“It suited Freud’s theory about the roots of homosexuality that the young Leonardo [da Vinci] should have spent his first five years living alone with his unmarried mother. In this formulation, the boy became the sole object of the erotic attachment that a child ordinarily shares with his father, a love made more intense in this case by having only the single focus.” — Sherwin B. Nuland, Leonardo da Vinci, Penguin, 2000.
When I visited the Vatican last summer, one odd corner room had a plaque that said, “Leonardo da Vinci,” and then listed some dates. One of the world’s most famous men hung out in that room for a while, tinkering for the pope. I was never much interested in Leonardo. I don’t like his paintings. They’re so syrupy. But I’ve read dozens of the “Penguin Life” biographies. They are all blessedly brief (150 pages or less) and pocket sized, and written by great writers, not necessarily the experts on that particular person. (Jane Smiley wrote Dickens’.)
In this section of the biography, I suddenly realized I had never considered Leonardo da Vinci’s sex life, and I was surprised by how much time other people had spent wondering about it. It’s not enough to know that famous people were sexual creatures. We have to know if they were gay or straight, freaky or boring in bed, who they loved, what they wanted. I don’t think those aspects of personality say much about a person. A little. Not much.
I’ve had a handful of students over the years tell me they were gay, and I thought the greatest gift I could give them was to show them that their gayness doesn’t interest me. It does inspire me to observe them more carefully, the same way I look out for a kid I know has a rough home life or a chronic medical problem. It makes me more ready to jump in and defend them, if it becomes necessary. Your parents and your friends and your church might freak out about your sexual orientation, but it shouldn’t change anything at school. (We’re working on that. Gay kids still get tortured at school and are far more likely to consider or commit suicide.)
I hope that our society opening up to various sexual orientations should mean that being straight or gay or repressed or promiscuous fades into the background of more important methods of self-definition. How do you see the world? How do you treat people? Much more interesting.
“Tonight I’m pushing everyone away. I did it all day but tonight I’m vicious about it. I’ve camped out by my favorite window and no amount of harmonica playing, rattle of dishes, laughter of voices from other rooms deep in this house can draw me out…. I don’t want to be walking around peeling my shirt off these days. I want deep layers of Canadian blankets and fire. Red eye of fire. And dogs. And cold cold nights.” — Sam Shepard, Motel Chronicles, City Lights, 1982.
I’m loving winter this year. (Now that’s perverted!) Shepard is actually talking about his discomfort with Indian summer. He’s on the opposite end of winter, the front cover, while we are plodding through the last chapter. I didn’t know anything about Sam Shepard. Ordered his book after reading about his new play that just opened.
It’s provoking like a black and white pop up book. Rough and serviceable and crafted. I’m saving some of it to finish reading when I drive across Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona.
The southwest is the part of America that suits me the least. I love the crankiness and snobbery of the east coast. I love the warm, scary friendliness of the south. I’ve been young and scantily clad in California, and vegetarian in the northwest. I even like acres of boring cornfields or long trays of wheat spread out like a giant blanket. What I don’t like is deserts. They scare me. They are too naked, and too colorless. There is nothing holy, lovely, or soothing to me about west Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico. It’s the bald patch of America.
If I take Sam Shepard with me, I might tolerate the southwest better. It’s a long way to the green joy of the San Antonio river. Although Shepard’s book is listed as “memoir,” really a mixture of poems and tidy prose pieces. Their birthplaces are listed: “Cedar City, Utah,” “Ozona, Texas,” “San Marcos, Texas.” If I can love winter this year, I might be able to make peace with miles of brown: dry dirt, power lines, gravel, and trees who made a wrong turn and decided to stick it out.