Saturday, November 21, 2015

What Moment?

This is an interesting piece in the LA Times on a topic I've been pondering a lot lately.

I don't see this as any kind of "moment in American playwriting." Fearless writers didn't just appear suddenly in the last couple of years. They're always around. What happened is that it became trendy to produce this kind of work in the New York non-profit theaters that champion the work of young writers. By "this kind of work," I mean plays that are essentially about politics, or even about a certain political stance, and just use narrative as something to hang the politics on. These plays exist less to tell a story about people's lives and relationships than to make a point -- about racism, about homophobia, misogyny, religion, capitalism, colonialism, etc.

Maybe it's less a difference of type than of degree, I don't know. A Streetcar Named Desire and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have plenty to say about class and gender. But you don't leave those plays feeling like you've been to an undergraduate lecture. Whatever messages are there are subtle and, for that reason, I would argue, more powerful, more lasting. If something is handed to us we value it less than if we had to make an effort to find it.

I don't know what's "fearless" about this "new" kind of play. It's incredibly popular in the circle in which it gets attention, wins awards and grants, gets produced. Is it fearless for me to post a clip of Rachel Maddow going off on Republicans on my Facebook page, when all my friends agree with me? It seems to me lately that it's much riskier to not be making explicitly liberal political work, because nobody's interested.

I like some of these plays, dislike some of them, but what I'm waiting for is the next moment, the one where we can get back to telling stories about people, without the need to hammer a political point, without all the dog whistles reassuring us that our politics are correct. Lord knows I love the politics, and I'll talk to you till the sun comes up about the political implications of a play. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, colonialism, religion, and the rest are some of my very favorite topics. But I'm weary of being lectured to in the theater.

Polemic often has to rely on over-simplification in order to be persuasive. But human beings in the world -- which is what I think plays should be about -- are endlessly complex.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Past, Etc.

I'm sitting here feeling weepy and sad, happy and nostalgic. Like one does on a rainy Thursday afternoon in the city. Some poet or other said that there can never be too much love. I disagree, on logical grounds. The more love, the more loss, and I know for sure that, at least for my taste, there definitely can be too much loss.

I haven't had much success writing the last couple months, nothing I sit down to write about seems important enough to spend the time. For a long time I couldn't concentrate to read, either, but slowly I'm finding myself able to calm my mind enough to read fiction if it's not too dense.

I'm reading Dancer From the Dance. I want to say re-reading, because I'm almost nearly certain I've read it before, but I have no recollection. In my twenties, I frequented A Different Light book store on Hudson and burned through the gay canon. Rechy's City of Night and Numbers, all the Edmund White, all the Isherwood, E.M. Forster's Maurice, all the Genet. Somehow I skipped Faggots. I think even at that age I'd heard that Larry Kramer was reactionary and to be avoided, and besides I leaned more toward the transgressive, like Pat Califia's Macho Sluts, all of Dennis Cooper, and a lot of non-fiction, including a great book of essays on leather culture called Urban Aboriginals which contained an explanation of why fist-fucking feels good that I can practically quote to this day.

So I may have read Dancer from the Dance then but I know for sure that, though I'm sure I would have loved the gorgeous camp, the glimpse of a rarified world that maybe I thought myself a part of but really only glanced the death throes of, I was in no state to appreciate the deep sadness of it, the absolute realness of the longing and grief.

People who know me, or who don't know me but read the things I write here, must think I'm obsessed with the sadness of aging and loss, the passage of time, and I guess often I am. I don't know how one could be 54 years old and not.

I saw two plays last week. One was a new musical. I write musicals, so I'm supposed to keep up with what's new and this one got a lot of positive attention, so ... I hated this show, thought it was just all hip, cute surface with nothing to say, and I somewhat condescendingly attributed its shallowness to the youth of its creators, though as I type this I realize I have no idea how old they are, I'm just surmising based on the fact that the music sounded like Mumford and Sons but with no happy songs.

And the other show I saw, which made me laugh harder than I've laughed in ages and sob, too, was a new play called "Steve," produced by the New Group, about a group of, basically, theater queens in New York and their lesbian friend who is dying of cancer. I loved this play.

C and I are spending Thanksgiving with my family in Indiana. When you get married and have 2 families you want to spend holidays with, you come up with a system, and our system for Thanksgiving, successful so far, has been to alternate years. This year, which only coincidentally happens to be the first Thanksgiving after my mother's death, is our year to go to Indiana. So for the last several days, my brother and sister and I have been coordinating menu and travel plans and trying to get used to saying "Dad's house."

Friday, November 6, 2015

If I Were A Carpenter.

The other day at rehearsal, a dear friend of mine told me that she hears a bit of The Carpenters in the songs I'm writing for my new musical about Hester Prynne. I love The Carpenters, don't remember not loving The Carpenters, so I'm sure The Carpenters are deeply embedded in my songwriter brain.

"Goodbye To Love," which Richard Carpenter wrote with John Bettis (lyrics), was and is my favorite Carpenters song, maybe my favorite pop song. I was obsessed with this song when I was a little gay tween and still swoon when it comes on whatever oldies station might be on at the grocery store or wherever.

I loved the whole greatest hits album (the one with the brown cover) but this song especially, and especially the ending. When the song ended, I'd pick up the needle and play it again and again, and then after I'd heard the whole song a few dozen times I'd try to put the needle back down at the exact spot where that "aaaaaaaaahhh" chorus starts, and then the fuzz guitar solo comes in and the song fades, and I'd play just that part over and over and over. Ecstasy.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Old and In The Way.

A surprising and intense, I hesitate to call it a "symptom of grief," so maybe just "effect of my mom's death"? lately has been a visceral fear of death. How obvious could that be? But I didn't see it coming.

It's been said a few billion times, but the experience of watching someone die, of being in the presence of a person alive in her body, and then she's gone though her body remains, is deeply puzzling, disorienting, enough to turn one's thoughts to the spiritual. The mystery and sheer terror of the possibility of nothingness that that experience provokes might easily and neatly make a lifetime of confidence in the idea that consciousness is just a biological function sound, in one's head, like the contrariness of a third-grader. I mean, she was just gone. There. And then gone.

Mom was 75. I'm 54. That's not a lot of time. C gets mad at me when I say things like that, but he can't argue with the math.

Every night for years now I have, before I get under the covers, massaged my feet with lotion. I started doing it because I had dry cracked callouses, but it's grown into something else, a sort of meditation, a moment of gratitude for my feet, a little love for a body I'm not generally so charitable toward. In the period of time I've been performing this nightly ritual, the arthritis in my feet has gotten steadily worse. I spend the whole day beating my feet to shit, pushing the limits of the pain. At night they are swollen and sore and that massage before sleep some nights makes me feel like I could cry. I know it sounds weird but there's something moving about it.

Two weeks ago, I had surgery on one foot and next month I will have the same surgery on the other foot, to alleviate the effects of the arthritis. As my doctor puts it, "We go in, break the toe, put in a steel pin, scrape off all the extra stuff that's built up, and put it back together."

This is the first medical intervention into the aging of my body. And since aging is a linear process, it's the first of many. In other words -- though I consider myself lucky to have good health insurance, lucky to live in an age when many things that used to kill people dead are now small inconveniences, an outpatient surgery, an antibiotic -- it's all downhill from here. Knowing that 50 is the new 40 is not reassuring. Ten years go by quickly. I have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it.

Speaking of aging, maybe it's just the particular alignment of my thoughts lately but I keep having encounters that make me feel dated, obsolete, like I live in a long-rejected paradigm, as if any contribution I may have made was a long time ago and now I'm just tolerated, allowed to linger, slightly embarrassingly, in a world I don't understand, let alone control, anymore.

I was in the elevator going up to the rehearsal studio last week, listening to a conversation between 2 young actors about what I don't remember except that it was littered with references to Starbucks, "when I was in line at Starbucks," "no, not that Starbucks, the one on 8th Avenue," "when she used to work at Starbucks," etc. The conversation was not about Starbucks, Starbucks was just a feature of the landscape of their lives. We -- I, others who've been here for a long time, people who remember -- rail against the incursion of chain stores in New York, but seriously, these kids don't care how I feel about Starbucks. Or Walmart, or 7-11. To them, complaining about Starbucks must make as much sense as complaining about sidewalks, or windows, or air. All our resistance to these things doesn't make them go away, will never change things back to how they were. And the people who arrived here to a New York with 3 banks and a Starbucks on every corner -- and fell in love with that New York -- would just be annoyed if it did change back.

Which leaves me feeling relief and despair in equal measure. There are 2 ways of looking at resistance. One is the Buddhist view that our resistance to, our clenching against, things we see as bad, rather than the thing itself, is what causes us pain. Or, along the same lines, the Quaker idea that "way will open," meaning that if we are on the right path, resistance will dissolve. But on the other hand, there's the more Judeo-Christian view that there are always evil forces opposing the good, the true, the right, and that we must remain strong, resolute, in our struggle to vanquish them. Which is it? Fuck if I know.

Another thing I've noticed the last few weeks is that everyone is talking about Blue Apron, which is this service where you pick out a recipe online and they deliver to you all the pre-measured ingredients to cook it at home. Finally, this thing -- cooking at home! -- that has been completely unmanageable for busy city dwellers, is within reach!

Nothing has made me feel more old-fashioned and less like everyone around me, recently. And not even in a stuck-in-the-80s way but more like a 50s Betty Crocker way, which is truly disturbing. Blue Apron's selling point is that it solves the problem people constantly cite about home cooking: too much waste. "I don't cook at home because you have to buy the whole head of celery when you only need 2 stalks, so I end up throwing the rest away." There's no waste if you, like, use the rest of the celery. I call bullshit. New Yorkers, who have to walk by steaming bags of foul, rotting restaurant garbage every morning on their way to the train can't tell me they're unaware of how much food restaurants throw away. It's not like I'm expecting people to buy a whole cow and feed themselves all winter, but is it really such an ordeal to keep a few pantry staples around and figure out how to get 3 meals out of a chicken?

(There's a great article in the Times today that touches on this subject. I don't know the writer, but the photos look like memories to me, and a few of the people in them were my friends back then. She captures something simple and vivid about what it felt like to come of age in New York, downtown, in the early 80s. I remember then having no doubt that New York was at the forefront of culture and that the East Village was at the very cutting edge of the forefront. That culturally there was no more advanced place anywhere in the world. And that was exactly the reason I wanted to be there and couldn't imagine being anywhere else. Arguably, it was true, but I think what I discovered by leaving the city for 12 years (1998-2010) is that it is true in a mostly superficial way. And it's left me with the infuriating and sort of useless feeling that no time and place will ever be as inspiring, as vivid, as eye-opening, as vital.)

Thursday, October 29, 2015


It's been almost 3 months since Mom died. For the first two months, I had no dreams of her, and I felt cheated because people talk about loved ones visiting them in dreams and why not me since I miss her so much?

Then a few weeks ago she appeared briefly in a dream, and now I dream of her nearly every time I sleep.

There are 2 types of dreams:

In one, she's helpless, barely conscious, in a nightgown. There's usually someone else there, too. We're trying to move her from one place to another, but her body is limp and she keeps sliding out of our grasp. It's like trying to move a giant sandbag. The details of the dream are less important than the feeling of holding her limp body. The sensation is familiar -- it comes from my last day with her, when she was in great pain again, at home, trippy from the morphine that we keep giving her more and more of to no effect, and Dad and I had to get her to the hospital in Indianapolis because her vital signs were tanking. Certain sequences from that day have been playing like home movies over and over in my head every day since she died.

In the second type of dream, she suddenly appears and I'm ecstatic, but I know not necessarily that it's a dream but that this visit, this time with her back from the dead, will be extremely brief and I need to inhale as much of it as I can as quickly as I can. I hold her close, my face inches from hers, and tell her over and over how much I miss her.

When I wake up from the first type of dream, which I have more often than the other, I don't really feel anything unusual or notable.

When I have the second type, I wake up feeling desolate.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

By Way of Explanation.

I haven’t blogged in such a long time because I don’t know how to write about my mother’s death. I know this isn’t the first time I’ve written that I don’t know how to write about something, but those other times it was just a matter of sitting down and writing and, then, I’d find myself writing about whatever it was I didn’t know how to write about. But I’ve tried many times since she died to write something, and it seems even that I’m constantly in my head formulating sentences about it that I, after a few minutes or hours, hate. Nothing I come up with is true.

Two possible reasons stand out: One, it’s too big, it defies the format, writing is how I figure things out, organize my thoughts, make sense of things, and this cannot be figured out, made sense of, organized. And two, in some fundamental way I feel like I don’t even know who I am without my mom, as an artist, but even more generally as a man, as a person.

As I move through the day, I find every mental thread has no origin. It just ends in mid-air at the thought, “But she’s not here anymore.” No anchors, no reference points. Those threads held my world together. I guess that mental process was involuntary, subconscious, or at least so habitual -- and complete -- that it didn’t usually register, because I was never so aware as I am now how I must have experienced everything as my mother’s son. And now it’s just me.

It’s not exactly correspondent to the brute sadness of the loss, which is intense and real, the longing that wells up and I want to just collapse and cry, but more like just a change in the order of the universe.

Since discovering, not as long ago as I might have wished, that my most effective, and affecting, writing was the closest to the bone, the stuff that hurt when it came out, that embarrassed me even sitting here alone typing, that those were the stories or the details within stories that “worked,” I have written about failure, about sex with strangers, about new love, STDs, a painful breakup, my marriage, skin diseases, fear of aging, fear of the gym.

I’ve grown to love this kind of intimate confessional writing because it calms my mind, and because it connects. In the sunshine and shared, the embarrassing, shameful, painful thoughts and experiences become less embarrassing, less shameful, less painful. And everybody apparently is full of shame and embarrassment and pain.

So I want badly to write about my mother’s death. But I don’t want to share my thoughts until I feel more sure of them. I’m as far from sure as I could be.

Friday, September 4, 2015

I'd Dance on the Grave of That Post Office If I Could.

This news gave me some perverse pleasure this morning.

I've been reading letters from the early 80s, research for something I'm thinking about writing. Many of them are from my mother and I'm, not surprised because I remember it well, but amused or amazed or something by how much we wrote about the Peter Stuyvesant Post Office on 14th and 1st. That place was some kind of black site for packages or a portal to hell or just a clusterfuck of bureaucracy and poverty and I don't give a shit about your mail.

I had a P.O. box when I lived on 10th between 1st and A. They'd put a yellow slip of paper in my box to let me know that I had a package. I'd wait in line, and wait and wait, and then more often than not they wouldn't be able to find the package. More than once, the package was just gone without a trace. Two or three times, they found it months later, beat to shit like they'd been kicking it up and down the stairs all that time, and of course everything in it was smashed.

Mom used to send me care packages from time to time. (Reading her old letters, I'm struck by how much she worried about me. I must have shrugged a lot of that off at the time. If you'd asked me before I started reading these letters, I wouldn't have said that she worried more than a little that my life was so precarious back then.) After a loaf of banana bread arrived weeks later moldy, she stopped sending homemade perishables. Eventually she stopped sending packages at all, at least until I moved to Brooklyn. (U.P.S. sucked almost as bad. If you weren't home to receive a package, you had to go to Siberia or Hell's Kitchen or something to retrieve it and we were back then very much opposed to going above 14th St.)

I think the Stuyvesant P.O. has been closed for years, but they're finally getting around to tearing it down. I am not sorry to see it go. In fact, if I knew when that wrecking ball was going to swing, I'd walk up there just to see it crumble.