My uncle was was a sickly kid, so when he started coughing at 17, the adults in his life thought it was the usual allergies. Then he began hemorrhaging blood. It was 1939. People were dying from tuberculosis. A diagnosis inspired fear and stigma. He was quarantined for three years at La Vina Sanatorium near Pasadena, in Southern California. La Vina was a sanitized bubble, a space protected from the time and fray of World War II. Sanatoriums were known then as "waiting rooms for death."
In the sanatorium, his health declined. His doctors collapsed one lung for healing. He got a secondary infection and spiked a dangerously high fever.
While he was lying there, facing almost certain death, his attending nurse tuned his radio to the Saturday afternoon New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Calvin Pedranti—he preferred being called Cal—was a creative person who'd studied music, although at this point his artistic expression had been mainly confined to playing piano at kids' ballet recitals. The opera that happened to be playing on the radio that day was Wagner's Tannhäuser.
It was a turning point. The waves of Wagner's surging music cut through two centuries, across ocean floors and creeping landscapes and time itself, symbolizing the iconic struggle between repression and passionate expression, sacred and profane love, and life and death. The sweep of strings and surge of horns penetrated to the deepest spirals of Cal's ears. The music and the story of Tannhäuser shift between two motifs: One is Venus's subterranean sex grotto, and the other the courtly life of Wartburg Castle. Just as Carl Jung believed that certain prophetic childhood dreams carried the symbolic narrative of that child's destiny, perhaps the first threads of Cal's future were sewn in his feverish delirium, as the tension and flow between the musical motifs penetrated to the unconscious depths of Cal's being.
Cal believed that Wagner's music saved him.
When he emerged from the spell of illness, it was as if Wagner's 19th-century aesthetic had permeated his skull, settling in the weave of his synapses. So had the myth of Tannhäuser, built loosely on the life of a medieval poet. The opera opens with Tannhäuser and his lover, Venus, together in Venusberg, and everyone on stage with them is in a state of sexual rapture.
Hearing Wagner's music at a pivotal time in his life had restructured Cal's psyche so much that he later told me he wondered if he had once been an intimate of Wagner's—a child, a father, or a lover. Cal was an adamant agnostic skeptic, except in this one realm in which he flirted with the concept of reincarnation.
He'd returned from death's portal at La Vina with a delirium-inspired glimpse of a fate that would include conflicts between pleasure and austerity, self-destruction and redemption, and creativity and control.
He painted landscapes and created mixed-media forest collages and medieval mosaics from painted glass after attending Chouinard (aka California Institute of the Arts) on scholarship. He had moderate commercial success in Los Angeles. One of Cal's early self-portraits features a face, both masculine and feminine, covered by a slender hand. Scattered in the background are sketches of bodies in various sexual poses, hidden in swirls of blues and greens. As Cal's passion emerged, background became foreground. He painted big canvases of sensual opera scenes around the same time he started experimenting with his sexual identity.
A clerk at a corner store near his apartment hissed, "Watch out for 'fairies' in Echo Park." Fairies? Cal investigated, wearing a three-piece suit. No one approached him. After that he got smart and bought Levi's, using a wire brush to wear down the crotch. He slept with Montgomery Clift twice, once while in the throes of a high fever. Mostly he had sex with strangers. Cal later confessed encounters he'd had in public bathrooms, and bathhouses, and at Santa Claus Lane Beach in Carpinteria, where he wore his favorite hand-sewn silk pink trunks.
This was in the late 1960s, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Cal was arrested and beaten by LA police, who raided public bathrooms and other gay haunts. After several public-indecency violations, he was nearly committed involuntarily to a psychiatric hospital. The day Cal was to appear before a judge, a court insider expunged his file. It cost Cal $1,000—roughly equivalent to $15,000 today—to have that court insider disappear the file.
In Los Angeles, Cal had worked as an interior designer. In San Francisco, where he relocated and which was more tolerant, he wanted a job that covered his expenses, not a second career. He found work from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays in a frame shop, which left sufficient time to focus on painting. He created opera images and decorated his Victorian flat in imitation of the bohemian interiors of King Ludwig of Bavaria's castles. King Ludwig of Bavaria was Wagner's top donor. Cal's favorite, Neuschwanstein Castle, featured a Venusberg grotto with water. The eccentric Ludwig liked floating there in a swan-shaped boat. Cal's home evolved into a gold-embossed sanctuary to Wagner, and it often seemed Cal himself was suspended in time and space. Cal had an art show in Seattle in 1979, during the Ring at Seattle Opera, long before I moved here.
Meanwhile, he was living in a city situated on an active fault line. Like the two tectonic plates underlying San Francisco, Cal's psyche was split into two parts. They existed side-by-side and traveled intimately in opposite directions. One facet of my uncle was highbrow—cultured and aesthetically refined. He cherished opera, classical music, and the "finer arts" of painting, literature, film, and photography. But Cal was also lowbrow, base, and wild. He cruised for sex in city parks. He loved Days of Our Lives, glory holes, and Hollywood gossip magazines. These sides of Cal existed in tension and caused a restless longing that was impossible to satisfy. He catted around bathhouses, looking for archetypal heroes with "square wrists and strong chins" who talked dirty and gave great blowjobs.
Perhaps all of our psyches are structured to match the deeper landscapes of the places we inhabit. As with the Pacific Ocean's Ring of Fire, where geological activity happens gradually with sometimes-sudden leaps, within each of us, there's a gradual morphing of intricate psychological structures with unpredictable, earthquake-like events. What if we are all intricately linked, our inner structures moving in instinctual rhythm, tuned to one another like flocks of crows in a blue-black windstorm? Constant growth and change in the earth's deeper surfaces and in our psyches have been occurring for millennia, long before geologists first embraced the theory of continental drift around 1968.
Cal's stigma, born of tuberculosis, trailed him into adulthood. He was not normal. My parents transmitted this truth to my siblings and me through rolling their eyes and other gestures of annoyance. Nor was Cal morally sound enough for young children to emulate. Despite my parents' dread of Cal, his presence and his art transformed our otherwise boring home. Everyone's favorite Cal piece was a glass mosaic coffee table featuring knights and damsels on horseback with their heads at Guernica-style right angles. We had several other canvases of his as well. Otherwise, my family preferred Keane paintings of big-eyed sad kids sold at grocery stores.
My parents considered Cal the antithesis of success. When Cal described a beloved art exhibit, my father interrupted with "waste of taxpayer money." He quizzed Cal on Ladies' Home Journal decorating tips.
Cal remained calm in the face of my father's humiliation tactics by explaining the value of art, how it could transform suffering into something meaningful. My father offered to set Uncle Cal up with a Sherwin-Williams interior-and-exterior house-painting franchise. "Thanks, but no thanks," Cal said. "I'm not that kind of painter."
Cal opened the door to the beauty and dangers of being an "other." I was constitutionally and emotionally drawn to Cal's contentious coastline of creativity (Venusberg) rather than to my family's middle-class morality (Wartburg).
It seemed wisest to keep my fascination for Cal a secret from myself. I carried similar tectonic urges—contrary and crashing—to the ones inside Cal.
When Cal finally got tired of my father's attacks, he quit visiting. So, two weeks after high-school graduation, I drove north to see him. Cal introduced me to eccentric friends and took me on an art tour. Each evening we sat in his bohemian parlor, which resembled a gold-tasseled tent, listening to scratchy opera records. He stood beneath a chandelier, under the glare of a massive bust of Wagner that sat atop a tall bookshelf. When the first chords of the overture sounded, Cal began acting, breathlessly, guiding the music into shape with sweeping arm gestures.
Thus began our adult friendship in earnest and my introduction to strange and confusing dimensions of human experience my childhood had lacked. Stepping toward Cal allowed a thin hint of molten passion to rise at the place where the two plates inside me gripped and shifted.
"Try everything, honey," Cal said.
I visited Cal on a regular basis, staying for days at a time, exploring his underground version of urban life. He was happy to finally reveal his homosexuality openly to someone in the family. He associated marriage with being ordinary, which was akin to being locked in an institution, akin to death. Cal preferred to prowl around shadowy venues, searching for an archetypal male from the Wagnerian pantheon. He pined for Siegfried and settled instead for human flesh in whole and part. A godlike penis poking through a hole in a wall sometimes sufficed.
Cal held love and music in the highest regard. He insisted on pushing me past pop culture toward deeper waters. One night when we were listening to the lulling waves of Tristan und Isolde together, I fell asleep. Outraged, he banished me from his parlor until his anger calmed. Then he kissed me on the head. "I forgive you," he said. He took a few steps away. "In the meantime, your taste in music is shit."
Fortunately we shared similar taste in films. Blade Runner was a favorite. Cal loved the homoerotic rooftop scene with rain dripping from the half-naked torso of Roy, the replicant, played by Rutger Hauer. Harrison Ford, as Detective Deckard, sits, with legs splayed open, across from Roy, who has saved his life after trying to kill him for the last 20 minutes, and catches his breath while Roy says: "I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain. Time to die."
Two gorgeous men engaged in an intimate battle that resolved in an encrypted Wagner reference, regardless of the film's science-fiction subtext, was as titillating for Cal as the prospect of opera staged in a bathhouse. I liked Blade Runner for its circus-like depiction of a future based on 1980s aesthetics.
How much of who we are is how our memories aesthetically assemble us? We aggregate a self from other selves, the people with whom we're deeply connected and others we briefly brush against.
Cal influenced the structure of my psyche by stretching the realm of what was possible. I lived abroad in Dublin, in Paris, and in a town near Tokyo. I fell in love with a foreigner scientist, passionate about plate tectonics. He and I eloped and ate cheese and drank wine on the cement Palladian gazebo of Lotte Lehmann's abandoned estate. (Lehmann sang Elisabeth's role in Tannhäuser.) Three years later, I was en route to a divorce. When I fell in love with a woman, Cal replied nonchalantly, "I knew you were gay when I saw you in the crib."
Cal thought life without sex was a miserable prospect. He took one pill for nerves and something else for pain. Trazodone helped with sleep, and other prescriptions balanced unstable moods.
But the most reliable means for easing Cal's suffering involved translating his longing for love and sensuality into ever-larger canvases. He painted triptychs of Rhine maidens swimming through brilliant thick blues and massive canvases of Wagner's face made of tiny geometric shapes. He hung Wagner images in his red-velvet-wallpapered living room; the composer's fierce blue eyes stared visitors down. Cal painted Venusberg as an oyster shell framed by pink bodies. He spent hours working in his basement studio, listening to scratchy opera albums until he finally merged with the fantasies he painted. The shapes of bodies grew more indistinct. Maybe you could call his last works spiritual, if myth and music express God.
Cal's physical body was betraying him. He went from doctor to doctor, searching for new diagnoses for his constellation of symptoms. Cal's primary-care doctor approved an experimental surgery for peripheral neuropathy. The surgery involved inserting an animal spine (a cat's, I think) between Cal's cervical vertebrae. A nerve leading to Cal's left arm was severed, leaving the arm permanently paralyzed. I picked Cal up, hired home-nursing care, and fetched his dogs from the kennel where his neighbors had dropped them off. They'd been howling in Cal's absence.
In retrospect, it's unclear whether it was Alzheimer's or a collection of small, quake-like strokes initiated by the surgery that began withering Cal's limbic powers. He became an outlier inside his own skin—another kind of other—when he was sidelined by dementia. Cal's archetypal and actual memories amalgamated as he faded. Sometimes he insisted that he was exhausted from having flown overnight to Rio de Janeiro to conduct Wagner's Ring. Someone paid him a million bucks. Then he flew home again, over the rolling hills and farms of California. He heard the lonely lowing of cows in the fields and worried that no one had milked them.
One night, he asked me to shoot him. When I refused, he said, "Well then help me stay in this house." He became more morbid; he taped a mortuary brochure to a parlor mirror, along with instructions for dispersing his cremains. Some ashes were to be comingled with the garden soil at Bayreuth, Wagner's Bavarian opera house. The rest were to be scattered in Olema or Bolinas, two ancestral towns near where the San Andreas Fault crosses the Point Reyes Peninsula.
As he faded, Cal had a few volcanic fits. He tossed a marble tabletop across a room. It didn't break. But his hand-built model of King Ludwig's castle did, when he crushed the roof and towers with his fist. He transitioned from very slow shuffling to sitting in a wheelchair a few hours per day. I wheeled him into his parlor the last time we listened to music together. He had lost words. He pointed to an album. I put Tristan und Isolde on the turntable. The music began its slow waves, surging between loss and unresolved longing. We were both so quiet, we could hear the soft scratch of the needle on the vinyl as it spun. A wave of grief crescendoed. At some point, we both started crying. Evening erased the last smudges of light from the windows. We just sat. I turned the discs over and changed discs until they'd all ended. I didn't turn on the lights.
I flew from Seattle down to see him as often as I could. I kept Cal in his house until he couldn't tell a mirror from a Miró or his dogs from bath rugs. His neurologist recommended a good Alzheimer's care facility. I wondered if the institution would revive La Vina memories.
I sold his house to pay for treatment. My family anticipated that I'd cart Cal's possessions, including paintings, to the dump. Instead, I packed up everything—no, really, everything—from paper clips to newspaper clippings. I gathered stacks of penny-postcard correspondences with his mother and a yellowed telegram that read: "No limelight tonight." I saved his cupid headboard and the rest of his furniture—most of which, to my surprise, had faux finishes covering major flaws. Cal was both creative and thrifty.
I filled a rental truck with Cal's beloved objects and 100 paintings and drove it to a storage unit. Two friends helped, including one who demanded that we stop the truck every 15 miles so she could pee on the side of the open road. "Small pleasures," she said.
The day after all Cal's things were stored and escrow closed on his house, he died of pneumonia. His favorite Filipina nurse and a handful of family members attended a small Catholic ceremony. We listened to opera on the mortuary's boom box in a room hung with Cal's paintings. The priest read from Cal's obituary about Wagner's grandchildren inviting Cal to exhibit art in Bayreuth.
When the Alaska Airlines attendant requested documentation for my bereavement ticket, I placed the box of Cal's ashes on the ticket counter.
"That's not what I meant," she said.
I flew home with Cal's ashes on my lap. He was more my father than my father had been.
It took a year to finally disperse his ashes on the Point Reyes Peninsula. The Miwok Indians, original inhabitants of Point Reyes, cremated and buried their dead. They speculated that illness came from people being built from "fragile sticks of sage that couldn't withstand the cold." The Miwok believed that the universe consisted of ancient and modern objects that blended and thrived together in the modern world.
Maybe the layered dead and the living metaphorically brush against each other in Point Reyes in the same way that the two tectonic plates slide side-to-side, transform, with ragged edges at the boundary of the San Andreas Fault.
I used the bathtub in my hotel room to transfer some of his ashes into plastic bags small enough to stuff in jacket pockets. I was worried about where to disperse Cal's ashes. The mortuary owner had stressed that I was legally required to indicate Cal's exact burial site. I wrote "Point Reyes."
The ashes seemed greasy. They smelled sweet and strange. I had memorized the way to Bolinas by visual cues, like the road near the lagoon. I'd been coached about locals hiding signs that marked the town's entrance.
The Bolinas beach was nearly empty at midday, except for a few people walking their dogs and surfers riding late-spring waves. I paced the shoreline. There was a fire pit ringed by stones, close to a bluff. I imagined that young surfers gathered there at night. I sat until I felt sure no one was looking, and then I dug a hole in the middle of the fire pit. I mixed Cal's ashes with the driftwood ashes and sand. I figured Cal might enjoy being surrounded by half-naked, muscular men. I stayed until the wind chilled the air. I left Cal moving with the Pacific Plate, mingling with the Miwok, dust and thin gray.
Letting go of Cal's things was harder. A few times each year, I flew down from Seattle to visit the storage unit. I would roll up one of the doors, get overwhelmed by grief, and close the door again. I was not yet equal to the task of curating Cal's memories, sifting through and bringing into consciousness a new story about Cal's abandoned cultural artifacts, symbols, and mythical images.
I finally brought along a bossy friend to help me focus. She noticed the Lifelong AIDS thrift shop nearby. At first, they were only interested in antiques, but my friend convinced them to take everything. It was comforting to see Cal's possessions made new again through the admiring eyes of gay men. They loved the green glass telephone pole insulators and the cupid headboard.
The paintings took another seven years. I aspired to bring Cal's artwork into circulation, but living two states away and having a more than full-time job made it difficult to imagine. Then I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. The issue of the paintings became urgent. If I died, Cal's artwork might end up in the dump.
I wrote to the board president of the Northern California Wagner Society, which had been the center of Cal's social life after Cal's most significant romantic partner died. (Cal played that former boyfriend Tannhäuser as he died, hoping in vain it would work the same magic on him that it had worked on Cal at La Vina.) The board president's name was Terri. She had never met Cal. Most of Cal's Wagnerian friends had died. I asked Terri if the Wagner Society might want Cal's paintings.
Terri and another Wagnerian, Joan, a photographer, agreed to meet me and my partner at the storage unit last summer. I expected that Terri and Joan might reject paintings that were unfinished or chipped or ones that Cal had made after his arm was paralyzed.
As Terri and Joan inspected each piece of art, they recited the mythical narratives behind each painting. As they walked along the stacked canvases, they sang snippets of Siegfried, Parsifal, and Lohengrin. They were enthralled. The bigger and more elaborate the canvas, the more it was beloved. They even liked the intense image of Wagner's face, which I realized (something they wouldn't have realized) looked like Cal. They wanted the early work, the middle-era work, and even the last, more mystical canvases. Everything that was vaguely Wagnerian. Even the unfinished ones. Even the chipped ones. Even the vapory ones painted post-paralysis.
Terri and Joan loaded the paintings in a truck and transported them to a Berkeley wine cellar. They photographed and cataloged the paintings and organized a community art exhibit in a small warehouse. The event was quite tender. It featured a 70-member ensemble of musicians—called the Awesöme Orchestra—ranging in age from 12 to 84. They played Wagner's Lohengrin act III and "Prelude," some Berlioz, and music from The Fellowship of the Ring. Some musicians drank cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Cal's paintings had been stacked in a closet space the size of a small ship's hull for so many years; now they lined the walls, floor to ceiling. It was amazing to see them animated by the music in the presence of a live audience. It was amazing to see them mean something to these people. Some of Cal's paintings sold. He would have loved the strong, steady wrist of the conductor who shaped the crashing music.
Perhaps it is not possible to have everything at once: creativity, sensuality, transcendence, and redemption. Cal taught me that in illness or death or when under death's gaze, it's at least worth the attempt to get close to what moves us, whatever it is—both deep inside and beyond us—that inches onward. He taught me to trust the tectonic seam, the faults in all of us, where plates move in opposite directions.