Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘LGBT’

07 AUGUST, 2015

Oliver Button Is a Sissy: A Sweet Vintage Celebration of Difference and the Courage to Withstand Stereotypes

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An illustrated homage to those who brave the violence of our narrow cultural norms.

Childhood, as a cultural construct, is a fairly recent invention — it wasn’t until John Locke that we stopped seeing children as simpler, lesser versions of adults and granted them the dignity of a singular experience in a life-stage marked by enormous emotional complexity. Today, we recognize children’s reality as decidedly different from but not lesser than adults’ — an idea passionately defended by the great enchanters of children’s imagination. And from their singular vantage point of absolute sincerity, kids are able to call out the faults in our grownup reality — like the little boy who confronted Disney about their racial and gender stereotypes.

But childhood can also be a gruesome microcosm of our human capacity for cruelty — perhaps nowhere more so than in precisely that tyranny of stereotypes and the bullying it engenders.

In the 1979 gem Oliver Button Is a Sissy (public library) — a fine addition to the best LGBT children’s books — beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola (b. September 15, 1934) tells the story of a little boy who doesn’t enjoy doing all the boy-things expected of him and finds himself, like many kids have, bullied for preferring more creative and “feminine” pastimes.

The marvelous illustrations are reminiscent of early Maurice Sendak — incidentally, another gay man who was bullied for being an artsy “sissy” as a child — yet dePaola’s sensibility is unmistakably his own.

We meet little Oliver, who prefers drawing and reading and picking flowers to playing sports. And when he has to do the latter, he is decidedly bad at it — so bad that the team captain always bemoans being stuck with klutzy Oliver Button.

Oliver likes to play dress-up in the attic, so he can sing and dance and dream of being a star. Most of all, he likes to tap-dance.

But even his parents aren’t comfortable with Oliver’s difference, so when they finally agree to send him to Ms. Leah’s Dancing School, his father mumbles the self-conscious justification that it’s “for the exercise.”

At the dance school and at home, Oliver practices with joy. At school, he endures the boys’ constant teasing about his tap shoes — and when the girls leap to his defense, he is teased all the more for having to get help from the girls.

To make matters even more unambiguous and publicly humiliating, the bullies graffiti the school wall.

But Oliver isn’t discouraged. Instead, he does as Neil Gaiman counseled in his spectacular commencement address — when face with criticism and rejection, the only sensible response is to keep making art. He continues to practice, determined to dazzle at the upcoming school talent show.

When the big day comes, Oliver gives it his very best, tap-dancing up a storm. His final bow is followed by exuberant applause.

But when the winner is announced — baton-twirler Roxie Valentine — Oliver can barely hold back his tears.

The next day, he can’t bear the thought of going to class — but go he must. Crestfallen, he makes his way to school and is the last to go in when the bell rings. But then something miraculous happens — one of those small mercies that can change a life, an act that calls to mind George Saunders on the power of kindness. Having seen Oliver for who he really is, through the art he so loves, the boys have revised their graffiti.

Oliver’s story is closely based on dePaola’s own childhood experience — a gay man, he grew up in an era where he didn’t even know what “gay” meant and only felt a profound, aching sense of difference. He recounts:

I could spend hours drawing, and nobody ever asked me to play on their ball teams because I was so bad at it. But, like Oliver, I was a great tap dancer!

Fortunately for dePaola, and even more fortunately for us, he did what Oliver did — he just kept making art and went on to delight generations with his warm, wonderful, deeply assuring children’s books.

Complement the wholly wonderful Oliver Button Is a Sissy with children’s heartwarming responses to gender politics from the same era, then revisit Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a tender story about gender identity and acceptance.

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18 JUNE, 2015

MoMA Acquires the Rainbow Flag as a Design Icon: A Conversation with the Artist Who Made It

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“Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design.”

In 1976, a young man named Gilbert Baker conducted that great creative act of “bisociation,” bringing two unrelated concepts together into something revolutionary. He fused vexillography — the art-science of designing flags — with the groundswell of the LGBT rights movement, spearheaded by his friend Harvey Milk. Baker incubated the idea for the next two years and on June 25, 1978, he raised the first two rainbow flags at the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

Nearly forty years later, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the iconic rainbow flag into its permanent design collection — a visionary move by Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, who has previously acquired the @ symbol in her continual quest to expand our understanding of design as a force of culture and an agent of civic discourse.

There is a poignant parallel between this acquisition and Antonelli’s 2011 exhibition Talk to Me, which examined the communication and interaction between people and (mostly digital) objects. The rainbow flag is an utterly analog yet highly interactive object — a flag only flies on the wings of wind or human hands, or else it collapses into limp fabric — that speaks to and with people powerfully. It embodies Antonelli’s famous words from her Talk to Me essay: “In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.”

There is also a profound resonance with her more recent Design and Violence project, as the rainbow flag was a telegraphic response to the Stonewall riots that catalyzed the political momentum of the LGBT rights movement. The flag became an inclusive celebration of those violently excluded by nation and state, the people whose basic human and civic rights were being denied and outright violated by the very entities supposed to protect them — the same entities belonging to which traditional national flags symbolize.

I spoke with Antonelli about her rationale behind the acquisition and its broader cultural implications:

Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design. They are made of icons and become icons themselves — even more so when they come to represent a long struggle, as does the rainbow flag: bright, simple, luminous, positive despite everything. The epitome of grace under pressure, a design feat. When it was born almost 40 years ago, it defied violence and prejudice. Sadly, it still does, in some places. There is no prouder addition to our collection than a great design object about real life and tough issues.

Antonelli and her curatorial assistant, Michelle Millar Fisher, kindly shared this exclusive recording of Fisher’s conversation with Baker about the origin story of his iconic creation and its enduring impact in the world. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On being inadvertently initiated into vexillography and how the rainbow flag was born:

It started hitting me in 1976, [which was] the bicentennial of the United States… I began to notice the American flag — which is where a lot of the rainbow flag comes from… All of a sudden I’m looking at the American flag everywhere — from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the GAP and all kinds of tchotchkes. And I [realized] a flag is something that’s really different than any other form of art — it’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a logo. It functions in so many ways, it’s interpreted in so many different ways.

And I thought that’s the kind of symbol that we needed as a people — something that everyone instantly understands. It doesn’t have to say the word [like] it doesn’t say “United States” on the American flag, but everyone knows visually what that means… I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we’re a people — a tribe, if you will — and flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate that we have that kind of symbol.

On being at the right place at the right time — a fruitful intersection of culture, conviction, and craft:

I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco [and] I knew how to sew — I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the rainbow flag, because up until then we had the pink triangle — the pink triangle came from the Nazis [and] was the symbol that they would use to still label us, but it came from such a horrible place of murder and Holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful — something from us, and the rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in the sense of our race, our gender, all of those things, our ages… Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky…

[…]

Because I was in San Francisco in the early seventies [knowing how to sow] translated into being the guy that would make banners for protest marches… and that became … my role in the movement. My craft … became my activism.

On how the rainbow flag came to telegraph the most important message Harvey Milk championed for a community that had remained invisible for most of modern history:

Harvey Milk … carried a really great message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out… That was the single most important thing — our job, as gay people, was to come out, be visible, to live in the truth… to get out of the lie. And a flag really fit that mission — because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility.

On being very deliberate about the birthplace of the flag and how this inclusive intention has since been reflected in the universal language the flag carried around the world:

The United Nations Plaza wasn’t an accident. That was very deliberate — because, even in those days, [our] vision was that we’re a global struggle, this is a global human rights issue.

[…]

Much has changed for some [but] as a global vision, we’re way far from that. We’re still dealing with huge, massive resistance — even here, in our own country; even here, in our own city; in our own families… What the rainbow has given [gay people] is a thing that kind of connects us. I [travel] and I see a rainbow flag and I think … that’s a kindred spirit or it’s a safe place to go… It’s sort of a language onto itself… The beauty of it is the way that’s connected us, and that’s the wonder of it.

See more of Baker’s work — including a series of limited-edition handmade rainbow flags — on his site. Complement this milestone for design and human rights with the illustrated biography of Harvey Milk, the the greatest LGBT children’s books, and these vintage photos of the first-ever Pride parades.

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20 MAY, 2015

Anne Sexton’s Sensual Love Poem “Song for a Lady,” in an Animation Inspired by Oliver Sacks

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“So many doors open when you are present with an angle.”

“It is through [the] invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her sublime meditation on the art of the possible. Nothing gashes through reality more invisibly yet powerfully than love and nothing fills that rapturous rip more wholly than Anne Sexton’s 1969 volume Love Poems (public library) — a remarkable collection Sexton described as “a celebration of touch… physical and emotional touch,” published two years after she received the Pulitzer Prize.

In our second collaboration following a series of visual haikus based on Denise Levertov’s poetry, I asked the multidimensionally talented and thoughtful Montreal-based artist and musician Ohara Hale to bring to life my reading of Sexton’s “Song for a Lady” — one of the most bewitching and beautiful poems in the volume, and in any volume by any poet, celebrating the sensual love between two women.

Hale’s resulting animation, for which she composed an original score, is quite like poetry in that it distills the essence of a thing through an exquisite economy of form, using only line and perspective to channel an immensity of meaning.

SONG FOR A LADY

On the day of breasts and small hips
the window pocked with bad rain,
rain coming on like a minister,
we coupled, so sane and insane.
We lay like spoons while the sinister
rain dropped like flies on our lips
and our glad eyes and our small hips.

“The room is so cold with rain,” you said
and you, feminine you, with your flower
said novenas to my ankles and elbows.
You are a national product and power.
Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear wooly rose,
even a notary would notarize our bed
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

Hale’s concept, predicated on the mesmerism of angles, was inspired by legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and his work on how the blind see the world. It sparked in her a fascination with how they construct a kaleidoscope of angularity, which led her to imagine how a dog is perceived not as a single dog but as a million dogs, each “seen” from a different angle. Many of the angles don’t resemble a “dog” in the pictorial sense but still contribute to the understanding of what a dog is.

This way of deconstructing the world into fragments and reconstructing them into a wholeness of understanding is so different from how we see via regular vision that, as Dr. Sacks so movingly wrote in The Mind’s Eye, the newly sighted are often utterly overwhelmed by having to process information in this new way and revert to “blindness,” closing their eyes and continuing to navigate the world scanning for angles.

Hale explains how this fascinating phenomenon planted the seed for her Sexton animation:

I love the idea of an unrecognized shape being called a “dog.” It doesn’t look like a dog, but it is a dog. If you look close enough you might see more than what you assume is in front of you.

Each frame is a piece of artwork to me. My favorite frames are the ones that look nothing like the object at hand, yet it is the object.

In this animation, we are looking at each angle of a swan, slowly. Sometimes, you may not recognize it at all; sometimes, you may. The lines are true and present and simple — inviting the viewer to appreciate each frame as its very own piece of art; to sit with it.

The swan, of course, is the object of this love poem. To love something is to truly love every angle, inside and out — the attractive and the unattractive, the familiar and the unfamiliar. To love something fully is to appreciate and understand each angle.

To me, this animation is an example of love, an experience of love, a viewpoint of love. So many doors open when you are present with an angle.

Like a poet, moving from the particular to the universal, Hale zooms out into a wider perspective on how our intimacy with all angles helps us swing open the doors of perception. She adds:

Life is made of many angles. It is important to investigate as many angles as you can. Perspectives. This is true in the physical world as it in the mental and spiritual world, too — true to all angles of existence.

If we approach life with this type of eyes, we can widen our perspective and see more: The more you can understand, the more you can love, the more compassion you have, and in a world of compassion, will you find peace. Suddenly, you find in the palm of your hand the entire universe — exactly where it has always been.

See more of Hale’s multidisciplinary magic here and inhale Sexton’s Love Poems in its full twenty-five-piece splendor, then re-appreciate how Dr. Sacks’s lifetime of compassionate curiosity forever changed our understanding of the human mind.

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18 MAY, 2015

Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

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A touching celebration of the “intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” visionary neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning maps the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches if City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks's official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Nowhere does Dr. Sacks’s grace shine most luminously than in the disarming vulnerability — sometimes pensive, often poignant, always profound — with which this great seer discusses the heartbreak of not being seen himself, especially when it comes to the most intimate frontier of the human psyche. He recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.

“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses. In fact, his mother, a female surgeon and anatomist at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a trailblazer for women in science — so much so that his father would jokingly refer to himself as “the husband of the eminent gynecologist Elsie Landau.” And yet even here, Dr. Sacks is able to transcend the personal devastation and perform the great act of empathic inquiry that became the raw material of his work — a dedication to considering the complex reality of another, very different mind:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.

And herein blooms a vibrant example of the very thing that makes the book so extraordinary — the elegance with which Dr. Sacks bridges the observations of the mind with the tribulations of the heart:

My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind. But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

That paralyzing inhibition followed him into university, but because guilt is a judgment of reason and the heart has its own emotive will, he eventually found himself falling in love for the first time — in spite of himself, in spite of his mother’s anguishing admonition, in spite of his brother’s well-meaning but woefully misguided effort to alleviate his sexual shyness by introducing him to a kindly French prostitute, who sensed young Oliver’s predicament and instead had “a nice cup of tea” with him.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

At Oxford, he met a young fellow named Richard Selig — a Rhodes scholar of enormous “vitality and love of life,” who “bore himself like a lion.” Dr. Sacks recounts those first flutterings of love:

We got talking; I suspect that it was he who started a conversation, for I was always too shy to initiate any contact and his great beauty made me even shyer… His knowledge of the world was far greater than mine, even given the disparity of age (he was twenty-four; I was twenty), far greater than that of most undergraduates who had gone straight from school to university with no experience of real life in between. He found something interesting in me, and we soon became friends — and more, for I fell in love with him. It was the first time in my life I had fallen in love. I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return.

[…]

We would go on long walks together, talking about poetry and science. Richard loved to hear me wax enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, and I lost my shyness when I did so. While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother’s words about “abomination” had made me feel that I must not say what I was. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.

But just as young Oliver was making peace with the fact that he and Richard will only ever be friends — lifelong friends, perhaps — life took one of its cruel turns. One day, Richard showed up in Oliver’s room, concerned about a lump in his groin and asked his friend — since he was a medical student — to take a look. Oliver’s fears were confirmed — it was a malignant tumor. Richard was told he had no more than two years to live, and he never spoke to Oliver again. “I was the first to recognize the deadly import of his tumor,” Dr. Sacks writes with wistfulness so palpably and heartbreakingly unmitigated by the lapse of six decades, “and perhaps he saw me now as a sort of messenger or symbol of death.”

He was so devastated that his studies began to suffer and his parents decided it was best for him to take a leave from Oxford and spend some time in “a friendly and supportive community with hard physical work from dawn till dusk” — so, in 1955, he joined a kibbutz. The experience was transformative in not just the intended ways:

I had gone to the kibbutz as a pallid, unfit 250 pounds, but when I left it three months later, I had lost nearly 60 pounds and, in some deep sense, felt more at home in my own body.

Oliver Sacks in Greenwich Village in 1961, on his new BMW R60 (Photograph: Douglas White)

This was the start of Dr. Sacks’s love affair with the world of physique and strength training — a deeply personal proto-demonstration of something he’d later come to demonstrate as a pioneering neurologist: that the mind is indivisible from the body. In the years that followed, as he returned to clinical work, he also began weight training with a clinician’s systematic rigor. Eventually, he sliced through the country on the back of his beloved motorbike, armed with a camera and a newfound love for landscape photography — this, it bears repeating, is a man of ample talents — and made his way to Venice’s famous Muscle Beach. There, he came to be known as Dr. Squat for squatting with a gobsmacking 600 pounds — a feat by which he set the California state record in 1961. (Having done bodybuilding myself in a past life, my admiration for Dr. Sacks doubled.)

Dr. Squat setting the California state record in 1961

Eventually, Dr. Squat traded in his bike leathers and weightlifting belt for the white coat of Dr. Sacks. He fell in love again with a young man named Mel, only to have his heart broken by Mel’s conflicted rejection:

We enjoyed each other’s company for a year — the year of my internship at Mount Zion. We would go on weekend motorbike rides together, camping out, swimming in ponds and lakes, and sometimes wrestling together. There was an erotic frisson here for me, and perhaps for Mel too. Erotic with the urgent opposition of our bodies, though there was no explicit sexual element, nor would an observer have thought we were anything more than a couple of young men wrestling together. Both of us were proud of our washboard abdominals and would do sets of sit-ups, a hundred or more at a time. Mel would sit astride me, punching me playfully in the stomach with each sit-up, and I would do the same with him.

This I found sexually exciting, and I think he did too; Mel was always saying, “Let’s wrestle,” “Let’s do abs,” though it was not a purposively sexual act. We could work our abdominals or wrestle and get pleasure from it, at one and the same time. So long as things went no further.

I felt Mel’s fragility, his not fully conscious, lurking fear of sexual contact with another man, but also the special feeling he had for me, which, I dared to think, might transcend these fears. I realized I would have to go very gently.

But like those of us who have experienced the devastating disappointment of failing to dissolve another’s private conflictedness by the sheer force of love, Dr. Sacks discovered that all the gentleness in the world was hapless against the hard edges of Mel’s inner inhibitions. When the erotic and romantic tension between them became too much to bear, Mel left, leaving behind the cold ashes of a could-have-been. Its unlived potentiality — like all great unrealized longings — reveals itself as scar tissue of the soul as Dr. Sacks looks back a lifetime later:

I had had dreams, in our “honeymoon” period, that we would spend our lives together, even into a happy old age; I was all of twenty-eight at the time. Now I am eighty, trying to reconstruct an autobiography of sorts. I find myself thinking of Mel, of us together, in those early, lyrical, innocent days, wondering what happened to him, whether he is still alive… I wonder if he will read what I have just written and think more kindly of our ardent, young, very confused selves.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

The heartbreak of this almost-romance catapulted Dr. Sacks into a harrowing bout of amphetamine addiction, which he barely survived. After a couple of other short-lived infatuations, he entered a somewhat undeliberate period of celibacy that would last nearly four decades. What he didn’t find in romantic love he found in his work with patients — a profound sense of purpose and a deep love for how his work touched human lives. He writes:

It was crucial for me to find something with meaning, and this, for me, was seeing patients… I found my patients fascinating, and I cared for them. I started to taste my own clinical and therapeutic powers and, above all, the sense of autonomy and responsibility which I had been denied when I was still a resident in training.

Over the decades that followed, that fusion of fascination and love propelled Dr. Sacks into becoming the most influential neurologist of our time, irrevocably changing our understanding of the human mind and how it shapes the spirit. And because life has a way of dancing with its own strangeness, it was through the love of his work that Dr. Sacks finally found the love of his life. (As some wise friends have memorably advised, “If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.”) Dr. Sacks writes:

Shortly after my seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I met someone I liked. Billy, a writer, had just moved from San Francisco to New York, and we began having dinners together. Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us, perhaps without fully realizing its depth. Only in December of 2009, still recuperating from knee and back surgeries and racked with pain, did I realize how deep it was. Billy was going to Seattle to spend Christmas with his family, and just before he went, he came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, “I have conceived a deep love for you.” I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.

[…]

There was an intense emotionality at this time: music I loved, or the long golden sunlight of late afternoon, would set me weeping. I was not sure what I was weeping for, but I would feel an intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

On the Move, the dedication page of which reads simply “for Billy,” is unsynthesizably transcendent in its totality — so immensely rewarding, so rich in private human truth and shared human wisdom, that compressing it into anything less than the full 416 pages is an injustice. As Dr. Sacks bids the world adieu, he leaves us with this miracle of a book — the ultimate gift of “love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

Photographs courtesy of Oliver Sacks; special thanks to Kate Edgar

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