I’ve written about two of Le Guin’s books that were instrumental in my life: Timebomb from the Stars – more of why I love sf/f and The Original Wizard School – more of why I love sf/f. Please note I said in my life, not just in my understanding of science fiction/fantasy or how to write. Her stories did that, too—but Le Guin’s books were particularly important to teen-age me trying to learn how to be comfortable in my own skin.
As I said in one of the earlier blog posts, she may not have explicitly meant her story to help a queer kid learn to accept himself, but that’s what her tales did for me. Also, every time I re-read one of Le Guin’s books, I notice ideas that she develops in the story that have become such an intrinsic part of how I look at stories, that I have forgotten she was the one who introduced me to the idea. The ideas in her tales weren’t messages that slap you in the face, they are simply a part of the story in such a way that you accept them. They aren’t “Ah ha!” moments, but more like, “Of course!”
I don’t know how to express how heavy my heart is because of her passing. Tuesday afternoon, when my husband got home from work, he asked me if I had been paying attention to the news or twitter, then told me that Ursula K. Le Guin had died, and I just said, “No! Oh, no!” emphatically. It struck me harder than a celebrity death has in a long time. Once I was finished with work, I cued up the audiobook in which Ursula read her own translation of the Tao Te Ching, because I just needed to hear her voice for a while.
I was a little surprised how upset I was, until I read John Scalzi’s column above. I hadn’t realized it, but she was a spiritual mother to me, despite my only ever meeting her at a book signing. And he’s right. It takes time to mourn a mother.
In the early 70s U.S. pop culture became obsessed with martial arts. One of the best examples of this was the television series, Kung Fu which ran from 1972-1975. The show, which was wildly popular both with audiences and critics, told the story of Kwai Chang Caine, a half-chineses, half-white man raised in a Shao Lin monastery who winds up in the American Wild West wandering the countryside seeking his father while evading agents of a Chinese nobleman who wants him dead. The show cast white actor David Carradine in the role (after rejecting Bruce Lee). And it really was wildly popular. In the redneck rural communities I was living at the time, every one of my classmates would quote favorite lines from the show and make allusions to it in various ways. While the show cast a white actor in the role of the supposedly biracial lead, since ever episode relied heavily on flashbacks to incidents in Caine’s childhood, teen, and young adult years back in China, it also provided a lot of acting roles for Asian American actors in recurring and supporting roles. Probably more so than all of American TV before then. Which doesn’t make up for the white washing, but was at least a teeny step forward.
That TV show wasn’t the only bit of pop culture effected. Action movies and television series of all kinds started introducing martial arts experts to their story lines, and soon audiences were expecting amazing martial arts fights in all of their entertainment. Even the BBC’s Doctor Who had to bow to the expectation, with the velvet-jacketed Third Doctor suddenly becoming an expert in “Venusian Karate” though embarassingly what that meant was the actor occasionally exclaiming a cliche “Hai-ya!” as he felled opponents with an unconvincing chopping motion of his hand.
And comic books were hardly immune. Suddenly every comic company was adding martial arts experts (some of asian descent, some not) into their superhero lines. Comic titles such as Master of Kung Fu, Karate Kid (no relation to the 80s movies), and Kung Fu Fighter, and Dragon Fists were suddenly popping up in department store comics racks. Along side characters such as Shang Chi, Richard Dragon, Lady Shiva, and Karate Kid (no “the”) there was Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist: the Living Weapon.
Danny was a classic mighty whitey: a white orphan taken in by mysterious monks in a secret temple in the Himalayas, who masters their semi-mystical martial arts to a degree that far exceeds any of the natives and becomes their greatest warrior. This being an American comic, of course Danny comes to America, specifically New York City, where he tried to reclaim his family fortune (along the way discovering that his parents’ deaths on the journey may not of have an accident). His costume was a bit unusual for male superheroes of the time—ridiculously plunging necklines were usually reserved for women. The excuse for exposing all that skin was the black dragon mark on Danny’s chest. It’s not a tattoo, but rather a symbol that was burned into his flesh during a fight with a dragon, which is an important part of the ritual of becoming the Iron Fist.When Marvel debuted in comics in 1974 I was 14 years old. I didn’t read the very first couple of issues. Back then my source of comic books was the rack at the only drugstore in the small town where we lived, and which comics they got were hit and miss from month to month. But I remember seeing this cover in that rack one day and being instantly fascinated. I bought the comic, and as I frequently did in those days, read it, re-read it, and re-read it again and again. The story was middle episode in the middle of a story arc, so I was a bit confused about some things, but was still immediately enamored with the character. I kept my eyes peeled for the character from then on, and managed to pick up a few more issues as they came out, but not all of them. It was a constant frustration at the time: not being able to count on the next issue making it to my town.
Because of that inconsistency—where I would pick up, say, issue #85 of Spider-Man, then not find another issue until #89 came out—I spent a lot of time looking for clues in the stories as to what I had missed in the intervening issues, and I would write up my own versions of the adventures my favorite heroes had experienced in between. Very occasionally I tried to draw my own comics, but mostly I wrote them out more as prose stories. This skill of figuring out all the ways a character might go from point A to point Z has been useful in my own writing since.
Eventually, after my parents’ divorce, Mom, my sister, and I moved to a town large enough to have multiple book stores and an actual comic shop, where eventually I managed to purchase at relatively cheap prices many of the back issues I had missed of Iron Fist and several other titles. I was a little disappointed that some of my attempts to fill in the gaps between issues were way off, but I still loved the character. I know now (but didn’t realize back then) that one of the things that appealed to me about the character originally was that chest-baring costume. But Danny Rand’s story also appealed to me because he was an outsider, never quite fitting in anywhere. That was something I really empathized with.
Another thing that appealed to me about Iron Fist the comic (and some of the other Kung fu-ploitation properties) was the inclusion of (often mangled, I know) zen, buddhist, and taoist philosophy. Seeing other traditions underpinning moral and ethical principles, seeing good, brave, and noble character behaving morally and ethically outside of the fundamentalist Christian framework helped me reconcile my growing discomfort with the evangelical beliefs I’d been raised with. Yes, it was culture appropriation, and it was a stripped-down and distorted representation of those other religions, but it wasn’t being done to deride those beliefs. The distortion was because of ignorance and the expediency of meeting writing deadlines, not out of a hostility to the cultures themselves. While it was problematic, it still helped me find a way to escape the clutches of a homophobic denomination. And that’s a good thing.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I had had high hopes for the Netflix Iron Fist series. I’d read enough reviews when it first came out to know that the consensus of critics and a lot of fans was that the show was nowhere near as good as some of the other Marvel-Netflix shows. But I still hoped. I still think that the show would have been improved immensely if they had cast an asian american as Danny. It would have been really easy, and I think would have made the way they chose to tell his story work a bit better. The external conflict of the series is mostly about control of the corporation originally founded by Danny’s father and the father’s best friend. The internal conflict is about Danny trying to figure out his place in the world. If they had made Danny biracial, showing his father in the flashbacks as white and his mother as, let’s say, Chinese American, then that internal conflict would have had more layers. And this story desperately needed something less shallow than a badly thought out boardroom drama.
It also doesn’t help that the actor they cast as Danny seems about as talented as a block of wood. Seriously, the adam’s apple of the actor who was cast to play Danny’s childhood friend from the mystical city displays more acting talent and skill in a single scene than the actor playing Danny does in the entire series. Another big problem is pacing. The series spent about 9 episodes setting things up that could have easily been handled in one. The first episode was pretty an okay beginning of the tale, but it wasn’t until about episode 11 that things seemed to pick up. I also can’t figure out why they showed virtually no scenes of the mystical city where Danny gets his training. Let along never showing us the dragon. I mean, what is the point of telling Iron Fist’s story without showing us all that?
Maybe they’ll do better in season two.
In case you don’t know where the title of this blog post originated, here’s a music video that might explain things:
Carl Douglas – Kung Fu Fighting:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
It has been said in many interviews, including by West himself, that the reason why he got the role among the actors who were screen tested for it was because he was the only one who could deliver the dialog with a straight face. The series’ incredible blockbuster success typecast West, making it difficult for him to get work, but he eventually embraced the role, eventually calling his version of the Caped Crusader the Bright Knight (as opposed to the Dark Knight of later incarnations).
And while I appreciate some of the other versions of Batman, five-year-old me looked up to West’s Batman as a hero who stood for justice and compassion, who was willing to risk everything for others, and always ready to answer the call. It was West’s commitment to the role that made that version of Batman real. You’ve answered your final bat-signal, Adam West. Rest in peace, and thank you.
I’ve written before about why Memorial Day shouldn’t be confused or conflated with Veteran’s Day — and I am hardly the only person to draw attention to that distinction (Washington Post: Why Memorial Day is different from Veterans Day, CNN: Get it straight: The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Washington Examiner: Why you shouldn’t confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day NPR: Memorial Day Dos and Don’ts.Some of those articles mention the original holiday, but they get one bit wrong. Before the first official federal observation of a Memorial Day, at Arlington National Cemetery back in 1868, there was another holiday observed in many parts of the country—long before the Civil War—called Decoration Day, which was a day to have family reunions and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members. My Grandmother observed that version faithfully her whole life, long before the official creation of the modern Memorial Day with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968.
Grandma died exactly ten years ago last week, and it still hurts to think about. The fact that she was putting flowers on the grave of another beloved family member when she died just makes me even more of an adamant defender of the original, non-jingoistic, non-warmongering version of the holiday. But rather than rant about that, I should post about my grandmother, a wonderful woman who taught me so much.
So, for Grandma (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):
Memorial, part 2Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1868, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.
I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.
Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.
She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) seven years ago on the Friday before Memorial Day when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.
One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t grandpa’s grave nearby?”
Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.
Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.
Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.
The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.
Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.
We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.
I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.
Grandma’s been gone for seven years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter
And if you are one of those people offended if I don’t mention people who served our country in the armed forces on this day, please note that we also put flowers on my Grandpa’s grave. Grandpa served in WWII in Italy. He didn’t drive a tank, he drove the vehicle that towed tanks that couldn’t be repaired in the field, and one of the two medals he was awarded in the war was for doing a repair of a tank while under fire. After the war, he came back to the U.S., met Grandma (who was at that point working as a nurse and trying to support her two daughters), and eventually married Grandma and adopted my mom and my aunt. Many years later, he was the person who taught me how to rebuild a carburetor (among other things). He was a hero many times over. And this post is also dedicated to his memory.
The plastic ferris wheel is battery powered, and it had two modes: it could light up and the wheel would turn slowly. The ferris cars rock on the wheel, and the wheel has always been a little bit jerky in its motion, so the little plastic snowmen and penguins and beers and reindeer seemed to be waving cheerfully as the wheel turn. In the other mode you got the lights, the rotating wheel, and you got tinny versions of Christmas carols. It was like a dream come true for me, and my husband’s worst Christmas nightmare all in one!
I’ve had it for years. Every Christmas season since Kats gave it to me, I’ve unpacked it along with the ornaments we’re using that year, put batteries in it, turned it on to listen to the music at least once through its medley, then put it somewhere in the living room where I could see it. I would turn the ferris wheel on silent mode a few more times (since the music really annoys my husband). And I would turn the music on at least one more time before taking the batteries out and packing it away with the other ornaments.
Over the years there have been a few glitches. Pieces have broken off and had to be glued back on. One bit of fence broke off several times and eventually I had to admit that it was more glue than plastic and it couldn’t really be put back together. (Side note: in a testament to how awesome my husband is, he did spend some time trying to scan the broken bits to see if he could 3D print me a replacement.) One time a few years ago when I turned it on the ferris wheel wouldn’t turn. My husband fiddled with it and got it working again, but it was always with a more jerky motion than before. The motor was always loud enough to hear from across the room even when the music was playing. And over time the motor sound has gotten louder.
Then this last Christmas, when I put batteries in and turned it on, the lights came on, the motor made its usual sound, the wheel turned jerkily… and the music started to play, then glitched, then played a bit more, then glitched, and started to sound a bit off key. I thought maybe the batteries I put in were nearly dead, so I swtiched them out. Nope. The sound chip was definitely dying.
I set the ferris wheel up, because it’s still cheerful looking, and put off the decision of whether to keep or dispose of it until the end of the Christmas season.
Then we got the first official notification from the new owners of our building that they weren’t going to be raising anyone’s rent, no, they were going to evict all of us. They were applying for permits to do a major renovation to the building, and needed everyone out. They have a guesstimate it would be May or so when they would need everyone to go (once they got the permit process going, we got more official communication and a somewhat more certain timeline). That’s why, when I put the Christmas decorations away this last year, I pulled out all of the containers of decorations (we have way more than we can use in a given year), and went through them selecting stuff to get rid of. I reduced our collection by a bit (though we still have way too much). The ferris wheel, clearly, needed to go.
Except I wasn’t ready to let it go, just yet.
So, I didn’t pack it away nor throw it out. I moved it to the bookcase over by my favorite chair. It’s not Christmas time, but I don’t care. The ferris wheel gets to stay until we leave, I decided. Then it will be retired for good.
We have professional movers scheduled to come deal with the heavy furniture and whatever else we haven’t moved ourselves in about 10 days. So the ferris wheel’s end is looming. It’s just a thing. And as I recall, Kats said she bought it at a second hand place, so I’ve definitely gotten her money’s worth out of it. And my poor, long-suffering husband has already told me he’s going to buy me a new tacky Christmas thing to replace it this next year. So I shouldn’t feel too sad about it going. I am a little amused at myself to realize that some of my anger at the new owners (evicting everyone regardless is the least annoying thing they’ve done; there will be catty snarky blog posts about it eventually, but not now) has become focused on a few weird possessions.
The truth is that I probably would have gotten rid the the ferris wheel once the chip died even if we weren’t trying to reduce our hoard before me move. But I find myself blaming its demise on the new owners of the building. And maybe it’s a good thing to have something concrete to focus the annoyance on, you know? The ferris wheel, the tacky hanging lamp (I’ll talk about that after the move for… reasons), the rose trellises, and so forth are better ways to expend that kind of negative energy than some of the alternatives.
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 was 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 blowing, 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 pair 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 birthdays or other gift-giving 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 with 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 one 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.