Late spring 2003

Vanishingly little about language in this posting, which follows on my mention of my XXX-rated collages in my most recent posting and on the final arguments in the California Prop. 8 trial, heard yesterday in San Francisco. The posting starts with the collages and ends with same-sex marriage (and my partner’s death and the aftermath of that); the two things are connected.

Part 1.  Late April/early May 2003. A somewhat edited version of postings to the newsgroup soc.motss and to my Stanford department.

To soc.motss on April 23:

On my way to the pharmacy yesterday, I went past a storefront art gallery managed by an acquaintance (she works in the framing department of the neighborhood art supply store). The door was open and Linda could be seen inside, so I dropped in and took a tour of the current show.  Lots of intriguing stuff.

Her description of the studio, on the card announcing their latest show:

red ink studios is a guerilla art movement.  We are a band of roving gypsies, wandering artists who temporarily borrow unleased office space from corporations, but ultimately return their possessions.  We leave a warm thank-you note and a few drops of paint. We know that once there is an upward twist in the economy, we might be asked to pack our belongings and find another place to create.  And we will.  We’ll inhabit these donated spaces for brief lengths of time, long enough, we hope, to allow artists to
develop a new and important body of work.  Like all serious art movements, red ink studios could evolve or simply move on.  But it will leave a mark.

My kind of place.

They’ll soon have to leave the current spot in downtown Palo Alto, just a block away from my house, but before they pack up their tents and steal away, they’re having a party, to which (I told Linda) I’d bring some friends. Friday May 16th (from 5-8 p.m.).

April 25. There’s more to tell. I mentioned my XXX-rated homoerotic (but comic) collages to Linda, who asked to see some. So I dropped off a couple dozen, mostly recent, ones. Now she’s left a message on my machine saying that she just adores them and wants to show them somehow.

This might involve creating a “private room” at the show.  We’ll talk.

May 3. Today I went back to red ink studios, partly to discuss with Linda how to handle my collages, and partly to buy another copy of a book of drawings by one of the other artists, Ian Campbell-Jones (I’m going to turn them into small numbers of postcards for certain special friends; there’s a lot of intriguing phallic imagery, not all of which I think Ian is aware of — though some he certainly is).

The current proposal is to put the 8.5×11 images into a book for the May 16th show/party. And Linda wants more more.

I met some more of the studio’s artists — this is an actual workplace, not just a show gallery (bandsaws were being used, and paint was being brushed) — and three of them clustered around my collages and spent twenty minutes enjoying and critiquing them.  Much wild laughter and admiration.  And questions about technique and design and intentions. This was totally wonderful. Having interesting and talented people talk to me about my art work truly makes my day.  Incidentally, I got to say nice things about theirs. (And no, they weren’t all guys, and the guys were straight anyway, so I wasn’t cruisingforsex, and anyway I’m two to three times the age of most of these folks.)

All this started as art therapy, basically.  Something to do with my hands and my mind while I was caring for Jacques, who early on demanded almost constant attention.  I’ve looked back over seven years of this work and see how much it evolved, how I found a vocabulary and a technique and an attitude.  (It’s still changing, but the stuff from the past two years is mostly much more interesting, and funny, than what went before.)

It’s still hard for me to think of this as something with a value in the world beyond entertaining myself and my friends.

I think of “Aaron Lawrence” (in Suburban Hustler: Stories of a Hi-Tech Callboy) describing how he found his calling:

Moments later his orgasm ends. I suck the final drops from his body then release him.  For a moment I think he’s going to fall, but he opens his eyes and stares at me. “Good God,” he whispers.

“Where did you learn to do that?”

“I like sex,” I reply by way of answer.

“I can see that. I’m surprised you’re not being paid to do that. You could make a lot of money with your skill and your boyish look.”

Money? The thought had never occurred to me before…  Could I really charge money for sex?

Could I really charge money for XXX-rated comic homoerotic collages? Well, apparently, I can try.  And even if nobody buys, maybe I can encourage people to look at the work of some other interesting artists. That would be a good thing.

(Then the problem of picking which collages to exhibit and assigning titles to them. And deciding what to charge.)

Part 2. May 9, and I give my department an advance notice/warning about two events:

Just so you know, and can be prepared when people ask you what sort of outrageous folk linguists are…

The June issue of Out magazine, with its cute hunky boy on the cover (“The HOT Issue”), has a piece by me on the word faggot. My article has serious content, but it’s written in an easy, conversational tone, to fit with a magazine that has a high fluff content.

On the Contributors page, I’m identified as “professor of linguistics at Stanford University”. The paragraph ends with the sentence (which I didn’t write), “When not publicly parading his wonderful faggotry, Zwicky works on writing and publishing his fiction and creating homoerotic collages in Palo Alto, Calif.”

I wouldn’t disavow this (though I’m far from fabulous), but people you know might raise their eyebrows at this; maybe you should be prepared to say that I’m the department faggot, sort of like a pet gecko or something.

The universe being perverse, Stanford’s clipping service is bound to pick this up, so I’ll probably appear in the Stanford Report. I hope you won’t feel that I’ve tarnished the department in some way.

(The Out gig was a referral from Geoff Nunberg, by the way. The tone of his writing would undoubtedly have been cooler than mine.)

Meanwhile, those homoerotic collages have become a thing on their own. The red ink studios, at 240 Hamilton Ave. in Palo Alto, is having a party/show opening on Friday the 16th, 5:30-8, and among the exhibits is They All Laughed When the Hot-Hot Man-Man Sex Started, a book of 48 XXX-rated homoerotic comic collages by, yes, me. (They have to be in a book, or otherwise contained, so that anyone who’s going to view them can consent to it.) I doubt that this will get much publicity — though that would be nice, since there’s lots of good stuff in the show — but just in case, you should be warned that I’m also a pornographer (of sorts), and might be identified as such in the press.

(The collages started as art therapy. For years, I spent most of my days caring for Jacques, and he’d need my attention every few minutes, so that there was no way for me to work on any sustained project.  I did linguistics when he finally fell asleep at night. (Yes, it was a lot like caring for a little kid.) Eventually, I discovered that collecting bits of images and text and working them into miniature collages was something that engaged my attention and could be endlessly put down and picked up. And eventually, I found a style, and entertained my friends with the results. Now i’m going public.  If it works, you laugh.  But, yes, it’s guys doing deliciously unspeakable things to one another, so you might not want to admit to random strangers that you know me.)

[Note from 2010: In the end, it turned out that the Stanford Report noted neither my Out piece nor the red ink shows.]

On May 10 I passed my message to the department on to soc.motss, and noted there that:

A fair number of my colleagues and students already knew about my Out gig (some had given me comments on drafts) or the collages (some had encouraged me to exhibit them) or both, so I wasn’t concerned about their reactions. Now I’ve started getting reactions from the rest. The first, which a grad student posted to the whole department, is the most entertaining:

Oh! Your message has been awarded the “Triple Red Chilli-Pepper” tag by my Eudora mailer. 😉

Then there were seven grad students who wrote me the nicest private notes (which I won’t quote here), saying they were proud to know me, congratulating me on getting my work recognized, fuck anyone who looks askance at any of this, and so on. (I know, you’re going to point out that I have these people in my classes and serve on their committees and generally have power over them, so of course they’re going to say nice things to me. But they could just have sent brief notes of congratulation.)

Part 3. I skip ahead to the day of the show. And a genuine lunch poem, in the fashion of Frank O’Hara — written over lunch. The servers were worried about me, because I was obviously weeping. I comforted them.

Yoko Ono is
Still walking on
       Thin ice
I see her and John
Curled up on their bed
Untidy and flagrant
The day he died
       Was killed
       Went away
Yoko is cool but
I miss John
You damned
       Earnest angry
Boy who
       Sang for me

More was going on here than a lament for John Lennon. Death was much on my mind, since Jacques was clearly slipping into the end game.

But the show, later that day, was a delight. No sales, but lots of appreciation. And lots of visitors from my department and the local lgbt community.

Part 4. Last words. To soc.motss on May 31, as Jacques went into hospice care, in the dementia care facility he’d been staying in since 1998:

Jacques went into hospice care this morning, and by then it was hard to believe he could possibly live more than a few days.

So it seems likely that his last words were a few things he managed to whisper a few days ago. There were three. One was said apparently in reference to something he saw where the rest of us saw only a blank wall: “Voicí!”  Yes, in French.  Well, French was his first language.

Then, twice he seemed to be in discomfort and, we guessed, tried to ask for some help.  Alas, Jacques has always been a very polite person, so instead of gasping “Water!” or “I’m cold!” or something that might conceivably have been useful, he embarked on politely indirect requests, first “Would you be able…” and then “If you were to…” A few words in, of course, his strength failed and he wasn’t able to keep articulating, and he probably also forgot what he was going to say (that’s been happening for years).

What was left of him: a little French, a lot of politeness, some astonishing syntax (a counterfactual conditional!). [Note from 2010: So there was a bit of language in this after all.]

I spent a morning supplying information and filling out forms and that evening I met with the hospice nurse assigned to Jacques’s case.

It did not go well. To start with, she’d somehow conceived the idea that Jacques was my father, and seemed not to take in my series of more and more vivid descriptions of the nature of Jacques’s and my relationship; people hear what they expect to hear. Eventually, she wrote down “partner”, but (as it turned out) she still didn’t understand it.

(She’s Chinese, from Guangdong or Taiwan, I don’t know which.  That shouldn’t have been relevant, I thought, but I was wrong.)

Then we had a battle over J’s treatment. She had a routine, and a standard list of medications, and I had twelve years of experience of caring for Jacques (as I explained) and a large stock of knowledge about the conditions he was suffering from, some of which she surely had never even heard of before (in the end I had to tell her that I was a very smart person, a senior professor at Stanford, and knowledgeable about the many neurological conditions J is suffering from). We wrangled over Haldol. I gave her two good reasons why it shouldn’t be used — it would be ineffective against what she mistakenly described as his “agitation” on some occasions, and it would actually make him wildly agitated, and we’d have to tie him down (he has a history of paradoxical reactions to Haldol, not all that uncommon a phenomenon) — but she had her opinions and her experience. Eventually, I just said, in thin-lipped anger, that if she didn’t take Haldol off the list I’d stop the hospice service, immediately.

She capitulated.

Late the next afternoon we had another round. There was a pile of stuff about Jacques and his personal and medical history that she needed to collect, and then we fell back into the “partnership” hole. J had two children, but here I was, an unrelated person, serving as caregiver. I explained the 26 years together, our having thought of our relationship as the equivalent of marriage, our having actually uttered the “till death do us part” vows to one another. Ten minutes later, at the end of our interview, she said, “He’s very lucky to have a friend like you”. And I was too stunned, angry, and insulted to say anything at all.

It was a long weekend of anger, stress, grieving. My daughter Elizabeth and her partner Paul tried to soothe me. The hospital bed for Jacques didn’t arrive. He became even more inert and unresponsive. His poor left eye, now open all the time because of the Bell’s palsy, began to degrade seriously; he’s probably mostly blind in that eye now, though there’s really no way to tell.

Monday morning the hospital bed arrived, which made caring for him much easier, and I lodged complaints with the nursing supervisor — telling her that in twelve years of caring for Jacques, involving dozens of medical professionals in six different facilities, I’d never ever had any problem about being treated as Jacques’s partner, and now it was suddenly this huge difficulty — and talked to our family doctor (he called me, actually, just to check up on how things were with me, and of course Jacques). The nursing supervisor gave the hospice nurse a talking-to.

Well, it turned out that the nurse actually, incredibly, had no experience whatsover with same-sex couples, much less ones with children; back home, she said, no one was open about such things (meaning, I assume, homosexuality). The supervisor told her that she was to treat me as Jacques’s spouse, period. I think things are in hand now.

Meanwhile, the family doctor and both of Jacques’s kids volunteered to terrorize the hospice nurse, or to vouch for me, or whatever I thought might be helpful. Elizabeth and Paul and I went out for dinner together Monday night and consumed mass quantities of sushi, which, along with the pleasure of their company and their conversation, finally soothed me. (Paul also massaged my neck and shoulders.)

My lovely man is really not there at all now. He didn’t eat yesterday, barely opened his eye, seemed not to connect with anything. There’s not much to do except to swab his cracked, crusted lips with glycerin. We’re way past the Haldol issue. At least he doesn’t seem to be in pain.

I’m pretty much crazy.

[One friend wrote to ask:

I’m hesitant to start a discussion here, but what is a  nurse deciding on prescriptions? This sounds completely wrong to me.

Hospice stuff is different. Short-term palliative care of someone who will soon die works by different rules. Three days ago, morphine wasn’t on the table, now it is, and no doctor has to prescribe. (A doctor does have to certify that The End Is Very Near, though.)

I’ve administered large amounts of morphine myself, acting on behalf of a hospice service, in situations similar to this one.]

A cute twist on the nurse front. The first time that the hospice nurse, Elizabeth (with Paul), and I were all together at the same time by Jacques’s bed, the nurse was very careful with us and went out of her way to be cordial to everyone.

At one point she noted that Elizabeth came every day to visit Jacques, and Elizabeth smiled and said, yes, she did, adding (with mild maliciousness) that her sister managed to get down from Seattle every few weeks for a brief visit. The thing is that Emily is Elizabeth’s step-sister (as we reckon these things), not her sister. You could see the wheels turning in the nurse’s head as she tried to reconcile what Elizabeth had just said with the family facts she’d so painfully memorized (which included the fact that I had only one child).

She passed the little test Elizabeth had set for her: she said nothing, and went on to the details of Jacques’s care.

Not that there’s much to do. He’s too inert for us to try to feed him or give him anything to drink; he’d just choke on it. So you dip a little sponge-on-a-stick in water and put it in his mouth, and that gives him enough water to keep his mouth moist.

His blood pressure is elevated (for him; it’s normally so low that medical folks are always alarmed by it) and his pulse way elevated (not just for him, though it was nearly double his usual, very low, rate). These are relevant signs. They suggest that his body is fighting to stay alive, something that usually happens near to death.

Afterwards, Elizabeth and Paul and I stood on the street outside the dementia facility, and Elizabeth wept, and Paul and I comforted her. She and I sort of take turns at this.

Other parts of life go on. This was right after i taught my last class for 2002-03, which is always a sad moment on its own.

Part 5. Jacques is dead.

And then, of course, J died, in the dark night.

My friend Steve Dyer — who died himself, suddenly and unexpectedly, ten days ago, at home in Massachusetts — wrote a note of condolence and recollection. Many such messages followed, but Steve’s digressed into the poetry of W.H. Auden:

It’s still a bit cheezy from its association with “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (with Hugh Grant doing his HG imitation and Andie MacDowell doing her acting imitation), but I was moved to tears when Matthew (John Hannah) recited W.H. Auden’s “Twelve Songs IX” aka “Funeral Blues” at the service for his lover Gareth (Simon Callow), an ebullient Scotsman who died of too much fun (or a sudden heart attack–too much dancing) at one of the weddings.

What’s so remarkable to me about this poem is that in its first half, it takes the inward impulses of private, blinding grief and slyly applies them, however Procrusteanly (rather like O.J.’s glove), to the mundane goings on of everyday urban life. (Somewhat similar to the superficial sentiments of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts but more personal.)  But Auden’s artistry is that the awkward juxtaposition of private grief and an exaggerated public expression (ordinarily reserved for Kings and Queens), emphasizes how private and unknowable and ultimately precious every individual’s grief is, which the elegiac 3rd stanza alludes to. This is not an upbeat poem, any more than the days after a loved one’s death are, and Auden ends with even more extreme responses to mourning: wishful thinking impossible for anyone, which still keep their dignity in their exaggeration, if only because that’s how many people feel and would express themselves, if they were as eloquent and economical in words as Auden.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

On a more loving, elegiac note, Lullaby has always been a favorite Auden poem of mine.


Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm:
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstacy,

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost.
All the dreaded cards foretell.
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought.
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

On the Auden poems I replied:

A great puzzle: how can this movie be so generally enjoyable, when the two principal characters are played by such annoying actors?

But even the association with the movie can’t completely wreck the beauty of this poem. Or of “Lullaby”, which Jacques himself liked and could quote from memory. (He had so many poems, so many show tunes, so many comic routines in his head! I’m no good at  remembering words, that was like breathing for him, and then the dementia robbed us both of all those words, made me stupid.)

Part 6. The aftermath. To another condoling friend:

I sort of got used to not having him next to me, by my side and in my bed, five years ago (could it possibly have been that long? well, yes, it could), but now both Elizabeth and I are facing up to the bizarre idea that a day’s schedule might not turn around when we visit Jacques in the care facility. There are whole open, unscheduled days.

(For me, there were three years before that, when I was caring for him at home, omigod. It’s been a small lifetime since caring for Jacques was not the central issue of my life.  How to live now?)

Stupid me, not to have seen this was coming. All that time, I was focused on giving up on him, bit by bit. I didn’t think about what would happen when there were no more bits left.

Elizabeth and I had coffee together in Menlo Park, sitting in the little park where, years ago, we used to take Jacques. Our standard Sunday-morning coffee from Peet’s. Afterwards, as we parted, we both paused and started to calculate when our Monday visit would be, only to realize that there wasn’t going to be one. We settled for breakfast together on Tuesday.

Astonishingly, other parts of life go on.  My undergraduate advisee has won an award for his honors thesis, and I’ll get to read my celebratory citation about it at a ceremony on Saturday. [2010 note: That student would be Joel Wallenberg, who’s now finished his Ph.D. in linguistics at Penn and is off in Iceland — tangential connection to Auden there — on a research grant.] On Friday I get student papers to grade, and I serve on a Ph.D. dissertation oral committee. Somewhere in there I have to pick up my cap, gown, and gorgeous MIT hood for commencement on Sunday.  Jacques’s nephew Joe is visiting me for the weekend, an arrangement made long ago.  I meet with my undergraduate intern for the summer, and a new tenant moves into the guest suite at my library condo. And so on.

But wait! There’s more! One more poem, full of fresh anger, from me in July 2003:

Don't tell me he's
    gone, tell me he's
Don't tell me he's
    passed away (or
    passed, as on the
    stairs), tell me he's
Knock it into my
  thick skull,
  he's not away at
    the beach, he's
  not convalescing in
    the hospital, he's
Make me understand that
    this time
  he's not coming back, he's not just
    down a notch more,
  he's fuckin'
Dead, forever
Dead, stone-cold, gaping-mouthed

Those lips I kiss,
Hot from your fierce struggle,
  Why won't you
  Talk to me?

They still could speak -
How can I move them?
  Tell me you'll
  Help me out.

Here I am am lost
Needing your calm advice.
  Wanting the
  Smell of you.

We walked on the foothill paths in the winter,
You had a favorite rock,
Just one dumb stone among thousands.

In the spring, Gaea and Jeanne
  Dug it up,
I washed off the mud,
  Rubbed it clean.
  Stashed it.

It's unimpeachably
  Solid, like
  Any old stone,
Slow to change;
Kind of oddly craggy;
Smooth here, edgy there;
Satisfying to hold in
    My hand.
  (My blood warms it.)
It will have to do,

Damn you, dead man.

We would have married if it had been possible. We said the words to each other, and meant them. We signed up as domestic partners all over the place, including in a touching (though entirely symbolic rather than substantive) public ceremony at Palo Alto City Hall. We assembled the pile of legal papers that prudent queers need for negotiating administrative shoals (not that such papers are worth crap in the face of the obstructions thrown up by personal opinion).

People say, oh, nasty prejudice will always be around, you can’t legislate that away. (Subtext: stop your whining about “marriage equality”!) But a lot of that prejudice is unthinking, and a lot of it seems to be tied to legal statuses (and, very significantly, the vocabulary that goes along with them), as my friend Steve Kleinedler (of AHD and ADS-L and more) so movingly wrote about after his husband Peter — his actually-married-in-Massachusetts-husband — died (see my posting on Steve and marriage equality here).

6 Responses to “Late spring 2003”

  1. Xopher Says:

    Some of this was difficult for me to read. It’s too soon. I have narrowed all the sickroom memories down to just the feel of CMB’s hand in my hand, the soft texture of his blood-stained blanket, and the flicker of his last smile. The nurses and the shabby equipment and the constant harassment of indignities and petty torments, I’d like to forget that. I was planning, for instance, to forget the part about gall and sponges, near the end. I had to fight the Haldol battle, too, Arnold. They prescribe it for everything under the sun and then profess to be incredulous when it backfires.

    I am so glad I had the chance to meet J before all this started, the delightful and urbane, gentle creature that he was. And funny. I liked him. I wish I’d known him longer.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    For the readership: Xopher’s partner CMB died in January, after they’d been together for many years. (I’ve been friends with them for, oh twenty years.)

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