My Life

Sunday in the Park with Brian: Therapy Session #37 (The “Passion and Pain and Persistence of Memory” Version)

Let’s talk about books and movies, shall we? Specifically, one series of books and a string of mini-series based on those books. In 1978, Armistead Maupin published “Tales of the City”, a collection of related stories he had written for the San Francisco Chronicle, a serial that had proven enormously popular, regionally. The stories center around a rooming house at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco, wherein resided a wildly-divergent group of people, some of whom happened to be gay.

As a young gayling in Oklahoma, I snatched that book up as soon as I could get my hands on it. I needed to know more about my people, even if those people only existed in the mind of another writer. (Of course, I had to do this snatching on the down-low, because it was Oklahoma, and showing the tiniest hint of interest in San Francisco (known by homophobes across the nation at that time as “the place where the fags live”) could get your ass kicked or killed. Not kidding, true story. And in some parts of Oklahoma, and Texas, and, well, any red state, it still can. Ignorance and bigotry leave deep stains that are hard to wash out.

Potential ass-kicking aside, I loved the book. It was a vision of freedom and acceptance that was hard for me to accept as a possibility, but at least I could dream about it. It’s not the greatest book, ever, but it is a fine one, indeed. Over the next decade or so, Armistead continued the story in five other books. (He eventually produced three more, but the original six are considered the core story.) In 1993, PBS released a mini-series based on the first book. Showtime then took over and released mini-series based on the second and third books, in 1998 and 2001. I’m only mentioning all of this to show that I have been deeply-invested in these characters since before I could legally drive, and that was many centuries ago.

Recently, Netflix dropped a new mini-series, a revisit to San Francisco wherein we pick up the story decades later in the (relative) present day. Partner and I were giddy with anticipation, so as preparation we marathoned all three of the original series. (And all three of them still hold up, despite the fact that the actors playing some of the characters fluctuated over time. Some of the story arcs are hokey and mildly absurd, but the baseline acceptance of messy people in all their glory still rings true. That’s very important to me. We all stumble. And the people who help you get back on your feet are the people you cling to, tightly.

All of the proceeding leads to the actual crux of this post. (Yes, I know, it takes me a while to get there.) Earlier this afternoon, Partner and I watched Episode 4 of the new series. There is one segment where a couple in the story (older guy, younger guy, it happens) attend a dinner party, with the attendees of said party being all older except for young lover. At one point, Young Lover objects to one of the olders who has just referred to transitioning people as “trannies”. Young Lover (and we as viewers) knows transitioning people, and he finds the label offensive.

In the interchange that follows, one of the olders (actor Stephen Spinella, in an amazing monologue) goes off on Young Lover, making it very clear that the youth of today have no idea what is was like “back then”, they have no conception of how hard people fought to give them the rights they now take for granted, and that someone who has never experienced true oppression and suffering has no right to tell someone else who has experienced such what they should or should not do or say.

Young Lover, by the way, is black. And gay. So of course he knows about oppression, how could he not in a country where the asshole at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue stokes the fires of racism every day? Yes, Young Lover has his valid points. But so does the Old Queen, and I side with him. (Yes, I just used one of the labels we shouldn’t use. Because I lost loved ones to AIDS and I survived the open-carry bigots in Oklahoma and I marched and I fought and I did everything I could to ensure that one day a young gayling could buy a copy of Tales of the City and not have to worry about who saw him doing so.)

Shortly after this powerful scene, there’s a related one outside the dinner-party house, a dialogue between Younger Lover and Older. Younger asks Older why he didn’t defend him and why he never talks about his past. Older responds with some of the most precise lines I have ever heard about the dark madness of the AIDS epidemic. It’s beautiful and poetic and heart-wrenching.

Naturally, because my heart is so far out on my sleeve that it’s in a different zip code, I burst into tears while the flashbacks pummeled. (Cleo the Cat looked at me with concern, mostly worried about how all this might affect the status of her food bowl, but she did at least touch my leg with one of her paws, showing moderate support.) The right writer in the right situation can move mountains, and the mountains certainly moved for me.

We’ll wrap things up with a few questions.

Is it possible to appreciate what you have if you’ve never gone without?

Are the younger generations able to learn from the older, or do they have to experience life in order to reach any conclusions?

Have you done what you can to ensure that both the older and the younger get the chance to finally find their own 28 Barbary Lane?

Thanks for listening. I just couldn’t let this moment go without some degree of introspection. Tomorrow, we’re back to the funny.



26 replies »

  1. This is such a moving piece. I’m torn about how to answer your questions. I’ve fought and marched and lost for women’s rights. I remember an older activist yelling at me that my generation had no appreciation for the efforts and suffering of those who had gone before us.

    But for now at least, I find myself with an overwhelming urge to apologise to young women and gays and people of color. Because things are still fucked up and our generation—the best-educated, most affluent in human history—did not fix them.

    I’m so ashamed.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I, too, remember getting “schooled” by older activists who thought I didn’t know true suffering from a hole in the ground. And now I’m that older activist, and it’s much more clear.

      Still, I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed, although I completely understand that take. We should and could have changed things. But we ran up against a wall, and that wall was, and is, a Republican party that decided the only way they can win elections is to always have a segment of society to demonize and then depend on ignorant voters to support the demonizing. And it’s working for them. THAT’s embarrassing. And completely amoral and inhumane…


  2. Thee are some days the funny must take a back seat. El Paso/Dayton? life has teeth, and it can sure bite. My wife, many year ago, stuck in hospital for a month of bed rest before giving birth to our first daughter read the first two cover to cover and back again. (I know, not quite Armisteads expected audience, but e both enjoyed them as a frothy entertaining tale. Still do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the deal with Armistead. Although the subject matter and proclivities of his characters may not have universal appeal, he infuses them with a basic, honest humanity with which readers can identify. We’re all messy. We all just want the best we can get…


  3. Dear Brian, like Barb, I’m unsure how to answer. I can say that as a woman of a certain age, I’ve faced a lot of discrimination (female pilots – who knew?). I’m also French-Canadian, and there was a time when that was an issue, too (still can be for some). So I have some understanding for what it must have been like for you and Terry, but it’s never going to be completely authentic; I can only go so far. But my compassion goes farther, and there’s no limit to it. It hurts to know that you had to grow up fearful and threatened, and always having to hide and shuffle.

    The millenials are fragile and they do take the hard-won freedoms of the present for granted, but so do we. My parents were both WWII veterans who were very unsure of making it to 25, let alone 30. They saw me as taking those freedoms they had fought so hard for for granted. But for me that was my world, and as normal as the rising of the sun, and that IS what they fought for – that complete sense of freedom.

    So, imho, it’s important for younger generations to remember and reflect, and it’s incumbent on older generations to make sure that the younger ones know the history. Otherwise, it’s all just academic, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful comment, as usual, justly balancing the differences between the generations. And it is a tricky thing, figuring out how to teach those after you how important the lessons are that you have learned without alienating said youth. Adding to all the confusion is the stunningly-rapid pace within which things can change in a decade, never mind multiple decades. (Sadly, the Pendulum of Justice seems to be on a major back-swing in America right now, further complicating everything and increasing the mistrust between the younger and the older, with the valid perception among the younger that the older screwed things up and didn’t get it right. So we have to keep searching for the right answers…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you. Up in the middle of a hot night not sleeping and found this gem. Yesterday one of my great nephews (born a she) had his 11th birthday and publicly went from Lily to Logan. Struggles seem to change with each generation but really not. Logan is blessed with living in a more forward time with help from supportive parents and those of us who don’t care about the judging…..we just want to use the proper pronouns to make Logan feel loved for exactly who he needs to be. His dad, my dear nephew, messaged me about a shopping trip where multiple shorts, pants and 15 shirts were purchased all from a men’s department making Logan a very happy kid. I’m questioning my existence (mostly due to heat in the north without a/c causing no sleep) on a weekend when the abomination in the WH continues the insanity and people full of hatred are killing innocents in Texas and Ohio. In my despair I am reminded, by you, and my new great nephew, that there is still hope. Things do progress and change for the better. It can take an abysmally long time but it does happen. The struggle of us will always be there. We all still want the same thing, to love, to be loved. That’s it. It shows up in many forms. Your writing brings laughter normally, but tonight it brought blessed tears of hope. Hope Brian. You made me remember hope. And laughter because I spent 20 minutes crying and composing and then had to do it completely from scratch again when I had to change a password. Life without passwords, I struggle for that….

    Liked by 2 people

    • You have just provided a perfect observation on what is important and what is not. The thing that seems to be lacking in the current state of affairs is a healthy respect for the fact that we are all dealt different cards in life and we should all do our best to help everyone turn those cards into a winning hand. I don’t understand the hatred and I don’t understand the fear. But maybe that’s because I have been on the receiving end of both, resulting in a lifetime of working for acceptance of all. Sad as it may sound, there are some folks out there who will never “get it” until they have been denied their own freedoms. And how do we overcome that without subjecting the closed-minded to the very pain that will help them understand, yet I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone. We’ve got some work to do…


  5. Beautiful and poignant piece. Of course we’re all able to learn from others’ experiences. We just need to be open to hearing about them. And as Lynette to aptly said, ‘it’s incumbent on older generations to make sure that the younger ones know the history’.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It seems fitting that older generations endure hardships in hopes that the generations that follow will not have to. The young will likely have their own unique hardships to endure (I had earthquake drills in grammar school, not active shooter drills). But—whether young or old—the hardships we face must become part of our history, and that history must be kept alive through formal education, books, movies, and storytelling. These are such dangerous times because we have leaders who want to erase history or rewrite it to fit their sick and selfish agendas. We are seeing what happens when truth is obscured. Thus, those of us who remember and honor history, despite the flaws and darkness it reveals, must speak up for the truth, now more than ever. Thank you, Brian, for doing just that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Donna. You hit a perfect point about keeping the history alive, when there are so many these days willing to eradicate the past. (It was just a few years ago that the Texas State School Board came THIS CLOSE to eliminating Thomas Jefferson from the official history books because they considered him too “radical”.) I know I spend much of my writing time dabbling in humor, but even with the most light-hearted pieces I try to slip in a little nugget of civic responsibility. I don’t always get there, but I try…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This post seems serious and that’s how I’ll answer the thoughtful and deep questions you pose.

    Is it possible to appreciate what you have if you’ve never gone without? Perhaps. I’ve seen and read a number of stories about the wealthy and how empty their lives can be and how some of them (perhaps the more compassionate and thoughtful in that group…rare and more precious because they are so rare) long to experience life ‘without’. Of course those of us on the ‘without’ side of the fence know that grass isn’t greener, it’s usually spray painted.

    Are the younger generations able to learn from the older, or do they have to experience life in order to reach any conclusions? To me personally? Only experience teaches an individual the important things they MUST know. And many younger persons don’t listen to anything an older person says anyway.

    Have you done what you can to ensure that both the older and the younger get the chance to finally find their own 28 Barbary Lane? Um. I’m not sure. In Utah (some call the reddest of the red states) the gay persons WERE well into the closet if they were prudent. In 2013 (when I shuffled off to small town Utah from presumed big city Utah) things were pretty much still that way. I’m not sure what they’re like now, in 2019, but I know that up here (in small town) nobody that I know of admits to being different – whether it’s sexual orientation, religious preference or political preference. Of course there are those of us who don’t give a fig what others think of any of those things, it’s the individual’s choice. I always wanted to live in such a place as 28 Barbary Lane. I think perhaps it’s somewhere one can go where everyone knows your name and nobody judges you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • While I agree that there are some well-to-do folks who actually sympathize with the less fortunate, it IS an extreme minority. At least in these modern times. (Back in the day, it was considered “the right thing to do” to look after those with minimal resources. What happened to that conception?) These days, at least in my perception, there’s a scarcity of sympathy in the 1%. Sure, we see folks in that category reach out from time to time, but it is almost always a Democrat (not being partisan, stating fact). Most of the wealthy families contribute heavily to Republicans, supporting efforts that further divide the classes.

      I also agree that most youngsters refuse to listen to the oldsters, which is pretty much a given in most societies. How do we work that out? I don’t know.

      As for living at 28 Barbary Lane, if both of us had managed to live there at the same time, allowing us to laugh and share and help each other out, we would probably still be there today, refusing to leave…


  8. Is it possible to appreciate what you have if you’ve never gone without?
    ****I personally believe it is – I think appreciation is something you cultivate, if you have a mind to do so. I also think you have to keep at it – otherwise appreciation turns into mush and you turn into someone it isn’t nice to be with.

    Are the younger generations able to learn from the older, or do they have to experience life in order to reach any conclusions?
    ****Sure they are capable, but do they want to? However, I think the best mix is to do both, learn and experience. Oh, and the older need to learn from the younger too – such as the polite way to talk about others (sorry, but times and expressions change and so should we).

    Have you done what you can to ensure that both the older and the younger get the chance to finally find their own 28 Barbary Lane?
    ****Not sure what 28 Barbary Lane is really, BUT …. I know what 11 Fourfoot Rd is: I have a non-binary adultlet, and I am proud as hell of them. Of the courage it took to say they weren’t who we all thought they were, to put themselves out on that ice-shelf and hope that their family and friends wouldn’t reject them. I support them, I talk about them openly to any who will listen, I love them now, and then, and for always. I accept their journey is not my journey, and as a parent all I want is for my child to be happy, in their skin, in their mind, in their heart. I also fervently hope for a world that becomes accepting of everypersons right to be who they are.

    On a final note: we should never forget that nearly everyone (and each generation) has their own challenges. It may be silently, may be not, some may be like ours, some so different we cannot understand them fully – BUT, we can accept, and support, and comfort, and most importantly nurture the seed that everyone has a journey to make, and we should all be kind to each other and not think “our fight” was, or is, any harder than theirs. Why? Because thinking we had it harder is judging them and theirs, and judging leads to all sorts of nasty feelings all round.

    Thanks for putting this post out Brian – I like your humour, but I also like your serious side.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is, perhaps, my favorite comment that you have ever made. (Not to negate the others you have made, as I am always enraptured with what you have to say, but this one shines quite brightly.) I won’t tarnish your words by offering a point-by-point response. Instead, I will let your thoughts sink in and smile about the fact that we have managed to meet in this crazy world…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I was living in SF when the books first came out (so to speak) and found them a funny and accurate portrayal of life there. Thank you for the reminder of why these books mattered so much outside of that magic bubble. Sigh. Stay safe, Brian. This too shall pass.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, how I envy you, living there at that time. As a young gayling in rural Oklahoma, I wanted nothing more than the chance to do just that, even if my dreamy visions could have easily been warped by reality…


  10. Wow, you packed a punch here. Well done.
    I think the young do learn, much as we did. We start out cocky and sure of ourselves, but the knocks and bumps life gives us smooth out our rough edges and hopefully teach us compassion. It’s not guaranteed, but it happens more often than not. So keep telling your stories Brian. They need to be heard.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, I will always tell my stories. I just can’t keep them throttled. This will sound completely self-involved, but I keep writing in the hope that somebody out there needs to hear my tiny words about what once was and what could be…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Love your humor, Bri, but love it more when you drop in a gem like this. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. As more than one follower pointed out, it is hoped that the elders instruct the youngsters, but even more important is recognizing how history is being lost in our schools and lives. Times are a-changin’ and some ways to the good. I’m from the generation where students were told to “drop” and hide under their desks to escape the big one. I never encountered it until moving to LA. I stayed in my seat and thought they not only looked crazy but stupid, too. Saw it for what it was, pointless and propaganda. Nowadays it’s called Fox News.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very salient point, with the astute Fox News reference, among others. With the way most modern news organizations are controlled by mega-corporations and, to some extent, those with political power, a la Trump, it’s becoming increasingly imperative that the “storytellers” among us keep the faith and keep the truth alive until we get back to where we once belonged…

      Liked by 1 person

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