Friday, September 16, 2016

Anxiety & Resentment, Song & Dance.

I woke up with Lida Rose in my head this morning, not sure why, but it sent me down a Music Man rabbit hole on Youtube and I ended up watching the Rock Island song half a dozen times because once is not enough.

One thing that (kind of, sometimes, temporarily) works for me to stop myself from freaking out for a minute or two about this doomsday election season is to pull the focus back and look at history and culture with a wider lens. (Now that I see that sentence typed out, I realize that's what I try to do to stop myself from freaking out about anything pretty much.)

It's fascinating to me how certain phrases become ubiquitous suddenly in certain elections. People used the expressions "economic anxiety" and "cultural resentment" long before this year but now you can hardly read an article about the presidential election without stumbling over them. (I love Google Ngram Viewer -- turns out "economic resentment" had a big spike in the early 1940s then waned, but is now shooting way up. "Cultural resentment" didn't even appear until 1944, spiked in the late 1960s, and is also way up now.)

I have no great insight to offer, but it occurred to me that many (most?) of the canonical American musicals are about economic anxiety and cultural resentment. Here's another from The Music Man (the original rap musical, btw):

And this, from the great Trevor Nunn production of Oklahoma:


And West Side Story, Gypsy, South Pacific, Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls. Seriously, there aren't many that are not about one or the other or both.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Farm.

My brother Michael is doing some work in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin this week and decided to go see the farm in Gurnee, Illinois where Mom grew up. Gurnee used to be a tiny farm town among many tiny farm towns outside of Waukegan, corn and soybeans in flat, square fields separated by straight, narrow country roads. The plain white clapboard house Mom grew up in sat on one of those roads, which used to be called Grange Hall Road and it was gravel when she was a girl, but by the time my siblings and I were kids and we visited, they'd changed the name to Washington Street and paved it with blacktop. Many years ago, decades ago, they built a Six Flags down the road, and now the whole area is suburban retail sprawl indistinguishable from any other suburban retail sprawl. Way back when, going into the “city” meant Waukegan; now Gurnee and Waukegan and the whole region are basically part of greater Chicago.

The farmhouse is now owned and used as office space by the city or county. Mike texted my sister and me a photo of it last night, “completely renovated” he said, but looking at the photo I can’t make out the original house under the additions and new siding. Mom visited it several years before she died and said that the inside was basically the same layout, her old bedroom now an office.

I have memories of the house, but they’re spotty. I haven’t been there since I was 10 and my grandfather, Mom’s dad, died. Soon after that, Mom had an epic falling out with her mother, my grandmother, and we never went back. From that time -- though my mom kept in touch with her sisters, neither of whom had a warm relationship with their mother who was by all accounts a mean, bitter woman -- my mother never saw her mother again. Her name was Elsie. I think she liked me. I have nice memories of hanging out with her in the kitchen. I remember her being fun, making me laugh, though I couldn’t give you an example. The last communication between Mom and her mother, a long letter Elsie sent my mom after a disagreement about money and my grandfather's estate, excoriating every member of Mom’s new family, my dad, his parents, my brother, she did not single me out for any particular abuse. (I’m sure this letter is still in the lockbox my parents kept in a closet with all their “important papers." We used to get it out and read it from time to time.)

Or that’s how I remember it. If I ever write a memoir, I’m sure I’ll have to go on Oprah and apologize for making it all up.

Mom with her brother Jimmy
Jimmy, Elsie, Mom, and Don
Mom’s brothers both still lived at home and they both made the clean break with their sister along with Elsie. Don, the youngest, was maybe 19, and Jimmy was a few years older. They lived at home with their mom to the end. That’s not completely true: at some point Jimmy, who had Down’s Syndrome, moved into a “home." Mom visited him there many years later, after Elsie died, and she said that at that point (he would have been in his sixties) he didn’t recognize her or engage much with the world at all any more. Even after they sold the Gurnee farm and moved to Missouri where they bought another small farm — Don never married and he ran the farm. Mom went down to Missouri for Elsie's funeral and reunited with Don, but too much time had passed and it wasn't a satisfying reunion.

Mom’s two sisters, one older and one younger, both moved to Southern California and Mom kept in touch with them by letter and phone but they never visited. Their lives, I think, were chaotic and marginal and Mom was fine with them being some distance away.

I think this might be Mom's older sister Carol. That's Carol's son, Donnie, my cousin. I remember meeting him once or twice but never really knew him.

Mom's sister Nicki (nee Susan -- she changed her name as an adult, but I don't think the family ever really accepted the new one.)
Nicki with a cow
Nicki with a pigeon
Before the split, we used to visit the farm once or twice a year. We never spent the night there. Mom said it was always dirty and she didn’t want her children crawling around on the filthy floor. We stayed with Aunt Alice (Elsie’s sister and sort of a surrogate mother to my mom — when Elsie and my grandfather Emil were having one of their screaming and throwing-things fights, Mom would weather the storm with her beloved sweet Aunt Alice) and Uncle Oscar who lived nearby in Libertyville.

But we would visit, and in my memory we spent long days there, following Grandpa around the farm while he did his chores. I loved the cats that were seemingly everywhere. I hated the cow barn, a disgusting dark place that smelled so foul I thought I’d pass out. I’m still haunted by the image of a cow’s anus opening up to let out great masses of shit which would land with a splash on the concrete. It was Don’s job to kill a chicken for dinner. He’d bring it from the coop in a wooden cage out to a stump under a tree, pull it out by its legs, place its neck on the stump and take its head off with one clean swing of the hatchet. It would bounce around for a while but when it stopped, he’d throw it into a big pot of scalding water and then furiously yank all its feathers out. I don’t remember having any other reaction to this event except being dumbstruck. My Uncle Don was tall, masculine, and usually silent. He had severe acne on his face and back. I was mesmerized by him.

No one ever went in or out of the front door of the farm house. The back door opened onto a gravel drive that swung around the house from the road. When you stepped in, you could go down some steps to a cellar that always smelled of rotten eggs. The DeMeyers kept chickens and sold eggs. It was Mom’s job when she was a girl to gather the eggs; she hated it and chickens.

But if you turned left at the landing and went up a few steps you were in a big kitchen with a large table in the middle. I remember a breadbox (Grandpa brought home bread from the bakery wrapped in white waxed paper) and the round metal appliance on the counter that pasteurized the milk they brought in from their cows. I remember Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table eating a yellow onion like it was an apple. The rest of the house is vaguer still. Through a sort of wide hall with a staircase to one side was the living room. There was a couch against the front wall where I remember Jimmy sitting, flanked by his two older sisters crying and trying to explain to him that his dad was not coming home from the hospital. The phrase “no hope” has not once since then — I was ten when Grandpa died — not carried that memory when I hear it, no matter the context.

Grandpa was a large, boxy, gruff man. My mother’s sisters, both rebellious, had stories of abuse that my mom did not find completely credible. Mom was his clear favorite, the apple of his eye. I found him terrifying, but I’m moved when I remember that, when we visited, he always made a special trip to a local beverage distributor to buy a case of returnable bottles of orange and grape and lemon-lime soda for my brother and sister and me to drink while we were there. We were immensely grateful because the well water tasted of sulphur, the milk had a layer of cream on top which we found disgusting, and their orange juice had pulp in it. At home we drank Tang.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to go off on a long reverie about the farm in Gurnee. Getting that text from Mike with the photo of the house on the eve of Mom’s birthday today sent me down a rabbit hole.

Nicki and Don
Mom. These pictures were taken I think shortly after Mom and Dad got married.
Nicki (with a duck, or goose?) and my cousin Don
Uncle Jimmy
Mom. She must have borrowed that coat from Grandma Lenore, Dad's mother.
Mom with her brother Jimmy
Uncle Jimmy and my cousin Don
Nicki, Don, and Jimmy in the house. Mom's wedding picture on the table.
Dad and Mom. Elsie never liked the Chesliks.
Dad and Jimmy. The house in the background. That sidewalk leads to the back door.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


We were in Indiana at my Dad’s house the morning of the Orlando massacre.

We spent the weekend with my Dad, my sister and brother and their families. C’s mom and dad, with his brother and sister-in-law, passed through to pick us up on their way from North Carolina to a family gathering in Wisconsin. Our two families spent Sunday evening together, and then Monday morning we joined C’s family in their RV and continued up to join C’s father’s siblings and their families at C’s aunt and uncle’s cottage on a small lake in farm country a few hours west of Milwaukee.

This morning, a week later, we’re waiting in the Indianapolis airport, on our way home after a week jam-packed with reunions of various branches of both sides of the family. Families within families within families.

I remember the first time I heard the word “family” used to note that someone was gay. My ex-boyfriend, the man I lived with for six years in my twenties, and I, along with a lesbian couple, close friends, were on a weekend getaway in the Poconos at a rustic gay retreat in the mountains. There was a small lodge, a few log cabins, a pool. The place had seen better days, and the other guests were mostly older than us. I think it was called Rainbow Ranch. Even at that time, the late 1980s, this place felt like traveling to a time when gay people had to hide in the woods. I was eavesdropping on a conversation among a group of women sitting by the pool, discussing, I think, a co-worker, and one of them, smiling slyly, said something like, “I think he’s family.”

This was during my strident Queer Nation days, when a quaint code word for gay felt like a slightly embarrassing relic. Around this time, gay and lesbian organizations were starting to put the words “gay” and “lesbian” in their names, rather than the more coded “lavender” or “rainbow” or “lambda.” But we, in our 20s, full of indignation and full of ourselves, were OUT. We didn’t need code. We were not only out of the closet, we had blown up that closet and we were blowing up other people’s closets while we were at it. Looking back, I think our chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” was directed not just at the straight world but at that older, more timid generation of queer people. Our elders. Family.

I am sad and deeply ashamed to think now of how I sneered.

I don’t know if younger queers use the expression “acquired family” still like we did. Since we are born into families that, to some extent, reject us, we make our pilgrimages to cities, to gayborhoods, to gay bars, clubs, bowling leagues, where we make friends with people who share our experience, and those friends have, historically, been more reliable in times of crisis, times of celebration, sickness, fear. They are the ones we truly share our lives with when our biological families hold us at a distance. It's not everyone's story, but it's the story.

Gay marriage, the argument goes, allows us to be integrated into our biological families in a way that lessens the need to go off somewhere and create a new family. By emulating heterosexual family arrangements, we become recognizable as normal members of traditional families. And I’m married, so I know that that is to some extent true. To experience that has been a deeply moving surprise. Yet, despite the completely unforced outpouring of love and support I have felt from C’s family, I still take a deep breath every time he introduces me to a new member of that family. “This is my husband, Steven.” The word husband feels like driving fast up a big hill not knowing what’s on the other side.

When I read Sunday morning that 20 people had been shot to death by a man with an assault rifle in a gay dance club in Florida, I felt like I couldn’t breath. And then it was 50. (I still can’t figure out if the media is saying 49 now instead of 50 because they decided the gunman doesn’t count as a victim.) And then I was having breakfast, and then C’s family was there and we all ate pizza and played croquet and in a house of very mixed political leanings you don’t talk about current events, especially not one that simultaneously brings up the topics of terrorism, gun control, and homophobia, and then we were in a big RV headed to Wisconsin to spend a week on a lake with a house full of Catholic Republicans.

The only place -- besides the odd stolen private moment with my husband --where I felt like I could relax and be honest about what I was feeling was on Facebook, and even that forum became fraught with danger when a family member started posting snarky NRA memes mocking calls for stricter gun control laws, which drew me into an argument about gun violence statistics, which is not how I want to mourn.

I hope I don't sound ungrateful for the generosity, the company, the love of my in-laws. C's aunt and uncle's Midwestern hospitality is a wonder. His aunt, who is in her 70s, rarely stops moving, cooking, serving, fetching something you need, something you might need, something she thinks you should have. And they all have the accent of my mother's people who are also from that part of Wisconsin and Illinois. Deep inside somewhere I feel at home there, with family. And the lakeside practically begged you to sit in a lawn chair with a book, and I was moved by the Sherman Alexie stories I was reading, so I cried a little. And then you know how it is: once you start, your brain looks for other things to cry about.

Queer people of my generation and older talk about the death of gay culture, a casualty of online hookups, increased visibility and acceptance, civil rights victories, integration into our biological families, gentrification, new ways of seeing ourselves that make things like drag and park cruising “problematic” for some younger queers. As we become folded into mainstream culture, we lose urgency to make our own. Gay bars and bookstores and bathhouses keep closing and closing.

Ironically, sadly, I take heart knowing that, though it might transform, gay culture will not die. I’m bad at math, but I feel pretty confident, even with more and more queers raising children, most of us will continue to be born into families who don’t understand us, don’t recognize us, don’t want us, we will always have the need to grope our way to those who do, people who share our experience of being different, misunderstood, dismissed, unsafe.

Our biological families may, over the great expanse of time, come to be less freaked out, love us more, but right now, even families like mine and C’s, who love us without condition and welcome our marriage don’t understand what it feels like to listen to our right to live in safety and dignity debated in the media every day, what it feels like to grow up knowing that we are still considered by the people and the laws of vast swaths of the U.S. to be unworthy of equal rights, knowing that there are a good number of people in nearly every crowd who find us disgusting, knowing that there are places here and all over the world we can’t visit for fear of being shouted at, beaten, shot, or thrown off the top of buildings. Most of Africa, the Middle East, and Mississippi are not safe for us to visit.

In the late 80s and early 90s, my friends and I would survey the crowd at Pride events, the old lesbians in rainbow tie-dye and mullets, the aging disco queens drinking Bud Lite, and say, “This is the gay community? What do I have in common with these people?” But all week and right now, I am depleted of the energy it takes to act like I feel safe because I don’t want my whole life to revolve around the drama of my persecution. I’m tired of listening to people who don’t understand. What I wouldn’t give for a couple of old lesbians in rainbow tie-dye and mullets to cry with. I want to be with my family.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


I don't have anything particularly insightful to say about this, but these 3 items about my neighborhood appearing simultaneously this morning was striking:

Katz's sells its air rights for a lot of money. The rest of the block is doomed.

And this about religious freedom and elevators.

And this from our Co-op Facebook group:
This is how East River's Orthodox community celebrates Earth Day in our park. These people are religious fundamentalists who only care about their own community. Nothing else matters to them. They lied to us telling us that they would empty & return the trash cans to their original locations. They certainly cannot complain about the loss of their religious freedoms. Their arrogance is repugnant. Tomorrow is Friends of Corlear's Hook Park's first clean up day of the season. Now we have no trash cans for our event.

Friday, April 15, 2016

What Am I Afraid Of?

I've been insisting that this primary vote, for me, is not just a matter of deciding whose values align with mine (that would be Sanders) but rather a process of contemplating different possible consequences of a Clinton or Sanders presidency. A good friend asked me what I'm afraid of with a Sanders presidency, which is a good question and here's my answer:

This is what I’m afraid of:

He’s unable to pass any of his legislative priorities in Congress because of GOP opposition, which will be fierce. I guess it’s possible he learns how to compromise and he gets some laws passed, but that would infuriate his diehard supporters to whom he promised no compromise.

So either because of anger over a diluted agenda, or disillusionment because nothing gets done, he loses his core of support which, to my eyes, is based on the idea that we elect him and he’ll ride into Washington on a white horse and make everything good again.

Having lost faith in the very idea that voting can change anything, his former supporters don’t vote in 2018, and the GOP lockhold on Congress is further entrenched. And they stay home in 2020 because they no longer believe that electing a “progressive” president can break up the banks, ban fracking and Monsanto, overturn Citizens United, make peace in the Middle East, send Wall Street into a giant sinkhole, and deport the Koch Brothers, McDonalds, and Walmart. The left in general loses support, loses steam.

And we end up with Cruz or someone similarly grotesque as president in 2020, all 3 branches of the federal government are controlled by theocrats and every small gain liberals have made in the last century or two are rolled back one by one, and on and on till the day I die.

That’s pretty much what I’m afraid of.

Of course all the above puts aside the question of who has a better chance of defeating a Republican. People have strong opinions on both sides. I happen to think Clinton has a much better chance, but it's really all guesswork at this point.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


When Mom died, I felt like I was the only one saying the words "died" or "dead." The words felt harsh coming out of my mouth because everyone was avoiding them. It's sort of how I felt when I moved to Tennessee from New York and had to stop saying "fuck" because people would react like I'd shot them in the face with a squirt gun.

I've gotten used to people saying "passed away," but I don't really like it. It reminds me of how people supposedly often fart upon dying, which Mom did not do -- her lower bowel was not connected so no gas had passed through it for 2 years. The woman died. Can we just say she died? Euphemisms rob the event of its seriousness, its profundity, its finality.

When Mom was sick, I hated all the military metaphors people slip into when someone has cancer. As I saw it, she wasn't battling cancer, she was treating a disease so she could live longer and better. The point was to live longer in order to enjoy her life, not to be locked in battle with a deadly foe. But after she died, the metaphor made perfect sense to me. She had fought like a dog for her life, no doubt about it. She had an ugly, painful disease and she beat it back valiantly for years. Years in which her appreciation for her life deepened and in which our appreciation for her and each other deepened. It was a battle well fought. And I feel like she won it.

This article is not as interesting as it could be, because it only considers obituary language, which is determined by factors like whether or not people pay for their obits so they can submit something written by the family, or whether only a "death announcement" is allowed. Also, newspapers have style guides that I would think maybe limit the expressions allowed. It's not everyday language. I mean, "entered eternal rest"?

It makes me smile to remember Mom so often, sitting at the kitchen table in the morning, reading the obituaries in their local Muncie paper and snickering at things like So-and-so was called home to Jesus, or So-and-so was carried on the wings of angels up to her Lord and Savior."

I inherited my mom's love of laughing at the hicks and though I don't necessarily love it in myself I embrace it as a sometimes necessary survival tactic, especially in rural Indiana, the land of compulsory Jesus-is-my-best-friend Christianity.

Monday, April 4, 2016

North Carolina Wants Less Gay? We'll Give It Less Gay.

I haven't been able to find information about whether or not other writers are joining Stephen Schwartz's boycott of North Carolina. I hope they will. Some of us might be boycott weary -- I know I felt like we jumped the shark with Target -- but this one is, I think, perfectly targeted and worthwhile. (I don't have any prospective productions in North Carolina, so I haven't been faced with this decision.)

This is serious stuff. It doesn't just mean the Broadway tour of Wicked -- which alone is huge, since those tours bring tons of jobs and revenue to cities. It means no high school productions of Godspell. No community theater stagings of Pippin. Stephen Schwartz's shows get produced a lot.

I feel for the commenter on this blog, a North Carolina theater producer, who says the boycott unfairly targets theater people, who are "compassionate of and fight for the equal rights of everyone." I'm sure it sucks for them to be the target of so much vitriol right now, and to be worried about the financial effect of a boycott on their institutions. But then he says later, "There are more compassionate, educated people in North Carolina than there are morons who want to set the state back fifty years." If that's true, then a boycott is asking you to prove it.

Seeing a boycott through the lens of who is being punished misses the point. Boycotts are not punishment, they're a call to action. They're meant to put pressure on people to change things. All you "compassionate, educated people in North Carolina": write letters, make phone calls, protest. And vote the morons out of office. We can't do that from here.

The comparisons to South African apartheid and Jim Crow are dramatic. Some may find them over-dramatic. But I doubt it seems that way to transgender people in North Carolina who are by law now prohibited from using public bathrooms.