Tuesday, December 1, 2015

There's no crying in AIDS activism.

In 1989, a group of New York art world professionals called Visual AIDS began A Day Without Art. The idea was that, every year on December 1st, museums, galleries, theaters, and other cultural institutions would close for the day, because such a large number of the people dying were important artists in their prime, to demonstrate that loss.

That first year at least, it seemed like every museum was closed, every theater was dark, and it was a powerful dramatization of what the world might be like if we did not stop AIDS from killing off a generation of artists. That original, simple idea didn't last long. Instead of closing, those institutions in the following years began programming work about AIDS, addressing AIDS, raising money for AIDS. December 1st was already designated World AIDS Day, which, my memory tells me, was focused more on everyone but homosexual artists. It was, and less so but still is now, easier to raise money for children and straight people than for queers who, maybe, deserve what they get, and World AIDS Day has become a much bigger deal than A Day Without Art.

I suspect, cynically, that another big motivator of the change in focus is that a day without art is a day without the revenue generated by art. Closing a museum for a day is very expensive activism. But it also became unpopular to talk about loss. It was emotionally draining. It made people sad, when what was needed was anger and strength. A powerful demonstration of the death toll didn't so much motivate people as make them feel helpless in the face of monumental loss. Grieving was frowned upon.

I think it was 1993 that Y'all was asked to perform in a benefit for ACT UP and, as we were singing "Oh Lord Please Come Help Me Today" -- a sort of hymn that was not without defiance but leaned more toward grieving -- the organizers turned off the lights and sound on the stage. We left the stage, humiliated and shocked that that sentiment would be so unwelcome. I guess the idea was that if you started crying you'd never stop, and there was so much work to be done.

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.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


I spent yesterday afternoon putting old letters in chronological order because I'm going to read my correspondence and journals from 1983 and 1984. I think there's a play somewhere in there that I want to write. I found 2 letters from Eduardo, my first serious boyfriend, that I didn't know I had.

There had been a lot of letters from Eduardo. A few months after we met, we were separated for a while. I went back to Indiana to finish school (which I didn't do, not then) and he stayed in New York. We broke up soon after I returned.

During our breakup, I threw a shoebox full of his letters in a dumpster. I did a lot of things during our breakup that I later regretted. I thought all the letters were in that shoebox, but I found one a few years ago. And then 2 more yesterday. I also found, clipped to one of the letters, a scrap of paper with his phone number written on it, which he must have given me when we met.

I guess it might seem strange for a happily married man to be so enamored with past love ephemera. But my husband knows I'm obsessed with this kind of biographical archival stuff, and also it was over 30 years ago and Eduardo is dead. So.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


We had a memorial gathering at Mom and Dad's house on Tuesday evening. Around 50 people came: Mom's friends from the League of Women Voters, her book club and wine tasting and neighborhood friends, friends from earlier days, and family. My sister Kay, with help from her and Mom's friend Susan, made our favorite cookies from Mom's recipes. Mom's grandson Aaron -- Kay's middle son, my nephew -- played Nocturne in F Minor by Pius Cheung on marimba. (Mom was immensely proud of Aaron; she was so happy the last couple years watching him become such a serious young musician.) And I read the following words:


So many people have said to me these last few days, “Your mother was a remarkable woman.” I always knew that. I’ve always felt proud of that.

She was born on September 1st, 1939, which was also the day Hitler invaded Poland, so I never had any trouble in school remembering the date WWII started.

She grew up on a farm in Illinois. Graduated high school at 17, got married at 18, had a child a year and a half later, another the next year, and the next year started thinking maybe she didn’t want to be Catholic anymore. (With a little family planning, she had my sister six years later.)

She and my dad made a life for themselves, full of things they loved, things that were important to them, things that brought them pleasure, and they saw it as their job to make sure that Mike and Kay and I were able to do that for ourselves. That’s what I think I learned, more than anything, from Mom. How to make a meaningful life. I think a testament to that is how Mike and Kay and I all have pretty different lives but have all found fulfillment and meaning and love.

Growing up, there was no place I wanted to be more than with my mother. We spent hours together, usually in the kitchen, talking about whatever came to mind.

She loved cooking and baking. One of my earliest memories is of her baking big sheet cakes for neighborhood association meetings. In the late 60s, a black family moved into our neighborhood on the northeast side of Indianapolis and almost overnight a couple dozen For Sale signs appeared in front of white families’ homes. She learned about blockbusting, which was a tactic where realtors would target a white neighborhood and sell one house to a black family and then blanket the neighborhood with fliers offering quick cash to white families who wanted to sell. Then they’d sell the houses to black families at higher than market financing. They were taking advantage of racism to make a killing, and to Mom, this was so obviously wrong that she helped create a neighborhood association to fight it.

My mother taught me to cook, and she taught me to look around, to get involved, if something is not right to say so, and to do something about it if you could.

We wrote letters back and forth all through my 20s, then email, and then with Facebook we were in touch often daily, sometimes more.

Conversation with my mother was one of the great pleasures of my life. I feel so grateful that on the last days I spent with her, her last days, we spent time sitting in the kitchen, talking. About food and politics and whatever came to mind.

She taught me an appreciation for beautiful things: art, flowers, the landscape, mountains, lakes, music, leaves in the fall. From her I learned the rewards of curiosity -- reading, history, culture, and travel. She loved to travel with Dad, whether it was just up to the lakeshore in Michigan or a drive cross country to Colorado and Utah.

She saw my artistic temperament, so she enrolled me in art classes on the weekends and Suzuki violin after school. When we were very young, she took us kids to museums and concerts and plays. It’s because of her that I wanted to have a life as an artist. She told the home nurse last week that she was still looking forward to coming with me to the Tonys and sitting in the front row.

She didn’t get to come to the Tonys, but she did get to come to my wedding three years ago. Her joy in that, her joy that that was even possible, was, I think, even greater than my own.

She was remarkable in the way that she loved her family. These last few years when she was experiencing so much uncertainty, and fear, and pain, she helped US all deal with our own fear and emotional pain. She never stopped thinking about what we needed, what would make us happy and calm and reassured. When we were so scared, so worried about her these last few years, she taught us how to face it, taught us by example to calm down, that she was going to be okay. We looked to her, as we always did, for guidance, even when eventually it was guidance in how to care for her. She let us know that there was no good in panicking, that the only way to do it was one day at a time.

These last few days since she died have been so full of her presence; she’s still so much here, in this house, in every conversation. She’s only been gone four days. But my mind wanders to the future, to when I’m back home doing what I do, and all the countless times during a day when I have something to share, some small success or something I read that I think she’ll get a kick out of, and I think what am I going to do without her? My hero, my biggest fan, my faithful correspondent.

But so much of that constant presence of her in my life wasn’t even about talking to her, seeing her, it was just the way I felt her in me, the way I feel her in my head when I’m reading the paper and griping about Mike Pence. I feel her in my arms when I put a chicken in a pot of water to make soup. Or send an email to my state senator. Or feel outrage at some injustice. Or vote. She lives in me in the way that I love reading and Patsy Cline, in the way that I hate noise and grocery store tomatoes.

A sense that she is alive in me: the only thing that makes this bearable is telling myself that that will not go away. Because now I just want so badly to hear her voice on the phone, to see a message from her show up in my inbox. To see her face light up when she says my husband’s name.

She lives in all of us she touched in countless ways. It has been comforting the last few days, all the sweet words from her friends, my friends, our scattered family, and everyone here today. It does feel like we share the pain of her loss and that lessens it.

Mom had a good life, and she was well loved.

Friday, July 24, 2015

I Reject the New Normal Like I Rejected the Old Normal.

I was just moments ago poised with my little finger over the Return key, in danger of being one of those people on Facebook who write 1000 words in a comment field, and then I remembered "I have a blog!" And I haven't posted anything in a month.

A few days ago, my friend T sent me this link to a story about drag queens being banned from a Pride event in Scotland, and I posted it to Facebook with, "Will someone tell me again how assimilation leads to freedom? If this is gay rights, I don't want rights. I don't think I even want to be gay any more."

A good friend suggested that this ban is stupid but that it is a well-intentioned desire to shield people from pain. My friend is serious and thoughtful and supportive of greater freedom for everyone, but I think, like many "liberal allies" he's wrong on this one. I hope he will not take my response personally.

I don't think this policing of queer expression is as benign as that. Part of it is about protecting people from pain, yes, but the larger part is about suppressing behavior that doesn't conform to their worldview. It's particularly noxious when it's directed at drag because drag queens have always (explicitly and also just by their very existence) been the ones fighting hardest, taking the biggest risks, provoking the hard questions about gender and sexuality and identity that have made it possible to even have a Gay Pride event in the first place, let alone gay marriage and civil rights and all the other stuff. Rather than shutting them out of the celebration, we should be down on our knees thanking them every day for the modicum of safety we enjoy.

Before I got married -- a fact that complicated but didn't essentially change my stance -- I was much more vocal about the danger of putting all our energy into the gay marriage campaign. I, along with many many other queer people, saw this coming, and it's infuriating to see it play out. All that shouting and marching and writing -- and loving -- has led us to this, a world where expressing a trans identity means looking like Caitlyn Jenner and expressing homo love means getting married. And the whole range of expression outside that new norm is suspect if not banned outright.

I am so mad!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

3 Things I Saw From the Balcony Monday Night at About 9:30 p.m.

A slightly stooped grey-haired man in black pants and white shirt, wearing a black yarmulke and carrying a thick black book at his side, walked at a relaxed pace along the sidewalk that cuts through the playground from our building to the building opposite.

Our neighbors next door, who have lived in that apartment since this development was built in the late 50s when they were a young married couple, whose window I can see into if I lean over the railing, sat at their kitchen table under a bare fluorescent light fixture with books open in front of them and talked animatedly.

While I was looking at a star about 40 degrees up from the horizon and due east, wondering what star it was, the only one visible and so perfectly centered in my view, just below it a burning meteor made an arc across the sky and disappeared behind the Williamsburg Bridge.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

On The Porch.

We have a balcony. I keep calling it the porch, and maybe a balcony is a kind of porch in the way that an apartment is a kind of house.

When I lived in Nashville in a rented room in a big purple Victorian house while I working on my film (2003?), every afternoon all summer there'd be a thunderstorm of Biblical proportions -- you wonder why they're so Bible-obsessed in the South? It's the weather -- and I'd take a break from logging footage of my life falling apart and watch the deluge from a big wicker chair on the wrap-around porch. The thunder could make me actually jump -- one time the lightning struck so close it split a tree right across the street.

When I lived in Austin on East 15th St. with J, there was usually no place I wanted to be more than the porch. In the afternoon when the 100-degree heat felt sexy as long as you stayed in the shade with a cold beer and didn't move a muscle. In the evening when it cooled slightly and the air was thick and swampy like a ghost story.

Here, our balcony overlooks the grounds of the co-op complex and a small playground. In the afternoons, there are dozens of children playing, their parents and grandparents sitting on benches watching them. They are mostly Jewish as far as I can tell, and I assume conservative (in the general sense, not the theological sense) from the way they are dressed and from the way that the playground clears out at about 5:30 because they all, I'm guessing, go inside to eat dinner as a family. There's something, at least from a distance, very appealing about such an old-fashioned way of life.

I read 25 pages today, which is a personal triumph. I haven't been able to read lately, now that I'm not commuting every day. I miss that 2 1/2 hours of built-in reading time, but that's not the only thing preventing me. I just can't stay awake. I never sleep well, have never slept well, but for the first few days here, I did sleep through the night and thought things had changed. I think it was just fatigue from moving. Now I'm back to the usual waking up every 30 minutes or so, lying awake for long stretches in the middle of the night, and usually waking up completely an hour or so before the alarm goes off.

After several days of not being able to read more than 3 or 4 pages without falling asleep, I decided to try napping. The last 2 days I've taken an hour nap after lunch. It's magic. Now I can read without falling asleep. I'm reading The Power Broker, a biography of Robert Moses -- which, despite the fact that it's like 8,000 pages long is kind of a page-turner, and when I can keep my eyes open it's quite entertaining and fast-paced.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


 “I guess I’d say that I was stunned,” Seth Norton, a Wheaton professor and former wrestling coach who had led the Hastert center and worked with Mr. Hastert, said on Monday. “It was hard to imagine it being true and seemed extremely far-fetched.”
There used to be a great store in the West Village, I think on Hudson, that sold vintage porn. A lot of magazines, but the best stuff was the pulp fiction. Anyway, I always think of that store when another "coach" gets busted for molesting teenagers. Gay porn kind of writes itself.

(I should mention that Hastert is not being charged for the sexual abuse because the statute of limitations has long run out. He's being charged for paying someone not to reveal the abuse. There's a distinction, but only a legal one.)

When a man in his 70s is dragged out of the closet, why are people like Norton so surprised they didn't know? You didn't know because he didn't want you to know and he structured his whole life around concealing it from you. The fact that you had no idea is, to say the least, unremarkable. For hundreds of years few people who weren't queer had any idea queer people lived among them. We kept it secret. I thought this was obvious by now, but maybe not. We kept it secret because our safety, our well-being, our lives often depended on the people around us not knowing. It's called terrorism, and it saturated European and American cultures for centuries, with government and church carrying out the worst of it.

The 1940s and 50s, when Hastert was growing up, were some of the scariest years for lgbt Americans. Well, maybe not as bad as the Spanish Inquisition, but pretty bad. Being a queer was even worse than being a Communist. I can blame Hastert for a lot of ugly things but not for trying to conceal his sexuality.

Yeah, things are changing. Things are better. But queer people still consider their safety when deciding how truthful to be in any given moment about who they are. And not just in Africa, or Iraq, or the past.

C'mon people.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Here We Are.

I made the bed this morning for the first time since we moved in. I like a made bed. It calms me, gives me the illusion that there's order in the world. But until today, the apartment has been so disordered -- things still in boxes, things in piles because we don't know where they go yet, things that need to be hung on walls -- that making the bed didn't promise to have the desired effect.

We're still not completely together. I had to buy a special drill yesterday that can go through concrete walls (thank you, 1950s-era construction) before we can hang our pictures and curtains. But we're getting close enough that it feels like we live here. The last 2 nights I cooked dinner in my new kitchen that I love so much I want to sleep in it. I was thinking yesterday how it would probably look small to anyone who doesn't live in a New York apartment. But it's twice as big as our old one. I have empty cabinet shelves that I don't even know what to use for. The lighting is terrible. We're going to get some under-cabinet lighting when we're more settled. If the previous owner did any cooking in there, she must have Superman eyes. Or a couple missing fingertips.

I've fallen hard for this apartment, this building, this neighborhood. I'll write more about them. In the meantime, some other stuff on my mind, mostly  having to do with the TV.

I recommend the HBO documentary, It's Me, Hilary, about the man who illustrated the Eloise books, but, like any great doc, about so much more than that. And Phoebe Legere!

We finally got around to watching the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction last night. Three things: 1) Patti Smith's and Laurie Anderson's speeches, really the whole Lou Reed segment, were very moving -- it's those artists and that vision of New York that brought me here, 2) Green Day is better than I thought, and 3) I didn't even know it was possible for me to be a bigger fan of Miley Cyrus.

And, I can't wait for the Tonys this Sunday. I've never had so many friends and colleagues nominated, and I think this has been a really special season on Broadway.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Estate Sale.

On his way to the train, C saw a sign on the door of the building next door announcing an estate sale today. He texted me to ask if I wanted to walk down and see if there was anything we could use.

Things I bought:

A navy blue raincoat, 60's style with a zip-out lining.
A small wood mid-century picture frame.

Things I saw:

Piles of vinyl records, mostly classical and opera with a few Broadway soundtracks (South Pacific, Fiddler) all in very good shape.
Lots of very old and worn out kitchen stuff: pots and pans, dinnerware.
A pulp paperback novel, House of Dolls, about a Jewish girl held captive by Nazis (I think).
A very dusty hardback copy of The Well of Loneliness.
What looked like a college yearbook, 1928, in German.
A copy of the Life magazine declaring on the cover Israel's victory in the 6-day war.
A lot of beat to shit furniture.
Threadbare carpet in every room, some of it repaired with duct tape.
About 15 60's-style golf jackets, all different colors.
A big pile of ladies' scarves, all different colors and patterns from 40s through 70s styles.

Things I would have bought if I'd had more cash with me:

A couple of those golf jackets.
A set of very pretty cordial glasses.
A set of stainless steel canisters with Bakelite handles (flour, sugar, coffee, tea).
2 never-used kitchen towels with touristy designs on them in French.
That House of Dolls book.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Is It News That Gays Are Boring?

I don't want to pick on David Hockney, one of my favorite painters, he's certainly not the only one saying this, but I'm getting more and more skeptical of this narrative. I know I've contributed to it, but it's seeming less and less correct as we watch the mainstreaming of homosexuality play out, marriage and kids and every other TV show about us now. I'm starting to think the whole "gays are boring now" complaint distorts and distracts from what's really happening, which is the death of bohemia, or outsiderness. Because now, like "alternative" became just another commercial radio format, being an outsider is just another brand.

Disruptive is the buzzword now. But it's always used in the context of some big corporation, like Apple, trying to find a way to sell more of something and make more money. What do you have to do, or believe, or dress like, to be actually disruptive now? Who is a threat anymore? Does anyone do anything radical anymore that doesn't get put on a t-shirt or made into a commercial to sell cars?

It's kind of undeniable that "our culture" -- radical sex, gender play, confrontational politics -- has been, like a roll of film (what's that?), bleached and dulled by exposure to daylight. (I'm talking about gay bars as event spaces for bachelorette parties.) But -- and I say this with the self-caveat that all these things are most definitely inextricably intertwined -- it looks to me like this is less a function of increased acceptance of non-heterosexual people and our emulation of "normal life" than it is just another result of the bulldozer of corporate control of modes of expression, of urban and suburban real estate, of the landscape of our dreams.

The disappearance of sleazy drag bars is exactly analogous to the disappearance of independent book stores. Grindr is Amazon.

I don't think gays got boring. Weren't there always boring gay people? They just used to stay in the closet and live miserable lives making their wives and children miserable along with them. (Which may be an interesting scenario, for a play or novel, for example, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that it's better for the people involved.) There have always been homosexuals with no particular urge to move to a bombed-out inner city neighborhood, dumpster dive, and make political art. It's just that now those folks can marry someone of their own sex, have test tube babies with a surrogate mother, and, well, they can't be Boy Scout leaders, but that's probably not too far down the pike, and lesbians can be den mothers, can't they?

I guess the natural conclusion here, if I follow my logic, is that we're not witnessing just the death of gay culture but the death of popular (in the sense of "of the people") culture in general, but I'm not sure I'm ready to follow my logic, at least not today.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

This Week.

It's been a strange week, starting with the news that an old friend, with whom I spent a lot of time when I was finishing my film in San Francisco in 2005 (he edited the film) but I hadn't seen in several years, died last week. Apparently of a heart attack in his sleep, which is the death everyone says they want, but he was not old. I'm not certain, but I think he was younger than me.

Maybe everyone has people like this. I feel like I have dozens. I always attributed it to the fact that my life was so peripatetic for those 12 years I spent away from New York. People whom you feel very close to but live far apart and from time to time you worry about the friendship because you haven't seen each other for way too long but you always think, "One of these days we'll end up in the same city at the same time and we'll reconnect and catch up."

And then with that sadness about the passing of my old friend, and time, in the background, I got some disappointing career news. I and my co-writers had 3 possible opportunities for developing our new project in the coming year, and one by one they all evaporated, the third one in the form of an email a few days ago, very sorry, lots of great applicants this year, etc. (I know it's meant sincerely, but I wish we could retire that language of rejection letters. It doesn't help to know that they felt lots of other applicants were better.)

(Some vague sense of professional discretion makes me think, though I can't for the life of me see what difference it would make and maybe it's not discretion but embarrassment, that I shouldn't be more specific, but in a way it doesn't matter what the opportunities were. They're just a few in the endless list of things, as an artist in a culture of too many artists and too little support, one applies for and doesn't get.)

I'm not complaining, not really, I know I chose this life knowing full well that failure and rejection were always going to be much much more likely than success, and I can't say I haven't had way more than my share of amazing experiences and people and pure magic, but there are days when it's clearer than others that the real fabric of an artist's life is disappointment, and there are days when I don't have any more intelligent or skillful or useful response than just to pout.

I had a dream this morning, though. It was one of those dreams where all night long you're trying to get some place and every time you think you're close there's another obstacle and you find yourself slipping farther and farther way. I was trying to get home but I kept getting on the wrong bus, getting lost, getting caught up in the drama of random strangers.

But then eventually after a long night ride, the Greyhound pulled into a station I recognized. I got out of the bus and exited the station onto a dark, quiet street, walked for a while with a small group of people I had befriended on the bus. They told me that they had to find their car and still had a long journey ahead of them, and I told them that I lived just a couple blocks away. Even in the dream I was aware that being close to home meant that some new obstacle would appear and waylay me.

But that's not what happened. I just walked the two blocks to my house, a big old wooden house with a porch, and the light was on and there were people talking softly. I walked up the steps to the porch and lay down on a mattress that was there, and then C came and lay down with me, and then a woman I barely know, who I met when she worked for a company that develops new musicals in New York but she's since moved to San Francisco to start her own theater company, and she and C both wrapped their arms around me, and standing in the front doorway was a couple who were dear friends when I lived in Nashville but I don't really keep in touch with them anymore but I think of them often and wish they still lived nearby, and they were smiling.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Pray For Us.

I'm a little concerned about grocery shopping in our new neighborhood.

I've come to rely on Fresh Direct for most of our groceries the last 3 years. (For those of you outside of New York, Fresh Direct is an online grocery store. You place your order on a web site, choose a delivery time, and they bring your groceries to you at home.) I got in the habit when I was working 9-5 in Brooklyn and the 2 or 3 hours it would have taken to go grocery shopping felt like 2 or 3 hours I didn't have. And, though we have one big supermarket and another smaller one nearby, they aren't great. They're fine for staples, canned and dried stuff, flour, milk, snacks, etc, but I hate buying meat out of a big open case and you don't know how long it's been sitting there, and the produce usually looks ratty and old and well picked over.

Fresh Direct is more expensive than your average C-Town, but I rationalize it because the produce is very fresh and high quality and it's less expensive than Whole Foods or a specialty organic place where I would probably be going for good meat and produce if Fresh Direct didn't exist. I cook at home almost every day, and we have a small kitchen with very little pantry space, so I have groceries delivered at least once a week, often twice. It's always hard to know which shopping choices are more horrible for the world and the people in it, but Fresh Direct at least has lots of locally grown and made food, and I can get reasonably priced meat and dairy raised without hormones. I do try to be conscious of where our food comes from, buy local and organic unless it costs twice as much, but I'm not a fundamentalist about it.

I plan to wean myself off Fresh Direct after we move, because our new place is near enough Chinatown, where produce and meat are insanely cheap and fresh and good. And I love shopping in Chinatown. And now that I'm not working a day job any more, it doesn't make me panicky to contemplate an afternoon of grocery shopping.

All of that to say that I realized another benefit to online grocery shopping is impulse control. I keep a list of what we need, I enter each item in the search bar, check out, done! Grocery stores, however, are a mine field. This morning, I ran out of milk for my coffee, so I ran out to the little deli on the corner. I came back with, not milk but half and half, and a bag of pita chips, a pint of ice cream, and shortbread cookies. What the holy hell?

If I've learned anything in my 54 years it's that i have no power over a bag of potato chips or a pint of ice cream. Or chocolate cake. So I just make sure that they aren't in the house. Except on special occasions, like a birthday. Or a Saturday.

I'd forgotten that about grocery shopping, the way everything talks to you. Somehow the little picture on the computer screen is not nearly as persuasive as the actual item on the shelf. I want to walk down every aisle, and for some reason I think I need those little Dutch Boy cookies with the chocolate, and a big thing of wasabi peas, and ricotta because I don't know maybe lasagna?, and frozen pierogis, and look! Triscuits! and they have those honey sesame brittle things and Green & Black's chocolate at the checkout line, and Table Talk lemon pies, and now I weigh 300 pounds.

Lord help us.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

History. It's a Thing.

I think it's just weird to lump The King and I in with An American in Paris and Gigi to make a point about how icky old musicals are politically and how hard it is to stage them now that we're all so enlightened.

Why do people always seem surprised that Rogers and Hammerstein's "golden age" musicals address these issues? Racism, colonialism, sexism were the subjects R&H were explicitly interested in, and they chose stories and dealt with them in ways specifically to comment on them.

The Times article says:
Anna and the king are not a couple, and their final scene is not a kiss in the moonlight. There is, however, a soaring musical number that feels like a happy ending: “Shall We Dance?,” choreographed this time by Christopher Gattelli. It has always been the show’s most thrilling moment. Anna and the king begin a polka by holding hands, but he knows better, having seen her dance with an Englishman. He puts his hand firmly around Anna’s waist, and hearts leap.

One interpretation: Natural order is restored; the man takes charge. Mr. Sher argued that something else was going on: “The king allows himself to be taught and to be equal to a woman. To reach across cultures. Stepping across that boundary is just gorgeous.”

And very 21st century.
Actually, no, it's more like mid-20th century. When it was written. The revival didn't make that up. It's in the piece. It's what that moment and that song are about.

The King and I and South Pacific, Oklahoma, etc., don't just demonstrate regressive attitudes, they confront them. There are lines and passages that feel old-fashioned, condescending, uncomfortable to our sensibilities because we think about these issues differently now, but can we stop talking about these musicals as if they're from the dark ages, before we all become so sensitive and smart about racism and misogyny in our popular culture?

For their time, R&H were practically activists. Think about the huge mass audience they had during a period when not much pop culture questioned the status quo.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


It's a stupid argument anyway, that the definition of marriage has been the same for "millenia." Even if were true, the fact that we've been doing something for a long time doesn't make it right. But it's not even true. I guess I'm a little surprised that the tradition of same-sex marriage in Native American communities seems never to have come up. Do these people (the lawyers and judges in favor of same-sex marriage ... and for that matter, this New York Times reporter who doesn't bring it up) really not know this stuff? I find that hard to believe. Maybe it's not flattering to compare ourselves to "primitive" cultures?

I know there was assorted institutionalized queerness all over this continent before Europeans arrived and obliterated it along with everything else, but Texas is what I'm familiar with because I wrote a paper on it at UT.

Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to encounter the Natives in Texas. This is from his journal. He's writing about various coastal groups:
"During the time I was among them, I saw something very repulsive, namely, a man married to another. These are impotent and womanish beings who dress like and do the work of women. They carry heavy loads but do not use a bow. Among these Indians we saw many of them. They are more robust than other men, taller, and can bear heavy loads."
This kind of stuff is all over the contemporary written descriptions of Native American societies by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century. The Spanish at the time were obsessed with homosexuality (the Catholics are always obsessed with homosexuality but it was particularly harsh in the 16th century -- the "sin against nature" was regarded worse than murder) so they wrote about it negatively of course, but the fact that they were so fixated on it at least had the effect of them noting it at all.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


The best thing about getting ready to move is the feeling of relief knowing I'll soon be leaving behind all the small things that get on my nerves about the place where I live -- the janky oven that can't maintain a temperature and burns everything on the bottom before it's done on the top, the electrical outlets with too-big holes so that plugs fall out of them, the lack of trash bins so that we have to keep all our stinky garbage in the apartment until collection day, the bathroom mirror that doesn't line up with the sink but is about a foot to the left of it -- and all the things that will irritate me at the new place are as yet unknown and unable to touch me.

This is the biggest move I've ever made -- maybe not in terms of geographical distance or impact on my life because I've had several moves that were huge by those measures, but in terms of the logistics, the number of steps, the planning, the actual amount of stuff that's coming with me, the number of people involved (actual hired movers!), not to mention the months-long process of buying an apartment and the multi-layered approval process that is, we hope, almost over.

This is the first time I've moved and taken the furniture, other than maybe a couple lamps and a futon. Most of the time when I've moved I've just gone to the liquor store and asked for a few boxes, packed up my clothes and books, and splurged on a cab. It's the first time I've had furniture that was nice enough to take.

I'm exaggerating -- there are exceptions: When J and I left New York for Nashville, rented a U-Haul, and filled it with the contents of our 10th Street studio (which was roughly the same size as that U-Haul). Or the move out of Nashville when J and I sold everything for nothing on the lawn so we could fit in a 20-foot camper. Some of that stuff I regret losing (an old wood dresser that my parents gave us comes to mind, as well as my copies of Word Is Out and the ReSearch journal issue on body modifications, and other loved and irreplaceable books). Or when I left B in 1989. We had great furniture in our Ft. Greene apartment. All street-found or thrift store-bought, but B had an eye. I was the one who left, and I didn't take anything.

But those moves were more like fleeing than moving.

I don't mean to downplay the life-change aspect of this move. One -- C and I are becoming homeowners (!), which is big and would have been unimaginable 10 years ago when it was also unimaginable that I would get married, let alone to someone with a much more normal life and stable income. Ten years ago I had no home at all, except in the hearts and spare rooms of dear friends and family members. And two, I am moving back to the part of New York that was my home through most of the 80s and 90s, not including that 4-year stint in Brooklyn in the mid-80s. I feel like I've been working my way back for a long time now.

I know, it's a stretch to say that Grand Street on the East River is the old neighborhood. It's not the East Village and it's not the part of the Lower East Side above Delancey that we all know and love or hate. I think that's one of the things I love about our new place. Co-op Village is definitely the LES, culturally and historically a part of that larger LES that includes the East Village and the super-trendy area between Houston and Delancey, but it's not one of those parts of the neighborhood where I feel like I would have to excavate to find anything I remember. The area around East Broadway and Grand Street going toward the East River has not changed much since the 1950s, when the slums were cleared to make room for the buildings we're moving into. Not that it's done all the changing it will ever do.

While I was writing this, C went downstairs to check the mail and came back with a letter notifying us that we've been approved by the co-op board. I guess this is really happening.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Chorus Line Premiered in 1975, Which Is a Long Time Ago.

The first Broadway musical I saw on Broadway was Sweeney Todd in 1979, but the first Broadway musical I saw was A Chorus Line, the touring production, at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis, on a school trip.

I want to say I was a sophomore in high school, so like 1976 or '77, but my memory is bad. It could have been the following year. Either way, it was during those couple years when I was figuring out why, when I saw Brad Christie standing in line at the water fountain, I was compelled to stand in line behind him and hope that my hand accidentally grazed his butt when he bent over for a drink.

And by figuring out, I mean freaking out.

A friend and fellow writer, a straight man, asked me once a few years ago at a musical theater cabaret event, after 2 or 3 boys in a row had sung songs about coming out, "Why does every song lately have to be about being gay?" As I was pondering the question, the lights went down for the second act and our conversation was cut short, but I've thought about it a lot since then and I think the simple answer is that it hurts less and less to tell these stories.

Despite the fact that the musical theater industry was and is so packed with homosexuals, the larger world was still rabidly homophobic, so we could only very tentatively tell our sad tales and then basically only for emotional shock value. Not that Paul's monologue isn't authentic and beautifully told, but it's there to inform you that being gay is super sad. We have more colors to work with now. (Times have changed. Fun Home is funny, moving, thought-provoking, and masterful, and tells a story with a butch lesbian at its center with layers and layers of complexity that would have been unimaginable in a hit Broadway musical in the late 70s when there was only one layer of gay.)

I had done my research. (There must have been a theater queen or two at the DePauw University library where I worked after school, because the library subscribed to After Dark magazine, the gayest periodical ever to never use the word gay.) So I knew how A Chorus Line was created, that the stories the dancers were telling were true -- Hm. It just occurred to me that A Chorus Line is a devised musical. Maybe the first? -- and from then on, though I was still too afraid to tell my own story to anyone but myself, I knew that if I could make a life in the theater in New York I would be fine.

So I did.

Happy anniversary, A Chorus Line!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Random Thoughts About a Few Broadway Musicals.

Lots of Broadway musicals opening -- April is to the Tonys what December is to the Oscars. I have random thoughts, which are not to be read as opinions on these shows, which I have not seen.

Both Gigi and Finding Neverland are getting terrible reviews. I know as well as anyone that critics often just don't get it, so I'm very reluctant to take the fact that reviewers have found these shows boring and/or incoherent at face value. But it's interesting to me that both shows' producers set out to excise what they felt was an uncomfortable whiff of sex with children in the source material.

I find it really sad (and not a little homophobic) that just the idea of friendship between an adult man and a group of boys makes people immediately think about pedophilia. One of the things I liked most about the film Finding Neverland was the strange tenderness of that longing to be a part of the boys' lives. It's more complicated and infinitely more interesting than sex.

Gigi is a whole other beast. The movie is basically about a girl being groomed for prostitution, so the sex is more than just prurient audience projection. But the novella on which it's based was written by Collette, who is kind of known for having interesting things to say about men and women and love and sex. Why, when you have such rich, juicy source material, would you decide it's a good idea to make it "innocent"? Sometimes I just don't understand people.

I guess what I've done here is implied that these shows are bad because they took the sex out, and I don't know if that's true or not. Like I said, I haven't seen the shows. These are just thoughts that come into my head.

The show that's not getting bad reviews is The King and I at Lincoln Center. Oh my god, I want to see this show! Rogers and Hammerstein musicals bring me the greatest pleasure and I don't feel the least bit guilty about it. The songs! The songs!

One of my two favorite R&H songs (Something Wonderful) is in The King and I. (The other is Something Good from The Sound of Music. Nobody does ambivalence about love like R&H.)

Here's Terry Saunders from the movie soundtrack:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What's Happening Now.

My sister and nephew were here for a week's visit, left Saturday. My nephew is 15 and is dead certain he wants to be a composer of percussion music, specifically marimba. He's not much interested in discussing any other trajectory.

He (my sister and I went with him, of course) visited Mannes School of Music, Juilliard, and the Manhattan School while he was here. Everyone around him is saying some version of "Well, that's great, but you need to think about how you might make a living." When the idea of teaching comes up, he says, "I can see myself doing that when I'm older and I've accomplished all I set out to do."

Though I could certainly share a thought or two with him about the relationship between what you set out to do and how you actually end up living a life, I'm really reluctant to join the chorus of pleading for practicality. Dreams are dreams, and it might not matter that they don't usually drive you where you planned. They drive you somewhere. When I was 15, I didn't want to listen to anyone telling me No. (I still don't.) My nephew has energy, focus, talent, and loves to practice. Fifteen is not the age for practicality.

What else?

My old friend Linda Smith asked me to record a cover of one of her songs for an album of covers her label is putting out. Linda and I were in the The Woods together in the 80s and have kept in touch, more or less, since. Linda made a name for herself in the 80s and 90s putting out several home-recorded albums on cassette, when that was a thing. Her albums are full of great songs and I have many favorites. It's been a long time since I've made a recording that wasn't just a work demo for someone else to learn the song from, and I can't wait to dive in. I was not a songwriter when I joined The Woods, and I learned so much from Linda, mostly about how songwriting is 95% intuition. I still jog myself back to that attitude when I find myself bogged down in the knowledge of "rules" I've acquired since.

What else?

Okay, so Hillary Clinton is in it now. It's gonna be a long year-and-a-half and I'm going to try to not complain too much. I'm not a fan, as we know, but -- with the current composition of Congress and the Supreme Court -- I have a hard time taking any other stance than that it's important she win this one. I live in a safe state, but I don't want to contribute to any sort of Democrats-sit-this-one-out-because-they-don't-care-for-Hillary phenomenon. I feel like, with Obama, I got as close as I might ever get to a president who represents my values. And it turns out that wasn't super close. Sometimes you just have to hold your nose.

And I should add that the antidote to that feeling that presidential elections are a depressing exercise in cynicism is to vote in other elections, the ones closer to home, where it is possible to vote for candidates with integrity. One of the many reasons I'm excited about moving back to the LES is that, because I lived there for so many years in the 80s and 90s, I have a better sense of the politics.

Monday, March 30, 2015


My day started with breaking my glasses. One of the little plastic oval feet that rest on the side of my nose had been digging into my skin for days, so I went to bend it a little and it snapped off.

I live in near-constant fear of breaking my glasses -- that's an exaggeration, but it's true that it's very often on my mind, because I can't do much of anything without them, can't read, can't leave the house, I don't even like to walk around the apartment without them because I run into things -- but I have an old pair that are close to the same prescription, just not as clear for reading, so I put those on. C dug out some epoxy for me and I glued the nose piece back on. It doesn't swivel like it's supposed to, but maybe it'll be fine.

Writing days have been frustrating the last week or so. I have a couple small things yet to write for Hester Prynne and I can't find anything interesting about them to draw me in. There's no big rush -- we have a nearly-complete first draft and a workshop in the fall at Playwrights Horizons Theater School. We have the summer to get ready, so there's time to get these last bits done. But I have time now, and I want to write.

I want to start a new play or dive back into something old and incomplete, but I have to decide which, so I've been sifting through old notebooks in search of notes or a fragment, a sketch, a story, something to galvanize my artist brain.

The city is replacing the concrete stairway that goes up 10 flights from Broadway to our street and runs right past our apartment. There are 2 parallel staircases. They ripped one out last year and just finished making the new one. Now they're ripping out the other one. A lot of concrete has to be smashed and hauled away. They start at about 8 and stop for the day at about 4. It's very loud.

I decided I was thinking too hard and needed some busywork to get me out of my head. I've been putting it off because it makes me sad, but I'd given up on my worm composting and had to dispose of the bin and its contents, and that seemed like as good a task as any for an already frustrating Monday.

I got the worms about 3 years ago and set up a plastic bin under the sink. They were going to eat my kitchen scraps and make potting soil. I loved those worms, they were easy to care for, and I felt good about doing some small part to keep garbage out of the landfill. But a small bin of worms under the sink, it turns out, eat very little. Very little. Like about a banana peel a week. I cook every day, so they weren't eating more than about 1% of the vegetable scraps I was throwing away. Even though it quickly became clear my worms were no more than a gesture, a ritual of environmental consciousness that wasn't doing anything to actually help the environment, I hated giving up. The ritual was enough for a long time. But then it just started to feel stupid.

I stopped feeding them. A worm composting bin self-regulates. If there's less food, they reproduce less and their numbers dwindle. So after a few months, there was just dirt left. Or so I thought. When I went to empty it out this morning, I found one small worm. One. Since it's spring, I thought it would be fine if I took it out to the front yard. I put it in the sink while I scooped out the dirt and scattered it among our various potted plants. But I forgot it was there when I came back to the sink to wash my hands, and, when I remembered and looked down, it was gone down the drain.

Like my day.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Freedom's Just Another Word for Bigotry.

I feel like if there's anything positive about this new spate of "license to discriminate" legislation cropping up in state after state in response to gay marriage decisions by federal courts, it's that it crystallizes the mission of this brand of Christianity, which is to exclude people. They cry they're being persecuted for their religion, but it must be clear to everyone by now that these laws are about revulsion toward non-gender conforming people. It must, right? It kind of separates the soft bigots from the hard bigots.

It's interesting stuff in the midst of all my reading about the 17th century Puritans, the original American Christians, as we write our musical about Hester Prynne. Not that it's a coincidence these topics are current -- that's the whole reason we like the story. The Puritans were just as preoccupied with who's in and who's out, probably more so because they believed the lists had been made at the beginning of time and could not be changed. So they were obsessed with trying to determine ways of knowing who was on which list, so that they'd know whom to let in and whom to keep out. They of course couldn't know, and, in fact, it was sinful to suggest that one could know, but that didn't stop them from speculating on all kinds of outward indications that one might be saved or damned and banishing or executing people who disagreed with the approved methodology. Underlying everything was a great deal of personal anxiety because of course no one could even know whether or not they themselves were chosen. At least now your average Southern Baptist can rest assured he's going to heaven if he accepts Jesus Christ as his blah blah blah. I appreciate the Puritans for that -- at least they had rules. All today's Christians have to do is be super sanctimonious and they go straight to heaven.

I guess we'll know more in June when the Supreme Court weighs in. We'll either end up with a federal right to gay marriage but a bunch of states where you can't buy flowers or cake. Or, if it goes the other way, then all these desperate religious freedom laws will be moot and Alabama and Indiana can go back to the 17th century. Most people in my safe little circle of urban liberals anticipate a positive ruling to come out of the cases before the Court right now, and it's hard to imagine any other result since the argument has been framed in classic conservative terms. But I'm not feeling so sanguine. With judges like Thomas and Scalia, who are less concerned with justice than with creating a world where everyone is forced to follow their rules, there's no end to perfidy.

Indiana hurts particularly because I grew up there. Of course when I was there I wanted out and I fled as soon as I could. But my family is still there, and, though I have no illusions about it being much different than it was, I have to say I was moved last year when the Court of Appeals ruled Indiana's gay marriage ban illegal and suddenly C and I were still married when we visited my folks at Christmas.

It gives me hope that my mom is there fighting the good fight. She's remarkable. I don't think I have the stamina to be a liberal in Indiana, but she's been at it for decades. She'll give you an earful about Mike Pence. He's a grade A asshole. You almost have to be to get elected in Indiana.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Time, Work, Home.

The other day a friend asked me if I miss my old job and I didn't hesitate for a fraction of a second. "No." Of course I don't. I worked with people I liked. I didn't hate my job like I have others. I didn't dread going to work. It was a good job, I felt appreciated, and it paid me well, but what it was most of all was a giant time suck and as soon as I didn't have to spend 32 hours a week plus 3 hours a day commuting to Brooklyn that time was immediately full of everything that I didn't have time to do before. I've written several songs in the last two months and, though I may not be the second coming of Jesus Christ, I think I'm doing the best work of my life. None of this is a surprise to me. I knew exactly how it would be. I waited all my life for it. I was ready.

Now that all my time is open, though, the one thing that has suffered is my blogging. Blogging was always something that required some focus but not the deep, long focus that the real writing needs. So I could do it on my lunch break at work. Or often I would blog on a weekend afternoon, but now that I know the week is available for my serious writing, I feel justified relaxing on a Saturday afternoon. The weekdays feel so wide open.

But then when I'm here at my desk and C has gone to work and I might have an idea for something I want to blog about I can't somehow make myself do it. This is real writing time!

But today has been so full of distractions, the real stuff didn't stand a chance, so ... here I am blogging. (But I did, on my walk to and from Target a couple hours ago, make some notes for a song I've been trying to get a grip on for weeks. It never really leaves my system for good, it's always churning somewhere under the surface.)

So today. Target for batteries. I did a Target run on Tuesday -- there's a Target just across the bridge in the Bronx, about a ten minute walk -- and we shop there for cleaning and laundry supplies, toothpaste, etc., because it's cheaper than the Rite Aid, but I forgot to get C batteries for C's shower radio. He's been a little squirrelly in the morning without his NPR. So I went back.

I spent the morning trying to find someone to move our elliptical machine to a friend's house in Brooklyn. Our new building has a gym, so we don't need it. (Yes, we've moving, and that should by rights be a whole blog post on its own but my rule is no looking back, so ...) It was surprisingly difficult to find someone to move the damn thing. It took the better part of 2 mornings. And we're putting together our co-op board application, which is, well, something I never imagined I'd ever be doing. Besides reams and reams of financial history, it requires dozens of reference letters from friends and business associates and current and former landlords.

If they like the way we've dotted all our i's, we will move most likely in June. Back to the Lower East Side, but this time lower and farther east. C lived for some of the 90s on Clinton St and I lived in the East Village most of the 80s and 90s but on Pitt Street near Delancey for a couple years around 1983 or 4. So, even though we won't be right in the heart of all that gentrified madness we'll be close and it feels to both of us like a homecoming.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Oscars Post-Mortem.

Lots of chatter still about the Oscars, most of it of the banal language-policing variety that makes me want to jam pencils in my ears and give up all hope for the future of social justice movements.

But this article in this morning's New York Times got me thinking.

Early in my first painting class at Parsons, our teacher, Regina Granne, said something that looms in my memory as “Art is a specialized activity practiced and appreciated by an elite group of people who have the education and refinement to understand it.” Probably she said something more like, “Your parents will never understand what you do.”

Whatever she said, it crystallized for me at that moment and forever a feeling I’ve had at least since high school and still feel, a pull between wanting to make art that everyone will love and wanting to pursue something more esoteric.

Part of that latter impulse is defensiveness brought on by the sense of grievance creative people feel toward a world they think misunderstands and underappreciates them. “I don’t care if you don’t understand me. It’s not my fault you’re a philistine.” And I think a milder, more mature and less emotional, version of that is the realization that there will always be people who get your work and people who don’t and you can’t please everyone. I like to think the reason I don’t like superhero movies has more to do with taste and cultural differences than whether they’re good or bad.

Still, it does have something to do with education and refinement. I don’t think it’s just a matter of taste that there is a group of people who love a Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA and a much larger group who think it tastes nasty and would prefer a Bud Lite. I won’t apologize for having done the work necessary to appreciate art or ideas or food or whatever that is sophisticated, complex, dense. Does that make me a snob? Can someone who loves Neil Diamond and Hello Kitty be a snob? Maybe.

Always these two impulses that seem contradictory and zero sum. I want to make work that straddles the divide, and sometimes I’ve been successful, other times not. Y’all was almost the very definition of populist art. But we were trying from the beginning to subvert what it looked like on the surface. (At first … eventually we just gave in to the fact that the simplest way to be subversive was to be sincere.). And we won over audiences -- sometimes -- in the very highbrowest and lowbrowest of venues (art museums and grocery stores, experimental theater festivals and elementary schools). Rural conservative folks knew we were just aping the Grand Ole Opry, and kids love a toe-tapper. And I guess because we were queer and undermining stereotypes and fucking with unreliable narratives there was enough for the theory-prone arty types to chew on. (Little did they know that country entertainment had been queer and undermining stereotypes and fucking with unreliable narratives at least since the Carter Family.)

And LIZZIE, the other work that’s occupied an outsize portion of my life and career, I think exists somewhere in between, too. It has lots of big accessible catchy songs but it’s emotionally complex, layered with meaning, deals with history in ways that I think are incisive but open-ended, and rewards close attention. Sorry to brag, but I’m not going to say all that stuff isn’t in there. We spent a lot of years working to make it so.

I’m not sure what I really have to say about the Oscars. I’m not too outraged that lots of small indie films get attention. Some films are not for everyone. It doesn’t make them any better or worse than the blockbusters. I didn’t get much out of Birdman. I was deeply moved by Boyhood. It didn’t just make me cry. (It did, but so did Theory of Everything which I thought was a pretty good movie but nothing special really.) It got under my skin, rearranged my brain, made me see art and life differently forever. Like Terrance Mallick’s films (the other Austin filmmaker), Boyhood left me sort of gasping, puzzled, full of love, afraid and thrilled. As I’ve discovered many times when I try to describe what it is about Mallick that I think is so great, it’s not a feeling that I can really put into words.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Blood Sport.

I always think I’m going to read a lot on long flights, but I hardly ever do. I can’t stay awake, or alert, or focused enough. But I don’t mind falling asleep on the plane. I dislike air travel so much I’m happy to sleep through it.

Packing for our trip to Dublin last Friday, I almost grabbed the book I’m reading, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (by Brenda Wineapple, who wrote the Nathaniel Hawthorne biography I enjoyed so much recently). I’m having a bit of trouble getting through it because it’s too big and heavy to carry on the subway, which is where I get a lot of reading done, even now that I’m not commuting every day. But I decided at the last minute to leave it home and take instead the new issues of Tricycle and The New York Review of Books, both of which I read cover to cover on the return flight yesterday and left in the seat-back pocket.

All of which is to preface saying that this piece about football violence stuck with me.

Every thinking fan must, in order to enjoy any NFL game, consent to participate in a formidable suspension of disbelief. We must put aside our knowledge that nearly every current NFL player can expect to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that leads to memory loss, impaired judgment, depression, and dementia.

Read the whole thing, it’s not long.

Not that I didn’t already have a list of reasons why it might be better to send your kids to piano lessons or art class instead of off to play football, but all this recent information about long-term brain injuries is pretty unequivocal.

I grew up with the point of view, at least as far as schools were concerned, that there were arts people and there were sports people and not a lot of overlap. We were arts people.

Sports always got more attention and money, and the arts had to beg for whatever if anything was left. I guess I got this attitude from my parents, who were not necessarily anti-sports (my dad always watched football on TV when it was in season) but they were very critical of the over-the-top fandom all around us in Indiana, the way the achievements of high school athletes always got more attention than those of scholars and artists and musicians, and the pervasive belief that the arts were frivolous while support for high school sports was an unassailable civic virtue.

And that attitude dovetailed perfectly with my increasing anxiety around “male space,” as I reached adolescent and began to feel that I was not male, at least not in the way that the boys around me naturally were.

I’ve written before about my belief that junior high and high school phys ed has always been an arena of officially-sanctioned sexual terror. Even if that is no longer true -- people tell me things have changed -- you’ll still have a hard time convincing me that it is not a colossal waste of time. People will make the argument that the so-called obesity epidemic justifies physical education in schools. Somehow the cultural stupidity epidemic doesn’t provoke similar feelings about music and arts education.

But as I’ve gotten older, my feelings have mellowed. I’ve grown more sympathetic towards sports fandom. My time in Texas, where college football brought everyone, including my queer friends, together in something that was so obviously joyful and fun, was a watershed. And then the world of professional sports started to become less homophobic, with gay players coming out and their straight teammates expressing support. Maybe kids playing sports, even if it wasn’t my thing, wasn’t such an awful thing.

But now this stuff with the head injuries, and finding out that football is so important to its fans that they will tolerate near-certain brain damage of the players they claim to love (including their children), puts me right back where i was, hating the whole base enterprise. This --

Studebaker is the twenty-nine-year-old backup linebacker for the Colts who, while defending a punt return, was blindsided with a gruesome hit to the chest by the Patriots’ backup running back Brandon Bolden. Studebaker’s head jerked back and he landed on his neck. On the sideline after the play Studebaker was seen coughing up blood.

-- toggled a switch in me and took me right back to believing, not that sports and the arts are just two things people might be interested in, neither any better or worse than the other, but that music and art lift us up, encourage our highest aspirations, our most noble characteristics, those which bring us together and spur us to compassion and understanding, whereas sports is just about encouraging and celebrating our worst animal tendencies: brute competition, bloodlust, and an “us vs. them” gang mentality.