Friday, September 18, 2020

CAREER VERSUS FREEDOM


Time flies. I think that more and more as I get older. Fifty years ago today, In the Night Kitchen, a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, was first published by Harper & Row. It’s probably Sendak’s second best known book. Nothing could possibly match the notoriety he gained from his wickedly imaginative Where the Wild Things Are.


Why am I bringing up Sendak here? Occasionally, I’ve blogged about a gay picture book. (Here, for instance, or here.) In the Night Kitchen is not such a book, although it created controversy and has been a mainstay of banned book lists due to the fact that main character Mickey is naked in much of the story, his genitals even shown on a page or two. It shouldn’t be scandalous. The images remind me of cherubs in Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea or Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo or The Creation of Adam. But people do like to make a fuss over both art and books...or art in books. Especially for kids. (I’ve seen images online where Mickey’s genitals are covered by various colors of underwear. As Neil Gaiman noted of In the Night Kitchen, “It scared adults.” Never mind that young children frequently run about naked at home, in the yard and at the beach. I’m not a nudist advocate but we have a way of making natural unnatural.)



Maurice Sendak, born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Jewish-Polish parents, lived until a month shy of his eighty-fourth birthday. In addition to publishing many of his own picture books, Sendak was also prolific in illustrating children’s books written by others. Speaking with pride about his work in children’s books, Sendak said, “I was more honest than anybody.” With one glaring exception, the man didn’t seem to censor himself out of fear of losing work or being rebuked. One week after Sendak’s death, Gaiman wrote, “I devoured interviews with Sendak: he was a grumpy, Jewish, brilliant, wise contrarian and he didn’t mellow as he aged.”



Before writing this, I perused Sendak interviews and profiles on YouTube and, not knowing anything about his personality, was startled at the outset as the children’s author says in with first minute of the first clip I watched, “People say, ‘Why don’t you do Wild Things 2?’ Go to hell. Go to hell. [I’m] not a whore.” Nope,...didn’t mellow at all.


What was that one exception, that topic Sendak consciously avoided? It pops up in a 2008 New York Times article (which, incidentally, described him as a “curmudgeon”): “Was there anything he had never been asked? He paused for a few moments and answered, ‘Well, that I’m gay.’”


Eighty years old and he finally came out. True enough, people are rarely asked if they’re gay. (It only happened to me once while I was in law school. I laughed with delight and answered yes. How wonderful to not be the one to make a potentially dramatic disclosure!) But it wasn’t just that Sendak was waiting around to be asked.


“I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business,” Sendak adds in the same article. His prerogative. Then, he says, “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.” Three nevers.


It’s a reminder of how much progress has been made regarding LGBTQ acceptance in North America and how any gains made are harder for many older gays and lesbians to trust and embrace, having grown up when discretion and repression were the norm. In a 2011 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Sendak says:


Finding out that I was gay when I was older was a shock and a disappointment. I did not want to be gay. It meant a whole different thing to me — which is really hard to recover now because that's many years ago. I always objected to it because there is a part of me that is solid Brooklyn and solid conventional and I know that. I can't escape that. It's my genetic makeup. It's who I am.



For fifty years, Sendak lived with his partner, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn until Glynn’s death in 2007, the year before Sendak publicly came out. While I believe that a public figure has a right to (try to) keep whatever he wants private, I wish we knew more about the shared life of Maurice and Eugene. I wish Sendak had felt a sense of freedom to talk about Eugene the way some other oft-interviewed writer/illustrator might speak of a spouse of the opposite sex. Curious—nosy—me would love to know more.


From what I’ve seen in video clips, Sendak remained tight-lipped about his relationship with his partner even in his three plus years as a publicly out gay man. In my favorite clip, called “Maurice Sendak on Death (And Life),” he talks more effusively about his housekeeper and caretaker of thirty years, Lynn Caponera, and his long-deceased canine companion, Jennie, than he does of his partner. Eugene gets a mention; that’s all. Old habits, I suppose.



That 2008 Times article offers context, of which I’m well aware. “A gay artist in New York is not exactly uncommon, but Mr. Sendak said that the idea of a gay man writing children books would have hurt his career when he was in his 20s and 30s.” And yet this outspoken man continued to keep mum about this part of his identity into his 40s, his 50s, his 60s and 70s. My heart aches. Popular children’s author/illustrator Tomie dePaola (Strega Nona), who also came out as gay late in life (1935-2020), said something similar: “If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest...and schools wouldn’t buy your books.” True, perhaps. Neither Sendak nor dePaola had the will to test things, to potentially break down a barrier. My gut says Sendak could have done it. My brain understands why he didn’t.


Man, how far we’ve come.

 

Just as I was about to post this, I stumbled upon the song “Eugene and Maurice,” by Canadian indie band The Burning Hell, known, according to Wikipedia, “for their literate—often literary...lyrics.” It’s a whimsical tribute, worth a listen.

 

Monday, September 14, 2020

THE CALL OF THE MARMOT


Every so often I have to remind myself about the story of a single gay man who moved to an idyllic setting only to suffer from years of isolation. True story. My story.


Maybe it’s a gay thing. We like pretty things. Why else do gay men continue to post daily shirtless selfies, always drawing hundreds, if not thousands, of likes? The abs haven’t changed overnight. And yet this is the gay version of feeding the needy while getting a little pick-me-up ourselves. Ooh! So pretty.


I know, I know. I should step away from Twitter more. If it’s not pec flaunting, it’s Trump taunting. It’s one of the reasons my all-day hikes—without connectivity—have been so restorative this summer. Which brings me back to my own version of pretty things: mountains and lakes. (A stunning pic I tweeted from yesterday’s hike got two only likes, one from a likely bot.)


I’m in Whistler again. My epicenter for pretty. And, like every time I come here, I’m fighting romanticized notions of moving here.


For some people, Disneyland is their happy place. For others, it’s Vegas. (Went last year. I don’t get it.)


Whistler is pristine perfection. I rarely visit in winter since I don’t have snow tires and accommodations are triple what they are the rest of the year, but I know I’d be thrilled to live here in the snowy season. Snow makes me giggle. Seriously. I’ve never let go of that seven-year-old inner child who relishes the crunching sound of boots marking a new path in a blanket of white. I love to make a snowball in my gloved hand, if only to drop it a few seconds later. (Never had a throwing arm.) I still delight in lying down and making a snow angel—it’s the limit to my ability to create art.


During the rest of the year, Whistler feeds my hunger for all kinds of outdoor activity. There are extraordinarily maintained trails for jogging and biking. The curvy up-and-down Sea-to-Sky Highway is great for road cycling. There are multiple lakes for swimming. Challenging hiking trails lead to soothing waterfalls, glacial lakes and views of snow-capped mountains. Tennis courts in mint condition are set against backdrops that make me feel like I’m at a resort. (Oh, yeah, I am.) On rainy days, there’s a great pool where I go to swim laps and, if I ever crave more variety, I suppose I could have a go at the local axe-throwing establishment. (Yes, axe-throwing is having a moment. I first discovered such a business in Provo, Utah last December. Mormon axe throwers. Maybe it’s good they have that commitment to no caffeine.)



I am well aware that the pedestrian-only core of Whistler Village isn’t really real. No graffiti, no trash, everything Instagrammable. Lots of shops cater to tourists with too much money to drop. (On the way down from yesterday’s hike, I came across a woman starting out too late to reach the summit but she looked content fitting in some forest time while donning a baseball cap with an all-caps CANADA and four or five hearty dips in a glitter bowl. It will wind up on the top shelf in her closet, next to her Mickey Mouse ears.) Still, there are enough quality clothing stores here that I wouldn’t have to make regular shopping trips to Vancouver.


I’m certain the locals have a love-hate sense of all the tourists. All the tourism fuels the economy, but I read reports each year of hard-core partiers causing havoc—The noise! The drunken shenanigans! If only there were a way of screening vehicles twenty miles up the highway.


What is the purpose of your trip?”


Drunken madness, sir.”


Very sorry. You’ll have to turn back. But thank you for thinking of us.”


I like the idea of living in a place that other people visit and admire. Living in Whistler would be vastly different than my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, a chronically economically depressed blue-collar steel factory city peppered with red-brick buildings long ago coated in soot. How novel to live in a place that instills a tinge of local pride.


I enjoy hearing so many different languages spoken in the Village and hearing someone take my coffee order in a thick Australian accent. (While Israelis are required to serve two years in the military, Aussies must spend at least two seasons snowboarding in Whistler.)


This is a place where I’ve spent plenty of time writing. I used to hang out in the local library when it was just a portable building, before it became a comfy, sleek building with an espresso machine next to the periodical section, amply stocked with an array of outdoor magazines. There’s an annual writing festival each October, one that includes a Friday night “literary cabaret” with jazz artists creating a score to author readings and a Sunday morning lake walk with more authors readings at various scenic stopping points. Yes, even writing is lauded here.



I tell myself I could live like a regular, not just like a frequent tourist. It’s possible. But then it’s also possible it would be déjà-vu all over again. The Sirens lure; tragedy ensues. (Here, the Sirens take the form of cute little whistling woodchuck critters, marmots, upon whom the town is named.)


That’s the curse of being single and gay. At the moment, I have zero urge to date. Gosh, that’s the same sentiment I had fifteen years ago when I moved to another gorgeous, relatively remote setting in British Columbia. (I was coming off a seven-year, abusive relationship. Of course I yearned for Me time.) Last night I did a quick online dating search for gay men within fifty miles of Whistler, no other filters to narrow things down. Two men. That was all. Grim.



The lesson from my last stint in Eden was to consider living in such a setting only if I was already firmly coupled...or firmly done with contemplating coupling. I’m single and satisfied as such. For now. If I could formally commit to a life of being single the way someone else ascribes to a wedding vow, I’d contact a Whistler real estate agent and see if there’s an off-the-grid garden shed in my price range. (Eden’s expensive.) Alas, I can’t risk ruining another happy place.


Turns out Whistler isn’t any better than those gay guys who barrage the internet with shirtless selfies. Pretty, but never mine. Never mind.