Category: family

Learning in the Backseat

Do you drive? If so, I imagine you remember your first driving lesson. Where I grew up in rural New York, one could get a driver’s permit at age 16. My birthday is dab smack in the middle of February, and I wasted no time getting behind the wheel. That first time though is memorable for lots of reasons. I write about that driving lesson and others in the current issue of The Porch magazine.

When I was 16 years old, two half-drunk men in a car more than twice my age taught me how to drive on a frozen lake. One of the men, my dad, Pete Toscano, had helped a widow in her distress by taking a 1950 Ford four-door sedan off her hands. Then he gave me this classic automobile as a birthday gift. The car looked like a small black and white tank and weighed about as much.

Extreme Conditions

One thing I learned on that frozen lake was how to drive in the most extreme weather conditions. Back in 2013 my man, Glen Retief, and I took a cross-continental road trip that included a harrowing ride over the Canadian Rockies in a snowstorm. My dad had passed away the year before, and I inherited his car. I imagined he would have been proud to see his son brave the storm without a hitch. Glen, who grew up in sunny South Africa, seemed genuinely terrified by the steep slippery road and in awe of my ability to stay on the road.

Pete, the Bread Man

My dad, Pete Toscano, with a trunk load of bread

In addition to learning all weather driving techniques, my dad taught me many other lessons in the car, most of which had very little to do with driving.

That was the first and last driving lesson with my dad. The rest were outsourced to Coach Elko who taught drivers’ ed. I still learned things from observing my dad in the driver’s seat. For instance, whenever he drove at night on our country roads, he always used his high beams. When he saw the glow of headlights ahead, he diligently dimmed them down. But God help the drivers who failed to dim their lights! My dad blasted them with a string of expletives. Then he flashed his high beams one time as a warning shot across the hood. If the oncoming driver did not relent and brazenly kept the high beams on, my dad flipped his high beams back on—a nighttime, road rage, middle finger.

Learning Empathy

In writing the reflection of my first driving lessons and the other lessons learned, I realized how much my dad taught me about empathy. It is an important part of my performance art to step into other people’s shoes. Just like my performance has been influenced by my dad’s kooky humor, his ability to empathize with others is also present.

You can read all of my piece, Driving Lessons, for free over at The Porch. If you are looking for a magazine that provides thoughtful discussion about difficult and beautiful things, consider subscribing to The Porch. You may also want to submit some of your own writing.

A Ridiculously Serious Look at Cancer

Cancer Sucks!

It is a proven scientific fact that cancer sucks. 9 out of 10 cancer patients surveyed will tell you that cancer sucks. It would have been 10 out of 10 but that last guy got too sick to respond to our survey. And while I have never had any form of cancer myself, I too can attest to the fact that cancer sucks. Both of my parents–Pete & Anita Toscano–had cancer before they died.

My Mom

My Mom, Anita Toscano

No doubt it was a crappy, painful, scary time all around. Yet in the midst of the most difficult moments, there were bits of humor to get us through. I come from a funny family. Even my mom’s announcement about her last wishes she delivered with her signature dry humor.

Don’t Triffle with Mom!

At that time we already knew she had lung cancer. We heard the doctor’s report, and knew it was bad. Still we did not fully grasp the finality of the diagnosis. This was terminal. Some of us still held out hope that chemo and kale juice and a prayer to any number of saints would provide the miraculous intervention needed to stave off the worst possible outcome–losing mom.

She sat us down around the kitchen table for a serious conversation. She announced, “I already spoke with Patrick.” Patrick was the funeral director. It was a small town so everyone knew everyone. “I already spoke to Patrick, and I told him about my plans.” We protested. “No mom.” “It’s too soon.” She gave us that look, that–don’t-triffle-with-me-look that always silenced us.

She continued, “I told Patrick what I want. When it’s my time, I don’t want a funeral. I don’t want a wake. Don’t lay out my body or have a mass. Just cremate me.” She paused, then took a drag on her cigarette. She used to only ever smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes and other name brands, but since the state of NY put so many taxes on cigarettes, she opted for cheaper generic brands. She continued, “Now if you want to have a memorial because you need that sort of thing, that’s fine–just leave me out of it!”

The Cocktail Party Memorial

tumblr_ltjg5cppAV1qhkbvso1_400We did have a memorial because we very much needed that sort of thing. It was a cocktail party with some of my mom’s signature dishes she served at Pete’s Pub, the bar and restaurant they owned for over 30 years. My sisters lovingly recreated the dishes. It was my mom’s last big party for family and friends.

Now almost 10 years later, cancer still sucks. A good friend of my husband, a women he knew from South Africa and who has become dear to me, is going through a shitty, sucky cancer hell right now. She reminds me a lot of my mom. No nonsense. Don’t give me the wacky cures. Leave God out of this. Don’t sugarcoat this mess.

She inspired me to share some cancer comedy from when my parents were sick. Comedy happens in many ways. One is when we can predict how people react because it happens so often and in the same predictable ways. Did you ever notice…

It was through answering people’s questions about my mom and then my dad that I first experienced what I call, Cancer Face and Cancer Talk and all those consistently obnoxious nervous questions that got repeated over and over. People mean well, no doubt, but still they can ask some of the most ridiculous things. So for my weekly YouTube video I present to you:

There is Something Funny About Cancer

Grief is Funny That Way

Pete, the Bread Man

Pete, my dad, the Bread Man

My family, and in particular my dad, has had bizarre and delightful ways of dealing with grief. After Grandma Toscano died, my dad visited her grave almost every day. He never left flowers though. He dumped doughnuts.

The Bread Man

My dad was known as The Bread Man. He routinely drove 40 miles to a discount bread warehouse, and for a pittance bought stacks of day-old bread, Entenmann’s donuts, and cookies. In addition to feeding the local wildlife population (and no doubt raising their cholesterol levels to dangerous heights) he handed out the not-quite-gone-off baked goods to family, friends, and random strangers. Literally at gas stations he would just go up to someone with bread.

He regularly stuffed the entire trunk and back seat of his car with enough gluten products to paralyze Northern Europe.  Through the years he kept a mental note of everyone’s favorites. He always saved me a dozen or more packs of the Thomas’ special edition Christmas English muffins with cranberries. That I received these for my birthday in February was also part of the charm.

DSCN2074 DSCN2077

Responding to Grief with Bread

With the loss of his mother he responded with baked goods. He stood over her grave and ripped opened package after package of potato bread, Entenmann’s mixed donuts, and english muffins. The parish priest complained about the many animals that congregated around the grave making a mess.

IMG_4606My dad in his Bronx accent countered, “I know but they keep mom company. Then the deers they leave their droppings, and it’s like they make for her little beads of the rosary.”

The priest never did win that fight and always walked away with an armful of baked goods with expiry dates that extended back beyond the previous season in the church calendar.

Taking Mom for a Ride

After my mom died in 2006, my dad started a new grief tradition. Mom wasn’t buried but instead requested she be cremated. About six months after she died, my dad called me and said, “Yeah, your mother and I went for a ride and did some shopping in Honesdale.” I thought the man had lost his mind.

I called my sister Maria, who lived near him. “What’s going on with dad? He said he took mom for a ride?!?” Maria chuckled, “Her ashes. He puts the box of her ashes in the passenger seat and then hangs her denim jacket next to it and takes her for a ride.”

My Mom

My Mom, Anita Toscano

It was so weird and sweet and so much my dad, I smiled and felt all soft and squishy inside.

Pete’s Funeral–Bread for Everyone!

My dad died in 2012 from the same type of lung cancer my mom had. Those two–they shared everything. As mourners left the church, my sisters and I stood at the bottom of the church steps with my dad’s car brimming with baked goods as we gave everyone some of Pete’s bread. While a few relatives from a distance looked on totally confused, most people laughed and said, “Pete would have loved this.” My dad was buried along with my mom’s ashes.

Today would have been my mom’s 80th birthday. My sisters and I sometimes throw a birthday party for her since she died. But we are far apart from each other today. I’m tempted to run out and buy a cake and share it with my husband and our housemate and his daughter who is visiting.

Tender and Strange Reminders of the People we lost

These weird and tender reminders of people we love and have lost mean so much to me. Even writing this I feel my mom near me, feel her soft skin from when she kissed me good-bye,  and I hear her distinctive voice that I can channel on the phone sometimes for my sisters and say much like she did, “Hello Cookie.”

My good friend Jane Brazell surprised me with an unexpected treat this morning. She had no clue that I was feeling the pain and sorrow of losing my mom and the joy from loads of memories bubbling. But she posted something weird and wonderful about how one family in Italy celebrated their father at his funeral.

I sat pouring coffee out of my Bialetti coffee pot as I read the following photos and story Jane posted on my Facebook Wall

In this photo made available Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, father Pietro Segato, the parish priest of Casale Corte Cerro, stands in front of a Moka pot containing the ashes of Renato Bialetti, during his burial service in the cemetery of Omegna, Northern Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Renato Bialetti had expressed his wish to be cremated and then buried in the Moka his father Alfonso invented in 1933. Although he was not the inventor, Renato was responsible for the extensive marketing campaign that made the Moka an icon of Italian design, exposed in museums such as the Museum Of Modern Art and many others all over the world. (AP Photo/Elisa Sola)

In this photo made available Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, father Pietro Segato, the parish priest of Casale Corte Cerro, stands in front of a Moka pot containing the ashes of Renato Bialetti, during his burial service in the cemetery of Omegna, Northern Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Renato Bialetti had expressed his wish to be cremated and then buried in the Moka his father Alfonso invented in 1933. Although he was not the inventor, Renato was responsible for the extensive marketing campaign that made the Moka an icon of Italian design, exposed in museums such as the Museum Of Modern Art and many others all over the world. (AP Photo/Elisa Sola)



All through the L O N G and bitter cold winter, I kept telling, Glen Retief, my dear husband from sunny South Africa, “Just think, the more awful winter is, the more glorious and dramatic the spring!” His response was something like. “Alright just get on with it already.”

Well, at long last I see some signs of spring including a clutch of flowers at my friend Quin’s house nearby. I finally got to open the windows a bit the other day in the bedroom, much to the delight of Wally and Emma, the two cats that own us. I began the process of clearing up and cutting down in the garden and patio in anticipation to planting. I already had stuff in the ground last year, but with the wobbly winter, I will need to wait a little longer.

The weather helps my mood too. I adore winter, but I have to admit that even I was getting gloomy. I feel a spring in my step and even went for an evening walk along the river and didn’t even wear a scarf and gloves!

The Need for a Straight Pride March & Other Myths.

Over at Facebook I have many different types of friends (like 2200 friends) and of course they have friends who represent many perspectives. Today on a friend’s wall posting about wearing purple in support of LGBT youth two straight folks raised objectives revealing that they felt “bullied” into showing support of gay kids. In frustration one of them said, “We need to have a Heterosexual Pride Parade.” The other agreedMr. & Mrs. Salt & Pepper.

Now I know a lot of straight people. Some of my best friends are heterosexual. In fact, I come from a distinctly heterosexual family that I love. I know that some straight folks feel put upon by all of the recent news about gay. lesbian and transgender suicides and bullying. “Why do we have to hear about THEM all the time?” Hmmmm. Welcome to my world where I constantly have to go out of my way to hear about anything other than straight lives.

Lately I have been thinking of the subtle powerful force of heterosexism, like high blood pressure, I consider it the “silent killer” insistent and constant in its messaging that heterosexuality is NORMAL, the idealized norm, what everyone is expected to be, an identity that is celebrated, rewarded and represented to the exclusion of all others.

Like a low-grade fever or undetected high blood pressure, non-straight, non-gender normative people live with a steady barrage of pro-heterosexual messages mixed in with anti-LGBT messages. Even in US states where they offer “gay marriage” everyone knows it is not the same as a straight marriage because of the federal protections granted to heterosexual couples and denied to all others. But beyond the legal protections or lack of protections in the household, on the job and elsewhere, we get a deluge of pro-straight messages in pop songs, commercials, movies, religious ceremonies, proms–shoot even salt and pepper shakers! I know that there is a growing movement to include LGBT lives and voices in the media and on the agenda of the board of education, but it’s spotty at best and is often drowned out by the heterosexism that exists in almost every encounter silly and sublime.

Here’s an example of straight pride & privilege.

Marueen says, “My husband Bill & I got together w/ our two daughters & their husbands to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and Cindy & Todd’s first baby. At church the pastor said a blessing over the family & we recommitted our vows.”

And everyone says, “Oh, that is so nice.” And it is and there are gifts and cards and photos and public sharing on Facebook and beyond revealing pride and affirmation and celebration of Bill & Maureen’s successful heterosexuality.

Of course most don’t think of Maureen & Bill expressing “Heterosexual Pride.”

It’s just “normal.”

The Shame & Blame Game in Ex-Gay Programs

The program leaders at Love in Action (LIA) and in all the other ex-gay programs I attended (along with the counselors I saw and authors of the ex-gay books I read) believed in a development model leading to homosexual desire and activity. Although each ex-gay therapist or minister used different and methods often contrary to each other, they universally agreed that boys became gay because of an “overbearing mother and an emotionally or physically absent dad.” In addition, they taught that sexual abuse contributed to same-sex attractions.

In LIA and elsewhere, the leadership made us create a mythology about ourselves based on the developmental template they placed before us. By mixing psycho-babble, scripture, and language from the AA 12-Step program, they constantly reinforced their authority over us. When any of us questioned the template they provided by stating our lives did not fit it, they insisted that we needed to look more deeply. They warned us, that as “addicts,” it was in our nature to deceive ourselves and minimize not only the consequences of our actions but also the causes.

Adhering to the belief that our parents failed us, the LIA program leaders then served as surrogate parents who attempted to undo the damage inflicted by our actual parents. During The Family and Friends Weekend, they not only confronted each participant with their development theories, they also pushed parents to admit that their child’s faulty development stemmed from a dysfunctional family structure.

The program buttressed the their teaching with the belief that everyone lives in a flawed sinful state. By being flawed and sinful parents, the program leaders reasoned that our folks ended up harming their own offspring. “Sin begets sin.” The staff then endeavored to lead the families in a corporate confession which included fathers of program participants confessing the ways they had ceded leadership to their wives. The Family and Friends Weekend thus operated under the notion that only by returning to the God-sanctioned patriarchy could the flawed son or daughter begin to experience success in divorcing themselves from homosexuality.

The Family and Friends Weekend created a climate of fear and shame, a toxic mix that made it difficult to think clearly. The environment placed us in a vulnerable state where we looked to the program leaders as authorities to lead us out of the mess stemming from our sinful nature and poor choices. When any parent or loved one questioned the teachings, program leaders responded with program jargon, scripture or pseudo-psychological language. The leaders stood as the final authority, almost as Gnostics who had come to the place of hidden knowledge. They then attempted to share that knowledge with those of us still darkened by ignorance and inner rebellion.

I only learned years later that my parents experienced deep personal distress as a result of their first Family and Friends Weekend. My sister told me that for the first two weeks after they returned home, “there was something wrong with Mom and Dad.” They seemed depressed and spoke little. It even affected their appetite. She said it was like a light had gone out in them. She felt so concerned that she called the LIA office and demanded, “What did you do to my parents?” LIA never followed up.

Years later when I told one of the LIA leaders who had been part of that weekend about my parents’ distress and how it resulted in years of self-doubts and emotional upheaval, he responded with program jargon and put the blame back on my parents by stating, “Healthy people ask for what they need.” He suggested that since my parents were not healthy to begin with, they didn’t know how to seek the help they needed.

By constantly turning the blame around and pointing to the flawed nature in each one of us, the program leaders chronically avoid responsibility for the unethical and harmful practices and theories they promote and provide. I do not know if the current staff of Love in Action still forces parents and participants through the shameful and harmful steps of The Family and Friends Weekend. If they genuinely care for people and about pastoral care, I invite them to listen to some of our stories to reconsider their methods before they do more harm.

See a video about The Family & Friends Weekend.
Read an article at Beyond Ex-Gay.

Jesus in the Backseat (a poem)

For the past few days I´ve been thinking about a funny moment in my childhood that I am trying to capture in words. In my poem I reference Necco wafers. This particular candy we ate a lot when we were little. According to Necco´s website, Necco Assorted Wafers come in

eight pastel colors and flavors–Chocolate, lemon, lime, orange, clove, wintergreen, cinnamon, licorice

I never actually knew what the falvors were until today. You can learn more here.

Now that you know a little about Necco Wafers, I can share my poem.

Jesus in the Backseat

The noxious incense from her cigarette,
Mixed with the sweet smoky puffs from his pipe,
Envelops us inside the
Airtight car.

We return from pilgrimage,
From the
Hawaiian Fountain,
Where we celebrated mass
Consumption around the flaming
Pu Pu Platter.

We three kids
Sit in the backseat,
Cautiously placing Necco Wafers
On each other´s tongue,
As one intones–
The body of Christ.
The body of Christ.

We feel the chalky disc dissolve.

With our tongues extended,
Cradling the candied Christ,
We stammer back,

Doin’ Time in my Hometown

Although I was born in Stamford, CT, our family moved to the Sullivan County Catskills when I was in first grade. I attended Narrowsburg Central Rural School, which educated about 300 students at a time from grades K-12. I graduated in 1983 with one of the LARGEST classes in Narrowsburg history with a whopping 36 people. I can’t tell you how special it felt (and at times constraining) to have virtually all of the same classmates throughout primary, middle and high school.

Last night I performed Homo No Mo to a very interesting audience of mostly straight people with the average age about 60. Not my typical demographic. Although they did not laugh as loud or often as most of my audiences, I could tell they listened deeply. Some of you who perform may understand how you can sense how an audience responds even when they remain quiet. I knew I did not have to rush, and indeed when I got to the scene where Chad has his breakdown over the loss of his brother, I heard sobbing in the theater.

Tonight we expect a packed house! The title The Re-Education of George W. Bush—No President Left Behind! sells the show and has brought me a whole new range of audience members who I have not previously seen at my “gay” shows.

A reporter from the local weekly paper, The Sullivan County Democrat interviewed me a few weeks ago at the Narrowsburg Roasters cafe. He took some photos including some of my dad reading and one of me talking (not a rare shot :-p). Ted Waddell’s piece should come out next week.

One of the other local weeklies, The River Reporter, did a short piece about me and my two plays. One man, one stage and a bevy of personalities. The interview felt like one of those public TV face to face with the artist sort of affair where they try to unearth the artist’s earliest roots.

“Growing up in Lake Huntington, the bus ride to school was at least 40 minutes each way. In order to entertain myself and my fellow riders, I created ‘The Peter Pumpkin Show,’ a variety show of sorts with multiple characters all played by me,” Toscano said of his first calling as a performer. “Here I was, a fourth grader captivating a high school audience. What power! What fun!”

The reporter also asked why I use comedy and how I became a character actor.

“Employing humor, as well as shape shifting to fit into different crowds, became a strategy to keep others from targeting me with insults or worse,” Toscano recalls. “Many oppressed minorities learn to take on multiple roles and characters in order to survive. Some of the finest one-person shows were created by people from oppressed groups, shows by Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin and John Leguizamo.”

For those of you who have seen Homo No Mo can only imagine how much fun it felt last night to perform the part of my dad with a room full of people who know and love him well, including my younger sister Maria, who saw the play for the first time last night. The charater of my dad proved to be the real crowd pleaser of the night. During the Q&A my dad even did his own stand up routine as he talked about his trip to the Homo No Mo Halfway House.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

When Your Husband is Gay

One of the number one key word searches that bring people to both my English and Spanish blogs has to do with questions from women who want/need to know what to do when they find out their husbands are gay. That or simply the question, How do I know if my husband is gay? Is my husband a homosexual?

I have a blog entry, My Gay Husband—A Spouse Speaks Out, (and a similar one in Spanish) which is my most visited entry. Women have added their own stories and questions in the comments section. Yesterday I received another comment that I want to share. Wives with similar experiences, feel free to offer whatever support you can over at the original thread. I feel at a loss as to what to say, but I have seen you comfort and support each other in marvelous ways.

Thank goodness I found this site. I have been married 38 years and I have asked my husband if he is gay or bi but he always said no. Two days ago I found out that he is and it explains so much. Of course I feel betrayed, that our marriage is a fraud and a sham. My sons are young adults now and I worry what they will think. At least I know the reason he always came to bed later and avoided any kind of affection and sex became non existent no matter how hard I tried. It seems that my whole adult life has crumbled into nothing. He was my first and only love..he promised to grow old with me, he gave me sons, the one person that I always trusted and thought never lied to me.

If you are currently living a lie like this with a woman, please, stop it now before you crush her completely. Do not let your selfishness hurt so many lives.

Just found out and words can’t express how devastated and alone I feel. There is no one that I can talk to as I do not want to tell our sons (he should do that) or his family, I do not want to hurt him by telling friends or coworkers. It is like a tsunami has come through my life without warning and destroyed my entire world.

One excellent resource is the Straight Spouse Network. I know some people have had problems getting a response from them, but I was told that they have since changed their protocol and say that they will respond to every e-mail they receive.


Feeling weepy after reading Dan Savage’s column about his mom who died the other day, and then I saw a beautiful and heart wrenching movie called Yesterday.

Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) lives in Rooihoek, a remote village in South Africa’s Zululand. Her everyday life is not easy—there’s little money, no modern conveniences, and her husband is away in Johannesburg working as a miner—but she possesses a sunny nature, and takes great joy in her seven-year-old daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase).

The precarious balance of Yesterday’s life is suddenly threatened when she is diagnosed with AIDS and must journey afar to understand and confront her illness. Yesterday’s primary driving force is Beauty, who is a year away from starting school. Yesterday never had the chance to go to school and she sets her sights on a single goal: to be with Beauty on her first day of class, along with all the other proud mothers…

I am at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and just happened upon the theater that happen to be showing the film for free to medical students and the general public. And now I am all weepy.

My mom was only nine when her mother died. She often said in her joking way, “You’ll only ever have one mother, so you’re going to have to put up with me.” It’s odd and wonderful how we carry the people we love with us. After my mother’s death in September 2006, I felt so much strength flow into me making me fearless. I miss her more than I can express, but I also feel close to her everyday.