This post is the tenth in a series ofÂ Spilled MilkÂ columns by Emmy Award-winning writer and producerÂ William Lucas WalkerÂ that chronicle his journey through parenthood.Â Spilled Milk,Â which originates inÂ The Huffington Post, appears on these pages every Saturday.
Did you know September was Grandparents Month? Neither did I. And now it’s over, so if you have kids in the house and parents who are breathing, you blew it big time.
God will smite you, as he does nonobservant Jews and sex fetish bloggers. Unless you do something about it, pronto. I suggest you follow my lead, drop what you’re doing, and get those kids on the phone with Granny. Now. Even if she’s dead. It may confuse the kids, but tell them she’s listening. Because if she’s anything like mine, she is.
If you yourself are lucky enough to still have living grandparents, you’re way younger than I am and I hate you. But not enough that I want to see you smited. Hitch up your skinny jeans and call them. Tell them that due to a glitch in the Mayan calendar, this year Grandparents Month has been extended through October.
Canny Nana’s won’t be fooled. Especially if they own a Mayan calendar. If you’re dealing with one of these, she may say she knows you’ve been busy in that sweet voice of hers, but trust me, your failure to contact her by midnight on September 30 means you’re out of the will. Here’s what you do: Apologize for your outrageous neglect, atone by asking what her doctor no longer allows in her diet, then Fed-Ex it to her before 2 p.m. In bulk. Godiva chocolates, bourbon, premium crack, whatever it is, just get it in the mail. It may not restore your full inheritance, but it’ll remind her why she prefers you to her kids. And that’s worth something.
Unless they’ve had the misfortune of grand-spawning the Antichrist, I’m told that becoming a grandparent is one of the great gifts of later life. It wasn’t, however, a concept Kelly and I had ever given much thought to, especially in the early, heady days of our relationship, pre-kids. Until we met a couple of strangers. On a train.
I love presents, and on our very first Christmas together, two months after we began dating, Kelly gave me hands-down the best one I’ve ever received, saving it for last. He offered a small box. Removing the lid, I found the inside lined with cotton and dotted on either side with tiny triangles cut from green construction paper. Laying across the cotton, among the triangles were two tiny, parallel pieces of wire. I was mystified, but strove for diplomacy.
“I love it.” Then, “Give me a clue.”
“It’s a diorama.”
“A diorama. Right. I can see that.” An awkward beat.
“I’m granting your wish,” he said.
I stared at the two wires. “For… braces?”
“Okay, so art’s not my strong point,” his voice growing a tad impatient. “The wires are supposed to represent a railroad track.” He waited for me to get it.
“Right, of course… And the green triangles?”
“Trees. They’re trees, in a snowy forest.”
“Of course. Snow. The cotton.”
“Don’t you remember when you gave me that questionnaire before our first date and one of the questions was what’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do but never have, and I told you I would answer all the questions if you answered them too, and we swapped?”
It’s true. I gave him a questionnaire before our first date. I was in the middle of trying to make a baby. With my second egg donor and second surrogate. As a single man in his forties focused on becoming a father before it was too late, I had to stay on my game. I didn’t have time for a fly in the ointment, even if he was a hot fly. I needed answers.
“Do you remember what your one thing was? The thing you always wanted to do but never had?” I looked down at the not-braces-but-railroad-track wires and finally it all clicked together in my lumpy brain.
“We’re going on an overnight TRAIN TRIP??!!”
I recall jumping up and down, ornaments falling off the Christmas tree, me not caring, Kelly cleaning up the mess with a DustBuster, then me jumping up and down some more.
From the moment I saw Alfred Hitchcock’sÂ North by NorthwestÂ on TV as a child, I’d found the whole idea of overnight train travel ridiculously adventurous and romantic: hideaway bunk beds, white-uniformed porters, linen-draped dining cars, and all that scenery rocketing by in the background to the orchestrations of a tense, lush score by Bernard Herrmann. Ever since, I’d wantedÂ that.
Kelly gave it to me. A month later — minus the shared cigarettes, heterosexuality, mistaken identity plot and being shot at by Martin Landau while shimmying down Mount Rushmore on Lincoln’s nose — we were living theÂ North by NorthwestÂ dream. Kelly had booked us passage from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, meaning I’d be seeing the Pacific Northwest for the first time and while there, meeting most of his family.
We departed from L.A.’s legendary Union Station in the late morning and after unpacking in our room, spent our first hours in the parlor car, unprepared for the flabbergasting view as we rounded a bend near Santa Barbara and found ourselves traveling north on the rim of the Pacific Ocean — vast, gleaming and perfect — spilling through every window like a glorious, impossible mirage, for nearly three hours.
The next morning, Kelly’s cotton-and-construction-paper diorama sprang to life as we woke to find ourselves hurtling through a snow-covered forest in Northern California. I didn’t need a Bernard Herrmann score. I was in train heaven.
I loved our five days in Portland and getting to know Kelly’s family, especially his mom, Donna, and her mom, Kelly’s Grandma A. A tiny Italian spark plug, it was clear that Grandma A had been smitten with him since the day Donna and Kelly’s dad had adopted him and brought him home as an infant. It was soon clear that if Kelly loved me, that was all Grandma A needed. Though they’d never discussed his private life, she embraced me from that first meeting as if I were her own grandchild and continued to do so until her death six years later.
Though we had intended to fly back to Los Angeles, the Coast Starlight adventure had been so magical we cancelled our flight and decided to make our return trip by train as well.
The dining car mandated four to a table, so that night our waiter seated us across from another couple for dinner. Roughly my parents’ ages, we liked them immediately. Witty, casually glamorous and fun, they could have been Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint a few decades after the fadeout ofÂ North by Northwest.
Over a bottle of wine we learned of how they’d met and fallen in love as expats in Paris shortly after World War II. Arthur was finishing up medical school there and Carol was studying art. Like both our parents, they had raised four children, now adults.
They also, it turned out, happened to be pioneers of a movement we’d never heard of.
Back in the 1970s, in his practice as a child psychiatrist, Arthur had begun to notice the power in the unique bond shared by grandparents and grandchildren. Especially, the more time they spent together and interacted, how restorative and reparative that bond could be for both parties.
In the years that followed, Arthur and Carol virtually founded the movement for grandparents’ rights in the United States, establishing their watershedÂ Foundation for GrandparentingÂ and lobbying for grandparent visitation legislation. Carol proudly told us the exact date we could next catch her handsome husband on theÂ TodayÂ show, for which he was a regular contributor, encouraging grandparents to become a more regular, vital part of their grandchildren’s lives. To this end, they’d even founded a summer camp where grandparents and grandchildren could spend weeks in the wilderness making lanyards and contracting poison ivy together.
We never met a couple like them. They were Cary and Eva Marie on a mission for good. We were riveted.
As it turned out, they’d never met a couple quite like us either.
After Arthur excused himself, Carol asked how Kelly and I had met and how we’d come to be on the train. We explained that in addition to meeting Kelly’s family, we were also taking some R&R to help us recover from the miscarriage our surrogate had suffered the month before.
“You… excuse me, what? Miscarriage… surrogate? Could you start over?” At this point Arthur returned and said, “What’d I miss?”
Carol suggested we order another — large — bottle of wine as Kelly and I brought them up-to-date on our story. Despite their vast experience with parents, children and grandchildren, they’d never heard of, much less met, two men who wanted to become parents together.
“My God,” said Arthur, “you two are pioneering yourÂ ownÂ field.”
And I guess from where they sat, as a two-weenie couple striving to have kids, we sort of were. We’d just never thought about it that way. Where they saw two men boldly going where no gays had gone before, we saw ourselves more simply as a couple of guys who wanted a family.
Yes, we needed some help to make that happen, but lucky for us, for the first time in the history of, well… ever, an unprecedented confluence of factors — shifting social mores, redrawn legal boundaries, revisions in adoption codes and advances in reproductive technology — had made a once impossible dream… not.
“You two realize you’re at the forefront of a whole new frontier in grandparenting, don’t you?” asked Arthur, growing visibly excited.
We didn’t. “You probably haven’t even thought about it in these terms, but you two are about to give your parents the greatest gift imaginable — the resurrection of their grandchildren. What a mitzvah.”
And it has been. We stayed in touch with Arthur and Carol. More than that, we became friends and have stayed friends. A year after meeting on the train, soon after Elizabeth was born, they arrived bearing gifts, including a couple of the groundbreaking books Arthur had written on grandparenting. As a thank you, Elizabeth graced them, and us, with her very first smile.
That afternoon, we confided in Arthur and Carol some of our fears. Fears that our parents might treat our daughter differently than their other grandchildren or not know how to treat her at all.
Arthur tried to allay our concerns by quoting the Foundation for Grandparenting mantra: “Every time a child is born, a grandparent is born.”
But before he could finish, Carol cut him short, something I’d never seen before.
Bill. Kelly. I understand your fears. What you’ve done is new. Some people will view it as radical, maybe even wrong. Of course your parents are afraid. Nothing in their lives or experience could have prepared them for this. They’re probably terrified. That’s their job. They mightÂ notÂ know what to tell their friends or how to react at first. But don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s out of concern for what people might think of them. If anything, it’s coming from their fear of how the world might treatÂ you. Because guess what? You’re still their child, and will be until the day they die. What you boys need to stay focused on is what’s truly radical here. You’ve created a life; you’ve given your parents agrandchild, a new life to share they never dreamed possible. You want to see real magic? Watch your parents’ faces the moment you place this baby girl in their arms. Trust me, she’s all the strength they’ll ever need. Arthur and I brought champagne. Shall we open it?
Of course she was right. How could she not be? She was Eva Marie Saint, for Chrissakes, in full grandparent-warrior mode. They were both right. The moment we placed our babies into the arms of our parents for the very first time, we did witness magic — the birth of six grandparents.
Over the past twelve years, our children’s Grandpops and Grandma Shirley, Mimi and Pop, and Nana and Peter have not only stepped up to the plate, they’ve each become deeply intwined in the lives of their unexpected grandchildren, who adore them all.
Vastly different as people, they come from starkly different backgrounds and lead widely divergent lives. A poll-taker might slot their grandparenting styles into roughly three distinct categories — Country, Country Club and Hippie — but the one commonality they share is the gift that makes them most valuable in the lives of our children:
By just being themselves, and paying attention and listening and seeing in ways that Kelly and I can’t — because we’reÂ parentsÂ — our folksÂ illuminateÂ our children. Observing from a distance, we have found ourselves constantly surprised — and grateful — as our parents introduce us to nooks and crannies of our kids that we never knew existed. In the playground of that bond shared only with a grandparent, the kids we imagine we know find ways of revealing themselves that they can’t with us, in the safety of a gaze we’re not yet wise enough to cast.
Kelly’s dad and stepmom (Grandpops and Grandma Shirley), for example, make sure our city children are fluent in such essential country pursuits as blackberry-picking, pie-baking, knitting, puzzle completion, zip-lining, TV poker and fish-gutting.
My parents (Mimi and Pop) strive to pass on our Southern heritage to their half-Yankee California grandbabes by making sure they know when to say “ma’am” and “sir” (always), how to butter a biscuit, paint in watercolor, write a thank-you note, grip a golf club and brandish a weapon of battle, whether it be a Confederate saber or a sterling silver shrimp fork.
Kelly’s gentle mom and her bearded, ponytailed boyfriend (Nana and Peter) have taken upon themselves to school our kids in appreciating such life essentials as the Grateful Dead, healing crystals, medicinal herbs and tie-dye clothing, as well as understanding the art of fire dancing and correctly deciphering the meaning of a complex upper-arm tattoo.
I defy any private school to provide a more well-rounded education.
We’ve come to adore the Grands even more watching from a distance as they adore our children in their own distinct ways. Which is why, over a three-week period from mid-August to early September, we opted for total immersion and visited all three grandmothers’ houses.
This was no over-the-river-and-through-the-woods affair. As we always strive to keep things difficult, Kelly plotted an itinerary that criss-crossed America twice and spanned nearly 9,000 miles. Our pilgrimage took us us from L.A. to South Carolina, then back to L.A., up the coast to Oregon, back down again to L.A., and back across the country again to ensure that my beautiful mother would be surrounded by as many grandchildren as possible on her 85th birthday. We may have depleted our frequent flyer account, but by the time we arrived back home, there was a message on our phone from American Airlines letting us know we had qualified for permanent resident status at Dallas-Fort Worth’s Terminal B.
The grandparents who made it worth every mile:
Grandma Shirley, for sensing our daughter’s need for independence and teaching her to drive their John Deere riding lawnmower around the property all by herself, every day, for as long as she wanted, understanding exactly how powerful it would make her feel.
Grandpops, who by trade turns complex blueprints into the product patterns carved in wood that provide the shape to bottle of shampoo, for diverting the tools of his shop to expertly craft whimsical toy daggers and swords for Ninja James. Then taking him fishing in the country, explaining why the small ones get thrown back and others — even after you’ve cut off their heads — continue to blink. (“Their nerves ain’t done yet. Or maybe they just want to keep and eye on you.”)
Mimi, for wanting to recreate — 70 years later — the time she’d spent as a girl with her own grandmother. Time spent simply, swimming, cooking and shopping for clothes. An opportunity my mother used to both praise and nurture her granddaughter’s taste and evolving sense of style. I later caught them watchingJulie and Julia, and smiled as I heard my mom encourage my daughter not to let the fact that she’s a child fool anyone into thinkingÂ she’sÂ not capable of cooking her way through Julia Child.
Pop, for picking up on Elizabeth’s budding interest in science and medicine, and relaying experiences from his fifty years as a family doctor between intense nightly bouts of double solitaire. And sensing she’s restless and taking her to feed the ducks. And reminding me — as he parcels out a lifetime of wisdom to the daughter he never had — why I wanted to become a dad in the first place.
Nana, who brings back pictures and stories and gifts from her months-long backpacking journeys around the globe with Peter. Fingering handmade toys that run on imagination rather computer chips, our kids drink in the tales of their grandmother the nomad and through her meet children and villagers, farmers and artisans in places like India and Mexico and China. Places they’ll dream about tonight.
Peter, who spotted our son, unable to take his eyes off an African drum, and thought to place it in his hands. And who that night, in the raging glow of a campfire, invited our 6-year-old to join the grownup’s drum circle. Showing us a boy we’d never seen before, shed of his lifelong shy streak, his face intense and aglow, pounding hisÂ djembeÂ to the rhythm of the flames, as if he’d been born to it.
So yes, this year we forgot that September was Grandparents Month. I imagine Arthur and Carol will be pissed, because I’m pretty sure they invented it. But if it’s any consolation, even though we didn’t know it at the time, our children were with their grandmother on Grandparents Day, because as luck would have it, this year it happened to fall on September 9, Mimi’s 85th birthday. Even on the Mayan calendar. And that’s got to count for something.
Despite the gifts they’ve collectively given our children, four of the six grandparents have never met. Impediments of geography, circumstance and health mostly like dictate that they never will. Last month, pondering this as Kelly, our kids and I sat together in the dining car of the Coast Starlight last August, drinking in the wonder of the Pacific Ocean, my eye wanders to an empty table.
I imagine two older couples, waiting to be seated. A waiter leads them to a table and they introduce themselves. It’s winter, breakfast time. The strangers exchange polite chitchat. Neither couple has ever taken the overnight train before. They should have, says the taller woman. There’s so much of America we’ve never seen. Over breakfast, the couples warm to each other over stories of their grandchildren, marveling at the coincidence that they each have a pair the same age, living in Los Angeles. Too far away, they agree, as silence settles over the table.
They glance out the window at as the train hurtles through a snow-covered forest, taking in its serene beauty. And I wonder if they’ll ever put it together, realizing that the view they share was once nothing more than a few dozen triangles of green construction paper, a box of cotton and two tiny strands of wire.
William Lucas Walker is an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer whose television credits include Frasier, Will & Grace and Roseanne. He co-created the critically-acclaimed Showtime comedy The Chris Isaak Show. Bill and his husband Kelly are the parents of Elizabeth and James, born in 2001 and 2005. The children were gratified by the legal marriage of their parents in 2008, an event that rescued them from a life of ruinous bastardry.
Spilled Milk chronicles Bill’s misadventures in Daddyland. The first recurring humor column by a gay parent to appear in a mainstream American publication, Spilled Milk has regularly landed on the front page of The Huffington Post.
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On World AIDS Day, DOJ Says Tennessee Law Discriminates Against Those With HIV
The Department of Justice celebrated World AIDS Day by calling out a Tennessee law that discriminates against people with HIV.
The DOJ released a report Friday that the state’s aggravated prostitution law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. A person arrested under the aggravated prostitution law is normally changed with a misdemeanor, and faces up to six months in prison and a $500 fine. However, if the person arrested has HIV, the crime becomes a felony, and if they’re convicted, they would face between three and 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is outdated, has no basis in science, discourages testing and further marginalizes people living with HIV,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “People living with HIV should not be treated as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives solely because of their HIV status. The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination.”
The law was originally passed in 1991. It classifies HIV-positive sex workers as violent sex offenders, according to WKRN-TV. This means that in addition to the sentence, those convicted are put on the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry, usually for the rest of their lives.
The DOJ advised the state—and particularly, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, which enforces the statute most frequently, the department says—to stop enforcing the law. It also calls on the state to repeal the law and remove anyone from the registry when aggravated prostitution is the only offense. If this doesn’t happen, Tennessee could face a lawsuit.
Tennessee isn’t the only state to have laws applying to only those living with HIV. In 1988, Michigan passed a law requiring those with HIV to disclose their status before sex, according to WLNS-TV. The law is still on the books, but was updated in 2019 to lift the requirement if the HIV-positive person has an undetectable viral load. The law now also requires proof that the person set out to transmit HIV.
Laws like these can work against public health efforts, according to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH says these types of laws can make people less likely to be tested for HIV, as people cannot be punished if they didn’t know their status. In addition, critics say, the laws can be used to further discriminate. A Canadian study found a disproportionate number of Black men had been charged under HIV exposure laws.
World AIDS Day was first launched in 1988 by the World Health Organization and the United Nations to highlight awareness of the then-relatively new disease. The theme of the 2023 World AIDS Day is “Let Communities Lead,” calling on community leaders to end the AIDS epidemic.
Featured image by UNIS Vienna/Flickr via Creative Commons License.
John Fetterman Says Bob Menendez ‘Senator for Egypt,’ Should Be Expelled Next
Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) called Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) a “senator for Egypt,” and said he needed to be expelled from Congress, much like the now-former Representative George Santos.
Fetterman appeared on The View on Friday. The live broadcast aired as Santos had been kicked out of the House. When host Joy Behar asked what he thought of the vote, Fetterman immediately replied, “I’m not surprised.”
“If you are going to expel Santos, how can you allow somebody like Menendez to remain in the Senate? And, you know, Santos’ kind of lies were almost, you know, funny,” Fetterman said. “Menendez, I think is really a senator for Egypt, you know, not New Jersey. So I really think he needs to go.”
Host Sunny Hostin then asked if Fetterman was uncomfortable with expelling Menendez, as, like with Santos, he had only been indicted, not convicted.
“He has the right for his day in court and all of it, but he doesn’t have the right to to have those kinds of votes and things. That’s not a right,” he said. “I think we need to make that kind of decision to send him out.”
This September, Menendez was indicted on corruption charges. He is accused of accepting bribes of cash, gold and a car, as well as giving “highly sensitive” information about U.S. Embassy staffers in Cairo to the Egyptian government, according to USA Today. Menendez was forced to step down as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was replaced by Ben Cardin, Maryland’s Democratic senator.
Menendez denied wrongdoing, and has refused to resign, despite many calls to do so from both Democrats and Republicans.
“For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” Menendez said in a statement following his indictment. “Since this investigation was leaked nearly a year ago, there has been an active smear campaign of anonymous sources and innuendos to create an air of impropriety where none exists.”
This is not Menendez’s first brush with the law. Menendez was indicted in 2015 on federal corruption charges. He was accused of helping Salomon Melgen, one of Menendez’s campaign contributors, by intervening in a dispute with federal regulators and helping Melgen get a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.
In 2017, Menendez’s trial ended with a hung jury, and the Department of Justice declined to retry the case, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Menendez denied all wrongdoing.
House Votes to Boot George Santos 311-114
Representative George Santos (R-NY) has been expelled from Congress following a 311-114 vote; two House members voted “present.”
The expulsion of Santos follows a debate on his fate on Thursday. The vote required a two-thirds majority, or 290 of the 435-seat chamber. This is Santos’ third vote of expulsion; last month, a vote failed with 31 Democrats voting against, according to The Hill.
While the vote was decisive, some notable Republicans voted to save Santos, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN).
“We’ve not whipped the vote and we wouldn’t,” Johnson told CNN Wednesday. “I trust that people will make that decision thoughtfully and in good faith. I personally have real reservations about doing this, I’m concerned about a precedent that may be set for that.”
Santos himself had harsh words for the House following the vote. Leaving the capitol building, he briefly spoke with reporters.
“The House spoke that’s their vote. They just set new dangerous precedent for themselves,” he told CNN. “Why would I want to stay here? To hell with this place.”
He then cut his time short, telling reporters, “You know what? As unofficially no longer a member of Congress, I no longer have to answer your questions.”
Santos also faces 23 federal charges, which include fraud, money laundering and misuse of campaign funds, according to CNN. He has pleaded not guilty. An Ethics Committee report found evidence that Santos used campaign funds for Botox and even an OnlyFans account.
On Thursday, Santos said he refused to resign because otherwise, “they win.”
“If I leave the bullies take place. This is bullying,” Santos said. “The reality of it is it’s all theater, theater for the cameras and theater for the microphones. Theater for the American people at the expense of the American people because no real work’s getting done.”
Santos also threatened to file a resolution to expel Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). Bowman pulled a fire alarm in September. Bowman pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge, and said it was an accident. He said he thought the fire alarm would open a locked door as he rushed to a vote. Bowman paid a $1,000 fine.
There have only been six total expulsions from the House, including Santos. Santos is the only Republican to ever be expelled from the House.
The previous expulsion was in 2002, when Representative James Traficant (D-OH) was expelled after a 420-1 vote. Traficant had been convicted on 10 counts of corruption-related crimes.
Before Traficant, Representative Michael “Ozzie” Myers (D-PA) was the first representative of the modern era to be expelled. Myers got the boot following his conviction for accepting bribes. Myers couldn’t keep out of trouble; in 2022, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison on charges of election fraud.
Prior to Myers, the only expulsions from the House were in 1861, at the start of the Civil War. Henry Cornelius Burnett (D-KY), John William Reid (D-MO) and John Bullock Clark (Whig-MO) were all expelled for joining the Confederacy.
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