Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve At The Edge of America.

Contemplating the end of 2014 here from the roof of a rented house at the top of a hill with a view of the blue, blue ocean and out toward the south, New York somewhere behind me and South America out somewhere past the horizon, everything seems connected in that way that arbitrarily significant dates can make things seem.

As you know, I’m working on a new musical adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. I thought I’d have hours to write lyrics and make up tunes, alone at the house all day while C and my in-laws fry like hushpuppies in the mid-day sun at the beach, but I’ve mostly been reading, and thinking, and gazing. Lots of gazing. And snoozing. What could be sweeter than dozing off in the middle of a paragraph, sitting on a plastic Adirondack chair on the roof of a rented house at the top of a hill with a view of the blue, blue ocean?

The book I’m reading is Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, which, if I’d come across it a few months ago, might have derailed (which is not to say that I wouldn’t have loved it, because it’s a book made for me to love) might have derailed my own sort of fast and loose line (but less like a line and more like a quilt or a pair of darned socks) of thought connecting the Puritans to the mid-19th century and to Reagan and then on to America’s various current wars in the Middle East along with the latest peck-peck-pecking of assorted so-called Christians against women and anyone else they think is being treated too kindly.

It’s a beautiful book, funny and at times very moving (in that American Studies way) and almost too eerily on the nose, as I said. (There’s a photo of Ms. Vowell on the dust jacket, and I kept looking at it trying to remember where I’d seen it and why I felt strangely irritated by it when suddenly yesterday afternoon I remembered that the same photo had accompanied a New York Times op-ed piece I had kind of hated a couple months ago. I had liked the writing but hated the conclusion, which at the time I felt was a bit cowardly. So, remembering my first impression of her writing made me feel even more fond of the book. I’m glad I didn’t realize it was her book before I was way into it and loving it, or I may have either had a chip on my shoulder and been unmoved or possibly not read the book at all.

Anyway, great book. I recommend it, even to those who aren’t already lovers of Puritan trivia and America’s founding ideas.

So, Puerto Rico. One big point on which I diverge with Vowell is that she, despite the harsh criticism she levels, retains a love and faith and optimism regarding America’s uniqueness and promise. I’m struggling. This year I’m really struggling. I’ve always till now felt like the ideal of American democracy could be set apart from all the monstrous things, like slavery, like the slaughter of the indigenous people, like the horrific way we treat our poor and sick, that even though we are flawed and stunted we aspire to justice and equality. Even through the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions I kept hope. Since I discovered Thoreau in 8th grade I’ve thought of my impulse to dissent as the most “American” thing about me. Americans are people who become aware of injustice and they protest. That’s what I thought, and that’s how, even in the face of Vietnam, Reagan, Nicaragua, the government’s response to AIDS, NAFTA, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, I never lost faith.

What’s caused me to lose my grip is the Senate’s torture report – and not the report but the response to it, the bleak news that most Americans are really kind of okay with torturing people. It’s hard to ignore what seems so incredibly clear: that this is who we are, a people who want people whom we feel threatened by to suffer the most intense pain we can imagine and implement.

My life is pretty near perfect, so should I be complaining? I’ve quit my day job. I’m a full-time, independent artist now. I’m only 53, so I hope I have at least a couple decades left to get some work done faster than ever before now that I have suddenly so many more hours in a day. My mother’s health is worlds better this holiday season than last. C’s parents, in lieu of presents and decorating and baking treated us all to a week here in this transportingly and unexpectedly gorgeous place. Until yesterday I would have said I didn’t much care for the ocean, but it turns out it was only the Atlantic (which is trying only to do one thing and that is to kill you) that was my enemy. Here the water beckons, warm and cerulean and softly rolling onto the shore. It wants to lick your face, not bite it off.

The whole family has been piling into the rented SUV with piles of beach chairs and sandwiches, leaving me here to my own devices until 3, when C comes back to fetch me and ice and happy hour bourbon and cokes, so I can enjoy paradise on my own terms -- which means avoiding the blazing mid-day sun and the unpleasantness of my head swelling up like the Goodyear Blimp and then slowly over the course of a week draining out through my sinuses.

Maybe it doesn’t help that I’m doing this year-end reckoning in a place not only beautiful but also so directly connected to 1) Spain’s first voyages to this part of the world and their prompt slaughter and enslavement of the native people they encountered and looting of the land’s resources, and 2) the United States’s first all-out imperial war at the turn of the 20th century. The landscape is prettier than the history.

But maybe I should take heart. The island of Vieques, where I am spending a week with my in-laws in a rented house at the top of a hill with a view of the blue, blue ocean is also the site of one of the most inspiring protests in the history of civil disobedience, where the United States Navy, who had seized most of the island, wrecked the local economy, and left the already poor farmers homeless and even poorer, was after decades of protest forced to leave. Now the land they had used for test bombing and war training is a protected wilderness.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Things End, Things Begin.

The thing I think I'm most looking forward to about not having a day job -- besides just the fact of maybe having enough damn time -- is that I won't have to always try to figure out how to make the distinction between my work and my job, between work and "work," between my work and other people's work. I'll no longer get twisted up in sentences like, "Yes, I'm working; I have the day off." Work will always mean work. When I'm working I will be working.

I guess I'm finally at the tail end of a long transition that began in 2002 when Jay and I separated and we stopped doing Y'all. That period of time -- 10 years with Jay and Y'all -- was so jam-packed with art and love and poverty, sharp turns this way and that, intense experiences of every imaginable type, highs and lows, and over and above all of it an obsessive tenacity, that it took 12 years to feel my feet under me again.

To be honest, it's kind of silly to even speak in these terms, of transitions being over, because haven't we learned by now that nothing ever stops changing? I could just as easily say that the transition ended when I went back to writing musical theater (for whom I have my friends P & H, who called LIZZIE out of the cobwebs and created a reason to re-write it, to thank), or when I moved back to New York (T, who said "Come back," and who gave me a place to land with no end point, no conditions), or when I met C (my ultimate savior), when I married him.

I said goodbye today to the folks I've been working with at the prop shop in Brooklyn for 4 years. When Austin bottomed out and I decided to come back to New York, not having any idea what the hell else made sense to do, I emailed everyone I knew here and asked for help. An old friend, CM, emailed back and said that she might have a job for me. Within a few weeks I was commuting every day to a dusty industrial neighborhood in north Brooklyn to work 9 to 5 in a shop that rents furniture to TV and movie sets.

And just like that, I was back in New York with a place to live, a way to make a living, a musical that was being produced, and then new love, marriage, a reconfigured future.

It's not like I ever forgot how grateful I was for that job when I needed it, but today when CM and I were saying goodbye and she cried a little it became suddenly apparent to me that nothing good ever happens except because I am surrounded by people who care about me. Such a simple, sort of obvious idea, but I'm very moved by it today.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

This Week.

Today I received a rejection letter from a theater I had submitted a play to that said that, although my play is not right for them, they found it "sturdy" and "well written." On one hand, ouch. But on the other, as far as I can remember this is the first rejection letter I've ever received that contained any evidence at all that someone had read the play/watched the film/listened to the songs. It may sound pathetic (though probably not to anyone who's received as many rejection letters as I have -- a.k.a. anyone in any creative field) but I was heartened, in fact moved, by the letter.

And on it goes. "No" is my second favorite answer.

I have a cold, but today was a good writing day. I revised a couple lines of problematic lyrics in one of the Scarlet Letter songs. I haven't shared them with my co-writers yet, but I think they do what they need to do. And I made a stab at another song, which may turn out to be more like just a coda or partial reprise.

I enjoy all the creative work I do, but lyric-writing I think brings me the most pleasure. It's one thing I'm pretty certain I'm good at, so, when I'm writing lyrics, I trust my inner critic to help not sabotage. With other activities, I'm less confident.

I have three more days of nine-to-five. It's exhilarating and scary. I feel like I'm about to jump off a cliff. I keep telling myself that this is by no means the first cliff I've jumped off, and I'm not alone.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Peter Pan And Quitting My Day Job.

So, this week I found myself the great defender of Peter Pan Live! When they (they? I'm not even sure who they are, CBS?) announced last year that they were following up The Sound of Music with Peter Pan, I probably groaned or made some other kind of noise or at least rolled my eyes because Peter Pan? In my memory, it was just dumb and kind of incoherent and really not my favorite musical.

But then it happened, and it was not bad. In fact, I really kind of enjoyed it. (Marijuana helped, but I was loving it even before that.) Granted, the first 20 minutes were boring, but once they started flying I was in. And then the pirates and the dancing and all the fucked-up weirdness of the sex and gender situation, which is weird even without the additional layer of weirdness added by casting (always) an adult woman as Peter Pan, who is a little boy who seduces a pubescent girl who falls in love with him and he calls her "Mother," okay? And meanwhile they're being pursued by a homicidal gay pirate (seriously, maybe Hook's queerness was all very coded and sly back in the fifties but we're onto all that sexual innuendo now).

I think the real reason it's customary to cast a woman as Peter is that it somewhat de-sexes the show. With a boy in the role, it would be too obvious that those scenes between Peter and Wendy are all about sexual desire. And it takes the edge off Hook's obsession with Peter if Peter is a woman.

So, yeah, there was lots of indignation from the high art crowd and blah blah whatever, but what really got my dander up was the talk about Christopher Walken, the sort of glib evaluation of his performance, like "Well, yes, he was entertaining, but he's just doing Christopher Walken." What does that even mean? Sandy Dennis got that a lot, too, Diane Keaton. Jack Nicholson. Some of the greatest actors ever. And did anyone say that about Kelli O'Hara? I love Kelli O'Hara, and Kelli O'Hara does Kelli O'Hara. Ethel Merman did Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters does Bernadette Peters, Mary Martin did Mary Martin. And they are and were great, turning in transporting performance after transporting performance.

What was thrilling to me was seeing Walken, after so much film work, deliver a real musical comedy performance, live. Focused, detailed, specific, and fucking hilarious.

Anyway, so, I loved Peter Pan. Wonders never cease.

Speaking of wonders, I'm leaving my day job. A week from tomorrow is my last day. I envisioned myself writing a blog post about this, but there are so many aspects to it I haven't been able to home in on a way to synthesize my thoughts or even list them coherently.

I've had a couple of brief periods in the past of making a living as an artist with no day job, but they were dependent on specific projects with endpoints in sight. Nothing so open-ended as this. Now I will be a full-time writer. I feel tremendous exhilaration, but not without a streak of apprehension. I could not make this move if I weren't married to a man whose income is enough to make up for the loss of mine. Not that my theater work doesn't produce any income, but it doesn't produce enough to support a life in New York City. Of course, the idea is that with more time to devote to my career, my income will eventually rise. But only eventually. And with no guarantees.

The other day my co-writers on LIZZIE and I were talking about how we'd like to publish some sheet music of a few songs. People ask for it, musical theater students and girls looking for interesting new audition songs. It's an expense: someone has to be paid to turn the score into publishable arrangements and then we have to actually publish them and probably pay someone to administer the sales. A few thousand dollars all told. We were discussing how much we're willing to front, and my point of view was basically that I'm not willing to put up much at all with no guarantee of making it back.

Because 1) I'm just done with that kind of financial optimism. I've thrown too many boxes of unsold CDs into dumpsters after dragging them all over the place for years, CDs that I paid thousands of dollars to have manufactured because I thought they'd sell. Too many. I spent thousands of dollars finishing my film Life in a Box (a lot of it borrowed from friends and credit card advances) because I was sure we'd get a big distribution deal. We didn't. So, yeah, no.

And 2) now that I'm married I share my finances, so any expense that's bigger than just normal spending money and household stuff is a conversation with my husband. It's not that we have approval over each other's spending. I guess we sort of do, technically, but it's not how we experience it. We make decisions together. That's what marriage is. And not that C is stingy or unsupportive -- I'm the thrifty one in our house -- but the fact of the conversation (and not always even having the conversation but just knowing there will be one) makes it easier for me not to be impulsive, to be more rational, sensible.

C's and my income has always been very unequal, but it will get more so now for a while. We're good at working things out. We're good at loving each other. I don't have any doubt that we will adjust, but it will be a new, unfamiliar landscape for a while.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Enjoy these precious days," whisper their leaves.




There's a massive gingko tree in Isham Park, and I pass it every day on my way to and from the subway. It's gorgeous and really huge. I don't know if I'd say that I consider it a friend, but I do sort of say hello to it, or something like that. I acknowledge it. The way the stairs wind down the hill out of the park, heading straight toward it from above, puts the tree suddenly in front of you in a way that makes it impossible not to sort of bow.

The leaves turned bright yellow this week like they do in the fall. I wanted to take a picture on Monday -- I have a friend in Austin who is an amateur botanist obsessed with gingkos and from time to time I'll send him a photo of it -- but I was running late for work so I didn't, thinking I would do it later. The next morning, all the leaves had fallen. Every single one of them, and the sidewalk was paved solid yellow with them. Later that day I read that all the Gingkos all lose their leaves overnight, every tree, all on the same night.

There are thousands of gingkos in New York, in most cities, but the only other one I remember that was so large was in front of the DePauw University library in Greencastle, Indiana, where my mother worked when I was in high school. That tree -- and I don't know if this is exactly how it works but for some reason it's stuck in my head -- was close to another tree of the opposite sex, and when that happens they develop yellow-orange fruit that drop in the fall and stink like fresh vomit and diarrhea and sex. It's a noxious, unsettlingly human smell that seems to drift for miles.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Musical Education, cont.

Because I came at musical theater writing sort of sideways -- I loved the golden age stuff, Cole Porter, Lerner and Lowe, Rogers and whoever, etc., from before I even have any memory of it, probably for no more interesting reason than that I'm gay, but in college I was more interested in serious theater and then I went to art school and then played in bands, because that's what you do after art school, and that led me back to experimental theater which 30 years later has me writing musicals -- there's a whole raft of material from the 70s through the present that I missed.

I used to say sort of glibly that I didn't like Sondheim. (I used to say, even more glibly, that I blamed his influence for most of the contemporary musical theater that I hate, which was not technically a criticism of Sondheim, but it was definitely obnoxious.)

But just a couple nights ago I was telling C a story I had forgotten, that when I was 14 I heard Judy Collins sing "Send in the Clowns" on the radio and I felt like I'd been struck by lightning I was so moved in a way I couldn't have describe then and still probably can't. I had no way of finding out what the song was (I guess I could have called the station but that didn't occur to me) pre-Google, so I sat by the radio for hours listening to that station, my finger poised on the record button of my tape recorder held up to the speaker, waiting for the song to come on again, for days and days. I was haunted by it. It never came on, and it was years before I found out what that song was.

And I love Sweeney Todd, but I always attributed that anomaly to the fact that the original Broadway production with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou was the first Broadway show I saw. I would have been dazzled for life no matter what the show was, was my thinking.

In my defense, there is still a lot of Sondheim I don't really get. I'm looking forward to the movie of Into the Woods coming out soon because I'm hoping Meryl Streep will show me a way into that score that I've never found on my own.

All that to say: a few days ago I was having a conversation with someone about the new piece I'm working on and the music I'm listening to for reference (lots of Americana, with a particular ear to Puritan church singing, Salvation Army bands, Stephen Foster, Appalachian ballads, Sacred Harp, and folky blues), this person mentioned Assassins. The only thing I knew about Assassins was that Neil Patrick Harris was in it on Broadway and that it's about ... assassins.

Intrigued, I downloaded the cast album and listened to it this morning. Wow. I love this so much. I stand happily corrected. I will never again say I don't like Sondheim.


(And now we know what all the reviews will say we cribbed.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tuesday Cat-Blogging.

I get irritated at C when he calls Tuesday my day off, because I think of it as my one day "on." I can't do much of anything on days when I work, except a little business (a few quick emails, the occasional lunch time conference call, or evening meeting), so Tuesday is the day for writing and I feel a lot of pressure to make it productive.

I made some progress on a song today. No real writing, but more like list-making, which is how I usually start lyrics, just a list of lines, ideas, thoughts that I then push around the page until they tell the story I want to tell. Today was just lists.

Now it's almost 3 and my brain hurts, so I'm hoping a bit of blogging will loosen things up.

C called me a cat lady last week. Not literally a cat lady. He was talking about my recent obsessive posting of pictures of the sky and clouds, like some people post and blog about their cats.

But, years ago, I was an actual cat lady. Before the internet. Well, not literally before the internet, but before the era of cats on the internet. Though I haven't had cats now for many years, I think of myself as a cat person. I identify as a cat person. After Gravity died, the last of them, in 2001, I more or less decided that I wouldn't get another cat. Not only did I want to enjoy the freedom of not having to always consider the cats when moving or traveling or whatever, I'd said goodbye to 4 in about 4 years and I was wrung out from cat death. (I also said at one time that I would never fall in love again, so.)

I love seeing my friends' cat photos on facebook. I feel a little left out because I never got to blog about my cats. If I had cats now I'd totally be blogging about them every day.

Better late than never.

This is Honey. He was about 2 months old when I found him cowering on the steps of a building on Pitt Street between Rivington and Stanton. I guess this was 1984. I had just moved there, alone, after breaking up with Eduardo. It was raining and his face was splattered with tar. I took him home. We got to know each other over the next several days while he sat in my lap and I picked the tar off his face gently one speck at a time. He was my friend and companion for 15 years, longer than I've been with any man. I still miss him a lot.

 


He was always thirsty. After all these years, I still compulsively put down the toilet seat cover to keep him from drinking out of it. We found out later that the reason he was thirsty is that he was diabetic and that's what killed him. That's not true,  J and I had him euthanized when we went into diabetic shock. He probably could have been saved and kept alive by giving him injections twice a day for the rest of his life but we decided against that.



This is Jimmy. She was little and black. We got her from a couple of friends who'd adopted her from a shelter but then, I can't remember why, couldn't keep her. Her papers said she was a boy, so we gave her a boy's name. A few months later when she went into heat (we thought she was losing her mind) we took her to the vet and found that her papers also said she was a dog.



This is the apartment in Ft. Greene where I lived with B. He had a cat, Sparky, who I'm holding, who was killed by the landlord's Rottweiler who lived in the backyard. He ran out of our apartment and into the back yard during a party. We and the few party guests who stayed watched him die from our second floor window.


Okay, it's not just cats. This is Karen. We found her at the North Shore Animal League. Is she not the most adorable puppy you've ever seen? Good thing she was cute, because she was a hot mess. Totally neurotic.


 


Here's Honey again. He liked to sit on his butt like a human.


Jimmy was a little freaked out by Karen. She took to peeing on the floor. We tried a million different remedies, including cat Prozac, none of which worked. She peed on the floor every day for months, years, I don't remember how long it was, but it was rough.


Honey was never bothered by anything, really.


Once I took Karen for a long walk to Prospect Park. Just inside the park, she dove face-first into a big pile of homeless-person shit and rolled around in it. I was so angry I thought I would literally explode. She couldn't have been more pleased with herself or more perplexed as to why we were going home already when we just got there. I gave her about 25 baths and I swear I could smell it on her for months.


But I was so in love with that dog. After I told B that I was going to leave him, and before I actually moved out, for weeks I curled up on the bed with Karen every night while B was at work and cried into her fur.


B took Karen and I took Honey and Jimmy.

Three years later, when I moved in with J, he had 2 cats of his own. Gravity, who was a dead ringer for Sparky -- grey tabby, friendly but opinionated -- and in fact for years Sparky was the name that came to mind first when I called him. 


And Natasha, a Siamese mix and completely bonkers. With no warning, she would become possessed by a demon, start yowling and running up and down the curtains.



When I cooked, I had to use my wits and my elbows to keep Honey and Gravity out of the pan. They worked as a team. They didn't care how hot it was, if I looked away for a second one of them would grab a chicken breast or a piece of fish out of the skillet and run as fast they could. Once J and I sat down to eat, sometimes I'd give in and let them lick the pan.



We lived in a small studio apartment with those 4 cats. Looking back it seems crazy but we and they were all pretty happy with the arrangement.


This is a weird double-exposure but it's the only photo I have of all 4 of them together. Look at Jimmy (the black one). She liked to sit next to Honey and push her face into his fur. She'd stay like that as long as he'd let her, and he was so imperturbable it could last for half an hour sometimes.


And this is my favorite picture of Honey. We have it framed on the living room bookshelf. Oh, those eyes.