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cost of family

Economizing relations, proximity and in some ways healthcare.


Walking to the Copan to have a tedious phonecall with my mother. It involves a lot of things: I find that I regularly hold back what I let my mom know about my life — be it in NYC or São Paulo — and that I must work a bit to know what is going on back home in Tennessee. To ask the right questions.


I pronounce the lifestyle she doesn’t approve of in diplomatic tones, but pronounce it nonetheless. She knows that I’m gay, HIV+, and have a longterm partner named George. Last week I told her we were considering going to a family wedding together and asked her for some financial help. One of the two subjects seemingly had her avoiding my calls. I need some help because I will soon reach the end of my ‘permanent’ visa, which lasts only five years at a time. I will have to make a choice about staying in Brasil or moving to NYC. I am overwhelmed by the cost of moving back to NYC as a couple. Staying fully in Brasil doesn’t seem to add up either. I must decide where to be a majority of the time before reapplying for a visa to Brasil. Tax resident or tourist?


I receive my HIV meds in Brasil. This is also a factor. I am part of a research study on cases caught early for which the patient receives early treatment. I can change to NYC but it requires work. They say that we will one day receive quarterly intramuscular shots rather than the nightly pills. I have what I would describe as a phobia for needles, but such futuristic convenience make travel, doctors appointments, access to medication and visa processes all seem more manageable.


I pass a gypsy on Rua Abolição. Not a Roma, but someone who likely tells fortunes and reads Tarots. She is either African or Afro Brasileira. I pass between her and an open door that I know to be the home of some African men … or is that the next door they were entering? She has purple tresses woven into her natural braids and a scarf. I turn back to see if her gaze is still trained on me and our eyes meet again. It’s a friendly inviting look … almost recognition. I think I met this diviner once 18 years ago on a small street in Jerusalem. She did not hurt me either time, yet I instinctually confirm that I have the star and figa together … on my person.


George thinks I have a double personality and I try to tell him that my energy is still uneven from being fired the end of last year. I am both mad and trying to get past it. This may look like two different faces. It may conjure things unexpected from me. I once heard about a well-funded NYC ‘society’ — a large organization — downsizing. The IT person who was also being ‘downsized’ decided to post the salaries of top executives on the intranet before leaving … maybe they’d even gotten raises as others were being fired. I was ‘laid off’ in a way that helps me understand why the IT person needed to do that.


I go up and down the Copan elevator twice — before and after the call with mom. Copan has six ‘blocks’ and is 30 stories; the etiquette is to speak to other riders. The first time up I offer typical Brasilien salutations, yet the second time I attempt the closed eye trick of a few days before. It can work in a fast elevator because truly the other person or I will be gone in a matter of seconds, the encounter ends, and that dayglow ‘ray of light’ is cut off by the elevator door before it ever takes hold.


These connections or rays of light may as well bear dollar signs when they attach us to our family members and loved ones. I worry that my mom might offer the financial support but ask me to forego the wedding. She does not do that. I know how to preempt this. The call is tedious.


My parents grew up poor. They are not poor now. They are sweat-of-the-brow, protestant work ethical, country folks. I get my red beard from my dad who is a total ginger. He has the generalized temper of redheads. He made his way with that energy. I remember how hard he worked to build his own farm and tool and die business. He continues to mellow. I do not give up on communicating with him.


As much as we’ve argued and fought, I deeply respect what they’ve achieved. My dad is a farmer. He has a machine shop that my brother now runs. My mom and brother’s wife do the books. They rely greatly on the women to manage their agrarian, work-a-day worlds. I rely on my mother in other ways. I am a mama’s boy.


I ask her sometimes if we were poor growing up. I remember my dad asking the Pizza Hut waitress for the leftover pizza on the next table ‘for our dogs’. We ate it for dinner. I remember my mom storing the ‘received’ business checks in the dishwasher and once forgetting them while running the dishes. She and my dad fought so hard over what would be weeks or months of waiting for checks to be reissued. I remember my dad cancelling the insurance on his truck right after he paid it off. I remember how strong and crestfallen he was when it was stolen from the church parking lot one Sunday night. I remember that we wore the new shoes from the past school year over the following summer to work and play. I hated having to wear cowboy boots — that year’s number — with my cut-off shorts. I did not like the look. I once interviewed my great grandmother, Earline about the Depression and not having electricity at home. Her husband, a preacher begat my grandfather, Loyd Lanier. My father is the third from the oldest of six children. There was a seventh who did not survive birth. My grandfather was ill-tempered and reclusive by the time I knew him. There were stories of his violence. Alcohol and a girlfriend in another city where he lived during the work week.


So while speaking about money is somehow impolite, my family has accrued what I will call ‘farm wealth’. They are landed. My dad has slowly — over decades — amassed the ravines and multiple ‘back 40s’ that amount to a significant lip of the Cumberland Plateau. Hundreds of acres. They connect fields he plants with soybeans or corn or hay or with which he barters a percentage from another farmer who will work a plot for the season. These are rugged territories that my father prefers to survey on horseback. He’s had a couple bad accidents that require future caution however. They are dotted with the carcasses of old cars and moonshine stills. When the family feels overwhelmed for any major reason, there is talk of an auction that would liquidate this ‘farm wealth’. Because I find the ‘aution’ device (for scaling down) to be very unlikely while my father is alive, I may imagine the dismantling of his estate in a variety of scenarios. They include or involve me in ways that do not feel strained. My parents are generous and disciplined. I will ask for help because we are family and we are able to help one another despite our differences.

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