“The Tale of My City” — #istand

“The Tale of My City” — #istand

“You’re not going to lose him this time. He’s a part of you forever,” said Mrs. Madrigal to a heartbroken Michael Tolliver in Armistead Maupin’s “Babycakes.”

How I loved the Tales of the City books. In some way, Maupin’s chronicle of 1970s to late 80s San Francisco and the denizens of Barbary Lane felt like a primer to the gay life I was trying to nurture in the 1990s. I identified at first with Mary Ann Singleton, that ambitious career gal from Cleveland who was so intent on reinventing herself. It made sense to me, a 20-something from Pico Rivera making inroads as a publicist and future MediaJor. But now I see myself as early Michael Tolliver, the one who wanted love so hard it hurt. Yet, he always got right back out into the dating fray. After all, tomorrow was another day! But so much was to change.

In the years since the start of the AIDS wars, HIV is no longer an immediate death sentence and being gay is no longer just a poignant coming out story told once a year. Gay is part of our national dialogue, a new frontier of the civil rights movement. Marriage and parenting stand right and center with acceptance and tolerance. We see progress, backlash and an uncertain future as gay will not live behind a stone wall anymore. It’s an extraordinary time for many of us. Yet, I fear we are no closer to finding happiness within ourselves. I think we punish ourselves in so many ways. I sometimes think we are our own worst enemy, taking on so many negative isms, particularly in how we look, who we fuck, who we love.

Sigh.

It doesn’t matter. Because I can’t stay in this place anymore. Like Michael Tolliver, I fumbled some nice attempts at being in a nurturing and caring relationship. Mouse, as he is referred to by his best pals in the books, never stayed down for long. Well, once, after his cherished Jon Fielding is claimed in the early part of the AIDS crisis. But Mouse finds his direction again and learns to not let the scars of the past paralyze him. I admire his strength so much.  And I admire the power of Maupin’s own romantically charged realism. What I have forgotten was one of the essential lessons of his books: Being gay doesn’t mean being a victim.

For too many months now, I’ve been allowing myself to exhibit the worst of victim mentality. I gave up so fast once I got back from Spain. I’ve returned to wallowing in that same swamp of depression, building a new fortress around myself again. The weight of this misdirected emotion is starting to drag me under all over again. The heaviness of this mindset is like wearing concrete shoes. It’s the Eeyore Syndrome all over.

At some point, we have to acknowledge the sensation of hitting the bottom of the abyss. It is an all too familiar place for me. I’ve made this trip before, man. So many times now, I can use my miles and still have enough left over to return a few more times. With upgrades, too.

My heart can’t take much more of this. My brain is constantly screaming at me to man up, that it is time to simply not give a fuck. John advised me that since he turned 50, he wakes up each morning making a list of things he simply won’t give a fuck about that day.

Well, John. That day has arrived. My list is my own, of course. However, I offer these lyrics to one of my favorite tracks recorded by Idina Menzel, which speak so much about the frame of mind I am in right now.

My ex Tucker and I always debated about what mattered most about a song. He said the music revealed more than the words. I countered that the music’s emotionality didn’t exist without the lyrics to guide the way. We were the embodiment of that debate. He saved his best self for his music and I continue to write down what I feel needs to be said at the peak of emotion. I often wonder what we would have sounded like if we dared to collaborate on a song. If we ever did let that happen, I would hope that it would sound like “I Stand.”

Because, after all these years of carrying around this guilt and disappointment, I can’t believe I haven’t allowed myself the freedom to believe that I can stand on my own two feet. So much has been lost this year, reminding me of how fleeting life can be. We will be up. We will be down. But we are never out.

I know he won’t save me. I have to save me. And no, moving on doesn’t mean I’ve “lost” him. He’s always going to be a part of me.

Whoever comes my way next, like Menzel and Ballard write, I, too, will live for that perfect day. And I am going to keep loving until it hurts like crazy. I have to recognize that the past is just that, the past. The present is not so bad. The future? Well, ask me tomorrow.

But I know I will be standing.

Tuesday, November 11. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena, CA.


“I Stand” by Idina Menzel & Glen Ballard

“When you asked me, who I am
What is my vision? Do I have a plan?
Where is my strength? Have I nothing to say?
I hear the words in my head but I push them away

As I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the strange and lonely
I believe theres a better place
I dont know if the sky is heaven
But I pray anyway

And I don’t know what tomorrow brings
A road less traveled, will it set us free?
‘Cause we’re taking it slow, these tiny legacies
I dont try and change the world
But what will you make of me?

As I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the strange and lonely
I believe there’s a better place
I dont know if the sky is heaven
But I pray anyway

With the slightest of breezes
We fall just like leaves
As the rain washes us from the ground

We forget who we are
We can’t see in the dark
And we quickly get lost in the crowd, oh, oh

I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the strange and lonely
I believe there’s a better place
I don’t know if the sky is heaven
But I pray anyway, oh

I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the strange and lonely
I believe there’s a better place
I don’t know if the sky is heaven
But I pray anyway.”

Wedding Bell Blues — #hueytutannaporvida

Wedding Bell Blues — #hueytutannaporvida

“Good morning, everybody. And thank you for being part of this extremely special, and important, occasion.

We are taught that it isn’t the destination, but the journey that defines us. They obviously never met Raul Valadez and Susanna Contreras. It’s been quite a journey, but they were meant to be each other’s destination.

They are defined by the life they’ve built for over 35 years. They are a poignant example of loyalty, patience, honor, and most importantly, love.

In technical terms, they are indeed a partnership. But, those who know them, who shared their joys and tears for these many years, understand them as what they are: as husband and wife – and in ever sense of these words…”

That is as far as I got in writing my wedding notes for Uncle Raul and Aunt Susanna’s nuptials. At 11 am, on a sunny Monday morning in September, my sister called to tell me she passed away.

It was a long day. We sat at the house on Francisquito. We heard the usual sounds, too. Laughing. The kids were running around. Little Abigail was wielding her blankie like she was Shirley Bassey flinging her cape on stage at Royal Albert Hall.  (Google it.) Sydney slapped my face with a new diaper, thinking it’s the funniest thing in the world. (It was.)

There was a lot of hugging. It was good to hear everyone talking. It was good to hear everyone laughing. It was the crying that was hard to watch. It came in in waves, in between the sweetness and calm. For a moment, we felt awkward that we weren’t grieving more. It’s such an extraordinary process.

It isn’t only in movies where we admit it’s a relief when the person we love puts down their arms in their fight against cancer. But isn’t a relief. It hurts. It’s as if you’re being punched in the most tender place on your body with brass knuckles and a blackjack.

Fucking cancer.

Haven’t you had enough this year? How many more people do you need to recruit? Nobody asked for this conflict. Nobody wakes up to say, “I want to join your ranks.” I know at this very moment, another family member is sitting on some floor, laptop open, tapping the keys in an effort to make sense of all this emotion and reality. We are aware that when a military war comes to an end, the survivors’ tale becomes the narrative. It’s that rousing, nationalistic chronicle of victory. But no one wins in the war with cancer. It is all scorched earth.

I want to scream right now. My mind knows that while cancer may rob people of who they love and cherish, compassion and strength should bring those left behind closer together. That hasn’t been the case with us. Wounded pride, insufferable smugness and other examples of self-absorption have tainted our grieving process. It started with one, only to spread outward like a virus.

Sigh.

My mind can’t seem to focus on what is going to happen next. The most I’ve done is scroll through my phone to find all those Instagram moments. I just wanted proof that sad isn’t the only memory I am going to have of “that day.”

The Susanna from 71 weeks ago is not the same aunt from three weeks ago. I don’t want to focus on what we all witnessed “that day.” I choose to focus on the constant in these photos, her smile. Gosh, it’s Osmond sized, sincere and uninhibited. She exuded life, even when life offered things not worth smiling about.

I can’t believe how little time we had with my aunt this year. I’ve been given the task of saying tomorrow’s eulogy, a task she gave me in June. You can deconstruct the gravity of such a request. It didn’t faze me in the least. It went beyond privilege and honor in my mind. She accepted me from day one. How could I not oblige? (Uncle Raul later pulled me aside to make sure I knew just how connected she was to me. I didn’t know, Uncle. I really didn’t know.)

The hard part now is reconciling how we all let the summer go by without pushing for a day to see Raul and Susanna get married. I was in Spain from the end of June through the end of July, but August was a relatively quiet month. We had the cocido brunch, but I could see my aunt was slowing down again. Man, she was determined to make that meal special. And it was, but we avoided the reality a ticking clock was present.

My mom and I made good on our promise to go to the Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino in Primm Valley to see La Sonora Santanera the weekend after Labor Day. Susanna did her best, but we spent most of our time in her hotel room, talking and watching her favorite shows (Hello, “Law & Order”). She would barely eat and she ultimately missed the show. It was apparent to me at this time that her illness had transitioned from a waiting game to signs of a mortal end.

I knew that weekend at Buffalo Bill’s was a gift, but I chose to hide it well. I will never forget the blessing of seeing my uncle and mother look like teenagers again when La Sonora Santanera played the first notes of “La Boa.” I was meant to sit next to my aunt, who gave me “cosqillas” as she smiled that beautiful smile of hers while watching some of the rougher “Special Victims Unit” episodes ever.

A few weeks later, my aunt refused further treatment.

I went to visit her the Wednesday after her decision. My family then spent the following Sunday with her and Raul and the kids. Susanna was in a very frail state, but aware and feisty. She waved at me. I smiled. She needed her rest. But we were elated that Raul had proposed. Again! And she finally said, “Yes.”

After we all made our separate ways home, my cousins and I spent hours texting about when Uncle Raul and Aunt Susanna should get married. It was that Wednesday. No, it was Saturday. Saturday was perfect! Sooner was better. Aunt Susanna wanted to wait two more weeks, but my cousin Alyssa said, No. it was going to be this Saturday. (Aunt Susanna was so annoyed by that decision, exhibiting that fire of hers, but she acquiesced.)

We went through times, date, food, who to invite with an eye set for Saturday, October 4.

Monday, September 29: I was in my office, stealing a few moments to start writing my wedding comments. I had been ordained over the weekend. I wanted to keep my notes brief. We waited such a long time for this moment. Minutes counted now and this wasn’t “The Jorge Wedding Show,” complete with an entrance cue of “Maybe God Is Tryin’ to Tell You Something” from “The Color Purple.” (I won’t lie. I dreamt that.)

I was writing the final phrases, “…as husband and wife – and in ever sense of these words…,” when my sister Lil called to say Aunt Susanna had collapsed and was having trouble breathing. It was the most normal conversation. She’d had similar moments before, but something told me, “Move, bub. Be with your family.”

I left my office and the comfort of Los Monkeys, but before I made it to the corner of Wilshire and Crenshaw, Lil called back to say aunt Susanna had died.

Saturday, October 4 came and went. Some of us gathered together to honor the wedding day, to just be there for each other. Hearts were heavy, eyes were soggy at times, but spirits remained on high. We were going to honor the legacy of our cherished aunt in our inimitable style. And we did. The exquisite joy on Sydney’s face when she heard the first bars of “All About That Base” solidified why we will never be apart as a family. My aunt made that happen and we promised her achievement would never be in vain. (And, even if that damn Meghan Trainor song is on a perpetual iPod loop, we’ll do it for family.)

I wish I could have honored by aunt’s first request, but I will be delivering her eulogy as promised. I hate letting her down. I wish we had moved faster. But, I take solace that Raul and Susanna did exist in this world as “man and wife.” Life, love, memories was the foundation of their union. The house off Francisquito and Hacienda was their church. And we are all their followers. They made it work their way.

Let no man, or anyone else for that matter, ever tear that asunder.

#hueytutannaporvida #susannacv #lifeisart

Updated on Friday night, October 10, originally written and posted on Wednesday, October 8 from Wayne Avenue Manor. 

“Las hermanas coraje” or “The novela that is my life” (War is…Family, Part 2)

“Las hermanas coraje” or “The novela that is my life” (War is…Family, Part 2)

They are known as Las Hermanas Coraje, two sisters who share one wicked heart. They are a perfect storm, fueled by malice, lies and unmitigated rage. So pure is their misery, they will destroy everything in their wake, especially if it involves your being  — gasp! — happy!

The younger sister lived in her spacious, made to order home in a land known for its arid, beige privacy. She took flight to this hamlet, putting as much distance as she could between her carefully composed life and her secret shame. She didn’t want anyone to know that she came from a world of immigrants parents, homeboy relatives and an iron maiden grandmother who spoke no English.

She wasn’t “nacida corriente.” She was the Girl with Olive Skin, almost Mediterranean, if you will. She had to have the right schools, the right friends, the right life she felt was her true birthright at any cost. Her family’s economic and social status be damned. She refused the middle class nightmare sustained by a coarse but charming father who ran a carpeting business, one he ran into the ground. She’d be damned if she ever let the evils of shag carpet ruin her destiny of blond wood floors and golf trips.

She would heed the lessons of a cold, embittered mother and rise above her station in life to marry a blue-eyed savior. She would fight to wear reversible down vests, ones that could repel any signs of a past she buried.  She would never dare to love her husband or anyone else for that matter. How could she? That would require a heart. And she would never risk having a forgiving or open heart because that would make her vulnerable to the world. And vulnerable meant weak.

the-wizard-of-oz-ruby-slippers

The older sister was a professional spinster, a tender heart since corrupted by the toxic build up of failed relationships, duplicitous men and dreams unrealized. She just wanted to be loved, to hold the attention of those in her presence, terrified of being forgotten.

She turned to the fantasy of acting because she needed an escape from an unfeeling mother who made her feel like she was less than of a woman, but more a misguided girl. She wanted to shine in the eyes of someone as her own derisive father would joke she was better off being a nun. It was her piety that gave her strength to create the greatest role of her life after running away from the confines of a crumbling family unit.

She would see the world through a camera lens, documenting world history by joining the military. But when she came home, she discovered that she still couldn’t stand center stage. She remained a bit player, despite her many accomplishments.  She was still being overshadowed by most members of her family. How ironic that she would foster a career of bit parts that mirrored aspects of her real life.

She had become a punchline for late night television, walking on as a maid, a role her own mother took on after the family hit a financial skid. The older sister couldn’t overcome being part the background, toiling as a glorified extra on daytime soap operas, always hungry for a chance to be on the other side of a camera. She created the illusion of honing her craft. Yet, what she was really doing was stewing in the juices of bubbling discontent, waiting for the moment to unleash her most God-less self against a world that refused to acknowledge she existed.

INTO THE WOODS

Caught in between these desperate women was the older brother who strived to be a duplicate of the man whose name he carried. He existed as a text book case of arrested development. He may have inherited his father’s desire to tell a story, yet he did so with none of the macho swagger and charm that made Dad a legend within the family.

Despite his broad build, he swayed under the weight of his father’s legacy. He dreamed of a house by the sea, of an idealized singleton life and national media attention. Yet despite his being humbled by the racial politics of his career, he settled for an idealized, yet ultimately carbon copy of his parents’ life. The house by the sea was decidedly inland and he was marooned by his own inability to mature. Even cats called him a pussy. This was a man who chose being kept by his mother and sisters from evolving into manhood in the name of protecting the peace.. and his own sanity. They carried his balls in their sensible bags and he did nothing to get them back.

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These are the major players. These are the central roles in a drama that unfolds with increasing venom and selfishness. Am I embellishing any of this? That’s for me to know. But I have no interest in protecting the innocent as they are anything but deserving of protection at this point. I have been struggling to find a way to unburden myself of how I feel about my family of late. Not my immediate family, my extended family. Tough times are being experienced by the people I care about. We have reached an age where we are losing people closest to us. Cancer. Alzheimer’s. Age. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers. Sisters. Uncles. Aunts. Cousins. Everyone I love. Life and death are happening to all of us and these assholes are actually fighting for screen time?

I’ve stopped and started this blog post so many times. I was just too angry to write and I never intended to turn this into a burn book. But, I hate having to reaffirm the reality that people genuinely suck. And nothing feels worse than having that validated by the people you call your “family.” Some of these people are just cartoon characters to me, variations of the wicked stepsisters or, more appropriately, the screeching viragos found in the Mexican telenovela.

If I close my eyes hard enough, I can see the humor of what we are living out these days. I see the wicked machinations of a Robin Wright in “House of Cards” or a Joan Collins in “Dynasty.” I have always praised such calculated deviousness as the best in high art or Nolan Miller-dressed camp. But when it is happening in real life to people you know, suddenly having a Lady Macbeth or a Soraya Montenegro in your midst is both sad, enraging and mystifying all at once.

In this week’s episodes, las hermanas y hermano Coraje wanted to make sure they aren’t lost in the swell of emotion as their aunt bravely fights cancer. One marriage is in trouble and they have taken to broadcasting their malice in the most extraordinary way. Hermano C, who during a brief visit to see his dying tia, makes sure to tell his grief-stricken tio that he’s disappointed she’s chosen the side of his soon-to-be estranged wife?

Really.

It isn’t that any of us is choosing sides. It is our reaction to his actually pulling focus away from the gravity of our aunt’s situation. What is appalling and what is so disappointing is: 1) the manner in which he’s chosen to handle his failing marriage, and, 2) the fact that he thinks this is the time to issue ultimatums on family loyalty. What. The. Fuck!

Meanwhile, las hermanas are in the background, stirring the pot like the witches that appear at the opening of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They have sprung from a special hell to unload the same message of enforced distancing to their nieces, who are also their goddaughters. All I can do is shake my head over their recent phone calls, peppered with such overripe novela dialogue as, “I choose to have only positive energy around me now!” or “I’m cutting out the negative people in my life!”  Again, how is it you can make such calls, which were supposedly made in the name of support, only to turn the entire conversation around to focus on you and your needs? All while your nieces’ mother is fighting for her life in the next room?!?

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But the worst part of this? The B plot, where las hermanas Coraje maneuver and plot the destruction of their brother’s marriage. This is where my cousin in-law needs to take a page from the Katie Holmes Playbook. Lord knows La Prima Coraje has been trying to repair whatever damage has been caused by her union with the Ball Less Wonder. But with the sisters Grimm making sure every avenue is razed, La Prima Coraje is running out of reasons to stay. Don’t miss this episode recap, where the younger Hermana Coraje (with her frigid husband in tow) take Hermano C to a divorce lawyer without his wife’s knowledge! Oh, and you’ll thrill to the cameo appearance of the elder Hermana Coraje, who makes sure to phone in to this pow wow so she can contribute her thoughts via speaker! (And, wait until you see the scenes for next week, when las hermanas counsel their hermano to, yes, text his ex-girlfriends.

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As one side of my family prepares itself for the loss of a parent, the other side of the same family is enduring the loss of their compassion and sanity. Somewhere in all of this, my immediate family is in the middle. Apparently they are dwelling on how everyone is choosing sides now, a state of affairs the saddens me to no end. Because it didn’t have to turn into this. From the conversations that I’ve had with my younger cousins, who are also my goddaughters, it appears we are part of the problem for being “negative people.”

I have run all of this information in my mind without pause. And I think I understand why Los Coraje feel the way they do. It isn’t the negative that they want to excise. It is the fact that we represent the truth about who they are, of their humble, complex origins. They are terrified that we will expose them. As if we would dare to pull the curtain on their Oz-like fantasy. Don’t they realize we don’t care about the positions they hold in this world? If they stopped to think about it, we are actually proud over how they took negative circumstances and turned them into positives. But they are hell bent in keeping up appearances, surrounding themselves with people who only feed their delusion. Syncophants, yes people, minions who do their bidding because that’s the way they’ve always lived their tragic, small, human lives.

I know we can be a very meddlesome unit. I don’t know how it is in your family, but mine can be a smidge overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion and it doesn’t matter the topic, either. From the outside, it can appear that we are rather antagonistic. Plenty of button pushing goes on this group, but there’s never any malicious intent. I like to think my parents created a tribe of too many chiefs and not enough indians, but that’s another story.

We are not always acting at fever pitch, screaming, “Sergio! Sueltame! Esta es mi hacienda!” or “Largase de aqui, babosa!” or “Vieja zorra! Te voy a dar una paliza que nunca vas a olvidar!” We have never resorted to pulling hair, slapping each other silly or plotting to destroy the Carrington family once and for all. Apparently, some of us do see the world in such terms. But my extended family has turned what should have been a defining moment into something that trivializes their humanity in the process. Here the sins of their parents have been internalized and manifested into something beyond cruel and narcissistic.

We will never know the truth behind any one family’s dysfunction. But I know enough of their complicated family history to postulate my own hypothesis. They are the perfect Orwellian family in that they have perfected their abilities to maintain a revisionist history. They have invested so much of their emotional energy in keeping up appearances, they really can’t discern between truth and lies anymore.

Is it my place to put all of this down in black and white? No, but I’m doing it anyway. I have always been the one to defend them, to not let the animosity boil over, to try and meet them halfway. But I can’t do it anymore. When you say the word “family” in the Latino context, it encompasses a large number of people. Several of my white friends have to remind themselves of that whenever I start a sentence, “My family is…” I still see them as my family, even with this line drawn across the sand.

They can declare that we are all just jealous and envious of their material lives. Yet, they can’t ignore the facts. My father helped them when their father needed assistance. My uncle took them in when they had nowhere else to go, offering shelter at great sacrifice to his own family. We were there when their father died without fail or judgment. We were there when their grandmother died, a woman who either ignored us or kept us at arm’s length when we were children. I delivered her eulogy, even though my own heart was conflicted. Why would we as jealous or envious people EVER take such steps to help them? Yet, the damage is done. All that self-editing has taken a personal angle. We are being erased, too.

I can list so much more, but I won’t. It doesn’t matter. They’d deny it anyway. I have already validated their perceptions of being negative at this point. We’ve lost them, probably for good this time. But I don’t want any of us to forget what made this entire family split in two, especially them. All we can do now is accept the terms of the dissolution, move on and stop these ridiculous confrontations. No one is going to win. There are no spoils to reap. We are going to lose something that is going to matter in the end. The question is who will be the ones strong enough to stand in the middle again because you know how life can be. Sooner or later, they will need us. And I am certain some, not all, will be there to lend them a hand.

We all need a moment to step and back see the big picture. We are losing one of our own in the most awful way as cancer doesn’t give a shit if the family is fighting. We were supposed to be better than this. Better than our parents. Better than the dominant culture that has warped our basic values and morals. Just better, period. Instead we have turned ourselves into something so shameful.

Being part of a strong family is such a gift. I couldn’t survive this world without my family, here and in Mexico. They are my reason to live. Because that is how I have been raised. My siblings and I may have our moments, but we’ve never plotted against each other.  But let’s just say, we may need to do some rewrites, too.

In the meantime, I am going to ponder how these days will affect the next generations. That’s going to be interesting, how the children of the Corajes will grow up after witnessing their parents’ own sizzling narratives. I already have my bag of popcorn ready, because you know it’s going to be good.

“Los hijos de los hermanos coraje,” coming soon.

Written, produced and posted from Wayne Ave. Manor in South Pasadena, CA