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.


Friday, October 31, 2014

The East Village.

I don't know what happened last night.

After work I went to the East Village for a writing session at my friend and co-writer L's apartment, but it didn't start until 6:30, so, as usual when I have time to kill in the East Village and I'm alone, I had dinner at Veselka (I say when I'm alone, because C doesn't like Veselka).

The restaurant looks very different from when I lived in the neighborhood, but enough of it remains (the counters in front, the big display case of cookies by the cash register) and the chicken soup, and really all the food, is exactly the same, which is why I go there. I loved it then, love it now, and it's a reassuring place to land in a neighborhood that has, since I returned to New York 4 years ago, made me feel very sad no matter how hard I brace myself against it.

C and I have been saving up a down payment because we want to buy an apartment. We have lots of conversations about where we'd like to live. It's mostly a conversation about location vs. affordability. We both like it in Inwood, and there are big apartments up here that we could never afford in say midtown or downtown. So there's always the question of how much space would you sacrifice to be more centrally located or the inverse, how far out would you be willing to live to have more space. But my one rule that had nothing to do with practical concerns was that I didn't want to live in the  East Village or on the Lower East Side because they make me sad and angry. (C, who lived there in the 90s and loved it but moved uptown for cheaper rent, doesn't share my feelings.)

But it didn't come last night, that sadness. Apparently, I was in a defiant mood. The restaurant was more than half empty, so I sat down at a 4-top by the window. I was going to read and the light was good there. A waiter came over and asked "How many?"

I said, "Just me."

"Can you move to a smaller table?"

I snapped back, "You have like 8 empty 4-tops!" And I made a big sort of sweeping/cutting gesture with my whole arm, which is so unlike me, I think, that I was surprised and scared and felt like I might laugh, all at the same time.

He backed down immediately and took my order. When he came back with coffee, I apologized and said I would move if he needed the table. He was very sweet, said it was fine, and I left him a big tip.

I still had half an hour to kill and last night was cool and dry, and it was dusk, the time of day when New York is most magical, seductive, tingly with possibility. I thought I'd just walk around. I headed down to 2nd or 3rd Street and turned left, walked all the way to Avenue C. There were lots of people out, all ages, sizes, colors, walking, standing in front of stoops and shops. It seemed like everyone was cheerful. The weather, I guess. The liveliness, the mix of people, the fact that the most dramatic changes to the neighborhood are more apparent on the avenues than the streets, the growing darkness softening the edges, it started to look and feel familiar, like the old neighborhood.

Most times when I've visited the East Village in the last few years I haven't gone much east of Avenue B, and really I guess not often east of 1st. There's plenty to break your heart on 2nd Avenue -- a bank where 2nd Avenue Deli once stood, for example -- but let's be honest: even 30 years ago when I lived there 2nd Avenue was lined with restaurants and bars filled with mostly white middle class people, and by the late 90s when I left that scene had spread a few blocks east. All of which is to say that a lot of the changes to the neighborhood that I get so worked up about when I visit, and that I think of as having happened while I was gone, were happening already 30 years ago when I was there.

As I walked up Avenue C, something happened I don't know what. Strolling by the bars and restaurants where waiters were lighting candles on the tables, a bartender dusting bottles, and the public housing flanking the east side of the street, artsy college students on the corners and groups of younger kids up to no good, a very fashionably-dressed white lady pushing a stroller with determination and right behind her two young women talking loudly in Spanish, one of them also pushing a stroller and dragging a reluctant 4- or 5-year-old. Old women pushing wire laundry baskets on wheels and old men sitting on stoops. I just started to feel good, relaxed, and even though Avenue C is very different from what it was when I lived there, it looked familiar. I felt at home.

If I wasn't going to be pushed around by a waiter, I was certainly not willing to be pushed around by my own feelings. The sad indignation (indignant sadness?) over what I always call, with such drama, the obliteration of downtown Manhattan, for the first time didn't feel involuntary. I started to see daylight between my personal feelings of loss, sadness, regret on the one hand and on the other hand my I guess you'd call them political feelings about gentrification, income disparity, affordable housing, the poor, and all the rest.

I was (am) angry about those things, angry at politicians and corporations and a fucked up system that favors the rich at the expense of everyone else, but I've been directing my anger toward New York itself, the city I love, and especially toward the neighborhood that was my home for so many years and still, I realized last night, still feels so very much like my home, more than any other place ever has. Blaming the victim.

I continued up Avenue C to 11th Street. On the northwest corner is the building where I lived with B, my boyfriend for 6 years in my 20s, or really where he lived and I was just there all the time even though I had my own apartment down on Pitt St. The building -- a large apartment building unusual for the neighborhood which is mostly narrow tenements, kind of beautiful with contrasting red and white brick but a slightly terrifying wreck back then -- is now restored and clean and there's a fancy deli on the corner and at street level on 11th a restaurant with little tables on the sidewalk.

Across the street near the southwest corner is where Eduardo lived. I was at Eduardo's place most of the very hot summer of 1983 and then again for a period of several months the following year until that all blew up in my face. Oh my tumultuous early 20s. Eduardo's building is no longer there. There's a newish brick structure, 2-story townhouses set back from the street with large stoops. I stood on the corner looking up at the space in the air where Eduardo's apartment would have been, the fire escape where the neighborhood kids used to jump through the window into his bedroom, steal stuff and then try to sell it back to us the next day. And the little storefront social club (do they have these any more? the neighborhood used to be full of them) where Eduardo's old rheumy-eyed neighbor would invite us to come in and drink shots of something foul-tasting but powerful while he told us long stories about how to make women come. Eduardo understood his Spanglish, I didn't but I got the gist from his hand gestures.

In the early 80s, a lot of that block of 11th between B and C was rubble (maybe 20%?) and probably 30% of the standing buildings where burned out, or gutted, or boarded up. It was bleak. That's how the neighborhood was then. And there's no getting around the fact that that was a big part of why we loved it there. Now those empty lots are filled in with newer buildings, some of them modest, warmly institutional, probably subsidized housing, and others looking more like new luxury apartments. And the older buildings that are still there are renovated and charming. There are more trees. It's a nice block.

It was time for my writing session around the corner on 10th, so I ended my reverie and started walking .

I texted C, "I think I could live in the East Village again, if that became a possibility."

He responded, "Has someone else taken control of your body?"

"I don't know. Maybe. :) Just thinking that much of what I loved about it and miss is still here."

And then a few minutes later I texted, "I just need to get over myself sometimes."

"Amen to that."


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sky.

My Facebook friends know that I've become a little obsessed with the sky lately. I think three things are operating here. The obvious thing is that Facebook and my iPhone have changed the way I share my experiences and thoughts. The second is that the sky has just been more than usually dramatic, or maybe dramatic in unusually varied ways, in the last few months. I really think that's true. The weather in general is more strange and varied and unpredictable.

 

The other thing, though, is that I'm just seeing the sky a lot. We live on one of the highest points in Manhattan at the edge of a giant cliff, and from our living room window we have a great view across Broadway and the Harlem River to the Bronx with a big patch of sky, and, to get to work in Brooklyn I get up at 6 in the morning, so I see the sun come up almost every day.

Then, on my way to the A train, I walk through Isham Park where the sky is always visible over the tops of trees. From the L train, I have a 20-minute walk through north Brooklyn, where few buildings are taller than 3 stories, to the warehouse where I work, which is at the edge of nowhere on Newtown Creek surrounded by 1- and 2-story warehouses and factories, brownfields, some kind of sewage plant, and lots and lots of open sky.

 

At work, the window next to the desk where I sit looks over a low, bleak industrial building and the open sky.



My life in New York during my last residency here (1981-98) did not include much sky. I wasn't much of a nature-lover as a kid so it wasn't something I missed or thought about when I moved to New York at 20. In fact, I reveled in the non-skyness of it, the lack of trees. That's what I came for: city life, the urban landscape.

It was only after I left New York and spent several years in various, mostly non-urban places, and for a couple of those years lived virtually outdoors, that I realized how spiritually shut down I'd become, a condition that seems to me directly connected to lack of sky.

So I'm very grateful for my bit of sky now here in the city, and as C and I contemplate moving in the next year or so, I feel a little apprehensive about the possibility of losing it. Now that I know what I was missing.