In one of the many upmarket catalogs that continue to come to my house despite my never ordering anything from any of them, I recently opened to a page of nursery décor featuring mounted heads of baby deer, bunnies, and fox kits. Not real heads, of course—they were made of natural linen with pearl buttons for eyes and white cotton floss embroidered noses. This was shortly before that dentist took out Cecil, but even then, these cutified animal trophies seemed a décor-deaf choice to hang over a baby’s crib.
Some summers ago, I stayed in a rented house on the beach in southern Michigan, where most rooms had at least one taxidermy head, mixed in with the other junque the decorator had collected at local shops to make the newish house look like a place a family had come for years bringing along old, unwanted stuff from their real home and picking up other people’s old unwanted stuff on rainy afternoon junking circuits. I found some green army men abandoned on the beach and arranged them between the antlers of the deer head on the landing, carefully avoiding looking directly into his staring glass eyes. My sister vacationers insisted that I remove my miniature expeditionary force out of respect for the house owners. In appreciation for our collective wish to have our sizeable deposit returned, I complied.
Back when most of my friends were guys, I went to a dinner party in a proudly redecorated apartment. I remember only one thing about the evening: in the dark-toned dining room, a band of small mounted elk heads lined up neatly across each of the four walls, surrounding the room with miniature mayhem. The heads had come from a defunct Elks’ Lodge, and apartment’s decorator probably had intended to make complex statement about masculinity, which was lost on me, as I compulsively counted the pairs of tiny antlers.
Interior decorators, new moms and grandmoms, people to whom I easily relate, do you really need an old vegetarian (me) to put this together for you?
Real or fake or cute; purchased in an antique store or on-line, made by hand or second hand; the animal’s head you precisely center over your fireplace or group artistically with other objects on the stairs or display in your kid’s bedroom used to be attached to a body, actual or imagined. That head once led a whole animal, alive and complete, until someone killed the animal and took its head as a trophy, then had it turned into an object to decorate a room far removed from the wild where that animal once lived.
Everyone is now all het up about Cecil, the lion, as well they should be. The video of one once incredibly magnificent now dead lion has shaken us up. Absolutely in no way as significant of other recent video of white hunters in America, the Cecil video is an alert that something is very wrong with us nonetheless. The mounted-head design statement may have looked right to Teddy Roosevelt and his hunting pals, but not now–not in a little boy’s safari-themed bedroom, not in a vacation place by the lake, not in a dentist’s man cave. We have arrived at the throw-red-paint-on-fur-coats moment for dead animal room décor. If you are appalled that some guy from Minnesota travelled to Africa and intentionally killed the reigning king of the forest, then you know what to do.
Driving the 405 south from meetings in Burbank to LAX and home in unusually light traffic, I realized that we would have way too much time to kill in the airport before our flight and suggested we stop in Venice Beach. On the boardwalk in business suits and shiny shoes, the three of us really stuck out, but in any outfits, we did not really match up. One Sunday morning at the big US book fair in Chicago (called ABA then and BEA now), we showed up early to walk the show in nearly identical beige and black linen pants and blazers. Ambling through the Gay and Lesbian section, we caused a small stir. After checking to be sure none of us had her pants on backwards (couldn’t happen twice), we decided that “my people” were trying to decide if we were flight attendants or a kinky threesome? Thrown together by work, we had nicknamed ourselves Stretch, Speedy, and Stumpy–names based on the way we walked but sufficiently descriptive of our disparate personalities, styles, ages, levels of ambition. We had next to nothing in common, but there we were with a late-afternoon hour to spend together on Venice Beach.
Stretch felt she needed to buy souvenirs for her kids; something I never did for a complexity of reasons but mostly because I hate to shop. Stumpy wanted to sit in a café with a drink and people watch; something I find boring unless exhausted by an all-day march on a beach or through a city. Without my vote for either option, we wandered, pointing out the unusual, the ugly, the silly, the very California. We joined a crowd around a tall man, his boom box, some flattened cardboard boxes, and a top hat. He was agile, fully adult, a smooth talker, a showman whose art was dance in his own breakdance-revival style. The guy was good. Moms handed their kids bills, not coins, to drop into his hat.
Almost time for us to start back to our car, the dancer hushed the audience, lowered the volume of his music, and told us he was about to perform his best trick. He announced with ceremony, “I going to spin around on my own damn head.” And he did. And we left the boardwalk. And for as long as we worked together, we always said whenever we had to do something that was frustratingly redundant, unnecessary if only things had been done correctly the first time, or just plain stupid, that we were going to have to spin around on our own damn heads.
From The Waves, “A little language such as lovers use. . . .” I give Virginia Woolf’s line my own spin, no longer remembering what her lovers’ “little language” referenced–the sounds of intimacy, whispered endearments, primal screams? I have not been an English major for almost 50 year, but for me, the little language has come to mean our shared, crazy collection of things that little children have said, phrases picked up randomly that are repeated so often they stick, the once-cool words that no one hip uses any longer, and the naughty bits enjoyed from any source. Stretch, Speedy, and Stumpy had a little language, which I go on using, although we no longer work together. I wear a drenchcoat when it rains and carry an underbrella. “I do not eat cows, and I do not pull their hair.” We worked with low-end digital audio for kids and embraced the words and phrases that came out wrong from tiny tinny speakers. I still say “Fucks like rain,” “Wooob,” “Ut-oh, ut-oh, ut-oh. . .” (when one would have been enough). And unfortunately, I continue to spin around on my own damn head.
I made an airport run recently to pick up friends returning from a couple of weeks in Mexico. They told a great story about meeting a woman in their tiny Mexico City hotel who knew someone they knew, someone who had told them before they left that he had a friend who had lived in Cuernavaca for decades, whom, of course, they would not see because they were going nowhere near Cuernavaca. This was a great coincidence, something that would be unforgivable in a novel, a coincidenza worthy of Father Sarducci, a major “coinkydink.”
A Second City grad with whom I love to trade stories has told me that, like the best Southern storytelling, Chicago comedy improv escalates from one story to the next, each outdoing the story that preceded it, building a tottery tower of silliness that could crash abruptly into silence or become a routine in the repertoire. In my story to top my friends’ Mexico story, I am the coinkydink and not present for the reveal, the moment of truth.
During the final week of my junior year in college, the graduating senior next door offered me her enormous, father-built plywood desk. With college behind her and the Summer of Love ahead, Stephie was bound for California, possibly a commune, no plans really, no desire to take or store furniture her parents did not want returned to their house in Tenafly. I dismantled the desk with her dad and tagged the parts for summer storage in the dorm. I also took Stephie’s proffered iron, which I had had on loan for much of the semester.
I spent that final summer of my academic life in Cambridge, MA, attempting to cram a couple of years of German and The Norton Anthology of English Literature into my unwilling brain: summer school in the morning, language lab for lunch, abridged lit in the afternoon, grown-up life with boyfriend in the evening. As my life turned out, the neat pile of furniture parts I found in my dorm room in September was much more significant for the next 20 years than the summer’s never-used preparation for graduate school. I began my senior year at Sarah Lawrence with a trip to town to buy my first screwdriver, a #2 Phillips. Following Stephie’s dad’s detailed sheet of instructions, I rebuilt the desk and then became a cabinetmaker. References to that desk show up in much of the furniture I have built–bookcases used as structural elements, cubby hutches along the backs of the work surfaces, and plywood, never ashamed to build with plywood.
After a few years of not going to school and making things, Jill and I outfitted a 1952 single-axle Ford bread truck as an idealized gypsy caravan and headed to Mexico by way of Cynthia’s wedding in Modesto. I saw Stephie at the wedding. She was living in a commune in Palo Alto, more a group home for Stanford graduate students than a hippy haven. She asked me to return her iron and seemed incredulous when I told I didn’t have it with me.
Returning, after a year in Mexico, we stayed for a while in Austin, then Black Mountain, then Atlanta, but decided Savannah was the place we should live. The first people we met in our new city were gay men, and for many years, they were our only friends. We went with them to the Basement, an actually underground, comically old-school gay bar, on Friday night; exchanged dinner parties with them on Saturday night; and met them for brunch on Sunday morning. Savannah’s lesbians were always hostile to us. We got off to a bad start when the boys gave me the Miss Butch award at an annual fancy-dress ball not long after we arrived. Butch I was not in my dark-blue velvet suit, silk dress shirt, and broad silk tie with a very wide knot. Jill was even less gender specific than I in her cute Renee Vivien getup. We were not a proper couple, one of each, but both more or less the same. We were political, or as one of our guy friends said, “sick and proud.” Even after new, less-creepy bars opened, and Savannah’s lesbians and women Marines from Parris Island began to show up regularly on Friday nights, the lesbians continued to shun us. If a newbie asked Jill or me for a dance or sat with us for a beer, she soon found herself frog-marched to the ladies room, where (we assume) the lesbian vigilantes told her to stick with the pack and stay away from the aliens.
A notice on the bulletin board at the Winn-Dixie for a women’s consciousness-raising group nudged us out of perpetually pre-Stonewall gay Savannah back into the current era. The group met at the YWCA one evening a week well after supper. The first night Jill and I showed up, we found eight or ten women sitting on the floor about to begin reading from Our Bodies Ourselves. Each woman had her own copy; all the books were open to “Chapter 5: In Amerika They Call Us Dykes.” After we walked into the room, in unison, as though they were shutting hymnals after the “Amen,” the women closed their books and turned to stare at us. We put on our best friendly Southern-gal personas, and soon everyone started to talk about any and everything other than Chapter 5. At the weekly meetings for the next month, we reviewed the first four chapters of our text and got to know each other. Eventually the group returned to “the lesbian chapter,” our coming out stories, shared remembrances of crushes past, lots of questions, some wishful thinking.
By the time the group had doubled in size, Jill and I had begun to feel uncomfortable as the only couple in a group that spent much of its collective time bitching about boyfriends and husbands. We suggested that the group split in two. Both groups stopped meeting at the Y, began meeting in each other’s home, with partners and kids expected to stay out of the way, and added wine and beer, chips, dips, crackers, cheese, potluck lite. Each group coalesced differently. Although Jill and I mostly respected the rules and didn’t talk about what went on at our separate meetings, I had the feeling her group was more intellectual than mine, more interested in psychology. None of the women had children, and many worked in some aspect of healthcare. My group was grittier–lots of kids, fewer jobs outside the home, an ongoing affair or two. Several of the women in my group started a woodworking collective. I had my own shop and was not part of the collective, but I hired them occasionally. We went on weekend retreats and had naked meetings.
One of the women in my group fell in love with me and became my lover. Eventually, I found out one of the women in Jill’s group was her lover, so much for the differences in our groups. The mid-1970s are incomprehensible to me now, or maybe it is my late-twenties that I can no longer figure out, but at the time, we did not find anything especially worrisome about embarking on these relationships and seemed to expect no serious repercussions.
Skipping the details, many quite wonderful, other rather gory, to arrive at the summer 1977: The women’s groups had dissolved. Jill had left me, and I had had a brief and unsatisfactory affair with her lover from group. Jaime, my lover from group, had left her husband and moved to San Francisco, promising to return in December to be my birthing partner.
In San Francisco, Jaime moved into a room in a huge flat in the Sunset with a bunch of happy lesbians. One weekend, Jaime and her new friends decided to drive down the coast and stopped to spend the night with her brother in Palo Alto. He lived in a big house with a bunch of like-minded guys and their girlfriends. Jaime and one of the girlfriends gravitated toward one another. They had the same soft curly light-brown hair, unrepentant noses, and East Coast speech patterns. They talked. When the woman found out that Jaime had lived in Savannah, she said that she knew someone who lived in Atlanta and wondered if Jaime knew her: Ann Taylor. Jaime said that yes, she knew me, and Stephanie asked her to ask me to return her iron.
Return to your childhood home, your kindergarten classroom, your rusting swing set, and find them smaller than you remember. Return to your hometown and find a new city of glass towers or boarded-up storefronts on Main Street. Change. Time passes. Shit happens. Wade into a different river every time you stick in your toe.
The first time I went to the LBJ Presidential Library in the late fall of 1972, I was a few days back in the US after a year in central Mexico, looking for the next place I wanted live, thinking Austin might be that place. I was staying with a woman whose cousin rented a room in my house in Mexico for a couple of months. We met for the first time when I rang her doorbell on Trick-or-Treat Night and introduced myself. Her cousin had not let her know I was coming, but this did not seem to matter much. My second night in Austin, she hosted my coming-out party with a full house of lesbians, the kitchen table loaded with potluck and jug wine. Not long into the evening, vociferously encouraged by the assembled company, I sat myself down in an old-fashioned red leather barber chair in front of full-length mirrors in my host’s bedroom to have my long hippy hair snipped down to an inch-long cap. With so much less hair, the face I saw in the mirror was all mouth, like someone starting to tell the wide-mouth frog joke. My lover started calling me “Julie,” as in the “The hills are alive with. . . .” Inch-short hair gave me a public political identity that was (like so much then) somewhere between well-defined and not so clear. I was hardly butch, but the short hair might give that impression. I was a lesbian, who could no longer hide behind a fall of hair when for whatever reason it seemed better not to be obviously gay. I was out but not quite sure what that meant to me or to the world.
Wondering how to spend my final day in Austin, my new best friends encouraged me to go to see LBJ’s recently opened monument to self, his presidential library on the campus of the University of Texas. If a bunch of Austin lesbians sent a freshly minted radical lesbian feminist baby butch to pay her respects at Johnson’s shire, had LBJ, like me, recently altered his political identity? I had always felt a heart tug when I heard Johnson speak. His voice was my grandfather’s twang, and like me, he said “a-gain” (long a, followed by the normal pronunciation of the word “gain”), not because he was faking a British accent, as I often was accused of doing, but because that’s what we Texans say. From the backseat of a friend’s VW driving north through a starry New England night, I heard LBJ tell us that he would not run for reelection. I cheered with the rest of car, but I doubt the others recognized the heavy exhaustion and deep sadness in the president’s voice, my grandfather’s tired old man voice.
I went to the library not knowing what to expect. I listened to clips from LBJ’s inaugural and a state of the union or two, and had a pseudo visit with my grandfather. I found no references to sainted Kennedy’s useless and embarrassing VEEP, the punchline of “The First Family” sketches. This did not surprise me, but where was the warmonger I marched against throughout college? The library was stately, extremely presidential, with plenty of room to stack thousands of beautiful red document cases, a magnificent hall in which to lie in state when the time came, a storage facility for all the fancy gifts from heads of state and titans of industry, the handmade quilts and shop projects from old ladies and school kids—a shire to honor a major twentieth century political figure, if not while Johnson was still alive, then at some time in the future.
The next time I was in the library, I was in Austin for my son’s wedding. LBJ was long dead. The war (the Vietnam War) had slipped into line after Korea in the increasingly difficult to understand and confusing serial war experience that directly touched the lives of fewer and fewer Americans, certainly not mine. The Great Society had pretty much come to be for almost everyone, for me certainly. I had a grown-up son, with a college degree, a job, a house, and soon a wife. I too had a house, a job, and a lover/partner of 20 years. Times were very good, and LBJ’s library reflected this. No longer a big collection of the president’s stuff in an impressive building, the library had shed much of its dignity to become a Johnson theme park. A back-of-the-bus ride let visitors experience the oppression of Jim Crow for 10 minutes. An animatronic LBJ in plaid shirt and boots leaned on a split-rail fence and told stories. The astonishingly creepy robot held none of the memories of my grandfather LBJ has once channeled.
The library made Johnson into a folk hero–Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Davey Crocket rolled into a powerful legislative dynamo able to move Congress and country to do the right thing. The library had no place for LBJ as the reluctant warmonger but presented him as the civil rights leader I never realized he was. A major display summarized the history of the Voting Rights Acts in a series of ‘60s small TV screens. On the final screen, a thin woman in a faded cotton print blouse with snaggly teeth in a big smile told about all the times she and her sisters walked to town to register to vote and were told to wait. They waited all day, many, many days. Eventually, on the man’s whim, she got to register but never to vote. When asked by an off-camera interviewer how Johnson’s voting rights legislation had changed her life, the woman said simply, “I am now the mayor of that town.” Proud tears. The right thing done. LBJ reassessed.
I was in the Johnson Presidential Library this January, third time. I am now two years older than LBJ will ever have been, and I always thought of him as an old man. Again, I am considering Austin as the next place I will live, probably the last place I will live. A brew of aging, death, and legacy bubbles unhappily in my mental lab, which once produced a steady flow of plans and dreams. The library suits my mood. It has undergone another redo. Animatronic LBJ now wears a navy-blue suit and stands at a podium. I believe he tells the same jokes he used to tell leaning on the fence, but now he is speaking to the public, not to some folks who happened by the ranch and got to talkin’. Apparently, the library designers thought they had some explaining to do, that celebrating the man and his biggest hits might have been enough back in the day but not for today’s visitors who had not been there and done that with Johnson. The library now shows somber Ken-Burnsish, black-and-white videos to set the record straight. Visitors grasp the enormity of Johnson’s legislative record because we look up at it literally carved in stone. Since most library visitors do not remember the complexities of the 1960s, the library attempts to give an historical context for events and decisions that no longer seem the right decisions, particularly the Viet Nam War, especially napalm and the invasion of Cambodia. We pick up heavy black plastic handsets and hear what LBJ was told was happening in Southeast Asia in 1963 and what he decided to do in 1965 and what he wished he had not done in 1968. When I listen to the calls, I know I am supposed to allow the possibility that Johnson made some very bad decisions because what he thought his advisors were telling him moved him one baby step after another until he was in too deep. The frog in boiling water: I get that.
What I don’t get is the intended take-away from a nearby display case of Sixties comedy album covers and a looping clip from the sitcom “Mr. Ed.” Are we are less naïve than we were then, less white, less heterosexual, less this, more that? Production values are higher now. Talking animals no longer entertain by flapping their lips approximately synchronized with an ironic voiceover; a talking bear gets his own movie and Jarjar Binks almost brought down the greatest movie franchise in the universe. I spent a lot of high-school Friday nights sitting in my best friend’s den, where the turntable and speaker (singular) nestled in a sleek teak box on stubby legs. Sipping tall, iced glasses of Diet-Rite Cola, we listened to Plaza 9, Nichols and May, or “The First Family” and laughed along. The material wasn’t new; we had heard the albums many times, but we laughed again and again, repeating lines: “Her living bra died;” “My son, the nurse;” “Must you, Lyndon.” I remember those evenings, but I truly don’t get it. I can’t understand how we lived without the Internet and how a few comedy LPs entertained 17-year-old girls. I also don’t understand how a Texas hick guided a whole country very quickly from Point A (let’s call it “Jim Crow”) to Point B (the elected mayor previously not allowed to vote) but did not recognize the horrendous hoax of Viet Nam.
When I retire to Austin and have finished unpacking my culled boxes in a safe and convenient apartment at the seniors’ complex, I will go online, find the excursions calendar, and sign up for the after-lunch bus trip to LBJ’s library, my fourth time.
After six months of healing, Carole returned to the hospital last week to have her wounds checked out and her scars assessed by her breast surgeon. All seemed well, but she had one question for her surgeon. A few days after of her cancer operation, when her bandages came off, Carole had noticed a third alteration to the left side of her chest—the lymph-node-removal scar, the tumor-removal scar, and a mystery wound in between. At first she thought it might be just a pucker or fold of skin, a big wrinkle from tape or nothing at all, an anomaly that would soon be gone. Her third mar did not resolve itself, and as she healed, it came to look more and more like an inch-long, deep gash forming scar tissue. Why this third scar, she wanted to know.
All Carole’s attempts during previous appointments to meet her surgeon on the common ground of middle-aged, middle-informed women’s humor had failed. The doctor was or pretended to be an unsmiling, never giggling Mrs. Literal, so Carole knew a subtle or demi-humorous passing reference to the third wound was unlikely to get her doctor’s attention. Carole waited through her examination and the discussion of next steps, until the moment just before her johnny gown closed on the opportunity to point to the mystery blemish on her breast and ask what caused it.
Her surgeon’s eyes flitted to the tip of Carole’s finger, then she turned to her computer to scroll through the digital record of Carole’s surgery. She told Carole she could find nothing in her notes about a third incision. I was not in the room, but I suspect strongly that the absence of any recorded evidence of the cut was supposed to indicate to Carole that there was no third wound, at least no significant third wound. The surgeon herself remembered nothing about the incision, the record showed nothing. The patient should pull her johnny back together and let the surgeon say her terse good-bye, then quickly and professionally exit the examining room, another six-month post-op exam successfully concluded.
Carole did not sit up, did not cover herself, did not break eye contact. She insisted the surgeon-god answer the simple question of a mere mortal. Carole asked as second time, “Why do I have three scars?”
“Oh well,” her surgeon said, “I guess I must have nicked you.”
Although I would never overreact to a compliment to extent my mother advised, never allow anyone’s opinion of me to shape my personal style, I completely distrust compliments and dismiss them immediately on hearing unless I argue that what has been said simply cannot be true. Just the other day, when a coworker told me my hair looked great (and it really did–freshly dyed, clean, and extravagantly curly), I responded that she was incorrect because I really needed a haircut. When my stylist told me how much she liked my home-dyed platinum-colored hair (a true compliment if ever there was one because surely the professional cosmetology handbook forbids positive comment on all self-inflicted hairstyles), I huffily reminded her that I only dye my hair to match the gray. While I fully embrace my duty aesthetically to guide all my family’s appearance choices, I try never to comment on anyone else’s looks, clothes, art, office mug, or lunch choice unless asked specifically to do so.
Additional to a bias against comment on personal appearance absorbed from my mother, my mentor (unknown to her) Nora Ephrom should have warned me off any verbal involvement with other women’s necks. After using up the absolute best title for a woman’s collection of essays, Crazy Salad, the title I planned to use for my own collected works until she preempted me, Ephrom’s I Feel Bad About My Neck comes across as whiny for a book title but spot on in naming a major woman’s issue. Long sleeves, long pants, long tunics, long everything Eileen Fisher hides a lot of crinkly old skin and sagging this and that, but an age-abused neck is out there for everyone to see and judge. Scarves and turtlenecks only serve to create extreme curiosity about what they are hiding, especially when worn out of season.
Thirty years ago, at forty years old, when I was hired by the company for which I have worked ever since, I was considered by many to be way too old for a job considered entry-level, not because of the work but because of the pay. Now, as then, almost everyone I work with is younger than I. Now, unlike then, the age difference is much, much greater. With most of my coworkers, I’ve got a lot of explaining to do, a lot of history to cover, a lot of getting past the fact that these guys are younger than my kids. My only collegial, around-the-water-cooler, over-the-cube-wall conversations take place after work at the gym, where I had (and hope I still have) a casual friendship with a sister regular. We often semi-share past history and laugh about it, but this week, I almost blew our casual friendship.
My friend says she has always been fat. She was a fat child like I was, but just enough younger not to have gone Twiggy-thin in college so that her annual added pound plumped a heavier base weight than mine has done. Both of us are enough lighter in weight than what currently counts as fat that we can talk diet, exercise, body image, and clothes without seeming tragically wrapped in fantasy. Last week, when our topic turned to necks, my friend wiggled her evident but totally age-appropriate saggy under-the-chin skin and asked me if I thought losing weight would improve her neck. I immediately responded, “No.”
My attempt to comment honestly, to compliment sincerely had gone terribly wrong before I said what I had intended to say. Fortunately for the hope of friendship, I was unable follow up as I planned and say, “Honestly, the loose, saggy jowls you might acquire by weight loss will be so much less attractive than your current flabby, fat ones that don’t look all that bad.” After my resounding “no,” our conversation collapsed when she pulled her headphones over her ears and pushed off on her stationary bike.