At the time, I thought I was on the verge of discovering all there was to know about him, because I’d just located him in a Mack family tree on a genealogy site and had messaged both his brothers, Kevin and Barry. But here we are, many months later, with still no reply from either one. It’s possible they don’t visit the genealogy site often enough to have seen my messages. Try as I might, I haven’t been able to find any other way to contact them, and it’s possible no reply will ever come, so I don’t want to postpone this any longer. Here, then, is what I’ve discovered so far about Bruce Mack, author of Jesse’s Dream Skirt.
Bruce Robert Mack was born on May 3rd, 1952, to John and Louise Mack (nee Louise Henrietta Abel). His place of birth was New Haven, Connecticut (USA) but he spent his school-age years in the Oswego, New York area, where he was frequently on the school’s honor roll and participated in school races.(1)
In the 1970s, he moved to the San Francisco bay area. This is where he lived when his story Jesse’s Dream Skirt was published under the pen name Morning Star in the “socialist journal of gay liberation” Magnus. It included the following byline:
Morning Star lives in S.F. and is interested in forming a collective to write anti-sexist, pro-feminist children’s stories.
Although he wasn’t one of the founders of the Lollipop Power collective, that’s exactly what kind of mandate it had. So it’s no surprise that they ended up discovering each other and put out an edited version of the story in book form, which is the one I illustrated.
The book version’s dedication reveals a little something about the author as well:
For my mother Louise, the source from which so much of this flows, and with a special thought for all persons who feel out of place.
It warms my heart to gather from the above that his mother was supportive of him and, presumably, of the story.
But still, we want to know more, from people who knew him, not just clues in publication texts. I was able to correspond briefly with Larry Hermsen, the illustrator of the magazine version of the story, who described Bruce Mack as follows:
“Bruce was sort of an elusive figure. I didn’t know him well, but we were part of a large circle of gay men who were active around politics and gender roles. He was androgynous, almost too sweet, very soft spoken and a bit ephemeral.”
In response to my request for help getting in touch with anyone else who might have known Bruce, Larry wrote:
“Bruce and I are of the generation that were most affected by AIDS, esp. in San Francisco, and most of the people who would know about Bruce are gone.”
Larry believed Bruce himself had died of AIDS some years ago as well. I was able to track down Bruce’s obituary in the Syracuse Herald Journal of April 3rd, 1994. It confirmed that Bruce Mack, of Pacifica CA, had died on March 16th of that year, of complications from AIDS. He was 41 at the time. The obituary mentioned his authorship of Jesse’s Dream Skirt and his occupation as a nurse.
I wish I knew whether or not he’d also been a daycare teacher at any time. The way the magazine version of the story is written makes me think it’s possible it came from a real life incident, especially with the teacher in the story being named Bruce.
I also wish I had photos to share with you, something to put a face to the name, beyond Larry’s verbal description of Bruce’s demeanor.
And I wish I knew what the story meant to Bruce. Did he imagine Jesse as gay? trans? or what some people nowadays call a “pink boy”? Or, as might be indicated by the dedication, did he, without any need to pigeonhole the little boy in the story, consider him to be simply one of the many “persons who feel out of place”? I wonder how Bruce would have reacted to the way the story has become such a classic in the LGBTQI and anti-bullying education circles and such a focus of hatred and fear-mongering in some anti-gay circles. (I’ll be talking about those aspects of its impact in future posts.)
We may never know more than this about the author Bruce Mack, a.k.a. Morningstar. But if anyone who knew him ever reads this (brothers, relatives, friends, acquaintances…), I hope they’ll get in touch to help fill the gaps and tell us more about the gentle soul who had such an impact on those who read his story, Jesse’s Dream Skirt.
This year (2019), for the 40th anniversary of the book version of Jesse’s Dream Skirt, I’ll be publishing a coloring book edition of all my illustrations from the book. If you’d like to be notified when it becomes available, please join my mailing list (check the Jesse’s Dream Skirt Project checkbox and any other newsletters you may be interested in).
(1) Appendix: a glimpse into Bruce’s school years as covered by the Oswego Palladium Times:
During the 1960s, Bruce Mack and his brother Barry are frequently named in the school honor roll lists published by the Oswego Palladium Times.
1965: Bruce is mentioned as a member of the Alexander Phoenix Chapter of Yorkers, which group made a visit to the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.
1968: Bruce is mentioned as a member of the Phoenix Central Cross Country team that participated in the Fulton Invitational varsity race.
1969: Bruce is mentioned as a member of the team that won the sprint medley relay, and his brother Barry is mentioned as having won the long jump and triple jump as well as being on the winning team for the 880 yard relay.
1970: Bruce is mentioned as about to attend Mohawk Valley Community College after graduation from Phoenix Central.
1971: Bruce is listed as being on the Dean’s List for academic achievement during the Spring quarter at Mohawk Valley Community College, with his residence mentioned as Pleasant Lake, Pennellville.
Whenever the Home County Music & Art Festival comes around, in July in London, Ontario, I can’t help but think of Cathy Callihan. Back in 1982, it was called the Home County Folk Festival, and she had a craft booth there, selling her beautiful, extraordinary stained glass and metal work.
I had a craft booth too, selling my silk paintings. (That was before I realized silk is not produced cruelty-free from empty cocoons). She came across it as she was strolling around the festival grounds, looking at the work of fellow artisans. She stopped, and stood for a while, hesitant, waiting, but I wasn’t noticing her among the people milling around my booth. Finally, she got up her courage and came to speak to me. “Wow!,” she said. “Wow!” I found out later that this was the most typical Cathy utterance ever. At the time, though, she was a stranger, and all I knew was that she seemed impressed by my work.
But it was more than that. She pointed to the logo on my business cards and price tags: a pen-and-ink profile of a woman with flowing hair and a spiral horn coming out of her forehead. “I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “I made the same design, but in stained glass!”
The thing is… it wasn’t true! I only found out years later, when, as my best friend, she confessed that she’d made that up because she felt such an affinity with me that it might as well have been true, and she wanted so desperately to make a connection with me. I assured her we could’ve connected just as easily without that fake coincidence. But I guess that impulsiveness and willingness to blur reality in favour of imagination is part of what made her Cathy. She did eventually create a stained glass version of the design, after the fact.
It’s true we had a strong affinity in our themes – Nature & Spirit; women, water, woods,… And as it turned out, we also had the same birthday. She was 3 years older but the date was the same. We were both Americans living in Canada, both artistic, both somewhat psychic, both interested in personal growth. But while I was quiet and introspective, Cathy in a good mood was always exclaiming and laughing. When another friend gave me the workbook Kundalini Yoga for the West, Cathy borrowed it, and what I remember most about that was how, for a while, she was going around with a pebble in her mouth. It was an exercise from the book. Having to carefully move the pebble out of one’s way to speak without swallowing it, forced one to take the time to think about what one was about to say. She used it for a while to try to keep herself from spewing out the first things that popped into her head, which was something that sometimes got her into trouble in relationships.
She almost married a boyfriend just to stay in Canada when her visa was about to expire. In lieu of a wedding dress, she asked me to make her a skirt and blouse out of silk, and paint them green with mermaids, shells, and seaweeds. She didn’t get married to that friend after all – she knew it would’ve been for the wrong reasons. Impulse, blurt, retract. But in trade for my silk work, she gave me a large stained glass piece to hang in my window. It was a woman with fairy wings, the tips of which protrude from the edges of the oval design. The fairy stands in water, with a full moon hanging in the folds of her wind-swept dress, and a real sea-shell soldered to the headband in her long flowing hair. I think Cathy called the piece Awakening.
One of the most interesting pieces Cathy ever made, she referred to as “the octogon” — I don’t remember if she ever gave it a title. It was kind of like a glass tipi, with four trapezoid sides that came together at the top and flared out at the bottom, leaving four openings between the panels, through which one could enter into the inner space. The year she brought it to the festival here in London, she and I used it for shelter from the weather, laughing at how “It’s not Home County if there isn’t any rain,” because it feels like there hasn’t been a single year when it hasn’t either drizzled or poured during the festival’s weekend.
It was fun being huddled together underneath her art, and she told me about her creative process in making it. First, she constructed the four wooden frames. Then she stretched clear plastic on them and took the whole thing out to a place in nature where she could set it up, lie underneath it, and look up through the plastic with an unobstructed view of the night sky. Onto the plastic, with a marker, she traced the stars she saw, and drew in the lines that she felt connected them. Back in the workshop, translating the plastic draft into glass, she used glass pebbles for the stars, and the lines became the seams of solder between adjacent glass panes of space. From concept, through execution, to resulting art object and art experience of the finished piece, it seemed to have a mystical or meditative dimension at each stage.
I would say there was a kind of nature-rooted spirituality in almost all of her work. One of her pieces, which I bought for myself, was a stained glass hanging of a woman’s profile in a wave of hair and water. It doesn’t convey a specific, explicit message, but to me, it conjures something on a level beyond words. She spoke to the psyche through imagery that might seem on the surface quite mundane but can be felt very deeply.
Something particularly unusual about Cathy’s relationship with her art, was that she was very un-self-conscious about finding it fascinating, not just to create, but to appreciate as a finished piece. On several occasions, when showing me a new piece, she exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful?!”
She was always willing to keep exploring, not just the wonders of the world, but also new artistic techniques. At some point she experimented with painting added-on details onto the glass shapes of her designs. One piece I particularly liked, and bought for a friend, was a tall, rectangular stained glass piece with little bugs painted as details on the glass leaves.
Nature was the main theme in her metal work as well. Some of her bread-and-butter income items were copper or brass leaves and butterflies that people would buy to decorate the fronts of their houses, usually in sets of three different sizes. She also made fountains for interior decors. The pump would be hidden in the flower-pot base, and the pipe that would bring the water to the top of the piece would serve as a stem for the metal leaves onto which the water would trickle down, from one leaf to the next.
Two pieces she gave me as presents, were a small hanging piece of smokey purplish glass sandwiching a pressed wild ginger flower she’d found in the woods of Ontario; and an enamelled copper leaf, curved into a dish shape to be used as an ashtray – or, since I don’t smoke, as a place to keep keys and change.
Cathy didn’t smoke either after an experience she had in the woods. She had just lit up and was puffing out the first breath of smoke when she “heard” the trees screaming in response. She immediately put out the cigarette and never smoked again.
But she did inhale the fumes from her lead soldering and copper torching. “I love that smell!” she would say, with her wide-eyed “Wow!” face and a laugh. When she became sick with the lymphoma that killed her, her medical tests revealed high amounts of these metals in her system. Stained glass and metal work are probably among the most hazardous craft arts there are for an artist’s health. Cathy used goggles to protect her eyes from sparks, but I never saw her wearing any gas mask against the fumes.
Click on an image to enlarge it and initiate the slideshow view.
I didn’t know she was ill until I returned home from an overseas trip and found that she wasn’t in my apartment the way we had planned. She was supposed to be staying there for the 1988 Home County festival, but she had forfeited her booth fee and stayed at home in Elora instead. When I found out why, I got a friend to drive me up there as soon as possible. At that particular point, she was still waiting for test results, but was feeling optimistic that she could beat this thing. However, she was dealing with a lot. Her baby was only a few months old — and those of us who have had babies know what an exhausting time that can be; wonderful, and full of love and joy, but exhausting as well. On top of that, her partner Rocco had been experiencing severe migraines off and on ever since the birth, so he wasn’t able to provide as much support as a new mother needs, let alone a new mother who is ill. And of course, there was the illness itself.
It was hard for me to be so far away, living in a different town, unable to help her with practical and moral support in person. I considered moving to Elora to be nearby, but she had a supportive circle of woman friends in town, and in some ways I felt I would just be an extra wheel. I did, however, visit when I could.
On one of those visits, she confided that she felt like she had brought the illness on herself. “You mean with the fumes from your metal work?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I mean I think I set this in motion, when I was going through a really rough time. I told the universe I wanted to leave now.” That wish was made before she met Rocco, and now that she didn’t want to die anymore, she didn’t know how to take it back; like it was too late, as if the means to the end were already activated and couldn’t be stopped. She was no longer feeling optimistic that she could get well again.
On my last visit before she died, she was very worn out by the struggle and the suffering. Along with chemotherapy, she had been trying to maintain a macrobiotic diet, hoping that would help. But it felt to her like neither was helping, she was only getting worse, and she was feeling more ill from the chemo than from the disease, and more deprived from the diet than was worth it. Tearfully, she said, “I just want to have a piece of cinnamon toast!” She didn’t expect to live much longer, and she didn’t want to spend her last months or weeks or days feeling like this. She was talking of stopping her treatments. “I just can’t do this anymore,” she said. She spoke wearily of how her circle of friends were pushing her to keep fighting, cheerleading her on, whereas what she felt she needed now was just acceptance, and permission to let go.
She wasn’t all tears on that visit, there were some smiles too. She knew I had had an unusual experience when my grandmother died, so she expected I might be receptive to messages from the dead. “I’ll come and haunt you when I’m gone,” she said. “I’ll move your couch.” — “I don’t have a couch,” I said. “OK,” she said, “I’ll do something else.”
On June 14th, 1989, Cathy’s friend Resa called me to let me know she had passed away that morning. A week later, I went to the gathering of Cathy’s friends at Resa’s house. We shared poems and memories, a lot of tears, but also laughter. One friend named Soopy (not sure of the spelling) had us laughing with the memory of Cathy watching Soopy’s van roll down the hill into Cathy’s motorhome. “Why didn’t you do something?” asked Soopy, perplexed. “I wanted to see what it would be like!” Cathy exclaimed enthusiastically. “I’d never seen it before!” And again at the Home County festival, when a hurricane swept the park and toppled the booths, Soopy rushed to prevent Cathy’s stained glass from crashing, while Cathy herself looked on. “What were you thinking?” Soopy asked her. “The same thing as when your van rolled into the motorhome,” said Cathy: “I’d never seen it and I wanted to see what it would be like!”
To me, this story is quintessential of who Cathy was. I could just imagine her wide-eyed wonder and curiosity – accompanied, no doubt, with an exclamatory “Wow!” I was so grateful to hear this story to keep in my memory like a treasure. When I got home to London after the gathering, I re-told it to a friend of mine. As I was laughing lovingly at the story, the candle I had lit for Cathy sputtered and grew a tremendously high flame. It burned the wick black without disintegrating it. There were no changes in the room’s environment to explain why the flame would change its behaviour, and I’ve never seen a candle flame grow that tall, before or since. I like to think it was Cathy, haunting me as promised.
In the previous post, I described the differences between the two versions of Jesse’s Dream Skirt in terms of the way his daycare teacher looks, based on the imaginations of two different illustrators. Now it’s time to look at the differences in how Bruce the teacher acts, based on the two versions of the text.
When Jesse walks into the daycare center, the teacher sees the little boy’s skirt, smiles, and says, “Well, look at you.” In the initial (magazine) version, he then says, “How unusual,” and Jesse “look[s] up wondering” and asks, “What does that mean?” In the book version, there’s no comment about it being unusual, and when Jesse looks up and responds, it’s to ask, “Do you like it?” After a pause, the teacher begins his reply with a “Yes.”
In both versions, the teacher “thought a moment” before replying. I take it as a good sign, that he’s careful about how he might impact the thoughts, beliefs, and emotions of the developing mind in his care. The pause seems slightly different in each case, though. In the original version, it’s as if the teacher has decided not to explain what the word “unusual” means, nor why he would react to the situation in that way. Instead, he seems to be trying to rethink and reframe, and make sure he’s not perpetuating a negative connotation to the idea that Jesse’s choice of attire is unusual. In the book version, it feels more like he’s doing a little introspection, figuring out the ways in which he feels positive about Jesse’s choice, and then deciding how to express something affirming beyond a simple “yes.”
In both versions, after his moment of thought, the teacher tells Jesse he’s “like a butterfly that has just come out of its cocoon, spreading its bright-colored wings” (book version’s wording). It’s a beautiful way to describe a sort of opening up and becoming perhaps a richer, more authentic version of oneself, and it makes Jesse feel “good all over.”
Right after this point in the story, some of the children’s initial reactions to the skirt are negative enough to upset Jesse, and he runs off crying. Like any good daycare teacher, Bruce follows him to help him cope. In the magazine version, Bruce “went over to him and listened,” and Jesse calmed down before speaking. In the book version, Bruce “went over and held him” – which seems like a more active, closer kind of nurturing – “until he calmed down.” So in this scenario, when we’re told what Jesse says, we don’t know if it’s after he has calmed down or while he’s still crying, but it’s beside the point. We’re just focused on what he’s saying: “I wanted everyone to like my dream skirt. Now I want to hide.” He’s still “curled up in Bruce’s lap” at this point in the book version, and both versions say he “no longer looked like a butterfly but like a cocoon.”
Bruce then whispers, “Jesse, some of us liked your skirt a whole lot, but some didn’t. Let’s find out why” (book version’s wording). Then he calls everyone together and says, “Jesse loves his skirt. Why are some of you making fun of him?” The ensuing discussion is covered in previous posts about the children’s reactions. What I’m looking at now are the teacher’s words and actions. He’s portrayed as being facilitative of an exploration of their feelings and behavior rather than telling them off or guiding them towards any particular perspective. In the same way, the book itself allows for an opening of this kind of discussion with any children to whom it’s read.
After the children’s discussion and Jesse telling the story of how he dreamed of his skirt and his mother helped him make it, we move on to the dress-up scene, but initiated very differently from one version to the other.
In the magazine version, Bruce says, “That is a wonderful story. I’d like to wear a skirt,” and then talks about how he wore one when he was little but “became afraid after hearing everyone ridicule [him], and stopped wearing one outside.” As mentioned in a previous post, the teacher’s memories complicate the exploration of the issues and muddy the waters about how an adult might respond.
In the book version, the omission of the teacher’s story avoids entangling an adult’s personal history with the child’s current situation. The teacher simply goes to the box of material, takes a piece of cloth, and “wrap[s] it like a loose skirt around his waist.”
He does this as well in the magazine version, only expressed in this way:”He went over to the material box and fashioned a loose skirt out of some bright fabric.” In both versions, this is where his part in the story ends.
As with the portrayal of Jesse’s mother, Jesse’s teacher is portrayed as a more child-centered, responsive, facilitative adult in the book version than in the initial (magazine) version. This is another example of how the editors at Lollipop Power knew what they were doing to bring the best out of the story of Jesse’s Dream Skirt.
Now that we’ve looked at Bruce the teacher, in the next post we’ll look at Bruce the author. In the meantime, I invite you, as always, to let me know your thoughts on what I’ve shared so far.
First of all, I can’t help but notice that the teacher’s first name is the same as the author’s. This was not evident in the magazine publication, since the pen name Morning Star was used instead. But the book version was published under the author’s legal name, Bruce Mack, so the coincidence with the fictional teacher’s name is apparent. It leads me to wonder whether perhaps the author was himself a daycare teacher, and whether the story is based on a real incident. In another post, I’ll explain why we may never know. Meanwhile, let’s get back to our fictional teacher.
None of the characters’ physiques are described in the text of the story, and the teacher is no exception to this fact. It’s left up to the illustrator to choose a look, and there are therefore two different versions.
The magazine version’s illustrator, Larry Hermsen, portrayed the teacher as white, with shortish hair and a mustache, and wearing an embroidered tunic of the kind that’s made in India and was prevalent during that era (late 1970s). Larry knew Bruce Mack personally, so it’s possible (but not yet confirmed or denied) that he might have modeled the character’s looks on the author’s.
For the book version that I illustrated, the publisher, Lollipop Power, provided no specific direction for the teacher’s ethnicity, but did ask in a general way that I portray the characters with lots of diversity. I decided to make the teacher black, with shortish natural hair and a beard.
I, too, clothed him in a style of the times, choosing a tight, long-sleeved T-shirt and a pendant. This may have contributed to an impression I’ve seen posted online in more recent years, that the teacher in this story is “so gay!” Although this was expressed as a positive comment, you still have to remember that this wasn’t necessarily a “gay” way to dress in those days. And isn’t it a bit ironic if assumptions are made about a fictional character’s sexual orientation in a story where, first of all, it’s irrelevant and, more importantly, the message is about how people shouldn’t make assumptions and judgments based on the way someone dresses? Even as a positive judgment, it’s still based on an assumption.
Of course, it’s also possible that the “so gay” comment was triggered by the body language ascribed to the postures I gave the character. But that, too, would be based on assumptions about the differences in how gay men and straight men move. In my mind as I drew him, Bruce the teacher was heterosexual, precisely because I wanted to affirm that just because a man is a daycare teacher, that doesn’t mean he’s gay. It’s not that it would be bad if he were gay, it’s just that it’s problematic to perpetuate narrow stereotypes of gender roles and disregard the full spectrum of interests and capabilities of any person of any gender or sexual orientation. Straight men can be just as gentle and nurturing with young children as anyone else, and I attempted to show that through posture. All the postures I gave the character are ones I’ve seen taken by heterosexual men: the leaning to one side with hands on hips and a smile on one’s face, the comforting holding of a child in one’s arms, the kneeling down to help a child tie a knot, the dangling of hands while leaning forward with elbows on spread-apart knees.
If any of these postures are interpreted as indicating that the teacher is gay, isn’t that another irony of falling prey to cultural stereotyping right in the midst of the book’s message being precisely to stop doing that?
In the next post, we’ll move on from the illustrations and the teacher’s different looks, and focus on the text itself to see what he says and does differently between one version of the story and the other. In the meantime, feel free to tell me: how would you have drawn Jesse’s teacher Bruce?
In both versions, the discussion ends on a note that makes Jesse feel better. In the magazine version, after Sarah calls him brave, he looks around and sees “everyone smiling.” It’s not a realistic scenario, since it would likely take more than what Sarah said to convert the naysayers in the group. In the book version, though, the discussion ends with “so many of the children” talking at once that Jesse can’t tell who’s saying what, but everything he hears is positive.
In both versions, it’s at this point that he tells the children about his dream and how he and his mother made the skirt.
In the children’s story Jesse’s Dream Skirt, the main character is a little boy who likes to wear skirts and dresses – in other words, clothes that the society he lives in considers to be appropriate only for girls.
We can leave for another time the debate about where such an idea comes from and how arbitrary it is. For now, I just want to look briefly at the issue of how a parent can be supportive of a child whom some would call a “pink boy” — a boy who is “gender non-conforming.” Continue reading →