Clear Eyes, Full Heart

October 2022

Tony and I met our son Benji two weeks ago, primarily because that’s when he was born. The blurry images of him squirming around on video monitors don’t really count. My overall impression based on all the stereotypes we had heard is that Benji is doing “baby” really well. He certainly has “helpless” down to a science. So far, he hasn’t lifted a finger to help out around the house. He sleeps whenever it’s convenient for him. Worse, he seems to think this is a 24-hour restaurant where he can place an order anytime—oh, and not take out … delivery! He’s also perfected this cooing noise that he makes while he finishes his bottle at the same pace a tree grows. The cooing is a nice touch, but it reeks of manipulation.

During Benji’s naps, “Friday Night Lights” has been playing on our TV—a 20-year-old network series that has not lost any of its potency. It’s about a small Texas town obsessed with its high school football team. A tragedy in the first episode sets the stage for an often gut-wrenching exploration of the complexity of relationships and emotions. As the editor of my high school yearbook and a member of the debate and forensics team, I never thought I’d be gripped by the drama in a football locker room. In the latest episode that Benji deigned to let us watch, the coach had benched the two star players for in-fighting and as a result the team was losing badly at the half. The locker room was tense and the coach was furious—furious with a purpose. He kept yelling, “Who’s got something to say? Who’s got something to say?” One player talked about bringing the star players back and the coach yelled, “Sit down!” “Now, who’s got something to say?” After a few moments, the newest member of the team spoke in his characteristically soft voice, “Maybe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Coach told him to speak up, “What did you say?” He stood up nervously—“Maybe we are forgetting we are a lot stronger together than we are ever going to be alone.” That was the sentiment the coach wanted to hear, and the team was inspired by the newest and quietest voice in the room. The coach held his gaze on the new player and then yelled out the team motto, the players echoing it back: “Cleary Eyes, Full Heart!”

Benji, on the other hand, hasn’t uttered a word. But witnessing the power he already has to bring joy into the world has been a reminder of how much better we can be. When he was just 24 hours old, we took Benji to Starbucks—as one does—for a caffeine jolt before the three-hour drive home. It was an empty Starbucks in a small town with just two employees. One came running from behind the counter to see Benji in his little portable car seat. She smiled and waved at him and said he was a gift from God. I thought that might come as news to the scientists, doctors, surrogate, and egg donor who made Benji possible, but I was too intrigued by her excitement to make a meaningless point. As we left, she was telling her colleague, “just one day old, just one day old, can you believe that?”

Benji has had us on video calls with friends and loved ones. Friends have visited the house to meet Benji. After discussing whether or not he’s cute and how good of a sleeper he is, you’ve pretty much exhausted the baby topics, so we found ourselves learning more about what’s going on in other people’s lives. On a walk to the park we rounded a corner to find a family with the exact same obscure brand of stroller, and we ended up in a pleasant conversation with neighbors who have a newborn just a few days older than Benji. Just yesterday our neighbor brought a gift and we met her high school-aged daughter who promised to give “some thought” to her hourly babysitting rate. I saw her eyeing the room to assess our budget. “Is that print signed and numbered,” she asked in my imagination.

A friend of ours told me a couple months ago that it took some time for him to fall in love with his first child, and in fact for a couple months he resented him for changing their lives—an honest admission and a reminder that love is not automatic. During Benji’s creation, which lasted far longer than the nine months he spent in the womb (doing essentially what he’s doing now, i.e., practically nothing), I didn’t feel it. It felt like an exercise in planning. In the delivery room emotion took over, but that was my awe at the experience—the strength and kindness of our surrogate, the doctor’s readiness and skill, the team of assistants—just the vastness of what was happening in that room. The silence followed by Benji’s first cry and breath of life is something I’ll hold onto forever, but I still felt disconnected, like Benji was just this fragile thing and it was my job to keep him alive.

A week later Benji and I had some alone time while Tony was at the gym. We were on the couch, our dog Harvey stretched out on the other side. The TV was muted and the room was quiet. I thought Benji was asleep so I put him on my legs with his head sitting between my propped up knees and reached for my phone. When I looked back, Benji had opened his eyes, wide, and he was looking directly into mine for the first time. We did that for a few minutes. I don’t know what a one-week-old baby can actually see, but I know in those moments his vision quickly became less blurry than mine. We just looked at each other and I thought about a question I had been asked many times and never answered because there was no rational answer . . . “Are you ready for this?” The answer still doesn’t matter. All I could do was tell Benji the truth, which is that I love him and I always will. Harvey then fucked up the entire scene by barking at some noise at the front door.

When the players returned to the field after the half, the star players reached a truce and the coach put them back in the game. The quarterback, however, called an unexpected play—a pass to the new guy. Why? Because his heart was in the game. He missed the catch, but he kept fighting. On the verge of defeat, he sprinted and hit the other side’s running back hard, resulting in a fumble and ultimately a win for the team. In the chaotic celebration of an unlikely victory, the coach jogged up to the new player and put his arm around him and said in his ear, “Welcome to the team.”

As team members, as a family, we are learning that there will be lots of missed catches and, with persistence, just as many successes. Falling in love and being ready for the complications love brings don’t necessarily align.

Benji heard his first song in that empty Starbucks. It was Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” I think the Counting Crows were singing it. It’s one of those musical poems that can be about anything you want. Mitchell was moved by seeing Hawaii paved over with parking lots. But she writes more generally about her personal regrets over what could have been, the emptiness of failing to fight for whatever it is you find beautiful in your life.

Wedding Anniversary

August 11, 2022
“Hello Everyone!”

Anthony Laskovski is “Tony” to many of us, “Ant” to his family, and “vujko” to his niece and nephew (the Macedonian word for “uncle” where all of the letters are silent except for the “v,” pronounced “voochay”). Tony was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, in 1984. And like all Australians, Tony spent the first few months of his life in his mother’s pouch.

He emerged to find himself part of a tightknit community of Macedonians who first immigrated to Newcastle in the 1950s. Newcastle is the largest coal exporting harbor in the world and has numerous steel mills, and jobs, as a result. Steel companies filled those jobs by recruiting workers from other countries. Though the jobs were hardly glamorous, through hard work and perseverance, fathers and grandfathers could eventually earn enough to bring their families with them to Australia. The entrepreneurialism and work ethic of these folks led many in the community, Tony’s parents included, to go on to great success in other fields. By 1984, Newcastle had become far more than an industrial city. And how could it be otherwise given its spectacular setting on the Pacific Ocean with beaches, parks, and promenades with open-air coffee houses and cafes. Tony grew up in this setting, steeped in the history and values of his community. It is for these reasons that, although he would eventually move to the other side of the world, the truth is he never really left.

Tony earned a Ph.D in Electrical Engineering and worked at the local power company before founding a technology start-up company. Growing the company was a struggle, but his and his partner’s hard work ultimately led them to an investor who brought them to Silicon Valley, opening up all sorts of opportunities that boosted Tony’s career and earned him his current role at NVIDIA—sort of the 2000’s version of the success his father had from driving a factory truck to owning commercial and residential properties.

Tony is deeply proud of his Macedonian heritage. In July, he took me to Macedonia with his family. We had a birthday lunch for his sister with extended family in Bitola, the town adjacent to the two villages where his parents are from. During the lunch and other visits to Bitola, Tony ran into relatives he wasn’t expecting to see, as well as other Macedonians living in Newcastle on their summer vacations. One afternoon Tony drove us to the village where his father lived. We parked near a house to take a look at a fountain that his grandfather had once refurbished, now overrun with cherry trees. We ate a few of the cherries. The owner of the house where we parked came out and recognized Tony as a Laskovski because he looks so much like his father. On one of our final evenings, we ate at a restaurant serving traditional Macedonian food. Tony’s father paid the musicians to play for us. As they surrounded the table, Tony’s mother teared up. Tony was beside himself to see his parents so happy.

At some point in Tony’s childhood, he met a dog, and a cat, and obviously a koala and a kangaroo. The records are unclear on when these meetings occurred, but historians unanimously agree that these events had a profound impact on Tony. He is an animal lover like few others, disturbingly so. I recall a trip to Sydney where Tony saw a puppy with its owner. After asking permission and not listening for the answer, he started playing with the puppy, which had razor sharp puppy claws. Undeterred, Tony kept playing until his hands and wrists were shredded and bleeding. The owner was horrified but Tony explained calmly and irrationally that it had been worth it. Tony recently summoned a pack of stray dogs in a park—dogs that make a living off of exploiting the Tony’s of the world. Not surprisingly, they all came at once and we had to strategically get back to the car and find some food before they decided we were the food. After that, I crossed “safari” off our bucket list.

One of our early dates was a weekend trip to Tahoe, just as Harvey was recovering from major surgery on his knee. Tony instantly became Harvey’s second father. He was cheating though, because his dog Maxie was still in Australia. Tony talked a lot about Maxie—the car ride home with his parents from the facility where they rescued Maxie as a senior, and what Maxie meant to Tony during some difficult times. Animal lovers are automatically good people, but with Tony animals are a way of connecting with others. Leave your dog with Tony for just a minute, you’ll end up with amazing pictures and videos set to music. A friend’s dog died this year and she still talks about the picture Tony took that the family cherishes. When he heard the dog had died, he baked snickerdoodles for them.

And you don’t have to lose your pet to get cookies from Tony, because he loves cooking for himself and others—traits and skills he acquired from his mother and sister. The wisest and most manipulative among us have learned that if you just mention something you’d like to try in front of Tony, he’ll make it for you. If you’re not around when he makes it, you’ll probably find it in a box on your front porch. Tony is one of those people who can go into a kitchen stocked only with baking soda and dish soap and somehow put together a memorable meal.

When Tony was a young boy, he would walk into a room filled with people, put his arms in the air, and say “hello everyone!” This lack of inhibition definitely came from his father. Tony’s years in Newcastle were filled with family events, birthdays, weddings, and any number of celebrations involving lots of food, Macedonian music, and dancing. But while Tony is more than happy to show off his dancing prowess in any setting, I would not describe him as someone who still enters a room demanding attention with his hands in the air. At some point in his 20s, Tony began to live two separate lives as he came to terms with being gay. Tony was not ashamed or confused about who he was; rather, he was afraid of losing the most important part of his life—his family. He misjudged and underestimated them, as so many of us do. But even once resolved, the trauma of those dark times has a blunting effect that takes time to fully heal.

I haven’t seen Tony cry many times over the years, which I take as a personal failure, but I remember two times in particular. The first time was at the end of a year when Tony had struggled with whether to come out to his family. The fear and stress had gotten the best of him, and the man who takes on everyone else’s burdens had finally had too much. He collapsed onto the bed sobbing; he knew it was time. Within two years, Tony’s family and friends came from all over the world to watch him get married in Tahoe. And that was the second time i remember him crying. On that little wedding stage when it was his turn to speak, he began to sob, but this time with joy—the joy and optimism that comes with knowing you can live your life as yourself, loving everyone you want to love without fear. I see in Tony the happiness, still blossoming, of realizing that we are now all part of the same family. I remember hugging Tony as he sobbed and glancing over at the grand piano floating on a bed of white carnations and thinking that, in terms of coming out of the closet, there was certainly nothing left to do.

To try and write about someone you have loved for years is to realize all you take for granted. Happy Anniversary, Tony.

Oh, and that thing where you put your arms in the air, more of that.


Father’s Day 2022 – The Sky Above

My father was born in 1943 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He was the second of four boys. I’m guessing one of my grandparents wanted a girl and they eventually just threw in the towel. I don’t know a great deal about my father’s childhood, but I have a good sense from sepia-toned photographs that everything was covered in a layer of dust. Hairstyling had not yet become a respected trade and everyone’s pants were too big. I imagine my father and his brothers walked along dirt roads and railroad tracks, and I’m quite certain there were fishing poles involved and likely a frog, or many frogs. I am told that a bear, kept as a pet by a neighbor, chased my dad across the yard and tore his baggy pants. My grandparents and the four kids occupied a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house until my dad was a teenager. When I first heard this, I assumed they must have been living in a guest house separate from the main house with easier access to the pool and gardens. Apparently that was not the case, and, tragically, the pool that provided respite from the Arkansas heat was plastic and could be moved. As someone who grew up in a suburban home with a “guest” bedroom that no one slept in, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my dad to endure the guilt of having his parents and three brothers all sharing the same bedroom. I would have felt just awful.

The sky above Fort Smith, Arkansas in the 1940s and 50s was unpolluted by city lights, perfect for viewing constellations, meteor showers and eclipses, and on the clearest of nights, the outstretched arms of the Milky Way itself. This may have been why my father’s imagination steered toward the heavens from an early age. He is an avid reader, an insatiable reader on all topics, but I remember in particular Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” on our bookshelf and on PBS. My dad loved to talk about space, and I was fascinated. He talked about how looking at stars was like looking into the past because of the relatively lazy pace of light. On our numerous car trips from Kansas City to Fort Smith, if I wasn’t in the front seat I’d lean in from the backseat to ask questions about the moon, blackholes, and the galaxy. He always had the answers. To this day I think about how at any moment a supernova that happened millions of years ago could illuminate our planet for days, pissing off nocturnal animals across the globe. He is also fascinated by natural disasters, but none of the promised events ever materialized. I never saw a tornado, despite being ushered to our basement during many warnings. Since moving to California I was promised that part of a Hawaiian island would sheer off sending a tidal wave that would cover San Francisco. Still, nothing.

My dad was not always focused on educating us on science. I think the principal reason he had kids was to mess with them. Capturing kids’ imagination is a big part of my father’s existence, a product of his creativity and sense of humor, as well as his toolkit for distraction. We were convinced he could create thunder by pulling on his ear, when in fact he was timing his ear pulls based on the appearance of lightning and the distance of the storm. On road trips to Arkansas we would wait anxiously to see where the giant chicken had crashed in the mountains, leaving only its feathers as evidence. Inevitably we would go around the corner quickly and he would ask if we had seen the feathers. He loved creative punishments. He would make us march in unison around the house, or put chairs back to back and make two of us sit in silence. In the car, if we acted up, we would have to put our head between our legs and be quiet; that was called going into “the cooler.” Once I remember him inventing some concoction at home that would cause our tongues to turn purple if we were lying. Someone was certainly lying.

Smart and driven, and with my mom at Mills College in Oakland, my father made his way to Stanford University where he graduated with a degree in political science. The Vietnam War had begun and it was apparent that my dad was at risk of being drafted. He joined the Kansas National Guard in hopes of avoiding the draft, but President Johnson eventually activated the Guard and my father went to Vietnam. I don’t know the details of his time there, but I know it wasn’t pleasant. My brother had already been born; when my Dad returned the family moved to Kansas City where I was born and my sister shortly thereafter.

My father got his license to fly single-engine airplanes. I remember the years he kept an Aeronca, a cloth-covered two-seater, at the local airport just a few blocks from our house. He would take us up one at a time to get a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood. On longer trips, we flew into the clouds where my Dad seemed most at home, enthralling us with games like “knocking off the knob,” which meant flying through a puffy outgrowth of a cloud. This, for a kid, was hypnotic. If my father wasn’t flying us around, he might be entertaining us by taking us sledding after a snowfall or hitting pop-flies into the air for us to try and catch. When he wasn’t entertaining us, he was watching golf on TV—and not at gunpoint.

After my first year of college in Chicago, I called my Dad to tell him I was gay. I remember his response verbatim—employing humor as a way of saying I love and accept you no matter who you are, just one pillar of an ethos passed onto him by my grandparents. He said “you can be gay if you stop smoking.” This was a reference to the Benson & Hedges Ultralight 100 Menthols that I had dabbled in to look cool; based on photographic evidence, it did not work. So I agreed and went with gay. A few years later after finishing college I spent a summer badgering my preferred law school to let me in off the waitlist. When they finally did the night before orientation, my Dad drove me to Chicago overnight and helped me move into my 300 square foot studio across from the school. Later in law school, my Dad would have a major stroke. I returned to Kansas City and saw my Dad in the hospital, not in good shape. After many weeks, his wife and my step-mother, Randi, at his side, he was very near the end before the doctors figured out that he had suffered adrenal gland failure. With that solved, he made it.

The stroke changed the course of my Dad’s life, oddly for the better. Physically, his movement was limited on one side but there was little he couldn’t do. The stroke made him more affable, which was the last thing he needed. My dad could make friends with a light post. He can talk to anyone, and does. He has the steady gaze of his mother, and her dark friendly eyes. He loves animals the way he loves kids. Dogs, cats, and wild animals. Squirrels and chipmunks follow him into the house for food, somehow realizing that the innate cruelty of humans is nowhere present in my father. He is a legend in the hummingbird community. But I posit that the stroke changed my Dad’s view of the world—changed the measuring stick he uses to assess his own worth and success. It did not change his eating habits, however. For breakfast he continued to order a slice of pie with a side of bacon—but only because restaurants don’t sell cotton candy. Without going into any detail, I’ll just say that most of my father’s doctors have nice watches and second homes.

I remember a picture in my grandparents’ house – four separate portraits of each of the boys printed together in the same frame. A couple of months ago, my father’s oldest brother Sherry died, this following the death of one of his younger brothers, Steve, to COVID in 2020. The fourth brother, Mark, died when my dad was in college. He had fallen off a horse and hit his head, a family tragedy that never fully healed. When his last brother died this year, Randi told me to wait a few days before I called. I understood why. I thought about the years of growth and change and family in that two-bedroom house, a mansion of memories hard to process so many decades later. And I can see my father as a young boy grabbing his telescope and walking outside to get some time to himself, hours passing like seconds before my grandmother comes out to find him looking into the sky.

Should I be so lucky, one day Tony and I will drive far away from the evening lights of San Francisco, crossing our fingers for a cloudless night so that I might show my son everything my father showed me.

The Magician

Mother’s Day 2022

As a kid, I never understood Mother’s Day. My birthday on the other hand, now that was a holiday I could really get behind! What was the point in having a special day for mothers when we made every day so special? My brother and sister and I bestowed on our mother opportunities of a lifetime. Only in a busy restaurant would she have had more opportunities to master her culinary skills. And our endless fighting provided our mother the chance to delve into the exciting world of conflict resolution. When we needed to go somewhere, we didn’t selfishly hop on our bikes—we let our mother drive us, giving her a chance to get out of the house and save all those tedious chores for later. And after all this, I’m supposed to produce a potted plant or colorful scarf to say “thank you”?

My mother’s name is Sarah Plunkett. She was born Sarah Welch Yantis in 1943, when Abraham Lincoln was President. She grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, with her parents and three siblings. When she graduated from high school, after the Civil War, she left Fort Smith on a wagon train to attend Mills College in Oakland—beating me to the Bay Area by a few years. She graduated with a degree in chemistry, which had just been invented as a science. After graduating, she threw her bags into a horseless carriage and moved to Kansas City where she raised three kids and lives to this day.

“Mother” is just one thing my mother is. I was 11 years old when she started bringing body parts home . . . ears, noses, and eyes, sketched in graphite on paper. These eventually formed faces, and graphite became oil paints, portraits became still-life’s, and then the drawings and paintings of her kids became but a preamble to the many paintings she sold in galleries. She’s an artist. She’s also a friend, to many. She has life-long friends from childhood, high school, and college. She has countless friends from her long life in Kansas City, including a group of women who have played bridge together for decades. She plays cards expertly. She plays mahjong. My mother came from a privileged environment, but her feet have always been planted on common ground. She has had the luxury of doing charitable work over the years, and in those endeavors she did the hard work, sitting with impoverished families facing heartbreaking difficulties and helping them figure out food and finances. She has traveled the world. She has also had more than her share of loss, losing her mother far too soon to lung cancer, losing her father to alcoholism years before he actually passed, losing an uncle and brother to AIDS. And maybe no less significantly, she lost many beloved dogs over the years, some of which she cared for when her kids had something better to do, not appreciating that she would take on the caretaking and the heartbreak on their behalf. But she’s a survivor, facing down her own significant medical issues.

When I was 17 years old, my mother drove me from Kansas City to Chicago to move into my college dorm. I don’t know if she knew it at the time, but I wouldn’t return to live in Kansas City again. I knew I was different and needed to figure that out. That night in a hotel near the campus I heard my mother crying, and I chalked it up to a disagreement at the front desk over the room. I now understand that taking your child to college is fraught, so I think less about the drive to Chicago and more about her drive home. Of the three of us, I was the one most attached. I looked to her for everything, to figure out what I could do when I was bored, to take on my emotions when they became too much, which was not uncommon. I watched her cook in the kitchen. When family was on the way to town for holidays, I wanted to stay home from school to help clean the house. After dinner, I wanted to play games with her at our hexagonal game table with rolling leather chairs. She taught me to play cards, Gin Rummy mostly, and backgammon, and Mastermind. She always won, but made me feel like the winner. In high school, she drove me on countless early weekend mornings—me in a shirt she had ironed and a suit and tie—to meet the bus taking us to the next debate tournament, the beginnings of my career as an unbearable litigator.

And then I left home for college, unaware, ungrateful, unapologetic, still a kid, still attached, determined not to be. The subsequent decades are dotted with many visits back and forth, for graduations, holidays, funerals, weddings, and other of life’s events. I once threatened not to come home for Christmas unless I received written assurances that no one would vote for Bush. In recent years, the extremism of Republicans have landed us on the same page, and my mother and I now find pleasure in our shared outrage. This week I texted her about Roe v. Wade; she texted back the next morning, and I also noted that she liked my Facebook post on this topic. In contrast, my mother’s Facebook page is a tribute to the happy and simpler things one can see on life’s journey.

The journeys I remember most vividly as a child were the many family road trips from Kansas City to Arkansas to visit grandparents. These trips were fun for us kids, bickering and making trouble in the backseat. I realize now it was probably a virtual hell-on-earth for our parents. But they never let that show. And, inevitably, the chaotic car would go silent as day turned to night, the stars switching on across the Midwestern sky.

When I was seven, my parents bought a car that had electric windows. This provided them a new trick to keep us quiet. My mother would lower and raise her hands as if summoning an invisible force to open and close the passenger window. We couldn’t figure out how this was possible, gliding down Highway 71 toward the rolling mountains of the Ozark’s, us the unwitting fools lulled into silence. And she, the magician.

Wooster High School, Reno, Nevada

Written Nov. 3, 2020

If you are assigned to a high school for poll monitoring and arrive early, you’ll have some time to peruse the trophy cases to learn a little bit about what makes the school shine. Wooster is all about football and basketball; the Rifle Team, on the other hand, hasn’t won anything since 1992. You’ll also get a glimpse of some of the remarkable people who once roamed the halls, and oh boy, Wooster doesn’t disappoint. Glenn Carano was a Wooster student and he went on to quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII. And, incredibly, so was Greg LeMond, three-time Tour de France winner and one the greatest American cyclists of all time, if not the greatest.

Today Wooster saw no shortage of remarkable people, starting with the volunteer poll workers. The Wooster polling location was formally “adopted” by The Holland Project, a youth-founded organization promoting the arts and music. They adopted the polling location and staffed it with young people not only to do their part in the election, but to alleviate the need for older volunteers who would be more vulnerable to COVID-19. The poll manager proudly announced that we were at an adopted polling place when it opened at 7 a.m. And then came the voters. Maybe because today is so momentous, they seemed particularly remarkable in their determination to vote. An elderly man who couldn’t hear and struggled with a cane came to drop off his ballot, worried it was too late for the mail. Parents lugged babies and toddlers. A mom and dad brought their daughter and announced she was a first-time voter. In fact, whenever a first-time voter was checked in, the poll workers would yell “first-time” voter and everyone would clap. There were lots of them, probably former Wooster students. And then a man came in wearing hospital garb, no hair, thin as a rail, only able to walk because he was holding onto someone’s arm, smiling though, determined. It was clear he would be going back to the hospital after voting. In these moments, your mandatory mask can be used to dry tears.

The polling place was organized, efficient, busy, and friendly – all the things a news crew wouldn’t be interested in. One did show up; they captured some stock footage and left quickly. Honestly, the only dark cloud was a grumpy poll observer from the RNC who showed up only briefly but made a big impression, accusing a sprightly young volunteer of telling voters how to vote (completely without basis), grumbling some complaints about fraud to someone who would listen, and then leaving the school but not before plastering Trump stickers all over a voter information sign. That was quickly reported and the poll manager went out to remove the stickers.

A friend asked me yesterday if poll observing was more like watching paint dry or playing golf (an unfair dig at a sport, which, by the way, is one in which Wooster has shined – in both men’s and women’s). Today it felt like a privilege to watch democracy unfold in one small corner of the country, in this case a high school gymnasium in Washoe County Nevada. Even though the Wooster gymnasium was scattered with voting machines instead of basketball players, the “Citizenship Guidelines” posted on the wall seemed particularly apt for this voting year.

Leon Lord


Leon was a dear friend. He was born in Baltimore in 1941. He was a musician in the US Navy from 1959-1963. Somewhere along the way, probably at a gay dive bar in Baltimore in the 1960s (actually, almost definitely at a gay dive bar in Baltimore), he met my uncle, John Yantis, and they became life-long friends. On Thursday, Leon died in the San Francisco house he shared with my uncle for decades. Leon is the most memorable of characters. He was always the tallest guy in the room, 6’2” in flats and 6’7” in heels, not that I ever saw that, but I can imagine. He was the funniest person in the room too, and sometimes he was the drunkest, or the highest, until he decided to do something different. That’s the thing about Leon—he just decided what to do and then he did it, always without help. When he retired from the GSA in 2003, he made a lot of decisions. He decided not to smoke, not to drink, to be organic, then vegetarian, then vegan, then not. He decided to become a long-distance runner in his late 60s, so for the last many years of his life he collected ribbons and medals and rows and rows of running shoes. Tony and I ran with him once, a 5K for charity, and he lapped us. Bay to Breakers was his favorite.

Leon decided to live life to the fullest after retirement for a reason—you see, COVID-19 was not his first pandemic. There is one other current pandemic, HIV/AIDS, and it has killed 32 million people so far. Leon and John lived in San Francisco in 1981 at the beginning of that pandemic and it was as personal and cruel as it could have been, killing over the course of years nearly everyone they knew. Imagine that. Leon was never infected, so his long life was a gift in many ways, but it meant he lived with death for the better part of 20 years—not just through personal loss, but as a caregiver who helped his friends transition from living to dying, one after another, including my uncle who Leon cared for until the end. These are not easy things to do. So after my uncle died and Leon retired, he just decided. He decided to do what he wanted when he wanted and that’s the precise extent of what he did. I’ve never met another human being who got to live so many years doing only what he wanted, to an annoying fault.

COVID-19 was cruel to Leon in its own way, the same way it is cruel to so many older folks. It left him at home alone out of caution. It should feel indescribably tragic that he died alone in his house, cause not known at this time, but that’s actually exactly what he wanted. Leon didn’t fear death; he talked about death with the same casualness someone else might talk about a hangnail. Leon feared having to be taken care of, because he saw what that looked like. It’s just that more lunches and more hugs these last months would have been better. And less Trump. He would want nothing more than to see the approaching blue wave.

I think it was Leon and my uncle, and that house on Capital Avenue above Ocean Avenue, that purple house with the rainbow flag, and the whole of San Francisco really, maybe more Castro Street specifically, and Folsom and Market Street on Gay Pride, and the hilarious stories of Leon and my uncle and their friends staying up all night in the 70s and then trying to maneuver the flower shop’s van to the Flower Mart for the good picks on an early Sunday morning – yes, these things that gave me a sense of who I am and where I came from, in part. I learned from Leon that it is out of our commonality and our shared fight for equal rights that we gay men and women and others in our community have an expansive definition of family. Leon was family, much loved family. But what he’d really want you to know is this … that on nearly every single one of the thousands of days he spent caring for his lush, postage-stamp-sized garden he could smell the Pacific Ocean, even hear the roar of the waves on some days. Indeed, Leon left his house open to let the fog roll in, like every true San Franciscan. 


A short fictional account, inspired by a true story from “Pit Bulls and Parolees”

On a July afternoon in 1993, Emily’s parents made the fateful decision to take their eyes off their daughter just as a 95-pound pit bull, easily four times her size, lunged at her stroller. The sleek grey dog, all muscle and mouth, was already on top of the stroller with its enormous head covering Emily’s face when her parents turned around. By the time the owner managed to pull the dog back, it was too late. Emily had been licked. She wheeled around to look at the culprit trotting away, and the culprit looked right back—his wet tongue still dangling from his pink mouth. Emily squealed.

There was 80-pound Poncho and 102-pound Scout and then Ginger with the big white paws who really broke Emily’s heart, which Treason very much helped to heal, before Emily left home and pursued her veterinary career. She loved all dogs but she was fascinated by pit bulls because of the strong bonds they formed with their owners; she also saw first-hand the struggles of finding them homes. Emily believed that by carefully observing and listening to dogs we can understand what they are communicating and learn how best to care for them. She built a successful practice in New Orleans on this philosophy. But there was one dog that Emily would never forget, because he reminded her that even the most highly skilled caretakers cannot always make sense of a dog’s behaviors.

Domino bounced from shelter to shelter in New Orleans as a puppy until he finally found Lacy. Described as a “terrier mix,” Domino was all pit bull in appearance with brown eyes and black and white fur covering his pudgy body. Lacy and Domino were immediately connected and spent seven years together. As Domino reached his eighth birthday, things had changed. There were fewer walks, fewer cuddles, and almost no visitors to sniff. Lacy confused Domino by laying motionless for hours until one night in a haze of lights and noises Lacy was gone and Domino found himself loose on the streets. After more than a year looking for his home and fending for himself, Domino was caught and behind bars again, this time at a shelter that specialized in pit bull rescues.

The shelter gave Domino almost five months but still could not figure him out. He came with no history. He was going blind. He showed injuries, maybe from the streets or maybe from abuse. And he was aggressive—very aggressive. He barked and snapped uncontrollably when people approached. He could not be trusted outside a pen without multiple handlers. They tried everything but the decision to have a vet euthanize him was necessary to make space and resources available for another dog.

The handlers took Domino (they called him Siren) to the vet. That vet was Emily. When the handlers brought Siren into the examination room, Emily recognized him immediately as Domino, a gentle pit bull patient of hers for years. But this was a different dog. He was out of control, showed signs of physical trauma, and was going blind. Emily went straight to her files and made a call, to no avail. And then another call and another, until Lacy was on the line. Emily explained the situation and Lacy frantically told her what happened, her heroine addiction, her overdose, losing Domino, months in recovery, and then a year heartbroken unable to find him.

Lacy hardly remembers driving to the veterinary office that morning though she would never forget the moment Domino recognized her—his feet dangling above the floor, paws gripping shoulders, desperate to lick Lacy’s face. It was Emily, though, who broke down in tears. She now understood what had happened, and what almost happened. No one could have known that Domino’s aggression was his way of trying to communicate his predicament. I have someone. I have to find her. You have to let me go. She needs my help. Having found Lacy, the handlers were no longer needed.

This story could end on any one of the many evenings Lacy and Domino sat enjoying the outdoors in their neighborhood park. On this particular October night they had the park to themselves, the only ones willing to brave a chill in the air. Unbeknownst to Lacy, Domino was now fully blind. He was leaning against her. She was thinking as she often did about how her recovery had brought hope and peace, and Domino, back into her life. She then turned to look at him and noticed his head bobbing up and down in the breeze, his eyes shut, his mouth open in that unmistakable pit bull smile. Domino was possessed of a magical power—the magical power of all dogs—to experience the world in the full spectrum of its brilliance using only his snout.


In contemplating this story, I learned of another pit bull story about a dog that had been abused and tortured by its owners. They set him on fire, cut off part of his genitals, shot him three times, and then left him for dead in a field. But here’s the thing. This pit bull was found. He was treated and made a full recovery. With a caring owner, this gentle dog now lives the life of most pit bulls, relishing the affection of humans and looking for love in all passersby—even though he has every reason to mistrust and fear them.


a short fictional account

Pop was Pop to his granddaughter Anna, who even at three listened to his every word as a doctor would a heartbeat, but decades earlier Pop was Sargent Ledford leading soldiers through rice paddies and jungles in search of an invisible enemy. For Sargent Ledford, the mission was to keep his men alive. “Leddy,” as they called him with affection, was 24 years old when atop a levee in the Mekong Delta a bullet exploded through the atmosphere not inches from his ear. Three of his men were hit before Sargent Ledford could turn around. The platoon dove for cover under heavy fire, but Sargent Ledford readied his weapon and rushed back up the muddy bank to pull the three fallen soldiers down the hill. This he did without hesitation, and although his tour was full of many such acts, it was after this incident that his soldiers’ eyes glistened when they saluted him or shook his hands, which they did often.

Anna was born just as Pop retired, and with her parents crisscrossing the country for conferences and symposiums, Anna and Pop spent many years together. Anna’s laughter was Pop’s medicine, but when Anna’s silliness turned to curiosity and attentiveness, Pop came to see himself in Anna more so than he ever saw himself in his academic-minded son. And it was this that gave Pop comfort in bringing Anna with him during his home visits as a volunteer hospice worker in Durham, North Carolina. Through doors left ajar, Anna watched Pop at work. She noticed the words he used, his touch, his calm demeanor. Pop always emerged from these darkened rooms and picked Anna up and carried her to the car. It was during these many car rides that Anna listened to Pop talk about being a soldier, the war, his career in the army, and life and death. He told Anna his hospice work gave him a sense of purpose, like he had in the military.

Pop died when Anna was eight. She ran to his car, jumped inside, and refused to get out. But Anna’s young heart healed quickly and Pop faded from her memory. Anna finished school and then college, but with the vigor of an assembly line worker clocking in and clocking out, day after day—ever hounded by her parents to do more with her life. But Anna was content. After college she started work as a manager at a supermarket in Raleigh. She became the general manager after a few years and lived a comfortable life. She dreamed of little more than evenings at home in her apartment and holidays with her parents and extended family. Anna enjoyed the opportunity to talk to her family, now scattered around the country, but she had become adept at steering conversations away from her life.

Anna was 34 when she reached for a bottle of aspirin at work just as it exploded off the shelf. And then a bottle of Tylenol, and then a bottle of Advil, and then Anna hit the ground. Through half-closed eyes she saw others on the ground too, not moving, some moaning, some in growing pools of red. Her fear was secondary to her sense of helplessness. She had to wait. When the silence came, Anna crawled to each pool to do whatever she could do. Anna’s parents were concerned that she would feel guilty for surviving when so many had not. But Anna felt something totally different. Within two years, Anna became a nurse. Within weeks, she developed a reputation for facing the most challenging situations at the hospital.

When the 2020 pandemic hit, Anna volunteered to work double shifts. In April, Anna tuned out the clanging and clapping as she left the hospital for the night, determined to sleep well so she could return early in the morning. By December, her hospital was overwhelmed. In the ICU, Anna watched as Pop after Pop died with only the comfort of her touch. For the first time, Anna was overwhelmed. It was not just the long hours and the endless suffering, but the reemergence of her childhood side by side with Pop. On the curb by the hospital entrance, Anna put her wet face into her hands as Pop came back to her. Anna knew what she had to do. She got up, wiped her face, put her combat gear back on, and returned to the battlefield to tend to the living and the dying.

At home late that night Anna read about the Mekong Delta, words she had just remembered. She learned that it is a place of beauty and life like no other place in the world, a sanctuary for thousands of newly discovered species. She would visit Vietnam a year later and spend three weeks taking in its beauty and history.


Truckee, California, May 2021
*posted late

The California Zephyr runs from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area, cutting a path through two formidable mountain ranges and evoking the history of America’s westward migration. During its many decades of service, the Zephyr’s principal contribution to society has been the creation of several generations of complete liars. The Zephyr delivered two such liars, my father and stepmother, to Truckee this past weekend. They boarded the train in Omaha for a two-night, 1300-mile journey. When they disembarked at the Truckee station, helped off the side of the double-decker monstrosity onto a plastic stool by an Amtrak employee who was only vaguely interested in whether they fell face forward onto the pavement, I asked how they enjoyed the train ride. They said—immediately and in unison—“oh, it was great … a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Well, then, why do you look like hikers just find you in the woods surviving on grubs and berries? They asked if I’d be willing to hear the truth in exchange for my silence. Sure, I promised, I won’t say a word.

Turns out taking the Zephyr is like getting stuck on the Tilt-A-Whirl and finding that the carnival operators have all gone home for the weekend. For the survivors, carrying on the myth of a glorious train ride across the American plains and over the mountains is all they have left.

Confined to the house most days due to the realities of age and the sedentary year gone by—not to mention the altitude—Hollywood provided much of our entertainment. Everything goes so well on television. The writers and directors make sure of it. The stories are compressed in time and punctuated with drama and laughter to keep us hooked. And every show has a satisfying ending. In the Big Sick, the couple stayed together after a tumultuous journey. In Bridesmaids, a character down on her luck ends up with the friendly cop. In The Jinx, the suspected murderer confesses to all of his crimes on a hot mic after the final interview.

Even the makers of nature documentaries, limited by the footage they could capture, portray the struggles of survival but still set us down gently. Take Charm for example, a lioness filmed struggling to keep her dwindling pride fed with the help of the great wildebeest migration across the Maasai Mara. We learn Charm is an expert hunter able to take down large animals with minimal effort. Through the animals’ interactions, we see the pride’s close family bonds and the respect they have for Charm. When the wildebeests disappear, the pride wanders farther and the lions end up poisoned by an illegal rancher protecting his cattle. All recover except for Charm’s son, who is too weak to follow the pride to new territory and food. The sickened lion watches between grass blades as the pride leaves him. But in a gripping scene, Charm returns the next day to see if her son is alive. We see him stand and lean on his mother before collapsing again to the ground. Charm has only one choice. We watch her leave her dying son. In the outtakes we learn that the filmmakers broke objectivity and intervened to try and save the young lion. Of course they would, because we poisoned him, we humans. But they delayed, choosing to first see if Charm would return. These undoubtedly heartbroken crew members must have done this for the next generation of lions by giving us a moment to reflect on our commonality. The episode concludes with scenes of Charm nursing her rambunctious new cubs.

After all of these shows, our own Charm, Tony, made sure we were all fed. A flurry of activity in the kitchen, not unlike the billowy takedown of a wildebeest, produced one fine meal after another. The most well-fed animal in the house, however, was Harvey. Harvey discovered my Dad’s willingness to buy his love by carrying treats in his pocket. Harvey began the week rewarding my Dad and Randi with love and attention, snubbing us to lounge on the couch next to them. By the end of the week, however, the relationship between Harvey and my Dad had devolved into one resembling that of an addict and his dealer.

The dramatic weather during the week turned us all into documentarians. Randi snapped photos through the windows as the dry hot weather turned rapidly to rain, snow, and sleet. Tony flew the drone into the sky to capture the drama of the May snowstorm. And at week’s end, we watched in the rain as the Zephyr lumbered into the Truckee station and everyone guessed which door would open and produce the plastic stool.

While the California Zephyr is not the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian Express, it can claim its own magnificence. Traveling eastward through Utah, the Zephyr begins a great ascent, first to the meadows of the Colorado Plateau and then higher as it crosses one of the most stunning mountain ranges on Earth. In this Hollywood ending, its weary passengers are jolted awake in the early morning to discover an eerie glow illuminating their cramped quarters. Curiosity sends them stumbling to the window where they pull open the tattered curtains just as the side of the train catches fire. Blinded by the flames ricocheting along the metallic cars, they shield their eyes. As they adjust to the light, they realize they are witnessing the blazing sun as it rises through the crooked peaks of the Rocky Mountains.


A short fictional account

Victor Hamlisch was not a gymnast. He wasn’t trained as a gymnast. He wasn’t built like a gymnast. And unlike a gymnast, Victor lost all awareness of his body and its position in the air whenever he broke connection with the earth, such as when he jumped off a diving board as a young boy. But five years ago in Fairmount Park, not long after sunrise, Victor broke a gymnastics record—by a stunning margin. With no equipment and no safety gear, Victor landed a tumbling move that no other gymnast in history had even thought to imagine—a forward flip in layout position with twelve rotations and eight full twists.

On the last rotation, Victor bent his knees to absorb the impact on the grass. His eyes pointed sharply downward searching for the ground to return to his field of vision, because the forward motion meant Victor’s landing would be blind and sudden. Victor hit the ground hard. He used all of the strength that remained in his body to stop the flipping and twisting. It worked. When Victor finally stood up, he stretched out his arms and opened his eyes wide. The park was empty at this hour. He heard the leaves in the nearby trees still shaking from the commotion. He looked back where he had started and traced each footprint along his path to the deep grooves where his feet were now firmly planted.

Victor would never tell anyone what he had done. In the years that followed, his friends and family noticed something different in Victor, and Victor also noticed that he saw the people close to him in a new light. But what amazed Victor the most, what he couldn’t explain, was the joy he began experiencing when talking with strangers.