a mommy some day. Every book, movie, television show, family anecdote, et cetera shows us again and again that every boy grows up to have a girlfriend, eventually a wife, and will become a daddy. And they tell every girl that she will grow up to be some boy’s girlfriend, then some man’s wife, and eventually will have that man’s babies.
And anyone who doesn’t do those things? Well, there’s something wrong with them! Unattached characters of either gender appearing in stories and shows are usually treated as the comic relief or as tragically alone. Lonely spinsters that everyone feels sorry for or eccentric bachelors that no one takes seriously are the least horrible futures that society tells us await us if we don’t fall in love with a person of the opposite gender and settle down.
That’s the initial indoctrination. The first level of lying, if you will.
As we get older, we start noticing other fates for men and women who don’t fit into the coupled hetero ideal. They aren’t just taken seriously and pitied, it’s worse than that. Some of those oddballs may indeed have special friendships with another person of the same gender, but that always ends in death for at least one of them. If one survives, it is as a broken creature, forever haunted by guilt and despair because of it.
The lies that we are told is that queer people don’t exist, or at least they don’t exist naturally, and those few queer people that do come about however that happens, will live lives that are filled with loneliness, despair, pain, suffering, and death. But it is a pain, suffering and death that they deserve because they are monsters.
When you are told those lies again and again; when you are made to feel like a freak any time you behave or feel anything other than what is expected; when you are not allowed to see any examples of queer people who aren’t object lessons who deserve pain and suffering—you believe it. Your parents, your teachers, your church, your neighbors, your classmates, and your siblings have all told you the same thing again and again your entire life. It must be true! There must be something deeply wrong with you, and that wrongness means that you can never be happy, never be loved, never know joy, never be accepted.
And you’ve been made to feel miserable any time that any hint of your difference has manifested. You have probably developed crushes on members of your own gender, but realized that the other person didn’t feel the same way. Or if the affection was returned, you both lived in terror of what would happen if anyone found out. If anyone has found out, there were some sort of bad consequences. One or both of your were beaten. You were forbidden to see each other. One or both of you might have been sent away or simply kicked out of your home by your parents.
So, the first time that we walk into a gay bar is usually a revelation. There are other people like you there! More importantly, you find people like you there who seem to be happy. The first visit may be a short one because you’re nervous and not sure what to expect. Or it might be that the atmosphere or theme of the place is catering to a different subset of the community than you identify with. But when you find a place that you can feel comfortable in, you see that there are people there who are living lives other than lonely and tragic. There aren’t just sexual or romantic relationships, there are friendships. People share drinks and a laugh when their life is going well, they share drinks and hugs and commiserations in times of sorrow.
And while you may not be a person who particularly fits in at the bar scene, there is still a sense of community and belonging that you can find there. One that many queer people never experienced before that.
My first few experiences in gay bars didn’t go terribly well. The first place I went to was more of a leather bar and I felt as if I’d stepped into a foreign country. My bright colored nerdy t-shirt didn’t help me fit in, but more importantly, I didn’t understand any of the non-verbal signals that were going on all around me. My second gay bar was filled with loud music that I had never heard before, and everyone was dressed in far more fashionable clothes than I could pull off. I felt like a very ugly duckling surrounded by a sea fashion models and body builders.
For me, the bar that clicked was the old Timberline. It was a mix of lesbians and queer men—a lot of people wearing cowboy boots and blue jeans. Country music was played there, and twice a week there were classes in line-dancing and two-stepping. Same-sex couples danced arm in arm, circling around the dance floor to the kind of music that I had grown up with. It wasn’t every queer person’s dream, but to those of us who are came to Seattle from the south or from rural communities just about anywhere, there were enough cultural touchstones to our childhood to make being an openly queer man dancing with another man feel like a magic transformation where the impossible suddenly seemed within reach.
That’s another reason the shooting hurts so much. Even though I haven’t been inside a gay bar in something like 14 years, the images of wounded people being carried out of the club not by paramedics, but by other people who were clearly part of the bar crowd was worse than a punch in the gut. One of our places was no longer ours.
I’ve rambled enough about this. We grew up being told we were monsters who should either not exist or be invisible. We grew up believing we would never have friends who would accept us for who we really were. We grew up believing that not only would we never find love, but that we didn’t deserve any form of happiness at all. For many of us, a queer club was one of the first places that we learned that all of those things were lies.
And it wasn’t just me who experienced that:
It was hardly the first time I had heard condemnation of homosexuality coming from the pulpit, but the hostility of these pronouncements was much worse than usual. It was also a bit unusual for a prayer to have such a long expository lump. Not completely unheard of, but enough to make several people in the congregation shift nervously. The prayer was going on and on for quite some time.
The subject of the prayer was also at odds with the sermon we had just heard. The sermon had been delivered by a visiting preacher. The church was having a revival week, which meant that a pastor from out of town presiding of the services, and the church was having a service every night of the week, rather than just the usual Sunday morning and evening worship service and Wednesday prayer meeting. And the visiting preacher had just delivered a sermon about the unity of the church. Nothing about sexual immorality or the like.
The preacher leading the prayer was not the same man who had delivered the sermon. He was the lead pastor of the church. And the tone of his prayer sounded more like an argument than a supplication for divine favor.
I was trying not to have a panic attack. If the church had been my home church I would have been in even more distress. But this wasn’t my church. I was at this service because I was the assistant director of an interdenominational teen touring choir, and we had been asked to have our smaller ensembles take a turn each night providing special music for the service. The ensemble I led within the choir had sang two songs earlier in the service, and we were scheduled to sing one more for the altar call at the end.
Anyway, among the reasons that I was upset at this unusually aggressive prayer was that I had been, to use the evangelical terminology of the time, “struggling with homosexual temptation” for years. Not that I had ever told anyone. I was too afraid of what would happen if I actually admitted to anyone in my church or family that I even thought about homosexuality.
And I had done more than dipped my toe into the waters of temptation. There had been a several occasions during the previous ten years during which I had taken the plunge right into the deep end.
At the time of this prayer, it had been at least two years since my last plunge. And that had been with a stranger not just in another town, but an entire different country. No one I knew knew the guy—and truth be told, I couldn’t even remember his name. So I didn’t think anyone knew. But still, it seemed that the pastor was aiming all this anti-gay contempt at someone, and as far as I knew at the time, I was the only homosexual in the room.
It was not the first time (nor would it be the last) that, while sitting in a house of worship I would hear people like me described as depraved sinners and tools of the devil. But this time was the most vehement had yet heard.
Looking back on it, years later, I realize that there probably was an argument going on. The visiting pastor’s sermon about unity could be interpreted as a call for factions of the Christian faith to set aside their differences, while the local pastor clearly thought that some of those factions weren’t really faithful. But I couldn’t be objective enough at the time to work that out. I half expected someone to take me aside to stage an intervention.
Except the intervention would have involved people laying hands on me and praying fervently for god to cast the demons out of me. Which had been something I had been fearing since at least the age of eleven. And that didn’t preclude the possibility that other members of the community might waylay me and just beat me up. That very thing had happened to one of my classmates several years earlier. There had also been classmates kicked out of their homes by their families and sent “away” to stay with some distant relatives or other vague described living arrangements.
The fear of being kicked out of your home, rejected by your parents, siblings, classmates, and neighbors is something that every queer kid growing up in conservative Christian churches live with. A lot of other queer kids know that fear, as well, don’t get me wrong. But when you’re raised to believe that you are among god’s chosen, that anyone who is not a part of this community of faith means that you are destined to drown in hatred and sin, without ever knowing love and eventually spending an eternity in agony, well, it’s traumatic.
It is a bit astonishing that any of us survive it, to be honest. We’ve known for a long time that queer teens are much more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and we know that teens who come from queer-rejecting families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide queer peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
It’s not just that the haters are trying to take away the rights of adults, such as myself, who have the means to fight back. They spend years telling some of their own children that god hates them. So there was one bit of that prayer that was correct. This isn’t just a difference of opinion. This isn’t about them saying they want to drive gas-guzzling SUVs, while some of us prefer more fuel efficient cars. They are literally bullying children, sometimes bullying those children to death. And they want the rest of us dead, too: GOP Congressman Who Prayed Gays ‘Worthy of Death’ Weeks Before Orlando Still Has No Apologies.
This is why queer people need to be out of the closet. This is why we need to have Pride parades and festivals and all the rest. This is why it isn’t enough to say “to each their own.” As long as there are kids growing up being taught that god hates them, we need to call out the bigotry for what it is, and stand up for those who aren’t yet able to stand up for themselves.
Why Does God Hate Me? – Gay Short film (LGBT):
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
The third story in that anthology, “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” by Michael G. Coney did not wow me on the first reading. Honestly, the thing that I found most interesting in the first paragraph was the revelation that it was apparently set in Western Washington state. The story is told by a first person narrator, who is taking a ferry to go to a port to meet a shipment of some sort of alien creature. We never learn much about them, other than that he raises them for their pelts, which he can sell for a profit. Though the way he describes his farm, he is mostly just getting by in this endeavor.
Most of the first two pages of the stories consists of the character describing his ferry trip in such a way that we learn that Earth is part of some kind of Galactic society, that only recently have they replaced rockets with antigrav for vessels that move from ground to orbit, and so on. The hook of the first paragraph is him noticing on his “newspocket” that all the old shuttles at the abandoned Pacific Northwest spaceport are to be scrapped, finally.
He arrives at his destination early, finding himself with five or six hours to kill, and decides to drive up to the old space port. During the drive he rambles some more, dropping hints about what his life was life before, and telling us more about how things have changed since then. It isn’t until halfway through the fifth page that he gets to what appears to be the meat of the story, as he flashes back to junior high school, when he and his best friend used to sneak onto the grounds of the spaceport to watch shuttles land and take off.
The narrator, as a young man, loved everything about the shuttles: the roar of the engines, the sleek shapes of the ships themselves, et cetera. His friends was obsessed with identifying and checking off the shuttles from a book he had of every registers craft that ever landed on Earth. There are a few anecdotes about the mild misadventures the narrator, his friend, and a few other people who liked to sneak onto the grounds of the space port had watching the shuttles land and take off.
Then everything is ruined when his friend gets a crush on a girl. Who just happens to be the same girl that the narrator once got into an altercation with in grade school and of course they hate each other. To say the friendship is strained is an understatement. Then there is a disaster involving the girl’s pet, with is a cat-like animal imported from across the galaxy, which happens to be telepathic, but only with members of its own species.
After the disaster, we flash back to the present, and then the narrator—who has lamented about five dozen times so far in the story how much he misses his old friend, and how astonished his middle-school-aged self would be to know that he doesn’t even know where the friend lives any longer—sees said old friend. The friend, it turns out, owns the wrecking company that is going to tear down the spaceport. But the narrator, of course, doesn’t say hello. He skulks away.
There are a lot of things not to like about this tale. The rambling expository lumps. The lack of characterization. The clichéd use of flashback to tell most of the story. The extremely dated boy vs girl dynamic of the tale. The ludicrous ways that chauvinism pops up and is even defended at one point.
Then in the category of merely cringeworthy, there is the fact that the only female characters who appear in the story all dress and act as if they are characters out of the 1950s. Remember, this was written in 1975—women’s lib had been a thing for many years by then! Even in 1978, when I read this story, that section seemed terribly dated!
I read the story one more time, when I found it in another anthology years later. I didn’t recognize the title, or I might not have read it. The second time I didn’t remember the story until fairly late into it, just about the time of the disaster near the end of the tale. I read it to the end, hoping to have a bit more insight, but still wasn’t impressed.
When I re-read it again last week, I was having the same reaction as before all the way until the end. And then I finally had an epiphany about what the author may have been trying to do. It had never occurred to me during my earlier readings that the narrator was unreliable. The section early on where he defends men’s only clubs and no girls allowed spaces as not being sexist at all should have tipped me off. It was too over the top. And there were several other hints throughout the story where our narrator is being very defensive in describing the events.
That’s when I realized that the ending, where he decides he doesn’t have anything in common with the old friend anymore is supposed to be tragic or ironic (depending). The narrator drives many hours out of his way and spends the entire tale wallowing in a nostalgic lament for the good old days. He goes into inordinate details on fairly minor stuff, is very defensive of himself and goes to pains to describe every other character in the narrative as betraying him or at least not treating him right. He had these great dreams and aspirations, which have all come to naught because the world is just not fair to nice guys like him.
Meanwhile his old friend is now a successful businessman, and is literally in the business of tearing down the obsolete relics of the past so that something new can be built.
Now, finally, the story makes sense when I think of it as a critique of nostalgia and clinging so hard to the past that you can’t move forward. And those expository ramblings sound an awful lot like an old bad way that some sci fi stories in the 30s, 40s, and 50s would do their world building: by having two characters say such unnatural things (while riding a subway or something), “Thank goodness for modern convenience! Can you believe that our ancestors used to have to connect their appliances to receptacles in ways with physical cables to draw power! What a primitive nightmare!”
As an indictment of nostalgia, “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” isn’t quite so bad. I’m not sure I agree with Wolheim that it was one of the best story published that year, but it did make me think, even before my epiphany. Struggling with a story is good mental exercise.
And I have to admit that the descriptions of the shuttles taking off and landing and the sense of wonder the narrator had as a child was pretty good.