Yesterday, we said goodbye to Tania, also known as Tania Marie Louise Ciccone von Huntington Smythe, Tina Toodles, Tipsy Toovington, and other aliases befitting a venerable woman of mystery and intrigue. She did her namesake proud.
Tania came to us a few months before Hurricane Katrina did. She was a foundling, taken in by a housemate who couldn’t keep her when he suddenly decided to move back where he’d come from. For over 16 years, Tania was a member of our pack, a close friend and confidante, and often, the only female in the house. She had endless adventures, and to be honest, she was better traveled than I will ever be.
Tania’s end had been looming for some time, but it was hard to make the call. Animals—including human animals—often tell you when they’re ready to go: they withdraw, they stop eating, they wind down. Tania never did: to the end, she loved walks, she loved cuddles, and she ate like a horse. But no matter how she fought it, her body betrayed her.
I’d hoped we’d be able to say goodbye at home, with Tania surrounded by her entire immediate family, but thanks to Hurricane Ida, our family was split—some remaining in New Orleans, the rest of us running for cover. Thankfully, we landed with family, in Chicago. Tania said goodbye on a beautiful late-summer morning, after a hearty breakfast and a long, long amble around the garden.
People much smarter than me have calculated that each time we draw breath, we inhale some of the same molecules that Julius Caesar exhaled when he died. I take comfort in knowing that with every breath, I am sharing some of the air that Tania breathed during her magnificent life on earth.
The first time I saw it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, was in the summer of 2015. I was sprawled across a deck chair beside a pool in Fort Morgan, Alabama, half-asleep in the heat. And over the din of children splashing and waves crashing, I listened to my father retell the same story four times within the space of 15 minutes.
Now, daddy had a fairly small repertoire of stories (tall tales, mildly funny encounters, and other short-form, dinner table stuff), so it wasn’t unusual for him to repeat one over the course of a day. But this was something new. I rolled my head to look at him. Same thin gray hair, same ice blue eyes, same mischievous smile, but something was definitely not the same.
I don’t remember the story itself—it was probably about a dumb thing that one of my brothers or I did as kids or about an equally dumb thing that one of daddy’s helpers did up at the farm. All I really remember is thinking, “Well, I see how this is going to end.”
I said goodbye to my father that day. I didn’t know how much he would change over the next six years or the indignities he would suffer at the hands of disease—if I did, I would’ve probably hugged him and my stepmother 25% tighter before I left.
It took daddy and me a while to warm up to each other—25 years, give or take. I was an argumentative, precocious kid. I liked asking questions, pushing boundaries, trying new things. Daddy—a profoundly religious farmer-turned-pharmacist from the backwoods of central Mississippi—took great offense at my disrespect for authority. In his view, children should speak when spoken to and obey orders from their elders in the meantime. To him, I was not inquisitive, I was not curious, I was a smartass.
To be fair to daddy, his worldview wasn’t unusual, at least not where we were from. Nearly every adult man I knew was cut from the same cloth. (Mom is another story for another time.) Their core values centered on god, Ole Miss, saying “yes ma’am and “no ma’am”, and worrying about what the neighbors would think. If you sassed off about any of those items—or quite a few more that fell further down the list—you’d better just stop what you were doing and go pick a switch. Otherwise, they’d do it for you.
The darkest moment in our personal Cold War came as I was graduating from college. We’d never had The Talk about me being gay, but it was clear as a big, pink bell that I was. I told him that I was moving to New Orleans after I got my diploma, and that didn’t sit well with daddy one tiny little bit. The phone call ended around the time that he shouted, “You gonna go down there and catch something you can’t get rid of!” I hung up and didn’t speak to him again for half a year, maybe more.
When we reconnected, things were different. I don’t know for sure, we never discussed it afterward, and now we never will, but I think our brief estrangement made him see that he wasn’t going to change me and that if he wanted a relationship, he’d better start accepting me for the adult I was becoming.
And ironically, that changed me. Around the time that the Soviets’ Iron Curtain was falling, I slowly let down my defenses. Daddy and I stopped shouting at one another and started listening. And before either of us really knew what was happening, we’d become friends. He drove down to New Orleans and helped me pack when I moved to New York for grad school. He helped me buy a car when I returned.
Our friendship accelerated after he had emergency heart surgery a few years later. It was the closest he’d ever been to death, and the recovery process was long and brutal. He never said it outright, but it’s pretty clear to me that the experience gave him a better sense of what was important in life and what was not. A relationship with me fell in the former category.
Daddy and I got into the habit of meeting in Hattiesburg for lunch every few months. And we started spending long weekends at the beach, him and me and the rest of my family, at the house of a family friend. I don’t know if I ever became the son he’d wanted, but I can say for sure that he became a much better version of my dad.
In short, the second 25 years of our relationship made up for the first 25. I’m glad we both lived long enough to see that.
One of the last conversations we had—the last real conversation, anyway—was on February 4, 2017. My uncle had offered me some of my grandparents’ furniture, so I’d gone up to get it, and daddy had helped me load it into his massive F-150. (I should point out that I was driving; a year and a half after the story-retelling incident, dad was already too far gone to be trusted behind the wheel.)
Anyway, I don’t recall how we got there in the conversation, but as we were heading home, I remember explaining to daddy that growing up as a gay kid in the Southern Baptist church in small-town Mississippi was no fun at all. And as I turned onto the long, straight stretch of Wansley Road, he looked over at me and asked—fully sincere and truly curious—“Is there anything I could’ve done better?”
Part of me broke inside. Not just because this one one of the few open, honest conversations we’d ever had; not just because dad was admitting that he was fallible, something that rarely if ever crossed his mind when we were younger (despite all of Pastor Kennedy’s talk about sinning and human frailty in his Sunday sermons); but because in those seven words, daddy made clear that he saw his own end on the horizon. I think he knew that he wouldn’t have many more chances to speak with me so frankly.
You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.
I took a deep breath and told him that he’d done as well as he could, given when and where I grew up. And I told him that I’m fine now, so everything came out okay in the end.
I didn’t mention that he’d been right, that I’d moved to New Orleans and had indeed caught something I couldn’t get rid of. I suppose I have my own issues with fallibility.
Last Monday, May 17, we all got a text from my stepmother. Daddy had gone on hospice care the week before, and she said that he’d taken a turn for the worst. If we wanted to say our goodbyes, we’d best come on.
The next morning, I left the house at 7am and drove up to Laurel to see him. He was unconscious, but I sat beside him and said my piece. The last words I said to him were “thank you”. I said it four times.
That night he passed away, and two days later, we buried him. I didn’t care for the pastor much (then again, I’m wary of religion, so part of that’s on me), but otherwise, the ceremony was simple and lovely. And for the first time in maybe ever, our family felt like a family.
I don’t know how yours went/is going, but mine was not good/is better now. Maybe. Probably.
The thing is, I shouldn’t have anything to complain about. Not really. I was lucky. I kept my job, I had a steady income, two partners and three hounds to keep me company. A small circle of friends I saw on a regular basis.
But that’s just me being rational. Pandemic or no, rationality often flies out the window when our routines are disrupted, when we’re ejected from our comfort zone, when we face adversity. We all know that chronic complainer who probably experienced a garden-variety aborted lane-change on the freeway but won’t shut up about “That idiot nearly ran me off the road!” I mean, that stuff can be nerve-wracking and all, but rationally speaking, they have a car, probably a house, and they’re still alive, so they should count their blessings, am I right?
I’m not doing a very good job of explaining this.
I’m saying, that the past year+ was stressful and is stressful and even though none of my close friends died from the disease, none of my immediate family died, it was a lot. And I didn’t deal with it well.
This week, give or take, the last pre-COVID babies will be born. Their parents received the news that should have been joyous and instead said, “Oh no, not now.”
Next week, give or take, a new breed arrives. Their parents said, “Oh this is fine, we’ll manage.” Or, “Our child will make the world a better place.” Or, “I’m horny, let’s fuck, and for the last time I’m not wearing a goddamn rubber.”
Or maybe they said nothing at all. Maybe mother and father were overwhelmed, their minds racing from one thought to another: do we have enough toilet paper? did I sanitize my hands? is Pizza Delicious open for takeout or not? Paralyzed by fear, anxiety, and, in many cases, depression, sex was a coping mechanism, a way of tuning out for a few minutes. Or hours, for those who really keep up with their Pilates.
I’m not interested in condemning parents from either group. We do a lot of moralizing these days, but can we please not get all judgy about people who choose to get pregnant or to have a child in the middle of a pandemic? There are bigger fish to fry, folks. Aquariums full of them. (Vegan side note: emptying the aquariums is a fish worth frying.)
No, what interests me is that within my lifetime—sooner than I think—I’ll be speaking to someone, and they’ll say, “COVID? That was before my time.”
It seems so impossible, the same way it did on September 11th, impossible to believe that living memory will run out, that this experience won’t be duct-taped and soldered to our DNA, passed down to generation upon generation upon generation, through an Old Testament’s worth of “begats”. But no, everyone forgets: friends, family, elephants, the owner of the corner store who caught you shoplifting comic books in grade school. Even the internet.
I know that sounds melodramatic. Old habits die hard.
But don’t worry, my love–not yet. My eyes are fine, my vision, perfection. It’s the darkness that’s the problem. I’m straining to find light, any light at all: a glimmer, a spark, a particle, a wave.
I had a professor who used to say that light is a particle on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and a wave on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On Sundays we just think about it.
That’s a physics joke. A physics dad joke. I’ve succumbed to dad jokes, the kindest, gentlest, dumbest form of gallows humor.
I’m as appalled as you are. Let me pull myself together.
* * * * *
Mildly better now. I’ll start over.
It’s a shock, suddenly being unable to see, going blind in the blink of an eye. (That’s not a joke, much less a dad joke, just a cliche sideswiped by poor phrasing.) It reminds me of being a kid, when my friends and I played hide-and-seek at sleepovers. I’d curl up in the darkest corner of the pitch-blackest closet of a house that wasn’t mine, certain that I’d claimed the perfect spot.
But after five minutes of giggling nervously to myself and not being discovered, the strange scents, the unfamiliar silhouettes of boxes and clothes, began to seem ominous. I knew they were just a bunch of sweaters, but they were scary sweaters.
Then as now, my eyes opened and shut, opened and shut, trying to clear away the darkness like it were a speck of dust. Now as then, my mouth opens as wide as my eyes. If I could see myself, I’d look like a fish out of water, gasping and awestruck.
Can a fish be awestruck?
Sorry, I’m avoiding the unavoidable. Give me a minute. I’ll try again.
Last fall, I took part in a thoroughly underwhelming workshop on racial equity*. Anyone who walked into that room hoping to learn strategies for improving equality in their community walked away very, very disappointed. Basically the message was, “Live with it. There’s nothing you can do.”
Well, almost nothing. As a throwaway—an afterthought, honestly—one of the presenters admitted that there is ONE thing you can do: say “hello” to everyone. The stranger in the elevator. The co-worker who’s never given you a second look. The homeless woman outside the grocery store. Everyone. And mean it. Make them feel seen, make them feel welcome.
I don’t believe that’s the only tool we have. I can’t believe that. But it’s a start. And it’s certainly easy to do—even easier than wearing a mask, which should be a no-brainer, but apparently….
So, until a better strategy comes along, I’ll say “hello” to everyone, even if you’ve chosen to go maskless for some reason. And you’re welcome to say “hello” to me. Or “hey”. Or “hola”. Or even “‘sup”.
Actually, I’m gonna draw a line at “‘sup”.
*I’m not going to name the group here, but I will say that their organization has an awfully ironic name for one that claims to fight for racial equity. If you’re organizing something for your workplace or community and want to know, email me. I’m happy to share.
Over the past week, I’ve received emails and texts from friends and family, asking if I’m alright, if I’m okay.
At first, I just thought it was the usual thing, the thing we’re all doing now as we sit at home, waiting out this virus: checking in on folks that we haven’t spoken to in a while. I know I’ve done it–emailed or texted or Facebook Messaged someone who crossed my mind. “Hey, just wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you. Hope you’re holding up well, and I hope to see you in person once all this mess is over.” That kind of thing.
Earlier today, I wrote an email to some of my students. A few of them had reached out to me with questions about what they should be doing–as citizens and as budding arts administrators–during this challenging, anxiety-ridden time.
I don’t have any definitive answers, but I have a few thoughts, which I’m sharing here for former students, peers in the cultural industry, or anyone else.
Let me be clear: I’ve never been through anything like this, but I’ve definitely been through crises in my life. And though every crisis is unique, our responses to crises tends to follow a common trajectory.
With that in mind, here are a few projections for the current calamity:
1. Life will return to normal. The return won’t be immediate. It will probably be touch and go for a bit. But the upside is that our infrastructure is still in place. After Hurricane Katrina, we weren’t so lucky: our grocery stores, our hospitals, our banks, our schools, all of that had to be rebuilt. That won’t be the case this go-round, but it will still take time for us to find our rhythm. Be patient. Take notes. It’ll help you if this should ever happen again.
2. The arts and culture sector will struggle for a while. Not only will the recovery be slow, but in any city that depends on tourism for revenue (including New Orleans), it will be slightly slower. Hotels will reopen, but guests will be sparse at first–mostly out-of-towners who’ve come to help with treatment and rebuilding. Restaurants will reopen, though probably with smaller staffs and limited menus. Bars will be fine. I mean, obviously.
Cultural organizations will be important–people will look to them as signs of civic health–but we’ll probably be working with smaller staffs. People will guard their discretionary income until the economy stabilizes. Membership revenue won’t come back right away. However, events will be huge. Festivals, concerts, even galas: these are things that will make people feel normal, the things that will allow everyone to forget for just a minute the anxiety and the facemasks and the hoarding of hand sanitizer. Use them wisely
3. Our way of doing business in the arts and culture sector will shift. If you lived in New Orleans during Katrina, you know that we were hurled into the 21st century literally overnight. We learned to work remotely, to rely on laptops, to text. (Yes, Katrina made that happen for me and many others, way back when T9 messaging was pretty much all we had.) There will be a similar shift now.
Organizations without strong online presences will change that fact, and fast. We will grow our communities on Facebook, Instagram, and whatever the next Facebook/Instagram might be. We will livestream, we will share our work in every way possible. For some of us, our work may live there so that we can continue to produce it wherever events may take us.
Revenue will also shift. Contributed revenue will still be important, and there will be a number of special grants available to help arts and culture orgs get back on their feet. But some of our usual sources of support–individuals, foundations, and especially government agencies–will have other priorities. Earned revenue will fill the gaps. And if you’ve never had the opportunity to work on an endowment campaign, just wait. Prepare to get very, very creative.
4. Find partners. When resources are limited, duplication of effort is criminal. If you have spare office space, share it with others who don’t. (Perhaps they can contribute toward the utility bill.) If you have a staff member who’s a grantwriting whiz, loan them out to others (possibly for a fee, if the other org has funds for that). If you have a venue for a concert, a summer camp, a workshop, make it available–again, maybe there’s a fee involved, maybe there’s some bartering, or maybe it’s just for goodwill. The organizations that will handle recovery the best and prepare themselves for future crises are the ones that take this opportunity to deepen their relationships with partners.
5. You are needed now more than ever. This virus will do more damage to our communities than to the people who live in them. When the pandemic winds down, billions of people will have been isolated from friends, family, and coworkers. They’ll need to reacclimate to social life. They’ll need to be reminded how to live in a community.
There are three things that build community: food, faith, and fun. You’re responsible for item #3. Make it happen.
This isn’t a situation that any of us would’ve wanted, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt. It may seem overwhelming, but here’s a trick to help you cope: focus on a task. Put your head down, do your work, and eventually, you’ll look up to find some improvements.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of being contortionist in a traveling circus. The lights in the tent would dim as I strode into the center ring, wearing a rainbow-glitter unitard bedecked with sequins and appliques and copious amounts of cowboy fringe along the seams (all of which was 100% impractical for a contortionist, but my gay child daydreams demanded fashion at all costs).
Unlike the other performers in this imaginary circus, I wore a mask because–and this is a crucial plot point–I lived a double-life. By day, I was a goody-goody, straight-A student, but at night, I crept out of my house to become the Amazing Ricardo! (I was like eight or something. Cut me some slack.)
Wowing crowds with my unparalleled flexibility was a treat, but it was only half of the fantasy. The other half involved saving the lives of my classmates.
The whole scenario went something like this: the tent was packed and my entire class was sitting on the front row. I had just begun the aerial portion of my world-famous routine when criminals stormed in from every direction. I think they wanted folks to fork over their money and jewelry, but I can’t remember, and it’s not important anyway. What’s important is that (a) the thugs threatened to kill everyone in the place if we didn’t do as they said, and (b) they wanted me to hand over the money from the circus’ safe.
(I am fully aware that the premise is absurd. Why would a contortionist in costume know the combination to the circus’ cash box? Why wouldn’t the robbers speak to our CFO? Why would they rob a circus when they could just as easily knock over a department store or Spencer Gifts and make twice as much money? What was my entire class doing at the circus? At night, no less? Was it a field trip? How did I get out of it? And how was I able to maintain my double-life as a student and circus performer when by definition, a traveling circus travels? Had I hooked up with the only hodophobic circus in North America? Et cetera, et cetera, questions be damned.)
The thugs’ leader intended to rip me apart in front of everyone because I wouldn’t turn over the circus’ cash. He hung me this way and that, trying to extract the combination to the safe, had his men tie me up in knots. Of course–and here’s the payoff–I was a contortionist, so their abuse didn’t bother me a bit, but I pulled a total Br’er Rabbit anyway. I hammed it up with screams and occasional fainting, playing the role of torture victim to perfection. The gasps and squeals from the audience–which again, included every last one of my classmates–brought me far more pleasure than the crowd’s oohs and aahs would have during my usual show.
In retrospect, I suppose the whole thing was like a campy S&M scene you’d find in a big-budget (or low-budget) porn film. Which explains a lot.
Anyway, the daydream came to a glorious conclusion when the police charged into the tent and arrested the robbers. In front of everyone, the cops thanked me for enduring such extreme torture for as long as I did, because it gave them enough time to take out the bad guys. Everybody lived, the crooks went to jail, and I became a hero in front of my classmates–a huge self-esteem boost that this socially awkward, closeted gay Mississippi kid never got in real life.
Of course, I never told my friends about daydreams like this one–I was far too embarrassed. But years down the line, I realized that every kid feels awkward and outcast as they work toward building an adult identity. John Hughes built a career from that wee fact. Ryan Murphy exploited it to no end in Glee. Heathers, Mean Girls, Dazed and Confused, A Christmas Story, Cinderella, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, fucking Spy Kids: nearly every movie about grade schoolers and high schoolers is a story of kids feeling like they don’t belong and paving their own way, triumphing over adversity or the head cheerleader or the school jock or whatever.
Would my childhood have been easier if I’d understood that at the time? Probably not. I might’ve been encouraged to tell close friends that I preferred Wonder Woman to Spiderman, or maybe even that I hated football. But admitting that I liked to kiss boys would’ve been like admitting that I liked to eat cockroaches or make out with my grandmother: not just different, but alien.