Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Thanksgiving to Remember

Once again, inevitably, Thanksgiving is upon us. Now, I know common wisdom has it that Thanksgiving is a day to bond with family, and express thankfulness for the past year’s bounty. But to be fair, Thanksgiving isn’t without its pitfalls. Relatives for one (c’mon now, I know you’ve at least once looked at your family members and asked yourself, “How can I possibly be related to these people?”); politics for another. And let’s not forget football, which doesn’t even promise the relief of a half-time show!

We don’t do a full family thanksgiving anymore—the reasons for which are a whole other blog post; another time maybe. So, it’ll just be us, the dogs, my brother and his wife and their son, our good friends who used to live across the driveway from us, and my old, old, old friend Daniel. It’ll be nice. It always is. And for that, I am grateful.

Let’s face it Thanksgiving can be a difficult holiday—especially if you’re LGBT. So, to honor the day and the difficulty of family, I am sharing an excerpt from my semi-autobiographical novel, Unbroken. Naturally, it is the first Thanksgiving Lincoln takes Jose home for the holiday.



Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s was a ritual, an inescapable obligation. And a torment. My mother made it clear Jose wasn’t welcome, so we used to drive up from Washington together and he’d go to his mother and I’d go to mine. My mother didn’t want him there, mostly, I assumed, because she always invited the hapless daughters of her friends and various cousins’ friends to dinner. These poor girls were clearly invited for my benefit. Often the brighter ones looked unhappy, as if being brought together with me—this slightly effeminate, and wholly uninterested man, clearly an impossible match—was the best anyone thought they could do.
 
This particular Thanksgiving, Jose insisted on accompanying me. Given what had happened at his mother’s, and that we hadn’t been to Sunday dinner since, I wasn’t surprised when he invited himself along. Fed up with my mother’s treatment of him, and determined that if there was no place for him, then I would make a place for him, or give up mine, I agreed. I did not tell my mother I would be bringing Jose to dinner.
 
My father answered the door. He looked surprised to see Jose but simply said hello.
 
“Is that Lincoln?” my mother called from the kitchen. “Come in here. I have a special guest I want you to meet.”
 
“Oh good,” I called heading for the kitchen, Jose in tow. “I have a special guest, too.”
 
I walked into the kitchen. My mother’s expression immediately darkened when she saw Jose.
 
“I brought Jose along,” I said, and kissed her cheek. “I knew you wouldn’t mind.”
 
I glanced at the young woman beside her, who was bent over a bowl, her hands working furiously at some task. Spindly and hesitant, she looked like an exotic, upended bird in purple feathers and pleats, her upswept hair like a great bird’s nest atop her head. Silver bracelets striking, she perched on the edge of a stool. I realized she was shelling peas. My mother introduced us—she was aptly named Alouetta Byrd—then, grudgingly went into the dining room to set a place for Jose.
 
Alouetta looked at me carefully, through beady, mascaraed eyes, as if I were a plump worm washed up from the earth during the first heavy rain of spring after a long dry winter. Jose put his arm around me, his left hand clasping my right shoulder lightly, in a casual gesture that carried with it the possessiveness of long intimacy.
 
“Alouetta,” he said. “Is that French?”
 
She looked at him for the first time. Her eyes strayed back to where his hand lay on my shoulder. “Yes. I’m from Louisiana originally,” she said, shelling peas.
 
Later, on my way to the bathroom, I noticed my mother had produced place cards from…somewhere; her arrangement seated Jose as far away from me as possible. When I returned to the living room I whispered to Jose, “You will not be happy with the seating arrangements.” He immediately excused himself.
 
When he came back, he sat on the sofa beside me and smiled.
 
Alouetta, unnerved by Jose’s barely concealed hostility, and my own indifference, self-consciously wandered around the living room, examining the spines of the books on the shelves and picking up the family photos that dotted every surface like punctuation in a story of a family. She picked up a picture of me at age five.
 
“Oh! Lincoln is that you?”
 
“It is,” I said.
 
“Oh my,” she chirped. “Look at all those curls! You look like a girl!”
 
My mother tensed. My father and brothers, pretending to be engrossed in the football game on TV, acted as if they hadn’t heard her comment. Alouetta, realizing her mistake, put down the picture as if it had burned or bitten her. Turning to my mother she said brightly, “My, Mrs. de Chabert, there are certainly a lot of pictures of you!”
 
“What do you mean?” my mother asked darkly. “There are pictures of other people.”
 
“Yes, but you’re in those as well.”
 
I stifled a laugh. My father and brothers, refusing to get involved, without taking their eyes off the TV screen, talked loudly to each other about whatever had just happened on the football field. Jose looked at a picture of my parents on the end table beside him.
 
“Hey,” he whispered to me, “your parents look alike. Do you think we’ll begin to look alike?”
 
“No,” I whispered back. “They’ve always looked alike. They’re actually related somehow—though no one is quite sure how.”
 
“I can’t imagine marrying someone who looked like me,” Jose said. “What would be the point of that?”
 
Given my mother’s narcissism, I didn’t find it surprising she had fallen in love with a man who looked like her.
 
“I used to wish I looked like you,” I said.
 
“Me? Why?”
 
“Because I used to think you were the handsomest boy in the world.”
 
“And now?”
 
“Now I think you’re the handsomest man in the world.” I glanced around then leaned in and kissed him quickly. My mother caught the movement and turned her attention on us.
 
“Hey,” she said loudly, “What are you two plotting over there?”
 
Everyone turned to look at us.
 
“Jose, move over so Alouetta can sit down,” my mother commanded, then excused herself to return to the kitchen. Jose scooted closer to me, forcing Alouetta to sit next to him rather than me as my mother had intended. She perched on the edge of the sofa and leaned around him to speak to me. Jose sat back stiffly and, ignoring us both, stared at the TV. Suddenly he turned to her.
 
“Alouetta—such a pretty name,” he said. “It’s from that children’s song isn’t it?” He started to sing: “Alouette, gentille alouette, je te plumerai…”
 
Alouetta stiffened. “That song,” she said, “is horrible. It’s about a lark that has her feathers, eyes and beak plucked because she woke someone with her singing!”
 
Jose, leaned toward me. “Oops,” he whispered cheerfully in my ear.
 
“Dinner’s ready,” my mother trilled.
 
“It’s show time,” Jose said, rising and tugging me to my feet.
 
I was startled when he sat next to me. I looked at him questioningly and he turned the place card so I could see his name. Seated directly opposite me, Alouetta looked distinctly displeased.
 
My mother came in with the turkey and stopped short when she saw Jose sitting next to me.
 
“Oh dear,” she exclaimed. “My place cards must have gotten mixed up. Jose, you’re supposed to be at the other end of the table.”
 
“Oh, Mrs. De Chabert, everyone is already seated and comfortable. Let’s not make everyone move.”
 
Their mutual dislike was palpable. My mother, who does not like to be challenged, conceded victory and sat at her usual place opposite my father. My father glared at us as he carved the turkey.
 
“We should say grace,” Jose said suddenly as everyone started to pass food. He took my hand, and then grasped the hand of my brother who sat on his left, forcing everyone to stop passing and receiving food so they could take the hand of the person next to them. His mumbled prayer went on and on; went on so long, in fact, that I kicked him under the table. He mumbled, “Amen” and everyone unclasped hands and picked up their forks. He continued to hold my hand though, until I tugged it away as discreetly as I could.
 
Across the table from me, Alouetta continued to stare at the spot where our hands had been. Looking at Jose, she asked, “How do you two know each other?”
 
“They were roommates in college,” my mother quickly answered.
 
Jose cut a piece of turkey with slow deliberation, and brought it to his mouth.
 
“Yes, he said. “Also we’re lovers.” He began to chew savagely.
 
My father dropped his fork and my brother started to laugh, but caught sight of my mother’s face and quickly stifled his mirth.
 
We left before dessert. On the way home in the car, I said, “Well that could have gone better!”
 
“I don’t think your brother likes me.”
 
“Which one?” I asked
 
“I don’t know. I can’t tell them apart. Rosencrantz, I think.”
 
I wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart either, except one was vaguely hostile, while the other—the younger one—vacillated between indifference and aggressive neutrality. I thought of him as Little Mister Switzerland. Jose, however, always referred to them interchangeably as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
 
“I think you mean Guildenstern,” I said, “but, it doesn’t matter. I like you.”
 
He flashed me a smile in the dark and reached for my hand, then brought it to his lips. “I love you, Spaceman.”
 
“Me, too.”
 
“I can’t believe your mother had the balls to try and set you up with that pathetic bitch right in front of me!”
 
“Hey look!” I pointed, hoping to distract him, “The Dairy Queen is open. Come on, I’ll buy you an ice cream.”
 
We parked and I got him a cone, refusing one for myself.
 
“I’ll just have a taste of yours,” I said on the way back to the car.
 
When he brought it to his mouth, I leaned in and licked it from the other side. His eyes danced in the dashboard light and we each licked the ice cream until our tongues met in a cold sticky kiss.
 
“Hah! I’d like to send your mother a picture of this,” he said.
***
 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Reluctant Puppetmaster

Yo, yo little brother, what you out here trying to discover

I’m working on my new book and as I was driving and thinking through a particularly difficult plot line, this song, “Yo Little Brother,” from the mid 80s came on the radio. (1984 to be exact and it hit #57 on the Billboard Hot 100.) It caught my attention—of course I remember when it came out. Now it resonated perhaps because at that moment, listening to that song, I was that little brother, out here trying to discover…what?

I suppose the short answer is I am trying to discover my characters—what their thoughts are, their passions, what drives them to behave as they do. What secrets do they hold, and keep from me? And I wondered, what, as I do with each book, writing this one, I would discover about myself.

I checked every place I thought he might of gone
Until I came across a house with something going on
I looked in the window there was brother and his crew
And he was doing everything a little brother shouldn’t do

My characters can be difficult, untrusting, closed, refusing to tell me much at least until we’ve spent some time together and they begin to trust me to listen and tell their story in the way it must be told. Until that time I stride along the edges or their world, peeking into that window, under that shrub, behind that door. Often, at first, I find nothing, but I keep walking and listening and looking until I come across that house with something going on.

I do a lot of research for my books and this new one is no exception. I like doing research. It frees my mind to wander while I learn something new—something that helps me put flesh on the bones of my characters, or shed a light in their situation. Having listened to the song on the radio, I tracked it down on YouTube to watch it. I vaguely remembered it. Then I found a loose thread that mentioned that the young blonde, oddly plastic-looking singer in the video, Nolan Thomas, was not actually singing the song. He was lip synching to the vocals sung by Elan Lanier, who, by the way, was black.

Apparently the video’s producers felt that Nolan would be more “marketable” than Elan. As I watched Nolan skipping through the video’s pastel, occasionally surreal, landscape like a fever dream, I watched his lips moving to another’s words, watched his mouth open and close to emit another’s voice. With his plastic looks and bleached hair he looked like an animated puppet, Pinocchio cast as a not quite real boy. And perhaps the absolute falsity of his looks, his singing, the trippy landscape, was all deliberate. But it made me reflect on the fear I always have with my characters—especially with this new book: How do I make them real? Make them themselves. I don’t want puppets lip-synching to me. I want their dialogue, their stories, to be their own, authentic.

I remember when I was writing Unbroken. I created the character of Maritza, Jose’s younger sister. Originally she was just supposed to show up at their dorm room, announce her hopeless and ill-fated crush on her brother’s boyfriend then, having discovered her brother’s secret, fade into the landscape. But Maritza had other ideas and a bigger story which she kept whispering to me until she became, in the end, a major character. And she made the book a better, more human, book.

I am a writer; I am also a reluctant puppet master. That may make me weak, but I hope it makes for better characters, and better, more honest, stories.

Watch the video for "Yo, Little Brother" here

Connect with me on Twitter & Facebook.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Gay Son's Musings About His Dad

My Dad, Ray
I love my Dad.

That’s probably not an unusual statement. But when it’s a gay son talking, there is often some history and work that went into making that a true statement.

I love my dad. I saw him two weeks ago when I drove up to visit. I hadn’t seen him in about a year and I realized how much I missed him.

When I was younger, my relationship with my dad was…strained. I think part of it was my own resistance to him, thinking he didn’t like the idea that I was gay. So for some years in there, I kept my distance. That changed one rainy Saturday morning in 1988 when I was racing to work outside of Washington, D.C. I was doing 80 when a car merged onto the highway in front of me. I would guess it was going about 40 miles an hour. I slammed on the brakes. I was going so fast and the other car was going so slow, it actually looked like the other car was moving backwards towards me. I’d decreased speed to about 60 at the moment of impact. My car started spinning and as it started to flip and the sky was suddenly below me, I remember thinking “I’m going to die without ever having been friends with my father.”

Next thing I knew I was standing on the side of the road, in the pouring rain, not a scratch on me, my little red car literally in pieces scattered across the highway. I remember cops and fire trucks and an officer asking, “Where’s the driver of the red car?”

“I’m here,” I said.

He stared at me.

“You were driving that?

I nodded.

To this day I do not remember getting out of the car.

I had a second chance and I used it to befriend my father. I moved to Philadelphia so I was closer to where my parents lived in New York. More than twenty years ago when I introduced my family to my now husband, my father pulled me aside and said, “I like this one. He is what I had in mind for you. Please keep this one.”

And with those words everything changed. I suddenly saw that he didn’t dislike me being gay, he just hated my choice in men thinking none of them were good enough for me (he was probably right.)

Fast forward to two weeks ago. I was watching my dad play with Max, my nephew, his only grandson. He and Max seem to have a special relationship. I was a bit jealous, I admit. And then I realized that my father and I have our own special relationship as well. And maybe that is my father’s gift—the ability to build a special relationship with each person in his life.


He has taught me so much in his quiet way. The dedication in Unbroken, reads in part “And for Space, who taught me the value of silence.” Space is my nickname for him, because he always seemed lost in his own world, kind of “spaced out.” I never thought we had much in common though, until I called him the other day. Hearing my voice, assuming I’d called to speak to my mother, rather than him, he said “Your mother and Vernon are at the chiropractor.” 

I could hear him rolling his eyes. 

Anyone who knows me knows I am prone to rolling my eyes, and in fact was doing that at the word “chiropractor.” It was delightful to discover that shared tendency.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

#ThrowbackThursday: The Power of Music

I’ve posted before about the power of books and music to not just transport us and teach us but to save us. It’s in part why I write. And while I don’t write music, or even play an instrument (barring an unfortunate pre-adolescent attempt to learn to play the trombone), I do hear a certain series of sounds, a rhythm as I write my words.

But back to music. I heard a song on the radio the other day that reminded me of the power of music. So for Throwback Thursday, I thought I’d share the song and how it saved me.
The song was “Groove me Bay.” The version I heard the other day on NPR was the original by King Floyd (1971). But the one that saved me was the later remake by Fern Kinney.

The song gave me hope, and while hope is not a strategy it is sometimes all we have. And it was definitely all I had then. Let’s look at the lyrics that were most meaningful to me.

You’ve become a sweet taste in my mouth, now
And I want to be your spouse.

Yep I wanted to get married. And gay as I was, I only ever dreamed of marrying a man. I believed one day, somehow, I would. Those lyrics reminded me of that determination and kept me believing.

So that we can live happily in a great big ol’ roomy house

Yep, we’d get married and adopt some kids and a dog and move to Connecticut to a big old farmhouse like Lucy Ricardo’s in Westport.

We don’t need no company
No other man, no other girl
Can enter into our world not as long as you groove me baby

And finally a promise of safety—at a time when I needed desperately to believe I’d one day be safe, and loved. Even if coming out, falling in love with another boy, caused the world to fall away from us, we’d still have each other and we would keep each other safe.

And now, some three decades after I first heard Fern Kinney sing “Groove me, Baby” I can look back at that time and remember the hope the song gave that boy who grew up to be me. And I can look at the man that boy became, the man who married one of the best men he knows, and bought a big ol’ roomy house…

Awww sookie, sookie now




Friday, October 14, 2016

He Decided That He Had To Move Away From Homophobic Household

"There’s always a way out and it’s really up to you. You can’t just wait around and wait for things to get better, you really have to take action and that’s what I did. I took action, I left home, and moved to America, which is halfway around the world to just really become myself." 

Keep reading.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

In Your Lips: A Poem by Jose Rafael Prieto

the poet himself
In honor of National Poetry Day I thought I'd share this poem by my friend and fellow writer (and poet) Jose Rafael Prieto.

“In Your Lips”


In your lips,
I search
for the freshness
of rain.

Your beauty,
damp with desire
and ever-present, is
continually
born anew,
pleasing me
now and now and now,
steadily.

Your love is calm
and majestic.

Whereas Divine
is Law and my physics,
you and your love
are my event horizon.

Copyright © 2015  Jose Rafael Prieto 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Corporatorium: Happy, Happy, Happy (Episode 14)

The Global Director of HR’s webcast was scheduled for 9 AM EST which meant I actually needed to be in the office on time.  I arrived in the office, with two minutes to spare, to witness Ivy skipping down the hall and trilling, “I’m happy, happy, happy!”  TWO and the other two Cerberus stared after her in dismay.

“Look,” Ivy called over her shoulder, “I’m exhibiting brand behavior!”

“Do you suppose she’s gone off her meds?” Barbara the first asked with concern.

“Either that or she’s taken an overdose,” Diana answered.

It was a widely held supposition within our department that Ivy was on some sort of prescription mood altering drug.  The supposition was held despite an overwhelming absence of hard evidence.  Still, we clung to our collective belief much as one clings to the supposition that one’s overweight coworker must eat ravenously despite the fact that one has never seen her or him consume more calories than those contained in the occasional sip of conspicuously diet coke.

Learning that TWO had decided we would each dial in separately from our individual workstations, I went to my cell pretending not to see the Cerberus, led by the still skipping Ivy, filing into her office and closing her door.

***


As promised, the call was hosted by our Director of Global Human Resources.  It was a mystery how he—a man so remote, so lacking in basic human warmth, that one wit was prompted to declare, “He has all the warmth of Formica!”—could become the director of human resources.  Then again if you regarded people, employees, fellow human beings, as “resources,” scarcely more or less important than coal or gas, which, once mined, refined and manipulated to satisfy some human need, was easily replaced when depleted or forgotten when no longer necessary.

“In the global HR transformation space, winning organizations are rethinking their talent management and rewards programs,” he began.  “We’re no different.  It is our intent to become a destination for top performers.

“As you know, we have formed a decentralized Center of Excellence model for our business processes and client engagements around thought leadership, best practices and innovation in strategic talent management and new economy leadership.  Our Excellence model follows a multi-pronged strategy focused on maximizing the effectiveness of our top performers. Redefining our performance model, leveraging technology, innovative sourcing and reorganizing processes and roles will be the keys to our success.” 

Xavier Jiménez @Madame X
Translation, please.

Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
We’re screwing you to make money.  Again.

“Already the Center of Excellence model is contributing directly to shareholder value,” he continued.

Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
Translation: executive bonuses.

“As our CEO informed you yesterday, it is our intent to build a culture where every team member exceeds expectations every time in every encounter.”

Now this was, of course, impossible since if everyone always exceeded expectations in every action, it would be a clear indication to leadership that expectations were set too low and would have to be calibrated higher.

“To do this successfully, to encode excellence into our DNA, requires us to change our performance model and rewards program to ensure we inspire our team members to exceed expectations, every time and in every endeavor—and reward that behavior.  Thus, we are making some changes.  Effective immediately, increases in pay will no longer be tied to cost of living or length of service or even overall company performance but will be pinned exclusively to individual performance.  Any team member scoring ‘meets expectations’ or below in any given year will be ineligible to receive an increase in that year.  You must score ‘exceeds expectations’ at least 4 quarters in a row to receive an increase.  To be eligible for promotion you must score at least an ‘exceeds expectations’ 8 quarters in a row.”

TWO gasped audibly.  “That’s four reviews a year!”Clearly she was still having problems with her mute button. 

TWO could barely get through annual performance evaluations.  Besides being conflict-averse, she was also too disinterested in us to know what we did or how well we did it so, most often, under the guise of ‘self-evaluation’ we were required to write our own performance evaluations.  If you were smart, you approached your self-evaluation as if it were an essay entitled “Here’s Why You Should Not Only Not Fire Me But Give Me A Raise.”

I knew further that TWO would be enormously displeased by this new insistence that everyone should be an “exceeds expectations” because this was at odds with her stubbornly held and oft-voiced opinion that “No one is a five (the numerical rating associated with the ‘exceeds expectation’ rating).  No one is perfect.”

I couldn’t tell if this new performance appraisal model was better or worse than the current Forced Ranking Appraisal system, aka the infamous and much hated Bell Curve popularized by GE’s own Devil, Jack Welch.  Under the system managers ranked their direct reports from best to worst using a 5-digit scoring code, 1 being the worst, 5 being the best, and applied the rankings to a bell curve which would be used to determine pay as well as who would be fired.

But, I did know that everyone would see this as another cost-cutting measure.  The Corporation would save money since obviously under the exceed expectations model no one would qualify for a raise.  Ever.  Lizzie Borden was big on cutting costs—from laying off employees to cutting back on paper consumption. One of her first executive decisions had involved the suspension of the distribution of paper pay stubs or even paper paychecks.  If you expected to be paid, you had to sign up for direct deposit.

If you wanted hard-copy of your pay stub you could bloody print well it out yourself.  Preferably from home.  Using your own ink and paper.  Thus, the employee pay site was only accessible from outside the Corporation, i.e. from home.  When questioned about this IT cited the dreaded but irrefutable “irreconcilable firewall issues.”  This move had reportedly saved the corporation $300,000 annually. 

Lizzie Borden had proven once that you could, indeed, get blood from a stone and clearly she was hell-bent on proving it again.

“Furthermore—and this is great news for everyone on this call—we are launching a new reward program designed to reward you for excelling in your role.  Called the Best in Show program it singles out and rewards the highest performers—”

Xavier Jiménez @Madame X
For what?  Random acts of violence launched by disgruntled under-performers?

Brooklyn Sudano @Brooklyn NY
Best in Show?  Are we dogs now?

Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
Woof!

“We are so pleased with this reward program that our Talent Acquisition and Management Group is looking to package it and market it to our clients,” he added triumphantly.  He paused fully five minutes to let this news sink in. 

Xavier Jiménez @Madame X
Houston, we have a problem!

Brooklyn Sudano @Brooklyn NY
The thinking behind this problem is so $@#% up that I doubt the problem can be solved.

Nigel, quoting Abbey Hoffman of the Chicago Seven, brought the conversation to an unexpected close.

Nigel Gale @MannequinManThere is no problem so big, nor so complex, that it can't be solved with a suitable application of strategically-placed high explosives.

This is the final episode of Season One.

Missed Episode 13, We Are Happy? Read it here.

Read the entire series from the beginning here.

Copyright © 2016 Larry Benjamin

D I S C L A I M E R
The characters and events described in this blog post exist only in its pages and the author's imagination.

Feel free to comment on this story, or share your own experiences in Corporate America below. Also, connect with me on Twitter & Facebook