We sat down to dinner every night as a family, whether the kids liked it or not…With the rest of the rest of the family around us, a pearl of wisdom was bound to be shed, even if it came through a mouthful of potatoes.
Luckily for us, the Rave family has a whole string of those wise pearls.
Everyone is bound to relate in some significant way to the Rave family as their most honest moments are relayed to us, for better or for worse. In Robert and Jane Rave’s new co-authored book, Conversations and Cosmopolitans: Awkward Moments, Mixed Drinks, and How a Mother and Son Finally Shared Who They Really Are, the duo looks back at the milestones that have marked their life ever since Robert, Jane’s youngest son, wrote a letter at age 21 informing his parents that he was gay. Adding to the weight of this long-muted admission is the fact that the Rave family hails from what is basically one of the most heterosexual places on earth: Bloomington, Illinois, a conservative and quiet town full of retirees and lawn-care enthusiasts.
And that backdrop is one of the delights of the book, really, being a Midwestern reader myself. Robert, though he is living in New York City in the mid-90’s as the book takes place, can’t deny (and never tries to deny) his corn-fed roots. As such, we have the pleasure of reading lines like this, as Robert considers buying a gym membership:
As a true product of the Midwest, my biggest workout was driving to the liquor store and carrying the keg into a truck. I honestly don’t think I heard the word “abs” until I moved to New York.
And, being a place that so protects its “traditional values,” Bloomington is an interesting and challenging venue for mother Jane to adjust to this new knowledge about her son’s life. Everyone from hairdressers to neighbors to Robert’s old school secretary take it upon themselves to weigh in with his mother about his “choice of lifestyle,” and it is with a blunt sort of grace that Jane speaks her piece every time.
It’s not something you agree or disagree with—it just is. It would be like you were saying, “I don’t agree with your blue eyes, Jane.” It’s something you’re born with and like my blue eyes, it doesn’t define you as a person, it is just a part of you.
(All this from a woman who claims to have only known about three gay people in her life until her son’s letter arrived. Clearly, both parties are learning volumes from the experiences that chose them, much more than the other way around.)
Though the book returns too often to the well of “gay or straight, we’re all the same” conclusions at the end of each chapter (a theme that’s obviously true, but after a while starts sounding baldly obvious, given the subject matter), it’s easily forgiven, because for all its reiterations of familial acceptance, it’s just a wickedly funny read. I snorted my way through whole chapters, each full of passages like this one:
The next two hours were filled with enough quotes from Designing Women, Maude, The Golden Girls, and Absolutely Fabulous that I was ready to vomit glitter.
Or, for the fans of My Best Friend’s Wedding out there:
That’s right: it’s all fun and games until a table full of middle-aged men and women sing Dionne Warwick at brunch.
Robert’s impatience with some of the gay stereotypes (like the necessity that he love every TV show featuring female fashionistas or lusty old gossips) is part of what makes him so relatable; he takes the time to separate himself, and many others, from everyone’s one-dimensional view of gay New York City. And let’s face it: if you’ve never met a single homosexual in your life – as is probably true of 99% of Bloomington, or the greater Midwestern farm community in general – you only have TV’s representation to go on. This book changes all that, in a way that is perhaps more relatable than anything written by America’s Gay Sweetheart, David Sedaris—because where Sedaris seems to reach out to those already hip to the punchline (such as when he discusses his childhood bewilderment that everyone in his speech class loved baking crumpets and watching daytime soaps), Conversations and Cosmopolitans reaches out to a whole new demographic, those that may have never before thought that homosexuality would be something with which to coexist on a daily basis. It is not a lifestyle, but rather someone’s life, plain and simple. We must revise our idea of “choice” to mean that we, people of any sexuality, are choosing to live as who we unquestionably, incontrovertibly are. And, of course, it may not be easy, as wise ol’ Jane is quick to point out.
There was no manual for me to read about how to deal with this. On second thought, I guess there might have been, but that’s not how I deal with situations. I face it right then and there.
“Facing it right then and there” is the perfect description of what readers get to see throughout this book: embarrassing moments, uncomfortable scenes, and altogether revealing moments that would really make you feel like you were peeking into a living room window if the Raves weren’t graciously inviting you to look. (In my Q&A with the authors, I got an even more inside look at everything from their writing process to their decisions on which anecdotes to include in the final product. I encourage you to read it and see for yourselves how wonderfully down-to-earth these people are.) All told, it’s the perfect collection of elements that no manual on the subject, whether they exist or not, would be able to provide. And it’s not as though we only have lessons in sexuality to learn from Conversations and Cosmopolitans, either. Because who wouldn’t benefit from opening up more to the people they love? Regardless of the wackiness of Robert’s and Jane’s anecdotes, from psychic hotlines to boozing it up with Rupert Everett to riverboat gambling to dirty chatroom mishaps to accidentally getting “the lesbian haircut” at the salon, when we walk away from this story, what we’re left with is clear, simple, and full of that graceful bluntness:
At the end of the day, if it helps to get you talking, then sharing my embarrassment with you is well worth it.