A few weeks ago, Sarah, the lovely smiling blonde woman from Apex Orchards had Zestar apples for sale at the Tuesday Market. (Quick aside: here's a link to a wonderful, uplifting video of the Tuesday Market.) I’d never heard of Zestars before. In appearance, they resembled one of my three favorite apples, Honeycrisps, and, according to the small sign, they were a little tangy or tart or some similar zesty family descriptive.
Revelatory, those Zestars: I ate every single one of the juicy, tangy, tart, sweet apples. Each bite practically melted in my mouth. I did not share. They were, in a word, delectable.
And then they were gone. Zestars are very early apples, Sarah told me. Onto Honeycrisps, and soon, I’ll move onto whatever comes next.
Here’s a fact I still consider to be pretty amazing: there are on the order of 10,000 varieties of apples. The days of thinking apples equaled a handful of varieties, you know, Macintosh, Delicious, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith are long gone. A few years ago, I worked for about a month blogging for AOL’s Green Daily (or was it Daily Green? What-ever.). Many of my posts got too political, veering from the more lifestyle/consumer green slant the powers-that-be seemed to prefer and I got summarily axed. (It was kind of a good/bad thing: it was fun to find tiny nuggets of green stories, this one about apples; it was totally consuming and took away from all other writing, plus I didn’t really like thinking in 300 word chunks). Anyway, the apple factoid was one I stumbled across then, and I think about it now every autumn, how there are so many apples to discover. I find myself buying heirloom apples and making applesauce out of them, mostly to have a chance to cut up and sample many varieties.
One post I wrote was about a man named John Bunker. In a wonderful article, which profiled Bunker in the Atlantic last year, he was dubbed an “apple whisperer.” When managing the food co-op in Belfast, Maine, Bunker stumbled upon apples: “A man named Ira Proctor walked in one day to ask if the co-op would sell some of his apples on consignment. Bunker had never seen their like: apples the shape of a perfect McIntosh (a variety widely planted in Maine only after a calamitous freeze killed more than a million trees in 1934) but colored a lustrous dark cordovan, purple-black with firm, cream-colored flesh. The flavor was refreshing, smooth, and all apple—not cloying and mealy, as Macs can be, and not firm and juicy but as flavorful as cardboard, like Red Delicious. It was not a sour “quick spitter,” as Maine farmers call many apples, nor light-flavored with faint hints of pineapple and banana, like many of the heirlooms Bunker had encountered in his wanderings. This was a great apple, and a very beautiful one besides. The name was Black Oxford, Proctor told him, for the county where it grew: it originated in Paris, Maine, around 1790. Bunker took them all, and resolved to grow some for himself.” Bunker has identified and saved apples from all over New England.
Riffing from apples, I find myself thinking about how every snowflake is different and noticing the incredible variations in the leaves that are falling from the trees these early autumn days: ruby, crimson, pumpkin, golden, brown-edged and green-tinged. As I walk, I often almost pick up the leaves—as if we’re going to iron them onto wax paper or something, which would require finding our iron and a surface for ironing and children wanting to do so when my act is together enough for this activity—but end up regarding them fondly and moving on. How is it that we are handed this lesson over and over—difference is breathtaking, each and every time, if only you look—and we fail to learn it?
We can mull this lesson any which way.
In this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Benoit Denziet-Lewis wrote an article called Coming Out in Middle School. He wrote about how multi-layered coming out as an adolescent (or, really, at any time) is, even as the experience—for many—may be changing, as, on one hand, our society is becoming more accepting, and on the other, anti-gay violence and harassment and bullying (let alone, other discrimination) endures.
Some schools struggle with the notion of “gay” as a slur that permeates middle school culture. From the NYT article, one school principal “did concede that teachers don’t react to anti-gay language as consistently as he would like.” Denziet-Lewis quotes a school counselor: “’We have veteran teachers who have been teaching for 25 years, and some just see the language as so imbedded in the language of middle-schoolers that it’s essentially unchangeable,’ she said.”
There have been high profile tragedies—a fifth grader in Springfield, Massachusetts last spring committed suicide after being taunted and bullied using anti-gay language and making accusations about the boy’s sexuality—and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) offers a sobering statistic from a 2007 survey of 626 gay, bisexual and transgender middle-schoolers from across the country, 81 percent reported being regularly harassed on campus because of their sexual orientation. Another 39 percent reported physical assaults. Of the students who told teachers or administrators about the bullying, only 29 percent said it resulted in effective intervention.
At the same time, by pretty much all accounts according to the article, there are also huge strides being made in many schools, and in families, and thus for a generation that seems to have room and support to come out as gay, lesbian or bisexual much more easily than previous generations did—and also much earlier. Take Kera’s mother’s recollection of her response to her daughter’s coming out as bisexual: “…I knew I was interested in boys when I was her age, so it didn’t strike me as unusual that Kera might know she’s interested in boys and girls, put two and two together and call herself bisexual. Kids just know what those words mean a lot earlier than when I was growing up.”
Even in progressive places, coming out isn’t necessarily easy. Reckoning with what it means to be gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender—or heterosexual for that matter—may be difficult, because coming into one’s sexuality and one’s gender identity can be intimidating and overwhelming and plain hard. Desire is powerful. Wanting to belong is powerful. Hormones are powerful. Societal messages about all of these things—beauty, love, sexuality, normality and desirability—can be formidable, especially if you think you fall short—or miss the mark entirely.
After reading the article and thinking more about young people possessing that much self-awareness—or at least that willingness to pursue such open avenues of exploration—I was much impressed. I also remembered dating a very lovely man during college. He was handsome and kind, with a wide, warm smile. He spoke with a slight drawl (utterly charming). He was also somewhat distant, not intentionally, but it was hard to feel that close, and intimacy was, somehow, and somewhat unfathomably a struggle. He was also terribly homophobic. At Hampshire, many people were quite openly exploring their sexuality—the atmosphere supported questioning and experimentation and flexibility—so I found his negativity somewhat surprising. Not so long after college, he came out. When I ran into him—and his boyfriend—all that kneejerk reactivity made a whole lot of sense. When I ran into him and his boyfriend, he seemed so much less distant. In short, he seemed intact.
And that’s the thing; it’s not whether someone is old enough to know—for sure, forever—about whom he or she will love or how he or she will identify. It should be that we are encouraging comfort in being oneself, at any age or, as Mary Oliver put it in her poem, Wild Geese, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Many people from generations before this one profess to struggling some with young ‘tweens and teens coming out. Maybe, they marvel at the kids’ self-awareness; maybe, they question young people’s abilities to accurately self-identify (is it a phase?) or maybe they recall knowing something similar about themselves from a young age. In any case, I’d hope that the goal would be to spare people the experience my old boyfriend had, of trying to love what his body did not love.
Like parents (I consider myself one of them; I've linked to my friend, Sarah Hoffman, another of them) who’ve embraced a son’s “pink boy-ness” (and friends who have embraced a daughter’s tomboy-hood)—in fact, like any parent able to open arms and heart to a child’s uniqueness (or, what some would call quirks)—I hope that a world accepting of children—and adolescents and adults—across the spectrum is soon ours.
This passage from Denziet-Lewis’ article, about a parent and child arguing over rules about dating, struck me as important: “As I listened to them bicker, I couldn’t help remembering what Ritch Savin-Williams, the professor of developmental psychology at Cornell, told me the first time we spoke: ‘This is the first generation of gay kids who have the great joy of being able to argue with their parents about dating, just like their straight peers do.’” Acceptance allows everyone to be “in it” together over the appropriate struggles, not about hiding, not about tussling over things that are finally beyond a parent’s purview. The conversation about who you are or who you love is your own, not yours with your parent.
Apples and apples, I say (at least ten thousand varieties).